Gasp. An update so soon after the last? Scandalous. I know. I've been sick at home for a week, and this is what happens when I have nothing else to do. I'm also either suffering from insomnia or my body is putting forth its best effort to make me nocturnal. It's a coin toss, really. And evidently sickness plus no sleep equals an update. Who knew?
As a child, Christine had never been particularly hardy. She rarely ate much, which was not due to fear of becoming plump, but from lack of appetite. It had been a never ending battle with her father, who thought it unhealthy to skip meals as a growing child. And perhaps he had been right. For whatever reason, Christine had been constantly plagued by one childhood sickness after another, and could barely step out into the rain without catching a cold. It caused her father undue amounts of grief, and he was always worrying about her health – which was perhaps the reason why he refused to acknowledge his own illness until it brought him to his deathbed. For weeks after, Christine herself displayed signs of unfortunate weakness and bad health, and Madame Giry had been afraid she had contracted the sickness from her father. She had not been expected to live. But it must have been a symptom of grief, because before long it left her, as did her nightmares where she called out for her father.
With the trials of childhood behind her, Christine seldom became sick. Madame Giry's stern instruction in ballet must have strengthened her in both body and mind; it was a rare occasion indeed when Christine would be unable to rehearse or perform due to being under the weather.
Now, as Christine sat in the room that Raoul had only recently vacated, she doubted if she had ever felt more ill in her life. Though she had lately watched the rain and let her mind wander, the drops trickling in miniature rivers down the panes had become an undulating movement like that of waves and caused her to become increasingly queasy. Rising from her seat by the window, she swayed dangerously as the room spun around her and she attempted to compensate for the undue motion. Staggering over to the pristinely made bed and falling haphazardly upon the silk covers, she closed her eyes and laid a hand over her forehead. No fever, from what she could tell, but she had never been very adept at reading her own temperature.
Though she felt as if a good rest would set her right in no time, and though it was very late in the evening, Christine could not settle her mind enough to slip into sleep. Something bothered her immensely about Raoul's words of working to make them both happy. What had he meant by that cryptic statement? Certainly he could not be speaking of marriage, after everything they had suffered through?
Granted, Christine remained considerably upset about the months she had spent being completely ignored within the estate of her fiancé, but as she had informed Raoul, she was willing to forgive. Holding grudges was not only severely unchristian behavior, but it also required too much energy. Christine was not willing to spend each and every day of her life feeling negatively about Raoul, her childhood sweetheart and friend if nothing else. And so forgiveness would come eventually. But forgiving did not necessarily entail forgetting. Their conflict was the past and nothing more, but to learn nothing from the situation would be a grave error.
Raoul seemed to believe everything could return to the way he had wished them to be. Unfortunately, Christine knew only too well how even the best intentions could go awry. Though he might have every intention of treating his fiancée differently the second time, if his undue jealousy and suspicion was a flaw in his nature, it would need more than good intentions to eradicate it. And if he required help, she would give it willingly, so that one day he could find a woman to share his life with. Besides, it was not that Christine refused to be a part of Raoul's life; it was only that she could not be the wife he wished her to be.
Not now. Not anymore.
Her decision was made even drearier by the prospect of not having any other candidate for a husband. While it was not chiefly important for her to be married within the year, Christine did not deceive herself. She knew that what she most wished for, what she most desired, was a family to call her own. Perhaps it was because her own mother and father were taken from her so early in life, but without family Christine felt her later years would be an empty imitation of a life. She appreciated all that Madame Giry and Meg provided her with – love, affection, company – but it was not the same as having a mother, a father, a husband, and, if she could be so bold as to hope, children. But now that she was believed to be dead by the whole of Paris, it would be impossible to reenter society in search of someone to share her dream with.
Her heart ached and tears squeezed from the corners of her closed eyes and trickled down her pale cheeks as she thought of the one man whom she could have married and spent the rest of her life with. Erik's character had not been perfected by any means, and though he had caused her countless hours of crying and misery when he forced her to choose between himself and the vicomte, now that he was dead she could not help but imagine their life as it could have been. In reality, though Christine had known Raoul since childhood and had daydreamed of becoming his wife as a young girl, she had truly fallen in love with Erik first. He had been there in her loneliness, and even though she had only known him as a celestial being, she had found herself harboring the most genuine love for her Angel of Music. Then Raoul de Chagny swept back into her life, throwing her emotions into a different light and vying for her love. Without Raoul to compromise her affection for him, without Raoul to force Erik to take drastic measures and bring the worst and most savage parts of their souls out of both men, Christine could have given herself to Erik without regret.
But Erik was dead. And unlike before, when she had merely read of it in the paper, Christine had witnessed the killing blow, had seen the blood pouring from his wound, had felt the pain and sorrow in his eyes as he crumpled to the floor and released his hold on life. Nevertheless, she could not help but entertain the ridiculous, illogical hope that somehow Erik had survived. Maybe, by some miracle, God had taken pity on him. Maybe her heart simply delighted in tormenting her, and her mind had not yet been able to dispel those foolish dreams.
Christine opened her chocolate eyes and stared at the ceiling of impeccably crisp whiteness, illuminated by the gas lamps on the walls. There was no comfort in this room. No character. No sun hinting of the dawn, painted painstakingly by hand. But so many memories floated throughout the room, lingering like a perfume from someone who had recently vacated it. And the memories were not precisely happy ones.
She could not stay here. She needed to get out. To leave. To retrace her steps back to her childhood, and find out where she had gone so utterly wrong. When had she become so weak, so dependent on the choices of others instead of her own opinions? Where had she lost her nerve and become content with being a puppet, a shell of a person, told what to feel, what to think, how to act? Perhaps if she could find that moment, that location, that point in time when she had given up herself she could discover a way to live again.
But travel required money, and that was something she really could not boast of having in large enough quantities to spend thriftlessly. As a singer she had been showered with gifts – jewelry, dresses, art, and other pretty things – and those could be sold. However, much of what she had been given had been left at the Opera Populaire, and the managers, being the parsimonious people they were, had likely recycled them as presents and bribes for their new diva. The riches she had as the fiancée of Raoul de Chagny were numerous and extravagant, as could be seen by merely looking at the size of her wardrobe and jewelry box, but not something she felt she had any claim to. They were more akin to costumes and baubles in a play she had starred in, not her property but simply loaned to her for the course of the production.
Her father had not been a pauper, despite his tendencies to journey across the countryside like a gypsy. He had been considerably well off in his early years, and had the funds to have developed an affinity for the traveling life. Try as she might, Christine could not recall an instance when they did not have the money to stay in an inn or eat three meals a day, though nothing about their habits could be called extravagant. When he died, Christine was too young to be worried with finances, but Madame Giry must have been appointed as manager of what money Christine had been left. Later in life, when she understood the concept of currency and inheritances better, Christine had always assumed any money must have been consumed in her care and teaching at the Opera Populaire.
Even if there was some amount of her inheritance left, Madame Giry had never mentioned it, leading Christine to believe she had exhausted her savings. However, she had never particularly inquired into it. Perhaps a visit to the Opera Populaire was in order, but of course only in the dark of the night when no one would see her entrance and departure.
And then only after she shook this uncomfortably sick feeling. Her head pounded, and the lamplight seemed to glare in her vision and make her eyes ache. She let her eyes flutter shut once more, diving into the cooling darkness behind her lids, exhausted from wracking her brain for a solution that would not come.
Tomorrow, she would tell Raoul that she would be leaving.
But tonight, she would dream of the man she had loved, and regret being unable to tell him before it was too late.
By morning, the doctor still had not yet arrived home. Gabriel was still in an entirely foul mood. Erik was still, from all appearances, sleeping. And Antoinette was still extremely uncomfortable in clothes that were now two days old.
Antoinette did not consider herself to be a girl overly obsessed with her appearance, both physical and social. It had taken years of harsh scolding and punishments to convince young Antoinette to cease playing with the young servant boys. Frankly, her father had told her, it is not proper for ladies to play with young men. And her dresses were too expensive to be dragged through the mud and muck. Now, as she sat in an uncomfortable wooden chair before the fire in the sitting room, the morning sun pouring in through the windows and bouncing off of the clean wooden floors, Antoinette could almost hear her father berating her for her sorry state of dress. She wanted nothing more than a heated bath and a clean, crisp, bloodstain-free gown to change into. But that required leaving her patient unattended, and that was completely unacceptable as there was no one else to see to his needs if he woke.
Gabriel walked into the room and broke her from her reverie, his own clothing considerably wrinkled and his curly hair disheveled from what few hours he slept. He had already abandoned his coat somewhere during the time they had been waiting for the doctor, and he made a vain effort to straighten the crinkles and creases from his vest, running his hands along his stomach a few times before giving up. Clearing his throat to make his presence known, he walked to stand behind Antoinette's chair.
"Doctor Laurent has not yet arrived, mademoiselle," he reported once more, and his tone was flat as if he grew weary of delivering the same message.
"I know, Gabriel. You do not have to watch the door every moment. I am certain he will let us know when he gets here," Antoinette turned to smile indulgently over her shoulder.
"I realize you want to leave as quickly as possible, but standing at the entrance tapping your foot will not make him return any more quickly."
Gabriel chose to overlook her gentle jest, squaring his jaw.
"I know you must be hungry, mademoiselle," he stated, changing the subject efficiently from his own over eagerness to be rid of the man in the room beside them.
"If you would like, I can go find something for us to eat."
Antoinette was so shocked she turned as much as she could while remaining seated. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes wide in an imitation of fear, she said, "What, and leave me here, alone, with that man?"
She gestured in the direction of Erik's room, and Gabriel scowled down at her, unable to ignore such blatant prodding of his weak spot. But he clearly had not considered that finding breakfast would entail leaving his charge unattended with a possible madman, and he swiftly proposed an alternative.
"Perhaps I should go upstairs and find the madam of the house."
Returning to seriousness, Antoinette returned his frown and said, "No, Gabriel. I was merely joking. You do not have to bother her with watching me while you go out."
Folding his arms, Gabriel shook his head and replied, "No, I meant I could ask her if she has any food to spare. I am certain she would not begrudge us a crust of bread."
Antoinette considered for a moment the chilly reception she had received upon first meeting the doctor's wife, many years ago. Even then, the plump woman had not been particularly fond of Antoinette's habit of bringing strays in at any time of the day or night and dropping them in Monsieur Laurent's lap, despite the considerable payment she never neglected to tender afterward. She had little reason to believe her sentiments had changed in regards to the matter. Antoinette also had the distinct feeling that the Laurents' marriage was not one without it's share of turbulence, for whenever the doctor went up the narrow stairs, which only occurred when he retired to sleep, the raised voice of his wife echoed loudly even on the ground floor. And though Gabriel was not exactly the easiest of people to deal with at the moment, Antoinette had a fondness for him and did not have it in her heart to send him into the lioness's den.
She did not relish the thought of returning home to her father with two badly maimed men.
Rising and placing a tender hand on his forearm, which Gabriel stared at intently, Antoinette pleaded, "Oh no, you do not have to do that, Gabriel. Madam Laurent does not like to be disturbed. I am not very hungry, anyway."
Her stomach chose this moment to growl loudly, and completely audibly, and Gabriel's eyebrows lowered. He evidently did not believe a word of it, but did not pull away. For whatever reason, he merely sighed and nodded obediently.
Antoinette made a motion to remove her hand from the fabric of Gabriel's shirt, but before she could he stopped her.
Placing his hand over hers gently, Gabriel's voice was thick with some unknown emotion as he said, "I know you want to help him, but you need to take care of yourself as well."
When Antoinette quizzically raised her blue eyes to meet his, he blushed and removed her hand from his arm as politely as possible, averting his eyes through the whole process. He moved back a step and tugged at his vest, looking everywhere but at the woman before him. Running his fingers through his hair, which only served to make it more disheveled, Gabriel bowed, excused himself, and began to make a hasty retreat from the room.
He collided with the doctor in the doorway, bouncing off the portly man and back into the room in an almost comical manner. In a sad attempt to save face, Gabriel pretended to have decided to stay in the room at the last moment, and hovered about the door as Monsieur Laurent shouldered past.
The doctor glared at Gabriel and mumbled something unintelligible about young people these days. There were dark circles under his eyes and his skin seemed to hang from his bones as if he had been slightly deflated. It was apparent from his sodden clothing that he had been out in the rain that night, because the skies had calmed in time for the sunrise to peek through the dispersing clouds. He removed his wide brimmed hat and threw it in the general direction of a table, though it missed by a considerable distance. Stumping over to sit in the chair Antoinette had recently vacated, Dr. Laurent kicked his shoes off and stretched his short legs toward the fire.
Only after he had settled himself did he address Antoinette. And even then, his voice was curt with exhaustion, and from his lack of introductory speech it was obvious he was still in a business state of mind, and not very happy.
"Did he live?"
Grinning from ear to ear despite the doctor's bluntness, Antoinette came to sit on a stool by the doctor's feet, her skirt flattened and bunched in odd places. She attempted to adjust them, but swiftly gave it up as hopeless and fixed the doctor with her charming smile that almost wiped the frown from his face. Almost.
"Oh, yes, Dr. Laurent! I know you said he would not make it, but he is awake, and he spoke to me! Or…" she paused to elaborate, "He was awake, and he did speak to me. He was resting when last I checked."
Even though it was a medical miracle of sorts, the doctor barely batted an eye. Either he had seen such spectacular recoveries before, or he lacked the energy to muster any emotion. It was most likely the latter, since he had been making his rounds the whole night and most of the evening before.
"Odd that he awoke so soon. Expected at least a few more days to pass, if he survived at all. Anyway, doesn't matter. Been wrong before."
Antoinette's spirit could not be dampened by his short manner, and she continued excitedly, placing a hand on his arm for emphasis.
"And he even took some water! He is still very weak, of course, but I have reason to believe we will not have to impose upon you for much longer. He has a strong will to survive, I think."
Shaking her hand from his arm and rubbing his gritty eyes with the heels of his palms, he muttered, "And is that your medical opinion? I think I shall be a better judge of that, my child. But better for me if it is true. Your father already sent someone to harass me on my rounds, and he knows you are here."
Antoinette's mouth went dry. She picked nervously at a fingernail and glanced toward the corner of the room, where Gabriel had let a quiet moan of despair pass his lips. He looked as if is collar had suddenly become too constricting, because he hooked a finger beneath it and tugged vigorously.
When she finally mustered the courage, Antoinette asked, "And what did my father's messenger have to say?"
Retrieving a handkerchief from his pocket and mopping at his shiny forehead, Dr. Laurent glowered at the nervous young woman.
"Well, he certainly wasn't very pleased with you leaving for the opera and never returning home. At first he had thought the boy," here he jerked a thumb toward Gabriel, "had kidnapped you and planned to return you for a reward. Your father has quite the imagination – and apparently not a great fondness for your manservant."
The groan of complete misery that came from the corner of the room was considerably more audible this time. The doctor spared him a glance that made it clear he was not willing to attend to another sick person.
Sharing Gabriel's sentiments, Antoinette inched forward, to the point where she could have easily rested her elbows on the older man's knees.
"Yes, but did he say that he was sending someone to fetch us? We cannot leave, monsieur, until Erik is well enough…"
"So his name is Erik, eh?" Dr. Laurent said gruffly. "Well, considering I did not enlighten your father as to Erik's existence, and your intention to bring him home to your family, I do not think it is the wisest course of action to leave that as a surprise."
Gabriel, who now had a different focus for his nervous energies, growled as he leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms, "The man continues to insist that he does not remember his home, or his family, or anything other than his name. Which, I must point out, we cannot be certain he is being truthful about."
Dr. Laurent did not turn to eye Gabriel, but instead gazed intently into the fire. At first Antoinette wondered if he had heard what Gabriel said, but the way his eyes flickered back and forth made it evident that he was thinking deeply about something. When he finally spoke, Antoinette had already braced herself for whatever would be said.
"Antoinette, you know I have a tender spot for you in my heart, despite my best efforts to the contrary," the doctor said, only half joking. "But I cannot advise taking the man into your home when we know nothing of him. To be perfectly honest, the entire night I worried about your safety, and I would have made it home earlier to check up on you had it not been for the de Chagny incident…"
Perking up visibly at the name, Antoinette inquired in a voice laced with too much interest, "The de Chagny incident?"
"Yes," Dr. Laurent paused to sneeze emphatically and wipe at his nose before continuing. "I had come to check on the progress of the boy – Roland or Ronald or something-"
"Raoul," Antoinette supplied too promptly, and the doctor eyed her suspiciously.
"Yes," he said through narrowed eyes, "Raoul de Chagny. He had been ill, and I went to check on his progress, standing in that infernal rain for what seemed like hours, only to be turned away in a very brusque manner. Needless to say, I tried again, and was sent off again. By that point the coachman had rudely left me and I had to walk back home through the downpour. Likely caught a cold, too."
Sniffling and scrubbing at his red nose with his handkerchief again, Dr. Laurent raised his bushy brows inquisitively and asked, "Why are you so interested in it?"
Waving a hand and attempting to appear nonchalant, Antoinette adopted what she hoped was a neutral face and explained, "Oh, it was nothing. I was simply curious as to why you were out all night."
Dr. Laurent appeared to accept the explanation, though grudgingly, and continued.
"What I was saying, though, is that I think perhaps you should not bring the man home. Not all men are good men, my child."
Though she was still consumed by the mention of Raoul, the man who had intrigued her, befriended her, stolen a kiss from her, and left her, Antoinette pulled herself back to the topic of conversation.
"I appreciate your concern, doctor, but Erik has nowhere else to go. I refuse to throw him out onto the street. And you surely can understand my concern when he is in such a delicate state."
The doctor nervously shifted his considerable weight in the chair, and it creaked noisily.
"I would keep him here, you understand, but I need the room for my other patients – you never know what horrific injury you will be faced with next in this city… But to be honest, something about the man gives me the shivers. Why would a gentleman be stabbed in the Opera Populaire? It's simply unheard of. Perhaps he called it upon himself."
"My sentiments exactly," Gabriel chimed in smugly.
"All that I ask," Dr. Laurent continued, correctly reading the resolve on Antoinette's face, "is that you be careful. It would not hurt to have a guard outside his room. Or at least do not approach him without a man with you in case…problems arise."
Rising to her feet with a rustle of fabric, Antoinette looked down at the bloodstains on the rich silk – Erik's blood. The blood that she had seen pooled about his body, a certain sign of imminent death. Despite the warnings of Dr. Laurent, ignoring the misgivings of Gabriel, Antoinette refused to believe that Erik could possibly repay her kindness with violence or treachery. Though she was, admittedly, rather naïve and inexperienced in the ways of the world, she could not comprehend the paranoia that seemed to have gripped the two men in the room.
Straightening to her full height, which required most people to gaze down at her, Antoinette forced a smile at both the doctor and her servant.
"I understand," she said tightly, brushing golden curls from her shoulders, "And I will remove Erik from your home as soon as possible. Thank you for your kindness. I will send your payment."
Overlooking the doctor's shocked expression and the manner in which his mouth gaped like a freshly caught fish, Antoinette spun on her heel and made her way to the door. Gliding past Gabriel, she called over her shoulder.
"Gabriel, bring the carriage to the front. We are leaving."
And before anyone could stop her, she had knocked lightly on Erik's door and entered without waiting for an answer, closing it firmly behind her.
She glanced across the room and spotted Erik's sleeping figure, his chest gently rising and falling with regular breathing. Sunlight poured into the room, fighting off the residual gloom of the previous night's rain and giving welcome warmth. Waiting a moment to both see if the man would awaken to her presence and if Gabriel and the doctor would follow her into the room, Antoinette finally made her way quietly toward the bedside.
Seating herself daintily on the edge of the bed, she could not help but watch the slumbering man with interest. A beam of sunlight fell across his face, and Antoinette wondered briefly how he could sleep so deeply in such luminance. The blankets were twisted about him, revealing the pale skin of his stomach above the waist of his trousers and part of the bandages that enveloped him. His jet black hair was mussed with tossing in his sleep, and some stray locks had fallen into his eyes. Antoinette could not help herself. She reached out and pushed the unruly strands back from his forehead, trailing her fingers down his left cheek, and when he responded to her touch by leaning into her palm, she blushed furiously, but did not move away.
She was not stupid. She knew whoever he dreamed of was not her, but another woman. Her suspicions were validated when his lips parted and he sighed a name.
Smiling sadly, jealous of a woman whom she had never met, Antoinette cupped his cheek and ran a thumb over his cheekbone.
"Monsieur…you must wake up…"
Her soft voice must not have reached him through his dream, and he merely stirred slightly and sighed once more. She licked dry lips and tried again, leaning closer to be heard, her blonde curls falling around her face like a curtain and her heart pounding unnaturally fast.
At the sound of his name, his golden eyes snapped open, pupils constricting to adjust to the light flowing from the window beside him. He blinked numbly for a few seconds before realizing the woman above him was not the one he expected, and he turned his head away, efficiently removing himself from her cupped hand. There was a nervous tightness to the muscles in his face, and he seemed embarrassed, as if he somehow knew he had spoken in his sleep.
"Wh-what time is it? How long have I slept?" he murmured awkwardly, trying to form words with a tongue that seemed unable to keep pace with his mind.
"It is just after dawn. You slept through the night, which is fortunate, because you needed your rest. Do you feel any better today, monsieur?" Antoinette asked tonelessly, refusing to use his first name, keeping professional distance between them, and more than partially because she was secretly offended by his reaction to her.
Suddenly his whole body tensed, and his hand flew to rest on the right side of his face. Just as quickly as it happened, he relaxed. He was not, however, content to lie prone while Antoinette hovered above him. Bracing himself with the palms of both hands, Erik pushed against the bed and began to shift himself into a seated position, closing his eyes with pain or effort of coordinating tired muscles. Antoinette bit back the urge to reprimand him for rushing his recuperation, but as she fully intended to ask him to exert himself further, she merely helped prop the pillows against the headboard. He leaned back on them and nodded his appreciation, his breathing more labored just from the act of sitting up.
Gesturing with his long fingers toward the pitcher that Antoinette had left in the room, he asked through deep breaths, "Would you mind? I would help myself, but I do not know if I can manage at the moment."
Antoinette bit her lower lip in shame, both at her previous actions and what she would ask of Erik now, but turned and poured a glass of water and handed it to the man before her. As he struggled to steady his tremulous hand, as his throat moved slowly as he drank, as he paused periodically to gasp between gulps, Antoinette had no idea how to tell the man that though he could barely drink on his own he needed to not only make his way to the front door, but endure the long carriage ride home.
When he had downed the entire glass of water, he twisted to set his glass back upon the table and bit back a yelp of pain, releasing his grip on the cup. Antoinette stooped and nimbly caught the falling glass before it could shatter on the floor, and when she straightened herself she almost let the cup drop once more. Erik had found the end of the linen bandage and was already in the process of unwinding it from his torso.
"Ah! No, you need to leave that on!"
Her fingers where trying in vain to pry his from the bandage, and she was all but sitting in his lap in her attempt to block his arm from moving. His voice was gentle, as if he was explaining something to a child, but his fingers did not release their tenacious grip on the wrapping.
"The bandage is too tight. I can hardly breathe, and if the doctor did his work correctly, the stitches do not require this pressure to keep them together."
Antoinette decided now was not the moment to mention she had been the one to change his bandages. And she had apparently not done it to his liking.
When the young blonde resumed her place at the edge of the bed, Erik resumed the delicate process of liberating his abused chest from its wrappings. Antoinette averted her eyes, not so much for Erik's comfort but for her own. She had already seen his bare upper body, both when the doctor had stitched his wound and when she had applied fresh bandages. But he had been unconscious both times, and now that he was moving about, it seemed wrong to stare.
Soon he had the bandage wadded up in his hands, and he tossed it weakly to the end of the bed. Inhaling deeply and leaning back into the pillows, he closed his eyes and smiled momentarily, evidently enjoying the ability to take a full breath. Then his keen amber eyes were trained on his wound and his fingers gingerly inspected the doctor's stitches. The sutures were neat, and the area around the wound clean, but dark bruising blossomed from the cut and across his abdomen in a purplish and irregular blob that stood out all the more next to his pale skin. Antoinette could not help but watch with interest and a fair bit of trepidation as Erik passed judgment on the medical technique, as if the injury was on someone else's body and he was charged with grading Monsieur Laurent on his work. For a moment Antoinette wondered if he intended to remove the sutures and do the job properly, but she relaxed when he nodded his silent approval.
Before he could move on to scrutinize the gash on his arm, Antoinette decided to enlighten him to her plan as tactfully as possible.
"The carriage is out front, monsieur. Dr. Laurent has decided that you can now be transferred from your room. You will be coming home with me."
It was not a lie, by any means, but it obviously left out a few key obstacles surrounding the situation. And though she had delivered her lines in a genuine manner, Erik was sharper than she had expected.
He smiled ruefully and threw back the sheets, revealing his well-fitted trousers and bare feet. She shifted further away from him, partly to place some distance between them and partly because she was becoming increasingly warm in the cheeks.
Meeting her eyes squarely, he stated, "So I have worn out my welcome. Surprising, really, that it lasted as long as this."
Antoinette shook her head vehemently and frowned, "No, monsieur, that is not the case at all. The doctor decided you were well enough to be moved to a more comfortable location."
Moving painstakingly slow so as to not pull at the sutures, Erik swung his legs over the side of the bed and positioned himself to sit beside Antoinette, but still maintained a respectful distance between them.
When he turned to her and smiled again, he showed white teeth, but it held no warmth.
"Do not try to coddle my feelings. The doctor did not bother to come in and examine my progress, and therefore can have no notion of how well or otherwise I happen to be. He is frightened of me. Understandable, as none of you have any idea if I am a man to trust."
There was a businesslike tone to his voice, but beneath it a hint of sad resignation. It tugged at Antoinette's heart, and she had to resist reaching out to place a reassuring hand on his arm. But there was a wall of sorts that he had placed between them, and she did not know if she could overcome it.
"I believe you are a man to trust."
Erik looked at her, and she felt as if he was staring through her, as if he knew every thought she was thinking, as if he could read her as easily as one reads a novel or poem. She squirmed beneath his gaze like a butterfly pinned down for examination. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but somehow strangely exciting, because for once he was looking at her as a person and not merely a nurse.
"I know you do," he finally said, averting his eyes to the floor and allowing Antoinette to breathe.
She realized her heart was racing. What had he seen with his uncompromising gaze? She doubted she had ever been more intrigued by a man in her life, but perhaps that was due to the mystery that cloaked Erik. Who was he? How did he come to be in such a situation? With time, perhaps she could come to understand him, to help him ease that emotional pain she sensed beneath his cold exterior.
He broke her daydream with a shockingly practical question.
"Where are my shoes?"
Galvanized into action, Antoinette leaped from the bed and bustled to retrieve his black socks and shoes. When she made her way back over to the bed, Erik attempted to take the articles from her, but she would not allow him, and instead knelt gracefully and began placing them on his feet.
"I could…you do not have to…" he said, discomfort evident in his voice at having a woman kneeling before him and dressing him like a servant.
Antoinette ignored him, but filled the silence that followed with explanations, "I am sorry, but the rest of your clothing was completely ruined. I am sure we can find something at my home for you to wear, but until then, I am sure Gabriel will not mind lending you his coat."
Actually, she believed Gabriel would mind very much, but would consent after some coaxing. The derisive snort that she heard from above her head let her know that Erik thought much of the same. Finishing her task, Antoinette stood and held out her delicate hand to Erik.
"If you need help standing, allow me. And you can lean your weight on my shoulder, if you would like me to assist you on our way to the carriage."
One side of Erik's mouth curled up in a smirk, and he stood on his own, though slowly and with considerable wincing. Antoinette repressed the urge to roll her eyes at his rashness, but quickly stepped in when he took his first step and stumbled. Drawing his arm across her shoulders, she persuaded him to lean on her. She tried not to think of his state of undress. He mumbled something that could have been taken as thanks, and with her guidance made it to the front door without much trouble. The day was bright, but the cold nipped at them as Antoinette opened the door with her free hand, hinting at the arrival of fall. Gabriel sat on his perch at the front of the carriage, where he had been waiting impatiently. Upon seeing Antoinette's burden, he jumped nimbly from his seat and climbed the stairs two at a time, arriving at her side and attempting to take her place. Antoinette stopped him with a raised hand, and gestured at his wrinkled coat.
"Gabriel, would you mind lending Erik your coat? He should not be out in the cold."
Gabriel tensed, staring at the man draped over Antoinette. Erik had begun to shiver, gooseflesh rising on his bare skin, and he was considerably paler with the effort of walking, even with aid. When Gabriel had stood scowling long enough, Antoinette snapped.
He reluctantly shucked off his coat and draped it over Erik, who clutched it closed with one hand and eyed the younger man in an appraising manner. Gabriel returned the look with a hostile narrowness to his eyes, but took up Antoinette's place with Erik's arm over his shoulders. Antoinette glided down the stairs ahead of them and opened the carriage door, waiting for the men to hobble awkwardly down the stairs. By the time Erik had entered the coach and seated himself on the velvet covered seat, he was completely drained. He struggled into the coat, which fit well enough if it was a little short in the sleeve, and leaned his head back, his face pinched with exertion and pain. Antoinette scrambled into the coach after him and closed the door on Gabriel, who had been in the middle of growling some kind of halfhearted complaint about the plan to bring Erik home.
Sitting opposite Erik, Antoinette felt the coach lurch into motion as Gabriel urged the horses forward. Vainly she hoped he would attempt to make the ride bearable for their passenger, even if they were obviously not fast friends. She pulled the curtains halfway over the windows, throwing them into relative darkness and blocking the bright light from bothering Erik.
When Erik found his voice and opened his eyes, bringing his head forward once more, his cheeks had gained some of their color back.
"So," he said, crossing his arms and stretching his long legs out as much as he could in the cramped space, "Where, may I ask, is your home?"
Trying valiantly to pull stray curls back, Antoinette answered tersely through the hair pins between her lips, "The outskirts of Paris. About an hour's ride, perhaps more."
Undaunted by the struggle it was for the young woman to speak at the moment, Erik plowed ahead, "A family home, or your husband's estate?"
Antoinette nearly stabbed herself with a pin in her shock.
"Oh, I am not married. I live with my father."
Erik clicked his tongue in pity, his voice smooth as silk, "A young woman as beautiful as yourself, and unmarried? A shame, indeed."
Despite herself, Antoinette's cheeks flushed. As she normally did when embarrassed, she spoke too much to try to draw attention away from her, which of course worked for the contrary.
"Well, my mother died bringing me into this world, and my father has always been extremely judgmental of any man I take a liking to…"
Erik smiled knowingly and crossed his legs loosely, the picture of sophisticated relaxation, though he was conspicuously missing a few articles of clothing. Even without a shirt or vest, with a coat that did not fit him properly, with his hair no longer smoothly slicked back, there was something undeniably attractive to the man. His golden eyes missed nothing, and his voice…well, needless to say, Antoinette was finding it difficult to concentrate on the conversation when he looked at her like that and used his velvety voice.
"One cannot fault your father. There are too many untrustworthy young men in this city."
For the first time, Antoinette looked at the man before her and tried to place his age. There was an experience to his eyes, hinting at an older man, but his face was unwrinkled and his hair without a peppering of gray. Deciding it extremely rude to outright inquire into his age, she resolved to concern herself with it later. Perhaps she could ask one of the maids, who had more experience with men and could give her an accurate opinion.
"You have clearly never met my father," she said with a light chuckle, "He transcends healthy suspicion. The only men allowed in our home besides my father is the chef and Gabriel. The chef has a limp and a crooked eye, and Gabriel is only tolerated because he tends to the hounds and stays mostly to the servants' quarters."
Erik arched a dark eyebrow, "But your father allows you to attend the opera?"
Shifting nervously in the silence that followed, Antoinette wrung her hands in the fabric of her skirt.
"Actually, I have to spend the whole day warming him to the idea whenever I wish to go, and he only allows me to if I have my escort – and even then grudgingly. Although now I doubt if I shall ever be allowed to leave the house again. I slipped away from my escort, and when I found you lying there…well, I left her at the Opera. She has probably already told my father all there is to know about my consorting with Raoul."
Sighing, she placed her chin in her hand and appeared lost in thought – which was a blessing for Erik, because she did not notice his eyes widen and his whole body tense for an instant. However, he recovered speedily and forced himself to relax.
"Raoul? A love interest, if I may be so bold as to ask?" Erik inquired, managing to slip some playful jealousy into his tone.
Shaking her head and making her curls bounce, Antoinette replied heatedly, "No. He was a scoundrel who misled me and left with another woman, without apology or explanation."
When she saw the grin spreading on Erik's face, she apologized for her outburst, touching her fingertips to her lips and knitting her brow.
"I did not mean to say that. What I meant was he is a man whom I misjudged. I believed him to be a gentleman."
"Do not think you have to act contrite," Erik laughed, his golden eyes shining with what Antoinette briefly thought to be relief. "You spoke candidly, and there is nothing immoral about stating the truth."
Antoinette smiled genuinely, a ray of sun peeking past the curtains and lighting her face. Her heart skipped a beat as Erik returned her smile, and for a moment she thought there was a faint glow to his amber eyes in the relative darkness.
On one hand, she was increasingly uneasy with the effortless manner in which he seemed to be winning her affections. On the other hand, she was quite certain that it was her girlish fantasies of a dark stranger coming to take her away that gave her a partiality toward him. Resolving to temper her feelings, she returned her features to neutrality, folded her hands in her lap, and changed the subject to the imminent future.
"If I may speak the truth again, I suppose I should inform you that my father will not be particularly pleased with your arrival. I have not precisely warned him of our intentions to house and care for you."
"I gathered," he said flatly, rubbing his hands briskly together for warmth. "You can always suggest that I be kenneled with the hounds. That way I will not be anywhere near his beautiful daughter, if that is his fear."
"Oh, no," Antoinette said, laughter breaking up her words, "If there is anything he is protective of, other than myself, it is his hounds. He breeds and sells them as a hobby, you see, and they live better than most Parisians do."
She was only exaggerating slightly.
"Of course. How foolish of me. Well, perhaps I can charm him into accepting me into his home for a time," he mused aloud, choosing to ignore Antoinette's doubtful sigh.
Leaning back once more and closing his eyes to rest, he murmured, "And if that does not sway him, at least we both will have made a valiant effort."
And soon after, Erik had fallen silent, his chin resting on his chest and his arms crossed. Antoinette peeked beneath the fringe of bangs that had tumbled across his face to be certain. His eyes were closed, lips slightly parted in sleep. Warmth spread through Antoinette, beginning from her chest and radiating outward.
While it could have merely been exhaustion taking its toll, she liked to believe Erik finally trusted her sufficiently to overcome his guarded nature and rest in her presence. Without his unnerving eyes to contend with, Antoinette let her eyes roam freely across his sleeping figure. It was a shame, really, that he could not remember much more than his name, but she could not help but be glad. She was ashamed to admit it, but Erik's faulty memory was the only thing that kept him tied to her, and she was far too intrigued by him to not wish for more time to unravel his mystery.
However, Antoinette knew, like all the other men she had met, that after the mystique and obscurity was stripped from him Erik would be just another disappointment – someone who would not hear her cry for help, for deliverance from her sheltered life, where she was suffocated and could not grow. Yes, one day Erik would leave her, and that day likely would come sooner than she hoped.
For now, it was enough to have met him, and to be with him for a moment in his life – to collide, touch for an instant, and then go their separate ways.
But always to dream of what could have been.
When Meg had arrived back at the Opera Populaire, the streetlights were the only illumination, casting an eerie glow over the edifice and exaggerating the ornately carved architecture and sculptures that decorated it. She had not bothered calling a carriage upon leaving the home of the Persian, both because they were scarce at such hours of the night and because she did not have money left to hire one. By the time she arrived she had been harassed by numerous tramps on the streets and was physically and mentally exhausted. The long walk had not only tempered her fury, but had left her too deadened to the world to do much else than stumble into her dormitory room, shuck her wet clothing, pull on her nightgown, and collapse into her narrow bed. It had been a wonder she had not woken any of the other girls with her heavy footsteps and groans of fatigue, but apparently they had also had quite the taxing day with rehearsals. Almost precisely when her body had hit the mattress, she had fallen into a deep and dreamless sleep that she would have been content to stay in forever.
However, sunrise brought the rustling movements of the other ballerinas rising and clothing themselves, chattering in a tone that they likely thought quiet but that gained force when it came from dozens of mouths. Meg woke, still groggy and in desperate need of a bath after being doused with rain and forced to trudge through mud the previous night. But there was no time for such frivolities. Leaping from her bed in a whirlwind of energy, she located some clothing that might or might not be entirely fresh, but donned them anyway in her haste. A few of the girls who remained in the room raised eyebrows when they saw that she was not wearing her practice skirts, but funneled out of the area without question in their eagerness to be on time to practice and thus avoid punishment.
Meg had every intention to follow them. But she did not have practice in mind.
Haphazardly running a brush through her hair and yanking out a few knots with winces of pain, she tied it back with a ribbon while attempting to put on her shoes, which was a feat in itself and almost resulted in stumbling out one of the windows and falling to her doom. Undaunted, she bustled out of the room and down the spiral stairs, pushing a straggling girl or two aside rudely in her rush. And even with all the rush and commotion, she was still unable to arrive early enough to confront her mother before she had initiated practice.
By the time Meg came panting onto the stage, Madame Giry was yelling heartily at some ballerinas, who looked as wide eyed as frightened deer and jumped away almost as swiftly. She wore her customary black uniform, and naturally had her shining black cane in her hand, all the better to slam onto the floor and punctuate her remarks. Luckily, her back was turned to Meg at the moment, her long braided hair swinging like an angry cat's tail as she stalked up and down beside the rows of dancers.
Knowing her mother did not take kindly to interruptions, Meg resolved to wait for an opening between her barked orders in which to draw her aside. She waited as patiently and silently as possible, but all her anger and frustration of the night before had swept over her in full force, and any moment wasted seemed like an offense against her friendship and near sisterhood with Christine. Apparently, her nervous shifting from one foot to the other did not go unnoticed by her mother, as if she could sense her child's footsteps even with the dancing of dozens of other girls to cloak them.
Turning with a glint in her eye, Madame Giry abandoned her post and stormed over, her black skirt swaying as vigorously as her hair. Without any greeting whatsoever, she plucked at Meg's skirt with her bony fingers as her lips formed a stern line.
"Where is your practice skirt? If you have neglected to have it cleaned, perhaps being made to launder it yourself will help you remember. Or have you forgotten your duties today and simply chosen to take a holiday?"
The sarcasm in her voice hinted that if either of those options was the answer to her improper attire, then it would be best to discover a better reason, and quickly.
Meg's initial reaction was to apologize and hang her head, which would mean only a slight berating as opposed to a full tirade, but she fought that instinct back. Barely.
Taking her mother by the elbow and pulling her off stage so that the ballerinas could not hear – though there was little chance of that over their own pounding feet an the discordant notes that someone was hashing out on the piano – Meg chose to overlook the completely affronted stare that Madame Giry shot down her nose and toward her daughter. She was undoubtedly unused to being manhandled, much less ignored. Wrenching her arm from Meg's grip, she shook her cane mere inches from her daughter's nose, and wisely Meg retreated a few steps.
"I will not have you dragging me about in such a manner! Where are your manners? One would think you were raised by barbarians and wolves!" Madame Giry added the last, as if one without the other would not be expressive or offensive enough.
Eyeing the ballerinas nervously, some of whom had begun to look in their direction and were paying more mind to the scene offstage than their piteous dancing, Meg hissed, "Please…lower your voice. I need to speak with you about Christine's situation."
Smoothing her skirts vigorously, as if she had been lately thrown over Meg's shoulder and dragged off stage instead of directed gently, Madame Giry's eyes wandered back to her students even as she addressed her daughter.
"This is hardly the time. If you cannot tell, I am conducting practice, and these girls need it badly. You can enlighten me about your late night escapade when I am through. And then you can report back here for your instruction."
"Escapade? How did you…" Meg paused, and then realized it was unnecessary to ask. Her mother constantly knew the happenings about the Opera Populaire, as if she believed it to be her calling to monitor each and every person in the building.
In fact, upon retrospection, Madame Giry had seemed constantly aware of the recent occurrences surrounding Christine, even though Meg had little contact or conversation with her mother outside of ballet practice. Also, she had not seemed surprised at Meg's insinuation that Christine Daae was alive. All of Paris knew and believed her to be dead, due to the newspapers. And all the inhabitants of the Opera Populaire had been speaking of her tragic murder, since the ballet rats had discovered the vicomte, insane and raving, and the remains of Christine's bloodied gown.
But never her mother. Madame Giry had on no account, from what Meg could recall, expressed any signs of sorrow for her charge's death. When Meg had been beside herself with grief, her mother had not comforted her. Before, she had attributed it to her stern and bristly ways, but now, Meg could not be sure.
Madame Giry always had been on close terms with the Opera Ghost – his messenger, his usher, his secret keeper. Perhaps she was still.
Or had been…because the monster was dead by the hand of a man he once trusted.
Shaking her head to dispel thoughts of the Phantom of the Opera alive, in good health, and updating her mother on his dastardly deeds through letters, Meg recalled herself to the situation a few moments too late.
Apparently Meg's unfinished sentence and the time that had passed afterward was something of concern for Madame Giry. Her mother had fixed her with a look that meant she either thought her daughter ill or deranged.
Frustration rising in her, Meg said with more courage than she felt, "No, mother. We need to speak now. The Phantom of the Opera may be dead, but from all appearances Raoul de Chagny is just as great a tyrant, and we have delivered Christine into his waiting claws."
Puffing out her chest in righteous anger, Madame Giry said scathingly, "Do not speak of 'we'. I have done nothing of the sort. But do not think that I am blind to what you have been up to. I believe I have told you to give Nadir Kahn a wide berth, and what do you do? Concoct a ridiculous 'rescue' plan with him that for all intents and purposes failed miserably," she said, throwing her braid over her shoulder and glowering at her daughter.
Blushing in embarrassment and indignation at being deemed so incompetent, Meg retorted in a slight pout, as if pleading to have some recognition for a deed well done, "Well, at least that monster is dead."
At her daughter's remark, Madame Giry's tone changed entirely.
Worry etching her features, she said, "Unfortunately for you, my dear, that is not so."
Meg's initial reaction was relieved laughter, not because she believed her mother's assumption, but because it let her know Madame Giry, bane of the ballet rats, did not know all that she thought she did.
Obviously confused by Meg's utter nonchalance at such a momentous revelation, Madame Giry did not join her laughter.
"I would not discount my comment so easily," Madame Giry warned, her lips turning downward, "Erik is not dead."
Wincing, Meg pulled a face and admonished, "Mother, do not say his name as if you were such close comrades. It pains me to hear it. The man was a demon."
In deadly seriousness Madame Giry's fingers wrapped about her daughter's arm to emphasize her words, which were punctuated by pauses, either to let Meg absorb the notion of what fate could await her or in fear to admit their truth.
"My daughter, you have no idea how correct you are. The man is a demon. And you have angered him. Pray…pray he does not act upon that anger…because if he does, there is no force in heaven that will keep him from his retribution."
Madame Giry's eyes shone with unshed tears, and unless Meg imagined it, her lip quivered. Her mother was always the picture of control and confidence.
It frightened Meg more than her words had.
Just as quickly as it had happened, her mother had wiped her eyes, straightened her skirt compulsively, and turned her back to her daughter. She strode back to her ballet students, moving like a black cloud across the stage, and did not look at Meg again.
It was minutes before Meg could cease her trembling and force her numb limbs to drag herself off the stage and back to her dormitory to change. With time she convinced herself that her mother was overreacting, her suspicious ways and incredible imagination getting the better of her judgment.
Her mother was not jesting when she said she demanded practice from her daughter. And she refused to acknowledge the conversation they had previously held, as if admitting it had taken place would somehow mean her worst fears would come to fruition. It was only after long hours of intense and uncomfortably silent performance that Meg was released to relax in the dancers' lounges and engage in the gossiping and laughing that always helped settle her nerves.
But the talk that day was all of the mysterious nature of the puddle of blood discovered in the entrance hall on the night of the opening gala. In a miracle of grand proportions, the managers had succeeded in keeping the whole thing a secret, telling everyone that it was stage blood and keeping the stagehand that was made to clean it ostracized from anyone that would lend an ear to his tale. However, they could only suppress gossip for a short while, and the boy made his appearance that afternoon, going from lounge to dormitory telling his opinion on the matter and spreading the news like a wildfire in dry brush.
"Complete shit, is what it is. Excuse the language, mademoiselles. But I know stage blood, and that wasn't it. It was the real thing. And no body there for it to have come from. If you ask me, it was the Phantom of the Opera…I know they said they killed him, but that was just a cheap tactic to keep everyone feeling safe. But you can't kill a ghost, and he's letting us know that he's here for good."
As he delivered his opinion in its gruesome and frightening seriousness, he girls squealed and gasped, and some fainted from the shock of it all. But none was more disturbed by the news than Meg, who did not openly display her fear, but most certainly henceforth did not traverse the dark halls of the Opera Populaire alone.
It seemed, perhaps, that her mother was not incorrect in her assumptions thus far, which made her fear of revenge unfortunately appear more credible.
And though Meg was frightened for her own life, she could not cease worrying for the fate of Christine, who was in as much danger as ever, if not more. With Raoul refusing to loosen his grip on Christine and her previous captor wronged and seeking vengeance, she would be caught in the middle of the battlefield when the confrontation occurred.
If anything, Meg's plot with Raoul de Chagny and Nadir Kahn had only heated the monster's blood and prepared him for violence.
Her mother was right. The Phantom of the Opera was alive, and the moment he recovered and rallied himself, there would be dreadful consequences for their actions against him.
Bit of a long chapter, if I do say so myself. But I wanted to move things along. For everyone who has been asking, it won't take too long for Erik to recover, because let's be honest, the moment he regains his strength he's going to be about his work...whether he is fully healed or not. But that's Erik, the crazy guy who in the beginning of the story was on the Opera roof during a storm (which earned me a lot of grief haha). He's extreme like that. Please let me know what you think about this chapter. And don't neglect the poor one that came before it and thus will not get as much attention just because of birth order. We all know the youngest is the favorite...(I suppose I should put a disclaimer on how that was not meant to offend anyone who is the youngest child. But I'm too tired. And I'm a middle child.) Toodles.