Chapter 1 - The Departure

Meg stepped through the broken mirror into the dark tunnel, the fragments of glass crunching loudly beneath her boots. Holding aside the heavy curtain, she glanced over her shoulder to take one more look at the damage he'd done before leaving. Though his quarters were tastefully furnished and kept in perfect order, every mirror had been shattered. Shards and sprinkles of glass covered the floor, reflecting the candlelight and making it appear to be on fire. She bit her bottom lip, still unsure of the wisdom of her plan.

Am I doing the right thing? she wondered, following him into the tunnels, violating his privacy? And when he finds out, will he even give me a chance to explain why?

Shaking her head, she told herself that she would just have to make him listen. He wasn't thinking clearly, and had not been for quite some time. She would help him get away from Paris for a while, give himself time to recover, time to think. Yet this was the only home he'd ever known, his refuge and his kingdom. Judging by the obvious care with which he had furnished it, making it comfortable and inviting, it had everything he needed and still afforded him complete privacy as well as freedom. From here he had managed and ruled the opera world above—her world. Here he had used his gifts in music, inventing and architecture, as well as painting, judging by the capable watercolors hanging above his desk. Still, as her eyes traveled over the designs and fine fabrics that expressed his tastes, she could not help noticing the silence and the loneliness of this place, apparently only recently relieved by Christine's presence. Her unwilling presence…

Turning away, she dropped the velvet curtain back into place. Hopefully no one else would discover the entrance behind it. As she started down the dim passageway of the tunnel, she counted 30 paces and stopped, running her hand along the rough surface of the wall. When she felt the latch she pulled it, relieved when the wall panel slid open. Reaching inside, she grabbed the strap of his leather bag and pulled it out. Clutching it beneath one arm, she closed and re-latched the compartment, pausing in sudden alarm.

Echoing toward her was the muted roar of voices and the trump of many feet--the mob was coming for him. Her throat went dry just remembering those few terrifying moments she had spent in its grip until she had been able to break free. Though it was comprised of her fellow performers, stage crew and opera guests, added to it were dozens of street people, police and fire men. Somehow they had all joined together for one purpose--to find the phantom and punish him. Praying they would not find the route which led to his quarters, she hurried along the dark musty tunnel and came to the first fork. Choosing the opening off to her left, she followed along its mazelike turns guided by her mother's clearly coded directions. Reaching yet another fork she nearly cried out for joy at the sight of faint torchlight ahead. It bounced crazy patterns of light from wall to ceiling, beckoning to her to follow. Lengthening her stride, she began to close the distance between them, finally distinguishing his scent. It smelled like the outdoors, a fresh combination of evergreen and spice which was decidedly masculine. Breathing it in caused a flood of memories that transported her back in time. Although it had been nearly three years ago, she remembered every detail of the night when she had first smelled it.

After another fight with her mother she had run away, determined to take charge of her own life. It had not mattered then where she would go and she had made no plans. Somehow she lost her way in the city and found herself being followed. They cornered her in a wet and filthy alley, two masked men against whom her best efforts to defend herself only proved pitiful. Unknown to both her and her assailnts another followed her, and guided by the sound of her screams he had found her. It had only taken an instant to recognize him, for there was no mistaking the silent menace in his tall, muscular stance nor the lethal grace in his movements. With quick efficiency he had bested one of her attackers and frightened the other off, injuring himself in the process. And when he had turned to face her she saw that he was unmasked. His eyes had locked with hers to ask permission to approach, and after only a quick glance at his deformity she'd reached a hand toward him and given it. Bending over her to check her injuries, she had looked into his magnificent eyes and seen a tender concern which was at distinct odds with the grim set of his lips and tense angle of his jaw. Filled with relief she remembered choking out her thanks and gripping his shoulders as he had gently enfolded her in his arms. He had held her for what seemed a long time, his soft reassurances making her bury her face against his neck. There she had breathed in his scent in thanksgiving, gulping and sobbing through tears of hysteria which dampened his shirt. Unable to stop, she remembered how he had unfastened his cloak and wrapped her inside its warmth to cover her tattered clothing. She remembered the strength of those arms lifting her, holding her against the solid wall of his chest as he'd carried her home.

Since that night she had taken up a vigil of watching and waiting for him, praying for another encounter that would bring them close once again. Even tonight, despite everything that had happened, she yearned to comfort him as he had comforted her. But all this time he had stayed away, choosing another to invite instead. But she would not think about Christine, her best friend. As she noted the air turning colder and less damp, she realized they had climbed to a higher level in the maze and would be nearing the exit. Pulling up the collar of his black velvet jacket, she inhaled his lingering scent which clung to the fabric and concentrated on what she might say in order to approach him.

Let me show you to a place where you can stay, Erik…they are expecting us.

Too forthright, she decided with a frown. He would only resent her planning ahead as if she were sure of his failure to win Christine's hand tonight. Perhaps another approach…

Maman and I care about you…we just want to help you find a better life.

Well aware of his pride and tendency toward anger, she worried that he might interpret their concern as pity, especially after having just suffered the humiliation of a public rejection by Christine. As she rounded the corner in this section of the tunnel she suddenly caught a glimpse of him and shrunk back. He was striding toward the exit tunnel and there wasn't much time left. Moving close to the wall she continued after him, keeping her eyes on his retreating form as her heart swelled with emotion. She had done the same thing he was doing now, running away without thought or plan, his heart broken and his thoughts scattered. Whether her mother had sent him after her three years ago or he had just made it a habit to keep a close eye on Louise Giry's only relative, he had come after her and rescued her. She had to do the same thing for him, and find a way to win his permission.

"Forgive us for not understanding," she whispered, following much further behind. "Christine wasn't brave enough to love you—"

It would be better not to mention her name, Meg decided. Christine had led him on, made him believe he had reason to hope in her love. Then she had betrayed him at the worst possible time, interrupting what should have been the premiere of his first opera. This night might have ended so differently for them all, she thought bitterly as she watched the light from his torch dart around another corner. It dimmed considerably just before she heard a muffled sound. Following him around another bend in the tunnel she slowed her steps, staring into the distance under cover of the dark shadows surrounding her. When she saw how close they were she stopped and clung to the wall, watching him carefully.

He was standing ramrod straight with his back to her. In one outstretched hand he gripped the torch that illuminated his profile. Afraid to breathe for fear of him discovering her presence, she watched him turn his head to one side, his attention focused upon the torch. She could hear the soft panting of his breath as she studied him and wondered what to do next. It occurred to her how out of place his Don Juan costume looked, the ruffled collar and cuffs of his dress shirt too white in the dingy darkness. Its yoke clung loosely to the slope of his wide shoulders, tucked into a black satin cummerbund at his waist. The dark brown trousers he wore fit perfectly, detailing the long muscular lines of his legs, also tucked inside his black leather riding boots. He had left behind the matching bolero jacket without a care for the cold night awaiting him beyond the tunnels. She realized she had never seen him without some form of cloak to conceal the athletic build of his lean body, and without it he looked much less mysterious or frightening. He looked like any young nobleman who was part of French society.

Yet when she let her gaze rest upon the deformed side of his face, she knew why he had never joined that society. Tonight Christine had publicly exposed him to that society by ripping off his mask. Meg thought of the white half mask she held within his bag as she noted the warped structure of his cheek and nose. The roughened contours of his skin were startling at first sight, the sunken set of his right eye alarming and frightening when one did not know the man hidden deep inside such confines.

She could hear that his breathing had slowed, yet he continued to stand on alert. Did he sense her presence or hear her breathing as well? If so, why did he not acknowledge it? He had never to her knowledge exhibited fear, and as she watched him begin to relax she decided that he remained unaware of her presence. The stiff alarm in his posture faded, yet still he seemed intent on pausing his retreat. What was he waiting for?

As he slowly lowered the torch she saw his head lower in defeat. She watched and waited, throat tightening and tears welling up in her eyes. Shaking her head, she realized what he was thinking of doing. Tears slid from one eye and trickled down her cheek at the thought of what that angry mob might do to him. Even if he did survive their wrath, surely he would face imprisonment. Perhaps that would be a worse fate for a man like him. He had nearly died from being caged and mistreated before her mother had rescued him. He had still been a boy when they had met, and now Meg knew she had to do something as well. Unfortunately her desire to help him was complicated by two glaringly different factors: Erik was no longer a boy, and though he had risked everything to be with Christine, she had rejected him.

Go to him…

It was an impression that whispered through her mind, urging her to trust her deepest feelings for him. In her heart it would be perfectly natural to run to him and throw her arms around him. She wanted to hold him as he had held her, to let him know that she understood his pain and offered the same comfort he had offered her. But even if somehow he might allow that, she doubted he would let her lead him away to a new life, far away from this place. Still undecided, she watched him place the torch in a wall sconce with a great sigh. Planting a hand just below it, he leaned into the wall as if for support, shaking his head. Then he turned and slumped back against it, sliding down to sit upon the floor with a ragged sob tearing from his throat. It echoed throughout the tunnel while he braced arms over upbent knees and lowered his head to them. As his shoulders shook in silence she fisted her hands, telling herself to stay away as she listenined to his ragged breathing. After a moment he threw his head back against the wall.

"God, forgive me," he cried out, his voice hoarse with emotion. "What have I done?"

Meg covered her mouth with her hand and leaned heavily against the wall. Unwillingly she listened to his outpouring confession of sin. Well aware of the fact that she had no right to hear them, she cherished every dark detail, hungry to learn as much as she could about him. With tears sliding down her face, she listened to it all, absently caressed the lapel of his jacket. The only reassuring thought she had was that he seemed to believe in God and was not too proud to pray and humble himself. But her overwhelming emotion was one of guilt as she held her place and witnessed what no other human being had. They lived in separate and different worlds, yet she had proff that here was a man like any other, a man who had hopes and dreams, all of which had been cruelly shattered.

Erik choked back his grief, closing his eyes as regret and shame churned within him, tormenting and mocking him. He had known it would be a tremendous risk, stepping out before them all to make one last appeal for Christine's love. Assuming the role of Don Juan had made it easy to approach her, and it had allowed him to step into a place only normal men could occupy to publicly confess their love. It was a proposal, he felt like shouting, couldn't they see that? Couldn't they understand how hard he'd struggled to stay away from her until he could win her permission to even approach, unlike her boyfriend who tasted and took from her long before any thought of even a proposal! He had even poured the entire span of his feelings into his music to present it to her, even singing it for her, for them. He'd offered her his music, his voice and his love, ready to accept even the slightest bit of whatever she might give him in return, even if only her friendship. Her eyes and her touch had beguiled him, teased him and lured him, but it was only a tease. Where he might have survived her rejection, he doubted he could survive her betrayal. It was the cruelest of blows, after all their years of sharing a love for music. He had gone to great lengths to teach and train her, and now that she was a star she no longer had any use for him.

Absently butting his head against the wall behind him, he admitted his anger and jealousy, his impatience and pride, even his lust. He confessed it all, including the fact that he had no one to blame but himself. It was true that their rejection was unfair, but he had protested it to the point of destroying everything he'd worked so hard to create. As he opened his eyes and gazed up the crumbling ceiling above, he realized how low he had fallen. Ashamed for his behavior, he knew that somehow he had to make up for it, and for all that he had done.

"I could go back," he said aloud, listening to the lonely echo of his own voice, "give myself up…let the mob do to me as they wish…God knows, I deserve it—"

He was interrupted by a great crash echoing throughout the tunnels, this time from a different direction. Turning his head, he listened and calculated its origin, picturing them looting and trashing his quarters. There were other sounds making their way toward him as well, these coming from outside. Suddenly it occurred to him that the fire would bring another crowd together to watch the opera house burn, and no doubt more looting and stealing. Quickly getting to his feet, he knew he must make a decision, and quickly. Either give himself up or get away as quickly as possible. If the former, they would either kill him or imprison him. Swallowing hard, he considered his future, heart pounding in anticipation.

"Death would indeed be a relief," he stated objectively, "but prison…."

Could he face another cage, one where they could expose him, ridicule him? He had faced that before, but that was also before music. Surely he would be denied music, and without it he would be of no use to anyone, including himself. This could lead only to madness, the prospect of which was too painful. So with one more backward glance he listened, turned back and sprang into a run. Choosing a freedom he did not deserve, he fled madness with every fiber of his being. Running past the last fork in the tunnel, he felt the cold air streaming toward him and fixed his gaze upon the dark mouth of the tunnel. As he drew closer he saw that, unfortunately, something was very much out of order.

There were horses standing there—theatre horses, including his own. He saw how the moonlight made Prince's jet black coat appear navy in color. And for some odd reason Prince was the only horse saddled. Then he saw the men, two of them, one stocky, the other smaller in build. Both were thieves!

"Stop!" he shouted, running out toward them. The slighter one turned and spotted him, freezing in fear. The other shouted his protest, pulling at Prince's reins. Erik's stallion reared up and whinnied in fear, startling the man. Taking the opportunity to grab the reins, Erik shouted at the other horses to scatter them. The man lunged toward him as he was suddenly gripped from behind, his arms forced back. The heavier man grabbed his shirt as the horses danced around them in confusion.

"They're getting away!" he accused, punching him in the stomach as punishment. Doubling over, he gasped for breath as Prince protested. Then shoving himself up and back against the one holding him, Erik thrust both booth at his attacker, kicking him in his ample stomach as he struggled to pull his arms free. He watched in satisfaction as the man fell back, striking his head against a post and slumping to the ground. Twisting and finally breaking free, he fought the other, finally becoming aware of his the shouts of the mob at the front of the opera house and the choking blanket of acrid smoke hanging over them. Taking one last swing, he managed to knock the man aside and turned to grab Prince's reins. Greeting him in triumph, he grabbed the pommel, vaulting up into the saddle. As he turned toward the street a woman's voice called out to him.

"Erik—watch out!"

Swerving his head, he saw the bigger man coming toward him as a woman ran out from the tunnels in their direction. He noted the glimmer of the man's smile as he approached, unaware of the danger coming up from behind him. She had bent to pick up a tree branch and was swinging it at the man between them. The wood hit the back of the man's head with a dull thud, making his smile falter as he stumbled in surprise. Trying to control Prince's nervous stomping, Erik sensed something about her that was familiar, finally placing her voice.

"Meg," he breathed as she continued toward him, completely unaware of the man starting after her. Suddenly he knew that he had to take her with him, or she would be left alone to face both men and whoever else managed to come along. He also knew he could not let that happen, not again. Leaning toward her, he stretched out his arm. Her hands clamped around it as the toe of her boot pressed onto his foot. Pulling her up, he winced at the strength in her grip before catching her by the waist and planting her sideways before him. Her hand shot to the pommel as she curled herself against his chest, sliding her arm around his back. He was turning Prince around when her piercing scream distracted him.

"He's back--" she cried.

"I want that horse!" the thief roared, flinging his arm up as Meg's boot kicked him in the chest.

Gripping her waist to steady her, Erik felt something thrust into his thigh, the pain stealing his breath. Vaguely aware of the man falling away, he bent forward in an effort to breathe. Prince galloped down the alley and he was aware of her leaning back against him as she swung a leg up and over Prince's head. By the time they reached the street she had repositioned herself astride. With little room in the saddle between them Erik was forced to straighten despite the pain and an eerily warm sensation spreading over his thigh. Guidging Prince to their left he galloped down the side street as they tried to keep from falling. Her feet lifted from his but he bent close to her ear.

"Put your feet back!" he ordered, surprised when she immediately obeyed. Her small hand covered his, and he was surprised at how cold it felt.

Bolstered by a mixture of fear and triumph at having escaped, they took the northeastern route leading away from the city. The stiff wind pressed against them, urging them to huddle closer for warmth. A full moon bathed the city in silvery brightness, but behind them the opera house glowed a faint orange, its blackened smoke subsiding as the fire was brought under control. Ahead lay the dim ribbon of highway, twisting as it cut through the dark landscape.

She was shivering despite the velvet jacket she wore, which he thought looked strangely familiar. It fit her more like a coat than a jacket, reaching nearly to her knees and swallowing her up in its bulk. Beneath it she was dressed nearly the same way he was, apparently ready for the interrupted scene of Don Juan which by now was lost to the opera world. He judged her a capable rider as he attempted to ignore the feeling of her small, compact body pressed intimately against his. His gaze shot to the leather bag bumping against her hip as they rode, a man's bag that also looked familiar. He studied her suspiciously, wondering why she had followed him from the tunnel as if she were leaving with him on holiday. But he had to admit that her warning had prevented what might have been a more seriously placed knife wound. She had put herself in danger to defend him, yet he had no idea why.

c. 2007 by Christine Levitt