Disclaimer: None of the familiar names belong to me, and sadly enough, neither does Paris of the 19th century. Characters and backstory are based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and/or the 2004 film, and ultimately on the original novel by Gaston Leroux.

Acknowledgements: A huge thankyou to LadyKate for beta-reading this and providing invaluable moral support. Many, many thanks to Tali for the late night debates on the finer points of "Phantom" and for continuing to be so supportive of this fic – and for agreeing with me! And thanks to Carly for her feedback and to everyone else who asked to see this story despite not being a fan of "Phantom": I am really honoured and I hope you enjoy it.

A word about historical accuracy: Characters, like real people, are products of their surroundings, and so I've tried to keep details of everyday life and political elements faithful to the period. My descriptions are based on maps, photos, paintings and first-hand accounts, as well as a variety of history texts. That said, this is not a scholarly historical novel, and some liberties could be taken for the sake of the story.

Setting: The 2004 film was set in 1870, which just happens to be the one year in the late 19th century when this story could not possibly have taken place: far from holding a masquerade on New Year's Eve of 1871, the populace of Paris was under siege by the Prussian army. So, for the purposes of this story, I will set the events of "Phantom" back another year to 1869-1870.

We open, therefore, after the fire of the Opéra Populaire, in May 1870, in the last few months of Napoleon III's Empire.

To say 'I love you' one must know first how to say the 'I'. –Ayn Rand

Chapter 1 – Only Almost Here

It was raining in Paris. The black asphalt of the grand boulevards ran silver with light, so that it seemed the entire evening was reflected and continued underground: the gaily lit cafés-chantants with their bawdy songs, the carriages, the restaurants, social clubs, theatres, and the people, everywhere the people... They crowded under awnings and roofs to escape the rain, stood smoking in the dimly lit foyers or pressed shoulder-to-shoulder in packed salons. Paris was what it was; a party in full swing, cheerfully abandoning itself to the din, the glitter, the charming madness of champagne, absinthe and spring.

In the rue le Peletier, there was a gap among the brilliantly lit buildings, a black hole where the missing tooth of the Opéra Populaire now stood empty and silent. Soot streaked down its wet façade. A mere week after the disaster, it appeared ancient and entirely abandoned, its windows boarded up, its singers gone, its audience amusing itself in other theatres and in other ways. Parisian gossip, always fickle, had died down almost before the fire itself, the initial hysteria turning to fascination by the following morning, and to boredom within the week. A few makeshift booths had been run up outside, and during the day hawkers still stood there, selling bits of scenery and more fragments of the infamous chandelier than even the Opéra Populaire could have reasonably possessed ("For you, monsieur, just two sous!"). By now, only the most naïve English and American tourists bought the trinkets; savvy Parisians had long since declared the building an eyesore, and the fire old news.

"Life continues," said a well-dressed gentleman to the young woman beside him.

The two of them stood arm in arm in front of the building, in the rain, without cloaks or umbrellas. Passing strangers hurrying to their carriages cast curious glances in their direction. The young man went on, slowly shaking his head:

"A week ago I thought the world would end. But it's just the same as always. Well, except for..." He gestured wordlessly at the dark building.

"Yes." The girl bit her lip, staring. "Almost the same. It's just been turned inside out... The darkness is on the outside, now."

She soothed away his worried glance with a small, apologetic smile. "But we should get out of the rain. I swore to Meg I would be careful with this dress."

"Oh!" he exclaimed, shame-faced. "You're cold, of course – forgive me. I should not have brought us here. Georges!" The last was addressed to the coachman behind them, who hurried to open the door. "Mademoiselle Daaé wishes to go home now."

"Yes, monsieur."

The gentleman extended a hand to help the young woman into his carriage. He winced as she carefully held the skirts of her gown clear of the gutter. "Meg's dress... Oh, Christine. I would buy you a thousand new dresses if you would only let me."

One corner of the girl's mouth lifted higher, turning her smile wry. "And Madame Giry would shame me at once into giving them all back. We are not yet married, Raoul."

"Don't remind me," he said ruefully, settling on the seat beside her. "Our 'secret engagement'. After everything we've been through..."

"Not so secret now." She pulled off her gloves, then rested her head on his shoulder, wet dark curls escaping their pins.

Georges, a big quiet man, closed the carriage door behind them with surprising gentleness, and a moment later there was a slight jolt as they moved off. The ruin of the Opéra disappeared among the lights.

"Let me take you away, Christine. For both our sakes. We'll start everything again, away from this wreck, away from Paris and its ghosts. We'll have a house by the sea, just like the old one. You'll laugh again. We'll be free, you and I."

She lifted her head to meet his serious, pleading eyes.

"I don't think so. You see, it's too late... Maybe it's true that only children are free. But perhaps – we can be happy?"

Raoul took her in his arms then, holding her tightly, nestling his face in her damp curls. They held on to one another like this, two children caught in a storm so many years ago, buffeted by the wind.

"Tell me we'll be happy, Christine."

"Oh yes, Raoul. Very happy."

He felt her grip his arms, and kissed her mouth, tasting salt, tasting rain. He held her, this girl he had loved since they were children, this woman he did not know at all, and for a while he could believe that he had managed to save her after all. But in his mind's treacherous memory, he saw her eyes closing for another man's dark music, and in the pure warmth of her kiss he fancied the aching, desperate, shattering passion he had seen once and could never forget.

"I love you!" he whispered, crushing her against him helplessly, "I love you, I love you, I love you..."

When at last they separated, they sat in silence for a long while, jolted by the movement of the carriage.

Outside was the noise of the hoofbeats and wheels, Parisian traffic and the crowds of night revellers. A burst of music came from somewhere where a door had been opened and shut. The rain had stopped and only the occasional tree showered their window with fat heavy droplets as they drove past.

"We're nearly there," Raoul said inconsequentially, peering into the window.

Christine turned to him with another of her wry half-smiles, her lips still swollen with their kiss. Raoul thought there was something heartbreakingly grown-up in that sadness and self-irony.

"Yes," she said. "Life continues."

o o o

The glass shopfront of the café-boulangerie boasted exquisite plaster promises of bread loaves, baguettes and other delights, which were fully realised within, filling the shop with the delicious aroma of fresh bread and steaming chocolate. The décor, all Louis XV-style cupids, gilt mouldings, heavy mirrors and crystal, had until recently reflected the boulangerie's proximity to the Opéra Populaire, like a conveniently located shadow of the theatre, enticing hungry patrons and hungrier ballet girls inside.

Now, with the Opéra across the road a dead hulk and the patrons and ballet girls all gone, the boulangerie seemed suddenly orphaned, a lost child overdressed in velvet and gold.

"Business is terrible, Madame Giry, just terrible!" complained the elderly shopkeeper, a neat, white-haired man by the name of Monsieur Antoine. "And it will only get worse, for you know it will take them months to repair the Opéra, indeed, months – and in that time what shall I do? Look, a Friday, and scarcely a soul in sight, not even a skinny ballet girl sneaking out for her chocolate..."

He broke off abruptly, darting an embarrassed look at the unamused face of the ballet mistress.

"That is – ahem. Yes. Well. Here we are then. Just a half-loaf, as usual."

He put the carefully paper-wrapped parcel on the marble counter and slid it towards Madame Giry. "Will that be all for today?"

Madame Giry added the parcel to the rest of the purchases in her carry-bag.

"Yes, Monsieur Antoine, thank you."

"Very good, madame. That comes to 20 centimes – I'll put that on your account, shall I?"

"Please. And..." She paused. "I regret to ask this, but would you be so kind as to calculate the total I owe you and forward the bill to this address?" She put a slip of paper on the counter.

Monsieur Antoine reached for his little folding spectacles to examine it.

"You are moving away? Not you too, Madame Giry..."

"I am sorry to add to your business troubles, Monsieur Antoine. But my apartment within the Opéra..."

She looked briefly over her shoulder, as though checking that the building was really ruined. It still stood black and silent in the night, framed by the cupids in the rain-speckled glass of the shopfront.

"I'm afraid you are right; it will likely be many months before the Opéra is repaired. Perhaps longer. I must find new employment."

Monsieur Antoine took off his spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly.

"Yes, of course. I'm sorry. It must not be easy for you either, Madame Giry."

"No indeed, monsieur. Nor for any of us."

Monsieur Antoine carefully folded the slip of paper with her address and put it in his pocket. Then he gave Madame Giry a bright smile and clapped his hands on the counter – "Right! Well then, let me give you a little something in farewell, for young Marguerite. I think I have some of her favourite... where were they... with slivered almonds..."

He busied himself looking through the shelves in one of the displays.

"Really, monsieur," Madame Giry tried, "it is not necessary, Meg mustn't..."

"Nonsense, I insist. Ah! Here we are."

He lifted out one of the pastry trays, where a dozen plump almond rolls had been arranged in a cascade. He looked at the tray in puzzlement. There were only three left.

"But I have not yet sold... I don't understand. I put them right there, and then you came in, and now... There were twelve just a moment ago!"

Madame Giry's mouth quirked. "Perhaps it was a ghost?"

"A hungry ghost, it seems." Monsieur Antoine gave the tray a last bemused frown, then sighed. "Perhaps just three then. It seems I am getting forgetful in my old age."

He wrapped the rolls quickly in some paper, ignoring Madame Giry's protestations, and passed the package to her. After a moment, she took it, adding it to the others in her bag.

"Thank you. I do promise to stop by when I am in the area again."

"I look forward to it, madame. Au revoir, and," he gave a friendly nod in the general direction of huge city outside. "Bonne chance?"

"And to you, Monsieur Antoine." She smiled. "The best of luck."

o o o

The rain had continued through most of the evening. Behind the Opéra Populaire, the heap of ruined scenery had turned to a soggy mess of burnt wood, and the intricately painted backgrounds had melted together into a clump of glutinous, multicoloured papier-mâché. The acidic stench of wet charcoal rose from the pile.

No doubt there was some divine symbolism in all this, Erik reflected bitterly, as he tried in vain to find a relatively dry corner where he could eat the stolen bread. He ended up with his back wedged between the soot-blackened wall of the opera house and the piled scenery. The roll was almost fresh, full of almonds and very white, and he bit into it hungrily, tearing chunks off and finally just stuffing the rest into his mouth, hunger getting the best of all his worthless, theatrical manners. Bravo, monsieur, he congratulated himself contemptuously. You may now add 'thief' to your repertoire of accomplishments. He would have laughed, but for the hunger.

Yet hunger was a friend, and it was the rain that had been the hardest to bear: the relentless torture of droplets needling him, utterly outside his control. Underground, the water had obeyed him; now he was powerless against it, powerless against everything. The rain had coursed down his face, finding the valleys and ridges of the distorted half of his skull, as shockingly intimate as a caress. No return... He had clawed at his face at first, tried to hide, could barely resist crawling back into the half-collapsed tunnels of the Opéra. For two days, he had done little save fight the rain, and himself. On the third, hunger had forced him back into the shell of his sanity. It would not be denied; and finally, exhausted by the struggle, Erik had felt himself acquiesce. He looked up at the sky for the first time and, standing strung out like a violin string, trembling with tension, had allowed the rain to explore the ravaged contours of his face, caressing both sides of it with Christine's delicate fingers, gently coaxing open his mouth to explore inside.

After that, he had stolen bread, meat, anything to survive.

Yes, he thought when the bread was gone. There was definitely something symbolic about this cold, wet, miserable night, where all the used-up and useless scenery was melting away, bleeding colour into the gutter. A few sets, a prop table with a missing leg, a singed page of music, half a wig. And an opera ghost, who was only a hungry man with half a face.

And, if Christine was to be believed, half a soul...

Despair crashed over him anew and Erik fed it maliciously, opening himself to the pain, repeating, Christine, Christine, Christine, thinking of the pity and revulsion in her face as he dragged her down, down, always down. Her arms had been fragile porcelain in his grip, and he had thought this made her weak but it was the other way around, oh Christine... It is not your face, she had said and looked squarely at him, the way nobody, nobody had ever done. Not your face. Your soul.

How had she done it? She had seen not the aberration of his face, but the fatal flaw in his reasoning, the role that had been playing him: the Phantom of the Opera inside his mind... And somehow, she had found what remained of him on the edges of his madness and collected those pitiful shards to give them back as one terrible whole. He looked down at his hand, opening his palm to the light. The ring was still there, it alone sparkling in all the filth.

Christine had made him a man.

Damn her.

He wanted to hate her for it, to break these bonds she had bound him with. The Phantom would have killed her and her lover both, easily! But... But she had killed the Phantom instead, with her bare hands against his distorted flesh.

I am not an angel, nor a demon, nor a ghost. I am Erik!

He hunched his shoulders over the damned ring and gritted his teeth, shaking soundlessly, swaying back and forth. Loathing himself, loathing her, cursing her, loving her... Christine...

There was a crash, and a swathe of water drenched him suddenly from head to foot. He jerked up, gasping, momentarily disoriented.

"Stop!" yelled a voice from the road, "Stop, curse you!"

The wheels of an omnibus skidded on the road some way ahead of him as someone finally brought the horses to a halt. There was the angry sound of an argument. Erik tried to struggle to his feet, but his knees had locked up with the cold; the wall was at his back and there was nowhere to go. Futile anger gripped him: to have eluded the mob all this time only to be found like this among the burnt scenery, unarmed and stripped of his theatre and all his masks! He didn't want to die, not like this, not without dignity.

But to his surprise, there was only one set of footsteps, clicking quickly towards him. A woman's gait.