It was all so new.
The freedom to touch him, stepping onto the sands of an unfamiliar world that was hers to explore. How many times had their fingertips met before? None of it had prepared her for the feverish rush of a crisp fall afternoon holding hands, tugging to pull the beloved closer, running across the street with fingers interlocked, laughing and racing to make it to the sidewalk before the signal changed, grabbing the first black cab that they saw; her breath gasping and happy and his in some shellshocked wonder.
Curled together in the back of the car; gripping him as though he would disappear if she let go for a second, wanting to say everything and finding herself suddenly shy in front of the driver. "St Pancras, please," Christine managed to mutter into the intercom and then turned her attention back to Erik, sitting sideways to face him, leaning her head against the cushioned wall of the seat.
Their joined hands rested on his knee, and Erik seemed content to stare at them. He had redonned the flesh-toned mask before they had ventured out onto the street, but it did little to disguise his rapture, tilting his head to one angle and then another, studying the image of her fingers entwined with his gloved hand with the intensity of an art authenticator examining the brush strokes of a Matisse.
But it wasn't enough — even for a taxicab, it wasn't enough, and she tugged at the fingertips of the gloves, muttering, "Off, take them off, please." Several fumbled moments of both of them tugging at leather and cashmere and then her hands made contact with his own at last; his long, angular fingers were cool beneath her caress, and she could spend days like this, just watching the expressions of pleasure flit across his face at her touch, as she traced along the length of them. It felt like she was cataloguing his presence, here and alive in entirety, that everything that had happened in the last hour was real, and -
"Oh," she stifled a laugh, realizing. "We left the motorcycle. Should we -"
He blinked, once, and then again, taking several seconds to process what she had actually said, and then made a dismissive flicking gesture with his hand, before quickly returning it to rest atop hers. "Let me assure you, an abandoned motorbike is nowhere on my present list of concerns."
This, she understood; her body felt as exhilarated as she did at a curtain call, and she took his right hand, raised it to her throat, pressed his fingertips against the artery there, against her racing pulse, flashing her eyes at him mischievously. He looked at her dazedly, dreamy, and raised a thumb to trace along her jawline, reverent.
Leaning into his touch, she covered his hand in her own, ducking her chin to press a kiss to the inside of his wrist, and she learned that his voice sounded even more glorious when murmuring her name, all ache and adoration, tender and wondrous. Seatbelts be damned, she was undoing it, sliding across the seat toward him, pulling his arms around her and leaning her head on his shoulder. She curled inward towards him, pressing her face into the angle of his neck, that junction of collarbone and shirt collar and tense trapezius muscle, quivering underneath her cheek. One exhale and then two, breathing even and slow, wondering if she could steady him even as her own heart was racing. His left arm settled, hesitantly, around her back; his touch light but his presence strong, and for the stretch of several city blocks they existed, living and breathing, in one another's arms.
It was all some delirious miracle, wicked and indulgent and impatient but he was hers and alive — alive, alive — and she opened her mouth to breathe a kiss against his neck, feeling his shiver and pressing her lips higher still, hot against his skin, reaching up until she reached his ear — and his exhaled gasp tingled through her veins, a flash of heat. Erik's hand twisted against her own, fingers clenching, shaking, on the brink of overwhelmed. She took his hand as well as the hint, and breathed a promise to be patient until they were somewhere less public.
The black cab dipped and swayed as it sped through the streets, trees and Georgian architecture flying by outside the windows, and as each turn of the taxi flung her outward his arm was a steady presence against her back, drawing her against him as gravitational forces pushed her away, and then pulling her toward him with something stronger still on the other side of the turn, closer to him than she had even been before, half in his lap, his arms locked around her, wordless and breathing with a level of control that revealed everything - and there might be a real heaven somewhere but this was hers.
The "perfectly acceptable hotel" near St. Pancras station more closely resembled a monumental red brick castle, all spires and turrets and arches, its neo-gothic architecture the stuff of fairytales and happily ever afters. As the taxi pulled up the grand curved driveway, it was easy to imagine the horse-drawn carriages that must have crossed these same paving stones in generations past, and she wondered how many couples had begun their lives together here.
A quick detour took them through the expanse of shops at the train station on a mission to buy necessities, and then they made their way to the hotel's lobby, a granite-floored room covered by a soaring modern glass roof, perched atop elaborate iron framing that stretched out like the veins of a butterfly's wing. There was a line at the registration desk and Erik shifted uneasily, pulling the brim of his newly purchased hat low, but the motorcycle jacket he still wore had no collar for him to flip up - and she had long ago deduced that particular nuance of attire was central to his personal comfort when moving about in public. Christine broadened her shoulders, and took his hand. The rigid hunch of his back softened somewhat at her touch, but he leaned over and whispered, "Forgive me; this is the price for not arranging things in advance. But I will never forgive myself if you being seen with a masked man in such a public thoroughfare drives us back on the run. Can you handle -"
"Yes, I can check into a hotel room on my own." She gave him a half smile. "Meet me by the elevators?"
"Exactly," he breathed into her ear. A quick brush of his fingers against the palm of her hand and he vanished.
Fifteen minutes later she found him, a calculated image of nonchalance, pretending to read something on his phone while keenly watching the registration desk out of the corner of his eye, leaning into the shadows of the port-wine colored walls of the hotel's oldest wing. A span of perhaps ten paces separated them once their eyes met, and for a long second her head swam, space shifting and sinking around her, marveling at the idea that he was even on the earth at all, let alone standing before her, hers to love and have. It was a thing of wonder that she could simply walk up to him and take him into her arms if she so desired, and god, she did.
She saw the same disbelief echoed in his eyes, and quickly closed the distance between them, feeling a flutter of relief at the proof of his corporality when she took his hand.
"I was certain that if I let you out of my sight for a moment, I would realize this had all been a delusion…"
Stepping forward, so close that her toes touched the side of his motorcycle boot, she squeezed his hand and dropped her forehead to his shoulder, scrunching her eyes shut while she drew a long inhale of breath, feeling a sense of calm even as her heartbeat came more rapidly. "Me too," she whispered, and lifted her head to find Erik's expression lost in adoration.
He swallowed, and seemed to gather himself. "It looked as though you had some difficulty at the front desk," he said carefully, looking back toward the lobby as though they might be surveilled.
"I did," she yawned, the sleepless redeye starting to take its toll. "The reservation I made on their app had some kind of glitch; they were actually out of rooms -"
"Not for long. I can fix this." His brow furrowed, and his gaze leapt down at the mobile phone in his hand, typing furiously. "While you were delayed, I happened to detect that they were running an unpatched version of their reservations system that is particularly vulnerable to vertical privilege escalation, and I'll check every guest out immediately if it comes to it, you must have rest -"
"...But they still had suites, so I just paid to change our reservation to the Royal Suite. It was the biggest."
"Oh," a hint of smile flicked across the exposed side of his mouth. "Well-done."
Christine flashed him a quick smile, and reached past him to push the elevator button, feeling the warmth of his admiration settle around her shoulders like a wrap.
Stepping into the elevator, and turning to rest her tailbone against the brass railing, his shoulder just an inch to her left as he stood beside her, she felt heart in her throat for the hundredth time in the last hour, feeling the rush of everything, feeling her pulse begin to arrive in slow and massive thunks, each beat a drum being hit with a mallet underwater.
Just a few floors up, there was a bedroom that was theirs.
The elevator doors closed, and the chime as the elevator car passed by each floor was such an ordinary sound, compared to the weight of the hour, the heft of her own heartbeat.
"Have you changed your mind, at all?" His voice was quiet; cautious but not suspicious.
A beat passed, and the elevator chimed.
"About... loving you?"
She tilted her head sideways to look up at him, incredulous, but his eyes were deadly serious, and he nodded.
Another pause, and the chime rang again.
"In the last twenty minutes?"
Erik gave another sharp nod.
"...No," she said decisively, half chuckling at the absurdity of it - but he already had whatever he was looking for, and was swiftly turning. His mouth was on hers, ravenous, his hands cupping her face and his entire body pressing her up against the wall of the elevator, her world reduced in an instant to angles and lips and him, kissing her with a new certainty, with the determination of months of longing finally unleashed. Desire flooded her and she flung an arm around his neck, shouldering herself up higher, reveling in the ecstatic growl that escaped his lips and feeling his arms fall to grip her waist. Christine found herself trying press every bit of her body against him, heart threatening to burst from her chest as his lips parted, and instinctively she looped her leg around him, pressing her calf against the back of his thigh, desperate to pull him closer still -
He gasped, and nearly dropped her.
Leaning back, slightly, he swallowed, and gently lowered her several inches, the wall sliding behind her back until she met the floor. His eyes were wide, stunned, and his exhale was jolted, as though he'd been running a marathon and forgotten how to breathe mid-stride. Slowly he leaned against her again, resting his forehead on the wall just beside her ear, curling his body unsteadily against her own.
Christine took his hand in hers. His chin dipped down, and his voice ached as he breathed, "I hadn't... expected..."
Standing on tiptoe, she pressed a kiss to the exposed skin of his neck. "I love you."
His hand gripped hers, once, a hard squeeze to the point of trembling, and she felt him fumbling for words just before the elevator beeped a final time, the doors opening. She gathered the shopping bags she had just so unceremoniously dropped, and took his hand resolutely, pulling him out of the elevator and down the curved hall to the end. After searching her pockets for the key she'd had just a moment ago, before getting… distracted, they walked through the heavy double doors.
The Royal Suite earned its name; the space was palatial, with soaring ceilings twenty feet overhead, and grand drapes flanking gothic revival windows of the living room at the center of the suite. To the right she could see a gleaming marble bathroom through a connecting door, and she headed for the arched doorway on the left, toward what must be the bedroom.
Christine dropped her purse and the bags on a chaise, shrugged out of her jacket and cast a quick glance at the bed, stacked with a small mountain of pillows and a crisp white down comforter that must have been nearly 6 inches thick, before noticing that Erik hadn't followed her. She traced her steps backwards and found him in the sitting room, slumped low on a sofa, his long legs stretched haphazardly out in front of him, looking at the empty fireplace in a daze, with one hand on his brow. Taking a seat beside him, she drew her knees up to rest loosely on the sofa's seat, and turned her palm up, patiently.
His hand fell into hers, finching at the contact as if he'd been jolted by static electricity. His eyes clenched shut and his voice cracked.
"Say it again."
She fumbled for a moment, before realizing -
"...I love you." Christine repeated gladly, but he turned his head away sharply, even as his fingers gripped her own. She wanted to pull him into her arms, to extinguish any doubt or uncertainty that might be left in his mind in a wave of affection. But the rigidity of his shoulders suggested there was so much more that was happening, for him.
After a few minutes, she gently stroked her thumb over the palm of his hand. He shivered, and his closed eyes squeezed even tighter, before he finally opened them and spoke, looking off into the middle distance.
"It is all so… much. To have spent so much time dreaming, and then, to actually feel... your skin, your…" Still looking away from her, he flushed visibly around the edges of the mask.
She waited patiently in the silence before he spoke again, cradling his hand in hers.
"I had even grown accustomed to the world where my fingers might graze yours and then I would have days or weeks to process it… Time to think it over, to commit the melodies to memory, to file every sensation away to be played back in my mind on cold evenings…" He stared at the carpet and gestured flippantly with his free hand, but the self deprecation in his tone was sharp.
"It comes so quickly, and with such... intensity... I don't have the time, don't have the instruments… I don't have the notes to transcribe any of what I'm feeling." He pinched his brow, then finally looked back at her, lost. "And yet I want to drown in it."
Christine resisted every urge to throw herself into his arms. "I know some of that. I almost don't know how to exist in a world with you still in it… I've been living in ashes."
He winced, at her words, and focused his attention on bending each of the fingers of her right hand to wrap around his own, one by one, his fingertips reverently stroking across each of hers.
"I'm feeling a thousand things at once," she confessed, shaking her head slowly. "I don't know whether I want to... devour you or just hold you in my arms and cry."
"Perhaps not in that order," Erik murmured dryly. "My ego couldn't handle it."
The tension that was radiating off him in waves seemed to ease, and she squeezed his hand, bringing it up between them at shoulder level, an invitation to a dance.
"I meant it, about not wanting to rush. You're the conductor," she looked up at him. "Just let me know the tempo."
The left side of his brow furrowed, and his shoulders raised and lowered with several slow, deliberate breaths.
"Allegrissimo," he finally muttered, his hand tugging her close again and reaching up to bury his fingers in her hair, curling around her skull and pulling her toward him with another unexpected surge of boldness.
To hell with every kind of waiting she had ever imposed upon herself; this was an invitation and she was throwing her leg over his waist and pressing herself into his lap, sinking into the unholy glory of his sudden groan and the shuddering pull of his arms at long, long last. Erik's hands landed hesitantly at the base of her spine, his eyes wide as her legs slid down the outside of his; she felt his ribcage lift her own as he flinched and gasped, arching and pulling her closer still, and her happiness bordered on delirium as she leaned down to meet his lips once again.
The glimpses of sky outside the tall windows of the suite were a deep violet blue, darker than she would have expected for the hour, and she wondered if it was jetlag or the northern latitude that had her sense of day and night off-balance.
"Did you sleep at all, on the flight?"
"No," Christine murmured lethargically, her head leaning atop the shoulder of his canvas motorcycle jacket, still straddling him, feeling the slight shudder as her lips brushed his ear. "I'm exhausted. And I know you never sleep... Maybe we should get a nap before dinner." She nudged the bridge of her nose against the side of his face, the thin mask wrinkling against her touch, unmentioned.
"We," he breathed reverently.
There it was again; a new tone in the voice she knew so well, a sort of rumbling richness that ended in a breathy purr, curious and almost content, as though he couldn't believe his luck.
"I won't twist your arm… but I need to sleep and it would be nice to have you join me…" she pushed herself up, momentarily overcoming the draw of her body to his own and tilting her head side to side, feeling the muscles in her neck ache. She shifted her weight in his lap and his hands flinched, flexing against the pockets of her jeans, as the visible side of his face struggled to maintain a neutral expression in response.
"The odds of me sleeping are non-existent, but I will be wherever you would like me to be, if it means you will get some rest."
His tone was so pragmatic, but the eyes that met her own were dazzled, incredulous, adoring.
"I can't believe this is real." One corner of her mouth curled into a smile. "Do you know how many times I've thought about what it would be like to sleep in your arms?"
Erik blinked, his gaze suddenly rapt and bewildered at once, before he rushed to respond in a wry tone that did little to conceal his earnestness. "No, but you must tell me, in as much detail as possible, about every occasion."
She pressed a kiss to the side of his forehead, mask be damned, and gave him a grin as she pulled back. "Ok. I'm going to go wash off what's left of my makeup and get changed."
His head tilted inquisitively at her last word and she gestured over her shoulder at the shopping bags in the doorway. "I bought some pajamas at one of the boutiques in the train station… when you said we should get the essentials, I got some comfortable clothes and some toiletries. What did you buy?"
"A toothbrush, two proper dress shirts, and a bottle of Champagne." On her look, he shrugged. "None of the stores sold ammunition."
She bit down a laugh, and then recovered to gesture at his motorcycle jacket and tactical attire, "Well… take off whatever you feel comfortable taking off, and I'll see you in the bedroom in a minute?"
Splashing water on her face, brushing her teeth, Christine went about some semblance of a bedtime routine as though she were not on hour thirty-something of a day of resurrections and miracles. She pulled the tags off the soft slate-blue jersey pajama pants, and the matching tank top with lace trim, then slipped them on, her pulse accelerating even amidst her own exhaustion. Just outside this pristine marble room was her heart's desire; a future unfolding in front of her that she thought had been lost forever, and as she caught her own gaze in the mirror she almost didn't recognize the exhilarated and lucky woman smiling back in return.
She saw him in silhouette, standing at the grand arched bedroom window, looking outward with his hands clasped behind him tensely.
...He had removed his shoes, and they sat pointing neatly at the wall.
Her hand slid softly into the crook of his elbow, tugging softly, telegraphing calmness with every bit of acting skill she'd ever had. "Let's get some sleep."
He followed her, silent for maybe the first time she had ever seen, and sat uneasily on the edge of the bed while she tossed the decorative pillows onto the chaise, his eyes darting around the room as she walked around to the other side.
"Do you think," she began, as gently as she possibly could, "that you might be more comfortable with your jacket off? If the answer is no, I understand -"
But he was shrugging out of the jacket wordlessly and tossing it to the floor, revealing a long-sleeved black knit shirt underneath. He leaned back stiffly against the final large feather pillow, still sitting on top of the covers, and scrubbed a hand across his brow, the mask wrinkling - then turned his head to look over at her where she had just settled in on the bed.
"If I were a conductor, I should be fired. Presto, Largo, Vivace, Lento. I can't make sense of anything."
She closed the space between them. "Wouldn't you be the first to tell me, to hell with anyone else's expectations? From here on out, it's just us, being together. Amusing ourselves. Making each other feel good. Hopefully, making each other happy. And while this has been one hell of a day, there's no question that I am so, so happy right now - and if I'm happy and you're happy, who cares about anything beyond that?"
And he laughed, shoulders shaking, palm against his forehead, an exhausted laugh that cracked at the edges, disbelief seeping in.
"This is everything - everything I have ever..." Erik croaked, shaking his head. " I cannot even imagine this moment I am apparently living in."
His eyes met hers, a tentative invitation, and she shimmied under his arm, lifting it above her head to wrap around her back, and she felt his hand tremble against her. Christine raised herself up to press another kiss against his lips and whispered her own love in return, before she laid her cheek on his chest, at long, long last. His ribcage shuddered with the kind of breaths that verged on sobs, and maybe hers did too, but she was too tired to process anything anymore, and eventually tumbled into a deep and viscous slumber.
Exhaustion pulled her down into sleep like an anchor, and she had no idea how much time had passed when she finally opened her eyes. Shapes and images seemed to coalesce in the faint yellow light coming in from the streetlights outside the curtains. She made out a vaulted ceiling twenty feet above her and -
Christine rolled over and exhaled in relief at the sight of him. "Oh - oh, it was real. Not a dream."
Erik lay on his side, turned towards her, his right arm bent beneath his head and his left hand curled inward against his chest, the expression on the exposed side of his face inscrutable.
"Are you certain it wasn't a nightmare?" he asked, with a neutrality in his tone that was wary and protective.
"I love you." And there it was again, that hitch in his breath and visible melt of the rigidity in his shoulders, his eyes looking at her like she'd handed him something unexpected and incomprehensible and wonderful. "I kind of hoped you'd started to believe me."
"I do," and adoration ached in his voice. His hand lifted, hesitated, then closed the distance and cupped her cheek. "It may be some time before I stop believing you'll come to your senses."
Christine raised an eyebrow. "I bent the managers of the Met to my will, told every tabloid in New York I was in love with a ghost, and skipped the country." She exhaled a scoff. "It's wonderful. I'm done with senses. Let's be mad kings forever."
His eyes were full of uncertain awe, and feeling emboldened, she smushed her lips against his wiry shoulder with a casualness that felt foreign, an ease she had never imagined they would have, and judging by the tender gasp he breathed in response, she wasn't the only one.
"Did you sleep?"
Erik's gaze fell to her lips before he let out a chuckle that was tender, self-deprecating. "I'm not sure I'll ever sleep again."
"It's been," she looked over her shoulder at the clock reading ten in the evening. "Four hours? You didn't get any rest?"
"I... assessed the strategic weaknesses of the ingress points to the room; I determined appropriate courses of action for natural or geopolitical disasters ranked by degrees of likeliness; I catalogued nearby opera houses you might enjoy visiting and I…" he paused and gestured with one hand, searching for words. "Listened to you breathe. Tried to catalogue foreign emotions. I think this one is called wonder."
She settled her arm around his waist, noting the way his eyelids fluttered shut in reaction as her fingers slid across his abdomen, then pulled her body closer to him, moving her leg to rest atop his. "I can understand that."
"Oh," his voice ached as he exhaled in surprise. Slowly, his arm moved to wrap around her back, and after a few minutes, he drew his palm up to stroke her hair.
"Is this what… evenings are like? Is this what everyone else on Earth has been doing, all along?"
There was rapture in his tone, but there was also loss, and lost time.
"If they're lucky, maybe. But not everyone, not always."
"There have been more moments in the last eight hours that I might describe as among the best in my life, than there were in almost the entirety of what came before."
Suddenly she was the one fighting back tears, and so she kissed him hard, as though she could crush her lips against his with sufficient force to undo a lifetime of pain. The ache in his exhale sent shivers down her spine as he returned the kiss with increasing confidence, and she raised one hand to the masked side of his face, wondering if it would be pushing too much, if she were to ask him to take it off for a second time that day.
A twinge of headache made her pause, and she must have winced, because he looked up at her in alarm. "Are you well?"
"I… haven't eaten since breakfast on the plane," Chrisitne confessed. "I hate to say it, but I should get dinner or I'm going to get lightheaded. I guess let's get dressed and see if there's somewhere still doing takeout?"
"Good god," he murmured in relief, reaching for the phone by the nightstand, "If ever there were an occasion for room service."
They did not catch the train the next morning, nor the morning after that.
Sometime after day three they abandoned the pretense of looking at train schedules or destination visas or anything beyond the menu for in-room dining. The days became a hazy, blissful blur of meals arriving on domed plates, of murmured confessions and joyous reunion, of buttons slowly being undone, and of not leaving the room whatsoever.
The first time she slipped her hand into the waistband of his pants - her gaze trained on his own wide eyes, her other hand curved against his jaw, asking permission at every step - his voice breathed the most glorious, beautiful, aching groan, and she decided she wanted to spend the rest of her life watching him fall to pieces in her arms.
Wearing the mask was out of habit, he said, but she came to understand it was comfort; as any aspect of him was exposed, from personal history to square inches of skin, he would insist upon it again.
Some days she could convince him to leave it in a drawer in the bedside table for hours at a time. Other days he politely but firmly declined the request, and out of respect for his boundaries she never asked again too soon; time and trust had built all of their bridges thus far.
The suite was a vast expanse of rooms, spread across two levels with a staircase, and it wasn't until half a week had gone by that she'd bothered to walk through all of them. Erik was finally sleeping, soundly, and she was idly exploring, opening cabinets and testing doorknobs. The second sitting room had some rather bland furniture but an interesting selection of Assouline books scattered across an archipelago of coffee tables and bookshelves. After climbing the wrought iron staircase that wrapped oddly around the exterior walls of one room and up to the next floor in some sort of architectural afterthought, she happily discovered that the third sitting room had a piano, and called down to the front desk to extend their reservation for another week.
"You feel so… soft," he breathed, head resting atop her ribs, his eyes rapt on his own fingers stroking idly along the curve at the side of her waist.
She lifted her head from the pile of pillows and blankets they had spread out in front of the suite's largest fireplace, to press a kiss against the top of his head. "I just keep thinking that you feel here. I'm touching you. You're alive. You're touching me and it feels amazing."
Erik exhaled a sigh of contentment, and was still, for several minutes, before hesitantly brushing the hem of her camisole up, tracing each millimeter of skin it revealed on the side of her stomach.
"I'd like to kiss you here."
He turned, and his eyes flicked up to hers guardedly, as though he expected to have found a limit, at last, to her desire for him.
Christine smiled, and drew her fingers through the soft hair at the back of his head.
"You can kiss me anywhere."
His voice dropped an octave, and his eyes dropped lower.
Three minutes into the first proper vocal warmup they'd done together since Argentina, and she shook her head, walking over to sit beside him on the bench of the Broadwood.
"I spent so much time singing my heart out standing on the other side of a piano, when all I wanted was the end of distance between us. I would sing, and feel my soul reaching out of my body, through the notes, through the space, straight through the goddamn piano to connect with yours, and I hated every inch of air between us." She tilted her eyes up at him. "I can't do it today."
Christine expected a lecture on the necessities of posture but he just chuckled. With a surprising sudden hoarseness, he tilted his head against hers and murmured, "Between proper vocal form and reveling in the indecent bliss of your physical proximity, where do you think my priorities lie?"
When she suggested, one afternoon, that it would be nice to take a bath in the impressive claw-footed bathtub that sat in the center of the marble bathroom, Erik went a full minute without blinking, his unmasked brow furrowing slightly more with each passing second as the silence stretched out. Eventually she kissed him on the cheek and murmured, "Ok, I'm going to go run the water and get in. Join me?"
It was a good ten minutes of lounging in the tub with bubble bath up to her chin before she heard the door open behind her, and the sound of his footsteps approach. He placed two cut-crystal coupes and a bottle of champagne on the table beside the basin, and after a moment's hesitation knelt down behind her to wrap an arm around her shoulders, his shirtsleeve dragging in the water without mention, pressing a fervent kiss onto the back of her neck.
"Imagine my dismay, at discovering that my own imagination up until this point had been so limited."
His fingers spread out against her chest, his thumb tracing in small circles on her collarbone, seeming to revel in the new sensation of soap and water and skin. Day by day, he trembled less when he touched her, and she loved his growing boldness.
"Are you getting in?" She reached behind her to caress the side of his face, and felt a flutter of happiness that he had still not put the mask back on today.
"Eventually; for now I want to be able to focus." He drew a reverent path across her clavicle and down her sternum, stopping right where the water met her body. "Tell me… tell me that I may -"
"God yes," she murmured, and his hand slid down her body and disappeared beneath the bubbles.
Later, curled up in Erik's lap in the large soft chair by one of the windows, Christine lifted her hand from his heart, drawing her fingertips across his chest and up the side of his neck, reveling in the small sigh he gave at feeling her touch. Feather-light, she traced the tender muscles of his throat, and even after days of intimacies unfolding in succession, she marveled at the closeness between them; that a man with such ruthless survival instincts would let her touch him somewhere so vulnerable.
A shallow furrow in his skin was a surprise; she hadn't noticed it before, even amidst their increasing states of undress, and Christine paused, expecting him to bristle as she tilted her head back to meet his eyes. Early on, he had laid down a flat refusal of any kind of "battle wound show and tell," as he deemed it - but today he just lifted his hand to the top button of his shirt, slipping it free with his thumb and using the backs of his fingers to open the collar slightly, exposing the fresh pink scar stretching along the side of his neck where it met his shoulder.
"Khan's a terrible shot," he said fondly.
"He actually shot you?" She froze.
"Of course he did," Erik's tone was light, but his eyes were serious. "I sent the first bullet close enough that he had no other choice."
She clenched her eyes shut, dizzy at the narrowness of his survival once again. "He tried to kill you... and missed?"
"Not quite. Poor Nadir's goal, knowing my fondness for ballistic resistant attire, was an incapacitating but entirely survivable chest shot to the Kevlar - but his horrendous marksmanship very nearly turned it into a perfect wound to my carotid artery. Five millimeters to the left and it would have been fatal." Erik chuckled, as though this were almost endearing. "As it was, the first shot grazed my neck; the next two hit their mark a bit lower and knocked me into the canal. I was furious with him - I had finally done something good, and I was so ready to be done... and there he was, failing to kill me outright and then adding insult to injury by dragging me out of the water and plotting this elaborate escape… But I was too injured to argue, at the time."
"From the bleeding?" There was no hiding the rising anxiety in her tone, and involuntarily she pressed her hand against the scar, staunching blood loss long since abated.
He tilted his head slightly, and seemed to be examining her response, carefully weighing his words, before he finally responded, low and soft, "A good layer of Kevlar will prevent the bullet from killing you, but it will absolutely break a few ribs along the way."
Horrified, she flung her arms around him, as though she could squeeze him tightly enough now to offer retroactive protection, burying her face against his neck. "Can I just… hold you, like this, and keep you safe forever? God, Erik…"
"I've never been safe in my life. But the closest I've ever felt to it is being with you," came his murmur, tender, as his hand lifted to stroke the back of her hair, tracing each strand with reverence. "Although at present I'm fighting the urge to catalog every bodily injury I have ever received, since each time I do, you do the most extraordinary things…"
It was impossible to say whether it happened slowly or very quickly; the days lost count as they gained meaning, and sometimes it seemed that every moment was a minor revelation, but one moment above others was upon them, and it was time to ask. She raised a hand to his cheek, brushing her thumb across the mask's thin surface.
But he was interrupting with a question of his own, his chest heaving with ragged breaths as he took her face into his hands, his forehead against hers, his eyes euphoric and imploring at once.
"You must tell me - you must tell me with certainty that you want this."
"More than anything." She pressed a kiss against his lips, and then against the exposed side of his face, tiling her head to kiss the edge where his mask met his lip, "Would you…"
He pushed up on his forearms, away from her, visibly tense, "I… I don't want to ruin this. This one, unimaginable moment -"
"Hey," she conceded, her own brow furrowing with concern. "All I want is us, together, in whatever way makes you comfortable. Maybe... you can take it off next time?"
"...Next time," he repeated, realizing, a future unfolding second by second in his eyes - and it was finally too much; he cracked, visibly, crumpling against her, pressing his mouth against the side of her neck in a silent cry, his shoulders shuddering beneath her palms.
"I love you - I love you. God dammit, I - I," his voice broke, "my Christine."
"Oh, you're mine now too," she murmured, with a lump in her throat as she lifted his head so his eyes could meet her own, "and this is just the beginning."
I swore I was done with Volée, I swore I'd never be done with Volée; I wrote the first chapter of Sympathy for the Devil to distract myself, I started an actual screenplay unrelated to Phantom. My husband and I had a baby (she's lovely!), I doubled the size of the organization I ran at work, I was convinced I had no more time for writing at all - and throughout every part of this, all of the wonderful Volée fans kept reading, reviewing, recommending. I truly expected interest in this story to trail off as soon as new chapters stopped coming, but it's been years since I posted that final motorcycle chase and every couple of days a new reader says hi, so at this point I feel like it's on me again to say: Thank you. Thank you. I can't even begin to tell you how much it means to me to hear from all of you.
This collection of Happily Ever After scenes is an expression of my appreciation for Volée's readers. It is so, so much easier to write angst, and agony, and distance. Writing blissed-out happiness that isn't bland or trite or out of character is all kinds of challenging, but I have attempted it as an act of appreciation for every reader who has ever left a review or sent me a message or commented on a story post over on Tumblr. You have all given me so much over the years; this epilogue is my gift to you.
This epilogue is also written as a love letter to hotels and travel, which I miss something fierce, but I wanted to do it in a way that was sensitive for the time. So many of us are confined at home for safety right now; rather than showing them out gallivanting through small towns in Sweden or taking in an opera in South Africa, I wanted to make the idea of staying in something inviting and private and decadent. I put Erik and Christine in one of the dozen-odd hotels I regularly stay at in London and I felt utterly homesick for walking its beautiful hallways as I was writing this. As always, for location photos, moodboards, and more, go to veroniqueclaire*tumblr*com
Love and safety to you all,