"Diamonds never sparkle bright if they aren't set just right. Beauty sometimes goes unseen, we can't all be like Christine," I said, only to feel Meg tear herself from my arms. I could feel every ounce of rage directed towards me in her movements, but nothing could have prepared me for her actions that followed.
"Christine...Christine. Always Christine!"
The shot was fired and I found myself jumping back a bit. Typically, gunfire never jolted me, but something about that time made it different. Something deep within me had known she wasn't aiming for me, but for some morbid reason, I had hoped she was.
As I stumbled back, I looked down at my chest, preparing myself to see the scarlet blood spreading through the crisp white of my shirt, but found none. I felt no searing pain, and that terrified me even more, knowing that I hadn't been shot...but that someone behind me surely had.
I barely had time to think before I turned around and threw my arms out to catch Christine as she collapsed. Yelling filled the air, but after so long missing that voice, my ears were finely tuned to it. All I could hear was her, and by the look on my angel's face, all she wanted - after all this time - was me.
"Christine," I breathed as I fell to my knees and held her close. "Giry, go get help!" I turned to see the woman seemingly stuck in one place as she stared at the two of us. "Go!" I repeated, my voice cracking as I felt my emotions bubbling over.
"Father! Where's Father?!" Gustave exclaimed. As I grabbed at Christine's dress and pressed it to her wound, I glanced up to see the boy frantically searching for Raoul - the man he thought was his father.
"Gustave, your father! Your real father!"
I could have sworn I felt my heart stop beating in my chest when she spoke. I looked at the boy and saw the confusion painted on his face, then turned to Christine to see a pained smile on her face.
"Look with your heart, and not with your eyes. The heart understands, the heart never lies," Christine quietly sang as she grabbed her son's hand and gave it a squeeze.
Gustave's eyes flicked between me and his mother, tears quickly pooling as his little mind no doubt worked overtime to process all the new information that he was being presented with.
"No!" he finally screamed as he took off running.
"Gustave, please!" I cried as I watched him rush down the pier. I could feel Christine trying to get up, to go after him, but she was too weak. I thought that I had finally discovered what true heartbreak was when Christine left me in the catacombs of the Opera House, but that...seeing that boy, the son I never thought I would have, react so violently to learning his parentage broke my heart into more pieces than I ever thought possible.
I turned back to Christine - the fallen angel in my arms - and tightened my hold on her as she managed to give me a small smile.
"Once upon another time, our story had only begun. I had a taste of joy, the most I ever knew," I said, unable to stop a smile from appearing on my face when I saw Christine grin at me; always finding joy even in the direst moments. "But now there isn't any time, and somehow our story is done."
I took a shaky breath then as a frightening question crossed my mind. "And what about the boy? What am I to do?"
I felt her run her thumb across the back of my hand that she was holding so tightly. "Just love, just live," she whispered. "And give what you can give, and take the love that you deserve."
"Just love, just live. I'll give all that I have," I promised as I hugged her closer to my chest. "And take what little I deserve." How could I believe her when she said I deserved love? After all that I had done...there was nothing that I deserved less than love, but at that moment, I would have promised her anything.
"Come closer, I beg you," she said quietly as she laid her hand over my heart. "Closer still."
There was no real place to go, but for her, in that delicate moment, I would do anything, so I oriented myself to hold her closer than ever, our foreheads practically leaning against each other as I waited on bated breath for whatever it was she would say next
"Remember...love never dies," Christine managed to say, her voice - her perfect instrument - losing its strength every second.
"Kiss me one last time."
I locked eyes with her, unsure of how to react; that was the last thing I could have imagined she would say. But she gave me a nod, telling me that she wanted this just as much as I did, so I moved my hand to cup her cheek, and she wrapped her arms around me to pull me towards her.
When our lips met, the kiss was desperate but full of love. An attempt to make up for ten years of lost time. We were trying to express ten years' worth of pent-up desire and emotion in one gesture, despite the time slipping through our fingers. We could do nothing to stop it, so we simply made the most of what we had.
Far too soon, my heart skipped a beat when I felt her grip loosen. Her arms dropped to my side but I held on, silently begging her to return my kiss. That could not be it, that could not possibly be the end. I had finally had my dear Christine back in my arms and God had seen fit to rip my angel from me.
My lips finally left hers and I allowed myself to look at her face. It was paler than usual, the soft natural blush long gone from her cheeks and replaced with her own blood that had stained my fingers. Her lips were still pursed slightly, her eyes shut...she looked at peace.
I had never hated the sight of a tranquil expression so much.
"Oh, Christine," I breathed as tears pooled in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall. I kissed her forehead softly, lips trembling, before I laid her body on the ground as if she were merely sleeping, my hand lingering on her cheek. I finally forced myself to my feet and slipped my jacket off, then draped it over her still body.
As I straightened up, I saw Gustave slowly approaching his mother's body, his eyes wide as he processed what had happened. He kneeled next to her then and laid on top of her, his hand wrapped tightly around hers and his shoulders shaking as tears fell from his eyes.
I managed to stifle my own cries as I stumbled to the edge of the pier and fell to my knees. Should I run? Should I jump? Now that my Angel of Music is gone forever, what am I supposed to do? I hung my head and finally let my tears fall, doing my best to quiet my sobs; my child was grieving behind me and the last thing I wanted was to disturb him.
Then, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder blade and I turned to see the face of Gustave - the face of my son - looking back at me. Tear stains were fresh on his cheeks and I could see the pain in his eyes. You're a father now, I thought to myself. Comfort the boy. Your boy.
So I did in the best and only way I knew how.
"Love never dies. Love never falters. Once it has spoken, love is yours," I sang quietly, echoing the words that I had written, that Christine had sung only moments ago. "Love never dies. Love will continue."
It was then, as I sang to him, that Gustave did something I never could have expected.
He hugged me.
A warm sensation burst through my chest despite all the pain around me and in my heart. This was my boy. I had a son who was hugging me after having seen my face, all out of his own want. My ears were still ringing from the gunshot, my lips still tingling from her kiss, but it all melted away. He had become my world, and nothing would steal that away from me.
He leaned back from our embrace and reached up to wipe away a tear that I hadn't noticed falling down my cheek. As I managed a weak smile, though, it dawned on me; he had the right to know what he was getting into, how his life was about to change even more than it already had.
"Listen, please, Gustave. I know that neither of us was prepared to know what we are to each other, but that is the situation in which we find ourselves. I understand if you do not want to come with me...I can bring Raoul back and you can go with him if that is your wish. However, if you want to stay with me, I would love for the chance to be your father."
He didn't respond with words. I don't blame him for that; it had been a hard night for us both. I was surprised I was able to speak. Instead, he simply nodded and took my hand, and that was all I required. I squeezed his hand in response as I stood and we walked away from the pier together, with me only casting one last look at Christine over my shoulder as I heard approaching voices and sirens; Madame Giry's help that had arrived too late, it seemed.
"We're going to be just fine, Gustave," I whispered. "That much I can promise you."
"My room is just down the hall," Gustave said as he walked into the hotel suite where he, Christine, and the Vicomte had stayed, with me following close behind him.
I nodded. "Go collect your things. I can wait here," I replied.
The boy smiled and walked towards his bedroom while I hung back in the sitting room, scanning the surroundings to busy myself. An abandoned whiskey glass sat atop a nearby table, and sheet music rested on the piano; to anyone else, a normal family with a normal life could have stayed here, though that couldn't be further from the truth. I sighed and leaned against the instrument as I thought back to the night Christine and I reunited what felt like only a few moments ago. The song we sang as our emotions and memories took over in a way that only music could express...that night we had both recalled so vividly. I soon found myself humming the melody, our words flooding my mind.
And I loved you, and I left you, and I had to! Both of us knew why! And yet, I won't regret, from now until I die, the night I can't forget beneath a moonless sky.
My heart now ached to remember that night. It shouldn't have ended the way it did; she should have been by my side along with our son. She knew what she was doing, unlike me; she had a life outside of the darkness I had pulled her into.
I should have been the one to take the bullet.
I was so lost in thought that I jumped when Gustave tapped my arm, but immediately felt terrible when I noticed that I had scared him.
"Yes, Gustave?" I asked him.
"I have everything," he said quietly as he held up the large suitcase in hand. "Are you okay? You were just...staring into space and humming."
"Just reminiscing, that's all," I replied. I managed to at least give him a smirk; any happier gesture seemed inappropriate.
"I've heard my mother hum that song before. Did you teach it to her?"
"In a way, I suppose," I replied. My heart had swelled at the thought that Christine had held onto the song just as I had; one way or another, we always had each other with us.
"Well, if you have everything, we can head to my home for the night. I shall reserve boat tickets to Paris for tomorrow evening...Here, let me take that for you." I reached out to take the suitcase from him, as he was so obviously struggling, but he took a step back.
"I'm okay. I'm stronger than I look," he insisted as he proceeded to lift the case higher off the ground as a show of strength, looking up at me with a small smile.
"Well, you are strong, aren't you? Just like your mother." I couldn't help but recall that aspect of her; she may not have been physically strong, but mentally, emotionally, she was the strongest person I had ever known.
We were about to walk out of the hotel suite when Gustave gasped as he caught sight of something sitting on a nearby ottoman.
"Can we bring this?" he asked as he gestured to his music box - the one that I had handcrafted when I had learned that Christine was coming to Coney Island with a child in tow. I remember the hours spent making it, having it play the song I sang to her when I had brought her to the catacombs for the first time. "You gave it to me when we got here, so I want to keep it."
I managed a small smile as I picked up the music box. "Of course. Now, come along. It's been a difficult night - you need to get some rest. We both do"
The walk had been slow. No matter how many times I had offered to take the suitcase, the boy refused despite how shaky his steps were due to exhaustion. I thought back and wondered if that was how Nadir must've felt dealing with my stubbornness, only to quickly resolve that I must have been a hundred times worse.
"So this is where you live?" Gustave asked as he walked into my home and set his suitcase down with a loud thud.
"That it is," I replied simply. "It isn't much, but I work so much that I am almost never here. Anything elaborate would be wasteful."
Gustave nodded understandingly as he walked over to my armchair and sat down. "It may be simple, but I like it."
I shot him a small smile. "Just wait here. Feel free to look around while I pack up my own things. I won't be long."
I saw him nod once more as I walked down the short hallway to my own bedroom. It wasn't as extravagant as things I had designed in the past; only a bed, armoire, desk, and a few shelves furnished it. I lifted the suitcase that I always had on hand onto the bed and opened it, filling it with the extra suits and pair of shoes that I had to wear. My spare masks followed; another white one with a light blush over the cheekbone, and one black as night. An extra tie and a few dress shirts joined them, and I moved to grab another suitcase for my other belongings.
My folder of music sheets was set inside with my pens and ink. I stowed away some memorable items that I always kept with me as well: the diamond collar that once adorned my precious cat, Ayesha; the architectural sketches that I had drawn up as a child; the key to my childhood home, despite it no longer belongs to my family. Aside from all of those things, though, one of my most prized possessions was the very scarf that Christine had performed Elissa's aria, Think of Me, in Hannibal with. I had kept it after the performance and had managed to get it out of the Opera as I fled from both the police and the fire.
I closed the suitcases and left them by the side of my bed, then walked back to the front of the house to check on the boy. "Gustave, are you..." I began, but trailed off when I found him asleep in my armchair, hugging a pillow to his chest as though it were a stuffed bear. He was calm, taking steady, even breaths. That's when I was finally able to take in who I was looking at; my son. He was my son and he was absolutely perfect. Every fear about having children melted away when I saw his face, though it seemed odd; whatever genetic mutation that had turned me into the man that I am couldn't have just disappeared, but I dared not question it.
The more I looked, the more I realized he could never have been Raoul's child, and eventually, he would have come to that realization on his own. I could see no trace of that man in the boy, and yet, I also saw none of myself; all I saw was his mother.
I was startled when he shifted slightly in his sleep, but his movement allowed me to have a proper look at his face. That's when I saw it; the right half of his face. It was ever so slightly angled down compared to the other half of his face. I could almost cry; that was the same side as my horrid disfigurement. So there was a piece of me in him. I found myself smiling at the sight as I grabbed a nearby blanket and covered him up, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. Knowing it could only be a close associate of mine at my home address, I walked to the door with no weapon in hand and opened it to see Dr. Gangle on the front step.
"Yes?" I inquired.
I saw his eyes flick to see the child behind me, but he knew to withhold his questions. "Master. The police are all throughout the park, saying something about-"
"A gunshot," I finished. "I am aware. I was there when it happened. Christine Daaé is dead. I am leaving for Paris tomorrow with her child. Go fetch me two tickets for the evening boat journey tomorrow."
"Yes, sir." He was compliant and didn't ask questions. I liked that one.
I watched him go, taking the moment to observe the glowing lights of Phantasma; once my greatest masterpiece, now, my worst nightmare. All it took was one bullet to topple an empire. Years of work, toil, sweat all had to be left behind. I had hoped Gustave would inherit it when I found out he was my son. However, looking at it now, I didn't know how he could. We had to leave, there was no way around it.
Even still, slight panic filled my mind. Not that my accomplices were incompetent, but how could Phantasma run without Mr. Y? While I feared for the success of the park after my departure, all that mattered to me now was my son; the little family of our own design, and I knew that he could not survive - or thrive - here in any way.
Returning to my room, I tried to sleep for what felt like hours, but to no avail. My mind was racing, replaying the events of that night. Over and over again, I heard the shot and the scream, but the silence after her death stuck out most of all. I gave up eventually since sleep was obviously not an option and decided to go through my novels and pick a few for the journey. I had not planned to bring any of my books, figuring that they could be replaced, but I had the time and a very low tolerance for doing nothing.
About a half-hour had passed and I was enthralled in a book when the soft knocking on the door nearly made me jump out of my chair. Walking over to it, I looked through the peephole to see that it was only Gangle, back with the tickets.
"Here you are, sir," he said as he handed the small slips of paper over to me once I had opened the door.
"Thank you. I know you must have a lot of questions, but sadly I can answer none of them. Just know that I entrust you with the safekeeping of the park. You've been nothing but a good friend to me."
"May I simply ask when you'll be back?" Gangle inquired, concern lacing his voice. He was holding his hat in his hands and fiddled with it every so often, which gave away his slightly nervous disposition.
"I'm not coming back."
He seemed to be in shock for a few moments. Then, he stood up straight and said, "Well, if that's the case, it's been an honour, sir."
"Same to you." And with that, we shook hands and parted ways for the last time.
Leaving me and my thoughts alone in the silence once more.
The morning had been quiet. Gustave had slept in until the late morning, but I had been up all night busying myself with making preparations to leave. I left a small bowl of fruit on the table for him to find when he woke up, then sat on my small patio that overlooked the park with a book in hand. As I was reading, I heard the door open and turned to see Gustave shuffle onto the patio.
"Good morning," I said as I set my book down on the table next to me. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes," Gustave mumbled as he rubbed his face with his hands. "Are we leaving yet?"
"The tickets are for this evening. We still have a few hours." I stood up and walked over, resting my hand on his shoulder. "Your face is all swollen. Go wash it with water and grab the fruit that I prepared for you. Then you can show me what you can do on the piano. How does that sound?"
The suggestion of the piano seemed to wake him up a little more, so he shuffled back inside to get changed and wash up while I followed him inside to wait for him, a small hint of excitement about spending a full day with my son starting to build up inside of me.
"Gustave, why don't you just give your luggage to Squelch? He would be happy to help you," I said as I paused yet again to wait for Gustave to catch up with myself and Squelch, Phantasma's resident strong man.
"No, I'm fine," Gustave replied as he lugged his suitcase along. "We can see the boat from here! I can make it."
I couldn't help but smile. I admired the boy's resilience - it reminded me of Christine so much. And myself, in some bizarre way.
"Master, look," Squelch said as he directed my attention to where our boat was docked. Apart from the other travellers walking up the ramp to board the ship, a horde of photographers and reporters were lying in wait. It didn't require a genius to know that they were waiting for me.
"Gustave, stay behind me," I instructed as I took his suitcase from him. "Just keep your head down and walk fast."
"Why? What's going on?" he asked.
"Just listen to me." I ensured he was close behind me and picked up my own pace. My heart was racing, hoping they wouldn't notice us.
Those hopes were swiftly dashed.
As we reached the ship, the camera flashes and yelling started, so I let Squelch onto the ship to drop our luggage in our room and kept Gustave behind me as I turned around to face the wolves.
"Mister Y! Where were you when the shot was fired?"
"Do you have any suspicions as to who the killer is?"
"Where are you off to? And who will be running Phantasma in your absence?"
I took a deep breath, formulating answers as my eyes adjusted to the brightness of the camera flashes. I knew I couldn't be entirely honest with them; I would end up entangled in the very issue that I was trying to escape.
"I was in my workplace composing a new performance to be put on here at Phantasma, but with the events yesterday, that show will have to be put on hold," I answered, lying through my teeth and eternally grateful that the reporters were completely clueless. "As I was nowhere near the site of the incident, I can make no assumptions in terms of the perpetrator, but I can say that Christine Daaé will be dearly missed. She was an inspired performer and there will never be another like her.
"I am currently en route to my home country of France and am unsure of when I will return. Until then, I am entrusting Phantasma to Mister Squelch and my close associates. The park is in good hands." I stepped to the side to allow my strong man to rejoin me but accidentally allowed the reporters to see Gustave - precisely what I did not want to do.
"Is that the Vicomte's son? What is he doing with you?" one reporter called out, which only inspired his associates to fire off similar inquiries.
I managed to stifle a groan, knowing I would have to lie even more. I was giving the reporters too much as it was by telling them where we were going; I didn't need to be wrapped up in a romantic scandal on top of everything else.
"The Vicomte de Chagny and I made an agreement; while he makes funeral arrangements for his wife, I will keep the boy with me."
However, that answer did nothing to satisfy them. The cameras flashed seemingly brighter than ever, and I turned my face away to shield my eyes. As I did, I saw Gustave's panicked expression, tears in his eyes. Something within my chest seemed to boil over - the paternal instinct that had always been there and had been repressed for so long - and I turned back to the reporters, newly frustrated for a reason deeper than they deserved to know.
"I'm sorry, I wouldn't expect you vultures to understand, but you are making the child quite uncomfortable. I would advise that you leave us be so we can board the boat for Paris. That is all I have to say on the matter," I said through gritted teeth before I turned and gently pushed Gustave forward. "Just walk. Ignore those fools, my boy. They mean nothing."
As we walked, I heard the yelling start to cease, and I knew that Squelch was fulfilling his work as my strong man. I smiled quickly at the captain waiting at the top of the ramp and ushered Gustave through the ship towards our cabin. Once we got there, he was my only priority. I knelt down to his level and hugged him.
"Are you alright?"
"I am now. I was so scared. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would explode," he explained as he squeezed onto me tighter. "But...why didn't you tell them that they were wrong?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well...you're my father."
I had never considered how not acknowledging him as my own would make him feel. I had only been thinking about how to get away from the reporters as quickly as possible.
"I am, Gustave. I didn't correct them because it made our lives easier. I'm going to be very honest with you - if I had corrected them, that would have tarnished the public memory of your mother beyond reparation. They would scar her legacy as the soprano who-" I paused and tried to refocus my train of thought. The last thing I wanted was for him to feel like an accident or a mistake. "No matter. I said what I had to say to get them to leave us alone. I am not ashamed of you, and neither was she. She loved you more than anything else in the world. As do I. But if I had corrected them, they never would have let us leave. Do you understand?"
"I understand. I'm sorry, Papa."
He called me Papa. My heart was fuller than it ever had been in my entire life. To hear my child bestow that title upon me was something I never knew I needed. I hugged him again, both to thank him and reassure him, and we simply sat there for a long while.
A few hours had passed by, the boat having begun its journey towards France, and both Gustave and I had nodded off. He had fallen asleep almost immediately, but I had been too uptight to sleep, so I read for a while before my eyes got heavy and I gave in to my body's need for rest.
However, not long after I had fallen asleep, my habit of being a light sleeper came in handy, as I was awoken by Gustave thrashing around and whimpering in his sleep. I quickly got out of bed and walked over to him, but as I sat on the edge of his bed and reached out to put my hand on him for reassurance, his eyes opened and he sat up in bed.
"Gustave, it's alright," I said quietly.
The boy looked at me, a slight confusion draped over his face in the darkness. Once that washed away and he realized what was happening, he moved closer, then wrapped his arms around me and leaned his head against my chest.
"I miss Mother," he whispered.
I held him tight, giving him a squeeze when I felt his silent tears starting to soak through my thin nightshirt.
"I know. I miss her too."
That was where we sat for quite some time; me on the edge of the bed holding Gustave, swaying back and forth in an attempt to lull him back to sleep, quietly humming the song that I had sung to Christine so long ago, the same one I had placed in his music box. At that moment, I realized that some part of me had always wanted to be a father. Even with me turning my back on my natural desires and emotions, thinking that there was no way I would ever have a child; with all my fears of passing down my condition, I couldn't bear if another child had to grow up with my face, or even a variation of it. However, what I felt at that moment erased all of that. That was true satisfaction; being able to rock my son to sleep, knowing that he felt safe in my arms.
After humming the entirety of the song, I assumed that Gustave would have fallen asleep, so I got up and started to move, but oh, how wrong was I. Instead of laying back down to sleep, Gustave tightened his hold on me, somehow managing to cuddle up even closer to me. I honestly hadn't thought that possible; there wasn't much of my bony frame to hug.
"Alright, alright," I said, rubbing his back. "How about a story? I have plenty of those."
I felt his head move in a quick nodding motion, so I positioned myself to lean against the headboard while still holding him close. It took me longer than I would care to admit to think of an age-appropriate story to tell him, but one soon dawned on me.
"Well, the one that comes to mind is from when I was a child with my dog, Sasha."
"You had a dog? Gustave asked quietly, a twinge of excitement in his voice.
"I did, yes. She was a beautiful golden spaniel, and we got into quite a bit of trouble together." I chuckled. "My mother was busy enough trying to handle me! Never mind me and my little partner in crime. I remember one time when my mother's good friend, Marie, was watching over me, and I managed to sneak into the leftover Christmas chocolates from atop the cupboard while Sasha stood guard. The two of us sat under the dining room table and ate too many chocolates. Poor Sasha got sick, and I was so worried that my mother would find out, but Marie was very kind and kept our little secret. Sasha was back up to play very soon. If only my mother knew what the two of us got up to together."
As I finished the story, a happy smile on my face as I reflected on the fond memories, I felt Gustave's arms slip from around my waist. "Finally," I breathed as I moved at a snail's pace to slip myself away from his arms. I stood and held his upper body as I lowered him down so his head was on the pillow, then adjusted the sheets and tucked him in. I started to walk away but stopped myself. I turned back and bent over, gently kissing his forehead.
"Goodnight, my son."
"Gustave," I said as I grabbed my hat from the coat hook. "Are you ready to go?"
Gustave nodded as he heaved his suitcase off of the bed, a new light in his eyes after getting some well-needed rest, though he was still as stubborn as ever when it comes to carrying that bag.
"Well, let's be off then," I replied, a smile on my face after hearing him use his new title for me.
I held the door open for him, allowing him to tug his suitcase after him, then set my hat on my head and walked down the boat ramp. I breathed a heavy sigh, relieved, and yet somewhat saddened, at the sight of my home city. There were so many memories, both good and bad, all rolled up amongst gorgeous architecture and twisting catacombs that I couldn't help but reminisce. It was where my life changed forever the moment I heard the name Christine Daaé.
And it was where I would see her be buried.
"Welcome back to Paris, Gustave," I said, taking his hand as we overlooked the city.
When we arrived at the bottom of the ramp, though, something rather unexpected happened. There was a carriage waiting...with the Vicomte's insignia carved into the door.
"Monsieur Destler, Gustave," a footman said with a curt nod. "Monsieur le Vicomte de Chagny has requested that I deliver you to your hotel."
I hesitated to answer, but eventually nodded and handed over our luggage. "Merci, Monsieur. Give the Vicomte our...thanks."