Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to Phantom of the Opera or any of its characters. I merely play with them for my own amusement and I promise to put them back neatly when I'm finished. (2004 movieverse here.)

Author's Note: I first posted this work at AFF and AO3 some time ago, and have modified my original story to fit this site's guidelines (aka, removed the NSFW bits) as I've hit a bit of a writer's block in my ongoing HP fic. I've found sometimes that working on something else for a bit tends to clear my mind and coax the Muse back to work.


New Year's, 1871

"Why so silent, good monsieurs?" an unfamiliar male voice rang out over the crowd attending the Bal Masque.

Meg turned to look at the elegant figure, garbed as the Red Death from the American writer Poe's tale. She noticed Christine growing pale, and her escort, the young Vicomte de Chagny, looking angry before dashing off to retrieve a weapon. Then her mother was at her side, gripping her arm firmly as she pulled her further into the shadows by the grand staircase. Still, Meg couldn't help but watch the man claiming to be the Opera Ghost taunted Andre and Firmin. She rather thought they deserved it, as neither of them understood the first thing about properly running an opera house, nor did they wish to learn. Their main interests in L'Opera Populaire lay in the opportunity to become acquainted with the nobles who patronized the theatre, and in the opportunity to chase the chorus girls and dancers. Meg's breath caught as the Phantom approached Christine. There was such passion in his voice and in his eyes as he looked at Christine, it astounded her that her friend seemed so afraid. Meg gazed wistfully at the man, intrigued, and wished he was looking at her instead. But when she started to move out from the shadows, her mother's hand tightened on her arm, keeping her still.

"Don't," Mme. Giry whispered. "Better that you do not call attention to yourself." Meg had to wonder if her mother knew something about the Opera Ghost that she was so determined they remain unseen.

The Phantom reached out to Christine, breaking the necklace she wore as he jealously proclaimed her as his and no one else's. A heartbeat later, he stepped back and set off a burst of stage pyrotechnics, using the burst of flame to disguise his exit as he vanished through a cleverly hidden trapdoor.

Meg escaped the party as soon as she could. Her mind was filled with the image of a man in red, gazing at her with heated eyes. Her hand skimmed along her body as she imagined it was him touching her. She eventually dozed, only to dream of that elegant figure with the haunting voice.

March, 1871

The moment Raoul de Chagny grabbed her mother's arm, Meg knew that her suspicions were true. Whatever, whoever the Phantom or Opera Ghost was, her mother knew more than she'd been letting on all these years. She hurriedly pulled her shirt over her head, having been in the middle of changing costumes for the upcoming ballet scene in Don Juan Triumphant, when the Phantom pulled Christine down through the stage trapdoor after cutting the support rope for the great chandelier. She knew she'd never forget the screams as the heavy piece crashed to the stage, igniting the set. She ran to catch up with her mother and Christine's fiancé.

"…and remember, M'sieur, keep your hand at the level of your eye," Mme. Giry told the young vicomte as they hurried along the backstage corridor.

"I'll come with you," Meg offered.

"No, you stay here," her mother ordered as she guided Raoul towards one of the lesser-used areas of the huge building.

Meg frowned but turned back, attempting to block the mob of scene shifters, chorus men, and police from following. One small ballet dancer, however, was not nearly enough to hold them back and she was swiftly pushed aside. The mob, however, had not grown up living at L'Opera Populaire, and she had. She slipped away and down another disused corridor, making her way down into the catacombs that even her mother didn't know she knew about. Oh, she'd never explored too far; even as a child, the tales of the Phantom served to keep her from venturing too far beyond the regularly-used areas of the building. But she was fairly certain she knew of at least two ways into the depths she'd never dared to explore fully. Hopefully she'd catch up with her mother and Raoul before the mob did. She ventured downward, as quickly as she dared move in the darkness.

She started to hurry when she saw light ahead of her, but thought the better of it when she heard three voices trying to out-shout each other. Christine's was the easiest to recognize, then Raoul's, and finally Meg recognized the third voice as belonging to the Phantom. She'd only heard him speak clearly once before, when he'd made his mysterious appearance at the New Year's masquerade. She tiptoed up to the edge of the light.

Raoul was bound to an iron gate halfway across a shallow pool, a noose around his neck. Christine stood on the steps leading into the pool, while the Phantom, now that Meg could see him fully, proved to be a man with half of his face horribly scarred. No wonder he always was masked, on his few ventures in public, she thought with a twinge of sympathy. He'd be quite handsome otherwise. He was standing halfway between Christine and Raoul, holding the other end of the noose. She tried to make out what they were saying. Christine was sobbing that her Angel of Music betrayed her, while Raoul shouted for the Phantom to free her, and the Phantom demanded Christine choose between staying with him and setting Raoul free, or leaving in which case Raoul would die.

Finally, silence fell. Christine stared at Raoul for a long moment, then slowly moved into the water and kissed the Phantom, embracing him tenderly. For an instant he looked shocked, but then he melted into her arms. When she pulled back again, he stared at her. "Go!" he said. "Take your lover and go! Hurry, before I change my mind!" He turned away and dropped the rope, climbing the steps into what seemed to be his living space, passing perilously close to where Meg crouched in the shadows.

Christine wasted no time untying Raoul. While the young vicomte raised the gate, the singer moved back over to the Phantom and quietly handed him something before she hurried back to Raoul. The couple climbed into a small boat, which Raoul poled out beyond the gate and out of sight. Once they were gone, the Phantom seemed to come to life once more, angrily smashing several mirrors. The last one he broke concealed a tunnel, which he ducked into and drew a curtain over the opening.

Meg stepped out of her hiding spot, hearing the sounds of the mob drawing near. She crossed over to where the Phantom's customary mask lay abandoned beside a music box with a cymbal-playing monkey figurine in Persian robes perched atop it, picking up the mask and examining it for a moment before tucking it into her shirt. She had it hidden just in time, too, as the mob poured into the Phantom's secret chambers. As the police and other men poked around the room, examining the bed and other furnishings, crunching the glass from the broken mirrors under their feet, she saw her mother slip in behind them. She moved over to the older woman, who looked relieved to see her. But when Mme. Giry started to speak, Meg laid a finger over her lips, gesturing to the police and others still milling around the chamber.

The two women drew back into the shadows, remaining unnoticed as the mob trooped back up to report that they'd found the mysterious Opera Ghost's lair, but no sign of him or of his prisoner. Meg hoped that whatever story Christine and Raoul told would satisfy everyone. Despite the killings, she felt bad for the Phantom, and didn't wish to see him hunted to his death. Once they were alone, she turned to her mother. "Explain… I know you know something about this."

Mme. Giry sighed, and admitted to her daughter the story of the night some twenty-five years earlier, when she and the other young teenaged ballerinas in training at L'Opera Populaire went to a traveling carnival. She told of seeing "The Devil's Child," a boy several years younger than herself, displayed in a cage and treated like an animal because of the horrible scarring on half his face. And of turning back just before leaving the display tent, in time to see the boy's keeper destroy the child's one toy in a fit of anger, and the boy retaliate by attacking like the animal he was treated as, eventually strangling the man with a garrote. She told of hiding the boy, smuggling him into Paris and sneaking him into the basements of L'Opera Populaire, where he grew to manhood in isolation.

The boy proved to be a musical genius, Mme. Giry went on, eventually writing many of the operas performed at the house over the years, and using her as his intermediary to the owners. When the eight year old orphaned Christine Daae first came to L'Opera Populaire to live and train, he heard her praying in the chapel, pleading for her deceased father to send her the "Angel of Music" that he often spoke of in her childhood. He began training her, telling her he was indeed the Angel of Music that her father had promised would one day come to her. By doing so, he not only assuaged his own deep loneliness, but grew very fond of the girl, becoming obsessed with her as she grew from child to young woman.

Meg exploded. "How could you, Maman?" she asked angrily. "How could you let him be alone down there all those years? You could have been his friend yourself! You could have sent some of the others down to him! Instead you let him languish alone, so that he became obsessed with Christine because she was the only young woman he had any interaction with once he reached manhood! Aside from not abusing him, how did you treat him any better than those carnival gypsies who caged him like an animal?"

"I wasn't much more than a child myself when I brought him here, Meg," Mme. Giry protested. "I didn't know what I was doing… only that I couldn't bear seeing him beaten like a dog!"

"Go back, Maman," Meg said softly. "They'll need you to keep the ballet together, if they can recover from this. I'm going to try to find him. I think he's got some good in him… and what he's become is what others have forced him into becoming. He doesn't deserve to be hunted down like a beast."

Mme. Giry looked at her daughter in resignation. "Be safe, Meg," she said at last. "Be safe, and stay in touch."

"I will," Meg promised, as her mother moved to the hidden staircase. She watched the older woman vanish into the darkness, then made her way back into the Phantom's quarters. Searching around, she located a large carpetbag in the back of his wardrobe, and methodically packed several of his suits. She guessed that the police would return to the hidden sanctum soon enough, but if she could find him, he'd need warm clothing. The worst of winter was over, true, but it was still only March. This early in spring, Paris was notoriously rainy and chill. She added two pairs of shoes and a cloak to the carpetbag and paused to braid her hair and pin it up. She donned another cloak, took a deep breath, picked up the carpetbag, and stepped behind the curtain and into the hidden passageway behind the broken mirror.

Meg didn't know how long she trekked through the dark and damp. At least this tunnel didn't seem to branch out at all. She walked with her left hand on the wall for guidance, and didn't feel any change in the air current that would suggest an opening on the right. Was that a hint of light up ahead? She hurried her steps, and then squeaked in alarm as her feet slid out from under her. The tunnel took a sharp dip downwards just below what might have been a storm sewer grating overhead. Her dancer's training kicked in as she fell, sliding perhaps ten feet down into a catch basin with murky water eddying gently within it. She hit the water feet first and let herself roll with the impact. It proved to be no more than two feet deep, so although she was drenched, she was unhurt. And the carpetbag she still clutched was lined in leather, so hopefully the contents would still be dry.

She peered around in the faint light cast by the flickering street lamps somewhere above. The catch basin appeared to have a wide rim to it, at least five feet wide, presumably a place to stand for those workers whose task it was to keep the storm drains in working order. Meg waded over to the edge of the basin and set the carpetbag onto the rim, then hoisted herself up as well. She shivered a bit; while the wool of her borrowed cloak retained some of its warming quality even while soaked, both the water and the air were quite cold. She hunched herself over a bit, attempting to conserve what little warmth she retained from the exercise of walking this far. Her head snapped up at a sound from the shadows to her left.

"You found me," rasped the tormented voice of the Phantom. He limped out into the dim light, looking much worse than even the events of the night might suggest. "I suppose you're here to end my miserable existence. I won't fight you." He shivered violently in his wet clothing, blood trickled down the scarred half of his face from a cut over his eye to stain his shirt, and he stood gingerly, heavily favoring his left leg. "I might even thank you," he added with a cough.

Meg realized he didn't recognize her, as her figure was swathed in the too-large cloak, her face hidden in the depths of the hood. She also thought he looked as though he might be starting a fever on top of his injuries. "I'm here to help you, not kill you," she said softly. "How do we get out of here?"

He blinked dizzily. "Why?"

"Can we talk after we're dry and warm again?" she asked, shivering harder.

He wobbled a little as he limped a few steps over, reaching up to press a hidden catch of some sort. A section of the stone wall opened out and down, the inner side forming a small set of stairs up into darkness. "I… I'm not sure I can get up there," he confessed. "My leg… there's nothing to lean on…"

Meg moved closer. "Lean on me," she offered.

He reached out one shaking hand, laying it on her shoulder as if testing her strength before trusting to it. She slipped her arm around his waist to steady him, and he tensed, only then seeming to realize she was female. "What… who…?" he mumbled, swaying perilously.

"Meg Giry," she replied, feeling her way up the stairs while coaxing him along with her. As close as she was to him now, she could feel the heat radiating from him despite his shivering; he was definitely feverish.

"Shelf," he mumbled. "Candles… matches… on the right?" He groped uncertainly in the darkness at the top of the little staircase.

Meg groped around also, in case he'd forgotten which side the shelf was on. Despite his semi-delirium, though, his memory of his hiding place was accurate. She turned at the sound of a match striking, blinking in the sudden flare of light. After so many hours in darkness, the single candle he lit seemed incredibly bright. She watched as he knelt and took hold of the topmost of the steps they just climbed. When he tugged at it, she realized what he was doing and dropped down to help him lift the hidden door back into place. Only then did she turn to examine the space. Wherever they were, it was hardly the luxurious apartment he'd created for himself beneath L'Opera Populaire, but it appeared to have the basic necessities and even a few comforts. She noticed a few well-worn books, several dishes and mugs, a sink and even a gas ring making a sort of kitchen area opposite the bed. That was where he needed to be, as quickly as possible, she thought. "Come, M'sieur," she murmured. "Get out of those wet clothes and into the bed."

He seemed only partially aware of her presence as she tugged off his boots. His ankle was badly swollen and hot to the touch. The cut on his head had stopped bleeding, but still looked angry and raw, and his breath rasped badly in his chest. "Who…?" he started to ask, before coughing harshly.

"Shh… don't try to talk," she said softly, averting her eyes as she helped him out of the rest of his clothing and tucked him into the bed. "I'm going to get some food and medicine. Try to sleep until I come back." On impulse, she brushed the hair back from his face, then leaned over and softly kissed him on the forehead.

His hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. His fever-bright eyes peered at her in confusion for a long moment. Then he brought her hand to his lips, kissing her knuckles lightly before he released her. "Thank you," he whispered, closing his eyes.

Meg hesitated, then rifled through the pockets of his discarded clothing, breathing a sigh of relief when she found enough coin to purchase some food and medicinal teas. She emptied the carpetbag, further relieved to see the clothing within had indeed remained dry. Setting the satchel to one side, she lit a second candle and explored the room, seeking another exit. That proved to be a trapdoor in the low ceiling, which led to the basement of a small church. All to the good, she thought, as churches never bar their doors. She made her way back to the hidden shelter and changed from her wet stage costume into one of the Phantom's dry outfits, disguising herself as a man and trusting the hood of the dry cloak to keep her hair concealed out in the streets. Then she ascended into the church basement once more, marking the latch of the trapdoor on the church side with an inconspicuous bit of ribbon. She'd remove that when she returned, but wanted to be sure she could find the spot again quickly on her return.

Slipping out of the church and into the streets of Paris, she paused for a moment to get her bearings. Thanks to her mother, she knew of an apothecary that stayed open all night, but she wasn't entirely sure about food sellers. First things first, she decided, setting out for the apothecary. At this point, she wasn't entirely sure what time it was, and it was very possible the markets would be opening before she returned anyway. Once at the apothecary, she purchased soap, bandages, and herbal teas to reduce fever and ease coughs. When she emerged again, she took note of the sky beginning to lighten with the coming dawn and frowned. She didn't know how well her masquerade would hold up in daylight, so she'd need to hurry.

Fortunately, a few cookshops opened this early, to serve workingmen on their way to jobs at the docks and factories. Meg found one on the way back to the church, and bought two loaves of bread, a large wedge of cheese, a small ham, a roasted chicken, a bottle of wine, and some carrots, onions, and apples. One final stop just past daybreak produced two small kettles from a just-opened general store. Now she could actually use that gas ring in the hidden chamber to make soup and those medicinal teas.

Dodging a priest and the sacristan, she ducked into the basement of the small church and groped her way to the hidden trapdoor. She removed her marking ribbon and climbed down, closing it carefully behind herself. The Phantom still slept, although restlessly. She found places to store her purchases and put water on to heat for tea, wanting to get the first dose of medication into him as quickly as possible. She gently shook him awake once it was ready, coaxing him to drink it, which he obediently did. It was plain to her that he wasn't fully aware of where they were, though, and he quickly returned to that restless sleep once the mug was empty.

Meg yawned, the sheer exhaustion from the events of the last twenty-four hours catching up with her. She undressed, and then blinked as it sunk into her sleepy mind that there was but the one bed, and that the chamber was far too cold for her to sleep on the floor, even if she wrapped up in a cloak. She bit her lip, took a deep breath, and slid into the bed beside the deeply sleeping Phantom. She tensed slightly when he turned and put his arm over her, but he not only remained asleep, he seemed to calm down as well. So she let herself relax and doze off.

She didn't know how long she'd slept, but the candle was burned well down when she awoke. The Phantom slept on; his breathing still sounded rather raspy to her ears, but his fever seemed down. Her clothes were still damp, so she put on the shirt she'd worn on her venture to the streets, rolled up the sleeves, and tied a scarf around her slender waist to belt it in. She was small enough that the belted shirt served as a rather short and skimpy dress on her, and since she was a ballerina and actress, she was used to performing in garb that would be considered anywhere from improper to indecent on the streets. As long as she remained in this hideout, the shirt would serve. She fixed another mug of medicine, setting it near the gas ring to keep warm while she located a knife to cut up the chicken and vegetables for soup and set that cooking. Only then did she pause to eat some bread and cheese.

As the pleasant aroma of the cooking soup filled the small chamber, the man on the bed stirred. "Christine?" he called in a rough and raspy murmur. "Christine!"

Meg hurried to his side with the mug of tea. "She is not here, M'sieur, but I am," she said softly. "You are ill, and hurt besides. Let me care for you." She slid an arm around his shoulders, helping him sit up and pressing the mug to his lips.

He took a few swallows, blinking at her in the soft candlelight. "I've seen you. You're Meg. Antoinette's child. But she told me she never spoke of me to you. So why are you here?"

"Despite what happened, I believe you are a good man at heart," Meg said simply. "I saw you let Christine and Raoul go. I… can't say I agree with everything you've done, but then again, you were not given the… the proper understanding of how to deal with others. I made my mother tell me your story after you went through the tunnel behind the mirror. She may have tried her best to help you, but she was a fool for letting you remain so alone all those years. If she had not, I believe you would have found happiness long before now. Perhaps you still can."

"Don't mock me!" he said bitterly. "Happiness? Christine was to be my happiness. But I was fool enough to let her go, because I couldn't stand that she was choosing to stay with me out of pity." He coughed harshly.

Meg pressed the mug back to his lips, coaxing him to finish the medicine before she answered. "Forgive me for stating the obvious, but she is hardly the only fish in the sea. If you just bring as much passion to your courtship as you do to your composing, I don't know of any woman who wouldn't fall at your feet."

"How can you possibly say that? Look at me!" He angrily turned his head so the twisted and ugly scarred parts were all that remained visible to her.

"I can say it because it's true," she retorted. "These scars are only a small part of you. Anyone who cares for you truly will see the beauty within your heart, and not the scarring on your face." Abruptly changing the subject, she ordered him, "Pull the bottom of the bedding up, and let me see your ankle. I have bandages to wrap it."

He blinked at her in confusion for a moment, then shook his head with a mirthless chuckle as he adjusted the bedding to maintain his dignity while she fussed over his ankle. At her orders, he moved it carefully from side to side and flexed his toes, at which point she wrapped it snugly in a long bandage. He had to admit, it didn't hurt nearly as much after her ministrations. He sighed. "Thank you," he said grudgingly.

Meg looked at him with a bit of a smile. "You're welcome," she said. "By the way, what is your name?"

"My name?" He seemed astonished. "No one has asked me that before. I've simply been the Opera Ghost, or the Phantom of the Opera, for longer than you've been alive, Meg." His eyes grow distant. "Erik. I can recall a soft voice calling me Erik, a long time ago. Before… before the carnival. Before the accident. Before I… before I became a freak."

She shook her head. "You are not a freak, Erik. Someday, I hope you'll believe that."

He stared at her, unaware of a tear slowly tracking down his cheek. "How can you say that?"

Meg lifted her hand, gently brushing away that tear. "I say it because it's true."

Erik unconsciously leaned into that soft touch, even as he shook his head. "You're too good," he said softly. "How can you stand to be near me? You're an innocent… and I'm a killer. I don't deserve…"

"You quit that right now," she snapped. "I won't hear it. All those years alone sent you more than a little mad, is all. If you feel badly about what you did in a fit of madness, then start making plans that will let you make up for it in some way. Write more operas and donate the profits to an orphanage or something. You can think about what you might want to do while you eat, since we're going to be stuck here for a few days at the least." She got up and ladled out a portion of the soup for him, and cut a slice of bread as well. "Eat up, food will help you heal."

He couldn't help but chuckle quietly at her forcefulness. "Bossy little thing, aren't you?" he said. "Not at all scared of the dreadful Opera Ghost."

"Should I be?" Meg retorted with a smirk. "If you were to do anything dreadful to me, you'd be stuck alone with a sprained ankle and no one to wait upon your every whim."

Erik laughed aloud. "You win, Meg, you're right."

She smiled. "You have a very nice laugh, Erik."

To her astonishment, he blushed. "Thank you," he murmured as he stared very hard into his soup.

She gave him a moment, standing to go check if their clothing was drying evenly, turning the garments over to expose more of them to the air. "I'm going to need to go back for my own clothes," she said. "I can't keep wearing yours, they're much too big on me," she added with a bit of a grin. "And I'm hoping my mother had enough sense to go back and rescue more of your things before everyone went traipsing down to gawk. We're going to need more food, which means needing more money sooner or later."

"Practical as well as bossy, I see," Erik murmured. He yawned. "Probably a good thing. I don't feel well enough to think much just now." He settled back down in the bed again, then glanced over at Meg. "Er… this probably sounds silly, but… did I dream it, or did you tuck me in and kiss my forehead before?"

Meg blinked as she turned back to face him. "I did, actually. I… wanted to get you calmed down so I could go out for supplies."

"Would you… do it again?" he asked shyly, red-cheeked and not quite able to meet her eyes. "It felt… it felt like I was cared for. The way I used to imagine it would be like if I had grown up with a mother."

She smiled softly. "Of course, Erik." She moved over to the bed and tucked the blanket in firmly around his shoulders, then brushed his hair back and pressed her lips lightly against his temple. "Sleep as much as you can. It will help you heal."

"Thank you," he whispered as he closed his eyes.

After she was sure he was sleeping, Meg cleaned the dishes they'd used, then got comfortable in a chair with a candle on the shelf above her head. She'd found a few old books in her initial exploration of the chamber, and settled in to read until she thought it was late enough to venture back up to the Parisian streets.

Erik woke up as she was getting ready to leave. She'd thoughtfully moved a mug of tea and another bowl of soup to the small table serving as a nightstand, he noticed, and left a book there as well. He couldn't help but grin as he watched her attempting to stuff the excess length of his trousers into his boots so that she wouldn't either trip herself or accidentally cause them to fall down. He must have chuckled his amusement, though, because she suddenly looked over to see him watching.

"Is there anything else I can get you before I go?" Meg asked quietly.

He shook his head. "You've done more for me than anyone ever has, at least of their own free will," he said. "Just… be careful. I don't want you hurt because of me. His voice held a hint of wonder as he added that last part; he meant it. This was the first time he could remember caring for another person's well-being.

She smiled. "I'll be careful, Erik.I wish I could tell you when I'll be back, but I don't know how long it will take me to reach L'Opera Populaire once I'm above ground, and then I'll need to collect things there and return again. But I will return, I promise you that." With a parting wave, she swung herself up through the trapdoor to the church basement.

He wasn't sure he believed her. Why should she return, after all? She was young and beautiful and could have a good life. She had no reason to give him any sort of loyalty. Even Christine had chosen another in the end, despite the love he'd had for her, and her loyalty to him as her musical tutor. He didn't even have that slim of a connection with Meg; her mother had done her best to keep the girl from learning of his actual existence all those years, not that he could blame the older woman. He sighed as he picked up the book Meg chose for his entertainment.

Up in the little church, the young dancer carefully closed the trapdoor behind her, and then crept out through the nave into the dark streets and alleyways of the city. She moved as quickly as she could without looking too furtive, not wishing to be mistaken for a thief. She gave a silent sigh of relief when the opera house came into sight. Lights flickered in several windows in the dormitory wing, so at least the police had not closed the place altogether. With luck, no one would have thought to latch the ground floor window near the scenery shop, as it was the favored clandestine exit and entrance of dancers and chorus girls sneaking out after curfew to meet their gentleman friends. Meg put her hand to the sash, smiling when it lifted easily. She climbed inside and swiftly made her way to the suite she'd shared with her mother for as long as she could remember.

Mme. Giry gave a start when her door opened, but recognized her daughter a moment later. "Meg, thank goodness you're all right!" she exclaimed as soon as the younger woman closed the door again.

"I can't stay, Maman," Meg hastened to say. "I only came for some clothes, and hopefully to gather more of his things, especially valuables if possible."

"Meg, the police, they are seeking him all over Paris… you cannot hope to remain hidden. Let him go elsewhere if he will, but don't continue to aid him," the older woman pleaded.

Meg shook her head. "I have to go back to him, Maman," she said firmly. "He's hurt. He can't travel anywhere right now, and anyway, I promised."

Mme. Giry bowed her head with a sigh. "You are a better woman than I am, my daughter."

Meg didn't answer. She was too busy putting together a small pack of her own clothing and shoes. She nodded in silent thanks when her mother handed her a bundle of his clothing and a pouch of coins, and raised a questioning brow when the ballet mistress handed her a second, larger and much lumpier pouch.

"The jewelry your father gave me, or that I bought for myself when I was young and foolish," Mme. Giry explained. "All but my wedding ring. I don't want you to do this. You are all I have left of Jules, aside from a few photographs. I want you to remain with me. But if you truly feel you must continue to help him, I want you to be able to make a fresh start elsewhere. Selling this jewelry will help with that. Also, as he will need papers for travel or anything, I know of someone who supplies such documents for a fee." She slipped a scrap of paper with a name and address on it into her daughter's hand.

Meg impulsively embraced her mother. "Thank you," she whispered. "I will miss you. But this… it's something I feel I must do. I can't explain why, I only know I have to do it. As I said, it will be a little while before we can travel. But when we can, I will get him out of France. I'll write as we're departing, and again when I'm settled somewhere. I love you, Maman. Be safe and well."

"You also, my little Marguerite. I love you too," the older woman murmured. "Go, it's already late."

Meg hugged her mother once more, picked up her bundles, and slipped back down to the unlatched window. To her dismay, a rather tipsy member of the ballet, Jeannette, was just entering.

"Meg!" Jeanette squealed. "They said the Opera Ghost took you!"

"Shh!" Meg cautioned the other woman, praying no one else was within earshot. "Don't be silly! I took the chance with all the disturbance to run away, that's all. You know how strict my mother's always been with me. But I have a gentleman friend all the same, and we're getting married and leaving Paris. I only came back for more clothes, and to tell Maman goodbye."

Jeannette's eyes opened wide. "Oh, Meg, that's so romantic!" she gushed. "I hope you'll be very, very happy!" She punctuated that wish with a loud hiccup.

"I won't be until you get out of my way," Meg pointed out with a giggle.

"Oh! Oh, sorry!" Jeannette stepped aside, letting the younger woman clamber out with her bags. "Goodbye, Meg!"

"Goodbye, Jeannette!" she called as she slipped away into the darkness. She laughed to herself as she hurried through the streets and alleys, periodically doubling back to make sure the drunken dancer hadn't taken it into her head to follow. It would be just like Jeanette to decide she would be the perfect bridal attendant, and trail me back to my fiancé. Fiancé indeed, Meg thought, Maman really was strict with me, and unlike most of the girls in the ballet, I have never so much as been to supper with a man. The time I've just spent with Erik in the secret chamber below the church is the first time I've ever in my life been alone with a man. Luck was with her, and she easily slipped back into the church basement and dropped through the trapdoor before dawn.

Erik looked up in startled wariness, instinctively flinching back defensively for a moment before he recognized Meg. "You… you came back," he whispered, a look of astonishment on his face.

"Of course I did," Meg answered. "I told you I would. Did you think I was lying?"

He looked down. "Not exactly. But I thought you might change your mind, or that Antoinette… your mother… would persuade you to stay away from me. I know she never wanted you to know of me, or at least to only know the rumors of the Phantom that haunted L'Opera Populaire. She told me as much herself, not long after you were born."

She frowned as she struggled out of his too-large boots and trousers, and then slipped on the oldest skirt she'd packed. "She did try to. But I'd made you a promise and I'm going to keep it. Once you're well enough to travel, we're going to leave France."

Erik blinked at that. "We are? But… why? And how?"

"The why should be obvious," Meg said. "You were unmasked onstage, after all. I don't know what stories are being told, but you are still being sought by the police. As to the how, we'll travel together. No one will be looking for you with me, and even if I'm recognized, I already made sure a rumor would go around that I'd eloped. What's more, I'm going to use my knowledge of theatrical makeup to let you travel without your mask." She reached out and lightly grasped his chin, examining his face with almost clinical interest. "I'll probably have to make you look a bit ill," she decided. "The scarring makes your right eyelid droop a bit. We can say you're recovering from a fit of apoplexy."

He swallowed, more disturbed by her proximity than he expected. "If… if you think it will work, that's what we'll do," he agreed.

She smiled and got up, bustling around by the gas ring and the sink, making tea and sandwiches for their supper. "Will you tell me more of yourself, Erik? Whatever you're comfortable in revealing… I don't want to be too much of a nosy Nellie. But at the same time, I would like to know more about you. I suppose you already know practically everything about me, since you would have seen me growing up."

"Not that much," he replied. "Your mother didn't want me near you, so I didn't see much until you started training with the ballet. And even then, it, uh, wasn't you I was watching." For some reason, he felt uncomfortable discussing Christine with Meg.

"Well, I still want to hear about you. And if you want, I can talk about me, too," she grinned as she brought over the tea and sandwiches.

He reached for a sandwich, suddenly feeling hungry. "I'd like that," he admitted. "I'd like to know if growing up with a family is anything like I imagined. I mean, I must have had a family, or at least a mother, at one time. But I don't have any… real memories of it. Just a… a vague feeling of being handled gently, and of a soft voice calling me 'little Erik' and singing a lullaby." He paused to take a bite of his food.

Meg smiled. "Vague it might be, but that sounds like a lovely memory of your mother. Perhaps it's what sparked your musical talent."

"It could be," Erik admitted. "I never thought of it like that before. Mostly I was just…angry… that it was all taken away." He gave a twisted, bitter smile. "Not that I can fully remember that, either. Just a crash, then pain, horrible, awful, burning pain. But there was no fire, I remember it was very dark, and there was a body… I fell…" He paused, shaking. "I was screaming and screaming… but my mother never came… Mon Dieu, Meg," he whispered as he finally made the connection, "That must have been my mother's body…"

She reached out and grasped his hand, then shifted over to sit on the bed and pulled him into a gentle hug, letting him lean on her shoulder as he quietly wept. When he calmed down again, she dabbed at his face with one of his handkerchiefs. "What happened after that?" she asked softly.

"The… the next thing I recall is the gypsies," he said. "They must have found me. I remember thrashing around… I think they were trying to do something to my face. But it hurt so, and I just wanted my mother… none of the women used a language I understood, and the men who did speak French didn't even try to offer any sort of explanation to me. They just beat me and called me a devil child for acting as I did. It was about that time they got the idea of displaying me and my scars in a cage at their fairs. I don't know how long I lived like that, before the night your mother helped me."

Meg tilted her head, thinking. "I realize it's a moot point now. But I can't help but wonder about your mother. I think perhaps she was a photographer. My father was interested in photography also, and I remember he had many little burns on his hands that he said came from the chemicals used in developing the plates, especially for the daguerreotypes. Perhaps you were with your mother when she was developing plates, and something went wrong in the process, killing her and burning your face with the chemicals.

He nodded wearily. "It's possible, I suppose. Not that there's any way of finding out at this point."

"No, there isn't," she agreed. "But still… it's a reasonable thought, and something to tell people who might wonder about your scars in the future."

Erik looked uncomfortable at that, but just nodded. "Perhaps," he said. "I'll think about it, anyway. Just… later. Not right now."

"Fair enough," Meg nodded. "You should sleep." She tucked him in again, dropping a kiss on his forehead. She paused, and then shyly offered, "I know I'm only in the ballet and chorus, but… would you like a lullaby?"

"Would you?" he asked with a smile.

She nodded, and softly started singing, "Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot. Prête-moi ta plume, pour écrire un mot. Ma chandelle est morte, je n'ai plus de feu. Ouvre-moi ta porte, pour l'amour de Dieu…"

Erik drifted gently into slumber, still smiling softly.

The next few weeks passed quietly for the two as they waited for Erik's sprained ankle to heal enough for him to walk comfortably. Erik, assuming she'd spent their first night there in the chair, told her where to find more bedding so she could fix up a second pallet bed for herself. Meg often made him laugh with her tales of the shenanigans pulled off by the ballet and chorus girls, the chorus men, and the other backstage workers at L'Opera Populaire. Erik made her laugh when he confessed that he'd been trying to scare Carlotta into leaving within a month after she'd started singing there, simply because he hated her voice, her arrogance, and the way she allowed her poodle to leave messes all over the theatre.

Meg made one more foray into Paris, bringing back more food, some theatrical makeup, and a pair of books used in most schools to teach English. That same night, unknown to her, Erik made his own foray into the sewers and catacombs to retrieve caches of money he'd hidden away over the years in the event he ever needed to leave the opera house. When Meg returned with the schoolbooks, Erik applied himself to the task of learning a new language. She helped, having learned English along with several other languages as a child. Mme. Giry had held high hopes for her one daughter, and knew that a good education coupled with becoming an acclaimed ballerina would give the girl more opportunities as she grew up.

The day before they planned to leave the hideout and slip out of Paris, Meg decided to experiment with using the makeup to disguise Erik's scars. As he had seldom ventured outdoors since he'd first hidden within the catacombs beneath the theatre, he was naturally pale enough to pass as a recovering invalid once she smoothed over the seamed and rippled flesh of his scars. A wig would easily hide the scars and thinned hair on the side of his head above his ear. They didn't have a mirror in the hideout, but she improvised a small one by filling one of the cooking pots halfway up and having him look at his own dim reflection in the water.

Erik peered at himself, and then looked up at Meg. "I think it will do. You seem to have thought everything out. Do you have a destination in mind?"

"I thought perhaps the American city of New Orleans, or maybe the Canadian city of Montreal. I know enough English to manage in our travels, but I understand both of those cities have a large French-speaking population, which will make the transition easier, don't you think?" she said. "We just have to decide which climate we'd prefer… something similar to Paris but with shorter summers, or something much warmer than what we're used to." She tucked her fingers under his chin, tilting his head to one side as she examined her handiwork once more.

Erik closed his eyes against a vision of Meg in a soft green dress, an ocean breeze ruffling her blonde hair as she smiled from the railing of a steamship. Her fingers were still warm on his chin, the faint scent of her soap filling the air around them. "I don't know if I can do this," he whispered hoarsely, attempting to turn away from her gentle touch.

Meg tilted her head. "What don't you think you can do? Learn English? Live elsewhere?"

He shook his head. "I don't think we should travel together. I can't… you don't know…" He swallowed again, then confessed, "You… you are making it… far too easy… to stop picturing Christine in my mind."

"Isn't that a good thing?" she asked, laying her hand over his.

That light touch proved too much. This young woman, just as lovely as Christine in her own fashion, approached him willingly, of her own free choice. He wasn't her teacher; she didn't believe him to be the spirit of her deceased father. She even implied that she considered him a friend. He reached out with shaking hands and grabbed her shoulders, pulling her into an almost desperate kiss.

Meg stiffened for a heartbeat in surprise when he grabbed her, but quickly relaxed into his arms, returning that kiss tenderly.

He released her just as abruptly, turning away with an expression of regret and self-recrimination. "I'm so sorry, Meg… I shouldn't have done that… I don't want to be a monster… but when you're so close, it's so easy to lose control, especially when you touch me so innocently…"

"Erik…" she began. Then she simply turned him back to face her and brushed his lips with her own.

He froze, unable to believe what was happening. Surely he was dreaming, he thought. Meg Giry couldn't possibly be sitting beside him… kissing him… He groaned. "Meg… Meg… you shouldn't… I can't… I'm only a man and a weak one at that, and you are tempting me beyond my endurance!"

She responded in the last way he expected; by standing up long enough to remove her skirt and blouse. "If you want me," she whispered, "you may have me. I've wanted you since I first saw you back on New Year's Eve," she added with a soft blush. "When you appeared at the top of the stairs, garbed as the Red Death, you looked so handsome and commanding. And your voice, so passionate… if my mother hadn't held me back like she did, I would have approached you then."

"You would have?" Erik asked in wonder, his expression torn between astonishment, desire, and disbelief. "Still, we shouldn't…" he said, making one last effort to think of her and not of his own desires. "You're young… you'll want to marry someday. What you're offering… should belong to your husband." Despite his words, he reached out and grasped her hands, his thumbs gently caressing the insides of her wrists.

Meg responded with a smile. "But I want you, Erik." She lifted his hands to her breasts.

The feel of her soft flesh under his fingers broke the last of his resistance. With a hungry moan, he drew her down beside him and captured her lips in a fierce kiss. He gently explored her breasts with his hands, marveling at the silken smoothness of her skin. She moaned softly, shyly lifting her hands to his chest. She trembled slightly, pressing into his caresses as he kissed her again, savoring the taste of her lips. He pulled back to gaze at her for a long moment.

"You're so beautiful," he whispered hoarsely. He pushed his trousers off before shyly reaching out to her once again. "I don't want to hurt you… you're so small…"

"I'm not afraid," Meg whispered. "I trust you, Erik." She leaned up to press a soft kiss to the side of his neck.

He moaned, her enthusiastic responses only increasing his desire. He shifted to cover her petite form with his own. "Last chance to say no," he whispered.

"Take me… please…" the young dancer pleaded. Meg's head was spinning with the sensations engendered by his touch. She hungered for something she couldn't name, but instinct told her that only the joining of their bodies would satisfy the longing.

Erik quickly lost himself in the sensations, doing his utmost to give Meg the same pleasure she offered him. Afterwards, he cradled her close. "Thank you, Meg," he whispered.

"Thank you, Erik," she whispered back, nestling contentedly against him. She rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes.

He dropped a soft kiss on the top of her head and tugged the blanket up over them both before he too succumbed to slumber.

Erik wasn't sure how long they slept, but when he awakened, Meg was already up. She'd evidently washed her hair, as it was wrapped in a piece of toweling, and she was busily washing the rest of herself with warm water from the pot on the gas ring. He smiled softly, enjoying the opportunity to admire her form as she sponged off in the candlelight. Then he frowned as she winced slightly when the washrag skimmed her Venus mont. And was that a bloodstain on her thigh? He moved to stand, only then catching sight of more bloodstains, on the sheets, and on his own member. He gasped in horror as he fell to his knees. "Mon Dieu, Meg… what have I done?"

She looked up at his cry, her confusion evident. "What do you mean, Erik?"

"You… you've been so good to me… and I hurt you…" His voice cracked with his remorse. Somehow, seeing Meg's pain and blood made him feel far worse than anything else ever had.

Meg blinked, and then a look of understanding crossed her face. "No, no… you didn't hurt me! Not like you're thinking. I just… you were my first. A little bleeding is usual… and if I am a bit sore, it's no different from wearing a new pair of pointe shoes for the first time. No matter how well the new shoes fit, they'll always make the feet sore at first, because they're new."

Erik looked at her, his face anguished and his eyes pleading for reassurance. "Really?" he whispered.

In that moment, she knew she loved him. "Really," she nodded. She dipped the washrag into the pot, wrung it out, and walked over to him. "Look for yourself if you wish," she murmured. "I promise you didn't hurt me, Erik. You did nothing that I didn't ask of you."

He took the washrag from her and gently finished cleaning her thighs. He also cleaned himself free of her blood before getting to his feet. "I feel so foolish," he confessed. "But… you were my first as well. I… I didn't know there would be blood. It scared me, when I thought I'd hurt you."

She smiled up at him. "How could you have known?" she said softly. "I only knew to expect it from listening to the other girls' chatter in the dorms. But somehow, I doubt you ever paid much attention to such things."

He chuckled ruefully. "You're right about that," he nodded. "So… what now?"

"We need to get papers for you," Meg said. "A certificate of baptism, at the very least, so you can get a passport. I have mine already. Although…" she blushed. "It might be better if we were to travel as man and wife, if you're willing, which would mean we both would need passports with the same name. So we'd also need a certificate of marriage. Mother gave me the name of someone who… provides such documents… and told me where to look for him."

Erik blinked. "You really have thought of everything. You… you're really willing to travel as my… my wife?" He still found it hard to believe that she'd come willingly to his arms, let alone that she'd want to keep in such close association with him. He'd assumed that he would be posing as her father or uncle on their journey.

She misinterpreted his hesitance. "It seemed best," she said, trying not to sound too disappointed. "But I can understand if you would rather not pretend to be married to me."

"No, no… I just… I didn't think you'd want to pretend to be married to me," he hastened to explain, his face red. "I… guess I'm still trying to believe that you came to me willingly. When I… let Christine go with her vicomte, I thought I was sending away the only woman who even might consider being with me. And since your mother tried to keep you from even knowing about me, I guess I always thought of you as someone beyond my reach."

"I'm not, though," she said softly.

He caressed her cheek gently. "I can see that," he said just as softly. "Although it might take a while for it to really sink in." He leaned down and gave her a tender kiss. "As tempting as you are, Meg, if we're going to leave tonight, we'd better dress and go find the person who can get us the papers we'll need."

Meg nodded and looked through what small selection of clothing she had, choosing her plainest dress as being the most sensible for the sort of traveling they would be doing this evening. "You'll need a surname, you know," she said, "for your baptismal certificate and your passport. Well, our passports, and our marriage certificate as well. Had you given any thought about that?"

Erik pulled on his own least flamboyant suit of clothing and tied his hair back so it wouldn't show under the wig he'd be using. "I think Benoit," he said softly. "Because I've been blessed with a second chance, thanks to you, Meg."

She blushed at his words. "Flatterer," she murmured as she approached to apply the theatrical makeup to transform him into a recovering invalid for their travels.

He waited patiently for her to work her skill on his face and settled his selected wig onto his head. He took one last look around to make sure they weren't forgetting anything important, and then picked up the two carpetbags that contained all their clothing. "It might sound crazy, but I think I might actually miss this place," he murmured.

She smiled. "Me too, to be honest," she said as she opened the trapdoor to the church basement. She took the lead as they tiptoed their way out of the church and through the streets and alleys until they came to the address her mother gave her, of a customs agent who supplemented his income by creating new identities for those who needed them.

Apparently Mme. Giry had been in contact with the man herself, letting him know that her daughter and a friend would come seeking his services in the near future, as he had the necessary papers ready and waiting when Meg gave her name and told him what they sought. The agent gave a small smile as he wrote out their new names on Erik's baptismal certificate, their marriage certificate, and their passports, then affixed the proper seals to each document. He also supplied a simple gold wedding ring for Meg to wear, in order to lend authenticity to their new identities. "What date shall I put for your wedding date?" the agent asked.

Erik slipped the ring onto Meg's finger, then looked at her and smiled. "Yesterday?" he murmured, feeling that it was appropriate in light of what they'd shared. She nodded with a smile in return, so he looked back to the agent. "Yesterday's date, please," he requested.

The agent nodded. "April second, certainly. Congratulations, M'sieur and Madame Benoit." He blotted the ink on all the documents and handed them over. "Safe travels."

Dawn was just breaking over the Parisian skyline as they left the agent's apartment. Meg handed Erik a walking stick and took the carpetbags from him. "You're ill, remember?" she said softly. "We'll walk as far as Boulevard St.-Germain, then hire a cab to take us to the train station, where we'll take the first train to Le Havre. From there, we take the ferry to England and then we can book a steamship to New York. And somewhere in all that, we decide where we wish to settle."

"New Orleans," Erik said with a smile. "If I am recovering from illness, the warmer climate would make more sense, yes?"

"Good thinking," she grinned as they turned to cross the Seine, moving into the portion of the city occupied by the Sorbonne and its students. Hailing the first cab they saw, they swiftly arrived at the train station and the first test of their new identity papers.

To Erik's profound relief, the falsified papers and Meg's skilled work with the theatrical makeup passed muster, and they were not stopped as they boarded the early train to the coast. They both breathed a sigh of relief as the city faded into the distance behind them, although Meg kept to her role as a doting wife caring for her ill husband. He didn't mind it one bit. In fact, he suspected he was going to hate it when they eventually reached their destination and parted company. But at the same time, Meg had already done so very much for him, he knew he would let her go so she could have the happiness she deserved someday.

Still, he decided, as long as she is gifting me with this time together, I might as well enjoy it. Their crossing to England and the train to Liverpool were as uneventful as their exit from Paris. After exchanging a goodly portion of their funds, he insisted on booking them first class on the next White Star steamship leaving for New York, as well as into an upscale hotel for the three days they would have until the Oceanic sailed.

When Meg protested the cost, he told her, "I had more money hidden in the tunnels than I think you or your mother realized, and I collected it the same night you went and got us food and the makeup. I do not want you cramped in a dormitory in steerage, in the least comfortable part of the ship, when I can afford to purchase us a suite. With everything you've done for me, how can you not let me do this for you?" He hesitated, then asked, "Or is it that you would prefer not to share quarters with me for the duration of the voyage?"

Meg shook her head. "Oh, no! Nothing like that, Erik, I assure you! I just didn't know if we'd be leaving enough money to get properly settled, if we traveled first class. But if you wish it…"

"I do," he smiled. "And what's more, we're going to go shopping for more clothes while we wait to sail. This trip is supposed to be our honeymoon, after all," he teased lightly. "So I'm going to play the besotted new husband indulging his wife's every desire." He paused, and asked shyly, "Will you… pick out a green dress, when we are out? I…I think you look especially pretty in green.

Her eyes softened. "Of course," she said with a smile. "In fact, if you'd like, you can help me pick out whatever dresses you think I'll need."

"At least ten," he said firmly. "The voyage is to last ten to twelve days, barring excessively bad weather, they told me, and as first class passengers, we'll be expected to dress for dinner."

"That's too much," Meg protested. "No more than five, and I can use my costuming skills to make it seem like I have a larger wardrobe, by adding scarves or shawls and such. Ten, really! At least two if not three of the dresses I already own will do, you know." She giggled. "That's the advantage of being in theatre, at least for a female. More of our clothing is appropriate for evening wear than daytime."

He laughed with her. "We'll look over what you brought after supper tonight, agreed? And we can discuss it further if you wish."

"What are we doing for supper, anyway? The dining room?"

Erik bit his lip lightly. "I… would prefer to have supper sent up, if that is all right with you? Yes, the makeup you did on me got us out of France safely, but I'm not sure I trust it in the warmth of the hotel. And I'm not quite ready to face a crowd without it or a mask." He took a deep breath. "I know I have to eventually, you've made me see that. But not tonight, please?"

She stepped closer to him with a soft smile, reaching up to caress his cheek. He was right; the pancake makeup she'd used to smooth over the worst of his scarring was growing soft in the heat of the hotel's lobby. "I don't mind," she said softly. "Besides, we are supposed to be on our honeymoon. It's to be expected that we want to be alone."

"True enough," he agreed, firmly squashing down the hope that she was hinting that she wanted to be alone with him. "All right, let's get checked in, then you can supervise the maid unpacking our things while I see about getting our meal sent up."

"All right," she nodded, taking his arm as they crossed the lobby to the desk.

The manager peered at them with a slightly jaundiced eye as Monsieur Benoit registered them in his halting English. Whoever the Benoits might be, they were obviously not of the gentry, but new money. Still, if they lacked the refinement of the true upper classes, they did display a certain gentility of manner rather than the coarseness of so many of the nouveau riche. They would be acceptable guests of the hotel. His manner thawed more as the fellow detained his wife for a moment before sending her upstairs with the maid, reverting briefly to their native French to ask if she had any preferences as to their meal. Such consideration spoke well of the man, so he quickly assigned a bellhop to bring the couple's meal up to their suite as soon as it was ready in the kitchen.

Once Erik ordered their meal, he headed upstairs to find Meg addressing a postal card to her mother, while the maid finished hanging their clothing in the spacious wardrobe. The woman curtsied and left quickly as he entered. He moved over to the desk to look over Meg's shoulder.

The train from Paris was quiet as trains go, Meg wrote, and the ferry to England quite pleasant. We sail for New York on April sixth, and plan to go from there to New Orleans. I'll send another card once we've crossed the Atlantic, and write properly when we're settled. Much love, Meg.

She looked up at him with a smile. "That should reassure her, don't you think?"

He smiled back warmly. "I'm sure it will. You've always been thoughtful of her. I remember…" He was interrupted by a knock on the door and the arrival of their dinner. He admitted the bellhop, who entered with a small wheeled cart and set out the various dishes on the table in their sitting room, as well as a bottle of wine.

"Shall I pour, sir?" the young man asked.

"Thank you, but I will take care of it," Erik told him, tipping him generously.

"Thank you, sir," he said, "and just ring when you are finished, so I can collect the dishes." He bowed himself out of the suite.

When the door closed behind the bellhop, Meg smiled. "Go wash your face before we eat," she said softly.

Erik looked uncomfortable. "Must I?"

"Yes," she said firmly. "You need to become less self-conscious about your scarring. Besides, you already know I am not bothered by it."

"Nor was it so brightly lighted, where we've been staying."

She actually shook her finger at him. "Erik Benoit, you stop arguing and do as I say! Go wash up so we can eat, I'm starving!"

He stared at her for a long moment, then burst into laughter. He'd been the fearsome Opera Ghost for all those years, yet there she was, scolding him. She was so petite, and yet so fierce and earnest, so very vibrant and alive. He raised his hands in surrender. "I'm going, I'm going." He could see her trying not to give in to her own laughter as he headed into their private washroom. He couldn't quite bring himself to look in the mirror… over the years, he'd even taught himself to shave by touch so he wouldn't have to see himself… but he washed carefully and squared his shoulders before rejoining Meg in the sitting room.

"Much better," she smiled as he emerged, his face clean.

He blushed as he held her chair out for her. "Thank you, Meg. Wine?"

"Please," she said as she let him seat her. She kept up a light conversation as they enjoyed their meal, happy to see him grow more animated as they talked, forgetting to try to keep the scarred half of his face turned away from her. After dinner, they looked over her clothes and he eventually coaxed her into consenting to purchase the entire ten new dresses he wished to buy her.

It was only when they both started yawning that he became uncomfortable once more. "Er… you go ahead and take the bed, Meg," he mumbled. "I can sleep on the sofa."

She blinked at him. "You… ah… why would you do that?" she asked, a slight tremor in her voice.

He couldn't meet her gaze. "I don't… dare… you don't have to… to… I wouldn't expect… that sort of kindness again. So I just… wanted to avoid, uh, putting you in a position where you might think…" he trailed off uncertainly.

"Oh, Erik," Meg sighed. "Even after what we've shared, you still don't believe I find you attractive, do you?"

"Well, I'm not," he said, looking down and reddening. "Anyway, I don't want to make it harder…"

She tilted her head, puzzled. "Make what harder?" she asked.

"Letting you go," he admitted. "But I won't do to you what I did to Christine. You deserve to be happy. As kind as you've been, how could I be so cruel as to stand in the way of your happiness? When it came down to it, I couldn't even bring myself to hold her… and you have less reason than she did to remain with me."

Meg shook her head. "You're wrong, Erik," she murmured. "I have all the reason I need to remain with you. I want to do so."


"Shh," she laid a finger over his lips. "No buts. I'm right where I want to be."

Erik reached up and slowly took her hand, then leaned down to kiss her gently. "You're sure, Meg?" he asked softly. "I don't want you to feel obligated at all."

She smiled into his eyes. "All I feel right now is desire, Erik. Ever since leaving that room, I've been waiting for the chance to be back in your arms once more."

He kissed her once more, savoring the taste and feel of her as he pulled her close. He never quite remembered how they got undressed and onto the bed, but suddenly they were there. He gazed down at her lush curves, tracing them lightly with his hands and smiling at the soft sounds of pleasure she made.

Afterwards, she kissed him with a sweetness that still took him a little by surprise, then nestled comfortably against him with a soft sound of contentment. "Do you believe me now, that you are a most desirable man, Erik, or must I spend every night of our journey in convincing you?" she teased gently.

He gave a breathless chuckle. "Mm. And what would you say if I said I needed more persuasion?" he teased in return.

Meg giggled. "If so, I think we will have a most enjoyable voyage!"

Erik laughed, he couldn't help it. She was so very adorable. "Do you know how wonderful you are?"

She grinned. "Well, I do now that you've told me so. You're pretty amazing yourself, you know."

He blushed and kissed the tip of her nose. "We have shopping to do tomorrow, cherie, we should sleep."

"Good night, Erik."

"Good night, Meg."

They fell asleep still wrapped in each other's arms.

In the morning, they both took advantage of the private washroom to bathe. Meg applied Erik's makeup, understanding of his reluctance to show his scars publicly just yet. They decided to venture to the hotel dining room for breakfast, where they pleased their server by not being overly demanding and further impressed the hotel manager with their genteel manners.

After their leisurely meal, they crossed the lobby to the desk, to ask directions to the shops. Erik specified that he wished to purchase his wife a new dress in the latest English fashion, to commemorate their visit, and asked if the manager could recommend a shop. Indeed, the manager could, now thoroughly pleased with the couple. They were quiet, mannerly, and generous; and he would be getting a commission from the shop to which he would send them.

The man personally hailed them a cab, giving Erik his card with instructions to show it to Madame Claire at Chenard and Taylor, Dressmakers. He also gave the driver explicit instructions to bring the couple to the shop and wait to bring them either back to the hotel, or wherever they might wish to go until such time as they were ready to return. The driver nodded; he liked getting such fares from the upscale hotels, as they tended to be easy if dull work, involving more waiting outside the shops than actual driving.

At Chenard and Taylor, Erik showed the card to Madame Claire, who promptly marshaled two of the shop assistants and devoted herself to selecting garments suited to Meg's coloring. He was especially pleased to see that the selection included a light green evening gown. Such alterations as would be required would be done overnight, and the dresses which needed work would be delivered to the hotel no later than the following afternoon. Erik paid in full for the garments they would be taking with them, plus half for the ones being altered with the balance to be paid upon delivery. As the weather was beginning to threaten rain, Erik and Meg decided to go back to the hotel with only a pause to mail the postal card to Mme. Giry.

They spent the next day almost entirely in the hotel, only taking brief constitutionals after breakfast and luncheon. The rest of Meg's new wardrobe arrived and was paid for. The following morning, the maid arrived after breakfast to help them pack for their voyage. They checked out and accepted the personal good wishes for a pleasant journey from the hotel manager, who added that he'd be quite happy to be their host again, should they ever travel back to England. The man detailed a bellhop to take their expanded amount of luggage and hail them a cab for the ride to the docks.

Meg couldn't help but stare at her first glimpse of the Oceanic. The newest vessel in the White Star fleet, she was sleek and trim and much bigger than the young ballerina had imagined. As the cabbie found a luggage handler from the ship and saw to the unloading of their bags from the cab, she took Erik's hand in hers. "We really are starting a new life," she murmured. "I knew it before, but it's only now hitting me."

Erik tilted his head, looking at her in some concern. "Are you having second thoughts, Meg? If you wish to remain behind, I won't stop you. You could still return to your mother and L'Opera Populaire."

"No, no," she shook her head. "I'm looking forward to seeing New York and then exploring the United States as we go on to New Orleans. It's just a little intimidating, that's all."

He chuckled warmly, giving her hand a squeeze. "You, Meg, intimidated? Impossible! You're the girl with the nerve to scold the fearsome Phantom and make him do your bidding. You can't possibly be intimidated by a ship, no matter how big it is." As he hoped, his words made her laugh and lift her chin, ready to take on the world once more. He paid the cabbie, tipping the man generously. Taking Meg's hand once more, he guided her towards the first-class gangway where he produced their tickets for perusal by the boarding officer. A steward stepped forward at the officer's signal, escorting them to their suite.

The steward informed them that the ship's doctor would be with them shortly to perform the required physical examination before departure, turned, and left. Erik looked frightened. "I didn't know there would be doctors looking at us," he whispered. "What do I do?"

"Wash your face and remove your wig," Meg said matter-of-factly. "If you try to hide the scars, you'll make them suspicious. They're looking for people who are diseased. You're not diseased. You were with your photographer mother as a small child, in her darkroom as she developed her plates. There was an accident and you were burned by the chemicals."

He took a deep breath. "Right. Chemical burns from an accident in my mother's photography darkroom when I was a small child." He took off his wig, tucking it into his overcoat pocket, and washed his face using the washstand in the bedroom. Just as he was drying his face, there was a knock at the door.

Meg opened it to admit the ship's doctor, his nurse, and an officer with a clipboard in hand. Erik took a deep breath and entered the sitting room, only to redden and turn away in distress when the nurse gasped audibly at the sight of him. Meg gave the woman a glare and moved to slide her arm around him in a gesture of reassurance and comfort. That seemed to galvanize the doctor into action and he stepped forward. He gave Meg a cursory once-over, peering into her eyes and looking carefully at her hands. He did the same to Erik before examining the scarred portion of his face carefully. "What happened here?" he asked.

Erik replied in his halting English. "Accident, when I was small. Maman… was photographer. Took me in darkroom while she worked. She fell, spilled something that burned like fire."

The nurse winced in sympathy as the doctor nodded. "Chemical burns from photographic developing solutions. Yes, I've seen similar scarring before, only on the subject's hands. They pass."

The officer made a notation on his clipboard, then went through his questions in a perfunctory manner. "I need your names, profession, and ultimate destination, please."

"Erik and Marguerite Benoit, I am pianist and composer, and my wife is ballerina. We plan to settle in New Orleans, in state of Louisiana."

The officer noted all of this on his clipboard, and bowed. "Thank you. Enjoy the voyage." The trio departed, and Erik let out a sigh of relief.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" Meg asked.

"I suppose not. But it was uncomfortable. Even so… perhaps this is when I should do as you say I eventually must, and go out without the makeup? There are but fifty first class passengers at most, so perhaps this is the time to… to try to accustom myself to how I look and how people will see me, when the numbers are limited. What do you think?"

She smiled. "I think you should do just that, mon coeur. And I'll be at your side every moment, I promise."

At that point, another knock on the door heralded the delivery of their luggage, and Meg set about hanging her dresses and his suits in the spacious wardrobe provided, to prevent wrinkles. The ship's whistle sounded as she finished this chore and he offered her his arm. "Shall we go on deck to watch the departure?" he asked.

"Why not?" she answered. "After all, who knows when we might see England again." She pinned her hat firmly into place, and took his arm for the stroll to the promenade deck. Along with dozens of other first-class travelers, they watched in awe as the slender ship slowly pulled away from the docks and out into the Irish Sea.

From where they stood, they could also see the crowded aft deck where the steerage passengers milled about as they also watched the ship's departure. Erik slid his arm around Meg's waist and tilted his head in that direction. "You see why I insisted on first class? For myself, as well as for you. I wanted the comfort for you, yes, but I also wanted the privacy for myself," he admitted. "After being alone for so many years, some company is wonderful, but I understand the quarters there sleep six to a room smaller than the bedroom of our suite."

Meg looked and nodded. "I shouldn't have argued with you. And I do thank you for being so insistent."

"Arguing was fine," he smiled. "You thought we had much less money than we do, and so you were trying to be practical. That's not such a bad thing, you know."

"Even when I'm being bossy?" she teased.

He grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. "Even then. You're adorable when you're bossing me around. I love it."

She blushed, dropping her gaze so he wouldn't see the sudden hope in her eyes. "Flatterer," she laughed.

"Truth," he insisted. But he noticed her starting to shiver in the chill breeze on the water, and escorted her back inside.

As the dinner hour approached, Erik grew more and more nervous. Meg finally pushed him into a chair and sat on his lap. "What is the absolute worst thing that can happen?" she demanded. "Logically speaking, Erik, not from fear."

He opened his mouth, then closed it again, feeling somewhat foolish. Of course he wasn't going to be murdered as a monster, not when he was a paying first-class passenger on board ship. It would create too much of a scandal for the White Star Line, which was just emerging from insolvency. "People will turn away in revulsion," he finally mumbled.

"Some might," Meg agreed. "But so what? They are the fools who will lose out, if they choose not to get to know you because of how you look." She reached up to caress his cheek. "And really, if you wear a wig, your face truly doesn't look as bad as you think it does. Pick out a wig for your public appearances and we'll go face the rest of our fellow passengers together. I'll let you choose which dress you want to see me in tonight," she coaxed him with a smile.

"That lovely green one," Erik said. "When you first suggested leaving France, I pictured you in my mind, standing at the rail of a ship wearing a green dress and looking absolutely breathtaking."

She blushed. "Then I will wear the green one for you, mon coeur," she murmured.

He sighed and leaned his cheek on the top of her head. "I wish…"

"You wish what?"

"Oh… many things," he replied vaguely, unwilling to put voice to his thoughts just yet. I wish you meant that, he thought. I wish we were truly married. I wish you could love me the way I'm coming to love you. I know now that what I felt for Christine was an obsession for an ideal, an illusion. I wanted to keep her to myself and worship her. You, Meg… I want you, never doubt it… yet I want you free to come and go as you please. I wish I knew how to tell you how I feel without making you feel trapped. He gently tipped her off his lap. "Let's both get dressed, and then you can help me decide which wig to wear."

She stole a furtive glance at him as she settled the many-layered skirts of her gown evenly over her bustle and fastened the snug bodice. The pale green silk with its dark green and gold trim really did suit her coloring admirably. "You have a good eye for color and such," she commented. "I suppose you learned it from watching the costumers all those years?"

"Yes. My education might not be traditional, but I did learn quite a few things by watching everyone over the years," he said as he adjusted his bow tie. "I learned to write music and lyrics, costuming, set construction and the creation of special effects. But I didn't learn how to behave around others."

"You be yourself," she told him, as she reached up to straighten his collar. "You did fine in the hotel dining room. The only difference here is that you and I will not be the only people at the table. Maman sent me to lessons at a finishing school two years ago, if you recall, in hopes that I might someday attract a wealthy mate, and so she wished me to have the same sort of lessons taught to the daughters of the aristocracy that I not lose such a man through embarrassing him with my table manners or anything. Just watch me if you are unsure which fork to use," she smiled.

Erik chuckled despite his nervousness. "I can do that," he nodded. "Now, which color hair do you prefer on me? The black or the dark brown or the lighter brown?"

"The light brown," Meg replied decisively. "It's the closest to your natural hair color, and I think it suits you best."

He blushed as he settled it onto his head. "Is it straight?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered. Eventually, she thought, I will manage to get him over his nearly phobic aversion to mirrors. But he was worried enough at the thought of his first public appearance without either a mask or stage cosmetics hiding his scars that she didn't want to push just yet. "Ready?"

He took a deep breath. "As ready as I'll ever be," he said, offering her his arm.

She took it, walking beside him with her head held high and her hand gripping his arm in a manner intended to show pride of possession. As they descended the staircase, she could feel his increasing tension as other couples turned to look at them. Several of the women gasped softly or looked away so she tightened her grasp slightly. "Courage, mon coeur," she whispered, giving him a brilliant smile before letting her gaze slide dismissively over anyone who looked away. She could understand the gasps… the scars were quite bad after all, and presumably the upper classes had better access to doctors and so fewer chances of being scarred in such a way… but as far as she was concerned, those who couldn't overcome their shock at the scars to at least attempt to see the person beneath, were not worth the time of day.

He forced himself to keep walking forward, to face the stares without flinching. I have to do it for Meg's sake, he told himself, so that I won't shame her before these wealthy society people. She might not have been born among their ranks, but her mother had raised her to hopefully take her place there one day. The acquaintances they made aboard this ship could make the difference between acceptance and ostracism for Meg once they reached America, especially if any of them were from New Orleans, and he would not ruin her chances by retreating into the darkness in which he'd lived before.

At the bottom of the staircase, a steward met them and took their names, escorting them to their assigned table. Two of the women already seated, a mother and daughter by their appearance, turned to the gentleman with them and started whispering urgently, but much to Erik's surprise two other couples gave them nods of greeting and polite smiles. He seated Meg and took his place beside her. He remained quiet through the first course, surreptitiously watching the young dancer to be sure he was using the correct utensils.

But during the second course, one of the men who'd nodded as they came to the table decided to draw him into the conversation. "Are you visiting the States, or will you be settling there?" he asked in a cultured English accent. "Josie and I are joining her sister and brother-in-law in Chicago, while Albert and Sylvia are hoping to purchase a farm in Virginia or thereabouts. Excellent horse country, you know, and his elder brother has quite the stables. Bertie's hoping to pick up a good property on the cheap and breed up a steeplechaser that'll give his brother's beasts a run for their money."

It took Erik a moment to comprehend all that, but he gave a nod. "We go to live in New Orleans," he said carefully, hoping his English would be up to an actual conversation. "We could not… remain… in Paris. Meg's mother… hoped for… husband with title for her. But Meg… chose me." That was all true enough, he thought. Antoinette had hoped that Meg would manage to catch a husband with a title, and I, at least, couldn't stay in Paris after the debacle at L'Opera Populaire. If this fellow traveler assumes we left Paris to escape the wrath of Meg's family, so much the better.

And the chatty fellow did just that. "Quite the romantic tale, friend," he chuckled. "Quite worthy of a Frenchman. I'm David, by the way, David Tanner. My wife, Josephine," he indicated the lady beside him, "And Lord Albert Sedgwick and Lady Sylvia his wife. And that's Patrick Sullivan and his wife Kathleen and oldest daughter Eileen." He ignored the horrified looks the Sullivans gave him; the boorish Irish-Americans were displaying an appalling lack of manners towards the scarred chap anyway.

"I am Erik Benoit," Erik said. "This is my wife Meg."

Albert joined in the conversation then. "What do you plan on doing in New Orleans? I've heard it's a bit of a wild city, what with all the French people there. Can't see any use in going there myself. Ow!" he exclaimed with a glare in the direction of his wife. "Why'd you kick me?"

"M'sieur Benoit is French," Sylvia replied dryly. "M'sieur, I do hope you will forgive Bertie's lack of thought and want of manners."

"It is… forgive," Erik said. "My English is… not good yet. That is why, when we decide to come to America, we choose New Orleans. A place we can… speak to others and be… understood… as we get… more good in English."

"Your English is much better than my French, or Bertie's either," David laughed. "Neither one of us can say more than a few words. So for what it's worth, you have my admiration, in that you can carry on a conversation in a language other than your native tongue."

Erik reddened slightly. "Thank you, sir," he answered.

Both Englishmen smiled. "No need for such formality, when we'll be sitting together two or three times a day for the duration of the crossing," Albert said. "He's David and I'm Bertie."

"Then I am Erik," he replied with a nod. "Tell me, what do you think of ship?"

"Quite impressive," David said. "People thought Ismay was mad when he took over the White Star line, but with ships like this, he'll be giving Cunard some serious competition before long."

The conversation continued throughout dinner, and afterward Erik accepted David's invitation to join him and Bertie in the saloon for a brandy while Meg accompanied Josie and Sylvia to the grand salon where they played cards until the men rejoined them. All three couples danced to the music provided by a string quartet for a while before retiring for the night.

"They didn't mind my face," Erik said in wonder as he and Meg got ready for bed. "The Tanners and the Sedgwicks didn't mind my face at all."

Meg smiled. "You see what I've been saying all along? That many people can overlook your scars to see you. Oh, they were curious… Josie asked me about it. But curiosity is natural enough, and once I explained about the darkroom accident, neither she nor Sylvia mentioned it again."

He nodded. "Perhaps you're right. Although that other family at our table didn't seem to feel the same way."

"Pfft." She waved her hand in dismissal of the Sullivan family. "According to Sylvia, they are what she calls the absolute dregs of the newly rich. She and Bertie are minor nobility; his brother is an earl and she's the youngest daughter of a marquis. According to her, the new rich come in two basic sorts. There's the sort like us or the Tanners, who might not be born to the manor, but who have what she calls an inborn gentility and enough culture to avoid embarrassing ourselves. And then there's the sort like the Sullivans, who retain the coarse manners of the common laborers they were before they tumbled into wealth as much through luck and shady dealing as through honest endeavor."

Erik had to chuckle at that. "Interesting. I suppose it's true enough that we count as new rich, but what led them to that conclusion?"

"You, silly," Meg laughed. "When you told them Mother hoped to wed me to a man with a title. Apparently that's becoming almost common in England. Many of the titled are slowly slipping into genteel poverty, so there are always men with titles looking to wed the daughters of the newly wealthy. The girl gets raised into the ranks of the nobility, and her husband receives a cash settlement from her father so he can repair the ancestral home and invest the rest to use for the future support of the family. Since we supposedly wed against my family's wishes, but we're here in first class anyway, you obviously have money of your own."

He nodded as he slid into bed. "I see. I hope you're all right with what I told them?"

She smiled. "Why wouldn't I be? I did choose you, after all." She climbed into bed beside him.

He blushed and drew her close for a kiss. "So you did." He hesitantly ran his hand over her side, not entirely sure that she'd welcome his advances. But once again she melted into his arms.

The bulk of the voyage passed in much the same way. Erik was still a little hesitant in his growing friendship with David Tanner and Bertie Sedgwick, but grateful for it all the same. Meanwhile Meg became quite close with Josie Tanner and Sylvia Sedgwick. Of the three couples, only the Tanners knew exactly where they would be staying, so Josie gave the Chicago address to both Meg and Sylvia so that they could write and remain in contact with each other once they'd all found places to settle. Meg and Erik also got to know several other families over the course of the voyage; other acquaintances of the Tanners or the Sedgwicks. Still, Meg was more than happy with the situation. With each new acceptance, Erik was becoming less and less uncomfortable about his appearance and more confident in general.

On the morning of the Oceanic's arrival in New York, a soft bustle of anticipation swept through the ship. Tenders pulled alongside to ferry the steerage passengers to Castle Garden in the Battery, while the ship's doctor and an officer went through the first-class cabins repeating the cursory physical examinations and questions given at the beginning of the voyage. Once those tasks were finished, tugs guided the Oceanic to the piers, where the first-class passengers disembarked.

The Tanners, armed with a letter from Josie's sister and brother-in-law outlining the best ways to avoid the pitfalls common to even the wealthiest of immigrants landing in New York, took charge of not only themselves, but also the Sedgwicks and Benoits. Meg and Erik were especially grateful for the help, considering that neither of them was completely fluent in English yet. David first got them settled into one of the better hotels, where the men left the women to unpack while they proceeded on to the financial district. Once there, they not only exchanged their funds for American currency, but also invested goodly portions of those funds into the new Standard Oil Company started by John D. Rockefeller the previous year, to give their families a modest quarterly income while leaving them each more than enough to get settled in their final destinations.

The three couples regrouped for lunch and discussed their travel plans. The Sedgwicks would be leaving the following morning, taking a train to Richmond, Virginia, where they planned to stay while looking for a suitable property for raising horses. With significantly farther to travel, Erik and David decided to stay an extra day in New York, to let Meg and Josie rest before moving on. They would be taking a train together as far as Louisville, Kentucky. The Tanners would remain on the train to Chicago, while Erik and Meg would transfer to a riverboat that would take them down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans. It would be slower, but a much more comfortable journey, as many of the rail lines in the Deep South were still undergoing repair from the extensive damage they suffered during the recent war.

In the morning, they all gathered in the lobby after breakfast to bid the Sedgwicks farewell. After that, Meg purchased a postal card to send to her mother as she'd promised.

We arrived safely in New York on April seventeenth, she wrote. We're taking a day to relax, then we'll set off for New Orleans. We've been told that journey will take five to six days by the route we've chosen, but that the traveling will be much more comfortable than the quicker option. As we're in no particular hurry, we've opted for comfort. As I said before, a proper letter will follow once we've reached New Orleans. Much love, Meg.

Josie Tanner peered curiously over Meg's shoulder. "I thought your family was against you and Erik marrying?" she asked.

Meg nodded. "That is true," she said. "But my mother and I were… close, as I am only daughter. I hope that if I keep contact, in time she will forgive."

Josie smiled. "That's sweet of you. I hope it works out in the end."

"So do I," Meg agreed. "Will you come with me to mail? And then perhaps we take carriage ride through park before returning for lunch. That will give David and Erik time for business, yes?"

"That sounds lovely," Josie nodded. "Especially since I know David wanted to look at some other possible investment opportunities today. I'm sure he'd be happy to bring Erik along with him."

They confirmed their plans with the men and set out on their excursion while David and Erik headed back to the financial district. As the two men strolled towards Wall Street, Erik decided to ask a question that had been plaguing him since the first dinner aboard the Oceanic. "David… forgive if rude, but… why so nice to me all this time? I am… more avoided, for face, than not."

David gave a rueful grin. "Well… I admit, part of the reason Bertie and I decided to take up with you was because of those jumped up Irish peasants at the table with us. We'd unfortunately met the Sullivans at our hotel the night before we sailed, and we couldn't stand them. Loud, crude manners, overly demanding as well as rude to the help… in short, they personified the very worst of everything that the aristocracy hates about the new rich. So, when they protested your presence at dinner, we decided to annoy them by chatting you up. And once we did, we found a very likeable chap behind those scars."

Erik reddened a bit, but smiled. "I am glad. Even if reason was not… best, it is good to make new friends. And good for Meg, that not… all people will avoid her, for being my wife."

"All the more reason I'm glad we chose to get to know you, then," David smiled. "Besides which, you make a much better audience for my lectures on investments and finance than Bertie ever did," he added with a laugh.

Erik laughed as well. "In Paris, I earned much as composer. But here, I do not know if I able do same. I am… pleased… to learn what you teach, so I always keep Meg in comfort."

David nodded. "A most excellent reason to learn finance and investing," he agreed, and launched into a discourse about several investment opportunities he hoped would prove worthwhile, taking the time to explain why he thought each one would be a good risk.

Erik just listened, only asking an occasional question for clarification when the other man used a term unfamiliar to his relatively limited English. By the time the two reached the financial district, he had a fair idea as to where he intended to invest his money. And thanks to David's friendship, doors were opened for him that he knew might otherwise be closed.

Business accomplished to their satisfaction, the two men rejoined their wives for lunch. They spent a quiet afternoon playing cards and chatting, and retired early in anticipation of their departure the following day.

In Louisville, where the two couples would be parting ways, the train was making a planned three-hour stop. Meg and Erik would remain in a hotel overnight and take the riverboat the following morning. Josie invited Meg shopping, but she declined, telling her friend, "I am tempted, but I do not need more clothing, when I do not have a place to keep. I will wait, and shop when Erik and I have a home." She smiled. "I think I more want to buy chairs and tables, than more dresses anyway."

Josie laughed. "Understandable! David and I will be staying with my sister and brother in law until we buy or build our own place, but Isabelle and Alex have a large enough home that we'll be perfectly comfortable staying with them for several months if that's what we need to do. Since we lived with David's parents in London, it won't be much different for us."

Meg chuckled in return. "In Paris, I lived with my mother, she is widow. But she would not welcome Erik, and so we spent some days in his rooms while we prepared to go to New Orleans." She grinned mischievously. "They were… smaller than I am used to. But as benefit, he was with me, and so I would not complain."

Both women giggled at that, then Josie asked, "If you could have been happy even in the smaller flat, why did you decide to leave?"

"Erik is musician, and composer," Meg explained. "My mother has… power? Non, that is not correct word…"

"Influence?" Josie suggested. "Your mother is a patroness of theatre and such, and so she could get Erik and his music dropped by threatening to remove her patronage. Yes, I understand now. You couldn't know if she would choose to punish you two for eloping, and felt it was better to go make a fresh start elsewhere before she had a chance to blacken his reputation."

Meg nodded. "Oui, that is so."

The two couples went to a tea shop for refreshments before returning to the station. David and Josie climbed back aboard the train, calling their farewells to Erik and Meg who waved from the platform as the train slowly pulled out and vanished around a curve.

When it was out of sight, Meg smiled mischievously up at Erik. "Alone at last," she murmured.

Erik blinked down at her, and smiled back. "Are you suggesting something, mon coeur?" he asked.

She nodded, her smile warming. "Scandalous, isn't it, a wife that desires her husband?" she murmured in his ear.

He shivered. "Perhaps, but I will not complain," he murmured in return, guiding her to the nearby hotel where they were spending the night.

Once in their room, she turned her back. "Unlace me, please," she requested softly, and chuckled. "I miss the clothes I wore in Paris. I had no idea how difficult it can be to get into and out of the clothing of a proper society woman."

He laughed softly, trailing tender little kisses down her spine from the back of her neck to the top of her corset as the dress came open. "But it is more fun for me, with the anticipation of what lies beneath," he said, boldly for him.

"I hope it will always be so," she replied.

"Don't, Meg," he said. "Please… I enjoy the flirting, but… please don't say things like that unless you mean them."

She turned to look up at him, deciding to bare her heart, and prayed the consequences wouldn't be too severe. "I do mean it, Erik," she said softly. "In the time we've spent together, I've fallen in love with you. I know it's too soon, and I am not… not Christine… but I keep hoping that maybe… maybe you could learn to care for me… that perhaps you'd even… even choose to keep me as your wife…"

He stared at her for a long moment, seeing the sincerity in her eyes and her expression. "You do mean it," he breathed. "Mon Dieu, and I thought I was the only one… I feared to tell you of my feelings because I didn't want you to think I would attempt to… to keep you in the same sort of gilded cage in which I tried to lock Christine. With her… I created an image of perfection within my mind, and foolishly tried to make her fit that image, and so it angered me when she did not, could not, be what I imagined her to be. But with you, Meg… with you, I learned to know the woman first, with all her little quirks and imperfections. And then I fell in love with that woman. I'd already resigned myself to letting you go, because I love you and want you to be happy, even thinking your happiness would not be with me." He reached out with trembling arms to pull her closer.

"This is where I am happiest," she murmured, snuggled against his chest with his chin just resting on the top of her head. "This is where I wish to spend the rest of my life."

"Will you marry me… properly, I mean?" he asked softly.

"Oh, yes!" Meg beamed. "If anyone asks, we wish to have an American wedding in addition to our French wedding, because while we started our lives together in France, we chose to come to America to live our lives together."

Erik couldn't help but chuckle. "And this is one of the things I love so much about you," he told her. "You always have a plan ready for anything I might suggest, because you have such a quick mind."

For both of them, the river voyage took on an air of a true honeymoon now that they'd confessed to having feelings for one another. They spent their days on the upper deck watching the countryside change from the rolling hills of Kentucky to the swamps of Missouri's boot heel and eventually to cypress forests as they neared New Orleans.

The forest soon gave way to the bustle of the city. Erik and Meg watched as the riverboat glided easily up to the docks. They smiled at each other as snatches of conversations in French as well as English reached their ears from some of the workers on shore. "Welcome to our new home, Mme. Benoit," he murmured as he took her hand to escort her ashore. Moving with his newfound confidence, Erik saw to their luggage and hailed a cab to bring them to one of the city's better hotels. Once they checked in, they ordered dinner sent up and settled in to make their plans.

"Should we start looking for a house right away?" Meg asked. "Or do you want to try to get in with the French Opera House and establish yourself in the local musical world first?"

Erik shook his head. "Neither one, actually. David Tanner gave me some letters of introduction that will get me in to speak with some of the bankers and solicitors here. So that's the first thing I'll be doing. It's far less likely we'll be cheated with such men acting in our behalf. If they know of any properties for sale, certainly we will ask to see them… I want you to choose our home, Meg. While neither of us grew up in a traditional home, you at least have had some education in how to run a household, yes? So you will know better than I what the good and bad points of any place we might consider are. With the income we'll have from the investments I've made, we'll be financially secure, more than able to hire servants for the household, so don't feel that you must opt for the smallest or least expensive place. If things go as well as I hope, we may well end up in the highest of social circles here."

Meg nodded, giving him a soft smile. "Have I told you how very proud of you I am? Listen to yourself. A month ago, you would have balked at the very idea of speaking with a stranger, let alone making plans to become a part of the highest social circles."

He blushed. "I couldn't have done it without you pushing me," he confessed. "I still don't know how you did it, but your magic worked."

"Bah, there was no magic involved," Meg smiled. "Only my love for you, and my wish to see you become the man you never had the chance to be, the man I just knew was hiding behind the mask of the Phantom." He turned brighter red and she chuckled, giving him a soft kiss.

The next several weeks flew by. With the help of their lawyer, they found a house in an affluent part of town. It had originally been taken for taxes following the recent war, and bought by an unpleasant Carpetbagger and war profiteer, but he had been killed several months earlier in a saloon brawl and had no heirs. Their new neighbors, a mix of old French families and slightly more recently settled Americans welcomed them all the more warmly because they had no part whatsoever in the war. The local gossip as learned from their newly-hired household servants spoke of Erik as "a real gentleman in spite of his scars and the wife is a delight, everything a lady should be."

Meg wrote to Josie Tanner as well as to her mother, giving their new address. Josie wrote back and gave her Sylvia Sedgwick's address as well, and the three young women established a lively correspondence between them. Both Josie and Sylvia rather envied Meg when she wrote that she and Erik renewed their vows in the oldest French church in New Orleans so that they would have an American wedding to start their American lives. As much as the two English women cared for their respective mates, they couldn't help but wish their men were as romantic as Erik.

Erik continued to build his small financial empire in the mornings, while devoting his afternoons to music. He and Meg regularly attended performances at the French Opera House. By late summer, two of his instrumental compositions were a part of the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra's repertoire. As summer turned into fall, he set up a scholarship fund with the Conservatory, which would pay tuition as well as room, board, and a small stipend for expenses for five talented but poor aspiring singers and musicians each year, who would otherwise be unable to continue their musical education.

In early October, following a consultation with a doctor, Meg hurried home with a big smile on her face to plan a particularly festive dinner. Erik, returning from an afternoon at the Conservatory where he could work on new compositions without disturbing his wife if she had callers, came in with a bouquet of roses as he often did.

She smiled. "How was your day, mon coeur?" she asked, greeting him with a kiss.

"Productive," Erik answered with a smile and kiss. "After taking care of business, I finished a new piece for the Symphony, and I started work on a new opera. Although I admit, I am a little nervous about it," he chuckled.

"Why would you be nervous?" she asked as she put the roses into a vase.

"Well… the story of it, I am basing it on what happened in Paris. Changing some parts, of course. The man haunting the opera house will be an actual wizard, or perhaps a demon. And the signature weapon will be something like a throwing knife with a distinctive pommel. The young singer will have joined the company at the age of sixteen, instead of in her childhood. And perhaps the suitor will be a marquis or even a duc, rather than a vicomte."

She nodded. "Those are all good ideas. I think I prefer a demon over a wizard. And perhaps he should communicate with the owners through someone other than the ballet mistress? One of the cleaning women, perhaps? He either frightened her into submission, or else promised a rewarding future for her only child… I think that should be it. She has a son, who wishes to become a musician, but as a cleaning woman, she cannot afford an instrument or lessons. The demon supplies the boy with a violin, and coerces one of the violinists in the orchestra to teach him."

He gave her a big hug. "That is perfect, Meg, just perfect!"

She laughed. "I am glad to hear I can still give you ideas. But come now, supper is ready."

They moved into the dining room, where he noticed that unusual care had been taken with both the appearance of the room, and the meal brought in by the butler. "Is this some special occasion that I have forgotten?" Erik asked.

Meg smiled. "It is a special occasion, but not one that you forgot. This is the day you learn that you are to become a father."

He nearly choked on his water. "A… a father? You are having a baby? My baby?" His eyes were wide with shock and wonder.

She nodded. "Yes. Come spring, the beginning of March according to the doctor, we will become parents."

He jumped up from his seat to lift her into his arms and spin her around in delight. "Oh, cherie, this is wonderful, absolutely wonderful!" Suddenly he stopped and put her back down gently. "Oh, I am so sorry, I should be more careful now. I do not want to take any chances with your health and that of the child."

Meg laughed softly. "Erik, mon coeur, you do not have to treat me as if I was made of glass. I am having a baby, the most natural of female talents. I promise, I am healthy and so is the child. I do not yet need to restrict any of my activities. In fact, the doctor suggests that I keep to my usual activities for the time being, as it is better for me and the baby. The only thing I must do differently is that I should begin wearing my corsets more loosely, and eventually I will need to give them up until after the baby arrives." She chuckled. "As if that is such a hardship. Corsets are the one thing I hate about being in society, instead of in the ballet." He laughed with her at that statement, and they spent the rest of the meal and the entire evening discussing their plans for the baby.

A couple days later, Meg wrote to Josie Tanner, Sylvia Sedgwick, and her mother to tell them the news. Since the day was pleasant, she decided to walk into town to mail her letters instead of hiring a cab. As it turned out, there was a letter from her mother awaiting her there, but when she emerged to head for home, she ran into a couple of her neighbors also out for strolls, and the three women decided to stop off at a tea shop before returning home. While Meg was eager to read her letter, she enjoyed spending time with her new friends, and they made their way back home slowly, chatting and pausing to browse if something in a shop window caught their eyes.

When she finally got home, she settled down comfortably on the verandah, a glass of lemonade at hand, and opened her letter.

My dearest Meg,

It still amazes me that you and Erik are married. I am glad for you both that you are happy, and even more glad to know that he is taking such good care of my little girl. I admit, I was scared for a time, when you first insisted on helping him leave Paris unnoticed and then when you chose to stay with him. But then I remembered the boy he was, and I knew you were correct in your belief that he was not so much evil as slightly mad from the isolation. You've done a wonderful thing, Meg, in drawing him into the world despite his face.

Christine Daae was here a week ago. Her vicomte had taken her to his mother following the events of that night. His parents insisted they wait several months before wedding, to allow her to recover from the fright she suffered, and to reassure themselves that she was not marrying their son out of gratitude for his heroics or some other foolish notion. She came seeking you, Meg, wanting to bid you a proper farewell as she intends never to return to the stage. I told her that you had eloped and gone to New Orleans to live. She told me then, Raoul plans on bringing her to America for their honeymoon, and that she would try to find you as New Orleans was on their itinerary.

I don't know if you will choose to avoid her or not. But either way, I advise you to make sure she does not see Erik. She has changed, Meg, she is still very nervous, and convinced he will take her away if ever he finds her again. Raoul hadn't wanted her to visit L'Opera Populaire, for fear she would have a relapse, and for fear that Erik might still be lurking about in the depths hiding even from me, and come after her once more. I trust in your judgment that he is over his obsession with her, but I know she would not believe it. Her vicomte is very protective of her, and if he learns Erik is about, it would not surprise me in the least if he was to arrange for Erik to disappear in one way or another.

I'm sorry that this letter is so full of gloom, but I felt that you needed to be warned, in case they suddenly appear on your doorstep.

All my love to you both,


Meg checked the date on the letter, then on the postmark. As usual, it had taken a little over three weeks for delivery, which meant that it was more than likely that Christine and Raoul were already somewhere in America. She got to her feet, knowing that Erik needed to be told as soon as possible. Of all the days to have dawdled with Gabrielle and Lucinda, she thought. If I'd read the letter immediately, I could have caught him before he went to the Conservatory for the afternoon. I don't like interrupting his time there, but he needs to know about this right away.

"Lizzie," she called to the housemaid dusting the parlor, "I'm going back out. I'm not sure exactly when I'll return, but it will be before the usual supper hour. If Cookie has any questions about the meal, she'll just have to use her own judgment today." Not waiting for a reply, she hurried down the front steps and turned toward the Conservatory, ignoring the newsboys hollering about a large fire in Chicago in their efforts to boost sales.

Unfortunately, she arrived too late.

Raoul and Christine de Chagny had already been to visit the French Opera House of New Orleans, as it was one of the city's most famous structures. And that was where Christine had gotten the bright idea to start her search for her old friend Meg. "I'm sure she would still have an interest in the theatre," she pointed out to Raoul, "even if she isn't performing anymore. If her husband is wealthy enough, surely she will have persuaded him to give his patronage in some way. And if he is not, perhaps she volunteers somehow. Perhaps someone here will know." And so she asked around, if anyone knew of a blonde Frenchwoman of about her own age; an old friend with whom she had lost touch for a time, only to learn that the girl had recently married and come to New Orleans, but she unfortunately didn't know the name of her old friend's husband.

The board member showing them about didn't consider Meg Benoit as a possibility, as his idea of 'recently' meant within the last month or so. But, the newest of the dance instructors at the Conservatory was a married blonde Frenchwoman, and so he suggested they go there and inquire after Mme. LeBlanc. Thanking him for his suggestion, the de Chagnys did just that.

Christine left Raoul waiting in the Conservatory's reception room while a student escorted her to the dancers' practice studio. Her face was bright and eager in the hope of seeing one of her oldest friends once more. To her disappointment, though, Mme. LeBlanc proved to be some years older as well as taller than Meg. Still, she thought, I don't regret coming to the Conservatory. In France, children with talent were brought into an establishment at a young age and trained there, with only the very best ever leaving the company to perform in other theatres. In America, it seemed that those with talent came to schools such as the Conservatory for their training, with many of them moving from theatre to theatre to establish their professional reputations. I like the American way of doing things, she thought. It encourages everyone to always be at their best. In France, it was far too easy to just do the minimum, because 'everybody knew' the star of any given theatre would be the star until she either retired or suffered an injury bad enough to force her offstage for more than a day or two. She paused to allow a group of students pass by on their way to their next class, smiling at their enthusiasm.

As she started to move on again, she heard a startled, "Mon Dieu!" in an eerily familiar voice. She looked up, into his face. She screamed in sheer terror, and then fainted.

Erik had just finished the opening scene for his new opera and decided to spend a few moments walking around the Conservatory to stretch his legs before getting back to work. To his complete astonishment, as he stepped into the hallway, he unexpectedly came face to face with Christine Daae. "Mon Dieu!" he gasped in surprise. She screamed, and then crumpled to the floor. He leapt forward and caught her before she hit her head, and lifted her to the nearest settee… in the reception room… as the hall filled with curious students and teachers drawn by the noise. He straightened and turned with the intention of fetching one of the female instructors to minister to her when something slammed into his shoulder and knocked him backwards. It took him a moment to register the blood and the searing pain, and a moment even beyond that to realize that he was momentarily deafened by the sound of the gunshot that hit him.

Raoul de Chagny bit off a curse when he realized he'd only wounded the monster that had terrorized his Christine during her last few months at the Opera Populaire. People were flooding the room; there was no way he could get off another shot. Damn the man for moving, and for his own haste in aiming. He cursed again as several young men tackled him, one wrenching the pistol from his grasp while others forced his arms behind him and tied his wrists with his own cravat. He was forced to watch as several women of middling years, presumably employees of the Conservatory, swooped in to flock around the beast and tend to his wound as best as they were able, while only giving his Christine a cursory glance. It makes no sense, he thought. Why would they be so worried about that monster? What sort of magic does he possess, to have so many people in his thrall? He had no more time to wonder, as the men holding him began dragging him to the door. He fought, but to no avail. Pushing and shoving, they moved him out of the Conservatory and down the road to the police station and lockup.

Meg arrived at the Conservatory in time to see a doctor hurrying up the steps. Little knots of people stood around nearby, whispering and staring at the building. She caught a few of the whispers as she passed by. "...shot him in cold blood... claims he was defending his wife... called him a monster... the woman was hysterical... swore he was going to kidnap her... so much blood..." Her heart sinking, she made her way inside, only to be intercepted by one of the Consevatory's servants.

"Miz Benoit?" the maid said, "Please come to Matron's office, ma'am. Doctah be lookin' aftah Mist' Benoit now. He'll send word when Mist' Benoit's fit to be seen."

Numbly, Meg followed. Her worst fears were confirmed when she entered the Matron's office to see Christine, her face white and streaked with tears, sitting in one of the easy chairs.

The singer struggled to her feet on seeing her old friend. "Meg, oh, Meg… thank goodness you are safe… he is here in New Orleans! I am sure he has been following me all along, planning to make me his captive once again. He… he must have cast some spell over the people here… would you believe they are tending to him? And they took Raoul away because he attempted to put that beast down like the rabid animal he is!" From her expression, Christine clearly expected Meg to commiserate with her at the very least, and hoped that perhaps the ballerina might know someone with the needed influence to get Raoul released at best.

She was doomed to disappointment. "I can't believe you," Meg exploded. "Oh, I know you were always one of the more imaginative girls in the ballet. But to think that he would come after you once he'd conceded you to his rival, mon Dieu, Christine! Are you truly so paranoid? Or do you simply have such a high opinion of yourself that you assume no man would ever get over you?"

"How can you be so cruel, Meg?" Christine cried. "You don't know what he is…"

"I know far more than you," Meg cut her off. "I was there when he told you to leave with Raoul. That alone told me he wasn't as much of a monster as you believed. But you never even tried to get to know the man behind the mask, did you? You merely accepted the training you got from your 'Angel of Music' and then turned in revulsion from the scars once you discovered them."

Christine had the grace to blush uncomfortably at that accusation. "But…"

Meg interrupted once more. "Did you know he spent years in a cage as a child, displayed by gypsies as a freak because of his scars? My mother is the one who helped him escape from them, and she helped him hide in the catacombs beneath the opera house, back when she was just starting out in the ballet herself. He dwelled alone down there for longer than either of us has been alive, Christine, and before that he was treated like a wild animal. It's a wonder he didn't go completely mad!"

"How can you possibly defend a murderer, Meg?" Christine retorted. "Or have you forgotten poor Joseph Buquet? Ubaldo Piangi may have been an accident when the chandelier fell, but we both know that he killed Joseph Buquet! What kind of spell has he put you people here under, that you keep defending him even though he followed me here to kidnap me once more?"

Meg took a deep breath, willing herself to remain calm. "He struck out at Joseph Buquet like an animal defending its territory, this is true. But when did he learn to do otherwise? Again I point out to you, he lived alone down in the catacombs for more than twenty years, and spent at least five years before that in a cage and treated as a wild animal. I assume you will defend Raoul's actions in shooting him, yes? Despite the fact that Raoul presumably had a proper upbringing, and was taught that killing is wrong. What's more, his presence here has nothing to do with you."

Christine shook her head distractedly. "I don't believe that and neither should you. Why else would he have come here?" She took a deep breath of her own. "I shall go find out where Raoul has been taken, and what I need to do to free him. Farewell, Meg, I'm sorry I didn't get to meet your husband. Perhaps when this nightmare is over…" She left the room without waiting for a reply.

Meg sank into a chair, reminding herself once more to try to be calm for the sake of the babe growing within her. She shook her head sadly. "Oh, Christine, if only you knew. If only you listened."

A few minutes later, the maid popped into the office. "Miz Benoit, Doctah say you come now."

A worried Meg followed the maid into the dormitory wing of the Conservatory. The doctor emerged from one of the rooms, giving her a reassuring smile. "Your husband will live, Mrs. Benoit," he said first thing. "He's lost a lot of blood and we'll have to guard against infection, but he was lucky. The bullet hit the bone, but it was a clean break and should heal well in time. I don't expect that he'll have any loss of use of the arm."

She breathed a sigh of relief. "May I go in to him?" she asked.

"Yes," the doctor said. "He's quite groggy from the medicine… I had to knock him out to remove the bullet without causing more damage… but he is more or less awake and asking for you."

Meg hurried into the small room, obviously one of the many that housed the Conservatory students, and dropped into the chair beside the bed. She lifted Erik's uninjured hand and kissed it, then pressed it to her cheek. "I am here, mon couer," she murmured. "I am here, and I am told you will be fine in time."

"Cherie Meg," he whispered. "Je t'aime. Christine… she is here. Her vicomte… did this."

"I know," Meg sighed. "I had a letter from Mother just today, warning me they were coming to New Orleans and that Christine was looking for me. I was on my way here to tell you, but I got here too late. I arrived in time to see the doctor get here and to hear all the whispers. I'm so sorry, mon mari, that I did not get here sooner."

He squeezed her hand lightly. "Not… your fault. But this… will be trouble."

She leaned over and gave him a tender kiss. "Whatever trouble comes, we'll see it through together. Sleep now, Erik, and I'll ask how soon I can have you brought home."

"Sing for me?" he asked softly.

She smiled. "Whenever you wish, beloved." Straightening up in order to draw a deep breath despite her corset, she began to sing. "Au clair de la lune…" When he was sleeping once more, she slipped out of the room in search of the doctor. On being informed that it would probably be safe to move Erik either the next day or the day after, she hurried back home to start the preparations for his care.

"Lizzie," she called for the maid as she entered the house. "Mr. Benoit has been hurt," she told the young woman. "The doctor says we can probably bring him home tomorrow. I'll need you to change the bedding as soon as I'm up in the morning, please, and also tell Cookie that he'll need light and easily digested meals for the next several days."

"Yas'm," the housemaid replied. "Telegram come while you was out, ma'am." Lizzie pulled the message from her apron pocket, holding it out to Meg.

The young dancer took the paper, scanning it with trepidation that quickly turned to a combination of relief and concern. Lost everything in fire =stop= Sedgwicks traveling =stop= Need help =stop= David and Josie Tanner, the message read. Meg thought for a moment, then told Lizzie, "Please prepare rooms for guests… one, possibly two married couples. I'm not quite sure how soon they'll be here, but I expect them to stay for some time." The maid nodded and vanished upstairs. Meg hurried back out the door, hailing a cab to the telegraph office, where she wired the Tanners back with an invitation to come stay for as long as needed and extending that invitation to Josie's sister Isabelle and her brother in law Alex as well, and sending enough money to cover the train fare. Afterwards, she returned to the Conservatory intending to tell Erik that they would be having guests.

She was stopped before she could get inside, though, by one of the city's policemen. "Mrs. Benoit? I need to speak with you for a moment, please," he requested with a polite tip of his hat. "It's about your husband, and the fellow who shot him."

Meg sighed. Of course Christine and Raoul would both be protesting Raoul's innocence, or at least that he had only fired to defend her from 'that monster', she thought.

"Very well, officer," she replied. "Shall we go inside? I would very much like to check on Erik… and I suspect his room will be as quiet a place as any, as he should still be sleeping off the medicine he was given."

"Of course, ma'am," he nodded, letting her lead the way to the room where Erik slept restlessly and giving her a moment to check him over before speaking again. "Both the Vicomte de Chagny and his wife insist that this is a case of defense, that Mr. Benoit attempted to kidnap the lady back in Paris and that he was making another attempt earlier today."

"It is true that at one time, Erik held Christine in some esteem," Meg said, choosing her words carefully. "She and I both danced in the ballet chorus of L'Opera Populaire in Paris then. Unknown to the rest of us, Erik was giving Christine private singing lessons, while keeping himself hidden due to his scarring. You see, as a baby, he'd been put on display as a freak in a carnival because of the scars. While he is a musical prodigy, he spent his early years treated as no better than an animal, and many years following his rescue hiding in isolation, fearing to be seen lest he be returned to his cage in the freak show. Christine… has always been rather imaginative. She came to the opera and the custody of my mother after her father's death when she was about eight, and she often told us that her father would send her an Angel of Music from Heaven, to look after her and teach her. Since she seemed to find comfort in the thought, no one ever tried to tell her such a thing was impossible. I can only guess that when the young Christine accidentally heard Erik singing or playing, she decided he must be the Angel of Music. And he was lonely enough to encourage the contact, teaching her and as she grew up, coming to care for her." She paused for breath, then continued, "About the time the opera changed hands, the new managers announced a new patron, the Vicomte de Chagny. Christine had known the vicomte as a child; they had spent summers at the seashore together when her father was still alive. Raoul saw her onstage and remembered her and declared his interest in her at just about the same time Erik chose to reveal to her that he was indeed a man who had feelings for her as well. Erik kept himself masked at the time, fearing to be scorned for his looks. From Christine, at least, he was right to fear so. She unmasked him, then wished nothing more to do with him. He did attempt to take her prisoner, thinking that if she was forced to be in his company for a time, she would learn to see past the scars, and he did threaten Raoul when he came seeking Christine. But in the end, he let them both go, unwilling to force her to remain with him when she so obviously loved Raoul. Please understand, I'm not trying to completely excuse what he did then, but at the same time, he never… never learned to… to deal with people. Not the way children learn when brought up properly. When he was with the carnival, he was caged, considered no better than an animal, and only knew to fight for whatever scraps came his way… that if he wanted something, he had to take it and hide it away so his keepers wouldn't take it away from him. In a sense, he didn't see how wrong it was to try to keep Christine with him, until he saw just how unhappy he was making her."

The officer nodded. Meg's account, while much less wild, was actually not so far off from the de Chagnys' tale. "They say he followed her here, and planned to kidnap her again."

Meg shook her head. "That is completely untrue. He and I have been here since late April. Just this morning I received a letter from my mother, telling us that Christine and Raoul planned to come here on their honeymoon. I was on my way to warn Erik to keep out of sight, to prevent any incidents from happening. But I arrived a little too late."

The officer nodded once more. "The lady admits she screamed and fainted when she saw your husband. A couple of the students here have corroborated this, and say he merely caught her as she dropped and brought her to a settee in the reception room. And that is when and where the husband shot him, once he'd put her down. Again, there are witnesses to confirm this. Given that there is a… troubled history… between the involved people, Mrs. Benoit, I have to admit that it's likely the vicomte will go free as he thought he was acting in defense of his wife. There will have to be a hearing before a judge once your husband is fit to testify." He paused, and then added softly, "As you are immigrants, any sort of legal trouble could result in your deportation if the judge believes him to be an undesirable. You didn't hear this from me, but I suggest you gather as much evidence as possible to prove how long you've been in the United States and New Orleans. The receipts from your passage, for example, and the deed to your home since that will also be dated and witnessed. Anything to show you've established yourselves here some time ago, and didn't arrive on the heels of the vicomte and his wife." Clearing his throat and looking a little embarrassed, he shrugged and looked away. "My widowed mother adores your husband's compositions that the Symphony has added to its repertoire."

Meg hid a smile as she nodded. "Thank you, Officer," she said softly.

She saw him to the door as he took his leave, and turned to see Erik looking at her with an awed expression. "And how long have you been awake, mon mari?" she asked with a smile.

"Long enough," he murmured. "The police officer… is helping us? But why?"

"For the pleasure your music gives his elderly mother," Meg smiled. "Oh, he won't break the law, or really even the rules to help us. But it is not against the rules for him to give us a bit of advice that will help our cause when the hearing happens. Besides, we will likely have more help than I'd expected. Tell me, did you hear the newsboys crying the headlines at all before this happened?"

Erik looked puzzled, obviously wondering what the newspaper headlines might have to do with establishing their arrival and residency. "No. At least, not that I paid attention. Why?"

"Chicago, or at least a very large part of it, is in flames," Meg told him, having bought a paper at the telegraph office. "When I went home to start the preparations for your convalescence, I got a telegram from Josie Tanner. They've been burned out. I invited her and David, as well as her sister and brother in law, to come stay for as long as they need to. We have plenty of space, and it gives us the chance to repay the many favors they did for us when we all first arrived here." She grinned. "And what's more, that's two witnesses who can place us on board the Oceanic back in April."

"That's my clever Meg," Erik murmured with a smile. "And the Conservatory board will have the proof of the scholarships I endowed, yes? And our solicitor and banker… what if they bring up Joseph Buquet's death? That is what worries me the most."

She nodded slowly. "That, I am not sure. Perhaps you should speak with the solicitor? Given your… your circumstances at the time, it might be considered that you killed him in fear of your own life? He was hunting you after all, and who knows what his intentions might have been."

"True enough," he agreed, his eyes slipping closed once more.

She smiled softly, leaning in to kiss him. "I must go for the night, mon coeur, there is no place for me to sleep here also," she murmured. "But I will be back, and hopefully in the morning, you can be brought back home. Sleep well, my Erik."

"You as well, Meg," his tired voice quavered just a little. "I don't want you fretting over me to the point that it hurts the baby."

"I won't," she promised, laying his hand over her stomach for a moment before she slipped out and returned home.

Morning arrived, along with another telegram from the Tanners, accepting Meg's invitation for the two of them and giving the time of their scheduled arrival for the following afternoon. She made a note of the time and checked on the preparations for both the expected guests and Erik's convalescence. Satisfied, she set out for the Conservatory. To her dismay, the newsboys were crying the tale of the shooting at the Conservatory alongside that of the Chicago fire. She bought a paper, somewhat relieved to see that neither Erik nor Raoul were being vilified in the press, at least so far. Obviously, it was too much to hope that the papers would not print the story. But if they were lucky, perhaps it would remain low-key and not cause further problems.

The doctor greeted her arrival with a smile. "He's doing much better, Mrs. Benoit. I would be happy to escort the two of you home today. You'll hire a carriage for the trip, of course, walking is out of the question."

"How soon can we leave?" Erik asked from behind them.

Meg laughed, moving past the doctor to greet him with a kiss on the cheek. "As soon as I can call for a cab," she promised.

"I'll take care of that," the doctor offered. "You get him to finish his breakfast." He pointed to a half-empty bowl of porridge.

Meg laughed again as Erik wrinkled his nose, knowing he hated the stuff. "Courage, mon mari, and I'll talk him into allowing eggs tomorrow. With sweet words and a few kisses, she gently coaxed him into eating the rest of the dish.

The doctor returned and with the help of one of the young men students, brought Erik out to the cab and settled comfortably for the ride home, and Erik's valet aided the man in getting him settled once they'd arrived. The physician checked the bandages on Erik's shoulder, gave orders for his care to the valet and for his diet to the cook, then took his leave, promising to look in again the next day.

"Send to my solicitor," Erik asked softly. "See if he's free to come by this afternoon. Better to speak with him as soon as possible, and find out what he thinks of the situation."

The solicitor, when consulted, agreed with Meg's opinion that should Raoul and Christine try to use Joseph Buquet's death against Erik, he should claim self-defense. It would be their word against his, and they were strangers while he was an established resident if a recent one. "Besides which," the man said, "given the war, there's not likely a man over the age of twenty-one left in this city who hasn't got at least one death on his conscience. If there'd been a dramatic increase in crime since you arrived, there might be a problem, but nothing like that has happened. You've settled in and made yourself productive and well liked. Rest up and we'll get the hearing over with as soon as the physician says you're able." He took his leave with a tip of his hat and a bow to Meg.

Once again Erik was left stunned by the acceptance he'd found since allowing Meg to coax him out of the darkness of the catacombs and into the daylight.

The following morning, the doctor declared that Erik would be fit to attend the hearing within two days. That afternoon brought the arrival of the Tanners. The tale of their narrow escape from the fire was a harrowing one. There had been quite a few smaller fires over several days prior to the one that left them homeless, and the Chicago fire brigade had already been pushed to its limits. Due to some confusion when the fire was initially reported… some firefighters had in fact thought it was the smoldering remains of one they'd already extinguished… the fire had gotten out of control right from the beginning. The combination of the out of control fire and the hot, dry wind created a firestorm powerful enough to cross what everyone assumed would be a natural firebreak: the Chicago River. Many people barely escaped the blaze with their lives and the clothes on their backs. Even those who'd managed to pack their belongings into wagons didn't always make it out of the city with those wagons intact, as burning embers from the fire destroyed more than one such conveyance. David and Josie managed to escape with a carpetbag each, containing a change of clothing, Josie's jewelry, and David's financial papers.

"Thanks to those, I'll still have my income," David said gratefully. "Alex wants to rebuild right there, but we honestly didn't like Chicago all that well. You may end up with us as neighbors. And it seems you have a story to tell as well… how did you get hurt?"

Erik nodded, giving a silent prayer that the Tanners would take his history well, and launched into the same carefully phrased tale that Meg told the police officer the day he'd been shot. He needn't have worried.

"Why that little hussy," Josie exclaimed. "And then she had the gall to look for sympathy from you, Meg?"

Meg smiled. "To be fair, she still doesn't realize that Erik is my husband. She never knew his surname. And considering that I… well, I rather shamelessly pursued Erik once it was clear she did not want him, you could call me a hussy as well, yes?"

Josie giggled. "Well… maybe a little. But good for you all the same! You saw the treasure she spurned, and hurried to take it before someone else saw it, that's all."

David remained serious. "Is this going to create a problem for you?" he asked Erik.

"We hope not," Erik replied. "My solicitor thinks, as this is their word against ours, any trouble will be small. Especially once we prove how long we have been in New Orleans, and United States. We can prove I did not follow Christine here, and so if I say I am willing to forgive Raoul for shooting me when he thought she was in danger, he will go free and they will leave and we hope all will be well."

"Seems logical," David nodded. "Josie and I can vouch for meeting you aboard Oceanic back in April, if that will help any."

"It should, yes, and thank you."

"Pshaw. It's little enough, when you've taken us in. I'll be frank, Alex and I didn't get along nearly as well as Josie and Isabelle hoped we would, so Josie and I were going to leave Chicago soon in any case. We'd originally thought to foist ourselves off on Bertie and Sylvia, but they're away, and the fire made it necessary for us to find a place to stay quickly. Right now, people with nowhere else to go are living in boxcars at the railyard. I'm grateful you offered to host us, as Josie is expecting and I want her comfortable, not crammed in squalor with thousands of other displaced people," David said.

Meg squealed, "You're having a baby? Me too! I wrote you about it yesterday, the letter probably just arrived in Chicago this afternoon." The two young women giggled as they hugged each other.

Erik rolled his eyes and gave David a long-suffering glance. "We're in trouble," he grinned.

David nodded. "I think you're right," he agreed as Meg and Josie vanished into another room for a private discussion. The two men chuckled in perfect understanding, and turned the conversation to financial goals and achievements.

The following day, Meg took Josie out shopping, to begin replacing her wardrobe and David's as well. The day after that, the doctor arrived to escort them to the hearing, feeling that his presence would not only reassure the expectant Mrs. Benoit, but would also subtly play up Mr. Benoit as the victim to the judge.

The Benoits, Tanners, and the doctor entered the judge's chambers to find Erik's solicitor already present. A few minutes later, Raoul and Christine de Chagny entered along with a police escort. Christine gave a little gasp and grew pale on seeing Erik. "How can this be?" she cried. "How can this monster be sitting freely, when my husband must be accompanied by le gendarme wherever he goes?"

"Who is the monster?" David Tanner said, loudly enough to hear. "The man with scars? Or the man who shoots another, unarmed man?"

Raoul de Chagny blinked at that. I was so sure the Phantom had reappeared to kidnap my Christine once again. And yet… he merely placed her on the settee when she fainted, didn't he? He didn't remove her unconscious body from the building or try to hide her in any way. Could I have been wrong? But then, why would the man be in New Orleans, if he hadn't followed us from Paris? He didn't know what to think anymore.

The low murmurs filling the room died away as the judge entered accompanied by a court reporter. He looked at the two groups and gave a nod. "This hearing is to determine what charges, if any, shall be brought by the state of Louisiana against the Vicomte de Chagny, with regards to the shooting of one Erik Benoit of New Orleans on 9 October 1871. Vicomte, there are any number of witnesses to your deed. However, you claim that there are extenuating circumstances, that you fired in defense of your wife, is this correct?" he asked.

Raoul stood, giving a small bow. "Oui, your Honor. Given our previous encounters with the man you call Erik Benoit, I believed myself justified, and believed he sought to kidnap my wife."

"And what do you say to this belief, Mr. Benoit?"

Erik rose to his feet, a little shaky still. "I say that while I understand how he could believe what he did, kidnapping his wife was not my intention. Seeing the lady again was as great a shock to me as it was to her. I left Paris perhaps a month after the night in which I had tried to force her to stay with me, thinking that if she could just get to know me and stop seeing my scars, she might perhaps come to care for me. But when I realized she loved the Vicomte, I could not keep her with me." He paused, then added, "I am not excusing my actions of the past exactly. But, your Honor, please understand, in many ways, I was in my mind like a small child or an animal. Because of my scars, I was taken by gypsies and displayed in a cage for years. Treated as a mere beast. Instead of learning to interact with kindness, I only knew to grab that which I wanted and hide it lest it be taken from me. Even after escaping them, I lived for many more years in isolation, hiding for fear of being returned to the cage. And so at the time it truly did not seem wrong to me, to keep the lady with me."

Raoul's gaze grew thoughtful as he listened to this. If this story is true, he thought, then I have done the man a grave injustice. Perhaps he is less a cold-blooded killer as I originally thought, and more a man driven mad through circumstance. Blast that Giry woman for hiding him and then ignoring him all those years, he thought, belatedly remembering the ballet mistress' tale.

The judge kept a grave countenance. "And did you, Mr. Benoit, follow the Vicomte de Chagny and his bride to New Orleans?"

"No, sir," Erik replied. "On the same night I sent Christine off with the Vicomte, I injured myself. Meg, who had witnessed the incident, found me and cared for me while I recovered. We grew to care for each other, and we married and left Paris at the beginning of April. We took the ferry to England and booked passage aboard the Oceanic, which left Liverpool on the sixth of April, arriving in New York on the seventeenth. Mr. and Mrs. David Tanner," he indicated the couple, "were among those sailing with us. We shared a table in the ship's dining room. Mr. Tanner helped me make investments, with Standard Oil and other companies, after we arrived in America. Afterwards, we traveled together as far as Louisville, Kentucky, where they kept to the train to go to Chicago while Meg and I took the riverboat to come here to New Orleans. We bought a house here, and I continue to make investments, as well as composing music for the Symphony. Also, I established scholarships, for poor students to be able to attend the Conservatory. I had no thought in my mind, that I would ever see the Vicomte or his wife ever again."

Christine felt frozen. This couldn't be happening, she thought. Meg… married… him? How could she stand to be so close to that horrible visage? How could she possibly be happy with such a creature? And why would so many people accept him as an equal? No wonder Mme. Giry hadn't said who Meg had eloped with! She bit her lip, fearing the worst.

The judge nodded. "Given that the Vicomte de Chagny fired unprovoked and before witnesses, it's fair to say that charges should be pressed. However…"

"Please, your Honor," Erik interrupted, "is it possible to dismiss the charges?"

The judge tilted his head. "It is, but why? Don't you want justice?"

Erik shook his head. "I do, but… not in this way. No, I wronged them, but I believe no lasting harm came of it." He gave Raoul a look. The other man nodded back as if in agreement. "I was wronged when I was shot, but no lasting harm will come of it, at least according to the doctor. The scales, I think, are balanced. Let them return to France and live out their lives in peace, and allow Meg and I to live our lives here in peace as well. I have no animosity towards either of them; in fact, I wish them all the happiness in the world. I merely want this… difficulty… over and done with." He looked around the room. David and Josie looked supportive, Raoul surprised and grateful, Christine shocked and stunned. Meg's eyes shone with pride and love for him.

"Very well," the judge agreed. "It will save the state time and money. However, I do suggest that the Vicomte and Vicomtesse not linger in New Orleans. Case dismissed!" He rose and exited the room, followed by the court reporter.

Erik slowly made his way over to Raoul, offering his hand. "I really do wish you both the best," he said quietly.

Raoul nodded, shaking the offered hand. "Thank you," he replied. "I hope you and your wife will also be happy."

"We are," Erik said with a soft smile.

Across the room, Christine approached Meg. "You really love him?" she asked.

"I do," Meg replied. "As you might have, had you troubled to look beyond the obvious. But since it brought me happiness in the end, I'll say no more. Be well, Christine."

"And you, Meg." Christine turned and sought Raoul, who moved to meet her halfway to the door. They slipped out silently.

Erik drew Meg into his arms. "Je t'amie," he murmured in her ear. "I love you so much. Thank you for being my strength and my inspiration."

She blushed. "If I showed you where to find your strength, I am glad," she whispered. "But never doubt, my Erik, it was always there inside of you."

"Aww," Josie Tanner cooed. "You two are so romantic! Come on… the fire ended a chapter in mine and David's life, and this situation ended a chapter in yours. Let's go celebrate new beginnings all around!"

"To new beginnings," Erik nodded. "New beginnings."

New Orleans, 4 July 1876

"Will Papa be home soon?" chorused two small voices. "When will we have the party?"

Meg Benoit laughed. "Jules and David, your Papa will be home when he is done at the office, and the party will happen when he gets here. But if you don't stop bouncing around so much, you'll wake Antoinette from her nap and then she'll be crying and no one will have fun. Shoo, go play out back with Robert and Daniel, and let Aunt Josie and I finish the preparations."

"All right, Mama," the twins sighed, heading back outside with the Tanner boys.

Meg and Josie smiled at each other as they hung the decorative banner over the doorway and put out the cake. It had been a little over five years since their arrival in the United States, and Erik and David were being sworn in as naturalized citizens, just in time for the Centennial Celebrations happening all over the country.

Since the events of October of 1871, the lives of both families settled into easy prosperity. David and Josie Tanner bought a house in the same neighborhood as Meg and Erik. In February of 1872, Meg gave birth to twin boys, Jules and David, and then followed them with daughter Antoinette in May of 1874. Josie had Robert in January of 1872, and Daniel arrived in October of 1873.

Eventually the men arrived home and the rest of the neighbors arrived to celebrate the new citizenships. As the afternoon faded into evening, Erik picked up little Antoinette and slid his arm around Meg's waist, while the twins chased each other around them. "Thank you for the five happiest years and the four greatest treasures of my life," he murmured as the city's grand fireworks display started exploding overhead. "I love you, Meg, and I always will."