Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 13 of 37

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Stay By My Side

After the performance, after she had been stripped of the countess' elaborate costume, Christine banished her dresser from the dressing room. She sent Meg away with a request to delay Raoul, and she locked the door, left the key in the lock and pressed her hands against the wooden door.

She breathed. Her head ached from the wig, from the pins that had held her hair in place beneath it. It had been the hardest performance of her life, to sing and act upon the stage when only minutes before Buquet had been hanging above it, and she knew the audience had struggled to engage. Some of them had left before the opera restarted – some left during the interval.

So hard, and now she knew he would be here, now she had to ask him, had to find out the truth.

She had to know.

She pushed away from the door, turned around, faced the mirror. The glass was transparent; she could see him behind it, standing at the mouth of the hidden passage. He was silent, watched her, waited for her to speak.

"Did you kill him?" she asked, and regretted her forthrightness almost immediately. Surely he wouldn't answer, surely he would deny it.

But Erik reached up, pressed the catch that opened the mirror, let it swing open. He didn't step into the room but there was no barrier between them now, and his eyes were fixed upon her.

"Yes," he said, softly. Christine gasped, covered her mouth with her hand and shook her head as if she could make it a lie by refusing to accept it as truth. "Yes," he repeated, harsh now. "I killed him."

Christine moaned, turned away from him, and in a moment he was through the mirror, in a moment he grasped her shoulders and forced her to look at him.

"Yes, cringe and cower," he hissed. "I am everything they say, Christine, and you knew it when you made your choice!" She shook her head, couldn't speak, felt his fingers tighten painfully. "Yes!" he insisted. "Don't think I don't know how Madame Giry's been warning you off – and she's right! I'm a dangerous, murderous monster."

"No," Christine moaned, shaking her head. "No, you're not – please, you're hurting me!"

He released her at once, staggered back. The straps of her chemise had fallen from her shoulders when he grabbed her, and she pushed them back into place, acutely aware of how little she was wearing. Not enough to be decent, not enough for propriety.

But then he cared little for decency, and she hadn't cared either, before now.

"Why did you do it?" she had to know, hated how plaintively her voice came out, how timid. He shook his head, lip curled in a sneer, and she hugged herself, stared at him, her thoughts racing.

A dangerous, murderous monster, he had called himself. He had gripped her so tightly she was sure she would have bruises tomorrow. Dangerous.

She closed her eyes, pressed her lips together to keep from speaking, from saying something foolish. Yes, Madame Giry had warned her off, and Christine hadn't listened. But Erik was dangerous, she couldn't deny it. Couldn't possibly even try, not now.

And if he'd had a reason, if he shared his motive with her, would that make it any better? Whatever crimes Buquet had committed, it could not justify cold-blooded murder – and it had been cold-blooded, could not have been anything else, not with the way he had taunted the dancers with his shadow across the spotlights as they performed after Carlotta's abrupt exit.

The worst of it, she realised suddenly, was not the murder itself, not Erik's blunt acceptance of guilt, but the way she felt. For she could not love him less despite his sin, knew that even now she could not acknowledge a future without him.

She was a good Christian, she believed in God and knew the ten commandments. Erik had broken one, had sinned against God and against his own soul, but it did not diminish her love for him.

"I warned you to be sure," Erik said at last, and she nodded, silent still. He had warned her, and she had been sure. "You made your choice." He stepped towards her, towered over her, and she trembled, not afraid but overwhelmed by him, by his physical power. He could turn it on her so easily, and she'd known that all along.

But he'd released her the moment she'd said he was hurting her, she remembered. He had no wish to hurt her. That, at least, was still true, was still a defence against Meg and Madame Giry, because she was sure she would face their inquisition when she went upstairs for the night.

"I made my choice," she whispered, and she reached out to him, lifted a hand to clutch at his sleeve. "But – but Erik, you killed him."

"I've killed others," he said, the words almost careless except she knew they couldn't be, knew they were calculated to make her see just what she had chosen. Christine closed her eyes, felt she couldn't stand much longer, her strength failing under his relentless admission of sin. "Look at me!" he demanded. "Look at what you chose, Christine!" When Christine opened her eyes again, it was to find he had removed his mask. His face was bare to her.

She flinched, and his lip curled in a sneer, as if he'd expected it. But Christine didn't look away, didn't allow herself that weakness. She looked at him now as she hadn't been able to that other time, let her gaze linger. His cheek was hollowed, distorted, the skin so thin she could almost see the muscle beneath. And higher, on his forehead – beneath what must be a wig, it was as if the skin hadn't grown, bare tissue and bone exposed. There was skin, she realised, but thin, so thin, barely a protective layer over the deformity. His bloated upper lip, twisted upwards.

It was scarcely a face, it was some mistake of nature.

And yet…

Christine lifted her hand slowly, so slowly, touched his cheek with trembling fingers.

"Does it hurt?" she whispered. Erik inhaled sharply, but she couldn't tell whether it was at her question or her touch. Her fingers moved, slid down his cheek, touched his mouth, and she raised her other hand, held his face gently. "I told you before," she said, "it isn't your face that scares me." She lifted herself up on tiptoe, kissed him, and his arms came around her once more, clutched her to him. His mouth was hard and hot, and Christine felt as though she were drowning, or flying, or spinning into a hundred different pieces.

He had killed, his face was hideous, and yet she loved him.

A knock at the door separated them, although Erik didn't release her, kept her close to him.

"Christine? Christine, are you there?"

"It's Raoul," Christine whispered, eyes wide. "I asked Meg to keep him away, but…" She shrugged helplessly, looked up at Erik and thought of his jealousy, thought of Buquet. "Erik, I don't want to see him," she insisted. "And he mustn't see you!"

"Christine! Please, I need to make sure you're safe!"

Erik replaced his mask, white leather covering the distorted features below, and he took Christine's hand.

"He will not have you," he said tersely, and Christine could read other meanings in his words but barely had a moment to think of those meanings; he pulled her to the mirror, whisked her through and closed the doorway behind them. Christine could hear Raoul calling for her, beating at the dressing room door, but the sounds grew fainter as Erik took her away.

She shivered when they reached the lake. It had turned cold in the last few days, and beneath the opera house by the lake it was colder still. Christine was hardly dressed for it – she wore only her undergarments, chemise and pantalettes, her corset. Her slippers were thin, and the ground was damp.

"Erik," she whispered, and he turned to her, frowned and muttered something, took off his cloak and wrapped it around her. She clutched it gratefully, the thick wool falling in folds around her, but she shook her head. "Erik, I should go back," she said. "The girls will be waiting – I'm not even dressed, Erik."

"Go back, if you think you can find your way," said Erik, challenging her. Christine stared at him, bit her lip and glanced behind at the tunnel, the rough staircase that led up. He could navigate the dark with ease, seemed to see as well in the dark as the light, but she would struggle, she knew that.

"You're not giving me a choice," she muttered, turning back to him, and he nodded, admitted it, held his hand out to help her into the boat. He was silent while he punted the boat across the lake, and Christine huddled in his cloak, kept her gaze down until they reached the far shore, the house across the lake.

"Sit by the fire," he directed her, pausing to moor the boat, and she nodded, went inside. The fire was a glow of embers and she eschewed her chair, knelt by the fireplace and took off her sodden slippers. She reached out to put a log on the fire, but her fingers were too stiff and she sat back, stretched out her hands to the embers and tried to coax warmth back into them.

Then Erik came, reached past her to stoke up the fire, stood above her and looked down at her. She looked back, acutely aware of the way his gaze lingered on her bared skin, looked at him and wondered what would happen now.

He sighed, shook his head, reached out to help her up. "Come with me," he said, and when she hesitated, he sighed again. "I will not hurt you," he said.

"Alright," she whispered, took his hand and rose, almost stumbled against him. He steadied her, brushed his hand against her hair, and then took her to the door at the other end of the music room, the door she had never been through. It led onto a passageway, and Erik took her along it, ignored the first two doors but flung open the third.

It was a bedroom, Christine saw at once, but not his. It was feminine, pretty, the furniture light and appealing. The walls were smooth and papered. A door was set into one wall – leading, Christine assumed, to a bathroom of some sort. The bed was neatly made, and there were flowers on the dressing table.

It was for her, of course. There was no doubt about it, and when she glanced at Erik she found him watching her, waiting for her reaction.

"It's beautiful," she said quietly. "Thank you." There was little else she could say; he had created this room for her, and she knew why, knew his hopes – his desires.

"There are clothes in the wardrobe," he said, gestured to the wardrobe in the corner of the room. "You should change. The bathroom is through that door. I'll fetch you a hot drink. You must be freezing."

He turned to leave but she reached out, caught at his sleeve and he stopped, looked just to one side of her as if afraid to meet her gaze. Christine faltered, hesitated, released him and wished she could find some way to explain how she felt.

"We can speak in the morning," he said, still not quite looking at her. "Rest now, Christine. You will be safe here, I promise."

"I know I'm safe with you, Erik," Christine told him, and she pulled off his cloak, offered it back to him. "I know you'd never hurt me. But – but you killed a man and you don't even –" She cut herself off, pressed her lips together and shook her head. Erik sighed, took the cloak and stepped through the doorway.

"Tomorrow," he said. "But rest now, Christine. It has been a long evening."

Christine choked back a sob, closed the door behind him and went to find a nightgown in the wardrobe.

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 13 of 37

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