Disclaimer: I do not own Phantom of the Opera
As accursedly hot as it was today, construction was going well. I watch the men from my perch at the top of the hill as they level out land for the terraces, and the others as they haul the stone from the quarry. Robert runs around the site in constant agitation, taking care of a million details that I would rather not do. He exhausts himself each day, and as much as I have told him to slow down, it only seems to drive him further to the point of collapse to finish this library.
The months since my wedding have flown by in a whirlwind. Each day I have watched my wife and son with love and laughter in their eyes. Each day I have learned something new about each of them, and fallen deeper under their spell. Laure can smile at me, no matter what my mood, and simply lighten and brighten my day. If some setback has happened at the library, and I feel as if it would be more effective to fire the entire crew than continue working with them, she eases my mind with a simple touch. Provides me encouragement when I need it most, and tells me she loves me no matter what. Those men should be grateful to Laure, because she has saved them from constant unemployment.
Nicolas has surprised me at every turn, and is still adamant about going to England, although he has learned everything he needs to about my craft. I cannot fault him for his dream...he is every hope and promise I ever had or made about myself, and every wish I ever had for greatness. He will live his dream, and I will be proud to call this young man my son.
No longer do I hide in shadow. No longer does depression and despair plague me. I have more than I possibly ever dreamed of, with my wife and son, and the subsequent arrival of the Halvdan and Careux families. Joren continues to be the most ornery old man I have ever met, and does his best at times to rile my temper. And he and Vincent mix about as well as chocolate and vinegar.
I still am wary about being seen in public, I suspect I will always be fearful of strangers staring at me, and suspecting they might cast me into another cage. I never go alone. It's as if my wife senses my need to have someone beside me, and after the trip to the Louvre several months ago, I feel as if when my family is around me, nothing is impossible.
The theater hasn't been without interest as well. Cleanup has continued, and Garnier has assured me that by the time construction is ready to start the city of Paris will be clamoring to meet the architect who is rebuilding their beloved monument. I told him if he breathed a word about me, I would not hesitate to raze every column to the ground, and let him find someone else. He chuckles, and gives me peace by saying he would rather them remember him than me anyway. The situation is suitable for me, as I have no desire to become a public icon, especially one that is associated to the theater. And as highly ironic, and slightly amusing as it is to be rebuilding what I destroyed...there is still a streak of mockery existing in this heart of mine...I still have not set foot on the property. When I do so, it will be to seal the entrances to my lair, and nothing more.
"Father, weren't you returning home?" Nicolas asks, and I turn to see him standing behind me, wiping his sweating face against his sleeve.
"Yes. I just wanted to have a look. What is your task today?"
"I'm working with the land architects...learning about soil properties and how to level it to suit the building. I never knew there was so much to learn: load bearing capacity, soil type, erosion potential. How do you keep track of all this information?"
Smiling wryly, I tap the side of my head. "There is twenty years of knowledge swimming around in here. Don't expect to learn it all in a few months, Nicolas."
His eyes moved beyond me, and he lifted his hand to point across the valley. "Grandfather is here."
I turned my head sharply, seeing Vincent waving frantically from my carriage, with Darius at the reins. My heart stopped beating for a moment as I looked at him, unable to see whether it was panic on his features, or something else.
"Do you think...the baby...?" Nicolas whispered behind me.
Immediately I reached for the reins of the gray stallion and mounted, leaving Nicolas alone at the top of the hill. I was never more glad for the responsive beast, glad we had finally come to an understanding between horse and master as he raced down the hill, disrupting men carrying equipment as his hooves thundered over the earth. Vincent was leaning out the carriage door when I arrived, a beatific smile on his face.
"She's started, Erik," he said, looking quite pleased. "You might want to rush on home now. She's waiting for you."
I didn't stop and wait to see if Nicolas was following. I dug my heels into the horse and ran him hard with my heart pounding the entire way home. Laure...the baby. She was giving birth to my child, and I wasn't there.
Nadir was standing at the entrance, a stoic expression on his face as he watched me drop from the horse and stride to the door. I left the horse for him to deal with, saying something about making himself useful. I might have said nothing, I was in such a panic that it was hard merely to breathe as I climbed the stairs to our bedroom. I couldn't hear anything from within the room, and I pushed the door open in sudden fear. Shouldn't there have been screaming? Laure had promised that she would be screaming, and I would know from a mile away if she had begun labor.
"Is that Erik?" I heard her ask, and moved forward through the sitting room until I could see her.
She was sitting in the bed, her mother pressing a towel over her face and Kathryn sitting on her other side. Kathryn and Marcus had been at their son Charles's on the other side of Paris for the last two weeks, and she had visited Laure almost every day.
"I'm here," I whispered, and wasn't sure she heard me until her eyes looked up. I saw peace and love on her radiant face...or perhaps it was merely sweat. There couldn't have been a more miserable day to have a child on, but since she had given birth to Nicolas in June as well, I suspected she already knew.
"Good," Clare said, beckoning me closer. She nearly pushed me on the bed beside Laure and pressed a cloth into my hand. "Keep her cool. I have a million things to do right now until the doctor arrives."
"The doctor isn't here?" I demanded, looking at Laure in concern. "Why?"
"It's alright," she murmured. "These things take a long awhile. There's plenty of time...hours even."
"Hours?" I repeated, looking at her in concern. "My God, it's far too hot in here for you to suffer that long."
She closed her eyes as I bathed her face, smiling at me in her misery. "You think this is bad? You should have been in Corsica in June...I think it was twice as hot when I gave birth to Nicolas."
My hand reached out and touched her stomach, feeling the child kicking restlessly against my hand. It awed me each time, to see it moving, to feel it. The first time, I think I had been sleeping with Laure's stomach pressed to mine, and felt the oddest rolling sensation between our bodies. The sight of her stomach moving had nearly sent me into a bout of weeping. Now, she was quite swollen and uncomfortable, and no amount of apologies would take away what I had done to her.
But she didn't seem to mind...and the edge and spitefulness she had promised me during her pregnancy had not been as rampant. She was forgetful, and slightly irritable, but nothing like what she had described with Nicolas. Not to me, anyway. I did feel sorry for Clare though.
Trying to make her more comfortable I opened the windows and tried to allow a breeze inside the house. When that didn't work, I ordered the maid to run out and purchase a large fan, and made her stand at her bedside and wave it towards her. Laure protested, but I was determined to make her feel better. By the time the doctor arrived, she no longer cared, and had been in the midst of labor pains for nearly three hours.
Sweating and groaning, she refused to allow me to leave her side. The doctor protested, saying it was highly unusual for a husband to remain at his wife's side during the birthing process, but she was adamant that I stay, although at times I would have rather been anywhere else than listening to her in such pain.
"I'm never putting you through this again," I promised, ignoring the smile the doctor had suddenly given me. I felt rather uncomfortable with the fact that the man was seeing more of my wife than I possibly had, but I kept to my side of the sheet, content to allow that part of her to remain a mystery. After seeing the birth of everything from horses to dogs, I was quite sure I didn't want to see it.
Laure squeezed my hand tightly each time a pain rolled through her, rising off the bed in agony and in what I deemed as involuntary contractions. They ripped through her, and she scratched at my hand, clenching me in knuckle-white exhaustion.
"You're doing fine," I murmured, and she nodded at me, unable to speak. Her eyes met mine, and I saw the love for me there, still shining brightly despite the pain I was causing her. "I love you, Laure. You're going to be fine."
I felt as if I spoke lies. If she was anything other than fine, they would need to shoot me and put me out of my misery. Fear...the sort of fear that had driven me from Corsica to Paris to search for Nicolas had wrapped itself around my heart. My wife and child...they had to be perfect and healthy.
"Three more, Madame Sagesse, and you should be able to meet your child," the doctor said sagely. "Now...push!"
She did, looking up at the now bare ceiling as if by meeting heaven halfway would put an end to her trials. I had removed the mirror at her insistence...ironic that she had not wanted to see herself as she gave birth.
She pushed again, and I heard the doctor mentioning something about the head. I nearly collapsed, and for some reason looked at the maid, seeing her expression was one of wonder. They had to be perfect...I prayed it would not look like me.
Laure fell back against the bed for a moment, closing her eyes then garnering strength. She raised again and pushed, squeezing my hand tighter than before, and suddenly I heard the protesting of an infant. The powerful voice stirred me. It reached inside and pulled at my heart, and I was only given a brief glimpse of a red, squalling baby before the doctor's nurse turned away to wrap it and wipe away the remnants of birth.
"Congratulations," the nurse said softly, moving towards us both with a bundle of unhappiness and rage. "You have a daughter."
She laid her in Laure's arms, and Laure moved the blanket aside as I caught my first look at my daughter's face. Tears welled so suddenly I could not see, and through the haze I saw the perfection she was. Not a thing...not one single thing hideous or deformed on her precious face.
"Oh, God," I whispered, and felt afraid to even touch her. How could someone so small ever survive in the world? How had Nicolas ever grown? It was hard to imagine him as this size...at this stage of helplessness and vulnerability.
"Erik," Laure said loudly, over the screaming child between us, and I looked into her beautiful hazel eyes, watched as they shed tears of joy and happiness. "This is your daughter...this is...Arabella..."
My hands shook, but Laure was holding her out to me, insisting that I take her. The small body felt weightless in my hands. I could have held her with one, and had room for another. She was still crying, and when I touched her cheek, she seemed to become more frightened. More desperate to return to the warm haven of her mother's body.
"Arabella," I murmured, and suddenly all sound ceased within the room. I placed the tip of a finger against her small hand, and she clenched it tightly, her fingers looking absurdly tiny compared to mine. She stared up at me, her dark blue eyes looking into mine with a strange intensity. I felt my soul shatter, my throat ache, and the very last of darkness wither away under her radiant expression. She was mine...part of me. Part of Laure, and part of me. A sister to my son.
My daughter...My God, she was mine.
"Ours," Laure whispered, as if reading my thoughts. "She's ours, Erik."
I felt the fevering pitch of love, rocking against the insane calmness that possessed me. Ours. Laure and I, alone in the world...and we would raise our daughter together. We would care for this child...she would teach me everything I had missed with Nicolas. Selfishly, the regret I felt for her pain faded, and I knew that given the chance, I would sacrifice my wife again to feel this way.
This love, this peace...this madness of another sort. Madness I had never known. The madness, my God, of being a father to a daughter. Of being a father to this helpless child who would depend on me, who would demand my affection and attention. My protection. Advice...I was getting ahead of myself, but I felt anger stir already on the day I would give her away.
Giving her back to her mother, with great reluctance, I sank back against the chair and watched my wife feed her. I heard the grunting, desperate noises she made, distantly realizing we were quite alone now. The room had been cleared to allow us a moment of privacy. Arabella slowly relaxed against Laure's breast, then she was switched to the opposite side.
My hand touched her dark hair, caressing her delicate scalp with my fingertips, drawing back in fear as I felt the indentation of a soft spot across the top. Laure caught my fearful gaze and smiled.
"It's perfectly normal. All children have that," she whispered.
"Normal...no. She's perfect. Beyond normal...she's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen...excluding her mother, of course."
"Of course," Laure agreed wryly, content to allow me my sanity by not arguing. "What do you think, Erik? Of your two beautiful ladies?"
My throat ached from love, my heart felt as if it had raced away with my brain and tongue long ago. Somehow I managed to say, "I think you are perfection. My wife...my child. There is nothing to give me greater joy."
A soft knock on the door, and I saw Nicolas peer in cautiously. He would prove me wrong...the sight of them all together swelled inside me so tightly I could scarcely breath. There was no greater joy...and if there was, I was sure I couldn't possibly handle more. Laure modestly covered herself up as Nicolas took the still, attentive child.
"What's her name?" he asked softly, his hand stroking her cheek and her palm just as mine had.
"A...Arabella," I said, my throat rough and dry. "Her name is Arabella."
"Hello, Arabella," he said, a smile on his face. He looked suddenly very much a man as he held his sister. "My name is Erik Nicolas. I'm your big brother."
Laure's hand sought mine, and she mouthed words of love as I pressed a kiss to the back of it. The completeness of the moment was not lost on me. I was never more sure of my happiness...never more grateful for all I had gained. Months of love and trust had found such deep roots in my life, I suddenly felt like a normal man. I knew for certain there was no other man happier than I was. No other man was as blessed, and it no longer mattered if I wore a mask or not. It no longer plagued my dreams, no longer haunted me. I was no longer a ghost.
I was a husband.
I was many things...but one thing I had stopped being above all, was the Phantom.
Hope you all liked my story. This is the end...sorry if you wanted more, but I intend to start another one if I finish Susanna and Erik's story soon. I'll let you know. I'm leaving at the end of this week and going out of town, so my updates will not be as frequent. I write steadily from Thursday through Sunday, and I will be going home (yea!) for a few days and won't be in the vicinity of a computer during that time. Sorry...and hope you enjoyed this story. I hate endings...they are the hardest thing for me to write, so I hope you like how I ended this one. Let me know!