She glanced up at Erik, and then down again at the velvet ring box, and knew that he wouldn't be hesitant like this, knew he wouldn't look like he was gathering all his strength to speak if it was just the gift of some decorative bauble inside. Somehow consenting to follow him from flight to flight seemed easy compared to the decision to be his wife...
"I am not asking you to marry me, not here," his voice interrupted her thoughts, slightly aloof, guarded, and she tore her eyes away from the box in his hands to try and read the eyes beneath his furrowed brow. "I have asked you before, when it was all I could do to lift the words to my mouth to speak them, for fear that you would say no. And since you did not give me an answer, I will ask you again someday - and it may be the death of me yet. But not yet. I am not asking now."
The emotion and determination in his litany shook her, but the words themselves were at odds with his hesitant posture and the object he held. She reached for the box, her curiosity overwhelming, and he handed it to her without argument. Christine opened it to reveal an engagement ring with a diamond so large she thought it must surely be fake, alongside a slender wedding band studded with smaller diamonds. She lifted her gaze to meet his own, confused. "And yet…"
He took the box from her hands, withdrew the rings, and turned them over in his hand, watching the light hit the stones as he spoke.
"I could tell you that it's because in some countries we may visit, a married woman would be safer. And that is not untrue..." but here, he shrugged. "To be honest, it's mostly that I had the passports made in pairs, each pair having the same last name. Call it a bit of hubris, but my Plan A had you willingly fleeing the country at my side, with my opera performed to triumph and rest of our lives ahead of us..." he spoke as though he were describing the silly dreams of a child, with a sort of affectionate sadness that struck her far more deeply than his rages ever had.
"I'm sorry..." she said, realizing quite how many of his dreams she had ruined, "About your Don Juan."
Some sentiment she couldn't identify flickered across his eyes, and he went on, "However, that plan hinged on you suddenly realizing some heretofore unknown affection for me and, well..." here he gestured, flippantly, dismissively. "I suppose I really should just be glad that at my age I'm still capable of such boundless, if unfounded, optimism."
She furrowed her brow. He went on.
"Where we are now is, I suppose, some murky middle ground. But until you choose one way or another, you must wear this." He gestured that she lift her left hand, and slid the rings onto her finger without touching her at all.
Such a small thing, and yet it filled her field of vision. His hands, putting a wedding ring on one of hers. Not the simple gold ring he'd said would keep her safe, not anything that she could possibly pretend wasn't a marriage band, disguise or not.
"Don't worry," he said, and she looked up. "This isn't some contrived plot. I am not going to use this to extract any public displays of affection from you, or to coerce you into hotel rooms with only one bed under the pretense of 'keeping up appearances.' Or anything else so ridiculous."
But Christine's mind was already racing ahead to how easy it would be to fall into this role; would it be any different than pretending to be a pageboy or a diva? Or consenting to a "play" engagement with Raoul?
"I understand," she said softly, and noted the rush of air he exhaled.
"Thank you," came his low reply, sounding more relieved than grateful. He pressed the button to open the suite doors. "Let's go. Everything will move very quickly, now."
Out of the suite, up the aisle, and then she was following him up the jetway, into the airport, taking nearly two steps for each of the ones he took, walking at such a speed that she nearly needed to run to keep up. Scarf off, sunglasses on. Signs for customs pointed them left, down a long glassed-in hallway passing other departure gates, women and men in robes waiting for flights alongside others in suits, dresses.
Down another hallway, and into a room with queues and agents and Erik flashed some sort of paper and they were whisked to the front of the line. He spoke with a British accent, his head ducked slightly down to the right, the hat leaning low over his face, and her heart thudded, for a moment, that the agent behind the glass would... she didn't know, and then the thud-thud of him stamping their passports and waving them on felt like relief.
Walking away quickly, Erik leaned over her, his arm coming up behind her but coming a centimeter short of touching at her waist, urging her on, and he said, lowly, proudly, "Oh - did I mention that we're diplomats?"
She wondered what he kept in the little red bag that real diplomats got. And how much he'd paid for those passports.
Another continent, and another culture and the airport was like a small familiar ledge from which to view the newness; inside the signs were in a different language, the metal detectors and walls and floors nicer and newer than the airport she'd known in Newark, but it was an airport nonetheless. Outside the windows, though, she saw huge expanses of desert beyond the runways, and far off skyscrapers of Dubai catching the light, their glint nearly blinding.
Erik slowed his pace as they stepped onto a moving walkway, and then, seeing her lagging, stopped altogether. She nodded appreciatively, and tried to catch her breath. Seeing that there was no one within earshot, she asked him, "How do you know where you're going? Did you read up on maps of every airport?"
"Actually, yes." he said, with the first bit of good natured humor that she'd heard from him in months. "But this one in particular I just happen to know."
"What - did you design their opera house too?" Christine said, relaxing somewhat, even though the walkway was still hurtling them forward at a pace far faster than she was accustomed to. "Or just some of those skyscrapers?" She gestured at the distant glass metropolis.
"Only the good ones," he said with a nonchalance that almost made her laugh. "I designed quite a few highrise buildings here in one of the early oil booms. But after the first gulf war, the corporations couldn't afford me, and I found myself designing more for... private clients." His mood seemed to darken, and he shook his head, going on. "I'll see if I can point some of the better towers out to you from the air. We should be taking off to the East, so we'll go right over them."
The end of the walkway was approaching, and Christine took a deep breath, as though she was preparing for a sprint. "Where will we be... taking off... to?"
"If we can get to the gate in the next twelve minutes?" He looked back over his shoulder at her. "Lagos, as Canadians. Hong Kong on Swiss passports in half an hour, if we can't."
He stopped sharply at a mailbox, and took the package containing the Don Juan costume out from under his arm. He slid it into the mailbox, swiftly shut the lid, and then they both walked away from that bit of the past.
Nearly running again, suitcase rolling behind her, people and gates going by in a blur once they rounded the corner into the main terminal and swiftly moved down the center walkway. The glass ceiling soared above her, an atrium atop a shopping mall so grand that the airplanes seemed almost an afterthought. She was wondering if the palm trees indoors were real or not, when Erik gestured out the window at a particularly large plane. "That's ours; we'll wait until they're finished boarding coach and then get on right before they close the jetway."
The splashy logo on the side of the airplane and cheerfully suited flight attendants she could see up ahead at the gate seemed so much in contrast to Erik's normal taste. "We're flying Virgin?" she asked, perplexed by his sudden tolerance for cheeky wit.
"I'm not without a sense of humor," he said dryly. "I thought the name was rather appropriate, actually."
"Look," Christine interjected, her voice choppy as she strode to catch up with him, "Would you stop it? I'm tired of the self deprecating jabs. 'Unfounded optimism'? Do you sit at home and think these things up, then whip them out to make me feel bad? You want me to love you and all you do is talk about hating yourself!" She stopped walking, but stopped just short of her desire to stamp her foot like a child. After a moment of floundering, she slammed the handle down on the rolling suitcase, crossed her arms and waited for him to respond.
She expected an argument, or perhaps to be told to hush, to not attract attention - and so it came as a bit of a surprise when he swiftly pulled her into his arms. In a second he had stepped sideways into a corridor off the main terminal, and twisted around, pulling her up against the wall, his whole body encircling her from behind. She gasped, startled, and his arms lifted quickly, as though he'd been singed. But she made no movement to step away, and finally his hands came to rest on her shoulders, tentative, but firmly holding her in place.
"Change of plans," his breath brushed her ear as he spoke, his voice low. "Bad weather in Lagos. We'll be going to Hong Kong after all."
"What's wrong?" she asked, trying to turn her head and look at him, but his fingertips on her shoulders were like steel. "Is someone at the gate?"
"Christine," his voice urged her to silence more strongly than a hand over her mouth. "We now need to get to gate 34, without attracting any attention. I need you to walk forward, back out into the main hall; get your suitcase, and walk, briskly but unhurried, back the way we came. I'll catch up to you when you pass that glorified shopping mall. Whatever you do, don't look back. Can you do that?"
The words filled her ears but barely registered, the tone and beauty of his voice threatening to overcome her just as it had in her early days of following her teacher's every order. The people bustling through the airport seemed to swim in the distance; she closed her eyes, and said, "Yes."
The pressure of his fingertips vanished from her shoulders, and she hesitated, waiting for further instruction. But the air was empty, his voice did not come again, and after a moment she wondered if he was still behind her. Don't look back, he had said, and suddenly his cries from nearly 6 months before echoed in her ears - Don't look at me! - and she shuddered, remembering the feeling she'd had, apple and Eve, standing there with his mask in her hand.
It was so much easier to be in his thrall when she couldn't see him. Give in and slip under, the relief of letting him lead, submerging herself in the beauty of his voice and forgetting about any details to the contrary.
And yet she wanted to look back; to see if he was there; to ask what the hell was going on; to clear the trance from her head and talk to him honestly.
It was so much easier to be in his thrall, period. And Christine trained her eyes on the colorful bustle at the middle of the terminal, stepped out to grab her suitcase, and strode off in the direction he'd sent her. She kept her head high and her eyes distant, but all the while her mind was desperate to know what scene was unfolding at the flight they hadn't boarded. Or maybe no one was there at all, and this was a test. She reached the first of the shops and tried to glance in a mirror as she passed - not breaking his order to not look back, but hoping for a glimpse of what was going on.
The scene reflected in the silvered shop window was too distant and crowded to see anything back at the gate, but she nearly stopped short when she caught sight of herself, her clothes and haircolor foreign and half her face obscured by the giant sunglasses. She didn't know whether to gawk at how nice the clothes were, or at how mutable her appearance was. The sandy blonde hair of the wig curled under at her chin, tickling, irritating, and she tucked it behind her ear - noticing the sparkling ring on her hand in the reflection, but before she could reflect on that herself, she saw Erik approaching and remembered that she'd been told to keep walking.
"Almost perfect," he said as he caught up to her. "But next time, don't stop to lache les fenetres."
"I don't even know what that means," Christine said, suddenly feeling cranky and reluctant again at being scolded.
"Sorry." he replied immediately, gesturing with a nod of his head that she should walk with him. Their pace was deliberately slower, just an average couple walking to their departure gate, and he went on "The phrase is French for 'window shopping', but it literally means 'lick the windows' - which has interesting implications about the Gallic relationship with fashion and conspicuous consumption, not to mention desiring the unattainable. But I digress, and you've got sufficient funds in the pocket of that purse to buy every pricey bit of jewelry in that store. So perhaps the phrase was malapropos; I apologize."
"There wasn't..." and then Christine unzipped the handbag and saw a small wallet she hadn't seen before. "You put money in my purse?"
"While we were still on the plane; yes. Don't look indignant, it's spending money, not a bribe. It would look odd if you had to ask me for money every time you wanted to buy a cup of coffee, and if something should happen to me, you'll need the means to keep running." His tone was as casual as his walking speed, so confidant that she nearly glossed over his words entirely.
"Need to keep running?" she asked, stopping short again.
"The gate's just up ahead," he said, gesturing. "The jetway docks in the middle on the larger Airbuses, meaning first class turns left and coach turns right, so we can board early without having to worry about the entire plane staring us down as they walk back to their seats."
"Don't be a snob," Christine replied, "it's one thing to like nice things, and another to look down on people who don't have them - and you're changing the subject. What did you mean, when you said -"
But his anger was quick, and controlled, as he hissed, "I've been looked down on - and worse - for 40 odd years, Christine. You'll pardon me if I have little empathy for the masses. If I surround myself with 'nice things,' it's because they're the only comfort I've ever had."
"I know your life hasn't been easy," Christine said slowly, her words approaching him hesitantly. "But it's just that... "
But she had nothing, really - no good response, and the issue seemed to have drifted far from coach versus first classism. Her earlier anger had kind of fizzled.
"Nevermind," she said, energyless, apathetic and somewhat sullen. "If it was so important that we get to the gate, shouldn't we get going? Or should I go see if Raoul's followed us and is waiting back at the other gate?"
"He's not." Erik said, disdainful and definitive. "There was a unit of Emirates' Special Police searching passengers boarding the flight, and I didn't fancy the pat-down. Come along; we'll be boarding shortly."
He showed of some kind of silver card to the gate agent and they were jumped to the front of the boarding queue, passes scanned and proceeding to the airplane. Christine smiled and nodded obligatorily at the line of flight attendants, crossed behind the galley, and turned left to go to their seats. She hesitated a moment at the seat, reading the number off her ticket again. She looked over at Erik, who was maneuvering his suitcase into the overhead compartment as if nothing were wrong.
"Are these the right seats...?" She asked finally.
"Yes," he replied, hushed as he looked over his shoulder at passengers walking up the other aisle. "Unfortunately few airlines provide the kind of seclusion in first class that our last flight did. You'll get wraparound curtains here and there, but for the most part it's just these sort of pod chairs with a bit of a plastic wall extending out from the headrest in the name of privacy."
"Well... I'm sure it'll be fine..." Christine said lamely, not really certain why, or what would be 'fine'.
"It has to be, if any of this is to work." He pressed his hand to the beige latex on his right cheek, a faint anxiety entering his demeanor. "Although, if you wouldn't mind, my taking the window seat would allow for a little less... exposure."
"Oh - of course," she replied awkwardly, getting her purse out of the seat where she'd tossed it. He nodded appreciatively, and swiftly sat down, taking only a moment to settle into the chair before turning to his right in a fixed stare; seemingly looking out the window, but also silhouetting his face such that only the good side could be seen to someone walking up the aisle. She wondered how often he'd practiced that, or if he'd just learned it instinctively.
A man in a green blazer leaned over Christine's shoulder, holding a tray filled with champagne flutes, and said something to her in ...Chinese? She smiled nervously, not sure how to respond. Their passports for the Hong Kong tickets were Swiss, Erik had said. In Switzerland they spoke... German? French?
The flight attendant nodded understandingly at her silence. "Do you speak ... English?" he asked, finally. "Would you like champagne before takeoff?"
"A little," Christine lied, and then hastened to add, awkwardly, "A little ... English. No champagne. Thank you."
"Sir?" the flight attendant gestured towards Erik.
"No, thank you," he replied, not rudely, but not encouraging conversation.
"I'll return with more choices once we're in flight," the flight attendant replied helpfully. "Do you wish that I take your hat and coat, and hang them for you?"
There was a pause, and Erik's shoulders seemed to stiffen in his . "I'll keep the jacket. But I suppose you're right; a gentleman doesn't wear a hat indoors," he said cooly, and turned towards him, removed the grey short-brim fedora he'd been wearing, handing it over like a gun in a standoff. The attendant took it, but didn't move away, staring curiously at the blank beige mask. Erik's shoulders were set, his stare steady, and finally the uniformed man blinked and said, "Thank you, sir," and hurried away to hang up the hat.
Erik turned wordlessly and leaned back in his chair, looking away from the aisle in full now, and the airplane began to slowly move in reverse, overcoming the incredible inertia of a half-million pound object at rest. Christine was aware of the flight attendants going through the motions of showing exits and oxygen masks, and of the engines whirring up, rumbling to life, but her eyes were on Erik, trying to read his posture, to see if he was angry or bristling at the intrusion or upset, or...
It was the noise she noticed first, a deep, low, squeak, if there could be such a thing, and she looked over to see the source of the sound - and saw Erik's fingers gripping the side of the chair with such tension that she expected the leather-covered armrest to burst in his hand. And she was quite certain that it wasn't fear of flying jitters, and it wasn't anger, and he must have dealt with people staring at him like that every damn time he'd ever ventured out of his house and -
She loosened her seat belt, and leaned over, and laid her right hand on his left arm, reassuringly, and it came so naturally that she jumped, surprised, as Erik whipped his head around to look at her tiny hand resting on his sleeve. But she didn't let go, and said, "Erik..." imploringly, as she moved to stroke his arm, trying to calm him - only to pull away, as she felt a wetness beneath her hand, and turned her palm up, stained red, and she realized his sleeve was drenched with blood.
"Please don't pass out," he said dryly.
But she was already hyperventilating and staring, horrified at the splash of red on her hand.
Author's Note: This is my first time writing any kind of action - if you've read any of my other stories, you know I tend to just stick the characters in a room and let them be emotional at one another. I guess having an extended chase scene is exactly the opposite of that. :-)
As always, feedback good or bad is much appreciated, and is the fuel that helps me update sooner.