A/N: Over a year without updating again. For that, you can blame the fact that my brain, er, fell apart, and as a consequence I was completely unable to write anything. My apologies, anyway, for the delay. This is the first 'official' thing I've posted since 'recovering', and I hope that's recompense enough for the time lost. Also, welcome to any new readers who might have fallen across the story.
This is quite possibly the most important chapter of the entire thing, and the one you've all been waiting for. As a result, it's almost entirely E/C-based (well, Raoul's got a lake to swim across…) with very little to interrupt the flow. It also starts off the section of the story that was the original inspiration – the Crawford/Streisand version of Music of the Night. That doesn't come until Chapter Fourteen, however.
For now, enjoy the angst. And the fluff. But mostly angst.
Raoul considered himself a strong swimmer, but the coldness of the dark lake was proving difficult to conquer. He was beginning to have trouble catching his breath, the water seeming to chill him even more the further he went. Of course, the irony of the situation was not lost on him; after running into another lake so many years ago to retrieve Christine's scarf, it was quite befitting he should be retrieving the woman herself in the same manner.
The thought of his destination was enough to rebuild his strength and determination. He moved quickly, slicing through the water. Years ago, he remembered, there had been lamps along the catacomb walls to light the way. Erik had seen to that, of course, in order to illuminate the path to his home. Now they had mostly burnt out, forgotten during the electrification process of the building, and the cavernous chambers were dark. His visibility was poor, but he knew that the lake covered several chambers – the exact number, though, he was unsure of – and that eventually, if he continued forwards, he would reach his destination.
Once more, he quickened his pace, this time changing his strokes. Then, suddenly, he was choking, gasping for breath, flailing. He had not adapted his breathing in time to keep up with his new-found burst of speed, and had swallowed water.
His head went under and he panicked, treading water sloppily and splashing around like a madman. He went under a second time, sinking further, and this time his manic flailing did nothing to help.
"I will be back with Christine… or not at all…" he remembered saying. The second alternative was starting to become a reality, unless he could do something to save himself. Nobody would hear him; the building was deserted. Water entered his nose and he tried to cough, only filling his mouth instead. Think, man. Think!
He opened his eyes; after the initial sting, he tried to focus. There was nothing but inky blackness in every direction. Finally, he forced his limbs to cooperate and allowed himself to sink further a few more inches, straight downwards, before giving two powerful kicks upwards.
He broke the surface of the water, spitting, and gasped for oxygen. The crisp air of the catacombs was relatively warm compared to the lake, providing a welcome relief for his chilled skin. He stayed put for a moment, regaining his bearings and his breath. The light of the previous shore was still behind him, glowing distantly, and ahead, the lake stretched onwards.
With new-found determination, Raoul set off once more, steadily and carefully. Bravado and heroic over-enthusiasm would help nobody if he managed to drown himself in the process. He kept Christine's image in his mind, driving himself forwards.
Her patience had worn thin. If Erik would not make a decision, she would make it for him.
He flinched away from her only briefly, as she reached to remove the mask. It was an automatic reaction, and she had been expecting nothing less. Erik could remember only her first reaction so many years ago, her horror and fear; her present calmness was unnerving.
Christine held out the mask to him; he took it with trembling fingers, glad of the chance to look away, if only briefly. She did not speak, merely gazed levelly back at him.
Erik did not look up for some time, instead staring steadfastly at the mask, clutched tightly in his hand. Christine watched his expression, what she could see of it: his furrowed brow and pursed lips. She had taken the first step; the rest was up to him.
After a moment's consideration, Erik turned. He stepped away from her only briefly, placing the mask carefully onto a nearby table, before returning to stand in front of her. Slowly, he met her gaze. She had maintained her calm and level expression, and was utterly unreadable.
Christine bit her bottom lip, thoughtfully.
When she reached up to touch the scarred flesh, Erik resisted the natural urge to move away from her searching, warm fingertips, though it took every ounce of his self-control. For years, his naked face had brought nothing upon him but violence and hatred; he was no longer sure how much of the scarring had been there since his birth, and how much was the result of such violence. Even with Christine, it was difficult to think of anything else.
She paused a moment, giving him time. Thinking back to that first encounter, she recalled how utterly terrified she had been; looking upon him now, she wondered why. Certainly, his angry, explosive reaction had surprised her, and it was her first experience of his fiery temper. But there was really nothing so horrendous about his face; it was exactly as she'd remembered, in fleeting memory and lingering dreams.
Christine felt great pity rise in her, but not, as it once had been, because of his unfortunate existence. Now older, she understood the need to be alone and locked away from the world; it was far preferable to her current life of forced socialising. No, her pity was for all that Erik might have experienced, if it hadn't been for the ignorance of others. She wished there were enough time to show him what tenderness was. Christine knew it would take months – perhaps even years – to undo all of the damage of his early life. She had mere minutes left in which to make him understand that not all physical contact would result in pain.
Overwhelmed by sensation and emotion, Christine was only vaguely aware of her own actions. She let her hand drop again, and leaned forwards, upwards, pressing her lips softly to his marred cheek. Erik's grip on her hand tightened, his entire body stiffening defensively with the natural urge to flee.
She placed her free hand over his heart, beating as erratically as her own, and leaned close to his ear. She would not be misunderstood a second time. She paused again, savouring the moment.
The silence extended, filling the room, punctuated only by the crackle of the fire and Erik's breathing at her ear, the steady, frantic percussion of his heartbeat. She closed her eyes, swallowing the lump in her throat to steady her voice, and whispered the words it had taken her fifteen years to say.
"I love you."
Erik's vice-like grip on her hand immediately relinquished, and her arm fell to her side once more. His rejection, she realised with a sinking heart, was now all too clear.
Christine began to pull away from him, fighting back tears, but a second later his arms were around her: tentative and cautious, as though she might break. She was unable to dam her emotions any longer; she gave a strangled choke of relief and wept freely, burying her face in the front of his shirt. Instinctively, his arms tightened to support her.
Her ragged cries subsided after a moment and he pushed her back slightly, raising her chin with one finger to meet her gaze.
"Do you mean it?"
A nod, and a sniff. Her eyes were red and glistening from tears, but her gaze never left his. "Yes, Erik. Yes. I mean it."
As her lips met his, she recalled just how easily she had found herself drowning, falling, toppling into darkness, before suddenly and irrevocably finding herself surrounded by a chorus of angels as her heart began to sing. She did love this man – this angel, this dangerous creature of night, this Phantom – more than anything in the world. More, even, than her own devoted husband, and the utter wrongness of the sentiment had vanished from her mind. To be in Erik's arms once more, supported by his deceptively strong embrace, was like returning home.
Just as before, however, Christine knew that nothing greater could come of her actions, no matter how desperately she wished it would solve everything. Unwillingly, she dragged herself back partway to reality, and began to break the kiss.
They parted, breathless. The pull of their combined passions was almost irresistible, more so even than during that fatal performance of Don Juan Triumphant. But she was no longer Aminta, he no longer the eponymous hero, and even through the delirium, they both knew that they could not act on it.
Christine took a step back; he released her without argument, uttering once more that single, desperate plea:
It was so tempting to give in, to stay with him. But Erik's early warning alarm could mean only one thing – Raoul had come to find her. She needed some idea of how much time they had left, entirely unwilling to leave before it was strictly necessary.
Suddenly, something in her brain clicked into place. "Is there still a boat?" she asked.
Erik seemed surprised, perhaps assuming she was eager to go. "A what?"
"A boat," she repeated, a little impatiently. "Is there still a boat on the other side of the lake?"
"Oh. No," he clarified, "I made sure of that almost immediately after my return. It is very difficult to cross the water these days. Not impossible, alas, but certainly not easy."
So, it seemed they had some time to spend before her inevitable departure. Christine knew she would have to leave before Raoul's arrival, to meet him outside the house and pretend she had never managed to gain access – pretend, even, that the house no longer existed at all. If Fortune was on her side, Raoul might never suspect a thing; temporary insanity, perhaps, but nothing more.
After a moment's thought and a glance at the piano, she instantly knew of a way they could be together in the short time they had left. There was a medium through which they could communicate everything, without the need for words or awkwardness, just as there had always been.
"Play for me," she said. "Sit at the piano and play; whatever your heart tells you. Will you?"
He moved towards the instrument, positioning himself on the stool and placing his previously-worked music to one side. "Only," he said, "if my dear Prima Donna will sing with me."
"Oh, Erik…" she sighed. "I would love nothing more."
She moved to his side, watching. Erik closed his eyes, looking thoughtful. He poised his hands over the keys, moving them soundlessly in time with a symphony in his brain, before finally depressing the first chord.
A/N:Well, that's it, for now. I know it's only short, but it's hopefully sweet enough to make up for it. The beginning of the next chapter is written, and hopefully it won't take me too long to get it finished, as I'm now pretty much working from the song lyrics and the little notes I scrawled on them.
As ever, reviews are muchly appreciated. I am your most humble servant, and I can't apologise enough for not updating in so long. I honestly hope to rectify that situation as the months go on and my brain finds itself again. Watch, as they say, this space...