Erik never told Christine about his visit to the Vicomte; he only assured her that he had taken care of everything. Since the next day's rehearsal began with a letter from the opera's mysterious owner firing André and Firmin, she stopped asking questions, believing the letter was his way of ending the horror of their plot. Erik told her later that he meant to hire the new manager himself, and Christine could not help but be silently proud, seeing this as a very big step for a man who had only a month before been a complete recluse.
The opera was set to open in three days, and the cast was buzzing with the exhilaration that came along with it.
As rehearsal ended, Christine ran offstage, laughing with Meg and nearly shouting a conversation over the bustle of the departing cast around them.
"How can you stand it?" Meg was asking, trying not to be overheard even at the loud volume that she was speaking. "That scene in Act Three is positively seductive! And you have to act it with Piangi and have his big, sweaty hands all over you." The little ballerina made a face of disgust, and Christine giggled.
"Firstly, I'm acting a part," she replied with playful mocking as if the answer was entirely obvious. "That's what we stage people are supposed to be doing, remember?"
"Your ill-attempt at humor is atrocious!" Meg shouted back.
"All right, all right," Christine conceded, and leaning in near to her friend's ear so that she could lower her voice, she revealed, "I simply envision that it is Erik I am seducing."
Meg let out a shriek of laughter, softly replying, "You must be shameless with him then!"
"An absolute hussy!" Christine said it a little louder than she intended, and as she laughed at her folly, a hand caught her arm. Jumping with surprise, she flipped around to face her addressor with blushing cheeks. "Oh, Raoul!"
The Vicomte stood beside her, shifting and glancing about with obvious discomfort even as he jerked his hand back as if he was terrified that he had dared touch her. "Can I speak to you for a moment?"
Christine's good-humor had abruptly departed at the unexpected encounter, and glancing at Meg, she saw the ballerina's equaled wariness. "All right, …for a moment."
Meg caught Christine's arm, but Christine gave her a reassuring nod.
"If you need me, I'll be nearby," Meg replied, not caring if the Vicomte heard, and she shot him a suspicious glare before scurrying away.
"Meg needn't be so worried," Raoul said. "There are quite a few people around. If my intention had been to abduct you, I certainly wouldn't do it in such a populated area."
Though he had meant his comment as a joke, Christine's expression did not change. "What do you want, Raoul?"
"Only an answer to a question. I have to find out the truth for certain, or else I can never let it go. You lied to me at my house that day about being afraid of him, didn't you? …Or was it true?"
Him…. Raoul couldn't even bring himself to say Erik's name, Christine noted along with the weary lines that had settled in around the Vicomte's eyes. In some ways, she pitied him. Holding his stare resolutely, she answered, "I did lie to you, Raoul. I hope you understand why. I can't let you hurt him. I love him."
The Vicomte nodded more out of habit than truly comprehending, but he quickly shielded his pain, pretending to seem aloof. "I would have protected you to my dying breath…. I hope you know that."
She nodded. "I do…. Thank you, Raoul."
The Vicomte did not reply, did not even mutter a goodbye; he only turned slowly and wandered away. She was reasonably sure that he had expected the very answer she had given, but had to hear it from her lips anyway. In that moment, she said her own goodbye to her childhood friend.
It was finally opening night for Erik's Don Juan Triumphant. The audience was beginning to filter in from a line of carriages outside the opera house's magnificent columns. Behind the closed, red velvet curtain, stage workers ran about making final preparations while costumers were rushing from dressing room to dressing room sewing ripped seams and tacking falling hems.
In her own dressing room beyond the chaos, Christine sat before her vanity while the dresser finished her hair. The thick tresses were to be left loose and long down her back in curls as per Erik's detailed instructions.
As she calmly sat there, she thought about Erik. The last time she had seen him had been early that morning as she had left his house for final rehearsals. He had gazed at her with such adoration in his beautiful eyes, wishing her luck. Holding her face in his hands, he had told her, "You are already perfection, my Christine. I may have written the role for you, but you breathed life into her. I could not be more proud. Tonight you will have them all at your feet…, but I am already there, worshipping the ground you walk. I always have, and I always will. I love you."
His words had brought tears to her eyes, and even the memory of them now formed a lump in the back of her throat.
"Oh, mam'selle, you must be thinking of wonderful things! You look so happy!" the hairdresser Sophie exclaimed, regarding Christine's deeply thoughtful face in the mirror's glass.
"I am, Sophie. Very, very happy."
"And you aren't at all nervous about the opening?"
Christine shook her head. "No, how can I be? It's a role I was meant to play."
A few minutes later as Sophie hurried out to the next dressing room, a boy pushed his way in through the open doorway.
"Flowers for you, mam'selle," the boy called in a singsong voice, his arms laden with a basket that overflowed with lush blooms.
Christine motioned where they could be set, and after the boy left her alone again, she rushed for the card, lifting it out from between two large, purple flowers. It read, 'Good luck tonight, Christine. Regards, Raoul'. No words of love. No gushing sentiments. Only a kind thought.
Christine heard a small click behind her and flipped around with a huge smile in time to see Erik emerge from the mirror.
"What? No flowers?" she teased as his eyes hungrily trailed over every inch of her. "The Vicomte sent this exquisite arrangement."
A mischievous grin lit his lips and turning back to the open entrance to the catacombs, he drew forth an enormous bouquet of red roses.
"Oh, Erik!" she excitedly laughed, rushing to take them. She set them right beside her vanity where she would have a constant view and delicately traced the velvet petals of one flower. "They're beautiful!"
"Read the card."
Carefully parting the blooms to find it, she plucked it out and read the poetic lines aloud. " 'To my beloved Christine, the inspiration of my every note, the root of my every joy, my love, my muse, my soul. I love you'." Tears glinted and shimmered in her blue eyes as she tucked the card against the side of her mirror so that the words were openly displayed for anyone to see.
"You're beautiful," he told her, continuing to worship her with his eyes alone. The costume that he had chosen for her was as alluringly seductive as the opera itself. The bodice was made of black Spanish lace, the neckline dipping low to expose her creamy shoulders and a hint of the tops of her breasts. And the skirt was calf-length and coral with a high slit on one side that revealed an immodest glimpse of her thigh whenever she took a step. She was a siren, an absolute fantasy come to life, Erik's fantasy.
Christine could feel the heat from his penetrating eyes, causing a shiver to trail her skin, and she stuttered, "I…I thought I wouldn't see you before the show."
"I came to spark your imagination."
Erik raised his brows, blatantly suggestive, and plainly admitted, "I know that I am your muse during those passionate duets with Don Juan."
"I have ears all over the theatre; you should know that."
Christine remembered her innocent little admission to Meg of exactly such information, and she smiled with her own guilt. "Oh, that. Well, it is only natural that I would draw from my own experience to portray such emotions…. And besides that! You wrote the scene envisioning you and I acting it out!"
He shrugged innocently and quickly insisted, "This isn't about me at the moment. This is about preparing you." As he spoke, he closed the remaining distance between them and pulled her into his embrace with one hand while the other lifted off his mask.
When at last his mouth found hers, she was eagerly awaiting his kiss, meeting his fervency. Her arms weaved around him, her fingers slipping into the hair above the nape of his neck, and she arched her body into his, delighted when he moaned against her lips. His tongue just barely invaded her mouth, just a taste, his hands trailing up the slit of her skirt over the curve of her hip and brushing over the fullness of one breast. Then all at once, he pulled back.
She gave him a disappointed pout, and with satisfaction in his voice, he declared, "I think that will suffice for now." While he still had her in his arms, he added, "Make them bow to you. You are exquisite."
With those words and a grazing of his lips over her forehead, Erik disappeared back through the mirror, leaving her with a mixture of desire and determination.
The instant that the opening chords to the overture resounded through the crowded theatre, a rush of excitement coursed through Christine's body.
The first two acts went by flawlessly, scenes moving by rapidly so that each moment got lost in the next. By the time the curtain opened on the third act, she could hardly comprehend where Acts One and Two had gone.
Offstage awaiting her entrance, Christine was mentally preparing herself for the scene. So far, she was pleased with her performance. She knew Erik would be proud of her, …and yet no matter how many times she nonchalantly glanced up at Box 5 expecting to see his shadow, she found nothing but empty seats. The only person she caught sight of and recognized was Raoul from his own box on the opposite side, and he was beaming with the pride she was anticipating to see in Erik's eyes. Where was he? She wondered if he had simply chosen another place to watch from, perhaps still concerned over safety, and yet she had glimpsed no armed guards lurking about ready to shoot.
With a sigh, she had to force the thoughts away and attempt to focus. This was the scene of her duet with Don Juan.
Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she summoned forth a memory of the passionate kiss Erik had given her for inspiration, recalling the very sensation of his mouth on hers. Immediately, she felt desirous, sensual, and strong.
There was her cue. Retaining that feeling of power and desire, she walked onto the stage, singing her opening recitative. Her every step was deliberately slow, graceful as with a sweep of her skirt, she lowered herself onto a bench and awaited the entrance of her companion.
The moment seemed long and unnerving, and fighting to remain in character, she wondered what was taking Piangi so long for his entrance. Tossing her loose curls from side to side flirtatiously and swinging her feet, Christine attempted to cover her partner's lateness, humming the melody of her earlier aria as if this was all part of the scene. Glancing out, she caught sight of an enraged Reyer, starting to rise from his seat as the orchestra played Piangi's cue one more time.
Christine felt a presence entering the stage behind her, and relaxing with an inaudible sigh of relief, she tossed her curls again and played the coquette, slipping back into her fantasy of Erik.
And then Don Juan raised his voice in his opening line, and she froze, her blue eyes growing wide. Was that…? But it couldn't be…. She must have been so engrossed in her fantasy that she was hearing Erik's voice and not Piangi's anymore. That had to be the explanation. But then Don Juan began his recitative, and she shuddered with the swell of emotion that danced the length of her spine.
Erik…. She turned to her masked Don Juan, desperately trying to retain some semblance of character even as her gaze met the mismatched one staring from behind a black mask. Her initial questions fled as that beautiful voice weaved around her. It was him! Teasing her in his gaze alone, he reveled in her surprise as he sang the lines of temptation and desire in the exact manner as they had been written.
This was how it was supposed to be! Erik meditated. He himself on the stage with Christine, singing words written solely for her. The passion in his voice and his eyes at that moment was not the inspiration of a character he was playing; it was his own, and it was real.
Erik's voice glided over his last line of recitative and slipped right into the melody of his inspired duet. As he encircled Christine, she turned and followed him with her eyes, unable to look away.
That voice! She could not control the things it caused her to feel, and she didn't want to. It was so true and genuine. Half-mesmerized, she rose, anticipating his approach before he even began to close the gap between them.
Erik reached for her, and capturing her waist in his hands, he guided her to stand before him, singing over her shoulder. She shivered, and savouring her every reaction, he purposely drew her flush against him so that she would be able to feel the desperate ache of his desire as his chilled fingers teasingly grazed her collarbone. Over and onward along the low cut trim of her bodice, and she closed her eyes and sighed delight.
Nothing else mattered or existed in that moment, not the audience or the opera. Everyone watching perceived it all to be an exquisitely acted scene, too ignorant to notice the new Don Juan and too naïve to believe that what they saw was real. The only one to recognize the truth was the Vicomte de Chagny watching in his box with a mixture of disgust and horror, and yet he never turned away.
Erik's hand made a path along the side of her bodice, tracing the curve of her hip and then splaying across her stomach. Only she could hear the telltale edge of hoarseness in his beautiful voice that revealed exactly how much he was truly being affected and how deeply desire actually ran. Gently releasing her and coming alongside, he caught her hand in his, and as his final note faded out into the theatre, he lifted it to his lips to press a fervent kiss against the raging pulse of her wrist.
It was her turn, her turn to sing, her turn to seduce. A devilishly wicked smile lit her lips as she realized that she now held all of the power, that she could seduce him exactly as she liked. …She could do whatever she wanted; he was hers.
The orchestra gave her a chord, and she began to sing as her eyes provocatively trailed over the muscles and planes of his body before daring to meet his gaze, her intentions clear.
Very gently, she pushed him to sit on the bench and trailed her fingertips across his chest as she stepped behind. Her palms momentarily set atop his shoulders, long enough to cause him to wonder over her intentions. Then slowly, she slid them down his torso, moving lower and lower until he deliberately caught them, entwining his fingers with hers, as she felt every harsh breath he was taking into starved lungs.
Erik kept her hands captive for only a second more before she yanked free and stepped away, meeting his eye with a look of utter amusement that drove him to insanity and nearly made him chuckle aloud as he rose on unsteady legs and followed her.
A great swell raced through the violins. He raised his voice to join hers in that fervent duet, and with the urgent need to touch in two strides, they came together, finding each other as they sang. Faces were only a breath away, voices entwining and soaring through the theatre in the most beautiful sound, heavenly and ethereal. Their final note echoed up to the rafters and died away, but emotion crackled and remained like a tangible thing, a curtain that enshrouded them both in its brilliance.
Erik stared at Christine with absolute wonder, and then in a voice that was tender and soft, he began to sing something unscripted as the orchestra stopped playing in muddled confusion.
Christine felt tears prick her eyes. He was singing words of love, poetry, and as he continued, his hand drew forth from his pocket a ring whose diamond caught and shimmered beneath the stage lights. His beautiful song gradually became a proposal, and he offered the ring with a hesitant trepidation, even as she smiled and let the tears cascade down her cheeks.
"Christine, I love you…" Erik sang with that angel's voice, tears sparkling in the corners of his own eyes.
He had stopped singing; she only half-noticed that his song was over, and he was awaiting her answer. While he still held the ring out to her, smiling with her own love and a sense of reassurance, her hand slowly extended to his mask.
Erik didn't stop her. He could have; her actions were deliberately slow, asking permission, giving him the opportunity to object. But he didn't take it. He knew her intentions, and he allowed them with an odd curiosity, allowed himself to be stripped in front of a full opera house.
Christine calmly curled her fingers around the edge of the black mask and lifted it away, tossing it needlessly to the floor and exposing the tattered details of his ravaged face. A gasp could be heard in the audience, a collective sound of suffocated shock and a few random cries of horror, but no one moved or dared to turn away.
Only Christine was unaffected, her smile and teary expression unchanged, and while Erik heard the audience's reaction, a reaction he was well accustomed to, he never once took his eyes from Christine's, never once knew shame or the inevitable rage it brought. He knew only her love.
"I love you," she said, and though she spoke softly, her voice carried out to everyone watching. "I've always loved you, and I always will. In my eyes, you are beautiful, Erik, the most beautiful man I've ever known."
"Christine," he breathed as his tears coursed over his scarred face.
Amidst her own tears, she brushed trembling caresses to his cheek as she replied, "Yes, Erik, I will be your wife."
And he kissed her as if sealing the vow, his lips needing and finding hers with a desperate urgency that whispered forever.
Their display drew a confused response from their spying audience. A few applauded, perhaps believing it to be part of the show, and as others mumbled and followed suit, some smiled in a tentative acceptance. Abhorrence and disgust would always be initial reactions, but emotions like that cowered in the face of love. One of the few yet somber was the Vicomte de Chagny; with his solemn expression and his broken heart, he silently left his box, slipping out before anyone even noticed he had gone.
Back onstage and blissfully oblivious to any of it, Erik drew his lips away with a laugh and teased lowly, "Hoyden."
Christine's girlish giggles echoed through the theatre, down every corridor and up to the rafters, and he couldn't help himself from pressing a playful kiss to the tip of her nose before catching her hand and entwining their fingers as he led her offstage.
Erik halted mid-step and quickly turned around to face his addressor. There, shifting back and forth a bit with apprehension, stood Meg.
The little ballerina gave him a tentative half-smile and hesitantly extended her hand. "I'm Meg…Meg Giry."
Erik was touched by her introduction, his voice momentarily failing him. Swallowing hard, he gently took her offered hand with his free one and replied in a choked voice, "I know who you are…. Please, call me Erik."
Meg's smile grew less wary and more genuine as she bobbed a quick curtsy to him and cast a flustered smile to Christine before scurrying off to join the other ballerinas. …It was a start.
"May we go home now?" Christine asked the man beside her, …her soon-to-be husband.
With a mischievous expression, he drew her into the shadows at the far end of the wing and before she even realized it, into one of his many passages.
As they began their descent through the catacombs to his home, Erik suddenly asked, "So do you think my opera had a successful premiere?"
She shrugged and laughed. "What was performed of it. You interrupted the performance."
"Yes, but I certainly surprised you. Have you not yet realized that you are far more important to me than anything else? Even music?"
"I'll remind you of that the next time you're composing." Christine's brow suddenly furrowed with deep thought. "How in the world did you get Piangi to go along with your plan and allow you to step in and play Don Juan?"
A nervous chuckle announced his guilt. "I wouldn't say he went along with it so much as I locked him in his dressing room and stole the role."
"You locked him in his dressing room?"
He nodded. "But don't worry. They'll find him easily enough. When I left, he was screaming curses in Italian and pounding hard enough to shake the door on its frame. Suffice to say, he wasn't too happy with confinement."
"I should think he wouldn't be." She couldn't help but laugh when she considered the pompous tenor pounding furiously on his locked door, shouting to be let out.
As they continued to walk, he suddenly declared, "You were wonderful tonight, absolutely brilliant. And I won't apologize for what I did to Piangi because singing with you on the stage was the most incredible experience of my life…. I had only ever dreamed such a thing…."
Christine turned to meet his eye in the darkness. "I adored every moment of it…."
"Pity there are no operas written for disfigured tenors in a mask."
With all of the knowledge of the world in her eyes, she predicted, "You'll write one, and then we will perform it together in your opera house."
She glimpsed the light of inspiration her prediction had ignited within him, and as he silently began to meditate on the idea, she laughed and scolded, "Remember that you said I was more important than anything else? Even music?"
"Oh yes, I'd nearly forgotten you were there," he teased back, and facing her, he abruptly drew her into his arms with a pacifying kiss to her forehead. "Tonight is ours, mon amour, and I mean to spend every moment of it making love to my soon-to-be wife."
"And you will! Everything else can wait till tomorrow."
"I love you, Christine," he breathed, reaching up to cradle her cheek in his palm. And then he dared to add, "Despite the fact that you are a perfect hoyden."
"What?" she shouted with mock indignation. "Ridiculous man! I ought to leave you right here and let you go home alone."
Before she could make good on her threat, he quickly bent and scooped her up, tossing her unceremoniously over his shoulder as she gave a cry of annoyance.
"I don't think so," Erik replied, playfully smacking her backside as he carried her onward. "I already have devilish plans for what I wish to do to you."
Oh no, he would not win! With a smile on her lips, she let her fingers yank his shirt from his pants and stretch beneath to find the cool skin of his back, trailing it temptingly.
Erik shuddered at her alluring touch, trying to keep control, but as her teasing fingers slipped beneath the waistband of his pants, he could take no more. Without a thought, he dragged her with him to the floor and began to cover her with kisses as she beamed in her triumph.
Her laughter carried down the dark corridors, bringing with it genuine happiness and a love so strong that it seemed to glow with a warm light. It was true love, the sort that never died, only grew, and on the wings of it, darkness no longer seemed dark and sadness no longer sad. And a face tortured and cursed for a lifetime, mangled and scarred, seemed beautiful.
Later that night with Christine asleep cuddled up beside him in his bed, for the first time in his life, Erik considered himself blessed and saved, no longer a disfigured monster with sin blackening his soul, but a loved man whose soul was healing under the power of Christine's love. With her heart in his care, he knew he could be a good man.
Smiling down at her, he pressed a gentle kiss to her smooth brow and let sleep take him away, knowing that his bliss had only just begun.