I do not own the characters; they were borrowed from various versions of Phantom of the Opera.

Hello, all! The story I have today will be in three separate parts that I am posting all at once since it is finished. It's just too long for one post. This is a continuation story told from Christine's POV, and although it is a happy ending, I like to make the characters work for it a little bit. Please let me know if you like it.

SUMMARY: Five months after the story ends, Christine returns to the opera, finally knowing what she wants, but is it too late for it to be hers?

"Standing In My Place"

Five months…. My God, had it really been five months? And here I was in the exact place I had once stood, looking up at a familiar image, one so deeply engrained into my subconscious that it haunted me in a way that I could never truly be free of. The opera house with its stone spires, its once so seemingly magical countenance. Had I really been enchanted by it upon first sight? Naïve…, yes, I had been naïve, but that was years before in that first glimpse when the true dark horrors within had been unfathomable to one so young and innocent. And somewhere along my sordid journey during my time within those walls, the same nightmares that had once terrified me had become my life and had bound themselves so inextricably within what had once been a pure soul until they had made it as tarnished as everything else. And now who was I? …What was I? Questions I had sought answers to had only led me back to this place, …as if nothing had changed.

A chill hung in the air that stirred dark curls and made them play in and out of my line of vision, occasionally muddling my image of that loosely-defined version of home that stretched above me and buried me beneath in its shadow. To anyone who saw me standing there staring, I probably looked as if I was debating whether or not to go in; why else would I have remained in that spot so long? But that decision had already been made and was unavoidable. My hesitation came in the form of a necessary gathering of strength and courage, a collecting of any shred of dignity I still bore. Five months away, and it had been my own choice to leave with all paths to eventually lead back here, …to lead back home. Was there a valid explanation or justification to any of it? Not one I could argue well enough. …Dear God, what was I going to say to those mismatched eyes when they would most certainly be staring right through my very being? …Was it foolishly optimistic to even hope that that would be the outcome, that he would be here any longer? …But how much did it hurt to wonder any differently?! He had to be here….

Five months with a heart that had taken as long to understand itself, and still I was lingering on the threshold, apprehensive to my core. His last impression of me and my undetermined affections had been that I had longed to be the wife of the Vicomte de Chagny. Only the truth was that I had not seen Raoul in five months either, …not since I had left him and never looked back.

Let me state my own case; my mind needed to ponder its facets again anyway. In that last night at the opera, a choice had been made by a confused child, a choice to stay, a choice that at its essence was the right one, but the girl who had made it had been too overwrought to realize it. Perhaps Erik had seen that; I could never have been sure of his thoughts, no matter how tortured I had been dwelling on them all this time. He had pushed me to go, to leave with the Vicomte; I hadn't wanted the Vicomte. Within the week, I had left him equally as broken as I had left Erik, only I had cared less. My impetus for what had followed and an extensive hiatus from every bit of the past tortures, had been a necessary need to find my very self, to learn and understand exactly what my heart wanted. For five months, I had hibernated away from the world, away from life, alone and in a perpetual silence, one that lacked music and companionship and bore a minimal amount of speech and human contact at best. …And what had I learned? What secrets of my heart had come to the surface and thrived bright as day beneath the dissipating layers of the pain and fear I had been victim to for so long? I loved Erik…. I loved him. Thinking the words even still seemed so new and yet not at all odd or awkward, as if their existence had always breathed in the corners and was just now brought to the forefront and put on display to me. At first, I had continued to question it, wondering if I had been coerced into it, if I had simply decided it was real under the loneliness of isolation. But no. It was indeed a reality, my reality. And as I had continued to strive to understand myself and how it could be, I had come to realize, bitterly so, that I didn't know my self at all, that I felt more lost than I had ever felt in my life. Lost because Erik was my rock. How long had things been that way, and I had so callously refused to see any of it?

In conclusion, sometimes self discovery cannot be undertaken alone…; well, at least not if the self one is seeking is tied unbreakably to another human being's existence and is willingly contingent on everything that is his. I didn't know myself without Erik. My very soul seemed to have an empty void within it that wanted him and only him, and my heart…, oh my poor heart, it was being held so fragilely in one place, stagnant, unable to find emotion whatsoever without its very inspiration to beat. It seemed ridiculous. For so long, I had run from exactly these feelings, but the point was and had always been that they had thrived on and had, in so many ways, been returned by Erik even as I had denounced him. He had always been sure in them; he had always been confident of them. I could almost resent him for that.

And now here I was…to do what? Tell him he had been right all along? Beg for his love? Pray he would still want me? …Was it any wonder then that I was in need of every ounce of bravery I could muster? And yet at the same time, I knew with utter certainty that he must be suffering as much as I was, that he had to feel as lost as I did. I just didn't know if in the midst of pain, he could forgive me…. My heart insisted that he had to.

One final steadying breath, and I forced my numb legs to carry me into the opera house's arched doorway. The moment I entered the lobby, a barrage of memories overwhelmed my senses, forming the tears that crowded my eyes. Home…, yes, I felt like I had come home. From within the theatre, music poured out. Music! I had almost forgotten how beautiful it was! The orchestra was playing a small interlude, and then La Carlotta's voice raised and sang an aria I knew by memory and imitated in my head. How often had Erik made his dislike for Carlotta's musical abilities known to me? Always insisting how much greater my talent was? To my young ears back in those days, Carlotta had been god-like, and I had always believed Erik to be exaggerating. My time under his tutelage, however, had taught me to hear with his ears, to always want more, and therefore I had never listened to music the same again. Now, though her voice was comfortingly familiar, I cringed to hear her slide through the notes of a cadenza to make it to a high note; shouldn't every pitch be treated with equal importance? And I was vividly reminded that I was far from the child who had once walked these halls. I felt grown.

Dismissing a scene I could only be an outsider to, I headed for the corridor that was lined in dressing rooms, careful to keep my identity concealed from ballerinas and chorus members rushing in and out, passing me without much notice anyway. It surprised me to realize I only recognized a few. So many new faces. After Erik's reign and the way he had shaken up the very air of the opera, I could guess why many had left. Being terrified for one's life could accomplish that.

The last room at an end of a hall that was currently unlit had been mine, and by the sheer lack of commotion that met me, I could guess that it might be vacant. Many had believed that it had held the spirit of the Opera Ghost. Ignorant fools, and yet in some way, they had been right, for within its walls was one of the secret entrances into Erik's world, an entrance I had used more times than I could count. That was my current objective, to follow that dream-worn path through my dressing room mirror and beneath the surface of the earth. It would be dark and damp and carry the musty smells of dirt and mold, and I felt my heart lift with anticipation for those very things.

No one saw me enter the room; no one cared. As if I had stepped into the past, I knew a wave of nostalgia; nothing was out of place, the room nearly exactly as I had left it, and I scurried to turn up the flickering flames of the oil lamps, desperate to see and savour every detail. My God, I could almost pretend that nothing had changed, that I had just entered the room to prepare for a performance, that Erik's voice would meet me from behind the mirror…, and probably rage over the Vicomte's presence in the crowd, toss idle threats as he often had. At the time, influenced by Raoul's constant insistence, I had dreaded that voice and had convinced myself that Erik had been the villain, that I must hate him because how could I ever want to be with the murdering opera ghost? I had been such a fool! I had never chosen to instead see the man with the breaking heart. Fool? More than that, I had been heartless myself! …Things would be different this time.

My eyes shifted to focus on the vision being reflected in the mirror's glass, and I was almost amazed that that was actually me. I looked…confident, in control of my life in a way I never had been before. The last time that girl and those blue eyes had stared back, I had seen fear and confusion and a child about to break in two. Now I was a woman with a purpose, and it made me seem to shine from within. Erik had once put that glow there, and I had let Raoul extinguish it. Now I myself had put it back.

Smiling with my own exuberance, I reached for the small lever I knew would open the doorway for me, …but just before I could activate it, the mirror suddenly began to move on its own. I leapt back with surprise and stared, wide-eyed, at whoever was about to exit the catacombs.

"We'll work on that opening cadenza tomorrow in your lesson." That voice…. I would have known it anywhere, …but who was he speaking to? …Whose lesson…?

Before I could ponder if hiding would be a viable option, two mismatched eyes suddenly met mine as Erik halted abruptly on the threshold of the dressing room, a gasp slipping from that masked face. …And I could only stare back, lost for words, lost for thought or coherency, every image of that confident woman evaporating and regressing back to the terrified child. …Erik…, my Erik….

"You…," he stammered out, unusually struggling for words himself. "You…you're…here."

"Erik, what is it?"

Both of our solemn gazes shifted to the small woman stepping alongside Erik and into the room with us, she studying me as intently as I was suddenly studying her. An imitation of me…. How could I conclude anything else? She had to be near my own age, perhaps even younger, small, trim, pretty…, and I hated her immediately with every fiber of my being.

"Colette," Erik said to the girl, regaining most of his usual composure. "This is Christine."

I was wincing on the inside. To hear him say my name as though I was little more than an acquaintance twisted the knife in my gut. I could remember a day when he had made it sound like the most beautiful word in recorded language.

Trying to nod with a modicum of politeness to the girl, I muttered a soft, "Nice to meet you," and took note of her shiny dark hair and gleaming dark eyes. Yes, my eyes had gleamed when I had been Erik's pupil as well….

"Christine," the girl suddenly gushed. "Christine Daaé?" At my nod and further internal cringe, her face lit up brighter. "You are a legend around the opera. Everyone mentions your name with such awe. They say you were the best soprano ever on the stage."

"She was indeed," Erik agreed solemnly, and even as my eyes shot to his with a flicker of confused hope, he seemed so utterly detached from the scene, …as if I could have been anyone.

Colette's glow did not dim as her dark eyes came to rest on my Erik. "How could she not have been with you as her teacher, Maestro?"

I felt sick, utterly soul and body sick. I wanted to throttle this girl with my bare hands, raging on the inside at the same time as my heart wept tears of blood. Colette…, his new pupil, …his new protégé, …his new love.

She never took notice of my agonized look as she gave a sweet, bubbly giggle and continued on to me as if we had quickly become the dearest of friends. "Erik is the most wonderful teacher I've ever had. I am so fortunate that he chose me and pulled me out of the chorus to study with him. Perhaps someday with his guidance, I'll be able achieve everything that you did."

This had to be a nightmare! It just had to be! Pulled out of the chorus? Was he purposely looking for a substitute for me then? Our stories couldn't have been more similar, and as I met his ever-vigilant stare, I hoped he saw the contempt that I was feeling, razor sharp and unceasing in my gaze.

"What are you doing here, Christine?" he only then asked, his expression never changing from the stern apathy it seemed sculpted into.

"I…I came to see Meg," I smoothly lied, feigning the same aloofness but not as skilled at it. If one looked close, one would see the cracks.

"And you wandered down to this room, …why?" he probed further. Dear God, his eyes were so intently scrutinizing me, seeking my flaws with an eagerness that was almost cruel.

"I was seeking some privacy," I answered back, "since I had to wait until rehearsal ended."

"Well, you came to the right place," Colette interrupted with her gleeful grin still attached. "This room isn't used anymore. Erik was saying that perhaps it could be mine, but…well, I guess we'll see. Wasn't this your dressing room?"

"Yes," I breathed softly in reply. What more could I say to that? It was mine, and now…now it would be hers…just like everything else.

"Colette." As Erik drew her attention, my aghast eyes could only see the way he had so delicately touched her forearm as he spoke. A casual touch…; I had once had casual touches all my own, too. "We worked pretty hard today," he gently told her. "You should go and get some well-deserved rest."

She dutifully nodded under her ever-charming smile. "Until tomorrow then, Maestro." Turning that exaggerated sweetness to me, she added, "Lovely to meet you, Christine. I hope we see each other again."

I don't honestly know if I made a reply. My focus was stolen by the blushing grin she lifted back to Erik, screaming of flirtation before she thankfully took her leave. Flirting…, flirting with Erik…. And I had no right to argue against it. He wasn't mine anymore.

"Christine," he said once his imitation of me was gone and the door closed behind her, "I thought the Vicomte kept you on a shorter leash than this. You've mercifully avoided this place for months. I was hoping that would be a permanent situation."

…Raoul. So then Erik obviously did not know that the Vicomte was no longer a part of my life. And hurt as I was, I felt disinclined to say otherwise, fighting tears with the harshness of his words.

"I…I'm sorry," I stammered out as I strove to pick up the scattered remnants of my confidence. "I hadn't anticipated running into you or your student. I'll be more careful in the future." My only desire now was to get out of there, to put as much distance as I could between myself and the endless eyes bearing so coldly into me. It was stinging my skin to endure them.

"Are you all right?" he suddenly asked, but there was no genuine concern in his voice.

"Fine." I managed a forced smile, swallowing another rise of tears. Later…later, I would cry. "Have you been teaching again for awhile?" The questions were going to kill me, and yet I felt desperate for their answers.

"A couple of months," he replied nonchalantly. "Colette's my only student. You know how I don't favor recognition."

"Oh, …and does she know who you actually are?" I knew that was utterly cruel of me, and I knew it would hurt him. Part of me wanted it to.

The only evidence I received of my direct hit to the gut was a tightening of his jaw. "Yes, she knows who I am, …and she doesn't care."

The breath was knocked out of me, and I almost succumbed to crying right there. No! Strong! I commanded of myself. But a waver of my voice betrayed me as I abruptly insisted, "I…I have to go. Meg will be expecting me."

And before he could say another word, I rushed out of the room and into a busy hallway full of voices and footsteps of life and a world I could never belong to again.

Since I was there and alone, a step away from a torrent of tears, I decided to make my lie hold some aspect of truth and looked for Meg. She and I had been the equivalent of sisters back when we had both suffered from the affliction of our naïveté together, and in that vein, she squealed with delight to see me and embraced me without pause. Meg, unchanged, the same girl she had been upon our first meeting; I wasn't equally that fortunate.

Her excited insistence that we had to catch up on our lost time led us to a small nearby café. I was simply content to be out of the opera and away…. With coffee cups in hand, we huddled close at a back table beyond the growing cold that evening was bringing and giggled like schoolgirls over ballet gossip as we had done in those bittersweet days. With Meg, time felt as if it had never passed by us, as if the gap between those days and these was but a long, drug-induced sleep. It was an escape that I would have chosen to be lost to forever.

But, of course, reality had to return with her soft, hesitant question. "So…how long have you been back?"

"I only arrived this morning," I somberly replied, my eyes lowering to the staining remnants of coffee at the bottom of my cup.

"And…you came to the opera?" She was fishing for the full extent of the tale, her inquisitive green eyes narrowing in the one quick glance I gave her. "As glad as I am to see you, I am having a hard time believing you came there just for me."

I wouldn't look at her again; I couldn't when tears were rimming my eyes. "You know, I went away to make some decisions about my life, to try to learn what I really wanted and what I really felt…. I guess I had ignorantly presumed that the rest of the world would hold still until I returned. Instead…I came with hope in my heart…only to find that I had been replaced, and everything that was once mine isn't anymore."

Out of the corner of my blurry gaze, I caught Meg's nod; it seemed sincere and as somber as my own emotions. "He asked about you; did you know that?" Her voice was little more than a whisper that I latched onto immediately with greedy hands, only then meeting her sympathetic stare.

"He…he did?"

"The week after you left. He came to me; he seemed so utterly…broken, I guess is the best word. There wasn't much left of the terrifying phantom we were all afraid of for so long. He thought you were off with Raoul. He asked me if you were happy. I know he wanted me to say no, but how could I? You had me promise not to tell him where you were, and I didn't feel it was my place to speak on the subject of Raoul either lest he decide to go after you. …So I just told him yes, that you were happy, and I watched his hope shatter and watched him leave. …I'm sorry, Christine."

In my head was an image I had only barely glimpsed, the last one I had had of Erik from that night. Broken he had been then, too, crying, as lost as I was in my soul. Just as ignorantly, I had been the cause.

"It's not your fault, Meg," I told my apologetic friend amidst my own tears. "';I should be thanking you for respecting my wishes. …As I said, I was foolish to believe Erik would simply be here waiting for me…. I just thought that if my heart was hurting so much, his must be as well, …that if he loved me as deeply as he had claimed to, he wouldn't be able to so easily move on to loving someone else in my stead."

"He does not love Colette," Meg firmly stated. "He's teaching her, probably needed something to keep himself busy and distracted, but that's not love."

"Do you know her?" I dared to ask, unsure I wanted the truth. How much of my life had this girl already assumed? Was she close friends with Meg as well?

But Meg's rolled eyes gave me another answer altogether. "Know, as in can barely tolerate her sugarcoated smiles and bubbly giggles. She was already the attention-seeker of the newly instated chorus. Since she began with her lessons, her ego has shifted upward about a hundred notches. She is so certain that she will one day be the diva of the stage. I'd love to see her face if she ever heard you sing; it would probably put a nicely sized dent in her overabundance of confidence."

I understood all too well why the girl would think so highly of herself. Erik was always overly indulgent with his compliments as a teacher. In my own regard, I had taken his every word and had used them to encourage myself for even more, desperate to please him further; Colette had obviously built her own self-chiming brigade from them. I had never been able to do that; even Meg's compliments now gave me a rush of shyness instead of self-pride. Erik had once called such a trait endearing, and I had to wonder if he approved of his new protégé's arrogance. …Maybe it was refreshing to him.

One particular thought on the subject buzzed annoyingly in my brain until I had to ask Meg, "Do other people know that Erik is around again? They were out for blood once before." Blood and death, and I was still unclear as to how he had ever been able to escape them.

"No, he's kept relatively quiet as of late, and thankfully, Colette has enough sense not to go around telling people anything beyond that she is taking lessons with a great teacher. I am not so easily fooled; I saw right through her pretense from the beginning." Making a face that I had to smile to behold, Meg added, "I really do not like that girl."

"Well, neither do I, but most of my disregard comes from petty jealousy. I guess that doesn't say very much about my own confidence or character, but I had the urge to strangle her with my bare hands today."

"I feel you have every right," Meg declared with a nod. "She has practically usurped your entire life. She wants to be you. The little imposter! …But, Christine, please realize that Erik does not love her. You can't love someone when you're already in love with someone else."

The melancholy returned with a vengeance on my agonized heart. "He treated me today like I was no more than a distant acquaintance, Meg, like I could have been any random stranger on the street."

"He's still hurting," she explained patiently. "And I'm sure it was a shock for him to see you. Did you tell him anything? Where you were? Anything about Raoul or your currently nonexistent relationship with him?"

I shook my head. "He still thinks I'm in love with Raoul, and I didn't protest. How could I when I had just come face to face with my replacement? It seemed futile to break down and confess my undying love to a man who seemed to give little care whatsoever to my very existence." Pushing back a wave of more vivid tears on the subject, I had to change the topic altogether if only to stay in one piece. "Have you had any news of Raoul lately?"

"Ah, the Vicomte," Meg dramatically sighed. "I will be entirely honest with you since you are thankfully not still convinced that you are in love with the man. After you left, he went through some sort of heartbroken transition, a bereavement period of sorts. He carried on with a few of the ballerinas, in secret, of course, because he seemed desperate to stay as disconnected from the opera itself as he possibly could. Too many memories of you perhaps. That went on for about a month, and then he disappeared. I heard from one of the girls that he said he was going off to some family estate in the southern part of the country. I don't think he could stand to be here anymore. No one has heard from him since."

There was a bit of guilt attached to that story on my part to realize what I had driven him to, but he had genuinely loved me. And love had this tendency of shattering souls when it was of the unrequited sort.

When I had no reply for Meg, she grew quiet a long moment before suddenly daring to ask, "What are you going to do now, Christine? You're not going to give up and leave again, are you?"

Leaving wouldn't solve anything, as I well knew. But staying…, did I even possess enough bravado to stay or to fight? I had called myself strong upon my return, and that had so quickly fallen to pieces. Staying could possibly mean breaking my own heart. Could I do that? And yet wasn't it on that path already?

"May I suggest something?" Meg continued, and an excited gleam in her eyes drew my attention and a curious arch of my brows. "Well, our dearest managers are going to be conducting an audition at the completion of the current production, searching for new blood and new voices. La Carlotta hasn't been drawing the crowds she used to; in my opinion as well as the vast majority of cast and crew, it is past time for her to retire from performing altogether. This audition is a polite way of encouraging her cooperation, though you and I both know that it will be a battle for whomever they hire as she will no doubt shoot her venom in their direction. You've been her target once before, and I'm sure you realize how difficult she will make things. Anyway, the audition is open to anyone and everyone. …Why not audition yourself and reclaim your throne?"

My impulse told me to refuse the very idea, but the longer I pondered it, the more feasible it seemed. Granted I was five months out of practice, but I tended to throw all of myself into a task when I undertook it. Yet again in my life, singing could become my escape and my salvation.

"And you know," Meg added with a sneer, "I am certain Colette will be auditioning, hoping to be moved out of the chorus."

The fraction of a diva in me perked up to hear that as I demanded, "Is she good?"

Meg shrugged, tossing her golden curls. "Decent; obviously she's gotten better since she's been taking lessons, but personally, I find her tone a bit too nasal for my tastes. She is most definitely not on your level."

"Five months without singing would argue with you," I replied, that persistent flicker of self-doubt always lingering in the background. "When is the audition being held?"

"In three weeks. Is that time enough for you to prepare?"

"It can be," I whispered more to myself. An idea was dimly beaming in a soul that had felt numb for hours, a plausible course that could inevitably find me what I really wanted in its process. "With the right teacher, of course."

I saw Meg's sudden understanding of my plan, her smile growing to match mine. "And…you think he would concede to teach you?"

"I think given the right ruse on my part, he'd have little choice. …Only…am I really audacious enough to go through with it? I'd have to act as unemotional and aloof as he is."

"Which is exactly why you shall," Meg declared adamantly. "Let him see how it feels. Play his game."

"Well," I conceded with a sigh, "it's better than laying my heart vulnerably at his feet." A surge of a thrill raced my veins. The stage…, to sing…, I could feel the pull within me for that very thing. "So I'll audition…, and I'll retrieve my life from that girl, my life and my heart. I can't give them up."

Meg nodded with equaled excitement, and that was it. I had found my path, and I was determined to have my ending by my own choices this time.