Chapter Twenty

The next morning, as Christine entered her dressing room, she sensed something was wrong even before her eyes landed on a sealed envelope resting unthreateningly on her vanity. Seal unbroken…, no one else had seen its private words, and snatching it in a shaking hand, she tucked it into her gown to keep it that way. Oh, she had to be careful! She knew how often Erik lurked about, and she couldn't afford to share what could only be private musings. She recognized the handwriting, the scribble of her name jotted upon the envelope. The Vicomte…, and she was convicted to take care of things herself this time.

Her hiding place was in shadows; if Erik could conceal secrets in their recesses, so could she, and when he was more apt to seek her in the light, she had enough time to quickly scan the letter, squinting to make out every scrawled word. Oh Lord... And yet she was unsurprised; she felt she had been waiting for exactly such an advance. Now she just had to figure out what to do about it.

It was difficult to keep up a convincing pretense and perform at her best during rehearsal. But as the cast was given a reprieve for lunch, she nonchalantly caught Meg's arm and steered her outside to the crowded city streets.

"Christine, what-"

"Sshh," Christine warned and spoke not a word until they were well beyond the opera house.

"What?" Meg demanded in an anxious shriek. "Oh God, did the Opera Ghost hurt you? Have you finally come to your senses and realized who you married? Oh, tell me, Christine! You know how my imagination runs away with me; I've already made all sorts of horrific tales. Does he want to kill you and make you a ghost as well?"

"Nothing nearly that melodramatic," Christine stated with a shake of her head. "It's not Erik; it's Raoul."

"Are you having an affair?" Meg squeaked.

"Of course not! Meg, just listen. Raoul left me a note, disconcertingly in my locked dressing room, but that may be the least of impending transgressions. He wants me to meet him tonight after rehearsal…alone."

"Affair!" Meg decided with a frantic point. "Or at least that's what he is hoping! What are you going to do?"

"Meet him, of course," Christine replied and watched Meg's green eyes widen. "This has to stop. He truly believes he has the chance to win my heart when it is already taken. I have to make him understand, but…I can't let Erik know about this. He'll want to play Opera Ghost, and even if his newfound sense of morality won't let him kill Raoul, hurting him wouldn't be out of the question if he foresees a threat. I owe it to both of them to finish this without violence."

"But, Christine, what if…? I don't know, do you think the Vicomte would hurt you?"

It surprised Christine to realize she'd never considered that, and she suddenly called herself naïve. "I'd hate to think such a thing and ponder it as a possibility, but that will be another reason I need your help."

"My help?"

With an adamant nod, Christine explained, "I cannot simply go and meet Raoul. Erik would know if I dared."

Meg eyed her oddly and decided, "Your husband is very paranoid, isn't he? And you don't find it restricting not to be allowed beyond his sight? I would go crazy if a man expected such restraint from me."

"You wouldn't call it restricting if you understood Erik the way I do. He's always worried something will happen, that we will finally be forced apart. I love him too much to keep allowing him to be tortured that way."

"All right," Meg finally concluded. "Tell me how to help you."

"When rehearsal ends, I'm supposed to meet Henri, my carriage driver in the lobby, only today, I will not be the one to meet him; you will, wearing my cloak with the hood pulled close enough to smooth out any discrepancy."

"Pretend to be you? And then?"

This part was harder to say. "Return to my house in the carriage. That should give me enough time."

"Return to your house?" Meg squeaked, rigid and shaking a frantic head. "Return to the Opera Ghost's house!"

"It will be fine; he won't hurt you."

"No?" Meg inquired doubtfully. "Not even when I tell him that his wife is on a midnight rendezvous with the Vicomte?"

"Well, don't say it like that!"

"What am I supposed to say instead? Oh, Christine, he'll have me confessing my every sin since childhood with one look! You know how hard it is for me to keep my mouth shut!"

"Please, Meg!" Christine begged with her most persuasive smile. "I can't keep arguing my devotion with the Vicomte always a step away in our shadow. Erik would rather hide behind his Opera Ghost persona than be vulnerable, and I don't want the Opera Ghost. He will eventually use the role to push me away. I can't let that happen. Please, Meg, tell him…tell him that I promised to be strong and that is what I'm doing."

"But…he's scary," the little ballerina whined. "Oh, all right, but only because I know how to use a toe shoe as a weapon. I won't go unarmed."

Sighing relief, Christine bid, "And that should give me the time I need to get to the cemetery and meet Raoul."

"Cemetery? Isn't that the cliché for some sort of horror story? And you're so sure you want to do this? Because cemetery to most people with sense implies danger."

"Less so than if he requested meeting alone in his home," Christine proposed back.

"True, but you'll be careful, won't you? Sometimes a man in love will do desperate things if he thinks he has a chance."

Christine couldn't argue that. She recalled days when Erik had been in that role. He'd been just as desperate, but it was so different when love was requited. She didn't want to think how he would have been destroyed if she had pushed him away. He had called her the better part of him; if she hadn't loved him, she wondered if he would have ever found that part.

It wasn't difficult to switch places or trick anyone involved into believing them. Christine lingered in the shadows of the theatre doorway and watched Henri lead a silent Meg out. She was fortunate that Henri never went beyond his duty, and a cloaked silhouette was enough. It was obvious why Erik trusted him when a mask and secrets were imperative, but he probably wasn't the best choice for a makeshift bodyguard.

The carriage rolled away, and as it vanished on the crowded street, Christine disappeared into the night. She was taking up her alter-ego tonight. The Opera Ghost's mistress. Clad in black with her long cloak to trail in ripples behind, she rushed in hasty steps, slipping into alleyways to avoid the cluttered throng on the main walks. Yes, she could be just as stealthy and just as omnipotent if she tried. Had the Opera Ghost himself not trained her?

With never a sound to betray her approach, Christine crept into the cemetery, curling back into the protective folds of her cloak as she scanned the tombstones. Moonlight glinted on their stone surfaces, illuminating random names and bygone dates. The Opera Ghost's mistress, she called herself, and certainly, any ghost would feel at home in such a macabre setting.

Floating between headstones, Christine made her way deeper onto the sacred grounds. She had an idea where the Vicomte would be awaiting her, and as expected, she found him at her father's grave. His blue eyes lifted and lit hopefully as they regarded her.

"Christine, …I wasn't sure you could get away," Raoul greeted with a tentative smile that abruptly fell. "Or is he here hiding in the shadows and ready to pounce?"

"No, you asked me to come alone, and I did. It's hard to believe you feel we must go to such lengths to have a conversation."

"A private conversation," he corrected. "Everywhere else, the walls seem to have ears, and here…well, the only ones listening are the real sort of ghosts, the kind that can't fly into rages and murder."

"If this is to be another lashing at Erik's character, I have no desire to stay," Christine threatened and fought to remain stern and unmoved. "I came because as you wrote in your letter, we are friends. We've shared things that not everyone can understand. A Vicomte and an opera singer…. We were as much a contradiction as children when we were a Vicomte and a poor girl. That has never changed."

"And yet I'm willing to ignore every retaliation it brings to be with you," he fervently declared. "Doesn't that mean anything?"

"Of course it does," she replied, careful to stay guarded. "I don't deserve your affection, Raoul. You gave it so willingly from the start, and I could never give it back."

"No, because you gave it to him." He cringed and refused to speak Erik's name. "He tricked you. But I realize how futile it is to argue deceptions with you."

"Is that why you asked me here?" She almost smiled with a rush of hope. "To let this go?"

"No, …I asked you here to once again request that you come away with me."

"What?" Christine felt her defenses rising and edged a small step back with her anxiousness. "And if I refuse? Will you force me, Raoul? Will you carry me off even though I'm another man's wife? This is my choice, and I'm not going to leave him."

"And can you say, here at your father's grave, that your decision is just and moral? Do you think your father would look past your husband's sins and grant his blessing? Welcome him into your family? Embrace that disfigured monster as his son?"

Merely the mention of her father struck a chord in her heart, and she tensed as she demanded, "Why must you speak of my father? He's dead."

"You must think of him," Raoul urged onward, and she fixed her eyes on the name etched into the tombstone. "How different your life would be if he were still alive! Do you think he'd be disappointed in you, Christine? You went against his every moral tendency. You married a murderer."

No," she abruptly insisted, meeting his stare again. "My father believed in forgiveness and penance. He would have seen the good of Erik's soul as I have."

"And what would he have said to know how Erik manipulated his way into your life? Would that have been a sin worthy of forgiveness if murder is so easily redeemed? I can't imagine that any father would accept such a transgression. Your father might have been the only one to truly break into your willing hypnosis. Pity he's gone." Steady steps brought the Vicomte closer, and though she kept guarded, she did not back away. "Christine, I know it's cruel to bring up your father, but he would have wanted you protected as much as I do."

"Protected?" she repeated doubtfully. "But your idea of protection is forcing me away from Erik and taking his place in my life."

"And your father would have blessed it! He was a good man, but like every father, he favored knowing a Vicomte was chasing at his daughter's heels. It was a privilege he knew you weren't entitled to." Before she could snap back, he grabbed her hand in his and continued in a rush, "Let me take you away from here, somewhere that you can clear your head and make your own decisions without influences from the devil."

"You mean Erik," she coldly replied. "You want to take his voice out of my head and replace it with yours. You're so certain that your words will change my heart. But I know what I want and what I feel. You could take me away, and I'd love him still. I've always loved him. I'm sorry that you want me, but I can't be yours, Raoul." Christine tried to yank her hand free, but his grip was tight. "So you will force me to go with you," she concluded, shaking her head. "I didn't want to believe that you'd do it, but that was your idea, wasn't it? If I refuse, you will take the matter into your own hands and dole out what you believe is just?"

"I hoped it wouldn't come to this," he argued as his free hand caught her shoulder. "Christine, I don't want to hurt you, but I need to get you away from him. It's the only way to save you."

Save her? And she was just as sure she didn't need saving. "I don't want to hurt you either, Raoul," she said. "That was never my intent, but if you don't let go of me, I will not apologize for my actions."

The Vicomte obviously did not take her threat seriously and began to pull her toward the cobblestone pathway. Well, she did warn him. But she was not about to be abducted against her will. Her foot darted out and kicked his shin hard enough to make him yelp.

"Christine!" Raoul shouted, but his distraction was enough for her to break loose. She backed between the headstones, ready for another attack with fists raised this time.

"Don't you dare, Raoul," she warned, watching him rub his sore shin with a modicum of satisfaction. It was a victory, however minor. "Leave me be! You cannot simply drag me off as one of your belongings!"

"Christine, I'm not trying to-"

"No! No more! I am not yours!"

A chuckle resounded through the quiet of tombstones, and then an angel's voice calling, "Brava! Such fire! Such vehemence! I expect some of that later; I will not allow all of it to be squandered on the Vicomte!"

Wide eyes from both Christine and Raoul darted to Erik as he idly strode closer, and as the Vicomte muttered a curse, Christine asked with her own annoyance, "How can you be here? Meg is probably just arriving at our house to tell you where I am."

"Henri may be a fool, but I am not," he stated with an arrogant smirk. "Meg is about your size, but she carries a ballerina's grace when she walks, not like you. You walk in a singer's posture, unless, of course, you're shy or unconfident or being tormented by Carlotta. Then you drop shoulders. Either way, it was obvious Meg was not you, and I am now determined to hire another guard or take you to rehearsal myself from now on."

Stifling a smile, Christine replied, "And I thought the sound of her voice or her golden head would be the thing to eventually give Meg away. I should have considered that you pay attention to every detail, even the mundane."

"When it is concerning you, no detail is mundane." One more fond adoration was poured through his stare before he let it fade to bitterness and glared at the Vicomte. "Trying to steal her away this time? It's ironic that months ago, I would have been the one accused of the same. And yet I learned my lesson. You, on the other hand, have not."

"I told you I wouldn't just give her up," Raoul replied, matching his cold stare.

"I should kill you for this asinine attempt alone!"

"Wait one minute!" Christine shouted at both of them, holding up a hand to each. "I am no damsel in distress in need of rescue. Raoul," she faced him first, "I told you my decision, and it will not be changed. And Erik," her focus hastily shifted, "I don't want the Opera Ghost fighting my battles."

"Oh, I know that," Erik declared, his gaze glinting with pride. "You were handling yourself splendidly. I am not solving any more dilemmas as the Opera Ghost. Have I not promised you that already? But," a smirk curved his lips, "I have far more productive tactics. Intelligence outweighs haunted torture, it seems, and I get more accomplished by outwitting my victims. Monsieur Vicomte, I took the liberty of sending a copy of the newspaper detailing our Masquerade hoax to your dear old aunt, the Comtesse. You can imagine her surprise to learn you were cavorting about with an 'opera tart'." His gaze darted to Christine as he quickly added, "Those were her words, not mine, my love. I would have called you a sultry diva."

Christine bit her bottom lip to stifle a shy smile, but the Vicomte was much less amused. "You had no right to send that to her!"

"Indeed?" Erik posed. "Because she wrote back that you had arranged with her to bring your fiancée to her estate to stay a few weeks. Now, considering that fiancée is another man's wife and an opera singer, she is not welcome. The Comtesse sent you a letter of your own as well; it is likely awaiting you. She insists on your presence alone, Monsieur, so that she may remind you of your rightful place and that Vicomtes do not rush about creating scandals and kidnapping married opera singers."

"Why, you arrogant bastard!"

"Watch your language in front of the lady," Erik scolded, sharing a smile with Christine. "You already have enough sins on your plate, don't you? Now get out, and don't consider returning. You are an unneeded hero in this story; Christine already has one by her choice and her love. Your role is unnecessary."

Raoul scowled at him before he met Christine's eye one moment more. "If you need me, Christine, if you need anything, if this bastard hurts you-"

"He won't," Christine insisted, firm and certain. "He never would. Just go, Raoul."

The Vicomte was reluctant, but with a frustrated huff, he conceded and stomped a path out of the cemetery alone. He was barely beyond sight before Christine rushed into Erik's arms.

"Do you think he'll truly leave Paris?" she asked as she hugged him tight.

"At least briefly. His aunt is not the sort of woman to deny, and if he returns, we play a new hand if we must. It would be ridiculous if he doesn't give up, but obsession is a difficult bug to leave the system. Sometimes trying to deny its possession only makes you want it more. I have firsthand experience with its potency."

She shook her head and drew back to meet his eye. "It isn't the same; I've always wanted you, Erik." Delighting in the beaming grin he gave in reply, she laughed softly and decided, "And I tried to fight with fists and kicks, with violence, and you were the one to solve the problem with words and wit. It's amusing!"

"Oh, but I won't devalue the joy of watching you kick and threaten the Vicomte!" he exclaimed, chuckling beneath his breath. "I don't think it possible to ever doubt you again when I can recall that memory and remember that you literally fought to stay with me."

She laughed, imagining the scene again, and then suddenly, her eyes widened with a rush of realization. "Oh Meg! She's probably sitting on our porch, terrified to asphyxiation by now! It was a panic enough to send her to you alone, and now if Henri simply left her there…." Christine shook her head and insisted, "We have to get home."

"Oh, all right. Let's go and resuscitate the little ballerina. Wait until she hears your story, and please don't leave out a single detail. I would love for it to be the gossip around the entire opera house tomorrow. The Vicomte de Chagny, potential abductor, beaten away by the prima donna. We could keep him out of Paris simply by destroying his precious reputation with the truth!" Chuckling again, he slipped his arm about Christine's shoulders and began to lead her out of the cemetery.

But Christine halted one more moment and cast a look over her shoulder at her father's carved name, deciding, "My father believed in love first and foremost, and he knew better than to judge anyone without fairness. He wouldn't have been disappointed in my choice, not when it's clear that I love you. He would have been pleased because I'm happy."

Erik simply nodded and continued to guide her away. He couldn't agree with as much conviction; to him, Christine was the exception to normal people because she had been able to look beyond the seemingly unforgivable. But then again, she had to learn to be that way from somewhere. Perhaps her father would have accepted him. As they left the cemetery, Erik silently composed a prayer of gratitude to her father's ghost for teaching Christine to have an open heart.

The cast had three bows at curtain call to a house that would not stop cheering and praising their new prima donna. Despite her poised demeanor, Christine's cheeks flushed pink, and she fought tears at the overwhelming ovation, curtsying low and humble one final time before rushing into the wings amidst accolades from the rest of the cast. So many kind words, and yet there was only one opinion to matter, and she was impatient as she tried to maneuver through the crowd to get to her dressing room.

Finally! She eagerly locked the door and shut out a world that doted on her when it couldn't possible by enough. No, not for her.

The mirror opened almost immediately, and without pause, she darted into the shadows and was caught by anxious and shaking arms. He didn't even need to speak his pride; she could feel it radiating through his every overcome tremble.

"You are something extraordinary," he softly muttered above her ear, and she heard a catch of tears in his voice.

"I was well taught," she posed back, lifting her hand to remove his mask and touch his face with eager fingers. "Credit must be bestowed to my teacher's efforts and unceasing guidance."

He shook his head and pressed kisses to her brow. "Not even I knew you could do that. You were…amazing, Christine. I don't even have words to describe your brilliance. You moved me…."

She beamed as she kissed him, brushing tears with her fingertips. Drawing back, her smile only grew, "And I won, didn't I? Eight high C's in the whole opera, and every one executed correctly."

Erik fought not to laugh as he teased, "Well, the one at the end of Act One was a bit suspect, if I recall."

"It was not!" she protested. "You just don't want to concede to my victory. We had a deal, ange. Play fair. Eight high C's, and if every one was correct, then I get to name the baby."

The word alone caused a shiver to race Erik's spine. It was still so new to hear it hit the air and sounded foreign in its syllables. He had yet to bring himself to use it, afraid in some illogical way that if he spoke the word, it would cease to exist, as if he could somehow curse something so pure and created out of transcendent love.

"Well?" Christine pushed, blue eyes bright with anticipation. "The privilege is mine, is it not? And you should truly learn better than to bet with such important details. Now you will have to wait until the next one to have an opinion over a name."

"Next one…," he muttered breathlessly. "I have yet to fathom this one, and you are mentioning the next one? Good Lord, Christine!"

"Well, start fathoming," she commanded with a giggle. "Because it isn't just going to go away if you don't think about it! …You're going to be a father."

That word was even more astounding than 'baby', and it momentarily jarred sense as it sunk in, playing in the bewildered expression upon his face. But finally as if broken out of a trance, he stated, "I shouldn't bet anything with you. I should have known you'd rise to the challenge with such great stakes. And now our…baby," his voice trembled on the word, "will bear some flowery, sentimental appellation that will seem more a curse than a name. You will think with your emotions first and never consider that the name will be pinned to our child forever."

"Think with emotions?" she snapped, and he cringed to remind himself how quick and easily her temper flickered these days.

Before she could continue, he kissed her hard and deep, stealing argument and devouring with lips that bore a smile at their corners. And that was why he adored every emotion-laden outburst, because he knew that she could not resist his eager persuasions as penance.

As he ended the kiss with a gentle nip of her bottom lip, he admitted, "Yes, yes, you won, and as your prize, you will choose the name. How could I possibly deny you after that performance?"

"And may I have a further reward of being whisked home to a hot bath and a passionate night?" she inquired with a mischievous grin.

"Oh? You don't wish to greet your public and accept your accolades?"

"No, I prefer to remain a bit of a mystery. Let them all wonder where I disappeared. After all, the Opera Ghost's mistress doesn't need an excuse or an explanation. Let them think the Opera Ghost himself carried me off once again. I like that fantasy." Her fingers stroked the nape of his neck, her gaze insisting what she wanted, and Erik chuckled as he rested one palm against the beaded waistline of her costume.

"Do you hear that, little one? You are going to be born into an unusual family! With the Opera Ghost as your father and his prima donna mistress as your mother, you are certainly in for quite a life!"

"Well, of course," Christine gushed, covering his hand with hers. "That is obvious, and our child will love every minute of it! We're special, Erik, and that's better than ordinary. Don't you agree?"

"Very much," he breathed, and bending low, he brushed a kiss to her yet-flat stomach and hoped the growing child within felt his love. It must exist in echoes when its mother radiated it right back.

"I love you both," Erik whispered and closed his eyes as Christine's hand stroked his scarred cheek. Bliss, perfect bliss in a happy ending and a future to come.

"I know you are not exceptionally fond of singing for me," Christine said, "but babies quite enjoy lullabies, or so I've been told."

"Then I shall begin composing a collection first thing tomorrow, the most beautiful, lyrical melodies ever heard. Our child deserves the songs of angels."

"And an angel to sing them," Christine pushed as with one last kiss to her belly, Erik stood tall and eyed her with amusement.

"From Opera Ghost back to angel within a handful of words. Oh, of course I will sing for our child, but I will be writing you glorious harmonies to sing with me. Our child will have the best sung lullabies in existence."

"Our child," Christine repeated with an awed grin. "And how I adore hearing you say it." Brushing a kiss to his tattered cheek, she bid, "I love you…, but I was hoping the Opera Ghost would drag me into the shadows and make me surrender again. I'm already starting to forget the last time we were so brazen."

"You mean yesterday during dress rehearsal's intermission?"

"Yes, well, you must refresh my memory," she insisted with a giggle as she released him and darted into the shadowed passageways, calling back over her shoulder, "Are you coming? I thought you enjoyed chasing me."

"Catching you is the better part." His voice resounded into the darkness after her, and she tried not to laugh and give herself away as she ran. Never a step to betray him, and yet within moments, an arm grabbed her about the waist, and she was lifted off her feet.

The Opera Ghost's mistress, captured and yet eager to be his victim. Not all girls would wish for such a fate, but Christine embraced it with open arms and a thrill to call it hers. And as he bent with a delighted chuckle and nuzzled his scarred cheek to her brow, she knew how completely love had transformed both of their lives. He, her husband, maskless and proudly displaying to her the very thing he'd always been shamed to own, choosing love over omnipotence, and she, touching the scars she'd once denounced, loving him more for their existence and strong enough to say so.

"The Opera Ghost shows no mercy," he breathed, his hand teasing the bare flesh above her neckline.

"Promise?" she tempted back and made a path of kisses down his throat.

"Oh yes, not an inkling."

"Erik…." Lifting her head, she met his mismatched stare in the scant glow of a dim lantern and whispered, "I love you."

And with a soft moan of pleasure falling from misshapen lips, he rushed her into the shadows, eager to savour every syllable and cherish her with a million wordless adorations. Love, and how lucky he felt to have found it!

The End