Secrets Hidden, Secrets Revealed
A month had passed since Chris’ first meeting with the Opera Ghost. A small smile curled at the corner of the boy’s lips at the thought. It wasn't too long ago that he’d thought if he ever managed to meet the ghost, he’d not live to tell the tale. Now he could honestly look back on the past month with fondness. There was certainly no lack of menace and danger in the man and yet, for some strange reason, Chris felt safer with him than he did anyone else. He couldn't stop the small chuckle that escaped at the thought. For the first time in over two years the boy had found safety, and it was in a man pretending to be a ghost who kept his face covered and his name a mystery. Ah, life’s little ironies. He wondered idly whether or not the ghost would miss him when he left? Doubtful, but it was nice to think so.
Pulling the last of the backdrops into place, he skillfully secured the ropes holding it high above the stage. Chris never stayed in one place for long and he’d been at the Palais Garnier far longer than was wise already. Usually, he stayed no more than six months at any one place of employment before moving on. It was safer that way for himself and anyone who became involved with him. Even Larry, the elderly stagehand the boy liked so well, had suffered from knowing him. Buquet’s annoyance at someone breaking up one of his little “trysts” could be compared to a firecracker: a short fuse, a burst of anger, and then nothing. He could never forgive, however, the fact that Larry often kept the drunken stage hand’s cronies from harassing Chris. This constant defiance was like sandpaper to Buquet’s ego and he used every meager brain cell he hadn't killed with alcohol to come up with new and interesting ways to make them both suffer. Thankfully, Larry was retired now. The management gave him an excellent severance package that enabled the old man to move outside the crowded center of Paris and into a small cottage in the lush countryside village of Rouen. Chris missed him, but it was better this way. He would have hated to leave him to face Buquet alone.
The excited murmur of the cast below him drew Chris from his unpleasant thoughts. Lying on his stomach, he looked down on the stage to see the management approach the stage with two well-dressed gentlemen. So these must be the new patrons. Monsieur Andre called for everyone’s attention before launching into a rambling speech about what an honor it was to have two such well-connected gentlemen as their patrons and he stressed that they were to be given every courtesy. He introduced the two leads, who were as deferential and groveling as their overwhelming pride would allow, followed by Madame Giry and Monsieur Reyer, the conductor. Chris watched, amused, as Andre launched into a long, dramatic speech about the newest opera and how excellently the rehearsals had progressed, and all the while both patrons had their attentions riveted on the scantily clad ballet corps. Knowing they’d get nothing useful from the cast after meeting the wealthy patrons, the boy was about to rise when one of the patrons spoke to La Carlotta. The blood froze in his veins and held him where he laid; he knew that voice!
Gathering enough strength to roll over on his back, Chris swiftly ran through his options. If that man was going to be patron of the Garnier, then he’d have to leave sooner than he’d thought. Preferably yesterday. Damn, damn, damn, he wasn't ready for this! Desperately, he tried to work out a plan of where to go but his brain seemed to have shut down. The boy briefly considered telling the ghost but dismissed that idea immediately. Too often, his unique acquaintance had stressed how very important honesty was to him. Once he’d learned the full extent of Chris’ deceptions, he’d be more likely to hand the boy over himself than hide him.
“The new patrons, I presume?” The velvety smooth voice broke through his frantic thoughts, making Chris jump and removing the last of the blood from his face. Oh, just what I need!
“Oui, Monsieur Le Fantôme.” He winced at the fear in his voice and prayed the ghost would attribute it to being surprised and nothing more.
“Are you unwell, Monsieur Chris? You look extremely pale.” No such luck. Dammit. Only one thing he could do in a situation such as this…lie out his ass.
“Non, Monsieur, you merely startled me, that’s all.” The arch of that one visible eyebrow showed the ghost’s disbelief and the tense silence stretched between them. Finally, Chris shifted and murmured quietly, “We all have our secrets we must hide from the world, Monsieur, though our masks tend to be less obvious than yours.”
A low growl signaled the ghost’s displeasure at the boy’s words, reminding him how dangerous this man could be. When he looked up, he was caught by the fury and hurt in the molten amber eyes. His mind screamed at him to run but, like any prey foolish enough to be caught in the predator’s gaze, his legs refused to obey. Swallowing audibly, Chris wondered if he was going to die up here on the fly tower by the man he considered his friend.
“I have killed men for less, boy.” The ghost ground out through clenched teeth, the words cutting across him like shards of glass. And then the gloved hand was around his throat and he was gasping for air. Chris could no longer feel the catwalk beneath his feet as he was raised to look into the ghost’s eyes.
“Please…” Already the world had begun to dim as he struggled to breathe. “I’m s…sorry. I meant…no disrespect.” Those golden eyes bored straight into Chris’ soul as if looking for something. Just as everything was going black, he was thrown against the wall with a snarl. Drawing his knees up to his chest protectively, he stared wide-eyed at the intimidating man. With one misguided sentence, he’d ruined the tentative friendship they’d built over the past month. Hiding his self-recriminating tears against his legs, he now knew he would not be missed by anyone at the Garnier when he left.
The angry sounds emanating from the pipe organs barely scratched the surface of Erik’s rage and pain. How could that boy know anything about what it’s like to hide behind a mask? His features were flawless, his eyes full of innocence. By the time he was the same age as the boy, he’d already killed a man while living on the streets. It’s not that he wanted the boy to know the same horrors that had marked his tormented, miserable existence, but he couldn't bear to hear such meaningless platitudes from one so ignorant. Slowly, the music soothed him like it always did and, with the calming of his turbulent emotions, came regret. Like it always did. Pushing away from the organ in disgust, Erik began pacing the music room of his underground home. Something was wrong.
As he pondered the brief conversation they’d had, one thing stood out: Chris had been scared of someone or something before he’d arrived on the catwalk. He cursed his damnable temper for hurting the child instead of finding out what was wrong. He’d been hurt that the boy wouldn't confide in him and then angry when he lied. Both left him vulnerable when Chris had touched on the one thing he hated to acknowledge, much less discuss: the mask. The dark fury that constantly fought for control of his sanity had guided his hands to the boy’s throat and rejoiced in his fear. The child’s whispered apology to him, to HIM, had ripped the veil of darkness from his eyes and he was horrified at what he’d done. In his anguish, he’d tossed the boy aside like a rag doll and, like the animal he was, run back to his lair to nurse his wounded soul. The muffled sound of Chris’ tears haunted him the entire trip through the tunnels.
The chiming of the clock signaling the half-hour roused him from his self-loathing. Erik frowned fiercely at the time. Was it really so late already? He rose to gather his violin case but hesitated over the rose. If the angel knew the monster that taught her, she wouldn’t wish for a gift no matter how lovely. Before he could change his mind, he grabbed the flower and stuffed it almost harshly into his pocket. She would never know what taught her, but at least the flowers gave her the only beauty within his grasp. Making his way to the chapel, he knew he’d not arrive before her and wondered how to give her the rose.
He arrived at the chapel just as the clock struck the hour, only to find it empty. As his eyes darted around the small room, he noticed one other thing wrong: the candle in front of the painted miniature had not been lit. Had she forgotten their lesson? It was possible, but she’d not gone a day without lighting the candle for the entire month he’d known her. What was going on in his opera house? Frustrated, Erik had decided to find Madame Giry when he heard the faint sound of someone crying. Setting his violin on the cold stone tunnel floor, he crept back to the grate and eased it open. Maneuvering easily in the dim light, he still nearly trod upon the cloaked figure curled up behind the altar. What on earth?
“I’m sorry, papa. I’m so sorry.” The barely audible whisper filled with raw pain nearly stopped his heart. It was his angel! Running a hand through his hair, he cycled through several options before settling on the one that would have the least chance of discovery by the occupants of the opera house. He’d have to take her to his home. Not wanting her to be scared in the dank tunnels, Erik softly sang a lullaby. His voice, like a comfortable blanket, wrapped around the child and soothed her into an exhausted sleep. Pocketing the miniature, he scooped the girl into his arms and disappeared with her back through the grate.
He looked down at the sleeping angel in his arms with worry etched upon his masked face. Something was terribly wrong; his angel was stronger than her size would allow one to believe. If she could get sassy with the Opera Ghost, surely nothing minor could have caused her so much sorrow. What had she done that she felt it necessary to apologize to her deceased father? She stirred in his arms and Erik soothed her gently with his voice, hoping to keep her asleep until they reached his home beside the lake. He hesitated at the gondola, his arms unwilling to release their close grasp of his angel. Unfortunately, he needed both hands to pole them across the water. He carefully laid the girl in the bottom of the shallow boat and fairly flew across the lake. Erik moored the boat before taking her back into his arms. He was thankful she slept still, for he worried about her reaction to his rather unique home.
It was rather difficult to open the front door with his arms full of a sleeping angel, but he managed to do so with little disturbance to her slumber. He only had one bed in his home, and so he took her into his room. Laying her on the bed, he turned up the gaslights and nearly chuckled when he saw that her hair was hiding her face from him even yet. Perhaps it was a sign? Erik slipped the girl’s shoes from her feet, noticing how worn they were, and set them near the bed. Was the child really that poor? Unclasping the cloak, he eased her to a sitting position so he could remove it before laying her back down. He first noticed her clothing with a sense of dawning horror. Ripped in places, it hung on her small frame as if it’d been hastily thrown on. With her tears and pleas in the chapel earlier, Erik’s mind conjured up every horrible situation imaginable that might result in her clothing being in such a state. Dear God, no, don’t let it be true! As his eyes continued to assess her injuries, he distantly noticed that her hair had once been wrapped in a single braid down her back. Somehow, the ribbon had come loose and it was slowly escaping the braid’s restrictive hold. The loose tendrils of her hair were long, curly, and a deep brunette with streaks of auburn; it shone with reflected lamp-light. Though it no longer concealed her face, his attention had been caught elsewhere. Erik tilted her head back slightly and felt a shudder run through his entire body. Reaching out a shaking hand, his fingers covered the marks on her neck perfectly. Finally raising his eyes to her face, his suspicions were confirmed; the boy, Chris, and his angel were the same person.