Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 19 of 37

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Stay By My Side

Christine sat by the fire in Erik's music room, head bowed over clasped hands. Erik was playing the organ, an expression of his anger, but she wasn't sure what had caused it. Raoul, of course, but she felt as though she had transgressed, as though he were angry at her as well. It made her uncertain, made her hesitant, and the sharp-eyed glances he flung at her from time to time weren't helping.

A final chord echoed through the room, and then all was quiet. Christine risked a quick look up, only to find Erik had moved, silently, to stand before her. She jumped a little, bit her lip.

"He would try to take you from me," Erik said, and it seemed more to himself than to her, so she said nothing. "He would seek to protect you. As if you were a mere child who couldn't know her own mind."

She could see his insecurity, see what he was thinking, and she rose, stepped towards him but faltered when he flinched away from her.

"You're doing the same thing he did," she accused him gently. "I'm not a child, Erik, and I do know my own mind. He won't convince me I need protection any more than you convinced me to love you."

"I convinced you I was an angel," he snapped. "That's what you thought, Christine – that I was an angel sent by your father."

She flinched, couldn't deny it, couldn't lie to him. When he'd first come to her, she had thought that – and although in later years, more recently, she had begun to question, begun to wonder…she had truly believed him an angel at first.

"Would that I were such a thing," he muttered then, turning away from her. "Instead of – "

"Don't say it!" she begged, darted forward to clutch at his arm. "Please, Erik. You're not – whatever you were about to say, you're not." He sighed, rested his hand over hers, shook his head. He didn't speak, but she knew he thought she was wrong – knew how he saw himself.

"Nothing Raoul could say will change how I feel," she said at last. "Neither Meg nor Madame Giry could, and don't you think they'd have more chance of success?" He nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "I love you, Erik. I shall say it again and again until you believe me." She reached up cautiously, slowly so he could see her intent, cupped his bare cheek in her hand. "I'm stronger than that," she whispered. "Nobody can sway me."

"Strong," he said, and shook his head, pulled away from her. "And yet you still refuse to let me deal with Carlotta." He was changing the subject, moving to more comfortable territory for him, and she watched him, watched his anger rising again. "It's an insult," he said, and he grew louder as he grew more angry. "To push you aside like that – you should be on that stage every night!"

"Erik, you promised," she said at once, and he snarled, flung himself into his chair and glowered at her.

"Yes," he said. "I promised. I promised you I would not harm her, that I would not kill, and that I would not make it clear to the managers that Carlotta's ridiculous demand for your removal from the production is…unacceptable." His eyes were cold as he watched her, and Christine waited for him to continue. "I promised a great many things, Christine. And in return I only asked for your days."

"Which I am gladly giving," she attested. "You know I enjoy spending time with you."

"And yet you allowed the Vicomte to steal time from me," he snapped. "And he would take more than that!"

She flinched, looked away. "I didn't ask for it," she said, and she went to him, kneeled beside him and looked up in time to catch a brief glimpse of his surprise. "The opera will finish at Christmas," she said, "and I won't see Raoul again."

"And when the next opera is cast, and Carlotta again insists you have nothing?" he demanded coolly. "Will you return to the ballet and be satisfied?"

Christine lowered her head, let her hair fall forwards to conceal her face from him. She didn't want to face Carlotta again, to be in rehearsals with her every day and have to bear the spiteful woman's slander. She could not forget what Carlotta had called her, that day in rehearsals. And Meg had related to her a meeting she'd witnessed with the managers, the morning after her debut in Hannibal – the managers had all but accused Christine of having relations with Raoul, and gaining the lead that way, Meg had told her.

And yet how could she explain that to Erik? How could she show him how weak she felt?

"No," said Erik, and he reached for her, two fingers under her chin to force her to look at him again. "No, you will not be satisfied with that, Christine. And I will act, promise or no."

"No," she whispered, shivered with fear. "Please, you promised me."

"Threats," he shrugged. "Letters. Insinuations. As long as you remain true to me, I shall keep that promise."

"I am true," she said, and she rested a hand on his knee. He inhaled, the way he usually did if she touched him unexpectedly, and she watched his expression soften a little. "You must believe me," she said. "What can I do to make you believe me?"

He smiled thinly, an upward tilt of his mouth half-hidden by his mask. "Oh, Christine," he said. "I could give you an answer, but I would rather you chose it yourself." He took her hand, lifted it to his mouth and pressed a kiss to her knuckle just below her engagement ring. She knew then what he meant, knew he spoke of marriage, and she shivered again, but not from fear.

"I couldn't yet, anyway," she said, and she rose, went back to her chair, fiddled with the ring on her finger. "Not until I'm eighteen. Not without Madame Giry's permission."

"Hm," he said, clearly displeased with her reminder. "And of course you have not yet told the good lady of the current state of affairs." And that displeased him too, she could see, but she hadn't yet been able to summon the courage to tell Madame Giry, had found it hard enough to tell Meg.

But she would be eighteen in February. It was not so very long, and Erik was right; she must make the choice herself, not be coaxed into it to prove her love and her loyalty.

If there was even a choice to be made.

"I will tell her," she said. "Of course I will. I just…haven't yet." He almost laughed at her, at her response, and she smiled, pleased and a little relieved that his mood seemed to be lifting. "Meg knows," she added. "She can't decide whether she's terrified of it, or whether she thinks it's horribly romantic."

"I suppose either is fine," said Erik carelessly, "as long as she doesn't try to sway you."

Christine bit back a sigh, knew she couldn't attempt to persuade him that nothing could turn her away from him. If that grave sin, Buquet's murder, hadn't sent her running in terror from him, nothing could. She wasn't without fear – she feared his temper, feared the extremes he was capable of, and she was a little afraid of the depth of her own feeling. Afraid of his feelings as well, she could admit to herself, because it bordered on obsession, the way he looked and spoke to her sometimes.

But she loved him. And she had spoken the truth to Raoul – her father would have wanted her to be happy, to be loved.

"Come," he said then, rising once more. "Your lesson. When you return to the stage, you will be brighter and more brilliant than ever before." Christine followed him obediently to the organ, took the music he gave her. She warmed up at his cue, the familiar vocal exercises, and then she began the song, one they'd been working on for nearly a week.

He stopped her before she could complete three lines, hands crashing down on the organ. "Your mind isn't on this," he accused her.

"No, no, it is," she said, couldn't quite look at him. "I'm sorry, Erik. I'll do better."

He shook his head, sighed. "Something's bothering you," he said. "Badly, to affect your voice like that. What is it?"

Christine glanced up at him, wondered what she could say because there seemed to be so many things bothering her. She hated to disappoint him like this, hated to allow any of it to affect her precious lessons, but she found herself near tears suddenly and she couldn't seem to find the right words.

"Christine," he murmured, and she raised her hands to cover her face, bit her lip hard to keep from crying. Then he was before her, lowered her hands, brushed his fingers gently across her cheek. "It's that fool boy," he said, clipping his words, angry once more. "He upset you – all that talk of protecting you, and your father –"

"No, it's not Raoul," she said, and if it was a lie, it was only a small one. "I – I'm sorry, Erik." He shook his head, as if dismissing the need for an apology, and she reached for him, leaned against him and closed her eyes as his arms came to encircle her, a hand at the small of her back. "You're right," she muttered, "I wouldn't be happy going back to the ballet. But I – I don't think I can face Carlotta again, and all the gossip and the meanness."

He said nothing, but she was not discouraged, felt his arms tighten around her. "I love singing, of course I do, I love performing…but the things she said, Erik. And Raoul isn't helping – the more he seeks me out, the more people will talk. Some already think the only reason I sang the lead roles was because I – because –"

"Yes," he said, saving her from trying to say it. "I've heard the rumours." His hand stroked her hair, almost absently, almost as though he couldn't help himself. "There are always such rumours, Christine. You've lived here long enough to know that."

"I've never been called a whore before," she whispered, and he flinched. She opened her eyes, pulled away enough to look up at him, to see the anger on his face. The mask aided his expression when he was like this, made him the terrifying Opera Ghost who threatened to get his way, who caused accidents and scared dancers. "I know it was a month ago, but I – I've never…"

"You didn't say anything," he said, almost an accusation. "You seemed to brush it off. But no," he went on, slower now, thoughtful. "No, you were quieter…and I should have known." He sighed, raised a hand to tuck her hair behind her ear. "I could kill her for that," he muttered.

"No, Erik," she said at once. "I – I must be stronger, I know that."

"Stronger," he echoed. "You, who stand in the Phantom's home, with his arms about you…you think you must be stronger?" She bit her lip, and his gaze dropped to her mouth at once, and she held her breath for a moment. "You are temptation itself," he muttered, and he kissed her, pulled her close to him, his hand insistent at her back. His mouth was hard and hot, hungrily taking what she offered freely, and she clutched as his shoulders, felt sure her knees would give way without his support.

Her skin burned, the clothes between them seemed too great a barrier, and she gasped into his mouth at her thoughts, moaned when his mouth left hers – but it was only to press kisses to her jaw, her throat, and then he returned to her mouth again.

She felt something hard pressing against her hip, and she knew what it was, knew she should pull away from him now. It would be so easy, she knew, to stay here, to let him keep kissing her, keep touching her.

But it would not be right, and so she kissed him again, let him kiss her again, and then she tore herself away, stepped back. He was almost panting for breath, his hands reaching out for her as if he couldn't bear not to be touching her, but she shook her head, took another step away.

"No," she said, her voice ragged. "No, Erik. Not – not yet."

He stared at her, dishevelled as she had never seen him before, and at last he gave her a slow nod. "No," he agreed. "Not…yet."

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 19 of 37

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