Act 3: And the show goes on

For nearly a week, Erik did not leave his dark house on the corner. His solution to any problem had always been to hide until it passed and now was no different. He paced his house for days, his mind latching on to any excuse no matter how feeble to forget Christine. He fixed anything that had been broken, and broke a few things to have a reason to fix them. His stacks of unfinished musical scores only grew as he scribbled and threw notes onto paper after paper as even more sheets were tossed to the floor in disgust.

His heart ached to return to the daroga's home, to go and see Christine once more, but his prudence always intervened. More than once, he had been dressed and prepared to leave the house only to regain his wits the moment his fingers contacted the doorknob. Seeing her was agonizing—and if her tears had been any indication, his presence had given her the same reaction. He would not torment himself or her for the sake of his own curiosity.

He dared not even resume his old spying tricks for fear he would abandon his already fragile control of himself and confront her. So much of him had always wanted to hurt her as badly as he had been hurt by her. From nearly the day she had left him, he had known what he would say to her on their next meeting. He had planned out what he would say, how he would say it, and how she would react to him—screaming and crying and ultimately fleeing, her wealthy Vicomte always at her side.

But then he had seen her kneeling on the floor, gazing at him with only guilt and tears in her eyes. Christine had looked at him in the same damnable way that first time she had taken his mask. He had not been able to bring himself to hate her then, and he could not hate her now. All the angry words he had stored for so long were laid to waste by a single tear, a single glance, from her. Christine was engraved in his soul, a light untouched by darkness.

On his travels he had seen many girls who resembled her—some with their innocence, some with their coloring, some with their movements—and several times he had even thought he had seen her. He had been happiest in Venice that very first year when a young lady of the night had crossed his path, a girl not yet twenty with large blue eyes and skin as fair as a child's. Unfettered of any bands or upswept style were dark curls that tumbled against her bare shoulders, fanning out beautifully across his pillow when he bedded her. She was the temporary salve for his deep wounds, a temporary illusion of his beloved Christine. The girl had called him by his given name, allowed herself to succumb to arresting melody of his voice. She gave him every satisfaction of the flesh in exchange for the handsome allowance and his mind had thought his heart was fooled. But one night she had opened her mouth in a clumsy, childish attempt to join his song and the dream was shattered. )

Erik had not so much as touched another woman since. Not until Christine was before him, held her face in his hands, had he longed for anyone to touch him in return. Her very presence drove him mad, breaking those years of careful self-control.

He was hardly shocked when a knock came to his door that afternoon. Honestly, Erik was amazed that it had taken the famed Nadir a full week to track down his whereabouts. Once Nadir knew that he was in Paris, Erik had not thought it would be difficult for the former policeman to trace the rumors of the "mysterious man on the corner" to their source. It seemed, he thought with a bit of pride, than either his stealth had improved or Nadir was losing his touch.

He had been drowning in notes and paper and scores when the sharp rap to the wood of his door rang out across the front hall. At first he had not recognized the sound, though when it came once again, he pulled himself out of his musical trance long enough to fit his mask before crossing the room. He opened the door a mere crack, his shadow filling the empty space behind it. "What is it?" he spat through gritted teeth, not hiding his frustration at being disturbed.

It was a light female voice that answered. "Pardon me, Monsieur, but I was told to deliver a message to deliver to the master of the house."

Erik went cold. Christine stood on the other side of his door, so close that he could reach out and touch her. He watched her lingered on his doorstep, her hands would be clasped in front of her as she was wont to have them. Her hair tumbled free, her cloak pulled high over her shoulders. His heart had conspired against him, never letting him forget. The hand he had braced against the wall began to tremble.

"What sort of message?" he growled, pulling together all the self-control he could muster.

There was a pause before she replied. In his mind, he could see her eyes go wide. "Oh god." Her whisper floated through the small crack in the door and he could feel an extra weight as she set her hand against it. "Erik?"

She knew him, had recognized his voice. Resignedly, Erik extended his hand through the crack in the door. "Hand me the message, Christine," he said, his voice low and dangerous. There were no words in response, but he could feel her trembling as warm fingers pressed a small piece of paper into his gloved palm. He was equally silent as he drew it back to himself and slit the seal, unfolding it to read:

Erik. After all this time, I should have known how difficult you would be to find, but you cannot evade me forever. I know not your quarrel with this woman but I ask you to overcome it—for the sake of our friendship. I would not have you avoid my house like the plague for the rest of both our lifetimes. Nadir.

He squeezed his eyes shut and balled the note in his fist. He was torn between his dearest friend and the woman whose mere voice pitted his heart against his mind. But for Nadir—and for his own dark curiosity—he would risk himself once again. Licking his lips and swallowing hard, Erik took a deep breath and grabbed hold of the door. Under his steady arm it opened gradually, revealing the wide blue eyes of Christine de Chagny.

She seemed frozen to the spot, her very breath caught as she took in the sight of his stark white mask against the shadows. "Come in," he hissed in a guttural whisper, standing to one side. "I have a reputation to keep that does not include strange women standing on my doorstep." She recovered from her initial shock, and lifted the hem of her skirts out of the way of her feet as she swiftly moved into the house, glancing first behind her and then up at him.

The door slammed shut almost of its own accord the moment she stepped inside. She whirled around to find that he had released her arm and stepped behind her, one hand still lingering against the doorframe. In the other was clutched the note.

"Did you read this?" Erik demanded, his white mask gleaming in the candlelight.

She shook her head fiercely, her eyes betraying both scorn and bewilderment. "The seal was unbroken when I handed it to you," she insisted, her voice colder than it had been only moments earlier on the other side of the door. "Surely you do not think me so low as to read my master's messages?"

"Madame de Chagny," he began, condescending and sarcastic. "I have witnessed the depths of human depravity, and you, my dear, are hardly above it." He turned his back to her, stalking off to where the music he had been writing lay strewn across the floor. His voice held such contempt, and yet he could not bear to look at her. Six years had not been long enough to wear away at the beauty that had burned itself into his heart.

"Erik…" she started in protest.

He cut her off. "Erik?" he repeated slowly, standing from where he had been gathering his papers together. "And where did you come to learn that name? Perhaps you have been reading your master's messages after all." Cautiously, he turned towards her, watching her where she stood in the dim light. The hall was best lit where he stood—where he wrote his music, though the shadows could not hide her face from him, nor slake his aching heart.

Her lips were drawn into a tight line, her eyes hard. "Monsieur Nadir told me the name…I know not how else to address you. I am certainly too old to believe you an angel." Christine crossed her arms over her chest, her traveling cloak still resting darkly on her shoulders. In her boldness, she seemed older than her twenty-three years, the hair drawn away from her face adding maturity.

"Then again, what else would you have me call you? Opera Ghost? The Phantom of the Opera?" She used the titles mockingly. "Without an opera house, it is difficult for either to apply."

Erik quickly composed himself—he was not used to a Christine who fought him like this. The Christine he had known had always been eager to please. This girl had found deep within herself the spirit to counter him. Something—perhaps the unfettered contempt of the Paris elite while she was married, had brought her to this sort of biting defense. He was certain his surprise must have shown on his face, even if only for a moment.

"And who do we blame for that, Madame?" he asked, his voice like silk. "Perhaps the silly child who allowed herself to be manipulated into betraying the man who had brought her to such heights! You know quite well that had you not gone along with their little scheme, the Opera Populaire would still stand. Why did you allow yourself to fall in with that—surely could not have thought that I would not uncover their worthless plot?"

For a few seconds Christine said nothing, merely looked at him with guilty, imploring eyes. Then she regained her composure and tightened her face. "You felled that chandelier yourself—there is no other to blame for that!" she insisted defiantly. "And if you knew the scheme, why take to the stage? You knew there would be soldiers, you knew there would be dangers, and yet you added one more to your body count because your pride forced you to perform your own opera!" She had begun to advance on him, her face set, concealing the guilt he had seen only moments before. "Why even come on stage if not to torment me further?"

"Torment you?" Erik laughed. "The torment would have been watching that fool Piangi attempt to sing the part of Don Juan in my final act. The scene required skill, not a large voice and larger gut. No, Madame, I simply could not allow him to take the stage." As she had approached he took a step to the side, then another, circling her slowly as he spoke.

"But you, Madame de Chagny? Oh, how you responded to me."

His mouth twisted into a mocking grin, his eyes dancing with malice. "You became Aminta as I had become Don Juan. The words we sang that night were more than lines on a mere script. 'In my mind I've already imagined our bodies entwining, defenseless and silent'…You sang that from your heart—and with your previous Vicomte sitting in attendance. I saw him, Madame, I saw his tears. He cried as he saw you give yourself over to me because you were mine, Christine. No one could have denied that—not you, not I, not him."

He watched with gleaming eyes as she struggled to compose herself long enough to form words. Still he circled and she twisted her head around as far as her neck would go to look at him as he looked at her. When confronted with his spite, her fighting spirit had begun to fail. She still kept a firm face, though, refusing to fall to tears just yet. This new bravery she held was unnerving to the memories of the timid chorus girl he had known. "But as you were mine and as I held you flush against me in my arms, what did you do then, Madame?"

"I was not yours," she whispered, her voice barely audible. She shook her head slowly, repeating herself. "I was never only yours."

Her words were soft, but they stopped him dead in his tracks. Only Nadir had ever dared counter him like this. "You would have been mine," he snapped. "Had that boy not interfered, you would have been happy with me. But he put you on that stage and you went along with that plan willingly. You stood on that bridge with me and you did exactly as he would have wished.

"You betrayed me!" Erik growled, pausing in his advance. "Christine, you betrayed me as you reached up in the pretense of love, stripping me of my dignity and pride as surely as you ripped that mask from my face!" He moved closer once more, his movements predatory. Christine retreated until she stood with her back to the wall, her chest heaving between quick and shallow breaths. "Why did you do it?" he demanded, his tone softer, "it was only the first of many betrayals that night—why did you start down that path? Why did you strip me bare before all the eyes of Paris?"

"To save you!" she said resolutely, staring boldly into his eyes.

Her voice and sudden exclamation threw him. "What?" he hissed.

Christine's shoulders slumped, though she did not move her eyes from his face. "It was to save you," she repeated much more quietly, her eyes now brimming with tears. "Do you not think I have not lived a day without the regret of what pain I caused my angel in those moments? I knew as well then as I do now what I did to you—but I had to do it. You knew the plot and yet you came on stage—they would have shot you where you stood!" Her face pleaded for understanding as she continued. "I knew you too well, Erik, I knew that you had to vanish…and the only way you would willingly leave that stage was if…I had to, Erik, I had to! I could not see you die."

"But you were happy to leave me to rot in the caverns below!" he spat furiously, slamming a fist into the wall beside her head.

Christine flinched, her eyes going wide with sudden alarm at the force of the blow. He could see her breath hitch in her throat, could almost hear her pulse beating wildly. She glanced at his face, then at his fist and then back again but she did not shrink away from him. He drew a shaking breath and withdrew his hand, taking a step back.

"Erik?" she whispered. "Angel?" Her hand reached toward him.

"Don't touch me," he hissed, twisting away from her searching fingers. Angel. She had called him angel. Never again had he thought he'd hear that word fall from her lips like that. Her Angel of Music had turned into an Angel of Vengeance, it seemed. An angel out for blood. He turned from her and tilted his head back, willing himself to calm and searching the ceiling for answers. All these years, he had thought of what it would be like to see her again—never had he seen it like this.

"I suggest you leave, Madame de Chagny," he said softly, tremors in his voice from barely constrained emotion. "Tell Nadir I am sorry. I have I tried…but there are some things I will never forget."

For a few moments, the only sounds were her rushed breathing. When he heard her footsteps, he thought she was moving for the door, abandoning him once again. Suddenly, her voice whispered directly from behind him, accompanied by a feather-light touch to his shoulder. "I did not mean to leave you then," her gentle words barely audible even in the stillness of the room.

Once more he tore himself from her. "I told you not to touch me." He could not allow himself to find hope in what she had said.

But she repeated it, louder this time. "I did not mean to leave you then. I did not wish to leave you. I was a child, Erik. I was a girl, only seventeen. Can you forgive the woman she has become?"

Erik whirled around, facing her. "If you did not mean to leave me, why did you go?"

Christine paused, her eyes wide as they searched his face for any flicker of feeling. "Because I was confused," she admitted, her voice unsteady. "You were so demanding, so cruel…" He opened his mouth in a futile attempt to cut her off. "I loved you both, yet you threatened to kill him! When you released me to Raoul and tossed us both away, what else was I to do?"

Erik felt his entire body go dead with shock. "What did you say?" he asked, so softly he could barely hear his own voice.

"I loved you both," she repeated, more sure of herself. "Something I realized and accepted some time ago. I do not lie to you, Erik." Even as those tears streaked her face, she held her chin high and poised herself as a lady should. "I loved Raoul for his kindness, for his sweet words and the hope he inspired in me, but I would be lying to deny my love for you. I loved you for your music, for your passion…for the passion you ignited in me. I—"

He interrupted her, his eyes narrowing. "What game is it that you wish to play now, Christine? What do you hope to gain with your trickery?"

She glared at him, spitting anger through her expression. "I told you already, I am not lying! I—"

She cut herself off, ducking her head and crossing her arms over her chest. Her feet moved quickly as she walked past him, headed to the other side of the room where she stared fixedly at the wall. "Would I have sung like that had I not loved you? Would I have kissed you if had I not loved you?"

"Would you have left with him?" Erik countered harshly.

"Would I have chosen you?" she shot back, her shoulders squared and set but still she did not look at him. She took a deep breath, the light of the room still shining off her perfect curls. "Because you know as well as I that I did. 'You try my patience, make your choice' you said. I went out to you, Erik, not to Raoul. I gave myself to you and you gave me to him. You were not alone until you made yourself alone—do not fault me for that."

Erik could not believe what he was hearing. The choice she had made was only to save her Vicomte—that was what he had always known in his heart. Left to her own devices, Christine never would have chosen him. "What do you mean to say, Christine?" he demanded, stalking towards her until he was breathing over her shoulder. "You loved me, you say again and again, but did you really? Given the choice again, would you stay with me, you loved me so?"

"Do not ask that of me," she whispered, her eyes full of tears.

He laughed, a low noise from the back of his throat that was in no way pleasant. "And now the truth comes out, Madame de Chagny. You say you loved me, and yet you do not have it in your heart to even entertain the thought of loving me." He moved to turn away once more but she grabbed a hold of his shirt and would not release it.

"Foolish man," she spat, anger filling her. "Are you so blind, so incapable of seeing past yourself?"

The eyebrow not hidden by white slowly raised. "What other factor could be involved, if not something not related to myself or the Vicomte?" he asked, making no effort to disguise the contempt in his voice. "Yet another man, perhaps? Were you traitorous to your precious Vicomte as well as to me?"

Christine's open hand flew across his face, snapping his head to the side. "No! My daughter, Erik! My child! When you ask me to remake that choice, you ask me to give up my little Marguerite. No one can ever ask that of me, not even you! She is all I have and I will never leave her. Never."

Under his wide-eyed, astonished gaze, Christine was shaking. He raised a hand to his reddened cheek, watching with shock as it all began to pour out in a verbal tirade against him.

"Everyone I have ever loved has gone!" she insisted, tears streaming once more. "My mother, my father. You, Raoul. Madame and Meg Giry. You all leave and you don't come back to me! Marguerite is my own flesh and blood, and nothing you can say will ever make me regret her." Christine squeezed her eyes shut, wavering on her feet. As Erik reached to steady her, though, she stepped away from his touch.

"I thought I still loved you, Erik," she whispered as she turned to go, pulling the hood of her cloak over her head. "Even when I saw you at the home of Monsieur Nadir and you were still so unkind, I felt a flame in my heart I have not felt since…for a very long time." She sighed. "Now that I come here I see that the Angel I knew and loved has left forever. You are a mockery of that man."

"Christine, no, wait—" His voice choked. Something in her words had stopped his anger cold. Something in her words had allowed him to see her as he had never been able to see her before. He could not hate her. His brave little angel…what beauty she possessed—so fierce even in the presence of a beast. She was his light in a sea of darkness, and until he drew his last breath, he would love her. No matter what she had done or would do, he would love her.

Grasping, he reached forward and grabbed the edge of her cloak. She stopped slowly, and turned her head to look at him. Her beautiful blue eyes were bloodshot with tears, the stains tracing their way down her flawless cheeks. She was still so lovely it hurt him inside. He felt a stab of pain—those tears were of no fault but his own. "Christine," he repeated, his voice soft.

Perhaps she heard something in his voice, perhaps she saw the unspoken words in his deep eyes. Slowly, Christine approached him, watching him through her tear-strained eyes. Gently, she reached for him, her fingers brushing against his shoulders. Erik reached for her, his strong hands grasping her at the arms and holding her to him as he struggled for words.

Her questing hands did not stop at his shoulders. She looked him squarely in the eye as her fingers traveled up and up, dancing along his neck and jaw before coming to rest at the very edges of his mask. Erik said nothing, shaking while Christine gently slipped her fingers between his twisted skin and the smooth surface of his mask. Silent and trembling, he stood unmoving as she lifted the mask from his face, gazing upon his hideousness for the first time in six long years.

A flash of something—surprise?—flickered in her face, though her expression settled back into the unreadable as she held his gaze, her eyes never wavering from his. She held the mask that had once been his life leaving him completely exposed to her judgment. Christine closed her eyes and gently guided his face down to hers, pressing her soft lips first to the corner of his twisted eye, and then to his scarred cheek before finally resting her forehead gently against his.

The tears he had fought with poured forth at her kindness and he trembled, unable to keep control of himself. How could this sweet angel, this creature of perfection and beauty, show such tenderness to a monster? Erik pulled her into a tight embrace, wrapping his arms around her with as much strength as he dared, nearly breaking when he felt her small hands on his back, pulling him equally close. "Your Angel never left you, Christine," he whispered into her hair, his voice choked with sobs.

She said nothing, but he could hear her humming softly and sweetly under her breath. It was a tune he knew well because it was one he himself had once written. When she opened her mouth she whispered the words she had once sung. "Angel, I hear you, speak—I listen," she began. Erik could feel her mouth move as she pressed her face into his shoulder. Her warm tears soaked through his shirt as they held each other. "Stay by my side, guide me."

"Angel, my soul was weak—forgive me." The words spilled from him in a rush, the last a plea that tore from his throat. Once more he cried into her hair, clutching her to him like a lifeline.

This was not Christine Daaé he held in his arms. Christine Daaé had been what she had said—a child, a girl of seventeen, lost and confused. Christine Daaé had the voice and the compassion that he loved, but her spirit had been weak and easily swayed. She had been a beautiful girl, but a girl nonetheless, still immature and capable of the most ultimate of betrayals.

The woman that held both him and his heart now was Christine de Chagny, a widow who had loved and lost time and time again. She was the voice he remembered, still possessed the same unyielding compassion. She understood what it meant to truly love, and love unconditionally. Her daughter had become her life—that little slip of a girl had turned his child angel into a woman. He could only pray that someday he would regain his place in her heart. For now, though, he was content to hold her and be near her again.

"Oh, Erik," she whispered, pulling him from his thoughts with her choked voice. "Six years has been so long without you." Christine pulled away just enough to see his face. She smiled through her tears, her eyes red and bloodshot, but gleaming with joy all the same. "Could you ever find it in your heart to forgive me? To love me again?"

All breath left his body in a rush, and for a long moment, all Erik could was stare. His mind could hardly accept her words, but the smile that still rested so sweetly on her beautiful face was all the proof his heart needed. His Angel of Music had more than merely forgiven him—she had seen him. She had looked past all of his passionate fury and once again understood the man behind the masked monster.

Little by little, a smile crossed his face. Not a smirk, not a malicious grin but an honest, open smile. "Forgiveness is but a trifle of all that I would give you," he said to her softly. "I would sell my very soul for you—to love you is not task but a favor I beg you to grant this twisted shell of a man."

And without a warning, her hands captured his jaw and she fairly leapt into his arms, pressing her lips to his with all the strength she could summon. Her fingers searched out his features as she kissed him, finding each and every welted scar and raised vein. Her kiss was one of sincere love, not of hapless pity. Erik pulled her flush to his body, his broad hands at her back, holding her close as her fingers delved into his hair. Six years of pain and separation vanished at the touch and they clutched each other. Even when their lips parted, they held each other still, breathing hard and crying both.

"I love you," Christine whispered as she showered his face with kisses, leaving no skin untouched. "And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, so sorry that I hurt you. I wish I could take all of your pain into myself and bear it a thousand times over to spare you of it because I never wanted to be so cruel. Oh Erik, I was so cruel to you."

They remained embraced, one beautiful moment fading into the next, every kiss speaking of the words they had longed to tell. For the moment, touch was enough and the only sounds were of their shallow breathing as they clung to each other. She rested her head against his shoulder, so close he could feel her lashes brush his throat as she closed her eyes. He relished the moment, her absolute trust. Every second that passed became one more in what he knew would be his most beautiful memory.

"Christine," Erik said, pulling back for a moment, the word escaping him in a soft hiss of air. Her name had always felt so precious to him, more beautiful than any sight on the earth, more enchanting than any of his grand melodies.

"I have done nothing to deserve your forgiveness, much less your love, and yet here you are in my arms. I fear waking any moment to find this was nothing but a beautiful dream."

Her kind smile was all the answer he needed.

FIN

Author's Notes: Thanks upon thanks upon thanks to Christa, my beta. You guys have no idea what a load of crap this story would be without her constantly calling me on my redundency and loss of character. She seriously deserves co-authorship of this baby.