Author's note: A month between updates isn't that bad when you consider my average - which is something on the order of years. :-) Thanks to all the people who left feedback, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it's one of my favorite things about writing. I especially appreciate specific feedback (and will strive to start leaving more of it, myself.) This is the second of three parts to this story. The third is half written, and I'm trying to figure out exactly where I'd like it to go (bearing in mind that it can't go too far, in order to rejoin with Leroux.)
"Be very still," Erik said, and she stifled a gasp as he quickly sliced through the ropes binding each arm without his hands ever touching her. He then seemed to busy himself with re-concealing the blade, as Christine shook her wrists, free at last, and brought her hands together to rub the sore skin.
"Forgive me," he muttered with such sadness that Christine, furious just moments before because he had bound her, found herself nearly accepting his atonement. Rolling her wrists and satisfied that blood was indeed flowing back into them, she moved to stand, and Erik nearly leapt away from her. She froze, halfway standing, and eased herself back into the chair, not wanting to startle him any further, not certain why he was looking at her so warily, almost as though she was a lion who might attack.
Then he turned swiftly on his heel, took one step and paused, his head turned, but not quite looking over his shoulder. "You may stay in your room if you wish to be alone," he said. "But please do not try to leave me."
Without looking back again, he walked stiffly away and closed the door behind him. It clicked shut, and Christine dropped her head into her hands. Her head hurt, her wrists hurt, and she didn't know what to do, didn't know how to free Raoul, didn't know what to do for Erik. She propped her elbows on her knees, resting her eyes on the heels of her hands until she saw stars, and for a moment she wanted to go forward into it, wanted to lean deeper into the dark oblivion to faint, to escape everything she'd done, even if she had to be unconscious to do so. But Erik would not catch her this time, would not carry her... he must have carried her before, all those times when she had become scared or sleepy or lightheaded and slipped into blackness only to wake, fully clothed in her own bed, covered with a blanket, her slippers placed neatly by the door. How gently he must have slipped the shoes from her feet, never once waking her - but now he laughed coldly when he spoke of her fit of madness, her attempt to bludgeon to death the self she was so tired of.
And yet an hour earlier, he had beseeched her to marry him. She wasn't sure if he loved her or hated her, only that she had hurt him. She had to talk to him. Raoul, he would be safe, just so long as Erik thought the... oh god, he'd called it 'the torture chamber'... so long as Erik thought it unoccupied. She could talk to Erik, calm him, then release Raoul and the Persian man, and then... she shook her head and nearly longed to beat it again, for the momentary respite the pain of each blow had brought her. But then she recalled the look of horror as he'd found her, the simultaneous anger and sadness and ultimate silence as he'd emotionlessly wiped the blood from her face, from her neck and said he supposed there was nothing to be done for the dress.
She could not escape herself.
And just as she began to spiral again, to drown in regret and blame at how she'd caused this situation, she heard a noise from the next room. A cry, a short breath, quickly silenced. That single gasp so sad that Christine stood, no thoughts, no plan and walked towards the door, the ruined wedding gown unfurling as she went, crushed and stained satin trailing behind her. The door to her room wasn't locked, and she didn't know if he'd meant her to follow or simply wished not to detain her but she didn't care and she didn't understand anything and she was tired and terrible and she walked down the hallway to the sitting room.
He was there, sitting in a low, cushioned chair with a carved wooden edge, facing the house's largest fireplace. His back was to her, but he appeared to straighten at the noise of her footstep in the room. Erik said nothing, and yet that noise she'd heard, that stifled sob, it rang in her ears and pierced her heart, and without quite knowing what she was doing she walked the rest of the way across the room to stand behind his chair, and she placed her hands on the top of the chair's back.
If he was sitting still before, he was frozen now.
And Christine Daae was watching her hands slide out, away from each other, along the sloping wooden frame that ran arm to back to arm along the top of the stuffed armchair. Her palms reached further, around to the sides, the arms of the chair, and she noted the smooth texture of the wood beneath her fingertips, the pattern of the chair's brocade fabric, and then she noticed that she was surrounding him with her arms without touching him at all. Her heart was suddenly hammering on the wall of her chest, but still her fingers crept forward, and then Erik turned his head, and both of them were watching her right hand approach his own where it lay in his lap.
It was then she noticed that his left hand was gripping his knee. And she paused for a moment, thinking for the first time about what on earth she was doing, but as the motion of her hands stopped, she saw the hand gripping his knee tense so hard that it trembled, and if she leaned any further forward she would actually be touching him, embracing him, comforting him, and she saw he was still staring at her right hand, just inches from his own.
She exhaled, and fell against him.
His head leaned forward and Erik drew a ragged, shuddering breath, each tremble of his body transferred to her own, pressed against his back, arms on top of his. The movements somehow translated his emotions directly to her, and she reached forward, to grasp his right hand at last, and squeezed it. Another breath, from him, quicker, choked, and he began to draw his arms in across himself, bringing her arm with his, leaning forward and pulling her tighter against him, but then his chest lifted, and he said, low and hoarsely, "No."
Erik threw his arms away from his chest, flinging hers back as well, and he stood, quickly, whirling around, and looking at her with eyes raging. "No!" he said louder. "I - I can't."
"I don't underst..." Christine faltered.
"I heard you!" he spat, and fainting would have been welcome, but instead she stood, still feeling how his body had shaken in her arms.
"I heard you, talking with them, forming your plan! Again! This is my opera house! Do you think there is anything I do not hear?" He was ranging, his voice thundering all around her. "I knew your young suitor and his friend would be in the torture chamber the instant they descended the trap doors! Christine, tell me, how did you think you could plot against me in my own home without me hearing it?"
She had raised her hands to her mouth as he shouted, so lost, so wishing she could... "I don't know what you mean," came her voice without her thinking to say it.
"I do realize," he said, controlled and seething, "that you have sustained a number of blows to the head tonight. It's an occurrence that I keep trying to forget, and yet I must remember that it's undoubtedly affecting your memory. But surely, Mademoiselle, you must recall the conversation you had just a half hour prior to now, wherein you planned to trick me into releasing you. I heard, when you conspired to lie to me and -" and here his voice cracked, and softened, and he went on. " And to - to deceive me. To ply me with a kind word, or perhaps -"
She lowered her head, but still he went on.
"Perhaps a gentle touch- " and his voice trailed, somewhere between wistful and bitter that she rushed to speak, to soothe with words.
"I agreed to none of it!" she cried, pleading. "Did you hear me comply? I heard voices and I told them to go away!"
"Not in words, but you -" and here he seemed to remember, and lifted his hands to his head, sliding fingers from temple to skull, incredulously cradling his head for a moment then returning to her, angry again, "You just touched me. Your... arms, on mine, your hands - I rather doubt that after months of revulsion you were suddenly inspired this night to embrace a dead man."
"You're not dead, please, don't say that," she said fearfully, mournfully, "You're alive and I am here and we can just... I wasn't trying to deceive you, when I... it wasn't a trick."
"How can I believe you?" he cried, his voice sick with grief. "I heard the plan. I knew you would speak endearingly, speak gently, offer me a little hope, and I -" and here he broke, before her eyes, his perfect voice cracked, his shoulders fell, and when he spoke again his words were horrified, hollow and low with shame, " - And I was going to let you."
"Why didn't you, then?" Christine heard herself say without wanting to, numbly knowing his answer.
"Because I love you." he said, resigned, rubbing his forehead. "You must know that - must know that was the reason. Why would you ever ask? Do you enjoy making me say it? Does it amuse you to know that you can do all manner of terrible things to me, and yet I love you still?" His eyes narrowed, and he said, coldly but softly, "Most people have the kindness to pity condemned men, Christine."
"I don't understand why you must insist that there is malice in every action I take." she pleaded. "I don't make light of... of your feelings for me, I don't wish to hurt you."
"Then tell me," he replied, tiredly, "what in hell inspired you to - to - to do that, " he finally said, gesturing dismissively at the chair where he'd sat moments before, now resting between them.
"I..." she began, but she didn't know, and she felt suddenly very shy. She scarcely knew her feelings, much less had words for them, and the words that came first to her mind scared her. "I thought it's what you wanted," she said lamely, turning to discuss his feelings instead. "I thought you wanted... us... to be close... and you looked so sad, and..."
"I'm sadder now," he said, darkly. "Allow me a moment of unveiled honesty, Christine. If you were to add up all the fleeting moments, and perhaps a few rather enjoyable afternoons - and a few less enjoyable hours at four in the morning - if you were to add them all, you would find that I've spent the sum total of entire days, perhaps even weeks, thinking about what it would be like to touch you. To - embrace you, or just to feel your hand upon mine - or if I was feeling particularly indulgent, I imagined what it would be like if you were ever to lay your head on my chest. As if you were mine." He paced slightly as he talked, not quite ranting, seeming almost to lecture her, in a voice that was dejected, self-deprecating and snappish at once.
"And after all of that wondering, my dear, I came to a few conclusions. I decided that, if you were ever to - to allow me to show you any affection - I was certain that you would be warm, and soft. Such simple things, and yet they were a constant in every musing - I'm sure it indicates some grand psychological flaw on my behalf, the invariable conflation of affection and comfort. It's amusing, really, Christine - a man of my age ought to be a bit more libidinous! But where was I - ah yes - those hours of musing led me to tritely imagine that you would smell somewhat like heaven, and I was somewhat convinced that the very feeling of your skin, touching mine - if it ever were to happen, I imagined that it might make my damnable heart give up on the spot, from the bliss of such a moment."
"All of those things, Christine, I found to be true just now. But the last thought I had in all those dark lonely hours of writing music or staring at the lake or lying in that wretched coffin touching the ceiling and wishing it were you, the last thought I had was that if you were ever to touch me - if you were to allow me to touch you - to be 'close', as you put it, I imagined it would mean something. Maybe not that you felt exactly the same as I felt for you, because at this point I doubt the possibility. But I still believed you could care for me. I believed if you ever allowed me to embrace you, invited it, even, that it might finally mean that you did."
"Do you not believe that now?" she asked quietly as she stood before him, tears silently streaming down her face.
"At the moment, Christine," he raised defeated eyes to meet hers, and said grimly, "I believe I should have spent less time on your vocal studies, and devoted more attention to your acting lessons."