AN: Before this next installment, I'd like to thank everyone whose stopped by to give this story a look-see. Thanks to all who left reviews, especially Smidgie and miss awesome 1213 for their lovely comments about the last chapter. All of you who have been with this epic tale since the beginning deserve major kudos since this has been a LOT longer than I anticipated. And with more to come! I've gotten a major shot in the arm of inspiration after watching the 25th Anniversary ALW show on PBS (and getting it on DVD for my birthday). I've been feeling down and out over the last year, but that performance really bucked me up, it reminded me of when I first fell in love with The Phantom of the Opera which was subsequently why I fell in love with theatre. Nothing like a big heaping bucket of warm, gooey nostalgia to enliven the muses!

Disclaimer: I don't own Phantom or any additional media. I think it's safe to say that Phantom owns me.

Oh, one last kiss,
Give me one last kiss,
It never felt like this,
No, never felt like this,
You know I need your love.
Oh! Oh! Oh!
Oh, give me one last kiss!
-Bye, Bye Birdie

It was a defeated band of adolescents to made the long, sad trek down the eastern seaboard at the conclusion of the competition. Not only had Burn taken the top prize for regional achievement in musical theatre (and what was THAT about?), Tim got an irate call about a bunch of St. Mary's students causing a scene at one of the vocal instruction classes. It surprised him to hear that Erik wasn't the ringleader, but he was so flabbergasted that it had been quiet little Christine of all people that he couldn't even bring himself to be that upset. He just shook his head at them and told Christine that Erik was having a bad influence on her. She didn't disagree.

For someone who dragged them along to a competition he didn't really believe in for a prize he'd been disparaging the entire time they were there, Tim took the loss pretty hard. Erik tried in vain to cheer him up a bit, reminded him that it wasn't as though the prize was particularly desirable, they'd have to take the show to the national competition, what was $10,000 reallyand it was ultimately just another accomplishment to put on the brochure and season programs. Who cares?

Tim, apparently. He appreciated Erik's attempts at being helpful, but basically blew him off to sulk in his room. Coming up for a breath from the ocean of self-absorption that Erik usually swam in, Tim's attitude struck Erik as strange. Chester was no help, his lips were zipped when asked to comment on his partner's mental state. He just told Erik not to worry about it.

Usually, the best way to ensure Erik's undivided attention was to tell him to stay out of something. 'Don't worry' was typically a kinder way of saying 'none of your business' and there was nothing Erik enjoyed more than meddling in things that were none of his business, but he had a more pressing concern that absorbed his attention for the remainder of their time in New Hampshire: Christine was ignoring him.

Well, kind of. She spoke to him, it wasn't like she was avoiding all contact with him, but she wasn't replying to his texts with anything but short strings of letters, 'y,' 'n,' 'idk' and the occasional, meaningless 'lol.' Also she'd been spending a LOT of time with Raoul, apparently in the hotel gym. Maybe they were getting over their New England hibernation early and wanted to get into shape for swimsuit weather early...but he was bothered by it. Not bothered enough that he wanted to actually go down to the gym and observe them. It wouldn't be smart. Guys like him stuck out like sore thumbs in a gym, he'd be spotted immediately. It occurred to him that they might be dating now, but recalling Raoul's little Halloween confessional, he thought it was just as likely that they were running side by side on treadmills discussing their feelings.

Clearly his new meds were working miracles. Normally, his anxiety would skyrocket when he thought one of his friends was angry with him. He did a lot to alienate people, on an intellectual level he recognized this, but as Christine so astutely pointed out, he didn't actually want anyone angry with him – more accurately, he didn't want anyone to leave him. After going so long without a reliable group of friends, the fact that he had several people he could call friends made him nervous to lose one of them. She didn't know that, of course, she probably thought he was a hypocrite.

She didn't remember the drunken snuggling and bonding over opera, didn't take a genius to recognize that she'd utterly forgotten the fact that she'd forgiven him for being a dickhead. Still, he thought that maybe her little speech on his behalf during that vocal class meant something. Apparently not.

The few times they'd actually spoken to one another, that never came up. Charlotte bragged enough about how Christine was such a badass, but neither Erik nor Christine was eager to relive it. They were both horrifically embarrassed, but for different reasons. He had no idea why he'd even gone. Maybe he was a masochist.

Ahmed, as usual, wanted him to 'talk' about it, but Erik was trying to compartmentalize and forget it. Repression was the healthiest option in cases like this. So he tucked it away in the unwanted memories portion of his brain, where it sat snugly alongside the recollection of childhood bullies, hospital stays and doctors' visits when he had a pretty bad flare-up and other kids found him so freaky looking that they ran for their parents, who passed him with a wide berth, probably assuming he was contagious. Yep, lock the door on that and throw away the key, it kept him from being crazier than he already was.

The ride back to Rhode Island was slow, due to a steady downpour which started the day before they left and continued unabated through noon. Freddy and Ahmed took turns driving, while Erik forced the passenger side seat as far back as it could go so he could recline. There was a migraine building up behind his eyes, so he wrapped one of his t-shirts around his head to block out light while keeping his iPod playing The Freelance Whales at a low volume to ease the pounding in his skull. He only removed his makeshift eye mask when he got out of the van to unload their props and bid his comrades goodbye until next Monday when the returned to class as usual. This turned out to be a mistake.

Erik had heaved their inexpertly rolled wire fence onto his shoulder, the metal cold and digging into his neck as he made his way up the loading dock. Cars were parked haphazardly in the tiny parking lot next to the theatre and he saw Christine and Raoul engaged in some kind of furtive conversation.

"It just used to be fun," she was saying with a kind of quiet despair. "I'm not having fun anymore."

Raoul was nodding sympathetically. "I know," he said and Erik took that moment to hide behind the prop van Tim and Chester were driving in. It was either a matter of good timing or bad timing that he always seemed to unknowingly observe this little tete-a-tetes between the two of them. Experience should have taught him to keep moving and not listen, but he wasn't one to learn from past mistakes.

Heaving a sigh, Christine folded her arms and looked at the ground. "I'm just...I'm not happy."

"You should be happy, you deserve to be happy," Raoul said so sweetly it made Erik's molars ache. God, he was such a Boy Scout, wasn't he? "I don't want you to be not happy."

"It's not your fault, you're pretty much the only person here who doesn't drive me nuts," she said and Erik felt momentarily ill. Yes, he knew he'd screwed up their friendship a few times, but he'd been making an effort recently. He brought her sheet music, he brought her breakfast, he hadn't forced her to witness horrible manifestations about the most screwed up parts of his life in three whole days. Didn't she appreciate the effort? "If it was just you I had to deal with, I wouldn't care so much, but I can't handle the angst and the attitudes and...I just don't want to do this anymore."

Raoul reached out and hugged her close. "Don't think about that. Just don't focus on the negative. I think it's the weather, you know? People are always...weird when the weather's bad. Hey, how about we make a deal? We could have a signal. When people are driving you crazy just...pull your ear or something and I'll make you smile. Or try?"

Okay, seriously, someone shut that boy up. Erik was trying to to gag or burst out laughing at Raoul's completely heart-felt, but incredibly soppy offering of sunshine and smiles. That kid had some of the lamest come-ons this side of an ABC Family sitcom.

Except Christine didn't seem to think so. Maybe that's where he'd gone wrong with her. In fact, Christine seemed to think that was the most romantic thing she'd ever heard since she fucking kissed Raoul right in the middle of the goddamned parking lot.

It was a short kiss. Erik dropped the wire which bit into his neck, scraping his chin and causing him to shout, "Motherfucker!" utterly blowing his cover. His classmates sprang apart as though they'd been burned and both looked up in mingled surprise as they saw him emerge from behind the truck, one hand at his throat.

"Are you okay?" Christine asked, the most she'd said to him since their awkward chat before Godspell.

Was he? Erik took his hand away from his neck and looked at it. No blood. Apparently he was just barely grazed. "Fine," he said tightly. "Fine." He bent down to pick up the deconstructed fence. "You kids just keep on necking. Don't mind me." And with remarkable self-possession, he managed to make it three paces into the storage space before dropping the fence on the floor and sinking down behind a discarded flat, not sure if he was going to cry or be sick or what.

So he did have a thing for Christine. At least, he assumed the roiling ache in his stomach was jealousy. It had to be. He had all the symptoms. His throat was dry, his eyes were burning and his back felt like he had ants crawling up and down his spine. Fuck. Fuck.

He'd only felt like this once before his entire life and that was an incident stored in the very vaults of his Repressed Memory Bank. He'd repressed it so well that its only manifestation was a sense of deja vu that he'd felt this horrible before and never intended to feel so again. Well, so much for that plan.

Could he blame her? Could he? Nope. Not at all. Dating was something utterly out of the question, he decided that long ago. He didn't talk about people he was interested in and firmly trained himself to be uninterested. Who would want him? Even if he hadn't been crazy, he wasn't remotely attractive. A long, lean pile of bones with an unremarkable face even if all of it managed to stay attached. Being that he was ugly and crazy meant the pickings of potential partners were slim and probably limited to amputee fetishists who would still look him over since he had all his limbs.

If he was a disembodied voice, well, he might have better luck, but since his life was not actually a gothic novel, that wouldn't get him very far. Unless he took up a career as a phone sex operator, which could be a possibility if this whole acting thing didn't work out.

He'd been so deep in his self-denial he hadn't even admitted to himself that he was attracted to Christine. Aside from the fact that she was a petite blonde with genetically desirable Nordic features, she was so nice, she had a sense of humor and a sense of justice and him. A little, the little of him he'd showed to her, she got. She visited him in the hospital, she let him talk her ear off about his favorite operas, he was trying to be nicer to please her. Yeah, he had it bad and all the time she was burying her face in his sleeve during horror movies and drunkenly trusting him not to leer at her when she changed he hadn't once felt it. Not any of the good stuff about having a crush, just the horrifiedri realization that it was unrequited.

And of course it would be after last week. Months ago Sorelli claimed she'd had a big crush on him in high school, but she never said anything about it when she was sober. He would never have expected her to; she'd seen what he really looked like. Now Christine had and he knew that even if she forgave him for this outburst, she'd never ever consider dating him. Or kissing him with any serious intent. You could be ugly and sane or attractive and totally cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and maybe you could expect romantic interest, but you couldn't be both sides of the crap stick. Raoul was ridiculously handsome and totally stable. Who wouldn't prefer him?

"Hey, dude." It was Ahmed and he sounded worried. What, were Christine and Raoul announcing their engagement? He'd been right, the bastard. He'd been right the whole time, was he coming to gloat?

"No, I do not want to talk about it," Erik snarled, glaring up at him from his spot on the floor.

Ahmed had the nerve to look taken-aback. "You mean, you knew? You knew and you didn't tell me?" He crouched down and gave Erik's arm a fairly hard shove, "What the hell, man!"

"What the fuck do you care?" Erik shot back, hardly noticing that Ahmed did not seem to be reacting to the same thing Erik was reacting to. "Do I care? I don't fucking care. It's not like it really involves me, right?"

"What are you talking about?" Ahmed asked, throwing his hands up in frustration. "It involves all of us, are you kidding?"

Okay, now Erik was beginning to expect that they were talking about two completely different things. "What? Since when? Were you all having orgies I wasn't invited to?"

This time Ahmed didn't even try to engage in a dialogue. "So, I don't know what the hell you're talking about and we can have that conversation later, but you NEED to come upstairs. Like, now."

Curious, Erik got up off the floor and followed Ahmed to the lobby. Tim and Chester were nowhere to be found, he would later discover that they were having a major fight upstairs in the manager's office. The reason for the fight was a typed note taped to the window of the box office. It had been written only a half hour before and printed on Tim's official company stationary. Ahmed was the first one to find it and as Erik was the only one he told, the two of them stared in combined disbelief at the words typed in 12-point font that might as well have been penned in blood for all the horror they held.

The note read as follows:

To the Company -

I've secured the rights to Les Miserables, which will be going forward as our spring show. Auditions to follow in one month's time. We will premiere the first weekend in May.

Don't cut your hair.


Erik read the note five times to make sure he wasn't seeing things. Then, he summed up the situation, succinctly and accurately as their classmates slowly filed in to the lobby, all stopping short and reading the note. He really spoke for all of them when he said, in a voice no louder than a whisper, "Holy shit."

AN: I know this isn't the cliffiest cliffhanger mankind has ever known, but this is where I'm going to leave you for the time being. Hopefully not very long! With the conclusion of the first half of this story and the beginning of the second semester (yes, it has only been ONE semester for these guys, really!), I'm going to upload a new story to continue the saga. It will be called Company II: The Miserable Ones and I promise that it will be a LOT more fun than it sounds. Look for it coming soon! In the meantime, I'd be happy if you drop me a line telling me what you think about the tale thus far. Before I'm called out on it, yep, I know Les Mis still has restricted licensing, so I'm asking for a suspension of disbelief on that particular point (or we can pretend that Cameron MacKintosh owes Tim a favor because of something that happened in London in the 80s, the details of which are rather sketchy).