"Agent Kahn," she replied, the rush of adrenaline fizzling out into disappointment as she saw his face through the lowered window of the black SUV.

"Call me Nadir, please." he said, leaning over to the door and opening it, gesturing that she should get in as the wave of photographers trampled down the stairs behind her. "I thought that I should check in and ensure you weren't suffering any undue effects of post traumatic stress disorder... and it occurred to me that you might appreciate some help in dodging the paparazzi. But now that you've spoken with the reporters I find myself in the uncomfortable position of needing to give you a bit of a lecture."

Christine looked at her watch. Short on time… but the look in his eyes was as earnest as it was uncomfortable, and she sensed a gravity about what he had to say. She tucked the bouquet under her arm and climbed up the step into the enormous SUV, shutting the door behind her and raising the window, a dark-tinted wall of silence against the camera flashes and insistent questions.

"12th Ave at 30th, please," she said to the driver, who nodded dutifully and raised the privacy barrier, as she took a place on the black leather seat opposite Agent Khan. The massive vehicle eased out into traffic, the ride surprisingly smooth despite the heaviness of the obvious armored sides and windows, and her mind flashed with the image of a warship departing from harbor.

"There is justice, Miss Daae, and there is bureaucracy," Khan began, looking back over his shoulder at the crowd of reporters on the sidewalk in the vanishing distance and shaking his head. "And they are very different things. A manhunt, a kidnapping victim saved, a terrorist killed - it's tidy enough to rubber stamp the paperwork, to sign off on the budget and consider the case closed. But if the victim goes on television proclaiming she wasn't kidnapped at all… you run the risk of opening doors. Of being a suspect again, or needing a mental health defense."

"He wasn't a terrorist. You know better than that."

"I do. And I know that being called one was likely the slightest of a thousand injustices Erik suffered in his life. But my most difficult friend did commit crimes. Extortion. Theft. Murder. Kidnapping."

How calm she felt now, finally able to say it out loud. "It's not that simple. He went about it in the worst possible way... I understand it's not the kind of behavior that should be rewarded. But it really did give me the time I needed." Memories flashed through her mind, and for a moment she was lost - but Christine shook her head and continued with honest simplicity. "I wanted to be with him. I just realized it too late."

Tapping his loose fist against his mouth, Nadir seemed to examine her response. "You seem very certain of that. But what of Raoul de Chagny? Having spent quite a bit of time with him during your disappearance, I know he cares for you a great deal."

She shook her head softly. "I love him as a dear old friend, and it took me too long to realize that. I broke off our engagement a while back... I'd rather be alone than be with poor Raoul, missing Erik the rest of my life."

Agent Kahn's veneer of kindly professionalism faltered; his expression flashed with surprise, then some mix of sadness and regret seemed to dawn on him in waves, seemingly understanding the magnitude of what she had lost. He pressed a hand to his face. "I don't think Erik knew that you reciprocated his feelings. I believe he… thought he was doing the right thing."

"I know… And I know it must have been awful for you, being the one to pull the trigger. I'm sorry you went through that... I know you wouldn't have shot him if you'd had any other choice."

He rubbed his brow and left his hand there for a minute, before lifting his eyes to meet hers, with a sadness that made him look even older than the greying hair at his temples. "There is so much for which I owe you apology."

"If you hadn't helped him leave Tehran, I might never have met him." Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes, but she pushed through them to smile. "So I'm glad for that."

The car came to a stop at the corner she'd specified, and she checked her watch again, hearing a faint noise in the distance. "It was important for me to start telling the truth. I can't go back to lying to everyone. I loved Erik. We were happy together. Surely the FBI can tell the difference between an accomplice and a person who found herself in love with someone who'd committed crimes."

"I'm afraid the law would see little difference there." He grimaced, but there was sympathy in his expression; clearly Nadir was trying to break the news to her gently. "And worse, you run the risk of making yourself a target for any of his old enemies who might think he's still alive, that you could be the way to get to him. We can get a security detail outside your apartment for a few weeks until this blows over."

"No, I was planning to get out of town and lay low for a while anyway... If I can get to JFK in time to catch the last redeye tonight, that is. I'm headed straight there." She raised her voice, talking louder as the noise outside the car intensified.

"Without a suitcase?"

"No baggage is kind of the point," she gave him a tired but wry look. "I can buy what I need when I land. Am I free to leave?"

"Of course. And Miss Daae... I am grateful my friend loved a woman with a heart like yours. I hope someday you can forgive me, for my role in all of this. Live your truth; with your friends, with yourself. But I'd advise against speaking to the press about it."

A genuine smile swept across her face . "Thanks. I'd better go -" she gestured at the helicopter that had just touched down on the heliport beside the Hudson. "My ride's here."

XXXXXXXX

JRA Heliport, Manhattan to JFK Airport, New York; 12 miles, 5 minutes

New York to London; 3440 miles, 7 hours

"...Business or Pleasure?"

"Well-deserved vacation," Christine said absent-mindedly, watching the agent at Heathrow stamp her passport.

Making her way through the arrivals level to the first class transport, she found herself glad she'd had the foresight to buy a few pairs of sunglasses at duty-free, because the shots of her leaving Lincoln Center were now splashed across half the tabloids in the newsstand. So much for hoping the paparazzi would listen to a heartfelt request. "THE PHANTOM'S WIDOW?" one newspaper proclaimed, while another screamed, "STOCKHOLM SYNDROME SOPRANO!"

Wait until they got wind that she'd skipped the country.

But even the intrusiveness of the tabloids couldn't spoil the sense of peace, the sense of satisfaction that she felt on some level more fundamental than physical, couldn't dampen the sense of freedom that came from having done what she needed to do, and the world seemed a bit warmer and kinder as a result. Impulsively, she had given Raoul's massive bouquet of flowers to one of the flight attendants, and even now, waiting in line for transport from the airport to downtown, she felt relaxed and charitable, letting several passengers trying to make tight connections at Gatwick go ahead of her.

The line inched forward and she browsed the brochure she'd been handed upon departing the plane, touting the benefits of the airline's dedicated transport for first class passengers, with the ability to skip the luggage carousel and have bags delivered by courier to any hotel within three hours. The passengers themselves would travel from Heathrow to London on the back of limobikes, sport touring motorcycles piloted by expert drivers, skilled at splitting lanes and dodging traffic, able to reach the city center twice as fast as a taxi or traditional limousine.

Getting downtown quickly sounded good; she hadn't been able to sleep on the overnight flight and her body was starting to protest how long she'd been without rest. Finally she was at the front of the queue, following the instructions of the airport employee to step forward to the curb and walk toward the next motorcycle in a long line of idling bikes with drivers in gleaming helmets and black riding suits.

She climbed aboard the back of the motorcycle, slinging her purse diagonally across her body and turning it so it could sit in her lap, then grabbing onto the sides of the seat below her hips and holding on tight. "Trafalgar Square, please," she said and the driver nodded swiftly. Where she would actually be staying that night remained to be seen, but it was a central enough destination, and getting downtown and getting some coffee would probably help her process of choosing a hotel. Jetlag was catching up to her, and as the motorcycle revved to life and took off, she found she was so tired that even the dip and sway of the vehicle as it changed lanes and zipped along the highways was making her pleasantly drowsy.

The ride was smooth enough, and after twenty minutes of blazing past cars stopped in traffic, she certainly understood the efficiency and appeal of the system. It was a crisp fall afternoon in London, the late rays of sunlight turned golden as they glinted across the rooftops of grand buildings and lit up streets filled with red busses and leaves falling from trees. She saw the signs for Trafalgar Square approaching on her left, and then the square itself came into view; massive, with monuments and fountains, and a few tourists still out in the last of the daylight, snapping pictures.

More so than even boarding the plane last night, this felt like a beginning, a chance to venture out and decide what she wanted to do. She'd floated a dozen ideas with Meg, from the fantastical options of both of them moving to Bora Bora and becoming waitresses in some beachfront tiki bar, to the far more practical endeavors like volunteering to teach music in schools. In the end, she'd realized that the performance of Don Juan would give her enough money to not have to worry about expenses for a long while, and with that she had the gift of time, time enough to figure it out at her own pace. London would be a good start; she sat up in her seat, ready to disembark and step into her future.

The motorcycle didn't slow, and then they were across the square with it vanishing behind them.

The feeling of danger was like ice over a raw nerve ending, pricklings of sharp fear settling throughout her body.

"Excuse me - you've gone too far, we need to turn around."

The driver looked over his shoulder at her, the expressionless black motorcycle helmet glinting in the sun, and then turned back to face the road, without responding.

"Hey!" she leaned forward, and grabbed his shoulder. "Hey, just let me out here."

The man shook his head and leaned forward, out of reach; the bike's speed accelerated sharply, and outright fear swept over her.

You would make yourself a target, Agent Kahn had said…

The wind was throwing the tangled wisps of hair that escaped the helmet in front of her eyes and the driver seemed to steering the motorcycle more aggressively, avoiding stopping at all, splitting lanes between cars and rocketing across intersections a moment before the light turned green. Get your phone, figure out the British version of 911, call the police… oh no. Her phone wouldn't work here, and the UK sim card she'd purchased in the airport was still unopened in the bottom of her purse. No chance of getting it into her phone while they were roaring down city streets at 70 miles per hour.

She gestured frantically at motorists as they passed on her right in the opposite direction, but none of them seemed to notice her wild calls for help, and every time she screamed the driver seemed only to increase their speed. God only knows where this guy is bringing you, who he's working for… someone who would have a woman kidnapped in broad daylight…Rodríguez? The woman Erik had worked for in Tehran? Even as the driver was hunched over the bike and leaning forward, she could tell the man was larger than her; she stood no chance against him in any kind of physical tussle, but if she could startle him - stall him long enough so that she could get away…

Several more turns at breathtaking speed and they seemed to be in a financial district, the stately older buildings mixed in with massive skyscrapers, and this late on a Sunday the streets were empty. Shops were closed, and there were no pedestrians she could call out to, but the driver was slowing, at last, as they turned toward the Thames, and gate arms with flashing lights lowered across the road in front of a rising drawbridge, a massive span with turreted towers she recognized from postcards.

The motorcycle came to a stop, and it was the only vehicle waiting for the bridge, the engine revving impatiently. She took off her helmet, and hit the driver as hard as she could.

The helmet she swung collided with his own, crashing into the side of his head, and the man reeled - slipping to one side, the weight of the motorcycle lurching with him as he tugged at his helmet, trying to remove it - and she was off and running away as fast as she could, purse bouncing against her hip, screaming once for help and then turning down a side street and going silent, lest the driver follow her by her cries. There were doors to businesses on this street but none of them looked as though anyone were there, and with her pulse pounding wild and frantic, she ran to the end of the street and turned sharply down one small street and then another, hoping to lose him and feeling her heart explode into paralyzing fear at the sound of running footsteps in the distance.

Halfway down the block was an archway leading into a large courtyard with carved granite balustrades, surrounded by a single massive neoclassical building and she ducked into it, hoping to lose him off her tail, hoping to find help, another soul, something - but despite its grandeur, the courtyard was as empty as the rest of the streets, and there was no way out without going out the way she'd come in. Desperate, she ran up to one of the doors lining the courtyard and began pounding on it, looking around for something to break a window with, to get inside, get to a phone - and then over her shoulder she saw the driver run through the arch into the courtyard.

To her right was a set of stairs leading down to a series of walkways surrounding the courtyard, some sort of light well for the lower levels of the building. Maybe there's another way out from down there, some way to circle the courtyard and come back upstairs near the exit… She ran down the stairs as quickly as she could, the stone steps dusted with moss and slippery, sprinted along the walkway and around a corner. As she heard the man's footsteps follow behind her, she went down another flight of stairs and darted toward the wall, hopefully out of sight, running below the arches supporting the walkway overhead, running for her life, turning a corner and praying there might be another set of stairs around the next, and then -

Dead end.

The narrow passage ended abruptly in a stone wall with no other way back to street level. She whirled around, ready to double back - and with a guttural cry the driver dropped down from the walkway above, landing just in front of her, blocking the way out.

Then he dropped to his knees.

"I intended to leave you alone forever, and I will, in an instant, if you just say the word, Christine," her name was said not as a threat but a prayer, an object of worship, in a voice she would know anywhere, and she staggered as he finally removed the black motorcycle helmet - but not the thin mask underneath.

"Erik..." the word came out soft, a whisper with no air behind it because she wasn't breathing, there wasn't air in her lungs, speaking suddenly as difficult as running in a dream, a high pitched ringing in her ears, and she drew in a huge gasp as she wobbled backward and felt the wall behind her, stumbling against it.

He froze.

Shock flattened her shoulders against the side of the building and Erik's posture seemed to shift, horrified, his eyes wide with his own fear of frightening her.

A long minute passed, the sensation of numbness creeping into her fingers, the entire moment airy and unreal; she wasn't sure what was happening, but he leaned back, retreating, interpreting her silence as dismay. Bewildered yet vehement, Christine reached a shaking arm out, a one-handed halt, gesturing that he should remain, even as she struggled to even remember how to speak.

"...I meant to die, and to do so gladly, to truly give you your freedom," he began again, still breathing heavily from running, in phrases that sounded as though he had rehearsed them many times. "But Agent Khan turned my gift to you into his own gift to me - and chose to risk everything to pull off the deception that let me leave the tunnels that night with my life.

"The guilt at what I had done..." he winced in pain at the memory, staring at the ground, before daring to lift his eyes in her direction and speak again in earnest. "I made it a vow; to finally do right by you, to free you from the burden of my obsession… I dismantled every remaining automation that might block your life with De Changy. But even then I did not trust my own willpower to stay away from you, to resist the draw of your soul to mine!"

And he was aghast even now at the retelling; Erik took a deep breath, and continued with an obvious struggle to recount this calmly, his tone dire and helpless. "I booked passage on a cargo ship sailing the Barents and Greenland Seas, with no connection to the world save the captain's radio, to enforce my own good intentions. I thought a few months of staring at the Arctic Ocean might help me to forget…" and there was a tinge of self-deprecation at the futility of that effort. "It was hell, at first, but the thing that kept me sane was imagining you were... happy. It is the only thing on this earth that I desire - I promise you - and I will vanish again this very moment if it is what you want - "

She stared at him, numbly, barely processing the words he was saying, awash in a battering deluge of emotion, a floodgate flung open, and nothing on earth existed beyond this moment and his beautiful breaking voice.

Reality wavered and for a dizzy moment consciousness did as well, but the stones of the wall were cool beneath her palms... she was still standing upright, she was standing here with him. Erik was alive... and he was staring up at her expectantly, the distress in his expression revealing a certainty he would be sent away. Slowly, drowning, her own eyes still wide with disbelief, she shook her head.

He swallowed, and slowly began again, with the weight of a man saying the words that would determine the rest of his life. "A little after six this morning, a helicopter landed on the deck of the freighter, and an officer of the Icelandic Coast Guard delivered to me a satellite phone and a small media player containing a bootleg audio file, whose name indicated it was taken from one of my own recording channels at the Met... It was queued up to a particular aria, near the end of an opera from the previous night."

Erik looked up at her, dumbfounded anew. "To hear your voice again - to hear my work performed, knowing you must have been the one to make it happen… it was more than I have ever deserved…" A long silence followed as he drank her in, speechless in wholehearted love and utter wonder, looking at her as though she were the one who was back from the dead, before he continued. "You were magnificent... When you sang of forgiveness, I felt a gratitude that made my heart whole, and I found peace with the idea of letting you go.

"...And not three minutes later the satellite phone rang, and Nadir Khan told me that he had proof that you cared for me, unquestionably, and that he could no longer in good conscience let me continue to make two souls miserable…" Even saying the words now, Erik sounded as though he could hardly believe them. "You told the world, when you had no logical reason to do so - you told them you had lost someone you loved…" the word hung in the air, aching, reverent, shocked. "I tried to unhear it; I tried a thousand ways to imagine how you must have meant something else. But even as I tried with all my being to deny what I had heard, to protect myself - to protect you… I could no longer fight the urge to hope. And Nadir told me he had called in an ungodly number of favors to get me this message, and if I boarded the helicopter that very moment, I could catch a flight from Reykjavik to London in time to intercept the love of my life before she dropped off the grid."

He drew a long unsteady breath. "I was certain my hope was ill-placed... but I went. Several hours into the journey, I thought to check my darknet mail," and even now, he looked stricken at the memory, torn in half between surprise at what she had written and remorse at the pain he had caused her. "And I found myself praying to a god I do not believe in, praying to anyone who would listen above or below, that the messages were real, that you truly… loved… me… and that you might someday forgive me…"

The red-rimmed eyes looking up at her were devastated, and it was like walking underwater, the air itself a thick weight to traverse, as she slowly stepped forward and pressed her shaking hands to his shoulders, feeling the black canvas of the motorcycle jacket beneath her fingertips as they slid outward, down his arms, gripping then lifting, gesturing that he should stand up. Christine pulled him to his feet and then she was falling forward, against him, wrapping her arms around his body and shuddering, a cry finally escaping, at the feel of him, alive, in her embrace.

Her body was flush with his - angel, phantom, much-mourned man - living and breathing and raising trembling arms to fold around her, a gesture of comfort against the tears that were rolling silently and freely down her face. He breathed her name in perplexed joy and then Christine broke, a tidal wave reaching the shore, and she sobbed great choking cries, heaving in his arms and she was shocked, furious, somehow feeling all the pain she had felt at his loss anew, too stunned to even contend yet with the gladness.

"You were dead… I had finally believed it…"

"I'm sorry - I'm so sorry," and there was remorse in his voice, but astonishment too.

"There was a body," her chest heaved with ugly sobs, "They wanted me to identify a body. I saw it."

"That body began and ended the day in the morgue, somewhat the worse for wear-"

"You let me think you were dead!" Christine fisted her hands in the back of his jacket, her forehead pressed against his breastbone, feeling the punch of betrayal and yet holding on to him for dear life lest he vanish from it again.

"After what I had done, I thought it was for the best… I never imagined - I never could have dreamt you could actually…" and even now, choking with emotion, he hesitated to say it.

Lifting her head from his chest, she placed her hand in its place, looking down at it dumbfounded, as though she halfway expected it to pass right through him.

Erik was drawing ragged breaths, his own shaky attempts to control them evident with the shudders running through his body; she raised her head to look into his eyes, finding them wide with disbelief, and she was lost, seeing him again, feelings she had processed and put away suddenly roaring to life within her ribs. He seemed equally speechless, staring at her with an intensity she'd come to know as trying desperately to read her response.

"You're alive," and this time it wasn't an accusation but relief, even as she wrapped a hand over her mouth, a fresh wave of tears overtaking her body.

Erik's fingertips lifted from where they had come to rest at her waist, as though he were unsure of his right to touch her, his tone grave and eyes helpless. "I have hurt you so badly, so many times."

A long moment passed, and then she shook her head, not taking her gaze off of his.

"If you want amends, then you must live them," Christine choked out, her eyes still overflowing but her voice growing in strength. "I need you to promise, that you will never again decide what is right for me, or that you know what I want better than I do."

"I... promise…?" his voice was dry, soft with incredulity.

"Promise me," and she was crying, but it was something else now, some giddiness bubbling up within her as it sank in that this was real, that he was real, and she raised her hands, clasping his face between them - one hand touching his cheek and the other the mask and her voice was as vehement as life and death because oh, this moment was both. "Promise that you will never again doubt how I feel about you. Never."

"Never…" he repeated, the word cracking in his throat, his jaw quivering beneath her palms, and she could see the uncertainty in his expression, the amazement that edged into apprehension and then she was kissing him before doubt could dwell another second in his mind.

He let out a single, perfect exhalation in his glorious voice - oh - staggering backward as her mouth met his.

There were no words for a kiss stolen from death.

The crush of lips, the sobbing in her soul, desperate to grasp him closer, to feel his life and his breath. To kiss him in happiness, a kiss that was the start of everything to come - it overwhelmed her and she was crying again even as felt his startled mouth under her own. She fit her hands to the sharp line of his jaw, drawing him toward her and happiness was too shallow a word for it, for the urgency and intensity she felt this moment. Erik seemed unbalanced on his feet, reeling - and then with a decisive move he leaned forward and was kissing her back, his lips hesitantly moving against hers and his arms wrapping around her, pulling her body closer, clasping her to his chest and claiming her mouth with his own for the most fleeting of seconds before breaking, gasping for air, consumed, his forehead pressed against hers.

"Christine - oh Christine…"

Head swimming, still trying to make sense of fate changing drastically in the last five minutes, she let out an unsteady laugh. "Do you know how to say hello without kidnapping involved? You could have just mailed me back... Or followed me to a hotel and knocked on the door? The motorcycle - scaring me half to death - this was your plan?"

His eyes went wide with mortification. "I may have... gone about this the wrong way," he murmured, abashed and short of breath, and she burst out laughing, flinging her arms around his neck and inhaling deep the scent of him, warm and spicy at his neck. She brushed her lips along his exposed jawline; he shivered in pleasure but then tensed as she continued to bestow kisses up his cheek, over the mask.

"Take it off? Please - I want to kiss you," Christine breathed, and this was fervent, decadent madness or maybe just trust, because slowly, he complied, pulling the thin mask from his skin. Before he could even wince in anticipation she was kissing him again in earnest, pressing insistently until his lips parted and then feeling him shudder as she kissed him deeper still, loving the the expression of rapture on his unmasked face.

"Close… your eyes," Erik croaked out, shame and desire clearly tearing him in opposite directions.

"No," she insisted, and he let out a cry, aghast and euphoric as she pressed a kiss to the ravaged skin of his bare cheek and then another to the deep scars at his temple. Tears were gathering at the corners of his eyes, and she kissed them away, losing track as they met with her own.

Knees swaying, Erik ducked his head, bracing his cheek against hers, his bent arms falling around her neck for support.

"I don't deserve your forgiveness," he said plainly.

"It is mine to give."

His expression shattered, at that, his chest hitching several times before his eyes closed, the tears rolling freely down his face now, his body wrought with silent sobs. His eyes were clenched shut as he said, helplessly, "I don't deserve you."

"No," her voice was calmer and wiser than she felt, as she reached up and took each of his hands in her own. "Nobody deserves anybody. But we both deserve to be happy. And what I want is you. What do you want?"

Erik raised their joined hands to his lips and pressed a single kiss to her fingers, the steel of his internal resolve seeming to melt; every defense dropped, every one of life's injustices momentarily forgotten and serenely, without shame or fear or malice, he opened his eyes and said, "You."

"Then I'm yours."

"My darling Christine." Tenderly he tried the phrase, incredulous.

"Yours," she repeated emphatically, euphoric, but the warmth of his emotions seemed to waver, momentarily, as he lowered their hands, looking down at her fingers in his, his thumb slowly moving across her knuckles, tracing the contours of her hand as though he were committing them to memory.

"I love you," he ventured softly, a whisper with immense caution, and she saw it; the slightest raise of his shoulders, bracing himself.

"Oh, god, Erik," She caught his eye, and beaming, freer than she'd ever felt in her life, she murmured, "I love you so much." And then he was kissing her, hungrily, greedily, gasping at the very air in her lungs and she met him in turn, flooded with joy, heart bursting, loving and loved.

XXXXXXXX

"Where do we go next?"

"I… don't know," Erik said in a low, surprised voice, as though he had only just remembered that there was a world outside this narrow stone corridor. He was bent forward, arms wrapped protectively around her as though she might turn out to be a dream if he failed to hold on tightly enough; she could feel his breath on the place between her shoulder and neck, warm and content.

"Shorter term, then," she said affectionately, drawing back and stroking her fingertips along his neck. "Where should we go now? We'll need a place to stay for the night."

"I will need… a moment, to find something. I had contingency plans for every outcome but this one," he said hoarsely, gently bewildered. "You must understand… I've had nine hours to come to terms with the idea that you… loved me. Even as I hoped, I could hardly believe…" He looked down at her again, his gaze falling on her lips and seemed to remember this last half hour anew, drawing a shaky breath and running a hand over his sparse hair. "This is all rather… unexpected."

"You had no plan beyond getting me on the back of a motorcycle and stopping at some point to presumably let me know you weren't dead?" She held back a grin.

He pressed his lips together, hesitating. "I was on the brink of summoning the necessary fortitude to tell you, really -"

"Right," she said, grinning fully now. "Ok. I can lead for a while. I got a data sim at the airport, just let me get it into my phone and I'll find a hotel for tonight. I was thinking I'd take a train from London, but hadn't decided where, yet."

"...Look at you." he murmured, adoring.

"I learned a thing or two about getting around. And I have money of my own now. La Daae didn't come out of retirement for free."

"You amaze me," and there was love and something else in his expression, the full force of his attraction to her coming to the surface now that he no longer felt the need to conceal or repress it, and a warmth fluttered through her at the thought, but he was continuing, unawares. "There's a perfectly acceptable hotel at St Pancras station if you were headed South to the continent, or close to Kings Cross if you were headed North to Edinburgh. Your options would be open."

"Our options." she corrected, smiling. "I'll get us a nice room."

"A room. Singular." he said, a statement that was subtly a question, but sounded as though he were describing a medium-sized miracle.

"We don't have tp move too fast," she said, stroking her fingertips down his cheek, trying to see his eyes, knowing this must be all so much for him, must be a thousand times as much as it was for her. "I just want somewhere for us to have some privacy for a while. I almost miss the saferooms... that world for just us two. Right now I need to hold you and know that you're real. Longer-term... " she blushed, "I want you as much as I love you."

"Oh -" his exhale in surprise was quick, tension seeming to coil through him like the crack of a whip, idle hunger turned ravenous, and his pupils were dilated large when he looked at her, tilting his head tenderly. "I hadn't quite… arrived at that conclusion yet. "

She bit her lip, meeting him with an impish smile, and his hand came up to wrap around the back of her neck, taut like a bowstring; his chest rising and fell with several rigidly controlled breaths. "Good god, Christine."

Wicked and delighted she looped an arm around his waist, reveling in the feel of his body pressing against her own. "I kind of want to make up for lost time... but I don't want to rush you. We have all the time in the world now. I want to let you set the pace."

The exhale of air that followed told her everything he thought about that idea, before Erik finally seemed to find his voice to speak again.

"You must know I've spent a rather significant amount of time imagining such things with you," he chuckled, the gorgeous richness of it purring in his chest, utterly self-deprecating but without any edge to it, happy and free. "I'll let you know if I find myself at risk for a cardiac event, but otherwise no need to slow on my account."

"Then we'd better get going," she threw him a grin, eyes flashing, reaching up and kissing him again before turning to go. "A hotel room for tonight, and tomorrow the world."

And his voice murmured warmly in her ear, "Lead the way."

XXXXXXXX

The End.

Or, "Forgiveness; can you imagine?"

The thing I have always loved about Phantom of the Opera as a stage show is the depth of emotion you see with the final lair and especially the kiss; you see him experience utter devastation, and the realization of a love so strong he finally cares about someone more than himself, and just wants Christine to be happy.

But it wasn't until I saw Hamilton a couple of times - and Javier is lovely but Lin does it best - that I realized, watching the shudder that goes through Hamilton when Eliza takes his hand, eyelids closed and tears running down his face, that I was witnessing a moment that moved me every bit as much, and that forgiveness might be just as powerful as love. And that became so important to me to include here.

This final chapter took a long time to write because it needed to be the ending you all deserved; full of heart, action, and the same characters we love from the original show or book, just with a lot of personal growth under their belts. I truly believe each of them had to fully lose the other, and to know that they could be fine on their own, before they actually be ready to be together as equals. It was essential to me that Christine's forgiveness came from a place of strength and to show that the feeling of being forgiven was just as emotionally overwhelming to Erik as the idea that she could love him.

...I can't really believe it's finally done.

140,000 words and more than four years of active writing (not to mention that 6 year break, bringing the total life of this story to just over a decade.) I've written dozens of tumblr posts, received reviews and PMs from hundreds of amazing fans, and lifetime traffic stats for this story are clocking in around 87,000 views.

You all amaze me, and writing Volée has been a transformational experience. Some ways are obvious - Christine grows in confidence throughout the book because I literally grew a decade older and grew the hell up while I wrote it - and some are less so. I wanted to write her as a strong female character without having to equate toughness with brusqueness; someone who could cry her eyes out and still find she's made of steel, underneath it all, someone whose heart's capacity to forgive winds up being more powerful than futuristic nanotech weapons.

To have anyone even notice what I was trying to do with how I wrote Christine was a joy - to have it recognized and called out and celebrated in reviews and PMs and tumblr posts was an absolute gift. We deserve an entire literary canon full of women who are celebrated for their strength, their talent, their humanity, their courage and sense of humor and creativity and a thousand other things besides being so pretty they get captured by the bad guy to be used as bait.

...And of course, I genuinely thought at the beginning that I was the only person on earth who wanted deep emotions and action-movie stunts in the same book. :-) I have met so many amazing people; some because their own writing inspired me, and some because they were fans of this story. To Cat, Danielle, Jenny, Random, Karen, Arianna, Lauren, Alyssa, Katie, Aratea, Riene, singasongrightnow, alittleillumination, tomitraddles, vampyrekat, and the hundreds of other folks who have written *epic* reviews or sent PMs, thank you a thousand times over for your advice, camaraderie, support, inspiration, insight and so much more.

But the most thanks of all go to one person; for inspiration, friendship, character wardrobe design, and general badassness. They say that one of the greatest gifts that someone can receive is the feeling of being truly understood, and getting to know someone else who really gets it - when it comes to the importance of a purse that could fit both a red lipstick and a small weapon, or the maddening feeling of having to play the long game when your dreams are already the size of an empire - has been a delight. When the day comes that this gets sold as a book on Amazon, the dedication will read, quite simply, "For Darcy."

Technically the story's done, but if I know myself, it will never actually be done - I've got the next epilogue halfway written already, and I'm sure others will come up with time. So stay tuned. And there will be photos to accompany this chapter, as ever, over on veroniqueclaire*tumblr*com . Your reviews have brightened my day and helped make this story all it could be. I can't wait to hear what you think of the ending.

If love and forgiveness are the two emotions in life that move me the most, then I think the third must be gratitude. So to all of you for reading, for all these years, I can only say: Thank you.