Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 33 of 37

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Stay By My Side

"Erik? Erik, have you seen my slippers?" Christine asked, knocking at his bedroom door. She rarely ventured there – knew Erik valued having a space apart, despite his great love for her. He never slept there now, always joined her in her own bed, but his clothes remained there, and he sometimes retreated to his own room for a time, if Christine was busy with something.

But the door was ajar, and so she didn't feel bad about bothering him. He appeared in the doorway, lacking his mask, and Christine looked up at him without a flinch, gave him a smile. He did this sometimes now, appeared to her without his familiar mask, and she thought perhaps he was testing her, waiting for what he supposed would be an inevitable flinch.

She did not flinch, she did not turn away, and after a moment his fierce expression softened in a smile.

"No, I have not, my untidy wife," he said. "Look in the wardrobe." There was a strange look in his eyes, something of anticipation, and Christine looked at him quizzically for a moment before going to follow his suggestion. Erik trailed after her, and she glanced over her shoulder at him, wondered what was going on.

She discovered the answer when she opened the wardrobe; there was a gown there that she had never seen before, a beautiful blue and pink confection trimmed with silver, and a pair of boots at the bottom of the wardrobe to match.

"Oh," she whispered. "Oh, how lovely." She turned to him, raised herself on tiptoe to press a kiss to his exposed cheek. "But Erik, what is it for?"

Erik lifted a hand to stroke through her hair, and his smile was slight. "The masquerade tonight, of course," he said. "I know you wish to go."

"I – I do, yes," Christine had to admit, turned back to the dress, touched the skirt, traced one of the silver stars that decorated it. The dress would reach past her knees, she knew, but not far past, and the boots – silver boots, to match the trim of the gown – would be revealed. It was a daring gown, but no more revealing than anything she had worn on stage, after all. Indeed, it was more conservative than many of the ballet outfits she had worn.

But she looked at Erik again, bit her lip. "But…I don't wish to go alone," she said hesitantly, unsure what his reaction would be. "The only man I want to dance with is you, Erik."

His nod was slow, approving. "Good," he murmured. "I…that is good to hear, Christine." He turned away from her then, hid his face from her as if suddenly recalling that he had taken his mask off. Christine bit her lip but said nothing. He was growing more used to letting her see his face – was almost forcing himself to grow more used to it – but then he would remember, would visibly remind himself that she should not look upon him, shied away from her.

But Christine had learned to be patient, would continue to be patient.

"Anyway," Erik said then, clearing his throat awkwardly, "as it happens, I was thinking of attending myself." Christine stared at him, startled, and he glanced at her, smirked at whatever he saw in her expression. "It is, after all, a masquerade," he reminded her. She nodded mutely, had thought the same thing herself but had never dreamed that Erik would attend something so…so public. He was not a sociable man, after all – his life, his face, had not allowed him to be so.

He was amused then, something of mischief in his expression as he turned back to face her properly. "I attended last year," he said, teasing her. "I'm hurt you don't recall our dance."

Christine's mouth opened, but she couldn't find the words. Erik in a playful mood was rare enough, but could he truly be serious? Surely she would remember dancing with him, even if she had not known who he was. She had danced with several men last year, and of course they had all worn masks…

She frowned up at him, shook her head. "I don't remember," she had to admit, and the thought made her sad. She wanted to remember, but it was a year ago, and so much had happened since then – the night remained in her mind as a whirl of pleasure, dancing and celebrating but nothing that she felt indicated Erik's presence.

Erik was still amused, not downcast by her lack of memory, and he took her hand, placed the other on her hip, and she lifted her free hand automatically to his shoulder.

"I wore red," he murmured, "and you wore white." Christine closed her eyes, let him guide her steps as they danced to the music in his mind, scoured her memory of last year's masquerade ball.

At last she smiled, opened her eyes again to look at him, found him looking at her with wonderment and for a moment she paused, drank in his awe, his love.

"I remember," she said then. "I thought you were very strange." He tilted his head slightly, inquiring, and Christine let her eyes close again, hummed as he brought her a little closer to him. "You said barely a word to me as we danced," she recalled.

"I was afraid you would recognise my voice," Erik told her. "But I could not resist the opportunity." He released her hand, clasped her about the waist and kissed her, so soft and gentle, as if he still couldn't believe that he was allowed this. "I wanted to dance with you as other men did," he murmured into her mouth then. "To be as other men were, if only for one night." His lips moved then, down her neck, and she let her head fall to one side to give him more access.

"I wish I had known it was you," she whispered. "I feel cheated." She raised a hand to his face, caressed the curves and hollows of his cheek. "Do you mean it, Erik?" she asked him. "Will you come to the ball with me?"

"Yes," Erik said eventually, when at last he brought his lips, his tongue, from her skin. "For a time, at least. I have business to conduct with the managers, later on." Christine couldn't suppress a shiver at that, and he ran his hands down her arms, clasped her hands and squeezed gently. He would not change his plans for her, she knew, but she could be reassured that he had planned nothing…truly dreadful.

"But for a while, I shall come with you," he said. "Madame Giry and her daughter will of course know the truth, but to all others I shall simply be…your husband." He kissed her once again, as if he couldn't help himself, and Christine clung to him, wrapped her arms about him and tried to convey her pleasure, her gratitude.

They parted, and Christine could not contain a laugh of joy. Erik was used to her laughter now, knew it was not directed at him, and so he did not pull away as he once would have done. He released her, waved a hand at the dress in the wardrobe.

"You have only a few hours," he reminded her. The masquerade would begin at eight and continue all night; it was half past five now, and Christine knew she would have to hurry to be ready. "And you must eat before we go," Erik added then. "You're not used to the wine that will no doubt be readily available."

"What will you wear?" Christine asked, already turning back to the wardrobe, admiring once more the gown Erik had procured for her. She wondered, fleetingly, how he had done so. He did venture out to the shops and the market but only in darkness, with a hat pulled low over his mask. He did so only out of necessity, she knew, to acquire food and other essentials. He might have placed an order with a seamstress, she supposed – and then dismissed the curiosity as unimportant. The dress was beautiful, and she knew it would fit; Erik was well aware of her measurements, as he had demonstrated before.

"You'll see," was his answer, and he left her then, went back to his own bedroom, left her to prepare for the ball.

Christine hurried to the bathroom, stripped down to her undergarments and washed quickly, shivering in the chilly room. She returned to the warmer bedroom, brought the dress from the wardrobe and laid it carefully on the bed.

She could not wear her chemise, she realised as she looked at the beautiful dress. In fact she didn't think she could even wear a corset – the dress was cut low enough, both at the front and back, that a corset would show. She reached out, felt the bodice of the dress; it was stiff, boned like a corset, and she nodded, a little relieved. Some of her friends in the corps de ballet could escape wearing a corset, but she was not one of them.

The dress was beautiful, and she looked at it properly now, the blue bodice trimmed with silver, fading into pink at the waist and skirt. The skirt was wide, held out by several layers of tulle petticoats beneath. The skirt buttoned at the back, separate from the bodice, which was laced at the back like a corset. There were no sleeves, but beaded straps that would rest on her shoulders.

Christine went to retrieve the boots as well, delighted in them, grinned happily to herself. The outfit was less modest than anything she might have chosen for herself – she suspected Erik wanted to show her off, to make his claim on her clear for all the attendees of the ball – but the colours were what she would have chosen, and the style was delightful.

There was a mask as well, of course, also in silver – a mask on a stick, and Christine wondered for a moment if Erik had done that deliberately. But of course he had; he had told her before that he did not like her face to be hidden. A small headdress finished the ensemble, a wire frame decorated with a crescent moon and silver stars to match those on the skirt.

Christine took the headdress to her dressing table, sat down and brushed her hair thoroughly. She would leave it loose, both for Erik's sake and her own – she dreaded the task of putting it up, could almost never manage it by herself and hardly thought she could ask Erik for help. Once it was tangle-free she pinned back the front part of her hair, clipped it back firmly so it would stay out of her face. She settled the headdress on her hair, made sure it was secure, then rose and stripped out of her underclothes.

She found in her wardrobe the underwear the dancers wore beneath their tutus, enough covering for modesty but not so much that it interfered with their costumes. Her legs would be bare, but she was used to that – and she reminded herself, when her cheeks warmed, that she would in some senses be playing a part on this night as on any other in the theatre.

La Daaé. Yes, she could play that part.

The skirt was easy enough to pull on and fasten, and she allowed herself a moment to dwell in the way it swished about her as she spun around. The bodice, however, posed a problem, and Christine would have no choice but to ask for Erik's help.

He came quickly at her call, his gaze dropping rather lower than her face until she brought the bodice up to its proper position with a roll of her eyes.

"Lace me up?" she asked, turning her back to him.

"I would rather undress you," he murmured, stepped close to her, ran cold fingers up her spine and made her shiver. But he tugged at the laces, tightened them until the bodice fitted perfectly. Then he spun her around, held her at arms' length and looked her over. "Perfect," he declared. "All eyes will be on you, tonight."

"I only want you," Christine said simply, knew her words would give him pleasure, and he smiled at her, gazed at her with that adoring gaze that she had grown to love so much.

"Since you are my wife," he said at last, "that is just as well." He reached out to her, brushed his fingertips across her cheek as gently as if she were made of glass. "My wife," he repeated, his voice soft. "My Christine…my angel…" His eyes were wide as he looked at her now, his fingers touched her lips. "You are the Angel of Music," he told her, "not I."

Christine shook her head, wanted to forestall the words she was sure he was about to censure himself with, but Erik's fingers on her lips prevented her from speaking.

"Yes," he said, adamant. "To think there was a time when I did not have you here! When you were not mine. And now…"

Christine took his hand, clasped it between hers. "And now we are together," she said. "And we are happy." It was almost a question, but not for her own sake; she knew he was happy, could see it more and more every day, but she wasn't sure he always realised it.

But he nodded, his sobriety faded into a smile. "Yes, my Christine," he said tenderly. "We are happy."

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 33 of 37

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