I do confess that I got inspired for this story by the story Violin by The Grasshopper. Basically, that story gave me the plotbunny:
What if Raoul and Erik knew each other before PotO?
Like in Violin, the ages have been tampered with somewhat but that's pretty much where the similarities end.
Based on a mix of Leroux, Kay and Webber.
The sun was still up but it was starting on its descent, stretching the shadows of the trees longer and longer. Raoul was by now completely lost and was beginning to realize that running away like that might not have been the wisest idea. It was getting colder and later and he wasn't at all sure of what to do.
He sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. A breeze twisted through the forest and he shivered slightly. It wasn't particularly cold, but he wasn't wearing much. His small legs were aching and there was a clammy feeling of fear in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly, a bird of some sort screeched behind him and he dashed under a bush as a flutter of wings flew past him. Under the cover of the leaves, he drew his knees up to his chest and began to cry.
Alone now, the four-year-old tried to think of what to do, trying to recall how he'd gotten into such a position in the first place. He had been with his older brother, Phillipe, who was visiting some acquaintance in the town. Something had gone wrong; he'd had a tantrum about something and couldn't even remember what. Breaking free from his brother's hands he'd dashed down the streets, ducking in and out, going between people's legs. He thought Phillipe had followed, but there was no sign of him by now.
Raoul had been angry at Phillipe a lot in recent days and had decided to hide away from him. Running away from his brother and not coming back until Phillipe would treat him better seemed like a sensible idea at the time. He'd gone in and out of the shadows until he'd come to the edge of the city, girded by a forest. The place hadn't seemed nearly as foreboding then as it became and he'd gone in without a second thought, only to get promptly lost. That had been the true order of events, but being both young and frustrated Raoul's mind confused the sequence and left gaps. All he clearly remembered was being angry then running.
By now his childish anger had subsided and all he wanted to do was go home and eat. He wished Phillipe would find him but he didn't know if his brother would realize that he'd gone into the forest. It was beginning to get dark in earnest and he couldn't remember the way out at all. Thinking about this, his fear overcame him and he started to sob. Suddenly, he heard the crunch of leaves and the snap of twigs. A pair of scuffed boots stopped next to the bush.
"Phillipe?" He looked upward, a shadow of hope on his tear-stained face.
"Well, well…" A dark-skinned man growled. "What have we here…"
He grabbed the boy by the scruff of the neck and silenced his wail with a meaty hand, dragging him off deeper into the forest.
Raoul quiver in the corner of a room, his face stinging from a slap. By now he knew enough to understand that it was better if he stayed quiet, so he was doing his best not to sob. In front of him, two men were arguing; a wiry one with a dark red bandanna and a taller, thicker one with greasy locks and a threadbare shirt.
"What are you going to do with that?" Asked the first, pointing towards Raoul.
"Check around. See if anybody's offering a reward. If not… who knows?"
"We can't afford any ill attention."
"If the family's poor enough they won't come asking and we'll get an extra hand to boot. He's practically old enough to be mucking out stalls. The animal trainers can always use a hand."
"He doesn't look poor, not with those clothes."
"That's my point. The family comes looking, offers a reward, we've been taking 'good care' of the boy, collect and be on our way. I'm sure they're willing to offer quite a bit."
"Well, you'd best allow a few days for that smack you gave him to heal."
"He'll be fine. If they ask, he got it in the forest. If the child says differently…" He glared at Raoul as if warning him not to, "We'll just say that he's confused; which is of course only natural after being lost in the woods and all."
The second, slighter man sighed at the beefier one.
"Very well. But if any trouble comes of this it's on your head."
"Then why share the reward, if you're going to be like that?"
"Just don't get us in to trouble!" The second snapped at his companion. "And where exactly do you intend to keep him? The carts are already full and I can't think of anyone willing to share. Besides, he's probably going to cry all night or wet himself or something."
"Oh don't worry about that," the first said with a rotten grin and a raspy snicker. "I have the perfect place. Why don't we allow him to share a room with our little corpse?"
The second glared.
"It would be kinder to let him sleep with the animals."
"They might step on him. Besides, a good stiff fright might knock the voice out of him."
"Or make him cry louder."
"Not with that other one in there. The skeleton won't permit it."
Skeleton? Raoul wondered. What were they planning to do with him? The cold ball of fear in his stomach grew and he felt numb and nauseated. The heavyset man turned towards him and Raoul let out a small gasp as he was yanked to his feet by the muscular hand.
"Come along, little one; you get to sleep with your very own cadaver tonight…"
The door clicked shut behind him and Raoul could hear the man's laughter and heavy footsteps retreating away from him. The room was dark thanks to thick curtains hanging over what seemed to be thick iron bars; so he was in a cage. He swallowed and wrung his hands. The other three walls were wooden, painted a dark color with what seemed to be strange symbols all over it. By now it was night; though that made little difference since the fabric would not have allowed any light in anyway. The only source of illumination was a small lamp on a tiny table.
Raoul stood in the weak pool of light and allowed his eyes to begin to adjust. The more he saw the more frightened he grew, beyond the point of speaking. By now he was afraid he might never see home again, despite the plans to sell him back to his family for a hefty amount. What if they didn't pay? What if they didn't know he was here? What if nobody ever found him again?
Painful thoughts crowded his mind and he started to hiccup quietly, then sob softly. Suddenly he heard a noise from the opposite corner, the sound of fabric rustling. He tried to see into the darkness but mostly failed. All he could make out was a tall, slender shape moving fluidly.
"W… wh… who… who's there?" He asked in a high-pitched, tremulous attempt at a whisper.
"Stop crying," a Voice ordered.
Raoul fell silent and his sobs died in his throat. Never before in all his short life had he ever heard such a Voice, beautiful yet commanding. There was no possibility of contradiction.
The shape stepped closer but Raoul was rooted to the spot in wonder and fright. He couldn't have gone far anyway, as the wall was only a few paces behind him, but he did not shrink from the approach.
"Why are you here?"
Raoul whispered his answer in a reverent tone.
"A man found me 'cause I was running away… and then he said I had to sleep with a skeleton… do you sleep with a skeleton?"
There was laughter from the shape, but not the laughter Raoul was used to; this laughter was dark and bitter.
"Child, I am the skeleton."
Confusion flickered across the boy's features.
"But a skeleton's dead and stuff and has no skin. And you can't be dead!"
"Oh really?" The Voice asked in a dangerous tone. "Would you like to see for yourself?"
Raoul's stomach turned as the shape came closer and closer. The air seemed almost tangibly colder and he trembled. At last the shape stepped into the light.
"LOOK!" The Voice commanded.
His eyes were sunken, shining with a fierce look and his face was completely unmasked. The skin was sallow and thick, scarred and stretched over pointed cheekbones. There was no nose, only a dark hole. Bedraggled locks of dark hair framed the apparition.
Raoul whimpered and shrank back. Erik grimaced; typical.
"Are you… gonna hit me?" The four-year-old squeaked.
Erik sneered maliciously and walked threateningly towards the boy.
"What makes you think that?"
He sniffed and wiped at his nose with his sleeve.
"Your eyes look all angry and I got hit earlier… please don't hit me…"
The teenager's eyes first widened in mild surprised then his expression softened. He knelt by the child who had scrunched himself into a ball.
"I'm not going to hit you," he assured him.
"Really?" Raoul peeked out from his folded arms with glassy eyes.
"Really," he replied in an assuring tone.
Raoul visibly relaxed and then regarded Erik once more. Now the child regarded Erik with a guarded curiosity. He looked at his face from several angles then shook his head.
"You're not a skeleton," he mildly retorted. "You got skin."
"Heh," Erik laughed again, a grating sound. "If you'd like to call it that."
"Can I touch it?"
"Your face," the boy asked with a persistent curiosity.
He stretched out a chubby little hand and the gaunt teen shrank back in surprise. The boy's reaction had caught him off guard. The only receptions he'd ever seen were fear, disgust, laughter and morbid curiosity. The boy seemed more friendly and inquisitive than anything else. Was it only the anger in his eyes that had frightened the toddler?
Since he'd been promised not to be hit and since the Voice had softened, Raoul grew braver. Before Erik could stand or move away again, Raoul had crawled onto his lap and started touching him. Erik nearly toppled over but managed to catch himself in him and supported both their weights with his hands.
"Nope," Raoul said as he kept poking the wide-eyed Erik, "You're not dead or bones or all stiff like my aunt that they laid out in the parlor. Is everybody silly?"
"I just… resemble a skeleton with no nose, is all…" Erik responded, still off guard. "You're not… frightened?"
"I think you look nifty! And you promised not to hit me," he said. "And I'm Raoul. And I'm four!" He held up five fingers proudly. "Who're you, mister?"
"I… I'm Erik."
The boy smiled.
"Erik!" He repeated. "I like your name!"
After all he'd been through, the older boy seemed to be the safest person for Raoul to be around. Alone and scared, the toddler latched on to the one person who seemed least likely to hurt him. He played with Erik's hair and the older boy marveled silently.
He was reminded of the dog he'd had as a child, back when he was still living with his mother. This boy was the exactly same as Sasha; wide-eyed, naïve, too stupid to know any better about his looks and faithful to any hand that stroked instead of slapping.
Suddenly, Raoul stopped and yawned.
"Do I gotta sleep on the floor?"
"What?" Erik shook himself out of his reverie of memories.
"Floor. I wanna sleep. Is there a bed?"
"All I have is a coffin…" Erik whispered.
He looked down at Raoul to see his reaction, but the boy was already half asleep, leaning his head against the boy's chest. Not knowing what else to do, he tilted slightly forward and wrapped his arms around the boy. He stood, trying not to jar him too much. Raoul's tiny fingers clutched his shirt front as Erik blew out the lamp and carried him quietly into the darkness on the other side of the caravan car.
Erik gently set the boy inside and wondered if the child would react badly in the morning once he saw where he was. He was a bit wary of what he would do upon waking, but there was only one blanket and the floor was cold and hard. There was really no other option save letting the boy get cold and sore. And after that encounter…
As a rule, Erik did not like people. As a rule, they didn't like him either. He saw them as stupid, foolish and boorish; they saw him as nothing but a monster. This boy though… he had a sweet, empty look about his eyes, a trait that for some strange reason Erik was finding endearing. He hadn't shied away; he'd touched his face. And now he was in his coffin. Besides, the boy was obviously another Gypsy 'find,' a relic of some unfortunate circumstance not unlike himself.
Gently, Erik climbed in next to him and pulled the blanket over them both. The boy snuggled into his chest and Erik felt himself getting surprisingly embarrassed and nervous at the non-violent contact. Usually, the only time anyone touched him was to slap him, and even that had happened less and less as he'd grown older. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd felt human skin other than his own – he never allowed the spectators to touch him.
Beside him, the boy was warm and his skin was soft. With an automatic motion that Erik barely realized he was doing, he wrapped his arms around the boy who stirred slightly. Suddenly, his eyes opened wide and two bright blue eyes looked up through the darkness at Erik's now shadowy face.
Erik froze and went numb for an instant. He looked at the boy's fair face and shook his head, again shocked and stammering.
"What?" He breathed. "What did you say?"
The boy sniffed again and his voice trembled with unspilled tears.
"At home, I get a kiss goodnight… I… sleep better…"
He gulped, unsure of what to do next. Then he cursed his vision for being so good in the dark; Raoul had turned on a look most commonly known as 'puppy-eyes.' Erik felt bewildered; nobody had even wanted to kiss him before, even when he begged, and now this boy willingly asked?
He nervously bent his head and brushed his thin lips against the boy's forehead.
"Now get some sleep," he whispered.
The boy smiled, then lifted his own head and pecked Erik on the cheek.
"Okay!" He smiled, stuck his thumb in his mouth and closed his eyes again, softly snoring in moments.
Erik remained quietly awake and unmoving, his cheek tingling from where it had been kissed, wondering how such a child could have come into the gypsies' possession and into his life.
Could it mean a permanent change? He wondered.
And that's it for now folks. Review if you liked or even if you didn't.