It's here! Everyone who has been patiently waiting for my Phantom collection to be published, I am thrilled to announce that it is now available! It's almost 500 pages of Phantom-y goodness! And it's just gorgeous! The link to order is posted on my profile as well as my website. Thank you to the people who have been encouraging this project. It was A LOT of work, but the final product makes it definitely worth it to hold it in my hands (and of course, kiss the cover! Who wouldn't?) If this idea is well received, it's entirely possibly I'll do a second volume. We'll see… Anyone coming to see me in Colorado in July, I will be selling and signing this book as well as "Opera Macabre" and "The Devil's Galley", or I also ship signed copies directly from me. Message me for more info.
This was a little something I wrote last week. A dear friend and fellow phan suggested a story including illness, and this is how I took it. Enjoy!
Oh, and to those of you who I have promised my dark story, I will be posting it soon enough! Don't think I've forgotten! :)
SUMMARY: An unfortunate event helps Christine find her angel again.
Erik was his usual stoic self that night as he came to get Christine for her lesson. Never a crack in a hard-shelled veneer to insist the countless minutes spent fantasizing her presence into existence. No, because that would have made him seem a case to be pitied when he longed to be so much more than that for her.
She was silent and solemn during their journey through the catacombs, staring distantly down at her every footfall by the dim light of his lantern, never fully regarding his companionship. He'd grown accustomed to this reserved demeanor from her. How he detested it every facet! It was a sharp disappointment when once he had been angel to her and practically an unnamed friend. Of course, he had lived his life without the pleasure of friendship to be able to define its stature, but in some doubtless vein, he knew he had been a friend to Christine, and yet once deceptions had been learned and snuffed out, he'd been dropped from the role. Now…well, what was he now? Teacher, certainly, and nothing more. Friend seemed a distant aspiration, as much so as angel, and enemy was more fitting. …Captor, perhaps. In her viewpoint, perhaps he was only a monster and his presence a burden to bear. He could never say when she kept thoughts and feelings behind brick walls and rarely let a single unconsidered word tiptoe its way through.
He abhorred her prim and proper façade, almost as much as the terrified repulsion he'd received the night she'd stripped him of his mask, but…disgust had an ending point. She could learn not to be disgusted; he was confident he could teach her, but only if she were willing to learn. He needed to find a way beyond her constructed perimeters; he was determined.
As they arrived at the underground house, he watched her steadily, reading innate responses when she would not speak their nuances. He saw contentment, quickly appearing and vanishing again as the fire in the hearth radiated warmth around them, and he cursed himself for never once considering the cold dampness of the catacombs on their treks back and forth between worlds. He was immune to such nuisances after so long, as if at some point, his natural body temperature had dropped to match the frigid air as the darkness embraced him as its own and re-sculpted his makeup. But she…she was a child of the light, and the world above wasn't nearly as harsh for fragile beings to endure.
"Christine…," he stammered and shuddered uncontrollably as her blue gaze finally focused upon him. She could sway him to anything she wanted with one look alone if it were the right one; just a glimpse of tenderness, and he knew he'd be nothing but a pile of clay she could mold in her hands to her whim, make something worth loving.
His pause and study made her shift uneasily on her feet, and he cursed his blatancy and feigned a returned haughtiness as he insisted, "The catacombs are no place for light gowns made of pretty materials. From now on when I come to get you, I expect you to be properly attired. A cloak, Christine. If you do not have a suiting one made of wool and thickly-lined, then I will acquire one for your use. I cannot tolerate you taking to illness because you cannot manage to dress appropriately for the conditions."
She cringed at his tone and muttered a quick, "Yes, ange," before ducking those eyes again from regard.
Erik berated himself with cruel intensity, laying blame where it truly should lie. He'd intended to seem like he cared, but it was so easy to command rather than drop pretenses and show her the truth.
Still enraged for reasons he refused to share, he snapped, "Come. We have much work to do tonight." And without another attempt at congeniality, he led the way to his music room.
Christine cast a hasty glance at his stiff back and rigid posture as she hurried behind. The almighty Opera Ghost about to bestow his genius upon her, and was she supposed to be grateful? When every other aspect between them was laden in skepticism and apprehension, it was difficult to take anything as a gift.
Her heart fluttered madly with an anxiety she refused to let him see. It had nearly halted its beat to be victim of his stare moments before, lingering in suspension for fear his temper would be aroused. One wrong word, one misstep on her part, and she knew how easy its embers could be stirred into a blazing inferno. Since the day she'd learned that angels only resided in heaven and her own was nothing but a pitiful man, she'd lived a word away from lighting the blaze. She felt as if he always teetered on the edge, and if she gave but the smallest nudge, he would fall into a lava pit of rage and wrath. When murder was a reality in the Opera Ghost's hands, she was desperate to keep tugging in the opposite direction.
Erik was already seated at the piano, pounding out chords for her vocalises as she rushed into a proper posture and attempted a breath. She was supposed to be calm and relaxed when singing, opening all the space inside with a slow, deep inhalation. But she felt so nervous to meet his grueling demands and expectations that she gasped a shallow gulp of air and tried to catch up.
"Christine!" he nearly shouted, halting the exercise and glaring at her. "What was that? A timid mouse's squeak when I want a lion's roar! If you are not going to concentrate and work, then I do not see a point wasting my time-"
"Wait, no, I'm sorry," she quickly appeased, leaning against the bow of the piano. For the first time, she did not hesitate to meet his glaring mismatched stare and offer every apology necessary. "Please, ange. Let's start again. I will do better; I promise."
And why such extreme lengths when half of her hated the man in the mask scowling at her and always ready to break to his wrath? Because he could insult and yell, shatter her spirit at his will, and beneath it all, she would remain dedicated. The music… For its brilliance, she endured the rest of the damaged package. Nothing made her feel the way she did when she sang for him and surpassed her potential. He was strict and sometimes cruel, but he was a good teacher. He drew sounds out of her that she'd never known she could make, pushing her to greatness when before his guidance, she'd floundered at mediocre. So he could be the most heinous creature in existence, but if music were his one redeeming point, she would bow and beg and do whatever she must to keep it as hers.
"All right, again," he brusquely conceded with a firm nod that insisted his authority. Striking another series of chords, he played the exercise, and this time she closed her eyes and willed a deep breath. Make him proud, her inner voice commanded as if her existence depended on that very thing.
Erik watched her with a shrewd, musician's eye, searching for faults, but after the first faltered exercise, she kept technique as he went from one vocalise to the next. Her blue eyes stayed closed, and for the moment, he allowed it without contest. It gave him the chance to study her without fear of judgment; he grasped the moment with both hands. She was just so beautiful. She never realized how much, still too young and shy to understand the effect her innocent exquisiteness could have on a man. Flawless, pale skin that looked so soft to the touch… His fingers beat the piano's keys harder to deny the sudden tingle of every pad with the mere idea of touching and feeling skin. He had an urge to punish himself for the thought alone.
And it only cascaded out of control as he took in dark curls, bound back except for stray tendrils that framed her features, stirring with the motion of her breaths and ruffling upon the air. How he ached to brush through their silken coils and re-twist them into new shapes! Her curls always reminded him of china dolls, for surely, they were too perfectly spun to be real. The perfect, little doll. It was half misconception and half actuality. Because standing before him, pouring life into every note past her lips was a woman. It was almost easy to denounce that fact in favor of spoiling her like a little girl and buying affection as one would a child. She was no child. He'd had to remind himself that all the trinkets in the world could not buy her love. Perhaps if he was a handsome man on the scale of her Vicomte, he could take that route, but for her heart, he knew the key was in the music. She could not live without the music, …without him. It gave him hope that this woman before him could learn to love a monster and be his forever.
Her eyes were still closed, crescent lashes resting delicately upon her cheekbones, and he finally could endure it no longer. It felt like his guiding star had gone away. Ending their current exercise, he abruptly ordered, "Open your eyes, Christine, or is it only so much easier to suffer my presence when you don't have to see it? Perhaps you disregard your fallen angel and only recall the music, but when I have your voice surrounding me from every angle, I cannot forget or depreciate your company. You should not be allowed to forget me. It's rather rude of you to dare."
She obeyed, and blue depths showed a sting of hurt he had not expected. "I haven't forgotten your presence, ange."
"Good, nor will you. Look straight at me. No more ducked head or lowered stares. You sever your tone when you tilt your chin." Orders, more commands, and they made a viable case when the underlying truth was that he simply longed for her to regard him. This way seemed less pathetic than telling her so.
She nodded and held his gaze, but her expression was solemnly set again. No smiles… Never anymore smiles. An angel had been gifted such blessings from her beautiful lips. He was never that fortunate.
"Good. Let's begin our repertoire."
For the next hour, they worked, and Christine never felt more comfortable in his presence than when a score was open in front of her. She could meet his constant stare only periodically with an excuse of not yet being memorized, and though she felt the power of his penetrating observation, she didn't have to spend every second lost in blues and greens.
She never hesitated to give him everything in the music; she was only herself then. No walls or facades of somber solemnity. She let her soul shine by choice and free will and radiate out of her like a beacon. Music was rooted so deeply in her core that it was impossible not to love her once-angel a little bit when lost in its sphere. He drew it from her; he was her inspiration; he had the power to overwhelm her in notes and melodies.
And she didn't miss days when he'd been the voice calling to her from a fabricated heaven when it was almost better to see his reactions. She'd learned what pride looked like with a mask to mute its true depth. It had taken her time to decipher it; he was not the sort of teacher to fill her ears with praise and compliment, so she had had to trust her instincts, watching him with close attention through her arias and cadenzas, feeling a piece and believing its execution flawless and then studying his eyes for a reflection of her internal musings. She'd learned what little flicker in mismatched colors meant adoration and equally what flicker meant disappointment. Reading Erik was more difficult than any undertaken challenge, but she was certain she had figured him out…at least when a piano and score sat between them.
As she finished her aria on a brilliant high note, she scanned him for the praise he wouldn't speak and was content to find that yearned-for flicker, especially as he slammed his score shut and listed only faults instead.
"You barely made the phrasing at the start of the B section; a bigger breath needs to be taken lest you push the tempo to make the end of the line. I might be willing to follow, but an entire orchestra will not be as accommodating to frequent shifts because of poor breath control. Not even a diva is allowed such concessions whenever she chooses. And round your 'ah' vowel on the top; I don't know how many times I must tell you, and still you spread the high note."
She endured his comments and stifled a smile that almost appeared. A smile! She wasn't supposed to share smiles with a murderer, but her teacher… Well, that natural impulse of uplifted lips had a root in exhilaration. Because every one of his critiques trembled in the constant golden tone of his voice. More feeble signs of his true pride.
"Yes, ange," she dutifully replied and lowered her gaze when her lips nearly betrayed her.
Staring anxiously at the top of her dark head, Erik cursed himself for his sharpness and quickly grew silent and somber. Making her uncomfortable again, causing more fright. …Why was it just so preferred to keep a façade and bury his true feelings behind it? Her aria had moved him so deeply, nearly inspiring tears to his eyes in her extraordinary rendition, but rather than tell her so, he'd chosen to tear her apart with criticism. Was it any wonder she could not learn to surpass fear and disgust? He was the very monster he didn't want her to see.
Fumbling for something to say in a desperation to mend broken threads, he stammered, "You…have been working hard; I can tell. Ever devoted to your music…" It was meant to seem an accolade, but his idle consideration brought a new path of thought. Devoted… "You came straightway from rehearsals to meet me tonight, didn't you, Christine? No random conversations or dallying with acquaintances?"
Her gaze shot up to his at the insinuation, and she quickly bid, "Of course not. The instant I was dismissed, I hurried to my dressing room."
Erik eyed her suspiciously, searching for a lie. He had no proof. She could have stolen away a few spare seconds, long enough to offer his supposed devotion to her gallant Vicomte instead, perhaps sealing it with kisses… The images built one upon another in his addled head, spinning new tales where she vowed love to her milksop Vicomte and pressed sweet kisses to his perfect lips while Erik foolishly awaited her behind her mirror glass. Two minutes out of his watch, and she must have known that was the opportune chance for a hasty embrace…
He heard her anxiousness and wondered how much of his fantasy shown upon his masked face. Perhaps she saw his rising temper; anger without real impetus, and it was unjust to take it out upon her when his mind was his real enemy.
"Yes, Christine?" he tightly replied and tried desperately to focus on the valid facts. She wasn't with her Vicomte now, was she? And this wasn't another figment of her staring at him, another conjured work of fiction because fictional Christine wasn't afraid, …and he saw fear.
Cursing beneath his breath, he chose a new approach. "If, as you say, you came straight to meet me, then you haven't eaten since lunch. You must be famished…" Another lead into a sought after lie. And did she have awaiting supper plans? Was the Vicomte simply being patient for her presence, ready to steal every second of her time once she finished with her lesson, to whisk her away as if at the finale to a fairytale story?
"Oh…," she stammered, and he huffed with the assumption that he was right. "I suppose…"
"And how rude of me not to have offered you sustenance!" he gushed and feigned amiability that was laced in too much sarcasm to be genuine. "I can often forget that guests have needs. It is so very uncommon for me to have any sort of company. You must forgive my social faux pas. Ah well, I will remedy my impropriety immediately. Come, sit in the dining room, and I will prepare something for you."
"That isn't necessary-"
"I insist. You will stay to supper. I cannot fathom continuing my brutish behavior and returning you above hungry."
Christine shifted uncomfortably on her feet at the piercing intensity of his disconcerting stare. One blue eye, one green, and together they did not blend and compliment in their vibrant hues. They clashed like mismatched articles of clothing and were yet another abnormality for a man sculpted in them. And yet for their contrasting details, they both bore the same sharpness, power no matter the color of its weapon. A biting glare in two different halves and tearing viciously into her without reason. He created guilt within her, though she could find no source of regret.
He was on his feet, approaching in rushed steps, and she couldn't help but stagger backwards before forcing herself to keep still. Defiance was beyond her capabilities, so she could not square shoulders and retain a strong posture, trembling though he gave no definite threat. But her memory filled with hazy visions of a disfigured face laden in rage, being victim to his wrath as she'd crumbled dreams of angels. The emotions connected to that night were more vivid than the pictures; they still stung so raw and forced a necessary guard to be raised, making her hate herself for humoring his humanity when he'd been in the role of teacher. …She'd almost given him a smile.
Rooting her legs to their spot, she let him close the gap between, staring through wide eyes that whispered her trepidations. He was not a man of garish build, no wide shoulders or muscled physique like the Vicomte, and yet his aura exceeded a mortal makeup, danger carried in his very presence and radiating beyond the limits of a single man. It engulfed her in its essence and made her sway and fight not to cower and crack beneath its intangible weight.
"Come," he commanded curtly, giving her no room for protest, and as she watched with flustered nerves, he extended a hand as if to touch her. That appendage was so confident and sure of itself when it played music, but now as it reached toward her, she saw it wobble and shiver with his obvious uncertainty.
Erik forced his fingers to be taut and rigid, praying that would cease their infernal quivering. Damn that telltale sign! It made him look so weak! He wanted to take her hand; that was his intent, but his fingers were uncovered and exposed, and he had a faint consideration that such a contact of skin to skin would disgust her. Oh God, he couldn't bear to see revulsion upon her face again!
Quickly changing his mind, he bent his elbow, offering an arm like a gentleman instead, but that idea met the same hesitations. Surely her Vicomte offered his arm when they were together; surely she'd shared such a pose with him, and it would be done without the timid fear he caught in hints in her constant blue stare. Men with perfect features were allowed to act ordinary, but he… No, when he tried, he got suspicion in return.
With a soft huff of annoyance, Erik suddenly averted his endeavor altogether, jerking his hand back to his side and fisting its fingers until the nails drove into his palms as punishment for wanting. He should know better than to want!
"This way," he forced himself to speak and avoided her gaze, turning abruptly and stalking into a narrow corridor toward the dining room. He felt…awkward; every detail left him unsettled and restless in his own home. This was his sanctuary; he was supposed to be in charge and in control in this setting beyond any other, and here he was, seeming like a schoolboy with his first crush, terrified to push too much and equally not to push hard enough. Oh, what was wrong with him! This girl turned him into a pathetic fool!
Christine's footsteps whispered with the motion of her skirts, and he peeked back over his shoulder, relieved to find her eyes lowered. If she'd found him stealing glances at her… Dear God, more pathetic yet! But the disadvantage to lowered eyes was that he could not gauge her reaction. She couldn't understand that at the heart of his seemingly bizarre behavior was merely a wish for her presence, a fantasy of dining with her like a real gentleman, and inevitably, a desire to keep her under his watch. No supper with the Vicomte, not tonight. Now there would be no chance of that, not if she stayed a little longer as his.
The dining room was nothing beyond a pretty showpiece. He'd never even sat at its long, handcrafted table with its thick, ornate legs. Why would he choose to remind himself that he was alone by pretending to act as normal people did? But with Christine in its walls, …perhaps normal wasn't such a farfetched dream.
"Sit…please sit," he stuttered and cursed the high pitch of desperation at the end of his tone, half afraid she'd remember to refuse and run instead. Why could he not seem to discredit his paranoia? …Perhaps because the blue eyes lifted to his were fringed in doubts. Paranoia seemed to have merit. "Let me just…get you something to eat."
And that was his excuse to flee the only person he longed to share the air with, but when anxiety was as heavy as longing, space felt necessary. …And besides, he needed every second to rummage an un-stocked kitchen and concoct something edible. He certainly hadn't planned for a guest…
Christine watched him go, befuddled by his jittery steps and flustered temperament. She was accustomed to the manner in which he buried weakness with temper as his shield, but this… It felt vulnerable simply to observe it. But…it wasn't a persona worthy of fear. There was something strangely endearing about it.
Scanning the lavish room and its corners, she drew out a high-backed chair from its pristine placement and took a seat, setting her fingertips to the smooth wood of the table. She'd never explored this room before. It had the qualities of affluence and yet none of the coldness that was typically attached to too much money. The dark wallpaper and thick carpet ignited warm feelings instead. It felt like…home.
Supper with the Opera Ghost… The concept was disturbing at its core, but living it was uncomfortable more than anything else. Christine poked at the food he'd prepared, wishing she could appreciate it for its deliciousness but too focused on her companion to pay attention.
He didn't eat. No, he sat beside her at the head of the table, silent and reserved, staring at her every unendurable second as if memorizing each miniscule motion she made with those mismatched eyes. It left her to shift inelegantly in her seat and be overly conscious of every bite she took, every time she chewed, every time she swallowed. Eating normally did not hold such focus; it was such an overdone task. Eating with Erik as her strangely-rapt audience, however, felt like she was on display, an exhibit for his viewing fascination. She wanted to command that he stop and call such behavior rude, but in the little time they'd spent together face to face, she'd noted that whenever a circumstance came up that required an amount of etiquette, he was entirely ignorant. He didn't know what he did was improper, and she was doubtless that if she tried to tell him, his temper would lash out first and foremost. …Better to endure the staring instead.
Desperate for anything to break her unease, Christine swallowed hard, sure she'd barely chewed that bite, and weakly offered, "This is wonderful. …Thank you for supper."
"Of course," he replied distantly, his masked face tilting to the side in his continued scrutiny. "It was impolite of me not to offer you something. You are a guest after all, and is it not standard social custom to anticipate a guest's wants and needs? I can't believe I never considered it before."
His tone reminded her why she avoided conversations that were not about notes on a page. He could turn anything into a seeming insult, as if somewhere in simple sentences, he also cursed that society existed and he wasn't a part of it. When he had been angel to her, he was only ever gentle. Perhaps that was surmised from her side of a two-way mirror and she'd simply wanted to believe so much that she'd never noticed the subtle clues the real Erik always gave to his life's misfortunes. But now…he could speak of a lack of knowledge in social convention, but it was as if he mocked the concept as a whole with underlying cynicism, insulting the very world she lived in and only half-realizing it.
Christine pondered staying silent after that attempt, but he was still studying so intent, leaning back in his chair as if interpreting from every angle and distance. She could barely tolerate it, so she hastily asked, "Wouldn't you like something to eat as well?"
Mismatched eyes briefly narrowed on her, and she felt spite before it ever left his lips. "Ah, another societal custom. I should be eating with you. Isn't that so? Because society prefers to do everything in tandem…" He paused and seemed to truly ponder the idea, and she wondered for half a second if he'd accept and perhaps appreciate the suggestion. But slowly shaking his head, he contended, "But proper society can also sit and eat without wearing masks to the table, so I suppose that excuses me from joining you. For you see, I have a mask, and masks…well, they get in the way of typical mundane activities: eating, drinking, sleeping. They can be a burden and a nuisance and therefore must be removed, and seeing as how I don't think you'd retain much of an appetite to eat your meal with a corpse sitting beside you, I will refrain from joining you."
Christine cursed her own thoughtlessness. His biting glare made it seem she'd made her suggestion purposely to be cruel when in truth, she hadn't considered the details. But a meek glance at his mask showed his words to be valid as she observed the close fit to his jaw-line on one side. Perhaps that explained his peculiar fascination with her eating process. When he couldn't do it himself in the typical fashion, what seemed commonplace would be strangely new.
And what could she say in return when apologies felt trite and underrated? Better to stay quiet and finish quickly. She was impatient for every bit of this awkward encounter to be over. Walls existed between teacher and student for a reason; she was suddenly eager never to tap on them again.
Leaning close along the shiny tabletop, Erik examined her suddenly lowered head and quick bites. She was so beautiful, every movement she made, every detail of her. He couldn't find enough to satisfy himself. He longed to spend eternity soaking up her every nuance, learning her as one learned a hobby or talent. She would be his subject of choice, and he'd absorb everything until he knew her soul and mind as well as he knew his own and could read her inside and out like a riveting novel. He ached to decipher the script written upon her heart, the musings of her inner dreams, to be able to think like her, feel like her, live like her. Lingering sense dubbed this an obsession, but he preferred to think of it as loving her to the full extent of the word. Loving as no one in existence had ever loved before.
And he'd teach her to love the same. Right now, she pinned love on handsome features and flawless perfection, but she was young and still vain, selfish in her own right. She would see that Vicomtes with titles and good looks could only love as far as their pocketbooks reached. Would her precious Vicomte love her so much that he'd want to study every detail? From the tiny, curved bone of her wrist, which kept drawing Erik's focus every time she lifted her spoon, to the way her lips touched its silver side, dainty and sensual at the same time. Her Vicomte wouldn't be intoxicated by anything beyond her pretty exterior. He was unworthy to know these instances because he'd never appreciate them for what blessings they were.
Desperate for a million more to call his, Erik suddenly bid, "I realize this is not what you are accustomed to for your daily suppers, but if my presence is tolerable, perhaps this could become a permanent situation."
Blue eyes darted up to his, and to his annoyance, the spoon slipped from her grasp and struck the porcelain plate with a loud, ugly clank. "What…do you mean?"
"Well," he nearly snapped, "you need to eat supper, and our lessons keep you past a decent hour. From now on, I shall be more mindful of your welfare, and you shall dine with me once we have finished your music."
It was a command because the idea of requesting and enticing a possible refusal was unfathomable, especially when a wide stare and a new tremble insisted what her answer would be. But he pushed with a sudden spark of irritation. "Doesn't that please you, Christine? Or do you frequently have supper plans scheduled for the instant you return to your world? By your own words, you are devoted to the music, but do you often gallivant about the city after we have finished our time together? It hardly speaks a word to your supposed devotion if you are chancing exhaustion by cavorting about with your comrades when you should be silent and restful after a day of extraneous practicing. So tell me. Is that the case? What do you typically do as soon as you are beyond my ever-protective guard?"
Christine shifted idly in her chair, and Erik saw it as guilt. Proof. So it wasn't just a masochistic fantasy to envision her off laughing and dining with her dear Vicomte the instant she was released from the dark catacombs, was it? His sweet, little Christine was not as innocent as she made out, and wasn't he a fool to put her on such a pedestal?
"I…I don't know what you mean," she stammered, fisting shaking hands beside her plate. "I do all you ask of me. I am devoted to the music."
"Only until the lights go out, it seems," he retorted. "And then…well, I cannot say. Once you are out of the opera house, how can I know how devoted you stay? Do you return straightway to your apartment, or is it another societal custom I am unaware of to spend evenings out amongst friends and strangers? Having supper together? Talking? Laughing? You see, I am no connoisseur of proper behavior. Enlighten me."
Her brow furrowed in deep lines, but shaking her head, she admitted, "Sometimes I meet the girls from the ballet if it's early. They always go to the same café for supper and invite me, but most of the time, I am here for my lesson, …and that is all. They know I stay behind to work, but they ask anyway. They mean to be polite."
Erik sought any words she did not say, but unable to find a spot of blame, he bluntly asked, "And the Vicomte? Is he part of your supper party? Or does he only prefer to take you out alone?"
"Raoul?" she demanded with a confused shake of her head that made dark curls sway and capture his eye. "No, of course not. He…he's asked me, but I'm always here with you. I refuse every time."
He wanted to believe her, and maybe she did speak true, for he could find no evidence of deception. But still… The Vicomte asked, and that was enough to ignite his anger. "And now you'll have valid reason to refuse. From now on, you will dine with me after your lesson. Do you understand? And if the Vicomte keeps asking and insisting, you may tell him that your supper companion would not appreciate knowing another man was propositioning you. You are taken as far as he is concerned. Is that clear?"
She cringed with a hurt that stung Erik in its retaliation, but shrinking back in her seat, she nodded her head dutifully and looked away. He hated himself for the pain he could cause her. How he longed to ask for such blessings like an ordinary man! To request her company as her Vicomte could and make it seem just so normal! But…she'd refuse when an option was posed; he had no doubt of that. Why choose to remain underground, secluded from the world when life was set at her fingertips? So instead he made his very presence seem a punishment…
And what now? He had an unqualified fear growing and taking root that he'd bring her back above now that their disappointing supper was over, and she'd run straight to her Vicomte, tell him everything, seek a way to rid herself of an Opera Ghost and his affections forever. No… He couldn't let her go yet.
"Christine," he abruptly insisted, "it is late, and…I am too weary to return you above tonight. You shall stay here."
"Here?" she murmured with a shiver she could not deny. Here in his home with him far away from any other human beings, far away from her life. She longed to deny him, but he'd left her no choice. When she only possessed a vague notion of the catacombs' layout, she couldn't consider going through the darkness alone.
"Yes, you've a room down the hall. Do you recall it? It is designed for your use after all. What other guest would I possibly have down here? I made it ready for nights like this in case we ended late. It wouldn't be feasible for me to bring you above and let you walk home alone through the city in the dark. This…is a much better idea."
Her room… She'd been in its walls only once, that first night he'd brought her below still calling himself an angel. Since then…well, she'd preferred not to think about a bedroom underground obviously made for her. It left her certain a day would come when he'd finally lock her below like a nightingale in a cage. After all, the cage was ready; he'd just said so, ready for her use… Was this to be the day she lost her freedom for good?
"Go on," he ordered in an inarguable tone. "You will find everything you need at your fingertips. …You look at me with such doubt!" he accused without sway. "Lock the door if you fear your teacher and his rampant desires. My God, Christine, I never lay a hand on you, and you make me feel as guilty as the devil in hell! …Get out. Go to your room. I cannot abide your blame as well as your suspicion. I have done nothing to deserve it, save request your company. I may not be versed in proper behavior by society's standards, but I do know that you should be grateful for all I've done for you, all I've offered you, and not as callous and shallow as you choose to be. That is horridly rude of you!"
Rude… She'd considered rude as staring at her as she ate, but now… In some dismal way, he was right. He hadn't posed anything malicious, hadn't even been confident enough to take her hand earlier, and yet intuition still wanted to suspect the worst and pin it on him, to make him a monster with no more than his temper and face as proof. …Perhaps his words had some ounce of validity.
Rising on shaky knees from the table, she quietly bid, "I'm sorry… I'll stay. Thank you for the room and for taking care of me. I…" Words were as awkward as every other moment of this unsettled evening, and all she added with a soft breath was, "Goodnight, Erik."
Erik did not reply. He watched her avoid his gaze and abandon his presence, listening to retreating footsteps down the hall to the bedroom he'd meticulously arranged for her. A closed door was final, but…he did not hear the click of the lock. He wanted to dub that a minor victory but felt too much disappointment to delight in it. The rift between them was so large and stretching its barriers with every exchange; it seemed no matter what he did, he could not mend it. He didn't know how. It was as foreign in its steps as social skills. Everything he did was in an attempt to keep her, but none of it seemed to please her. And it sickened him to consider that perhaps there was no answer. Perhaps he was doomed to be nothing more than teacher to her, or worse yet, the Opera Ghost who'd once murdered her beloved angel. He wanted so much more; why was it so wrong for it to be his?
If she forgot that she was buried deep in the earth and treated it like the stars were only a wall away, Christine found that staying in her room wasn't so terrible a fate. Temporary, she kept insisting to her mind because she refused to dwell on this as a permanent situation. No, he had to take her back in the morning; he wouldn't want a rehearsal missed when they'd both gone to such efforts to mold her voice and make it bloom. He couldn't lock her below forever.
As long as she told herself that and tricked her mind into recalling stars and moon, she was able to set aside her anxiety and actually distinguish a few decent pleasures. She had grown used to poverty: her cold, sparsely-furnished apartment with its small, hard bed and shared bathroom at then end of the hall. To have luxury as hers was…odd but not intolerable.
Her room was large and decorated in peaches and pinks. Floral wallpaper, white wood furnishings, plush carpet. The bed was soft merely at first glance; she was strangely excited to slip beneath its covers and sleep. Adjoining was a private bathroom with a lovely porcelain tub that beckoned her to a hot bath, and although she had not locked her bedroom door, half to prove a point, she did lock the bathroom door. Vulnerably bare seemed worse than vulnerably asleep.
After her bath and dressing in a soft, white nightgown, she sat before the tall vanity's mirror and gazed idly at her reflection with the bedroom as her background setting. The image was strangely cozy. She could rewrite it into another make believe fantasy where she was a lady with such luxuries always as hers, …maybe a Vicomtesse, and this room was on the third floor of a mansion house with a balcony just past the far wall to let in fresh, night air and glimpses of starlight…
That was the preferred dream, and she devised its every nuance as she finally climbed into the deliciously soft bed and sought sleep. A Vicomtesse… That could be her future, and it was a far better one than dark catacombs and disfigured murderers. Its details followed her into unconsciousness.
But dreams somewhere along the way rewrote themselves into nightmares. She was lost in a field, wandering with no clear path to safety, …alone. She was terrified she'd never be found, and as tears poured down her cheeks, she cried for an angel to save her, to lift her in his strong arms and carry her home. But no answer came. Wind blew about, stirring her curls and making them dance. It grew bitter in its sting, encircling her body with ironclad arms and freezing her to her bones. She shivered and shook down every numbing limb. Oh God, so cold…
The quivering grew in intensity until its tremors rattled her out of dreamscape. As Christine awoke in her warm bed, she sought to push the nightmare away, to define fantasy and pluck the facets of reality to the forefront, but…the shaking hadn't stopped.
Confused and curious, she let her heavy eyes roam the room, its details shady in the dim flicker of dying lamplight. Everything was as remembered, and the clock on her bedside table read a late hour, not even past midnight, so why was she awake? …And why could she not seem to stop shivering?
Every muscle in her body convulsed in subtle pulsations, incessant and growing harsher. Not even flexing limbs or sitting up beneath the covers made her ailment cease. It terrified her because it was so far beyond control. She kept trying to make it stop, to rein her body back beneath her own power, but nothing made any impression and shivers continued.
Oh God, what was happening to her? Her head felt weighty as if her neck was not strong enough to keep it upright and balanced on its quivering column, and as her vision spun before her eyes, all she could think was that she needed her angel. Sense was a voice burrowed somewhere, hastily whispering that she had no angel, only an Opera Ghost, but her heart wouldn't listen. Her heart loved and trusted an angel still, and it gave her strength to push off covers that felt too heavy and climb out of bed.
As soon as the air hit her, she shook harder, teeth chattering and every breath gasped into fluttering lungs. Cold and hot at the same time, it seemed every usual level in her had gone haywire and was shifting up and down without rhyme or reason, leaving her to wobble on unsteady legs without clear thought to puncture through.
Christine staggered to the door and forced uncooperative fingers to turn its knob. Half a warning flickered to the surface. What if Erik had gone to bed? Would she truly creep into his bedroom uninvited and seek him out? …Perhaps if she just laid down again, this bizarre affliction would pass.
But as she lingered uncertain at the doorway, her body shuddered hard enough to make her head throb, and terrified tears filled her eyes with the answer she knew she had to make. Even if it meant going straight to his bedside, she would do it!
Thankfully, such drama was unnecessary and suffered in consideration alone. A warm glow from the sitting room at the end of the hall called to her, and with a rush of relief, she stumbled down the corridor on jellified knees, pressing one tremulous palm to the hard wall to keep standing.
"Erik…," she whimpered before she arrived at the threshold and heard an immediate fluster of motion.
Erik hadn't expected to hear from her again that night, but unable to relax in bed with her a door away, he'd taken to dozing in the sitting room. But her voice…weak and afraid as it called him… He was in the hallway, seeking her out without delay, and as he hurried to her, heart pounding like a frantic drumbeat in his chest, he caught her as she suddenly stumbled and lost her balance.
"Christine!" There was no time to consider awkwardness or uncertainty, the very real fact that he'd never touched her in such a way. His grip was strong as his arms collected her, a mess of shaking limbs and disheveled curls, and clutched her close to his chest. "What's wrong? What happened?"
She tilted her face up to meet his eye as if that miniscule motion took such great effort, and as he saw the tears staining her pink-tinted cheeks, he grew frantic and scanned her features for his answer. "I…can't stop shaking."
He could feel the tremors and the growing heat radiating from her body, and behind the mask, his mind was a vortex of thought, spinning madly through every medical tome he'd ever had his hands on. He recalled one that said the onset of a high fever could bring shivers and shakes, and to observe the pink hue of her usually pale skin, he chose that as a valid diagnosis.
Muttering a vile curse under his breath that she cringed to overhear, he quickly accused, "And this is what comes from traipsing about the catacombs without sufficient attire. I told you that you needed…"
Erik trailed off to see more tears flood her fear-filled blue eyes. If cold had been the cause, then he was as much to blame; better to take the guilt upon his shoulders when hers were so weak at the moment.
"Christine, …let me help you back to bed."
Before he could figure out the exact motions to go about such an endeavor, she abruptly met his gaze and whispered, "Ange, …I'm so scared."
His heart ached in his chest, and nodding, he could not voice an understanding for fear he'd match her tears instead. Scared…yes, he felt exactly that fear, clawing at his insides and only growing to suffer the extent of her shivers with her so close. Fear…, but she needed him to be strong and calm this time, not make it worse.
"Sshh, it's all right, Christine," he bid. It surprised him that making futile appeasements was more disconcerting than the idea of carrying her back to bed in his arms. Perhaps because words felt like unproven lies, and touch, though uncommon, felt like compassion.
Without another wasted second, Erik obeyed instinct and swept her off her trembling legs, cradling her meager weight against his heartbeat. Pressed so near, he could feel her fever, soaking through clothes and searing the surface of his skin, and never berating the impulse, he grazed a kiss to the damp crown of her head. It wasn't a true intimacy when a mask was an intrusion, but he felt desperate to give something that spoke tenderness. It was imperative when he was as terrified as she was.
Christine was softly crying, nuzzling her face against his heart and finding an odd sense of comfort in its metronome beat. As a man, she'd never considered him physically strong, but here he was carrying her as if she were a small child and caring. It astounded her when she connected that emotion solely with an angel, but its warm center eased the sharp edge of fear and made her sigh her contentment. Her angel would take care of her and protect her from harm. She had no doubt.
"Why can't I…stop shaking?" she weakly asked, unable to make more than a whisper.
"It feels like a fever," he replied, and she savored the vibration of his golden voice in his chest. It was a comfort because it felt so real.
"Fever…" The word broke through the haze in a heavy head, and tears suddenly collected anew as he lowered her back into bed with gentle arms. "No, no…"
"Christine, it will be all right."
"No…" She shook her head from side to side, every movement lethargic and difficult as her curls tangled atop her pillow and tears trickled into their mass.
"Sshh," he crooned, and as he pressed his palm to her forehead, hers suddenly darted out to catch it and keep it there.
"Your hands are cold."
"I'm sorry," Erik breathed and tried to pull away, but for all her weakness, her grip was adamant.
"No, no, don't stop touching me."
He wanted to cry simply to hear such words, denouncing the logic that insisted it was only because the skin beneath his hands was clammy and overheated. He favored a fantasy to reality, and though he trembled for his own reasons, ones that had nothing to do with illness, he brought his free hand to her face as well and cupped her tear-stained, pink cheeks between his palms. For once, his eternally cold skin was a strange blessing.
Christine closed her eyes and leaned up to his touch, and he couldn't help but adore her at that moment. She needed him… And despite every hardship before and every chasm between, she trusted him; he could feel it.
The tears were still tumbling from her curved lashes and wetting his fingers in their descent, and in the tender tones he'd once used in an ethereal lie, he breathed, "Don't cry, petite. Your angel will take care of you, and you will be fine."
Her lids lifted merely with the sound, and he saw hope appear and quickly vanish as her gaze settled on him. Perhaps she had truly believed her angel had returned, and it stung him to know he was a disappointment in comparison.
"Ange…" But she still whispered the word, and he shivered.
"Do you trust in me, Christine?" he blatantly asked and was humbled to receive another weak nod. "Then let me go and prepare something for you to take. A medication of sorts. It will help bring the fever down."
"No," she immediately moaned, but as he drew his hands free, she didn't have the strength to grab again. "Don't go."
"I will only be a minute."
"Please," she gasped, and the tears fell faster again. "Please don't let me die…"
Erik went numb, struck to the gut with the mere word. He hadn't considered anything so dire and drastic, but to see her near hysterics, her skin deepening its pink color, such a trauma made his heart hold in its constant beat.
"Die…," he repeated without sound. "Why would you say that? Why even think it? This is illness, not death."
"My papa was ill…"
A sob tore from her lips, her body moving restlessly on the mattress, and her heavy-lidded eyes seemed to focus in and out on his shape. He wasn't even sure she saw him anymore. …But an angel didn't need to be seen; he could be heard.
"Christine, this isn't the same thing. You're not going to die." He spoke with more certainty than he felt and put up a decent façade to suffer behind.
"That's what they told him, too," she revealed in another sob. "Please…I don't want to die…not yet. Please, Erik, please don't let me die."
For all her confusion of demons and angels, for that instant, he knew she saw him and only him, and he was so overwhelmed that he immediately caught her fevered face between his palms again and bent close to hold her eye.
"You will not die," he vowed and meant it. "I promise, Christine. I will not let death touch you. I will give my own life before I see anything happen to yours. No matter what I must do, even a vow with the devil himself, you will not die. Do you believe your Erik?"
"Yes," she replied with never a pause, and he was overwhelmed to bear her faith, brushing his fingertips along her hairline.
"Good," he breathed half to himself and then softer as the weight of responsibility sagged his tall posture. "Good… Then give me but a moment. I will return to you before you have time to realize I'm gone. All right?"
Her blue eyes held pleadings to stay even as she nodded, but he knew how imperative it was to get her fever down, especially when the skin beneath his palms was growing hotter with every passing second. One breath more in her presence and with a silent oath vowed in a stare, he hurried from the room, his hands carrying her burn upon their surface as he went.
Christine's gaze followed his shape until he disappeared through the doorway, and somewhere in a clouded head, she could swear that in his graceful movements, he flew… Ah yes, angels flew, and though she could not decipher his wings, she was doubtless he had them. How else would he travel from heaven down to this place so near the gates of hell?
As she shifted with restless muscles in her bed, she kept her mind focused on her angel. It felt like he had suddenly come for her, and her heart was full again. Perhaps Opera Ghost was as much a mask as the one he wore, and angel existed still beneath. Perhaps his temper and rages were all tests of her loyalty. It must be true. Because she had seen his eyes, and the love and compassion there had been like a window into the past. An angel had spoken with such emotions saturating every tone of his heavenly voice, and as a mortal man, such things had been stolen from her. Now…now she had them again and believed him when he said she wouldn't die. An angel would keep her safe from Death's ominous grasp and protect her soul. She repeated it over and over in her mind, and even as her body throbbed and ached and became her enemy, the words floated above every sensation, hovering like sunbeams on a cloud blanket, and they preserved her until he returned.
In a flurry of motion, she heard his approach. How uncharacteristic! She was accustomed to his stealth and skill, his ability to move inaudibly. Perhaps that trait was more ghost-like than angel, but as he rushed to her bedside, he was neither of those things. He was solely a mortal man, and the first emotion she glimpsed in his mismatched stare was fear.
"Ange…?" she whispered, but lacked tone. Where was her voice? A strange terror welled within her chest; if her voice were gone forever, would her angel leave her? "Please," she whispered on the verge of such thoughts.
"What is it, Christine?" he hastily bid, crouching at her bedside, and with only the slightest hesitation, one hand came to brush her brow. It was blissful! She arched toward that cool touch and lost a soundless sigh of delight.
"Don't leave me," she begged in whispers, and the hand caressed firmer and more sure.
Love… She reveled in the word. From an angel's lips, it was salvation.
The hand stayed at her brow, but a cup was brought to her mouth and touched delicately to its seam.
"Drink this," the angel commanded, and without question, she obeyed.
Erik had been so careful measuring herbs and ingredients, everything to exact precision. It was an old recipe learned from his days among the Gypsies. Natural medicine. It held fevers down and aided the fighting of illness. He was doubtless that it would work and diminish her temperature, but selfishly, he almost wished to linger at this place a bit longer. In her delirium, she made angel again; when the fever was gone, and she found awareness of truths that had never left, what then?
Though his heart contended its argument, he huffed concession to himself and tenderly gave her the entire draught. His sweet girl… Her cheeks were vibrant in their pink, her brow clammy and dampening the fine tendrils of curls that framed her face. Gentle, always gentle with her, he brought both hands into her thick, silken locks and lifted their added curtain of heat from the nape of her neck, spreading them on the pillow beside instead. He could not help but dwell on such touches when he'd never taken them before. Earlier, a touch had seemed an awkward endeavor and had been avoided. Now with her drifting in and out of reality and needing him in a way she never had, he did not allow his timid inexperience to shine through. He simply acted, and since it was for her well-being, he did not know regret.
Kneeling on the carpet at her level, Erik studied her in the dim glow of a single sconce, watching the rise and fall of her every breath with a sense of relief. As he inched closer until he could rest his chin upon the mattress, his mind laid blame for her bout of illness. This was his fault. He pushed her too hard and had been inconsiderate to her welfare. The cold of the catacombs, the damp and dark, he was used to such things; she was not. And how many nights had he subjected her to such brutal conditions, taking her from her world of warmth and light down into the depths? And his sweet Christine had never given a single complaint, not as he'd then worked her to exhaustion in her lessons and never even offered a proper supper. And to make it worse, he had indulged an undying hostility, never once considering the sacrifices she made to please him. …Dear God, he truly was a monster.
Christine's eyes fluttered open, and as she turned her head and observed his nearness, she suddenly moaned, "No, …no."
Jerking back from his place and yanking caressing hands away, he quickly pleaded, "I'm sorry…sorry." Well, of course. Even in unthreatening shadows, his mask was a beacon, and to turn and regard it so close… He couldn't blame her for his own bold actions. He should have kept away…
"Don't go," she begged again in whispers, and as he arched a skeptical brow, she sought a deep breath and weakly explained, "I…don't want to make you sick, too. …What if it's contagious?"
"Oh!" That was her worry? He almost laughed with lighthearted relief, and setting his chin back to her mattress' edge, he gushed, "I have no care about that! Make me sick! Give the illness to me. I'd rather take it and bear its struggles myself than have you suffer."
She remained gazing at him, so close that he was surprised she allowed him and showed no reluctance or disgust. Blue was a darker shade than usual in the mediocre light, and her sickness left her lids heavy like half-closed curtains. But she silently scrutinized his face and left him curious. The mask was so prevalent that he knew he could not lie and claim angel, but…she was not pushing him away.
"Are you…feeling any better?" he anxiously stammered.
"The shaking stopped," she reported, and he was surprised he hadn't noticed that himself, too focused on her features and reading their every nuance to realize.
Trembling and uncertain, he raised his hand again, and she only once lifted her stare to glimpse its approach, never recoiling as he brought it to her temple and stroked a tentative caress. She was still feverish and heated, but her eyes were less hazy and full of recognition. He was no angel crouching in supplication and adoration before her and could not lie and claim to be, and yet she acted as if it didn't matter and she saw a creature ethereal at his essence.
"Why do you look at me that way?" he reluctantly asked, and a touch that had been sure of itself in her delirium was now quivering and shy as he grazed her hairline and brow. "You seem as if it isn't a horror to have a masked man at your bedside?"
"It isn't," she whispered back. Every time she blinked, it seemed difficult to raise lids again. He knew that was a result of the medication; it would ease her to sleep, but…he was loath to lose this closeness so soon. Her lips were half-parted, her expression devoid of any unpleasant emotion; she just studied him and looked straightway into his soul.
Slow and unsure, her hand disentangled from her blanket; its motion was plagued with lingering quivers, not incessant but vividly showing weakness. It made a hesitant path in the air before finding the uncovered side of his face and imitating the caress he gave her.
An unbidden sigh fell from his lips, and despite the heated stickiness of her fevered skin, he reveled in bliss. A freely-given touch. It was gratitude and perhaps unrealized as she hovered in fever, but he'd never known such exquisite sensation.
"Christine," he breathed without sound and adored her in his gaze the way he used to when he'd watch her as her intangible angel. And why avoid the depth of his affections for so long? Why build walls and bury emotion under their bottom bricks? …Because he knew she loved an angel… And he knew Erik was a poor substitute for a heavenly being, hating himself for what he could never be when she deserved true angels on earth.
"I'm sorry," he told her as tears he could not fight rimmed his eyes.
"Why?" she softly bid, and her confusion creased her brow and made an indent his fingertip traced.
"You're sick, and it's my fault. Every bit of the past months, the lies I gave you to start, the truth I hated you to learn, everything is my fault."
She shook her head weakly against her pillow, her fingers steady and gentle on his cheek. "Why can't this be the truth?"
Yes, this. When he could look at her and show her a heart instead of a monster… He nodded and decided, "It can be. Christine, anything you wish."
Though he made vows, he wasn't sure she fully understood. Her eyes grew heavier; every shutting dallied before another opening until finally, she seemed to give up trying, and lids stayed barred to his entry. The hand at his cheek dropped limply upon the mattress, and in a sudden panic, he focused on her breaths again, proof of life still lived. In merely a second, she'd gone from so close to him to farther than ever before, and he could stroke her brow still and take touches, but they meant nothing without her there to notice.
"Christine…" He softly spoke her name, but she did not stir, and he had to resign himself to wait until she awoke again to have her as his.
Erik never left her bedside as night stretched to early morning. In a world above, the sun would be rising, a new day begun; underground, night lived on and would remain a stagnant progression until she was well.
He had never contemplated losing her this way. He'd pondered the heartache of watching the Vicomte take his desired place, losing her if she chose to run away with the perfect boy and his flawless features. That ending went against hope, but it was plausible. Illness was unfathomable, and yet this incident showed him that no matter how hard he held on, sometimes Fate jerked harder in the opposite corner and stole a winning hand. She was such a fragile, little thing. If Death wanted her for his collection, despite any vow Erik made, he wasn't sure he could save her. Perhaps the better vow was one to follow her through death's doorway if that was where she would go. At least that was a fate he could control.
He studied her for the millionth time that night, kneeling still at her bedside and terrified to leave for even a breath. The medication he'd given kept the fever from rising further, but it wasn't gone, not yet. Her body was fighting, and though he knew he was the stronger one between them, he could not step in and fight in her place.
Why had he wasted so much time with animosity as his weapon? Why had he not seen how delicate she was and how easy it would be to fail forever and have nothing even as he was desperate for everything? He should have been tender with her, built from the bottom again instead of holding grudges for his failures. He was determined that would be his new plan: to show her love if love was what he wanted in return.
As he fantasized details and a new situation where he asked for things he'd previously commanded, he noted the slight flutter of dark lashes.
"Christine…?" He spoke soft, terrified to ripple too much sound, and with an unexpected rush of nerves, he drew back and fisted yearning hands in his lap.
Blue met him, bright as the day sky he'd once denounced and hidden away from in spite. He had refused its color, and how ironic that she gave it back to him again.
No surprise appeared upon her face, no questions as she whispered in thick tones, "I dreamt of angels."
"And woke to demons," he reluctantly added before he could think better of it. "Perhaps you should return to dreamscape if that is where I exist as a blessing to you rather than a curse."
"You didn't leave me. I consider that a blessing." Christine saw how desperately he wanted to believe her, half-awed and half-skeptical, and keeping her cheek pressed to her pillow, she traced the manmade edges of his mask with her stare and then its smooth surface. It was almost effervescent in the dying candlelight, glowing in its stark, bright color and piercing the shadows he preferred to call home. It whispered his presence and couldn't let him hide completely away.
Broken fragments of memories flitted through her mind. Studying him the same before sleep had taken her away. Amazed by emotions he didn't typically show. Imagining the half of a face behind the mask… Angels were supposed to be beautiful and unearthly… In the haze of fever, she'd fantasized a perfect face for her angel, and though something inside said she should be disappointed that it hadn't changed reality, it was difficult when mismatched eyes showed such pure, unguarded emotions. He'd never looked at her like that before…
He seemed shaken with her continued scrutiny and leaned away further as he asked, "How do you feel?"
"Tired," she replied, unable to find the will to lift her head or try to sit. Movement seemed an exhausting feat. "…Have you stayed at my bedside all night?"
A nod, reluctant and hesitant, and when reason said she should be bothered with his watch, she didn't listen and simply held his gaze captive in hers, constant, unbreakable. The mismatched depths she'd earlier considered clashing in their vibrancy now called to mind the unexplored depths of the ocean, blue where the sun touched and green beneath the clouds. Together, they formed one portrait of brilliance.
"Tell me a story," she suddenly bid on an exhalation, afraid to shatter the intimate silence of the moment.
Erik considered her request and read fairytales in her eyes. He yearned to script his own. Once before he'd given her stories, angels in heaven, and now…the truth could be reality's fiction if devised properly.
"Do you believe in God, Christine?" he asked the question already knowing the answer, and though she nodded, he read doubts as she likely feared he'd spin more tales of angels. But angels were passé, and he preferred stylized honesty this time. "Well, God has a hand in creating every living thing on the planet. He molds them into being and shapes their details, and though we are all basically a standardized pattern, He prefers variations now and again, a little something different to add intrigue and flavor. He always starts with the soul. Blinding white and brilliant, but souls are a funny thing. They sometimes break into pairs; two from the same source whose essences mirror each other but are destined for separate bodies. When it happens that a soul has two parts, it seeks its match and is only too fortunate if it can be found. Sometimes souls must carry on alone and despondent their entire mortal existence, mourning something they don't even realize is truly missing."
Erik paused and delighted in her rapt attention. He was doubtless that she concluded the identity of the matching souls he wove into existence, but there was more to his story. He was about to build himself into her fairytale.
"When God creates, God likes to experiment and try novel ideas to see what could come. He once made a soul so effulgent and intense, filled to its outer edges with passion and talent, with an ability to love and feel in a way most mankind cannot imagine. As you can imagine, a soul that extraordinary was unstable and unpredictable, and laden to its every corner in too many facets, it split into two incomplete halves. God knew He had to work quickly and mold the perfect vessels for these two unique souls. But…He didn't have time to finish His task. One soul had a flawless home: beautiful and breathtaking as much on the outside as in. But the other…it saw its mate given life and put on earth and was impatient to go to her. God had a body constructed, the shape of a man, but as He was forming a face, the soul overcame and leapt out of the heavens after its match. It just longed to be with her so much. And that wanting, that pure yearning so fervent that it could spark sin as much as miracles, was the reason God never finished its creation. A face, half-formed and half-missing, literally smeared by God's working hands as it jumped from heaven's majesty. That utter impatience left what the rest of the prescribed mortal world would call ugly and hideous. The soul within, so big heaven couldn't even hold it, was a star unto itself, a beam of light and radiance, but…with an unacceptable package, it was condemned and spit upon. No one ever looked to glimpse its glory. …Except for one. Its matching half. He knew she would look. She'd see something ugly, but she would look deeper beyond the half-finished form and find the soul and know it was meant to be hers."
Erik grew quiet and lowered telling eyes, terrified he'd pushed too hard. When the truth was a horror story instead of a fairytale and he typically dubbed God cruel and heartless to have made him so damaged, a fabricated scenario of souls and love was a beautiful tragedy. A half-finished face of God's creation instead of one accidentally kissed by the devil. If only it were the truth!
"And?" Christine inquired when minutes elongated their seconds. "Would you say the soul found its match? Even if she could not accept and didn't seek the essence inside of him at first meeting?"
"Ah, but you are wrong," he gently chided, still not meeting her blue gaze. "She did. He first came to her as only a soul and did not let her see the ugliness that shamed him. And she knew somewhere in her heart of hearts that they were meant to be one. But…too many years among mortality and the ordinary had her second-guessing. She'd been told different was bad and could not look beyond her eyes. She loved the soul when the ugly face had not been attached, but once she saw the truth…" He shook a doubtful head. "It's a challenge for mankind to look with the eyes of the soul. To see soul to soul and ignore the package it is wrapped in. When perfection is considered beauty, is that any wonder?"
The despair in his tone stung her as she recalled her response to his face. He was right; it was abnormal and misshapen, and she'd made a choice that moment to stop seeing the angel she had once loved. What a fool she'd been! He'd spent an entire night at her side, keeping death at bay with his watch, gazing at her with emotions unguarded in his eyes and none of the walls her own rejections had built. Here was a soul, vulnerable and exposed beside her, and how trivial to make it worth no more than the damaged canvas outside!
"Erik…," she called, but he suddenly rose to his feet, shifting clumsily and refusing still to look at her.
"You are on the mend," he insisted, his hands fisting and unfisting at his sides as if they debated whether or not to touch. "Rest, Christine. I will go and make you something to eat. I have been flippant with your health lately, and for that, I am sorry. From now on, you will be better taken care of; I will not chance you taking ill again."
"Because of the opera?" she felt inclined to ask.
"No, because for all the romanticized fabrications I can concoct about God and His plans, in reality, He is merciless to those He has chosen to spite. I will not let God take you from me. He would rather send death to claim you than know you were in my presence, and I am determined to outwit Him and beat Him at His own game. I will not lose you as God's punishment."
"Rest," he quickly ordered again and rushed from the room before she could say more.
Her heart ached and throbbed against her ribcage with the extent of his pain, revealed so vividly for the first time. She'd had hints of it the night she'd taken his mask and seen his face, but now to learn just how cursed he believed he was… It hurt her because she considered him a blessing. Not the surly Opera Ghost who had always been a step from rage, but the angel and then the man who'd taken care of her and been as terrified to lose her as she was to leave him. That was the soul he'd earlier sugarcoated in poetry and fairytales; the story might have been imagined, but the essence was alive. And for the first time, she wanted it for her own.
Christine didn't remember returning to sleep, but at some point, dreams painted their illusions behind her eyes. They were more powerful than she was, and though, she felt Erik's presence in her room, she could not peel back their covering shroud until much later when strength felt more solid and anchored. Then grateful to return to awareness, she lifted dreams' curtain and found mismatched eyes staring from her bedside with emotion so blatant she almost considered it another dream.
She wanted to smile, to give him the smile she'd denied the previous night at her lesson. That smile should have been his, and she'd selfishly kept it. Now she was ready to make it a gift, but her attempt was weak when every muscle ached and refused to comply.
But perhaps even a lackluster appearance was enough because as she watched through hazy eyes, he lifted a hand that quivered in the air and timidly rested it against her brow. She lost her breath with first contact. Maybe it was because she was looking and seeing the soul as he'd requested in a fictional story; maybe because with the soul as her focus, every detail of him took on a new meaning as if transformed and altered. Hands she'd only admired when playing their glorious music were suddenly beautiful because they were his, and she wanted them upon her and every caress they could give. As an angel's, they'd soothed the pains of fever; now they were only a man's, and her skin heated anew for that detail alone.
"Barely a trace of fever left," he reported with an unhidden sense of relief, and she adored knowing that in spite of his brave façade, he'd worried over her. To her dismay, with that knowledge learned, he hesitantly took his hand away; she felt its branding imprint last seconds longer and clung to the sensation with eager urgency, hating the instant it faded for good.
"Is it late?" she asked in little more than a whisper as she tried to lift her head and glimpse her clock. Every muscle felt stiff and unyielding, and she gave up her endeavor with a huff.
"Just past noon."
"Rehearsal!" She tried again to sit up, but he caught her shoulders and made her relax. She obeyed with a mind too focused on touching hands to remember why they were upon her.
"Sshh," he instructed with gentle care. "I took care of everything. You are ill and excused from rehearsals by order of the Opera Ghost. No one will dare question, and though I know you do not favor such tactics, I will not apologize or regret. It would be absolutely ludicrous to have you lose your position when you have valid reason for absence."
No argument met him, and he was surprised. Not even disappointment when he'd expected at least a flicker of unconcealed disdain to play his unethical role of resident Ghost. But…her gaze shifted between his face and the hands he still idly rested upon her shoulders, and…there was no derision for a touch either. No, he noted the way she traced the lengths of his fingers in her stare, and though he couldn't interpret a single thought, she didn't shrink away.
"You…need to eat," Erik insisted, cursing himself to stumble over such simple words. "I brought a bowl of soup in awhile ago; it will still be warm. …May I help you?"
Her nod was without pause, and though he trembled with his own intentions, he slid his arms within the covers and curved his hands about her small torso, delicately lifting her to a seated position. He was acutely aware of her softness and a warmth that was inherent and no longer the inferno a fever had made it. Now without worry and illness heavy on thought, he could dwell on such details and notice that the heart beneath his touch skipped. …Was that a reaction of disgust and fear? Her head was ducked from regard, and he felt lost when he could not peek into her eyes and learn the answers.
Nervous when revulsion was still a viable option, he retracted his hands as if burned and pretended his focus was only on the pillows he arranged about her. Ah yes, because it must be wrong to fixate on the small sweetness of her, the glimpse of white nightdress along her shoulders and sweeping neckline. Her skin was dull in its usual luster, her large eyes framed in dark shadows, but such minor flaws made her more beautiful. They reminded him of the previous night, of how much she had needed him, how much she still needed him.
As he regarded her without hesitation, he saw her shiver and goose bumps arise on pale, white skin above her neckline, and he anxiously demanded, "Is this all right, Christine? Is it too much to sit up yet?"
"No, I'm fine," she replied, soft and still avoiding his gaze. …Disgust, he concluded and cringed his self-loathing as he turned attention to the tray on her bedside table.
"I made a quick soup," he explained as he lifted the cloche over a steaming bowl. "I typically would have let it simmer all day, but I was eager to have something ready when you awoke."
Excuses, but when the only thoughts in his head were addled musings about her frame of mind, rambling was easy. Grabbing the heated bowl in his bare hands and then a spoon, he ran anxious eyes over her and second-guessed his every consideration. But no… He should not need to ask permission to take care of her, and doubt was a nuisance he was determined to ignore.
With a constant shake to announce his lack of expertise, he took a seat perched at the edge of her mattress. Only his wary gaze made his infernal anxiety known, but she gave no argument back, …only trust in return.
No excuses this time, no questions, he filled the spoon from the bowl and brought it close to his own lips first, delicately blowing upon the steaming broth before he dared offer it to her. There was something intimate and defiantly sensual about this most mundane situation. But to fix his focus to her perfect, pink lips as he rested the spoon against their seam and obsess over their subtle parting, every motion and quiver, the slight pucker they formed against warmed metal, he was as riveted as he had been when watching her eat the night before. Then he had felt like an unacceptable observer, and now he felt like an integral part of the scene. Ordinary tasks, but when she was the one performing them, he again found himself memorizing.
Christine shielded her eyes with lowered lashes as the hint of a smile broke through. It was inspired by this most unusual portrait: the invincible and omnipotent Opera Ghost sitting upon her mattress feeding her soup with ever attentive care. A sweetness lingered in the air, a tender affection, and she wanted to stay lost in its cloud forever.
"I've never had anyone take care of me," she softly revealed as her gaze locked on his hands, graceful and precise, his fingers delicate upon the spoon. Why was everything treated like an instrument in his hands? As if he longed to bring beauty out of even commonplace objects?
"What about your father?" he posed as he lifted the spoon to her lips again.
She noted how he stared at her lips, but she did not grow shy as she sipped and swallowed before replying, "No, I took care of him."
"And you never took ill?"
Shrugging thoughtfully, she glanced at his vigilant masked face and studied its nuances in brighter candlelight than the previous night had given. "Maybe as a little child, but then I had my mother. After she was gone, I took care of myself." Another sip from her offered spoon, and watching him steadily still, she asked, "And you? …You've never spoken of yourself, but you're taking care of me as if you know what you're doing and have had practice. Did you have a mother who hovered at your side whenever you took ill as a child?"
His somber expression made her regret her query as she could practically see unpleasant recollection spinning in his distant gaze, but he didn't lash out with temper and a wrath like hellfire as she expected. It encouraged her to gently bid, "Tell me."
Erik brought the spoon to her lips again, and as he dared to meet her constant watch, he was surprised to see genuine curiosity and so much innocence that it broke his heart. Here was a girl who'd suffered hardships and yet still had naïve views of the world. How could he be angry when it wasn't her fault that her innocence was its own curse?
Detaching his true feelings and giving only apathy, he solemnly replied, "My mother hated me. She'd have sooner seen me die than take care of me. If I had illness as a child, I suffered alone and prayed for my death as much as she did." A quick glance showed him empathy and pain, but he hastily shook his head and insisted, "There are good reasons why I do not discuss my past, and see! Now I've brought you to tears for no worthy reason. It was what it was, and it's over now. It is futile to dwell on details that cannot be changed. I'd rather put attention on you and learn what I have yet to know about taking care of someone on my own."
The tears in her eyes never fell. He watched them frame her blue gaze and slowly dissipate as she nodded consent. Crying for him… It was something he could not understand and didn't want. It felt too much like pity. But though the fabricated façade of arrogance he always carried told him to snap at her and rebuke with anger on his side, he clenched his jaw tight against its impulse and fought for calm.
Silence reigned as he continued his task, slow and unrushed, determined to savor something that might never come again. Taking care of her was its own joy because she never showed an inkling of the fear and hesitation he'd grown accustomed to. Well, certainly, give her nothing worthy of fear, no monsters or sharpness, and it seemed to put them on common ground for the first time.
As she took one last sip and shook her head for no more, he finally asked, "Was the soup satisfactory?"
"It was wonderful," she replied with that half-smile she'd earlier blessed him with. He adored such a token.
Gazing at her lips one last second, a perverse longing rose within him, and though he hesitated, he let it lead and gave in. Meeting her eyes, he brought her spoon to his mouth, setting his lips in the exact spot hers had been and tasting his creation awkwardly with a mask to offer intrusion. He made it seem innocent even though it was anything but. No, it was practically a kiss with lips that never touched.
Nodding agreement with her assessment, he decided, "Good enough," and set the spoon aside.
Christine's breath caught in her lungs simply to watch him. Every motion he made was always so fluid and full of inaudible music, as if he moved to a rhythm only he could feel, every gesture another step in an unknown dance. Graceful and lithe, but then to read the sensual implications behind such an unthreatening action, to see the spark in his eyes and know it was about far more than stealing a taste of her soup, to consider his mouth in the place hers had been… The concept alone made her shiver.
In need of something to overcome her tumultuous thoughts, she hastily bid, "Well, …if you end up contracting my illness, I promise to take care of you this time."
She glimpsed an uncertain grin timidly arch his lips, and he softly decided, "Then I shall wish for sickness to be mine. With such a promise as incentive, how could I not?" That mismatched gaze was scanning her face as if he were desperate for every nuance, and she felt herself blushing furiously and shaking inside and out. "And…will you sit at my bedside and feed me soup with care and affection?"
Nodding without pause, she fixed her regard to his mouth, oddly disappointed that she had only a bottom lip and the shadow of the top one to look upon. Her head tried to conjure the image of its full form, but that horrific night was too foggy and indecipherable. She only remembered that his mouth was misshapen and swollen obscenely. Then it had been part of an abomination, but now…with the tenderness hovering in the air, she wondered if it would seem entirely new and different. If his hands could seem transformed, why not lips and a mangled face as well?
"You're quiet," he accused, and she felt her skin redden even more with the idea of him guessing her thoughts. "Have I thoroughly exhausted you? Perhaps you should rest some more."
He reached for her pillows and rearranged them again, and though she conceded to lie back, she kept her attention fixed on his face, trying to recreate its full depiction upon the surface of his mask. But it felt like half a dream and certainly not real.
"Christine?" he questioned, and she forced herself to meet his worried gaze. "What's wrong, petite?"
"I…was just contemplating such a scenario," she revealed, and trembling merely to speak it aloud, she insisted, "If you were ill and I was tending to you, …I would have to take your mask off."
Jaw again clenching in a tight line, Erik huffed a frustrated breath and concluded, "If that is the case, then I will choose to suffer alone."
Recoiling off the mattress and creating necessary distance, he fought against the tempest of rage building in his chest. Curse her infernal naïveté! She made every detail of an unreal situation seem practical and just so easy!
His fury settled on her, as she lay motionless upon her bed, watching him through apprehensive, fear-fringed eyes. Of course, he should have known better than to think fear was gone for good.
Opting for a fraction of control and hissing words instead of shouting, he snapped, "Do you not recall your own response to what lies beneath the mask? Have you forgotten that you were the one disgusted and repulsed, terrified…? Have the memories faded because I have diminished the threat and lowered myself to take care of you like a nursemaid? Reality does not transform because of fevers and compassionate endeavors. I blame myself; I did not give enough considerations to the logistics of my own request. But mark my words, I prefer illness suffered alone and death as the outcome to ever being mask-less in your presence again."
Christine knew a greater hurt from his conclusions than his anger, and it welled with tears in her eyes. Yes, she'd done this; it was her fault for a rash reaction to something so unorthodox and unexpected, but when a mask had been stolen away, she'd let scars write her future. Haunted by a face she feared, and though she was learning to look and find the soul hidden beneath layers of distortion, she was now denied any rights because of impulses he could not forgive. He wanted more from her, and yet would not let her move beyond one mistake. It didn't seem fair.
Heaving a weighted sigh, Erik commanded, curt and inarguable, "Rest, Christine. I'll come and check on you later."
And before she could devise a decent protest to make him stay, he was out the door and gone, leaving her with tears and a bruise in her heart.
Sleep was impossible, and though she lay in her bed and sought its escape, her mind was too full to allow it possession. Every detail of the past days played in pirouettes, and in the midst of illness and recuperation, she sought to decipher Erik, to find the real man and soul beneath a tragic existence. What she came to realize was that she didn't know him at all, not the man separated from the Opera Ghost and facades. The closest she'd come to enlightenment was in the endless compassion and affection he'd granted as she'd been sick. There was honesty in those emotions, genuine care and…love.
She was not a specialist on matters of the heart; before this incident, she would have considered a fondness for Raoul to border love. Now…love was a vivid fantasy in mismatched eyes, and she wanted it in its purest, most concentrated form. Right from the source without walls or hesitations, without a temper that could swallow her whole in fiery flames. She yearned to see only love on display and feel its true potency and then learn if she could return it. But…a face stood in the way, …or rather a mask.
Somewhere in the canals of memory was a picture of the full horror she'd unleashed the night she'd stripped him of his mask, but it was so far buried that all she had were shadowed silhouettes without distinction. She remembered that it had been ugly, but that was impulse. Ugly was the word to dub anything initially unappealing to behold. But…ugly didn't have to mean unacceptable or unlovable. And ugly could be as misinterpreted as Opera Ghost. She was anxious for a second chance to regard the face behind the mask and learn the secrets sculpted in its malformed places.
With an impatient huff when hours passed slowly and Erik had yet to come back, she decided sleep was unachievable and concluded it a better idea to test her returning strength. Tossing off the covers with unsteady hands, she pondered that a hot bath sounded luxurious, and despite a few stumbles in a slow trek to the bathroom, she was able to manage that most mundane task, soaking away lingering musings of ghosts and angels in a cocoon of heated water. She was surprised how much better she felt but pinned her recovery on Erik's medication. As usual, her angel had been heaven sent and made her whole again. The idea alone made previous reluctance and harsh judgments seem irrelevant and immature.
Eventually, clothed in a fresh nightgown with her curls hanging damp and heavy against her back, she returned to her room.
She started and caught her balance on her doorframe to find Erik awaiting with urgency in that mismatched stare as it surveyed her as if seeking a point of concern.
"I…came to check on you and…worried," he made the admission with a touch of embarrassment, chastising his impulses.
Worried… He'd seen the closed door and heard motion within the bathroom, and yet still, he'd worried, and how foolish he now felt for it! Especially when face to face with a vision in white that inspired far more than compassionate care in her beauty. Everything about her was a temptation, and when he would have thought desire under control and her welfare his priority, it encompassed and ensnared him in its net. He felt as if he had held her hand from the brink of death and brought her back to life with him, and now…she truly felt like his to keep.
His eyes roamed over her in a fitful path, unable to stop until he'd taken a full and proper viewing. With the bathroom light radiating behind, she was a heavenly creature, haloed and brilliant, and the glow poured through the thin fabric of her nightgown and illuminated curves in shadows. He'd never seen anything he longed to touch more, and yet his hands upon her in the midst of fever had been wanted; now he had no proof to say they'd be anything but despised again.
"If you are better… I'll go," he stammered, his gaze drifting to the play of light upon her damp curls, adding a shiny luster that made softness look like silk.
"No," she immediately replied and held up a hand that shook in the air. "Please, Erik, stay."
How could he refuse? With an uncertainty always present, he went to her and offered, "May I help you back to bed?"
Her cringe made him hesitate, fearing he'd pushed too far, but to his surprise, she edged against him and clasped his arm with that outstretched hand, accepting his aid without a second thought. "No more bed for a little while at least," she pleaded. "I'm growing bored out of my mind trying to rest."
It took him a moment to register her words as he focused on the sensation of her body pressed to his side. Oh God… If he but turned, he could embrace her… Stifling the urge, Erik muttered, "And…what would you like to do instead? Anything, ange. Name it."
She smiled, and it was so full of her usual spark and charm that he was grateful to cling to it as his. At such a close proximity, he savored the image and memorized the way her lips stretched in that uplifted curve, the sheer radiance that came with such a simple expression.
"Music," she decided, and he shuddered merely with the sound of her voice. "Will you play for me, ange?"
Never a hesitation, Erik slid his claimed arm about the curve of her waist and guided her toward the door, encouraged when she went willingly and the smile never dimmed.
"And…what sort of piece shall I play you?" he asked as they wandered the small hallway to his music room, and emotion felt suffocating and overwhelmed senses in its fervency.
She seemed to ponder a moment, her dark head closer to his shoulder with its pensive tilt until she concluded, "I should like you to surprise me. …Something beautiful."
Oh, he already had that… Beautiful was in the sparkling blue eyes that met his with never a doubt or fear to be found. Inspiration indeed…
Erik helped her to the couch and reluctantly released her, watching her curl atop the cushions with a gaze that did not want any other sight when she was such a beacon. Staring unceasing, he backed toward a nearby armchair and stole the blanket draped upon its back, bringing it to her and covering her small shape with its protection. This portrait felt like it had surfaced out of a dream. His Christine in her nightclothes, resting upon his couch as if this were her home. And now to complete the dream with a serenade.
Never looking away, he went to his piano and sat behind the keys. She was all he longed to see, music unnecessary when it was composed in attentive blue eyes. Without a single thought but pleasing her, he began to play.
Christine was overcome with the first pitch. There was something so magical in his hands, some glorious and unearthly gift that no one else possessed. It was in the way he touched the keys, inherent and fluent, as if he caressed a melody out of the piano, not just played. His music of choice was nothing she'd ever heard; she was doubtless it was one of his own, and it only enhanced the term beautiful. It made it surpass itself and become exquisite and coveted at the same time. She watched the music stream through his entire frame from torso through shoulders out to fingertips, and she was a little envious that music could be so loved.
One piece enfolded into another and another, never stopping only transforming, and never did he look at a notated page. His eyes stayed locked on hers as if she herself was the piece and made up of melodies and harmonies with staves wrapped around her, and he was simply bringing them to life.
"I've only ever imagined this," he suddenly spoke over the beauty of a legato line. "You here, playing my music for you, seeing its every inspired emotion in your eyes. I never thought I'd have this."
"Why?" she softly asked. …Or could she already guess? She studied the masked face of a genius and knew scars were deeper than music could dare to reach.
He changed the path of pleasantness altogether. "Christine, if you were not ill and recovering right now, would you be here in my home? Or would you have fled to your rehearsal this morning, cursing the monster that forced you to stay the night in his underground hell?"
"Why must you ask such things? It isn't the same; everything is different now."
Music never stopped as if background to the beating of erratic hearts, but he shook his head and doubts made themselves known in unresolved chords and fluctuating modulations. "I don't understand how. My face is the same, my past, my reputation, the very things you denounced and ran from in terror. What has changed in one night?"
"You did," she replied and never faltered.
"No. My feelings have been the same since the beginning. You were the one who wouldn't recognize their colors. The only thing that changed was that you needed someone to take care of you, and you had no choice but to let it be me. If you had taken ill in the world above, I've no doubt that the Vicomte would be in my place, and you'd be cuddled on his couch."
"That's not true-"
"Don't you understand?" he brusquely interrupted, and the melody beneath his fingers grew dark and furious with growing agitation. "I cannot reason how my heart could beat an unaltered pattern all this time, and you refused to hear its song. But then suddenly, you needed help, any help, and because I had to pick up the role, you now look upon me with soft expressions and smiles. Is your demeanor some kind of reward and compensation for my services as nursemaid? If so, I do not want it. I have not changed. And I cannot reason why you have. How can one bout of illness be the determining factor in affection you've constantly denied me?"
Christine never looked away from his blame. She knew there were deeper levels to his confounded assessments. She'd mentioned taking off his mask earlier, exposing the very horror she'd first shown only abhorrence for. He didn't want to know how her affections could have changed so much as how she could suddenly look at him and make it seem like his disfigurement accounted for nothing. And she could reply that his caring and selflessness had inspired her to look and truly see, but without proving it to the scars beneath the mask, her words were hollow.
The music coming from his tensed fingers was growing more aggressive yet as the piano's hammers beat violently against its strings, and unable to bear its fierce intensity filtering through the room and vibrating against any surface it touched, she begged, "Erik, stop."
Playing my music? Or pushing you to give answers you'd rather not acknowledge? I'd happily beat this piano to its demise if it eases my mind and makes me stop contemplating situations that are not true. I've fabricated an entire love story today and bled lies into every detail. I made my presence at your bedside mean something extraordinary. What a masochist I am to believe myself! One would think I'd have learned my lesson and to stop trusting hope, but…once again it brings disappointment."
Every intimate second shared was being ripped into shreds, and unable to continue letting him destroy, she shoved the blanket from her lap and hurried to her feet. Her abruptness made her wobble, her head spinning a definite protest, and as her shaking hand caught balance on the couch's plush arm, the music halted mid-chord and frantic footsteps pounded over the deafening ring in her ears.
"Christine!" Without hesitation despite every word spoken, Erik caught her shoulders and gave stability, gripping with the same fingers that had assaulted ivory keys, only now touch was gentle and never violent. As if he'd dare put brutality and his self-hatred upon her!
She was so close; he couldn't fathom stepping back and stretching distance, not when she did not recoil or show even a hint of unease. She kept eyes locked on his as if willing soul to meet soul, and he could not stop the progression of racing shivers.
"No," she softly said into the mediocre gap between faces and mouths, "you didn't change, but you let your armor shatter. You gave me the angel I thought dead and bound him irrevocably to the man you are. I stopped mourning for the heart I thought broken. That…changed things. You showed me compassion, Erik, and will you now let me show you compassion in return?"
"Compassion?" he questioned, suspicious yet trembling, but to find no threat in her, nothing but a tender expression that astounded him, he nodded and begged, "Go on. Show me your compassion, Christine. If an angel deserves such a blessing, then I will take it and selfishly call it mine. It is a better reality than your hatred and disgust. Give me compassion instead."
Her quivering hand lifted to his mask, and though he gasped a terrified breath and glared at her in betrayal, he did not stop her. Why bother? His face was just as she'd last uncovered it, and if its distortions destroyed every bridge built, better now before she spoke vows he'd hold her to keep.
"Is this compassion or humiliation?" he demanded as the mask came free, and he felt air sweep over his damaged face. "I have yet to feel a difference. Perhaps you should choose a different tactic."
That was the Opera Ghost talking, the arrogant sarcasm and apathy that said he knew he was right, and Christine was grateful that a night spent in the care of the heart beneath the façade had shown her the difference. Now she looked at that persona and distinguished fear and pain.
But…analysis shifted and fixed on the tangible details before her instead of the invisible components of a soul. He wouldn't meet her eyes, silent with suspended fury shown in a tight jaw. …A jaw she could now examine without a mask's shadow and lips revealed like intimate details rather than ordinary features. This was…naked, something fragile that needed its cover lest it be damaged further by hands that weren't careful and words that were tipped like daggers.
"Christine," he ground out her name fringed in rage, "are you through? This compassion, as you call it, grows stale. Isn't it impossible to see an angel you long for when staring into the face of the devil? You spoke of shattering my armor; well, now you've stolen it away yet again with misguided illusions. I am the same as ever; my face is unchanged, and you spent last night in the midst of another lie. I played that part as I once played invisible angel, and this is the truth, the same one you've never been able to accept."
"I don't believe you," she decided, still perusing scars that were spread like an affliction along his skin. "Indifference and temper are the lies, and the man who took care of me, the angel, is real. He lives and breathes, and by my own mistake, he felt the need to hide beneath the guise of Opera Ghost and punish my weakness. I couldn't look and see the soul the first time to find my angel come to life for me, and you were determined to hurt us both by taking him away."
"He never existed."
"He is you," she vehemently argued. "You are the angel, but the Opera Ghost is an easier part to play. You can't be hurt when you hide your heart. …Erik, please look at me."
Erik was reluctant to concede, huffing an uncomfortable breath and hating the twisting knife of hope in his gut. It was about to stab into skin and remind him why he hated angels and fairytale lies. She yearned to believe even in spite of deceptions and Opera Ghosts, and he thought she was as naïve as ever.
"And will you feed me lies in return for those I gave you? …Is this penance, Christine? Assuaging your guilt and calling it compassion? …I want no part of it."
He was about to release the hold he still had on her shoulders and pull away, but to his surprise, delicate fingertips touched his jaw, smooth and never dangerous. She was gentle and tilted his face until he surrendered and met her blue stare.
"Christine…" He breathed her name, searching the colors of her expression. But she looked at his face and did not give shock. No fear, no disgust, nothing but the same sweetness she'd granted an angel. She almost convinced him that he could be the angel again and forget the hurts caused in between.
"I can't love the Opera Ghost," she told him without sway. "But you know that already. He is cruel and spiteful and puts the blame of the world upon me. He doesn't show me a heart or a soul."
"But he shows you a full face, "he justified, swallowing against the rise of tears. "It's a lie in a mask, but it is a better reality than the one before you now."
"You'd rather hide your heart behind the mask," she accused, "but is it truly better to have the illusion of a face or the illusion of a heart? Neither is real. No, this is real: this face and this heart, the soul you want me to love. How can I love it with a mask in the way?"
Love… He clung to the word with desperate fingers. "And could you love it, Christine? You can't love the Opera Ghost, but what about the fallen angel with broken wings? Could you love the distorted fairytale? Because I cannot give you perfection no matter how I long for that very thing."
Christine trailed her gaze over a sunken cheek, an exposed eye socket, a hole that should have boasted a nose. …Ugly, just as she'd recalled, but without a mask to hinder, a soul could shine in its vulnerable essence. Yes, …this was a man she could learn to love.
But all she said was, "I don't want perfection; it's too much to live up to, and an angel even fallen with broken wings is favored to a ghost."
"And a man with a damaged face…?"
"Is the most genuine of all. I knew how to love an angel, but the rest is a mystery. To love the man in his place… Teach me how, ange." She could promise nothing more, but she felt hope build a base beneath their feet. It was a starting point.
One more long breath, she held his mismatched eyes, concentrating on blue and then green and back again, and she noted how the vibrant hues accentuated his scars and made them less distinctive. How different everything looked! Perhaps it was she who had changed. But…any other thoughts still felt like too much for her exhausted body, and with a soft sigh, she succumbed to fatigue and its insistence.
"I should go and lay down," she reluctantly bid and knew he felt the weakness of her muscles, her frame unsteady beneath his gentle hold. "I must attend rehearsal tomorrow lest I lose my place. But…will you meet me when it's over?"
"For your lesson."
"And supper," she reminded with the tinge of a grin. To now consider how she'd dreaded that very event to start and the new avalanche of emotions since, trepidation evaporated and was replaced with anticipation.
"Yes, supper," he agreed, tentative yet, and she knew he could not quell his doubts. That was a change what would take time. Shaking his head, he added with a certain amount of authority, "I won't have you taking ill again. No… You look upon my face with your so-called compassion, and…I cannot risk never having this moment again."
Christine read everything he did not say in an unguarded stare. Hope…so much hope.
His hands lost their secure grasp, releasing her as he backed necessary steps away. His only pause came to offer a hand for his mask, which she readily gave up even as part of her longed to keep it and refuse to return it. Without it, the Opera Ghost was dead and gone. Could she be blamed for the urge to murder a ghost?
Lingering, she instead watched the ghost resurrected to life as the mask took its designated place, and…she surprised herself to admit she found a face covered in a mask as ugly. A new definition for the word. Ugly felt more applicable to a weak soul in hiding. How was she to find strength when he refused it himself, burying the love he wanted her to learn in manmade boundaries?
With a soft sigh, she attempted a smile, hiding her disappointment and bid, "Goodnight, Erik."
He seemed as if he would speak heavy words, the letters weighted in his stare, but with a flustered sigh, all he said was, "Goodnight," and dismissed her from his presence.
Christine wasn't certain how to interpret his impulse to make more walls to replace the ones she had destroyed. It seemed inherent, and although she'd found the spark of something great in an incident of fever and compassion, she could only grasp to wishes for it to grow. Maybe…
With a stumble in her steps, she finally abandoned her angel ghost and wearily made her way to her room. Only when she was beyond his presence did her true trembling take over. She had looked at his face with bravery and compassion, and disgust had never been relevant, but…even in the midst of acceptance and tolerance, it was hard to forget the looming aura of the Opera Ghost. Yes, she could learn to love the man, but if the Opera Ghost refused to disentangle joined threads… She couldn't say what forever would mean.
But let the ghost return. She'd beaten him once, using his heart against him, and even if it meant another bout of illness, she was an actress after all! Perhaps the next time walls arrived, she would fake a horrific cold and draw her angel back out. It was definitely an idea full of potential…
Erik gazed after her for long minutes even after he heard the click of a closed door. Christine… And she'd looked upon his true face and ignited hope. He'd never let her go now, never completely, not when she was his heart in hiding.
As night enshrouded the world above, never even grazing their underground domain, he let the power of fatigue steal sense and reason and followed its lure into the sanctity of her bedroom. Even though his body sought to remind him how little sleep he had indulged since she'd taken ill, he didn't listen. He knelt at her bedside as he had the previous night and watched her sleep, adoring her in a stare alone.
Everything felt…changed, and though he'd insisted he was the same, he now called such a declaration wrong. She had transformed him, and he felt new and sculpted with a core of hope. He'd made up a story, calling his face half-formed, an unfinished creation. Well, now with love dangling so near his grasp, he felt like a form complete, so much beyond a passionate soul in a damaged package. He felt worthy of her heart for the first time. As an angel he had won it, and he was adamant that as a man, he'd have it again. It was destined to be his.