Reviews are most welcome. | For P. BeLLe

Chapter 22: Only My Enemy

When Caressa awoke the next morning, the place beside her in the bed was warm, but empty. She could smell John, yet he was nowhere in sight. A jolt of fright coursed through her at the thought of what his absence could mean.

Did John leave me without a word? Had Erik been here?

The door to the suite suddenly open and John entered the bedroom carrying a bright red gown over his arm.

"I trust that you slept well?" He asked as their eyes met.

"Much better than I have in quite some time, and yourself?"

"Very well. I made an inquiry downstairs about having your dress mended this morning. The attendant assured me that a maid would come up to have a look. She must have thought it was a lost cause. I've just gone down to ask after it, and the maid sent a note down explaining that she had to throw it out," John told her.

John rested the gown he carried at the foot of the bed. "I wondered if they had any gowns that had been left by previous guests, and the attendant remembered you from last night. He brought this out and assured me it would fit you."

"Oh, thank you, that was exceedingly thoughtful!" Caressa exclaimed, throwing back the blankets and crawling toward the foot of the bed.

As the sheets settled, John turned away. "I will leave you to dress. Please join me when you are finished." He entered the main room quickly and shut the door behind him.

Caressa felt her heart sink slightly in her chest. She had expected more playful words from him, or at least an entire conversation.

She gathered her slightly-used gown, and gasped when she felt the fabric. It was a smooth silk taffeta, which was quite a change from her usual threadbare cotton. She took up her discarded undergarments from the night before and commenced dressing. Her corset was very lightly laced, and she wondered if the gown would fit if she did not tie them slightly tighter.

After bracing herself against the bedpost, she tugged back on her laces. The bruised flesh on her ribs protested to this torture, and Caressa gasped.

"Are you all right?" She heard John ask immediately. He recognized the painful gasp from the morning Erik had broken her rib.

Her breaths fell heavily from her lips, but she managed to repeat, "Yes, yes. Of course, of course," a few times.

He was not convinced, and when Caressa straightened from the bed, John was staring at her.

The night before, his coat had covered much of what gave her a womanly shape, and in this moment of seeing her curves swell and contract, he found himself speechless.

"My corset. . . I can wear it. If it's not too tight." She held the laces awkwardly behind her. His silence made her wary. "I do a very poor job of my own laces, would you care to help me?"

He blinked a few times before answering, "Are you sure? You've barely had time to heal. Isn't it painful?"

"Madame Giry told me that if I'm to keep my figure, I can't be without at least light lacing for very long. My bruises grow more faint by the day, and the rib must be healed because it bothers me very little." Though Madame Giry had suggested light lacing, Caressa was not entirely truthful about the pain.

When he approached, she turned toward the bed post. She looked back at him and took his hand. "Here," she mouthed softly, and guided his index finger toward the center of the laces. "You must be very gentle, you can't begin to imagine how tender I am."

She could hear John's laboured breathing behind her, followed by a nearly imperceivable tug where she had place his finger.

"Is that too hard?" He asked, concerned.

"I barely felt it, go on," she instructed. She felt his other index finger slip under the laces. His second tug had more force, but luckily did not cause pain.

On the third pull, she winced.

"Shall I stop?" He whispered.

Caressa shook her head. "That's perfect, just that tight."

A pull, a gasp. A pull, a gasp.

As he reached the last of her laces, Caressa found herself panting against the bedpost. Not from the pain, but from a strange pleasure that she could not quite understand. The throbbing pain from John's lacing seemed to stimulate her. She reasoned that it was John's proximity alone, which excited her, not that he caused her pain.

Her face was flushed, and she felt the same heat from the night before between her thighs.

John tied off her laces and his hands trembled after losing their occupation. He was eager to touch her, but not without her consent.

Caressa could feel the heated electricity crackling in the space between them. A moment of uncertainty passed, before Caressa bent forward to reach for the gown.

Without registering what he was doing, John had grasped her hips firmly in his hands. He felt Caressa's body stiffen.

She could feel her stomach tighten more every moment. The tips of his shoes settled against the outside of her stocking-clad heels. He only needed to move forward a fraction to brush against her. Her only intention was to let him.

And then he was gone. The sound of the door slamming reached her ears before she could turn to look at him. She haphazardly stepped into the gown and closed every other button up the back in order to hurry out to him.

"Forgive me," she begged when she found him out on the small balcony. He was looking out at the city. "I should not have invited such a scenario, even if it was not what I had intended."

"You should not apologize for my indiscretion. I reached for you without an invitation. It was a disgusting act," John countered. "You should return—" He stopped short when he saw the gown on her body. "I had very little chance against you."

Caressa glanced downward, and her eye was immediately drawn to the abundance of cleavage caused by the decolletage of the gown. The scars she had tried so desperately to hide under high necklines and ruffled lace collars were slightly exposed. Her damaged hand flew to the center of her breast in a show of modesty and fright.

"You should go before I can make myself anymore ridiculous," John instructed. He turned his face away from her in great embarrassment.

"Might I have your handkerchief before I return to the opera house? This gown reveals more than I care to share with anyone save for you."

"Of course, Caressa." He removed the kerchief from his jacket pocket and placed it in her hand.

Caressa grasped his outstretched hand and embraced him. "I know that I won't be able to touch you when we've gone back. This can be the moment I hold onto when I find myself in darkness."

John rested his cheek atop her head and held her protectively to him.

She melted against him, and began to wonder why they couldn't stay in the hotel forever. Something Erik had said to her stuck in her mind, and she could suddenly comprehend the meaning of his words.

"I want every fibre of you," she whispered.

John's hold on her loosened, "What did you say?" His limbs suddenly stiffened as he held her at arms length.

"I don't remember," she lied. "Something trivial, I'm sure." Caressa pulled away and stuffed his kerchief under her neckline.

"No matter, I will return to the opera house later in the day. There is something I must attend to, and if we were to arrive back together, suspicions would be aroused." While explaining this, he ushered Caressa to the door.

"Later then, John," she bid him good-bye.

"Farewell, my sovereign." He placed a soft kiss against her left temple, and closed the door behind her.

In a state of happiness that she could not recall having experienced before, Caressa skipped down the hotel stairs and strode smoothly out the fronts doors without a care in the world. She even found herself whistling Habanera as she entered the Opera Populaire.

The men guarding John and Henri's suite asked her several questions pertaining to her safety the previous night and she assured them that all was well, and that they were very kind for inquiring. She mentioned that Monsieur Khan had escorted her, and they were satisfied.

When she entered the suite, she heard a whistle sound from across the room. Her eyes darted around the room in terror, fearing an encounter with Erik, but luckily they landed on Henri.

"I had hoped you wouldn't take my drunken advice seriously, but look at you!" Henri exclaimed. "I'm hoping you weren't forced to unveil all of your talents."

Caressa thought she saw him wink. She had forgotten entirely about the opera the previous night. "I didn't reveal any talents, but I do believe I'm very near reaching an agreement about the matter of your libretto."

Henri's eyebrows flicked upward. "So you were away with my brother last night. Madame Giry was extremely concerned after you did not return. I am uncertain whether she will be pleased or troubled to know that John stole you away."

"Oh, Henri! You mustn't tell her or anyone else. I fear she will suspect it anyhow, but you must be silent. Please?" She implored him.

"You should never have any fear of me revealing your secrets. They are safe with me," he told her sincerely, and gave her a fatherly smile.

"Thank you," she replied before she continued on toward her bedroom.

"Although—" At this sudden word from Henri she paused, "—I may have been heavily inebriated, but I do recall a rather strange event that occurred yesterday. I heard someone who sounded like you having an argument with a man who was not my brother in your bedroom."

Caressa remained silent.

"Any thoughts on the matter—"

One of the policemen opened the door and Henri stopped.

"A page is at the door, requesting you, Mademoiselle Bucher," he announced.

Matteo was waiting in the hall. Caressa witnessed a smile that was not at all fatherly appear on Henri's face when he saw the stagehand. She glanced back at her door and groaned, she had been hoping for a moment of solitude.

She bid farewell to Henri and joined Matteo in the hall. "Yes, Matteo?" She asked.

"One of the managers needs to speak with you in his office. He told me to tell you that it pertains to your contract. He requested that you join him when you are available," Matteo informed her quickly. Caressa noticed that his face was very red.

"Matteo, are you well? You're blushing all over," she said with concern.

Matteo took her elbow and began to walk her away from the policemen. When he believed they were out of earshot, he began awkwardly, "You didn't tell anyone what you saw last night, did you?"

"What I saw? What do you mean?" Caressa wondered, appearing bewildered.

"I mean Henri and I alone in his bedroom. You didn't tell anyone, did you?" He asked nervously.

"No, why would I tell anyone? If he needed help, it was kind of you to offer assistance. Even if it took you away from your usual duties." It seemed to Matteo that Caressa did not understand what had transpired between Henri Jekllyne and himself.

"Yes, I'm glad that you understand," he said with a renewed confidence as they made their way toward the offices.

"Of course, and I also know that if Henri keeps staring at you the way that he does, everyone else will understand."

Matteo's jaw dropped.

"Your secret is safe," she whispered in his ear as they arrived at the office.

"Thank you. I know that we work in an opera house, where scandal is abound, but I wouldn't want people spreading rumors about him. Especially something of this nature," he confided in her because she was the only soul who knew his secret. "I'll be off then. Have a fine day, Caressa."

"And you as well." It was not remotely difficult for Caressa to suss out the relationship between Henri and Matteo, and she did not wish for them to worry about her gossiping. However, she felt that feigning naivete made her appear quite simple, which she was not. In the end, she felt that her honesty at having discovered them gave Matteo a person to confide in.

Caressa rapped at the office door with her good hand, and placed the other behind her back. A moment later the manager called to beckon her inside. When she entered, the curtains were shut and the lamps were barely glowing. A man was rummaging through a cabinet to the right of a large wooden desk. When she saw him, she realized she had expected Monsieur Maugnaut, who this man was clearly not.

"Sit," he commanded curtly, with a lisp clearly audible in the 'S'.

She scrambled into the seat in front of his desk.

"Would you care for a libation, ma chérie? Wine, whiskey, or perhaps a glass of absinthe?" Caressa realized that the second manager, whose name she could not recall, sounded like a snake when he spoke. His voice was higher than most men of his tall stature, and the airy and calculated quality of his speech gave her an unpleasant chill.

"A small glass of wine, please, monsieur," she responded sheepishly. Glasses clinked together as he prepared their drinks. Her eyes had somewhat adjusted to the low lighting, but the darkness did not help settle her nerves.

After a few moments, the manager placed a reservoir glass filled with absinthe and covered with a spoon before her. He poured water over the sugar cube on top of the spoon and waited a few moments before stirring it in. Caressa said nothing as he finished, and took his seat. She could see light glinting off of his circular spectacles. Tiny pinpoints of reflected light revealed where his eyes were roaming beneath the glasses.

"I have exceedingly terrible vision, Mademoiselle Bucher. My only chance to preserve the sight I have is to avoid bright light at all costs. This is why I am rarely found in my office," he revealed. "I wanted to save you the embarrassment of asking."

Caressa stared at him, but she did not know if she should speak. The man before her was incredibly rude, and she felt he acted in such a way very deliberately.

He lifted a tumbler and gestured to the absinthe. Caressa took a sip, it was unpleasant, liken to licorice whips, but not as horrible as the whiskey she had once had. She took another taste and found that it suited her better than the first.

"What—" Caressa began, with the intention to discover what she was doing in his office.

"You're going to ask what you are doing here, Carolina—Might I call you, Carolina? It has come to my attention that Monsieur Maugnaut has failed to properly market you as our company's star. I read the interviews you gave, and they are quite dull. You appear very plain to the public. La Carlotta was a nightmarish diva, but the patrons adored the scandal—the theatre of it all, if you will. What we need to discover by the conclusion of this interview is what your public facing persona should be." As the man went on, Caressa became offended and confused.

"I'm not sure if I understand what you mean, Monsieur—" Her eyes darted to a small plaque on the desk bearing his name, "—Sabourin." She continued to sip her absinthe.

Monsieur Sabourin emitted a quiet scoff. "You're not a wit then."

Caressa looked at her lap, and tried not to say anything rash to the man who held her contract.

"Not easily offended either. If I had said that to Carlotta, she would have bashed my head in. No . . ." He drew this word out as he thought, "You are a rather agreeable creature, Carolina. The only requests you have made were well within your rights. Maugnaut tried to cheat you to save the money we've been bleeding out. I must ask that you assist us in recouping said funds. When we lost you for a fortnight, it demolished the thin façade we had built up around our ingénue."

"I—" Caressa managed before Monsieur Sabourin began to over speak her.

"What I had gathered from talk of you was that you are a sweet, religious little creature, who minds her manners and says her prayers." Sabourin sunk back against his wingback chair and nearly disappeared into the dark. "You must fathom my surprise when you entered my office looking like you just skulked out of le Chabanais brothel."

Her face lit up in anger at the comparison, but she calmed herself before she spoke, "It's not my dress, monsieur."

"A gift from an admirer, I assume?" Sabourin asked in a suggestive tone.

"No, monsieur. I borrowed it. Many of—well, all of my clothes have been ruined, and this gown was lent by a friend," Caressa explained what was reminiscent of the truth.

Monsieur Sabourin stood to refill his tumblr, and asked if she would care for more absinthe. It was only then that she noticed her glass was empty.

"No, thank you," she replied.

When he resumed his seat, he pushed a glass of red wine toward her. "A cabernet for you then. I distaste drinking alone." Caressa ignored the glass. "I was most sorry to discover that your possessions were destroyed within the opera house. I would have hoped your Phantom would find better ways to occupy his time."

"He is not my Phantom. He is nothing to me," she spat at her manager.

"I am sure it would displease him to hear you say that. It seems you have already given him cause for destruction. Examine the instance of your brother; why provide him with more encouragement?" Light danced across his spectacles as he spoke.

And Caressa wanted to smash them.

"If you mean to imply that any of the blame for his malice lies upon me, you are gravely mistaken! No one controls him, he's like a force of nature. He is the black magic that settles in shadows and waits for you to feel safe. He waits until you're sure he couldn't be watching, and then he strikes to wound. Again and again." She took a few deep breaths to quell her anger. It became increasingly difficult due to the freeing effect of the alcohol. "Do not put that on me. I am the girl who minds her manners and says her prayers at night."

She saw him nod. "Then that is our angle, ma chérie. Tell me, are you Catholic, Carolina?"

"My mother and father were, but when my father married his second wife, we converted," Caressa answered. "In truth, I'm not entirely fond of their severity." She had not intended to say that aloud, and slowly brought her hand over her mouth.

"Starting tomorrow, you will be seen going to confession at Notre-Dame. Every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday you will confess your sins to a priest, and the patrons will be fascinated by the pious actress." Sabourin opened a drawer at his desk and produced a rosary. "Take this, consider it part of your character. I want people to see you worrying over it when you're not on stage."

The girl before him could not believe what he was asking her to do. "That's blasphemy!"

"Only if you believed in Catholicism, which you don't. I am only asking you to do this very simple thing to offset the revenue and publicity we've lost. Monsieur Maugnaut and I would hate to have to shut the opera house's doors. Think of how many employees would find themselves in the gutters or whorehouses. Can you think of Reinette Martin wandering the streets of Paris, penniless and alone?" Sabourin steepled his fingers and leaned forward across the desk. "Don't ruin their lives over having to perform a little act, Caressa. Put on a righteous mask for a few months, and that's all. You could just pray at Notre-Dame, there is no harm in that."

Caressa wasn't sure if it was the alcohol, his persuasion, or the truth, but she began to nod in acceptance. "I'll do it for the opera house, it's my home."

"That is grand," he hissed. "I insist that you take the rosary."

She held out her hand begrudgingly. Sabourin slowly placed it in her palm, and closed her fingers around it as he took her hand gently in both of his.

"Thank you, monsieur . . ." She murmured and attempted to nimbly pull her hand away as she became a little panicked.

He held it there firmly. "That is nothing, ma chérie. A meaningless prop. However, I have brought a gift for you. Something to show appreciation for your talents, and your discretion."

She saw a flash of light reflecting off of the snake-like man's tongue when it darted out to wet his lips. Her stomach churned at the thought of what his "gift" might be.

"You shouldn't have," she barely whispered.

Sabourin released her hands. "It's there in the armoire," he told her in a bored voice. He gestured toward it with a nod of his head. The fear she had felt moments before dissipated. "Monsieur Maugnaut insisted upon it after your recent hardships, something to show our support."

"May I?" Caressa wondered, suddenly excited. Her cheeks were hot, her arms felt light enough to float, and she abruptly agreed that she deserved a present.

Her manager waved his hand to give her permission. She stood up shakily, and steadied her drunken tremors. Has walking always been this difficult? She thought to herself. The tight dress did her no favors.

"Wait!" Monsieur Sabourin called just as she reached the armoire. He quietly slithered to her, and handed her one of the oil lamps. "You'll see better with this. I shall cover my eyes so that you might turn it up. I do apologize for the darkness." These may have been the only kind words he had spoken during their meeting.

He stepped away and gestured at the armoire once more, "Go on."

Caressa produced a childish grin, and opened the doors. She glanced back to make sure that Monsieur Sabourin was covering his eyes before she slowly allowed the lamp to illuminate the contents of the armoire.

At first all she could see were shadows on cloth. With more light, she began to register a blue hue to the fabric, like forget-me-nots. Then she saw a dark, reddish orange streak of color on the right front skirt panel of a gown.

A streak of blood. It was the same gown she had ruined the night before!

She flung herself away in terror. Her entire body suffered an agonizing tensity. It seemed to realize she had tripped over the train of her gown before her mind did. As she plummeted backward, she was able to turn and brace her left elbow and forearm for the brunt of the fall.

While gasping into the carpet at the pain in her ribs, her lips pressing painfully into the fibres, Caressa tried to quickly make sense of her situation. It did not come to her as easily as it perhaps should have, but it was clear the absinthe was at fault. When she was finally able to focus her vision, she saw that the oil lamp had fallen a few feet from her head. It had spilled onto the carpet and lit a tiny patch aflame.

As she tried to escape her disoriented state, Caressa watched a fine, black leather shoe come down and crush the glass of the lamp beneath it. The small fire was extinguished. A pair of circular spectacles dropped to the floor beside the broken lamp and were also crushed.

"Did I frighten you?" She heard Erik say. "A prop, Caressa? A character? An act? A mask? How many hints did I give you, and still you fell for my ruse?" The Phantom of the Opera cackled at her. "Silly girl."

Caressa cried out in pain. She peered up at him with sadness and fear in her eyes. Her bandaged hand cradled her side. He turned up a lamp on the desk and she could see that a shabby gray suit replaced his usually immaculate attire, and he wore a thin, flesh-colored mask that covered all but his mouth and jaw. From above her, he glared.

Another cry escaped her, filled with uncontrollable agony, and she attempted to shift herself away from him.

"Oh God!" She shrieked. "What's happened to me! I can't breath! Erik, I can't—"

The Phantom watched in disbelief as she began to cough and blood speckled her lips. She covered her mouth and continued to hack into her bandaged hand.

She pulled it away to examine the stains, and whispered, ". . . Merde," before she collapsed and laid still.

Erik knelt beside her in horror. Her eyes were open and a trickle of blood was escaping from the left side of her mouth. He imagined that her broken rib had punctured her lung.

"What have I done?" He moaned. "Dearest Caressa, forgive me." Very gently, he tilted her head from where it rested up toward the ceiling. More blood rushed down the left side of her face and covered his fingers. "Dear, sweet, Caressa. . ." His soul was broken as he stared into her sightless eyes. He closed them with his hand, and sobbed.

After a few moments of silence, Erik leaned toward her and placed a kiss on her forehead.

This was when Caressa chose to come at him like a wild banshee. She spat the blood that remained in her mouth at his face and shoved him backwards onto the broken lamp. All of her weight came down hard upon his upper chest as she straddled him.

A searing pain erupted in Erik's neck, and then he noticed the rosary she brandished in her hand. He could feel the broken lamp beneath his back, but the many layers of fabric protected him. She struck at him ferociously with the rosary and her fists.

When he had regained his bearings, he grasped Caressa under the arms and slammed her against the desk with such force that it shuddered across the floor until it halted against the wall.

She gulped for the air that had been knocked out of her. As it began to enter her lungs again, Erik lifted her and painfully bent her backward over the desk. He grasped her throat, and she tried to tear his arm away with both hands.

"I should break your neck for that, you little hellion!" He screamed into her face. When he was sure that she wouldn't tear from his hold, he wiped her blood away from his mouth. She scowled at him, and he found her wild eyes unsettling. The fact that the left half of her face was streaked with blood added to the effect. He seized her face and she howled in pain.

"You bit your tongue when you fell, didn't you?" She said nothing. "Didn't you!" He shouted and tightened his grip on her throat.

"My cheek," she rasped.

"Absinthe transforms you into a violent creature," Erik taunted her.

Caressa bared her teeth at him. "How dare you deceive me in such a way! Luring me here, pretending to be a manager! What was there to gain?" She cried.

"I discovered how very easy it is to fool you, Mademoiselle Bucher. And why do you assume I am pretending?" He inquired.

"What's that supposed to mean? You're not a manager, I know the managers, they've been here since the reopening. Messieurs Maugnaut and..." She trailed off, remembering that she had indeed forgotten the second manager only minutes before.

"Victoir Sabourin. We happen to be one in the same. Come now, Caressa. When the opera house was purchased, what did everyone say?" He prodded her.

It suddenly made sense to her. "They said the buyers would have to be mad. They said the buyer would have to be insane to reopen the opera house under the same name, for its true purpose. They said there were too many ghosts. They were right, it was you." Every string that had been pulled was him, every time he mentioned a manager, he spoke of himself. "What of Monsieur Maugnaut? Does he know?"

"Indeed he does. He's merely a pawn, a name and a face to distract you. Do not forget, I am a magician." He sighed and tilted his head. "Now, I am appalled that you have not even mentioned how you liked your gift."

"You stalked me from the moment I left the opera house, didn't you?" Caressa was a flexible girl, but the angle of her spine was swiftly growing from irritating to excruciating.

"I wanted to see what you thought of my work," he growled. His empty hand took hold of her bandaged fist, and squeezed. "Perhaps the absinthe has nothing to do with your violence. Perhaps it is merely in your nature. You took quite a swing at that policeman."

"I imagined he was you," she muttered under her breath. Her eyes clenched shut at a white-hot ache piercing through her spine.

"It was strange to me that you would allow someone else to escort your brother away from Paris. When you began to wander away from the opera house, I knew I had been right to follow you. I had never thought you would do something so very foolish to disobey me," he admitted.

"You do not control me," Caressa told him in a steady voice. "And you never will."

He jerked her to the left and she slid sideways across the desk. "Your current circumstance appears to tell a different story. Now. . . where was I? The Hôtel de Crillon. I know you only have one friend who could afford to stay there, and Monsieur Matri had been missing from the Opera Populaire since the morning." Erik took a step closer and lowered his face to rest a few inches from Caressa's. As he bent at the waist, his body settled atop of hers.

"Do you know how it hurt me, Caressa? To know that you had run to him. To know that you were capable of such malice. In the dark and rain it was difficult to find your room as I leapt from balcony to balcony. I didn't have the gall to wander in as you had—drenched in blood and rain. I must admit I felt some relief when I found the room and saw you asleep in a bed of your own." A sad smile stretched across his face. "My relief was short lived."

"I could feel you in the room when I awoke," she realized.

"I am, afterall, the black magic that settles in shadows. It was from the shadows that I watched you rise from your slumber and go to him. Where he was waiting to sweep you off of your feet, to hold you in his arms. In his whispers did he tell you that he would protect you from the horrors of the world? Because he's doing a very poor job of it." A cackle escaped him, but it lacked the wickedness he had intended to portray.

Caressa attempted to remain quiet and still. Erik watched her pant and shake against the strain in her back.

"I only witnessed what you were kind enough to show me as I watched from the balcony outside. What went on beneath the sheets, Caressa? Did he—"

"If you say 'Sample yours charms' I will be sick," she choked out quickly.

A grave visage of seriousness settled upon Erik's face. "Do you mean to mock me?"

She grinned up at him. "Absolutely."

Erik pulled her up from the desk, and she moaned loudly at the relief in her back.

"Did he touch you?" He bellowed as he shook her wildly.

His countenance, which before had merely been meant to frighten her, had now turned truly dangerous.

Her hands grasped at his tweed lapels and she pulled herself up to whisper in his ear, "All of me."

Erik's body shuddered violently, and then all at once he was lifeless.

"And such knowledgeable hands they were, Erik. Gentle and kind... and curious to discover every inch of me. I know happiness now. True bliss," she had continued. If he could hate her, perhaps this would come to an end. One way or another.

"You lie," he said in a soft voice, quite unlike himself. It was sorrowful and small, somewhat like a child's voice. Caressa was reminded of her little brother and of a story she had heard many years before. She remained where she was, perched at his ear.

"Yes, I lied. Poor Erik, I lied. It was cruel, and wrong. Forgive me, I am not myself. I am never myself anymore. I'm too afraid to be myself, you see?" She asked and began to stroke his hair. The wig shifted under her hand, but he did not react. "When I was young, my stepmother was very unkind to me. When I was bad, which to her was nearly always, she would beat me and then leave me in our woodshed for as long as she liked. The woodshed was also where my father butchered the animals he hunted. There were always... remnants of them left inside. Heads and innards and blood soaking into the sawdust.

"My father was often away on business, and he was not aware of any of this. When I told him, he did not believe me. I loved my father as a daughter should, but I know that he was not the most attentive of fathers. My stepmother's madness culminated in the worst memories of my life, and it was only then that my father believed what she had done. He sent me away to the opera house at Heinrich's insistence.

"I was safe here. My life was full of friends and cheerfulness. Everyday I could dance upon the stage, and I was free. When I danced I could feel a perfection in my soul, a completion that told me I was destined for something.

"Then a man came along, and he stole me away from the life I had known. This man has trapped me in a cage. It is lonely and dark where I am. The only time it seems I please him is when I perform well before the people of Paris. I desperately feared his displeasure when he first came to me. He can be violent, you see? After a time, I discovered that I am not alone in this prison."

For the first time in her speech, she felt Erik take a deep breath and his chest pressed against hers.

"There is a boy with me here. He sings to me every so often, and his voice is wonderful and radiant. He is intelligent and so very clever. Though I have never seen him, I know in my heart that he is beautiful, Erik. And on occasion, the man who trapped me and the boy are one in the same, and I am blessed to be near him."

Erik's grip on her softened, and she could hear him sobbing.

"He is not an evil man, but he is like my father. He couldn't see that I was unhappy, and when I told him, he didn't believe me."

She leaned backward in his arms and looked into his eyes. There was no anger left, she had disarmed him.

"I can't take it anymore. I'm not strong, Erik. I will die in this prison, where I am abused, helpless and frightened. Did you leave your empathy and compassion behind in that cage? Would you not have preferred death over that pain? You're not an animal, and neither am I." When she had finished, she placed her hands against his chest and waited for him to speak. His eyes never wavered from hers and she thought she saw tears falling beneath the mask. Caressa could not have predicted what he said next.

"You could have chosen anyone," he murmured. "Though it had to be him, of course." His voice was rather calm.

Confusion spread over Caressa's face. "What do you mean, Erik?"

Erik released her and turned away. "He knows, he's known since your display this morning, at the very least."

"What are you talking about? John? What does he know?" Caressa wondered, she worried he was talking madness at her.

"Ask Monsieur Matri yourself when you see him this afternoon. He should be arriving shortly," he told her.

"Erik, please don't hurt him—"


She felt as if her heart would stop in fear as she witnessed his horrible rage. Then he was quiet.

"No, you haven't. You haven't threatened him once." This realization washed over her for a moment and she recalled Erik saying, It had to be him. "Why haven't you threatened him, Erik?"

He walked to the door and opened it for her. "Monsieur Matri has countless secrets, Caressa; as do I. It just so happens that some of our secrets coincide."

In a state of disbelief, she moved toward him. He took her arm when she meant to move passed. His hand moved toward her face and she flinched away. She had not seen the handkerchief he was holding. Erik dabbed at her bloodied face with the cloth. She stared into his eyes again, and was frustrated that he would not explain himself. He wet the kerchief with his tongue and brushed the last of the blood from her face.

"Rest easy tonight. There will be no ghosts to haunt you. I lose myself, Caressa. I become another man, in order to forget. In order to escape." He removed his hand from her arm. "Escape me for a little while now. I leave the door to your cage . . . open." He gestured to the foyer.

"Thank you," she managed to say, before exiting the room. Caressa walked slowly to the right staircase, and as she mounted the first step, she looked back to see Erik looking after her. From the distance, he appeared to be like any other man. To untrained eyes, he was Victoir Sabourin. She continued up the steps, and passed the guards into the John's suite.

The sitting room was empty, she glanced at John's door as she reached her room. She pulled her key from her boot, and as it slid into the lock she paused.

Victoir Sabourin. She recalled where she had seen the name before.

Caressa soundlessly let herself into John's room, and hastened to his writing desk. She snatched at the stacks of letters she had seen before. They were all addressed to John from Victoir Sabourin.

She removed the letter that was posted first from its envelope and was exasperated to find that it was written in English.

"Shall I tell you what it says?" John asked abruptly from behind her.

"Forgive me, I had to know what he had written to you. Why he's been writing to you," she attempted to explain herself.

John took the letter from her hands. "Last night, I had my suspicions about who your Phantom was, but this morning when you said that you wanted every fibre of me, I knew. It's in this very first letter.

"The sense of loss, which is apparent at the core of Johannes' character, strikes a deep chord. It is a pitiless sort of despair, more acute than is often written for the stage. Yet what you have captured within your work is also a testament to the passion and strength of love. I assert that even in death, it is possible to desire every fibre of someone's being, and it is here that the composer's sorrow becomes clear. Such work as this should be admired by all who have the senses to experience it."

"He—he praised you." Caressa could not believe what she was hearing. "What about the others?" She ran her hand over the now scattered pile of letters.

John returned the letter to its envelope. "I had finished my second opera, and he had his hands on it before it was ever performed. In the last section of this letter he gives his condolences, and he somehow knew without knowing exactly what had happened to my wife. Without ever having met me, he knew my thoughts. Even in my altered and absent state, I felt that I should begin a correspondence with Monsieur Sabourin. He has that effect, I understand, to engross those around him."

"You're his friend," Caressa muttered, still quite thrown by this turn of events. "That's why he said it, It had to be him, of course."

"After a few years of writing, he revealed that he was the manager of the Opera Populaire. It was just after he had lost the love of his life—Christine, I know now. He explained that when the renovation of the opera was ended, he would like for me to bring my masterpiece here as it neared completion. This was just before I met Henri. I promised Sabourin my masterpiece, though I imagined I would be long dead by the time he expected it." John released a long, miserable sigh. "He was a dear friend, Caressa. In my ignorance, I have truly fucked this up.

"He told me about you, but he never mentioned your name. His eyes must behold you so differently than I have come to see you, for I would not have guessed you were the woman he described." John sifted through the letters until he found what he was looking for. "She is quiet and demure, this faerie of a girl. I look on, but dare not show her deeper affection than a kiss on the forehead or hand. She is fragile, and I do not wish to break her. Our courtship is slow, but I can bear it. My heart has been cold for so long, and I feel it warm to her by degrees—"

"Stop!" Caressa implored him, and he lowered the letter. "I did not know. He never revealed any of this to me, he never displayed such affection. I thought he would kill me only a few minutes ago, his temper is so unbearably savage."

"Minutes ago?" John looked desperately around the room.

"He knows about last night, he played a dreadful trick to punish me for going to you. I appealed to him, and he has said that he will leave me alone for a little while. Who knows how long that could be?" Caressa tried to remember what Erik had said about her in the letter. Quiet and demure. Was I that girl? Am I still?

She could see that John was distressed. He ran his fingers through his hair a few times, and then rubbed his jaw as he thought. "I thought I was beyond all of this," he whispered in English. "Eschewing women solved this."

Caressa grew worried as he muttered to himself in English. He was looking at her with uncertain eyes, and she was sure he spoke of dismissing her.

Without a second thought, she took his face firmly between her hands and declared with finality, "From the moment I saw you, you were mine."

"What I have done is an inexcusable injury," John countered and placed his hands over hers. "It is also irreversible, I fear. Carolina, dear, I believe it was you who was mine that first day in the hall."

"Could we pretend it is the night of the Masquerade, John? Just one kiss and I would be satisfied," she proposed softly. Her right hand fell from his cheek, and gently enclosed his thigh.

John gave a groan that turned into a chuckle. "How could anyone say that a wicked thing like you is demure? I would not be satisfied with one kiss. Not from you, my sovereign. Put that pout of yours away, and if you're very good, I'll sit with you until your appointment." He removed himself from her attentions and occupied the settee at the foot of the bed.

"My appointment?" Caressa's brow rose, and she smoothed her skirt.

With a beckoning finger, John drew her to sit beside him. When she was settled, he gazed down at her. He leaned down, and spoke smoothly at her ear. "You must allow me to pay tribute to you, my sovereign." His index finger stroked from her wrist to the tip of her fingers. "I have arranged for a clothier from the House of Worth to meet with you."

"For what reason?" She regarded him carefully.

"A fitting. You shall have a new wardrobe, and you will need a gown for the Masquerade." John watched her hand fly to her bosom, resting upon his handkerchief. "You must not be nervous."

"They'll see me!" She exclaimed. "They'll tell everyone!"

John shook his head. "If a word is breathed about your body outside of that bedroom, I could have Charles Worth in ruin by supper. They are very discreet, it's part of the reason the House of Worth is the finest couturier in France. Please allow me to give you this, as a small token of my affections."

Caressa nodded. "I could do with a few new things."

"Only if it will please you." He grinned.

She struggled to sit on her knees, and captured John in her arms. "Yes, it pleases me." She pressed her lips to his cheek. "I'm so very—" She pecked the crown of his head. "—Very—" Another peck to his throat. "—Pleased!" A sly gleam entered her eyes and she began pecking at him in earnest, giggling all the while.

Her victim roared with laughter and attempted to lean away.

"You cannot escape me!" She proclaimed, and climbed onto him. "Tremble at how pleased I am with you!" John chuckled and put up a small struggle. "Do not dare to fight me, mortal!"

He caught her hands, which had been tickling at him, and held her aloft as she fought to continue her attack. She made faces at him and his laughter renewed. With a sideways jerk, Caressa sent them tumbling to the floor.

Her head took a small knock as she landed, but a bear skin rug softened the fall.

"Are you all right?" John inquired from above her, trying to contain his mirth. She nodded and glanced down to see that his right knee was resting between her thighs, and he supported himself with an arm on either side of her shoulders. On an impulse, she lifted her body up to meet him, and she gasped in pleasure as she pressed against his thigh.

His eyelids fell shut, and he released a sharp rasping breath. Caressa slowly returned to rest on the ground. She perceived a small tremor that rolled along John's body. When a few moments had passed, Caressa rose up again, and tentatively arched into him.

"Control yourself, you flirt," he attempted to joke. "It's cruel to tease me in such a way, more than you know."

"Forgive me," she begged of him. "I only wonder what would have happened last night if I had not been so nervous?"

"It was for the best that nothing transpired." Though he spoke the words, Caressa doubted his sincerity when he had not removed himself from above her.

"Are you certain?" She thrust against him once more.

Before she could understand what had occurred, her skirt was gathered at her hips, her bottom was lifted off of the ground, and John was holding her right leg in the air. The weight of him forced her down as he stroked his body upon hers. Caressa surely felt the extent of his excitement when he pressed himself between her legs.

The look of surprise on her face was enough for John to retreat. He pushed himself to his feet and turned to the wall. "I am certain. It is best that nothing should transpire forthwith. I recognize your curiosity and hope that you will be contented now."

"Yes, of course. I will be on my best behaviour, I promise you." Caressa collected herself, and returned to the settee.

John stared back over his shoulder at her, his eyes were darkened by his longing.

Caressa knew that an equal desire stirred within her and she assured him with the same tone she had used to claim him as her own, "I will behave, though I shall never stop wanting you."