I apologize abjectly for the ridiculously long hiatus on this story. I was dragged into a dark alley by another fandom, and held captive by a whole warren of plot bunnies who only released me after my one-shot had morphed into a novel-length story with a mind of its own. I'm back now, and all my attentions shall be henceforth focused solely on this story (I set up traps to catch any uninvited plot bunnies and hold them until I'm ready to hear their ideas, so I'm safe).
To all who have read and reviewed so far: Thank you so much! If you're one of my earlier readers who's miraculously still following this story: Your patience is saintly.
The previous chapters are also newly revised, to fix a few silly mistakes and play with description.
It was Harold Zidler's voice that finally brought us back to ourselves, to the backstage dressing room around us. He was saying something about caution, about chances and hopes, but his voice faded to nothing compared with the reality of Satine sitting with her hands in mine, eyes searching my face. Zidler's words didn't matter. Instead I brushed the traces of tears from her face and murmured, "Satine, what- What happened? How-?"
She shook her head, ringlets of her flame-bright hair swaying against the pale silk of her dressing gown, dark lashes swaying low as she looked down at our clasped hands. To the others in the room – Zidler with Marie clinging close to him, Toulouse, the Argentinean, and the somber-faced doctor, who I hadn't even noticed until that moment – she must have looked the picture of composure, the Sparkling Diamond sitting apart and aloof, but to my eyes, there was fear hidden behind the porcelain mask. A soft sound in her throat that only I heard, a casual tilt of her head that was meant to let her pretend she was talking of something mundane, something safe…. Still, her fingers trembled between mine, and I drew her close as she spoke.
"I was… I thought I was dying, Christian," she whispered. "I couldn't breathe, and I- And then I woke up here, instead, and…" The tremor in her voice echoed too closely the desperate whispers from last night, and I shushed her gently. That was nothing she needed to relive, nothing that should have happened to begin with.
"But you're better now," I reminded her gently, reassuring. "You'll get better, and-"
I broke off as she shook her head slowly against my shoulder, sniffling almost inaudibly, and both Zidler and the doctor shifted uneasily on their feet, tilting like pear-shaped pendulums on the edge of my vision. Marie turned worried doe-eyes up to her husband's face, and I looked down at Satine as her hidden tears bled through my shirt against my skin. Answering before I could ask, Satine said in a miserable whisper, "I'm not. I won't."
The doctor took a step forward, voice professionally apologetic as he said, "I'm sorry, but my original diagnosis remains… She has all the symptoms."
"Of what?" I demanded, tense as if it were the doctor himself causing her illness, his very nearness a threat to Satine's health.
"It's consumption," came the near-silent whisper from the woman in my arms, and the room tilted briefly in a lopsided whirl, a lazy round on a carousel full of ice and black pain. A quiet, wounded sound from Toulouse, quickly stifled.
Consumption… Everyone knew of it, knew friends of friends who had fought that slow battle before succumbing to the inevitable. The word meant bloody handkerchiefs and false, unconvincing smiles from my parents, believing I was too young to know that my mother was fading away from us. and I knew Satine had been ill now and then throughout the past year, had fainting spells now and then, but I had assumed she was exhausted from rehearsal, from the stress of keeping up appearances for the Duke…. Could I have been that blind? How had I not seen the signs myself?
The black-clad man took another step forward, head inclined like a priest dispensing advice, murmuring, "It's best you both prepared yourselves…. Last night, the attack was severe enough to cause a faint, nearly stop her breathing entirely…"
I hadn't known, and the knowledge hurt. She'd been alive in my arms last night behind the curtain, and like a fool, I had fallen to pieces when I could have done something to help her…. She had sung so beautifully only minutes before… And that didn't fit, felt out of place like a flat note in a pianist's composition. I frowned, the doctor's words rambling past me unheard. That awful disease robbed you of your strength, stole your very breath away – no one battling consumption could ever have sung as she did, so many times in the past year, in the past week of rehearsal and performance alone.
"But she sang," I interrupted, ignoring the twitch of annoyance on the man's face. "How could she possibly have sung if that were true? Have you heard her, Doctor? You were there last night – you must have. How could she-?"
He stopped short of actually waving a hand in dismissal, but it fluttered aimlessly by his waistcoat for a moment, pitching his patronizing words over my head.
"There have been similar cases, I'm sure, where the symptoms are alleviated for a time, due to… ah… a change in surroundings or the like. I have formed my professional, studied opinion, however, my lad, and I must impress upon you how very little time may be left. While I..."
Satine was trembling like it was the dead of winter, face hidden against my shoulder, and the more the doctor droned on, the more clearly I heard a familiar tone growing in his voice, the sound of doors slamming shut, closing out hope, my father barking recriminations at me for not abandoning my "obsession" with love, the glassy-eyed march of the world that made no room in their hearts for hope, love, or beauty. What did this man know? Who was he to mark out Satine's lifespan, to lean solicitously closer like a fatherly angel of death, waiting for me to give in and abandon hope? Him saying these words did not make them truth, and no amount of fatherly counsel would make me weaken and bow to what he pompously declared to be unavoidable.
"Get out," I breathed, and his poisonous rambling hesitated. "I said get out," I repeated, the words crossing the room quietly and cold as steel, many degrees more gentle than the shout swelling in my chest. Under my glare, the doctor sniffed once, tipped his hat and a significant glance at Zidler, and made for the door leading out to the auditorium.
Toulouse's concerned eyes rested on me like a hand on my shoulder, and I added, "Please," for his sake. I wasn't angry with him or the others, apart from that cruelly indifferent doctor, but Satine was uncharacteristically meek and silent under the circle of worried eyes, and I didn't trust my temper to hold. With a few last looks back, they all filed out and away, and I drew Satine close as the door shut, simply holding her for long minutes until her shaking stilled and she lifted her head from my shoulder, wiping at her tear-stained face.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, as if she were somehow at fault for all this, as if she thought I could possibly blame her for being ill, for being frightened. It was this place… this dark, beautiful, glimmering place. I'd known Zidler for nearly a year now, worked alongside him to produce "Spectacular, Spectacular" all these months, but today I was seeing more clearly than I ever had in my life, and for all the energy and enthusiasm he embodied, there was no hope in Zidler's eyes. The show had to go on. If the show stopped, there would be nothing left. He had taught Satine the same creed, and the same haunted determination had already begun to drain her. I didn't want to see her become another of the gaunt, unhappy automatons who made up the Diamond Dogs, women who lived in determined desperation between curtain calls. The glamour of the Moulin Rouge had faded with the stars, and in the dusty daylight, I could see the weariness, the unquenched thirst for something more than absinthe and lust that weighed on us all. The magic had fallen away now that I was backstage, not just another starry-eyed member of the audience.
Before Satine could apologize again, I pressed my lips to her forehead, listening to her soft sigh before murmuring, "Do you still want to go away with me?"
She pulled away immediately to look at me, blue eyes full of wary hope like a candle flicker, just for a moment, before she said, "But…. Christian, how can we-?"
A watery smile spread across her face, erasing a little of the fear and illness there, as she said, "Yes," watching my smile reflect hers.
"Then we'll leave as soon as you can, as soon as you want to."
Her smile faded, the glow in her eyes dimmed, and I took her thin shoulders in my hands, willing that spark of hope to return as I insisted, "Doctors can be wrong, Satine! They make mistakes."
Uncertainty. I could see her struggling, afraid to spread the paper-thin wings of hope in case they wouldn't support her, but that was all right – I had hope enough for us both, enough to carry us both, until she could fly for herself alongside me. "You can sing, Satine, beautifully. You've gone days before without feeling sick. It doesn't make sense, what he said. What if he's wrong?"
I saw the moment she decided to trust my words, to let my hope carry her, some of her own poise returning in the lift of her chin, a bolder breath. But then, always so careful, wary like a wounded creature that knew the bite of traps, she began to frown.
"But what about the Duke? If he finds out we're together…" At the first mention of the tyrant's name I was already shaking my head, a smile creeping at the corner of my mouth despite the wrench of anger his name unearthed in my heart.
"He doesn't know. I met him out there, before," I said, glancing over my shoulder at the wall between us and the now-empty auditorium, "before I knew… Before I'd seen you. He doesn't know. He's terminating the contract with Zidler, and then he's gone, forever."
It was her turn to shake her head, urgently, entreating me to listen to the fear that threatened to steal the budding confidence from her eyes, return her to the scared little girl I had seen far too often of late.
"But if we leave… If he sees us, if he hears that we're gone, then he'll know." Her eyes were wide, her words tumbling from her lips at a frantic pace. "Christian, he's more powerful than you realize, than you can imagine! Politically, here and in England, and he was so jealous… He'll be watching you, and if he finds out he'll kill you, Christian, I know he will! You didn't hear him that night, when-"
A frightening thinness had crept into her voice, and I rushed to soothe her, hoping my expression hid how my heart had redoubled its pace at that warning sign. Nodding, agreeing to all she said, I gathered her close and said, "All right, all right… It's all right. We won't do anything until we have a plan, then – until we think of something. Don't worry, Satine. I'll take care of everything, I promise." She nodded, and I went on, "You just need to rest and get better, all right? Just sleep for a little while. I'll stay."
Exhausted as she was, she fell asleep beside me in mere minutes, one hand on my arm as if the Duke could come and spirit me away at any moment. Guarding me as I guarded her. For a long time, I lay there on top of the silk sheets and watched her sleep, reassuring myself every time she drew a slow, untroubled breath. She would be all right. I didn't dare consider anything else.
The slow creak of dusty hinges behind me told me someone had returned, but I didn't look over my shoulder; the uneven footfalls, and the hesitancy in them, declared our visitor to be the ever-faithful Toulouse. He came round the foot of the bed slowly, as if afraid I would send him away again, and I felt a pang of guilt. As he took a seat on a trunk among the bits of luggage and theater accoutrements around the dressing room, his face was already set in a wince, sympathy pouring out of his dark eyes, and I spoke to fill the silence before the other man offered any stumbling words of commiseration or support.
"We're leaving, Toulouse."
A beat, the other man absorbing the news with a blink and a slow nod, taking a long breath before he quietly asked, "Where will you go?"
I had thought of this, while listening to the soft cadence of Satine's breathing, turning the problem over in my mind.
"To England, at first."
Paris was beautiful, a heady whirlwind of bohemian experience, like leaping into a surreally vivid painting, and part of my heart would always remain here. But Paris was also wild and careening, something to give your life to with both hands or not at all, and I needed both hands to protect Satine now, to hold and support her. Back to England, then, at least to begin with, back to streets I knew, and a place to ground ourselves. After that…
"After that, we'll see."
I hope to update within a week or two, as the next chapter's half-written already. Please leave a quick review if you read - it just takes a minute, and you don't even have to log in if you don't wanna. ;) Thanks, guys!