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

OK, so this is chapter one of what is a pretty long story. This was the other one I wrote while on vacation, and I truly had no idea it would end up as long as it did when I started writing it. Limited editing time between kids and rehearsals means that this will have to be done a chapter at a time, so please bear with me. I'll do the best I can not to keep you waiting long! I promise! :) Enjoy!

SUMMARY: The Vicomte makes a final attempt to keep Erik out of Christine's life.

"A Revenant's Love Story"

Raoul de Chagny grimaced his absolute distaste to be traversing the dank, dark pathway through the corridors beneath the opera house. Three weeks back and an ill-fated night with a threat of death at its culmination had left the Vicomte swearing that he would never set foot on this condemned bridge to hell again, and yet here he was, calling himself foolish at every turn and bend in the trail that would lead him to the doorstep of a murderer.

"Ludicrous," he muttered between curses under his breath, but as he insisted to his dwindling sense, he had no intention of repeating the last performance of these events. No, this time it would be he who had the upper hand, and noosed ropes would not matter. Let the monster attack; physical games to establish superiority were about to seem trite when the heart broke without a fist to be its cause. A broken heart…, oh, more than that, a destroyed heart.

"Monsieur Vicomte."

A soft call shook Raoul from his reverie and reminded him that the projected outcome he'd been envisioning still needed its final bricks laid into place, hence a clandestine meeting in the recesses of the catacombs. "Monsieur daroga," he greeted in return with more gentility than he typically would have granted a foreigner. A modicum of respect existed between them despite their vast, immeasurable differences; a commonly shared glimpse into the face of death certainly had a decided way of uniting its victims. "I'm pleased to see that you received my note. I had to take extra precautions to be certain no one else intercepted it by mistake."

The daroga was a small man in stature compared to the broad scope of the noble Vicomte, and he only appeared further a contrary as he nervously kept his dark face ducked and half-hidden in the shadows beyond his oil lantern. Frantic glances were being cast into the depths of encompassing blackness at every angle under the unqualified fear that something would leap out at any moment as he could practically already feel the choking sensation of invisible nooses about a bare throat, and he quietly muttered, "I had to be equally as careful; if he suspected anything at all, if he even had one iota of a consideration of your plan, …Monsieur Vicomte, Erik is not a tolerant or a forgiving man. We were fortunate to be granted mercy once. He would never make such a mistake again. You believed torture chambers and nooses were horrors; you have no idea what he is truly capable of."

Raoul tried to appear unaffected by the warning, but his own actions gave him away as he peeked into the far darkness before straightening defiantly. "I refuse to be at his whim; he will not be the ghost always in our shadows, monsieur. That is why we are doing this. I will not live the remainder of my life with his threat in the background."

The daroga shrugged his narrow shoulders uncertainly. "But he let you and the young mademoiselle go free. He bid you to leave and have your happy ending."

"Yes, and at quite the cost. I told you as much in my letter." The true extent of his recent suffering came to the forefront in one honest look, saturating to every creased corner of blue eyes. Suffering, …more like agony.

"How is she?"

Heaving a desolate breath, the Vicomte admitted somberly, "As well as one could expect. After every trauma she's endured, it's a blessing that I've been able to reach her at all. That first week, I doubted I'd ever get her back. The doctor called it a breakdown; he blamed her anxiety and the horrors she was put through by that madman. That night was the last point she could handle; it was finally too much."

Not a single word he spoke and had written proved to be of any surprise to the daroga. He had seen Christine as they had fled the opera house that last night, and nothing of herself had remained in her eyes; every glance had been empty and had shown only a hollowed void within her. The Vicomte insisted it was Erik's fault; the daroga wasn't as sure. "You said in your letter that she wouldn't say a word. Is she speaking again yet? Has she said anything about any of this?"

"She is speaking again," the Vicomte confirmed, "but she refuses to utter a single word about that monster. Can you begrudge her that seeing as how she was nearly forced to be his wife? She doesn't want to recall it, but I fear that it tortures her mind anyway. She very nearly had to sacrifice everything to save my life; in all of her silent days, I would wager that was all she could ruminate upon."

With the occasional glance yet about, the daroga abruptly asked, "And where is she now? Not at the de Chagny mansion surely if I am meant to play my part in this scheme of yours."

"Of course not. I sent her off to my aunt's country estate, and I will join her there once I see this task completed. I want to make certain that it is as authentic as possible so that he has no choice but to believe."

"Monsieur…." He was shifting on his feet in the face of the Vicomte's determination, knowing his own lack of enthusiasm was vividly spread along his features. "Must we truly do this? It just seems so…malicious and indecently cruel."

"Indecently cruel?" the Vicomte retorted. "Do you not recall that he was as prepared to kill you as he was me without a single qualm or consideration to friendship and loyalty? You were his friend, and yet in that situation, your life meant as little as mine. I cannot call this cruel so much as justice."

"But, monsieur-"

"No, this needs to be done, and you must be the one to do it. He will believe you in spite of everything; I've no doubt of that. Please." The Vicomte was not the sort of man to beg for anything, but this was the one time when no amount of money could buy what he wanted. Christine, her heart and soul, there was no price for such treasures. "This is the only way, Monsieur daroga," he added desperately. "He'll never leave her be; you know that as well as I do. He'll come after her and seek to steal her away again and again until he finally destroys her. No matter what you think of my reasoning, consider Christine. She cannot have any sort of decent life with him lurking in our periphery."

Christine…. And arguments faded with the known fact that the Vicomte was right. Erik was not a man to lose or to surrender anything; it had even been a surprise to Nadir that Erik had released them in the first place, …released the only woman he'd ever loved to a future with another man. Nadir had to conclude that Erik's seeming good will was only a temporary respite. A man who loved that fiercely did not just give it up. But still one thought nagged at his brain, and he insisted with a rush of compassion and regret, "This will kill him, Monsieur Vicomte. I don't think you realize the full extent of what you intend. Amidst all of the horror and sin of his life, Erik truly does love her."

The Vicomte's jaw immediately tightened as his words struck a yet-gaping wound within and tore it open once again. Yes, the monster loved her, his fiancée, his love as well. Erik with his deformed face had dared to touch her and kiss her with his disfigured lips right in front of Raoul as he had had to helplessly watch, unsure where the line of pretending ended and reality began. For the Vicomte, that was the greatest trauma still clouding his own judgment with its sting, but he did not let on of it to the daroga, nothing beyond clenched teeth and a solemnity as he argued without waver, "Yes, and his love is as damning as his hate. You speak to me of his well-being; well, my only concern is Christine's. Hasn't she endured enough at his hands and all because he supposedly loves her?" The demand was spat with bitterness as thrusting a hand into his pocket, he withdrew a folded scrap of paper. "Give him this, Monsieur daroga. He will want some sort of proof; here it is, written in her own hand. She composed its secrets a few days after we last left this place during her silent quarantine. Once I saw it, I knew that this would be my answer. He cannot argue or deny her own words. Give it to him, monsieur, when you tell him." That was it. Details laid in place, and the Vicomte cleared his throat, vying for detachment as he continued, "I must get back and make sure all of the loose ends are tied. I cannot afford a single mistake, for both Christine and my own life."

"Mine as well it would seem," the daroga somberly added as he clutched the blasphemous parchment between trembling fingers.

"I will contact you once I have left the city and send word where I can be reached. I want ample notification if anything at all goes awry." He was about to leave, about to turn away and let the wheels spin in their motion, but he dared to assure with the conviction Nadir lacked, "We're doing the right thing, Monsieur daroga. He let her go to live her life with me; this is just insurance that he won't ever change his mind."

Even as he nodded, Nadir carried skepticism that knotted his stomach until he felt nauseous with every breath. The right thing…; if this was the right thing, then why was he so loath to agree to its content? And why, when pain had been the prevalent emotion through this entire ordeal, was there only more at the crux of this plan? Pain, and he was about to be its primary cause with one uttered lie.

Nadir waited until the Vicomte disappeared from sight, en route back into his world before daring to finish the trek into Erik's. The paper in his hand was searing him with its letters even though he had yet to uncover a single word, so certain that he'd rather guess than know he was right. Every one was about to be its own little dagger, piercing hearts, causing damage, and creating gaps for the blood to leak out in rivulets. This small folded paper was the equivalent of a murder weapon, and even if it was a lackluster attempt, Nadir was to be its wielder.

With weighted footsteps, Nadir came upon the doorway to the house on the lake and hesitated, knowing that this was his final chance to change his mind before outcomes were set. No, no, this had to be done, and he had to be strong…for Christine Daaé and her misfortune of becoming the sole focus of Erik's obsession. She did not deserve that.

Before he ever entered the concealed doorway, the ominous stillness of the dark corridors was pierced with frantic pitches from a bellowing piano's suffering strings and pounded hammers. Music was a loose definition for what was pouring out; this was the audible sound of a damaged soul, agony in pitches and melody interlaced with the dissonance of anger and temper. It stole Nadir's breath from his lungs with its potency. Erik's music had often carried such an effect for him since his first introduction to its exquisiteness, but usually it was a direct result of a beauty not meant for the world to hear. His reaction now was caused by its blatant heartache, almost like the final fall of some majestic angel. …God's angels would indeed fall to such a song. Nadir was reminded of Erik's initial deception and the day he had gushed the details to the skeptical daroga of his plot to disguise himself as an angel for Christine, a plot already in motion before the daroga could have ever attempted to stop it. An angel, …the Angel of Music. Typically, Erik did not share any facet of his life with anyone, and that included his seeming friend Nadir, but he had considered his approach with Christine to be brilliant and couldn't help but boast a bit. It had been the only time in their lengthy acquaintanceship that Nadir had ever seen Erik happy in any sense of the term, and his happiness had nearly been as frightening to behold as his anger.

Loath to intrude on the serenade he was eavesdropping upon, Nadir was as silent as he could be turning the knob and stealing into the warm glow of the house. Any other visit would have left him pondering how oddly cozy it was despite the depth below ground, how Erik had truly transformed a seeming cave into a home with every implied emotion that that term brought to mind, but tonight's view was altered from usual. A foreign sense of anguish was already thick in the air, deceptively masked by the safety of firelight, and as Nadir glanced about, he took note of the mundane changes in his surroundings, things he would not have noticed unless he was looking. Objects were missing here and there, random knick knacks, precious treasures, and as he warily made his way down the narrow hallway to the occupied music room, following a piano's cries, his eyes were caught on wreckage and casualty, the remnants of those lost mementos, the shattered evidence of fits of temper and lonely rage. So many broken pieces in various colors and sizes, some glass, some resin, intermixed in places like a splattering of unique art. Yes, even Erik's destruction would seem to leave a thing of beauty in its wake.

The daroga had barely arrived in the doorway when so suddenly that he jolted with his surprise, the music halted mid-chord and hastily broke off. Well, he knew that Erik sensed everything. And as such, the unmasked virtuoso behind the piano abruptly leapt to his feet and spun about to face his intruder bitterly.

"Daroga," Erik greeted tightly, glaring cold with narrowed eyes as every unspoken insult attached was etched to precise telling along the nuances of displayed, malformed features.

"Erik," Nadir stammered back nervously, trying to deny his instinctual urge to shift and sway on his feet. No, he bid to himself, no giveaways to a man who would deduce and interpret every one. "How are you doing?"

A grating chuckle was his initial answer, amused and utterly unnerving in its timbre as Erik rubbed distractedly at his scarred cheek before suddenly recalling its exposure. With a groan of annoyance, he rummaged about for his mask, never once considering that despite its absence, the daroga had given nothing that could be taken as an unpleasant reaction. Still, the mask was replaced and secured before Erik dared recall that propriety insisted he give some sort of answer. Words, he insisted of himself. And yet what words could possibly exist to sufficiently capture his current frame of mind? So instead, he chose to snap, "I haven't seen a single glimpse of your interfering presence since the night you betrayed our unusual companionship and aided that damn Vicomte and his gallant quest, and you dare to suddenly inquire about my well-being? Since when has such a detail mattered at all to you? Or is this guilt I am being faced with and a misguided attempt at penance?"

"You have every right to be upset with me," Nadir attempted as calmly as he could manage. "To your consideration, it would seem a betrayal, but if you would care to look at it from my view, you'd see that-"

"I wouldn't care to look at it from your view," he interrupted sharply. "And you have no excuse that I will take. But don't worry. I've well learned my lesson. I ignorantly dubbed you as a friend; I will not be that naïve again. One would think that I'd have realized long ago to trust no one but myself, but…the mistake was made, and it cannot be undone."

"Erik, don't be ridiculous. You were beside yourself that night; I felt I had no choice-"

"You always had a choice; you just made the wrong one. And in my effort not to go through with killing you where you stand, I insist that you leave my house. I've spared you once already, and you well know that I've killed for far less than the injustice you have done me. Get out." Erik was gesturing to the door but had already made his dismissal as he stalked back to the piano and its rested keys and threw himself upon the bench, pounding out one long, aggressive chord.

"Erik," Nadir interrupted, raising his voice to rival the instrument's volume, but he was being blatantly ignored as more chords resounded. "Erik!" he practically shouted, and knowing exactly how to break into music's trance, he added loudly, "I have news about Christine."

All at once, the tone cut off again, even the leftover ring halted to silence as frantic eyes shot back up with a certain impatience and fury intertwined. "What did you say?"

"Christine," he nervously muttered, feeling the assault through eyes alone. He wondered how anyone could possess the power to hurt a person in a look, but then again, Erik wasn't just anyone. Apprehensively stammering, he posed, "Well, …it's been three weeks. Have you…heard anything of her? …Seen her at all? …Checked in on her?"

"Three weeks?" Erik repeated with a modicum of surprise. "Three weeks, truly? I…hadn't realized. I've been busy."


Erik nodded frantically. "A new opera…for Christine, of course. I thought…I thought I'd surprise her with it when she returned."

A chill overtook Nadir from head to toe and left a shudder as its evidence. When she returned…. He almost cowered; the hope in Erik's mismatched eyes was just so toxic, so masochistic in its way because once it was gone, …it would obliterate him to nothing. And Nadir hesitated. "A new opera? …Well, then I suppose that means you haven't been eating or sleeping or doing anything else for that matter. You take to musical binges as normal people do to alcohol and forget every space between sober jaunts. I've always feared that one of these days, you'll neglect to come out of it at all."

Shrugging off words and open concern, Erik rambled, "I'll eat when she returns, and as to sleeping, I know I shall only be able to do so again when she is at my side. So don't worry over me, daroga. She will return, and I'll live on."

"You're so certain of that."

"Well, of course," he snapped, slamming shut the open manuscript set before the piano's keys if only to have some task to busy his suddenly shaking hands. "You would not understand how I can say that and know it to be true. It is beyond your comprehension, but Christine and I have a bond that nothing could ever break or destroy. She'll always come back to me."

"But…you let her go," the daroga argued, noting how vividly the Vicomte's fears had merit.

"Well, yes, I had to. You don't know Christine as I do, daroga. She can be confused sometimes when she is being tugged too firmly in too many directions, and she can be weak. She let that Vicomte twist her all up inside, but that last night…oh, that last night…," the light of a disconcerting bliss was bright upon his masked face as he insisted, "she knew she loved me. She chose me, and my God, she kissed me. You saw it happen. I did not force her or manipulate her; she did that of her own free will. She knew exactly what she wanted at that moment, but there were too many doubts yet in between, all inspired by her milksop Vicomte. I never wanted her to ever wonder if she made the choice because I coerced her. And I was confident that if she saw that I loved her, truly loved her enough to give her up, she would finally be strong in her own heart. You'll see what I mean, daroga, when she comes back to me. I expect her at any time now, especially if it's been three weeks already. She's likely just seeking the easiest way to escape the Vicomte's watch." His apparent elation was frozen in a sort of suspension with one recalled point, and he suddenly pushed, "You said that you had news of her? What news? …Or is it exactly as I said? Has she left the Vicomte?"

Nadir faltered and dared to demand, "And if she hasn't, what then, Erik? Will you go to her and carry her off again? Will you take the extent of the decision out of her hands as you've done before?"

"Oh, don't say it that way," Erik retorted back. "You speak it as if I have forced emotions upon her, and I have done no such thing. As I said, she is confused, and if she has not yet left the Vicomte, it very well could be because he won't allow it. To admit that he has lost to a disfigured monster is quite beyond his capabilities. And therefore going and fetching her myself is just and not the sin you're implying it would be. She loves me, Nadir; carrying her off would be a blessing to her."

"Would it really?" the daroga muttered to himself. He repeated the Vicomte's assurance in his head once again; what he was about to do was for Christine. It was the only way Erik would ever let her go. Keeping a somber expression, he forced himself to speak, knowing that hesitance now would seem valid and solemnity warranted, that sympathy would be genuine in spite of words that held no meaning in their context. "Erik, …I have to tell you something…, and I'm not quite sure how to say it, …especially to you. It's…a tragedy, …an awful tragedy. …Christine…is dead."

The expression upon a masked face was blank and unreadable, the fixed stare searching for the crack that would mean a lie, but beneath the pretense, simply the utterance of such words made his heart drop like a leaden weight within the cavity of his chest. And even as he remained unconvinced, he fisted his hands atop his lap so that Nadir would not notice the subtle shake that was quickly growing into a constant quiver. "You're lying," he accused and commended his own control that not even a catch could be detected in his voice. "I truly cannot fathom the depth of your betrayal. You choose to side with the Vicomte and his arrogant ways, and now you dare come into my home and utter such a slander. What are you hoping for? Tears? Pain? Some unimportant proof that I still have a heart after what I did to you?"

"No, no," Nadir muttered back with a firm shake of his head. "I'm not lying to you, Erik. I truly had thought that you already would have known; the news is all over the city, but you haven't left the house in three weeks so it is no wonder. …She's dead, Erik; she…she took her own life."

"No," Erik stated firm and inarguable, eyes bearing into Nadir with an internal blaze of fire. "No, how dare you stand there, my so-called friend, and post such blasphemies to my ears? Get out of my house, and shall we meet again, your neck will be in my rope."

"It's the truth, and no threat you throw at me is going to change it. Here." His hand trembled, but he extended the crumpled note out before him as he took the few steps that put him almost gullibly within Erik's reach. He had faith that his offering would be the very key to saving his life. "In her own hand."

It took a concentrated effort to make fingers uncoil and snatch the paper for himself, and Erik knew that his shaking was an undeniable reality that told his fears even as he kept up an indignant façade. Quickly unfolding the scrap, his unfocused eyes immediately recognized her elegant penmanship with every loop and scrawl to her letters. Yes, this was in her own hand. In a soft voice, he spoke those cloistered words, unsure why he was sharing their burden but unable to stop himself.

" 'My dearest ange. You have broken my heart for the last time. Once again you have seen it fit to make my choice for me and decide how I will love. I chose you; I laid heart and soul vulnerably at your feet, but that wasn't enough. It couldn't be. You prefer to control the workings of my heart than trust their secrets. You wanted a prisoner to be chained to you and your love, not an equal to love you in return. And it didn't matter that I professed my devotion to you in one kiss. You never wanted devotion; you wanted power, the power to decide how and why I will love you. It never was considered that I already did. My heart is gone, ripped free of ribs and bone, and an open wound is in its place. You wanted a heart you could manipulate, and in your selfishness, you've taken mine. For what you've done, I'll hate you to my death; I only pray it comes quickly to take me away from this anguish of living. You have destroyed me, Erik, and made me as damaged as you yourself are. I loved you…. I loved you, and you condemned me….'"

That was all; the rest of the page was severed and gone, and as the last of her accusations soaked into his skin and sought to poison the blood coursing within, a gasped sob was sucked sharply past parted lips. "No," Erik moaned miserably, cradling that scrap of a letter in suddenly desperate hands. "No, no, no, it can't be the truth. She wouldn't…, not if she loved me…. She loved me, Nadir…. This letter is proof, and she wouldn't…." He couldn't even utter the sin, his head shaking an urgent denial.

"As you said," Nadir stated, his own voice choked with unshed tears, "she was confused. This entire situation was some sort of trauma for her; they say she wouldn't even speak a word for days. And it was just too much, Erik, …too much. All of the horrors put upon her shoulders. …She couldn't take any more; it finally broke her beyond repair. …She…she's gone, Erik. I'm sorry, but…it's true."

His head was reeling, fluctuating dizzily between fragments of Christine's own words and the daroga's fitted details. His Christine, alone and broken, believing he'd let her go because she had freely loved him. …Oh God, what had he done? "No, no," he was whimpering, clutching the note to one temple and grasping his masked face between violently shaking hands. "No, I won't believe it. She isn't…dead. She can't be dead! She's supposed to be mine! I love her!"

Every lie had left a burning sensation upon his tongue, and as Nadir watched the tears filling blue and green eyes and cascading over a masked face, he hated himself for every fabricated deception. But…it was too late to go back now.

"Erik…." Solace was uncommon for both of them, and unsure how to offer it, he patted an awkward hand upon Erik's quivering shoulder. "…God has a path for everyone and every creature upon the earth. Perhaps she was simply being set upon hers."

"Her path was with me!" Erik exclaimed vehemently. "Her path is inextricably entwined with mine! Don't you understand that? Why can no one see it? She is my everything! My very reason to exist! She is my verity and my life; she is the only one to show me that I am not a monster, that I can be more…for her. I can't live without her!"

"Erik, no!" It was his tone, his determination that finally made Erik lift his heavy head and meet his stare.

"What do you mean no?" Erik snapped, anger vibrant and peeking through the center of pain. "You came here today, and you destroyed every bit of me! What is left? This is no world that I live in, Nadir! This is no life! The rest of the human race despise me, spit upon me, have treated me as if I haven't even the right to exist and breathe, as if I am nothing! She was my salvation, and I…I…. Oh God…." Bending suddenly in half, tensed down every muscle, he sobbed, his heart leaking out through every tear's essence. Words made no sense, comprehension gone; all he could do was gasp her name over and over again, clinging to a single word when it was all that was left.

"Erik, …I'm so sorry." And Nadir meant it. Never before had he seen a man so feared, so powerful, so unexplainably strong considering all he'd endured in his lifetime crumble to a fallible human being. This was not the mad Opera Ghost who had despaired Christine's loss that last night; no insanity to dim the blow, no hope to present an ever-flickering rescue, nothing but a man mourning the only fraction of happiness he'd ever been granted. And when music had given a beautiful anguish upon his arrival, sobs were an exquisite lament as final as a requiem, filling the small, lonely house and filtering out to echo emptily into the catacombs.

'I loved you, and you condemned me….' Those final words and their bitter accusation were looped in an unceasing spiral that pirouetted mercilessly through Erik's brain. Condemned…, killed her; killed replaced condemned, a more accurate conjecture. Killed…, dead…, gone….

Tears only ceased when they ran dry and none remained, when an agonized heart felt empty of all matter that symbolized life. …Dead….

It was with an eruption of temper and threats too tempting to be indulged that Erik finally got Nadir to leave him be. Oh, how he longed for peace and solitude! And yet once he had it, it tormented him and made him regret the loss of a sordid friend.

Alone…, and Christine would be alone…. Dead….

It took only minutes for Erik to devise a plan beneath the persistent voice of denial that continued to speak hope, and within the moment that the idea was born, he concealed himself in a thick cloak and hat, hiding within his persona as he abandoned the catacombs for the first time in three weeks. Three weeks…. He still could not fathom time's passage. It was too easy to lose long minutes and hours within the music; Christine had once teased that if not for her lessons, he would willingly remain buried in notes and melodies and never come out to life and the world again. He had never told her that she had been right, that it was only the induction of emotions she inspired that brought reality back and an impatience to burst his musical bubble and go to her instead. Then music had no longer been a pleasure so much as a way to bide his time in between her visits. Nothing else had needed to exist in between because nothing else could amount to her. …Christine…, dead….

His heart ached painfully within his chest as if to remind him that even as bruised and battered as it was, it beat on. It had to, no matter if he only longed for it to stop and end in succession with hers. Why beat at all if it had lost its syncopation?

No…no, he would not think of it yet….

It wasn't difficult to steal into the de Chagny mansion, not for a mastermind ghost who haunted opera houses at every spare moment. Not a sound gave away his intrusion as he stalked the hallways, seeking out one particular presence, astounded by the unexpected stillness and quiet to the house and its corridors. Quiet…like a house in mourning.

"Don't bother to call for help." Erik prefaced his own entrance into the study with a threat, already certain what he would find: the Vicomte de Chagny sitting solemn and somber with a liquor glass in hand before his lavish hearth. "You'll be dead before they ever get here to save you."

Raoul stared coldly at his masked intruder, stoic and condescending as ever, the very rival for the heart of the woman he loved, and that point made his pretense as real as any actor on the stage as he narrowed bitter eyes and demanded, "What do you want? Haven't you caused enough damage?"

"Murderer," Erik accused sharply, stalking to tower over the Vicomte's seat. Yes, the Vicomte triumphed in stature, but Erik was bearing enough pain and rage to kill him without a thought if he so chose.

"Murderer? You, monsieur, are the murderer between us. All the lives taken and now…now Christine…." It wasn't difficult to call upon tears, not with one consideration of sitting at her bedside as she had stared out unseeing for days, not with the thought of the admissions in a letter, ones that still wounded his heart to know. She loved him, the madman and murderer, through it all, and Raoul could only ever wonder in every silent musing why then she had gone willingly with him that night, …wonder but never dare question.

"It's a lie," Erik insisted without sway. "It has to be; she is alive and well; you're keeping her somewhere. You can't accept the truth: that she loves me."

"I wish to God it was a lie," Raoul fervently insisted. "I wish to God that she hadn't concluded that her only option was to…take her life rather than deal with what you had done to her. She was a shell after that night, monsieur, a shell, empty and hollowed out. She was nothing. And no matter what I did, I could not save her."

"No," Erik snapped back, a step away from lunging.

"You still don't believe it?" Raoul demanded, swiping away tears. "Check the obituaries in the paper, check the doctor's report, the death certificate. Will that be enough? Or will you have to dig up her beautiful dead corpse to believe it as truth? Will you need to hold her, lifeless and gone as I did?" Tossing the liquor glass upon the coffee table, Raoul stood up at Erik's level and flatly stated, "I found her, monsieur, when she did it. I found her body, wrists slit, blood…, dear God, the blood…. I have that image of her to take forever with me as mine, and to know that she did it because of you…. I would argue that I have the right to be killing you this time."

Behind Erik's murderous eyes flashed images, the very ones created by the Vicomte's words: Christine, laying deceivingly asleep, the blood tangled in her curls, staining her gown…. And as vision built upon vision, he suddenly shoved the Vicomte back into his chair and fled the mansion amidst a pain so intense that it was unbearable to breathe through it.

Raoul stared after him, relieved that it hadn't come to blows or nooses. He had no doubt that he had taken care of their problem and had finally legitimately beaten the Opera Ghost.