Tea and Jealousy
The next morning Christine lay abed, feeling fidgety and nervous about meeting her mother’s dearest friend. What if Erik had told her? How on earth could she bear the humiliation? Not only did she have her shameful past, she also had nothing to wear to greet the ballet mistress besides her ratty boy’s clothing or her host’s shirt and robe. She buried her head beneath the pillow with a groan. She remembered Madame Giry well; that lady could scare the stripes off a tiger with a single look. From La Carlotta to the little ballet rats, there wasn't a single person in the opera house who didn't defer to the lady with the cane. And she was to have lunch with her and the Opera Ghost. Her mouth twitched and she couldn't stop the giggle that escaped, as it sounded suspiciously like the beginning of a really bad joke.
“I’m pleased to see you in a good mood this morning, mon ange. Would you care to enlighten me as to what has amused you so?” Erik stood in the doorway with a breakfast tray and the faintest of smiles on his lips.
“Good morning, Erik, you didn't have to do this,” Christine sat up with a faint blush and motioned to the tray.
“Well, when you didn't answer my third knock, I feared for your health.” He placed the tray over her thighs and sat on the edge of the bed expectantly.
“Monsieur,” she closed her eyes as she savored the crêpes he’d made, “with the way you cook, I’d have to be dead to miss a meal.” She grinned as the color rose in Erik’s visible cheek and couldn't resist teasing him. “Did I manage to embarrass the infamous Opera Ghost?”
“Of course not,” he drew himself up haughtily to peer down to his aristocratic masked nose even as the amusement in his eyes betrayed his good humor. “It’s very warm in here, that’s all.” Christine looked pointedly at the smoldering remnants of a fire before turning back to him with an arched brow of disbelief. “Oh very well, angel, I am unused to hearing praise for any of my efforts.”
She grinned in triumph. “Very prettily done, Monsieur Le Fantôme, and for that I will answer your original question. Thinking about lunch, it reminded me of how some really bad jokes begin.” At his blank look, she continued with a slight roll of her eyes. “You know, a soprano, a ballet mistress, and an Opera Ghost walk into a bar…?”
Though he smiled, Christine could tell he still didn't really understand and she wondered if he’d ever been told a joke. What kind of life could he have had being so alone all the time? Impulsively, she reached for his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Her heart gave an odd skip and then rushed forward as if to catch up when his smile reached his eyes and became more genuine. Confused, she released his hand quickly. As she focused her attention on the rest of her breakfast, she wondered why she suddenly felt so awkward around Erik. He was a friend, her teacher; there should be no awkwardness between them.
Erik watched her return to her meal and suppressed a sigh of disappointment. Even his angel couldn't bear to touch the monster she’d befriended. Rising, he informed her that he would be in the music room should she wish to have a voice lesson before their guest arrived. He sat at the piano and let his fingers soundlessly dance across the keys. The cool sticks of ivory soothed his tumultuous thoughts enough to begin to play a soft, mournful melody. He wondered…if he managed to reign in his abominable temper and let the child ask her questions about the mask, would she remain here with him? He wouldn't let her see his face, never would he submit his angel to that nightmare, but he could try to talk about it without scaring her. Couldn't he? The tune became lighter as his mood improved interspersed with hope.
After lunch, when he escorted Angelique back to her room, he would have to pay a visit to his managers. They were being most uncooperative in regards to his salary, and he needed to persuade them to rethink their current course. Erik would also get answers from them concerning their new patrons, as well as who’d approved the hiring of Chris, or there’d be hell to pay. For years, he’d run the opera house with little resistance, helping it flourish into the success it was today. He wasn't about to let two junk dealers destroy what he’d worked so hard to accomplish. He cursed Lefevre once more for leaving so abruptly; there hadn't been a chance to properly inform the new managers as to whom this theater actually belonged. He truly hoped he’d not have to make an appearance; that never went well. His music grew somber and cold.
There was a sound at the door and he looked up to see Christine standing just inside the room. Wearing his shirt and wrapped in his robe that dragged the floor, he thought she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever set eyes on. Entranced, Erik rose from the piano bench and moved to take her hand with a gentle smile. “I am honored you've chosen to join me, Mademoiselle.” He thought she looked adorable with the faint blush that stained her cheeks. “Would you like to sit and relax or did you wish to sing, mon ange?”
“Could we talk for a while, Erik?” She clasped her hands tightly and he wondered what had made her so nervous. Was touching him really that traumatic? The thought was beyond depressing.
“Of course,” he gestured towards the sofa. “What would you like to talk about, my dear?”
“Are you sending me away?”
“What?” Erik stared at her in shock. Of all the things he had expected her to say, that wouldn't have ever occurred to him. “Whyever would I do that, mon ange? Did you wish to leave?”
“No! Oh, no, I don’t want to go but… isn't that why Madame Giry is coming? To take me with her?”
“Child,” he took her hands in his and was filled with joy that she suppressed her distaste for his touch. “Angelique and I have agreed that my home is the safest place for you at this time. There are few who know how to get here, and fewer still who know how to reach it safely. She is a dear friend of mine and is coming merely to see the child of the girl who was her dearest friend.” The relief on her face was clear, and Erik yearned to touch the softness of her skin once more. After an inner struggle, he raised a hand to brush a feather-light touch along her bruised cheek. “How do you feel today, angel?”
“Oh, that. It’s fine, Erik. I’m used to it by now.” Christine shrugged, dismissing the nasty bruise as nothing out of the ordinary. His frown was fierce at her casual acceptance of such abuse. “The crew that works the flies is often the brunt of others’ vicious need to prove themselves. That’s true of any opera house.”
“But it should not be true of mine.”
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist, Erik,” she frowned in irritation. “Just as there are slaves, servants, commoners, nobles, and royalty, everything has a hierarchy, even stagehands at an opera house. It’s all part of the natural pecking order, a food chain of sorts, and without it there’d be chaos as everyone would want to be king.”
“Knickers, Christine?” He arched a brow at her with an amused smirk. “Really, angel, must you use such a phrase?” Her giggle warmed his heart for there were few who dared poke fun at the Opera Ghost. With the mood of both much improved, they remained on the sofa, chatting in easy companionship until it was time to escort Madame Giry to the house on the lake.
Angelique was half buried in her closet when Erik stepped quietly through the mirror. She didn't see him glide soundlessly over to her side. She didn't see the wicked grin that crossed his misshapen lips. She did, however, hear the single, loud clap right behind her head that caused her to shriek and stumble forward into the closet. Fixing her best ballet mistress glare on the grinning Opera Ghost, she climbed out of the closet with the final item she wished to take to Christine, a small box with a miniature key.
“And what on earth was that for, Erik?” Though she was thrilled to see her adoptive brother in a playful mood, that didn't mean she was going to let his foolishness pass without comment. “I swear, one of these days I’m going to drown you in that lake. I’ll carry the lantern and, since you've got energy to burn, you can carry the boxes.”
“Your wish, my lady,” Erik bowed low to hide his mocking grin, “is my every command.” Picking up the boxes along with the basket of food, he ignored her muttered “poppycock” and stepped agilely into the dark passageway.
The trip to his home was filled with good-natured bickering and laughter. Angelique couldn't remember a time when Erik was so relaxed and cheerful, and knew Christine factored greatly in his good humor. Gone was the reserved, menacing Opera Ghost; in his place was the young man she’d always known he could be. As they skirted the lake, she chuckled to see Erik increase the distance between them. “Nervous about something?”
“Not at all, Madame. I am simply eager to get out of the damp and cold.” She was still chuckling as they entered his home until she caught sight of Christine standing by the fireplace rather nervously. “Lord bless me, child, you are the very image of your mother.” Setting the lantern on a table, she hurried forward to envelop
e the girl
in a motherly hug. “Let me look at you. You are so like Celeste, my dear,
although you have your father’s eyes.”
Erik placed the packages on the bed and stalked into the kitchen to begin lunch. He set the kettle on to boil and began slicing the ham, frowning fiercely at it. He was thoroughly irritated and didn't understand why, which only served to irritate him more. Their light laughter, muffled now by the bedroom door, was like sandpaper on an open wound and his irritation blossomed into anger. He could feel the darkness seeping into him and coating his vision in a red haze. A sound behind him caused him to whirl around, crouched with knife at the ready, to behold one of God’s own angels in his doorway. Erik’s eyes widened in amazement at the vision of loveliness before him. Christine wore a pale green confection that brightened the auburn streaks in her loose, flowing hair into a bright copper. Her pale skin shone like alabaster, made all the more obvious by the faint blush that tinted her cheeks. She was beautiful, a beacon of light in his dark home. When the blush fled her cheeks and a trace of fear entered her eyes, he realized he was still crouched and ready to attack. Shaken, he turned away from the girl’s shocked face and placed the knife on the counter with a trembling hand. He didn't hear her approach over the sound of his heartbeat pounding in his ears.
“Erik?” Christine’s tentative touch on his sleeve seared the skin beneath the thin cloth. “Monsieur, are you alright?” The concern in her lovely voice grated on already raw nerves. Confused and angry, he pulled away from her gentle hand and stalked to the door.
“I’m sure you can finish the lunch tray; I have errands to attend to. I should be back within an hour.” With that said, Erik settled his cloak about his shoulders, his fedora upon his head, and left the house to prowl the dark tunnels.