Disclaimer: I do not own The Phantom of the Opera, characters, places, etc. All rights belong to Gaston Leroux and their respected owners.

The Mask's Lament.

Chapter Eighteen.

Winter had finally descended upon the palace of the Romanovs, leaving it and its surrounding borders bathed in a blanket of fresh white snow. The trees, along with the world without, carried the dusky white expanse, leaving only small patches of darkness underneath its pristine veneer. It was, if anything, no less than beautiful, and greatly reminded Christine of her childhood, in the faraway lands of her beloved Sweden. For unlike the snows in Paris, this Russian winter storm made her relive those tumultuous winters after her mother's death, where she and her father, with no home and very little money to go on, survived in what way they could, since they had little else but each other.

Times had been very difficult then, Christine instantly recalled as she stared through the panes of an ornate gallery window. Times had indeed been difficult, and yet they had been the simplest and most endearing moments of her life. Her father had been with her, after all, almost contented in their nomadic existence, telling her stories, encouraging her voice and imagination.

In essence, they were nought but a pair of homeless wanderers surviving on what little they earned from their musical talents. They no longer had to worry over the rent, were no longer tied to anything but to God and each other. Those moments of uncertainty had been almost liberating for Christine. For it was in those moments that she had actually felt free.

A few, heavy flakes fell against the window then, and Christine watched them with vague interest, her mind still lingering on the past. She considered what her beloved mama was doing at home. Was she still bedridden, or had her health improved? Christine had no way of knowing, of course. Though all the same, she could not help but wonder. She even wondered whether anyone took care to visit her ailing surrogate mother. Surely Raoul would, just as he would tend to her father's grave in Perros. It was nearly Christmas, after all, and Christine, as Raoul knew, always decorated her father's grave with flowers for the occasion. Surely he would do so for her in her absence.

Her head inclined sharply at the thought, memories of the venerable Daaé flooding his child's mind. Christine's thoughtful expression faltered as she considered the beautiful, barren landscape without, thoughts of her father, lying cold and dead in his pauper's grave thousands of miles away, without anyone to visit him plaguing her mind. For where was his little Christine, but half a world away, and in the care of one considered a murderer?

Oh, Papa, thought Christine, a little forlornly. If only you could see your Christine now, living in a grand palace, with the Angel of Music at her side. How proud would you be of your little Christine, who can barely summon forth the strength to speak to one who is not an angel but a man who masquerades himself as her husband? How would you see your little Christine then, Papa, when she can scarcely face herself in the mirror? she quietly demanded of her dead father, though received no answer in return. She hadn't expected one. Her father was with the angels; and she, lost and alone in her silent musings, was with her fellow man.

A crash suddenly distracted her from her thoughts as the scurrying of feet and hushed whispers of servants echoed down the corridor. Christine faintly smiled at the commotion, since it was little surprise over the reason for the uproar.

Preparations for the tsarina's celebration for the upcoming Russian Season were well underway, and Christine marvelled at the splendour the palace exalted, as if by overnight, attained, the beauty and luxury of it enhanced by an array of newly installed crystal chandeliers and hothouse flowers, garlands and exotic decorations. All day, she had passed by servants who busied themselves with the task in hand, the mundane actions they exerted reminding her that most of the tsar's household were as familiar with these celebrations as they were with those whom they served. It was almost second nature to them, as singing was to Christine.

She almost smiled at the comparison, although it was a sad smile. In the many months of straining her voice, she still hadn't found the courage to try singing again. What good would it do, anyhow? her mind suddenly interjected as she descended down the corridor. My voice is much too damaged, just as Erik said it would be.

The thought of Erik and his lack of interest in her voice—a thing he had once prized and claimed his greatest triumph—made her still in her movements. He had been so cold to her, so distant of late. She failed to understand why, even though she, time and again, long desired to know of his sudden disinterest in her. He'd barely spoken to her in the past week that she was beginning to believe that he was shutting her out of his life entirely. She shook her head. It could not have been the incident with the young Nicholas, even though she now understood what had happened between the two.

Nicholas had been an enthusiastic raconteur, when he recounted his lesson with Monsieur de Maricourt to everyone at dinner that evening. Marie had been overly impressed by the whole affair, commending Erik on his skill with a sword. And yet, Christine recalled quietly, Alexander himself had remained unnervingly silent throughout the entire exchange. A pensive, almost sceptical expression had marred that hard, royal countenance as he sat in silence and regarded Erik with something akin to uncertainty. Christine had not understood the tsar's behaviour that evening. Nor did she understand it now. She'd only known that Erik had refrained from killing the boy when he could have done so…so easily.

He had even gained an admirer in Nicholas, who now, on occasion, prodded Erik into teaching him the art of the sword when his mother's back was turned. Erik had successfully managed to dissuade the young tsarevich, offering to teach him the use of throwing his voice instead. It was a safer practice, certainly, and Christine could not fault Erik for his tact, as both knew very well what might happen, should something untoward—even accidental—happen to the one next in line for the Russian throne.

Christine inwardly shuddered at the thought, already aware of the dangers royal intrigue posed for her and Erik; she had already countenanced one danger, in particular. She looked down, a sigh of displeasure escaping her. Erik still had not forgiven her for her chance meeting with Count Drazlovsky, and she had not pressed him for that much-desired absolution. For the count, though handsome beyond measure, was a terrifying man to behold. He frightened her in ways she could not understand, as the terror she once had of Erik was but a fraction of the fear she presently felt, when in the young nobleman's company. Even Erik's face is nothing, compared to the revulsion I feel when I am around a man who is considered the pinnacle of beauty. She paused in mid-step, her eyes shutting against the two men presently invading her mind.

Both were as different as night and day, the Count Drazlovsky personifying the latter, with his golden head and perfect, smiling face. Whereas Erik, middle-aged and riddled with the cares and troubles of the world, ruled the night, a realm of eternal darkness, that obscured what many believed a hideous creature which deserved to be hidden away, forgotten, and left to its pathetic diversions. It was the same condemnation that she would have once, gladly granted, had she not known the truth of what lay beyond a shattered mask. Raoul had even condemned Erik, and perhaps rightly so, she recalled, but Christine felt herself drawn to the nightmare shadows that had once frightened her. For in her childish fears, she had found something that the light of day could never attain, no matter the freedom and splendour it represented her.

She loved Erik; she could deny herself of that truth no longer. For too long, she'd given herself over to uncertainty by turns, the constant sense of the unknown always retracting that which she felt, from the first moment she had heard his voice. And she knew, that if she were to give in to that most sacrosanct emotion, then she would lose herself forever, for Erik would not let her go—not when he realised her heart belonged to him. He would possess it until the ending of the world; where even in death, Christine knew, Erik would strive to keep that which he believed his.

Christine hesitated at the thought, knowing it a grim reality. She'd never told Raoul of it, certainly; she hadn't told Raoul many things regarding her strange relationship with Erik. She certainly hadn't told him everything that had transpired during the two-week interval of her stay at Erik's house. Little good would come of that frank confession, since she would not only inspire Raoul to challenge an omnipotent ghost, but it would have been a betrayal to Erik, as well. For if she had told Raoul of the nights spent, where Erik, grovelling near her bedside, took simple pleasure in watching her sleep, then Raoul would certainly seek assistance of every noble head in the country, to punish Erik on the grounds of moral indecency.

The former prima donna shook her head. Raoul could still be the boy who had rescued her scarf at times. It a sweet endearment, surely; and Christine was heartened by it, but she had to confess, if only to herself, that Raoul was nothing like Erik. She hated comparing them, since Erik acted like a child—perhaps even more than Raoul—but the two were so incomparably different, that she could not help but to compare them. She had even done so on a number of occasions, usually in the privacy of her dressing room. She'd spent many long hours, simply sitting in front of the mirror, half-wondering if Erik was behind it, watching her. She sometimes felt his presence, sensing those yellow eyes upon her, watching her every motion. Of course, he never watched her when she dressed; Erik was not so as crude as that, but nevertheless he did watch her—perhaps more than was considered normal.

But Erik is not normal—far from it, Christine thought dejectedly, and turned a corner as she went down another part of the gallery. She barely registered its poorly-lit expanse, for so caught up in her musings that only the hushed whispers at the end of the corridor broke her out of her dark reverie. She paused in mid-step, straining to hear the matter, but heard only the shuffled sound of footsteps. She paled when she saw her unseen company approach, and frantically hid herself behind a tapestry on the other wall. She prayed that they would not see her shoes, and instantly regretted her height, since the tapestry shifted with her every breath.

Erik would find her meagre attempt in hiding completely ridiculous, but Christine was not as adept in concealing herself in the shadows as he, even though her dark-blue gown aided her greatly. She despaired when she heard them draw close, and held her breath when their footsteps stopped, their hushed conversation continuing in thick Russian undertones.

"Graf, you must know that we have to end this. I don't believe I can continue hiding the truth, since someone will surely find out. I almost revealed as much to my mistress," a soft voice broke through the silence.

Christine's eyes widened in recognition of that voice, her mind barely registering the desperation in that sweet tone she'd heard so many times speak in French. It was almost a pity that she could not understand the matter of the conversation, and she forced herself to remain silent as she heard Graf Descanov speak.

"I care not if anyone finds out," Graf returned roughly, wholly unaware of his silent audience. "Think you my very own father cared when he took my mother away from a foreign court? Mina, my family is not one afraid of a scandal, or what others may think or believe. My mother was not even a duchess when my father married her."

Mina closed her eyes, though she had no need to, since she could barely see in the darkness. "Nevertheless," she quietly contested, "your mother was still of noble blood, whereas I am not. I may have been educated, Graf, but I am not so foolish as to believe that people will accept a commoner as a duke's wife."

Graf frowned darkly. "And now you regret my ever laying eyes upon you, is that it? I almost suspect that you've spoken to my bastard of a half-brother," he muttered coldly.

"I've only seen your brother," Mina replied diffidently. "I've never spoken to him, Graf."

He made a face. "You would do well to stay away from him, as would your mistress."

Mina's eyes widened at the suggestion. "What do you mean? Has he spoken with Christine? Is she in any danger of him?"

Graf's grim visage hardened. "Bastien is one who enjoys a difficult conquest, be it over land, title, or something...of a more delicate nature. I daresay your mistress' husband is already aware my half-brother's interest; he is certainly not a fool, since he's already dispatched one of the tsar's potential assassins, God be praised. I doubt even your mistress knows."

"And how do you know of it?" demanded Mina with a frown. "Surely, the tsar would never reveal such—not so soon after his father's death. He has barely been tsar for a year."

"I saw the body being carted away down one of the palace's old tunnels," Graf said simply. "I do not believe he's even told the tsarina, as I doubt he will tell his closest advisors. An attempted assassination is not something to be taken lightly, Mina; though it matters not, since I've little doubt that he shall continue to keep Monsieur de Maricourt in close confidence." He looked at her, that serious expression returning to the crux of their argument. "Nevertheless, Bastien and Monsieur de Maricourt and his wife are of no concern to me at the moment. You are, as I've no intention in losing you, Mina. I've loved you, from almost the moment I saw you carry in that tea tray."

Mina laughed, in spite of her tears. "You drank at least seven cups. As I recall, you claimed to the dowager empress that you were 'thoroughly parched.'"

Graf returned her smile. "Which I specifically had you quench," he returned shrewdly, and he wiped away the remainder of her tears. "You do realise that my continued visits to the palace were only to see you, to simply catch a glimpse of your smile. You were always smiling."

Mina's green eyes softened. "I thought you had business with the tsar. I never once considered—you never told me that."

He shrugged indifferently. "You would have believed me completely mad, had you known my interest then. And besides, I did have business with the tsar, although I could have done well enough through a messenger. I did not have to see him every time, Mina."

"Apparently not," she returned, a thoughtful look overcoming her previous discontent. "But what are we to do, Graf? Where do we go from here?"

"Well, of course we shall…" He paused in his answer, taking in the uncertainty he saw on that gentle face. "We shall continue on as before," he said. "Until the Season is over, rather. And then, when everyone retires to their estates, I shall come for you, and make my intent known to my parents and the tsar. The wedding shall be arranged however you wish."

He received a look of disbelief. "You would be contented with a peasant's wedding?" she questioned doubtfully. "I do not believe the aristocracy would approve, let alone your family."

A flash of something akin to irritation glinted in the nobleman's grey eyes. "Darling, I care not whether they approve or disapprove," said he. "In truth, I wholly welcome the idea of such simplicity. A prince's wedding is a most tedious affair, and the nobility can be very overbearing—in any occasion. They're quite suffocating, actually," he mused, before pulling her close, and whispering, "We could even leave the country, just you and I. I've an estate in Prussia that has long been neglected in my time here. But we shall not think of that now; we have until the end of the Season to consider what we shall do."

They continued to speak quietly, unaware of anyone else. They never gave the tapestry a second glance as they kissed, before going their separate ways, to where their stations in life directed them.

Christine allowed herself to finally breathe when she heard their footsteps in the distance. She tried to collect her thoughts; for even though she barely understood the conversation, she knew enough to know that her maid and Graf Descanov were secretly seeing one another. She frowned at the realisation. Of course. It made sense now, considering how Mina had stumbled over her words once; she had almost revealed her lover's name. And if their affair were ever revealed…Christine dreaded to imagine what would befall Mina. She barely registered how she would proceed in speaking with the girl—since she refused to reveal what she knew—before she sensed another's presence.

She hadn't even heard any footsteps; only the faint glimpse of two yellow stars revealed to her that she was not alone. Christine smiled; and, without a second thought, withdrew from her hiding place and grasped the passing dark entity from behind.

"Erik!" she exclaimed when she felt him tense, knowing well enough that he might mistake her for some, faceless attacker. She felt his stillness immediately, though the tension in his body remained.

Erik slowly turned to face her, a visible scowl in those yellow eyes. "What is the meaning of this, Christine?" he demanded in a harsh whisper. "Sneaking up on a fellow like that? Are you deliberately trying to startle me?"

Christine nearly laughed at his discomfiture, but had the good sense to suppress it. She had finally surprised him, as he had done so many times to her before. "I meant no offence," she said, most sincerely. "I merely wanted to surprise you, Erik."

He frowned at that. "Erik doesn't surprises, as you well remember," he responded gruffly, expecting her to express a show of guilt, but received a smile instead. He was equally surprised when placed a comforting hand on one of his arms.

Christine's eyes brightened in spite of the darkness. "I know you don't like surprises, and I am sorry for it," she tenderly expressed. "But then, you have always surprised me in such a way. Do you remember the first time you came out of the shadows and took my hand? I was startled beyond words."

"Erik is better at hiding himself in the shadows than Christine," he said simply, and he regarded her quietly. "And yes, I remember. You fainted and I carried you to the well."

Christine's smile widened, wholly ignoring his referring to himself in the third person. "You were very considerate then," she returned softly, her grasp on his arm tightening significantly. "You were always one to consider my feelings, Erik. You never once complained of them, even when I wanted to visit my father's grave. I never properly thanked you for accompanying me that night to Perros." Her face fell when she saw him turn way. "Erik…" she ventured, the spoken tenderness in his name drifting into the darkness surrounding them.

"What were you doing, hiding yourself away behind a tapestry?" he asked, purposely disregarding her kind attempt to mention one of their happier moments together. "It is not a very good hiding place, you realise; you are rather tall after all, my dear."

"I heard someone coming—before you, that is, not that I actually heard you, of course—down the corridor," she answered quietly. "I had no wish to make my presence known to them."

"Them?" Erik reiterated, turning a suspicious eye on her. "Who are they, Christine?" he firmly demanded of her.

She hesitated. "A pair of lovers," she finally answered; the answer close enough to the truth. "It was nothing more than that, I assure you."

But Erik was not satisfied, and Christine inwardly sighed when he further interrogated her. "Then why were you watching them? Why watch something in which you've seen countless times among those ballet rats? I recall La Sorelli being quite free with her charms, particularly to the gentry."

"I had little choice but to watch them, since I simply could not leave without them seeing me," returned a very flustered Christine. She could scarcely believe that Erik would go so far as to even allude to Philippe de Chagny, given how he despised the late comte's brother. "There was little else I could do."

"You were spying on them." He said it as if was the most natural thing in the world. "You are far too curious for your own good at times."

Christine blanched at the implication, but sustained herself. "In essence, perhaps I was, yes, although I understood very little of it, since they spoke in Russian." She shook her head, clearly addled. "It was not as if I wanted to listen to them—quite the contrary, since I had no business overhearing their conversation. I believe a conversation between lovers should be made private from any who would hear them," she said, unable to see Erik's scowling expression from behind the mask. She cried out when she felt one of his icy hands remove her hand from his arm. "Erik, in God's name, what is it? What have I said now?" she demanded of him, refusing to play the wounded ingénue for him. She almost smiled when she caught of a hint of disbelief in those yellow eyes. "I've offended you. I should like to know why."

Erik said nothing for a long, quiet moment, his silence pervading the awkward stillness between them. Christine almost believed she had rendered him speechless, since she rarely made a stand against him—she dared not consider what happened that night under the opera—as she so often feared his wrath. And yet, all too soon did her triumph end in defeat as Erik responded in a way she knew all too well.

His yellow eyes gleamed with a hellish, golden light, the cracked mask emphasising their dangerous allure. "Christine should do well to take care of her curiosity, since she has much offended with it," he posed evenly, although there was a hint of unbridled rage in his tone. "She should return to her room and prepare herself for the tsarina's party, since she wishes to please those who love and admire her."

Sensing the danger in remaining close proximity to Erik, Christine took a methodical step away from him. "Erik," she began, obviously at a loss. "Throughout everything that has happened between us, I never meant to hurt you. I never wanted any of this to happen. I never wanted…" She hesitated, unable to continue as she stared into those condemning yellow eyes and realised that she was losing a battle that had been waged, long before she ever stepped one foot outside of the opera.

It was a battle she would continuously lose, no matter her attempt to revive the love which he had once so freely given her. It was too late for that, and yet she smiled for his sake, though it was a hollow smile. "I shall return to my room and prepare myself," she said mechanically, "since I do wish to please those who both love and admire me. I should hate to offend anyone else with my presence."

She turned on her heel and left him in the shadows which engulfed him, a small part of her hoping that he would follow her into the light, yet knowing that he would not. Erik was much too proud, much too stubborn, to admit any fault on his behalf. She would have to accept the blame for him, and she did, though it grieved her.

She cast her foolish hopes aside, and her blue eyes flickered with firm resolution as she returned to the cloistered sanctuary of her private chambers. She would dress for the party, though it would not be for Marie's sake, or for any of the Russian nobility. She would dress because she desired it. She would dress for herself, to make Erik see and understand that she was not a doll to be made for another's pleasure, not even for his.

She was half-surprised to see Mina waiting for her, those small rough hands holding a lovely white gown for the evening's festivities. Christine regarded her maid silently, noticing nothing but the kind innocence Mina always expressed when in her company. She almost laughed at the façade, since she, too, wore a mask of her own.

"Mina," she said as she sat at the vanity table, catching the girl's eye. "I thank you for going to the trouble in preparing my gown, but tonight I believe I shall wear another gown. Will you kindly find me one in red?"

The white gown which Mina devotedly held fell to the floor at the suggestion.

Author's Notes: I want to first apologise for taking so godawful long in updating. I realise that it has been well over a year since my last update, and I am truly sorry for that. I've unfortunately been busy with schoolwork, and the inspiration for this story has only returned to me of late. Nevertheless, I do plan to finish it, since there are only a handful of chapters left. Erik and Christine's story deserves to be finished, and I'm not going to abandon them, nor anyone who is reading this story for that matter.

I also apologise for the incredibly short length of this chapter. I had intended for it be longer, but I felt that this was the perfect place to end this chapter. Consider it a prelude to a very explosive night at the Gatchina Palace, since a lot is going to happen in the following chapter.

One thing has been revealed already, however. In an earlier chapter, Mina almost slips and tells Christine of a person who is very close to her. That person is Graf. It's an unexpected twist, certainly, but one, I trust, is credible. I like Graf, honestly, and I find that he's damned lucky to have a girl like Mina.

Oh, and lest I forget, it also appears that Christine has finally developed a bit of a backbone. It's about time, honestly. I was actually getting rather tired of her continually putting up with Erik's crap. She really should have stood up to him long before this, but Christine is…well…Christine. She has a tendency to take her time in making a decision, for some, inexplicable reason. O.0;

Anyway, I hope that everyone enjoyed the chapter. I have more written, so I should not take as long to update. I plan not to, anyway.

I also wish to thank everyone who has read and reviewed. Truly, your thoughts, comments, and encouragement have compelled me to continue where I thought that I would leave this story unfinished. It is to all of you that I plan to finally finish this story. Thank you again! :)

Until Chapter Nineteen!

Kittie