Title: Midnight Encounters

Author: Schattenfreude [herzschlag_13@yahoo.com]

Rating: PG13, to be safe

Warnings: Slash, what might be construed as mild Raoul-bashing

Disclaimer: If you no like, no read.  The "Back" button is there for a reason, and I'm not responsible for your mental trauma if you read it.  As to the book, it certainly doesn't belong to me, but it's part of the public domain anyway.

Author's note: Set smack in the middle of the story, a few days to a week before the fatal performance—Faust or Don Juan Triumphant or what have you.  If anyone wants to beta it, feel free to email me and have a go.

--

The cellars of the Opera were a dismal place at any time of the day, but at half past two in the morning most of the staff were safely in bed, the lights were out, and Raoul's footsteps echoed loudly and conspicuously on the stone floor.  His sole means of illumination was a candle that he carried with him; the unsteadiness of his pace combined with the already flickering quality of the candlelight to make his surroundings dance with shadows and dim orange-yellow light.  Raoul found himself unusually jumpy, eyes casting from side to side nervously and gait faltering every few steps to make sure wasn't being watched or followed.  This is stupid, he told himself.  You should turn back now.

His original mission seemed silly now, a pathetic excuse to do something instead of lying in bed all night, staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep.  He had come down here through one of the myriad side entrances that no one bothered to lock, searching for--for what?  Hidden trapdoors?  Secret passages?  Little bits of trickery worked into the walls, to allow the "ghost" to work what seemed like magic?  Or maybe he was looking for the elusive Phantom himself, looking to hunt the man down despite—or maybe because of—Christine's warnings.  It didn't matter; he was down here, exploring, and the cellars fascinated him.  Besides, he was carrying a pistol with him, and that gave him the illusion of invincibility—after all, no one would be foolhardy enough to attack a man with a gun, right?

But he was still jumping at the armies of shadows that surrounded him, still twitching at the slightest drip of water within the walls.  Hardly surprising, then, that when he heard a whisper behind him, he stopped dead and turned around in bewilderment.  It was a tiny whisper, seeming to come from right behind him, but it was enough to send chills rushing through Raoul's veins and certainly enough to stop him dead in his tracks.  He couldn't hear it very well, but he knew what it's telling him: Go back.  Get out.  This is not where you belong; leave before you meet an untimely fate.  He turned around and around, but the voice was always right behind him, seemingly at the base of his skull.  Finally he tried to order it to show itself, but his voice shook audibly and, embarrassed, he cleard his throat and tried again, booming out into the half-light: "Who's there?  Come out--I'm armed."

"No doubt you are, Monseiur le Vicomte."  This time it wasn't a whisper but a voice, low and melodious and rich with shades of malice, and it was coming not from behind him but from an alcove to his left, an alcove he could've sworn was empty thirty seconds ago.  He peered into the shadows of the alcove: a figure, dressed entirely in black, lounged there, body melting into the darkness that surrounded it.  The figure was wearing a black hat and a black mask; a pair of eyes burned and shone through the eye-holes, but the only flesh that showed was a chin, at once bony and as white as bone, and thin, pale lips that barely moved when the figure spoke.  "You perhaps are armed, but surely you would not attack a man with no weapons?"

Raoul's reflexes were good--the moment he caught sight of the man in the shadows, he pointed the pistol at the figure and raised the candle to eye level to see better.  This perhaps was what saved him, for although he saw the thin red hand jump, at the moment that he raised the gun, towards a pocket from which a thin red rope emerged, he didn't know what it was, dismissed it, and instead kept the candle raised and the pistol fixed at the middle of that mask until both the white hands came up in a gesture of pacification.

"Look!" he declared.  "I am unarmed.  You don't want to shoot an unarmed man, do you?  You don't want to be a murderer. No, you want to be a good man and a good husband and watch your children grow up in peace.  So put your gun down, monsieur."

"What do you want?" Raoul, for all his naïveté, was wiser than that: he didn't let the pistol budge an inch.

The hand that had flicked towards the pocket with the lasso in it relaxed back to one black-robed side. "Tonight I wish only to talk to you, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny.  No games, no battles: merely to talk.  In the future, of course, you may not be as lucky."

The pistol wavered.  "Talk?  About what?"

Erik's reply was simple, one word: "Christine."  He stepped out of the shadows, allowing Raoul to see that there wasn't any room for a hidden sword or gun under his clothes.  Unarmed, or at least unarmed by traditional means.

"She doesn't love you, you know," Raoul said.  He was on his guard again, now that this sensitive topic had been brought up.  Perhaps he sensed how strong Erik's feelings were on the subject, and how violent he became when he got too worked up.  "If you cared for her at all you would leave us in peace."

A smile curled those thin lips.  "We have had a few misunderstandings, yes.  But I am the only one who can offer her what she truly seeks: eternal, undying love.  True devotion.  Not an empty courtship and an emptier marriage."

"Empty?  What we have is not empty," Raoul said angrily, setting the candle on the floor to get a firmer grip on his gun.  "I love her, can't you see that?  I love her just as much as you do.  How dare you presume to know the inner workings of our relationship?"

"Monsieur, it's quite obvious," Erik replied, sounding almost bored.  Not quite what Raoul was expecting, but certainly better than a raving madman.  "To everyone but you, perhaps.  To be sure, you've convinced yourself you're madly in love with her, but anyone who looks can see  that no matter what you may think or say, you are only pursuing her because you need a wife and she was the most appropriate girl."

"I don't follow you," Raoul growled, bristling.

Erik made a soft noise of exasperation.  "It's appropriate for a young man of your age to be courting a girl, is it not?  So, although you very obviously have no interest in any of the girls around you, you picked a girl for the sake of keeping up appearances and are now wooing her.  The problem, monsieur, is that you have chosen the wrong girl.  Christine Daaé is already taken."

The pistol lowered in confusion.  "You've got it wrong," Raoul insisted.  "I love her, and the only thing that's as obvious as you say is that she loves me too.  Not you--me." He was vaguely aware that he sounded childish, but for once he didn't care.

"What reason do you have to love her?" Erik pressed.  "She's pretty.  Beautiful, even.  There are plenty of beautiful girls around Paris.  Find another trinket, my friend.  Christine, her beauty, and her voice--they are mine.  And unlike you, she is more than a trinket to me."

"I love her because she is Christine!" Raoul protested weakly.  "What other reason do I need?  Who else is just like her?"

"You think I haven't seen you?"  Erik shot back nastily.  Raoul noticed that he was being backed slowly into the wall of the corridor.  "I see everything that goes on in here--this is, after all, my Opera.  I see the look on your face when Christine presses her face into your shoulder, the look that says clearly that you wish you were anywhere else but there with her.  I see that look, and I see the way you look at the new boy, the stagehand who has replaced Buquet.  I know, monsieur.  Perhaps you don't realise it yet, but I do."

It dawned on Raoul exactly what Erik was accusing him of at the very same instant that he felt his back hit the cold stone of the wall: he was cornered, and he couldn't escape, for Erik was advancing on him, and Erik knew.  And Raoul realised that Erik was telling the truth, and he lashed out, landing a wild blow on the black mask that elicited no reaction whatsoever.

"You're lying," Raoul whispered, feeling his face contort.  "It's not true."

And then, a strange thing: Erik began to laugh.  Softly at first, then ever louder, until the sound of it filled the corridor and bounced off the walls, seeming to emerge from everywhere and nowhere at once.  Erik laughed and laughed, and when he was finally done laughing, he pinned Raoul by his shoulders to the wall, mouth still twisted into a grotesque semblance of a grin.  "So the little boy has finally figured it out," he hissed, amusement tinging his voice.  "Now what does it take for him to actually admit it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Raoul lied coldly, his mind secretly whirling as the stench of death enveloped him.

"Oh, I think you know exactly what I'm talking about," Erik answered.  "And I think that you've finally realised that Christine isn't as precious to you as you thought.  That you don't want to hold her, kiss her, love her, not really--there are many other people you would rather love, would you not, monsieur?  Many other men.  Why, any man would be better than your precious Christine, would he not, monsieur?  Any man.  Even--" And his voice coloured with bitter, self-deprecating humour--"even me--you would rather kiss me, hideous, masked, deformed me, than your precious, beloved Christine.  Wouldn't you?" 

Raoul didn't answer.  His brain seemed to have frozen, and he found himself unsettled and frightened by the revelation, by this turn of events, by the threatening nearness of that leering, masked face, and by the sharp fingers digging into his shoulders, pressing him back into the wall.

"Wouldn't you?"

Raoul stared coldly and blankly into Erik's burning eyes, his gaze not betraying the whirlwind that was tearing a path of carnage through his mind.  If it was true, if it really was—Raoul felt his breath catch in his throat—"Wouldn't you, monsieur, wouldn't you?" and without waiting for permission from his brain, his face tilted forwards, his mouth attaching itself to the thin lips in front of him.  It was a brief kiss, barely more than a touch before Erik pulled away in evident disgust, but Raoul's head was spinning and it was enough to convince him that Erik was right, Erik had been right all along--

But damn if he was going to let Erik know that.  He brought his hands up, feeling them connect with skeletally thin shoulders, and shoved forcefully.  Erik stumbled back to the other side of the corridor, and Raoul forced his expression into a sardonic little smirk.  "Well," he said, trying to control the shake that had returned to his voice, "that was unpleasant enough.  Looks like I'm not a fairy after all."  He could tell Erik didn't believe him and tried to control the dull roar of late-springing panic that encroached rapidly on his thoughts.

"So… thank you, monsieur," Raoul went on, injecting every bit of conficence he could muster into his shaking voice.  "You have indeed just convinced me—that Christine is mine, I do love her, and if you keep trying to ensnare her when we are so clearly happy together, I will take my revenge on you."

"Indeed, monsieur?"  Erik was backing away, his voice starting to echo from all corners of the hallway again.  "Then our next meeting will not be so friendly.  A rival I will compete fairly with--but a liar isn't worth my time or energy."  He removed the Punjab lasso from his pocket, twirling it threateningly a few times before glancing back up at Raoul.  "Tonight, I will let you go, since I stopped you only to talk.  But do not wander through these cellars again, monsieur.  You might be unpleasantly surprised."  He ducked back into the alcove, and now his voice seemed to be fading away.  "As to your revenge, it is not easy to take revenge on a mere phantom, now is it?"

Raoul followed him back into the alcove, but he had disappeared, and Raoul's prying fingers could find no trace of a door or passageway.  Shaken, nervous, and more than a little bit confused, Raoul gathered up his candle and ran full tilt up to ground level and out onto the street, where he did his best to disappear into the Parisian night.