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Not Really Wicked

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Love. Was there any soul in Paris less equipt to understand the feeling?

Christine felt privately that she'd not loved anyone properly since her father passed. As Madame Valerius's health failed, Christine found herself more overcome with exhaustion and worry than affection toward her guardian. She supposed she had loved music, once, but all sound seemed muffled and strange since her father's violin had been relegated to its case, the latches firmly fastened. Raoul said he loved her, brought her flowers and showered her with compliments. Did she love him? Certainly she was fond of him, enjoyed the feeling of her hand wrapped around his elbow, the respectful press of his lips to her cheeks upon meeting and parting. 

The fairy tales she'd heard as child depicted love as powerful and magical. A chance meeting and then a happily-ever-after. Fate awakened and sealed all at once. Of course there might be obstacles. A prince under a spell, transformed with a healing kiss or shower of cleansing tears. 

Certainly she'd cried; they both had, yet nothing materially had changed. Erik insisted that he was not a monster...yet she had never known him as a man. A voice without form, a teacher separated from his student by glass and stone. And then...and then.

The memory made her shudder, both at the revelation that his face was little more than bone and sinew encased in waxy, yellow skin, and at his madness. Impassioned, unintelligible, inhuman shrieks; a chase, and the grimy sensation of blood under her fingernails.

He did bleed. He was perhaps, a man after all. And he said he was not a wicked man, that she should not be afraid, if only...if only...

The eyes, she thought, were not a man's eyes. Not a man's eyes as she had ever seen them, not warm, framed by laughter-lines, or bright and earnest. These eyes were feverish and sunken, blazing with passion, sorrow, genius, madness...she did not like to look at them. Yet she had. Held his gaze and told him yes. She would remain, for a short time. She had given him her soul, after all; it was yet to be determined whether she would take it back.

The house, now, that was quite another matter. Christine found she liked Erik's house, the warm glow of the fire and the gas made it feel cozy and inviting. It boasted only a single window, though it was of no benefit to her. It did not look out upon field or street or even the queer glow of the lake beyond the makeshift shoreline. When she rose on her toes to peer inside, all she saw was blackness. 

But that strange room aside, the rest of the house was comfortable and well-appointed, though the furniture was faded and old-fashioned. One evening, as they sat in silence before the merrily crackling fire, Christine found her fingernails tracing irregular rivets in the nearly-bald velveteen arm of the chair. 

"Do you have a cat?"

Erik looked up from the book he was feigning to read (it had been in his hands fifteen minutes and he had yet to turn a page). Despite the fact that she burned the mask, it seemed he had others; this one was white, a shade lighter than his eerie, pale skin, and had small curve at the mouth through which his thin bottom lip was visible. His lower jaw dropped just slightly, and she saw a flicker of his tongue as he - nervously? - wet his lips.

She did not see why the question should discomfit him. After all, it would be sensible, would it not, to have a mouser for the cellars? But he was a long time in answering.

"No," he replied, his mellifluous voice filling the air, reminding her of why she'd stayed in the first place. 

Despite it all, his voice, his music, was lovely and she thought sometimes that she would be content to live upon the sound, even doled out in small doses. 'No,' appeared to be all the answer he had for her and it was as good an answer as any - how much more conversation could she have expected had he responded in the affirmative? So she nodded and was about to return her attention to her own novel when he spoke again.

"My parents did." A pause, a twitch of the partially-exposed mouth. "It...was not fond of me."

Christine, at first, was not surprised. Erik had a forbidding presence that would raise the hairs on the back of any cat...but then, she supposed, he had not always been the man sitting quiet and still as a gravestone in the chair opposite her. The cat had been his parents, after all. He had only...only been a boy, once, hadn't he?

Her mind conjured up an image, a rail-thin, starved looking thing with a few strands of limp black hair clinging to his head, fingers long and thin like grasping weeds - a tiny mask? Or that corpse's head staring solemnly up with glowing yellow eyes.

She shuddered. At once Erik rose, long legs like a grasshopper's unfolding. "Another log for the fire? Are you chilled?"

In fact that room bordered on too warm. Christine shook her head, banishing the image of the frightening child as she did so. "No, in fact...I'm feeling restive. Could we take a walk? Out-outside, perhaps?"

Incredibly, the light in his eyes seemed to go out, the color turned from gold to brass (a trick of the firelight, it had to be) and Erik's narrow shoulders slumped under his jacket. "You wish to return home."

"No," Christine insisted, too quickly, but it was the truth. What was waiting for her at home, but a sickly old lady with a perpetual cough and a fanciful nature? When Papa was in his final illness, she scarcely left his side. Now she wanted nothing more than to be away from poor Mamma. 

Her insides twisted at the realization. Erik asked her for love...what if she'd forgotten how to give it.

Christine cleared her throat for it was oddly dry and her eyes oddly wet.

"No," she repeated, more firmly this time. "To the...Bois de Boulogne. Unless it's too late."

Erik glanced at the mantle clock, just as she did; the clocks in his home, she discovered, kept excellent time. Another to add to her catalogue of Erik's traits: He bled, as a man did bleed. He had once been a child with parents who owned a cat. He valued punctuality. 

"Not too late," he determined. "If we leave at once. You'll want your coat."

"No," Christine shook her head. A shawl would suffice. "I don't mind the cold."

Erik looked at her with an expression she could not read - were there laughter lines around his eyes? She could not recall seeing them upon his face, but she did remember the chilling sound of his laughter and rather hoped there were not. 

The carriage ride was silent; Erik paid the driver and spoke as cordially as any other man might. More cordially than some, even. And he held his hand out as she exited the carriage, a silent offer of assistance should she choose to take it. She did not.

Twilight was descending upon them as they walked through the garden. It was not full dark, but late enough that most people had gone home to hearth and supper. It seemed they were all alone in the world, a sensation more strangely isolating out in the open than it had been belowground. 

They walked to the river, not following any set course that Christine could discern; at times it seemed that she was determining their route. At other times, Erik was. She hoped they did not become lost, but quickly dismissed the thought as irrational. They were in the city, after all. Even though it was getting late and no one else seemed about, the rest of the world was close enough at hand if she just kept walking. Or started running.

Instead she stopped by a bench on the water's edge. Christine did not sit, but she rested one gloved hand against the wrought iron at the back and watched a family of ducks glide silently through the water; a breeze made the little curls of hair at the back of her neck sway and she tried hard not to shiver, wishing she'd heeded Erik's advice to wear her coat.

He bleeds. He had parents, once. He is punctual. He heeds the weather.

And he paid close attention to her. That she knew already. 

Erik brought his hands up to the neck of his greatcoat as if he wound unbutton it, then he paused and looked down at her, asking, "Would you like my coat?"

Christine's first instinct was to refuse. It was her own fault, after all, for assuming she'd be comfortable as she was. But she'd asked to go out, he had paid for their cab ride and it seemed silly to cut their visit short because she was being stubborn.

"Yes, please," she replied after a pause. "If you don't mind."

Erik did not reply, but removed his coat and held it open so she could shrug into the garment. It was a queer fit. Too broad in the shoulders, yet too tight around the middle to comfortably button it. The sleeves were far too long for her arms and the material pooled around her feet, but it was warm - warm, yes, despite the perpetual chill of his long, bony hands, Erik's body did impart warmth after all. 

The bench looked more inviting now that she was warmer and Christine sat down. Erik stood and she realized that he would not sit beside her without an invitation from her to do so. Her fingers worried the fine silk lining of his coat's sleeves. Should she...?

She did not.

Christine did speak, but not to invite Erik's company on the bench.

"Have you always lived in Paris?" she asked, looking out at the water. The ducks had gone. They were alone once again.

A shifting of fabric sounded above her. Christine lifted her head to look at him, but was too late to see whether or not he was nodding or shaking his head.

"When I was young, I traveled often," he said, and she had the impression that he was choosing his words carefully. "Germany, Italy, Russia...Persia. But I came to Paris, in the end."

He can bleed. He was a child. He is punctual. He heeds the weather. And he has traveled extensively. She had traveled extensively too, though not so far as he. And she too came to Paris, in the end.

"Were you born here?" she asked. The name 'Erik' implied that he was not, but Christine was quickly learning not to make assumptions about Erik. Assuming, in her brief experience, could be a dangerous business.

Yet again, he answered negatively. No, he had not been born in Paris. He had been born in France. His parents' home - where he had been born, the home with the cat that disliked him - was in Normandy. A town just outside Rouen. She'd probably not heard of it. 

"It must have been difficult," she remarked lightly, "moving everything."

Erik cocked his head down at her. In the gloomy twilight and further shadowed by his hat, it was easy to pretend the mask was not a mask, but his real face. A bland, curiously expressionless face. But even so. 

"Everything?" he asked.

"Your...furniture," she replied hesitantly, afraid she had misunderstood. "Your...parents' furniture. The armchair that...that the cat scratched."

"Ah."

Though he had not sat beside her, Erik's right hand rose to grip the back of the bench, very near Christine's shoulder. The knuckles of his hands pressed through the glove ruining the illusion that the hands beneath were anything like a man's hands. She shifted away, on instinct.

"I had thought there would be no need," Erik added. It was a tone she'd never heard before and she fancied that she knew every facet of his voice. A quiet, regretful tone, somber and soft. She leaned closer as he spoke. "That once I'd gone they could...but they never left. And there were...they did not...well. There was no one else to take charge of the house and its contents."

Once he'd gone. Such a strange thing to say! As though he'd predeceased his parents. Yet he was standing beside her. And their old furniture was aging still in the streets below. 

"They left it all to me," he concluded with wonder, another new quality added to his voice. "I thought they would do their best to forget, but...that was not so. There was a will, you see. And they left all their worldly goods to...to their son."

She wished he would stop gripping the bench so; not because she did not like to see the outline of his fingers through his gloves, but because his hold was so tight, she worried he would do himself an injury.

One more question, then she thought she ought to stop. That it would be cruel to continue.

"Why did they name you Erik?" she asked, looking up at him curiously. 

Erik's hand spasmed once on the bench, then he let go and straightened up, looking out at the water as she had done. His voice was as low and quiet as she had ever heard, more a suggestion of sound than a whisper when he answered, "They did not."

The wind picked up again, setting the leaves to rustling overhead. They ought to go. Darkness was descending ever faster and the chill in the air was more pronounced than ever...but the stars were starting to come out overhead. And Christine was struck with a desire to watch the moon rise.

"Would you like to sit?" she asked, indicating the empty place next to her on the bench. "I think there's a full moon tonight."

"There is," Erik nodded, hesitating only a little before he sat beside her, close, but not touching. His glowing eyes rose to look at the sky. "It's too early yet, but in Persia there is a celebration for the vernal equinox. A pleasant enough reason to mark the cycles of the sun and moon."

"Oh?" Christine asked. 

Erik nodded. "Nowruz. Would...would you like to hear about it?"

Would she? She'd like to see the moonrise and watch the stars glitter above and it would be a fine thing to do so with Erik's melodic voice accompanying her...but, yes. She would. She'd like to hear a story from him, not merely listen to pretty sounds. To speak together. Converse. As men and women did. 

"I warn you, it begins rather dully, for to prepare, one must clean the house," he said with a bit of good humor in his tone. His mouth, what she could see of it, seemed set in a half-smile of pleasant recollection. "And adorn the place with flowers."

She thought of the room he'd prepared for her. Spotlessly clean and full of such an explosion of blossoms that the smell made her light-headed and a bit sick. 

He can bleed if he is injured. He was a child with parents who had a bad-tempered cat and left him all their worldly possessions. He values punctuality. He takes care to dress for the weather. He has traveled all around the world. He likes flowers.

It wasn't much, these things she knew of him. But it wasn't wicked. Not at all.