Erik has imagined this moment. It has played in his head countless times—different scenarios, ranging from as nondescript as a field of lavender in the south to as specific as in the blue light of the underground lake. But never like this, never something so perfectly domestic as a bedroom—he had never allowed himself to imagine something so without the flights of veritable fancy. A normal bedroom. Not what had been his own, with all its red silks, its coffin, its towering organ glaring down.

No. A perfectly normal bedroom, warm and lit gently with the diffuse firelight that casts hazy shadows at her feet. It is at those feet, bare and dainty, toes curling in the plush carpet, that the last of her walls have fallen away into puddles of linen, silk, lace.

Neither linen, silk, nor lace compare to the evenness, the softness, the delicacy of her skin. He has seen the whitest cotton in Egypt, felt it woven into diaphanous swaths of fabric fine enough for yards of it to be pulled through a woman's wedding band. None of it compares to the pale perfection that he loses himself in now, that he watches rise and fall with her deep, steady breaths. Like fields of lilies illuminated by the orange sunset's glow. He watches as it trembles, disturbed as if by a breeze into a prickling of goosebumps.

He follows those goosebumps along the planes of her body, losing track of their path almost immediately as he lingers on curves and swells, dips and valleys. He makes a mental note of every tiny scar, every freckle and dimple, storing the knowledge of their existence away for safekeeping. How perfect, these tiny flaws, how sublime for the reality of them—she is real, standing before him. Not a divine being, unable to be touched. No, she is made all the better for knowing that she can be felt by human hands.

He has never much associated with the title of humanity, but for now he adopts it, absorbs it into himself, if only for the moment's selfish sake.

He takes small, reticent steps toward her, shrinking back like a guilty hound when powder-blue irises lift to his own from where they had been turned nervously to the floor. There is a timid smile in them, beckoning him closer, but he is trapped by them. They are so pure. How is he meant to go to them with no shame? No, he was wrong, she is divine, an angel with eyes the very shade of the heavens above. He could not possibly allow himself any closer.


His heart crumbles into glowing embers at the heavenly voice that wisps from her pale throat. Saying his name. She is standing like this before him and saying his name, tipping her head in her effort to will him to her. She wants him to close the distance. How could he deny her? His worthiness of her or no, she has allowed herself to be vulnerable, it would be selfish to force her further.

He takes a step, then another, hands flexing and relaxing in a bid to release the nervous energy that crackles under his skin.

It dissipates into smoke the second he stands just inches from her, the second the slender fingers of one hand twine with his. His eyes close, his jaw tight. He can feel her aura of light, sense her heartbeat in his ears, her pulse against his wrist.

"Erik, you're trembling…"

He is. He is positively quaking, heart racing so rapidly that it may as well be vibrating beneath his ribcage. He thinks it may fly out of his chest when another hand presses over it through his shirt. It is positively searing, a purifying fire that threatens to reduce him to nothing but white ash.

All the more when that hand travels upward, slowly, fingers splayed until they reach that space between collar and mask. A single fingertip traces the hard line of his jaw. Not ash nor embers, he thinks, but liquid as his traitor body melts into the touch, head turning into it with a shuddering breath. He thinks he hears her murmur his name again.

And now his hand is on her side—did she place it there? Did he? He doesn't know, only knows that he can't breathe anymore, only knows that tears are stinging his eyes and nothing exists except that cotton skin beneath his skeleton's fingers. They form a claw, stiff and screaming to grip, to be greedy and pulling and demanding, to quell that ages'-long hunger for contact and warmth and her. But when she presses forward, now flush against his chest, that caught breath seeps out of him in a near-hiss and his hand flattens, almost limp on the curve of her hip.

"Christine…" he finally manages to eke out. His voice sounds foreign to his ears, cracking like sap in a bonfire. A feathery hum rewards him, quietly inquisitive, but he doesn't answer the unspoken question. Instead, with a paradoxical tangle of terror and thrilling boldness, he untwines his fingers from hers to trace them up the arch of her spine. He is given another reward in the form of a shiver and a hitched breath. He shudders as it travels into his chest, weaves between his ribs to squeeze him tight.

A choked sob tears from him when lips, dry and yielding, ghost along his jaw. The hand at her back lifts further to cradle the back of her head, threading through the loose curls of flaxen silk that tumble there. Another hum, content, and she nuzzles against his pulse. He silently begs her to feel it, to understand the level to which she undoes him with her presence. He would proclaim it aloud if he could, would sink to his knees and thunder it to the sky, but every breath and syllable is relegated to another hoarse rasp of her name.

She hushes him, finger pressing to his lips before tracing the line of them, and they part under the attention. Another kiss, this one beneath his ear, another tremble wracking his body. She whispers something in Swedish, something he just barely recognizes as being something she has said to him before. He knows what it means, but he can hardly focus on the words.

"Touch me?"

The murmured entreaty seems redundant when both of his hands are on her, but he knows what she means, and it terrifies him. He is safe, with hands anchored in their respective places. Her hip and her hair, chaste in the grand scheme of things, even with a palm against bare skin. But she wants more—that is the point of this, isn't it? To touch her? To—heaven help him, heaven help her—be touched?

His hesitance is his downfall as she takes the hand that rests on her hip, guiding it up the dip of her waist, then down again. His frigid stiffness thaws with every inch gained—she is the human embodiment of a heartbeat, delivering life to the unworthy. He wants more of her, wants to map her. When she presses closer, holding his hand to her before trailing her own up his wool-clad forearm, he allows himself to humour the thought that she might truly want him to do just that.

He is careful, oh so careful, drawing gossamer lines onto her back with featherlight fingertips. If the callouses are uncomfortable, she makes no such indication, sighing against his neck as she nestles there. He is still shaking, and he knows that she can feel it because she cups the side of his neck, brushing her thumb in reassuring semicircles up to his jaw and down again.


He is unable to stop the whimper at the question—he had not planned this far ahead—and he freezes up, gears of his mind grinding to a halt. Bed. She is asking him to bed. It ought to be simple. It is a scant two steps away. Light-cocoa bedclothes await them, invitingly plush, pillows fluffed, the very picture of how a marital bed ought to look. But the edge of it seems so very much like the precipice of a yawning pit, opening to a glittering, unknowable darkness below. His breath comes quicker, eyes closing tighter.

Another hush, and his eyes snap open. He realizes that he has crushed her to his chest, locking her in a vicelike embrace, fingers burrowing tight in her hair. He hurries to loosen his grip, but she compensates by wrapping her arms around his midsection, pressing herself all the closer.

"I'm here."

Another whimper, but now he melts into her again, resting his head on hers as she rubs his back through his coat. Up and down, up and down, rhythmic and soothing, and his heartrate begins to slow, his breaths matching hers even as tears collect underneath his mask. He can smell, now, the oils from her earlier bath still lingering on her skin. Something floral that he can't quite make out—lavender?

Whatever it is, it grounds him, and he takes a greedy lungful of it, cursing his mask for keeping him from properly nuzzling into her hair. He goes on to curse his coat, his waistcoat, his shirt and every other scrap of fabric that separates his gelid skin from hers.

She seems to sense his thoughts because she pulls back away from him to look him in the eye. Pleading blue, placid and clear, stares into him. There is tender need in the depths of those eyes, for understanding, for trust, for something he can't quite recognize.

"I'm here."

The words are barely there, wind through the leaves, and his heart thrums slower. His eyes half-shutter, absorbing her for a while longer before her hands slide along his sides, up his chest. Fingers hook under the edge of his mask, and his eyes close fully, body tensing, arms folding her closer to him.

He takes an unsteady step toward the bed just as his mask is pulled away.