A/N- For anyone out here who really knows their opera, the Manon I refer to briefly in this chapter is Auber's, not Puccini's. Just in case you were wondering. Which I know you probably weren't. And yes, for anyone who has seen the movie Rigoletto (not to be confused with the opera of the same title), I may have borrowed a thing or two for the first scene. What can I say? It's fanfic. I'm plagiarizing wildly. And no, I'm not making money from this, so you law firm blokes can just chill and set down those subpoenas!

Arabella Poisson, who took over the ballet company after Monsieur Benoit's retirement, had no patience for dramatics. She was a harsh woman, who expected absolute obedience from her dancers and would suffer no one to steal the limelight that in her mind rightfully belonged to the singers. Though she loved the dance, she was of the opinion that opera was for music, and the ballet, though beautiful, was ultimately superfluous. Ballerinas under her charge were to be uniform in their performance, and she made it very clear that none of her dancers were to be favored. Adéle, as one might surmise, was not particularly fond of her new directrice.

At long last, Erik's crying quieted, and moved almost abruptly out of her arms; she noticed that he kept his right hand carefully pressed over that half of his face. Meg breathed a mental sigh of relief as he regained composure. She hated to see anyone in distress, and this in particular made her feel helpless. Unlike the tears of the young ones in the ballet dormitories, Meg had no power to fix what was wrong here. There was nothing material she could do to help him, and it set her on edge. Well, she might be next to useless in the face of the broken heart of a former phantom, but she could damn well try!

"I don't suppose you'll want to talk about it," she said matter-of-factly. "But if that ever changes..."

He nodded curtly, and she noticed a change in how he held his shoulders. He carried himself a little straighter; it was a defensive posture, and Meg thought she recognized something of O.G. in the set of his jaw. She remembered seeing the same behaviors down below. She suspected he was embarrassed by his loss of control, and trying to defend himself in the only way he knew how. So, then, the porcelain wasn't his only mask. He wore the mantle of the Phantom for protection, as well. That, she supposed, made a twisted sort of sense.

"You have been far kinder to me than I deserve," he said, and though his tone was stiff and formal, she was paying attention to those little nuances now, and she thought she picked up some genuine emotion behind his words.

"Perhaps," she acknowledged, "But I'd rather leave the judgment to God and get on with my life. You need someone to look after you. Who am I to turn away?"

He looked astonished. "You are a most uncommon woman, Meg," he said.

"Hardly," she scoffed, giving him a wry look.

"You think not?" he said seriously. "I doubt many would be so generous to someone who... who looks like me. Someone repulsive."

Meg was genuinely startled by his statement. Certainly his damaged face was unfortunate, but it was hardly his most important feature! "It really bothers you that much?"

His visible eyebrow quirked up and he gave her an incredulous look, apparently deciding not to respond to that.

For some undefinable reason, that rubbed her exactly the wrong way. She didn't know why it bothered her, but it did. Fine, then! If he wanted to be infuriatingly tight-lipped, she could be infuriatingly enigmatic. She might not have a seal in the shape of a skull, but she could be inscrutable if she wanted to! "I've seen grief destroy a man before," she said in a tone that she hoped came across as somewhat cool and unattached, "Eating away at him until his soul is black and buried, just an empty shell." Well, maybe not entirely unattached. Maybe just a little bit shaky, in fact. Actually, maybe this had been the worst imaginable thing to try to be enigmatic about, because all her resolve to do so had faded. She steadied herself, then went on earnestly, "I have to believe it can work in the other direction, too."

"What makes you think I have a soul to save?" he asked bitterly, staring at the floor.

And there it was again, that fraying around the edges. He was trying, she could see that, but something inside him was tearing him down. Alright then, no head-games for the sake of her pride. She touched his left hand gently. "Because of your music," she said. "I meant to say it earlier but I've been distracted. Last night was the first time I heard you sing... well, the first time I've heard you sing properly, anyway. You sing beautifully, Erik. And your compositions are gorgeous, too. Unusual, I'll admit, but still incredible. No one could make music like that without a beautiful soul."

Erik looked up at her sharply, half expecting to discover that he had imagined the whole thing, but there she was, looking at him earnestly with a small smile on her face. He inhaled sharply against the burning in his throat and tried to say with his eyes what he was incapable of saying aloud. A beautiful soul? Him? Hardly! Yet somehow this little dancer, the overlooked daughter of the only friend he'd ever had, seemed to believe it, and her expression was so sweetly honest that he couldn't doubt her sincerity. What she believed in her naiveté was utterly impossible, but the fact that she did believe it touched him more than he knew how to express, and so he simply tried for a smile. Her tiny hand was still resting on his, and she squeezed his fingers softly. He struggled to find the right words to express his gratitude for her well-meaning foolishness.

A light rap on the door interrupted his thoughts, and he leapt to his feet and reached automatically for the mask that had sat, unexpectedly banished from his thoughts, on the dressing table throughout their conversation. Meg withdrew her hand as the door opened and her mother bustled inside carrying a bundle of cloth, closing the door briskly behind her.

Erik's stomach automatically twisted itself in knots as he stood face-to-face with Antoinette Giry for the first time in far too many years. He couldn't help but be flooded by memories of another terrible night, the last time they had spoken to each other. Oddly, reliving an old pain seemed to ease the sting of the present one somewhat, but recalling the bitter words he had shouted at her that night certainly did not make him feel any better.

"Erik," she said, addressing him stiffly. He searched her face, trying to discern what she was thinking, but her expression was as hard and inscrutable as it had been since the day she returned to the Opera Populaire with a blonde toddler clinging to her skirt.

He inclined his head in a formal nod. "Antoinette," he said. Then he sighed. This awkward dance would do neither of them any good. "I am sorry, Antoinette," he said, locking onto her gaze and holding it until the tiniest relaxing in the set of her shoulders indicated to him that she understood. This wasn't just an apology for his recent insane behavior. This was his apology for all of it, the most effusive apology he would likely ever be capable of making, pathetic attempt though it was.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Meg watching the pair of them attentively.

Antoinette's lips twitched in what might have been a smile. "Apology accepted," she said, casting an assessing eye over him. She handed him the bundle she was carrying, which turned out to be clean clothing. "Now, you get cleaned up. Meg and I are going out for a few hours to arrange what needs to be done to get you away from here safely. I trust you can keep yourself out of trouble until we return?"

"Undoubtedly," he said. "Thank you, Antoinette."

"Think nothing of it," she said brusquely. "Would you mind terribly if we used your considerable resources to make those arrangements? I'm sure you understand that we don't actually have the funds for such an undertaking."

"I wouldn't expect anything else," he said, almost affronted by the idea that Antoinette should waste any of her small salary on him.

She gave him that almost-smile he remembered so well, the unsettling one that made him feel as though she knew exactly what he was thinking. "Very well then. We'll see you in a few hours," she said, taking her daughter's hand and steering her out of the room. Before she vanished outside, Meg glanced back at him and gave him a reassuring smile. Then the door clicked shut behind her, Antoinette's key turned in the lock, and he was left alone.

He shook his head wonderingly. What madness possessed these Giry women to drive them to take up his cause so readily and so repeatedly? It was a conundrum of impossible proportions.

Erik did as Antoinette had instructed. He retreated to the washroom and filled the basin with unfortunately freezing water, and set about cleaning himself up as much as he could under the circumstances. Under present circumstances, there was nothing to be done about the stubble he was sporting, so that would have to wait, but he managed well enough. When he was finished, he gratefully changed into the clean clothes Antoinette had brought. She had provided him with a new pair of trousers, a fresh white shirt, and a dark emerald vest that he thought he recognized as part of the costuming from a production of Manon Lescaut. That had been a beautiful production... It would have been better if Carlotta hadn't been singing Manon, he supposed, but that had been before her voice had gone south, and the rest of the cast had been marvelous. He recalled the ballet from the second act, seeing Christine dance on the stage, a vision in lavender...

He chased away the thought. No, he couldn't fall apart again. He simply couldn't. He put his mask back in its rightful place and, with a grimace, attempted to comb his hair in such a way as to hide what the mask did not cover. It wasn't a particularly successful effort, and he lamented the loss of his magnificent black wig. He would have to replace that, he supposed. He would have to do a lot of things, actually, but the prospect of actually doing them seemed monumentally difficult at the moment. One thing at a time, he supposed. And for now, he was stuck waiting for Meg and Antoinette to return.

Meg had taken the opportunity, once inside Christine's dressing-room, to change into a soft cotton dress pilfered from the wardrobe. It was vastly different from the serviceable practice clothes she was used to, and, belonging to Christine, was at least four inches too long at the hem and quite a bit too tight across the bust, but she would have to manage. It was better than tramping across the city clad in her still-damp trousers!

Her mother pushed back the mirror and stepped aside to allow Meg to proceed ahead of her, then slid the plate of glass back into its normal place. Holding the candelabra she had acquired aloft, Meg moved down the dust-filled corridor with no fear. All the nerves she had felt the first time (or, for that matter, the second time) she had descended through this route seemed to have been banished with the revelation of the Phantom's true identity. There was nothing to fear down here at all.

Antoinette quickly caught up to her. "From what I've been able to discover over the years, Erik has been depositing most of his salary in the Credít Mobíliér, but if I know him, he will have kept some on-hand close by in case of emergencies. He has always hated being caught unprepared... everything is always planned months in advance, every eventuality planned for."

"Until now," Meg said sadly. "Clearly, he had no notion that Christine would reject him."

She glanced at her mother, and noticed she had pursed her lips. "I doubt he has been thinking clearly for a long time now," she said, and sighed. "You did the right thing in helping him, Meg, but I do not know what we are to do with him now that you have."

"We keep him safe," Meg said. That much seemed utterly obvious to her. "We find him a place to live until he can leave safely."

Antoinette stopped walking and turned to face her daughter. "And what of us? What are we to do? I am worried, Meg. For the first time in many years... I do not know what to do."

Meg looked closely at her mother, and saw how very tired she looked. Keeping her silence through months of Erik's madness had clearly taken a toll, and the tragedy of yesterday was weighing heavily on her. For the first time, she realized that her mother wasn't nearly as fearless and invincible as she seemed. Strangely, that made her feel better. If her mother could be as strong and capable as she was with all that fear beneath the surface, then perhaps she could, too. Maybe she would be able to find the same kind of fortitude.

"We... we stay in the city, as well," Meg said. "We keep close to him, and we look after him and... and we do whatever we have to do to make sure that the Opera Populaire is rebuilt, and when it is, we come back. We come home. We make it better than it was before. We do whatever it takes to make this right."

Antoinette smiled and cupped her daughter's cheek in one hand. "I hope it is as simple as that," she said.

"It is as simple as that," Meg insisted. "We can't overcomplicate it or we'll never get anywhere. It's like choreography: sometimes simpler is just better."

Her mother outright laughed at that, and Meg felt a little glow of pride that she was able to take that careworn look from her mother's face, at least for a little while. If only she could do the same for Erik! Well, she had time. And with that thought, she raised her light higher and moved again into the depths of the opera house.

Erik's lair- for Meg could not describe it as anything but a lair- was dark when they reached it. His hundreds of candles had burnt out, or been extinguished by the mob. There was surprisingly little evidence of the crowd that had so recently filled the subterranean space, with only a few things out of place.

Meg used her candelabra to light some of the many tapers around the room, giving it back a fraction of its previous enchanted glow, then turned to help her mother down from the ledge they had walked along to reach this place. By silent agreement, the two of them diverged, Meg staying behind in the main room to search, and Antoinette retreating into the recessed area away from the water.

As her mother's figure vanished into the depths, Meg looked around, more carefully than she had the last time she was here. There were papers everywhere, most of it sheet music filled with precisely drawn notes, but there were also drawings. Erik, it seemed, was also quite an artist. Many of his drawings, she noticed, were breathtaking sketches of Christine, so finely done they made her even more beautiful than she really was. Meg sighed. Erik really was besotted, wasn't he? She also noticed, though, that a handful of his drawings were of himself, and these were much less complimentary. The ones in which the ruined half of his face was covered were more or less technically accurate, but they lacked the obvious feeling that the drawings of Christine held. However, a bare handful were sketches of himself without the mask. Meg wandered over to the little table and picked up one of these, wincing as she looked at it. The right side of his face was vividly and graphically rendered, looking far worse on paper than it did in reality; the other half seemed tacked on as an afterthought, just there for the sake of completion, and it wasn't an accurate representation at all. She felt, suddenly, as though she had been allowed a little glimpse into his head. Perhaps this was why he refused to speak earlier? Perhaps he really did see himself this way. The idea made her ache.

"Meg! I've found it!" her mother's voice rang out, startling her out of her thoughts.

Guiltily, Meg replaced the drawing and hurried to catch up with her mother.