I apologize for the delay in putting up this chapter. Work has eaten up most of my free time, and I've spent the past day just catching up on sleep. At any rate, here's the next chapter, and I'm already working on the one after this one. Do tell me what you think.
Raoul sat beside Erik, towards the back of the tiered auditorium, and pushed a folded piece of paper into his pale hands. "What's this?" asked Erik, looking up from his sketch.
Raoul stared at him in bewilderment. "It's the invitation for the party on Saturday."
Erik looked at the page blankly. "I don't do parties."
"You will for this one."
"Raoul!" He turned to his friend. It had only been a few days since he'd begun joining Raoul and Christine for meals again; he was surprised at how easily the duo had become a trio again, and he was silently relieved that they were more than willing to welcome him back into the fold. Still, while he was comfortable (as much as he was able to relax) around them, he was not looking forward to a night of drunken debauchery at the de Chagny penthouse. "Have you seen this face?" Erik gestured towards his half-mask angrily. "They'll laugh me out of your home."
"You're my friend. They're not going to do that."
"I am not good with a lot of people. You know that."
"Then we'll introduce you to people gradually. I'm sure with a glass or two of wine, they'll ignore the mask completely." Raoul straightened in his seat as Mr. Moncharmin entered the classroom, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses and sifting through his voluminous sheaf of notes.
"Nobody ignores the mask, Raoul," muttered Erik, sinking into his seat as the class began.
"We do," said Raoul, just as quietly. "Christine and I. We do. You're the one who can't ignore it."
Erik was interrupted from having the last word by the sound of Mr. Moncharmin clearing his throat and asking them to turn their history books to page 184.
Christine nibbled at the end of the pen, staring at the scribbled words in front of her. She pulled out the earphones from her ears and stared at her iPod balefully. The music was simply not cooperating with her, and she was at a loss for words. She flipped her notebook shut and started shuffling through her music, her thumb swiping across the screen as she scrolled through her songs.
"What's up?" Raoul's voice broke through her concentration. She looked up as he and Erik slid into the seats opposite hers, plunking their plastic trays on the table and examining the contents. Erik gave her a slight smile, the edges of his lips disappearing beneath the mask. She returned the smile, and for the thousandth time, wished that she had the courage to take off his mask. What was underneath that pristine white porcelain that molded against his face? What was he hiding?
"Nothing much," she muttered, sweeping aside her papers and pens and shoving them back into her bag. "Trying to finish this project for writing class. Lyrics are difficult."
"I'm sure that repeating the word 'Baby, baby, baby' is no difficulty," said Raoul, shoving a forkful of potatoes in his mouth. "Anything you write might as well win the Pulitzer."
Christine wrinkled her nose. "I'm not kidding. I mean, Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter and his poems rolls right off your tongue. It's easy to make things mean something, but to set the meaning to music? It's hard."
Erik pushed around the cherry tomatoes buried in a bed of wilted greens. "I understand your frustration," he said slowly. "Music feels the same way. The structures are there, but it's the way you feel about the piece that elevates it from craft to art."
"Yes!" exclaimed Christine. "That is precisely my problem. The words are there, but the music refuses to be bound to the melody."
Raoul made a face. "Really heavy talk for lunchtime. Can't we just talk about the weather?"
"You are aware we're in the basement?" said Erik.
"Yes, Sherlock Holmes. I was trying for some levity here."
"Hey," said Christine, cutting through the tension between Raoul and Erik. "Come on. Anyway, Raoul, have you figured out what the schedule is on Saturday?"
It was the perfect trick to distract Raoul, but Christine noted that Erik's mood became subdued. "Well, Philippe will be in London until Tuesday, so I figured that we could get the caterers in by three in the afternoon, and open up the music room and the dining areas by five. I'm sure that most people will be coming over by seven or so."
"I thought it's a party, not a dinner," said Christine, mentally trying to figure out what she was going to wear.
"Well, it's free-flowing liquor and we do have a bar; I'll just have to make sure we're well-stocked and there's a bartender. There's nothing more gauche than tending your own bar during a party." Raoul made a face. "Isn't that right, Erik?"
Erik glared at him. "I don't drink, de Chagny. And you know I'm not going."
"Not going to the party?" asked Christine.
"That's what I've been asking as well," said Raoul, leaning back against his chair.
Erik looked at both of them miserably. "I'll ruin it for you. I don't want to do that."
"Oh, Erik." Christine reached across the table and laid her hand across his. He started at the touch, but his hand remained still beneath her palm. "Why would you think that you'd ruin the party for Raoul?"
Erik pursed his lips. Christine's hand was warm and soft, and somehow fit invitingly into his. He turned his hand so that their palms touched. Her fingers molded into the curve of his, and he imagined, fleetingly, that she'd let him do this regularly. "I'm a freak, Christine. People make fun of my mask. They'd probably steer clear of me if they see the mask off, or run screaming to the guidance office because of some monster conjured to life in front of them. You two are the only ones in the entire school who will suffer my presence. I don't want to make it any more difficult for you."
Raoul looked at him as though he'd sprouted a second head. "Are you crazy?"
Erik's lips quirked upwards. "I've been called worse."
Christine tightened her grip on his hand in frustration. "Erik! You can't keep on hiding from people forever. It was already bad enough when you and Raoul had a fight, and I don't want to keep on running after you just because things aren't going your way. You have to learn to be with people, okay?"
Erik stared at her. Christine's face was flushed, her eyes were the color of storm clouds, and her penumbra of dark hair had escaped from the loose bun that she had it in earlier. "Christine, I - "
"I don't care what happened to you in your past, and I don't care what's beneath the mask." Christine's face softened and she loosened her grip on Erik's hand. He silently mourned the loss of pressure, but didn't dare disturb her words. "But you deserve a normal life at Cathedral, Erik. And part of that means actually talking to other people."
Raoul quietly released the breath he'd been holding on the entire time. "Wow," he said slowly. "Remind me never to get on your bad side, Christine."
She favored him a quick smile before turning her attention back to Erik. "So. Will you come?"
Erik tentatively returned her smile. "I will… think on it."
She found him in the library again. Really, she thought, this is getting a bit predictable. "Erik," she said quietly, not wanting to disturb his reading.
He looked up from the desk he'd appropriated for himself. His laptop was open, the pale glowing screen casting an odd play of shadow and light over pages of open books and scribbled sheets of music. Christine looked around. All the other tables in the library were full - clumps of people in pairs or trios occupied the smaller tables, while groups of fives and sixes were spread out across the larger tables. Erik, who occupied a table that could have comfortably sat a group of four more people, was alone. Christine pursed her lips. People should really get over the damn mask.
"Christine," he said, a note of pleasure in his voice. He stood up as she approached him, and Christine was reminded of an old-fashioned gentleman. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for a spare seat to study," she said. "Raoul's in practice, so we've got about a couple of hours before heading home."
Erik nodded. "All right." He waited for her to slip into place opposite him and place her bag on the empty seat beside her before sitting back down again.
Christine brought out her Introduction to Critical Theory books out of her bag and her notebooks, and glanced over at Erik. He was already hunched over his notes, headphones firmly clamped around his ears. His mask was firmly in place, delineating the half of his face and rendering his features into unmovable porcelain.
Dark and light, yin and yang, morning and night - Erik was two halves of a person, comfortable in the shadows than in the spotlight. Christine tilted her head and looked at her friend closely. He was handsome, at least from what she could see. His dark hair was swept back from his forehead, combed neatly into place, the tips curling just beneath his ear. The mask covered the left side of his face, sculpted perfectly to mirror the right side. The eye-hole carved in the middle allowed her to see the tint of his autumn-hued eyes; such a strange color! Like little licks of flame, burning into you if you looked too closely. Erik was too thin, his clothes always hanging off him like a hanger, and he almost always dressed in black, with his customary peacoat thrown over his shoulders. Christine considered him. He was handsome, but not in the way Raoul was handsome. They were like the opposite ends of the spectrum - Raoul looked as though he'd stepped out of the pages of Esquire, while Erik would have been more at home as the resident mystery musician in Rolling Stones. She smiled at the comparison, and wondered how she could have been so lucky to have found two of the most awesome guys in school as her friend.
Erik flicked his eyes in her direction. "Done getting your fill?"
She laughed softly, trying not to disturb the atmosphere of the library. "How did you know?" she asked.
"I always know what's going on around me," he said.
"Eyes at the back of your head then?"
"Makes up for the ugly front." Erik gestured to the side of his face covered with the mask.
"Erik." Christine's voice was filled with reproach. "Stop that."
His eyes hardened. "It's true, Christine. No use pretending."
She decided to let it drop, at least for now. "So what are you doing?" she asked.
"Trying to make sense of the music for my final project."
"That's, like, six months away!"
"I want it to be perfect." He gestured to the music sheets in front of him, filled with pencilled notes and scribbled words beneath the staff. "I refuse to put in anything less than the best I can do."
"We're just freshmen, you know." She flipped open her book, looking for the Romantics. The tinted portrait of Lord Byron stared back at her. "Anyway, you're lucky. I can barely finish writing the words for the song we're supposed to be doing for Composition class."
"Have you gotten a melody already?"
She blushed. "I was, ah, planning to use the music you wrote for me."
He looked up, pleased and surprised. "You wanted to use that?"
"Um. If you don't mind. Of course I'll credit you properly. In fact, I was thinking… oh, but you'll make fun of me." Christine felt her cheeks heat up even more.
Erik looked at her, hips lips turned upwards into one of his rare brilliant smiles. "Christine, nobody's ever taken an interest in my music this way. Of course I want to hear what you have to say."
"I just wanted to say, perhaps we could work together for my final project? I really liked what you did with the piano, you know, for the piece you recorded. Does it have a title? I think it would be nice, after that day - "
"When I ran away from you?" He had the sense to look abashed.
"Hey, none of that. Water under the bridge, remember?" Christine leaned forward, unable to keep the excitement away from her voice. "But I was thinking, perhaps we can write the words for the music you wrote, and then I can, oh I don't know, maybe, sing it?"
"A collaboration then?"
"Yes. A collaboration." She knew that Erik was remarkably possessive and private about his music; aside from that afternoon in the practice room and the CD he'd given her, she'd not heard any of his other work. Even Raoul was impressed when she let her listen to the CD. "That's Erik?" he asked incredulously when the piano faded into silence. "I wouldn't be surprised if the Philharmonic gives him a call. That's one heck of a piece. And he gave it to you?"
"Yes," she'd said defiantly.
"He must really like you then," Raoul had said.
" - and perhaps you could help me as well," Erik was saying. Christine started, meeting his eyes. "Hello, Christine, are you listening?"
"Sorry, I was a million miles away."
"I noticed. Woolgathering, Nadir would say. That man is a fount of obscure words." Erik tapped his pencil on his notebook. "Anyway, I was saying, perhaps you could also help me. I realize that two minds are better than one, especially for final projects."
"Of course." Christine held out her hand. "Let's shake on it."
Erik's grip was warm and tight, and for a moment, she wanted to envelop him in a hug, wrap her arms around him and keep him close. He looked starved for touch, and Christine resolved, in her heart of hearts, to fill that void.
And finally, pieces are falling into place! Don't forget to leave a review - it makes me want to work faster, too. :)