I do not own the characters; they were borrowed from various versions of Phantom of the Opera.

Here's another happy ending story. Last week I posted one that was more on the mature side, so this week I thought I would post one that was more innocent and sweet. I hope you like it. When I write a story, a lot of times I have an image first in my head, and then I build a story around it. With this particular one, my inspiration was the way I have them lying together at the end, curled up facing each other on the ground. Something about that just seems so simple and beautiful that I wrote this story just to use it. I know that seems like doing things backwards, but my creativity works oddly at times! This is told from Christine's POV just because sometimes it's fun to get inside her head; I really can't say why.

SUMMARY: And with a kiss, I sealed my fate.

"Cadence"

And with a kiss, I sealed my fate. A kiss…. It shouldn't have been a monumental event; I mean it's such a mundane contact. How many kisses are given away so frivolously on a daily basis? How many hold no true meaning beyond the physical? I myself have been one to indulge in the triviality, granting kisses to Raoul for no more than his own desirous urging. How often had I used the act of a kiss as collateral? Giving them to reassure his doubting mind of devotions that were actually dwindling on my part? A kiss…, a lie…, a deceptive device….

That should have held true for my current situation. This kiss should have been only to procure Raoul's freedom…, should have been….

As we parted, and Erik looked at me with those eyes, those damning, soul-consuming eyes, I saw a mirror image of my own astounded expression. We were both equally innocent to the emotions that had been stirred and ignited to life, both equally at a loss for logical comprehension. All we could do was stare at one another.

Before either of us could sort out reality and reason, we were rudely interrupted by another of what had been a stream of shouted curses from the unnerved Vicomte in the torture chamber. That was it; spell broken to fragmented shards of soul-piercing glass.

Without a word, Erik strode away from me with a very determined course and within moments, returned, dragging the enraged Vicomte, who was obviously annoyed to be manhandled but was only making feeble struggles to get free.

"Christine," Raoul called, and as his eyes sought mine and ran frantically over me from head to toe, he did not attempt to hide his surprise to find me clothed in the elegant wedding gown Erik had insisted upon.

What could I say to him? What explanation could be given to what I myself was so uncertain of? Of their own accord, my eyes traveled from the handsome, flawlessly sculpted face of the Vicomte to the malformed, pathetic one of my once angel teacher, taking in every scar, every deformity in contrast. He was a hideous sight; he had never claimed to be anything else. And to my own surprise, he was all I could want to behold.

Erik unceremoniously tossed Raoul to the floor, a flash of satisfaction passing his gaze to watch the Vicomte stagger back to his feet, but as that same stare met mine again, any pleasant emotion faded and was swallowed in despair. "Go," he suddenly insisted, that beautiful voice I so adored twisted in agony.

"What?" I was sure I had misheard him, sure he meant Raoul…alone.

"Go, Christine," he repeated, more firmly and resolved. "Take your Vicomte, and leave this place. Now."

"Erik…." Words floated in meaningless phrases and incomplete clauses through my addled mind. I wanted to go to him, to touch him, anything to reinforce the choice I myself had been the one to make, the choice I was determined to follow through to its completion.

Raoul, however, needed no further urging and was grasping at my hand and pulling me to the door without my acquiescence, even as my desperate eyes were fixed in a gaze over my shoulder with Erik's.

"No." I found only a meek squeaking of my voice and suddenly began to struggle against Raoul's viselike hold. "No."

But Raoul was undeterred and easily pulled me along with him; it wasn't a difficult task, most especially considering the traumas of late. They had left me quite a bit frailer than the girl I had been months before.

We were outside the small, hidden house, and he was leading me to the boat at the shore of the underground lake. In the distance of the nearby catacombs, I could hear the rumble of the impending mob. My God, the mob! I knew they would not be happy unless Erik was dead. Erik, …my angel….

"Erik! Erik!" I suddenly shouted, nearly hysterical, fighting with renewed vigor against the flash of an image of his lifeless corpse in my mind, never again to sing, never again to hold me in his arms, never again to chuckle with amusement at something I said to him. He had once told me that I was the only one ever to make him laugh, that I was his only happiness….

"Erik!!" I shrieked again, and then he was there, coming from the doorway of the house, seeking me with urgent eyes.

"Christine." Raoul was the one to speak my name first with anger as he glanced between Erik and I. "Come on."

"The…the mob," I heard myself insisting, something, anything to be my seeming excuse.

As if on cue, loud explosions of gunfire resounded through the cave-like catacombs, reverberating all around us at such a deafening volume that I screamed in terror. They were shooting! Still merely an approaching glow of torchlight in a nearby tunnel, but already their vengeance had begun.

"Get her out of here!" Erik suddenly roared at Raoul.

And then it happened….

I saw it as if in a dream: a burst of gunfire and Erik suddenly falling to the ground.

"NO!!" I shouted and jerked out of Raoul's hold, running toward my fallen angel without a thought.

Raoul tried to stop me, terrified for my safety, but I was a step ahead and at Erik's side, catching his shoulders in my shaking hands.

"Erik," I whispered, tears filling my eyes.

"Sshh," he crooned suddenly and tried to lift himself to a seated position as I automatically helped him, too dazed to argue. "It's just a scratch."

Scratch! All I saw was the blood, wetting the leg of his pants just below his knee, soiling through the material to stain the ground in red, …smeared streaks of red.

"Christine, let's go," Raoul insisted, trying to pull me away again.

"No!" I shouted at him with a sudden ferocity that shocked all three of us. "I won't leave him! The mob will kill him, Raoul!"

"So, what does it matter?" I had never seen the Vicomte so arrogant, so uncaring, and at that moment, I hated him.

"Christine," Erik called gently, and I eagerly turned my gaze to him, breaking away from Raoul to once again crouch beside my angel, even as he shook his head in an adamant denial. "Go, petite, please. I can't bear to consider anything happening to you."

"Not without you," I insisted vehemently, and lifting my eyes back to Raoul, I set my own terms this time. "I won't leave with you unless we take Erik with us."

"Christine-"

"You say you love me." I was once again using something that should be significant to my advantage. "Prove it. I won't leave him here, Raoul."

The Vicomte was openly enraged, but I was confident that I had won anyway, waiting patiently as his resolve crumbled to consent.

"Monsieur," the Vicomte hissed, without cordiality to Erik and gestured to the boat. "If you will."

Erik looked dubiously between the two of us, but I didn't give him the chance to refuse as I whispered, "Erik, please."

He held my eye for a long moment, and I pondered how behind those orbs, one so blue and one so green, I could not decipher the inner workings of his brain. He was so accustomed to concealing emotion even from me, and despite the fact that I knew him better than anyone did or would care to, when he gave me that guarded expression, I was at a loss for what he felt he must first decide alone.

"Erik," I begged again, gesturing a hand to the mob's approach, and with a hint of reluctance, he nodded and started to rise. His injury, however superficial he had attempted to justify it, hindered even that simplest of tasks. It was I with my meager stature that caught him before he fell back again, helping him steady himself on his feet. Only the most fleeting of thoughts touched my mind that it was a rarity for us to be so physically near one another and certainly something never before considered for Erik, my own guardian angel, to be the weaker of the two of us and in need of my help, feeble as it was. But with Raoul obviously unwilling to offer any sort of aid, I did not hesitate to slip my arms around his torso and allow him to lean on me. There was shame mingled with gratitude in his gaze as it met mine, but he set his arm upon my shoulders without argument.

"Well?" the Vicomte demanded coldly from where he had untied the boat, and we slowly made a haphazard trek to join him. If Raoul was jealous by my concern and eagerness to help Erik, he never said so, acting as much as a surly child as he had all along, and I certainly did not have the time or impetus to care. Let him be jealous if it got me what I wanted, namely Erik alive and not the casualty of the blood-thirsty mob.

With only a modicum of my support, Erik climbed into the boat, grunting and cringing to himself, disinclined to share his pain with me and my overt concern. As we launched off in the opposite direction as the shouts and occasional gunshot, my natural impulse bade me to bury my trembling body in Erik's embrace, guardian to all ends, but, of course, I had to deny anything of the sort, sustaining myself with solely an unbreakable stare on him. I wanted to curse Raoul's interfering presence, but my better sense reminded me that we likely wouldn't have gotten far without it. Raoul was the only one capable of rowing us to safety.

"Monsieur," Raoul sharply bid as he threw his weight into his task. "Some direction would be appreciated. I am at a loss for escape now that I must busy myself with concealing a fugitive as well."

"Straight, Monsieur Vicomte." Despite his pain, Erik matched his tone and even served in more spite if that was possible. "To the end of the tunnel…. Then we will have to hide."

Neither Raoul nor I asked what he meant. I was confident without a single doubt that Erik would keep us safe, that he would know exactly what to do. He had never failed me before, unlike every other person in my life. He was my constant.

My eyes idly ran over his face again as he seemed to meticulously avoid looking at anything but the water around us. Had I really kissed those misshapen, bloated lips? …And dear God, why did the memory of it alone make my body tingle and the desire to do it again twist urgently in my belly? It was one kiss, my sense argued. Some of the ballerinas had gossiped about dozens of men they had shared kisses with, dozens of kisses even. It shouldn't hold such sway, should it?

…And yet when we had kissed, it had felt like the earth had moved, like ground, stable and dependable as it always was, had suddenly shifted beneath our feet, leaving every principle one clings to as logic flipped onto its head, upside down and inside out.

It would have been a lie to say that I had never considered the feelings I possessed deep in my heart of hearts for Erik in a romantic vein. For some time, emotion had been thriving within me, and I had no knowledge of where or when its origin lay, as if it had always been there waiting to be acknowledged…, waiting for permission to exist. It was continuously stifled by my loyalty to Raoul in the immature vows we had made to one another and my lingering apprehension to Erik, that vain voice in my mind that constantly reminded me of what lay just out of sight beneath the mask, hidden but omnipotent in its power to keep us apart; those were the things that kept my denial as a necessity for sanity. I was terrified to realize my own thoughts! And how long would I have continued down that path? Virtually half-alive because how can one truly live while holding at bay the very right and privilege to feel?

Was what I felt for Raoul even a fraction of what I did for Erik? If Raoul had been the injured party tonight, would I have been only too willing to leave him to the mob and run off with Erik instead? It shamed me to consider how appealing of an option that was; …if I would have known regret for such an act was the real unanswerable question.

Glancing to Raoul as he rowed furiously, I noticed him casting repulsed glares to my unrecognizing angel, and I was momentarily wishing I had thought to grab his mask, not for me but for him. He did not deserve such stares, especially from Raoul with his mockingly perfect features. If I could have, I would have covered that tattered cheek, that absent nose, that sunken eye, with my own hands to keep it protected from unwanted observance. Raoul did not deserve to have the right to see Erik's true face. I wanted to jealously claim so aloud, to scream at his lack of compassion, that the face he seemed so disgusted to even share the air with was mine and only mine, that Erik's dearly distorted features were made to be mine.

Raoul caught my glare and attempted an appeasing smile, and I had to look away. It had been an exhausting night; I no longer had the strength to play along.

My gaze drifted to my wringing hands, idly twisting in the crinoline skirt of the wedding gown. I still lacked the answer to whether or not Erik had intended for us to wed this night before all of his plans had gone awry. He had only demanded that I stay with him in his hasty threat; the term 'marriage' had not come up in any vein, but under an implication. For all of his sins and dark gaps within him, he had only ever remained honorable and respectable toward me, the perfect gentleman. Such a concept made me sure marriage was the only considerable route to his intentions. He wouldn't want to tarnish me and the perfection he saw me to be, despite how undeserving I always felt of such a title.

The tunnel was ending in another shore up ahead and past that all I saw was a dark passageway. Dark had always been a fear of mine, and even now caused reminiscent goosebumps to rise upon my skin. Only with Erik had that fear been assuaged as he had always insisted that he himself was the most terrifying thing that lurked in the dark shadows and I faced him on a daily basis. "Unfounded," he had called my fear, and I remembered vividly how he had gestured to his mask and even asked if I had seen anything else more worthy of screams and genuine horror. I hadn't, but I hadn't told him that.

Raoul did not help Erik as we arrived on shore; not that I thought he would have been considerate enough to "lower" himself to such a thing, but he retained his disgusted look with every glance in Erik's direction as if he considered that by merely touching Erik, he himself and his austere appearance would become disfigured as well. I, on the other hand, gave not even a hesitation, eager to touch him in any way that he would allow me, even in a way that went beyond aid. No, it was he who was the reluctant one between us, and yet, thankfully, he saw the necessity enough to permit me.

As he hobbled out of the boat, his malformed features contorted in a pained expression, his jaw clenching in a tight line, and overcome with the urge to soothe that intrusive tension away, I brushed a caress to his unmarked cheek and drew his eye to mine. I would have touched his scars without a second thought; I wanted to far more than I even admitted to myself. But I was terrified of upsetting an already hurt Erik, and in our current situation under an already annoyed audience of the Vicomte, I knew I would have to wait.

"Erik," I bid gently, "are you all right, ange?"

He forced a less severe expression; I knew it was a lie. "Fine, petite, fine. We have to keep moving."

I nodded and willingly slid my arms around his waist, grateful I could use his injury as an excuse to cling to him and draw strength from his guardian spirit.

To me, this part of our journey seemed never-ending. I wasn't too burdened by Erik, who was obviously determined to do most of the work himself, pain be damned. But echoing around us, I could still hear the mob, albeit fainter with our distance. I wasn't sure that they wouldn't pursue us, and neither was Erik; I could tell by the determined pace he was trying desperately to keep to.

As we walked the darkened tunnel, at some point that I found to be random considering that there were no sort of landmarks to decipher its location, Erik ordered, "Here. Wait. Stop here."

He knew exactly what he was doing, releasing the meager hold he had on me to stagger the rest of the way to, what appeared to me to be, a stone wall. I did not see how he did it, but the next thing I knew, there was a small click and the wall opened up to us. I should have known by now that he had a great many passages through the opera, but as always, I held an absolute amazement to consider his genius.

We found ourselves in a small room, stone walls on all sides of us, trapped in once they door was closed.

Raoul rounded on Erik furiously. "And what do you intend, Monsieur le Fantôme? To lock us in?"

"For now," Erik replied. "If I were you, Monsieur Vicomte, I would be most concerned with keeping Christine safe."

"Of course that is always my main concern!" Raoul snapped back. "She is my fiancée. I will be the one responsible for her well-being."

Erik did not reply, but I recognized a brief flash of jealous pain in his eyes, so subtle that anyone else would have missed it. I knew the emotion must have been hitting him with brutal fierceness for him to have let it through his impenetrable wall even an inkling.

Eager to do something to break the tension, I asked him, "What is this place, Erik? Did you build it in the walls?"

He shrugged with a modesty I was used to seeing. "I have a few similar rooms all throughout the catacombs. I planned for hasty escapes, you see. There are provisions along the wall there: blankets, towels, fresh water, lanterns." With a grimace of the pain he was fighting to endure, he slowly took a much-needed seat on the stone ground.

How my heart ached with him! "You need to let me tend to your leg," I told him matter of factly, seeking the towels he had mentioned. It felt absolutely wonderful to have some task to set my mind to.

"Christine," he attempted the argument I knew he would, "that is unnecessary." It was feeble; he knew I was right. His paler than usual complexion was enough to justify the very necessity to both of us, his argument based more on a loathing to seem weak in any sense of the word.

"Tend to?" Raoul inquired with his own cringe. "Must you, Christine?"

"Yes, it could get infected." There was more to it than a desire to keep me from helping his enemy, and I very nearly smiled with amusement. "Do you not tolerate the sight of blood well, Raoul?"

"I…." The Vicomte, one of the richest and most respected men in Paris, was at a loss for words over what I saw to be a ridiculously mundane issue.

"Perhaps you should wait outside the room," I offered.

"And leave you here with him?" Raoul shook his head adamantly and watched me with a hawk's eye as I collected a few towels and some water and returned to kneel before an equally attentive Erik.

I met Erik's eye for a brief instant and softly said, "This will hurt…. I'll do my best to be gentle."

"I've endured far worse," he replied, and I knew he was not exaggerating, that if anything, he was yet underestimating what he had suffered in a past I knew only scant bits about, only what he would willingly admit. It was violent, the sort of nightmare one cannot even fathom enough to have. It was truly a miracle he had survived it.

My fingers found the wet cuff of the leg of his pants, and as carefully as I could, I lifted it to reveal a bloody mess over every inch of white skin and an injury that was more than the scratch he had called it.

"Oh…, Oh…," Raoul moaned behind me, and I turned to see him run out the open doorway without pause.

To my surprise, Erik actually smirked; injured, bloody, in more pain than he was willing to reveal, and he still found humor enough to mock the Vicomte. I could not help but share his grin, meeting his eye in a conversation that needed no words to qualify its existence.

In the next instant, I went back to my task and proceeded to clean the wound that thankfully only still bled a little. The bullet was not there; I could tell that much; it had been a graze, but it had certainly done damage enough. As I had promised, I enacted gentleness with every stroke of the wet towel across the injury, and for the most part, Erik gave nothing away, only a couple of grunts and one hiss when I crossed the gaping center.

"You're a good patient," I softly said, glancing up at him as I worked diligently. "You've endured such things often, haven't you?"

"Often? …Enough," he answered with an apathetic shrug. "I've never had anyone tend to my wounds before, though. Usually, I have that task to myself. I can assure you that you cause far less pain than my own hands and mediocre attempts have."

As the dried blood was gone from his white skin, so white that my own pale complexion looked creamy against it, I added a hesitant caress of my bare fingertips across the brunt of the injury and heard him give a slight hiss.

"Oh! I didn't mean to hurt you!" Guilt assaulted me for indulging my foolish whim. I had only thought to give a pleasant touch to skin that had been so violated, not considering anything else, but as I met his eye apologetically, those mismatched orbs bore into me.

"You didn't hurt me, Christine," he softly revealed, eyes holding mine intently.

I wanted to push the subject, but was shaken under such a gaze, and blushing pink, so bright I felt my cheeks burn, I returned to my task of bandaging the injury, ripping a towel into long strips and forming a makeshift wrapping. Every time I attempted a casual glance up at my patient, I found those eyes on me, and even when I didn't, their stare pierced my flesh, straight through to my soul. There were questions there, questions that hung unuttered between us, but left a visible mark in the very air. Had they always existed? I couldn't remember a time without them and the pressure they brought, pressure to define what had so long remained indefinable. He had always wanted answers, and I had always avoided the questions.

With my chosen task complete, before I dared look at him and lose my courage, I followed a whim, something that was uncharacteristic for me but in this particular situation, necessary. Leaning near, I pressed a kiss just above the bandage's edge, against the smooth, white flesh alongside his knee, undeterred from prolonging it even as I felt him go rigid and heard his harsh gasp of a breath.

When I slowly drew away again, I lifted my eyes to his and saw his terrified expression as if my kiss was anything but the tender caress it had been. Tears were rapidly filling those mismatched depths, glistening and twinkling as he shook his head adamantly back and forth, denying something. What? my mind demanded, but my tongue could not find a voice to ask it aloud. He did not speak either; he was too aghast for words. But he trembled; I could feel it as every bit of his flesh seemed to share it until a slight shiver became a violent shaking that I knew I could never understand. Only a lifetime of cruelty and devoid of any form of kindness or love could give me insight into the depth of what he was suffering.

Staring at him all the while, I tentatively placed my palm in complete delicacy against his ankle, and almost immediately, a soft sob escaped his misshapen lips, his flesh quivering beneath my touch. I wondered if he would protest, if he would be angered, wondered how far I was breeching the propriety of our relationship, but I couldn't seem to find the will to stop. As he shook and cried silent tears, I looked between that intense gaze and the touch of my hand as it made a languid path up his white calf, delicately across the boundary of the bandage, and over his knee to the spot my lips had known, tracing my fingertips over the invisible mark I had left in my unthreatening wake.

"Christine," he whispered breathless, a million utterances in his eyes. Perhaps he would have spoken them, perhaps he would have explained why he still bore such a look of fear in the background.

But a soft shuffle of footsteps made me suddenly yank my hand away in the instant Raoul called into the cave, "Christine, have you finished?"

"Y…yes," I stammered, casting a guilt-filled glance to Erik, but he would not look at me as he suddenly jerked his cuffed pant leg back into place and scooted away from my nearness.

If Raoul could feel the tension boiling rapidly in the air, he didn't mention a word of it. But perhaps that explained his overcompensation, as he came right to my side and placed an unwanted kiss atop my head, that I noticed Erik witness solemnly.

"My compassionate darling," Raoul gushed as I fought not to cringe and even shudder.

My eyes were again drawn to Erik as if through stare alone, I could explain that I wasn't at fault, that Raoul acted on his own without my encouragement or desire. But Erik had stumbled to his feet, and under a limp of his sore leg, he went to secure the hidden door to prevent intruders.

"No one was following," Raoul insisted condescendingly. "I was standing by the lake this entire time and saw no boats or lights, heard no shouts. They are not in pursuit."

Erik did not reply as he came back to join us, and I, understanding even his unspoken comments all too well, had hurried to my feet and went to collect blankets for the night. I would never argue against Erik and his intuition.

As I handed a blanket to the sneering Vicomte, he demanded, "And you intend for us to sleep here, Monsieur? In a dank cave? On a hard stone floor? Isn't it a bit overdone to camp out from a nonexistent threat?"

"Raoul," I almost snapped, already beyond my own levels of aggravation with his intruding presence. "Trust him. He's just trying to keep us safe."

"Is he, Christine? Or is all of this only another ridiculous game? How could I possibly trust that that murdering freak won't kill me in my sleep?"

"Enough!" I nearly shouted, noticing Erik cast me a side-glance tinged in pleased surprise.

"I can't be blamed for it," Raoul continued in spite of me. "The bastard already attempted to kill me once tonight, you do realize. And now he wants us all to vulnerably sleep in the same room together? It seems a bit too convenient to me."

At that point, I could not say that I was not wishing that to be Erik's intended plan. Raoul had pushed me far too much tonight, reminding me in the process how many thoughts he himself had put into my head, how many times he had twisted things about to make me see Erik as the villain. Had I ever even truly feared Erik before Raoul's ridiculous assumptions?

"You forget," I was arguing equally as vehement as he. "Erik was the one to release you once already this evening. If he wanted to kill you, he would have done it then."

"You are naïve, Christine, entirely a willing subject to his spells and far too trusting in an inherently good soul that does not exist."

I was on the verge of screaming at him, attacking even. I might have actually done it and lunged at him, had Erik not broken into our argument.

"Monsieur Vicomte," Erik snapped, "Christine is right, and you are no gentleman to dare question her character. If I had intentions of killing you, you would be dead already without regret on my part, I assure you." The rage in his eyes was one I had seen before, but I also saw his determination to keep it within his control. "And as to the nature of my soul, Monsieur, that is for God to judge, not you, Monsieur."

With that, he grabbed a blanket and went to the farthest wall of the cave from the two of us. Then with only one look in my direction, he turned his back and lay on the hard, cold stone floor, dragging the blanket over himself without pause, shutting us out, …well, shutting Raoul out; I was only included by default. It absolutely made my blood boil with a fierceness that made me shake all over, for Raoul had not only enraged Erik but had caused him to shun me as well when all I wanted was to be in his comforting company. Damn him!

Shooting Raoul a cold glare that sang with the curses in my head, I went to the side wall away from both men and imitated Erik's motions, laying down facing stone. My hands curled tightly in the coarse material of the blanket, drawing it close not only to block out the dank chill looming in the catacomb air but to conceal from my eyes the wedding gown, smeared in blood, smudged with dirt, further attestation to the trauma this night had been.

I couldn't have slept if I tried. At some point, I heard Raoul lay down himself, thankfully making no move to approach me. I would have been happy never to speak to him again after this night, never to have to answer the questions I knew had been brought to life in his mind, never to have to justify myself, my feelings, my very soul. How blissful would it have been to close my eyes, drift off, and find upon opening them again that this had all been a nightmare, that the last six months had never happened.

I imagined it in my head as my eyes stared unseeing at the stone grey before them. I didn't want the days of an angel's presence in my life; no, I wanted the ones between, the ones when though I had known exactly who and what Erik was, I had gone to him anyway. Oh, how I would love to live those days again! Only I would do it all so differently now. I wouldn't let myself be the meek, scared mouse. No, I was determined that if I could go back, I would be stronger and follow my heart's bidding, the exact one I had shunned and had run from right into Raoul's eagerly awaiting arms.

It stunned me to realize that I myself had been the cause of all of this and the pain attached to it. Never before had I considered myself worthy of any kind of dramatics, good or bad. Erik had always tried to prove otherwise to my unconfident self. Every negative comment that had ever passed my lips in his presence, he had always countered with double as many compliments. He saw me as special and so entirely different than I had ever seen myself.

One time, as I recalled it now with a tinge of a smile, I had been crying in my dressing room after some seemingly evil words from La Carlotta. She had called me plain and dull with the voice of a mewing cat, her jealous rants tearing me to pieces. And as I had sobbed to myself, Erik had breathed in such warm and endearing tones that I was so beautiful that when with me, he could not take his eyes away from me because every other object in the world paled in comparison. It was always that way with him; he not only said beautiful things, but he genuinely thought them as well, which was why I was always so humbled when he would bestow such compliments on me. Of course, most had been spoken from behind my mirror, not in an angel's guise but with his own lacking confidence as his hindrance. We were two of a kind and always had been, scared in our own ways of each other and the very tangible connection existing between us, both unsure and ever so insecure with how to act on the feelings we were both terrified to admit to possess. At least Erik had not run from them…. No, that was only my folly and burden to bear the regret for….

Daring to peek over my shoulder under the command of an overwrought heart and a tormented head, I saw Raoul, laying seemingly asleep in the center of the cave, his back to me. I could not tell his state for certain, but his breathing looked calm and deep. I was reasonably sure that he wouldn't be lying awake unless he had an eye on Erik at all times, suspicious of attack. And to the conclusion of my impatient mind, I determined that he had to be asleep.

Taking a deep breath, I dared to abandon my blanket and make a half-crawled, half-scooted approach to Erik's stiff back, sure before I even arrived behind him that he was awake. I didn't have to call to him, for he was already turning to lay on his side facing me, those mismatched eyes hitting me with all of the intensity of a punch to the gut and yet all of the gentleness of a soft caress. Only briefly did he glance beyond me to the Vicomte, but assuming sleep as I had or at least not caring either way, he returned that stare to me, waiting, expecting, but what, I didn't know.

"You weren't asleep," I accused softly, lying on my side and curling up at the knees as I faced him.

"Neither were you."

It continued to astound me how he could have known such a thing, and how with equaled certainty, I could know the same.

Erik's gaze quickly traversed my small shape before with all of the hesitancy of a terrified child, he lifted his blanket and brought it close enough to encompass me in its cocoon with him. A small gesture that spoke volumes that neither of us had the ability to say.

"What were you thinking," he asked in a hushed whisper, "to keep you from being able to rest?"

So many things! Too many to go into with the lingering walls between us! As I stared at that face so near my own, scars so blatantly on display for me to see, I pondered a long still moment before giving him an answer.

"My mind was in a turmoil…of thoughts, memories, images, …questions…." Bravery threatened to abandon me; I couldn't let it. I had to be the Christine I had intended to be if all of this could have been relived, the one who wouldn't cower away so easily. On the wings of my resolve, I dared to demand my most agonized of thoughts. "Tell me why you tried to make me leave you tonight, Erik."

He sucked in a harsh breath, his eyes drifting up to the ceiling, away, …away from me. I wanted an answer; I was determined to have one. But after a long pause, he instead turned everything about. "What sorts of things were you remembering, Christine? Are only the bad times haunting your mind tonight, or do you recall that there were good ones as well?" Before I could give him a reply, as if he was terrified to let me for fear what would be said, he insisted, still avoiding my gaze, "For me, even the most terrible of times and situations, …like tonight, could never be considered bad if it included your presence. …How could it be bad when it seems the only times I have ever known what it's like to feel, to truly feel, have been with you? …Human beings, in general, give too much credit to the more pleasant of emotions, …love, happiness, joy…. They discredit the fact that they can only know the true extent of such things when they have also known what it means to feel their less than appreciated counterparts, anger, fear, hatred. And when you learn and know one, all of the others, good and bad alike, are intensified to frightening heights…. I don't think I knew what hatred, pure and true, untainted in its most concentrated and consuming sense could feel like until I loved you…."

I couldn't have formed a coherent reply to such revelations. Did any exist? To love and to hate; I was entirely sure Erik had known both in equally passionate quantities for me, and if anything, he had only just confirmed my thoughts.

"It's amazing, really," he continued with a slight shake of his head. "I have been beaten, abused, assaulted, called every possible insult known to man or God; I have known torture, been both its victim and its inflictor; I have committed sins too great to imagine and have eternal damnation awaiting me in the next life…. And yet from the moment I began to love you, I have learned what real pain is…and equally well, what pleasure can truly be…. You cannot possibly know what it is to endure a lifetime without such things, without happiness, excitement, …the pleasure of a simple touch…." His voice drifted off as if he could not bear to continue on that current trek of thought. "I…I just want you to remember the good as well for when the time comes that we part. I don't want my very existence to be nothing but a painful recollection that you repress…. Perhaps it is selfish of me, but I would like to know that I at least made some sort of impact on your life that won't get washed away with the fancy gowns and luxury of a Vicomtesse's life…. It wasn't always painful, Christine, …to love you…."

"Painful," I whispered more to myself, and before he could continue, I insisted, "Painful is baring heart and soul so vulnerably to another only to be dismissed from sight like a disobedient child."

My hand left its blanket security to gently force him to meet my eye, turning his face with subtle pressure to the unmarked line of his jaw. I couldn't understand why he wouldn't look at me. Was I too close to him? Was it unnerving to him to share the air with me so much so that he had to pretend I wasn't even there with him? I was certain it wasn't a residual shame for his face; after the extensive amount of time it had lain exposed tonight, surely he could tell that the shock of it had long worn off. But with the walls up to insurmountable heights within him again, I could not read his emotions and could not decipher what I yearned to, and it frustrated me to no end.

"Erik." I said his name with all of the tenderness in my soul. "Are you afraid of me?"

A breath I had not realized that he had been holding left his lungs in a sigh, and I could see him debating his natural instinct to look away from me again. My fingers remained beneath his jaw, a tangible reminder not to give in, and he complied and remained a willingly captive prisoner to my blue gaze.

"It's more than that even," I concluded for both of us. "You say that you love me when really you are afraid to love me…. I think that's why you wanted to send me away with Raoul, because you couldn't bear to give yourself completely, heart and soul, to me without trying to control what I felt in return."

"I am no fool," he retorted in as much of a raised tone as he could without waking the Vicomte. "It would have been a lie, every sentiment, every forced emotion. You kissed me to save your beloved, and for a moment, I wanted to believe you so badly that I almost held you to it. I had to ponder if it really would have been such a terrible thing to keep you, to make you live with the choice you had made. The voice in my head kept insisting that given enough time, I could make you love me back, that until then I could love you enough for the both of us, and that eventually when the Vicomte became the distant memory and the recollection that instead I myself will someday be, that then you might love me and not him." He paused, the thinnest veil of tears in his eyes. "Yes, Christine, I am terrified to love you, but I do it anyway, against better judgment and rationale, against everything the world insists and punishes me for, I love you. I always have…, with whole heart and soul. Pain wasn't pushing you away tonight; it was the aftermath. And loving you wasn't keeping you; it was letting you go."

For the first time, I understood him, and I saw the heart he spoke of in his eyes, unconcealed, open, vulnerable to being broken, bearing already the smallest of cracks in the center that reached out to the edges on the verge of its surmised shattering in the aftermath, the inevitable result of my leaving. It was only held together now by my lingering presence in our current situation, and the small hopes I knew I had caused with my enacted courage. It terrified me to consider that when I left, it would be nothing more than jagged pieces and a black cavernous hole, and the man I now held eyes with would be as broken as that heart. Was I really so important? Did I myself matter that much as an individual to hold together this always strong, always powerful man? He made me feel like I was his salvation.

With the turbulent thoughts playing through my head, I hesitantly, afraid even, brought my hand up from where it still rested at his jaw, and dragged delicate fingertips to the disfigured side of his poor face. I could never have imagined the violent reaction my seemingly unthreatening touch brought. An earlier touch to his leg had made him tremble; this touch, so much more intimate in comparison to him, made him shudder uncontrollably down and up his spine and give a muffled yet strangled sob, tears flowing down his face to strike my fingers. I was unwilling to be deterred. With the curiosity of a child and not the woman I was, I explored those misshapen features, knowing the mistreatment this flesh had endured, knowing that never had it known a gentle touch. It wasn't grotesque; it was skin and bone and sinew and muscle, twisted unnaturally, …differently, but it was just a face. How foolish it now seemed to be afraid of this, to shun the man and run from him because of something so trivial and meaningless. He had not closed his eyes although I knew he had wanted to, and in those mismatched depths, the soul of this man, the heart, the hope, shone through with such blinding intensity. That was Erik. Not this accursed trick of Fate that he had been unfortunate to be afflicted with.

I stared into those brilliant eyes and into that passionate soul, and I whispered adamantly, "You are so beautiful, Erik; it astounds me that one as amazing as you could love me. I feel unworthy of your heart, …and yet I want it so much."

His own hand left our sheltered cocoon, and he mimicked my motion, cupping my cheek, exploring my features with fingertips that shook as if mine were as foreign to him as his were to me. It reminded me how rare a caress from him was, and my body responded in kind, tingling every place his skin brushed, flushing with a fire beneath the skin in my very blood.

"What if I changed my mind?" he softly whispered amidst tears. "What if I held you to your vow? Would you stay out of loyalty? …Pity maybe? …Compassion? Would it truly be a torturous obligation and punishment to be with me? …I could make you happy, Christine. I did once before…. Do you remember? …Back before all of the pain…."

I gave a slight nod. "I remember…. I remember everything."

We were laying, curled on our sides, facing each other, cupping each other's cheeks, mine smooth, his flawed, and both of us were crying silent tears beneath the weights of hearts that were too heavy to hold.

I scooted ever nearer till our knees touched and softly told him, "If I stayed, it wouldn't be out of loyalty or pity or compassion, Erik. It would be out of love." The word itself was a breathless whisper, and I watched it strike the air and attack him so hard that he shook from head to toe. It was a bewildering concept that one word, one combination of letters really, could encompass so much feeling.

"Love, Christine? …Please promise me that you speak true…. I will shatter to pieces if you are lying." The hope in his eyes was raw and unguarded by his usual walls, so intense that it made me cry fresh, unending tears.

Momentarily choked for words, I leaned close enough to press my lips to his scars, tasting his tears, kissing them away as he sobbed silently, his arms suddenly coming around my waist to clasp me, fingers curving so firmly around my body. I knew he wouldn't let me go, and I didn't want him to.

Tilting my head, I dared to press my unmarked cheek to his scarred one, and as our tears mingled together, I whispered near his ear, "I love you, Erik."

That was all I needed to say to possess a heart that was truly already mine. And we just held each other that way, healing wounds, mending the gap that had been torn between us for so long, seeking solace for the assumed unforgivable.

At some point, I fell asleep, so warm and loved that my entire being was contented by it. And as I slept, I knew only the most delicious of dreams, not the nightmares that had plagued my every attempt at rest in my long months away from Erik's necessary presence. I was whole and complete, and my soul knew it.

When I awoke, I felt Erik's arms around me before my eyes even opened, and a smile came to my lips, lips that almost ached to form such an uncommon expression as of late. My stirring woke him as well with a similar smile. Had I ever seen him smile that way? So confident, so loved. It humbled me.

Suffice to say, that was the beginning of our happy ending. The Vicomte was gone from the cave without a trace, leaving me to conclude that he had indeed overheard every bit of our private exchange. I had been reluctant to admit it, but I think a part of me had known that he would hear, that he would know, …that he likely already knew. Either way, he did not linger to face us, and I was truly convinced that it was only because he had felt something for me that he left without consequence, that he did not send the mob after us or wage war with Erik. It was one of the only respectful things he had ever done.

We left the catacombs that morning and Paris by nightfall, seeking a new life…. And we were happy, happier even because we had known the pain separation could bring. We weren't afraid then to love each other, full hearts, souls, bodies, more passionately than I had ever thought love could be. I marveled over such a thing constantly and was grateful beyond reason that I had found courage enough not to give up my darling angel. He was my life…; he always had been and always would be for all eternity….