The Muscle - Amy Lane

Prologue—Broken Steps

DYLAN LI sat on the worn and warped wooden floor in the fifth-story dance studio a little off the Loop in downtown Chicago. He hugged one knee to his chest and leaned against the mirrored wall behind him, watching Tabitha Marie Mikkelnokov dance the final scene of a student-written, student-produced contemporary version of Cinderella that she had choreographed.

She was sucking big balls at it too.

Normally Tabby was like a gymnast’s ribbon—her body moved through the air like silk. She was a tad too tall to make it in the big ballets, but the Aether Conservatory, the school Tabitha’s grandfather had put together with grit and most of his savings, had made it policy to take the dancers who worked hard, the ones who loved dance with all their soul, and to make allowances for things like standard height and even—on the odd occasion—ability. One of the best teachers at the Conservatory, Rudy, was a young man who would only ever perform with their adult education classes because his body was simply not that of a dancer, with tight sinews and slight congenital deformities that wouldn’t allow him the fluidity of movement a dancer needed.

Artur Mikkelnokov kept Rudy there because his heart was consumed with the dance, and he passed this passion on to his young students. They learned to love the joy and pain of it because Rudy did.

Tabby didn’t have such problems. Even with those extra inches, she could have performed in some of the top ballet troupes of the country, although she would not have gotten the lead because her partner would have needed to be nearly six foot three to stand even with her when she was en pointe. Aether was one of the first studios in the area to start considering how a dancer looked performing, how they made the audience feel, instead of how the dancer conformed to an almost impossible ideal of beauty.

Dylan—who stood shorter than her at five feet, seven inches tall—loved being partnered with her and loved watching her dance.

Except today, when an epileptic donkey would have been more graceful on the floor.

Dylan couldn’t take it anymore. “The actual fuck, Tabby,” he burst out in the middle of a plaintive violin solo.

Tabby whirled, coming down from a clumsy en pointe and almost stumbling to her knees. “Goddammit, Dylan!” she snarled. “I was trying to concentrate!”

Dylan leaned over to hit Pause on the sound system so the strains of plaintive violins stopped bouncing around Aether’s biggest practice room. “You were failing! The fuck is wrong with you? I’ve seen my housemates’ cats dance better!”

Tabby glared at him and then dropped her eyes. Dispiritedly, she padded across the platform to fall into a crisscross-applesauce sit-down at Dylan’s side.

“Sorry,” she said miserably, and then like she knew him—they’d been paired together since they were twelve years old—she leaned her head against his shoulder.

He looked at the top of her head, baffled. Her hair, toffee brown with tiny crinkles that were a result of her mother’s Russian ancestry and her father’s African-American family, sprang up from the usually merciless bun she pulled it back into and tickled his cheek.

“We’re doing this now?” he asked. Usually he’d be acerbic or teasing or even somewhat of an asshole, but this was Tabitha, and if he’d ever had a sister, he wouldn’t love his sister this much because she’d probably be too much like him. But Tabitha was earthy and honest, and she ignored seven-eighths of what came out of Dylan’s mouth and listened, instead, to the things he actually did.

He gave her tiny earrings every birthday—real gold or silver, real semiprecious stones—and she wore many of them in her ears every day. He never told her that he often stole them from the jewelry boxes of the girls who’d made fun of her in high school. His baby-thief training years, as it were. He would enjoy that little bit of irony all by himself.

“Yes,” she said, her voice clogged from tears she was obviously trying not to shed. “You are my emotional support animal, whether you want to be or not.”

He sighed and looped an arm around her shoulders. “Fine. Under duress.” He gave her a little squeeze, and she let out a laugh.

“Good emotional support animal,” she praised, and he dropped a kiss on the top of her head.

“You gonna tell me what’s wrong?” he asked softly.

“I can’t,” she said, and her voice broke.

He rocked her for a few moments and then asked, “You’re not pregnant, are