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The Catalyst

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“What a terrible situation,” Christine thought to herself, as the hands of the masked man ran down her shoulders. She could feel his lips curving into a smile through their kiss; he was so happy, oh, how happy she was making him! She had just put Raoul’s letter down and looked up to the other man; she found herself smiling and he swooped her off her feet, dragging her into a kiss so passionate, so loving, so consuming, something she hadn’t experienced in years! And then something inside her simply died. Their lips parted for a split of a second, so they could take a breath, but when they pressed their mouth together again, his fingers tangling in her hair and her hands tugging at his coat, the fire was completely extinguished from her soul. She kept the kiss going mechanically. His lips were surprisingly soft and their warmth was pleasant enough to continue. A thought shoot through her brain: she could have spent her entire life in that embrace, but what kind of life that would have been? She felt like nothing more than a passive and selfish receiver of affection, letting herself be caressed and kissed and held, while every thought other than the ones concerning her lover ran through her mind. It was good to be loved like that, but, as the seconds went by, she became more and more concerned that her feelings for the angel of music had faded for good. Her pulse slowed down and found its normal pace, while the heart kept beating rhythmically, only to keep her alive.

They came apart and he giggled, a sound she had never heard before, a display of happiness she never imagined he would be capable of. His eyes sparkled and she threw him a luminous smile, not entirely sure whether it was a genuine gesture or merely a theatrical grimace. A strong arm wrapped around her waist, holding her protectively, and attentive fingers stroked her face.

“Ah, Christine… My Christine…”

Her hands were resting on his shoulders. His eyes were mesmerizing and she tried to come to terms with her new reality. Were they to be married now? A lifetime with whom she once thought to be one of God’s angels was about to begin. There were times during the long nights when she tossed and turned in her bed, with her mind on the edge between conscious and subconscious nightmares, when she dared to wonder how things would have played out if he stayed… and how things would have changed if he came back one day. Maybe it was really their time now, the time to start a life in the company of the angel of music. If only she weren’t so surprisingly unenthusiastic…

One of her arms traveled upwards, at fist without her conscious mind even noticing. Her gaze followed the traitor limb, questioning its intention. The fingers lingered on the lover’s mask; he watched her patient and submissive. A single movement left and there would be no turning back. What was the point of him hiding his face from her anymore? She herself said it held no horror for her. But it wasn’t the fear that made her hesitate for a long second, it was something else, an absence rather than an abundance of sentiment. Her fingers curled beneath the edge of the mask, preparing for one last effort, when the doorknob turned. Christine flinched in her lover’s arms, shifting in the direction of the sound and completely forgetting her unfinished gesture. The door swung open and revealed no other than Raoul, who locked stunned eyes with his wife. She felt the other man’s arm tense up around her, holding her ever so close, and she got a strange impulse to warn Raoul about impending danger. She opened her mouth slightly, but just as her brain was settling on the right words – Run? Go away? It’s over? What odd feeling was gripping her heart and paralyzing her tongue? – her lover’s voice thundered in the room.

“What do you want? Haven’t you bothered her enough already?”

Raoul turned a bored gaze in the direction of his interrogator. Christine stroked the man’s shoulder and whispered a barely audible “darling”, meant to defuse the conflict before it had a chance to start.

“I seem to have lost my wallet somewhere along the way. I figured it might have slipped out my pocket while writing your letter…” Raoul replied eventually, looking only at Christine.

Mr. Y took a step forward, letting go of Christine. She hung onto his arm, in an attempt to restrain him, should any dangerous idea might cross his mind.

“Why would you need your wallet for, anyway? I’m sure it must be empty,” he said with a mischievous grin. Christine’s fingers convulsed around his elbow.

“Tickets and documents. It’s pretty clear I am unwanted here. I have a ship to catch; wouldn’t want to inconvenience you further,” Raoul replied; if the phrases were meant to be ironic, his face didn’t show it. “Ah, there it is,” he added, pointing at a black leather object laying by the foot of Christine’s make-up table.

Suddenly recalling their last encounter, Christine took advantage of the men’s brief silence and addressed herself to her husband:

“Raoul, have you seen Gustave? I thought I told him to wait for you after the performance…”

Raoul was on his knees, retrieving his belongings. He looked up at Christine from underneath the table. She was still wearing her performance dress, hand fastened on the other man’s wrist, lipstick smudged around her lips. He sighed in front of the obvious loss and found himself wishing he could get a moment alone with her, just to wish her the best and apologize for never being an angel of music.

“I haven’t got the faintest idea,” he said, getting up. “He’s not my responsibility anymore, Christine. He’s not my son, isn’t he? Your new lover made himself pretty clear. I’m leaving alone. The boy’s all yours; lucky he didn’t inherit the face. Time will tell if he inherited the taste for murder and I can only be happy I won’t be here to see.”

He tried to silence his bitter words, he really did. But as a man who lost it all, he couldn’t find any more reasons to hold back. Maybe only for Christine’s sake… but Christine proved herself to be a cheater and a liar. A small part of him wanted to insult her as well.

Mr. Y turned a hellish glare in his direction. Raoul understood and turned to leave, but it was too late. The trigger had been pulled.

“What did you say to me?”

Christine tried a restraining gesture, but before she had the time to grab him, Mr. Y was already marching towards Raoul. He got the viscount by the shoulders and pinned him to the wall behind them. Raoul felt his feet dangle above the ground and he started fearing the other man’s hand might travel once again to his neck, and he’d be strangled to death right on the spot. He angled his head to get a glimpse of Christine and wish her farewell, right when the attacker begun to shake him.

“How dare you come in here and talk like this? Don’t you know I have the power to put you in the ground? I should have killed you years ago, I only spared your miserable life for Christine’s sake! And look at you now, Vicomte…” he spilled out the title through gritted teeth, as if it was the most decadent of insults. “You made a mockery of her love, deprived her of her music, stripped her of her pride, drank her money away…”

Raoul looked at him wide eyed. He tried to catch Christine’s gaze, to beg her for an intervention, for some sort of help. He wasn’t proud of the kind of marriage he had provided, but in the same time, he couldn’t recognize himself in the plethora of accusations either. He and Christine, they both knew their relationship was far more complicated than it might have appeared to a bystander. His wife was the only one he would accept criticism from. Mr. Y’s words came in rapid fire and something inside the deepest caverns of his soul begun to hurt.

“Shut up!”

He had to get out of there. He shifted in the man’s grip and managed to break free. Mr. Y was taken aback by the slip and Raoul took advantage of his hesitation to push him away. He only meant to give himself a little space, so he could clear out in peace, but the pent up anger in his chest proved itself impossible to content. The movement was more violent than he had intended and threw his attacker on top of Christine’s make-up table. The latter struggled to keep his balance, scrambling for support and knocking over a few makeup containers. It was enough to tip his anger over the edge and, while Raoul was turning towards the door, Mr. Y threw punch in his direction, putting all of his strength in the clenched fist. He proved himself to be not only taller, but also stronger than the viscount; he got Raoul in the jaw and the hit was powerful enough to make him lose balance and send him to his knees, gripping the side of his face with one hand and trying to support himself with the other. Mr. Y took no time to seize the opportunity and launched in another vicious attack: a shot at the ribs with his leg. The impact drew a muffled scream out of Raoul’s throat, then he collapsed on the ground and curled up slightly around the new source of pain.

Christine had been standing in the far corner of the room, watching the altercation silently. She appeared to be in a trance, or bored out of her mind; she showed no indication of revolt nor fear and made no attempt to stop the men. She looked at them dumbfounded, somewhat alarmed by the fact that she couldn’t figure out whose side she was on. Mr. Y was half sprawled on her make-up table, then Raoul was on his knees, and Christine still couldn’t gather enough willpower to put the fight at ease. For a long second she thought them very much deserving of the pain they were causing each other and fought hard against the foul thought of actually enjoying what was going on. The Mr. Y twisted his body to draw strength for another hit, with his face in Christine’s view, and she saw the malicious grin rising on his lips. It was that simple gesture, combined with Raoul’s cry, which triggered her awakening. The fight was becoming more than a light scolding, it was an attack with the sole purpose of humiliation; it needed to be stopped. She snapped out of her trance and took a few determined steps in the masked man’s direction, right he was considering another hit.

“All right, that is quite enough. Stop it, Erik! Stop it right this second!” a thunderous command rather than a horrified scream.

The use of an old forgotten name made him flinch and turn around.

“Christine…”

“Get out, Erik, do you hear me? Get out of here!”

He stood in the middle of the room, looking confused. Christine walked up to him, repeating the same words over and over again, the only ones that she could distinguish through the haze in her mind. He still wouldn’t budge, at least not quickly enough for her liking, so she settled to push him with her hands.

She managed to guide him to the door and pulled it open with an unordinary ease. It left her perplexed for a split of a second, before the cause revealed itself in the form of Madame Giry, who pushed her way in the suddenly crowded dressing room. The noise had unsettled her and she went to check its source. Although something other than an altercation could have hardly been the reason for the raised voices, the woman looked utterly shocked by the sight unveiling in front of her. Her confused gaze trailed from Raoul, who was still on the floor, to the masked man, whom she suspected to be the cause of the damage, and finally to Christine, who locked cold, inexpressive eyes with her.

“What in God’s name happened here?”

Mr. Y mumbled a few sounds, none of which turned to be comprehensive words. Christine didn’t answer and took a step behind, distancing herself form the man beside her.

Madame Giry resigned and understood there was not a good time for questions. She grabbed Mr. Y’s arm and guided him outside the room.

“Come on, leave her alone,” she said, when she felt him protesting.

The two women watched him rush through the corridor, not before throwing another glance towards Christine. Madame Giry turned to her again, but the look in her eyes was too hostile to bear. Raoul made a move on the floor and both women flinched, turning their heads in his direction.

“I’ll go look for a doctor,” Madame Giry mumbled and left the room; Christine didn’t break her dead silence.

When the other woman was finally far enough from them, Christine turned to face her husband and shut the door close with her foot. She found herself calm and not at all phased by the recent events, as she took a look around the room to assess the damage: a few make-up tubs and an injured man on the floor. She sighed, lowered herself towards Raoul and reached for his shoulder.

“Raoul, how are you doing? Come on, let’s get you up,” she said in a cold, impersonal tone, as she brushed her fingertips against his shoulder.

It was only when she got closer, in order to get a better hold of his body and help him stand, that she noticed he was crying, and what she thought to be muffled winces of pain were quiet, shameful sobs. This display of emotion stroke a cord within her and pity took place of indifference. She bent down, her face ever so close to his, and asked in a small voice, suddenly succumbed to a soft, concerned tone:

“What is wrong, Raoul? Are you hurting?”

She tried to stroke his cheek, but he tossed her hand aside with a violent movement.

“Go away, Christine! You should have let him beat me. You should have… I deserved this. My God, did I deserve this!”

Christine looked at him wide-eyed, alarmed by the affirmation. A slight tremor took hold of her hands and she felt both guilty and scared.

“Raoul…”

“Leave me!” his voice was at the edge between a growl and a sob, but then he continued in a resolute, more silent tone: “You can leave me, I won’t mind.”

He made a move to hide his face, but Christine was not in the mood for this rather theatrical protest. She planted her hands firmly on his body.

“Raoul, please stop talking like this! I’m here, we’re alone, I won’t let anybody hurt you anymore! We should get up, a doctor is coming, let’s make you feel better, all right?”

Her voice was pleading and calming in the same time. She cupped his cheek with her hand and gently wiped away a tear with her thumb. Faced with this gesture of utmost kindness, Raoul opened red eyes to look at his wife’s face.

“All right,” he mumbled, then slowly unwrapped his arm from his body and tried to prop himself up. Christine rushed to his support and slid an arm underneath his. Her attempt drew a groan of pain from him, when she pushed too hard on a sensitive area on his chest, but she didn’t let herself be discouraged.

“Oh, I am so sorry. Is this better?” she asked as she repositioned her hands. “I’ll help you to the chair.”

Raoul leaned on her and thus he managed to pick himself up from the floor. She eased him in the chair, where he collapsed with a sigh; Christine knelt next to him. His jaw was hurting and every breath sent sharp pains in his chest. He tried to touch his face, but the pain numbed away any other sensation and this lack of feeling scared him. His hand flinched away under Christine’s concerned gaze. One look at her and he felt a strange nausea coming over him; the charade had lasted far too long. He turned his face away and steadied his tone.

“Go, Christine. Go to him. You should be happy, Christine, I want you to be happy! Take Gustave and… go.”

His voice caught and, as if it was not enough, a single tear rolled on his cheek, betraying his apparent calm.

Christine jolted from her place and grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Raoul, please don’t say this! Look at me!”

He closed his eyes and tried to shake her off, so she gripped the sides of his face in a poorly thought attempt to lock his gaze on hers. Raoul yelled and she tried a softer approach. She caught his chin between her fingers and spoke in a small voice:

“Darling, please look at me.”

The term of endearment made him open his eyes. He looked defeated, sad beyond comprehension. Christine sunk back on her bent legs and squeezed his hand.

“I’m not going to go to him, you hear me? I’m not going to him. I mean, I have to go talk to him, but I am not leaving with him, Raoul. I promise.”

“Christine…”

She sighed deeply and repeated the words, looking straight into his eyes:

“I’m not going to go to him…”

The spouses looked at each other in tense silence; there were words crowding at the tip of their tongues, but neither of them was brave enough to speak. Christine was starting to worry they were being ridiculous, when the door flung open and Madame Giry stormed in the room.

“Called for a doctor, said he will be here in about ten minutes. Damn this sort of people, always making you wait. How’s he?”

Christine didn’t look like she had reconsidered her feelings towards the elderly woman. She got to her feet slowly and threw her a few dry words, in a tone on the verge of rudeness:

“He got a few punches and is hurting, as expected. I’m not concerned for his life, but you are right, it’s not a bad idea to have a doctor check on him.”

Madame Giry made another attempt to find out what had happened, which earned her an ice cold reply from Christine:

“Your protégé lost control.”

“Christine… you need to talk to him.”

Christine looked at the old Giry like at a stranger, then glanced back at Raoul, who had rested his head on the back of the chair and closed his eyes.

“Yes… That is precisely what I am going to do.”

She turned to leave but then something on the make-up table caught her eyes and made her change direction. The farewell letter Raoul had written for her laid open next to the red rose he accompanied it with. Christine sighed and picked up the paper; the text appeared now childish and poorly thought out, and the resolution of the sentences annoyed her. Why couldn’t he fight a little harder for her? Why did he have to put all the responsibility on her yet again? She looked back at Madame Giry, who was attentively rubbing Raoul’s shoulders, and took a deep breath, in preparation for one final battle on American land.

“Raoul… you said you had tickets out of this country. If you don’t think it’s too late, I think we should leave. All three of us.”

He looked up, his gaze illuminated with this new hope.

“I’ll go look for Gustave. Madame Giry, I know I have no right to ask this of you, but I would be grateful if you could make sure my son and husband will get safely on the ship. I will be with them eventually. I just need to attend some business first.”

Madame Giry nodded and gave her reassurances.

Christine took another glance at the letter in her hands, then looked at Raoul and sighed. With wobbly hands, she ripped the paper in tiny pieces, under the confused gaze of the other two people in the room, then scattered them in the bin.

“Time to stop being such fools, Raoul,” she added, then turned the attention to the rose. It was too beautiful to be thrown away, so she handed it to Madame Giry. “For your efforts.” But, as she turned to the door, without lifting her gaze to the other woman, she felt compelled to add:

“And another thing: will all due respect, Madame Giry, but from now on, I would prefer if you’d call me Madame de Chagny.”

○○○

Christine closed the door behind her and suddenly her heart was in her throat. She had not seen Gustave at all since their talk in her dressing room. Right after the performance, when she found herself in Mr. Y’s arms, a childish glee took over her senses and managed to drown her mother instinct for a little while. In the few minutes during which her mind was trying to adjust to the possibility of being Mr. Y’s spouse, she thought her child safe within the realms of Phantasma. He thought him at home. As she was hurrying along the corridors, trying her best to avoid the workers carrying large set pieces that looked horrifying in the plain light, Christine couldn’t stop a few curse words, directed at her lack of judgement and characteristic naivety, one that she believed to have shaken off years ago.

She took a sharp turn towards one exit and suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. Right in front of her, albeit at a considerable distance, she caught a glimpse of Gustave’s jacket. Her eyes locked on him as she tried to figure out where he was going and why. Then she noticed a skinny figure walking upfront, her frail body almost completely hidden by the boy. The only thing Christine could make out from the sight was a pile of blond hair, pulled up messily with a million pins, and the name forced itself out of her throat at the same time as her feet sped up their pace.

“Meg!”

She didn’t stop. Christine’s alert pace turned into proper running. Did she not hear? Did she choose to ignore the call?

“Meg!” Christine screamed again. She concentrated all her force in her voice and felt a stab at the back of her throat. That was going to cost her the quality of her singing for a few days.

She finally closed in on them and tried another command.

“Meg, for the sake of all that’s holy, stop right now!”

The show girl turned around with a gasp while Christine couldn’t believe that she had to utter the command for the second time in the span of a single hour.

“Meg, where do you think you are taking my child?”

She fumbled for an answer, but Christine wasn’t paying attention. She had glanced down at Gustave and saw his eyes full of fear.

“You are all insane,” she muttered under her breath, then extended a hand towards her son, showing him her most encouraging smile.

“We were just going to see the fish swimming in the ocean, Christine… It was going to be so beautiful, so very beautiful…” Meg sounded like she was in a trance and it unnerved Christine. The boy tried to escape her grip, but it tightened around his wrist and he let out an alarmed whimper.

“Meg, listen to me! You’ll give me my child right at this second!” her voice was more angry than she had intended and the fear she might have scared Gustave tugged at the bottom at her heart. Meg flinched and removed her hand as if she had just became aware of what she was doing. Gustave ran towards his mother and she welcomed him in her arms, while Meg retreated silently, hot tears of shame running down her cheeks.

“How are you, Gustave?” Christine asked, after a long second of rejoicing in the relief. “Are you all right?” The boy nodded and she continued: “Good. I need to ask you to do something.”

She must have looked terribly rattled, because the boy couldn’t help but remarking:

“Mama… Is there something wrong? Did something bad happen?”

Christine sighed; her child was too observant for his own good.

“Yes, Gustave, as a matter of fact, things are not all good.” She spoke quickly, shifting her gaze rapidly in order to avoid the boy’s eyes. “Your father… something happened to your father and we need to leave immediately.”

Gustave lowered his gaze to the floor.

“Is Papa’s head hurting again?”

The slight hesitation in his voice was breaking Christine’s heart. No matter how much they tried to shield him, he knew, there was no way he couldn’t have guessed what the cause of those headaches was.

“Oh, Gustave…” Attentive hands stroked the child’s cheek. She had to lie once again, but this time because of something she herself had caused. She would have wanted nothing more than a chance to confide in him, to tell him the entire naked truth, but such was thing was not possible. And the echo of Raoul’s cry when the other man’s foot collided with his ribs still lingered in her ears… “Papa’s head is indeed hurting, but this time it’s not his fault, oh God, this time it really is not his fault at all… and it’s not just his head either…” She head to stop and recompose herself when she felt tears stinging at the corners of her eyes. “Gustave, you need to promise me something, can you do that for me?” The boy nodded, albeit reluctantly, but she gathered her courage and continued nevertheless: “Gustave, I have to go take care of some business, all right? I need you to go back to my dressing room; Papa is there, with Madame Giry, she’ll explain everything to you. Madame Giry will take you and Papa on a ship and I’ll meet you there. We’re going home, Gustave, but you have to trust Madame Giry first, all right? Promise me you’ll be nice to her and Papa.”

“Mama…”

“Gustave, listen to me. We are leaving as soon as possible, we need to leave!” she had risen her voice and the small loss of temper scared her. “You will be with Papa, and Madame Giry helped me so much back when I was younger, I would trust her with my life!” she made a small pause, just a split of a second in which she convinced herself that her affirmation had been merely an exaggeration of a truth and not an outright lie. “I will not let that ship leave without me, Gustave,” she added with a grin. “Promise me you will be a good boy and go with Madame Giry.”

Gustave eventually agreed and she embraced him tightly, whispering a final and determined “I’ll be there” against his hair.

○○○

Christine de Chagny hesitated in front of Mr. Y’s door. She tried in vain to gather her thoughts; there was no way she could be gentle about what she was about to say. She knocked on the door firmly; the fear had drained from her completely and, when he answered from inside, she entered in a state of peculiar calm.

“Christine! I thought you wouldn’t come anymore. I was waiting for you, I think we need to talk.”

“Of that I too am quite sure of, Erik.” She decided to use the one human name he had given her and speak quickly. There was no point and no time for a long introduction. “I am here to collect my payment.”

“You- Christine- What do you mean?”

She sighed.

“Don’t play a fool. I came to this country to sing in exchange for money. I signed a contract; the only reason why I agreed with this trip is the fact that I’m not in a position to refuse such a big remuneration.”

Fear made its way into Erik’s eyes. Christine held herself straight and still.

“Christine, I must confess, I was not expecting- I was not prepared-” there was a hostility about her that made the words escape him. “I hoped this adventure would have a different ending.” Christine raised an eyebrow and he took the plunge and asked another question: “So I take it you’re leaving? You’re leaving with him? After everything that happened?”

“Leaving, yes. But with who and where, that is none of your concerns.” He fumbled a reply that was nothing more than her name spoken in a pleading tone. Christine felt her heart growing cold, completely unfazed by his bouts of adoration. “Erik, let’s not drag this for too long. I am going to be honest with you: I don’t have much of my economies left. I need this money.”

Mr. Y couldn’t reprise a mean comment.

“Because that drunken fool you took for a husband wasted it all, isn’t it?”

She blinked quickly but didn’t move. “Because I signed a contract and I expect to be paid for my art!”

Mr. Y walked slowly towards her. Once in her proximity, he put out a hand and reached for her cheek. “Oh, Christine… You can’t put a price on perfection.”

She took a step back and recoiled from his touch. When she spoke again, the words came with a surprising force.

“Then sign the damn check in blank! I’m sure I can think of a number.”

He mumbled something intelligible, but he obliged and extracted a check box from one of the drawers of his desk, then proceeded to scribble on it. Halfway through signing his name, he found one last ace up his sleeve. With a sly grin, not even lifting his eyes from the pen, he spoke:

“Looks like the luck hasn’t completely deserted the Vicomte… Go figure, he managed to win the wager after all.”

Christine squinted her eyes in his direction. He felt her gaze focused on his face and battled against the smile that wanted to crawl on his lips.

“What are you talking about?”

Mr. Y fixed his eyes on her.

“What did darling Raoul tell you when he visited you in your dressing room? Words of love and sweet promises, I presume. Seems like you have another talented actor in your little family… maybe one even better than yourself.”

He took a step towards her; Christine took a step back.

“And all this time, it was only a bet! He was in that ghastly bar before sunrise, must have spent the whole night there. ‘If Christine doesn’t sing, you can leave happily and all your debts will be wiped away…’ That’s what I told him, but frankly, in his drunken state, he could have probably settled for a lot less.”

Christine shook her head, on the verge of shock, but he wasn’t done yet.

“All those love declarations, all those stolen kisses, and all he wanted was the sweet taste of victory, all he did it for was money…”

Christine’s head was spinning. She leaned against the wall and held her forehead in her palm, while a million images flooded her brain. In his drunken state… It was a side of her husband she tried as much as she could to avoid and selfishly assigned the maid to deal with all his tantrums and his mess. But there were always those moments that she couldn’t escape, those nights when he’d find her alone and he’d beg… She remembered her arm held tight, almost twisted behind her, because his sight made her sick but she wasn’t strong enough to pull free from his iron grip. Her heart remained insensitive at his babbles – a plethora of mumbled words that gravitated around her name and “don’t go” – and her arm remained flexed and tense, determined to wait for his hands to tire. She never forgot his grief stricken face when she pulled free, nor the whimper that came out of his throat – something between a hurt animal and a terrorized child – when she walked away. Even in his drunken state, he had never managed to be the villain she wanted him to be, the one that would make her own sins excusable.

Christine lifted her head as a new idea sprung in her mind. She looked at Mr. Y with an inquisitive expression and dared to walk in his direction.

“What were you doing in the bar so early in the morning, Erik? Have you taken up drinking as well?”

The question took him by surprise and he instinctively drew back. Christine noticed and understood; what was merely a hunch seconds ago, suddenly became the undoubtable truth.

“Who proposed the bet, Erik?”

He fumbled for a reply, but none of his desperate whimpers were words.

“The bet, Erik. Whose idea was it?” she asked again, and her words thundered in the room.

“What does this matter now, Christine?” was his only reply, and he realized his mistake only the next second. Christine didn’t need another explanation.

“It was you, wasn’t it? Of course it was you! It’s always you, the one who toys with our sanity and plays games and sets traps! Old habits die hard, isn’t it, Erik?”

Mr. Y’s confidence melted away and he retreated behind his desk. Pleased with the discovery that put her in such a powerful position, Christine advanced and planted her hands on the other side of the desk, tilting her body towards her old lover.

“My husband has many faults, I admit, but all he ever gambled was our money. You have gambled our lives!” Her tone had grown angry and the last word came out as a downright scream. “Mine and Meg’s and Madame Giry’s! You’ve played us like pawns, stepping on feelings and ripping out hearts, without a single trace of remorse!”

Her words fell like a hammer in the middle of the room. Both stood silent and motionless, breathing harshly. Christine was the first to move; she took the check in her hands, dabbed her fingers on the wooden surface of the desk, as if she was debating whether or not more words were needed, then turned around to leave.

Mr. Y jumped from his spot and sprinted after her.

“Christine!”

She turned a bored gaze in his direction: “What is it?”

“Christine, darling, you can’t leave like this! There must something I could say, something more I could do to change your mind!”

He was too close to her. A hand brushed away her hair and piercing eyes stared into her soul. Christine took a sharp breath and closed her eyes for a moment, as she battled the selfish and oh so ingrate desire to kiss him again. There once had been a night beneath a moonless sky, an arm in which she had laid cradled and a hand with long fingers playing in her hair. There had been a silent declaration and then a childish plea: “Erik, I’m scared of this darkness, can’t we go somewhere where there’s light?” “No, Christine… I’m afraid you’ll leave if you saw me like this in the light.” “But I said I’ll stay! As long as you are with me, I’ll stay…” Nothing else remained from that night. The soft words, the touches, the sensations, everything she thought she remembered was nothing more than a handful of sparks from a fleeting dream that melts in the morning light. All she could recall was the darkness and the shame that consumed her when she woke up alone, deserted and betrayed. And then she was back in her dressing room at Phantasma, looking down at a fallen Raoul, with his scream echoing in her ears and a ghostly wave of pain resonating in her own ribcage…

She looked up at Erik and found him defeated. His jaw trembled and when he spoke again, his voice was strangled, the words barely making their way past the teeth.

“What about the boy?”

Christine sighed. “The truth is, Erik, that Raoul has just as good of a chance to be Gustave’s father as you do. It’s something I’ll never be completely sure of. The only thing I know beyond any doubt, is that I am his mother. Wherever I go, he’ll go with me… And I am not staying here.”

She spoke with confidence and calm, and kept her face impassable. Mr. Y drew back and mumbled her name one more time, but Christine had already decided she had nothing more to say to him, nothing left to do but take her farewell.

“Good bye, Erik. Please don’t think of me.”

She turned around, gripping the check firmly, and walked out with her shoulders straight and her head held high.

○○○

It was a little past midnight when Christine de Chagny found herself in front of yet another door, once again struggling to put order in her thoughts, once again hesitating to knock. The road to the harbor had not been joyful; the only thing she had been capable of after her discussion with Erik was crying, so she sat alone in the carriage, sobbing her heart out, pausing from time to time just to yell at the driver to rush. Then it was time to put an affable face for the ship staff and a reassuring demeanor for Gustave, so by the time she reached Raoul’s door, Christine was tired in every way a human being could be tired. She had considered for a while not seeing him that night, but she felt it was her duty, if not as his wife, then surely as one of the reasons he had been hurt.

“God give me courage…” she muttered and knocked.

“It’s open!” came the answer from inside.

She cracked the door open, peered inside as if unsure of the situation, then closed the door behind her. Raoul was sprawled on his bed, with his head tilted on the pillow and one arm curved around his ribs. When he laid eyes on Christine, he sat up hastily, not without a small wince of pain when he bent over.

“Christine! I thought it might be the steward or something of the like… I wasn’t expecting to see you, I would have dressed more appropriately…”

She smiled, but the smile never reached her eyes.

“It’s all right. I’ve seen you worse.” She was aware of the implications her words held and chose them on purpose. “I just had to come see how you were doing.”

She drew out the only chair in the room and sat down, still closer to the door than to the bed her husband laid on.

Raoul nestled against the pillows, keeping his hand on his chest.

“Well, a doctor did come to see me after you left. The verdict: no broken bones, just plenty of bruising. It will take a while for everything to heal, but there’s no need for further interventions or worries. He just gave me some pills, and God knows I needed them. It only hurts when I breathe…” he spoke the last sentence in an amusing tone, but Christine didn’t react and he came back to a more serious approach. “The steward helped me get dressed. Poor boy, I thought he was going to faint when he saw my ribs.”

“That bad?”

“Personally, I’ve seen much worse. Will look more interesting in a few days, when they will start getting purple. But, like I said, there is no need to worry. I deserved it.”

She looked up at him, her eyes now full of pity.

“Oh, Raoul, don’t say that.”

“No. Don’t you try to excuse me. Hopefully he managed to knock some sense into my stupid head.”

Christine sighed. There was more she wanted to say and she needed all the strength left in her body for it.

“Raoul.” He looked up intrigued and she knew there was no turning back. “I know about the bet.”

“Oh.”

“’Oh’, indeed. Mr. Y told me, trying to use it as a last weapon against you, probably the sole reason why he did it in the first place. And you fell right into the trap!” she scoffed and rolled her eyes, visibly annoyed. “’Looks like the luck hasn’t completely deserted the Vicomte, he won the wager anyway!’ he told me. You fools, you went behind my back and betted on me, like I was nothing more than a prize to be won, like you had any right over me, like any of you blithering idiots deserved me!”

She fell against the chair, with another scoff.

“I was really desperate, Christine… And when I agreed, I think there was a part of me who couldn’t believe you wouldn’t choose me…”

“And it didn’t cross your mind that the only reason he even made the bet was the fact that he thought there’s no way he will lose?” Raoul’s head retreated between his shoulders and he lowered a sheepish gaze to the floor. Christine found strength to chortle. “You men, with your pointless egos, are going to drive this world in its grave.”

Raoul sighed. All the cards were finally on the table.

“And I know about Gustave…”

Christine gripped the back of the chair. She had forgotten about his stingy remark. A sudden exhaustion came over her and she closed her eyes, after taking a deep breath.

“I know he’s probably not my son. Mr. Y told me, before the whole bet thing… My God, Christine, I really am an idiot, aren’t I?”

She didn’t answer the question and for a long moment they sat in tense silence, looking at each other. Then Christine’s tongue found its courage once again.

“I suppose the truth is out now. I’m sorry, Raoul.” She had vowed to never regret her choices, but there was something in her husband’s unsettled face that, combined with the memory of him begging her to leave America, without demanding answers or trying to shame her in any way, that triggered the apology.

“Me too, Christine. I am sorry, too.” A brief pause and then: “Do you still love me, Christine?”

Her body shot upright and she looked at him with scared, teary eyes.

“Please be honest; you don’t have to cover up the truth anymore. I can take it. If the answer is no, then say no. I won’t cry… Not in front of you at least.” His smirk was not appreciated by her, so he continued in a serious tone. “I will accept any answer and will act accordingly.”

His face was of the utmost seriousness. There was comfort in his calm, but the red skin around his jaw was still breaking Christine’s heart.

“I… I don’t know, Raoul.”

He swallowed hard and didn’t wait for another word from her.

“Very well. I know we can work this out somehow, maybe we should sell the estate, that will give you enough money to move away-”x

“Raoul, please shut up,” she interrupted. “You, the way you’ve been these past years… I don’t know you anymore. You ask me if I love you… and I know I loved a Raoul a long time ago, but is he really the same man I am looking at now? Does he exist anymore? Maybe he was never even real, or maybe life broke him and stitched him back all differently…”

Her eyes were full tears and her voice shook. Raoul could hardly manage to control his own voice as well.

“Oh, darling…”

Christine didn’t respond. She turned around, fastened her hands on the back of the chair and let her head fall on top of them, where she started crying quietly.

For a while the room fell silent, aside from Raoul’s tense breathing and Christine’s silent sobs. Eventually she lifted her head, wiped the tears away and looked at her husband. Raoul sat up concerned, but her expression was calm and a smile had crept upon her lips.

“Remember that party we went to years ago? Monsieur and Madame Babineaux, opera patrons.”

Raoul studied her perplexed for a second, then smiled in remembrance.

“Ah, yes. You yelled at me for an entire day to get ready, but the last thing I wanted to do was go to that snobbish gathering.”

“Oh, what a fight we had that day! But under no circumstances I was going alone there. Eventually you complied… and we didn’t speak to each other the whole way there.”

“And when we got there, it was just as bad as I’d expect it to be. I didn’t think I could fake a smile for so long without having a mental breakdown. And the wine was even worse than the people, which was really a low bar…”

“The wine didn’t really bother me all that much, though. I must have drank a whole bottle just myself; I think it was the only time when I was drunker than you. So we left really early, because we couldn’t take it anymore. It was such a hot summer night, that none of us was eager to go to bed, so we just laid on the grass in our garden, looking at the stars and gossiping about every single person we’ve met that night…”

“It’s one of my fondest memories.”

“Mine, too. And if there is any chance the Raoul who laid next to me that night, happy and careless, it’s still there inside you somewhere, then it’s worth looking for him. Who knows, maybe in the process I’ll be lucky enough to also rediscover the Christine I was that night…”

Raoul sat looking lovingly at his wife. There was a warmth spreading across his chest, one that had nothing to do with his injury. He couldn’t quite pinpoint the emotion it was related to, but he decided it must have something to do with being in love. On a whim, he held his free arm in the air in a welcoming gesture and whispered his wife’s name ever so softly, concentrating in his voice all the love he was capable of.

“Christine… would you like to come near?”

She looked at him in pleasant surprise, but shook her head.

“No… no, I should probably go back to my cabin. I promised Gustave I let him sleep in my bed tonight; he keeps saying the monsters in the glass caskets were fascinating in the blue light, but scare him when they appear behind his eyelids. Lord knows what the lunatic has shown him…”

It was a bold choice of adjective, but Raoul didn’t question it and she didn’t take it back.

“All right. But I’ll stay like this for a few more minutes, just in case you change your mind.”

Christine took a deep breath and looked at him; his eyes were searching the ceiling and a playful smile rose on his lips. She couldn’t help but think he looked beautiful.

“My arm is getting tired, so I’ll start a countdown, if you don’t mind.”

She giggled as he started to count down from ten, and by the time he reached five, she was up from her seat and shyly moving towards him. She sat down on the edge of the bed and tentatively ran her fingers through his hair.

“Are you afraid of me, Christine?” he whispered. It was one of his biggest concerns, a situation he would never forget himself for. He immediately regretted asking such a serious question, but he needed to know the truth.

“No…” Christine’s gaze was studying the wooden floor. “I was. You never did anything to hurt me, not physically, at least, but I was afraid anyway. Maybe it was the mother instinct, always ready to protect my child. Or maybe I just liked to think I was the victim, even though I wasn’t, not even by a long shot.” She placed her warm hand over the one he kept on his injured ribs. “But I’m not anymore…” Her eyes found his and the spouses resolutely smiled at each other.

“It’s all right, Christine. I would have been scared too, were I in your place.”

Her fingers gently squeezed his.

“You don’t even know how much it hurt me when he hit…”

Her hand traveled upwards and Raoul convinced himself he saw the faint shadow of a smile fluttering on her lips. She was halfway towards caressing his face when a loud knock on the door made her stop. Raoul shifted his now confused gaze. Christine flinched, turned her head in the direction of the sound at first, then her eyes found Raoul’s again.

“Are you expecting anybody? The steward maybe…?”

Raoul shook his head.

“No, I told him I’m fine and will not need his services until the morning. I don’t see a reason why he would come back, maybe only if he had forgotten something in here-”

The confusion was resolved by a small, tentative voice coming from outside.

“Mama… are you in there?”

Christine’s head swung in that direction. She let a gasp escape her lips, then threw Raoul an annoyed look: see? I told you I have to go. She made a move to leave, but Raoul placed a hand on her knee; a gesture that made her momentarily freeze into place and earned him a glare. He sheepishly removed his hand, with an apologetic look in his eyes and was ready to say something when she cut him off:

“Raoul, what do you want? My child is asking for me, now I really have to go!”

“Dare I say our child is asking for you?”

Her frown eased into a smile and she caressed her husband’s arm. He managed to prop himself on a pillow and gave her an encouraging smile.

“Christine, tell him to come in. If you want.”

The smile his wife gave him made his heart swell. Gustave made another shy inquiry from behind the closed door and Christine shouted back quickly, determined: “I’m in here, Gustave! You can come in!”

The boy peered inside, dressed in his pajamas, with a robe tightly wrapped around him. Christine made a friendly gesture towards him and he approached the bed, shy at first but warming up to his parents’ smiling faces.

“Is Papa still hurting?” he asked in a whisper, when he got close to Christine.

She laughed, pinched his cheek, and replied in a jovial tone:

“You can ask him that yourself, darling. There’s nothing to be scared of.” For the first time in years she was convinced of the truth in her words, and the encouragement towards the boy was very much directed at herself as well.

“But Madame Giry told me he needs to rest…”

Raoul rolled his eyes and made a move towards his son.

“I’ve been laying here ever since we got on the ship. This is rest. No need for you, both of you,” he added, glancing at Christine, “to be concerned about me anymore.”

“Good!” Gustave said and excitedly crawled to the top of the bed, making himself comfortable next to his father. Christine watched him confused, glancing back and forth, from the man to the boy. Gustave noticed and realized an explanation was needed: “Papa has been telling me about his rescue mission at the North Pole. I asked him if he saw any penguins, but we got interrupted.”

Christine smiled and ran her fingers through the boy’s hair, but right as she was about to say something, Raoul’s voice came from the other side of the bed:

“First of all: I told you I was about to go to the North Pole, but that didn’t happen; seems like you haven’t really been listening, monsieur. Second: penguins don’t live at the North Pole.” His tone was stern and Christine’s first reaction was to be concerned, but she soon discovered the touch of playfulness in his words, and Gustave didn’t seem affected by the pretended scolding.

“Then how about the time you were stranded on a coast and saw the ginormous sun coming out of the ocean…?”

“That was in Spain-”

“You were stranded in Spain once?” Christine interrupted.

“It was only for a day and a half, dear. Enough time to learn all the constellations in the sky and see the most beautiful sunrise in my entire life. Could have been avoided if some of the people in our crew were a little bit more intelligent.” The remark drew a laugh out of Gustave and Raoul continued, facing the child: “Penguins are the least of your concerns in Spain, Gustave.”

“What about mermaids? Did you see any mermaids in Spain? Miss Giry said they are real!”

The parents locked concerned eyes for a split of a second.

“I’m afraid mermaids are something you can only see at Phantasma, Gustave,” Raoul replied calmly. “But it’s true I haven’t sailed all the oceans yet.”

“Maybe we can go someday and look for one. Maybe at the North Pole. Or maybe they are in Spain too and you just haven’t paid enough attention!” Gustave said enthusiastically. Christine couldn’t reprise a barely audible sigh, but when Raoul addressed himself again to his son, his voice was just as enthusiastic:

“Of course, we should definitely go out on the sea someday. Maybe not exactly at the North Pole, but Spain is beautiful. I hear they have great opera houses there as well,” he added winking at Christine.

“I want to learn all the constellations, too,” Gustave said, but his voice was now quiet and ended in a yawn. He let his head fall on the closest pillow, but Christine didn’t give him the chance to fall asleep on the spot.

“All right, Gustave, seems like you had enough for today. You are exhausted and I’m taking you to bed.”

Gustave nestled against his pillow. “Can’t I sleep with Papa instead?”

Raoul didn’t miss Christine’s sudden state of alarm. He tried to reassure her with his eyes, but she was too busy coaxing Gustave into getting up to look at her husband.

“Christine…”

“That’s not possible,” she said, speaking only to her son. “Papa needs to rest, you have to be a good boy and not bother him.”

“Christine!”

She looked up, with a touch of annoyance in her eyes that Raoul decided to ignore.

“Darling, I really wouldn’t mind some company… not after the day I had. And I definitely wouldn’t mind if you stayed as well.”

She gave him a look that suggested he was crazy, but it took very little for her to reconsider. The bed was certainly large enough for all three of them, blankets were sufficient, and something about snuggling there promised her a comfort she had been longing for.

“I suppose it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we stayed here...”

Gustave smiled and let out an excited “yes!” that made his mother’s heart sing with joy. Anything to spare him from the nightmares that she knew so tormenting. She calmly took off her own dressing gown and arranged it on the back of the chair, while Raoul removed the duvet.

“There’s one more blanket in the wardrobe, if you need it,” he said and Christine retrieved it.

Gustave was already half asleep, curled on one side near the edge of the bed. Christine slid in between him and her husband, careful at first not to touch either of them, then fitted the fluffiest of pillows under the boy’s head and patted the extra blanket around him, making sure he was as comfortable as possible.

“How are you sitting, Gustave? Are you comfortable? Good. Close your eyes now,” she whispered and dropped a kiss on his forehead.

Oh, the thoughts running through Christine de Chagny’s mind as her hand lingered on her child’s shoulder! She was still not entirely sure how much she could nestle against Raoul, how close to him she allowed herself to be, so she just tilted her head back on the bed board and stroked the boy’s hair. Gustave yawned, then turned to face her and looked up from underneath his cover.

“Mama… can you sing something?”

Christine instinctually put her hand around her throat. She had been doing lots of singing, screaming and crying during the day, and she already felt her voice going coarse. Sore vocal chords sent a small nudging pain through her throat and she felt in dire need of rest.

“Oh, Gustave… Tonight I don’t think it’s possible. I am really sorry, darling, but my voice is very tired… it wouldn’t even sound good,” she added with a resolute smile. Luckily, an idea sprung in her mind, and she turned endearing eyes towards Raoul: “But maybe Papa could tell you a story!”

Raoul involuntarily retreated to the wall, but she didn’t give time to protest: “Come on, Raoul. Use that beautiful head you carry on your shoulders and tell us a bedtime story.”

Gustave giggled from inside his cocoon and for maybe the first time in ten years, Raoul didn’t feel like parenthood exceeded his capabilities. He threw a serious look in Christine’s direction, than addressed her with a theatrically serious tone:

“All right, all right, but first I need you all snuggled up next to him.”

She gave him a confused look and he explained: “It’s a bedtime story, Christine. You need to be in bed.”

Christine complied with a sigh that was more for comedic effect than a genuine gesture; she slid downwards next to Gustave and they both waited patiently for Raoul’s words.

The story turned into an adventure. Pirate ships and storms and elusive sea creatures, mingled in a plot that complicated at every sentence. Christine had turned her back to her husband, cradling Gustave in her arms and rocking him gently from time to time. It had been a while since he hadn’t made a move, except for his chest following the slow rhythm of deep sleep. Raoul was in the middle of describing a battle between characters no one remembered existing before, when he felt Christine’s elbow poking at his side.

“He’s sound asleep, Raoul. You can stop now.”

“But aren’t you curious to find whether the man gets home safely or not? If he can break the curse of the mermaids?”

Christine twisted her head as much as she could in order to face him, without disturbing Gustave. “Me? I-”

“Don’t tell me you weren’t paying attention!”

“I was, I just- Raoul, after the third treasure map they found, I got the feeling it was you who stopped paying attention.”

That drew a laugh from him, but he immediately recomposed himself. “He will escape with one of the safe boats. The road home will take… some more years,” he said, while snuggling between the pillows, on his side of the bed, “but he will get home eventually. He had promised his wife she’ll see him again, not matter what it takes, didn’t he?”

Christine scoffed and turned away from him, lowering her head towards Gustave.

“Christine, I didn’t mean…”

“Of course you didn’t. Listen, Raoul, I don’t believe in fairytales anymore. I’m tired of hoping for happy endings, I cannot allow myself to hope anymore… Do you understand this? I’ve grown so scared of a new deception, that it might be the blow that throws me into insanity, the one that will make me fall apart for good… I cannot allow that to happen, Raoul. Not while I still have Gustave to take care of.”

Raoul sighed. “You are right. I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do right now, anything at all? I’m not talking vows and declarations anymore, no promises for a future we will never be able to predict… In this very moment, the only one that matters, Christine, is there anything I could do?”

Her arms convulsed around Gustave’s shoulders. A moment of peace so close… all she had to do was reach for it.

“In this moment… I want you to put your arm around me, Raoul.”

“Oh, darling… definitely.”

She felt him shift beside her, but the position she was in did not allow her to see what he was doing. Raoul slid down and scooped up the remaining blanket with his feet, from the bottom of the bed. Christine had closed her eyes in pleasant expectation; Raoul flung the blanket over his wife and carefully patted it around her, shielding her from any draughts. Her whole body shivered underneath the warmth, shaking off the last layer of her defense. Then she felt his palm trailing from the apex of her shoulder to the curve of her waist; it should have been a source of alarm, but there was nothing selfish in his touch, no hidden intentions. He placed his arm over her ever so gently and she melted against the warmth her body provided. The weight of his arm was pinning her down, away from that horrible world of ethereal nightmares that made her wake up in a sweat, with her pulse running and no recollection what made her so afraid. Finally, after many nights of longing, Christine Daaé felt at peace.

“Tell me if any of this hurts,” she demanded.

Raoul sighed. With her so close, in spirit as well as in flesh, the concept of pain ceased to exist for him.

“Christine, I know I have no right to ask for your trust anymore, but I dare to promise this time we really are going home.”

She tilted her head towards him, the only affectionate gesture she could think of from the position she was in.

“Oh dear… Then that will be one promise you don’t have to worry about keeping. I am home already.”