Chapter 24

Lying to innkeepers was harder in Italian. It was all well and good when she was singing a simple chorus part about love or war, but her vocabulary did not cover facial injuries or secret identities. Erik attempted to take control, but his charms seemed to be a bit less convincing than hers. After towering over the latest innkeeper and delivering a rapid, sneering speech in Italian which Christine could make out very little of, he turned to her and grumbled,

"This idiot won't let us stay." in French.

"Why not?" she asked.

"He thinks I've abducted you or some such nonsense." He muttered.

"As if you would ever do that." She giggled, grabbing hold of his arm, hoping to appear a happy, willing wife. He looked in turn offended at her joke and uncomfortable with the contact, but she was not about to spend the night on the street just because Erik refused to hold her hand. She looked around at the innkeeper and kept smiling, gesturing between her and Erik saying

"Sposato. Amore." She felt Erik's arm tighten at the words, and she realized that soon at least one of them would be true. The innkeeper gave her a skeptical look, but she just continued to smile and held onto Erik tighter. It occurred to her that she would be facing similar attitudes everywhere she went now, merely being associated with a man in a mask. How frustrating it must be for him, not to be able to do any small daily task without being harassed and stared at. She secretly thought she might have done something worse than hiding beneath an opera had she shouldered that burden her whole life.

There were still many things about Erik that she didn't understand, but she saw more than he thought she did. She knew forcing him to delve into his past was hurting him, but she would not spend the rest of her life with a stranger. He thought it was because he had to prove himself, somehow, before he could be a husband and father, but Christine knew deep down that there was nothing he could tell her that she would not eventually forgive. It scared her sometimes, how much she would allow in him which she would not in anyone else, not even Raoul. But there was so much tenderness in him, and sadness that she felt down to her very core, that she could not find it within herself to hate him or shun him. She might leave him, if he somehow proved too violent or unstable to have around her child, but she prayed that did not happen. She would miss him, for all his cynicism and rudeness and frightening past.

He had told her more of his past, never meeting her eyes and often with a breaking voice, and then she did feel like a horrible person for forcing such things out of him. She was sure there was more yet which he had not shared, but she found she could not quite blame him for that either. He'd had to stop speaking when he mentioned his jailer, Javert, and she was not certain she wanted to know why. Erik seemed to antagonize himself the most over Luciana's death, and Christine was ashamed to admit she had known a pang of jealousy over that. It had been foolish, she knew, to consider herself the only woman who had ever been…fascinated by him. But today he had seemed especially tense. He had mentioned that they would arrive in Rome very soon, and she guessed that whatever he thought was the worst of him would be revealed tonight.

She tried not to rush him, though she was terribly curious. She picked at her dinner and allowed him his brooding silence. The room was terribly warm, and her eyes were beginning to close before he finally spoke.

"Go on then, take it off." His voice was low, resigned, and at first she didn't understand.

"What?" She sat up straighter, wide awake.

"You're always taking off my mask. Well, this time I am granting you permission. Or does that rather take the fun out of the endeavor?" His barbs had no bite to them. He sounded utterly defeated.

"Why are you granting me permission?"

"Because you need to see what you are proposing to marry. I know you can't have forgotten, but perhaps your naïve little mind has conjured up a kinder memory than it should. So go on, take it off, and see what you wish to tie yourself to for the rest of your life." Christine did not appreciate his tone, but now was not the time to argue over such petty things. Erik was allowing himself to be very vulnerable. She could handle being unfairly chastised.

She knelt next to him on the sofa, reaching for the ties of his mask with hands that she wished would stop shaking. She was not afraid of his face, but she was afraid of doing the wrong thing in what she was sure would be a delicate moment. He held her eyes as she pulled at the knot until it came undone. There was fear in his gaze, a calculating defensiveness that was just waiting for a sign of disgust from her. She kept eye contact as she pulled the black porcelain away, then gently pushed the wig off of his head. It was him who flinched first, as her fingertips brushed his forehead, which was populated by only a few sparse grey hairs. Her eyes followed her fingers as they skimmed down his face, over yellowed, almost translucent skin stretched so tight that the bones protruded painfully, around eyes sunk too far back in his skull, surrounded by blackened, scarred flesh. And it was just flesh. It was terrible, unsettling, very sad, but in the end it was simply a face like any other. Her breath did catch for a moment, when she came to the dark, triangular hole where there should have been a nose. Her face was so close to his that she could feel the rapid pants coming out of it, and she was ashamed to admit that her stomach twisted for a moment. But she forced herself to keep looking. Before, when they had kissed, she had focused on the relatively safe areas of his eyes and mouth. But now she saw everything. It might have been seconds or hours, all she knew was that it seemed endless to her. She relented when she noticed that Erik was trembling harder than she was. She looked back to his eyes, which seemed to be begging for mercy, and managed to find a small smile for him.

"I really don't see what all the fuss is about." She said weakly. His mouth twitched, as though he wanted to smile but had forgotten how.

"Christine." He breathed, and her name was like a prayer. She waited, but it seemed that was all he had to say.

"So then." She said, working Raoul's wedding band off of her finger. The mark it left was sharp and bitter sweet, but it was the least she could do in the light of Erik's bravery. "Are we to be married?" He reached for his mask with a pleading look, and she let him take it. When it was back on he released a deep sigh and straightened his shoulders. In an elegant movement, he got up off the sofa and kneeled before it. With a dramatic flourish there was suddenly a simple gold ring in his outstretched palm.

"If you are still mad enough to wish to give me your hand, I shall certainly take it." He said solemnly. She simply nodded, her smile growing a little more firm, and he managed to slip the ring onto her finger without touching her skin at all.

The next day she felt the new ring as a warm glow. It was the closest thing to certainty she'd had since the night of the fire. She felt hopeful as they finally entered the outskirts of Rome. Erik was just as dignified and distant as ever, nodding disinterestedly as she hung out the window of the carriage and exclaimed at new buildings, but she sensed that a certain amount of tension had drained out of him. He was less snappish and she managed to coax the ghost of a smile from him occasionally, but he was a far cry from the lovesick flirt Raoul had been during their engagement. Even that thought would not dampen her spirits, because she held the memory of the night before firmly in her mind. She was not merely a nuisance to Erik, she was sure he valued her at least a little. And if she was careful and determined, she thought she could make him trust her too.