I've been spending an awful lot of time over the past week or so up to my ears in French, but here we are finally with the essential scene in any Phantom retelling: the unmasking scene (combined here with the kidnap, since events are being compressed into a single day...) And an Erik-PoV chapter; the gentleman known to my fandom-blind beta-reader of the time as "Crazy Erik" :-p
It's interesting writing a character who is insane but -- of course -- isn't aware of it...
Chapter 7: Behind the Mask
The great chamber beneath the hillside was dark, lit by only the faintest midnight glow through the viewport from the dust-laden sky high above. The shadows of the gallery stretched away far out of sight, in long shapeless aisles that threw back only a random glint or two in answer to the faint pool of light at Erik’s feet as he moved; at any other time he would have welcomed that refuge, a deep anonymous night in which all men were equal, both marred and unmarred. But he was no longer alone. And she— she was not at home here as he was. He had to see that all was well; that all was ready for her.
His body still ached from the vibrating drone of their long flight, but he would not have sacrificed one hour of it. To have her there, cradled close in the soft black leather of the seat with her white throat thrown back, utterly yielding in the heavy-breathing stupor of her drugged doze... If he had reached out — taken his hand for one moment from the yoke of the little flyer — he could have brushed that wisp of hair that curled behind her ear, or set his gloved wrist against the smooth curve of her cheek that still held the downy bloom of a child. He longed to set loose those tight-bound braids and see her veiled in the sheen of her hair, brushed out like true rain as Newparis would never know it. She had been close enough to touch... and that had been enough.
He’d given her the vapour twice more, crushing an ampoule beneath her nose as he had done in those first delirious moments under the stage-trap, when panic had at last overcome her terror of the Ghost and she had fought him to get free. Poor Cris. Poor sweet, worshipped, adored Cris. She had been so afraid... but he’d had to do it. His hand had been forced— by that boy. It was the boy’s fault entirely, Erik had soon seen that. Well, the boy would pay. Erik was going to make very sure that he paid... for everything sweet Cris had undergone, and every torment of suffering that insolent pup had made Erik himself endure, with his smiles at her and his fondlings and his so-called friendship—
Teeth ground together, and Erik fought for control. Cris, in his arms; most precious, most fragile burden. He’d carried her in from the flyer through all the maze of passages, past traps and tortures and deadly jests, and not one silver-fair hair of her had been harmed. In Erik’s respectful embrace she was safe, as she would always be. He would not give in to the rage, not now, not this time. Erik would not let the boy do that to them. They would be together forever, as destiny had always intended.
It was an hour since he’d given her the last ampoule, and she was beginning to stir. Moving with utter confidence through the dark music of the night, Erik brought the slim body he cradled to the pallet he’d prepared and knelt swiftly, laying her down. The belt-glow from his suit cast a faint radiance about them both for a moment. Then he moved to the controls, and brought up the nearest bank of lights.
He’d done his best to make it homely for her, perceiving his own domain with dismay for the first time through the eyes of an outsider. He’d made her a warm bed, and curtains to form a little chamber, with soft cushions— girls liked such things. She would see the first sun on the mountaincrest in the morning through the viewport from where she lay, and he’d brought her down a little table and two chairs, incongruously fluted, from a corner of the Garnier Complex where they wouldn’t be missed... but he’d had so little time to prepare. She would be disappointed, he knew. It couldn’t be what she’d hoped for in their first home.
But there would be time— oh, so much time. He would learn what she liked best. He would find new ways to please her. She could not go back now — he had taken care of that for her — so she would be staying here with Erik, and Erik would love her, and love her, and she would be so happy... He bent closer to check on her breathing, gloved hand rising instinctively as if to take off the mask that interposed itself between them. He was not accustomed to wearing it here, in privacy... and it would frighten her, he knew.
His mouth tightened, harsh lines pulling at ruined flesh. The Ghost’s blank mask might well frighten her when she woke; but the horror of Erik’s face would pursue her innocence through her dreams— if ever she slept again.
Cris turned her head a little, groaning, and her long pale lashes parted. For a moment Erik, still stooping close, met that clouded gaze and saw her eyes widen. Nerves strung long since to breaking point snapped abruptly.
With a soft moan of his own he scuttered backwards, wrapping shadows around himself like a long-limbed spider. He had never been more conscious of his grotesque form; had never longed or feared more for the first words to fall from any mouth, any lips, as from hers.
Crouched on the floor behind a computer bank, cold metal smooth against the tough fabric of his suit and the mask a familiar constricting shelter on his face, he listened in an agony of suffering and suspense. Her breath was shallower now, no longer that deep drugged rhythm but a ragged accelerating drift that spoke of fear held silent. Soft sounds of dragging and shifting cloth; the harsher scrape of a boot-sole against the grip of the plating beneath. She was sitting up... no, standing up. She was turning, the shuffled footfalls overlaid with hesitation. She was drawing in breath to call out...
His belt-light! He remembered at the last moment to quench that glow; envisioned it shining like a beacon all around, drawing her attention to that pitiful gangling mass— to that shrinking confusion of limbs and mask that was Erik. That half-dead creature that both longed for and fled from the prospect of her gaze...
But she had heard the incautious motion, muffled too late. Shadows shifted as she swung round. She must be staring right at him, at this hiding place—
“Please...” Her voice was shaking now on the very edge of control, and frenzied remorse followed panic in the maelstrom of emotions that was his heart.
Cris choked down a stifled sound. There was a long moment of silence, as if she too were straining every sense towards him. “Please... if there’s anyone there, please say something... please don’t leave me alone...”
“Child—” It was torn from him — almost without his intention — in the deep resonance of his true voice, without the distorting circuits of the Ghost, and he heard her gasp.
“Angel? Angel Six, is that you?”
Hot tears were blinding him, burning like branding acid in the channelled scars and soaking the pads of his mask to choke his breath; he found himself stumbling upright, crashing towards her almost by feel alone — his gasping inhalations so loud in his ears that he no longer knew if she shrank or cried out — to fling himself huddled, kneeling, at her feet. “No Angel — sweet Cris, dearest Cris — no Angel, no ghost, no genius... only a man. Only Erik, poor Erik, who loves you entirely and cares for nothing else, nothing in the whole world... Forgive me — forgive me — I had no choice, I had to do it, Erik had to do it...”
And he looked up at last, to see that she was weeping without sound and without movement. Frozen there above in the streaming light, she might almost have been a statue. Only the tears were spilling over, without so much as the quiver of a lip; one slid free and fell before him, the tiniest of blows like a burning laser-shaft of pain.
“You... you, the Ghost? You that I loved, I trusted... you who lied... oh no, but you never really lied, did you— I just believed... I was a child, a fool...”
She wiped the heel of her hand across her face suddenly, like the child she had so recently been, leaving a wet trail, and words burst from Erik in abasement, a torrent of remorse and self-hate that terrified them both and left him shaking and prostrate before her.
He dared no longer raise his gaze; bitter knowledge painted for him the fear and loathing that must be in hers— the hatred that must burn there for the creature who had blackened her name, who had carried her off and imprisoned her in the tomb of his own existence, far from everything she had ever known. And yet if he could hold her — if he could hold her just once against his heart and bury his ravaged face in the fall of her hair — he would regret none of it, none of it at all. Erik would die happy if ever her lips anointed his burning brow, or her hands profaned themselves to cool his ruined face...
Her breath seemed to shudder around him as if she bent low; and then, with his tears falling, he felt slim fingers brush across his shoulders in benison.
“Poor Angel... how we have both suffered...” Her caress was feather-light, as if it were her soul itself that sought to yield him comfort. “Poor— poor Erik...”
His name— Erik’s name, upon those lips! For a moment his blood seemed to have halted within him to await her command. Then a pang of utter horror, as every vein raced with realisation. Her fingers, stroking upwards, had found the fastenings that concealed his face. Gently, dexterously, she was beginning to remove the burden of his mask.
Mere moments ago he had dreamed of the healing touch of her hand; now he knew only terror that she should come near to that abomination— that vile thing. Each caress was a soft clinging trap: all her tenderness was no more than female wiles, cursed curiosity—
Recoiling violently, he fled from her touch as if burned, breath hissing in fear and rage.
“Never— never touch the mask. Do you understand me?” Towering to his full height, he saw his own monstrous shadow flung across her face; saw her shrink back from this sudden fury, as if in rehearsal for that revulsion when she glimpsed the lipless nightmare that lay in wait— that moment when Erik would lose her for good.
“Angel— what good can it do to hide? If you mean to keep me here as you say you do”—her voice broke—”then at least let me see who you are. How can I love you as you say you want if I can’t even see your face? After all the hours we’ve shared— don’t you even trust me that much?”
Trust? Erik’s bitterness boiled up again. ‘Nothing more than a friend,’ she’d promised: and he’d seen for himself how much he could trust her in that. He’d poured out his heart to her, and now she thought she could play games with words?
But rage was a familiar friend. It steadied him.
“No-one sees Erik’s face.” The words were calm and forbidding, allowing no possibility of dissent.
He had not reckoned on that gentle stubbornness of hers that no unhealed wound could escape.
“Oh, poor Angel— poor Erik...” Instead of backing away, she had come close again, laying her hands on his chest; and he, the unassailable Ghost, shrank from that touch as if from a weapon’s point. He had craved the boundless wells of compassion in her like a man dying of thirst. He had sought to take them for himself, by force if needs be. And yet now that a single ray of that pity reached out towards his deepest fear, his darkness quailed before its merciless beam.
“Can it really be so bad?” Cris said quietly, looking up at him. The sweetness in her eyes, her lips, promised only surcease and forgetfulness... For an instant he dreamed of yielding. To lie in her lap and let those little hands strip him of his shields; to lay his scars naked before her gaze, and see there only comfort and concern; to receive the sacrament of her lips and render back the worship of his own—
The hideous comedy of that image tore loose all delusions.
What— his distorted mouth, in all its horror, to mumble over hers? That dreadful grin was never made for kissing. Only for snarls and screaming— the endless scream that would be her life and his, when once those pale beseeching eyes beheld the secret they pleaded to possess...
His hands twitched at the memory of such screams. Buquet’s life had been the last to pulse beneath his fingers, but not the first to choke there into silence. Oh no, not the first.
He thrust her away almost violently as his breath began to race, and mastered himself with a supreme effort.
“You will be in no danger... while you never see Erik’s face.” Each word was a cold stab of meaning — did she not yet understand who was master here? — and he turned abruptly away. The subject was closed.
“See, I have made you a little chamber here.” She had been an obedient child once, before... before that boy. If he spoke to her as such, perhaps she would remember. Perhaps she would be his to mould again.
With painstaking kindness, he showed her the curtains and partitions he had rigged up, and how she could shut away the shadows that lurked in the gallery beyond. How she could clean herself in the fresher he had set up for her especial use, secure from all fear of prying eyes. How quaint and homely he had made this corner of the echoing undercroft that was his kingdom, and how happy he hoped she would be.
“You will have complete privacy when you wish, I promise it. Do you want to know where Erik sleeps? Come and see...”
It was a grotesque parody of cheerfulness, but his voice still held its power. Cris had begun to lose that strained, shuttered look, and even to smile; as if this were just some game they were playing, the two of them. A game of houses and make-believe in which hearts were tossed lightly between the players, and never cracked or dropped.
He showed her the length of the great processor banks, looming parallel rows that half-filled the hall, their gaps and passages like some vast computer maze. He took her past the entrance point where the power conduits and the data taps ran, and up to the main console bay and its double row of monitors. He pulled out the ingenious bed he had designed, a narrow trough that could pivot and grip its occupant upright, so that at the touch of a switch he could have instant access to the whole murmurous unsleeping array around him without ever leaving his couch.
He had hoped the cleverness of the device would make her laugh. Instead, she paled; an appalled, pitying glance that laid bare only the constriction and discomfort of the enclosing coffin in which he chose to spend his nights.
“But I sleep very little, child,” he made haste to assure her. “See, here am I, nested high at the heart of my work... and there are you, lying quite apart in a room of your own.”
He had seated himself in front of a keyboard, half turned towards her with a grace of self-possession that could still, when he wished it, conjure up a tailored uniform or well-cut tunic in place of the dark ship-suit he chose to wear. Gloved hands moved in wide, sweeping gestures that brought the scene to life like music from thin air, painting for her how it would be. He would not press her. He would ask for nothing she was not eager to give. They would live here side by side in perfect harmony...
He could see her yielding to his voice, just as he had been sure she would yield, her eyes distant and dreamy, considering. He had always known that he need only have her here, with him, and then of course she would feel just as he did. Why had he wasted his time with fears and scruples? The Ghost knew what was best— for both of them.
“And perhaps...” But it was still more, almost, than he dared ask. She was standing so close to Erik— and not afraid, not afraid at all! He turned away so that he should not see her face change; only the pale shape of her reflection in the monitor, like a phantom overlaid on the soundless images that played on and on, unheeded, before them.
“And perhaps... you will come sometimes, when Erik is lying here awake, and sit here beside me? Just to sit— and let down your hair. It must be so beautiful. Perhaps I could sleep if I could lie here, and talk with you, and see your hair...”
He had gone too far. He knew it, and cringed, before she even spoke, at the first stiffening of the glimpsed outline behind his shoulder.
“No-one sees my hair loose—” It was spoken hastily, and Cris broke off. After a moment she laughed, a little, desolate sound. “You see? We both have something to— shield...”
She took a deep breath, so close there behind him he scarcely dared move.
“They wanted to cut it off, you see. In Re-Education. But I cried and cried... Daddy used to brush it for me, and he loved it so much. They took everything else of him away from me, and they wanted to take that. But the old matron — she was kinder sometimes than the rest — she said I could keep it. Only if it ever got in the way, or caught in the machines, or if she saw me trying to prink and prettify myself about, then it would all be shaved off. Like they do in the punishment cells... So I never let them find me with it loose. And now— it makes me feel all wrong. Exposed.”
Erik heard her swallow and take a step forward, until the hem of her tunic brushed against him where he sat and he was frozen with the knowledge of her presence: frozen and burning in ice. Two tiny hands rested feather-light upon his shoulders as she hesitated. Erik’s breath was thick in his throat.
“Angel,” Cris said, her voice halting, “I thought I knew you once... and now I don’t know what to think any more. But you knew Daddy, didn’t you—”
Oh, but he’d never lied, conscience howled; never told her in so many words. Never lied, save by omission. She had just believed, as Erik had meant for her to believe....
“—I don’t know what to think, but maybe... I’m beginning to understand a little. About you, and about me. And maybe—” The light pressure of her touch left him, and he could see her outline raise its hands to that pale-crowned head. Tightly-bound plaits tumbled; one struck a glancing blow upon his shoulder as she leaned forward, and he could not breathe at all.
“Maybe,” Cris said steadily, “I think maybe we should both find a way to face others... with what we’re trying to protect—”
And then cold, unfiltered air screamed into his lungs as those betraying fingers broke loose the seals of his mask, and he knew at last and too late what her so-called understanding had meant. The clattering weight struck and rolled somewhere into the shadows even as he snatched at it, and with a howl he turned on her, seeing the horror growing in her eyes.
“This? Is this what you wanted?” He seized her by the throat, dragging her up to meet him at his full height, heedless of her little mewling cries. “Is this what you thought you would see— you little vixen, you spawn of Servalan?”
Her lips were drawn back in hideous mimicry of his own eternal grin, and her fingers twisted into matching claws. He caught at one of those hands that had damned them both and raked it across his runnelled flesh, nails catching on slumped and waxen scars.
“It’s real, you see. Did you think this was Erik’s mask? Did you think it would come off? Do you think you can pull it off for me? Do you?”
His blood spattered her face now, and her eyes were glazing over. Her mouth was one long silent, endless scream.