Hey everyone! Sorry for the long-time-no-update: I got pretty sick the last two weeks I was traveling, and while I got to see Oslo, Norway's non-replica ALW production of Phantom (IN NORWEGIAN! IT WAS AWESOME!), I came home and crashed for like, a month. It took a long time for me to feel strong again.
Anyway, thank you so much for all of your reviews- they are seriously what started me writing again! If you'd be so kind as to let me know what you think of this chapter after reading, I'd be very thankful... I have my reservations about it, but I won't say anything to bias you one way or another. I struggled with this one, we'll just say that.
I do have some ideas about where this is going, but I have some other "real-life" writing projects I'm trying to finish, so... we will see how much time I have in the New Year. For now: I present to you, Chapter 4.
Wish Erik luck! He needs it!
Erik was jarred out of his grim focus by the innocuous jingling of Palais Tattoos' entry bell. Determined as he was, the familiar sound brought him back to the present, to reality… and he realized that Christine's smile had faltered.
Oh. He'd stood outside, staring in at her and this man for an uncomfortably long time... no wonder she was unsure of what to do. Panic set his heart pounding. He could very well have jeopardized everything with his little existential crisis out there on the sidewalk… the blond man's eyes were glued to him now, and either Erik was absolutely paranoid, or the fellow definitely wanted to step in front of Christine and punch his skinny ass into the finished cement floor.
This was bad. Very bad. The walls- were they pressing in on him? It felt like they were. Suddenly, the tattoo parlour, a perfectly adequate space the two previous times he'd been there, felt like a cage. He was dizzy. Blood pounded in his ears as he swallowed down the butterflies that were uncoiling from the heavy lump of his stomach.
He should turn around and walk out. Move to another state or something. Get the heck out of here, and forget Christine- No!
No, this was it. He had one chance to secure the opportunity to win Christine over. If he botched this, he'd hate himself forever. Especially if all of this ended with her thinking he was a creep.
If he was going to rescue this interaction and create a better impression of himself, it was high time for some recovery maneuvers. He was quickly devolving into a frightened child once more.
As all the possible worst-case scenarios flashed before his eyes, Erik remembered one of the phases he'd gone through- had he been seven years old? Eight? He'd been certain that he could make a life for himself as an actor. That if only he could get in on the special visual effects and glory of Hollywood, maybe some people might love him from afar, might never see his deformity and fear him for it. He'd stolen books from the public library, devoured them yin hungry desperation… but he'd never gotten the chance to put the things he'd learned from them to use for entertainment. Self-preservation, though? That was another thing. They were useful to survive among people.
He needed to calm himself enough to perform. To pretend he could function like a normal person, without twenty-old maladaptive coping mechanisms from a life of abuse and stress.
Erik can do this. Yes, he could do this. Deep breaths, remember your posture… hold yourself confidently and confidence will follow eventually.
There. He needed to pretend he'd strolled right in and own it. He was committed now.
"Hi Erik!" Christine flashed him a smile, but he could detect the discomfort in her eyes.
Damn it- now that he could focus again, he didn't like what he saw! Christine was exhibiting nearly the same expression he got from panicked retail workers when he dared to venture into public— on edge, concerned, but trying to gloss over it all with politeness and good customer service, pretending that masked men who looked like they'd stepped out of some sort of horror movie always came shopping there at odd hours of the night.
He wanted to rush to her, to hold her tight and comfort her and convince her that he was fine, fine, and no threat to her at all— but no, no, that was the worst thing he could possibly do under the circumstances! He was a stranger to her. He must remember that. Never mind that she wasn't much more than that to him…
He broke himself out of his wild torrent of thoughts enough to manage a simple, strangled, "Good afternoon, Christine!"
He stumbled over the words, but she appeared to relax. A little. He glanced to his left: the blond man was still eyeing him cautiously. Mentally, Erik called himself an idiot in every language he knew.
Christine appeared to have made up her mind about how to handle the situation, because she suddenly brightened. "Oh! Silly me, I need to introduce you: Raoul, this is Erik. Erik, this is my friend Raoul de Chagny."
The dear, sweet girl… she was covering for his awkward silence! No one had ever done that for him before... they'd just let him wallow in it. Oh yes, this woman was worth any potential pain, however imminent it may seem! He would win her or die trying.
"We kind of grew up together," she continued quickly. "Family friends: meeting up for camping trips, summer camp, stuff like that." At this, Christine cast her gaze fondly back to Raoul, who grinned at her. "He just showed up in the area today and dropped in by surprise! It's been years, and he pops in like he hasn't vanished from the face of the earth! Apparently, I have the Navy to blame." Both of them laughed, and Raoul… winked at her!? Erik watched, dismayed.
"I couldn't let my childhood sweetheart think I'd forgotten about her— had to check in on my little Lotte!" Raoul's laugh was easy, a warm tenor. Erik despised him already. De Changy? It sounded like a variety of pansy. He wanted to gag.
Christine rolled her eyes, still smiling. "Oh my gosh, Raoul, you're still teasing me about that?" Her comfortably folded arms and laughing eyes oozed familiarity.
Erik took a slow, careful breath to relax himself, trying to unclench his fists. It was obvious that Christine… cared for this man… thankfully he was clearheaded enough to know he'd better watch his step until he found out just how much... and in what way. If he was too harsh with Raoul, he wouldn't endear himself to her— and that was his goal today. Win her over. Secure a date.
Right. This called for good manners- and some probing questions.
"Hello, Raoul." As Erik spoke, he reached for the man's hand, offering a very firm handshake. Raoul seemed a little surprised at the pressure which Erik applied, but the seaman's own strong hands were more than up to the challenge, and Erik withdrew feeling distinctly… silly. What was he doing? Trying to challenge the man to feats of strength?
Focus, you idiot.
"I'm glad to meet one of Christine's friends." There. If they really were more than friends, that remark might force it out?
All Raoul deigned to bestow on him was a twitch of a half-friendly smile… which grew exponentially as he turned his head to Christine. He looked at her with a big, playful puppy-dog grin as he answered, "Well, actually we got engaged a long time ago! I really should start introducing myself as her fiancé— isn't that right, Lotte?"
Erik blanched. His eyes whipped over to Christine to catch her affirmation— only to see her eyebrows shoot up. She laughed incredulously. "Yeah, when we were, what? Six years old, still playing house?"
Raoul was still looking at Christine and grinning. "Well, I don't seem to remember ever breaking it off…"
"... we were kids, Raoul. Kids play games." Christine was peering up at Raoul like she was wondering if he'd ever actually grown up. Was she uncomfortable now? Erik wished he could tell. Apparently she was surprised by her old friends behavior.
Raoul's grin softened, and he shrugged and shook his head as if to show her he was only kidding. But as his eyes left her and flickered back to Erik, they lost their playful light. Erik realized then that, while nothing official stood between him and Christine, he was being warned off. Gently. But how did Raoul know...?
He could pretend he didn't understand. Plausible deniability was a weapon he wasn't afraid to use. He thought fast.
"Well, anyway. Raoul— welcome back to dry land." Was that witty? Or just as stupid as it sounded out loud? Damn it. He'd make a fool of himself, yet.
At this, Raoul let out a good-natured chuckle. "Well, I don't spend every moment at sea."
Were stupid remarks the correct way to communicate with this man? God forbid.
"Of course," Erik deferred. He realized with significant discomfort that Raoul was still looking him over, and had definitely noticed the single, crimson rose he was still holding. Oh. He hadn't given it to Christine yet. He needed to—
"So, how do you know Christine?" Raoul asked cooly.
The rose would have to wait. He needed to get over his near-heart attack and focus if he was going to come out on top. This would be difficult: Raoul was offering none of Christine's thoughtful social graces to ease his awkwardness.
Focus, Erik. Turn on the charm. At least pretend you've got it all together.
"Ah," Erik cleared his throat. When had it gotten so dry? "She gave me a tattoo last month."
He curled his lips into what he thought was an easy smile and tilted his head deferentially as he added, "She's quite the artist. And I've never seen such lovely watercolor effects in tattoos as I saw in her portfolio." Were facial expressions always this difficult? Hopefully they had the desired effect. Never mind that his mask would cover half his expression; it was important to throw oneself completely into the role. Commitment was key.
He made the mistake of glancing over at Christine, whose cheeks were turning a very becoming shade of pale pink. She was obviously pleased.
She smiled prettily and tried to brush off the praise, all humility: "Well, it helps when my customers come in with their own designs and they're actually well-drawn, like yours— you can't imagine some of the things I've had to redesign to make them usable, Erik." She giggled. "I think that's given me a considerable amount of practice."
Erik felt warm under his mask. She had just complimented him, however casually. And she had kept tactfully silent about the… nature… of his design. She was an angel.
"Oh?" Raoul looked to Erik, eyebrows raised. "Are you an artist, too, Erik? I'd enjoy seeing that tattoo."
Damn this man.
Erik forced his lips to recapture the easy smile before it slipped completely off his face and onto the finished cement floor. "Ah... I'm afraid it's not on an area of my body that I tend to show off for others." He raised the eyebrow not covered by his mask.
There. Navy-boy could take that any way he liked.
Indeed, the blond sailor appeared to have lost his air of casual indifference. And some of his color. Excellent.
Raoul cleared his throat… "Well."
The awkward silence was no longer Erik's.
Oh, this felt glorious! Was this what social prowess felt like? He was riding high on newfound confidence! He could take on the world!... He'd actually better get to the point of his visit while he still had the courage.
Erik turned to Christine and presented her with his rose. "Christine, I really just dropped in to give you this…"
He hurried on as Christine accepted the rose. "Due to some miscommunication, I ended up with an extra ticket to the Philharmonic next Saturday evening… I gathered from your playlist here in your shop that you appreciated Brahms and Strauss?" She nodded, staring. He resisted the urge to tug at his collar. It was far too tight. "Marvelous! Would you… would you care to consider joining me? For the symphony?"
"Oh, Erik... that sounds wonderful!" She frowned. "Are you sure, though? I know they're expensive... I'd hate to take it if you could get your money back."
She wasn't convinced... best to allay any concerns right away, on all fronts. Erik was well-aware that he'd possessed a particularly pleasing voice since puberty, and he eagerly used it to his advantage now.
"Money is no object, and I assure you... there's no one I'd rather invite," he purred, voice low and silky.
Christine's forget-me-not eyes grew wide, framed by long, dark eyelashes. It seemed as if she forgot herself for a moment, simply staring into his own eyes as her lips tried to form an answer and failed.
Raoul fidgeted in discomfort. The sound of his scuffing shoes broke the trance, and Christine let out a breathless laugh and looked down at the floor before nodding. "I would love to go, Erik. Thank you."
She rolled the stem of the rose between her fingers, suddenly remembering that she held it, and lifted it to her nose, a little self-conciously. Oh, but she was adorable.
"This is a lovely rose… thank you… I need to go see if I have something to put it in so it stays fresh. I'll be back in a sec!" She whirled suddenly and vanished into the back room, separated from the rest of the parlor by a maroon curtain.
… which left him alone with Raoul. He'd almost forgotten about him. Suddenly, Erik felt his confidence waning. Maybe he could get away with some calm silence and avoid awkward small talk…
"So." Raoul crossed his arms, and Erik noticed just how unsettlingly large the younger man's biceps were. What was the Navy's work-out regimen like? "What did you say you did for work?" Fantastic. As if he wanted to tell this fellow anything at all about his life. He'd have to muddle through as well as he could. Be vague and hope for the best.
"I do a lot of freelance work. I'm a musician."
"I see. You have… quite the voice."
Was that a compliment or an accusation? From the pointed look Raoul was giving him, he assumed the latter. He'd take it as a complement just for spite. "Thank you, Raoul. I've done some voice acting recently, too, which has been… entertaining."
How on earth was one supposed to keep a conversation going? How did people do this every single day and remain sane?
Erik floundered for another comment, any comment. He cleared his throat. "Christine said you're in the Navy?"
"Yeah. I'm an officer."
I should have guessed, Erik thought, eyeing the man's bearing. The man probably even had an unironic anchor tattoo.
"So... are you on leave?"
"I'm in town for my sister's wedding- she's getting married on Sunday, so I was able to get the time off."
"Ah. Please give her my congratulations." Had Raoul asked Christine to be his "plus-one" at this wedding? Erik wondered. He supposed he'd find out on Saturday... he couldn't help but feel a small triumph if he'd snagged Christine out of a rehearsal dinner from under Raoul's nose.
Raoul was looking him over for what felt like the fifth or sixth time, and Erik felt uncomfortably warm again. Apparently, Raoul wasn't exactly interested in small talk, either. Maybe he was too busy calculating what kind of masked weirdo was interested in his childhood sweetheart, or something. At least Erik had one small comfort: Raoul was too polite to say anything about his mask. Erik wasn't sure if he could resist shedding blood if this idiot brought up his physical appearance.
To his relief, Christine bustled back into the room the next moment, a large to-go coffee cup in hand to serve as a vase. She grinned sheepishly at him. "I didn't have anything else to put it in here, so… yeah. I can put it in something prettier, like it deserves, when I get home."
"I'm sure it will be fine until then, Christine." She'd take it home? It was his heart that felt too warm, now. Was he suffering from hot flashes?
She positioned the rose until it sat just-so on the countertop, then her eyes flickered up to meet his own. "Thank you, Erik. I'm already looking forward to the symphony."
"As am I," he breathed.
The moment of bliss was over too quickly again as he remembered Raoul's presence. They broke eye contact, leaving him aching inside.
But he had so much hope, now! He'd accomplished what he had come to do… he'd asked Christine out. She'd accepted… and he'd showed up Navy-boy, who clearly felt some jealousy. Imagine! A perfect male specimen, equipped with good looks, history, and social skills, felt jealous. Of him! He felt like Alexander the Great might have after a victory: he'd come, seen, and conquered. Now he just needed to exit the scene before the sheer elation caused him to screw something up.
Suddenly, Erik was aware of more awkward silence. Yes, definitely time to get the hell out of here.
He cleared his throat. "Well, Christine, I'll see you Saturday evening. I'll text you later to sort out the details. Until then… I wish you a lovely week."
His voice caressed her like a living thing, and he saw her shiver. She pushed her dark hair back behind one ear. "Thank you, Erik. I— I'll see you on Saturday."
Satisfied, and feeling like he was walking on a cloud, Erik nodded to Raoul, who stood uncomfortably by, watching with growing unease. "Nice to meet you, Raoul. Good luck with your sisters wedding."
Erik paused in the doorway and half-turned, as if on an afterthought. "Oh, and de Chagny…"
Raoul looked up, his face strained. "Yes?"
Erik looked at him, smirked, and mustered up the most genuine tone he could.
"Thank you for your service."
Thanks for reading! Please shoot me a review if you can! 3 And have a happy New Year!