Uhh, wow! Hi! I thought I was done with this story, but it seems it wasn't done with me. LaLadyCavalier has been asking me for at least a year to rewrite the bridge scene (chapter 5) from Erik's point of view, and as today is her birthday and she's been my No. 1 cheerleader since I first started publishing, I owe her big time.
And in case you missed it, I published an M-rated version of chapter 33 ("Daylight") last year. It's called The Phantom and the Fawn, and you can find it here: s/12410460/1/The-Phantom-and-the-Fawn
He recognized her by her hair.
They should not have been so familiar to him, those tawny locks, nor the pale dip in her neck, the sloping curve of her hips. Especially not at such a distance. He should not have felt that strange pang of want when she first appeared in his sight, lifting her mourning veil to peer over the iron rail of the Pont des Arts. But then, she had haunted his thoughts for six weeks now. The memory of how warm her palm had been, upon the return of his ring, still lingered on his fingertips. It had terrified him to the point of avoidance: he had caved to obsession once, and he could not do it again.
Completely devoid of respect or feeling, she had deemed him. A madman.
He had been toying with her since the masked ball: that much was true. She had been an easy target from the moment he first saw her, doe-eyed and tight-lipped and skittish, standing alone among the crowd of revelers.
But that was not why he had first noticed her.
Among the bright and brazen harlequins and dominoes, she had materialized as a goddess of starlight. Her gown, inky blue and ethereal, suited her so well that it might as well have been her usual attire. He had noticed her because she, too, was a creature of the night. Now here they were again, in the darkness, wraiths drifting among men.
The thought gave Erik pause. What had he called her? A fawn? She was supposed to be young and bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, embroidering and painting as her lashes fluttered coquettishly at eligible bachelors, or whatever it was that young ladies did.
But then, he had dismissed such things as mundane, had he not?
He had shamed her. Threatened her where she sat with her family at the Opera. Turned up in her bedroom just after she had lost her sister. That had been six weeks ago, yet she somehow seemed worse for the wear, moving about with a leaden melancholy to suggest it was an effort just to exist.
Unease curled around his midsection and clenched, leaving him with the most awful premonition. His legs spurred him forward even before his thoughts caught up with his gut—even before she mounted the guardrail that overlooked the Seine. But he had not yet closed the distance between them when she clambered up there, and his heart seemed to stop altogether.
She sat on the railing with her arm around a lamppost for support, and he slowed his gait to refrain from startling her. The rigid line of her spine slackened, her side pressing into the lamppost as though settling in.
She was not committed to this act. He had time to intervene.
There was no way not to catch her offguard, and so he reached out with steadying hands as he spoke. "We meet again, little fawn."
She jumped. The movement made her slide on the rail, and she threw her arms around the lamppost for balance. By then, however, he had a firm hold on her sides, his long fingers curling into the muscle and bone there.
"I'm alright, thank you," she said between shaky breaths. Not once did she turn her head to look at him. He released his grip and moved to stand beside her, an arm's length away. He could not shake the image of black silk sliding across metal, sending her delicate frame tumbling into the Seine. He trained his gaze on the river so as not to alarm her further, but he watched her in his periphery with near-painful alertness.
"How curious," she said, "that you should turn up in this very location, in such a large city, at such strange hours."
He almost had to smile at the veiled accusation. He supposed he could not blame her for thinking such things. Or was this a halfhearted attempt at banter? "I could say the same of you, mademoiselle," he replied, with a glance to gauge her reaction. She stayed silent, lips drawn, gaze trained on the anxious glimmer of water in the lamplight.
It was after he had tried to die, and failed, that he had first walked to this bridge. Restlessness had compelled him to wander each night, without purpose but perhaps in search of it. It had begun to rain, and as he'd pulled the hood of his cloak tighter around his face, he'd seen her: a slight woman of about thirty, holding herself over the river, restrained by only her boot heels on the bottom rail and her ungloved, white-knuckled hands clutching the metal at her back.
She had worn no hat; slick strands of her dark, unkempt hair had been plastered to her face and neck. It had been impossible to tell whether it was rain or tears that slicked her ashen face, but there had been no mistaking the resignation in her shivering frame.
She had watched his approach with wide eyes, her lips trembling. "Please," she'd begged. "Please stay back."
He had stopped, raising his hands in supplication. "I do not wish to trouble you, madame. Only to offer assistance, if you will take it."
"I cannot," she had replied hoarsely. "Oh, monsieur, it hurts. It hurts so much that I can bear it no longer."
He had found himself at a loss. She'd been, from what he could tell, quite pretty. Surely life could not have been so cruel to her? But then, he'd supposed, many a woman had been targeted on account of her looks. Taken advantage of. Or perhaps she had lost someone?
It had occurred to him, then, that he knew almost nothing of the struggles of ordinary men, preoccupied as he had been by his own.
Regardless, it had felt imperative then that he fake it, if only for her benefit. "I understand," he had replied. A pause. Then, "Do you know, I once read an account of a soldier, severely wounded in battle, who was advised by a doctor that he ought to be grateful for his pain, as agonizing as it may have been."
The woman had frowned then, her bottom lip still quivering. "And why was that?"
"Because it meant the soldier was alive. He would have the opportunity to heal, and to find new purpose, that his fallen comrades did not have."
She had cried even harder then. In the end, she had accepted his outstretched hand.
A similar encounter had occurred on the same bridge the following month, and so it had seemed only natural to post himself there going forward. What else was he to do? He owed the world more restitution than he could ever possibly hope to attain.
He now found himself relaying this assumed occupation to one Clara Toussaint, though in not as many words.
"Are you an angel, then?" she asked lightly.
His insides crumbled. She could not know the memory and heartache attached to that single word, could she? Yet she had delivered such a painfully well-placed blow. He could not hold back his caustic laughter. "I am as much an angel as you are a sky-goddess," he said. The sting of regret was quick, however, and he added, "Farther from it, even."
She seemed not to take offense. "I thought of Nut on my walk here. She sounds lovely."
He had not told her of the other role that the sky-goddess played in Egyptian mythology, and as he considered her recent circumstances, he debated whether she would find the knowledge a sadness or a comfort.
He put his faith in the latter and spoke softly. "She is also the protector of the dead."
Her next breath in was sharp and shaky. He did not have to see her face to know that she was crying, and he was on the verge of an awkward apology when she replied, "That's good."
He exhaled his relief. "Perhaps," he said, "but it seems to me that it is more often the living who need protection." He now grew more unsettled with every passing second, knowing how precariously she was perched on the rail, and he could dance around the topic no longer. "Why are you here, Mlle. Toussaint?"
There was a pregnant pause before she answered, quietly, "It's my birthday."
"And I suppose you wish me to express some sort of sentiment," he said, clenching his jaw at her evasiveness.
But she only shook her head. "I wish to skip the day entirely."
She did not elaborate. He tightened his grip on the guardrail and gazed out over the water, unsure of where else to take the conversation. She clearly did not wish to talk to him—not that he could blame her—but neither did he feel comfortable leaving her as she was.
Suddenly, her lips parted again, and everything became clear: "It is my sister's birthday as well."
Twins. He had never given much thought to the phenomenon before. Undoubtedly there would be marked grief from losing any sibling, but twins? One had to wonder whether they shared a sort of mutual identity, in some respects, stemming from their simultaneous conception and growth. What must it be like, to function as part of a unit whose other half was gone?
"I offer my condolences again," was all he managed to reply.
He could not have said what prompted it, but her tightly wrapped defenses began to fall away. In those intimate small hours of the morning, she gave quiet words to her grief, and he stood by in utter disbelief that she should choose to confide in him, of all people.
"I cannot breathe," she told him at one point. He thought he at least understood that, even if not the full scope of her loss, so he told her as much.
Perhaps that was what eventually gave rise to that punishing, albeit inevitable, question.
"Why do you always wear a mask, monsieur?"
How foolish he had been, to carry on as though that impediment, just for once, might not mean anything to her. He should have expected no less from her, really, the skittish little thing.
Irritated with the both of them, he spun on her. "So as not to unleash the furies of Hell upon this earth," he bit out, his gaze hard and searing. "Beneath this mask lies death itself."
There! Let her quiver and keen before him. Now they could return to their respective roles as death and the maiden, as beauty and the beast, before he dare hope to have a human exchange unmarred by face or mask.
But her eyes went wide only briefly before her expression settled. "Suppose it were my dying wish to see the man behind the mask. Would you show me then?"
His stomach sank, and his anger dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. How hypothetical a question could this be? The poor girl was only a step away from death. And he would grant her any last wish, if it came down to that—save for this one.
He turned back to face the Seine, for he could no longer look her in the eyes. "It would be an undeservedly torturous exit, for that to be the last thing you saw in life. No, Clara, you shall never see this face." She was silent, so he pressed on. "I do not pretend to have known your sister, but I doubt this is how she would have wanted you to honor her memory."
"I was not planning to jump, if that's what you mean."
Relief overtook him so quickly that he was swept into a riptide. "Then you ought to stop with these foolish theatrics!" he snapped. Of all the juvenile, short-sighted, utterly reckless things to do! He thrust a hand at her and ordered her to come down.
Her face went white. "Yes, monsieur."
Clara stood, feet on the guardrail, and pivoted in order to climb back over it. There was a sudden snap and a gut-wrenching blur of movement and sound: a shoe falling, a leg giving way, the echoing clang of forehead smacking against guardrail, and then, finally, black silk slipping through his outstretched fingers as the little fawn tumbled into the dark and watery maw of the Seine.
Even at night, the resulting splash seemed almost inconsequential against a sprawling city backdrop. For a moment, Erik could only blink at the circular pulse of water that the impact left behind. Could she swim? Was she conscious? How long did he have to make these determinations before the current swept her away?
He darted to the other side of the bridge, where the current likely would have her now, and scaled the guardrail. Quickly, he reached back to tighten his mask until the edges cut fiercely into his skin. Then he covered the nose holes with one hand, and he jumped as far as his legs would take him.
The water was shockingly cold. Immediately it began to seep into the gaps between mask and skin, working its way into his nasal cavity. Even with his keen eyesight, it was too dark to see anything. Still, he began to thrash his legs and paddle with his free arm in some semblance of swimming.
It was by some miracle that he felt a brush of skirt against his hand. He clenched it with desperate fingers; he would not fail her again.
His hand made contact with her solid form, and with both arms he pulled her to his torso in a frantic embrace. Then, as swiftly as possible, he propelled the two of them to the surface.
He came up gasping, the water in his nasal cavity making him choke and sputter soon after. Clara hung limp beside him; he gently tucked her head into the crook of his neck before he made the arduous swim to the riverbank. At the first indication of solid ground beneath his torso, he collapsed beside her.
How small she looked beside him now, with her hat and veil gone, and with wet strands of caramel-colored hair adhering to pale skin. The color had faded from her lips. He lifted a shaky hand to her face but could not detect any outward breaths.
He scrambled to his knees and rummaged through his pockets. "Forgive me, my dear," he murmured, on the off chance that she could hear him, "but we must clear all obstructions." Out came his penknife, and within seconds he had yanked open her bodice and bisected the corset beneath it. Then he rolled her onto her abdomen.
Never had the sounds of wet coughing and sputtering been so welcome. His relief was short-lived, however, as the sounds devolved into the sharp, desperate gasping of lungs denied breath. He swiftly moved her onto her back. Dare he try to respirate?
Another dire wheeze sounded in her chest, and then it was not a question. He lowered his mouth to hers and breathed.
He had never shared a kiss in his life, a fact that he tried hard to dispel from his mind at the sensation of her lips, cold and clammy and soft, yielding to his. This was not a kiss, of course—it could not even begin to mirror that exchange of affection and warmth that he understood a kiss to include—but still his hands trembled where they held her head and chin as he coaxed his own breath into her lungs.
Come on now, little fawn. You are far stronger than I gave you credit for.
Slowly, the gasps began to ebb, her breathing still shallow but even.
"Ho there!" called a voice from the road above. "Is everything alright, monsieur?"
Erik could make out the silhouette of a man and then, just behind him, that of a carriage. "This woman has nearly drowned," he called back. "I must get her immediate medical attention." Breathing though she may have been, he now worried about her body temperature. His own skin felt as though it was sheathed in ice.
The driver came jogging down to the bank. He was a squat and round, with a dark and greasy moustache, but he lifted the girl with practiced ease. "Do not tax yourself, friend," he said as Erik began to object, "or you will be of no use to her." He headed up to the road, her wet and lifeless form in his arms. Erik grabbed the discarded corset and rushed to reposition the bodice over her chest, if only for modesty's sake, recalling with sudden and mortifying clarity how her thin chemise had clung to her frame.
"Your wife?" the man asked. "Paramour?"
"Yes," Erik replied, determined not to waste time or energy. "Have you a blanket in your cab, monsieur?"
"I do indeed." The driver arranged the girl on a seat, leaving Erik to prop her up against his side, and promptly returned with a thick blanket.
"The Rue de Rivoli, please," Erik instructed as he wound her tightly in gray wool. "I have an acquaintance there who is a doctor." Another lie.
He would have much preferred to take her to his own home, far away from the meddling and piercing judgment that he knew awaited him at the Rue de Rivoli, but this option was closer and warmer, with no labyrinthine underground to navigate while carrying an unconscious woman.
The cab lurched forward, and he glanced down at her sleeping form. Her face was so much softer in repose, the lines of worry and sadness having dissolved. All that remained was sweetness.
But the innocence that had once been there—that, too, had faded.
How much of that had been his own doing? He dare not look back over his shoulder, at the trail of ruin that stretched long and dark behind him. He resolved to be more cautious going forward.
A strand of hair clung to her cheek, and he reached out with spindly fingers to move it aside.
When they arrived at their destination, he insisted on carrying the girl up the stairs himself to his friend's flat. Long had he lamented the sorry state of the deteriorating lock on the apartment door, and he found himself relying on it now.
He pulled the girl closer to his chest, gathered his strength, and kicked the door wide open.
"Daroga!" he bellowed. "We have a new development."