This chapter was very long in the making, mostly because I have had the hugest writer's block regarding this fic. The chapter kept being written, crossed out and rewritten at least a dozen times before I got it right. A huge kudos to those who stuck around and waited around for it! Also, I finally have an ending ready for this story, so there will be one more chapter plus an epilogue. I know I promised this to be done sooner, but I've had some really hectic times recently, so… heh.
But I haven't forgotten the story and it will be finished by the end of august! I promise that.
X X X
X X X
Before Christine could even understand what she had so easily said, she felt a grip on her wrist; she was being led away from the floor and away from the main hall of the opera. Erik led her through the corridors as if he knew them by heart – which wasn't unlikely – until they reached a sideways terrace out of sight of the main area.
Finally, the tight hold on her wrist vanished, but before she could rub the rose spot, she felt two matching grips a few inches below her shoulders. "Say it again... say it again, Christine!" two almost wild yellow eyes implored her.
Christine winced as she felt herself being shaken ever so slightly. "Erik, you're hurting me!"
"Say what you did a moment ago and I will lessen the grip… but I will never let you go again, Christine, never." Erik said quietly, almost feverishly, but he wasn't nearly as frightening as he had been on other occasions. There was something… different in his expression, from what she could see, not unlike what had been there when he had confessed his love for her. But this time, it wasn't nearly so morose, so desperate.
It was… hope.
"Erik, that isn't how a relationship works! I…" There was no sense denying it; Christine realized that if she did, they would be running around in circles forever. And she was tired of running away from everything. "I might have said it, yes, but I didn't mean that I wanted things to be as they were!
"Then how do you want things to be?" Erik asked, as if this was a completely civilized discussion. His mind was still struggling to process the wonderful moment when Christine said she loved him; not directly, no, but the implication couldn't have been any clearer. "Request, demand, order; but you are mine, aren't you, Christine? Just say yes and I promise you everything will be as you wish it, everything." he promised, without even a moment's hesitation.
The pale soprano took a shaky breath. She had always known this moment would come, dreaded it from the very start. And with reason. "I love you, Erik, yes." Seeing that hope shine in his eyes was almost painful, even though she wasn't going to crush it this time. "But I'm also afraid of you even now."
Being observed by Erik so intensely was almost like being under a scanner. "You aren't lying… you would not lie to me." he said after a moment, disbelief coloring his voice. The gentlest tones of his magnetic voice were trying to soothe her, but Christine remained somewhat on edge. Things could change within a second – this was Erik she was speaking with. "Christine, you know that I would never hurt you."
"I don't know; that's the thing. I don't know much about you, Erik, only what little you told me during our interviews." The masked man remained silent, but for different reasons than she might believe. "I might not know too much about love, but I know it's founded on trust…"
Erik was listening only with half an ear. "You saw Erik's face and yet you want to know more…" There was the hint of a smile on his face as he brushed a stray strand of silky hair from her face, the gesture bold when coming from him. "Brave little Pandora. I will tell you whatever you wish to know, but not here and now. Perhaps…"
Erik would have bitten his lip in speculation, but that wasn't a habit of his. He was skating on thin ice, but she said that she loved him, so what was the risk? She had seen his face, after all. "If you came back home with me... home as my wife, Christine…" The soprano's skin was whiter than snow by then. "Then I would tell you everything you want to know."
"Erik, I…" It seemed that with Erik, the words were always destined to remain stuck in her throat. As a career journalist, this was a very bad thing for Christine. "This is… overwhelming…"
"It isn't meant as a prison, Christine." Erik noted before she could bring up that argument. After all, marriage was a promise. Marriage would leave nothing to chance. Marriage would mean that she truly loved him and wasn't afraid of it any longer. "All I ask for is this small proof of your love…"
"Marriage is hardly small proof." Christine stammered out, finally finding her voice.
"From your point of view, perhaps." Erik was fighting with himself whether or not to use his talents to persuade her. Yet he didn't; he wanted Christine to make this decision freely, just as she had freely admitted her love to him. "But I love you completely, Christine, and I will give you the world if you only ask for it…"
Christine was very nearly speechless. She had expected much, but… what else did she expect? "I-I have terms before I accept, Erik." she found herself saying.
Hope so bright it almost blinded her. "Then you accept?"
"Wait a moment and hear me out." Christine shrugged his grip off, taking a step back. This was her choice to make. "I… I will marry you, but I have a few conditions before that happens."
"Anything you want, Christine. Ask for the world and you will have it." Erik said without hesitation. Considering who he was, Christine was almost inclined to believe this statement, outrageous as it might seem. If he wanted, he could give her everything she had ever dreamed of. But that wasn't what she meant.
"I don't want the world. I want… I want to have freedom, Erik. I understand that you are distrustful of feelings considering… but making someone your prisoner isn't the way to earn their love."
Erik knew no other way; he had never known love, love of any kind, but if she was willing to give this even the smallest chance, he was more than happy to learn. He had always been a quick student. "Christine, if you become my wife, I promise you will never feel like a prisoner."
Christine looked up, her voice firmer than she felt. "Do you trust me, then?"
"I trust you to keep this promise, Christine." She would never quite understand how the ring, a simple, undecorated band of purest gold, appeared in his hand, but she understood its meaning well enough. An engagement ring, prepared in advance. He had intended to do this all along. "Will you keep it?"
The former journalist and avid fiction reader gave a weary smile "Shouldn't this be taking place after some sort of clichéd romantic dinner when we would have to pay ten pounds just to get rid of the irritating violinist at our table?"
She was making light of the situation; that meant she wasn't scared any longer. That meant that there was a chance of her accepting. Though the mask Erik was wearing couldn't convey a true smile, his voice certainly could. "Nonsense, my dear. He would pay us ten pounds for his life if he was irritating us. Make that at least twenty."
Christine gave a shaky laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. They would have some catching up to do on personal history soon after this. was this some kind of oath of secrecy – become my wife to learn my history or something like that? "I want to live my life, Erik. I cannot live yours for you. That is my greatest condition." she said gently… and she accepted the ring, sliding it onto her finger.
"You've made a list, I see." Erik noted with attempted dryness, but his mind was too filled with joy to execute it correctly. She had accepted… accepted… "Were you expecting this?"
"Minus the proposal, yes." Christine confirmed. She had been preparing herself for this conversation for quite some time, after all. Then, as she had the advantage of having a list, she decided to add a few demands. "And I would like to ask you to tolerate my friends, particularly Meg…"
"Your Megaera is the reason I have discovered your voice, Christine." Erik noted, giving the photographer the nickname of the goddess of fury and vengeance he had picked out for her upon their first "meeting". Meg didn't bother him much, as long as he didn't have to make conversation with her. "I will do my best to tolerate her."
"…and Raoul." Christine saw the dark look pass through Erik's eyes, even though he did his best to disguise it. "He is my friend as well, Erik."
Involuntarily, Erik could feel himself twitch. Christine had just agreed to marry him, he reminded himself. Nothing else mattered. Nothing. "As long as you wear your ring, you can meet the boy." he conceded after a moment of internal battle. "But you'll forgive me if I won't join you on that meeting."
Christine nodded. "Agreed. That leaves one last thing, then."
"If that involves a tea party with your colleagues, I kindly decline."
Finally, the blonde smiled, feeling her body relaxing, as if a ton had been lifted from her shoulders. "Nothing like that. I want you to sing with me, Erik. In public, on stage." she clarified.
There was a moment of silence and a calculative look before Erik's tone changed. "Are you mocking me, Christine?" he asked, slightly hurt. "You have no right to ask that of me."
"As your fiancée, I have every right." Christine countered, feeling brave for the moment. She had logic on her side this time.
"Fiancée…" As he repeated that word in a voice that suggested deepest yearning and lifelong dreams come true, Christine almost forgot what she wanted to achieve.
"You have managed to do this much…" Her hand rose to the unmasked side of his face. For a moment, she was expecting it to be true, that it was actual skin, flawless, as the rest of him was… but when she felt it, it was cold, slightly leathery. Rubber or something of the sort. Never believe your eyes. "I… I almost thought…"
"Miracles hardly happen, Christine." Erik said, but his voice wasn't nearly as bitter as it would have been minutes ago. "So far, I have only encountered one in my lifetime, and that is standing before me."
The soprano tried not to blush and so she shook her head fervently. "It doesn't matter. But I want a person as my husband, not a shadow. And you can prove to be the former if you come with me now and sing in front of those people. You won't even have to take off your mask." she assured Erik, remembering the occasion of this masquerade. It was the perfect chance for them.
"And what do you intend to sing, my dear?" Erik challenged. Certainly, Christine had learned several operatic roles by then, but it was likely that she wanted something she hadn't yet sung that night. "You have been learning arias, mostly, and whatever orchestra you might manage to scramble will hardly have the appropriate sheet music for whatever is your intention for us to sing."
"We will sing from La Bohéme." Christine said. She was ready for this question. She knew the answer already. "You said once that it was one of your favorites, didn't you?"
Erik gave a curt nod. "I did."
"It happened to be my father's favorite opera as well." Christine explained, "Ever since I was little, we sang from it together. If you know your music, then I know mine." She had already sung the famous duet O soave fanciulla with Piangi that evening, so she knew it. that was what she wanted to repeat, along with the two arias before it. "Act one, from Che gelida manina." she suggested, looking at Erik.
The composer studied her for several long moments. It was true, she had been offered the part of Mimi, but one duet wasn't nearly enough to pull this off. Besides, the aria she had chosen was difficult. "Christine, you must have sung it years ago. You know it takes practice to sing any piece."
"With the Angel of Music at my side, I cannot fail." Christine gave a brilliant smile, remembering how she had gotten through the Aida aria with just his voice guiding her. They could do this.
Erik raised an eyebrow delicately; even the mask managed to show that much. "Since when have you grown into a diva, my dear?"
"If you tell me I cannot do it, then I won't do it." Christine promised.
This had to be considered blackmail by some law. Of course she could do it; she was an angel in human form. She could sing anything, possibly even something written for a mezzo. "You know that it is within your range and capability."
"Then you will come sing with me!"
"Christine…" Erik began warily, wearily. But he knew that he couldn't refuse her anything. He hadn't refused her the sight of his cursed face; he certainly couldn't refuse her this.
"Please, Erik." Christine implored him, taking off her mask to make her sincere expression visible. She really wanted to do this; to show the world what they could do together. "Make this my wedding gift if you must, but come with me. Please."
Erik closed his eyes for a moment. He was losing the battle and he knew it, but his rationality was telling him that it was a bad idea. Not only would it be a revelation, but possibly, he would lose his cutting edge marketing strategy; the mystery of his nature. "Why do you want this, precisely this?"
"Because…" There was only one thing to say, one reason to give. No longer was it difficult to get the words out. "Because I love you and I want to show that to everyone."
"They don't deserve to know… they need not to." Erik whispered, taking the now bejeweled hand with an almost indecent amount of care. As if it was made of glass that would shatter upon the faintest contact.
"Erik, a year ago, I would have fainted at the thought of performing on a community college stage, let alone here, in Sydney." Christine explained patiently, looking him in the eyes. He deserved this, even if this would be the only chance he ever got. "You are ten times better than I and yet you have never tried."
"You dismiss your own talent. I consider that evidence that you aren't yet a hopeless diva like Ms. Guidicelli."
"Will you do it, then?"
But whatever words were at the tip of his tongue were meant to remain unsaid, at least for the time being; Erik heard the footsteps before they even became audible to Christine and by the time the soprano turned to see who it was, Nadir Khan was within sight, slightly breathless. Obviously, he had fought his way through a crowd and had searched for her through the entire opera house.
"Miss Daaé! By Allah, Erik! You're here!" the Iranian added, spotting the tall dark-clad man.
"Thank you for reminding me of that fact, daroga." Erik noted dryly as his manager and friend struggled to catch his breath. "Obviously, you are overjoyed to see me."
Surprisingly, Nadir managed a grin. "Actually, I'm ecstatic. This is the first time I managed to catch you since all those years ago in Russia."
Erik dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. "A story for another time, Christine. Certainly not now." he said soothingly, knowing that she would understand.
"Are you all right, then, Miss Daaé?" Nadir asked, concerned.
"She is completely fine, daroga, and she will be for the rest of her life." Erik noted, his voice strangely devoid of his usual irritation. That was peculiar; usually, he was at least mildly irritated to have Nadir "meddle in his affairs" as he liked to call it.
It was enough to make the self-proclaimed daroga suspicious. "What is that supposed to mean, Erik?"
With a gentleness that was almost unnatural for Erik, the masked man glanced once more at Christine. He seemed to be smiling, if one was to tell the emotion from his voice. "You may tell him, if you wish, my angel."
"Erik has agreed to sing with me on stage." Christine noted brightly, looking slightly feverish but also feverishly happy about something.
Nadir frowned slightly. "Are you certain about that?" he asked, knowing Erik's temper and the amount of things that could go horribly wrong with this idea.
"I meant that you should tell him about our engagement, Christine." Erik clarified, though it couldn't be clearer that he very much enjoyed announcing this little fact himself.
Nadir, for his part, was thoroughly flabbergasted. "Engagement?" he repeated, glancing from one to the other. The girl didn't seem to be eager to deny it and he certainly hadn't seen Erik look so… at peace. Never before, actually. Then it was the truth? "When? How?"
Erik finally seemed at least slightly annoyed, which assured Nadir that he wasn't having a peculiar dream. "Now and naturally, daroga."
"Miss Daaé, you've agreed to this?"
Christine gave a single, firm nod. "I have. Under several conditions." she added, glancing at Erik momentarily. There was wariness in her eyes… but also love. That wasn't something even Erik's voice could simply fabricate. It was the truth, then.
"Which shall be fulfilled to the letter." Erik proclaimed immediately, the pressure on Christine's hand tightening just for a fraction of a second. "I would like to try and talk you out of the last one nevertheless."
"Erik, tonight is a night of masks. No one will suspect anything. Please. I promise I will handle whatever reporters come swarming at us afterwards." Christine offered. As a former reporter herself, she knew all the tricks they might try to employ.
"I believe that is Nadir's job, my dear."
"And I so appreciate being told of this so much in advance." Nadir commented quickly, with enough sarcasm to make Erik proud, if Erik was proud of such things. Then, just for good measure, he turned to Christine one last time. "Miss Daaé, are you certain this is what you want?"
By then, Erik was mildly irritated and his dangerously golden eyes narrowed as they pierced the Iranian. "Why wouldn't she, daroga? Speak your mind, I ask you."
"Erik, I know you too well not to suspect any kind of foul play from your part. You know that Christine has been going through a lot of stress throughout these last few weeks." Nadir reminded him. Whatever was stressful enough to make a young girl run from not only the country but the whole continent was enough to make him doubt this judgment.
"And you have effectively lied to me when you said you had no idea where to find her." Erik noted darkly, his eyes accusing.
"He hasn't." Christine interjected immediately "It was always me calling him when we spoke."
But even though Erik was almost deliriously happy with how events were turning out, saying things like this equaled pouring oil into the fire. "Always? I think you and I will have things to discuss after tonight, daroga. About loyalties to your employers and possible dismissal."
"Erik, please. We all needed this, I think. Everything will be all right now." Christine said quietly, still holding his hand. "I love you, you know that."
"As long as you keep saying it, I think I actually believe you." And believe he did; the ring on her finger was sufficient proof of that.
Nadir gave a faint cough to clear his throat. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but once people find out you're missing, hell will break out."
Christine nodded briskly, in an almost business-like fashion. "You're right. Nadir, could you please help me with this?" she asked. "We need to go see the managers and ask them to organize the orchestra for us once more."
"Do you really think they would do such a thing?" Nadir asked, in a final attempt to cast doubt onto this idea.
However, Christine gave a determined smile. "Oh, yes. I believe it to be more than likely, considering the situation."