Christine paced the room, every once in awhile reaching down to smooth out her skirt, touch a lock of her hair. This had to be perfect. Absolutely perfect. She knew she wouldn't get another chance if it weren't and she had truly stepped off a limb this time.
It wasn't all that long ago that she had asked Erik when his birthday was. He had stopped what he was doing and turned to look at her, a slightly surprised look in his eyes. "Why do you ask?" His voice had been soft, softer than she had heard it in a long time. It had taken her leaning forward and allowing the words to wrap around her for a moment before she had been able to decipher them.
"Well..." She had paused. Why did she want to know, after all? "Everyone has a birthday. I just thought I should know yours...is all..." Her had voice trailed off as she shrugged one shoulder inelegantly.
Erik had turned from her then and waved a dismissive hand. "I do not know. It has never mattered to me." And then the music had begun again and she had been closed out of his world. He always pushed her away like that. For someone who tried to bring her closer, ever closer, someone who asked her to share his music and to turn her face away from the light, he seemed intent on keeping quite a chasm between them.
Christine didn't understand. She didn't even try to pretend to understand. There were some things that were ultimately beyond her grasp of the world. Most things surrounding Erik tended to be. Despite his having brought her down to his home several times, he still remained almost as much of a mystery as he had been when he had been her Angel of Music. His heart, which he seemed to want to give her, was closed up tight in his chest. And his thoughts? Those were as hidden in the darkness as he often was.
She took one more turn around her small room, sitting briefly on the bed, before standing to look at herself in the mirror. Smoothing a lock of errant dark hair back into the clips that held it in place, she grimaced. This isn't going to go well...
Somewhere deep in her subconscious she noted that the door to Erik's domain had opened, a rush of musty air preceding him in. Her backbone went ramrod straight, her eyes holding a steely resolve. She would give him this present. And if he didn't enjoy it, well, then she supposed she would have learned her lesson.
"Christine?" Erik's quiet voice reached her ears and before she could really spend too much time agonizing about her decision, she left the room.
"Erik...I am here." He was dressed in his customary ensemble, always ready to attend the operas he never really could: all black, white shirt front matching the white of the mask that covered half his face, fedora perched on his head. His cloak, that heavy piece of material which had more than once enveloped her in its embrace, was already off and draped over the nearest chair. As she entered the room, he was removing the fedora to set it atop the piano.
He took a step toward her, one hand rising for a moment before falling quietly to his side.
She almost lost her nerve then. It would be so easy to ask for a lesson or suggest some quiet reading time, maybe ask for another story from his previous travels. She opened her mouth to suggest something, anything but what she had planned. You are such a child, Christine.
"I have decided that today is your birthday." She blurted the words out, faster and louder than intended. Covering her mouth, she stared in horror, waiting for Erik's reaction to her strange statement.
One graceful long-fingered hand rose to settle lightly on the piano and the rest of his body went completely still. "You decided...what?"
"You don't know when your birthday is, so I've decided that we should celebrate it today." The words were unnaturally bright, full of forced cheerfulness. This is how you knew it would go.
Erik turned his head away from her. "I told you before that birthdays are of no consequence to me." The word "birthday" came out on a sneer.
"Well, they are of consequence to me and as such I have a present for you." She flinched as he turned to look back at her, but she held her ground. She had worked on this present for weeks now, every time she was alone in her flat, far from the opera house.
The eyebrow that was not hidden beneath the mask arched quite suddenly, giving him a somewhat devilish air. "I see."
What have you done this time, Christine? She took in a deep breath and plunged ahead. "Yes. We all deserve birthday gifts and that is especially true of those who think that birthdays are of no consequences. In my family, birthdays were always the most special time of year." Her voice softened then. "Every year when I was quite young, my father would give me a new ribbon for my hair. It was always a different color and even though I knew what I would get, I was always excited to have him present it to me and I would always laugh at his attempts to tie my hair up in it. When I was 16, he gave me a set of combs for my hair, something he considered more 'adult.' They were the last present he gave me..." She choked on the last words.
"Christine..." Erik took one step toward her and she turned away, holding out a hand to block him off. It was an unconscious movement, a need to keep someone away from her constant pain, but she felt ashamed of herself when she saw Erik step back quickly, withdrawing into himself.
"I'm sorry. I..." She shook her head, trying to clear away the sudden sadness. "I want to give you your present. Will you accept it?" She had never had to ask someone before, if they would accept a present. In her family and with her friends they were freely given to someone who always welcomed it, even if the present wasn't something they really wanted.
She watched as Erik studied her for a moment, his eyes showing his obvious lack of understanding, but in the end he acquiesced with a mere nod and a slight movement of his graceful hand.
Christine took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment before refocusing them on Erik. "Please. Sit down." He cocked his head to the side, but did as she bade, sitting somewhat awkwardly on one of his chairs.
Rubbing her hands one last time on her skirt, Christine walked to the piano and played a D on it.
Erik leaned forward, his hands coming together over his knees to form a sort of steeple.
Christine turned back to him and began to sing. She had spent some time, a few months even, agonizing over what to sing for Erik as his "birthday" present. She had first thought of something from an opera, as this was their shared passion, but had set that aside. What opera in the world would Erik not know? He had countless scores in his library, some obviously printed by a publishing house, some painstakingly copied in his own labored handwriting. She knew, without ever having asked the question, that Erik had studied every one of those scores. She was also equally sure that he knew all of the scores in the Opera House library.
So in the end, she chose an ancient Swedish song, one that had been taught to her by her father many years ago. It wouldn't sound the same without his accompanying fiddle and her voice was not the clear sweet sound of a child's anymore, but the song was lovely. She had chosen to sing the song up higher in her register, showing off the bell-like quality of her soprano voice, that particular "sweet spot" that Erik so seemed to enjoy. It had been hard working on the piece on her own, altering it and molding it to her own newly trained voice, but she felt she had done an adequate job.
When she came to the end, she opened her eyes to look at Erik. She hadn't quite realized they had been closed much of the time and so it took her a moment to focus on him. What she saw didn't reassure her much. The look on his face was sardonic.
"So am I the mountain troll or are you, Christine?"
She gasped. "You understand Swedish?" She hadn't counted on that, hadn't really thought much about the lyrics of the song. It had been a part of her life for so long that the melody was the only thing she thought of when choosing it.
Herr Mannelig told the story of a mountain troll who tried to convince a lovely young nobleman, Sir Mannelig, to marry her. He does not, alas, choose to marry the troll, and she retreats, still begging him to free her of her curse. It was a sad story with a religious bent – the troll is of Satan; Sir Mannelig, a good Christian man.
Erik's lips twisted into an amused grin and he stood, bowing slightly, before seating himself at the piano and beginning to play. It took Christine a moment of confusion before she realized what he was doing. The introduction he played to the ancient song melded well with it, giving it a somewhat more operatic feel. He paused briefly, indicating with one lifted hand that she should join in.
She did so, easily. Erik had immediately picked up the melody and the rhythmic nuances of the music from her homeland. She sang even better this time, her voice soaring above the accompaniment. Without thinking about it, she reached out a hand and placed it lightly on Erik's shoulder. He tensed beneath her for a moment, a finger fumbling, marring what would have been a perfect line.
She did not remove her hand.
When it came to the one stanza told from Sir Mannelig's point of view, Erik raised his hand briefly from the piano, giving her a clear signal to stop singing. He took over the melody briefly and she found herself smiling as she joined back in and they finished the song together.
They fell into silence as the song faded away. Christine came back to herself quite suddenly and realized how close she was standing to Erik, realized where her hand was resting. She stepped back quickly, removing her hand as if burned.
Erik stood then, stepping around the bench to face her. His eyes shone with a strange light as he inclined his head slightly and brought a hand to his chest. "Thank you Christine. That is the most touching present I have ever received."
She sighed in relief. This had been the right thing to do after all. Smiling, she sat down lightly on the chair she customarily occupied in Erik's home. "Erik, will you tell me another story of your travels?"
He moved to his chair opposite her, that strange light still in his eyes. "Gladly."
Christine settled in for another long, lovely story of strange lands and even stranger people. It was one of her favourite things to do with Erik. She could listen to his voice for hours. Perhaps, in another way, this was also a gift to Erik. She knew he rarely had someone to sit and listen to his stories and she made an attentive audience.
Leaning back in her chair, she closed her eyes and let his voice take her away to someplace beyond her wildest imagination.
A/N: This story was written for the Livejournal community masked_ball. The prompt was "Christine gives Erik a gift." Herr Mannelig is an actual Swedish song. You can read more about it and see the lyrics here: .org/wiki/Herr_Mannelig