Here we are again! I'm glad you all liked the last chapter... thanks for the reviews. I hope this one doesn't dissappoint.

And big thanks to my new beta, TouchingTrusting!

Chapter 22

A month later

A Graveyard – The Slums

Christine enjoyed the satisfying crunch of the snow under her feet, even as it soaked through her flimsy shoes to her already cold feet. But she was too content to really notice this… too busy enjoying the sensations around her – the freshness of the air and the sight of tiny snowflakes drifting down like fairies from the sky.

There had been barely an inch of snow on the ground when she had awoken that morning, but even that was enough to make the city appear like something out of a whimsical fantasy tale. She didn't mind the cold so much, even with nothing but a flimsy shawl to guard against it. She found it refreshing in a way, and had considered it a good day to come to this place.

Kneeling down beside her father's gravestone, she dusted the thin layer of snow from the top of it, and brushed away the flakes from the carved letters. She couldn't help but smile, like she used to when her father had been alive and she would proudly demonstrate how she had memorised the lyrics to a song she had heard only that morning.

But she felt that perhaps she had the right to be a little proud… a little happier with the way things were now. She no longer had to steal to earn her way… not merely because Stefan was no longer around… but because the owner of the Dancing Herald had finally given in to Meg's pestering and asked Christine to be their full-time musician. It had only been a few days ago, and Christine was still bubbling with the excitement of finally having a stable income for herself and Mama Valerius. It was such a great weight off her mind…

Almost enough for her to forget her other dilemmas.

She sighed as she began, with exquisite care, to tidy the gravestone… clearing away some of the moss that had grown over the past few weeks. As she did this she began to hum, then sing softly to herself. Another smile came to her face as she reminded herself to breathe properly… something she was always very careful with now. Erik's teaching had forced it to become almost instinctive…

"It will all come as second nature to you soon," Erik had told her in one of their earlier lessons.

"I hope so," she had said, though not without a hint of scepticism.

She'd felt him watching her, and for a moment had worried he might be angry at her lack of confidence. But instead, he'd merely replied, "You'll see," with a note of amusement in his voice that suggested he would be more than happy to prove his point.

He certainly did that, Christine thought to herself.

Over the past few weeks her lessons with Erik had developed in more ways than she had imagined. They met at least twice a week and although, initially, things had been tense and awkward between them, gradually Christine had found herself relaxing around him. It wasn't that she forgot who he was… or the things he had done… but her confidence in him was growing. She was determined that, if they were more comfortable around each other, then she might be able to start trying to understand him more. After all, she reasoned, Erik would not want to open up to her if he felt she didn't trust him. So she tried her best to accept him as he was, without any knowledge of his past. And she found that every day she grew more certain of the fact that, for all Erik's black moods and angry outbursts, he never intended (and certainly never wished) to harm her in any way. His concerted efforts to restrain himself were proof enough of that.

And, perhaps sensing her growing confidence and lack of fear, Erik also seemed to be calmer… and not on edge all the time, as he had been before. His progress was not quite as rapid as her own, but she knew better than to push things too far, because then she risked one of his bitter mood swings and, although they didn't frighten her half so much anymore, they did make her nervous and uncomfortable, threatening to leave them both struggling in an uncomfortable silence, needing desperately to re-establish that former calm in order to continue.

As for the lessons themselves, well… it would have been hard to explain to anyone who was not there just how wonderful… how unbelievable those lessons were. Christine had been questioned again and again by Meg and Mama Valerius, and still lacked the ability to fully express the response that Erik's talent evoked inside her. It was beyond explanation… in fact it was almost beyond comprehension. Erik's obsession, his constant striving for perfection, seemed to have infected her too, leading her to test the limits of her ability, only to find that they went far beyond what she had previously imagined. And the exhilaration she felt on discovering this was matched only by Erik's… although she knew he held himself back so as not to frighten her as he had done previously. But she had learnt that, in some strange way, joining him in his obsession curbed her fear of it, and even helped her to greater achievements. She didn't try to understand it… all Christine understood was that, with Erik's help she was able to progress rapidly, to the point where people were already commenting on how her voice had improved.

It made such a sharp contrast to her continuing lessons with Madame Carlotta, who still seemed as incapable of proper teaching as ever.Christine would dearly have loved to put an end to those torturous lessons… were it not for her desire to spend even a little time with Raoul. No matter how many disgruntled looks she earned from the servants of the household, or by the people she passed in the streets on the way to the house, it was always a charming relief to spend an hour or two with her childhood friend… like something out of a fairytale.

It was a shame they weren't children again… or they would have been out having snowball fights.

"I hope it's not too cold for you, daddy," she said with a smile. Then she sighed… a contented sigh. Everything around her was so quiet and calm and the world seemed so beautiful when covered by the pure white snow. There was only one thing missing, she thought, and that was someone to share it with.

As if answering her silent wish, she heard a voice speak her name.


She turned to see a familiar dark figure approaching, made all the more dark because of the snow all around him, the white flakes drifting onto his black coat, even catching in his hair. She rose from her crouched position, surprised and yet strangely pleased to see the masked man.

"Erik…"she responded with a rather confused smile. "What are you doing here?"

"I thought I might ask you the same thing…" he tilted his head meaningfully, and Christine wondered why something about his tone made her feel as though she had done something wrong.

"I was… I was just here to see my father," she explained, indicating the grave beside her.

She saw Erik's eyes narrow.

"I mean… why you appear to be standing here in the freezing cold with nothing but a meagre shawl!"

He put out his hand and dragged the shawl from her shoulders angrily, making her flinch as she remembered that, yes… he had instructed (more times than she could count, in fact) that she not go out in the cold without being properly wrapped up.

"I just…" she began, but Erik interrupted.

"Damn it, Christine!" he shouted, making her flinch once again as he flung the shawl at her feet to emphasise his fury. "I told you to buy a coat if you were going to wander around in the winter! Have you no sense at all?"

She was about to protest once again about her lack of money, and explain that hopefully she would be able to buy one soon, when she saw to her amazement that Erik was removing his own black coat and now held it out to her, with a look in his yellow eyes that suggested refusing to take it would be a mistake. Cautiously she took it from his gloved hands, but did not immediately put it on. She couldn't help but stare at Erik who, without his coat, dressed only in a black shirt, looked thinner than ever.

"But what about you?" she asked suddenly, concerned that someone in such a seemingly unhealthy condition would not be able to withstand the cold.

He seemed taken aback by her concern, and waved it aside quickly. "I am accustomed to the cold… now put it on."

Reluctantly, Christine did so, sliding her arms through the sleeves and buttoning the front. The coat locked in her body's heat and instantly made her feel warmer. Even her hands benefited from the fact that the arms were too long, and she curled them up inside the sleeves. She gave a grateful smile to Erik, touched by his thoughtfulness. Over the past few weeks, it had been small gestures such as this… his never-ending insistence that she guard her health… that helped her to begin overcoming her fear. It made her feel oddly privileged… especially remembering what Nadir Khan had told her… how Erik never made friends. Even if it was merely to protect her voice, his concern reassured her that her (and Nadir's) faith was not misplaced.

Erik, for his part, now looked on edge once more. He did not look at her, and so was not aware of her watching as he adjusted the high-necked cravat around his neck, which had been dislodged when he removed his coat. Christine could not withhold a small gasp when, for a fraction of a second, she caught sight of markings on Erik's neck… scars…

"Erik… your neck…"

She saw him tense up even more, as if the cold winter air had frozen him. "It's nothing," he said flatly.

But Christine was already worried, thinking that perhaps he had been injured during the fight with Stefan and never told her. "Did you get hurt when… when you helped me before?"

He looked at her again now, and for what must have been the thousandth time since they had first met, she wished she could see his expression.

"No…" he said, obviously making an effort to be calm. She realised that, however he had come by those scars, he did not wish to talk about it, and so she nodded and let the subject pass, although she found herself wishing that Erik would be a little more open with her. She was constantly aware that she knew so little about him… so little about the dark past that Nadir Khan had explained was so important to understanding Erik's behaviour. Whatever had happened to him, Christine knew it wasn't wise to pressure Erik into telling her… but that didn't stop her wondering.

So she merely pulled Erik's coat tightly around her, and, finally remembering her manners, murmured "thank you" from behind the high collar. He acknowledged her thanks with a nod, but nothing else, and they stood side by side in silence, looking at her father's gravestone. For a while Christine wondered if the silence would become awkward, but, to her surprise, Erik spoke.

"You must miss him very much."

There was a surprising amount of tenderness in his voice, something Christine had not heard before and it made her suddenly ache inside, as if she were reliving her loss. Her chest tightened, and a painful lump rose in her throat until she knew that she could not reply without crying. So she only nodded.

"May I ask… how?"

She wished he wouldn't… not when she felt on the verge of tears anyway… but she swallowed her rising sobs and drew a shuddering breath.

"Umm…. He died in an epidemic… over a year and a half ago…"

"I'm very sorry. "

It was almost too much to bear… the compassion in his voice. And the silence that followed was even worse. It begged to be filled until Christine knew that she had to say something… anything…

"What about your parents? Where are they?"

Even with the warm coat, Christine felt the atmosphere around them change, as though she had been dropped into an icy river, and was instantly aware that she had asked the wrong question. When she risked glancing at Erik, she was surprised that his intense gaze didn't crack the stone of her father's grave. It was hard to fight the urge to step away from him.

For a while she thought he wouldn't answer… then, surprisingly, he did.

"My father is dead… as for my mother, I don't know or care."

Now Christine did flinch away a little. The venom in his voice… she'd never heard anything like it, anywhere… and to hear someone speak so bitterly about their family… their own mother…

"Erik, that's – "

"A terrible thing to say?" he interrupted angrily. "Well, I would expect you to think so… but then, not everyone had the privilege of such an idyllic childhood."

The way he spoke made Christine feel almost guilty for her so called 'idyllic' upbringing, and she was a little hurt by his words. She wondered what could possibly have happened to Erik in his youth to make him resent his parents so much. A nagging suspicion told her that it must have something to do with his face… but somehow she couldn't believe that Erik's own flesh and blood would judge him for that. Family was family after all… she'd always thought that the love between a parent and their child would be unconditional. But, looking at him, she realised that she had touched upon a very delicate subject… Erik's long, gloved fingers were clenched into tight fists, and he was shaking.

Oh god… What had he been through? The question was enough to erase any feeling of hurt she felt at his words. It was eclipsed entirely by curiosity and concern.

"I'm sorry… I didn't mean…"

Erik waved aside her apology, but his brusque dismissal did little for the tense atmosphere around them, and the silence that followed was awful. But Christine didn't have the nerve to break it… pursuing their current topic of conversation would have been unwise… and she couldn't think of anything else to talk about.

And then she felt it, a tickling behind her nose… she felt her breathing falter, her eyes squeeze shut, and she barely had time to raise her hands to her face before she sneezed at a volume that was quite embarrassing. Blushing, she apologised, and then felt herself being taken gently but firmly by the arm.

"You're not to spend any more time out in this cold," Erik said sternly, a teacher once again.

Understanding that he was mostly likely right, Christine nodded and allowed herself to be led away, though not before reaching out to brush her fingers over her father's gravestone once more.

"Goodbye, daddy," she murmured. It was strange she didn't feel embarrassed in the least about speaking this way in front of Erik. Once, Meg had come along with her to the graveyard, and it had made Christine uncomfortable… she'd felt unable to say anything to her father's spirit… but not now. She sensed no judgement from Erik… only a concern that she had felt for several weeks now, and which she appreciated greatly. Strange, she thought to herself with a smile as she allowed Erik to lead her away.

The Slums

Erik had not been happy to find Christine in that place. He had gone to the Dancing Herald as soon as he realised that snow had fallen, to make certain that Christine did not risk her health too much by venturing outside. He had encountered her dancing friend, Meg, once more, and been told that she was at the graveyard.

What he had said in response to this news had turned the young girl quite pale.

He'd stormed away, determined to give Christine a serious reprimand for her behaviour, especially since it defied his instructions. His anger had abated just a little at seeing her kneeling beside her father's grave, speaking softly to the lifeless stone, but he had not allowed himself to be swayed completely… not caring if his anger frightened her this time.

But even that had been nothing compared to her reaction to his rage at the mention of… his parents.

He shook the memories away… he did not want them plaguing him now. For years he'd forced himself to lock all those dark secrets away, never allowing them to resurface. The angry screaming… the crying…

Stop it, he warned himself. If he continued to think of these things, he would grow angry, and that would only lead to him distancing himself from Christine. And he did not want that.

So strange for him to be admitting such a thing now, after so much denial, but it was true. He was learning to accept it now. If he drove her away, he wouldn't be able to listen to her voice… to her wonderful progress under his tuition, and how she seemed to grow more and more at ease in his company… even after several less than pleasant situations, when he had allowed himself to lose control and, he suspected, almost succeeded in driving her away completely. He could sense those moments approaching sometimes… perhaps Christine could too. He didn't fool himself into thinking she was entirely comfortable in his presence… and he wasn't certain if she ever would be. Yet she continued with their lessons, and he found it encouraging to see her confronting her fear of him. It almost made him believe that she really could accept him for who he was. But he wasn't ready to trust her completely… not yet.

Not when she didn't even have the sense not to wander around in the cold, he thought sardonically, as she sneezed yet again.

"Perhaps we will postpone your lessons this week," he said quietly.

She stared up at him, her eyes wide with surprise and confusion.

"I won't risk you damaging your voice if you fall victim to a cold," he explained serenely.

"But," she protested suddenly, "I don't have a cold. I only sneezed… surely I'll be alright tomorrow?"

He gave her a stern look, and saw her flinch again, then lower her head in a gesture of compliance. He didn't regret making her flinch this time… after all, she knew that he didn't like to be questioned. In fact, he should probably have punished her for her disobedience in walking around in the cold… but, for some reason, he didn't seem to want to. Not after seeing her bent down beside her father's grave… and hearing her speak to the stone as if it were a living person. Should he be concerned for her mental state? He wasn't certain… perhaps it was merely her way of coping with the loss of someone she clearly loved… and he couldn't pretend to know anything about losing a loved one.

Because you've never cared about anyone but yourself, snarled a voice from the depths of his mind… and he would have agreed with this bitter statement had another thought not immediately surfaced to answer:

Until Christine came along…

He risked glancing at her as they continued to walk. To his surprise, she seemed upset, as if being deprived of their lessons was something to be mourned.

He looked away once more, and felt a restless frustration build up as his thoughts battled fiercely with each other. What was it about this girl? There was something more to her… something he still couldn't explain, even after all this time. But it was enough to make him seek her out to be sure she was guarded against the cold… enough to send little pangs of regret through him when something he had said or done upset her… enough, even, to make him wonder how pleasant it might be to enjoy her company every day, even outside their lessons… without her wandering off to associate with other members of the human race.

He shook his head… what a ridiculous idea. The whole point of these lessons had been to put Christine on the stage… to see her perform to the admiration of thousands of people. That was their goal… to make them see, and more importantly, hear her.

Then why did he have such misgivings about it now?

They arrived back at the tavern, and when he saw that Christine still appeared disappointed, he found himself relenting a little.

"We will see how you are tomorrow," he told her levelly. She looked up at him hopefully before he quickly added: "Until then, you're not to go outside, is that understood? And if you show any signs of a cold when I come to collect you then there will be no lessons until I'm certain you have recovered."

Christine appeared to accept these terms, and nodded reasonably. He was pleased by the look of determination in her eyes… far better than the fear he might have expected. He was resolved to be strict with her, but he didn't want to be seen as a tyrant when it came to her tuition. She already knew his constant need for perfection in music, and although he knew it had made her frightened and uncomfortable at first, she now appeared to understand and accept it. He believed that, were she not quite so gentle and demure, she might even have been caught up in his obsession… joined him in his task to create an absolute perfection of sound. He knew that she had such potential, but for now it was her lack of faith in herself that held her back.

Still… given time she would see her full potential. Everyone would see… and hear… this remarkable beauty that he had helped create.

He felt that spark of obsessive delight flare up again, and caught himself smiling behind the mask at the thought. He nearly checked himself before remembering that she couldn't see it. And yet, she was smiling back… as if she could sense it, in spite of the mask between them.

She began removing his coat, clearly intent on returning it, but she hadn't slid one arm out of the sleeve before he stopped her.

"Keep it," he told her calmly. "In this weather… you need it more than I do."

"But – " she protested, but was silenced by the sharp look he gave her.

"I have another I can use," he said, trying to sound dismissive and uncaring. He turned away so he wouldn't have to see the expression on her face… that mixture of confusion and… some other emotion he couldn't identify.

"Thank you."

It was quite extraordinary… to hear her thank him, and find himself awash with a mixture of discomfort and…warmth, was the only way he could describe it. He didn't know if he would ever get used to it. Then again, he supposed he simply wasn't accustomed to doing things worthy of gratitude. He'd never considered it worth his time.

Now all he wanted was to hear her say those two words again.

A/N: There you have it. Sorry for the "one month later" thing... I don't usually like doing that but I felt it was the best thing at this point in the story. I hope you still get the sense of development between Erik and Christine. So... I hope you enjoyed it. See you all next time!