Two little girls went out to play. Two little girls, exactly alike in every way—except one was alive and one was dead.
Who was Hubert? An imaginary friend… But had dear Eleni truly thought this Hubert was real?
Or perhaps he was real… Fabricated by the very real anomaly in her brain. A hallucination? A dream? He must have certainly been as real to Eleni as the little dripping child Christine had seen in her bedroom but a few late nights ago had been to her. As real as the cold, hard, blood-soaked shape that she pulled from the icy waters of her bathtub.
Had the departed Éléonore Pinson perhaps been mad to hold conversations with this figment of her imagination as her sister suggested? Had she been any more mad to believe in this Hubert than Christine was to openly speak to the apparition that left wet a trail of footprints upon her carpet?
Who was he? A memory? A delusion? A ghost?
But Christine didn't believe in ghosts. She didn't. Ghosts weren't real.
But what was real?
Little Eleni was dead. She died from a tumor in the brain. Erik said such a tumor could cause hallucinations...and a stroke. And so she died a sudden death, and somehow washed down into Erik's lake. He often found the strangest of things washed into his lake. She had been near the river. Had someone dropped her in? Had she fallen in? A sudden flash of death and then a washing away in a stream that made no sound. She had been hiding. Hiding in a game with her dear, little sister. Perhaps she had hidden where she shouldn't. For she hadn't been well. Her mother said so. Headaches, dizziness, spells of faintness. If only the poor, grieving woman had known why. But to tell her why, Christine would have to tell her what she'd had done to that dear, little daughter of hers. What she'd begged to have done because she couldn't rest until she knew why…
Christine pressed her eyelids tightly against two tears that threatened to freeze there in the harsh winter wind that whipped down the avenue and clawed at her numb cheeks as she made her way carefully through the still-soft drifts of snow. Erik had only ever done as she had asked… And now he was waiting for her, down there, among all that death. She knew now she had wasted too much time satisfying her own mad needs, and she would not make him wait any longer, not even until the roads were cleared after the storm, before she set out to purchase her flowers. She didn't want to see that look of fear in his eyes again. He was worried and he was waiting and he had promised never to leave her again, but she had gone anyway. He would have come, she knew, if she had asked. He would have done anything she asked. So patiently. And she would not make him wait any longer.
The sky was absolutely clear now, and as blue as dark ice perhaps an hour before sunset, but she could still see each puff of her own breath before it blew away in the wind as she stopped to read the headline of a newspaper displayed in the window of a tobacconist not too far from the Opera. She hesitated momentarily and then stepped inside to purchase a copy. Raoul had taken his clippings with him, and Christine wanted a one to keep. She folded open the pages as the man behind the counter made change for her coin until she found again the small black and white Pinson family portrait. Now since she had seen it in color, she knew which girl was which, and the fingertips of her glove brushed each of their faces while her sigh was loud enough to catch the attention of the shopkeeper.
"It's a sad story, isn't it, miss?"
Christine glanced up at him and nodded silently.
"I've been following it. It's a sad, sad thing when a creature will accost a child that young and do God knows what with her. But you see there, they say they know she's dead now. It's a mercy, I suspect."
Christine shook her head and folded the newspaper. "There is no mercy in it."
The man sighed and nodded to a couple people who entered the shop before he answered her. "I supposed there isn't. It's a sad, sad thing. But I've heard from some people who've come past from the police station just down the street that they know who's done it now. They'll make it right, miss, they'll make it right."
Christine looked up at him quickly. "They know?"
"Oh yes. New developments have arisen. New tips, new leads. Our surete are a smart force. When someone like the Marquis de Pinson is wronged, they get to the bottom of it and won't stop until they find that girl, dead or alive, and give her back to her family."
"But," Christine stammered and glanced over her shoulder as someone left the shop and someone else entered. "But how do you know what they know is right? How do they know?"
He shrugged and turned to help another customer as he replied. "I suppose we'll have to wait for tomorrow's paper to find the answer to that, miss."
She shook her head and took a step back from the counter, but the man did not seem to notice as he moved to find cigarettes for his customer.
She could hear him speak, "Here you go, constable, the usual." But she was already on her way out the door. She had to pause, though, on the step as she nearly opened the windowed door directly into a woman who was about to enter.
"Excuse me," Christine murmured, and she stepped aside to allow her to pass before continuing through. She had not quite managed to leave the shop completely, however, before the soft tones of the woman's voice caught her attention.
"Christine Daaé? Is that you?"
Christine froze and then turned slowly to look into the started face of Jacqueline Galerne.
"I… I'm sorry," Christine barely managed to say. "I didn't recognize you at first. I…"
Jacqueline stared at her in silence for a moment and then glanced over her shoulder into the shop before looking back to Christine, finally, with a sort of smile. "We all have our faces tucked away from the cold. And this wind. If you had not spoken, I would have not recognized you either. But… What a surprise to see you here and now. Why, I have just come from—" She stopped speaking then, cutting herself off deliberately and simply smiled once more almost nervously before glancing into the shop again.
The constable who had been purchasing cigarettes stepped past her and gave a touch of his cap to the ladies before passing through the door. He stopped once outside and nodded back to Jacqueline once. She returned the gesture, but her eyes flickered to Christine, and then she covered her mouth and suppressed a small, nervous sneeze.
Christine's own eyes followed the constable for a few silent moments as he made his way down the street and then she looked back to Jacqueline. "I… Yes… It is cold. It was nice to see you again. I will see you at rehearsal? I must go. Goodbye."
Jacqueline gasped, and took a step after her. "Wait!"
But Christine had already begun to make her own way quickly down the street in the opposite direction. There was a humming in her ears that she thought must be the trembling of her heart, but she could not imagine why. Her hands ached, and she looked down at them to realize she was gripping her newspaper far too tightly. She tucked it under her arm and turned the corner at the end of the street down an alleyway.
"Flowers," she whispered to herself. "Flowers."
The sharp sounds of a child's laughter echoed in the alley behind her. She stopped, whirling about to find its source.
There was no one there. No one at all. Christine was utterly alone.
"Flowers!" she gasped again, and turning once more, she began to run.
By the time the little bell tinkled her arrival to the same flower shop on the boulevard she had entered that morning, her cheeks were red, and she was most out of breath.
"Madame?" The young woman behind the counter looked up with surprise from the roses she was dethorning.
Christine shook her head and pressed a hand to her chest, forcing her breath to slow before she spoke. "Lilies. White ones."
The girl put down her clippers and brushed off her hands, then she smoothed her apron and nodded. "Of course, madame. Are they for delivery?"
"No." Christine took a few slow steps away from the closed door into the warmth of the shop, noticing that she was the only customer. "I'll take them now."
The young woman nodded again and moved to a glass cupboard. "How many lilies? With fern, of course?"
"Yes. Six. No… Twelve. Yes, please. A dozen. She deserves a dozen."
"Of course, madame." She glanced at Christine warily. "If you would like to…have a seat? I will arrange them while you wait."
Christine only nodded and sank into a chair by the slowly darkening window. Her head pounded with a pain so audible it almost drowned out the soft rustling sounds of the preparation of the bouquet.
She lifted her eyes in response to glance over at the girl as she was tying the ribbons around the paper.
"Are you quite all right? You have grown paler by the moment since you walked in the door."
Christine was about to nod, but she felt as if moving her head would be a grave mistake. "Yes, thank you," she whispered.
"It's this weather." She cut another piece of tape. "Snowing one minute like it's the apocalypse and then frozen the next without a cloud in the sky but wind enough to drive a fleet. It'll take the breath out of anyone, I'd say."
"Yes," was all Christine managed again.
"And I really don't think I've seen the air this clear in I don't know how long." She turned the finished bouquet over on the counter and adjusted some of the arrangements of the leaves. "The stars will be out tonight, that's for certain, and the moon."
Christine did not attempt to respond this time and only thought to herself that she would see neither stars nor moon from Erik's catacombs, no matter how calm the night or how clear the air.
"Here you are, madame," said the girl who could not have been more than three years younger than Christine herself. "Your white lilies."
Christine tore her eyes from the sky beyond the window and pushed herself up from her chair as carefully as she could manage before approaching the counter. "Thank you," she began as she withdrew the money to pay for them, but then she stopped short as she saw that the flowers were wrapped in black tissue.
The shop girl followed her gaze. "For a funeral, aren't they?" Then she looked back to Christine and quickly put a hand to her mouth. "Oh, madame, I'm sorry! You didn't say that at all, did you? I don't know why I thought—"
Christine shook her head and picked up the bouquet. "No… I didn't. But you were right." She turned her gaze and met the girl's eyes, bewildered.
The young woman shook her head and forced a smile. "You are certain?"
"Yes…" Christine nodded very slowly, and then she seemed to rotate where she stood, turning back to the door. "Yes, I think it is about time for a funeral."
There was the soft tinkling sound of the bell then, and a policeman entered the shop. Christine did not look at him as she passed, cradling her lilies, but he looked at her.
The boulevard had become crowded with the shoppers who had been delayed by the storm and were now attempting to finish their business before it grew completely dark. She had taken only a few steps down the snowy sidewalk before she realized that the policeman was following her. And he was not alone. Her breath quickened with her pace, but their footsteps only became all the more audible behind her. Who were they? What did they know? Nothing. Nothing… Erik had only done as she had asked…
She glanced over her shoulder once and then stopped walking. Exhaling very slowly, she turned around to face the three men who approached her. A police carriage was parked a few shops away.
"Christine Daaé?" one of them spoke.
She nodded once and then found herself suddenly very aware of the scent of the lilies beneath her nose. How did he know her name? There was nothing he could know… Little Eleni was dead. Erik had sewn her back up like a rag doll, and she only needed her flowers! All Christine wanted to do was bring her the flowers she deserved!
The policeman glanced at his partners and then looked at her squarely, as he stopped just before her. "You are under arrest."
"No!" she gasped, her eyes widening as she took a step back. "I didn't kill her!"
The policeman signaled to the other two to surround her before she could move any further away.
Her eyes darted around the street, but there were two many people milling through the dusk, and the streetlamps had not yet been lit. She could recognize no one.
Her gaze snapped back the police carriage as its side door opened, and her eyes finally came to rest on a face she knew. Jacqueline Galerne wore the same soft and almost too charming smile that had set Christine a wonder only yesterday. Christine choked, her hand flew to her mouth, and the tiny silver heart at her wrist found its way out of her glove to burn its warmth into the flesh of her cheek.
"Come with us," a gruff voice spoke from behind her.
She looked back and took a step to the left, but the third man was there. Her gaze dropped to her flowers, then snapped back to Jacqueline, then flitted briefly to each of the policemen, and then finally was drawn to a hearse that was being driven down the street on her right.
"No!" she screamed, and swinging her bouquet around like a weapon, flowers scattered into the three men's faces, and she ran out into the street directly into the path of the black horses.
She passed them so closely, their hot breaths moistened her cheeks and their startled whinnies drew the attention of everyone on her side of the street. Hands reached out to support her and voices begged to know if she was all right after such a close brush with death, but she pushed them aside, unseeing, and took off through the crowd to run down a side street. Her black boots slipped with every step on the icy cobblestones, but her speed only increased. She rounded corners blindly, and the only thing she found herself aware of was that she seemed to be running downhill.
Voices, shouts from behind. They were after her. They would catch her! She couldn't let them! She couldn't go with them! Erik was waiting for her. Erik who had always done only as she asked. She knew it was her own fault. Her head was screaming in pain, and the white world around her grew much whiter. With each panting breath, her heartbeat seemed to double its tempo until it reached a maddening whir that would not cease.
Hide. She would have to hide. If she hid well, they would not be able to find her! Where was she? There was a bridge. And a walkway. The river! So soon! She could hide here! This was where Eleni had hidden. This was where they would not find her.
Christine flew down the walkway like a wild bird. There was a bench, and there, a railing and some stairs. If they couldn't see her now, if they weren't watching, they wouldn't know where to look. She glanced back. She saw nothing and everything. She took her chance, and she descended.
The wind was all the stronger here and all at once, it tugged the very furs she wore from around her shoulders, and they disappeared into the dark. But it was a good hiding place! Helene would never find her here. She would win the game! If only she could quiet her breathing. The current of the river rushed past beneath her, but her breathing might still give her away. It was dark now, and the stars were out, but if she could not be quiet, she would be found. She had to hold on to the railing to make certain she did not fall, but she used her other hand to cover her mouth tightly.
Gasping against her glove, her head rolled back. Beyond the wildly flying strands of her hair, the stars quickly began to blur. Each one of them grew larger like the approach of far-away fireflies, inflating like a million sunrises, until they merged into each other. Distantly, Christine thought that they would stop, that they would come back into focus, but they did not, and quite soon, the entire sky was ablaze with one magnificent golden light that consumed her completely and then faded to black.
Her fingers slid from where they clung to the railing, and the water made no sound as she slipped through it. It wasn't even cold. Her hand floated away from her mouth and she blinked her eyes but once to look up at the moon, shimmering above her as if it were only a reflection of itself.
There had come a time when Erik would allow Christine to go back to the world of the living as she pleased, knowing that she would return to him. It was good for her to get out of doors and be reminded of why she needed him. And so he waited for her. He would wait hours, he would wait days. In truth, he often did not know the difference as time slipped by meaninglessly without her.
But tonight, as the hours grew later, they dragged against each other and he was already more than concerned. The warm air of his home irritated him and so he took to pacing along the bank of his lake, down to one end and then back to the other. The further he walked, the longer he would take to return. Stone and black moss. When she returned, he would take her back to that tomb once more, and then never again. Things would return to normalcy between them then. The new opera would open next week and she would triumph over Paris again. Her soul would return to him. There would be no thoughts of death to distract her from her singing. No thoughts of death that made her probe his face and dream about his hands.
And yet, all he could think of was that morning when her back had pressed against him while the potent stench of death filled the air. He forced his mind back to the scenery that surrounded him. Blue and black and grey. He would walk all the more slowly. There was not even enough force of air in his stride to billow the black folds of his hooded cloak.
And it was not until Erik had begun to retrace his steps again back in the direction of the false dock where his boat waited that he was startled to a stop by the sight of something marring the seamless edge of the water. Something white… Something pink and white.
He stared at it in irritation for no more than a moment before common sense and a sudden surge of fear bade him move closer. He reached it in less than a heartbeat and fell upon his knees where the water met the ledge. It was Christine! His Christine! Half submerged and bobbing gently against the stone.
A cry of anguish exploded from his masked lips and he tore her from the water, pulling her into his lap. So cold! And her lips had already taken on the shade of blue. Tiny ice crystals clung to her golden lashes and her face was frozen in perfect peacefulness, though Erik knew she could not have been floating there for long. He had just been here an hour ago!
"Please!" he moaned. Tears coursed down his mask even as her icy wetness soaked through his own clothing where he clutched her body against his chest and rocked back and forth on his knees amidst sobs that could not be controlled.
But she was dead. Quite dead. And as one built up of death, he knew this.
He pulled back just a little then so he could look at her face. She had been so full of life. And it seemed all at once to him that he knew she had not drowned.
He brushed back her wet hair from where it clung to the sides of her head and then placed one of his long, white hands across her smooth brow until his tears began to cover that too.
"It doesn't matter," he whispered. "I do not want you any less."
And then he slipped his arm beneath her legs and stood, lifting her into the air, and he cradled her against his black-robed chest.
Quietly, he carried her along the bank of the silent lake back to where she belonged.
Erik could not see the pale figures of two golden-haired, blue-eyed songbirds in pink dresses clasp hands behind him in the darkness of the catacombs. Such visions were not meant for him to see.
But they saw him. And they watched him until he was gone.