Meg didn’t know how long she trekked through the dark and damp. At least this tunnel didn’t seem to branch out at all. She walked with her left hand on the wall for guidance, and didn’t feel any change in the air current that would suggest an opening on the right. Was that a hint of light up ahead? She hurried her steps, and then squeaked in alarm as her feet slid out from under her. The tunnel took a sharp dip downwards just below what might have been a storm sewer grating overhead. Her dancer’s training kicked in as she fell, sliding perhaps ten feet down into a catch basin with murky water eddying gently within it. She hit the water feet first and let herself roll with the impact. It proved to be no more than two feet deep, so although she was drenched, she was unhurt. And the carpetbag she still clutched was lined in leather, so hopefully the contents would still be dry.
She peered around in the faint light cast by the flickering street lamps somewhere above. The catch basin appeared to have a wide rim to it, at least five feet wide, presumably a place to stand for those workers whose task it was to keep the storm drains in working order. Meg waded over to the edge of the basin and set the carpetbag onto the rim, then hoisted herself up as well. She shivered a bit; while the wool of her borrowed cloak retained some of its warming quality even while soaked, both the water and the air were quite cold. She hunched herself over a bit, attempting to conserve what little warmth she retained from the exercise of walking this far. Her head snapped up at a sound from the shadows to her left.
“You found me,” rasped the tormented voice of the Phantom. He limped out into the dim light, looking much worse than even the events of the night might suggest. “I suppose you’re here to end my miserable existence. I won’t fight you.” He shivered violently in his wet clothing, blood trickled down the scarred half of his face from a cut over his eye to stain his shirt, and he stood gingerly, heavily favoring his left leg. “I might even thank you,” he added with a cough.
Meg realized he didn’t recognize her, as her figure was swathed in the too-large cloak, her face hidden in the depths of the hood. She also thought he looked as though he might be starting a fever on top of his injuries. “I’m here to help you, not kill you,” she said softly. “How do we get out of here?”
He blinked dizzily. “Why?”
“Can we talk after we’re dry and warm again?” she asked, shivering harder.
He wobbled a little as he limped a few steps over, reaching up to press a hidden catch of some sort. A section of the stone wall opened out and down, the inner side forming a small set of stairs up into darkness. “I… I’m not sure I can get up there,” he confessed. “My leg… there’s nothing to lean on…”
Meg moved closer. “Lean on me,” she offered.
He reached out one shaking hand, laying it on her shoulder as if testing her strength before trusting to it. She slipped her arm around his waist to steady him, and he tensed, only then seeming to realize she was female. “What… who…?” he mumbled, swaying perilously.
“Meg Giry,” she replied, feeling her way up the stairs while coaxing him along with her. As close as she was to him now, she could feel the heat radiating from him despite his shivering; he was definitely feverish.
“Shelf,” he mumbled. “Candles… matches… on the right?” He groped uncertainly in the darkness at the top of the little staircase.
Meg groped around also, in case he’d forgotten which side the shelf was on. Despite his semi-delirium, though, his memory of his hiding place was accurate. She turned at the sound of a match striking, blinking in the sudden flare of light. After so many hours in darkness, the single candle he lit seemed incredibly bright. She watched as he knelt and took hold of the topmost of the steps they just climbed. When he tugged at it, she realized what he was doing and dropped down to help him lift the hidden door back into place. Only then did she turn to examine the space.
Wherever they were, it was hardly the luxurious apartment he’d created for himself beneath L’Opera Populaire, but it appeared to have the basic necessities and even a few comforts. She noticed a few well-worn books, several dishes and mugs, a sink and even a gas ring making a sort of kitchen area opposite the bed. That was where he needed to be, as quickly as possible, she thought. “Come, M’sieur,” she murmured. “Get out of those wet clothes and into the bed.”
He seemed only partially aware of her presence as she tugged off his boots. His ankle was badly swollen and hot to the touch. The cut on his head had stopped bleeding, but still looked angry and raw, and his breath rasped badly in his chest. “Who…?” he started to ask, before coughing harshly.
“Shh… don’t try to talk,” she said softly, averting her eyes as she helped him out of the rest of his clothing and tucked him into the bed. “I’m going to get some food and medicine. Try to sleep until I come back.” On impulse, she brushed the hair back from his face, then leaned over and softly kissed him on the forehead.
His hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. His fever-bright eyes peered at her in confusion for a long moment. Then he brought her hand to his lips, kissing her knuckles lightly before he released her. “Thank you,” he whispered, closing his eyes.
Meg hesitated, then rifled through the pockets of his discarded clothing, breathing a sigh of relief when she found enough coin to purchase some food and medicinal teas. She emptied the carpetbag, further relieved to see the clothing within had indeed remained dry. Setting the satchel to one side, she lit a second candle and explored the room, seeking another exit. That proved to be a trapdoor in the low ceiling, which led to the basement of a small church. All to the good, she thought, as churches never barred their doors. She made her way back to the hidden shelter and changed from her wet stage costume into one of the Phantom’s dry outfits, disguising herself as a man and trusting the hood of the dry cloak to keep her hair concealed out in the streets. Then she ascended into the church basement once more, marking the latch of the trapdoor on the church side with an inconspicuous bit of ribbon. She’d remove that when she returned, but wanted to be sure she could find the spot again quickly on her return.
Slipping out of the church and into the streets of Paris, she paused for a moment to get her bearings. Thanks to her mother, she knew of an apothecary that stayed open all night, but she wasn’t entirely sure about food sellers. First things first, she decided, setting out for the apothecary. At this point, she wasn’t entirely sure what time it was, and it was very possible the markets would be opening before she returned anyway. Once at the apothecary, she purchased soap, bandages, and herbal teas to reduce fever and ease coughs. When she emerged again, she took note of the sky beginning to lighten with the coming dawn and frowned. She didn’t know how well her masquerade would hold up in daylight, so she’d need to hurry.
Fortunately, a few cook-shops opened this early, to serve workingmen on their way to jobs at the docks and factories. Meg found one on the way back to the church, and bought two loaves of bread, a large wedge of cheese, a small ham, a roasted chicken, a bottle of wine, and some carrots, onions, and apples. One final stop just past daybreak produced two small cook pots from a just-opened general store. Now she could actually use that gas ring in the hidden chamber to make soup and those medicinal teas.
Dodging a priest and the sacristan, she ducked into the basement of the small church and groped her way to the hidden trapdoor. She removed her marking ribbon and climbed down, closing it carefully behind herself. The Phantom still slept, although restlessly. She found places to store her purchases and put water on to heat for tea, wanting to get the first dose of medication into him as quickly as possible. She gently shook him awake once it was ready, coaxing him to drink it, which he obediently did. It was plain to her that he wasn’t fully aware of where they were, though, and he quickly returned to that restless sleep once the mug was empty.
Meg yawned, the sheer exhaustion from the events of the last twenty-four hours catching up with her. She undressed, then blinked as it sunk into her sleepy mind that there was but the one bed, and that the chamber was far too cold for her to sleep on the floor, even if she wrapped up in a cloak. She bit her lip, took a deep breath, and slid into the bed beside the deeply sleeping Phantom. She tensed slightly when he turned and put his arm over her, but he not only remained asleep, he seemed to calm down as well. So she let herself relax and doze off.