Raoul stepped out of the boat and wandered onto the shore, groping his way slowly through the dark passageway. He could just barely see the familiar ominous statues take shape out of the darkness in front of him, looming eerily above the murky water. He shivered slightly, but pressed on nevertheless. The once neatly-pressed white dress shirt that he wore was now damp, but even that was nothing compared to his trousers, which were soaking wet up to the knees. His hair, ordinarily pulled back with a velvet ribbon, hung down limply at his shoulders.
It had occurred to him more than a few times during his journey that he would have been entirely justified to simply turn around and go home. He didn't have to struggle through this seemingly endless string of tunnels, terrified that something – or someone – could be waiting around every curve.
Of course not.
He was the Vicomté de Chagny, for heaven's sake! Why, he could be sitting in front of a warm fire right now, reading the paper and chatting with his wife.
Chatting. Because that was all they ever did. They never really spoke, not in the way that he thought a husband and wife ought to be able to speak. She was civil and perhaps even loving - but never with any kind of passion.
A passion that he knew she was more than capable of.
He loved Christine enough to die for her, and would be tempted to say that it was a love stronger than she could have ever had from any man.
But he knew in his heart that just wasn't true.
Suddenly, Raoul's thoughts were interrupted by a sound from above. Raising his head, he felt a rush of adrenaline and perhaps fear - but not surprise. He had long been anticipating interruption.
The room was instantly well lit, and a figure that he recognized well stood beside him. Raoul slid the rope off his neck, removing his fist from the knot. He smiled wryly.
"I should have expected you, Monsieur," Erik said softly. "Nevertheless, seeing you here unaccompanied is quite the surprise."
"For me as well."
"I see," Erik laughed quietly, mirthlessly. "I sincerely doubt you came to enjoy the scenery. Come in."
Erik led Raoul through an even more cryptic series of passages that the vicomte knew he had no hope of being able to recall well enough to navigate on the return trip. He would have to watch his words even more closely than he had originally intended - it wouldn't do to anger the only guide he had.
Finally, after what felt like ages, the two arrived in a candle filled room.
The decoration of the room was rather macabre, but not particularly cold. Red and black satin drapery hung from the walls, and black armchair resembling a throne and a red divan served as places to sit. These were unusual pieces, no doubt, but they were hardly the distinguishing characteristics of the subterranean chamber.
Lining the walls from the ceiling to the floor on every side were what could possibly have been hundreds and hundreds of portraits of Christine.
There were colorful portraits and black and white portraits. There were portraits life-sized - and larger. Despite the cheeky innocence of the Faust costume and the frippery of the Hannibal dress, there was a singular portrait that instantly captured Raoul's attention: Christine in the Don Juan Triumphant dress.
From the night that started everything . . .
"I pray that you'll forgive the décor of the room, Monsieur. The others were not quite . . . fit to receive company."
Erik's voice interrupted Raoul's thoughts. He could tell that the other man was choosing his words carefully.
As Raoul took a seat on the corner of the divan, an agonizing combonation of regret, pity, and fury rose within him. He took a deep breath. The air in the small room was thick with the scent of Persian inscence, such that it left him dizzy and almost unable to think clearly. It required concious effort to string resonable, calm sentences together.
"There's nothing wrong with loving someone."
The words slipped out before Raoul could stop them, and Erik's inquisitive look did not stop the rest of his thought from coming out in a flood.
"You had as much right to her as anyone, as far as I'm concerned, even more. No one could love her and protect her as much as you would have. I couldn't have, I'll admit that now," Raoul stared at the floor, speaking the words as though in a trance.
Erik's reply was harsh and callous.
"I gave you a responsibility that day, de Chagny. Do you presume to tell me that you're shirking it?"
"Not intentionally - never intentionally," Raoul sighed. "But you know as well as I do, there's simply no comparison between us. I'll never, in this lifetime, be able to fill in the gap that you left when she told you goodbye. You know as well as I do."
Raoul stared down at the ground, blinking quickly so that his eyes wouldn't tear up. This was hardly the time.
"You could have killed me that night, why didn't you?" he finally demanded, looking up for the first time since his confession. "It would have been better that way!"
Erik appeared to have calmed down. He must have been beginning to understand.
"Monsieur, you know that's not the case," the Phantom said calmly. "Neither of us could bear to live with Christine in the state she would have been then."
Raoul laughed coldly.
"It wouldn't be far from what I'm living with now."
A silence fell between the two of them. Raoul noticed that he couldn't even hear Erik breathing. It was eerie, in a way, but thinking about the mystery of that was a welcome break from his tumultuous thoughts regarding his wife. Just when he was finally beginning to wonder if the Phantom was still standing beside him, Erik spoke.
"I suspected such."
Raoul raised an eyebrow.
"You knew that she wouldn't be the same?"
"Of course I did. How could she be?" Erik said, looking away.
"I wish that there was something I . . . or we . . .could do . . . " Raoul's voice trailed off.
"When I came down earlier, I thought that you might not be here," Raoul said quietly.
"I made no effort to remain living, I promise you that," Erik replied with a mordant expression, indicating a few dozen empty packets of morphine that littered the ground.
"I suppose that's part of the reason you told her to go with me."
"I suppose. Literally insane and addicted to a deadly drug. What kind of awful husband would I make?" Erik demanded, his voice making a rapid crescendo.
"That's not what I meant," Raoul sighed, trying to sound conciliatory. And strangely enough, his desire to make peace wasn't even so much for the sake of his own safetey - he genuinely felt guilty about the fate of the Phantom of the Opera. The man who had become some sort of strange and unanticipated comerade-in-arms.
"I know," Erik sighed resignedly. "We all have tendencies to say things that we don't mean and regret it later."
"You regret telling her to come with me then?"
Raoul almost didn't want to hear the answer.
"Out of the thousands of things I regret in this life, Monsieur, that will never be one of them," Erik said sincerely. "She'll live a better life with you."
"But she loved you," Raoul said, closing his eyes.
"I'd like to believe that."
"I appreciate that," Erik said, getting to his feet.
"That, and, I wish you wouldn't hate me," Raoul said offhandedly.
"I don't hate you," Erik replied. "And I wish you both a blessed and wonderful life. You and Christine . . . "
He expressed Christine's name with a passion and longing that made Raoul's heart break. Tears welled up in his eyes yet again, this time spilling over.
"You're a better man than I could ever hope to be," the vicomte said, bowing his head. He extended his hand to Erik in an awkward expression of gratitude and trust.
"I entrusted her to you that day for a reason, Monsieur," Erik said softly. Raoul nodded.
"I want you to love her. Love her with all the love you have and more than you could ever imagine, every moment. Share together one love and one lifetime. Anywhere she goes, go also."
Erik gave Raoul a long look, before saying the last thing that he would ever say to anyone.
"That's all I ask of you."