The crowd is restless with anticipation; the humid July air pulses with the energy of tens of thousands of people in the upper levels of the stadium talking, laughing, filling the space with a raucous buzz. Down on the ground level the audience is filing in, pushing and pressing closer to the enormous stage installed at one end of the football field, and Christine clutches Meg's hand tight, marveling as her friend strides nonchalantly through the crowd like it's a house party in her own living room, confidently headed toward the front of the massive horde of rock fans. Whenever the noise and chaos become a bit too much she looks down at Meg's deep bronze hand in her own; her glittery fuchsia manicure, the black paper wristband reading VIP LAWN ACCESS SOUTH that seems to make every security guard step aside with a smile. They make their way through the various sections of standing room toward the narrow platform of stage that runs from the main stage out into the middle of the arena, clutching clear plastic cups of beer emblazoned with the stadium's logo. It's a crappy domestic lager, but it was cheap, and it's nice and cold, and being able to actually buy beer with her own completely legit ID is new and kind of exciting. Christine Daaé, all grown up.
Another flash of the wristband as they enter into one of the most coveted standing areas and then - only a few people back from the metal barrier surrounding the runway jutting out from the stage - Meg stops, seemingly content at last, and throws a grin over her shoulder at Christine. "This'll do. The bassist and guitarist will walk out here a bunch and play. They're always really good; I mean, they'd have to be to actually play the songs he writes. But I think they show off extra hard to make up for the fact that he never comes out from behind the screen."
A shiver makes its way down Christine's spine; exhilaration with an edge that almost feels like a chill, in spite of the summer heat. "It seems so… shady. What kind of singer can't show his face onstage?"
"Oh my god, you have no idea," Meg rolls her eyes, and drags a hand through her brightly dyed hair, twisting the candyfloss pink strands around an elastic as she speaks. "Everything my mom has told me about him is totally sus. Being his PA is driving her crazy. Weird requests at weird hours, homicidal temper tantrums, pretty much every substance problem you can imagine... and then there's the rumor that his head of security defected from some intelligence agency in Tehran. She said a roadie pissed him off once, and no one ever heard from the guy again. It's full on creepy. But with talent like that -"
"I know," Christine squeezes Meg's hand tighter, and the tingling feeling is definitely anticipation now. "It's unreal. I can't stop listening to the album."
"I wish you'd put your video channel back up. Your PHANTOM covers were seriously good."
Christine shakes her head. "I am done with putting anything online for a while. Too many weirdos. I just want to sing, I don't care if anyone hears it. Maybe someday - oh!"
The lights in the stadium dim; the clamoring excitement of the crowd rises in a palpable wave, tension escalating to the point of bursting, as the band stomps out into the spotlights and takes their places. Six cracks of the drumsticks overhead and they are tearing into the first song, ferocious and bombastic, guitars screaming and bass shaking her chest like thunder. The jumbotrons on each side of the stage are flashing from close-ups of the band to shots of raging fans in the audience; the same view is repeated on gigantic video screens placed throughout the stadium, hanging from the curved lines of the upper tiers of seats.
It's impossible to think the band could play any louder, but the song somehow rises to a crescendo and every video screen shows an inferno of flames as a panel of fabric unfurls from the flies above the stage, the end lowering to the ground behind the drummer, dividing the stage vertically with a gigantic screen. A microphone stand is the only thing visible on the other side, its outline a thin stripe on the screen as the stage lights dance around it.
Her heartbeat races in anticipation, outpacing the music.
The singer doesn't stride onto the stage so much as stalk, a predator hunting the mic; the backlit silhouette on the screen shows a thin, tall man with hunched shoulders and heavy combat boots. Serpentine and ominous, his gait is at odds with the relentless energy of the rock coming from the front of the stage - and yet there is something angular and angry about every step he takes toward the crowd that makes the song so clearly the work of this man. When his dark outline finally approaches the center of the stage, he reaches out and snatches the microphone off the stand without slowing his pace, and Christine feels herself flinch at the sudden aggression of the movement.
With a sharp pivot he turns his back to the audience; even in silhouette she can see the fists clenched at his sides, his shoulders shakily rising in fury or something else, before he finally raises the microphone.
Then he begins to sing, and she forgets to breathe.
It starts low, rumbling with a warm richness, edging into a snarl on a vicious lyric and then soaring up an octave with ease, melodic and glorious, sinuous and sinister. The timbre is lush, intoxicating; flawless on some notes and cracking with emotion on others, growing in strength as he seems to become more comfortable onstage, turning toward the crowd and beginning to pace, to move more freely as the music bleeds out of him.
There are fewer synthesizer effects and modifications live; it's more pure, more raw than the albums, and it tingles at the back of her neck like a dream remembered. It's not just that his voice is operatic, although it is, and it's not even that it is achingly beautiful - although it is that as well, wrenching emotion in her chest like a hand physically gripping her heart and wringing feeling from it. It's that it is utterly haunting; the guitar roars around his tenor, the drums are battering, and through it all this singularly beautiful voice from an unseen man is shaking her to her very soul.
Once, Christine had waded out into the Atlantic, standing in the water up to her chest, her clothing drenched, feeling the swell of each wave lift her up off her feet, depositing her in the sand at the ocean's floor again, a few inches back each time. She had been in so deep that she'd had to stand on tiptoe to keep her shoulders above the surface of the water, knowing full well she didn't know how to swim, daring fate to take her under, half tempting death to take her to her mother's side, to steal the life in her lungs because she had so little left to lose - but the wind had stolen her scarf instead, and given her a happy summer and a blond boy's warm grin, for a little while, at least. She'd had that one golden August, and then her father died too; it's been winter ever since, winter for years.
That day in the ocean was nothing, compared to how overwhelmed she is now. The crush of the crowd is a force against her back, pushing her off-balance; she raises her hands and pushes back against the shoulders of the person in front of her, just to keep from smashing into them; she'll be fine in this crowd because she's a survivor - sad and strong and maybe a little fucked up, but she'll get by. It's what she's always done. Trudge through one day; make it through the next, keep showing up, keep trying, keep the tears at bay and just survive. The real problem, the terrifying force as strong as the ocean itself, is the thrall of this music, this man. It's making her feel, and feeling is so much more dangerous than numb.
The singer's voice slices through an arpeggio, words of loss and longing throughout the notes and her heart is exploding; it is lifting out of her chest, it is running in a thousand different directions at once and most of them veer dangerously toward some fantasy of the man singing the notes. She wants to sing again someday, wants to trust again someday, wants to make music that moves someone just like this; wants to hear this voice murmur her name, to tangle her notes with his and see if it's breathtaking. She wants to flee, to run from the stadium, wants to gouge this feeling out of her soul and stay safe forever. She wants to learn his name and tattoo it on her ribs and never be safe again.
Christine gulps the rest of her beer, and smiles weakly when Meg turns to her and and shouts, "Aren't they great?"
The singer picks up a guitar for the second song; for the third he switches to a keyboard, casually playing with what she knows damn well is the skill of a virtuoso, singing all the while. He seems to forget about the audience entirely by the fourth song, prowling the space and roaring into the microphone, losing himself in the lyrics, his shadow thrashing bodily around stage, arching his back and cursing skyward with a magnificent wail.
As promised, the guitarist and bassist make their way down the runway during various numbers to play closer to the fans, and it occurs to her what a staggering talent it must take to even play such complicated music, let alone write it. The video displays alternate between crowd shots and close-ups of the visible band members; midway through the set Meg clutches her arm in giddy exuberance, "It's us! We're on the Jumbotron! Wave!" Christine blinks, at the surprise of seeing herself on a half-dozen video screens, brown hair and thick bangs, dark eyeliner rimming dazed blue eyes. The larger-than-life image of herself looks like a deer staring down headlights.
There is a crash and the singing stops short; the video bounces on to the next group of fans as though nothing had happened; a moment later it cuts to the band, still playing through the missing vocals.
Meg clasps a hand over her mouth, shaking her head and stifling a laugh. "I think he dropped the mic! Drugs, man."
Onstage, the silhouetted singer is kneeling, in profile, his view trained ahead of him, on something in the wings. He raises a hand across his chest and his head lolls back; his chest rises and falls with deep breaths for a long moment, before he leans forward, grabs the microphone from the floor and stiffly walks offstage. The gasp that rises from the audience is ghastly, shock and whispered rumors, the words overdose and heart attack whipping through the audience like a gust of wind. The massive screens show the uncertain expressions of the band members left onstage, throwing one another questioning looks even as they continue playing, extending the song out over and over again.
The roar of the crowd is so violent and thunderous that she thinks, at first, a bomb has gone off, some terrorist attack; it is only a second later that she realizes there is screaming all around her because the singer has walked out from behind the screen. He stands in front of the band, a lanky figure in tattered black jeans, a slim fitting three-quarter length coat, and a grimacing silver skull mask covering his entire face. His head turns slowly, surveying the audience; the jumbotrons seem to go as insane as the crowd, panning across huge sections of the stadium at a dizzying speed. Suddenly the singer raises his hand, gesturing at someone backstage and the cameras halt, abruptly. Looking over his shoulder he barks something to the band, then turns back to the audience, raises the microphone and starts singing again, striding defiantly toward the narrow runway extruding from the stage. The rigid set of his shoulders reads like the contempt of a rockstar for the screaming masses - and yet his body language is tinged with something that looks like fear.
When she raises her eyes, she sees her own face on the jumbotron again. Fans on both sides of her are screaming and waving at the camera, but her heart begins to thud heavily in her throat as time slows down. The singer storms down the runway as though he's walking a gauntlet, coat swinging behind him with each determined step, still belting powerfully through the song even though it is obviously an afterthought; his attention is thrown outward as he sweeps his gaze across the stadium, visibly trying to get his bearings. Security guards follow him in droves, running in the aisles between the audience and the stage, a wave of professionals trying to make order of the sudden chaos.
The singer reaches the end of the runway, and he's looking down, now, at the people in the audience; with no warning he walks off the edge, dropping several feet to land on a security railing between the front and back sections of the lawn on one side, the side where they're standing. Christine sees the stadium's security staff rush up between the sections, holding back the crowd as the fans lunge forward, trying to touch the rock legend in physical form at last. The man himself is jogging along the narrow top of the partition, singing almost absent-mindedly while scanning the crowd, stepping over hands and cameras without even looking down, as though all of the people reaching for him are inconsequential and vaguely unpleasant. A burly fan presses forward and manages to grab his leg; the singer unceremoniously kicks him in the jaw, shakes his foot free and continues forward.
He's ten feet away, and then only five; his gaze lands on hers in the audience, and he freezes. The silver mask glints in the dozens of spotlights on him; behind it his eyes are so human her heart seems to twist in her chest in response. She's telling herself he's probably just high, but he looks for all the world to be transfixed. The rest of the verse falls out of his mouth, halfheartedly, and the drummer launches into a solo, an onslaught of battering drum beats.
Without breaking eye contact with her, the singer gestures to the security guards, flicking to the side with one hand; four uniformed men approach the section of crowd where she is standing and swiftly scale the divider, pushing people away; the fans begrudgingly part in front of her, a Red Sea of fans, roaring and cheering and frantically snapping pictures of the man himself.
There is a path from her to the edge of the barrier where he precariously stands; the implication is clear but she is paralyzed, not knowing how to understand what is happening - what she just felt, what on earth he is doing - but then he is crouching down, and reaching his hand out toward her with surprising trepidation. The backs of his hands are covered in tattoos, black geometric shapes disappearing up his wrists under his jacket sleeves, and his extended hand trembles, just slightly, like he is doing something dangerous, like he is reaching into a lion's cage. Her feet move, then, carrying her forward; Meg's voice cheering her on fades into the clamor of the crowd. The security guards offer her assistance but she pushes herself up on the metal barrier, gets a knee onto the edge, and reaches up toward the hand reaching out for her own, still holding the singer's gaze.
Her hand slides into his, and there might be eighty thousand people right there in that stadium, but they are the only two people in the universe.
One of his irises is brown; the other an unsettlingly light blue; both pupils are enormous. The look in them is demanding and somehow desperate, imploring her for something, like a hostage on camera who cannot speak. His hand is drawing her toward him, the intention clear, and carefully she places her other foot on the railing, shakily rising from a crouch to stand, vaguely aware of the security guards holding back a tsunami of human exuberance behind her. He pulls her up, bending his arm at the elbow and drawing his hand toward his chest, her fingers still entwined with his, standing toe to toe now with him towering over her.
He moves to speak - shoulders lifting, chin tilting down, toward her - but seems to fail. Below the edge of the mask she sees his adam's apple bob, and the improbable thought enters her mind that he's as helpless as she is right now.
The rain of camera flashes blasts them like firecrackers, like gunfire; the band is vamping in the background, valiantly playing the same riff over and over as he stares into her eyes and she grips his hand like a lifeline. He makes a gesture she can't see with his left hand, the one still holding the microphone, and out of the corner of her eye she can see roadies scrambling - then he reaches out and down, holding the mic away from them, aiming it toward the crowd.
"Tell me your name. Now." His voice is quiet, and dire, despite the command in his tone.
"...Christine," she breathes, as a wave of electricity seems to burn through her veins.
"Your full name," he insists, and when she does not respond immediately, he adds, at a loss, "Please."
The man nods, seeming to file this bit of information away, and she becomes aware of the fact that the tempo of the music is rising; abruptly he pivots, still grasping her fingers in his own, and walks back along the top of the security barrier toward the narrow runway of stage, with her following shakily behind him, dazed and focused only on balancing, lest she fall into the pit of fans on either side.
When they reach the end of the barrier, he drops her hand to climb back up to the stage, then quickly turns to claim it again, pulling her up behind him, the security guards helping to lift her up. From this vantage point she gets a sense of the vastness of the crowd, and her head swims. A roadie jogs down the stage carrying a Stratocaster, and reluctantly, the singer releases her hand again, his own twitching once at the loss of contact, before he turns and takes the guitar. He loops the strap over his head, plugs in the cable and pulls a pick out from between the third and fourth frets.
The drum beats are like anvils falling around her now, massive crashes one after the other, foreboding and growing, shifting into the bridge of the song, into the part she loves best; his gaze raises to meet her own again, and beneath the menacing skull mask his eyes are glowing with something grandiose, with some risky madness as he hands the microphone to her.
She looks down at the weight in her hand like it's a gun she doesn't want to be holding and then his hand is wrapping around hers again, pulling her half a step toward him, pulling the microphone towards his mouth, where some vents between the skull mask's snarling teeth seem let his voice come through. He growls a lone word.
A fresh roar from the audience fills her ears, and Christine swallows, staring at him, clutching the microphone to her chest. He cannot possibly mean - there's no way he could know - he nods, and turns her by the shoulders with the faintest of pressure, rips her out of the surreal sense of safety she'd felt just a moment ago, with his eyes filling her entire field of view. They are very much not alone; she takes in the infinite latitude of the crowd and falters, takes in the feeling of his cool fingertips still touching her shoulders and is overcome; but too soon his hands are tracing down the backs of her arms, and coming to rest on the outside of her elbows, as he leans in and whispers softly in her ear.
"Sing for me." All of the rock and roll grit and guttural snarls are gone, and his voice is coaxing, smooth like delirium, and deep in her mind she feels it again, familiarity - but he steps back, dragging his pick through the notes of a chord, slowly at first and then more quickly, picking up the tempo to join the band.
Christine's head swims, facing a horizon of human beings, of arms waving in the air and cell phones held aloft. The audience stretches out on either side of the lawn around the tiny piece of stage where she is standing; the expanse of humans reaches up toward the sky, four stories and more people than she's ever seen in her life, hollering and stomping their feet in time with the music, and every soul staring at her.
It's surreal and more than a little terrifying, and she has no idea how she got here. But she knows the song, all too well, and so she begins to sing.
Three notes, a quick switch between head and chest voice without warmup, and her voice cracks; the crowd howls in what is probably not sympathy, but she draws a breath deep into her lungs and starts again on the next lyric, hitting the notes this time, slowly hidding her stride, belting for real and moving from the bridge into the chorus with ease. Christine looks over her shoulder, uncertain if he wants the mic back, if she's still meant to be singing, if this is some stunt that is over now - but he has dropped to his knees behind her, playing the guitar with intricate abandon, leaning back like a man worshipping at an altar, and the glance she catches of his eyes shows them glittering with satisfaction.
Turning back to the audience she squares her shoulders and continues the song, staring out at the thousands and thousands of people and cameras, fans as confused as she is nonetheless captivated by the magnetism of the spectacle, because she's really singing it now, she's hitting every beat and doing it well. Her voice rises, lifting into the final verse and then soaring beyond, adding her own notes as an instrument to the song, carrying up to the highest rows of the stadium as some sort of pyrotechnics go off, sparkling flames licking the edge of the stage where they stand.
The band goes silent, and the stadium is plunged into darkness.
The floor beneath her feet is lowering, and she slips, taking a step forward to catch herself - and then blinking as dull fluorescent lights come into view, the wide platform they are standing on settling to the bottom of some lower area beneath the stage. Overhead she can hear the crowd cheering and the band tearing into the next song; she whirls around - but he's already bolted, his thin form vanishing in the distance down the hallway.
The person walking towards her is an enormous, muscular man with tanned skin and dark hair; he wears a black suit over a black t-shirt, and is conspicuously wearing an earpiece, tapping it and obviously listening as he walks. "Come with me," he says, in a tone that is businesslike but not unkind, and dazedly, she follows him back down the hallway and through several more turns of what seems to be a labyrinth of equipment and passageways under the stage. He stops at a desk manned by a uniformed security guard and picks up a large fabric sticker the size of her hand; it's emblazoned with the name of the venue with the date and the words "all access" written on it.
"Don't give out a lot of these," he says, musing to himself as much as to her. "You'll have to wear this at all times, for security reasons. This way."
"What?" She's lost, her mind racing through scenarios as she stops to stick the pass onto her shorts, then follows him down the hallway. They climb a set of stairs leading to passageway that snakes around the wings; onstage the band is playing again, and she catches a quick glimpse of the singer, performing behind the screen once again, making his way through one of PHANTOM's first singles, singing flatly, robotically, and apparently oblivious to her presence. Stage right, where he had been staring earlier, has nothing but a rack of guitars and a video monitor replicating the jumbotron display, and nothing makes sense.
"Hey, sorry - sir?" Christine jogs a few steps to catch up to her guide, as he leads her around a corner behind the stage into another long corridor.
"Call me Darius."
"Ok, Darius - did my friend's mom plan this? Some kind of present? She works for the band, she got us the tickets. Mrs. Giry."
He shakes his head, still walking. "This order came two minutes ago from the man himself."
"You know him, then, the lead singer? What's his name?"
But her question is ignored; at the end of the hallway he turns to unlock a door, gesturing that she should go ahead of him into what appears to be a rather comfortable dressing room.
Her phone buzzes, and she pulls it out of her pocket; her chat notifications show one new friend request from... holy shit. Raoul de Chagny, who she has not seen since a lifetime ago. Unsure how this day could get any stranger, she clicks "Accept," and a chat immediately pops up.
Raoul_De_Chagny: Christine! What a surprise to see the girl I met in Montauk onstage just now. Tell me you remember me!
Christine_Daae: Raoul! Wow, it's been a really… random day. Yes, of course, how could I forget?
Raoul_De_Chagny: I hope you still have that scarf, after I risked life and limb to retrieve it. ;-)
Raoul_De_Chagny: Seriously though, my brother's an investor in the label, we're up in Skybox 4. Come join us! Would be great to catch up.
"So," Darius' voice cuts in, and she looks up swiftly. "You've got drinks in the fridge, food on the catering table over there, TV with a local feed if you want to watch the show. Restroom through the door on your left. Can I see your phone for a moment?"
Absent-mindedly she hands it to him, glancing around the space. "Is this dressing room… his?"
"Yup," Darius responds with an almost uncomfortable look. "You just need to wait here."
His words sound like a lock clicking into place; her fascination suddenly shifting into a sensation of being trapped as he slides her phone into the interior pocket of his suit coat.
"Oh, wait - sorry, my friend Meg is out there, I can't just leave her. I should probably go back -"
The hulking man grimaces, tapping his earpiece. "My boss says you have to stay put."
"Ok, fine." She summons her strength, glowering. "Can I talk to his boss?"
"His boss is onstage," the response is firm, non-negotiable. "He'll be back soon. Maybe thirty minutes left in the set."
"You can't seriously just keep me here -" But he is already stepping out through the door and closing it behind him. "Hey! Hey!" she tries the doorknob and then bangs on the door. "Let me out! Give me my phone back!"
"I'm sorry," comes Darius' muffled voice through the door. "It's a rule - he's got a thing against cameras."
Christine pounds on the door until her palm hurts, until she feels her fury shift and settle into a palpable sense of loss, as the otherworldly moment of... closeness and whatever on earth that was onstage turns into some sort of mess in the here and now. From transcendence to disaster in under an hour. To say nothing of the weirdness of Raoul de Chagny being at the show, and wanting to see her, after all these years… but she can't even think about that right now.
If this room is her prison, she can imagine worse; it's got the sort of aesthetic she imagines the offices of music executives must have, the kind of calculated coolness achieved through throwing money at interior design. Deep within the stadium's backstage area, there are no windows, but framed concert posters line the walls, and a dark leather chesterfield sofa sits in front of an artfully aged industrial coffee table. If she's stuck here, she might as well get a free dinner out of it. Christine starts opening cabinets, and living the silver covers off of catering platters; on her plate she places several prawns and a chicken wing.
There is a bottle of white wine chilling in a bucket of ice; she pours herself half a glass and sips at it, twisting the bottle around to read the label; she isn't sure what she expected a rockstar to be drinking - bourbon straight from the bottle, perhaps? - but this wine, with its elegant gold text proclaiming it to be a Szepsy Furmint wine from the Tokay region of Hungary is unexpected. She downs the glass, and feeling petulant and a little reckless, pours another - way more than a normal glass this time, filling it nearly up to the brim - and sets off to explore the rest of the room.
On the metal coffee table is a stack of books; three collections of glossy portraits of famous bands, and she suspects these came with the room. The open bottles of pills scattered across the table, she suspects, did not. On the sofa is a fourth book; this one battered and well-worn, and she feels the world is becoming more strange by the moment when she sees it is a collection of guitar tabs for Swedish folk songs.
She's almost finished the wine; she pours herself another glass, and is fully snooping now. A wheeled garment rack in the corner with a cotton canvas cover unzips to reveal a row of identical charcoal grey long sleeve shirts, and neatly hanging pairs of utterly destroyed black jeans, each torn and distressed in exactly the same pattern. The shelf at the bottom holds precisely folded pairs of black socks, and black boxer briefs, and she quickly zips the cover up again, feeling intrusive, and almost guilty - but not so much that she stops exploring.
The small bathroom is mostly bare, unremarkable except for its utter absence of mirrors, despite the holes in the wall suggesting they had previously been present. The small trash can in the living room, on the other hand, contains an empty bottle of 20-year-old bourbon with a smoking gentleman on the label. The wastebasket also contains a syringe, a small clear glass bottle, and a tangle of rubber tubing. She takes a hearty gulp of the wine, at that, but she isn't naive enough to pretend her own ways of coping aren't at some more fortunate place along the same continuum. It's sad, but not surprising; it's not like the guy has been hiding his pain.
All those times she'd listened to the albums, wondering about the composer, imagining the person who put words and notes to the pain at the depths of her soul. Everything she'd felt, just an hour ago, standing in the audience, enraptured by the music, half-dreaming of the man…
You spend so many years thinking about someone, and then you are suddenly there, staring at their underwear and their obvious drug problem and the strange life of what is clearly an actual human being...
She sits on the couch and rubs her hands along her temples, imagining how simple life must be in the De Chagny family skybox right now; watching a concert from comfort, high above the rest of the crowd. Maybe she can catch the end of the show, at least; she picks up the remote and clicks through options on the flatscreen television mounted on the wall until she finds the auxiliary inputs. The first is a camera trained on the center of the stage, and the second looks to be a feed from the jumbotrons. The third, curiously, looks to be a security camera feed of the cinderblock hallway she'd walked down to get here. She flips back to the jumbotron feed, just in time to catch the camera focus on the silhouette of the singer.
"Last song," he growls into the microphone, and then mutters, "Goodnight, New York. You're welcome."
The guitarist plays opening strains of the band's biggest hit to a deluge of cheers from the crowd; the band tears through the song and all too soon it is over, the entire stadium roaring for an encore as the house lights come up and the band walks offstage. Quickly, she flips to the input with the security feed, half apprehensive and half curious; the camera shows an empty hallway at first, but a minute later the bony man staggers offstage, and down the hallway, alone, visibly exhausted, wiping sweat from his brow with a practiced gesture around the edges of the mask. Just outside the door to the dressing room he halts, slumping against the wall, tilting his head far back with both palms on the forehead of the mask, breathing raggedly for some time, before he finally reaches for the doorknob.
Over her shoulder, she hears a key jangle in the lock; her finger is on the remote in a flash, turning the screen off, and she is standing just as he walks in through the door, slamming it behind him.
She is angry - she is so angry, it doesn't matter who he is, this is bullshit - and the look in his eyes threatens to undermine every bit of those feelings, because it is reverent and raw, it's unsettling and somehow Christine wants to dive into it, plunge heartfirst into whatever this thing is that he makes her feel.
"It's you," he finally whispers.
"You drag any other girls backstage tonight?" She means to sound pissed off, but her voice breaks and just sounds upset and bewildered; Christine crosses her arms as though she can hold her anger close for protection, keep it from abandoning her.
"Of all the places…" His eyes are wide with confusion, with wonder. "I thought I'd never see you again."
"It's been thirty minutes."
"It was… longer," he says, hoarsely, lost, struggling to find the words. "Before tonight."
The growling teeth of the silver skull mask seem almost to be laughing at her, and she shakes her head wearily. "Take that off. I can't talk to someone wearing a mask."
"You can," he insists emphatically, with something that sounds almost like hope. "But this mask - I understand. It's for the stage, lest anyone catch a glimpse. Wait - wait here. Don't vanish."
He strides past her into the restroom, and shuts the door. She looks at the closed door to the restroom; contemplates, for a moment, the magnetic draw her helpless heart seems to feel towards his, even now, then shakes her head and strides swiftly toward the door to exit the dressing room. She twists the handle but it is still locked, and her frustration flares.
She whirls around; he has emerged from the restroom wearing a black leather mask covering the right half of his face and skull from forehead to jaw, concealing his nose entirely and leaving only his lips exposed. His head is shaved, and she notices now on the left side of his gaunt neck is a massive scar, as though someone once tried to slit his throat and failed; more black tattoos peek out from the v-neck of his knit shirt. The sharp, tailored yet rakish lines of his jacket cannot conceal the fact that he is painfully, unhealthily thin, and she tries not to acknowledge that she is worrying about him, right now as they stand.
By the look in his eyes, you would think it's Christmas morning
The silence roars, or maybe it's just her ears ringing; she shakes her head, tries to stay focused. "Look… I don't know why you picked me, out of everyone in the crowd. It was an honor to get to sing onstage... but I can really only think of one reason to have me locked in your dressing room, and it's kind of presumptuous. Not every woman automatically wants you just because you're a rockstar."
He chokes out a laugh so bitter that she almost recants, but indignation is rising at her, stitching armor over the raw gaping wound of her soul she'd felt tear open in that moment of connection onstage, and she presses on.
"Seriously. Your music is incredible, but if you think I'm some groupie who's going to wait here for the privilege of blowing you or something… look, that's not me."
"Please… stop talking." The exposed half of his face pales, and eyes that meet hers are horrified, desperate for her to discontinue that line of thought.
He clears his throat, and uneasily tries again to speak. "I've... offended you. Forgive me. I didn't plan this... I couldn't have imagined. I don't believe in anything - but your presence was such a miracle," he shakes his head, his eyes going distant for a moment, remembering. "I had to finish the show - but I couldn't let you slip through my fingers again. Christine. Christine. It's - it's a beautiful name."
The intensity in his voice is overwhelming; he's speaking as though every word was nuanced, as though this means the world to him and he has no idea what to say.
"I mean it. Just because I'm a fan of yours -"
His eyes go dire, passionate; deadly earnest. "I'm a fan of yours."
...She exhales shakily, feeling as though she's been punched in the sternum.
"I am Erik…" he takes a deep breath. "But you knew me as the voice."
There is a name that she has not allowed to enter her mind for months now, and it is not even a name at all. the_voice.
Christine sways on her feet, shellshocked, her lip quivering against her will, but she will volunteer nothing; he has to say it. "I don't know what you mean."
The singer - Erik - takes a hesitant step toward her. "The first time I heard you sing was a little over a year ago. My second album had just been released and I swore I didn't care at all what anyone thought of it... but somehow I was compelled to read every word of the reviews, even the fan responses. I came across one of your videos and listening to it I was almost... angry, because I realized drugs had been forever ruined for me.. that every bit of pharmaceutical comfort I had ever sought suddenly paled in comparison to the ecstasy of such an instrument." He shook his head slowly, with a strange fondness, before looking up at her, guilty and guileless all at once. "But after weeks of listening to every song you'd ever recorded, I found the edges; the breaths where they shouldn't be, the notes that were insufficiently sustained… and so I convinced myself, that for the sake of the music itself, that you needed a tutor, Little_Lotte."
Her face burns at hearing her screenname from the video site spoken aloud, at feeling a dagger tearing into old scars, at the ground being pulled out from under her and her world spinning uncontrollably. Two steps backward and the sofa bumps the back of her calves; she sits before her legs wobble out beneath her. "Is this a joke? Are you… making fun of me?"
"God no," a raspy whisper, his eyes round with worry. He swallows, uncomfortably, and starts to speak twice before succeeding. "You know the rest... I guess you see now why I insisted on voice chat instead of video."
His attempt at self-deprecation falls flat. Tears flow silently out of her eyes as she stares at him, dumbfounded.
"I don't believe you."
But she does.
And in the moment she hates him for the way it ended, hates the way her heart is breaking all over again, hates the fact that only twice in the last year has she felt any kind of connection to another soul, and it turns out to have been the same damn guy both times.
Christine wipes her eyes, her fingers coming away smeared with mascara, and grips the edge of the leather sofa on each side her knees, squaring her shoulders, finding some strength before she looks up at him.
"I told the_voice - I told whoever what was that I never wanted to hear from him again."
"I know," the exposed half of his face is raw with devastation, and in an instant he is striding forward, dropping to his knees before her, raising his hands as though he's going to take her face between them and then quickly drawing back, awkwardly gesturing in the air. "I'm sorry - I'm so sorry, I don't know why I said it. I thought it might make you happy - I didn't think… I still don't understand why it upset you so -"
"Because this person I had spent months talking to, baring my soul to every time I sang... I was so angry because the person I had just started to trust and maybe even care about was clearly fucking catfishing me." Christine's voice breaks, and she looks helplessly at the mismatched eyes beneath the mask, just inches from her face. "I had the courage to tell you about my dead father and you turn around and say that he sent you? What kind of person claims to be an angel? You could have just been a guy. That was enough."
"That's who I was, when I talked to you." His tone is almost forlorn. "Not a star. Not a monster. Just… a musician. A man."
Her fist is pressed hard against her lips, as though she can prevent a sob from escaping; she moves it the tiniest bit to speak. "You gutted me."
"I would have done anything to apologize, but you disappeared from the site. I was wild with grief; I didn't know your name, didn't know how to contact you." He chuckles hollowly, helplessly, at himself, with a half smile that is more of a wince. "You deleted your video channel and I trashed a hotel."
"A hotel room?"
She leans back. "I'm not responsible for that - that's on you. I can't -"
"I paid for it. Balazs still hasn't forgiven me. It was a small hotel."
The laugh that escapes her lips is shrill and strange; it settles into a moment of uneasy silence, as he seems to try desperately to read her expression, before abruptly he shrugs out of his jacket and pulls up his right sleeve. She tries not to notice the bruises and track marks on his narrow arm, and looks instead at the sound wave tattooed on his pale skin, the razor sharp black ink line stretching from the crook of his elbow to this wrist, with jagged undulations stretching across his forearm.
"The audio from the last song you had sung was still cached on my laptop," he murmurs, by way of explanation. "I wanted to do it on the other arm - closer to the heart, it seemed more fitting - but I'm left-handed."
"You tattooed this yourself? Why -"
"It was all I had left of you."
"I…" she feels dazed, the wine hitting her strongly, unsure of how her life came to this moment. "I don't understand."
"I love you," The words escape from his lips in a rush, as though he can no longer contain it. He swallows once, and his voice cracks when he tries again to speak. "Desperately."
Her body freezes, but it feels as though she is tumbling forward, dizzily entering into realms of feeling best forbidden, tearing open the gates of every furtive little hope she'd kept at arm's length for months and then forced herself to forget in the name of self-preservation.
"I don't know you," Christine finally whispers.
"Don't say that!" he insists, with his heart in his eyes. "You're the only one who does." His hands settle just outside hers on the leather sofa, tentative, afraid to rest too long.
"Why are you wearing a mask?" Her voice is soft, hesitant, even as her mind is flailing for something to hold onto, for anything that makes sense.
"You don't need to worry about that," Erik draws in a sharp breath, and then looks up at her, earnest and terrifying and so obviously in love. "Everyone else - if they could stand to be around me, I know it would be because of the fame, the money, the image... but you. You were the first person to know me - the real me, without any clue who I was. I've numbed out my feelings for so long - I heard you sing and I just felt. And then once I knew you... It felt like my heart was being wrenched from my body, and all I wanted was more. Any notion I had of pride was gone; I lived from one lesson to the next, dreaming of some way you might want me in your life, wanting to know everything about you… You are so extraordinary, Little_Lotte -" he stops, corrects himself, and there's light in his eyes when he says, "Christine."
He breathes in shaky draws of air, each rise and fall of his shoulders fraught with exhaustion, as though he's been running. Everything is completely overwhelming and in this moment all that Christine Daaé, consummate survivor, can think is that maybe surviving isn't everything; maybe it's worth drowning to drink the ocean and call it your own.
Maybe she wants to open her heart to something it might actually kill her to lose.
"I've hidden for… years," he continues, plainly. "Toured the globe in a bubble of solitude. I've seen the biggest stadiums in the world from behind a screen, my own wall of privacy. I cannot stand to be looked at, but I saw your face on the screen, there, in my audience... I knew I would have to walk through my own personal hell to find you in the crowd, and I knew I would sooner die than miss the chance. Tonight tens of thousands of people saw me… and all I could see was you."
His proximity is palpable; his knees are just in front of her toes on the floor, his cold fingertips still resting just outside hers on the edge of the sofa, and it's like being surrounded a vast chasm of need. There's something that feels like power, to think that she could heal this man's soul just by existing, by being herself, by closing the distance between them and falling into his arms. Logic screams that this is a terrible idea, that this guy has serious boundary issues, that there is something deeply wrong with everything that has happened tonight… and yet the adoration laid bare before her is intoxicating, his adoration. The idea that the music she so loved came from this man, who of all people on earth, loved her…
She moves her hand outward, just an inch, reaching with her pinky, until her fingers touch his. A shudder runs through him and his mouth falls open, the word "Oh!" falling on the trail of a gasp from his lips. Her eyes fall to his mouth, partially covered by the mask; their faces so close she can feel the breath of his shaky exhale against her own lips, and she contemplates leaning an inch forward with the same fear and thrill of standing at the top of a high dive.
"Stay with me," he says abruptly.
"In my home. I have a home on the Lower East Side, it has everything we would need. Tonight was the first show of our world tour. We leave next week - stay with me until then. We could devote five whole days to music - and maybe by the end, you might…" he stopped himself, looking almost embarrassed. "By the end, you might want to join us on tour. If you sing, like you sang tonight, we will make the most extraordinary music the world has ever heard. You'll be a star; the singer you always dreamed of being."
"Wait..." She leans back a fraction of an inch, even as some twisted emotion is propelling her forward. "You can't just add me to the group; you'd need to ask the other band members, I'd need to see if I could get time off from work…"
"I am the band," he says dismissively, drawing his shoulders up, and she feels a flicker of wariness, of warning. "The others are hired musicians who do what I say. Stay with me. Five days."
"I don't know…" And she doesn't; doesn't know what to do, doesn't actually know him at all, and yet here she is, acting like this is a reasonable suggestion she could actually contemplate, coming from someone who has already lied to her once, someone rumored to be violent and insane. "I should go. My friend, Meg, she'll be worried. My other friend, Raoul, I was supposed to meet him…"
A tendon in Erik's neck flexes and strains, at the mention of Raoul, but he simply stands, and says, "Of course. You should talk to your friends, my driver can pick you up whenever you're ready. If you're ready…"
The first notes should have been a surprise; there is no reason for him to be singing. But she just blinks, contemplating the gorgeous melody pouring out of him like a grenade that had just rolled into the room with its pin removed. His eyes flare with a strange look, part power and part desperation, as the notes seem to slur into one another, syrupy and hypnotic.
She sinks into the sofa and feels the music wash over her in waves, feels her head drop below the surface of the song to the warm notes of the world underwater. Her eyes drift shut.
The record player wakes her; it's ancient, like the one her dad used to have, and it is softly playing an old Stones record by her bedside, like some strange rock and roll lullabye. It takes her several seconds to realize she's fully dressed, in a canopied bed in a cavernous warehouse-like space, and she has no idea where she is.
Her feet land an an thick Persian rug when she climbs out of the massive bed, and as her eyes adjust to the low light, she notes the dilapidated but ornate plaster crown molding, the broad levels like stairs stretching up one wall into the darkness, where seats must have once been… was this an old theater?
A sudden frenzy of notes jars her ears and she looks over to see him, scribbling furiously at the piano, his leather coat traded for a black shawl-collared smoking jacket, his attention engrossed in the notes he is transcribing, and she knows quite suddenly that she cannot not go another moment without knowing why this man who both deceived her and enthralled her was wearing that mask...
Author's note: So, I wrote a Leroux-influenced rock and roll AU. I regret nothing.
This entire thing was built from a single line - a superstar shaking his head and say saying, "I'm a fan of yours," and what circumstances might lead to Erik saying it to Christine. I lived the tiniest bit of this story once, years ago, and it was fun to build that personal experience into a great big fantastical tale.
The fact that Erik claims to be an angel has always been a challenge for me in modern stories. In Volée I had an emotionally battered Christine not really believe him, but not really deny it, going along with it, questioning her own sanity; I loved the idea of a modern Christine who would see such a claim as bullshit and tell him to go to hell and it was grand writing that here. It was also fun to write a slightly different Christine, one who was strong in a different way; some people have childhood trauma and wind up as the type of patient and kind person with enormous reserves of strength that Volée's Christine had. Some people have childhood trauma and grow a thick shell, become a little more prickly on the outside, get a little trapped in their pain, keep twisting the knife. I wondered what a Christine who allowed herself to want something she knew full well was unhealthy would be like.
And oh boy, is it unhealthy - please do remember Erik is in no way a role model. He is murdering his life with drugs, and if I wind up writing more of this, the substance issues are going to be something they deal with.
It was a challenge to write a different voice for this Erik - less florid, less eloquent, darker and more gruff; the kind of guy who says a few words with such intensity that it means more than a whole embellished sentence.
I threw a handful of Leroux references in here, while the structure is a little closer to some combination of Think of Me up through I Remember There Was Mist from ALW. I also loved the chance to do a Leroux-accurate Meg and make her a person of color - while giving her soft pink hair, because it is 2017 and she is a total pastel grunge ballerina.
So, I can tell you right now that this will not be a full length novel, but might be a series of scenes posted sporadically, all set in this universe. I know this is all pretty AU, but I would love to know what you think! Particularly around some of the surprises/reveals - could you tell what was coming? Were you surprised that they had met before? Please do leave a review, even if it's only a quick one, so I know if this one has enough interest to continue writing.