Author's notes: This is a slightly AU story, based on the character of Erik Kire, of "A Heart that Waits", by Everspringnative. It's not absolutely necessary to read "A Heart that Waits" to understand this story, but if you haven't read it already, I strongly recommend it.

Christmas Spirit

As a child, I never understood what Christmas was about. For me, Christmas meant the glimpse of something green, tall and shiny in the parlour, and better scraps for eating in the coming days, if I was lucky. Whenever I heard the joyful greetings, I didn't know what they meant with the words "Merry Christmas", because that time of the year also meant that I would be freezing on my pallet. I would have to sit still, in the darkness, when I heard my parents going to church and coming back, and would have to keep quiet until the sounds of singing and laughter and conversation had died away. And often, it would also mean that my father would come down to the cellar, half drunk, and beat me senseless in the dead of the night.

I first learnt about Christmas through books. When I became of age and had the chance to devour every scrap of knowledge I could lay my hands on, books taught me that Christmas was a time of joy, in which families would gather around the hearth. Apparently, a lot of emphasis was put on eating and drinking together. It also seemed to be very important to gather a lot of greenery and set it up all over the house; if accompanied with ribbons, all the better. Candles were also strongly favoured. There were also some odd customs associated with the feast the significance of which I couldn't quite grasp. There was something about hanging a sprig of mistletoe above the door. There was a cake baked in the form of a log. There was another one with a charm inside. Whoever got the charm would be King or Queen on Epiphany. And then there was the absurd story about a weird fellow filling up children's shoes with gifts and candy.

Of course, I was aware of the fact that none of those ludicrous customs would ever affect my life. They were just something else that set me apart from humankind. Not that I was eager to make myself ridiculous by partaking of them. Besides, the Christmas season was a highly irritating time of the year at the Opera. One would stumble upon countless pairs kissing under green sprigs all over the place. Reyer, an otherwise sensible man, would insist on putting together a silly show for the 24th, a show in which the cast, dancers, stagehands, prop designers, painters and seamstresses invested so much effort and enthusiasm, that if they had ever dedicated a half of it to any of the other productions, we would have excelled as the best opera house in Europe. And while they worked on it, practically everybody would be thrown into a frenzy, screeching ugly songs with clingy tunes that would refuse to leave my mind even after hours of playing the most challenging pieces on my violin. The occasional box of sweets and bottle of wine stolen from the managers' offices were never enough to compensate for all that.

After one or two weeks, the fuss and the racket always became too much for me, so I avoided the upper levels during the season, and tried to keep to my home by the lake. Not that it was a better solution. The cold and dampness of the tunnels increased during the winter, and from time to time, I would feel oppressed, as if the darkness became an impenetrable substance that weighed on my limbs and filled my lungs. Then I would emerge to the outer world, where I would roam around the neighbourhood. The only good thing about Christmas time was the cold and dark nights, when no one looked at a man strolling about under the cover of a scarf and a hat. Unfortunately, the same bustling throngs that swarmed the Opera would also find their way into the streets, and more often than not I would become smitten with the incessant commotion of the rest of the people around me. The silly tunes would once again find their path into my head, and I would get back to my home even more restless and annoyed than when I had left.

One evening, close to Christmas Eve found me walking down a side street, not far from the Opera. When I rounded the corner, a cart coming at an ungodly speed almost ran me over. If I hadn't jumped closer to the wall, it would have ended my miserable days.

"Sorry, mate!" screamed the driver, not even giving me a second glance.

I didn't have time to mutter a curse when I felt the cold wetness seeping into my shoes. I was standing in a mound of sleet. I gave another jump, this time closer to a lighted shop window and attempted to shake the worst of it from the legs of my pants. When I straightened, I caught a glimpse of something that hit me like lightning. Forgetting the brightness, the need for cover, the other passers by, I stared into the window. Amidst dolls, balls, jumping ropes and other knickknacks stood a wooden horse, a carved figure not much bigger than my fist. It was painted in bright colours. The body was white, the saddle red, the stirrups and harnesses golden. The craftsman had affixed a black mane and a black tail of real hair to it. It stood on three hoofs, the fourth raised slightly, as if giving a step.

I couldn't stop looking at it. Time stopped still. The uproar of the street vanished.

If I had been given such a horse when I was a boy, I would have been able to escape the misery that had been my childhood. This little horse would have trotted up the stairs of the damp cellar, into the kitchen and out to the courtyard. It would have jumped over the fence at the back of the kitchen garden, would have galloped across the thicket and sparse woods behind it, would have crossed the streets of the town, untouched by the villagers, and would have disappeared towards the horizon, with me on its back.

Something deep inside of me throbbed.

Not thinking twice about the bright lights within the shop, the unspoken questions and the stares, I went inside.

The doorbell chimed when the door closed behind me. The shopkeeper came out of the back room, a smile pasted to her face. I turned slightly away from her.

"May I help you, Monsieur?"

"The horse," I said, nodding towards the window. "How much for it?"

"Which…?" She said. She was apparently not very bright. "Ah…" she exclaimed, once her sight followed the direction of my finger. She leaned over the other toys and reached out to it.

"It surely is a cute little thing, isn't it?"

She held it high, as if I needed to inspect it further.

"It only costs… five francs. Nothing, taking into account the craftsmanship."

I turned towards the wall, the masked side of my face away from her and grunted. She seemed to take that as a sign of assent, since she walked to the counter and put the figurine on it.

"Shall I wrap it, monsieur?"

"What?"

"As a gift. We've got some beautiful wrapping paper. And it will only cost ten centimes."

I stared at her, sideways. She was holding up a green piece of paper in one hand, and a red ribbon in the other. I wanted to laugh at the irony of it all, but I nodded dumbly instead.

"Yes," I mumbled. "Wrap it as a gift."

I watched her as she deftly folded the paper over the figurine, tied the ribbon around the package and made an overflowing bow. She nipped the excess ribbon with a pair of shiny scissors. I fished my portemonnaie from the depths of my pocket and took out six francs with a shaky hand.

"Your little boy will be very pleased this Christmas, Monsieur."

Her statement was so surprising that my head snapped up. She saw the mask and blanched.

I held the money up to her, but she wouldn't even look at it. Her eyes had gone wide. She gave a step back.

Utterly disgusted, I tossed the money on the wooden surface and snatched the package. I hurried out of the shop and down the street, grabbing the wooden figure so hard that my palm hurt.

A couple of evenings later I sat on my wing chair in front of a roaring fire, after having treated myself to a rich Christmas banquet. The cooks had made enough escargots for a battalion. The missing portion would not be noticed. The mighty piece of roasted turkey breast and the slice of pudding were another matter. I wondered how the chief cook would manage to hide the gaps when he served them to the members of the opera that had stayed for the season. It was very advantageous that the staff, otherwise not particularly religious, would rather die than not attend mass during Christmas Eve. The kitchens were always deserted right after midnight, full of wonderful dishes, all warm and waiting to be served when everybody came back after mass… or slightly before, if a hungry ghost happened to be around.

I swirled my Bordeaux and watched the full-bodied liquid cling to the sides of the glass. I finished its contents and felt the warmth slowly permeating towards my toes. I glanced at the side table, where the package laid, its red ribbon tempting and mocking me at the same time. I poured another glass of wine, gathering courage, and sipped at it. Finally, I reached over and laid the package on my knees. I looked at the white card I had written earlier. It contrasted nicely against the red ribbon and the bright green colour of the decorative paper. I opened the card, and read in my own handwriting:

To little Erik, from Erik. Merry Christmas.

I snorted.

It was pathetic. Had I ever been so silly in my whole life?

I tossed the card aside and undid the ribbon. The paper crinkled merrily when I unfolded it and suddenly, there was the little horse, looking at me with its painted eyes. I held it in my palm, feeling its weight. I traced its contours with one finger, caressed its long mane. Then I set it on the arm of the chair. It stood there, watching over me like a familiar spirit while I quietly sipped my wine and finally fell asleep.

The next morning I woke up thirsty, with a slight headache and an annoying crick in my neck. I gathered up the horse, the card, the paper and the ribbon and tossed them all in a trunk. A few days later, I had already forgotten all about them.

The next year, two or three days before Christmas, found me staring into the shop window and trying to choose between a box of tin soldiers and a train.

Thus began the only Christmas tradition I held while I lived at the Opera.

However, with every year that passed, I became more and more uncomfortable with my little private ritual. There was always a void in the pit of my stomach when I bought the gift, an overwhelming feeling of ridicule when I wrote the card to myself, an unbearable hopelessness when I tossed the toy into the trunk on Christmas day.

I tried to stop. I avoided the little toy shop like the plague, but every year I was irresistibly drawn to its brightly lit window. It didn't matter how many times I told myself I was acting foolishly, I would stand there, wonder, and finally decide on something to buy. I tried tossing the toy onto the street after I had bought it. I tried to hide it and not open it. I tried to forget the location of the trunk with the other toys. Everything was useless, and it only served to grate further on my nerves.

Until I stumbled upon the two dolls.

They were standing, side by side, on the corner of the window. They had matching dresses, full of frills and ribbons. They had matching straw hats and matching black boots. They had matching porcelain faces, smooth ovals of white tinged with shades of pink in the cheeks. One had long, ebony curls and irises the colour of chocolate, the other, straight golden tresses and blue eyes.

They were perfect.

The shopkeeper was astounded when I came inside and demanded that she wrap the two dolls in her best wrapping paper. She wanted to know whether I wouldn't buy anything for my "son" this year. I ignored her.

With the two parcels under my arm and strangely light-hearted, I walked briskly towards the gate on the Rue Scribe.

I couldn't wait for it to become Christmas. I paced up and down my home, trying not to stare at the two packages lying on my desk. I clipped out countless gift cards, cut out the edges to resemble lace. I stole black ink from the managers. Then I changed my mind and plundered Reyer's desk for a bottle of green ink I had once seen him use. I masked my handwriting. I battled to straighten the slant to the left, rounded the 'os' and the 'as', dropped the complications and flourishes and finally attained a plain type of writing.

The first portion of the text presented no problems, but I deliberated hours on end on how to sign the cards. I would sooner throw the gifts into the lake than write From Pére Noel. I had always thought that belief utterly absurd. From the Phantom of the Opera wouldn't do either. From the Angel of Music was a better option, though I was not sure I wanted to spread Christine's belief on the fairytale and trigger the gossip among the ballet rats. They had already cast her aside on account of her melancholic looks and slight Nordic accent. At last, I decided not to sign them, and settled for a plain Merry Christmas.

That Christmas Eve, as soon as the chief cook closed the door behind him, I entered the kitchen and heaped food on my plate. I took it down to my place in a hurry. As soon as I finished eating, I took the parcels with me and walked to the empty dormitories. I laid them by the panel that would grant me access to the room where the ballet rats slept, and climbed to the upper levels of the Opera. I would watch as the staff came back from church.

I was already trembling in the freezing night air before I spotted the first groups. I strained to see, and finally caught a glimpse of Madame Giry, limping along, holding a girl in each hand. I climbed down Apollo's back. After having descended countless steps, I ended above the dining hall. I stretched out upon one of the high beams where I could see the crowd below. I had never spied upon the staff in this particular night and for the first time, the excitement that seemed to flow through them didn't repulse me. The laughter was merry, not frivolous. The songs didn't sound as silly, although one or two of the singers couldn't have been more off-key.

Patiently, I waited until they were done with the eating and the speeches, the songs and the toasts, until the smallest ballet rats started falling asleep leaning on the shoulders of one another and Madame Giry ushered them to the dormitories. I took my time climbing down the rafters, walking through the passages. When I reached the spot where the parcels lay, almost all the familiar noises of the girls getting ready for bed had faded away. I looked through the peephole. The room was quiet, almost cast into darkness, but for the night lamp on one of the night tables. Most of the girls were already in bed. A small circle gathered around a storyteller.

I leant on the wall of the passage and waited.

Half an hour later, the only noise that pervaded the room was the sound of heavy breathing. I silently slid the panel to one side and tiptoed along the room, avoiding pairs of shoes neatly set in front of each bed.

A tangle of chocolate curls gave away Christine's head. In the cot beside hers, there was a bundle of blankets that was little Giry. I carefully leant a parcel at the foot of each bed, making sure I put the right one where it belonged. Then I tiptoed back and slid the panel closed behind me.

There was a warm feeling seeping through my chest. My feet seemed to be floating over the stone floors while I walked all the way down the four cellars. It was very cosy to sit in front of the roaring fire while I sipped my wine. After a short while, I went to bed.

I arose very early, but even though I hurried upstairs, I couldn't make it in time before they woke up. When I got to the passage that ran along the dormitory, Christine and Meg were showing off their dolls to an awed audience.

I felt my lips curving up in an unusual strain.

Following some kind of strange logic, they switched dolls in the following days. Meg kept the one with dark curls, Christine, the blonde one. The dolls and the two little girls became inseparable. They played with them, took them to the dining hall, put them in their beds when they went to sleep. They even took them once to practice, hidden in the folds of their tutus. Of course, Madame Giry found them out and sent them straight to the dormitories to leave the dolls. She also made them practice an hour after the general rehearsal. No one would ever dare maintain that Madeline treated them differently than the other girls. A smile, one expression that had popped up in my features with some regularity in the past days, curved my lips upward, as I hid my mouth behind my fist to stifle a chuckle.

Little did I imagine that soon I would also become the target of Madame's sharp tongue.

She was mending a sock when I reached the back of the mirror through which I gained access to her rooms. I had come, as I did every two weeks, to pick up my goods. I politely knocked on the glass surface and waited before I opened it. She stood up and put the ball of yarn aside.

"I was waiting for you, Monsieur."

Her formality made me cringe. It had been months and months since we had become "Erik" and "Madeline" to each other. It was the only familiarity I had with a member of the human race. To hear her call me "Monsieur" was like being slapped with a stick on the back of the hand.

"Where are my goods?" I demanded before she had the chance to tell me whatever she was going to say. I had the distinct feeling it would not be pleasant.

She retrieved the parcel from a drawer of her commode, but didn't pass it over to me.

I hadn't done anything that could summon up a reprisal. It had been weeks since I had last played a prank on Carlotta. I had let the sweets in the kitchens be. I hadn't disorganised Reyer's scores nor tangled the ropes by the catwalks. I hadn't menaced anyone. Besides, I was not accountable to her.

"The expenses for the next week are covered, I believe," I said, extending my hand. She would have to take the hint and give me my package.

She didn't give me my goods. Instead, she looked me straight in the eye. I suddenly understood how bugs felt when the needle of the collector ran through them.

"About the dolls, Erik…"

My heart went cold. I literally felt it fall to the pit of my stomach.

There was a dreadful silence, one that I thought I would break with an inhuman howl. With an enormous effort, I breathed in. Not able to bear the look of rejection in Madeline's eyes, I looked down, at the package. I reached out with my hand, grabbed it and tugged, disentangling it from her hands. I put it under my armpit, which allowed me to fold one of my arms tightly across my abdomen. It helped to bear the pain.

I nodded, while I hastily turned around, towards the mirror.

"It is alright," I breathed while I triggered the mechanism that opened it. "I understand."

As soon as I stepped out of the room, I closed the mirror and hurried down the passage. As I put some distance between myself and the terrible look in Madeline's eyes, I thought I heard pounding behind me. Perhaps it was my heart.

I finally stopped in a storeroom in the third cellar, flopping down on top of a heap of mouldy hangings. I was breathing heavily. The mask clung to my face. Both my cheeks were wet, and my sinuses had drained on the way. I put the parcel beside me, and took out my handkerchief. The mask, which I had to take off to wipe my face, mocked me from its perch on my knee.

What a fool I had been. Of course, Madame would rather have the monster away from the girls. No matter that I had never played any prank on them, no matter that I would never dream of ever harming them. I was still what I was, and they were better off away from any form of contact with me. I should have been expecting this. I wondered why she hadn't thrown the dolls away already.

I clenched my teeth. What a pathetic thing I was. I knew better that this, I knew better than hoping. I should have learnt my lesson by now. I shook my head.

But no matter how many times I repeated it to myself, I couldn't alleviate the ripping pain in my gut. My shoulders hunched forward and I doubled over, head between my knees, like the wounded beast that I was.

I don't know how long I sat there. My feet were already icy cold when I heard a door to my right open and the light of a lantern pierced the velvety darkness around me. I immediately stood up, replacing the mask, wrapping myself in my cape and turning towards the wall. But for the mask and my white shirt, I was completely invisible.

"Are you sure the tiaras are down here, Jacques?"

"Yes, poppet. Just come on in…"

The raspy, harsh voice gave out one of the stagehands, a burly man that had been hired not a month ago. The other voice I couldn't recognise, but I realised it had to be one of the older ballet rats. They had been plundering the storage rooms looking for the shiny tiaras that had been used by the cast in the last production of Aida. Why would they think that the shoddy, feathery trinkets were something desirable was over me, but the few that had found one paraded themselves in the dormitories at night and slunk with them on their heads for their rendezvous with their beaus.

"I think… I'd rather wait out here."

"Come on, pet. You won't make me look for them by myself, will you?"

I cringed a bit at that last sentence. There was something wrong about the tone Jacques used. He slurred his words slightly. I remembered the glint in his eyes as he watched the chorus girls from one of the catwalks.

"Please? Pretty please?"

"No, pet. If you help me, we will find them in no time. But you'll have to help me."

Something inside me told me that looking for a tiara wasn't the kind of help he wanted.

"But that room smells…" whined the other voice. "And it is so dark…"

"It will be darker out here, once I take the lantern with me."

There was a silence.

"And what if that phantom fellow comes along and finds you in the corridor?"

A quiet gasp.

"Come inside, poppet. You will be safe with me."

I bared my teeth in a snarl. Those sounded like the most devious words I had ever heard.

But they convinced her. She came into the room, and I recognised the reddish curls of Marianne, a promising, if rather brainless, dancer.

Jacques set the lamp on a high crate and turned towards the girl while she looked around, wide-eyed. Her expression was not one of wonder, though. It was an innocent kind of surprise. Her brow furrowed.

"There are no trunks in here…"

But of course there were no trunks. The third cellar was too damp for the fabrics, and too far down for the seamstresses and the maids. All the costumes and the costume jewellery were kept in the upper levels. The only things that were stored in the third cellar were old stage props, hangings and broken pieces of furniture. Everybody in the Opera knew that. I shrugged, ready to vanish from the scene. This girl was about to fall victim to her own stupidity. It was none of my concern.

Jacques gave a step forward.

"No, pet. You made me come all the way down …"

She gave a step back, but he grabbed her by the wrist. She gave out a small, pathetic whimper.

I should have gathered my things and gone my way.

"Release her," I growled.

Instead of backing away, Jacques twirled her around and gathered her close to him, while drawing out a dagger.

"What, so you can have her all for yourself, Etienne?"

I gave a step forward, into the light, tilting my head so the mask was plainly visible.

"Precisely. I'll have her all for myself," I sneered.

That produced the desired effect. Jacques' eyes bulged out while Marianne gave out a deafening shriek and bit onto his hand. He released her, and she sprinted for the door. I grabbed Jacques' wrist and smashed it against the wooden crate. Shadows danced madly in the room as the lamp on top of the crate tilted from the impact. I was stunned, but I punched Jacques on the jaw. He gave a step to the side and fell back. I fell over him, seized his hair and beat his head against the stone floor once. There was crunch.

I released him. Only then did I notice the lights dancing in front of my eyes, the air touching the deformed side of my face. Apparently, Jacques had managed to connect a punch to my face. The mask was missing, and when I touched my nose, my fingers were stained with blood. I could also taste it. The bastard. As if that side of my nose hadn't been flattened enough already. I looked around.

The mask laid a few paces away. The ribbon that held it in place had snapped, and the nose was crumpled. I put it in the pocket of my coat. As I walked towards my parcel, something pushed me from behind, and a sharp pain ripped through my lower back. I turned around instinctively. My elbow connected to something hard and there was a deep grunt. Apparently, Etienne had not been very far away. I grabbed him by the throat and squeezed. His hands flew wildly, dropping the dagger he was holding. He wheezed and finally went limp. I released him. His body crumpled down with a dull thud. I nudged him with the tip of my shoe, kicked the blasted dagger away. I had been careless. I should have checked the corridor before I turned around. Carefully this time, I backed to the pile of curtains where my package lay and picked it up. I stopped to listen. There was nothing but silence for a long while. I went out to the corridor. I waited for my eyes to grow used to the darkness, and glanced up and down. Nothing. I headed to the stairs.

I had crossed the fourth cellar and had reached the winding staircase to the fifth, when I heard a rustle behind me. There was someone following. I looked back and could see the light of a lamp dancing on the wall behind me. I flattened my back against the opposite wall, right beside the staircase, and waited for the fool to come around the bend. I would show myself in all my glory before I beat him senseless.

Muffled, quick steps approached. A figure came around the bend and light flooded me. I flung myself against it and met a pair of wide grayish-blue eyes before my fist connected against a cheekbone. There was a gust of black skirts, and the shadows danced madly, as the figure rolled down two or three steps and was stopped by the bend in the staircase.

It was Madeline.

A chilly wind blew through the passage. The lamp, which by some kind of perverse joke didn't break in the fall, flickered. I desperately hoped it would die out.

But it didn't. Its light illuminated my features mercilessly: sagging eyelid, hideous scars, uneven cheekbone, nonexistent eyebrow, bleeding half-nose, the whole lot. I froze with horror. I couldn't breathe, I couldn't think. I waited for her terrified shriek, for her mouth to twist in horror and repulsion, for her to cross herself and scramble away from me.

I waited for her to faint.

Her face was frozen. Only her eyes moved from the deformed side of my face to the good one and back again. I began to shiver.

Then, after what felt like centuries, her voice pierced the deafening silence.

"Erik, help me up."

I stared dumbly at her. That she was seeing me, really seeing me, and still addressed me with such calm, commonplace words, was well beyond my grasp.

She lifted her hand towards me, palm up.

"Come on, help me up," she urged me while she tried to get her feet under her with a grimace.

Her pain set me in motion. I hurried to her side, took her arm and helped her to stand.

"Are you hurt?" The words flew out of my mouth before I could even think about uttering them.

She shook her head. A tremendous relief flooded me.

"Here," she said, handing me the lamp.

She looked up, and I drew back, shunning away from her view, but I didn't make it very far. She was grasping my forearm in a deathly grip. Her other hand shot up and before I could avoid it, she touched my cheek, my deformed cheek, right beside my nose. Her fingertips barely brushed me. They were crimson when she withdrew them.

"Erik, you're hurt."

I shrugged.

"It's only a broken nose."

She watched me, brows furrowed.

"No," she insisted. "You're hurt. You're bleeding. I followed a track of blood down here."

I took my hand to my back, where a dull pain had been bothering me, and it came out covered in blood. The gash Etienne had opened when stabbing me must have been deeper than I thought.

"It's nothing."

"Don't be stubborn," she snapped. "It's not…"

She put weight on her right leg and almost fell when it buckled. She grunted with pain. Immediately, my hand shot up, supporting her as best as I could.

I glanced around. She couldn't walk and I couldn't carry her back to her rooms, not with a wound that was bleeding freely on my back. I couldn't just leave her there, in the drafty cellars. God only knew when anyone would come down there. She would surely starve before she was found. Or worse, she would try to follow me down, and break her neck falling down the stairs. Blasted woman.

What was she doing poking her nose in the lowest cellars anyway?

"I was looking for you," she grumbled.

I started at that. I hadn't realised I had spoken those last words out loud.

She leant on me, while she kept on prattling.

". . . but you wouldn't listen to me. I came down to the cellars and ran into Marianne. She told me. . ."

"I didn't touch her. I wouldn't harm her," I protested.

She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, as she only did when annoyed.

"I know that, Erik. You saved her. I found Etienne and Jacques, as well."

I swallowed hard and stared at the wall.

"They are not dead."

I wasn't sure about that. Really, I couldn't care less. But I didn't want her reproach.

She grasped my arm tighter. If in pain or disapproval, I didn't know.

"I know, Erik. I know."

I had never heard her sound so dismayed. I didn't know if it was because of her injury, because of the shock at having found out what kind of creature she had been shopping for all these months, or for bearing the strain of having to cover her reaction to my hideous appearance. Maybe it was the contact with me, with my body. It had to be repugnant. She was trembling already. Perhaps it was better to leave her there. Perhaps I could make my way upstairs and alert someone to her location.

Madeline leant against the wall, grunting as she shifted her weight.

"Turn around," she commanded.

I sighed. I perfectly understood her reaction. No one was able to stare into the ruin that was my face for long. Not even me. I complied.

She cast my cloak over my shoulder and started fumbling with my coat and shirt.

"What the hell…?"

"Stay still," her stern words didn't allow for a retort.

She fumbled a little bit more and then she applied pressure. A stabbing pain shot through my back.

"Bloody hell!"

"Watch your mouth!" She retorted.

I shifted away from her, but she grabbed the waist of my pants, effectively pinning me into place. I tried to untangle her hand.

"What the hell are you…" before I could finish the sentence, she barked at me.

"Stay still, Erik!"

A wave of humiliation crashed against me, as her last statement echoed a long string of similar ones I had heard during my childhood. Be still. Be quiet. Don't look at me like that. Don't touch me. Get away. Monster. Creature. Demon. I took in a deep, shuddering breath.

"Does it hurt when you breathe?"

"What?"

"To breathe. Does it hurt, Erik?"

I shook my head.

"Hold still a bit longer," she instructed.

A second later, there was the distinct noise of cloth ripping. Then there was some pressure added to my wound. I shifted, uncomfortably.

"It will only take a minute," she promised.

The warmth in her voice caught me off guard. Now she didn't sound at all like my mother. She circled my waist several times with the cloth, and then tied it.

"There," she said arranging my clothes again. "I hope it holds until we get there. Then I will have a closer look at your wound."

"When we get where?"

"Wherever it is we're going," she answered, grasping my arm in a deathly grip and steering me down the stairs.

I left her sitting on my armchair and busied myself retrieving a washbasin with cold water and some bandages. If she had twisted her ankle, she would need to soak it to stop the swelling. I carried in some logs to revive the fire. I didn't light any candles. It was a good way of pinning Madeline to the armchair. It also avoided her examining my abode closely. It wasn't very tidy, and it consisted mainly of old props and old stage hangings. I had never considered the possibility of anyone but me seeing the place, and I didn't care much for decoration. To be warm and comfortable, to have enough working space and enough light were more important things for me. Besides, if I wanted decoration I only had to climb the stairs to the upper levels of the Opera, where I could easily get more than my fill.

Madeline complained peevishly, mumbled some nonsense about my wound being more serious than her ankle, before she gave in, took off her boot and finally put her foot in the washbasin. She sat still while I put the kettle over the fire and took out the teapot. She even let me start brewing some tea while she bent her foot this way and that, trying the injury, and while she wrapped her ankle tightly. But when I offered her my only cup, filled to the brim with tea, she started pestering me about lighting candles so she could look at my wound closely. I tried to make her shut up, but it was impossible. At last, when she threatened to stand up and put weight to her injured foot, I gave in. I put another mask over my face, one that didn't fit quite well but would have to do for the moment, and started lighting the candles. I studiously kept my back towards Madeline as I gradually illuminated the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I took stock of the old, scratched furniture, the threadbare carpet, stacks of books and yellowing paper everywhere. Finally I turned around, eyes glued to her knees. I didn't want to witness her reaction to the drab surroundings, to their miserable inhabitant.

Her voice was barely a breath.

"Oh, Erik…"

I hated it. I felt ashamed. I wanted to vanish away.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement. It was her hand, beckoning me.

"Come here, sit down."

She patted my desk chair, the only other chair I possessed.

Slowly, still not able to meet her eye, I approached her, and perched on the edge of the chair. I folded my hands between my knees, felt my shoulders hunch forward. I was exhausted.

She unbuttoned my coat, slowly unbuttoned my vest.

"Take them off, Erik," she said softly, and I obeyed, unable and unwilling to put up any resistance. All my energy had sagged away. My hands and feet were cold, despite the hearty fire on the stove, and the wound in my back was throbbing dully. I would have done anything she said, as long as she kept talking to me in that mild, sweet tone.

"Turn around."

I obeyed, leaning my arm over the back of the chair. She lifted the shirt off my back and started unwinding the makeshift bandage around my waist. I leant my head against my forearm, and winced, when the mask pushed against my sore nose. She stopped prodding in my wound.

"Did I hurt you?"

I shook my head, propped my chin on my forearm instead, while she resumed her ministrations.

"It is large, Erik, but it is not deep. You'll need stitches. Do you have anything I can clean it with?"

I closed my eyes. So much for the brief respite.

"Carbolic acid," I breathed, as I pushed myself from the chair, but I didn't make it very far. Madeline's hand landed on my shoulder.

"Rest for a while. I will find everything, if you tell me where things are."

I looked up at her. She was standing, leaning on her good foot, her hand still on my shoulder for balance. There was a glimmer in her eyes. A tenuous smile graced her lips. The warmth of her hand permeated my shoulder. My throat tightened so much that I couldn't bring myself to answer.

"You do have thread and a needle, don't you?"

I nodded, dumbly.

"Where are they?"

I cleared my throat.

"In the first drawer of the commode. But Madeline, you can't start putting…"

She patted my shoulder.

"Nonsense," she grumbled. "As long as it is bandaged I'm good to go. Stay put."

I watched her as she limped around, finding the thread, needle and carbolic acid. Under my directions, she also found a clean linen sheet to make some bandages, and another shirt. It was bizarre to have someone rummaging around my home.

I sat still as she cleaned my back with a damp cloth and applied acid to my wound. I bit my lower lip as she stitched it. The pain was sharp, but my eyelids were getting heavier by the moment. When she finished bandaging my torso, I threaded my arms through the sleeves of the clean shirt, like an automaton. I was shocked to see her holding my robe in front of me.

"Where did you get that?"

She nodded towards my dresser. I took the robe from her and put it on. Despite the fire, it was still chilly in my home.

I attempted to sit down again, but she nodded towards the bed.

"Why don't you lie down for a moment? You've lost quite a lot of blood. Some rest would do you good," she babbled.

I breathed in deeply. She was starting to aggravate me in her fussing.

"They will be asking what happened to you, the people upstairs."

A smirk played at the corners of her mouth.

"Let them wonder for a while. Besides, I haven't finished my tea."

I exhaled, shook my head.

"It is you who should rest," I protested, weakly.

She shrugged.

"I prefer your armchair," she declared. And as if to prove her point, she made herself comfortable, took my cup and had a sip of the now tepid tea. She kept a straight face, and watched me with one eyebrow raised.

I snorted weakly. I was feeling light-headed and the weariness made my limbs heavier by the minute. Finally, when Madeline looked into the fire, I gave in. I'd rather sit on the bed than risk falling flat on my nose, which might happen if I remained on the desk chair. I went to the bed, arranged the pillows against the headboard and sat awkwardly, propping myself on my uninjured side. I didn't dare look at Madeline for a while, but sighed in relief when I finally cast a glance at her and found her still staring into the flames. I closed my eyes for a minute.

A quiet gasp, a sound I would never hear in my dark abode, woke me up. Immediately, I was sitting on my bed, eyes wide open, scanning my surroundings, a hand groping for the lasso underneath the pillows.

I froze when I saw Madeline standing on a corner of the room, her back to me, by an open trunk. Her shoulders were trembling slightly. She gazed at me over her shoulder. There was moisture on her cheek. She turned around, pressed the back of her hand to her cheek trying to hide her tears.

She was holding something white on her other hand. Cards. Gift cards. There was a void inside me as I cast a look at the trunk. The bright red jacket of a tin soldier mocked me from the edge. White-hot anger followed closely.

I rose from the bed, a scowl on my face. In two strides, I had crossed the room. I ripped the cards from her hand, tossed them into the trunk and slammed the damn thing shut.

Madeline stepped away from me, pale, hands held up. Her fear angered me even more than her prying. I grabbed her by the elbow, picked her boot and stocking from the floor and steered her towards the door.

"Erik, I didn't mean…"

"I thought you were over nosing around, Madame."

She looked up at me, eyes wide.

"I'm really sorry, Erik. Please forgive my intrusion…"

I stared at her, momentarily dumbfounded. No one had ever apologised to me in over twenty years.

"I thought you were not religious. I didn't know you felt this way towards Christmas," She continued. "If I had known…"

Her words were condescending. They only stoked my rage.

"You are overstaying your welcome, Madame," I seethed, as I opened the door, set her out of my home and pushed her boot into her hand.

I pointed ahead.

"Walk straight and you'll find a staircase. Climb all the way up and turn right. At the end of the corridor, turn right again. You'll find a door. That's the entrance to the pantry."

And with that, I slammed the door shut. I was trembling. I rubbed the left side of my face.

Then I realised she wouldn't be able to find the way in the dark. I picked up the lamp we had brought with us and lit it. Then I remembered the cane one of the patrons had left behind in his box, not a year before. It had a silver knob, curiously carved. After a while of rummaging, I dug it up from a distant corner.

I opened the door forcefully.

Madeline was still standing on the other side of the door. Her eyes widened.

I put both items in her hands, slammed the door shut again and bolted it.

I was breathing heavily, and suddenly, a terrible weakness overwhelmed me. I plodded over to my armchair and sat down. I closed my eyes, leaned forward, and held my head in my hands while I listened to her retreating steps.

The next day, I tied the trunk with the toys, loaded it onto my boat and dumped it in the lake. I watched the surface fixedly, long after the last bubbles had burst and the last ripples had vanished.

The next year I made sure to have a heap of interesting books, stacks of paper and a generous reserve of ink long before the Christmas season started. I gathered several boxes of sweets, preserves, a large tin of cookies, cheese and ham and other delicacies. I holed myself in my home. I didn't emerge until a week after the twenty-fourth. When I found a small red package in my parcel of goods, I left it, unopened, in Madeline's room with a note.

You were right, Madame. I'm not a religious man.