I hope you don't mind the rather GIANT chapter, but I didn't want to divide it. This is the final chapter, with an epilogue to follow shortly. MANY thanks to all reviewers. MANY MANY thanks to Wheel of Fish for betaing this chapter and for her ongoing support and constant sound-boarding. :)

This chapter is rated M!


Chapter 38

Christine had been within the Palais Garnier before and after performances, roamed the halls and white-marbled staircases when few people had been in the building. However, she had never seen it in the full cover of night, with almost no lights left on and no other noises to mask their footsteps scraping across the shiny floors.

They had emerged from within the walls near the Salon de la Lune, stepped down a staircase, and passed through the small hallways until they reached the cozy circular room. Unlike the Salon du Soleil with its ceiling covered in gold, the Salon de la Lune was a darker landscape with golden stars.

Christine loved the four mirrors in both this alcove and the Salon du Soleil that reflected the gold accents into perpetuity around the rooms. Like she had asked, Nadir had lighted four candles, one on the lip of each mirror, and the candlelight reflected over and over in the room. She hoped Erik would see the beauty in the reflections and not focus upon his mask – she knew he was loath to look into any mirrors.

They paused just outside the room. She turned to the pensive man next to her and reached up to touch his smooth cheek.

"Hey, I should've thought this through more. If you don't like the mirrors-"

He cut her off gently, turning his face so he could kiss the palm of her hand. "An infinite number of Christines to look upon? You chose well."

She flushed a bit. "That's not what I meant." But his eyes sparkled in return, and she could see that he wasn't worried about the mirrors.

A throat cleared behind them. Nadir entered another doorway to the side, dressed in a dark blue suit that cut nicely on his muscular figure. But she didn't like the hard set of his mouth, nor the way he fretfully rubbed his beard when they saw him.

She hadn't seen the Iranian since that day in Uppsala, Sweden and their conversation that had been full of half lies from him. She felt like she was ready to move beyond what had happened; after all, everything had turned out all right at the end, but still. She resisted the urge to fidget awkwardly. Nadir and she had once been close – they could be that way again. She just needed to extend an olive branch.

He beat her to it. He stopped rubbing at his beard and stepped quickly forward, grasping her upper arms in a warm gesture that made her smile. His brown eyes swept up and down her. "My dear, you look lovely!"

She returned his embrace. "Thanks, Nadir."

Erik had glowered at the other man's forwardness, but he didn't hesitate to take the hand Nadir offered him. His expression turned to one of surprise when Nadir pulled him in and clapped his back in a hug.

"I apologize for the secrecy," Nadir said, stepping back from them both, "but the lady made me swear it."

"I believe that," Erik said smoothly, raising a single brow at Christine.

"However, you both seem well. I'm thrilled!"

"Are you?" Christine asked, unable to stop herself. "You looked like something was wrong." She glanced around the room, down the wide, ornate hallway to the side. "Where is Mama?"

Now the worried beard-rubbing gesture returned. "Ah…" Nadir said, "I truly hate to have to say this, but, my dear, she said she wouldn't be coming."

Christine spun on him. "What?"

"I'm so sorry, but she refused to come with me. She… had previously agreed to this, yes?"

"Yes, yes, she did." Although Anna had openly expressed her concerns about all of this throughout the past weeks, never had she said she wouldn't show up if – when – the time came to stand at her side. Christine could feel her face grow hot with embarrassment, her vision blurring with a sudden rush of tears.

A comforting hand settled along her back, rubbing up and down in a slow, soothing motion. Erik leaned in, pressing cool lips to her temple. "We can wait. Dearest, this doesn't have to happen tonight."

Her face twisted in a mix of anger and sadness. "Yes, it does, Erik. We've waited long enough to- to live our lives together, and I know we don't need this ceremony for that to happen, I know that, but…" She angrily wiped away a few tears that fell. "It's important to me to pledge my life to you in front of people who mean a lot to us. I don't want to wait anymore for that."

Nadir cleared his throat. "If your mother won't come, then perhaps Ms. Giry?"

"Meg?" Christine took the handkerchief Erik offered and dabbed at her eyes and nose. "Meg had wanted to come, but I told her no." She looked apologetically at Erik. "I didn't want to overload you with too many strangers."

"Then it is decided," said Erik. "Daroga, see to the mademoiselle's arrival here." He took Christine's hand, giving her a reassuring squeeze before starting to pull her down the hallway. "Come, Christine. I know how we can pass the time."

Christine gave Nadir a shaky half-smile. "Thanks so much. Um, she might be a bit testy at being woken up. I'd call her myself but I left my phone behind."

Nadir waved a dismissive hand. "We will make do. Don't concern yourself with the how – just be back here soon."

She nodded and let Erik lead her away. Her heels clicked on the marble floor as they traveled down a different hall; she glanced down at the yellow, grey, and white shapes upon the floor, the colors muted in the night. He led her past the many cherry wood doors that led to the orchestra section, past the white marble busts that lined the wall. Before they reached the end of that section of the hallway, he turned right and opened one of the doors into a small nook encased in scarlet carpet and wallpaper brushed with gold designs. They were entering one of the boxed seats lower upon the stage. Before they made their way to the edge of the box, Erik stopped, bent, and pressed along the trim of the wall.

A panel popped open. Erik slid a section of the wall to the side, enough for him to walk through, pulling Christine with him. There was a time when she might have hesitated to follow him into darkness like this, but now, she let his spindly fingers curl around hers without a pause in her step.

She was still shaken up by her mother's absence. She knew Anna was still upset over what had happened, over her disappearance, secrecy, and traipsing around Europe for the sake of drawing a dangerous man's attention. However, Christine had hoped her mother understood that no matter what, all of that had been Christine's decision.

Later, sometime after tonight, she would call her mother and deal with this. Right now, Christine had one focus: continuing her plans for tonight. She just hoped Meg didn't mind being woken up at what had to be at least 3 o'clock in the morning by now.

They didn't have the lamp anymore, so Erik led her blindly through the tunnels. His steps were swift and sure, and she knew he had unnatural ability to see at least a little in the dark. At one point, she stumbled upon the long hem of her dress, and he paused, helping her adjust the train. Her heart skittered a beat at the way he focused his attention upon her.

"I am afraid this path will soil your dress," he murmured.

She grinned at him, knowing he could see it. "You don't know me at all if you think I care about that."

His breath sucked in sharply. Thinking he had misunderstood her flippant words and taken them seriously, she fought to retract them, but his fingertips upon her lips silenced her.

"You are my match in every way, beloved." He replaced his fingers with his lips, a chaste kiss that still sent desire pooling within her. "Now, come."

A wider tunnel opened up, heading straight away from the Palais Garnier, Christine was almost sure of that. They didn't have to walk much further. A single door stood at the end, tucked behind another short hallway that seemed to be mostly stone. A dull bulb lit the door. Erik took out a normal-looking key and unlocked it.

"Mind your eyes," he said, and flicked a panel near the door.

The large room before them bloomed into full light. Christine blinked in the sudden brightness. A pleasant scent assailed her nose just before her eyes adjusted and she took in the sight before her.

Flowers, all around. They stood in the back of a storage room of a flower shop. Bouquets of flowers nestled in water inside large buckets scattered throughout the space, arranged by type and color. Premade arrangements filled several large refrigerators.

Erik gestured at an arching entryway nearby. "There are more in there."

He was right. At the front, beyond the main counter, more flowers filled the room. Christine spun around to take in all of the colorful blossoms. She picked up a loose white flower and held it to her nose, inhaling the crisp fragrance.

"These are gorgeous, Erik. But why bring me here?"

He fingered the petals of a nearby flower. "A bride typically carries flowers, no? I thought you might like to as well."

Oh, Erik. He had brought her here to help ease the sting of her mother's rejection. Her lips curling upward, she said, "I can't steal these, though. Not even for my own wedding."

He scoffed at that. "Of course not. I did have a key." He swept an arm to indicate the flower shop. "I own this place."

Her eyebrows raised. Erik owned a flower store, with a direct tunnel inside. Across the street from the opera house. She couldn't help the peal of laughter that escaped her, and once she got started, she couldn't stop. The choking, sputtering noises she made weren't likely that attractive, and she doubled over because her sides started to hurt. Still, she laughed, laughed until she had to wipe away tears from the corners of her eyes.

She was aware that Erik had gone very still during her display. She opened her eyes to see that his neck had flared red from where it peaked above his collar. At first, she sobered up, thinking he was furious with her, worried that maybe he thought she was mocking him. Then she saw the stiff way he held himself, the way he gripped the counter nearby.

He was embarrassed.

"Oh, my love," she said, still a bit breathless. She crossed the space between them and laid a hand on his uncovered cheek. "I'm sorry. I wasn't poking fun at you."

"Is my pride that easily wounded?"

She let herself smile at that. "I was only surprised by you, surprised and delighted. I guess I got caught up in my own happiness for a moment. I love that you own a flower shop." She stood on tiptoe, slid her hand so her fingertips dove into his wig beyond his ears, and indicated with gentle pressure that she sought a kiss.

He gave it, bending to meet her lips. For a second, his hands trembled before flattening against her back, their wide widths spanning her body easily. Sometimes she forgot this man's past, how much he had suffered because of his appearance, how much he had gone through and how little she knew about it.

"I'm sorry," she said again, pulling back to gaze up at him.

His expression had softened. "I will forgive you if you choose some flowers."

She kissed him again, then set to work exploring the store. She didn't have a particular favorite flower. She honestly had received few in her life. After her first chemo treatment, she had received a bouquet from her theatre program, one of those generic ones with baby's breath. Raoul had also shown up with a small handful of pink roses, but she didn't care to think about that now.

She stopped in front of a refrigerated display cabinet, eyeing the premade arrangements thoughtfully. She glanced at him. "I really don't know. Any suggestions?"

He was at her side with two great strides of his long legs, reaching around her to pluck a bloom. He held the dark green stem between thumb and forefinger, mindful of the thorns, his face blank but eyes ablaze. "This is called a kashmir rose. Hardy, easy to grow, with wide, elegant petals in a deep blood red. And…" He touched the blossom to her lips, the touch delicate, his eyes riveted on her mouth. "And they are as their name suggests, soft as cashmere, soft as you."

She took the rose from him, inhaling the sweet fragrance. "Scissors and a straight pin?"

Quickly, he obliged, finding the items. She cut the stem, leaving only a few inches from the bottom of the flower. Stepping close to him, she pinned the rose to his left lapel, smoothing the fabric down when she was finished. She was surprised to find her hands shaking a bit.

He caught one of her hands, pressing his lips to the backs of her knuckles. "More of these?"

"Yes, please," she whispered.

He worked busily, finding his way around the store with a familiarity that warmed her heart. She watched as he meticulously selected the blossoms, checking each for perfection, before placing them in a holding vase. Swiftly, he gathered the small bouquet of about a dozen roses together, tied them with white ribbon, and used a knife to slice the thorns from the exposed stems cut short. She admired the flash and dexterity of his fingers, wanting nothing more than to feel those strong lengths upon her own flesh as they gripped and pressed and coaxed her into oblivion.

When he handed her the finished bouquet, she could tell her face was flushed, yet he said nothing of it. She thanked him with a kiss and gently buried her nose into the lush arrangement of soft petals.

"Ready?" he asked.

His question was loaded, filled with layers upon layers, filled with future promises. Was she ready to head back to the Palais Garnier? Was she ready to face a ceremony without her mother, and face the fallout that would result later? Was she ready to stand at his side as he slid that ring upon her finger again, this time as he whispered words of commitment to her? All of this and more he asked with a single word, and she laid a hand on his arm, felt the muscles bunch in readiness.

"Yes," she said simply.

After Erik locked up the store, they walked back in silence. Christine kept a tight grip on her bouquet of roses, the train of her gown draped over that arm. Her other hand was enfolded in one of Erik's as she followed him down the passages and narrow hallways, his grip tight, his fingers the familiar cold touch she expected from him.

Before they reached the sliding panel of wall that led to the box of seats in the theatre, Erik swung around in the darkness and crushed his mouth to hers. He slanted the angle, brought their mouths together in deeper, fluid contact, his tongue dipping to lap at her bottom lip. He parted them just as swiftly, tucking his lips to her ear, the smoothness of his unmasked cheek against hers.

"I love you," he said, the words a low rumble in her ear.

She quivered at the touch of his breath, the whisper of promise he gave. "I can't wait to marry you."

This time, it was he who shuddered. He shifted, gripped her upper arms a little too tightly, pulling her against the hard planes of his body. If they lingered here too much longer, she feared they would never make it back to the Salon de la Lune.

But he was stepping back, taking her hand again and bringing them back to the halls of the opera house. Her heels clicked upon the marble as they stepped into the curved hallway that lead around the theatre. As they approached, she could hear two voices laughing with each other.

Before they went further, Erik paused, taking her left hand in his. "If we are to do this right…" he said, staying quiet so as not to disturb the two nearby. He gently slipped the ring he had given her from her finger, kissing the smooth skin. The ring disappeared into one of his coat pockets.

"Let's go," she said, squeezing his hand.

Christine smiled as they entered the small curved room, seeing Meg standing next Nadir. Erik hung back by the entrance, while Christine stepped toward her friend.

"Chris!" Meg cried, darting forward. The other woman caught her up in a fierce hug, then stepped back to take in her appearance. "I didn't get to see you after the alterations. You look beautiful. And those flowers! Gorgeous!"

Christine hugged her again, thankful for Meg's chipper attitude to break any initial awkwardness. "Meg, this is Erik. Erik, Megan Giry."

"Mademoiselle Giry." Erik crossed into the alcove to Christine's side. His gait showed Christine the tension he was feeling, but he smoothly offered his hand. Wide-eyed, Meg gave hers, and she was unable to stop the grin that spread across her face when he bent formally over her hand.

"Oh, Chris, I like him already."

Relief spread throughout Christine. How could she have ever doubted Meg? "Thanks so much for coming."

"You know I wanted to." Meg looped her arm through Christine's, leaning in conspiratorially. "I was more than happy to have Mr. Khan knock on my door in the middle of the night."

"Meg!" Christine admonished.

Nadir covered his choked breath with a cough. "Shall we begin?"

Christine nodded, fighting hard to keep from grinning ear-to-ear at the banter. This is what she had wanted, what she had wanted her mother to see. Even after everything they had gone through, even after Erik's past had caught up with him, they could still joke and laugh together like anyone else could. She hoped desperately, with time, Anna would be able to witness just how happy Christine was.

Nadir gestured that they should stand in the middle of the circular room, Meg off to Christine's side, Nadir himself positioned before them. He pulled a small notebook from his coat pocket and opened it, found a pair of reading glasses and perched them on his nose, a movement she found endearing. Meg tapped Christine's arm, taking her bouquet from her.

Christine faced Erik. Over his shoulder, she could see the two of them mirrored infinitely, their forms flickering in the candlelight. She watched as Erik took her hands in his own, his palms calloused from piano and violin, his touch cool and as familiar as breathing. His thumbs traced over the thin skin that stretched from knuckles to wrist.

"Christine," he murmured.

She snapped her eyes from the mirror to his face. His white mask shone in the warm light. His amber eyes glowed, their rich color magnified by a watery sheen.

Nadir began. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today in the presence of friends to witness and celebrate the union of this man and this woman in marriage." He paused, adjusting his glasses. His voice had started clear and certain, and now he wavered, voice growing thick with emotion. Christine considered glancing at him, but she worried that seeing him come undone would make her unable to stop from crying herself.

Besides, Erik was gazing down at her calmly, and she let his steadfastness seep into her. Nadir continued, and despite how he pressed onward, his voice continued to grow heavy, his words cracking.

"Erik, do you take this woman to be your wife, to love her, honor her, comfort her, to keep her in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, for as long as you both shall live?" Nadir cracked on the last word, and Christine felt an annoyed huff leave Erik.

Still, Erik squeezed her hands in his. "I do. Of course I do."

Nadir cleared his throat, physically steeling himself. "Christine, do you take this man to be your husband, to love him, honor him, comfort him…" Here he stopped. With shaking hands, he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his eyes behind his glasses, and went on. "Keep him in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, for as long as you both shall live?"

How Christine willed out the two words without breaking, she would never know.

"I do."

"Right," Nadir said, flipping to the next page in his notebook. "Ah, here we go. Erik, the ring?"

Erik followed suit, fetching the ring once again. She wanted to smile up at him, but her lips trembled with the threat of tears. Instead, she bit the inside of her cheek, thankful that he had cupped her hand in his so her trembling was hidden.

"May I?" Erik asked Nadir, who smiled and nodded. Then Erik held the ring to the edge of her finger and spoke, voice soft and focused on her. "Christine Daaé, I give you this ring as a symbol of my everlasting love. I pledge to remain by your side all of my days, to share in your joy and your sorrow, to lift you up with all that I am. You are my yesterday, my today, and my tomorrow. All that I am, I give to you." And with that, he slipped the ring onto her finger.

A nudge at her elbow, and Meg was handing her a tissue. She gave a choked laugh and dabbed at her eyes.

"Now we kiss?" Erik inquired, eyebrow raised.

Nadir smiled, his eyes glassy. "Not yet." He dug into his inner coat pocket and produced something small and shiny, which he gave to Christine.

She thanked him, then took Erik's left hand in hers. Seeming dazed, he looked down at the simple gold band she held poised at his finger. "A ring for me, Christine?"

"For you," she whispered. Then her throat closed up. "Nadir, please?" she managed to squeeze out.

He nodded and spoke, reading from his notebook. The words were steadier than earlier. "Erik, I give you this ring as a symbol of my constant devotion to you. For all of my days, I will share my joy with you that it be multiplied. I will share your pain that it be divided. I will walk by your side as we travel through life together. I will sleep in your arms, and that love will be my home." He swallowed thickly, needing a moment to compose himself. Meg blew her nose.

Seeking her strength within Erik's strong eyes, Christine found her voice. "I will be ever yours, ever in adoration, ever your Christine." And she placed the ring upon his spindly finger and squeezed his hand tightly in hers.

"Now you may kiss your bride," Nadir said.

Erik took a step toward her and gripped her chin in a feather-light touch. His lips upon hers was the seal of their promises, and even though the contact was close-lipped and quick, she felt the thundering of his heart beneath her palm, the shakiness of his breath mingled with hers, and she knew he was hers forever.

The popping of a champagne cork made her jump. She hadn't noticed the ice bucket tucked near the doorway. Now, Nadir grinned at the two of them as he poured four glasses. Once they all held a flute filled with bubbly golden liquid, he raised his glass.

"To Erik and Christine!"

"To Erik and Christine!" Meg echoed.

And they all drank deeply.


Christine declined another glass of champagne. There was no way she could have anymore alcohol in her system than that, not if she wanted to make it through the night. Her nerves were bubbling up as much as that drink, and she just knew Erik could sense her nervousness by the way he kept a comforting hand at the small of her back.

Finally, when Meg apologized around her third yawn, Christine hugged her friend tightly and shooed her off with promises of dinner as soon as they had settled down. She embraced Nadir as well, thanking him for all of his help and support.

"A fresh start," she told him, meeting his warm brown eyes. "I mean it." And she did. Anything that had passed between them was now over, and she wanted nothing more than to have her friend and companion back.

Erik and Nadir exchanged quiet words between them, speaking too softly for Christine to overhear. She gave them some space, comprehending that the two men had just shared a moment more intimate than perhaps any they had before. She knew they had spent a large portion of their lifetimes together, and she felt so serene as she gazed discreetly at them, noticing how their heads were tilted toward each other, their bodies not touching but still close together.

Erik said something that caused Nadir to throw back his head and let out a guffaw. Then the two of them clasped arms, hands just below each other's elbows, before Nadir followed Meg out of the opera house.

"Time to go home?" she asked, extending a hand to Erik, which he readily took.

"Home?" he echoed, and she heard the unspoken question.

"Eventually, we can figure out where that means," she said gently. "But for now, and for a long time, I just want to spend time with you. You are my home, Erik, at your side."

He stroked her cheek with his other hand. "You are a marvel."

She caught his hand and kissed the ring there. "I've never seen your bedroom before, you know. Show me?"

His amber eyes darkened at that, the passion she saw within stealing her breath for a moment. He replied by sweeping her into his arms like he had before, and she didn't protest being carried, not when his arms were strong around her.

The journey back underground was a blur, punctuated by the rapid thudding of his heart beneath her ear and her own staccato breathing. Erik didn't bother with his lamp, seemingly too eager to retrieve it from where he had left it within the walls. Before she knew it, he was setting her gently upon her feet across the threshold of the living room.

She glanced around a bit. The fire needed stoking, and her clothes were still piled on the divan, her slippers located near the hallway. She blushed a bit at recalling how forward she had been. Erik strode forward to poke at the fire a bit while she unstrapped her heels and slipped them off.

"A moment, dearest," he said. "Warm yourself by the fire."

She settled on the divan, moving aside her clothes and the garment bag she had left there. She had grown chilled in the caves, and the warmth felt amazing on her cold fingers and toes. Erik strode down the hallway out of sight, and for a while, she heard him rummaging about.

Soon, he appeared back at her side, extending one white hand, long fingers beckoning. Wordlessly, she slipped her own slender hand into his and let herself be tugged down the hallway past her own bedroom, the bed still unmade from when she had risen hours ago. Had it really only been a couple hours ago that she had slept in that very bed, unsure when she would see Erik, if she would see Erik again, and if she did, what would pass between them?

He had lit candles that showed their way down the hall until he stopped before a door that had previously always been shut to her. Kissing her knuckles, he opened the door with his other hand and ushered her inside his private chamber. He had used kindling to start a fire in a second fireplace within this room, and he crossed to the small flame to add larger pieces of wood.

The sudden blaze of firelight cast about the room, revealing walls covered in black wallpaper textured in a velvety vintage pattern. A bed of modest size stood against the far wall draped in dark gray and obviously expensive fabric. Erik must have just changed the bed's linens because they were fresh and without signs of being abandoned for months.

A smile touched her lips. "Do you actually sleep in here?"

"Admittedly, no," he said, still holding her hand. "I hope to change that, however." His words were flippant, but those amber depths blazed as hotly as the fire behind her.

She fought to keep her breathing slow and even. She let go of his hand and placed her palm in the middle of his chest, applying slight force, encouraging him to walk backwards until the backs of his knees hit the mattress. He sat upon the bed without comment, his gaze riveted upon her.

She turned, presenting him with her back. "Unzip me?"

He didn't reply, but she felt the pressure of his hands upon her, and she shivered. With infinite gentleness, he lifted the weight of her hair and pulled her zipper downward, baring her back to the warmth of the fire. His fingertips followed the line of the zipper, tracing her spine until he reached the bottom curve that began just after the small of her back.

"You are exquisite," he murmured.

She hoped he still thought so in a moment. She turned back around, her dress parting over her shoulders, holding onto her courage to watch his face while she began to slid the white fabric down her arms. Once free of her wrists, the dress fell from her hips and pooled at her feet. She didn't move from her spot, now clad only in her bra and underwear. She knew the light of the blazing fire and the candles he had lit near the bed were enough to highlight every scar and awkward lump of her body.

I love you, she thought, as her arms folded behind her back. Her fingers sought the clasp of her bra, unlatched the hooks, and in one quick motion, she had pulled the garment free of her body and let it drop to the floor.

Before she could lose her nerve, she had also shoved her underwear down and stepped out of them as well.

Erik had never seen her fully naked before. He had never seen her topless before, his fingers only skimming her scars a couple times underneath her shirt. She could feel her face turn red, but she kept her hands at her sides and let him look. She wanted him to look, to finally see her for what she was; she needed his acceptance of her body in every way possible.

His eyes drew her in. Then, in one fluid motion, he stood in front of her. He gripped her chin with thumb and forefinger, his touch infinitely tender, and lifted her face so she was gazing up at him.

"Wife."

She shivered at the endearment, his voice low and rumbling, sliding over her exposed skin. When he bent and kissed her, she clung to the lapels of his jacket for a moment, not noticing that he had backed her to the bed until she was sprawled atop the silky coverlet.

"Lie back," he said into her mouth, and she did so, nervously stretching out before him. He followed her, his mouth still on hers, a knee next to her hips. Once she was fully reclined on the bed, he slid his lips to the line of her jaw, to the curve of her swallowing throat, to her collarbone, where her pulse twittered wildly.

"So beautiful." His lips moved against the dip below her collarbone. "So lovely." As he moved lower still, she felt the coldness of his mask against her chest for a brief moment before he lifted his head. She heard the dry rasp of porcelain against skin, and then he returned to pressing his lips between her scars, his face free to kiss and caress and lick without his mask getting in the way.

And lick he did, his tongue lashing out to lap at the edge of puckered flesh, and she cried out at the sensation.

"Did I hurt you?" His lips moved on below the line of tissue.

"N-No," she said, feeling breathless. "Not really."

As he journeyed further down the length of her body, his mouth encircling one hipbone, his fingertips came up to explore one of her scars, careful to stay away from the deepest portions of where the skin had been stapled together. She could feel places where numbness had spread, and others that sent tingles throughout her body.

"I love all of you, my Christine," he murmured against her quivering thigh, lower still. "My lovely Christine, my strong, magnificent wife."

One of his hands continued to trace her scars while his other dipped between her legs and sought where she ached. He skimmed a single finger up and down before delving inside, and she squirmed, the rush of emotion overtaking her. She was so exposed, laid bare in all ways before him, and she couldn't resist the urge to cover her chest with one arm.

"Erik-"

At once, his lips were at her throat as he surged upward, his breath washing over her skin, his fully-clothed body covering hers like a blanket. "Please." He kissed the words into her throat. "Please let me see you, let me touch you. It has been so long. Let me kiss you. Christine?"

His hand was still wedged between them, and his finger moved within her, and then a second finger joined it, the two long digits curling deep within, flexing in familiar ways. Heat spread throughout her. Hands gripping his shoulders, she tugged him up for a quick, bruising kiss, then pushed him downward in a gesture that was both permission and a plea.

His answering quiet laughter vibrated against her belly as he ducked back down. This time, he didn't hesitate, setting his mouth to her, his tongue hot and lashing great strokes against her. Her thighs fell open around his shoulders, and she pressed a hand to her mouth, unable to stifle her gasp. His two fingers worked inside her, his tongue dancing across the spot that made her ache deepen. She stuttered his name within her cries, jumping when he raked his teeth across the inside curve of her thigh before plundering her with firm lips and wet tongue and nimble fingers.

"Ah, E-Erik!" She came in shower of sparks behind her eyelids, her body arching off the bed, kept steady by his splayed hand in the center of her chest. Even as she slumped back down, he lapped at her, his fingers drawing every last spasm from her trembling flesh.

He reclined next to her on the bed, brushing the damp hair from her forehead, caressing her cheek and shoulder. His hands swept over her, skimming places on her body that he had only yet either touched in passing or never felt at all.

"So soft," he murmured. She flushed under such careful attention but let him do as he liked. "Thank you for this gift you have given me."

"You don't have to thank me." She leaned up on an elbow to kiss his malformed cheek, tracing the uneven ridges with her lips.

"Even so."

He pressed her to the bed, half covering her body with his, deepening their kiss and lapping at her tongue with his. She moaned into his mouth, unable to help herself. She loved having the weight of him atop her, the length of him firm and heavy and powerful. He was obviously wanting her, the evidence hard against her thigh. She shifted, and a breathless groan emerged from him.

Wanting to feel more of him, she slid her hands between his jacket and shirt, seeking the lean ridges of his shoulders, needing to touch more beyond the scratchy fabric of his suit. As soon as her fingers curled over the tops of his shoulders, he jerked back, breaking suction with her mouth in a bursting gasp. She looked up at him, wide-eyed at his reaction. He was straight-armed above her and suddenly panting, his face twisted in what looked like pain.

"I cannot," he said, squeezing his eyes closed. "I cannot, I cannot, I'm sorry, but I cannot give you what you gave me."

Oh. She silenced his panicked words with a finger upon his lips. Once he had quieted, she reached up with both hands and cupped his face, one palm on his smooth cheek, the other against the bumpy deformity of his face.

"Hey," she said softly. "I didn't expect you to. I just wanted to make you more comfortable."

His eyes fluttered open, golden depths startled and a bit wild around the edges. "Comfortable," he echoed. That fierce yellow gaze roamed over her exposed skin before alighting on her eyes again. "You have married a coward, my beloved."

She frowned and sat up, letting her hands fall to his shoulders and holding him in case he might flee. "How can you call yourself that? You traveled in a box across the ocean for me, fled to keep me safe, hid when you needed to for me, kept an eye on me even when I didn't know you were there."

He scoffed and moved away from her, putting more distance between them.

"Erik." She resisted the urge to pull him back down atop her, wanting to cover herself up. She was completely naked before him while he was completely dressed, and she squirmed under his scrutiny. "Please come back."

Not responding, he slid to the edge of the bed and stood, turning around to face her. She scrambled backwards until she found the downturned edge of the sheets, pulling them to her chest in a way she hoped didn't look as desperate as she felt.

His deft fingers fluttered to his throat, latching onto the cravat tied there. "What kind of husband would I be if I couldn't meet your bravery with my own?"

Oh.

She watched, her lips slightly parted, as he tugged loose the fabric around his neck and tossed it to the side. Next, his hands drifted to the buttons of his waistcoat and undid them in quick, fluid motions until he was able to pull the silky fabric from his shoulders and drop it to the floor. Not meeting her steady gaze, he then went back to his throat and worked the buttons there, one after the other, down his long torso until the last was undone. For a moment, his shirt gaped open, revealing a line of pale skin from collar to waist.

"Erik," she breathed, wanting to reassure him.

"Quiet," he snapped. In jerky motions, he wrenched the white shirt from his body and let it fall. She bit her lip, saying nothing else that might upset him further. As she watched, he toed off his shoes. His hands then flew to the waistband of his black pants, pausing for a moment, eyes focused somewhere far away.

Then he flicked open the button, tugged down the zipper, and pulled his pants off one leg and the other, also removing socks as he went. Finally, in one violent motion, he ripped the wig from his head, slicking back the sparse strands there with two hands before lowering his arms to his sides.

When he straightened, he stood in his full naked magnificence, spine straight, chin slightly raised as he stared down his misshapen nose at her. She drank in the full sight of him, pale skin glowing in the light of the fire, scars upon scars throwing shadows across his body. He was all taut, wiry muscle, having lost any weight he had put on during their time in Switzerland. Light brown hair dusted below his belly button and sparsely covered his powerful, lean legs. His hands were clenched into fists. His limbs quivered. He was not at all aroused.

She pulled the covers back, revealing herself and not caring. She stretched her arms out as wide as the smile that lit her face. "You are not alone, my love," she whispered as gently as she could.

He made a noise somewhere between a growl and a cry. In one long pace, he had a knee upon the bed, his hands seeking her like he was a starving man. She wound her arms around his neck and tugged him close, and their bodies molded together, skin on skin, for the first time.

She gasped at the sensation. He was all fevered flesh combined with cold extremities, soft skin covered in the papery ridges of various crisscrossing scars. He tucked his body against hers, his legs disappearing miles below hers, his arms enveloping her against him, his mouth seeking hers and finding only welcome.

One of his knees slipped between hers, and she received him by draping her own leg across his upper thigh, the point of his hip digging into her knee. His hands roamed her back and lower still, to the ample flesh of her buttocks, to the crease of thigh below, to the soft curve of her hip that fit into his palm. She shivered and returned his exploration with one of her own, feeling her way across the planes of his shoulders, mapping his past with her fingertips, finding every bump of his spine, counting his ribs, and lower still, tentatively just below the dip of his lower back.

Noises rose up within his throat, and he pressed them to her mouth, deepening their kiss. She felt like his hands were everywhere, seeking every bit of her, stirring desire within her again. They kissed for an eternity, reveling in newfound confidence, coaxing the shyness from each other with touch and tongue and reassuring murmurs.

"So beautiful," he said against her throat. "So lovely, my sweet Christine, my beloved wife. How did I ever live without you?" He dipped his head to press his lips between her twin scars, and she smoothed her hands over his sparsely-covered scalp, relishing the feel of no barriers between them.

Then she sat up, running her hands across his torso to reassure him, and straddled his hips, feeling the sharp points dig into the backs of her thighs. His eyes went round, his fingers curving around her waist. She pressed her palms against his chest and lightly raked her nails. He sucked in a sharp breath, his hips canting against hers. Experimentally, she rubbed against him, loving the way his breath hitched and his fingers tightened in ways that would probably leave bruises. One of her hands sought between their bodies and grasped him, and he hissed words of encouragement. She lifted herself upon her knees and sought him inside her, and he slid within so easily, wrenching a gasp from them both.

Her name was a whisper upon his lips, his name a breath upon hers. She didn't know how to move in this position, but her body seemed to recognize what to do as primal need built inside her. She rocked back and forth, encouraged by his guiding hands, grinding upon him, seeking her own pleasure from him in unstoppable ways she never could have considered before. She was already burning for him, already twisted in knots, already sensitive from his earlier attentions, that she quickly felt herself losing control, and before long, her body spasmed around him, drawing him deeper still, clamping down on his unforgiving rigidness.

A few seconds passed as she stilled, her harsh pants loud in her ears. Before her heartbeat had slowed, before she had stopped twitching in that space deep inside, he had surged upward, flipping her onto her back. With a growl, his hips spread her wide, his fingers interlacing with her fingers and shoving her hands to either side of her head, the gesture possessive and tender at the same time. He braced himself on his elbows, and not relenting, not giving her space to recuperate, he drove himself deep again and again. The harsh, beautiful slap of bare skin on bare skin thrilled her, sent her pulling her knees upward to give him more space. His teeth scraped one of her earlobes, and she squeezed out the syllables of his name between cries.

When he collapsed atop her, their hearts skittering in unison together, he released her hands to gather her to him. She threw her arms around his neck, holding him close. Her legs wrapped around his waist, her ankles crossed, keeping him within her.

He laughed softly in her ear and kissed her cheeks, her nose, her forehead, and then finally her swollen lips in a touch that was more caress than kiss. "Ah, Christine."

"No," she said without heat, squeezing him hard. "I'm never letting go."

"Is that a promise?" he replied easily.

"I already did." She skimmed her lips over the uneven ridges of his cheekbone.

"That you did, dearest."

They might both never be ready, but eventually, they disentangled from each other, settling into a comfortable position beneath the blankets. Christine took his left hand between hers, touching the ring that radiated there.

He cut a glance at her. "I admit, this was a delightful surprise."

She just smiled. "Let me show you something." She gently tugged off the ring and, holding it between thumb and forefinger, angled the inside edge into the light.

Inside a series of three two-digit numbers was stamped into the gold.

His eyebrows raised, one normal, one carrying the weight of a lifetime of pain she would always fight to overcome. "A date?" he inquired, the last number the current year.

"Yes," she said. "The day we met, right here beneath the Palais." He sucked in a breath at that. She replaced the ring upon his finger and snuggled back against his side. "There is room for three or four more dates. I was thinking today could be added. And then another one for the day we legally get married maybe?"

"A house," he said softly. "You need a house. Several houses."

She hid her grin. "Maybe the day we sign on a house, sure." She shifted a bit, hugging him with an arm draped over his waist. "And maybe, eventually, years in the future…" She lost her nerve, trailing off. She had no idea how he would react.

But he reacted the way he always did, surprising her at every turn, assuring their lives together would never be monotonous.

"A babe."

After that, she was lost once again to the sensation of him against her.


An epilogue to go...