It's the end! Oh god, this was the fic that wouldn't quit. THANK YOU so much to all the reviewers. THANK YOU especially to Wheel of Fish who kept me sane. I hope I did it justice, in the end. :)
The airport buzzed around her, full of people dashing to their destinations. The place was filled with a loud roar of excitement – the holidays were over, and travelers were eagerly returning home after days of food, gifts, and family. It was December 26th, the day after Christmas, and Christine was headed back to Paris.
She had spent the past week with her mother in Boston.
Now that the eight days were over, Christine could look back and realize how beneficial the trip had been. At first, she had pitched a fit about going, yelling at Anna over the phone as soon as her mom had dared suggest Christine spend her first Christmas away from Erik. However, as she now filed onto the plane with the other passengers, she breathed a little easier. She had needed that time to smooth the waters between her and her mother. They had parted with fierce hugs and promises to have Anna over for a visit soon.
Messages with Erik had been sparse since she had left for Boston. She sensed he was upset with her leaving, despite her reassurances of returning soon. As she settled into her seat aboard the airplane, she sent him a text message.
Plane is on time. Miss you and can't wait to see you.
His reply was immediate. Be safe. Meet me at Nadir's.
She sighed with relief. He couldn't still be too furious with her if he was texting her back.
Erik had insisted she take nonstop flights both ways, saying money was no issue, and she agreed gladly. Even so, the best flights went overnight, and with the time change, she would arrive early the next morning. For her, however, the time would be the middle of the night. On the flight, she tried to sleep, but though her first-class seat was comfortable, she couldn't get her mind to relax.
Her trip back to Boston had been more than just a time to mend her relationship with her mom, though she did feel fairly certain she had accomplished just that. Her mom had been tearful and apologetic for missing their wedding ceremony, saying she had panicked at the last moment that her only child was making a horrible mistake. Christine had chewed her out on the phone – the first of several shouting matches – and refused to talk to her for days afterward. But Nadir and Meg had coaxed her to finally answering her mother's messages, and she was glad she did.
The plane ride home was uneventful. By the time she landed in Paris, she was thrumming with excitement, the lack of sleep being counteracted by her eagerness to see Erik again. Nadir wasn't picking her up – something she expected – and she easily found the driver waiting for her at baggage pick-up.
Finally, she arrived on Nadir's doorstep. She tipped the driver and lugged her bag up the single flight of stairs. When she lifted her hand to knock, the door sprung open, throwing light across her and revealing Nadir's smiling face.
"Christine!" he said, cheerful. "So glad to see you again."
"You too," she replied, returning his grin.
She was about to step into the apartment and give him a hug. Instead, a white hand shot out from around the corner of the door and planted in the middle of Nadir's back, shoving him past Christine and into the hallway. Before she could react, the same hand grabbed hold of her wrist and pulled her through the doorway.
Her startled yelp was silenced by a mouth on hers, firm lips cool and familiar. Her wrist was pinned at her head against the door, which slammed shut behind them. His other hand deftly flicked the lock closed.
He was all around her, the line of his body hard against hers, the grip on her wrist loosening so he could enfold his long fingers with hers, his scent of ink and darkness as familiar as rain, his lips slanting, seeking deeper contact. She returned his kiss and drew a moan from his mouth. Her free hand drifted to his neck, seeking skin between wig and collar, and drew yet another noise from his throat.
When they parted for air, she cupped her hand over his mouth, pursing her lips to keep from smiling when she felt the tickle of his tongue brush her palm.
"Erik," she said, scowling. "That was mean of you."
He swept off her hand with his other, pinning that one against the door at her head as well. He bent and ghosted his lips against her neck, nuzzling the tendrils of her hair away with the nose of his mask. "Daroga is a resilient man. He can take it. Meanwhile, I haven't seen my wife in eight days."
Oh, his mouth on her skin felt so good, and she could have easily succumbed to him right then. His fingers were strongly threaded through hers, his body pressed against her, his lips burning a path across her throat. She tilted her head back to give him better access, and he swiftly took advantage.
Her throat bobbed. Her breathing was turning shaky. "The quicker I speak with Nadir, the quicker we can go home."
He puffed a sigh, causing goosebumps to raise on her arms. "Fine." He kissed her again, softer this time, and pulled away, letting her go.
She smiled up at him, then unlocked the door and opened it. Nadir leaned against a wall a bit down the hallway, playing some kind of game on his phone. He looked up to see her.
She felt her face blush. "Sorry about that."
He waved a dismissive hand. "Would you like some tea?"
"I'd love some." She stepped back into the apartment as he followed. Erik was shoulder against the doorframe, arms folded, his yellow eyes tracing their steps as the two of them headed for the kitchen.
"Tea?" he scoffed.
Christine had retrieved her suitcase and purse, and now she rummaged in her bag, pulling out some documents she had shoved inside. She ignored Erik's glare and sat down at the kitchen table. "While we're waiting, I'll show you what I have." She held up one piece of paper. "A letter from the Dean of Students, giving me permission to finish my degree abroad." She grinned. "Took me almost seven years, but better late than never."
"That's fantastic news," Nadir said as he filled his tea kettle and set it on a burner.
"Thanks. I don't really want to go into stage management anymore, but at least it's something." She noticed Erik swerve his gaze to her at that, but she ignored him for now. She didn't want to get into another discussion about her future and whether or not that would be in music. She knew he wanted her to sing on the stage, but she wasn't sure how much she wanted to be in the spotlight like that. Secretly, she was hoping he would agree to publish some of his compositions, and maybe she could sing in those.
She flipped through some pages and held up another document. "My receipt from a moving company saying my belongings will be shipped here within the next couple of weeks. Mama and I sold off my furniture and things that are easily replaceable, like most of my books. Luckily, I didn't have much. But I'll be happy to have the rest of my clothes and some personal stuff back with me."
Erik grunted. "Your personal effects can be stored at Daroga's apartment until we move to our new residence."
Christine and Nadir exchanged a glance. She hadn't talked much with Erik about where they were going to live long-term, but he seemed to be adamant about going somewhere else besides beneath the Palais Garnier. Once, he had barked at her that underground was in no way suitable for her, and when she had tried to express that she liked his home, he had sulked for days. Just another detail they needed to eventually work out in their merged lives together.
Nadir set her seeping tea in front of her, along with a tray of sugar and milk.
She cleared her throat and continued, holding up her last item, a small card with her picture on it. "And, finally, my long-term visa. I can stay in France for a year, and-" she drew out the word dramatically "- we can legally get married!"
"Congratulations, both of you," said Nadir, laying a hand on her shoulder. "I would say your trip was rather more productive than you thought it might be, yes?"
"I'd say so." She looked at Erik, whose eyes were cast off her and staring at nothing in particular. She pulled the tea bag from her cup and took a sip so she wasn't being rude. "Nadir, I think it's time to head home. I'm tired from all the traveling."
"Of course." He didn't hesitate to leave everything where it was and grab his keys in the living room. "I'll drive you both."
In the car, Christine sat in the back with Erik. She didn't usually ask Nadir to chauffeur her and Erik around like this, but Erik hadn't said anything in a while, and she was worried about his silence. She had no idea what he was upset about, unless he was still mad that she had left during the holidays to spend time with her mother. They still hadn't celebrated their own Christmas, so maybe he was disappointed about that?
Dawn was breaking, and she could spy the first rays of sun peeking out over the tops of the Parisian high rises. The streetlights were still on, and they cast shadows upon Erik's face as they drove through the mostly empty streets.
She had forgotten to call her mother as she had promised. Even though it was late at night for her mother, Anna had still wanted Christine to make the call to let her know she was safe. Christine mentioned this out loud, then pulled out her cell phone and tapped her mother's name.
It rang a couple of times before Anna answered, her voice a bit groggy as though she had just gone to bed.
"Sorry, Mama," Christine said. "I made it back to Paris. I'm almost home now."
"Is he there with you?" her mom asked, sounding a bit more awake.
Christine glanced at the silent man beside her. "Who? Erik? Of course."
"Let me talk to him."
At that, she gulped. "Hold on," she said into the phone. She put it down and turned to Erik, who had noticed her attention. "My mother wants to talk to you."
He frowned at that, but he didn't protest when she held out the phone, taking it from her hand and pressed it to his ear on the far side away from her. He leaned his elbow on the lip of the window running along the car door. From this angle, she could only see the unblemished side of his face, his jaw tight with unease as he looked straight ahead. In the window, she could see her phone and his firm grip upon it in his reflection, his white mask aglow against the glass. She was kind of surprised he had put his mask on the outside facing the road, then remembered that Nadir had tinted windows in the back.
Christine reached out to touch Erik's hand, but he moved it to his thigh. He spoke softly into the phone, his tone not revealing any tension. "Good day to you, Madame Daaé."
She couldn't hear what her mom was saying, her voice a bit insistent but not yelling, her words garbled.
"Yes, it is a pleasure," he responded. Then he listened for a while, his long white fingers gripping his thigh. "Madame, I assure you, she is safe, even in our current-" He frowned, shifting in his seat. "We are searching right now, in and outside the city. Yes, she told me." Her mother went on for a while. Erik was thin-lipped. "I would never-" Another string of indecipherable words. "That choice is always hers, Madame." At whatever she said next, his eyes went a bit wide. "I have every intention- yes, soon. Of course, as soon as we can- On Monday, yes." He listened, eyes still startled. "About a month afterward. Please do, Madame Daaé. I- yes, I will give you the date. And you, as well. Good night."
He hung up and handed the phone back to her. Christine hadn't noticed that Nadir had pulled up next to the flower shop near the opera house until he turned around in his seat, his brown eyes concerned.
"Is everything all right?" he asked softly.
"As ever," Erik replied. He took in their surroundings with quick eyes, then got out of the car, offering Christine a hand. Nadir popped the trunk and took out Christine's suitcase.
She didn't know what to think about the one-side conversation she had just heard, but she could sense Erik didn't want to talk about it right now. She hugged Nadir and kissed his cheek, and left after promises to have him over for dinner in a few days. Then Erik swiftly ushered her into the flower shop, which hadn't yet opened for the day.
They were deep within the tunnels before he spoke to her. "Your mother… she loves you very much."
She hadn't expected that, but she nodded.
Erik carried her suitcase for her, but the motions he went through to help her through the rough path to their underground home were the same. Pause here, help her around this ledge, remind her to stoop here. She had memorized this route already, but still he aided her when he thought she needed it.
He continued, "She wants to come to our civil ceremony, during which we make our marriage publicly official."
"Oh?" That was the first she'd heard of it. Her mom had barely wanted to talk about Erik while she'd been back in Boston, skirting around the subject whenever possible. "That's what she said?"
"Yes." He set her suitcase inside the boat and took the lamp from her so she could climb in safely. He pushed off with the pole and slid them noiselessly across the lake. "She also wants to see details about any properties we are considering. She works in real estate?"
He didn't say more, and after a while, she let her thoughts trail off to reveling in being back home after a week away. She had missed the scent of this place, the odd echo of the caverns, the warmth of the fire in the living room that greeted her. Ever since their private ceremony in front of Nadir and Meg, Erik had continuously brought up buying other properties, and she had humored him, looking at various apartments inside Paris or larger, sprawling homes in the country.
When she stepped inside, she was thrilled to see a little Christmas tree arranged in the corner of the room. She gave a happy little cry and rushed over to it, tenderly touching the ornaments – a miniature Boston terrier for her university, a tiny beach scene, a glass rose, a piano, a violin, a book that actually opened and closed.
Erik was in the middle of pulling her suitcase into their shared bedroom. She tracked him down and launched herself into his arms, tugging him down for a rather sloppy kiss, her lips grinning against his.
"I love it!" she said between kisses. "It's perfect."
"I'm glad you think so," he murmured, holding her tightly.
"I'm so sorry I missed our first Christmas. Can we have a do-over tomorrow? Just you and me? We can cook a meal, trade presents, make peppermint hot chocolate, and stay in our pajamas all morning."
His lithe fingers swept along her neck, caressing away her curly hair. "Anything."
Now that she was finally home, sleep was starting to tug at her eyelids. She took his hands and pulled him into the bathroom with her. "I really need a bath and then some sleep. Would you join me?"
His throat bobbed as he swallowed. Sometimes she forgot that only a month had passed since they had been reunited after so much time apart, during those awful weeks when she had traveled across Europe singing in bars and wondering where he was. They had grown so much closer and more comfortable with each other, but maybe this was pushing it.
But he finally nodded and shrugged out of his jacket as she began to run the bath. She busied herself with the water, checking the temperature and adding her favorite bubble bath mixture to the water. The scent was kind of flowery, but Erik always seemed to notice… in a positive way… when she bathed in it. She shed her shirt and pants, and turned off the water once it had reached more than halfway up the side of the large bathtub.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw Erik staring off to the side, shirtless, his fingers hovering at his pants. She didn't comment on his indecision, just quickly slid off her underwear and unclasped her bra, lying the padded garment on a nearby chair before stepping into the tub. The hot water felt heavenly against her travel-weary skin, her sore muscles already starting to loosen. Leaning back, she closed her eyes with a sigh.
The rasp of clothing, and she heard Erik enter the tub opposite her. She waited until he had settled before she cracked open her eyes. He had mimicked her position – his head tilted back against the lip of the tub, arms on either side, long legs tucked on either side of hers, his knees two sharp points rising out of the bubbles.
He was wearing his mask, still, even though he had shed the wig, and she frowned at that.
"Erik, love?" she said softly.
He peered at her, down his nose, his head remaining reclined. "Yes?"
"Things are okay, right? Between us?" She bit her lip. She was so tired, and really shouldn't be trying to talk right now, but she had missed him so much while she was away. She hated feeling like there was distance between them.
He held out a hand, and she scooted closer to take it. Grasping her fingers, he bent her hand so he could kiss the ring on her finger, then gently prodded her until she had spun around in the bath, facing away from him. Then his arms came around her, tugging her down against the slick warm of his chest, his body fitting against hers.
"I missed you," he said, his mouth close to her ear, and he grazed his teeth against the shell.
She shivered despite the warmth of the water. "I thought you were mad at me."
His arms tightened. "Mad? How could I?"
"But I thought- because of Christmas-"
The water lapped, bubbles rising around them, as he suddenly shifted, turning her sideways and drawing her onto his lap. She might have blushed at the intimate position had they been talking about happier subjects.
His eyes were intense. "Beloved, you accomplished everything you needed to do within that trip, and I am so proud of you." Her throat tightened, and she was unable to reply. He stroked her bare back with one hand, his other cupping her cheek. "I was selfish, I admit, and horrid company for the Daroga. However, I could never have stopped you from going, never dreamt of keeping you here."
She found her voice. "And now we can legally get married."
She paused, hesitating. For a little while, she tucked her head under his chin and listened to the steady thumping of his heart beneath his damp skin. They had come such a long way to be able to be in such a position, together, naked beneath the bubbles. His fingers danced along her spine, up and down her arm, the gesture soothing.
Without lifting her head, she murmured, "Hey, Erik?"
"Mm?" He sounded more relaxed now.
"I didn't want to really mention this when I left, because there was so much other stuff going on." She chewed on her lip. The hand rubbing her back slowed. "I had my usual check up with my oncologist back at home. It was just routine," she added quickly, "but she said I needed to get on Tamoxifen as soon as possible. I kinda put it off longer than I should have, with everything that's been going on."
"Tamoxifen?" he echoed, his low voice a rumble in her ear.
"It helps prevent cancer from coming back." She swallowed and curled up against him. The water was starting to turn tepid. "I need to go on it for at least two years, but probably more like five, depending on how things go and if the side effects don't bother me too much. I won't be able to, ah, have children during that time." She squirmed a bit. "There is no guarantee that I can even have children. Physically, things seem to be okay, but we won't know until we try."
His arms tightened around her. After a long moment of silence, he said quietly, "You are my everything, Christine. A child would only add to that, and the lack of one would not detract. Besides…" He snorted. "What if I passed along this face? The lack of blood-related children would help me avoid dwelling on such a possibility."
She noted his specific word-choice of "blood-related." If she couldn't have children, would he consider adopting? He had told her so little about his own background, of where he came from, of whether or not he had family. She knew his recently-created papers were forged, and she figured that meant he didn't have a real birth certificate. She wouldn't mind adopting a child sometime in the future; so many kids needed families.
But then he had mentioned his face. She twisted in his arms, reaching up to lay a hand against the white porcelain of his mask, which was slightly warm from the steam of the bath. "Why are you wearing this?"
He bent his head slightly to the side to avoid her touch. Was he afraid she would try to pull it off? "You haven't seen this in eight days. I sought to spare you the shock so soon after your return."
"Erik!" She scooted off his lap and spun to face him so quickly, sudsy water slopped over the edge of the tub. "After all this time, do you really think I care about your face?" He had been so nonchalant when she told him about her medicine, about how they would have to wait a long time to try, and she wasn't even sure if she could. She had been traveling all day, missing him the entire week, and all she wanted to do was curl up with him in bed and sleep.
She couldn't help it. The exhaustion finally weighed her down, and she buried her face in her hands as she began to cry.
She heard Erik exit the tub, felt the water churn around her as he stepped out. The sounds of a towel rustling followed, then his arms were slipping under her, lifting her from the tub. The water had already turned lukewarm, and now she started to shiver from the blast of cool air on her wet skin. Her vision hazy, she was aware of Erik toweling her off before sweeping her back into his arms.
"I can walk," she retorted without heat.
He grunted in response, bringing her into their bedroom. After he laid her on the bed, he turned to stoke the fire, and soon, the flames went wild, warmth licking across her skin. Erik turned back to her, a towel fitted across his waist, his pale skin aglow. Despite how much he tried to hide from her, she could see the pain flicker across his face, a mixture of emotions, all of which she had seen before.
"Come here," she whispered, and he did.
The two of them shed their towels and slipped beneath the covers. Soon, her shivering quailed. Once she was warm again, he took her hand and pressed it to his mask, beseeching her to do what she liked.
"You know I am yours," he said, breath intermingling with her own, their lips almost touching.
"I know." She slid off his mask and replaced it with her palm. The ridges beneath her touch were at once familiar, more him than the mask. Though he might never believe her, she loved his face and would never wish it changed. Because of this face, he had suffered so much, but without it, they would never have met. So many what ifs flashed through her head, and she closed her eyes against them, pressing her lips to his.
Briefly, she pulled back. "If we do manage to get pregnant… you know, down the road, you know the first thing I'll say when I see our baby?"
His single unmarred eyebrow raised in question. "Pray tell, dearest."
"You are so beautiful."
His yellow eyes, glowing in the firelight, widened so white showed around the irises. He didn't need more explanation about what she meant. His surge forward was enough, the way he claimed her mouth with his, his body sliding atop hers, a knee between her legs, hands tangling within her damp hair.
Tomorrow, they would talk about houses and where they would live, and she would remind him again that she liked their underground home, their sanctuary from the rest of the world. Maybe they would argue, maybe he would agree to keep it as a second home. Later, they would venture to the local marriage council office together, oh god, out in the world together, but they could do it, maybe first thing in the morning before the offices became busy.
And later… later, she could wait to find out what would come later. For right now, those nimble fingers of his were searching lower, and his teeth were grazing on that point below her ear, and she had no idea what she was murmuring except that it was encouragement. His dark chuckle rolled across her skin, and they folded themselves into each other once again.
True to what he had said, Erik took her to apply for their civil union on Monday after she had arrived back in Paris. They had chosen a small, reclusive town hall outside of the city where few people would notice him out-of-place appearance.
Instead of his usual white mask – something noticeable and stand outish – he had donned a flesh-colored mask she had never seen before. From far away, no one could tell it wasn't his own face, and the first time she saw it, she had asked him to remove it immediately, the result too unnerving for her to take in large doses. If her reaction had bothered him, he didn't say, but she noticed he didn't wear it again except when he needed to appear in public.
Applying in person for their marriage certificate had gone smoothly, Erik's forged birth certificate and identification accepted without question. Afterward, they'd had dinner with Nadir and Meg at a restaurant with a reclusive back room that no doubt had cost a fortune. Being out and about the city at a reasonable hour of the day had seemed so normal and odd to Christine, who had the best evening and drank entirely too much wine.
The weeks couldn't pass quickly enough. During the time, Erik purchased a two-bedroom apartment in the city, one that came with in-building security just in case and prided itself in anonymity for its residents. They split their time between the two homes and began to look for a place outside the city – again, more at Erik's insistence than hers. She wasn't sure if she should be more annoyed by his thought that she needed space outside of their home beneath the Palais, but he seemed to be driven by the want to provide for her; she saw little reason to continue to argue.
Finally, four weeks later, Nadir drove her to the airport to pick up her mother. Anna was a bit cranky from the long plane ride, but otherwise in better spirits than Christine thought she might be, what with her daughter's impending marriage and all. Nadir dropped them off at the apartment, where Erik was waiting.
At long last, her mother and Erik met. At Christine's insistence, he had worn his usual white mask; she wanted Anna to meet Erik as he usually was, and she still couldn't stand the weirdly flesh-colored cover. When they entered the living room, Erik stood, offering a low, careful welcome.
Anna's eyes had widened at his appearance, despite how much Christine had prepared her, but to her surprise, her mother stepped forward and opened her arms. She was a hugger, after all, and Erik didn't seem beyond that sort of greeting, which Christine saw as a sign that things would go well.
Christine hid her grin behind a hand at Erik's perplexed look. However, he recovered quickly, stepping forward and allowing her mother to slip her arms around his torso in a quick hug. Then he had dipped his head in his own usual way, offering a more French hello and presenting the flowers he himself had chosen from the flower shop earlier that day.
That seemed pretty much all he had to do. Anna beamed and side-hugged him again, and Christine couldn't stop smiling at them both. This, this was what she had wanted!
The next morning, they met Nadir and Meg at city hall, early enough to avoid any sort of crowds. Erik wore the flesh-colored mask again, but she understood why and left him alone about it. He wore a simple dark blue suit and matching tie, choosing to dress a little less formally so he didn't stand out as much. She had already worn white once, and so she decided on a rose-pink dress with a long dark coat.
Their friends and her mother at their side, they said their vows, signed the papers, and they were officially married.
Nadir had hired a limousine so they could all ride together to and from the city hall, which was about an hour from Paris. On the drive back, he popped a bottle of champagne and poured glasses for all of them. To Christine's relief, Erik turned away a moment to switch out his masks, and she kissed him deeply afterward, ignoring the grins of the other people present.
Once back in Paris, they dropped Meg off at her apartment, and Anna at her hotel, and then they roamed the streets of the city in their limousine, which sent Christine into random giggling fits at the absurdity. Nadir popped in and out at various stops, collecting wine at one store, a small chocolate cake at another, and Indian take-out food at the last. They ate holding the food on their laps, trading stories from the past six months. Lacking plates, they dug their forks into the cake all at once, and Christine insisted on taking a picture with her phone.
Full and ready to head home, Christine snuggled up to Erik's side, loving the way he automatically tucked an arm around her and drew her closer still. Nadir had toed off his shoes and was grumbling about wanting his first cigar in years.
And then his cell phone rang.
Not sitting up, Nadir fished out his phone and held it up to his ear. "Nadir Khan speaking." Whatever he heard next caused him to rise up then, concern flashing across his face. "Is that so? And what are you doing about it?" He listened, then snapped in an uncharacteristically harsh tone, "Yes, of course that is what I would do next. Call me back within five hours with an update."
He hung up and tossed the phone onto the seat beside him. "That was Alexei."
Erik's voice was cool, but Christine could feel how his body tensed. "He hasn't had reason to call you in… how long? Three years?"
"What did he want?"
Nadir puffed an annoyed sigh mixed with worry. "New reports about you have been surfacing. We can only guess who has stirred them around."
Christine looked between the two men. "Are these the Shah's men again?"
"Not so much," Nadir said, "though I wouldn't doubt they were spreading the rumors. Alexei is my Russian informant."
Of course. That made sense.
The two men were silent for a long time, but the looks they exchanged spoke of a conversation happening between them that Christine was not privy to. She felt a sort of panic start to swell within her, the knowledge that Erik's past could easily rise up in an attempt to dismantle their lives once again. But this time, she wasn't going to be cast aside.
"Where are they?" Erik said, his voice so low she almost didn't hear.
"Awesome," Christine interjected. "I've always want to go to Spain."
She found herself the focus of two pairs of disbelieving eyes. At once, both of them began to protest. She heard talk of where she would go to wait for them, the best safe places, perhaps even back to Switzerland for a time. Who knew what the Russians had heard? Christine let them squabble for a while before she held up a hand.
"I'm going." She turned in her seat to face Erik, whose neck was flushed in a mixture of anger and disbelief. "Please, Erik. I'm your wife, not someone who can just be swept aside whenever I become inconvenient. I knew very well what I was getting into when I married you. Besides, I remember very clearly that you pledged to remain by my side for the rest of your days. There was nothing in there about leaving me behind whenever life gets tough."
He took her hands in his, his grip squeezing hard in his shaken state. "Christine, Spain-"
"Sounds like a lovely place for our honeymoon." She rubbed a thumb across his ring. "I'm going. You won't be able to stop me." When his gaze turned pleading, she kissed his knuckles and pressed her cheek to them. "My love, we are in this together. Always."
Nadir spoke up. "If you're going to insist, you'll need to be willing to follow our lead, to stay where we ask you to when we ask you to."
She nodded. "Of course."
"Erik, I hate to admit it, but she's right. Who knows how often this will happen. Will you leave her behind every time?"
"I'd follow you anyway," she added.
Nadir pressed a button to speak with the driver, letting him know that this was his stop. As he got out of the limo, he bent down to wish them goodnight. "We'll talk more tomorrow. For now, rest and enjoy your first night as a wedding couple." His lips upturned in a gentler smile. "Try not to worry too much about this. We can work out the details in time." The latter seemed to be directed at Erik, who wasn't looking at either of them. Christine exchanged good nights with him, and then it was just the two of them left.
They didn't speak as the driver took them to the curb of their apartment. Erik exited first, offering a hand to her, which she took, the leftovers of the cake balanced on her other palm. He thrust a thick wad of cash at the driver, then escorted her through the back entrance to their secondary home.
Once inside, Christine eased off her heels and coat, and set her belongings on the counter, along with the cake. She took off the plastic top and ran her finger along the chocolate icing before sticking it in her mouth. Erik was watching her, but she couldn't decipher his look.
"So this is how it will be?" he asked, eyes narrowed into two golden slits.
She wasn't intimidated, at all. Oh, was he mad about her insistence on tagging along? Too bad for him. She savored the chocolate frosting on her finger. "Yep."
Before she knew what was happening, he had stalked closer, his gait that of a predator moving in on its prey, and he had her backed against the counter, the marble countertop cold against her back.
"You have no idea what you might be getting into, beloved wife."
"Oh?" Her finger sought the cake at her elbow, and quickly, she swiped a chocolate smear across his lips.
She might have laughed at his shocked expression had she not quickly followed the frosting with her lips and tongue, licking at the corner of his mouth, prodding his lips apart so she could intermingle the taste of sugar with the dark taste of him.
He groaned against her mouth, the sound primal and pulled from within him against his will. Already, she knew she had won. But that didn't matter right now; they would have time yet for details and debates. Right now, she sought yet more frosting, and this time, he caught her wrist, his lips enfolding her finger and sending molten lava coursing through her veins.
"This isn't over, dearest."
Yes, it was. But her mind was focusing elsewhere, and she drew a leg around his hips, throbbing with sudden need. "Now," she begged, tugging his shirt from his pants. "Now, now, now."
Their hands tore at each other's clothing until enough was moved out of the way. Her skirts were lifted, his hips canted between her thighs, and she gasped as he slid into her, the line of the counter digging into her back, her elbow sinking into the cake.
They were married, and who knew what the future would bring. But she focused on the rigid surety of him inside her, the muscles of his arms strong around her, the bite of his teeth at her throat. They were two people so well matched, they seemed made for each other, and yet the road to bring them together had been so long, so well fought, that she had wondered if they would ever sync up.
He breathed her name against her skin, and she found his lips again, and her future had never seemed clearer at that moment. She belonged at his side, and he at hers, and the rest would work itself out, as it always had.
"Gods, I love you," he groaned into the small space between them.
She answered with yet another kiss, her lips curling into an easy smile.