Returning to her past life was like returning to a cemetery.

She had spent the last years dazzled by music and stage lights and new places. She had seen half the world—Paris, Rome, London, Tokyo. Due to her profession as well as Erik's preferences, many of her waking hours now took place at night. Yet the Chagny home seemed far more shrouded in darkness than her current life.

Before deciding to return, Christine had gotten into contact with Phillip. Their initial exchange had been surprisingly polite. She'd finally asked, with a touch of desperation, "Why do you keep sending me these invitations?"

"I guess he'd like to see you," Phillip replied.

"What do you mean by 'you guess'?"

A hesitation. "I don't live there anymore. I'm in Houston. Married and a kid."

"Oh," she whispered. "I had no idea. Congratulations."

"You, too. On your singing success, I mean."

And she finally understood why he was being nice to her. In the end, Phillip had escaped as well. He had saved himself.

"So I'll see you there?" he asked. "I think he'd appreciate it."

"Yeah," she replied. "I'll see you."

Her heart was pounding rapidly as she approached the front door of the enormous home. The actual wooden door was open, leaving only the screen blocking the entryway. A girl around her own age with long, straight black hair and pretty angular features was standing on the other side of it. In her arms was a one-year-old toddler in jean overalls and a red and white striped shirt. His sparse hair was light blond.

The girl turned as Christine approached. She smiled widely. "Oh. Wow. And there you are!" She quickly opened the door. "Phil just told me yesterday that you'd be here. And I was like, 'Why the heck didn't you ever tell me you knew Christine Daae?!'"

"Oh. I'm not really that-" She took a deep breath and pushed her modest tendencies aside. "It's nice to meet you, um…."

"Marcy," she replied. "And this-" She grinned and held up the baby. "Is Henry."

"Named after their father," Christine murmured, smiling sadly at the child. "Is he-?"

"Yeah. Passed away two years ago when Phil and I started dating. I didn't know him all that well." Marcy paused as though waiting for Christine to contribute something. "So you know the family through Raoul, right? You were a childhood friend? The girl next door?"

Christine glanced down. She'd always expected Phillip to verbally tear her apart. It seemed like he'd tried to make her disappear instead. "Yes," she finally replied. "A friend."

"Well, he needs them. Poor guy," Marcy murmured.

Before the conversation could take a depressing turn, another voice interrupted them. Even after all these years, it made Christine cringe.

"There you both are!" exclaimed Theresa, clasping her wrinkled hands together. "Come in. Come in. Welcome to our little party." Her voice was jovial, and her eyes were delighted. Theresa and Marcy briefly hugged. Marcy's green eyes were unknowing, and Christine wondered if Phillip kept them as separated as possible. "And my grandson!" Theresa tickled him beneath the chin. Henry shyly hid his face in Marcy's shoulder.

"Hello, Theresa," said Christine, arms limp at her sides.

Theresa approached her, still smiling. Her eyes were now unreadable. "Well, you've done wonderfully for yourself, haven't you? Congratulations, dear. Yes, it's fun to tell the ladies at my book club that I know you."

"Thank you." It was as though the past had been erased. And that disturbed her a bit.

Phillip walked in from the kitchen holding a glass of red wine. Only he had remnants of the past in his eyes, a wariness as he gazed down at the three of them from his taller height.

"How are you?" asked Theresa, giving her eldest son a one-armed hugged. "I swear you never come see me anymore!"

"Work is busy, Mom. You know that." His cooler expression was full of warning. And Christine realized that Phillip had taken all his power back by moving away and having a family. If Theresa ever wanted to be anywhere near them, anywhere near her grandson, she had to be pleasant.

They chatted for a bit about mundane things—the weather and traffic and Christine's latest song. Erik had written it, and the notes still sent a thrill through her heart.

Phillip finally said, "So I guess we should go see him, right, guys? Can't believe he's thirty. We're all getting old, huh?" Everyone murmured in agreement.

"Yes," said Theresa, her eyes stopping on Christine for a moment. "He's right this way. Looking forward to seeing you all, I know. We'll have dinner in about twenty minutes and then cake. A chocolate cake with white frosting that's absolutely to die for! This bakery down the street makes them. I think the owners are from Belgium or something. Anyway, it's the best cake in the world."

Henry somehow understood the word cake and looked at Theresa with wide, excited eyes. Everyone laughed.

Christine held her breath as they approached the living area. The last time she had seen Raoul was at the soulless court hearing. He had refused to look at her but had been very pale and haggard. The sight had destroyed her all over again. And, afterwards, she'd asked Erik to take her far, far away. And he had. Like a magician, he could make them disappear at any time. The thought that he was sitting in the car, ready to be her escape again, was comforting.

She had tried to prepare herself for what she was about to see. And yet it still felt as though someone stabbed her through the heart as she turned the corner.

Raoul was white and frail, blue jeans and a t-shirt hanging loosely over his skinny frame. He wore a short beard now, his shaggy blond hair traveling to just below his ears. But it was his eyes that completed the picture. They were so very hollow, almost black instead of blue, if that were possible. Christine was nearly frozen in her steps for an awful moment.

"Hi, Raoul!" chirped Marcy, coming up from behind and giving him a one-armed hug.

"Hi, Marcy. And there's my nephew," he replied, his voice hoarse as he patted her on the arm.

"Yep. Say 'hi' to Uncle Raoul, Henry." Henry only looked up at Raoul and blinked.

"How's it going, man?" asked Phillip, taking a seat on the couch and leaning forward.

"It's good," Raoul replied. "Doing good. How about you?"

"Excellent. Just took them to the beach last weekend. What's happening here?"

"Not much. Saw a good movie last—" Raoul's eyes suddenly settled upon her for the first time. "Last night. Hello, Christine," he murmured.

"Hello," she whispered, forcing a smile. Breaking away from her shock, she came forward and gave him a hug with both arms. He still smelled of the same shampoo.

"You're just as beautiful in person," he said. "I mean, I see you on T.V. sometimes."

"Thank you." She didn't feel beautiful right then.

The next hour was very sad and strange—like being in a different dimension. They sat around the Chagny family's fancy round dinner table and talked. And she learned that Theresa was taking a pottery class, and it was "just fantastic." And Phillip played a lot of golf. It was "very relaxing." And Marcy was a personal trainer but taking time off for her new family, which "she just loved to pieces." And, of course, they had many questions for Christine about her travels and career.

"Are you married?" asked Marcy, glancing at her ring.

"Yes," Christine replied.

"Oh, you should have brought him! He would have been welcome."

Christine and Phillip exchanged a glance. She finally replied, "He had to work."

Raoul mainly listened to the conversations, and she could tell that he was being polite as they all discussed their lives. Downplaying her own activities so as not to be hurtful, Christine simply waited for whatever was to come as Theresa cleared the dessert plates. The chocolate cake had been very good. "Ready to go into the den?" Theresa asked. "I can make coffee."

"I think Christine and I are going to chat for a bit," Raoul softly replied. "Thanks. I'll be there soon."

Theresa stared at them both for a long moment. "Okay," she said with a colder tone that Christine finally recognized from the past. Christine inwardly smirked; she'd know her old mother-in-law was in there somewhere behind the smiles and chatter.

Once everyone was gone, their voices barely audible from the other room, she and her ex-husband sat across from each other. The lights beamed down upon them.

"How are you?" Christine finally asked. "I mean really."

"I' m here," he replied. She didn't know what to say or do or think. "Can we go up to my room for a second?" he asked. "I think then you'll understand why I wanted you to come. I know it couldn't have been easy. And I'm sorry. But I need to hear you say something."

"Yeah," she replied. "Let's go there."

Heart continuing to nervously pound, Christine followed him as he wheeled toward his bedroom. The house still looked the same save for new carpeting and paint. For a second, Raoul's room also seemed exactly the same. Until she glanced at the walls. Christine softly gasped and put a hand up to her mouth.

Pictures of her were posted on the walls, most of them cut from magazines. Shining glamor shots and dazzling portraits. Photos of her singing at concerts. Pictures printed off the web. She unintentionally stepped backwards. "Raoul," she whispered. If he hadn't seemed so helpless, she might have been frightened.

"No. I don't want you to be scared," he said, a hitch in his voice. "I just…I needed to explain why I invited you. I—I started doing this about two years after you left."

"Why? After I left, why would you want to ever think of me again?"

"The first year was the worst." He shook his head at the memory. "I didn't even want to come out of this room. The second year—I tried. You probably don't believe me, but I did. And then, when that didn't-well, then there was only you, Christine. You made me say that I would keep going, so all I could live for was you. Suddenly, you were everywhere, famous and beautiful, so I could see you every day. It was kind of like having you here again."

She rapidly shook her head and took a slow seat on the bed. "I wanted you to be okay, Raoul. I did. But your mother—"

"Don't blame her," he gently interrupted. "She's terrible. But Phil would have gotten me out. He begged me to come to Texas when he went."

"Then why didn't you try? Why?"

"I told you I did for a year," he murmured. "I tried some new physical therapy, but I never got far with it. I even tried online dating, and that was the worst of all."

"No. There are lots of girls who wouldn't-"

"I'm sure there are. I know there are. But after facing gentle rejection for the fiftieth time, I was just…done, you know? I wouldn't expect you to understand, and that's okay. You're not here to feel guilty."

"But I do understand," she whispered. "Erik…." She took a deep breath as Raoul frowned at the name. "Erik was born with a facial disfigurement. A severe one. We don't go out much during the day. Because of how people can be."

She caught the faintest glint of surprise in his eyes. "Did he get surgery?" Raoul asked.

"No. He uses prosthetics and realistic masks. If he wanted to try surgery, there's enough money now. But I don't know; he's never said anything and I don't care either way." She paused in deep thought. "I'm not sure he can imagine a life without it."

"Maybe that's the difference. I can imagine another life. I've lived it."

"You can still be okay," she whispered, coming to his side and kneeling. "We've just got to get you out of here. We've got to—"

"Stop," he said with a strange firmness. He gave a short laugh. "That's actually why I asked you here."

"What?"

"The day you left, you told me I had to keep going. And maybe that was my fault. I hate that I held a gun on myself in front of you. Sometimes I think if I hadn't acted that damned crazy, you would have-Anyway, hindsight, right?"

"Oh, Raoul."

"You made me say I would keep going. So I did. I watched you on television and listened to your songs. And read about you online. I was happy for you, Christine. Because you were where you wanted to be. But it's-it's still for you in the end."

"I didn't want that," she whispered, placing a hand to his cheek. "You know that. I wanted you to move on. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted—"

"Stop," he said. "You made your choice. I need to hear you say that you'll let me make mine. Without me feeling like I failed you or broke my promise or something like that. I don't want to feel guilty anymore. I want to feel free. For the first time since the accident, I want to feel…free."

"But I—"

"I need to hear you say that I don't just have to live for you. It's not fair. Not when you clearly don't live for me."

She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed. "Raoul, I'm afraid you're asking for permission to- I can't. I can't say that! Please don't make me. You could be okay. You could-"

"Stop. All I want to hear you say is that I'm not just staying alive so you don't feel guilty. Let it go, Christine. That's what I want you to say."

"I don't want you to stay alive for me," she said with a cry of frustration. "Of course not. Live for you. Not me. Please just live for you."

His brow unwrinkled. A gentle peace entered his blue eyes, and he looked a few years younger. "That's what I wanted to hear you say. That it's not about you. It's me. It's my life now."

She rapidly nodded. "I hope you try," she said. "For yourself then."

He looked down at her hand. "You're married."

"Yes." She paused. "But I don't want you to think that I left you to have the exact same life with him. We're constantly on the move. Weird schedules and time zone changes. Up most nights and sleeping during the day. If we get any sleep at all. It's fantastic. And exhausting."

"Is that what you wanted?"

"Yes," she murmured. "And I'm sorry I didn't know that sooner. It's my greatest regret, I think. Not knowing in time."

"That's on both of us. We married too young, I guess. Before either of us knew what we wanted."

She gripped his hand. "Raoul, there are girls out there that want what I didn't want. Billions of them. Look at Marcy!"

"Yeah, she's great. I joke to Phil that I'm going to take her away from him."

"There are more like her." Raoul only looked down at this lap. "I have money now," she said, leaning in. "If you want any sort of treatment—"

"Stop, Christine," he ordered. "Or I'm going to keep sending you annoying birthday invitations every year. Okay? You said what I wanted to hear. We don't owe each other anything." She nodded and wiped away her tears. He reached over to the nightstand and grabbed her a tissue. "He's good to you?" Raoul asked after a moment.

"He is good to me," she replied, dabbing at her eyes. "Sometimes this life makes me feel like a Barbie Doll." She laughed. "Because I sing and wear fancy dresses and look pretty. When I'm alone with Erik, it's all about the music, though. We live on it. And I fit."

"Good." He nodded once. "Then it all works out just fine."

"Yeah."

She leaned forward and embraced him very tightly. Because she knew for certain that she would never see him again. They made each other no promises that evening. No words of hope or future visits or anything but goodbye. They didn't even wish each other happiness.

Raoul was right. Her words on that day nearly five years ago had not been fair. She'd had no right to ask him to do anything once she was gone. The demand was not hers to make no matter how guilty her conscience. And now she had freed him. And she would not think about what that might or might not mean. It was too painful. She had to let go.

As she departed, she heard papers ripping. He was taking her pictures down from his wall. A last tear fell down her cheek. With a few murmured goodbyes to the others, Christine forever left the Chagny residence. Only Marcy said, "See you soon hopefully!"

That day closed a door.

Yet it also brought one of her deepest fears to the surface.

Memories of Raoul and her life with him—and the rapid destruction of all that….

It frightened her.

That night, in their hotel room, she held tightly to Erik's bony body. An unpleasant sensation welled up in her stomach, and she didn't yet understand why.

Or maybe she had started to feel it even before her visit to Raoul.

Quietly sneaking up on her.

She especially felt it during the stiller moments. During the duller afternoons.

She and Erik led a life that few people had or would want, composed of travel and music and spontaneity. They were physically compatible, cold against warm. There was nothing normal about their life, really, and she loved this. She loved and adored him for all he was and had done. And that was why the thought of losing it all was so horrible.

And why should she fear this? He would never leave her.

Yet sometimes, in the stillness, she feared they might become, well, too routine. Especially in the silent moments—as Erik was writing and she was reading in the living room. Or when she was watching television as he tuned a violin. She feared the cold chill of whatever had crept into her first marriage—tedium, the normal, the empty that she had desperately needed to escape. That Erik had helped her escape. And Christine remembered one of the reasons why she had been resistant to remarrying.

It was a silly thing to fret over when she already led such an exciting life. And they were taking a boat to Thailand for a concert this summer. That would be fun and new, wouldn't it? She would sing again, which always put her mind at ease. Christine convinced herself that visiting her ex-husband had implanted ridiculous worries into her mind.

But her fears accidentally escaped her lips before that trip to Asia.

Late at night, she rested on her stomach with a hand on her husband's chest. She loved these afterwards moments. They had sometimes shared their pasts with each other during them, saying things they might not say during waking hours. Erik's life had been horrible, a stream of neglectful and abusive foster homes. She swallowed and pushed herself closer to him. They comforted each other.

"What is wrong with you?" asked Erik.

"What? Nothing," she murmured.

"You are a terrible liar, darling. I see it in your eyes these last few months. Is it the lack of performances? I thought you wanted a rest."

"No. I did. It's not that." A pause. "But I'm excited to start singing again."

"Did that boy say something? Something to upset you?"

"No, Erik. Nothing like that."

"Then what?"

"I worry," she finally whispered, some of her defensive walls dropping as she began to drift off to sleep.

"Of what?"

"I can't explain—"

"Try. Erik will fix it."

"Stupid things. Getting into the same routine. Married life. The boredom and dullness that can come. And just…. I worry we'll lose what we have together in it." She yawned as her head became foggy. "I'm not making any sense. I'm tired and being silly. I love you, Erik. Let's go to sleep."

A pause.

"But you make perfect sense," he replied. Perhaps she should have been alarmed by the tone of his voice, but Christine fell into slumber before her mind could alert her to any dangers.

Two nights later, he stood over her as she was gazing over one of her new dresses. She smoothed the gown out and made sure the lavender sequins weren't going to fall off, happily admiring all the decorations.

"We are going out," said Erik, startling her.

"But it's nearly midnight," she replied. "To where?"

He didn't answer her. "Wear something you can walk quickly in. Be fast."

His tone held no room for compromise, and she was now very curious. A late dinner date maybe? A fancy bar with piano music? Her heart leapt a bit at the spontaneity. She smiled and obeyed, slipping on a long stretchy black skirt and black flat shoes. A pink blouse and dangling silver earrings completed the simple yet pretty outfit. Erik nodded once in approval.

She curiously stared out the window as he drove forward, watching for a favorite restaurant or theater or something familiar. Where was he taking her? But instead Erik drove them toward a shadowy concrete parking garage in the middle of the city.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"Follow me, my love."

They climbed out of the car, and she noticed with a shiver that the garage was completely empty. Erik led her to a silver door in a concrete wall, and they took an elevator down three floors. Then, through a red carpeted hallway, Erik led her to a pair of glass doors. There were several clicking sounds as he manipulated the lock open. "Are we going to sing in a place we're not supposed to?" she whispered, her heart continuing to pound in her ears. A light perspiration coated her brow. "Oh. We haven't done that forever!" She laughed. Erik had understood! Her eyes filled with happy tears.

"Come this way," he said in a low voice, firmly leading her inside by the shoulder.

But they were most certainly not in a performance building or practice room. Her eyes adjusted to the very dim light. Security lights. The rest of the area had midnight blue carpeting and velvet walls of the same color. And sparking objects everywhere. She gasped and stepped backward.

"Erik," she nearly hissed. "This is a jewelry store! And it's-it's closed! We're not supposed to be here!"

Standing tall and dark, he merely gestured to a nearby glass case. It held beautiful shimmering diamonds. Necklaces. Rings. Earrings. The Victorian Collection, it was labeled in fancy black cursive. Meant for a Queen. She stared in growing horror.

"Would you like any of it?" asked Erik.

"What? You mean when the store is open?" she whispered, nervously glancing from side to side. "We should come back when it's open."

"I mean right now, darling."

"How will you pay for it?"

"Who said I would do that?"

"No! You can't do that!"

"Can't I? Are you certain? I could slice right through the glass and fetch it for you." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a strange pronged instrument. "You would be the envy of all the other women in these. Or how about this one?" He gestured to another case. "A large ruby, isn't it? Would you prefer that? An emerald. More pearls?"

"No," she begged, grabbing his arm with both her hands and tugging on it. "Don't do that. What's wrong with you? Are you crazy? We can't steal jewelry! What are you-I can't even-Why?!"

"But these adornments would look so perfect upon you. I think I will take this one." He moved toward the diamonds.

"Erik!" She tugged his arm. "Erik, please! Please stop this!" She started to cry and beg. "Please don't, Erik. I don't want it. I don't want any of it!"

"Are you absolutely positive?"

"Yes!"

An alarm suddenly sounded, a loud ringing that seemed to shake the foundation. Her heart leapt into her throat as her mouth fell open in terror. Erik glanced upward and simply shrugged. "Ah well. Another time, then? Or not? " She could barely hear him over the painful noise. And, for a few seconds, she lost sight of him in the darkness.

"Erik?" she whispered, turning round and round. She thought she heard the faintest crackling sound.

Out of nowhere, he grabbed her hand. Christine jumped a foot into the air. Erik pulled her through the shadows and corridors and back toward the elevator. Down they went to the parking garage and toward the car. Blue police lights now flashed outside as the ringing continued. Men's voices followed. Her heart pounded frantically. He drove out the back of the garage, swerving into the alleyways and empty streets. She turned around and sat on her knees, staring backward and gripping the seat. No one followed them. After several minutes, she turned around and slumped down. Her hand rested against her chest.

"Erik, that was horrifying!" she finally exclaimed when she had caught her breath. "There were police! Why did you do that? What were you thinking?!"

"Who said I was thinking anything at all?" He was infuriatingly calm. "It was a silly impulse. Like obtaining a second slice of cake at a party. Does anyone really plan for such a thing?"

"Are you completely crazy?!"

"Possibly."

"Erik!"

"Christine. If you do not quit yelling, you will wear out your pretty voice. And then how will you sing?"

Throwing up her hands, she refused to speak to him, turning to look out the window. When they arrived home, she marched to their bedroom and began to undress.

"Before we go next time, you should really decide what you want," he said, following her. "No dawdling." A pause. "Otherwise, I have to choose for you. And what fun is that?" He then held up an oval-shaped diamond pendant, dangling it from one closed gloved hand. It glittered in the light, taunting her. She gasped. "Do you like it?"

"You are crazy!" she snapped, turning around again. Before she could react, he gently placed the necklace on her and did the clasp. The chain was cold on her bare flesh. "I should call the police on you!"

"Should you? That will delight the tabloids, I am sure."

Christine furiously climbed into bed wearing her nightgown, the necklace still hanging from her throat. She reclined with her back toward him. It took some time for her muscles to unclench and her breathing to return to normal. And her mind to calm.

But, deep down, she was very aware of what he had just done.

He knew.

He knew her fears.

Still, she would have to be very careful about ever telling her husband that she feared boredom again.

Because he took this marriage very seriously. He was not teasing or kidding.

And all she needed was a very occasional escape from the normal and ennui-a mouthful of air before going back underwater—a step out of bounds. And Erik understood this. He needed it, too.

After deciding to be angry for another ten minutes or so, she came to him in the dark. He was unapologetic in every harsh movement. His glowing eyes held love and warning. She was unapologetic in wanting him—wanting this. Then they slept very soundly.

By morning, the world, with all its imperfect creatures, was new again.

FIN