The sun had long passed its zenith and was beginning to make its way steadily towards the horizon as they moved across the meadow with an ethereal grace into the shadows of a shaded glen, her hand still in his, the other still occupied with guarding his mask.
Her eyes took a while to adjust to the sudden shift in light, and she stopped to enjoy the coolness on her face as opposed to the warmth of the sun. The effect was much the same as her hands were experiencing, the one clasped in icy tenderness, the other in sun-kissed hatred.
She blinked a few times, both helping to speed up the transitory process as well as bring her from her reverie, and she looked at him, only to find him staring at her.
"Erik?" she said.
"I…I wanted to thank you…"
He furrowed his eyebrows in obvious confusion. "For what, Christine?"
"For taking me here, for…for, well, everything." She smiled up at him feebly, searching for his response.
Even with the mask in her hand, his face was still unreadable. He sighed somewhat bitterly. "Christine—" he started, but whipped his head around to the right, away from the edge of the glen, eyes narrowed, searching for the source of some unseen provocation.
"What is it?" she breathed, drawing closer to him in an unconscious gesture of trust and looked-for security.
"I'm not sure…whatever it is, it is very big…"
All sorts of unpleasant images filled her mind as she began to hear the approaching rustles through the undergrowth. Erik was strong, yes, but surely he was no match for a cougar or a bear…?
She had to fight to contain a shriek of fright when something suddenly leaped into the clearing.
Erik, however, remained unflinching. "Ah," he said, the intense fire of his eyes softening for a split second before returning to their normal aloofness with which he surveyed the rest of the world.
Struggling on the ground in the middle of the clearing was a magnificent deer, a buck, liquid eyes wide with fright. Its left front leg was obviously broken, trailing off at an awkward angle, and on its side was a deep gash, the surrounding area stained crimson from the blood. It struggled to maintain the momentum it had mustered for the leap that had frightened Christine, but after a few moments it collapsed on the ground forlornly, panting and gasping for air.
"Oh, Erik…" she said, approaching the unanticipated visitor with hesitant steps.
"Christine, don't," he barked, pulling her back.
"But we have to help it, look, it's in pain…"
"Pain or not, it's a wild animal. He won't let you come close, look." Letting go of her hand, he demonstrated by stepping towards it.
The buck immediately lashed out with its working hooves, rearing its head and trying to scrape at Erik with its antlers, still in velvet.
He stepped back. "See?" he said.
"But we can't just leave it here," she protested.
"Christine…just let it be. Let it die in peace, don't aggravate it."
"Peace? I don't think that's peaceful."
He sighed. "Really. Let it alone. It's nature's way." He reached for her hand again, and she let him pull her away, but only reluctantly.
"It's crying for help, I can feel it," she whispered as they pressed further into the trees.
"You can't save everyone, Christine."
She looked at him. "I saved you," she pointed out quietly.
His step faltered and he brought his gaze to meet hers. "So you did," he murmured. "So you did."