Christine tossed aside another dirty rag, and it tumbled down the small pile that had accumulated throughout the day. She pulled a clean rag from her apron and returned to dusting the empty shelving in the attic with sharp, furious movements.
A week had passed since she last saw Erik. A long, miserable week during which she choked on dust all day and attended interminably boring etiquette lessons with Mssr. Bouchard in the evenings before collapsing into her bed. Despite the hard work, she found little sleep. All she could think of was slipping from her room and going to Erik's study in the hopes of finding him at his organ or with a violin tucked under his chin.
She had been tempted many times to slip from her bed and up the stairs to see if he was there, but she resisted. If Mssr. Bouchard found her out and about, she would be fired and pushed out onto the street, and based on his hawk-like supervision so far, he would. Mme. Giry would likely help her regain her position at the opera, but she couldn't return there. Not if it meant watching Erik directing rehearsals all day and scrubbing the stage where not long ago Joseph Buquet found his bitter end.
Christine wiped the last bit of dust from the shelf and stepped back to examine her work. In the last week, she'd spent 12 hours a day pulling items from shelves, cleaning and sorting them, and hauling items for reuse, resale, or disposal down to the main storage room for Mssr. Bouchard to review. Thus far, he had not sent any items back up to the attic, which she found gratifying.
She set her hands on her hips and looked over to the large section of the attic filled with furniture. Most she would need assistance with getting downstairs, and she wondered whether she could ask for assistance from one of the stable hands. Tossing the now dirty rag into her ever growing pile, she wandered over to a love seat covered with a white sheet. She pulled it away, coughing as it raised a cloud of dust.
Even in the pale candle light, she could see that this was an extremely fine piece of furniture. The fabric was an embroidered silk brocade in cream and periwinkle blue. She wiped her hand on her skirt then ran her fingers over it, savoring the soft feeling of the silk. The wood was dark English chestnut, and finely carved ivy wound around the legs, each leaf extending delicately outward. The stuffing seemed still intact, and she pressed into it firmly a few times to dislodge any mice. Luckily her efforts were met with silence instead of squeaking and the scurry of feet.
With a grateful sigh, she sat back on the couch, swinging her legs up onto it. She leaned back against the cushioned armrest and stretched widely, her wrists and ankles cracking as she rotated her hands and feet. Yawning, she rested her hands on her abdomen and closed her eyes. Just a quick nap, she thought. No more than ten minutes.
Erik paced his study, flipping through his manuscript for Don Juan and stopping occasionally to scribble out passages or write in notes. He muttered to himself, putting his ink-stained fingers against his lips as he pondered, then drawing it through his hair.
"You should take a rest, my friend," Nadir said from his perch on the chaise, twirling a glass of brandy in his hands.
"And you should bloody go home," Erik growled, pausing again to scribble, cursing when the tip of his pen broke under the pressure of his writing.
Nadir followed him with his eyes as he retreated to his desk to retrieve a new pen. Erik's hair was disheveled and oily from lack of care. His shirt was stained with as much ink as it was with sweat, and it hung loosely from the waistband of his pants. He wore no shoes at all, and the bottoms of his feet were black with dirt as if he were an urchin boy again.
Erik had not changed his clothes in three days had only been to the opera twice this week. Surely his absence was a relief to the managers, but Nadir worried about the state that this left his friend in. Going to the opera house and providing creative guidance was Erik's passion, his reason to wake in the morning. Now he was distracted from his purpose, buried in his work. Or buried in the girl? Nadir mused.
He had been careful to keep Erik from going to her. He had caught the boy wandering towards the servants quarters more than once, a determined gleam in his eye. At those times, Nadir stopped him with a firm hand and led him back to his study with a quiet, "What will the others think, hmm?"
The first night, Erik had come with him, accepting the drink that Nadir pushed into his hands as they sat together in the study. Each night he had grown more agitated, though, cursing Nadir and his over-protectiveness.
Nadir himself was starting to doubt whether the girl was associated with Erik's mother. She had made no further attempts to see Erik, intentionally or otherwise. Nadir had sought her out a few times, just to see what she was up to. He had even interviewed Mssr. Bouchard on her progress with the excuse that he was checking in on the household on behalf of his friend.
The girl worked tirelessly each day, spending hours cleaning and clearing out the attic. Even Mssr. Bouchard was impressed with her work ethic, and Nadir had never heard him praise anyone so effusively on how quickly she learned. It was his understanding that the girl came to him needing much in the way of learning etiquette and the arts of serving a fine household. In a short span, she was walking gracefully and speaking as if she had been serving for years. Mssr. Bouchard praised her so intently that Nadir wondered if he wasn't starting to carry a flame for the girl, despite her grotesquely mutilated face.
"Perhaps you are right," he finally replied, drawing Erik's sharp gaze. "I miss my Arak."
"Good," Erik said, slapping his manuscript down on his desk. "I'll have John call you a carriage."
Nadir pushed himself to his feet and walked to his friend, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You know that I have stayed out of concern for you."
Erik sighed and nodded, "I know. Thank you."
Nadir smiled and squeezed the younger man's shoulder affectionately. "Please call upon me if you need anything."
Erik placed a hand over his, "You know that I will."
Nadir raised a skeptical eyebrow but nodded. "Then I bid you farewell, my friend. I will find a hack, no need to bother John."
Erik watched as his friend retreated from his study. It had been a hellish week. Nadir's watch over him chafed his pride and made him feel like a useless boy again. All over some girl with a gnarled face and the voice of an angel. He scrubbed his hands through his hair, for the first time noticing that it was thick with grease. I need a bath, he groused, pulling his shirt out and running his fingers over the stains that had accumulated.
He pulled the bell cord in the study and waited for a maid to appear. In minutes, she appeared in the door of the study. "Yes, Mssr.?"
"Draw me a bath," he said. "And please lay out a fresh set of clothing."
"Certainly," she said with a smile, then curtsied and strode away to do her business. His staff was accustomed to his occasional bouts of obsessive composing, and they were always pleased to see them come to an end. Though they were his servants, it seemed that they cared about his well-being. Marie, especially. She fussed over him whenever he let her, her motherly instincts overcoming the boundaries that normally existed between master and servant.
Erik wandered to his room, falling back onto the bed and closing his eyes as Marie bustled in and out, setting out the washing basin and bringing in buckets of water. When the final bucket was poured and fresh clothes were laid out for him, she asked, "Is there anything else, Mssr.?"
"No, thank you, Marie," he replied, pushing himself into a sitting position. "Will you be leaving for the weekend?"
"Yes, Mssr.," she said with a smile. "My Hugo turned twelve this week, and I've saved up enough to buy him a sugar cake."
"Excellent," Erik said, getting to his feet and stretching his arms above his head. "Extend my best wishes to him."
"Thank you, Mssr.," she said, curtsying and walking out the door, pulling it closed behind her with a soft click.
Erik tested the steaming water with his fingers and dropped in a few scoops of cool water to even the temperature. When he was satisfied, he stripped away his clothes and sank into the bath, moaning as the hot water eased the tension in his muscles. He lay that way for several minutes, just enjoying the water, then set about scrubbing away the spots of ink that covered his body. He lathered the bar of soap in his hands, getting a handful of bubbles, then dunked his head beneath the surface and scrubbed his hair.
When he was done, he stepped from the tub, dripping on the carpet as he reached for a towel to dry himself. He had just fastened his robe when a sharp knock came at the door. "Yes?" he called.
The door swung open to reveal Mssr. Bouchard and Christine, whose face was scarlet and streaked with tears. Her dress was filthy, coated in a thick layer of dust, and her hair was sticking out at odd angles. Mssr. Bouchard had a hand firmly on her upper arm, and she winced as he tightened his grip.
"What's the meaning of this?" Erik asked, never taking his eyes from Christine's tear streaked face.
"She was asleep," Mssr. Bouchard said in a cold voice. "I thought perhaps she was doing well, but she has shown her true colors. There is no room in this household for a lazy girl. I believe it is time to send her back to where she came from."
"I see," Erik said, stroking his chin. "And she sleeps often?"
Mssr. Bouchard raised his nose in the air, "Not that I am aware."
"And is her work not complete?"
"It is," Mssr. Bouchard bit out, "sufficient. But there is no room on my staff for a girl who sleeps on the job."
"It is my staff," Erik said coolly drawing a sharp glare from Mssr. Bouchard. He turned to Christine. "Mlle. Daaé?"
"I am sorry," she said in a small voice, not meeting his eyes. The pain in her voice caused his chest to contract. Mssr. Bouchard squeezed her arm again, and she winced. Erik barely resisted the urge to smack the man for hurting her. "It will never happen again. I was just so tired…" her voice trailed off. In it, he could only hear pain and fear, nothing of the sweet music she had shared with him.
Erik turned to Mssr. Bouchard. "I believe we can forgive this transgression," he said. "The girl seems truly regretful."
Mssr. Bouchard pursed his lips, "Sir, I must insist…"
"And I insist that you give her another chance," Erik cut him off, cutting his hand through the air for emphasis.
"As you wish," the man said with a stiff bow.
He turned to leave, tugging Christine behind him, but Erik called out, "Mlle. Daaé, a word please?"
She hesitated, glancing down at the hand Mssr. Bouchard still had wrapped around her arm. "Mssr. Bouchard?"
The man looked down his long nose, "Mssr., Chenet you are barely dressed."
"I am dressed enough to receive your complaints about my staff, and I am dressed enough to discuss your complaints with Mlle. Daaé," Erik said, a sharp edge in his voice.
Though his face was creased with displeasure, Mssr. Bouchard released Christine's arm and nodded once. He gave Erik a neat bow, eyes flashing with disdain, and he strode away.
Erik took a moment to examine Christine's appearance. Despite the dirt that clung to her and her distraught face, she looked like an oasis to him. He had thought of little other than her all week, now she was finally here, in the flesh. He wanted to reach out and smooth her hair and draw her close, to ask her what had really happened, whether she was being treated well.
Instead, he took a step back and gestured for her to enter his room.
She took a deep breath and stepped in, keeping her eyes glued to the carpet. "I am so sorry, Mssr. Chenet," she burst out suddenly. "I was just going to close my eyes for a few moments. I was so tired."
"Hush," he said, resisting the urge to reach out to her. "Have you forgotten that you must call me Erik?"
She raised her eyes to his, "I thought, perhaps…" She trailed off and turned her eyes to the carpet again. "I thought you had decided…"
"Decided what?" he asked gently.
"I wanted to come to you," she burst out, still not meeting his eyes. "I have missed singing so desperately, but I was afraid that Mssr. Bouchard would find me. I hoped that you would come to me," she turned her eyes to him sharply. "You didn't."
"No," he mused. By no choice of my own, he thought, thinking of the times Nadir had found him about to enter the servant's quarters and led him away.
Silence hung between them for a moment, and Christine searched his eyes. They were focused on a point behind her head, cloudy with reflection. When he did not speak, she turned to leave, but he stepped forward and stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
"I would like to start lessons," he said, "on an official basis."
Christine stopped and turned back to him. He was close, inches away. She stared at the patch of hair that peeked out from beneath his robe. It looked soft, and her hand twitched, wanting to run her fingers through it.
"I want you to meet me in the music room each night, after dinner," he said.
"I have etiquette lessons after dinner," she said distractedly, still staring at the V of chest revealed before her.
Erik barked a laugh, "I doubt you are in need of them."
She shrugged, "Mssr. Bouchard may disagree."
Erik looked out into the hallway, wondering if the butler was lingering, eavesdropping on their conversation. He moved to the door and peeked out, happily noting that it was empty. He closed the door and turned back to Christine, "I will speak with him. But you must come to me, each night, without delay."
"Yes," she said with a smile. As it always was.
He returned her smile and stepped forward to take her hands into his own. "I am sorry," he said quietly, swiping his thumb across her knuckles.
"For what?" she asked breathily, his closeness throwing her off balance.
"For not coming to you, for letting you make your way alone in this household, for everything that came before that," he raised a hand to gently touch her mask. "Is it healing well?"
Christine blushed, remembering how he and Nadir had helped her care for her wounds and the sweet kiss that still burned on her lips. "Yes," she replied shakily, "it's nearly healed."
"May I?" he asked, moving his hand to one of the straps.
"No," she said, stepping away from him and taking a deep breath. She couldn't trust herself with him so close, especially when he was treating her so kindly. This man was a stark contrast from the Erik she once knew, sweet and gentle where her Erik had been hard and jaded.
"Please," he said, stepping forward and grasping her arm.
"I don't want you to see it," she said sharply, turning her mask away from him. It didn't matter that he'd seen it before, arguably at its worst. She couldn't bear for him to think of her that way, deformed and broken.
"Christine," he said, his voice breaking on her name.
"No, Erik," she replied roughly. "Please."
His spine tingled at the pain in her voice. He wanted to go back in time, prevent whatever had happened to her to leave her so badly scarred. She sounded so broken.
He reached out and grasped her arm, pulling her back into him and wrapped his arms around her, pressing her face against his chest. "All right," he said softly into her hair. She stood still for a moment, then her arms came around him hesitantly at first, her embrace tightening as he stroked her back.
She took a deep breath, then a sob escaped her, and she buried her face in his chest. He held her as she cried, murmuring soothing words and smoothing her hair. She cried for her pain and confusion, for a life that she had not chosen but was now forced to lead. She cried for her lost friendships with the Giry women and even for the loathsome Joseph Buquet. Mostly, though, she cried because she was exhausted from a long week of wondering, worrying, and fearing that Erik had abandoned her. When she'd cried herself out, she lifted her head and looked up at him.
"Why are you so kind to me?" she asked, her voice rough. "It is more than I deserve."
"It is exactly what you deserve," he said, rubbing a thumb across her cheek to wipe away a stray tear, leaving a streak of dirt behind. She licked her dry lips, and suddenly a fire burst in his chest. He became aware of the thin layers of silk and muslin that lay between them and her warm body so close to his. He could feel her heart beating against his abdomen and her breasts pressed against him. "How do you do this to me?" he whispered before capturing her lips.
Christine leaned into the kiss, unable to do anything else. She raised her arms and wrapped them around his neck, rising on the balls of her feet to meet his kiss. His tongue brushed against her lips hesitantly, then more forcefully, pushing past her lips. She opened her mouth to him, and she was lost.
Erik's hands slid to her waist and down her back to cup her derrière, and he pulled her against him, pulling back from her mouth and hissing with approval as his arousal pressed into her abdomen.
When the cool air hit her swollen lips, Christine gasped and stepped away from him, pushing a hand into her hair. She could barely look at him. His golden eyes were gleaming with arousal, and his robe had loosened, revealing hard pectoral muscles and a flat, firm abdomen. She blushed as she glanced at his groin, his thick member tenting the silk.
"I should go," she said, pressing a hand to her beating heart and turning her back to him.
He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. "Why?" he asked, lowering his face to kiss the nape of her neck.
"I can't," she said, unconsciously stretching her neck to give him better access.
He paused, "You are."
Christine shook her head to clear it and stepped from his embrace, smoothing her skirt. "No, Erik. Thank you for preventing my expulsion from your household. This, though, cannot happen." Much as I want it to, the thought tore through her heart. If she allowed him to continue, she would become his concubine, nothing more. She couldn't bear for him to see her as nothing more than a commodity to be thrown away at any time. It was safer for her heart to be nothing to him but a servant and a talented singer who he could mold and teach.
She stole a glance at him. His eyes had gone cold and his stance was tense. "It can't, or it won't?"
"Either," she said, carefully moving towards the door.
He advanced on her, moving so quickly she had no time to react. "The distinction is important, Christine," he said, sneering as he said her name. She pressed her back into the door, grasping the handle, and he placed a hand on either side of her head, leaning down so they were face to face. "It can't, or it won't?" he repeated.
"It won't," she replied, her voice breaking.
"Why?" he asked, his voice soft but dangerous. He took a hand from the door to finger her mask. "Does it have something to do with this?"
At his mention of her deformity, Christine grew angry. He had no right to discuss it so casually, or even to assume that it would affect her judgment in this matter. She slapped his hand away. "That has nothing to do with this."
"I can see no other reason for your refusal," he replied hotly, pulling the mask off with a sharp jerk, catching her hair in the straps. She cried out in pain and raised a hand to rub her head where the strands had been yanked out. "Is it not a relief to receive my attention, despite your deformity?"
Christine jerked away as if she'd been slapped. He thought he was doing her a favor? That she should be grateful that he wanted her, despite the scars she bore? She pressed against his chest, desperate to free herself from his presence. How could this man, of all men, want to use her like this? "Let me go," she hissed.
"No," he said, pressing closer. Erik wasn't sure why he was doing this, why he wanted her to want him, why he wanted her to accept him without question, why he so desperately wanted her to say yes. "I can't."
She was glaring up at him, her turquoise eyes burning with anger. The left side of her face was oddly misshapen, the cheek sunken and her eye buried deep in the socket as if the flesh there had been stripped away. The scabs from her healing injuries were brown and cut through with white cracks. They were clearly healing well, and he thought back to the night a week before when he and Nadir had tended the wounds when he had kissed her goodnight.
He thought back, too, to the night that he had found her singing on the stage. He had kissed her that night, too, mesmerized by the voice of his Aminta, the woman before him bearing the voice he always imagined as he composed his greatest work.
"You can't or you won't?" she spat, throwing his words back at him. "The distinction is important, Erik."
He cringed at the anger in her voice, "I won't."
She bucked against him, fruitlessly throwing her weight against his and beating her fists against his chest. "Why?" she cried softly. "You, of all people. Why?"
He caught her wrists and pressed them back against the door, "What does that mean, 'you of all people'?"
Christine closed her mouth, her lips becoming a flat line. She was so frustrated, defeated by his assumption that she would lay with him and be grateful for it, just because of her face. For a moment, she had forgotten that this was not her Erik. He had held her in his arms so gently, comforted her as she relieved herself of the burdens that had plagued her throughout the week. She almost expected to look up and find his face covered by the porcelain mask she that was so familiar with. She had seen it in her dreams every night for a decade. But he revealed himself to be a beast
"Let me go," she said, her voice steely.
"No, what do you mean?" he asked fiercely.
"I expected better of you!" she exclaimed, straining against him. He let her go suddenly, and she stumbled forward.
Erik looked down at his hands, the same hands that moments before had held Christine against her will. She was right, he was better than this. He had nearly forced himself upon her, a mistake he would have regretted deeply. "I'm sorry," he said, pacing away from her and spreading his hands on a table, leaning into it heavily. "Will you come tomorrow? Will you still sing for me?"
She wanted to say no. She wanted to run from this house and never look back, go to the Giry women and beg them to take her in, help her find work. But she knew that she would not. Despite how he had treated her, his music and his voice still resonated in her soul like nothing else ever could. She would never turn her back to him again, even if it meant enduring his careless treatment of her.
"Yes," she said wearily. "I will sing for you."
Erik nodded, "Good. You are dismissed."
He waited until the door clicked closed behind her and he heard her retreat down the hall, then flipped the table that he leaned against, sending a vase flying to the floor. He cursed himself and his treatment of her. "How will she ever forgive me?" he whispered to himself, falling into bed and closing his eyes against his tormented thoughts.