"Do I dare

Author: Veronique Claire

Spoilers: None, really.

Timeline: Takes place during the first fortnight Christine spends with Erik, so she has only recently discovered that he is not, in fact, an angel.

Disclaimer: Witty sentence goes here, about how the characters are the property of Leroux's descendants, or ALW, or RUG, or whoever it is that they really belong to, and I'm just playing with them.

Feedback: Yes, please. veronique_100@hotmail.com

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"Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

--T.S.Eliot

She could feel the weight of his glance upon her, that silent regard which faced her so many times during lessons, or glimpsed in box 5 during a performance. Devoid of approval or distaste, it was a rigidly controlled expression, a barricade against admitting too much. She breathed a small troubled sigh, confusion swimming around her... Control was fully a part of this man; having lost the ability at birth to control the appearance of his face, he now exercised inflexible dominance over every other aspect of his character -- over his attire, his manners, even the all too human needs of hunger or thirst. And -- she wondered of the figure sitting in shadow on the plush seat across from her -- could it be that his emotions too were under this rein?

Often, and with increasing frequency, his face seemingly gave way to emotion, to pure feeling. Most often it would happen when they were singing, but on occasion such an expression would arise during a moment, tense or tender, between them. Though she never knew if it was intentional or not on his behalf, it was as if momentarily she had unwittingly bridged the gap between him, broken down his barriers against humanity. On such occasions composure, perfect composure seemed to yield hesitantly to true sentiment...

The carriage jostled over a rough patch of cobblestone and she hesitated momentarily, knowing with certainty that if she looked up now he would only immediately avert his gaze, though whether unwilling to admit his look or not desiring eye contact at that moment she rarely knew. Their eyes never met unless it was deliberate, under his will, his control. Once, purely by chance on the first night he had brought her to his home, she had seen his reflection in the sleek waters of the ebony lake, regarding her intently as she scanned the dark distances beyond-- the look in his eyes powerful enough to make her own widen… gape, really, at the intensity of emotion normally concealed beneath the cool exterior. She wondered with what feeling he regarded her now-- with discontent at her silence? With satisfaction perhaps at their last lesson? With anger at her scarcely secret involvement with Raoul? A blush threatened to invade her cheeks and she pushed guilty thoughts away.

Her fingers began idly tracing small paths in the shadows, streaks of dark made by the streetlamps on the wine colored velvet seat and her mind wandered further, wondering perhaps if she would see instead… pleasure on his partially masked face, a look equal to the one she had chanced to see before. Of course, Christine thought with regret, she had not yet known her angel's face when she glimpsed that adoring regard. She trembled slightly now to remember it, such force and passion in his eyes then such as she had never before known… certainly not with the Vicomte. Her thoughts stole shamefully back to the boy, his smooth bronzed cheeks and his proud family name, as she imagined the other half of Erik's look of rapture, unfamiliar joy spreading across cruelly distorted features. But troubling as ever was her nagging realization that, deformity aside, she had never seen a regard even half approaching it in the months she had known Raoul's affections, which were beginning to seem bland by comparison... She sighed inwardly and told herself with conviction that she was no longer shocked by Erik's face, and furthermore that nothing he had ever done was repulsive to her -- in fact, with the exception of his quick temper he was a model gentleman. She distractedly wrenched a fold of her slate blue dress and waded through thoughts every bit as twisted-- why was she always so confused about this man?

A sudden resolve growing within her, Christine fixed her shoulders and lifted her head. Erik's eyes met hers momentarily, quickly cooling his expression to one of gentle regard, but no longer consuming desire, and lingered there for a moment, before drifting out the window to the shadowy streets outside. Feeling her heartbeat slow to normal and her breath once again grow steady she knew not how to identify her sentiments, though she felt something akin to defeat at this moment, tinged with (could it be?) a feeling of childish indigence, of sudden boldness.

"Erik," she said with resolve. His eyes darted back to her, filled with unmistakable kindness.

"Yes?" he raised his visible eyebrow and said softly. In that moment Christine felt a rush of sympathy for this man… in truth she needed only say his name and his attentions were solely hers again, he was there, waiting with infinite hope. Volition weakened by the beauty of his voice and the significance of his tone, she softened her intent.

"I broke the clasp on my bracelet," she said weakly, twisting the chain and fracturing it beneath a drape of her skirt as they spoke. "Would you look at it for me?"

He nodded, "Of course." The whispering 's' at the end of his word trailed out and nearly touched Christine as a ripple in a pond reaches the shore, she thought with a light shiver. Affected as always by the elegant tone and control of his voice, she raised her wrist slightly, quivering all the while, wondering, nearly tempting herself as to how he would remove the bracelet from her skin. He reached toward her and hesitated, his long fingers hovering above her arm in a moment of extreme indecision, fighting the instincts of a life of exile versus the desires of a man in love. Christine sensed his uncertainty, feeling it strongly herself, torn between some foreign emotion compelling her to nearly want to feel his smooth fingertips brush her skin, and yet still clinging faintly to her previous fear. Allowing her view to follow the smooth line of his arm up to his face, she threw an almost pleading look to his eyes, which met hers with glowing emotion in their amber depths.

Stunned at the intensity of the regard, Christine's mind reeled, not in disgust or fear but in confusion, yet her hand trembled slightly -- an action Erik's weak confidences mistook for aversion. Sighing dejectedly with downcast eyes, he placed his hand below her wrist and opened his fingers. Christine turned her wrist so that the bracelet dropped into his hand, feeling strangely disappointed.

Falling the short distance, the slender gold chain with blue set stones coiled serpentine in Erik's palm. He closed his fingers around the bracelet, lest the swaying of the carriage throw the treasure from his hand, savoring the warmth of her body it still retained. He raised it to his vision, his devoted heart concluding quickly that the sapphires paled against Christine's eyes, yet his calculating mind noting wryly that the clasp appeared to have been very deliberately mangled, though the damage was slight. Christine ventured to throw him a questioning look.

"The metal is merely twisted," he said, examining her response carefully, "I can easily fix it now, if you'd like."

"Oh yes, would you, please?" She said with what Erik interpreted to be nearly relief. With guarded optimism he set about bending the metal fastener back into shape, not noticing that she watched him, engrossed in the delicate yet strong movements of his fingers. "It's a beautiful bracelet," she continued, "Sometimes… sometimes I thank you for all of the gifts you've given me, but I don't know that I ever show my appreciation for the individual items…"

"You are… most certainly welcome." Erik said hesitantly, ever afraid of revealing too much. If she only knew the lengths he had gone to in order to find things that were perfect for her. Perfection… indeed he saw nothing less was fit for Christine. He had sent that very bracelet back four times in the period of a fortnight to correct errors in length, size of the stone, even strength of the clasp, he remembered with an inward smile. Though she would hardly compliment the bracelet if she knew the pains he had gone to for flawless fit and style of the dress she wore! His eyes raised carefully to hers, "A great lady of the Opera must have the finery she is worthy of."

"I am not a diva yet," she said, the dawn of a smile on her face.

"Diva, no…" he said, heart suddenly pounding and wondering if he dare go on. The hint of glimmer in Christine's eyes threatened to fade as he realized that she thought he was demeaning her. His heart ached at the thought of causing her pain, of shaking her confidence, and he bridged his fear of stepping too far. "Your voice is too fine, your figure too slim, and your temperament too kind to ever join the ranks of La Carlotta."

Whether she was unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge his compliments, Christine expressed no notice of his great endeavor and merely laughed merrily at the humorous insult to the unpleasant woman, her soprano voice a light sweet stream to his ears. Oh… in a moment everything that was good and dear, was personified in a woman's laugh. His mind staggered-- he had made her laughter, however trivial the conversation, she had not objected to his flattery, and now her smile was lighting the cobalt night sky for him.

Her laughter slowly subsided and she smiled openly, "I suppose not, for the managers neither kiss my shoes nor do I have the privilege of shouting orders to them as though they were waiters in a brasserie!"

Erik felt a surging sense of pride, no matter how silly his mind told him it was, that Christine was learning to see through all of the ridiculous proceedings of the opera. "Touché, mademoiselle," he said, "I have myself remarked at times that she demands those two for new stage directions or more publicity as though she had found a fly in her soup," he said, finishing the repair of the bracelet.

Heart beating frantically, mind racing, confidence of the moment of jesting surging and giving him resolve, he wondered if he dare put it on her wrist… she might well back away from his repulsive touch, tremors and fear bolting through her body at coming in contact with death incarnate, he thought with great falling spirits. They walked thin ice in these recent days, she having known at once he was not an angel, and known all too soon after that the truth of his face. In these precarious hours Erik led her over the frozen face of reality, ugly truth frozen into beautiful crystalline structures, dream-like in their strangeness and splendor. But any lapse or indiscretion on his part and he feared she would plunge into the bitterly cold underworld below illusion's thin surface, fearing and abhorring him as perhaps she ought for his deception. No… no, he had to resist reaching for her now, to show her his great restraint and thereby gain her trust… and perhaps someday…

"Is it fixed?" Christine interrupted his spiraling despair.p

"Yes, good as new," he said, and prepared to drop it into her hand when she extended her wrist toward him. Instantly he halted, nearly trembling, scarcely believing that she meant very well to have him touch her arm… she was nearly asking him to do so, for he could hardly close it without brushing her hand with his, however accidental. Confusion pulsed through him -- to what end indeed had she broken the clasp in the first place?

Such a childish thing, he thought, such anxiety over a piece of jewelry… Oh, but to touch her skin, if only for a moment! He could remember distinctly with bittersweet delectation each fleeting time their flesh had met, however accidental or innocent; the first night when he had led her to his home on the lake, when she still believed him her angel she had easily been led by gentle pressure on her arm. Several days later in walking behind the piano bench where he was seated, her long hair had trailed across the back of his neck, and scarcely three days ago she had taken a teacup from his hands and allowed their fingertips to brush without comment.

And now, he wondered, could he dare indulge himself in touching her smooth wrist now? To perhaps brush his fingers with the soft down of her arm, with her nearly open invitation? He met Christine's inquisitive look with confidence in his eyes, but he wondered if he could to any extent disguise the look on his face of mingled ardor and anxiety. Erik opened the bracelet, stretching it in a wide loop around her delicate wrist, paying silent worship to each finger, brushed the back of her hand slightly upon securing the delicate chain, and in a quick, graceful gesture, withdrew his fingers, ablaze from the contact with her soft skin. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes for a brief second. Rapture, sweet delight…

The carriage passed through the Porte Dauphine into the Bois de Boulogne. Christine slowly released her breath, scarcely aware that she'd even been holding it in, stunned momentarily into a state where the physical needs of air and such seemed far away and mundane… It was not in the least due to any indecorum on Erik's behalf; indeed it would have hardly been possible to have been more proper and gentlemanly. But still, caged behind the manners and decency was a man of living fire-- she felt it in his touch, in the moment, certain beyond doubt. Fiery passion for all in his life, for his art, his opera house, his music… for her, she thought, with burning chills running down her body. She felt compelled beyond her control to say something, knowing not what words her mind and heart fought to form, but sure to her soul that the moment must not pass unmentioned.

Erik saw her exhale, lean forward a degree and flutter her eyes closed, then sit up suddenly and part her lips to speak…

The sound of rapid hoofbeats grew close in a second and confusion quickly gave way to alarm and disorder as another larger gilded carriage with approached drunkenly swaying at breakneck speeds, slowed for an instant alongside their coach, then accelerated past the their vehicle with alarming haste, cutting across the road before them and galloping down another street. Their carriage veered left sharply to avoid collision, the horses spooked and running at breakneck speed beyond the control of the hired driver.

Inside the coach the moment taut with emotion had fallen, out of even Erik's control, into slight chaos. At the first sound of the approaching carriage the words forming in Christine's throat had gone unsaid, and she looked out the window, apprehensive. Her cautious thoughts quickly turned to sudden terror as their own coach lunged and lurched to avoid collision and she was thrown off balance in her seat. The wild run of the vehicle died with abrupt violent speed, and without consciously acting a scream escaped from her throat, a high, desperate shriek shattering the night air, as the cease in motion seemingly cast her forward to be crushed against the floor...

Her cry ended with a sharp intake of air as Erik's hands flew swiftly from where they had rested at his sides and, calmly catching her in near-mind air by her shoulders, set her back in her seat. She sat still in the motionless carriage for a long, shaken moment.

"Thank you," she finally breathed, raising her head and tossing her hair out of eyes so recently wide with terror, now filled with light. He had saved her. He would never let any harm come to her. He was, as ever, her angel; if at all in the recent days his image of omnipotent power over the forces around him had faded or been tarnished, it was restored to former glory in her eyes. In an instant of revelation any fears she had harbored of the dangerous "Opera Ghost," were absolved and he was once again her protector.

Erik met her gratitude with an intense look, concealing the panic that had wildly struck him in the previous moment. He feared no man and in all honesty had not worried about the other frantic vehicle or its occupants, but in the second when he had thought that Christine might indeed be injured… even killed, crumpled in a tragic lifeless heap against the front wall of the carriage beside his very seat… the idea had drowned him in a terror greater than any he had ever felt. Not thinking of propriety or any barriers, self-imposed or otherwise, he had taken her shoulders with gentle force and the sole intent of keeping the body and soul of his beloved united. He realized quickly that he had overreacted, that the danger wasn't as immediate as it had seemed, that she would have likely been a bit bruised, nothing more.

Disgraceful, he should know better than to take such chances, than to become so needlessly worried over nothing. He was going soft, he thought with biting self-reproach, the sharp mind, shrewd logic being swayed by the misty eyes of a man in love. Normally he would have been filled with murderous rage at whoever the imbecile was that had so clumsily driven the other coach, or at least he would have rationally concluded that Christine was in no grave danger. But the mere idea of losing someone so cherished had made him react against his normally impeccable reasoning; how logical it had seemed at the time to play the knight, the savior. He wondered absent-mindedly if, even born out of human decency and not devotion, she would ever, ever, feel such worry about him…

Of course it was only now, in the shaken instants afterward when she whispered her appreciation in her demure, breathless way, that he realized exactly what he'd done, beyond the immediate gesture. Memories of feeling the rich, warm fabric of her dress under his palms, the hint

of the smooth skin exposed by the gown's wide neckline brushing his thumbs, of the sudden sweet scent tossed into the air around him by her glorious curls… a thousand sensations overwhelmed and exhilarated him, and he fought as their intensity slowly faded, not wanting to lose the bliss of the moment now that Christine was safe and he could enjoy it…

And relish the look in her eyes at that very instant as well, for she now regarded him with her newly refound idolatry spelled out in her expression, full of childlike wonder. Erik felt a torrent of hope lift him upward on the swells of its waves, scarcely daring to imagine that such delirious emotion could be true, that perhaps it was with fondness… even affection that her eyes met his.

The harsh reality of the past he had known intruded on his pleasant reverie. She didn't love him, he thought with near scorn at having believed it could be true. Such a simple action of his, life-saving or foolishly over-worried, would certainly never be enough to win the affections of his angel, to make her love a devil such as he. She merely felt indebted to him, he thought, resigning himself to the fate he expected. Chiding himself with cynical severity for foolishness, for fantasizing a lifetime of happiness from one look of praise for a quasi-heroic deed, for a thousand infringements he thought he had committed… he realized that several seconds had passed since Christine had spoken. He reined in his wildly diverging thoughts and with a sigh, returned to reality. As almost an afterthought, he rapped twice on the front wall of the carriage to signal the driver to start again.

"My dear," he said with tenderness as he turned back to her, indulging in a term of familiarity, (if she only knew the infinite love concealed behind the innocent word!) "You hardly need thank me…" He took a short breath and continued, with growing assuredness. "I only did what any one would have done, for the safety of another person," he added, striving desperately to put them on an equal level. Good god, being some sort of hero in her eyes was no better than being father or monster…

Christine delicately pushed aside his instances of the mundane and leaned forward, "No, Erik," she insisted, shaking her head gently.

His heart leapt as the sound of his name upon her lips rang in his ears. Such softness, beauty in that voice! The syllables had once seemed nothing more to him than something he had acquired by chance, but now…now he nearly believed he would willfully perish to hear her say it once more, to hear his name said with the gentle tone she hadn't used since his illusion of divinity had ended.

"I could have been killed, but you saved me," she continued, in words heavy with significance, slightly dazed, the realization still a sunrise on the horizon. "For that, I thank you." She looked straight into his eyes, peace settling over her now that her feelings were voiced. She sighed in slight awe and traced her fingertips across a shoulder where his hand had been, remembering absent-mindedly the grace and power of his movement.

Intoxicated by her voice, her movement, her very presence still leaning forward in her seat, inches closer to him than she had been, Erik was steeling himself against noticing the unconscious sensuality of her gesture. Everything was of confusion now, lines between them blurred and given new definitions, but he felt with conviction that he needed to proceed with caution, to restrain himself from frightening her away, and from allowing himself too much pleasure from a strange and newfound feeling that might be only illusory in the end.

Erik fought a thousand internal battles in that moment, struggling against the impulse to consume her every movement with his eyes, and finally when he could keep them averted no longer he succumbed to tortured longing and decided to allow himself to look, if only for a moment. He allowed his gaze to drift slowly, trying desperately to look offhand and indifferent but any forced emotion died as he traced the curve of her arm with his eyes. Christine swam into his vision and he saw her eyes distant and slightly glazed, her delicate fingers still distractedly stroking her flesh as her hand lay over her heart, as though she were trying to slow its beating after the turmoil and excitement.

Any hopeful interpretation he might have had of her gestures died with a near sickening plummet as he strained and saw, even in the barely lit carriage, faint red marks under Christine's fingertips. Even in supposedly saving her he had brought her injury, he thought, with agony wrenching within him. Despair and concern rapidly clouding his judgment once again he spoke urgently.

"Christine."

Her eyes opened fully now, lashes flitting momentarily and then lifting until she was regarding him wholly with slight confusion like a child waking from a deep slumber.

"Your shoulders… the skin, it's red, is it bruised? Oh Christine, have I hurt you?" His voice, despairing and desperate, his eyes looking frantic with concern, all served to convey to her an overwhelming sense of heartache and sorrow and she found herself filled with a sympathetic desire to comfort the man before her.

"I'm fine.. really," she said, softly reassuring as she actually examined the skin. "The damage is slight, and it would have been a thousand times worse had you not intervened." She met his gaze and saw there a torrent of emotion; anxiety, devotion, tormented ardor.. and she was compelled to remember that he was not merely an angel, a protector and father, but a man in the throes of desire… no, love… This, this was the look she had only glimpsed before, the truth she had stumbled upon in all her discovery of the burning force and passion controlled beneath the surface of this man, before the near accident had distracted her mind.

She sensed now that much of their time together had been spent in the dark, that she had continuously been walking toward the light without ever getting closer, until tonight… fitting irony that she should reach the dawn with Erik during the dead of night, she thought, every thing was mingled and inverse with him--until now, sudden clarity. It was as though she had finally reached what had only been at the edge of the horizon for so long… she felt paralyzed, mute and impotent, unable just yet to step forward and embrace what she had discovered, but too irrevocably intertwined to ever pull away.

"Perhaps you would like to walk through the park then? I believe it would do both of our nerves well," his voice interrupted her sudden insight.

"Yes," she murmured, looking up and smiling faintly. She knew not exactly what she would do in the following minutes or days, nor how exactly she felt about him, though sentiments of trust and gentle concern were beginning to edge in on her consciousness. For the moment at least, she felt certain that a walk through the park would be safe and perhaps lovely in its own midnight way. "I think you're right."

Erik signaled the driver to stop and they stepped out into the night...