Lord of the Dance
The rhythm has me in its grip, guiding my feet, relentlessly driving me onwards. My dress sticks to my skin and my hair clings to my forehead as lungs fight to draw in air. I haven't felt my feet in hours, but I dare not look down. Surely I'll see a bloody mess, raw meat leaving behind a crimson trail wherever the music takes me?
It must be nearly dawn by now.
Through the exhaustion, I feel his presence. There, leaning against the wall near the door, watching me. If I try to look at him directly he disappears, but from the corner of my eye, if I squint, I can just see his tall, willowy shape.
One by one the dancers slow and stop. My legs come back under my control and I stagger, almost falling. Hands on knees I bend double, gasping and heaving. The room swims as the wild, screeling pipes fade away, leaving behind the tinkling of active magic. The floor rushes to meet me, but I never feel the impact. Darkness takes me.
My alarm clock barely disturbes me, but I'd set up a wake-up call with hotel reception. Hammering on my door eventually rouses me to wakefulness.
"OK, OK," I mumble. "I'm awake!"
The long suffering bell boy moves off along the corridor to annoy some other poor sod. I drag myself out of bed, legs cramping with fatigue, and run the bath. It'll make me late for my nine o'clock interview, but without it I doubt I'll make it as far as the foyer. I collapse into the hot, fragrant water, wincing as my blistered feet submerge.
I hate the underground: hot, smelly and heaving with humanity. It reminds me too much of the dance hall, so I bury myself in my work for the short journey, trying to learn everything I can about this morning's celebrity. At any other time I might have looked forward to an interview with the airline-owning industrial magnate whose pearly white smile and twinkling eyes set all the female (and some male) pulses racing back at the office. It's a plum of a job and totally wasted on me. I'll struggle to stay awake today, never mind flirt.
It could have been worse, I suppose. He mistakes my lack of interest for 'playing hard to get' and rises to the occasion instinctively, turning up his famous charm to full power. I try not to yawn in his face as he moves smoothly in for the kill. He drapes an arm across the back of the sofa behind me, running strands of my hair through his fingertips -- but when he nuzzles my neck and nibbles my earlobe, survival instincts take over. Perhaps the dancing has sharpened my physical abilities, because in a heartbeat I am standing safely by the door while he takes a face-dive onto the arm of the sofa.
"Thank you for the interview, Mr Peterson," I say. "We'll let your publicity people read the article before it goes out in print as usual, but I hope you'll like what I've written."
I'm out of the door and halfway down the hall before he moves. I step smartly down the corridor to the lift and press the call button. I stare at the digital display showing which floor the lift is on, willing it to move faster, when a movement at the edge of my vision makes me turn. No-one there.
I seem to be alone in the lift, but I keep catching movement at the edge of my vision, and I don't think it is just imagination born of exhaustion. When the doors open on the ground floor, there is no-one nearby.
I stand back politely. "After you."
An air current moves the fine hairs on my arm as someone brushes past me. Quick as thought I dart out a hand, grabbing at thin air -- except it isn't thin air. My hand closes on rough cloth.
An exclamation of annoyance hisses out and the cloth is yanked from my grip.
I am too stunned, too tired to make sense of what just happened, until an elderly lady appears.
"Are you going up, dear, or getting out?" she asks. "It's just you're rather blocking the door at the moment."
As I step out into the foyer, I give myself a mental shake. I need to write up my notes from the interview and I might as well do them in comfort, away from the hubbub of the office, so I leave the building and walk to a coffee shop along the street.
It's still quiet, too early for the mid-morning rush and too late for the commuters who've missed breakfast. I have no trouble finding a table for two tucked away in a quiet corner.
I order a decaff latte and then, on impulse, a glass of milk. I hesitate while the waitress taps her fingers on her notepad, her face detached, bored.
"Two Danish pastries as well, please." I say, the words tumbling over each other. "The ones with honey."
Laying down my notebook and digital recorder, I place the milk and the second Danish in front of the other seat, then I put my earphones in and get on with my notes. After a few minutes I feel that brush of moving air again and know he has joined me. I continue writing. "You might as well eat it," I say, without looking up. "I bought it for you."
By peering through my eyelashes I can just about see his outline, sitting in the other chair.
"I suppose it can't be easy to eat and maintain invisibility," I say.
His outline becomes more opaque, until he is as solid-looking as the table. My breath catches in my throat - I have never seen anyone so beautiful before. The skin of his perfect cheeks flushes. I realised I am staring.
"Why have you been following me?" I ask.
He takes a delicate bite of the sweet pastry. His eyebrows climb and his eyes widen. He chews carefully and his breathing quickens. He swallows, then licks sticky syrup from his fingers, his pink tongue reminding me of a cat.
He has slightly tilted almond-shaped eyes set in a face that might have been too pretty in any other man. A firm mouth and dark brows lend it character.
"I've been protecting you," he says, after he has eaten every last crumb, and chased the last bit of honey around the plate with a delicate fingertip. "At dawn, when the dance ends, bad things happen to mortals." He looks up at me and now my breathing quickens, "I've been bringing you home each morning."
"Do you know why I've been cursed to dance?" I ask, curious.
He blushes and looks away. "I heard you made a bad deal with a leprechaun,"
He is right, I did. I'd tried to save my fiancé from the same curse. Catching a leprechaun and making a deal had seemed like a good idea at the time, but I messed up my last wish, so now I dance from dusk to dawn, like it or not.
And Simon left me anyway. He said I'd become boring, because all I want to do is sleep.
"I can't break the curse," he said, "but I can make it easier."
Night falls, and I am wrapped in a pair of strong arms. My cheek rests on a well-muscled shoulder as I sway to a gentle slow dance, while all around me mortal men and women gyrate madly to a jungle beat, sweat pouring from them.
I inhale his feral scent, a wild musk overlaid with pine. His hand smoothes my hair. Tiny currents of energy run up and down my spine as we sway.
I don't even know his name, I think, sleepily, but he knows mine.
"Misty," he whispers in my ear as he lifts me, hands on my hips.
I wrap my arms around his neck and my legs around his waist, my hair falling in a curtain around us as our lips meet.
Dawn comes far too early for once. My feet touch the ground and he supports me by the elbows until I catch my balance.
This time I stay conscious as he walks me back to my hotel through quiet streets and tucks me up in my bed with a last tender kiss.
I fall asleep with the taste of him in my mouth - honeysuckle and strawberry.
The next day he's disappeared.
I don't mean he became invisible; I mean he's gone completely. I can't sense him anywhere and I am no longer being watched. I drifted through the day naked and exposed, all the certainty of the day before washed away. We had only had a few precious hours and already the fickle Sídhe has moved on.
I make sure I'm at the door in the alley early, the door to the club run by Sídhe, the place they find their mortal victims. There is no sign of him inside, and the manic beat seizes me once more, dragging me into the sweating crowd, making me dance until I no longer feel my feet, my legs, my soul.
Between two heartbeats it all changed.
One moment I danced, the next I am standing still, the only one not writhing to the beat. All around me, oblivious people move like marionettes to the unheard beat.
I turn slowly, confused. Behind me stands a little man in a red coat, with a black tricorne hat. I know him. This is the leprechaun I released with my last wish, instead of freeing myself. I never thought I'd see him again after he abandoned me to face the punishment I'd spared Simon from.
He whips the hat from his head and holds it in front of him like a shield. His eyes glance at mine, then slide away. A fresh bruise darkens his lined cheek and there is blood on his lip.
A warm breath tickles the back of my neck. I turn my face and find a pair of almond eyes smiling down at me. His breath smells like honeysuckle.
"I said I couldn't lift the curse," he says, "but in your sleep you spoke a name. I found him and he's agreed to lift the curse. You are free."
I turn to look back at the leprechaun. He is watching my lover, anxiety creasing an already-lined face.
"Can I go now?" he says.
"You may, but remember. I will be watching you from now on—"
The leprechaun gives a little nod, spins on the spot and disappears.
A pair of arms hold me, wrapping round my waist. My hips began to sway in time with his, to our own tune. I turn in his arms and raise my face to him. Our lips touch – his taste as sweet as a Danish pastry – and the room blurs, walls and dancers falling away until there is only the two of us, dancing on a hillside.
Somewhere a robin calls, and one by one other birds join him. Rosy fingers warm the sky and the sun peeks over the far horizon, but I barely notice.
Time no longer matters.