Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 17 of 37

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Stay By My Side

"I was right," declared Jammes, clutching her shawl around herself, "it is cold down here!"

Nearly half a dozen of the dancers, as well as Christine, had ventured down as far as the third basement, just beyond the well-used areas of the subterranean levels, and now they stood at the top of a staircase – more like a ladder, Christine observed – that led down to the fourth level.

She didn't wonder that Jammes was cold; the young girl wore her practice tutu and a shawl, warm enough for the upper levels and the stage but far too cold for down here. Christine was better-clothed, but even her hands were white with cold now.

"You're scared," Giselle goaded her. "That's why you don't want to go on!"

"I am not!" Jammes snapped, and she put a foot down, delicately, onto the top step. "I'm not," she repeated, more hesitant this time, and Christine bit back a smile, went forward and linked her arm through Jammes'.

"Of course you're not," she said, and she coaxed Jammes down, glanced back to see the others clustered together a few steps away. "I thought you wanted to find the Ghost," she teased them. "Don't you think he'd prefer the dark?" She caught sight of Meg's face – her pursed lips, the slight tilt of an eyebrow, and turned away hurriedly before she could laugh.

"I suppose you'd know," said Heléne, pushing through the group to the front. "Everyone knows Carlotta's accidents happened because the Ghost wants you to be a star."

Christine flushed, tried to speak, but Meg rushed to her defence before she could find words.

"Don't be ridiculous," she reprimanded. "Why shouldn't the Ghost play tricks on Carlotta? She's had her day and everyone knows that." She glared at Heléne, and Heléne made a face, shrugged and didn't protest. Meg turned to Christine, gestured her to keep going. "Come on, then," she said. "We're right behind you."

"Come on, Jammes," Christine said softly. "Look, the lantern makes it quite bright." Jammes huddled close to her, held the lantern up higher as they scrambled down the steps.

The fourth sublevel was used for long term storage – props and stage dressings that had been used in productions years before and never destroyed, old furnishings from the dormitories and workshops. There were chairs from the auditorium, the fabric too old and worn to be in public sight, old bed frames, several extremely tarnished mirrors that cast odd reflections as the girls moved through them, pressed close together and speaking only in whispers.

Giselle shrieked, and Christine's heart pounded as she whirled, took the lantern from Jammes and reached out for her roommate.

"A rat!" Giselle exclaimed. "I'm sure I saw a rat!"

"Oh, you goose," snapped Celeste, a bold girl who had only recently joined the corps de ballet, but who had nevertheless seized upon the idea of the Opera Ghost and had been known to declare she wasn't afraid of him. "It was probably a mouse, and you see those all the time."

"It was a rat," Giselle said, and she was pale even in the lamplight. "It was huge! Oh, I didn't know there would be rats down here!"

"Maybe we should go back," Heléne suggested, and Jammes shook her head, stamped a foot petulantly.

"We said we'd go right down to the lake," she said. "We can't turn back now."

"Maybe we should," said Meg doubtfully, and caught Christine's eye. "It'll be terribly damp down there – if we ruin our shoes, Maman will have a fit."

But Celeste took the lamp from Christine, pressed onwards with Jammes, and when the others followed Meg and Christine had no choice but to do the same.

"This was a terrible idea," Meg whispered as they dropped back, to the very edge of the lamp's reach. "I never thought we'd get this far – I thought Jammes would be too scared."

Christine sighed, glanced around at the unfamiliar passages and dark, gaping doorways. "So did I," she admitted. "But she's so determined." At least, she thought, there was no chance of them stumbling upon Erik's home, or even the boat. The lake was large, there were several different access points, and she was certain Erik's boat would be well-concealed even if had hadn't returned to the far shore.

"But Christine, what if we do find something?" Meg asked, clutching her hand. "We should make them go back."

"Nobody can make Celeste or Giselle do anything, except Madame," Christine said. "We should catch up, we're going to be walking in the dark in a moment." She was used to that now, but used to Erik's guiding hand on hers, or his arm offered to her in a gentlemanly fashion. He never let her trip or stumble, never let her walk into things as she feared she would do now.

"Alright," Meg agreed, and she released Christine's hand, quickened her pace. Christine began to follow, and then suddenly something grasped at her, an arm wrapped about her waist and a hand covered her mouth to muffle her sounds. Christine startled to struggle – and then relaxed, recognised Erik's voice murmuring in her ear.

"It would serve them right if I did frighten them," he said, pulled her flush against him, her back to his front, and his hand at her waist, skimming across a hip, tracing her curves. "Hm, Christine? Shall I appear and scare the little dancers? That's what they want, isn't it?" His hand left her mouth, fingers trailing down her jaw, her throat, feeling for the chain at her neck and the ring it bore, and her skin burned at the touch.

"No," she whispered. "No, they'd never be able to walk through the theatre by themselves!" She turned in his arms, and it was too dark to see him properly but she lifted her face expectantly. It was exciting, to be with him like this when her friends were only a few yards away, and he gave a low, amused chuckle before acceding to her silent demand for a kiss.

"They need a little scare now and then," he murmured, and his lips brushed against hers, the edge of the mask scraped gently against her cheek as he looked past her, looked along the dark passage to where her friends were still just visible. "Just a little scare, Christine," he promised. "Nothing serious, nothing harmful."

She knew she couldn't stop him if he chose to do it, and she pressed against him, relishing his warmth in the cold basement. After all, she reminded herself, they'd come down here in search of the Ghost, in search of a thrill, and he wouldn't harm them.

"I'll blame you if Jammes has to have a candle at night," she whispered, and felt more than heard him chuckle again.

"Christine? Christine, where are – oh!"

Once again Meg had found them together. She stumbled to a halt, peering through the darkness, and Christine turned as Erik's arms fell away from her.

"Shhh," he said, lifted a finger to his lips, and Meg nodded dumbly, looked from him to Christine and back again. "Go and join the others, Christine," he said then, and Christine hesitated for a moment, then nodded and went to Meg, linked their arms and pulled her away, down the corridor towards the others.

"Where have you two been?" Giselle demanded as they were reunited. The girls had paused at an intersection of passages, darkness gaping from three sides, and they were huddling against a wall. "We're not sure which way to go," she added.

"Well, we don't know either," said Meg, tossing her head impatiently. "Anyway, we should go back. Maman will have missed us by now, I don't want a scolding."

"Me neither," said Heléne, who had the lantern now. "She's right, Giselle. Come on, Jammes, be sensible."

"You're just scared," scorned Celeste. "Christine, what do you think?" They turned to her, almost looking to her for leadership, and Christine felt unaccountably shy at the unusual treatment. It was as if they sensed somehow that she knew more than they did.

"Meg's right," she said. "Madame will be furious. And you've all got practice early, don't you?"

"You don't have to rub it in," Giselle muttered. "Just because you – "

The lamp blew out, plunging them into darkness, and at once Jammes screamed, and Giselle and Heléne joined in, shrill screams that echoed oddly in the corridors around them. Meg's grip on Christine's hand was painfully tight, and Christine wrapped an arm around her, wished she could murmur a reassurance.

"Little ballet dancers should be tucked up safe in bed."

The voice seemed to come from all around them, and even to Christine, more familiar with Erik's tricks, it was startling. It made the others scream again, and they crowded against the wall, huddled together. Somebody trod on Christine's foot and she bit back a pained noise.

"It's – it's him," Jammes stammered. "Oh, oh, I'm scared!"

"Isn't that what you wanted?" the Ghost asked then, and his voice came from right next to them, as if he were standing right there, and Christine turned, half-expected to see him. There was nothing, of course, but it didn't stop the others from shrieking, scattering as if he could appear in their midst.

"You wanted to be scared," the Ghost went on. This time his voice echoed from down one of the corridors. "You wanted to find me."

"We – we're sorry, Monsieur!" stammered Heléne. "We didn't m-mean to disturb you."

"We'll go," agreed Giselle, her voice high-pitched with fright.

"We don't know the way!" Jammes wailed, and Christine reached out for her, grabbed her by the shoulders and hugged her tight.

"Calm down," she ordered – and unbelievably they listened, quieted, gathered close to her again. Meg was at her side, but Christine could barely see her face, could barely see more than the outlines of the girls around her. "We're – we're very sorry for disturbing you, Monsieur le Fantôme," she called out. "But we can't find the way out without our lantern."

He laughed, the laugh echoing around, bouncing off the walls, and Meg hushed the girls when they startled; Christine hugged Jammes tight and thought of how amused he must be, how he might tease her tomorrow for her formality.

"Follow the lights then, little dancers," he said. His voice was fading now, growing fainter, as if he were leaving them. "Follow the lights, and don't be such bold little dancers again."

And as he spoke a candle lit up, a little way down the corridor on a sconce, and then another further down. Christine couldn't help gasping at it, and Jammes clung to her, eyes wide with wonder.

"It's magic," she exclaimed. "Oh, it's magic!"

"Hush, Jammes," said Meg, and she pushed Celeste, prodded her to start walking. "Come on," she urged. "Let's go, quickly." It was clear she didn't want to linger, and Christine took Jammes' hand and hurried her along.

Tomorrow she would laugh with Erik; tonight she, like the others, must return to the dormitory and face the wrath of Madame Giry.

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 17 of 37

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