No time, no choices - a theater full of armed agents, a trap within a trap, and three thousand unaware members of the audience watching her personal agony play out onstage. The slow loss of power over her own life in the last few weeks had suddenly turned rapid; everything was wildly spiraling out of control and Christine was flailing, desperate, singing with panic and passion by turns, because it was him - him - under that hood, in Piangi's role. Surely he had something planned, surely someone would die tonight, and -
She did the only thing she had any power to do.
Whatever his plan was, she was disrupting it; her hands rose up and pulled back the cowl hood he wore.
The crowd gasped as his mask came into view, glaringly white under the stage lights, and the strains of Don Juan Triumphant squawked into silence. She vaguely registered the sound of music instruments clattering to the floor as the musicians in the orchestra scattered, but her eyes were locked on his.
Erik seemed immune to the sudden chaos; he tilted his head and looked at her; sadness radiating from him when she would have expected anger. Laying a hand across his chest, he stretched his other hand out toward her, and for a moment she thought he meant to stroke his fingertips down her cheek… but he was reaching for the small microphone wired into the collar of her dress, recording the performance for the radio broadcast. He took the device between two fingers and snapped the head off with his thumb, and when it hit the floor she saw his own microphone already there, frayed wires trailing, knowing whatever he said next was meant only for her.
"I wish you hadn't done that." Erik's voice was angry and hurt, controlled and careful. He reached out again across the small space between them, his hand hovering above her bicep, holding her in place without actually touching her. He hesitated, before finally grating out the words through a clenched jaw and weary eyes that somehow still seemed to flash with hope, "but I would forgive you anything if you would be my wife."
She swayed on her feet, numbly staring at him, vaguely aware of the audience in pandemonium, of the slams as the police sealed each door leaving the theatre.
"I asked you before," he said, speaking more quickly, "and you didn't have an answer. Do you have one now?"
She could kill him with a few words. Or with a quick move of her wrist - that was the plan, that was what she was supposed to do if he had approached her tonight. Show the world his face and surely he would be paralysed by it. Keep him in place until they could cart him off to jail… had anyone expected it would be center stage?
Raoul was watching, certainly, right now; waiting at some vantage point with the FBI agents who'd plotted her little role as bait for an alleged killer. Any kindness she showed Erik would crush Raoul. But to go through with Raoul and Agent Khan's plan would shatter the man who stood raw and wounded before her. She... she couldn't. They couldn't make her. She...
"We don't have a lot of time," Erik said quickly, seriously, taking his eyes off her for a moment to eye the agents and policemen moving up the aisles towards the stage, pushing upstream through the surge of fleeing audience members. "Please, Christine, just - tell me you want to leave with me." His voice lifted, hopeful...
The agents were only a dozen rows from the stage now, and she couldn't see Raoul, didn't know what he must think, didn't know what to do, didn't know what she wanted. Anything she said or did would hurt one of them, and her head hurt, and...
"I will do anything - go anywhere, just say you'll come with me. Any terms, you wished to set… I - I want nothing - nothing but you," and Erik's voice was breaking now, and she saw his eyes, pleading beneath the mask.
She inhaled shakily and tried to find her voice. "I..."
"Christine! Get back!" Raoul shouted, and a shot rang out. She whipped her head towards the sound of his voice and saw him standing in Box 5 with a rifle, and then she whirled back to follow the path of his bullet. Erik dropped the hand that had been hovering above her arm, pushing the cloak back and clamping his right hand over his left shoulder, and blood seeped down the shirtsleeve, beneath his fingers. The police rounded the corner of the stage and began tramping up the steps.
"Executive decision, then." Erik said determinedly, and let go of his wound to fling his good arm around her and draw her in, his forearm secure on the small of her back, pulling her flush against his chest and she gasped at the sudden contact. He looked down and clicked a remote of some kind in his left hand, explosions burst from each corner of the stage, and the floor dropped out beneath them.
She was choking as they fell, a mouthful of dry metallic smoke in her lungs and her stomach and her throat as she flailed; terrified, falling twenty feet or more. Erik seemed to twist in midair and pull her down and then there was a solid resounding boom and a massive gust of air. Her ribs knocked against his, the air seeming to crush out of her lungs as they landed, he on his back and her - dear god - on top of him, on some kind of quickly collapsing air cushion six feet tall.
It was difficult to even process what had happened, or where he was taking her - back to his home? Her chest hurt and her knee was twisted and Erik...Erik was staring at her with so much concern in his eyes that she felt a rush of shame at the weeks she'd just spent being passively dragged into a plan to betray him.
"Are you injured?" he asked - no, implored - some mix of fear and care playing out across the uncovered half of his face.
"I… don't think so," she said in a cracking whisper, tears forming in her eyes, and she didn't even bother wondering why, anymore.
"Good," he said, suddenly swift and focused and distinctly uncomfortable, as he finally appeared to take note of their compromising position. "We have to go."
He rolled to the side, shifting out from beneath her with surprising deftness, sliding to the edge of the air cushion and standing as he unhooked the cloak, letting it ripple to the floor. "The trap door was designed to shut behind us, but we have about ten minutes before they find their way down here via the tunnels under the stag; we have even less time if they just blast through the mechanism on the door and jump as we did." As she scooted to the edge and stood, he eyed the mostly deflated cushion that had caught them. "Their landing might be less pleasant, though," he added, with a wry malice in his voice.
"Erik..." Christine said, her voice wavering, "What will happen to them?"
He began walking away, pulling her along by an iron grip on her bicep, and she stumbled after him without question. Erik when he was determined, Erik when he was angry… neither one was someone she had the strength to cross. He led them out of the cavernous basement room and down a poorly lit hallway.
"By 'them', I assume you're asking about your handsome fool?" he asked, with a mocking sharpness. "I imagine the same thing that would happen to any man who jumps headfirst into something he knows nothing about. He'll break his neck.' Erik looked at her pointedly, and she broke eye contact, trying not to let the anger in his tone affect her; then her eyes fell upon the redness spreading across his white tuxedo shirt.
"Oh, your arm... oh!" she cried, and moved to look at it. He jerked away from her and stepped backwards, still walking quickly.
"Surface wound." He cut her off tersely, as they reached the end of the hallway and he opened the door, revealing another dark tunnel beyond. He produced a flashlight from nowhere, and kept walking.
"Let me see it," she jumped in - hating the growing edge of contempt in his tone, worried about him and angry at him, and in so far over her head with him, with Raoul, with Agent Khan and the plan and everything she was feeling…
"Christine, we have a short amount of time before there is an exceedingly unpleasant encounter between your young man and myself. He would not survive it. If you'd like to altogether avoid such an ugly tete-a-tete - and I say that without irony - I suggest that we run."
He stopped short as he said this, his voice acidic and deadly serious, echoing in the arched concrete tunnel.
"You would kill him?" Christine asked in a terrified whisper, her stomach dropping out as the depth of this situation became clear, the pieces falling sickeningly into place. She felt shocked - and stupidly knew that she shouldn't be, after Buquet.
"You seem to inspire that impulse in men, my dear," he said dryly, and gestured at his own wounded arm. "And if you think I wouldn't kill to keep you, then you underestimate the depths of this - of this feeling, in my chest, in my veins, even now."
His words seemed to burn in her chest, radiating out to her fingertips, tingling, and the mad thought floated across her mind that she should just reach out and touch him, to quell the buzzing just under the surface of her skin, but he was still talking.
"You have at the very least deliberately ruined my opera, and quite possibly been an active participant in a plot to bring about my incarceration - but, in spite of it all, I love you. I would rather not end any lives tonight - it's tiresome for me and I suspect it will not endear me to you - but you should know that I am wholly capable of doing so."
"You give me no choice!" she cried angrily, jerking her arm free and throwing down her hands. "I must come with you, or stay and see you kill Raoul when he catches up to us. You asked me onstage to make a decision! As though I had some say in the matter. What would you have done if I had said no?"
For the first time, he looked tired. With a weariness that suggested he had asked himself the same question many times, he said, "I'm not certain."
How could he still look at her with such exhausted adoration, when it so clearly caused him pain? His expression hardened, though, and he went on, flippant and defensive again.
"But you didn't choose to leave," he said, hesitantly, hopefully, his voice regaining its beauty, its seductive ability to surround her. "You've had several chances to choose, and yet you never do. If you detested me, Christine, if you loved that fool, you would have told me no. So, I wonder if a change of scenery, the absence of 'distractions,' will help you make up your mind." He walked toward her, circling, slowly, his whole posture seeming to straighten and gain confidence until he was finally standing behind her, and then she heard him say, softly in her ear, "Perhaps you cannot say it yet - but I believe you want to be mine. That you know you belong with me, with a life of music -"
She inhaled with such speed that she felt dizzy, startled by his proximity, by his words, by the feeling of his breath on her neck, overwhelmed by the events of the last quarter hour. She breathed out, "I... I don't know what I want..."
An explosion sounded from the hallway behind them, followed by distant shouts.
"Right. They'll be coming down the hatch now," he said with an edge of levity in his voice. She could sense him, standing behind her, leaning closer, closer... and then he brushed by her. "You distract me," he murmured, somewhere between desirous and fond, looking back at her with eyes burning.
He took hold of her arm again and pulled her along; she walked, dazedly, her feet numb. They turned into different tunnels at every fork, and she wondered, head swimming, if at some point they had exited the basements of the Metropolitan Opera House and entered the tunnels for the subway system - but Erik kept them moving. The sounds of crashes and explosions echoed behind them.
The tunnel turned a final corner, and a heavy metal grate blocked further progress. Erik walked up to a panel on the wall nearby and punched some sequence of buttons, and the barrier slowly lifted. Striding through to the other side, he retrieved what looked to be... a rather nice carry on bag? ... stashed against the wall. He unzipped it quickly and withdrew a fitted black wool coat, giving it a good shake to unfurl it, then headed towards her.
"Your costume is lovely, but this will be much less conspicuous," he murmured in a tone so warm and comforting she nearly slipped into simply following his orders.
"Erik..." she paused mid-step, overcoming her first instinct to extend her arms and let him put the coat on her. "Where are we going?" Christine gestured at the carry on bag.
"Any one of the eight destinations we have tickets for, depending on when we arrive at the airport. We won't be at any of them for long," he replied, his voice gentle and reassuring, holding out the coat.
"I can't do that. What will they think? When will we come home?" she said, suddenly feeling very small, and scared.
"I am decidedly unconcerned with what anyone thinks, and we'll hopefully never come back here. You won't miss it. Let me show you…" The intoxicating certainty in his voice wavered; worry and urgency crept in around the edges.
Christine was frozen; knees locked and simply standing there numbly blinking at him, completely overwhelmed by the array of terrible options in front of her. Any action she took would hurt someone, and the idea of rejecting Erik, or endangering Raoul, or being some sort of hostage herself was awful. Everything was so awful... and she felt herself withdrawing, her mind curling inward protectively, drawing her into a fog of blankness. She wanted to curl up and sleep, and escape decisions indefinitely.
"We can discuss this at length later, but we need to leave now," Erik was calling to her, but she was detached, dazed, unable to answer, to decide, to do anything. The echoing cries from down the tunnel grew louder, closer, more defined, and he reached over to the panel of buttons on the wall and lowered the steel grate again behind them.
"Christine," he said, drawing her attention back. "That gate will keep them from taking you, but I assure you, the FBI agents will be approaching with weapons drawn - they'll fire at me on first sighting, and when I retaliate, I will kill that boy first. Is that what you want?
She shook her head wildly, throwing tears out of the corners of her eyes.
"Then come with me. You want to..." he said emphatically, as though he were striving to convince them both, gesturing forward but she remained fixed in place.
"It would not be so terrible..." Erik looked distinctly uncomfortable with the words, the exposed half of his face wincing, as he continued, quickly, all in a rush, "I would not make you do anything you didn't wish to... A bit of travel and then we can stay somewhere, and you can sing, and I would be happy - just being where you are, And eventually, you might-" and his voice cracked, choking with emotion, wet eyes meeting her own.
"Just find her!" came a clear cry from down the hallway, Raoul's voice rising above the others, the sounds of the agents approaching closer.
"I don't want to hurt anyone!" Christine finally said in a helpless whisper.
Erik studied her for a moment, then walked towards her with the coat, sliding it onto her right arm, and walking around behind her to help with the other side. He took her left hand in his, and looking down as he guided it towards the sleeve, he took a deep breath and said quietly, "You're going to have to choose."
Later, she would wonder if it was exhaustion, or a panic attack or if she just mentally shut down in the face of an emotional maelstrom - but in the moment, all she could think was that there was a growing shadow around the edges of her vision, and it was sweeping across everything she could see as she fell forwards, away from him, into darkness.
Note - The first five chapters of Volée were written from 2006-2007, and the story sat unfinished for quite some time before my muse came roaring back in 2012 and updates have continued relatively regularly ever since. I've dusted these early chapters off a bit, since my writing style has grown over the years, but I still feel that the new material chapter 6 is where it starts to really get good.
This story came to me on a day of five airports, four connecting flights, and wondering how "Down Once More," would have gone in the modern day, with a Christine who was slightly more torn about her part in the plot to catch Erik. This is my first modernization, but I think you'll find that aside from things like cars and computers, our characters are very much the same.
A note on the title - Volée is a french word (pronounced approx: "voh-laye") ...meaning both "stolen" and "flown." They're pronounced identically, and French speakers figure out which meaning is intended based on context. The story will be the context. :-)
I keep a storyboard tumblr of all the fashion, travel and other images that inspire this story - you can see the universe I'm imagining for Volée at veroniqueclaire*tumblr*com