The landscape blurred past in rolling fields of wheat and barley beneath the bleak midday sun. There had been days of rain and dreary roads, ofgazing fondlyat a woman who looked so distant but sat so close.

She was in mourning, Raoul knew. She was suffering for the loss of something she loved but didn't quite understand. No one understood, least of all the vicomte who had come to Paris and found himself in a whirlwind of lust and lies, darkness and brilliance.

Christine rested her head on Raoul's shoulder as she slept. Their hands were together, her small, alabaster fingers engulfed in his grasp.The ring she wore shined in the sunlight, catching what rays itcould find and sparkling as bright as Christine'seyes had long ago, in days when they had been innocent.

She smelled faintly of roses and butter cookies he had purchased for her when they changed carriages and horses. Feeding the sparrows in a courtyard in the center of Lyon had been the only moment Christine had smiled.

She was thinking of him still. Raoul knew it for he could not block the same image from his mind. They had said little to one another in the hours following escape. The Persian, the doroga, as Erik had called him, had bid them well and went about his way. He had bowed to Christine and embraced Raoul briefly.

"In weeks he will be gone," the Persian had whispered. Raoul had seen the concern in his eyes, shrouding the relief he most certainly felt.

"Gone?" Raoul had questioned.

The glint in the man's dark eyes had told Raoul everything. Erik would not be a threat much longer. Somehow, the thought tugged at Raoul's heart.

Raoul had thankedthe darogaagain, and with that they parted ways, Raoul and Christine heading from Paris south to Lyon. From there they were heading east into Milan where Raoul had a cousin who offered up his home for a small wedding.

"My bride," Raoul whispered.

Christine inhaled deeply and lifted her head. She blinked several times at her surroundings and smiled. "You're still here."

"Always," he promised, pulling a strand of hair away from her face.

He saw her glance out the small window. A white streak passed them. Sheep, Raoul thought with a smile. Dogs barked in the distance and a boy shouted to his unruly flock. The carriage slowed down to let the shepherd andflock cross the dirt road.

"I still think about him," Christine murmured. She turned and frowned at Raoul. "I still see his face."

Raoul nodded. "So do I."

The more Raoul thought about it, the less horrific the face had seemed. More than anything, it was a tragedy for so much talent and passion to be contained ina body that would always be refused. Raoul did not hate this man. He couldn't. He just couldn't hate him. But at the same time, he couldn't pity him either.

"If he comes for me—"

"He won't come for you. Not in Italy. We have left his world for good."

She moved the ring, her engagement ring, on her finger and watched the light catch each clear diamond. It was a replica of the one she had left with Erik only bigger and brighter. Raoul had purchased this bauble toprofess that his love for her had grown. She snuggled up against him and smiled.

"You are too good to me," she whispered.

He kissed the top of her head and squeezed her shoulder. "You are worthy of it all."

For a while they sat in silence, Christine still watching the landscape drift past while Raoul enjoyed her company. She was a childhood sweetheart, a loyal friend and fellow troublemaker. They had stolen cookies straight from the bakery when his aunt and uncle owned a small shop up north in Stockholm. That was how he had met Christine as a child traveling through Europe with her violinist father. Raoul had been with his brother and parents for the summer visiting. One look at Christine made the rest of the world fade away. She was a gift sent down by clouds and rays of sun from the Hand of God.

For three months they climbed trees and read stories, ate chocolates and sent the district of Stockholm in an uproar as they played like two little devils in their fine clothes. It was at that time that Gustave Daae began taking ill. He would cough late at night and only tinker with his violin. The music would end soon. Raoul had expected the first summer he saw her would also be the last.

Raoul wondered what would become of Christine. He wished the Hand of God would sweep down and take her up again, up into the glory that would soon be her father's domain.

"What do you think will happen to him?" Christine asked without turning her head.

Raoul knew by the sound of her voice that she cried in silence. She was still so much a child—they both were in many ways—but Christine was younger than him. She felt that Erik's misery was her doing. She had forgotten her own happiness.

"I'm not certain," Raoul answered. He knew he couldn't tell her to forget him, to forget that man who had placed her in an unfair position. The Grasshopper or the Scorpion, Erik or Raoul. What a terrible thing he had done to Little Lotte. If he had truly loved her, that masked man would not have given her such heartache. He would have let her do as her heart wished instead of attempting to coerce her into his life.

But he had loved Christine in the only way he knew how to love. He had stopped at nothing to obtain what he wanted. Selfish, perhaps, but passionate nonetheless. Somewhere deep inside, Raoul knew that Erik had not meant to harm her. He didn't have it inside of him to harm her.

In the end, he had proven that.

God grant him a place in Your Kingdom. You would find no sweeter music than what this man would bring, Raoul prayed.

Raoul sat upright and looked out the window with Christine. The coach was getting warmer as the sun stared into their little world of glass and wood rumbling down the road.

"I'm sorry," Raoul whispered.

"For what?" Christine questioned. She looked at him, her dark eyes wide.

"For everything you went through."

Christine smiled and kissed his cheek. "My darling, you have done everything for me." She pulled back and looked into his eyes, then kissed him softly on the lips, a slow and lingering gesture that earned her Raoul's arms around her back. "You saved me."

This was what he had dreamed of since they were playmates growing with each year, growing in height and in longing for one another. The last summer he had seen Christine, when her poor father had been so thin and frail, his hair unwashed and face graying, Raoul had expected it would be the last time they would ever meet.

To find her again had been the best thing in his life. And he had nearly lost her to a madman and genius, a talent magician, musician but darkened mind. To the Phantom of the Opera.

"Do you regret leaving?" Raoul asked as he let Christine's hand slip from his.

He would let her give her answer, free of coaxing and yearning. He wanted her honest answer, whether it be something he hoped to hear or dreaded.

"He was a genius," she whispered. "He knew music, he loved music, he was a master of song, of architecture...of deception." A tear slipped down her cheek.

"Oh, Christine," Raoul sighed.

"I will always see his face."

Raoul noddedslowly. "You regret this? You regret your decision?"

With a closed lip smile and gentle shake of her head Christine claimed Raoul's hand in hers. This was what felt right, a joining of friend and lover, a partner of long ago and a companion for eternity. He had always been something real and something safe. No amount of genius compared to safety and familiarity.

She touched her forehead to his and looked into his eyes. "There are many regrets I have. But you are not one of them."