At home in my own apartment, I sought solace, crying as I paced the small rooms without intent or care. My heart ached so deeply, my body exhausted from its suffering, and nothing would ease it.

And so within the hour, I was back on the darkening streets of Paris returning to Erik's lair as my only salvation. The air around me was cold, the sky clouded, and before I even arrived at the opera house, thunder made its presence known with a fine misty rain that struck my uncaring body. It would be a steady downpour soon enough, but that was the only thought I gave as the opera's spires came into view. I didn't have the energy left to consider anything else, not when there wasn't a single thing that could compare to the agony swallowing my heart with every breath that I had to force into uncooperative lungs. And it was a bitter reality when I found the doors locked for the day. Locked…. I couldn't be locked out!

My next venture was the iron gate off of the Rue Scribe, a direct entrance down to the catacombs, and yet it, too, was locked. Erik would have been the only one to lock it, which meant he was out. Out where? …My mind spun round and round with the possibilities, and the worst consideration of all: what if he did not intend to return?

By the time drizzle became a frigid rain that seeped through my thin cloak to chill me, I was beyond caring about such mundane things as cold. Crying unceasing tears, I crouched low near the gate and waited, praying he would come back. He couldn't give up on me now when I knew that, given the chance, I could fix things between us.

I don't know how long I waited there. At some unknown time, the sky had grown completely dark, the rain having engulfed my presence to make me an integral part of it.

…And then I glimpsed his shadow. Like the phantom ghost they called him, he lurked down the street all in black, shielded by his cloak and fedora, but as he saw me, he tilted his face enough that his mask gleamed stark white and gave him away.

"Christine," he breathed as I scurried to my feet, only then realizing I was soaked to the skin with my curls hanging wet and dripping around my face.

"You…you were gone," I stammered, tucking my hair behind my ears with shaking hands.

"I needed time to think." As he spoke, he was walking past me to unlock the gate, ushering me within its shelter without pause. "Dear God, you are drenched! I won't have you catching ill and ruining your audition." Removing his cloak, he set it upon my shoulders, and I was surprised that though soaked outside, it was warm and dry within its black folds, inviting me to burrow my cold body in its deliciousness.

He did not make a single command, only bid me in a shared look to follow, and suddenly, like ages ago, I was being led through the catacombs to his home, equally as naïve and hopeful as once before.

As soon as we arrived, my frigid shivering led me to the hearth of the sitting room, still ablaze with a warm fire that I closed my eyes to bask in, letting it play across the features of my face. At first, I did not even realize that Erik had stayed back; only when I turned and met his constantly observing eye did he even say a word.

"There is dry clothing in your armoire," he said with a solemn expression that would not break. "Your room is just as you left it; I never had the strength to dismantle it…. The rain did not look as if it was intending to let up anytime soon…. Perhaps you should consider staying."

"Here?" I asked, hoping he saw my elation with the very idea of something that had once been such a natural occurrence.

Slowly, he nodded. How I wished I could read him, but he was closed off again and guarded. "I will make you some tea while you change."

And that was his escape, though I knew it would only be temporary if I were to be staying. He would have to face me, and then perhaps I could apologize or say whatever I must to mend this gap.

As he had said, my room was intact perfectly, and I smiled at the familiarity within those walls. It was mine and mine still; Colette had not touched it or tarnished it or sought to take it away. I was reminded of the sheer number of times I had slept in its peach canopy bed, always just so comfortable to stay and oddly knowing only a sense of safety with Erik's nearness. I felt fortunate to realize I would have that again this night.

Soaked through, I did not bother to choose a gown, instead opting for a nightdress and wrap, white silk and lace as had always been my favorite when I had slept here. Combing through my damp curls, I left them loose and drying down my back and over my shoulders, and with one final confident glimpse at my image in my vanity mirror's glass, I hurried back to the sitting room just as Erik was entering with two steaming cups.

Even as he silently offered one to me, I took note of the way his eyes passed over my silhouette, a quick, racing perusal before he took his own cup to his throne-like chair. Trembling, yet praying he didn't notice, I brought mine toward the fire, glad for its flickering flames, and sat down on the plush carpet in front of the hearth where the warmth could dance along my skin.

"Feeling better?" he dared to ask after a long silence stretched the air between us.

I nodded and sipped my tea, savouring the heated path it made to the center of my chilled body. I could pick out a few of the herbs he had used in its making and guessed he had included ones to ward off illness, remembering other times when he had concocted such combinations for me, always overly concerned with my health and well-being.

Silence reigned again. I was mustering courage, knowing I would need every ounce to fend off another battle if that was to be our outcome because there were questions I needed answers to and words that had to be said that I could already conclude would ignite his temper.

Finally with every minute ticking by and not granting reprieve of any sort, never looking away from flames before me and into those demanding eyes, I set my teacup aside so that it would not clank under my shaking hands and softly asked, "You adamantly claimed that I destroyed you completely, but…how could you so quickly choose to find someone to replace me? Was it that easy for you to forget me and move on with her?"

"Forget you?" he whispered back as if the very idea was absurd. "As if I ever could. Colette is not a replacement for you in my life or in my heart. Do you know why I even chose her at all? It wasn't for her talent; she is a decent singer with mediocre potential at best. It was because she was the very opposite of you. Confident, almost cocky, outgoing. She's everything you're not and everything I never wanted you to be. I wanted to choose someone I could never care for or love…as I loved you."

Still, I could not look at him, his words bringing fresh tears to the surface. "But why choose someone at all?"

"Would you have rather I had remained a recluse for the rest of my existence? …Worse yet, I had been contemplating ending my life altogether in those first days without you. Death had to be better than the pain I was feeling. But then there was the music, always the music, calling to me, playing in my veins, and death meant no more music…, no more you singing, always singing in my head. …I was trying to search for a purpose to go on. You had always told me that teaching was the greatest gift one could give to another, to bestow one's genius upon a willing and eager pupil. I hoped I could do that again and inspire someone to something."

It was childish of me to hate him for it, I realized as I listened, and cruel to assume he must either be with me or be alone in the world. …And yet at the same time, all I could think was that no one, not Colette or any other woman on this earth, could love him as I did. Surely that had to mean something to him.

Tucking drying curls back, I only then shifted myself about to face him, and I realized without surprise that he had been carefully watching me the entire time.

"Why are you crying, Christine?" he gently asked with a tender compassion I had not heard in so long. "I thought you were happy, and I wanted that for you. That's why I let you be."

Miserably shaking my head, I replied, "I am not as noble as you are. Returning here and finding that your life went on without me has torn me up inside. I want you to be alone and broken, not with another girl at your side, learning from you, …touching you. I realize how selfish that is, but…." My voice choked off in a sob, and I had to whisper, "I don't want you to be strong."

I had expected shouting and rage from him, another outburst like the earlier one, and I knew he had every right. I had just given him the very impetus for it, but he remained silent, stoic even as he awkwardly sipped his tea with his mask in place before setting his cup on the adjacent table with steady hands that gave nothing away.

In soft tones still, he suddenly asked, "Christine, where is the Vicomte?"

I cringed even as I honestly replied, "Southern part of the country or so Meg says. I really don't know for certain."

His expression never changed. "Did you leave him?"

Nodding slowly, I revealed, "Five months ago."

Only then did he frown, his mind reeling openly with this new information that he couldn't quite seem to comprehend. "Five months…? But then you…."

"I went away," I filled in for him. He was no longer even looking at me, listening attentively yet processing all on his own behind a fixed stare. "Alone, to figure out what exactly I wanted. I had to do it. I was so confused, twisted around by everyone so completely that I felt like I didn't know my own mind anymore. …But you knew that. You sent me away that night because you knew how lost I was."

He gave a single, somber nod, his bewildered eyes still locked unseeing on the hearth. "You would have come to hate me if I had forced you to honor your choice and stay. You were so convinced that you loved the Vicomte. …And did you learn what you truly wanted then?"

My tears created a waver in my voice as I told him, "Yes, but when I came back to get it, I found someone else standing in my place."

"Oh God," he breathed softly, and I saw his tears shimmering in the fire's glow like diamonds in sapphire and emerald eyes that still would not see me. "I…I didn't know. …I thought you were happy this whole time. I thought you were with the Vicomte with the life you wanted. …I forced myself to let you go because that was what you wanted and needed. …I convinced myself that you could never have loved me…."

"But I do," I whispered back, and finally, he met my tearful eyes, desperate for a confirmation that I was only too eager to give him. "I do. I love you, Erik. I've always loved you. I came back to you…, but can you even want me anymore? …If all I've done is hurt you and you've chosen to go on with your life, …does that even leave a place for me?"

Sliding down to the carpet on his knees, he crept closer and closer to my seated place, a strange fear I couldn't understand in his every hesitant motion. "My life," he was whispering, "has lost all meaning without you. Nothing has been the same. I haven't let myself feel or even breathe without you, Christine, and you worry that I don't want you? My God, Christine, you are everything to me."

The distance between us was closed, and tentative yet, he lifted his hands to delicately cup my cheeks, brushing my tears away with the pads of his thumbs. He seemed so uncertain, as if he was debating on the inside, and I could not help but ask, "What are you so afraid of, ange?"

A sob came out as a gasp from him with my chosen title; ange, angel as always, and he cried as he told me, "I've held this love at bay for so long, this absolute longing for you. I buried my heart, and I'm terrified to let myself feel it beat again…. If I let myself love you…and if I lose you again…."
"You won't; you won't," I was murmuring, praying he would believe me. "I'll never leave you again, Erik."

Holding his vehement stare, I lifted one hand to his mask and easily drew it away, exposing scars I had once so ignorantly denounced. Now all I saw was beauty; all I saw was my love. Imitating his pose, I cupped his bare cheeks in my palms, thrilled at the very brushing of a deformity I yearned to learn every detail of, and I adored him with my eyes.

"Love me, ange," I bid tenderly. "Please just love me."

The sense of absolute wonder in his stare took my breath away. It was as if he was marveling over my very existence. And then he was kissing me, his misshapen lips finding mine and releasing every lingering inhibition. Every molecule in my being seemed to come alive by that gentle contact, and as I kissed him back, I knew that he felt the same, crying soft tears that struck my skin with his own swelling emotions.

When he drew back after but a moment, he fervently whispered, "I love you. I love you, Christine." And then by the fire's glow, he lowered that disfigured face to lie so gently, so trustingly in my lap as he cried.

This was my Erik, I thought with an adoring smile down at him. Too much emotion for one body to hold, so much passion pouring out from his very soul. His fists were clenched in the silken skirt of my nightdress, never daring to let go, and I stroked his hair comfortingly, letting my fingertips curve along that corpse's skull.

For a long time, we stayed that way, and then without many words to break into pure feeling, we lay together on the plush couch, his body curled so securely behind mine, arms keeping me close, and we slept.

Shall I describe what it is like to wake in the arms of the one you love? I can imagine no greater thing in the world. To come into awareness feeling so deliciously warm from the inside out. I awoke with the weight of his arms around me, the tickle of his breath as it ruffled the curls at my temple, relaxed still with sleep, and I took a long moment to savour the new sensations. It amazed me that at some unknown point, our heartbeats, our breaths even, had synced themselves with one another's until we were breathing as one, existing as one. Such an unexplainable occurrence! And yet so incredible! I felt only one heartbeat, stronger than mine ever could have been alone, a constant rhythm, a source of such beautiful music in and of itself. I was so utterly completed in that moment, whole and no longer lost. I knew exactly where I belonged, my sense of self tied so intricately to his that it only blossomed to life with his presence. And I knew with a clarity to my core that I would never lose this again.

A few minutes later, I felt Erik stir behind me, felt the shift in breath and heart to a subtle syncopation with mine instead, and I peered over my shoulder at that unmasked face with a tender smile that I could feel radiate through my every limb.

"It wasn't a dream," he whispered more to himself as his initial shock wore away, and he hesitantly mimicked my grin. "You really are here in my arms."

As assurance, I rolled over enough to be able to press a gentle kiss to his marred cheek, noting how his eyes slowly closed as he seemed to relish such a simple contact. Lying back again, I begged, "Please don't tell me that you are going to change your mind and return to being cold to me instead. I can't bear that again, Erik."

"No, no," he whispered back. "How could I possibly when I love you so completely? I never want to be away from you again, Christine."

"Never," I vowed in agreement, my fingers stretching upward to trace along the scars of his cheek with a mixture of gentleness and curiosity in every touch. Even scarred as he was, I found him so beautiful. It had taken me far too long with far too many dishonest denials to realize and believe that.

Sighing and arching closer to my hand, he replied, "I guess I won't be having lunch with Colette today."

"You weren't going to eat anyway," I reminded him with the slightest fluttering of a giggle in my voice.

"Quite true. She has never seen my real face, and I had no intention of showing it to her. The rest of the world does not find such things as acceptable as you do." Turning his cheek, he gave a hesitant kiss to my probing fingers, and I took the opportunity to run them along the upraised outline of his misshapen lips. "How can you touch me that way and not be disgusted?"

I deliberately met his dubious stare with my confidence on the issue. "Being disgusted is being ignorant and naïve."

"And you are not naïve?" he teased, and I gave a playful scowl back to him.

"Not anymore," I argued. "How can I know disgust for what I desire and love most in the world?"

His attention seemed caught by one thing as arching a brow with uncertainty, he inquired softly, "Desire, Christine?"

A warm blush tinged my cheeks; I could not stop its appearance or progression over my pale skin as I timidly nodded. Admitting to it seemed brazen to the modest side of me, but then again Erik and I did not follow convention or societal proprieties, and therefore revealing such an intimate thing could not be considered unacceptable; it was necessary, and as I could see reflected across that unmasked face, savoured.

Bending near, he let one hand idly caress my own cheek, as intrigued by my features as I was by his, and softly said, "Do you know what it is that you are saying, or are you far too innocent to have any real idea? I cannot even tell for sure. The Christine who left here, …who left me all those months ago seemed to shun the very concept of such a thing, but now…you're looking at me with this glow in your eyes, like since you suddenly know what you want, you are absolutely convicted to having it."

A smile broke through my lingering blush. I was just so overwhelmed and delighted that he understood and that, at last, he saw what I had been aching for him to see for weeks.

With my fingertips caressing his dear face yet, I told him, "When I went away, everything was just so quiet and so still. I had nothing to hide behind instead of facing the truths within my own heart, the ones I had for so long buried. I realized that the only time I have been truly happy in my life was when I was here with you, that that was when I felt whole and complete…and loved. For too long, I foolishly let Raoul twist my mind with his prejudices until I was believing them as well with no real proof to back them up. You never gave me reason to run from you; I let Raoul do that, and I permitted it so readily because he and I shared a past, …because he knew my father before he died and therefore must have had my best interests at heart and must be seeing what I wasn't. It was cruel on my part, and I beg your forgiveness for all of the pain I caused you as a foolish child questioning her own heart."

"No more than what I have inflicted upon you these last few weeks," he justified with a somber shake of his head. "Forgive my own ignorant cruelty. I have been utterly intolerable to you."

"Part of it was a well-deserved lesson," I argued in his defense for him. "Jealousy sometimes must be felt and experienced to realize its true potency. No wonder you wanted to kill Raoul! I very nearly strangled Colette myself!"

"Indeed?" There was the tinge of a chuckle in his voice, one I had rarely heard before and relished blatantly as he regarded me with intrigued amusement. "And has her every doting glance and smile grated on your nerves? Has every haphazard touch made you long to scream that I am yours and only yours? Because only if it has can you claim to have known what I felt."

"You are enjoying this far too much," I taunted in return, delighting in his playful demeanor with a subject that had been my sole obsession for days. "And will I now have to do just that then? Claim you as mine and only mine to her so that she retracts her claws from you?"

"Why, you possessive little thing!" he exclaimed, a full laugh escaping him this time. "I don't recall you ever going to such extremes with Raoul, and he was a Vicomte with dozens of ladies eyeing him at every turn."

"Yes, but I never truly wanted Raoul or his constant affections, so I cannot call that a relevant comparison."

"Oh? But you do want me and mine?" Within that air of light banter was a flame that, although not new, was far less guarded or concealed this time. Desire…. He wanted me to see it, wanted me to understand exactly what I was asking for.

More than words, I dared to shift my body the remainder of the way toward his until I could press my curves flush to him. Shameless? Perhaps, but considering how long I had sought to be exactly where I now was, it seemed acceptable and right. I felt his entire frame go rigid and stiff with his sudden surprise, a small gasp caught by a bit lower lip, and even as a long minute passed, he did not seem to be able to relax again.

"What are you tempting me to?" He muttered the question only half to me, shaking his head. "We've never been this way before."

"Well, …once," I corrected, never moving or allowing a breath of air between our bodies. "Do you even remember, Erik?" His furrowed brow and confused regard urged me to continue. "It was one of the first nights I stayed here with you in this house. You had one of those horrible nightmares that you cry out to endure, and I didn't know. I thought you were hurt, so I rushed out of my bed to you without thought of consequence. Does this sound familiar to you at all?"

He nodded solemnly. "I had fallen asleep in my chair here in the sitting room before the fireplace. I remember being glad for that later. Had I been in bed, I wouldn't have been wearing my mask…; a silly thing to consider my face would scare you when I did such a good job of that on my own with the mask in place."

"I tried to wake you from your dream," I continued for him. "You seemed to be in such agony in your own mind. You grabbed me by my shoulders and yanked me down against you. Of course, you were still asleep and didn't know that what you were doing. And when I was finally able to rouse you, you made me promise never to approach you again when you were in a nightmare no matter how much you were screaming."

"Dear God, I felt so guilty," he admitted earnestly, stroking my cheek with reflections of it even now, so long later. "I was terrified I had lost you for good after that. What I could have done to you in that state! Do you even realize? In my head, you were one of the same assailants who were beating me and torturing me. I had no idea who you actually were."

That was not exactly what I was seeking by bringing up this tale, and in all actuality, in my every consideration and memory of it, I had never concluded what he was insinuating. I just trusted him that much, probably more than I should have in such a dire situation, but he was my guardian, after all.

"Wait," I bid to his rampant guilt. "No, when I recall it…and I have dozens and dozens of times, I only think about those few moments you were holding me to you…, as close as we are now." I knew I was blushing, and yet I went on, timid in my whisper. "How many times have I thought of it? It was one of the only embraces we've ever shared. …In my mind, I remember how you felt against me, …how much I yearned to be closer and closer still."

The effects my admissions were having on him were vividly displayed across that face, and those mismatched eyes widened yet as I dared to arch myself to him, indulging the soft begging of my body.

"This is desire, isn't it?" the virgin in me asked my always-vigilant teacher. "This burning, this ache within."

"God, yes," he breathed hoarsely, edging down to rub his scarred cheek against my flawless one as I eagerly nuzzled him back. "You denied it before, and even when I tried to hide it from you in order to keep you, you ran from me and this…. I felt so sure revulsion was all you'd ever hold for me."

"No, no," I practically moaned, laying light kisses to his hairline and down along his temple. "I was afraid. I ran because this is so powerful that it wants to consume me, …and I want to let it."

"Let it," he commanded in a desperate plea. "I don't know if I can bear it if you don't."

It was coursing through me in throbbing waves, stealing coherency with its spell. When all I had had of it was a tremulous taste, it amazed me to learn how overwhelming it could be, …and yet I wasn't afraid as I had been once before, not with Erik's arms so firmly around me, his presence my anchor as always. I knew enough in these matters to not be shocked by the growing hardness pressed to my lower stomach, and yet I squirmed against it with a mixture of my nerves and my own need. For me, both were in equal amounts, and I was teetering in the middle, unsure in which direction I'd go.

I felt the harsh breath he sucked into his lungs. He was teasing the side of my neck with light kisses that I shivered to receive, eagerly tilting my head to expose more skin for his eager assault.

"Erik," I whispered against his ear with my own random kisses between words, "I never want you to stop."

"You won't deny me?"

"No," I vowed, clasping him with hands that shook in spite of my resolve. "No, …I want you too much."

I was eagerly expecting desirous declarations, kisses, touches, not the actual frustrated groan I got as he lifted his head and met my eye with a cringe.

"I am absolutely in a fever to have you," he huskily bid even as he was shaking his head. "But I have a lunch date to rid myself of first. Dear God, Christine, I won't be able to think of anything but this all day. How am I going to keep my composure and prevent myself from simply grabbing you and kissing you with every ounce of passion in my body?"

"You will have to practice control, ange," I teased, caressing his cheek. "As will I so that I won't pounce atop Colette and tear her hair out by the roots."

Chuckling softly, he gazed at me with such adoration in his eyes amidst every lingering haze of desire, and I relished it with body and soul.

Our passionate encounter had to end to both of our reluctance, and by the time I left the privacy of my room, dressed and primped for the day, Erik was the pristine teacher again, masked and elegant, his greeting smile bearing a trace of hesitation at its curves that vanished when I immediately went to his side and lay a kiss against the cold material of the mask, missing his scars.

"Stay," he gently commanded, sliding his hand into my curls and letting them twirl about his fingers. "I'm not sure I have the strength to watch you leave."

"I don't think your little protégé would appreciate my presence as you destroy her schoolgirl's infatuation." It took better sense to answer for me when I ached to argue against it in a jealous fit. In this instance, his earlier joke of screaming that he was only mine seemed far too appealing; I wasn't sure I wouldn't go through with it.

"Promise me that you've realized that your jealousy is unjustified," he said, and it was as if he had read my mind. "You're the only one I've ever loved and desired. You are my protégé, my angel, my diva." His arms had come around my waist, drawing me close, and I was only too eager to let him. "You know you're going to have to learn to control that bit of a jealous temper you have."

His playfulness was only half-valid, and I arched one brow skeptically as I read him in return. "What do you mean? What are you concocting in that head of yours?"

"Actually," he answered, adding an appeasing kiss to my brow, "I thought to take on more students. I find that you've always been right, and I have an affinity for teaching. I thought to establish us a home outside of the city and away from the opera house itself and advertise as a music teacher; voice, instrument, theory and practice, I could teach it all. It would make a decent living."

His words were only somewhat penetrating my mind since it had been caught by one particular detail. "Establish us a home?" I inquired, desperate to seem nonchalant, but my lips betrayed me with a shy smile I could not contain.

"My own jealous streak," he admitted. "I want to be gentlemanly and ask your concession, but I find that I prefer assuming as much because I refuse the alternative. I will not face a future without you, Christine, not now that you've given me such hope for all I thought I'd lost."

I knew it would seem pathetic to some that I actually relished his words; I wanted no choice in the matter because I had already made the most important one of all simply to be there with him.

Grinning brightly, I made my own proposition on the matter. "I will only allow you to teach other students if that leaves enough time for you to teach me as well. I can be rather demanding as you know. …I might keep your hands full for hours on end." Yes, I was teasing him with a provocative suggestiveness that made my cheeks redden with a blush, but to see the hunger ignite again in his eyes as they trailed over me kept me from regret.

"Hours?" he questioned with an arched brow. "I was intending for days." As he leant near, I eagerly awaited his kiss, but just before my anticipation could be assuaged, he drew back with a soft huff, explaining to my furrowing brow, "My mask."

"Is that all?" I did not hesitate to raise a hand and lift it from obstruction, savouring every deformity that came into view. "There's the face of the man I love."

Delighting in my sentiments, he no longer paused as he caught my lips in his, devouring me in a kiss so ravenous that I clutched at him with desperate arms to remain on my feet at all. I had given in to desire earlier; now I leapt at it headfirst, yearning for the something more that this kiss promised. His tongue delved within my parting lips, seeking mine as if it was his necessary mate and entwining with it, teasing me with every gratuitous stroke until I was writhing my body against his, burning from within.

Perhaps it was solely due to that engrossing kiss that we did not hear the front door open or footsteps entering the hallway. Not until Colette's sharp gasp of surprise resounded through passion's bubble did we know, and as I lifted guilty eyes to the doorway, I noticed Erik duck his head against my shoulder to conceal his face. I knew it was a bit late for that; her expression told all she had seen without the question needing to be asked.

"I…I…I'll be in the music room," she stammered after a long uncomfortable moment of she and I simply staring at one another, and before I could fathom a plausible course of action, she was scurrying away.

"Erik," I whispered gently when she was gone, setting his mask in his seeking hand and watching him replace it with a growing sense of dread. I could remember days past when he would have murdered anyone who had glimpsed even the silhouette of his uncovered face. And the way that Erik's eyes were darting frantically between the door and me, I was put slightly on edge, unsure what he was considering so seriously.

"She saw my face," he stated as if to confirm what he already knew to be fact. "She…she was never supposed to."

"I know," I crooned, hoping to pacify him as I gently stroked his only exposed cheek. "Let me talk to her. I can make sure she understands."

"I don't need you to fight my battles for me," he suddenly snapped, and yet I saw him immediately regret his tone, shaking his head in frustration. "I mean-"

"Erik, this is not a battle," I corrected before he could finish. "It's a girl who was surprised, startled even, just as I once was all those months ago when I first saw your face. Your response then was anger, and look what it did to us, the way it ripped us apart for so long." I had won; I knew he couldn't argue with my point. "Now let me go, and I'll take care of it. All right?"

Reluctant yet, he gave one single nod, and with an added caress to my cheek that I savoured, he let me leave the room.

I found Colette sitting on the piano bench, staring fixedly at the keys, though her eyes seemed unfocused beyond whatever her mind was showing her within. She did not hear me enter the room until I was standing near her side, and with another gasp, she jumped at my unthreatening presence, her hand pressing to her heart.

"Oh, Christine!" she sighed with relief.

"I didn't mean to frighten you," I said as I took a seat on the bench with her, close enough to note the paleness of her usually healthy complexion.

"I…I'm just a bit preoccupied." Her attention reverted to the keys so that I was staring at her profile; it was almost as if she was terrified to look me in the eye. "I'm sorry to have interrupted…whatever it was I interrupted. I didn't know you and Erik were…, but then again I always had a feeling that his heart was far away…with someone else."

"By my own fault; it took us so long and so much pain to just love each other," I replied guiltily. "It seems ridiculous now to have run from him when he's always been the only one."

"He…, the phantom." She said the word in a hushed whisper. "I mean I knew who he was in regard to the legend, but I didn't…. I mean I never guessed what he truly was hiding beneath the mask."

How to explain to her, …how to even begin…. The truth maybe…. "Erik's face is…disfigured. But even though it is different, it's just a face. It's just skin and bone. It doesn't change anything important, like who he is or the brilliance of his soul."

"I know…. I was just…surprised." Finally dragging her eyes to mine, I was shown the vast amount of discomfort and guilt she was truly suffering. "I know it's improper and…rude of me to ask, but…. You're not afraid of him. But weren't you shocked the first time you saw his face?"

"It wasn't shock as much as a necessity to look away and pretend it wasn't real," I revealed openly to her intent fascination. "It couldn't be real…because in my head, he was perfect. It took me time to realize that perfection doesn't exist; it is a perception. To me who loves him so much, Erik is perfect and beautiful, more so because he is different. The rest of the world might never understand that. They will always judge him on his face, but I would hope that you, who have glimpsed what a genius he is, could see past something so mundane to the exceptional human being he is beneath it."

I did not have to question it to know that Erik was lingering outside of the doorway beyond our line of vision as he eavesdropped, but I gave no hint of it as I waited for Colette to respond. She seemed to be absorbing my every word with deep consideration.

Finally, she gave a small nod of her tentative agreement. "He's the greatest teacher I've ever had. …Will you go and ask him if we can begin my lesson now? …And can you also make sure that he isn't upset with me?"

I nodded with as much of a smile as I could muster. I was willing to be kind and friendly with her, but I still had to feel a bit on edge when it came to her intentions with Erik. Jealousy was not the sort of emotion to simply fade away, but then again what genuine emotion was?

As soon as I was beyond the music room doorway, meeting Erik's spying eye without surprise, he dragged me into his arms and stroked my hair tenderly.

"Thank you," he softly bid with the slightest catch in his voice, and I knew it was for far more than keeping his student.

"I love you." To me, that was reason enough for everything I did on a daily basis; this was but one more act to add to a list.

"Tell me that you intend to stay." His persuasions were reliant on fingertips trailing my throat that I arched to meet. "I want to finish what was interrupted."

How could I refuse when I was aching as much as he was? Catching his roaming hand in mine, I guided it to my lips to kiss each fingertip with added promise before I let him leave me, believing him so completely when one last shared look vowed forever.

A week later, and it was the afternoon of the auditions. I lingered in the background during most, watching Colette perform well enough to earn her a small supporting role in the next production. When it was my turn, I felt the shock go through the audience, but I held my head high, casting one furtive glance to the seemingly still curtains of Box 5 with certainty that my darling angel was there.

In the instant I opened my mouth and began to sing, I felt his pride radiate over me, fueling my inner diva and keeping me regal even as I noticed the agape and envious stares all around, including on the face of my sometimes friend Colette. Most of it paled in comparison to the thrilled expressions my managers were sharing and the beaming smile on Meg's lips. I was offered the leading soprano role the moment I walked off of the stage and was whisked off to sign a contract under a steady stream of negotiations that lasted far longer than my patience wanted to allow.

The very minute I left the managers' office, a hand caught me from behind, and I giggled delight to be dragged into the damp catacombs by the Opera Ghost himself. Funny to consider that had the same thing happened a year ago, I would have screamed in terror. Now I savoured it.

Erik's lips were seeking mine in the instant we were concealed within the dark passages, his mask tossed carelessly to the stone floor. One kiss, another, and it seemed to take a great effort for him to draw back and attempt speech.

"My God, Christine, you were perfection," he beamed. His hands were making restless patterns up and down my back as I eagerly melted toward that touch. "You left them all green with envy after that performance. I could barely restrain myself from shouting 'Brava' and 'Encore' with that last high note."

"And that would have brought an unneeded resurgence of my phantom patron," I warned, my own hands sliding within the hem of his shirt at his waist to find his chilled skin longingly. "The last time, you guided my career a little too well, ange. I was the constant target of their gossip."

"You deserve the best," he insisted back, "and I was just making sure that you had it. There seems to me to be little wrong with that." His words were cut off before he could continue, and he moaned and arched toward my touch as my hands splayed flat against his chest beneath that infuriating barrier of clothing. "Continue on like that, and I'll forget my gentlemanly manners and throw you down right here in the dark catacombs."

My brows arched suggestively at such a threat. "Really? Is that meant to sound unpleasant to me? Because I'm too fixated on the throwing me down right here part to consider it that awful of a prospect."

"Indeed?"

He never let me answer. The next thing I knew to my squeal of excitement, he followed through on his words, and it went without protest or complaint from me. And oh, how I adored him!