No One But Her
"I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach."
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Erik Rousseau sat in the May sunshine, sipping lemonade as he read the newspaper. Beside him, Christine was absorbed in the latest missive from one Baroness de Castelot-Barbezac, her morning meal forgotten and cooling on the plate. Erik arched a brow as Christine periodically broke the morning's symphony of sighing wind and the twitter of birdsong with a chuckle or muttered exclamation.
"Something amusing, love?" Erik drawled. He was assaulted with the now-familiar pleasure of her brown eyes meeting his, sparkling with humor and affection. Erik indulged in letting his eyes roam possessively over her form clad in a gown of silvery grey, the bodice loose over the swell of her pregnant belly. Christine brandished the fine vellum.
"It's nothing, love. Meg is just telling me of some foolishness Angeline and Charles got into at the Opera."
Erik's smirk spread into a smile of genuine pleasure. Their precocious Angeline, now nine, had inherited her mother's beauty and angelic voice but her father's mischievous streak. Charles, Meg's boy of nearly the same age, had a rather inflammatory effect on said impish tendencies as he studied the violin at the Conservatoire. It made for a potent and dangerous combination, especially on the hapless ballet mistress Madame Villon. Madame Giry, now Madame Kahn, was currently on honeymoon somewhere in Italy.
"Oh? I do not recall such antics in Angeline's last letter home," Erik pointed out dryly. Christine's mouth thinned.
"I will have to mention that to her. I think perhaps she is homesick. I know she misses Gustave terribly."
"Well, she only has another week before the summer holiday. She may return home, where she belongs," Erik said, flicking his paper straight with practiced nonchalance.
His daughter's foolish insistence on following in her mother's footsteps and singing in the chorus at the Opera Populaire both frustrated and delighted him. That the junk men would take umbrage at his daughter's presence was a continual thorn in his thoughts. Angeline's letters bore no evidence of maltreatment, but Erik could read between the lines and heard her relief and happiness when Charles arrived at the Conservatoire.
"I hope so. She only wants to make you proud, Erik," Christine murmured, her wedding ring sparkling in the sun as she stroked her belly meditatively.
"I have been proud of her since the day she was born!" he objected, "I never pressured her to sing!"
"I know that," Christine said, unperturbed, "but does she?"
Erik folded his newspaper and regarded his wife of over a decade. Fatherhood was a prospect that terrified him in the early days of Christine's pregnancy with Angeline. The demons in his mind gleefully recounted all of his faults, and more than one night Erik had risen from the haven of his marriage bed to pace the halls of the manor in an agony of uncertainty. His beloved Christine had been quick to remind him that he had had a large part in her upbringing and, aside from making him feel vaguely like an old lech, also put some of his fears to rest.
A child in Christine's image, with her beauty and sweetness, that he would devote his life to protecting and loving and teaching. Angeline was the fruit of all his hopes, with her mother's wild brown curls and chocolate brown eyes. Jokingly, Erik had remarked that his only contribution to Angeline's makeup was her quick temper and even quicker wit. It had been his delight to teach her music and find her swift, effortless aptitude. This same child now doubted his pride? Had he pressured her?
"I . . . I never meant to push her. Her talent is nearly boundless; the world could be hers for the taking."
Christine's smile was gentle and she leaned over to kiss his lips. Her fingers stroked the rough, pitted skin of his deformity without the slightest compunction. A firm rule in the manor house was that Erik set aside his mask. His face was not something to hide behind in his own home, she told him. Their children were actually more afraid of the unfamiliar mask he donned in public than the horror of his wrecked visage. Erik returned the kiss gratefully, tasting the sweet tang of lemonade on her lips.
"She wants so much to please you. Perhaps we should make your regard clearer when she is home."
"Of course," he replied.
A comfortable silence stretched between them and Erik riffled through the remaining post on the table and groaned at the sight of the characteristic sky blue wax emblazoned with the de Chagny seal.
"What is it?" Christine asked, not looking up from Meg's missive.
"When will my fool brother get it through his thick head? I do not want his damned title!" Erik groused, tossing aside the thick letter unopened.
Philippe, for the first time in his wayward, philandering life was trying to do the honorable thing and repair the breach Michel and Raoul de Chagny had orchestrated. The only problem was, Erik was happy where and as he was. He had no desire to supplant either of his de Chagny kin. Relations had improved over the interim ten years, but even then, Raoul and Erik could scarcely share the same space for more than an hour before degenerating into a vitriolic argument.
"You cannot blame him, Erik. He is trying to do what is best." Christine, the sweet voice of reason, as ever. Erik glanced at her fondly.
"True, my love. But a letter a month is a bit excessive, hmm? Philippe has made it abundantly clear that he does not intend to ever marry again, and Raoul's wife has yet to conceive in the seven years they have been married. Though I wouldn't doubt that is due to the boy's inability to find her-"
"Erik! Please!" Christine interrupted, her face flaming. Erik snickered nastily, preening at the fact that he was the center of her attention again. Erik sobered, weaving Christine's fingers with his.
"What I mean to say is that my dear brother is pestering me because it seems very likely both younger de Chagnys will die without an heir. Who then will this dubious honor fall to?"
"Gustave," Christine breathed, comprehension knifing across her delicate features. Erik nodded solemnly.
"And if I agree to their plan, who is to say that they will not take Gustave so he may be properly groomed to be a Comte? It would be within their rights, since all the lands and moneys would be deeded to him."
"That would never happen," Christine said firmly, "we will not allow it. If Gustave is truly the sole heir, then he will take the title on his own terms, if it is his wish." Erik's heart melted into a molten pool of adoration. He kissed her hand.
"Such a lioness, determined to protect her cubs. I am so grateful our daughter and son has such a mother," he crooned, "Not to mention this little one." He pushed back his chair and drew her into his lap. He didn't know or care how long they stayed like that, foreheads touching, cradling and stroking the mound of Christine's pregnant belly with their joined hands as the sun sank into their skin.
The glass door to the terrace flew open with such force it rebounded against the wall with an almighty crash. Erik and Christine turned in time to see their son Gustave flying toward the table.
"Papa! Mama! Do you know what today is?" he shouted, his high voice squeaking on the last syllable as he hopped up and down. Christine returned to her chair and Gustave promptly climbed into Christine's lap.
"Of course we do, little prince. Today is your fifth birthday," Erik said with a fond smile.
If Angeline was made in Christine's image, then Gustave was in his. Black-haired and already showing the evidence of his father's angular height at a tender age, Gustave had inherited the full measure of his father's genius and Christine's honest good-humor. In the early days of his life, the twisted muscles and crooked bone on the right side of Gustave's face had made Erik's stomach turn with dread. While his skin was flawlessly pale like Christine's own, Gustave's gnarled features were still noticeable. But as it had with the sire, Christine's tenacious love and ferocious protectiveness served as both shield and weapon against any barbs thrown against their boy's appearance. Gustave himself wore the mark as a badge of honor, stating proudly that he was his father's son.
"Yes. And I know what I want as a gift."
"Oh? What is it?"
"I want two. One for now and one the save for later."
A chill fell over Erik, freezing the smile on his face to a rigid mask. Oh God. Christine played along, rocking Gustave playfully on her knees.
"Tell me what it is you want," she replied. Erik was suddenly five years old again—the same age as his beloved boy!—begging something that Madeline Laurent would never give.
"A kiss?" Christine repeated. Erik's heart thundered, the fine breakfast threatening to make its way back up. He remembered the dread, the sheer depth of his wanting, thirsting like a dying flower for a single scrap of affection . . .
"Just one? How about this? And this and this?" Christine said, peppering Gustave's face with thousands of adoring kisses. Their son giggled in delight, presenting his chin, forehead and cheek for their turn of loving attention.
Erik watched, breathless and wondering. Christine seemed determined to undo all of his life's horrors with the miracle of her love. Erik watched his wife and son play and felt an indescribable euphoria rise up. This was where he belonged. Tears blurred the beloved image and Erik blinked them away. Gustave slid down and approached Erik. A quizzical frown marred his son's brow.
"Are you all right, Papa? Are you sick?" The boy made a show of checking his father's temperature with the back of his hand. An insatiable reader, he was already devouring one of Erik's simpler medical treatises with great relish.
"No, son. I am happy. I'm happy it is your birthday and I get to give you your present," Erik said, bending and kissing his son's forehead. Gustave accepted Erik's kiss bashfully, hands knotting in the hem of his smock.
"Thank you, Papa. May we ride Octavian?" he asked, naming one of César's colts, coal black and spirited as his sire.
Erik rose from his chair and kissed Christine's forehead. Father and son walked hand in hand awash in the spring sunshine, both entirely content.
A/N: Sniff Sniff. So we have come to the end, dear readers. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of your reviews, favorites and views. They make my day. Thank you for sticking with me!