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

OK, so after a great debate, I decided to start posting my phantom novel. I wrote this years ago after going through a health situation, and I was just after an escape. It truly is an idealized romance. It includes the holiday season, which is why I wanted to start getting it posted now. And in this story, I wrote Christine with a bit more personality. I always believed that if she could have that, it would alter every detail. I will keep posting chapters as I edit; I am also currently working on editing the novel I'm getting published, so it's a busy time. I truly hope that you enjoy this story; it's very passionate and hopefully gives inspiration in its love story. This novel is dedicated to my dear friend Mary. If not for her encouragement, it probably would have been tucked away in my closet for the rest of my life!

SUMMARY: A love story for a phantom.


Christine Daaé's girlish giggles of delight echoed down the nearly empty corridors of the opera house and up to the highest beams of the rafters above her head. She tried to quiet herself with a hand pressed demurely to her lips, knowing that she was acting more like a child than a lady, but the bubbling bursts of laughter escaped between her fingers despite her best efforts as Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, erupted into another story of the mischievous escapades of their youth. His audience consisted of Christine and her best friend, Meg Giry, and the little ballerina was also trying to no avail to contain her own fluttering giggles as the Vicomte imitated the high-pitched scoldings of his nursemaid complete with the woman's thick Irish brogue.

"Oh, Raoul, you are too horrible!" Christine shouted, swatting at his arm. "The poor woman is dead and gone, and here you are making fun of her!"

"She would be pleased to know that her memory lives on," the Vicomte justified with his charming grin. "And if I do remember correctly, she only ever yelled at me when you were around. I guess that shows what a terrible influence you were on my fragile, innocent self."

"Hey!" She couldn't contain the brightness of her smile at his teasing, inspired by the memories he was evoking, memories of the most pleasant time of her life. "I hardly believe that! You were a very naughty little boy, Raoul! Most of our adventures were all your idea. Do you remember when we dug up your yard in search of buried treasure with that silly map you made out of tree bark?"

"We were pirates!" Raoul tried to argue.

"Pirates!" Meg exclaimed in a new fit of giggles.

Christine could only join her, fighting to speak coherent words amidst her laughter. "Your poor nurse nearly strangled us. She had to explain it to your father, and she told him it was gophers because she didn't want to lose her position as nursemaid to a Vicomte."

"Poor nurse indeed! We certainly kept her job interesting for her!" Raoul's deep chuckles were a harmony of sound, the echoes bouncing off of the walls and filtering upward.

Up, up, up. In the darkness above their heads listening to every word was a shadow, a shadow that had not even one smile for their happy memories, a shadow that knew only envy and seething rage as their every utterance of delight pierced his already agonized heart. Desperate to break up their exchange, he purposely made a loud ruckus of indecipherable noises and watched with satisfaction as the trio below abruptly ended their laughter and suddenly glanced around themselves with widened stares.

"What was that?" Meg whispered without voice, her bottom lip trembling uncontrollably as her terror-filled, green eyes peeked anxiously about.

Straightening defiantly, the Vicomte gave a forced, confident chuckle and declared, "Women are always so sensitive in their dispositions. I'm sure it was nothing, mademoiselle, just someone else who hasn't yet departed for the night."

But Meg was unconvinced, her eyes still nervously wandering every dark corner while beside her, Christine cast a furtive glance above to the rafters, knowing exactly who was there watching them. …Watching, always watching; the thought incited a hardly-discernible shudder down her back, but she said nothing to her companions and lowered her eyes despondently to wringing hands.

"I should go," Meg hurriedly insisted, shivering as she spoke. "Mama will be worried if I am late." Forcing herself to stay a moment longer despite her rising urgency to flee, she hastily asked Christine, "Are you sure that you don't want to stay with Mama and I over the break? You are more than welcome."

"Yes, thank you," Christine answered, a strange sadness glinting in the depths of her blue eyes. "I have a great deal of practicing to do, and I am quite looking forward to spending some quiet time alone."

"If you should change your mind, you know the invitation is always open." Meg gave her a quick hug and granted a small, flustered wave to the Vicomte before rushing toward the door, still worriedly scanning the shadows all around at every step.

"Is she always so easily frightened?" Raoul asked, staring after the ballerina only a moment longer before he eagerly fixed his gaze on Christine.

"That's just Meg," she hastily explained. "She's scared of her own shadow."

"Oh, but you're not?"

"No." Almost immediately, her smile faded from sight, the corners of her lips weighed down with the heaviness of her thoughts. Scared of shadows…. She already knew what lurked in the dark, what stalked her every movement, and her fear over it had disappeared long ago.

The Vicomte's brow furrowed with his concern as he caught her shoulders between his hands and turned her to face him. "Suddenly so serious. Won't you tell me what is going on in that pretty head of yours?"

Shrinking free of his hold, Christine forced a smile again, and even if it was feigned, he was far too distracted admiring the beauty of its formation to give notice. "Nothing…. I was only thinking that I should be leaving as well."

"Well, let me walk you home."

"No!" she immediately exclaimed before quickly attempting a calm exterior. "I mean…you should go; I…I actually think I will stay and practice a little longer instead."

"Then let me return to get you when you are finished."

"That won't be necessary, Raoul."

"But you shouldn't walk home alone at night."

Shaking her head adamantly, she was gesturing him toward the door with impatient hands. "Don't be silly. I walk home alone every night. I will be just fine."

Unconvinced and still reluctant to leave, Raoul caught one of her trembling hands in his, gently stroking the back with his thumb. "Then if you won't let me escort you home tonight, may I call on you tomorrow? You will have three whole days to enjoy your quiet solitude as you like. May I have one afternoon of that? Please, Little Lotte?"

When he looked at her with those familiar blue eyes in that expression so like his boyish self and called her the pet name of their shared youth, she could not suppress the curves of a genuine grin or form the imperative words of a refusal. "All right, Raoul," she found herself conceding against better judgment. "…You may call on me."

"Thank you!" Impulsively, the Vicomte brought the hand he held to his lips and pressed a kiss to its smooth knuckles. "I will be at your apartment after breakfast and not one minute later." Gazing deeply into her eyes, Raoul dared to raise his free hand and tenderly tuck her hair behind her ear, whispering, "Goodnight, my Christine. Be careful."

"I will," she replied and watched with a vague sense of disappointment as Raoul released her and left with one more beaming glance over his shoulder.

Beaming? He was more than beaming; he was so elated and excited that she had finally said yes, and that only made the guilt weigh even more upon her shoulders. How foolishly selfish she had been to agree and lead him on! The next day when he arrived at her apartment, he would find no one at home and feel betrayed and hurt because she had lacked the strength to refuse him to his face. And it hardly seemed fair because she didn't want to refuse! It was killing her to keep pushing him away so cruelly, …but she had another engagement to attend to, a promise she had to keep first…whether she wanted to or not.

With a desolate sigh, Christine spun on her heel and stalked down the hallway, knowing that she was being followed. She was purposely ignoring her stalker, pretending that she was ignorant to his presence if only to have a few more moments to herself. Bursting through her dressing room door, she reluctantly locked herself in, lingering one final second to gaze solemnly at the wooden doorframe before she slowly turned to face her impending fate.

It wasn't fair, she insisted to herself again, and that was the only way she could think of it even as she dubbed her assessment a childish rant and chastised her pettiness. The company was being granted a very short vacation of only three days in between productions to rest, and while everyone else would be doing exactly that, she would be confined to the dreary, damp catacombs of the opera house with a mentally unstable man who was more or less a stranger to her.

Erik…. She usually chose not to think of him rather than to contemplate their situation; it was easier that way. Simply put, he was her teacher and had been acting in that role for nearly five months now. Of course, for the first four, he had deceived her and pretended to be an angel, but now she knew the truth, that he was a man cut off from society both because of his horribly disfigured face and a rather questionable past that Christine still knew very little about and had no inclination to learn. It was more than enough to still be adjusting to his existence as an earthly human being and not a divine creature; she wasn't yet prepared to face his sins as well, not when the exaggerated gossip around the opera equated him with the devil himself. No, better not to know the truth….

"Christine…." His eerily lyrical tone resounded around her in the small room, and hesitantly, she turned to regard her full-length mirror. Despite her annoyance, a shiver ran through her at the sheer beauty of that voice. It was that voice alone that had once convinced her that he was indeed an angel, for what sort of earthly being could possess such an instrument? Golden, beautiful, ethereal…. Ironic what the truth had really been!

Mentally cursing her own weakness, she quickly grabbed her thick, woolen cloak and drew it over her shoulders, remembering the chill of the deep cellars she would be walking. The mirror's glass was growing hazy, her reflection fading from her sight, and with the soft whine of the hinge and pulley system that opened the secret doorway, she watched unimpressed as the glass seemed to vanish with his little trick. All that was left for her was an awaiting darkness and a shadow of a figure that did not dare to step into the warm glow of her dressing room as if shunning the natural solace of light itself.

Her companion said not a word, only held out his gloved hand to appear as if the very shadows were reaching out to suck her into their black depths, and with a final glance at her world, she slowly took the offered hand and was led through the doorway of the very gates to hell.

As soon as the mirror glass closed again, hiding the inviting light of her own world, her eyes adjusted themselves to the new, weaker glow of the solitary lantern her companion held, and she nervously faced him, her bare hand loosely clasped in his gloved one, a mere impulse away from jerking free.

Though it had been a month since she had learned his true identity, being with him still unnerved her. It was relatively new and yet unfamiliar to glimpse that stark, white mask gazing so intently at her and to regard his thin frame, the build of a corporeal man and not an angel. No, …he had no pure, white wings to wrap her in and no untainted, shining soul to inspire her. He was a mortal man with a mortal man's sins and flaws that could not be forgotten. Staring at that mask for a long moment, she felt a strange tingle race her spine with the flashed image of what it hid from her view, of the ravaged face of Death that she had born witness to only once, twisted as it had been in the fit of rage she had ignorantly caused. And it was as though he could read the memory in her mind because she could swear that she saw it reflected in the depths of his mismatched eyes with a piercing sadness that she had to look away from; it was just too powerful to behold and not respond to with pity, and she did not want to feel pity for such a creature.

Erik still did not speak to her, only began to lead her by the hand he clasped down that long pathway to his home, and she was silently cursing herself for her inability to veil her emotions. It seemed all she could manage to do was cause him pain with her foolish innocence. Nearly every time they met face to face, as they often did now for her lessons, she would do something to hurt him, either stare rudely at his mask or shrink away from an accidental touch. Though he would have never admitted it aloud and she never dared ask, she knew that it was due to her unwitting reactions that he had taken up wearing gloves while in her presence, to spare her any possible brushing of his skin to hers. Even though she made no complaint against them, she felt the guilt gnawing at her insides. It was all her own fault after all; had she simply respected his wishes and refrained from touching his mask as he had asked, then perhaps things would have been different. But as usual, her curiosity had overwhelmed her, and she had unintentionally failed him and brought fantasies of angels with golden wings crashing down upon her own head.

The silence stretched between them as they walked that lonely path to his home, and when at last she glimpsed the glow from within that hidden sanctuary filtering out into the dark catacombs, Christine felt a wave of nervous fear settle in her stomach. This was it; she was going to spend the next three days in the lion's den. The only night she had stayed in this house was that first one when she had still believed in angels. Since then, she had been fortunate that her lessons had ended early enough for her to return to her own apartment without consideration. It wasn't the house itself that scared her, even buried so deep beneath earth's surface; she had her own room here, a beautifully decorated room that was finer than any she had ever known. No, it was a profoundly embedded fear of Erik himself; it was the very idea of living with this man far away from the rest of humanity and anyone to help her if he dared to lose control and fly into one of his rages. Accepting his proposal to stay with him for the next three days made her feel foolishly naïve, perhaps putting a little more trust in him than her rational mind said that she should. But it was too late now to go back and refuse.

Erik opened the door, and only then did he release her hand from the hold he had had on it during their entire journey. For one brief instant, she actually missed the pressure of his fingers curled around hers, the strange protective solidity of that simple clasping, but she quickly dismissed the feeling as ridiculous and turned to watch him lock the door behind them, confining her into the house with him. …Locked in with him.

Erik noticed how her wild eyes were fixed on the key in his hand, and trying to keep the sadness from his voice, he said, "You may leave whenever you like, Christine. You are not a prisoner here." And with that, he put the key in the drawer of a nearby table, making certain that she blatantly saw his every movement.

"I…I know," Christine replied in an unconvincing tone, finding little in the way of relief to simply know where the key was kept. …Why did it still seem as if she was just as trapped?

Fighting to ignore her unease, Erik idly motioned to the adjoining hallway. "You must be hungry. Go on to your room, and I'll call you when supper is ready."

A solitary nod was her reply, her expression never altering from its apprehensive sculpture. As always, she felt awkward and unnatural in his presence and was oddly content with an acceptable form of escape as with one final cautious look at him, she turned and hurried down the hall.

Erik watched her go, staring after her until she disappeared within the sanctuary of her room. A malaise of emotions was twisting nonstop within him, for even though it hurt him to see her mistrust vibrantly on display, a mistrust that his own deception had been the root cause of, he was also inexplicably overwhelmed with a foreign sense of happiness that she was actually in his home. Three days as his…. He had not forced it on her; he had asked, and to his shock, she had said yes, returning to him a hope he had assumed to be perished. …Maybe there was still a chance….

Maybe indeed! He cursed his steadfast, unfounded belief in a happy ending for everyone; a happy ending would never be his, and the sooner he accepted that, the less pain he would force himself to endure. Had he not born witness this very day to her keeping company with that arrogant, pompous Vicomte and laughing and smiling in a way that she had never done with him? Had he not seen the damn Vicomte touch her, holding her hand, brushing her arm, without her shrinking away in revulsion? That damn de Chagny had even dared to call her "my Christine"! Arrogant bastard! The memory of it alone made Erik's blood run hot with fury. He had wanted to drop out of the rafters and strangle the Vicomte without a thought or regret, and as far as Erik was concerned, it was only Christine's undeniable presence that had saved the young boy's life. Killing him would have been so easy, but once again Erik had to remind himself that if he ever wanted to rebuild what had been lost, he had to restrain his murderous urges and act the role of a gentleman. …But oh, what torture it was!

Clenching his fists tightly with the lingering remnants of his repressed rage, Erik stalked to his kitchen and began to prepare dinner for his guest. …A guest. He was unaccustomed to entertaining company, but it was something that he knew he could grow accustomed to quickly in Christine's case. Already, he could feel her presence under his roof, the very shift in the dynamics of the house itself. It no longer felt empty and cold; it now contained life and a tentative air of excited anticipation for what was to come. Three days…. He had three days with her…. He was terrified that this was all a cruel dream he would awaken from alone and cursed to stay that way, and dear God, if it was, let him never awaken to reality again! Three days….

In her room on the opposite side of the house, Christine had thrown herself on the bed in a very unladylike pose. She rested on her stomach, her head pillowed atop her arms, and she once again huffed indignantly to herself at the lack of fairness in her present situation. Poor Raoul! He would arrive at her apartment the next morning so happy and anticipating only to learn that she had abandoned him. He would likely give up on her then and never beg for another chance. Why would he want to endure a second possible crushing of his ego at her hand? It was so unfair! Raoul was a wonderful man and a dear friend. She should be allowed to spend time with him if she so chose. It hardly made sense that Erik was being allowed to deem who she could and could not see; she couldn't help but conclude that he was being oppressively cruel and inconsiderate.

Christine huffed again as if it could take away a bit of her irritation and flipped over onto her back with a dramatic throwing of slender limbs. Staring up at the pink, sheer ceiling of her canopy bed, she pretended to focus on the material even as her mind drifted to Raoul again. Erik should realize just how fortunate she was to have a Vicomte of all people interested in her, especially considering her choice of a career. Most of society looked down on entertainers as a general rule, so for Raoul to even speak to her was a breach of etiquette despite their shared past. Why couldn't Erik seem to understand that Raoul was gallantly sacrificing his own reputation to be anywhere near her? A Vicomte and an opera singer, a conversation alone was practically a scandal….

A little while later as she was still pondering her situation with a perturbed pout upon her pink lips, a soft rapping came to her closed door, and Erik's voice met her ear. "Christine, supper is ready…if you would care to join me."

"I'll be right there," she called back in a flustered stammer, quickly stumbling from her bed in a mess of twisted skirts. Rushing to her vanity mirror, she straightened her gown and smoothed back her disheveled hair with hasty hands. She had no idea why she was even going to the trouble; after all, it was only Erik. But without a thought of consequences, she pinched her cheeks and chewed gently on her lips to give them a little color, knowing in the faint bit of a rational mind still existing that she was acting more like a girl running off to meet her lover. But she didn't take the time to scold herself as she knew she should, instead scurrying out the door and toward the dining room.

As soon as she reached the threshold, she abruptly halted mid-step. Of course, this was not the first time she had seen the room, but her usual glances were just in passing. Never had she dined with Erik in this manner, and it was definitely a little unsettling to glimpse the scene he had arranged solely for her. The table was set with fine china and silver, more expensive than any she'd ever seen or owned, as a tall candelabra in the center made every lustrous surface glisten and cast a surprisingly warm glow that invited her to enter. Even more enticing, though, were the luscious aromas that had swarmed her as soon as she had left her room, fragrant scents from the decadent dishes he had taken the time to prepare. Her stomach immediately rumbled in response with the sudden memory that she hadn't eaten since breakfast, too boggled by nerves at the mere idea that she was going to be staying with Erik to remember such mundane necessities as eating. In view of such a meal, her hunger was alive and intensely gnawing at her insides with a vengeance, but she forcefully pushed it back a moment longer to meet the eye of her dinner companion as he sat stoically at the head of the table watching her in silence and studying her every reaction to his work with an intensity that made her uncomfortably shift on her feet.

"Erik," she nervously greeted with the tentative curve of a smile, "you shouldn't have gone to such trouble for me."

Unaccustomed to bearing any form of gratitude from anyone, he managed to give an abashed shrug, however ungraceful and uncommonly brusque the gesture was, and abruptly rose to his feet as she came to her place at the table. His impulse was to act the role of a gentleman and hold her chair out for her, but he quickly reminded himself what he truly was and somberly took his seat again as she hesitantly sat beside him.

As they began to eat their meal, an uneasy silence grew and hung in the air. Erik's social skills in this foreign situation were meager at best as he sought to find some appropriate form of conversation, but a more pressing issue was the blunt reality that he was having a very difficult time managing to take even a bite as he would not dare remove his mask with Christine far too close. …And yet, how could he truly complain when the alternative meant waiting until she finished and then eating alone? No, it was too much of a joy to share her company, a joy that he had never before known.

Christine picked at her meal with her fork and took small, dainty bites like a lady should while her hunger was begging her to attack the plate ravenously. She knew that she should attempt to start a conversation herself, but she was too excited about eating to consider anything else. It was only when her plate was nearly empty, a very unladylike gesture on her part, or so her attempted maturity scolded, that she glanced to her companion.

Immediately, she stopped and openly stared, even as she chastised herself and insisted she was being rude. Erik was trying unsuccessfully to take a bite from his fork, tilting it to obscure angles all the while determined not to drop its contents. Abandoning the tactic entirely with a huff of annoyance, he returned the food to his plate and proceeded to cut it down to the smallest of morsels, and then awkward still, he was finally able to take a clumsy bite, swallowing hard without even chewing. This was the first time it had ever occurred to Christine that the things that she did normally without a thought, the very day-to-day actions of living, could be challenging for Erik. She had never considered how he could eat with that mask over his face, and she was now concluding on her own that he likely did not wear it. …Why had he not told her? Why was he doing this to himself? Was it that truly important to him to put on the charade of a normal man for her sake?

Lowering her eyes abruptly so that he would not catch her staring with an unavoidable fear of the wrath that could ensue, she poked at her own piece of chicken, but her mind was no longer on the food. Erik had arranged this lovely supper for her, Erik who obviously never ate with anyone. She was realizing that he had a good deal of trust in her that she suddenly felt so undeserving of as a wave of guilt shook her with its intensity and settled heavily in her heart.

"Erik." She spoke his name carefully before venturing to look again, giving him a moment to realize her intention as, true to prediction, he hurriedly set down his fork beside his plate with a clank. When she finally met his eye, giving no hint that she had seen what he clearly had not wanted her to, she tentatively began, "This is all so delicious. You truly are a wonderful cook."

"One must be when one has to cook for himself his whole life."

The coldness to his tone stung Christine and made her shrink back in her seat, cursing her ill-chosen words. It was always as if she walked atop a breakable sheet of glass around him, one wrong step away from shattering it to bits. Every comment had to be vigilantly scrutinized and every possible ramification that it could bring. It was as exhausting as it was an aggravation.

Though he had not taken her seeming compliment very well, he was sufficiently pleased with his endeavors when he spied her nearly empty plate; it was an impossibility for him to believe words alone. Attempting to act unaffected by the unsettling newness of such a situation, he was rising to take their plates to the kitchen when she abruptly leapt to her feet with an adamant shake of her head.

"No, no, please let me clean up," she insisted, shooing him toward the living room. "It's the very least I can do."

He was about to protest, but she was determined and grabbing the plates already out of his grasp, giving him little choice but to reluctantly concede. With a sigh to himself, he walked into the living room and sat down in his chair before the lit fireplace, leaning back against the soft cushions. The clatter of her activity in the kitchen filtered out to his ears, and closing his eyes, he savoured the sound, relishing the noise of life in his lonely house. He could almost pretend that she was his forever and that such clamoring and bustling about were staples in his life that he witnessed every day, a simple delight others would never consider a blessing as he did; no, he could only ever be in awe of such living sounds.

In the back of a very satisfied mind, he felt the dull gnaw of hunger. Oh well…. He would eat a real, full meal after she was abed. Hunger was a small price to pay to be able to eat at his table with her and bask in her nearness.

Erik realized that he must have dozed off because the next thing he remembered was stirring a little while later as she entered the living room.

"I'm sorry. Did I wake you?" she asked, tentatively taking a seat on the couch beside his chair.

"No," he replied, his hand unconsciously moving to his mask to make certain it was in place. He couldn't help but be anxious about it with her so close and the vivid recollection of her reaction still so fresh in his mind. Fresh? He doubted it would ever fade to anything he could deem numb and devoid of the sharp sting any consideration brought. …No, it would always hurt.

Christine stared down at her hands, nervously smoothing nonexistent wrinkles in her skirts as she gathered her courage. She already knew that what she was preparing to ask would not go over well, but she felt compelled to do so anyway as if she needed to see his response. …A test? Perhaps in a way it was; or perhaps she was just feeling a bit masochistic tonight. "Erik?"

"Yes, Christine?"

"I was just wondering…. I mean you yourself insisted that I am not a prisoner here with you, and…well, I…."

"What is it that you are trying to say?" He was eyeing her skeptically as he sat upright and tall in his seat, careful to keep himself in check for the moment. But his patience was little more than a single, fragile string that was fraying more and more with each word that passed her lips.

Shrugging her shoulders nonchalantly, as if it was the most mundane request in the world, she answered, "I was only wondering if perhaps I might…leave temporarily and go on an outing after breakfast tomorrow."

The fierce swell of tension immediately overwhelmed Erik's control as his fists grasped at armrests on either side in a brutally unyielding grip, fingers taut and curled into unyielding leather. With a clenched jaw that strained his voice through its rigid hold, he questioned curtly, "With the Vicomte?"

Christine chewed apprehensively on her bottom lip, shifting in her seat. Part of her cautioned to proceed warily while the other part, the sensible part, screamed at her to stay silent entirely. She felt herself walking into a trap, already certain Erik had overheard their conversation and knew the answer to his own question. Perhaps he expected her to lie, but she was resolved not to give him a valid reason for his incurring anger and keeping defiant, she replied, "Raoul…he asked if he might call on me tomorrow."

"And what did you tell him?"

Her heart hesitated in its beat, her eyes growing wider with trepidation. "I…I…I wanted to ask if I had your permission. …You did say that I was allowed to leave whenever I liked."

"Yes, I did say that, didn't I?"

His tone had grown sharp and biting, and Christine cringed, cursing her own foolishness. She knew what was to come now…. He stayed deceptively quiet for a long moment, which only served to make her all the more anxious, sitting perched on the edge of his throne chair, bridging and unbridging his gloved fingers like a calculating mastermind formulating a plan of unsuspecting attack. Dear Lord, she was suddenly praying that he would just let it go with a quick refusal and send her to bed. At least locked in the sanctity of her room, she'd feel a little safer. …A lock and a door between her and impending doom; it could hardly seem like much, but it was better than facing what she was about to.

"What puzzles me," he began, and she felt the foreboding sense of dread tingle the length of her spine, "is how you can so sweetly make it seem like you are requesting my permission when you have already said yes to the Vicomte."

"No," she interrupted, her voice wavering and betraying her fear despite the calmness she tried to show in every motion, "I had no intention of going unless you said that I could."

"So you would have forsaken the Vicomte?" Erik demanded. "Highly unlikely! Abandoning dear Raoul, your childhood chum and current confidante? You would never do such a thing. To lie to the poor man and leave him waiting so devotedly for your company? It is simply not within your character to behave in such a way, is it?"

His harsh comments stung her to her very core. It was not Raoul that he spoke of, and they both knew it. "Erik, I'm sorry. I-"

"Sorry!" Erik leapt to his feet and stalked toward her, forcing her with his eyes alone not to look away.

Christine pressed her back into the couch cushions, shrinking as far as she was able into their softness. A violent trembling had overtaken her body, the residual effect left behind from the last time she had fully inflicted his wrath upon herself as fragmented memories flashed in her mind's eye. And she pleaded vehemently just as she had pleaded then, as if for her right to continue living and breathing, "Please believe me. I wasn't going to go! I only said yes to Raoul so that he would leave me alone. I promised you that I wouldn't allow him to court me, and I haven't. You have to believe me."

He took half a step back, allowing her to droop her posture against soft cushions, but his eyes were still burning into hers, blazing with an internal inferno that threatened to consume them both with the slightest provocation. "And yet you play your games with him and wind his affections between your little fingers at the same time as you crush mine to pieces."

"I don't-"

"Don't lie to me!" he suddenly roared, his voice bouncing from wall to wall, and she jumped with wide eyes that never blinked. "I saw you! I saw you laugh and twirl your hair and flirt like a shameless hussy! You touched him and let him touch you as if it was just so natural. And you captured his heart and his desire. Anyone with eyes could see that! He is infatuated with you! And you love it! You love knowing the power you have and toying with him! And at the same time that you tell me you reject him, you know that he will never accept your denials; they only encourage him to push longer and harder. …He'll never stop chasing you, and you don't want him to." As he spoke, he went from entirely enraged to hopelessly desolate in mere seconds, and for the first time, she could see the briefest glimpse of his heart in his eyes.

"He…he's my friend, Erik," she softly said, appealing to him now that his temper was retreating into his lackluster control. "I knew him as a child; we were playtime companions, and that is how I still consider him, as a dear, childhood friend, nothing more. He will not interfere with my career or my lessons. …I wish you could see that he is a good man."

She had chosen the wrong words; she knew it in the moment she saw his rage triggered with another abrupt shift in his demeanor. How quickly was the floor dropping out from beneath her once again?...

"Ah yes, I am to see him as a good man when all of society sees me as a monster," he bitterly spat, towering over her with fists threateningly brought forth, and she immediately crouched back in her place. A cold, grating laugh suddenly was forced past his lips, his attention refocusing distractedly to his gloved hands before him as he snapped, "How unfair it is that your Vicomte could be gifted with such a perfect face and be allowed to touch you almost frivolously at every word with his bare hands while I am so cursed and ugly and have to keep my skin from ever even grazing yours."

Christine didn't know how to respond, her eyes locked on those hands as well as he clenched and unclenched them in the gap of space between them.

"Christine," he continued tightly, "do you see me as a monster?" When she didn't reply instantaneously, he growled, "Answer me, damn you!"

Tears were pooling the corners of her eyes at his coldness as she cowered as far as she could into protective cushions. "Please stop yelling at me," she begged in a whisper for fear sound would make every crystalline drop fall free. A vivid image of him flashed in her mind, maskless and raging at her, his bony hands digging into her skull as he had forced her to look at his disfigurement when she had tried so desperately to recoil.

The instant that he saw her tears, he felt the remorse overwhelm him and tighten his insides, and as his own tears rose and choked the back of his throat, he dangled his hands before her limp and without malice as though they were stained in blood merely from the threat that a fist implied. "Why, Christine?" he cried, fighting urgently to stifle the full extent of a sob from escaping. "Why do you make me do these things? Why do you make me hurt you this way?"

"I…I'm sorry," she whispered earnestly. Her tears were making wet paths down her cheeks, but she hardly noticed as she stared at her angel teacher. He was completely distraught, acting as if he had indeed fallen to the blind madness of his rage and had attacked her instead.

With a soft whimper, Erik fell to his knees before where she sat and lowered his masked face from her view. "Forgive me, Christine," he suddenly begged, "but I cannot let you run off to meet your Vicomte. If I must make you a prisoner here, then so be it. I will do it without hesitation if it will keep you from him."

She was glad that he had looked away so that he did not see the disappointment line her face. A prisoner…. And what were her options then? To be either a willing prisoner or an uncooperative one, but she was indeed a prisoner all the same. She felt torn wide open inside with the bitter realization that her intuition had been correct all along. Try as he'd like to make it seem like this was some sort of home for her, like she truly had any sort of choice laid before her, she was no more than a nightingale in a gilded cage.

"You needn't worry, Erik," she quietly bid, feeling the door slam shut on her freedom, not just at the present moment but for her future as well. "I will stay with you as I promised I would." She did not mention Raoul. No, she could not consider him while in Erik's company, terrified that he would pluck the thoughts from her mind; she would think about Raoul when she was alone, …when she could mourn the loss.

Accepting her vow, Erik abruptly stiffened and rose, averting his damp eyes from her shape as he coldly commanded, "Go to your room, Christine. It is late, and you must be tired."

"Yes," was all she said as she quickly rose on trembling knees, and with only one final glance at him, she hastened away, grasping at the distance even if it was only a temporary reprieve.

Erik remained rooted to his spot until he heard the soft closing of her bedroom door, cringing with regret at that final noise. He wasn't sure if he was truly angry with her or if it was only with himself. It was unfair to treat her as he did; he knew that. She did not deserve to be chained to the darkness as he was, but it was the only way he knew to keep her. The very idea of her off with the eager Vicomte at her side sliced a deep, gaping hole into his heart. No! Christine was his! She would never be the Vicomte's! Not while Erik had a breath left in his lungs!

His jealousy quickly melted to a bitter sadness as he recalled the pain in her beautiful eyes, pain he had caused her. Damn him! He was not experienced in dealing with other people, especially the woman he adored with every fiber of his being.

"Oh, Christine," he moaned in a soft whisper of agony. Why would she ever concede to being his when she had a handsome, charming Vicomte ready to sweep her off her feet? Erik had nothing to offer her but darkness and pain. How could he ever compare to the Vicomte with his wealth and his status, …with his perfect face?

The self-loathing was churning in his gut as Erik sat in his chair before the dying embers of his fireplace, lacking the strength to stir them back to life as each long hour bled into the last. Then when temptation finally got the best of him, he found himself wandering the quiet halls of his home to her door, and like the wisp of a shadow, he slipped inside.

Christine was asleep; he knew it the instant he entered the room. All the lights had been put out, and her gentle, even breathing met his attuned ear as sweet as a lilting symphony. Moving like a ghost with feet that barely brushed the floor, he went to her bedside and gazed down upon her sleeping form.

Despite the blackness of the unlit room, he could make out her every feature with vivid clarity. Darkness never bothered him; it was she who always needed the light.

Beneath the canopy of her bed, she lay on her stomach atop the soft mattress, one hand resting idly on the pillow beside her cheek. She looked more like a child than a woman, the pain and tension of the past months gone from her face so that all that remained was a pure innocence and an unfathomable sweetness.

With all of the tenderness of the world in his mismatched eyes, Erik stared down at her, hardly believing that she was truly here in his home, in the bed he had bought for her. He had envisioned it for so long, wandering in and out of this room with vivid fantasies of exactly this image so often that he couldn't yet trust it to be real and not another figment of a lonely mind. Lord, she was so beautiful. Dark curls, so thick and silken, tiny, porcelain features designed with a detailed precision by a God he had long ago stopped believing in; she was exquisite perfection to every curve of every little finger. He was undeserving of such beauty in his abhorrent life; everything else in his world was dark, bare, and ugly, …but her. It only convinced him further that she couldn't belong to him.

Giving a sorrow-laden sigh, he granted himself one more lingering look before reluctantly turning to leave her to her innocent sleep of a sunlit world full of divinely beautiful angels.