***UPDATE 3/10/2020: no this is not A TCU update.

I just realized that some FF alerts don't work so after taking Erik Rochelle's permission (!) I post this here:
I started posting a new story -Kepler's Web- and if you want to give it a try it will be online till it's complete.***

Have fun! (The rest of the chapter is the same as the one published before)

This is another huge chapter (I apologize for that-I know online reading is not comfortable when it's more than 2,000 words and this is 8,000) but I couldn't cut it.

Thank you for your reviews!

These characters have never fully left me but I have too many stories lurking in my mind to let this go on. Not to mention that certain characters - Alexander Arnaud- have their own stories waiting and they would never be settled with anything less.

I hope the fluff is enough. Erik/Christine interaction is somewhat limited but Erik certainly rules this epilogue and we all know who is the master of any POTO story/chapter. ;-)

Before I go on I want to thank my all-stories editor TOWDNWTBN (I hope you all know what it means by now because it's too tiring to write it with the dashes) who's a saint and my two betas: Vale, the eccentric larger-than-life Italian who's conquered the Northern Lands and the passionate, eagle-eyed Sandra (no mistake hides from you!)

On with the story now…

Epilogue Part II Crossroads

The "yellow parlor" was sunny, the winter sun bathing it through the light curtains and the fire in the hearth blooming when they entered the room. They were prepared for what Galateia considered appetizers, but Erik knew they would be enough to feed all the residents of the house for a day.

He declined alcohol and watched with amusement as Bertillon's grimace turned deeper after tasting a colorless drink served in a small glass. The liquid turned white when water was added. The man took a small, tentative sip of the second, white version of the drink, discreetly left the glass on the table and returned to his corner away from the windows and the fireplace.

He had a way of bending his head, bunching his shoulders, his pale eyes hidden behind furrowed brows or looking through narrowed slits that made him look as if ready to pounce at someone head-first.

Erik smiled at his friend, the young man who years ago aimed to conquer Paris and for a while had done exactly that. Emily was right. He was intimidating, but he doubted that was intentional.

"So will you write to Monsieur Chaput about James?" Alex brought them back to their topic after a few sips of his wine.

Madame Bertillon was still resting, and Christine had declared herself occupied with Ana, as Emily informed them when she brought in another plate with food ‒ something special and spicy Galateia had prepared especially for them‒ and placed it on the table. Apparently, only the men's appetite needed the extra stimulation.

"Poor Jamie, he's so besotted‒" she sighed. Emily loved the boy and always urged him to visit and spend time at the bastide.

"Don't let him hear you calling him Jamie. He's James Oliveer now. A soon-to-be student of the École Polytechnique," Erik warned her.

"I washed the boy's shirts. I have every right to call him Jamie if I want to‒" Emily abruptly stopped, her face red as if suddenly embarrassed by what she had revealed.

"I know the lad is hurting," Alex rushed to intervene, "but it's almost funny. I still remember him covered in freckles."

"Love can not be forced, but in case of extreme need and emergency‒"

"Please, doctor, I have an emergency. I need that mademoiselle to fall passionately in love with me immediately‒" Arnaud interrupted, teasing Bertillon relentlessly.

Emily shook her head at them all, and smiling, left the room, closing the door behind her.

"Laugh as much as you like. Your good looks and your long locks may make women sigh but sometimes a man has to fight to become something more than nothing to the woman he loves."

"And what's your recipe?"

Bertillon shrugged, surprised Arnaud had actually asked his opinion.

"Well, isolation helps. Her boredom and loneliness will eventually urge her to pay attention to you. If you manage to become necessary to her, interesting, lure her somehow‒" Bertillon obviously felt uncomfortable and Alexander, intentionally or not, put the man out of his misery.

He waved a hand at him in dismissal.

"To think I almost took you seriously. That doesn't work! He has tested it." His hand pointed to the side of the room where Erik was sitting and he felt his face getting warm at being the focus of Bertillon's scrutiny.

"So, why does the girl refuse James?"

"It's not so much the girl, it's her family," Erik offered between clenched teeth.

"The hell with the family!" Alexander said matter-of-factly.

"Easy for you to say," Erik replied bitterly.

"What happened with that other girl he fancied? Mary?"

"She got married last year and James didn't even shed a tear. That was a childhood infatuation, nothing more. These things never last," Erik stated and was rewarded by a mocking smile from Arnaud.

"He should focus on his studies and renew his interest when he's an established engineer. No one would welcome a student as his daughter's suitor."

"Étienne, you sound as if you are a thousand years old," Alex accused him.

"Perhaps because I am."

"I doubt her parents would change their minds even if James had finished school and were on the verge of a promising career. Being intelligent and self-made is not a quality they value. It's old money, old families and old names that make the world go round." Erik hated the bitterness in his voice but he felt James' pain as his own. No one had the right to reject that boy, and all the solutions he had thought up so far ended up messy and bloody and lacked even a remote chance of gaining Christine's approval.

"You are saying that? I'd never have believed it." Alex sounded incredulous.

"If you were to see Jamie ‒James‒ as I saw him a fortnight ago, you'd change your tune."

He fought the urge to grind his teeth. "James is a year older than the girl. Her family is not thinking of marriage just yet, but what about next year or the year after? There's no way he can establish a career or a name for himself so fast. Not everyone is like you, Bertillon."

"And look where it got me."

"Let him try. Their feelings will be tested and who knows? Étienne will help James‒" Alex's voice trailed off expectantly.

"I will." Bertillon sounded committed and Alex relaxed visibly on his armchair.

"Thank you," Erik muttered, still unsettled. "I was counting on that, but there's more. Whatever James achieves in his life, his past, his origins, his family, will never be accepted by the girl's family and he knows that. He feels he has to fight a hopeless battle."

"Nonsense. We've all faced our 'hopeless' battles. Some we won, others we lost. They made us who we are now." Alex took a sip of his wine.

"You're right, but I wish I could spare him the torment. James is still so young. He should be happy and all he feels now is that he's not enough, that he has no choices." He fisted his hand, recalling some of the insults addressed to James by that despicable man. No, that man should not become his father-in-law, he should be ridiculed, publicly humiliated and then vanish. In that particular order.

"Life itself is a choice." Bertillon's words drove him out of his murderous reverie.

"Comprehending the full meaning of this may give a man hope. A chance of really living it."

"So, knowing that a man may end his life any time he chooses should give him hope? I've never heard anything more depressing in my life!" Alexander exclaimed. "Enough with the melancholy thoughts. A man needs faith to stay true to his choices. Faith in himself. A new era is beginning. Science, discoveries beyond our imagination, will be at the service of the people ‒ men and women alike. There is nothing ‒ old minds, old money, old whatever ‒ powerful enough to stop this. And those who will bring that new era are people like Jamie, inventive, intelligent, hard workers."

"Always an optimist, Alex."

"Always a pessimist, Erik."

"What if people like Jamie are not allowed to make a difference? You know there's the other kind of people, too, the ones who think only of their own personal interest, have absolutely no values, who use all the negative features of human kind. Even their beastly greed," Erik turned to Bertillon, using his previous words. "You know these people usually win. They have no doubts, no qualms. Their objectives, their goals are simple and they allow nothing to stop them until they succeed."

For the first time Arnaud's smile faltered. Erik knew he had hit a nerve. He didn't want to use the man's past against him, but he couldn't share his walking-in-the-clouds optimism. The world was a wondrous but also a very dark place. They all knew that. They all had tried at times to break the walls and smashed their faces against them. If there was change and new discoveries everyone would use them ‒ good and bad alike, with everything that meant. Perhaps Alex chose optimism and faith because he had Ana and needed this fantasy for a happy future-world to lessen the worry about what she'd face. Erik preferred reality.

"In that case, we should start fighting the good fight until people like Jamie are strong enough to take over. Unless they take over, this new era will be doomed."

"One could call you a socialist, Alex."

"An Arnaud a socialist? That's the most ludicrous idea I've heard. I'm a bourgeois through and through. But I'd like you to repeat that in front of Lady Arnaud if you're brave enough. The lame Arnaud brother who not only betrayed the family tradition but ended up a socialist."

Regardless of the humorous tone, mentioning his leg only showed how disturbed Alexander really was.

"I don't know if I am that brave," Erik offered guiltily. Lashing out at friends was not the way to solve Jamie's problems.

"I intend to make this world better for Ana. The new century will find her a young woman. I'm sure she'll have plenty of her own fights to engage in but if there is anything I can do to make them easier for her, I'll do it. And you, Erik, know what to do with James. The first step is for him to move to France. You and Christine joining him would probably make things easier."

"Christine is still very apprehensive about that." Erik spat the words out with effort. "She prefers the journey to Athens." As if the helplessness he felt now with James showed the surplus of parental qualities he possessed.

"I've heard De Chagny has had a streak of good fortune lately. But he's not married yet. That would no doubt ease some of Christine's worries."

Erik heard himself literally growl at Arnaud's words. That foppish pup….

Bertillon looked at them, his face expressionless beyond the constant grimace distorting it. Alex glanced at the man and then at Erik, probably contemplating whether he should explain the situation or leave him in the dark.

"I know De Chagny." Bertillon solved the predicament with a few gruff words.

Erik turned to him, surprised.

"I was in prison, Erik, not on the moon, even though M. Verne makes it seem quite appealing. When I got out, the events that took place at the Opera were a couple of years old but it was not hard to fill in the picture." He shrugged. "I had an affair with a widow. She had attended the Opera the night… the chandelier fell. She used to talk rather passionately about the tenor singing the leading part."

Erik arched a questioning brow at that.

"She said he had a … seductive voice."

"That's me. A true Don Juan." Irony laced his voice.

"Until the chandelier fell she thought the unmasking was part of the show. What can I say? To choose me as her lover shows beauty was not very important to her."

Erik heard Alexander's faint chuckle.

"You have to appreciate the fact that I never opened my mouth about you. That's the behavior of a true friend. I could have received some extra favors sharing a tip or two about the Phantom."

"Gentlemen! ‒ and I'm afraid this is a figure of speech in present company ‒ we have talked in the past and we know the solution to the De Chagny problem and to any problem that other silly man might cause our dear Jamie. Erik should become a member of the Arnaud family ‒you know Lady Arnaud herself had offered to adopt you decades ago. If not a brother, then a long lost first cousin that we only now have found. Take your pick of the family tree from both sides of the family‒ I'd recommend you choose the Arnauds, though. The surname." He nodded smugly. "It's all in the surname. The story details will be easy to fabricate," Alexander added with his usual ease.

"We have a life in Italy." That certainly was not an issue he'd decide alone.

"And you'll have a life in France."

"And why should Erik choose your pathetic name? Erik Arnaud?" Bertillon asked incredulously before he turned to him. "I think you have to forget that. It's pathetic, ridiculous and with the attention this man‒" he pointed at Alexander in mock-contempt, "tends to attract to himself, you'll be stuck in a position I wouldn't suggest for anyone. Not even an enemy!"

Erik was glad he was not the only one who found this idea far-fetched. Reinventing yourself was one thing but inserting yourself and your family into one already existing family with a long family history seemed more like a problem than anything else. Not to mention that after a certain age reinventing yourself tended to become tedious.

"If you're to change your name and come to France, that should be as Erik Bertillon. It even sounds better."

Alex snorted. "Is there any rule that new Bertillon family members must have the E.B. initials?" For a moment Bertillon looked at him, confused.

"What is your wife's name?"

"Eliane," muttered Bertillon, but he didn't allow Arnaud's diversion technique to affect him. Instead, he kept addressing Erik. "Why would you want to be part of the bourgeois Arnaud family? Are you a bourgeois?"

"Exactly what do you do for a living lately, Bertillon?" Alex interrupted. "Are you a sailor, a dock worker?"

"I'm certainly not a bourgeois like you. I'm just a man working to make a living."

"Yes, yes, yes, working while owning an entire hill and a chateau. Wherever did you see a working man with a chateau?" Alexander turned to Erik.

"That's irrelevant."

"What about the glass factory?"

"I don't make revenue from the glass factory."

"Being a lousy businessman is hardly an excuse‒"

"Fine, call me what you like. I have another argument my surname fits Erik the most." He paused for a dramatic effect any leading actor would be jealous of. "The resemblance."

"The resemblance?" Erik and Alex asked almost in unison.

"What resemblance? What do you mean?" Erik repeated the question.

"Who would believe that Arnaud is your brother? Look at him! With his green eyes," he waved a hand in dismissal, "his beautiful features and his long hair‒" He spoke as if describing disgusting traits, expecting Erik to agree with him.

"What are you implying?" Erik asked solemnly, concealing his smile and enjoying Alexander's frustration. When it came to handsome men in the room Alex was clearly outnumbered.

"I'm only implying that you'll find family with the Bertillon men."


"I'm not saying 'similar features' exactly but we are not known for our beauty. Bertillon men and Beauty are not compatible." He nodded as if agreeing with his own words. "You'll feel very comfortable in our ranks."

"I thought you are the last of the Bertillon men."

"If there are others I do not know of them. One more asset: family bonds are weak. I do consider myself the last Bertillon. I'm a proud example of the Bertillon blood," he mocked himself as a smile added to the grimace that never left his face.

"In any case we're not talking about beauty. I doubt you ever had a relative like me."

"I was never close to my relatives ‒ I told you: weak family bonds! ‒ but the important thing is that my great-granduncle would have killed for your nose and I have a portrait to prove it. Have I mentioned the arrogance of the Bertillon men? Yes, that man had indeed commissioned a portrait!"

"Étienne," Erik started reluctantly, "you have seen behind my mask, you know what I have for a‒"

"Exactly!" Bertillon exclaimed, interrupting his uncomfortable admission. "It's because I do know I'm telling you this. You'll find family in the Bertillon clan. After my great-granduncle Emil every long, crooked nose," he pointed at his own, "was cherished and celebrated."

"More portraits," Arnaud offered resignedly.

"Exactly. It took us generations to see our family nose for what it was."

"I'll talk with my godfather privately," Ana declared with the audacity and the boldness of a queen. The adults around her smiled at her tone and she, encouraged by it, slipped her hand in Erik's palm, urging him to stand up and follow her.

Erik looked at the tiny hand as he turned his palm; the nails were small, the fingers short and slightly chubby but the grip fierce, impatient. His lips curled as if responding to a reflex he couldn't control. Erik surprised himself when he brought the little hand to his lips, a gesture that triggered an instant giggle from the child.

As a rule, Erik did not kiss women's hands. Or little girls' for that matter. He hadn't kissed Madame Bertillon's lace-gloved hand when he first met her or Emily's when she'd greeted them upon their arrival. He knew the gesture would unsettle all the parties involved. Instead, he usually offered a little head bow to men and women alike, acknowledging their presence but also keeping them at the right distance. He always needed time to adjust around people, even around Emily, even when Christine was present. Only Alexander never allowed him that distance. He barged in and hugged him in greeting upon seeing him after a period of time‒ whether that was a week or five years, it was irrelevant. It was as if the walls Erik erected were invisible to him. The same was true with Ana. Boundaries were a concept that proved difficult for some of the Arnaud family members.

Unflustered by his cold fingers, Ana clenched her little hand and actually tried to pull him up in the middle of the room in front of all the guests, her parents, even Galateia. What could he do? He stood.

"Ana, leave the man in peace. You came to tell us goodnight‒"

For once it was Alexander who reprimanded his daughter, even though the tone had no ounce of reprimand. Emily was right. He coddled the girl beyond measure.

"Papa, he promised and, and, and you said how important a promise is." Erik already knew that Ana was a master at extracting promises. "The one who doesn't keep his promise has no honor." She obviously repeated words she had heard before as Erik doubted a girl of her age understood the concept of honor.

Emily arched a brow at Alex, who sighed and rose from the sofa himself, leaning heavily on his cane.

"Don't laugh, Madame Arnaud," he reprimanded his wife, his voice serious.

"I did not laugh," the woman replied honestly.

"I hear your inner laughter, Emily," he murmured, his tone softer now. Without a second glance he turned to the little girl. "I'll escort you two because I know you may keep him in your room forever and Erik knows he has other obligations for the evening." He threw a glance at the grand piano on the other side of the room where they had all gathered after supper as he gripped Ana's free hand.

"I'm so relieved I'm talentless," Erik heard Bertillon mutter under his breath. The sound of the ladies' laughter faded as the group of three strode towards the stairs.

"What do you want from Erik, little squirrel?"

"I'm not a squirrel!" declared Ana, insulted.

"You like nuts, fruits and mushrooms. You are a squirrel," Alex argued in a serious tone.

"I am a girl!"

"Who says?"

"I say!"

"You climbed that tree when your mother specifically told you not to and you descended head-first. That's what squirrels do. Until you start listening to your mother you'll be a squirrel."

"Papa‒" she complained, pouting.

"And that is not the worst you can be. Beware!"

"Papa‒" she raised her arms expectantly, and Arnaud gestured to Erik to lift the hand he was holding. Arnaud did the same and as they both lifted her, Ana found herself a few inches above the ground. She pulled her feet up to make the distance higher and asked them for more.

They ascended the stairs to the second floor in that fashion, with Ana, giggling and laughing, mostly in the air and only setting foot on a few steps here and there before she ordered, "More flying!" or "Higher!" Erik had a sudden suspicion that Alexander had followed them just to give Ana her "flying" game.

The girl's laughter was pure music but Ana had the peculiar idea that she should jump every time she stepped on the ground to give more push to her "flying". Erik couldn't begin to imagine what that game meant to Alex's knee. The man was smiling, focused on "the little frog," but he caught him wincing at times. No, being a father was hard work. He was too old for that. Worrying about James was enough. A child had a million needs he couldn't begin to fathom. He was lucky in his present life. Absolutely lucky. Bertillon may have had no chance to fight against change, but why should he risk change when his life was so perfect?

"I'll prepare Ana for bed," a girl no more than sixteen years old offered, taking Ana's hand when they entered her room, her eyes locked on the child in an earnest attempt not to stare at his mask. As the two girls retreated to another room Erik thought bitterly of the various instructions the Arnauds must have given to their staff before the arrival of their peculiar party.

"I want to speak to Erik privately," Ana shouted. Obviously "privately" was a new word for her, for every time she used it she emphasized it in her rather adorable way of singing its syllables. Or perhaps she just liked the sound of "privately". Not a bad word overall. With all the "r" and "l" sounds…it was rather melodic. Erik shook his head. No, having a child would be highly distracting.

"Get in bed and summon us, little squirrel.'

Arnaud pointed to an armchair in the small sitting room and almost collapsed on the sofa, lifting his hurt knee onto the brocade fabric.

Erik declined the offer and moved around, taking in the paintings, the books, the furniture. Ana's rooms were the rooms of a young lady. The bastide had been renovated a few years ago and had comforts similar to Alexander's apartment in Cannes or any of his other estates. And this was a room fitting for a mademoiselle. Maybe Erik wasn't the only one treating a child as someone older than her age. He suddenly felt better about all the things he had said and done to James.

"Christine wants a child." The words escaped his mouth of their own accord. "She wants us to visit that orphanage in Athens‒" he clarified even though there was no need. The Arnauds knew of the miscarriage and the physicians' predictions.

"Don't look at me as if it's my fault! I only asked you to visit and check some numbers for me. You'll visit La Piccola Scala in Hermoupolis this summer anyway." Erik was already aware of Alexander's suspicions about the director of the orphanage. A stop in Athens wouldn't take them more than a few days. But this was hardly the point.

"I can't go pick a child as if I'm one of those charity ladies visiting this house of yours."

"It's not mine."

"You fund it. I can't select a child as if I'm an old crone buying laces and ribbons. And I am old for that‒" He took a deep breath. "James picked me. He chose me. I had no choice."

"What does Christine say?"

"Christine wants a family. She likes singing, she likes what we do, our life, but she always wanted a family, you know that. That was that man's grip on her." The mere words brought a bitter taste to his mouth. "I'm perfectly satisfied just as we are now. I want nothing more. She always was enough for me." But was he enough for her? Why else did she want that child?

"I don't think it's a matter of being or not being enough. What do you want?"

"I only need Christine." He knew he sounded childish. "But I need her to be happy. Why does she have to need this child?" At times he felt despair. He wanted to give her everything she wanted but he was afraid. He wasn't easy to live with. He was constantly grumpy, impatient, obsessively focused on only two things: Christine and music. What if the child was scared of him? Or hated him? Wouldn't Christine start to see him through the child's eyes?

Would he start to be jealous of the child? Of Christine's attention to him? He was no saint. And he was a jealous man. Even Emily at times seemed jealous of Alexander's attention to Ana. He looked at Alex but kept his mouth shut.

"I think it is not a matter of who needs what. I think Christine wants you to want it ‒ having a child, a family with her‒ as much as she does."

Erik looked at him, stunned. He was a man, she was a woman. Was it even possible for him to want a child as much as Christine did? Alexander seemed very much involved with Ana. Yet, not all children were like Ana. Alexander was lucky.

"But that's not realistic," he murmured.

"Who has realistic dreams? What's the use of them?"

"Ana is ready," the girl said from the door. Both men got up, but she looked at her employer and hesitated before adding, "She said only Monsieur Rochelle should enter."

Arnaud nodded and the girl rushed to vanish into yet a third door.

"I see that a very squirrel-ish discrimination is taking place here. You favor Erik, or am I mistaken?" he asked loudly at the doorway as Erik stepped inside the room.

"The child has good judgment," he whispered only for Alexander to hear.

"If I could mimic all those different voices, I might have been a favorite, too."

"Erik promised, Papa." Her mock-weary tone reminded him of Emily, and Erik wondered what the future held for them with that child. He didn't dare predict.

"Don't ask me again to have tea with you here."

Erik threw a glance over his shoulder and through the open door saw Arnaud settle into the armchair closest to the room.

"Eavesdropping is not polite, Alex," he threw his voice straight to the man's ear and all he got was an indifferent shrug.

"Papa never drinks tea unless he has a sore throat," Ana informed him as if that were the most interesting thing in the world. "He had one once and it was so funny. His nose was red and his eyes ran‒" Alex's disapproving snort reached them. "It wasn't tears. I asked. But he drinks tea with me. Or coffee. He says he doesn't have enough English blood to like tea but I have, so I must drink. My ear was achy three ‒ no, four weeks‒ ago but I'm fine now. Tomorrow I'll stay with you after supper. I'll listen to Aunt Christine sing and I won't go to sleep early‒" she carried on and on, changing the subject with alarming speed, and Erik could have sworn he heard light snoring from the other room. Had Alex fallen asleep? But Ana was looking at him, her big eyes wide, filled with enthusiasm, focused only on him, so he didn't dare turn and check.

"Mama says children don't dine with guests, but I don't know why. I promised I won't talk ‒Marietta tells me I talk all the time, but that is a lie! Tomorrow I'll stay till very, very, very late because it's my name day and Galateia can do nothing about it." She waved her hand in a gesture of dismissal identical to what Alexander often did and Erik couldn't restrain a smile.

"You're such a refined mademoiselle."

She raised her hands towards his neck to make him bend his head.

"When I was younger there was no tea in my cup when Papa joined me for tea," she whispered in his ear, her small hands wrapped around his neck. "I pretended there was," she confided before she released him.

"You know everyone gave me something for my treasure hunt tomorrow." She reached under her pillows behind her back and brought out a wooden box. She opened it, slowly, reverently, as if revealing something sacred, but all Erik saw was an embroidered handkerchief, a pair of yellow glasses, a scarf, a tobacco box, a brush, a thimble and a watch.

"That's Aunt Christine's scarf‒" she informed him as if he hadn't already recognized it.

"Aunt Christine and her scarves‒" His voice faded as he stroked the thin material with his fingers. Silk. He'd bet it still had her scent.

"You have to give me something, too, Erik. Even Aristeide gave me this‒" Her fingers traced the design over the old man's silver tobacco box.

Erik looked around the room, searching for an inspiration. This was certainly a little girl's room. His stare focused on the dollhouse, an exact replica of the bastide, a true artwork Alexander had commissioned for his daughter, no doubt.

He saw Alex's office, a small-scale copy of the real one, all details accurate from the wallpaper to the desk and the pens on top.

"I can bring you my pen. I don't have it with me now‒"

"It has to be a treasure!" she muttered, her voice filled with child's exasperation, and Erik refrained from expressing an opinion about how much of a treasure a silk scarf was for a woman who had dozens of them.

Ana lifted her hand until her fingers touched his mask.

"I want this."

"This is not a toy, Ana." He tried to regulate the reproach in his tone.

"It's a prop," the insolent child replied and Erik held his breath, half-irritated, half-impressed with her reply. How could she know of the word? Or use it like that?

"I'll give you my comb," she offered as a bargain.

"When you offer a bargain you have to tempt the other party. I have no use of a comb."

She looked at his shorn head. Since they had moved to Italy he had quit wigs, keeping his hair cropped close to his scalp. New masks, wider, covering most of the scarred skin on the side of his head made wigs obsolete. More than convenience, it was Christine that made the change necessary. She tended to brush her hand over his nape, even his wig, an absentminded caress during the day that Erik wanted to feel at its fullest. It was his.

"I want to wear it!" Ana's stubborn tone brought him back to reality.

"Little girls do not wear masks."

"Then I have to grow up to wear it? My birthday is in four weeks. I was born five years ago." She showed him her open palm, five stretched fingers.

"I know, I was there."

"And you are my godfather. You have to give me your mask. Everyone gave me their most favorite thing. These are the most favorite things from my most favorite people in the whole world."

Erik couldn't help smile at the wideness of that world.

"I can give you my pin." He moved his cold fingers to his cravat pin.

"No. I want your mask! This is a treasure hunt. You have many pins. They gave me their treasures‒" She looked at him, puzzled her smart godfather could not understand something that seemed so self-explanatory to her.

Erik thought he had many masks, too, but kept his mouth shut, taking in Ana's frown. He had obviously ruined her treasure hunt. Guilt was an unfamiliar emotion but not strong enough to shake him.

"I want you to call her Nellie."

Erik tilted his head, waiting, knowing there was a whole new story coming, deeply relieved they had left the mask topic aside.

"Will you go to that place where children live all together? I want you to choose a girl and name her Nellie. That way I will have someone to play with when we come to your house. I heard you talking about it that night‒"

"Ana, you shouldn't eavesdrop when adults talk."

"Will I go to the dark place where bad girls live all alone? Marietta told me it's very dark and smelly." Ana wrinkled her nose and Erik thought he should have a talk with Alex about Marietta.

"There is no such place, Ana. Marietta doesn't know what she's talking about."

"What is worse? Listening to Mama and Papa talking at night or lying?" Ana sounded ready to negotiate.

"A good girl should do neither."

"You have to choose a girl! I heard that children in the poorhouse don't have a mother or a father. How can that be? Everyone has a mama and a papa. Mr. Bubbles' mama is Josephine and Papa showed me his father but he warned me not to go near him because he is a trained hound, and I didn't. But then, one day Mr. Bubbles' papa had to leave. Aristeide sent him to hunt far away and he's a very busy dog. Papa is traveling a lot, too. He is very busy but he always comes back. Mr. Bubbles misses his papa." Her voice had turned low. Erik had a hunch Mr. Bubbles' father was not coming back any time soon.

"How can these children not have a mama and a papa?"

She looked at him, waiting for an answer.

Erik opened his mouth but couldn't bring himself to explain. How could he talk to a little girl like Ana about poverty, military coups or governments changing again and again, leaving men poorer and poorer? How could he talk to a child about a state less than sixty years old, about war or shifting borders?

"I have Mama, Papa, and you are my godfather and Aunt Christine is your wife and James is family, but you are too far away. Galateia and Aristeide are always here‒" she counted with her little fingers and suddenly it dawned on him. In her eyes he saw the fear of abandonment, the confusion, the inability to conceive how a child could be in the world alone. Erik brushed his cold fingers over Ana's blonde hair.

"You will never be alone, Ana. As for those children, your father sees to them. They have people taking care of them‒"

"You have to save that girl, Erik. She must be very lonely." Her words filled the room for a while, sank in and landed on his chest like a dead weight until Ana yawned and raised her hand to his mask again. "Give it to me‒"

She couldn't possibly understand his worst fear. Ana just wanted the mask for her treasure hunt but he couldn't let a child see his face. He closed his eyes, imagining the shrieks traveling all the way to the ground floor, Emily rushing to console her daughter, Christine feeling awful for his sake. He slowly opened his eyes and shook his head in denial. He couldn't let Ana have nightmares about him.

"I will give you another one tomorrow morning," he compromised.

"I want to see this." Ana's familiar stubborn tone flared his temper.

"Take it off, Erik," Alexander's voice urged him from the doorway.

"I can't. You know why‒" he mumbled, his eyes locked on Ana. He moved to stand but the man's hand landed on his shoulder, keeping him in place.

"I know why you think you can't." His tone was soft as it was when he wanted to coax Mercury into something. How dare he treat him like a frightened, agitated animal? "Erik‒" he urged him again.

This was beyond logic or reason. Erik used his anger to help keep himself under control. If the man was willing to scare his daughter, have her confront the face of death in her idyllic girl's room….

He slowly unlaced the mask, giving time to father and daughter to call the whole disastrous idea off, but when nothing happened he left it on Ana's lap over the covers, his eyes focused on the damn thing, unwilling to meet his goddaughter's eyes.

When the shrieks he'd expected didn't come he was forced to look at her, examine her stunned state, but Ana looked more curious ‒ very curious ‒ than stunned.

The girl stole a glance over his shoulder, at her father, but Erik found himself unable to move a muscle.

"Is it achy?" Ana asked him in a whisper after what felt like hours but must have been no more than minutes. Seconds?

He shook his head in denial.

"Not even here?" Her warm hand traced a protruding bump on his temple. He knew that one. How could he not? It was red and ugly and disgusting.

"If it hurts, Galateia will make it better. When I had an achy ear she made it better. She made Mr. Bubbles better when hot water from the pot fell on his leg. But he still has the scar."

Her hand stroked a deep scar on his scalp and ended on the other side of his shorn head. She giggled softly as if the hair tickled her.

"It's like pine needles," she said, the smile on her face unwavering. "Eliane brought me that," she said, glancing at an ornament lying on a chest of drawers. It was made of cones and ribbons. "She made it herself and some of the cones are gold!" the girl offered with enthusiasm. "Papa promised he will hang it from the beam." She looked at her father and then at him again, obviously satisfied that the promise would be kept.

Erik kept his gaze locked on her, puzzled. His deformity was not accepted in the world of narrow-minded adults. Was a child's world wide enough to accept it? Accept him?

Her palm found another red, disgusting bump.

"Does it change color?"

Erik had a hunch that if his face changed colors it would be more interesting for the child but he didn't lie to her. He just shook his head in denial.

"You do the tricks with your voice because of your face?"

It was a strange train of thought he didn't bother trying to unravel.


"Will you teach me? The tricks," she explained when he remained silent. When had they gotten there?

"I'm not sure I can," he replied truthfully, suddenly feeling exhausted.

"Does it do anything? Does it have any magic powers like the fairy in the lake or Papa's cane?"

"No, it's just a face." Erik frowned at his own choice of words and chose silence when it came to Alexander's magic cane. Now Ana was focused on the mask, obviously more interesting than a mass of scarred flesh. Her fingers slid through the eye holes, testing the mask's texture, then raised it to her face, and she smiled to him behind it before she placed it carefully into her box.

"Ana, give that back to Erik and he'll bring it to you tomorrow."

"But, Papa‒" The girl looked at her father, disappointment evident on her face, but what she saw there stopped her mid-sentence. "Promise?"

"Promise," Erik said and quickly donned the mask, allowing himself to take a deep breath in its solace.

He was ready to leave Ana's rooms altogether when Alex's voice stopped him at the door.


Erik glowered at the man but Alex followed him down the corridor.

"What were you thinking?" He imagined Ana's hands on the skull-like part of his face and shuddered. He knew what he looked like, the image was pure sacrilege. "Having your daughter stare at the face of Death‒"

"Ana has no concept of death, or prejudice. You are her godfather and she loves you."

It was true, no matter how difficult to comprehend on first thought. Alexander had kept Ana in that bubble of innocence Erik had never experienced as a child. In a way he was right: if Alex wanted his daughter to accept her godfather for who he was, this was the right time.

"What if she has nightmares?"

"She won't, but Emily and I will check on her. Did you see her? She's unstoppable." Pride lit his green eyes.

"But what if she had been scared?"

"Ana should be afraid of nothing." Alex sounded adamant before his tone changed again and a wicked smile appeared on his face. "Much less a talented‒ I have to admit‒ composer whose genius competes with his tendency for self-doubt." He shook his head in disapproval as if Erik were some sensitive mademoiselle trying to draw attention to herself.

"I know what you're trying to do but you said it yourself. Ana is my goddaughter. She loves me. She's a rare child, extremely intelligent, very mature for her age."

Being around only adults affected her, but Erik didn't comment on that.

"A happy child is a miracle on its own, Erik. A cure," Alex said, descending the stairs. "Come on! You have a duty for the evening. Your wife needs an accompanist."

"Eliane is so lovely," Christine muttered, brushing her hair. "Emily is right. She's such a sweet girl‒"

"Is that so?" Erik challenged, taking the brush from her hands.

He doubted he'd heard the woman's voice the whole night. Objectively, she was one of the most beautiful women he'd seen in his life. He wondered if Bertillon had seen Botticelli's painting, The Birth of Venus, in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze. Her face was almost identical to the goddess' but Madame Bertillon looked as if she was shy about that very beauty. Or shy in general.

"I hope there is more to her than her good looks, or Bertillon should be prepared for a very boring marriage‒ something I yearn for from time to time."

Christine made a face at him but he shrugged and kept on brushing her chestnut locks.

"If that marriage fails, it'll be his fault. Bertillon has no sense of humor. I'm not sure he's a good match for her."

"First, you were apprehensive about Eliane and now you don't approve of Étienne as a suitable match for her?" He shot a glance at her reflection in the large mirror, incredulous.

"You know I tend to change my opinion about people."

"I'm aware of that," he replied in the most serious, humorless tone he could muster.

"I have personal experience in the matter."

"That also means that I give second chances to people for them to change my first rather…unflattering opinion," she replied in her Prima Donna's tone.

Erik chose silence but couldn't restrain a smile.

"She's so beautiful, like those porcelain dolls with the wide, sad eyes and the rosy lips. She's so petite‒"

"You are petite, too, Madame Rochelle."

"She's so young!"

"You are young."

"I'm a woman. She still looks like a girl."

"My woman," he said possessively, focusing on the part that interested him the most in that particular conversation.

"Your woman," she repeated, smiling reassuringly, "but not a girl anymore. Soon, I'll be thirty years old, Erik." Her voice had turned lower as if she were revealing a secret.

"Oh, very old indeed," he teased her.

"Eliane looks so young and fragile, hardly talking. Did you see the way she grabbed Bertillon's cuff when he was about to leave the room?"

"You are very observant. I'm afraid I was more focused on another woman in the room."

"Bertillon is so stiff‒" She sounded honestly worried. "He has that constant grimace on his face as if he disapproves of everything or someone is boiling cauliflower just under his nose."

Erik snorted but then heard himself laughing at the image she'd drawn.

"He can't help it, Christine. He wasn't always like that. You wouldn't believe the success he had when he first arrived in Paris, and he was always very down-to-earth. He was a good friend."

"If he's such a good friend to you and Alex why didn't he help us six years ago? Alex rushed to your side when you called him."

"He was… indisposed," he offered, determined not to say more.

"He hardly talks."

"I'm a man of few words myself."

"You have music, Erik. No words can compare to that!" She tilted her head to give him better access to her hair. "He always sits in the shadows as if he wants to scare people with these weird eyes of his. Once I caught him looking at me I felt a shiver down my spine." Christine shuddered to show him, and Erik's lips curled into a smile. Over the years her acting skills had improved. It was a pity she wasn't performing on a big stage.

"When you say 'caught him looking at you' you mean when he answered your question about the last play they attended, or was he staring at my wife and will I have to find‒"

"No, that one time," she replied tiredly, unperturbed by his implied threats. "He's a rather …single-minded man if you know what I mean."

"I'd call that focused but‒"

"He doesn't like the theater!" she exclaimed, interrupting him. "He's single-minded," she concluded adamantly, removing her pearl earrings and placing them in her jewelry case‒ the one she used when they traveled. The lid fell with a dull thud, sealing her verdict about Étienne Bertillon.

"That's a flaw," Erik admitted honestly. "But Alexander doesn't like the opera and you don't hold it against him!"

"At least he likes theater! I've never seen two people more different than Alexander and Bertillon."

"I like variety in friends." He concentrated on a tangle in her hair.

"Bertillon is too old for Eliane."

"Étienne is younger than I am. Quite younger!"

"He looks so stiff and gruff. Such a brute! I heard him instructing the maid for the curtains and the shutters in his room to be always closed. What does he have against fresh air‒?"

"It's December‒"

"‒or against light? No, he is just stiff‒"

"He does make me look good, then. I thought I was the brutish one‒"

"Oh, Erik, how can you say that?" Amazingly, since he was only joking, she took his hands in her own and looked him hard in the eyes. "You are always a gentleman with everyone, even if you just pretend not to be or mock people at times‒"

"The very definition of a gentleman." Sarcasm laced his voice as he left the brush aside.

"You're always so elegant, so polite even when I know you're bored out of your wits. Bertillon is nothing like you. He lacks that air, that polish‒"

"He's had a rough life."

"Quite rough. Son of a wealthy father who left him a chateau and who knows what else‒"

"Christine, you're being unfair again. He's made his own fortune and he's very accomplished."

"And since when is this a guarantee of a happy marriage?" He had to admit that she had a point. "She's too young and way too beautiful for this match to be successful."

"Those are the most absurd words I've heard you say." He took a step back and deliberately pointed at his mask, "And it's not that I don't have a plethora of unfortunate statements to select from‒"

"Me? When have I been absurd?"

"What period of our relationship do you want me to dig into?"

"I'd never compel you to recall ancient history‒" She arched a perfect little brow, challenging him.

"'Erik, as an anniversary present I want to cook a dinner for you all by myself'," he mimicked her tone.

"I did that!"

"And you weren't able to use your left hand for a week."

"It's not my fault the pot exploded!" She left her chair in front of the mirror to stand before him, her hand on her hip, ready for battle against the injustice of his accusation.

"I doubt this is how Antonia remembers the scene," Erik whispered and turned her to run his fingers through her hair, the final test that her curls were well-combed and she was ready for bed. He often noticed the juxtaposition of the bony fingers against the fine silk of her strands. The contrast was devastating but she never seemed to mind. Never seemed to notice, to be accurate.

"She should have warned me about water spilled in boiling oil. The dinner got totally cold before we were able to eat," Christine went on, oblivious to his thoughts.

"And that was the least of our problems that night."

"You can't hold my good intentions against me."

"Then how about 'I'm certain, Erik, you'll have no problem composing that piece for Signor Canoletti's 70th birthday celebration in one week's time'. Do you remember that?"

"Are you accusing me of being supportive? After all, I added 'if anyone can do it, that is you!'" She turned to face him. He shouldn't hold his breath every time she absentmindedly lifted her hands and unlaced his mask. He should be used to it by now.

"I won't comment on that." He watched her toss his mask beside her jewelry box.

"Because you have nothing to say!"

"I've got plenty to say, as you should have done if you were truly supportive. You just should have mentioned that Signor Canoletti is a senile old man who changes his mind every few seconds. I wrote three different compositions and he doesn't know how close he's been to actually needing a requiem."

"He's such a sweet man‒"

"Him you like!" He sighed. "There is no point to this discussion. I'll just wait for you to change your mind about Étienne the way you did about Emily‒ you had accused me of being Ana's father, for God's sake‒"

"And you became her godfather! I call that intuition."

He looked at the maddening woman, stunned. Her sparkling eyes, her lips curling, challenging, tempting him, her wild hair around her head, her thin, lacy chemise. He knew, they both knew, where this would end up and, once more that day, he couldn't believe his unbelievable luck.

"How about 'I came to England to work in your household'? How's that for an absurd statement?" he went on with their game.

"Absurd, indeed, especially considering that Emily rarely allowed me to do anything at the Red Door Cottage, but look where it got us." There was a smug, satisfied smile on her face.

"So you're not way too young and way too beautiful for me?" he challenged her previous words addressed to the Bertillon couple.

"I'm exactly as young and as beautiful as I should be and we're a successful match. There is no question about that."

She brushed her fingers through his cropped hair, dragging him closer. Her other hand rested on his chest, and her palm slid along his shirt until her index finger curled in a buttonhole of his open waistcoat.

Erik bent his head, focusing on the violet eyes.

"Christine, what do you think of the name 'Nellie'?"

So, what do you think? Don't be shy… ;-) This is a huge step for Erik and it doesn't feel like an ending, does it? (The kind of HEA I like…)

Thank you for reading this and thank you for your reviews.

My favorite FF feature is the chart showing the readers' countries. I feel as if I'm part of a huge global party (with Arnaud being the indisputable host and Erik the absolute guest.) I see views from the States, the UK, Germany, Mexico, Canada, Spain, Sweden, Italy, Australia, Norway, Poland, Ireland, Chech Revar, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Philippines, Greece, China, Netherlands, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong! (Perhaps I missed one or two more...)
I wonder… could Leroux imagine such a gathering possible just for his hero?

Last but not least -especially if you managed to read all this A/N ramblings- if you like this story, The Chain Unbroken, leave a review on your way away of it. It helps other people to find it (or stay away from it-that's important, too) and it warms the heart of the one who wrote it (yes, I wrote it but I tried not to appear so selfish…)

Whatever happens I hope Life treats you well!