The church was dark and empty by the time they left it, holding hands as they always did. It was the same outside, and though the streetlights tried their best to drive the shadows away, they only created more.
No one took notice of them as they walked down the street; it was almost as though they didn't exist. It didn't bother them, though, as to most people they were mere shadows themselves, nothing to be bothered with. Even to themselves, sometimes, although that was thankfully rare. Sometimes it was easier just to let go, no matter what the consequences, and they both understood that. It needed no forgiveness.
Gabrielle paused and looked back at the church, adoring it for its shrouded beauty. Raphael paused with her. It meant as much to him as to her, being the place of their first and final meeting, where they had been whole for the last time. It had been almost three years since that day, though neither of them knew, or cared to know; time slipped passed them unheeded, as it could.
She smiled finally, a quiet, serene smile, and squeezed Raphael's hand almost imperceptibly. He took it for what it was, and they began walking again. They had nowhere to go, really, but it was good to walk, to see the city where they had been born, and had died. So much time, and yet so little, had passed, Raphael mused, since the darkness. How much more would there be?
She sensed his disquiet, in the way she always did, and looked at him without speaking. It was strange, he thought, how she always knew when he needed her. Or perhaps it wasn't. He was glad she did, whatever the reason. She didn't need to voice her question; it had been asked of him many times already, always with the same, hopeless answer. It was hopeless only to him, however; she had retained her quiet optimism even in death, could accept the fate that had been offered to them, while he questioned it constantly, always wishing he'd had a second chance. He loved her for her endurance, her unceasing patience with him, sometimes even felt ashamed at his doubts when they were brought next to her faith. He sighed, and looked away from her, at the many lights surrounding them.
They had reached the bank of the Seine, and he shuddered with the memories it brought to him. He remembered very little of his last moments, but he did remember this, and those memories were not pleasant. How foolish he had been, that night; how misguided his motives! But it was too late now to regret it. He sighed discontentedly, drawing Gabrielle's concern to him again. He grimaced and silently apologized to her, and she looked away, wishing she could bestow some happiness upon him that he would accept.
They stood there at the bank together, gazing sadly at the reflections that the lights of Notre Dame cast on the river. It was breathtakingly beautiful, as its creators had meant it to be, though to them, it was something more than beautiful. It was truth, the truth that centuries could not erode. All that it stood for- life, death, afterlife- all of it they had experienced, and knew it to be truth.
His sight blurred for a moment with the potency of the emotions within him, and he sighed, and groped for Gabrielle's hand in the dark. It wasn't there. He looked askance where she had just been, but she was gone. Only when he looked more closely could he see the faint, shimmering outline that she was. "Gabrielle?" he whispered, in a voice unused to speaking. "Ne m'abandonne pas. J'ai besoin de toi, je pense."
"Vraiment?" Her soft, airy voice floated towards him on the wind. "Tu t'enquiet? J'espare qu'il n'est pas au subjet du mort. Il est en passe, mon fantome. Nous ne l'avons pas de choix; nous sommes oblige de continuer comme ca." He nodded; this he had heard many times, though no matter how many times it was told to him, he never believed it. If only he could have prevented himself from making such a fatal mistake! It was too late, though, as she had said.
She was gone now, for real; nowhere could he see her misty form. Where could she go? Anywhere, he sighed, though probably back to St. Julien le Pauvre, where they had met. He was suddenly absorbed in the memory of that day...
It was a perfect, bright, sunny day when the man stepped outside, but he paid no attention to its beauty. He shivered, and wrapped his coat about him more thoroughly, though it was hardly cold out. With his eyes to the sidewalk, he trudged down Rue Galande, towards his favourite little church, St. Julien. It was Tuesday; he really didn't have to go there, of all the places in Paris, but something in him told him it was necessary.
He soon reached its front steps, and with a sigh, he began to walk up them. There weren't many others here on that day; he ought to have the chapel all to himself. It was much more comfortable for him that way, without any of those tourists watching him. Unfortunately, upon opening the door, he saw someone else, a woman, who apparently had the same intentions as he. He grimaced, and was about to leave, when she looked around and saw him.
"Monsieur? S'il vous plait, ne partir pas. J'irai le quitter bientot, ne vous inquietez pas." He looked at her, somewhat startled. "Il ne faut pas necessaire, mademoiselle. Je suis ici pour un motif, et vous ne m'ennuyer pas. Demeurez," he said, going to her and laying a hand on her shoulder. She looked almost shocked for a moment, but saw that he had no negative intentions and nodded. They both prayed silently for a while, until she finally crossed herself and stood up to leave. He rose with her, not really wanting her to go without him.
"Qu'est-ce que vous vous-appellez?" he asked, in a somewhat embarrassed voice. "Je m'appelle Mathias. Mathias Thurieau She smiled sadly, for a reason he could not fathom, but she did answer. "Je m'appelle Gabrielle. Pourquoi?" He looked down, not wanting to explain. He shrugged his shoulders, and sighed. "Est-ce que vous voulez parler a une autre location? Un cafe, peut-etre? Je connais un qui est tres bien..." His sentence trailed off, as he gazed at her, waiting patiently for an answer.
She frowned slightly, a face that was quickly replaced by decision. "Yes. I mean, oui. Pardon moi," she said, smiling. "Je suis francaise, originale- ment, mais depuis sept ans j'habite en Angleterre, et je parle l'anglais la." He raised his eyebrows at her. "Really?" he said, trying to remember some more English. "I have lived ici pour- for, pardon moi- for my whole life. I learned English en l'ecole, mais I have forgotten some. Can you tell?" She giggled, amused at his speech. "It's okay," she said. "I can understand French, obviously. You can use it. I've rather picked up English, though. Do you mind?"
He shook his head. "Non. C'est bien comme ca. Je compris l'anglais, mais je ne peux pas le parler. But now," he said, struggling against his natural accent, "Now will you accompany me to the cafe?" She smiled and offered her hand, which he took, and they walked out of the church together.
Paris was beautiful that day; now it seemed so even to Mathias. The presence of la mademoiselle made him feel almost buoyant, as though he was floating in the tides of some great ocean- only it wasn't a helpless sensation, nor an unpleasant one. It had a rather dreamy feeling to it, he realized, and this was the first time he had felt it since... He winced, attracting Gabrielle's notice.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est? Are you all right? You don't look very well all of a sudden. I mean..." He half- smiled.
"Je sais q'est-ce que tu dis, n'interpreter pas ca. Et oui, je suis bien, il est seulement..." She tilted her head to one side, looking at him quizzically. "Only what? Obviously something's wrong, and don't tell me it's 'rien'. Because I know it's something." She gave such emphasis to her last words that he knew that she meant it. How she could know was beyond him, but he tried anyway to explain, using the language she seemed to be so familiar with.
"It is long story, really, starting a year ago, when I met ma marie. She was very beautiful, Elizabeth was, and from the United States, here on college-student exchange programme. I met her at the Opera: our seats were together. She told me she had always wanted to see it, because of a book she had read- Le Phantome de l'Opera- and this was her only chance. She was very friendly, and talkative, like Americans are; by the time it was over I had invited her out for le dejeuner the next day. Actualement, il etait- excuse me, it was she who asked me, but how was I to say no?
"Anyway, I had been seeing her for some time- five months -when we, well, when we found out she was with child. I couldn't leave her, not like that, and I wouldn't, so we got married. It was wonderful, especially when the baby came, but there were troubles with her parents. They didn't like at all what was going on, tu sais, avec l'enfant et tous. And they wanted her to go back. She refused them, saying she was happier here, and it was her own life and such. I didn't want her to go, either; I loved my little Cecilia, and didn't want her or her mother to have to leave.
"But then things started not being good. Her mother actually came to Paris, to try to convince my Lizibete to come home. I think that was when she started having doubts. This had been only her second year of collage, and she hadn't planned to stay here; it was only because of me that she was. Then her mother came again, bringing with her man she was going to marry when she went back, and she wavered still more; this man was obviously something special to her, more so than I, because I had only been 'a flirtation- and a mistake' according to her mother. I thought it might be best to let them have a little time with each other, this man and her, so I left them alone, only for a while, but it was enough. When I returned, all her things were gone, even my baby Cecilia. She left a note... I still have it..." He reached for his pocket, unable to speak further, but stopped when he felt her light touch on his arm. He gazed at her, a bit surprised, and she looked back at him, at the tears beginning to run down his cheeks.
"Pauvre Mathias," she sighed, and reached up to wipe the tears from his eyes. Her hand felt like a whisper to him, no more than a feather in the breeze, and he suddenly recalled the sensation when he had put his hand on her shoulder: it had been like touching nothing, for a brief, brief moment, so slight he hadn't even remembered it until now. It had seemed to him then that she had merely tensed up, but now, it felt more like solidification to his memory. Of course, it could just be playing tricks on him, but...
She was looking at him again, a sad, questioning expression on her face, her hand frozen where she had raised it. He shook his head, not trusting himself, and took her free hand, wishing to walk on to their destination. To his great relief, it was a normal, solid hand, and he relaxed a bit, dismissing her anxiety. He smiled at her, and they continued towards the cafe, trying to act like nothing had happened. It may have worked to other people, but Mathias knew that something, something grave, had occurred. He just didn't quite know what.
Raphael was awakened quite abruptly by a familiar touch. Of course, 'awakened' isn't quite the right word for it, as he didn't sleep, but it was something of an awakening. He'd had flashbacks like this before, of course, but never had he remembered his name. He was Mathias! That didn't help much; he was no closer to his salvation than he had been before it, and his salvation was what he needed so desperately, not his memory. That he would rather do without.
But now, here he was, back in St. Julien's, with Gabrielle hovering above him, her concern evident as it always was for him. He shook his head, as though to clear away the cobwebs that had restrung themselves while he slept, the doubting ones. "Are you all right?" she asked him quietly, her voice shaking. "I came back here, after Notre Dame, and then you were here, not much later. Another memory?" she enquired. He nodded, wishing he didn't put her through this every time something happened. She worried so much for him!
"Il etait notre premier connaissance," he said, "Et le premier fois que j'ai realize que tu etais fantome." She smiled knowingly, a look that somehow didn't seem right on her face, but it didn't last long. "It wasn't your... ton mort, was it? It scares me when you think of that; I never know what you'll do when you come back."
That was, unfortunately, true enough. Once they had been standing by the river, and he stood there for too long; suddenly he was drowning again, feeling the helplessness as he was dragged down by the cold and the current, the horrible rush of the freezing water into his lungs, and, worst of all, the blackness that had followed. For seeming eternities he was suspended in intangible darkness, not a mere lack of light but of everything he had ever known as life. And then, then there was light, a pure light, but nonetheless the most terrifying light he'd ever felt, and with it...
When he had come to from that experience, Gabrielle told him, he had been screaming, shrieking for mercy in the name of all that was good, and he wouldn't stop, not even for her, not until she'd gotten him back into the church. Then his cries had finally ended, and his agony seemed to be over-- only it wasn't. He'd relived the experience over and over again since that time; it was only one of the reasons he wished he hadn't done it. His life had been over then, he'd thought; only after his death did he realize how foolish it had been. The living may think they envy the dead, but if they only knew! Life doesn't go on for eternity; only the living have true hope for nirvana.
He heaved a shuddering sigh, and squeezed back insubstantial tears, then remembered Gabrielle. Her usual pale colour had faded even further, until she looked to be a spectre of Death-- which, he realized, she was, a thought that seemed oddly humorous, and he smiled. Her brow furrowed in her incomp- rehension of his smile, so soon after tears. He noticed, though he wasn't as perceptive as she was, and would never be. She wouldn't understand, he told himself, not bothering even to try to explain.
"Je suis d'accord, Gabrielle," he said. "Do not worry about me, my dear; you always do. I do not deserve it."
"I'm here for you, Raphael, that's-" He broke her off mid-sentence, shaking his head negatively. "I am no longer Raphael. My name was, and now still is, Mathias. If there is nothing else from life I may hold on to, at least I must have my name. Without it, what am I but a ghost? Un fantome." How could he make her understand that he couldn't forget life? He knew that it was over and done with, in the back of his mind, but that thought was never brought forward willingly.
"You cannot fight death," she said slowly, her eyes piercing him, seeming to know his thoughts as they might. "No matter how hard you try, Raphael, you will never live again. And only when you realize that can there be hope for you. I can do no more than tell you that, and worry for you. I-" Suddenly she looked away, seeming as though she had said too much. "But the rest is for you to discover, if you have the patience. It's more a virtue in death than most would care to know, and the virtue you need most right now. And Raphael," she added. He didn't look up, not to that name. "You must learn forgiveness to yourself. Then you may be saved."
He didn't raise his head until she was gone, and then, he cried.
A week passed before he saw Gabrielle again. For most of that time he remained insubstantial, caring nought for the activities that Paris abounded with, even those a ghost could enjoy. Instead he moped about inside the church, watching the seemingly endless stream of people that flowed into it from the street, and then back out again. None of them noticed him, none except a child, no more than four. She came in clutching her mother's hand, looking about her in awe. They were obviously tourists, and yet Raphael felt something of an affinity for them.
The girl, her mouth agape, broke away from her mother's hand, and ran about the columns excitedly, darting in and out of myriad nooks and crannies. Her mother called after her uselessly, and then abruptly saw her pause. "Maman!" the child cried. "Un fantome! Il y a un fantome! Pres de la statue." The mother smiled. "Ton imagination est incroiable, ma petite fille. Il n'y a pas les fantomes." The girl pouted. "Mais il est vraiment la! Voyez!" She pointed straight at him, startling him; he hadn't know anyone could see him, child or not. The mother smiled again, this time walking to the child and taking her hand. The girl sighed as only little girls can, and, kicking at imaginary obstacles in the way, followed her mother out of the church.
Raphael stared after them, watching until their forms disappeared onto a tour bus. Why had he felt so close to them? His daughter would be almost the child's age now, he realized. And the woman... well, she hadn't looked much like Elizabeth, but the way she acted was painfully close. He sighed, a sound like the wind through a half- closed door, and tried not to remember those days. They had been so happy-- but it was behind him now, as Gabrielle had said, and...
"So you've finally realized that, eh, Raphael?" a voice commented from behind him. He winced, knowing at once who it belonged to, and what had happened the last time they talked. "I'm glad you've come around, at least on that point. Dwelling on past mistakes never got a ghost anywhere."
He spun around, his eyes wild with pain as well as anger. "Don't you ever, ever call them a mistake!" he stuttered, in his rage using the language he had last heard. "I loved them; I still do! Just because I'm dead doesn't mean I have to forget them, does it?" Gabrielle shook her head slowly, looking down at the floor. "You'll never learn, will you," she asked rhetorically. "Of course you don't have to forget them, just don't dwell on them so. What's gone is gone, and that includes you. My dear phantom," she said, more softly, sounding more like the old Gabrielle, "You dwell too much on such things. Allow yourself the pleasure of remembering only the good. That is the way it should be."
She came to him slowly, asking trust with her innocent eyes. He sighed once, heavily, and accepted her embrace. She stroked the back of his head comfortingly, like his mother used to do when he was little, and was not startled when she felt the first of his insubstantial tears. "It's all right, dearest. Life goes on," she said, with a smile he could not see. "There is nothing more for you to do on this earth." She grimaced once, trying to make the decision she knew must be made.
She closed her eyes briefly, moving her lips though she said nothing, and unwrapped the ghost's arms from around her waist. With her hands on his shoulders, she looked him in the eyes, eyes that reflected confusion, doubt, and not just a little pain. "Raphael," she said slowly, wincing at his frown, "I am not what you may think."
"Quoi?" he said, perplexed. "What else could you be?" She frowned herself; he ought to have been better prepared for this, more than she had done. "Je ne suis pas une phantome, comme toi." Again, that uncertain, almost frightened look. She knew what he must be thinking; it was the same look that many of her other assignments had given her, when she told them, though all of them had at least some suspicion of her true nature. All of them, too, had suicided from more trivial reasons; she certainly didn't classify a lost love as trivial.
Suddenly, the ghost pushed her arms away, and took a step backwards, his eyes wide with apprehension. "What are you," he whispered. "What else is there to be, unless you're-- Mon Dieu!!" She nodded slightly, an ironic smile at her lips. "Not Him, dear Raphael, just a helper. I've been here to protect you, to guide you to where you should be. Where you would be now, if you'd listened to me." His features hardened again, and she realized what she must sound like. She grimaced, stepping closer so she might hold his hands and apologize, but he retreated further, now looking very, very upset.
"How could you do this to me?" he said, sounding almost awed that someone would betray him. "To think that I am only one, one of the- how many?- the other ghosts you have deceived like this! Is that, then, what I am to you? Just another assignment? And all of this, everything I thought was real, this is just pretend for you? Oh!" He sank heavily down onto one of the statue's bases, with his head in his hands, weeping as only a ghost could.
The angel stood awkwardly by him, wishing there was some way to console him. Unfortunately, all he had said was true- though they still were in the "real" world, and there was nothing she could say to convince him of that. And she felt much more for him than she had for any of the others, a fact that could be explained only for his innocence. Certainly he had known love and all of the passions that went with it, and he had died by his own hand, but through all that he had maintained the sort of quality that the others had been sorely lacking in. Of anyone, this man seemed to deserve where he would go; she had to help him get there. And now, she realized, not only out of professional requirement, but of her own feelings. She couldn't let him suffer more in the land of the living, not like this.
Quietly- for that was the only way she could move- she unfurled her wings, and let slip the illusion of earthy clothing. Now she was dressed in what one would expect an angel to wear: a pure, almost blindingly white caftan, with bare, perfect feet. With her wings spread slightly behind her, she looked the very picture of what she was; no longer was she going to try at the pretense of being a ghost. One last change: she made herself as insubstantial as she could, as it certainly wouldn't do to have ordinary people see her. Of course, this was a church; it would definitely reaffirm some shaky faiths... but this wasn't the time for it. Now she must devote herself to him, Raphael-who-would- be-Mathias.
"Raphael," she called softly, in a break of his sobs. "Raphael, look at me." The ghost glanced up, his face wet with tears. What he saw... it was, quite literally, awesome. Gabrielle was as a vision, white as the light that he had experienced in the horrid memory, but no where near as harsh. She was a tender light, a caring one, and he could suddenly see that she really was there only to help him. She wanted what was best for him, and knew better than any living entity that it was what he should have gone to before, if not for his mistake, and yet because of it.
"What do I have to do?" he murmured, and in that one sentence she could see that he had finally accepted his fate. "Just let go, my phantom, let go and allow your soul to be set free, free of the world that chains you to it." He swallowed, and slowly closed his eyes to that world, could feel himself rising....
...But then a tug at his feet, as though something wanted him to go back, to stay in the drear mortal world. The world as he knew it slowed down, to a pace Time himself couldn't have achieved. He almost opened his eyes, to see what was there to make him stay, but heard a voice, far away, and very soft... "Do not doubt," it said, "Your ascension is at hand..." but the doubt would not be gone, even for all the angels in Heaven. He opened his eyes...
Mathias stood at the bank of the Seine, looking out at Notre Dame and the reflections it cast on the river. And did an incredulous double-take. "Mon Dieu," he whispered. "Pourquoi est-ce que je suis ici?" Then he remembered, though it wasn't like a memory should be. It was like a premonition, a "could-be", a situation that would be if he carried out what he had planned on doing. "Non," he murmured, shaking his head. "A second chance is never to be wasted. Am I right, Gabrielle?"
He thought he heard and answer, could see her smile as she agreed, but then... it was probably just the wind.
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