Erik's got the flu and only the purest of fluff will cure him
Christine is unnerved the moment she opens her eyes.
She is used to waking alone. This morning, however, Erik is fast asleep beside her, and his mouth is agape. He does not stir when she sits up and stretches in bed, nor when she pads around the room to slip into peignoir and slippers. His gaunt arm dangles off the edge of the mattress, and at one point she presses two fingertips to the inside of his wrist to check for a pulse.
One is present, of course. It is with equal parts guilt and relief that she slips out to assemble breakfast: traditionally his self-appointed role, but she is not inclined to wake him.
When he finally appears, he is fully dressed and seems—by all accounts—his usual self. His movements, however, are almost imperceptibly sluggish and unfocused, as though he is surrounded by a thick fog. He clears his throat. “My apologies,” he says, and he avoids her gaze. “I suppose I did not sleep as soundly last night as I would have preferred.” His voice of spun silk seems to catch on every breath.
“Are you feeling all right?” she asks.
“Quite. I am afraid, however, that I have somehow misplaced my shoes.”
Christine blinks. “Those shoes?” She points to the gleaming black leather strapped to his feet, and she is certain that he is flushing beneath his black mask.
He manages a feeble smile. “Ah. Yes. Well spotted, my dear.”
Erik is quiet during breakfast. Afterward, at her insistence, he retires to the sitting-room while she cleans up from the meal.
She finds him behind a newspaper in his favorite armchair, his reedy legs tucked in such that his kneecaps rise like dark stalagmites beneath the cover of black trousers. His head lolls against the chair back, for he is once again asleep. She slips off his mask and presses the back of her hand to his brow; it is hot, and coated in a sheen of perspiration.
He wakes up when she removes the paper from his hands, but even as he opens his mouth to fabricate an excuse, she is shaking her head. “To bed with you, monsieur,” she commands. “You are clearly unwell.”
“Nonsense.” A skeletal hand waves her words away, and Erik springs to his feet as evidence of his claim. “The Opera ghost does not fall ill.”
“The Opera ghost is not a literal spectre. You are a creature of flesh and blood, subject to the same ailments as the rest of us.” She presses a hand to his chest, where white shirt is not eclipsed by dark waistcoat and his heartbeat skitters beneath her palm. She can tell from the dampness of the fabric that his skin is clammy.
“Be that as it may, my dear, I am not sick.” He gently plucks her hand from his torso and returns it to her side.
“Then kiss me.”
A pause. “Pardon?” he asks, but she does not miss the panic that flits across his amber eyes.
“If you are in perfect health, as you say, then you will not object to kissing me.”
He falters, his mouth opening and closing several times, before he turns to exit the room. “Too much to do this morning,” he mutters over his shoulder. “Mustn’t waste any more time.”
But Christine is fast. In an instant, she has grabbed his wrist and spun him back to face her so that she can catch his misshapen face between her palms and crush her mouth to his.
He emits a sound of protest, clutches at her hands with his own, but she does not relent. Her lips sweep against his in a slow surge of pressure. He does not reciprocate at first, but as she begins to withdraw, he catches the edge of her bottom lip in a small and intimate pull.
Erik’s face darkens once they separate. “Christine!” he hisses. “Are you mad?”
“Aha! So you admit it, then.”
A growl of frustration rumbles low in his throat. “Do not pretend that you were not already convinced of my guilt. What a foolish way to prove a point!”
She bites back a grin at his indignation. “Oh, come now; there is no doubt that I have already been exposed by this point. Now, if you do not get back in bed this very second, I shall be forced into further recklessness.”
Against his protests, she urges him into the silk pyjamas that she special-ordered as a Christmas present, and then she tucks him into bed. There, she presses cold cloths to his brow to bring down the fever. She adds blankets later, when his body is racked with chills.
Over the next two days, Christine furnishes a steady supply of clean handkerchiefs. She rubs her husband’s forearms and calves when they ache, and she draws him hot baths once his fever subsides. She makes him sleep when he is able and drink hot tea when he is not. He hates being confined to the bed, and he tells her as much, but her stern insistence keeps him in place.
When Erik’s restlessness sets in, she pulls a chair to the bedside and reads to him, or she hums the Swedish folk songs that comforted her as a child. Once he is finally lulled to sleep, she lies next to him to watch as his jaw slackens and the world-weariness seems to evaporate from his hollowed cheekbones.
Finally, he emerges from the fog. He wakes to find himself lucid but alone, and he dresses to join his beloved, wherever she may be.
He finds her asleep on the loveseat, a wool blanket drawn around her like a shroud. Even under the blanket, she is shivering. Errant strands of hair are plastered to her glistening face, and her breathing is labored. “Oh, Christine,” he murmurs, and he bends down to tuck the flyaways behind her ears. He presses his lips to her forehead, where they linger for several seconds.
Erik straightens. He is far from recovered, but he musters all of the strength that he can in order to lift her, blanket and all. With his fallen angel cradled against his chest, he carries her off to bed.