A/N: Another ridiculously long wait between updates, I know. Life, glorious life, got in the way as always. But I'm a little more comfortable with things now, and ergo I've settled back into fitting writing into my busy life too.
First off, I've revised the chapter titles just a little bit; after the prologue, every chapter has a Roman numeral preceding the actual title. And I know it can be annoying when chapter numbers in the titles don't match their respective installment numbers (i.e. Prologue is technically Chapter 1, Chapter I: Descent is actually Chapter 2, etc), but I feel like it looks a little more polished this way. I'm going to be going back and slightly revising the writing style in a couple of the earlier chapters, too, when I have time - but for now, my main priority is updating.
This chapter took a long time evolving – as has happened so much lately with the last few chapters, I must have written at least ten different drafts, all with different plots, but I finally succumbed to writing and polishing what became this chapter—from Erik's perspective, no less (incidentally something that I had been particularly and completely determined, for creative self-challenge reasons, NOT to do in this fic, EVER—blame that determination on the hindsight of way too much highly indulgent Erik-POV in my older, Lerouxish fic, The Opera Wench). I was pretty inexperienced at the time I started writing that fic, and I think a lot of my Opera Wench Erik's inner thoughts made him sound a bit like a whiny teenage girl. Granted, it's been over six years since the early days of TOW, and I think I've gotten far better at writing certain male perspectives in the meantime, but the experience of going back and re-reading some of the ridiculous things I wrote spooked me nonetheless - which is why, up to this point, I've tried to only ever show Shadows Erik through the eyes of others, particularly Christine. And that was particularly because I never truly intended for you guys to be entirely on his side at any given time; I really wanted that dark ambiguity there, that uncertainty and doubt that Christine is almost constantly feeling where he's concerned.
As with the chapter from Raoul's POV and the excerpt from Étienne's POV, however, I'm glad I fought my preconceived plans and followed my instincts instead. I'll admit something; I did initially plan for the Erik in this story to not be entirely sympathetic, but in spite of my best intentions, the old devil has grown on me quite a bit. (He has a way of doing that.) But while this is quite a sympathetic chapter, there will be plenty of dark ambiguity coming up soon on his end which I intend to fully explore from one POV or another. At the moment, I hope you don't mind yet another (ahem) titillating E/C interlude (I know some of you won't mind one bit, but I'm not sure about everyone—I don't know how many people want me to get going with the plot already). :D Next chapter really is going to be much more sensible and plot-driven—i.e., we're going to be getting back to Raoul and his search, among other things. I can't promise a speedy update, exactly, but I don't think I'm remiss when I say that you'll likely be seeing the next chapter fairly soon – half of it I'm very, very happy with, and the other half…still working out the bugs. Hopefully it won't take too long to get the next chapter up to my usual standards!
I liked this particular chapter a lot when I first wrote it - I really liked showing Erik's tender, sensual side in full, unfettered detail for once rather than zeroing in on his temper or his flaws - but I shelved it temporarily in favor of more (for lack of a better phrase) plotty plots like the one I just described, the one coming up next chapter and beyond. But eventually I came back to this one, and I liked it better than whatever else I was working on at the time. You dears have been so very patient with me of late, and I thought you definitely deserved a reward while I keep working out the kinks in the next chapter's plotline. Plus, what with the upcoming storyline that's in the works, I realized that there probably wouldn't be a much better opportunity than now to use this particular piece of sexy fluff. Enjoy!
There had often been little snatches of half-formed fantasies in the old life, shadowy and brief because he lacked the reference to give them vivid shape (the image of what her legs might look like, for example, stripped of their lace and muslin accoutrements, or how it might feel to have his mouth pressed to the little hollow of her throat). There were things now—real things—in the new life, that put his former imaginings to shame—the soft, springy roundness of her breasts, the weight of them cupped in his hands or the pert squashiness of them pressed against his skin; her finger-nails dragging lightly along his back while high-pitched little breaths and gasps—and moans—wound their way out of her throat; her thighs tightening around his hips, the arch of her lovely neck; her silken palms sliding along his—
Damn it all.
He couldn't concentrate on his work, not a bit. There she sat in the grass just outside the window, oblivious, perhaps, to his ardent imaginings, a book in her hands and her bare toes peeking tantalizingly from beneath the hem of her dress. She was no more than twenty feet from the house, where he was sitting mindlessly at his desk in the study. He was supposed to be drawing up some plans for a new house that Étienne was likely going to be working on, for clients of a middle-class family in town. They had come to a bit of a grudging understanding of late, he and Étienne—his half-brother had recently recommended him to half-a-dozen clients in the surrounding countryside who wanted architectural designs, and Christine had been overjoyed at Erik's finally finding an occupation in Culot that suited him.
But he couldn't draw a single line at the moment; he was too caught up in the loose spill of Christine's dark curls, which he always wanted to gather up in his hands, and the gleam of her white teeth as they touched her lower lip, biting it gently as she was often apt to do when she was nervous or intent. (He had noticed this frequently during lessons, in the old days, and it had made him want to catch it between his own teeth.)
The pen slid from his fingers, falling on his desk with a little spatter of ink.
She looked up from her book, and their eyes met. He felt a spreading warmth in his belly and groin, a fierce, throbbing tightness, and he did not bother to conceal the desire which was no doubt quite evident in his expression.
Ah, good girl—so good—she put down her book, slowly, torturously, and made as if she were about to rise. At the last moment, however, she sat back and began nonchalantly brushing bits of grass off the hem of her dress, and his fingers tightened on the edge of his desk. What was she playing at? She rose then, and bent over for her book—she was taking a devilishly long time, and the muscles in his arm gave a little spasm; his breath was quick and his lips felt terribly dry. She straightened, sliding her hand across her neck and shoulder to sweep the long cascade of hair behind her back—his fingers dug into the arm of his chair, and the sweetness of this torture could not possibly be denied. Then—dear God, then—she developed a peculiar expression on her face, and bent down again, her fingers plucking up the edge of her skirt and sliding it up until at last she reached her calf, her bare calf, for God's sake, innocently scratching the outside of it as though she had a mildly annoying itch. She paused—looked at him, at first in mock surprise, as if to say Oh, I hadn't any idea you were watching, and then a soft, secret little smile played upon her lips—and he thought that he would die, right here at the window-sill, seized by the exquisite rush of blood pounding through his body and carried away upon it like Elijah in his burning chariot.
He knew that when she deigned to come inside to join him—or he left the house to join her, whichever happened to occur first—he would not be able to keep his hands from her, all over her, her legs and breasts and hips and buttocks, would not be able to keep from saying her name against her throat, to keep his mouth from exploring her lips and chest and her dark, wet warmth.
Somehow his legs had carried him from the dark mahogany and oak of his study to the front door in the main hall; he opened it, his fingers feeling clumsy and half-aware. A blast of sunlight greeted him; he was walking much faster than his normal gait, almost running, though he was almost never inclined to run. He slowed as he rounded the corner of the house, putting his hand on the warm wood and stone to steady himself. He cleared his throat.
"Your book," he said, his head swimming a little, "It pleases you?"
She was sitting again—she must have noticed that he was coming to her, instead of the other way round. She looked up languidly, lazily stretching her leg out from beneath her dress in such a way that made it look as though she had no idea she was exposing foot, ankle and half a shin. He tore his eyes away from that part of her anatomy, determined now to gain the upper hand in this savagely beautiful little game.
"Not really," she said, sounding quite honest and not at all coy. "I don't mean to sound snobbish, but it rather bores me, actually. I shouldn't have been fooled by the elegant cover, but—" Her eyes suddenly flickered down to his trousers—his ardency was, one might say, rather obvious—and her nostrils flared ever so slightly, her lips parting almost imperceptibly. That secret smile was hovering on her mouth, and he wanted to devour it, hoard it, but he forced himself to wait. He licked his dry lips involuntarily and minorly adjusted his stance, remembering a darling remark she had made a week ago about him cutting a particularly fine figure in a certain unconscious habitual attitude of his—leaning against the wall, arms folded, one leg rakishly bent, ankles crossed. Vanity was perhaps moot in his position, but he had so little to be vain about that he rather relished such unexpected little victories.
"Have you done with your work?" Christine asked calmly, looking at him through her eyelashes.
He kept the cool, unruffled veneer, and brushed a stray leaf from his shoulder. "It can wait." It can go to the devil was what he actually thought, but he thought it amusing to draw out this masochistic little tête-à-tête while longer by appearing somewhat aloof. She had seen the physical evidence bulging between his legs, at any rate, so she could hardly have been entirely fooled by his calm demeanor.
"Oh, dear," she said in mock surprise, pretending to only just notice her conspicuously exposed leg. It slid back beneath the confines of her skirt, and he swallowed hard.
"I had forgotten," he said coolly (although there was a slight quaver in his voice, which he silently cursed), "that it was wash-day. All your stockings must be hanging out to dry."
"Yes," she said smoothly, turning a page in her book. "My corset, too."
Erik tugged a little at his collar. A drop of sweat rolled down his neck.
"I'm sorry," she said suddenly, still not looking at him, but rather at her book. "I suppose it's rather indecorous for me to mention that."
It was nearly impossible to tell, when she said this, whether she was being serious or whether it was part of her titillating façade of nonchalance. His prim little protégée, his shrinking little violet, had blossomed into a deeply sensuous lily in the space of two short months, although she still had moments which echoed her former self, moments which were oddly endearing even amidst their initial annoyance.
She bit her lip again, and a little shiver went through him. "Christine," he said softly, dangerously, feeling like a predator watching his prey. Her eyes slid up to meet his over the cover of her book. The ghost of that smile was still playing upon her lips, inviting him closer. Soon he was close enough to smell her, and he bent on his knees with his hands on either side of her in the grass.
"We aren't in view of the road," she said, a little breathlessly, and there was a little leap of pleasure inside him. "No," he said, letting the desire take over his voice, thick and raspy, "no, we aren't." His fingers fumbled with the buttons on the front of her dress, forcing it open so he could bury his face between the exposed mounds of flesh. He shoved up her skirt, fondling her bare legs and finding his way through her combinations to the slick, soft secret of her womanhood. She wriggled against his hand, her breathing high and sweet.
Buttons, buttons…women, it seemed, had an infernal lot of buttons barring anyone from intruding upon their privacy and virtue, and it was no wonder, too, because they were a damned nuisance—buttons, at least, although women certainly had their moments, too, not that he'd had much experience with even passing conversations with many women, and Christine was the only one who had ever deigned to bestow any favors upon him; that was just as well, at any rate, for she might as well have been the only woman in the world as far as he was concerned. Other women sparked not even a passing interest now; they were like cheap plaster casts of the Pietà.
Despite the fact that his hands had found their way up between her legs quite nicely, he still had to pull them out for a moment to open the cloth contraption up in the front to give another part of him entrance. Christine didn't wear separate pieces for her combinations; she wore singlets, one piece for body and legs, and he reminded himself to take her shopping somewhere for more…easily accessible undergarments. Something he could pull down, rather than unbutton—something that would make spontaneous afternoon trysts much less of a chore at the start of them. (He had perused plenty of catalogs for women's clothing when he had been in that foolhardy, dreamlike state two years ago at the very beginning of his infatuation, before she even knew he was alive, trying to acquaint himself with female fashions so that he could fill his intended's closet with clothes—and although he hadn't been bothered at the time to actually buy any feminine undergarments, he had seen his share of pictures.)
Her fingers fumbled at his collar and tie, and her breath whispered against the skin of his neck. She was so warm, so near. Her lips met his, and he needed no god at all when he had her to worship. "My good angel, my goddess," he murmured, and there was a rippling hum in her throat, a giggling little thrum of pleasure. She was so young, so impulsive —though at one-and-twenty (and in her lately evolved manner), she was far more woman than girl. He was impulsive, too, though, and he hadn't nearly the excuse of not having lived enough years to learn how to reign it in, how to keep it back. He rather liked having something very much in common with her at least, this mad, heady recklessness they both shared (although he suspected he possessed it in far more copious amounts—his flower was a cautious sort, and it had taken her weeks, months, to be so wanton with him). Desire, too, that was common ground, though he was damned if he knew why he had been able to awaken it in her to such an alarming (and delightful) degree—
He was inside her now, buried to the hilt in her warmth. She was so welcoming, the way her body curved along with his, the steady rhythm of oneness, of being so undeniably alive that it was difficult to imagine how he had ever fancied himself dead. He felt consumed, felt himself being driven to a kind of blissful, otherworldly madness as he enveloped that insistent part of him again and again within her slick velvet walls. He ached for her so badly that satiation seemed to be approaching all too quickly, and he tried to slow and temper his movements even though every fiber of his body cried out for hard, swift frenzy. Her breath at his ear, her soft lips nipping at his throat—Christine, Christine, he murmured, a prayer to the one he worshiped, and she gave him a long, breathless kiss. It drove him wonderfully wild to see that bright, high flush on her cheeks, like swipes of paint. It was not the blush of embarrassment, but of ecstasy, and he watched in wonder as it spread to her neck and chest, to the tops of her breasts and down almost to her navel. It never ceased to amaze him, this reaction he had caused in her—he had not had much opportunity to see it in full light, though she had allowed more and more trysts without total darkness of late.
She tightened around him, her eyes fluttering almost shut. Her delightful little cries sounded in his ear, intoxicating him, and his name, his name—over and over again, in that voice which had sung his arias and wound about his own in duets, that same sweet, seraphic timbre which he had been captivated by at the very first, though God only knew that he had never been acquainted with this particular expression of her vocal cords until relatively recently.
Release followed swiftly on the heels of her breathless screams, as though all the life was pouring out of him in one burst of white-hot warmth, and then another. His breath hitched, caught heavily in his throat as the primitive throes of his body shook him. He shuddered with it, felt himself pulled out with the tide, feeling the familiar giddy, overpowering relaxation come upon him like the spell of a beneficent fairy.
They lay in a tangled heap on the grass for a while after that, entwined like ivy on a wall, the sun beating down on his naked face. His mask lay discarded to the side of them, like a cheap toy. They hadn't bothered to button up their clothes which still hung on their bodies, rumpled and half-open. She whispered things to him, things that made his heart seize with pleasure, sweet nothings that he never would have dreamed of falling from her lips so many months ago. He had resigned himself so completely to never encountering this sort of quiet bliss that it was still a shock at times, albeit a thoroughly pleasant one. He put the backs of his fingers against the smooth skin of her cheek and could not stop himself from covering her face in soft, slow kisses, murmuring his own brand of worshipful endearments. She shivered, and he asked, "Are you cold?" "No," she whispered, sliding her fingertips over his throat, and then he shivered, too, so he was forced to assume that hers had been out of a similar pleasure.
"Christine," he whispered, "Christine, do I make you quite happy?" She smiled, although the smile seemed to falter just a little—only a little, but enough to make his stomach briefly churn. "Of course," she said, her voice warm and soft, and he supposed that would have to be enough for him.