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

OK, so here we go, as terrifying as this is. This story is definitely of a more mature and darker vein. I do write both the lighter love stories as well as ones like this that are more desire-oriented (like "The Wedding Night", but this one is actually darker). You have no idea how much I debated posting anything like this, and if you do like it, I would appreciate it if you let me know, if for no other reason, then to make it easier and less scary for me the next time (if there is a next time) I have no problem writing things like this, but sharing them is a whole other story unto itself!

Anyway, after that long, drawn-out disclaimer full of fear and hesitancy, here are a couple of notes about the story. It is obvious that there is a lot of sensuality to the phantom story in most any version one encounters, and my consideration behind this particular story is the mere fact that for Christine to truly ever be with Erik, she would have to learn to accept the darker parts of herself as well. Parts of this story may seem provocative, but I feel like the phantom story in general deals with so much repressed desire that it would come out in powerful ways. This is also told from Christine's POV, and I usually don't write all of my stories in first person. It just happens to be that everything I've posted lately has been from her viewpoint. I truly hope you enjoy this story.

SUMMARY: An alternate ending, Christine must face her darkest desires to learn what loving Erik truly means.

"So Let Go"

A crime of passion is the sort of sin that is justified by its emotional conception. It is usually not calculated; it is an impulsive act fueled by the desperation of the heart. Does that make it less of a damning offense, perhaps more forgivable? Piangi's murder was a crime of passion; it had not been done in the meticulously planned manner that often characterized Erik's other immoralities. No, he had performed this one solely for me, to get to me, to sing with me. I had to wonder if that made me some kind of accomplice to it then. Perhaps I was. I felt no guilt for Piangi or his loss, having only ever seen him in the light of an overweight deviant who had always been a step away from molesting any female in the cast. Should such a personality flaw make his life worth any less than anyone else's? For me, it obviously did if I was using it to qualify his untimely demise. Justifying murder…. Dear Lord, what would my father have thought if he had been alive to know his daughter, his well-versed Catholic child, was warranting just cause for God's most heinous crime? Part of me considered that that would be the least in a long string of disappointments to him, and the other part mercifully chose not to think of my father very much at all anymore. One glance into the demented face of my captor reminded me why.

Erik…. If his sin this night had been a crime of passion, then my own had been a crime of realism. Every look at the partially-exposed skull that served as the back of his head replayed my bitter betrayal in my mind over and over again until it tortured me with the guilt one would have thought murder would instead incite. I had ripped away Erik's mask and dignity in front of a theatre full of ignorant people; yes, I had naively put him on display, probably little different from the many brutalities of his past. In my own defense, it was not heartlessness that had prompted my actions. Truthfully, I had discounted anyone else's existence except for the man singing so desirously to me, making our audience, including my seemingly fiancé, into a haphazard blur of background, nothing more. I had been a victim, falling headfirst into a spell created by that amorous music and his mesmerizing voice until all I had known was sheer feeling, eating at my insides, stealing coherency. Its power had frightened the innocent child still barely thriving within me until I had had to act and put a stop to it. Ripping away his mask had been to remind myself exactly who and what he was, that the supposed man making my body throb and hum was the same one who had only just strangled a star tenor with a rope around his plump neck. Yes, those hands I had been envisioning upon my body had been the very ones to violently crush the life of a human being. Odd that even staring blatantly at that face and those scars, I had found that I had wanted him still. A spell…, it had to be a spell…. How many times had I argued that with myself? And more and more I was losing my excuses to reality; not even Erik was a good enough magician and manipulator for all I was trying to attribute to him. But then what did that mean? That I was the flawed one? Wanting a murderer had to be a flaw….

At present, said murderer was dragging me none too gently through the catacombs beneath the opera en route to his underground home. Rarely a glance did he cast in my direction, and I was grateful for that fact. Being faced with both his deformity and his rage at the same time was something I was loathing; the longer he had to calm and allow the sharp edge of what he only saw to be another betrayal on my part dull, the safer I would inevitably be when trapped alone in that house with him. Not a single word had been spoken between us since our ill-fated duet, so I had only the squeezing grip of one long, cold, bony hand around my small wrist to gauge his frame of mind. Anger I knew and had endured before; I feared this was edging beyond anger…to madness.

I wasn't fighting him, going to my own execution with as much bravery as I could manage, but his frantic pace was difficult to match. With a small cry, I felt myself trip over skirts and uneven ground and knew I was falling. But I never hit the stone floor as expected. To my own surprise, strong arms caught my failing body in a protective embrace and gave me balance.

My wide eyes met his mismatched ones, closer in proximity than our sordid relationship typically allowed, and for one brief instant, I saw the flicker of his fear before he concealed it beneath a façade of annoyance.

"Can you manage to walk upright, or must I carry you the rest of the way?" he snapped, but I noted that he had yet to release me from his hold, his arms strangely comforting about my waist. I hated myself for an unwanted urge to lean into him more so and stifled it with every bit of control I had remaining.

"I…I'm fine," I stammered, ducking my head away from that penetrating stare until he abruptly let me go. If he was at all affected by that unbidden embrace, he was determined not to show me as with a huff, he returned us to our previous haste as though it had never happened.

Reading Erik was not my strong point, and he was far too accustomed to concealing his true emotions to give any inkling away. There were no telltale signs; no tremble of the hand on my wrist, no furtive look over his shoulder at me, no change in the air of tension and dread surrounding us. It left me to contemplate that perhaps I was the only one to feel anything…or at least the only one to dwell on it.

As we arrived at his home, he did not pause, pulling me after him down the hallway to my bedroom with a purpose he had yet to indulge. It was strange that even considering these awful circumstances, entering that makeshift house felt as if I was returning to my home. The scents were familiar, comforting, the aura cozy and bringing to the surface so many memories of times I had spent within its walls, when things had been as close to happy and settled between Erik and I as they had ever been. With the rift between us now, it was hard to believe such a time had ever existed.

My glorious room where I had slept dozens of nights was another frozen image of the past, preserved just as I had left it…except for the pile of white lace and ruffles strewn carelessly upon my canopy bed. No, …not a pile, a gown, …a wedding gown. The realization immediately rocked me of any internal stability I still possessed. …Wedding….

"Ah," he commented, finally glancing at me, "I see you've noticed your costume for tonight. Another role for you to play to perfection, only this one may bear some binding consequences that last beyond the final curtain call."

His tone was so carefully cultivated, taunting me in a manner that made his own feeling on the subject seem like nothing more than apathy when my sense told me better. Lashing out made him appear in control, but I was entirely certain he was completely a victim to his heart. His choice for my attire gave him away, for I saw no chains or locks added to that pile of white satin. He wanted a bride, not a prisoner.

As usual, just when I felt I had figured out even a miniscule fraction of the man, he altered the rules altogether to force me to doubt. Releasing my still-held wrist, he brought that deformed face as near to my own as he dared go, so that I was granted nowhere else to look but its vivid malformations.

"Marriage is permanent," he sneered lowly, eyes searing into me. "You would be mine forever, to do with as I please, and by law, no one could take you from me again, not your imbecile Vicomte or anyone else."

I stared back with a flash of defiance that I wanted him to see and comprehend. I was not the same little girl who had left here months before, one who had been equally as enamored as terrified of him and his threatening temper. In fact, his rage was inconsequential. He wouldn't kill me, not after the lengths he had gone to for me and his claim of love, and I had the valid truth that he had never dared to lay a violent hand on me before as my proof. Of course, I had seen other, often glass, objects bear the brunt of what otherwise would have been intended for me, but he had always kept some modicum of control. …But then again I had previously been one to cower, and to now match his stare, I noted the fire grow in those eyes, contorting already ugly features into something akin to grotesque.

Growling rage, he hissed, "We must prepare you for the wedding, my bride." His intentions couldn't have been more clear, and yet their spoken claim did nothing to cool his anger.

Defiance within me vanished and became a shock that was fringed in terror as he suddenly grabbed the neckline of my costume gown and tore it down the center in one vicious thrust that made me sway on my feet to endure its savagery. Despite my gasp of horror, he did not stop until the gown was entirely off of my body, ripping the skirts with violent tug after tug. The sound of fraying material was deafening to my terrified ears and seemed to be never-ending in its reverberations when reality posed that it was mere seconds before I found myself standing unsteadily in only my underclothes with Erik, panting breaths from exertion and rage, halted in his actions and staring at me with wide, fire-laden eyes.

I felt my cheeks burning red before shame even registered to my shocked brain, and while modesty screamed at me to shield myself with my arms or anything I could get my hands on, I remained rooted in my spot, numbly gaping and barely breathing. The indiscernible remnants of my gown were in haphazard pieces of orange and black lace around me as if a wild animal had torn them with violent claws; little difference existed between that analogy and reality to my addled brain seeking to take this all in. I knew without even one look down that I was now clothed in only my chemise and pantaloons, not even a corset or more proper petticoats due to the opera's performance, and I equally knew that they were made of a thin, white silk, flimsy enough to give away the true shape of my body's curves beneath. Never before had I been so exposed to anyone of the male gender, and the humiliation tearing at me kept my skin vibrantly pink.

And yet should I really know such shame? The question erupted in my head not of my own will or consent, but it was valid. Shame was unwarranted when observing the effect my appearance was having on a scrutinizing Erik. His eyes were raking feverishly over me from head to toe again and again as if they could not remain in one place for fear they would fail to regard everything. Sound that had gone mute for me after the mortifying tearing of my gown now became only Erik's ragged breaths, gasped in and out, erratic and shallow as they rasped past those misshapen lips. I had enough rationale to know his current state was no longer induced by anger; no, this was purely lust, blatantly displayed and consuming every bit of him in its power, and I was no longer sure which to fear more: his rage or his desire.

Without a word or provocation, he suddenly reached out urgent hands toward me, and still locked in place, I could do little more than watch their approach with wide eyes. Those hands caught my face between them, cupping my cheeks before fitfully sliding up my temples along my scalp and into my hair, dragging my curls free of their pins with a sharpness that brought tears of pain to my eyes. Pins striking the floor and furniture made as unendurable a sound as ripping material to my sensitive ears, but I hardly had time to dwell on such things as his long fingers combed idly through curls that felt heavy down my back. Dear God, what did he intend to do? I was growing afraid to consider handfuls of possibilities I had so carelessly neglected before.

That disfigured face was so near to my own, the eyes in their vivid green and blue probing me as if they could read the thoughts in my petrified brain. I was no longer sure they couldn't. And then so suddenly that I was nearly knocked off of my feet with the abruptness, he jerked me about by my upper arms so that my back was to him, severing that stare. I wondered why, what he had found to make him take his face out of my view. Disgust was no longer an issue to be sure; he couldn't have seen any revulsion within me for a face that though an oddity was one I had grown accustomed to looking upon. My only conclusion on the subject was that he couldn't bear to look in my eyes anymore, perhaps didn't want to know guilt for his violation…or any to come.

Erik's strong arms drew me back until I was flush against him and unable to break free with a whimper of surprise as my sole protest. I cannot say why I did not struggle, despite the futility of such a course, but opportunity for refusal evaporated with the sudden gasp that fled my own lips at what I felt. Commenting upon it to myself and claiming to have seen the lust in his eyes were nothing compared to feeling its unarguable proof. Through the meager layer of my pantaloons, it was a hard, thick shaft pressing so firmly against the softness of my backside, throbbing with the power of the need coursing through it as he moaned against my hair.

Maybe I should have been abhorred right then; I was, after all, practically being assaulted, for I had given no consent to this intimate attack. And even as the shy virgin in me screamed at the impropriety and immorality of it, I felt my body melting, succumbing, begging silently for more. It was so far beyond subtle intrigue or curiosity; it was necessity. I needed him and this desire that still equally terrified me to my core with its overwhelming consumption. Something within me was tempting me with a golden voice that bid 'Give in'. And how I felt myself following its command without hesitation!

Erik's breaths were uneven and harsh, stirring the loose curls above one of my ears, and as he moaned again, he dared to arch his hips closer yet to me, thrusting as if we were in the very act of lovemaking itself. In my own surrender, I not only allowed this transgression, but I pushed back against him and that throbbing hardness, shuddering down the length of my spine at another unbridled groan from his misshapen mouth.

I don't think coherency existed for either of us any longer. The drug of desire is just that addictively powerful. It was all either of us was concentrating on, seeking more, wanting more, aching for more. I could feel it like a wave of disease coursing through my veins and leaving every bit of my skin tingling and sensitive and yearning for his touch, only his touch. That liquid heat settled with an emptiness between my legs. To feel what my body sang for so close to where I wanted it, that hardness of him rubbing futilely against me yet unable to fill me, left me to writhe wantonly, making him throb and mimic the act again as if in answer.

"I need to…," he was rasping out above my ear. I hardly recognized his voice as his own beneath the heady huskiness of lust. "I need to feel you; …I need to feel your skin."

Before I could comprehend what exactly he intended, his hands were gripping the waistband of my pantaloons and jerking the back of them down enough to expose the curve of my buttocks. Through my own whimper of surprise, I kept still when I could have pulled free as his hands went to his own clothing's barrier. And why? …Because I was aching as badly as he was and was more than a little intrigued as to his plan. I did not look back at him, terrified shame and guilt would make their resurgence if I caught even a glimpse of that scarred face and remembered how brazenly I had been pushing myself against him. But I did hear the adjustments he was making, my breath holding in my lungs with apprehensive need. And then as he yanked me back to him again, I felt bare skin press to mine, the open seam of his pants exposing the entire length of that shaft so that it was flush to the soft flesh of my backside, a threat that never dared a full desecration. A moan reverberated from both of us, in such perfect unison and vibrating through our bodies so cohesively that it became one raw sound of desire as blended as any duet we could have been singing. And weren't we doing just that? Singing our duet in a passionate fever no one else could feel or understand.

My God, I hadn't expected him to feel so smooth and to burn me with the contact of flesh to flesh! Swollen and hard as it was, that throbbing manhood was like warm velvet against my skin; it was as delicate as it was dangerous and made me tremble with the consideration of its sheer size.

"Christine," he moaned, that bloated mouth pressed to my temple as I felt the constriction of misshapen features with his repressed need against the side of my brow. If I but looked, I would see it written vividly on that face, and how I ached to at the same time that I wouldn't allow myself!

Heat was becoming flames between our bodies, licking at my skin and making it burn. I never entertained the idea of breaking free; I didn't want to. Instead, I focused on listening to the symphony of our syncopated, harsh breaths and memorizing the deliciousness of his body in an embrace that was far more intimate than any contact we had ever shared. Moaning again, Erik ground his hardness to my back, and wanton as a whore, I arched to match his motion, closing my eyes in my desperation to forget reality existed.

His hands had been clinging to my hips, but perhaps confident that I would make no attempt to struggle, they dared to wander upward, outlining the shape of my ribcage before trailing higher to cover my breasts with but a thin layer of silk between our flesh. I cried out; I could not have suppressed such an instinctual response and writhed my body against his, falling, falling, falling into a vortex of sheer desire. He did not hesitate, clasping the weight of my breasts in urgent hands and letting just fingertips graze their hardened tips. Dear God, I wanted to beg him never to stop such exquisite torture, but words were a jumble of unintelligible syllables in my passion-clouded head.

He, however, still possessed the basic ability of speech, and those swollen lips grazed my temple with his every uttered sound. "I would be an attentive lover, Christine. I would give you such incredible pleasure; I would devour you in the passion. Do you truly believe your milksop Vicomte could ever make you feel this way? He would never understand the darkness in you the way I do."

His accusation penetrated even this consummation of fire and shook me, making my eyes open wide with a surge of hysteria. The darkness…. How could he possibly know what I so diligently hid?

"You need not admit to it," he continued, his hands at my breasts forcing me back more firmly to his chest. He believed I was going to struggle, and yet I was too shocked to consider that even an option. "I know you better than anyone ever could. I know of the dark fire in your veins; it nearly rivals my own. How alike we are! Made of the same fiber. We are both such passionate creatures, seeking far more than pathetic humanity could ever give. Do you really think your Vicomte could satisfy this desire, Christine? He and his noble roots can't fathom these primordial urges; they are not the integral need and unfulfilled ache that they are to the likes of you and me." His voice dropped to a husky whisper. "Your Vicomte could never make you throb the way I can. And I would teach you what the darkness holds for you. …I would make you scream with it."

I was numb in his embrace, my brow indented with furrowed lines of my horror. How could he know?! It was as if he had been able to cut me in half and peer within at secrets concealed by bone and flesh, secrets of the very blood in my veins. That darkness he spoke of was my greatest shame, a poison in the soul of my being. I was so certain that my façade of normalcy was flawless, that no one could decipher the truth, but then again, Erik wasn't just anyone.

"You're a slave to it," Erik pushed, his fingers toying with my nipples in a way that made me shiver. "You want it as much as you are afraid to surrender entirely to it. It is what keeps drawing you back to me like a moth to a flame. Because only I make you feel it, and you are terrified that if you lost me, you would lose this as well and never know its burn again, and dear God, is it too tempting to refuse! And don't you dare deny it, not while I have you melting in my arms. You could have fought me and this absolute transgression I am committing with you, but you want it too much. You want me and this hardness inside of you…and not gentle, not the conceded sex of a lady who must. You want it rough and fervent. You'd like it if I forced you and dragged you to my bed."

I wanted to argue with him, to hatefully reproach his confident declarations and claim I could never want those things and could never be like him, but my own body was my betrayer, writhing against his and the ministrations of unceasing fingers on my aching nipples. How I hated him for it! With a ferocity that matched my wanting! He wasn't supposed to know these things! And I fully blamed him for their existence! Before he had come into my life, I had indeed been the innocent child on the verge of being a modest lady. He had made me crave darkness, had sparked to life things that should have lain dormant within me for my lifetime. At first, I had believed it to be a spell or a trick, a manipulation he had inflicted upon me. I had insisted to myself that it couldn't be me feeling, thinking, wanting such perverse things, but that had been just a feeble excuse to avoid the truth.

"Tell me you want it, Christine," he harshly commanded against my ear, arching his hardened manhood forcefully to my backside. "Tell me you burn as I do."

"I do!" I gasped in spite of better judgment. "Lord help me! I do!"

"Your Vicomte could never give you fulfillment. For him, you will bury this part of yourself and deny your very soul. You will pretend that it doesn't exist and kill your spirit, the one I adore so much and would cherish and nurture, never tarnish."

"It's already tarnished," I miserably argued, my eyes closing with desire's unavoidable pull. "Wanting such things must be a sin."

"No, a sin is denying them. Oh, Christine." He breathed my name like a reverent prayer and burrowed his unmasked face into my curls. "I could teach you what desire truly means and give you such ecstasy. I would love you even more so for what you are. Can't you see that? Remember this. Remember this moment and exactly what it feels like to have me caressing you, to have me hard and throbbing, bare against you when you are making your choice."

"Choice?" As soon as the question fell from my lips, he released me with an abruptness that made me sway on my feet, my body immediately missing his shape and warmth.

"Put on that dress," he coldly instructed as he adjusted his clothing, and one glance at him as I hastily did the same showed me that he would not even look in my direction. "Our guest will be here presently."

I wanted to demand that he explain himself and his plans, but he was striding to the door, leaving me alone in the room with only the click of a turned lock as his parting sentiment. Locked in…. Well, there was the lock I had been seeking upon my arrival, pointless as it seemed since I certainly felt disinclined to try and escape after our little encounter. My cheeks flamed red to even consider that I wanted him to do it again, but it was the nearest to the truth I had allowed myself to be for months.

With a mind heavy with thought, I drew on the elaborate wedding gown, the surface of my skin still feeling charged with an incessant tingling beneath its satin casing. It was beautiful, but it didn't surprise me that Erik would have chosen it. For as unconventional and homely as he himself was, he constantly filled his life with things that were only perfect and beautiful. Music, architecture, only the finest of clothing and possessions, …me to an extent. I did not like to consider beauty as a trait of mine, hardly vain after a childhood of poverty and struggle, but many times Erik had not refrained from calling me beautiful. He had often said that my discomfort with the term was as genuine and true as his use of it for me. I had always argued back that beauty was too subjective a topic and I would rather be considered talented. It was a common exchange for us, and he would always smile the way he did and insist back that I was equally that as well; he'd call me perfection.

Perfection…, how can one ever be purely perfection? One could strive for perfection, but there would always be flaws just beneath the primped exterior like the finest of cracks. I knew that perfection was an impossibility for me, not with such a stain on my soul. If Erik had been able to see it so clearly, I found myself wondering if perhaps Raoul did as well…. But no, he wouldn't because he would never look beyond what he wanted me to be to what I truly was. Raoul wanted pure and innocent; Erik wanted passion and dark. They both sought only those traits in me; unfortunately, Raoul never looked beyond the façade.

Stepping before my vanity mirror, I scrutinized my appearance. I felt like an imposter to be gowned in white when my soul was so decidedly a shade of dark grey. I saw it clearly peeking out from the backs of my eyes, but then again I'd never been able to lie about it to myself, not very convincingly anyway. Like an automaton, my hands went to work, arranging my curls with a few pins to complete the china doll appearance, …a china doll with a blemish of ink concealed beneath the bodice of her elegant gown, an exquisite flaw.

It was probably for the best that I wasn't given much longer to persist in tormenting my head with such thoughts. The lock of my door turned, drawing a sudden burst of anticipation within my veins that I didn't want to acknowledge, and then Erik, still the unmasked master of ceremonies for the evening's events, gracefully strode inside. His eyes sought me out as urgently as mine sought him, and I savoured the appreciation he did not hide. I may not have considered myself beautiful, but I was only too thrilled to know he did. It made me beam on the inside in a way I could not scold myself for or find the desire to dim.

"The perfect bride," he breathed, and I could not stop a cringe at his use of 'perfect'. "This is why I did not dare sully your purity. I favor the reality over the illusion…, my chaste, virgin bride."

I shuddered from head to toe. Only he could have made respectable attributes like virtue sound provocative and like a further point of arousal.

With one last hungry stare that seared me as it trailed over my every feature, he insisted, "Come. We have company."

My brow arched suspiciously, but I knew better than to question and simply followed him out of my room, noting that while his eyes stayed on me, he did not dare touch me. I knew why. He believed his own touch would mar the perfection he had envisioned to every last detail in his head. His chaste, virgin bride would never have the hands of a murderous madman on her; a wife, on the other hand…. Well, I could conclude from earlier where such a fate would lead…, and it was not as unpleasant as it should have been to me.

I was led out of the cozy warmth of the house and into the chill of the catacombs, dreading what I would find. My intuition was right.

Hanging down from the stone ceiling was a thick rope and suspended from the noose at the end of that rope was my fiancé. Oh, Erik, what have you done…?

Raoul's blue eyes went wide when they landed on me in my bridal finery, and as he clutched with desperate hands at the strangling hold around his neck, he gasped out my name. Poor, darling Raoul. He genuinely loved me, and that was his greatest mistake in all of this. Looking at him now after my brief taste of fire, I could see what Erik did. It was as if my eyes had been opened to what was already there. Flawless, chiseled features, smooth, white skin, perfectly manicured hands. Raoul was, after all, above the status of a normal aristocrat; he was a Vicomte. One look at him screamed that to anyone else; to me, I had too long looked and seen the boy from my youth. Not anymore….

And then I shifted my stare to my disfigured angel as he awaited my response to his scene of horror. He was…different, a stark opposite to the Vicomte, and yet when I looked at that mangled face, I felt that I recognized the soul beneath to its most minute point. No, I couldn't always read him or predict what impulsiveness would overcome him, but this was beyond those less substantial things. I knew the soul, and like Erik had said, as much as it terrified me to admit it, mine was made of the same fibers, constructed so similarly that it was a wonder to me that we were not meant to have been only one person, one body, one being. Soulmates; I had heard the term with little credence to its validity. Well, here it was on display before me. How blind had I been not to see it before?…

"Well?" Erik demanded sharply. "Where are the tears and pleadings for your beloved?"

I ignored his question, keeping my head held high and my posture unshaken. "What is all of this? What do you mean to gain by threatening Raoul?"

"Why, a willing bride, of course." He said it as if it was the most obvious answer. "As I told you before, marriage is permanent and binding. You cannot marry me because I command it and then run off to your Vicomte the first chance you get. There will be no misunderstandings here and no changing your mind when all is said and through."

"You are neglecting to answer my question." I felt as impatient as he himself could be at times, my eyes glancing between Erik's arrogant stance and Raoul's floundering ability to breathe. I did not want to have to hate Erik for Raoul's death if it came to that.

"I did tell you there would be a choice," he replied with a hint of a malevolent grin. "You see, I am not entirely a monster. I am not forcing you kicking and screaming to the altar. I am putting it before you and reminding you of how important and imperative your decision in the matter is." With his ever-present grace, he strode to the side of my desperate fiancé and even dared to place a hand on Raoul's shoulder as his plan came to light. "Marry me willingly and be my wife for all eternity, or refuse me and watch your beloved die."

I had had an inclination that that would be the outcome of his proposition. It was hardly something unbelievable where Erik was concerned, and I was sure the lack of shock on my face told him as much.

"Don't," Raoul rasped out between gulped breaths as he still tugged uselessly on the rope's tight hold.

Smirking to himself on those misshapen lips, Erik approached me, cocking his head to one side. "Your answer, my dear, for you see, darling Raoul won't be able to breathe much longer if you were perhaps considering dwelling on the issue."

My defiant shell never cracked as I mimicked his steps, coming to stand right in front of that twisted face. A choice; I had had a choice already and had made it well before this moment, back when I had willingly allowed him to carry me off that very first night months and months ago. I had made a choice and had then proceeded to run from it even with a heart whose decision had always been firm. That choice had been life-altering; this one was pathetic compared to it and ultimately redundant.

Without a word, I inched closer and closer as Erik raised one inquisitive brow to my intent. And then with one final breath of unfettered air, I leaned forward and found those misshapen lips with my own, kissing him with an innocent question always hovering in the background in my lingering modesty.

This was not the sort of kiss that swept one away. How could it be when the man I was kissing went rigid as a stone against me? It amazed me to consider that we had shared an embrace of far more intimate proportions, and it was this kiss, this innocent trifle, that unnerved and terrified him. Erik was not a man to be afraid and less likely to ever show it if he was, but I felt fear in his tense stance, in lips that would not respond to my gentle contact or attempted coaxing. It very well was the equivalent of kissing a corpse.

My initial hurt at this dejection became a resolution of sorts. I would make him feel something if I had to, if only to preserve my heart. More, more, I needed more. I needed the fire from earlier, the spark that he seemed determined to keep extinguished. And why? He wouldn't care that Raoul was watching; if anything, here was the victory he could toss in the Vicomte's face. This was something entirely different….

I had one chance to turn this around. Lifting my hand tentatively, I grazed my fingertips along his damaged cheek, touching skin I had once denounced in my attempt to build walls. It was barely a caress; it didn't have the time or opportunity to be anything more. Just as quickly as my mind registered foreign textures, my hand was caught and held in a viselike grip, yanked away with misshapen lips, and I was put face to face not with the passionate, at least contented, Erik I had been expecting. No, this Erik seemed angry, as if a kiss was worse than a fist to the gut.

"Get out," he suddenly hissed at me, still clasping my wrist so tightly that I knew he would leave imprints on my skin. "Take your lover and go."

"Erik, what-" I never finished the thought as he snatched his hand from me as abruptly as if he had been burned by my flesh and stalked back into the house, slamming the door so hard in his wake that the stone wall it was built into shook.

For a long minute, I stared after him with a form of shock paralyzing my limbs. There was no logic and no sense no matter how many times the last few minutes played out before my mind's eye. I would have settled for even a plausible guess for an understanding, but I could conclude nothing. A kiss wasn't supposed to be an act of pain or punishment…, yet I wasn't so sure he didn't see it that way.

A garbled sound broke my tedious pondering and forced me to remember Raoul's dire situation. He could barely manage to breathe any longer, desperate for air so much so that he could not show any other emotion. …I would have to wait until he recovered for the disappointment I knew would come.

Long precious minutes were wasted with my attempts to get him free until finally, I found a sharp enough object to saw through rope and Raoul's struggling body dropped to the ground. He gave no pause after that. As soon as he had gotten to his feet and established some semblance of balance, he caught my arm and began to steer me toward the catacombs and our escape.

"Wait!" I cried, easily yanking free. "Raoul, wait!"

"Christine," he gasped out, his voice rough from the rope's damage. "We have to get out of this place before that madman returns."

"No, wait. He let us go, Raoul."

"And what are you proposing to do? Tempt him to change his addled mind? Come on."

Before he could reach for me again, I jerked beyond his grasp. "Just wait for me here. I will be only a moment."


"Raoul, he won't hurt me. No matter how dangerous you think he is, believe that." I knew he wanted to argue, and I could not blame him because I had no justifiable excuse to give either of us over why I felt so compelled to see Erik one last time; I just had to. "Two minutes," was my final vow before I darted back toward the house, leaving my poor fiancé to stare after me as if I had gone as mad as the opera ghost.

No time was given to further contemplate the torturous questions in my brain. I knew I'd have no answers until I went to the source and demanded them, and these were the very answers I could not live the rest of my life without, the kind that would torment me to my death.

I found Erik in my room, sitting on the carpeted floor at the foot of my bed. His shaking hands were lifting a yard of white lace from an open box he had obviously retrieved from beneath the mattress.

Though he never cast a look up at my intrusion, he spoke openly to me. "The veil…. I knew I was forgetting something. It seems that you weren't the perfect bride after all. How could you be with such an integral piece missing?" He lifted the delicate object so gently, so timidly and traced fingertips along its intricate stitching. "I had envisioned it to the finest detail. I would have laid the veil on your head with reverent adoration, arranging it atop your beautiful curls. …And you would have looked at me with such love in your eyes…. I destine myself for disappointment from the very start, don't I? I plan things, and then when they do not come to fruition, and they never do, I am destroyed from the inside out."

As I listened to him speak, I dared to edge closer until I could kneel on the carpet across from him, wondering when he would snap and force me away again as I expected with a certainty that kept me on guard. "Ange," I called gently, and only then would he look at me, "you gave me a choice, and I made it. …And yet you sent me away as simple as that."

"Simple…? No, …if it were simple, my heart wouldn't be thudding like a dead, empty weight in my chest. …If only it were simple." Every bit of rage he had previously shown seemed to fade into a sort of melancholy that stole the usual spark from his eyes. Even the power he always exuded in his very aura felt drained, …tired.

"I chose you," I repeated adamantly.

One flash of temper permeated his demeanor. "And I decided I didn't want you."

It was a sharp sting delivered to my own heart to hear him declare it so flippantly. A plethora of new questions attacked me within, all fighting for supremacy in a need for answers, but the only one I could manage to put a voice to was, "Why?"

"Because, you foolish child, it wasn't enough; you weren't enough." Shoving the veil he had only just cradled aside as if it was nothing but rubbish, he snapped, "I could have had you, but what would I truly have had, Christine? Not what I wanted. No, I wanted heart and soul; I wanted every bit of you, everything you are, every inkling. And you could have never given me that." He was shaking his head miserably as I desperately fought to absorb his words. I thought he meant to touch me then, but I saw his hands jolt in midair before becoming only tight fists of repression as he snapped, "I could have had your body; I realize that. I could have had you willing and wet in my bed, desiring me in a way I never believed any woman ever could. But in the end when that would be all you could give me, I would learn to hate you for it instead. I would be torn in two by the very thing I had wanted most. Don't you see that?"

But I didn't see it at all; perhaps I only could have if I had spent a lifetime alone and shunned. All I could deem with any certainty was that he was trivializing my choice and making a freely given kiss mean no more than a bargaining ploy. In my own defense, I admitted plainly to that damaged face, "I do not love Raoul."

No surprise shown through. "But you won't let yourself believe you love me either."

"That kiss-"

"That kiss," he interrupted, "only served to convince me fully of it. You cannot possibly understand. What we shared earlier was only about lust; to you, it seemed an intimate exchange. To me, a kiss, a touch of this monstrosity of a face, those things are far more intimate. No one has ever touched my face, ever, and you would have used what to you is such a mundane caress to your advantage. It wasn't done out of love or compassion, and I need it to be. I need you to love me, Christine; I need you to touch me like any other ordinary man and touch my face because you genuinely adore every flaw." He paused, and those eyes bore into me to a depth that I shifted uncomfortably to endure. "Perhaps I am a foolish optimist who has spent far too long fantasizing perfection…. But I want everything, Christine, heart, soul, and body, and I can settle for nothing less."

I felt I had given everything, to the extent I was capable of. It wasn't with the fervency or conviction that Erik could give. How could it be? I wasn't even sure I knew how to acknowledge the existence of that sort of passion, let alone know how to let myself feel it so freely without shame attached to its corners, and I didn't know how to just let love be, to let it grow and bloom and not squelch it and crush it with my hands. I would have called myself incapable of love if not for the very valid fact that my heart loved Erik. Beneath doubt and denial, beneath the pain we had so often caused one another, it loved him; now I had to learn how to do the same before my heart was shattered by my own self.

"Show me," I suddenly commanded of him in a breathless and terrified whisper, and I saw the immediate hesitancy within him. "Show me how to love you."

As soon as the words hit the air, his hands emerged from their controlled fists and caught my face between them with a touch that was so very gentle, his palms curving around the shapes of my cheeks to cradle. And then with a gaze brimming over with tenderness, he leant close and delicately found my lips with his.

Dear God, that kiss! It was love at its core. His lips, misshapen and oddly textured as they were, moved against mine with such deliberate ease, creating a soul-consuming adoration as if the kiss alone was a devotion like a prayer. And I did not close my eyes as he had; I did not want to stop watching him, mesmerized by the image. To my stare, he had never looked so beautiful. Those ugly scars were singing with life and with a desire to cherish me. I was overwhelmed to endure such reverence, and even as I responded to his kiss, following the lead of every languid motion, I felt sure I could not deserve this, …this love.

With the most gentle provocation to remind me that a ravenous hunger still thrived and breathed just below the surface, he dared to slip his tongue between the willing seam of my lips, and I shivered deliciously, daring to edge as near to his body as our knelt position allowed. Desire and love entwined. But with just that hint of its ever-present flicker, he reluctantly drew back away, cupping my face yet as he met my eye.

"This is the light," he told me in a husky whisper.

"The light?"

"The desire, the hunger is the dark, and the love beneath it is the light," he gently explained. "The dark burns, and the light is the reason why."

Dark and light…. I felt realization burst through me with a ray of hope that insisted I was not lost. For too long, I had focused solely on the dark, denying what I had seen to be a flaw within me, what I had been certain was tarnishing my soul. I had never put thought beyond the fire and seeing the more Erik was opening my eyes to. The light gave the dark purpose, and in love, desire was not the sin I had thought it to be.

"Teach me, ange," I begged, eagerly turning my face enough to lay a kiss to one of his hands. "I want the light; I don't want to be only the darkness."

"You are the light," he fervently declared. "You are the love; you've been too afraid to see it, Christine, but it's always been there. Just love me, and you will shine like a beacon."

"But I do!" I insisted it without permitting the intruding presence of a doubt to enter the scene. Holding such cowardice at bay, I spoke from my own heart. "I love you, Erik; I do. I do! But loving you terrifies me as much as desiring you. They both mean letting go."

He was nodding adamant agreement, his eyes so soft as they gazed fixedly into mine. In the quietest whisper, he begged of my soul, "So let go."

It was I who kissed him this time, my lips seeking and finding his with a necessity akin to breathing. And he was not the rigid body he had been when last I had dared this intimacy. No, he eagerly met my every passion with passion, releasing my cheeks to weave his arms around my body and draw me closer to himself. I felt every part of myself melting, the desire like a searing flame and only made brighter as my heart and soul leapt to match it. I kissed him because I loved him, and he knew it.


As quickly as I opened myself to Erik, I drew everything back within and jerked away to lift guilty eyes to the Vicomte standing in my doorway. Oh God, Raoul…. I couldn't tell which was the overriding emotion within him at that moment: pain or anger; they both met me with a sharp condemnation that I cringed to endure. My better sense knew how ridiculous it was to have his opinion count so highly, and to it, I could only justify that Raoul knew me so well, that he had a connection to my childhood and to my father that held weight in my heart. Add to that his gentlemanly nature, kind heart, and a social status that far surpassed a stage performer, and it left me always seeking to prove my worth to him. Foolishly for too long, I had believed that if I could love him, it would erase the dark within me, …until now. That was why I had gone along with Raoul's firm denouncement of Erik and his plans against my own heart in the first place. It was never for love of Raoul; it was for the supposed salvation of my soul, a saving I only now saw I didn't need.

"Raoul, I-"

"I knew it," the Vicomte declared with a mocking laugh that only enhanced my unease. "I didn't want to see it or believe it. I couldn't, not until it was staring me in the face. You're in love with the opera beast."

My eyes shot to Erik, questioning how he would respond and if I would once again find myself pleading for Raoul's life that night. It was surprising to me to find him casually leaning back against the bed frame, watching our exchange with an inquisitive sense of amusement instead of anger, scrutinizing me intently as both men awaited my response.

Lifting my eyes back to Raoul, I gave a slow, unavoidable nod. "Yes, …I'm sorry, Raoul, but I've been lying to my own heart as well as yours for months now. …I love Erik."

"I faced death for you," Raoul snapped back, "death at his murdering hands, and you tell me that it was for nothing. All of this was for nothing. You chose the murderer long ago, and I was what to you? The dalliance on the side? The heart to play and amuse yourself with for the time being? You yourself saw that he murdered a man tonight and nearly me as well, and yet here you are proclaiming your love, kissing that repulsive freak as if you had no fiancé awaiting you, ignorantly loving you all the while. How could you do this, Christine?"

"I…." Again, I glanced at Erik, and I found him utterly unreadable as usual. If he was upset, he had hidden it so completely behind a front of apathy that he seemed only arrogant, nothing more. I was on my own, and that was how he wanted it.

"I'm sorry," I repeated, meeting the Vicomte's blame with my newfound defiance and courage in my hands. "I can apologize for hurting you, Raoul, but I won't apologize for what I feel. Loving Erik is not the transgression I had believed it to be for so long because love is a blessing, not a sin. Everyone deserves to be loved."

"Even a cold-blooded murderer," Raoul bitterly demanded, "with the face of the devil incarnate?"

"My sins are my own," Erik suddenly snapped, rising to his feet with a flare of his temper, and I scampered to my own after him, unsure what he would do. "As is my face. Don't assume to put guilt on Christine for such things. Now, you have said your peace, de Chagny. Get out of my house. Christine has made her choice, and as you have seen, it was with her own free will."

I felt the tension radiating between the men; it hung thick in the air, and it amazed me to consider that it only existed because of me and my heart.

Raoul made one final attempt, asking with eyes locked on me, "Are you sure about this, Christine? Are you really so certain that you are safe with him? How long do you think it will take for you to enrage him enough to kill you as well? Love can only exist to a murderer on his terms, and woe to you if you deny him. He'll feel no remorse to destroy everything you are."

It was interesting to me to consider that going with Raoul and his dreams of love would have had the same outcome, destroying my essence, just as Erik had earlier predicted. I didn't dare tell him that, though; it would have been beyond his comprehension.

My eyes were holding Erik's as I confidently answered, "I trust Erik; he would never hurt me."

Erik lifted one brow slowly as he awaited the hesitation he obviously thought would appear in the background, and when it didn't come, my stare firm and constant, he gave me a nod of agreement.

"Out, de Chagny!" Erik insisted sharply. "I won't be generous enough to spare your life again if you push me. She has said everything you needed to hear. Now leave us."

I saw the lingering protest in Raoul's pause, and to it, I repeated, "I love Erik, Raoul. I'm sorry I hurt you."

The Vicomte's usual stoicism faltered as he miserably shook his head with one last look and then stalked out of the house without a single goodbye. As soon as we heard the door slam shut, Erik hurried in pursuit to make certain Raoul was really gone with a paranoia I could not blame him for, and I lowered my head, shoulders drooping beneath the weight of what I had just endured. I did not regret my choice; how could I when I was so sure in it? But I didn't like having the power to cause such pain. With one word, I had basically uprooted lives and shattered them to pieces, and my conscience inflicted guilt whether I wanted it or not.

A few minutes later, Erik returned, surveying my somber demeanor from the doorway with no hint of approaching. "He's gone, and should he return, my many alarms will alert us to his presence long before he arrives." His expression remained guarded. "Now tell me, mon ange. Do you believe your own words? Do you trust that I would never hurt you, or will I endure a silent question in your eyes for the rest of our lives?"

My response was to go to him, to make an unwavering resolution and wrap my arms around his neck, nuzzling my cheek against his chest. It was warm in his embrace, and it was safe.

Erik resisted only a moment before he relaxed and gently stroked his hand up and down my back, molding me firmly to him. "I would never hurt you, Christine. I would die before I would cause you pain. I realize that my sins are great; they are damning, and I do not expect you to forgive or even understand them. I only ask you to love me in spite of them."

I wanted to assure him that I did, but my voice would not obey as my concentration shifted to the hand trailing a path down my spine to graze the curve of my backside before halting and splaying at the small of my back. His palm guided my hips closer and closer with a deliberate pressure until my lower body was flush against his and the incessant ache of his desire.

Bending low to my ear, he breathed, "If you presume to think that this fire in my veins has cooled even a bit, you are very wrong. Tell me that you love me. Vow forever to me, and let me make you mine."

My knees were shaking. I wasn't even sure I was breathing anymore. To feel that hardness of him even through my layers of clothing created dizzying waves that struck me like the ebbing motion of the sea, rocking me back and forth as I surrendered to its pull. I wanted him; dear God, how much I wanted him!

He had lowered his head to the crook of my neck, and his tattered cheek just barely grazed the sensitive skin along the side of my throat. Such an integral detail of this man; I knew that he was purposely keeping his scars on display. He wanted me to see them and feel them and accept them as much as he wanted the same for his sins, and I knew that to fully love him, I would have to.

A groan of need escaped misshapen lips against the line of my collarbone as he arched his manhood into my pliant body, tempting me with a dangerous fire that I was yielding to and yearning to be engulfed in. "No one will interrupt us now," he was hoarsely telling me, "and no one will take you from me ever again. I vow that as much as I vow forever. You are mine, Christine. You chose to be mine. Say it, and I will show you the true power of desire, the brilliance of the same dark you so often ran from. I will show you the fire."

I did not hesitate even a breath as I whispered back, "Forever, Erik." But that wasn't enough; I didn't want that to be enough.

Drawing back in his frenzied hold, I dared to meet his eye with a new sense of absolute conviction that stretched through my every limb to every fingertip, and my hand slowly rose once again to his face. It pleased me to note that even though he watched my every movement with an unblinking stare, he did not stop me or utter a single protest.

The very edges of my fingertips landed with the faintest tremble at his temple, my touch only ever delicate against such damaged skin. From there, I made a slow, gentle trek down along his cheekbone, over taut and nearly transparent flesh to the firm line of his jaw, pausing there to gauge his reaction under an unasked question and need for assurance. To my own horror, I saw crystalline tears gather in his eyes and curled my fingers into my palm.

"Am I…hurting you?" I asked with a rush of fear and guilt.

"Not hurting," he whispered as frozen in his place as I was. "Not pain. It's…not that. I told you that I've never been touched before, and to feel your skin, so warm and soft, against something I can only consider to be abhorrent…." The tears broke free of their shimmering pools to streak meandering paths down and gently strike my shaking hand.

Without a thought, I leaned forward and caught his tears in feather-light kisses, one to his jaw alongside my hand, one to his sallow cheek, and one to the corner of that smooth, deep eye socket where they were gathered. My actions only made him cry harder, his body against mine suddenly spasming with an uncontainable sob. And so I offered solace in the one way I could deem best and gently rested my own flawless cheek to his scarred one, crying his tears with him in that tender contact.

In all of the time I had known Erik and even during the days of our makeshift form of friendship, I had never seen him cry, not once. I had, of course, seen anger and rage, seen pain masked by the strength of his temper and a determination never to seem weak. Though he had never said so himself, I had always attributed it to the life he had endured, a necessity to develop a hard skin like a callus on the outside if only to preserve the breakable, porcelain soul within. And even as he had let me within that exterior and I had selfishly broken the heart behind the iron door over and over again, he had allowed me to glimpse but scant images of his true suffering. Now with these first glimmers of compassion being shared between us, the emotion had grown too overwhelming to bear.

This loss of control lasted only a moment more as he clung so imperatively to me, and then reinstating his usual poise, he severed our joined cheeks and met my eye with a flicker of shame. "Forgive me…. I…."

I did not give him the chance to continue as I pressed a loving kiss to the irregular arch of his misshapen upper lip, lingering long enough to dare to grant a caress with the tip of my tongue that he shuddered to accept. It was brazen of me, but I didn't know more than a flush of pink beneath my skin when I caught sight of the way he had savoured my meager yet tantalizing gesture.

"Such a brilliant combination of light and dark you are!" he exclaimed with awe in that golden tone. "You must agree that you understand that now and see yourself as I do. You are ethereal salvation and hellfire both at the same time."

"Indeed?" I arched a brow at his analogy. "And you? Are you truly both angel and devil, ange?" It was as much a teasing as a valid point, but I delighted in the mischievous smile he gave me.

"You should answer that question, Christine, not I. The rest of the world sees me only as the devil, but how will you see me, amour?"

"Only ever angel, my angel, fallen perhaps at times, but always an angel." I wasn't lying, and he knew it. I could never commit my heart and love to a man I saw as the devil. Scars did not make someone evil; the soul did. And even if Erik's was rough around the edges, he was not evil.

"I love you, Christine," Erik softly breathed, and I could not help but caress his face again, delighted when he arched toward my touch this time. For as odd and abnormal as it was, I felt no disgust; instead I found myself wanting to touch him.

My fingertips came to rest at the flat expanse of bone just above the two holes that served him to breathe. In this place, a nose should have been. The mask gave the illusion that one existed, almost cruelly so, making it a bitter reminder of what he did not have. A nose was such a trivial detail, often simply taken for granted as another normal feature of the human face. To not have one was a stark deviation from accepted aesthetics and truly did call to mind the image of a skeleton. My poor Erik, half corpse, half living, breathing man.

Without consideration to anything but a whim, I edged up on tiptoe and pressed my lips to that place, watching the bewilderment crease his brow.

"What are you doing?" he gently asked, his stare tender all the while.

"Kissing your nose," I replied matter of factly. "It may not be of a conventional shape, but it is still a part of you…. And I'm finding that I enjoy touching every part of you."

Even as he took my admission in the provocative vein I intended, he only leant close and laid a sweet kiss to my own nose with his misshapen lips. "I guess we'll be putting that to the test, won't we?"

This sort of banter was new to us, and yet I found myself savouring it and the novelty of the mischievous flicker in his eyes, mostly because it was so normal. Normal couples teased and played with one another; they were not the constant victims of pain and agony, manipulating and denying each other. Normal couples were, dare I even think the term, …happy.

With that light an ever-present constancy coursing through his very aura, he released me and went to retrieve the discarded veil. Then in a frozen moment of time just like his fantasy, he brought it to me and reverently placed it atop my head. And, Lord help me, I did watch his every action with love in my eyes, a love that had been held restrained for far too long. It amazed me to consider how perfect this felt and to realize that merely the idea of this scene enacted with Raoul in Erik's role felt so very wrong and unnatural. I belonged here, and this was Fate's happy ending for us, …wasn't it?

Erik brought me into the sitting room, and there before a warm, delicious fire in the hearth, we exchanged an equivalent of marriage vows. We had no priest, no witness, no law and license, and yet we both knew our oaths were as binding as they could be. They meant forever. And just like that, we were married and sealing every word with a gentle kiss tinged with anticipation.

All I could think about when Erik stepped back and met my eye was what would happen next. I had a standard idea, of course, but I could not discredit the hesitant virgin I actually was, one who thought more than acted. A daydream was nothing compared to reality, and knowing that the sheer power of the fire between us meant giving up every ounce of control I would rather have kept made me ever so wary.

"And now, my beautiful bride," Erik huskily breathed, extending his long fingers to brush a solitary caress down my cheek. "Shall I make you mine?"

I knew that he read my trepidation, but he was careful not to acknowledge it, choosing instead to ease it with his love first and foremost. Remaining within the radiating beams of the fireplace, he lifted his hands to my hair, discarding the veil and then taking his time to unpin and untangle my curls from their coils until they were a loose mass that he could fist his hands within.

"I should love to feel this silken cascade over every inch of my skin," he revealed fervently, "dancing about us as we make love. I want every detail of you to intoxicate me until I am lost in you…. Take off your gown, Christine."

My hands shook as they immediately moved to comply with hesitant anticipation. He stayed with his fingers interwoven in my hair, his body so near mine that I could feel the utter heat pulsing between us as I worked diligently with every little clasp. The material spilled to the floor in a soft whoosh, leaving me clad as I had been earlier when Erik had done the undressing, and just like before, I saw the immediate surge of desire within him simply to look at me. It was in the flashing hunger of that gaze that tore a desperate path up and down my small frame as if he had never seen me this way.

"I can hardly retain any semblance of control when you stand before me like this," he said, slowly dragging me closer with a gentle tug of my curls. "Earlier I felt near insanity with the desire in my veins; I wanted to give up rationality. You are lucky I was strong enough to resist simply taking you right then…. And to have your bare backside against my hardness…. My God, Christine, to have felt how soft and warm you are and then to imagine thrusting so deep within you…. I am amazed that I did not surrender to the temptation…. I already know how willing you would have been, but would you have later seen it as a sin? Would you have hated me for it?"

"I…I would have hated myself," I dared to answer honestly amidst cloudy desire.

"And now when I take you?"

"I will beg you never to stop and find little to regret in it." Light and dark; I was both, and I wasn't condemned. Gently cupping his cheek with my palm, I told him, "You were no different than I then; you bore as many hesitancies and regrets. You couldn't even look at me, ange."

"I was afraid I would see denials in your eyes and hatred to match. It was a violation, and you're right. If I had acted, I would have hated myself. I felt I couldn't deserve to look at you or to desire you. I still have that feeling, but I love you too much to act nobly and force you to leave once again." As he spoke, his hands untied my chemise, and I saw their tremble, my eyes lingering on their motion as the white silk parted and was pushed from my shoulders to join the gown on the floor.

Erik could not suppress a moan of appreciation that again made me feel more beautiful than I deemed myself to be, and I blushed a pink glow that swept across my skin. Pantaloons and stockings followed before he would touch me, not even a grazing of his fingers until he could first admire me with his eyes, passing them feverishly over my body from head to toe.

"What good have I done in my miserable life to deserve this?" he was muttering beneath his breath so quietly that I almost could not decipher the exact words. Abruptly, before I could make any sort of reply, he caught my bare forearm and gathered me to himself, my skin tickled by the starched fabric of his suit as he permitted no air between us. Those mismatched eyes were hazy as they stared into mine, and I was certain my own must be a mirror, my hips arching nearer to him even as his clothing irritated the surface of my flesh. How I longed to feel bare skin!

I did not even need to voice the thought; his hands were tearing uncaringly at every barrier between us, ripping fabric, severing buttons, and I reaped the benefits of his actions, touching every inch of skin uncovered. Mine, mine, he was as much mine as I was his, and it overwhelmed me to consider it. His shirt was finally gone, his pale white chest revealed to endure the silent exploration of my eager fingers. Scars, I found scars, here and there, some boasting of once being deep gashes and critical injuries; I wanted to ask him about their origin, to learn all I had yet to know of my new husband, but any sort of inquiry would have to wait until desire found some satisfaction and cooled enough to see through. Only once did he even draw regard to their existence, pausing with hands that had just managed to unclasp his pants to look intently into my eyes. I knew what he sought; he expected disgust, but I never let anything but fervent passion stare back. He had little choice but to trust me when the alternative was halting our intimate exchange altogether. Later, words would come; I thought the assurance rather than locate my ability to speak it.

Within moments, Erik had finished disrobing, only allowing a fraction of distance between our bodies long enough to complete the task. And then we were pressed together, flesh to flesh, torso to torso.

A guttural growl echoed around us, torn free from the deepest recesses of his lungs as his fists clenched at my hips; I had the passing thought that his firm hold would leave marks on my skin and then the realization that I didn't care. Mark me! Devour me! Love me! My body was burning too much to fathom anything else.

But he only kept me pressed to him, caught so securely in his embrace, and as he bowed his disfigured face to burrow it within the mass of curls at the crook of my neck, I extended my fingers into his thin hair, cupping that corpse-like skull in my palm and clutching him to me with equaled necessity. For long minutes, we simply held one another that way, and I found myself relishing such an intimate embrace, delighting in the way our flesh seemed to mold together and become one another's, how our body heat became one inferno of radiating flames, generating an invisible, intangible shell around us. His arms had woven and entwined about my bare back, his hands fisting and unfisting in my hair, and as his face nuzzled between more curls until they parted to the skin at the crease of my throat, I shivered, experiencing his scars against that sensitive place, their odd texture as addictive to me as every other feature of his body.

This was love, love intermixed with passion, a desperation to be one being without actually joining beyond touch. And I understood and wanted it as much as what would come after it, breathing him into my lungs and aching to be swallowed up in him until I suffocated.

Dizzy on desire, I was only half-aware when he raised his head and suddenly found my lips with his, not until he was fully kissing me, his tongue exploring every contour within my mouth, dancing with mine. I met each and every kiss with a fire equaling his in its power, unafraid and unwilling to know guilt for its presence any longer. I ached for the darkness. Steal me away….

Erik carried me to my bed without ending our kiss, and once there, his lips never ceased their assault, moving from mine to the features of my face and then fervently over my body. I was writhing against the cool fabric of my bedspread, staring unseeing at the top of my canopy and releasing unbridled cries as misshapen lips found that heated center of me. At some point, the world faded out of existence to me, and all there was left was the desire, the hunger, the dark, and his tongue teasing and tasting me, plunging within my desperate body, making me throb and beg for pleasure with hoarse shouts I did not realize I was making. And then came the ecstasy in wave after wave of ebbing fierceness so intense that I felt tears sting the back of my throat. It was almost beyond my ability to bear it.

When Erik made a slow path back up my body with feather-light kisses that tingled skin that felt covered with sparks, a ravenous confidence shown in that malformed face. Control was as much a drug for him as desire. His lips found my eager ones, his kisses consuming me yet again. One kiss, another, another, and he used them as a distraction, keeping half of my attention occupied as he nudged at my wetness and then thrust deeply within, stealing my virginity. My cry of pain and surprise was swallowed by our kiss, and his hands made soothing caresses of solace over my face, along my cheeks, temples, brow. It was as much an apology as anything, a wordless begging for forgiveness as he moved gently within me.

It took me long minutes to adjust to his intrusion, to his size and thrusts, but he seemed determined to make me forget, keeping a gentle pace and running his hands over any bit of my skin he could until I knew sense was losing to desire yet again.

Ripping his lips away, he leaned close enough to set his forehead to mine and whispered in the breath we were sharing, "You are amazing, Christine, so beautiful, so passionate, …so wet. Mmm, you taste so delicious on my tongue. I intend to spend hours devouring you."

I shuddered with his words, arching my hips to meet his every thrust, and my hands reached up to caress his face, curling against his cheeks, one marred and one perfect. I had to keep stating reality to a mind that was nearly too afraid to accept it; this was my Erik making love to me, and we would never be parted again. I would never have to live without this feeling of absolute fulfillment, of being so loved and adored.

"What are you thinking?" he asked softly, tucking my hair behind my ears.

"That you are mine," I earnestly gasped out, feeling passion building greater and greater.

A touch of a smile curved those lips. "Only ever yours." With that vow, he thrust harder with purpose, giving me release with a rush of euphoria seconds before he received his own.

"Oh, Christine, Christine," he sighed as coherency began to return to us both, his hands making unending caresses up and down my spine. "My love, my soul. I have never known such bliss as I do at this moment in your arms."

Stroking his scarred cheek with my fingertips, I contemplated the word itself: bliss. Was this bliss? Did bliss exist for haunted girls and murdering opera ghosts? To have gone with Raoul would have been the suicide of my soul; I knew that without a doubt. And I knew that I loved Erik. I did not regret the decision of my heart, for there would never be a lack of love here between us. No, my flicker of a worry existed because I knew with equaled certainty that Erik was not the sort of man to change his ways. He would want to be a better man for me; he might even promise to try to be, but in the end, his sinful past would pull him back in over and over again. Murdering Piangi had been a crime of passion as had been threatening Raoul's life, and the rest of his crimes were ugly stains of black that would never fully go away.

With happy as a hope rather than an assurance, I decided to cherish this moment for exactly what it was; an interlude of peace.

Erik never saw the trepidation in the back of my eyes as I purposely burrowed my head against the skin of his chest, likely assuming I was only exhausted from a day of life-altering events. And so with his hand combing idly through my hair and his misshapen lips forming random, worshipping kisses to my brow, I went to sleep and dreamt of a darkness that filtered in like a vapor cloud and swallowed up every bit of light in its shadow.