A/N: Why so silent, good messieurs? Did you think that I had left you for good? Have you missed me, good messieurs? I have written you an epilogue!

Here, I make the final post:

CHAPTER 75!

TWENTY YEARS LATER

Erik sat rigid and unmoving throughout the drive, watching the streets of Paris pass by his window. The rain gave the city lights a blurred, almost ethereal quality – it was like something out of a dream. A very old, very familiar dream…

A gloved hand came to rest on his thigh, breaking him from his reverie. He looked up to see his wife studying him with soft, sympathetic brown eyes.

"It's going to be fine," she assured him, even as she wrung the corner of a lace handkerchief between the thumb and forefinger of her opposite hand.

He tightened his mouth in what he hoped would pass for a smile, and placed his own hand on top of hers. "Of course."

They passed the remainder of the drive in silence, neither of them choosing to comment on the fact that the other's hand trembled in their own. When the cab pulled to a halt at Rue Scribe, Erik unfolded his black umbrella and stepped out into the rain, then turned to take his wife's hand and pull her safely out onto the curb. They huddled together for a moment, watching after the cab long after it had turned a corner and disappeared into the night.

At long last, Christine slid forward and wrapped her arms around him tightly. "Do you remember the day I first came back to this place? It was raining then, too."

"I remember." He kissed her temple. "You were soaked to the skin."

"Mm." She smiled, rubbing her palm in rhythmic circles up and down his back. After a long, pensive moment, she sighed. "We had so many fond memories of this place, Erik. It's silly of us to let that one night taint all of the good."

Erik nodded. Still, he made no move to break their embrace, or step any closer to the building that had been his home and his prison for the better part of two decades. Unfortunately, his stalling tactics were cut short when a familiar voice cried out behind them, "Oh, look, there they are!" He and Christine turned in unison to see the Aldridges hurrying in their direction. Meg reached them first, breathless and grinning like the schoolgirl she had once been. She all but threw herself into Christine's arms, all the while chatting merrily, "We thought maybe the train was delayed due to the rain – just ghastly, isn't it? – but it looks like you've beat us here! I hope you haven't been waiting long."

"No, not at all," Christine assured her. "We just pulled up."

"Oh good, that's perfect timing then!" Suddenly remembering her manners, Meg released his wife and reached over to squeeze Erik's arm. Though the Aldridges had become like extended family over the years, fortunately she'd never quite gotten comfortable enough to actually embrace him. "And Erik, how are you, dear? How was the trip down?"

Unsure of which question she wanted him to answer, he simply forced a smile and made a general grunt of acknowledgment. That seemed to be perfectly acceptable to Meg, who had already taken Christine by the arm and begun to lead her up toward the main doors. With their backs turned to him and their voices muffled by the rain, he could only make out fragments of the conversation – "seems like just yesterday," "must be so proud," "yes, very excited," "surely be a triumph!" – as he reluctantly followed them up the opera's stone steps. Normally their fevered whispers and peals of girlish laughter were a source of unending annoyance to Erik, who was no more keen to share Christine now than he had been when she was a child flitting about the ballet dormitory with the Giry girl. Tonight, though, he found himself infinitely grateful for Meg's presence; it was clear that her enthusiastic anticipation of the evening was already beginning to rub off on Christine. That was the way it should be. If twittering animatedly with her oldest girlfriend would help his wife to focus on the excitement of the evening rather than their dark and morbid past here, well then, he supposed he could be patient.

He wasn't entirely sure when Rupert Aldridge fell into stride beside him. The Irishman was a thoughtful, observant sort of fellow, but when he did manage to get a word in edgewise, he had an excellent sense of humor. The two men had established an odd sort of camaraderie over the years – certainly not the brotherhood that Erik shared with Nadir, but rather something even more unfamiliar to him: a lighthearted friendship.

"You holdin' up there, old boy?" Rupert asked quietly when they neared the front doors. "Big night."

Erik proceeded slowly up the stairs without turning to look at his companion. He wasn't sure how much the Irishman knew about his history here, and he was not inclined to divulge any more of his past than absolutely necessary.

"Oh, we promised Claire we wouldn't do this, but of course there's no helping it. Surely we aren't the first parents to worry themselves ragged on a child's behalf, though."

"Ahh, there's no need for that. She'll be splendid."

"I have no doubt of it."

"Will you go back to see her before curtain?"

"No." Erik barked out a single, humorless laugh. "No, that would make it worse. We'd only make her nervous."

Rupert chuckled in turn. "Aye, better not, then."

Their wives were waiting for them on the landing just outside the door, and as soon as they reached them, Rupert fished in his coat pocket for their tickets. Oddly enough, it was the first time that Erik could ever recall holding a legitimate ticket to a performance at the Populaire; when he was young, he'd watched from the rafters, and once he'd mastered the art of manipulation, he'd held exclusive rights to the best box in the house for sixteen seasons he kept his attention intently focused upon the white slip in his hands, desperately attempting to draw out those last few seconds before he was faced with the enormity of the night ahead of him. He allowed the other three to move ahead of him and present their tickets to the doorman, and only once his own ticket stub was torn and handed back to him with a falsely cheerful "Enjoy the show, monsieur," did Erik finally look up at the magnificent lobby of his opera house.

The marble steps swept up before him, crowned in gold and glittering in the candlelight. The flames from the chandelier had never spilled this far into the building, and so the Grand Staircase remained untouched, immaculately preserved the way Erik had always remembered it. A bitter taste filled his mouth as he moved reluctantly up the first few steps, his gaze fixed upon the octagonal chassis at the junction of the three stairwells. Subconsciously, his toe slid forward to the hairline fissure around the perimeter of the trap door. There – the tiny brass release lever, barely the width of a paper clip. Even the scullery maids, who vigorously scrubbed these stairs twice a day, had never discovered the mechanism that had allowed the Ghost to vanish with a burst of flame in front of several hundred onlookers.

Erik snapped his eyes shut against the sudden onslaught of memories, vainly attempting to push them back to that dark, forgotten part of his soul where he banished all that he could not face in himself. It had been easy enough to do in the sleepy coastal town where he had built his new life with Christine. But in this place, in this shrine to everything he didn't want to remember, the memories slipped through his iron-fisted control as easily as grains of sand through a sieve.

Masquerade! Burning glances, turning heads…

It was the fury he remembered first – merciless, scorching rage that flowed back into him as easily as lava seething down a mountain's edge. A diamond ring, sparkling with a malicious, mocking twinkle between perfect white breasts… the Vicomte's hand resting possessively at Christine's waist, as if he had any right to her, as if he deserved her…

Your chains are still mine. You belong to me!

He jerked involuntarily at the gentle brush of fingers on his arm. Christine was eyeing him curiously, holding a paper booklet out for him.

"Erik? Did you want your own programme?"

He said nothing as his fingers closed numbly over the pamphlet. His gentle wife offered a smile, and Erik was undone. He stepped roughly away from her and took the remaining stairs two at a time. This was a mistake – a terrible, terrible mistake. He should have known that the Phantom would still hold power in his domain. He'd thought the severance clean, complete. But of course it was not that simple.

Wild-eyed and lost in the hazy ground between realities, he nearly bowled over another patron as the unfortunate fellow rounded a corner into Erik's path. Both men stopped just short of a collision, and suddenly a hand clapped Erik on the shoulder. He grabbed it and flung it violently away, only barely restraining himself from snapping the wrist in half.

"Easy!" the other man cried, taking a half step back. "Easy, Erik. Slow down. What's the matter?"

Erik blinked twice to clear the fire from his eyes, his chest heaving. "…Daroga."

Nadir paused only long enough to look him up and down once before taking a decisive step forward. "Walk with me," he commanded quietly.

The Persian maintained a measured, leisurely pace as they strode around the second floor perimeter. Occasionally he would stop to observe a statue or painting, feigning the admiration of a first-time visitor to the opera house. While his impossibly relaxed demeanor only served to further infuriate Erik at first, there did appear to be a method to the daroga's madness; by the time they reached the same spot in the circle again, Erik's breathing and pulse had steadied, and his head had cleared considerably.

Although his eyes were trained on the floor, he could feel himself being studied. "Are you ready to go in?" Nadir asked after a moment. "Or should we take another lap?"

Erik didn't answer; he simply started walking again. The Persian didn't miss a beat before falling into step beside him. Admirably, the daroga managed to bite back whatever lecture must have been hovering on the tip of his tongue, for he remained perfectly silent, waiting patiently for Erik to sort through his thoughts. They had nearly completed their second circuit around the building before the silence between them was finally broken.

"We never told Claire," Erik said. "Not about any of it. The Angel of Music, the Opera Ghost, Don Juan, the chandelier…" He shook his head forlornly, his eyes far away. "My own daughter has no idea who I am."

"Who you were," the daroga corrected. "You are not that man any more."

"Aren't I?"

Nadir fixed him with a hard look. "Don't be absurd."

"It isn't absurd! It's…" Erik sighed. "Difficult to explain. I don't expect you to understand."

"Try me."

Erik raked a hand back across his scalp, opening and closing his mouth several times as he struggled for the right words. "Twice in my life now I have left this place to burn. The first time was out of spite. The second was out of convenience. I had a wife and a child, a new life ahead of me. It was simpler to leave the past in flame, to move forward as if none of this had ever happened."

"Some memories are better left forgotten," Nadir agreed quietly. "You could not be expected to dwell perpetually on the darkest parts of your life."

"That was exactly my thought. I intended to start my life in Perros on a clean slate." He rubbed his eyes wearily. "When Claire was old enough to ask how Christine and I had met, we told her only the most basic of information – that her mother had been a chorus girl, that I had been her vocal instructor, that we'd fallen in love and moved up north to raise our family in Christine's childhood home. I suppose eventually we told the story so many times that it became our reality. It was so simple to trim out the undesirable parts of our past and paint our lives as a fairy tale. We said it was for Claire's sake, of course, but it was for us. It was for me. And here, in this place, I just…" He faltered, and put his head in his hands. "How can I face them? How can I stand beside Christine and maintain this charade of normalcy in the place where I – I lied to her, manipulated her, kidnapped her… killed for her? I cannot even look at her, daroga. Not here. Not after what I've done."

There was a long pause in which Nadir considered him seriously. "So… you're saying that you're… sorry for what you've done?"

Erik flashed him an annoyed glance. Evidently this was enough of an answer for Nadir, who grinned, tilted his head back, and prayed jubilantly, "Allah, take me now, for my work on earth is complete; he's finally developed a conscience!"

With a snort of disgust, Erik turned on his heel and proceeded to march off in the opposite direction. The pesky daroga hurried after him, still chortling at his own joke as he jogged to keep up with the masked man's longer strides. "Oh, come, now," he panted, "It was a compliment!"

The lights began to flash as Erik reached the top of the staircase, and he stopped in his tracks, nearly causing Nadir to bowl into him from behind. His eyes snapped to the nearest opalescent globe, and he felt his gut wrench with each deliberate flicker. All around them, a trickle of late-comers went hurrying toward the nearest doors. The first, discordant notes drifted up from the orchestra pit as the musicians tuned and tested their instruments. He was out of time.

Erik's gaze flickered to the daroga, who watched him with perfect seriousness now, waiting for a decision. Nadir would not judge him if he chose to run. He would think up an excellent excuse for Erik's sudden absence, though none of their companions would believe it. Perhaps Meg would be relieved that his dark, brooding presence would not spoil the night. Her mother was here as well – Giry was never one to pry into Erik's personal matters, though. Rupert would be confused, but the gentle Irishman would never make any further mention of it. And Christine…

What would Christine think?

His wife had been patient with him – inordinately so. From their very first conversation about this night through their embrace just outside, she had been nothing but supportive. More than anyone, she understood how difficult this was for him; she'd lived through the same nightmare. And yet while he cowered in the lobby, Christine was already in her seat, no doubt perusing the programme for their daughter's name and awaiting the performance with the fluttering, giddy, nervous excitement of any other mother in the audience.

Shame lanced through him, then, so sharply that the breath caught in his chest. What kind of father did it make him, that he would even consider balking at such a critical moment in his child's life? Claire had always looked up to him with reverence and love beyond anything he deserved; he was her hero and her best friend. At this very minute, his precious girl might be peering through the curtains, scanning the audience for the familiar masked face in the crowd, looking for an encouraging smile to calm her nerves and assure her that she would do beautifully.

Without another moment's hesitation, Erik turned on his heel and marched resolutely into the auditorium. He did his best to ignore his surroundings altogether – the polished gold statues, the newly upholstered seats, the smell of fresh paint and sawdust. Instead, he busied himself with locating the rest of their party in the audience. Fortunately, Christine had been thoughtful enough to save the two aisle seats for him and Nadir. She waved her hand at him when he caught her eye, gesturing insistently for him to hurry up. Indeed, Erik and the daroga barely made it to their seats before the house lights dimmed, and the orchestra struck the first, glorious notes of the overture.

A delicate frown creased his wife's brow as she leaned in toward him, whispering, "Are you all right?

"Fine," he said shortly. Christine raised an eyebrow and looked over at Nadir, who gave her a little nod of assent. She eyed them both warily for another moment before settling back in her seat to watch the performance.

In the darkness of the theater, Erik waited to be overwhelmed by another vicious ambush of memories. He allowed his gaze to sweep over the newly reconstructed stage, the luxurious red curtains, then up to Box Five, and finally, the glittering chandelier. More than anything, he was struck by how … different everything looked. He could not pinpoint exactly what had changed, but it was almost as if he were in an entirely different venue from the one he'd haunted so many years ago.

And then it hit him. Though Nadir had made a joke of it, there was a consummate truth to the Persian's words: it was not the place that had changed; it was Erik. This was the first performance he had ever attended, not as the Phantom, but as a father… as a normal man.

The relief that rippled through him at the revelation was so profound that he nearly wept. It was all right, now. It was all right to be here, with his wife, in this place and time – two proud parents, watching their daughter's debut at one of the finest opera houses in the world.

He slipped his hand into Christine's, and leaned over to kiss her as the curtain rose.

A/N: I had considered ending the chapter here, but let's end on a light note, shall we? ;)

Erik was on his feet the moment the opera's final chords rang out, applauding so hard that his hands stung. He could not have wiped the foolish grin from his face if he'd wanted to. All biases aside, the production had been one of the best he'd ever seen performed on this stage. He'd had serious doubts about La traviata after having seen the piece slaughtered innumerable times, but it appeared the current management was far more competent than any of the idiots Erik had been forced to deal with in the past. Of course, this new administration had criminally under-cast his daughter, but after her delightful turn as Flora Bervoix tonight, there was no doubt in Erik's mind that this would be an error quickly remedied.

Claire was the third member of the company to run forward for her bow, amidst the cheers and rapturous applause of the audience. She had no trouble picking out her row of supporters in the crowd; between Erik and Christine, the Aldridges, Nadir and Madame Giry, the exultant cries of "brava!" were impossible to miss. Her beautiful face split in a grin as she dipped in a curtsy, gave a little embarrassed laugh at the enthusiastic applause, and then stepped gracefully aside to allow her fellow cast mates to step forward. Once the prima donna and principal tenor soaked in their (embellished and distastefully drawn out) time in the limelight, the company rejoined in a line to take their final bow. The audience's response was explosive, and even from the twenty-sixth row Erik could see the appreciative tears in Claire's eyes. A tingling warmth spread in his chest as he watched her; he had never seen his daughter so happy, so alive.

When the curtain finally fell and the house lights brightened, Erik remembered with a sudden twinge of annoyance why precisely it came in handy to have a hollow pillar attached to one's box. Every audience member in the orchestra section was suddenly on their feet, squeezing through the aisles in uncomfortably close quarters as everyone meandered at a glacial pace in the direction of the exits at the back of the theater. Thankfully, there were benefits to being the former Trap-Door Lover; within moments, Erik managed to guide his small entourage to an unmarked wooden door near the front of the auditorium – down through the orchestra pit, up a few flights of stairs to a music supply and storage room, and from there a sharp right back to the dressing room corridor.

The backstage area was, unfortunately, no less crowded than the auditorium had been; a multitude of dancers, chorus girls, crewmen, admirers and varying members of the management milled throughout the corridor, laughing, drinking, and congratulating one another on a successful opening night. There was barely enough room to proceed single-file through the throngs of people, and so Erik gestured over his companions' heads in the direction of Claire's dressing room. Once everyone seemed to have a general idea of where they were attempting to go, Erik broke off from the group and began to weave through the crowd, feeling very much like a fish attempting to swim upstream. He was within ten paces of his daughter's dressing room when he saw the door open. He had just begun to raise his hand in greeting when he stopped cold in his tracks.

It was not his daughter who stepped out of the room.

It was a boy.

Erik caught only a brief glimpse of the youth – dark curls, clean-shaven, smartly dressed – before he disappeared into the crowd. For a moment he considered hunting him down like a bloodhound, but then Claire did poke her head out of the dressing room, and caught his eye almost immediately.

"Papa, over here!" she called, beckoning him forward.

He pushed through the remainder of the crowd perhaps a bit more aggressively than was necessary, and reached his daughter in a matter of seconds.

"Who was that?" he demanded, pointing an accusing finger in the direction of the boy's retreating back.

Claire had the good grace to blush, at least, before rolling her eyes. "Oh, Papa," she laughed, pulling him into an embrace. "Tonight, of all nights, that's the first thing you think to say to me?"

Erik kissed the top of her curly head, took her by the shoulders, and held her back so that he could look her in the face. "Hello, darling," he obliged. "I've missed you terribly. You were stunning tonight, and I'm inexpressibly proud of you. Now, who was that?"

Claire hesitated only a fraction of a second before opportunely locating the other women several paces behind him. "Maman!" she trilled, ducking out of Erik's grasp and into the safety of her female relatives' arms. "Aunt Meg, Mémé!"

"O-ho, you won't get off that easily, young mademoiselle!" Erik called after her.

Nadir made his way up to him at that point, his arms full of the women's coats and furs. "Who is getting away with what, now?"

"There was a boy," Erik snarled, severely regretting the fact that he'd not taken the young man off to one side for questioning when he'd had the chance.

To his credit, the daroga made a valiant effort to suppress the grin that played at the corner of his mouth. "My, my, that didn't take her long."

Despite his considerable height, there were simply too many people packed in the backstage hall for Erik to be able to find the boy in the crowd again. Scowling, he craned his neck as he tried to see around a chorus girl's feathered headdress.

"I wonder if the torture chamber survived the fire," he muttered under his breath.

"Erik."

"Just a morbid curiosity, of course." Reluctantly, Erik abandoned his attempt to locate the boy, and shifted his gaze back to his daughter. She was chatting away merrily with the other women, bearing a bright, innocent smile – too innocent, he decided.

Nadir followed the masked man's gaze, and offered a shrug. "Perhaps you're making more out of it than there really is?"

Erik didn't bother to dignify the daroga with a response as he pushed past him and marched purposefully in Claire's direction. No sooner had he made it within earshot, however, than Christine suddenly looked up with a smile and held her hand out to him.

"Oh, darling, Claire was just saying that she would like to have her celebratory dinner at le Café de la Paix. Would you be a dear and make the arrangements?" She began to count heads under her breath, and then added, "There are seven of us, so we'll need two cabs – oh, Meg, don't be ridiculous, put your purse away. We'll take care of it—"

Before he was entirely sure what was happening, Erik was being shuffled in the direction of the nearest exit, handed an umbrella, and sent outside into the pouring rain. He hadn't had even the slightest window of opportunity to get a single word in, let alone to interrogate his daughter. Grumblingly, he tucked his questions aside for the time being, but not before throwing one last glance at Claire over Christine's shoulder and mouthing, "This is not over yet!"

He was certain he did not imagine the smug look of triumph that passed between mother and daughter as he ducked out the door.

The food was delicious, the champagne superb, but Erik took no notice of either as he stewed at the far end of the table, watching his daughter with a hawk's eye for the tiniest gesture or expression that might give her infatuation away. The rest of his party, however, seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. After two or three glasses of champagne, Christine and Meg's recollections of their days in the dormitories grew quite elaborate indeed, resulting in many an unintended slip of the tongue and resulting giggles. Rupert and Claire laughed until they were red-cheeked and gasping for air, and Madame Giry buried her head in her hands, shaking her head in feigned misery.

"It's true!" she cried on more than one occasion. "It's all true. Can you believe what these girls put me through?"

"Maman, I can't believe you were such a troublemaker!" said Claire, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes.

"Oh, Christine was the worst," Meg hiccoughed, and then laughed at herself. "Little Lotte with her head in the clouds, always late for practice because the Angel had—"

The electricity that flashed through the room was almost palpable. Erik's eyes snapped to Meg in a blaze of warning as former ballerina's face blushed a dark red. Christine and Madame Giry had gone stiff, and Claire looked from one woman to the next, puzzled.

"Because what?" she asked. "What did I miss?"

Christine broke from her reverie with a laugh that was only a little too high-pitched. She reached over and jokingly took the champagne glass out of her friend's hands, trying to make light of the moment. "Maybe water would be a good idea for the rest of the night, Meg."

Meg put her hands to her burning cheeks and agreed, "Ooh, I think maybe so." She took a long drink of water, but even with Christine's quick cover, the awkwardness of the moment remained. With a little cough, Meg set her water glass down and turned to her husband, still blushing. "Actually, darling, it's been a very long day. Perhaps it would be best if we head back to the hotel—"

"We should be going as well," Christine agreed quickly.

Suddenly several chairs scraped back at once as Erik, Rupert and Nadir rose to help the women to their feet. Handshakes, kisses and hugs were exchanged all around, while only Claire remained seated with a peculiar look on her face, still trying to figure out what exactly she had missed. She rose only when her extended family came forward to embrace and congratulate her one last time. Erik hung back, waiting for everyone else to say their goodbyes before finally stepping toward his only child.

A smile, rich and genuine and beautiful, warmed Claire's face as he opened his arms to her. She fell gratefully into his embrace, and gave a contented little sigh as he held her tightly.

"Thank you so much for coming, Papa."

He pressed a kiss to the top of her forehead, and found himself blinking against a sudden saline sting in his eyes. "You truly were magnificent, ma petite."

"I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Of course."

The first fifteen minutes of the carriage ride from the Café de la Paix to Nadir's flat in Vaugirard were spent in peaceful silence. Christine had begun to nod off against Erik's shoulder, and he rested his cheek on her curls, lost in his own reverie. It didn't take long for his thoughts to turn once again to the mysterious young man outside of Claire's dressing room. He tortured himself for several minutes, replaying the images over and over in his mind's eye. The scene struck just a bit too close to home for Erik's comfort; he could not help but think of another brilliant young soprano's debut, and the handsome young suitor who had sought her out in her dressing room after the night's success. But this time, there was no Angel to intervene, no two-way mirror, no way to prevent the inevitable…

And the simple fact remained: Erik was not yet ready to lose his only child, his treasure. No man would ever be good enough for her, but especially not now, not when she had such a promising career ahead of her, not when she was still so young and impressionable and…

"Christine?"

She hummed sleepily, and snuggled herself a bit closer into the crook of his neck.

"Did you see a young man leave Claire's dressing room just before we arrived?"

There was a long pause before his wife shifted and gave a little sigh. "Erik, I'm tired."

"But you did see him?"

"I wasn't honestly paying much attention. But yes, I suppose I did."

"Well, I saw him. And mark my word, Christine, the boy had a look about him."

His wife yawned, and made a noncommittal sound in the back of her throat.

"And he was strutting. Do you know what the implication of a strut is?"

"That he's an adolescent boy?" Christine offered wryly.

Erik paused to consider that. "Adolescent? Really? You thought so? I didn't get a very good look at him, but I had supposed him to be in his early twenties, at least…"

Suddenly Christine sat up, took his face firmly in her gloved hands, and forced him to look her in the eye. "Erik. Darling. You're over-thinking this. Please, just let it go."

He drew in a deep breath, and nodded. "Of course. You're right." Christine gave him a quick peck on the lips before releasing him and laying her head back down on his shoulder. "Quite right," Erik continued to mutter to himself. "There's nothing to think about."

"That's right."

"Just an old man's overactive imagination."

"Mm-hmm."

They passed another two blocks in silence before Erik blurted out, "But if you had to wager an educated guess, how old would you say he was? Eighteen? Nineteen?"

Nadir made it back to his apartment just ahead of Erik and Christine; he was tipping his driver when their cab pulled up just behind him. He waited politely for them to climb out and pay, and then assisted Erik with bringing the luggage up the steps and into the house. Ever the wonderful host, he came back for their coats as soon as he had taken the trunks back to the guest room. While Erik was turned to one side, Christine took the opportunity to lean forward and whisper something in the Persian's ear. Erik turned back around just in time to see the daroga narrow his eyes at her as Christine tightened her lips in a grimace.

"How bad?" Nadir asked.

"You'd best make it double strength," she answered somberly.

Immediately sensing that something was awry, Erik frowned, looking from his wife to his best friend. "What's going on?"

"Nadir is just going to put some tea on."

The frown deepened suspiciously. "Tea? It's nearly midnight. I thought you were tired."

"Oh, I am." Right on cue, Christine let out a long yawn and stretched her arms lazily above her head before allowing them to interlock behind his neck. "I'm going straight to bed." She kissed him soundly, then patted his smooth cheek. "Be nice to poor Nadir, do you hear me?"

Erik's eyes narrowed to green slits. "Why? What did he do?"

"Absolutely nothing!" came an insistent cry from the kitchen, followed by indistinct grumbling, "don't know why I even bother…"

Christine cleared her throat delicately, swallowed, and suddenly became very interested in the lapels of his vest. "I, ah, ran into an old acquaintance at the opera tonight." She paused, waiting for a reaction. When Erik simply continued to stare at her, she continued hastily, "It wasn't any great thing, of course, so that's why I didn't mention it to you before. But on my way back from the powder room, I just happened to stumble upon Raoul de Chagny."

A completely blank, unreadable expression settled over Erik's features. "Did you."

A crimson blush rose in his wife's neck and cheeks. "Yes. He, ah, he's doing very well for himself. Remarried to a Duchess. From Rennes, I believe? That's where they're living now, anyway. He is only in town for the weekend, visiting his eldest son at Lycée Louis-le-Grand." There was something about the tone of her voice that hinted to Erik that he was meant to pick up on something of great significance in this little anecdote. He ran the information through his head again, picking through the key words. Rennes? Louis-le-Grand? Still, nothing. Sensing that he wasn't following her, Christine continued, "His son was there with him at the opera tonight, actually. A perfectly charming boy, I thought. Very sweet and well-mannered."

With a subtle shake of his head, Erik surrendered the little game. His wife's hints were getting him nowhere, and his patience with the subject grew thin. "Why are you telling me this?"

At that precise moment Nadir stepped into the living room, balancing a tray laden with pastries, clotted cream, dried fruit and a large pot of scalding tea. He and Christine exchanged weighted glances, which did nothing to help with the gnawing sense of anticipation in Erik's gut.

He asked again, in a tone sharpened by suspicion, "Christine, why are you telling me this?"

"Well," she said haltingly, "I haven't… been… entirely truthful with you. About the boy outside of Claire's dressing room?" She shifted uncomfortably, chewing the inside of her bottom lip. "I did actually see him. I waved, but he was facing the other direction, and I don't think he saw me, or else he would have come and properly introduced himself to you, I'm sure. Like I said, he's a very sweet boy—"

And suddenly Erik did remember. Raoul's oldest son… Emily's son…

"His name is Cedric. Cedric de Chagny."

Across the room, Nadir spit out a mouthful of tea with a loud sputter.

"Anyway," Christine said abruptly. "Just thought I would put your mind to rest on the subject. I'm off to bed. Good night, darling!" She stood on tiptoe to kiss him, snuck a dried apricot off of the tea tray, and fled for the guest room without another word.

Erik blinked once when the click of the guest room door echoed down the hall. A numb, tingling sensation had begun to prickle in the back of his brain, trickling slowly down his spinal cord and out through his peripheral nerves. The hairs on the back of his neck sprung erect, and gooseflesh spread in waves down the length of his arms. Slowly, very slowly, he turned to face the daroga, who now sat munching innocently on a cranberry scone. A smile twitched at the corner of the Persian's mouth as he lifted a steaming porcelain cup in Erik's direction.

"Tea?"

Fin

A/N: Oh my god… can you guys believe it? Evergreen is complete (FINALLY!).

For those of you who have stuck with this story since its very first post in 2005, you will never know how much your support has meant to me. I would like to nominate each of you for sainthood for your patience, and I can only hope that the final product was worth the wait.

To all readers, both old and new, thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming on this journey with me. I've learned so much from writing this story, and from the wonderful feedback you've left me over the years. I'd be nowhere without you guys!

Another, final thank you to the lovely ladies who served as beta-readers at various points throughout this fic – Marianne Brandon, Hriviel, Llandaf, your help was truly invaluable.

Special thanks also to Flora Grey, who seriously read like eight or nine (or eighty or ninety) versions of this last chapter, put up with my incessant whining, doggedly insisted that I keep writing, and pushed me through the worst of my writer's block, when I literally had to feed her my paragraphs sentence by sentence (sometimes word by word, oops). She's my hero.

And last but most certainly not least – Sandy. Seriously. This woman should be given co-writing credit. She was with me from the drawing board (a summer night in Chicago, circa 2005: sketch pad, several 2 liters of Mountain Dew, waffles, and an all-nighter) to the bitter end… which she still hates me for, alas… Love you, sweet girl. Never would have finished without you; never would have gotten past chapter THREE without you! I'm so proud of our baby!

That's it for now, folks! Thank you, again, a million times over… And, one last time, I have to ask: if you read it, and enjoyed it (or read it, hated it, and would like to leave me some constructive criticism!), please click that little review button and tell me all about it! :)

Love, hugs, and bittersweet tears all around,

Nade-Naberrie