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Meeting You At Last

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Erik was composing when Christine entered the room, not to her great surprise. If he noticed her presence he did not acknowledge it. Instead, he was doubled over his parchment and scratching at it furiously with his quill, the light sound of his writing filling the silence. Satisfied with his notation, he resumed playing once more and Christine found herself quite transfixed as his long fingers danced across the keys. Her eyes traveled up to his face. His mask was still in place, illuminated by the candlelight and she felt that familiar inkling of annoyance at its presence. Every time she had seen Erik he had that mask on. It hid all of his features and half the time she could not tell if he was frowning in annoyance or smiling at her. It was not the first time she had caught herself wondering what was under that visage. Perhaps the mystery of an anonymous mentor was useful at first. But now? She saw no reason.

As Erik continued to work, she slowly crept towards him, her hands beginning to stretch out to him. Today Christine would find out who her angel was. The scenario had played in her head so many times since they first met. She would remove it. He would be shocked- possibly a little annoyed- at her boldness but she would stand tall, look him in the eyes and say ‘Hello Erik. It’s nice to finally meet you’. From there everything would move pleasantly into friendly conversation. It was all planned out in her mind. She saw no reason as to why it would go any differently. After all, what could possibly be so wrong about his face? Perhaps he found his complexion unbecoming. It mattered not. Christine knew him well enough now, surely this would only make this relationship- whatever it was- stronger. She wanted to know him. She had to know the face of her teacher... her angel.
With that final thought in mind, Christine lunged across the final few steps and tore the mask from her mentor’s face.

The stunned silence lasted for a mere second before it was shattered. He howled as soon as he felt the cool air on his face and whirled around to leer at her. His mask was off. She had taken it off. The cold disguise glared accusingly up at Christine and she knew instantly that she had made a terrible mistake. There was nothing in the world that could have prepared her for his face and she felt her breath catch in her throat. His golden eyes that used to glow with warm light now seemed to burn harshly with their sunken appearance as he stared at Christine's terrified face. She couldn't help it. His face was like a corpse’, thin skinned was stretched across his skill, malformed, with veins scattered everywhere. He had no nose, only the hole where a nose should have been. All of this was made even more terrible as his features were scrunched up in sheer fury while the candlelight highlighted every groove and crevice, making each mark appear deeper and more gruesome. Christine abruptly dropped her gaze, fearing that she would anger him even more.

“NO!” he snarled, lunging forward. Gripping Christine by the arms. He wrenched her hands towards him, forcing her to place them on his face even as she fought to pull away.

“This is what you wanted isn’t it, Christine?” he seethed, ignoring her attempts to free herself from his slowly tightening grip. He chuckled madly.

"Of course, I'm quite handsome aren't I, my dear? Quite the Don Juan"

His face became a blur as Christine fought back her rising tears. "Erik....Please"

But he continued as if he had not heard her, his voice rising and falling as he attempted to choke back his rage.

"But of course, my Christine, this is but another mask. My real, beautiful face is hidden still. Take it off Christine, take off my mask. Let me show you the beauty of my true face." He wrenched her hands closer again and began digging her nails into his cheek while she fought to pull away. At his insistent movement, thin trails of blood began appearing under Christine's hands and she shrieked. Erik seemed further enraged as her tears fell freely.

“Don’t scream. Are you not happy Christine?” he wailed, his voice rocketing of the wall. “Shouldn’t you be happy now that you have seen the face of your angel? Please, look. Stare till your heart’s content. Isn’t this what you were expecting?”

Christine tried to stop the tears, succeeding only in a guttural sob. “Stop it please.” She choked, trying once more to tug her hands free. “This is hurting you. You're hurting me. Please.”

At her words, Erik tossed his head back and laughed. His hands still grasping hers, digging into her flesh. She didn’t care. Christine was paralysed by the sound of his laugh. It was the most hideous sound in the world. Cold and mirthless and weighed down by years of anguish.

“Hurt me? Me? You fear for Erik’s safety, Christine?” his hands reached up and held Christine by the face, forcing her to look at him. His eyes adopted a wild look as his rigid body shook, the blood now trailing onto his shirt. The young woman felt sick to her stomach.

“I am the Phantom of the Opera. Foolish child! Nothing can hurt me in my domain!” he cried, tossing Christine to the floor. She stifled a cry as she felt her hands scraped raw by the impact. And she lay there stunned, her heart thundering in her ears as Erik continued his tirade. What had she done?

His lair was feeling the full force of his anger. The chairs were toppled and the statues shattered. With one swift sweep of his arm, manuscripts and drawings on his table were scattered, some landing in the fireplace. Erik was oblivious to this, but Christine could see years of his life's work beginning to curl under the intense heat. As he continued his rage around the room, she rapidly crawled to the grate and reached in to pull out some of his beloved work. Her hands seared and she fought back a scream against the pain, though there was nothing that could not stop the tears now. They continued to stream down her face as she pulled his work to safety.
His music now safely scattered around me, Christine cowered by the hearth as the yelling and smashing continued, rocking back and forth, humming all the while to distract herself.

What was truly minutes seemed entire hours before Christine heard a door slam, plunging the room into utter, shocking silence. Cautiously uncurling myself, Christine glanced around the room, not seeing Erik- only the crumbled heap of papers she had managed to save. Some of the pieces had holes burnt through them and were missing whole stanzas. Others were simply brown around the edges. Despite everything, Christine was thankful some of his beautiful work had survived. Tucking the paper in one of the draws, She shifted to see if he was still in the room which was now ruined. He was nowhere to be seen. Christine seized the opportunity to rush through the house to her own room, bolting the door behind her. She jerked the handle a few times to make sure it was properly secured before sliding down the length of the door onto the floor.

She could feel her heart still beating rapidly in her chest and she placed my head in her hands. Her fingers felt sticky and she was struck with the sudden revolting realisation that they were still covered in blood. His blood. Her nails were coated and she felt sickened. Mustering her resolve, Christine crawled to her adjoining bathroom and scrubbed at her hands. She scrubbed for several minutes, ignoring the horrible pain of the burns, but they never seemed to feel truly clean. It still felt like they were covered. Christine whimpered and moved to the bed and crawled in, suddenly exhausted, not even bothering to change. But she could not sleep. His face kept swimming in front of her eyes, making her shiver in what she realised to be fear.

His face was horrible.

But his fury. Oh his fury. That was what she truly feared. Taking off his mask was like removing the lid to Pandora’s Box. It allowed for a tirade of madness and horror surge forth into the world. She could not stay here, knowing he could be back at any minute. She had to leave.

-

It had surely been hours since Erik had left. Christine had heard no sign that he had returned and decided that there was no better time to leave. She crept to the door and eased it open, allowing no sound to escape. The house was in the same disarray as when Erik had left and she took some comfort in that. He was not back yet. Not stopping to grab anything, Christine ran through the front door to see the lake stretched out before her. This was the only way in that she knew of. Thankfully she knew how to swim and so she wasted no time in removing her heavy dress, leaving her only in her undergarments. A slight noise sounded behind Christine and she paused, feeling her entire body tense. Shifting... Was that shifting behind her in the house? Panicking, Christine plunged into the lake forcing herself not to gasp at the sheer iciness of the water. Gathering her wits, she quickly began swimming out into the middle of the water with the knowledge that Erik would soon find her if she did not hurry. The faint sound of knocking could be heard behind her and the distant calling of Christine's name. She pushed herself further when she could hear it repeated slightly more urgently. He knew. Surely he now know. By the light of Erik's house Christine could see that she was now nearing half way. She could make this. She would reach the other side and race up the stairs. She could not stay here in this opera house. He would find her and he would bring her back. God knows how he would punish her for defying him.

“CHRISTINE!” Erik called, his voice echoing across the water from within the walls of the house.

His voice was a mixture of rage and fear. Without turning to see Christine knew he was looking for her. He was probably tearing apart the already desolated rooms to find her. Christine gave a whimper of fear and re-doubled her efforts, fighting against protesting muscles to keep going. Surely the edge was near now... surely. Just as Christine thought she might be nearing the bank, she could feel a tug on her leg. In a sudden blind panic she turned around as if to slap her captor, but her hand met nothing. There was a tugging again, pulling her body briefly under the water. The grip around her leg relaxed, allowing her to breach the surface again and she gasped. Christine soon heard the sound of splashing behind her and went to call out for Erik. Just as she took a breath to scream she was pulled under again and water filled her mouth instead. Something was keeping her underwater, wrapped around her leg. Without thinking Christine screamed and instantly felt the air from her lungs lessen considerably. She fought to meet the surface to get some air, kicking her restrained leg fiercely. The grip became only tighter and Christine felt a deeper panic settle into her heart as she started thrashing against her captor. It was useless. She could feel herself becoming light headed and felt her vision fading as she reached down in a futile last attempt to pry her leg free. Christine almost wept under the water as the sudden pressure of a large hand grabbed her arm and wrenched her from the grasp that held her leg in place. Christine was tugged to the surface and the moment her face broke through, she sucked in greedy gulps of air. Before, it had seemed stale and dank here in this underground cavern, but now it was one of the sweetest things on this earth. She could barely feel Erik haul her back to his home as she continued to breathe heavily. It was only when he lay her onto the bank that Christine registered anything. Fatigue was settling over her quickly.

Erik was suddenly looming over her. His breath was ragged. Christine opened her mouth to speak. To what? Thank him? reprimand him? To demand him to let me go? She did not know, and before she could say anything, her thoughts were cut off.

“You stupid, ignorant child” Erik gasped. Christine felt fear rapidly flood through her once more at the sound of his furious tone. She could only watch as he pulled at his dark hair and collapse beside her, his thin form shuddering.

“Did I not tell you never to try to leave without me? There are so many things that could hurt you. You could have been killed.” At Christine's silence he seemed to snap and wrenched her into his grip, shaking her slightly.

“Did you not hear me, Christine?" he yelled, "You could have died!”

All anger and all rage appeared to leave him as this phrase echoed through the cavern. Everything that happened today rushed to Christine and she heard herself whimper as she shivered in his grasp. Erik seemed to break down and he roughly pulled her into his arms, burying his masked nose into her wet hair. His shuddering breath was warm against her. After a moment, Christine felt his arm slide under her legs as he picked her up to rush her inside. Gazing around wearily Christine could see everything was still a mess, but the fire was still glowing merrily and she was gently placed down in front of it before Erik disappeared. Christine shifted closer to the fire and wrapped her arms around her legs in a meager form of comfort. Or perhaps protection. She didn't truly know.
All she knew in her mind was that Erik was furious. Surely he would never let her leave now. Things would never be the same. Would they still sing? Oh how she hoped so. There were so few things precious to her and singing with Erik was one of them. Would he hate her now? She wondered. Surely he would. Christine had destroyed his trust. He had told her never to remove his mask- his one rule- and she had broken it.

Just as this thought entered her mind, Erik re-emerged with his arms laden with towels and a change of clothes. He set them down without a word and left, waiting for his protege to dry off with the towels and change before he entered, yet again, now with blankets and a cup of steaming tea. Christine felt her heart swell with gratitude as she was securely wrapped in one of the blankets and handed the cup of tea. Christine took a delicate sip and allowed the soothing drink to warm her, though she winced slightly as the heat irritated her burns, a gesture that was not missed by Erik. He knelt down beside Christine and, taking her cup to set aside, gently took her pale hands within his own. Christine closed her eyes as the feeling of his cold hands soothed her own.

“Erik is so sorry Christine, Erik- I - did not mean to,” Erik murmured. Christine's eyes slipped open to see him gently caressing my hands and watched as his hands moved up to the dark, hand-shaped bruises forming on her wrists. There was pure remorse blazing in his eyes and Christine felt compassion sweep through her and she took one of his hands in her own.
“Erik, you saved me tonight." his eyes widened as Christine continued "Even after what I had done. I destroyed the trust you had in me." She bowed her head. "Erik. I hope you will forgive me.”

Erik seemed shocked by these words.

“You cannot forgive me, Christine. What I have done-" he whispered as he caressed her bruised skin "- is unforgivable"

Christine shook her head and grasped his hand, ignoring the pain, "Erik. What I did was wrong. I didn't understand you before. Why you wore that mask. I do now. Please. You are forgiven. Am I?"

Erik seemed to struggle to find the right response.
"My Christine. Of course. If you truly can forgive your Erik for what he did to you.”

“Then it is all forgotten,” Christine smiled and stuck her hand out to Erik, waiting for him to shake it. He cautiously reached out with one trembling hand and enclosed her small hand in his, careful not to cause any further pain.

“Forgotten,” he agreed.

From there they lapsed into a comfortable silence as they both stared into the flames that crackled merrily in the otherwise dark room, sipping the tea and relishing in the warmth. After a time Erik asked to hear Christine sing, his voice was soft and gentle as the question left his lips. Christine nodded eagerly and went to stand up to arrange herself in the correct stance. But, to her surprise, Erik stopped her with a light arm on her shoulder, gently urging Christine to sit beside him. He began a quiet duet and Christine felt a small smile appear on her face as she listened and waited for her part to come. His glorious voice washed over her and lulled her into a state of pure contentment. Christine allowed her eyes to close as his voice carried through the room. The mixture of their voices, blending and dancing around each other beautifully in the darkened room, seemed to entwine perfectly, as if they were made for each other by the angels themselves. By the end, both Erik and Christine basked in the glow of the fire as the last note faded into the night. Christine slowly turned to Erik and felt a familiar tug at her heart as she looked at him. He glanced towards her and Christine could see his eyes crinkle slightly under his mask. He was smiling at her.
She slowly, cautiously reached forward once more. Erik panicked and grabbed her hand with his own making Christine wince. His eyes were suddenly wide with shock.

“Christine. Don’t, please.”

Christine ignored him and gently pried her hand from his before moving forward again. As soon as her hand touched his face, he flinched slightly. But she continued to press her hand to his cheek until he slowly relaxed into her palm, seeming to give in. Erik allowed Christine's fingers to trace the edge of his mask and she felt him give a shuddering breath at the contact. Slowly this time, she lifted the mask from his face and looked away to set it aside. When her eyes returned to his face she made no sound. It was still the same. The sunken eyes, the non-existent nose and the skin pulled tight with the veins showing. Yet this time, his face was motionless. There was no rage, no fear and no fury showing. He looked almost peaceful, though his eyes were shut tight as he waited for the scream of horror or shouting in disgust. It never came. Instead Christine slowly raised her hand and placed it on his cheek once more, causing Erik to flinch again and open his eyes in surprise. He watched her face with barely suppressed wonder as she explored his. The skin was bumpy, but softer than she imagined and she allowed her hands to feel every inch of his face. Only when she heard him take a ragged breath did she realise that Erik was crying. Tears were streaming down his face as he tried to suppress his sobs. Christine winced again as her fingers traced over the fresh wounds from those few hours ago and withdrew her hands slightly.

“Does it still hurt?” She whispered to him.

Erik shook his head, partly in wonder.

“Even now, after everything he has done to you. You still worry about your poor Erik.”

Christine smiled at him. A true, honest smile.

“Of course Erik. You are very dear to me, my angel.”

At these words he buried his face in his hands and his body shook with silent sobs. His next motion surprised Christine as he reached up and removed his wig from his bowed head, exposing wispy, patchy blond hair. She flinched slightly at the sight of his skin stretched so thin that a portion of his skull was exposed. Collecting herself, Christine took in the image of this sad, broken figure. Her act of simply accepting his face had reduced him to a mess of tears and gratitude and she felt another surge of compassion for this poor man. Unwrapping herself slightly from the blanket, Christine reached towards Erik and wrapped him in it as she embraced him. His head rested against her chest as she held him, and she soon felt, rather than heard his sobbing increase as he returned the embrace. Christine reached up and stroked his head as she waited for him to calm down. And there they sat, for several minutes as he cried, Christine's own tears threatening to fall.

“Erik?” She said, pulling out of his embrace once he had at last calmed.

He looked at her cautiously, “yes?”

“Hello.” she whispered as the tears slipped out of her eyes. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.”