“Devil take the...” He’s halfway through his proposal and has long since closed the distance between the pair. Raoul’s head is foggy, to say the least. His limbs feel loose and heavy, somehow even more so when his old enemy reaches out to grip them with painful force. They pull each other closer and Raoul can feel the heat of him. It’s strange, somehow—it had never occurred to him that such a man might be warm. His mouth is running faster than his head, automatically defending both his wife and his pride. (There wasn't much difference anymore; his own pride had disappeared in Monte Carlo along with the rest of his fortune.) He thinks of his wife, of what she’d say of this...man. His voice (he can see why she’d had fallen to him, Faustian bargain as this appears to be; the man has the voice of devils and angels alike), his hands (he can still feel the man’s hands on his forearms, even after the few moments they’ve parted), his movements (ever fluid, even as his proposition continues).
Raoul’s lips are making promises his head hasn’t fully thought over and his head is currently thinking over making promises he shouldn’t keep.
So he silences them both.
Raoul’s eyes are squeezed shut and his hands are grasping at the man’s shoulders as though he’d fall without them (and perhaps he would).
Erik’s eyes are more open than they’ve been in years, and he swears it feels like a trap, but the vicomte tastes like bourbon and lost hope and is clinging to him like he— he! —has answers. He takes a step back, the viscount following, opening his eyes just enough to keep him from stumbling. He smiles, and Erik knows the vicomte is too drunk to recognize the full implications of this, knows he’ll wake up the next morning disgusted with himself. Still, the vicomte presses forward, just the touch of a thumb on his jaw, and Erik swallows.
“Why?” Erik asks, waiting for the vicomte to reveal it to be some cruel joke.
“Had you never wondered what she had seen in me?” Raoul asks, eyes gleaming. “I had always wondered what she saw in you…” He glances down, releasing the other. “Oh God... Christine ,” he whispers, full of shame yet devoid of disgust.
“Perhaps another drink, Vicomte, and we can both forget this evening,” Erik offers, surprising both of them with his sincerity.
“No.” Raoul shakes his head furiously, grabbing his suit jacket. “No. I’m entirely tired of trying to forget.” He brushes past the man, almost to the door.
“Vicomte!” Erik calls, and Raoul pauses. “This...was not my intention tonight,” he explains, more desperately than he ever has.
“I know,” Raoul replies softly, before continuing out, refusing to look back.
Christine is staring at him like he’s gone mad. Perhaps he has.
And then Christine is forcing a glass of water into his hands, making him sit as he downs it. She is beside him, and he’s still wiping at his eyes from trying to explain it to her.
“I cannot imagine asking for your forgiveness, but please believe me when I say that I did not do it to harm you.” He takes a breath. “I don’t know why I did it, I understand if—”
“I have something to tell you, something you’ve deserved to know since before our marriage,” she begins suddenly, taking his hand in hers and kissing the back of it. “Before we married, I set out to find him… it didn’t feel right , just leaving him to the mob, in those sewers .” She squeezes his hand lightly, and he sets his glass aside to give her his other. “I found him, and I loved him, and he left me before morning…”
Raoul goes pale, his entirety sinking into the sofa. “Did you not-- not love, then?” he asks, and brings his hands closer to her. “Do you not love me now? Have you ever--”
“Of course I did!” she insists, eyes glittering with tears. “I loved you then and I still love you now, I just-- I also loved him, I think I may still, but it never lessened our bond… I know it must be difficult to believe me but--”
“I believe you, fully.” he assures, still with the other man’s taste on his tongue. “The past few days have been…”
“To say the least,” Raoul finishes, leaning forward and kissing his wife’s forehead. “I’m sorry for tonight, let us at least rest a few hours together?”
“That isn’t all,”
“—Is the boy I raised, we raised,” he assures, and Christine releases a breath she’s been holding for ten years. “And if we are to take him all about New York tomorrow, or--or, today? Then we will need to sleep.” He pulls her to him, resting his cheek in her hair.
Raoul wakes late, his wife fully-dressed on his bedside.
“You looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to disturb you,” she explains, running her fingers through his messy hair.
“Bad dreams?” he asks, sitting up.
“No,” she replies wistfully. “Meg called this morning, asked to show Gustave and I around the city.”
“That sounds splendid,” he begins, mind foggily recalling vague memories of their brief meeting before. “You should go,”
“You’ll be all right here alone?” Christine asks, and Raoul takes her hand in his, kissing the back of it.
“Of course I will, don’t deprive yourself on my account,” he insists.
She smiles as she rises. “I love you. We’ll be back in a few hours; perhaps we can have dinner together. All of us.
“Vicomte...we should talk.”
Raoul recognizes that voice, knows exactly what this conversation is going to be, and yet still dares to reply to the man (who had taken it upon him to suddenly appear in his hotel room) with--
“How did you get in here?” he asks, and he does not move from his position on the sofa. He’s half-dressed, not having bothered to fully do so under the assumption that he would not be receiving guests until his wife returned with Miss Giry.
“That does not matter, not now, we need to--”
“No, it does matter; my wife and child sleep in this room, if the locks are faulty--”
Erik sighs, but explains, “I am an influential figure in this area. The doorman gave me a key.”
“I did not hear you come in.”
“I am quiet when necessary. Now, we need to talk about last ni—”
“—This morning— ”
“Do you not take the revelation that you enjoy the pleasures of men seriously?” Erik demands, Raoul not bothering to even flinch from his position on the sofa.
“I was in the navy, Monsieur . I haven’t taken the prospect seriously since I was a teenager.”
“...Have you been drinking?”
“Not a drop since we last met. Have you ?” Raoul quips, and the other sneers.
“You’re playing with me,” Erik mutters, unable to meet the vicomte’s eyes.
“If I recall correctly, you were trying to play with me this morning.”
“That was different.”
“How so?” Raoul asks, relaxing against the back of the sofa as the man nears.
“The bargain wasn’t meant to be for...it wasn’t like—”
“It was a game to ‘win’ Christine from a drunken man, as though she were poker chips.”
“It’s not like that—”
“For a man who screamed for the world to recognize his humanity, you seem incapable of doing the same for anyone else,” Raoul counters, and Erik looms over him.
“You are playing with me.”
Raoul smiles. “A...different kind of game, if you recall.” Raoul tilts his head up to meet Erik’s eye.
“So it did not...matter to you, then?” Erik whispers.
“Define matter ,” Raoul dares, glancing to the empty spot beside him before meeting the man’s eyes once more.
“You do not love m—”
“Don’t confuse curiosity with love.”
“So you do not care for me?” Erik asks desperately.
“I didn’t say that.” Raoul rises, stepping towards the star map that cleverly disguised his bottle of bourbon. “You’re...a very strange man to care for,” he begins, pouring two glasses before turning back to find Erik frozen where he stood.. Raoul offers a glass as he continues, sipping at his own. “Though I suppose I should in some capacity; it seems like everyone is in love with you nowadays…” He gestures to the sofa and hands him a glass.
“What are you talking about?” Erik demands softly, overwhelmed by the situation at hand. Raoul plops down beside him, leaning against the arm opposite of the former opera ghost.
“Christine, Meg...me, apparently.” Raoul sips, amused.
“What do you mean of Miss Giry?”
“If my memory serves me correctly—which it’s possible that it might not, I do terrible things when I’m drunk,” he sips at his bourbon with a sly grin, and Erik quickly glances away, sipping at his own. “—then Miss Giry, in her infinite wisdom, advised me to leave with Christine before you could further entwine her in your web of seduction, or something suchlike , my head was pounding at the time.”
“But not when—”
“You are an increasingly sobering experience,” Raoul interrupts, watching the man nearly squirm as he awaits his desperate exposition. “It seemed, from Miss Giry’s implications, that you had also managed to catch her.”
“Web of seduction? Yes...somehow. Personally I can’t see it, but—”
“So you did not care then?”
“Not finding you particularly seductive does not mean I am devoid of compassion for you. You’re hardly seductive when you’re trying.”
“And when I’m not?” It escapes him without thought, and he glances to his still-full glass of bourbon in surprise.
“Christine had always said you were a genius, before your supposed death. It is rare that I doubt the judgement of my wife.” Raoul watches the man shift from confusion to indignant anger. “I’ve always loved Christine’s voice. I could listen to her speak for hours…”
“Yes, she has a spectacular voice, one of angels--” Erik perks up at the opportunity to speak fondly of her, but is quickly interrupted.
“Perhaps I have a type…” Raoul watches as the man retreats.
“ You are playing with me. ”
“ A different game , and this time I haven’t a thing to lose,” Raoul brags, setting his glass down.
“You don’t know that,” Erik warns darkly, looking to Raoul’s nearly full glass and setting down his own.
“You’re not going to kill me, and you aren’t going to hurt my wife or child...what else is there left to lose?” Raoul dares, and it feels like teasing the devil into a bargain.
“How sure are you of all of that?” Erik asks, leaning towards the vicomte as he lowers his voice.
“As sure as I can be. I do terrible things when I’m drunk.”
Erik glances once more to the vicomte’s glass before his attention is drawn by his voice.
“My wife and I have been more open and honest with one another in the past day than we have in years.”
“You still love her, then?” Erik asks, eyes dancing to the vicomte's lips.
“Of course. I never stopped, and I certainly wouldn’t now,” Raoul answers just as softly as he was asked.
“So you do not care for me then?” Erik breathes.
“I contain multitudes, Mister Y.” Raoul sighs pleasantly. “What kind of name is Mister Y. anyway?”
“I thought it was obvious; it’s like mystery . Answer my question,” Erik demands, hand flexing at his side.
“That’s not how you spell mystery ,” Raoul chuckles, eyes sparkling.
“You’re mocking me, why ?”
“Because you haven’t killed me yet.”
They’re both aware of their closeness, have been since they started inching nearer and nearer to one another. Raoul rests against the arm of the sofa, as relaxed as though he weren’t sitting next to a murderer. Erik stares at him with an intensity to rival the sun and flexes his clenched hands. Raoul meets his eye, awaiting a response that he knows will be interesting , in the least.
The one he gets shouldn’t be unexpected, but it is.
Erik’s hand is at Raoul’s throat and Raoul is gasping for breath despite the other having yet to squeeze. They’re deadly close, and Raoul’s skin nearly burns him. His pulse shouldn’t surprise him, but it does. It feels strange to be so close to the living, so close to the living when he hasn’t given this man anything . He gave Christine his music, his heart and soul , and begged her to love him. He’s given this man nothing but strife and petty dares and yet he remains still under his touch, pulse quickening, but expression ever unchanging. He cannot imagine the man pitying him, but this cannot be desire . Desire is a dirty, bought kind of thing when in the open. It is the worst of humanity’s greed, a surface-level want that anyone can feel, Persian nobles and wealth-hoarding New Yorkers alike. He had to sacrifice the entirety of his self for Christine’s, and even then, he was left him too ashamed to bask in it. The Vicomte’s Raoul’s , though, seems to be given freely. But that cannot be correct.
Nevertheless, Erik doesn’t bother to inquire what price Raoul will inevitably exact for this.
His hand travels from the vicomte’s throat to his jaw, cupping it lightly as Erik gets used to the feeling, and Raoul smiles lazily. He gasps as Raoul places a hand atop his thigh, steadying himself as he moves closer.
“No tricks then?” Erik whimpers.
“I am not the magician in this equation…” Raoul whispers back.
Erik releases a nervous breath, unsure of the next step. He had only ever kissed someone thrice, and each time the other had initiated the action. It seemed simple enough, but nothing terrified Erik as much as mediocrity. He takes a breath, unsure if he’ll truly need it, and presses his lips (uneven and deformed as they are) to Raoul’s.
It is awkward and terrible and wonderful all at once. He had assumed it wouldn’t take him by surprise if he was the one doing it, but he had never been so pleased to be wrong. Raoul leans into it, his other hand steadying himself on Erik’s shoulder, and for the first time in a long time he feels as though he has nothing to hide. His fingers travel to the roots of the vicomte’s hair and Raoul shivers against him, breaking away for a moment. Erik tenses, expecting some reparation for his lack of experience, and finds the other collapsed against the back of the sofa, panting and running a hand through his hair.
“Was it not--”
“No,” Raoul interrupts, closing his eyes for a moment. “It was...good.”
“Were you not expecting it to be?” Erik asks, damn-near hurt by the sentiment.
“I was expecting you to choke me to death, to be quite honest.”
“I could have,” Erik whispers, retreating to his side of the sofa.
“I know,” Raoul watches him as he reaches for his glass.
“Don’t!” Erik exclaims, surprising even himself. “ You do terrible things when you’re drunk, ” he echoes. The vicomte sets his glass down and watches him curiously.
Erik presses forward, positioning himself above the vicomte, his knee between the other’s thighs. He grips his chin, the vicomte flushing lightly against his hand. Something changes behind the Phantom’s eyes, and he crashes his lips back against the vicomte’s. One hand entwines its fingers in Raoul’s hair, the other still gripping his chin.
Raoul, in turn, concerns himself with pushing Erik’s suit jacket off his shoulders. Erik’s been terribly overdressed for the entire interaction and that simply wasn’t fair . He unbuttons it, and Erik pulls it the rest of the way off with a frustrated vigor that surprises Raoul until he realizes how intent on holding his attention he is. Raoul presses against him, nipping at his lip, traces a few fingers down Erik’s throat, tugging at his tie until Erik captures his hands.
“ Vicomte ,” Erik whispers, a warning or a threat, and Raoul doesn’t bother to determine which as he presses his lips to his neck. Erik whimpers, fingers gripping the vicomte’s hair with an intensity that he knows must hurt, but cannot stop regardless. Raoul continues his assault, lips traveling as low as they could with Erik still dressed, and it isn’t until he feels Erik’s nails against his scalp that he pulls away. He whimpers, and Erik releases him, taking his chin once more.
“That title is rather worthless these days,” Raoul mutters, meeting his gaze as Erik smiles.
“Hardly,” Erik teases, fingers tracing from his chin, down his neck, and to Raoul’s undone shirt. “My, what a position the Vicomte de Chagny has found himself in…” he continues in the same taunting tone he had in the bar, voice deep and smooth...even, despite the circumstances .
Perhaps he is Mephistopheles.
He slips a hand beneath Raoul’s shirt, eyes locked with his as it travels back to his throat. “How you’ve changed ,” Erik muses, a new note in his voice.
Raoul frowns at that, glancing off as he speaks. “None of us are the people we once were.” His attention centers back on Erik as he squeezes.
“Perhaps not…” Eriks whispers lowly, thumb tracing over a vein. “Not all change has to be bad, though.” He kisses him tenderly, hand relaxed, but still present on his throat. “I rather like this change,” he murmurs against his lips.
“You seem rather certain of it being a recent development,” Raoul counters just the same.
“Was it not?” Erik asks in earnest, and Raoul smiles.
“Your voice was...not relegated to just my nightmares,” he replies, flushing a bit, observing the other for a moment, about to speak when--
The lock is turning, and Erik is tearing himself off of Raoul as it opens. Christine Daaé is carrying her sleeping son and Meg Giry is carrying a bag from some deli and both of their eyes are jumping from Raoul to Erik to Erik’s suit jacket on the ground and then back to Raoul and Erik.
“ Raoul ,” Christine whispers, and it’s a warning .
“ Go , ” Raoul mouths, placing a hand on Erik’s knee as his wife rushes past the pair and into her child’s room, setting Gustave to bed while managing not to wake him, and closing his door. Meg lurks at the edge of the room, unsure what to do, and uncomfortable in the silence.
“I can go…” she offers, glancing to Erik nervously before looking to Raoul. “We can do dinner some other night, before you leave.”
“I do not think that will be necessary, Miss Giry,” Erik utters in a ludicrously professional tone. He rises as Christine enters, quickly darting for the door as she looks to him imploringly. Meg sets the bag on a side table, then picking up Erik’s suitcoat.
“I should go,” she begins. Christine sighs, and Meg is pulling her into a hug before she can speak. “We’ll dine together before you leave, even if it’s just a quick breakfast before your ship back home is off, all right?” she assures, holding onto her friend as though she wasn’t sure that was true. They part, and Meg rushes out the door, Raoul and Christine now alone to contemplate the situation at hand.
“Mister Y!” Meg nearly shouts, barrelling down the staircase of the hotel, Erik just a flight below her. “Wait-- Slow down at least! ” she continues, nearly out of breath. He pauses, finally , and at last Meg manages to catch up. Only then does she notice how quiet and secluded this particular staircase is.
“What you saw cannot leave that room,” he warns, or perhaps threatens .
“I would never do such a thing. Not to the Vicomte, not to Christine, not to you ,” Meg assures him quickly, hurt by the near-accusation. She offers him his jacket, and Erik’s eyes brighten as he takes it, then darken again as he steps nearer.
“The Vicomte said you had told him to leave, with Christine ,” he begins, and Meg has to tilt her head back to meet his gaze. “Why? Afraid she’d overshadow your performance ?” he sneers.
Meg looks away at that, but mutters lowly, “I’ve worked incredibly hard to get Phantasma to where it is. I deserve a bit of the spotlight for myself…” She raises her eyes back to his. “And you weren’t the only one who loved her,” she says, quiet but strong, and Erik softens.
“...I did not know...”
“You don’t know a lot of things,” she agrees, emboldened by his attention. “You don’t even know Christine, do you?” Erik opens his mouth to speak before being promptly interrupted. “ I did . Before you ever heard her sing, I knew her.”
“None of us are the people we once were,” he mutters, stepping back, and Meg follows.
“Maybe we aren’t, but you don’t just stop loving someone because they’ve changed ,” she insists, reaching towards him before pausing and stepping back. Silence stretches between them like so much molasses and she sighs, descending another flight without him before she is beckoned back by his voice.
“The Vicomte also mentioned something else…” he begins, slowly descending the stairs until he’s beside her. “Have you something to tell me, Miss Giry?” he asks softly, and she can feel his breath against her hair.
“I don’t know what he could have heard, all I said was to leave before…” she whispers, and she can feel him chuckle softly.
“Before...what, Miss Giry ?” he purrs.
“I--I must go rehearse, for tonight,” Meg insists as she rushes down another flight of steps.
“ Miss Giry! ” he calls, and she freezes in place as he moves to stand beside her once more. “I’m sure you’ve rehearsed plenty, we should talk ...somewhere more... private .”
Christine is staring at him like he’s gone mad, and perhaps he has.
“What...happened?” she asks, sitting across from him. He reaches for his glass, and she winces.
He sets the glass down and runs a hand through his hair. “He just...showed up here, got a key from the doorman apparently, demanded answers of me that I did not have...When you went to him, all those years ago, had you intended to--”
“No!” she sputters, surprising even herself. “No, I had just wanted to make sure he was alright, but we began to talk, and it was dark and his voice --”
“Do you feel betrayed?” Raoul asks desperately, eyes dancing from his glass to his wife.
“I’ve no right to, do I?”
“You've a perfect right to,” he says, needing her to understand. “I encouraged him, I could have stopped him, he-- he would have stopped, and I didn’t because--”
“You wanted it, too?” she finishes, and Raoul sighs. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t, don’t apologize, no more apologies ,” Raoul insists, beckoning his wife to him. She sits beside him, cheek against his shoulder.
“What are we going to do?” she asks softly, Raoul holding her closer.
“I don’t know. But whatever happens, Christine...” he whispers, desperate to meet her gaze, “...I won’t leave you to face it alone.”
Meg Giry is standing in the threshold of his apartment, and it isn’t until he turns to beckon her that she feels it appropriate to enter. She’s been here before, shaken him out of composing frenzies to make meetings, but never invited . She steps lightly, the controlled steps of a dancer, and keeps her eyes down. She turns as she hears the door shut, meeting his gaze as he gestures to a chair in what would be a sitting room, were he the sort of man to entertain guests. She sits, hands together in her lap, as he looms over her.
“Is what the vicomte told me true?” he asks, tone low as the lighting.
“What did he tell you?” she asks in turn, discreetly picking at a nail.
“ Miss Giry… ” he taunts, and it’s the same tone that had first drawn her to him. The one she had heard, not in the opera house, but in the ship they had booked passage on. The kind of voice that echoed in dark passages on stormy nights as she snuck food back to their cramped quarters “ Tell me the truth. ”
She peers up at him, the white of his mask being all that’s visible, save for his eyes. “I don’t see why it matters,” Meg mutters, taking a breath before sighing.
“So it is true, then?” he asks softly.
“I am not so self-sacrificial as to give all that I have for someone I didn’t...love, in the least.” She stills her hands, eyes trying desperately to decipher his reaction in the dark. He takes a step back, and the outline of his mask dissolves into the darkness. She leans forward, trying to find him before--
“And what exactly have you done?” he asks, and it sounds like he is standing in front of her, though she can feel his breath upon her hair.
“ Everything ,” she spits, and the vitriol surprises even her. “The investors, the politicians, the land ...Do you honestly think that all came as easily as it did, without a cost?” She rises and turns, hand furiously searching the dark for him. “I’ve given up everything to help you, everything . I could have toured!” She turns once more, pressing forward in her search for him. “Or taught,” she continues, wincing as she bumps a shin into a table, but continuing nonetheless. “Or, God , the baron ...he’d have married me, let me keep dancing until we had children… I was good , I am good…”
“Miss Giry...” His voice is coming from the opposite side of the room, but she knows that can’t be right. “What did you do ?”
“No, don’t do that .” She sobs. “Don’t make me say it, and do not force your pity upon me. I want none of it.”
“ Meg. ” It’s a whisper. He stands before her and she reaches out, hand finding his shoulder. “Why?”
“We make choices and they become habits and then it doesn’t feel right to stop, not when you’re so close… ” she answers as honestly as she can through tears. “And we wait lifetimes for people who can’t afford to care about us and act surprised when they disappoint us, despite the fact that it’s become a habit for them as much as it has for us.” She swallows, stepping away, and finds him invisible in the dark once more.
“Meg, I--” he begins softly, stepping towards her and into the setting sunlight that barely streams through the curtains. “It isn’t that I don’t care at all, it’s just that—”
“You love Christine.”
“—I didn’t know ,” he finishes, and Meg is wiping desperately at her eyes. “I didn’t think you would, to be honest, I didn’t think anyone would. Christine was…”
“It’s always Christine, isn’t it?” Meg mutters bitterly, turning away. “Until it’s the vicomte .”
“You don’t understand, that was as surprising to me as it is to you. I am... not often accustomed to people’s desires, least of all in this abundance, and certainly not without having--” He stops himself, and Meg meets his eye once more.
“Given the entirety of your self to them, for them?” she finishes, sigh slipping into a wistful laugh.
“Meg...I cannot understand why you, or-or the vicomte would...Christine and I are—are— we share the music , but--”
“Not I...or Raoul , for that matter,” Meg offers.
“That does not mean that--” he pauses, and she glances back towards where they had entered.
“Call is soon,” she mutters, and Erik sighs.
“Leave then, if you must .” He waves her off, and she pauses in the threshold for a moment before he disappears into the darkness of his apartment once more.
“We could disappear, you know.” Raoul offers as Christine powders her cheeks. “Move to Sweden, never speak to anyone but the locals again.”
“We need the money,” Christine insists, though her eyes brighten at the idea. “And...I can’t do that to him. One last song, and then perhaps…”
“How sure are you that he’ll let you leave?” Raoul asks, and Christine freezes.
“He won’t hurt me,” she whispers, her tone betraying her.
“How sure are you that you’ll want to leave?” Raoul continues, meeting her uncertain gaze in the mirror. “I know I have not--”
“Raoul, we’ve both been--”
“I know there are parts of you, important ones, that I cannot provide for. I’ve deprived you of more than pride or jewels, I know… I just don’t know how to let you go, even if I knew it would make you happy.”
“It wouldn’t,” she assures.
“ What ?” he begs.
“It wouldn’t, not for long...”
“You cannot live in a world of artifice and beauty forever. It’s like a dream, his world, and I don’t want to be asleep forever but--”
“You need to rest.” Raoul sighs, kneeling before his wife as he had so many years ago when they were younger, happier, and so naive. “But...you will come back to me?”
She nods, taking his hands in hers. “And if I don’t, promise to kiss me awake?” she whispers, all but the image of her former self.
“ Little Lotte .” He kisses her, and once again he feels like a young patron, and she the rising star. “ Say you love me.”
“You know I do,” she whispers against his lips, following him as he rises.
“Will you be all right here?” he asks, nuzzling her hair.
“Of course. Will you be watching?”
“Of course, I just wanted to find Gustave...perhaps buy some flowers for you and Miss Giry.”
“Oh, Meg , I had nearly forgotten about her performance tonight! Give her my best, in case I don’t see her?” Christine asks, running a thumb over the back of his hand.
“I will. I’ll see you after the performance?” Raoul asks, pressing his lips to the back of her hand.
“Yes, meet me here,” she instructs before pulling him closer. She kisses him until both are out of breath and she has to pad lipstick off of him before letting him go.
“Why can’t we stay with Mother until she goes on?” Gustave asks as Raoul hands the florist just enough money for two roses: one red, one pink.
“Because performers need time to themselves to get ready. There’s makeup and costumes, and getting into character, and besides, we must catch Miss Giry’s performance as well,” he explains, watching Gustave closely as they begin to near Phantasma once more.
“I think I’d like to be a performer one day...or, or maybe a composer!” Gustave muses, looking to his father hopefully. “Could I?”
“Well,” Raoul begins heavily. “You’ll have to practice a lot, start from the chorus and such, but in time, if you work hard enough, perhaps .”
“Oh really, Papa?” Gustave asks excitedly and Raoul wipes at his eyes. Gustave hadn’t called him papa since he was six, at least.
“Yes, yes, of course ,” he assures, leading his son through the backstage of the theatre.
Meg is panting. The number isn’t the most physically intensive, but the excitement of it had gotten to her. Her mother is waiting in the wings for her, and Meg gladly takes the offered robe.
“How do you think it went over?” Meg asks, tying her robe over her undergarments. She hadn’t been completely naked under her costumes, but the umbrella had given that impression to the crowd. “The audience seemed to like it enough, but do you think that was just shock?”
“They were cheering long before the final change,” Madame Giry assured.
“Do you think he was watching?”
Madame Giry sighs. “I suspect not,” she says carefully, watching her daughter closely.
“Figures,” Meg sighs apathetically. “How long until Christine goes on?”
“Well, I’ll get dressed and try to catch the tail end of it if I can.” Meg glances to the rafters, then paces towards her dressing room.
“Are you sure you’ll be all right, mon petit cygne ?”
“Oh, I’ll be fine, Mother; I’m always fine,” Meg assures, waving to her mother. “It’s just rather drafty.”
Meg Giry is halfway through dressing when she notices an envelope on her vanity, and she almost trips on her own stockings trying to open it. She makes herself finish dressing before opening, if not to avoid injury.
My apologies for not congratulating you in person, but I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude for your work all these years. I am not...always the most insightful of companions, but I hope you can forgive that of me.
May we speak again when both of us are of better temperaments and circumstances,
Meg sighs, pushing the note carefully into her pocket as someone knocks at her door.
“Yes?” she calls, and the door opens, Gustave barrelling through and nearly running into her.
“Gustave, slow down , Miss Giry isn’t going anywhere,” Raoul huffs.
“Vicomte, what a pleasant surprise. I’d have thought you’d be seated already for Christine’s number,” Meg laughs, smiling as Raoul politely kisses the back of her hand before rising.
“No, we’re watching from the wings, and Christine insisted that I send you her best,” Raoul answers, producing the pink rose with a fond grin.
“Oh, thank you!” Meg beams, sniffing the flower. “I suppose that means she didn’t catch my act?”
“I suspect not, preparations and such,” Raoul answers, Gustave tugging at Meg’s skirts.
“Miss Giry, how ever did you change your costumes so fast?” Gustave asks excitedly, Meg chuckling nervously.
“Snaps and such,” she explains quickly, glancing to Raoul.
“You have so many bathing suits, can you teach me how to swim?” Gustave asks, and Meg can’t help but laugh outright at that.
“Well, I don’t know,” she answers honestly. “I don’t know how long you’ll be staying, swimming can be hard to learn.”
“Papa, can we stay long enough to learn to swim?” Gustave asks, and Raoul sighs.
“That depends on a lot of things...but I promise you’ll get to learn eventually, all right?”
“Alright...but I’d rather learn it from Miss Giry.” Gustave pouts.
“I’m sure you would. What if, for now, we watched your mother sing?” Raoul offers, taking his son’s hand. “Miss Giry, would you like to accompany us?”
“Certainly,” she agrees, taking his arm as he leads the three of them to a wing just as the crowd hushes.
She’s missed this : singing, singing his music, the crowd, the art of it all. She pulls the notes from deep within her soul, a hidden place that she had kept for just herself, and it feels like stretching after a long journey. That kind of comforting ache that fills your entirety. She feels as though she’s soaring, soaring amongst the stars, and it fills her with such awe and dread that she’s terrified to look down.
But still, a warm presence fills the air. Christine turns, finding her husband and son standing beside her dearest old friend. Meg discreetly waves and Raoul mouths an I love you as she forces herself to focus once more on her performance. Their support nearly brings her to tears as she continues her song, breath swarming into her lungs in a hearty gasp that only further strengthens her.
It escapes her all at once: the tears and drinks and longing and the forgiveness , the years of yearning and coping, of missing her friend, of missing her husband , of missing her angel , and it’s then that she meets his gaze and he’s crying and so too is she as she completes his song. The audience is silent for a few moments after she finishes, but slowly they rise into their applause, Christine bowing for them and waving as the curtain closes. A songbird has fled its cage, but it’s soon to return. She rushes past stagehands, thanking them as they congratulate her, and sighs deeply as she closes her dressing room door.
She sinks into her vanity chair and pulls off the gloves, barely a chance to flex her fingers in the chilled air before she notices him .
“You were magnificent tonight,” he begins, hesitantly setting a hand upon her shoulder, but smiling when she reaches up to meet it. She turns, standing slowly and taking his hand in hers.
“Your song was beautiful, and I felt beautiful and whole ,” she whispers, melting against him as he cups her cheek. “And alive .”
“All those years, alone in my composition…” he mutters, mask awkwardly against her forehead as he nears, pausing before his lips can meet hers. “To hear it, finally .” He presses forward, lips capturing hers before retreating for a breath. She grasps him, kissing him back with all the lost love and time and fury of ten years, and all the tenderness that bloomed at the beginning of their relationship.
Raoul turns his attention to Meg as Christine makes her exit, offering his spare hand to her and gesturing for his son to follow. “Join us, to congratulate her?” he asks.
Meg sighs sadly, but nods. “Of course.” She takes his hand. Gustave tugs at her skirt.
“Don’t you think mother was lovely?” he asks excitedly, and Meg sighs.
“ Heavenly ,” she replies as sweetly as she can manage. Raoul squeezes her hand softly as they approach the dressing room, then promptly releasing her.
“Miss Giry, would you mind watching Gustave? I’d like a moment alone with my wife,” Raoul asks, taking a deep breath as he fiddles with the ribbon he had tied onto his red rose.
“Right,” Meg agrees. “Just a couple of minutes?”
“Just a couple of minutes,” he assures, hand on the doorknob as she retreats, Gustave nearly bouncing with excitement as he chatters away at Meg.
He enters, and his wife is cupping Erik’s face, eyes pressed shut as she kisses him. Raoul’s hand tightens around the step of the rose, thorns pressing against his skin, but he does not notice. The pair of them pull away at once, Erik glaring at him, near to speech when he’s interrupted.
“Little Lotte,” Raoul begins, Christine finally meeting his eye. “ Do you wish to wake? ” he whispers as she nears, burying her face in his chest. He presses a cheek against her hair as he holds her.
“Not yet,” she whispers against him. “ Please forgive me , but not yet .”
Raoul pulls away, kissing her forehead and handing her the rose. “Return home to me at midnight?” he offers, then taking a hand and pressing his lips to the back of it. “If you feel safe here alone, that is,” he adds, glancing then to the other man.
“ Midnight? ” Christine sighs, setting the rose down and kissing her husband softly. “Midnight then,” she agrees, pulling away until just their hands touch.
“Don’t let your mind wander too far ,” Raoul warns, squeezing her hand reassuringly before releasing her.
Christine sets the rose down as he bows. “Tell Gustave that...that I have to stay late negotiating my contract,” she instructs as he kisses the back of her hand before releasing it.
“I will, I’m sure he’ll be rather tired anyway,” Raoul assures her, glancing at Erik for a moment before making his exit. Christine is frozen where she stands, watching the closed door for just a moment too long before finally wiping at her eyes.
“Midnight,” Christine interrupts. “We have until midnight…” she sinks into her vanity chair once more.
“And then...you return to him ?” Erik demands as she pulls her necklace off. “Back to his debts and drinking and gambli--”
“From what I’ve heard, you’re a gambler yourself...and you don’t play for coins,” Christine dares, pulling pins out of her hair. “You had intended to make a bet to see who would win me...as though I were poker chips.” She meets his gaze in the mirror.
“It wasn’t like that--”
“No, it was...We aren’t in Paris anymore, I cannot disappear for you . I have a position and a marriage and a child --”
“You soared tonight, and you would let him clip your wings once more?” Erik asks desperately as she rises.
“He is my husband ,” Christine begins, detaching the train from her dress and laying it across the vanity. “And even the strongest of songbirds cannot fly forever, I have to rest,” she continues strongly, facing him as she should have all those years ago. “And I love him.”
“And do you not…” he trails off into a whisper.
“Don't say that,” she insists, taking his hand in hers. “I had thought you might understand, I could not rid myself of my love for him and I don’t want to.” She traces a thumb over the back of his hand before releasing it and stepping away. “But understand this, Erik: I will never forgive you if you hurt him again. You cannot split us so that you may have me to yourself. I have loved that boy since before you ever knew me, and I do not intend upon stopping now.”
“I...I won’t,” he promises softly, distantly. “I don’t even know if I could , not now…"
Christine sighs; this afternoon's revelations were a discussion for another time when Raoul was present. This time was for them . “I really must change,” she announces after a few moments of silence. “I would hate for anything to happen to this dress.”
“Right,” he agrees, glancing to the door. “And then…”
“We’ll go somewhere more private , where stagehands and dancers aren’t lurking about.”
Raoul is rubbing at his eyes, though tears refuse to come. He knows, knows , she will return to him, but that does not make their parting any less terrifying. It’s barely 9:00, and he wanders the backstage until Meg comes upon him with his son. She sighs as he desperately tries to smile for his son.
“Papa, when do we get to see Mother again?” Gustave asks, taking his father’s hand.
“I’m afraid she’s currently tied up with...contract negotiations,” Raoul explains falsely, looking to Meg with parallel grief. “You can congratulate her tomorrow.”
Gustave pouts, but yawns. “Fine,” he says tiredly. Raoul tugs him towards an exit, then glancing back towards Meg.
“Miss Giry, if you aren’t busy--”
“I should get home. I have rehearsals tomorrow and I want to wake early enough to see the reviews once they come out,” she insists.
“I promise not to keep you too late,” he assures her, offering his free hand. “And really, I must thank you for watching over Gustave.”
Meg hesitates, but takes his hand and offer.
Even with the lamps lit and a candle on the piano, Erik’s apartment is still dim. Moonlight peers through the window, cutting a line of light across the space.
“I’ve been writing,” Erik begins timidly. “Not just arias, full scores and solo pieces, even some for the violin.”
Christine smiles. “I think I may be rather rusty.”
“I’m sure you could pick it up once more,” Erik sings, digging through his scores. “Does...does Gustave play?”
“Nearly as well as the man he’s named for,” Christine answers wistfully. “I taught him...Raoul tried to learn when he was younger, but not even my father could manage to get him in key.” She chuckles at that, eyes bright with distant memories.
“He’s...talented, gifted beyond belief. He could be better than even you or I if he had the right tutor--”
“He’s a child...I’d like him to get to be a child and not have his talent thrust upon the world like some—”
“—Circus freak,” Erik mutters, setting aged parchments aside.
“Don’t,” he insists. “I don’t want your pity, not now .” Christine frowns, glancing to the pile of compositions and plucking one out.
“What is this one about?” she asks, site reading it. “My Latin is rusty.”
Erik perks up, looking over her shoulder and smiling. “It’s an ensemble piece, for an opera based on Masque of the Red Death . The chorus sings this as the plague infects the party-goers, it’s slow at first, soft enough to be overshadowed by the band and the dancing, but slowly it builds , each infected guest joining softly until it overpowers the scene. Then, at its crescendo--” he pauses dramatically, moving quickly to the piano, fingers flawlessly dancing across the keys. “It suddenly drops and the infected collapse in their illness.” He demonstrates, the notes hanging discordant in the air.
“Is that how it ends?” Christine asks, sitting besides him and parsing out the soprano line slowly.
“For the most part. I have made some changes to the original,” he explains, lazily playing the tenor line. “The story usually ends with all the desperate nobles succumbing to the Red Death , their secluded party all for nought, but...” he teases, Christine looking to him curiously.
“ But ?”
“There is one woman who survives. She snuck in, intent upon demanding answers of the nobles for why they let their people suffer. She’s the first to spot the Red Death, but she does not warn them. Instead, the Red Death kisses her, and she remains unaffected as the nobles drop like flies...There’s a duet here, somewhere , between her and the Red Death, and it ends on a reprise of it as she stands alone amongst the nobles, his voice distant on the wind.”
“Why didn’t you ever produce it?” Christine asks, fingers frozen on the piano.
“I did not have the cast for it. Try as she may, Miss Giry is a mezzo on her best days,” he answers honestly, pulling a page from the pile and setting it on the piano. “Regardless, it wouldn’t have... felt right . I wrote it...for you , and to produce, to hear it from anyone but you , I could never betray you like that.” His voice breaks into a whisper, and he focuses on the music before him.
“You’re leaving in the morning, aren’t you?” he asks, eyes staring blankly at the paper as his fingers glide over the keys from memory. “With the Vicomte and the boy…”
“No,” Christine answers carefully. “Not tomorrow, at least. We’d have to settle our debts and arrange for our travel and such. My contract with Hammerstein was supposed to last a few weeks...we hadn’t really accounted for this .”
“But you will,” he states resolutely. “You and our son, gone .”
“I don’t know,” she whispers honestly. “But I can’t, won’t , just leave Raoul. He raised Gustave. Do you know how hurt he’d be if his father just disappeared ?”
“Am I not enou--”
“It’s not about that !” Christine snaps, rising. “It’s never been about that. I am no more satisfied by the prospect than you are…” she sighs, looking over his shoulder as he continues to play mindlessly. “Don’t despise me for things that haven’t happened yet,” she whispers, resting her cheek against his as she holds him.
“I could never despise you, Christine,” he assures, eyes pressed shut as they both sink into their music.
Gustave barely makes it into his pajamas before falling asleep atop the sheets, which Raoul carefully pull out from under him to cover him properly. He closes the door softly and luckily finds his guest still waiting.
“Well, it seems the excitement has properly tired him out,” Raoul says softly, crossing the room to meet Meg where she stood.
“He was very eager, lots of questions…” Meg replies stiffly. “Very curious, very like his mother, when she was younger.”
“Oh yes, I know,” Raoul smiles bashfully. “We were such lovely friends then, when her father was still alive.” He sighs then, turning to the star map and retrieving a bottle. “I don’t suppose you drink, do you?”
“Drowning your sorrows once more?” Meg questions, nearing.
“It isn’t drowning your sorrows if you’re with a friend...it’s a party ,” he parries weakly, pulling two glasses out.
“ Here ?” Meg questions, glancing to the sofa.
“Perhaps...do you have a better spot?” he asks, sucking in a breath, desperate to get to the bottle, but restraining himself for the moment.
The duet needs work, he knew this when he brought it out, but it isn’t until he hears Christine try to navigate it that he realizes precisely where changes need to occur. Some of the language is too obvious, some of the notes not quite right, but his muse inspires corrections as much as she had its creation.
His fingers are stained with ink when she sits beside him once more, tired from more than just the night, but not quite ready for sleep. He forces his entirety to relax, not wanting her to feel him tense as she rests her cheek on his shoulder. She lazily replays her line, humming along and frowning at the parts that don’t work. He wishes he had done more before her arrival, wishes he had filled his dim apartment with flowers or candles or both, but she remains regardless, and he has to force himself to get used to the feeling.
“ I love you ,” slips out of him before he can stop himself, and she freezes.
“I know,” she replies astutely and she wants to return the sentiment, but it feels like a betrayal.
“ Stay ,” he entreats, and she can feel his breath against her hair. She swallows back tears, hands at the piano once more.
“Till midnight,” she promises, refusing to meet his eye.
Raoul is swinging his legs off the end of a pier, and it makes him feel like a child (and also as though he’s about to lose his shoes to the sea). The night air is rapidly chilling, but the bourbon warms him plenty. Meg’s eyes gleam in the moonlight and she inhales the salty air, both distant and at peace at once.
“When you said you had somewhere, I’d have thought you meant your apartment,” Raoul teases, looking out the glimmering waters.
“Heavens, no, Mother would never approve.” Meg sighs, eyes pressed shut as she listens to the waves upon the shore. “I love this spot.”
“All those lights and glitter and this is your favorite spot?”
“You get used to it after a while, but the quiet is nice, the simplicity .” She opens her eyes, looking back to the isle and reaching for the bottle. She takes a swig, grimacing and coughing. “Vicomte, I’d have thought you’d have more... expensive taste, to say the least.” She hands it back to him and he laughs bitterly.
“I can’t afford my expensive taste,” he states plainly, taking a swig himself without consequence. “When I was younger, it was for the flavor; now it’s just…” He trails off, staring at his wedding band. “She sings to the heavens his composed melodies--”
“And we are left alone on earth…” Meg mutters, taking another swig and grimacing still.
“Perhaps we should busy ourselves with more earthly pleasures, if we are to he left behind, that is,” Raoul suggests, looking to the bottle in her hands. She passes it back, and he downs another mouthful.
“Your pleasures don’t seem particularly sustainable,” Meg warns.
“None of my pleasures are, Miss Giry ,” he counters, a morose kind of smile infecting his expression as he drinks once more, eyeing her daringly.
“ Vicomte! ” Meg exclaims in exaggerated offense, snatching the bottle from his hands. “Perhaps you should slow down if you’re making such propositions ...though you wouldn’t be the first to.” She shivers in the cold, and he pulls his jacket off.
“I’m joking,” he assures, setting it upon her shoulders. “ Mostly ,” he adds, and Meg grins at that.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, not with my performance tonight.” She glances to him and drinks.
“It was...very modern ,” he replies hesitantly, and she releases an exaggerated huff.
“It’s an artform, you know: you know the opera house did the same productions, same composers year after year. Same costume style, same musical style, same everything . As modern as this place is, time at least moves forward . You should see some of the performers in this city, some of the clubs . There’s new styles of music and dance everywhere ,” she insists, frowning when he chuckles.
“Perhaps, but why bathing beauty ?” he asks genuinely.
“Women have been getting arrested, skirts ‘too short’ at the beach,” she begins, eyes drawn once more to the water. “But the longer your skirt is, the more it weighs you down in the water...women have drowned out there in the name of public decency. ” She drinks once more. “Besides, it’s fun and it brings in the crowds, it’s no different than doing Faust for the third time in five years. Don’t be a snob , Vicomte,” she adds, passing him the bottle.
“I’m not, I’m not ,” he assures. “Just curious, is all. You seem to...have a passion for it, at least .” He drinks, the cold seeps through his vest, and he scoots closer. Meg leans against him, looking to the tides as though they held answers.
“You could sink into this place and never be found,” she whispers apathetically.
“That doesn’t mean no one would look for you,” he whispers back, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
“You should have left when I warned you,” Meg mutters, meeting his gaze.
“I promised to follow her anywhere she led. I’m trying to get better at keeping my promises,” he answers softly, and the waves nearly drown him out. “I don’t know if I’d want to leave if that were even a choice. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt known by the people around me.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve known the people around me.”
“Perhaps we’re both stuck here then,” he muses, and he can smell the bourbon on their breaths. “What a horrid fate indeed,” he adds, and he feels like he’s about to make a bad decision. “Miss Giry--”
“What time is it?” she asks suddenly. He glances to his pocket watch and frowns.
“A bit after eleven-thirty,” he answers, shifting away. “We should head back,” he stands, swaying for a moment, and offers his free hand. She takes it, swaying herself. “Let me make sure you get home safe.”
“All right,” she agrees, keeping his hand in hers.
He’s halfway back to the hotel before he realizes he had forgotten his coat. He takes another drink to warm himself.
Christine enters their hotel room just a minute before midnight and finds her husband staring dead-eyed at the wall in front of him. His fingers are curled loosely around an empty bottle, his hair messy in his eyes. She closes the door, and he’s immediately to his feet. He faces her, trying to compose himself and only partially succeeding. She knows that look, knows that smell and that imbalance.
“ Raoul —”
“Does Little Lotte wish to wake?” he asks desperately, crossing the parlor to meet her.
She can smell the bourbon on his breath. “For now,” she answers honestly, and he sinks to his knees before her, grasping at her skirts. “Raoul, we need to talk. Not tonight, but we need to talk.”
“ Anything ,” he agrees, holding her as though she’d drift away.
Meg wakes at six despite not having fallen asleep until one, but forces herself into good spirits regardless. Her head is pounding and the stage lights are much too bright and she almost wishes she had another bottle to share with the Vicomte. For now, all she has is rehearsals, four more shows, and the vicomte’s suit jacket, which still smells like bourbon and the sea.
Her mother pulls her into her office before her first performance and reads aloud the reviews. Meg soon finds herself more annoyed with her mother’s volume than she is with being overshadowed by Christine’s aria. Madame Giry notices.
“Meg, are you hungover ?” she demands, setting the paper aside. “You cannot be slipping up now, he was with Christine last night!”
“I know,” Meg mutters absently. “And I was with the vicomte, rather fitting don’t you think?”
“Meg!” she exclaims, her daughter wincing. “That man will bring nothing but trouble,” she warns, and Meg scoffs.
“That’s all any man brings, even him ,” she huffs, rising much too quickly, but rushing from the room nonetheless. Especially him.
Her fifth show wraps up with applause that is just now beginning not to hurt and she wants to just tug off her costume and sink into the sea, but she’s not a moment in her dressing room when someone knocks. She knows it isn’t her mother, she’d have come right in, and she knows it isn’t him . Instead, it’s the youngest of stage fencers Phantasma employed and Meg knows that look.
“Um...Miss Giry, I know you probably want to get home, but I was wondering if you could help me practice the new choreography for next week’s round of shows?” he asks, staring at his hands.
Meg sighs tiredly. “Of course,” she agrees. “This is the Roselinda plot, right?” the boy nods. “All right, let me change and I’ll meet you onstage.”
“Oh, thanks, Miss Giry!” he responds in excitement, nearly bouncing out of the room. Meg takes a deep breath, diving into the closet of her dressing room and pulling out a blouse and trousers. It would do the boy no good to try duelling someone in skirts when his partner would normally be a man.
He’s quick to toss her a foil when she enters, and she’s quicker to catch it.
“Alright, let’s see where you’re at with the choreography,” she begins, taking her position as he advances, and she can see why he wanted help. His torso is in the right place, but his footwork is atrocious. It’s only practice, but Meg has him tripping over his own feet in minutes.
“I’m sorry, Miss Giry,” he stutters out, and she shakes her head.
“Don’t apologize, improve . Your life isn’t at stake, but the audience doesn’t want to know that. Stance wide, eyes on me. It's just like dancing ,” she instructs, working through the motions of the choreography once more. “You’re fighting for the hand and honor of your lady-love, act like it .” The boy falls backwards as she presses forward. “Your partner isn’t going to be able to help you up, it’s their job to convince the audience they want you dead. So, if you fall, what do you do?”
“Fight back… get back up!” the boy exclaims, raising his foil against hers and rising quickly.
“ Excellent !” Meg presses forward once more, the boy grounding himself. They remain stagnant for a moment before the safety tip of his foils wacks her arms. He goes white, dropping his foil and rushing towards her. “Stop, I’m fine ,” Meg insists, eyeing his foil on the ground. “This is all for show, these things aren’t going to de-limb anyone, so focus more on meeting your partner’s foil and less on avoiding all else.”
“Right,” he agrees, lifting his foil and, without warning, clashing his with hers.
Her eyes brighten. “Good!” she exclaims. “Now, fight like everything is at stake, because—”
“—It is,” he finishes, feet moving through the choreography smoothly. He adds flourishes, and by the end of the routine, both are satisfied with his progress.
Meg grins, “Well, it would appear as though you’ve won the hand and honor of your love.” She bows, passing him the foil. “Now, be sure to put these back in the prop closet.”
“Thanks, Miss Giry!” he shouts as she walks back to her dressing room.
She’s in the middle of putting up her hair properly when she hears another knock. She knows it isn’t her mother, and she knows it isn’t him .
“Enter,” she huffs, pins in her mouth. Doctor Gangle opens the door, bowing as the rest of the trio enter. They’re back in their streetwear, which remains odd and dark, but not as theatrical as their stage clothes.
“The master has requested your presence,” Ms. Fleck announces, and Meg sighs.
“Right now?” she asks as she pushes the last pin into her updo.
“The master always expects his requests to arrive with some...expediency.” Squelch explains, and Meg sighs, retrieving the vicomte’s jacket. She’d taken it with her as a reminder to return it, but as it was, it appeared as though she wouldn’t have the time to.
“Lead the way then, I suppose.”
She’s standing before Erik, and though he tries to conceal it, he’s looking at her as though she were a ghost.
“Thank you, you all are dismissed for the day.” he tells the trio, waiting for them to close the door to turn his attention back upon her. He hasn’t invited her to, but she takes a seat, eyeing the empty one across from her. “Have you read the reviews?” he asks after a moment, her eyes still adjusting to the dim apartment.
“Yes, Christine was received very well,” Meg answers, nearly robotically.
“Have you read yours?” he then elaborates, producing a newspaper.
“I’m afraid Mother only got through so many Rising Starlet Meg Giry Fails to Surpass Her Night’s Competition headlines before I had to go on this morning.” Meg takes a breath, idly fiddling with a button on the vicomte’s jacket as he sits.
He frowns. “There were others…” he trails off, eyes drawn to her hands before focusing once more on the paper. “ Refreshing and Surprisingly Relevant, was Meg Giry’s ‘Bathing Beauty’ A Protest or Classic Coney Island Fare? ” he quotes, handing her the paper. “They weren’t the only ones to ask that. I’ve had three separate papers ask for a comment.”
Meg rises, looking over the review and grinning. “Well, at least someone got it.” She glances to him and huffs at his sour expression. “It’s free publicity, we’re a private venue, no one’s going to try and enforce here--”
“Is that the vicomte’s suit jacket?” he asks, voice soft only in volume, and Meg sits back down.
“I had intended upon returning it today, just didn’t want to forget,” Meg explains, gripping it tighter.
“ Why do you have it ?” he demands. He doesn’t raise his voice, but it echoes through the room nonetheless.
“You haven’t the right to that information,” Meg states simply enough, and he sneers.
“Some of the dancers are saying you were hungover this morning,” he begins, rising and circling round the seats. “And that thing reeks of cheap bourbon. Planning on joining him in his bad habits?” he asks condescendingly.
“He and I aren’t the only ones with ‘bad habits’—do you often make a habit of threatening the lives of children?” she dares, turning to meet his eye as he pauses behind her.
“ Insolent --”
“Christine and I were friends long before you knew her, do you think she would not confide in me?” Meg taunts, watching him as closely as she can in the dim room.
“And you reward such confessions by enabling her husband’s bad habits?” he counters haughtily.
“As though you have any room to speak on that front!” Meg rises, nearing him as his eyes darken further.
“I’m beginning to doubt your own confessions, Miss Giry ,” he spits, and he knows that isn’t fair fodder and he does it anyway. She gasps, watching him with all the anger and fury that such a betrayal brings until he disappears into his own darkness. Silence fills the room, and she refuses to break it with tears.
“ I never knew you as angel , I hardly knew you as the phantom , Mother was always rather clear about what you really were,” she begins. Her voice nearly echoes and she hears footsteps from the far side of the room.
“And what is that?" He asks, and his voice sounds like it’s behind her. She doesn’t feel his breath against her hair, and pads through the dark room with all the grace of the dancer she still was.
"Just a man...as mortal and mediocre as the rest of us, who will leave nothing behind but a trail of blood and a child that will never truly know him. Christine doesn’t know you like that, not even the vicomte does, but I do ."
“Perhaps you should take your mother’s old advice,” his voice is now to her side. “And remain silent .” His voice is now in front of her.
“No more illusions, Mister Y!" Meg roars, turning and colliding with him. They crash to the ground, his mask knocked off in the process. Like yellow parchment is his skin. The last of the sunset streams through the curtains a great black hole served as the nose which never grew and his eyes are filled with more fear than rage. You must always be on your guard or he will catch you with his magical lasso! He tries to cover his face, but Meg captures his wrists before he can. “No more illusions,” she repeats and he shudders beneath her. He could escape her, if he wanted to, and they both knew that, but they remain still in their position until the sun sets fully, cloaking them both in darkness once more.
She releases him, taking a deep breath and shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I-I don’t know what came over me, I-” she begins to climb off of him when he grasps her hand.
“Don't-- ” he whispers desperately. Don't apologize. Don't stop. Don't leave .
"I...I should go," she mutters unmoving.
" Please! " he begs, releasing her regardless.
"No... no , you have Christine and the Vicomte and--and" she wipes at her eyes furiously. "It's not fair to them," she rises and is out the door before he can speak.
WOW IT'S BEEN A WHILE so more is coming soon I PROMISE I have not abandoned my child
Raoul jolts awake, a thin sheen of sweat covering his entirety, and phantom hands upon his throat. The sun is just rising, and Christine rests peacefully beside him. He’s careful as he gets up, as quiet as he can manage as he shaves and washes his face. He dresses fully, peeking into Gustave’s room before heading to the parlor. It isn’t terrible , the cushions are awry and the empty bottle from the night before is on the floor. His head is still foggy from the previous night’s activities, but he puts the cushions back and places the empty bottle in the star map before Christine can wake. When she does, he’s sitting on the sofa and trying to focus on the morning’s paper.
“You should see the reviews,” Raoul remarks, rising and kissing his wife. “You were very well received.”
“Raoul,” Christine sighs, and he frowns. “We need to speak, all three of us.”
“ Three? You mean you, I, and him ?” he whispers. “What happened won’t again, I pro--”
“That’s not all. He’s been composing ,” she explains, and Raoul swallows at nothing.
“You want to stay? Here? ”
“Just until this production is done,”
“He doesn’t exactly seem like the type to stop writing.”
“He...isn’t” Christine confirms, taking her husband’s hand. “Would it really be so terrible to stay here?” she asks softly.
“I can’t lose you, not to him, not to any of it.” Raoul sputters desperately.
“Do you not trust me--”
“I don’t trust any of us around him !” Raoul admits harshly. “Not you and certainly not me. I don’t trust myself to-- to maintain around him--”
“You wouldn’t have to,” Christine assures softly. “I...I understand what it’s like, somewhat, when he’s like that . I’ve no right to be angry with you for it and, quite honestly, I don’t want to be .” her confession escapes all at once, and Raoul huffs in disbelief.
“Please, can we at least discuss it, with him ?” She asks, and he cannot refuse her.
“Alright,” he agrees, and the brightness in her eyes is almost enough to assuage him. “Later? We have debts to settle and arrangements to make with the hotel, and we’ve yet to actually take Gustave anywhere--”
“Later,” she agrees, kissing him tenderly as someone knocks at the door. They part, and Raoul is the first to the door, and the first to see the trio enter. Doctor Gangle holds out a tray, a letter with an all too familiar seal a top it.
“A message,” Gangle begins.
“From the master ,” Ms.Fleck continues.
“To Miss Christine Daae,” Squelch concludes, gesturing to the tray as Christine nears.
“ Mrs.Daae, in the very least…” Raoul mutters as Christine opens the envelope. “A summons ?” he asks, somewhat bitterly.
Christine shakes her head, “Thank you, you may leave .” She insists firmly, the trio bowing and drifting from the room. Once alone, Christine takes a seat, her husband following soon after.
“Christine, what is it?” Raoul asks softly.
“ To my Angel, all that I have promised and all that you are owed, ” she begins, pulling a check from the envelope. “ May your Vicomte find you in good health and spirits in the day, and may you both consider this an open invitation, should you find such invitation necessary. ” she glances to the check, the exact amount they had agreed upon, and then to her husband.
“Not a summons...an invitation ?” Raoul utters curiously. “You don’t think he--”
“I think we’re all long tired of fighting one another.” Christine sighs, biting at a nail.
“Christine I love you, but he--”
“I know exactly what being around him is like.” she huffs. “And it never made me love you any less.”
“Do you honestly think he’ll ever let us go?”
“He’s not going to trap us in his penthouse--”
“That’s not what I meant,” Raoul gulps. “When he and I-- the only thing that woke me in those moments was you . What is to awaken us if he has us both ?”
“No one can sleep forever Raoul, even I couldn’t sleep forever, and that was before you became a patron.” Christine explains.
Raoul takes a breath, then looking to the check. “Well, before any of that , we should probably get our-- my affairs in order.”
“ Our ,” Christine insists.
“You didn’t get us into this mess,” he huffs.
“I married this mess, it’s our .” She continues, eyeing him. “We’ll visit him tonight then, after we settle our debts and the hotel bill and put Gustave to bed--”
“Do you think he will still be awake after all that?” Raoul asks, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
“He doesn’t sleep very often.”
Meg has been gone for what seems like hours, and Erik is still lying flat on the ground. Moonlight streams through the curtains, occasionally blocked out by the oncoming storm that he can feel in the leg he broke as a child trying to escape the townspeople. The memory leaves as cold a feeling in his gut as the sea breeze rushing in from the window. The floor, even with the Persian rug, digs into his spine and joints, a somewhat mild side-effect of his living death.
“Are you sure he's even here?” he hears The Vicomte whisper-shouts from beyond the front door. “I’d have thought he’d greeted us by now. He doesn’t seem the type to not make his presence known.” Erik rises.
“He may be busy,” Christine assures, knocking at the door. Erik scrambles for his mask, straightening his suit as he rushes towards them. He swallows, smoothing over his hair before opening the door.
“Vicomte...Miss Daae,” he greets, overly formal as the couple looks to him curiously.
Raoul rolls his eyes, brushing past him. “It’s Mrs.Daae , in the very least !” Raoul huffs, though his indignation turning playful as he turns back to lead his wife in. “She is a married woman after all.” Christine takes his hand, watching Erik as he stares into the hall for far too long . “Do you not have lamps , at least?” Raoul asks, squinting.
“I...will light some candles,” Erik assures, closing the door. “And the lamps, I have lamps .” he continues, nearly drifting through the room as he does so. His eyes don’t meet theirs again until the room shines far brighter than it ever had.
“May we?” Christine asks, glancing to a sofa.
“Of course!” Erik insists nervously. “My sincerest of apologies, that should have been the first thing I--”
“Mister Y it’s a sofa, you need not be so concerned.” Raoul remarks, sitting beside his wife as Erik takes a seat across from them.
“I’m not, and you need not call me that. Not after…” Erik looks off. “I had not been expecting you,” he explains.
“Was the note not an invitation?” Raoul asks, glancing to Christine.
“No!” Erik booms, then lowering his tone. “ No , I just had not thought you would come tonight .”
“Perhaps we should have asked the trio,” Christine ponders to her husband.
“No...no you are always welcome here.” Erik beams, glancing between the two. “A surprise, but a pleasant one I assure you.” he looks to the Vicomte, then back to Christine. “May I ask the purpose of this visit?”
“I had thought it best if we all discussed what next we plan,” Christine begins, glancing to Raoul before meeting Erik’s eye once more. “We’ve decided to stay in New York...at least for the time being.”
“ You ...to stay ?” he asks incredulously, glancing to Raoul.
“Anywhere she goes, I follow Monsieur .” Raoul replies casually. “Even to the depths of hell.”
“ Raoul! ”
“I assure you I do not dare speak of events past.” he mutters, glancing to Erik. “This city’s French is terrible.”
“It’s full of Americans,” Erik quips, and Raoul smiles, then glancing to his wife. Erik notices, following his gaze. “ Christine …” and it’s the same voice he always calls her with. “ Why have you brought him here? ”
“I’m...tired, tired of feeling like I have to sacrifice part of myself no matter who I choose as though it’s a choice at all!” she admits as her husband takes her hand.
“ Victomte? ” Erik commands
Raoul shudders, then swallows. “I promised her that whatever happened, she wouldn’t face it alone,” he begins, Christine squeezing his hand assuringly. “I’m trying to get better at keeping my promises…”
“ And is that all ?” he taunts, and Christine eyes him in warning.
“My wife comes first in all things Monsieur,” Raoul asserts.
“ Does she now? ” he dares.
“ Erik! ” Christine scolds as Raoul blushes.
“ My apologies Miss Daae , was this not heading in the direction that I had assumed?” he asks sincerely, eyes averting theirs.
“I think it would be best if we not...encourage such activities tonight.” she explains, her husband rising.
“I need a drink,” he mutters, wandering towards a small cabinet across the room.
“ Raoul ,” Christine warns softly.
He sighs “Do you happen to have anything...light, Mister Y?”
“There is a cider in that cabinet, hardly a drop of anything serious in it.” Erik answers, watching him carefully.
“And would either of you like a glass?” Raoul asks, pouring his own.
“ Please ,” Erik replies, suddenly desperate to have something to do with his hands.
“I suppose it isn’t poisoned then?” he mutters.
“ Raoul ,”
“No, monsieur, I don’t make a habit of poisoning people. It’s not a form of death I find aesthetically pleasing.” Erik assures, a gasp escaping him as Raoul chuckles.
Raoul sits beside Christine, taking her hand once more and kissing her. “You deserve it,” he begins, pulling away only slightly. “You deserve whatever we are capable of making this and so much more .” His lips taste of cinnamon, his breath of apples, a refreshing change from the cheap bourbon of years past, and Christine can’t help but believe him.
“We should talk about Gustave,” she whispers after a moment.
“He cannot know,” Erik utters just as softly.
“I think on that we’re all agreed,” Raoul sighs. “But I cannot imagine you would be satisfied being a doting spector to him .”
“No, but I’ve grown rather accustomed to swallowing dissatisfaction” Erik confesses. “Though, he is of great talent and mind. It would be...unfair to him, to stifle such a thing.”
“He is a child ,” Christine miffs.
“I am not suggesting that you-- we tout him about as some child-genius. No child deserves to be displayed …” he swallows at nothing, then downs his cider and rises. “Just that I think it would be good for him to be encouraged.”
“And do you think you’re in the position to encourage him?” Raoul asks, watching as Erik paces.
“No...no I frighten him, it wouldn’t be good to associate his talents with fear.” Erik laments, pausing at the piano and digging through sheet music. “But I have a piece I wrote for him. It should challenge him, but he’ll learn from it.” he offers, Christine rising to take it.
“Thank you,” Christine whispers, kissing his knuckles. Erik’s eyes widen in surprise, locking with Raoul’s as he sips at his cider. Christine sits besides her husband, fingers entwined in his once more.
“He will have all I create on this earth,” Erik promises, watching the pair. “Not just the music, all of it .”
“I’d have expected nothing less,” Raoul remarks, sipping at his cider once more, a leg bouncing.
Meg Giry nearly runs home, desperate to keep moving until she can confine herself to her room and scream . Her heart is pounding, eyes still wet, and throat dry. She wants to collapse into her bed and just sleep , but forces herself to undress first. Her heart calms and her eyes dry by the time her mother knocks to assure she’s off to bed.
The rising sun and chilled waters bring a kind of objectivity that makes Meg Giry nearly burst into a fit of giggles as she recounts, with enough vagueness for deniability, the events of the night prior. It would not have been fair, that much was true, but to have said it all was incredibly freeing.
“My my Miss Giry, rather forward are we then?” Bernie teases as she downs her coffee.
“No way to move forward than to be forward,” Meg giggles.
“But to say to him so directly--”
“Oh he is not a man of subtlety, I assure you.” she counters, nearly bouncing out of the bar.
“Good luck out there!” Bernie shouts, chuckling to himself.
Meg takes her final bow before lunch and is halfway to her dressing room when her mother intersects.
“There is a reporter here,” Madame Giry warns, Meg tying her robe tighter around her.
“ Here ?” Meg whispers, glancing about. “Why?”
“He wants to ask about the number ,” Madame Giry beams, taking her daughter’s hand. “He’s in the Master’s office now, but he wants to speak to you . Come now, we must be quick!” Meg lets her mother practically drag her to the main office, grinning all the way.
When they enter, both men rise, Erik straightening his vest.
“Ah, Miss Giry, just in time.” he greets, gesturing to a chair. “Mr.Arthurs was just asking about you.” Meg sits, her mother smiling more than she had in years as she closes the door.
“Miss Giry, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Arthurs begins, flipping a page on his notepad. “I’m writing an article about your number Bathing Beauty , some are saying it was a political statement. Did you write the number?”
“Yes,” Meg answers giddily, glancing to Erik as he nods back towards to the reporter. “One of my favorite things to do is to swim, but I’ve noticed an increasing amount of women being kept from doing that due to decency laws.”
“Everyone is subject to decency laws Miss Giry, care to elaborate?” he replies, nose buried in his notes.
“Well, a woman under arrest for the length of her skirt isn’t exactly free to go and enjoy the beach, now is she?” Meg dares, the reporter glancing up.
“So why don’t women just adhere to the legal standard?”
“You realize how heavy skirts are, yes?” she huffs, fingers tensing in her lap. “Women are drowning in the name of public decency ...and personally I find the corpses more distasteful than any amount of leg.”
“Miss Giry, do you think being a dancer gives you the relevant experience to be making commentary pieces on laws dictated by men who study such a thing?”
“Monsieur, I suggest that you--” Erik begins, silenced by a gesture as Meg takes a breath.
“I think being a woman who has to live under them does,” she answers after a moment.
“And do you consider this... gaudy display to be a serious political protest?”
“Well, the objective of my position here to entertain, but it can be both.” she answers firmly.
“Do you think you’re setting a good example, of stripping on stage, glorifying this life, for the young women you’re supposedly campaigning for?” the reporter questioned.
“I think young women are perfectly capable of watching something and not immediately replicating the actions done therein...if they weren’t, we’d have many more women beating their husbands and horses.” Meg fumes politely, the reporter rising.
“I think I have all I need, thank you Miss Giry.” Arthurs goes to shake Erik’s hand to find him stationary. “Mister Y,”
“ Gangle! ” Erik calls, the door opening and the tallest of the trio bowing. “Show Mr.Arthurs out.”
“Of course Master,” Gangle replies, leading the man out and closing the door.
“My apologies Miss Giry, I was unaware that was his intention. I’ll call in a favor and have the piece pulled,” he offers, sighing.
“No, don’t .” Meg muses, nails tapping against his desk. “No press is bad press.” she takes a deep breath. “Controversy breeds curiosity.”
“I doubt he’ll have anything very kind to say of the performance.” Erik warns.
“I’m counting on it…” Meg contemplates for a moment before smiling. “Can I ask a favor of you?”
“Anything,” Erik replies, much too quickly for the comfort of either of them.
“I want to do a reprise of Bathing Beauty , but… different . Really make the effects of men like Mr.Arthurs obvious .” she begins, nails tapping against the desk still. “Could you take the tune from Bathing Beauty, make it... darker ?” she asks wryly, and he smiles.
“I’m sure I can manage something ,” he promises, flourishing a gesture. “What are you thinking?”
“Something mournful. Bathing Beauty, all dressed-up, head-to-toe, perfectly decent : drowning.” Meg answers, eyes bright as she rises. “I’ll have our draper pull something together....” she muses, pacing for a moment before stilling. “Do you think next Friday night would work? We’d only have a little over a week to do it.”
“I have no doubt that you could manage...The sooner it’s done though, the more relevance it will hold. You’ll no doubt shock the audience,” he warns, and Meg chuckles.
“I’m counting on it,” she glances to a clock. “I better be off, still haven’t eaten anything, and lunch ends in twenty minutes.” She moves towards the door. “When do you think you’ll have the revised version?” She asks, hovering in the doorway.
“Tomorrow at the latest,” he assures, smiling for a moment before sighing. “Miss Giry, about last night--”
“You needn’t worry monsieur, I can infer the apology.” she counters, nearly bouncing out into the hall.
Her mother doesn’t bother knocking before bursting in her dressing room after the last show of the day.
“How did it go?” she asks eagerly, Meg laughing as she tugs pins from her hair.
“It went...well, enough .” Meg replies, her mother grasping her shoulders in excitement. “That reporter was horrid , so disrespectful, but Mister Y and I are planning another performance next Friday.”
“ The master and you ? ” Madame Giry gasps.
“Yes well, that reporter, Mr.Arthurs , so rude , seemed intent on missing the point of Bathing Beauty , it wasn’t just some display . I know it was a bit free , but there’s nothing wrong with spectacle to get the point across. So I had the idea to make him understand it. Bathing Beauty but as proper and decent as he wanted it to be, decent into its death .”
“Meg!” Madame Giry explains in shock.
Meg giggles. “Oh come now Mother, the press it’ll generate for us will be worth it alone.”
“And the master approved this?”
“Quite, he said he’ll have the reworked score done by tomorrow so we can rehearse. It shouldn’t be too hard, it’s likely a lot of similar choreography.” Meg remarks, turning to her mother and smiling, about to speak when someone raps at the door. She pulls her robe further closed as the door opens. The trio enters, Doctor Gangle bowing as he offers an envelope.
“From The Vicomte , and Miss Daae.” he informs as Meg takes the envelope curiously. He, and the rest, disappear before she can thank them.
“ The Vicomte ...what could he and Christine want of you?” Madame Giry asks, looking over her daughter’s shoulder as she reads.
“They’ve decided to stay in New York...they want to take me to dinner,” Meg summarizes, grinning to herself.
“ Christine to stay here ?” Madame Giry hisses, sighing and picking at her hand. “This cannot be good ,”
“ Mother ,” Meg warns, rising and tucking the letter into her pocket.
“No, no I helped raise her after her father’s death, loved her as much as you, and she left us to clean up her mess .”
“ Erik is not her mess ,” Meg insists, her mother eyeing her suspiciously.
“She betrayed us ,” she whispers, looking to the mirror.
“It isn’t traitorous to chase your own happiness,” Meg sighs.
“You have not spent ten years getting this place to where it is to be outshone by her,” Madame Giry insists quietly and Meg frowns.
“She won’t, not this time. She isn’t even scheduled to perform...She didn’t mean to the other night, and she’ll even get to watch this time.” Meg assures, hugging her mother. “There is room enough for both of us in the world,” she whispers, and almost believes it.
The dinner club the pair had selected was quiet, private, and Christine had sighed in relief when the matradee assured her no press was admitted. The three of them were dressed in their best, Christine’s eyes brightening when Meg finally arrived.
“Sorry about the wait, had to change.” Meg explains, Raoul rising as she enters.
“Miss Giry,” he greets warmly.
“ Meg ,” Christine sighs pleasantly, fingers playing at the stem of her wine glass. “It’s been ages ,”
“You’re telling me,” Meg chuckles, taking a seat. “I was glad for the invitation, I have news .”
“Oh?” Christine prompts, drinking.
“A reporter came today, asked some questions about the performance .” Meg begins, mouthing a thank you as a waiter pours her a glass of her own. “ Not very nice , but I’m working on a reprise of Bathing Beauty for next Friday. Did you hear about that heiress who drowned?”
“I read about it this morning, terribly tragic.” Christine answers, glancing to Raoul.
“Well, it’s like that. The decency laws are killing people, and that reporter, Mr.Arthurs , was so glib about it. So-- well, I won’t give too much of it away, but suffice to say he’ll have to face the consequences of men like him whether he likes it or not.” Meg concludes, Raoul smiling and raising his glass.
“To your new number then!” he toasts, Christine and Meg giggling alike as the glasses chime.
“What are we having tonight Vicomte?” Meg asks, sipping her wine.
“ Lemonade ,” he answers dryly. “Christine and I are searching for a new residence tomorrow and I don’t think I could last an hour of it with as horrid a headache as I’ve been waking with lately.”
“Oh how exciting!” Meg cheers, nearly buzzing.
“ Hardly ,” Raoul huffs with a sigh. “I’ve no idea how Gustave is going to manage half a day without going mad in boredom.”
“We need to find a school for him as well,” Christine remarks.
“Well, I can’t help on that front, but I can watch him for you tomorrow if you’d like?” Meg offers. “Or however long it takes to find an apartment or townhouse.”
“Are you sure? Won’t you be in rehearsals for your new number?” Christine asks.
“Well, yes , but he seemed to like the place last time he was there. He’s fascinated with the business. He can watch, the girls think he’s adorable.” Meg explains casually.
“If you’re sure he won’t distract from your work--” Raoul begins before Meg interrupts.
“He won’t, and even if he does I’ll just...stick him in the prop closet, like Christine used to do to me when we were girls.” Meg replies, Christine feigning offense.
“You wanted to be in there. I’d close the door and you’d burst out minutes later with a sword and feather and steal candies from my pockets like you were Robin Hood!” Christine chuckles, eyes sparkling as Raoul laughs.
“I quite distinctly remember being gifted the candies for my services .” Meg argues half-heartedly.
“Oh... perhaps .” Christine concedes, then clearing her throat. “Raoul told me about your performance, very modern .”
“Oh, you needn’t contain yourself Christine. Everyone says it’s rather modern . If I’d tolerate anyone’s true feelings on it, it’d be yours.”
“Well it’s just...when did Meg Giry learn to dance like that ?” Christine asks softly, grinning still.
“That’s the thing about this city, spend enough time here, and you will too.” Meg smiles, glancing about before continuing. “Don’t tell Mother, but sometimes I’ll venture out to the clubs downtown, you should see the way they dance and the music . Rarely have I heard more heart and soul in a voice than late at night downtown… oddly enough, they always reminded me of you .”
“You’ll have to show us the best ones,” Christine marvels.