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The knock came while James’s hand was knuckle-deep in his young lover’s body, the sound nearly covered by Sebastian’s cries of pleasure. The boy had been growing more and more vocal as his strength increased with better feeding and less blood-letting and now James often wondered if the only reason they didn’t get kicked out of every inn they stayed in was merely because the proprietors were terrified of them.

This proprietor had to have a death wish, however, since after a few moments, the knock came again.

And then again.

By this time, even Sebastian had noticed, and the stormy grey eyes - fogged as they were by ecstasy - looked a question at James.

“Fucking hell," James muttered, and drew away, eliciting a groan of disappointment. “Stay right where you are.” he added, pointing a long finger at the boy, who grinned impishly and drew the blankets up to his chin.

James wrapped a robe around his nakedness and grabbed one of his silver-plated pistols, just in case, as he went to answer the door.

The man outside in the hall looked harassed and still had a speckling of snow in his hair. He was also wearing a cassock, and the large gold cross hung around his neck made James recoil slightly, narrowing his eyes as if from bright sunlight. That was definitely not the innkeeper. “What the hell do you want?” James asked, struggling not to bare his fangs at the priest as he spoke. The interruption was annoying enough without adding a pitched battle with a man of the cloth into the mix. That’d really be a mood killer.

He might not have bothered trying to hide his vampiric nature. The priest looked up at James with a sneer that told him he knew very well what James was, and extended an envelope with a large seal on it, in gold wax. “My name is Father Joseph Bouquet, Monsieur Grim. Your orders.”

Great. “My orders,” James echoed sarcastically, and took the envelope from the priest’s trembling fingers. “I don’t take orders.”

The priest's eyes narrowed, and he clutched at his cross as if James had just indicated an intention to go for his throat. “Unholy monster! You continue to exist at the sufferance of the Pope’s mercy, so long as you remain useful. Now you’re needed, and the Holy See--”

“Shut up," James said, breaking the seal with a flick of his fingers. Father Joseph purpled, and opened his mouth to continue the diatribe, but James simply shut the door in his face. The cross was no more than irritating - compared to Sebastian’s heartfelt belief, there was so little true faith behind it that it was no worse than a mosquito buzzing around his ear - but more than that, he wasn't in the mood to listen to some belligerent functionary who’d never held a stake in his life tell him where to go.

There was a hammering at the door. He shot the bolt and leaned against it, reading the letter.

Sebastian sat up, the blankets still gathered to his chin. “What’s going on, James?”

James said nothing for a moment as he finished reading, then lifted his eyes, crumpling the paper to a ball in his fist. He opened the door, threw the ball of paper at the priest, and nodded to him. “I’ll take it. The usual fee.”

He started to shut the door, but the man grabbed it and pushed it further open. James could easily have overpowered him, but if the priest lost all the fingers on that hand it would probably not do much for James’ reputation back in Rome. He pulled the door open a little further, but barred the way so Father Joseph couldn't see Sebastian on the bed. “What do you want?”

Joseph drew himself up. “I will be accompanying you on this investigation, Monsieur. This is a high priority--”

“Because I’ll bet a lot of the patrons make large donations to keep their cities free of vampires," James sneered.

“Don’t be offensive, monster," Joseph said crisply. “All of His flock are equal in His eyes.”

“And some more equal than others.”

In any case,” Joseph grated. “I have tickets for yourself and your...Protégé. You will accompany me tonight.”

They knew about Sebastian? He shouldn't have been surprised - the boy had been with him since before Christmas, and they somehow always knew where to find James to request his services, no matter how far he travelled. No doubt the same spies that kept tabs on him had noticed his young lover dogging his heels. Even still, it bothered him. A lot. Sebastian was his business, and no one else’s, and he felt a strange possessive jealousy over the revelation.

Still, there was nothing he could do about it.

“Fine. We’ll meet you outside before the show.” James yanked the door out of Joseph’s grasp, then slammed it shut.

Then he turned to Sebastian. “Get cleaned up,” he said. “We’re going to the opera.”

~ ~ ~

Though the Paris Opera house long predated the Change - when the virus that created the first vampires and zombies had arisen more than five centuries ago - it was still a magnificent building and hadn’t succumbed to the decay that characterized so much of what had once been Europe. The columns, carvings, and statuary that covered the front facade were so elaborate as to dazzle the eye, and the white stone nearly shone in the electric spotlights. What an extravagance, to see precious electricity used merely to light up the outside of a building!

But it set the ambiance very well, making the building seem impressive and decadent enough to receive the patrons who streamed through the doors into the opulent gold and red velvet interior. Women with their hair in elaborate styles, their bell-like dresses all the colours of the rainbow, each of them dripping with jewels and furs, and escorted by men in their somber black tails and crisp white shirts. Even in this time, the rich got richer, and needed something to do.

Paris was a large enough city that even though it might have housed a few dozen vampires, and the cemeteries were under heavy guard in case a bitten corpse got buried instead of incinerated despite the precautions, the night life was still very active. Few had need to fear the night in this city, unlike those in smaller cities, simply because there was safety in numbers. And if it was almost impossible for one to look in any direction without seeing a discreet cross hanging from someone's bare throat, or from ears, well, that was just a sign of the times.

Or was it?

Given what James had just read in that letter from the Vatican, he had a feeling that word had gotten out. What was surprising, then, was that the Opera was getting any visitors at all. If anything, it seemed like there was going to be a packed house.

The amount of real faith in the area was low enough that James scarcely noticed all the little crosses around him. It was just background noise, not much different from walking any other street, though there did definitely seem to be a lot more crosses than usual. And a distinct scent of garlic hovering around the crowd, as well - more irritating to Sebastian than to James. Garlic wasn't much protection against vampires unless it permeated a room. Out in the fresh air, it did nothing more than make the young shape shifter wrinkle his nose.

Sebastian walked beside James, gold and sapphires glinting at his wrists and a slight bulkiness around his tuxedo that showed he was armed with stakes and holy water. In the tuxedo, he seemed more his true age of nineteen - a man, rather than a boy. James was still taller, but for once they looked more like partners or lovers, rather than people always mistaking Sebastian for his son. And James had to admit that Sebastian looked fetching this way.

Joseph was still wearing his cassock. He didn't stick out too much, though, the fine black fabric blending in with the other men's tuxedos and suits, even if the cut differed. He stalked behind them like an unhappy feline, shooting glances at both of them. James had a feeling he was wondering whether Sebastian was a vampire, as well. The fact that Joseph didn't seem to know much about Sebastian cooled some of the anger from earlier, and gave him a bit of satisfaction. They knew about Sebastian’s existence, but they didn't seem to know what to make of him.

The threesome followed the stream of people into the opera house, showed their tickets, and were ushered to a box on the second level, giving them a commanding view of the entire theatre. James took a seat and scanned the crowd, ignoring Joseph seating himself at his left side. It was as he had suspected - the entire house was packed, except for one box on the far side, which was still empty. Odd that - all the other boxes were filled to capacity, not to mention the ranks of seats below. Yet one box was shrouded in darkness and he couldn’t see any movement there. It had to have been reserved in advance, yet whoever had taken the reservation hadn’t yet arrived, and the show was soon about to start.

Sebastian sat in his own seat on James’ right, running his fingers over the velvet arm cover and staring around like a yokel at a fair, his mouth open and his eyes wide. “Look at that chandelier!” he exclaimed, pointing to a huge confection of candles hanging over the crowd.

“Looks like a fire hazard,” James grunted distractedly, scrutinizing faces. No one stood out to him as any kind of a threat, but why would they? The letter had said that there was a vampire infesting the opera house itself, preying upon the actors and staff. It wouldn’t be amongst the audience.

As the lights began to dim, signalling the start of the show, Joseph stood. “Stay here. I’ll be back by intermission.”

James opened his mouth to object, then decided he didn't actually care. If Joseph wanted to go wander around and get thrown out by ushers, he was welcome to do so as far as James was concerned. Or maybe he had someone to meet, and didn’t want James to know about it. Either way, he didn’t care. He waved a hand, and Joseph turned, slipping out of the box.

James was just as glad to see the abrasive man's back. The lights dropped and the curtain lifted, revealing a slender, buxom woman standing centre stage.

Though Joseph hadn’t yet returned, by the time the first Act was half over, James was convinced that this was nothing more than a waste of his time. If there had really been a vampire, the audience would have been staying away in droves, not to mention the actors and the rest of the staff. Instead, there was a packed house, and the show was going on, as usual.

He leaned forward to do another perfunctory scan of the audience, then sat back, watching the lead soprano belting out a song about love or sorrow or death or something - in opera, it was basically all the same thing. Other actors moved onstage. He had already lost the thread of the story. He’d never been a fan of opera, and his Italian was decent, but not fluent. Not fluent enough to follow a convoluted story in which it seemed there were three different people all pursuing the same woman, and all mistaking each other for someone else, getting dressed up in costumes, and accidentally hitting on each other.

As the first act drew to a close and the lights rose, James rolled his eyes and tapped Sebastian on the shoulder. “Let’s go.” Joseph hadn’t yet returned, but he knew where they were staying. He could meet them at the inn, if he so chose.

Sebastian looked around, his eyes round in his face. “Are we going to look for the vampire?” he hissed, though there was no need to be quiet. “Is now a good time? Where did the priest go?”

“There’s no vampire," James said. “This is a waste of our night, and we should get out of here before it gets too late.”

“What?”

James got up and started for the door, but found his progress hampered by a hand on his suit jacket, as Sebastian grabbed for him. “Wait, James. Wait! How do you know”

James sighed and looked back at him. Fine, he wanted a lesson, he could have a lesson. “You tell me, Sebastian. Why do I think there’s no vampire?”

The boy scowled at him, then rose and moved to the railing, looking out over the milling crowd and the orchestra. “Well, it's weird that there are so many people. Usually people stay away from vampires.”

“Exactly--”

“But, I don’t know. It feels wrong.”

James moved to stand beside Sebastian, glancing at him quizzically. What was the kid talking about? “Feels wrong?” he echoed, skeptically.

Sebastian didn't answer at first, still scanning the crowd. He opened his mouth to answer, then suddenly his head jerked up and he pointed. “There’s someone in that box!”

James’ eyes followed where Sebastian was pointing, and caught a glimpse of movement in the box across the way. The one he'd been sure was empty for the entire first Act. But then, he hadn’t been paying attention. The patron could have come in during the show and he probably wouldn't have noticed, or been able to see it in the darkness. But now the lights were on.

All the lights, except for the one in that particular box. And though he'd thought he’d seen something, now he couldn't be sure. Whatever it was, it was hidden by shadow now.

Sebastian shivered and reached out, catching James’ hand. James pursed his lips and squeezed his young lover’s hand, and their eyes met. Sebastian’s face was pale. “It reminded me of Luiza.”

James felt a chill run down his spine. Luiza was a child they met in Russia. At first, they had thought she was a ghost, but James was sure she was a vampire, albeit one turned at a shockingly young age. The house where they’d found Luiza had held horrors, and was the place where Sebastian had made his first kill. James had agreed to train Sebastian after the events that happened in that house, so some good had come of it, but it was a bad memory - especially for Sebastian.

“It wasn’t Luiza,” he said, though he couldn’t really be sure.

“But it could have been a vampire,” Sebastian said, tightening his grip. “What else can move that fast?”

“Why would a vampire be going to the opera?”

Sebastian burst out laughing.

“What?” James demanded, turning to glare at the boy.

“You’re a vampire who’s going to the opera,” Sebastian said, poking James in the centre of the chest.

James eyed him, then moved back to his seat. “Shut up. That's different.”

Joseph had still not returned, but the lights were already dimming. He supposed he would stay for the next Act, after all. The box across the way intrigued him, anyway. Perhaps he'd need to go and explore it, before the final curtain.

The second Act was little better than the first, and James found himself zoning out. He wasn't inclined to actually fall asleep - it was after dark, after all - but he found himself staring across the way at that darkened box, trying in vain to see any sign of movement that would reveal whether there was a person there. And where the fuck was Father Joseph?

But he was jolted out of his thoughts when the rising, undulating voice of the lead soprano suddenly gave way to screams. James surged to his feet, drawing his two pistols from their underarm holsters so quickly they seemed to appear in his hands by magic. James could already see that the audience was fighting each other to flee up the aisles, some even climbing over the seats in their haste to flee the stage. But it wasn’t the audience that attracted his attention - it was what was happening on stage.

“Dear God in heaven,” Sebastian gasped, as he surged to his feet as well.

A man was hanging over the stage by the neck, still swinging from his initial fall, a full twenty feet above the ground. His feet jerked spasmodically, and then he fell still, even as James watched.

Even from this distance, which wasn’t that great in any case, it was easy to recognize the victim. It was Father Joseph.

He winced away from Sebastian's words, but turned the motion towards the rail, covering the reaction as he holstered his pistols again. “Meet me backstage as soon as you can get there, boy. And don’t let them turn you away.”

“Where are you--”

Sebastian’s words cut off with a gasp as James simply vaulted over the rail.

He plummeted to the floor, tuxedo tails flapping, and landed at a run. The first several rows of seats were already empty, and the way was clear as he raced up the aisle and leaped onto the stage, clearing the orchestra pit easily. Several actors and what looked like backstage workers had already gathered beneath Father Joseph, arguing about how to best get him down, but James’ appearance scattered them like chickens.

“Someone cut that man down," he shouted, his voice thundering in the acoustics of the theatre, which was now nearly emptied of audience members. Cutting at the rope with bullets fired from his pistols might sound like a good idea in principle, but it was harder than it sounded. Chances are all he'd wind up doing was fraying the rope and then hitting some innocent person with the bullets as they zipped away into the wings.

“Several of the stagehands are already trying to get him down, Monsieur, but I fear he’s already dead.” A pompous voice sounded at James’ right, followed by another man, nearly as pompous. “Who are you, and who is this man?”

James turned and saw two men who definitely didn’t look like actors. Though they wore touches of makeup, they were in suits, one short and fat, one tall and thin, the latter clutching an envelope in his long-fingered hand. Both of them were looking at James with a mixture of authority and fear.

“I assume you’re the managers,” James said, glancing up at Joseph again. He could see two men climbing like spiders out onto the catwalks far above, knives clutched in their mouths. Why would Father Joseph have even been up there in the first place? What did he get up to while James and Sebastian had been sitting around watching the opera like chumps? Though he hadn't liked the man at all, James regretted his death.

“That's quite right," the fat one said, drawing himself up to his full, not considerable height. “I am Richard, and this is Montcharmin. Now Monsieur, if you please, tell us what you and the Father are doing here, and what you have to do with our Ghost?”

James’ eyes narrowed and his attention sharpened at the mention of a ghost. “My name's James Grim. I'm a Hunter, and the Father and I were here to investigate ‘your ghost’ - at your request, I assume.”

At that moment, Sebastian burst from stage right, skidding to a halt beside James and putting his hands on his knees as he panted. James put a hand on the boy's shoulder. “And this is Sebastian, my partner,” he added smoothly.

“Our request?" Montcharmin hissed, and thrust the letter in his hand towards James. “We never requested the intervention of the Church in this matter! We are handling things very well, ourselves.”

“I requested them.”

Yet another man approached, this one young and dressed in aristocratic finery. His shirt was slightly damp, however, and he straightened his jacket as he strode towards them. “Christine is in her room, recovering,” he added, speaking to the managers. Then he turned to James and bowed slightly. “Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, at your service, Monsieur. Can you help us to rid the world of that monster?”

“Perhaps," James said, unfolding the letter in his fingers. “Who’s Christine?”

Raoul flushed slightly. “The soprano for tonight's opera, sir. She is a friend of mine, and the ‘ghost’ has taken the most unwelcome interest in her. The whole thing has been very traumatic for her, the poor girl. She was sobbing on my shoulder the whole way off the stage.”

“Ah, the pretty one.”

At that moment, there was a yell from above, and James looked up. Joseph plummeted towards him, along with thirty-odd feet of rope, and he reflexively dropped the letter to catch the Father as he fell.

The body - and it was definitely a body, no sign of life whatsoever now - landed heavily in his arms and he lowered it to the stage gently, the rope slithering onto the polished wood beside him. The face was swollen and his tongue protruded slightly. Hanging wasn’t a pretty way to die, no matter what, but James at least did his best. He closed the corpse’s eyes and covered his face with the handkerchief from his breast pocket, before rising to his feet and looking automatically to Sebastian. The boy hadn’t seen too many bodies in his life.

But Sebastian wasn’t looking. He was reading the letter in his hand, his brows drawn together.

“‘You bring Vatican priests into my opera house, in direct contravention of my commands, and you expect there to be no repercussions?’” Sebastian read. “‘I might have indulged this, but he poked his nose where it didn’t belong, and so he must pay. Let this be a warning to all! The show must go on. Christine shall sing, and if you stand in my way, then you shall despair. Hahahahaha! Signed the O.G.’”

“‘Hahahaha’?” James echoed skeptically, and Sebastian turned the letter towards him. Yep. The ‘ghost’ had written it right there, in an elegant, slanted script. The ink had smudged a little, the letter obviously folded hastily after being written, without time for it to dry completely. But the words were more than legible.

James sighed and turned to the managers. “Maybe we should all go somewhere private, and you can tell me what’s going on here.”

~ ~ ~

When the little coterie of men reached Richard and Montcharmin’s office, Montcharmin immediately moved to the sideboard and poured four generous glasses of brandy. He was about the pour a fifth, but James raised a hand. “None for the boy.”

“Hey!” Sebastian objected, but he threw himself grumpily into a chair as Montcharmin passed glasses to James, Monsieur Richard, and Raoul.

“I can’t believe you called in the Vatican, Vicompt," Richard said more mournful than angry, then took a generous swallow of the brandy. Given the way his cheeks immediately began to flush, this likely wasn't the first he'd had this week. Or today. Or in the last hour. “We discussed this!”

“And I disagreed,” Raoul said, unruffled. “Gentlemen, the opera is doing better than it ever has. But many more accidents like this, and people will truly begin staying away. But more importantly, Christine cannot continue this way! She’s living in terror that that monster will harm her.”

“He hasn’t yet,” Montcharmin pointed out.

“And what does that prove, when we’re finding bodies hanging from the rafters every other night?” Raoul shot back angrily. “I cannot continue to patronize an opera house when half the stagehands and actors are dropping dead.”

The managers blanched in unison. The threat of losing money was one that would make them sit up and take notice. “Now, now, let's not be hasty,” said Montcharmin. “This is the first time that the Ghost has turned murderous. It was directly in response to the arrival of the Vatican, which - as you recall - we did not approve! I'm sure that if you all just go away, things will settle back into the state they were before.”

“With the Ghost extorting money from us?” Richard snarled.

Montcharmin flushed. “Yes, well. It’s only money. If more people die, now that will be a tragedy.”

Raoul gestured with his brandy glass, nearly slopping some over himself. “Forget all of this. The Vatican is here, now, so what’s done is done. Can you help us, Monsieur Grim?” He looked to James with the determination of the young and keen - and probably head over heels in love, and James sighed.

“Look, you have a vampire, and I’m a vampire hunter. This is what I do." He rubbed his nose, thinking. “It is a vampire, right?”

The men exchanged glances. “He calls himself the ghost, but... Some of the girls have been bitten. We are sure it’s a vampire," admitted Richard.

“Why did you wait so long?” Sebastian demanded, sitting up abruptly. “You just let a vampire prey on these girls, why? Because you were afraid of losing more money?”

“We were afraid that it would escalate, as it has. It was being managed--” Richard began guiltily, but Sebastian jumped to his feet.

“You didn’t want to call us. You were just letting this vampire have his way." He whirled on James, fists clenched at his sides. “Let’s go look for him, James. Right now.”

James had some other ideas for what they should do first, but he was just as disgusted by these people as Sebastian was, and more than ready to strike out alone. He wouldn’t be killing this vampire for the likes of these managers, that was for sure. Though they didn't seem like bad people, they were motivated by greed and laziness, and James needed to leave before he decided they were monsters no different than the literal blood sucker.

He rose to his feet. “Yes, let’s get a move on.” He turned to Raoul. “Let me know when the soprano is ready to talk to us, though. I want to have a chat with her.”

“But sir, you can’t just go looking for the ghost!” Montcharmin exclaimed. “There are miles of catacombs beneath the opera house. He could be anywhere. You’ll never catch him. Why do you think we allowed it to go on so long?”

“I don't know, why?” James growled.

“Because there’s simply no way that you could find him," the man said, his tone turning almost pleading. “All that will happen is that the ghost will kill you, or get you lost deep beneath the opera house, and then take revenge upon the rest of us. Don’t you understand?”

Raoul cleared his throat. “He does have a point. But surely you have some way to track the vampire, Monsieur Grim. I mean, you’re a professional.”

James hesitated. “I don’t have magical vampire sniffing powers,” he said, and the other three men sagged with disappointment.

Then, unexpectedly, Sebastian spoke up. “We can’t track him into the catacombs. But what we do have, is bait.”

James stiffened and whirled around to look at his young charge. “No, Sebastian.”

But Sebastian’s eyes were bright and determined. “I can do this, James. I'm the only one who can do this.”

“Do what?” James growled, taking a step towards him. “Leave a trail of your blood for him to follow?”

Sebastian’s eyes widened, and he went a little pale. “No, no.” His eyes cut towards the men, then back, intense. “I think we really need to talk to Christine now. I have a plan.”

~ ~ ~

It was night again, and the scare the previous evening didn’t seem to have dampened the enthusiasm the Paris elite had for the Opera. If anything, the stream of people was thicker, though the crosses and other anti-vampire accoutrements were even more prominent. Sebastian was thankful that James wasn’t out in the audience this time, or his vampire companion might have been having difficulty - even if there wasn’t much real faith behind the religious icons, surely the sheer number would be uncomfortable. A few minutes before, he had snuck out to the wings to peek at the audience, and from his vantage point, the young shape shifter had seen that every single seat was full, even the most expensive boxes filled to bulging. Except for Box Five, of course. It was just as dark and seemingly empty as the night before.

He drew in a breath and let it out, wincing. He couldn’t take a full breath, and he wasn’t used to the sensation. But no matter. He wouldn’t have to deal with it for very long.

Looking in the mirror critically, he made a few tiny adjustments, then turned to Christine hopefully. “How do I look?”

He had seen Christine the night before, barely recovered from a dead faint, but she was even more pale now than she had been then. Unlike Sebastian, she was dressed in a simple dress, her hair caught up in a clip and then falling in a waterfall of ringlets. It looked far more comfortable than Sebastian’s corset, voluminous skirts, and intricately styled hair. “You...It's just uncanny,” Christine whispered. “You look so exactly like me.”

“That’s the idea.” Sebastian grinned, but the look on her face made him sober. He turned back to the mirror and adjusted his breasts slightly, trying to get them to sit just so. He deepened his cleavage - perhaps it wasn’t totally accurate, but there was no harm in making himself look as fetching and tasty as possible under the circumstances.

“I...I think I’ll go back to Raoul now,” Christine said suddenly, in a tight voice. “Don't forget what I taught you. Open your mouth and support your air.”

“Be careful,” Sebastian called after her as she fled. “Don’t--” The slamming of Christine's dressing room door cut off what he was going to say. “--let anyone see you,” he finished lamely. That was the biggest weakness in their plan. If the O.G. realized there were two Christines and went after the real one, the plan wasn’t just a failure - Christine might actually be killed.

He sighed and leaned in towards the mirror to apply a bit more blush, just as a quick knock alerted him that it was time. He laid down the makeup brushes, gathered up his skirts, and took one last look at the woman in the mirror. He’d never revealed his abilities as a shape shifter to so many people before, and it petrified him even more than the prospect of getting up on stage and singing in front of thousands of people. But it was worth it if it saved Christine from the vampire. Assuming that the Opera Ghost was really a vampire, but either way, he was a murderer.

Swallowing hard, he blew himself a kiss, then headed for the door.

It’s show time.

~ ~ ~

James watched the opera for the second time in two nights, but this time he wasn’t falling asleep. For one thing, from this vantage point, he’d fall a very, very long way if he lost consciousness.

From the flies, the stage was laid out like a map, as was the mysterious dark spaces to either side and behind, where stagehands scuttled like ants, moving set pieces, changing backgrounds, and even helping some frantic chorus line members to change into their next costume for the next piece. With his excellent vision, James could see it all, but he wasn’t really paying close attention. His attention was on Box Five. He was sure that the ‘Ghost’ had been watching from there, even if he hadn’t seen him the night before. The managers had told James that he always insisted on the box being kept empty for every show, yet no one could see him arrive to watch the show, or leave.

James was just hoping that when the Ghost showed himself, James could get from where he was to the box before he could react. With his vampiric reflexes, there was a chance he could make it in two jumps. If the Ghost was as good as James, it might be two jumps too long, but even if he couldn't trap him in the box itself, he could surely see where the Ghost had gone and follow his trail.

Hopefully.

Unfortunately, he didn't dare hide any closer. If the Ghost caught a whiff of a trap, he likely wouldn’t show himself at all.

James settled down a little on the narrow catwalk high above the stage, holding one of his pistols over his knee, and listened to Sebastian sing. He was virtually untrained, of course, but his voice was sweet, especially with Christine’s voice box. He’d said he was an altar boy when he was younger, and James could believe it--

--and that was not something he was going to think about too much until sometime later. Preferably when he and Sebastian were alone.

~ ~ ~

Where was the Ghost?

Sebastian was beginning to reach the end of his repertoire - his memory was good, but he hadn’t had time, even with all of Christine's coaching - to learn the entire opera note-perfect in one night and day. He had hoped that the second phase of his plan wouldn’t be necessary, because it would alert the entire audience that something was wrong, and probably end the opera early for the second night in a row, but if he reached the end of the first Act without hearing anything, he was going to have to put it into effect, and literally call the Ghost out - challenge him from stage.

It was this second part of his plan that had necessitated him pretending to be Christine in the first place. That, and Christine wasn’t sure she could bring herself to perform again knowing that the Ghost was out there, watching her. She was a sweet girl, but not brave, and she found nothing romantic in a vampire who whispered to her from the walls and told her he wanted to take her away from her rich fiancé so they could “make beautiful music together”.

Creep.

Sebastian finished the last notes of this stanza, and turned as an actor approached. The man was wearing a mask under a huge floppy hat, and looked ridiculous, but Sebastian swooned into his arms. The man was supposed to be an evil tyrant who desired Sebastian, but Sebastian was supposed to believe he was his lover - or something. There was singing. It was in Italian and Sebastian could only parrot the words.

They danced together, and Sebastian felt the surprising strength of the man with his arm tight around his narrow waist.

“You do look perfect," said the man, tugging Sebastian close. “But I knew you for a fake from the beginning.”

That wasn’t in the song.

“What--” Sebastian began, and the man in the mask began to laugh, throwing his head back, screaming towards the rafters.

“Did you think that you could fool me? Me? The Opera Ghost, himself? I own you. I own you all! And this girl’s music is clumsy compared to my sweet Christine. You have killed her, all of you killed her, do you understand, with your defiance!”

Sebastian struggled, but the dress hampered his movements. He reached for his wrist with one hand, trying to get at his bracelets, but before he could activate the special bracelet James had given him, before James could react to try to save him, a trap door opened in the floor beneath them, and he and the Ghost plummeted into the depths of the opera house.

~ ~ ~

James was so busy scanning the audience, he didn’t notice the altercation happening beneath him until the laughter began. He glanced down from the catwalk, looking almost directly down at the top of Sebastian’s head. The man holding him was now saying things that sent a chill down James’ spine.

He cursed softly. How had he allowed his enemy to get so close to Sebastian without noticing it? He’d been so preoccupied watching Box Five that he’d allowed the Ghost to completely outmanoeuvre him. Had he known their plan, all along?

Was he, perhaps, one of the managers, or Raoul? If he were a well-known member of the staff, or patron, it would be easy to move about without really being noticed - without being identified as the Ghost. And one of the might have much to gain from the notoriety the Opera house had achieved. Not to mention the pots of cash the Ghost was forcing them to hand over to prevent any more ‘mishaps’.

Hadn’t the managers said that they hadn’t wanted Vatican to be called in?

But he didn’t really have time to follow these thoughts to their full conclusion. He shifted into a kneeling position, cocking his pistol and aiming downwards, but hesitated. Sebastian was struggling, but the two were too close. If he fired and missed, Sebastian would be injured, and while he wouldn’t be hurt by the silver in his bullets, the bullet itself would make a nasty hole in the young shape shifter.

But he had to do something. He had to get Sebastian away from that monster.

Then suddenly the two disappeared, and James saw a square hole, yawning below him. There was nothing but darkness past the trap door, and he reacted without thinking, leaping into the air and hugging himself, just praying that he’d clear the hole instead of landing badly. There was nothing worse for a dramatic chase, than catching one’s ankle on the rim of a hole and falling flat on your face.

He needn’t have worried. Not about that, anyway.

The trap door swung shut before he landed, and he landed hard, not expecting his fall to be cut short. Though his legs absorbed the shock without shattering into a million pieces, his knees and ankles screamed at him and he stumbled, cursing up a storm. He could hear screams, but this time the audience wasn’t fleeing - they sat riveted, possibly wondering if this were part of the show, and excited to see what came next.

James couldn't care less. He was going after Sebastian. But the trap door had other ideas.

There was no catch on this side, the door almost completely invisible once closed, except for a thin seam all the way around. James went to his knees and slammed at the door with his fist, and with the butt of his gun, but while the tough bands of varnished oak cracked slightly, Sebastian was getting further and further away with every wasted second, and it was obvious it was going to take more than a few of those to get through the blasted door.

“Monsieur Grim!”

He leaped to his feet, whirling as Richard and Montcharmin came rushing out towards him, Raoul and Christine close behind. The audience sighed and began to chatter excitedly. Even in his distraction, James could pick out people exclaiming in relief, how they had known the girl would be all right, and how had she changed so fast, and what was going on, they couldn’t understand this story at all!

“How do I get beneath the stage?” James demanded in a growl.

“You...You can’t be intending to go after them--”

Tell me how!”

Richard pointed towards stage left. “Ah, there’s a staircase there, but--”

James didn’t wait. He ran, thankful for his preternatural speed. The door was easy to find, though somewhat disguised by some errant props and a piece of the set for the next scene. He wrenched the door open and threw himself down into the darkness.

At the bottom of the stairs, he found himself in a strange maze of lifts and columns. Here were the mechanisms that lifted platforms above the stage or lowered them below, some of them capable of revolving. The mechanisms had smooth hydraulics, which stood out even in the blackness compared to the dark wood of the support columns. There was a lot of dust, as well, dust mice - and real mice - chasing each other before his feet. But there wasn’t a soul around.

He reached the place where Sebastian and his captor had disappeared, and looked down. There, beneath his feet, was another hatchway, also closed.

This one had a hatch, though, and he opened the door to find a black hole. Cold, moist air stirred his hair, issuing from that dark chasm. Without hesitation, he leaped down.

He fell a long way, longer than he had expected. The air was chill on his skin, and misty.

Finally he landed, this time bending his knees to absorb the impact. The ground was slippery under his feet, and water lapped at his toes. For a moment he glanced around, thankful for his vampiric senses which allowed him to see in almost total darkness. He stood at the edge of an underground lake, in what had to be a vast network of caves located deep beneath the city. The trap door he’d come through was a small square high above, but as he looked around he could see steps chiseled into the rock, leading up to a retractable catwalk high above. Sebastian hadn’t fallen so far, then, but the Ghost had removed the only way a human could have followed them.

He inhaled deeply, but couldn't smell blood. He could smell Sebastian, though, and he turned his head towards the other side of the lake, where some torches twinkled. There he could see a hole, where the water drained into an underground river, leading away. They had to have a boat.

James would have to swim.

Shit.

He shrugged out of his coat, left his guns behind - they'd be useless wet - and waded into the water.

When he found the Ghost, that asshole was going to pay for making him get his boots wet.

~ ~ ~

Sebastian came to on a bed, his skirts a froth about his legs and his ribs aching from the corset. It might look pretty to lie there all in a faint, breasts heaving, etc., but it sure wasn’t nearly as comfortable as it looked.

He suppressed a groan and pushed himself up, trying to sort out what had happened. He remembered falling, held tight in the Ghost’s arms, but then he had smelled something sickly sweet, contained in a handkerchief the Ghost held up over his nose and mouth. He had tried to hold his breath, but then they landed jarringly, and he gasped in a deep breath, and then it got fuzzy. After that, there were impressions of being carried, of rocking nauseatingly, and the sounds of splashes, but nothing more - incoherent, disjointed scents and images.

Someone was playing an organ. Loudly.

He glanced around, gathering his skirts and trying to decide if he dared actually try to get to his feet. He was a little worried he'd fall flat on his face if he tried.

The bed was in a corner of a vast cave. Dark water lapped against the shore not far away, but iron grates had been erected between Sebastian and the water. Beyond the fencing was a canoe, which answered the question of how the Ghost had gotten him here. He wondered how far from the opera house he was, and how far below ground. Who knew there were natural caves like this beneath Paris?

In the middle of the room was a pipe organ. There were candelabra set up all around, and other things, all beautiful works of art, but as Sebastian looked again, he realized they were set pieces. It wasn't gold, but gold paint. Not gems, but coloured glass. These were bits and flotsam from the stage, nothing more.

And the collector was there, right in the middle of the sparkle like a raven in his nest. He was even dressed in evening wear, rather than the gaudy costume he was wearing on stage. The floppy hat was gone, and straight black hair cascaded down his back, waving back and forth in short jerks as he played, putting his whole body into the music. He was singing, as well, his voice baritone and startlingly clear.

Sebastian drew in a breath and then gently eased himself to his feet, holding his breath at the little rustlings of his skirt and the squeaking of the bedsprings. Vampires had such keen senses, but that organ music filled the cave and reverberated, an assault on his ears. Surely the Ghost hadn’t heard anything over that cacophony. And if he could just get to the gate, to the boat without being detected, maybe he could even get away without the vampire being the wiser.

He hadn't gone two steps before the piece died away. “You’ve awakened.” The man turned on his stool to face Sebastian.

He was still wearing the mask. It was a death’s head, covering nearly the man’s entire face, though his lower jaw was visible, along with two gleaming eyes, deep in their sockets.

Sebastian smiled awkwardly, though he felt as if his whole body was vibrating from the force with which his heart was beating. “Yeah, I have. And you’re going to let me go.”

The Ghost rose to his feet. His movements were graceful, economical things, like a dancer. “And why should I do that? You look like my Christine, yet your voice is a shambles. No support. No range. How did they think they could fool me with you?”

Sebastian flushed. He had a lot of possible answers to that, but he doubted that any of them would get him out of this situation any faster. He sat on the edge of the bed again, folding his hands in his lap and trying not to look terribly threatening.

James would be coming after him, right? He just had to wait. Any minute, his closest friend would come bursting through that gate and put a stake through the vampire’s heart, and they could all go home happy.

A moment later, he gave himself a mental shake. He wasn’t a blushing damsel in distress, no matter how much he might have worked to look like one tonight! He was supposed to be learning to be a vampire hunter, right?

This was a vampire, right in front of him. Maybe he should hunt it.

He touched one of his bracelets with one hand. The problem with that proposition was that he had no weapons. The bracelets, which could turn into a charm bracelet bristling with crosses, was only good for keeping a vampire at bay. It couldn’t really do much damage, and certainly couldn’t kill. And while he did have a stake on him, it was going to take a lot of manoeuvring to get to it.

The attempt might shock the vampire, but probably not long enough for him to get at the damned thing.

He’d just have to think of something.

He smiled impishly at the vampire, who was standing before him, mouth curved down in an unhappy frown. “Stupid idea, right? I can mimic her face, but not her training.”

“Obviously,” the Ghost said haughtily. He leaned close, catching Sebastian by the chin and tilting his head up towards him. Sebastian suffered the inspection, meeting the vampire’s eyes through the eyeholes of his mask, though his heart beat furiously as he felt his throat open up. “Though I do wonder how it's possible that you look so much like her. Even from this close, I can’t see a difference.”

Sebastian swallowed. “I’ll tell you how I did it, if you tell me something in return, sir.”

Surprise gleamed in the Ghost’s eyes and he let Sebastian go, drawing away a few steps, then settling onto a chaise longe. Again, Sebastian felt as if he were acting with every motion, the movements studied and precise and...fake. “Very well,” he said. “Ask.”

“What are you trying to accomplish?” Sebastian asked simply.

The vampire’s eyes widened, as if no one had ever asked him a question like that, before.

~ ~ ~

The water was cold, which meant little to James Grim. Though he liked his warm fires and warm...other things, he wasn’t affected by cold that would have leached the life from a living body. He slogged forward - well, grimly - as the water grew deeper, reaching his chest, and then his neck and then he was forced to swim. Swimming wasn’t his strong suit, particularly with clothing and boots weighing him down, and after a while he was forced to shuck the latter, letting the strong-soled leather boots drift down to the bottom where they would undoubtedly make good homes for some lucky fish.

He cursed the Ghost as he splashed through the water, making less forward progress than he'd like, despite the energetic flailing of his limbs. But slow or not, he was making progress, and when he reached the end of his journey, he swore that if the Ghost was alive when he reached him, he’d soon wish he wasn’t.

Those kinds of thoughts distracted him from the deep whisper in the back of his head, which said that it wasn’t the Ghost that was likely to be dead when he got there, but Sebastian. The kid was keen, and learning fast, but he wasn’t exactly good at avoiding being a vampire’s meal. After all, look how he and James tended to spend their nights.

So he swam on single-mindedly, hoping with each turn that he’d reach the shore and could work off some of the violent frustration that built with every metre he swam.

And then he reached it.

Not the shore. Of course.

James paused in the water, and the oath he swore echoed off the walls. In front of him, the cave forked, the river flowing down two branches. He floated, and listened, straining his hearing, but all he could hear was the gurgle of water, the splash of fish, and the chatter of bats. Somewhere, far far distant, he could hear organ music, but no matter how he listened, it echoed and reverberated so confusingly that he couldn’t tell which tunnel it was coming from.

He couldn’t tell which way was the right way.

“Sebastian,” he murmured. “Fuck, kid. Where’s he taken you?”

There was nothing he could do but pick a direction and hope it was the right one. Choosing the left, he swam on as quickly as he could, but his hopes that Sebastian was going to be alive - even if he were at the end of this tunnel - seemed more fantastic with every minute that ticked by.

~ ~ ~

The vampire sat forward, licking his lips briefly - not in anticipation or hunger, but almost a nervous gesture. “You want to know... what I want?”

Sebastian hesitated, then rose and moved forward diffidently, taking a seat at the end of the chaise longe. The Ghost grew tense, fingers twitching as Sebastian moved, but as he made no aggressive gesture, he seemed to relax. For a frightening creature of the night, he seemed very... uncomfortable with Sebastian’s presence, and the boy wondered why.

“I want to know, yeah,” Sebastian said. “Why shouldn’t I?”

“You don't think I'm a monster?” the Ghost snapped accusingly, leaning forward towards Sebastian, who had to restrain a flinch. It was wrong to say that he wasn’t afraid of vampires simply because he travelled with one. They terrified him, after being kept in a nest of them for a week, and eventually almost turned. Only the fact that he was a shape shifter had allowed him to survive the virus without turning into one of the undead.

Sebastian drew in a breath. “Let’s just say that I'm reserving judgement on that, sir. It all depends on what you tell me. I know you’ve killed one - a priest, no less - but I'm willing to listen.”

The Ghost hesitated, then drew back, scowling. “All I want is for the Paris Opera to be great. To have the best singers, and the best dancers, and to be a credit to this fallen, failing world. I want it to be a shining beacon, a place where one can go to forget about their pain and sorrow for a while. There are so few good entertainments left.”

Sebastian watched him as he made this speech. With the mask covering most of his features, it was difficult to read his face, but listening to his voice, Sebastian felt as if he was telling the truth. Or at least, believed what he was saying. He thought about the towns he’d seen, choked by poverty, and the landscapes pockmarked by bomb blasts from a war that had happened long before he was born, and he felt his heart squeeze.

Maybe... the Ghost was telling the truth. And even if he wasn’t, what would Sebastian lose by acting as if he were, at least for now?

He shifted a little closer, turning his body to face the Ghost. “That sounds pretty good to me. You know, there is a lot of sadness in the world, and maybe an opera really is needed. I watched the show last night, and it really was breathtaking.”

The Ghost shifted a little, as if embarrassed. “It was an inferior performance, particularly because it was interrupted. When I have everything ordered the way I want, and my own play is being performed, then you’ll really see something to steal your breath away.”

“Right, yeah,” Sebastian said, a tinge of sarcasm in his voice. “That little interruption.”

“It was not necessary,” the vampire hissed suddenly, surging forward a little. “I had no choice! If they had only listened--”

Sebastian moved almost on automatic, but it wasn’t to attack. He lifted his hands and pressed them to the vampire's shoulders, squeezing. “Listened? Listened to what?”

The vampire froze at the touch, his upper lip lifting to bare fang, but Sebastian held on, even as his neck began to crawl. There was still something off about this man, a strange sort of shivery tension, as if he were a bird poised to take flight. Sebastian felt more fear coming off the vampire than danger, though his neck was exposed and vulnerable.

“You say you didn’t want to kill that priest,” Sebastian said gently. “So talk to me. Please.”

The Ghost licked his lips again. “He came into my box while I was watching the show. My private box. I had warned them, and that Vatican hunter came anyway. He would have killed me if I hadn’t defended myself.”

Doubtful, Sebastian thought ruefully, thinking of Joseph. He doubted the man had really killed any vampires, before. That was supposed to be James’ job. But he couldn’t really blame the vampire for not knowing that.

Still, he wasn't about to absolve him so quickly.

Before he could say anything further, though, the Ghost gripped him hard by the elbow. Sebastian drew back, startled and frightened, but the vampire’s arm was immovable, and kept him close. “And now, girl, I promised to answer a question in exchange for you telling me how you mimicked Christine, but you haven’t offered to fulfil your side of the bargain.”

Fuck. Sebastian hadn’t meant to wriggle out of the deal. He’d just been asking questions as they occurred to him, but at the same time, on some level he’d been hoping that the vampire would forget. His heart began to beat faster and he felt his cheeks growing hot. He didn’t know how the vampire would react to finding out about his secret. Suddenly he was acutely aware that he was very alone, somewhat helpless, and that his blood was pretty attractive to vampires. At least the Ghost didn’t know that last part. Yet.

He swallowed, but there was nothing in his mouth. His throat made a dry clicking sound.

“It’s probably better if I show you, sir.” Though he knew it would be shocking to watch. An idea hit him and he put a hand on the Ghost’s, where it held his arm. “What’s your name, please?”

The vampire blinked and straightened slightly, his grip loosening. “My name?” he asked, as if he'd never been asked that question before. “My name is Erik.”

Gently, Sebastian pried at the fingers, and Erik reluctantly let go. “My name is Sebastian.”

“Sebastian?” Erik echoed, and his eyes dipped involuntarily, towards Sebastian’s neckline. Sebastian had to suppress a wry snort.

He stood, took a step back, and shifted.

The dress loosened at the bust and hips, and the hemline touched the floor and wrinkled as he grew shorter, but the waist felt tighter - not much, but tighter, he’d been gaining poundage steadily, putting on muscle, in his time with James - his hair shortened, retracting into his scalp in a familiar prickling motion, and in a million places things tightened and shifted and grew and shrunk. And then he was himself again.

Erik sat very still, goggling at him.

“I'm a shape shifter,” Sebastian said nervously. “I’m sorry.”

The vampire didn’t say anything for another few seconds, then he gestured to Sebastian. Obediently, but with a prickling sensation up the back of his neck, Sebastian moved forward in the sea of dress and sat once more, looking up at the masked vampire.

“I didn’t know there was such a thing as you,” Erik said, his eyes sharp and measuring as he watched the boy.

“Yeah,” Sebastian said, lips twisting. “That’s what I thought, until I found out I was one.”

Something seemed to come over Erik, and he leaned forward, eyes intent. Sebastian leaned back, heart in his throat. Now it would come.

“You didn’t come from a family of people like you?”

The question was unexpected, though the way Erik took his hands and held them fast in his long-fingered grip, wasn’t. “No, I...” Sebastian stammered. “I’ve never met another person like me.”

“That must have been a very lonely existence, then,” Erik said softly.

Sebastian felt a shock, like a lightning bolt, hit him. This vampire, living in a cave beneath an opera house. Smart vampires hid themselves away, lived alone or in small groups, of course, but this one made no secret of his existence, while at the same time living in the strangest sort of opulent squalor Sebastian had ever seen. His whole existence was apparently defined by the music he composed and the plays he watched being performed. He had bitten some of the chorus girls, but blood didn't seem to be important to him at all.

Why was he living like this? There was something weird here.

“Erik," he said, and drew a breath before plunging in. “Why do you wear a mask?”

Erik stiffened visibly, but after a few quick beats of Sebastian’s heart, he lowered his gaze. “You showed me, I suppose I must show you, too.”

Slowly, Erik lifted his hands and unhooked the mask, pulling it away from his face.

Once he had been handsome, as handsome as James, perhaps, though Sebastian was biased in that area. But now his face was covered in open sores and small tumours, running from his forehead, across the bridge of his nose and spotting both cheeks.

Sebastian gasped, but it wasn’t out of disgust. This was the second time he'd seen a vampire with a disease, and it was just as shocking this time as the first. Vampires weren’t supposed to get sick, or even scar from injuries. Some of Erik’s skin looked melted.

Erik’s expression darkened at Sebastian’s reaction, but the boy quickly reached out, grabbing his free hand and closing his fingers around it. His hand was so hard and cold, like holding a bunch of twigs. “What happened, Erik?”

“I don’t know why,” Erik murmured. He had startling brown eyes, dark in his pale face, but so expressive. Now they were filled with pain. “I think I'm dying. I tried everything I could think of, even dousing the sores in holy water, but they just keep spreading.”

Well, that explained the way his skin had bubbled and run like hot wax.

“How long do you have?” Sebastian asked, and Erik clutched at his hand with both hands, like he was drowning, and Sebastian’s sympathy was the only thing that could save him.

“I don’t know. But all... All I wanted was to hear my play sung by a truly great voice. Christine is that voice, and my play is complete." He looked away. “Probably it sounds mad, but it’s all I have.”

“No,” Sebastian said urgently. He freed a hand and cupped Erik’s cheek, not caring about what he felt under his palm. Erik looked at him, startled. “No, it doesn't sound mad.”

~ ~ ~

Dripping, grouchy, with his heart in his throat, James pulled himself out of the water onto the rocky shore. Now he had the scent of his prey - his lover - in his nose and it was intertwined with the smell of a vampire, sharp and spiced. The mixture drove him to snarling, and it was a matter of an instant to rip the gate from the fencing, tossing it aside with a roar.

Beyond, Sebastian sat on a chaise lounge, the vampire's arms around him.

The sight propelled James forward. He had no weapon but his rage, but that was enough.

What had the monster done? Was Sebastian all right? James couldn't smell blood, but in his anger he didn’t realize that surely by now Sebastian should have been bitten. He’d been down here, alone with the vampire, for hours.

“Get away from him!” James snarled, but the vampire only clutched Sebastian closer to his chest, lips parting to bare fangs. The two vampires hissed possessively at one another, eyes flaring with rage and challenge, with Sebastian held helplessly between them.

“Wait, James!” Sebastian cried, pushing against the strong arms that held him, but the Opera Ghost held him firmly. “Wait, both of you. For fuck's sake. Stop.”

Suddenly there was a scream, and Sebastian leaped towards James while the Ghost jerked away. For a moment, James saw the cross around Sebastian’s neck, flaring bright with a painful light, and then the boy tucked it back into his décolletage, and the pain vanished. An instant later, Sebastian threw himself into James’ arms, tripping on his skirts and falling against him, arms going around James and uncaring of his sopping wet clothing.

The words penetrated the red haze around James’ brain, just barely, but the hug brought him back to himself. As he held Sebastian close, he closed his mouth around his fangs, feeling a slight pang, as if he'd been caught with his hand down his pants. “Sebastian?” he questioned, low and careful.

More details penetrated. Sebastian was back in his normal form, though still swimming in voluminous skirts, and the vampire was no longer wearing his mask, so James could see the disfigurement on his face. He could also see fear, there. The vampire had held Sebastian close more as if he were a shield, not a meal, and now he cowered on the chaise, hands up to cover his face. A new scar stood out luridly on the back of one hand, a burn in the shape of a cross.

James half-expected Sebastian’s face to be a mask of terror as he looked up at him, but the boy looked more put out than anything. “Vampires,” he huffed. “You both need your ears boxed. You just react!”

“What?” James asked, flabbergasted.

“You burned me!” the Ghost exclaimed, scrabbling for his mask and tucking it over his face.

To James’ dismay, Sebastian pulled out of his arms and turned to face the Ghost. “You wouldn’t let go, and I didn’t want you to wind up getting killed, Erik.”

“What?” James asked again, incredulous.

Sebastian sighed. “Erik, this is James Grim. He was hired by the Vatican to kill you, and James, this is Erik, the Opera Ghost.”

Erik’s eyes narrowed behind the mask at the introduction. “Is that so?”

“What the hell is going on here, Sebastian?” James exploded, curling his fingers into fists.

“Hush,” Sebastian admonished him, waving a finger under James’ nose. “Erik has been writing a play, and he wants it performed before he dies. That's all he ever wanted - and it was Father Joseph who attacked him first. He didn’t intend to hurt anyone.”

Seriously? James drew himself up, feeling his expression set into a forbidding mask as the two vampires stared at one another. “What about the girls he bit?”

“Tell me that you never bit anyone, Monsieur Grim,” Erik replied challengingly.

“He certainly has,” Sebastian said.

“Who’s side are you on?” James demanded, rounding on Sebastian angrily. He was completely discombobulated. How had things turned around such that he was the bad guy? Wasn’t he on a hunt?

“Both of yours,” Sebastian said, folding his arms. “I think that killing Erik is a bad idea, and I don’t think that we should do it. He's not a bad vampire. He’s like you.”

James seriously doubted that, but he took a moment to breathe. There was too much emotion, and he had allowed himself to get caught up in the hunt and the fear for Sebastian’s safety. Now he wasn’t thinking straight.

When he’d collected himself, he looked from Sebastian to Erik, and prepared one final salvo. “What about the money you extort from the managers?”

To his surprise, Erik bared his teeth with a snarl. “That snake Montcharmin. I never wrote those letters. He's extorting money for himself, using my name to do it! I’ve warned them, but they are ruining the opera house with their greed and stupidity. What need have I for money?” He gestured grandly about himself. “I have everything I need. Luxury, and my music.”

“Oh yeah, wonderful digs you’ve got, Erik,” James said sarcastically. But he was getting the picture now, and it stank worse than a dead fish.

“The Managers played up the danger of having a vampire in the catacombs, spread rumours about him, to attract bigger audiences,” Sebastian said softly. “And meanwhile Montcharmin went to another level, making it seem like Erik was blackmailing the opera house, but the money that was supposedly going to him, went into his pocket. Even Richard didn't know. But it all unraveled when Raoul went behind their backs to contact the Vatican. Father Joseph surprised Erik in Box Five, but Erik defended himself, and used his body as a warning to keep the Vatican away. He didn’t know about us, though.”

“Amazing.” James really didn’t know what else to say.

No wait. He did. “But what the hell are we going to do about this, now?”

Sebastian swallowed visibly and turned to Erik. The vampire was pale and he licked his lips uncomfortably as their gazes fell on him, but as Sebastian spoke, his eyes widened with shock and pleasure. “I think we need to make sure your play goes on.”

~ ~ ~

Christine’s chest swelled visibly as the last notes of the play swelled and filled the entire theatre. She really was a good singer, her notes reaching the furthest corners of the room, and filled with such emotion that Sebastian felt his own chest tighten with grief, or his heart soar with joy, as if the music tugged and pulled at his body with invisible strings.

Box Five really was the best seat in the house, with a perfect angle to capture every nuance without obstruction from set pieces or dancers. And of course, no one else was sitting in the box with them. On his right sat James, his expression almost wooden, but his fingers tapping on the arm of his seat in rhythm with the music. And on his left, Erik sat, tears streaming unchecked down his ravaged face.

Montcharmin had been sacked, of course, his crimes obvious once Erik had led James and Sebastian to the place where he had kept the gold that had supposedly been given to the Opera Ghost.

After that, because Christine had already been practicing the play under Erik’s tutelage, it was a matter of a few days to pull together a performance, and the play Erik had written down in his cave finally saw light, and was played to a packed house.

All three of them rose to their feet to applaud as the players came to take their bows, and finally the curtains dropped and the lamps were relit, flooding the theatre with light.

Erik turned to Sebastian, a smile stretching his gaunt features as he reached and took Sebastian’s hand, holding it tight in both of his. “Thank you.”

Sebastian smiled up at that tear-streaked face, aware of James hovering protectively behind him, but he wasn’t concerned. “I'm glad I could help. And I’m sorry, for everything.”

“What are you going to do, now?” James asked quietly, laying a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder.

Erik glanced over the stage, an expression of peace on his face. “I was going to ask you to stay,” he said. “You’ve lived in isolation, as I have, little shape shifter.”

Sebastian tensed slightly at the words. “I can’t--” he began, but Erik shook his head.

“No, you love another," he said, turning a knowing glance on James. “I know I couldn’t persuade you to stay and watch over a dying old man like me.”

Sebastian felt James’ fingers tighten on his shoulder and could imagine the stricken look on his face. The ‘L-word’ wasn’t one they’d spoken, yet, and Sebastian’s own face grew hot with embarrassment. “Well, yeah.” He swallowed. “But I don't want to leave you alone, Erik.”

“Have no fear,” Erik assured him, drawing his hands out of Sebastian’s grip and bending. A moment later, he had retrieved his mask, and he covered his face in a graceful gesture. “I think I’ll go for a walk, and enjoy the air. I haven’t walked Paris in half a century. It’ll do me good.”

Sebastian felt a lump rise in his throat, but it was James who asked the question. “How long a walk, Erik?”

Erik smiled grimly. “Until dawn should do it, I think.”

He bowed to them. “Adieu, Sebastian. It was a pleasure to meet you.” Then he turned to leave, disappearing through the curtains as he headed towards the door.

Sebastian sniffed back tears, and James put his arms around him from behind. For a moment, he leaned into that protective embrace, luxuriated in the warmth of him. Then he drew away and turned to his lover. “I need-- Can I?”

James rolled his eyes, and gave him a gentle push. “You don’t have to ask me. You’ll be back?”

“Of course,” Sebastian snapped.

A quick kiss and a squeeze, and then Sebastian raced after Erik.

He caught up to him at the door, where Erik had all but blended into the crowd streaming out towards the streets. Only his height and the mask covering his face made him stand out amongst the other men in their evening dress, but Sebastian didn’t have much trouble finding him. He fought his way through the crush, and caught Erik’s hand as the vampire turned to walk down the street.

Erik checked his step and looked down at him in surprise. “Sebastian?”

“You won’t be alone,” Sebastian said, squeezing his fingers. “Until dawn. I'm with you.”

Erik smiled. “Thank you, dear boy.”

And together they walked through Paris until the sun came up.