Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 34 of 37

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Stay By My Side

Christine laughed breathlessly as Erik escorted her to a seat set in an alcove off the grand foyer of the opera house. They had just finished a dance, a whirling thing that only the dancers of the opera house had really succeeded at, and she was glad for a moment to sit.

Glad too that Erik was with her; she was enjoying the evening far more for his presence, and she leaned close to him to tell him so.

"I'm afraid I shall have to leave soon," Erik said, his gaze focused on the dancing that continued in the foyer. His eyes were the only part of his face she could see – he wore a mask that covered his whole face, even his mouth. "I have a few preparations to make for my business with the managers," he added, when she made an inquisitive noise.

"Alright," said Christine, refusing to rise to the bait and ask what his business would involve. That it was about his opera, she had no doubt; he had declared, a few days ago, that she had mastered her part and so it was time for the cast to begin rehearsals. "Will you be coming back?"

"In a sense," said Erik evasively, and Christine reached out, touched his sleeve to make him look at her. "Don't worry," he assured her then. "Nobody will be harmed."

"That isn't the only thing I'm worried about," Christine retorted, wished she could see his face, see what expression he wore. She was worried about him, about what the reactions would be when he appeared – for she was sure he was planning to appear in full Opera Ghost guise, to make an entrance and make his demands before everyone.

He took her hand, brought it to the mouth of his mask. "I shall be fine," he said, and his tone was warm, appreciative. He was slowly beginning to understand her desire to care for him, her need for his safety, and she thought he was beginning to appreciate it.

"You'll be alright?" he asked, rising, and she nodded.

"Of course," she said. "Meg's around here somewhere, and Madame Giry." She stood up also, smiled at him. "I'll be fine. Go." He gave her one last look, nodded, and disappeared through the mass of people in the foyer. He would reappear later, after his preparations – whatever they might be – were complete.

In the meantime, Christine would endeavour to enjoy herself without him. She surveyed the crowd, tried to find Meg but couldn't see her friend among the dancing couples. Nor was she by the long refreshment tables set up at one side of the foyer, when Christine ventured there to search.

But someone else was there – Raoul, lacking a mask, a half-empty glass of wine in his hand. Christine faltered, glanced around to see if she could escape gracefully, but Raoul had seen her, put the glass down on the table and approached.

"Good evening, Christine," he said, and Christine forced a smile, fiddled with her mask.

"Hello, Raoul," she said softly. "Are you enjoying the evening?"

"Yes, it's…dazzling," said Raoul, glancing around at the variety of colourful costumes. The opera house had done itself proud; everyone wore a wonderful costume, and if a few articles of clothing were recognisable from past productions, Christine was sure the audience members here tonight would not see it.

"We like to put on a show," she said. A passing black-clad figure caught her eye – Madame Giry, who gave her a sharp glance and then hovered nearby. Christine gave her a brief smile, knew Madame Giry would help her if she needed to put distance between herself and Raoul.

"I saw…him," said Raoul eventually, and Christine pressed her lips together to keep from making a retort, stared out at the whirling dancers. Somebody was dressed in a monkey costume, she saw, holding cymbals – had Erik created his music box from the costume, she wondered absently, or had the costume been created from the music box?

"Why shouldn't my husband come with me?" she asked at last, when she felt she could trust herself not to grow angry, not to react poorly to whatever attack Raoul was about to launch. "Why should I not spend an evening at a party with him?"

"Because he's –" Raoul cut himself off, stepped closer to her. "Because he's a monster," he completed, hissing the words. "A criminal even if only for the blackmail."

Christine whirled back to face him, to glare at him. "Do not speak so of my husband," she snapped, utterly incensed. To call Erik a criminal was one thing – she knew he had committed crimes, could not deny that charge – but to call him a monster, to her face, was something she could not stomach. "How dare you say those things to me?"

"Hush, Christine," said Madame Giry, coming to her rescue, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. "Remember where you are," she murmured, and Christine lowered her head with a blush, aware that people nearby had heard her raised voice. "Come," Madame Giry said then, loud enough for others to hear, "you need some fresh air. Come with me, Christine."

She ushered Christine through the crowds, allowing nothing to stop her, up the grand staircase, through a door and down a hallway. They finally reached privacy and a window, and Madame Giry flung it open, pressed Christine close to it and made her inhale the cold air.

"Breathe in," she ordered. "And for goodness sake, calm down!"

Conditioned to obedience through long years, Christine closed her eyes and breathed, measured inhalations and slow exhalations, and the air was bitterly cold, made the hot anger fade better than anything else could.

"Thank you, Madame," she said at last, when her temper was under control and she could recognise how poorly she had behaved. "I – I'm sorry."

"What on earth did he say to upset you so?" Madame Giry asked, pulling the window shut.

"He – he called Erik a monster," Christine whispered, and felt the anger rise again, pressed her hands to her eyes as she pictured Erik's face, his expression on those occasions when he referred to himself as such. "How dare he?" Christine asked then, dropped her hands and stared helplessly at Madame Giry. "What does he know of Erik? Nothing. Nothing!"

"Calm yourself, Christine," said Madame Giry, raising a hand, and Christine subsided again, felt hot, angry tears pricking at her eyes.

"Madame, I have spent these past weeks…no, these past months trying to show Erik that he is not a monster," she said at last. "He is not – he is more than his face, Madame. And for Raoul – Raoul, who barely knows him! – for him to just fling that word about as if it were natural…I cannot bear it!"

"Where is Erik?" Madame Giry asked sharply then. "Did he hear?"

"No…no," said Christine, shook her head and turned to the window, pressed her forehead against the cool glass. "He said he had preparations to make. He intends to speak to the managers tonight." She turned back to Madame Giry in time to see her look of concern, and Christine shook her head once more. "He will not harm anyone," she whispered. "He has an opera…he wishes it to be performed here, after Faust is over."

Madame Giry pursed her lips, offered a shrug. "Well, you know him best," she said. "Do you think you're alright to go back down? I don't want to leave the girls without a chaperone for long."

"Yes, I think so," said Christine, lifted a hand to check her headdress was still firmly secured, brushed her other hand over her skirt to make sure she was still presentable. "I'm sorry, Madame," she said again then. "I should have controlled myself better."

"The Vicomte should have worked out that you do not desire his company," Madame Giry retorted, an unusually fierce scowl on her face. "He will get himself into trouble if he continues like this."

Christine could not deny it; if Erik discovered that Raoul was still approaching her – if he discovered that Raoul had upset her so much – he would take action. She had no doubt about it. There would be…accidents. Threats. He would act to protect her, and to make it clear to Raoul that she belonged to Erik.

But she would not tell him, and she knew she could trust Madame Giry to keep quiet about it as well – not that she was in the habit of conversing with the Opera Ghost anyway, Christine reminded herself as she followed Madame Giry back towards the celebrations. Raoul would grow disinterested eventually, and she knew he was at least a little afraid of Erik. That would help, she was sure.

Madame Giry left her once they were back in the foyer, went to check on the girls she was chaperoning, and Christine kept a sharp watch for Raoul as she wandered around the outskirts of the dancing. She didn't want to speak to him, whatever he might have to say.

She found Henri and Heléne talking to Meg, joined them eagerly when they waved her over.

"Are you alright?" Meg asked her at once. "I saw Maman taking you out. What happened?"

"Oh, it was nothing," said Christine, shaking her head. "I'll tell you later, alright?" Meg pursed her lips but nodded acceptance. "Are you having a good time?"

"Good enough," said Heléne, and she glanced around. "Carlotta's being a pest," she confided, when she was sure that lady wasn't close by. "Throwing her weight around like anything. She's been telling the most outrageous stories about you to anyone who'll listen."

Christine shrugged, tried to feel as unconcerned as she pretended to be. "Carlotta says lots of things," she said. "I'm building my reputation, and I won't let her harm me."

Henri nodded, smiled in evident approval. "Thick skin," he said, and Christine smiled, nodded at him, remembered their first conversation. "Has your husband gone?" he asked then. "It's still early."

Christine began to reply, but cut herself off as one of the violins gave a screech. The music stopped, the dancing ceased as everyone turned to stare at the orchestra – and then at the figure who had appeared at the top of the grand staircase.

It was Erik, of course, but he had changed, was dressed extravagantly as Red Death, and Christine marvelled for a moment at how quickly he had donned the costume. The skeletal mask covered his face, he held the score for Don Juan Triumphant in his hands, and he swept his gaze from one side of the foyer to the other.

"Good evening, messieurs," he said at last, his voice ringing out clearly in the silence that had greeted his arrival. He addressed the managers, stood in horror near the foot of the staircase. "Have you missed me?" He chuckled, a grimly amused sound, and his eyes found Christine for the briefest of moments. She couldn't help herself, began to make her way closer, aware that Meg was trailing close behind.

"I have written you an opera," Erik announced then, threw the book down; André caught it, stumbled back a pace just as Christine reached him, and she saw his white face as he stared up at the Opera Ghost. "Don Juan Triumphant," Erik continued, and once more he glanced at her, looked away before anyone except herself had time to register the object of his gaze. "I advise you to comply," said Erik then, his voice silky and threatening, and even Christine couldn't quite suppress a shiver. "My instructions should be clear."

He looked at her once more, reached out his hand as if to grasp her, and Christine felt dizzy as she obeyed his silent command, stepped forward, onto the first step of the staircase and then the second. Close enough to see his delight at the reactions he had gained, the pleasure he took in playing the Opera Ghost.

She felt the heavy weight of the people watching at her back, stared up at him and waited for her cue, whatever it might be.

"You will sing for me," Erik commanded – the Ghost commanded – and Christine nodded. It was all the answer she could give, but it was enough, and Erik brought his hand down sharply, created one of his impressive fireballs, and disappeared.

Hands reached for her at once, voices clamoured in her ears, but Christine did not feel them, did not hear them. Erik had presented his opera, and somehow it must be performed.

Somehow she must help him persuade the managers.

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 34 of 37

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