"Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known? God give me courage to show you, you are not alone…."
Christine waded slowly into the lake, her gaze locked with her Angel's stormy eyes, her heart pounding in her chest. Coming to a stop in front of him, she slid his ring onto her finger, never looking down. As she tilted her face up to his, she saw the rage vanish from his eyes to be replaced by not triumph but…fear? Laying her right hand on his chest over his heart, her left came up to caress his shoulder. "Angel…" she whispered then pressed her lips to his in a soul-baring kiss.
Skidding to a stop in the middle of the small chapel, she sniffled loudly and swiped at her cheeks. She hastily lit the candle above the daguerreotype of her father, but she didn't kneel to pray. Instead, she took a loud, tremulous breath and wiped her nose on the back of her wrist.
"An—Angel?" she finally called out. "Are—are you here?" She looked around the room as if expecting the walls to answer her.
"Yes, ma petite fleur, I am here. What has upset you so?"
The warm, tender voice instantly eased a fraction of the girl's distress, and she closed her eyes, slowly spinning in place. "No one remembered what day it is today," she finally answered. "I know the premiere is tomorrow night, and everyone's busy but—but—no one remembered, not even Meg or Madame!" The last was wailed through a fresh set of tears as Christine flung herself on the floor next to the stained glass angel window. Resting her arms on the window seat, she buried her face in the crook of one elbow, sobs rocking her thin frame.
"Shh, shh, mon ange," said the voice soothingly. "I did not forget."
She lifted her head. "You didn't?"
"Happy Birthday, Christine."
A tremulous smile tugged at the corners of Christine's mouth, and she used the hem of her rehearsal skirt to wipe at her eyes. "You remembered," she said in a near whisper.
The voice wrapped around her like a velvet cape. "Of course I did. How could I forget such an important birthday? You are ten today, are you not?"
The girl nodded slowly, but strangely, her tears seemed to increase at his words instead of lessen.
"Why do you still cry?" the voice asked her, a touch of confusion evident in his tone. "I know today has not gone as you had hoped, but you are not forgotten, will never be forgotten."
Christine sniffled loudly and swiped futilely at her wet face. "I know, Angel. Thank you so much for remembering." She tilted her head down, ashamed of what she was about to confess. "I just wish you were real."
The voice made a startled stuttering noise then there was silence. "Angel?" Christine said, the word echoing in the empty room. "Angel, don't go! I didn't mean to offend you. I believe in you. I love you!" Only the quiet guttering of the candle flame answered her. "I just wish I could touch you," she whispered.
The silence stretched on for minutes, the only sound in the small room Christine's hitching breaths. Just as she was about to beg once more for forgiveness, her Angel's voice returned. "There might be a way." The Angel's words were soft and hesitant. "You must close your eyes, Christine. Close them and keep them shut tight no matter how tempted you are to open them! Only then can I appear in a physical form to you."
Christine thought about the Angel's strange request for a moment, and realized that perhaps it was not so extraordinary. Angels were heavenly beings not meant to be seen by the eyes of man or child. She nodded, getting to her feet and moving to the center of the room. "I won't open my eyes, I promise."
At her vow, a gust of air swirled through the chapel and the few candles flickered then went out. She was alone in the darkness, the only illumination a watery glow coming through the stained glass angel window. She shut her eyes, a shiver of anticipation going through her.
"Do not be afraid, mon ange," her Angel said, his voice coming from somewhere in front of her.
She swallowed. "I'm not." She lifted her chin up defiantly and heard him chuckle softly. Fabric rustled, and she felt the smooth, cool touch of gloved fingers against her cheek, the scent of well-worn leather tickling her nose. Tentatively, Christine reached up to grasp the arm connected to the hand cupping her face. The sleeve of his coat was of fine wool, not cheap, nubby cloth, and it confirmed in her mind that this was indeed an angel, not a grubby stagehand playing a trick on her.
Satisfied that her Angel was real, Christine took a step forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. He gasped at her impetuousness, but didn't seem offended by her actions. Pressing her face into the soft silk of his waistcoat, she let tears of joy slip from between her closed eyelids.
His fingers moved from her cheek to caress her hair, his other hand coming to rest lightly between her shoulder blades. He rubbed her back in long, soothing strokes, and Christine hugged him tighter, her heart soaring. For the first time since her father died, she felt like she was home.
She laid her hand along the right side of his face, her thumb stroking his crimson, twisted flesh as she touched her lips to his once more. Feel me, Angel, and know love....
Torture, that was what this was, the most exquisite torture he had ever known. He looked down at the sleeping angel he held in his arms, her head leaning against his chest just over his heart, her fingers wrapped around his coat lapel. He rested his chin against the girl's hair, shivering at the tickle of her silken curls against his skin. Tears threatened for the hundredth time that night, and he squeezed his eyes shut, breathing in the components of her scent. Talc, and chalk, and rosin, all part of a dancer's daily regimen, even one as young as Christine, and something else, some indefinable whiff of flowers or spices that was uniquely her.
Oh, he was a fool, an utter fool for giving in to her plea and his own temptation, for now he knew it would be agony to let her go. A voice at the back of his mind whispered there was no reason he should have to let her go. It was quite clear to him that Christine was not happy as a ballet rat. Why should such a heavenly creature be forced to suffer the casually cruel torments of a world that did not deserve her, that forgot such important things as her birthday, that made her so unhappy that she turned to an unseen voice for comfort?
There was no reason at all why this had to continue. He could take her with him, down to his home, where he would share everything with her. Dancing was a waste of time for someone with her vocal talents. She could be the greatest diva the world had ever seen in ten or fifteen years. Hell, she could become anything with the right training. She had a bright, inquisitive mind that was stagnating under the grind of the simple rote learning that was all that was offered the dancers. Why would they need to know maths or languages or art? They were bodies to be used until injury or age or pregnancy made them obsolete.
He wrapped his arms more tightly around the girl. He would never allow that to happen, not to his Christine. He would spirit her away this very night, take her to his home where they would live happily together in a world of music and art and knowledge. Yes, he thought, it was a lovely dream, save for the fact that his home was a dank and dreary cave at the lowest level of the opera house, with only the bare necessities needed to sustain his life and his work. He had his organ and his books and his writings, and a coffin for the rare instances when he needed rest. He had never needed much in the way of material things, but even he knew that an angel could not flourish in such a place.
Letting out a sigh, he leaned his head back against the stained glass window of the chapel and changed his position on the window seat. Pins and needles shot up his leg and he wiggled it carefully to restore circulation, not wanting to awaken Christine. Still, the idea was not completely without merit. He would simply have to make some changes to his home so that it would be welcoming to Christine. More light would be a start, and rugs to cover the bare stone floors. Furniture was needed as well, a bedroom suite for her and a parlor where they could sit and read together. Perhaps he would teach her to play the violin, her father's instrument. She would like that. He tilted his head down, pressing his left cheek to her hair.
Christine shifted in her sleep, her fingers letting go of his lapel as her hand moved to brush a strand of hair away from her face. In so doing, her fingertips bumped against his mask, his face so intimately close to hers. A bolt of sheer terror went through him, and he held his breath, every muscle trembling as he fought the urge to drop the child and flee.
But Christine did not stir further. She simply sighed and her hand came to rest on her chest. He exhaled an unsteady breath, the tears he'd held back slipping down his cheeks. What was he thinking, dreaming of such forbidden things? He was a demon and she was an angel! The first sight of his face and she would scream in horror and run from him, an event he knew his fragile heart could never bear. Better that she never know him, never look upon him, no matter how much it pained them both.
This had been a mistake, he now realized, a grievous error on his part to even consider giving in to her request to appear before her.
Slowly, he rose to his feet, Christine still in his arms. Gently, he laid her down in the window seat on her side, her arm curled under her head for a pillow. Exhausted from her long day, her tears, and the songs they had sung together before she fell asleep, she didn't stir.
He stared down at her, emotions warring inside him, his chest tight with both grief and joy. Getting down on one knee, he brushed her hair back from her forehead and dared to press his lips against her soft, warm skin. He closed his eyes, savoring that gentle touch, wanting to keep this one beautiful memory forever.
Finally, he stood and wiped away the tears running down his neck. "Thank you, Christine," he whispered, "thank you for making a monster feel like an angel, if only for a moment."
Turning his back on her, he melted away into the shadows.
A sob forced its way out of his lungs, and he staggered away from her, feeling her puzzled gaze on his back. "Take him, forget me, forget all of this!" He waded toward shore, his legs feeling as if they were made of lead.
He turned toward her as he exited the water, finding her still standing where he had left her, confusion in her eyes. "Leave me alone!" he screamed, waving his arms like the madman he was. "Forget all you've seen. Go now, don't let them find you! Take the boat, swear to me never to tell, the secret you know, of the Angel in Hell!"
Stumbling up the stairs to the bedroom he had once dreamed would be Christine's, he looked back one more time. "Go now! Go now and--!" But Christine was no longer in the middle of the lake; she was right beside him.
He fell to his knees, his world, his life, all he had ever known crumbling around him. A ragged sob shook him, and he reached out to her, to his Angel, his hands fisting in the damp folds of her skirt as he hid his face in the softness of the satin over her stomach.
A hand caressed his head, the other rubbing gentle circles between his shoulder blades. "It's all right, my Angel, it's all right," she soothed, her voice tender and calming. "I won't leave you, I promise. I love you."
He wrapped his arms around her waist hardly daring to dream this was real. But Christine was warm and solid under his cheek, and he could feel the beading on her bodice pressing uncomfortably into his skin. And with that sensation, he knew this was no dream.
He was where he had always longed to be. In her embrace, he was finally home.
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