"Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love."
As You Like It, Act IV Scene 1

How cruel that I am the last of us. Fate has, at times, been an unkind mistress; why should she stop now? I should be used to being alone, but it is a pain that has never left me.

It is dark; cold and damp. I pause in my labors, wiping my brow. I am weary, and not as strong as I was. The darkness shelters and hides me, but I find no comfort in it.

I dare rest for a few minutes only; my time is short. I do not care for discovery – what does it matter if anything should happen to me now? – But I do fear being interrupted before I accomplish my purpose.

For weeks – months – I have dreamed of this; it has tortured my thoughts, leaving me no peace and no choice but to act. May I be left in peace long enough to fulfill this last great wish.

The earth grows heavier by the shovelful. One foot – two – the job seems endless, and impossible: a daunting task of Herculean measure. The hour, the chill air, and my protesting body are all inconveniences to be ignored, if only I can accomplish my aim.

Finally, I hear a different sound, a hollow ring. The blade of the shovel strikes the entrance to your prison at last; I fling the tool aside, kneel, and hurriedly brush away the remains of the dirt and gravel. My hands would be torn to pieces were it not for the black gloves I wear.

I must rest again, pausing for breath. I resent the demands of my failing body as I wait, gathering strength. My heart beats against my ribs like a caged bird willing to batter itself to pieces in order to be free. Not yet. Not yet.

Finally, I reach for the crowbar, and slowly, carefully, begin to pry away the wooden barrier that separates us: the lid of your coffin. I must see your dear face again, one last time before darkness claims us all and there is no trace left on this earth to show that any of us ever lived, suffered, and loved.

Am I mad? Perhaps. Obsessed? Some would surely say so. But I have cared too much for the opinions of others in my time, hidden too great a part of myself, and what has it gained me? I am done with that forever.

The lid yields at last to my efforts. With difficulty, I remove it. Nothing about this is easy; nothing about this has ever been easy.

I hold a handkerchief to my nose, instinctively – and I am surprised that its use is unnecessary. A faint, rather cloying, sweet, odor is present, but not the black miasma I had feared. The air here must have some curious preservative qualities, or perhaps it is the exceptional nature of you, yourself, which has allowed you to escape the stigma of death.

And dead you surely are. Yet here, in my heart and mind, you remain alive in memory and feeling, and ever shall as long as I draw breath.

A few drops of moisture bead upon my hands. I find I am crying. I do not remember beginning, but now tears course unchecked down my withered cheeks and fall upon your upturned face.

How changed you are! – And yet, how unchanged! Any alterations that death has made are purely superficial, and are less than I had expected. A slight hollowness, a minor shrinking of flesh on bone – but even death itself has not the power to alter you completely. You are the exception to everything. You are still recognizable; I am grateful. My need to see your face one last time has been consuming me. And now, here you are. And here I am.

I pull off my gloves and gently stroke your poor, cold face; your stiff, fragile hands. What life there was in you, once! What passion! What love…

And yet, in life, I dared not speak of love to you. Nor you to me – yet I could see it in your eyes, as you saw it in mine.

I had thought only to look upon you again – but I find I am unable to resist the impulse that now overtakes me. One kiss – to plant just one kiss on those pale, cold lips, for the sake of all we might have been to one another, and all we never were!

I gently lift your head, cradling your neck with the back of my hand. No harm can come to you now; you are long past all harm, all tears, all human weakness; yet I still hold you as delicately, as tenderly, as though you were something very precious. And, indeed, you are.

One kiss – one soft, gentle brush of my warm lips on yours!

And then the pain begins. The pain that burned in my chest earlier returns with renewed force and fury, multiplied by a thousand times.

Is this my punishment for seeking a forbidden caress? Perhaps it is. I find I don't care. Before long, the pain of love will be exchanged for the peace of oblivion, and we shall be together in death as we never were in life. For this love is pain: it is a love that has passed all bounds of sanity and acceptability, and which may pass even the boundaries of death itself. I do not know what lies beyond the door at which I now stand, through which you have passed before me, but I know that I am about to find out.

Perhaps they will never find me. We are far underground, you and I, deep beneath the cellars of the Opera House. Perhaps we shall be forever undiscovered, and will share our eternal rest in anonymity and silence.

Or perhaps some brave explorer will find my corpse, long after I am dead, sprawled across your open coffin, and wonder what could drive any soul to such a desperate act. They would not have known you, those who could wonder at that.

I feel the darkness closing in. Once more, I take your hand in mine. The cold seems to creep from you to me, as though death is a boon, a blessing, which you are bestowing upon me. I sensed that this might be my last journey; I hoped it. And now I am to take it in your company. What bliss…

Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Good night, my Phantom.

Good night, from your…Raoul.

A/N: I had not intended the ending to be such a jolt - it was meant to be a surprise, yes, but not the shock it seemed it turned out to be, judging from the contest reviews.

Here was my thinking: Having the main character talk inclusively about "us" showed that it had to be one of the Big Three (or was meant to): E, C, or R.

I thought having E dig up C would be too obvious, and I thought it was fairly obvious that C wouldn't be strong enough to dig up a coffin by herself while in ill health, which the narrating character clearly was. That left R, and he would have no reason to dig up C, since he'd been married to her. So...who hadn't he seen in awhile? E.

Additionally, I thought that the passage "And yet, in life, I dared not speak of love to you. Nor you to me..." was a dead giveway (lame pun unfortunately intended). Love was spoken of by E to C and vice versa, and R to C and vice versa in all versions I know...which leaves one side of that triangle with no love-speaking.

When it became clear that the action was happening in the Opera House cellars, I thought it would be fairly clear (though still a little mysterious) that R was digging up E. Obviously, I was way wrong! (The title and header quote could be seen as hints, too, if read in a certain way.)

The slash was actually meant to be in question. Was there really a relationship between E and R? If so, were R's feelings reciprocated? Was R fantasizing about long-repressed desires? Was R missing C so much that he'd actually taken her place in some way in his own mind? Did he envy E's former hold over C so much that in some way he'd twisted it into love? Was he just completely bonkers?

I tried to make it clear that he was at this point, of neither sound mind or body, and that the meaning of the ending was supposed to be left to the reader's imagination, but, as I've said, I failed utterly.

I must admit that I fully intended, if the reader -did- take the slash as being true and not a product of madness, for it to be taken completely seriously. I like when slashfics are touching or poignant and not only played for comedy. Whatever the main character was feeling, he was really feeling it.

I had fun writing the story, and fun entering the contest, and I hope I learned some good things from the experience!