Here's the last chapter! Finally! I hope you all enjoyed your holiday! Thank you for all of your wonderful reviews regarding this story. And, also, thanks to Kryss LaByrn for some inspiration regarding Erik's mask.
Read and Review!!!
Minutes later, Christine glanced up as a pair of voices came closer to the entrance of the underground home. One obviously belonged to Erik. The other voice was softer and deeper, with the slightest touch of a foreign accent.
"There have been occurrences above," stated the other man. "And more talk concerning the repeated disappearances of that girl. What exactly have you been doing with her for all of this time?"
"Nothing!" snapped Erik. "She came to me for the holidays! She came to see me! I had nothing to do with it."
"Just as you had nothing to do with the chandelier?"
"If you do not silence yourself on that matter…" Erik threatened.
"Is she in there now?" the visitor interrupted. They were right beside the door.
"Yes! And it would do you well to stay quiet about matters that are none of your concern." The door silently swang open, and both men walked inside. There was an angry glint in Erik's eyes that he normally did not have when solely in her company. The other man, whom she now saw was the Persian, appeared only weary, shadows circling his dark eyes and wrinkles in his grey dress suit.
"Good afternoon, Mademoiselle," the Persian greeted, curiously looking her over. "How are you?"
"I am fine," she replied, folding her hands together in her lap. "And yourself?"
"Very well, thank you." He took a seat in one of the leather armchairs, continuing to study her.
Erik stared at the Persian with his arms crossed, as though daring him to say something about the strange situation. After a moment, he returned to his place beside her on the sofa. "She is joining me for the holidays!" he proclaimed, all the while avoiding her gaze. "That is why she is here right now."
He nodded. "Is this true?"
Christine nodded back, feeling a bit confused. "Yes. My guardian was not in need of me, and so I returned to stay with Erik. I thought he might enjoy the company."
"Yes," stated Erik. "She returned to me because she wanted to. Just as I said. Now you can leave."
"But I just arrived," he replied. "And it was a long journey to come down these stairs. Allow an old man to rest." He ignored Erik's glare and turned back to Christine. "Do you come here often?"
"Yes. Well, for the past few weeks, I have been visiting." She suddenly understood why the Persian was so curious. He knew that something was wrong. What was a young girl such as herself doing in the sewers of Paris, especially by choice? Honestly, she still didn't even know the answer to that.
"And you enjoy yourself?" He leaned forward slightly. Erik now turned to look at her for the first time since the Persian had arrived. The yellow eyes appeared almost panicked.
"Yes," she awkwardly replied. "We sing together often. He helps me with my performances. And…and we went for a walk the other evening. I did enjoy that." She smiled.
"A walk?" The Persian's eyes widened in surprised.
"Yes," Erik nearly hissed. "A walk through the city. Just like everybody else does. Do you not go for walks, Daroga?"
"I…" He momentarily stuttered. "I do. Often." There was a short silence. Christine's gaze fell to the ground. The Persian cleared his throat. "Actually, there is a reason for my visit. I believe that you have a book of mine, Erik. It is brown and leather-bound. The pages contain some older, colored maps of my home country. You…permanently borrowed it, I believe."
Erik narrowed his eyes. "If I retrieve it for you, you will leave…permanently?"
"Yes. I will be on my way."
Erik arose from the sofa and slowly backed away, eyeing the Persian suspiciously. After glancing at Christine one time, he then whirled around and disappeared from the room.
The Persian man stared after him for a moment, before turning back to Christine and leaning forward. "There is a young man who often searches for you upstairs," he whispered. He paused when he received no response. "Do you wish me to deliver any news of yourself to him?"
Christine hesitated. Another opportunity was presenting itself to involve Raoul. She also had the feeling that this strange foreign man would be willing to help her if she wanted to escape. Still, she realized that she was not ready do to so. She wanted to enjoy her holiday with Erik, without having to think about lies and deception. She wanted to see what the next few days, even the next evening, would bring. "No, thank you," she finally replied. "Raoul knows that I am quite busy with my singing. He will just have to understand, I fear." She smiled.
"Are you for certain?" The Persian eyed her closely. "He is a very handsome lad. A Vicomte, I believe." He leaned in even closer, his voice nearly inaudible. "He will not find out, if you wish me to deliver a message."
"Yes. Of course I am for certain. I have told Raoul all that he needs to know."
The Persian sat there with his mouth slightly agape, before nodding and drawing away from her. "Very well, then. I will tell him nothing." He softly chuckled. "We would not want him running down here by himself, would we? The poor boy would get lost."
"Heavens, no!" she exclaimed as dozens of unpleasant possibilities swirled through her mind. "Please tell him nothing of my whereabouts!"
She didn't know whether Erik had heard them speaking, but he appeared calm and disinterested when he reentered. "Here it is." He thrust the brown book at the Persian. "Now leave."
"Thank you. It was owned by my father." The Persian took the book and gazed over the cover with satisfaction. "Have a good afternoon." He paused and looked at her one last time with uncertainty. "You, too, Mademoiselle."
Christine curiously stared after him as he went out the door. Erik glared until he was gone.
"Did he upset you with his foolish questions?" asked Erik, coming quickly to stand by her side. His eyes had softened somewhat. "He does not understand that I…But you. You did come here because you wished to. Erik did not force you to!" He appeared momentarily confused, as though he wasn't sure what the truth really was.
"Yes." She nodded and smiled. "I did come by myself. He simply did not realize that."
Erik's shoulders relaxed. "Yes. Yes, you did. You sang to me from the mirror. Erik did not sing to you this time."
"Who exactly was he?" she hesitantly enquired. "I see him sometimes upstairs. The dancers say that he has the 'evil eye,' although that is nonsense, I am sure."
Erik narrowed his eyes, and she was certain that there was a scowl on his withered lips. "He is no one important. Someone from many years ago. And now he is an annoyance."
"He seemed rather kind. How do you know him?"
Erik was quiet for a moment. "I will tell you another day. But not now. Now is not a good time."
"Oh." She decided not to prod anymore. "That is fine, Erik." He just stared down at her, seeming to enjoy their close proximity. "Perhaps we can have a few songs before the evening?" Music often calmed his nerves, especially if she was the one singing.
He eagerly nodded. "Yes. We still have hours before our outing. And….You will still stay over the holiday? That vile busybody did not sway you? You should not listen to him, Christine. He merely wishes for Erik to live in eternal misery as penance for long ago."
"Of course he did not sway me." Her heart clenched at the sight of his desperate eyes, and she gently took his arm. "Let us sing for a while."
Several hours later, Christine again found herself waiting in the drawing room for Erik to fix the mask onto his face. They had sung at the organ for much of the afternoon, although Christine's mind would often wander elsewhere. Erik had commented that her voice was more relaxed. She had quickly apologized and attempted to correct her posture.
"No!" he had exclaimed, causing her to jump slightly. "Your voice is better for it today, really." He had looked up at her. "You always sing as though in a great tragedy. But not today. Even Desdemona sounded rather joyful!" He chuckled.
"Oh." She nibbled on her lip. "I suppose it is just the holiday that puts me in good spirits," she had finally replied. "I do not know what else it could be."
"Yes. The holiday," Erik had vaguely repeated, before excusing himself to put on the other mask. He claimed that it would take longer this time, as he had not been prepared for her visit and had not readied the adhesive. He had disappeared from the room within an instant, leaving her to exit his chambers and saunter over to the sofa. At least the mask would not shock her this time. Anxiety and curiosity filled her to think of Erik in the realistic mask again, to think of walking down the streets of Paris with him on a regular basis. Christine prayed that she would not have the same negative reaction to it.
She was turned in the direction of the short hallway, and so his silent entrance did not startle her. Erik emerged and stood with his arms stiffly at his sides, eyes devoid of their prior excitement, awaiting her response. She hesitated. The false face was staring at her again. She studied it for a moment, this mask of normalcy, both a present and a wrapping. The yellow eyes pled with her, always contrasting with the composed and indifferent expression on the mouth. Still, no evening passerby would ever notice. Only she would know the truth. But to him, she was the only one that mattered.
Christine finally smiled and spoke. "Is it very comfortable?" she asked, coming closer.
"No," he replied, his words slightly muffled. She couldn't tell if he was lying. "Is it still unpleasant to you?"
"As I said, I was just being silly. It is fine, Erik."
"As a face should look?"
"Of course." She slowly reached up and touched the false cheek, finding the material unnaturally warm beneath her fingertips. Erik remained frozen. "It appears a bit uncomfortable. It is good that you will only wear it when we go out." He nodded in agreement, and she dashed out to retrieve her scarf and gloves. When Christine reentered, she saw that his bony hands were tightly clasped together and that he was shifting from foot to foot, a bright gleam in his eyes. A tiny smile formed on her mouth, and she remained out of his view for a moment, watching him in his uncontained joy.
Upon seeing her, he immediately stilled his motions and stood up straight. She walked forward, her lips still slightly turned upward, and they silently left the little home together. Neither spoke until they had walked up the stairs and through the side entrance, before beginning their journey into the crowded city. Christine inhaled the cold air and allowed her hood to fall back, letting the wind brush against her face and tousle her hair.
"It is good to do this again," he stated. "I had thought that I never would."
She glanced up with disbelief. "All because of what I said?"
"It was only for you." He gestured to the mask. "Not for Erik. He is used to the eyes of others…and the shadows. But you are not. All eyes fall upon you only when you sing, and then with only appreciation."
"They only do so because of you," she murmured, looking at the patterns in the snow. She didn't know if he had heard her.
They walked past the shops, and she was greeted by the occasional smell of baked bread or sweets. She relaxed and took delight in the sights and sounds, as she had always done with Mamma Valerius and her father. The snow had stopped falling, but there was still a thick, white covering that remained along the ground and roads. Most people were careful to walk slowly over the icy streets, many of them carrying boxes and bags in a last attempt to purchase the perfect gifts for loved ones. A little boy with a blue stocking cap and bright red cheeks suddenly slid on a patch of ice, falling right at Christine's feet. She automatically knelt to grab the sleeve of his woolen coat and pull him up from the frozen ground.
"Sorry, Madame! Monsieur." He dusted off his knees, picked up a small box that had fallen into the snow, and rushed away. Christine watched his figure fade off into the crowds.
"He was merely unaware," stated Erik in a soft voice. She didn't know if he referred to the mask or the fact that she was unwed.
"Oh! It is no matter," she said with a laugh. She reached out and clasped onto his gloved hand, suddenly feeling lighthearted. "I only hope that he stops running on the ice." Christine nearly tugged Erik forward as she began walking. "Is something wrong?" she enquired, looking backwards.
"No," he sharply replied, staring down at their entwined fingers with disbelief, before taking a long step and walking beside her. They passed by a shop that sold objects carved from wood, including furniture, birdhouses, and small ornaments. They also had little silver bells and berry-covered wreaths for the holidays. "Do you want something in that shop?" he eagerly enquired, reaching into his suit pocket. "Of course you do. You will not take your eyes off the window. Let Erik get it for you. Whatever you wish."
"Well, I…" She clasped his hand for a moment. "Let me just run inside and buy a couple of things. I will be back in a moment."
"You do not want me to come inside with you?"
"Oh, Erik. It is not that at all. I just wish to surprise you."
He looked down with wary eyes but handed her the francs, clearly unsure of her intentions. "Very well. I will wait. "
"Thank you! I will be very quick!" She ran inside the brightly-lit store, dodging her way through the crowds of people, and grabbed several ready-made items. After five minutes of waiting in a long and noisy line, she strolled back outside into the cold. Glancing around, she was unable to see her companion. Finally, she found him standing in the shadows with his arms crossed. "Erik! You are practically hidden."
"A habit, I suppose." He looked at the brown sack in her hands. "What did you purchase for yourself?"
"Well," she began, reaching inside and grabbing a little bell. "If I am to stay with you for the holidays, I would like to have a few decorations." She pulled out a small, green wreath and a few red velvet ribbons.
Erik tilted his head. "I do not decorate for the holidays."
"Oh." Christine frowned and quickly began to put the objects back into the sack, suddenly feeling a little ridiculous….childish. "I am sorry. I had forgotten that you were not fond of this time of year. If it bothers you, then I will not. I just thought-"
"No! No! We will, if it pleases you. You may do as you wish in my home."
"Just a few decorations, perhaps. Just to…" She searched for the right words. "To mark the occasion." He nodded, his gloved hand slightly coming forward in the obvious hope that she would take it again. She did. They turned and began to walk in the opposite direction, silently coming to an agreement that it was time to return. The air was especially cold. People continued to pass by them, unaware of any oddities within their midst. Christine nearly wished that they could go to a cozy flat or home like any other couple or family, rather than face the darker reality of the strange house by the lake with its many mysterious doors and rooms. But couldn't reality change? Hadn't Erik been the one to say that he wanted an ordinary home?
"You do enjoy going out," he stated, watching her as she happily gazed around the city. "And Erik has kept you from doing so because he could not go with you. And he was selfish because he wanted you with him. But this is better now, no?"
"Yes." She smiled. "It is better! We shall go often. It will be lovely in the summer…with the warmer evenings." She brushed a stray tear from her cheek, nearly unable to feel it in the icy and moist air. The cold was beginning to seep through her thick layers of clothing, and her nose was numb. She briefly released Erik's hand to pull the hood back over her head. Over the sound of voices and trotting horses, she thought that she heard him humming to himself.
As soon as they arrived at the side entrance of the opera house, Erik dodged inside and pressed his fingers to his face. "I wish to take it off immediately. I erred with the adhesive. Do not worry, though. My other mask is with me."
She shook her head and frowned. "It is very uncomfortable, isn't it? I wish you would not wear it for your own sake."
"No. It is fine. Perfectly bearable. I would not take away your gift." He slowly began to peel it off.
"But I do not-"
"I am fine!" He sighed and softened his voice. "I would give you anything. Do anything. Erik would for you. It is fine."
Several tears gathered in her eyes. "I know, Erik."
He had taken the realistic mask off and was now holding up the familiar black one, his back still toward her. A sudden feeling of tenderness washed over her, warming her numb nose and frozen cheeks, making her heart beat quicker. Coming up behind him, she stood on the tips of her toes and grasped onto his shoulders. Bending her neck to the side, she stretched around and softly kissed the shriveled and sallow flesh of his cheek. Her lips lingered there for several seconds. His skin was cold and dry, and it was like pressing her lips against stone.
"Oh!" he choked, nearly turning around to face her. As she slowly realized what had occurred, she released his shoulders and backed up several steps. "Why?" He tied the black mask on before he turned around completely. "Why?"
"Christine! May Erik do the same?" he asked before she could answer, his tenor voice shaking. "You may close your eyes, but I will only reveal my mouth to you. And I swear-"
"Yes," she quickly replied, before he descended into a self-deprecating panic. "You may, Erik. You may."
She didn't close her eyes. He raised the bottom portion of the black mask, revealing the thin lines of his white lips. She swallowed as he pressed them against her forehead, drew back, and then pressed them to her right temple. Again, they were very cold…not grotesque, just soft and frigid. Erik sighed as he drew back, quickly pulling the mask down over his mouth. His fingers brushed against her hair. "Why?" he asked again, his voice hoarse.
"Well…" She hesitated, not having a reason. She had simply wished to do so. "It was for Christmas, no?"
"For Christmas," he repeated, a tremor still in his voice. "And we will do so again next Christmas?"
She laughed and blushed. "Perhaps before then, Erik. Perhaps on New Year's Eve?" He just stared at her. "At the masked ball?"
He wasn't consoled by that. "But you will be with Erik next Christmas?"
She paused. The present had been so confusing as of late, that there was little time to think of the distant future. "I imagine that I will be," Christine softly replied, looking at the grey floor.
"Does that make you unhappy?" She looked up again in surprise. Every part of his emaciated body was still. There was a very odd glint in his eyes, and Christine suddenly had the strangest feeling that it could all end right there. For the first time, she felt brave enough to answer that question honestly. And she knew that he wanted an honest answer.
She thought ahead to one year, another winter, spring, summer, and fall. The thought of him gone was so much worse than anything else. There was still some fear, but it was not as horrible as the thought of being without him. No, she would not leave him. "No. It does not make me unhappy at all."
"Good," he whispered.
She started to turn around with him and head for the stone steps. Then, she paused. "Oh! One moment. I wish to do something." Erik appeared startled as she rushed back to the entrance but reluctantly released her hand. Reaching into her dress pocket, she grabbed a handful of the tiny pieces of paper. Clasping them in her palm, she stepped back outside and thrust her hand upwards, releasing the fragments of the letter into the wind. She watched as the white pieces blended in with the flurries that were now falling, swirling together before flying off into the darkness. They would be far too scattered for anyone to ever piece them back together.
"What was that?" Erik asked, curiously glancing upwards.
She could have lied, but she didn't. Not this time. "Oh, Erik." She turned to face him, gently taking both of his hands. "Please do not ask me. It is…well…a sort of gift to you. Nothing more."
He looked down at her with utter adoration. "It seems we have both given odd gifts this year."
"Yes," she said, the corners of her lips twitching upwards. "I suppose so." A feeling of warmth encased her heart and flowed through her veins. And maybe she didn't know all the answers that evening, but she felt lighthearted at that moment. The coming year no longer frightened her, nor did the hope in her companion's eyes.
They journeyed back to the little underground house. Perhaps it wasn't really an ordinary home, with its false bottom and mysterious rooms. But, like with any other house, they could always open the door and go aboveground for an evening stroll, just like any other couple.
And someday, if all went well, Christine guessed that they would leave that house by the lake.