"Well, that was a successful day if I do say so myself," James Patterson-Smythe declared as he climbed into Theodora's carriage and settled himself next to Erik. "More money for you and me, and another season's contract for our diva here. I find such an outcome highly satisfactory."

Teddy snorted. "You would. Dollar signs are all you can ever see!"

"My business acumen has made you a wealthy woman, my darling, don't you forget that," he told her, tapping his nose. "If someone is desperate enough for a commodity they will always pay that little bit extra to secure it."

"A little bit?" She dissolved into gales of laughter. "I thought poor Monsieur Marigny would have heart failure when you stated your terms!"

"He can afford it," Erik said; during the meeting he had been able to read the open account book on the desk despite the fact it was upside down and it was clear even from those pages that the Populaire was finally turning a healthy profit once more. The regular sum from the money Raoul de Chagny had called his 'ill-gotten gains' that he had been drip-feeding into the business under the guise of an anonymous patron was evidently helping to pay for the elaborate costumes and sets in which Olivier Fontaine had persuaded his partner to invest; business during the society season had been booming, with tickets for the last two productions almost entirely sold out by private subscription. "I am pleased that you agreed to stay on."

Teddy gave him a wide smile and tapped him on the arm. "It's very kind of you to say so, Maestro. I have to admit that this last year has been one of the most entertaining of my career so far; I'm rather looking forward to the next twelve months."

"Don't forget that offer from Covent Garden," Jimmy said. "The leading role in Faust and a benefit."

"I haven't forgotten. If you want me to take it you'll have to persuade Marigny to release me for a couple of months. Hey, that gives me an idea," she added brightly, turning back to Erik. "What do you say to a little holiday, all expenses paid? If I go to London you and Christine could come too; bring the babe if it's able to travel by then. You'd love the Royal Opera House, I just know you would!"

Erik raised an eyebrow. "And risk Claude Marigny's wrath by depriving him of both sopranos and his chorus master? The man would die on the spot!"

"And that's a mess you don't want to have to clear up," Jimmy agreed, nodding sagely.

"I still say it would be a wonderful idea," Teddy insisted, ignoring them both. "Maybe not right now but in the future... a wider audience needs to hear Christine's voice."

"Yes, that's true," Erik admitted, sinking back against the squabs. "Unfortunately, for a while at least, the only singing she will be doing is that of bedtime lullabies. It is not quite what I envisioned for her, I will confess."

Theodora peered at him, trying to gauge his expression; it was a gloomy day for June and the interior of the carriage was unnaturally dark. Erik was glad of it; for the past week or so he had been missing his home beneath the Opera for the first time, craving the solitude it offered as an escape from the tension of a house expecting a new arrival at any moment. Christine was grumpy and irritable, longing for the baby to be born so that she could feel normal again, and Meg's over-compensatory cheerfulness was beginning to set his teeth on edge. He found himself almost longing for Antoinette and her sharp tongue with its unwanted advice. "You are happy about this baby, aren't you?" Teddy asked. "Because if you're not it's too late to do anything about it now."

Erik pinched his nose beneath the mask, feeling an incipient headache begin to bite. "Yes, of course, it's just..." He offered her a weak smile. "For a man who has been used most of his life to his own company, to be caught in the centre of so much fuss and bother can be trying at times."

"Especially when in the middle of composing a masterpiece, eh?" Jimmy nudged him in the ribs and Erik heard himself groan; every attempt to continue with his opera had ended in failure lately, sweeping melodies and dramatic chords suddenly turning into simple little tunes with which to amuse a baby. Whatever he did, it always came back to the child and he almost caught himself resenting it, wishing for the now departed days when he had had only his music for company. It was absurd. Did he really want to return to his prison of darkness and loneliness, he wondered, only to firmly refute the very suggestion; nothing would make him sink back into that black morass of self-pity and loathing. But he was acutely aware that however much his life had changed so far, in a few days it would be altered permanently and he could never go back even if he wanted to.

"Typical man," Teddy scoffed. "Just you imagine how Christine must feel; even her body's no longer her own! I fully intend to coddle and cosset her when we arrive to make up for your appalling neglect."

"Neglect?" Nettled, Erik sat up straight and she smiled slyly at him having achieved her goal. He glared at her. "How dare you! I have been as attentive as - "

She leaned over and patted his hand. "Of course you have, honey. But just do me a favour and stop feeling sorry for yourself; it's not you that has to push Claudin Junior out into the world."

Despite himself Erik laughed. "You are impossible, Theodora."

"Good. I aim to be."

The three lapsed into silence for a while, Jimmy putting his head back and closing his eyes; Teddy pulled a face when loud snores began to emanate from his direction and gave him a sharp kick in the shins which had the desired effect of stopping the noise for a few moments. Erik watched the streets of Paris slip by, the extravagant public buildings and uniform blocks of houses and apartments gradually thinning out and almost vanishing altogether as they approached the suburbs and the Pont Neuilly; the landscape was taken over by a combination of both grand and modest dwellings with a countrified air, set back from the road in their own grounds, only coalescing back into a more regular pattern as they approached his own home in a mixture of business premises and houses opening directly from the street. The air was fresher here, laced with a watery tang from the Seine that was a far cry from the general stink of pollution which clung to it in the city as it attempted to deal with Paris's antiquated sewers. Though it was no enormous distance, life was lived at a much slower pace here than in the centre of the capital, most of the neighbours doing just as he did and commuting every day to their places of work, leaving them behind at the end of the day. It was an ideal environment in which to raise a child, away from the noise and the stink and the corruption of the City of Lights.

As they reached his home Erik was surprised to see the front door standing open; hurrying from the carriage he took the steps in two long strides and entered the hall to find a scene of complete chaos: the smell of burning food assaulted his nostrils, there were agonised cries from the first floor, matched in volume by Bruno howling and scratching at the parlour door and Chloe was all but running towards the stairs awkwardly balancing a steaming kettle and a pile of towels. She jumped when she saw him standing there and tried to curtsy as best she could without slopping boiling water all over the tiles.

"Chloe, what in the world is going on?" Erik demanded, and she stared at him as though he had just grown another head.

"Monsieur? It's the baby, Monsieur," Chloe said carefully, one foot on the bottom step and her whole body leaning towards the landing as though desperate to be gone. "Madame went into labour half an hour ago; the midwife has just arrived. I'm sorry, I must go to her."

"The baby is coming now?" Erik heard himself say, and then Teddy was pushing past him, bustling towards the staircase to follow the departing Chloe and jolting him from his temporary paralysis. He started forwards. "Christine! I - "

"Hold your horses, mister!" Theodora declared, pulling him up short with a hand on his chest. "You're not going anywhere."

He growled. "Get out of my way, Mademoiselle, or I may be forced to remove you."

"I'd like to see you try!" she retorted, meeting his gaze with a determined one of her own, chin raised and a challenge in her eyes as though her were not quite capable of picking her up and moving her bodily aside. "I will go and check on Christine, but you are going nowhere near that bedroom. If you need to do something useful, take that pan off the stove; whatever was in it is ruined now anyway. If you so much as touch that bedroom door handle, I won't be responsible for my actions, is that clear?"

"I am master in my own house and I will go where I please!" Erik roared. Above him Christine screamed again, the sound dissolving into sobs of pain, and he moved towards the stairs, only to have Teddy bar his way once more, her arms outstretched. "Christine! For God's sake, let me see my wife!"

"Erik," Teddy said quietly, her tone gentle, and he turned to look at her. "We will look after her, I promise. But there is nothing you can do; this is women's work and you would just be in the way. I am not one for conventions, but it really isn't the done thing for the father to be present at the birth."

"She's right, old man," Jimmy said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "The father's job is to get drunk and pass around the cigars when the little blighter has finally emerged."

"I want to be with her," Erik whispered, his mouth suddenly dry. "Her mother... did you know her mother died in childbirth? I don't... I can't... what if I lose her and I'm not there? How can I live with myself knowing I wasn't able to say goodbye?"

"Oh, sweetheart." Teddy's face crumpled in sympathy and she reached up to touch his cheek. "If anything happens I'll come and get you straight away, you have my word. But she'll be all right, I'm sure; women go through this thousands of times a day, all over the world, and medical science has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few decades. Just because it happened once doesn't mean history has to repeat itself."

"Just agree with her, Erik," muttered Jimmy. "It saves time in the long run."

"You'll come and get me straight away?" Erik asked Teddy. "The moment anything..."

"Cross my heart," she said, and did just that, finally breaking away with a reassuring pat on the arm. He watched her make her way swiftly up the stairs, feeling that he should be insisting on being involved, that he should follow her and show the gaggle of women surrounding his wife that the Phantom was not to be denied. But he didn't. The Phantom was sleeping soundly, had been for months, and he had no real desire to awaken the monster within him once more.

"Everything will be fine," Jimmy soothed, squeezing his shoulder. "Now all we have to do is wait, so we may as well get comfortable. Any suggestions?" He wrinkled his nose, sniffing at the odour of burnt offerings that permeated the house. "I tell you what: you get the drinks and I'll stop the house from burning down."

They were still in the hall two hours later when Antoinette Giry found them.

Erik had refused to move, sitting down on the stairs with Bruno at his side, listening to every agonised cry from above and becoming more and more tense the longer it went on. In support, Jimmy took a chair from the dining room and the brandy decanter and set up camp nearby; the level of the alcohol gradually dropped but Erik couldn't eat or drink a thing, so tightly wound it felt as though he might snap at any moment. His fingers moved almost unconsciously through Bruno's fur as the spaniel rested his head on his master's knee with a forlorn expression and a whine every time Christine's voice echoed down the landing.

"Can you find nothing practical to do?" Antoinette demanded, stripping off her gloves and leaving them with her shawl and purse on the hall table. She eyed the two men disapprovingly. "Erik, surely you have some music you could be working on instead of moping around in here?"

"You expect me to be able to concentrate when Christine is in such torment?" he countered, wondering for a moment how she had got in before realising that he had still not shut the front door.

Madame swept past him up the stairs, stepping carefully over Bruno's tail. "Must you be so melodramatic? It is perfectly natural," she informed him. "I shudder to think what would happen if we relied upon men to reproduce; the human race would have died out within a generation."

Jimmy chuckled around his brandy. "No one could ever accuse that lady of being subtle," he remarked. "Any blunter and you could use her as a cosh."

"Her tongue is like a razor," Erik replied, listening as a door opened and the murmur of female voices could be heard before it was quietly closed again. He knocked a fist against the banister in frustration. "This is ridiculous! The least they could do is come and tell us what is happening!"

"I wouldn't interfere with the mysterious actions of women, my friend. Their behaviour can be utterly unfathomable, even to an expert such as myself."

Erik watched him take another gulp of the liquor. "If you are such an expert, why have you never married?"

"Because I prefer to live my life surrounded by beauty and free of scolds," Jimmy told him, wagging a professorial finger. "And because Teddy won't have me. She thinks a husband will tie her down."

"It sounds as though you would be perfect for each other."

Jimmy gazed into his glass and sighed heavily. "I know. But you try telling her that."

Erik looked at Bruno; the dog just huffed and tried to climb onto his lap. Lifting the spaniel he slowly became aware that the noise from upstairs had stopped; the house was suddenly deathly silent. "What's happened?" he whispered, getting to his feet with Bruno in his arms. Almost before he realised it he was halfway up the staircase, taking the steps two at a time; Jimmy scrambled to follow, his chair skidding backwards on the polished floor with a horrendous squeak.

"Erik, you can't go up there!" he called. "Teddy will have my hide!"

"Something's wrong," Erik insisted, a feeling of foreboding rising inexorably within him. Christine was quiet, horribly quiet; had she simply passed out or was it something worse? He shivered as though someone had walked over his grave, his blood feeling like it had been turned to ice. Behind him he heard Jimmy puffing his way up the stairs; he hurried towards the closed bedroom door, unable to resist the panic and curiosity that was drawing him to it like a magnet.

Before he could reach it, however, a different noise suddenly rent the air, one that sounded strange and foreign to his ears: the thin, breathless cry of a baby. Erik stopped dead, his heart pounding in his ears; hands shaking, he put Bruno down on the carpet and reached out to support himself on the newel post, his legs wobbling as though they were made of jelly. The baby wailed again, stronger this time as though discovering how to use its lungs to their fullest extent, and Erik thought he might have collapsed had Jimmy not caught him under the arm.

"It's arrived," he said with an enormous grin. "Congratulations, my dear fellow; it sounds as though you'll have another singer in the family before long!"

"Yes, yes," Erik murmured, forcing himself to stand and walk unsteadily towards the bedroom door. The baby was obviously healthy, but what of Christine? The door opened before he could reach it and Antoinette stood there wreathed in smiles. His heart lifted; if anything had happened to Christine she would not be looking so happy. He breathed his wife's name and Antoinette nodded.

"Christine is well, Erik," she told him, stepping to one side to allow him past. "Come and meet your child."

Stunned, he entered the room, barely registering the presence of Teddy and Meg and an unfamiliar older woman who must be the midwife. His eyes were only for Christine: she sat against a bank of pillows looking exhausted but elated, her face red and her hair hanging loose in sweaty tendrils. In her arms was a white bundle which she carefully shifted so that she could reach out a hand to him. Erik hesitated: was it a boy or a girl, and more importantly, did it look like him?

"Come and say hello to your daughter," Christine said with a delighted smile. "She's absolutely perfect."

"She's going to be a real little heartbreaker," Teddy told him proudly. "Just you wait and see."

Christine noticed his reluctance and divining the reason enfolded his hand in her own, gently drawing him closer. "It's all right, Erik," she whispered. "She's beautiful; just come and look."

Slowly he took a seat on the edge of the mattress, feeling everyone's eyes upon him. His face began to grow hot beneath the mask and he suddenly recalled Christine's request that he show his true features to their child. His hand stole towards the porcelain but stopped short of the cord that held it in place; if the baby were to scream at the sight of him he did not wish to have an audience. Thankfully Antoinette came to his rescue, typically understanding the problem with no need for words.

"We'll leave you alone for a few minutes," she said, and ushered the other women from the room, assuring the midwife when she objected that she would be allowed to finish her work soon enough.

Once the door had closed behind them Erik took a deep breath and let the mask fall; Christine touched his ravaged cheek with a grateful caress. "Thank you," she said.

"Is she..." he swallowed, hardly daring to ask. "Is she really... perfect?"

"See for yourself." Christine smiled and cooed to the baby. "Here is your papa. He's so looking forward to meeting you." Straightening she offered him the bundle of blankets; he instinctively shied away, shaking his head.

"Christine, I've never... I don't know how to hold a child!"

"Then you must learn; it's not hard." Scooting towards him and trying not to wince as she moved she laid the baby in his arms, adjusting them so that their daughter was secure, her head supported by his hand. "There; that wasn't so difficult, was it?"

Erik looked down into the crumpled red face and wondered how it was that people could call babies beautiful; his child looked like nothing so much as little pink cabbage or a wrinkled old man, her head adorned with a few wispy curls of fair hair. He found himself searching her unformed features for any hint of irregularity, his anxious gaze checking her lips, cheeks and forehead, looking for a sign that his own misfortune had been visited upon his offspring. Relieved, he discovered that her mouth was a tiny little rosebud, that she had two eyebrows and completely flawless chubby cheeks; the only suggestion that she was his daughter came from a very small patch of puckered purple skin on her scalp, a birthmark that would be all but hidden by her hair as it grew. As if aware of his scrutiny she yawned and opened eyes of the deepest cornflower blue, staring up at him in confusion; Erik held his breath, waiting for the wail of distress that never came. Instead, after a beat she gave him a gummy smile and waved her little fists in the air.

"She loves you," Christine said, propping her chin on his shoulder. "I knew she would."

"Her eyes are blue," he murmured. "Where does she get that from?"

"According to Madame, most newborns have blue eyes. They'll change soon enough. I think she has your eyes, and maybe my nose." She frowned, peering at the baby as though she could make out something familiar in the as-yet-undefined features.

"At least she doesn't have mine, thank God." Entranced, Erik lifted his hand and tentatively stroked one of those peach skin-soft soft cheeks; in response his daughter closed her tiny digits around his long white finger and held on tight, gurgling happily. There was nothing more to say; just as he had been from the moment he first heard Christine sing, Erik was completely and utterly lost.

"What shall we call her?" Christine asked later when the midwife had departed and their friends were having a celebratory drink to wet the baby's head downstairs while Chloe tried to salvage dinner. "We have to make a decision; the poor little mite deserves to have a name."

Erik couldn't take his eyes from his sleeping daughter's face as she lay in her cradle. She looked so wonderfully peaceful swaddled in the blankets, her little hands curled up to her chin. "I thought you had all the ideas."

"Nothing sensible. You don't want to hear Meg's thoughts on the subject. Perhaps we could name her after your mother and mine."

"I'd rather she had an identity of her own instead of living in someone else's shadow," he said, balking at the idea of giving this tiny untainted creature a name that carried such emotional weight as his mother's. He couldn't do that to her.

Christine looked disappointed and he felt terrible knowing how much she wished her parents were there to see their grandchild. "Do you have any suggestions?"

"Well, one name did occur to me." He paused, and when she gazed at him expectantly asked, "What do you think about Allegra? It's Italian for 'lively', and she is certainly that."

"Allegra..." Slowly Christine smiled as she tried out the name on her tongue. "I think it's lovely. And it also has musical connotations." She leaned over to kiss him. "It's perfect."

"And for her other names Christina and Antoinette seemed appropriate," he added when she allowed him to come up for air. His hair was sticking up in clumps from the enthusiastic attention of her fingers and he tried self-consciously to smooth it down, much to her amusement. "After your mother and Annie, obviously."

"So you did put some thought into it after all," she said accusingly, and then laughed. "Allegra Christina Antoinette. I like the way that sounds. You are a genius."

"Of course," Erik told her with feigned modesty and she slapped his arm. "Did you ever doubt it?"

She shook her head, resting against his chest; he slipped an arm around her waist, pulling her close. "Did you ever imagine, back when you first began to tutor me, that we would reach this point?" she asked, snuggling up against him as he reclined against the headboard, his free hand gently rocking the cradle to and fro.

"I occasionally allowed myself to dream of having a wife and taking her out for walks in the park on Sundays. But that's all it was: a dream," he confessed, resting his mangled cheek on the top of her head. "If you had told me then that I would be a husband and father I would have thought you quite mad; the idea that any woman would want me, a freak and an outcast, was so absurd as to be completely ludicrous."

"It hardly seems possible, but here we are." Christine sighed happily. "And none of it would have happened if you hadn't been brave enough to take that first step into the light of day."

Erik opened his mouth to agree, but his words were drowned by the anxious wailing of his tiny daughter as she announced to the world that she was hungry. Cooing wordless nonsense as he had seen Christine do when she laid her down and feeling faintly ridiculous, he carefully picked Allegra up, marvelling anew that he could have had any part in the creation of this incredible, albeit red-faced and bawling, scrap of humanity. Christine took the baby from him and he watched in almost embarrassed fascination as she persuaded Allegra to feed; when their daughter did settle and begin drinking with enthusiasm Erik did not believe he had ever seen a more serene and beautiful tableau, not even the most exquisite Madonna and child by the hand of Titian or Raphael. As Christine glanced up and smiled, radiant with the glow that it seemed only new motherhood could bring, he knew that he would spend every day for the rest of his life counting his blessings and thanking whatever deity it was that had seen some good in him when he was damned by the rest of the world, that had brought Christine Daae to him and shown him that he really could be the man he had always dreamed of becoming.

The Phantom of the Opera was no more than a memory; only Erik Claudin remained. And he was going to live the life he had been granted to the full.

Author's Note:

And that's the final regular chapter, folks! Just the epilogue to go...