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When it Ends, He Catches Her

Eugie Foster calls home a mildly haunted, fey-infested house in metro Atlanta that she shares with her husband, Matthew. After receiving her master's degree in psychology, she retired from academia to pen flights of fancy. She also edits legislation for the Georgia General Assembly, which from time to time she suspects is another venture into flights of fancy.

Eugie received the 2009 Nebula Award for her novelette, "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast," the 2011 and 2012 Drabblecast People's Choice Award for Best Story, the 2012 eFestival of Words Best Independent Short Story Collection eBook Award, and the 2002 Phobos Award. Her fiction has also been translated into eight languages and been a finalist for the Hugo and British Science Fiction Association awards. Her short story collection, Returning My Sister's Face and other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, has been used as a textbook at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of California-Davis. This is her second appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

The dim shadows were kinder to the theater's dilapidation. A single candle to aid the dirty sheen of the moon through the rent beams of the ancient roof, easier to overlook the worn and warped floorboards, the tattered curtains, the mildew-ridden walls. Easier as well to overlook the dingy skirt with its hem all ragged, once purest white and fine, and her shoes, almost fallen to pieces, the toes cracked and painstakingly re-wrapped with hoarded strips of linen. Once, not long ago, Aisa wouldn't have given this place a first glance, would never have deigned to be seen here in this most ruinous of venues. But times changed. Everything changed.
Aisa pirouetted on one long leg, arms circling her body like gently folded wings. Her muscles gathered and uncoiled in a graceful leap, suspending her in the air with limbs outflung, until gravity summoned her back down. The stained, wooden boards creaked beneath her, but she didn't hear them. She heard only the music in her head, the familiar stanzas from countless rehearsals and performances of Snowbird's Lament. She could hum the complex orchestral score by rote, just as she knew every step by heart.
Act II, scene III: the finale. It was supposed to be a duet, her as Makira, the warlord's cursed daughter, and Balege as Ono, her doomed lover, in a frenzied last dance of tragedy undone, hope restored, rebirth. But when the Magistrate had closed down the last theaters, Balege had disappeared in the resultant riots and protests.
So Aisa danced the duet as a solo, the way she'd had to in rehearsal sometimes, marking the steps where Balege should have been. Her muscles burned, her breath coming faster. She loved this feeling, her body perfectly attuned to her desire, the obedient instrument of her will. It was only these moments that she felt properly herself, properly alive. The dreary, horrible daytime with its humiliations and ceaseless hunger became the dream. This dance, here and now, was real. She wished it would never end.
The music swelled, inexorable, driving to its culmination, a flurry of athletic spins and intricate footwork, dizzying and exhilarating. Snowbird's Lament concluded in a sprinting leap, with Aisa flinging herself into the air just above the audience--glorious and triumphant at the apex of thunderous bars of music. But she had to omit it. There was no way to even mark it, impossible to execute without Balege to catch her.
Out of breath, euphoric but dissatisfied, she finished on one bent knee, arms outstretched, head dramatically bowed in supplication. The score in her head silenced. This was where the curtains were supposed to come furling down and the audience was supposed to leap to its feet in a frenzy of adoration. But there was no one to work the ropes and pulleys, and the rows of benches in the theater were all empty.
It didn't matter. She didn't dance for the accolades and applause. When the last stages and theaters in the artists' district had barred their doors, when all the performances had gone forever dark, Aisa had found this place, this nameless ghost of a theater. So ramshackle to be beneath the Magistrate's attention, so ruinous that no one had bothered to bolt the doors, it had become her haven, the place she fled to so she could dance by herself in the darkness and the silence. No matter that the world had turned to chaos, in the end, a dancer danced. It was the only peace, the only sanity that remained.
A pair of hands softly clapping in the wings intruded upon her reverie.
Aisa's head whipped up, her eyes darting to where her dagger lay sheathed beside the flickering candle.
A figure, features obscured by darkness, stepped out from the shabby draperies, brushing them aside with a smooth, sparse gesture. Although she couldn't see his face, Aisa knew that step, that familiar sweep of arm.
"Balege?" she gasped.
She started to run to him, her first impulse to embrace him, spilling over with questions and gladness. But she hesitated. The set of his shoulders, the rigid posture of his spine--so attuned was she to the signs and discourse of her partner's body she understood that for whatever reason, Balege wanted to keep his distance.
"What is it? What's the matter?"
"I came to dance with you, Aisa."
"Of course you did."
"But I'm not the same as I once was."
Was he afraid his technique had declined, that she would spurn him for missteps, mistakes in tempo or timing?
"We are neither of us as we once were," she said. Scrabbling with an old man for a crust of bread in the gutter, the brittle crunch of a cockroach between her teeth. "But there was never a better partner for me than you, Balege." Aisa lifted her arm in the formal language of dance, her fingers held out to say, simply, Dance with me.
Balege stepped into the lighter circle of shadows contained by her candle. She saw what the greater darkness had hidden--the fogged sheen of his eyes, the gray pallor of his flesh, and beneath the sweet scent of rose water he favored, the taint of decay.
Aisa flinched back, her heart leaping in her chest. For the first time since she had attained the rank of premier soloist, her body flouted her will, frozen in place as she screamed for it to run away, flee for her life.
"You–you have the death plague," she whispered.
Balege's eyes shifted aside, a familiar expression of discomfort when he was embarrassed or shy. "Do you not want to dance with me, after all?"
"They say plague victims go mad… killing and eating their victims." Unspoken between them, that the plague killed all of its victims, and then those damned unfortunates got up again--mindless, violent, and hungry.
He gazed out, stage center, over the empty blackness of the absent audience. "You know, it was always my greatest desire to be good enough to partner you. I watched your other partners, saw how they stumbled beside you, how they weren't good enough for you, and I learned from their mistakes."
It was true. Balege had never dropped her, unlike some of the worthless oafs she'd danced with over the years. From the beginning he'd seemed to know instinctively how to move with her, matching his reach and steps to hers, always where she needed him to be. From his very first audition, she had trusted Balege to catch her.
Aisa relaxed a little, the muscles in her legs and shoulders loosening from their rigid paralysis. "You were the best partner I've ever had."
"We were perfect together."
"We were." Aisa extended her hand to him with an imperative flourish. Dance with me.
Balege bowed, a dancer's benediction that said, Forever.
They moved together in unison, fingers clasped, his body wrapped in a lithe frame around hers. There was no awkward shifting or repositioning of limbs. There had never been between them.
"The finale," he murmured. "On my count. One-two, one-two-three-four."
The music started silently in two heads in complete synchrony.
She twirled in his arms and skipped away, springing like a gazelle back again. He steadied and braced her, always there, the inverted complement of her movements. They danced, and she reveled in the strength of his arms around her, the metered cadence of his legs, the matched beat of two bodies moving in seamless fluidity. It was as it used to be. And for now, nothing else mattered. How he'd found her, how he could be so himself still and not one of the mindless monsters the plague-bearers became. How he'd... died.
He bore her overhead in a spinning lift, effortlessly committing her to the air, only one hand supporting the full weight of her body. By an accident of threadbare hose and skirt, his fingers gripped skin where they should have glided over layers of once immaculate costume. The unnatural chill of his dead fingers cut to the bone. When he set her down, light as a fallen leaf, Aisa stumbled.
Balege was there, one hand on her hip, the other at her elbow, taking the weight of her misstep into the turn of his body. Shielding her. Catching her. None but the most discerning eye in the audience would have seen anything amiss, and even that discerning eye would have noted only a stray half beat, the smallest of errors.
How many times had Balege's strong arms held her, lifted her, carried her? Balege was frame and scaffold, launching her into the air and catching her as she spun back to earth, his virtuoso utterly focused on making her scintillate.
Without a word, they continued their duet, and Snowbird's Lament spooled out to its final steps: the lovers united, torn apart, reunited. The grand finale, as it should be danced, an explosion of turns and fleet footwork, culminating in a dead run to the end of the stage and a magnificent hurtle into Balege's arms, just before she could plummet off it. It was a feat of athleticism and absolute trust. If he ever miscounted the beat, had a slight misalignment of timing or balance, she would fall, badly, from the high stage and onto the unforgiving floor below. Battered and bruised certainly, broken bones possibly, a career-ending fall. But Balege had always caught her.
Aisa didn't hesitate now, flinging herself into the air, her body arched, giving herself over with complete abandon.
It was like flying--the moment stretching to infinity, suspended in the limbo space between earth and weightless freedom. No fear, no hunger, no pain, nothing but this perfect moment.
Dying now, like this, it wouldn't be so bad. If Balege didn't catch her, she might fall poorly enough to snap her own neck. That wouldn't be so bad. Quick and fast.
Where had that thought come from?
The world's weight found her. Aisa fell.
And Balege caught her.
The silent music ended. Aisa curtsied. Balege bowed. The illusory audience applauded. The phantom curtain came down.
Facing each other, their arms dropped away, no longer speaking the language of bodies and movement, relegated to the far less elegant communication of words and speech.
"You always catch me," Aisa said.
"Yes," Balege replied, softly almost a whisper.
"I had a thought, this time. What would happen if you didn't?"
He straightened and stepped back, his eerie, undead eyes shifting sidelong. "You always forget. No matter how often we dance and I remind you, you forget."
Aisa frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"One time, I didn't catch you."
Sudden outrage and disbelief, disproportionately livid and irrational. "Don't be ridiculous. You always catch me."
"Our first night on this stage. Remember again, Aisa."
She wanted to stomp her foot. "This is our first night." Lightning flash images skittered and popped behind her eyes. "Isn't it--?" Her words faltered, taking her indignation with it. Hunger. So much hunger.
"You came here, why?" Balege asked, his voice gentle, coaxing.
She shivered, suddenly chilled. "After the theaters closed down, I–I sold myself into slavery. Better to be a fed slave in the upper city than starving and free in the slums." Bruises and humiliation. "But the man I sold myself to, he wanted me to do such unspeakable things." The instrument of her art desecrated. Blood on the walls. "I ran away. Found this place, this stage."
"And I found you here, dancing."
Aisa lifted her head. "How?"
"I don't know. Maybe it was the light of your candle, or the shifting shadows through the cracked walls. I was drawn to you as those who have succumbed to the death plague are drawn to ravage and devour the still-living. But when I saw you dancing Snowbird's Lament, it was like an awakening. Mesmerized, I watched and remembered you and me, and us. You were afraid of me at first. But in the end, we did as we always do."
"We danced," she said.
"And then?"
"At the end, right before Makira's final vault off the stage, you called to me, 'Don't catch me! Let me go!'"
Hunger. Ceaseless, ravenous hunger.
"I still tried to catch you," Balege said.
Juxtaposed images of pale flesh transposed with gray, splattered bursts of crimson across faded posters in the sunlight. "But I didn't let you," Aisa murmured. "I twisted away at the last moment."
"I fell." Aisa lifted her hands to her face, noted the dead flatness of her skin, the black, broken nails. She listened to the still-quiet in her chest where her heart should beat, inhaled the scent of rotting flesh, her own. Her once fine dress, not just ragged and grimy, but grave-worn with filth and gore.
"We hunt and feed together," he said. "You don't remember who I am, who you are except when we're dancing. But I do. Somehow, I do. I remind you."
Aisa smoothed the soiled creases of her skirt, tucked a wisp of matted hair back into its unraveling chignon. All dancers knew their springtime was short. A dancer's fate was to break or fade away, a short season of glory, if they were lucky. And Aisa had been lucky, very lucky. Until all the luck went away, for everyone. But this was a new kind of luck.
It would do.
"Remind me again, Balege," she said and lifted her arm, fingers outstretched. Dance with me.
He bowed. "From the top. One-two, one-two-three-four."
The tarnished moon spilled through the cracked and rent ceiling of the dilapidated theater, the only audience to the two dancers as they leaped and twirled together in matchless harmony. Dead flesh moved together with graceful elegance, lithe and nimble and strong, his and hers. An eternal performance.
And when it ends, he catches her.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 26th, 2014
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