Warning: following chapter contains considerable amount of harmless sap. Diabetics beware. ;D

Chapter 18

Innocent

Those who have seen your face

Draw back in fear

I am the mask you wear….

Your spirit and my voice

In one combine.

Midnight cloaked the sky with velvet, drowning out the feeble starlight. A distant galloping drew closer with a straining precarious rhythm that reflected the heartbeat of the rider.

Christine was nearing the last of her strength. She was all but dying from anxiety that tearing across the hills on the back of a stallion might tear the baby from its womb. Surely she was a fool for endangering the life of her unborn child. But then, were she not here the child might never meet its father.

How did she know he'd be here? She did not. Perhaps some enchantment had been woven in that dark spectral castle that bound his presence to her senses. She felt a stirring of electric energy at his coming. The wind whipped through her dark tousled hair, the tamed curls that Agathe had painstakingly combed through each morning returned to their natural wildness. After Nadir's admittance of having known the Phantom, every trace of his existence – each memory of him – that she had been suppressing had come gushing back like a relentless river that would drown her with its force. She had run out of the house, he had chased after her, the eternal gentleman, clasping her hand in his dark fingers and demanding to know what it was that made her so pale. Not even caring that the rain was ruining his tweed coat and seeping into his polished shoes.

After that, after that he had led her to Erik. Not directly, but he had let slip the mention of the Phantom's appearance even though he knew that it would lead her to the reckless pursuit.

"My carriage had stopped in the midst of the forest path, on my way here, so I could get out and stretch my old legs," said Nadir. "You know I love to take the scenic route, hence the ride through the woodsy part of the province. It is quite safe, as you will know if ever you have ventured through in your childhood. But that evening – it was twilight almost – something disturbed the air. Not a malicious something, no, but like a restless disturbed soul, rather. As I was getting back in the carriage – for the driver too was feeling ill at ease, he must have sensed it too – there was a rustle in the bushes, or the leaves of a low tree, I don't know. Then a flash of golden eyes – Christine, in my life I have never seen another pair like it. No wild animal possesses such a gaze. There was a sort of grunt, or quick intake of coarse and distinctly human breath – before he disappeared.

"He knew me, of course. If he laid eyes on me at all he would recognize me. But I guess the moment was not exactly one for reconciliation of old friendships; I left, he left, and perhaps we shall never see each other again.

"Christine," he warned, "Erik may not be much more than an …an animal now. I – I don't know how much of his right mind is still present, or whether the insanity that has always lurked at the corners of his soul has finally consumed him. whatever you do or say, my dear girl, do not provoke his temper – ever. Do not even dream of tempting his dark desires – be courteous, be affectionate but not overly so. My dear, it would calm me greatly of you would at least meet him in a place near civilization…in case you should need...some form of assistance."

"He is not a beast, Nadir," she had said softly. "He looks and often acts like one; but he is a man. He's just a man."

The look Nadir had gave her said this: all men are beasts. Human and animal are merely two halves of the coin.

And now there was no looking back. perhaps she, too, was an animal. There was no other explanation for the mindless hunger she now felt for his arms, his body, to be crushed by him and oh, to fight him again! to see the spark in his amber eyes that must be reflected in her own!

Dark senseless thoughts.

Now she waited.

And waited.

And then…

"My days have been a dream;

Yet if hope has flown away

In a night, or in a day,

In a vision, or in none,

Is it therefore the less gone?"

She opened her eyes to see the cloaked figure, gleaming golden eyes full of restrained passion. The hood overshadowed most of the face, the unmasked face.

The face of the man she loved.

Her open arms were met with the full sweet weight of his; and then he was lifting her down, gently, the familiar long fingers caressing her face in renewed wonder.

"Why do you touch me so, as if you have forgotten what I was like?" she demanded softly. "Kiss me as you used to. Now." And he did. They held each other so closely their limbs must be entwined, so complete and powerful a feeling it was that came over them.

"Nadir…" she began.

"Shhh." Again they kissed; their tongues met. "There is no one else in the world now, save for…for you…." Then the poetic eloquence came to a halt, and he dropped to his knees, sobbing rawly, deeply.

"I am a broken man, Christine," he murmured. "A broken man. And here you stand before me, whole and beautiful and…" Erik's tear-glazed eyes focused on her stomach. "With child? My child?"

"Yes. Oh, yes. Our child."

The handsome mouth twisted into a scowl suddenly. "No!"

"What?"

"Look at this face. Look at this…face!" He threw back the hood to reveal the full hideousness of the lumps of bone and muscle, like wax dripping off a skull. "No child should inherit such a terrible curse. No! Christine, I cannot…will not lay eyes upon it, ever. I cannot see it stamped upon the face of another innocent. Give the babe away the moment it is born, or see me gone."

Now her mouth too turned down in fury. "Are you asking me to choose between you and the baby?"

"Did I say that? Perhaps, perhaps. Christine, darling, think of the happiness we shall have, finally, reunited at last. The child is…but a trifling matter. Perhaps we could raise him or her from afar. Let another take charge of its upbringing…and…"

Christine shook her head. "Listen to you. You are letting your fear of passing on your deformity blind you to the love that you might feel for your own offspring! Your son, your daughter! Erik, you were unloved by your own mother; would you turn the same harshness on our child?" She took his shoulders, forcefully. "Would you?" she whispered?"

He shook his head. "Ah, but it is innocent, Christine. It is innocent."

"Exactly."

Slowly, with some trepidation, he laid a hand upon her belly. "I…" He was near speechless. "I feel it."

"Put your ear against me, Erik. Listen. Perhaps there is a heartbeat."

He did as she said. For a moment there was nothing. Then…a faint throbbing. A throbbing that grew stronger, a small but steady pulsing rhythm.

Tears gathered anew in his eyes. "Ah, my child!" And he listened on, and said again and again: "My child!"