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A Dancer's Heart

Chapter Text

The curtain rises, and her world is filled with light.

She looks up, not at the sea of faces but searches for one face, one pair of eyes, soft brown that never failed to light with humor and freckled gold when they saw her or the sun –

The chair is empty. The music does not wait. Her body moves on cue and now she is Clara, waiting for the Christmas party to begin and for the gifts to be given. She accepts the Nutcracker with awe and love, her emotions beaming through her movements. This time, the heartbreak she echoes when the toy is broken is easier to portray.

This is not her first opening night. This is not her first time as Clara. This is not the first time he does not come.

This is not the first time he promised, either.

The children go to sleep and Clara is left alone on the stage, tending to the broken toy. The clock strikes twelve, and –

“Fire!” a woman runs in, screaming, “Fire!”

Clara frowns. Fire? No, the mice are about to enter –

“Fire! Get to the exit doors, quickly!” shouts a man, a dark shape against the flutter of fancy dresses and pales faces. “Odette! Leave the stage, now!”

Auguste? But –

The smell suddenly hits her – smoke and charred wood that bite her throat – she is choking –

“Odette!”

The tapestry behind her bursts into flames that flare and consume the ropes behind the scenes. She covers her face and tries desperately to breathe. Be the mistress of your dizziness, her mind whispers, focus on one spot. But the world is spinning and the grandfather clock, the one that struck midnight, collapses on her leg. Her left leg. Her leap leg. How will she dance?

“Help me…” she whispers, trying – frantically, digging till her fingers bleed – to tear the heavy piece of burning wood from her body. The pain and panic beat rhythmically in her ears. Help me.

The fire roars around her and the smoke – her vision blurs and her heart beats so loudly – can they not hear her? Will no one come to help? Help me, Lou, help me. Help me!

She can’t breathe. Her lungs are on fire but she cannot breathe. And the clock won’t move not an inch not even less and she is trapped. She is trapped and she wasn’t given a chance to see him, one last time. She is trapped.

“Odette!!!”

 

“Odette!”

Odette woke up, shivering. Pain spasmed from her leg, tearing into her stomach and her spine. Her skin was wet and clammy, but her voice was steady when she replied, “Yes, Madame Le Haut?”

The woman knocking on her front door was not appeased by the polite reply. “The cook has decided she’s sick, again. Go to the kitchen, now!” A pause. The shadow on the wall was thinking. “After you had cooked breakfast and tended to your usual duties, do find the time to sack the lazy pig and find a… less damaged cook, if you will.” She scoffed to herself. “One might think I am running a charity, employing a limping housemaid and a sickly cook!”

“Yes, Madame,” Odette responded, voice quiet and dutiful. That was what she had become, a quiet and dutiful cleaner. She worked her leg slowly, patiently, trying to massage the pain from the ankle that never fully healed.

“Yes, madame,” she whispered to the empty room. She slowly curled on herself, stretching and touching her forehead to the broken bone. Her lips. “Yes.” Her lips formed the words with ease. Almost an instinct, after ten years.

“Madame.”

 

Cleaning Le Haut’s mansion, despite what the Madame might have thought, was a mental challenge rather than physical. Cleaning the Opera, on the other hand, was both.

Odette braced herself against the cold autumn wind and entered the grand building. A few ballerinas still graced the entrance, but the older ones ignored her, and the younger moved away, sometimes while suppressing a giggle. Not out of respect, obviously. A cleaner works with dirty items, thereby becoming dirty herself. One could not remove stains without becoming a stain herself.

The poor children were tolerable, but they were rare. The rest were wealthy, and if they cared to dignify her with a glance, it was usually a haughty one.

I hate kids.

“Odette! Yo-hoo! How wonderful to see you!” A singing, booming voice and a coat that could not be ignored. Perfect.

“Director,” she muttered. “Good evening. How are the rehearsals?”

Auguste’s smile did not waver. He wrapped his hand around her shoulder and stirred her, while still humming and smiling, toward his office. “Fantastic! Lovely! Couldn’t be better! Rosita is a sight to behold!” he sang as he closed the door and gestured toward a grand chair. “Do sit, my dear!”

Odette clutched her cane and stood taller. “I have work to do, Monsieur, and little time to spare. What is it?”

Auguste’s eyes flickered. The expression resembled pity. Odette looked away.

“You can still call me Auguste, Odette.” He smiled. For such a large man, his smile was uncommonly kind.

“I know. You told me before.” Her voice was flat. Her eyes focused on the floor. If she closed them and stood very still, perhaps she could hear the music coming from the stage. If she closed her eyes strongly enough, perhaps she could wish this entire life away.

He released a huff of air that could have been mistaken for a laugh. “I know you know. I asked you one hundred times already, and I will ask you one hundred times more. I am not giving up on you, Odette.”

Her fingers tightened their hold of the cane. “Are we still talking about manners, or about the teaching position? Because my answer isn’t going to change to either.” Her voice was too sharp. Unkind.

Auguste, despite his massive form, was a sensitive soul. He flinched. “Eh, well, both. Louis complained to me again about the workload – “

“I find that hard to believe.”

“ – and about lost opportunities – “

“Unlikely.”

“ – like a chance to go to America – “

“He hates travel.”

Auguste sighed, then smiled. “You know him better than I do. But he did have to turn down a collaboration with the Russian ballet, recently. His career as a ballet dancer might have ended, but that’s not the end of the road, as you well know,” he hinted, adding an unecessary wink.

Her knuckles turned white. “Auguste, I don’t want to have this conversation. We’ve had it before. The board won’t have a sweeper’s daughter teaching their genteel spawns.” Her voice was still flat. Lifeless. “And they won’t have me now, in either case. I spent the last ten years cleaning, not dancing.”

“Pah!” Auguste responded eloquently. “The board will hire a donkey if I dress it in enough velvet. Money does not produce talent, nor nurture it. Only talent nurtures talent, and only talent produces money. You, my dear, are the best money can buy, and a thousand years of sweeping won’t change that.”

Odette looked down. It was easier, these days, to look down. Her back was hunched. “Is that all?”

The man sighed. He gestured, but she did not look at him to see what the movement meant. “He has been watching you since he was a teen, but I have been watching you from the moment you stepped into these halls.” He paused. “That came out wrong. But my point still stands! The ballet is an art of passion – above all else, a dancer is measured by the passion of her heart. I know you still have the heart of a dancer, Odette,” he reached out to her, touching her shoulder, “you still come here.”

“Exactly. The girls already know my face,” she snapped, her voice like whiplash, “as a cleaner. Tell Mérante I don’t want his help.”

She exited, her movements sharp but graceful. Her pain sucked in – brushed aside – ignored. Forgotten. Gone.

Damn Mérante and his meddling.

She scrubbed the floors, anger seeping and flaming with every movement. Damn him. Damn him and the opera and Auguste with his silly ideas –

Damn everything.

 

She packed her clothes and her scarf and limped down the stairs. Her mind, tired and vacant, suddenly snapped alive when she saw the janitor dragging a child – a young girl, poor and dirty – from the Opera.

“I wasn't stealing!” the girl begged, “I was looking at the dancer!” Her voice was desperate. She was small and skinny and unremarkable, if not for her flaming orange hair.

“Liar! Empty your pockets!” the Janitor yelled. When the girl struggled, he raised his hand – the threat of violence evident –

“Leave her alone,” Odette commanded. She hit the stair with her cane for emphasis.

The janitor grumbled, but the girl beamed up at her – why? Why bother? Odette sent her away. The Opera was not a place for poor, broken souls.

She remembered being young. She remembered how hard her mother worked to afford the yearly tuition. She remembered her promise to her, to earn every penny back and double it. A promise of a life of comfort. Ha, how the gods of fate must be laughing.

She left the Opera and walked back to Le Haut's mansion. The night was cold, and the streets were empty, yet one persistent sound did not fade. Footsteps. She was being followed.

She turned, far quicker than the thief might have expected a woman with a limp to move, and pressed her cane against a throat. A child’s throat. Not exactly what she expected.

“I have nothing to steal,” she told the girl, the scrawny redhead from before.

The child had kind, wide eyes, large and trusting. The light did not fade, even when Odette pushed her cane deeper for emphasis.

“I-I can't sp… I can't speak!” She struggled and breathed in relief when Odette relented and dropped the cane. “I just wanted to say thank you for saving me.”

“You've said it. Have a nice life.” She limped away from the girl, wishing she could walk faster. Did it matter? The girl was young, after all. She probably could have kept up even if Odette’s limp didn’t exist.

The girl kept talking. Odette kept her answers short. Go away, her body whispered. Leave me. Go home.

The girl, apparently, was deaf. “Are you a dancer?”

“I'm a cleaner, and you are an irritation. Go away.” Go away. Go away. Go away.

But the girl did not give up. She pouted, “But you're the first person to show me any kindness in this city. I've been separated from my best friend. I have nowhere to go, and I'm an orphan.” She looked up from underneath her lashes and curled her lips into a pitiful pout.

Odette’s lip curled. Another burden. Hadn’t she had enough? “Nice try, but I hate kids, especially orphans. Go find another idiot.”

The girl gasped but followed. She followed even after the Madame showed up with another form of torment. She followed even after Odette told her to go away. Disappear. Leave.

And I am so tired. I am so, so tired.

“You need me. I can clean. In fact, 'Squeaky Clean' is my middle name. I'm young. My legs work. Yours don't.” She paused, realizing she was rude. “Uh, it's gonna feel so much easier with me helping,” she added, then gave her what she probably thought to be a winning smile.

Odette sank to her knees because standing up hurt. The girl had broken eyes and skinny legs, and under the cheerful demeanor, she hid a trembling lip and a hungry gleam. Dear lord, the girl was hungry.

Odette couldn’t turn her away. “Are you coming?” she asked.

The girl smiled – no, beamed, again – and rushed to join her.

Despite the cold house and the cold floors and the frozen cold water with which she cleaned, Odette felt – or perhaps imagined – a tinge of warmth.

 

He waited, his hand tightening around his pocket watch. He flicked it open with an irritated frown to find that – yes, she was late. Which was unlikely, so she must have changed her route. Again. So, she probably refused the job offer. Again.

And she knew he was waiting for her. And she did not want to see him. That also was nothing new.

Louis sighed. He slipped the watch back to his pocket. Should he find her later or leave her be? The woman clearly did not want to be found. At least not by him. His hand tightened its hold of his cane. Perhaps –

His eyes caught a flash of red and a white dress as a girl – probably one of his new students – crashed in front of him. As elegant as a drunk dog. Dear lord.

“How’s the view from down there?” he asked, a slight note of taunting in his voice.

And yet he crouched to offer her his hand and help her up. “You’re not a dancer, are you?” he asked. Her hand felt odd – rough skin and dusty texture – but the girl pulled away before he could understand what was so unusual about it.

“Yes, I am,” she protested, eyes ready for battle.

“Who would've thought? Return to your class,” he commanded, then rubbed his fingers together as the girl dashed away. Were the cuts and blisters the result of her clumsiness? Or –

A loud stomp and boisterous singing announced more trouble was heading his way.

“Oh, greatest ballet master of all time! Oh, most talented choreographer in the universe and beyond! He is handsome! He is elegant! He is strong! He is powerful! He is the man!” Auguste sang at the top of his lungs.

Louis suppressed the desire to sigh. “You want something from me?” Tell me it’s about Odette. Tell me something good. Tell me what I want to hear.

“How did you know?” Beamed the singing giant. “Yes! I have enrolled Camille Le Haut in your class.”

Louis closed his eyes for a brief second, locking his disappointment and anger and frustration deep inside his chest. Great. Another spoiled brat. No doubt the clumsy airhead from before.

Once, one had to work hard to enter the academy. Once, owning a restaurant that employed a good cook was not enough. “Why, thank you,” he said flatly. He remembered Odette, working night shifts so she could afford –

“You’re welcome!” Auguste glowed right back. “Oh, and another thing. You remember the ball we are holding? You are showing up, yes?” He waved his finger too close to Louis’ face. “It’s mandatory!”

“Yes, I will be there,” he promised, edging away from unwanted digits.

“Fantastic! A lot of lovely ladies will be there, too.” He winked, then sighed. “Perhaps it’s better you focused your attention on them? Or go to Russia and find a danseuse etoile – “

“That’s enough of you,” he commanded and hit the cane against the floor. Funny how he could silence a group of eleven-year-old girls and a grown, giant man using the same tool. “I have class,” he snarled and turned away.

Auguste, wisely, kept his silence. The girls in his class, however, did not. They muttered quickly and quietly, graceful and poised.

All but the rich girl, who stood awkwardly with her legs spread apart and spoke loudly, like a baboon at a zoo.

She also danced like one – moving and gesturing wildly with no grace or poise or rhythm whatsoever. Her landing was hideous and loud and her legs all but spasmed as she leaped toward the ceiling – as if her limbs were on fire. She spun like a dizzy drunkard and could not balance on her toes. She was a disaster, and her only saving grace – if one could call it grace – was her wild, unadulterated enthusiasm.

If only she wouldn’t squeal whenever her feet left the ground.

 

Her second class wasn’t much better.

Louis remembered the first time he saw Odette. He left the boys’ classroom, legs aching and toes burning, to see her pirouette. Her grace and poise made the move look effortless, and the swanlike lifting of her hand, rising above her head… she looked like a doll, perfect and preserved in a movement permanently programmed into her form.

She was mesmerizing.

Then she opened her eyes – the color of the sky on a cloudy day – and stopped.

He fled.

Miss Le Haut, however, was a violent, clumsy disaster.

The Opera endured one fire that demanded too heavy a price. It shouldn’t entertain yet another one.

 

Odette's stomach burned when the memory flashed through her eyes – Felicie, dressed in a Ballerina attire, walking around the academy as if she were one of its students. She must have stolen the letter for Camille Le Haut, the Madame’s daughter. Stolen the letter and enrolled in her place. And the Madame was not a kind woman.

How dare Felicie lie to her, after all she’d given to her? A place to sleep and food and a warm blanket…

He also lied, didn’t he? He promised he’d be there. He promised they’d go to that new restaurant to celebrate. He promised her flowers. He wasn’t there to watch her perform. He wasn’t there to watch her burn. To save her.

Would he have saved her?

I don’t need your pity. Go to Russia. Go to America. I don’t care. It’s been ten years.

She stopped chopping the carrot, then continued. The same color as Felicie’s hair.

That girl… Odette’s hold of the knife tightened. Seeing her in that tutu and those shoes… Odette did not relish the memory of the color draining from the child’s face and the light fading from her eyes. She looked like she withered under her glance.

Odette pushed the guilt away. The child’s own shame was the source, not she. How dare she. How dare she lie. How dare she go to the academy and dance, despite the fact she clearly wasn’t enrolled.

It was hard to push away the memories of herself as a child, wearing the worn cloth of the tutu with pride unaffected by the complaints of the richer girls. It was the best dress she had ever worn, and the smooth, formfitting fabric felt like a luxury. She hated to take it off and return to her own, weathered clothes. Hiding in the training rooms, she waited until they left to change back. And while she waited, she trained.

When the girls returned the morning after, she was already a step ahead. Two steps. Three. Until she was alone at her level. Until there was no one else as good as she was. No one else, but Lou.

It wasn’t long before she wore a costume tailored specifically for her, with jewels and ribbons and fresh flowers.

Mother said she looked like a queen.

When I needed you, you weren’t there. Go away and leave me be. Leave me the Opera and the memories. Don’t pity me.

The door opened meekly, and her hand faltered. The motion, once smooth, had to be started again.

“I'm sorry. Triple sorry. If there was a bigger word for 'sorry', I'd say it.”

You weren’t sorry when you wore the tutu. You weren’t sorry when you danced. You weren’t sorry when you lied. You are only sorry now because you were found out.

She cut the carrot with more force than necessary. For whom was she cutting all these carrots? “I let you into my life, and you lied to me. I don't like lies.” Did she use me? The girl looked too innocent for such a complicated plan. But girls grow up. “I could lose my job because of you,” she added, trying to quiet the emotional turmoil and make her anger rational.

She was just a girl, and she lived with her for two days. She did not matter – how could she? She wasn’t different from the rest of the girls at the academy.

Except that she wasn’t a girl at the academy, was she?

Felicie’s voice faltered, but she braved through it. “I get it. I messed up. But you don't understand. Since I can remember, I've wanted to dance. And when I saw Rosita Mauri and she did those amazing moves, I knew that's what I wanted to be. I knew my dream could come true! I know it's hard to understand. You hate dancing.” The words prickled, delved under her skin. “But I just want you to know I'm truly sorry.”

The girl closed the door behind her.

Odette put the knife down.

She looked up, up at the shoe box she did not dare to throw away or open. But suddenly, the urge to look at the shoes – her pointe shoes – the debut shoes that she received as a gift from her mother – she limped toward the box and grabbed it, then breathed in relief and memories and pain when she saw them.

The shoes were still there, as red as she remembered. This was not a dream, a part of her whispered. You really were a ballerina.

And you don’t hate dancing.

Holding them in her hands, feeling the familiar weight, she could almost hear Auguste urging her, “You, my dear, are the best money can buy, and a thousand years of sweeping won’t change that.”

And Lou, young and shivering with adrenaline and ecstasy, holding her hands seconds before the curtain rose and opened his mouth to say something that might have been important…

The familiar clicking sound that haunted her nightmares knocked her out of her daydreaming. She put the shoes away and rushed to the door.

“Any mail?”

The devil couldn’t have sounded more sinister. Odette placed her hand in front of Felicie, urging her to hide the incriminating letter. “There is no mail,” she lied.

Luckily, Regine Le Haut did not deign it necessary to look upon her servants or the lie would have failed. Very reliable, this plan. Pretending to be the Madam’s daughter… how long will it last? A day? A week? This would result in the loss of both her jobs and her home for the past ten years. This was a disaster. This –

“As soon as there is, fetch it,” the Madame snarled, then entered the house.

This, perhaps, was not the worst idea after all.

But it could certainly be improved.

“Can you dance?” she whispered to the child, who appeared ready to bounce up and down in excitement. An instinct she, wisely, chose not to act upon.

“Yes,” she declared, then faltered. “At least, I think I can.”

She had large, starry eyes and dreams more grandiose than her scrawny frame. She thought that if she’d jump far enough, she’d reach for the stars. She was a child, and Odette remembered that once, she was one too.

She remembered feeling too poor and dirty to enter the Opera. Avoiding looks and dainty dresses, she snuck to the changing rooms, trying to hide her clothes with her thin limbs. She had to be taught to be proud. And the person to teach that her then still believed in her now.

He thought she should be a teacher. Perhaps she should.

“Training starts at five am tomorrow,” she ordered, feeling new life – no, purpose – flowing through her. This was a stupid plan, but maybe, just maybe, it was brazened enough to work.

The girl, unaware of her warlike musings, frowned at her. “Are you a teacher?”

“Do you have another option?” she shot back, then returned to her lodging. No, Felicie. I am not a teacher; I am your teacher. If you listen, I will teach you everything I know.

Outside, Felicie groaned. “Five am? Can’t we push it to after lunch?”

Chapter Text

Talk to her. Say something. Say anything. Ask her how she feels – maybe about the limp? No, no – bad idea. Don’t mention the limp. Talk to her about the new students. About ballet. About your new choreography – no! Another bad idea. What if she hated ballet or the Nutcracker or him?

This, Louis agreed with himself, was a new low.

He watched Odette from the shadows, struggling with a heavy water bucket she had to lift to the upper floor. He could not take his eyes off of her, waiting for a look, a hint, a trace of a smile, that would allow him to cross the distance to her. Her figure, ever graceful, changed little over the years. A few rebellious strands escaped her bun and framed her face, floating like she used to, all those years ago. She was so beautiful, her sight struck him speechless every single time he saw her; ever since he was a boy.

It was only her eyes that had died.

Offer her help. Take the bucket – no, no. She does not want your help, remember? You can’t help. It’s too late to help.

Forgive me, Odette. Please forgive me.

Ten years had passed. Ten years of love from the shadows and across the seas. Perhaps Auguste was right; perhaps she would never take him back. Perhaps… but still, he should tell her. He should tell her the truth. He should –

The bell rang, and Odette disappeared down a hallway. Was it his imagination, or did she stand taller? Louis frowned, tapped his cane, and walked to class. At the very least, he would sack Le Haut, which, all things considered, signaled today was not entirely a waste of time.

He entered the class, pleased to see all the girls waiting in the fifth position; less pleased to note that the redhaired nightmare was also positioned in fifth, and her stance was not that different from that of her peers.

He scowled. Did she bother with a tutor yesterday? It mattered not. Ballet is an art, and not one that could be mastered in a week.

“Today,” he declared, “we jump.”

A pause for dramatics and scrutiny. No girl budged, not even the redhead. Huh. A tutor for ballet and for manners, apparently. “Start with sauté, then land in fifth, and finish with soubresaut. Positions!”

The ginger chose, of course, the middle. He hit the floor with his cane and the girls, in unison, jumped. All the girls. Jumped and landed in perfect harmony.

Luck, he dismissed it. He hit the floor again, and the girls jumped again. And again. And again. And Mademoiselle Le Haut among them, not missing a beat. Her legs were perfectly poised and her hands – not an inch too low or too high. In fact, the only thing that moved unlike the rest of her classmates was her hair, which was unfortunate, but passable.

This was impossible. Not a day ago, she clobbered and floundered around his classroom, jumping up and down with the grace of a troll and the discipline of a monkey. But today…

He hit the floor again and again and again. Any mediocre student would have shown her fatigue just about now. Maintaining form and grace in a jump was a tiring task that took years to master, and yet… and yet, the infuriating ginger demon smiled, looking ridiculously happy and inexplicably unaware of the impossibility of her actions and the inconvenience she posed.

When she landed, her hands were positioned with the slightest of curves – an added touch to a routine technique that changed it from a jump to a dance. He saw that flare before – a swanlike elegance that separated the student from the master, but – no. Impossible. A master refines his technique; this girl simply learned an already improved upon gesture, and nothing more. But how? How could –

Finally, his mind flashed. A tremor. One of the girls, a mousy creature with dark brown hair, began to tremble. Not the fiery brat, but close enough. Let’s see how much you can progress during the weekend, Le Haut, he thought as he sacked the girl and dismissed the class. His eyes followed her exit, narrowed in suspicion. Who is your tutor, little girl?

 

Well, whoever the tutor was, he had an eye for detail, for the girl passed another day with nearly flawless technique. Her poise improved, her gestures had purpose, and thank god the giggling and random shouting had stopped. She gained confidence, which was odd for a rich child to lack to begin with, and absorbed information like a sponge.

Though she still, when she thought he wasn’t looking, twisting her lips in a peculiar attempt to parrot terms she should have been raised with. Her French vocabulary was also in a rather lamentable shape. Did the child not receive proper schooling? He caught Nora and Dora, her friends and rather talented dancers, if uninspiring, teaching her more than once about fashion and etiquette, literary heroes and historical figures.

Was the girl raised in the country? With each passing day, her resemblance to the street urchins he played with in his youth seemed more and more uncanny. Yet, inexplicably, her landings and her poses had the touch and grace of a danseuse etoile. While the rest of the girls completed a sequence of movements, Camille Le Haut danced.

Who, on God’s green earth, is your teacher?!

He marched to Auguste’s office and opened the book of student records, skimming through and trying to find a name – any name – that could be the answer to –

“Louis! How wonderful!”

Louis’ fingers twisted in disgruntled irritation. Fantastic.

Auguste’s booming voice matched his positively barbaric attire which was an assault of purple and gold and emeralds. He licked his pinky and fixed his eyebrow in a move he no doubt thought dashing. “Are you to be my plus one?” he winked.

“Plus? Oh – no. Is it today?” The dread sank in his stomach much like that new naked iron tower sank its claws into the bowels of Paris. “I… forgot my fancy clothes,” he offered an excuse.

Auguste smiled, undeterred. “Nonsense! We’ll stop at your house to change your coat, your cufflinks, and neck-tie and you’ll be ready!” His enthusiasm, thankfully, was not of the contagious types. “A lot of lovely ladies cannot wait to meet you, I’m certain.” He winked again. “You and Rosita are to be the stars of the ball! Hmm. You must seize your chance before Rudolph is old enough to attend. He is already a ladies’ man, though he seemed to have set his eyes on one of your students!” Auguste clapped. “Wonderful, isn’t it?”

“Charming,” Louis bit. “Which one?”

“Why, Mademoiselle Camille, of course!” Auguste laughed and clapped Louis’ shoulder, then used the momentum to grab the limb and drag him from the office. “How is she doing? I thought you’d have sacked her by now.”

“So did I,” he muttered, irritated.

The tone was, apparently, too subtle for Auguste, who thought the whole fiasco to be terribly funny.

They entered Auguste’s carriage, colored in similarly bombastic shades of gold and purple, and thus were isolated enough for him to ask, “Do you know who tutors her?”

The notion, of course, that a student from their academy needed extra help and turned to an independent source was insulting.

“No!” declared the director, unappreciative of the delicacy of the question. “Why, is he causing trouble? You are her teacher now,” he added, looking pleased with himself. “Ah, I love balls. Don’t you? Drinking and dancing… that is life!”

“Hmm, too round for my taste,” Louis replied, glaring at the mansions towering over the cobbled street. Perhaps he could pay Le Haut a visit. Parents do love hearing praise about their offspring and could be enticed to share information regarding their schooling. Though it might include an encounter with said child, which was an unfortunate, yet likely, possibility.

They stopped in front of his house and had to wait merely a moment before the coachman opened the carriage door while another servant opened the front door and waited for them, bearing drinks. Louis waved the cognac aside and climbed the stairs while Auguste stopped to exchange a few flirtatious remarks with one of the maids. The man had neither shame nor manners, but was quick to down his drink and climb upstairs when he noticed Louis abandoned him. He entered the room with a dramatic gait and immediately began to scavenger his wardrobe.

“Will Madame Le Haut be attending?” Louis asked as he donned his diamond cufflinks and glowered at Auguste for trying to make him wear his funeral neck-tie.

“Not wealthy enough,” Auguste dismissed, fixing his mustache. “And thank the lord for that. The woman is dreadful. Looks like a… ah. A green bat. Or a snake with large, black ears.”

“Lovely,” Louis replied, then rolled his eyes at his friend’s attempt at pleading, puppy eyes and wore his funeral neck-tie. He wondered if he should buy another for such occasions, but resolved that funerals and balls rarely occur within the same month, and that a black neck-tie was unlikely to draw enough attention for anyone to notice his collection of neck-ties was lacking.

He grabbed a hat for his planned escape from the ball. Just in case.

“You should buy more clothes,” Auguste pointed out. “A gentleman is only as desirable as his wallet. We must be like a peacock! Advertise our… biological prowess through shiny clothes and a dash of good taste.” He flexed in front of the mirror.

“Just a dash. We don’t want to overdo it.” Louis allowed himself a smile. “Don’t expect me to stay after the reception.”

“Don’t be such an old man,” Auguste chastised, once again dragging him into his disaster of a carriage. “It will be great! There will be food, drinks, women! –“

“Not my cup of tea.”

“Well, the last time I invited your cup of tea, she tore the invitation and threw it in my face, so you should find yourself a different cup,” Auguste grumbled, still offended. “Or a different tea. How does that expression work?”

Auguste was saved from Louis’ growing irritation by their prominent arrival at their destination, upon which he found himself dragged aside by a fabulously dressed woman. It took him two seconds to recognize her as Rosita.

“You could have at least allowed me a glass of champagne,” he complained, then intertwined his hand through hers. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Oh, how can you already be in a foul mood?” The young woman frowned at him, then plucked a glass of the bubbling, golden liquid from a passing servant. “You are late.”

“Auguste forced me to change my clothes.”

“To your funeral neck-tie?”

Louis grimaced. “Thought it would go unnoticed.” To the woman’s giggle, he replied, “I don’t remember we have attended a funeral together.”

“I wasn’t yet a danseuse etoile. You, however, were the guest of honor.” She led him around the ball, avoiding the clucking circles of rich women and the smaller circles of the richer still.

“One would assume the dead is the guest of honor.”

Rosita hummed. “Do you think they have to RSVP?”

Louis managed a smile. “Indeed. Most unfortunate if they are late.”

Rosita was not to be distracted. “Like you were,” she pointed out. “I had to greet the guests.”

“You would’ve had to do so regardless of my presence,” he countered.

Rosita sent a graceful reproach his way. “Not by myself.”

Louis finished his glass. “Were you the victim of unwanted attention?”

“Must you ask?” she replied, then gracefully replaced his empty glass with a new one. “You are not the only one to prefer the stage to the crowd.”

“We don’t belong in a crowd,” he murmured, then stopped. “Especially that of predators.”

Rosita distanced herself from him. “The director described them as an opportunity.” Her eyes swept over the mess of fabulous dresses and black coats. “Doesn’t that make us alike?”

“They are vultures,” Louis scoffed. “They believe value stems from wealth and wealth results in power, and power must be worshipped. They bow before the most common of commodities if they find enough of it, which they hoard or trade for empty gestures or temples of vanity. Talent is far rarer. Talent should be worshipped. A person of talent should not be scrubbing the floors for the pleasure of vultures and their peacocked shoes,” he spat. His hands tightened their hold on his cane, muscles tensing as if in preparation of an attack.

Rosita took a step back. “Louis?” she hesitated. “Are you…?”

Louis closed his eyes. He lost control of his temper. Only fools ramble in time of rage. Only fools… and aren’t we all fools in love? He felt cold. “Forgive me,” he muttered, then turned his back and crossed through the crowd. He could feel their eyes on him, measuring the cut of the diamonds and the wealth of the fabric and the shine upon his shoes.

Measuring to see if he was wealthy enough to be worthy of their time.

Auguste waved him over, “Louis! Come over, meet – “

“I need a drink,” he snapped,

“You are holding a glass of champagne,” Auguste pointed out.

Louis, with the flamboyance of a dancer, abandoned the glass on a nearby table and marched over to Auguste’s carriage. He closed the door behind him. “Drive to the nearest bar.”

“Any preference?” asked the coachman.

Louis rubbed his temples. “Anywhere with music.”

 

Odette looked at the child dance and felt her heart brimming with warmth. That was Felicie’s magic. Not technique or skill, but love. She loved to dance, and one could not help but fall in love with the art and the fiery child as she dominated the stage. Or, in this case, the backyard.

“That was... better!” she encouraged her. When did I last feel so alive? When did I feel so happy, so at peace? She felt no jealousy. Not this time. Watching Felicie dance felt like the only thing worth living for.

“Thanks!” The girl smiled. “I'm ready to do that crazy, jumpy thing.”

Odette laughed. “And I'm the Empress Josephine.” You sweet thing. Sweet, bird of joy. How aptly named. Don’t fly too close to the sun, child.

“I am!” the girl declared. Her eyes lit with stars again, as if she remembered the first time she saw the move performed. The only time.

“Of course, you are. But there's a difference between being ready and being ready to do it well.” Move slowly, child. Don’t rush. Those who rush ahead are burnt by the flame. “That's why we train every day,” she reminded her.

“That's all we've been doing!” Felicie complained.

“And then you'll be ready when you can answer the question, "Why do you dance?"

She said it with such ease, now, as if the question hadn’t tormented her for months. Days and nights she tried to come up with an answer and each time, the director wasn’t satisfied. Time and time again he sent her away, telling her to return only when she had an answer worthy of his time.

It’s my life, she finally told him. It’s not why I live or what makes me happy. It’s… the only times I am alive, is when I dance.

And after she found the answer and she danced and she burned, she died. Then she had to answer the question, “what should I live for, if I cannot dance?”

That question was harder to answer. It had been ten years, and she had yet to find one. Though Perhaps…

Felicie’s eyes looked ahead, toward the sun and the future. “I've answered it! It's my dream!”

She rose and she jumped. For a moment she soared – weightless like a cloud – and then she fell, crushing her small frame into the cobbled yard, crying in pain.

Odette rushed, as fast as her limp would allow her, but when she got to the child, Felicie no longer looked in pain. No injury, then. Good. She smiled, hiding her relief and her fear in a twitch of her lips. “By the way, that crazy jumpy thing is called le grand jeté, and you're not ready.”

She offered her a hand, but the voice of a stranger startled her. Her hand curled, no longer poised to help, and Felicie had to rise on her own.

“Are you doing dance or kung-fu?” Laughed a boy, no older than Felicie. He was short for his age and as scrawny looking as a street urchin. If the Madame knew a dirty looking boy entered the premises…

Felicie scowled at him. “You are SO funny. This is Victor. We escaped from the orphanage together.” She pouted at her friend, but the boy did not look a bit ashamed for his rudeness.

He focused on Odette and decided to be rude to her instead. “Hello! I am loving your apron.” He grabbed her hand and smooched it, spit and all. He must have thought himself to be quite the charmer.

Odette withdrew her hand and wiped it on the back of her vest. “It seems that you are going out tonight,” she said, a note of reproach in her voice. Her mother never allowed her to go out with boys, especially not at this age.

But she was not Felicie’s mother. The thought stung.

“Yep!” declared the boy, still sure of his charm.

“Bring her back late, and you will be six inches smaller.” The threat rolled from her tongue with ease she did not believe was possible. Dear God, she sounded like her mother.

The boy gulped. “Of course, of course, of course! It's a quiet, sober, quiet, sober thing.”

And then they bolted, running to a place that was probably neither quiet nor sober. I should tell her something. I should tell her about propriety and the dangers drunk men pose. I should stop her.

But Felicie looked so happy. If she told her no now, would she listen? Would she listen the next time? It didn’t matter. The child was already gone, running away with a boy who clearly adored her.

She remembered the first time Lou knocked on her door, looking nervous and hesitant, dressed in his best clothes – if memory serves, he even wore a neck-tie – to have her mother dismiss him as ‘one of your ballet friends.’ The threat affected him much like it affected that Victor boy.

She chuckled, then stopped. Her leg decided to rise from the dead with a spasm of pain. She almost forgot about her limp. When Felicie was around, it was bearable; sometimes even gone. But Felicie ran with her friend and Lou… Lou was gone too, wasn’t he? He grew up, her Lou. He didn’t exist anymore.

 

He arrived and ordered a beer. Perhaps later he’d opt for something gentlemanly such as whiskey or cognac, but for now, a sip from the time he was younger and poorer would –

“Sorry, mister!”

A child – no, two children bumped into him, spilling his drink on his clothes. Fantastic. As if having to be around children during the day wasn’t enough, now he had to endure them during the night. He looked up, ready to chastise or maybe remove them from the bar, when –

No.

Dear God. Why. What had he done that he had to endure that Le Haut offspring during and after school hours? Why – but the girl began to dance, immediately drawing the eyes of all the men in the bar, and Louis paused. Something just didn’t make sense. The daughter of a wealthy woman, dressed in rags, dancing in bars with a street urchin? Who even let her in?

But that was beyond the point. Her movements were graceful and joyful – her performance was joyful – she filled the bar with happiness, lifted the spirits of its members with a well-placed jump and a charming smile. Even his spirit was lifted, he noted as he watched her performance. Ballet and childish improvisation were a cocktail he did not approve of, but the young child balancing on the tip of her boots to the hoots of her audience made him reconsider.

Passion. That’s what she had. Passion. She used the dance to communicate emotions. She was happy and wanted others to share her joy. She jumped – a failed imitation of le grand jete, and even managed to land. She spun and improvised, using gestures reserved for grace in a swift and merry choreography. She lit the room better than the chandeliers.

Almost cocky – or just full of childish confidence, she spun on the railing, keeping her gaze focused on a ceiling, when a rose thrown in the air caught her attention. She forgot to focus as she tried to grab it and the rose – a moving object – caused her to lose her balance and crash into a table next to him, breaking its two front legs.

She fell.

Louis jumped from his seat and removed his hat, eyes skimming quickly in search of injury. If her legs were broken…

But the child simply looked up at him, terrified, shrinking into the shattered table. The sight was – oddly enough – reassuring; fear was proof enough that she was not in pain.

He cocked his brow at her and assumed the demeanor of the cold, haughty teacher she knew him as. “I hope that tomorrow you act with a little more dignity,” he reprimanded and turned to leave, hiding his relief in the cockiness of his gait.

He stopped. It felt wrong, scolding the hurt child; or rather, just scolding her. He turned around and added, “Anyway, tonight was,” he paused for the dramatics and donned his hat with flair, then added a nod of acknowledgment, “a good performance.”

He walked home, the beer and whiskey forgotten, as were the vultures and the ball. He felt happy. He was happy. He… found it. He found a girl worth training. The next danseuse etoile. He was blinded by his anger, by his hate, but her tutor, whoever he was, saw the dancer in her.

She was the one, wasn’t she? She was Clara. He found his Clara.

 

Chapter Text

“Louis, we have a problem.”

Auguste wasn’t singing, this time. His tone was grave. Which meant that they really did have a problem.

Louis straightened, hoping Odette’s name would not be mentioned. “What is it?”

Auguste’s face resembled granite. “Madame Le Haut and her daughter are in my office. They want to see us.”

Louis scowled, his expression wary. “How can it be? Mademoiselle Camille had just left my class.”

Auguste shook his head. “Her real daughter. Come!” He walked hunched, his hands folded behind his back. “Janitor! Please find Mademoiselle Le Haut and send her to my office. Then, bring Odette.”

“Odette?” Louis picked up his pace. “What has she got to do with this? What’s going on?”

Auguste kept marching forward. The giant man looked frightening without his usual, jolly demeanor. “Please tell me you did not truly think the young miss was Le Haut’s daughter,” he grumbled.

If anything, Louis felt more lost than before. “I’ve noticed her behavior was odd, but – “

Then he understood. The child’s rags, her ridiculous ignorance, her sudden, implausible improvement, the grace… all this time, he was looking for a dancer. An old danseuse etoile for hire or a graying ballet master, down on his luck.

All this time, he ignored the danseuse etoile underneath his nose, the one who spent her days scrubbing stairs and swiping floors.

He followed Auguste into his office and was greeted by a woman and child, both bearing identical facial expressions and painful looking hairstyles. They wrinkled their noses and pursed their lips and did their absolute best to emit displeasure.

Auguste announced, voice low and heavy, “Monsieur Mérante, allow me to introduce you to Madame Regine Le Haut and her charming daughter, Camille Le Haut.”

The child curtsied. She looked exactly as he had imagined: perfect manners, perfect dress, cold eyes and the placid facial expression of a spoiled brat. Her mother, he noted, did bear a passing resemblance to a green bat.

“Charmed,” he muttered

The girl looked up at her mother, saw her facial expression and did her best to mimic it.

The red-haired child chose to stumble in at this very moment, and her crestfallen expression was a confession purer than words. She knew she had lost. He saw it – her hopes and dreams fading from her eyes.

“Wrench! I want her put in prison!” shrieked the green bat.

“She stole my life, my honor and my name! I want it back!” wailed her daughter.

The screams and dramatic acts of the ladies beside him were unnecessary and undignified. The child had no intention to lie any further. The child… she was just a child. Had they no pity?

“What is your name, mademoiselle?” he said, leaning on his cane. His voice was soft.

The child stopped to gather her courage. When she found it, she surrendered, her voice quiet and lifeless. “My name is Felicie Lebras. I come from an orphanage in Brittany. I didn't mean to hurt Camille. I just wanted to be at the Opera and,” she had nothing more to say. Actors ever blubber, but honest men run out of words. “I'm sorry,” she whispered.

He felt the joy of the woman behind him. The glee. She reveled in her victory over an orphaned child.

The door opened and Odette entered. She took one look and immediately joined the child. Felicie. Her student. She was his student as well, wasn’t she? But it was Odette who smiled at her and placed her hand on her shoulder in support. Odette was her teacher; she entered the room to help her student. And she did not glance at him.

The child leaned into the touch. She looked terrified.

Madame Le Haut lost all composure. “You traitor! You knew this! You stabbed me in the back! You are sacked!”

“Silence!” he commanded and hit the floor with his cane, glaring at the woman. This was out of the question. Odette was not to be threatened, especially not by a green bat and her hollow doll of a daughter.

But now he had to fix this. He had to do something. Why did you not come to me, Odette? Why didn’t you tell me? Why do you insist on placing yourself at the mercy of those vultures?

Then, he knew what to do. “All right. Like it or not, here is my deal. Mademoiselle Le Haut, you may enter the coryphée class starting tomorrow. And you will also be in the auditions for the part in 'The Nutcracker'.” This was what they wanted, didn’t they? The child and the mother who served the best prime rib in Paris. He poured iron into his voice, “But I want to be clear, if you sack Madame Odette, I will sack Camille.”

She was not to be touched.

He walked toward the child. The liar. Felicie. The act frightened her, he could see that, but it also allowed him to stand as a barrier between her and Madame Le Haut. It allowed him to stand closer to Odette, to hide meaning within looks and words, a conversation kept in secret.

If only she would listen.

Then he thundered, “You!” and glared at the child, who flinched. “You made a terrible start to the classes, and you have lied and cheated to be here.”

Odette inched closer to her, and her hold of the child tightened. A message to him – a plea – leave the girl alone. If you still care for me, leave my charge unharmed. I won’t hurt her, Odette. I would never hurt her. How cruel do you imagine me to be?

He ignored the barks of the woman behind him and softened his voice, “But you have also shown great promise, and you've worked hard and shown your dedication. You must have a good teacher.” Only then did he dare to look up at Odette, and only then did she look back at him. Her eyes, pale blue like soft days of spring when the sun is still shy, did not turn away.

Look at me. Look back at me. Do you understand? I know. I know everything.

For a moment, his heart stopped. The eyes that always looked away stared back, as beautiful and ethereal and beyond his reach as they were on the day she looked at him for the first time. He should –

Then his courage failed him, and he looked away. Torn from the dream of what could have been back to reality, where a pair of green, childish eyes awaited his verdict.

He was ready to make yet another promise. “So you may also stay in the auditions,” he declared, ignoring – once again – the woman behind him. He spoke only to Felicie, for this was his promise to her. “If you get the part in 'The Nutcracker' fair and square, you may become a coryphée too. If you fail to get the part, then you must leave the Opera. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” Felicie sighed, face glowing with gratitude.

“Is that also clear to you, Madame?” he added, turning to face the green bat behind him.

“Clear,” the woman hissed, displeased.

His plan was set. “Then, Felicie Lebras from Brittany, the orphan, your future at the Opera is in your hands.”

He gathered his courage one more time and looked at Odette, almost startled to find her looking back at him. Her eyes were not glassy, but bright and full of questions, and her back was not hunched but tall and proud. Her lips parted, and her face softened as an epiphany cleared the blue of her eyes.

She understood, did she not? The plan looked harsh to please Madame Le Haut, but in truth, all it proved was how much faith he had in Felicie. That he had already chosen her for the part. And that it had to be kept secret from the serpents behind him – that he had to stand closer not to threaten, but as protection.

He glanced away and left, his heart hammering in his chest. Standing so close to Odette, after – no, despite all this time… he felt like a boy again, working his courage to find an excuse to hold her hand.

Maybe now, she wouldn’t turn him away.

 

Odette placed her hand on Felicie’s back and stirred her away from the threats of the woman behind her and the schemes of the man in front of her. Her mind racing, she knew she had to focus on the immediate problem, which was Felicie’s future, not Mérante and his soft, gentle eyes.

She walked straight, the cane simply an accessory at her side. She had to plan. Realizing Felicie depended on her for success rattled her ribcage and shimmered within her, like the flickering of a flame.

“Go and change your clothes. When I finish here, we’ll start training,” she promised Felicie.

Felicie looked up and smiled at her. “I’ll work hard! Harder than ever! Promise!” and ran to the changing rooms.

Odette failed to fight the chuckle that escaped her lips, as unruly as the child to invoke it. She grabbed a room and began to sweep. The smooth motion allowed her mind to wander, escape the dreary reality of cleaning and enter the world of ballet.

Felicie’s strength was her passion and her weakness – her technique. She’d have to work hard to strengthen her muscles and focus her movements until she could float with precision and grace; until she could dance next to Rosita Mauri and not feel ashamed.

She did not lean on the broom, this time. Mérante’s gaze burned in the back of her throat. Her body felt young again. Her legs felt like dancing.

Her body began to mimic the movements she would have to teach the child. How to focus her turns and hold her limbs – without curving or caving to muscle fatigue – afloat, like a swan before flight.

Mérante’s eyes softened when he glanced at her, she was sure of it. He looked at her longer than he should have – or would have – if his actions were born of pity. She did not think he’d even glance at her direction, but he did. Twice. And on her, with no words spoken, his eyes lingered.

Tell me it means something. Tell me I mean something to you. Tell me my Lou is still in there.

 

Louis walked to his office, then turned and walked back. He had to talk to Odette. He had to see her. He had to know… the way she looked at him. It meant something. It must have meant something.

He rushed to the stage, then paused, hidden by the curtains.

Odette was dancing.

It was a twirl, barely a dance, but still, one could almost imagine her floating with each turn. She was neither leaning nor limping – she was dancing. And the broom was an accessory, not a crutch.

If he wanted proof, he had just received it. Odette was dancing. There was something, embers that could be sparked into a flame. Something.

She had not danced for ten years, after all. The injury had stolen her love and her life and yet… yet still, she danced.

He felt, rather than heard, Felicie joining his side. The child looked up at him, no longer terrified or distant, but rather… she, too, had warmth in her eyes.

“She even makes sweeping look graceful,” he said to her, his voice warm and laden with all the emotions he no longer knew how to contain.

Felicie edged a tad closer. “She was a good dancer, wasn't she?” she whispered back, her voice full of admiration.

He smiled despite the pain throbbing in his chest. “Not just a good dancer. The best of her generation.” He paused, trying to contain the memory of the flames. “And then there was a fire onstage.”

She did not know he was there when the clock struck midnight. He never told her.

“You have given her strength again,” he added, for today he saw a glimpse of Odette’s fighting spirit that he once thought was consumed by the fire.

Odette turned and paused, for she saw him. Her eyes lingered, locked on his. The shy blue, waiting for him.

Was she waiting?

He clenched his jaw, and just like the first time he saw her, he retreated into the shadows and left. The words that bled through his heart evaporated into silence. He turned away as the child rushed forward to hug the woman, and when he glanced back, he saw her standing tall – no broom in hand, hugging the child the way… yes. The way a mother might embrace her daughter.

Even if you weren’t dancing because of me, I will protect the reason why you dance. Even if you wouldn’t have me back, I will do everything in my power to help you… behind the curtains.

 

She trained her. Had to train her. This was our chance, she wanted to tell Felicie, our chance to stay together. We could be a family, of sorts, she wanted to say.

I could be your mother.

She practiced the thought in her mind as she trained Felicie, grilling her on everything she must do to win, and that she could win.

I believe in you. We believe in you.

And at night, when Felicie was sleeping soundly the way only a child could, Odette remained awake, watching.

She brushed her hair – so fiery red – and started to plan. She had enough money saved to rent a home. The place she had in mind was small, but she still had income from the Opera, so she could afford it for the time period that would require her to find a new source of income. A second job. She still could not afford the attendance fees, but that was something she could settle with Auguste. Probably.

Could she claim family? Technically, she had not adopted the child, and only members of the teaching faculty may enroll their children for free, but…

Perhaps I could become a teacher, after all. I never had the courage to try again, but… she looked at Felicie. The girl never gave up, no matter the odds. She escaped the orphanage, jumped on a train, and arrived at Paris with no clear plan, and still managed to get herself enrolled in the most prestigious school for ballet in the continent.

If she could become a ballerina, I could become a teacher.

Then she looked up, out through the window at the waning moon. She remembered the first time she met him. The Ballet Master back then, Lucien Pepita, walked into her class, followed by a young, handsome boy from the level above. All the girls, as taught, rushed to hold position against the rail and waited with bated breath for the new announcement.

“Is there a girl in this class named Odette?”

She turned around slowly to face the old man. “Yes, Monsieur,” she replied with a curtsey.

“Hmm. A grand name, you were given. Let us see if you can live up to it, shall we?” he gestured to the piano player. “Dance for me.”

“Dance?” Odette felt the world spinning. Dancing before the ballet master – this was the audition of her dreams, but – “I haven’t anything prepared, I….”

“Oh, don’t start with the excuses,” the master waved his hand, exasperated. “If you have the heart of a dancer, let it dance for you.” He sighed, then added, “This boy is quite sure you are worth my time. If you are, dance.”

And that was the first time she met Louis Mérante.

The piano player began to play Swan Lake. And – was she auditioning for the role of Odette? She could never audition for that part! It was beyond her expertise, and preference was always given to the senior students –

‘Dance,’ the boy mouthed. ‘just dance’.

So that’s what she did. She just danced. Her body surrendered to the music and danced on its own. She knew the story and the music – she was Odette, both by name and in character. Her movements translated the fear and desperation of a woman trapped as a swan, the frustration of endless nights and days and months passing – lost, locked – in the body of the animal they all try to mimic. She danced with grace and passion, without structure or planning, like a woman freed from her cage. Perhaps she was. With arms stretched and poised, she soared and tried to touch the sky – gravity had no hold of her – only despair and desolation pulled her down, back to the lake on which she floated, toes barely touching, legs arched in search of freedom.

She awoke from her trance when the music ended and opened her eyes, almost frightened, to meet the calculating eyes of the master.

“Hmm.” He said. Then paused.

She could hear the blood racing through her and feel her heart beating frantically, painfully, without rhythm, as she awaited his judgment. The only thing that held her up, she felt, were his eyes, that boy’s eyes, that gazed at her with pure unadulterated admiration.

“I did not think I would produce ‘The Swan Lake’ ever again,” he said. “Then I saw this boy dance. All I had to do was find Odette.” He shook his head. “Your dance lacks discipline, restraint, and refinement. But your passion,” he removed his glasses to clean them, “your passion is inspiring. You made me feel emotion… I haven’t felt for a long time.”

He returned his glasses and turned to exit. “You live up to your name.”

“Wait, Monsieur Pepita!” cried one of the girls, “What about us? Why aren’t we given the chance to audition? This isn’t fair – “

“Oh, quiet you,” ordered the old man. “I know you. Or at least, I know your mother. You have the energy of a bullet, but the lightness of a depressed elephant. You are not Odette.”

The girls muttered. Someone clapped. But all Odette could do was lose herself in the eyes of the handsome boy whose smile, first hesitant, then proud, curved her own lips in a similar gesture.

“See you in rehearsals!” he declared with a cocked brow, then bowed and exited as well.

That was so long ago, but when Felicie’s identity was discovered, she looked into his eyes and saw the same hesitant warmth reflected at her, and her heart raced in the same manner it did on that day.

“I suppose I will see you in rehearsals,” she whispered as she brushed Felicie’s hair. “Will you see me?”

 

On the day before the audition, however, Felicie fled from her.

You are not my mother, she said.

Her eyes widened when she realized what she said, and she fled.

Odette sat, holding the two red shoes. Her red shoes. She thought it would make Felicie happy. She has so little she could call her own, and these shoes – her red shoes – were so precious to her. The shoes, like Felicie’s music box, were her last gift from her mother.

You are not my mother.

And she left.

Odette waited. The hour was late, yet still, she waited. Don’t you want to be a ballerina? She thought, her heart aching with desperation. Surely, she knows my door is always open to her. Surely, she knows she can ask for help, and I’ll do everything I can to help her? Surely –

I sound like Mérante, she chuckled. The sound was bitter and tired and pained. Do you realize what he offered you, child? He offered you one of the most desirable debuts for a girl your age. Be Clara in a production of the best Ballet school in the continent, directed by a world-famous choreographer. Perform with the best dancers in the world.

The nights were growing colder and colder. Odette wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, shivered, and waited. A glance out the window revealed nothing had changed except for the moon, who no longer ruled over the sky from his seat far above but sank, lower and lower, into the trees’ welcoming embrace. Where are you, Felicie? Where did you go?

The world, child. She sighed, holding the red en pointe shoes in her hands, remains from a dream long gone. When he offered me an audition, I jumped head in. I grabbed it with everything I had. Why are you running away? Is that boy really worth more than your future?

The night ended. The moon surrendered to the temptation of slumber – or perhaps fled the day’s oppressing light, and the sun rose to rule in its place.

Odette, once again trapped in her role, wore her scarf and limped to work. With any luck, Felicie would once again defy all expectations and win.

You are not my mother.

 

He did not watch Camille perform at her audition. Could not. All he could do was watch the world tick away on his pocket watch and still his growing irritation. His worry. Where was Felicie?

He exchanged a short look with Rosita, seated next to him, but her elegant frown revealed she had no knowledge nor help to offer. He could feel Odette’s eyes on him from her hiding spot in the booth above the seats. The theater was not large enough to conceal the concern emitted by the silent, blue stars.

Where was the child?

Camille finished her dance to the raucous sound of her mother’s applause. He sneered at her actions, disgusted by her blatant attempt to influence his decision. Not that it mattered – if Felicie did not show up, Camille would automatically become the winner.

Rosita stepped on his foot, then said, “Thank you, mademoiselle,” with a voice soft and gracious.

I am sorry, child. He rose and cleared his throat, “Well, as mademoiselle Felicie did not deign to show up for the audition, it is Camille who will dance with Rosi-“

“Wait! Wait! I'm here!”

When Felice ran onto the stage, he felt his heart sink.

“Please, please let me dance,” she begged.

“You lost, orphan!” cried the Madame, jumping from her set. “It’s over, don’t you understand?”

“Sit. Down!” he commanded. The woman might be wealthy, but this was his production. His theater. His decision.

“I apologize,” the orphan mumbled.

She looked terrible. Her eyes were red and she stood hunched, as if her muscles were aching or her body was too weak to support her. Her body, frayed, sank toward the stage floor as if her very soul gave up. If the girl could not stand, how could she dance? And if the girl couldn’t dance…

“Did you sleep?” he asked.

“Not much,” she whispered. Her fingers toyed with her dress, as if the fabric was too tight for her thin body. Where was she – the girl that was brazen enough to enter his class and dance – with no form nor skill – but still danced, because the music was playing?

“Did you train yesterday?” he asked again. His voice was too worried – Madame Le Haut might suspect that the competition was a sham – but he could not pour ice into his voice, not when the girl looked down, eyes burning with shame.

Perhaps it was no longer a sham. The child before him had not an ounce of the fire she did the day before.

“No,” she mumbled.

“Why?” he asked, voice almost a plea, a demand for an answer she could not give him.

The child flinched and did not answer. But this was too late. He could not save her now. This was your chance, Felicie. He opened his eyes, and his anger choked and faded, leaving behind the rankling bitterness of disappointment. Why, child? What happened?

He sat down. There was nothing he could do to help her now. “All right. Music!”

And the music began and the girl danced and for a moment, Louis found he could relax into his chair. Her technique was lacking, but the passion was still there and the movements had the trademark grace that now he knew to be Odette’s. She could still win. She could –

And then she fell.

Her leg tremored and instead of stepping directly to full point, she trembled unto the floor.

“Start again,” he ordered, his hand in a fist. Don’t fail me again, Felicie. Rise and dance. Now!

“She fell, she’s eliminated!” protested Madame Le Haut.

“Start. Again,” he repeated, rankled.

The girl rose and the piano player repeated the notes. Once again she started, but her movements were already defeated. They held neither passion nor grace, only habit and memory. Her expression – already on the verge of shattering – told him she gave up. He could not give her any more chances; and even if he could, she would not have used them.

And once again, she fell. No tremor this time. She crushed directly onto the stage floor.

“This is hilarious,” crowed the Madame, pleasure dripping from every syllable.

Louis closed his eyes. He could feel Felicie’s pain in her broken form. The rich girl simply won an audition, but Felicie… Felicie just lost her chance – perhaps her only chance – to change her life. To dance; not because she could, but because her heart beat for it.

And there he sat, the executioner of her dreams. His promise was no longer salvation, but a guillotine.

He rose, his heart a weight burdening his lungs, and said, “You remember our deal?”

The orphan looked at him, eyes pleading yet her form resigned. She knew he could not do anything, surely? Hope, he thought, was an irrational creature with no understanding of facts or probabilities. She still hoped he could help her.

Why, Felicie? What happened to you?

He turned to face the other girl. “Mademoiselle Camille, you will have the honor of dancing Clara in 'The Nutcracker.'” And walked away. He took no pleasure in their victory nor their joy. How can they rejoice in such a shameful achievement?

Behind him, he heard Felicie sob.

He clenched his cane and walked faster. He did not want to look up and see Odette’s disappointment. Her pain. Once again he made a promise, and once again he had failed.

 

“Did you think it would end here, little rat?”

Odette wiped her tears and pulled herself up, because – no – not even Regine would be so evil as to hurt a child –

“Your consolation prize is waiting for you outside,” she drawled as she dragged the orphan from the stage.

“No! Let me go!” Felicie begged, trying to free herself, “No!”

No. no, don’t you dare! Odette rushed to the front door, as quickly as her limp allowed her. She wouldn’t do this, she cannot do this –

“It’s a one-way ticket back home,” the Madame snarled, “where you belong.”

“Oh, no,” Odette whispered as stumbled down the stairs, ignoring the pain burning through her left leg, then to the front gate, where Felicie was already pushed into a carriage.

“Please, please!” Odette begged, breathless, but the carriage had already left and her pleas fell on the deaf ears of the Madame, who smiled when she heard her.

“Felicie!” she cried, attempting to stop the carriage with her arm outstretched.

A foolish attempt, as the carriage already left and the child, banging on the back window and calling her name, could no longer hear her.

She called my name. She asked for my help. The thought was caught in her throat and burned through her lungs. I failed her.

“You will never see her again,” taunted Regine, her voice soft and velvety. “And, of course, you're sacked.”

Odette watched the carriage until it disappeared, trying in vain to ease the tightening of her throat. Defeated. Again, she was defeated. You can try with all your might, but all they need to do is snap their fingers and your entire world falls apart.

Now, they did the same to Felicie.

Was I not enough for her? She had to ruin Felicie’s life as well? She is just a child! Just a child. She is alone, and she had no help, only a dream and –

Even a dream is a privilege wasted on the poor.

Odette surrendered to the silence. Even tears were a luxury she could not afford.

She limped to Le Haut’s mansion and packed her clothes. She had so little to pack, it took her mere minutes to undress the place that served as her home for the past ten years. She left no mark.

And she had nowhere to go.

Her legs dragged her back to the Opera. She climbed up the stairs – slowly, so slowly – and limped toward the supply room. She stood in the dim room, eyes glassy and vacant, then crumbled against the wall.

She told herself she wouldn’t cry. She promised herself, when they told her she’d never dance again, that this was the last time. The last tears. When the treatment they offered her was too expensive, she broke her promise. When Lou left her to dance in America, she broke it for the final time.

Today, she broke her promise again. Twice.

Tears, large and fat and silent rolled down her cheeks. Her shoulders shook and her leg spasmed, shooting arrows of fire up her thigh, but all she could think about was Felicie, banging on the back window of the carriage, begging, begging…

Begging never helped.

She did not cry for so many years, spent in silence. She had accepted her fate – surrendered to it. Shriveled in her cage of deformity and poverty and waited, long and in vain, for freedom. Unlike Odette from the stories, however, no prince came to rescue her and break the curse. Lou left her for Odile. And Felicie… Felicie was an escape – a reprieve during moonlit nights – temporary and now, stolen.

Perhaps the only freedom she could hope for waited for her beyond the stage. She already heard the final call. They clapped and clapped and clapped… and now the theater is empty, and she was left alone on the stage. No one is clapping for her, anymore. No one’s waiting. Now she just has to wait for the curtains to close….

Felicie.

The name shattered, like a ray of light lost underneath the waves, yet managed to break through the darkest of her clouds. The child, oh, the poor child, chained to a fate not dissimilar to her own; a Life of cleaning, snuffed by poverty and bigotry. She was destined for the stage, designed to dance among the stars… she deserved to be happy.

And you could not provide her that. You failed to break the curse. You failed her.

Where did you go, Felicie? Why did you leave? Why didn’t you return? I waited for you. I waited.

Odette sank lower and deeper into herself. She buried her face between her legs and curled unto herself as tightly as she could, and cried.

 

Chapter Text

Gentle sun rays and chirping birds woke her up.

One might think, Odette mused as she stared at the window and looked down at the girls, practicing their moves, that the world was a beautiful place.

The supply room’s window faced west, not east, and the flood of light signaled it was late in the afternoon. She overslept. Still, glancing at the broom and bucket, she found no reason to rise. What would be the worse that could happen? Auguste would also sack her? A brittle smile shattered her chapped lips. It may even be a relief.

And yet, she rose. Her body was frozen and stiff, and her joints protested loudly against her poor choice of sleeping position. Her ankle flared flames of pain that throbbed through her lower leg. She leaned against the wall, her body heavy and weak, the back of her mind throbbing. Her eyes were blinded by dancing spots of light, flashing and blackening. She closed them and hissed when the throbbing intensified, flooding her body with waves of pain.

She forced herself to breathe. Breathe and wait. Wait and breathe again, until the pain subsided, until she could open her eyes. The world slowly steadied, as did her breaths. You must climb out of this mess on your own, she thought. Find your way out. No one can help you now.

Then she paused and lifted her head.

Had she really had no help? Odette wiped her tears and dried her cheeks. She left the supply room and climbed the stairs with vigor she had not felt in years. He told her, didn’t he? He told her that if she’d ever need anything, he’d be there. Pity, she thought, and rejected his offer. He pitied her, for he reached his dream and she did not. Both of them, young and poor and burning with talent dreamed of fame and wealth, of conquering the stage and dancing and dancing until their feet could support them no longer and their hearts were too frail for the passion of music. Until the final curtain call. Until all the lights go out.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

But she’d endure that, his pity, if she could save Felicie. If she could see her again.

She knocked on his door, heart racing at the thought, but she did not pause to think or hesitate. A shiver ran up her spine when she heard his voice, permitting her entry.

She opened the door and entered.

Mérante looked tired. He leaned on his cane and fixed his gaze on the floor. He, too, looked defeated. When she said nothing, he looked up. His eyes widened when he saw her and his jaw clenched, but she could see the turmoil – the emotions he tried so hard to hide.

“Odette,” he breathed, then rushed toward her. “Please, take a seat, don’t – “

He moved a chair for her and offered her a hand, but she held on to her cane and whispered, “They sent her away.”

Mérante’s frown shattered her willpower. She looked down. She could not meet his eyes. She did not move from her spot, did not approach him. From the corner of her eyes, she could see his hand slowly dropping to rest at his side.

“Felicie? Who – what are you talking about?” he said, his voice low and deep and gentle. Too gentle.

She opened her mouth but her throat – treacherous thing – tightened yet again and allowed no words to pass. She looked away, trying to blink away her misery and her own emotional mess. She should not break. Not now; not in front of him. She had not spoken to him for years, and now, now that she had to, she couldn’t.

Mérante very gently placed his hand on hers. His hand was so warm – he was so warm – and his touch felt solid and unreal at the same time. He slowly pried her hand from her cane and, fingers caressing hers, led her to the chair. He held her for just a moment longer, his hand squeezing hers in reassurance, and released her.

He let her go. Like all those years ago – after the accident, he let her go. It was pity after all, then. He loved her when she danced and pitied her when she couldn’t.

Her hand dropped, slow and heavy, into her lap. Useless.

Then her hand was lifted again as Mérante offered her a glass of wine. He guided her fingers, slow and unresponsive at first, with gentleness and care, then looked into her eyes.

“Don’t cry,” he whispered.

Odette’s hand held the glass in a fist. She looked down again and quickly removed all unwanted moisture from her face. She opened her eyes to see his hand, offering her a handkerchief, but instead sipped from the wine and steeled herself.

She came to ask for help for the girl, not for herself.

When she was ready, she started again, “Le Haut sent her back to Brittany.”

“To the orphanage,” he probed.

She nodded. Her voice failed her again, so she sipped again. Perhaps she shouldn’t have – it has been so long since she had a drink or something to eat, that the effects were almost immediate.

“I had a plan,” she whispered, “to rent a small place and teach her, maybe even –“ she bit her lip. What was she doing? Telling him – talking to him – after ten years of silence, surely he no longer cared? He-he stopped caring the moment she fell. Left her to see the world and dance on all its stages. Became rich and famous and –

“Le Haut fired you?” his voice was gentle, but she could see his anger in his fist.

“It doesn’t matter,” she muttered, voice barely heard.

“Of course, it does! I told her, if she fired you, Camille – “

“It’s not the child’s fault,” she intervened, her voice flat and lifeless. It’s never the child’s fault, neither Camille nor Felicie… Felicie. I need to see her again. I have to see her again.

“I need to find her,” she whispered, her body trembling as she attempted to stand, “I need to….”

“You need to rest.” Strong hands cradled her shoulder and gently but firmly seated her on the chair. She looked up – a mistake, for his eyes held her gaze – the gentle brown never wavering as he tried to delve into her. “There is a small place in the attic, do you remember? Stay there. I’ll ask Auguste to arrange it for you. Stay, Odette, and wait for me.” His hand cupped her cheek for the briefest of moments, but her body burned at his touch. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he reassured her, then released her.

“What?” she mumbled, her mind still numb. Everything happened so fast – for a moment he held her, and then – “Where-where are you going?”

Mérante donned his coat. “To find that orphanage.”

 

Louis strode to Auguste’s office and tried to think of a plan – any plan – to find that girl. Odette came to him. Finally, she came to him. She spoke to him. She asked him for help.

Not for herself, but for the child. He could not fail her again. Either of them.

He entered without knocking, “I must leave, Auguste.”

“Leave,” the director repeated, frowning. He looked up from the pile of paperwork he was working on. “Please tell me you aren’t quitting over that Le Haut debacle.”

“Of course not,” he answered, prickled by the very thought. “I need to go to Brittany for a few days. I’ll return as soon as I can.”

Auguste’s usual smile was gone. “I’m not sure I can approve of this plan. You have a month to get that show ready, and Mademoiselle Camille had so little training….”

Louis glowered. “It won’t take me more than a day or two,” he tried to reassure him.

Auguste glowered back. “Really? Do you know where that girl’s orphanage is? Or how exhausting are the legal procedures for adopting a child?” He shook his head. “Once, all you had to do was pay them some, but now you need to sign paperwork and show a proof of prosperity and… and what not.”

Louis’ glower deepened. “Why on earth would you know anything about adoption procedures?” he demanded. And no, he did not know. He thought he could buy her freedom and give her back to Odette. No one had to know. But if it were a legal process…

“I an no fool, Louis,” Auguste grumbled. “You’d do anything for Odette. Odette loves that child, but she cannot afford to adopt her. One way or another, you’d have stepped in. Since the child failed her audition, she was probably sent away, which left Odette heartbroken, and you…” he waved in his general direction, “with a chance to save the day.”

“You make it sound as if I rejoice in her sorrow,” he snarled, eyes flashing and fingers tightening their hold of his cane.

“Hmm. Did I? Never fully grasped that whole subtext thing,” Auguste affected an air of innocence, then dropped the act and sighed. He threw his hands in the air in surrender. “But I suppose I can’t really stop you. Look for an orphanage close to a train station or a market. She had to get here somewhere, after all, and not entirely legally.” He paused. “You have until Tuesday.”

Louis signed, almost in relief, then added, “Odette needs a place to stay. I suggested the attic.”

“Oh?” Auguste tilted his head. “Don’t you have… ah, three guest bedrooms?” he winked.

How quickly he donned his mask of joy. Auguste was not an unkind man, so his disapproval was… almost baffling. He secured his agreement, however begrudged, so perhaps pressing him for answers wouldn’t be a good idea.

Louis cocked his brow instead. “What respectable woman would house with a man to whom she isn’t married or otherwise related?”

Auguste laughed. “Oh, I know that one! A governess!” He laughed again, pleased with his own joke. “Fine, I’ll arrange her a place in the… attic, you said. But You will need one. A governess, that is. Not an Attic.”

Louis expelled his irritation from his lungs, then nodded. “Thank you. I’ll see you again… as soon as I’m able.”

He rushed toward the exit, ignoring the students that moved out of his way and the worried eyes of Nora and Dora, and entered his carriage.

“Home, Monsieur?”

“No. Go to Brittany, as fast as you can,” he ordered.

His coachman, Phillippe, turned to look at him, confused. “Er, Brittany, Monsieur? That would take… five, six hours, at least!”

Louis leveled a glare at him. “Then we had better started, yes?”

“Eh, ye-yes, Monsieur.” Phillippe closed the door and climbed up to his seat, then whipped the horses into a gallop.

I’m coming, Felicie.

 

Luckily, Brittany had only one orphanage – an ancient castle that Phillippe spotted from afar. However, the sun sank behind the tired walls long before they reached them, so he had to find lodging for the night. The delay gave him time, time to plan and time to think.

Adopting a child – any child – was a dreadful responsibility. He wasn’t a father, and though he taught girls of Felicie’s age, he suspected that raising one would be slightly more difficult. Especially Felicie.

Am I to be like a father to her? Would she want me as a father? The notion was disquieting. Being a father… and not of her choice, but his. She might not have chosen him, had she the opportunity. How should he approach the subject? What should he say? What if she would have preferred to stay?

She could be my charge. A protégé, he thought. She already has a mother-like connection to Odette; no need to trouble her with another family figure so soon. Or at all.

The solution offered some relief. He was already her teacher at the academy, and so living together might prove an inconvenience, while a familial relationship – a burden. All she should require of him was structure, and perhaps a tutor or a governess, while Odette could teach her the rest. In a safe, yet challenging environment, the child would flourish. Yes, he thought, that was the most agreeable solution.

He awoke the day after, dined and went to the orphanage. The old castle looked cold and foreboding, a giant structure still clad in the early morning fog. The clumsy beast of stone couldn’t possibly retain warmth, he mused, then banged on the iron gate.

A child spotted him – a young boy with soot on his face and a beaten expression – and rushed into the castle. It was not long before a nun emerged, accompanied by a gargoyle of a man. He had flaming red hair, but that was not, oddly enough, his most unusual feature; his face had bizarre proportions – his nose and jaw were huge, while his bulging eyes pointed in opposite directions.

The hunched man and the cold nun did not look like ideal caretakers for orphans. No wonder Felicie fled.

“How may we help you, Monsieur?” asked the Nun.

“I have come to inquire about the adoption of a child, Madame,” he replied.

“Hmm,” she muttered, then took a long moment to scrutinize him, his clothes, and his carriage. She signaled the man to open the gate, which he did with a displeased growl. “Right this way, Monsieur…?”

“Mérante,” he said. “I’ve come from Paris.”

“Is that so?” She led him into the building. “A long drive. Are there no orphanages in your area?”

She was yet to be impressed, he noted. This might prove more difficult than he thought. “Perhaps, but I am looking for someone in particular.”

Behind him, the hunched man elicited another quiet, yet unmistakable growl.

Louis turned to cock a brow at him, and the man reddened and looked away.

“Let us talk in my office, then, before we see the children,” the Nun said.

Her office was humble in design and bare of decorations except for a huge cross. She gestured in a manner she no doubt thought to be gracious toward a small chair that was docked next to as small a desk. The chair faced her own chair and desk, so large in comparison that, to a child’s eye, they might have appeared grand.

Louis rolled his eyes at her power play, yet decided to obey. He sat at the chair but remained a hand’s length from the desk. He used the space to lean on his cane and the desk as a resting place for his hat. Let her see and remember and know that he was not an orphan she could frighten with oversized furniture.

The Nun’s lips thinned but chose not to comment. “Are you married, Monsieur Mérante?”

“I am not,” he replied.

“Have you the intention of marrying?”

“That shouldn’t be any concern of yours,” he snarled, his voice hard.

The Nun scowled. “I ask you this because you appear young, Monsieur, and surely you are capable –“

“I am not here to satisfy any parental instinct,” Louis interjected, “but my conscience. One of the orphans under your care had shown exceptional talent and promise, and I fear her path was cut short too soon. I want to help her fulfill her potential as a ballerina, something that is unlikely to happen without proper guidance and teaching. That, Madame, is why I am here.”

The Nun scoffed, but the hunched man’s eyes widened. “Was she any good? Felicie – you are speaking of Felicie, yes? Was she?”

Louis focused on him. Perhaps he misjudged. The terrifying looking man appeared to have a soft spot for the child.

“Indeed, I am. She was not merely good, Monsieur. I would not have come this far for a good dancer. She is a natural born ballerina, both in body and in spirit. I believe she could, with proper guidance and structure, become the next danseuse etoile of the academy.”

He wanted to say more, but a sound made him pause. If he were not mistaken, the desk just gasped.

“Very high praise indeed,” said the Nun dryly. “And who are you to make such proclamations?”

“I was her teacher in the academy,” he answered, trying not to frown in the desk’s direction.

“So you… dance?” The Nun looked a tad mortified. Her nose flared in judgment.

It was far easier to cock a brow at her than it was at an inanimate object. “Danced.”

“Were you any good?” the hunched man asked. He offered a hesitant smile.

Louis returned the gesture, “I suppose.” He cocked his brow.

The man continued, “And… and Felicie has a future, there? In the… in the city? They won’t be mean to her, would they?”

“That I cannot promise, but more doors would open before my protégé than before an orphan,” he answered. “I can promise I will do everything in my power to ensure she reached her full potential.”

“As… as dance a toil, you said?” the man’s eyes shifted between hesitance and joy. A frown of confusion and a tug of an uncertain smile made his expression comic, yet Louis found it endearing.

“Danseuse etoile,” he corrected, “and yes.” Then he added, hitting his cane against the floor to draw the desk’s attention, “Of course, she would have to work hard and train nearly every day for years to reach that level, and she would have to retain her passion and her spirit and her dream of dancing. Nothing less would do.”

“And should she fail?” demanded the Nun. “She is a child with big dreams and no discipline or structure of any sort. She never listens, does not attend her lessons, and her over-confidence had her injure herself more than once. What then, Monsieur?”

Louis’s forehead tightened as his jaw clenched, “You think lightly of me, Madame, and yet judge me harshly. My offer does not have conditions. I’d support whichever path she chose, injury notwithstanding.”

“Tut-tut-tut,” the Nun replied. “Temper, young man. I will hold you to your word, then, should your word be proven true.” She turned around and withdrew a pack of papers from her desk. “Surely, if you stand by what you said, you wouldn’t mind signing your words’ legal representation?” she inquired, her words and smile sharp, yet not unkind.

She did not offer him the paperwork for protégé, neither ward nor charge. No, the papers she provided him would make Felicie his legal daughter and heir. Clever woman, he thought disdainfully, with such a miserable personality.

The desk’s stomach growled.

“Ahm,” he cleared his throat. “Forgive my poor manners. I was in a rush,” he said, his face straight and free of the shame or remorse that usually accompanied such a social blunder.

The Nun looked embarrassed on his behalf. “Oh, heaven, Luteau, if you don’t mind….”

The hunched man, whose eyes were suspicious again, nodded. “Ah, right. Yes. Just a moment, yes.” He left in a hurry.

Louis placed the package of papers on his desk and, with a discreet jab of his elbow, pushed his hat to the floor. “Dear me,” he commented, then bent down and peeked underneath the desk.

Felicie looked back, eyes wide and startled and brimming with tears. She bit the front of her shirt, yet her shaking shoulders gave her away. The child hugged her legs as tightly as she could and curled into herself, tears sliding down her cheeks as she sobbed in silence.

Louis offered her his handkerchief and briefly held her trembling hand when she accepted it. He straightened in his chair to find the Nun glaring at him.

“My back is not what it used to be,” he offered, then began to read. Or attempted to. How can one read when seated so close to a crying child? Why was she crying? Was it something he said? He could not tell from her face – wide eyes and lips trembling, tears silently staining her pale cheeks – if she was happy to see him.

And what if she wasn’t?

The man – Luteau – entered carrying a plate with a slice of bread, cheese, and assorted fruits. “There you go, Monsieur… sorry for the wait –“ He blinked at him. “Have you lost your pocket square?”

“What pocket square?” he replied innocently.

 Luteau looked confused. “Your… handkerchief. Didn’t you have one?”

“I do not recall, perhaps I did.” Louis shoved a peach into his sleeve with the grace of a dancer and the speed of a thief, then, as he bowed to glance at the floor, rolled the fruit back into his hand and gave it to the child.

Felicie accepted the fruit with a shaking hand and offered a broken smile in return, though not the handkerchief, which she held in a tight, white-knuckled fist. Her eyes were still red, but she no longer cried. Overall, Louis thought it was an improvement.

“Doesn’t seem to be the case, Monsieur, though I appreciate your concern,” he replied smoothly. Indeed, both caretakers stared at him as if they found him odd, but Louis focused on the legal papers instead. Whenever he finished a paper, he lifted it up, picked another fruit, and smuggled to the child below.

This, he thought, was quite ridiculous.

However, with each passing moment, each instance of fruit being accepted by a small, cold hand, the words and demands presented on the adoption papers seemed less and less absurd to him. Adopting a daughter… suddenly, the notion felt more natural, more proper than adopting a protégé or a ward.

The girl tugged on his pants.

He looked up, but the Nun glowered at him from above her eagle’s nose, and both of Luteau’s eyes appeared to be focused in his direction, so risking yet another dive was not an option. Instead, he lowered his hand so his palm rested within her reach. Perhaps she had a piece of paper to write on, or perhaps she wanted to return his handkerchief…

Louis froze. His eyes focused on the paper, yet saw nothing. Then slowly, ever so slowly, he released the air locked in his lungs.

Felicie held his hand. Almost too tightly, almost too desperately, but she did. She held his hand.

Very well, then.

“All seemed to be in order,” he declared, “but I would like to speak to Felicie first, before signing.” He paused, thinking of the girl hiding underneath the desk. “I want to… ask her permission.” Were those the right words? He wasn’t certain. Felicie’s grasp tightened, crushing his fingers together, so he gave her a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

“Ah, certainly,” the Nun said, surprised. “Luteau, fetch the girl, would you?”

Felicie withdrew her hand.

“I’d rather go to her,” he objected, then rose. “Delicate matters shouldn’t be discussed in such a formal environment, where she might feel uncomfortable to speak her mind.”

The Nun shook her head. “My office is the more appropriate setting, and therefore –“

“I said,” he commanded, hands tightening their hold of his cane. “I’d rather go to her.”

Both caretakers stared at him, eyes shocked at his impertinence.

Luteau surrendered first. “Rig-right this way, Monsieur. She’s been upset, lately. I think she might… hmm. Might be in the bedroom. I think.”

They left the office with the Nun and Luteau in the lead. Louis hoped that the walk to the bedroom would provide enough time for Felicie to escape and reach their supposed point of rendezvous.

“Always had a love for dancing, that one,” Luteau said, filling the silence. “Been dancing since she could walk, I think. Her parents left her here young. She was one year old, a wee baby, left in a basket. She got this notion,” he laughed, waving his hand, “that her mother was a dancer and that she wanted to be a dancer just like her.”

“Was she given any lessons?” Louis inquired, watching the children running in the courtyard below.

“We teach our orphans valuable lessons that could serve them in the real world and provide them with a career,” scoffed the Nun. “Dancing isn’t often a lucrative or… honorable profession. We must protect our reputation, you understand.”

“Of course, Madame. One could not worship God through the arts, only by sweeping floors and cooking dinner,” he drawled.

The Nun’s cheeks blotched red. “We want what that is best for them. Dreams are wonderful, but dreams are not reality. Dreams are buried because life is hard, brutal and without pity.” Her words sounded recited. “There we are. This is where the orphans sleep.”

She opened the door and led them into a large, cold room, filled with rows of metal beds, covered in straw mattresses and thin wool blankets. How the children did not freeze to death each night was beyond him.

“And this is her bed,” the Nun led him to a deserted bed that didn’t appear any different from the other beds in the room. No personal items in sight, except for a small shoebox with golden ballet shoes taken from the academy. She had nothing to call her own but the clothes on her back, did she?

Luteau voiced his worry, “Maybe she’s in the courtyard – “

The door opened with a bang. All three turned around to face Felicie who stood, out of breath and bright-eyed, at the entrance to the room.

“M-Monsieur,” she stuttered, the froze, apparently at a loss.

Now that he looked at her, he could see the girl was a terrible liar. How on earth did she manage to deceive him for nearly two weeks?

“Oh!” She jumped, looking sheepish again. “About the – the shoes. And the dress. The – I meant, I mean, I didn’t mean to take them. Honest! They didn’t give me time to change –“

“Felicie,” he interrupted her as gently as he could. “I am not here for the shoes. Or the dress, for that matter.”

“O-oh. Right,” she muttered. She toyed with the hem of her dress.

“May we speak?” he asked her.

The child nodded, yet neither of the caretakers moved.

“In private?” he added, cocking a brow.

Luteau grumbled something, then walked toward the exit and placed his hand on Felicie’s shoulder, who looked startled by the touch.

“Meet me later in my office,” commanded the Nun, then joined Luteau. She smiled at Felicie, but the girl flinched and moved to make room for the woman to pass.

It seemed the girl was unaware that the odd two cared for her. Perhaps, he thought uncharitably, they did not. Crushing a child’s dream for the sake of reality was not a good way to win her heart.

He sat on the bed opposite Felicie’s and gestured for her to join him.

The girl was quick. She closed the door and sat on her bed, then looked up at him with an uneasy expression and uncertain eyes. She sat rigidly, joints locked and muscles frozen. It was as if she did not hold his hand with all her might, mere minutes ago.

“What were you doing under the desk?” he inquired.

The child grimaced, but when she noted his voice lacked the usual reprimand, she shifted uncomfortably and answered, “I saw you. From the window. I was curious.” She looked down, then up, then down again until she gathered her courage. “You really want to adopt me?” her voice broke on the last word. She sniffled and once again hugged her legs in front of her and wiped her tears on her apron. “Really really?”

His handkerchief, he noted, was still held crushed in her white-knuckled fist. She did not use it to wipe her tears.

For – no. This was not something he could do for someone else; not even for Odette. Looking into the child’s broken eyes, wishing and hoping and yet so afraid to trust, he knew. He knew, deep in heart and his very being, that he could never let anything hurt the girl again.

This vow, forged into the fibers of his soul, was made to never be broken.

“Yes, really really,” he promised. “If this is something you want, I would sign the papers and take you back to Paris.”

“And… and the academy?” She wanted to make sure. “Even though you said…?”

“Yes,” he reassured her. “My terms were too harsh. I was unfair to you.”

“Why?” she choked. Her eyes focused on him, hurt and too bright and innocent.

He sighed, then confessed, “I was certain of your victory. By the time Le Haut exposed you, I had already decided to give you the role of Clara.” When Felicie’s lower lip began to tremble again, he added, hurried, “There are other roles, this audition doesn’t have to be the end of your dancing career.”

Felicie nodded. Once again she wiped her eyes with a harsh, almost angry movement of her hand. She looked down, then up once more. She sniffled and wiped her cheeks again. “You really think I could be a danseuse etoile? Like Rosita?” Her voice held a budding of hope. That was slightly better than the broken notes from before.

He huffed. “You were not supposed to hear that. You are too young and undisciplined. However,” he added when she pouted, “you do show such potential. So yes, I think you can, but only hard work and dedication would make that possibility a reality.”

“I can work hard!” she declared, a hint of a flame in her eyes. “You can ask Odette! I trained a lot. Odette has odd teaching techniques.” She thought for a moment. “But do you want me? Not… not who I could be, I mean, I mean now me. Do you want me?”

She placed her hand on her chest, then dropped it. But this time, she did not drop her gaze.

Her question, so innocent, moved him. He remembered her hand, holding his. How should, or rather, how could he explain to her something so fleeting, yet with a mark so permanent?

“Yes,” he said simply. “We have not known each other long. Your true teacher, mentor, and caretaker was Odette, not me. However, Odette cannot afford the legal procedures of adoption –“

“Did she ask you? To adopt me? For her?” the girl fired. From her expression, he could not tell what answer she would like to receive. He decided to be honest with her, as honest as he could.

He shook his head. “She did not. I came… when I heard about your situation. When she told me.” He paused, choosing his words with the utmost care. “I know it is too soon, and I won’t press you for an answer, but I intend to adopt you as my legal daughter. The road you will face will be challenging and difficult, but not dangerous or unrewarding. My demands from you include hard work and dedication, and in return, I would do my best to provide you with everything you may need. And be… be there for you in whichever manner you should choose.”

“Like a d….” She didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, she looked down. “Uncle? Like Clara’s uncle?”

Louis blinked, baffled. “The… godfather?” He shook his head. “You think me eccentric?”

Felicie frowned, confused. “Odette said he was an uncle… or, like an uncle. What’s eccentric?”

“Odd, strange.” He waved his hand. “’Uncle’ is a great suggestion.” He rose. “Very well. Think hard about what I said, and tomorrow –“

“No – I mean, I mean ‘yes,” the girl interrupted him and rose as well. “Yes.”

Louis frowned. He was not certain if this was a good or a bad idea. “Felicie, this is an important decision, are you certain that you do not want to sleep on it? Think this through?”

The girl wiped her face one, final time. She took a deep breath, and when she looked up at him, all he could see was determination shining through the green. “Yes. Yes. I never thought anyone would want to adopt me,” she said, then explained, “I talk a lot and I have red hair and Odette said I complain too much and I like you. Do you really not dance anymore?”

Louis stared, shook his head, and smiled. It was a small smile, yet the gesture elicited a giggle from the child. That fiery spirit should never be broken or tamed, he mused.

“Not professionally. Pack your items and meet me at that Nun’s office,” he told her. “We have a long day’s ride ahead of us.”

“Okay!” Felicie smiled. She ran, grabbed the ballet shoes and dress and ran back to him. “I’m ready!”

Louis frowned, the sighed. “Well, at least the horses won’t be slowed down by extra weight.”

Once they’ve reached Paris, he’d have to take the girl shopping. Oh dear.

Chapter Text

Louis opened his book and began to read, ignoring the child in front of him, who sat with her face plastered against the window.

Or tried to. Every once in a while, Felicie would elicit a giggle or a gasp, and he could not ignore the temptation to look up and try to see the world through her eyes. Her childish awe and delight at anything from farm animals to windmills were, he had to admit, quite entertaining.

However, after the first hour had passed, the view ceased to entertain the girl, who sat restlessly and aimed short, cautious glances in his direction. All he had to do, he knew, was wait.

“What are you reading?” she asked, then cringed, discomfited by her own voice.

“Les Misérables,” he replied.

“It looks long,” she commented.

Louis lowered the book slightly and cocked a brow. “Correct observation.”

The girl evidently resisted the impulse to stick her tongue out in response. “What it’s about?”

A heavy question. He paused, trying to think which topics would be appropriate. “The poor and the oppressed, lighting the match of revolution while forging love and kindness despite the many sorrows they experience.”

“Oh.” Felicie frowned at the book, her eyes suspicious. “Do they win?”

“I haven’t got to that part yet,” he replied, amused. He breathed deeply and observed her, noting her discomfort at his presence and her boredom. No, not boredom. The girl’s eyes looked not dull, but curious.

“Tell me about yourself,” he asked.

Felicie seemed surprised. “Me? Well. Uh.”

“Eloquent.”

She scowled and folded her hands. “I was getting there! I was born, my mom died. I think I was one, well, Mother Superior thinks I was one, and she said she’s a great judge of kids’ ages. She said I looked nine three times in a row. I’m eleven, by the way.” She stopped and peered at him.

“Go on,” he encouraged her, doing his best to keep a respectable expression.

“Well….” The girl did not appear encouraged. “Life at the orphanage is pretty boring. We did the same stuff every day – cleaning and bible stuff and cleaning and some history or math, I think. I didn’t go to the lessons. And… and cleaning.” She counted on her fingers. “We cleaned a lot. Luteau took us to see a performance once – Mother Superior yelled at him for AGES – and… and yeah, I tried to dance like them.” She glanced up at him.

“All of those ridiculous gestures on your second day at the academy… were those inspired by that dance?” Louis inquired.

Felicie grimaced. “Well. I also improvised.” When he snickered, she added, “I got better!” a scowl settled on her young features in response.

“Indeed, you have,” he said. The compliment had an immediate effect – the girl stopped scowling and looked up at him wearing an expression that could best be described as starstruck. “How did you get to Paris?”

“Oh! It was a daring adventure,” she declared. “Victor and me – he’s my friend since forever – we’ve been trying to escape… I don’t know. A lot,” she emphasized. “But then he had a plan.” She paused to think. “It was a stupid plan. He didn’t look even a bit like Mother Superior, not even with a chicken for boobs, and –“

“Pardon me?” He must have misheard. There’s no way that –

“He held the chicken under his robe. To look like… y’know. A woman.”

“Right,” he muttered.

Felicie became more animated, her discomfort forgotten. “But it was a stupid plan because the chicken woke up Luteau and he chased us to the roof and then Victor used his chicken wings – he built them based on chickens –“

Louis did his best to maintain his composure. “Chickens, if I am not mistaken, don’t fly.”

“That’s what I told him!” The girl jumped in her seat. “But we had to try because Luteau nearly caught us, so we ran on the roof and we flew! We did. For a bit. Then we landed on a cart and we had to run away from Luteau. I nearly lost my music box twice! But Victor saved it. And –“

“Wait,” Louis stopped her. “What music box?”

Felicie sighed as the wind deserted her sails. “When they found me, I had a music box with a ballerina in it. My mother was a dancer too, I’m sure of it.” She looked out at the world passing through. “It’s broken now. Victor said he’d fix it, even though it was broken real bad and he’s mad at me.”

There was a moment of silence during which Louis tried and failed to come up with anything that would cheer the girl up.

“Anyways, then we got on the train to Paris and we hid inside a box of apples but then Victor farted so we got out and he fell into the river so I had to find the Opera alone. Then I met Odette and she hated me at first but she let me sleep with her so I don’t think she really hated me. Only a little bit.” She shrugged. “We cleaned the stairs together.”

“The… stairs.” Louis wondered why that detail was relevant.

“Yes! There were a LOT of stairs. We cleaned all night and in the morning the Madame made me clean again. I nearly broke a vase.” She looked upset again. “And then Camille broke my music box.”

Louis exhaled, feeling the child’s pain, then frowned. The child still held his handkerchief wrinkled into a ball. Well, it seemed like he wasn’t going to get it back. He discovered he could live in peace with that loss. “How did you learn to dance?”

The girl swallowed. “Odette made me do weird stuff, like jumping to ring a bell without splashing and cleaning the mirrors with my feet and hanging laundry while doing the toe thing on a barrel….”

“The toe… thing,” he repeated. “You mean en pointe?” he emphasized the correct term.

Felicie shrank a little. “Eh. Sure.”

“So you did not actually see Odette dance?” he persisted. His frowned deepened when the girl shook her head. “How did you manage to mimic her movements and her… flair so accurately?”

“She showed me parts of the movements, or she fixed them using her cane,” Felicie said, confused. “Why?”

Louis leaned back against the carriage. “She was… ethereal. She could leap with grace the likes of which none could mimic, rise like a feather and descend like a snowflake, and float whereas others would have walked. Watching her perform was… the greatest of honors.” He remembered watching her perform, how she could silence an entire room with a lift of her arm and captivate an audience show after show. And sometimes, after practice, she’d dance only for him… channel her soul through her body, grace and passion and love refined into art – fleeting and fading and uncaptured – for him. Only for him. To observe and never own and god, he never tired of watching.

Felicie regarded him with awe. “Could I ever be like that?” she whispered.

Louis cleared his throat, trying to also clear his mind from memories too pure and painful to be relived. “Hard to tell. You have the passion of a demon, but to be like Odette, you must also have the grace of an angel and the refinement of the swan. You must learn how to be reticent, yet not restrained; expressive, yet not emotional; evocative, yet not provocative.”

Felicie blinked. “I… do not know what these words mean…? I got the first part. I think.”

Louis sighed. “I will hire you a tutor, as soon as possible.”

 “But why? All I wanna do is dance,” she protested, lips curled into a pout.

“Ignorance is the mark of poverty; to advance, even in the world of ballet, you cannot rely on skill alone.” For they would judge you, and revel in your ignorance, and tear you down if they even had the chance. But that he did not say.

“You probably know everything,” she said with a sigh.

“And why is that?” he cocked a brow at her. Did she try to insinuate he did not earn his position? He did not, however, think her to be capable of such level of subtext.

“You’re really rich! You have a carriage and – and a top hat. And stuff.”

Well, it’s good to know the girl knew how to recognize wealthy people; they owned carriages and hats. “I was not born rich,” he said. “My situation wasn’t far worse than yours when you first reached the academy.”

Felicie sat ramrod straight. “You were an orphan?” she asked, eyes wide.

Louis exhaled, offering her a gentle look. “No; I was a thief.”

“A thief?!” she exclaimed, disbelief poured into every word. She then shrank into her seat, ashamed of her reaction, but relaxed when he did not punish her. “What’d you steal?” she asked, voice hesitant.

“Food.”

Felicie stared, disbelief widening her eyes, then she swallowed and looked down. “Oh,” she whispered.

The girl did not ask him any more questions. Instead, she stared out the window and played with his handkerchief. If he had thought the revelation would remove some of the walls between them, it did the opposite.

He returned to his book and read until the sun began to set and the light was too fickle and weak to be reliable. He looked at the window, then at the child… who fell asleep. Felicie curled on herself and napped on the bench, unbothered by traveling rays of the sun or the occasional bump in the road.

She was… sweet, he decided. So innocent and sheltered from cruel realities and taciturn word games. She only wanted to dance.

Louis shrugged out of his coat and, after a short moment of hesitation, covered her small frame with the heavy fabric.

“Sleep well, Felicie,” he whispered.

He remembered poverty; and hunger. By mere chance, thievery – the mark of desperation – led to his salvation. He stole from the wrong merchant, snatched an apple and dropped three, then, a bitter chase – and which chase wasn’t, when your stomach threatened to digest itself and your head spun and your legs burned with each tired step? – straight into Lucien. The ballet master of the Academy. The man who saw who he could become, if he were only given a chance.

And he did. He gave him a chance.

“Come with me, boy, and leave this life behind.”

Louis did not hesitate; between him and the police, the choice was easy. He gave him his hand and his fate and did not look back, not even when his mother called him a burden and his father closed the door in his face. Some doors remain forever closed.

Some doors, even money cannot open.

 

Odette waited. Another day passed – another day during which the dancers whispered and Auguste marched the halls, his usual cheery smile gone. Another day without Felicie.

But Lou said he’d bring her back. He looked at her like the old Lou – her Lou – did. And he promised. He promised, and though he promised her the world before, never was she so desperate for him to keep his word.

And thus, she waited. While waiting, she cleaned the place he had arranged for her – a small spot in the attic with an old mattress and a window, offering the most beautiful view in all of Paris. This was the storage room for old props and sets, and this was where they practiced in secret, when they were young and unafraid. This was where he first kissed her, where he first vowed to give her the world on a silver platter. This was where they learned how to love. This was where their dreams were still innocent and pure.

She scoffed at the dust and the memories. This was before he left to dance with other groups, on other stages, and make a name for himself. Before the fire.

She dragged a second mattress next to hers and placed an old curtain over it, repurposed as a blanket. She dusted the old props and found a doll – one of Clara’s old Nutcracker, no longer in use – and placed it near an old cushion she transformed into a pillow. Maybe, hopefully, Felicie would like it.

It was not enough; the girl wanted to dance, not to dream of dancing, but all Odette could offer her was this – a place surrounded by objects that also, once, used to dance. Like herself, she thought. I suppose I am also an old prop, no longer useful.

She cleaned and she sat and she waited by the window for the sight of fiery red hair running, because of course she would be running, back into her arms.

 

When they reached Paris, gas lamps ruling over empty streets and twinkling stars lording over the vast, black sky greeted them. The hour was late – far too late, in his opinion, to go to the Opera, where Odette was waiting. And Felicie was already fast asleep…

An excuse, his consciousness whipped his chest. You don’t want to see her. You don’t know what to say. How to explain yet another broken promise.

Louis sighed and glanced at Felicie. He did not have the heart to wake her. Instead, he cradled her in his coat and carried her in his arms into his house.

“Eh, monsieur,” muttered the coachman as he rushed to open the front door.

“Thank you, Philippe. See to the horses.”

“Yes, monsieur,” the young man replied as he hurried outside.

Inside, Joséphine, the housekeeper, was visibly fuming. Her red cheeks and disgruntled eyes followed him as he climbed up the stairs into the guest room with the largest window. She would cause trouble later, he knew, but the shadow of worry failed to rear its head as he pulled the blanket aside and gently placed the child upon the bed. He covered her in the blanket, yet when he tried to retrieve the coat, the child clutched the fabric with her fist and refused to let go.

Louis sighed. If he would not be careful, the child would end up hoarding his entire wardrobe.

He closed the door gently behind him and went downstairs, ready to face the volcano waiting to erupt.

“Monsieur!”

He did his best not to lose his composure. “Yes, Joséphine?” He sank into his armchair, feeling thoroughly exhausted. What would he say to Odette tomorrow? What would she think?

The ample woman fumed all the way to the kitchen and returned – still fuming – with a tray carrying wine, bread, and onion soup.

“What was that… thing?” she demanded as she sat the table. “That… rat! You did not run over her, did you? Pah! The police should do a better job clearing them off the streets and putting them into good, proper use –“

“Silence.”

He rubbed his throbbing temples, trying, and failing, and trying again, to control his temper. His blood boiled and roared within his limbs, declaring war on eloquent words and rational thinking.

“That… thing, as you called her, is my adopted daughter,” he said slowly, coldly, weighing his words with precision and care. “You are to treat her as such.”

He was also called that. A rat. A burden.

“This is not a good idea,” she protested. “I told you before, I am telling you again, you can still marry – “

He hit the floor with his cane. “Must I constantly remind you of your duties? You are to take care of the house and the household staff. That is all. My personal life is beyond your reproach.”

Josephine opened and closed her mouth three times before managing a coherent response. “But that child – “

“Your former master did the same when he left me this house.”

“You were his successor!”

“I was a poor boy with no future,” Louis corrected her. “This child is no different.” With iron poured into his voice, he added, “I expect you and every member of the household to treat her as my family. Is that clear?”

The woman’s arms twitched in dismay. “Monsieur!”

“Is that clear, Joséphine?” he repeated slowly, emphasizing every word.

Joséphine shook her head, her white curls no longer bouncing yet still immaculate. “But what about marriage, monsieur?” She had a coarse voice and coarser manners. In her way, the woman tried to care for him.

“Impertinence,” he muttered. “You are dismissed.”

The old woman curtsied and left, still muttering. She left Louis with his wine and his soup and his thoughts.

I asked her. Twice. She refused.

 

Morning found him in a slightly better mood. A servant woke him with tea and a review of the day’s weather, during which Louis mostly dozed off.

He drank the tea, dressed, and walked downstairs, then sat at the head of the table where a cup of coffee and the day’s paper waited for him. This time, the spot across from his was also arrayed. It was… an odd sight.

The sound of feet rushing downstairs in an ungainly, loud manner made him roll his eyes and snap the paper open and read. Well, after a fashion.

Felicie stumbled into the room with the finesse of a street urchin, which wasn’t likely to win her any points with the staff. “Oh,” she managed.

Louis turned a page. “I think ‘good morning,’ is the proper phrase.”

“Yes, ehm. Good morning… monsieur,” she mumbled.

Louis lowered the newspaper and looked at her.

The girl stood, one leg hiding behind the other, eyes wide and nervous, hands clutching his coat the way one might a beloved toy.

“Sit,” he ordered and gestured toward the chair across from his. “How’d you sleep?”

Felicie sat, eyes dancing around the room in a frantic, bewildered manner. “Oh. Erm. Fine. The bed was really soft. I thought it was made of clouds,” she confessed, then blushed.

He smiled. “Goose feathers, but I can see the similarities. Was the room to your liking?”

“It was too big. Um.” She turned redder and shrank into the chair. “I mean… sorry.”

He forced his forehead to relax. “’Too small’ is an issue; ‘too big’ is a matter of habit. You will get used to it.”

“Right, sorry,” she muttered, then squeaked when the maids entered, carrying trays.

Dear me, he sighed. The maids placed identical plates in front of them in a lovely ceremony during which Felicie tried her best to hide in her chair. It would take her time, he knew. Hell, it took him nearly a month to learn to sit still, but he also had to face Pepita, who was far grumpier and less tolerant of mistakes.

Joséphine entered with fresh fruit from the market and placed it at the center of the table. “No coats near the dinner table,” she chastised, tearing the fabric from the girl’s hands. “And no running!”

“Joséphine,” he said, his voice hard.

The woman looked at him in defiance, then focused her glare on the child. “You are a member of the Mérante house, now. Behave like it.”

“Leave,” he ordered, voice harder still.

The old woman grumbled yet obeyed, leaving Felicie even more frightened than before.

Louis pinched the bridge of his nose. He would have to arrange yet another talk with her.

“Eat whatever you like, and as much as you like,” he said in an attempt to calm the child when Felicie just stared, eyes bewildered still. “Pay her no mind.”

Felicie remained suspiciously quiet. When he looked up again, he saw she lifted – with the elegance of a newly christened thief – a slice of baguette and attempted, with her tongue sticking out, to spread strawberry jam on it, as thickly as she could.

When the pink, sugary mess was thick enough to her satisfaction, she tried – a herculean effort, really – to bite into the baguette, which then slipped from her hands and fell onto the plate with a distinct splotching sound.

“Maybe put less jam next time,” he advised.

Felicie looked up and blushed, yet her mortified expression melted when she noticed his amused smile.

She humphed, then lifted the baguette and shoved it into her mouth, then, after a valiant attempt at chewing with her mouth closed, swallowed with difficulty and continued to lick her fingers.

She stopped when she saw his expression. “What?” she asked defensively, “It was tasty!”

“Was it? I thought you swallowed it whole,” he reprimanded. “Small bites, lips closed, and for heaven’s sake don’t lick your fingers.”

She pouted. “But they taste good!”

“If you ate slower, you could’ve enjoyed the taste baguette with the jam,” he pointed out. “Let us pretend that manners are like ballet. When in doubt, observe me to learn the right technique.” He then picked a slice of the baguette and spread jam on it with two precise movements of his knife. Then, he sliced the bread in half and took a small bite. After he swallowed, he took the second slice and offered it to the child, his own slice left unfinished. “Try.”

The girl accepted the slice with a suspicious frown. “Can I add more –“

“No. This is precisely the right amount.”

Felicie frowned, then took a bite – “smaller” – a small bite and chewed.

“Better,” he offered. “Don’t forget to eat your vegetables.”

“Vegetables?! But you said –“ a look from him silenced her. “Fine,” she muttered, then bit into a carrot with a pirate-like attitude.

He had a lot of work to do.

 

Odette scrubbed the stage with tired, aching motions. They rehearsed daily now, the month before the opening night, and the stage had to be perfectly clean before each rehearsal, lest a dancer slipped on a grain of sand and broke a leg.

Lest they become like me.

“Odette!”

Odette looked up – was she imagining things? Was – after waiting for days and nights– was she –

Felicie landed in front of her and hugged her, a bright smile lighting her face. “Odette! I missed you, I really really missed you! A lot! I am so sorry really I really am!” She stopped to breathe. “I missed you.”

Odette, heart hammering, felt relief melting her frozen limbs. She exhaled weakly, then her hands – all on their own – released the brush and cradled the child to her, hugging her thin shoulders and wild, fiery hair.

“I missed you too, Felicie.” She sighed. “I am so happy you are here, and that you are safe.”

She should ask her to stay. Cleaning a stage was not the same as performing on it, but if it meant the child would stay close to her…

“You won’t believe what happened!” the child cried. “Monsieur Mérante adopted me! Really fully legally and stuff! He even signed papers!”

“Adopted… you?”

The ice crept back into her bones. The child, still dressed in her old rags, was fading from her arms; her world. Because Lou – no, not Lou, Mérante – would give her everything she could have ever wanted. She would dance and learn and wear pretty dresses… she’d have no use for a limping cleaner and a wooden nutcracker. She would not want to sleep on an old straw mattress and cover her body with a curtain or use an old cushion for a pillow.

Lou promised he’d bring her back. Bring her back to me.

He did bring her back. He brought her back and placed her just beyond my reach.

“Yes! I was so scared at first. I fell asleep on the carriage and when I woke up, I was in a huge bed in the biggest room ever!” She tried to demonstrate with her hands. “Then the maid said I need to go and eat breakfast and they served baguettes and jam! Can you believe it? Baguettes and jam! That’s my favorite! And the baguettes were fresh and the jam had pieces of stuff in it, too!” She smiled, then wrinkled her nose. “But then Monsieur Mérante made me eat vegetables.” She jumped and performed an excited pirouette. “Monsieur Mérante said he was going to re-enroll me into the advanced class, with Nora and Dora! He told me not to tell the other girls. He said they’d be mean if they knew he adopted me. But Nora and Dora are fine, right? When I asked him, he just did the brow thing. Y’know, the brow thing? That thing.” She demonstrated, trying to cock one brow and ended up lifting both of them. “What do you think? You’re very quiet.”

Felicie once again landed on her knees next to her. Her eyes, so bright a moment ago, darkened with concern.

Odette plastered a smile on her face. “Oh, what wonderful news. That’s… that’s perfect for you, Felicie.”

The girl tilted her head. “Yeah. I don’t know, though. He’s really strict. He said I need to learn math and history and stuff, and that he’s going to get me a tutor and a governess. And the housekeeper is super scary. I think she hates me.” She looked away, then down, and her eyes focused on Odette’s cleaning brush. “I know! You should be my governess! You already teach me stuff! And Monsieur Mérante really likes you. I think. I’ll ask him!”

“You will do no such thing,” Odette snapped.

She closed her eyes and regretted her harshness. The child stared at her, her lips parted and her expression hurt.

“Why?” she asked in a small voice.

“No… no reason. That’s great news. It truly is.” She tried to pour warmth into her words. She did not know if she was successful.

Mérante was quick. He already taught the child to pity.

Odette hugged the child close to her chest, cradling her head against her shoulder, and hoped – prayed – that it would be enough. I love you, Felicie. Please, do not forget that.

She froze when she heard the familiar sound of dress shoes walking upon the wooden stage, then looked up.

Mérante stood there, looking down at her, and his eyes…-

Felicie turned as well and looked up, hesitant. Her confusion was evident, as if she did not know how to approach her new father.

Mérante turned to look at Felicie, and his expression changed slightly; more distant, yet tinged with pride. “I enrolled you. Go and change, now. Class starts in five minutes.”

“Oh! Oh! Thank you! Really! You won’t regret it!” She jumped up until she landed next to him, but then the hands that rose to offer a hug hesitated and turned into fists. The child’s smile of pure joy tempered into a grateful grimace, and she bolted out of the stage. “I’ll see you at lunch!” she cried, waving Odette goodbye.

Goodbye, Felicie, Odette thought, following her fiery red braid. Goodbye.

So there she lingered, left alone with Mérante. She would have to crane her neck to look at him, like a dutiful servant, so instead she returned to her scrubbing, eyes looking down.

A hand appeared in front of her with an offer of help. Would that offer also be a lie?

“Odette, please. Look at me,” he whispered.

His voice was gentle and warm and tinged with yearning, burning the final notes and curling within her stomach. The smooth baritone echoed as did the promise of touch, skin to skin, offered by his hand.

“I know this is not what you wanted, but please, hear me out,” he said, low and deep and soft. “I am not trying to separate you or keep you out of her life.”

Odette twisted her lips, then shook her head. “Better than anything I could have given her. Be kind to her. She needs a father more than a teacher.” Her voice was vacant.

“Odette, please –“

“I have tired of your pity, Mérante.” She ignored his hand and instead relied on her cane to help her stand.

She sat for too long, however, and rose too quickly.

Her leg chose that moment to betray her. A spasm of pain, so sharp it made the world spin and darken, shot through her ankle all the way up to her skull. She hissed – or cried out, she wasn’t sure – and lost her balance.

“Odette!”

It took her a moment to regain her breath, and a longer moment still to calm her racing heart and shaking lungs. The ripples of the spasm still ricocheted within her body; her legs did not support her. But she was warm, so warm, and still standing. How could she be standing?

Her hands twitched against a solid chest while her body was enveloped by muscular arms, supporting her, holding her. One hand cradled her head against his chest while the other held her at the waist. Her feet on the stage were an illusion – he was holding her up.

She fell into Lou’s arms. Lou…

She breathed in the scent of nutmeg and clove and coffee and remembered times – forgotten moments, lost in paths not taken – that his scent was not so unfamiliar to her. She remembered times his arms were a home and his chest, her sanctuary. He would whisper poetry in her ears and hold her close, promising he’d never leave her side.

The pain subsided. It reached a level that could be endured.

“Release me, Mérante.”

His fingers twitched in response, but he did not resist when she pushed him with her hands. His hands settled on her waist, still supporting her, but now her weight rested on her feet and the pain flared through the clenched muscle once more.

She looked down and sucked in her breath.

“Odette, let me help you. Please, let me help you. Let me pay for the medicine –“

“No,” she muttered through clenched teeth. She closed her eyes and bit her lip and tried, with all her might, to breathe.

“Odette, please,” he pleaded with her. “I ask for nothing in return. You should rest and let your body heal. Please.”

“I told you before,” she whispered, voice barely heard. “I do not want your pity.” The hands that pushed him away now held on to his shoulders. Broad shoulders that, once, she would place her hands on as he lifted her to the sky…

“I do not offer you pity. I have never pitied you. I –“

“You are never around, always making promises you cannot keep, and you expect me to trust you?” she demanded and met his eyes. Finally, she found the courage to look up and – oh, damned be the soft brown, warm like the afternoon sun, glowing with flakes of gold and light and… yearning. Why the yearning?

“I know,” he whispered. “I know I have failed you. On too many occasions. I know. But please believe me when I say I only ever tried to be worthy of you. I never –“

“Liar,” she pushed him away and managed, somehow, to stand on her own. Her leg pulsed with pain and flames. “Liar! You weren’t there when I needed you. You signed some deals on the other side of town, then left to travel the world and dance and… and make a name for yourself while –“ She looked away, trying and failing to blink away her tears. “You left me the moment the doctors said I could no longer dance.”

“I didn’t! I – Odette, please, don’t tell me you think that!” He grabbed her shoulders and held her, almost, but not quite, saving her from falling. His eyes never left hers. “I only left to get the money for your medicine. We could not afford it, so I had to travel and –“

“And it took you eight years to return? I don’t believe you,” she whispered, her voice flat and dead.

“I sent you checks with the money. I wrote you letters!” His eyes searched hers, desperation bleeding through the brown. “Odette….”

She remembered those letters; the letters she did not open. “I did not want the money. I never asked for any.” She could not stop. The words stumbled out of her lips, hurried and untamed. “I wanted you by my side, I needed you to be there, and you weren’t there, like you weren’t there the night of the fire – “

“I was there!” he thundered. “Accuse me of anything, but not this! I was there! I was the one to run into the fire and get you out!”

Odette froze, then looked up. No way, there was no way that… but his eyes held truth. Truth and pain and that longing that ensured she could not look away.

“You…” she whispered, but her voice failed her. All she could do was look into his eyes and search, hoping and fearing and hoping despite the fear to find the answer buried within them.

But he never looked away. His eyes never left hers, open and vulnerable and desperate.

“I never pitied you. I loved you from the day I first saw you dance, and I have never stopped loving you.” His words pierced her chest, bleeding red within her veins and echoing in the chambers of her heart. “I still love you. Do not…” he whispered, then closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. “Accuse me of pity.”

He opened his eyes and waited for her to say something; anything. He bared his heart before her, rekindling all of the promises she thought he had long broken.

But all she could do was stare, dumbfounded and lost, at the man holding her up. The man she thought had left her, ten years ago, on the day her life ended.

“Lou….”

The nickname escaped her, broke through her lips and shattered against her tongue. His name. she had to say his name.

The man exhaled in surrender. His lips parted, and his eyes, oh, his eyes, looking at her the way he did when –

“Monsieur Mérante! Monsieur – oh.”

And the magic broke.

Lou turned around to look at Felicie. The child looked distinctively uncomfortable. She blushed and shuffled her feet. “Um. You have class.”

The man grumbled a curse and turned to look at her. She did not know what he saw, but the fire died; his eyes, not a moment ago ardent, were now mere ashes.

“Of course.” He released her shoulders and bent down to pick up her cane, which he offered to her. When she accepted, he offered her a small bow of his head and turned away. “Forgive me. I lost track of time.”

“It’s… it’s fine… uh….” Felicie’s eyes flickered between them with such urgency her hair escaped her ballerina bun.

“Come,” Lou said, and placed his hand gently on her shoulder. His guiding touch led the child – who turned one more time to glance at her direction – away from her.

Into the shadows.

Chapter Text

She did not love him.

“Again, mademoiselles.”

She did not love him.

“Again.”

Perhaps she never did.

“Again!”

 

Riding home with Felicie was a slight improvement over riding alone; when prompted, the girl would tell tales long enough to cover for his silence and mute his bitter thoughts.

He hoped and hated himself for hoping that Felicie would speak about Odette. But the girl was sensitive – ever since she saw them together, and saw how they parted, she kept her stories focused on her adventures with her friends. She no longer mentioned Odette.

He knew they still trained together, ate together, watched the rehearsals. He knew Odette was still a prominent figure in her life, and yet –

Perhaps he had given the child too much credit; perhaps it was Odette who asked her to leave her name unmentioned. The thought stung.

“… And then Victor showed me the Statue of Puberty! It’s a gift to America. How do you think they’ll transport it?”

The question charged through his cloud of pessimism. He stirred in his seat. “By ship, I’d imagine.”

“It’s very big,” she pointed out.

“Not if they disassemble it,” he replied. When the child frowned, he added, “take it apart.”

“Oh.”

“Was this word not a part of your vocabulary list?” he asked, cocking his brow.

Felicie shifted in her seat. “Eh. Maybe?”

“Not a very good answer,” he pointed out, brow cocked further.

The girl pouted. “I know – I’m trying! But I’m dancing all day and then….” She stopped and worried her lip. “I know you don’t like excuses. I’m sorry.”

He did not like the wounded expression on her young face, and liked even less the thought he was the cause. “You could bring your homework to the academy.”

“But then I couldn’t watch the rehearsals!”

“You know the choreography by heart,” he countered. “What about the multiplication table?”

“But….” She tried to think of an argument, failed, and wrinkled her nose. “Fine.”

“Would you rather I asked the tutor to decrease your workload?” he tried.

Felicie looked down. “He said I’m really behind.”

“Is there any subject you require help with?’’ he offered again. Perhaps he could sit with her during the weekends…

For a moment, her eyes lit, before a grimace chased the light away. “You’re busy… It’s fine.”

He pursed his lips. “As you wish.” He quelled his irritation and disappointment. Perhaps she was not yet ready to trust him. Instead of pushing the subject, he tried to offer her an incentive, “Try to finish all your work before the weekend, if you want a proper wardrobe.”

That did the trick. The child no longer looked as if she couldn’t wait for the ride to end.

“We’re going shopping?” she exclaimed, excited yet again.

He stifled a cough. “Josephine will take you. I have no knowledge… is that a problem?”

Felicie paled. “N-n-no.”

He leaned forward, frowning. “Does she frighten you?”

“Eh. Maybe?” Her lips twisted into a painful version of a smile. “I just don’t know… lots of stuff.”

The carriage slowed down until it stopped in front of his front door.

Her shoulders slumped. “I’ll go and read, now,” she muttered and dashed out the moment Philippe opened the door.

“Energetic little mademoiselle, isn’t she?” offered the surprised coachman.

He wanted to reply when a shout caught his attention.

“…No running! How many times – “

Dear lord. He’d have to arrange a third talk with Josephine. And cancel the shopping trip.

He marched inside to find Felicie plastered against the wall and Josephine towering over her.

“Proper ladies walk straight – and never, I repeat, never run! You –“

“Felicie, upstairs. Josephine, silence.”

His order and the thunder of his cane echoed within the hallway. He focused his glare on the old housekeeper, daring her to challenge him.

Felicie shot him a grateful look before dashing – that is, running – upstairs.

“Why you ungra-“

“I said, silence!” he commanded.

Josephine flared her nostrils as she all but charged ahead. “She is running!”

“She is a child!” He took a deep breath. Never before did he have to raise his voice on his servants. He stepped forward, glaring at the housekeeper. “I won’t have her feel uncomfortable in her own home.” To Josephine’s scoff, he added, his voice deep and laced with rage, “I promised Lucien I will take care of the house and its servants. Don’t force me to break that promise.”

He left the silent threat hanging between them.

Josephine was a general, more than a housekeeper. She kept the house in order for forty years. In a way, this house was more hers than his or Felicie’s. But to Felicie, he also made a promise. No, a vow. He vowed to give her a home. A home meant sanctuary, warmth, protection.

Fear was not an emotion he wanted her to experience.

 

When Felice returned to her, her glum expression faded and she offered her the brightest smile.

“Euh! I’m tired! You won’t believe how many times we had to jump before Monsieur Mérante was satisfied! I’ll tell you. It was….” She tried to count on her fingers. “A lot. Is a lot a number? The tutor said it isn’t. Math is hard, don’t you think?”

Odette smiled, then sank into the soft cushion of the theater seat. A week had passed since Lou confessed, yet she still had no answer to give him. After the lessons, she and Felicie hid in the theater to watch the rehearsals. Felicie, Odette was pleased to note, already knew Camille’s part perfectly. And while she watched and learned, Odette waited for Lou… to do something. Anything. She knew she had to speak to him, to say everything she needed to… but how? Her mind was a hurricane of thoughts and emotions, but when she looked at Lou, she forgot everything she wanted to say.

If the man knew she was watching him, he did not show it.

But he knew Felicie was watching, since she had to wait for him to finish and had nowhere else to go, yet –

“No, no! Stop! From the beginning.” The sound of his cane hitting the stage floor echoed in the theater. “Once again, Camille, you are scared. The mice have come. You are terrified. Please, try to convince me of your fear.”

Felicie giggled. They watched as she finished the routine, somehow eliciting a grunt of defeated frustration from Lou before they moved on to the next scene.

His voice was like… what did they call it? Electricity, running through her veins, rumbling within her muscles and dancing to the wild beating of her heart. His voice numbed her thoughts and the silent throbbing of her ankle. The velvety baritone made her close her eyes and dream of eyes, sparkling like smoky quartz, as deep and smooth as chocolate and as intoxicating as –

“By the way, look!” Felicie showed her the music box, once shattered to pieces.

Odette smiled at the simple music box, purer than her thoughts not a moment ago dared to be. She noted the miniature ballerina wore a dress with a similar sash to the one chosen by Felicie. “Victor has worked a miracle! Who'd have thought? He just has the look of a total nitwit,” she said, twisting her nose at the thought of the boy and his utter lack of manners.

Felicie’s smile faded as she gazed at the music box. “He doesn't wanna speak to me ever again.”

Odette thought of Lou and smiled as her heart clenched in raw misery. “He will,” she promised. Will Lou?

Felicie, perhaps guessing the subject of her musings, turned to glance at Lou, but before she managed to say a word, the man stirred from his spot within the shadows and marched onto the stage.

“No, no, no!” he declared, stopping the music.

Rosita did not move a muscle, but Camille looked defeated. Her shoulders slumped toward the floor.

“Here we go,” Odette muttered. A part of her was pleased to see the rude, cruel child failing again and again and again, but she also pitied the girl, who was destined for disappointment; she was not the Clara Lou wanted, and therefore, her dancing could never please him.

“Stop! It’s not that hard,” he commanded, venting his frustration with every vowel. “You are as cold as a stone statue. Mademoiselle Le Haut, you perform in three weeks, and so far, we have no emotion.”

“But I'm doing exactly the steps you told me,” the girl replied, breathing hard.

Lou pinched the bridge of his nose. “It's not enough to do the steps,” he dismissed her. “Find some anger or some pain or some love, but find something!” His voice was almost pleading as he acted each of these words, trying to trigger something inside Camille’s heart.

The girl, Odette thought, was not so different from the plastic ballerina inside Felicie’s music box. Perfect poise, perfect technique, yet no emotion of any sort. “She lacks this,” she said, pointing to Felicie’s heart. “Her dancing makes it clear.”

The music started and the ballerinas danced and Lou’s expression turned darker and darker with each passing moment.

The hour was late when he dismissed them.

Rosita took Camille, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder as she guided her to the dressing rooms. It took Odette a moment to realize the child was weeping.

It was not the child’s fault, she wanted to say when Lou walked toward them. It’s never the child’s fault.

“Good night, Madame,” Lou muttered with a small bow of his head. “Come.”

Her heart skipped a beat when he spoke, lips muttering the invitation she longed to hear –

But the invitation was not directed at her. Felicie gave her a parting hug and ran to join Lou, an uneasy smile on her lips. She even lifted her hand, as if hoping to hold his, yet Lou turned away before he saw the gesture. He did not reciprocate it. He did not hold the child’s hand.

Felicie’s hand fell as did her smile. She locked her hands behind her back and tried to smile at him – offering the toothiest of grins she could possibly conjure – but Lou did not look down at her, and he did not see her smile, either.

She should do something, shouldn’t she? Anything. She did nothing.

 

“Come. You and moi are going for a drink.”

Louis rolled his eyes, then turned to stare at his boss. “I’m busy.”

Auguste rolled his eyes. “You are a walking nightmare, is what you are. You should not be allowed near children!” He laughed, enjoying his own joke, yet the laughter did not quite reach his eyes.

“Right now, the production is a disaster,” Louis dismissed him. “I cannot drink during rehearsals.”

“Hmm, lucky I canceled it, didn’t I?” Auguste said offhandedly.

“You what?”

“Rosita complained about you,” the man said simply. “Come now, they all need a break. Even the pianist is tired. So you, me, drinks!” he sang, grabbing his shoulder. “I know a great place! It has music, alcohol, ladies….”

Louis tried to ignore his already throbbing headache. Damn the man. “I am not in the mood,” he objected. “If you did cancel the rehearsal, then I need to take Felicie home. Her tutor said her math skills are appalling.”

“Pah! The poor girl.” Auguste shook his head. “One would’ve thought she was adopted by an entire school, not just one teacher.” Yet the director did not give up as he dragged him toward their carriages. “Let her enjoy her youth! I know! Tell your coachman to take her home, and you’ll come with me!”

“Auguste, this is hardly appropriate – “

“It’s the perfect plan! I must be a genius!” He waved the coachman over. “Take Felicie home, would you? Tell her we have gone away on important business.” He clapped Louis’ already aching shoulder. “This old boy and I are going to relive the golden days.”

Louis pinched the bridge of his nose. “What. Golden. Days,” he growled, aggravated.

“Let’s go and find out! Come, the city of light awaits!” Auguste was a man hard to resist, but it was due to sheer strength rather than contagious enthusiasm.

For his part, Louis did not feel affected. He resigned to climb into the ridiculously painted carriage and let Auguste lead. He was, indeed, tired.

Auguste kept singing different opera verses, switching keys at will though remaining focused on the theme of unrequited love. Fantastic.

As if his mind was not focused on Odette from the moment he woke up till the moment he fell under sleep’s spell. Every sound, every whisper, every hint of brown in the corner of his eye made him think of her. Her steps; her voice; her hair. Her eyes, as bright as starlight, as she stared at him, bewildered and lost. It was her turn to pity him, then. Her turn, for her eyes held no love.

Not for him.

He gazed at the window, too exhausted to protest or try to act upon his irritation and murder the infuriating man. He stared at the shops, each decorated with red and green for the holiday to come, each looking like a perfect painting or a child’s toy. Especially the toy shop.

Felicie.

He hit the top of the carriage with his cane twice. The coachman obeyed immediately and stopped the carriage

“Louis? What on earth are you – Louis!”

Louis opened the carriage door and exited, ignoring his bewildered friend. If he were honest, he himself was not entirely certain what he was doing, but he knew that he had to enter the toy shop, Auguste’s plan be damned.

“Wait for us here, will you? Good lad – Louis!” August exited the carriage and ran to catch up with him. “What on earth are you doing?”

Louis let his actions speak for himself as he entered the toy shop, Auguste trailing after him in dismay.

A young woman with a broom in her hands welcomed them, “Sorry, monsieurs, we are closed – “

“But we can make an exception for you. How can we help you?” interfered an older lady. She observed their clothes and came to the correct conclusion that they might be worth her extra time.

Louis stared at the mountains of toys and wooden horses and terrifying dolls in fabulous dresses, dumbfounded. It was all so… purposeless. What would a child like? What would Felicie like? The girl had one music box which she played nonstop. That’s… all he knew about her.

“Ah, Madame, you are too kind,” Auguste spoke instead. “My friend here had recently adopted a twelve-year-old girl – “

“Eleven.”

“ – and this charming, strong, handsome, rich man –“

Louis rolled his eyes.

“ – is quite clueless. Can you help us find something a girl her age would like?”

The Madame blinked, then cleared her throat. “Certainly. Follow me, if you please.”

She led them to the doll collection first. White faces with unblinking eyes gazed back, flaunting their tiny attires and offering a placid smile. “This is our doll collection. We have modern dolls, dressed in the most fashionable cuts and fabrics,” she paused and glanced at their direction, “and we also have our historical collection of women throughout the centuries, from all over Europe. Our most popular is, of course, Marie Antoinette. Her dress is an exact replica of the dress depicted by Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty.”

Auguste leaned forward. “She looks positively haunted,” he whispered, staring at the doll’s vacant eyes.

The woman gasped, affronted.

Louis cleared his throat. “Something of… use, perhaps?”

The Madame kept her expression pleasant. “We have a selection of schooling material. Our chalkboards are of the highest quality. Our slates are writable on both sides, as you can see, and contain an abacus, to help one master the art of arithmetic.”

Auguste puffed. “No, we are looking for –“

“Perfect,” Louis cut in. “I’ll take that and a box of chalk.”

“You cannot be serious!” Auguste protested. “She is a child!”

“She needs to learn,” he replied. “Her education is lacking.”

Auguste shook his head. “You stopped the carriage to go to a toy shop, not a bookstore. Tell her, silvery moon, that you are embracing her!” he sang.

“I refuse to sing love songs to a child,” he commented dryly, rolling his eyes at Auguste’s improper behavior. While he did so, his eyes caught the sight of an object slightly less terrifying than the rest of the toys in the store.

“You are like a man, possessed! First, you decide to adopt – spontaneously! A bad decision in my opinion, and now… where’d you go?”

Louis walked toward the toy and held it up. An… elephant, but soft to the touch and sweet to look upon. It had beady eyes and an impressive trunk. The green felt and the decorative saddle, as well as the long ears and the short, thick legs, made the toy look chubby and comforting.

“Ah, we just recently received this from Germany,” the Madame said. “They call it a plush toy.”

He remembered Felicie hugging his coat, as if it would – or could – offer comfort. The room was too big for her, she said. After sharing a room with dozens of orphans, she must feel alone.

He gave it to the Madame with a nod.

“Would that be all?” she asked.

“Yes, thank you,” he muttered, distracted by the elephant’s beady eyes. The toy looked oddly friendly.

“Well, guess there’s no need for cognac to make you smile, eh?” Auguste commented, thereby eradicating the expression from his face.

Still, he hoped Felicie would like it.

 

He returned from the pub, slightly inebriated, holding a stuffed animal and a slate, and stopped in front of the door. His door. The tall, heavy wood must look menacing to young eyes and weak hands. Do these doors fill her with dread or a sense of protection?

A servant opened the door and snapped him from his reverie.

Louis entered and, with a sigh, allowed the servant to help relieve him from his cane, coat, and hat. Edgar tried to take the gifts as well, but Louis refused. He did not want another to touch them.

“Is the child asleep?”

“I believe she said she had some reading to do, monsieur.”

“Hmm.” Louis looked down at the gifts. The elephant stared back, a smile on its face. “Thank you.”

“Monsieur,” Edgar muttered with a bow.

He walked upstairs and sure enough, light beamed from the threshold. He knocked.

No answer.

He knocked again.

“Felicie?” he tried.

Still no answer.

A small debate whether he, a man, can enter a girl’s room ensued before the thought fire burned through his mind and his hand locked on the handle and opened the door with a thrust –

No fire.

The light was emitted by an oil lamp sat on a vanity, on which – instead of flowers or other feminine items – rested a pile of books, a mountain of crumbled pieces of paper, and a head with hair fierier than any flame.

He shook his head and placed the slate next to the sleeping child. Her expression was triumphant, and her fingers were stained. The paper she used as a pillow was marked with at least ten multiplication tables. “You worked hard,” he whispered, “I am proud of you.”

He moved the blanket and placed the elephant next to the pillow. Then, with hands slow and gentle, he took the sleeping child in his arms and carried her to the bed.

“Sleep well,” he whispered, then covered her with the duvet.

He brushed the hair from her face and no longer tried to fight the smile her sleeping features invoked in him. Perhaps Odette could no longer love him; perhaps his failures were too much for her to ever forgive. Perhaps it was too late for them, but perhaps – if he tried hard enough – Felicie could, one day, see him as a father. Not because of duty, but because of love.

I cannot fail her, he vowed.

Never.

 

Chapter Text

Morning caught him – as usual – seated in his chair, reading the paper, waiting for the sound of… yes. A child running – no, skipping down the stairs.

“Monsieur Mérante!” She stopped in front of him, bouncing on the balls of her feet, then balancing on the tip of her toes.

Louis lifted his gaze from the newspaper. “Good morning, Felicie.” He tried to keep his face straight, but a small smile cut through when he saw the child beaming at him, hugging the stuffed animal.

“Good morning!” she exclaimed, twitching with excitement. “Is he for me for real forever?”

“Yes. Sit down and eat your breakfast,” he ordered. Or tried to.

Felicie was not in the mood to obey. She squeaked and ran around the room, shouting, “You have the lightness of a green elephant! Whoo!”

He should restore dignity to the room, shouldn’t he? But once again, his lips did not obey him; instead of giving orders, they smiled.

“Thanks, monsieur!” Felicie cried and, with a flamboyant pirouette, landed next to him and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek.

Josephine entered and the child rushed to take her seat, the stuffed animal still hugged close to the chest. She sent him a wide, toothy grin from her spot on the other side of the table.

He offered her a small smile in return. “You’re welcome,” he replied, folding the paper. “Now sit properly and drink your tea without spilling.”


 

Odette watched Felicie step, then balance on the tip of her toes and lift her leg up and her hand toward the sky. “What do you think?” she asked.

“Your movements are too round and purposeless. Your arm and leg must move in a straight line of perfection. Your body cannot help you reach the position you need – the limbs must freeze when the reach the right angle.” She rose and fixed the child’s limbs with her cane. “See? That is the final position. Try again.”

Felicie tried. This time, her movement was sharp with purpose. Precise and elegant.

“Better,” she commented, earning a proud smile from the child.

“No longer a depressed elephant?” she asked, then floated into the next position and lifted her arms. “I memorized the multiplication table last night! And – “ She stepped en pointe and then lifted her leg again. “ – guess what! Monsieur Mérante got me a stuffed elephant!”

“Did he really?” Odette’s heart clenched. “How sweet of him. What did you name him?”

“I… didn’t think about it?” Felicie sat and stretched on the floor. “I didn’t ask him for it, either. I slept, and when I woke up, it was there! What do people usually name elephants? I never saw an elephant in my life! Only in a drawing. Mine’s green. Are they green? Where can I see a real elephant? Do you think Mérante likes me? Am I supposed not to talk about him? Josephine told me not to say your name in front of Mérante cuz it makes him sad. Why? I don’t like her. She yells at me all the time when Mérante isn’t there. She’s mean. She –“

“Slow down, Felicie!” Odette cried, her heart now hammering. “Slow down. Who is Josephine?”

“The housekeeper. She hates me cuz I’m not proper enough. She says I’m not a good Mérante,” the child muttered, deflated.

“You are a fantastic dancer, Felicie, and a wonderful human being. That is more than enough to make you worthy of any last name in the world, especially Mérante.”

Felicie offered a short-lived smile. “She doesn’t let me leave the house and meet Victor. She had Edgar threaten to call the police on him. She said I can’t hang out with beggars, especially boys.”

She gave up on the stretch and curled on the floor. “I miss Victor.”

“Did you tell Mérante?” Odette asked, brushing the child’s hair.

Felicie shook her head. “He wants me to study in my free time. It’s so boring, though. He said I need to expand my knowledge about literature, music and the arts, though I am to be spared the fate of finishing school,” she quoted. “What is finishing school?”

“Schools for manners and etiquette,” Odette muttered, thinking about those years when she and Lou began to enter society as the lead dancers of the ballet and realized what marked them as outsiders. Not clothes or lack of invitations or even connections, but ignorance. Ignorance marked each word and look and movement. Ignorance sold them out the way a hungry man would sell everything he owned. Ignorance leaked from every step. They could not hide.

“He tries to protect you,” she said instead. “Dancing would open doors for you, but only education would keep them open.”

The child sat up, frowning. “What do you mean?”

Odette shook her head. “Never mind. Practice the move again. Your en pointe is still a bit heavy. Your limbs must stay strong and straight when you move. Imagine you’re skating… or that you’re weightless.”

“Why are you taking advice from the cleaner?”

Two girls emerged from behind the backstage curtain. One of them rolled her eyes at her friend’s blunt comment.

The childish words felt like a slap. Her blood froze like ice as her hand, heavy and tired, fell to her side. Tired from years of lifting buckets and scrubbing floors and –

“You can’t say that,” whispered the girl who rolled her eyes.

“Nora!” Felicie shot, challenging. “Odette is not just a cleaner! She was the best dancer of her generation!”

Odette raised her hand. “Felicie, it’s fine –“

But Felicie already stood up, fire in her eyes. “No, it’s not! Mérante said that Odette was the best, so she was. She’s teaching me to dance.”

The two girls exchanged glances.

One of them curtsied. “Dora, Madame. Could you teach me as well?”

The second one, the girl whose words crushed the air out of Odette’s lungs, hurried to follow through. “Nora, Madame. Can you teach me, too?” Dora stepped on her foot. “I apologize for what I said earlier!” she added.

Felicie turned to look at her with the brightest of smiles. She couldn’t really refuse.

“Very… oh, very well,” she surrendered. “Call me Odette. Let’s review your en pointe walk.”

The girls immediately rose to stand on the tip of their toes and did as she asked.

It was… an odd sensation. 


 

Another day, another failed rehearsal.

Louis stifled a sigh and his eyes, unwilling yet out of habit disobeyed, glanced at the audience.

All the seats were empty.

Felicie was sent home six hours ago to practice her reading, and Odette was nowhere to be seen.

His hand a fist, he walked off the stage and almost marched into Rosita.

The young woman furrowed her brow. “One would think you were pleased by the performance, but now I see your silence today was the result of surrender.”

“The last thing I need is Le Haut freezing on the stage,” he muttered, a silent growl lacing his words. “Perhaps I should ask Odette to teach her as well, since for three weeks I have tried and failed to pour emotion into her movements.”

Rosita paused, her frown deepening. “What on earth do you mean?”

He thought of Nora’s and Dora’s sudden improvement and of Felicie’s triumphant smile.

“Nothing.” He closed his eyes, trying to chase the irritation away with a wave of his hand. “I do have a favor to ask of you,” he said instead.

“Louis,” she said cautiously, slowly. Her lips parted, yet one look from him silenced whatever it was she wanted to say. “I would be happy to help,” she said instead.

He nodded and straightened, trying to will the anger away from his body. “I need someone to take Felicie to buy clothes. I wanted the housekeeper to take her, but I’m afraid they don’t get along.” He thought of his threat. Would he be forced to follow through? Letting Josephine go seemed absurd, and yet, the fear in Felicie’s eyes… “She needs an entire wardrobe. Could you do it? I’m afraid I am not familiar enough with women’s fashion to do her justice.”

Rosita’s lips slowly curtsied into a graceful smile. “Of course, I would be happy to do it. She seems like a lovely girl.” She glanced at the empty theater. “In return, however, I would like to know what burdens you.”

He stiffened as his fingers curled around the handle of his cane, trying to regain his grasp on his temper. “I can assure you I am perfectly well.”

“Louis,” she implored, “you have been my mentor and my friend from the moment you joined the academy. And you helped me oh so many times. Please, let me repay the favor and help you.” When he said nothing, she added, “would you like me to speak with Odette?”

“Absolutely not,” he seethed. “Leave her out of this.”

Rosita’s eyes widened. “Louis –“

“Monsieur Mérante!” a cry cut between them, as sharp as a knife. “Monsieur Mérante!”

A young man ran toward the stage, dressed in a suit and hard of breath.

“Philippe, what’s the matter?” he demanded, blood coiling and burning within his chest.

“It’s,” he breathed, “Felicie. She’s,” another breath, “gone.”

Gone.

Gone.

Felicie. Felicie was gone.

Frost and flames flayed his veins and clouded his mind. Gone.

“What do mean, gone?!” he demanded. “Speak up!”

Philippe was too slow to catch his breath. Damn the man. “I’m – I’m not sure. She,” he breathed, “had an argument with Josephine. Ran to her room. Then – Ada went to check on her, and –“ Breath, “ – she escaped through the window.”

“How long?” he snarled, rage and fear racing.

Philippe paled. “A… a couple of hours? We think the boy had helped –“

“What boy?” he fumed.

“A… a street urchin who might be her friend? Eh – “

“And only now you thought to contact me?” Louis demanded.

“Eh,” was the inadequate response. “We… we hoped she’d return….”

“Where could the child have gone?” Rosita asked, voicing the worry he found so hard to vocalize.

Philippe shrugged, eyes jumping from her graceful frown to Louis' white-knuckled fist. “I… do not know, madame. I only take her to the Academy.”

The Academy. Odette.

Rosita persisted. “Did she mention a place? Or perhaps did the boy?”

Philippe stuttered another confession of ignorance, then added, “The footmen and the maids are searching for her, but so far –“

“Wait here,” Louis commanded, then rushed to the attic.

He never noticed how many stairs the building possessed, how many doors and hallways and windows. He opened each door he found, yet the classrooms were empty and silent. Each hollow room and dark hallway quickened his heart. And by the time he reached the attic and – somehow – remembered to knock, his heart was racing and his blood throbbed like ice in his veins.

Please, please be behind this door.

He had to wait. A long, agonizing wait till he heard the familiar rhythm of a cane hitting the wooden floor. But the door opened to reveal Odette, and only her. Her surprise shuttered his hopes, yet still, he asked, “Is Felicie with you?”

Too desperate, too worried – entirely improper – but the fear and worry that flashed in Odette’s eyes were identical to those bleeding in his heart.

“No – why, what happened?” she breathed, stepping closer. Her eyes searched his for an answer he could not give her.

He broke his promise to her and his vow to Felicie. He failed.

“I… I do not know,” he admitted. “The staff came to warn me….” Then he remembered himself and her rejection. He stiffened. “Forgive me, Madame, for disturbing you. Good night.” He turned his back to her.

“Lou, wait!”

Her voice stopped him. Her hand on his stopped him. Her touch was warm.

She used her old nickname for him. Memories and pain and regret roused so easily by a word so plain. And hope; hope that maybe he could afford to be brave.

When he turned around, her eyes were still worried, yet free of judgment. Perhaps he could still prove his word true. Perhaps…

“She had an argument with the housekeeper, about a boy… I am not familiar with the details. I had spoken with the housekeeper, and I assumed….” He did not know what to say. How to explain a task that was so simple, yet still escaped him. Give Felicie a home.

“She said Josephine is unkind to her when you are not around,” Odette said softly. Her fingers closed around his palm. Her eyes gave him hope.

It took him a moment to realize she held his hand. He growled his aggravation. “Why did she not tell me? I would have taken the necessary actions – “

“Perhaps she did not want to worry you, or be a burden to you,” Odette whispered. She stood closer to him. “Do not blame yourself for this.”

“I will, until I have found her, safe and sound.” Time was fleeting and he did not have enough of it to dance – he returned the gesture and held her hand, taking comfort in the touch, praying she would not pull away. “Do you know where she might be?”

Odette frowned, thinking. “Did she leave with Victor?”

“Who?” he demanded.

“A boy about her age. They left the orphanage together,” she said, directing her frown at him.

The boy who tried to fly with chicken wings. “Perhaps. They said the boy looked like a street urchin.”

Odette’s hand squeezed his, perhaps in reassurance. “They often frequent the Eiffel tower or Eiffel’s workshops, or some of the nearby bars… wherever there’s music.” She grimaced. “We better hurry.”

“No,” he stopped her. “I’ll go. Stay here.”

The wounded look in her eyes flared into protest. “Why? I know these streets as well as you do.”

“I did not say that. Stay here, in case she comes to you,” he asked her. His hand, out of habit, rose to cup her cheek, fingers caressing the curve of her cheekbone. “If I find her first, I’ll come here to tell you, and if she came here, I’d rather she was met with a friendly face. Please.”

Odette let go of his hand and distanced herself from his touch. “I am not an invalid,” she muttered, her voice lifeless. “But I will keep watch. Find her.” She looked away, dismissing him.

Louis’ hands – the hands she rejected – curled into a fist. He nodded and marched to the front door, where Rosita, the janitor, and Philippe waited for him.

“She’s not here,” croaked the janitor. “Just finished patrolling.”

“I contacted the police,” Rosita added, rushing toward him. “They will be – oh, they are here!”

A tall man, with dark brown ponytail and a thick build entered through the main door, then removed his hat and offered Rosita a charming bow. He looked up, locked eyes with Louis, and dropped the noble act. “Louis? Why, bless me, it’s been ages!” He walked toward him and clapped his shoulder. “You don’t even come to the pub any – “

“Joseph,” he cut through, “now’s not the time. My daughter went missing and I must find her.”

Joseph blinked, clearly unfamiliar with the concept of urgency. “Daughter? Did I miss the wedding?”

Louis marched toward the main door with Joseph trailing in his wake.

“Phillippe, prepare the carriage horses for a ride. Joseph, help me find an eleven-year-old red-haired girl or so help me I will stop sending you free tickets.”

Phillippe ran after them. “But Monsieur, I didn’t bring the saddles!”

“Then I will ride bareback, as will you.” Louis turned to glare at Joseph. “Well?”

“What an emergency,” Joseph muttered. “I’ll send my men.”

“Tell them to search near the Eiffel tower, or the nearby pubs,” he ordered, watching Phillippe free the horses from the harnesses. Could the boy work any slower?

“Pubs?!” Joseph protested. “Don’t you know females must be protected from such establishments?”

“I did not know she frequented such places,” he hissed.

Joseph shook his head, then climbed on his horse. While not an inspiring figure in person, on horseback the man looked far more menacing. “Very well. I will head back and send my men to search the city. If she’s still around, we will find her.” He kicked his horse and raced down the street.

Louis also climbed on his horse and kicked it, riding to the Eiffel tower.

He would have to thank Rosita later for her help. And pay her back. She must have exchanged quite a sum, to have the head of police arrive at such short a time.

He kicked his horse again, riding as fast as he’d dare on the cobbled street.

Felicie. Felicie, where are you? I’m coming. I’m coming.

Where are you?

Chapter Text

Odette pulled the shawl tighter around her form. She watched the front door and shivered from the cold, waiting… had she not done this before? Stood and waited for Felicie or Lou to burst through the front doors of the grand building and return to her.

She was tired of waiting.

As if in response, her ankle flared and shot red iron talons to claw at her thigh. With a hiss, she sat on the stairs and tried to massage the burning spasms from her body and her mind. The ankle did not bother her for days, or so it seemed; why must it act now?

I am not an invalid, she told him.

He said nothing, but his eyes were clear. You are a burden to me, they said. You are of no use. 


 

He stopped his horse with an abrupt pull of the reins in front of the Eiffel tower. “Have you seen a red-haired girl?” Louis demanded, “Eleven years old, about this tall?”

“No, monsieur,” said an old beggar, watching him carefully. “Not for many days, now.”

“Dammit,” he cursed. “Do you know where she might be?”

The beggar twisted his lips. “Maybe with that boy?” He shrugged. “She danced once, for me. Got me a few shiny franks.”

Louis growled and kicked his horse. The horse neighed and obeyed. The sound of hoofs clipping against the aged stone – going faster and faster and faster – echoed and ricocheted around the quiet street.

He had to find her.


 

“May I join you?”

A voice, graceful and gentle, snapped her from her melancholic musings. She looked up to find Rosita glancing down at her with an elegant smile, set in a calculated expression.

She wanted something, but Odette could not, at the moment, walk away. With eyes still glued to the front door, she nodded.

Rosita sat by her side with a demure shiver. “Ah, it’s getting colder, isn’t it? The marble is quite merciless.”

Odette said nothing.

“One could almost forget that not very long ago, it was summer, with sweet, warm breeze carrying the aroma of flowers and fresh fruits – “

“And horse shit.”

Rosita deflated. “I’m… I’m sorry?”

Odette shrugged. “More people come to Paris in the summer, which means more carriages and, therefore, more horse shit. Smells worse when warm.” A part of her was pleased to add a touch of reality to the rich girl’s fantasy. Another part regretted the outburst. “I assume you are not here to talk about the weather.” 


 

“Did you see a girl? A red-haired girl – “

“No, and thank the lord for that! I already employ two useless workers in my workshop, no need for the female kind,” snapped a man in a heavy coat. “Leave, will you? I’m busy.”

Louis tried to contain his irritation. He kicked the poor beast again to a fast trot, heading to the nearest pub.

Felicie, where are you?


 

Rosita exhaled. “Yes, quite,” she said quietly. “Your summer days are not over yet. That was the… metaphor.”

Odette stiffened. Anger, deep-rooted and yet tired, oh so tired, stirred within her. The ancient beast clutched her heart but was too weak to keep holding for long. “Bold of you, I must say,” she replied instead.

Rosita smiled. The expression held compassion in the corner of her eyes. “Yes, I know. But we have… a lot of things in common, do we not? Enough to create a sense of companionship.” She looked at her, even directed a smile at her.

Odette kept her eyes glued on the front doors. “Is that so? Forgive me, I can only think of one.” 


 

“Not today, monsieur!” said the bartender, “But I’ll keep an eye out, yes?”

“Thank you,” Louis muttered. This was the second establishment.

Where on earth did the child go?


 

Rosita sighed, looking down. “Why, I can think of at least three. We both trained here, became danseuse etoile, and have a mutual friend, do we not?”

Odette swallowed with difficulty. She sat in silence, waiting and yet dreading Rosita’s next words.

“He cares for you, always did. From the day I met him, neither his eye nor his heart ever wandered.”

Odette’s lips parted and quivered. She breathed – shakily – and thought of today. How he almost looked… comforted by her touch. He held her hand with such warmth and need… yet his touch had reassuring strength. Almost like a promise.

“Again, bold of you,” she muttered. “I don’t think our mutual friend would appreciate your interference.” 


 

He kicked his horse again to a trot, not entirely certain where to go next. He just rode, looking for a glimpse of red, a flutter of a blue skirt… anything. Anything.

A few policemen crossed his path, rushing on horseback and stopping people on the street, inquiring about his child. His daughter.

He had to find her. 


 

“I don’t think he would have contradicted what I said,” Rosita objected. “What happened to you is a ballerina’s worst nightmare, but it was an accident. You don’t have to bury yourself the way you were forced to bury your dreams.” She leaned toward her, eyes searching hers. “When was the last time you felt alive?”

Odette’s mouth dried. She looked down, eyes focusing on the floor she spent so many years scrubbing. When was the last time she felt alive?

When Felicie hugged me, the memory suddenly fluttered, uninvited, and danced before her eyes. When Lou held me. When he told me he loved me.

“Perhaps it is time you went home,” she found herself saying. “You have rehearsal tomorrow.”

Rosita sighed. She opened her mouth, shook her head, and rose. “Yes. Forgive me, perhaps I was too forward, but I meant no harm.” She shivered. “What about you? I can give you a ride, if you’d like.”

She did not know, then. Odette almost wanted to tell her that she lived in the Opera, up above in the attic, but the words would not come out. What use would they serve? “I am waiting,” she said instead.

Rosita’s frown deepened, but this time, she had neither words of protest or wisdom to offer, so she smiled, said, “Good night, Madame,” with her trademark grace, and left.

Her eyes held no joy, Odette noticed. She seemed pained.

She resumed her watch.


Each failed search attempt, each pub and street and corner devoid of ginger hair and sparkling eyes rang hollow within his chest. Desperate, he rode to the outskirts of Paris, hoping that she did not stray even further. Where on earth could she go?

Not back to the orphanage, surely?

Did she hate him –

No. No. She must have fallen asleep or… what if she were injured? She had no money, and he had yet to buy her clothes that would indicate otherwise. He turned his horse around and rode toward the hospital.

The hour was late. Few policemen roamed the streets in search of Felicie, though he spotted Phillippe’s horse from the corner of his eye. Ever fewer men ventured outside at this hour, and those that did looked unsavory.

He had to find her. 


 

Odette watched the frost crawling on the large windows when the main doors opened with a push. She rose, her heart hammering, to greet –

“They got Felicie!” 

Two boys, Victor and another child, ran toward her. The second boy, who was round of body and wore similarly round glasses, leaned against the railing as he attempted to catch his breath.

Victor’s breath was still intact. “The police! We were walking – just walking – and they took her away!”

“They tried to get all of us,” said the second boy. “Said we’re orphan thieves.”

“But we didn’t steal anything! I swear!” Victor cried, quick to clear his name. “They just took her!”

“We tried to get here earlier but the streets was full of cops,” apologized the second boy. “I’m Mathurin, by the way.”

“Can you help her?” Victor implored, eyes wide and bright with worry.

Odette felt dread pouring like lead into her limbs. “Yes. You must hurry."


 

She was not in the hospital. Was he to feel relieved or even more concerned? All he knew was that he ran out of ideas.

The streets were empty, and neither poor men nor policemen walked the streets. A carriage crossed his path, but even the rich preferred to stay inside.

Where are you, Felicie? Where did you go? How far did you run?

Maybe he had just missed her, a desperate thought crossed his mind. Maybe she returned home, maybe she – maybe she returned to Odette.

Even if she chose her, at least she would be safe. Even if –

He kicked his horse and rode in the direction of the Opera; he must find her before he could contemplate the consequences of her actions. He must find her. He –

“Monsieur! Monsieur Mérante! Mérante!”

He pulled the reins sharply and stopped his horse.

Two boys, poor and dirty, ran toward him.

One, fat and wearing a ridiculous top hat, stopped and tried to catch his breath, while the other, sporting wild brown hair and a patched coat, ran all the way to him. “Mérante! Odette sent us. The police got Felicie! They said she’s a thief, but we didn’t steal! They – hey!”

Louis heard enough. He kicked his horse into a gallop. He had to hurry. 


 

Joseph was speaking to his men when he looked up and saw him, marching into the station and ignoring the young policeman that tried to stop him.

“Oh, Louis! I just ordered the men to search the nearest towns. This is a very strange case indeed –“

“What kind of police are you, imprisoning children?” he demanded, then closed the distance and gripped Joseph’s collar. “I have ridden all over the city, searching for my child, just to learn you had her all this time?”

“Calm down, Louis.” Joseph, his expression friendly but his eyes flashed iron, clutched his hand and forced him to release his grip. His other hand was raised, palm up, to stop his men from taking action. “I asked all my men to find the child, including those guarding the detaining cells. However, if she is indeed held in one of them, we will find her, and the man responsible for this debacle will lose his badge. How’s that?”

“Lead me to the cells,” he said, voice grave and laced with anger.

“Certainly.” Joseph managed a smile – perhaps to calm his men, and took the lead. The inside of the police station was dreary, cold, and ill-lit. Their footsteps echoed and multiplied before they were choked into silence by the stone walls. “What makes you think we had imprisoned her, by the way?”

They walked in a long, dark corridor, from which many smaller corridors emerged, leading to cells. The cells they already passed through were colder and darker than the main corridor, where the police lounged.

Louis thought about the two dirty children. He thought about Felicie, locked inside one of these cells. “I have my sources,” he said instead.

“Hmm. Reliable ones, I’m sure,” Joseph remarked.

His temper flared once more. “They saw the police taking her away, Joseph, taking away my daughter despite –“

“Dad!”

He froze. That was Felicie’s voice. That was Felicie, calling him –

He rushed forward and indeed, inside the nearest cell, glued to the metal bars, stood Felicie.

“Dad,” she whispered.

Her voice was rough and broken, as if she spent hours shouting. Calling for him.

“Felicie!” he ran to her, holding her hands, frozen to the touch.

In the dim light, her hair looked ashen and her skin as pale as snow. Her eyes were red and her lips were swollen and she shivered when he touched her.

“Release the girl, immediately,” commanded Joseph.

The man was quick to obey. He opened the cell and Felicie ran out and stumbled into his arms, crying and shaking. “Dad,” she whimpered again. “Dad.”

“I’m here, Felicie, I’m here.” He cradled the child to him, hugging her small frame. “I’m sorry it took me so long to find you.”

Her small hands hugged his neck with a surprisingly strong grip, and when he caressed her fiery hair, she buried her face in the lapels of his coat and began to sob.

“Well, this is very unfortunate,” commented Joseph. “I can see why no one suspected she was the child we were looking for,” he added, looking at her clothes. “Still, you should have said you were Mérante’s daughter, child! I’m sure the officer would have acted differently had he known –“

“He slapped her,” intervened one of the prisoners. “Said she’s making too much noise.” He stood – a large man, with a deep voice, dark eyes and darker skin. “Said she’s a thief. Would’ve slapped her more, if he wasn’t scared of my fist.”

Louis froze, his body burning with anger. He looked up at the policeman who stood near the cell, glowering at the prisoner from underneath a wrinkled brow.

“Savage, lying brute! Clearly, they did not whip you enough as a child.”

Louis stood up, released Felicie and glared at the policeman with ferocious ire, his heart drumming a thirst for blood. “Is that true?” he snarled.

“I d-d-didn’t steal nothing, I swear!” Felicie sobbed, trying to get his attention. “I didn’t!” She pulled the hem of his coat, hands shaking.

Almost instinctively, his arm reached out and cradled the child’s shoulders, hugging her against his side. Her hands, he noticed, were fists.

“Lies!” drawled the policeman. “Are you really going to listen to a child and a former slave? A noble lady filed a report that the child, who she employed out of charity, stole from her daughter! Clearly –“

“Clearly, you were bribed,” Louis interfered. “I know the woman. She has a personal vendetta against Felicie for being more talented than her daughter could ever dream of being. What evidence did she provide?” he demanded.

“Her word was evidence enough,” the man answered.

“That’s enough!” Joseph said, his command echoing within the small chamber. “Young man, hand me your badge. You are of no service to me or to the city.”

“But –“

“Now.”

The man, infuriated, bowed and left. His footsteps shattered the silence long after he disappeared from sight.

“And to you, child,” Joseph added, crouching. “I owe the humblest of apologies. I am truly sorry you had to endure such a harrowing experience.”

Felicie whimpered. She shrank into his touch and shifted away from Joseph.

Louis squeezed her shoulder gently in reassurance. The responding tremor inflamed his anger once more. “Indeed,” he snarled. “However, if you think an apology would be enough, you are sorely mistaken. She was snatched from the street due to nothing but the word of a wealthy woman. A Lie! Do you – “

Felicie tugged on his coat, stopping him in his tracks.

He exhaled, rage still fuming within his chest and clawing at his lungs, and looked down.

The child looked up at him, hesitant and shivering, her small ribcage shuddering with every silent sob.

He took off his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders, still shaking, and picked her up in his arms. She was so small and light, hardly a burden, and he stroked her fiery hair when an audible sob escaped her lips. She sniffled and whispered, “Dad,” into his shoulder. “Dad.”

“This won’t happen again, Louis, I’ll make sure of it,” Joseph said in reassurance. “This one’s on me. I take full responsibility.”

“Release the man who helped my daughter and I would consider speaking to you again,” Louis muttered, still stroking the child’s hair.

“Done!” Joseph declared. He beckoned the man that came as a replacement and ordered him to open the door, allowing the former slave to, once again, walk free.

Louis nodded to the man, who nodded back, and then turned and marched out of the corridor. He cradled the child’s head against his shoulder so she wouldn’t see the cells, the dark stone walls, the policemen, watching them with cold and uncaring eyes.

“I am sorry, Felicie, I am truly sorry,” he whispered. “I am sorry that it took me so long to find you, and that you were forced to endure such a thing, and that you felt the need to flee the place that was meant to be your home.” He stopped when her hands tightened their hold around his neck, but the sobs slowed down, so he continued, “This was not my promise to you, and I apologize for that.”

Felicie said nothing for a while, then sniffled and mumbled, “Can I still call you dad?”

A rueful smile crossed his lips. “Nothing would make me happier,” he whispered.

A young policeman rushed to open the door for them, then bowed his head when they exited.

Cold wind gushed to meet them, froze the tips of his ears and penetrated deep into his lungs, robbing him from warmth, leaving behind only the faintest smell of snow.

Felicie whimpered and burrowed deeper into his hug.

“Monsieur!” Phillippe stopped in front of them, still riding his horse. “Oh, thank the heavens!”

“Quite right,” Louis muttered, then continued, “Ride ahead of us and tell Josephine to prepare for our coming. I want the house warm and the bath ready when we arrive. And also tell her to prepare food and drinks, and then pack – “

“No,” Felicie whispered, as if guessing his next thought, “I don’t want anyone to lose their job because of me.”

Louis thought of Odette and sighed. “Go,” he ordered.

Phillippe nodded and kicked his horse, charging into the dark streets, while Louis mounted the horse and jog-trotted the rest of the way, still holding Felicie in his arms.

And the child held onto him, small arms hugging his neck with surprising strength and trust he did not feel he deserved. Despite everything that happened today, she still trusted him.

She called him dad.  

Chapter Text

The door opened before he managed to dismount with the child still in his arms.

“Oh! Monsieur! Mademoiselle! I was so worried!” Josephine hurried to meet them. “What ever did you think, child, running like that? The streets are dangerous! And it is highly improper for a young –“

“Josephine, silence,” he ordered. “Felicie’s been through enough. If you find yourself incapable of empathy, go to the kitchen and stay there.”

He began to walk toward the house when Felicie suddenly lifted her head.

“Look,” she whispered, “snow.”

And indeed, it began to snow. White petals fluttered from the sky and danced, the embodiment of refinement, all the way to the ground.

Odette.

“It’s probably going to snow all night, so tomorrow you can go out and play,” he promised. “But for now, stay inside and bathe.” He lowered her to the floor and nodded to Ada, who hurried to meet them and waited to accompany Felicie to the bath. “Have the towels warmed, as well,” he instructed the young maid.

Felicie wrinkled her nose. “Never liked baths,” she pouted.

“This one was warmed especially for you,” he replied. “And your body is cold. If you become sick, you won’t be able to play tomorrow in the snow.” He glanced at the window and watched the snow beginning to pile. “I must leave now. I’ll return as soon as I can,” he promised when Felicie opened her mouth to protest. “But I’m afraid I need my coat.”

“Where are you going?” she demanded, holding the coat hostage.

“To Odette. I promised her I’ll let her know when I find you,” he said, trying to keep his voice level and his pain from leaking, staining his words.

“Oh,” the child returned the coat, then furrowed her brow. “Does the attic have a fireplace?”

Ada shot a quick look in his direction, then placed a hand on Felicie’s shoulder. “Come, the water’s getting cold.”

“I’ll return soon,” he promised again and donned his coat.

Felicie gulped and nodded, looking almost frightened again, then managed a small smile as Ada stirred her toward the bathroom. Her eyes locked on the floor before they dashed to look at him one more time.

He left the house and summoned to Phillippe. “Fetch me a horse and one for yourself. No saddles.”

“You want to go and retrieve the carriage, monsieur?” Phillippe asked, frowning at the sky. “Well, I suppose better now before it got stuck in the snow.”

And find Odette. And then, somehow… convince her to come.

The attic had no fireplace, nor did the Opera keep any lit, at this hour.

The frozen wind that howled as it roamed the dark streets bore the promise of a cold, long night.

 


 

The blizzard howled and roared, clawing with icy fingers through the curtains of the theater and the set – all worn fabrics and weathered paintings. All but the giant grandfather clock that blocked the entrance of the mice.

She could hear them shouting rhythmically and hitting the floor with their rifles.

The stage floor shook. Dust and snow danced and stained the floor she worked so hard to clean –

She stood on the stage, alone. The audience was watching, all faces blurred yet all the eyes were cold and judging. They wanted her to dance, but how could she? She broke her ankle, years ago.

She could no longer perform.

 The stage throbbed, like a racing heart – the mice brought a ram and rattled the giant clock. Once, twice –

The clock struck midnight and fell – she could not move – her leg disobeyed – and shattered her ankle again –

“Odette!”

A warm touch rescued her from the cold talons of her nightmare. She opened her eyes and looked up, fear and pain and darkness throbbing in the back of her mind. The cold returned and she closed her eyes with a choked cry, trying to ease the pain from her leg, when something warm touched her shoulders and her back. Something warm that smelled of cloves and snow and Lou

She opened eyes again.

Black dress shoes covered with soot and mud. Her eyes trailed up, up the darkened figure by her side until they finally met Lou. Lou’s eyes, soft and warm and concerned and… oh.

“Did you find her?” she mumbled, attempting to sit up without angering her already inflamed ankle. She fell asleep on the stairs. How embarrassing. She tried to cover herself with her shawl to chase away the bitter cold and its icy, searching fingers, but her hands encountered something… woolen. Woolen and heavy and warm. Lou’s coat.

Were it any other day, she would have tossed the offer aside, but she was cold. She hugged the heavy coat to her numb limbs and exhaled weakly, watching her breath cloud and fade into the night.

“Yes. It took me far too long to find her, but yes.” His eyes kept searching hers and his hands rested an inch from her body, as if ready to catch her if she fell.

Where could she fall? She was already seated on the bottom of the stairs.

“Are you well?” he whispered, his voice and breath ghosting over her skin. The low and smooth baritone was heavy with worry. She must have looked dreadful.

She did not want to lie. “It smells of snow,” she said instead. “Too early.”

“First snow of the year,” he muttered. “And it looks like it's going to snow all night.”

“The academy will be closed tomorrow,” she continued, not sure what on earth was she talking about. Small talk, is that what they were doing? Dancing?

“How is she?” she asked, eyes glued to the large windows, covered in frost. Once, when it snowed, her mother made her a hot glass of milk with a dash of cinnamon –

This was so long ago. Why did she remember it?

“I am not sure. They put her in a holding cell, I… I cannot begin to imagine how horrifying that must have been for her.” He paused, pain and anger flaring through each word. “Would you come?” he asked suddenly. “Come and see her. She needs you, and….”

“I’ll come,” she said, almost as surprised to hear her response as Lou’s intake of air indicated. Still, if Felicie needed her, she could not possibly refuse. “Lead the way,” she added, almost smiling at him, a gesture that lit the specks of gold in his eyes –

“Monsieur!” Phillipe, for the second time, burst through the main door. “I searched everywhere, but I can’t find the carriage!”

Lou muttered a curse and grunted in aggravation. “Never mind. If the police cannot find a child, I doubt they’d manage to find a carriage, especially in this weather. Go home, Phillipe. You’ve earned a day off.”

The young man tried to hide his happiness with a firm, “Monsieur!” but he did not waste more than a moment on the act and ran outside the second he could.

His sudden entrance, however, filled the large entrance hall with snow and savage wind, stirring a bone-rattling shiver that caused her ankle to clamp and flare once more.

She winced, trying and failing to keep her pain silent.

Lou frowned, worry once again clouding his eyes and masking the gold, yet said nothing about her pain. “Come,” he said instead, rose and offered her a hand.

“I do not know how to ride,” she whispered.

“I do. Trust me,” he said, his voice low and deep and warm, warmer than the coat he had given her.

His eyes, arresting in the dim light, never released hers. Her body acted on its own, reaching forward and accepting the offered hand. The sensation of his skin touching hers burned her stomach and fluttered within her chest. Her heart, racing and stumbling and running in circles, finally chose a course of action. Forward.

She took a step toward him, standing too close, certainly, too close for anything but intimacy, but Lou was warm and solid and there. He did not seem to question her actions.

If anything, he looked relieved, no – reassured, by her presence. His second hand ghosted over her hair and, for a short, fleeting moment, dared to caress her cheek.

“Come,” he repeated and led her outside, still holding her hand.

She did not limp, this time. She left her cane on the stairs and held on to Lou, to his touch, and to the promise it contained.

When they reached his horse, a large, dark beast, her heart did offer a flutter of warning, but Lou simply lifted her unto the horse’s back and then mounted the horse behind her.

His arms enveloped her, holding her firmly against his chest. His legs touched hers and his beard stroked her brow. All she could see or touch or feel was Lou. Her Lou.

“All right?” he asked.

His breath tickled her forehead and sent a shiver down her spine, which induced Lou to hug her closer.

“Fine,” her voice trembled. Cocooned in his embrace, she could not be anything else. Even the cold felt like a distant reality, unable to reach through and sink its claws into her heart.

Lou clicked his tongue and the horse raced down the cobbled street, the sound of its hooves muffled by the piling snow. Too fast, she wanted to say, too bumpy and odd and unexpected – but Lou held her tighter, reassuring her with his touch.

He would not let me fall, she tried to convince herself. He would not let me get hurt.

Her hands, ignoring propriety and all forms of etiquette, hugged his waist and held onto him. Oh, Lou… perhaps he meant what he said, that day on the stage. Perhaps he did love her. Perhaps he never left her. Perhaps… perhaps he would still have her, even though she turned him down twice. Perhaps… she buried her face in the crook of his neck – protection from the cold, she told herself – and closed her eyes.

She could hear his heart racing. She could feel the muted drumming of his blood, beating faster and faster.

Lou…

“We’ve arrived,” Lou muttered, his words dancing against her forehead, and stopped the horse.

A servant opened the door and hurried to hold the horse’s reins so Lou could dismount, which he did with enviable grace. After he landed, he held her waist and lowered her to the snow-covered earth, offering her a hand in support.

The gesture would appear to onlookers as mere politeness and, at the same time, hide her limp. She accepted the touch and glanced up, then lost herself in his eyes.

The smoked quartz shone with warm and gentle light, hiding yearning and pain underneath a fleeting shadow. She could not look away.

A gust of wind, however, guided both of them inside, where a cheery fire and servants carrying warm drinks waited for them.

“Thank you,” Lou muttered, “we will take them in the back parlor. Is Felicie awake?”

“Yes, monsieur, I’ll send for her,” replied one of the servants and exited with a bow.

Lou led her to the back parlor – a small, intimate room with a wine-red sofa, a charming mahogany fireplace, and a thick Persian carpet. He helped her to the sofa, then sat in the cream armchair by her side.

The servants offered them each a drink – a glass full of a thick, dark drink she guessed to be hot cocoa – and left.

Odette held the steaming mug to warm her hands and suppressed a tired chuckle. So this was the life Lou led. It was almost absurd. Not as absurd as her, seating in his parlor and drinking hot cocoa – hot cocoa! Of all things – while wearing his coat like a cape.

“You are quiet,” he said, glancing in her direction.

His expression was hesitant, almost as if he feared he had offended her with his wealth. Did he? She observed the fine tapestry on the walls, a pale yet graceful depiction of flowers and songbirds.

“I don’t know what to say,” she confessed. “It’s so different from… our youth.” Her eyes darted to observe the man seated next to her, dressed in similar finery. His clothes, like the room’s tapestry, weren’t new, but were well preserved and elegant. How come she never noticed it before?

“It does not seem like you,” she added, then blushed. Oh, could she be any more inappropriate?

A ghost of a smile danced on his lips, tinged with memories. “I never redecorated. After Lucien died… it seemed like a frivolous expense, to rob the house of his touch for the sake of fashion.”

She frowned. “Lucien… Petipa? Your former teacher?” She looked up at him, surprised, but Lou looked at the richly colored carpet and not at her.

“Yes. He left me the deed to the house and a… fair share of his inheritance.” He chuckled then, but the gesture was bitter. “His last words to me were a command. ‘Stop boring me with your pathetic excuses and marry –“

“Odette!” Felicie charged in, wearing a rob that was slightly too big for her and holding a green stuffed elephant. She jumped on Odette in an attempt to give her the biggest hug to date, which Odette reciprocated, and then sat on the sofa next to her.

“Meet Alexandre!” she introduced the elephant to her by almost shoving it in her face. “Cute, right?”

“Very cute,” Odette commented, distancing herself slightly so she could look at the green toy. “What was the inspiration?”

The child sent a bashful grin and a nod in Lou’s direction, who shook his head yet failed to hide the small smile that danced upon his lips. Oh. She used his middle name.

Lou did not comment. “How are you feeling?” he asked instead, worry once again pouring lead into his words.

“Better! That bath-tube was fun. I –“ Ada walked in with another steaming mug, causing the child to exclaim, “Ohhh, is that hot cocoa? For me? Thanks, Ada!”

The maid nodded with a smile and exited, leaving the child to blow ecstatically on the sweet drink.

Odette chuckled, then allowed herself a laugh when she noticed Lou shaking his head in exasperated dismay.

“No need to blow on the mug like a steam engine. Wait for the drink to cool down,” he instructed.

“But I want to drink it now,” Felicie protested.

Lou cocked his brow. “Your methods are ineffective, and you will burn your tongue, again.”

“Let’s switch mugs,” Odette offered, smiling at Lou’s obvious attempt to educate the girl and Felicie’s headstrong yet adorable refusal to receive said education.

“No, she must learn to master her desire for instant gratification,” Lou objected. “And her drink is so sweetened it could be a jam.”

Felicie clearly fought the urge to stick her tongue at him, then looked perplexed. “What’s… grat… the grat thing?”

“Gratification,” Lou said slowly. “Satisfaction.”

“Gratification...” Felicie mumbled, then curled against Odette’s shoulder. “Grat-ti-fi-cation.”

Odette stroked her coppery hair, which induced the child to curl even further against her. Felicie did not seek physical affection often, which meant that today was more unsettling than she was willing to let on.

Odette glanced at Lou, frowning, yet her frown disappeared the moment she saw his expression. Lou looked… happy. Or, at the very least, relieved. His eyes focused on her hand, caressing Felicie’s hair.

She had not realized, until she saw his shoulders ease and relax, how worried he must have been. The weight of his burden.

Felicie straightened and attempted to sip from her drink. After a small, hesitant sip, she smiled and took a far larger one, as if attempting to down the sweet drink in one gulp.

Lou cleared his throat and Felicie managed to tear the mug from her lips and offer an apologetic smile.

Lou’s frown did not move an inch, but Odette could not help herself. She laughed.

“Oh, dear, you have a mustache,” she informed the child, chuckling.

Felicie tried to pout to see her new acquisition. “Like Dad’s?” she inquired, and was so focused on attempting to find her top lip that she missed Lou nearly choking on his drink.

Odette’s heart hammered, yet she refused to let it show. “I’m afraid it’s less becoming and lighter in color. That should teach you to drink more slowly,” she added, still chuckling.

Felicie tried to lick it off, which resulted in Lou all but pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Go and wash your face, now,” he ordered. “We already had a talk about licking, did we not?”

“But it’s tasty!” Felicie protested, yet put the mug on the table and rose from her seat.

Lou rolled his eyes. “Don’t be a glutton.”

“Hey, I know that word!” Felicie cried. “It’s a sin!” then dashed to the nearest sink.

“Lovely,” Lou muttered, burying his face in his hands.

Odette sipped from her mug. Immediately, she could understand Felicie’s desire to sip it all at once. The drink was intoxicatingly creamy and impossibly sweet. The foam of the milk and the smooth richness of the chocolate were… heaven.

She suddenly noticed Lou’s eyes were transfixed on her and failed to fight the blush the thought elicited.

“Do I also have a mustache?” she asked, self-conscious and partially mortified by the notion.

“Not at all,” Lou said, his voice low and soft. “You are beautiful.”

She stopped breathing.

Her mind, frozen, could do nothing but listen to his words, over and over again, whispering –

She could feel Lou distancing himself from her. She could feel Lou, again, misinterpreting her response. Ice slithered, cornering and conquering, every spot of warmth and drop of joy her veins carried.

“I’m done!” Felicie once again dashed inside, then stopped. Her smile faded as her eyes, wide and troubled, fluttered between them. “Did you fight again?” she whispered.

How could they fight, when no words were exchanged? How did she manage to offend him with her silence? I do not know what to do. I do not know what to say. Can you not see the turmoil in my heart?

“No… not at all,” Odette said softly.

But what could she have said? What was the correct response? How could she possibly accept a compliment that no longer applied to her?

Felicie edged closer, still looking wary but tempted by the still half full mug.

“Y’know, I thought about something. Why do I need to know ‘gratification’ if I already know ‘satisfaction’ and they mean the same thing?” she asked. She seemed desperate to break the silence that reigned louder than the rain of snow, still falling.

Odette lifted her arm, inviting the child to curl against her side, which Felicie did without a second thought. She leaned against her, taking as little space as she could, and shivered slightly when Odette rubbed her back. Oh, you poor, sweet child… Odette kissed her forehead, hugging the child’s head to her fluttering heart. You are safe now. You are safe, Felicie. You are loved.

Lou stirred, then sighed. “The richness of one’s language allows one to say the same thing in myriad ways. Imagine, for example, that you were given the choice of eating one meal for the rest of your life, versus eating many different types of meals.” His tone was instructive, but not as animated as before. She caused this, didn’t she? Her muteness robbed the touch of life from his voice.

“Oh,” Felicie nodded, deep in thought. “What’s myriad?”

“Countless, a great number,” Lou replied. He sighed again, then glanced at the window. “Finish your drink and go to bed. It is long past your bedtime.”

Felicie nodded. She unfolded slightly so she could reach the mug, and after she grabbed it – with both hands - she immediately returned to the safety of Odette’s embrace. However, she drank her cocoa with less relish than before. She stared at the bottom of the mug. “Did you guys fight because of me?”

“Of course not,” Lou muttered, then softened his voice. “Go to sleep. You need to rest if you want to go out and play tomorrow.”

Felicie rose, hugging the green elephant close to her chest. “And when I go, you’ll make up?”

“Felicie,” Lou warned. His eyes hardened, almost glaring, until Felicie looked down, breaking their contact. Lou grimaced and his hand curled into a fist. He opened his mouth, perhaps to apologize, yet his lips kept their silence when he saw the hurt flickering in Felicie’s eyes.

He, also, said nothing.

The girl pouted and hugged the elephant even tighter. “Fine. Goodnight.”

She turned to leave, then turned back, gave Odette a bone-crushing hug.

Odette enveloped her in her arms, embracing her against her heart and whispered, “Good night, Felicie.”

The child lingered for just a moment, never longer, yet when she ended the hug – no, when she pushed away, as if terrified she overstayed her welcome – her eyes were still troubled. She wanted physical affection, Odette realized. Craved it, yet did not know how to ask for it, or if such a gesture would be reciprocated. Odette’s heart clenched as she eased the child back into her arms, rubbing the tension from her limbs. She kissed the crown of her head and murmured, “You are safe, sweetheart. You are safe.”

Felicie trembled and surrendered into her touch, her limbs weak and frayed. She lingered for a long while, seeking warmth and touch and love. She did not cry, but Odette could feel her pain in her fingers, holding on to her so desperately. Oh, Felicie… She tightened her hold, hugging the child with fierceness she did not know herself to be capable of, and Felicie all but melted in her arms, her trembling heart finally resting from its wild dance.

Odette did not want to glance in Lou’s direction, but she had to – could not resist the desire to know… and oh, she shouldn’t have. Never had she seen him so broken. Lou looked down, arms leaning on his thighs, trying and failing to support his burdens. He buried his face in his fingers, then ran them through his usually meticulous hair. His face was gray and tired, and she could see pain and guilt storming his eyes, smothering the sparks of light that once graced them. Lou, her heart ached. It’s not your fault, she wanted to say. This was not your doing.

When Felicie pulled away again, she no longer shivered.

Odette smiled at her, cradling her cheek and caressed it softly. She glanced in Lou’s direction, and offered an encouraging smile and a subtle nod, hoping the child would understand.

Felicie hesitated for just a moment. Her eyes flashed with determination – masking her vulnerability – as she turned to face Lou and hugged him as well.

Lou’s eyes widened. He exhaled – almost in relief – and hugged the child close to his chest. The tension once again left his limbs as he embraced Felicie, his expression betraying the fear and worry that tormented him when he thought he had lost her. He cradled her head and whispered, “Sleep well,” in her ear, and stroked her hair slowly, so very gently, trying to communicate with his touch what he could not say with his words. Was he always so taciturn? He hugged her until the child pulled away, offering a lopsided smile. She did not push, this time.

Lou smiled back, then cocked his brow and ruffled her hair.

Felicie giggled, her smile just a tad brighter. “Good night!” she cried and ran upstairs.

Lou shook his head. “I know I must rid her of this habit, but….”

“She’s happy,” Odette muttered. That tender moment spoke of love and trust. Felicie… truly did find a home, did she not? And Lou learned to care for her. She even called him ‘dad’. And he allowed it.

This was the best scenario. She should also be happy. Her smile, however, was too frail to be selfless. For how long could she claim a spot in the child’s life, in her heart, before she replaced her entirely?

Lou glanced in her direction, pursed his lips, and rose. “I will check if the guest room is prepared,” he announced, looking away.

Oh. Oh, he thought she rejected him. He thought –

He turned to leave, hands clasped behind his back, and she knew she could not allow him to once again bear the burden of misinterpretation. Leave. Why must he always Leave. “Lou, wait –“

She tried to rise but her ankle, once again, failed her, and she fell back onto the sofa, closing her eyes and willing the pain away. She forgot that her ankle did not like the cold. She forgot, sitting in comfort and sipping hot cocoa, that she was broken.

“Odette!” Within seconds, Lou was at her side, holding her hand. “What’s the matter?”

Her eyes searched his, looking for the promise he made her, all those years ago. “Nothing,” she whispered, “nothing. It gets worse when it’s cold, that is all.” Her hand, however, held his too strongly. “Lou….” Don’t leave me, don’t go.

“Wait here,” he said and untangled his hand from her grasp. He marched out of the parlor without another word uttered.

His eyes, however, held a promise.

She closed her hands and cursed her leg and her limp and all the walls that stood between them. She must tell him, even if she did not know how. She must, even if she could fail and lose him, his love. Be the mistress of your own dizziness, her mind whispered.

Lou returned, towels in his hand. He bent on one knee and, with fingers slow and gentle, he wrapped the warm fabric around her ankle. His fingers caressed the cold skin, sending jolts that weren’t laced with pain up her spine. Her breath quickened, dancing to the tempo of her heart. His touch was warm.

“Too hot?” he whispered, looking up and into her, tearing through the fog that lorded over her mind.

“No, no….” A shudder of relief caused her breath to tremble. “Why…?”

“I asked Ada to prepare them, in case Felicie caught a cold.” He warped the second towel around her ankle and slowly massaged the heat into the limb, the same way he used to do on nights before shows. He’d work the stiffness and pain out of her legs, slowly and gently, from her ankle to the tip of her toes.

Now, his fingers, trained and tender, pressed the fabric against her skin in careful, circular motions. He no longer touched her skin, but his heat still leaked and brushed against her body in a ghost-like hug.

“Better?” he whispered.

He looked up at her, and for a short, fleeting moment, his eyes held no shadows, only soft and gentle light…

But the moment passed when she nodded. His hands released her ankle and he intended to rise – leave –

“Don’t,” she gasped, grasping his arm. “Lou, don’t go. You always go where I can’t follow. I….”

“Odette, what are you talking about?” he whispered, frowning. He held her hand and sat next to her. The urgency in his eyes echoed the one in her voice. “Odette?”

“You always leave when I need you to stay,” she muttered, her voice thick. “Then and now.”

He stared at her as if she struck him. “We were poor.” His jaw tightened, as if struggling under the weight his words. “I wanted to have money, so I could provide for you, so you wouldn’t regret marrying me.”

“When did I ever care for money?” she whispered.

His voice was hard. “You had so many wooers –“

“And what of them? I had eyes only for you!” Her eyes searched his. “Still do,” she whispered. The words shattered against her lungs and escaped her lips, sweet and raw and pure. “Why do you always leave me behind?”

Her throat tightened, but she could no longer fight it; nor could she face his eyes. She looked down.

Lou’s sigh danced against her forehead. “I thought you were rejecting me,” he muttered. “I thought you could never forgive me.” He stroked her hair, still in a bun. “Twice, you turned me away.”

“I thought you pitied me,” she whispered. “Even now, you can have –“

“Everything.” His voice softened, dancing against her ear. “Except for the one I want.” He caressed her cheek, then gently tilted her head up.

She lost herself in his eyes. In his touch. She was lost, perhaps, the moment he told her to dance.

His eyes held hers; everything else faded, except for the light in his eyes. “Surely you know, you must know that everything I did, I did for you. It was all for you,” he whispered. “I – “

“Dad?” Felicie’s soft voice sent each of them – heart racing – to the other side of the sofa. “Can I stay with Odette tonight?” she shuffled her feet. “I can’t sleep.”

“Well, if,” Lou coughed and glanced at her direction. His shoulders slumped in relief when she nodded. “Yes, of course.”

Felicie smiled. “Great! I’ll show you my room!” She ran to grab Odette’s hand and helped her up. This time, however, her ankle did not protest.

Lou jumped from his seat, ready to offer her a hand, but withdrew when he noticed she did not need one. “If you want to stay with Odette, you must sleep in the guestroom on this floor.”

“No, it’s fine,” Odette smiled, her expression soft and tender. “I can climb a flight of stairs.”

Lou frowned, but Felicie already dragged her upstairs, bouncing in excitement, leaving Lou to follow them uncertainly.

When they reached her room, Felicie rushed inside, inviting Odette to join her, but Odette paused at the entrance, her heartbeat echoing in her ears, and turned around.

She took his hand in hers. She looked at their fingers, dancing, trying, relearning to hold each other, support and explore every knuckle and vein and warm skin. When she looked up, his expression softened and his shoulders eased. His fingers caressed hers, enveloping her knuckles with a tender and gentle touch. Did his smile reflect hers, or was it the other way around? The frail, broken twist of his lips was soft and sweet and full of longing. She wanted to kiss the corners of his lips until his smile held no sorrow.

“Good night,” she whispered, then, daring to be brave, she balanced on the tip of her toes and pressed a quick and gentle kiss to his cheek.

His other hand immediately caught her waist and helped her ease back down, almost as an instinct. He inched closer to her. “You used to kiss me like that every night before we parted,” he whispered against her brow. His voice was raw. His eyes sought hers so desperately, arresting in the flickering candlelight and oh… she could stand there forever, basking in the warmth of his gaze. His touch burned through her vest and fluttered in her stomach. He made her feel whole again.

His breath trembled when she leaned into his touch. “You remember.”

She squeezed his hand, exhaling weakly when he returned the gesture. She inhaled, drinking his scent and his warmth and his love into her soul. Her muscles shivered when heat flooded her, cornering every part of her that still felt cold, easing the stiffness rusting her limbs.

He made her feel alive again.

“I do.” He kissed her forehead, lingering for just a moment – a promise – and whispered, “Good night, Odette.”

He released her and, with a final smile, she entered the bedroom and closed the door, sighing. Oh, Lou

“So.” Felicie lay her stomach, hugging her elephant and waving her legs in the air. She observed her with a mischievous smile. “When are you getting married?”