What do You Ask of Me?
My Dearest Reader;
I got a review bemoaning my lack of love for Crime and Punishment… sorry, Dostoevski doesn't speak to me and quite honestly I spent most of the book praying it would end. Not my cup of tea.
But here's a little something that is.
Your Humble Servant,
"There's news of a new acquisition." Came a soft voice. Christine looked up, surprised, nearly dropping the plate she was offering into the Skinless Man's cage. He hadn't spoken to her since their talk a week before, had ignored her every time she'd come over and only reacted to anything she'd said with a wriggle of his fingers.
"Is there?" Christine queried just as quietly as he, glancing over her shoulder to check Cimber's position. He was staring into space, twiddling a stick between his fingers. He was no longer worried about her interactions with the caged creatures, not after a week with no incident. "Why are you telling me?"
"She's a... 'mermaid,'" The man explained – Christine had yet to convince him to tell her his name. "Well, she has the body of a mermaid but no gills. They're trying to make her breathe underwater. She's hurt."
"What do you want me to do about it?" She inquired.
"Help her." He hissed, eyes narrowing for an instant before he rolled them with an expression of annoyance. "That's what you said you wanted to do, right?"
"Oh!" Christine squeaked. "Right. Where?" He pointed and she pushed the plate into his hands before whirling and darting off. She heard a sound of protest from behind her, followed by heavy footfalls as Cimber gave chase. "I'm not running away!" She tossed over her shoulder, seeing a large tent up ahead and assuming it was something in there.
She was right.
She slid inside the tent, hearing Cimber's footfalls slow, knowing he knew she wouldn't duck inside a tent if she were trying to run away. The sound of splashing distracted her from the chaser. She turned to face a huge tank full of water in the middle of the tent. The girl inside, a pretty thing with long brown hair that was a mess of curls, looked absolutely terrified. She was swimming back and forth furiously, water sloshing, clearly desperate for the square slab of glass atop her circular tank to be removed.
Christine stepped forward instantly and braced her shoulder under the slab, heaving as hard as she could. The girl began to whirl around in even more of a frenzy, the splashing sound increasing as she bashed her hands against the glass side of the tank as if trying to help or encourage. "I'm trying, stop that!" She snapped, very disturbed by the blood already misting in the water.
A pair of hands appeared around her, bracing against the glass lid as well and helping her push. With the pair of them it was much easier and the lid slid a little at first, and then all at once, hitting the ground with a resounding crash as a corner of it shattered off. Christine turned and gazed up at Cimber, astonished as she saw him frown at the tank, "She couldn't breathe." He commented softly.
"Yes," Christine agreed softly, "The Skinless Man told me. She's hurt. Come here, sweetheart." She reached out, coaxing the brunette closer, "I'm on your side. Let me see your hands." The girl seemed willing to respond, eyes wide as she held her hands out, leaning over the side of the tank. Christine took her hands and examined them. They were the source of the concerning blood, several splits down the backs, palms, and knuckles. They looked terribly painful, reddened. Christine wondered how long she'd had maybe an inch or two of air to breathe. "You'll be okay." She soothed.
"Who are you?" The finned girl whispered.
"Christine," The land-bound brunette smiled at her, letting go of her hands and looking around for something soft to lay over the edge of the tank. Finding a blanket she tucked it over the edge and led the soaked girl to lean over it. "What's your name?"
"Shiin." She whispered, "Well...that's the only name I remember. I had another once." She looked miserable.
Christine took a step back, taking her in again. She wore the typical seashell bra of a mermaid, her tail was clearly scaled and finned, she had fins to match down the backs of her arms. Other than an obvious lack of any sort of gills, Christine could understand the mermaid mishap.
"Shiin." She whispered, "I'm going to find something to put in there for you to rest on, okay?"
"Okay." The girl laid her head down on her arms, closing pretty hazel eyes with a sound of exhaustion.
"I'm confused." Cimber murmured as he followed Christine. She left the tent, hunting for some sort of barrel or box to add to the tank.
"She can't breathe underwater? But she has all that...fish...stuff?" Cimber muttered.
"She's like...well, have you seen those betta fish?" Christine explained softly, "Those long-finned Siamese Fighting Fish, that have to be in their own tanks?"
"Oh, right, those are...well, certainly interesting. I've seen them here and there." Cimber agreed, helping her hoist a table that had been discarded in a corner, lying on its side.
"She's like one of them. She can't breathe underwater despite all of her fish-like attributes." Christine stumbled over a rock, cursing under her breath before continuing to hobble with the table, "She has to breathe air just like them. So we can't have them putting that lid on her again."
"Even if they did she'd have air – when we shoved it off a corner shattered. It's too expensive to replace." Cimber murmured, "I will, however, let Stephen know not to do that again."
Christine nodded as they entered the tent. After bashing the table against the ground to clear the dirt off of it, she and her guard hoisted it over the edge. Shiin helped them angle it to slide it in, keeping it against one of the far edges and sliding atop it. She sat with a long sigh, leaning against the blanketed wall with relief. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Christine reached out to pat the girl's curls, wondering if this was why people kept touching hers. They looked so soft and smooth... and they were so pretty. Maybe she'd be a bit more patient with strangers patting her head now.
"Just what's going on here?" Came a smooth voice that Christine was beginning to loathe, "Shattering my expensive glass lids and sticking my tables in water?"
Christine turned to eye Stephen, "You nearly killed your new acquisition."
"She doesn't breathe underwater you ingr--" Would the idiot persona she was cultivating know a term like ingrate? Or use it? "fool." She finished lamely, "She nearly drowned."
"Is that so?" Stephen's brows raised, "Well, I'm glad you were here to ... save my new exhibit." He purred, moving toward Christine who took a startled step back. He froze mid-step, seeming to realize the threat in his body language and removing it, moving back the step he'd claimed and bowing his head. "I'd have rathered you come to me, before something this extreme." His voice was a tad bit less sharp, although he was looking very pointedly at Cimber.
"She was panicked, and hurting herself." Cimber explained gently, dropping his gaze and ducking his head. A familiar gesture, Christine recognized it from some of the freshman dancers in the ballet – submission, fear of a more powerful dancer...or in this case, a more powerful spirit in general. Cimber was working for Stephen, doing the grunt work, while Stephen strolled around and intimidated people. Wonderful.
"And Cimber helped me and now she's all better and she won't die and I want to see Erik." Christine finished for him, voiced rushed, eyes narrow and brows knit.
"You what?" Stephen blinked, trying to sort through the jumble of syllables.
"I want Erik." Christine huffed, crossing her arms, "Please. I'm tired and I don't feel well and I want my husband."
Stephen slipped a golden watch from his pocket, checked it, and slipped it away again. "While it is dinnertime, it's still almost two hours until nightfall, my dear."
"I want Erik now!" She demanded peevishly, stamping her foot. She didn't know why she was suddenly so furious, or why she had the burning urge to be safely wrapped in Erik's arms. She only knew she was angry and frustrated and having mixed feelings about Cimber's loyalties. He'd probably be willing to switch sides for someone stronger than Stephen. He might even be willing to learn to stand on his own two feet if given an escape from Stephen's tyranny.
Stephen advanced on her and grabbed her shoulder, eyes narrow and a single brow quirked, "You keep up this attitude and I will not permit you to go to him at all this evening. Understand me?"
Christine flinched as he squeezed to make his point, a tiny sound escaping her as she found herself cowering, hunching down and crossing her arms over her stomach as his sudden closeness brought nausea burning the back of her throat. How strange, she was defending her stomach? She removed her hands and pressed her palms to his chest, trying to shove him away, "Stop, please." Her voice was shrill. She didn't feel so well... dizzy... she gave Stephen a courtesy gag before throwing up everything she'd eaten for dinner. To his great fortune... Stephen had Erik's reflexes and dodged it. Dammit.
"Cimber," Stephen muttered, "Our guest isn't feeling well. Tuck her into bed, I will alert her ...husband... to her current state." The way he said "husband" made Christine really, really want to deck him.
"No!" Christine demanded, "I don't want to go to bed, I want Er--" Okay, the need to stop mid-sentence and vomit was embarrassing, "I want Erik. Please." She tried to keep from ordering, but she was beginning to feel like a violin's E that was tightened to the limit. She'd snap any second. "I don't feel well and I want Erik."
"Did you eat something bad?" Cimber interjected softly, brows raised as he stepped forward and rested a hand on her back, "I thought you just had fruit for dinner...were you allergic at all?"
"No..." Christine breathed. "Please?" She gazed up at the younger of the two men, hoping he would side with her.
"I think she'd feel better with the Cadavre, Stephen. I'm sure she's only snappish because she doesn't feel well." He was interjecting on her behalf... Christine was surprised, relieved, confused, and frustrated. How could she help Erik kill Stephen, and not kill Cimber? He was obviously being bullied into what he was doing.
"No." Stephen snapped, reaching out and catching Christine's wrist, "Come with me."
What else could she do? She obeyed.
She'd expected him to take her back to her dark cage...instead he led her up another path, through a grove of trees, and into a very nice little house. "Come along," His voice was gentler as he tugged her inside, up a flight of stairs, and into the second room on the left. "Clean up." He pushed her inside and closed the door behind her. Christine found herself facing a bathtub, full of water that with a dipped pinky she identified as lukewarm. Filthy as she was... she'd take what she could get. So she slipped into the water and hurried to use the supplied shampoo and conditioner and soap...it was heavenly.
"I'll leave a change of clothes outside your door." Came a voice calling through the door.
"Thank you." Christine responded, voice flat as she finished rinsing her hair and slid from the bath, toweling herself off and cracking the door to drag the clothing in. It turned out to be a dress – pale pink, fairly thin and soft, a single-layered skirt and no corset. Tugging it over her head she smoothed her curls out of her face and stepped from the bathroom. Stephen was sitting in a chair down the hall and stood as she reappeared, catching her up by the wrist once more and – not listening to her attempts to convince him to let her go.
Despite her whining he dragged her into a room on the right, pushed her into the bed, and yanked a blanket over her prone form before she could get so frightened by the situation that she threw up again. He didn't seem to be trying to force himself on her...although he did crawl into the bed to sit beside her despite her sound of protest. "Sleep."
"I am not going to sleep in a bed with you!" Christine snapped, finally losing her temper. She was so, so, so tired of being pushed around and if he kept it up she was going to hurt him. "I am going to get up and I am going to go to Erik. I don't know what you expect from me but if it's anything involving you and I in the same bed together --"
"I expect for you to lay down and go to sleep before you get even more ill than you are." Stephen's voice was harsh and he shoved hard against her chest to force her back to the pillow. "Sleep. I am not going to ... force myself on you. But you've proven yourself to be a damn good presence among the creatures – they all adore you – and therefore I don't want you sick. You've been sleeping on a cold, damp ground and you need a warm, dry bed. So you're going to stay right here, and you're going to sleep. I will leave if that will comfort you."
"No." Christine snarled from where she lay, shoving against his hand, "I want--"
"This is not up for debate." Just like that he stood, and left the room, closing the door behind him. A lock clicked.
She sat for a long moment, staring, jaw working as she tried to argue with the man who had already made his decision and left. A lesser girl might have cried, or sulked, or gone to sleep.
Christine was tired of being that lesser girl.
She got to her feet and yanked the sheets from the bed, finally getting to test a little trick she'd read about years ago and always wanted to try. She tied the sheets together, tied one end around one of the posts on the bed – how convenient that he'd given her posts – opened the window and tossed the sheets. Then she crawled out after them, sliding down to the ground.
The triumph that flooded her as she hit the ground, having crawled down a sheet-rope, was great for a moment before it made her throw up – which was getting really, really old. Gazing up her rope for a second, trying to decide whether or not this was a good idea, she took off running.
Erik was pacing when she arrived, it had fallen dark outside and he was looking very stressed. Looking up as he saw her relief flooded his face, "What's wrong, Christine? Why are you late?"
"Stephen wasn't going to let me come. He wanted me to sleep in a bed in his house." Christine reached through the bars, having no key to get in, and Erik took her hands.
"He was going to force you to stay?"
"Yes." Christine whispered, "He wanted me to sleep in a bed, because I don't feel well."
"You don't feel well?" He pressed gently, "So he was going to keep you away from me?"
"I think he wanted me to ... recover under his care. So I would feel more charitable toward him." She bit her lower lip and tilted her head at him questioningly, waiting for approval of her theory.
"I agree." Erik murmured, nodding slowly as he stroked her hands, "It's up to you, Christine. Do you want to go back...or do you want us to...give the word?"
"Me?" Christine gasped, horrified by the very thought of it. She had to decide their fate? What if they got hurt? Killed?
Erik smiled and stroked her cheek, "Go back, Christine. Rest. Sleep in a bed tonight." He tugged her close and pressed her lips to his, closing his eyes. "Go." He stepped back and waved his hands, "Rest, get better. I won't put that decision on your shoulders, okay mon ami?"
"Right." Christine murmured and nodded, whirling to run back.
The climb back up sucked a lot more than the climb down, but she made it, even closed the window and untied the blankets, remaking the bed before exhaustion finally made her collapse to the mattress. Her stomach had finally stopped roiling... thank God.
"How are you feeling?" Christine was woken by the nauseatingly familiar voice of Stephen, groaning as she rolled onto her side.
"Nauseas." She mumbled, refusing to sit up just yet. Her stomach was screaming at her again...and her throat was burning...and she was all shaky. Ugh...and her mouth tasted all gross, too. "I want Erik. Please?"
"No." Stephen shook his head, "You look terrible, I don't want you wandering around in this state."
"I don't want to be here with you when I don't feel well."
"I still didn't give you a choice." He responded firmly, "If it will stop your complaining once I see you drink some tea and eat some soup and get some colour back, I will take you to the Cadavre and you may stay with him for the day. Is that fair?"
He was trying to pretend it was only about making her feel better.
Christine would take what she could get – it meant she got her way.
A cup of peppermint tea and a bowl of chicken and noodle soup later...and Christine was feeling unsettled but better. Stephen, however, was looking very uncomfortable...but he led her to Erik as promised and let her into his cage, closing the tent down for the day once he'd extracted a promise from Christine that she would return to his house that night.
Just like that they were alone again.
"You're still pale." Erik commented as he approached and drew Christine into the warm circle of his arms, his hand making soothing motions down her back. "Come, sit. Have you eaten?"
"I had some tea and soup." The brunette mumbled, "Made a new friend yesterday."
"Did you?" Erik inquired as he sat her down and tucked himself next to her, wrapping them both in his cloak.
"Uh-huh. The Skinless Man sent me to her. He said she was hurt and when I got there she was – she looks just like a mermaid but she breathes air--"
"Like those curious import fish from Thailand?" Erik suggested, "The ... fighting fish?"
"Exactly!" Christine practically glowed. Damned if they didn't have the perfect fit insofar as their mental workings. "And they'd tried to make her just swim underwater so I got there and Cimber and I pushed the lid off so she could breathe. Her name is Shiin, she's very pretty."
"Cimber? The man who trails you?"
Christine nodded, suddenly very earnest, "He's a good man, Erik. He's only here because Stephen is his big brother, and he is...well, not strong enough to fight him." Erik nodded and Christine continued tremulously, "I've been thinking."
"This place. What if...and this is just speculation... what if we remove Stephen from power, and put Cimber into his place. And work with him to change this place from the way it is into...something...better. Something closer to a sanctuary. Where people who would never really be happy being scorned on the streets by ignorant fools have the ability to come and be safe? Where they're protected? I mean they would have to still be...on display...since they'd have to have money... but they wouldn't be treated like animals – it could be more like, say, a job?"
Erik was nodding slowly, "You know, my dear, that's not a poor idea. Someplace where these people have the option to stay or go...where they can choose to be seen or spend the day out having fun in town...where they are not caged but are still given a safe haven of protection. You might be on to something. But would Cimber be up to something like that?"
"I think...if he were given control of something like this he would rise to the occasion. He's just never had the ability to really spread his wings, it seems. He appears to be an exceptionally bright and kind man; I would like to see what he can do... I don't want us to have to kill him." Christine smiled sadly, "I don't want to kill Stephen, either."
"He has to die. He would never hand this place over, Christine."
"I know." She sighed and turned to rest her head against his chest, rubbing her belly absently. She really wished her stomach would settle.
"Would you rather the baby be a boy, or a girl?"
He scattered Christine's wits so suddenly and so far that it took the poor girl just shy of a full minute to recover enough to stammer an inquiry as to what the hell he was talking about. "You're pregnant, Christine, I recognize the symptoms."
"But we-- we only --" Twice, so far...but she'd thought she couldn't get pregnant the first time? But she wouldn't be exhibiting symptoms this soon if the most recent time was the culprit. But how could she even be sure Erik was right?
Even as she doubted him, Christine knew he was right. He always seemed to have some sort of sixth sense about him, and she flat-out believed his words were true. Besides, something deep inside of her fluttered with the knowledge that he was, in fact, completely correct in his assumption. Woman's intuition... it had needed a little help to jump-start but now she was certain of the situation.
"I'm pregnant." She whispered, tasting the words, enchanted by them. With Erik's child!
Erik waited for the dawning realization to spread over her face before he nodded slowly, "Yes, ma cheri. The likelihood that the baby will share my...curse... is far greater than I would like to calculate."
"There's a likelihood that it won't, too." Christine responded instantly, arms circling protectively around her stomach, "You aren't going to do something to ... to..."
"Kill the baby?" Erik laughed without humour, "No, my darling, why would you suspect me such a terrible thing? I will not harm our child. Especially not now, not since you are clearly already its mother. Already more of a mother to this infant than mine was to me... If my mother had been aware of my deformity prior to my birth she would likely have never allowed me to live that long. As it is, I'm astonished she let me live beyond my birth."
"I'm grateful for it every day." Christine whispered, shifting to press her lips to his, eyes dancing, "A baby. I'm going to have your baby." So much was explained... the sickness, the constant hunger, the exhaustion... "How long have we been here, Erik?"
"One month? Two? I'm not keeping track." He responded gently, "We must leave before the baby is born."
"Of course." Christine muttered, "I'd rather leave as soon as possible so the baby doesn't have to grow here at all, in my tummy or outside of it."
"Of course." Erik responded instantly, running his fingers through her hair. His long piano-player's fingers...amazing, delicate extensions of his musical prowess. Everything about this man – voice, body, hands, all made for the perfect musician. If only his face had been made the same way.
"Do you suppose," Christine whispered, "You'd be half the man you are if your face were completely normal?"
"Pardon?" Erik stiffened, pulling back from her. He always got uncomfortable when she started talking about his face – she supposed asking if his face was a blessing wasn't exactly a topic he found palatable.
"Your face. If you had a normal pretty face, with that amazing voice and those musical hands...do you suppose you'd be as wonderful as you are now?"
"Or do you suppose I'd be a foolish... fop like that De Chagney character?" Erik supplied, seeming to honestly be mulling over her words, considering their merit and weighing their truth. "I suppose you're right." It sounded like it pained him to admit it, "If I were born with a pretty face I'd likely have grown up relying on it."
"I knew it!" Christine muttered, proud of herself, "So because you're imperfect...you're perfect. Your imperfections shaped who you are." She crawled to reclaim the small distance Erik had unwittingly put between them, sliding her arms around his waist and tucking her cheek against his. "I love you." She was surprised to feel something wet splash on her ear and pulled back from him, eyes widening as she glimpsed a glistening before Erik jerked his face away. "You're crying."
"I'm not." His petulant tone brought a giggle bubbling up and Christine had to work to keep it from breaking free.
"You are. Why are you crying?" She caught him up and turned his face back, pressing her palm to his wet cheek soothingly.
"You describe me as perfect." Erik chuckled, "Your kidnapper, your captor, your--"
"Husband whom I adore dearly. You ... ninny!" She pressed her lips to his as hard as she could, startling a sound that, had Erik been less manly, she may have described as a "squeak."
He whirled them as they kissed, resting her back to the bars and running one hand up the back of her neck to tangle his fingers in her hair. A gentle pressure, keeping her right where she was so he could kiss her senseless.
Christine sure didn't mind.
Once she'd been thoroughly disoriented Erik slid to his feet and smoothed his cloak, and then rubbed the back of one hand over his cheek. "We leave. Tonight – no, now." The dark-garbed man muttered, turning to the bars, considering them with that intelligent contemplative look he had just before he was going to do something impressive or frightening. Then he reached out, and bent one of the bars out to the side.
Glancing back at his little wife he held a hand out and coaxed her to him and out of the cage, "Find Cimber. Offer your idea. If it doesn't work..." Erik hesitated, and then muttered, "Coerce him here." Then he bent the bar back into place.
Amazed, Christine nodded timidly and hurried away from Erik's tent.
"What you're suggesting is utter madness!" Cimber snapped at the girl standing before him, pacing back and forth and wildly gesturing with no actual rhythm to the movements.
"I know." Christine admitted quietly, "But I feel … look, either you help or you die. Either way we are going to end this thing."
"And if I go to Stephen?" Cimber crossed his arms, narrowing his eyes.
"Would you?" Christine whispered, calling his bluff and stepping closer, her own eyes narrow.
Surprised by her sudden intensity Cimber froze, eying her face, realizing she was truly serious. "You really think I can run this place? You really think I could make this a safe haven for all of these…people?"
"Yes." Christine responded instantly, gazing up at him, "Yes, I truly do. I think you just need the chance to spread your wings. You seem like such an amazing person, Cimber, not a think like your brother. I want to believe we don't have to kill you."
"And if I don't agree you really will?"
"Erik is a little tired of the family-member-revenge subplots we seem to end up in constantly." Christine chuckled weakly and crossed her arms, "Make your choice."
"Give the word." Erik whispered. He rose from where he'd been sitting, watching Christine run from his tent toward the Skinless Man who moved faster than he'd ever seen someone move, vanishing from sight to the side of his cage not visible through the opening in his tent.
Christine returned a moment later, "He says they're on board with the idea. In fact he said something like hell yes."
"Fantastic." A few cracks later and Erik was through the bars, "This will not be a… dramatic moment, Christine, quite honestly I want you to go sit with the others and wait for me. I will take care of Stephen."
"Like hell I will." Christine slid her arm through his, "I have to make sure Stephen doesn't cheat. And if he does I need to be there to help you kill him."
"I don't remember this being a debate." Christine interrupted sweetly, eying him defiantly. So defiantly that he started to laugh and finally just nodded, taking her with him.
"Keep quiet, keep out of the way. Back to a wall, so no one can sneak up on you at all. I am going to be killing him, Christine, I know you don't like that."
"He has to die." Christine parroted quietly, "I don't have to like it, but it's necessary. He'd never just step aside. With any luck he'd find some long-lost relative of every other enemy you've ever made and they'd come together to gang up on you."
Erik shuddered, "Urk; please don't talk like that." Shaking his head he kept walking with her, keeping them to the shadows, Christine directing until they got to Stephen's house. Erik was too damn good at breaking and entering – he found an open window to gently slide open and helped Christine in before sliding in himself. Then he closed the window and she directed him with tiny hand gestures up the hall and up the stairs.
That was where her expertise ended, she wasn't sure where Stephen lay asleep. Erik tried to think of a smart way to do this, and finally just started opening doors. They had four empty rooms, and a bathroom, and finally they stumbled on Stephen's room. He was up, sitting at his desk and writing by the light of a candle, so focused on his work that it took him a moment to look up.
When he did, he froze, brows knitting as he jerked to his feet, backing up a step to open a drawer and draw a pistol from the depths. "Just what do you think you're doing, monsieur?" He demanded sternly.
Christine nearly felt chastised. She felt Erik gently push her to the side, until almost all of her was behind the wall and she was just peeking in. "We're both gentlemen here, Stephen. You wouldn't use a weapon on an unarmed man, would you?"
"Yes, if that unarmed man is you, monsieur."
Damn. Well that fell through. "I don't wish to kill you."
"Yes you do. Just like my uncle, you intend to strangle me – I've noticed that's your calling card. Strangulation." Stephen was circling Erik, trying to choose his best positioning.
This man was too damn smart for his own good. "Yes. I know. That seems to be my skill. I suppose I'll have to demonstrate it."
"I suppose after I kill you…" Oh the epic mistake. Michael chuckled from inside of Erik, waiting patiently for Stephen to say something incredibly stupid that would anger them both enough that he could come out to play again. Brought a whole new meaning to the phrase 'laughing inside.' "I'll take that pretty wife of yours for my own; put her back on the Opera stage and make the rest of my fortune from her."
Christine choked from behind the wall, disgusted.
Michael was rather annoyed; Erik was keeping his cool far too well. "Is that so? And what of the child in her womb? Hard to be an opera singer when you're clearly pregnant."
Stephen's eyes widened and he shuddered violently, "Oh I shall have to dispose of that just like I shall you. Can't risk another one of you running about."
"Brother, don't talk like that." Another man walked by Christine where she watched wide-eyed from her wall, "Just let these people go. I'm taking over this place… you've made it just as terrible as our Uncle did."
"Terrible? I happen to think this place is perfection. It's one of the most famous traveling carnivals there is." Stephen hesitated, and then swore violently and continued, "You're bloody well with them aren't you? You and your goddamn bleeding heart; they're just animals. Nothing like those … things out there can be human. They'll just be murderers and thieves left to themselves."
"Or you're the only animal here." Erik whispered, his voice trembling with barely restrained rage, Michael so close to the surface Christine swore she could feel the temperature dropping several degrees.
"I'm afraid my body count is so much less than yours, monsieur." Came the iced comment.
"You have your uncle to thank for my body count. If he hadn't snatched me off the street and turned me into a monster I never would have behaved like one. This is your last chance to give in quietly, Stephen. I like you, somehow. You're a smart man. You don't need to die."
Several things happened at once. Stephen fired, Christine screamed, Cimber jerked, and Erik disappeared. There was a harsh crack as Erik seemed to just appear out of thin air behind Stephen, wrapping his arm around the man's throat and wrenching inward. Crushing his windpipe, not breaking his neck. "You selfish son of a bitch." Erik whispered. Michael grumbled from inside, frustrated over Erik's sudden complete control. "You don't deserve all the time it would take to strangle you. Christine will never be yours. Those people you've held captive for so many years will be free to come and go as they please. You will no longer be able to hurt anyone. At all. Ever. Suffer."
"Erik." A tiny voice interrupted his ranting, and Erik whirled, looking around Cimber to see Christine looked strangely white-faced.
There was a hole in the wall.
Erik swore in Latin, unable to think of the proper French word for how he was feeling. "No, no," Christine interrupted his fury, "I…I'm okay it's just a scratch…" She sounded faint, "But a lot of blood." She hit the ground before Erik or Cimber could catch her.
"So, how is it?" Came the soft demand, and Erik looked up from his work, looking contemplative. "Oh don't give me that look, c'mon, how is it?"
"Well, Cimber's purchase on a permanent lot for the carnival finally went through and they just moved in. The only complaint from those living there now is that their hours aren't long enough. You were right – they like being performers, not prisoners. They know they'll never have…normal… lives, but they know they will always have a warm bed and a hot meal and they earn hourly wages for as long as they are working."
Christine laughed, leaning to press her lips to his cheek, "Wonderful. Oh!" She winced, pressing a hand to her belly, which had swollen insurmountably over the months.
"What? What is it?" Erik inquired, stiffening.
"Just…" She hesitated, weighing whether or not she should tell him. He'd been hovering over her like a terrified mother hen since she'd woken up a few hours after her faint. He had refused to even let her leave their home under the opera house after he'd gotten her back there, and her pregnancy had progressed with weekly visits from the Giry women. Now and then she was permitted up to watch rehearsals or performances, always from box five, and always with Erik fussing over her. "I've been having stomach pains all day."
"All day?" He gasped, "And I was off visiting that damn carnival! Here, here, lie down."
"Hurts more to lie down. I'd rather not." Christine responded firmly, and continued to pace slowly, shuffling. She felt so strange being so big when she was used to being so small.
"Doctor!" Erik gasped. He vanished from the room before Christine could argue and she laughed, sitting down slowly and then standing again, trying to get some relief.
Her water broke before the doctor arrived. It was really quite the unexpected event, and she was actually not sure what was going on until the doctor arrived to explain it to her.
For a first labor, Christine got incredibly lucky. While she'd had pain all day, she didn't hit any true labor until her water broke. And when she hit hard labor it lasted for a grand total of two hours. "Wow," The doctor breathed. Last time he'd seen Christine she'd been half-dead with the flu, now she was giving birth and having an unfairly easy time of it. "It's almost time to push, Christine."
Erik was clutching her hand, stroking her hair, seeming completely unperturbed by the other man at her ladybits. Apparently his trust in the gentleman doctor had come around. He was too worried about Christine, wiping at her face with a cold cloth as she panted in between contractions. "They're coming so fast."
"Yes, I know." The doctor murmured, "Okay, Christine, you're going to feel like you need to push. When you get the urge to bear down, don't fight it. I want you to push while I count to ten and don't let up until I reach ten, okay?"
"Okay." She breathed.
"Ready…" The doctor waited, watching her stomach, waiting. He saw a tell-tale muscle vibration as her stomach clenched, and set his jaw, "Push. One… two…"
Christine cried out softly, holding her breath until she felt faint and then remembering to pant, trembling violently as she pushed as hard as she thought she could, and then pushed harder. She nearly crushed Erik's hand, but he didn't mind – didn't even wince – just continuing to stroke her hair and encourage her.
"One more, Christine, you're so close. One more." The doctor coached, snatching the receiving blanket from the side and readying it, "One more… here we go—one…"
Christine cried out again, eyes squeezed tightly, face red and nose wrinkled, tears sliding down her cheeks as she fairly shook with the effort she was putting into this. Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it ended.
For a moment there was silence. Christine's heart turned to ice in her chest. Why wasn't the baby crying? She struggled to sit upright, eyes blurry with tears, seeking the infant. "Right here, Christine, don't panic. The baby is right here." The doctor explained instantly, "it's okay. Erik don't let her get up, she isn't done yet."
"Wh-what…?" Christine was trying to speak through numb and tingly lips and found it was nearly impossible to articulate.
"It's a boy," Erik responded instantly, realizing the reason for her panic, "It's a boy. He's breathing. He's okay. He's…" He hesitated, "Well, he isn't perfect. But he's not as bad as I'd feared."
"What's…wrong?" Christine breathed, her imagination coming up with a variety of horrible disfigurements for the child.
"It's really not too bad." The doctor offered as he approached and laid the swaddled infant on Christine's chest. She gazed down at the child, frozen for a moment. Time stood still as mother met child, and waited to see what she would feel.
Love. That was it. There was no other way to describe meeting the person she'd carried inside her for just under nine months. He was warbling softly now, but not screaming yet, almost like he'd decided he'd rather take a nap before he wanted to fuss. He wriggled a little and then was still on her chest.
Tears choked her, as Christine gazed up at Erik, "He's so perfect."
Tears were visible on the unmasked side of his face. He knelt and brushed his fingers over the child's head. "He's an angel."
Christine bit back a sob, unable to believe she could really be holding Erik's son, "Thomas, our perfect angel..."
The doctor watched them both, astonished by their words. The child clearly was not perfect; his nose was not shaped properly and he had almost no chin… but his parents seemed blind to it. Briefly, he wondered what the other side of the Phantom's face looked like, that would cause them to find a child that was clearly not perfect…absolutely that.
The pair were so focused on the baby they hardly noticed as the afterbirth mess was taken care of, and when the doctor deigned Christine okay to be moved Erik swept her and the baby into his arms and carried her right to the bed, settling them tenderly, tears still on his face. "I love you." Christine whispered and Erik immediately echoed it, kissing her and then pressing his lips to the child's forehead.
"I'll take my leave now, Erik." The doctor murmured, touching Erik's shoulder in a brief manly moment of congratulations, before he turned and left, leaving the pair to their child.
And this is where our tale ends. Christine sitting in a bed where so many events have transpired, cradling an infant who couldn't be more perfect in her eyes, her husband kneeling beside the bed to smooth her hair back and gaze adoringly on the family he never thought he could, or would, have.
Love me, that's all I ask of you…
Thank you, everyone who has followed this story despite the erratic updating schedule. I hadn't intended on this being the final installment, but it wrote itself for me and wound up being a seventeen-page finale. It's time for us to leave Erik and Christine to their baby boy; as hard as it's going to be for me to let go, these characters have grown up and it's time for me to let them fly and move on to new projects, not without tears shed – but when it's time, it's time.
Your humble servant,
(Completed June 13, 2008 at 11:56pm)