Summary: For Not A Ghost 3's Christmas challenge. Christmas just happens every year - no matter who you are. Set after the Opera was finished but before Erik met Christine.
Paris was always called a city of the lights, ville des lumières. And it lived up to the reputation, especially in the noble quarters where the rich, the noble, the aristocratic and the intelligentsia lived. A city full of architectural gems, a city of light, of the arts. At every corner, every building one could marvel at the wonders of ancient and modern architecture, sculptures and science like the lights, electric and gaslight in a high quality no other city in the world had that time.
But Paris had a dark side too, the poor ones. The ones that were called the unwashed masses, the filth. But these people were working class, they could at least work and afford a place for the night in too crowded houses in the cheap areas.
And then there were the invisible ones. Those who were forced into making themselves invisible, at least most times. The poor ones, the beggars, the whores, the smugglers, thieves, the dealers in stolen goods - and of course those who preyed upon them. The beggars had to pay for being allowed to beg in certain places, or they'd be beaten up or just vanish never to be seen again.
Most of them knew secret passageways through the sewers - which wasn't that difficult, under each and every street was a large tunnel with the sewer pipes, large enough for a man to walk through. Who knew the map of the city also knew the map of the sewers.
Under the sewers were the old - sometimes ancient - quarries with the catacombs, of course the old graveyards, that sometimes had been so full of dead bodies that the dead broke through the walls of neighboring buildings and a flood of decaying corpses broke into the cellars of horrified tennants. Storing the dead in the catacombs, using them as ossuaries, had been an ingenious idea - using the bones as macabre display and a nice piece of arts for the thrill seeking audience who - of course - had to pay entrance fee to the nice museum open for the public.
But in the catacombes of Paris and the sewers lived people, the outcasts, the outlaws, criminals, men, women and even children. There was everything there, a dark city under the city of lights, but even there was Christmas. In the cellars of one of the notorious bouges - drinking holes, dives - was some kind of general store for people who had to sell and buy things, but could not afford to go to the streets.
That store-and-inn was the destination the black clad man was seeking. He was known in the underworld, they called him the Grim Reaper, and even they avoided him. The dark figure of a man did not seem to be from this world. No one knew what he was really doing. He was just there. He was none of the whoremongers - he seemed to shy away from whores in general - he was none of the drug-dealers, none of the thieves and he never demanded protection money from the thieves, whores, beggars, smugglers or whomever else.
No one knew - but everyone knew better than to approach him or dare to speak to him until spoken to. Even the most hardened criminals cleared a path for him when he came to go somewhere, or these golden glowing eyes behind the black mask would be the last thing one would see before disappearing for good. Even criminals are superstitious and they though he was some kind of ghoul, an undead creature that even hell did not want to house.
He was not tall, he as more of average size, but the way everyone moved away from him and ducked down made the scrawny figure look taller. Some whispered he was Death himself, the Grim Reaper, taking a day off, or maybe some vampyre, a living mummy or an ancient magician.
They were wrong. He was just a man, a very lonely man. Lonely enough to seek the company of these dangerous people who were scared of him so he seldom got a chance to interact, usually he would just go there, demand a table and a meal. The inn served quite good food, given the customers. There was a room for the beggars, thieves, whores, another one for the whoremongers, the bosses. Not the real bosses, the ones on the upper end of the food chain did not live in the darkness, they sat in the city of the lights and were regarded reputable men. Only their enforcers lived in the darkness, and the innkeeper knew better than to give anyone of these enforcers other than the best food and drinks.
The room for the dreaded enforcers was decorated for Christmas, trying to give the impression it was just another noble restaurant for businessmen who were forced to celebrate Christmas far away from their families. The dark man they called the Grim Reaper went to sit at table. He just went there, not caring that there were men sitting at the table he had chosen. He just took a chair, placed it at the table and sat down. Mere seconds later he found himself alone at the table, a nervous waiter bringing a pearly-white table cloth and hurried to decorate the table with greenfir branches and candles. The dark man just stared at the table. Had he hoped to share a meal with others? No one knew, but everyone knew better than to ask.
When he had first dared to set a foot in these dark underground area, a thief had tried to steal from him. The man had cut off the thief's hand in a quick movement no one had really been able to see. No one ever tried to steal from him after that day. In a room full of thieves he could leave a well-filled purse lying open on the table. No one would touch it. The one who tried once had cut his finger. It was just a tiny cut but mere minutes ago the fool had died a horrible death of a poison no one knew until then, and no one wanted to know.
Even the enforcers were scared of that man. He was able to kill without leaving the slightest marks, he seemed to be able to hear everything that had ever been spoken and seemed to see even through walls. One time an enforcer had been respectless, had taken that man's hat and mask, exposing the horrible sight of the visage of a rotting corpse to the shocked others. The black clad man had said nothing, just taken back his hat and mask and put them back on. Two days later the culprit's son had vanished. The father had nearly grown mad - finally kneeling to the man, kissing his boots, begging for mercy. There was no mercy, the toddler never returned, the father was found dead, he had hanged himself.
The dark man was kinder than his reputation - he had kidnapped the child, but not to kill him but to turn him over to a monastry where the boy would be given good education and care, but no one but him knew, so they assumed the worst.
Now he sat there, staring at the Christmas decoration. He did not say anything, just waited for the waiter who asked if he would like the special menu for Christmas. He nodded. The masked man seldom spoke, everyone thought this came from his arrogance. The truth was, he was no longer used to communication other than letters. He was no longer used to sponanous replying to someone - he was used to read and re-read and write several concepts before he finally finished the letters. Not being able to rethink and correct his reply made him nervous, so he seldom spoke.
His mask was more a black piece of clothing with two holes for the eyes. It was, in fact, a niquab with an extra piece to hold the lower section in place. Usually the lower part of the niquab is held in place by the nose of the woman, but this man had none. He had learned to wear a niqab as a mask to hide his face, even eat and drink with that clothing like women in some Muslim regions did. But of course in Paris no one knew of this, how could they? Persia was as far away as the moon to them - unreachable.
The man ate in complete silence while the rest of the guests tried their best to pretend he was not there at all, but the noise was much lower than it had been before.
When the Grim Reaper left the room, the wave of relief that washed over everyone was almost palpable.
The black figure moved almost noiselessly out of the house, choosing the dark snowy streets to walk home. He liked the icy coldness of the winter for no one wondered about a man covering his face with a scarf. Many did so to avoid catching a cold.
The quietness was a balm to his ears after far too many noises to take in at the inn. The snow and ice cracked under his boots as he moved a few feet away from the doorstep, allowing the icy powder of snow to touch his bony hands before he covered them with black leather gloves. He was alone and wondered if he could dare to take off the mask and let the icy needles the wind blew threw the streets to touch his face.
"You're the one they call the Grim Reaper!" a gruff voice exclaimed, making the dark figure freezing in his track. He stood immobile for a moment before slowly turning round to see who dared to adress him. He found a beggar in filthy rags peeking out from an obviously abandoned dog house. Obviously the owner of that house had decided it was too cold to let the dog sleep in that doghouse - for the beggar it was the best shelter he could find.
The sewers were horribly overcrowded during the winter and old helpless beggars could not fight for themselves and didn't have the money to pay someone to protect them.
"If I am, why do you try to catch my interest?" the black intimidating man asked.
The beggar coughed - or was it a laugh? - and took his time before he replied. "Because I know you. You are just a man, you are Erik duVallée, aren't you?"
Erik went to the dog house and bent down to see the beared face that belonged to the beggar at his feet. He did not recognize the man. "That is a name from another time," Erik replied coldly.
"You speak as if this was another century, yet only three years ago Erik duVallée stood at Charles Garnier's christmas celebration, clinking glasses with me."
Erik struggled to remember. He could remember the party, yes, but he could not remember that man, but he would never admit any weakness. "And why do you think you were worth being remembered?"
"I was the one to carve the most difficult details. I was one of the master stonemasons."
Erik stared down at the beggar. "And what are you doing then here in the streets? Drinking, gambling, whores or what cost you your livelihood?"
The beggar crept out from the doghouse and showed his hands - they were badly crippled, obviously never treated after an accident. Erik nodded. He understood. "Your family?" he asked. Usually the family cared for old crippled people.
"Thinks me dead. I don't want to be a burden."
"I understand," Erik replied, still trying to find out who that man was, "And what do you want from me?"
The beggar smiled. "They say that you can kill without a thought and forget. Can you do that for me?"
"You... are asking me to kill you?" Erik asked, he was shocked, but his shock did not come through and was not seen or heared.
"It would be a mercy," the beggar told him firmly, "Please. As a last favor to your faithful old Matteo."
Erik still could not place the man. Matteo? Matteo who? It was quite possible that that man had eventually worked at the opera - but... Erik had no idea who he was. Or that man could just be a fraudster, trying to get something from him. "If you think I would be the Good Samaritan, think again. You cannot expect mercy from me. If you really knew me, you ought to know that."
"I do know you and that is why I ask you to kill me. You can do with my body as you wish - leave me in the streets, dump me somewhere, I don't care. Just end me, please."
Erik though about that. "You really want this..." Erik mused, "You really want to die."
"Alright, then let us prepare you for this. You... need a hot bath and fresh clothing. Let's see what we can do now, given the circumstances."
Now Matteo was confused. He had thought Erik would just take him to some hidden place and get it over with.
"You need to be prepared," Erik told Matteo, "You need to go to church for the right rites, don't you? You can't go as you are now - so we go back, get you a hot bath, fresh clothing, a good meal and then go to church." When Matteo was about to protest Erik held up his hand commandingly. "No. We do this my way or not at all. Come."
Erik did what he could for Matteo - took him to an inn - one of those inns that didn't want to see their customers faces as long as they paid the bills - and made sure Matteo got a hot bath and new clothing, even if it was second-hand. Matteo did not speak, did not ask anything, but gratefully accepted Erik's help. Matteo did not hope Erik would take him in and care for him - why would anyone do? - but understood that Erik was trying to make his death easier. Erik had decided to go through with this - including caring for Matteo's soul.
They went to church together. For Matteo it was curious to find that he was not sad - on the contrary, sitting in the church, knowing it was the last Christmas he would celebrate. But he felt relieved that it was this way, remembering the last two winters, knowing he would die anyways in the streets. Matteo had not wondered why Erik chose a hidden place at the gallery, knowing Erik had to hide or his mask would attract unwanted attention and stares. But then Matteo heared a voice - a rich tenor voice that easily filled the church - coming from Erik. He had not known the man could sing, and now...
One voice after the other stopped singing, no one wanting to sing, everyone almost entranced by the voice that filled the large church effordlessly as if the voice came from heaven itself, singing about the joy in heaven and earth about the birth of the Lord himself who would save everyone. And then there was a long silence, even the priest forgot to go on with the mass, he had the feeling an angel himself had come down from heaven to celebrate with them. Little did he know that it was a man who already knew he was going to kill in only few hours time.
Erik took Matteo home with him, not caring if Matteo knew his secret ways through the underground cellars. Why would he care? Matteo was going to die anyways. But right now Erik began preparing food, helping Matteo eat - the man could not hold a spoon or a fork or a knife properly - and even trying to create some kind of impromptu Christmas celebration. Erik's flat was in no way decorated - why should he when he was alone? - and he had not prepared for anything, certainly not for a guest, but Erik made tea and put lots of sugar and rum into it while he sat down at the piano and sang Christmas carols for his guest. Eventually Erik asked: "Matteo, are you sure you want to die?"
Matteo thought about this. Yes, the thought of dying made him happy, he had accepted his fate and ending his suffering once and for all was the greatest gift anyone could give him now. "It would be the best Christmas present anyone ever gave me," he replied.
"Then come," Erik told him, helped him into a warm cloak and led him through hidden passageways to the rooftop of the opera. It was dark, but at the horizon one could see the first light of the day.
Erik handed Matteo a small bottle. "You can stop any time," Erik told him, "I won't do anything against your will. But if you drink this, there is no turning back."
Matteo sat down and without hesitation drowned it to the last drop. Erik knelt down beside him and began to sing.
"There comes a ship a' laden
Up to its highest board,
Bearing God's Son, full of grace,
The Father's everlasting Word.
The ship goes quietly into dock,
It carries a priceless load;
The sail is Love,
The Holy Spirit, the mast.
The anchor clings to earth,
There is the ship at shore.
The Word has for us become flesh,
The Son has been sent to us.
Born in Bethlehem
In the stable, a little child
Gives Himself for us to lose;
Blessed it must be.
And whoever embraces this child,
With joy, with kisses,
Must first suffer with Him
Great pain and much torment.
Then die with Him too
And be spiritually resurrected,
Inherit eternal life,
As will happen to Him."
Matteo slowly felt himself drift away in the embrace of death himself, but he was not afraid, he was not sad, he was - full of joy. He saw the glory the angelic voice sang about, saw it in the light of the sun that now rose over the horizon. His last words were: "Merry Christmas and thank you..."
No one knew that Death himself would weep over the body and lie him to an unmarked but nevertheless noble grave in the catacombes.
Erik was alone again. All alone in the darkness while he knew others celebrated the birth of Jesus with their families and wondered if someone would have the same mercy he had shown towards Matteo when his, Erik's, time would come to receive the greatest gift of all: eternal peace.