A harsh coughing echoed through the small garret, hard and unceasing. At long last it dwindled into panting as Christian fought to draw air into his deteriorating lungs. Toulouse closed his eyes in sympathy. The death of his friend's beloved Satine had inspired the most moving love story Toulouse had ever read, but it was also responsible for Christian's own death. Well, to be fair, the boy still lived but he was not long for this world.
The scourge of the bohemians, the secret hidden from even the darkest side of the dark underworld. It was just as well for the Duke that Satine had spurned his advances, if only to keep him from ending his days as Christian was.
The disease was well named. It consumed its victims from the inside out, destroying their lungs, sapping their strength and energy, leaving them feverish and perspiring and coughing incessantly.
Toulouse heard the creak of the ancient bed as Christian collapsed into his flat pillow, spent from the last coughing spell. They were alone. The other Children of the Revolution had abandoned them. Toulouse shook his head. They had done what they could to help but one by one they fled. The bohemians may mourn the loss of their Voice but their fear of such a death proved too strong. There were too many cases of consumption in the underworld for them to feel otherwise.
But Toulouse stayed on. In a way, he held himself accountable. He and the troupe had dragged Christian into the world of the Moulin Rouge, introduced him to Satine, and allowed him to fall in love with a woman of the night. Staying with Christian now was the least he could do.
He slipped behind the curtain he had put up to given Christian a little privacy. Usually consumption took much longer to kill but with the way Christian had been abusing his body since Satine died, Toulouse was not surprised. The first year had been taken up drinking, the second with work. His friend had changed so much in two years that Toulouse would not have recognized him if he passed him on the street. The English boy was thin, almost skeletal, but his beard and mustache were thick and matted. His hair clung to his clammy forehead and his cheeks were flushed. There were faint smears of blood on his lips. They corresponded with the blood clots soaking into the handkerchief he clutched.
"Christian," he whispered, lisping, "are you awake?" No response, only heaving gasps. Toulouse turned to go.
Toulouse turned. "What?"
"Yes. I'm awake. Why?" Christian's eyes were glassy but they were open. "Why?" he repeated.
Toulouse shrugged uneasily. "I just wanted to make sure you were not . . . asleep . . ."
"Or dead?" Christian managed a weak smile. "No, not yet but it won't be too long now." He began shaking in yet another coughing fit. Toulouse rushed over to hold him steady; he could do nothing more. At last the hacking subsided and he ran to get a glass of water.
"Thank you," Christian whispered and accepted the water. "My book – did you read it?"
"Yes. It is beautiful, my friend. Truly."
"You will see that it gets published?"
"If I have to publish it myself."
Christian nodded heavily, as though his head was too heavy for him to hold up. "Thank you."
Toulouse waved away the thanks. There was one thing still worrying him. "Are you sure you do not want me to send word to your family?"
"No!" The exclamation made Christian choke a bit but he repressed the cough. "My father said . . . before I came here . . . that I'd lose myself . . . and my life . . . to what he called . . . 'fallen women.' No need . . . to prove him . . . right. Even if . . . he was wrong."
Toulouse had expected a response like that. The answer was always the same. "All right, Christian. But – "
"Toulouse. Send word . . . when I am dead. Not before. Please. There's nothing they . . . could do. Not now. And I want . . . to spend my last days . . . here . . . with the bohemians . . . and Satine."
Christian smiled. "Oh yes. Satine is here again. Watching me. And you. She's waiting, Toulouse. She won't have to . . . wait . . . much longer." His gaze wandered to the far left corner of the dingy ceiling and his smile grew dreamy and relaxed. Eventually his eyes closed and his breathing evened, more or less.
The midget's brows knit together. Was the illness causing delirium, making Christian hallucinate? Or was Satine's spirit truly watching over them? It was a comforting thought. Life after death, love surviving even the grave, ultimate truth -- these were ideals a bohemian could understand and accept. On the other hand, what if this Satine was nothing more than a fever dream?
Toulouse sighed and adjusted the blanket covering the patient. Living in squalor with pimps and prostitutes as his only friends hadn't dampened his quest for beauty, truth, freedom and love. He still strived for it, if only through dreams. It had become harder, though, to grasp at the stars from the gutter. Christian had been their hope, their Voice, and now he was paying the price for such dreams. How could Toulouse not grow a little more jaded?
Christian stirred. "I wouldn't . . . change a thing, Toulouse," he whispered, as though he had heard his thoughts. "I would . . . do it all . . . again . . . in a . . . heartbeat." His eyes cracked open. "Satine? Satine?"
Christian's voice grew more urgent, alarmingly so. "Satine! Where . . . Toulouse . . . where is she? Where . . . did she go?" He started to cough again.
Toulouse held him steady, as best he could. "Christian, relax. Please."
"Satine will come back to you," Toulouse promised, himself unconvinced. "She always does. Don't worry."
"Yes," Christian panted between coughs, mollified. "Yes, you're right. She'll come back."
Christian waited patiently, though eagerly, for her for a few days, all the while growing weaker. Toulouse could see quite plainly that his friend was slipping away at an accelerated rate. A part of him was relieved that Christian's pain would at last be ended, but another part screamed in denial.
It happened in the evening. Christian had not eaten for at least a day; he barely accepted water or broth. He slept more than he awoke, and he was not entirely lucid when he was awake. Toulouse had quietly sent out word to the other bohemians and started composing the telegram to Christian's father. Suddenly the Englishman sat up and stared intently at a corner of the room.
"Satine!" he said, sounded clearer and stronger than he had in a long while. "I knew you would . . . . . . yes . . . . . . Toulouse said . . ." He reached out a cupped hand to thin air. "I love you . . . . . . of course, of course." Then, like a marionette with cut strings, Christian fell back to the bed, not breathing.
"Christian!" Toulouse sprang from the makeshift table to the bed. Was he . . .?
Christian gasped deeply and his eyes opened, strangely bright. "Toulouse. It really is true. The greatest thing . . . you'll ever learn . . . is just to love . . . and be loved . . . in return. Tell them that. You'll tell them. Won't you, Toulouse?"
Sorrow had closed his throat and he struggled to hold back his tears. "Of course, Christian," he choked out.
Christian smiled with an otherwordly happiness and nodded slowly. "Satine," he whisperd, his gaze once more in the corner and a faint smile lingered on his lips. The Voice fell silent and Toulouse wept at last.