Just a sincere thank you to everyone who favorited, followed, and especially reviewed this story. All of the comments and suggestions meant so much to me! I'm super relieved that I was able to finish this story just before I leave, and I hope you guys enjoy this final chapter. Some people might comment and say that this ending seems abrupt, but there's no point in trying to drag out an ending when I could tie everything up in this chapter and actually give you an ending rather than drag it out and make you wait eighteen months.
I just want to thank everyone again for all of the nice things you guys have said about this story. I'm really glad you liked it. Another huge thanks to everyone who reviewed regularly. I hope you all have a fantastic year! Just really. Thanks so much for everything!
Summer had finally come, warm and welcome, and the cold from the underground house had finally slipped away. Christine walked along the tunnels, her skin still tingling from the sunlight, her steps brisk but her heart a little heavy. She was a coward.
It had been a while since she had come to terms with her feelings, but she hadn't told Erik yet. She couldn't put it off forever. They were in some sort of bizarre limbo, and she wasn't sure that Erik was willing to take the first step forward. He didn't want to assume anything and get rejected. It was up to her, now, but she was held back by her girlish fear.
Besides her father, who didn't really count in this type of situation, she had never told a man she loved him. She'd never said that to Raoul. How was it done? Did she just walk up to him and say it? Did she plan something romantic and then tell him? She had been trying to wait for the right moment, but she wasn't sure what that moment was. And perhaps that was the clue to it—she was supposed to feel that moment and know it was the right one. So far it hadn't happened.
She clutched her groceries tightly and continued on her way, taking the path that forked to the left. This had to happen soon.
"I love you," she suddenly said out loud to the dark tunnels. There—practice. That was easy enough to say. Just three small words. Or she could say it to him in French. Je t'aime. Would he like that better? Or maybe Russian, since that was his native language. But she didn't know how to say anything in Russian.
Whatever. It didn't really matter to him, she was sure. As long as he heard and understood, it would probably have the same effect.
As she neared the door, she said it again. "I love you." Then she shook her head. "I love you, Erik." He would probably like that better. There was no way for him to purposefully misunderstand that.
After some stairs and another hallway, she was at the door, and she dug in her pocket for the key. However, she paused and listened. Erik was singing. Her cheeks flushed, and she pressed her ear to the door, wanting to savor the sound for as long as possible. She hadn't heard him sing in months, and his voice brought all of the memories flooding back to her. She remembered the first time she had heard him sing—she had literally fallen to the floor. And there were all those times his voice had coaxed her into relaxation, into sleep…But she wasn't feeling the least bit sleepy now.
He continued for several minutes. There was no piano accompaniment, leading her to believe that he was just singing while he worked on something to pass the time, and that thought brought a huge grin to her face. Anytime something like this happened—something that made him more human and more vulnerable—she fell in love with him a little bit more.
As he sang, she heard the faint strains of an orchestra reply, and she glanced up into the black ceiling.
Living underneath the Opera House was strange. Sometimes she could hear rehearsals going on—sometimes performances. She had been supposed to sing up there, but she hadn't ever gotten the chance. Two days ago, when Erik had approached her with the idea of starting up her voice lessons again, she had said,
"But I don't think I should go back to the Opera House. Not—not after all that's happened."
And to her surprise, he had agreed. "Perhaps that is best."
It made her sad to think that she wouldn't be able to rehearse with the company or spend those rare rehearsals with Meg, but considering what she had been through there and what she had put them through, she thought it unwise to go back in and ask for her spot back. It had been over six months since she had left, and that absence was too long to lie about. Maybe one day she would go find Meg and try to rekindle that friendship…but right now she was so focused on building up her relationship with Erik that she was willing to let the friendship slide into second place.
She was excited to sing again. She wanted to start earning real money for them to use. Right now, she was just using a card Erik had given her, and she didn't like that at all. She had a little bit in her savings from her job at the office, but it wasn't much, and she knew that she would have to start earning a lot more if she wanted to make all of her fantasies into reality.
Her heart skipped a couple beats as she thought of what was nestled in the bags. She had seen them at the grocery store and had grabbed them all, unsure of how Erik would respond. But she had to try—the sunlight had felt too good on her face and the warm summer air had smelled too sweet.
Suddenly she realized that Erik had stopped singing, and she shook her head a little. She had been standing out in the dark for a long time. Quickly, she unlocked the door and pushed it open.
"Hi!" she called to the house. "I'm back!"
The house was silent for a moment, and then he stepped around by the piano and into the front room. She smiled at the sight of him. He was wearing his mask; she was still working on that. She had to be patient. Almost forty years of abuse, both mental and physical, weren't going to be forgotten in a few short months.
"Hi," she said again. "Sorry it took so long. The line was—" She paused and frowned. "Didn't you…? Hey!" Quickly, she ran over to the kitchen, the scent of burning food filling her nose. She set her bags down on the counter top and opened the oven, coughing a little as a cloud of foggy smoke engulfed her. She shut it and turned the heat off, her eyes watering a little. Erik had followed her and was standing in the entryway.
She sighed, running her hands to smooth down her hair. "Did you forget to take it out after an hour like I asked?"
He paused and shifted his weight guiltily. "I was…occupied," he said distantly.
Perhaps she should have known better. It wasn't as if he was interested in the food.
"Okay. That's okay." She took a breath of air and then opened the oven again, quickly pulling out the pan with an oven mitt. Now she had to think of something else to make…and she had spent all morning getting this ready…Why didn't he remember? It was the only thing she had asked him to do while she was out…
No, it wouldn't do to get upset over a burned meal. With Erik, they couldn't have normal couple arguments—like who was stealing the blankets or him not putting his dishes away or leaving things lying around. There were so many bigger things, and she had to remember that. Those small things would make him unnecessarily upset.
"I'll just make something else," she said, giving him a smile. "Something easy."
He watched her. "I ruined it."
She waved her hand. "That's fine. It really is. It's just food. Don't worry about it."
He left, and she pulled out more pans, making a mental note to never leave him in charge of meals. When everything was ready and being kept warm, she went back to the front room. Erik had disappeared again, and she went over to the room by the piano. The door was ajar, and he was inside. She leaned against the door frame and watched him for a while.
That door had not been opened for nearly two months after she returned. When she had finally asked Erik about it, he had merely pointed and said, "Look." And she had. It was an office of sorts, with a large desk and built-in bookshelves on the walls. When she entered it that day, everything had been covered in thick dust and grime. It had been rather anticlimactic, she remembered, as she had expected something out of a horror movie—maybe a gruesome science lab or torture chamber or something. But the room was still a little nerve-wracking. Covering his desk had been lots of scattered papers, and she had gathered some up to look. They were all similar. An unfamiliar man was pictured in the top left hand corner, and the paper was riddled with notes. Then, at the bottom of each one, scrawled in Erik's distinctive handwriting, was a word in red: Completed. That was followed by a written sum of money. When she had realized what they were, she had thrown them down and turned to hurry out of the room, not wanting to know more.
A glimmer of dull white had caught her eye, and she had stopped to peer into the far corner of the room. Dirty white fabric was there, almost like it had been attempted to be stuffed out of sight. She had picked it up, and the wedding dress had taken form. A bundle of dead, crumbly flowers had fallen out of its folds. The dress had been damaged considerably, ripped and frayed and grimy. It had delicate lace sleeves—one torn right through—and an embroidered waist. She had tossed it back down and left the room.
The office was clean now, and all of those objects were gone. She had never asked what he had done with the dress and papers—burned them, she hoped.
"Dinner's ready," she said. He ignored her, obviously uninterested.
After watching him rifle through books for a minute, she said, "I went and walked in the park for a little bit today, before I went grocery shopping."
He paused and glanced at her then. "Ah."
"It was nice," she said. "It was at that park you saw me on Christmas Eve, remember? You scared me so much! I can't believe it's been more than a year. Time's gone so fast. Thankfully it's been a really nice summer so far. It was an awful spring and winter. Anyway, I think I might have gotten sunburned." She laughed and watched him again for a few moments.
"Maybe one day you could come with me," she suggested hesitantly.
He tensed immediately. "No. That is not a good idea."
"Well, we wouldn't go during the day, obviously," she said, entering the room and perching on the edge of the desk. "We'd go at night, or around sunset. It'd be fun. Romantic." Did she sound silly? Maybe a little bit.
"I doubt that."
"You never know," she said. "Please just think about it, maybe? It would mean a lot to me."
He paused. "Perhaps."
That was good enough for her. She grinned and threw her arms around him. It always took a moment, but his thin arms cautiously rested around her as well, and she looked up at him, letting him see her look. He watched her carefully, and she wondered if he could feel her heart pounding.
None of her best moves had worked on him—and they had all worked on Raoul countless times. But she had to keep remembering that Erik was not Raoul…
He pulled away, and she huffed on a silent sigh. It had started a while ago—she had a secret fantasy brewing in her thoughts. They would be close, and he would lean down and kiss her, gently, and then she would be able to say it. But Erik had proved to be incorrigible, so much so that sometimes she wondered if she just ought to do it herself and get it over with. However, Christine wasn't sure she wanted to do that. Maybe as a last resort…
She felt that if Erik thought he had initiated something that she enjoyed, he would try other things. She didn't want to have to spell everything out for him. It would probably make him feel good to know that he had instigated such a big step and she had responded positively, which would hopefully lead to similar things in the future. Erik might not be like Raoul at all, but he was still a man, and Christine was becoming more and more aware of the masculine ego that she would occasionally have to stroke. She was hoping that letting him kiss her first would make him feel better about himself and about their relationship.
She blinked. "What?" He was looking at her, appearing uncomfortable.
"You are staring at me." His long fingers went to his mask, to ensure it was there.
"Oh—oh, sorry." She shook her head. "I didn't realize. I was just thinking. Sorry." She cleared her throat hastily. "Well, dinner's ready, like I said. Let's go."
After being around her for weeks, Erik had learned to simply humor her when it came to food. He followed her and let her put a plate in front of him. Christine sat down next to him and smiled, smoothing the pretty blue tablecloth.
The underground house was finally starting to look a little bit like a home. She had changed out all of the dark, gloomy décor for nicer, brighter things, and though Erik had grumbled and had thrown his hands up in the air and snapped, "women" when she had put white sheets and a dark green bedspread on the bed, he never took action to physically remove things or get them out of the way. The house felt brighter, warmer, and more welcoming.
Still…she would not stay here forever. She was trying to be patient with this, but she wanted a house with sunshine and windows that opened.
Between bites, she said, "Didn't you say one time that you had other apartments in the city?"
"I sold them months ago," he said, pushing his food around the plate. "I had no use for them."
"Oh. Well…" She got up and went back to the kitchen, pulling out the pamphlets from the bags. Erik watched her closely as she returned and put them in front of her. They were real estate brochures, houses for sale and for rent, apartments, condominiums, all sorts of things—but they were all above ground, and that was the important thing. Erik stared at them, making no move to rifle through them.
"I was just thinking," she said hurriedly, unnerved by his silence. "I mean, it doesn't have to be right away. We could look for however long you like to find something good. I looked through them on the bus for a few minutes. There's a house in this one…" She reached over and flipped through the flimsy pages. "Yeah, there's this house right here—it's small and kind of out of the city. Isn't it pretty? But like I said, we can look for however long you need. I'm not going to force you to move. Just…whatever. It's fine." She blushed and went back to her food, feeling guilty for pushing such a huge issue on him so quickly.
After a moment, she saw Erik's long fingers reach out, and he picked one up, looking through it. He didn't say anything, but the blush disappeared, and she smiled at him again, hope for their future bubbling through her.
In the end, it was as awkward and unexpected as everything in their relationship always had been.
She had given up trying to kiss him and had resigned herself to waiting until they married—then he would have to kiss her. Her best tricks and ideas had failed her. Erik was unyielding. Maybe he thought she would reject him, but she had given him every sign and every suggestion outside of flatly telling him that she wanted to.
They had started up her voice lessons again, and Erik had managed to arrange an audition next month. It was for a show in a smaller theater, and it wouldn't be a long-term engagement, just the one production. Still, she was feeling nervous and excited about the prospect of singing again, and Erik wanted her voice to become perfect once again. He still hadn't let go of that dream for her to become a world-renowned singer. She would sing for him and audition and hopefully perform, and if her career took off, she would follow it until she was unhappy.
One evening, they had just finished their lesson, and she was sitting by him and humming vaguely, glad to be back in such a familiar place. It had taken less time than she had anticipated to shape up her voice again. She wasn't yet back to where she had been before, but Erik didn't seem worried about that, so neither was she.
As she sat there, Erik played, and she envisioned her future, closing her eyes. It would be her and Erik…and music…in a house above ground, and she would sing for him, and maybe he would publish some of his music and let the world hear him one more time. Maybe they could travel. She would like that—perhaps she could take Erik to Sweden and show her familiar places. She could teach him Swedish.
And that future was good to her. It was everything she had wanted; a husband and music, and she would have a husband who understood the music better than she. Christine smiled.
Something briefly brushed up against the corner her mouth, and she opened her eyes in surprise.
"I am sorry," Erik said immediately, turning away from her. "I shouldn't have…"
"Did you just kiss me?" she asked blankly, shocked.
"I—Erik shouldn't have dared…But you looked very beautiful, and I…"
The piano forgotten, she put her arms around his neck, forcing him to look back at her.
"I'm so glad you did," she said earnestly. "Can we try again?"
Even though he looked stunned, he let her lean up, and she kissed him softly. It wasn't very good, as most of his mouth was covered by his mask. She ended up pressing her lips to that spot underneath his mouth, his impersonal mask pressing up against her skin and nose.
She pulled back, and he released a shuddering little breath.
"If you took your mask off, it would be better," she suggested quietly, hopefully.
He raised a hesitant hand to the ties and watched her, maybe looking for some flicker of fear or disgust…but he wouldn't find it on her face.
"Don't scream," he suddenly whispered hoarsely. "You may cry or faint or run…but don't scream."
The words were hurtful. "No, I would—Erik, why would you even think…"
The mask was lowered slowly, and she smiled again and kissed him properly without hesitation. She could feel him inhale swiftly, and it felt good to be kissing him like this after months of waiting. And when she embraced him and he pressed his bare face into her curls, she said those words out loud to him.
"I love you, Erik."
He let out a quiet, strangled sob, and it made her eyes fill with tears to realize that the cold, violent, unfeeling Phantom had been so affected by three small words. Her heart ached to think of what he could have accomplished if only he had had someone who loved him. But she was there, and she loved him, and when he whispered his reply into her curls, she cried with him.
It was a hot summer evening. The air seemed to hang low to the ground, and waves of heat were drifting up. Christine had shed her usual layers for some shorts and a light shirt, and though she was at first embarrassed by her pale, white skin—not at all fashionable these days—Erik had seemed positively dizzy at the sight, which left her grinning secretly. As long as he thought she was beautiful, she could ignore everyone else.
The grass was prickly and was poking her legs, and she shifted a little as she arranged the flowers. It was dusk, and the fading sunlight seemed to draw out all the delicious summer smells—hot air and warm grass and the sickly-sweet smell of the flowers. She hummed a little as she worked, and some of her curls fell out of their pins and tickled her cheek. She brushed them aside and glanced around her shoulder, smiling. Erik was several feet away, standing near a tall, towering pine tree, which cast a dark shadow that he had been drawn to. She had been waiting weeks for this moment, and now it was here, and she hadn't overestimated the feelings of love and gratitude she felt. Erik was watching her carefully as well as keeping an eye out for nearby people, but it was getting dark, and she wasn't sure if many people wanted to visit a graveyard after sundown.
"Hej, Pappa," she said softly, sweeping away the dirt on the headstone with her hand. It was small, square, and gray, with large block letters that read GUSTAVE DAAE.
"Sorry I haven't visited in so long," she said. "Things have been kind of crazy. Did you know I'm getting married tomorrow? Probably." She looked at the ring on her left hand. "I'm so excited. Erik was so funny about it, though. I mean, he didn't even really propose to me. I had to ask him—I asked him when he was going to propose, and he just kept staring at me and asking things like, 'You really want to marry me?' He said that like ten times. It was funny. Poor guy." She laughed a little. "Well, I couldn't wait anymore. If I waited for him he probably would've taken like twenty years to ask me. And I want to marry him. I do."
She looked back at Erik, and her heart swelled at the sight. It was darker now, but she could still see him.
"It's been kind of hard," she murmured, looking back to the headstone and lightly tracing the letters. "He doesn't have any papers or anything—like no birth certificate or identification. At first he said he didn't even care if we were legally married. But I want to be. Maybe it's stupid, but I want everyone in the world to know that we're really married. So he had to get some papers for himself, and it's taken longer than I thought. But they're here finally."
Christine paused and straightened the flowers once more. "I really wish you were here," she said, staring ahead, not willing to cry the night before her wedding. "I miss you a lot still. You could play for us tomorrow—Erik would probably play, too. I think he's kind of competitive. He wouldn't want you upstaging him." She giggled, rubbing at her eyes. "But you're both equal to me."
Carefully, she brought her knees up to her chest and set her chin on them, the hot summer breeze swirling through and then disappearing. Far away, she could hear the rumble of traffic. A dog was barking.
"I'm sorry for what I did," she said. "I could've tried harder, and you could've been here today. But—but you're with Moder now, and that's what you wanted." She paused. "I think I understand now. Because of Erik.
"And I know you wanted me to marry Raoul," she continued. "He's such a good man. But…but I couldn't. Erik is...he's—well, Erik. But I love him, and I'm so happy, and I think that's what you would want. I know things aren't going to be perfect or…easy. He's a hard guy to understand sometimes."
It definitely wasn't going to be easy, she thought. Christine was perfectly aware of the path ahead of her. Just a week ago they had had a huge argument that resulted in angry tears and slammed doors—it was about something stupid. She couldn't really even remember what it had started out as, but Erik had soon warped her words and made it about his face, shouting that he wasn't fooled by her and that he knew she wanted to leave; 'escape the monster.' She knew that those arguments were probably going to be a regular occurrence. They had made up several hours later, of course, and hopefully nothing would ever go permanently wrong when situations like that happened.
She sighed. "But he's so sweet most of the time. He really is. He was the one who suggested coming here tonight. Here—let me get him." Then she stood, brushed the grass off of her shorts, and turned to motion to him. He came slowly, his limp still just barely there, crawling out of the shadows like the Phantom she had first known him as. She didn't think he would be able to ever shake some of his habits, but she had plenty of her own faults, and so it was only fair.
When he was next to her, she slipped her hand into his, smiling widely and leaning up. It had taken him some days to realize what this motion meant, but now he knew, and he obliged and leaned down for an awkward kiss. It always was with his mask on, but she wouldn't ask him to take it off now, because he would refuse.
His gloves were off because of the heat, and his skin was cool against hers. She could feel his ring brushing against her fingers; it made her smile again as he pulled away.
"Are you ready for tomorrow?" she asked. "Is Nadir still coming?"
He nodded. Nadir Khan had agreed to be the witness, as the law required one. She was worried about Erik being married in a mask—that probably wasn't allowed. But when she had mentioned it to him he had told her not to worry. No one will stop me if I wish to marry you. The comment had made her shiver and laugh at the same time. As long as nothing harmful or illegal was done to anyone else, she would be fine.
"And you?" he said, bringing her hand up and pressing the palm to his mouth. His breath washed over her skin, and she blushed happily. "Is there anything else you require?"
She shook her head. "I'm all set." Of course it wasn't going to be the wedding of her childhood dreams, but somehow she didn't seem to care anymore. However, she had managed to keep a few easy traditions alive. She had a silver coin and a gold coin to put into her shoes—she had explained the Swedish tradition to Erik. They were from her parents, to ensure that she would never go without. Erik, having no preference or any special traditions to keep alive, had nothing to complain about. She was sure that he just wanted to marry her and didn't care how it was done.
It was almost completely dark now, but the heat lingered like a haze. There was a fading strip of bright orange that was falling behind the skyline. Very, very faintly, she could see the outline of the moon. Despite the weather, she shivered a little and stepped closer to Erik, wrapping an arm around his skinny waist and looking down toward the grave.
Erik noticed. "Are you cold? Perhaps you wish to return."
"No, it's fine. It's really nice out here." She leaned her head against his arm. "But we can go back soon if you want."
"Yes. You will sing for me tonight, won't you? I will not teach you; I only wish to hear your voice."
She smiled. "If you want me to."
Another warm breeze rushed through, rustling the grass and leaves, blowing more curls out of her pins and into her eyes. Erik carefully pulled them away, and his long fingers felt good on her skin.
As they stood there, her mind drifted back to words Erik had spoken to her. Some people are an anathema. Some people deserve to die. Did her father deserve to die? No...she wouldn't believe that, no matter the bad things he had done. But Erik? Should he have died? Instantly, she protested. No. But he had done a lot of bad things. Most likely, he had done bad things she didn't know about, that she probably never would know about. And yet, as he stood next to her, all she could feel was gratitude and love that he was still breathing. That seemed to be the question. There didn't seem to be any black and white, no solid good and evil like in her fairy tales. The handsome prince hadn't married her. She glanced up to Erik. He would have been the villain, and in any normal fairy tale he would have died, but he was there with her, and she had a ring on her finger.
He touched her gently. "Christine?"
"Yeah. Sorry." She smiled up at him and took his hand. "Let's go."
Maybe she was still oversimplifying it all. She didn't know. Somehow it didn't seem important anymore. This was life, and she was living.