Chapter One: Looking and Leaping

Late 1880's
Paris, France


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Leah

My eyes seemed to possess volition of their own.

They had spent the last two and a half hours examining and cataloguing the sights and sounds of the giant beast around me. Humming and breathing and dancing to some wordless tune that far surpassed anything I had yet encountered in my small life, the Opera Garnier pulsed with excitement. Granted, fifteen years are not an enormous span of time, but that was the last thing on my mind. I was still in a state of shock at achieving the one dream my heart had ever wanted. My future seemed like a well-plotted map, lined with practices, recitals, operas, ballets and stardom. It was all I could do not to burst out into song.

I refrained from acting upon my less than intelligent urge, -if only out of respect for any life form in the near vicinity- for the two people in front of me were the last on earth that I would wish to be embarrassed in front of. I knew that my vocal skills would never impress anyone, but I was very sure of the skill in my feet. If it weren't for that, I would never have gotten within a hundred yards of the massive building we were traipsing about.

Lost in thought, I hardly noticed that they had turned down another of the opera house's many halls. As I ran to catch up, Henry caught my wrist. Puzzled and a bit upset at being delayed, I shot my brother an angry glare. He only smiled, and silently pointed behind me. I nearly fell over backwards!

I had stopped just inches from a collision with the backside of one M Debienne, whose arm was occupied by my mother. With his characteristic 'older-brother-I-told-you-so' expression, Henry shot me another smug grin. I couldn't help but laugh.

Continuing at a leisurely pace, the two adults finally managed to turn their conversation in the direction I had been waiting for. We were approaching the main dance studio. Nervously, I considered the fact that the Opera was already two weeks into its winter season. Slowly, my confidence in my talents began to plummet. What if I couldn't learn the routines in time? Would I be expelled from the dance conservatory? Never be on stage?

The humble pine door gave a little squeal before admitting the four of us to the studio. The mirror-lined walls were dotted with dancers in various stages of warming up. I scanned the room for any girls my age. Several older boys were practicing a simple partnered dance. The natural grace of girls at their sides did nothing to ease my anxieties. A small group of younger children awkwardly imitated them from a safe distance.

Panic began to coat my stomach. By nature I was a very social creature, and my natural tendency to worry worked its hook into the newest crack in my armor. What happened to my joy and resolve to be brave? This morning, I was so sure I wouldn't have any reason to worry. Now I couldn't help but wonder if there would be no one to talk to here. Would I spend all my free time alone? I enjoyed the time I often spent alone with a good book, but I knew that I needed some one to befriend and tell stories with.

Just as I had approached despair, the answer to my unspoken prayer materialized before my desperate eyes. Having caught a shiver of movement, my gaze reverted to a darker corner of the hall that I had overlooked. A small group of groggy young women had taken shelter there from the brilliant sunlight streaming in the massive windows, filtered only by the light snowfall.

The warm glow threw their faces into sharp relief with the shade. One of the smallest was readjusting her practice tulle with the assistance of a second dancer. The faded jewel tone of the red skirt cast a pink glow onto the elder girl's beige leotard and added a hint of rose to both of their cheeks. The younger of the two seemed impatient to be free of the auburn haired girl's attentions, chatting freely with a number of the group despite the age difference of three or four years.

Her attendant, one of the senior members of the flock, wore a look of long suffering patience and mild annoyance as her efforts were comically thwarted by the excited gestures that accompanied the child's conversations. Sisters, I observed. There was only a trace of family resemblance, but even I could sense the free and easy mood between them.

The elder sibling, having finished with the petite blond beside her, turned to speak to several other ballerinas roughly the same age as I. I immediately felt a strange eagerness to meet these girls, and found myself most intrigued by the pair of nameless sisters.

A bit tired, they clustered together while warming up, murmuring gently among themselves as they stretched out sleeping limbs. The first image they conjured in my mind was that of a group of delicate hens or exotic water foul. Even half awake, each girl seemed to positively exude an air of confidence, grace, and poise.

By comparison, I immediately felt gawky and awkward. Shyness and worry did a tumultuous battle in the bottom of my stomach with the urge to run over and introduce myself. I was quite sure that my intestines had just admitted a small swarm of butterflies.

Very frisky butterflies.

Habitually, I glanced at my reflection in the nearest mirror in order to set myself to rights. I first assessed my hair. My scalp relished in its temporary freedom from my trademark snood, the easiest form of restraint for the disobedient mop God had chosen to curse me with. I often wished for other girls' tidy straight hair or beautiful curls, but mine seemed incapable of choosing, preferring instead to be limply wavy. Early this morning, I had asked Nana to undertake one of the more complicated updo's that I had seen at the Yule Ball, in an effort to disguise its normal unruliness. The tiny braids had taken hours, but I had been very pleased with the elegance it afforded my normally fly away tresses. By some miracle, the sleek wings of dark, brackish-brown had remained intact. Perhaps God had truly heard my earnest prayers about today.

My inquiry next traveled to my face, though there wasn't much use wishing for more handsome features. My mildly blemished skin had cooperated somewhat with my attempts at staving off its usual imperfections, bearing only a handful of red marks. Even amist the throngs of Paris, whose skin was a bit darker than that of most Europeans, my olive complextion was an unfashionable burden. My nose had never quite been of a fashionable Grecian form, a fate that I lamented. My lips always seemed too large for my face, but what could be done for that? My eyes were my least attractive feature, being the cold gray color of marble most often used for fireplaces and tombstones.

Having long ago given up the lost cause of my appearance, I steeled myself for this all-important first meeting. Nagging worries reechoed off the sides of my head. I had never been very 'good with people', especially strangers, and had never had an actual pillow friend. I mentally scolded myself with the reminder that this would be a fresh start.

I paused in my flight to cast a quick glance in my mother's direction. A small whispering voice in me vainly wished that she were watching me like a falcon, ready to swoop down from on high and bar my way. Had she noticed, she would have scolded me for lowering myself so publicly. She was engrossed in conversation with M Debienne and a stern-looking woman who was perhaps ten years the senior of my mother's girlish thirty-three.

My movement did not go unnoticed by all of my mother's small party. The authoritative woman caught me with a shrewd, investigative gaze that sharply commanded my attention. I felt as though the woman was taking me apart like a clock maker examining a clock. Her eyes were methodically removing my pretenses and tinkering with my gears.

Slightly intimidated, I refused to be out done. 'Two can play at that game.' I began to mentally catalogue what I could observe of her, attempting to look unaffected and drawing myself up to my full, if insubstantial, height. A slim, well-toned woman, she dwarfed me by at least five inches. Trim and self-possessed, the angles of her body and face were not sharp, but precisely cut. A neat coil of deep bronze hair regally crowned her head. She wore a simple, but well made outfit of an almond wool skirt and a crisp lavender blouse. A small cameo at her throat was her only adornment, and she carried a formidable looking cane.

If she saw the challenge in my eyes, she responded only with a slightly raised eyebrow. I caught a quick touch of emotion in her eyes and the corners of her mouth, but I was at a loss for pining down what it was. Irritation? Indifference? Amusement? Approval?

Without so much as my mother's "by your leave", the woman indicated in no uncertain terms that I was to follow her. Simply a quick flick of the wrist and she strode purposefully out of the room.

Double-checking the laces of my soft, well broken slippers, I grabbed what courage I had and locked the sheepish beast in a strangle hold.

Keeping my irritation in check, I stumbled to keep up. Attempting to unravel her identity proved to be a fruitless mental endeavor while nearly jogging to match her pace.

The race abruptly halted, and for the second time that day, I found myself nearly embedded in someone's backside. Indifferent to her near peril, my would-be victim calmly unlocked a less noisy door to reveal the theater's practice hall. As I opened my mouth to speak, I was silenced by the cultured yet unfamiliar accent that graced the voice of the dark-eyed woman before me.

"I am Madame Giry, the Maitre de Corps of the opera house. You are to give me an audition, no?"

I was at a loss for words. I would never have thought the head ballet mistress to be someone so…plain. I had always pictured her as a rich, affectionate woman who would run in the elite circles and would be my second mother. As though she had found a back entrance to my thoughts, she gave me a slight yet encouraging smile.

"Mademoiselle? Are you ready?"

It was not a question.


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Three hours and several strained muscles later, the audition concluded. Bathed in sweat, I could not remember ever having worked so hard in my life. This Madame Giry was most definitely a ballet mistress. She had coaxed my skills further than I had known they could go, only speaking for a few minutes now and then. Already she had corrected several long-term technical errors and I had found myself leaping higher than ever and keeping time more precisely. I pensively waited for her to break the pressing silence.

I had also discovered Madame's talent for inspiration. A deep-seated part of me wanted nothing more that to please her and not embarrass myself in her eyes. After several minutes of cooling down and stretching out, she was ready to answer my unspoken question with her melodious accent that was heavy even for a native Frenchwoman.

"Well done, very well done. Much better than I had expected."

I couldn't contain my glee.

"Thank you so much…"

"That is not to say your performance was without fault. We will have much to do if you are to take part in the next production. In the mean time, you will continue to stretch for five minutes and afterwards you will come into my office. Take the third stairs on the left down four floors. You will find me at the third door to your right. Do you understand?"

I could barely squeak out a respectful "Oui Madame" before she swept out of the hall.

Collapsing in a happy pile of exhausted jubilation, I finally let loose the urge I had kept in check sense early that morning. I began to sing a wordless tune that my Abuela had taught me before she gave up all hope of teaching me to sing. My voice had never been very strong, and I had a very limited range, but on occasion I found singing to be an excellent outlet for my often unexpressed emotions.

In private of course.

The sensation of being appraised suddenly returned, intruding upon my peaceful solitude and literally paralyzing me. There was someone watching me, and while I was very disturbed by the sensation, I felt unable to leave. The eyes boring into my back couldn't have been more different from Madame Giry's. Where she had removed a bit of stage paint, this examination went far deeper. This gaze was peeling away my skin and watching my heart beat.

Counting in time to the pulsing rhythm of the blood in my veins.

Starting out of my stupor, I realized that I had been alone in the practice hall for several minutes. Hurrying to catch up to my new instructor, I bolted out the stage door.


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Authoress's Notes:

♫This chapter is a compilation of chapters two and three of my origional draft, and I have reposted the Review responses that belong to those chapters. I hope you all enjoy the new and improved chapters that I am posting.

♪A pillow friend is an old fashioned term for the special kind of best friend that you can share everything with. Comes from the idea of 'pillow talk' (and not in a sexual way) of sharing whispered secrets with someone before you go to sleep.

♫In ALW's musical, the opera house is refered to as 'the populaire'. In real life, the paris opera house at the time of Leroux's novel was called 'the Garnier', after its cheif archectect. It is a beautiful building, and if you get the chance, do a little reaserch on the place. It will really make the Phantom story come alive for you once you can picture the settings.

Abuela is Spanish for grandmother. I've given our 'heroine' a Spanish background. Why you ask? (O.K., you probably don't care, but I'm lonely tonight. Therefore, I am going to put words in your non-existent, virtual mouths. Got it? Good.) Then I will tell you!
A. I adore the Spanish language and culture. Adore as in it excites me almost as much as a large bowl of ice cream. That's a whole lot of excitement.
B. It gives me a good excuse to use some lovely period Spanish songs in the plot.
C. Because I can. I've got a god complex. Who-hoo!

In related news, I saw my first two Broadway shows just before writing this chapter, one of which was PHANTOM! Woot! It was amazing. Except for Christine, who sucked. Sorry to any fans. She spent the whole time in vibrato. As in Carlotta vibrato. Blech. I wanted to shoot her… (Been spending too much time pondering Eric's homicidal tendencies)