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

Happy almost summer! I wanted to post a new story for everyone who has been so graciously reading my work, and I hope you enjoy it. I've had this particular idea in my head for years, really since the last time I saw the musical, and I finally wrote it last month. It's long, so I'm going to be posting it in parts over the next week. This particular story starts after the Masquerade and is based on the musical's timeline and events not the movie.

SUMMARY: After the Masquerade, as the cast prepares to perform the phantom's opera, Christine returns to her teacher for help.

"An Angel's Duet"

"This is a disgrace! Every ridiculous detail of this half-cocked plan is a mockery of our ability to stop this madman!" Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, yelled in indignation as he tossed the heavy score to the monster's opera onto the desk in his study, wishing that a mere heave of its pages and melodies would be enough to destroy its every blasphemous note.

From her place idly staring out the window at a winter landscape and only partially aware of her raging fiancé, Christine slowly wandered to retrieve the undamaged book, lifting it between shaking hands and cradling it in trembling arms. How heavy it felt with a weight that far exuded paper and binding; no, it bore its own internal burden interwoven in every ill-begotten aria as if it could crush her simply by existing.

"Give in to his demands?" the Vicomte was continuing as he paced fitfully. "Perform his opera? Those damn managers must be as addled as he is to even consider such a thing! Ah yes, instead of going after the monster with guns and blades drawn, we'll be his little marionettes, sing his little songs, and pray to God the bastard makes an appearance so we can shoot at him in a theatre full of people! Pure genius! I can hardly believe that rational, educated people can devise such ludicrousness! Truly, Christine, you should have listened to me six months ago when I said that we should leave this place after the first time we avoided his wrath. But you insisted we stay, and now look where it has gotten us!"

Six months ago, Christine silently pondered. Yes, six months ago when a chandelier had nearly come down upon her head. Intelligent people fled such situations, didn't they? Sought safety after such a trauma? But she…. No, she had refused every mention of leaving the city, …of leaving the opera. And when Erik had seemingly vanished from their lives, it could have been considered the right decision as it bore no consequences. But last night…. Well, all of that had changed in one fated appearance at the company's Masquerade Ball, and now…now six months didn't matter at all, not if they were right back where they had started.

Hugging the score to her chest, she forced her eyes to focus on the snow-covered trees beyond the terrace behind the de Chagny mansion, and yet their image was a blur of shimmering white and sunglow as her mind betrayed her to slip back within itself and find its own visions in its deepest recesses to dwell upon. The Masquerade, the Red Death, like a figure of a nightmare brought to life, drawing her to him with little more than an idle gesture, the memory of staring into mismatched eyes and finding the depth of their every emotion unchanged and ever so brilliant. For one brief instant, six months had not passed, had been wiped out of existence and lost from the course of always-moving time. One brief instant, and in the next, she had become more abhorred than every other person in the room. If a kiss on a rooftop six months before had been a betrayal, then a hidden engagement had been a stab wound to the gut.

"It isn't too late!" the Vicomte suddenly decided, attempting to capture Christine's attention, but she never turned from the window and its welcoming view of sunlight. "We can still leave. This afternoon, in fact. We'll get out of the country altogether, book passage on a ship, flee to the other end of the world if we must."

His adamant declarations finally burst into her meditation, and she jerked disagreeing eyes to his with a firm shake of her head. "That's…ridiculous, Raoul. We can't just run away."

"Why not? If I can't go and get the bastard with swords and violence on my side, leaving still seems a far better option than watching you play the bait and lure him into a volatile trap that may or may not work in the end. Perhaps I am the only one with sense left, considering how quickly your managers were apt to agree to his terms and concoct this plan of theirs, but at present, my primary concern is for you and your welfare. To hell with the opera! Let the bastard have his little temper tantrum and burn the place to the ground this time for all I care. If you are safe and beyond his grasp, what is the difference?"

"No," she replied as steadily as she could. She was desperate not to seem weak; if he presumed she could break, he would push, and she was terrified that she would give in. "If we left, Erik might hurt other innocent people, and I could never live with such guilt to know that I was the cause of it."


"Raoul," she interrupted quickly, "I have to do this. But you will be there the night of the performance; you will protect me, and I see nothing worthy of worrying over. I trust you to keep me safe."

It was a bit of a ploy on her part; to give Raoul a task of his own and use his desire to always be the noble hero, but she knew that he wouldn't argue against it.

"Of course I'll keep you safe," he vowed, and she knew that she had won. Huffing his discontent, the Vicomte plopped down onto his chair and rubbed at weary temples. "I would keep you safe to my death, Christine; you know that, but I still feel it is an abomination to give in to this monster. I'm already certain he has his own agenda; there is no way that this is all just about performing an opera. No one would go to such dramatic extremes unless they were truly getting something invaluable out of it."

Christine had the urge to protest, but it seemed too exhausting to devise enough words to portray her point. It felt like a deliberate waste of breath. Raoul could never understand that to Erik, music was worth such dramatics; he loved the music, maybe even more than he loved her. It was just that important to him.

The Vicomte was still muttering his tirade, but already knowing that the decision had been made and he would not be able to keep her from singing, Christine deafened herself to his rants. She was still holding her score in a semi-embrace, and her blue eyes were caught and fixed upon her name, scribbled so elegantly on the top corner. Her fingertip traced each and every letter distractedly, imagining it was the same as the ink pen that had created the perfect loops and curved lines, making a work of art out of the meager appellation that had been her own since her birth. Part of her wondered what thoughts had been in his head when he had written the word, when it had inevitably brought an image of her to life in his mind's eye attached to every consonant and vowel. Had it been scrawled with flames of still-thriving betrayal and hatred? But no, every ink stroke was seemingly delicate and graceful, not driven and forced as one would expect anger to create. All she saw as she stared transfixed at her own name was hope woven into every single mark. Hope…, and she couldn't say how she felt to realize with its consideration that he wanted her still; in spite of everything she had done to him, every pain caused, every selfish breaking of his heart in her hands, he wanted her, and the letters of a name she had known, written, seen all her life, suddenly only seemed to spell anticipation to her soul.

Dark, it was always dark beneath the surface of the earth. It didn't matter if it was mid-afternoon or the middle of the night. One learned quickly not to judge time by the standard positioning of the sun; it was Erik's very first lesson when he had taken to the underground years and years ago, especially when he was so often the victim to gaps of empty minutes lost composing his music, altering his own internal clock's every attempted prediction. Never judge time by anything but the manmade clock itself. Glancing at its ticking face now, he noted that it was late into the evening, another day on the verge of ending, and he had spent it how: thinking, mourning, mentally raging, and more than a little bored in between each spike of emotion. For six months, he had lived as no more than the lifeless corpse they had always dubbed him, for truly, how could one be more than a corpse when one denied oneself the right to feel anything at all? No, the only emotions he had had to sustain himself were entwined in the score of his finished opera. He had poured the essence of every one into chordal structure and lyrical melody lines, feeling them only through reverberations in the ivory of piano keys like echoes that rattled a hollow cage. And for that blissfully saccharine span of time, he was almost numb to their true agony, as if they only existed in music's sphere with such intensity, never the real world. Of course, that had only lasted with a bitter brevity until the moment the final cadence had been written, and then in the instant his brain had strayed away from devising progressions and the notes had faded from his inner ear, it had all returned in a swell so great that it had taken his breath away. He had wanted to believe that it hadn't happened, that that wasn't his current reality and couldn't be reality. But no, his life really was that unfathomable nightmare, and he really was alone; hope really was dead for him.

The anguish and resentment twisted within him once again, and he leaned back in his throne-like chair and forced his eyes to attempt to concentrate on dancing flames in the hearth instead, but their patterns were erratic and unpredictable and did not hypnotize his mind as he wanted. They could not block out an image of a face so utterly beautiful that it was too difficult to accept that she even existed in the actual world beyond imagination's boundaries. …Christine…. Simply hearing her name spoken by the ever-present voice in his head created every unwanted tingle of sensation that he so desperately yearned to avoid. For six months, it had been almost too easy to pretend that she was only the heroine of his opera, to idealize her every characteristic into something akin to perfection and pretend flaws had never been present. As a fictional character in his mind, she could be faultless and transcendental; she could be everything he'd always wanted her to be. Perhaps a masochistic part of himself had convinced him that if he saw her in reality, she might be his creation brought to life instead of her true insufficient self; perhaps that had been why he had chosen to attend the Masquerade Ball like another ridiculous masked party goer and seek her out. And what had he found? Had he not set himself up for failure at the conception of his plan? His beautiful, perfect Christine was the same flawed human being she had always been, only now she had a Vicomte on her arm to fill in the holes in her countenance. Another role to play, but one she'd freely chosen…. And it sickened him because he was so sure even now despite every rift between them that she was doing just that, playing a part, the acceptable one to want, creating a version of herself that was little different from her opera roles. Damn her weak naïveté! And damn himself for loving her still in spite of it all!

Huffing a forced breath in another attempt at calming emotion's cresting waves, he desperately wished that he had something to busy himself. The opera was finished and out of his hands at present, leaving him the unwilling victim to ennui. If he only had something else to preoccupy his addled mind, then perhaps thoughts of revenge and destruction including as much collateral damage as was possible would cease tormenting him. His favored fantasy of late was one that involved torturing the arrogant Vicomte de Chagny practically to his demise, and then at the culmination of that glorious plot, he would place a choice before Christine: marry him or the Vicomte would die. It seemed ingenious in an imaginary setting and foolproof really; it gave him viable ideas….

In his current production of its heinous events, he was just arriving at the point where Christine would choose him and then declare that she had loved him all along when every thought evaporated with a rush of feeling he had not experienced in six months. He knew what it meant, and yet he was terrified to believe it. Sitting upright abruptly in his chair, he averted his desperate eyes to the door to his hidden home the instant before its knob turned and it was hesitantly opened with a resounding creak.

Six months since she had last ventured this way, and was it odd that it felt so familiar and almost longed for in her every step? Every scent, every image, the warmth that greeted her from the glowing fire in the hearth and drove away the chill of the catacombs as it radiated forward to embrace her; it was comforting simply to be there…, and yet every thought of home vanished in the moment her eyes met the power of that mismatched gaze piercing into her being from the second she passed the threshold.

For a long breath, Erik could only stare, sure that his own mind had conjured her image in a further effort to draw him to madness. No, no, she couldn't be real. Too beautiful for existence as always and still with those wide blue eyes, proclaiming innocence without her realization, and he raced a desperation to prove her tangibility along every feature of her face, idolizing porcelain skin and delicate arches and curves of tiny bones. None of those things convinced him that she was not a mirage; no, what did it was the large, heavy score clutched to her chest and cradled in small hands. That one detail returned reality and with it, his ability to speak coherent sentences.

"Why are you here?" he demanded, and yet the true extent of his recalled bitterness was only given away in a thin tightness of tone and the sudden loss of any warmth that had been brewing in his fixed stare.

Christine was shaken; his very presence had always had that effect upon her, and then to hear that voice, to know its words were only for her despite his attempt at coldness…, she felt a slight shiver breeze through every limb and clutched her score tighter so that he would not notice the shaking of affected arms. It took a concentrated effort to manipulate her lips and make them form words as she tentatively stammered, "I…I need your help."

"My help?" he demanded back, favoring hostility. If he didn't, he was so certain that he would love her in that moment with or without his own consent. No, no, he had to hate her; he had to remember that there was a valid reason that he had not shared the air with her in six months. Ah yes, because six months before she had betrayed him in the most horrible way possible; yes, indeed, there was hatred. "Forgive my suspicion," he went on with his presumed coldness. "But six months and a supposed engagement would argue that you need nothing from me, not any longer anyway."

Her knees were shaking beneath layers of skirts, and she idly shifted on her feet in hopes of hiding it, determined to show him no waver. No, she wanted to seem resolved; she had to. Defiantly keeping her head raised and eyes upon his, she stepped closer with confident footfalls until she could toss the heavy score to the coffee table beside his chair. "I can't sing this," she stated flatly, refusing to be swayed by the shrewd narrowing of his mismatched stare. "You overestimated my capabilities when you wrote my role."

Erik genuinely contemplated the accusation, turning her words over in his head and testing their accuracy as his introspective mind heard snippets of the orchestration in his inner ear. Fast-moving passages of notes, fluid cadenzas, high tessitura, chromatic ornaments, …but no, he could clearly hear her voice singing each and every one and surpassing his expectations just as he had imagined it. Shrugging slightly in the face of such confrontation of his work, he countered, "Perhaps I wrote it with your potential in mind instead. You can sing it, Christine; it will be a challenge, but not an impossibility. If you are here to command me to rewrite portions that are not to your liking, I adamantly refuse; it is perfection already and will not be altered by any divas' tantrums, whether they be yours or Carlotta's. Not a single note will be changed."

Christine was shaking her head solemnly. "A diva's tantrum? You know me better than that; you know that I am not a diva."

"I haven't known you in six months," he pointedly snapped. "I can hardly assume how preparing for your future title has transformed your personality. I'm sure a Vicomtesse must boast some sort of ego."

"I am not a Vicomtesse," she protested, denying her instinctual urge to cower and take his every biting insult without retaliation.

"Well, not yet, but that is currently just a technicality of a couple of missing vows. One simple 'I do', and it will be yours just as you wanted all along."

"What I wanted," she breathed softly to herself before forcing the thought away and returning to her purpose. "I am not here to lay blame for our past or sort out the pains we've caused each other at every chance. I am here in need of a teacher. I can't learn this role on my own; I don't have knowledge of the correct technique for what you asking me to do. I need you to help me, Erik, and if you want this role performed to your standards, you will have to agree."

The mocking chuckle that escaped him crawled upon her skin with its rising dread. She knew that laugh as the typical precursor to his temper, but she continued to feign nonchalance as he sarcastically retorted, "You must be joking."

"Not at all," she declared back, matching his tone, and she was pleased to realize how vividly her resolve surprised him as the intrigue played on his masked face.

"Six months, Christine," Erik suddenly snapped as if it were the most important point of all. "We have not spoken in six months, not a word to one another; we haven't seen each other, not even the indiscretion of a secret glance through a mirror. Six months ago, you betrayed me, my trust, my affections, my every hope in life, and I nearly killed you for it, if you'll recall. I practically dropped a chandelier upon your head. And yet here you are, on my doorstep, in my house, and what do you expect of me then? To pretend that we are six months in the past and nothing has changed from the days of angels with unmarked faces?"

"As I said, this is not about our sordid past," she replied, desperate to seem unaffected but failing miserably as the memories drew her back within their hold. The shifting shadows of swaying candles upon the theatre walls, the gasps and screams permeating the crowd, the deafening screech of shattering glass; she had been mere steps from the chandelier's descending point of impact and had wondered for months if he had missed hitting her on purpose, praying incessantly that it was true because never before had he attempted to harm her.

Mercifully burying the thought, she posed the details of her plan to eyes that she could clearly see were sharing in the regret-inducing haze of memory and exposing a guilt she had not anticipated. "The managers have given us a reprieve of two days' time while they hire extras for the cast and crew and begin set design. When we return to rehearsals, we are to have our parts learned and prepared for our first musical run-through."

"And you want me to…," he purposely trailed off and impatiently gestured for her to complete his thought.

"To spend the next two days preparing me to sing this role." Christine spoke the command with the conviction that she usually lacked; no, she had never possessed it or the internal streak of bravery that should have been sewn so securely within, but she had never before known what she wanted as surely as this either.

That laugh met her again as his initial response, and she inwardly cringed with a fear that he would leap to anger and throw her out instead. Shaking his head beneath a constant smirk, he insisted, "Explain to me exactly what you are asking of me, Christine, so that I may know which point to call the most ridiculous."

But she did not back down, and as stoic as she could manage to be, she calmly stated, "I will stay here with you for the next two days, and just as we did so often before, we will work as teacher and student, and you will teach me what I need to know to sing this role."

Erik had leaned back in his chair, bridging his fingers thoughtfully before him as he listened, and as she finished and awaited his reply expectantly, he chuckled slightly and declared, "This entire plan is rather presumptuous of you, isn't it? I cannot imagine that your fiancé would approve."

"He need not know," she insisted without waver. "I told him that I intended to take this respite from our current drama to travel to Perros to visit my father's grave. He wasn't pleased with such news, but he knew he had no right to stop me."

"Ah, so darling Raoul believes that you've gone already," Erik declared with rising amusement. "You rid yourself of your fiancé and his need for heroics and came to me alone and unguarded. And how are you so certain now that you've willingly wandered into the den of the dragon that I won't refuse to let you leave ever again? That is what your fiancé would have expected; he has practically been waiting for me to try and steal you away. Perhaps I should keep to my expected role; I wouldn't want to disappoint my audience after all. Perhaps I shall keep you as a punishment for your naïveté in coming here."

"You won't," she firmly stated without even a single hint of doubt in the background.

"And why not? As the villain in the story, I am entitled. Why wouldn't I do it and take my prize?" Part of him was desperate to scare her, seeking the fear that unavoidably followed her every action and would show the crack in her bravado, and it shocked him to no end that he could not find its presence.

Calm as could be, she answered in one omnipotent word, "Redemption."

"Redemption? And that is your platform?"

"This scheme that you have undertaken isn't about me."

"Everything is about you," he protested inarguably and could not keep his eyes from roaming the subtle nuances of her angelic visage once again. It was odd after so long spent living in his head with imagined visions of her to no longer be in control of her words and emotions, to have to study her to find the details instead of creating them himself. This moment was an ideal example: his statement had made her skin turn a slight shade of pink with a hinted blush, and it frustrated him that he had no idea why and what unshared thoughts she was having to make such a response.

"No," she contended, though the blush remained, "this is about the music and your own retribution. You have spent your entire lifetime without acknowledgment for your talents, for your very right to exist and merely the fact that you do. You want to show the world the brilliance of the music you've created. …If this was only about me, then you would have come for me and stolen me away six months ago; you wouldn't have spent that time alone, composing and finishing your opera."

Erik never gave any hint to how near the truth she was, and neither did he reveal the point she was missing in her deduction: that he had already anticipated losing her in the end, that he had chosen to obsessively complete his opera because she was the one and only woman who he wanted to imagine as his heroine and he was strangely desperate to have it performed as he had envisioned it before it was too late and she was too fear beyond his reach. If music was the only means through which he'd ever have her, he was going to have one performance that was solely his.

"My opera," he said with a certain amount of melancholy attached, "is the culmination of my life. It is everything I've always wanted and known I could never have, everything I've ever felt and everything I've ever loved, all encompassed in one span of music."

Nodding, Christine agreed, "And to be granted recognition for it is to be accepted into existence and to show every person that beneath everything else, you are a human being just the same. You need to have this, Erik, and I have no doubt that if you want it to the degree of perfection in your head, you will have to consent to my proposal. I can't give this to you without your help."

Growing darkly somber, Erik let his stare drift from the only image it wanted and forced it on fluctuating flames instead. This was suddenly something he craved with such vibrant intensity, and yet…was this to be enough to sustain him? It was unanticipated, extra time with her that he was certain was not meant to be his, but didn't its existence make the inevitable outcome all the more cruel to behold? Time with her, avoiding the true rifts in their relationship and the mounting pain that had filled in between, time caught in a bubble that he would lose and mourn as intently as every other detail that slipped beyond his grasp. And this time would be the hardest of all because, even though his fraction of remaining sense insisted against it, hope was thriving and breathing in the corners of this scene, a hope he had wanted to call dead by every right, and yet a hope that had never died.

"Ange?" she called, gently breaking into his reverie with that one word that he could not keep from savouring, his eyes drifting closed a long exhalation as the timbre of it washed through him and left goosebumps along his skin. The cynical voice in the back of his head mocked his natural reaction and insisted that her usage of such a term was a manipulation; she above all people knew how truly far from its definition he was. 'Devil' besotted him better.

And yet as he dragged his stare back to her awaiting blue eyes, he caught a glimpse of sentiment and nostalgia, of emotions that six months before had fitted into place and now seemed so utterly uncomplicated in retrospect. Above all else, he found that innocent anticipation that he recalled had once been only his, trepid and unsure but fringed in a sort of excitement that always made him feel like an integral part of her existence.

Attempting to retain a façade of apathy even if surging hope peeked out at every chance, he conceded, "All right. We'll begin in the morning, but if you are to be ready to sing this, be forewarned that our work will be grueling and exhausting. It's been a long time since I've taught you, and I want it quite sufficiently understood that I expect everything and then some, Christine. You would expect no less from me as teacher; I will ask the same from you as student." When she gave her nodded agreement with that anticipating glow never fading from the blue depths of her eyes, he bid as he had in days past, "Well, go in to bed then, and get some rest. I will expect you ready to sing after breakfast."

The slightest curve of a smile was upon her lips, but she never allowed it to fully bloom as she softly bid, "Goodnight then, Erik. …Thank you."

He could not help but shy away from gratitude; it was unusual and a burden he did not favor, so shrugging it off without a reaction, he simply stated back, "Goodnight, Christine. …Sweet dreams."

Sweet dreams…. For some reason, she could not doubt that they would be. As he lost himself in a trance with the flickering flames in the hearth again, she paused one instant longer and watched the peculiar manner in which the reflected shadows and glows played upon the stark white of his mask, stealing away the usual threat that it seemed to naturally hold. The light of the fire softened the edges of every detail of him, making six months of fabricated fear seem impossible and without justification. This was no more than a man, and other details could not hold sway; no, not before a lit hearth that seemed to welcome her home….

Erik was distracted, but subconsciously, he had not severed every sense from her presence. His attuned ears focused on the sound of her footsteps as she finally walked the narrow corridor to her room, and only when she was gone did he turn and study the place where she had stood as if an image of her silhouette lingered there still. He would have convinced himself that he had just imagined the entire scene and every detail of her if not for the inarguable fact that he could feel her in the house. It was as if the very air had changed; it had been stagnant and heavy for six long, unendurable months, and now a fresh breeze sweet as springtime had flooded in and permeated through to every dark corner, chasing out cobwebs and brightening with sunlight.

The slightest smile tinged his lips before he could berate its presence, and try as he might to keep realism with only pessimistic declarations, he could not avoid the odd and contenting sensation that screamed that this was the way things were meant to be; Christine, in his home, in his life, as tied to his existence as he was to hers. If only she could see that….

It was the middle of the night, or so the clock in Christine's room had insisted in the instant she had stirred from a dream and found herself in a familiar canopy bed as if six months in between had never actually happened. Part of her wished to call them nothing more than a nightmare that she was only now being roused from, but the other part saw their vibrant importance in a way that made their passing imperative. Six months and about a billion thoughts during that span of time, laying a new foundation that was stronger than ever. Separation could have such an effect when the only emotions suffered were regret and grief and interspersed guilt; she knew their power all too well as their unwilling victim, agonizing alone, never letting Raoul see, admitting only to her innermost self the blatant truth that had stared at her amidst it all. And it was that truth that had brought her back to this place and six months in the past with a new perspective and a hope of her own to settle the ache of her heart.

Quiet as a whisper, Christine climbed out of her bed, abandoning warm blankets and resting bare toes lightly upon the chilled carpet. The mantra playing continuously in her mind and encouraging her onward was that she needed to do this, needed to see and feel and know before she dared any more. Tiptoeing on feet that barely touched the floor for fear of any and every telltale creak to proclaim her indiscretion, she left the sanctity of the room and edged across the narrow corridor lit as always by a single dim sconce upon the wall. If not for that meager glow, everything would have been pure blackness day or night, and she remembered considering once that Erik must take good care to keep it lit because she often forgot how far beneath the surface of the earth his home actually was.

Cautious in every footstep, she made not a single audible sound as she crossed to the one other room within the hallway's narrow confines. Erik had left his bedroom door ever so slightly ajar, and she had a thought that he intended to hear her lest she awaken. Of course he had not anticipated that she would be extra diligent to be stealthy and silent if she tried because why would she ever purposely creep into his bedroom in the middle of the night? Why indeed….

Her feet only brushed the ground as she carefully slid inside, leaving the door parted a meager crack so that a thin stream of dim light guided her way. She paused in her trek and listened a long, held breath, searching for sounds of consciousness; but all that met her intent ear were the relaxed, repetitive exhalations of deep sleep. No, she had not roused him with her intrusion, and yet would it have been a tragedy if she had? Perhaps she could hope that he would surmise the truth himself without her ever having to admit it. But that was optimistic; knowing Erik, his temper would reply first and foremost before rational thought could be fathomed.

And so it was better that he slept on as she crept soundlessly to his bedside, and by the scant rays that spied from the hallway, she let her hesitant eyes come to rest upon that face…and just stared. There it was, vividly on display where she could not block it out of existence or forget and avoid its creation. That face..., unmasked and exposed, …blatant and real to her unthreatening regard. This was the image that was etched so intricately in her mind's eye. This was a visual horror, an ugly and pitiable replication of a nightmare…. And how long had she loved its every damaged detail?...

Dear God, just thinking the words felt like a betrayal of Raoul and of her very self. She hadn't meant to do it; that was her excuse to herself; she had never meant to love Erik. It wasn't supposed to be this way; her life wasn't supposed to be this way. She was supposed to love Raoul, supposed to want Raoul, supposed to fear Erik and this face and run from it for the salvation of her soul. No, she hadn't meant to love him, and yet she had; she always had…since days of angels with white wings and unflawed perfection. …She loved him…. And how bitter was reality against that one plain truth when everything was on the verge of being shattered.

Hardly breathing for fear that one sound would rouse him, she studied the face she had once foolishly denounced, taking in its every flaw. It was half a skeleton's face, half dead and half alive, as if he had always been one foot beyond the rest of the world and into the omnipotence of the afterlife. Her eyes trailed its ghastly details in the way her fingertips tingled and yearned to do the same, following the line of transparent skin over his cheek, the sunken eye lost in the cavernous bone of its socket, the flat expanse that should have been a nose. A corpse, this was a corpse and yet equally a living, breathing man, and dragging her eyes from the imperfections, she instead made an attempt to focus on the points that spoke of his normalcy. It was almost an odd thing to do because that was the image she saw at any typical time in his presence, the mortal side of that face, a defined jawline, a high cheekbone, a smooth brow, the arch of his hairline. Too often those features, though always present and on display, became lost by the presence of the mask as its manmade barrier became the focal point. How much easier would it be to accept this face as the sum of both parts if it was always revealed in every moment of every day? Surely, without being left to ponder its secrets hidden from view, the novelty would fade away, and it would become as ordinary as any other.

The shy touch of a smile curved her lips as she considered that this was the most intimate image she had ever been granted of him. Relaxed and vulnerable, lacking threat or the pressure that often came with a direct glance in green and blue eyes. What humbled her further was the thought that no one had had this image of him before. And for as ugly as scars and deformities were, this was almost beautiful; how could it not be when it created such vibrating reverberations in her heart that thudded along with its every beat and circulated in her blood? Emotion made a new picture entirely; it transformed the face of a monster into the face of her love…. And yet she couldn't tell him, …not yet. After all she had done and all the pain she had caused him, she doubted he'd even believe her. She had to beg her heart to be patient, to try to mend every broken place she could, …and yet wasn't Raoul always a thought in the background? To love Erik meant to betray Raoul, and she was still uncertain that she could do that when Raoul loved her so much. Someone was bound to be hurt…. Dear Lord, she didn't want to have the power to cause such pain. It was overwhelming.

Forcing all unpleasant considerations from her mind, she tried to focus only on the sleeping man before her, damaged but with such an extraordinary heart; she was sure that she didn't deserve its amazing adoration, but she wanted it so much. It was on the wings of such a thought that she dared to reach shaking fingertips toward that face. She never touched him, not a real touch; she only grazed the air above that malformed cheek, and that would have to suffice as she told herself and curled her longing fingers into her palm. Soon, she promised her heart, and as silent as she arrived, she snuck back to her room without ever waking her sleeping angel.