AN: We've reached the end of the journey... for now. I may revisit this world some day. Just don't hate me at the end of this, please!
Thanks go to Erik's Angel Forever, my-echo, Dana, Samantha Michaelis, EMCLucky13, Brunette1995, nadaj, kpmindc, and XwitchlightX for their reviews, follows, and favs.
And many many thanks to EriksTrueAngel for the beta read once more!
The change in Christine's breathing pattern alerted me that she was waking up. She shifted closer to me and sighed softly, lost in a happy dream that was quickly fading. Her breath was warm against my cold skin. As she moved, she unknowingly snaked one of her legs up and over one of mine. Having been introduced to the sensuality of love-making, Christine's hips moved forward involuntarily, reflecting the natural desire to be joined intimately with a lover. My heart thudded rapidly at the implication despite the fact that I knew such a union was beyond all possibility.
Her eyes fluttered open, and I was met with the clear blue that had haunted my dreams for so long. She smiled a woman's smile, exposing her erotic thoughts and the newness of her sexual knowledge. Echoing those thoughts, her hand flitted lovingly over my bony chest sending shivers through my body. She planted a kiss right beside one of my nipples bringing me to the brink of heart ache.
I knew what she wanted. Oh, how I wanted it, too! Yet alas, the time for dreams had past.
She hummed in response and again kissed the spot she had become fascinated with.
"My dear…" My words caught in my throat and I coughed mightily. Spasms shook my failing body, and I did nothing to prevent Christine from feeling them.
"Erik!" Her eyes went wide with worry. "What's the matter, love?" She sat up and tried to sooth away the tremors that plagued me, but to no avail.
I shook my head to stop her, but she wouldn't be detoured.
"What can I do to help you?"
My coughing fit calmed and I regained the power of speech. "Nothing," my voice cracked. "There isn't anything that can be done."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that we've come to the end." I coughed a few more times, less violently than before. Then I met her wild, worried eyes.
"The end...? Of what?"
Her troubled gaze locked with mine. Her eyes searched my wretched face for the answer she wanted. All I could offer her was the answer she feared. "I'm dying, Christine."
"You mean... in a while," she clarified. "You mean to say that you are ill and will die eventually... after a while."
"You can't possibly mean to say that... that... that this..."
Our eyes met again as she pondered the situation. After several tortuous moments of silence she thundered out her response.
"NO!" She sat up fully now, holding the sheet to her bare bosom out of modesty. "NO! No, no, no, no! NO! Don't you dare leave me! Don't you dare!" The tears swimming in her eyes nearly destroyed me.
"It can't be helped, my dear."
"NO!" she sobbed and pounded her fist against the mattress. "I refuse to surrender so easily! How can you even surrender without fighting this! You have potions, medicine, tonics. You have power... magic! I know you do! You can stop this. Fix this! You must!"
I tried to stop her flailing arms and calm her down, but my strength had all but left me.
"I won't accept this. I can't!" Her tears fell freely now as a miserable sob broke from her throat. "I won't let you! I won't let you die! Please, Erik!" She collapsed against me, pulling me to her, holding on to me as if her arms could bind me to this earth. The moisture of her tears on my bare, boney chest only deepened my own grief over what I was doing to her.
I tenderly stroked her back, allowing myself the pleasure of touching her smooth, flawless skin for what would be the last time. Another cough threatened to surface from my lungs, but I fought against it in the desperate need to linger in her embrace. She felt me shudder and rose up to look down into my anguished face.
"What can I do to help you?" she pleaded.
"Oh, my sweet, your presence here is help enough."
"There must be something that can be done," she pleaded. "You were fine a few hours ago!"
"Christine, I haven't been fine for a long while now." My voice was scratchy and unfamiliar. I didn't like the sound of it at all. I had expected the poison to leave me weakened, but I hadn't expected it to rob me of my voice so suddenly. I would have to say what needed to be said quickly or else I wouldn't have the opportunity to make my plan known to her.
"But I have to do something! Please!" The tears that streaked her angelic face pierced my slowing heart.
"There is… something… I need you to do." I muttered.
"Anything! Anything!" Her excitement over having an occupation was touching, but I knew she would resist once she heard my request.
"The Viscount." I avoided using his name, for it wasn't welcome within the intimacy of this chamber. "You must marry him."
Her reaction was rather ironic given the situation. Here was this beautiful woman lying naked in a bed with the most horribly disfigured and ugly man on Earth. She had just been told to marry a handsome, rich Viscount. The way she paled and the look of horror on her face should have been intended for the monster looking up at her, but instead it came in reference to the ideal man from whom she had run away.
"I can't. Erik, how can you even—"
"You can," I breathed. "You must."
She shook her tousled head in disagreement. "I am your wife. I cannot marry another!"
"And in a few hours… moments really… you will be my widow."
She paled even further at having the reality of the situation stated so matter-of-factly. She took a few short breaths and muttered, "Then I will stay your widow and never love another."
"Christine," I sighed, and forced myself to say the words I had been dreading for hours now. "You do love him. I know you do."
The lump she swallowed was evidence of the truth of the statement. "But I love you more!"
My twisted mouth curved up in the only smile it could manage. "I know. However, that love has left you in a difficult situation that must be amended."
She looked down at me with confusion.
"My love, we live in a merciless world." My voice was small and hoarse, but I pushed through the pain to make certain she understood what faced her in the future if she did not obey my wishes. "When you return to the surface after having been mysteriously missing for the night, suspicions will be aroused and gossip will follow. If you do not marry the Viscount, the public will assume you have been ruined in some way. You won't be welcomed in polite society. You will become an outcast. You will be left alone to struggle for survival. You won't sing. You won't shine."
She blinked in sudden understanding tinged with fear. I allowed her to contemplate the situation for several long, silent moments. When she finally spoke, she did so with difficulty. "What if… he won't… have me?"
It was an honest concern, one that even I had considered. However, the Viscount knew as well as I did that public appearance is everything. Were he to lose his fiancé – his beautiful, young, devoted fiancé – to a monster such as the Opera Ghost, he would be ruined right along with Christine. The public would question his ability to hold on to and please a woman if it were ever known she chose a deformed monstrosity over the handsome, rich bachelor. No, the Viscount would take her back. More so, he'd relish the fact that when it was all said and done, she would spend her life with him while I rotted away in misery.
It made my stomach churn, but there was nothing else that could be done.
"He loves you," I said, though I had to fight back the bile rising in my throat. "He will take you back."
She sighed again, a deep, mournful sigh that echoed the remorse present in her eyes. "I don't know how I can live without you."
"You will. You must." The command came very easily to me, for I'd once had such power over her. Every last fiber of my strength was put into that single command. "You must marry him."
Crumbling in defeat, Christine wept against my too thin chest. Stealing the opportunity to stroke her glorious mane of hair one last time, I murmured, "You will live a full life. Your days will be filled with sunshine and beauty. You will sing, and through your music… I will live on with you."
The air seemed thick, heavy. It was difficult to breathe. For the first time since I'd made this fateful decision, I was afraid of my choice. Yet the choice could not be undone. I'd set a course in motion and I had to see it through to the very end. For Christine's sake. This was my gift to her, sick and twisted as it may be.
My heart was racing, hammering away in an increasing rhythm, hurrying toward the end. If I could have, I would have made time itself bend to my will so that I would have a few more hours, a few more minutes… seconds with her, but I wasn't that strong. In fact, my strength was gone. I hadn't even strength enough to wrap my arms around my Angel. As she clawed and pawed at me, holding me close, pulling me against her, all I could manage was the slight shift of my calloused fingers against her delicate skin.
Oh, the agony! This was the true definition of pain. To be wanted and want in return… but to be denied the glory of the bodily union because of your own choices. It had been foolish assume I wouldn't want her at the close of life. I wanted to kiss her. To make love to her. But time had run out.
She must have sensed my desperation to meld with her once final time, for she rose up to lock her gaze to mine. She smiled. And my heart broke apart. Her heavenly blue eyes, sparkling with tears, were the last thing I saw as I slipped into Hell.
Hours later, after the wounded girl had somehow managed to walk out of the chamber… after the Viscount had wrapped his arms around her and led her away from this nightmare… Nadir stood beside the bed and contemplated his next move.
Shifting his gaze between the corpse-life figure in the bed and the tray of potions he'd carried into the room, he wondered if it wouldn't be better to leave well enough alone. A lifetime of watching and learning and fearing forced his hand to open the blue vile and drip its contents into Erik's still and lifeless mouth.
The plan had been set in place decades ago, before Christine, before Don Juan. It was meant to keep Erik safe should his presence ever be discovered and the threat of imprisonment even presented itself. Nadir was certain Erik had implemented the plan now even though the situation in which it was being used was vastly different from the initial intention.
Thus, it came as no surprise to Nadir when Erik's eyes slowly, yet with great difficulty, slid open.
"She's gone." It was a statement, not a question.
"The Viscount escorted her home."
Those eyes that had always held such sadness folded shut once more. "Leave me."