The fire was dancing.
Orange flames swayed over charred wood, continually rising and relenting. Christine followed the patterns with her eyes. It reminded her of the lapping water of Lake Averne, and the way her skirt tossed about when she moved.
“Are you enjoying the warmth?”
Christine looked up, and the light hit her bare neck. “Yes, thank you.”
For a moment she stared at him. His eyes shone like a reflection of the blaze. But, no. His eyes were mellower than a heated orange, or even a vibrant yellow, she decided. They were an amber color, like the worn gold on her ring finger.
“Erik, what color were your mother’s eyes?”
The figure beside her stiffened. “My mother’s?” he repeated. “Erik… Erik was never allowed to look at his mother very much. But Erik did see, when his mask sheltered him, that her eyes were perhaps blue. Yes, Erik is sure of it. Her eyes were blue.”
“Your eyes are not blue,” Christine said.
“No,” Erik answered, bitterness beginning to rise in his voice. “Erik inherited nothing so beautiful as blue eyes from his mother.”
“Blue eyes are very common.” Christine turned her gaze back to the fire. Her eyes were blue. “I—” She thought for a moment, before turning her head back to him. “I think your eyes are distinctive. They’re how I know you in the darkness. And they make me think of palaces dressed in gold, or the vibrant strings on my father’s violin.” Her voice became quieter. “They’re more beautiful than blue eyes, when you let them be shown.”
Silence followed her confession. Little grains of fire spit from the wood, and landed among the ash. “You are very kind to Erik, Christine. Erik has never known such benevolence.” The confusion and unsurity in his voice betrayed the grateful statement. He sounded as though he wasn't sure if she was mocking him.
A great compassion stirred within Christine. She remembered the innumerable times that she had received compliments. “What a lovely face,” or “So charming,” were often the comments she gained from listeners as she sang beside her father. And then there was Erik, who had lavished her in his unrelenting speeches like a man of faith reciting scripture. What had she ever given him in return? What had anyone ever given him?
Christine stood. She took one step, and let her outstretched hand graze the bit of mask below Erik’s eyes. He trembled, and watched her movements like a child so used to being slapped rather than caressed that he cowered a little at her touch.
“Erik,” she said, her face drawn in sincere compassion, “may I remove your mask?”
“Why?” he breathed, searching her eyes.
“Let me show you.” Christine reached around his head for the ties, but he jerked back a little, and she stopped. “Erik, please don’t be afraid of me.”
The man—not a phantom, or even an angel—shut his eyes against her pleas. Wearily, he spoke, “You may remove Erik’s mask, if that is your wish. I cannot deny you.”
He felt the ties loosen, and though she had been careful not to touch him, he trembled at her nearness. She had never willingly placed herself this close to him before. Cringing, with the breath in his throat lodged like the boulder that held the damn, she removed the mask from his face.
“There,” she whispered, her face curiously close to his. “Now I can see your eyes.”
Erik released all of his tension in one short sob. He bowed his head, tears flowing everywhere over his deformed features. “My poor Erik,” Christine soothed. When he made no motion to end his tears, Christine turned from him. She held the mask a little above the floor, so that fire shone through the eye holes.
Christine’s lips parted as a revelation flooded through her. Swiftly, she tossed the mask into the fireplace, watching with Erik as the ebony fabric curled and faded into the roaring orange. Shocked, Erik asked, “What do you mean by this?”
Christine looked at him then; at his gruesome, bony flesh, overlapped by dark scars and visible veins. His lips were thin and they wandered upward on one side; he had no eyebrows. She concentrated on his eyes.
“Only that I wish you not wear your masks anymore. You told me that anyone can get used to anything, if only they’re willing to try. I want to try, Erik.”
“You….you want to try…” Erik’s eyes were wide as he repeated her words.
She nodded, and he fell to his knees, bringing the hem of her skirt to his malformed lips. “Oh, Christine,” he whispered. “Christine, Christine…”
She stood still, and didn't cringe when he told her how greatly he loved her.