ENTER THE DIVA

"Christine!"

Meg watched in horror as her friend's eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed, the newspaper falling from her hands. Alphonse was quick enough to catch her before she could hit the floor; he eased her down gently and Gianni stripped off his jacket, offering it to the baritone who folded it and slipped it carefully under her head.

"Maman, how could you do that?" Meg demanded, rounding on her mother. "You should have known that stupid report would upset her!"

"She had to know," Madame Giry replied, not batting an eyelid in the face of Meg's anger. "If I hadn't shown her the article someone else would have done."

"You could have broken it to her gently. She's always been highly-strung." Why else would she still have believed in the Angel of Music for so long? Meg added to herself.

Her mother at least had the grace to glance down at the unconscious girl lying on the boards and look a little ashamed. Her stern features softened in concern. "I had no idea she would faint. It must be all the excitement over the weekend." Turning away, she called over one of the runners idling in the wings and sent him flying off to fetch Erik. Meg wondered whether the Phantom had seen Le Figaro yet, and did not like to imagine his reaction if he had.

Crouching down beside her fallen friend she patted one limp hand. "Christine? Christine, it's Meg. Can you hear me?"

There was no response. Alphonse scanned the faces of the little crowd of cast and crew that had gathered around the prostrate soprano. "Well, don't just stand there!" he exclaimed. "Does anyone have any smelling salts?"

Marius held up his hip flask. "Will this do?"

The baritone rolled his eyes. "She's hardly in a position to drink it, you fool."

"We could dab it on her temples," Marie suggested. "My old auntie used to swear by it."

"Sounds like a waste of good whisky to me," said Marius, and he took a swig, offering the flask to her. With a tut she waved him away.

Gianni was peering down at Christine with wide, worried eyes. Over the past few weeks of rehearsals he seemed to have taken a shine to her; Meg felt a little sorry for him, knowing that Christine's affections were already engaged. "Should I fetch a doctor?" he asked.

Alphonse opened his mouth, but before he could say a word an unfamiliar voice rang out, making Meg jump. "Oh, for goodness's sake. Move back and let the poor girl have some air!" it announced, the words perfectly fluent but heavy with a foreign accent. The crowd opened to allow its owner, a tiny, fashionably-dressed figure with thick chestnut hair piled high beneath a jaunty hat trimmed with osprey feathers, through. It was only when they were kneeling together at Christine's side and the newcomer was rummaging in her purse, muttering in annoyance when she couldn't find what she wanted that Meg recognised Theodora Merriman. The new Prima Donna cursed in English before eventually pulling out a small green glass bottle with a little cry of triumph. She glanced at Meg with a smile that revealed a set of perfect, if slightly crooked, teeth. "Don't worry, this won't hurt her," she said, unstoppering the phial. "I'll just - "

This time it was her turn to be interrupted, by the arrival of the Phantom. "What the devil is going on?" Erik demanded before anyone could discover the contents of the bottle. Where the little group had curiously shifted to accommodate Mademoiselle Merriman, this time it parted with something akin to the drama of Moses's miracle of the Red Sea, the air suddenly crackling with tension. There were stares, hushed whispers and obvious attempts not to look directly at his mask, but for once Erik appeared not to notice, his attention entirely upon Christine. His eyes widened, shocked, as they alighted upon her limp form; no one had time to speak before he swooped down, taking her away from Alphonse and gathering her to him, her head against his shoulder. The action was possessive, and far more intimate than any he had shared with her in public so far. Meg wondered whether he realised how it must look to everyone else, and her eyes fell to the ring on Christine's finger. "What happened?" he asked anxiously, turning his unsettling gaze on the company. "Why did she faint?"

"She read the daily news," Meg muttered with a pointed glance at her mother.

Theodora proffered her bottle; Erik stared at it as if it were poison, which made her cluck her tongue impatiently. "Take it," she told him, "It's nothing more than sal volatile. I left my arsenic at home."

Reluctantly, he accepted it, holding it under Christine's nose. Meg winced at the sharp smell; after a moment or two Christine's eyelids began to flicker and she moved her head from side to side, moaning softly. Her forehead creased in a frown, lips moving as she raised a weak hand, searching for something. "...Erik?" she whispered, and her eyes flew open, huge and staring. "Erik!"

"It's all right, Christine, I'm here," he said, and she caught hold of his lapel, clutching it tightly. He tenderly stroked her hair. "Calm yourself, my dear."

"The paper... I saw the paper, and then... Madame Giry said the managers wanted to see you - " Christine seemed completely unaware of the circle of observers that surrounded them, huddling into his embrace. "I was so scared, I thought that you... that they... that they would - "

"That they would what? Lock me up? I'm fine, as you can see."

She sat up a little, lifting one hand to lightly touch his mask. "They didn't - ?"

"No." Erik shook his head. "No, they did not."

"Oh, thank goodness," Christine breathed, sinking back against him and closing her eyes, relieved.

Silence fell, and then Meg heard the familiar thump of her mother's cane on the boards. "I think it is high time we all returned to our work," Madame Giry said in a tone that brooked no argument. "We have wasted quite enough of the morning already."

With murmurs of disappointment, the crowd began to disperse, ballet rats fluttering away in a cloud of white muslin and tulle, chattering amongst themselves, the members of the chorus making a more dignified withdrawal. Marius stopped to offer his flask once more; to Meg's surprise Erik accepted it, persuading Christine to take a sip. She choked on the spirits, tears springing to her eyes as she coughed, but it seemed to revive her a little. Slipping his free arm beneath her knees Erik lifted her; she gave a cry of alarm, throwing her arms around his neck as though she feared she might fall. Despite her protests that she was all right he bore her away.

"You need to lie down," he said firmly.

"Not now, Erik. What will people think?" she asked plaintively as they vanished , turning the corner.

"Well!" said Hortense. Meg glanced round to see that her colleague was standing behind her. Though Madame Giry had begun drilling the majority of the corps in some basic exercises, one or two of them had managed to slip away. "It certainly looks as though Christine wasn't too heartbroken to lose the vicomte."

"Did you see that ring?" asked Giselle. "Wasn't it beautiful? I'd love someone to give me a ring just like that."

"It's obvious where it came from, too," Hortense sniffed, black eyes narrowed suspiciously. "She called him 'Erik', did you hear? Not Monsieur Claudin or Maestro as she should, but Erik. How unprofessional!"

"No one needs to hear your opinions, Hortense," Meg snapped, automatically defensive of her friends. "And it's no one's business but Christine's."

"You would say that. You two have been as thick as thieves almost since she arrived," the ballerina said with a toss of her dark hair. "We all know who'll be getting all the best roles from now on."

Giselle's mouth opened in an o of surprise. "I thought Mademoiselle Merriman was the new prima donna."

"If he can give her a ring like that, why would he think twice about casting her in the lead?" Hortense asked. "It's just typical of a certain type of person. Funny, I never thought Christine was one to sleep her way to the top."

"You really think that they're... doing that?" Giselle's eyebrows disappeared into her fringe.

"Why else would he be buying her expensive jewellery? I expect they - "

"That's enough, Hortense!" exclaimed Meg furiously. Before she could stop herself she blurted out, "If you must know, Christine and Monsieur Claudin are engaged!"

There was a pause, during which both of them stared at her in amazement, then Giselle cried, "Oh, that's so romantic!"

"Engaged? To be married?" When Meg nodded, Hortense covered her mouth with a hand. After a moment she said in a hushed whisper, "Has she seen his face?"

"You didn't ask that question when you thought she was his mistress," Meg retorted.

"That was different; people endure all sorts when there's something to be gained. Do you... do you think it's really as bad as Augustine says?"

Thankfully, Meg was saved from replying. She caught the glare her mother was shooting in their direction, but before Madame Giry's wrath could descend upon them Theodora Merriman returned. She was carrying a tray bearing a teapot and china cup and Meg tried hard to hide her surprise at the sight of the Opera's new diva doing something La Carlotta would have delegated to her maid.

"Miss Giry?" she asked as Giselle and Hortense scuttled away to join the other ballet rats. "I wonder, would you mind showing me which is Miss Daae's dressing room? I've got some hot sweet tea for her; it's just the thing for shock, don't you think?"


"I thought you might want to get away for a few minutes," Theodora said, following Meg down the corridor. She refused all offers to take the tray, shrugging them off with a comment that she had done much heavier work in her time. "That terrifying ballet mistress looked as though she'd like to fillet the lot of you."

"That ballet mistress is my mother, Mademoiselle," Meg said, adding with a grin, "But you're right, she is terrifying."

"Oh, dear Lord. How embarrassing." The prima donna blushed, and then gave a rueful smile. "You'll have to excuse me, Miss Giry; my brain and my mouth don't often work together. I wish I could do something about it; it's rather awkward to sing around your foot."

"It's all right. Maman can be a bit intimidating, but she's a pussycat really." Meg hoped her mother never heard that; if Madame Giry found out she'd said as much the pussycat would turn into a tiger and she'd be doing endless ronds de jambe for the next six months. "And please, call me Meg. Everyone does."

"That's very kind of you, Meg." Theodora balanced the tray precariously on one arm and held out her free hand. "I'm Teddy."

Meg took it and had her own shaken firmly. The hand might have been encased in an expensive kid leather glove, but there was nothing weak or womanish in its grip; though she might look small and fragile it was quite obvious that a very definite strength lay behind the facade. There was steel, as well as amusement dancing in Theodora Merriman's brilliant green eyes; Meg found herself liking the new diva immediately. After the tantrums and affectations of Signora Giudicelli, to have someone so apparently down to earth in such a prestigious position within the company would be a refreshing change. "Teddy?" she asked, and those flashing eyes rolled heavenward.

"I can thank my poor old daddy for that. He wanted me to be a boy; couldn't cope with five daughters. Changed his mind now, though; damn near cried his eyes out when he saw me singing on the stage of the Met back in New York. Is this it?" Theodora asked as they came to a halt outside Christine's door. She looked around her curiously at the dark little passageway, so far from the stage, its paint peeling and the floor in need of a sweep. "A little out of the way, isn't it? I thought Miss Daae was the company's best soprano; in most places this wouldn't be deemed suitable for the lowest member of the chorus."

"She's grown rather attached to her room," Meg said, lifting a hand to knock. "She's a little... superstitious about it."

"Ah." A perfectly-plucked eyebrow lifted. "The kind who says 'the Scottish play' then turns round twice and spits in a fire bucket, eh?"

Meg smiled, feeling a little baffled by some of her companion's remarks. They must lose something in translation, she decided. "Something like that."

There was a long pause before her knock was answered. She was expecting an invitation to enter, and nearly fell into the room when the door was suddenly jerked half open and Erik, the unmasked side of his face creased in a frown, appeared in the gap. When he saw Meg he visibly relaxed, only to tense up again the moment he spotted Theodora in the corridor behind her.

"How is Christine?" Meg asked.

Erik opened his mouth to reply but was beaten to it by his fiancée. "I'm fine, Meg," Christine called, and Meg peered around the Phantom to see her friend lying on the little sofa covered with a patchwork blanket. She still looked slightly wan but seemed rather more cheerful. Her shoes had been assiduously removed and stood to attention on the floor beside her and she rested against a veritable mound of pillows. "Erik won't stop fussing. Anyone would think I was really ill!"

"One cannot be too careful," Erik said, slowly stepping aside to allow the visitors cross the threshold.

Christine pouted. "You needn't treat me as if I'm made of china. I won't – oh. Hello." A flush touched her cheekbones at the sight of Theodora.

"Bit of a curious way for us to meet, but I'm glad to make your acquaintance, Miss Daae," the prima donna said, setting down the tray on Christine's tiny side table. There was barely room for it, and the table wobbled slightly under the weight. "I've heard a whole lot about you."

"Would that be the truth, or gossip, Madame?" Erik enquired sharply. He was leaning against the mirror, arms folded defensively, and eyeing the interloper with obvious suspicion.

"Erik - " Christine began in a warning tone, but no one took any notice of her.

"It's Mademoiselle, and I reserve my judgement until I've heard all there is to hear," Theodora told him. She poured a cup of tea, added four teaspoons of sugar and offered it to Christine who took it with a slightly bewildered air. "For instance, I won't believe a word of that rubbish in the paper today unless I'm given good reason to. I assume you'd prefer that, Mister Claudin?"

The Phantom glared at her, and appeared about to make a scathing comment before he evidently changed his mind. Eventually he said, expression clearing as comprehension dawned, "You must be Mademoiselle Merriman."

"Guilty as charged." The little kid-gloved hand was proffered, and Erik shook it gingerly. Theodora shot him a dazzling smile. "You want to come to the States, Monsieur; out there no one would give two cents for what you're hiding under that attractive piece of pottery."

Erik's fingers stole instinctively towards his mask and he returned her smile somewhat uncomfortably. "You are very... forthright, Mademoiselle."

"I speak as I find," she said with a shrug. "We do where I come from; no time for flattery or dissembling, two things that are rife in this profession."

"I'm gratified to hear you say so. Too many mediocre performers have risen to the top and remained there because others were too scared of their power and influence to tell them the truth." Erik's lip curled and Meg knew he was referring to Carlotta.

"Won't you have a cup of tea, Mademoiselle Merriman?" Christine asked before he could launch into an impassioned dissection of everything that had been wrong with the departed prima donna. "Erik, there are some cups in the second drawer of the dressing table."

"Well, since you're offering so kindly, I think I will. And it's Teddy," Theodora added, taking the only other seat in the room and bewildering Christine once more. An explanation quickly cleared up the confusion, and it did not take long for the two to be chatting like old friends, Theodora's disarming manner making light work of Christine's reticence.

"Meg, I must speak to you," Erik said quietly just as Meg, feeling superfluous to requirements, was considering returning to the rehearsal. She startled, not realising he was so close, and turned to see him standing right behind her.

"I wish you wouldn't creep up on people," she told him, trying to still her pounding heart.

"My apologies; old habits die hard." His gaze was directed at the floor and his fingers twitched as though he wasn't sure whether it would be appropriate to lay a hand on her arm or not. He settled for stuffing them into his pockets in a remarkably human gesture she didn't think she'd ever seen him make before. "And as we are on the subject of apologies, I wished to speak of Saturday night."

"Don't," Meg said, which made him look up, surprise written clearly across the undamaged side of his face. "You don't have to say anything, Erik, I've already forgiven you."

He sighed and shook his head. "You should not have to keep doing so. My behaviour was reprehensible."

"You weren't yourself. I understand that. But Erik," she added before he could argue, "You must know how frightening you can be, even if you didn't mean it. Down there in the dark, covered in blood... you terrified me. I wanted nothing more than to turn and run, to get as far away from you as possible."

A look of horror flared in those mismatched eyes and he backed away as though she had physically struck him. "If that's so, how can you stand to be near me now?" he asked in a voice so soft she barely heard him.

Meg glanced at Christine, who was watching them nervously over Theodora's shoulder as the diva talked away, gesticulating with her chipped teacup. "Because, like Christine, I've seen the real you," she said simply.

Surprised, Erik just stared at her for a long moment. She began to become a little worried when he said nothing, but just as she was about to ask if he was all right he withdrew a hand from the pocket of his coat and rested it lightly on her shoulder. "Thank you, Meg," he murmured, and she laid her hand over his, squeezing the thin fingers encouragingly, careful of the bandages.

"That's a very charming rock you have on your finger there," Theodora announced to Christine. She turned to direct a raised eyebrow towards Erik. "You have excellent taste, Monsieur; elegant and not too showy. May I offer my congratulations to you both and ask when the wedding is to be?"

Christine and Erik exchanged a look of consternation, a look which the soprano then turned upon Meg. She smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. It just... slipped out."

"Oh, I've done it again." Mortified, Theodora's hand flew to her mouth. "Was it supposed to be a secret?"

Leaving Meg, Erik returned to his fiancée, taking up an almost protective stance behind her. Christine reached out to him, entwining her fingers with his, and such was the love shining on her face that no one could doubt the happiness his presence gave her. "No," she said, smiling up at him, "It's not a secret. I've done with secret engagements; we have nothing to hide from anyone."

"Well said, sweetheart," said Theodora approvingly. She lifted her teacup. "This seems a little inadequate for the situation. Does anyone know where we can get some champagne?"