"Order your fine horses, be with them at the door..."
"And soon you'll be beside me..."
"You'll guard me and you'll guide me..."
Christine entered the opera house from the roof first, the end of her cape over her arm. Raoul closed the door then started for the spiral staircase that led down to the stage level of the theater. When he realized Christine was not behind him, he paused and looked up at her. "Christine? Are you coming?"
She hesitated at the top of the steps, staring at her empty hands. The rose. She had left the rose her Angel had sent her on the rooftop. "I…You go ahead and tell them I'm on my way. There's something I need to do." His brow furrowed as he frowned. "I'll only be a minute, I promise."
Nodding, he resumed his descent.
Christine paused at the door to the roof, her hand on the knob. She should just forget about the rose, forget about it all, her Angel, Joseph Buquet, Carlotta, everything. She turned away, but something drew her back to the door.
She could not bear to leave the rose out there in the snow. It felt too much like she was abandoning her Angel.
Pulling open the door, Christine stepped out onto the stoop. The sound of a voice stopped her as she started down the stairs, its anguished tones cutting through her like knives.
"I gave you my music, made your song take wing. Now, how you've repaid me, denied me and betrayed me…."
Oh God. It was her Angel--and he knew. He must have been on the rooftop with them the whole time, hiding as she had tried to explain the events of the previous night to Raoul. She had been so upset by everything that had happened, onstage and off, that she had reached out to Raoul's calm strength without considering the consequences. Her Angel had to have seen them kiss. What had she done?
"He was bound to love you, when he heard you sing…Christine…."
She found herself moving toward the dark, bowed figure kneeling in the snow, watching as he crushed the rose to his lips. The faint sound of sobbing reached her ears, and Christine fought desperately against her urge to flee, to hide from the stark evidence of what she had done.
Tears filled her eyes and she wished she were dead. Nothing she could do, nothing she could say would ever take away the pain she had inflicted upon her Angel. Better a hole should open beneath her feet and swallow her, ensuring that she could never harm anyone again.
Yet Christine could not leave him. Moving quietly to his side, she knelt next to her Angel. His eyes were closed, the skin around them looking drawn and almost bruised, his dark lashes wet. He must have sensed her presence, for his eyes opened slowly. He peered at her, the beautiful green of his irises nearly eclipsed by the damp black of his pupils.
"I'm sorry," she breathed. "I never meant…I…I would never…" Her tears spilled over, and she clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob. The rose fell from his grip as he started to reach out to her, but Christine shook her head, and his hand stopped halfway to her, his fingers curling in toward his palm.
Swallowing hard, Christine began again. "I know that nothing I say can erase what I've done. I won' t even attempt to give you an excuse, save that I am not worthy of you." She paused, willing him to say something while praying for his silence.
He simply looked at her, his eyes two dark pools of hurt. Christine shivered under his unwavering gaze, but she refused to look away. This was her doing and she should accept responsibility for it. Taking a shuddering breath, she said, "I know you can never forgive me; I don't deserve to be forgiven. But if...if you can somehow choose to forget, if we both agree to forget everything that's happened since last night...I...I will wait for you, in my dressing room, after the performance."
The sound of the church bells tolling the hour made Christine realize they would come looking for her any moment. "I have to go, Angel," she whispered. She stood up slowly, feeling his gaze stay with her. "I'll be waiting." Moving toward the stairs, she paused at his side. "If...if you decide not to come, I will know I only have myself to blame." She brushed her fingers against his shoulder as she left, her touch so light she was certain he did not feel it.
If Christine had looked back, she would have seen her Angel get to his feet and turn to watch her leave, his gloved hand over the spot her fingers had touched, the left side of his face as expressionless as his mask.
Christine shooed everyone out of her dressing room after the performance, even Raoul and Madame Giry, locking the door behind them. They had both fussed over her when she had claimed exhaustion, but she had promised to rest and they had gone, though somewhat reluctantly. She sat in front of the mirror at her dressing table, removing her stage makeup. Her claim of being tired wasn't so far from the truth, judging by the dark circles under her eyes.
Sighing, she patted on concealer and went to choose a frock from the several hanging behind the changing screen in the corner of the room. She decided on a plain black dress with a sheer black lace insert around the scooped neckline. Her hair was rather the worse for wear after being stuffed under the countess' wig for two hours so she pulled it back in a simple tail and tied it with a ribbon.
Walking over to the huge mirror at the far end of the room, Christine inspected her reflection, smoothing the silky fabric of the dress, trying to make it fit better over her bosom. For not the first time in her life, she wished for just half the chest Mother Nature had endowed Meg with. There was nothing to be done for it, however, and primping for her Angel made her feel strangely self-conscious but she pinched her pale cheeks to give them some color all the same.
Christine sat down on the chaise with her back straight and her hands folded demurely in her lap and waited. For the first hour, she convinced herself that he was just giving her time to change and get ready for his visit. The second hour she believed that he had misunderstood her up on the roof, and that he was waiting for her in the cellars. She broke two fingernails in her attempt to find the mechanism that would open the magic mirror.
Finally she curled up on the chaise, a pillow clutched to her chest, and let the tears fall. Her Angel wasn't coming. And as she had told him, she had no one to blame but herself.
It was her fault Joseph Buquet was dead; his blood was on her hands as well as her Angel's. Her guilt had sent her running to the roof and the illusory safety of Raoul's arms. And an illusion it had been, lasting all of the thirty seconds from the moment they left the roof together until she returned to find she had destroyed her Angel.
She would most certainly rot in hell for the things she had done--and for the things she hadn't. Christine had known what her Angel would do to the stagehand once he cornered him. She had known, and she had not stopped him. Even now the only regret she felt was for what it had done to the two of them. She had not an ounce of remorse for Buquet.
Christine was damned. She had been from the moment she had gone looking for a quiet place to collect her thoughts before the start of Il Muto.
Winding her way through the maze backstage, Christine headed for the chapel. She just needed a moment to herself to run through tonight's performance in her mind and to find some kind of internal calm after the whirlwind of the past day. Already dressed in the tight blue trousers and striped vest of Serafimo, she slipped easily through the crush of performers in various states of attire. As she reached the hallway that led to the chapel, she caught a glimpse of Raoul as he started down the stairs, obviously intent on reaching the chapel as well.
She knew he was looking for her; Meg had told her the Vicomte had asked about her when she had seen him with the managers. Christine knew she was not up to facing him at the moment. He would want answers about where she had been last night, and Christine was not ready to share the beauty and the tragedy of her time with her Angel with anyone.
Turning away from the chapel, she walked toward the stage. There was a little cubbyhole she knew of at the back, where some of the flats were stored. Ducking behind one of the large hanging backdrops, she entered her hide-away. Much to her dismay, it was already occupied.
Joseph Buquet set down the bottle he had been drinking from and wiped a dirty hand over his mouth. "Well, well, what do we have here? A pretty little puss come looking for old Joseph, have you?"
Christine took a step back but she wasn't quick enough. His hand darted out, his fingers closing around her wrist in a crushing grip. She opened her mouth to scream, but his other hand clamped across it as he pushed her up against the wall. "Sweet little Christine, isn't it?" He let go of her wrist, his hand moving to stroke over the crotch of her trousers.
Her heart pounding in terror, Christine grabbed at his hands, clawing at them, but the leather bracers he wore kept her from doing any damage, and she wasn't strong enough to move them. "Everyone's all talking about you today, saying you bedded our new patron. I know whose bed you were truly in last night." He leaned in close to her ear to whisper, "I saw him bring you back, pussy. I know it was the Phantom you were keeping warm." He gave her ear a sloppy lick, and she shuddered.
Buquet ground his hand harder against her private places and Christine whimpered behind his fingers, tears leaking from her eyes. He ran his tongue along her neck, then said, "The Phantom and I are amis, little one. We are like this," he let go of her trouser front long enough to show her his crossed fingers. "We share everything."
She closed her eyes, swallowing the bile she could taste at the back of her throat. He was lying. She knew that with every fiber of her being. Her Angel had been a gentleman; he would never, ever touch her the way this filth was pawing her. He would never let him lay his hands on her. Please, God, please send my Angel to me now.
She opened her eyes just as Buquet kicked her feet out from under her. Christine fell to her knees; he grabbed her hair roughly to keep her from dropping to all fours. She stared up into his face as he yanked her head back, the wild look in his eyes terrifying her. She couldn't even draw breath deep enough to scream, though her mouth was now uncovered.
In fascinated horror she watched him fumble with the front of his trousers. He reached inside and pulled out something that resembled a small, floppy, pink sausage. "Give little Joe a kiss, puss," he commanded, waving the thing at her. The hand in her hair pushed her forward and she squeezed her eyes shut, but she couldn't block out the smell of old sweat, cheap wine and stale urine that assailed her nostrils.
Christine threw up--all over Buquet. "God damn bitch! Look what you've done!" He cuffed her alongside the head and she doubled over, still gagging. When she looked up, he was gone.
A soft thump sounded off to the side of her. Christine scrambled back further into the corner, trying to make herself invisible.
"Christine...." It was a low, musical whisper. Her Angel! Christine opened her eyes to see him kneeling in front of her, his eyes glittering behind his mask. "Christine, I'm sorry. I saw what he was doing but I was too high up. It took me too long to get to you. Are you hurt?"
Flinging her arms around his neck, Christine clung to him, sobbing silently into the soft silk of his cravat. She felt his arms go around her, and he pulled her close to him, sheltering her in the dark folds of his cloak. "Shh, shh, mon ange. You're safe now. I won't let him hurt you any more. I will not let him hurt anyone ever again."
When her trembling finally eased, and she could draw an even breath, Christine loosened her hold enough so she could look up at her Angel. "Better now?" he asked. She nodded, and he lifted her to her feet. "Come, you need to rest. We'll go to my home; you'll be safe there."
The sound of the orchestra tuning up reached her ears. "I can't, " she said with a shake of her head. "I have to go on." He frowned and she could plainly see his concern for her. "I'll be all right. I don't have to sing."
His gloved hands rubbed gently up and down her arms. "Are you certain?" She nodded. "Very well then." He produced a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the tearstains from her face, then helped her fix her ponytail. Again, he asked if she felt sure she could perform.
Taking a deep breath, Christine replied, "Yes, I'll be fine." As he turned to leave, she asked, "Where are you going?"
He looked back at her, his expression hard, his eyes almost glowing. "Above. I have a long overdue meeting with Joseph Buquet."
A tendril of fear shot through Christine and she caught hold of his sleeve. "What are you going to do?" she whispered, knowing she did not want to hear the answer.
His fingertips traced over her cheek where the stagehand had struck her, the leather of his glove cool against the heat of her skin. "I'm going to kill him," he answered softly. The look in his eyes told her nothing she could say would sway him from his self-appointed duty and, somewhere deep inside, a small part of her didn't want to.
Swallowing, Christine gave him a brief, tight hug then stepped back. Her Angel cupped her face between his hands again and tenderly kissed her forehead. Letting go of her, he grabbed hold of one of the many ropes hanging from the flies and scrambled up it, disappearing into the shadows.
Something soft and silky brushed against her face as the scent of roses drew Christine from slumber. She opened her eyes to find her Angel leaning over her, touching the poor bedraggled rose he had given her and she had abandoned to her lips. A kiss from a rose.... "You came," she whispered, her voice rough from sleep and too many tears.
He took a step back as she sat up, kneeling on the carpet so that they were eye to eye. She wiped at the stickiness on her face, taking in his appearance as she did so. He looked how she felt, his eyes puffy and red and his complexion pale and blotchy. She ached to imagine him pacing back and forth in the tunnels, perhaps just the other side of the mirror, shedding tears over the pain she had caused him.
"I'm sorry, my Angel," Christine began, but he held up a gloved hand to silence her. Biting her lip, she bowed her head. She would endure whatever punishment he desired.
He let out a long sigh, but did not speak. She watched his hands where they rested on his thighs, his fingers clenching and releasing, his gloves shiny where the leather grew tight over his knuckles. Finally, he said, "I have tried to do as you asked, Christine. I have spent hours roaming these halls, trying to forget, but I cannot." His voice broke then, and she dared to look up at him. His lips trembled and he pressed them together tightly in an attempt to control his emotions.
"I cannot forget, and I do not know how to forgive. So, please, Christine, make me understand. Why would you do such things to me? Only three days ago you told me you loved me."
Christine pressed her hands to her heart, recalling her last words to him the night before the premiere of Hannibal. He had given her her lesson in the chapel as always, his final words to her "Sweet dreams, Christine." She had responded as she had for so many years now. "Goodnight, my Angel. I love you."
She felt a flush of shame burning her cheeks.
"I believed you," he continued, his voice low and weary. "I am the same as I was that night, Christine, the same as I have ever been. All that has changed is you know now that I am not an angel...and you have seen my face."
Tears spilled down Christine's face unbidden as she gazed at her Angel. He seemed so very tired, as if the pain she was causing him had taken his last ounce of strength from him. "Nothing has changed, Angel," she dared to say at last. "Your appearance makes no difference to me. I love you as I always have."
"Liar!" he roared, shooting up from his hunched position, his gaze boring into her. "I saw your fear, your revulsion when you took my mask!"
Christine resisted the instinct to shrink away from his anger. She had to stand up to him now, she had to make him see. "Yes, I was afraid!" It came out louder than she had intended and he rocked back as though she had physically struck him. His hands came up to cover his face as if his mask was not enough to shield her from his terrible visage. She spoke again, keeping her tone soft and gentle. "Afraid of your anger, not your face." She grasped his fingers and tugged his hands from his face. "I love you."
He blinked back tears and turned his head away from her. "Then why...why did you go with him tonight? Why did you say such cruel things about me?" he asked, his voice thick with emotion.
Christine tightened her grip on his hands, afraid if she let go that he would flee from her, and she was struck by the utter wrongness of it, that her strong, capable Angel was afraid of her. She had never held that kind of power over anyone in her life, and she hated it, hated that a careless word or action from her could cut him to the quick.
She did not answer him right away, needing to collect her thoughts, to put into words all the things she had thought about while she had waited for him. "I was frightened when I went up to the roof."
He nearly crushed her fingers as he growled, "Of me?"
"Yes," she said so softly that she wasn't certain he heard her. Pulling free of her grasp, he leapt to his feet, pacing the dressing room furiously. "You killed him. When you told me you were going to do it, I didn't want to believe you."
He rounded on her, pounding his fist on the back of the chaise, making her jump. "What did you think I was going to do, Christine? He nearly raped you!"
She crossed her arms over her chest hugging herself. "I know that's what you intended and no matter how much I wish to deny it a part of me wanted you to do it," she replied in a low voice. "I am as guilty as you are."
"And that sent you running straight for the boy?" he said with a sneer.
"Yes. I wanted someone to confess to. I couldn't carry our secret any longer. I told him you were a murderer, I told him about your face...and how despite those things, I was still drawn to you."
He walked around the chaise to kneel once more in front of her, his eyes flashing behind his mask.
"Raoul told me it was all a dream, that you didn't exist. Somehow I thought that if I tried hard enough, I could come to believe that too. He would protect me, take me away from here. He would never know what a wretched person I am for wanting a man to die."
She shook her head and he fell silent. "I thought with Raoul I could pretend tonight never happened. But it was an illusion, a trick I played on myself because I didn't want to see the truth. I knew the moment I walked back onto the roof that everything was real."
Raising her hand to his face, she brushed her thumb across the trail of tears streaming down his cheek. "I saw how much I had hurt you. You, who were always there for me from the moment you found me crying so long ago in the chapel. You, who have loved me for so many years...I should have listened to you before the performance, I should have gone with you. Then none of this ever would have happened. " She leaned her forehead against his, feeling his hands moving to rest on her shoulders. "I am so sorry, so very sorry."
His arms slid down around her back and he pulled her to him, once again sheltering her with his body. Christine leaned into his embrace, one hand going to the back of his neck, the other slipping around his waist underneath his cloak. "Can you still love me?"
She felt a long, hard shudder go through him. For a moment, he buried his face in the curve of her neck, his tears hot against her chilled skin. "I shouldn't," he whispered. "I should leave and forget you."
Christine's heart was breaking as he sat back, releasing her. He stared at her for a long moment, his eyes full of despair. "All I have ever known is pain, Christine. I do not know why I ever expected any different from you," he said, his voice resigned.
"I understand," she finally replied quietly. "It is no one's fault but my own that I have destroyed us before we even truly began. But I do not want you to think what we had was all a dream. I did love my Angel of Music." She reached across the chasm between them, and clasped her fingers around his. "And I do love you. I will miss you every day until..." She couldn't complete the sentence. The thought of never seeing him again, never hearing his voice, was too painful. "If you ever...if you ever change your mind, I will be here." Giving his fingers a squeeze, she let go of him, trying in vain to hold back the tears.
He got to his feet with an effort, staring down at her for several heartbeats before he turned toward the mirror. He touched the fingertips of his left hand lightly to the unfeeling glass and bowed his head, his other hand balled into a fist. She watched the jerky rise and fall of his shoulders beneath his cape, his heavy breathing echoing in the silence.
Slowly his hand unclenched and he turned toward her, fire burning in his eyes. Christine rose from the chaise uncertainly. One long stride and he was in front of her, his hands coming up as if he wished to touch her but dared not. "God, help me, for I surely cannot help myself," he rasped. "I should go back to my cellars, forget you, forget this ridiculous notion I had to ever reveal myself to you." His hands hovered over her throat, then dropped to his sides. "But I cannot. I love you too much, Christine. I cannot bear to be without you, though I fear my decision to stay will only lead to my ruin in the end."
It took a moment for his words to sink in then Christine slid her arms about his waist and hugged him tightly. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you." Hesitantly, he returned her embrace, and as he bowed his head to touch his cheek to hers, she felt the warmth of their mingled tears.
After several minutes, she stepped back, wiping her face with her hand, her tears having turned to ones of joy. A smile tugging at her lips, Christine reached into his coat pocket and found his handkerchief. Gently, she blotted the wetness on his left cheek and, without thinking, she reached for his mask.
Quick as a snake, his fingers closed around her wrist. "What do you think you're doing?" he spat.
"I--I--I only thought to dry your other cheek. I would think it very uncomfortable, your mask trapping the dampness..." she stammered. He loosened his grip on her hand but did not let go, his eyes closing as he tilted his head back with a sigh. After a long moment in which Christine dared not to breathe lest she somehow injure her Angel again, he met her gaze, the emotion in his dark green eyes unreadable.
Raising their joined hands to his mask, he helped her remove it, then closed his eyes as if he were afraid to see her reaction. Taking a deep breath, Christine brushed the silk handkerchief lightly over his red, damaged skin, wiping away tears and sweat. He shivered beneath her touch, but did not push her away.
Emboldened by this small victory, Christine laid her hand carefully along the right side of his face, then leaned up to press her lips tenderly against his brow. He let out a cry like a frightened animal and clutched at her, his hands fisting in the fabric of her dress, his eyes squeezed shut. Christine drew him to her, enfolding him in her embrace. "Shh, shh, mon ange, I am here," she whispered. "I will always be here."
When he had composed himself, he drew away enough to look at her. There was a light in his eyes Christine had never seen before. It took her a moment to realize it was hope.
He swallowed audibly then tugged the glove from his right hand. He touched his bare hand to her cheek and she turned into the caress, nuzzling his palm. He tilted his head down and she met him halfway, their lips colliding in a fumbling kiss. Pulling back for a moment, his brow creased in a frown. Then he brought his left hand up to cup her other cheek as his mouth descended on hers again, his kiss warm and sure this time. A fire ignited inside Christine, traveling swiftly through her veins until every part of her was tingling with a new and wonderful sensation.
When they finally broke apart, she leaned her head against his chest, breathing hard. He wrapped his arms around her protectively, his chin resting in her curls. She could feel the pounding of his heart beneath her cheek, and she rubbed her fingers over his chest, listening to his quiet sigh.
At last he released her. She straightened her dress self-consciously then asked, "What now, my Angel?"
"Erik. My name is Erik." He touched a spot on the edge of the gilded mirror and it sprang open. Holding out his hand to her, he asked, "Come with me?"
Picking up the red rose from where it had fallen to the floor, Christine laid her hand in his and followed him into the darkness.
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