Once again, thanks for sticking with me and for all your lovely reviews, peeps!
grandma paula: Thank you so much for all your kind comments! Alas, I am not a professional writer, though I wish I were; this is purely my hobby. I do hope you continue to enjoy the story.
YouAreLove: I've been writing this fic for so long that I'm having trouble keeping track of my own (admittedly vague) timeline, but we're about six weeks on from the wedding now; the managers found that planning the gala took a little longer than expected!
THE AVENGING ANGEL
"Marvellous, dear boy, marvellous!" James Patterson-Smythe declared, descending through the usual backstage mêlée, a glass of wine in one hand. "Christine is in fine voice! I know I sound disloyal to my own diva, but Teddy agrees with me."
"She certainly does," Theodora agreed with a smile. She stood on tiptoe to give Erik a peck on the cheek; after a moment's pause he hesitantly returned it, wondering if he would ever truly become used to impromptu displays of affection. At close quarters Teddy's perfume was almost overwhelming. "Where is our beautiful girl, anyway?" she asked, looking around. "I want her to know that I am insanely jealous; that sore throat left me sounding like a bullfrog!"
Trying not to twitch at the unexpected juxtaposition of Prima Donnas and amphibians, Erik glanced over his shoulder to the stage, where Meg and Christine's behinds could be seen as they peered discretely through the gap in the curtains like a pair of children. This evening was the first time she had allowed him to see the dress she had bought, and he had to admit that the vision she presented in dusky pink silk, her milk-white shoulders gloriously bare and her curves enhanced by the simple lines of the bodice and skirt almost made him throw caution to the winds and wanton her there and then on the little sofa in her dressing room. The look in her eyes had confirmed that she would not have minded in the least, and for a few moments it had been all he could do to control himself. The perfection of her voice as she sang set his already jangling nerves afire; when she held out a hand to invite him to share her applause he was trembling from more than just anxiety. "I think she and Little Giry are reviving an old game," he said, and Teddy chuckled.
"Oh, yes, I remember that one. Trying to spot the patrons before they spot you. Are they winning?"
Erik flicked his eyebrow at her. "I haven't dared to ask."
"Well, things seem to be going swimmingly," James remarked. "From what I've been able to overhear, the Populaire is about to receive some rather substantial backing. Would anyone like a drink to celebrate?"
Theodora slapped his arm with an affectionate tut. "Honestly, Jimmy, is that all you ever think about? Some of us have performances to give, you know."
"You mean to tell me that we will be hearing your dulcet tones once more, my nightingale?" he asked, taking her hand and dropping a gallant kiss upon it. She rolled her eyes at Erik, and James winked. "I assume you will be slaying them all with your Queen of the Night?"
"Not since I got this scratchy throat. Our Maestro here advised me to stick to something less extravagant and I agreed; if anyone wants to hear me really go through my paces they can buy a ticket for the next production," Teddy said firmly.
"Ah. Always leave them hungry, eh?"
"Naturally," she replied, laughing, and glanced at Erik. "Isn't that right?"
"Every time," he agreed. "But you should be resting your voice; we want it to be at its best for the finale."
Teddy pulled a face. "I think that's the polite way of telling me I talk too much," she said, grinning when Erik gave her a horrified look, convinced he had insulted her. "I'm just kidding. I shall depart at once and do your bidding, oh master."
"She does talk too much," Jimmy observed fondly as the Prima Donna strolled off through the chaos of the makeshift backstage area, somehow avoiding having to duck or jump out of the way as stage hands hurried back and forth. He took a sip of his claret. "So; what's next on the agenda? I find it hard to believe that you can top the first half; just hearing Christine and Teddy would be enough to make me put my hand in my wallet."
"Oh, we have a few surprises up our sleeves," Erik told him, pulling out his watch to check the time. Incredibly, it appeared that half the interval was gone already; hurriedly he stuffed the watch back into his pocket, feeling his heartbeat begin to quicken as his own performance drew closer. "I'm afraid I shall have to leave you, James. I must fetch my violin and check that she hasn't fallen out of tune; I'm opening the second act."
Jimmy looked surprised. "You're actually treading the boards yourself? Teddy did mention it but I'm ashamed to admit I didn't believe her. I thought you always shunned the spotlight?"
"I do, and for good reason, but on this occasion I am afraid I was persuaded against my better judgement," Erik said ruefully. "It has been a very long time since I last sought the limelight for myself."
"Well, there's no need to hide your own light under a bushel. Break a leg, or whatever the appropriate phrase is in this infernal country, and I'll have a glass waiting for you when you come off." Jimmy raised his own drink in salute, and Erik couldn't help smiling. After so many years of being completely alone in the world, the fact that he now had friends who cared enough to praise and encourage him was still something of a novelty.
Christine and Meg had abandoned the gap in the curtains and he spotted them in a corner, whispering urgently to one another. There was a worried expression on Christine's face which immediately concerned him but before he could even make the decision to waste a few more precious minutes and push his way through the throng of cast and crew to speak with her a small figure in a black cloak, her hair pulled severely back and her face painted in black and grey to quite disturbingly represent a skull almost crashed into him. Erik managed to remain on his feet, instinctively catching hold of the running girl by the elbows, and after a moment's bewilderment he realised it was Giselle; Laure had been left in charge of the ballerinas' make-up for the Saint-Saëns piece and this was the first time he had seen her handiwork. The results were rather alarming.
"Oh, Monsieur Claudin, thank goodness!" Giselle cried breathlessly. "I've been looking all over for you!"
"Shouldn't you girls be getting ready for the second act?" Erik asked, steadying her for a moment before withdrawing his touch in case he was being over-familiar. He glanced over his shoulder and could just make out two of the stage hands moving Monsieur Allard's harp onto the stage. "Where are the others?"
"That's just it, Monsieur: we can't find Hortense! Laure has been searching for her but she has completely disappeared!" It was common for Giselle to exaggerate the importance of the various crises in her life, but it was clear just from the distress on her face, obvious despite the huge black rings of paint around her eyes that made them look even bigger than usual, that she was extremely worried about her friend. Erik was not fond of the sharp-tongued ballet rat, knowing the contempt in which Hortense held himself and Christine, and he had been surprised when his wife insisted that she should be given a part in the Danse Macabre; he went along with it to please her, but kept a sharp eye on Hortense, suspicious of her motives in agreeing to participate. However, despite his own opinions he knew that Hortense and Giselle were close friends and could not believe that Giselle would trouble him unnecessarily. "What should we do?" she asked, staring up at him in what appeared to be a desperate plea for guidance.
Normally Erik would have directed her to Madame Giry; the ballerinas were after all Antoinette's responsibility, but she was nowhere to be seen at that moment and they did not have time to begin looking for her as well. Time was ticking by and the audience would be returning soon; the managers would not allow their influential guests to be kept waiting for even a few minutes. With an inward sigh he returned his attention to Giselle. "Where did you last see her?"
"Someone was asking for her at the stage door; Jacques sent Jean Paul to tell her and she hurried off before any of us could ask what was the matter. That was nearly half an hour ago and I haven't seen her since!" Giselle looked close to tears. Faced with the sight, her comely lower lip wobbling, Erik found the heart that he had once believed to be made of stone melt a little. Was this a result of Christine's influence? "Please, Monsieur, I don't know what to do!"
"It's all right, Giselle, we will find her," Erik heard himself say. "Have you looked outside?"
She nodded, twice, quickly. "There was no sign of her in the street and we didn't have time to go further. I don't know why she would have just wandered away; she was so looking forward to the performance!"
Somewhere behind them Erik heard the stage manager giving a ten minute call. Beyond, in the Grand Salon, the rustling and muttering of two hundred people making their way back to their seats could be heard. He still had to retrieve and check his violin and make sure that everyone was in position when the curtain rose... "Very well," he told Giselle, "I will go and look for Hortense. Can you find Laure and wait in the wings for me? Tell Monsieur Sauvage that if I am not back before Monsieur Marigny makes his announcement he is to send the chorus on first. I will be as quick as I can."
With another swift, jerky nod Giselle ran off, barely avoiding another collision, cloak trailing behind her. Hoping that he wasn't being sent on a wild goose chase and trying not to feel slightly relieved at this possible reprieve, Erik headed back through the corridors towards the stage door. Aware that the ballerinas quite often sneaked out into the alley for a cigarette, he fully expected to find Hortense doing just that, or possibly canoodling with one of the younger members of the stage crew, deliberately hiding from her colleagues. He passed Jacques in his booth on the way, and stopped to ask about the person who had come to the door earlier in the evening.
"Oh, him," the old man said with a disapproving sniff. "Didn't like the look of him at all. Smartly dressed all right but a foreigner; accent was so thick I could hardly understand him. Don't know what a nice girl like Mademoiselle Lavigne would want with someone like that."
Erik frowned. "Foreign? Where was he from; could you tell?"
"I don't like to speak ill of people, but he was a nasty piece of work. You ever been to one of those gypsy fairs that keep coming into the city?" Jacques asked, adding without waiting for a reply, "I'll wager you fifty francs that he was from one of them, don't care who he stole that fancy suit from."
"What did he look like, Jacques?" Erik asked, alarm bells starting to ring at the back of his mind. There weren't many gypsies, in his own experience, who wore Western dress, fewer still who adopted the attire of a man about town. His memories of the night he was attacked were still hazy but one thing he did recall was the smart, expensive clothes worn by the man who had ordered his beating.
The porter screwed up his face, evidently trying to remember. "He kept to the shadows, but he was shorter than you; about a head shorter, I'd say. Black hair and beard, swarthy skin. Looked like he kept himself neat, if you know what I mean, not like most of them. In fact, I thought that - "
A knot was starting to appear in Erik's stomach. Without waiting for Jacques to finish he was running for the stage door, the old man shouting after him in consternation. It was dark outside, the little alley that led onto the Rue Scribe nowhere near as well lit as the Place de l'Opera, but it did not take long for his eyes to adjust; he prowled slowly around the corner, hand instinctively moving to his side, where the Punjab lasso had once hung, well aware that if the man who had asked for Hortense was Grigore he would have no more than his fists with which to defend himself. From within the theatre he could hear the reduced orchestra beginning the entr'acte, the overture from The Marriage of Figaro, and silently hoped that Reyer and Sauvage the stage manager would not be cursing his name when he failed to appear in time.
The Rue Scribe was clogged with carriages, coachmen waiting for their aristocratic masters; assuming that the gypsy would not make a scene or drag a protesting ballerina (he could not imagine that Grigore would seek out Hortense for anything trivial) past so many burly men who probably had a musket under their seat, Erik turned instead towards the shadowy corners at the rear of the building, a popular spot with trysting couples as he had discovered many times over the years when returning from his nocturnal ramblings. He had not gone far when he heard raised voices above the rumble of traffic on the Boulevard Haussman and Rue la Fayette; a deep, guttural man's tones cutting across the shrill cries of a young woman. Even though his wits had been addled by a blow to the head shortly after encountering the bastard, Erik would have recognised Grigore's voice anywhere, especially as he was speaking the Romany dialect used by all the members of his clan. In the years he had been kept prisoner in the camp Erik picked up a quite considerable grasp of the language; learning to translate the insults flung at him had helped to pass some of the time. Grigore growled something unintelligible, and the next moment there was the sound of a slap followed by a sharp scream from Hortense. Before he even realised it, Erik's feet were carrying him towards the altercation, his blood beginning to boil.
What he saw confirmed the anger rising within him: in the light of a distant street lamp a man was silhouetted, leaning over a crumpled, sobbing heap on the ground, his arm drawn back as though to strike her once again. Erik had killed before, almost always in self-defence or the defence of another, and was not proud of the blood on his hands, but even he had a moral code and drew a line somewhere. Carlotta aside – and he knew deep down that no matter how obnoxious she became he would never have laid a finger on her no matter how dire his threats – one did not hit women. Only a coward or the lowest of the low attacked those weaker than themselves. Hortense was weeping noisily, tangled in the black cloak she should have been wearing for the performance, her hands and matted hair covering her face. Grigore bent closer, hissing words at her in French this time that Erik, thanks to his acute hearing, was just able to catch:
"I told you to get rid of it! I told you! What good is a child born of a painted slut like you?"
"I can't! I couldn't let that woman kill my baby!" Hortense wailed. "How could you even ask me to commit such a sin?"
"What do I care for your sins? That is between you and your heathen god!" the gypsy barked, baring his teeth as he leaned in so close that for a moment Erik thought he might actually try to bite her. "You are carrying my child and you will do as I say. I will not tolerate disobedience!"
The ballerina's face, as she lifted her hands and turned it towards the light, was a mask of despair, the make-up that had been so carefully applied by Laure so smudged and streaked that her skin was a mess of black and white, her eyes peering from dark caverns. "Please..." she begged, "Please just leave me alone. I'll never ask you for anything, I promise! I'll go away, have the child in secret - "
"So that you can return in a few years and expect me to give you money for it? No, I think we'll deal with this once and for all, here and now." She shrank away but he was too quick for her, grabbing her by the shoulders and pulling her roughly to her feet, shaking her so hard that her head rocked back and forth like that of a rag doll. She tried to pull away from him but he was too strong; his fingers were gripping her arm so tightly that she would surely have bruises in the morning.
Erik walked forwards, very deliberately allowing his footsteps to ring on the pavement. As the unexpected shadow fell over them, Grigore and Hortense both glanced up, one angry, the other terrified. After a moment, during which they both obviously recognised the intruder, their eyes widened in shock and surprise. Grigore spat out a particularly filthy curse, but did not relax his grasp on Hortense; she looked almost pathetically grateful to see a familiar face.
"Oh, Monsieur Claudin, please help me!" she cried, only to shriek again as she was backhanded across the face, falling hard to the floor with her arm bent upwards at what must have been a painful angle.
"Let her go," Erik said, and the gypsy laughed.
"Are you going to make me, Living Corpse?" he demanded, eyes flat and hard like a snake's. "I should have finished you while I had the chance."
"You could have done, had you and your lackeys not run off the moment you were confronted by an opera singer, a theatrical agent and a coachman." Erik flexed his fingers, just waiting for the other man to decide to take a chance and rush him. "That girl has done nothing to you; leave her be."
Grigore sneered. "Nothing to me? That little whore practically forced herself on me and now she is carrying my child she expects me to show her consideration! She refused my assistance in getting rid of the brat, so now she must accept the consequences. No one ever disobeys me!"
"In the same way that no one ever disobeyed your father, because at any sign of dissent he battered them into oblivion?" Erik asked, keeping his voice dangerously quiet. "You aren't even half the scum he was; at least he fought his own battles and wielded the whip himself rather than letting someone else do it."
The mention of Dumitru had the desired effect. With a wordless roar Grigore had tossed Hortense aside and was hurling himself towards Erik, fists flying. It was all that Erik could do to duck his head, barely avoiding a flailing punch; the gypsy's fingers were heavy with rings that could do some serious damage were they to come into contact with delicate skin and bone. He twisted; light on his feet and perfectly at home in the gloom, and the other man went barrelling past him, crashing into the wall. Appalled, Hortense scrabbled backwards on her hands and knees into the protection of a nearby alleyway, watching with huge horrified eyes as the two men slowly circled one another.
"I never knew why my father kept a hideous thing like you in our camp," Grigore snarled, lunging at Erik, who neatly and easily evaded his grasp. "Your mother should have drowned you at birth; she probably put out her own eyes rather than look at your face!"
"I have no doubt that she wished she had, and your father kept me because he knew I made him more money than all the other attractions combined," Erik replied, spotting the knife handle poking out of the inside pocket of his opponent's coat and alert for the moment Grigore made to draw it. The gypsy was not a natural fighter, that much was clear; his attacks were clumsy, his balance completely wrong. He reminded Erik of some of the young men in Persia and India, encouraged to fight because it was seen as the manly thing to do despite the fact that their inclinations were elsewhere; those children attacked desperately, without thought, and inevitably wound up on the ground with the victor's foot on their chest. "I can assure you, the arrangement was not even remotely congenial to me; your father had no right to take away my freedom."
"My father could do whatever he damn well wanted! Freaks like you have no rights!" Turning to Hortense, Grigore demanded, "Have you seen his face? Have you?" Looking utterly miserable, the poor girl shook her head. "Perhaps you should. Then you might think twice about wanting to be rescued by something that looks as though it should have been left to rot six feet under!"
He whipped around, hand outstretched, fingers curled into claws that were heading straight for Erik's mask; it was the moment Erik had been waiting for and he took his chance, using it to the full. Before Grigore could get close enough to touch the porcelain Erik had grabbed hold of his arm and used his momentum to flip the gypsy over onto his back. Grigore hit the ground, the impact knocking the breath out of him; incensed, he went for the knife in his pocket but Erik had already guessed his next move. With a speed born of experience he was on his opponent in seconds, one arm across the gypsy's throat, crushing his windpipe, his other hand twisting Grigore's wrist so hard that the man yelped like a scalded puppy and dropped his blade. It clattered onto the pavement.
"Now," Erik said silkily, increasing the pressure when Grigore tried to struggle, "You are going to listen to me, you pathetic piece of filth. There is nothing stopping me from killing you; I could snap your neck in a heartbeat if I chose. Do you really want to end your life in the same way as your disgusting sire?"
The gypsy was gasping for breath, his coal black eyes boring into Erik's like a pair of daggers. "You... murdering...bastard..!"
"He brought it on himself. Do you think anyone with any sense of decency would stand by and allow a man to rape a child? Because that is what your father intended, I assure you. Do you remember little Catalina, the mute girl?" Erik paused, allowing his captive to consider, and was gratified when the memories obviously began to surface and a little of the anger and hatred seeped from Grigore's gaze. "I can see that you do. Let me tell you that she was an innocent, but she would not have been for much longer had that animal you called 'Papa' had his way."
"No..." It wasn't an easy movement for him but Grigore shook his head. "...you're lying..."
"Perhaps when you return to your clan you should ask her. I'm sure she has never forgotten."
"...can't..." The gypsy's voice was sounding more and more strained. "She's... she's dead..."
Little Catalina... dead? The news threw Erik slightly off-kilter, but he recovered quickly. "Expired giving birth to one of your compatriots' bastard, I suppose."
"No..." Grigore swallowed with difficulty. "...she took... took her own life..."
Erik redoubled the pressure on the other man's throat. "You lie," he growled, but Grigore just laughed.
"You... you'll never know... will you..?" he asked, and groaned as Erik grabbed him by the hair, yanking his head back.
"I will tell you what I am going to do," he said. "I could kill you, but that would be too easy and quite frankly I grew tired of being the Angel of Death quite some time ago. In exchange for your miserable life you will go away from here and never come near the Opera, or even Paris again. You will not try to contact, intimidate or harm anyone who works inside this building, because if you do I can assure you that I will hunt you down and put you out of your misery like the miserable cur you are. Should I find you here after you awaken I will personally tie lead weights to your feet and throw you into the Seine. Do you understand me?"
Grigore choked out something quite disgusting regarding his physical relationship with Christine and spat in his face.
"Thank you. That is just the response I was expecting. Enjoy your nap, Monsieur." With one swift jerk Erik knocked the gypsy's head against the stone, hard. Waiting a few moments to make sure that the other man was indeed unconscious, he slowly climbed to his feet, rolling Grigore towards the refuse-filled gutter. Straightening, his muscles screamed from the exertion and he briefly wondered if he was getting too old for all of this; he ran a hand over his hair, checking it was still relatively tidy, and turned to Hortense, tentatively holding out a hand. "It is all right, my dear; he will not hurt you again. We should get you back inside."
Hortense struggled to stand; halfway there she fell again with a cry and he hurried over to help her, taking her arm as she clung desperately to his sleeve. "Monsieur, there's something wrong," she whimpered as he managed to get her upright on wobbly legs. She was looking down at herself, the tears beginning to fall again, and Erik could do nothing more than stare at her, confused.
"You're suffering from shock," he told her. "We'll get you back inside, I'll find Madame Giry and you will be taken care of, I promise. Just come with me."
She resisted, shaking her head. "No, Monsieur, you don't understand. I'm bleeding; there's something wrong with the baby!"