Thank you so much to everyone who has been patiently waiting for me to get a new story posted. My recital sucked the focus out of me and left me crazed for awhile. But I'm thrilled to know that my little stories are so appreciated. Thank you!

Here's a little something I dragged out from older files. I hope that you like it!

SUMMARY: Christine travels to the other side of the world to reclaim her love.

"Walking Through Fire"

Christine's leather-soled boots echoed her every step on the stone floor of the underground catacombs. She could hear the resounding clip clop, deafening in the eternal silence surrounding her, and yet there was not even an inkling of hesitation in their presence, only a new determination that before this was uncharacteristic of her. Determined; she was indeed determined; she could no longer afford to be the uncertain child she had previously been. It would cost her the only happiness she had ever known.

Rounding another corner in the intricate pathways, she kept a steady pace, slightly nervous of the dark shadows that her sole lantern could not reveal to her probing eyes. Of course, she had walked this path hundreds of times, and yet never had she been unaccompanied, never alone amidst all of these foreboding shadows without an angel to keep her safe. And where had that angel gone? Lost to her own ignorance and foolish childhood ideals.

Christine forced the bitter memories from her mind and concentrated on her present journey. She was nearing her destination and was suddenly struck with a new fear of what she would find when she arrived. It was naïve to believe that it would be just as she remembered, that she would enter the door of that underground lair and be met with a warm fire in the hearth and a late, homemade meal to be enjoyed in the most wonderful company she could want. How she wished that she could go back in time to such days before everything had gone terribly wrong! To forget all of the pain, all of the tears, to laugh again…and sing…. Oh, to sing again in that beautiful duet that was theirs alone….

Swallowing back a rising wave of tears, she pressed onward until the dark corridors parted and the doorway came into view. It had been almost a month since she had last crossed its threshold, on that one fated night when the world was turned upside down.

But…was that not the faint glow of a light filtering out between the cracks? A light within…. Someone was there…. Someone…. Did her heart dare to hope?

Quicker now in every anticipating step, she approached the doorway with a new lightness fluttering in her chest. There was even the hinting of a smile on lips that had nearly forgotten how to smile at all. Her free hand moved to fluff her loose chignon of curls, a silly gesture indeed. As if he would notice such a minute detail in her appearance…. And yet with Erik, he took regard to everything about her in one glance, reading details to the soul. …He had always been attentive in that way.

Reaching the door, Christine turned the knob with trembling fingers and entered the home she knew so well without even a knock to announce her arrival. She wanted to wait not even a second longer.

The warm light permeated out and engulfed her in its welcoming glow, and she hurriedly set her lantern to the ground before seeking out the home's occupant. Almost immediately as her eyes surveyed the scene, her heart dropped like a leaden weight in her chest, suddenly too heavy with emotion to beat in its normal, constant pattern.

Everything was in shambles. The sitting room she had so loved to occupy was a mess of broken furniture, scattered papers, shards of glass. The couch where she had spent many an evening reclining was torn down the middle, stuffing pouring out of the gaping wound, and Erik's chair where he spent those same evenings sitting before the fire pretending to read when really she would catch him gazing at her all the while was a mass of broken wooden limbs. Interspersed in the massacre were random scraps of paper, littering the ground from hemorrhaging volumes of literature that had once been whole and had lined the elaborate bookcase Erik had built in the wall. At her feet was a snippet of Shakespeare…..

Bitter tears flooded her blue eyes. This was all her fault. Every bit of this destruction of Erik's only possessions, the very intrusion into his secluded life, every detail was all due to her recklessness.

She would have concluded that the loss of the very objects that constituted a life would have left him heartbroken, but she knew him well enough to know what would be the true point of his agony. He had always made it quite clear that she meant more to him than anything in the world…. Erik…. Where was he? …He had to be there…. He had to have escaped this destruction by a vicious mob out for vengeance…. Yes, he must be there, probably trying to salvage what was left…. Where else would he be…?

There was a noise from the hallway to her left, and with hopeful eyes, she quickly spun about to meet her companion. But once again, she was made to suffer the tragic falling of her heart in her chest.

"Oh…, monsieur…."

"Mademoiselle Daaé." Her addressor was not very well known to her, a figure she had only encountered a few times, the last of which was that final, fated night. He was the Persian man; Nadir, Erik had called him. Though she knew very little, she was aware that he had played an important role in Erik's past, a past he had only ever spoken of in detached bits.

The Persian looked her over skeptically, never concealing his surprise by her unexpected presence. "Why have you come here, mademoiselle? …Or should I be addressing you as Madame, Vicomtesse?"

Christine solemnly shook her head and flatly insisted, "I am no madame and no Vicomtesse."

Though his dark eyes showed his bewilderment, the Persian did not press the issue and only asked once again, "Why are you here?"

Swallowing hard against the rising lump in her throat, all she could manage to say in a soft, worried voice was, "Erik."

"Erik is gone," Nadir replied, still eyeing her with an air of suspicion. "He left nearly on month ago, and I don't expect he will ever return to this house."

"Oh," she breathed desolately, tears brimming her large eyes. "He's not…. Oh, monsieur, please tell me he is not…."

"Dead," he finished for her and shrugged his small shoulders. "I cannot say. He wasn't dead when he willingly abandoned this place, but now…. I really don't know…. If not yet, then soon."

"What do you mean?" She was growing impatient, her head swimming with the desperation to make sense of the Persian's cryptic riddles. Could he not sense her urgency?

Nadir only continued to observe her with that same air of distrust. "The last I saw of you, mademoiselle, you were in the arms of the Vicomte de Chagny with the life of a Vicomtesse to look forward to. Yet now you are here in these God-forsaken catacombs alone. You couldn't wait to escape. Why return?"

With a cry of annoyance, Christine suddenly darted forward, catching the man's arm in her agitated hold. "Where is he?" she demanded again with frantic tears. "You must tell me, monsieur."

Nadir stared her straight in the eye, and when she did not flinch or relent in her determination, he flatly answered, "Persia."

Her brow creased with deep lines as she stammered, "Persia? …But I was under the impression that he was a wanted man in Persia."

"He is just that."

"But…won't they kill him if he sets foot there?"

"Most likely."

The man was so matter of fact in his answers that Christine nearly shouted at him, "You are his friend, monsieur. And you allowed him to go to his own death so carelessly?"

"As if I could have stopped him?" The Persian sighed, and for the first time, Christine caught a revealing glimpse of his sadness beneath his seemingly apathetic exterior. "You know as well as I that it is impossible to change his mind once it is made up. Erik is quite a stubborn man."

Yes, he was indeed; in her mind flashed various scenes of said stubbornness with a bittersweet reminiscence. She glanced away from the Persian whose arm she still clung to in a viselike grip with tensed, desperate fingers and scanned the disarrayed room before her, her memories too painful to share. And amidst them all, she demanded aloud, "Why?"

"Why, mademoiselle?" he repeated as though surprised she would need to ask such a question. "Because you left him a broken man. He wanted death; he craved it and an end to the pain of losing you. He would have done it himself, but instead opted to be noble. It was for you, because of you that he chose to return to Persia and turn himself in for his tainted past. He told me that even if he couldn't have you, he wanted to be the man that you deserved, a man you would have been proud to love."

As every heavy letter of the Persian's revelation was sinking in, she raised her eyes back to his, crying softly as she insisted, "But he can't do that. He can't…die without knowing…. No, …he was more than I deserved…. I came back…. I came back to him…. He has to know…."

Nadir brought his other hand up to cover hers compassionately as he revealed, "He did know, mademoiselle. He always knew, I think, but he also knew that for your own sake, he had to let you go."

"No," she whispered on the verge of a sob.

Patting her hand lightly, he bid, "Go back to your life, mademoiselle. Erik wanted only for your happiness."

"Then he should have realized that he is my happiness," she nearly shouted. "I don't want a life without him."

"But it's too late. He's gone. You could not expect him to wait here for you till you realized that. He was already so lost without you." Gently prying his hands free, he attempted to guide her to the door. "Go back to the Vicomte, mademoiselle. Forget about this place and about Erik."

With an anguished sob, she broke out of his hold and faced him with her desperation. "That is like asking me to forget to breathe!"

"There is little else you can do-"

"Yes, there is!" With a mustering of every bit of her dubbed determination, she declared, "I will go to Persia."

Nadir's intent gaze widened with his disbelief. "No, you mustn't, mademoiselle. That is a fool's quest."

"I have to. I won't let Erik die thinking that he was only ever unloved." Her mind was already leaping ahead and reeling with plans. "I can leave as soon as possible. Cargo ships travel to Persia; I can barter passage."

Shaking his head frantically, the Persian suddenly grabbed hold of her arm as if by doing so, he could keep her there as he begged, "Please, mademoiselle, reconsider this. You don't realize what you are doing."

"I have to go; can't you understand that?"

"Erik never told you of his days in Persia, did he?"

Christine quit trying to pull free and hesitantly replied, "Not much, only that he created torture chambers for the shah, and when he wanted to leave, the shah wouldn't allow it."

"Wouldn't allow it? The shah tried to keep him as a prisoner, but Erik is a master of escape. The shah won't underestimate Erik's genius again. If he has him, it will be death or servitude for him. Erik will choose death. If you pursue him, you will not save him; you will only put yourself in jeopardy as well."

"All right," she decided adamantly. "I will die by his side."

"Foolish girl!" Nadir suddenly shouted at her, clenching her arm tight. "You can't possibly realize the danger you would be putting both of you in. The shah is a cruel man, a sadist. He will likely put Erik through a million tortures, and that would be nothing compared to what he would do to you. Erik would never forgive me if I let you go after him like this."

"Nadir," she said, using his name for the first time as she resolutely held his eye. "If there was ever even the slightest chance that you could have all that you ever desired, happiness, completion to your very soul, wouldn't you take any risk necessary to strive for it? …My life is worthless if it is to be without Erik in it."

Nadir could not argue such a point, and with a huff of great reluctance, he released her arm and slowly nodded. "And that is exactly what Erik said before he left this place." Gesturing solemnly toward the door, he bid, "Godspeed, mademoiselle. If he's alive and curses me for my part in your pursuit of him, remind him that I owe him for trying once before to stand in the way of true love. We are even now."

Nodding, Christine captured his hand again and gave it a reassuring squeeze before slipping back into the dark catacombs.

It took three days to find a boat en route to Persia and a captain willing to grant a lone woman passage without question. To her, those long days and the trip that followed seemed never-ending as she silently prayed for Erik's life.

Thousands of miles away from that approaching boat, Erik reclined on a velvet chaise in his suites at the shah's palace. To an observer, it would seem that the lavish rooms were fit for some sort of prince, but only an attuned eye would notice the locks on the doors and the guards roaming the halls. Erik had been put up in these accommodations as soon as he had arrived, practically being treated like a guest, …albeit a guest with no right to come and go as he pleased. He had been waiting nearly a week to have an audience with the shah himself. Erik knew the reason for the delay; this was the shah's way of trying to entice him once again, fill his eyes with the luxuries and extravagances of royalty. …And what a fool he was if he truly believed such trivialities would ever sway a man like Erik!

Laying his head back wearily on the chaise's pillow, Erik could not control the train of his torturous thoughts and they drifted and meandered their wayward path until they found the only thing they wanted to consider, …Christine. Hardly a breath went by where she wasn't on his mind, her images tormenting him as her voice played, singsong and sweet, in his ear. She would likely be wed by now to her perfect Vicomte, beginning her life as Vicomtesse de Chagny. The very idea of it left a bitterness clenching his heart, so much so that he often chose to avoid the subject altogether and simply think of her as she had been when he was the only man in her life, when her every moment was his and his alone. It was only a further means of agony really, leaving him to wonder where death was. If he had known that it was going to take this long, he would have simply done it himself and avoided this entire journey of retribution.

With a desolate sigh, Erik began to fall into a frequent fantasy, one in which Christine stayed with him on that last night. He had imagined it so often that sometimes, he had to convince himself that it hadn't actually happened, so vivid and consuming were the images of his imagination.

It was just as he was envisioning Christine opening her arms to him with a sweet, hesitant smile that whispered love that the lock on his door was opened, jolting Erik back to reality. It wasn't suppertime yet, so why was he being disturbed?

His question was immediately answered when a familiar, long-unheard voice met his ear. "They told me that you had returned, but I didn't believe it until now that I see you for myself. So my prodigy has returned to his rightful home."

"Home," Erik muttered to himself as an image of a set of rooms far beneath the surface of the earth flashed in his memory, but he mercifully pushed it aside, knowing better than to display any justifiable emotion before the shah. "You are looking well, shah." The rest of this kingdom never referred to their leader as anything except "master" or some other overdone appellation, but Erik had never been one to follow custom or command. And while for anyone else, such insolence would have resulted in death, the shah had always instead held a certain tolerance for Erik's ways. …Was it any wonder considering what he had gotten in return? An ally in sin and the deaths of hundreds to burden his soul.

"The years have been good to me…. I can't say the same for you, old friend." The shah of Persia waved a hand to the guard at the door, and without spoken command, they were left them alone as he idly wandered the lavish chamber, his dark eyes taking in every detail of the room. He was an ominous man, towering with a round belly that his extravagant robes left bare. To him and his people, that protruding lump of flesh was a symbol of his wealth and indulgence, most especially while the majority of the population was starving in the streets.

Erik watched him suspiciously all the while, noting that while any other guest to the shah's presence would have been chastised and even expect death for the mere impropriety of not bowing in humble servitude, he would go unpunished as he sat haughtily in his chair. It only served to remind Erik that he could have equaled power to the royalty once again at his fingertips, …if he wanted it, of course.

The shah completed his visual inspection of the room and took his own seat in the large chair across from Erik's, deciding, "It looks as if you have been well taken care of by my servants."

"Your highness is most generous to his guests, …and yet I've never had the pleasure of being a guest under lock and guard."

Surveying Erik in the manner in which he had surveyed the room, the shah shrugged nonchalantly. "You cannot blame me. Once before, you slipped through my fingers; I wasn't inclined to be a fool again."

A light, mocking laugh escaped Erik's lips. "If I had really wanted to escape, your incompetent guards and metal locks would have posed no threat. I came here of my own free will."

"So I was told, but I am yet unclear as to why. You had to know that in returning, you risked torture and death."

Erik shrugged with an apathetic arching of brows, half hidden by his mask. "Maybe I was looking for just that."

Studying him again, the shah shook his head almost sadly. "What happened to you, old friend? You have always been a cursed man, unfortunate but never weak of spirit or pathetic. Yet now…it is as if you've been hollowed out and are completely empty inside."

Empty…, perhaps he was…. But no, if he was empty, he wouldn't still be hurting so much. "Does it matter? I came here to pay for my sins, whatever the punishment may be. You would have leapt at such an opportunity in the past."

"Yes, but what can I say? I have had the time to miss you and your always entertaining devices."

Erik remembered a time not long ago when the shah would laugh with glee at Erik's creations, each one more heinous than the last, designed to cause its victim more and more pain and prolonged death. And Christine thought him a monster for taking a couple of lives; if she only knew how many dozens had died at the hand of his chambers in Persia. In those days, he couldn't care, not about a world that hated him in return, but now…the very memory shamed and sickened him.

"I did not return to fuel your amusement," he retorted coldly. "I came to die with dignity. You have fruitlessly kept me waiting for long enough."

"Death can be arranged," the shah replied with a chuckle. "So impatient to escape this world, are you? I can't see why. Death can only mean further torture for one such as yourself."

"There is no greater torture than living."

The shah leaned back in his chair, bridging his fingers before himself. "It's a woman, isn't it? It has to be. Only a woman can break a man so completely. Tell me of her, Erik. Did she reject you because of your mangled face? …Perhaps your murderous tendencies? …Oh, don't tell me that you murdered her."

Erik's eyes grew distant with his memories but all he managed to reply was, "I have no wish to speak of it."

"My poor friend, but hadn't you realized that men such as yourself were not made to love? You were made to torture and kill; it's what you do best."

"Everyone deserves to know love," Erik spat back.

"Deserves to maybe, but will you ever? It isn't very likely." Before Erik could form a protest, the shah continued in his most persuasive tone. "How can I convince you to return to my service? You are worth far more alive to me than dead. Here in my court, your expertise will be appreciated and admired."

For a long moment, Erik pondered it to himself. Appreciated and admired, was there truly such a fate for a man like him? Then with a somber shake of his head, he replied, "For the majority of my life, I have brought little else but death and pain to all those around me. That's why I lost Christine. I deserved love, but I didn't know how to love. Perhaps it is just as you said, and I am never meant to know such a blessing." He paused, staring idly down at his fisted hands in his lap. "My hands are stained with the blood of hundreds of innocent people…. Though your offer is generous, shah, I cannot accept it. The same woman you accuse of breaking me to nothing gave me a conscience as well."

The shah shook his head desolately. "Well, that really is a pity, Erik, because you realize that a terrible death awaits you, long, torturous, the penalty for treason."

"What I did was not treason," he replied flatly. "I am here to make up for all of the bloodshed I caused on this land, not for one of the few noble acts I ever committed."

"Noble indeed." The sarcasm was grating in his voice. "You aided the escape of the one you call Nadir when he was set to die in my torture chamber."

"Nadir did nothing wrong, nothing worth dying for."

The shah laughed bitterly. "He was chief of the movement to have me overthrown. That is treason, and you played a viable role in it. Now I thought to give you one chance to redeem yourself in my graces, but since you have refused and are still insistent that your actions were justified, then I have little choice other than to painfully end your life…. Ironic, isn't it? To die in one of the chambers you yourself invented."

"Ironic or appropriate?"

His nonchalance in the manner infuriated the shah. Thousands had begged to be spared such a fate, but Erik seemed to embrace it. It wasn't enough, and wanting only to cause him as much agony as possible, the shah added, "We will make it a public display, and you will wear no mask to hide your face from my people. They should get a glimpse of the devil himself before I put him out of his misery and send him back to hell where he belongs."

Erik just shrugged with continued apathy. Masked or maskless hardly mattered any longer. "It isn't worth hiding anymore anyway. Let them look upon me."

The shah's plump cheeks reddened with his annoyance, but he sharply insisted, "I shall make all of the necessary arrangements. Until then, you will reside in the squalor of the dungeons with the rest of the criminals." When even that did nothing to shake Erik, the shah abruptly leapt to his feet and stomped out of the room, shouting commands to his guards in his wake. Damn that masked genius! The shah would not be made a fool of; Erik had committed a crime and would have to be punished. He was determined to find some method of torture that would cause Erik to beg for his life, anything to hurt him so deeply that he could not remain aloof. The shah could see no point to death unless torture was involved, and for Erik, who had once been an ally and in some way friend, the intensity of the torture had to be unbearable.

Once the shah had gone, Erik was heaved up by his guards and dragged out of the lavish chambers and toward the dungeons. He did not struggle or protest, his mind already drifting to another vision of Christine. Her image, though unreal, would accompany him, he knew, to death and the life beyond. He would want it no other way.

Erik's impending demise by public torture and execution was announced throughout the kingdom. Just the mention of it made many a peasant spit on the ground with a calling of 'good riddance'. He expected no more from them, for he had once been known as the Black Angel in days when no one had known if they were safe from the shah's arrest and torture in Erik's chambers. They had feared him once; now they would gleefully come to watch him executed.

In the dungeons below the palace, Erik had been granted a cell to himself, separated from every other class of criminal and accused. Perhaps the shah believed the solitude would drive him mad; little did the ruler realize that Erik had spent the vast majority of his life alone. And yet, he wasn't entirely alone. His vision of Christine was always by his side, just out of his reach but forever keeping him company.

Days went by with agonizing slowness as he impatiently awaited his execution. He had adapted to life underground quite easily, establishing a daily pattern. He was not one to wallow in the cold darkness, finding almost everything he needed to survive rather well. He had lived under far worse conditions at various times of his life; he could not complain.

Two days before his scheduled date with death, Erik was completing his morning routine and was replacing his mask over his face when he heard the jingle of keys in the door. His hands quickly refastened the mask with a certain deftness acquired only from performing the task hundreds of times before, and he faced the heavy door, watching as it was hesitantly pushed open and emitted a small creak that echoed off of the chamber's stone walls in announcement.

One of the guards slipped inside, quickly turning to close the door securely behind himself, and studying this uncommon occurrence, Erik's brow furrowed with his intuitive suspicion. In all of his days here, he had no recognition for this particular guard, sure that he would remember one as small as this. …It was certainly odd; the shah usually only had great brutish men in his employment, especially when that task included minding his prisoners.

The guard hesitantly turned to face Erik, peering up at him from under a rather large hat, and Erik's heart immediately halted its beat in his chest.

"Christine," he gasped, his voice raspy on its edges from lack of use and making every consonant sound hard when he only wanted to make the word an adoration and devotion.

She wore the uniform of the shah's guards, hiding her feminine curves in its bulkiness, and her long, dark curls were tucked beneath the hat on her head. As she stared at her angel, taking in every change and every detail of his haggard appearance, tears filled her blue eyes and a brilliant smile curved her lips, the likes of which had never been his. He had seen her smile that way before, but always to the boy.

It was that smile that made him abruptly shake his head and coldly insist, "You are not real."

"I'm not?" she inquired back in the voice he only heard in his head, and it almost surprised him to catch the faint echo off of stone walls.

"No, …you're just another mirage, a vision of her sent to torment me and comfort a broken man's mind. I think that it is only due to you and your sisters that I haven't fallen completely to insanity…. Or maybe I have." His eyes were frantically running over every bit of her, scanning features and reading their softness. "I often envision that smile on your lips, but…not the tears in your eyes. They are unexpected."

Christine was studying him in return with equaled intensity, her heart fluttering light as a feather with an anticipation that made her quiver. She took a step towards him, her hand timidly outstretched, and to her surprise, he immediately cowered back. "Erik," she whispered gently, "let me touch you. Let me prove that I am real."

"No!" he nearly shouted, crouching into himself and tucking limbs close. "If we touch, then you will disappear just like all of the others. And you are so beautiful, …so like her, that I don't want to lose you to reality yet."

"Erik, please," she begged beneath a furrowed brow. "I am real; I am your Christine. I traveled halfway around the world to find you. Please, you must believe in me."

The skepticism still remained in his eyes, those mismatched ones that she had so often lost herself within, their colors a more vibrant blue and green than she had ever recalled in their blatant hope. Once more, she tried to approach him, and this time, he did not recoil, only watched her sadly, sure that the moment their skin met she would vanish into the air.

Christine halted so near that she could feel the residual pulse of his body. His every unsteady breath rustled the escaped curls at her temples, and though he was suddenly terrified, he could not stop his eager heart from reveling in the warmth that her body radiated to his, the scent of her that had often filtered into his dreams yet had never been so ambrosial.

A tingling had overtaken her skin, anticipating contact in a way that it never had before as she slowly raised herself on tiptoe, leaning forward until her lips could lightly brush his, catching his nervous breath and making it her own.

Erik shuddered from head to toe, his arms locked at his sides, not daring to reach for her. It can't be real, his mind insisted. It has to be another illusion. The real Christine was safe in Paris, preparing to wed the Vicomte, not in the dungeons of Persia kissing the man she had once claimed to abhor. But as her lips fitted against his with more pressure as if finding their rightful place, moving with a gentle ease to coax him to respond, his better judgment fled him, and he abruptly gathered her up into his arms, crying out against her lips in delight at tangibility and solid matter.

Her own arms weaved around him. She was being crushed in his firm embrace, hardly able to breathe, but all that she was aware of was Erik and the surging sensations racing through her veins and up to play on the surface of her skin. How could she ever have been afraid of emotions that felt so right? Every molecule of her body sang with life and need and necessity.

After only a moment more, he drew back enough to scrutinize her face, cupping her cheek in one hand while the other yanked the hat from her head and released a cascade of curls, her curls, her cheek, her face, her body. His hands kept moving over her features as if making certain that each one was exactly as he had left it and weaved together to form his love.

"Christine," he breathed incredulously, and she noted with a swell of adoration, the tears coursing down his own cheeks, half of them lost from view behind his mask. "You're real; you're my Christine…. What are you doing here? …How did you get here? …How did you even know where to find me…?" That question he answered with a flicker of annoyance. "Nadir."

She nodded, quickly insisting, "Don't be angry with him. I forced him to tell me and refused to listen when he tried to stop me."

"I can't be angry with him when I am holding you in my arms. I never thought I would…. But how did you get here?"

"On a boat and a terrible donkey cart. Nadir's family helped me. They acquired this guard's uniform, and I easily slipped inside. No one paid attention to me."

Shaking his head, Erik stared at her in awe. "You could have been killed! If they would have discovered you…."

"I had to find you." Amidst the tears still glowing in her eyes, a bit of anger flashed. "And yell at you. You left me."

"You were marrying the Vicomte; I thought that was what you wanted." His eager fingers tucked her hair behind her ears before cupping her cheeks and framing her face. These caresses, these idle touches, were not customary between them and certainly foreign to him, but at the same time, they felt exquisitely natural.

"You're what I wanted," she revealed plainly. "I will not play the shy coquette any longer, afraid to say what I feel, scared of what I want. I want you, Erik. I was afraid…, not afraid to love you, but afraid of what it meant to love you."

Erik considered her words, his lips set in a frown. "You said that you could never love me."

Shaking her head, Christine reached up to brush the tears from his bare cheek with her fingertips. "I have always loved you…, and I don't want to be without you ever again."

As a sob tore from his lungs, Erik captured her lips with his again, pouring passion through every inch as he clung to her as if for his very life. His tongue gently probed her mouth only to be eagerly met with a caress from her own, and he delighted in her shiver against him.

As suddenly as it began, their momentary bliss was shattered with a low creak. Before she even realized what was happening, Erik tore his lips from hers and pushed her protectively behind himself. Senses still recovering themselves, she peeked nervously over his shoulder, and her heart sank.

"I told you I saw someone sneak in here," one guard said to his two companions.

The tallest of the three laughed to himself with disbelief. "A woman!" He was fighting to get a glimpse of Christine, but all he caught sight of was a flash of blue eyes and the length of her long curls. "Must be sacrificing herself to this monster out of pity!"

"No," the third one protested. "Look, she's not one of our women; she's a fair one."

Erik kept a fisted hold on Christine's arm. Before this moment, he had been utterly apathetic, wanting only to die, yet now suddenly there was something worth living for, and the fire was reborn beneath his skin. In his most threatening tone, he growled, "Leave her be. She is of no concern to you."

"No concern?" the tall one sarcastically mocked. "She masqueraded as a guard, stole our keys, and broke in here. I would say she is cause for much concern to us and to the shah."

"As is your lackluster job performance," Erik snapped back. "I am sure that the shah will enjoy hearing how exactly she was able to make it among you without detection. Perhaps he will have you join me in the torture chamber."

"Or perhaps not when I bring the girl to him," the tall guard retorted, and turning to his companions, he ordered, "Take her upstairs."

"You will not touch her!" Erik shouted, and yet he was quite aware that in this present situation, he would be no match to the guards. He knew that he would have to bide his time and find the perfect opportunity to get them both out of this awful place.

The two guards caught Erik on either side, and though it was agony to let her go, he was determined to make it seem like he could easily be beaten. As he knew from his Opera Ghost days, the illusion was half of the victory. As he released Christine, he met her horrified blue eyes and silently reassured her, bidding her in that look alone to trust him. He had spent a lifetime searching for true love; he was not about to lose it now.

The tall guard eyed Christine from head to foot as she stood small and terrified in the middle of the room, missing the warm safety of Erik's back against her. This was all her fault! She had been too careless in her haste to find Erik. And what did that now mean for them? She was loath to find out.

An hour later, Erik was furiously pacing his cell, desperately trying to devise a plan for escape, but his every concocted idea faltered when a thought of Christine overtook his mind. He needed to be calm and calculated! But one memory of her fear-stricken blue eyes and his every thought was stolen. He didn't know where she was or what was happening to her, and it terrified him.

Finally, his prison door was opened, and two guards entered. Without a word, they escorted him out of the cell. Erik went willingly, desperate for news of Christine, and it was of little surprise to him when they brought him into the shah's private chambers.

The shah did not join him until he was first tied to a chair in the center of the room with his hands bound behind his back. Turning to the guard, the shah ordered, "Make sure the knots are tight. This one is known for escape."

Erik stared coldly at the pompous leader, matching menacing stare for stare as the guard tugged on the ropes, checking their hold. Rage was welling within him, but he kept the real extent of it hidden away. No, no, not yet.

Erik waited until the shah had dismissed the guards before he demanded the only question torturing his brain, "Where is she?"

"She is being tended to by the ladies of the palace," the shah answered haughtily as if the information was hardly consequential. "She will join us presently."

"If you have hurt her-"

Before his threat could be completed, the chamber door was opened again, and both men turned to see the guard practically shove Christine into the room.

Righting her flustered posture, Christine's wide eyes immediately sought out Erik as all he could do for a long, held moment was stare at her. The women of the palace had dressed Christine like a Persian woman, the sort in the shah's harem; her blue bodice left her midriff bare and a long, flowing skirt tumbled in ripples of silk material to the floor. Atop her loose dark curls lay a crown of gold and jewels attached to a sheer, blue veil. Of course, this was not the first time Erik had seen her clothed so scantily; her dancer's attire had often been similar despite the scandals always attached, but this was the first time that he could look upon her and say for certain that her heart belonged to him.

"Exquisite." The shah's comment returned Erik to the present, and Christine, noticing his observance for the first time, wrapped her thin arms uncomfortably about her torso, shrinking back from his obtrusive stare.

"So, Erik," the shah continued, encircling Christine like she was his unsuspecting prey with those probing eyes, "this is the woman who broke your heart. Christine, isn't it?"

Erik kept a sharp eye on the shah's every movement, jealous rage flaring within him that the ruler dared to even look upon what was Erik's.

As the shah glanced at his prisoner with a haughty grin, he declared, "I can see why you would choose death. She is far too valuable to lose."

"Let her go," Erik commanded sharply. "My torture and death will more than make up for what I owe to you. She is innocent in this."

Even as Christine tried to back away, the shah caught her arms, encircling small wrists with his quite larger hands, and lowered them from her body, studying her appreciatively at every inch revealed. "Yes, but now she, too, will pay for your insolence. I gave you the chance to return to my favor, but you refused. You wanted torture and death, but an apathetic man cannot be tortured. But now, …now I've found a way to torture you far beyond what your chambers can do. You love this girl, and now you are going to watch as I bed her."

"Bastard," Erik spat, desperately yanking at his bindings.

"No!" Christine insisted in her own adamant shout.

Laughing under his breath at what he only saw to be foolishness, the shah suddenly drew forth a jewel-hilted dagger. Glancing from one to the other, he brought the weapon to where Erik sat immobile and held the tip of the blade against his throat as Erik instinctively tilted his head back away from the sharp edge. "Refuse, and I will kill him right now," the shah told Christine. "It would be of no consequence to me to end his pathetic existence, and then I shall bed you anyway. It is your choice how this is done."

Tears were welling up in Christine's eyes as they met Erik's, and even if he didn't want her to see it, she caught glimpses of his anger to be so helpless.

The shah pressed the dagger harder against Erik's throat, and frantically holding up her hands, Christine conceded, "All right. Please…just don't hurt him."

"I knew you'd see reason," the shah replied with a self-satisfied smile.

"Fiend," Erik hissed lowly at him.

"Tempt me," the shah taunted, the blade still poised. "Give me a reason to end your life now."

"Stop!" Christine shouted. "I said I'd give you want you want."

"So you did," the shah bid with a congenial grin as he purposely shifted his attention solely to her and lowered the unnecessary blade. Desire flashed in his ruthless eyes, and he eagerly approached her, leering at every detail. "Oh, I shall enjoy this. And you shall, too, fair Christine. You wanted to let that disgusting freak into your bed. Well, now you'll have a real man."

Christine couldn't breathe as he came near. Disgust, this was disgust. The shah of Persia was the most repulsive man she had ever seen with his bulging belly and beady eyes, and the very idea of letting him touch her made a wave of nausea sweep through her. How ridiculous did she now feel to have ever let Erik think that he disgusted her! This was what real disgust felt like.

From his confinement, Erik watched the scene with fire knotting in his gut. But not yet…. No, he had to fight it back; he had to keep control just a few moments more.

As he continued to stare at her hungrily, the shah lifted the veil from Christine's hair, tossing it aside before he dared to let his fingers twist in her curls. "Such fair skin. I have never seen such skin before. Perhaps I shall keep you for my harem after this. Such beauty should not be squandered."

Christine was cringing at his touch, her entire body trembling. His harem! Then he didn't mean to let her go? And he would still kill Erik!

The shah lifted his hand to caress her cheek, down her throat, and along her neckline, his fingers cold and causing every bit of flesh they grazed to be lined in goosebumps as she quivered uncontrollably, tears pouring down her cheeks from closed eyes. But the instant his overly large hands reached for the lacings of her top, a cry escaped her lips, and without thought or hesitation, she darted beyond his grasp, rushing to Erik. Never pausing, she climbed onto his lap, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck and burrowing her face against his shoulder. He was her angel; he was her protector, and only with him did she feel safe.

"Sshh," Erik crooned softly as his lips pressed a kiss against her temple. As always was the case, his first instinct was to calm her, and wishing that he could hold her back, he gently began to hum a lullaby in her ear.

The shah was enraged, but he remained where he stood, keeping his arrogant pretense intact. Meeting Erik's eye, he commanded coldly, "You better get her to be willing, or I shall make this a most unpleasant experience for both of you."

Erik wanted to make a threatening reply, but he held his tongue for Christine's sake and simply took the moment to revel in the still unfamiliar warmth and softness of her body against his.

"I can't do it, Erik," she whispered, pressing her cheek to his suit jacket. "I'm not brave enough."

"You are the bravest person I've ever known," he assured her tenderly. "You came all alone to a foreign country to find me. That is exceptionally brave."

She absorbed his words but still protested, "But I can't do this; I can't let him touch me."

"Imagine that it is not him touching you, …but instead is me." The very idea was something he had hardly ever dared to hope for, yet now he was so boldly using it without even knowing if it could appeal to her. He wasn't sure if in her mind his touch was any more accepted than the shah's. Undauntedly continuing, he bid, "You are the greatest actress I have ever seen; you can do this, Christine. Pretend that his hands are mine, that his kiss is mine, and pretend that it is me loving you so completely."

A shiver tingled the length of her spine. Erik's hands…, Erik's kiss….

"Can you imagine it, Christine?" Erik asked, kissing her temple again. "Open your eyes, mon amour."

Christine obeyed, her chin set to the curve of his shoulder, and as she did, what she saw made hope blossom and grow within her. Erik had been working the bindings of the rope around his wrists and was almost free.

Smiling inwardly without a glimpse of its curve, Erik knew that she had seen; he could practically feel the relief radiating from her. It had taken every bit of his control to focus on the task of getting free when Christine was the chosen victim of this situation, but it was the only outcome he would accept. The shah had been a fool ever to assume that a rope could be enough to hold him.

"I can do it, Erik," Christine replied, suddenly firm where she had only moments ago been shaking. "It will be your hands and your lips." Leaning back enough to meet his eye on his lap, she told him earnestly, "I would do anything to save you."

"As would I."

Before he could add any sort of endearments, the shah interrupted with a biting call, "Enough!" He had been patient only long enough to consider her willing beneath him. If imagining that freak would make her welcome him in her bed, then the shah could not find reason for complaint, not when he knew the damage that nails and teeth could cause.

Christine held Erik's stare one moment more, and through that gaze flashed everything unsaid, plans for escape and vows of eternal devotion, the love she'd yearned to be hers. Then reluctant in her plight, she rose from his lap and faced the shah once more, feigning the extent of the same fear she had previously suffered as real.

The shah closed the lingering distance between them, and with a haughty glance to Erik as though he was claiming victory, he dragged Christine against himself and captured her mouth in a bruising kiss.

Erik cringed, his chest tight with fury, but if anything, all that did was fuel his determination as he worked diligently at the ropes. He was already envisioning in his head what the insolent ruler's fate would be once he was free. Woe to him for daring to cross the Opera Ghost!

Every impulse within Christine's body screamed to struggle, but she didn't, forcing herself to remain still and frozen. It only lasted a moment more before the shah impatiently grabbed her by the arm and dragged her toward the bed. The gasp that fell from her lips was real as was the urgency in her eyes as she quickly averted them to Erik.

"My hands, Christine," Erik bid to her, and she silently nodded.

Pushing Christine onto the bed, the shah did not give her the chance to scoot away before joining her, his hands keeping a firm hold on her hair to force her in place. As he was searching for the lacings of her top again, Erik's call sounded around them.

"Sing, Christine," Erik commanded, using the voice he had once adopted as her Angel of Music.

That voice! Christine did not hesitate or refuse; she could deny that voice nothing. She began to sing Marguerite's aria from Faust, and the beautiful instrument that Erik had had a hand in creating echoed throughout the chamber, the full timbre resounding clear and precise to every corner.

The shah halted and simply stared at her in amazement; it was exactly the response Erik was hoping for. The ruler was smiling as Christine's golden tones soared, declaring, "A little nightingale! I must have you sing for me every night."

Christine only continued in the plaintive lament of lost love, never daring to cast one, single look in Erik's direction and break the shah's attentions from her.

Under the concealment of the lush melody coming from his beloved's lips, Erik crept up behind the pompous ruler, grasping the rope that had held him prisoner. The shah never knew what was happening as the rope encircled his neck, and with a hard jerk before realization dawned, consciousness evaded him.

Christine leapt away as the shah's heavy body fell limply across the mattress, her wide eyes going from the shah to Erik. "Is he…?"

"Dead? No, though it took every bit of restraint I possessed not to kill him for touching you." Erik offered his hand, which she immediately took, never a pause, and he helped her to her feet beneath shaking knees.

"What do we do?" she inquired fearfully. "There are guards outside the room."

Smiling with a certain confidence she recalled so vividly from his Opera Ghost days, he replied, "We are not going outside the room." Grabbing a thick cloak from a nearby wardrobe, he draped it over her shoulders, enshrouding her in its warm folds even as his eyes missed the view of every bit of her exposed flesh.

With a curved finger as an invitation to follow, Erik led her to a thick tapestry on the far wall. Drawing the brocaded material aside to reveal the stone wall beneath, he pushed a small hinge invisible to those who did not know of its existence and watched the wall part and a dark tunnel appear.

"A passageway?" Christine was not given an answer as Erik quickly drew her inside, letting the tapestry fall and the wall close behind him.

He wasted not a moment. With her warm hand clasped in his, he hurried their pace through the dark tunnels. To Christine, it was not at all unlike the opera catacombs.

"How did you know about these passages?" she asked softly, stumbling to keep up with his rushed steps.

"I constructed them. The shah wanted a secret way out of his chambers in case the palace was invaded, and I designed it for him. I guess you could say that it was practice for the operahouse passages."

The corridor meandered here and there with tunnels leading in different directions, but Erik knew exactly where they were and the way to solve the intricate labyrinth. It felt just like yesterday that he had laid out the complete design; he could never forget the map etched to precision in his head.

All was silent except for hurried footfalls and frantic breaths bouncing off of the stone walls. Christine wondered how far these tunnels extended as their journey began to seem as if it had no ending as every flicker of a sound made her heart leap with terror and left her to ponder how long it would take the guards to realize what they had done and where they had gone.

Erik turned down one particular tunnel, and as Christine glanced over his shoulder, she saw that it ended and wondered if in his haste to keep her safe, he had gone the wrong way. But he led them right to the wall. Reaching low to a spot near the floor, he found the buried mechanism that, once pulled, revealed a hidden staircase.

"Watch your step," he warned and concealed them behind the wall before leading her down.

Deeper and deeper they went until they reached the end of the staircase. Christine could distinguish nothing in the dark they were lost in, holding her breath and edging closer to the safety of Erik's shape.

"Stay still," he ordered as he reluctantly released her hand.

As her internal compass spun with no direction, leaving her dizzy and not even knowing ceiling from floor, she forced her ears to concentrate on sound and listened for Erik as he moved about, searching for something. After a moment, the warm glow of a lantern bathed the room in light, bright to her dark-adjusted eyes despite the mediocrity of its single flame.

"Where are we?" she asked as she scanned the confining space. Four walls on all sides, and it seemed to her that they were trapped. Her eyes landed on Erik again, and she noted with a peculiar strangeness how the candle glow played on his white mask and stole every threat that it had once whispered.

"I built this room hidden away for just this sort of situation. No one knows of it but me. I used it once before, the last time I escaped the shah's palace. Here we can wait safely until the guards complete their search of the corridors and deem that we have already left the palace grounds. Then once they stop looking for us, we will make our escape."

Christine's eyes wandered the room once again as she nervously shifted on her feet, and as if sensing the unease tensing within her, Erik stepped a fair distance away to one of the corners of the room. From the shadows, he drew forth a pile of blankets.

"Just as I left them," he commented as he brought them into the pool of light. "The last time I waited three days, but I had no place to go and no one to help me leave Persia. We can wait until morning and then seek out Nadir's family. His brother owns a company that ships spices to Europe. Nadir escaped this place by being smuggled aboard one of those ships, and we shall do the same."

"Morning," she repeated distantly.

Erik was watching her with sadness in his eyes, but when she dared to meet his gaze, he abruptly hid his emotions from sight. Handing her the blankets, he said, "Here. I know that the floor is cold and hard, but these blankets are the finest in all of Persia. If you put them down on the floor and lay atop them, you won't even recall that you are not in a bed."

And with that, he turned away, moving to the opposite side of the room. To Christine, it felt like he was suddenly miles from her grasp, and she knew that it was her own fault. Why did it always seem so easy for her to hurt him?

With a soft sigh beneath her breath, she busied herself with the task of arranging the blankets on the stone floor. She did not hesitate in making a bed for two.

Across the room, Erik could hear the sounds of her shuffling about, but he cast not even a glance in her direction, not even when he heard her timid footsteps approaching him.

"Erik." Her soft voice was as always like the sweetest music to his ears, and though it was torture for him, he did not turn to acknowledge her. "Erik," she called again after a moment, worry tingeing her words, "what's wrong?"

Pausing with a silence that seemed endless in its chasm, he finally answered her without lifting eyes; no, if he saw her, he feared he would break in two. "It's silly really…. I had thought that…. You came all the way to Persia to find me…. But you're still afraid of me…."

"No, I'm not," she insisted without waver.

"You're afraid to be in this room with me right now," he accused bitterly.

Christine lowered her eyes to the stone floor, wondering to herself how correct he was in his assumption. Softly, she revealed, "I am not afraid of you, Erik…. I'm afraid of this…, us…. I don't know what it means."

He still would not turn to face her as he tentatively reminded, "You said that you were not afraid to love me. …But I am afraid to love you. I'm terrified of that very thing. My love frightened you once before and chased you away. I cannot bear to lose you again, and I will do anything I must to keep you…even if that means loving you from afar."

That was not what she wanted! She had come to Persia and stood down an almost unimaginable fate at his side, and all she had wanted all the while was to feel his arms around her.

Swallowing back her timidity, she slowly inched closer and closer so that he had to face her, and before he could utter a word and destroy the anticipation building in her soul, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged herself to his rigid frame.

As though it was the most common and necessary of things, his arms weaved around her and fitted her to his shapes. It was still so new to hold her, and he knew he would never tire of it. His breath ruffled her curls as he whispered her name, his cheek tickled by their softness.

After a long, still moment, he hesitantly revealed, "You should be afraid of me. I wanted to kill the shah tonight; every impulse in my body begged me to do it. What he dared to do…. Nothing else could have tortured me as that did. I have always been your angel, your protector, and to have to endure being utterly helpless while you needed me so much, to have to watch that pompous bastard try to put his hands on you…. What if I hadn't been able to get free? What if his guards had finally become competent enough to tie me up beyond my ability to escape? …What if you had been defiled by that bastard and all I could do was watch it happen?"

Christine shuddered with the very thought, and drawing back enough to meet his eye, she replied, "Worse than that would have been standing by helplessly and watching you be executed."

As he studied her expression in the lantern's light, he was still astounded by the depth of emotion within her. It was something he had spent so long yearning and praying to be his, and he kept having to insist to himself that it was real. Real…. She really cared this deeply for him….

Shaking his head, he flatly stated, "You deserve so much better than this, …so much better than me. I have nothing left to offer you, no home, no possessions, no gifts. You should have married the Vicomte and had the life you deserve."

She lifted her hand to cover his mouth and silenced him. "You have offered me more love than I ever thought I would know. How could I ever want for more than that?"

Her hand moved from his lips to reach for the fastenings of his mask, and when he made no move to stop her, only watched her expectantly, she removed it, exposing his deformity to her awaiting eyes. No longer did its scars shock her; it was only a face, the face of her angel.

Erik felt so completely vulnerable without his mask, more bared than if he had removed every stitch of clothing. The mask concealed what he was most ashamed of, not only the physical scars but his inner self. It was as if the man without the mask, the one with the deformed face, was the one responsible for all the pain he had caused, all the sins he had committed while the man with the mask was the genius, the virtuoso, the good parts of himself. It surprised him to his deepest depths that Christine regarded both of his faces with the same expression in her eyes.

Reaching out without hesitation, her hands cupped either side of his face, both so different yet both combining to make the incredible man she adored. "I love you, Erik," she whispered fervently, watching tears gather in his eyes.

"You know all that I am," he whispered back. "No one has ever known me so completely, and you can look upon it all, the dark and the light, and love me still…. I am in awe of you." Bending near to her, he pressed feather light kisses to the features of her beautiful face: her brow, her nose, her cheeks, her jaw. Finally, as she grew impatient with waiting, he found her lips with his. This kiss was unrushed as he reveled in the newness of such physical contacts. His lips were moving gently over hers, and she eagerly followed his lead, a tingle of delight racing down the length of her spine. It astounded her how this one act could bring forth such a response as inherent as any other; once before, she would have run away from it in fear, but now she willingly gave herself to it, surrendering, anxiously craving so much more.

To her disappointment, Erik pulled away after only a moment more, even as she continued to lean toward him. "Christine," he began timidly, "I don't want you to think…. I want nothing more than your love."

"It's yours," she replied, tilting her head up with her eyes closing in anticipation of more kisses.

"Wait," he instructed, and her lashes fluttered open to meet his stare, her brow furrowing. "I need you to understand. I would never ask more of you, and I would certainly never force you as the shah tried to do…."

Christine's eyes widened with realization, and though her cheeks burned with a blush, she stuttered, "You…you don't…want such things?"

Shrugging his shoulders, Erik feigned apathy. "I would never ask that of you."

"Why?" The question fell from her lips before her better sense could bid her to be silent, and pinks brightened to reds. "I…I mean…you planned to marry me…."

"Yes, but…I would never force that on you. That you love me is enough, even if you only ever love me as your angel and teacher and never as a man…. The power of desire forced you away once before; I won't frighten you with it again." With that oath, Erik abruptly released her and stepped away, lowering his unmasked face from her regard.

"Erik." She caught his chin up with her fingers and tipped it upward to force him to look at her. "The power of your desire humbles me." Holding his gaze with her own, she suddenly pushed the thick cloak she wore from her shoulders, letting it fall into a puddle of dark fabric at her feet. "When the shah was trying to touch me, you said to imagine your hands on my skin…. I don't want to just imagine it anymore." Her words were hushed, her expression timid even through her boldness, and it sent a shiver down her spine to glimpse the hunger and need flash in his eyes.

"What…exactly are you saying?" He was keeping a careful restraint on himself, desperate not to misread her intentions. Yet even as he waited and burned, he was taking in every detail of her and her revealing attire, dizzy from the heat radiating from her body.

She hesitated, biting her lips nervously. "I…I'm saying that I love you not only as my angel and teacher but as a man, and…I want to know every bit of that love."

"I…I can't," he stuttered, and he would have moved away if she hadn't caught one of his hands in both of hers.

Bringing his captive hand to her lips, she pressed a lingering kiss to his palm and whispered, "You cannot take what I willingly give."

His eyes closed slowly, his breath trembling in his lungs, and as he exhaled it with a sigh, he whispered, "And you are asking me to make love to you, Christine?"

Hearing her request spoken aloud made her quiver with a blush of apprehension as she tentatively gave a single nod. "You…you do want me, …don't you?"

"Oh, Christine," he breathed fervently. "You need not ask such a thing. I ache for you."

Her hands were shaking so hard as they still clutched his, and as her eyes moved to study its nuances intently, hesitantly tracing every contour of each knuckle and every finger, she innocently inquired, "Have you ever…made love to anyone before?"

"Never," he answered blatantly honest, watching her every movement vigilantly.

"Neither have I." It was a revelation that she was certain he already knew, but she felt compelled to state it aloud and return the intimacy of his own admission. "I…I've never wanted to be with anyone before I met you…. When I'm with you, …I want things I never could have imagined."

"Tell me," he bid urgently, his free hand rising to lightly caress her cheek, a necessary touch. There was such an innocence and a shyness about her and the small smile curving her lips that only made his desire burn brighter.

Blushing fiercely yet, she whispered, "To touch you…everywhere…and learn what your body feels like against my skin. I imagine…how it would feel if you made love to me…. Do you think of such things, too?"

His hand was slipping into her loose curls and entwining in their silken twists. "And so much more…. But the choice is yours, Christine. Say the word, and we will stop."

"Don't stop," she immediately requested.

That was all he needed to hear. Bending to her without hesitation, he captured her lips with his. This time he did not hold back the fire in his veins, letting it loose to sear her as he kissed her so fervently. His tongue slipped between her lips to taste her, exploring every contour of her mouth, and as she arched her body nearer to his in response, he held her tighter to himself, certain that she would feel the effect she was having on him.

Erik continued to kiss her, encouraged to deepen the kiss more and more as she met his every movement, matching his desire, her fingers curled desperately in his thin hair. Before this, she had only been granted glimpses into the extent of the passion he knew for her. Experiencing its power now took her breath away. It was so consuming, so overwhelming, and she eagerly gave in to it without reservation.

When he drew his kiss away again with a final quick brushing of his lips to hers, she pleadingly cried again, "Don't stop."

"Oh, I don't intend to," he assured with a slight grin, hardly comprehending that he could create such passion in her. Without hesitation, he swept her up into his arms and carried her to the blankets she had set out for them. As if she was made of the most delicate glass, he lay her down atop their softness and stayed looming above her. She watched him through hazy eyes and was in awe at the adoration and sense of worship in his expression; it was as if he could not believe that she was there and that she was his.

"Erik," she called, lifting trembling fingers, and stealing that hand in his, weaving fingers together, he allowed her to guide him to kneel beside her as she shyly asked, "Will you touch me please?"

Erik felt himself burn with merely her request but he first took precious care to undress her of her Persian attire, hardly permitting even a brushing of his skin to hers until she lay naked on their bed of blankets. For as courageous as she was trying to be, he could see the apprehension flash in her blue eyes.

"You needn't be afraid of me," he assured tenderly.

"I'm not…. I just…I want to please you." Her trepidation was begging her to cover herself with shaking hands, but that fear was slowly being transformed by the hunger so apparent in his eyes as he gazed upon her.

"Please me? Simply the vision of your beauty makes me throb with need. I need to have you." As further proof, he caught her hand again in his and led it without reservation to press it to his hardness, shuddering with the first contact. "Can you feel what you do to me? And just how much you please me?"

Intrigued in the way that sparked her unending curiosity, Christine closed her fingers around him and tentatively caressed the length of him. A groan escaped his lips as he watched her through desperate eyes, yearning to be rid of clothing's barrier. As if mirroring his unspoken thought, her fingers were moving to the clasps of his pants, unhooking and releasing his manhood from its confines to her inquisitive gaze.

The size of him returned a small amount of her previous trepidation, and reading it blatantly, he told her again, "We don't need to do this, Christine. You've already proven your love a hundred times over to me."

Shaking her head, she stammered, "No, …I…I want to do this. I just hadn't realized…." She was blushing furiously over every inch of revealed skin, making pale creams into pinks.

His hand guided hers back to touch his body again, a small gasp of delight slipping past his lips at the warm softness of her fingers against his aching hardness. In a husky voice, he assured her, "You were made for me…, so that I would fit inside of you. I promise."

Nodding, she concentrated on touch, surprised by the texture of him and studying his responses with furtive glances to his every expression. As her caresses grew more intent and confident, she noted how his eyes drifted closed and he bit his bottom lip amidst harsh breaths. And then almost abruptly, he caught her hand in a tight grip and pulled it away.

"If you don't stop…," he trailed off. His voice was so rugged that she would never have recognized it as his, but to consider that its contortion was inspired by passion she was causing thrilled her and made the hint of a smile tinge the corners of her lips.

Before she could ask why he had stopped her, he bent and kissed her gently; one kiss, and as he pulled back again, he fervently whispered, "And now I get to touch you as I please."

The idea alone caused her to shiver, and as he slowly ran his fingertips down the side of her neck, she could not contain a little cry. His touch seared her skin like a blazing flame, and yet all she could do was arch nearer. Burning alive would be blissful at his hands.

Erik gave no pause, allowing his fingers to trail over the tips of her breasts and moaning to feel them immediately harden. With her eager cry of delight ringing in his ears, he cupped both of her breasts in his hands and used his thumbs to tease her nipples, inciting more and yearning for louder, more desperation, more need. He was delirious with the idea that she was a slave to the passion he was creating within her, his every touch leaving her to unwittingly arch against him.

One of his hands wandered a path down her smooth stomach and lower, and without hesitation, she parted her thighs, staring at him with hazy eyes and gauging his reaction as his fingertips found the heated wetness of her. He groaned, and she shuddered.

"Christine," he breathed hoarsely, stroking her and making her writhe beneath him. "I can feel how much you want me. It's dripping from my fingers…."

Her hips were moving in sync with his every stroke, and as she pushed her head back into the blankets, her curls tangled all around her in coils of silk.

Though he feared his own inexperience, he was learning how to please her, reading her responses so intently at every second. And how it made him ache to consider that this was all for him, this woman, her desire, her wetness coating his fingers. She was his…. He continued to caress her, guiding eager fingertips in and out of her slick center until she was trembling and crying out, clinging to his shoulders with clenched hands. Then he knew he had to have her.

Erik undressed, holding her languid gaze all the while, and with a muffled cry, he lowered his body over hers, overcome with the contact of skin to skin. Her arms entwined about his sturdy frame, pulling him close as with an apologetic kiss against her temple, he quickly entered her in one swift thrust.

Christine cringed, but even as the telltale tears welled up in her eyes, she clung to him, burrowing her face against the crease of his neck and shoulder as he felt the wetness of her tears against his skin.

"If you wish it, I will stop," he insisted, holding his still within her warm folds. "I don't want to hurt you."

For a long moment, she did not reply, did not move. The pain was gradually fading away until as it cleared her brain in wispy clouds, she was able to concentrate on the very fact that they were joined as one being, that the man she loved more than anything was now a part of her.

Lifting her head so that she could whisper in his ear, she told him, "I can feel you so deep inside of me. All of this time, we strove to be together, and finally, we are."

"One heart, one soul, one body," he replied, pressing his scarred cheek against her smooth one. That dead skin, that awful disfigurement, seemed to sing with sensation for the first time in his life.

"I don't want this ever to end," she added and arched her hips up to his, urging him to continue.

Erik took the lead, beginning slowly and gently to move within her, moaning at how her wetness made it so imperative to thrust even deeper. His lips found hers, and he made kisses into vows, oaths of eternity as he was lost so completely in all that she was. After only moments as the willing victim to the gentle arch of his body against hers, she felt the desire building, its poignancy requiring completion and begging for fulfillment. Clinging to him with desperate limbs, she lost control in a fervent cry that was captured in a kiss, swallowed and contained to be forever his.

Once she had found her pleasure, he sought his own, thrusting more fiercely into her willing and welcoming body. He carried a twinge of a fear that he would hurt her, but as she tore her lips from his to press harshly passionate kisses down the side of his neck, he released any inhibitions he still harbored and moved harder until he could feel his approaching release. With a yell of surrender, he exploded deep within her, riding out wave after wave of ecstasy as he kept her so completely fused to himself.

After taking time to catch his breath, he lifted his head enough to rain kisses to her features, mumbling in between, "I love you. How I love you so much!" He was still sheathed within her, unwilling to detach himself from her yet, and he breathed in a kiss below her temple, "I wish we could always be joined this way, always one being."

"We are one being now," she replied, nuzzling against his lips and refusing to recall days when she had foolishly considered them deformed; deformed, no, they made her burn. "No matter where we are and what we do, now we will always be one being." Turning her head to grant a sacred kiss to his scarred cheek, she whispered, "That was…the most amazing thing I've ever felt. I had no idea that it would feel that way."

A wave of satisfaction swept through him, lifting those lips into an uncommonly confident smile, typical of the Opera Ghost and yet so very unusual for Erik. "Then I pleased you?"

"Need you even ask that?" There was a slight blush to her cheeks as she recalled her own uninhibited response. "You know you did…. You please me in every way, Erik."

His expression suddenly grew intensely serious as he met her eye, a fierce possessiveness blazing within him. "I want to marry you as soon as possible. I cannot accept a refusal because I can't bear to ever be without you again. Will you concede, Christine?"

She smiled. "With all of my heart and soul."

Erik was tucking her curls behind her ears and letting his fingers twirl among their silken cloud as he vowed in return, "I will be a devoted husband, Christine. My only wish is to make you happy. Whatever you want for will be yours."

"But you are all I want to make me happy." Beaming with a smile that could not be dimmed, she traced her fingers over his shoulders and the muscles of his back. "I just want you…and this forever."

Her innocent request was met with a low groan from him and a throbbing of his renewing passion within her. He did not need to answer her with further oaths as he captured her lips eagerly in his. Within minutes, he was once again smiling in that newly confident way as he brought forth delirious cries from her. And as he once again claimed her as his, he was so overcome that tears fell over his scarred face between vows of eternal, undying love and the forever she wanted.

The next day, carefully concealed in shadows, Erik and Christine made their way to the home of Nadir's family, and by nightfall, they were on a boat leaving Persia.

Standing at the railing overlooking the ocean as it rolled in waves beneath them, Erik held Christine in his arms, keeping her close to his heart.

"Where are we heading, amour?" he asked with a grin, stroking her hair tenderly.

"Anywhere, everywhere. You are my home, so it doesn't matter where we go."

"I lay the world at your feet. Every bit of it will be yours."

Happiness swelled within her as she cuddled in his arms, pressing her back to his chest. She knew she would feel the same for the rest of her life with Erik at her side; he would make sure of it.

And as they sailed over the ocean with the world before them, life and love seemed endless and eternal.