"You came back."
His voice hardly sounded like his own. It was feeble, tremulous…
"I came back."
My own voice trembled, and I let the tears fall freely. He said nothing, and his eyes glistened as he simply stared. Silence hung in the air, draped with endless emotion, heavy and stifling and steeped in sorrow so powerful that I could not help but sob anew.
He let out a soft sigh, pained and mournful and tinged with wonder, and from his lips fell, scarcely more than a whisper,
"You came back."
I drew my fist up to my mouth, shaking my head furiously and choking back more sobs, my shoulders shaking with the effort. I despised myself, and oh, how he had deserved so much more!
"Please," I heard him say, "Please, do not…oh, my dear, you mustn't—"
But I could no longer feign strength. I could no longer stand so far from him and idly watch him disappear. I let out a piteous cry and ran to him, helpless and drawn to his dwindling frame as if by some supernatural force. And I knew I should have knelt at his feet, knew I belonged beneath his feet, but instead, I bent over the bed and, heedless of his condition, enfolded him in my arms. His wasted frame shook against my own, and one hand came up to tangle itself in my hair.
We remained like that, he and I, for what seemed like an eternity, simply embracing and being. A bittersweet eternity, pressed against each other, reveling in the feeling of our souls entwining irrevocably. And with each labored breath he drew, laced with silent sobs as mournful as my own, I felt a piece of myself shatter. I suddenly found that could not touch him enough, could not take in enough of his ravaged features that all too belatedly seemed strangely beautiful.
Was it Death? Had it taken Death's coming arrival to open my eyes?
I could, at last, see him for what he really was.
And I loved him. How I loved him! Oh, God!
I pulled away, my face inches from his, awash in grief, in guilt.
His eyes flickered shut briefly before slowly reopening and searching mine with an intensity I'd thought he no longer possessed.
"Do not blame yourself," he said finally. His voice still shook, but something in it was forceful, earnest. "Never. Never…blame yourself. The fault is…the fault is not yours."
I was crying harder now, foolish, weak thing that I was, and I shook my head vigorously.
"H-how can you say that? It is! Oh, Erik, it is! How could I? After everything you—"
"It's not fair!" I wept like a child now, no longer caring if he disapproved. "Oh, God, it isn't fair! You—you deserved so much more! In everything! In everything! Such cruelty, such hatred, and all for nothing! And you could have…you could have won the world! Do you know that? Oh, Erik, you could have won the world, but they were cruel, I was cruel! I did this to you! It isn't fair! I ruined you, after everything you've given me, after—I ruined you! And I shall never forgive myself for it, as long as I live, I shall never—"
"But you must! Christine! Please!" He took a deep, rattling breath that caused my heart to ram into my chest. Oh, no, oh no, no no!
His hands, his exquisite artist's hands wrapped around mine and his sunken eyes once again bore into my own, burning with shocking, sudden strength.
"Never blame yourself," he said, "You have…done more than anyone…any woman in your…position could…have done. You have given me more…more than…I could have ever dreamed of. How can you understand? How…can you know…oh, my dear…
"I bent to that…cruelty…Christine. I will…willingly surrendered, drowned…in it. Such a man…regardless of his…face…never could have…won the world…"
"But you should have!" I sobbed, "It isn't fair! You should have, Erik—"
"Ah, but, I did."
I blinked and stared.
"You are…my world, my dear Christine. You…always have been. And I cannot…I cannot thank you…enough for…for your kindness, for…your sweet smiles…your voice…I never deserved such a…voice. And despite the horrors…I've seen and…and caused, I cannot…I cannot help but feel that I would…I know I would relive…it all…ten thousand times over, if only…to love you…ten thousand times over."
I closed my eyes. Perhaps he sensed the growing protest on my lips, for he continued. "So you must never…never blame yourself for things…unraveling as they did. Some sort of…of chaos was inevitable…wouldn't you…say? I do tend to…attract that sort of…nonsense, you know."
I could not help but offer a watery smile.
"I love you, Christine," he said simply. "Wherever you may…find yourself in life…whatever future troubles may pester you, do…do take care to remember that. I will love you. Always. With the deepest part of myself, I will love you. You have saved me in ways I never thought…possible. You have made this life worth…everything. All of it. You did not ruin me…my dear, dear girl. You've redeemedme.
"And oh, how I love you."
I kissed him then, with none of the terrified trepidation of before. I kissed him deeply and truly, and with each passing second, I felt each of his burdens disappear, every horrid word that had been spoken to him, every vicious blow and shattered promise dissolve beneath a purity and righteousness he had never known. I kissed him and gave him my soul, finally, forever.
"I will love you," I whispered as his breathing grew shallow and his body grew limp. "I will love you always."
And perhaps I imagined it, so wrought with emotion was I, but I thought I heard his voice one last time, peaceful, soft, and distant, like the hint of a breeze sailing over the hills.
"No emperor ever received so fair a gift."