A/N – I really don't know what to say. This is it; and, well, you'll see.
Many thanks to all who've reviewed:
EriksAngel2; Doomed Delight; Olethros; ashanti01; Maat; Mademoiselle Moi; gerfan; witchcat; Lavendar; Opera Cloak; lollie; Merinna; Nameless Quill; ITALIAN BELLA; Georgie, Sweet Georgia; aries-chica56; Macbeth's Lady; Christine Persephone; Starchild; aeipathy; Mary Jo Miller; YiyangYoung; TheOneAndOnlySkippy; DolphinAnimagus; EmailyGirl; Thornwitch; IChooseTheScorpion; Emanuelle; Cynical Romantic Lass; Erin-21; Saraqueenofallthings; Rayne; DreamsofBeauty; chicketieboo; Eilianu; Maya:D; Chat-tastic; geckogirl; Shiro; Prey; Little Sultana; Marianne Brandon; CrystalSaffron; sbkar; Cestruma; Pleading Eyes; Bumble0Bee; The Real Christine Daaé; peppermintoreo; jade;
and everyone who's offered help along the way. Love you all! Apologies to those who wanted a different ending; hope this will suffice. :)
Meg felt the world swim before her eyes as Erik and Christine's eyes met. Nothing had changed: the connection between them was still tangible. And when she stepped forward in a rush to embrace him, it felt right; and even as Meg took a step backwards to avoid the enormity of the realisation, she saw Erik tremble and push his former pupil away from him.
Christine, hurt and surprised, spoke his name; but he interrupted her, his eyes fixed firmly on a spot on the wall some three inches above her head.
"You have not yet heard our news, my dear," he said in the determinedly cheerful voice of one resolved to forestall painful speech from her. He reached for Meg, taking her hand and tucking it between both of his own as if as a talisman. "Meg and I are to be married later this spring."
Christine took a step back as though she had received a physical blow. She looked suddenly very much like a lost kitten; and even as she forced a smile and reached for Meg's hand, offering effusive congratulations, the expression at the back of her eyes that looked like betrayal was too much for Meg to bear as she felt Erik stand stiff and unmoving beside her.
Extracting her hand from Erik's, she excused herself.
"Erik, don't keep Christine standing out here in the hallway; show her into the drawing room. I will make some tea."
She hurried away, and, as she leaned her hot forehead against the cold surface of the kitchen wall, heard the drawing room door close softly behind Erik and Christine.
Inside the drawing room, Christine pushed a trembling hand through her hair, unaware of the momentary anguished longing in Erik's eyes as the dark curls tousled in the sunlight.
"I don't understand," she said at last, turning to look at him. "What is this?"
Erik's voice was empty. "This is exactly what it seems. I have asked Meg to marry me; she has accepted. The service will be in a little over six weeks' time."
Christine sat down slowly, folding her hands in her lap like a little girl at prayer. When she finally looked up to speak, she seemed to have grown even smaller: a lost kitten with tousled fur faced with an enormity too great to comprehend.
"Why?" In spite of himself, Erik felt anger stirring somewhere beneath the sickness in his heart. "You ask me why?"
Christine shrank back.
"Why I should want to marry Meg? Or is the question less specific – why should I try to build a life for myself outside you?" His anger was now genuine. "Ought I to have waited the rest of my life alone on the off-chance that you might change your mind?" He was aware that he was shouting, and did not try to stem the anger which offered some temporary shield against his noticing quite how beautiful she looked with the sun on her hair and tears in her eyes.
She had risen from her seat and stepped towards him as he spoke, hurt and disbelief showing in her face.
"How can you speak this way? When I have come to tell you that I –"
"No." Erik's voice changed abruptly: no vestige of the unique sweetness that so enthralled Christine remained in this skeleton tone, cold and dangerous. "I warn you. Do not say it." He drew a deep breath, trying to ignore the tears which had begun to slip silently down Christine's cheeks. "I am promised to another woman." His voice grew ragged. "Do not ask this of me.
Christine was silent for a long time.
"Do you love her?" she asked at last, in a very small voice.
"Yes." His voice faltered, and he lifted his chin and repeated determinedly, "Yes." He sighed, and spread his hands in an expansive gesture of defeat. "What is there about her not to love?"
Christine nodded. "What indeed." She had stopped crying, and her face was now very white: pure porcelain made all the paler by the shock of her dark hair. She stood unsteadily, and moved towards the door. "Please accept my congratulations," she said mechanically, fumbling for the door knob. "I do hope that you will be very happy. Please give Meg my love and apologise that I am not able to stay for tea …" Her voice broke and she fled, and Erik could hear her shoes clattering on the stone staircase as she rushed down the stairs.
Meg came in, so immediately that he knew she must have been listening at the door, and Erik knew a moment of utter despair. Just five minutes to recover himself; to put the image of Christine in tears caused by his own brutality from his mind and replace it with the reminder of what he owed to Meg; five minutes, and all would have been well. But he did not know how to face her now, when the only sound in his head was a single scream of anguish and his only desire to curl up somewhere in the darkness and hide his grief from the world.
But Meg did not give him time to respond to her presence: she rushed forward, seizing him by the lapels of his jacket, and shook him roughly, a tempestuous tabby cat with her fur standing up on end and in no mood to suffer opposition to her will.
"Go to her at once." In a frenzy of flurried activity, she rushed to Erik's drawer in the dresser and rummaged through it, ignoring his inarticulate protest, and retrieved a small jewellery box cased in shining blue velvet. She pushed it into his hands. "Oh, you surely didn't think I was unaware that you were still hoarding the wretched thing."
Erik spoke her name, reaching towards her, but she pushed him away.
"You belong with her." She gave a helpless little shrug and smiled wanly. "Do you think I don't know that?"
Erik was silent, and Meg pushed him gently towards the door.
"Go on." She nodded. "Before she walks too far."
Erik hesitated a moment more, the dawn of a smile beginning on his face; then he made for the door. As he reached the door, he paused, and turned back to Meg. He took a step towards her, and leaned forward to kiss her; and for the first time, his lips were warm against her cheek.
His whispered "Thank you" seemed to fill the flat even after he had disappeared down the stairs at a run.
Meg, watching from a high window, saw Erik emerge from the building into the sunlight, and, glancing briefly up and down the street, set off after Christine.
Caught up in her misery, Christine did not hear Erik coming up behind her. Only when he laid a hand on her shoulder – was this the first time he had ever initiated contact between them? wondered Meg – did she turn, startled, to face him. She opened her mouth to speak, but Erik, now gripping both of her shoulders, stopped her words by kissing her.
Meg turned away from the window to see her mother standing in the doorway. She opened her mouth to speak and found that she could not. The only word she could form was "Mother …" in a small voice that sounded like the mewling of a kitten.
Antoinette nodded, forestalling further words, and came towards her; Meg stepped forward into her mother's arms, and her reserve broke. Antoinette embraced her daughter as tears threatened to shake apart her body, and pressed her cheek into the soft gold of Meg's hair.
Through the window, Erik could be seen slipping a ring onto Christine's finger, so small as to be invisible until the sun caught the metal and flared like the opening of a daisy in the first gentle sunlight of spring.
Meg saw very little of Erik over the next few weeks. When he did come to visit – and he was scrupulous about keeping his accustomed visiting times, determined, Meg suspected, not to neglect his old friends – he was restrained, as though he feared to reveal the depths of the dizzying joy that Meg saw in him whenever he and Christine were together. It was a comfort, if one that felt rather like an ache in her chest, to see him so happy again; and if it tore Meg's heart to see how beautiful Christine looked in her dazzlingly white wedding dress, she never admitted it to anybody.
The day of the wedding dawned bright and warm, and Meg spent the morning with Christine, her mother having gone to help Erik. She helped Christine's little maid to tame her unmanageable curls, and stroked her friend's back when a combination of nerves and her too-tight corset conspired to send her into a panic.
It was on this morning at Christine's little flat – which was in a state of absolute chaos, filled with flowers and jewellery and other small presents from her friends at the Opéra, including two new rag dolls and a furry toy cat which Christine's own cat, a small white ball of fluff which Erik had bought for her the previous week, was eyeing suspiciously – that Meg saw Raoul for the first time since the events at the Opéra.
He came in dressed for the wedding, having agreed to give Christine away in the absence of her father, and Meg watched with pity stirring in her heart as she saw his step falter at the sight of the woman who had once promised to marry him resplendent in dazzling white. He recovered himself swiftly, and came forward to kiss her hand; he was correct in every way in his behaviour towards her, and he and Christine seemed easy together, even if Meg could see concern in her friend's eyes as she asked after his health. It was true, she thought, he looked thinner and his eyes were circled with dark marks which suggested a lack of sleep. He brushed off her concern lightly, citing some small trouble on his estates as the reason for his obvious tiredness; but it was clear that Christine was not fooled, and she stroked his hand gently as he escorted her out to his carriage.
Meg was aware of Raoul throughout the entire service: his determinedly fixed smile, his too-hearty enthusiasm when greeting her mother and the priest; and perhaps worst of all, the expression which shivered over his face like the shifting of autumn leaves when Erik lifted Christine's veil and bent to kiss her chastely on the lips, touching one hand to her hair. It was a momentary lapse in his demeanour, and the smile returned even more brightly fixed as soon as Christine's attention returned to the congregation, but one that spoke volumes of the pain concealed beneath blonde hair and a face that would have pleased Apollo.
They stood together as the wedding carriage departed, waving with determined smiles until the carriage rounded a bend in the road and disappeared from view. Then, as Antoinette concluded her conversation with the priest and stepped forward to take Meg home, Raoul turned to Meg and took her hand.
"I have not extended my sympathy to you," he said gently. "I know what you, too, have lost today; but I am all too aware of the insignificance of words at such a time." Meg swallowed hard, biting down on tears, and he smiled sadly. "You will be in my prayers." He raised her hand to his lips, and ushered her gently back to her mother.
As he walked away from them, Meg thought that she had never seen anyone look so alone.
Raoul asked Meg to marry him the next week, and she accepted. Since Erik and Christine's wedding, they had huddled together like two children trying to make sense of an impossibility. They had comforted each other; and it seemed appropriate that these two, each so in love with another person, should rebuild their lives together.
Erik and Christine came at once upon reception of the news. Erik raged and threatened; Christine begged Meg to reconsider. Meg remained stoically calm, but in spite of her courtesy, which seemed to have become consciously pronounced, she remained immovable. They went away dejected, guilt-stricken and shocked by the pale, coldly polite little creature they had found.
Antoinette only nodded when Meg told her passively, without excitement, that she was to be married to one of the richest men in Paris.
"Very well," she said softly, and kissed her daughter, and held her to her for a moment.
Meg only went back to the Opéra once in the run-up to her wedding, to make the managers aware that she did not intend to return for the next season. The corps swarmed around her with excited delight, Christine's drama forgotten in the more immediate romance of their own Meg and the most handsome young man to be seen in the Opéra in many years.
Only Rachel seemed slightly subdued: she kissed Meg and stroked her hair.
"I will miss you," she said quietly.
Meg and Raoul married very quietly early the next year. Erik and Christine attended, both stricken with guilt, and seemed not to know what to say at the reception afterwards.
In their married life, Raoul and Meg did not see much of Erik and Christine. They attended all of Christine's opening nights, and sent flowers; but it was rare that they went backstage after a performance, and although Christine frequently invited them to dinner, Raoul usually discovered an old acquaintance whose invitation for the same night he could not neglect. They did go to dinner once at the quiet little house outside Paris that Erik and Christine had purchased: it was a strained affair, and they left early after Meg pleaded a headache with a promise to return the invitation which all four of them knew would never be honoured.
Meg never danced again after Don Juan Triumphant. Raoul did not pressure her to explain. One day he came across her in her bedroom practising steps he dimly remembered from a production of Coppelia. Her face was rigid, her movements precise and stiff. He watched her for a moment, then quietly closed the door and went away.
Meg learned to sew, and made many friends among the wives of Raoul's friends and acquaintances. She became a mother figure to the young aristocratic women who had been married young and were afraid of the new life threatening to open up before them: like her mother, she was a silent promise of support to any young woman in need. She became actively involved in several charities around Paris, and spent much of her time on schemes for poor relief.
It had been said for generations that if a Chagny bride did not conceive within the first year, there would be no children. There were no children in the first year; nor in the succeeding years.
Meg was not unhappy in her life. She loved Raoul as he loved her: with tenderly protective love designed to keep the other from hurt.
And if, like another man she had once cared for, he occasionally spoke another woman's name in his sleep, she did not mind.
Dreams are for the blissful oblivion of sleep.
- FIN -