A Fair Substitution

BY : Jeannette_Savage
Category: M through R > Phantom of the Opera
Dragon prints: 1504
Disclaimer: I do not own Phantom of the Opera or any of its constituents and I make no money by creating this work of fiction.

 

Meg Giry took the steps three at a time, feeling the rush of stale air on her face and through her long, golden hair. He had a way of taking her by surprise. She’d known about him for so long, through so many near-encounters and also through Christine, the orphan of a virtuoso. These last six months, she’d watched her friend change and lose something of herself, but gain magnificent skill in return.

Now, Christine was off with Raul, fleeing to their freedom through the sewers below the Paris Opera House That orphan was the luckiest girl alive. She’d won back her freedom and had a wonderfully long and rich life ahead of her, married to the viscount.  

He’d let them go.

Meg could hardly believe it, after everything they’d sacrificed. After everything he’d done. How many people had he killed to claim her of all the girls?

But Meg didn’t let it slow her steps. If nothing else, before this whole charade was finished, and the flics came to collect their ‘evidence’, she wanted to see him. Just once. Her mother would have never approved. She didn’t want her associating with him, understandably so, though it was such a terrible secret to keep to herself. That’s why she’d shared her knowledge in bits and pieces to the girls.

Was she jealous of Christine?

That question made her pause at the final landing. No, she wasn’t burning with jealousy. Clearly, he’d been single-minded in his pursuit of her, though, if he’d wanted a charming girl…

Meg shook her head, trying not to think of it.

And in all honesty, she hadn’t a clue what she’d say to him. If he was alive, after all. Perhaps the viscount had gotten the better of him, and that’s why they were fleeing. When she arrived at the lowest level of the construction beneath the opera house, she’d have her answers.

Or she’d find herself dead as well.

For all he’d done, the opera ghost had never killed a woman. He’d certainly ruined Carlotta’s career in Paris, though, one could argue it was her own impish nature that caused her string of misfortune. It was only the men that summoned his murderous ire.

She’d seen the corpses pile up, and wondered if he did it gladly.

Raising her hand to the level of her eye, Meg turned the corner and gasped, seeing the most magnificent underground waterway. Each column was carved with care, leading her deeper along the narrow strip of stone. After a few steading steps, she took off at a run, dashing towards a glowing epicenter. There was no solid ground there, so she dropped into the shallow water and slogged the rest of the way, finding herself in a beautifully decorated round, with candles alit.

Her eyes fell on a very lifelike statue. Almost as if her friend was in this room, looking out impassively at nothing, a veil covering her delicate features. It nearly stopped her heart, it was so real. She took a breath and panned for a sign, for anything to show where he might have gone.

Meg would have been satisfied if she’d seen a corpse, even.

Just to look on him was enough; such was the morbid fascination she had.

She ascended the steps, the water cascading from her workman’s pants. Her mother dissuaded her from wearing men’s clothes, but she found it rather fitting for this excursion. A dress would have only weighed her down in the frigid underground river.

Above, high, high above, she heard the distant sound of angry men and dogs.

Wonderful, she thought, quickly panning the beautiful waterside home, if it were to be called such. He’d done magnificent work with what he had, and she wondered what he might accomplish if he lived above ground, with other architects and a team beneath him.

There was something marvelously genius about everything he did. Christine, so taken by the sudden attention of the theater, didn’t seem to appreciate him at all. Though, Meg supposed, he was a killer. That would place a dark mark on anyone, no matter how talented. She, however, felt a seed of pity, or perhaps empathy, for the Phantom. He’d given Christine everything, then, at the moment of decision, chose to release her.

Maybe he truly loved her.

And Meg just wanted to get a glimpse. She felt like a terrible sneak, rifling through his many masterpieces and works, trying to find a place where he might have gone. There was no body. No blood, as far as she could discern in the dim light. So, Raul didn’t have it in him to kill a man. Somehow, that relieved her, if only for Christine.

Meg, on the other hand, was never so squeamish.

She’d grown up here, in the theater. This was her home, as much as he had made it his. She was almost sorry she hadn’t known about this place sooner. What amazing prose, illustrious scores, indominable works he’d created, right under their very feet.

So little they knew.

A single, strange music box was set on a low table in the room’s center. She touched the box and it began to play all its own. The music lingered, echoing through the open space and onto the still waters, while the mechanical monkey chimed its brass cymbals. Meg marveled at it a moment, and realized there was a lone mask sitting next to it. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands. It was warm, as if the previous owner had only just set it down.

That made her look up and around, turning in a circle, but finding no one.

Meg set the mask down again, fighting the urge to keep her only real evidence of the feared Phantom of the Opera. She found what she was looking for while she was pulling sheets off paintings. A single mirror, shattered to bits, and beyond… blackness.

Meg took a nub of a candle from a candelabra, then fitted the sheet over the frame again. When the men and their dogs came, they might not notice, and she hoped it would buy her enough time. She ducked under it and into the permeating blackness.

Even her breath was loud, here, sounding against the walls of questionable material. It was hardened and rough beneath her fingers, broken, like so many bits of rock. The little candle flickered, doing its best in the darkness, though it only gave her a few feet of light.

One careful step after another, and she found herself in a different sort of dungeon. Above her, she could hear the sounds of carts and horses, of the new buggies that so enamored the bourgeoisie. The turn of the nineteenth century came with so many new and amazing inventions. But Meg, so far below the world, wasn’t interested in them.

All she was interested in was him.

A trickle of light leaked from the skylights above, and she heard the occasional plop of something in the sewers. It didn’t smell so bad down here, but eventually, it would overcome her senses. Certainly, he had not lingered long down here.

She followed the only logical path down and through the maze, until her candle was the sole source of illumination once more. It was short and stubby, really, not up to the task of this venture. Soon, its flames would bite at her hand, and she’d have to discard it.

Meg heard the flit of something beyond, and followed the sound around another corner. A doorframe lay wide open, as welcoming as the great maw of a beast.

And beyond that? Utter blackness.

She wanted to whisper, to call out to her elusive quarry. But he did not know her as he did Christine. For her, he might have come when summoned. For Meg? Unlikely. She’d have to take him by surprise, though, knowing what she did of him, he was already aware of her pursuit.

She spent so long looking into that darkness, that the candle’s flames did bite her hand. She hissed and dropped the thing into the water, cursing herself internally for losing her only source of light. With a quick glance at her reddened hand, she looked back up into the blackness, and took a step forward.  

When the dim light faded, and there was nothing but the slight dripping from a distant corner, she felt out with her arms, gently testing the ground beneath her before taking each step. Was this the end of the line? Had he swept in here to avoid her? Or to ambush her?

Meg’s heart raced as she felt about for a wall, for anything to orient herself. She was an idiot. Her childhood fantasy crumbled beneath her as she realized this was it. She would not see the Phantom, today or any other day. At this rate, it would be wise to return to the sub-basement and speak with the flics about what she’d learned. They were not going to find him.

Feeling her way back towards the exit, she found a trickle of light that led her forward. That dim illumination kept her oriented as she turned around a dark wall. But the light was blocked by a figure.

Her heart leaped into her mouth as she recognized him from the stage.

He was tall, but not too tall, and formidable enough to take up the narrow entrance. And he was facing her. She could not tell from the shadows if he had a mask on, though his hair was a wild halo around his head. Her name was said with some measure of reverence, and she froze. “Meg Giry.”

With darkness at her back, and the Phantom blocking her only exit, she was at his mercy. Now, she could only hope her mother’s pact with him would protect her. “Phantom.” She inclined her head. “Or should I simply call you by your given name: Erik?”

The shadow of his head lowered, just slightly. “Do not call me that. I am nothing. Not anymore.”

“Well,” she said, biting her lip. “You do make a rather fine door.” Meg didn’t know where the humor came from. She was shaking in her soaked boots, frightened, and yet preternaturally calm at the same time. It was as if she’d known him, really known him, more than even Christine ever had. Something about him was familiar, albeit more morose than she was expecting.

At her humor she could feel his eyes fall on her, and his head tilted. “Have you considered that it might not be wise to pursue me? I nearly killed your precious patron, mere moments ago.”

“He is not my patron, monsieur.” She took a step forward. “In fact, I believe our mutual friend is the one who now owns him.”

A tick of disgust escaped him and he took a step forward, overshadowing the light so Meg was cast into darkness. “What business do you have beneath the streets of Paris?”

“I-” Her voice caught, and she realized she was unprepared for this encounter. “I wanted to see you. At least once.”

“You saw me on the stage.” He grew closer, so that she had to back up. “And at the masquerade.”

There was a wall behind her, and she felt for the corner, but found none.

Arms locked her in, so she was caught between him and the wall. Her breathing hitched, and she realized this was not at all what she’d expected. From the slight trace of light, he was not wearing his mask. The blistered skin on his face and cheek made her put a hand to her mouth. So, this was the feared opera ghost. The man who’d gone about terrorizing the new owners of the Paris Opera House. The one who whispered to Christine night after night, showing, teaching, guiding her to her greatness. Meg remembered to breathe and inhaled, tasting the spirit of a fire on her tongue.

“Have you seen enough?” His cape and cloak so concealed them both, so she could hardly see the light from the sewer beyond. The trace of illumination on his face was tinted blue, cool as opposed to the angry red of his mottled skin.

She could not tear her gaze away, all but petrified against the cold stone wall. “Only your actions frighten me, monsieur.”


He leaned in closer, and she could taste his heady breath in her mouth. “As it should be. You do not know what you want, fille. I suggest you be on your way before the dogs arrive. The flics are already preparing the noose for my neck.”

“I don’t- I don’t want to go.” She straightened, her nose an inch from his. “All my life,” Meg said, finding her voice. “I’ve known about you, but never have seen you. Not on my own. Sure, there were rumors. The other women caught glimpses, or they thought they did-”

“Mere gossip, I assure you.”

“Right,” she continued, “you’re too clever to be seen by accident.” Her laugh was mirthless as she steadied herself again. Meg slid her gaze to the dim doorway. “I only meant to witness you. Every night, when I was a child, I wondered that you were watching over us all. Like the angel Christine spoke of. And when she was chosen, I-” She glanced back to see if his stern countenance had changed. It had not. “I’ll admit I was, perhaps, a little jealous. Though, I could never hate her. She received the training I’d so fantasized about. For years, I only wanted to be led to you through some magical door. Maybe, as some token for my mother’s selfless act, you would teach me, instead.”

“Selfless act,” he said sardonically, his voice going low. “Your mother had her own expectations of me. So much your precious opera house gleaned from my genius. I owe those ungrateful fools nothing.”

“You’re not wrong. They did not deserve you. Even Christine,” she said, realizing this might summon his displeasure, “did not deserve you, monsieur.”

A flicker of doubt crossed his face, then it was hard again. “Then who. You?”

“Probably not even me.” Meg slowed her breathing. “I do not claim to be worthy of your attentions, only your company, however briefly. Surely, you have more pressing matters at hand.” The dogs barking in the distance validated her words.

His arms clenched around her, and she expected to receive a blow, such as the ones their old stage master threw. She did her best not to flinch, but then, the Phantom reached for her face. His thumb traced her lower lip, and her heartrate spiked. “How had I managed to overlook such a capable creature as you, all these years?”

When his thumb released her lip, it traced the line of her jaw. She closed her eyes, trying not to find enjoyment in his touch. “It is easy to do, especially around such a beauty as she.”

“Still-” His eyes burned in the darkness. “-you are not promised to anyone by bond or blood. You owe your friend nothing. And still, you pursue to the depths of hell for little more than curiosity.”

Meg did not answer, her face flushing beneath his touch. What had she hoped to glean from her chase? This? It was beyond imagination.

“You have no more words for me, then?”

She did not, so she reached for him, her hand barely brushing his scarred cheek before he flinched away, his touch gone. It caused her to pause. “It is I who should be afraid of you, monsieur.”

He turned from her, and she thought he melted into the darkness before he spoke. “Foolish girl. But you know you are foolish, don’t you? Only a fool would chase a wounded beast.”

She found herself silent again, stepping towards the sound of his voice.

“Don’t you dare touch me.” His voice was further out. “Do not treat me like some invalid to quell your guilty soul.”
“I have no weighty soul to bear, Phantom.”

“Then leave me. You have satisfied your curiosity.”

She laughed again, this time, it echoed off the cold stone walls. Meg felt her face where his calloused hands had touched, her lips still hot. “I do not hold your reigns. You could have slipped past me at any time, and left me unrequited. Instead, you closed me in here with you. You allowed me to speak with you, and now, again, you flee. This is not the life of a virtuoso, but of vermin.”

Silence met her, but she could almost feel his resentment building in the darkness.

“Come out of the shadows, Phantom. Claim your name. Live your life, for our culture will surely be worse without your guidance. They may not be worthy of it, but you have much to offer.”

“Those scars will never heal.” He finally spoke, his next words cutting. “You view the world so innocently, I almost envy you.”

“Or maybe it is you who view the world so wretchedly? You are a man of many talents, monsieur, but a ghost, you are not. And while you still live, you should-”

An arm circled her neck and pulled her back against a formidable chest. She caught hold of the arm, but didn’t kick as she might have any other man that attempted this. His voice was low, menacing, when he spoke in her ear. “You dare to instruct me on my affairs, Meg Giry?”

He’d not cut off her airways, so she took a tremulous breath. “No, monsieur.” She felt him inhale slowly, as if the motion hadn’t exerted him in the least. Her heart throbbed in her chest, his strong arm forcing her to feel each beat in her throat. “I only mean to say… You deserve to be in the light.”

The words themselves seemed to stun him, and he withdrew. “The light is no friend to me.”

“But it could be.” She turned on her heel, where she’d last heard his voice. “My family has influence, connections. You oughtn’t be without any longer, and do recall that your financier is gone. The viscount will not pay your dues any longer.” Her body still trembled from his touch. “You are not the monster you think you are.”

“Am I not?” The voice was close, closer still, and to her left. If she only reached out, she might be able to touch him. “And even if that’s true, I am still a man. And we have such dark urges. But-” his voice rose in false mirth, then dropped again. “I am pushing at an open door. You, more than most, would know the cruelty of men’s desires.”

She felt the press of him drawing near and took a step back. “Then you do not know me, monsieur. I am not one of the many women of the theater. I am Mademoiselle Giry’s daughter. And as such, I have not lain with any man, however eager they might present themselves to be.” Meg took another step backwards, not liking this slow, strange waltz he was leading her into.

He swept forward again, blocking out the light. “Have I yet demanded the attentions of your body, Meg? Is that what you were searching for, in my most private studio?”

Even in the dark, her cheeks warmed with embarrassment at his implications. “You disparage me.” She turned away, a stinging in her eyes adding to the burn of resentment welling up inside her. “And you’re right. I have satisfied my curiosity.” She moved forward in the darkness, her form colliding with his. Hands grabbed her arms and she sucked in a breath. “I pray you let me go, as the gentleman you are demands.”

“You are misinformed.” His hands gripped tighter. “A gentleman, I am not.”

His strong hands shoved her hard against the wall behind her and her head struck the unforgiving stones. She let out a cry, but the sound was cut off as hot lips descended on hers. Now, she did kick as she would with any other man, but he seemed already prepared, pinning her leg with his as his tongue pried open her mouth, exploring her.

While her head throbbed, he caught hold of her wrists and clapped them into manacles above her head. Shock coursed through her as he handled her body, as feverish as a man denied his object of fascination.

Meg tried to slip her hands from the manacles, but found them snug, the metal digging in to her wrists as she struggled. When he tore his lips away, she found her voice. “Please, monsieur.” She yanked again as he tugged open her bodice. “I did not ask for this.”

“But you did,” he said in turn, yanking the blouse open. He caught her small breasts, pushing her back into the wall with the pressure of his groping. The Phantom’s head dipped low, so that she could feel the flit of his breath on her collar bone, his ruined cheek pressed against her neck. “You all but begged me to take you. Pursuing me when you knew my feelings for Christine had been denied. Giving yourself to me so willingly, fille, I only wonder that you did not cry out to me sooner.”

She felt his hips shove against hers and a warmth spread through her, starting at her core. Meg shook her head, all too flustered to summon an argument as his mouth pressed to her neck. “No, please.” She did not scream as she did not want the dogs to descend on them both. They would not know friend from foe in that first, most critical moment.

A firm hand caught her jaw, and she thought she saw the glint of his eyes in the darkness. “Will you cry out for the flics? They might save your precious virtue still. Or, perhaps, you will call for your friend. Though, I take it she’s already forgotten you in her exodus. We are both spurned from her grace.” His mouth was vicious as he crushed it to hers, pulling away just as fiercely. “I will tutor you in the depths of my chagrin.”

His calloused hands slipped below the seam of her pants on her hips, throwing them down with little effort as he reclaimed her body.

Something… hard pressed against her leg through his pants. Something Meg had done well to avoid in her life, up to this moment. “No, no, no, n-” Something heavy looped over her neck. A noose, she thought in horror as it tightened securely. Tears did come then, and she blinked them away. “No!” She shouted with what breath remained, bucking against him.

It didn’t do much, only serving to free his hands to drag her knee up. In the darkness, she could barely make out that he lashed the other end of the rope to her knee, so that if she pulled down… “You are your own master, Meg Giry,” he said, his tone cruel. “If this leg lowers, you will choke on your own weight and die. No one will find your corpse for a hundred years.” He slapped her thigh hard, so that the sound echoed off the far walls beyond her sight. “Maintain your focus, fille. And perhaps, when I’ve had my way, I’ll grant you the mercy you so sweetly beg for.”

His touch disappeared and she gritted her teeth, already feeling the fatigue at the effort of keeping her knee raised. Her virgin womanhood was splayed open, so that when he returned, he would claim her. That, Meg had no doubt.

The manacles reminded her of their presence, seeming to tighten against her wrists further, though she expected it was her weight adding to the draw. She looked up to jiggle at them again just as he descended on her, his hands reaching around and forcing her hips forward against something warm and soft and hard at once. It threatened to skewer her and, though it stole her focus, she barely maintained her balance. She would not die, tonight.

That press between her legs shoved its way in, so that she gasped in shock. Something inside her broke and he slid out, then barreled into her body again with one, heavy thrust. Her leg wavered and dropped slightly, tightening the noose around her neck and she choked.

Though he seemed preoccupied below, he grabbed the rope above her and yanked down, freeing her throat to take in more blessed air. He shoved in again, driving himself home before a hot breath warmed the skin of her raw neck. “Focus, Meg.” Teeth found her earlobe, grazing with the threat to bite as he let go of the rope, leaving her to fend for herself.

The Phantom grabbed tight to the manacles, giving him better leverage to violate her very core. Her body, though she objected, rode his surging waves of passion. But she kept her leg high, willing herself to come out on the other side. She was a Giry, and women of her stock did not bow to the weight of men’s demands this way. He wanted a replacement for Christine? He would not find it in her. So, she quieted her panting, letting her core go limp, though it throbbed.

His hips slowed their vicious assault as he grabbed her long blonde hair, his fingers tightening around her hips painfully with a subsequent thrust. “You’re brave, coming here. And naïve for not realizing what you would find.” He shoved again, forcing the air out of her lungs, his voice filled with hate. “A fool, you are. That you could be-” His thrust made him exhale and her suck in a breath, but she kept her knee raised. “-so disillusioned by your own infantile fantasies.”

Meg’s teeth tore open as she let out a real scream, quickly silenced by a hand over her mouth.

“Hush.” His nose brushed over her forehead, then he kissed her hairline. He drilled into her and continued on an exhale. “Do imagine yourself a woman of class.”

She bit his hand as hard as she was able, tasting blood.

He cursed, but didn’t withdraw. Instead, he caught her around the throat with his bloody hand, jamming into her as hard as he could. Then, he chuckled, the sound reverberating through them both and the quiet space beyond. “Turnabout is fair play, I suppose.”

She spat in the direction she heard his voice, unable to completely banish the salty taste. “I was wrong about you,” she whispered between his thrusts, “you’re no better than the rest of them. Foul, loathsome, damnable-”

Another thrust made the air escape her, shuddering beneath him. “Monster, is the word you’re searching for. All you claim, I am, indeed.” He reached beneath her and tightened his grip on her ass, where no man dared touch her before. It served to ease him further in, so she felt the slap of his groin against her cheeks. Against her will, her womanhood leaked, serving to expedite his possession of her. She cursed herself, her body, and her whims for pursuing him. If she’d only- His pace increased again, and she did all she could to focus on her leg remaining high. She felt his blood drying on her lips, cracking, even as he closed in for a kiss.

This one was fierce, like the last.

He did not seem to mind the taste of his own blood, and even delved deeper as if to own her entirely. Something in the way his body clenched frightened her, and she struggled as if she had a prayer. He drilled in thrice more before he panted, hard, drawing near to that signature male pinnacle she’d heard so much about from the other girls.

The Phantom was just a man, after all.

She closed her eyes, a fresh stream of tears cascading down her cheeks as she focused only on the tension between her neck and knee. But even as she redirected herself, he pushed into her so hard, she thought she might break. A hiss escaped his teeth as he exploded inside of her, ruining her for any other man. Thrice more he pumped until his manhood went limp inside of her.

His hands and body released, letting her free leg slide to the ground. She stood on her toes, maintaining that gap in the rope that allowed her to breathe, looking out into the darkness with a hate-filled expression. Her leg, at this point, burned with the effort of remaining high. “Let me free as you promised, Erik.”

Silence met her words, and she feared he’d left her.

Meg’s heart leaped, a trail of his seed chasing down her leg while she thought of an escape. Not even the dogs barked anymore. Perhaps they’d called off the search when they couldn’t find the secret exit. She blinked away the tears and tried to steady her breathing, to no avail.

The sound of leather sole on stone made her freeze, then a whisper of a touch met her cheek. Before she knew it, something sliced the rope, freeing her leg and neck from the strain of being lashed. It dropped to the ground and she clenched her knees together, bending forward despite the manacles and sobbed into the quiet space.

The lock was manipulated, opened, then the release of her bindings threw her to the floor. All she could do was clutch at the sharp stone and continue her weeping. Her body was racked by him, so that she could not bring herself to look up, even though he stood inches from her. “I have kept my promise.”

She only shuddered, squeezing her eyes shut. A hand touched her back and she winced from it, all propriety gone. He was no monsieur. “Stay away from me.”

He stood from a crouched position, pacing to the doorway. “Oh, but your substitution has made quite an interesting turn in this performance.” A slow smile bloomed in his voice. “I look forward to your company again, Meg.”

The Phantom disappeared from the doorway and she was alone.

Meg trembled upon trying to stand, her body sore and tight. She rubbed her neck, which was raw from the rope, orienting herself in the darkness.

Another thorough scan of her surroundings verified that he was truly gone.

Her blood burned from the encounter, a hot humiliation that coursed through her, making her trembling limbs clench. He would try to use her again? Never, she thought, wrapping her ruined blouse around her exposed chest. Never again. He’d taken her by surprise, this night. But now she knew his game, and it would be he who walked away sore next time, if he could even walk at all.

 

 

*

 

 

Her mother need never know, but it was clear Madame Giry noticed Meg’s diminished interest in the theater, but likely thought it a symptom of the changes. Everything was different with Christine gone, and without a patron, their business of entertaining the grand populous of Paris was set to end. It kept her mother busy enough with the final few shows, so that Meg had hardly needed to participate to be considered present.

On occasion, she thought she saw him watching their playacting from above, but often, she realized it was only shadows that passed her sight. She was overthinking it, surely. Now that he’d left his mark, she couldn’t stop thinking about him.

Self-loathing set in, shaming her for being used so easily, so carelessly. Meg should never have pursued, then maybe her virtue would have remained – as it should have – intact.

It wasn’t until the sixth night that she found true evidence of his presence. A single, purple hyacinth, wrapped in his signature bow, sitting on the vanity she shared with no one. Her room was humbler than Christine’s had been, but it was comfortable enough.

At least, until the flower appeared.

She did not even bother to pick it up, her eyes darting over the room entire, scouring for a possible in or out that he might have used. But she knew this room intimately, and the only three exits were her bedroom door, a window – which was barred shut and on the third level – or the… Meg looked up. The trap door. It hung ajar, slightly off from its frame, as if inviting her to fix it, or to climb up and explore its depths.

As she deliberated whether to use nails or just brick the damned thing off, it began to move all its own, and her heart dropped. But she did not allow herself to freeze this time, lunging for her bed, and the rapier hidden beneath. She pulled her sword from its sheath just as his boots landed on the hardwood floor of her bedroom, the boards creaking with the effort.

With the tip aimed at his chest, she stood on the bed, so she was taller than he. “You have done enough harm to warrant my eternal loathing. Stay yourself, Phantom.” Her gaze steadied on his face, which was masked once more. His cloak, too, was wrapped around his shoulders, spoke to an elegance he’d not expressed in the sewers far below the theater.

His eyes flickered to the sword’s tip, then back up at her with some measure of amusement. “I’d expect nothing less from your capable line.”

“Then you would not be surprised if I ran it through you? And once more to be sure the monster is truly dead?” She kept her arm raised with little effort.

He shook his head, the humor gone. “No less than I deserve.”

His admission caused her to waver, then she steadied herself. “Is this how you tricked Christine? Playing at both sides? Well, monsieur, your pretense will not stay my blade, should you choose to remain.” She aimed the tip as if to spear him in the heart. “I suggest you use the door, this time. I’ve no interest in becoming a murderer, but it will not deter me if you attempt such again.”

The Phantom watched her for a long moment, then began to take off his gloves, one finger at a time, pacing to the vanity with a sweep of his cloak. “I did not come here to harm you, Meg. I only meant to speak to my deplorable actions.” She saw his face in the mirror, pained as he picked up the purple hyacinth he’d left her. “Though there is no excuse.”

Meg lowered the rapier’s tip, only slightly, waiting for his other side to present itself.

He turned again, flower in hand, holding it out to her. “You found me in a state of utter grief. I do not seek your forgiveness. It would be too much to ask of you. That, I understand.” He took several steps forward, as if unafraid of the blade’s edge, stopping only when the nose of his mask nearly struck the sharpened tip. He still held the hyacinth out to her. “Meg Giry.” He lowered himself to his knees, placing the flower on the floor between them. “I’ve prided myself in being beyond such carnal needs as what you endured. And to find myself equal to the rest of my disgraceful gender, I have since wallowed in my shame. Run your blade through me, if you must.” He splayed his arms out wide. “It is your right alone to end my existence. You, who once held me in such high regard.”

Meg’s jaw slid to one side, wondering if this was yet another farce. He was good at acting, in fact, she doubted anything she’d witness up to this point was genuine. But she realized his admission, her power over his life or death, was, in fact, authentic. She lowered the blade in disgust, keeping it ready in the case that he made a swift move to the contrary. “You should not have come.”

“If I hadn’t, I would risk losing that last trace of honor I still possess.”

Meg scoffed. “What ‘honor’?”

The Phantom lowered his arms, his dark eyes dropping to the floorboards.

“You seemed rather lucid during our tryst, if I remember correctly,” she said with a measure of disgust. “In fact, there’s hardly a thing I’ve forgotten since that night. The bruises are still healing, and some…” Her body tightened in shame. “-might never heal.”

“No.” He spoke low. “Of course, not.”

Meg gauged his remorse a moment longer, then hopped down from the bed, keeping her blade lowered, but steady. She rounded his hunkered form and watched for the slight movement that would indicate he had darker intentions for this visit. “Do you still love her?”

His head shot up in surprise, and she almost ran the blade through him for that action alone, but he remained on his knees, his eyes staring forward. “Do you still love the theater?”

Meg pursed her lips, refusing to play his game. “Would you have done the same to her?”

“No,” was his reply.

“Why me?

From her positioning, she saw him blink. “So willingly you stepped into the darkness to search out… what?” He turned to face her, the mask concealing much of his features. All but his eyes. “A fantasy? An assumption, perhaps, based on what you thought you knew?” Slowly, he lifted his arms in supplication first, then levered off his knees and stood, keeping his distance as if to deter her from striking him. “It was not as you expected.”

“It was you, who made the choice.”

The ghost of a smile passed across his face. “Ah, but the point is, you embraced the unknown and, unfortunately, it embraced you, in return. I’ve come to understand two things, in this life. One: there is no force on earth that trumps the cruelty of the human nature, and two: chaos reigns. Hammurabi created laws to protect people from their own basest nature. Now, these laws have been so misconstrued that they only serve to empower the weak, as they are rewritten by spineless men. There is no place for me in this thinly ordered world of yours. Perhaps it still works to serve the vulnerable, but you will find no aid in the high courts for what I’ve stolen from you. And you will never get it back. What sort of justice is that?”

“Says the one who stole it in the first place.”

“Under great duress, I assure you.”

“Motive matters not.” She raised the blade again, stepping forward as to push him back. “Out with you, vermin, or I will scream for the whole world to hear. Then they will find you, lynch you, and bring some semblance of order back to our dying theater. You’ve tormented me enough.”

His mouth turned down, but he bowed slightly at the waist, then worked to put his gloves back on. “I am sorry to have violated your trust, Meg.”

 More than that, she thought bitterly, watching him turn to the door.

When his hand reached the knob, a gaggle of young stage performers chittered by her door, gossiping about some boy’s ‘pecker’ and other lurid topics. The Phantom froze at the door, waiting until their chatter disappeared from the long hall.

Meg drew closer, knowing he’d had every opportunity to strike, and hadn’t. He was already prepared to leave without incident. She had no reason to fear him, though the memories still hung fresh in her mind, making her throat tighten. Her voice was a whisper. “Well?”

He withdrew his hand slowly, and she thought it a deception on his part, until a rap at the door startled her. “Meg?” her mother’s voice rang out. “Meg, chère, you’ve missed breakfast again. May I have a word?”

 In one swift motion, the Phantom swept behind the door as it opened, leaving Meg standing in the center of the room with her rapier drawn.

Her mother’s cold, calculating eyes took her in. “Mon Dieu, Meg! What are you doing with that sword?”

She still felt the heavy presence in the corner, but he was concealed by the door. She still had no freedom to speak, worried that anything could give him away. “I- I’m sorry, mother. I’ve been… practicing.”

“Every day this week?” Madame Giry’s stern expression crumpled in confusion. “You know I expect all my girls to come down for breakfast. Even you.” She grabbed the handle, as if she meant to depart. “I expect to see you first thing tomorrow morning. And put that old thing away.” Without requiring a response, her mother nodded, then shut the door behind herself.

Meg took in a breath, halting as he moved from the shadows. “Perhaps you ought to use the trap door, instead.” She glanced to the square of darkness above, then at him, who stood stone-faced, staring at her. She swallowed hard. “What?”

He took a step forward, making her blood rush faster. She brought the sword point up, then caught the back with her other hand and braced it against herself as he got dangerously close. His eyes roved over her with renewed curiosity, his voice low. “You might have easily revealed me, and I would have had no choice but to surrender myself. But you didn’t.”

Meg remembered the taste of his lips and hated herself for it. “I didn’t want more innocents to die. You still have a noose on your person, do you not?”

“The very same.”

She shuddered, pressing the sword to his dark jerkin, its edge threatening to slice. “This does not mean I’ve forgiven you, Phantom.”

In a sudden, yet gentle motion, he cupped the back of her neck with a gloved hand, bringing her face dangerously close to his. “I would not expect it.” Then, he closed his mouth over hers, a soft expression of endearment.

For a moment, she was stunned by this quiet declaration, then she pushed back, the sharp end of the sword negotiating his distance as their lips were torn apart. She burned all over again, that seeping anger returning. “I am not yours to play with. I’ve spared you death by hanging, as you spared me. But do not try my patience again, or you will find no mercy.”

His hand, still lingering on her neck, traced a line from her ear to her jaw, his expression sad. “I owe you my life twice, it seems.” The Phantom righted himself, his face changing to something impassive. “At your command, I will be on my way.”

Meg watched silently as he withdrew to the trap door, stepping up onto the bed to find leverage, then catching the lip before hoisting himself into the blackness above. As the wooden slat righted itself, she listened intently for the sound of his departure, but heard none.

She could breathe again, exhaling tension she did not know she’d possessed. Her gaze fell upon the purple flower he’d left behind, then she picked it up, rolling the stem about between her fingers. In her other hand rested the sword, limp in her hand. She glanced up at the ceiling again, her determination intensified. In an hour’s time, she could have all the ingredients she needed to brick off the hole for good. Never again would he be free to come and go as he pleased.

He would have to use the door, next time.

           

           

 

 



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