The next morning, the initial elation Christine knew upon awaking in Erik's arms rapidly transformed to dread at what she knew must come next. Reluctantly, she climbed out of his bed with a tender grazing of her lips across his scarred cheek, ever careful not to disturb him as he slept on, and crept back to her own room to ready herself for the day.

A little later, clothed in mint green with half of her thick curls tied back in a ribbon at the crown of her head, she returned to Erik's room with furtive glances down the hall to the deceptively quiet living room.

"Good morning," Erik greeted her with a hesitant smile as he stood at the foot of his bed, buttoning the cuffs of a fresh dress shirt and watching her quickly close herself inside with him.

"Good morning. You look well." She was equally as tentative, lingering a modest distance away and only surveying him with longing yet apprehensive eyes.

"Look, yes," he replied before demonstrating a few steps that still bore a decisive limp that stole his usual grace. "And yet I can't complain; it does get easier every day. Soon I won't even feel the pain anymore…, at least not the physical pain anyway." Suddenly averting his anxious eyes away from her, he reached for his jacket and began to draw it on if only to occupy his shaking hands as he revealed, "I am still trying to decide if last night was only a dream or perhaps some sort of momentary lapse of insanity induced by the damp catacomb air." Casting her only a furtive glance and nothing more, he sadly breathed, "You look so beautiful…. Have you come to wish good morning to your husband or goodbye to your patient?"

Without a reply to his terrified question, Christine timidly smiled and closed the remaining distance between them, wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning upward enough to press a kiss to his lips.

"Good morning, mon époux," she declared in the slight gap of air between longing mouths.

"Then it wasn't a dream," he breathed with a flash of relief in his eyes, immediately circling her in his arms.

"Not a dream," she confirmed adamantly.

Shaking his head incredulously as his eyes made frantic paths over her features as he had been yearning to do since her arrival, he confided, "I was afraid. You were so somber when you came in. I feared that you were regretting your decision."

"I have no regrets…. I am only loath to tell Raoul that I am not going with him. I don't want to hurt anybody, Erik."

"I know." He lightly caressed her cheek with fingertips that still bore a blatant quivering. "But you must. One of us had to be hurt either way. Better that it is not under the guise of a lie…. Besides, if you don't break the Vicomte's heart, then that would mean that you want me to share you with him, and I don't share what is mine. Playing nicely with others was never my strong point." To his delight, his teasing banter did bring the smile he was after to her lips. "Ah, I know what you're doing; you're envisioning me and the Vicomte taking turns in your presence and all because you did not have the heart to cut him free. That is a humorous scenario to be sure, and, sad to say, both of us are so eager for your love that we would likely agree to anything you wanted even just to have half a moment with you…till I grew tired of such a game and threw the Vicomte out on his ear. You should know better than anyone that patience is not one of my strong points."

A soft laugh escaped her as her agreement. "All right. You do pose a valid argument, and though I am dreading it, I will face the Vicomte. …But you will be there with me, won't you?"

Erik lovingly laid a shy kiss to the tip of her nose. "Of course. I have little doubt that the Vicomte would try to drag you out of here by the hair like a barbaric caveman if I don't."

"I'm not so sure that you're wrong," she replied, reluctantly leaving Erik's embrace. How she wished with all of her heart that it was over already!

A few minutes later, shaking in spite of her attempted bravado, Christine walked into the living room, cringing in the instant she met Raoul's expectant grin, while Erik watched them carefully and lingered back in the doorway like a looming shadow. Despite his injuries, he felt confident that should the need arise, he could overpower the Vicomte; with Christine and their future at stake, he would fight to his death.

"Christine," Raoul called, fixing his focus solely on her. "Are you ready to leave? Have you packed anything you need to take with you?"

"No, I-"

"Well, hurry along, darling," he hastily interrupted. "I thought we could stop for breakfast at a café before we have to meet the boat. We should have plenty of time."

"Raoul." Her tone was sharper and more convicted this time, and he quieted to stare at her curiously. "I am not leaving."

"What?" the Vicomte demanded, the edge of anger tinting his voice. "What do you mean? We already discussed and decided this yesterday."

"I'm sorry, Raoul. I don't want to hurt you; truly, I don't. But…this is where I belong; it's where I've always belonged."

"What are you saying?" Raoul's entire frame had grown stiff with a threatening rage that was only one answer away from being indulged.

And then she gave it. "I love Erik," she softly replied, her voice trembling beyond any sought after strength. "I'm sorry, Raoul, but I can't leave him and marry you. It would be a lie…. I am meant to be with him."

"Meant to be with him?" he muttered before he grabbed her by her arms with eyes that were suddenly smoldering, gripping with forcefully fisted hands. "What has he done to you? Did he put a spell on you and steal your free will? …Or are you doing this for me? Did he threaten my life again and put another ridiculous ultimatum before you?"

"No, Raoul, of course not," she practically shouted back, staring unflinching into his desperate eyes. "Don't be ridiculous! I made this choice willingly just as I did the other night when I chose him."

"You chose him to save me."

Christine shook her head somberly and insisted, "No, …I chose him because I love him. But you know that already; you've known it all along, which is why you didn't want me to go back to him that night."

"And yet you forget that it was I that brought you here, Christine. I brought you back to this place and to him because I love you so much that I couldn't deny you," he insisted.

"No, you brought me here because you thought he was already dead. You never believed me when I told you that he was alive; if you did, you never would have conceded because you would have been afraid that I would choose Erik again and again."

Raoul was struck momentarily speechless by her accusations, gaping at her as if she had lost her mind. Quaking all over with the power of his growing anger, he suddenly shook her hard in his grasp, shouting, "What has he done to you? That murdering freak! He's trying to steal you away from me!"

Erik had been silently watching the scene play out, willing to be patient for Christine's sake even as rage welled in his chest so tightly that his hands clenched in deadly fists at his sides, but there was only so much he could withstand to allow without consequence. Finally letting his jealousy take control, he snapped, "Will you kindly take your hands off of my wife?"

Raoul was startled just enough to loosen his hold, and Christine did not hesitate to break free and scurry to Erik's side, clasping onto his arm with both of her hands.

"Your wife?" Raoul spat dubiously, shaking his head. "You are delusional in your madness, Monsieur. She is promised to me; she would never marry you."

"She already has," Erik stated plainly, arrogantly pleased beyond words to burst the Vicomte's pretty bubble. "She is my wife now and forever, and she made that choice willingly with her heart."

"Christine?" Raoul questioned, but then his eyes fell upon the sparkling diamond shining like a beacon around her finger as it curled in Erik's jacket sleeve. His anger fell victim and succumbed to his hurt as he hissed, "How could you do it?"

"I told you," she solemnly answered. "I love him, Raoul."

Raoul shook his head, unwilling to hide his pain from her view. "The same way you said you loved me…, but then again I am no disfigured murderer."

"Please don't," Christine warned. "I did love you, Raoul; I always will, as my dearest friend. The way I love Erik isn't the same."

"How could it be? I haven't killed people." His bitter words hinted at a malice that shimmered with its threat in the air.

Christine could feel Erik grow rigidly tensed under her hold, and she gently squeezed his arm as she continued calmly, "I don't think you'll ever understand, Raoul. I am sorry to hurt you, but I couldn't lie to you anymore."

"I wasn't aware it was a lie," the Vicomte said sadly. "I did everything for you. And even if I did have an inkling of a thought that you could care for this monster, I was certain that you had sense enough not to indulge it…. I see I was wrong. God help you, Christine, for the life you've condemned yourself to live."

With that, the Vicomte de Chagny stormed past them and left the house, slamming the door in his wake. Erik and Christine both remained frozen in place in the living room doorway, listening to the sounds of the boat being dragged across the shore and finally the pole splashing into the water.

Only when the sounds diminished did Erik turn to face her with an expression that was lined in melancholy and clearly carved along his unmasked face. "I'm sorry, Christine. I know that was quite unpleasant for you to have to endure."

Attempting to feign apathy, she insisted half to herself, "But it had to be done, as you said. Someone had to be hurt in the end."

Erik's eyes drifted to the closed front door, and he stated as if he was reading the unspoken considerations in her mind. "You don't believe he has given up entirely."

She nodded a solemn confirmation. "I think he will return with the gendarme to arrest you. Now that he need not play along for my sake and protect you, he will be after some sort of revenge. Raoul does not like to be made a fool of, nor does he like losing what was once his."

"One more thing we have in common," Erik reluctantly admitted.

Cupping his cheek suddenly in her palm, she argued, "Except you were once unselfish enough to let me go and to put my happiness before yours. Raoul could never do that unless he had something to gain from it."

Catching her waist in his hands, Erik told her, "You know I must go, don't you? I have to make sure my traps and alarms are set. We are not safe here if I don't."

"And are you truly strong enough to be wandering the catacombs to do that?"

He could not contain a smile. How strange it was to have someone to worry over him! Strange yet not unwelcome. "We will find out, won't we? When I return, we will discuss how long we intend to remain within these walls; the sooner we leave this place, the better. I think it is high time that we put the legend of the Opera Ghost to rest and bury the notorious Phantom in the bowels of hell where he belongs."

"The fates of the Opera Ghost and the Phantom are quite bleak. I certainly hope that Erik's is more promising."

She was teasing him again, and he delighted in it, relishing the lightness after all of the serious tones and colors of his life before her. "Oh yes," he replied with a smile. "Erik's future is brilliant and blissful now that he has the woman he adores by his side."

"I love you," she called and watched as he reluctantly released her with a simple kiss brushed across her temple and one long look back as he left the house.

It took longer than he had anticipated to wander the catacombs and check the condition of every hidden trap and alarm. A good part of that was due to the lingering weakness of his body. He was loath to admit it, but he was beginning to realize with more and more conviction that he would likely never fully recover his prior strength after the brutality of this assault. He would probably always stumble a little when he walked, no longer the graceful angel he had once been, and he had to remind himself that he was no longer a young man, able to heal quickly and completely from similarly brutal attacks. It was just one more indication of the passing of time.

Erik was poling the boat that Raoul had used back to the house. If the Vicomte did return, he could take his chances swimming the lake, and he would likely find himself victim to one of the many traps in its black, still depths and possibly a watery grave, and Erik would know no remorse for it.

As the boat came into view of the house, his vengeful fantasies evaporated. What a sight to greet him! A warm glow filtered out from the lit hearths within, streaming into the dark catacombs, inviting him to enter. He could smell the delicious aromas of supper permeating the air, making his stomach rumble in response with an insistence that it had been hours since he had last eaten. And then like the songs of the very first birds to return in springtime, the brilliant sound of Christine humming as she worked within the house poured out to echo off of the cave walls. Ah, heaven! For the first time in his life, he knew the blissful peace of returning home.

Erik moved faster, urged on by the eagerness to join the scene. He dragged the boat ashore and concealed it out of view, ready for a final departure that couldn't come soon enough as far as he was concerned, and then with a few staggering steps in an otherwise gliding path, he entered his home and hurried to find his wife.

"Christine," he called with a smile erupting on his lips.

"In the kitchen."

He did not pause a moment, quickening his pace until he arrived in the doorway and had her in his view. In a tender voice, he breathed her name once again, "Christine."

Without pause, she immediately rushed to his side and hugged herself to him tightly. "I was beginning to worry. You've been gone a long time." Reluctantly drawing out of his embrace again, she scurried to the cupboard to find a plate, insisting, "You must be famished. Go and sit, and I will bring you something to eat."

Erik hesitated; he was preoccupied watching her move. It astounded him how easily and comfortably she had taken over the role of lady of the house…; to him, it was simply further proof that this was always meant to be.

A few minutes later, they were seated in the dining room across a damaged table as he savoured the delicious meal she had prepared. Between bites, he told her, "You are quite an excellent cook. I had no idea."

Christine grinned at his compliment, but her mind was preoccupied with weighty thoughts. Twisting her teacup idly in her hands, she finally found the strength to put voice to them and softly asked, "Are we safe here, Erik?"

He shrugged and waited until he swallowed to answer, "I think so. We have alarms to warn us should someone dare intrude into the catacombs and traps to hopefully change their minds and convince them to go back. But these are only temporary solutions. We cannot remain here. As I've told you before, we can go anyplace you like. Just name it. The world is laid before you, amour. I will take you anyplace you wish, and we can start a new life together."

Staring fixedly at her teacup, she considered for a long minute. "I had never really thought about leaving Paris, but we can't stay here. Too many people know our story. I think our best option is to travel to America."

"America?" Erik did not seem displeased with the idea as he turned it over and over again in his mind.

"It's quite a distance away," she continued quickly, "but it is entirely possible that we could have a decently normal life there."

"Normal," he repeated, testing the word in his mouth. "I've never been acquainted with that concept. It might be refreshing for a change."

"And safe," she added. "For both of us…and our children."

Erik had been about to sip his tea, and her words nearly made him drop the porcelain cup back onto the table in a loud clamor as he managed to stutter, "Children?"

Purposely not meeting his eye, she continued to toy with her own cup. It had perhaps been a bit much to slip the idea into the conversation as simply as she had, but it was a subject that she felt deserved discussion. Attempting to tilt her head nonchalantly, she only breathed, "Someday."

Erik sat back in his chair, brow furrowed with pronounced lines as he stammered as if it was the most absurd of concepts, "And you mean that you want to have my children?"

Meeting his perplexed gaze, she lightly inquired, "Why not?"

Dear Lord, she seemed as if such information was inconsequential, and he inwardly cursed her naïveté. "I told you from the beginning that I had no intention for this to be a conventional marriage with the details attached to such an arrangement. Children were one of those details."

"I assumed as much, but I thought that maybe one day when we are someplace safe and you can see the unthreatened life that they would be able have, you might change your mind-"

"No, no," he interrupted with an abrupt shaking of his head, "How could you even suggest it?"

"But why not?"

"Isn't it obvious?" He had not intended to snap at her, but he could not keep his temper from flaring. "There is the chance that a child created by you and I would be born looking as I do, and I will not condemn any child to that life." Without another word on the subject, he abruptly rose from the table and fled her presence.

Christine allowed him to go without protest, staring sadly after him.

Unrushed in her tasks, she cleared the table and straightened the kitchen, giving him plenty of time to himself before she dared to make an approach, unsure what frame of mind she would find him lost in. But finally unable to remain patiently alone any longer, she approached his bedroom door and knocked softly before entering, timid despite her resolve.

"Erik?" she called gently as her eyes fell upon his shape. He was sitting at the edge of his bed and in his hands holding every bit of his attention was a tiny mask…, the size for a child.

Christine crept closer and closer with hesitant, whispered steps, and when she arrived before him, she lowered herself to her knees on the floor at his feet. She wanted to touch him, to smooth the lines of pain creasing his tattered face, but she dared not, keeping her hands purposely folded tight in her skirts in her lap.

Erik did not look up at her or acknowledge her presence as he spoke. "My mother gave me this mask for my second birthday. I was only ever allowed in her presence if my face was hidden from her view. I was supposed to be her cherished son, but instead I was her greatest disappointment."

With a swelling of compassion in her chest, Christine replied softly, "I am certain that she spent the rest of her life regretting the fact that she never knew her son, that she never got to see the brilliant man he became." Tentative, she finally pried her urgent fingers free and extended one tremulous hand toward him until it covered his atop the tiny mask. "Any child born to us would be a blessing, whether perfect or bearing scars; it doesn't matter. Our child would be loved."

Erik lifted his mismatched eyes to hers. "I know that. I don't doubt that you would love our child regardless. It is the world that would only ever be cruel."

"Perhaps. I have no promises from a world that I have found such disappointment in, but we will teach our children tolerance and acceptance. And perhaps they will be the ones to change it; they would definitely have the potential." Christine's eyes bore into his as she insisted without waver, "Children are a product of love, Erik; they are always worth any chance taken."

Hastily putting the miniature mask aside, Erik captured her face, framing it between his palms. "It seems you have thought all of this out."

"In extensive detail," she proudly admitted. "Erik, I want a real marriage with you. You said you would never ask more of me than this, but I want more…, if you are willing, of course."

"Christine." Carefully lowering himself to the floor across from her, Erik drew her to him in a necessary embrace, clinging to her with desperate arms that would never release her again.

Christine's body was humming with life as she arched ever nearer to him until no space was allowed to exist between them. As his misshapen mouth found hers, his lips moving so gently, the heat came with a violent suddenness that made her shudder, streaming like lava through her limbs and then settling with a dull ache at her center.

Erik eagerly slid his tongue between her soft, parted lips to taste her; it was still so new, a kiss, a wife, the woman he loved eager and wanting him in return, and then such desire, so poignant and so overcoming, screaming for satisfaction. For too long, he had forced it at bay, and now to experience the true extent of its power, he felt reality hazing away at its corners until the desire was all that lived and breathed.

Pulling his lips from hers, he continued to lay light kisses across her jaw until he could nuzzle the sensitive flesh just below her ear as she squirmed and mewed with delight against him. Her hand slipped into his hair, grasping at the fine locks with fingers that curled fitfully to bear the growing tension in her body.

"Don't stop," she begged desperately as his lips made a slow, fervent path down her throat. "Please, Erik, don't ever stop."

Merely the frantic urgency in her tone brought a swelling wave of need that assaulted his willing body, leaving him dizzy in its wake. He allowed just the tip of his tongue to emerge from his lips and teasingly lick at the crease of her neck, and the small cry she gave only encouraged him onward. Perhaps if her soft body wasn't squirming so restlessly against his, if she wasn't trying so frenziedly to get ever closer to him as if she couldn't get close enough, if her skin wasn't so warm and flushed, if she wasn't making sounds of pleasure that were as beautiful as music to his ears, perhaps then he would have still harbored enough of his rational mind to put an end to this…. Oh Lord, how he didn't want to put an end to this!

Erik's hands with his long fingers splayed wide as they made a graceful path from her shoulders over the swells of her breasts and out to the curve of her hips, clasping there to wrench her lower body tighter to his, knowing that even through the layers of her skirts, she would feel the hardness of him and the potent effect she was having on him.

It was as if she was intoxicated on desire's every stirring; at the same time as she felt weightless, strangely enough, the sensations she knew were so heavy that they burdened her with their vastness, making her long for their release. Every inch of her flesh was burning and tingling, making her clothing suddenly restricting and cumbersome upon her skin, and as she felt the male hardness of Erik's desire, she longed with every fiber of herself to be rid of their manmade barriers and feel it against her bare body.

"Erik," she whimpered, begging for more in that one beautiful word.

His hands drifted into her mass of silken curls, entangling as he delicately drew her back with a tug on the locks that forced her to meet his fiery gaze. "You feel it, don't you?" he hoarsely demanded. "What you have the power to do to me. No one has ever made me feel this way or ever will again. It is for you, Christine; it has only ever been for you."

Very gentle in his every endeavor, he captured one of her hands, his grip loose and unbinding and giving her the unspoken option to pull away that she never took. He brought her willing hand between their kneeling bodies to press it against the hardness of him. As her breath caught in her throat with a mixture of desire amidst avid curiosity, he gently guided her hand along his length in a slow motion as she once again found herself wishing to rid him of the barrier his clothes posed.

Erik could feel the heat of her flesh, searing that most sensitive part of him and yet not at all unwanted in its every burn. His voice was laden with the stuttering of disjunctive thoughts within the cloud of desire as he murmured, "I burn for you…. Oh, how I want you!" With an overwhelming reluctance, he drew her hand away from his aching body and kept it captive in his own as he abruptly warned, "Say the word, and we will stop this now. This is not a wifely duty that you must perform; do not think that you have an obligation to satisfy these desires."

She was holding his eye adamantly, stifling innocence as she demanded, "And have you not considered that perhaps I burn for you as well? …That I am…aching for you and the passion I know every time you touch me? I long to be yours in every way, ange."

It wasn't only the words, but the look in her fixed gaze, the love that was so strong that it was already unconditional. Without a word, he slowly rose to his feet, drawing her to stand with him, and releasing her hand, he walked around her and sought the clasps of her gown.

It was a real test of his patience to work those intricate clasps, but finally, one by one, they yielded to his efforts and he pushed the gown from her shoulders to slip soundlessly to the floor. One garment gone, then another and another as he tenderly undressed her, pausing with each inch of flawless skin he uncovered to bestow a long caress from trembling fingers.

Christine had believed that she would be nervous and apprehensive when at last she was bared to his eyes, but as her final layers were discarded, all that she knew was a sense of desire, of necessity, …of destiny.

Erik took a step away and let his eyes wander the length of her in intent observation, softly telling her, "It is only fair that I may look upon you. You have done the same to me."

She blushed to a shade of pink with the memory of her overt examination of his naked body and softly agreed, "Fair indeed," as she lowered her eyes with sudden timidity.

"No," he protested, reaching out to tilt her face up again with a thumb beneath her chin. "No, I want you to look at me as I look at you. I want you to see how beautiful you are to me and how simply looking at you makes me ache so deeply for you."

Blushing uncontrollably still, Christine complied and watched his every expression unfold as his eyes daringly left hers and made a languid path down her bare form. It was as if she could see the pleasure and the desire with every wave as it assaulted him as he kept his emotions blatant and vivid on his face.

"I never could have imagined such beauty," he was hoarsely breathing as he slowly walked around her, growing more and more aroused by each and every bit of her flawless, creamy skin. "You are perfection, Christine."

Beaming confidence soared through her, and she deemed that it was her turn as she silently closed the distance between them and reached for the buttons of his shirt. With nimble fingers, she unbuttoned her way down the length of his chest as he continued to regard her with ravenous eyes.

Christine discarded his clothes in the same meticulous fashion that he had used, not allowing any more than an idle, passing caress until at last, he was bared before her. Holding his eye wordlessly then, she let her palms lay flat against the scarred flesh of his chest and explored that tattered skin with trembling caresses.

"To think that you never intended for me to know of this," she whispered, her brow lined in a mixture of compassion and a pain that was solely his. "You wanted us to live as man and wife and never share any of this."

Staring at her with utter incredulousness as she traced the lines of each scar, he replied, "You truly are an angel, Christine, sent from God to save my soul. I am entirely convinced that it is true."

"I've always said the same about you, ange." Slowly, she leaned forward to press a reverent kiss to the top of one long, winding scar just below his collarbone, and she could feel him shudder beneath the tenderness of her caress. With her lips hovering and her breath flitting teasingly over his flesh, she breathed, "Make me yours, Erik."

It was like a dream, fleetingly bittersweet and entirely consuming, where reality and the world outside no longer existed. Erik took his time, exploring and cherishing every sculpted feature of her until he was in such a fever of desire that he felt sure he would burst.

Only then did he lay her down on his bed, and, aches and pains ignored and forgotten in the background, he lowered himself atop her, gasping as skin met skin and melded together. In one swift thrust, he made her his for all time, swallowing her brief moment of pain in kisses and utterings of undying devotion. Erik let the passion build gradually within them both, delaying release as long as he could to savour the incredibility of such a moment. And when she cried out her fulfillment, pressing her lips fervently to his, he found his as well, whispering her name over and over again under a euphoria that stole rational thought.

As his senses began to return in fragments of reality's thoughts, he became acutely aware of Christine kissing the features of his face gently and smoothing back his damp hair from his brow with fingers that still quivered from the intensity of her pleasure.

Mirroring her adoration, he pressed a lingering kiss to the curve of her shoulder and carefully lifted himself to lie beside her, delighting in the way that she immediately cuddled against him.

Leaning up on her elbow, she inquired sweetly, "So when will we leave for America?"

"Soon, …whenever you wish…." With fingers that idly brushed through her curls, he told her, "You know, for the first time in my life, I am actually anticipating the future. You have made me happier than I ever thought I could feel."

"I choose to argue that you'll be even happier yet when we have a house of our own with a handful of children running about the yard through bursts of sunlight and between blooming flower beds. A real home, Erik."

"Wherever you are, I am home." Cupping her cheek in his hand and sharing her same breath, he whispered, "I love you."

"And I love you. …I always have." With that as her vow, she laid her head in the crook of his arm, letting his warmth wash over her and knowing that she, too, had found her home.

The End