Burning Bridges

By Perfect Soldier 01

Down Once More

I waited and waited for the flames to reach up and pierce my skin, but my dark flight to the depths of the earth suddenly came to violent halt. My stomach lurched and the tear of fabric screeched through the air, and before I could tell what was happening I was rolling across a soft bed of cloth. I crumbled to a stop and something fell away from my side, as if my soul had been ripped from my chest. My lungs were completely empty, and I gasped for air as my eyes opened to a dim and murky underworld. A single candle protruded from a wall, but that was all I could manage to make out. My whole body felt bruised and sore, and every bone felt splintered and full of cracks about to break. Even staggering to my knees felt like torture, and I was certain that any second now the floor would open up into a pit of flames.

But as I tried to crawl forward on the uneasy surface the silhouettes of several torn canopies were floating above me, their ragged edges crowning a strange tunnel of light that almost looked like a moon in the night sky. I craned my head up to look at it, but out of nowhere something underneath my hand came to life and I shuffled back in fright, fearful of having disturbed some great hellish beast. Yet all around me there were sleeves, skirts and feathers slowly taking shape in the faint, flickering candlelight, and the long-discarded opera costumes of years past tugged on the strings of my memory.

Where on earth was I?

Had all my years of prayer been mistaken?

All of a sudden a loud crash of shattering glass shot down the tunnel, and I jumped, wincing as my head snapped upward. But at the same time a hand grabbed my wrist out of nowhere and hauled me sideways onto a cold, stone floor.

"Get up!" the stranger barked, and he pulled me away into a dark corridor, leaving the world above to tear itself apart.

His stride was large, almost too fast for me to keep up, and I stumbled clumsily behind this raging shadow of a man. Led by only the small glimmer of a lantern, I couldn't see any further beyond the orange glow of his outline. Not once did he turn around, and I followed him blindly through the narrow passageways, my bare feet splashing the damp flagstones and my hands scraping the grimy, cobwebbed walls.

For a moment I believed he was some infernal messenger sent to fetch my misplaced soul to the devil himself, but I soon began to doubt such an invention. Every inch of my skin seemed to be throbbing with my heartbeat and each knock and graze felt too real and sharp to be from another world. With every passing corner it grew colder and colder as well, and we seemed to be headed for somewhere entirely different.

It was only when we turned into a dead-end that he slowed down. In the faint light I saw a dead torch on the wall, and the man let go of my arm to set it alight. Cradling my wrist against my chest, I heaved in the thick and stagnant air. Everything here was putrid and stale; no mortal soul could have trodden these paths before, it just wasn't possible. Yet this man had led me here like a bird seeking its nest, knowing every turn and every footfall inside out without a moment of hesitation.

Looking up at him, I ventured out a hand to make him turn round, but his face suddenly burst into view as the torch caught fire, and I gasped as the twisted scars of the Phantom rose up from the furnace.

Glaring at me out of his large eye, he pulled a lever at the base of the wall and he laughed silently as the clunk of whirring machinery filled my ears. I stepped back, frightened by the noise, but the Phantom snarled and quickly seized my wrist again before I could go any further. The wall in front of us then suddenly rumbled backwards, sliding into the stones themselves and revealing another way through.

"There's nowhere to run to, my dear," he growled, and he took the torch, dragging me through the gap and resumed his relentless march.

"Why?" I cried breathlessly. "Why are you doing this? Where are you taking me? What was that crash?"

"Silence, child!" he roared back.

A low scrape then sounded behind us like the walls themselves were heaving their limbs inside their rocky cages. Glancing back, I almost expected to see the archways moving and dancing to some silent enchantment being orchestrated inside the Phantom's head, but as we turned a corner they stood stock still as before.

"No one will come for you now," the Phantom grunted. "And if they do, they will die trying!"

Worry rocketed to my throat. Everyone would be looking for me, the whole opera house, the guards, Raoul…

"Please!" I begged. "Please don't do this!"

The thought of Raoul being trapped here in this thicket of stone was more than I could bear, but the Phantom either didn't hear me or he ignored me. His only response was to increase his speed, forcing me to run after him as we hurried down staircase after staircase until the edges of a lake lay still and quiet below us.

"Do you remember?" he said, thrusting the torch all around him as he continued his march. "Do you remember the first time I brought you down this path?"

As he waved the torch back and forth the ghoulish faces carved into the rock flashed and grimaced with the same look of malice as his own, and I shied away from the craze of his delight and looked down at the water with tears in my eyes. It was the lake, the impossible lake at the bottom of the opera house, and there had been a boat; we had sailed together through the mist, singing as one body and one voice under the walls soaked in gold.

But there was no boat now, no golden palace. Nothing was anything like I remembered, nothing at all.

"Down once more to the dungeon of my black despair! Down we plunge to the prison of my mind! Down that path into darkness deep as Hell!" he cried, his loud and bitter words ripping the memory in two.

He whirled around to face me, his hateful eyes burning with the same heat as the fire beside him, and he loomed over me with the full weight of his madness.

"Why, you ask, was I bound and chained in this cold and dismal place? Not for any mortal sin, but the wickedness of my abhorrent face!" he spat, the song quickly unravelling as he struggled to bite back his rage.

I braced myself for a strike, my fist clenching into a tight ball as I tried in vain to steer his arm away from me, but onward he marched.

Passing under another arch, the risen gates of his cave were finally in sight. They hung downward like sharp, ravenous teeth, as if it was the mouth of hell itself, but I suddenly saw the path stop short of the shore's maw. Instead it descended into the water, and having come so far without the boat it was impossible to tell how deep the lake was. I froze in a panic. I had never learned how to swim, not even how to paddle, and I would surely drown if he insisted on dragging me through it in the same manner in which he brought me here.

Feeling the tug on his arm, the Phantom stopped at the top of the stairs and cast his eyes back at me. For a moment I thought he would simply growl and pull me after him, but seemingly without a thought he tossed the torch into the lake and stepped behind me. With all light extinguished, I suddenly felt myself hoisted into the air and whisked into his arms as he proceeded down the steps. The cold water quickly soaked through my dress and I shut my eyes tight as it clung to my feet with its icy claws. Clasping my arms rigidly round the Phantom's neck, the water rose higher and higher until it reached my shoulder, my head just about clearing the surface.

Wading forward by the guide of the cave's distant candelabras, at last I had the chance to catch my breath. Though tensed against the waves of the lake, my limbs were no longer straining to keep up with a pace I couldn't match, and as the water levelled out, I allowed myself to relax a little in the Phantom's grasp. His hold was much milder than before, tight but secure, and I almost felt safe as his steady heartbeat drummed against my ear.

"I'm sorry," I murmured in the darkness, not knowing what else to say.

Every sinew stirred as the outline of his face turned toward me. A sliver of light caught the curve of his parted lips, and it rose and fell along the bumpy line of his disfigured cheek until it jumped into the mess of his tangled hair. I saw him swallow as the light grew stronger, and my heart pounded with the hope that he might finally understand everything I had been longing to say to him.

But the expression that revealed itself was yet another grumbling frown.

"You know nothing," he said dismissively.

Being so close I felt his reproach prickle through his chest, and I dropped my gaze as his arms stiffened around me. Nothing I said was getting through to him. All I wanted was a chance to make him listen, and I hated him for being so childish and stubborn. But I knew I had to keep trying.

"Not just for this," I said, lifting an unsteady hand from his back and tracing it over the left side of his face.

For a moment he responded, leaning into the curve of my palm with all the affection he had once shown in those precious moments before I lost him in the wake of my own foolishness. His eyes fluttered closed, and I smiled as I stroked my thumb back and forth across his face.

But as his boots began splashing in the shallower water his contorted frown crept forward to the corners of his forehead once more, and he batted me away like I was a nuisance.

"I don't want your apology!" he hissed, his voice unsteady.

Before I could answer back, he dropped my legs from his hold and crushed me tightly against his chest, forcing me backward into the cave. Every gentleness was forgotten again, and all at once every last breath was squeezed from my lungs he strode up the rocky bank. I scrabbled against him for a moment of relief, my chest burning as I tried to pull myself free, but he held me fast until he shoved me back next to that awful mannequin.

"Hounded out by everyone! Met with hatred everywhere! No kind words from anyone! No compassion anywhere! Christine!" he pleaded, his voice utterly broken with sorrow. "Why?" he whispered gruffly. "Why?"

He shook me like an answer might topple from my lips if he tried hard enough, and I staggered back as he loomed over me. Yet all the while I couldn't help but hold his gaze, watching and wondering whether he really had gone as mad as Raoul had said. I didn't want to believe it, yet the longer I held the burden of his heavy heart on my shoulders, the more difficult it became to carry on the charade.

Eventually he dropped his head in defeat and his hands slid limply over my neck.

"Put this on," he said abruptly, pulling the white wedding gown from the doll that had stolen my face.

He held it out to me, pushing it into my hands when I didn't take it.

"You'll catch your death in that dress," he muttered as he glanced at my dripping clothes. "Take it."

Accepting it somewhat reluctantly, I gathered the swathes of white silk close and stared back at him, unsure whether there was something else inherent in his offer. I couldn't tell whether this was some kind of informal engagement or even what kind of choice was being made for me if I chose to wear it. Had he forced me to wear it his intention would have been all too clear, but his apparent concern somehow made me feel more uneasy. I didn't want to put it on, but before I could find an answer the Phantom had thrown an arm in the direction of another cavern for me to dress, his head turned the other way.

I swallowed hard. Defying him would only enrage him further, I was sure of it. I knew it wasn't a good enough reason to seal my fate; I couldn't be frightened of him for the rest of my life, obeying every whim and fancy just because he gave the order, but at that moment I wasn't in much of a position to do anything else.

Deciding to take him on his word, I left his side and took the dress with me, wishing against all hope that I had made the right decision.

I drew back the curtain that separated the hollow and the first thing I saw was the huge black bed shaped like a swan. This had been where he had brought me, where I had awoken from the dream he had concocted in my head, but now what would it become? Would this dress mean that I no longer slept alone at night, that this would now be the place I laid my head, together, with him? The thought of him making me wear this only to tear it off again made me tremble, and I cast a look back just to make sure he hadn't followed me.

But was it really that which made my stomach turn? It all seemed so long ago now, but somewhere in some distant moment of heartache this had been what I had wanted. Before Raoul, before all of this, I had dreamt about it, spending my life with him, my Angel always by my side. And I still loved him; in spite of everything I loved him and nothing would ever change that, so shouldn't this be what I still wanted? Had this been my wedding night to Raoul, I wasn't so sure that I wouldn't be filled with the same apprehension and the same dread that was bubbling away so nervously inside me now.

Feeling my cheeks beginning to glow, I bit my lip and looked back at the dress and ran my thumb over the corset. I couldn't deny its beauty, and under any other circumstance I would have longed to wear such an exquisite garment. I remembered all too well the dozens of conversations I had had with Meg over what our perfect wedding dresses would have been like when we were younger, and this came so close it was almost uncanny. He must have been watching over me even then, taking down every word.

But what was it all for? Had he been plotting to make me his wife ever since I had first stepped foot in the opera house? Had all his music lessons been some elaborate falsehood? He had shown me that dress the first time he brought me here. He must have been looking at it, at that copy of my face, day after day, night after night, just thinking about when would be the right time to present it to me.

Every note and word of praise suddenly sounded sour in my ears, and I just didn't know what to believe anymore. I had no doubt that he was capable of devising such an intricate farce, but there had to be more to his madness than mere lust, there had to be. How could he have waited for so long and taken so much care to open my heart and soul with his music if he had only been after one thing? How could he ruin and discard something he himself had created and worked so hard to perfect?

Peeling away the sodden lace of my dress, I undid the panels and stepped out of the heavy skirt before I changed my mind. Loosening the back of the Phantom's gown, I pulled it on and reached behind to fasten it as best I could, ignoring the persisting twinges of pain in my side from the fall. There was only one way forward from here, but I wouldn't let him drag me through it again.

Returning to the cave outside, I saw him standing exactly where I had left him, but his black doublet was gone and the gates had been shut. He held something small in his hands, rolling it between his fingers, but I couldn't see what it was from such a distance.

Summoning the last reserves of my resolve, I knew I couldn't wander any further into his lies without knowing the truth, even if that meant destroying everything that had made me love him in the first place. As words had failed me before, I addressed him in the only way I knew he would listen.

"Have you gorged yourself at last in your lust for blood? Am I now to be prey to your lust for flesh?"

His knotted brow receded into a small grin as he watched me approach, and he turned to face me.

"That fate which condemns me to wallow in blood," he replied, his voice swinging from hatred to desire with every word, "has also denied me the joys of the flesh." He raised a hand to caress his point into my cheek, but I turned away before I let myself believe him.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his fingers clench with rejection, and I bit my lip again in remorse as they hovered there not knowing where to go.

"This face, the infection, which poisons our love!"

I turned round in disbelief, not trusting my own ears. How could he still think that? But just as he dropped his gaze I saw the unshed tears in his eyes, the river of his grief running far deeper in his veins than I had ever thought possible. Had he convinced himself that I could never love such a creature, casting himself off as a poor substitute for the Angel I had believed him to be?

"This face which earned a mother's fear and loathing, a mask my first unfeeling scrap of clothing. Pity comes too late!" he sang, placing a veil on my head. "Turn around and face your fate! An eternity of this," he cried, thrusting an angry finger toward his scars, "before your eyes!"

I stood there dumbly as my heart continued to break, not caring anymore that I was becoming a puppet to be strung as he pleased. Taking a hold of my hand, he opened my palm and placed the very same ring he had snatched away from my neck that dark night of the New Year, the shining, diamond ring that Raoul had given me to mark our engagement. But there was no declaration of his love that followed, no words of any certainty or value. He simply folded my fingers back over it and pressed his thumbs over my knuckles, willing me to accept it.

I didn't know whether he meant this as an apology or a proposal, but he almost seemed ready for me to throw it back at his feet. Slipping my hand from his grasp, I held the ring tightly in my fist and slid the veil from my hair. To hide my face seemed unfair when he could not do the same, and I walked past him toward one of his mirrors, intent on showing him once and for all that he had been mistaken.

"This haunted face holds no horror for me now," I sang back to him, pulling the velvet shroud away from the glass. "It's in your soul that the true distortion lies."

He hung his head as if he was on the verge of allowing himself to believe what I had said, but his attention suddenly snapped elsewhere.

"Wait! I think, my dear, we have a guest!"

The mad and devilish grin I thought had disappeared bent itself back into his lips, and he gestured toward the gates.

"Raoul!" I cried as I ran to the shoreline

There he was, staggering through the water as far as he could go, and a smile had formed on my lips before I even knew it was there. He had survived whatever trap the Phantom had placed in his way and he had found me!

"Sir, this is indeed an unparalleled delight!" the Phantom gloated as he stalked about his lair. "I had rather hoped that you would come. Now my wish comes true, you have truly made my night!"

His vice-like grip clamped down on my shoulder and he pulled me to his side like a prize he had already won. But I pushed back, not wanting Raoul to see.

"Let me go!"

"Free her!" Raoul shouted, "Do what you like only free her!" and the Phantom released me with a jeering grin, knowing I couldn't escape either way. "Have you no pity?"

"Your lover makes a passionate plea!" the Phantom mocked dryly.

"Please, Raoul, it's useless!" I cried. The Phantom wouldn't give me up now, he just wouldn't, and in spite of the hope Raoul had given me, I almost wished he would flee while he was still out of the Phantom's reach.

But Raoul would not stop. "I love her!" he pleaded, extending an arm through the wooden barriers. "Does that mean nothing? I love her! Show some compassion!"

"The world showed no compassion to me!" the Phantom roared back, jealous venom seething at his lips, and I looked at him in despair, realising what Raoul had become in his eyes.

Everything the Phantom had ever loved had been ripped and torn out of his hands all because of his face, and that long line of persecutors now had an addition, threatening to carry away the last thing he held dear.

But still Raoul did not turn and run. "Christine! Christine! Let me see her!"

The Phantom scoffed, and I thought for a moment Raoul would be safe. But then he pulled the crank and opened the gates, his wicked smile never leaving his lips.

"Be my guest, sir," he said softly, and at that moment I knew something was wrong.

Plunging into the water, the Phantom advanced toward him, and every step made my heart swell uncomfortably in my throat. I wanted to warn Raoul, to call out for him to run back to the opera house and leave me here before he was caught in the Phantom's web. But any word or action would no doubt trigger whatever shot the Phantom planned to fire, and so I stood helpless on the bank, every muscle paralysed in limbo. I didn't know what the Phantom would do, but all I could do was watch.

"Monsieur, I bid you welcome," the Phantom said sarcastically. "Did you think that I would harm her?" Raoul looked wary, but stepped forward nonetheless. "Why should I make her pay for sins which are yours!"

All in the same second the Phantom had bent down, the gates had shuddered closed and Raoul had been pinned against them with a lasso around his neck, gasping for his life, and I cried out in terror, whimpering as my hands scrambled to my mouth and tears drowned my cheeks. How had this happened?

"Order your fine horses now! Raise up your hand to the level of your eye!" the Phantom shouted, looping the lasso round Raoul's hands and chest, typing him tight to his prison. "Nothing can save you now except, perhaps –" he paused and shot me a crazed and manic sneer, "– Christine!"

"Start a new life with me!" he raged, flinging his arms wide. "Buy his freedom with your love! Refuse me and you send your lover to his death! This is the choice!" he yelled. "This is the point of no return!"

He stood there panting and expectant, and I stumbled back, barely able to breathe. How had it come down to this? What could I do? I had to choose him, otherwise Raoul would… I couldn't think. I was too afraid of what my answer might be. But this wasn't even a choice I could make; he had already made it for me, and his crooked gambit made my blood boil.

"The tears I might have shed for your dark fate," I sang sadly, "grow cold and turn to tears of hate!"

The Phantom glared at me ruthlessly, bearing his teeth like a dog. Trudging forward, half of his face fell into shadow, and the unforgiving stare of his disfigurement nearly made me flinch into a retreat. But I met his gaze, determined not to let him rule my fate any longer. He couldn't go on like this; he had to let me choose!

And I would not choose him like this.

"Farewell my fallen idol and false friend, we had such hopes and now those hopes are shattered!"

Veering off to the side, he retrieved another coil of rope as Raoul cried out to me. Snatching the rope into his hands, he seemed to recoil further into his fury as every one of our words pierced his side. His hunched his shoulders as he tried to resist the dialogue he had no part in, but they dropped as his defence broke down, and he wrenched his face round toward me, the same picture of grief riddled across his brow.

"Too late for turning back now!" hesnapped as he rushed back into the water. "Too late for prayers and useless pity."

I ran after him but stopped short as the Phantom turned again. He had loosened the second lasso, ready to sling it over Raoul's head, when bells began tolling in my head. As he swung the rope back and forth another bell clashed against the side of my skull with the heavy drone of a funeral march.

"Say you love him and my life is over!" Raoul begged, and I looked up, not knowing what to do.

I knew I had never said it aloud, but how could I say I didn't love him? The Phantom, the Angel of Music, whatever title he held, it made no difference. He was the one who had made me into who I was, the very definition of my being. How could I tell him, how could I tell Raoul that the villain he so sorely hated and despised also shared his role, created it even, as guardian of my heart?

Even if Raoul and I managed to survive this somehow and settle down with a family of our own, no matter how hard I tried I could still see myself listening, longing for even the smallest whisper of his voice in my ear.

Swallowing hard, I watched the Phantom throw the rope over Raoul's head, clenching the ring in my fist. Once I had been ready to give my life to him and return the gift he had so willingly offered me, filling his heart with the love he so wholly deserved and had never received.

And I still wanted to.

"No point in fighting! Either way you choose you cannot win!" the Phantom jeered. "So do you end your days with me? Or do you send him to his grave?"

"Why make her lie to you to save me?" Raoul retorted, but I looked away with a bitter guilt, knowing that the only one I would be lying to would be Raoul himself.

"Angel of music!" I pleaded, Raoul fading from the fringes of my vision as I implored him for one last act of mercy. "Who deserves this?"

He stared back as if he already knew he was going too far, his eyes flickering between me and the water as he gritted his teeth against the truth. But then the lasso slackened and he too rose to meet my gaze, and I realised that it wasn't Raoul who was the one threatening to destroy the final prayer that hung in his sad eyes.

It was me.

He knew that I loved Raoul, but with one look he had resigned his happiness and every one of his hopes to me, to have and to hold forever as I pleased. Was he expecting me to refuse him? How could he do such a thing and know that he might get nothing in return, that the depths of his loneliness might come crashing back down around him if I uttered one word rather than another?

"Why do you trust me?"

But he merely stood there, quietly like before on the bridge, waiting for my judgment.

Yet how was I to know whether this was simply another trick or one of his cruel lies to sway my favour? He had lied and cheated his way here before, and this silent surrender could be the trapdoor he was waiting to fall.

Choosing my words carefully, I rallied every ounce of resolve I had left. I wouldn't let him fool me a second time.

"Angel of music," I sang slowly, "you deceived me – I gave you my mind blindly."

"You try my patience," he replied, his voice heavy. "Make your choice!" And he heaved the rope backward, hauling Raoul's neck a little higher.

The sour taste of betrayal still clutched the heavy knot of indecision in my stomach, but I knew there could be no more delay. This was it, this was my test, the moment when one door would open and another would close, locking the gates of one world in exchange for another. I just had to choose the right one.

Looking up at Raoul, my heart ached. He had tried so hard to make me feel safe, to love me and protect me, and he had been there in some of my darkest hours. He had been everything to me these past few months, my whole world and a light I would have followed to the ends of the earth. We would have been happy together, I had no doubt, but deep down I knew those few months didn't outweigh half a lifetime of longing which belonged to the Phantom and the Phantom alone. I couldn't let Raoul die, but I couldn't lie to him either.

Smiling a half and feeble smile, I tried to find the three words I had never been able to say to tell him how I felt, but they fell away as they formed on my lips. I didn't know whether he saw or whether he would ever realise how much I loved him, or how much I wished him well, but I prayed that some day he might find the happiness he deserved.

Turning to the Phantom, I had never felt so frightened. He was staring up at me, the rope almost falling out of his hands, but he too seemed to be afraid, and the sight of his defeated and weary frame somehow lifted the weight that had been twisting away inside me. We were the same, he and I, children who had been left with nothing but had given each other everything, and finally I felt able to breathe.

"Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known?" I stepped forward into the water, my heart drumming fiercely against my ribs as I held his gaze. "God give me courage to show you, you are not alone!"

Sliding the ring onto my finger, I reached up and kissed him, pulling him closer than I had ever dared before. He was my choice, he had always been and he always would be.

For a moment he was still as if he were unsure what to do, but as I swept my hands across his chest and over the ridge of his collarbone, every muscle shivered into life and he held me tight against him. Our faces knocked together blindly and unguided, seeking out a memory that had until now been confined to the realms of sleep and dreams, a song of our own yet to be sung.

But he paused cautiously and I drew back, fearful that he still didn't trust me. Curling my fingers against his chest, I almost withdrew. But before I could move he sighed into my skin and sent a shiver shuffling down my spine. I looked up. His sad eyes were wavering from mine to my lips like he somehow needed reassurance that I was really here in front of him, and in return I cradled his cheek in my hand, brushing the cool press of his ring over his scars before that familiar tide of desire pulled again at the cord that bound our hearts together.

This time he leaned forward to meet me and our mouths rocked back and forth to a rhythm that only we could hear beating firmly in our chests. Every inch of me buzzed with that same pleasure I couldn't describe, and my soul felt like it was singing, its voice reaching right up through the columns of my bones to the ceiling of my skin. Threading my fingers through his tousled hair, I nudged closer and pressed my face deeper into his, wondering if he could hear it too.

But as our foreheads brushed together, I could feel his brow growing taut and rigid, and the small breaths he drew against my ear sounded laboured and fragile. Tracing one last kiss on his lips, I eased back again and searched his downcast eyes for whatever fear might be holding him back. Surely he could not doubt my decision now.

He smiled before he looked at me, and I ran my thumb over his cheek, trying my best to encourage him to raise his head and see the smile he himself had left with me. But he was trembling and his smile was becoming unsteady, crumbling at the edges as something inside him seemed to break down.

Pulling away, I saw tears brimming in his eyes as he finally snatched a breath, and he began shaking his head as if his whole body was wracked with sorrow. I couldn't understand it, and suddenly something inside me felt like it was unravelling, slipping away between my fingers before I could catch it, and I felt afraid. Had I disappointed him? What had I done wrong?

But before I could find an answer he placed a rough hand on my shoulder and pushed himself behind me, allowing the tips of his fingers to roll down my arm as if for the last time.

"Take her!" he muttered quickly, swaying and stumbling back up the bank. "Forget me, forget all of this!"

I couldn't believe what he was saying. How could he do such a thing? After all this, after I had chosen him! Why?

I started after him to demand some sort of explanation, but suddenly there were voices coming from beyond the gates, echoes of angry shouts and cries, and I realised with alarm that the guards must have found their way here.

"Leave me alone!" he hissed, and he swiped his arm to warn me away. "Forget all you've seen!"

He couldn't do this, I wouldn't let him, but the voices were growing louder and my thoughts suddenly turned to Raoul. If they found their viscount like this the Phantom's death would surely follow. He had to be freed and let go before they got here, but as I glanced toward him I felt my cheeks begin to burn with shame. He had witnessed it all, the final act of my rotten heart, and now I had to face him with the truth bare on my lips.

As I came closer I kept my head down, not wanting to see the disgust I knew would be waiting for me, looking only at the lasso knots as I fumbled through my tears to lift them over his neck and his hands.

"Go now, don't let them find you!" the Phantom shouted behind me, but I couldn't bear to listen. "Take the boat – swear to me, never to tell the secret you know of the Angel in Hell!"

The rope finally came loose and Raoul suddenly crushed me to his chest in relief. To my surprise I felt him squeeze my shoulders and kiss my hair, and he whispered words in my ear that I couldn't hear over the sound of the Phantom's pleas.

"Go now! Go now and leave me!" the Phantom bellowed brokenly, and as I pushed away from Raoul I saw him retreat behind the curtain into the hollow.

Wiping my tears quickly, I searched restlessly for the boat. "Over there," I said quietly, and Raoul finally let me go.

As soon as his hands left my skin I hurried away from him and splashed through the water without looking back, ignoring the calls of my name that chased after me. Grabbing the wet hem of my dress I ran up the bank and up the steps, desperate not to lose him again before it was too late.

But my feet came to an abrupt halt. There was a music box playing behind the curtain, chiming along almost mournfully to a song from long ago, the same song that had nudged me from the depths of sleep and hushed away the remnants of the Phantom's dream. It had sounded happier then, like something new was about to begin, but now that promise seemed hollow and empty, a ghost of what had already taken flight.

I didn't know what to do. I refused to let myself think that this was over, but the Phantom's only choice was to either wait or go and meet his fate. I couldn't just hand back his mask this time and undo my mistake. I thought I had known what I'd been doing then, both on the bridge and here in his cave, but I realised now that each time I had only caused him more pain and suffering in exposing him to the world.

Yet still he would not make me pay for my crimes; he would not make me suffer alongside him. Instead he was giving me the chance to start again, the chance to live the life that perhaps should have been meant for me, a life where I could grow and be happy… without him.

Taking a deep breath, I pulled back the curtain, his ring glinting in the candlelight. He was kneeling in the corner closest to me, but he didn't see me enter. He was quiet and withdrawn, his whole attention given over to his music box.

"Masquerade!" he sang softly, barely above a whisper. "Paper faces on parade. Masquerade. Hide your face so the world can never find you."

The notes then ran out and he raised his head, slowly revealing the shining silver tracks of his tears. He looked at me, puzzled and unsure why I was still here, but I couldn't find any words to offer him. His guard had never been dropped so low, and I feared that anything I said might shatter what remained of him. But then I saw him shake his head as if in reply, so tiny and minute it almost wasn't there at all.

"Christine, I love… you."

His voice was so tender and fractured that his words seemed little more than feathers in danger of being blown away by a storm, but looking down at his ring I stepped forward and caught them in my stride, vowing never to let them go.

A smile played on his lips as I drew nearer, but the more I gazed at that sparkling nest of diamonds, the more uncertain I became. I had worn this ring for three months on a chain before he had snatched it away, but only today had it ever held any meaning or significance. Raoul may have given it to me first, but this was now the Phantom's ring and no other's. To leave with it seemed wrong; it would become another lie to Raoul, and I couldn't bear to betray him again. It belonged here, with the man I loved.

Sliding the ring from my finger, I reached down silently for his hand and opened his palm, just as he had done. If I had to leave, this was the one parting gift I could offer, the one token of my love he could carry with him until…

Biting back the tears, I savoured the contours of his hand as I folded back his fingers, brushing his knuckles with the same care and affection he had shown me, and pressed down, praying he would understand.

But his lips dropped as the crank of the gates beckoned outside, and the crease of his brow soared into a peak of questions I couldn't answer. I tried to smile away his apprehension, but the last pillars of my resolve were beginning to creak and collapse, and the only thing I could do before the flood of regret tumbled and tore through my heart was to squeeze his hand one final time. I then dropped my gaze and dove back under the curtain.

I didn't want to say goodbye like this, I didn't want to say goodbye at all, but what choice did I have anymore? What choice had I ever had? The guards were coming for us and there was no way out except his boat, a boat built for two and no more.

I had to live; live for him.

Raoul was waiting below, moored and ready to go, but I took no delight in climbing into the boat. I didn't hear anything he might have said, nor did I feel the hand he offered, and the bend in the river had swung round before I knew it.

Glancing back one last time, the cave was out of sight within a second, but I closed my eyes, refusing to let the memory fade. Every detail was there, every candle lit in the green, mossy hollows, the water shimmering in bands of light over the smooth, rocky walls and the rich, deep red of the curtains hanging over the golden frames of the mirrors, making it seem like the sheaves of music at his organ and on his music stands were alive and dancing, and I even heard his soothing voice drift back to me from the gentle slope of those shores, a voice I hoped would never leave my side.

"You alone can make my song take flight…"

Just then the shouts from the invisible guards grew louder and the sound of smashing glass filled the air again, and I opened my eyes on the wrong side of the world.

AN: So there we are. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! I wasn't so fond of this part myself - it was even harder to write than the first! Please forgive my creative licence at the beginning, I hope it made sense and fitted with the rest of the story. I also hope you'll forgive the way I handled Raoul's dialogue both here and right at the beginning of Part 1. It just made no sense to me to have him singing as well. I know it's a musical and so everyone sings, but I wanted to highlight that special relationship that Christine and the Phantom have with music and how it defines them. To have Raoul intrude on that seemed wrong somehow. I also debated for a long time where to end this whole thing, so I hope that it was satisfactory! Of course I wanted Christine and the Phantom not to lose each other, but ultimately the fact that they can't be together is what makes the story so tragic and great. I did have an ending where she shut Raoul on the other side of that secret door I mentioned at the beginning, but that seemed a bit of a cop-out ending. It also dragged it out too much and diminished the poignancy of her farewell to the Phantom. Even with this final ending though, I'm not too convinced that this part does it justice, but I hope you enjoyed reading nonetheless. Feedback would be most welcome :)

~Perfect Soldier 01