She didn’t know how long she’d slept, but the candle was burned well down when she awoke. The Phantom slept on; his breathing still sounded rather raspy to her ears, but his fever seemed down. Her clothes were still damp, so she put on the shirt she’d worn on her venture to the streets, rolled up the sleeves, and tied a scarf around her slender waist to belt it in. She was small enough that the belted shirt served as a rather short and skimpy dress on her, and since she was a ballerina and actress, she was used to performing in garb that would be considered anywhere from improper to indecent on the streets. As long as she remained in this hideout, the shirt would serve. She fixed another mug of medicine, setting it near the gas ring to keep warm while she located a knife to cut up the chicken and vegetables for soup and set that cooking. Only then did she pause to eat some bread and cheese.
As the pleasant aroma of the cooking soup filled the small chamber, the man on the bed stirred. “Christine?” he called in a rough and raspy murmur. “Christine!”
Meg hurried to his side with the mug of tea. “She is not here, M’sieur, but I am,” she said softly. “You are ill, and hurt besides. Let me care for you.” She slid an arm around his shoulders, helping him sit up and pressing the mug to his lips.
He took a few swallows, blinking at her in the soft candlelight. “I’ve seen you. You’re Meg. Antoinette’s child. But she told me she never spoke of me to you. So why are you here?”
“Despite what happened, I believe you are a good man at heart,” Meg said simply. “I saw you let Christine and Raoul go. I… can’t say I agree with everything you’ve done, but then again, you were not given the… the proper understanding of how to deal with others. I made my mother tell me your story after you went through the tunnel behind the mirror. She may have tried her best to help you, but she was a fool for letting you remain so alone all those years. If she had not, I believe you would have found happiness long before now. Perhaps you still can.”
“Don’t mock me!” he said bitterly. “Happiness? Christine was to be my happiness. But I was fool enough to let her go, because I couldn’t stand that she was choosing to stay with me out of pity.” He coughed harshly.
Meg pressed the mug back to his lips, coaxing him to finish the medicine before she answered. “Forgive me for stating the obvious, but she is hardly the only fish in the sea. If you just bring as much passion to your courtship as you do to your composing, I don’t know of any woman who wouldn’t fall at your feet.”
“How can you possibly say that? Look at me!” He angrily turned his head so the twisted and ugly scarred parts were all that remained visible to her.
“I can say it because it’s true,” she retorted. “These scars are only a small part of you. Anyone who cares for you truly will see the beauty within your heart, and not the scarring on your face.” Abruptly changing the subject, she ordered him, “Pull the bottom of the bedding up, and let me see your ankle. I have bandages to wrap it.”
He blinked at her in confusion for a moment, then shook his head with a mirthless chuckle as he adjusted the bedding to maintain his dignity while she fussed over his ankle. At her orders, he moved it carefully from side to side and flexed his toes, at which point she wrapped it snugly in a long bandage. He had to admit, it didn’t hurt nearly as much after her ministrations. He sighed. “Thank you,” he said grudgingly.
Meg looked at him with a bit of a smile. “You’re welcome,” she said. “By the way, what is your name?”
“My name?” He seemed astonished. “No one has asked me that before. I’ve simply been the Opera Ghost, or the Phantom of the Opera, for longer than you’ve been alive, Meg.” His eyes grew distant. “Erik. I can recall a soft voice calling me Erik, a long time ago. Before… before the carnival. Before the accident. Before I… before I became a freak.”
She shook her head. “You are not a freak, Erik. Someday, I hope you’ll believe that.”
He stared at her, unaware of a tear slowly tracking down his cheek. “How can you say that?”
Meg lifted her hand, gently brushing away that tear. “I say it because it’s true.”
Erik unconsciously leaned into that soft touch, even as he shook his head. “You’re too good,” he said softly. “How can you stand to be near me? You’re an innocent… and I’m a killer. I don’t deserve…”
“You quit that right now,” she snapped. “I won’t hear it. All those years alone sent you more than a little mad, is all. If you feel badly about what you did in a fit of madness, then start making plans that will let you make up for it in some way. Write more operas and donate the profits to an orphanage or something. You can think about what you might want to do while you eat, since we’re going to be stuck here for a few days at the least.” She got up and ladled out a portion of the soup for him, and cut a slice of bread as well. “Eat up, food will help you heal.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle quietly at her forcefulness. “Bossy little thing, aren’t you?” he said. “Not at all scared of the dreadful Opera Ghost.”
“Should I be?” Meg retorted with a smirk. “If you were to do anything dreadful to me, you’d be stuck alone with a sprained ankle and no one to wait upon your every whim.”
Erik laughed aloud. “You win, Meg, you’re right.”
She smiled. “You have a very nice laugh, Erik.”
To her astonishment, he blushed. “Thank you,” he murmured as he stared very hard into his soup.
She gave him a moment, standing to go check if their clothing was drying evenly, turning the garments over to expose more of them to the air. “I’m going to need to go back for my own clothes,” she said. “I can’t keep wearing yours, they’re much too big on me,” she added with a bit of a grin. “And I’m hoping my mother had enough sense to go back and rescue more of your things before everyone went traipsing down to gawk. We’re going to need more food, which means needing more money sooner or later.”
“Practical as well as bossy, I see,” Erik murmured. He yawned. “Probably a good thing. I don’t feel well enough to think much just now.” He settled back down in the bed again, then glanced over at Meg. “Er… this probably sounds silly, but… did I dream it, or did you tuck me in and kiss my forehead before?”
Meg blinked as she turned back to face him. “I did, actually. I… wanted to get you calmed down so I could go out for supplies.”
“Would you… do it again?” he asked shyly, red-cheeked and not quite able to meet her eyes. “It felt… it felt like I was cared for. The way I used to imagine it would be like if I had grown up with a mother.”
She smiled softly. “Of course, Erik.” She moved over to the bed and tucked the blanket in firmly around his shoulders, then brushed his hair back and pressed her lips lightly against his temple. “Sleep as much as you can. It will help you heal.”
“Thank you,” he whispered as he closed his eyes.
After she was sure he was sleeping, Meg cleaned the dishes they’d used, then got comfortable in a chair with a candle on the shelf above her head. She’d found a few old books in her initial exploration of the chamber, and settled in to read until she thought it was late enough to venture back up to the Parisian streets.
Erik woke up as she was getting ready to leave. She’d thoughtfully moved a mug of tea and another bowl of soup to the small table serving as a nightstand, he noticed, and left a book there as well. He couldn’t help but grin as he watched her attempting to stuff the excess length of his trousers into his boots so that she wouldn’t either trip herself or accidentally cause them to fall down. He must have chuckled his amusement, though, because she suddenly looked over to see him watching.
“Is there anything else I can get you before I go?” Meg asked quietly.
He shook his head. “You’ve done more for me than anyone ever has, at least of their own free will,” he said. “Just… be careful. I don’t want you hurt because of me. His voice held a hint of wonder as he added that last part; he meant it. This was the first time he could remember caring for another person’s well-being.
She smiled. “I’ll be careful, Erik.I wish I could tell you when I’ll be back, but I don’t know how long it will take me to reach L’Opera Populaire once I’m above ground, and then I’ll need to collect things there and return again. But I will return, I promise you that.” With a parting wave, she swung herself up through the trapdoor to the church basement.
He wasn’t sure he believed her. Why should she return, after all? She was young and beautiful and could have a good life. She had no reason to give him any sort of loyalty. Even Christine had chosen another in the end, despite the love he’d had for her, and her loyalty to him as her musical tutor. He didn’t even have that slim of a connection with Meg; her mother had done her best to keep the girl from learning of his actual existence all those years, not that he could blame the older woman. He sighed as he picked up the book Meg chose for his entertainment.
Up in the little church, the young dancer carefully closed the trapdoor behind her, and then crept out through the nave into the dark streets and alleyways of the city. She moved as quickly as she could without looking too furtive, not wishing to be mistaken for a thief. She gave a silent sigh of relief when the opera house came into sight. Lights flickered in several windows in the dormitory wing, so at least the police had not closed the place altogether. With luck, no one would have thought to latch the ground floor window near the scenery shop, as it was the favored clandestine exit and entrance of dancers and chorus girls sneaking out after curfew to meet their gentleman friends. Meg put her hand to the sash, smiling when it lifted easily. She climbed inside and swiftly made her way to the suite she’d shared with her mother for as long as she could remember.
Mme. Giry gave a start when her door opened, but recognized her daughter a moment later. “Meg, thank goodness you’re all right!” she exclaimed as soon as the younger woman closed the door again.
“I can’t stay, Maman,” Meg hastened to say. “I only came for some clothes, and hopefully to gather more of his things, especially valuables if possible.”
“Meg, the police, they are seeking him all over Paris… you cannot hope to remain hidden. Let him go elsewhere if he will, but don’t continue to aid him,” the older woman pleaded.
Meg shook her head. “I have to go back to him, Maman,” she said firmly. “He’s hurt. He can’t travel anywhere right now, and anyway, I promised.”
Mme. Giry bowed her head with a sigh. “You are a better woman than I am, my daughter.”
Meg didn’t answer. She was too busy putting together a small pack of her own clothing and shoes. She nodded in silent thanks when her mother handed her a bundle of his clothing and a pouch of coins, and raised a questioning brow when the ballet mistress handed her a second, larger and much lumpier pouch.
“The jewelry your father gave me, or that I bought for myself when I was young and foolish,” Mme. Giry explained. “All but my wedding ring. I don’t want you to do this. You are all I have left of Jules, aside from a few photographs. I want you to remain with me. But if you truly feel you must continue to help him, I want you to be able to make a fresh start elsewhere. Selling this jewelry will help with that. Also, as he will need papers for travel or anything, I know of someone who supplies such documents for a fee.” She slipped a scrap of paper with a name and address on it into her daughter’s hand.
Meg impulsively embraced her mother. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I will miss you. But this… it’s something I feel I must do. I can’t explain why, I only know I have to do it. As I said, it will be a little while before we can travel. But when we can, I will get him out of France. I’ll write as we’re departing, and again when I’m settled somewhere. I love you, Maman. Be safe and well.”
“You also, my little Marguerite. I love you too,” the older woman murmured. “Go, it’s already late.”
Meg hugged her mother once more, picked up her bundles, and slipped back down to the unlatched window. To her dismay, a rather tipsy member of the ballet, Jeannette, was just entering.
“Meg!” Jeanette squealed. “They said the Opera Ghost took you!”
“Shh!” Meg cautioned the other woman, praying no one else was within earshot. “Don’t be silly! I took the chance with all the disturbance to run away, that’s all. You know how strict Maman has always been with me. But I have a gentleman friend all the same, and we’re getting married and leaving Paris. I only came back for more clothes, and to tell Maman goodbye.”
Jeannette’s eyes opened wide. “Oh, Meg, that’s so romantic!” she gushed. “I hope you’ll be very, very happy!” She punctuated that wish with a loud hiccup.
“I won’t be until you get out of my way,” Meg pointed out with a giggle.
“Oh! Oh, sorry!” Jeannette stepped aside, letting the younger woman clamber out with her bags. “Goodbye, Meg!”
“Goodbye, Jeannette!” she called as she slipped away into the darkness. She laughed to herself as she hurried through the streets and alleys, periodically doubling back to make sure the drunken dancer hadn’t taken it into her head to follow. It would be just like Jeanette to decide she would be the perfect bridal attendant, and trail me back to my fiancé. Fiancé indeed, Meg thought, my mother really was strict with me, and unlike most of the girls in the ballet, I have never so much as been to supper with a man. The time I’ve just spent with Erik in the secret chamber below the church is the first time I’ve ever in my life been alone with a man. Luck was with her, and she easily slipped back into the church basement and dropped through the trapdoor before dawn.
Erik looked up in wary startlement, instinctively flinching back defensively for a moment before he recognized Meg. “You… you came back,” he whispered, a look of astonishment on his face.
“Of course I did,” Meg answered. “I told you I would. Did you think I was lying?”
He looked down. “Not exactly. But I thought you might change your mind, or that Antoinette… your mother… would persuade you to stay away from me. I know she never wanted you to know of me, or at least to only know the rumors of the Phantom that haunted L’Opera Populaire. She told me as much herself, not long after you were born.”
She frowned as she struggled out of his too-large boots and trousers, and then slipped on the oldest skirt she’d packed. “She did try to. But I’d made you a promise and I’m going to keep it. Once you’re well enough to travel, we’re going to leave France.”