When they had first entered the restaurant, a steady drizzle had been falling from dark, looming clouds. By the time they left, however, the rain had ceased, leaving the air cool and clear. The roads sparkled under the streetlights, and stars in the sky above were peeking through the receding clouds.
Christine gazed around as they stepped out, then looked hesitantly to Erik. "Would you… like to walk back together? It's such a nice evening now; it seems a shame to waste it in a taxi." Her hands fidgeted together, and she bit her lip lightly as she gazed up at him.
"That's a wonderful idea," Erik said, giving her a warm and composed smile though his heart rate sped up at the suggestion.
Her eyes shone and she seemed to relax. "We could even walk down by the river for a little, if you want," she continued animatedly, apparently emboldened by his words.
"I would love that," he replied honestly. Gratifyingly, her expression brightened further and she walked with a spring in her step as they began to move down the street.
They did not speak for some time as they walked, but unlike before he did not rush to fill this silence. There was something peaceful about simply being with someone, of spending time just enjoying their company with no expectations or requisites.
It's almost like being a normal man, Erik thought, glancing at his peaceful companion out of the corner of his eye. Her golden hair was turned almost silver in the moonlight, though it flashed copper as they walked under streetlights. Those wonderfully emotive eyes of hers were darting around as though she was trying to take in every detail of the night.
She was a wonder, and she was beside him. A nighttime stroll with a woman was something that seemed so normal to most, but it was something Erik had never experienced. No woman had ever offered, never been close enough to him to deign. Admittedly, he had never asked either, not made an effort to get attached to a woman. He was always sure of rejection, whether as an instant judgement or once she found out the truth he hid, of the demon soul and devil's face.
Only one woman had really paid attention to him in the past, one of the Shah's multiple girlfriends whom he affectionately nicknamed his sultana. She had been beautiful, with waves of pitch back hair, a sharp face and deep, dark eyes that you could get caught in and fall forever. She had been the pale moon where Christine was the radiant sun, cold and calculating where his angel was warm and gentle.
Yet the first time the sultana's beguiling gaze had captured him, he had watched those red lips of hers twist in a dark smile, had mistaken her interest for affection and had all but fallen at her feet. He would have done anything to please her - and had, many wonderful and terrible things, all to simply watch a smile lift her face, her dusky eyes glitter with pleasure. She had twisted him around her finger, persuaded him to help her gain more wealth and power, all under the Shah's nose.
Nadir had protested, of course, attempting to warn Erik of her deception and manipulation, but it all fell on deaf ears. Erik thought himself in love, and had fooled himself that he was loved in return, where there was only duplicity and morbid curiosity.
Now though, beside an angel in place of a she-devil, he knew that he truly cared for Christine and was not being tricked into a trap. Christine was sweet and kind and, even if she never returned his feelings, he knew his life was better for having had her in it.
As they reached a path by the Seine, Erik blinked himself from his contemplation and turned to his companion with a wry smile. "Shall we, my lady?" He proffered his arm, struck again by the simple delight of doing something as normal as walking along with a girl, a friend. He had seen lovers strolling together before but could never have dreamed that we would be blessed with such wonderful companionship.
Christine smiled too, a pure and delicate thing that was freely given yet was worth more than diamonds and shone brighter than the moon above. Wordlessly, she slipped her arm in the crook of his elbow, and pleasant tingles erupted through him. It is like she was igniting a fire inside his being, sparks flickering around the point of contact with her and flames warming his heart, frozen for so long without affection from a single soul. There was danger in fire, but all Erik cared about in that moment was the life it breathed into him, not how close he brought himself to it nor how large it grew.
"How long have you lived in Paris?" Christine asked after a short while, the music of her voice filling the silent shadows that reached for the pair of them. Her gaze turned to catch his, and for a moment he was simply enraptured before he spoke.
"Nearly four years," he replied, and when he realised she was still watching him expectantly he elaborated. "A friend and I used to work together but when we… no longer enjoyed our jobs we decided to relocate here."
She clearly caught the distaste in his voice, because she scrunched up her nose adorably. "Bad boss?"
"Amongst other things, yes."
"Was this while you were in Iran?" she continued curiously.
Erik couldn't help but smile - she had listened and had remembered! "It was. What about you? How long have you lived here?" he asked quickly - he was flattered beyond measure by her interest yet knew that she couldn't dig too far into any point in his history without uncovering some skeletons.
"About ten years," she answered, her eyes moving away to the sparkling river. "I went to school here, then moved in with Meg after my dad died." Her gaze turned wistful.
"I'm sorry," he said then paused, wishing he could draw her pain into himself so her beautiful face would stop looking so sad. "Was he a musician too?"
Christine's face brightened, happier memories clearly coming to the forefront of her mind. "Yes, a violinist. The best I've ever heard. I used to sing with him when he played - I don't think I've ever been so happy as I was in those moments."
"He sounds wonderful." Erik watched her intently, both delighted at the return of her happiness and intrigued by her words. He had never had that sort of relationship with his parents - or any relationship, in fact. Not that he could begrudge her that joy, especially not when it made her eyes shine like that.
Her smile only grew fondly. "He was. He used to call me his Little Lotte."
Erik tilted his head curiously and she explained.
"It was one of the old Scandinavian tales he used to tell me; my favourite one actually. Little Lotte loved everything in life, but nothing as much as music lessons with her Angel of Music." She gave him a sideways look, her smile turning playful. "If I'm Little Lotte, I suppose that makes you my Angel of Music."
He couldn't reply for a moment, flattered that she would think of him that way, and his cheeks heated even before he considered her words about enjoying their time together more than anything else. "Maybe I'll have to play the violin while you sing one day."
To his dismay she laughed, but her expression was one of delight not disdain. "I didn't know you played the violin as well, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised." Her face turned a little more serious, though her eyes still glowed. "I would love to do that. You could play with me on my channel, if you like. If you're more comfortable playing in public than singing, that is."
"Yes, that would be lovely," he said quickly, not wanting to throw away another opportunity to be close to her, as his uneasiness at making himself even more vulnerable warred with the lingering pleasure of being her Angel.
"Great!" Her smile was brighter than the moon above, brighter than the lights lining the streets, brighter than a shining star. "What would you like to play?"
He raised his eyebrows. "You want to plan it now?"
"Sorry," she replied immediately, pale cheeks turning pink under the silver moonlight. "I just really enjoyed working with you." Her eyes dipped to the ground again, and though he felt a twinge of regret for embarrassing her, his heart warmed.
"So did I," he said, more gently, and was relieved when her eyes met his again hopefully. "And I'm glad you want to plan us working together more, I was just… surprised." He paused, watching her face, then admitted, "Not many people are excited to spend time with me."
Christine beamed once more, her gaze soft and warm. "Well I am." They smiled at each other for a moment; one beautiful, pure instant. "So, what would you like to sing?"
"I'm not sure." Erik tilted his head again, more playfully this time. "What is your favourite musical?"
"Hmm." She bit her lip adorably, eyes lighting up as she considered. "I love so many. But probably Once on this Island - it's so beautiful and bittersweet. Plus I always like the sentiment that love lasts through everything."
Erik felt like his heart was swelling with delight, enraptured by her words and her wonder. He was supposed to be the master manipulator, twisting her into his willing victim, but he was the one being drawn in by her.
"How about you?" she asked, starting him out of his borderline trance.
He paused for a moment before speaking, knowing the answer but anxious once more about becoming more vulnerable to her. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," he said finally, praying she didn't ask him why. He didn't want to have to choose between lying to her and revealing why he felt a particular affinity for an unloved, monstrous man hidden from the world.
He felt like his time with Christine was constantly on a knife's edge. On one hand, he wanted to be honest with her, bond with her like never before and preserve a truly pure relationship. On the other hand, part of him knew that it would all come crumbling down one day when she discovered the one truth he would not say aloud.
That made him want to say whatever it took, do whatever he had to and make the best of the short time they would realistically have together. If this was his one time to be cared for, should he not savour it and draw out every joyous moment he could? He would pay a cost no matter what he did, so why not take every selfish chance?
After all, he had grown so accustomed to lying over the years. His truth burned and tore, so lying was much sweeter. He could build palaces out of lies, wage wars and romance beautiful women. And there were so many lies already in the world, especially around the people Erik had fallen in with, the only people that would accept him, if not appreciate him. What harm were a few more to keep the smile from falling off an angel's lips?
Christine's widening eyes brought him back to the present, and the consequences of the truth he told. "I love that one too! God Help the Outcasts is one of my favourite songs; it's gorgeous and has such a beautiful message."
I could melt. She just kept on amazing him - she felt Esmerelda's compassion and pity for those cast away and uncared for. She truly was perfect, and with her the truth did not harm him for once. "I agree," he said simply. "Perhaps we should perform God Help the Outcasts then."
She beamed. "Okay! We'll have to arrange it."
"We will." He smiled fondly at her, then glanced up to realise they were outside her apartment building. He hadn't even noticed they had walked away from the river, and judging by the surprise in her eyes, Christine hadn't either. His heart sank at the thought of leaving her, and quickly offered, "Shall I walk to your door with you?"
She gave him a warm smile. "That would be nice - just in case I get attacked on my way up the stairs." A playful spark shone in her eyes and he adored her that little bit more. "Maybe we could play some other songs from Hunchback when we get together," she suggested as they entered the building.
"That's a wonderful idea. Did you know that there is some beautiful choral music worked in?"
Her lips lifted. "I've never really thought about it. You could teach me all about it when we play together, if you like."
"Of course." His head was full of pictures of the two of them together, wrapped in the glorious embrace of music. "In time we will play through every musical we can find."
"I would love that," she said softly, coming to a halt as they reached her front door. "Thank you for tonight, Erik. It was wonderful."
"Thank you for agreeing to come with me," he responded, lost in her voice as he continued imagining it singing for him; ballads and arias and love songs.
"I can't wait until we meet up again." Her eyes shone warmly as she suddenly stood on tiptoe and hugged him.
Warmth flooded Erik's being. He had never known such a gentle and sweet embrace; her arms circling his neck, her body brushing his chest, her cheek resting on his. He forced his suddenly unresponsive arms to wrap around her in return, his hands barely touching her for fear she would feel them tremble. He pulled her closer for those few beautiful seconds she was in his arms, their bodies locked together and his face buried in her hair. Though her cheek was against the concealed side of his face, he could swear the tingling of fire crept through the prosthetics to his skin. He had never known such simple bliss until that moment.
He could barely even focus on Christine's face as she stepped back, he was so consumed with contentment and excitement.
He just about heard her voice bid him goodnight before she slipped inside her flat, her cheeks flashing pink as she turned away. Shyness could not touch him though, as he had now been truly blessed.
He no longer cared what the dangers were, what the costs were as his heart shone as bright as a flame in his chest. Numbly, his feet moved back towards the exit and walked him out into Paris despite his daze of joy.
The fire inside him may grow out of control, and perhaps he would get burnt, but he was no Icarus. He would not be brought down by this wonder.
Christine leant back against her front door, cheeks burning. She had seen Erik's wide smile as she left, but the face she could see in her hallway mirror held no such smile. Her expression was instead clouded with concern.
Her hug had been full of compassion and hope, wanting so desperately to show him that she truly did care for him. She had spent the whole evening trying to be as good a friend as possible: encouraging him, learning more about him, talking about how much she wanted him in her future, extending the evening with a stroll together. But her happy bubble had been burst.
Instead of the warm skin of his face, her cheek had touched something colder and unnatural. Half of Erik's so expressive, so charming face was fake.
She couldn't imagine what he was keeping under such a mask but she could easily understand why - if it was something that warranted covering up, people would certainly be discriminatory and cruel towards him. She could not begrudge him not telling her either, though it stung a little that they were not as close as she had thought, because it was clearly a private and painful thing.
Nevertheless, her view of him could not help but be changed. The charming, confident, good-looking man was actually a façade, and she could not know who he was underneath. Was he stronger after whatever he had been through, optimistic for what he did have? Saddened and broken by the harshness of the world? Or was he angry and bitter at the unfairness of life?
She did not truly care about anything but the way Erik acted and how he treated her, yet she couldn't help but wonder - what pain was he hiding from her?