"More costumes at such short notice?" said Madame Michon, standing amidst the chaos of the wardrobe department with her hands on her ample hips. Behind her girls were running back and forth with arms full of fabric and tulle, sequins and appliqués glittering in the lamplight. They all looked harried and exhausted, doubtless working all hours to get the designs ready in time; the managers, Monsieur Marigny evidently having been persuaded to part with some cash, had ordered new costumes for all those taking part in the staged sections of the gala and the bird-inspired gown intended for Teddy as Papagena in her duet with Alphonse was evidently taking a long time to perfect. "I'm sorry, Monsieur, but we have too much to do; there's only a week until the gala after all!"

Erik tried his most persuasive smile. "I am well aware of that, Madame, but if you can oblige me on this small matter - "

"Small, he says!" the wardrobe mistress snorted, and some of the others nodded in agreement.

" – I will be in your debt," Erik finished. "The costumes do not need to be elaborate."

"Three black cloaks with hoods will do," Christine assured her. "We have some of those in storage, do we not? The girls can take care of their own make-up. We will be so, so grateful, Madame."

"We all know how hard you and your seamstresses work," said Erik, his voice silky and smooth, capable of worming its way right into a woman's heart. Christine knew well the effect it could have. "You do not get the recognition you deserve. Perhaps I could speak to the managers on your behalf, see if something can be done about extra help..."

Madame Michon's stern expression faltered, her lips twitching. She threw up her hands in defeat. "Oh, very well, I will see what I can do," she agreed, adding as she turned back to the pile of gowns on the table behind her, "I am not promising anything, mind."

"Of course." Erik gave her a courtly bow which made her blush and mutter to herself; as they left the workroom they almost ran into Teddy Merriman, who was looking somewhat flustered, her hat coming unpinned and her fur stole hanging off of one arm. She was pale beneath the rogue that highlighted her cheeks.

"Oh, Maestro, there you are," she cried, evidently relieved to see him. "I've been looking all over for you. Can we talk? I have a little problem with my voice coach."

Erik frowned. "Whatever is the matter?" he asked, offering her an arm and shooting Christine an apologetic glance as he let Theodora lead him off down the corridor. Teddy gave her a weak smile when she nodded, giving her permission for the Prima Donna to steal her husband for a few moments. They turned the corner but Christine could just hear Teddy saying in a worried tone,

"He has raging influenza, and I was only there last week. I can feel my throat getting scratchy already; it's a complete disaster..!"

"Christine!" Meg was suddenly at her side and the rest of the conversation was lost. The little ballerina was bouncing on the balls of her feet and her eyes were alight with glee which could only mean one thing. "I've had a fantastic idea!"

"So have I," Christine said, unconsciously interrupting; she quickly outlined her plan for Erik's performance and Meg looked surprised. "I know it would make him much more comfortable if he were not the only one in the spotlight. Do you think you could come up with something in such a short time?"

"Dancing skeletons?" Meg wrinkled her nose. "I can try, I suppose. Have you asked Maman?"

"No, she has too much to do; I don't want to bother her. Wouldn't you like to make your debut as a choreographer?"

"Well, when you put it like that..." said Meg with a grin. "Who do you want me to cast? Giselle is a featherbrain but she can dance like an angel when she wants to. Jeanette is good, too, and Laure - "

"I'd love it if you could include Hortense," Christine told her; Little Giry's face fell so she added swiftly, "I know you don't like her but if I can forgive her nasty behaviour you can too. She dances well and it would raise her spirits, something she is in sore need of at the moment."

Meg looked at her friend suspiciously. "Do you know something I don't? Oh, never mind," she said before Christine could reply. "I'll cast her if that's what you want. But she had better not cheek me when I'm giving her direction."

"Oh, thank you, Meg. I promise I'll repay you," Christine said, giving the little ballerina an impulsive hug. Meg looked at her expectantly and she suddenly remembered that she had not given her friend a chance to speak. Her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh, I'm sorry, I talked straight over you; how rude of me! What was your idea?"

The gleam returned to Meg's eye. "I think it may just be the best idea I've ever had," she declared proudly, and pulled an envelope from the front of her bodice which she held out. "Sorry if it's a bit warm; there was nowhere else to hide it and I didn't want Maman to see."

"What is it?" Christine asked, turning the envelope over. It wasn't sealed, so she opened it and withdrew what appeared to be the receipt that usually accompanied a ticket for a performance. Incredibly, it wasn't a ticket for any old show, but for the front row, a very coveted seat, at the forthcoming patron's gala! Her mouth dropped open and she stared at the other girl in amazement. "Meg, where did you get this?"

"I had to ask Monsieur Fontaine very nicely. I haven't checked but I think it's a good seat," Meg said, adding, "Well, I know we're not really allowed complimentary tickets but when I ladled it on a bit thick and told him it was for a relative you hadn't seen in years who was just dying to see you perform he was like putty in my hands. I didn't even have to flutter my eyelashes or give him a deliberate flash of leg. It is a good idea, isn't it?"

Confused, Christine covered her eyes with one hand. "I don't think I understand," she moaned. "Who is this for?"

Meg replied in a tone that suggested she thought it should be obvious, "Erik's mother, of course. Don't you think it's a wonderful idea to invite her to the gala?"

"Erik's..." Christine's hand dropped and she stared at her friend in mounting horror. Realising that she had pulled no ticket from the envelope, just the receipt, she quickly turned it upside down and shook it frantically; nothing fell out. It was empty. Her heart beating so hard against her ribcage that it actually hurt, she grabbed Meg by the arm and pulled her into the nearest dressing room. Closing the door behind them she demanded, "Where is the ticket? Please tell me you haven't already sent it to Angelique - !"

"Of course." Meg blinked at her, perplexed. "What are you getting so worked up about? I think it's the perfect solution; she gets to see what a wonderfully talented son and daughter-in-law she has and you don't have to lie to Erik or make any promises to meet her. Everybody wins!"

"Meg Giry, you will be the death of me," Christine groaned, sinking down on a nearby chair.

Slightly annoyed, Meg folded her arms and leaned against the wall. "I'm overwhelmed by your gratitude," she said tartly."I only sent it because I knew you wouldn't."

"With very good reason! What do you think Erik will do when he finds out?" Christine asked, her tone equally sharp. "If he doesn't kill me outright he'll march straight down to the nearest courtroom and file for divorce!"

"Don't be so ridiculous; Erik worships you. The house by the lake is practically a shrine."

Christine bristled. "I'm not exactly happy being on a pedestal, but at the same time I'd rather not fall off if I can help it. How would you feel if someone you loved lied to you about something so serious?"

"Oh, for goodness's sake! As if you two haven't lied through your teeth for months," Meg scoffed. "I'm surprised your nose hasn't grown like the puppet in that children's story!"

"We weren't lying, we were bending the truth," Christine said defensively, resenting being compared to Pinocchio.

Meg gave an exasperated sigh. "And that's all you'll be doing here," she insisted. "You don't have to lie to Erik, just don't tell him."

"I thought you were the one who wanted me to tell him; secrets are poisonous, remember?"

"Well, you obviously haven't broached the subject," the little ballerina pointed out. "Someone had to make a move before things got any more complicated."

Christine put her head in her hands, the empty envelope fluttering to the floor between her feet. It lay there, as though mocking her, and she fought the urge to crush it beneath her heel. "I know you mean well, Meg," she said, her voice muffled, "but I sincerely hope you haven't ended my marriage before it has hardly even begun."

She felt the chair beside her creak as her friend perched there. "If Erik loves you as much as he claims, he'll forgive you," Meg told her. "He has to."

Christine wished she could share Meg's confidence. She knew that Erik loved her more than anything else in the world, but some transgressions were just too great and she had a terrible feeling that this might just be one of them.

Not required at present for rehearsal Christine wandered the theatre lost in thought.

She was acutely aware that she needed to tell Erik about his mother's reappearance, that he deserved to know even if the news made him even more determined to have no contact with the woman who had never shown him even the smallest kindness. Such a reaction would be completely understandable and it seemed that Angelique even expected it herself, but somewhere deep inside Christine did not want him to dismiss his own flesh and blood out of hand. She had never known her mother and missed her father terribly even after six years; she could not bear the thought that Erik might in anger throw away his only chance to make peace with the past. Once someone was gone from the world it was too late; there was no place for regrets, no opportunity to do things differently, to take back harsh words and deeds, there was only hindsight and the fervent wish that circumstances might be altered.

There was cold air on her face and she realised she had found her way to the roof; stepping out of the door onto the leads Christine made her careful way towards Apollo and stood there in his shadow, gazing out over Paris. The city looked grey and forlorn, the houses washed out by the strange, silvery afternoon light; above them dark clouds were banking up, threatening more rain. Shivering, she pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders. What was she to do?

She would tell him, she decided. Meg had all but forced her hand, and she knew that she could not live on this knife edge, wracked with guilt and terrified that Erik might find out before she had a chance to explain. Lying was not something she enjoyed, she hated going against God's word and behind her husband's back; that she had done so thus far was only to protect him, she told herself. Though he had calmed considerably over the past few months, something he put down to her soothing presence, his temper was still a thing to be feared and though she had been truthful when she told Raoul that Erik would never deliberately hurt her she could not deny deep down in her heart of hearts that in a rage it was possible he might not be truly aware of his actions. He was gradually taming the darkness but it was still there inside him, and no matter how much she loved him and hated herself for it that darkness still had the power to frighten her.

She would have to be brave.

"We have a problem," Erik said, approaching Christine and Marie Durant as they sat in the stalls, watching Monsieur Reyer rehearse the orchestra. "Theodora is ill. I have sent her home with the managers' agreement to rest and take care of her voice; if she tries to sing it will probably cause irreparable damage."

"Oh, the poor thing!" Marie exclaimed. "I will send her some honey and lemons; they are very good for the throat. She did not look well when I saw her this morning; it was so unusual for her not to be full of cheer, even at the start of the day."

"What will you do?" Christine asked. Teddy was due to star along with Alphonse in one of the set-pieces of the gala: the Pa- Pa- Pa- duet from The Magic Flute between the bird-catcher Papageno and his love. The relatively small part of Papagena would usually be taken by one of the ladies of the chorus but the duet was well-loved and the patrons and their guests would be expecting to hear the Prima Donna show off her range; Teddy was also to have sung the Queen of the Night from the same opera, a role that was notoriously difficult and within the capabilities of only a few coloratura sopranos.

Erik was looking flustered, something that was highly unusual for him. "I have spoken to Madame Michon and she says the Papagena gown can be altered to fit you; if you go down to the wardrobe room they will see what can be done. When you have finished, I will need both you and Monsieur Renard back here to go through the piece. It is fortunate that we have sung it several times in the past."

Christine blinked. "You want me to take Teddy's place?"

"Did I not say so?" he snapped irritably, and almost immediately looked contrite, pinching the bridge of his nose as best he could without removing his mask. "I am sorry, mon ange. Yes, it would help me enormously if you would step into Theodora's shoes. You are her understudy, after all, and I know of no one else who could."

"In that case, I will be happy to oblige. But what of my aria? Are we to abandon it?"

"I will move it to an earlier point in the set to leave you with plenty of time to rest before you sing again." Erik rubbed wearily at the visible side of his face. "It is at moments like this that I wish I had never agreed to take this mess on. It is falling apart about my ears!"

"I think you're doing very well," Marie assured him. "Monsieur Reyer would be tearing his hair out by now."

"He is," Erik replied with a very faint smile. "He just keeps the bald patches under his hat."

"Why don't you come and sit down for a few minutes?" Christine suggested. His undisturbed slumber the previous night evidently had little effect for he looked exhausted, a dark smudge below his eye. She felt a pang of guilt that she would have to drop such a bombshell on him when he was so stressed. "You're going to run yourself into the ground."

He shook his head. "I have to go home and pick up a few things," he said, already moving away up the aisle. "Madame Michon is waiting for you; I'll see you later for rehearsal, and I'll bring back your cloak. The heavens look ready to open at any moment and I don't want you catching a chill."

"Will we be able to eat early this evening?" she called after him. "I need to talk to you!"

"It's doubtful; I must run through my ideas for the Danse Macabre segment with Meg. You're welcome to stay and help, or I can ask Antoinette to accompany you home; if she's not working late, that is," Erik added as he vanished through the main door that led to the grand salons and the foyer.

"Erik!" Christine shouted. "Erik, come back!"

"I'll share a cab with you later if you like," Marie offered. "My aunt lives not far from Neuilly and I've been promising to visit her for weeks." She paused, peering at her companion in concern when she received no response. "Christine, are you all right?"

"What? Oh, sorry, Marie. That would be lovely, thank you," Christine said, gathering up her skirts and moving awkwardly from her seat. Once free it was all she could do not to run up the aisle after her husband, for she had just realised the implication of his innocent desire to keep her warm and dry. 'I'll bring back your cloak...' Oh, God, her cloak! The snake charmer was still in the pocket..! "I'll meet you later!" she called to Marie and set off as fast as her legs would carry her, hoping to catch Erik before he left the theatre. There was no sign of him in the corridor and she cursed his ability to disappear so completely.

Jacques was in the porter's box when she arrived, flushed and breathless, at the stage door. Without looking at her he turned a page of his newspaper and said, "You've just missed him."

"Oh, Jacques, why didn't you stop him?" Christine cried.

"Why should I? Man's got a right to go where he pleases, and I'm not yer husband's keeper," the old man grumbled.

For a moment she considered hailing a cab of her own and giving chase but the rational side of her mind kicked in and told her it would be pointless. She would never reach the house before him. Fighting back tears Christine turned back, shoulders slumped in defeat, and made her way towards her dressing room. She wondered how long she had before the inevitable storm broke.

The rest of the day passed with agonising slowness. Christine was torn between desperately wanting it to end and hoping that it never would.

Thankfully the rehearsal passed without incident. It was just as well that she and Erik had sung the duet together so often after her lessons; she was sure she could follow the words in her sleep and it was not as if they were difficult in the first place. Alphonse was energetic and full of the cheerful enthusiasm only a liquid lunch could bring, happy to take direction even when Erik was scathing with him; unlike Marius Alphonse was able to absorb what was required of him like a sponge, allowing criticism to roll off his back with barely a shrug. When Erik found fault with his pacing he changed it; when his acting was below par he simply upped his game. Christine wished more of her colleagues had such a malleable attitude.

She had no idea how she made it through the gruelling hour they spent working on the piece. Erik returned with her cloak as promised but said nothing, merely laying the blue velvet carefully out over a chair. Christine was on tenterhooks, just waiting for him to speak but he never did and she was tortured by apprehension and unanswered questions. Had he found the musical box or was it still there in her pocket? If he had taken her cloak down from the hat stand he must have noticed its peculiar weight and yet he failed to raise the subject. She tried her best to concentrate upon her part but she knew her voice was not at its best; apart from a few terse words, however, Erik made no comment upon her poor performance, seeming to focus his attention upon Alphonse.

When finally they were dismissed there was still no end to Christine's misery for Meg and the ballerinas joined them on the stage, accompanied by Monsieur Allard the harpist. As she passed Hortense offered a small smile, her posture straighter and more confident than it had been the day before.

"Thank you," she whispered, glancing around to check that no one was watching.

"Have you spoken to Madame Giry?" Christine asked, equally sotto voce.

The dark-haired dancer nodded. "She scolded me terribly but she has promised to help. I suppose she is not such a dragon underneath, not really."

"Few people are ever as we imagine."

"That is true." Hortense looked at her feet before glancing up at Christine through her lashes. "I am very grateful to you," she said, rather hesitantly. "And thank you for not telling anyone else."

"I gave you my word," Christine replied, surprised. "I will not go back on it."

Hortense smiled again, and this time it was slightly strained. She glanced over her shoulder. "Then you are unique in this place."

Before Christine could ask her to elaborate Marie Durant came up the steps, wearing her coat and hat. "Do you still want to share that cab, Christine?" she enquired, sending Hortense scuttling back to join the other dancers as they gathered around Erik, who was explaining his ideas. Meg stood at his side, nodding sagely, and Christine noticed that in her guise of choreographer she had changed out of her tutu and into her day clothes, pulling her hair severely back from her face in emulation of her mother. At any other time such a prospect would be amusing, as would the sight of Erik surrounded by ballerinas, but not now. He was involved with the task at hand, but even from this distance she could see the tension in his jaw and shoulders and knew that sitting at home waiting for him to return and dreading what was to come would probably send her quite mad. She shook her head.

"Thank you, but I think I will stay here after all. I hope that won't inconvenience you?"

Ever the kindly soul, Marie patted her arm and said, "Of course not. But do get some sleep, Christine; you're looking worn to the bone. In the end your health is more important than anything that happens here."

Christine thanked her again, wishing that things could be solved so easily, and the mezzo departed. Settling herself into a seat in the front row, she tried to keep her attention on the activity on the stage but the discussion was dull and before long her sleepless night began to catch up with her and she felt her head nod. She dozed uneasily, strange figures flitting across her mind, people made of bones giggling and clattering around her. A hand on her shoulder eventually startled her awake and she looked up to see Erik's masked face inches from hers. His eyes were in shadow, his expression inscrutable, as he helped her to her feet, wrapping her cloak around her. Sleep still clinging to her brain, Christine barely registered that the fabric hung as it should, falling gently around her ankles.

"What time is it?" she asked as Erik escorted her through the darkened theatre, his arm around her waist as though he thought she might fly from him at any moment.

"Late," was all he said, assisting her into the cab that was waiting on the Rue Scribe.

The journey home was conducted in silence, and as she awoke properly Christine's fear spiked again when she felt through the pockets of her cloak and found that they were empty. Trembling now she almost stumbled down the step when they arrived and she attempted to alight while Erik paid the fare. He caught her, setting her back on her feet, but he did not take her hand, standing back and allowing her to enter the house before him. As he removed his hat and hung it up, reaching for the gas jet on the wall to turn on the lights, she could see quite clearly his pallor and the thin line into which his uneven lips had sunk. Solicitously taking her cloak, with one long white hand he gestured for her to precede him into the dining room; swallowing hard and trying to quell the sick feeling in her stomach, Christine did so. There, in the middle of the dining table stood the very object she had been searching for just moments ago; the snake charmer somehow managed to look malevolent despite its size, dwarfed by the vase of flowers behind it.

"Well?" Erik enquired, his voice level and cold. "I assume you were aware that this interesting item was in your pocket. Would you like to tell me how you came by it and why you felt the need to keep it hidden?"

"You..." Christine swallowed again, her mouth suddenly quite dry. "You recognise it?"

He stepped around her, circling the table and reaching out to brush a hand over the musical box. Eerily, it began to play, a peculiar, tinny tune that set Christine's teeth on edge. "I should do," he said, the hitch in his breath betraying the true feelings beneath his calm exterior. He turned his head, mismatched gaze boring into her. "I made it."