Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 26 of 37

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Stay By My Side

Christine covered her eyes with her hands, took a deep breath and dropped her arms back to her sides.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm trying." She had been trying all lesson, for nearly two hours, to achieve the perfection he demanded of her, and she'd had rehearsals during the morning as well. She was tired, and she was acutely aware that she wasn't mastering this music as well as she usually learned new music.

But then, this was music unlike anything she had ever sung, or even heard.

"Try again," said Erik, unperturbed. "From the fifth bar."

Christine took another deep breath, corrected her posture and began again from the place Erik had indicated. It was a particularly hard passage, she consoled herself – and Erik had written it to stretch her, written it for her voice. She could master this.

But not today; she missed the note again, and Erik's hands crashed down on the organ as he glared at her, all steely determination, so wholly the Angel of Music, so wholly her teacher.

"No, Christine," he snapped. "Here, listen." He played the bar, and again, and looked up at her. "You can do this," he told her. "I know you can."

"I – yes, Erik," said Christine with a subdued sigh. His eyes narrowed, and Christine raised her score, tried to focus on the notes and words – the notes and words he had written. But she was tired, and her fingers were cold; she lowered the score, looked back at him.

"I'm pushing you too hard," he murmured at last. "You're tired." Christine bit her lip, hated the feeling that she was disappointing him.

"I'm sorry," she muttered. "I – I'll do better, Erik, I promise."

"No, it's my fault," he said, dismissing the apology. "But this must be perfect, Christine – my life's work!" He looked away from her, at the pages on the music stand before him, and his fingers trailed across the page. "The culmination of everything," he murmured. "I know you can sing this, Christine – I wrote it for your voice."

"I'm sorry," she said again, miserable at disappointing him.

"No, no," he said, looking up at her once again. "You had a long rehearsal this morning, I know. We'll leave it for today."

"I didn't sleep well," Christine admitted then, went to put the score with the rest of the libretto on the table. "I am sorry, Erik." She turned back to him, found him watching her intently. "It's so very different," she said, not trying to excuse her failure but needing him to recognise her struggle.

"Why didn't you sleep well?" he asked instead, and Christine made a face, shrugged.

"I had dreams," she said, unwilling to admit exactly what she had been dreaming. They had been more nightmare than dream, and she'd woken several times with little idea what had scared her so much.

She had wanted to find Erik, to bury herself in his arms and forget whatever remnants of the nightmares that lurked still in her mind, but after what had happened last time she'd tried to seek him out late at night, Christine had forced herself to stay in bed and try to get back to sleep – mostly unsuccessfully.

And anyway, she reminded herself, in just a few days she wouldn't have to wander through dark corridors to find him, wouldn't have to console herself alone in her bed. She had seen the priest yesterday, had made sure he was still willing to perform the ceremony. It would take place on Friday evening, far later than the priest was completely happy with, but Erik had refused – understandably – for it to be in daylight, and Christine was adamant she wanted Meg and Madame Giry there, and both would be occupied with the opera until the late evening.

She rather thought that if Erik had his way, they would be married with little ceremony or mark of the occasion, and that it would have already happened. But Madame Giry insisted things be done as properly as they could, and Christine, torn between her guardian and the man she loved, had come down on the side of the former. She wanted to be married properly, and she'd said so to Erik when he had complained of the wait.

"Sit down," said Erik, and the transition from Angel to Erik was almost visible as he came to her, directed her to the chair by the fire. "Rest," he instructed. "We'll try the piece again tomorrow. Do you need something to eat? Or drink?"

"No, I'm fine," Christine reassured him. "Just sit with me?" He nodded, pulled the other armchair a little closer to hers, stoked up the fire again before sitting down. Christine watched him, fascinated as always by his economy of movement.

"It was a long rehearsal this morning," he said, and she nodded, grimaced. It had gone unusually badly, in fact, and had overrun by nearly an hour. Erik did not attend the rehearsals – she knew he was working on his opera still, and on other projects he refused to share with her.

"Piangi missed most of his cues," she said, "and then Jacques Duval collided with me so hard I ended up on the floor." She had banged her elbow, hard enough for it to bruise. "But I'm enjoying it," she continued then, when Erik said nothing. "And normally it goes well, you know."

"And how is Monsieur Lambert?" Erik asked then, his voice a low growl, and Christine sighed, shook her head. Erik had developed another alarming streak of jealousy where her friendship with Henri was concerned, and she was a little fearful that he might start up his tricks again on a target other than Carlotta.

"Henri is fine," she said, refusing to rise to his bait. "It's nice to have a friend in rehearsals. I barely see the girls now." She laughed suddenly, leaned forwards. "Madame Lecoutier – you know, the junior ballet mistress – she told me today that I should be looking for an apartment now that I've officially left the corps de ballet."

"I'm surprised nobody mentioned it sooner," Erik observed, and Christine shrugged. Most of the dancers, and those connected to them, knew by now that Christine was engaged and that the marriage was soon. Giselle had teased her, had said that it was all happening so quickly, and in a sense it was fast. Christine knew that was why Madame Giry had insisted they wait at least a little, to save Christine's reputation – such as it was.

"It doesn't matter, anyway," she said. "In five days I will be here with you." Erik nodded, and his eyes seemed to flash in the candlelight as he looked at her. His gaze was heated; she knew what he was thinking, and she blushed, looked away, searched for some way to change the subject.

"I've been meaning to ask," she said at last. "How will you make the managers perform Don Juan?" Messieurs André and Firmin had proven entirely too resistant to the Opera Ghost's directions, and she couldn't imagine that they would agree to put on the opera – and such an opera, so unlike anything that had gone before it – without threats or coercion.

Threats she was sure Erik would not hesitate to make.

"It needn't concern you," said Erik, and he rose, stood before the fire with his back to her. Christine pursed her lips at the rebuff, tried to decide whether it would be worth pressing him for an answer. She didn't want to rile him, and yet she felt he was wrong – it did concern her.

She shook her head, told herself it wasn't worth it. She would be told Erik's plans in time, and she didn't want to risk the coolness that he sometimes exuded, when her Erik faded away into the Opera Ghost.

"I will have some tea, I think," she said, rising. "No, Erik, I can do it myself," she added, when Erik turned as if to go to the kitchen. She could, after all, boil water by herself, and Erik's kettle was not so heavy that she might hurt herself lifting it.

Besides, she thought ruefully as she went into the kitchen, filled the kettle at the tap, a moment alone might allow Erik to reflect that she hadn't meant to cause offence by her question.

But he joined her quickly, flung a handful of papers down onto the kitchen table and looked at her, his expression almost daring her to ask him what they were.

Christine stepped to the table, picked up the topmost piece of paper and read it, frowning a little as she tried to understand the legal language. Something about the opera house, she could see that – the name was printed large and bold – but she couldn't quite work out what it meant.

She admitted defeat, dropped the paper and looked at Erik. "What is it?" she asked, and the barest smirk crossed his face before he went to make her tea.

"Deeds of ownership," he said. "Proof, if you like, that eventually the managers will see they have to do as I demand."

Christine stared at him, lifted the pages again and leafed through them, trying to see what Erik said was there. If it was true, if Erik did own the opera house…and now she remembered what he had said, that first night when he had brought her back up from his room. He had said the opera house was his. 'Those fools who run my opera', he had said.

"But they think they own it," she whispered at last. "The managers – they think they own it, surely?"

"They may think so, but their title is more apt than they know," said Erik, glancing over his shoulder at her. "The contract they signed, when they took over from Monsieur Lefevre, was quite specific."

"But – but didn't they read the contract?" Christine asked, bewildered. "Surely they must have read it before they signed. Or Monsieur Lefevre – he must have told them." Erik shook his head, returned to the table and exchanged a cup of herbal tea for the papers. Christine held it in her hands, let it warm her fingers. "But Erik – are they real?"

"Of course they're real," Erik said, offended or feigning it. "I helped design the opera house, after all. I owned part of it then, and I've bought out the rest over the years."

Christine stared at him for a moment, realised for the first time that she had no idea how old he was. If he had helped to design the Opera Populaire, he must be close to forty at least.

She lowered her head over the teacup, wondered if she would ever know him, know all of him. He knew all of her – knew her secrets and wishes, her past and her future. And yet she knew so little of him, really.

Did it matter? she asked herself, and knew it did not. It could not, for she could not be without him. And in part she was to blame. She had kept to her resolution, had refrained from questions as much as she could. If she asked more questions, would Erik answer them?

"What is it?" Erik asked her then, and Christine looked up, tried to smile at him.

"Nothing," she said. "Nothing important, anyway," she added when he frowned. "I promise. So you'll use this to make the managers produce Don Juan?"

"If I have to," said Erik slowly, watching her cautiously still. "I confess, I would rather do things more...theatrically. Presenting them with proof of my ownership would be rather dull, don't you think?"

"I suppose," said Christine, knew well his flair for the dramatic. "But Erik – it does concern me, you know." She put her cup down on the table, went around to him, placed her hands on his shoulders and felt his settle at her waist. "In five days I will be your wife," she said softly. "Will you share your life with me, Erik?"

His mouth twisted down in a scowl, his eyes narrowed and the mask seemed a stark barrier. Christine was resolute, looked straight at him and did not waver. It was, she felt, a crucial point. She could live without knowing his past or facts about him – even without knowing his age. But she did not think she could live without sharing in his burdens, his joys and displeasures. She wanted to share his life as an equal, not as a child.

"I am not used to it," he muttered at last. "Every day I wake and think surely today will be the day when you come to your senses and leave me down here in the dark. I would be a pitiful creature without you, Christine."

"I won't leave," Christine said, trying to assure him but knowing mere words would never be enough. "Never, Erik."

Then she did something she had thought she would never do without his permission. She raised her hand, slow enough that he could see, brought it to his mask. Slowly, so slowly, she slipped her fingers beneath the lower edge, eased the mask back and off his face. He was trembling, she realised, holding himself still through sheer force of will.

She looked at his face, the marks and contours that formed the whole, and she raised herself on tiptoe and kissed him.

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 26 of 37

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