Aubade and Aftermath
Summary: Slightly AU; what if Christine ran back to Erik as the mob approached, just to make sure he survived? And what if she stayed in Erik's kingdom of darkness for three days before returning to Raoul? ALW-based, with Kay influence because I FINALLY READ PHANTOM! w00t!
Disclaimer: If I owned Phantom of the Opera and its many versions, Erik and Christine would have ended up together. So needless to say, I don't own any of them. (And if Kay's ending can be construed as Erik and Christine ending up together, I still don't own it.)
Pairings: Erik/Christine (doy)
Author's Notes: This chappie will contain the promised E/C ending. Do NOT lose faith!
Incidentally, it was Erik who woke first.
He did not even open his eyes; a lifetime of danger and suspicion caused him to immediately evaluate his surroundings before stirring. The first thing he noticed was, of course, the very warm, very feminine body of Christine resting in his arms.
Erik swiftly concluded that he was dreaming.
Christine lay very still, her chest rising and falling in a slow somnolent rhythm. Still asleep, Erik mused, unable to stop himself from drinking in the delicate scent of Christine's hair and the feather-light press of her slackened fingers against his back. If this is a dream, it remains to be seen whether it will be a nightmare or an agreeable dream. Well, that will be easily determined by whether or not Christine screams when she wakes.
He remained as still as he could so as not to disturb his angel's slumber. Half apprehensive and half hopeful, he waited.
Christine woke not much later, and, like Erik, she instantly noted their intimate situation. She did not move either; she feigned sleep in order to savor their position for a while before she had to get up. Christine found Erik's embrace extraordinary; when Erik was holding her, she felt as if someone had ripped a shred from the night sky, woven it into a blanket, and swathed her body in it. The cool soothing fabric of the nighttime seemed to move and settle silkily against her skin, seeping the tension from her muscles, while the bright silver pinpoints of stars touched her like thrilling little explosions and made her skin tingle deliciously. The strangeness of these same sensations had once been off-putting, even frightening to her, but she luxuriated in them now.
When the unbidden, unwanted thought flitted into her head that this would likely be their last embrace, her insides cringed so violently she felt as if she'd been kicked in the stomach. She pictured Erik a few years later, languishing in some dark basement in America, thin and ill and lonely, cold and untouched by another human's comforting warmth. The image made tears spring to her eyes.
Erik noticed that she had woken when he felt her arms tighten around him. "Christine?" he queried hesitantly. "Are you awake?"
"Yes," came the sleepy reply. Christine stayed where she was, apparently not shocked or horrified.
So, this is to be a good dream, then. This is surprising; when I dream at all, it's often a nightmare. A small child who barely knows how to count could hold up a number of fingers to show how many enjoyable dreams I've had…
"Could we please stay like this for a while? I know it's improper, but…please?"
"Of course." Erik tousled her curls a little, not enough to tangle them, just enough to have to smooth them down again.
A drowsy meow came from the foot of the bed, startling both of them. Erik seemed to have two females competing for his attention, even if one was feline; Ayesha had been curled up on his feet. Now she stood, stretched indolently, and climbed over his side, purring. She shot him a quizzical, slightly irritated look when she noticed Christine, as if to say, That girl's in my spot!
Erik's blood turned cold. If this were a dream, Ayesha would likely not be here…it would be just Christine and myself. Am I not dreaming? No, that can't be…neither of us would have allowed this.
"Erik?" Christine squeezed his shoulder. "Is something wrong?"
He did not say anything, for the only thing he could think of to say was, "Christine, am I dreaming?" But that sounded completely ludicrous.
"I'm not leaving just yet." Christine had chosen to guess what was troubling him.
"It isn't that." Memories returned in a flood. Erik remembered Christine's nightmare, leaving her side, Christine coming to find him, and threatening to go sleep in his coffin if he refused to stay with her. It took every ounce of his self-control not to release Christine; at this point, she would have been more offended than relieved. But still, Erik could not quite grasp that Christine had convinced him to lie beside her like this.
"Perhaps we should get up."
Christine tipped her head back to look at him. "But…I thought you would want…"
"If I don't release you soon, your boy will think I've abducted you permanently and send the entire Parisian police force down here. I do not particularly wish to be shot dead today."
Christine winced. "They wouldn't shoot you, right?"
"If they believe that my death is necessary in order to rescue you, then yes."
She buried her face in Erik's shirtfront. "You are so used to people trying to kill you that you know all this so…so clearly?"
"You might say that," he replied, gently outlining Christine's shoulder blade with his thumb.
"When I asked you what kind of life you had known, I hadn't any notion what I was asking!"
"No, angel, you didn't."
Christine's arms wrapped even closer around Erik's torso.
"Christine! I do believe my ribs are in danger of being snapped!"
"Oh! I am sorry." She loosened her grip hastily, but Erik was laughing.
"You have no idea how relieving it feels for me to know you care, Christine…even if you express that care by nearly squeezing the life from me."
Christine couldn't hold back a soft giggle.
"I should get you some breakfast now. It's already eight-o-clock, or thereabouts."
"How can you tell?" she protested, faintly dreading the moment when Erik would let go of her; after all, this was likely their last embrace. Ever.
"If you've lived in darkness as long as I have, you can tell how the day is changing and progressing without even using a clock."
"Is that the same reason you can see in the dark?" Christine was fairly sure her attempt to distract him would fail, but even if it could gain her a few seconds…
"Not exactly. I have always had excellent night vision. I suppose I was lucky, to have such a gift that would allow me to survive in this unending nighttime, as I can't survive in the normal world."
Christine questioned, "If you can't survive in the 'normal world,' how will you survive in the New World?"
"I will find a place. Somewhere dark, and underground, where no one but rats will think to look. Perhaps an old church basement might have an organ…"
A fresh idea leapt into her thoughts. "But what about Ayesha? And your bats?"
"I will bring them with me, of course. The bats will need a cage, but I can make one that will suit them."
"Oh." Christine's mind scrambled frantically for another excuse for Erik to stay.
"We should get up, angel."
"…all right," she conceded miserably. She felt Erik's arms unwrap from around her body, and a swell of cold disappointment rose in her stomach.
"I'm afraid I don't have time to make you any porridge," Erik remarked, standing and straightening his mask. "You'll have to eat the same as you did yesterday."
"You may want to gather your things. Your breakfast will be ready for you when you are finished."
She nodded, pushing the sheets away from her body and slipped off her bed. Her bare toes curled against the cold floor. "Erik?"
"Yes?" He had been brushing aside the sheer silver curtain, but hadn't exactly left yet.
"I will…miss you."
Erik sighed lightly. "I hope for your sake that you're wrong."
Christine bowed her head and began packing her belongings as Erik left. Her movements were unhurried, deliberate, as if she could slow time by moving slowly herself. Even after she was done, she lifted her father's violin case from its place in her saddlebag and ran her fingertips over the worn leather, remembering how Erik had risked venturing into the half-destroyed opera house to retrieve it for her.
She undressed, painfully aware of the cold air's bite on her bare skin. She trembled, hastily pulling on the shifts and gown that she had conveniently left out. Looking down at herself, she realized abruptly that she had chosen a dress of which Raoul was not fond, an odd choice for the day when she would return to him. It was a soft, pale mauve color, one that seemed to shift to light rose or smooth grey depending on the light; Christine loved the changing colors. They reminded her of a flame in a gentle breeze, for you could watch the fabric (or the flame) for ages and still not be quite sure which color you were seeing. There were few embellishments or decorations, except for a web of silky white fibers and tiny pearls hanging gracefully below the neckline. It fit the shape of her slight body well without being at all scandalous or revealing. Raoul considered the gown plain. "It's so drab," he had once complained to her. "You should wear something a bit more elaborate, Christine. That old thing makes you look so ordinary and prudish." Christine had disagreed; she thought the dress made her look delicate and alluring, even a little mysterious. When she was young, she had always feared fading into the mundane, and she felt that a hue-shifting gown was at least a little extraordinary. I have a strange feeling that Erik would agree with me. Raoul wouldn't listen to me, though…he requested that I change into a new dress at least thrice the last time I wore this.
Christine carried her bags to the kitchen, her feet dragging as if they supported an intolerable burden. She nearly tripped several times, each time almost wishing she had, for it would mean an extra few seconds of getting back on her feet. True to his word, Erik had finished making breakfast for her, and, surprisingly, himself.
"At least I know you'll keep your promise to keep eating once I'm gone," Christine remarked in a falsely cheery voice. Erik, of course, noticed her failed attempt at maintaining a light mood.
"I will make my most valiant attempt to do so," Erik assured her, walking over to run his hand over her curls as she sat down. She turned her head into the light touch, but his hand fell away. "You should eat quickly, Christine. The faster you return to your boy, the less likely he is to storm this place."
She nodded silently and began eating. Her mouth was dry and tasted of bloody sand, so she could not even sense the flavor of the marmalade on her bread.
Across the table from her, Erik watched her carefully, well aware of her discomfort. It may be difficult for her to accept that we are to be separated now, but soon she will accept it. Likely she'll ever wonder why she thought she would miss me…
Christine's eating pace was very like her packing pace; purposefully slow. She knew Erik was right about Raoul becoming more and more suspicious the later it got, and yet she could not force herself to hurry.
Erik apparently thought he could assist with that. "I know you wish to draw out your stay here, angel, but you cannot."
"I know." Christine squeezed her eyes shut.
Erik had already finished eating, so he got up and crossed the room again to stand behind Christine's chair and lightly rest his hands on her shoulders, feeling that the simple contact was enough comfort for both of them. Christine was still halfway through her breakfast, but she placed her left palm over one of his hands.
"Angel, I know this saddens you now, but I'd lay odds you'll feel better within a day or so of going home."
"I would take that wager!" Christine laughed ruefully.
"Would you? Just a few months ago, a single day destroyed thirteen years of trust and friendship between us. What are three insignificant days compared to thirteen years? I'd not be surprised if you began hating me once more as soon as you're back in the Vicomte's arms."
"No!" Christine whispered fiercely. "I promise."
"If you say so, Christine."
When she was done eating, Erik gave a light squeeze to her shoulder. "We should depart now."
"Do you ever consider just keeping me here and not letting me go back to Raoul?"
"Oh, come now, think about this situation as a fairy tale: childhood sweethearts reunited after many years, against all the odds. What right do I have to interfere with such a happy ending?"
"What about your happy ending?" Christine shot back. Knowing Erik for thirteen years had given her a good idea of how to engage in a witty repartee.
He snickered dryly. "I'm alive. That's more than the poor dragons in fairy tales can hope for."
"May I at least say goodbye to New Moon before we go?" she pleaded.
I can't deny her that; I know she and New Moon have bonded. "Certainly."
They walked side by side to the closed-off miniature cave where the bats resided. Erik lit a candle, and the bats soon flocked to him, except for New Moon, who crawled over to Christine. She cupped the plucky little animal in both hands and gentled his ears and his contorted wings. He hung from Christine's index finger, his feet digging into her skin, but she didn't mind.
"We should go, angel. I keep expecting to hear a raiding party clamoring as they hunt me out with rifles."
He was right, so Christine carefully set New Moon back down. She petted Shadow's one ear before proceeding out the door, her heavy heart weighing down her steps.
After she had returned to the kitchen, Christine took a final look at Erik's magnificent home. The delicate yet majestic candelabra that she had so admired—the stately, shining pipes of the organ, looming above the bench where she and Erik had sat—the fascinating curls and wisps of evanescent mist off the lake—Erik's kingdom of music. Erik rules this place of beauty and harmony like a king, and I could have been his queen…
"Come, Christine." Erik beckoned from the open entrance to one of the tunnels. She lowered her gaze obediently strode demurely to his side, fighting the harsh tingle at the backs of her eyes. Being his usual gentlemanly self, Erik carried one of Christine's saddlebags for her; his other hand was occupied with holding hers.
The meandering walk through the catacombs to the upper world seemed to take less time than it takes you to flinch when a friend snaps their fingers by your ear. Christine blinked at the painful whiteness assaulting her senses when Erik led her into the sunlight. Paris was already bustling with both equestrian and pedestrian traffic, and the clattering and shouting noises bombarded Christine's ears. She flinched uncomfortably, squinting against the pulsating glare of sunlight. The colors of the rapidly moving surrounding scene seemed gaudy, almost odious, searing her eyes with their obnoxious brightness.
"Let's find you a cab, my angel." Seeing her discomfort at the barrage of sights and sounds, Erik gently lifted the hand that held his to her forehead, shielding her eyes.
Christine stood trembling at his side while Erik hailed a cab. She leaned her cheek against his bony shoulder, unable to believe that in a few minutes her cab would ride out of sight and she would never see Erik again. A week ago, I would have been on bended knee thanking God for such a thing! How could three days change so much? She clung tighter to his arm, hoping her clutching fingers weren't hurting him.
"Christine?" He reached over to take her gripping hand. "I know this is difficult for you. I am sorry…but this whole ordeal will be over soon."
"Difficult for me?" she whispered. "What about you? How can you be so calm about this?"
"'This,' as you call it, is like removing stitches. Do it quickly and think about the pain afterwards. It is taking every ounce of self-control that I never knew I had not to drag you kicking and screaming back to my home."
"I wouldn't kick and scream." She pressed her face into his sleeve.
"Don't tempt me."
"Need a cab, monsieur?"
Christine glanced up, startled, to find that a carriage had pulled up on the street in front of her. Her hand tightened around Erik's slender fingers.
Erik withdrew a small packet of folded monetary bills from a pocket and handed them to the driver. "Take her to the Chagny estate. Make sure she gets there safely."
"Will do, monsieur." The cabbie pocketed the money.
Erik pried Christine's fingers from his, unfortunately not keeping her hand clasped within his for any length of time longer than necessary. "Here are your things, Christine."
"Just Christine?" She smiled bitterly. "I'm not your angel anymore?"
"Don't say that!" Erik took her firmly by the shoulders, but not enough to hurt. "Christine, you will always be my angel. You know that."
"Yes, I know." Summoning every ounce of her strength, Christine tore her arms from Erik's grasp and threw them around his neck.
Erik froze, startled by the gesture. "Christine, there isn't time…"
"I'm not leaving until you put your arms around me!" she whispered fiercely.
Finally giving in to the instincts that screamed at him to embrace Christine, Erik slipped his arms around the warm, lithe body of the young woman who he had practically raised. They held on to each other with a desperate, almost painful tightness, but neither let go.
"Mam'selle?" inquired the confused cabbie. "Are you coming?"
"I'll be right along," Christine called. She laid her cheek against Erik's chest, battling tears.
"You should go, angel."
In response, Christine began quietly singing the Irish blessing that Erik had taught her. She could not say bring herself to simply say goodbye, but perhaps she could express it through music. "May the road rise up to meet you." Her voice felt as if it had been swallowed up halfway out her mouth, for the words were strangled and barely discernible.
But Erik understood. "May the wind be always at your back." His voice, unlike hers, was clear; it was rich and warm with feeling.
"May the sun shine warm upon your face…" Christine sang back, struggling to rid her tone of the choking sorrow. She failed.
"…and the rain fall soft upon your fields."
The next line was "until we meet again," but Erik knew perfectly well that he and Christine would never again see each other. Instead of replying with song, Erik smoothed Christine's hair and carefully pressed a kiss to the top of her head. Her curls felt cool and smooth, smelling faintly of early spring roses.
Christine's heart thumped painfully, thinking of how it would be the last time Erik kissed her—or anyone, most likely.
He released her from their feverish embrace, and Christine felt an ice dagger plunge into her stomach. Still holding her hand, Erik guided her gently to the carriage, opening the door for her, helping her inside, lifting her saddlebags onto her lap.
She clung. The small white fingers were surprisingly strong, and her nails left thin pink lines in Erik's anemic skin. "Erik, wait."
He looked slowly into her quivering eyes and did not try to extricate his hand from her grip.
"Will I…see you again? Ever?"
Erik smiled morosely. "I believe you already know the answer to that, angel." He gently eased his fingers away from hers and closed the carriage door. He turned away as the horses began trotting, their footfalls like gunshots to Christine's ears, and she nearly plastered herself to the window, watching Erik's cape flutter lightly as he retreated. As he faded swiftly into the crowd, the tears Christine had been suppressing began to flow, slow caustic rivulets cutting tracks in her pale cheeks.
"No, I don't believe I know the answer to that, Erik," she whispered fervently, brushing a salty droplet of water away from her face. "But I do believe that we will meet again. And until then…may God hold you in the palm of his hand."
If only such ardent faith could truly change reality…
The pain of seeing Christine and that foolish, ignorant, weak, spoiled boy embrace against a backdrop of excruciatingly lovely Parisian sky was a mere scratch, a paper cut, compared to this.
As Erik descended into the cold, lifeless depths of his home, he could see nothing for the thick smoldering tears glazing his eyes. His feet moved independently of his mind, his hands disabling traps from memory so old it was now innate—how long had it been, that he remembered such things as if they were animal instincts? Thirteen years? Thirteen bloody years of languishing in this miserable darkness unfit for human life, thirteen years laboring over the tutelage of Christine Daaé, then later the comforting, the protection, the obsession…what was the opera house without her? At the time of its construction, designing the opera house had seemed like an act of love, almost, creating something so magnificent, that would give music to all of Paris…what was it now? A great massive pile of crumbling stone, disintegrating metals, and twisted rubble? Erik's self-imposed position as Opera Ghost had once been devoted to purging the unworthy and the talentless, presenting only the loveliest and most well-prepared productions to the public. When had it become his life's work to make Christine into the scintillating star she so deserved to be?
Erik stumbled, a thing he hadn't done in years, if ever—with perhaps a few exceptions in the past few days. He couldn't recall. All that was important was that Christine's time with him was over. Was he already forgetting how innocent and endearing she looked when she blushed shyly at a compliment? Was he already forgetting how, at the tender age of ten, she had been all joints and skinny limbs and frizzy hair and used to cry over how her Angel was her only friend?
He pressed his hand to his chest and was amazed to find his heart still beating. And, oh, it was beating, fast and hard, at a rate that was surely impossible to survive. Each throb of the bitter useless muscle sent shockwaves of exquisite agony through every inch of his body, so intense it was almost nausea. Erik lost his balance and slumped to the floor in a half-conscious state. The rough ground bit into his bony kneecaps, but that pain was insignificant, minuscule.
Christine is gone.
He wondered dimly if it were indeed possible to die of a broken heart. For his was certainly about to either burst from sheer effort or give out completely. He realized that the hand placed against his stricken heart was trembling so quickly it seemed blurry. Or was that only the tears?
Get a hold of yourself! Erik screamed internally. You have no right to be upset over this! No right at all! Christine is gone—well, good! She'll be happy now, and safe from you; is that now what you want for her? All she wants is "freedom, a world with no more night." You gave that to her! Selfish, greedy, thing you are, crying over her!
Yes, he should be happy for Christine, who was on her way to a better life.
Ayesha, bless her feline heart, came to his side, climbed into his legs, and began licking the uncovered side of his face. She pawed gently at Erik's chest, as if to ask, "What's wrong, my human?"
"She's gone," he said simply in reply.
Christine sat stiffly through the remainder of the ride to Raoul's estate. Her spine felt as if it had changed to wood, and her tears froze on her icy cheeks. Instead of breaking down and sobbing inconsolably, which she had rather felt like doing at first, she felt completely numb. Someone could run a sword through my belly and I would not feel it, she thought dimly. Her hands were red and raw from gripping the handles of her saddlebags, but there was no pain.
The carriage halted. Christine's head jerked forward loosely, as if her frame were being manipulated by a marionetteer who had threaded strings through her body when she wasn't looking.
"We're here, mam'selle."
"Merci beaucoup," she replied distantly.
"I say, are you all right?"
"What?" She blinked, startled by the question.
The cabbie turned to look at her. He was a bit older than middle age, and had a face that had been worn and used by life, well-lined with a thin white scar above one eyebrow. "It's none of my business, mam'selle, but you seemed like you didn't exactly want to leave your husband behind, there…"
"Oh, he…he isn't my husband. We…we're not even a couple, really…" She laid her head against the stiff headrest. "He is my teacher." I dare not say anything else. I might damn Erik to die before he left if I let slip that the Phantom is still alive.
"I see," replied the cabbie, his eyes widening in surprise. "Good day, then, mam'selle."
Christine fumbled with the door handle before almost tumbling onto the pavement. Her shoulder made hard contact with the side of the carriage as she tripped; it would surely leave a bruise, but she barely noticed. As the carriage drove away, the clatter of the wheels on the grimy cobblestones sounded more like distant thunder than the sharp, hollow reports that she had expected. She plodded listlessly to the door, unable to feel the cruel slicing wind against her cheeks as it billowed her loose curls out behind her.
The doors loomed, broad, lifeless, expanses of dead wood. She lifted a heavy brass knocker, which was adorned with the ugly, incredibly unrealistic visage of a lion. Christine had always thought of lions as majestic and beautiful, fit for better things than doorknockers.
A gray-faced butler with a comically large nose opened the door. "May I help you, mademoiselle?" His tone could not be described as anything but condescending. His beady black eyes regarded her as if she were a beetle crawling in the street.
Christine swallowed, utterly at a loss. She had little knowledge of etiquette in such situations. "I'm—I'm here to see Raoul. I mean, the Vicomte. My name is Christine Daaé…I am his fiancé?" She did not mean for the last sentence to become a question, but it sounded that way, as if she were asking whether or not she and Raoul were truly betrothed.
"I am afraid," said the butler, sniffling lightly as if Christine smelled badly, "that Monsieur le Vicomte is indisposed at the moment…"
"Fabien!" a familiar voice echoed throughout the massive entry hall. "I told you to keep a lookout for her!"
"I presumed, Monsieur le Vicomte," said Fabien stiffly, the corners of his mouth turning down like putty, "that you might have chosen a woman of higher standing as your bride…"
Raoul raced down the enormous spiraling staircase. "Let her in, Fabien!"
"Very well." The butler swung the door open and bowed perhaps half an inch as Christine walked inside with a tremulous "thank you."
Raoul rushed to Christine's side and embraced her tightly, apparently forgetting the rules of propriety that expressly forbade him from such a show of affection. More out of reflex than the actual desire to do so, she dropped her bags to the floor and returned Raoul's hug.
"I was worried about you, Little Lotte!" He kissed her gently on the mouth. "I was ready to send the police to storm that monster's place and get you out of there before something terrible happened."
So Erik was right, Christine thought, chilled. If I'd delayed much longer, Raoul would have brought the police to Erik's home and he likely would have been shot.
Raoul, of course, misunderstood Christine's shudder. "It's all right. You're here now."
Christine said nothing. Instead, she found herself thinking how ordinary Raoul's embrace seemed. In just the past minute, he had shown her more affection than Erik had allowed himself over the past three days, yet it seemed unimpassioned. When Erik had embraced her, it was an Event, with a capital letter, something to treasure and remember.
Raoul released her and took her gently by the shoulders. "Are you well, Little Lotte? Was that…that thing cruel to you? Did he beat you?"
Did I really use to talk about Erik that way? Christine wondered. No wonder he was so convinced I hated him! "No, of course not. Erik wouldn't hurt me, not on purpose."
"Erik?" Raoul repeated, puzzled.
"That's his name. Didn't I tell you that in my note to you? I also remember writing that you shouldn't be worried."
"I thought that he would have forced you to write those things!"
"Raoul, he's not nearly as terrible as you think," Christine insisted. "He saved me more than once, even when he had stopped caring about his own life. He treated me very well, really."
"Really?" The Vicomte was evidently surprised. "He didn't…take advantage of you?"
"No!" Christine cried vehemently. Why does everyone assume that Erik raped me? "Erik would never do such a thing to me."
"Thank God," Raoul sighed. "My parents would never let us marry if such a thing had happened to you."
Christine's head snapped up. That was why Raoul was glad? He didn't care about her feelings if she had actually been raped? "Why, because I wouldn't be a virgin? It's not as if we hadn't already…"
"Hush!" Raoul placed a finger over Christine's mouth. Fabien was still in earshot.
Christine kept her mouth shut. It had happened only once—they both decided that the risk of Christine becoming pregnant was too great—but no one could know.
"Come upstairs," Christine's fiancé urged her. "We will talk, and you can forget those three days of hell."
Christine walked with him to the stairs, but countered his words. "'Three days of hell?'" She reiterated, a little angrily.
He glanced at her, startled, his long hair swinging around his chin. Christine was suddenly irritated; couldn't Raoul cut his hair? Its length was more immature than sophisticated. "Christine, you can't tell me you actually enjoyed spending time with that creature!"
"Don't call him that!" she snapped, startled at her own fervor. "He's not a creature, or a thing. He's a man. And he was very kind to me, if you must know."
Raoul blithely laughed off Christine's intense denial. She bristled, strangely incensed. Had Raoul always paid so little attention to what she said? "He was kind to you? Where did he learn how to behave that way, I wonder?"
Christine retorted, "That's a rather good question, actually, considering he's seen almost no kindness his entire life. But wherever he learned it, he's better at it than most men I've met."
"All right, Little Lotte, he was kind to you. If you say so." Raoul made an attempt to kiss her, but she dodged. She knew he didn't believe her. Spontaneous kisses from Raoul weren't enough to mollify her anymore.
"Not if I say so. It is true. He made sure I wanted for absolutely nothing. He taught me new songs and told me folk tales from all the places he's been—he's likely seen half the world! And he made this for me!" They had reached the landing at the top of the staircase, and now that she was no longer walking, Christine could carefully lift the rose pendant from where it rested on her collarbone without any fear of damaging it. "Look at this, Raoul. Imagine how long it took him to make it." She did not know how to describe the miraculous aura of care and tenderness that the necklace possessed, but surely Raoul could see it!
Raoul took the pendant in his hand. "It's quite pretty, but you say he made this for you?"
"He did. He's a genius. He's not only an extraordinary composer and wonderful music teacher—and he designed the opera house!—but he must know more about medicine than most doctors. I came down with a cold the night he rescued me. He dosed me with something—I'm not quite positive what, but I know it was something he created—and I was fine by the next morning. Compared to that, what is a necklace, even one this…incredible?" Christine cupped the pendant in both palms, gazing down at one of the two physical mementos she had of her stay in Erik's home.
"It's only an ordinary necklace, Christine." Raoul moved to her side and slipped an arm around her waist, concern glowing in his eyes. "He's bewitched you again."
"'Bewitched?' I'm afraid there is a difference between genius and sorcery, Raoul!" She moved away from his half-embrace. "When he plays for me, yes, I am transfixed, it is like magic, but it's beautiful music, not witchcraft."
"When he plays for you?"
"Yes—he plays violin and organ, likely piano, and God knows what else. He wrote his own requiem."
"Little Lotte," said Raoul gently, "it sounds as if he's trying to win you over by…overwhelming you with gifts and such."
"What would you know about dazzling a woman with meaningless trinkets, Raoul? Does your brother Philippe do such things? You've told me he's a rather typical nobleman in that sense, unlike you…" 'Dazzling a woman with meaningless trinkets?' Goodness, I'm beginning to sound a bit like Erik… "Erik loves me. He is a musician; writing songs for me is his way of expressing it."
"He doesn't love you!" Raoul looked thoroughly shocked at the notion. "He is obsessed with you. He's a madman!"
When she looked up, Christine's eyes blazed with such passion that Raoul almost flinched. What had happened to his timorous Little Lotte, who needed his protection from the monster under the opera house?
Her voice was calm, if stretched taut. Even when upset, Christine had never been one to pitch tantrums and become violent. (Raoul, obviously, didn't know how Christine had slapped Erik for calling himself a monster.) "Raoul, let me ask you something. Let's say you take a boy eight years old whose family has treated him with fear and disgust, put him in a cage in a gypsy freak show with a keeper who beats him so terribly he still has countless scars. Then after he escapes, he becomes a kindly stonemason's apprentice; say the stonemason has a beautiful daughter who runs off a high balcony and dies when she sees the poor boy's face. He is only a teenager when this happens. You expect this boy to grow into a man without him going mad?"
"Those things happened to the—to Erik?" Raoul's skepticism was obvious.
"Yes. And that's not even the half of it, I expect. I know he was an architect for the shah of Persia, but all he would tell me was that he has a friend—Nadir Khan, I think his name is—who was the police chief of the kingdom. Oh, and Monsieur Khan had a sick son, whose disease was not curable; Erik took it upon himself to make the boy's passing as painless as possible."
"Lies, Christine." Raoul insisted softly. "Elaborate lies to make you feel sorry for him."
"I saw the scars! I saw them on his back. There's no skin left in some places, only scarring. They had a rather stretched look about them, as well—you know, as if they'd been made when he was very, very young!" Is this me speaking? Since when am I so…assertive? Well, perhaps Raoul will listen more closely to me now…
Raoul paled, looking absolutely nauseous. "Christine, that is disgusting! It isn't like you to say such things! What has happened to you?"
"I have finally opened my eyes," she replied heavily. "Raoul, you have never seen real pain, real suffering. Erik has seen more than any man should have to experience in ten lifetimes. I may not fully understand what he's been through, but I have discovered just how cruelly I treated him. He wasn't completely mad when he first became my Angel of Music—when I panicked, ran from him, decided I hated him, that was when he went mad. I was—I am—all he had. He's devoted his entire life to being my Angel, and I…" Christine broke off and shook her head. "Like a foolish child, I discarded him."
"You were right to do that!" Raoul insisted, taking Christine in his arms. She did not return the embrace. "Do you not remember the night he killed a man? I have never seen you so terrified!"
"Buquet died in a trap protecting Erik's home. He was trespassing." Christine did not mention that Erik would have likely disposed of Buquet anyway, considering his questionable intentions toward Christine and Meg. "In one night, I forgot thirteen years Erik spent laboring over caring for me. Did you know he was there on the roof that night? He saw us. He watched the only person he had ever dared to hope would accept him choose another man." She wriggled free of Raoul's arms and leaned over the banister, her fingers white and strained over the varnished wood, barely able to imagine and unable to comprehend the horrible things Erik must have felt, watching Christine and Raoul embrace.
When she felt a pair of arms encircle her waist from behind, she found herself wishing it were Erik, whispering that Christine was still his little angel and he had forgiven her for betraying him.
Of course, it was Raoul, and Christine could not pretend; Erik's arms were thinner, unhealthier, despite their wiry strength.
"I'm worried he's dying, Raoul," she murmured.
"No one can really die of a broken heart, Little Lotte," Raoul reassured her, kissing her cheek.
"No," she agreed, "but one can die of starvation."
"He has stopped eating since I denied him." Christine closed her eyes, remembering the sharpness of Erik's shoulder underneath her soothing palm the first time she had realized how emaciated he had become. "He's barely more than a skeleton now."
"He stopped eating? What, to gain sympathy from you?" Raoul sounded almost amused.
Christine was losing her patience, a thing that rarely happened…well, it had rarely happened, up until lately. "He would rather feel hungry than feel heartsick."
"That's a bit melodramatic, isn't it?"
"He lives under an opera house, Raoul."
"Christine…you don't…feel sorry for him, do you?" He spoke the words as if the idea were faintly absurd.
"Of course I do! No one could be so heartless as to…" she trailed off, shaking her head. The sentence did not need finishing.
"Little Lotte," said Raoul softly, "perhaps you should rest. You've been through quite a lot the past few days."
"All right," Christine sighed. I need some time alone, to think about this…
"You may stay in the guest bedroom."
"Do…do your parents have any objection to me staying here?"
"My parents and Philippe are away on official business. They won't know."
"What will you tell them when they return?" Christine pressed, knowing Raoul's tendency to not think of consequences. When he had plunged into the sea to rescue her scarf when they were young, he hadn't considered that he would become soaking wet after doing so.
Raoul shrugged lightly, just as Christine had expected him to do. "We will cross that bridge when we come to it." He shepherded her into the guest bedroom; she laid her saddlebags down beside the bed and sat down on the corner. Raoul settled down beside her and draped her arm leisurely across her shoulders.
"I would like to be alone for a little while."
He nodded diplomatically. "Of course; you need some time to recover after staying with—" He cut himself off when he saw the wary, almost warning look Christine gave him. "After being away," he substituted quickly. "If you need me, just ring the bell on the bedside table. Fabien or one of the maids will hear it, and you can tell them that you wish to see me."
"Couldn't I just call you?" she queried, wondering at the practicality of such a system.
Raoul looked perplexed. "Christine, this manor is very extensive. No one can be shouting!"
She couldn't help but be slightly wounded at his abrupt negation of her suggestion. "All right." Christine hugged her knees to her chest and turned her gaze to a random spot in the air, indicating that she was finished conversing.
Raoul left her alone with her thoughts. She considered unpacking her bags, but instead she remained sitting on the stiff cover of the guest room bed. The room was quite ornate, certainly, but in Christine's mind, it was flamboyant and a little vulgar. The elaborately crafted, darkly stained furniture was built in the latest fashion; Christine noted the familiar claw-footed style that made her spine shudder. The colors of the drooping curtains and matching bedspread were ostentatious and arrantly bright, and the room seemed stuffed fat and pompous with gaudy hues and pieces of ridiculously intricate furnishings. The atmosphere was not tasteful; it reeked of excessive wealth that begged and screamed to be displayed until the onlooker's head spun. Christine found herself missing the cool, swirling, omnipresent mist and quietly elegant darkness of Erik's home.
Erik simply creates things to be beautiful, Christine thought listlessly. He doesn't have to try, and he certainly doesn't fail like this! She lay down on the coverlet, turning her face into the fabric so she couldn't see the odious décor. The quilt felt rough and coarse against her soft skin, and it smelled starched and unfriendly. What would Erik say if he could see this vulgar tableau…
Erik. What was he doing now? Was he already attempting to gather his things for the trip to America? Or was he mourning her? She remembered him saying, "This is like removing stitches. Do it quickly and think about the pain afterwards." So now that Christine was gone, was he finally allowing himself to think of how much it hurt to lose her?
She placed a cold hand over her own heart, which seemed inflamed and sore. I miss him…but whatever pain I feel must be increased tenfold for him. I wonder if he'll ever recover from this. He has already survived so much, but God, when does it become too much? Christine's tears slipped quietly down her face, sinking into the abrasive material of the coverlet and softening it. Erik wants what is best for me. He is certain that I would be better off with Raoul rather than him, but if this heartache doesn't subside, I don't know if I can stay away!
She rolled onto her back, eyes closed. "What should I do?" she whispered aloud. I can't ask anyone for advice. I must make this decision for myself. But who would I ask anyway? What would Papa want me to do?
An unexpected pang shot through her chest at the thought, so sharp and cruel she almost cried out. I've lost my mother, my father, and now Erik. Why does it have to hurt so much? Her eyes cracked open as she recalled something Erik had said about her father…something about her heartache being an "old wound" that had never healed. Erik said that I had kept my sorrow hidden, and that is why I still mourn. But I wonder if Raoul will listen…
She mentally shook herself. It would not do to dwell on her distress. Instead, she tried to focus only on her breathing, which was something Erik had taught her to do when she was very young and the other ballet rats had been teasing her. It had always helped her relax, and once she was calm, she had been able to realize that the other girls' taunts didn't bother her much after all. Eventually, she was able to tune out the other dancers' teasing even while it was happening, and they stopped mocking her altogether.
Today, though, she could not seem to concentrate. When she rolled back onto her side to try to get more comfortable, she found herself remembering how she had been in that exact posture when she had awakened, except the first thing she'd noticed upon waking was Erik's arms wrapped around her. I felt like the nighttime was holding me, Christine thought, squeezing her body inside her own arms. Most people would find such an idea strange, but I don't…not anymore…
Frustrated and confused, she stood and paced…as if that could clear her mind when she'd been unable to meditate. She shut the door room, straightened the bedclothes, and rearranged her belongings, but she still felt agitated and even a little choleric, as if she desperately needed to do something; and apparently mundane activities could not dispel such feelings. Normally, Christine could dispel antsy feelings by reorganizing things; the mindless activity helped her calm down. As a result, she had always been very organized.
Today, though, her soul itched with something deeper than mere restlessness. Something was wrong, and she could not remedy the situation without knowing what was so deeply troubling her. And she thought again, What should I do, Papa? She had tacitly asked that question many times since her father died, as if he could hear her and might send her a message from heaven. It hadn't yet brought an appreciable response, but it somehow seemed to help.
As she paced, the image of a young woman in her peripheral vision caught her eye. When she whirled to see who it was, she felt relieved and a little foolish to note that the thing she had seen was a mirror. She had not recognized herself at first.
She stepped closer to the mirror, mystified by her own reflection. The person in the mirror was not a young girl, but a young woman…an extremely beautiful young woman gazing back at her. The reflection had a mass of dark curls that spilled in half-chocolate, half-ebony resplendence over her back and shoulders, and extremely dark eyes that sparkled distantly as if her pupils held start. Her complexion was fair, quite fair, but it was not the paleness of exhaustion or disease; her skin seemed to be made of the purest white silk. The woman was clad in a gown of subtle color that shifted from hue to hue like the waxing and waning of the moon. Christine's immediate reaction was that she was looking at an illustration of a nymph or princess in a fairy tale.
That's me, she thought with a little shiver. She reached forward to brush her fingertips against the cool surface of the mirror, as if needing reassurance that the reflection she saw was indeed hers. Has my hair always had black in it? Have my eyes always looked like that?
Three days spent learning to see the beauty in darkness had changed her. She had become, like Erik, a denizen of the kingdom of nighttime.
I look…beautiful, Christine thought, almost dazed. I look like I do in Erik's drawings. Am I really that…do I really look like this, and I never noticed? I always saw myself as a skinny mess of joints, but apparently that is no longer the case!
She turned her eyes to the reflection of her own face. The expression, at least, was hers; one of wonder tainted with confusion. The unfamiliar silvery stars, though, continued to twinkle mysteriously in the stills of her eyes.
Christine wrapped both of her cold arms around herself, as if in an embrace. She paced aimlessly, back and forth, like a black panther stolen from the dark, wild safety of the jungle and imprisoned in an iron cage.
When the light tap came at her door, she started so violently that her feet lifted slightly off the ground.
"Yes?" She ran her hands over her curls almost reflexively.
Raoul pushed the door open and moved forward a few steps to take Christine in his arms. It took her a few seconds to notice, and to return the gesture; their embrace felt depressingly ordinary, like placing one's foot on a step to climb into a carriage.
"Dinner is ready, Christine." Raoul tousled her hair playfully.
"All right," she replied stiffly.
He released her, taking her by the shoulders and appraising her like a sculpture or a painting. Christine felt slightly offended.
"That tired old grey thing again?" He said with opprobrium. "Little Lotte, don't you ever wear anything a little more…interesting?"
"I love this dress." Christine's response sounded a bit colder than she intended.
"You'd look much lovelier in brighter colors," Raoul continued, as if she'd never spoken. "You should change."
"I won't change," Christine retorted as visions of bright, gaudy, vulgar hues flitted through her mind. "I want to wear this. I'm not fond of bright colors."
Raoul peered into her face. "Are you all right? You don't seem like yourself. And look how pale you are!"
"I've always been pale, Raoul, I'm Swedish."
"Are you sure you're all right? You look ill."
"I'm perfectly all right," she insisted.
"Well…if you say so." Raoul slipped his arm around her, and they proceeded down the corridors that way.
The deChagny dining room was massive.
Christine felt as if her senses were being completely overloaded as she stepped into the room. The style reminded her of that of the guestroom: florid, showy, and, in the end, unattractive from its excessive décor. She found her mind unable to focus on one thing alone; there was only one thing at a time, so she chose to rip her divided attention from the enormous tumbling scarlet curtains, the rug with its ludicrously ornate patterns, the ugly and overdone curves and curlicues of the furniture, and God knows what else, and study the delicate rose pendant at her throat. The rose's petals were intricate, of course, but there was a difference between the perfect imitation of natural beauty and the almost violent attempt to create manufactured beauty.
She glanced up sharply. "Yes?"
"The servants have already prepared the table. Do you not wish to sit down?" Raoul gestured at the table, a bit mystified by Christine's strange mood.
"What…? Oh, yes." She moved to the chair that Raoul had indicated, avoiding his eyes.
Still looking a bit nonplussed, Raoul lowered himself into his own chair; naturally, at the other end of the considerably long table.
"Would you not sit beside me?" Christine queried.
"It's not proper etiquette," Raoul reminded her patiently. "I will have to teach you these things. Hopefully growing up in that opera house hasn't completely demolished your sense of politesse."
I would not have called it "proper etiquette" to kiss me in front of Fabien, Christine retaliated mentally, but held her tongue.
Their meal was already laid out on the table. "Normally, the servants would bring out the courses as we finished the previous one, but I persuaded them to place the entire meal on the table so we would not be interrupted," Raoul explained.
"I see. The normal regulations for table-setting are ignored so we can be alone together," Christine mused. "So, Raoul, can you bend the rules of etiquette whenever you wish, and I cannot?" She said it idly, so it could only be construed as an innocent question, but she felt faintly amused at his flustered expression.
"Well, no, that's not quite it…I only believed you would want…some rules are different than others…" Raoul stammered, trying to express several different (and contradictory) things at once. Christine nearly laughed.
The rest of the meal passed in a haze of idle chatter. Christine nibbled mindlessly at the food; many of the dishes were so extravagant, completely foreign to her. She often found herself gently prodding things with a fork, wondering, "What is this?" After years of the simple food served to the girls in the ballet dormitories, such rich things almost made her gag.
She found herself gazing out the window. Snow drifted playfully to the ground in light little flakes. Leise rieselt der Schnee, she thought aimlessly. She found a familiar voice echoing in her mind, one usually firm and strict, now praising her gently for such a clear, perfect pitch at the beginning of the song, even though it started on the "D," that notorious break between the female middle range and high range…
"Hmm?" She glanced down at her fork, which was halfway to her mouth, and realized that it had probably been in that position for the past few minutes.
"Are you all right?"
The singer nodded hastily. "I am fine. I was just…thinking." About Erik.
Another of Erik's comments flitted across her mind like a hummingbird, one that had been close to her heart lately. Old wounds are easily reopened…
"Raoul, do you remember my father?"
He was thrown by the question; he had not expected it. "What sort of a question is that?"
"Do you remember when he died?"
"Well…" Raoul was still a bit baffled. "I heard of it several years ago, that the great violinist Gustave Daaé had passed away…"
"It was more than 'a few years ago,'" Christine corrected. "I was seven. It wasn't so long after I met you." She sat back in her chair, eyes closed. "Have you ever lost anyone close to you, Raoul?"
"You shouldn't speak of your father's death," Raoul cautioned her, shifting uncomfortably in his stiff chair.
"Why not?" The words sounded just as demanding as they had in Christine's head. Normally, that wasn't the case.
"It's…it's better just to move along. It's best to think of…happier times."
Raoul has always done one of two things: run headlong into trouble without a second thought, or run from it in panic.
"You are saying," she replied icily, "that I should forget my father?"
"Well…" Raoul fidgeted. "Perhaps it would be for the better."
"I see." Christine remembered Erik's emotionless voice that used to chill her and tried to imitate it. Of course, she would never be able to do it perfectly, but she came close enough to make Raoul flinch slightly.
The rest of the meal passed in silence. At least, it seemed silent; Erik's voice still echoed in Christine's head, reminding her that her father's death had left a wound in her heart, and she'd covered it up and left it alone, but it was still there.
When Christine was finished eating, she stood and walked swiftly from the dining hall back to her room without even excusing herself. Confused and rather affronted, Raoul followed her, calling after her.
I can't even hear what he's saying. Since I've asked him about my father, I keep thinking of what Erik said. My soul mate should be able to listen to me when I need it. Well, if Erik is right, and he usually is, then I still need to grieve for my father. So why will Raoul not listen to me? That night on the roof, when he declared his love for me, he claimed he would protect me. He made it sound like he would do whatever I needed. But he doesn't listen to me! How can he love me when he doesn't even know what I want?
Back in the guest room, she was about to shut the door when Raoul walked in. Well, in truth, he walked directly into the swinging door.
"Christine! What has gotten into you?"
Christine stood by the window. The massive, heavily embroidered drapes. The sharp sunlight tore into the space like a killing blade. She jerked the curtains loose from their ropes, and they swung heavily into place, blocking the offending light.
"What has happened to you, Little Lotte?" Raoul wrapped his arms around her waist, kissing her cheek. "Something is wrong."
"Nothing is wrong with me, Raoul." The comforting warmth she had once gained from his embrace was gone.
"It was that monster, wasn't it?" asked Raoul gently, stroking her arm. "He's done something to you."
"That isn't true!" Christine hollered, pulling free of his arms and whipping around to face him. "Why do you assume Erik has hurt me? You don't know him! He was my teacher, my protector for thirteen years! And don't you dare call him a monster!"
Raoul blinked, shocked by this fiery young woman that had taken meek little Christine's place. "But, that night on the roof, you were so frightened of him…"
"I fled from Erik like a foolish little girl! I never even asked him for an explanation, or gave him a second chance! I should not have run to you."
"Christine, I tried to help you!" the young nobleman insisted. "You wanted protection from that…from the Opera Ghost, and I gave it to you."
"I know you tried to protect me. You even slept outside my room to guard me, and I did appreciate that. But you also used me, because I was afraid!"
Raoul's eyebrows shot up. "I never used you! What are you speaking of?"
Christine dipped her head, tears pooling behind her tightly shut eyelids. "I was—stupidly—constantly afraid. When I was frightened that way, I was willing to go along with almost any suggestion you made. And I ended up following a suggestion that I never should have! We weren't even engaged at that point!"
Raoul moved forward to quiet her, whispering almost frantically, "I thought it might…distract you, if only briefly, from your fear. I thought you might…enjoy it…"
"A distraction? And if I'd become pregnant, you think that would be an even better distraction? You took advantage of my fear! You took advantage of me!" She turned away from him, pressing her forehead to the stale-smelling drapes.
"Christine, that is completely false!" Raoul's panic-tousled hair swung loosely around his face as he stepped side to side, attempting to catch her eyes. "You consented! Did your precious Erik convince you it was rape when you told him about it?"
"He doesn't know." Her voice was muffled from the curtains. "It was coercion, Raoul. You pressured me, and I agreed, but only because I was in a…fragile…sort of state. I know you don't think of it that way, but that's how I feel. Not that you care how I feel!"
"Of course I care!" Desperately, he slipped his arm around her shoulders, but she shrugged him off. "Christine," he tried again, almost pleading, "I love you."
She sighed heavily, as if exhaling lead. "I know. At least, you believe you love me, which, I suppose makes it love. But the person you love is Little Lotte, an older version of the little girl you met on a beach in Rouen years ago. Someone who is just happy company and never causes trouble. But I've grown up, Raoul, and I have my own needs. And I'm sorry, but you've never seemed to want to listen to me."
"I will listen," Raoul insisted. "Christine…give me another chance."
"I already have. It wasn't long after we first…slept together…that I realized what a stupid thing I had—we had—done. But when you asked me to marry you…if you hadn't promised to protect me from Erik, I might have already left you, at least in a romantic sense. But when you proposed to me, I decided to let you have another chance."
"What are you saying? Do you not want to be married?"
Christine faced him, her eyes rimmed with the redness of sorrow. She slipped her engagement ring off of her finger and placed it in Raoul's palm, curling his fingers around it the way she had done for Erik not a few days ago. "No. I'm sorry, Raoul. I know you love me, and you are a good friend of mine. But Erik needs me."
"So you'll return to him just because he's lonely? You don't…love him, do you?"
"Yes," she whispered. Her head hadn't even known it was true; it was her heart, or perhaps her soul, that ordered her lips to move. "Yes, I love him. And I need him almost as much as he needs me. Music is my life, and it is his; we need each other."
Raoul nodded solemnly, tucking the ring in his pocket. "I hope…I hope you are happy with him, Christine."
"Thank you, Raoul." She gave him a sisterly hug, brushing her lips against his cheek. "I hope you find someone you can be happy with as well. Someone more suited to your kind of life. I couldn't survive as the a Vicomtess."
"Are you sure you want to do this? You'd feel safe living with…with Erik?"
She nodded. "He loves me. He wouldn't hurt me, I know it."
"Do you need help with your bags?" Raoul queried resignedly.
"Thank you, yes."
Raoul at least had the sense to help Christine himself, rather than calling for Fabien. They hailed a carriage from the front gate. Christine climbed in, sliding her saddlebags onto the seat before herself.
"Christine?" Raoul touched her hand before closing the door.
"Yes, Raoul?" She looked soberly into his eyes.
"You too. Au revoir…mon ami."
"Au revoir, Little…I mean, Christine."
Raoul carefully shut the carriage's door and strode back to his family's manor as Christine rode off in the direction of the charred, half-demolished opera house.
She held her breath inside taut lungs as the carriage rumbled over the uneven, filthy cobblestones of the Parisian streets. I know there's no way Erik could have left yet. But what if he's resigned to losing me? What if he doesn't take me back because he…well, what if he's simply unable to get his hopes up again? I've already shattered his heart once, repaired it, then broken it again. And God only knows how much heartbreak he suffered before he even met me. How many times can a heart be destroyed before it's incorrigible?
The streets rushed by, but to Christine, they seemed to crawl leisurely. She had made her choice at last, yet she was separated from the man she had chosen. Each footstep closer she was to Erik, the faster her heart raced, and she found herself praying that it didn't burst from exertion before she arrived at the opera house.
Christine barely remembered to thank (and pay) the cabbie when the carriage rolled to a halt before the still-smoking, once-majestic edifice. The soubrette stood before the sad, hulking mass of metal, stone and brick, watching thin streams of debris pour from the windows like tears. I wonder if the opera house can be rebuilt. Oh, I hope so; if not, Erik and I may have to move somewhere else anyway.
She hurried to the opening of the passageway out of which she and Erik had walked a few hours before. Blindly, she staggered through the pitch-black corridor, forced to slow by the horrible visibility and the rough, damp surface of the floor. She clutched her saddlebags to her chest, hoping that Erik had forgotten to re-arm his traps after he himself had come down this tunnel. Luckily for her, he had indeed forgotten.
When the faint, soft beam of light emerged from the utter darkness surrounding her, she bolted for it as fast as she could move while weighted down with her suitcases. When at last she stumbled into the dimly lit splendor of Erik's home, she immediately threw down the heavy, irritating things and scampered for the organ, where Erik would surely be seated.
She was right. He was bent so far over the keyboard that his face nearly brushed the surface of the paper upon which he wrote; he did not notice her approach.
"Erik!" she cried out, her voice strangled with emotion. "I'm here. I'm back."
He barely glanced over his shoulder at her before hunching back over his composition, pressing his fingertips into his temples. When he spoke, Christine could scarcely understand him, for he was talking only to himself. "I was certain this would happen…what I didn't expect was it happening so soon…"
"Erik…" It was almost a plea.
He tipped his head forward even farther, and this time his voice was even softer, less coherent. "There's no one there…she's gone, there's no one there…"
Oh…he thinks he's hallucinating. Poor man…
"It's me. Christine. You aren't seeing things." She moved her hand to rest her fingertips on his shoulder, but he flinched away from her, his muscles so tense he was trembling. "Listen to me!"
There was no response from Erik; he only pressed his face into his palms.
She clutched his shoulder tightly. "Have you kept your promise to me? Have you eaten anything since I left?"
He faced her very slowly, his visible eye swollen and red from crying. His expression was half stony, half shocked, as if he were frightened to believe her. Before he had time to move away from her, she leaned forward and curved her right palm gently against his unmasked cheek.
"I am not sure," he rasped, "that a Christine I imagined would be so concerned with what I'd eaten."
She knelt before the bench, keeping her right hand where it was. Erik reached down, tracing the outline of her hair, though still not touching her. "Angel…is it really you?"
Christine clasped his hand and laid it against her cheek. "It's me. I'm here."
He flinched away from her touch, suddenly cold and reclusive. "What is it that you want? Did you leave something here? Do you wish to return that necklace I gave you?"
"No. I wish to return myself. Erik, do you not remember this morning when I wouldn't leave? Did it seem like I wanted to leave you?"
"I presumed…you would change your mind…you haven't, have you? Is this another trap? Am I to be shot dead any second now?"
"No! Don't you trust me?" Christine cried, reaching for him again.
"I trust you," he said sharply, "to do what is right. It is quite possible that the right thing is to kill me."
She shouted in dismay, "You're still thinking that way! Have you not heard anything I said over the past three days? I want you alive! What kind of heartless wench would I be if I turned on you that way after all you've been through?" This time he did not avoid her touch when she laid her hand on the uncovered side of his face; instead, he placed his own hand over hers.
"Perhaps you'd see it as a mercy killing," he replied with a wry smile.
"No. There's hope in this world for you yet," the young soprano whispered.
"Have you returned because you wish to? Or have you returned out of sympathy?"
"Not out of sympathy. But I wanted to come back."
"You shouldn't have," Erik responded heavily. "Christine, you think you could be happy here? Stuck in this miserable cave with no one but me to keep you company? Do you think you could be safe?"
"Safe?" Christine repeated, mystified. Even in madness, even in fury, he'd never caused her any harm. He seemed to be able to direct his infamous temper away from her, if not control it. So why would she be in danger?
He stood quickly and gracefully, and she followed him, used to this sort of gesture. His hands grasped her arms firmly, not really to take hold of her, but to support himself. He was leaning over her, shoulders bowed, as if he would fall without her presence. "There is a fine line between madness and brilliance, Christine, and sometimes I fear I've already crossed it. If I were to truly cross it, for good…" He broke off, dropping his head so she could not see his expression. "I could never forgive myself if I hurt you in the process."
She lifted his chin with her fist. If he were doing the same thing to her, he would only have to cup his hand beneath her chin and she would raise her head, but Christine had yet to discover how he did that. "You underestimate me. I need you, Erik, but you need my help as well. I can keep you on the right side of the line, or at least I'll try."
A faint smile crossed Erik's lips, or perhaps Christine imagined it. "You've grown up. When did this happen?"
"Yesterday, I believe." She smiled tremulously. "But I'm not completely grown yet."
"You're closer than I would have imagined. I'm proud of you." He moved one hand to her dark glossy curls and began stroking them. He seemed to find touching Christine's hair therapeutic.
Now it was her turn to lean against him, laying her palms on his collarbone and resting her cheek against his thin chest. "I couldn't be happy with Raoul. He…he either rushes blindly into confrontation, or else ignores it, and I can't live with no one to listen when something is wrong…"
"I might have told you that about him. Most noblemen are bootless that way."
Raoul's hurried, dismissive words floated back into her mind, the ones she'd heard when she had tried to speak with him about her father's death. Her fingers curled inward, clutching the fabric of his jacket, and her eyes shut tightly against the stinging heat of unshed tears.
Erik, of course, noticed. "Angel? What troubles you?"
"I remembered what you said about my father's death…I mentioned it…"
"He didn't listen to you."
"No. And I needed someone to listen. I know you can listen to me…right?"
Erik took her into a genuine embrace, full and firm, yet still gentle. "Of course. My only question is, do you need that listener now?"
She nodded as best she could with her head still pressed against his heart. "You see why I need to stay with you? I will listen to you, and you to me." Her voice quavered in midair, the tremors of sorrow clearly noticeable.
"And I believe some of said listening is in order now. Come." He released her from their embrace and slipped his hand into hers. She followed him wordlessly, not even asking where they were headed. Remarkable…he suddenly forgets his own sorrow when he sees that I need him. I only hope I will be able to be that strong in return.
She soon discovered their destination. It was a room that she had once explored, shaped roughly like a cylinder, with a surprisingly high ceiling. The greatest oddity of the room was the fireplace in the west wall; how could there be a fireplace underground? Erik had explained to her that small flues had been drilled in the walls, and they eventually reached the outside, so the smoke moved through the scores of tiny flues rather than a chimney.
A large circular white rug with long, luxurious fibers sat on the floor before the (surprisingly) lit fire. (Although, who knew what Erik had been thinking just after Christine's departure, or why he would need a fire?) Erik sat cross-legged on the carpet with Christine leaning against him. She gazed mutely into the fire, the flickering and curling flames fluttering in the stills of her eyes. The voice of her teacher, her angel, came down soothingly from above her. "Tell me, Christine, about your father. Tell me what that boy couldn't stand to hear." His hand trailed down her upper arm.
"I was seven." Christine swallowed hard. "My mother had died a few years before, so my father…was all I had." She stopped, taking a few slow breaths to calm herself.
"He was my only friend. I knew Raoul from one summer, but only one summer…my father was my real companion. He used to read to me, teach me songs…he played his violin for me almost every night."
"You were fortunate to have him for that time. Your younger childhood was rather idyllic, really…I can imagine what it must have been like for you when tragedy struck. But I will let you speak of that…continue, my child, I'm listening."
Christine shut her eyes. "He had been sick for a while. I noticed…I saw him coughing, I noticed he was getting thinner…but I was just a little girl, I believed him when he said he was all right. I wonder…if I'd paid more attention, if I'd known…" Her body trembled in shame and agony, and Erik slipped his hand beneath her dark mane to caress her scalp in that way she found so comforting.
"There was nothing you could have done, my angel. You were…five years old? Six? Too young to take any responsibility, certainly."
"I remember when he became very sick." Christine's breath hitched in something like a whimper. "He foresaw it. I didn't know why we went to the hospital, but it was only a few days after he was checked in that…he took a turn for the worst…" She fought back a sob, and she felt Erik begin to stroke her hair again. "That was what one of the nurses told me. She leaned down towards me and said to me, 'Miss Daaé, I'm afraid your father has taken a turn for the worst.' And I remember it took me a few moments to understand, and I said, 'Do you mean he is going to die?'" She pressed her face into his chest so hard her nose was crushed to one side.
"What did she say?"
"She…she said…" Christine's mouth moved, but no sound resulted. Erik waited patiently for her to speak, still running one hand through her hair. "She said, 'I'm afraid so, little miss.' Or something…something like that…I barely heard…I couldn't move, I couldn't say anything…I couldn't even cry! I was just…shocked."
"Did you cry? Ever?"
"No, I was…I was always quiet. I didn't…I didn't care what else was happening, I was just…I don't know…when I came to the opera house, I was like…like a doll…I didn't…if I ever came close to crying, I just went back to being quiet…"
Poor child, she's barely coherent now. It sounds like she never even let herself feel sorrow. She's talking about herself as a doll; well, that sounds about right. When she first came here, I would never have guessed that she had just suffered so much. She was always so calm, almost apathetic. "Why did you never cry, little one?"
She made a sickly gulping sound when she swallowed. "I…I don't know."
"Did you not feel sorrow?"
"I…of course I did! I just…I didn't let myself feel it."
"Were you ashamed?"
"Yes. I was afraid. I'd never…never had a reason to feel that way, and I was…I thought…I couldn't."
"Angel, look at me. Look at me."
She did, tears already cutting glistening tracks down her snow-white cheeks."You had no reason to be ashamed. You were a seven-year-old girl who had just had her world turned upside down. You had no reason to fight back your tears."
Christine tucked her head under his chin, a sob ripping itself from her throat. The cry sounded as if it caused her pain rather than relieving it.
"Even now, it's all right, Christine." He moved his hand up and down her quaking spine. "You have no need to be ashamed."
"I'm twenty years old, Erik!" She fisted her hands in the material of his shirt. "I shouldn't be weeping like a little girl!"
"Weeping like a little girl? You never wept when you were a little girl. You can cry now. You think I will laugh at you, or something absurd like that?"
Christine shook her head slowly. "No." She cried out again, sounding closer to the edge than before.
"Do not be ashamed to cry. Your father is worthy of your tears, right?"
"Yes! When…when he died…I was…I was right beside him, I saw, I saw him die, just after he'd promised me he'd send me the Angel of Music…I didn't want any Angel of Music, I wanted him! And he was gone…his eyes closed, and I knew, I knew he was gone…I knew I was alone…" Unconsciously, her arms snaked around Erik's neck, clinging like steel chains. He returned her embrace, encircling her completely. She sank into the hug like a stone, accepting, needing the consoling contact. "I was alone! I couldn't cry, but I couldn't stand it…"
"It's all right, my angel. You can cry now."
Hot tears burned as they poured uncontrollably down her face. Her hands dug so hard into Erik's shoulders she feared her nails would tear through his clothing and into his skin. She was sobbing, hard, a sound of absolute grief. Instead of hearing her own voice, she heard the cries of a seven-year-old girl, the seven-year-old girl Christine had never had the chance to be. She saw herself, a sodden bundle of tears and distress, kneeling in some blackened, desolate place, crying a child's unashamed wail.
Christine wept in darkness for a stretch of time that seemed endless, only vaguely aware of some comforting presence close nearby, so even as she wordlessly lamented her father's death, she knew someone would be waiting for her when she surfaced from her grief.
When at last her tears subsided, information from the outside world trickled into her brain with the slowness of molasses. She could feel her arms and legs and head and torso, her toes and her fingers, and the light quick pulsating of her heart. Her body felt supple and weightless, as if there had been boulders strapped to her back and they had been suddenly cut away.
She became aware of a pair of arms holding her, thin and strong, cradling her close. She was being rocked gently, back and forth, a slow, quiescent rhythm.
"Yes, my angel?" His warm, rich voice was lowered to a volume that would have only been audible to Christine had there been anyone else there.
"Erik?" she whispered again, tightening her arms around his neck. She realized that he must have picked her up while she was crying, for one of his arms was wrapped beneath her back, and the other supported the bends of her knees. Her head lolled against his shoulder. It was a position of almost complete dependence on her part, but it was wonderfully comforting.
"I am here, Christine. Are you all right?"
A heavy, lengthy sigh fluttered past her lips. "Yes."
"How do you feel?"
"Like…the weight of the world is gone." Christine felt weary and soft, content, but incapable of creative phrasing. She exhaled again. "Erik?"
"You once told me that crying too much was not healthy…I might sicken."
"Perhaps it isn't the best thing for your body." When she looked up at him, he stroked her cheek with one finger, and then dried her tears with his sleeve. "But you, your soul, very much needed this."
"Thank you," she whispered. "I will…still miss my father now?"
"He was your father, Christine." Of course, Erik never knew his father, but Christine's childhood had been more…normal. "You'll never stop missing him. But it will hurt less. And trust me…trying to simply hide or forget troubling things does not work."
"I trust you." After all, you've seen more horror than any man should. Christine laid her hand on Erik's heart, the heart that had been broken so many times, that she had broken again when Erik had been asking her to help heal it. "Does this mean I will stay with you?"
"At this point, angel, I don't believe I could make you leave. And I don't believe I could stand losing you again."
"Good." She laid her head down again, and Erik bent over slightly, placing his forehead against hers.
Something was wrong. Christine could feel the cold porcelain of Erik's mask against her skin. She didn't want a mask holding her, she wanted Erik holding her. So she reached up to trail her fingertips over the mask, almost as a warning, before slipping her fingers under the cold white surface to lift it off.
"Christine." He stopped her with the single word, his voice tense, almost frightened. "What are you doing?"
"I don't want you wearing your mask. Not right now. It feels unnatural, not like you."
"You are not…afraid?" He sounded more afraid than she might be.
"I have been unafraid of your unmasked face for some time now."
"Ah, yes, I remember…you were more frightened of the distortion that lies in my soul."
She winced. "Please don't mention that. I said many things that night that I wish I could take back."
"So will you let me remove your mask?" The singer placed her small hand on his normally shaped cheek.
"Angel, are you certain you wish to do this?"
Instead of replying with words, Christine gently pried the white half-mask away from Erik's face and placed it on the floor. Reflexively, he turned away from her so she could not see his deformity.
"Erik, look at me."
He obeyed her slowly, as if it took all his strength to turn his head toward her. His eyes were closed, likely so he wouldn't have to see her expression. Christine studied the deformed side of his face. In some places, the flesh was raised, making red misshapen ridges over his cheek and brow. In other places, there was not enough flesh or skin there, and Christine could see the pulsing of small blue veins, or even muscle where there was no skin at all. I'm not surprised he keeps his mask on; if he didn't keep this covered, he might get an infection.
She reached up to caress his deformed face with her fingertips. "Does that hurt?"
"Only in some places." His voice was as taut as a violin string about to snap because some incompetent had tuned the instrument badly.
"How did this happen? Were you…born with this?"
Christine leaned up and brushed her lips against his malformed cheek.
"Shh." She tucked a strand of his dark hair behind his ear before moving her hand back to his shoulder, and he did not flinch. But when she leaned up to kiss him, he turned his head away from her again.
Almost panicked, he asked her, "What are you doing?"
"You didn't expect me to kiss you with your mask on, did you?"
Christine had seen Erik as furious, heartbroken, even mad, but she had never seen him this terrified. "Christine, I…I've never…except for that one night, four days ago, when you…"
"It's all right. I can teach you." Before he could protest again, Christine leaned up and pressed her mouth lightly against his. Their kiss was gentle, a simple, innocent touching of flesh upon flesh. "You see?" said Christine softly when she had pulled away. "It's not so difficult."
"I see." He sounded a bit shocked, but Christine did not laugh. He had experienced so little affection over the course of his life; it wasn't surprising that he could barely bring himself to kiss her. Not to mention he had his mask off. That had to be difficult for him too.
"You will get more used to it," she assured him.
"So I take it you are no longer frightened of what lies here?" He placed a hand over his heart.
"Well, let me see." She bent down to press her ear against Erik's chest. She closed her eyes and listened for a few moments before announcing her diagnosis. "Just a perfectly normal heartbeat," she declared, looking up at him almost defiantly. "No monster here."
"If you insist." Erik kissed the top of her head.
Christine tucked her head underneath his chin once more. "If your arms get tired, you can set me down on the rug, but I don't want you to let go of me."
"I have no wish to let go of you." It was true, quite true. In all honesty, Erik could barely believe that he was holding Christine so closely, and that she wanted the embrace. Surely it was against the natural order of things for a murderer to be holding an angel in his arms, and Erik kept waiting for a lightning bolt to strike him dead. No lightning bolt came, though, and he began wondering if perhaps Christine were indeed right about his not being a monster.
"Good. Because I must admit, I feel very…at home…right now, as cliché as it sounds."
"Well, normally clichés make me cringe, but I have no qualms about the particular cliché you have just employed."
Christine giggled softly, and Erik kissed her forehead again. "Welcome home, Christine."
Ayesha sat in the doorway, sulking, watching her human and that wispy little girl sit together by the fire. Erik was holding the fearful human wench like he used to hold her. Ayesha's ears bent backward with displeasure, and when her human kissed the girl's forehead, she turned and trotted away in disgust. She had a feeling that things were about to change, and change greatly, and Ayesha wasn't going to like it at all.
Author's Freakin' Notes: YES, IT'S FREAKIN' DONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! YAAAAY! It took three freakin' quarters of a freakin' year to finish this, and now it's freakin' DONE!!!!
Sigh. Well, now I'm going to try to get this published by one of those self-publishing Web sites like lulupublishing. After I edit this, that is. I didn't do much editing in this chappie because I was so bent on just finishing it, so forgive all the typos etc.
IT'S FREAKIN' DONE!!!!!!!
Sorry, I'm just really happy. :-)