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never let go

Chapter Text

Karolina Dean enters Timely Coffee and is immediately greeted by the usual barrage of sensations. People talking. Baristas calling out orders. The scent of coffee and baked goods all around her. What she doesn't expect is to see Nico Minoru standing in the line that leads up to the register, waiting to place her order.

She hasn't seen Nico since the night her father caught them together and forced them apart. She never thought she'd see Nico ever again.

There were many nights she dreamed of this exact moment, of what she would say to Nico in the event they ever saw each other again, but those nights were long gone now.

She needs to get out of here. She needs to turn right back around, leave this coffee shop, and pretend nothing ever happened. There is no room in her life anymore for Nico. But the other girl locks eyes with her before she can even begin to turn.

Those familiar brown eyes widen in recognition, and Karolina hopes Nico's gaze will dart away, that she'll have the same thoughts Karolina is having and pretend she hasn't seen Karolina at all. But she doesn't.

Instead, Nico crosses the coffee shop as if drawn toward Karolina by an invisible magnet, and Karolina finds herself caught in the magnet's pull as well. She wants to run, to flee from this place before this person who was once so important to her can try to make awkward small talk, but she can't move a muscle. She's frozen in place.

"Karrie." Nico stops in front of her, a mixture of awe and surprise in her eyes.

Just like that, Karolina is broken out of the spell that seemed to come over her the minute she saw Nico again. Her name is Karolina. She's not a kid anymore.

"Nico." She nods coolly, voice clipped.

"Wow. You're so…tall."

The last time Karolina saw Nico, they were almost eye level, but now Karolina stands half a foot taller. Further proof they're not kids anymore. Further proof they shouldn't be wasting their time talking when nothing good can come of it.

"Yes. It's been a while," Karolina says.

Nico's eyes soften at Karolina's icy tone, and Karolina has never been more confused. "What's going on, Karrie? Is your dad here? Should I not be talking to you?"

"No, my dad isn't here." Karolina laughs incredulously. How old does this girl think she is? "But that doesn't mean you should be talking to me. It's been six years, Nico. I don't know what you want me to say."

"How about we sit down and catch up?" Nico suggests. "We didn't really get much closure, considering your dad literally dragged you away from me. What happened that night?"

"He dragged me home, Vaughn got fired for driving me to see you, and I started getting more serious about my future," Karolina says. She doesn't dare mention all the days she spent crying nonstop, the way she wanted to run away to be with Nico the first chance she got, the threats her father made to keep her from doing just that. "I'm going to Harvard for business now. Surely you've put all our silly dreams behind you as well."

For the first time since Karolina saw Nico today, a flash of anger appears in Nico's eyes as she responds. "The only thing that was silly about those dreams was me thinking you'd be there to share them."

Her deflection of the question could only mean one thing.

"You can't be serious." It's the only thing Karolina can think to say. She doesn't even know how she feels about it. Is she disappointed that Nico's still hellbent on wasting her life? Or is a tiny part of her jealous because she still wishes she could be right there with her? She quickly pushes that thought away, though. She put that dream behind her for good reason.

"I go to Boston Conservatory for dance, and it's a great school." The hard glint in Nico's eyes falls away a bit. "I wish you could go there too."

"You think I still have any desire to be a dancer?" Karolina laughs at the mere thought. "Why would I want to waste my time and effort on something completely useless?"

Hurt flashes across Nico's face for a moment, but it's gone almost immediately as she schools her features to accommodate this girl she clearly didn't expect to find when she wandered over here to talk. Karolina is surprised when she feels a tiny twinge of remorse, and she quickly discards it.

She wanted to dance more than anything in the world at one point. Accepting that she would never be able to make a real career out of it is one of the hardest things she's ever done. It took her years to make peace with it. She doesn't need Nico to come back into her life now and tell her that all the crazy, unrealistic dreams of her youth are actually still attainable. Karolina feels embarrassed at even the thought that she ever used to believe she and Nico would dance in front of millions of people in sold-out theaters.

"Those are the kinds of things your dad used to say," Nico says. "The Karrie I knew never believed that."

"Because she was thirteen years old." Karolina doesn't know why Nico can't understand that. "She had no idea who the hell she wanted to be in life. I mean, what child doesn't have some crazy dream they never actually end up wanting to pursue?"

"Thirteen isn't that young. You knew exactly what you wanted back then." Nico takes a step closer to Karolina, brown eyes never leaving blue. "I think you still do."

Karolina feels anger pulse through her veins. Nico has no right to talk to her like this. No matter what she may have wanted in the past, dance isn't an option for her, and she has finally, finally accepted that. The last thing she needs right now is somebody coming into her perfectly crafted life and destroying everything she's fought so hard to create.

"Let me put this in a way you'll understand," Karolina says slowly, as if talking to a toddler. "I don't want to dance. My dad was right. It's a waste of time. I want to work for the family business, where I'll actually be able to make a living. I don't want to struggle to make ends meet. My dad was right about everything."

"Oh, really?" Nico's anger is back tenfold. "So he was right about your sexuality then?"

"Yes, he was." It's a low blow, but Karolina only shrugs it off. She won't let Nico get a rise out of her. "I have a boyfriend now, and I don't regret any of it. Now, I would appreciate it if you would leave me alone. This isn't catching up; this is you attacking me."

"Wow." Nico crosses her arms over her chest. "I always thought you were so different from your dad. But I was wrong. You've turned out to be exactly like him."

It stings. As much as Karolina loves and admires her father, she knows he's not a very good person. She listens to him because she knows he has her best interests at heart, but he certainly could've communicated things better to her as a child. Not to mention, he can be rude and selfish at times. Is Karolina actually becoming like that?

"Whatever, Karolina," Nico says when she doesn't respond, and Karolina is surprised to find she prefers it when Nico doesn't use her full name. "Just go. I'm sorry I even tried to talk to you in the first place."

Karolina has never turned around so fast, and she eagerly hurries out of the coffee shop and out onto the sidewalk. Her pace is quick. She doesn't want to feel like she misses having Nico in her life. She doesn't want to feel any sort of attachment to the other girl anymore at all. She wants to get as far away from that place as she can.

As much as she wants to disregard everything Nico has said, she can't help but wonder if any of it is true. Is she becoming rude and stuck-up like her dad? Is she pursuing the career she truly wants, or is she only pursuing the career her dad talked her into wanting?

She pushes Nico from her head as she pushes past a crowd of people gathered outside of a cookie store. She can't let Nico get into her head. Karolina has spent way too long making this life for herself for some girl she knew when she was a kid to come back and ruin everything in one day. Nico doesn't know anything about her anymore.

"Wait!" she hears behind her, and she easily recognizes the voice as Nico's.

She should ignore Nico, quicken her pace to keep the other girl from ever catching up to her. She most definitely should not turn around and stop walking. She isn't proud to admit which of the two she ends up doing.

"What?" Karolina turns to face Nico with a scowl.

As much as she wants to run off and never look back, something inside of her won't let her. She can't remember the last time she was so disappointed in herself.

"I don't want you to leave again."

The look in Nico's eyes is so raw and devastated that Karolina's disappointment vanishes like dew in the sunlight as she is immediately transported through time. All her years of aging and development are gone in a second. She is thirteen again. This is her Nico looking back at her, and she is hurting. She's hurting, and Karolina wants nothing more than to make her hurting stop, to cheer her up the way Nico always does for her.

Instinctively, she reaches for her phone, turning to plug it into Nico's portable stereo so they can dance. And that's when she comes back to reality. There's no stereo, and they haven't danced in six years. And now Nico is staring at her in confusion, clearly curious as to why she wordlessly reached for her phone.

Karolina shakes her head, dispelling her thoughts as she settles back into reality. Nico's not hers anymore. And she is not Nico's.

"I'm not the girl you used to know, Nico." Karolina says softly. It's the first thing she's said all day without sounding angry or full of herself. "I really am sorry, though."

She doesn't know what she's apologizing for, but she's sorry all the same. Sorry she can't be the person Nico remembers maybe.

"Okay, so you're not the girl I used to know," Nico finally agrees. "But that doesn't mean we have to be strangers. And it doesn't mean you have to keep lying to yourself. You've changed, I can see that. But you haven't changed that much."

"What do you want me to say, Nico?" Karolina sighs in exasperation. She's tired of arguing with Nico, and she wishes Nico would just tell her what she wants so they can move on.

"How about you say you'll try to dance again? I'll give you free dance lessons for a week, and if you like them, we can talk about continuing for pay."

"What if I don't like them?" Karolina blurts out.

"Then I'll never bother you again," Nico says easily, confidently. She's certain of herself that Karolina is going to fall right back into the girl she once was the minute she sets foot on a dance floor.

She doesn't know that Karolina's already tried to dance again, in high school. She told her dad she joined the debate team, and she danced with the school team every afternoon, but it wasn't nearly as great as she remembered. She enjoyed it, but dancing brought a certain sadness with it that she wasn't able to shake. So she dropped out the year after to focus fully on her career, thinking her dad might have ruined dancing for her forever, and never looked back. Doing so now would only serve as a setback.

"I can't," Karolina says. "I don't need to waste any more of my time on dancing. It's just not what I want anymore."

"Then this should be easy for you." The challenge in Nico's eyes is clear. "Dance with me for a week and then I'll never bother you again."

"I know you think I'm lying to myself, but I was just a stupid kid back then." Karolina tries one more time to convince Nico of what she already knows. She wanted to dance when she was younger, she can't deny that, but she isn't that person anymore. She doesn't want to be.

"I never thought you were stupid," Nico says softly. "I thought you were brave."

"I've been working so hard to get ready to take on a job at my family's company, and I'm not giving up on that," Karolina says with some confidence of her own.

Nico gives her a knowing look. "But is that your choice, or your father's?"

"It's the practical choice."

The words slip out before Karolina can stop them. Any other day, to any other person, Karolina would have said the choice is hers. The more she listens to her father talk about his career, the more she wants to be as successful as he is. She isn't choosing to be a businesswoman just because her father wants her to. So what is it about Nico that suddenly makes her so unsure?

"Listen, just think about it." Nico grabs a pen from her bag and scribbles something down on a napkin before holding it out to Karolina.

A phone number. Nico's phone number.

"Text me if you change your mind." The sadness in her eyes is clear. She's looking at Karolina like she knows that little girl she used to dance with is still in there somewhere, and it pains her that Karolina won't set her free.

"I won't," Karolina says, but she takes the number anyway. She takes it because she can't bear not to. She takes it because she knows too.

Chapter Text

"Something happened at Timely," Nico says the minute she is in the door of Gert's family's apartment.

Gert glances down at Nico's empty hands. "You forgot the coffees?"

"Well, yes, but that wasn't what I was going to say." Nico collapses onto the couch.

"Are you okay?" Gert sits beside her. "You look pale."

She feels worse than pale. Nico hasn't been able to get Karolina's blue eyes out of her mind since she looked into them earlier. Karolina looks so different now, but her eyes are still the same.

"I saw her," Nico says. "At Timely. I was standing in line to get our coffees, and when I turned my head, she was just there."

"By her, you don't mean…?" Gert trails off, but Nico doesn't need her to say it.

She nods. "Karolina."

Gert's eyes widen, even though she must have expected it. Nico understands her surprise, though. She hasn't completely gotten over the shock of seeing Karolina again herself.

Silence stretches between them for several seconds. Nico knows what Gert must be thinking. She's angry. It's no secret that she hates Karolina, for being rich as well as for breaking Nico's heart. She probably wants Nico to hate her just as much; Nico certainly has every right to. But she could never fully bring herself to hate the girl she used to love.

"You haven't talked about her in a while," Gert finally says.

"Because she isn't in my life anymore," Nico says. "The only way I could move on was to stop thinking about her, so I did."

"What did you do today? When you saw her." Gert looks skeptical, as if she already knows the answer.

When she saw Karolina again, Nico wanted to ignore her. She wanted to get away from that coffee establishment as fast as she could. But her heart wouldn't let her. For a moment, Nico looked at Karolina and all their years apart fell away. For a moment, it felt like they were untouchable again. Then Nico said Karrie's name, and reality crashed back down upon them.

"I talked to her," Nico admits. She knows Gert will see right through her if she tries to lie.

"Are you out of your mind?" Gert exclaims. "Have you forgotten how much she hurt you?"

"Only for a minute." Nico prickles with defensiveness. "It wasn't hard to remember when she opened her mouth."

"What did she say to you?" A steady anger comes to a smolder behind Gert's eyes.

"She didn't say anything awful to me outright. It was the way she said things. Like she didn't care anymore. Like she thought she was better than me."

"Because she does." Gert rolls her eyes. "I've been trying to tell you that for years."

"I know." Nico sighs. "And I know it took me a long time to get over her, but the point is that I did. I started to believe the things you said because she proved them to be true. She didn't come back for me, not when she got a car, not when she turned 18, and she's with someone else now. I know that. She's not a good person, but she used to be, and that's what kills me."

Gert narrows her eyes in suspicion. "What did you do, Nico?"

Somehow Gert has figured out that Nico didn't just tell Karolina to go away, that she couldn't bear to let her go again, even after everything she did, or didn't do in this case.

"What makes you think I did anything at all?" Nico deflects.

"I know you, Nico." Gert gives her an exasperated look. "Now will you stop dancing around the question? I know you didn't tell her to get lost and walk out, so I guess what I should be asking is what did you say to her?"

"I did tell her to get lost." Nico feels anger rise inside of her at the haughty way Karolina was acting before Nico went after her outside. "She was snobby and rude, so I told her she turned out exactly like her father, and I told her to leave."

Gert's eyebrows jump up in surprise, and Nico knows her best friend is impressed. She clearly didn't think Nico had any malice in her at all when it came to Karolina, as insulting as that is. But, as much as Nico has despised Karolina at times in her life, she doesn't hold any true hatred for her. Because the second Karolina turned her back, as much as Nico wanted to get away from her and be done with whatever once existed between them once and for all, she couldn't bear to watch Karolina walk out of her life again.

"And so she left. But I went after her, and I'm sorry," Nico says. "I know I should've just let her go, okay? I know that. I don't owe her a second chance. But I couldn't let her leave without telling her the truth, that I didn't want her to."

"Nico." Gert gives her a disappointed look.

"Something happened when I said that." Nico pushes on before Gert can argue with her. "She stopped being all snippy and entitled and just talked to me. And of course, it still wasn't favorable. She told me she isn't who I used to know. But I'm not sure I believe her. She basically admitted to me that working at the Dean Corporation isn't her choice."

"You brought up dancing again, didn't you?" Gert sighs.

"Yes." Nico's shoulders slump. It's times like these where she wishes her best friend couldn't read her so well. "And she told me she doesn't want to dance again. So I offered her free lessons for a week."

"If she told you she didn't want to dance anymore, you shouldn't have pushed it." Gert shakes her head.

"This isn't about dancing. Gert, I knew Karolina once, before you'd ever even heard of her, and she had the purest soul of anyone I've ever known. She may be stuck-up now, but that's only because she had all the kindness beaten out of her by the world she grew up in. If nothing else, I want to let her know that she does have a choice in life. That being pure, being herself, isn't a bad thing."

Gert's mouth twists in distaste. "I wish you would just let this one go. I don't want you getting hung up on Karolina again. She had a chance to do the right thing when you were younger, and she never did. You deserve to be with someone who's going to treat you right, and Karolina is never going to be that person."

As much as she doesn't want to admit it, Nico thinks Gert is right. Karolina may have once been a gentle soul, but she's grown up in a world with no place for gentleness, and so naturally Karolina became cold. Nico may have seen a glimpse of Karrie in those eyes, but maybe there's no way to save her. Maybe Karolina truly is destined to work for the family business like her father and his father before him.

"I'm not in love with Karolina anymore, but that doesn't mean I don't care about her," Nico says, and she realizes it's true. She misses that girl she used to know, but that doesn't mean she wants to trust her with her heart again. "I just want to help her."

"How can you be so sure she'll even want you in her life again?" Gert asks.

"How can you be so sure she won't?" Nico returns easily. "Listen, I only agreed to dance with her for a week. I'll give myself one week to see if I can get through to that girl I used to know, if there's even anything left of her. And if I can't, then I won't waste any more time on her again. At least I'll finally have the closure I never got as a kid."

"And if, by some off chance, she likes these lessons?"

"Then I'll continue them for pay, and it'll stop being an act of charity. It'll be a job for me, nothing more. She has plenty of money, and you and I both know how hard it is to pay for college on our own."

"I guess that's not a completely crazy idea." Gert sighs, the hard look finally falling away from her eyes. "Get her hooked so you can get her money. What did she say when you asked her? Did she already agree to these lessons?"

"Well, no," Nico admits. "She told me she doesn't want to waste any more of her time on dance, but I gave her my number in case she changes her mind."

"And what makes you so sure she will?" Gert looks genuinely curious, despite her obvious bias against Karolina.

"Because she loved it," Nico says. It sounds stupid, but it's her answer. Karolina's love for dance was unmatched, and Nico knows there's no way it's vanished completely. "She always knew she wanted to be a dancer, all her life. She may have pushed that away now, but it's not gone. Her passion for dancing was too strong to just disappear. Can you imagine wanting one thing all your life only for your parents to dismiss it like it's nothing? A stupid waste of time? No one deserves that, Gert. Not even someone like Karolina."

"No, she doesn't deserve that," Gert finally concedes, "but why do you have to be the one to help her see that?"

Nico shrugs sadly. "No one else is going to."

"I just don't want you to get hurt again." Gert laces her fingers through Nico's, giving her hand a squeeze.

"I know." Nico squeezes back. "I'll be careful, I promise."

Nico doesn't know if Gert believes her or not. All she knows is that she doesn't believe herself. Saying she'll be careful around Karolina is like promising to stay safe before running out the door into a category 5 hurricane.

Karolina hasn't been able to get Nico's words out of her head since she left the coffee shop. Is she really only choosing business because she knows it's the only career her father will accept? Is there any possibility left that some part of her might still want to dance?

It's been a long time since she truly wanted to make a career out of dancing. She danced in high school, it wasn't the same, and that was that. If her dad ruined dancing as a passion, she might as well do something she can make a good living at. But what if dancing didn't feel different because it brought up the memory of her dad ripping her away from it but because it felt wrong to dance with anyone other than Nico?

No. Karolina isn't meant to dance. She's way too smart for that. It would be a shame to waste her talent on something she may never make decent money doing. Her dad is right. He has to be. She won't accept that she gave up dancing for nothing.

Logically, she knows she could rip up the napkin that houses Nico's phone number, and this will all be over, but she can't bring herself to do it. As much as she wants all of this to be over, she isn't sure which way she wants it to end.

When she pulls up to the gate in front of her house, she almost cries in relief when she sees Chase's car parked in the driveway. Chase is the one person she can talk to about this, the one person she can trust to be completely honest with her. He'll reassure her that she's doing the right thing by refusing Nico's offer.

She is through the gate and up the driveway in record time. After hopping out of the car, she makes her way into her house and up to her room faster than she ever has before.

"Chase!" She smiles happily, pulling her boyfriend in for a hug before kissing him on the lips.

"Hey, babe." Chase smiles, but it quickly turns into a frown. "What's going on?"

"How do you know something's going on?" Karolina is perplexed. She hasn't even said anything yet.

"Well, you're holding onto that napkin so tightly that I'm surprised you haven't torn through it." Chase gestures to the object in her hand. "So I'm guessing something has you feeling tense."

Karolina opens up the napkin so he can see. "A girl gave me her number at the coffee shop."

She suddenly feels shy at the prospect of telling him everything that happened today, hence the sudden vagueness. Of course, he knows about Nico and how she used to dance with Karolina, but Karolina never told him anything about their feelings for each other. It was too painful to talk about for a long time, and afterwards, too awkward. Can Karolina really tell Chase she turned him down the first time he asked her out in seventh grade because she was already falling for the very person whose number she's holding now?

"I'm not seeing the problem here," Chase sits down on the bed.

Karolina can't bring herself to sit. She can barely stop herself from pacing around the room.

"It was Nico, the girl I used to dance with before my dad dashed my childhood dreams to hell? I mean, I haven't seen her in years, and she walked right over and started talking to me like no time had passed at all."

"Does she want you to start dancing again?" Chase's eyes widen at the realization.

"She offered to give me free lessons for a week if I want them," Karolina grumbles.

"What did you say?"

Karolina's mind reels at his response. She's telling him about all of this because she wants his advice, wants him to think the offer as ridiculous as she does, but instead he goes and asks a question like that. What's worse, he seems genuinely curious, as if he really doesn't know what Karolina's answer was when it should be incredibly clear.

"I said no. Obviously." Karolina resists the urge to roll her eyes. Chase doesn't deserve to serve as the outlet for her frustration.

"Why?" Chase asks, and Karolina can feel her patience slipping away by the second.

She wants Chase to confirm she's doing the right thing so she can put all of this behind her, but instead, he's grilling her with a million different questions. She doesn't understand why he's not laughing with her right now about how silly even the notion of dancing is. She knows he wouldn't give up his own future career for anything, so why should he expect her to?

"As if I would want to waste my time on dance." Karolina scoffs. "I need to be focusing on school and my future, not twirling around in a tutu like I'm five years old. Surely you understand how important it is to prepare for my career without distractions."

"Yeah, I do," Chase says easily, "because it is important to me. I've always looked forward to taking over my dad's company one day and making it better. But you? You haven't always wanted this, Kar. And I'm not completely convinced you want it now."

Why does everyone keep saying that today?

"What do you mean? I'm going to Harvard for business. Why the hell would I do that if I didn't want to be a businesswoman?"

"Because it's what your dad wants you to be. I've known you your whole life, Kar. I remember what you were like when you used to talk about dancing. It was one of the reasons I started crushing on you in the first place. You were so vibrant and full of life, like nothing could stand in your way. I've never once heard you talk about business like that."

Karolina remembers exactly how she used to talk about dance, and even that paled in comparison to how she used to feel while dancing. She doesn't remember the exact ecstatic feeling she got when she and Nico began to move together to a melody, but she remembers that it was a great one. She remembers how excited and free she would feel on the dance floor. But she doesn't want to remember. For the past six years, she's been trying her hardest to forget.

"I've grown up since then," Karolina says, but her defense sounds flimsy at best. "I'm not going to make up unrealistic fantasies about how I'm going to be the very best businesswoman in the world like I did about dancing."

Chase sighs. "Maybe you've lost your passion for dance, but I don't think you've ever even had any for business. I understand that you want to make your dad proud, but that isn't worth your happiness, Karolina. I promise you that."

"So you're saying I should take the lessons?" Karolina gives him one final chance to say no, one final chance to set her world back on its axis and keep it spinning the way it has for the past few years.

She hopes with everything in her that he'll start saying words that make sense again.

"I'm saying it won't hurt to take them." Chase nods. "It's only for a week. I think it'll be good for you to take time to figure things out. You'll be doing yourself a big favor."

Karolina feels like she's being torn in two. She's been both waiting for this day to come and dreading the moment it would be breathed into existence. She wanted to hear Chase's honest opinion, but now she doesn't think she was ready to. She didn't consider that he might see sense in taking Nico's offered lessons.

"Why are you telling me this now?" she asks. "Why not tell me the day I told you I wanted to go to Harvard?"

"Because you wanted to go to Harvard. It didn't matter that business didn't interest you one bit. You wanted to go, and nothing I said or did was going to be able to talk you out of it when your dad was saying the opposite. You never doubted his plan for you then. But I think you did today, or you wouldn't be so upset over this. And I agree with every doubt you've had."

"I'm not doubting anything." Karolina is growing frustrated at his persistence in fighting her. "I know I don't want to dance anymore. I was just a dumb kid back then, and I didn't know what I wanted."

"Well, I think that dumb kid knew exactly what she wanted." Chase stands from the bed, taking Karolina's hand in his. "I think it's the girl in front of me now who doesn't know what she wants."

It's almost exactly what Nico said earlier, and Karolina wonders if it's true. Maybe Chase is right, and she should take these lessons, if for nothing else than to prove him wrong. If she's truly convinced her passion for dance is gone, what has she got to lose?

Karolina's reluctance to take the lessons, though, has already proved everything anyone needs to know. She's afraid she'll prove herself wrong, and she won't find the lessons as useless as she thinks she will. Maybe a tiny part of her even fears she'll find that dancing isn't the only thing she still loves.

"If I dance again, I can't do it with Nico." Karolina pulls her hand away. "We had a falling out when we were younger, and it would just be awkward to spend a week with her now."

"Come on, Karolina. You were what? Thirteen years old?" Chase asks exasperatedly. "You need to get over it, like she clearly has, and just do what's best for you because you might never get another chance."

He's right about one thing. This could be her last chance to dance. She hasn't finished her schooling, and it's certainly not too late for her to change her major. She won't be uprooting her entire life if she decides she wants to switch tracks now.

But she knows her dad won't see it that way.

It doesn't matter what she wants. Her dad made sure she knew that. She can't dance again without bringing Nico down with her when her dad inevitably finds out about it. And she won't bring Nico down with her. She decided that years ago.

"You don't know what's best for me," Karolina finally says.

"Neither does your father," Chase answers immediately.

It's too far, and they both know it. Karolina can tell he knows it in the way his eyes widen, almost as if he didn't mean to say it. But he said it. There's no taking it back now.

"This discussion is over," Karolina says icily. She's made her decision, had made it many years ago, and she's determined not to go back on it now. "If you can't let it lie, you can leave."

He looks hurt for a moment, and Karolina instantly regrets what she said. Chase didn't do anything wrong. All he did was give her his honest opinion, just like she wanted.

He shakes his head, frustration clear in his eyes. "Maybe I will."

"Chase, wait," Karolina calls after him as he pushes past her and stalks over to the door. She didn't mean to offend him, and she certainly didn't want the only person who is ever truly in her corner to be mad at her.

He turns back to face her, but the hard glint never leaves his eyes.

"I'm sorry, but I care about you, and I'm tired of watching you throw your life away to become something you'll never be proud of."

He walks out the door, and Karolina fights the urge to go after him. Doing so will only prove to further shatter the beliefs she's spent so long convincing herself are hers. She goes over the familiar thoughts in her head. Dancing is nothing but a waste of time. I will make a good living as a businesswoman. I want to be a businesswoman. I don't need anything to distract me from pursuing my career to the best of my ability.

The thoughts don't sound as convincing as they normally do. Today, they sound forced and fake, so she eventually gives up and collapses back onto her bed. The minute she does, though, she's bombarded by Nico's words again, and now Chase's too. The worst part is that their words don't feel fake in the slightest. Their words sound true.

She can't give in. This is out of her control, has been since the night her dad found her and Nico dancing almost six years ago, and she can't go back to that way of thinking now. It will only destroy her and Nico, and she'd rather live a life she doesn't particularly enjoy than be robbed of any sort of life at all. So she pushes every single thought from her head and instead focuses all of her mental energy on counting the leaves on the tree outside her window.

Silence has never felt so loud.

Only once she goes downstairs to dinner does Karolina begin to feel like herself again. As always, the dinner conversation is all about business, and Karolina has never been so grateful for anything in her life. No one mentions dancing. No one would even dream of mentioning it. Dance is a ridiculous topic here, and Karolina finally feels like she can breathe again.

Her mother and father tell Karolina all about their day at the company, and she in turn tells them about her day at school, minus the crazy mishap from her coffee break and her unsettling conversation with Chase. She doesn't even have to tell her parents about it. She already knows what they will say. Exactly what anyone should.

This feels right. This feels real. Karolina feels like she can finally let go of all her childish doubts and questioning.

"Karolina," Frank Dean says to draw her attention to him. He pauses for a moment to share a look with her mother, who gives him an encouraging nod, before continuing. "We have a new project for you to work on."

"One we think you'll be excited about," Leslie chimes in.

"Really?" Karolina feels her eyes go wide with delight. "What is it?"

She only works with the company over breaks because her parents don't want her getting distracted from her schoolwork, but she knows she can handle working with school. This will be her chance to prove it to them.

"We don't have an official social media manager, so we thought you might like to try taking charge of the company's social media pages for a while." Her dad smiles as if he's offering her the job she's always wanted.

Chase is wrong. She does want this. She wants to help out at the company as much as she can, and she certainly knows how to work with social media. It won't take her long to figure out the basics of the position, and she knows her dad will be impressed.

"That would be great." Karolina smiles widely. "When can I start?"

Her dad frowns. "You're not even going to ask what this job will entail? You're simply going to take it without question?"

Her smile immediately falls away at his irritated words. Shit. She messed up already.

"You should never accept an opportunity without knowing what will be required of you," he continues. "This is your future we're talking about."

"Yes, sir." Karolina looks down at her plate of prime rib. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," her mom answers, the more lenient of the two. "You're still learning. But you never want to take a job that will be too much for you or that you don't have the proper skills to perform well at."

Karolina nods. "So what will I be doing?"

"We don't need much," Frank says. "Just a few posts a day will do, on Twitter and Instagram, and of course we will send you the things we want you to report on. We just want you to present the information in the best way possible and put it out to the public. I assume that won't be an issue for you."

"Not at all," Karolina says easily. "I'm looking forward to it."

She knows it won't be the most exciting of jobs, but it certainly won't be hard for her, and she wants a chance to prove herself as an integral part of the company. Her parents will be trusting her with their entire social media platform, and she knows there's no greater honor than earning their trust. Not to mention, it will be best for her to stay busy right now. Less time for her to think about…other things.

The conversation continues, and Karolina falls easily back into it. It's nice to talk about the future she wants to have instead of the one Chase and Nico are trying to force upon her. She belongs right here at this dinner table, talking about business and sales and marketing techniques. She does not belong in a ballroom with Nico wasting her talent and intelligence away.

She's confident of this in the dining room, but the further she gets from it, the more that confidence wavers. She showers and gets ready for bed, trying to wash away the events of the day. No matter how hard she scrubs, though, it feels like Nico's words have been tattooed into her skin: I thought you were brave.

Is she a coward for wanting the same things her dad does? Is she lying to herself about her interest in business, or has she truly just grown up?

When she gets to her room, she sees the napkin where she left it on her bed. She wishes she had the nerve to just throw it out the window earlier. Now it taunts her from where it sits, but she knows she has to pick it up if she wants to get it out of her sight.

After grabbing the napkin, she turns to stuff it far down in her bottom desk drawer, but her hand doesn't seem to want to do it. For the second time that day, her hand is itching for her phone.

Chase was right when he said this might be her last chance to turn back, but it's also her last chance to prove to herself once and for all that she doesn't want this. If she refuses the lessons, Chase will be mad at her for weeks, and she'll never truly know whether Nico was right about everything or not. If she just takes the lessons and gets them over with, she'll never have to talk to Nico again, and Chase will admit he was wrong and move on.

Everything will go back to normal after a week. A week isn't a long time to waste, considering the loose ends and doubts she'll have to deal with for the rest of her life if she doesn't just suck it up now and do this.

Karolina opens her messaging app and types the number on the napkin into the text bar. She quickly taps out a short text to Nico before she can ruminate on whether or not this is actually a good idea.

I'll take the lessons.

It's short. It's simple. It's nothing personal. If she wants to sound indifferent about this, then it's the perfect text. So why does she still hesitate to hit send?

Maybe it's because she knows she needs to focus on her career and nothing else. Sure, she'll only be dancing for a week, but her parents just gave her a new job, and she wants to make sure she gives it the attention it deserves. Maybe it's because she knows her father will be furious if he finds out. If he catches her and Nico together again, she'll be lucky not to get disowned, let alone take over the company one day.

Or maybe it's because she's afraid, in the deep recesses of her heart, that it might not be as easy for her to prove she's done with dancing as she thinks it will. Maybe she knows there's a chance she will rediscover her love for dance instead of dismissing it once and for all. Maybe it's because she knows she won't ever be able to go back from that.

If she finds out Chase and Nico are right, and she still wants to be a dancer, then these lessons will completely uproot the life she's been building for herself these past six years. Is she really ready for that?

I'm tired of watching you throw your life away to become something you'll never be proud of.

Chase's words echo through her head again. If there's a chance she'll regret the life she's chosen for herself, does she really want to choose it? No. It doesn't matter who's standing in her way. She wants to live a life she can be proud of.

She hits send before she can think about it any longer.

Chapter Text

Meet me on Monday at 3. You know where.

It's all Karolina's thought about since it first appeared on her phone. She didn't respond to it, of course, but she has her read receipts on, so Nico knows she got it.

As much as she tried to focus on literally anything else this weekend, all she could think about is going back to the abandoned art museum with Nico, the very one whose parking lot she's standing in now. She parked in the neighborhood down the street, briefly thinking it an inconvenience she no longer has a chauffeur since Vaughn got fired, and then she climbed the fence, relieved when no sirens or anything went off. So there's still no surveillance then.

She remembers the first time she brought Nico here, how wide-eyed the other girl was the whole time, so scared they were going to get caught. But there was no surveillance, despite what the signs on the gate said. Vaughn assured them of that. He apparently used to hang out here when he was younger. And so it turned from Vaughn's hangout to Karolina and Nico's dance studio. At least the ballroom part of it. Karolina's surprised it's still left standing after all these years of no use.

When she walks inside, she is slightly afraid she might find squatters or the like, but it doesn't seem like anyone is there, at least not that she can see. It seems the signs outside have been serving their intended purpose.

She also notices that Nico isn't here yet, and she considers for a moment that maybe this isn't where Nico intended for them to meet after all. She immediately shakes that thought off, though. Where else would they dance?

Karolina enters the ballroom, and it's clear no one has been here in years. The floor is coated in a thick layer of dust, and the carcasses of one too many species of bug litter the ground. Nico and Karolina used to keep this place well-swept and clean, but it's been left alone for so long that it finally matches the rest of the museum again.

Other than the obvious lack of use, though, everything is the same. The same paintings of ballerinas and ballroom dancers line the walls. The same elaborate chandelier hangs from the ceiling. The same decrepit baby grand stands in the far-left corner. Even the candles she and Nico used to light to be able to see at night are still sitting atop the piano and the windowsills.

Being back here feels wrong. All she can think about is the last time, her father tearing in here and literally dragging her away from Nico, the tears streaming down her face as she lost the person she cared about more than anyone else in the world, the subsequent threats her dad made to ruin Nico's family if he ever caught Karolina with her again. She hated him once. She hated him, and she wanted this, and it's almost too much for her to bear.

She thinks about leaving. It's not too late for her. Nico isn't even here yet. She can be out of here and gone in a minute, without a single glance back at any of this ever again. She already has her answers. If dancing truly doesn't matter to her anymore, then she should feel indifferent about being back here.

Before she can even begin to move, though, she hears the main doors open, and Nico is rushing into the ballroom a moment later, gushing apologies.

"Sorry I'm late. My class ran late, and then I ran into traffic, and I really did plan on being here at 3."

Karolina glances at her phone. "You're only five minutes late. Calm down."

Now that Nico is finally here, Karolina feels a sour mood settle over her, the same mood that had come over her when she first ran into Nico at Timely. Nico's the reason Karolina's been feeling so out of sorts lately, and Karolina suddenly wants to prove to herself and to Nico that this doesn't matter, that she's only here because the lessons are free and nothing more.

Disappointment flashes across Nico's face for a moment, but she easily brushes it off, face twisting in disgust as she finally turns to survey the floor. "I guess we should probably sweep before we do this, huh?"

Reluctantly, Karolina nods. She has to agree with Nico on this one unless she wants to spend her time dancing on dead bugs, feet coated in dust.

She walks out to the hallway closet and tries not to feel surprised that even their old cleaning supplies are still there. Of course they are. Who would have been around to take them? Wordlessly, she hands a broom to Nico and grabs another one for herself.

They don't say a word to each other as they sweep and mop the entire floor of the ballroom, and Karolina can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing. The last thing she wants to do is talk to Nico, but being left alone with her thoughts isn't a particularly favorable outcome either.

The candles in the ballroom. The brooms in the closet. Nico's even brought the same damn portable stereo with her, as if she hasn't had ample time to get a new one. It feels to Karolina like she's stepped back through time. Everything has changed outside of these walls, but here, nothing has. In this museum, everything is exactly the same as it was when they were kids. Except they're not kids anymore. Karolina hates that, for a second, she wishes they were.

When the room is finally clean, and they've stored all their cleaning supplies in the closet once more, Nico awkwardly clears her throat. "We should probably start with some warmups."

"Warmups?" Karolina scowls. "I danced for years. Is this your way of insinuating I'm never going to be as good as you again?"

"It's my way of ensuring you don't end up hurting yourself." Nico's voice takes on an annoyed undertone. "I need to warm up too. Every dancer does."

Karolina knows this. She learned it in her first dance class when she was four years old. There's just something inside of her that tells her she needs to be difficult, needs to keep up a guarded front so Nico doesn't even know there's a possibility there might be something else underneath.

A fire is burning inside her, and she's much too afraid to see what will happen when it goes out.

"So…I was thinking today we could maybe just run through some classic ballet moves to ease you back into dancing again." Nico doesn't sound so calm anymore. There's a certain tension to her words, like she's finding out that she might not want to be here after all. "I know technique isn't everything, but it's still important."

"Fine." Karolina rolls her eyes. She was always more of a contemporary dancer, but she supposes it will only help her case to do something she's not as into.

"Great," Nico says, sounding like she thinks Karolina's answer is anything but. "Do you remember the positions?"

"Obviously." Karolina huffs.

Despite her answer, they run through the five positions again anyway, and Karolina is surprised at how natural it feels, even after at least two years away from anything that had to do with dance.

When they actually start to go through dance moves again, she thinks she should feel stiff, but she doesn't. She thinks dancing should feel weird, but it doesn't. It feels like dancing is what her body is made to do, like she never even stopped at all. It feels good.

It scares her.

She falls out of her third pirouette halfway through, getting dizzy. Stumbling to regain her footing, she watches the world sway around her until her eyes come back into focus directly on Nico.

"You have to focus on something to spot yourself each time you go around, remember?" Nico says, a small smile on her face. "You liked to use the painting of the two ballerinas because it reminded you of us."

On instinct, Karolina's eyes shoot to the very painting. Two ballerinas, one blonde and the other brunette, stretch next to each other at the barre. Nico always used to say they were holding hands because you can't see their hands in between them and prove for sure they're not, and Karolina would follow that up by saying of course they were holding hands because she would always be holding Nico's hand. Even now, she sees the two of them when she looks at that painting, but instead of filling her with warmth and happiness like it used to, now it just makes her uncomfortable. Karolina hasn't felt that way about Nico in a long time.

"I know what I'm doing," Karolina snaps. "You don't need to flaunt my mistakes any chance you get."

"I'm not flaunting anything," Nico says incredulously. If Karolina is trying to push Nico away with her behavior, she thinks it's probably working. "Maybe it was out of line for me to say that, but there's no denying we had a past together, Karolina. Ignore it all you want, but that doesn't make it any less real."

"I'm not ignoring anything." Karolina is immediately on the defensive. "You're ignoring me when I say that I'm nothing like that now. I used to feel a certain way about you, Nico, but I don't anymore, and that's not gonna change."

"You say that as if I'm expecting it to." Nico sighs. "Maybe you think I still have feelings for you, Karri—Karolina, but I don't. Yeah, I still care about you, but not like that."

Karolina never knew it was possible to feel both relieved and disappointed at the same time. Relieved that Nico isn't going to come on to her, and disappointed because…well, she doesn't know why she feels disappointed, or she doesn't want to acknowledge it anyway, so she does what she does best. She pushes it to the back of her mind where it can hopefully remain ignored and forgotten for the rest of her days.

She also pointedly chooses a different portrait to spot her on her pirouettes from there on out. Ballroom dancers, male and female this time.

It isn't until they get to arabesques that Karolina starts to feel uncomfortable again. When Karolina gets into position, Nico immediately falls out of her own arabesque to come over and help Karolina with hers.

"Keep your leg out straighter, like this." Nico straightens Karolina's leg out for her, the first physical contact they've had in six years, and Karolina's first instinct is to lean into the touch. Nico's touch feels right in all the ways it no longer should, and Karolina breaks her position two seconds later when she jumps out of Nico's grasp.

Nico watches her curiously, and Karolina hopes she didn't notice her initial reaction, knows that she did. For a moment, she's speechless. She doesn't know what to say, how to fix this. All she knows is that the fire inside of her is so intense, it could burn her alive.

"If you only gave me these lessons to get into my pants, then forget I accepted them. I have a boyfriend."

"Oh, get over yourself, Karolina." Anger springs up into Nico's brown eyes. "I already told you I don't have feelings for you anymore. I was only trying to help you with your technique."

As hard as Karolina has fought to keep the fire inside of her burning, it goes out at the sincerity in Nico's words. She's over Karolina. This is only about dancing. Did Karolina think it might be about something else? Did she hope it would be? How does she feel to know that Nico's moved on from her?

"I'm giving you these lessons because I believe in dance," Nico says when Karolina doesn't answer. "And you used to believe in it too."

She did. There's no denying it, and it hits her hard. She used to be as in love with dance as Nico is, to dream of dancing on a stage in front of thousands of people with Nico and only Nico. The two of them wanted that dream more than anything, wouldn't let anyone stand in their way. So what happened? What changed for Karolina? Because it's clear now that the only thing that ever changed for Nico is the person she'll be dancing with.

"Yeah, I did." Karolina looks at the ground. It's the first thing she says all day that doesn't come out hostile. "But my dad made a good point. I'm too smart to be a dancer. I need to choose a career where I won't constantly be worried about money."

"We never used to worry about that," Nico says.

Time may have passed, but Nico is every bit the girl she used to be. So much may have changed for Karolina, but so much is still the same for Nico. Nico is still every bit as committed to dancing as she used to be, and Karolina almost feels ashamed that she's not.

A traitorous voice in the back of her head that sounds suspiciously like Chase argues that she could be. And oh, she could. All she has to do is tell Nico that, ask her to stick around, ask if there's any chance they can be dance partners again, not just now, but in the future.

"Maybe we were onto something back then," she admits.

It's the closest Karolina has come to admitting maybe she screwed up in caring so much what her father thinks. Maybe she screwed up in choosing the career she did to make him proud. But she doesn't ask Nico to be her dance partner again, doesn't express any desire to change her current career at all. She can't. Chase may think she still has time to change her mind, but it's already too late for her.

Nico only smiles at her, and what else is there to say really? Like Karolina gave Chase one more chance to say what she wanted him to the other day, Nico did the same for Karolina today, and like Chase, Karolina didn't say it. It's as good of an admission as any. This is only for a week. It can't go on any longer.

They go back to dancing, but it's different this time. Nico makes sure to give suggestions from a distance. She doesn't dare touch Karolina again. The tension between them is replaced by the same melancholy sadness that made Karolina believe she'd moved on from dancing in the first place.

They dance side by side, a considerable distance between them, and it feels like they're two girls dancing to different melodies rather than two girls dancing to the same. They focus on technique and only technique. They don't try dancing together, really together, even once.

Karolina can't stop thinking it's a shame.

Chapter Text

That night, Nico is lying on her bed, focusing all her energy on her homework and pointedly ignoring the expectant eyes that are being trained on her by the girl sitting at her desk. She knows why Gert is here. She wants to know how Nico's lesson with Karolina went, but it seems she wants Nico to be the one to broach the subject. So Nico is content not saying anything as she works on her psychology worksheet.

"Soooo." Gert finally breaks the silence after what had to be twenty minutes, "how was the lesson?"

"Kind of awful," Nico admits. "Is that what you wanted to hear?"

"Of course not." Gert sits up straighter in the chair, anger taking over her features. "What did she do?"

"Other than act like a spoiled brat?" Nico sighs. "Nothing much. Only accused me of still having feelings for her when I made the mistake of mentioning a painting that used to remind her of us, and then she freaked out when I touched her."

"That bitch. If I ever have the misfortune of seeing her, I'll kill her."

For some reason, Nico still feels a small urge to defend Karolina. Sure, she's acting like a brat, but Nico's not convinced that's who she is. Nico thinks it's her defense mechanism, her way of hiding what she's really feeling. Karolina's afraid they'll fall right back into their own ways if she doesn't make sure they don't. Nico doesn't dare say any of that to Gert, though.

"I wouldn't go that far." Nico tries her best to sound indifferent. "She will be my greatest source of income pretty soon."

"Is it really worth the money if she's going to continue to treat you like that?" Gert argues.

"I don't know. Will it be worth it to completely turn her life upside down? Because that's what will happen if she finds out she still loves dancing."

Gert scoffs. "It sounds like she still loves more than just dancing."

"What do you mean?" Nico asks, confused.

"It sounds like she still loves you."

Nico immediately shakes her head. If Karolina still loved her, it would make this whole lessons thing a lot easier, even if Nico never wanted to trust the other girl with her heart again. At least Karolina would be more pleasant to be around.

"Yeah, right," Nico says. "You wouldn't be saying that if you'd been there. She seemed disgusted by even the thought of being with me."

"You are so clueless sometimes, Nico." Gert shakes her own head. "She started accusing you of having feelings for her after you brought up some presumably gay painting. If she didn't feel anything for you whatsoever, she wouldn't have made such a big deal out of it. She immediately got onto you about it because she didn't want you to see that she's the one who still has feelings for you."

Is it possible that Gert's right? It would explain why Karolina reacted so harshly today. Are Karolina's old feelings for Nico buried deep down underneath with her love of dancing, and what will Nico do if they are?

"Whether or not she has feelings for me doesn't matter." Nico dismisses the topic of conversation before she can think too much about it. "I'm doing this because I want to help her find her way back to dance again, not her way back to me. Nothing's going to change that."

"Maybe it should." Gert has a faraway look in her eyes that she only gets when she's plotting something. Nico isn't sure she wants to know what it is.

"What are you talking about?"

Gert turns to Nico with hard eyes. "Maybe you should shatter her heart like she shattered yours."

"And how do you suggest I do that? Are you devising a plan to get her boyfriend to break up with her?"

"Of course not." Gert rolled her eyes. "Although I have to admit that would be good. No, if what I said before is true, then let it happen. Be your usual charming self and make her fall in love with you again, the all-consuming kind of love, the kind of love you had when you were kids. And then stop the lessons. Never contact her again."

"That's just petty and mean." Nico rolled her eyes right back at her best friend. "Not to mention childish."

"Isn't that exactly what she did to you?" Gert asks with a challenging glint in her eyes.

Nico wants to protest that there were more factors at play back then, that Karolina's dad found some way of forbidding her from ever seeing Nico again.

But that's the thing. She doesn't know. Karolina never gave Nico an explanation, not even now. And Nico deserved one.

No matter what happened back then, there had to have been a way for Karolina to meet with Nico one more time, just to tell her what happened, to explain why she couldn't come back. But she never did.

So maybe Gert's right, and Nico does deserve to break Karolina's heart like Karolina broke hers. But she never could. Karolina might have been okay with breaking the heart of someone she loved, but Nico isn't going to be that person. Tearing someone else down, especially someone she loved so much in the past, isn't going to make her feel better. That will only serve to make her miserable.

"You know I can't do that, though, Gert. I don't like hurting people. It's the only thing that makes me feel worse than getting hurt myself."

"I know." A small smile appears on Gert's face, her anger at Karolina finally subsiding. "She doesn't deserve a friend like you. I don't think anyone does."

"That's not true." Nico laughs. "But I appreciate it all the same."

Gert climbs into bed beside Nico and closes the book Nico was working out of, setting it aside. Nico doesn't protest, though. She wasn't all that focused on her homework anyway. Nico settles against Gert, enjoying the feeling of just being together with someone who loves her, who appreciates her, who isn't going to bite her head off for one second of physical contact. It's nice.

As much as Nico doesn't want to hurt Karolina, she knows there's still some truth to Gert's words. Karolina doesn't deserve to have Nico back in her life, so why does Nico insist on being in it? Young Nico would never have given up on young Karolina, but maybe young Karolina is gone. Maybe it's time for Nico to stop wasting time on the seemingly miniscule chance that she might bring her back.

One week, she tells herself. One week, and then this can all be over.

"I fucked up, Chase," Karolina says when she gets to her boyfriend's house the next day.

"What do you mean?" he asks as he pulls her in for a hug and a kiss.

"I did something yesterday, and now everything's awkward between me and Nico." She pulls back to look at him but not too far, arms still wrapped around him.

Yesterday, she couldn't help slightly regretting the way she acted by the end of the lesson, and today even more so. She and Nico are dancing again, but it seems like Nico doesn't really want to be there anymore. Karolina doesn't even know why it matters to her, but Nico's been walking on eggshells around her for two days now, and she wants it to stop.

Originally, she wanted nothing to do with Nico. She wanted to leave the museum before Nico even had the chance to show up. But she's not so sure it's what she wants anymore. Being around Nico again feels nothing but awkward, and Karolina knows it's entirely her fault. She's supposed to be giving dancing a real, fair try, but the way she and Nico are dancing right now isn't going to prove anything to anyone. She's already made the decision to dance again, so maybe it's time for her to own up to that decision and try dancing again for real, without any resistance, without holding herself back in the slightest.

"What did you do?" Chase's facial expression is unreadable for once, and Karolina wonders if he's mad or if he's waiting to decide that.

"I was moody and unagreeable, and when she tried to help me with my technique a bit, I told her not to touch me. And yeah, maybe I overreacted, but I couldn't help it. I felt like I was a firecracker, and Nico was the flame."

Chase's mouth settles into a thin line, and Karolina can tell he's disappointed with her. She knew he would be, but he's also the only person she can talk to about this, so she prepares herself for the lecture that's sure to come about how she needs to take this opportunity seriously and start acting like an adult.

It never comes, though. Instead, Chase only asks, "And how did you feel today?"

"Relieved at first that she wasn't pushing my boundaries," Karolina admits, "but it didn't feel right, and that frustrates me. If I'm only going to dance this week, then maybe I should make the most of it. Nico and I aren't solo dancers. Our dream was always to dance together. There was nothing separate about it, almost like the dream didn't matter as much if the other wasn't there to share it."

Karolina waits for Chase to ask her why it was so important to them to dance together. She waits for him to connect the dots and figure out exactly what she hasn't told him all these years. But he doesn't. Karolina's rejected the very idea of being gay enough times that Chase would probably never even consider the possibility that she might have once had feelings for Nico.

"I'm sorry your dad ruined all of that for you guys." Karolina could easily see the sympathy in Chase's brown eyes. "You used to be really good friends, didn't you?"

"Best friends." Karolina doesn't mention that they were more than that. "I just wish there was a way for us to dance together again now without me having to admit I was wrong."

"Kar, you're not twelve years old anymore." Chase frowns. "Just tell her you want to dance together again, and you can. It's as easy as that."

"No, it's not," Karolina says. "You wouldn't understand."

He sighs because he doesn't understand. He thinks she's being dramatic again. He doesn't understand the pain she went through when she lost Nico and her future of dancing in the same night. He doesn't understand how hard she fought her attraction to girls because her father told her he was not going to have a daughter-in-law. He doesn't understand how much she wants to be herself, what it feels like to not even know who that is anymore. She's spent years trying to convince herself that the life she's been leading is the very one she wants. Chase will never understand what it feels like to find out that might not be the truth anymore.

"You know what this means, don't you?" Chase looks at her expectantly, and she nods for him to continue. "You're still passionate about dance. You want to dance with Nico again now, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear that's what you want to do in the future again too."

"I don't know that, Chase," Karolina immediately says. "What if I mess everything up?"

"You'll never know unless you try it. That's the thing about life. There is no right or wrong choice."

The words coming out of Chase's mouth may finally be starting to make sense again for the first time in the past couple days, but Karolina isn't sure she can risk everything on a whim, on a feeling she hasn't even had for a week. She can't give up everything she's ever known for a life she may only think she wants. She's too afraid she'll regret it.

"Okay." Karolina can't bring her voice much higher than a whisper. "I still enjoy dancing."

A wide smile spreads across Chase's face at her words. "Now the only question is, what are you gonna do about it?"

"I'll tell Nico I want to dance with her again." Karolina can feel a small smile of her own spreading across her face. "Just because I want to dance again doesn't mean I can't still pursue business as my career. Dancing will be my hobby so I can do both. Dad'll never have to know."

It still doesn't feel right—there's no room in her life anymore for dancing—but it's the only solution she can come up with that feels doable. There's no denying that there's still a bit of room for dancing in her heart, at least for the time being. Denying it thus far has only been making her life difficult, so maybe it's time for her to stop. Dancing doesn't have to uproot her entire life. She can still devote the majority of her time to her career.

She tries not to think about what will happen when Nico is ready to make a career out of dance. Karolina knows she can never follow her childhood dream and dance with Nico in front of people. She can't risk getting recognized. Will Nico really be content to dance behind closed doors with Karolina forever? Of course she won't, and Karolina would never ask that of her. Nico doesn't even seem happy to be dancing with Karolina now.

"Okay, Karolina." Chase is still smiling at her. "I think you'll be a lot happier now, and that's all I want. For you to be happy."

Tears prick the corners of her eyes, and she wonders what she ever did to get such a good person in her life. She's always been around people like her parents, who seem to care about the perfect image of her, the idea of her, more than they care about her as a person. Nico may have told Karolina she's just like her father, but that can't be farther than the truth. All he cares about is money and power. Maybe Karolina's ready to stop pretending she's just like Frank and Leslie and all of their business partners.

She's different, she knows, so maybe it's time for her to finally allow herself to just be different.

Dinner that night feels different than usual. Her parents talk about their days and further discuss the project she will be working on again, but this time, she finds herself wishing she could mention dance. Now that she's well on her way to her career, she wishes she could express her want to dance as a hobby without getting shut down immediately. Her father encourages her to read whenever she expresses interest in it. She doesn't understand why spending time in some fictional world that has nothing to do with business in the slightest is more acceptable than spending a bit of time dancing.

She longs for the time when she was a little girl, when her mother had put her in ballet classes because she thought it would be cute. She thought it would teach Karolina good manners and to behave like a lady. She clearly never counted on Karolina falling as in love with dancing as she did. Karolina herself hadn't either. She'd never expected to be so heartbroken when her parents pulled her out of dancing when she turned nine, because she wasn't a little girl anymore and it was time for her to grow up.

Her returning interest in dancing doesn't mean she's not still excited about the new job her parents are starting her on, though. She can't wait to get into it, and she wants nothing more than to do well on it. She just wishes it would be okay to have slightly different interests than her parents, especially when her main interest is the same.

When she gets back upstairs to her room that night, Karolina can feel an itch inside of her to dance again, this time on her own. After the emotions of a long day, all she wants to do is put one of her playlists on shuffle and just dance to it, no focus on technique or choreography or anything other than the way the songs make her feel.

She hasn't longed for that in a very long time. It scares her, but she quickly pushes that fear away. Instead, she tries to embrace her sudden urge to dance, even though she knows she can't fulfill it right now.

I can dance again tomorrow, she thinks. Which reminds me.

Grabbing her phone, she types out a quick text to Nico and sends it before she has time to overanalyze it or erase it altogether. She's tired of wasting time.

I'm sorry for the way I've been acting. Can we pretend none of this ever happened and just dance together like we used to?

The minute Karolina sends it off, she regrets it, which is exactly why she didn't give herself the chance to read back over it again in the first place. She knows this is something she can't go back from, but she doesn't want to go back from it. She wants to give herself no choice but to start making an effort to enjoy these lessons for real. And now that she's apologized to Nico, she has to do just that.

It doesn't take long for the delivered message under her text to turn to read, and Karolina feels a wave of nervousness wash over her when those three little dots appear almost immediately. Her nerves only grow when the dots disappear, then reappear, then disappear again. That's not a good sign, right?

What if Nico's decided she doesn't want to dance with Karolina anymore beyond this week? What if she's so fed up with the way Karolina's been acting that she doesn't even want to continue the lessons through the end of the week at all?

Karolina's heart is pounding so hard that she can feel it everywhere, can even hear it in her ears, when Nico's response finally comes through. She sighs in relief when she sees the five-word answer appear on her screen.

I thought you'd never ask.

Chapter Text

It's the last lesson of the week.

When Karolina and Nico danced together again for the first time on Wednesday, all the awkwardness and tension between them dissipated the minute they fell back into their old rhythm of dancing. Even though Karolina feels differently about Nico now than she did when they were kids, dancing with Nico again felt perfect. At first.

Despite the fact that Karolina and Nico rarely ever danced to classical ballet music together in their lives, Nico is now insisting that be all they work on. It's weird. They've danced to songs from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in the past few days more times than Karolina has even heard them in her life, and she's ready to dance to something contemporary, something closer to what they used to dance to. Now that it's the last lesson, it's also her last chance to do so, and she knows it's a bad idea. But she wants to try it. Even if it is the last time.

Multiple times throughout the lesson, Karolina wants to bring it up, to ask if they can dance contemporary even if only for a minute, but she can't. What if Nico says no? What if she questions it? What if she accuses Karolina of having feelings for her because of it?

It's not that Karolina wants to dance to a more emotional song with Nico specifically. It's that she wants to be able to completely give herself over to the music in a way that she's only ever been able to do during a contemporary song.

She waits until she can't possibly wait any longer. She waits until there are only fifteen minutes left of their lesson, and they've just finished another run-through of "Swan Theme." She waits until she has to ask, until it is her last chance.

"Can we dance to something contemporary?" She says it, and it's out there. There's nothing she can do to pull it back in. And she doesn't want to. At least, she doesn't think she wants to.

Nico freezes, and Karolina immediately regrets it. She should have known better than to ask that question, should have known it would make Nico uncomfortable. Now it will be Nico's turn to feel like Karolina is coming onto her. It will be Nico's turn to put distance between them again.

This isn't about Nico, though, not to Karolina. This is about dance, just like it had been for Nico when she'd made Karolina uncomfortable during their very first lesson.

Karolina hadn't meant for dancing to matter so much to her again, but what if Nico decides she doesn't want to continue the lessons? What if Karolina never has anyone to dance with ever again?

When this is all over, Nico will still have her classmates at the Conservatory to dance with her, but Karolina will have no one. So, yes, there is a lot riding on this one simple question, even though Karolina would never admit that to anyone.

"I think it's better to stick with classical right now," Nico says slowly. "It's the best way to perfect your technique."

"That's all we've been doing this week," Karolina protests. "I understand why it's important, but this is our last lesson, so wouldn't it be okay to dance to one contemporary song together?"

It's a dangerous question, one Nico seems hesitant to answer, and Karolina knows exactly why. It's the main reason she's waited until now to ask the question in the first place. She wants to dance to a contemporary song before the lessons are over, but she's also afraid to. She's afraid, just as Nico appears to be, that she'll get caught up in the music and the girl she's dancing with and do something she'll regret. She's afraid she'll forget that it's here and now and not there and then.

Karolina can't tell what Nico is going to say, and she's not even sure what she wants her to say anymore. Will it be better if Nico refuses and leaves it at that, or will Karolina always regret missing out on her last opportunity to remember exactly why dancing used to matter to her more than anything else?

Nico looks at her phone and sighs. "Fine. We'll do one song, Karrie." Nico's eyes widen the minute the familiar nickname leaves her tongue. "I mean, Karolina. I'm sorry."

The stricken look on Nico's face makes Karolina feel guilty. Sure, she wanted Nico to call her by her full name originally, but maybe she was too hard on her when she first requested it. Besides, something about the nickname feels right now in a way it didn't before. Karolina doesn't feel quite like the girl she used to be, but she definitely feels different whenever she's in this museum with Nico. Maybe it won't matter so much if Nico calls her by her old nickname if it's only Nico and only here.

"Karrie is fine," she says simply.

She doesn't miss the look of surprise on the other girl's face, and she hopes that Nico doesn't question her. If she questions her, it will make everything awkward, make Karolina feel like she needs to explain something she's not even sure she can. If Nico questions her, she knows she'll feel like she has to take it back.

Karolina doesn't want to take it back.

A tiny smile curls the corners of Nico's lips, but she doesn't say anything as she walks over to the stereo to select a song. Karolina is grateful for that. She would rather die than admit that it feels nice to finally be called Karrie again.

When a song begins to play, Karolina easily recognizes it as Billie Eilish's "you should see me in a crown." Perfect. Karolina can't express how grateful she is that Nico picked a song that has nothing to do with love or relationships, that doesn't remind Karolina of Nico and what they used to mean to each other at all. It's not exactly the kind of song they used to dance to, but Karolina can definitely get more into it than any classical piece.

At first, Karolina and Nico dance apart more than they dance together, but it still feels good. It feels good to be moving to a song with more of a beat. It feels good to be moving in time with Nico, even without touching her. It feels good to no longer be worrying about technique or choreography or anything else at all.

And then Nico jumps into Karolina's arms, and Karolina catches her like it's the easiest thing in the world, like it's something she's been doing all her life. She spins Nico around before lowering her back down to the ground, and it's like the barrier between them has been broken after that. Nico took the first leap, literally, and now they are barely letting go of one another.

The chasm is crossed, and they are dancing like they never stopped, like they never will stop. The song may not invoke any personal feelings inside Karolina, but she is feeling it all the same. The rhythm of the music and Nico's body against hers as they use every inch of space they have. They are finally dancing. Karolina is really, truly dancing again for the first time in six years.

She never wants to stop. She wants to keep jumping and spinning and flying with Nico for the rest of her life.

This is what she's been missing out on all these years. This is everything dancing is supposed to be. Just them and the music and the floor beneath their feet. Just them and the electric sparks that have always pulsed between them.

Music thrumming through her veins. Her feet pushing off the floor as she leaps into the air. Nico always feels on cloud nine when she dances, but there's something about dancing with Karolina that makes the activity even more intoxicating.

She thought she would be saving herself the trouble of feeling anything at all if she chose a song about a tyrannical queen, but it seems she was wrong. It doesn't matter what the song is about. There is something different about the way Karolina dances contemporary. There is something different about the way Karolina and Nico dance it together. Their movements are wild, unchoreographed, but they're also raw and emotional, and the two girls are able to predict each other's movements so well, even after so much time apart.

Nico never wants it to end. She may no longer have romantic feelings for Karolina, but she certainly still has feelings for dance.

And Karolina is good.

It's a shame her parents pulled her out of dancing so early in her life. She could really be something by now. She can still really be something in the future if only she decides she wants to.

When the song does draw to an end, Nico wishes she'd put it on loop, as she usually does with the songs they dance to. She knows why she didn't, though. Their time is up.

As much as Nico wanted the lessons to end after the first one, she now finds herself wishing they could go on forever. Nico has never had a dance partner who works as well with her as Karolina does, and she knows she can only improve by continuing to dance with her. But continuing to dance with Karolina will allow Nico to grow closer to her again. And she's not sure if that will prove to be a good thing or not.

Originally, she told Karolina she would continue the lessons for pay after the first week, but does she still want to? Does she really want to get attached to someone, even if in a strictly platonic way, who she knows might leave her on the turn of a dime if her father finds out about this again? Will Karolina even want to continue dancing beyond today, or was the whole point of asking to do contemporary because she knew she would never be dancing with Nico again?

"We can continue lessons for pay if you want." Nico says it because she needs to know what Karolina's answer will be, but her eyes dart away from the other girl's face. She can't bear to look at Karolina's reaction. She doesn't want to see the warring emotions on her face as she decides and then ultimately turns Nico down, doesn't want to see the lack of any emotional war at all as she rejects Nico immediately.

"I'd love to," Karolina says after only a few seconds, and Nico's eyes dart back up to her face in shock.

"What?" she asks.

"I said, I'd love to." Karolina looks a bit uncertain, but she's still watching Nico with the same shy smile.

"Really?" Nico knows she sounds like an idiot, but she has to make sure this isn't all one huge, cruel trick.

"I want to." Karolina nods. "If that's okay with you."

"Yeah." Nico quickly nods in return, relief and nervousness shooting through her body all at once. "It's more than okay."

"Where have you been, Karolina?" The high that the blonde in question has been experiencing since finally dancing contemporary with Nico again, since finding out there will be many similar opportunities to come, dies immediately when she hears the accusing tone of her father behind her.

She's been caught. She's only been dancing again for one week, and she's already been caught. Her dad's going to be furious with her before she's even had a real chance to enjoy the benefits. She should have known better than to get herself mixed up in all of this again.

"I've been at school." Karolina turns around with an innocent smile on her face.

If her dad already knows what she's been up to, then he's going to have to accuse her of something before she says a single word on the topic. She's not thirteen years old anymore. She's not going to confess anything to her father that he hasn't already confirmed he knows.

"I know your class schedule, Karolina." Frank Dean arches an eyebrow at her as if he knows exactly what she's been doing. Icy fear shoots down her spine at the thought that he might. "Your mother and I have been waiting on you for dinner, and you've never gotten home this late before on a Friday."

Karolina curses internally when she realizes she's come home after dinnertime for the second time in two nights. Yesterday, she texted her parents saying she would be at Chase's after her last class, so she wouldn't be home until later. It seems the thought to do the same today or make up a different lie hadn't even occurred to her. Her mind was too preoccupied with her internal struggle on whether or not to voice her desire to dance contemporary again.

"I joined a club on campus." Karolina says the first thing that comes to mind. "Women in business. I'm sorry I didn't let you know sooner, but it was kind of a spur of the moment decision."

"Women in business," Frank repeats, sounding intrigued. "When does it meet?"

"Every day," Karolina says before she can stop herself. Now that she's going to be continuing lessons with Nico, she needs a solid lie about why she'll be home later every day. This one she's already created might just work perfectly. "I know it's a lot, but the club adviser said it'll help prepare us to work in the business world."

An impressed smile spreads over Frank's face as he claps her on the back. "That sounds like an excellent club. I'm so proud of you, Karolina."

"Thanks, Dad." A relieved smile spreads over Karolina's face at his words.

He bought it.

She wants to feel good, but she can't help but feel guilty no more than two seconds later. He's her father, and she shouldn't be lying to him. It feels wrong. Then again, he's the reason she even feels like she has to lie in the first place. If he hadn't threatened her when he caught her dancing before, hadn't threatened Nico's family, she would have no reason to lie at all. So maybe she has every right to be dishonest with him.

For a moment, she feels proud of herself, although not for the same reason her father is proud of her. For a moment, she feels powerful. For a moment, she feels like maybe her life truly is her own now.

The moment passes quickly, though. Her father may not have caught her this time, but that doesn't mean he won't in the future. Maybe he'll get suspicious. Maybe he'll follow her again and drag her away from Nico for the second time in her life. And who knows what he'll do after that? He'll probably ruin her life and her future and Nico's too. Can she really risk all of that on something that's only a hobby to her?

Or does she know, not so deep down anymore, that dancing will always be anything but?

Chapter Text

Lessons for pay aren't exactly what Nico expected. Karolina pays her well over her asking price, and when Nico tries to refuse, the blonde insists she take it. They also don't dance to classical ballet music again even once.

Now that they have started dancing to contemporary again, it's as if they can't stop, and Nico doesn't particularly want to. Everything feels so much like it did when they were kids, yet there's something different about it as well. For one thing, they don't talk as much as they used to. It seems as if their relationship is strictly about dancing now; they are partners but not friends. Nico misses the long conversations they used to have when they took water breaks or cooled down for the day, but she understands why Karolina might not want to have them anymore, and she intends to be respectful of that.

What Nico doesn't understand is why Karolina has started acting skittish.

It starts with nervous glances cast in the direction of the door, as if she's expecting her father to burst in here at any moment and drag her away again as he had when they were thirteen. Nico understands where the fear might come from, but she doesn't understand why it's only starting now. Karolina didn't appear to be afraid of anything at all last week, or if she did, then Nico didn't notice.

She notices now, but she doesn't comment.

The reason why Karolina has suddenly become afraid of being caught again is none of Nico's business, and she knows this. She is here to dance with Karolina and nothing more, regardless of what the two of them shared in the past. As much as Nico wants to be respectful of Karolina's boundaries, though, she also wishes she could talk to Karolina like she used to, that she could be the one Karolina wants to talk to.

When whatever is bothering Karolina begins to affect her dancing, Nico finally gets up the courage to ask the blonde if she's all right. For a moment, Nico thinks Karolina might be about to tell her what's wrong, hopes she will open up to her, but she only brushes off the question by insisting that she's fine. And Nico is forced to let the subject drop.

A few minutes later, a siren sounds from somewhere outside, a passing ambulance or cop car maybe, and Karolina shoots straight up into the air, completely coming out of the dance and causing Nico to run right into her. Nico isn't sure what's gotten into Karolina lately, but she knows they can't go on like this. If Karolina is so afraid of her dad catching them, then maybe this isn't such a good idea after all.

"Karrie, are you sure you're okay? What's going on?"

It feels weird using her old nickname for Karolina, but it also feels right in a way Nico can't explain. Maybe if she addresses the girl she used to know, she'll be able to get through to her. But Nico has accepted by now that Karolina has changed—they both have—and she isn't sure how this new girl in front of her will react.

"My dad questioned me last week about why I was getting home later every day," Karolina admits, and Nico is surprised she's even answering. "So I made up some bullshit about joining a club on campus, and he bought it, praised me even. But I can't stop feeling like he's going to show up here at any second."

"He won't, Karrie. You're not a little girl anymore. He's not going to follow you to see where you're going because he doesn't have any real control over you."

Karolina shakes her head. "Yes, he does. He literally holds my future in his hands. One wrong step, and I'll be out of a job before I even really get one. He'll never let me do what I want to do."

"Which is dancing?" Nico knows she shouldn't ask the question, but she has to. Does Karolina wish she could dance again for real, as her career?

"I do want to dance," Karolina says as if it should be obvious. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't. But only as a hobby."

"Right." Nico tries her best to keep the disappointment off her face. "And that's why you shouldn't be afraid. You're committed to business now and have been for years. I don't think your dad would ever suspect you're dancing again."

"Why not?" Karolina still isn't convinced, but Nico thinks she sounds less sure of herself now. "I loved dancing before. Does my dad seriously believe I'll never want to dance again?"

"Yes," Nico assures her. She wishes she could touch Karolina like she used to, but she can't bring herself to try. "Your dad is the kind of person who believes in the cold, hard world of business. He believes passion is for children, so he probably thinks your love for dancing died when he killed it. He doesn't think there's a possibility of you getting that back now that you've grown up, and he will continue to think that way until you give him a reason to think otherwise. So don't."

"But…" Karolina trails off. It's clear that she wants to argue, but it seems like she's run out of things to say.

"But nothing," Nico says for her. "Your dad isn't coming here."

"You're probably right." Karolina's shoulders slump, and she gives Nico a small smile. "The only reason he followed me the first time was because he questioned Vaughn about our whereabouts one time the same way he questioned me last week, and Vaughn was a shit liar. This could actually work, couldn't it? We can actually dance again like we used to?"

"Yeah." Nico nods, her lips turning up into a smile of her own. "Yeah, I think we can."

Karolina bites her lip. "I just get so scared sometimes, you know? I mean, is this really worth jeopardizing my future over?"

Nico knows the answer is yes, suspects this is the future Karolina actually wants, even if she won't admit it aloud, even if she won't admit it to herself. But she can't say that. Karolina has to be the one to arrive at that realization all on her own.

"I don't know," Nico says instead. "It depends how badly you want it."

She's talking about dancing, but she's also talking about business. Does Karolina want to be a businesswoman badly enough to give up her one true passion? Does she want to dance badly enough to uproot this comfortable life she's been building for herself? Nico doesn't know. The only person who can answer that question is Karolina herself.

This is the first time they're really talking, though, since coming back into each other's lives, and Nico doesn't want to push Karolina. She's just happy the blonde is finally opening up to her, finally talking to her about something other than what they're going to dance to.

An idea pops into her head, and she is already walking toward her phone, where she left it on top of the piano, as she speaks. "I have a song for you."

"To dance to?" Karolina's face is a mixture of surprise and confusion.

"Yes." Nico grabs her phone and unlocks it before scrolling through her playlist to find the song she has in mind.

"With you or…?"

"By yourself this time."

Karolina looks even more confused at Nico's words. The two of them rarely ever danced separately, and Karolina is surely wondering why Nico is insisting she dance on her own now. She could make up some excuse about wanting to watch Karolina's form or something, but Nico doesn't want Karolina to dance self-consciously. She wants Karolina to dance to the song just like she would if she were dancing with Nico. But Nico doesn't want to ruin the mood by inserting herself into the performance. She means this song for Karolina and only Karolina.

"Do I know this song?" Karolina asks curiously.

"I don't know," Nico answers truthfully. She doesn't know what kinds of songs Karolina listens to anymore, what kinds of songs she likes and what kinds of songs she hates, but she wants to. She wants to be in Karolina's life again, if only the blonde will let her. It's finally starting to seem like she might.

"I don't think so, though," Nico says after a moment of contemplation.

It's not a song you'd hear on the radio. Nico herself heard it in a TV show she wasn't even all that interested in in the first place. But if Karolina heard this song before, really listened to it, Nico thinks she might have at least questioned her father's plans for her a bit more.

"How am I supposed to dance to a song I've never heard before?"

"Just try it," Nico encourages. "It can be rough. You don't even have to try to make it good at all. I just want you to listen to it and let your body react however it wants to, like we do when we dance together."

Blue eyes drop down to look at bare feet, and Karolina shifts nervously. Nico wonders if she's already self-conscious about her dancing, if the thought of Nico actually sitting back and watching instead of dancing with her will make her uncomfortable. Nico is about to take it back when Karolina speaks.


The question is simple enough, but there are so many things Nico wants to say in response.

"Because you're good," she settles on saying, "and I think this song might help you understand why it doesn't matter what your dad thinks. About anything."

Karolina looks unsure, and Nico wonders if maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe she should have offered to dance the song with Karolina anyway. Maybe she shouldn't have decided to make such a big deal of her song choice at all.

"I don't want you to think about me being here," Nico says when Karolina doesn't respond. "I just want you to dance to the song. I don't even have to watch if you don't want me to. I can leave the room or turn around."

"That's okay. I'll do it." Karolina nods and moves to the middle of the floor, closing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths before looking over to Nico. "Ready when you are."

Last week, Karolina never would have agreed to do something like this, and Nico wouldn't have dared to ask. Last week, Karolina would have snapped at Nico or flat-out refused, and things would've become awkward again. Today, though, Karolina is much tamer and more agreeable, and Nico wonders if it has something to do with their previous conversation, if Nico's reassurances caused Karolina to trust her a little more.

Realizing she's staring, Nico shakes her head and draws herself out of her thoughts, not even stopping to consider why Karolina doesn't question her or why she stares right back. Instead, she taps the song she wants Karolina to dance to and turns her eyes back to the girl in the middle of the floor as the first few bars of piano flow through the speakers.

It's clear that Karolina is struggling to find her rhythm at first. She's moving to a beat she's unfamiliar with while trying to grasp the meaning of the song at the same time. Her movements are choppy at times when she pauses to find the beat again or to listen more closely to the lyrics, but that's how Nico knows she's trying. Karolina is really trying to dance to this song, to feel something as she does, and Nico is surprised she's even letting her see this. A week ago, maybe even a day ago, Karolina would never have allowed Nico to see her attempt to dance so emotionally.

Once the refrain hits, Karolina's movements become more fluid as she catches onto the rhythm of the song. It's still clear that Karolina hasn't planned a single step of the dance, but Nico can't tear her eyes away. Karolina's movements are wild and spontaneous, and Nico thinks this is when Karolina dances her best. When choreography isn't a thought in her mind. When it's just Karolina and the music.

By the time the song reaches its second refrain, Nico wonders if Karolina has forgotten she's even in the room. She's jumping and twisting to the music like it's all she'll ever do, like it's all she even knows how to do, and Nico is entranced by her powerful, graceful movements.

As she watches, Nico can see the words of the song through Karolina's performance, through the expressions that cross her face. She is determined. She can be anything she wants to be as long as this song is playing. She doesn't have to pretend to be anyone other than who she is.

Nico wants Karolina to realize that the emotions she's experiencing right now are not the song's emotions. The music may have helped to unearth them, but those emotions are Karolina's own. She doesn't need the song at all.

When the song reaches its end, it takes everything inside of Nico not to put it on repeat so she can watch Karolina dance to it over and over and over again. She doesn't, though. She doesn't even know if that's something Karolina would want. So she pauses it.

The silence is a stark contrast to the melody that was flowing through the speakers moments before.

The only sound in the room is Karolina's panting as she finally stops to catch her breath.

"How did that feel?" Nico pushes tentatively through the silence.

No matter how it felt for Karolina, it certainly felt good for Nico to watch it. She wants nothing more than to watch Karolina dance like that for the rest of her life.

Karolina meets Nico's eyes with no trace of her earlier uncertainty. "Can we do it again?"

I push to the limits/ I climb every wall/ I keep on believing

Karolina doesn't know how long it's been since she first heard the song, but she knows she has to have danced to it at least ten times by now. She doesn't want to stop, and Nico doesn't ask her to. Maybe Nico likes watching Karolina dance as much as Karolina loves dancing. To this particular song at least.

She knows her performance today is more emotional than it's been since she started dancing again. She's been creating characters for herself as she dances, pretending to feel emotions she doesn't feel, but these emotions are real. These emotions are hers. She wonders what Nico sees as she watches her.

As long as this song is on, she doesn't have to think about her dad or her future or anything like that. She only has to think about dancing. She's surprised at how refreshing that feels.

Her choreography is different each time the song starts over, but this isn't about the choreography. This is about the music and the lyrics and the emotions they invoke. Her body reacts in the only way it knows how. She wonders how she ever kept it from doing this for so long.

Dancing is natural. Dancing is beautiful. Dancing is possible. She didn't know it for so long, didn't fully believe Nico's words from earlier, but now she does. She knows it. She can feel it in the words of the song, in the way she moves, in the way Nico watches her as if she's never seen a single person dance before in her life.

Karolina can do anything she wants to do, and the thought is so invigorating, so different from everything she's been told, that she almost wants to drop out of Harvard on the spot. She almost wants to go home right now and tell her dad all the reasons why she can't live her life doing the things he wants her to do.

And now she sees why Nico chose this song for her, why their earlier conversation brought it to the forefront of her mind, why she wanted Karolina to dance to it alone. Karolina feels something she hasn't felt in a long time. Gratitude for Nico.

She appreciates Nico for bringing dance back into her life and for introducing her to this song. She appreciates Nico for caring about her, for believing in her, for not allowing Karolina to push her away. Karolina is so glad Nico didn't allow her to push her away.

Karolina dances until her muscles burn, and even then, she doesn't stop. She pulls Nico into the dance with her. She expects the other girl to protest, but she doesn't. She throws herself into the dance as passionately as Karolina had, working off of Karolina's movements to turn her solo dance into a duet.

The consequences of pulling Nico into the dance hadn't crossed Karolina's mind, but it changes the message slightly. A future of dancing isn't the only thing that's possible for Karolina. She can still have a future of dancing with Nico if she wants it, maybe even exactly as she used to imagine it.

No matter how many people Karolina and Nico may dance for in the future, Karolina knows it will always feel just like this. Whether it's one person watching them or a million people, it will always feel like it's only them up on that stage. Only Nico and Karolina. Losing themselves in each other has always come easily to them.

But what about Chase? Where does he fit into Karolina's old dream? Does he even fit into it at all? Karolina knows she wouldn't feel half as devastated if Chase broke up with her now as she had when she and Nico were forced apart when they were younger. Doesn't that say something?

It does. It says everything in the world that should matter to her right now.

But Karolina doesn't listen.

She pushes it away.

The song stays with her for the rest of the night. It stays with her throughout dinner, where she tells her dad all about what she did at her fictional club meeting. It stays with her while she tries and fails to focus on her homework long enough to fully complete it. It stays with her while she gets ready for bed, and it's the only thing she hears when she closes her eyes to go to sleep.

She needs to listen to it. One more time.

The only problem is, she doesn't know what it's called. It doesn't prove hard to find out, though, as she remembers all the words. She doesn't think she'll ever forget them.

She types the words into Google, and the song comes right up. She immediately pulls it up on Spotify, and suddenly the song she hasn't stopped thinking about since hearing it is playing again.

It hits her as hard as it did the first time she heard it, and her body itches to dance, to give itself over to the intense feelings the music gives her. She realizes that maybe listening to this song again right before bed wasn't such a good idea after all.

She settles on doing some light choreography in her room, not wanting to work up a sweat again after she showered. When the song ends, she collapses on her bed, finally satisfied now that she's gotten the chance to hear it again.

The next song begins, but Karolina makes no move to change it or switch it off. She needs a minute to catch her breath and come down from the high the previous song created for her.

The longer she lets the new song play, though, the more she realizes it reminds her of Nico. Of how she used to feel about her. It's everything they used to talk about, everything they used to want. To run away and never come back. To be free. To just be together.

She feels the sting of tears in her eyes, but she does her best to blink them back. She doesn't need to cry tonight; she's supposed to be feeling good. What she needs is to turn this song off and never listen to it again, but she can't bring herself to do it.

We'll change our names/ make friends in new places/ be anyone we want

At that line, the tears that have been building in her eyes fall loose, and it feels good to finally cry, even if she doesn't want to. It feels like any last ounce of resistance is running out of her, down her cheeks and into oblivion. She and Nico may not be anything more than friends now, if she can even call them that, but they had something special when they were kids. There's no point in pretending otherwise anymore. Karolina's not sure what the point of refusing to acknowledge the past had even been in the first place.

She and Nico had shared a special kind of connection, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of connection. Is it wrong for Karolina to miss it now, to regret that it had to end?

She doesn't know.

As the song goes on and her tears continue to fall, the only thing Karolina knows is that she doesn't want this song to end. She wants it to go on forever. It's a piece plucked right out of hers and Nico's past, and it's as close as she's ever going to get to being back there, in the time before her father came in and ruined everything, in the time when she truly believed that the only person whose opinion mattered was her own.

No matter how hard she tries to fight it, Karolina knows there's no denying it anymore. Not to herself at least. Somewhere, deep down, she still has feelings for Nico. She doesn't know what that means for the future, whether it even means anything at all, but she knows it to be true. It's there in the song, and it's there in her heart.

Karolina has feelings for Nico.


Chapter Text

"That was amazing." Nico grabs her water bottle from the piano bench. "I can't wait till we can perform for real. I bet people will come from all over the world to see us."

"We'll sell out entire arenas," Karolina agrees.

They've just finished dancing for the day, and the high of it is thrumming through Karolina's veins. Her muscles burn from the exercise, but she barely even notices.

After finishing what is left of her water, Karolina flops down onto the ground, sprawling out on the ballroom floor and staring up at the coffered ceiling. Nico laughs and flops down beside her before continuing the fantasy.

"We could have people vote for the songs they want us to dance to when they buy tickets," Nico says. "That way, we keep the show exciting."

"Or we could take requests right there on stage and make up the choreography as we go."

Excitement bubbles through Karolina as she thinks of it. She can't wait till she's older, and she can dance with Nico in front of everyone, till dancing no longer has to be a secret. Because this is what she wants to do for the rest of her life. She's never been more certain of anything.

"I want that so bad." Unexpected tears spring to Karolina's eyes at the thought that she may never have this, that her father might stop her from doing the only thing she's ever truly wanted to do.

"And we'll have it." Nico is as confident as she always is, brown eyes sparking with happiness and determination at the same time. "Screw your dad. We'll move so far away that he'll never find us."

"How?" Karolina asks. "If we're going to be so famous, he'll be able to find us anywhere."

"Then we won't be famous." Nico says it easily, like she's talking about giving up an hour of free time. "We'll only dance at the local theater in whatever town we move to. That way, only the people that live there will know us."

"You'd really give up being famous?" Karolina turns to look at Nico with wide blue eyes.

"If I can't be famous with you, then I don't want to be famous. I'll be so much happier dancing with you."

Karolina can see the sincerity in Nico's brown eyes, and it shocks her. When she first met Nico over a year ago, the girl had been dead set on becoming a famous dancer. Dancing was what she cared about most. That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. It seems her dream is something else now.

"You're my dream too," Karolina says. It feels good to finally be able to say it out loud.

She leans over to kiss Nico, and while the kiss doesn't last for more than five seconds, it's enough to make Karolina's heart soar.

When Karolina pulls back again, Nico springs to her feet, pulling Karolina up with her as her eyes gleam with excitement.

"We can run away right now," she says before Karolina can question her. "We can be miles and miles from here before your dad even notices you're gone."

Karolina wants to. Nothing has ever sounded more appealing to her in her life, but she knows in her heart it isn't possible. Not yet anyway.

"We can't, Nico," she says. "We're too young to live on our own right now. We don't even have a car."

"Okay, you're right." Nico sighs, but she's only defeated for a moment before she perks back up again, grabbing Karolina's hands in hers. "We'll go the day you turn 16. You can come pick me up, and we'll drive away and never look back."

It's crazy. Karolina knows it's crazy, but she wants it. Something about the earnest look in Nico's eyes, her grip on Karolina's hands, her infectious excitement, convinces Karolina that it might not be so crazy after all.

"Okay, Nico," Karolina agrees. "When I turn 16, we'll run."

"Since you picked the song yesterday, I think it's only fair that I get to pick a song today," Karolina says once she and Nico have finished their warmup stretches.

"For me to dance to?" Nico asks.

"For us to dance to together." Karolina is slightly nervous to be asking about this, but it's what she's wanted all day.

"What song?" Nico grabs her phone.

"Getaway Car." Karolina doesn't give an artist. She doesn't have to.

Nico's carefree expression falls away, but she doesn't respond. Karolina expected a reaction similar to this. She's perfectly prepared for Nico to turn her down, because she knows dancing to this particular song is probably not the best idea she's ever had. But that doesn't stop her from wanting to. It also hasn't stopped her from coming up with plenty of reasons to convince Nico of why they should, in fact, dance to the song.

"You know, I cried so hard the day you turned 16," Nico finally responds, and it's not at all what Karolina was expecting. "I waited by the window all day for you to drive up so we could run away. I was an idiot to think you would still show up after all that time, but I wanted you to."

"You think I didn't want to?" Karolina says before she can even think about it. She doesn't even miss a beat. "Your family's apartment was the first place I wanted to drive my new car. I almost did. But then reality crept in. I didn't know if you still lived there or if you'd even want to see me if you did. And I think I knew in my heart that our plan was never going to work."

"You could've at least come talk to me." Nico says it so quietly that Karolina almost doesn't hear it.

But she does. The words tear through her heart like a sword.

"I'm sorry," Karolina says, but she knows it isn't enough. "I was afraid my dad would find out, and I didn't want him to do anything to hurt you. He's a powerful man, Nico, and he…isn't very nice sometimes."

"I know." Nico sighs, and her shoulders slump.

"I listened to Getaway Car last night, and all I could think about was us." Karolina changes the subject slightly. "We would've loved that song as kids."

I love it now, Karolina thinks, but she doesn't dare say it.

Nico nods, and Karolina can see the glisten of tears forming in her eyes. "We would've danced to that song every goddamn day."

"Can we dance to it now?" Karolina asks. "Just once?"

Nico is silent for several long seconds, and Karolina prepares herself to argue, to tell Nico all the reasons why she thinks it will be okay for them to dance to the song one time, why she thinks they should. But Nico doesn't refuse.

She nods. "Just once."

When the song begins to play, a shiver runs through Karolina as the music flows through her veins. She comes alive, every single part of her, as she begins the dance, and Nico falls right into her rhythm. She is thirteen again, and she is dancing the song with Nico as if no time passed at all, as if she means every word. And maybe she does.

If I got you, if you got me/ We don't need nothing else at all

She is sixteen again. This time, when she sits in her brand-new Lexus ES 350 for the first time, she drives it straight to Nico's family's apartment. She still remembers exactly how to get there. She's imagined going back so many times before that the route is burned into her brain. She pulls up in front of the building, and it doesn't matter how much time has passed. Karolina knows now it wouldn't have mattered. Nico gets into her car without question, and they drive off together as they'd always planned to do.

As she dances, Karolina pretends that's exactly what happened. They're far away now, and they're free. They're dancing on stage for a large crowd like they always talked about. She looks into Nico's brown eyes as they flow together and apart again like waves crashing into the shore, and she allows herself to think that maybe they really don't need anything else as long as they have each other.

It's a scary thought, but it's also a comforting one. Nothing can hurt Karolina as long as she has Nico.

Once the song ends, another comes on, and Karolina immediately recognizes it. She listened to the entire album that features her two favorite songs of the moment in her car today, and she assumes Nico has that very album called up on her phone right now.

Karolina's body moves almost of its own accord, beginning to dance to this next song too. Right now, she is feeling too good to stop dancing. She wants to dance to all the songs on the album. She's drawn to the emotion of them, the way she can find bits and pieces of herself in each and every one.

Nico moves to turn the music off, but Karolina doesn't let her. She grabs her hand and pulls her right back into her, right back into the dance. Nico's eyebrows shoot up in surprise as Karolina leads the dance, clearly not having expected the blonde to know the other songs on the album, but she doesn't resist. Karolina feels a burst of happiness.

Dancing to these songs with Nico makes her feel better than she has in a long time. It makes her feel like she finally is truly free.

After the last song on the album ends, Karolina expects the playlist to loop back around to the first song, but it doesn't. Another song begins to play, and Karolina doesn't recognize it, but it's still the same singer. Perhaps this is a different album.

"It's a Target exclusive song," Nico explains, clearly sensing Karolina's confusion. "If you buy the album at Target, you get two extra songs. I can set it back to the beginning if you want."

"No." Karolina shakes her head. "You don't have to do that. I'll learn as we go."

At first, Nico does most of the dancing, and it becomes clear to Karolina after only a few seconds that this is also a song that Nico loves. She dances to this song almost as passionately as she danced to Getaway Car.

Nico moves with Karolina as if she's singing the song to her. Maybe she is.

As Karolina listens to the lyrics, she realizes that this song also reminds her of herself and Nico, only not when they were kids. This song has nothing to do with when they were kids and everything to do with who they are now. Nico dances the words, and Karolina understands them. Karolina dances them back.

You don't have to be the son of a warrior/ I don't have to be the blood on the battleground

In that moment, every word of the song is true, and Karolina believes in it, just as she had with the song from yesterday. She throws every ounce of herself into the dance, ignoring the ache of her muscles in favor of the emotion of the song.

We can call a truce/ And breathe

Maybe Karolina doesn't need to keep Nico at arm's length anymore. Maybe she can truly allow Nico to be a part of her life again, can talk to her about everything the way she used to. Maybe she can let go and just breathe like the song says.

As the song intensifies, so do Karolina's emotions, and she stops dancing. She stops letting her body react and instead allows her mind to. Closing her eyes, she lets the lyrics flow through her.

She only opens her eyes again when Nico runs into her, not having noticed she stopped dancing, and blue eyes meet questioning brown ones. Karolina doesn't say anything to explain herself, though, finds she can't as she stares into Nico's captivating dark eyes that look right back into hers.

Suddenly, Karolina is pulling Nico into a hug, holding her tightly against herself, and Nico returns the hug just as fiercely a split second later. Karolina hasn't held Nico outside of dancing, hasn't even touched her, in years. So many years.

Too many years.

She holds Nico now, though, and everything feels right again. She brings her hand up to cup the back of Nico's head and clutches her tightly to her, as if this is the first time she's seen her in years. It feels like she's been underwater for far too long, and now she's finally come back up to take a big gulp of air.

She has no idea how she's managed to hold her breath this long.

The intensity of the music fades, and Karolina comes to her senses just as quickly, jerking out of Nico's arms. What was she thinking? Sure, a hug can be friendly, but that hug was anything but. She needs to keep her emotions in check if she wants any of this to work out. It isn't possible for her to let Nico in anymore, not the way she used to. Her father made that quite clear.

The song is wrong. It has to be.

She turns around, wanting to walk away from Nico, to get out of this room and clear her head of the emotions the song drew forth in her, but a hand on her arm stops her before she can even take a single step.

Karolina turns back to look into Nico's eyes, waiting for her to speak, but she doesn't say anything. She only cups Karolina's cheek and lets the song speak for her.

Don't turn away/ Don't shut me out/ Face to face/ We can just lie here

Nico nods along with the words, and Karolina realizes that maybe the song isn't so wrong after all. Maybe the song is only wrong if she tells herself it is.

Yeah, we can just lie here

Karolina nods as well, slumping back into Nico's arms and allowing Nico to hold her. Her father's wishes only matter to her if she lets them matter, and she can't do that anymore, not about this. If she wants to dance with Nico, then she can dance with Nico. If she wants to let Nico into her life again, then she can let her in. Here, in this museum, she and Nico can be themselves in their purest, most unhindered forms. Here, she can be with Nico in whatever way feels most natural.

She can breathe.

Chapter Text

It’s been two weeks. Two weeks since Nico and Karolina first danced to Getaway Car and the album it’s from. Two weeks of dancing to at least one song from Places every day, if not the whole album. Two weeks of pure bliss and two weeks of absolute torture.

Karolina’s emotions inside of that museum and her emotions outside of it have taken two different sides, a fine line drawn down the middle in the shape of the museum’s double doors. When Karolina is dancing with Nico, she thinks no one gets her the way Nico does. No one understands what it’s like to be so connected to music that reality fades away, to forget there’s even a world to return to when the music stops. No one except Nico.

When she steps outside those double doors, though, Karolina realizes Nico doesn’t get her at all. She doesn’t understand what it’s like to live in a world where business is the only option, doesn’t understand what it’s like to have parents who will only accept her if she’s with a man. Nico comes from a world where she isn’t expected to be anyone other than herself, and she’ll never truly understand what it’s like for Karolina to have such heavy expectations placed on her all the time.

When Karolina is dancing, she feels free, as if the world is full of possibilities and choices and love for Nico. But the minute the music stops, she immediately sees all the ways in which it’s not.

Even if Karolina does decide to be a dancer, her parents will disown her, if her dad doesn’t hunt her down and put a stop to her dancing altogether. And even if she does allow herself to act on her growing feelings for Nico, she knows the two of them won’t stay together for long. They come from two completely different worlds, and a future between the two of them is an impossibility.

Karolina and Nico are like two puzzle pieces that look as if they should go together but don’t quite fit. They can stay together for a while, but they eventually have to come apart for the picture to be completed.

“And what about the company Twitter page?” her father asks, and Karolina is pulled back into the dinner conversation.

Once she finished updating him on the Instagram page, he launched into a speech about how well she’s doing and then started talking about the company itself. Karolina tried her best to pay attention, but it seems she hadn’t been able too. She’s been finding it harder to care about the achievements of the company lately, probably because of the emotional war going on in her head, and she doesn’t know what to do about it.

“We got 700 new followers, 2100 retweets, and 6700 total likes on our posts this week.” Karolina reads the data from her phone before her father can realize she wasn’t paying attention. “That’s a ten percent increase from last week.”

“Well done, Karolina.” Her father smiles proudly at her.

Karolina glows under his praise, pushing away the twinge of guilt she felt for zoning out. “I think I can get it even higher if I start posting a meme or two here and there.”

“A meme?” It’s clear she’s lost her father at the word.

“A meme is a picture you caption for humorous purposes,” Karolina explains. “I could present some of the company information in the form of memes to try and increase our ratings further.”

Frank’s impressed smile turns to a disapproving frown. “That doesn’t sound very professional.”

“I’m not suggesting we do it a lot,” Karolina argues, “but memes will make the company pages seem more approachable, especially to younger viewers, and will present company policies and updates in a way that’s easy for everyone to understand.”

“Spoken like a real businesswoman.” Frank’s smile is back, and Karolina is relieved. “I’ll admit I had misgivings about allowing you to take on this project at first. It was mainly your mother’s idea. But now I think you’re actually going to do incredibly well with the position.”

“Thanks, Dad.” Karolina beams.

She feels accomplished. She’s been running the social media pages successfully for weeks now, and that’s no small feat. But she wishes she could tell her dad about her other achievements too, wishes he would compliment her on the uniqueness of her and Nico’s choreography the way he compliments her on her work for his company. She wants her dad to be into dancing as much as he wants her to be into business. Why does it always have to be her and only her who gives in?

“We’re very proud of you, Karolina,” Leslie chimes in. “I’m sure Chase will be too when he hears about what you’ve been doing for us.”

Karolina may feel accomplished with her achievements, but it isn’t because of what she’s been doing. Not really. She mainly feels accomplished because of the praise she receives from her parents. Her mom actually expects her to be so excited about her new business achievements that she’ll run to tell her boyfriend about them the first chance she gets, but she doesn’t even do that about her dancing achievements with Nico. Come to think of it, she hasn’t talked to Chase about much of anything significant lately.

“I actually haven’t seen Chase around as much as usual,” Frank comments. “Are things okay between you two?”

Karolina knows her dad doesn’t actually care about her feelings as much as he cares about the wellbeing of her relationship. He’s been good friends with Chase’s dad for years, and Karolina knows he wants her to marry Chase. Right now, though, with the way she’s been feeling lately, the thought of marriage sounds more akin to a death sentence than the blessing it’s supposed to be.

“Things are fine,” Karolina answers easily. “We haven’t been fighting or anything. We’ve just been busy with school.”

“That’s good to hear.”

Karolina can see the relief in her father’s features. What would he do if he knew the truth? That Karolina hadn’t been hanging around Chase as much lately because of all the time she’s been spending with Nico? He would be furious.

Guilt settles in the pit of Karolina’s stomach and not because of her father. She may be busy these days what with school and dance and work, but Chase is her boyfriend. She should be spending time with him, no matter what, making time for him if she doesn’t have any already. Instead of spending every afternoon with Nico, Karolina should be taking an afternoon off to spend it with Chase. So why doesn’t she want to?

It’s not that things are starting to feel awkward with Chase. It’s that they don’t feel quite right anymore. Kissing Chase, holding hands with Chase, even just talking to Chase, feels different now. Because Karolina wants to be with Nico.

She shouldn’t want to be with Nico.

She has a boyfriend who has never been anything but kind to her, someone whom both her parents love and approve of, someone who’s supportive of her love for dance. In theory, he’s perfect for her. She’s never going to find a man like him again. So why does she feel so differently now?

The minute she gets back upstairs after dinner, Karolina pulls out of her phone, scrolling through her contacts. She needs to talk to someone about the way she’s been feeling, about all the confusing and unwanted thoughts that have been swirling through her head. She needs to talk to Nico.

She dials Chase instead.

When Chase appears in the doorway to her room, Karolina’s guilt comes back tenfold. His eyes are full of love, and she can see in his face how much he’s missed her, can feel it in the way he kisses her hello.

He’s her boyfriend, and she’s hurt him by choosing to spend time with Nico over him, Nico who she knows isn’t really an option for her.

“What’s up, Karolina?” Chase sits beside her on her bed. “You sounded kind of upset over the phone, but your parents said you have good news for me?”

“They’re just excited about some stupid idea I had for my social media project.” Karolina resists the urge to roll her eyes at how ridiculous her parents are being right now. In their defense, though, they don’t actually know anything else is going on.

“Okay.” Chase places a hand on Karolina’s knee. “Then what’s this about?”

She knows it’s supposed to be comforting. She does find it comforting. That doesn’t stop her from wishing he was Nico.

She wants to tell him what’s going on, the complete truth, wants to tell him what Nico meant to her in the past and what she’s starting to mean again in the present, but she finds that she can’t. Anything she says on that subject will hurt Chase, and he doesn’t deserve that. He deserves someone who’s going to love him as much as he loves her. He deserves someone who’s loyal and trustworthy. And Karolina’s been anything but.

“I just wanted to apologize,” she says, “for not being around as much as I should have been lately.”

“Is something wrong?” Chase’s brow furrows.

“No.” Karolina shakes her head. Nothing is wrong, and nothing is right. Karolina doesn’t know what she feels anymore. “I’ve just been focusing a lot on dancing, and it’s been hard for me to do much of anything else.”

That much, at least, is true. Karolina is hung up on dance, and maybe that’s why she’s been so drawn to Nico lately. She feels like Nico is the only one she can talk to about the subject, the only one who will truly understand her. But maybe she can talk to Chase about it too. She knows he would listen to her talk about anything she wanted to, and the realization only makes her feel again like she doesn’t deserve him.

“Hence the annoyance at your parents,” Chase says.

“Yeah, I just…really wish my mom and dad would make more of an effort to be interested in what I am. I work so hard to be what they want me to be, so why can’t they at least try to let me be who I am as well?”

“They’re not exactly parents of the year.”

“This is why I’m never having kids,” Karolina mumbles.

She didn’t mean to say it, but now that it’s out there, she finds herself watching Chase’s face for a reaction. It’s something she’s thought a lot about, but she has no idea how Chase feels on the topic. It’s not something they’ve ever talked about, but she hopes he won’t see it as a problem.

“Because of your dad?” is all Chase asks.

Karolina nods. “I don’t want my kids to know him, and the only way to make sure that happens is to never have any.”

“I understand that,” Chase says easily. “No one deserves to grow up around him, and I’m truly sorry you had to.”

“So you’re really not upset then?” Karolina steers the conversation back onto its original course. “About not seeing me as much this week?”

“Of course not,” Chase says with a lopsided grin. “I know you didn’t do it intentionally. I love you, Kar.”

“I love you too,” she says.

And she means it. She loves Chase, and whatever has been going on between her and Nico needs to stop. She may have been in love with Nico in the past, but it’s been six years, and she’s already committed to Chase now. He doesn’t deserve to be dumped because Karolina’s lost her ability to distinguish between the present and the past. She’s not a little girl anymore. She can be friends with Nico without breaking Chase’s heart.

And Chase is the sensible option. He lives in the same world she does, has all his life, and no matter how much Karolina wants her to be, she knows that Nico can never be a part of it. And as much as Karolina doesn’t want to be a part of it, she knows that she is, and there’s nothing she can do to change it. Nico isn’t a realistic choice for her, and Karolina needs to stop pretending she is.

“We haven’t talked about your little dance sessions in a while. Things still going well with Karolina?”

Gert and Nico have been on the couch watching Netflix for two hours when Gert asks the question, and Nico wonders if that’s why Gert decided to invite her over so abruptly tonight. Karolina is not a topic Nico readily talks about, and she’s sure Gert has been curious about how things have been playing out between the two of them. Gert loves Nico and most likely wants to make sure her best friend is not getting hurt.

And she’s not. Things between Nico and Karolina have improved so much in the past two weeks, and Nico could not be happier. She and Karolina are finally friends again, and Nico feels like she doesn’t have to walk on eggshells around her anymore. She can reach out and touch Karolina without fear of Karolina shying away from her, and Karolina has even started giving Nico friendly touches too—a hand on her arm, a squeeze to her shoulder. Nico can relax around Karolina, the way she used to, and she doesn’t think she’s been this happy in a long time.

“So well,” Nico answers. “We’re friends again now, so I can finally stop worrying that every single thing I do is going to offend her somehow. She hasn’t snapped at me or had any kind of attitude in weeks, and I never hear her talk about being forbidden to dance anymore. I think she really wants this.”

Gert frowns in distaste, but Nico doesn’t let that stop her. She hasn’t talked to anyone about what’s been going on between her and Karolina, and it’s nice to finally be able to voice her thoughts out loud.

“I just wish she’d talk to me more, you know? I mean, she talks to me about school sometimes, and she’s told me about the work she’s been doing for her dad’s company, but…she doesn’t really talk about what’s bothering her anymore.”

“Maybe because nothing is bothering her,” Gert says.

“I don’t know, Gert. Sometimes she gets to the museum, and she looks so sad, like something’s troubling her or maybe her dad put her down again or something, but she never talks about it. And she always used to tell me about those things. Some days, she’d just show up in tears.”

“You’ve only been friends again for two weeks,” Gert points out. “It might take time to build up a trust like that again.”

“I guess so.” Nico sighs.

Maybe Gert is right. Nico and Karolina haven’t even spoken in years. She can’t expect them to pick back up right where they left off. They’ve made so much progress since they first saw each other again, and Nico is more than happy with that. She just needs to give them time and eventually they’ll get back to where they used to be. But without the whole dating thing this time.

“I kind of want to hang out with her sometime,” Nico admits, “outside of dancing. We never really got a chance to do that before.”

Gert shoots her a skeptical look. “That sounds like a bad idea.”

“Not like that.” Nico scowls, realizing what Gert is thinking. “I don’t want to date her. This would just be a hangout. A strictly platonic hangout.”

“Convince me,” Gert says immediately, and Nico sighs again.

Convince Me is a game the two of them made up in their high school world history class to pass the time. One would come up with an outlandish fact and try to convince the other of its truth, and then they would switch. Nice to know Gert finds Nico’s idea outlandish.

 “Karolina and I may have loved each other in the past, but it’s been six years now, Gert. I’ve moved on, and as much as I wanted a future with her before, I don’t anymore. Maybe we’ll be dance partners again if that’s what she wants, but that’s all we’ll be. I’m not going to give my heart to her just for her to decide two years later that she misses her boyfriend or her family or her money that she’s sure to be cut off from if she chooses dance, and then she leaves again. I’m not stupid. I know how important it is to her to be someone her father can be proud of. So I trust her with my friendship. But I don’t trust her with my heart.”

“Consider me convinced.” Gert nods, impressed. “That’s pretty much exactly what I tried to tell you when you were refusing to get over her for years, but you wouldn’t listen to me. You always worshipped the ground that girl walked on. What changed?”

“I did,” Nico says, “and so did she. I may still want to dance professionally, but I don’t need some great romance to go along with it. I’ll dance with anyone or by myself, any way I can make it. And she doesn’t even want to dance professionally anymore at all. Well, I mean, she does, but she’s not choosing to. She’s choosing to be a businesswoman and dance as a hobby. I would never be happy doing that.”

“And it’s only taken you six years to see that.” Gert ruffles Nico’s hair.

Nico swats her hand away. “Oh, fuck off. I’ve been over her for years, and you know it.”

“I know,” Gert says with a teasing smirk. “I just like messing with you.”

Nico’s smile falls away. “If our futures are going to pull us in different directions eventually, should we even keep dancing together now at all?”

“Only you can decide that, Nico. It depends on what you want to do. If you want to dance with her, then make the most of it now, but if you don’t, you don’t need anyone’s permission to stop.”

“I think I want to keep dancing with her.” Nico leans her head against her best friend’s shoulder. “For now.”

Gert shifts slightly underneath her, and Nico wonders what’s running through her head. Is she disappointed in Nico for choosing to put time and effort into this girl who, in her opinion, is only going to break Nico’s heart? If she is, she doesn’t say anything, and Nico is grateful for that.

“So, if I do invite her over to hang out, what should we do?” Nico asks.

“I don’t know, Nico.” Gert sounds slightly exasperated. “What do you mean, what should you do? Ask her over to watch Netflix or do some homework. The kinds of things we would do. Don’t put too much thought into it. If she’s the kind of person who will hate you if it’s not perfect, then she doesn’t deserve you in her life anyway.”

“She’s not,” Nico says immediately. “Sorry. We’ll just watch Netflix then. If she even wants to come over in the first place.”

“For the record, I still don’t think she deserves you.” Gert puts her arm around Nico and pulls her closer.

“I know.” Nico playfully rolls her eyes, even though her friend can’t see her face.

She doesn’t think Karolina will ever deserve her in Gert’s eyes, and she understands why. Nico didn’t meet Gert until high school, so Gert never got to see Nico when she and Karolina were actually together, never got to meet Karolina and witness the immense love that flowed between her and Nico. Gert had only gotten to see the aftermath.

Hating Karolina for what happened all those years ago isn’t fair, though. Nico’s heart may have broken into a million tiny pieces the night Karolina’s father came in and dragged her away, but she knows now that Karolina’s heart shattered just as much as her own did.

Nico gets to the museum early the next day, her nerves about asking Karolina to hang out with her having grown throughout the day. She honestly has no idea how Karolina will react to the question, but it’s not rejection that Nico is afraid of. If Karolina doesn’t want to hang out, then she’ll accept it and move on. She’s more worried about Karolina assuming Nico wants more and freaking out. She’s more worried about Karolina deciding she doesn’t want to dance anymore after all.

When Karolina arrives, though, all of Nico’s worry flies out the window, immediately replaced with concern. It’s clear by the frown on her face that something is bothering Karolina today. There isn’t even a question about it.

And Nico wants her to talk about it this time. She doesn’t just want her to dance it away.

“Hey, Karrie,” Nico greets her, but Karolina cuts her off before she can say anything more.

“I need to talk to you about something.”

Nico falls silent immediately, turning hopeful and attentive eyes onto Karolina.

“It’s just… We’ve kind of fallen back to our old ways, and I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. We’re being too intimate with each other again too quickly, and I think it’s confusing for both of us. I want to be friends with you again, Nico, but I only want to be friends. So maybe no more of the hand holding and the soft smiles and those kinds of things outside of dancing.”

Whatever Nico had been expecting Karolina to say, it had not been that. Nico isn’t even entirely sure what she’s talking about. She and Karolina have acted nothing but friendly toward one another since they came back into each other’s lives. Sure, they may have talked about their past feelings, but they’ve never even hinted at feeling any sort of romantic attraction in the present. Nico has never once thought of their gestures as holding deeper meaning. So why is Karolina reading further into their interactions?

Maybe it’s because Karolina’s afraid of Nico developing feelings for her again, but she doesn’t think that’s it. No, Nico’s starting to think that maybe Gert wasn’t so wrong when she suggested that Karolina still loves her. Maybe Karolina is the one who’s developed feelings again, and she’s finding it harder to fight them whenever she and Nico exchange friendly touches.

Nico doesn’t dare say any of that, though. Those are the kinds of things that will make Karolina want to stop dancing with her for good. Instead, Nico finds the thought comforting. If Karolina truly is fighting back feelings for her, then she’s choosing to address the issue head on instead of simply running away from Nico. The realization gives her the courage she needs to say what she’s been planning on saying all day.

“Maybe we need to spend time together as friends then,” she suggests. “Dancing probably makes things feel more romantic than they are, so maybe it would be good for us to do other things too. You can come over to my place this weekend, and we can watch a movie or something.”

The minute the words are out of her mouth, Nico knows Karolina is going to turn her down. The look in her eyes says it all. It seems to Nico as if everything inside of Karolina is screaming at her to say no.

But she doesn’t.

“Okay, Nico,” she says instead.

Chapter Text

"So, Karolina's back." Nico's been waiting to say it all day.

Amy has finally come back from Stanford for the weekend to celebrate their dad's birthday, and Nico doesn't want to waste the limited time they have together. She wants to talk to her sister about what's really going on in her life right now, although she's not completely sure what that is anymore after what Karolina said yesterday. Either way, she and Amy have finally stolen away to Nico's room for a few minutes to catch up, and Nico doesn't want to miss this perfect opportunity to mention what's been on her mind.

"Karolina the dancer?" Amy's eyes are wide.

And this is what Nico loves about Amy. Karolina is not Karolina Dean, the snobby rich girl whose parents own a Fortune 500 company, nor is she Karolina, the girl who broke Nico's heart when they were thirteen. She's just Karolina the dancer. If anyone is going to give her an honest, unbiased opinion about the events of late, Nico knows it's her sister.

"Yeah, that one," Nico confirms. "Not that she's really gone anywhere, but I ran into her at Timely a few weeks ago, and we've started dancing together again."

"She's not worried about her dad anymore?" Amy asks. "I thought she was going to school for business."

"She is, but she wants to dance again, and honestly, everything's been kind of confusing lately. Or she thinks it is at least. We've grown closer again in the time we've spent together, but she told me yesterday that she thinks we've gotten too close and that it's been confusing for her. But we haven't done anything friends wouldn't do. So why is she confused unless she still has feelings for me?"

"You think she still has feelings for you?"

Nico sighs. She doesn't know what she thinks. Two days ago, she thought she had everything figured out, but now she's not so sure. She doesn't want to be with Karolina for fear her heart will get broken again, but what if Karolina decides she wants to be with Nico? Will she want to stop dancing together if Nico refuses?

"Gert does. I don't know what I think. I guess I think it makes sense if she's been reading so much into our interactions, because I haven't once had the thought that we've been acting anything other than friendly. But clearly she has."

"And what about you?" Amy asks. "Do you still have feelings for her?"

"I can't, Amy." Nico is surprised when she doesn't flat-out say no. "Karolina and I aren't going to work out. I learned that years ago. Eventually, her father will find out about her dancing again, and she'll go right back to pretending I don't exist. She and I just…aren't mean to be."

"Don't be so pessimistic, Nico." Amy shakes her head. "I've never seen you as happy as you were when you were dancing with K. And I've never seen you as in love with anyone as you were with K. I'm not asking you what the realistic choice would be. I'm asking you how you feel. If there were no extenuating circumstances, would you want Karolina?"

"I want her to be my dance partner," Nico admits, and Amy looks disappointed.

Nico knows it's a dangerous thing to want Karolina to choose dance over business, maybe even more dangerous than wanting to be with Karolina again romantically, but Nico is surprised to realize how much she wants it. She wants to dance with Karolina again in front of an audience, wants to make a future of dancing with her.

"Then be her dance partner," Amy tells her, as if it will be easy to do.

"But what if she doesn't want that?" Nico hates the way her voice cracks when she says it.

This isn't supposed to be such a big deal. She's supposed to dance with Karolina as extra practice, a way to escape the rigid technicalities of her ballet classes. So why is Nico starting to feel like a career without Karolina won't be nearly as satisfying?

"Some things are worth taking a chance on. You of all people should know that."

"And I of all people know what happens when that chance doesn't turn out favorably. I wanted to dance with Karolina and be with her before, and look where that got me. She broke my heart, and Gert says I have every right to do the same to her now."

"That won't get you anywhere." Amy frowns. "Karolina's dad is the reason you got your heart broken all those years ago. Hers broke just as much, and you know it. As I'm sure you also know she wouldn't be the only one getting her heart broken if you walk away from her now."

"What are you even talking about?"

But Nico knows what she's talking about. If Nico walks away now, she'll lose a friend that she's only just started to get back, lose a partner that dances with her like no one in her classes will ever be able to. Nico thinks Karolina will always be important to her in a way no one else quite will, and she wonders if maybe she's had lingering feelings for Karolina all this time, if maybe feelings like that never completely go away.

"You care about her. It doesn't matter in what way. I can tell she's already become really important to you again, and I don't think you'd throw all of that away for some petty revenge plot. Especially when what happened back then wasn't her fault."

"Then why the fuck didn't she ever come back?"

Tears burn Nico's eyes, and suddenly she's feeling the heartbreak of Karolina leaving all over again. It's almost as if she's a little girl again who's just starting to realize Karolina isn't going to try to reach out to her, and it hurts. Regardless of how she feels now, she loved Karolina. Nothing will ever make the pain of losing her go away.

"Why do you think?" Amy gives Nico a knowing look. "Her dad had a very distinct idea of the kind of woman he wanted his daughter to grow up to become. And back then she had very little choice in the matter."

Nico is surprised. She's not used to someone sticking up for Karolina, but she finds it refreshing. An unbiased view of the situation is exactly what she needs, and she finds herself finally starting to consider the possibility that maybe taking a chance on Karolina wouldn't be all bad.

"I'm not going to listen to Gert's advice," Nico says. "I'm trying to do the opposite and make an effort to continue being friends with Karrie. I've actually invited her over to watch a movie tonight."

"A movie, huh?" Amy waggles her eyebrows. "Sounds datey."

"It's not," Nico says immediately. "And don't you dare say anything like that to her. That's not my intention, and I don't want her to think it is."

"Don't worry. I won't act like that around her," Amy promises, "although I would like to see her again before I make myself scarce. And I hope you know I'll always be rooting for you two."

Nico smiles. Leave it to her sister to support her and Karolina now just as much as she always had. Of course, it makes sense, since she knew Karolina when she was younger and had watched her dance with Nico on countless occasions, but Nico is still grateful to her all the same for not letting Nico and Karolina's fallout ruin her perception of Karolina.

"I miss you so much when you're at Stanford," Nico says.

"I know it's far." Amy's own smile falls away a bit. "But you know you can call me any time. I'd love to talk about K with you if Gert's being a grumpy old lady about it, and I'd love to see you guys dance again, even if it's only in video form."

"Really?" Nico's lips curl up in a smile.

"I wouldn't have asked otherwise."

"I think that can be arranged then." Nico's smile grows impossibly wider. "Any song requests?"

When Karolina arrives at Nico's that night, Nico's nerves almost rip right through her skin and tumble out onto the floor. Sure, she'd been the one to invite Karolina over in the first place, and she knew logically that Karolina's acceptance of the invitation meant she'd be showing up, but there was still a tiny part of her that thought Karolina would dodge it, would come up with some excuse as to why she could no longer come.

Now, though, Karolina is standing in the doorway, and everything is significantly more real.

"Are you going to say hello and invite her in, or are you just going to stand there all night?" Amy asks from her place on the couch.

"Right." Nico steps out of the way and gestures for Karolina to come inside.

"Amy's here?" Karolina looks surprised.

"Yes, but she won't be staying out here with us." Nico glared at her sister, and Amy rolled her eyes as she got up off the couch.

"And Mom and Dad rented a hotel for Dad's birthday." Amy made a face. "A gross little tradition of theirs. But the good news is that you and Nico will pretty much have the place to yourselves."

"What she means to say is that we can have the TV," Nico tells Karolina.

"Before I go, though, at least come give me a hug, K." Amy holds out her arms. "I haven't seen you in forever."

Karolina falls into Amy's arms with an easy smile. "It's great to see you again, Amy."

"Same," Amy easily agrees. "You've gotten so goddamn tall."

"I had a growth spurt at the end of eighth grade." Karolina blushes a bit as she pulls out of the hug, almost as if she finds her height embarrassing.

Nico could not disagree more. She may not really be able to pick Karolina up for lifts anymore, but she definitely finds her height to be attractive, no matter how much she doesn't want to.

"My sister promised to send me videos of what you guys have been working on lately, and I can't wait to see it. But I'll leave you alone for now. I know you guys want to hang out just the two of you tonight."

"Thanks, Amy." Nico shoots her sister a grateful smile.

When the door to Nico's room, where Amy is staying, shuts behind her, though, Nico begins to regret asking for time alone with Karolina in the first place. Usually, the conversation flows easily between the two of them, but after what Karolina said yesterday and Nico's talk with Amy today, Nico suddenly finds herself at a loss for words. Karolina looks equally uncomfortable as she plays with the hem of her yellow shirt.

"So…what do you want to do?" Karolina awkwardly sits on the couch.

Nico remains standing, afraid of making Karolina uncomfortable by sitting too close to her. She gestures to the TV. "I thought we could watch a movie."

"A movie sounds fine." Karolina shrugs. "What did you have in mind?"

"Let's see what we have."

Nico moves over to rummage through the drawers in the TV stand, relieved to finally have something to do that doesn't involve her talking to or making eye contact with Karolina. At first, she thought this would be a good idea, something that would bring them closer, but now she's not so sure. Maybe their relationship is more built around dancing than Nico thought. Maybe it always has been.

As Nico flips through the limited number of DVDs her family owns, she hopes Karolina will actually like whatever movie she chooses. She stops flipping when she sees The Greatest Showman. Nico loved that movie when she first saw it two years ago, and she thinks it might be the perfect movie to watch with Karolina now.

She pulls it from the drawer. "How about The Greatest Showman? I haven't seen that in a while."

"Isn't that the movie about the circus?" Karolina's nose scrunches up in distaste.

So she's never seen it then.

"It's not just about the circus. It's a musical. It's not, like, a documentary or anything."

"A musical?" The intrigue is clear in Karolina's eyes, and a spark of hope swirls around in Nico's stomach.

They're going to watch a movie together. They're going to hang out just like any friends would, and Nico wonders why she feels so nervous. She supposes it could be because she's afraid Karolina won't like spending time with her or won't like the movie, but a tiny part of her wonders if it's something else entirely.

"You'll love it. I promise." Nico pushes away her nerves and answers in a confident tone.

"And if I don't?" A smirk settles across Karolina's face, and Nico can already see the challenge in her eyes.

She supposes she shouldn't have promised anything if she didn't want Karolina to react this way, but she's just glad the awkwardness is starting to dissipate. Not to mention, as much as Nico is going to pretend she hates Karolina's challenge, she secretly loves it.

"Then you can pick all the songs we dance to this week," Nico says easily.

"And if I do like the movie?"

There's something in Karolina's tone that gives it away: she knows she's going to like the movie. Which is crazy because Nico doesn't even know for sure that she'll like it. But Karolina does, and Nico wonders, for a brief moment, if that's because they're going to be watching it together.

"If you like it, then I get to pick the songs."

It probably won't matter, though. Nico has a sneaking suspicion that, after watching this movie, they might both want to dance to the same songs anyway.

"You're on," Karolina says with a smile.

As Nico puts the DVD into the player, she feels much more at ease. Karolina is enjoying herself, and Nico knows she will as well. It's easy for Nico to settle onto the couch beside Karolina as the movie loads up, and she's relieved that whatever tension had developed between them when Karolina arrived has finally dissipated.

Once the title screen loads up, Nico hits play, and the two of them are immediately entranced. Nico forgot about how much this movie reminded her of her and Karolina at the beginning. The first scene of Phineas and Charity when they were kids is strikingly similar to Karolina and Nico's own childhood situation, and the song they sing hits Nico even harder than it did before. However, when Charity's father forces her and Phineas apart, she still finds a way to write to him.

Nico wishes Karolina had done the same.

What Nico doesn't expect, though, is to see herself and Karolina in Phillip and Anne, especially when they sing "Rewrite the Stars." The first time Nico watched the movie, she hadn't found any personal meaning in the song, but now she feels as if she is in the exact same situation as the characters.

Nico doesn't understand why they can't just dance together, why Karolina can't choose dance over business once and for all. And maybe Karolina is trying to protect Nico from criticism by pushing her away, as Anne does with Phillip, but Nico doesn't need protection. She wants to dance with Karolina, no matter what the cost, and as she watches this movie, she realizes that maybe she might like to try something else with her too. Maybe it's time to finally stop hiding her heart away because of what happened six years ago and allow herself to want again, allow herself to give Karolina a second chance.

She feels Karolina's hand slip into hers about halfway through the movie, and she smiles but doesn't react. She isn't entirely sure that Karolina even realizes she's holding Nico's hand, and Nico doesn't want to ruin the moment. It feels different, holding Karolina's hand like this, and Nico wonders if this is how Karolina has been feeling every time they've held hands or touched in the past couple weeks. Maybe Nico truly is ready to stop playing everything safe.

When the movie ends, Nico makes no move to turn it off, and Karolina doesn't ask her to, both of them instead watching as the credits roll and listening to the music play. Some of the songs in this movie touched Nico in the same way that some of the songs from Places do, and Nico wonders how many songs like this she can hear, how many songs like this Karolina can hear, without finally letting go of any fears and doubts and giving their romance a second try.

Once the movie finally rolls all the way to its end, Nico pauses it and turns off the television, staring at her reflection for a moment in the newly black screen. Two seconds later, Karolina is pulling her hand away from Nico's as if she's been burned. So she wasn't aware of what she'd been doing then.

"What did you think of the movie?" Nico tries to keep any traces of a smile off her face, but she knows she isn't entirely successful.

"It was amazing," Karolina says softly.

Nico allows herself to smile fully when Karolina doesn't lie. Part of her expected Karolina to pretend she wasn't affected by the movie at all, but it seems this movie might have helped her to continue down the path that "Anything's Possible" had set her on.

"Could we try dancing to the songs from that movie?"

Nico knows she doesn't need to ask. Karolina liked the movie, so Nico gets to pick the songs for the next week. She still feels like she needs to run it by Karolina first, though. Some of these songs seem as personal as "Getaway Car" is.

"You remember that you get to pick the songs now, right?" Karolina's voice holds no trace of teasing, as it usually would.

"I know," Nico admits, "but I don't want to make you do anything you're not okay with."

"Those songs are perfect," Karolina assures her. "So many of them made me think of us."

"I mean, when we were younger. They reminded me of us when we were younger." Karolina amends, but it's already too late. Nico knows exactly what she meant the first time. "Our past selves could have written some of those songs."

"A Million Dreams" maybe, Nico thinks, but those other songs apply to us now, and we both know it.

"Right. Of course."

Nico extends the words like an olive branch. She doesn't believe what Karolina said any more than Karolina herself does, but she'll pretend, as long as it means they can remain friends. She'll pretend because it's clear to her that Karolina isn't quite ready to start anything between them again. She's still figuring things out with her career path, and she still has a boyfriend, but the minute she doesn't? Well, Nico's not entirely sure what will happen then, but she thinks she might just be okay with that.

The more time she spends with Karolina, the more Nico is starting to believe Amy instead of Gert.

Chapter Text

When Karolina agreed to watch a movie with Nico on Saturday night, she didn't know what she was getting into. She didn't expect it to feel so personal, didn't expect the songs to hit her as hard as the songs from Places.

The characters in the movie went after the things they wanted, no matter what. They didn't care about what anyone thought, didn't care what the world thought, and Karolina wishes she could do the same. The characters' courage was so inspiring to Karolina. But Karolina isn't brave. She doesn't think she can be.

She arrives at the museum on Monday to find Nico already there starting on her warmup stretches. Karolina falls wordlessly into place beside her. She hasn't forgotten their little agreement from this weekend, and she hasn't forgotten what Nico said she wants to choose. Before, Karolina had been dying to dance to the exact same songs, to take those feelings she experienced during the movie and let them run all throughout her body. Now, though, she's not so sure. Now, though, she thinks she would rather dance to anything else.

"So, have you decided what song you want to dance to first?" Karolina tries her best to sound lighthearted, but she doesn't think that's quite the way her voice comes off.

Nico shifts nervously at the question, and Karolina thinks this might be a good sign. If Nico is feeling half as apprehensive as Karolina herself is, then maybe she's decided she doesn't want to dance to the songs from the movie anymore either.

"I was thinking 'Rewrite the Stars,'" Nico answers. "I actually already have it pulled up on my phone."

Karolina's heart sinks. She understands now why Nico looks nervous. Not because she thinks Karolina will be disappointed that she no longer wants to dance to The Greatest Showman soundtrack but because she's worried about what Karolina will think about the song she's chosen to start with.

"Rewrite the Stars" is the most emotional song of the movie, in Karolina's opinion, and it's also the song that applies most to her current situation. Allowing herself to dance freely to it threatens to unearth and amplify every single emotion that stirred inside of her during the movie last weekend, but what can she do? She made a deal with Nico, and she lost. It doesn't matter that she had no way of knowing the movie would hit her this hard.

"Okay," Karolina reluctantly agrees.

It's clear that Nico picks up on Karolina's discomfort when she frowns two seconds later and suggests, "Maybe we should choreograph this one first. That way, we have a sense of how we should execute the performance and make sure we're only doing things the other is okay with."

Karolina recognizes the words for what they are: an out. Nico is providing her with a way to dance to this song without completely giving themselves over to the emotion of it. And that is all Karolina needs to realize that no matter how much she should, she doesn't want to take it. If she and Nico choreograph the dance, then there's no point in even dancing to this song in the first place. And Karolina wants to dance to it even more than she doesn't.

"No." Karolina shakes her head. "We should do it like we always do."

"I don't know, Karrie. I think it will be better for both of us if we plan the dance beforehand."

"No choreography." Karolina barely even gives Nico the time to finish her sentence.

Nico looks uncertain, gaze dropping to the floor. "You sure?"

"Just play the song, Nico." Karolina doesn't want to give herself time to think about her decision. As much as she wants to, she can't deny the fact that part of her has wanted to dance to this song since the minute she heard it, even if she knows she shouldn't, and she doesn't want to give her mind time to go through all the reasons it's a terrible idea.

She wants their dance to be real, authentic, nothing holding them back.

For a moment, she is brave.

After grabbing her phone, Nico clicks the song, and then Zac Efron's voice is coming out of the speakers. Karolina knows it's too late to back out now. She begins to move with the music, and suddenly the same rush she got upon first hearing the song comes back to her all at once. She is flooded with the want to just be with Nico and dance and dance and dance.

She wants Nico to be her destiny, wants to rewrite the stars so they can be together, wants to believe the choice is truly theirs, and she thinks Nico wants it too. The look in her eyes is unmistakable. She's looking at Karolina exactly the way she used to. Karolina isn't sure if the look has always been there or if this is something new, but it's incredibly evident to her now. Nico still has feelings for her. If Karolina wants to be with her, then she can.

That's when the second verse starts, and Karolina remembers there's a world outside of this museum, one that isn't so welcoming of her love for Nico and dance. It's as if Zendaya is singing inside Karolina's head. The song perfectly portrays how she's been feeling for the past couple weeks, and she wants nothing more than to be free.

She isn't free, though. If she chooses Nico, she renounces her family. She would be cutting all ties with her parents, and she doesn't want that. She doesn't want her father to be disappointed in her, and she certainly doesn't want him to hate her. Unfortunately, she has to keep dancing and Nico a secret if she wants to keep her parents' support for her, and she would never ask Nico to commit to a relationship that has to remain hidden away behind closed doors.

When the song reaches its bridge, though, some of Karolina's resolve shatters. All she's ever wanted is to dance with Nico. She doesn't have Nico's confidence and surety about her desired profession, but that doesn't stop her from wishing she did. That doesn't stop the song from granting it to her, however briefly.

Say that it's possible.

It's clear that Nico believes it is. Maybe Karolina does too.

It's up to you/ And it's up to me/ No one can say what we get to be.

As Karolina spins Nico around, she knows that nothing else has ever mattered this much in her entire life. There is only this moment. Only now. Only Nico.

Karolina pulls Nico against her as the intensity of the music dies down, the two of them holding their position as they wait for the words to start up again. Nico is so close to Karolina that Karolina can feel Nico's breath on her skin. Karolina is high on the adrenaline and the closeness and the words of the song.

She wants the world to be hers and Nico's.

She wants Nico.

Questioning brown eyes look into Karolina's blue ones, and Karolina knows her face says yes. Her face says she wants this. She does want this.

As she starts to lean in, though, warning bells ring in her head so loudly that she immediately jerks away. What is she thinking? She can't kiss Nico when she still has a boyfriend.

No. She can't kiss Nico. Period.

As Nico opens curious brown eyes, Karolina can easily see the love in them. But these aren't the only brown eyes that look at her this way. She chose Chase, whether she likes it or not. He's her significant other, not Nico, and she needs to stop acting as if the opposite is true. Her only other option is to break up with him, and she doesn't want to do that. So nothing can happen between her and Nico.

"I'm sorry." Karolina shakes her head and backs out of Nico's arms. She needs to put some distance between them, no matter how cold the air feels against her skin as opposed to the warmth of Nico. "I shouldn't have done that."

"Why not?" Nico asks earnestly.

She wants this just as much as Karolina does. Which makes it all the harder for Karolina not to give in and crash her lips to Nico's right then and there.

But she can't.

"It's… It's not fair," Karolina says.

Nico opens her mouth to push further, and suddenly the room feels much too small. Karolina can't talk about this, doesn't want to talk about it. She doesn't want Nico to make this any harder than it already is.

So she hurries out of the room before Nico can say a single word, hurries out the double doors and down the steps, out into the open air that is devoid of unrealistic dreams and chock full of reality.

She may not have offered Nico much of an explanation back there, but the words she spoke were the truest words she could offer. Kissing Nico wouldn't be fair. Not to Nico. Not to Chase. And certainly not to herself.

Chapter Text

Nico's mind is still reeling from the events of earlier when her phone starts to ring. She's been sitting on her bed watching Netflix on her laptop, but she's been paying so little attention to it that she couldn't even say what show she'd been watching for the past couple hours.

After flipping her phone over, she sees Amy is requesting to FaceTime. The last thing she wants to do right now is talk to her sister about what happened between her and Karolina, but she also knows it's the only thing that's going to help her right now, so she answers the phone.

"Hey, Nico, where's that dance video you promised me?" Amy is all smiles and lightheartedness.

Nico doesn't even bother to hide her disappointment and frustration. "I didn't get to film it since Karolina left after one song."

Amy's smile falls away. "Did you guys get into a fight?"

"Not exactly." Nico sighs. "I almost kissed her. Or she almost kissed me? I'm not entirely sure."

"I did not see that one coming." Amy lets out an astonished laugh. "So what happened? Why the almost?"

"She pulled away at the last second and told me she shouldn't have done that."

"And then she just…walked out?" Amy looks confused, and Nico can tell she expected better of Karolina. So did Nico. She thought they were finally going to take their relationship in a different direction, that Karolina was finally going to open up to her, only for Karolina to close herself off again before their lips could even meet.

"Pretty much," Nico answers. "I asked her why she couldn't go through with it, and she said it's not fair and just ran out on me."

Nico knows her anger shows through, but she can't help herself. She is angry. She finally opened herself up to Karolina again for the first time since they were kids, and Karolina didn't even have the decency to talk things through with her. She'd run away, just as she had when they first saw each other again a month ago, just as Nico was starting to hope she was never going to do again. Nico isn't even sure Karolina is going to show up to dance again tomorrow afternoon, and it frustrates her. All she wants is to finally be able to talk to Karolina for real, no walls up between them.

"Don't be so hard on her, Nico." Amy props her phone up against something as she lays down in her bed on her stomach. "She still has a boyfriend, doesn't she? You can't really blame her for not wanting to cheat on him."

"I can't blame her for that, but I can blame her for not talking to me about it." Nico runs a hand through her hair before letting it fall back around her face. "This involves both of us, and we're adults now. It's time for her to stop running away from all her problems."

"I agree." Amy nods. "But I also know how hard this has to be for her. So if you're serious about this, Nico, you'll give her a bit of time to figure everything out. And if she's serious about you, then she'll tell you how she feels."

Nico is starting to think Karolina will never say anything to her on the topic of feelings, but she doesn't say that, instead listening as her sister continues.

"You have to realize that she has a lot on her plate right now. She had her entire life planned out about a month ago. She was going to become a businesswoman to make her dad proud, and she was probably planning on being with Chase forever, and all was well. Then you came back into her life and uprooted every single piece of that plan in one day. I'm not saying you shouldn't have done that; I completely agree that she needed it. And I'm not saying you should wait for months for her to give you an answer. I'm just saying none of this can be easy for her, and I think you need to give her at least a day or two to figure things out again."

"You're probably right." Nico's shoulders slump, and she wonders how long she has been so tensed up. "I wish I could do something to help her."

Not a day has gone by when Nico hasn't wished she could take away some of the burden that Karolina feels. Even after they split up, there were days Nico wished she could switch places with Karolina, that she could take all the pressure off the blonde's shoulders for a little while so she could finally feel what it's like to be completely free. And Nico knows things are only ten times harder for her now than when she was younger.

"You are helping her." Amy gives her a small smile. "I promise you that. You're encouraging her to dance, and you're helping her see that she is the person in control of her life, not her father."

Nico gives Amy a small smile in return. She's been so caught up in her own emotions for the past few hours that she hasn't once stopped to consider things from Karolina's perspective. She appreciates the way Amy stomps out her frustrations with Karolina instead of fueling them the way her best friend surely would.

"I can't tell Gert about any of this," Nico says.

Amy frowns. "Yes, you can. If things get serious between you and K again, then Gert will find out eventually, and she'll only be hurt at knowing you purposefully kept this from her."

"But I haven't even told her I have feelings for Karrie yet in the first place. In fact, the last time I saw her, I spent a good amount of time convincing her that I don't have feelings for her. She's gonna be so disappointed in me."

"Then let her. That's why I'm here." Nico thinks Amy would reach out through the phone if she could to squeeze Nico's arm, and she wishes, for what feels like the millionth time, that Amy didn't go to school so far away. It would be nice to have her around more often right about now. "Don't let Gert demonize Karolina. That girl has a big heart, and she doesn't deserve to go through anything like this."

No one does, Nico thinks.

"I just wish I could do something more to nudge her in the right direction, maybe talk to a theater around here about possibly allowing us to do a show one night. But Karrie would never agree to that even if I did."

"Start small." Amy shrugs. "Invite her to dance with you in one of your ballet classes. Or if your teacher doesn't allow you to bring in a partner who's not in the class, then maybe you can dance with her in a busy public area. There are plenty of places you can dance outside of that museum where you don't need permission, especially considering it's illegal for you two to even be in that museum in the first place. And dancing outside of the museum will probably help her feel more comfortable considering dance as a real possibility and then choosing it."

"That sounds like a great idea." Nico smiles again, wider than she has all day. "Thanks, Amy."

Her sister always knows exactly what to say.

"So I don't really want to ever tell you this, but Amy says I should get it over with now." Nico drops her backpack by the door as she enters Gert's apartment after their shared Gen Ed psychology course.

"Tell me what?" Gert shoots Nico a suspicious glance as they settle down on the couch together.

"That Karolina and I almost kissed yesterday." She just says it. She doesn't want to skirt around the topic, and she doesn't want to sit on the knowledge for hours waiting for the right time to drop it. She doesn't think there ever will be a right time with Gert.

"You what?!" Gert's eyes widen with shock. "But you don't even want to be with her anymore. You told me yourself."

"Yeah, I didn't," Nico admits.

"I know. You convinced me." Gert looks baffled, and Nico can tell she doesn't doubt how serious Nico had been when she did the convincing. "What happened to all those things you said last week?"

"I talked to Amy last weekend when she was in town for Dad's birthday, told her everything that's been going on. And she stuck up for Karolina, helped me see things from a completely different point of view. She even said she's rooting for us to get back together again if we decide that's what we want to do."

"Why the hell would she do that?" Gert frowns. "She's your sister. She's supposed to stick up for you."

"She is sticking up for me," Nico says. "She knows exactly how I used to feel about Karrie and how Karrie used to feel about me. She knows what we had, and she thinks it's worth fighting for, that we can still be good for each other. She also knows what Karrie's going through now, and she gave me the fresh perspective I needed to really be able to see it too."

Gert is silent for so long that Nico starts to get a little bit worried. Is she so angry she doesn't even know what to say? Maybe Nico's about to get a long speech about how disappointed in her Gert is or maybe she's going to get thrown out of this apartment altogether.

"I haven't heard you call her Karrie in a long time," she finally says.

Nico hadn't been expecting that, but she's relieved at least that Gert isn't mad at her. "I couldn't."

"And now?"

"Now I can." Nico shrugs. "And she lets me. I think she likes it when I call her that."

"Are you really sure this is a good idea?" Gert's expression isn't easy for Nico to read, but Nico thinks she looks sort of confused. "I mean, you told me just last week you didn't think you and her were meant to be."

"You think I meant to develop feelings for her again? That I wanted to?" Nico doesn't know what Gert wants her to say. "She held my hand the entire time during the movie we watched on Saturday, and she almost kissed me today, and maybe I'm starting to believe in us again. Maybe I'm starting to believe that it doesn't matter if we're meant to be or not, that we're the only people who can decide if we get to be together again. Maybe I just don't care what anyone else thinks anymore."

"Do you even hear yourself right now?" Gert crosses her arms over her chest, looking as unimpressed as Nico has ever seen her, but Nico isn't going to let it affect her. Not today.

If Amy can stick up for Karolina all the time, then so can Nico.

"Do you even hear yourself? You want me to shut someone out of my life because of something she did when she was thirteen years old, something her father forced her to do. You're actually going to sit here and tell me Karrie doesn't deserve a second chance because she was afraid of her emotionally abusive father when she was a little girl? Because that's bullshit. I guess I can't expect you to understand, but Amy's right. Choosing to do what she wants to do will completely uproot the life she's been building for herself these past six years, and I need to give her a chance to sort through all of her emotions and figure out exactly what it is she wants."

"Okay, okay." Gert holds her hands up in surrender. "She's important to you. I get it. I just want to go on the record as saying this isn't going to end well, that's all."

"Maybe it won't," Nico admits, "but that doesn't stop me from wanting to try it. I think it's already too late for me to back out now."

"Then I won't argue with you about it anymore." Gert bites her lip nervously. "Just…please promise you'll be careful, okay?"

"I will," Nico assures her.

She knows, though, that she already went well past the point of being careful the moment she turned on that movie.

All throughout the day, the only thing on Karolina's mind is what almost happened last night. The way it felt to be so close to Nico again, to almost completely give in to her. How badly she screwed up. Her feelings for Nico are supposed to be dead and gone, a thing of the past. But the more time she spends with Nico, the more she realizes she might never have been as over her as she thought she was.

The answer to her dilemma is simple. Stop dancing with Nico, and her feelings will go away again. She can put all of her childhood dreams back in the past where they belong and get back on track to lead the future she's setting herself up to lead.

She doesn't know if she can do it, though. Now that she's gotten a taste of dance again, she doesn't think she can ever fully go back to business. It took her long enough to convince herself that's what she wanted the first time. She doesn't have the time to convince herself all over again. She wants her parents' approval, so she'll be a professional businesswoman, but she knows it's much too late for her to give up dancing again.

She's not ready to face the consequences of her actions from yesterday, though. If she faces her feelings head-on, chooses Nico over Chase, then she has to break up with him, and she's not ready to do that yet. She's not ready to make such a definitive choice. Maybe the best thing to do right now would be to text Nico and ask her if they can take a break for a while so Karolina can get some time to think things through.

If Nico even still wants to be friends with her at all anymore. Karolina almost kissed Nico yesterday and then ran out on her without saying much of anything at all. If Nico had done that to Karolina, she'd be frustrated to say the least. How must Nico be feeling about all this? Does she want to be with Karolina again, or is she also regretting what happened yesterday? What if Nico doesn't even show up today?

As much as Karolina doesn't want to face the consequences of her actions before she's ready to, she has to know what Nico's thinking. She wants to talk to Nico at least, even if there's no dancing involved, even if they come to the decision that no dancing should be involved for a little while. If Nico even shows up to have the conversation.

Out of all the possibilities for this afternoon, Karolina thinks the worst is for her to arrive at the museum and find that Nico isn't coming. The worst thing is for Nico to have moved on without Karolina.

Karolina is relieved to find Nico already inside when she enters the ballroom. She can tell Nico's happy to see her by the smile on her face and the soft tone of her voice when she greets her. Is that good? Is that bad? Karolina's been such a whirlwind of emotions today that she doesn't know the answer.

Nico doesn't say anything all throughout their warmup stretches, and Karolina wonders if she should be the one to break the silence, if Nico's waiting for her to explain herself, why she'd run out yesterday and why she'd decided to come back today.

"I'm sorry again about what happened yesterday." Karolina breaks the silence. "It was a mistake. I just…got so caught up in the song that I forgot we're not thirteen anymore."

It's a bullshit excuse, and it's clear Nico knows that as well as Karolina does. But she doesn't say anything. Thankfully, she only nods and lets it go. She's giving Karolina a reprieve, and Karolina finally feels some of the tension that's been building in her body all day leave.

That's when Nico turns the music on, and Karolina hears the same damn song they danced to yesterday. Maybe Nico's not giving her a reprieve after all. She's not going to force Karolina to talk about her feelings or tell the truth about what had been going through her mind yesterday; she's only going to play the very song that caused those thoughts so Karolina has no choice but to work through them. She thinks this is much, much worse.

Nico knows as well as Karolina does that her emotions will be much too hard to fight when the song is on, when they're dancing to it. That's why she's doing it. She wants Karolina to confront her feelings head on instead of running from them.

As the song plays on a loop and they move through a choreography that is different every time, Karolina wants to scream. The more times she relives every feeling she's ever had since running into Nico again, the more she wants to give in to each one. She wants to stop dancing, to tell Nico to choose a different song, but she made a deal with Nico, and she intends to honor it, no matter how much she feels like she wants to cry right now.

Every single word of this song resonates within her with every jump, every spin, every time her body comes into contact with Nico's. Their passionate dance makes Karolina want nothing more than to come undone and kiss Nico, to finally make a choice for herself and tell the world to fuck off, as she had when she was thirteen. But she's not a kid anymore, and that hadn't turned out so well for her back then.

The more times they dance to the song, the more times they look into each other's eyes during that last refrain, after a dance of hope and possibilities, the harder it is for Karolina to keep fighting what she knows by now she truly wants. The song is too much, and her emotions are too much, and Nico is too much, and she's tired of fighting it all. A logical girl would walk away from all this and never look back, but Karolina is so tired of being a logical girl. She doesn't want to stop dancing with Nico.

She loves Nico. Even if she shouldn't. Even if she can't.

During the 10th run-through of "Rewrite the Stars," Karolina finally breaks down, and Nico is by her side in an instant. It's clear she doesn't know what to do with herself. She hasn't seen Karolina cry since they were kids, and she stops herself from wrapping her arms around Karolina an instant before touching her, instead letting her arms drop awkwardly back to her sides.

But Karolina doesn't want her to stop herself. She doesn't want Nico to feel awkward around her, and she doesn't want to feel awkward around Nico. Not here. So she slumps against Nico, giving her all the permission she needs to hold her, and Nico doesn't waste a second before wrapping her arms around Karolina and pulling her close.

Karolina finally allows herself to fully cry, finally allows herself to feel the pressure of everything she's been holding in these past few weeks bubble up and out of her. She wants Nico, but she respects Chase too much to break his heart. She loves dancing but desires her father's approval more. She wishes the most important things in her life weren't complete contradictions of each other, that she could have them all at the same time. She wishes the world around her would disappear so Nico could hold her forever.

"I'm so sorry, Karrie." Nico's voice is heavy with guilt.

"It's not your fault." Karolina shakes her head.

"Yes it is," Nico says. "I looped the song. I really didn't mean to make you upset."

"You just wanted to make me feel." Karolina sniffles, wiping at her eyes.


"Well, feeling makes me upset right now. Everything's just so hard. The choices I have to make."

"I know, Karrie." Nico runs her fingers soothingly through Karolina's hair.

She doesn't say anything else, doesn't press any further, and Karolina wishes she could allow the motion of Nico's fingers in her hair to lull her to sleep right here. But she can't stay here any longer than she usually does because her parents will be waiting up for her for dinner. The last thing she needs right now is for her dad to be suspicious of her whereabouts. But he shouldn't have to be suspicious in the first place. He should already know she's out dancing with Nico and be supportive of her love for both.

"I hate this," Karolina mumbles after a few seconds of silence.

"I know," Nico says again. "I wish I could make things easier for you."

A few tears escape Karolina's eyes again at the words. She knows she's been difficult to be around these past few days, yet Nico is still right here beside her. Karolina doesn't deserve her, she knows. Nico deserves someone who can actually allow themselves to be with her, and Karolina doesn't know if she can ever be that person.

Karolina sighs. "Everything was so much easier when we were kids."

Nico lets out a derisive laugh. "You can say that again."

"I wish I could go back to that, to believing I could dance without any sort of consequences, that we could be famous dancers and no one in the world could stop us. So maybe I don't know exactly what I'm feeling, but I'm sure about that. Maybe I want to pretend, while we're here, that I truly believe in everything we believed in when we were kids. I don't want to think about the real world or the real future or any of it. This can be an alternate dimension. Our dimension."

She doesn't know why she says it. She's bitter and upset, and she wishes there was a way for her to go back in time, to choose Nico over her father and run away from home so she could face the consequences of her actions with Nico. Together. She feels silly the moment the words are out of her mouth, though. Of course Nico doesn't want to go back to that. She's too committed to her future to spend any more time in the past.

"I want to pretend too." Nico says it so quietly that Karolina almost doesn't hear her.

And Karolina is taken aback. If she said any of that last week, she's sure Nico would have smiled and let it go. She's actually getting the future she wants. There's no reason for her to want to live in the past. Clearly, something changed since then, and Karolina knows it has everything to do with her. Is she affecting Nico's dream for the future again? Does Nico want a future with her?

She doesn't ask. Bringing up that topic of conversation will only lead to a choice Karolina isn't quite ready to make. Besides, talking about a future together with uncertainty wouldn't be pretending. If they truly want to pretend the outside world doesn't exist inside this museum, then a future together is unquestionable.

"Then we better get back to dancing." Karolina finally pulls out of Nico's arms and gives her a wobbly smile. "If we're going to have our own show, we need to practice."

Nico smiles right back. "We'll be dancing for millions in no time."

It's not true. They both know it. But for the first time, Karolina pushes that knowledge away instead of pushing away her dreams. It may not be real, but oh how nice it is to pretend.

Chapter Text

It takes almost three days for Karolina to realize she's been doing more than just pretending with Nico. She's having lunch with Chase at Timely, but she's finding it hard to think about anything other than where she'll be going afterwards.

Nico's invited Karolina to her school's dance studio to give her feedback on a number her and her dance partner, Alex, have been preparing for class. Karolina's not sure what advice she'll be able to give, as she hasn't taken an actual ballet class since she was eight years old, but maybe Nico wants to add a bit more emotion to the dance. Maybe she wants Alex to watch her dance to whatever song she's chosen with Karolina, so he can copy her movements. Or maybe Nico just wants an excuse to see Karolina again. A week ago, that thought might have freaked Karolina out, but now she finds herself thinking the same.

"And then Brandon suggested we go cliff diving, said he knows this amazing place—"

Luckily for Karolina, Chase is talking about what he and his friends have been up to, which doesn't require much of a response from her. It's not that she finds the topic boring. Usually, she loves listening to tales of his crazy adventures with his friends, but today she's finding it hard not to get distracted. All she can picture as she looks into Chase's excited brown eyes are Nico's excited brown eyes as she talks about a new idea for a dance. All she can feel when she looks at Chase's hands as he gestures while he speaks are Nico's hands against her back as they bring a passionate dance to an even more passionate ending.

And that's when Karolina starts to wonder if maybe she's never been pretending with Nico at all, if she truly believes they can have everything they used to have again.

These past couple days have been amazing. Letting go of every burden and reservation about dancing the minute she walks into that museum has made Karolina feel alive again in a way she hasn't in years. Talking with Nico about a future of dance as if there is no chance of any other future is refreshing and invigorating and, more than anything, freeing. She feels as if nothing can stop her. And maybe nothing can. Her father may not want anything to do with her anymore if she chooses dance, but can he really stop her? Maybe the only person standing in Karolina's way is herself.

Naturally, Karolina knows she needs to talk to Chase about this. He understands her situation, and he might be able to help her figure out what she should choose. But if she tells him about this internal struggle, then she needs to tell him the truth about her history with Nico and how it's affecting her now. She needs to let Chase go if she wants to be with Nico or put an end to this fantasy world she and Nico have been living in if she wants to be with Chase.

The only problem is that she doesn't know what she wants. Chase is the more practical option for her, as is business, which brings her right back to her original dilemma. Dance or business? Nico or Chase? As much as she feels as if she can make a future of both dancing and business work, she knows there's no future with both Nico and Chase. No matter how much she wishes otherwise, as long as Nico is in Karolina's life, Karolina's heart is always going to choose her.

That's when Chase leans in to kiss her, and Karolina's cheeks burn when she involuntarily jolts in surprise. She's been so focused on her inner turmoil that she hasn't been paying an ounce of attention to what's been going on right in front of her.

Guilt floods through her when she sees the hurt look in Chase's eyes as he pulls away, and the worst part is, she has no idea how she can explain her out of character reaction to him. She can't exactly say that she was too busy thinking about Nico.

"Okay, what's going on?" Chase asks.

"Nothing's going on," Karolina answers right away, cringing at how unbelievable she sounds. "I'm just really tired today. I must have zoned out by accident."

"Did something happen with your dad?" Chase's eyes soften with concern. "You've seemed kind of out of it all week."

"Nothing happened with my dad," Karolina assures him. "He thinks I'm doing great with my social media project, and he doesn't suspect a thing about me dancing."

For a moment, she regrets not lying to him. Chase knows Karolina can be hurt by the slightest disapproval from her father. He wouldn't have suspected a thing if she made up something hurtful her dad had said at dinner or something. But the moment passes quickly. She can't keep lying to Chase if she wants to keep him in her life. It's not fair.

"Then what is it?" Chase looks confused. "You can talk to me about anything, you know."

Not this, Karolina thinks. Not yet.

"I will tell you about it," she agrees, "when I'm ready."

She doesn't think she'll ever truly be ready, but she knows she needs to be. The people in her life deserve answers. Chase deserves to know what's been going on in Karolina's mind lately, and Nico deserves something realer than pretending, even if it's an admission that Karolina can't keep dancing with her. If she needs time to think, then she actually needs to sit down and do some thinking. She needs to sort through her feelings instead of constantly running away from them.

"Okay, Kar." The disappointment in Chase's eyes is almost enough to make Karolina spill her guts to him right then and there, but she holds her tongue. She needs to figure things out for herself first. "I've gotta head to class. I'll see you later."

She nods, and he leans over to kiss her. This time, she returns it. Right now, she's going to watch Nico and her partner dance the performance they've been preparing for class, but tonight Karolina resolves to sit down and really think about what it is she wants the most, to make a decision, no matter if it's the right decision or not.

"I love you." Chase gives her a small smile as he gets up to leave.

"I love you too," Karolina answers easily.

She's not lying about that at least. Even if she knows by now she doesn't love him in the way he wants her to.

Nico arrives at the dance studio a half hour early. She tells herself it's because she doesn't want Karolina to show up before her and feel awkward, but she knows it's because she's just excited to see Karolina again. Excited and nervous.

When Nico enters the studio, Alex is already stretching at the barre, so Nico sets down her bag and easily falls into place beside him.

"Hey, Alex," Nico greets him. "Thanks for agreeing to come in and practice today."

"I wouldn't miss it. It's not everyday Nico Minoru invites a friend to watch her dance," Alex teases.

"Maybe I don't want my friends to feel inferior to me," Nico teases right back.

"Sure," he says.

They devolve into silence again, and Nico's mind immediately goes back to playing its soundtrack of Karolina. Pretending to have what they used to have these past few days has made Nico happier than she's been in a while, but it's also been hurting her more than she cares to admit. When she talks about wanting her old dreams, she's not pretending, and it feels as if Karolina isn't either. But she knows it's not real. She wishes it was.

She wants Karolina to choose her, to want her more than anything else, but she's not sure she ever will, and that's what makes the pretending so difficult. It's clear that Karolina still has feelings for Nico, and Nico wishes she could confront her about them. But she can't. She doesn't know how strong those feelings are, and she'd rather have Karolina like this than not have her at all. She knows what Karolina will choose if she pushes her.

"I never knew you had any other dancer friends." Alex draws Nico out of her thoughts. "You said your friend was in a cultural studies program."

"I have more than one friend, you know." Nico hits Alex playfully on the arm.

Alex shrugs. "You only ever talk about the one."

"This is an old friend," Nico says carefully. "I actually just reconnected with her about a month ago."

"She must know a lot about dancing. I've never seen you doubt your choreo before."

"I don't doubt it. This isn't really about getting her opinion of the dance. It's more like, I just want to show her what we've been working on."

Now that she thinks about it, though, what if Karolina doesn't enjoy watching this at all? What if she thinks the dance is too technical, too stiff? What will Karolina think about the way Nico dances with someone else?

"Maybe we should run through the dance once before she gets here?" Nico wipes her suddenly sweaty palms on her black leotard. "As a sort of warmup?"

Alex gives her a questioning look, clearly wondering the cause of her sudden nervousness, but Nico doesn't say anything. He nods in agreement, so she switches on the music and gets into her starting position.

The way Nico dances with Alex is nothing like the way she dances with Karolina. Her movements aren't emotional and wild; they're practiced and methodical, just as they're supposed to be in ballet. Hers and Alex's classical pas de deux is great, and she knows their instructor will give them outstanding marks on it, but receiving top marks solely for sticking to technique doesn't feel quite right to Nico. She wants to receive them because her performance is truly the best that it can be.

Glancing in the mirror, Nico sees how beautiful and put-together the performance is, but she knows it would be a lot better if Karolina were the one dancing with her. She wonders what it would be like to watch herself in the mirror as she dances with Karolina. She's never actually seen any of their dances from a third person point of view before, but she's heard they're nothing short of amazing.

Nico tries to pour all of her emotions into this dance as she does with Karolina, to wear every feeling of the song on her face as if it's a canvas made for the brush of the lyrics to sweep across it. But she finds it hard to do so when she has to stick to a strict choreography, when her dance partner doesn't know how to read her the way Karolina does and allow his body to flow with hers. She's acting when she dances with Alex, and it's different, forced. She's never acted with Karolina a day in her life.

When she and Alex enter their end position, Nico knows their dance was almost perfect, and she can't wait for Karolina to see it, can't wait to see how different it feels when she dances to the same song with Karolina. She doesn't have time to continue that line of thought, though, because Alex leans down at that moment and presses his lips to hers. Her eyes go wide. She's been so infatuated with Karolina these past few weeks that it seems she's missed another potential suitor who's been right in front of her the whole time.

Her first instinct is to push him away, but she doesn't. She's never kissed anyone other than Karolina in her life, has never even really thought about it, and only now is she realizing that maybe she should. If Karolina doesn't want to be with her, then there will be plenty of other people who do. Alex's lips may not be as soft as Karolina's, and Nico may not feel half the spark she used to feel when she kissed Karolina, but kissing Alex actually feels good, refreshing in a way.

For a moment, she allows herself to imagine what it would be like to date Alex. He clearly likes her, and best of all, he isn't afraid of anything. He wants to be a dancer just as Nico does, and he doesn't have anything holding him back from that goal. And he'll choose her. He won't have to keep his relationship with Nico a secret from his family. Alex will be with Nico and dance with her without constantly looking over his shoulder, worried someone will find out. The dreams Nico and Karolina used to have, the dreams Nico still has now, will actually be possible to achieve with Alex.

When Alex pulls away, Nico doesn't get a chance to think about whether she wants to pull him back in or talk to him about the possibilities of where they can go from here, because she blinks her eyes open to see Karolina standing in the studio doorway. Her entire fantasy life with Alex disappears in an instant. Karolina may not be willing to choose dancing with Nico over the life her father has envisioned for her, but she wants to. The heartbreak in her eyes is unmistakable. Clearly, Nico means a lot more to her than she'd dared to let herself hope.

And as much as Nico wants to be in an open, committed relationship, she wants Karolina more. She feels foolish now for even thinking about giving up on her. What she used to have with Karolina, what she still has with Karolina, will never be matched by anyone.

Before she can even say a word of her realization to Karolina, though, the blonde shakes her head and hurries back down the hall.

"Karrie!" Nico calls after her.

But she doesn't turn back.

Chapter Text

Nico's first instinct is to tear off down the hall after Karolina and catch up to her before she's able to leave. Luckily, Alex speaks before she can, saving her from absolutely embarrassing herself.

"She's not just a friend, is she?" He looks shocked by the events of the past couple seconds, but he's also got a knowing glint in his eyes.

"She is," Nico tells him, no matter how much she wishes it wasn't true. "But she was a lot more than that in the past. And maybe she's becoming more than that again? I don't know."

"I'm sorry, Nico." Alex looks genuinely upset. "I never would've kissed you if I'd known you had someone else in your life. I didn't mean to mess things up for you."

"You didn't mess anything up." Nico is quick to reassure him. "Karolina and I aren't actually together, so I'm not sure why she's so surprised I might kiss someone else. And I wanted to kiss you. If I didn't, I wouldn't have kissed back."

For a moment, Alex is quiet, and Nico worries that he's upset. Maybe he's hurt that she's choosing Karolina over him, and now things are going to be awkward between them for the rest of the semester. Just what she needs. Drama with another dance partner.

"Why did you want to kiss me?" he finally asks.

Ah. So he's curious. He's wondering why I kissed him when I have feelings for her.

"Because…" Nico hesitates, her gaze dropping to the floor. She's always found it difficult to talk about her feelings, especially with people she doesn't know all that well. But it might be beneficial for her to talk to Alex about this. He's the only person in her life who has a completely unbiased opinion of Karolina. "Because things with Karolina are complicated right now. She doesn't want to be together because of her parents, and I don't want to wait around for something that might never happen. I mean, I've never even thought of being with someone other than her before in my life. So maybe I thought it was finally time to."

When Nico finishes talking, she brings her gaze up to meet Alex's once more to find him watching her with a mixture of curiosity and sympathy.

He nods to himself. "You thought it was time to think about being with someone else, and so you did. But it didn't matter because you're still in love with her."

No one has ever spoken those words aloud to Nico, although Gert and Amy have certainly implied it, and all Nico wants to do is deny it. She's not still in love with Karolina Dean. She moved on from her a long time ago, and she never looked back, devoted herself to dance and her family and Gert. Those are the only things that have been important to her for years. But that doesn't explain the way she feels now, or the way she knows she felt the minute she saw Karolina walk into that coffee shop. Whether she's always been in love with Karolina or she's fallen for her again does nothing to change the fact that she is. In love with her.

Nico wants Karolina to stop running from her feelings and actually talk to her. Maybe it's time for Nico to do the same.

"Yeah… I'm still in love with her," Nico finally admits out loud.

"Then what are you waiting for?" Alex smiles at her. "Go tell her that."

Nico cracks a smile at Alex in return. She's thankful to him for being so supportive and okay with all of this. He doesn't have to be. He could've left the minute he realized Nico was into someone else, too hurt to stick around, but instead he's encouraging her to be with the very person who's standing in the way of her being with him.

Alex has only said what Amy's previously told her, but maybe now Nico is ready to actually listen. Maybe it's time for her to finally let go of all her fear and be honest about what it is she truly wants.

She's never been pretending, and she's starting to think Karolina hasn't either.

"Better hurry if you want to catch up with her." Alex gestures to the door when Nico doesn't respond.

"I don't need to catch up with her." Nico makes no move to leave right away. "I know exactly where she's going."

Karolina tosses her bag to the ground the minute she walks into the museum's ballroom, immediately connecting her phone to the stereo and scrolling through her playlists until she finds a song she feels a connection with. After stabbing the song she chooses, she hurries over to the middle of the floor and gets into first position as Demi Lovato's voice flows out of the speakers.

She doesn't run from her emotions this time. Instead, she lets herself feel.

As she moves with the music, she pours every ounce of her hurt and betrayal into the dance, trying to wring it all out of her with each turn and jump. All this time, Nico has been dating her dance partner. And she didn't even think to tell Karolina about it. Karolina's been allowing herself to start feeling for Nico again, thinking Nico's been feeling the same way, but she hasn't. So why did she agree to pretend? Does she know Karolina still cares about her? Did she only agree out of pity?

Karolina can feel the familiar burn in her muscles as she lands a grand jeté at the end of the first refrain. It usually takes longer for the burn to settle in, but Karolina has been pushing herself much harder than usual already, and she hasn't even taken the time to warm up. She knows this increases her chances of injuring herself, but right now, she doesn't care.

The intensity of her emotions easily transfers over to the dance, and she doesn't stop, doesn't think she could stop even if she wanted to. Now that she's finally allowing herself to deal with exactly what she's been feeling, she knows it's far too late to stop her emotions from pouring out of her like rain from a thundercloud.

I was your amber, but now she's your shade of gold.

Karolina supposes she can't really blame Nico for wanting to be with Alex. All she herself brings to the table is everything they can't have. Alex, on the other hand, can give Nico everything she's ever wanted. He can be with her without having to worry about his parents finding out. And he wants to dance, is going to school for it, will fully commit himself to it in a way that Karolina doesn't think she ever can. Nico can have everything she's ever dreamed of with Alex, so really Karolina can't think of one single reason why Nico should choose her over him.

That doesn't stop her from wanting her to.

And so she dances. She dances for all the things she and Nico could have had, all the things Nico will now have with Alex. She dances to try to make peace with it, to try to tell herself she'll be okay watching Nico move on with someone else. Karolina didn't choose Nico, and now it's too late.

If happy is her, I'm happy for you.

Suddenly, the music switches off, and Karolina falls out of a fouetté to find Nico standing by the stereo with a scowl on her face. She tosses the unplugged phone back into Karolina's backpack, but all Karolina can think about is that she's surprised to see the annoyed look on Nico's face. Is she annoyed that Karolina ran out on her back at the dance studio? Is she annoyed that Karolina even cares that she kissed Alex at all? What is she even doing here?

"Well, this is the most dramatic thing I've ever seen," Nico says.

"How could you not tell me you're dating your dance partner?" The words are out before Karolina can even really think about them. Her emotions are already on high from the song that she didn't even get to finish dancing to, and they easily flow right out of her now that she's in Nico's presence. Karolina cringes when she hears the hurt in her tone. "I thought… Well, I don't know what I thought, but how can you come in here and talk about how we're going to dance together forever and then go right back to him? Do you even care about me at all?"

Nico's frown only deepens as Karolina speaks, and the anger growing in her eyes lights them aflame. "Who I date or don't date is none of your business, and you have no right to tell me otherwise. We're not actually together, Karolina." She uses Karolina's full name for the first time in a month, and Karolina's surprised at how much it stings. "Last time I checked, you were the one who was stringing me along without any intention of ever making anything real between us."

She takes a deep breath, looking as if she's trying her best to get her anger under control. "For the record, though, I'm not dating Alex. We were practicing, and he kissed me at the end of the dance. That's it. I wasn't even all that into it."

Embarrassment washes over Karolina at the realization that she didn't even once stop to think that Alex and Nico might not be dating. She saw what happened and immediately jumped to conclusions, making a big deal out of what was nothing more than a simple kiss.

She feels even worse when she realizes that Nico's right. Karolina's been doing exactly what she just accused Nico of. She's the one who's in a relationship with someone else. Not Nico. Nico would never do that to her, whether she and Karolina were together or not, and the guilt washes over Karolina in waves, threatening to drown her.

"You know what I think?" Nico takes Karolina's silence as a cue to continue. "I think you're still just as in love with me as you were when you were a kid. You're just too scared to admit it."

Karolina opens her mouth to respond, to tell Nico that she doesn't know what she wants yet, but Nico cuts her off before she can even make a sound. "Deny it all you want, but you didn't see the look in your eyes when you caught me kissing Alex. I did. And if you don't love me, you wouldn't give a damn about who I'm kissing anyway."

There's a harshness to Nico's tone that Karolina's never been on the receiving end of before, and Karolina knows she's right. Nico's had enough. The way Karolina felt when she saw Nico kissing Alex is the way Nico's been feeling all week, maybe even all month. But unlike Karolina, who jumped at the first chance she got to accuse Nico of hurting her, Nico hasn't said a damn word about it. She's been suffering silently this whole time, and like always, Karolina's been too selfish to see it. She's constructed her own perfect world to escape the decisions she needs to make without even once stopping to consider how doing so might be affecting Nico.

She needs to tell Nico the truth. Now. By the look in her brown eyes, it doesn't look as if Karolina's going to get another chance to.

Tears spring into her eyes as her throat closes up, trying to choke off the words before she can get them out. But she says them anyway. For Nico. For herself.

"You're right. I am still in love with you."

The surprise is clear on Nico's face, but Karolina doesn't wait for her to respond. Now that she's finally said the words aloud, she has to continue, no matter what the consequences will be.

"I don't think I ever really stopped. When I was younger, my dream was to be with you. Even if we couldn't make it as dancers, I thought it wouldn't matter so much as long as you were beside me. And no matter how hard I try to fight it, I still think that. I still want to be with you. More than anything."

"Then be with me." Nico's eyes are shining as well, the corners of her lips curling up in the beginnings of a hopeful smile. "Because I still love you too."

"It's not that easy." Karolina sighs. "If it was, do you really think I wouldn't have told you this by now? As much as I know what my heart wants, I don't really know what I want yet. And even if I do choose to be with you, I can't ever tell my parents without them disowning me, and I can never be a dancer either without getting the same result. You deserve someone who can be all in with you, someone who has their shit figured out. And that someone isn't me. You deserve a whole lot better than me."

"What if I don't care?" Nico's voice is soft. "If we both truly want this, then we can make it work."

Karolina emits a bitter laugh. "Haven't you been listening to the song we've been dancing to all week? It's not up to you, and it's not up to me when everyone tells us what we can be."

"Yeah, I have." A bit of Nico's earlier fire returns to her eyes. "But Anne and Phillip, the people who sang the goddamn song in the first place, still end up together at the end of the movie."

But that's just the thing. This isn't a movie. Things won't work out so perfectly for them. Karolina wants to believe the way that Nico believes, wants to take the jump with her and hope she won't be destroyed by the fall. But she can't. They aren't characters in a movie. They're very real people with very real breakable hearts, and Karolina won't risk breaking Nico's again. She tries her best to convince herself that her own heart isn't already well on its way to being broken beyond repair.

"Yeah, Nico, they do." Karolina nods. "But we don't."

Only when she turns to leave the ballroom do her tears finally escape from her eyes and carve paths down her cheeks, leaving invisible scars she doesn't think will ever heal.