The Mask and Mirror
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to His disciples, "My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me." And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will."
The night was cold, the stark chill gradually turning his motionless body to stone. Profound silence surrounded him. Standing alone, Erik lifted his head and gazed at the sky, a vast wasteland shot through with cobalt and chased iron. The blue moon hung like a burnished coin against the curve of the heavens. White stars burned with cold fires that stung his eyes. He could see beyond the domes of the rolling hills where the land became flat, woven grasses retreating into desert blackness. He could have been the first being in a new world at the beginning of its creation.
It was still a strange and incredible thing, after so many years spent underground, to be able to look up and see the stars. It made him wonder what else he had missed during those lonely years of silent rooms and deepening shadows. The world to him had always been a place of ugliness. Even here it was harsh, and cruel, yet there was a savage and primal grandeur that moved him far beyond the opulent and lavish objects he had always surrounded himself with. He had always been a great collector of beautiful things, but always of the most secular kind, things he could see and touch and hold, things he tried to persuade himself held value. Yet deep below the earth, alone in the catacombs, his heart was dying for something warm, something sacred.
Until Christine, he had never allowed himself to truly believe in the insubstantial, those lofty ideals of hope and sacrifice and redemption that meant, even after everything, she had never faltered, never stopped believing in him.
Gazing out across the infinite distance, Erik wondered for the first time whether he too could believe in what could not be seen, have faith in someone other than himself, a faith that meant not giving, but giving up. The realisation that she was the one person that did not recoil from who he was drove him to tears. She saw him for himself, the soul, the spirit inside the body.
No sound but the twilight breeze in this strange peace. About him, all was still. Blessed quietude, a time for prayer. Reverent words filling his ebbing heart.
God help me if this is sacrilege, but tonight I glimpsed the threshold of paradise. Overwhelmed by a love so powerful it annihilates me… with you I am nothing, and I am everything. My Laura, my Beatrice. Tonight, I saw your soul…
Something had passed between them, something so great, so glorious that there were no words to speak it. Only that it was like nothing on this earth, yet a part of it all, fundamental enough to ensure that he was deeply, irrevocably bound to her. That bond was unbreakable, even by the farthest of distances. He was able to accept the truth easily now. Something had happened on this night that stripped away all the superficialities of his former existence, those trivial things that had once seemed important fading away the moment he had glimpsed the soul within those dark eyes, the pure, heartrending trust that devastated him with its fervency.
He closed his eyes hard, a part of him wishing away this revelation that stirred him as though from the paralysis of a dream, even as his soul strained on the brink of transcendent flight. Because this faith, this ardent belief, was an agonising double-edged sword.
For now, now, he had to prove himself worthy of such trust. And he knew in his soul there was only one way in which that could be done.
Erik tried to calm himself, to will the hammering of his heart to slow, to try and ease the suffocating constriction in his lungs. Blindly, he looked up, but there was a thickness before his eyes, of mist, or tears… The darkness was like a net falling on him, and he could not see, could not think. A great paralysis seemed to have seized him.
Oh God, Christine, what madness is this? What am I thinking? I cannot tear myself from you without severing my own being… I will not… I will not… for what meaning is there in an existence separate to yours? Every moment of my life has led me to you. Men and universes could cease to be and still I would hold on… but I am half-delirious, Christine, and do not know what I am saying -
He could not hear himself think over the roaring of his pulse, the wild pounding of his heart almost rendering him delirious. Half-faint, he swayed, the desert tilting beneath his feet and his existence hung by a thread. The brilliant stars pulsed in the strange hush, but perhaps it was only his own mind after all -
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
He closed his eyes, inwardly fought against it. This jagged chasm he was contemplating crossing... that final complete devastation. Oh, he could not bear it. Pain struggling within him. His senses were failing -
Only through sacrifice comes redemption.
The deep ache within him intensified. He recalled with painful clarity how clear the vivid soul within had shone even through the infinitely sad expression in her eyes.
Let this chalice from me pass.
He inhaled the night air, the fragrant scents of earth and balsam, and felt like weeping; perhaps he did. Impossible to tell in these long hours of penitential pain. This was to be his last night. Here, at this Mount of Olives, enduring in agonised solitude the approach of the inevitable. A prisoner under the stars. Tomorrow, they lead me out to die.
It made him realise that God was not a cold and indifferent entity, but a man. A man who sweated drops of blood and passed Gethsemane's night in speechless agony before sacrificing himself, because he had to, because he must, because it was the right thing to do.
Erik looked up, his eyes blazing.
It made him think that perhaps he could be an angel, after all.
With a violent jerk, Christine awoke. Her eyes opened onto darkness. Night and silence reigned. The cold penetrated her bones, curled up as she was on the chaise without blanket or covering. She had fallen asleep in her dressing room. She put a shaking hand to her face and realised she had been crying. The memory of the dream still haunted her, the spectres seeming to hover close by in the darkened room.
She sat upright, a wraith in her white gown, dark curls a disorder over her thin shoulders. Traces of tears still burned her cheeks. More a child than a girl, and for whom the darkness held nameless fears.
Then her body thrilled with sudden sensation, her heart pounding wildly as though it would take flight. He was here; she knew it instinctively. Her aerial, divine visitor. She ached to hear his voice, strange and holy, the exquisite notes coursing through her blood. Her senses were heightened, every part of her being alive. Light glimmered along the mirror. Shivers of impossible rapture passed through her, and she felt transfigured, light as air… she would rise… transcend…
"Are you here?" she whispered, rapt, trembling.
"Of course." His mellifluous tones, once so stern and frightening, were achingly tender. Soothing her fears and chasing the demons away. She no longer sought to find a face to the voice - she had tried once, and his anger had been terrible to behold. But she had imagined it a thousand times, dreamed of the celestial lights that must pass across those lofty features. Oh, how beautiful he must be. A sigh of longing escaped her parted lips. If he only knew how she adored him. I would renounce this world and all its joys in an instant, if I could look upon your face for just one moment…
That beautiful, heartrending voice enveloped her softly, elevating her soul. "It is a year, dear one, since I first appeared to you."
She closed her eyes, lost in recollection. The echo of music and memory surrounding her. He had touched her heart and she had let him in. The most dear, precious thing in her world. In the dark, she imagined she felt the brush of gloved fingers against her tearstained cheek. "But what is this? Tears? Tell me, Christine, why are you crying?"
The trembling residue of fear still clung to her. A dream, but so vivid… the darkness of death and her heart trapped in the tomb, so sick with hopelessness. Christine wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. She looked up, seeking him, her angel, her comforter. Nothing but darkness greeted her eyes, yet she felt him around her, everywhere.
"I dreamed - oh it was the sepulchre again - everything was dark, and I was so cold and alone. The gate closed behind me and I was trapped in a blackness deeper than anything I have ever known. Worse than that, I felt death all around me, creeping close and I thought I should go mad with fear. It laid its cold fingers upon me, and then I saw his face…and I knew him… demon, ghost, whatever it was, I knew him… and the knowing broke my heart. I have never felt anything like it. I don't understand how, but I think it was real… oh God, why I am seeing these things? What is happening to me?"
"Even now, Christine?" His voice was gentle. "You must know that nothing can hurt you so long as I am with you."
"That makes me wonder what will happen the day you decide to leave me."
"Never. Do you think that anything could loosen the bonds of heaven?"
She fell to her knees in disarray, her face upturned, white hands clasped penitently. "Promise me," she whispered. Promise me… for I could not live without you…
"Beloved," he said softly. "I will never leave you."
He did not know how many hours he had been standing outside on the brink of the wilderness. Beyond, all was endless. Time hung, suspended. He seemed to be on the threshold of some other world.
"Christine." The name left his lips with reverence, a soft litany.
She was more sacred and precious than anything in this life. Her spiritual beauty was beyond compare. Anodyne to his wounds. Like a holy vision, her face rose before him with a vivid poignancy as he had seen it last; open and ardent, her eyes neither lost nor distant, but shining with sincerity and pure, unalterable conviction. Awakening within him an ache of longing. She had touched his heart. She had felt it beat.
Body thrilling with his pulse's leap. Lost in the memory of her voice, and those earnest words that wrenched his heart. The most painful, glorious thing he had ever heard.
You are full of love. That is what you are, who you are. You follow your heart in everything you do, wherever it might lead you. I realise that now.
In the distance, the sky had begun to lighten. Erik turned very still, staring at the straits of light that pierced the horizon with veins of silver. Pausing and breathing in the night until his soul with filled with acute sensation.
For the first time, he was able to see himself not in the fractured, distorted mirror of his own perception, but through her clear eyes. Christine did not see, as he had imagined, one of the damned, a man destroyed by hatred and beyond all hope of recall, but instead a man filled with love. Pure, unconditional love… That was what had given him the strength to let Christine go, to feel remorse for his sins and strive to become the man she believed him to be.
Understanding surged over him like a great wave; the martyred passion as he released Christine from the cellars of the Opera, Nadir gripping his arm and telling him he had done the right thing, his piercing agony after the murder in the market-place and disbelieving hope at Christine's conviction in his redemption.
As though a veil were lifted from his eyes, he felt he had entered the first day of a new life, casting off all the accoutrements of his former existence. He breathed, breathed until his lungs ached and the darkness blurred in a sea of tears. His heart throbbing so violently he thought it would shatter. All his iron-wrought defences, every glance of lashing scorn, the proud irony and cruel disdain, had been stripped away, leaving only the core of himself. Something infinitely minute, and at the same time, profoundly great.
He had discovered his true nature. Not a broken, irredeemable murderer, but an intensely feeling man, blinded by the very love he was full of, the means to his salvation.
Erik realised, with some surprise, that he was crying. He did not know if it was from happiness or sorrow or longing. He could not pierce that painful confusion of thoughts and did not wish to try. It was easier to remain as he was and look upon the landscape that opened out before him.
His vision felt heightened as he became aware of his surroundings with a startling and painful clarity. It seemed he was truly seeing for the first time, the images seared onto his eyes: each individual blade of grass at his feet, the scant bushes silvery and grey, the vivid outline of a coiled tree that was a deeper black than the desert, the pale light steeling along the ridge of the hill. Beyond, a void, annihilation.
He could see the thin bough of the distant tree bending over slightly, and knew the wind had picked up. An ambrosial breeze faintly stirring the silvered grasses at his feet. It tasted of bitter spruce, balsam and tears.
I am mad, he thought. To do what I am thinking of doing, I must be mad. I cannot stand to leave her; it is the worst punishment I could imagine for myself, doing this without her -
To be alone again – the one thing he had fought against his whole life, the thing he had inwardly raged against with all his being – to resign himself to that was worse than death. That despairing, consuming isolation that cursed him to stand estranged to the whole world. He could not be more lonely. Friendless for thirty-seven years; no soul would mourn his passing, no tears would fall at his death. He had tried to express it to Christine once, to convey what it was to have that primitive hollow space beneath his ribs that nothing could ever touch.
Do you ever have the sense that you're completely alone in the world? That no one else thinks or speaks the way you do, and if anyone knew how you really felt – they'd dismiss you as mad?
All the time, she had said.
He had not believed her, then. It was unthinkable that someone who had so many ties to the world could ever comprehend what it was to be truly alone. But now – tonight – that last barrier had been swept away; he had seen beyond the dreamlike, naïve and melancholy girl the world saw, and into the bleak emptiness that was always beneath, the source of that inward misery that never left her. Everyone was alone.
But with the Vicomte, she could be less so. Raoul could give her far more than he could. Erik knew he had too many demons, too many burdens to expect Christine to bear. It would shatter her. Leave her hurt, bruised and destroyed. He had wronged her so many times, so many different ways. She deserved more. She would live, and love with all the strength in her generous heart.
He loves you, as much as I have hated you… but my love… his is like the pale flicker of a candle in the face of a raging inferno. Without her, he was a force of destruction raging unchecked, wild and unstoppable, fuelled by hatred and anger that hell itself would tremble at. But with her - oh with her - he could aspire to divinity. But now he must do so alone. In hopeless solitude he must fall to his knees until they were bloody and raw, pray for strength, pray for forgiveness until his sins were a shade less black. Her name a holy beatitude, on his lips a thousand nights, yet soon only to be a memory -
He had let her go before and it had almost killed him… he had felt like death, a great devastation fallen upon him that rendered him wild with despair… oh God, Christine, I cannot, cannot do this! And yet I must.
In the end, she meant more to him than anything else in the world. He would break the chains that bound her to him and release her.
I never thought I could love anyone like this.
And he must leave her. Face the wilds of the world alone as though these past weeks and months were nothing but a dream. A wound that would never heal. Erik steeled himself, staring out across the trackless plain. This was the verge of the world. Where was there left for him to go?
He should have been writhing in tormented madness. But he was not. Inside, he felt an incredible stillness. He had come to terms with what he had to do, and was at a curious peace with it. There was nothing to fear.
He had never truly understood what it meant before, this healing through atonement. Perhaps this was what he had been seeking for so long. That final calm certainty, a sense of oneness that had power enough to drive all grief away. Drawing solace and strength from pain.
This would be his dream tonight. Heaven, with its soul's release and glorious spheres and bliss eternal. And all hatred and agony and darkness receded.
Tomorrow, the shadows, the storm clouds, would roll over him once more. The world with all its pains and acute sufferings would return in the ecstasy of misery. But tonight –
Gazing on the piercing light between heaven and earth, the deep division that rent the universe in two, Erik realised he had found something possibly more precious than love.
He had found his redemption.
A pale sun had risen over the villa garden, its soft rays stealing along the scorched grasses and stone paths. Erik's wearied eyes followed the patterned trail of burning gold that soon became lost in the scrubland and overhanging shadows of the rough-hewn stone wall. His hands were pressed against his fevered temples, feeling the pulse beating against his calloused fingers. At some point in the early hours he had found his way to this bench, thrown himself down into it, and remained unmoving as though recovering from some great shock or injury. He could only wait as the sun climbed higher and the sweet, agonising joy of Christine beside him last night drew further and further away.
When he was finally able to raise his head, his heart failed within him at the sight of Christine as she rounded the corner of the house, picking her way lightly across the pebbled walkway. She smiled as she caught sight of him, her sweetness undisguised. Her heartrending loveliness was too much for him to bear. It seemed he was facing innocence in its purest form. The image of her, dark hair curling around her beloved face and her eyes alight with such sincere and honest trust was almost enough to make him abandon his resolve. It was too hard. He wasn't strong. Not strong enough for this.
"You're awake early," she said, as she drew close beside him. Dear God, she looked so content, so serene. He could not do this.
I must do this.
He looked away, hardening his heart. When he spoke, his voice came out brusque and sharp.
"I did not sleep."
Erik knew she was wondering if he meant to say anything else, but he could not bring himself to speak. There was nothing he could say. And if he opened his mouth, the force of misery that had been tearing at the inside of his throat would be released. So he remained silent.
"Erik," she said uncertainly, eyes searching his intently. "You look… what's wrong?"
"There is something…" His voice was hoarse. "Something I must tell you. Sit down, Christine."
Unthinking, she fell into the seat at his side, regarding him with a mixture of curiosity and compassion. "Erik?" she said. "What is this?"
Oh, let me die, he thought. How much harder this was when she cared. His lowered, furious gaze was fixed on his hands, shaking as they were clenched tightly against his knees.
"You must do one thing for me."
"Name it." Her voice was gentle.
"Do not say anything. Not a word. Not until -" He broke off, reaching out for her, hands warm with the throb of his heart.
Christine stared. His normally coiffed hair was disordered and wild, dark eyes staring too intensely through the hollowed porcelain eyelets. His desperate hold on her pulsing and warm. The expression on his partly exposed face stopped her heart. It filled her with fear. Something was terribly wrong.
"I cannot do this any longer," he muttered. "I thought I could. I thought that if I wanted it enough, that maybe you could see past this… past me and everything I ever did -"
"I do, Erik." Her heart began beating hard. "I do see it -"
"No." He sounded weary, resigned. But beneath that, she saw how tense he was, his heavy frame strained to breaking point. The tendons standing out visibly on his neck. She could see the pulse in his throat. Beating. "You try, harder than anyone else ever has, more than I deserved… but it's not enough. Not for me. I thought it was, but I was wrong. I've been very wrong." He put out a shaking hand and gripped the metallic arm of the bench. "I tried to let you go. I tried to let you go before, but I couldn't. And it was easier, telling myself that I was weak and corrupt, if it meant keeping you with me. And then you wanted to help me, which should have made things easier. But it has only made me realise how much I don't deserve it -"
"Don't, Christine." He shuddered violently against her. Close enough that she could feel the convulsing beat of his heart. It hurt. "If I don't speak now, I'll never find the strength to do it again. And I must. God, I thought I'd learned everything there was to know about myself, but then last night, you told me that I loved, and I believed you. And it made me realise that I can now do what I could not do last winter. Do you understand what I am telling you, Christine? What this means? I'm letting you go."
The silence between them was absolute.
"What?" Christine finally whispered. In her lap, her hands began to tremble. "No… Erik, you… you cannot be serious?"
"Is it so hard to believe?" he demanded bitterly.
He did not say anything else. He did not need to. She read the answer in his terrible face.
She could not think.
"Erik -" she breathed. "No…"
"No?" He began to sneer, eyes fierce and glinting as he watched her closely beneath lowered lids. "Perhaps this will change your mind. There is something else I have concealed from you. The Vicomte de Chagny is here. He has been in Alger for weeks, perhaps months. And I know where."
"Raoul," she breathed. Her mind reeled, a hundred conflicting feelings assailing her all at once.
Erik sighed heavily and looked away, his jaw squared and tight. Christine remained still, her body strangely cold.
She found her voice. "But… you never sent him the letter. How did you know he would come?"
"Do you really think he wouldn't tear the world apart to find you?" His molten gaze was hard and intense, and somehow, accusing. "I would. If it were me. I would."
This was too much to take in. Erik was offering her everything she had wanted -
How could she have wanted this?
The thought of him leaving terrified her. She had always thought their paths were inseparable. This could not be happening… Not after everything they had gone through, everything they had done for one another…
He was speaking but Christine could no longer understand the words. All she was aware of was her world being shattered once more, throwing her from a place of brilliant light into hopeless shadow.
She sat dully, trying to take in what he was saying. But there was only the hollow realisation… he was leaving - he was leaving - he was leaving -
She was going to lose him, forever.
Something was brewing inside her. Something wild and unstoppable. His hand warm in hers.
"For saving me -"
Sensation blazed through her numb body. She pulled away from him in a fever. Without realising it, she was on her feet, trembling violently with the force of an emotion she could not name.
"This is no time to make a martyr of yourself, Erik!" she insisted fiercely. "You don't need to prove anything - not after last -" she swallowed hard - "not to me."
His full lips curved disdainfully. "Everything revolves around you, doesn't it, my dear? Perhaps I no longer desire your company. Did that never occur to you, Christine?"
Silence stretched between them. Christine didn't move. How could she have thought that she could no longer be hurt by him? Only he knew such exquisitely cruel ways to wound her. When she spoke, however, her voice was calm and alarmingly steady.
"Did that help - being cruel to me? Does it make it any easier?"
His black eyes flashed. He was standing too, now, his chest heaving violently beneath the silk shirt. The white porcelain mask was a starkly immobile contrast to his blazing expression. She had never seen him so close to losing control.
"You didn't want to be here at all, Christine, remember? I took you against your will!"
"And I willingly came with you here!"
Erik laughed madly, his eyes too wild, too wide. "Oh yes, very willingly! After I kidnapped you, manipulated you, lied to you -"
"Why are you saying this?"
"Because it is the truth!"
Tight agony gathering in her chest, her throat. She knew what he was doing, why he was forcing himself into this cruelty, but she would not let him. "The truth?" she demanded. "I will tell you what was the truth. Last night was the truth. Listening to me, comforting me, that was the truth. So no matter how cruel you want to be - no matter how cruel you try to be - I will never forget who you are, Erik, however much you might deny it -"
"Don't torture me like this," he growled. "Platitudes won't help and you know it. You knew this could not last, that you would return to reality and still have everything you ever wanted, while I..."
Reality. It was the cruellest word she had ever known. If this was reality, she didn't want it. She couldn't live with it.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "No."
"Christine." His low, forceful voice was laced with anger. "Don't fight this -"
But she wasn't listening. A wild madness had seized her and she moved towards him, a shaking hand outstretched, reaching for him. His tense, muscled arm felt like iron beneath her entreating hold. It didn't matter. She was desperate.
"Come back to Paris with me," she insisted. "If you need me, I will always be there for you. We can see each other - if we want it enough, we can do something. I'll talk to Raoul and make him understand… there must be a way, there is always a way –"
"You know that's impossible," he said violently.
"Why?" she demanded, hearing her voice break and fracture. Like her heart. "Why is it impossible? Because you say it is?"
"Because it will never be enough!" he finally shouted. "I must and will love you. I refuse to linger in Paris to watch your blissful marriage, playing the hypocrite and pretending to be glad for you, while my soul is being crushed under the burden of your union – is that how much you care for me, Christine?"
Her chest burned from the force of his words. She bit her lip, guilt and misery tearing at her. "You're right. It was selfish of me. I should never have –"
She could not say any more. Her heart was aching in hopeless pain. She was going to cry again, and she couldn't. If she began to cry now, she would never stop. And she had already shed too many tears over him.
Erik stared at her darkly, his shadowed face set in vindictive, feral lines. "You stay, or you go. And there will be no second chances."
Her voice was shaking. "So you're giving me an ultimatum? Either stay here… or you'll leave? Forever?"
"You can't live a life with both of us."
Christine clung tightly to his heavy shoulders, a choking feeling rising up in her throat. She breathed him in, incense and leather and the memory of night. So painfully familiar, she knew it as well she knew her own name. "But I still want you in my life. That hasn't changed. Never will change. And now you're telling me I have to make a choice?"
"You've already made it, Christine! You made that very clear on the night of Don Juan -"
She turned white to the lips. "Don't you dare use that against me. Not now. Not after everything we've -"
"So have you changed your mind?"
"But -" she was pleading now - "There must be some way… can we not at least remain friends?"
Erik sneered, his eyes lethal, dark as night. "We were never friends, Christine. Never. And we never will be. Do you think that I would be content with that? What I want from you, I can never have. Your friendship isn't enough for me. I love you, that's the truth of it, and I will until I die – or you do." Christine's eyes stung with tears; she swiped at them with her hand. "And you! You have hated me, feared me – God, maybe even pitied me – but don't deceive yourself that you ever felt friendship."
"So what are you saying?" she whispered. "That I won't see you again?"
"How can you?" he responded swiftly, his voice distorting to a snarl.
Christine realised, distantly, that she was crying. "But I can never imagine not having you in my life -"
Erik looked at her. A shadow of compassion passed through his eyes for a moment, but his masked face remained frozen and unmoving.
"Try," he said.
The flat severity of the word made her heart shudder. His expression was rigid and unyielding, but she could not remain so stoic. This can't be real. This can't be happening. It's too awful.
She remained still, engulfed in silent desperation. He had torn her life apart, and now he was just going to walk away -
The words broke from her before she could stop them. "How can you just let me go?"
"Don't act as though I want this," he hissed. "You know I would have fought heaven and hell to be at your side, if I knew you wanted it -"
"But I do care for you, Erik. I don't regret these months - the joy, the pain, not any of this - I will never be sorry -"
Eyes glimmered dangerously behind the mask. "Not good enough."
She looked up at him helplessly. "What more is there?"
Erik had taken everything she had thrown at him so far, but it seemed he had finally reached his breaking point. His chest was heaving violently, fists clenched at his sides. Coal black brows drawn together with rage. The demon awakening at last. "Don't be a fool, Christine."
In a moment he had closed the space between them. She could taste the darkness, the madness lurking just beneath the surface. His face ruthless as an avenging angel, eyes wild with fire. And her courage failed within her, because she knew what he was going to say, but it was her fault, she had driven him to this -
"Tell me you love me."
Christine shivered uncontrollably, though her mind and her heart were burning, burning -
She said nothing. Her heart was throbbing in her throat.
Eyes black like glass. Cutting her.
He snarled. Bitter. Distorted. "So you won't even lie?"
"Please." A broken whisper.
She was backing away in a dazed kind of horror; roughly, he grabbed her wrists and pulled her back towards him. She stumbled. The movement was desperate, almost cruel, and the agonised appeal in his eyes was too much to stand. The arid garden receded, there was only this, here, those iron fingers that gripped her so tightly, the harsh breathing against her neck, eyes so black they seemed almost blind -
A harsh whisper. Say it. Shaking her violently. Say it.
But she couldn't.
She was broken. She was numb. His body was close and warm, burning her alive… but her heart, oh her heart was frozen…
The last time he'll hold me tightly like this… the last time he'll look at me that unique way, with such anguish and longing, the last time… oh God…
She stared at him through a hideous, blurring sheen of tears. "How can this be the end?"
"It doesn't have to be." He stared at her, furious and despairing, his eyes darker than she had ever seen them. His rough voice jagged and hoarse against her skin. "You know what you have to say. Just tell me -"
She shook her head blindly. "I can't -"
"No." Those velvet tones were cruel, mocking. "Of course you can't."
She tried to pull away, but couldn't. She could never pull away. Strong hands grasping her too tightly, fingers and nails and fire. Too real, too alive, swallowing her whole. This roaring undertow of feeling dragging her down -
But she met his gaze, because maybe then he could see how this was tearing her apart inside…
His voice was hard and remorseless. "You can't say you hate me, yet you won't say you love me. Then tell me, Christine, what do you feel?"
"I don't - I don't know, Erik!" she cried finally, no longer able to hold back the hot, angry tears that scalded her cheeks. "I don't know what I feel or what I want! I don't have any answers!" She turned on him accusingly. Desperation made her cruel. "How can you keep playing with my life like this? How can you offer me an ultimatum, threatening me with leaving entirely if I don't say I love you? How is that fair?"
"How is it fair to expect me to wait around for an answer that may never come?" he lashed back in return.
She struggled, pushed at him. His shaking hands tracing her face, her neck, her trembling shoulders... hold me - release me - never let me go -
She could feel his heart beating through the thin shirt. Against her fingers, hard and urgent. Her head sank down, dark curls spilling over his chest. So close it hurt… she could not breathe -
"I never wanted this," she whispered. "Not any of it -"
But it wasn't good enough. His grip was unrelenting. Hands hot on her flesh, tangled in her hair. He raised her head. Forcing her to meet his terrible expression. Dark hair fell wildly over his brow, he was breathing hard and furiously. She knew the pain in his eyes, because it was her own. Different, but the same, always the same…
"I want you," Erik whispered savagely against her skin, "I want you so much it drives me mad…" She was lost, blinded, unable to move, unable to think - if he tried to kiss her now, she would surely die -
But he did not kiss her.
Instead, he tentatively took her hands, achingly soft now, and the gentleness was somehow worse than the violence. His voice choked against the wild disorder of her hair. "But more than that, I want your happiness. And you are not happy, Christine. Not here. Not with me. You should not have to remain in the shadows, bound to guilt and ghosts and old lies. You deserve more than darkness."
And with those words, she was gone. Her body slackened in his hold. Frozen by the realisation that this was the last time, the very last... Christine blinked furiously, seeing the world through a translucent veil of tears. She had never felt further away from him in her life. It hurt when he looked at her. It hurt to breathe.
How could he put her in this position?
"Do you know how much I hate this?" she managed to whisper. "How much I hate hurting you?"
His body began shaking, wild spasms of uncontrollable, terrible laughter ricocheting through her. "You've done nothing but hurt me. You have had two years to make a decision, Christine -"
"It's not that simple! Erik, everything between us is so complicated, and you cannot expect me to just simply decide -"
"Actually, Christine, it's very simple. Either you choose me - or you choose him."
Unthinking, her cold hands clasped his face; he shuddered even as he sought to hold himself determinedly still. "Everything I said last night was true. You know me in a way that no one else does. And I need you, Erik, I -"
"The way you need him?"
"That is completely different! The way I feel about Raoul, and the way I feel about you are entirely separate - you cannot just demand that I make a choice -"
"I can," he gritted. "And I will."
She clenched her hands together, so tightly that her fingers ached from the pain of it. Lifting her tearstained face to his. "Do you want an answer? Here and now, is that what you want?"
There was a silence. Then, "Yes," he said. "Yes, damn it, just tell me."
She pulled herself free of his strangling hold, though she would never be free of him, never, never -
Unthinking words shaped her blanched lips.
But she couldn't say it. She hadn't the strength.
If you only knew… These things, these feelings do not have a name… I can hardly speak of it… it possesses me, consume me so that I am annihilated in it -
When she spoke, it seemed to come from outside herself. It could not be her saying these things.
"I… I cannot love you. At least… not in the way you want."
"Cannot or will not?" he flashed.
"You wanted an answer," she said quietly. Suddenly, all the rage and anguish had burnt itself out. She was terribly calm; there was nothing but a great emptiness in her chest. "Now you have it."
Silence fell. It was the most horrible silence she had ever known.
He had not moved. She wondered if he would ever move again. Christine swallowed hard, raised her head. She would look at him. She would give him that much. No matter how awful it was.
What could possibly be worse than this?
She realised just what. Realised as she watched him shatter in front of her. He wasn't so stoic after all.
I'm sorry -
But she could not withstand his gaze. How could such deep eyes be so unbearably empty?
Erik turned away. White porcelain reflected the sun. It blinded her. There was a terrible, inhuman sound that might have been a sob. But his face was like stone.
"Pack your things," he said, finally. His voice was a stranger's voice, hollow and deadened. "I'll have a carriage ready in an hour."
And he was gone.
She was standing in the villa garden alone with the hot stones and the sun that burned.
Numbly, Christine sank onto the bench. She was shaking all over, shivering, but her skin was on fire. The coldness came from inside.
Minutes passed. She closed her eyes, held her breath. This could not be happening. But she had known, somehow, that it was always going to happen. Yet she had pushed it away, refused to believe. It had been easy to deny. They had been so long alone, isolated from the world. Left with nothing but each other.
And to think that it would end like this. Her white hands gripped the edges of the bench.
I don't want to do this. I'm not strong enough to stand it. Help me, please!
Her heart was aching with tears. She thought of his face when she had said she could not love him. It was the cruellest thing she had ever done. After he had pledged his trust and devotion and belief in her hands.
Thank you… for saving me…
Images flashed through her mind with a sudden, startling clarity. Erik clutching her fiercely moments ago as she broke his heart once more, his face dark and solemn as he knelt in the holy chapel, the starving loneliness in his candle-lit eyes as they lay side by side only last night…
The weight of his pain was heavier than her own. He had lost everything. And the fault of it was hers. She was agonised by indecision. Was she a support to him or an unbearable weight? Had she only made him suffer?
I don't know how to do it. I can't live with it. What have I done, Erik? What have I done? Oh God! I can't stop crying. But I can't go on like this. Thinking of it will drive me mad. I must try to forget.
Christine closed her eyes, a dim and unsteady recollection of laughter and clear blue eyes rising from a place very far away. She clung to that remembrance, held it tight and kept it near her heart. A soft grace note to ease the bitterness. Her beloved comforter. She had loved Raoul since she was a girl; her dearest friend, her childhood companion, her ardent suitor. She had dreamed of marrying him for as long as she could remember. It was the one certainty she had clung to when her world was falling apart.
And he was here… he had been searching for her all this time, he had never given up on her…
I have to believe… believe that the happy ending I wanted still exists. Those years at Perros… they cannot mean nothing. I will not let them mean nothing.
He was the best man she had ever met. And he was offering an escape from this darkness that had haunted her, this terrifying connection that bound her to Erik. The promise of a past life beckoning her in the distance, those cherished memories she had thought lost forever. And if she didn't go, what would she do? Stay… with Erik? It was impossible, unthinkable. She loved Raoul desperately, she knew this, yet her senses betrayed her at every moment. She had fallen prey to compassion once before, she could not do so again. But it was no longer compassion that bound her to Erik, it was…
She muttered words senselessly, beside herself. I want to help you, I have to help you, I need to help you!
He was supposed to be her demon. He was supposed to be her angel. He had pursued her for years, pursued her across the world… and now he had released her, she did not know what to do, did not know how to live. The sanctity of that precious bond broken, shattered, annihilated. How had she done this the last time?
Nights frozen at a narrow window while the snows fell and her heart turned to ice…
Three months and a winter that had lasted lifetimes. Again, she felt herself dying, as though she already lay beneath the cold earth. Memories of a lifetime ago as she pressed her pale hands against the glass and gazed at a world shrouded in snow. And such weariness she had felt inside. And my soul trapped underground, forced to endure this unbearable loneliness.
There was nothing else, no other way. She would learn to live again. She had survived this before (barely).
And now she must do so again.
Noon, and the sun blazed mercilessly. The rhythmic motion of the carriage wheels sent clouds of sand swirling around the windows, the sheets of burning glass rattling in the narrow frame. Flashes of desert gave way to the crowded proximity of buildings and dust and noise. But Christine saw none of it. Her heart was encased in ice and the outside world could not touch her. She was lost in recollection. Remembering the days when she had lived for those nightly visitations, when Raoul had only been a distant childhood memory. And how she had sang to an angel, sang until her heart would break. Her sorrow given voice on his lips. Sounding in the depths of despair and elevating her to the highest passion. He would endure in her memory forever.
How many years since first I saw you and dreamed of you… those long nights when our voices in union (always in union, then) rivalled those of heaven… oh, that we could have been thus forever…
That they could have remained suspended as they were last night, poised between states of existence, neither sleeping nor waking, no beginning, no end, only the sensation of infinite being. She was no more, yet she was everything. In that space they had been angels, his music coursing through her soul, binding them in holy union. Together, they could have altered the shape of the world.
Last night I was so happy I might have been in heaven. And now… and now…
They were to be divided, a separation worse than death. She looked across at Erik, dark and forbidding and sullen, his shadowed face hidden from her. Is this the angel you sent me, father? she wondered, bleak with misery.
The carriage lurched unevenly from side to side, wheels clattering noisily against the rock-strewn roads. Outside, people were pressed together in a mass of bodies, all engaged in buying and selling and bartering, the uncomplicated business of the day. Erik envied them all. His mind sharpened by grief, he gazed out through the lingering haze of dust, the tiny particles of sand stinging his wind-burned eyes and whipping through his coarse hair. The crowded market blurred before him. He was clutching the window frame as though it were the one thing tethering him to reality. This, the sun-browned leather swaying beneath him, and the throbbing pain in his heart.
His entire being was aching. Lost in a grief that was bitter and deep. Without her, he would die.
To be born again into an existence where their paths had never crossed! But no, even that he could not imagine now. To forget, then, those tormented recollections that pierced his dreams -
If I cannot have her, then at least let me forget her! Let me no longer remember her or any of those memories that dared me to hope - hope! I thought, I wished, I deluded myself into thinking perhaps - but it could never be.
Not many minutes now remained. Every second that elapsed was a precious moment wasted, yet still neither spoke. He felt despair as though he'd been cast from heaven. And still he could not help but want to keep her here. She was a dream he had dreamed and lost. Now he was to be reduced to grasping at her in shadows and memories. The blazing brightness of desert turned to a darkened void. And his soul in the wilderness while she returned to a world that constricted her too tightly. A caged bird beating its wings against the bars. Yet she chose this. Even this she would choose over me.
But those words - those words she would not say. And if it were true, she would say them. But she does not say them, and so she must not. She would go, making herself a wilful prisoner once more. She would return to that fool's paradise while he -
With you I am omnipotent… these past months have been a glimpse of paradise. That small space he had hollowed out on the edge of the earth had become his entire world and now it was to be torn from him once more, for he could not remain there only to be tortured by memories of her in every shadow. Buried in his wounds as her blindly devoted husband lavished her with trinkets and hollow fineries. It was a bitter consolation.
There was a heave, a great shuddering motion, the clatter of wheels on dust and stone juddering to an unsteady halt. The horses stopping with a savage jerk. Through the narrow window, the market was swarming with people, buyers and sellers and traders and merchants, oblivious to the scorching heat. And beyond the dizzying blur of colour and noise, past the canvas-covered stalls and heavy scents of spice and horse leather, and the faint breeze blowing in from the sea, the building, its windows shuttered against the glare of midday sun, stood in shadow.
They were here. This moment he had been dreading. He turned to Christine, but the words dried to ash in his throat. He had to say something.
But he didn't need to. She knew. She knew.
He opened the door, and the sun streamed in, illuminating the carriage interior, white hot and blinding. Falling on Christine's pallid and terrible face as she sat rigid and silent. Erik froze in the doorway, hesitating. Inner voices clamouring in his head. You damned, proud fool! Apologise and she'll forgive you! Even now it's not too late. She would come back with you if you asked. But he wouldn't. He was tired of prostrating himself before her. If nothing else, he would have his pride. He would not have her last memory of him be that of a prostrating wretch. He would endure, resolute and gaspingly. Grimly, he stepped outside into the blazing afternoon.
Christine stared after him. Say something. He wants you to stay.
But she was numb.
She stepped out the carriage with icy hands and white lips and a heart that felt turned to stone. Her soul seemed somewhere far away. Crowds of people were pushing past her in a sea of ceaseless, unending, monotonous noise. It made her head swim with sickness. It took every effort not to faint.
She took a trembling step forward. Another. Erik, cold and untouchable at her side. She followed the line of his hard gaze to the dilapidated boarding house almost lost amid a maze of alleys branching from its door. And Raoul was within. It meant nothing. She could not even comprehend it.
Beside her, Erik could sense every beat of her heart, every shuddering breath she drew. Every glimpse - every gesture - every moment -
he must remember -
His cold heart seemed to have stopped beating in his chest. This was really happening… time seemed to move too fast, the world that turned beneath his feet drawing inevitably towards annihilation.
A thousand memories returned to him in a blinding rush. Each one compelled him to speak. But he could not. He could not.
Those dark eyes sharp with betrayal, soft with vulnerability. Looking up at him blindly. "So this is goodbye?"
"I suppose it is." His voice were cold.
Still Christine lingered, her tearful gaze entreating. Was it really going to end like this? How could she bear it, this awful finality?
She wanted to tear the mask from his face. She wanted to see him, all of him -
She had to speak, had to say something, but his coldness stilled her. If she had glimpsed a flash of tenderness, a hint of emotion, she might have spoken. But there was nothing. He was as remote and dead as that spectre that had haunted the cellars of the Opera. If he had begged her then, she would have stayed right where she was.
She stole a breath. The light burned her eyes. Erik remained still, a shadow against the sun, a shadow against the world.
At last, she found the words.
And Christine walked away.
She passed unseeingly through the crowds of people, aware of nothing but the house before her, growing larger and larger as she drew closer. The masses of people ebbed and surged, severing her from the view of the waiting carriage, from Erik who stood motionless, watching her with blazing eyes. But she did not know this because she did not look back. Nothing but the sun hot on her skin, her moving through meaningless space. This was her. A heart that beat, hands that had clasped him. She didn't feel anything. She would never feel anything again. The shadow of the building fell across her. Time blurred as she stood before the door.
She raised a hand and knocked three times on the sun-bleached wood.
The door opened.
"Raoul," she said.