Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 10 of 37

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Stay By My Side

"This is going to be so much fun," gushed Meg, practically bouncing up and down in her seat. "It's been so long since we had a holiday."

"Calm yourself," said Madame Giry, lifting one eyebrow ever so slightly. "Please try to act like the young lady you are, and not bounce about like a jack-in-the-box." They were the only ones in their carriage at present, but Madame Giry was still strict about their behaviour, and Meg exchanged an amused look with Christine.

"Yes, Maman," she said obediently, and she stilled, but her eyes danced with merriment as she turned back to her mother. "But Maman, aren't you looking forward to it?"

"I must admit I am," conceded Madame Giry. She glanced at Christine, tilted her head. "You're quiet, child," she said, and Christine nodded. "Are you tired? I know you've been working extremely hard for the past four weeks."

"I am, a little," Christine said. "But I'm sure the country air will do me good." She smiled, but Madame Giry scrutinised her, looked her over from head to foot and her mouth twisted.

"Hm, I dare say," she said. "Some time away is perhaps just what you need right now."

Christine was very aware of Meg's curious look; her friend had been silent on the subject since Christine had received her blue dress, but Christine knew Meg was aware that her lessons had continued, that Christine was still seeing the Opera Ghost. That her Angel was none other than the Phantom. It was unspoken between them – Christine had never admitted it in so many words, and Meg had hinted, had implied, but never directly said to Christine that she knew the Angel of Music was the Phantom.

"I will be glad of the time to think," Christine admitted. Madame Giry nodded, a sharp jerk of her head.

"Yes," she agreed. "And you must think carefully, Christine. You are playing a dangerous game."

Christine shook her head, glanced out of the window at the passing countryside. "But I'm not playing a game," she said, voice barely audible over the clatter of the train.

Meg reached out, took her hand. "Christine, will you tell me?" she asked gently. "Now we're not there – now he can't hear?"

Christine looked at Madame Giry, found no support for continued silence. Her foster-mother's gaze was fixed on nothing, her mouth a thin, tight line. She knew Madame Giry disapproved of her friendship with Erik, knew she thought him dangerous. Christine wondered if Madame Giry was hoping to persuade her against continuing to see him, now they were away from the opera house, away from his influence.

The thought of leaving him – of stopping their lessons, of cutting off their burgeoning relationship – was unbearable. Never to see the way his mouth twisted into a smile when she pleased him, never to feel his hand in hers as he led her through the passageways…she couldn't imagine how she would live.

"He wouldn't hurt me," she said, and took Meg's other hand, held them tight. "Please, Meg, you must believe me. I – I know him to be capable of many things, but never that."

Meg frowned, looking so like her mother for a moment. "He's hurt people before," she reminded Christine. "You know that. It's only by chance that Carlotta wasn't hurt by that falling scenery." Christine nodded; she did know. And yet…

"Christine," said Madame Giry, commanding their attention, "what is it you feel for him?"

Christine's breath caught in her throat; she released Meg's hands, looked around at nothing and everything. "I don't know," she whispered. "I…even before I knew, before he came through the mirror, he was my friend. The voice – my teacher – he was as close a friend to me as you, Meg."

"Did you never think it might be the Ghost?" Meg asked. "You must have known something, Christine."

"I didn't," she said, leaning back in her seat. "I didn't want to know." Madame Giry gave a slow nod; she understood that, Christine knew, if nothing else. "But oh, Meg," Christine went on, "the music he makes! There aren't enough words to describe it. And he – he is so kind to me. I would never have dreamed so high without him."

Madame Giry exhaled sharply. "Christine, there is more to him than music," she said. "Much more. You are blinding yourself to it." She held up a hand to forestall Christine's protest. "No, child. I have stepped back for four weeks because I was afraid to stand between him and what he wanted. But you are as like a daughter to me as Meg, and I will not see you come to harm."

"He wouldn't hurt me," Christine insisted.

"As long as you do as he wishes," Madame Giry snapped. "Don't you see? As long as you play his game, do as he demands, you will be safe. The moment you do otherwise he will turn on you!"

The words hung in the air. Christine bit her lip, hard enough to taste blood, and Meg took her hand once more, squeezed it gently but said nothing to deny the words her mother had spoken.

Christine swallowed, licked dry lips. "The only thing he has ever demanded of me is that I sing, and sing to the best of my ability," she whispered. "He's never asked me for anything else."

Madame Giry sighed, shook her head. She looked for a moment older, looked more tired than Christine had ever seen her before. Madame Giry was usually so…so in command, so controlled.

"Christine, he asks you for more every time you see him," she said. "Can't you see that? He will start to think – to think you are more to each other. And he won't allow you to reject him." Christine said nothing, and Madame Giry stared at her, shook her head again. "But you care for him," she guessed. "I should have stopped this years ago!"

"Christine, do you care for him?" Meg asked, and Christine swallowed again, nodded. "Do you – do you love him?"

"I don't know," she said, curter than she intended, and Meg released her hand, pulled away from her a little. "Madame, I know you mean well," she said, looking across at her foster-mother. "But…I cannot imagine my life without him." The idea of it went against her every instinct, made her feel almost ill.

"I couldn't do it," she whispered. "I couldn't – I've already lost my father, I couldn't lose Erik too."

"His name is Erik?" Meg asked, leaning towards her again, eager now. Christine nodded, offered a shy smile, hoped Meg would try to share her happiness. "What – what is he like?" Meg asked then.

Christine glanced once more at Madame Giry, but the ballet mistress was looking almost determinedly out of the window, so she turned back to Meg, tried to find words to describe Erik.

"He's – he's very kind to me," she said, falteringly. "And…he never expects any kindness from me in return. I feel as though he's always waiting for me to say or do something to hurt him." Madame Giry made a noise, and both girls looked at her for a moment. But she said nothing, and Christine turned back to Meg. "We go down to his home for lessons now," she said. "He lives underneath the opera house – across the lake."

Meg made a face. "Isn't it terribly cold and dark?" she wanted to know. "I've seen the lake, it looks horrid."

"I suppose it is," said Christine, thoughtful now. "He lights many candles, and there's a fireplace. The house is – oh, it's so hard to explain. It's sort of built into the rock." Meg nodded but Christine knew she couldn't picture it. "He has an organ there, and the acoustics are wonderful," Christine went on.

"But what is he like?" Meg pressed her. "What does he look like?" Christine shrugged, dropped her gaze.

"He's tall," she said. "His eyes are different colours. He always wears formal wear, as if he were going to see the opera." She gave a small, tight smile, found no mirth in it. "The stories are right about that, anyway."

Meg bit her lip. She looked as though she wanted to ask something but wasn't sure she should, wasn't sure it was a good idea. Christine knew what it was, of course – they both knew the stories, the exaggerated descriptions of a man with no nose, with yellow, weathered skin, with coals for eyes and a mask covering half or all of his face, depending on who told the story.

"He wears a mask," she said abruptly. "A white mask, over the right side of his face." Meg met her eyes, tilted her head slightly and waited for Christine to continue.

But Christine couldn't. She wouldn't break his trust like that, wouldn't share his secrets with anyone without his permission – which he would never give, she knew. She had gleaned enough, through their conversations and his reactions, to know he had been treated badly, inhumanly, because of his face, his physical appearance. To expose him to others was a cruelty she could not allow herself to contemplate.

"But his face, Christine," Meg said at last, when the silence stretched too long. "Is his face – is it like they say it is? Have you seen it?"

"Yes," said Christine. "I've seen it."

Madame Giry exclaimed at that, rejoined the conversation with an incredulous look. "You've seen his face?" she demanded. "And even then he didn't hurt you?"

Christine couldn't speak of his physical rage, of the way he had nearly struck her. She knew Madame Giry would twist it, would use it against her, would try to persuade her that Erik was truly dangerous.

She shook her head. "He was angry, and he scared me, but he didn't hurt me," she answered.

"My God," muttered Madame Giry. "And you weren't appalled by it?"

Christine hesitated. She couldn't lie and say the sight hadn't been appalling, that she hadn't reacted with shock and a little horror. She hadn't seen his face again, the mask had never come off, and she couldn't say that she wouldn't recoil again, although she hoped she wouldn't.

"I was shocked," she admitted at last. "Of course I was. But…his temper scared me more."

"Christine, you are in love with him," said Meg wonderingly. "You must be." Christine could feel herself flush, feel her cheeks heat. She couldn't deny it well enough for them to believe her, she knew.

"I don't know," she said once more. It was true – she didn't know, had never experienced love of this sort. "But I do know I must be sure," she said after a moment. "I can't hurt him. He's been hurt too much."

Madame Giry sighed, looked at her as if Christine had suddenly become something new, as if she'd changed. Perhaps she had, perhaps the events of the past four weeks had worked upon her in some way. Christine felt older, somehow, than she had been before, as if she had made the change from child to adult without realising it. She would be eighteen in just a few months, an adult in the eyes of the world, responsible for herself.

She thought, briefly, of the wedding gown in Erik's home. She hadn't seen it again since that night, but she knew it was there. She knew what it meant. At eighteen, she thought, she could marry without a guardian's consent.

But that was too much to think of now, and she thrust it away from her.

"Be sure," Madame Giry warned her. "You must be sure beyond any doubt, Christine, because there will be no going back with him. You cannot change your mind." She paused, and Christine nodded. "But if you are sure," Madame Giry went on then, quiet now, "I think…perhaps…you may do him good."

Christine nodded again, thought of how Erik had slowly grown more comfortable with her over the past few weeks, and knew she must decide soon.

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 10 of 37

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