Nutcracker

Chapter One






October, 1981


The lawyer’s name was Nathan Feinberg, and he was nearly bald, with big dark-framed glasses that made his brown eyes look huge. Even though Mr. Feinberg said he didn’t like kids, Tony respected him. He never talked down to him; he never tried to be that phony kind of nice to him, even when his parents were around.

Tony decided he liked that kind of honesty. At least with Mr. Feinberg, you got answers, even if you didn’t like them. He looked out the windows of the limo, at the passing skyline of Manhattan in mid-autumn and sighed.

“I don’t want to stay with Aunt Lucy.”

“I know; you said that. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to, at least for a while, Tony,” Mr. Feinberg rumbled, shooting him an exasperated look. “Believe me, your mother’s not any happier about it than you are, and your dad would love to reconsider the deal, but we don’t have the time, and in terms of security, this is what works. Tough breaks, kid, but it’s for the best.”

“How long do I have to stay here?”

“Two months, at least; we’ll start with that and see how it goes,” Mr. Feinberg sighed, fondling the handle of his briefcase.

Tony looked up, stricken. “That’s through Christmas!

“And Hanukkah, I know. Sorry about that, kid. You’ll still get presents, and we might be able to sneak in a visit, but I can’t make any promises on that last one.”

Stony silence. Tony tensed, fighting tears, because he damn well wasn’t going to cry, especially in front of Mr. Feinberg. He clamped his jaw tight and blinked away the sting, not looking at the man sitting opposite him for a long time.

Thankfully Mr. Feinberg didn’t try to make him feel better; didn’t pat his knee or tell him be was brave or that it would be okay. Tony drew in a deep breath. He finally looked at Mr. Feinberg, who was watching him.

“This stinks.”

“I know it. On the other hand . . .” Mr. Feinberg murmured,  “You understand why we have to do this, and how hard it’s going to be on your parents as well. Nobody is thrilled here, except maybe your aunt Lucy, oy.”

“She wears too much red on her lips, and she smells like one of those little pillows in my mom’s drawer,” Tony muttered resentfully. “And everything in her house is breakable.”

Mr. Feinberg’s mouth twitched. “And your point is--?”

“We’re going to drive each other crazy,” Tony predicted with glum accuracy. “I know she wishes I was a girl.”

“Change her mind,” Mr. Feinberg told him. “If you’ve got even half the brains of your old man—and I know you do, kid—you can find ways to get on her good side. You can go into this with a crappy attitude, or you can make it an adventure.”

“An adventure?” Tony shot back with bitterness. “Being farmed out to my mom’s sister for who knows how long? Leaving our house and my school and my friends and not knowing what’s gonna happen or when things are going to be good again? Yeah, tell me all about it. You had to do it before, right?”

Mr. Feinberg didn’t say anything for a long moment. He sighed, and rubbed his forearm through the sleeve of his coat. “Yeah, I did, once.”

Tony wasn’t expecting that. He looked at Mr. Feinberg, checking to see if the lawyer was lying, but from his bleak expression, Tony knew he wasn’t.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. And it came out okay. For me, anyway. Oh it’s not quite the same thing, but believe me kid, I do know how you feel.”

Tony sighed; it wasn’t Mr. Feinberg’s fault that there had been a kidnapping attempt, or that his mother was completely terrified. She’d known about the Red Brigade; what they’d done to Aldo Moro. The idea that a splinter group in the United States was after her bambino had her frantic with worry, and even with a bodyguard, she didn’t feel safe on the West Coast.

Hence the plan to send him to Aunt Lucy.

The car slowed, pulling up in front of 55 Central Park West, and Tony looked up at the building, which was . . . scary. Mr. Feinberg murmured instructions to the driver. “I’ll be coming back down in about fifteen minutes. Just circle around and pick me up then.” To Tony he added, “This is our stop, kid.”

They climbed out of the car, and Tony followed the lawyer into the lobby of the building, feeling nervous. He wasn’t afraid, really; just . . . nervous. He and Mr. Feinberg took the elevator up, and Tony cleared his throat. “She got all my stuff, right?”

“I guess so—UPS is pretty good about deliveries,” Mr. Feinberg murmured. “Okay, sixteenth floor, Apartment 3. And remember, you’re Edward Dellarosa now, got it?”

“Yeah,” Tony muttered. “I know, I know.”

His middle name, his mother’s maiden name . . . easy for him to remember and hard for anyone else to track, hopefully. Tony wasn’t crazy about his middle name, but reasoned to himself that it was better than his father’s. He didn’t think he could pull off being a Julius; Edward was much easier.

The elevator opened, and they stepped out into a quiet, short hallway. Mr. Feinberg led the way to Apartment 3 and rang the bell. The chimes of the Hallelujah Chorus rang out; Tony fought not to laugh at the lawyer’s startled expression.

“Hoo-boy,” the man muttered. The door opened a moment later, revealing a thin, grey-haired man impeccably dressed a dark three-piece suit.

“Mr. Feinberg; you are expected,” came the man’s soft British accent. “And this must be our young guest.”

“Good to see you again, Jarvis. Mrs. Beresford-Tipton is in?”

“Yes, Mr. Feinberg. This way please.”

Tony followed, impressed that Jarvis made no noise at all when he walked even though the three of them passed from carpet to marble. They entered a fancy sunken living room, complete with a gleaming baby grand piano. It was tastefully luxurious, but every wall was covered with knickknacks of every sort: Spoon collections, salt and pepper shakers, big glass grapes, commemorative plates and Old World carvings and fancies.

One earthquake, Tony thought, and the room would be a disaster.

Seated on a plush velour sofa was a woman slightly on the round side of lush, in a pink and green linen pantsuit. She looked over at them, and while her face might have been a bit overly made up, her expression was of genuine pleasure. She rose and came over to Tony, hugging him firmly.

He let her; for all his griping, it felt good, and Tony liked his Aunt Lucy. She gave him one last squeeze, and pulled back, giving him a slightly sad smile on a red, red mouth. “Hey, honey. I guess this is going to be  . . . interesting, huh?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. She laughed then, a sound sweet and husky and so much like his mother’s that Tony bit his lip. Then she looked at Mr. Feinberg.

“Okay. So I, Mrs. Lucy Beresford-Tipton now have my young nephew, Edward Dellarosa visiting for . . . a while.”

“That’s it in a nutshell,” Mr. Feinberg agreed. “For the . . . duration, you’re in charge of his care and well-being, his education and day-to-day needs. I have the pertinent information here for his medical care, his enrollment and his . . . trust fund.”

Aunt Lucy waved a hand. “Oh forget THAT. I’ve got plenty. Let the fund accrue until he’s ready for college, okay? Ton—Eddie’s family; I can cover the expenses.”

While the grownups haggled about the money, Tony looked around. Jarvis had disappeared just as quietly as he’d appeared, but there was still a lot to look at, including a cuckoo clock the size of a suitcase, and a stuffed moose head with bizarre marble eyes of bright green.

He hoped things would be okay.

The room that the butler showed him to wasn’t quite as bad as Tony was expecting, though it was almost as crowded as the living room and a whole lot smaller than his room at home.  The bed had a frilly blue cover, but he could live with that; there was a fireplace, which was nifty, but the mantel was covered with plates in little stands and a vase full of dried flowers.  Every shelf in the bookcase held more knicknacks, mostly crystal, though the little desk and dresser were clear at least. 

Jarvis crossed the room to open the closet.  “Your boxes are here,” he said, indicating the neatly stacked containers that filled the space.  Glancing around, he raised one brow a fraction.  “I will see about putting some of these items in storage for the duration.” 

Tony glanced at him, but the butler didn’t sound like he was afraid Tony would break anything--more like he thought the place was kind of crowded too.  “Yeah, that’d be good, I guess.” 

He crossed to the window to look out.  The view was more buildings across the street, and a gray sky--not exactly inspiring, but not too bad.  This city would take some getting used to; tall buildings he knew, but these went on forever, and there were no hills in the distance.  And everything was gray like the sky. 

Tony swallowed hard, and turned back.  Jarvis was still standing there.  “The bathroom is down the hall on the right,” he informed Tony politely.  “Mrs. Beresford-Tipton has her own in the master suite, so you will not need to share.” 

“Nice.”  Tony brightened a little at that; it wasn’t that he was that messy, but his mom could get really touchy about being clean and he bet his aunt was the same way. 

Jarvis nodded.  “Dinner is served at six.  There are snacks in the pantry if you are hungry, and extra linens in the hall closet.” 

With another nod, he withdrew, closing the door gently behind him.  Tony took another look around; the place was overwhelmingly blue, carpet, walls, and bed, but the mattress was fairly springy when he bounced on it and the desk had big drawers.

But Tony didn’t feel like sorting out his things.  In fact, what he wanted most was to get back on the plane and fly home, but that just wasn’t possible. 

The lump in his throat, which had been lurking since they’d decided to send him away, swelled.  He hadn’t cried when his mother had kissed him goodbye, or at his father’s hug; he hadn’t cried on the plane, or in the car.  But now there was no one to see. 

Tony rolled over on the bed and buried his face in a pillow, and let the tears come at last. 

***   ***   ***


Madame Rostov’s Dance Academy was small; a corner three-story building tucked between a Big Five Sporting goods store and a bookstore. The outside was brick, and unimposing, but Tony relaxed the minute he and Aunt Lucy stepped inside. He could hear classical music; strains of Coppelia in fact.

The main floor had faded posters of dancers he’d never heard of, along with trophies and plaques in a showcase that served as a counter. Behind it, a girl in a black leotard was chatting on the phone, but she hung up when she saw them. “Here to pick up someone?”

“No, I’m here to enroll my nephew,” Aunt Lucy replied, slightly distracted by a stunning photo on the wall of a waif-like dancer caught in mid-grand jeté.  Tony noted it was autographed, but he couldn’t make out the signature.

“Oh! Um, okay. Has he taken any classes before?” the girl asked, looking him over. Tony held up a duffle bag, and she grinned; he liked that. “Okay then. How many years?”

Aunt Lucy looked at Tony and he sighed. “Six.”

The girl behind the counter laughed. “Oh you are going to make Mr. Mike’s day! A cavalier right off the street!”

It didn’t take long after that, and even though he tried to talk Aunt Lucy into going, she insisted on watching class through the window onto the main studio. Tony hoped once she got bored she’d leave and come pick him up when class was over.

He changed in the boy’s locker room, getting into his belt and tights, pulling on the long sleeved black tee shirt and taking a breath before putting on the slippers. They were getting snug, and he scowled a little.

Tony liked ballet. It took a lot of concentration and at the same time, it was all about power and control. Back in California he’d gotten into it because his mother took classes, and being a curious first grader, he was fascinated by how hard she worked to make all that jumping and spinning look so easy.

Her teacher, Alana, thought Tony had potential and enrolled him in the beginner class where he shone. Oh behavior-wise he was always a handful, and he could get frustrated by certain moves, but on the whole everyone, even his bemused father thought he had talent.

“Hey, as long as you still go out for softball or soccer and keep the grades up, it’s all right,” Howard Stark had sighed. “Just . . . no arabesques in front of company, okay?”

As he’d gotten older, Tony had realized ballet wasn’t a guy thing, really, but he liked the precision that it took, and that it made him strong. He needed that, and he knew it, especially when other guys made cracks about how short he was.

And in classes, the girls thought he was great—that part was fun too. Most of them were okay; a few of them were pains in the butt, but it still felt cool to be in a place where everybody knew what it took to be good. Where everybody did the same sorts of warm-ups and stretches and moves.

Where you couldn’t fake it, or buy your way to the top.

He made his way out to the main studio, to the tall man in black who stood watching a line of little six year old girls who were struggling with first position; the one on the end actually fell over on her bottom as Tony hid a grin.

“All right, Katie, get up. All dancers fall down once in a while,” the man told her gently. “Up we go. Again, ladies--” He turned and looked at Tony, his gaze kind and sharp.

Tony held out a hand. “I’m . . . Eddie Dellarosa. Jill from downstairs told me to come up and introduce myself.”

“Michael Francisco; Mr. Mike to our students. Well well, properly attired; let’s have you warm up and I’d like to see your repertoire if you’re up to it, Mr. Dellarosa,” Mr. Mike told him, calmly shaking the proffered hand. Tony nodded and moved to the end of the barre, behind Katie. All the little girls were peeking at him over their shoulders, some wide-eyed, a few giggling. Tony moved to first position, his expression serious.

Quickly the girls followed suit, each one working diligently as the taped music played behind them from the stereo under the windows. Tony relaxed into the melody and moved to the called directions easily, feeling his body respond to the familiar positions.

“All right, very good. Ladies, move to the floor for port de bras; Mr. Dellarosa, petite allegro if you please . . .”

Class went on for forty more minutes, and Tony felt better at the end of it. He’d messed up a few times, but Mr. Mike hadn’t done more than comment, “Again, please,” letting him have a second chance. By now the little girls had done their révérence and most were packing up. A few were watching him dance, bright-eyed and cute.

Tony wished he had a little sister.

“All right, very good, Mr. Dellarosa,” Mr. Mike interrupted his musings. “I would like to see you for the Intermediate division classes, at least two times a week or more, whatever schedule best fits for you. Your moves are clean and your jumps powerful, but I would like to see smoother transitions, and not so much whip-snap in your stops. And you’re going to need new slippers.”

Tony looked down and blushed; his left big toe was beginning to work through the end of the slipper.

***   ***  ***


Warm-up exercises were always kind of boring, but Ginny knew they were important.  The routine was familiar, working at the barre, and she went through each motion with care, making sure to hold her limbs at just the right angle.  Precision in all things, Mr. Mike always said, and she never forgot.  She wanted to be good. 

“Tendu,” her teacher called, and Ginny and all the other girls obeyed, moving in careful coordination.  She watched herself and the others in the mirror--ten little girls lined up at the barre, all alike if you didn’t look close. 

But they weren’t sisters.  Well, two of them were, the Inoue twins, but even they didn’t look alike, because Izumi wore her hair short and Setsuko’s was almost to her waist.  Ginny’s best friend Trish had skin the color of the chocolate Ginny’s mom used to make cake frosting, and Ginny herself had orange hair that she hated. 

But none of that was important in ballet.  What mattered was moving together, precisely, perfectly.  Being part of the pattern, and doing it right. 

Ginny loved ballet. 

When warm-ups were over, Mr. Mike clapped his hands, calling the students together in the big studio.  “All right, I have a couple of announcements before we move on.” 

They settled down to listen.  Mr. Mike was tall and slender and a very good dancer, and Ginny admired him very much.  He was a tough teacher, but if you couldn’t do something he would work with you until you could.  


He beckoned, and a boy a few years older than Ginny came up from the side of the room.  “First, Edward Dellarosa is joining our classes,” Mr. Mike said, which made the students murmur to each other.  Boy dancers were rarer than girls, and there were only a few younger ones.  “He’s been studying for...six years?”  He glanced down at the new boy, who nodded.  “Six, then.  Go have a seat, Mr. Dellarosa.” 

Edward looked around and chose a spot at the edge of the group, but Ginny didn’t think it was because he was shy.  He had black hair and dark eyes, and he looked...sulky, she decided.  Maybe he really hates ballet.  Some of the boys did, but their parents made them take the classes anyway. 

But he sat down gracefully, and Ginny looked back to Mr. Mike.  “Second, tryouts for The Nutcracker start next week.  There are lots of roles to fill, so anyone who wants to audition should, no matter how long you’ve been dancing.” 

Ginny felt a thrill, and glanced over at Trish, who grinned at her.  They had both been in last year’s production of The Nutcracker, dancing as children in the party scene, but Ginny was hoping for a bigger part this year--maybe one of the mice, or a Polichinelle. 

“Good.”  Mr. Mike clapped his hands again.  “Up, up--junior division, let’s begin.  The rest of you, clear the floor.” 

Most of the dancers left, and Ginny’s group gathered together to begin.  Ginny focused on Mr. Mike, but she couldn’t stop smiling. 

I’m going to try really hard and make Mom and Daddy proud of me. 

After class was over she and Trish changed into street shoes and ran outside, shivering at the cold.  It was Ginny’s father’s turn to pick them up, and so they waited for the station wagon, talking about school and how much they both hated their art teacher. 

As they were waiting--Mr. McGann usually got stuck in traffic--they saw a long white car pull up at the curb.  Several of the students at the Academy got picked up by limousines, but they didn’t recognize this one. 

“That’s an old one,” Trish said curiously.  “See, it’s got the historical license plate.” 

The studio door swung open, and the new boy came out, barely glancing at them as he jumped down the steps.  He was moving fast as he climbed into the big car, but Ginny got the feeling that he was still not very happy. 

“He doesn’t have a coat,” she said, frowning. 

“Maybe he forgot it.”  Trish watched as the car pulled out into the street and moved away.  “If he’s rich probably nobody cares if he loses it.” 

“I guess.”  Ginny zipped up her own jacket, wondering if he were cold. 

The next car to arrive was the McGanns’, and the girls piled into the back seat.  Ginny’s father turned to smile at them.  “How was class?” 

“They’re going to do tryouts for The Nutcracker!” Ginny said excitedly. 

Her father’s eyes crinkled as he smiled wider, but he looked tired.  “Going to go for it this year too?” 

“Of course,” Trish said, rolling her eyes, and Mr. McGann chuckled. 

“Of course.  Belt up, ladies, dinner awaits.” 

Ginny fastened the buckle and sat back, dreaming of Polichinelles. 

Later that night, as she was getting ready for bed, Ginny looked at herself in the mirror, something she did a lot while dancing but almost never at home.  It was different when she wasn’t trying to hold her shoulders and head right, and she did a slow pirouette, turning her head to watch herself as much as possible. 

The room behind her was neat as a pin, with ballet posters up on the walls and a bookcase filled with books, and pink sheets on her very tidy bed.  But the figure in the mirror was not as satisfactory. 

I’m so short.  It bothered her a little, she was still wondering if she was ever going to grow.  Both Mom and Daddy were tall and thin, which was a good dancer’s build, but Ginny still wasn’t showing any signs of tallness. 

You’ll grow when you grow, Mom had told her, tugging gently on one of Ginny’s braids.  Wait until you’re twelve at least before you start to worry. 

But she couldn’t help thinking about it sometimes.  Lots of the girls in her class were starting to develop, which wasn’t surprising; ever since she’d skipped a grade Ginny had been used to being on the small end of things.  Even Trish’s mom had started talking about training bras, which always made Trish make a face and ask what she needed to be trained for, but that part of things Ginny was happy to put off.  Dancers had to be thin. 

She heaved a sigh, and went to brush her teeth. 

***   ***   *** 


New York took some getting used to, Tony admitted. The weather mostly; as a kid from California, it was hard to deal with the change of temperature, and think to grab a jacket when heading out.

Ah, but the proximity! Everything seemed to be right around the corner, unlike LA, where it could take you ten miles to get to the nearest fast food, or grocery. Tony couldn’t get over how amazing it was to have the electronics store, hardware place and pizza joint all within walking distance. For the first few weeks, Jarvis accompanied him at Aunt Lucy’s insistence, but later, Tony convinced her to let him go around the block alone and reluctantly she did.

“It looks weird for me to have a bodyguard; makes me stand out MORE,” Tony told her. “Nobody else walking down the street has one.”

“There are more dangers out there than just kidnappers,” Aunt Lucy warned, but softened a little. As a lifelong resident of New York, she understood how secure her own neighborhood actually was, and how savvy Tony had become even in his short time with her. “Oh all right honey, but only in daylight, you got it? You have a watch; once it gets dark I want you inside with no argument, capice?”

Tony did; it was reasonable, and he wasn’t interested in the nightlife. He took the inch, and plotted quietly for the mile.

***   ***   ***


The tryouts were scary.  They started on a Saturday morning, because they took all day, and Ginny and Trish got to the school early to warm up and get ready.  They weren’t the only ones, and the hallways and studios were crowded with dancers of all ages stretching and practicing. 

“Do you think we’ll get our parts?” Ginny whispered as she and Trish watched some of the older girls at the barre. 

“You will,” Trish said with confidence.  “You’re really, really good.” 

Ginny blushed a little, even though she knew it was true.  She had only been dancing for three years, but Mr. Mike said she had a lot of talent, and she could tell that she was just as good as some of the students who had been studying longer.  “Well, I think we’ll get to be party kids at least.” 

Trish tilted her head.  “Guess we’ll see.”  She had been dancing as long as Ginny, but she wasn’t quite as good.  It never seemed to bother her, though.  Trish thought dancing was fun, and she practiced a lot, but she didn’t love it the same way Ginny did. 

When it was time to begin, the students were all split up into groups by age, and Madame Rostov came to oversee the auditions.  Ginny was a little scared of her; she had been a prima ballerina in Russia for many years, and taught the most advanced students.  She was tall and crooked, and her hands were bent with arthritis; she didn’t dance anymore, but everybody said she was the best teacher around.  Ginny had never seen her smile. 

She took a seat at the front of the room to watch as the groups were called out to dance, starting with the youngest.  Each group’s teacher would have them run through a routine, and then each student was asked to do some steps individually.  When they were done, the whole group was dismissed, but almost everybody stayed to watch, crowding around the edges of the big studio. 

The junior division came second.  Ginny and Trish clutched each other’s hands and watched the first group perform.  Ginny was so nervous that she could hardly concentrate, but as the girls--there were no boys in that division--went through their steps, she thought that none of them were really good enough to do any of the really complicated roles. 

Then it was their turn.  Ginny took a deep breath as her division assembled in the middle of the room, lining up neatly in two rows.  Mr. Mike stood facing them and gave them all a quick, reassuring smile before drawing himself up.  “All right, ladies, let’s begin...” 

He led them through various movements, and Ginny concentrated hard.  Her hands were sweaty with nerves, but the moment they started to dance, she felt calm, as though her body knew exactly what to do. 

When it was time for the individual tryouts, Mr. Mike took them alphabetically, so Ginny was seventh.  She watched Trish, who was sixth, go out to the middle of the floor, and crossed her fingers. 

Trish always had lots of energy when she danced, and Ginny dared to glance at Madame Rostov, but Madame’s face didn’t change expression at all. 

Then it was her turn.  She walked out to the center, fixed her eyes on her teacher, and waited.  The rest of the room seemed to disappear, and all she heard was Mr. Mike’s voice, telling her what to do. 

It seemed to take forever, and no time at all, and then Mr. Mike was nodding at her and sending her back to the wall so Susan Perrine could take her place.  Ginny realized her heart was beating fast and hard, and she went and leaned against the mirror, putting a hand to her throat. 

“You did great,” Trish whispered in her ear, and squeezed her hand.  Ginny smiled at her.  She didn’t think she’d messed up, but she couldn’t really remember. 

“So did you,” she whispered back, and meant it. 

They stayed to watch the next division.  That one had a few boys in it, and Ginny thought it was a little unfair; there were so few boys in the school that most of them were guaranteed to get parts in Nutcracker if they could dance well at all.  Some of the roles of boys could be taken by girls, and probably would be, but there were several--most importantly the Nutcracker Prince--that had to be filled by boys. 

Still, that was the way it always was.  Ginny stood with Trish and they watched.  Most of that division was good, mostly better than their own, but that made sense since most of them had been dancing for longer.  The new boy--Eddie--was very good, Ginny noticed.  But when Mr. Mike called him out to perform individually, it was almost like he was showing off how good he was, and that made her wrinkle her nose. 

“He’s trying to make it look easy,” she whispered to Trish, who giggled. 

“Maybe it is easy for him.  I heard Mr. Mike say he was a natural.” 

“Just don’t tell him that,” Ginny whispered back, though she had the feeling that Eddie knew it already. 

They stayed to watch all the auditions, straight up through the seniors, dancers who would soon leave the school.  Some already had places in dance companies, and Ginny and Trish were in awe of them all.  Tall, graceful, they spun and leapt in steps that the girls knew were years away from their own abilities, and Ginny sighed, wishing she could learn faster. 

Be patient, Mr. Mike always told her.  Some things have to wait until your body is stronger.  And she knew he was right, but it was hard. 

As the last group left the floor, Ginny glanced at the row of people and the chair where Madame Rostov was sitting, and almost jumped when she saw Madame looking at her. 

For a second Ginny was frozen, but then she gathered her courage and smiled at Madame, trying to look respectful.  Madame raised her brows very slowly, and then turned away. 

Ginny let out her breath in a rush, wondering if she’d offended Madame, but the old woman hadn’t changed her expression.  Then Trish tugged at her arm.  “Let’s go,” she said, as all around them the watchers stood up.  “I’m starving.” 

“We can get pretzels,” Ginny said, and they slipped through the crowd to change clothes and go. 

But all day she kept remembering Madame looking at her, and wondered. 

***   ***   ***


The tryouts for The Nutcracker were almost an afterthought; Tony knew he’d be cast as something for it. One of the advantages about being a guy in ballet was that you were in demand for almost any production.

He liked Nutcracker; there were enough solos and pas de deux to be a bit of a challenge, and the costumes were more fun than most. Tony had done both the Nutcracker Prince and Herr Drosselmeyer in simpler productions back in California, so he went into the auditions and made it a point to put some flair into it, working to make sure his leaps were good.

Out in the audience he caught sight of an older woman watching, her gaze stern enough to make him hold back a bit, although Mr. Mike was nodding. He made his révérence and walked off, trying not to let the woman’s countenance faze him. Instead, Tony tried to guess who would be cast.

The littlest ballerinas—the Giggle Girls as he thought of them—would be children at the party, no problem. There was one boy in the junior division who looked to be about eight and perfect for Fritz, Clara’s brother and there was a group of dancers so in synch that they’d be doing the Arabian dance or the Sugar Plum fairies, Tony knew for sure.

Tony looked over the group again and picked out his competition for Nutcracker Prince; a boy about a year older than he was, blonde and thin, with icy blue eyes. Steve, Tony remembered. A pretty good dancer, and taller, of course.

Scowling, Tony looked around, trying to figure out who would be Clara. His gaze swept over the assembled ballerinas, and he zeroed in on the redhead for a moment. A little short, but really graceful. She’d be easy to lift, too, he thought. Like a doll.

He hoped she’d get it; a pretty redhead would be great for the part.

After auditions, Tony got back into his street clothes and made his way to the payphone in the hallway. Jarvis told him he’d be there in fifteen minutes, so Tony spent the time cross-legged on the hall floor, buried in a notebook, writing a little computer code and making a list of stuff to pick up at the hardware store. He didn’t notice the shadow looming over him until he looked up and saw Steve standing there, his eyes hard.

“I just wanted to say that I watched you, Dellarosa, and you’re not going to get it,” Steve announced in a low voice.

Tony stared up at him blandly; no point in showing how pissed he was. “Is that so?”

“Yeah. The only person around here who thinks you’re hot shit is you, DellaDouchebag,” came the snide comment. “And you’re too short.”

Before Tony could shoot back a comment, a car outside honked, and Steve strode off, shoulders set in an arrogant swagger. Tony watched him go and growled inwardly.

He’s probably right, the jerkoff, Tony sighed to himself, and settled mentally for Herr Drosselmeyer.

Tony hoped he could talk the makeup people into letting him wear a goatee for it; that would be cool.

***   ***   ***


School was...not too good.  Tony knew public school would be different from the amped-up private place his parents sent him to, and it was never easy coming in after the school year had already started, but he wasn’t prepared for the sheer size of it.  Not that the building was all that much bigger, but there seemed to be ten times as many kids crammed into it, and the noise level was enough to make him wince.  Tony had never realized how quiet Freeman Prep was. 

It was nice not having to wear a uniform, sure, but that was about all that was cool about the place.  The building was ancient, with wonky heating that made the classrooms either freezing or broiling, and the desks and equipment seemed to be left over from forty years prior. 

And the classes--at first Tony wasn’t sure he could cope.  Too many students for the rooms, half of them not paying any attention to the teachers, and when he came out with all the right answers a lot of the ones who were paying attention gave him dirty looks.  He tried not to care.  Tony was used to being one of the smartest kids in the room, if not the smartest, but usually the rest of the students were at least using their brains too. 

The teachers were a mixed bag; some of them knew what they were talking about, a few didn’t.  Some of them liked him for his smarts, and one or two tried to cut him down.  Tony rolled with it as best he could.  There was no point in kicking up a fuss, even if he did get a rep as a ditz for not looking up when they got to “Eddie Dellarosa” on the attendance sheet. 

The cafeteria was the worst part.  Tony stared down at his tray at the start of the second week, not sure that what sat on it could actually be classified as food.  The Styrofoam platter held a scoop of fake mashed potatoes about the consistency of paste, a handful of unidentifiable brown lumps in a watery substance that he guessed was supposed to be gravy, and an apple that looked like someone had used it as a baseball.  Even the too-small sugar cookie looked underbaked. 

And none of the other meals he’d had so far had been any better.  Even the Friday pizza was pathetic. 

With a sigh Tony pitched the entire contents of his tray into the trash and headed for the snack machines, grateful that he had money in his pocket.  I don’t care if it’s dorky to bring a bag lunch.  I can’t eat this crap.  If Jarvis wouldn’t make him one, he’d do it himself, or just pick something up at a deli each morning.  He was getting regular allowance money along with letters from his parents, delivered every Saturday with grave punctuality by Mr. Feinberg, and there was more than enough to cover five lunches a week. 

As he fed coins into the machine, though, Tony had to swallow back a wave of misery.  I hate this place. 

I want to go home. 

The measly package of peanut-butter crackers that dropped into the dispensing tray only seemed to emphasize the dreariness of the whole thing. 

***   ***   ***


Ginny stared at the cast sheet, hardly able to believe what she saw--her own name, Ginny McGann, right at the top of the sheet.  She’d expected to get one of the children’s roles, she knew she was good, but not this. 

Next to her Trish clutched her arm and squealed.  “Clara!  You got Clara!  Gen!” 

Ginny felt a big grin stretch her face, and she turned to hug her friend.  “I can’t believe it!” 

“Believe it,” said a deep voice behind them, and both girls turned to face Mr. Mike.  He was grinning too, but he raised a brow in the stern look they both knew so well.  “We’re going to work you like you’ve never been worked, Miss McGann, so don’t think it’ll be easy.” 

“I know, Mr. Mike.”  Hastily Ginny composed herself, trying to appear mature and sensible. 

“Good girl.”  He winked at them both and kept walking, and Ginny spun back around to stare again at the list, still trying to take it in.  She’d hoped for a bigger role this year, but she had hardly dared to dream she could take the principal children’s role.  For one thing, she was still so short even if she was nine-- 

Trish hugged her again, and bubbled over with glee.  “Oh, you’ll be the best Clara ever, I know you will!”  She peered at the list.  “Who’s going to be your Prince?” 

Ginny hadn’t even looked that far.  She read further on the list.  “Ummm...Steve Graham.” 

“Stinky Stevie?  Ooh, yuck.”  Trish wrinkled her nose. 

Ginny shrugged, trying not to care.  “He’s an okay dancer.”  She wished, though, that he hadn’t been chosen.  Most of the boys in the school were way too old to dance the Nutcracker Prince. 

“Yeah, but he’s creepy.”  Trish looked again at the list.  “It’s too bad Eddie didn’t get it.” 

Ginny bit her lip, thinking.  Eddie Dellarosa was, Ginny thought, pretty darn good, but he was still new.  “I don’t think he’s been here long enough.” 

“Too bad,” Trish repeated, giggling.  “He’s cute, too.” 

Ginny rolled her eyes.  Eddie was kind of cute, when he wasn’t scowling, but he was an annoying jerk.  “He thinks he’s the best at everything.  I’d rather dance with Steve.” 

“Liar liar, pants on fire.”  Trish poked her, and Ginny poked back, giggling in turn. 

“What did you get?”  Ginny scanned down the list.  “Oh, a Polichinelle!  That’s good.” 

“Yeah, that’ll be fun!  I like the skirt thingie.”  The Polichinelles came out from under Mother Ginger’s huge skirt, and that entrance had always fascinated Trish. 

Ginny looked at her, a little uncertain.  She had assumed that they would probably get the same roles, and be able to practice and rehearse together.  “It’s going to be kinda weird, not dancing with you.” 

“Yeah, I guess so.”  Trish sighed, but then grinned again.  “I’ll watch you from the wings, and make faces.  Maybe I can crack you up.” 

“Yeah, right.”  Ginny laughed.  “Besides, in Act II I get to watch you.”  She shoved her friend, and Trish shoved back, and they went off to class excited. 

After class, Mr. Mike had them sit down again, and explained the schedule for rehearsals.  “Since everyone has other things to do besides dance--shame on you--”  He waited for the laughter to die down.  “--Classes will only be held for those not dancing in Nutcracker this year.  All the performers will use class time to learn their parts instead, and yes, if you had the same role last year, you still need to come to rehearsal.” 

He looked stern at the groans, though Ginny knew he was mostly kidding.  “As we get closer to mid-December, rehearsal times will increase, so remember to plan for that.  There are schedules out by the phones, so make sure to pick one up when you leave.” 

He clapped his hands.  “Dismissed!  Miss McGann, stay for a minute, I need to talk to you.” 

As they all scrambled up, Ginny glanced at her friend.  It was Trish’s mom’s turn to pick them up, and she was usually in a hurry.  But Trish gave her a thumbs-up. 

“Don’t worry.  She’s gonna be thrilled that we got our parts, she’ll wait.” 

Ginny nodded, and went to Mr. Mike.  He waved her over to the barre wall, and bent his head to look at her.  “I know you’re excited to have the part, Miss McGann, and I’ll tell you straight out that Madame Rostov and I both think you’ll do a wonderful job with it.” 

That made Ginny blush with pleasure, but Mr. Mike wasn’t finished.  “But I need to know if you really think you can handle the hours it will take.  You and Mr. Graham will be dancing more than anyone else in your age group, and it’s going to be pretty intense.  You’ll have homework, too, don’t forget.” 

Ginny raised her chin and looked straight back at him.  “Yes, I can do it.”  Her homework was usually pretty easy, and she was used to doing it right away so she would have more time for dancing. 

Mr. Mike nodded slowly.  “All right, then.  Tell your parents to call me if they have any questions, okay?” 

Ginny nodded, and he smiled.  “Good.  Go on then, and don’t forget to take a schedule with you.” 

She smiled back and ran out, snatching up a flyer as she passed the phones and wondering suddenly if smiling at Madame had made a difference. 

When she got home, Ginny ran to the kitchen, doing a couple of jetés just for sheer joy.  “Mom!  Mommy!  I got Clara!” 

Her mother, standing at the sink, turned with a wide smile and held out her arms.  “That’s wonderful, sweetie!” 

Ginny pirouetted into the hug, and they laughed together.  Her mom had danced when she was little, too, but then had switched to cheerleading instead.  Ginny couldn’t imagine wanting to do that, but at least it meant she had someone to talk to who understood dancing.  Trish’s whole family was into soccer. 

Ginny laughed up at her mother.  “Where’s Daddy?” 

Mrs. McGann’s smile faded a little.  “He’s lying down for a while.  Let him sleep; you can tell him at dinner, okay?” 

“Okay.”  It was more fun to tell it twice anyway. 

Ginny gave her mother the flyer and went to hang up her jacket, returning to the kitchen to scrape carrots for supper.  “Is Daddy feeling sick again?” she asked as the orange curls dropped into the sink.  He had been very sick a couple of years ago, but he’d gotten better. 

“I think he’s just tired,” her mom said, opening the oven to check on the casserole.  “Winter makes him slow down, you know.” 

“Yeah.”  Ginny snapped off a bit of carrot to munch.  “Oh, Mr. Mike said to tell you to call him if you have any questions about Nutcracker.  He said it’s going to be a lot of work.” 

Mrs. McGann regarded Ginny for a moment, smiling, then smoothed a hand over her daughter’s hair.  “I’ll remember that, but I think as long as you keep up with your homework we won’t have any problems.” 

Ginny smiled back, and kept peeling carrots.  She liked school, and even being a grade ahead didn’t make things very hard.  Math was her favorite subject, and she usually got As and Bs on her report cards, even when she was taking three or four dance classes each week.  Daddy warned her that it would get harder later, but Ginny wasn’t ready to worry about high school yet. 

When dinner was ready, Mrs. McGann sent Ginny in to wake her father.  He was lying on top of the bedspread on her parents’ bed, wrapped up in a sweater, and Ginny slid onto the bed next to him to hug him awake, which is what she always did.  He was bony but good to hug, and when she squeezed he sighed and growled and opened his eyes, hugging her back.  “What’s up, Tangerine?” 

It was her private nickname, based on her hair, and he was the only one who was allowed to call her that.  Ginny grinned into his shoulder.  “I get to dance Clara in Nutcracker.” 

Mr. McGann laughed, low and contented.  “Oh, I knew you could do it.”  He squeezed her tighter, and Ginny squeaked. 

“You did not!  I thought for sure Celia Barricelli would get it!”  She lifted her head to look him in the eye. 

He just smiled at her.  “You dance better.” 

Ginny giggled.  “Dinner’s ready.”  She sat up out of his hug and bounced off the bed, and Mr. McGann followed more slowly.  He still looked tired, Ginny noticed, but she figured he was hungry. 

At dinner they all talked about The Nutcracker and scheduling.  “Picking you up could get tricky,” Mrs. McGann said, frowning a little in thought.  “We’re going to go on standby shifts soon for the holiday, and we might not always be available.”  Both of the McGanns worked at a hospital, and it always got busier around Christmas; and they only had one car. 

“That’s true,” her husband said, raising his brows.  “And we can’t expect Angie to do all the driving.” 

Ginny knew they were right; Mrs. Louis was pretty busy.  “Maybe we could take the subway sometimes,” she proposed.  “I mean, it would be me and Trish most of the time anyway, and she’s almost ten.  And we wouldn’t be stupid.” 

Her parents exchanged glances.  “That’s an idea,” Mrs. McGann said neutrally, and Ginny understood what that meant--they would have to discuss it with each other before they made up their minds.  “We’d have to talk to Angie first anyway.” 

Ginny nodded, and ate another bite of casserole.  She wasn’t worried about making the rehearsals; Mom and Daddy had always helped her dance, no matter what.  But sometimes it did take up a lot of time. 

She decided to pick up some bus schedules tomorrow and see if that would help. 

***   ***   ***


He saw the cast list posted at last, and even though Tony had geared himself up for losing the role, it still galled him to see Steve’s name listed there for the Nutcracker Prince.

At least he was understudy for the part, so he’d made a good impression to some degree. Tony scanned the list, not sure of people’s names yet, but he smirked when he saw little Katie listed as one of the children at the party, and he hoped she could keep her balance.

There he was for the Herr, just has he predicted; Tony began thinking of how to jazz up the role. As he stood there, lost in thought, a soft pat on his arm jolted him, and he looked to see the redhead timidly smiling at him.

“You’ll be a really good Drosselmeyer,” she told him in a soft little voice, and then she darted off, backpack bouncing on one thin shoulder as she scooted towards the girl’s dressing room.

Tony smiled to himself.

***   ***   ***


Rehearsals were broken into blocks and acts, and Tony found himself with the first act crowd in the big studio as Mr. Mike began blocking out the dances. He watched the littler kids following directions, occasionally messing around only to be herded back into formation by Mr. Mike’s assistant, Jill, who was pretty patient.

The redhead was there; Ginny, along with the kid playing her brother, and the two older students playing the parents. Most of the school seemed to know each other pretty well and he understood that; it had been the same way for him and his group back in California. Here, though, a few of them did make it a point to talk to him, and Tony appreciated that, even if he wasn’t too friendly himself.

It was tough. He’d been warned by both Mr. Feinberg and Aunt Lucy about talking too much, and Tony himself was a little shy, despite his dancing confidence. He listened to Mr. Mike, and positioned himself for his entrance, trying to be patient. The music cue came, and he darted out . . .

Only to collide with Katie, who promptly landed on her bottom again, looking up at him with wide, startled eyes. Tony circled around her and slipped his hands under her armpits, lifting her up as Mr. Mike hid a laugh by clearing his throat. “Oh dear, are you all right, Katie?”

“Yeth,” she nodded, still looking at Tony, who stood beside her. The rest of the line of children were off on the right side of the main studio, watching curiously; a few were giggling.

Mr. Mike cocked his head. “That’s good. You need to keep your eyes on Misha and Lien next to you, Katie, and when everyone starts to move, go with them so you don’t get run over, all right?”

He waved for everyone to return to their original places; as they did, Tony bent down and whispered to her, “Hey Katie, beep, beep; Drosselmeyer coming through!”

She snorted a giggle in her chubby hands, and looked at him. “Okay!”

The next run-through went much more smoothly, and Tony enjoyed the chance to weave around the little ballerinas and pretend to hand them presents. Mr. Mike spoke over the music to them all. “Eddie will be handing you things, and when we move across the stage there will be a basket behind the curtain to put them in so we can use them again next time. Right now, we’re just pretending---”

After a good half hour of practice, Mr. Mike dismissed the children and beckoned Tony, Ginny and Phillip, the boy playing her brother, forward. “Now that you three are sufficiently warmed up, let’s try the Nutcracker toy scene. Ginny, do you remember the routine I wanted you to do, starting from downstage left and crossing with Phillip mid-stage?”

She nodded confidently. Tony took his place on the right side, waiting for his entrance as Mr. Mike cued up the music. After the first few beats, Ginny did a beautiful set of pirouettes, moving diagonally and landing on her mark as Phillip managed a few clunky pas de chat jumps, looking more as if he were stomping in puddles than dancing.

Tony tried not to laugh. In reality, the stomping was much more in character for Clara’s brother, but it wasn’t dancing.

“Mis-ter Gerard, what was that?” came the chide. “A little more gracefully, please. Again.”

Ginny and Phillip moved back to their starting positions and ran the segment again, with better results. Mr. Mike nodded to continue, and Tony leaped out, moving easily between Ginny and Phillip, concentrating on his footwork. He turned to Ginny and they did a small side by side chaine, perfectly in-step on the first try. He repeated it with Phillip, but the boy was a second behind and the move looked awkward.

“Gentlemen, let’s try the chaine again. Phillip, follow Eddie’s lead—”

The second try went more smoothly, and Mr. Mike called for a break as he re-cued the music. Tony walked a bit to keep his muscles loose, and found himself pacing with Ginny. She was humming to herself, and he understood why: it was easier to concentrate that way. He nodded to her and swung his arms a little to keep loose.

Mr. Mike struggled a little with the cassette, and Tony stepped over to help him, by sticking a pinkie in one of the cassette holes to rewind it a bit and pick up the slack tape that was wobbling out of the spool.

“Thank goodness we’ll be using a pianist in the next few rehearsals,” Mr. Mike murmured, adding, “Thank you, Eddie.”

Tony nodded and moved back to the center of the studio; Ginny came over and set herself next to him once more.

“Now, remember you are Clara’s uncle and fond of her,” Mr. Mike pointed out. “Part of what you have to convey is just that fact.”

“How?” Tony asked, looking over at Ginny, who was slightly pink.

Mr. Mike cocked his head, then motioned for Tony to step back. Moving in, Mr. Mike stood next to Ginny, softly murmuring, “All right, Miss McGann, Let’s try the chaine again, and at the end, look up at me, arms in first position. Begin—“

Moving lightly, Ginny and Mr. Mike did the chaine together; she looked up at him, arms down, eyes bright. He did an exaggerated head tilt and patted the top of her head. Ginny bit back a giggle; it was funny to see her teacher actually dancing, even though she knew he was very good.

“Pat her head?” Tony asked, grinning a bit himself. Next to him, Phillip was bouncing on his toes.

Mr. Mike nodded. “A simple gesture, but make large so that even the back row can see it. If the two of you were a bit older, I might consider a lift, but for now, this will do nicely to project the relationship. Shall we try it?”

Ginny and Tony got into position; Phillip looked at Mr. Mike. “Do I have to get petted on the head too?”

“Good question,” Mr. Mike replied thoughtfully. “Maybe at the end of your chaine together, Eddie can honk your nose.”

“Hey!” Phillip protested, but Tony grinned.

“I’ll be gentle. I won’t break it off, I promise.”

Phillip scowled, but a clap of Mr. Mike’s hands got them all ready to try a run through. He cued the music and played it. Tony and Ginny did the chaine and he patted her exaggeratedly, then she stayed in position while Tony did the second chaine with Phillip and pretended to tweak his nose. Phillip snorted a giggle, and Mr. Mike sighed.

“Mr. Gerard----”

“It tickled,” Phillip cheerfully admitted. “And his fingers smell like chalk.”

“Be that as it may, the gestures work well,” Mr. Mike decided. “Both of them. Let’s take this once again, from right before Herr Drosselmeyer’s entrance . . . .”

When they were dismissed, Phillip scooted out at high speed.  Tony and Ginny followed more slowly; his legs were longer, and he got to the studio door first, holding it open for the girl to pass through.  The hall outside was empty, Phillip already gone, and they paused to look at each other. 

“You’re really good,” Ginny said judiciously, brushing a wisp of loosened hair from her forehead. 

“Yeah, well, so are you.”  Tony stretched his arms over his head.  “This is gonna be fun, I think.” 

Ginny smiled.  “Maybe.” 

Tony dropped his arms and looked at her consideringly.  “How old are you anyway?”  She was short, but she didn’t sound like a third-grader. 

She raised her chin.  “Nine.” 

“Wow, I thought you were older.”  Tony grinned at her. 

“I’m in fifth grade,” Ginny answered with pride.  “I skipped one.” 

“Me too.”  Tony grimaced, hit with a sudden pang of homesickness.  “Man, I miss my old school.” 

“Where did you go to school before?” she asked, and Tony wanted to smack himself.  You’re not supposed to talk about where you come from, dummy, remember? 

“Somewhere else.  Look, I gotta go.  See you next time.” 

He jogged off down the hall, taking refuge in the boys’ locker room and ignoring Phillip as the younger boy darted past on his way out.  Stupid.  Be more careful. 

He didn’t really think the bad guys were going to find him in the middle of New York City, but running off at the mouth was a bad habit anyway.  Scowling, Tony grabbed up his duffel and went to change.  

***   ***   ***


Rehearsals were fun at first.  Ginny was glad she had already learned the party children’s pieces last year, though of course she would need to practice with the others and remember, because there was so much more to learn.  Mr. Mike held special single rehearsals for her, teaching her the rest of the role, and Ginny studied them hard.  When she wasn’t practicing at home or doing homework, she watched tapes of other Nutcracker performances to see how Clara was danced. 

“Be careful with those,” Mr. Mike warned her.  “It’s good to know the variations, but don’t get them mixed up into your choreography.” 

Ginny made sure she didn’t.  Working with Mr. Mike was a privilege, and she paid close attention, trying to imprint the steps into her muscles as well as her mind. 

But all too soon, she had to start rehearsing with her Prince. 

Stinky Stevie wasn’t actually smelly, she had to admit--no more than any other dancer, anyway.  But he was mean.  He liked to scare the youngest dancers and then laugh at them, and he sometimes shoved the other boys in his division around, because he was taller.  Ginny thought he was probably one of those boys who really didn’t like dancing, even though he was pretty good at it. 

They didn’t actually have a lot of dancing together, but it was not going to be fun, Ginny realized with dismay.  Steven was supposed to act like her knight, but she got the feeling he was annoyed at having to dance with her, and she never felt secure when he was supporting her. 

She didn’t want to complain.  Steven had danced the role of the Prince the year before too, and he was a more experienced dancer--though only by a year or so, Ginny reminded herself stubbornly. 

Mr. Mike seemed to sense it too.  “Mr. Graham, you are dancing the role of a prince.  You need to act like one,” he told Steven, who flushed.  “Clara is not your despised younger sister, she is your lady.  The audience is going to pick up every emotion you express, so you need to make them believe.” 

Steven nodded obediently, but when he turned back to Ginny he was scowling.  “At least Francie was cute,” he said under his breath, just loud enough for her to hear.  “Maybe they can get you a wig.” 

Ginny flinched.  Francie had danced Clara last year, and she had curly blonde hair and a sweet face.  And she was tall. 

The only reason Francie wasn’t dancing Clara this year, Ginny thought glumly, was because she had moved to Boston over the summer. 

But it’s me this year, and I’m going to do it right.  Stinky Stevie or not. 

So she danced, and Mr. Mike smiled at her, and that made her feel better.  Clara was the focus of the first act, and whether Steven liked it or not, she was the one who had to make the story work. 

Orange hair and all. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Next chapter



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