Everyone's Fool

(A/N: This is Leroux-based, and takes place while Raoul is locked in the Communards' dungeon. This is set before he finds out about Philippe's death. Like everything else I write, it's R/C. Hey, come on…everything else is E/C. Uniformity is boring. So here I come, to shake things up! Vive le vicomte!)

How did I get here?

I could not remember right away. All I knew at first was that I was propped upright in a sitting position in some dark, cold room. As my eyes adjusted to the blackness, I could just make out a door. The only opening was a small, barred slit at eye level. I tried to stand, and felt the cold metal of chains binding my wrists and ankles to the wall behind me. The chains had enough slack so that I could sit or stand as I chose, but I could not move more than two feet from the wall.

Curiously, it reminded me of the time when my training ship, the Borda, was lost in the fog…it had been every bit as disorienting as being locked in this black dungeon. I shivered, realizing that my clothing was rather damp, and the dripping of water in combination with the stale air did not help.

Where am I?

Then I remembered---going after Christine, following the Persian into the torture chamber, the flood—

Oh, God. Where are they now? Is Christine safe? Did the Persian perish in the flooded chamber?

I had to be somewhere under the opera house, that much was certain. Why was Erik keeping me alive? I'd thought for certain I would be dead, one way or the other.

A horrible thought struck me. Did he intend to kill me slowly by starvation? Suddenly, I could not control my trembling.

More than that, however, I was worried for Christine. When she had turned the scorpion, she had consented to marry Erik. Would he punish her further, for my actions? I hated the idea of her married to Erik, who had used trickery to win her mind and heart. Could they be happy? Would Christine spend her life as his prisoner?

If it had only been my life on the line, I would have told Christine to let me die. One less aristocrat would hardly make a difference. But all those people in the audience...they did not know what Christine had done for them...and for Erik.

I still knew so little of this man, but I could not imagine what it was like to live with a face like a living skull. It was a terrible fate for an innocent child, as Erik must have been at some point. No one could help what they looked like, after all. But his actions…the murder of the stagehand, and his terrorizing of Christine…that was less easy to forgive.

The very thought of Christine alone with him filled me with a frantic rage, and I struggled wildly against my chains. Exhausted, I slumped back to the ground, resting my head on my knees.

Philippe thought I was a fool for wanting Christine to be my wife, and perhaps you who read this think so as well. But for me, it was a matter of course. How could I not fight for the woman that I loved, against society in general, or a romantic rival? If that made me a fool, then I would accept the title proudly.

I was a fool that was now condemned to death. Looking at the initials on the wall, I wondered who these people were, and why they had been imprisoned. Had they been guilty or innocent? Killed or released?

Taking a small stone from the floor, I set about adding my own initials to the others. I was just one more of them.

I hadn't known how powerful and how dangerous Erik was. I had underestimated his hold over Christine--and yes, that had been foolish. But looking back, there was no way I could have known what I was up against.

And yet, even if I had...I would probably still have tried.

The heroes in the stories I read as a boy never gave up--and I tried to live up to their example. Like D'Artagnan, or Sir Lancelot. The problem was, I was nothing like them in any other respect. I always managed to say exactly the wrong thing every time I opened my mouth, and heaven knew I never took the time to reason anything out. Perhaps that was the lesson in all those tales that I had missed. And now, it seemed, I would never have the chance to be the man I wanted to be. Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan always made it seem so easy.

What was that?

I heard something outside the door of my cell, like the rustle of cloth, and the sound of leather on damp stone. The door swung open slowly, creaking as it revealed light from a lantern, held aloft by a tall, dark figure--

Erik!

I shouldn't have been surprised. All the same, I leapt to my feet to confront him.

For his part, Erik seemed not to notice. He simply hung the lantern up, giving us enough light to see by.

"What do you want?" I asked, my voice choked tight with fear. I had no desire to die, of course--but if it came to a choice between a quick death or slow starvation, I would choose the quick death.

Erik turned to face me, and I saw immediately that he was unmasked. In this dimly lit prison, Erik's face was more terrifying than ever. I bit back a cry of horror, and stood facing him.

"W-what do you want?" I repeated.

He stepped closer, until I had to back against the dank wall. Chills ran down my spine, and not just from the contact. Erik's yellow eyes boring into mine, such a short distance away, made an unnerving sight.

"I want to live like everyone else," Erik hissed at last. "I want a kind, loving- wife--but it is not to be."

"I don't understand," I said slowly. "You've won. Christine consented to be your bride, didn't she?"

"Oh yes, she did," Erik replied. "And I believed her. She is a good, honorable girl...her fate is decided. Yours, however, remains to be seen. As of now, you are a hostage...insurance, as it were, in case Christine decides to leave after all, or the daroga--whom you know as the Persian--decides to make a nuisance of himself."

I looked up sharply. "He's alive?"

"He is," Erik answered with a brisk nod. "I had him taken home. Now, returning to your fate..."

I didn't know that anyone could move so fast. One minute I was standing there, and the next, Erik had seized me roughly by the collar and pinned me against the wall.

"Listen well, boy, for your life depends on how you answer my questions. If I were to release you, would you marry Christine right away?"

I blinked, and some of the stars cleared from my vision. "I would, if she were still willing."

"You believe she might not be?"

"I don't know," I said honestly, trying to shift in my highly uncomfortable position, and finding it impossible. "She...she does love you. Do you think I didn't know? But...I believe that she loves me, also."

"It is wretched," Erik commented. "Like an opera, when you ponder it." He glared at me once more.

"And would you always treat her with utmost respect and love?"

"Yes," I replied. "Of course. I vowed long ago that I would only marry the woman I love--"

"Spare me the poetic ramblings of a young aristocrat in love," Erik said scornfully. "Your answer of 'yes' suffices. Would you hold her responsible for my actions?"

"No," I said evenly, trying to maintain a normal tone of voice while keeping my head held high. "Would you hold her responsible for mine?"

Erik's long fingers tightened on my torn collar. "I would not, you insolent little whelp! Remember who is conducting the interview, boy."

I shut my mouth in a firm line. I might well be reckless, but I wasn't stupid.

His grip loosened, and I was finally able to breathe properly.

"Why did you come?" he asked, his voice full of despair. "I didn't want you! Christine loves you—you should have heard her plead for your life--that would have convinced you that she wishes to marry you! She would be grieved if I harmed you, but you gave me no choice! You pursued her!"

"I believed that she was in danger, and I was right!" I exclaimed, before I could stop myself. "Maybe I couldn't save her, but I had to try!"

"From me? I love her, I cannot do her harm," Erik replied.

"You've done harm to others," I snapped. "Joseph Buquet, that poor woman who died when the chandelier fell—and God knows who else! Christine was frightened of you. Yes, she loves you, but she feared you also!"

"I don't want to be feared. I didn't ask for this face!"

Erik released me, and I dropped to the ground on my knees, breathing hard.

I looked up at him. "If you want to kill me, you may do so. I don't have much choice in the matter. I'd like to die with some semblance of dignity, since I didn't live with much of it."

Erik laughed. It was a terrible sound. "Do you wish to die?"

I swallowed, choking back my fear. "No, but to be honest, I never expected to leave here alive. If I might have a last request?"

"That depends on what it is."

"Release Christine," I replied quietly. "Let her live out in the sun. She'll die if she has to live in fear and doubt. If you make her live in darkness and fear, you will destroy everything that she is—and everything you love about her."

Good God, was this me talking? Raoul, the silly boy who'd gone diving into freezing water after a girl's scarf? The child who had made up his mind at the age of fourteen on who he would marry? Who had brazenly pursued her through danger and despair? If only I could know, one last time, that she was safe.

I brought my hands to my face, then lowered them back to my lap. If I had to die, I would die like a nobleman—like a Chagny. At least I would have done that much right. My eyes were closed, my fists clenched as I knelt there, waiting.

I felt a motion at my wrists and ankles, opened my eyes in shock. The chains fell away as Erik stepped back from me, holding the key in his bony hand. I stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment, and then began massaging my bruised wrists and ankles.

"Can you stand?" he asked. I nodded.

Bracing my hand against the wall, I stood up without assistance. "I don't understand."

"You will," he replied quietly. "Follow me."

"Where are we going?" I asked, still very much afraid.

"You shall see."

=====================================

I tripped twice in the dark maze, even with the aid of Erik's lamp. The second time, I almost knocked it out of his hand.

He seized me roughly by the upper arm and dragged me to my feet, hissing that if I did not contain my clumsiness and remain upright, then he would forget Christine's love for me. I tried to be much more careful after that. Stumbling a good deal, I at least managed to keep from annoying Erik any more.

After what seemed like hours, we came to Erik's house. He led me inside, to a room beautifully decorated in the Louis-Philippe style. Standing there, waiting, was...

"Christine," I murmured, half sighing with relief, finally knowing that she was safe. After everything that had happened, there she was. Her expression, serene when I entered, changed to one of astonishment when she saw me. It occurred to me then that I must have looked a fright. For her part, Christine was the picture of relief when she saw me.

"Here is your young man, Christine," Erik said. "As I promised, he is unhurt...not by my doing, anyway," he added, casting a sideways glance at the various bumps and bruises I had acquired during the night.

She ran to me, and I caught her in my arms, kissing her lightly on the mouth. Seeing her, feeling her warmth pressed against me was all the reassurance I needed. Christine was alive.

"I'm sorry," I whispered into her hair. "Forgive me, Christine. I'm sorry."

Christine did not reply, merely held me tighter. "I'm so glad you're safe."

We held each other like that for several minutes, until I looked up and saw Erik once more. Tears were coursing from his golden eyes, and I knew that had our situations been reversed, I would have felt as he did. It was strange to find myself sympathizing with the man who had been my rival. I couldn't pretend that I liked the feeling. Remembering the hours I had spent in the torture chamber, about to blow my own head off…trying to imagine who would be cruel or sadistic enough to build such a thing. Now I was not so sure it was mere cruelty, or simply a detachment from humanity. Perhaps it had been a bit of both.

But Christine was safe, and in my arms again. That was all I needed to know. Erik had wronged her far more than he had me. And Christine did not hate him.

I had. I am not a hero, nor even close…but that hate was slowly ebbing away into other emotions—pity, fear, horror, and sadness. He was like an enchanted prince in the fairy tales Christine and I had read as children. She had lived on those tales after her father's death—was it really any wonder that she had loved Erik?

Hate is not an emotion that I am accustomed to, nor one that I admire. I finally understood why Christine had loved him, and the pity and horror she felt as well. I loved Christine, and would do anything for her…even the impossible.

Like forgiving Erik. I couldn't do it now, not while my emotions were still raw. But I could acknowledge his sacrifice. That, at least, would be a step in the right direction.

Stepping back, I released Christine, though she still held my hand. I kissed her hand lightly, and released it, walking toward Erik.

"Thank you," I said gravely, inclining my head. "I know you love her. I didn't understand before, but I believe I do now."

"Promise me that you will both be happy," Erik whispered. "That you, Christine, will not grieve for your unhappy Erik. Live, for me. The young man will take care of you--I know he will, and he'll love you dearly."

I glanced at Christine, whose eyes were moist. Mine were not entirely dry, either.

"I promise," I said solemnly.

"I promise," Christine echoed.

"Good. I shall hold you both to your word. Now Christine, you know what to do. When you receive word, come and bury me."

"I will," Christine replied.

"Then go to the boat. Goodbye, my child."

"Goodbye, Erik," Christine said, and kissed him on his bare forehead. Her tears had stopped, and she returned to my side.

We boarded Erik's boat, and thus began the journey back to the surface. It seemed like years since I had first come down to this place in search of the woman I loved. Who knew? Perhaps it had been. Erik's underground palace seemed like a world all its own. I wouldn't have been surprised to find that time moved differently there.

======================================

Reaching the shore of the lake at last, I stepped out of the boat, and tied it carefully. Extending my hand, I helped Christine out as well. For a moment, both of us stood on the shore, water lapping at our feet, and looked out over the glittering surface of the lake.

"I'm sorry," Christine whispered. Her eyes were dry, but she sounded unbearably sad. I wrapped my arms around her, and she relaxed into my embrace. "I never meant for this to happen."

"None of it was your fault," I replied firmly.

"But if you had been hurt or killed, or that other man—the Persian—"

"We weren't," I said quietly. "Don't think of it, Christine. No one blames you."

"Raoul…"

Her eyes were wide, and fixed on me. I leaned down, touching my forehead to hers.

"I love you," I whispered. "It's unconditional. Always remember that. If you're still willing to marry me, then I shall do my best to remind you."

Christine smiled, and it was an infinitely beautiful sight.

"Of course I am," she replied, leaning in to kiss me. I obliged, and for a moment, I was able to forget all else.

I would give her all the reassurance that my love could provide. Perhaps, in time, we could both learn to live in the light. Taking her hand in mind, we made our way through the cellars, and into the dawn of a new day. The first, I hoped of many happy days to follow.

Meet me after dark again and I'll hold you
I want nothing more than to see you there
And maybe tonight, we'll fly so far away
We'll be lost before the dawn

----Evanescence, "Before the Dawn"