Continuing Tales

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 5 of 37

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Stay By My Side

Christine tossed and turned in her bed, tried to find a cooler place on her pillow, muffled her sigh in deference to her roommates; Meg, Giselle and Jammes were all sleeping peacefully, and Christine knew they'd been held after the performance for more practice, was loathe to make any sound that might wake them.

The bed squeaked; Christine stilled, stared up into the darkness and wished for sleep. Wished even for sleepiness, for she was wide awake, and had been for some hours. She needed to sleep, she knew that – but sleep refused to come.

One of the others turned over in their bed, and Christine sighed into her pillow again. No, sleep would not come, and she couldn't keep lying here waiting for it.

She sat up, eased off the squeaky spring on the bed, found her slippers and dressing gown at the foot of her bed by touch. She put them on, made cautious half-steps across the floor to the door and then opened it just barely enough to allow her through. There was a lantern at the end of the dormitory corridor, and she lifted it off its hook, glanced back to make sure nobody had stirred.

The opera house was dark and quiet, and the lantern barely did more than light her feet, but Christine knew the way, knew where she was going, didn't falter or stumble at any point as she went down through the tiny back staircases, along corridors that grew a little larger as she moved into the working areas of the opera house, towards her dressing room.

There was really nowhere else for her to go, she reflected, and the dressing room, new as it was, had already become a private space for her, the kind she hadn't had since she had arrived at the opera house to work and live. She wasn't sure if it would remain hers, whether she would be moved to the communal dressing room once she was no longer playing a leading role or whether they would let her stay here, even though she would only play the mute part.

It wasn't something she had to think about yet; Hannibal had barely been playing for a week, and Christine was resolved to enjoy the privacy while she had it.

She arrived, shut the door behind her and the candle guttered in the breeze, almost went out. Christine huffed a sigh, lifted it to check how much candle was left – and the dressing room lit up, a bright light from behind her, spreading into all the corners of the small room.

Christine lowered the lantern, turned very slowly, held her breath.

He was there, standing by the mirror, a lantern in his hand. He wore evening wear, as he had that other night just a few days ago – but it seemed longer, somehow, and for moments all Christine could do was look at him, stare at him, drink him in.

And he just looked back, blank white mask and the bare side of his face just as impassive.

Christine stepped forward, saw him flinch but only because she was watching so closely. She put her lantern on the dressing table, retreated again, resisted a strange urge to throw herself at him, to wrap her arms around him and beg him not to disappear again.

His hand clenched into a fist and then relaxed again, and still he said nothing. Christine's mouth was dry; she moistened her lips, tried to find the right words.

"Hello," she whispered at last, and he nodded, didn't reply. "I'm so sorry," Christine said then, and he nodded again.

"So you've said," he replied, and Christine swayed a little, so relieved to hear his voice again at last. "I heard all of it," he went on. "Everything you've said."

"Please believe me," said Christine fervently, and she stepped forwards again, stretched her hand out to him. "I've – I've missed you so much." He didn't flinch this time, didn't move at all, stood looking at her, implacable once more. The Opera Ghost, so fearsome, so terrifying.

But no, she told herself, he was her angel. She would not be frightened of him. She would not be.

"I've been learning the part of the countess," she said, the words tumbling out her mouth. "For Il Muto. Monsieur Reyer – he's rehearsing me. Away from the others." She glanced around wildly, knew she was babbling. The dressing table was empty – she'd left the music box there for him earlier, and she turned back to him. "Did – did you see?" she asked him. "I'm sorry, it's not...not much, but I thought…" She trailed off, lowered her gaze, discouraged by his continuing silence.

"Thank you," he said at last, and she lifted her head again, looked at him hopefully. "It was…thoughtful." He moved then, stepped to the dressing table and put the lamp down, remained there, barely an arm's reach away from her. She didn't reach out, couldn't reach out. Couldn't touch him unless he made some motion towards her first, wouldn't risk offending him.

The silence stretched agonisingly, until at last he sighed, turned away from her, and Christine made a sound, almost a cry, unable to bear it. He swung back, looked straight at her then, stepped closer, so close she could feel his breath on her face.

"Don't," he instructed, barely more than a whisper. "Don't cry, Christine. I can't bear to see you cry."

She couldn't resist any longer; she reached out to him, flung herself against his chest and wrapped her arms around his neck. He seemed to hesitate, but then his arms came around her waist, he held her close to him, and Christine buried her face against his shoulder. She bit her lip to keep from crying, hard enough to taste blood. His hands were warm at her waist, warm through just a few layers of cloth, and Christine would have felt immodest if this were any other man.

"I've missed you," she said, her words muffled by his shoulder, but she knew he heard her; his hand moved from her waist to stroke through her hair, and then he slowly pushed her away from him, far enough that they could look at each other. She looked up at him, at the mask and the face, saw his bloated, twisted lip, the mismatched colour of his eyes, the way he looked as if…

As if he were afraid of her. And Christine's breath caught in her throat as the past few days came into focus, made sense for the first time. He hadn't been angry with her – his anger, she realised now, must have faded quickly. He had been afraid of her reaction, afraid that she would shun him despite her repeated entreaties for him to come back to her. Shun him because of his face.

She moistened her lips again, and his eyes dropped, briefly, to her mouth. Her stomach fluttered, and for a moment, just a moment, she knew why.

Then he released her entirely, frowned down at her.

"You shouldn't wander around dressed like that," he muttered, and Christine wrapped her arms around herself, felt conscious suddenly that she was wearing her nightclothes.

"Nobody else is awake," she excused. "And I've worn much less on stage." His gaze turned intent suddenly, and she flushed, lowered her head, fidgeted with her hands.

"Would – would you like to resume lessons?" he asked her then, oddly hesitant, and Christine looked up at once, nodded eagerly. "You're doing well in Hannibal," he continued at her agreement, "but Il Muto has different challenges."

"Yes, ang-" She cut herself off, bit her lip, and he gave a smile that lacked mirth. "I…I don't know your name," she whispered, acutely aware that she might be treading on dangerous ground, that this too might be too private for him, too much of an intrusion.

A man who wore a mask, who masqueraded as a ghost, might not wish anyone to know his name.

He sighed, turned his head so the white mask was towards her, concealing any hint of his expression. "I suppose you should know," he said, speaking slowly, as if it would cost him something to tell her. "Yes," he went on, turned back to her. "Yes, you should know. You of all people. My name is Erik."

Christine offered him a smile, recognised the offering for what it was. "Thank you," she said, and his mouth quirked into a smile again, he shook his head as if to deny the gratitude.

"You have apologised so often over the last few days," he said. "Did you ever pause to consider that it was I that owed you the apology?"

"But – your mask," Christine said, hugged herself tightly. "You do believe me? That I'm sorry?"

"You are sorry," he wondered, "and yet I was so close to striking you. And I have deceived you for years."

It was true, Christine could acknowledge, he had deceived her, but then she felt she had also chosen to be deceived, chosen to believe in an angel sent from her father – chosen to believe so when the stories of the Opera Ghost were rampant among her friends in the corps de ballet, indeed among the whole company.

"I chose it," she said, as much to herself as to him. "I could have questioned it. I'm not a child any longer. But I chose not to." She looked at him, held her hand out towards him again. "Could we not forgive each other?" she asked, and he looked at her outstretched hand, glanced up at her face as if he couldn't believe her, wouldn't believe her. "Angel – Erik – whoever you are, you have been my friend," she said. "You've never hurt me." He didn't reach for her, didn't take her hand, and she let it fall, defeated, turned away from him and lowered her head. "If you do not believe me I don't know what I shall do," she mumbled.

And a moment later he touched her shoulder, guided her gently back to face him. His words were harsh though, and she flinched at them.

"You have seen my face," he said, "and yet you still want my company? Want my teaching? All others have fled from the sight, Christine, how can I expect you to be different?"

"I don't know," she whispered miserably. "But – it's not your face that scared me, Angel." He moved away from her as if burned, and she lifted a hand to cover her mouth, felt tears threatening again and loathed herself for them.

"No," he said, "no, I cannot believe that…and yet…"

She turned away and the mirror caught her eye; in the lamplight their reflections were strange, and his mask seemed to shine out.

"You've never hurt me," she said again. "But…but you could. So easily." And in so many ways, she knew. He was strong, his temper was fierce, but his absence from her life would hurt infinitely more than anything else he could inflict.

"Oh Christine," he sighed, came back to her, stood behind her and joined her in gazing at the mirror. His hand skimmed over the curves at her waist, as if he wanted to touch but wouldn't, or couldn't, allow himself to do so. "You make me want to believe you," he said, and his breath was warm on her neck, she swayed back against him and exhaled shakily when at last he did touch, at last placed one hand at her waist and the other on her shoulder.

"Can we not start anew?" she whispered hopefully. "Will you give me a chance to make amends?" His hand slid around to her front, pulled her close to him the way he had that night, that wonderful, terrible night. She trembled under his touch, felt that knowledge once again within her grasp. Excitement, she realised. Desire.

And then he withdrew, his hands slipping off her so reluctantly, so slowly, and he stepped away from her. She turned, wanted to reach out to him but felt too shy.

"We'll resume our lessons tomorrow afternoon," he said. "If you agree, we can go down to my home. The organ there will be a better accompaniment."

"Of course," she said, breathless in her joy. He would not abandon her again, would teach her again – would, she hoped, be her friend again.

"Meet me here at three," he said. "Bring your score for Il Muto. I mean you to be prepared to take the role of the countess. Carlotta will not remain leading soprano here for long."

Christine did not, could not object. She smiled at him, took up her lantern again – darted forward, pressed a kiss to his bare cheek.

"Thank you," she breathed, and fled the dressing room before he could react.

Stay by My Side

A Phantom of the Opera Story
by Sparks

Part 5 of 37

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