In Blood by LovetheScottishAngel

Synopsis: Fifteen years after the disastrous premiere of Don Juan, Christine decides that she wants to be with Erik and returns to the Opera Populaire to seek him out. From there, she makes some decisions whose consequences are felt for the next twenty years…

Warnings: This story is based on the 2004 Phantom movie, though I've altered some elements of the story for my own purposes. It contains E/C (with a little bit of R/C), sexual content (both consensual and nonconsensual), some violence, and an extremely negative portrayal of Raoul. Christine is also portrayed in a rather negative light in certain situations. If any of these things are not much to your liking, please don't bother reading this. If you choose to ignore these warnings and read the story anyway and you don't like what you read, don't you dare flame me—after all, I'm going to the trouble to warn you of things you might not like.

Disclaimer: I own no version of the Phantom story. I only own my characterizations of featured canon characters, any and all original characters, and this story itself.

Author's Note: This prologue is extremely long because it covers a lot of events and a rather large passage of time. I apologize if you find it tedious to read so much… but if you can get through it, I think (that is, I hope) you'll find it worthwhile!

Now, without any further ado…

~ o ~

I shouldn't be doing this, Christine deChagny thought to herself as she looked at her reflection in the armoire mirror. Going to see a man with whom I've had no contact for the past fifteen years… and doing so behind my husband's back. And then, of course, there's the element of this plan that I deem to be the most stupid—I'm going to meet this man without even knowing if he's there…

Christine knew that, in more than one way, she was taking a great risk by venturing to the Opera Populaire the way she intended to. Fifteen years had passed since the place she'd once called home had been mostly destroyed by a great fire, and in that time, she had hardly even dared to look at the once-glorious, still-not-restored, still-closed-to-the-public building whenever she had crossed its path.

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, trying her best to block out the pain brought on by the memories she held of the last night she had been inside the Opera, the night it had gone up in flames. The night when she had broken two hearts, that which was her own and that which belonged to the dark, beautiful masked man whom she had so deeply loved and so greatly feared. The night her fear had overpowered her love and caused her to leave with Raoul, her childhood sweetheart, the man to whom she had been married and with whom she had had three children during the fifteen years that had passed.

To her very core, Christine knew that she had made the wrong decision in abandoning Erik and choosing a life with Raoul. She loved Raoul and always had, but she didn't love him the way she loved Erik; her love for Raoul was a gentle affection, while her love for Erik was a fiery passion.

God willing, Erik will be at the Opera and I'll be able to tell him all these things, she thought to herself. And maybe, just maybe, Erik still loves me and will forgive me… and then, perhaps, we can begin a life together as we should have done all those years ago.

This hopeful thought in her head, Christine examined herself in the mirror one more time before deciding that now was the time to leave. Raoul was out of town on business and wouldn't return for two more days. That meant she would have two days to see if Erik had even returned to the Opera Populaire—and then, if he had, to convince him to take her back. Then, assuming that her plan had succeeded after those two days had passed, she would return to the Château deChagny, explain everything to Raoul in the most loving and gentle way possible as to lessen his hurt, pack her things, and then return to the man with whom she truly belonged.

She then walked out of the bedroom she had shared with Raoul during the course of their marriage, picking up the carpetbag in which she had packed necessities for the next two days and closing the door as she did.

"Jeanette, I am taking a trip for the next two days," the Vicomtesse informed her head maidservant when she arrived downstairs, pulling her cloak off of the nearby coat rack and putting it on. "I will return the same day as Monsieur le Vicomte. I trust you will do a good job of minding the house and caring for the children, as always."

"Of course I will, Madame," Jeanette replied, curtsying. "What shall I tell the children when they ask of your whereabouts?"

"Tell them what I have told you—I am taking a trip for the next two days and I will return the same day as Monsieur le Vicomte. You should also tell them that they needn't concern themselves with where I am; they only need to know that I am all right."

"Very well, Madame." Jeanette curtsied again.

Christine nodded, pulling the hood of her cloak onto her head and picking up her carpetbag. She then opened the door and began to walk out of the house. "À deux jours, Jeanette."

"À deux jours, Madame."

As Christine continued walking, she heard the door close behind her, and she stopped for a brief moment, her anxiety about what she intended to do becoming stronger.

By making this trip, she was doing many different things. She was taking the risk of believing that Erik would be at the Opera, that he would still love her, and that he would take her back. And if Erik accepted her, she would be breaking her marriage vows to Raoul that she would be his wife until death separated them, and quite possibly abandoning her own children, assuming that Erik would want them to leave Paris together.

Was the chance for happiness with the man she loved most worth the risk of hurting her own husband and children?

Yes—yes, it's worth it, she decided after a moment of contemplation. Raoul may be hurt, but he'll understand; I'm sure there won't really be any hard feelings between us. And even if Erik and I no longer live in Paris, I'll still be allowed to see the children… Raoul will want me to stay in touch with them. I may have to travel back here on occasion in order to see them, but that will be fine. Everything will be fine… and after all, I don't even know if things will end up the way I want them to; Erik may not even be at the Opera, or if he is, he may not want anything to do with me. But either way, it will be all right; I needn't worry.

Her doubts now assuaged, Christine proceeded forward, walking through the streets of Paris in silence until she reached that building which, for so long, she had done her best to avoid at all costs—the Opera Populaire.

The doorways were boarded up, as she knew the doors had been kicked in or otherwise destroyed the night of the fire and those who hadn't yet restored the Opera didn't want anyone getting in, but she knew that such an obstacle wouldn't be a difficult one to overcome. She simply had to put forth some effort and remove at least a few boards from one of the doors.

Putting her carpetbag down, she went to a door whose boards appeared to be rather poorly nailed, grabbing one of them and pulling with all her might. After a few seconds, it gave way and came off. She then placed it down, proceeding to repeat the exercise with a few more boards before enough of them had been removed to where she could enter without making it obvious that someone had actually gotten in and instead making it look like the boards had simply fallen off due to wear-and-tear.

Christine once again picked up her carpet bag, getting down on her knees and placing the bag through the space she had created and setting it down. Then she went through the space herself with relative ease, arriving inside the Opera within a few short moments.

The building was completely pitch-black, as she had anticipated—after all, probably no one had come inside through the front entrance since the night of the fire. Because she had suspected such would be the case, however, she was prepared, and after opening her carpetbag and blindly feeling around the inside of it for a few moments, she located a well-oiled lantern which she had brought with her.

After she had pulled out the lantern and turned the knob, a light filled the front lobby of the Opera Populaire, allowing her to see it for the first time in fifteen years.

For a moment, she soaked in the burned sight, remembering how beautiful it had been the night of the New Year's Masquerade when Erik had arrived and presented his magnum opus, Don Juan Triumphant, to the partygoers, she and Raoul included. She remembered how dashing he had looked in his Red Death costume, how gracefully he had walked about and handled his sword when giving instructions… how pleading he had looked when he had looked at her…

A lump rose in her throat as she remembered how badly she had hurt him, but then she cleared her throat and shook her head.

I'm wasting time, she thought to herself firmly. I need to get down to the catacombs as soon as possible… I don't need to stand here and think about the past. I need to keep going and think about the future which he and I can have if I get to see him again.

With this thought in her head, she pressed on, going through the lobby, the auditorium, and backstage, thinking about the positive memories which she held of each as opposed to the negative, until she arrived in her old dressing room. There she found what she was looking for, the thing that she hoped would help her get to Erik—the two-sided mirror which had a pathway to the catacombs on the side opposite the one she was standing on.

Taking a breath and stepping forward, she grasped the right side of the mirror and pulled it to the left with all her effort, grunting a little until the mirror finally slid over to the point where she could see the other side and fit through so she might get to that other side.

At the mere sight of the pathway by which she had first gone to the catacombs with Erik the night she had met him, her heart began to pound wildly. She was so close to her goal, and she felt both excited and anxious. And for what must have been the tenth time that evening, she fervently hoped that her trip wouldn't end up being all for naught.

Without a moment's hesitation, she stepped through to the other side of the mirror and continued on, walking faster than she previously had in her excitement that she was so close to reaching her goal and in her determination to actually reach that goal.

After a few minutes of walking, she reached the lake—the only thing which now separated her from the portion of the catacombs where Erik had made his home underneath the Opera for so many years. When she had crossed the lake fifteen years earlier, she had done so in a gondola. That, however, belonged to Erik and was evidently located at his home, for it was not where it had been tied whenever she had crossed the lake with him.

Christine sighed, feeling a bit disappointed; if she was going to see Erik again once she reached the other side of the lake, she certainly didn't want to do so when wet. It seemed that she had no other choice, however, for she didn't know of another way to his home than to cross the lake. And after all, she cared more about seeing Erik than about remaining dry, so after another moment, she jumped into the lake and discovered that it was only waist-deep for her.

Well, at least I won't get entirely wet, she thought to herself, and then she continued on, wading through the water toward Erik's home.

It took some time, but after that time had passed, she began to hear music playing some distance away, and her heart began to pound more than it had before. There was music… that meant that Erik had to be here. The fact that she could hear music also indicated that she was no longer too far away from the man she loved most.

With these thoughts in mind, she continued on, quickening her pace as best she could despite the fact that her legs were getting tired and the water was resisting her movements. And thanks to her increased speed, it was only a matter of minutes before she saw a gate which she immediately recognized.

She reached the gate, stopping and grasping one of the bars as she looked inside and saw that everything in Erik's home was exactly as she remembered it—candles were still lit all around, there was an organ, mirrors both covered and uncovered stood in the same places they had been before, the gondola was tied to the post that had been there for years, and the elegant peacock bed where she had slept the night she had met Erik still had deep red bedding and a black curtain surrounding it.

Only two things were different—a piano had, at some point during the fifteen years since she had last been in Erik's home, arrived… and the man who was sitting at the piano, though still very recognizable, was rather unsurprisingly older-looking than he had been the last time Christine had seen him.

At the sight of Erik, she thought her heart was going to explode right out of her chest, and she called out his name, her tone containing the exact amount of enthusiasm she felt.

"Erik! Erik!"

Upon hearing his name, Erik stopped playing the piano and looked over at the gate, and when he saw who was calling for him, he looked utterly astonished as he rose from his seat.

"Christine?" he inquired in a rather incredulous tone, and she noted that his voice sounded exactly as it had fifteen years before—deep, musical, and beautiful.

"Yes, yes, it's me!" A lump rose in her throat and tears of indescribable happiness began to well in her eyes. "Oh, Erik!"

"Christine…" Keeping his surprised expression focused on her, he walked over to the lever which controlled the gate and pulled it, causing the gate to ascend. "What… I…"

When the gate had been raised enough, Christine immediately came forward, going toward him as quickly as her legs and the water would allow. Her face, which he deemed to be as heartrendingly beautiful as it had been the last the time he had seen her all those years ago, was shining with an excitement that he didn't understand. She had made her choice and he hadn't been it; she had rejected him. Why, then, did she seem so happy to see him?

"Erik…" she breathed as she finally reached him, placing her carpetbag down and looking up at him. "Erik, I have to tell you…"

He arched his visible eyebrow at her. "Tell me what, Christine?"

She took a few breaths that made it appear as if she was about to say something each time, but after a few moments, she didn't and instead came forward, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him.

At this unexpected action, Erik was completely lost as to what to do. The woman he loved, the woman he hadn't seen for fifteen years, the woman who had broken his heart, was here, evidently excited to see him and kissing him passionately. His heart was pounding so loudly that he could hear it thrumming in his ears, and he wanted to wrap his arms around her, but he was afraid that she might suddenly come to her senses and stop kissing him if he did so, so he simply had his arms remain at his side, his hands trembling.

For a few moments more, their lips remained pressed together, but then she gently pulled away, opening her eyes and looking up at him. Then he, too, opened his eyes and looked back at her, looking halfway stunned and halfway dazed.

"Erik…" She took a deep breath as she reached out and tucked a loose lock of his graying-but-still-mostly-black hair behind his ear, then gently stroked the unmasked, undeformed side of his face. "I made a terrible mistake all those years ago. I loved you so much, but I was so afraid… I was no longer afraid of you, really, but I was afraid of going with you and being chased by that mob which was coming after you and of getting hurt, and so I chose Raoul because I knew that I would always be safe with him. I knew I loved you more than Raoul and was making a mistake by choosing to go with him, but my fear of being in some kind of danger with you made me go with him instead. And I've regretted my decision from the moment I left with Raoul on the gondola. It's not that I don't love Raoul; I do, and I've been happy being his wife and having children with him. But I don't love him the way I love you… and I know that the happiness I've had with him is nothing compared to the happiness I would have had with you."

What is she saying? he thought to himself as he looked at her for a few moments, his expression looking somewhat puzzled. Is she saying she no longer wants to be with deChagny; is she saying… that she wants to be with me?

At the prospect of finally winning Christine for his own despite their fifteen-year estrangement, his heart swelled, and he felt excitement pulsing through his veins.

That excitement didn't last long, however; it quickly turned into fear—fear of repeating the past, when he had been so sure that she was his only to lose her, when his heart had shattered into millions of tiny pieces, when it had taken so long to even begin to heal from the pain.

I can't go through that again, he then thought to himself. If I allow myself the possibility of getting hurt like I already have once more, I know I won't be able to recover again. And after all, I don't even know if she's being honest… she may just be leading deChagny to me so that I might finally be imprisoned for the crimes I committed years ago. And I certainly can't let that happen.

With these thoughts in his mind, his face suddenly hardened and he turned away from her.

"I don't know exactly why you've come here, Christine, but I think it would be best for both of us if you simply left now. Go back to your husband and children; it is where you belong."

This statement puzzled her, and the frown which came to her face, which he didn't see, expressed that.

"I belong with you, Erik—and I belong to you. I want to be with you and no one else; you are the one with whom I want to spend the remainder of my life."

"Christine, I will not let you fool me into thinking you care for me the way you are claiming to. You already did that once before and it took me years to stop being crippled from the pain your rejection caused me." He paused for a moment, and then he began to walk away from her. "Go home."

She took a deep breath and began following him. "No. I will not let this go that easily. I have already made up my mind and your telling me to leave isn't going to make me change it."

"Nor will my mind be changed easily, madame—and I assure you that I am far more stubborn than you are. So go."

"You already made me go once before—and I had chosen to stay with you then, too. I thought I made that clear when I kissed you."

"You were only choosing to stay with me because I threatened to kill your fiancé if you did not," he snarled, turning on his heel and facing her. "You had already made your choice—you had already taken part in a plot to trap me so that you would be free of me. If you had truly cared for me the way you say you did, you would not have done such a thing—and even if you had done that, later on you would not have left with Raoul even though I had told you to. You would have stayed with me."

"I told you my reason for leaving then," she said softly. "I was afraid of being endangered by the mob."

He sighed, his expression softening as he did, before daring to reach out and lightly stroke the side of her face. "You should have known that I never would have let any harm come to you."

She reached out and stroked the unmasked, undeformed side of his face in turn. "Yet another mistake I made. But I have learned my lesson, Erik, and I want to spend the rest of my life apologizing for that mistake and all the others I made fifteen years ago. Please allow me that privilege."

For a moment, Erik simply looked at her, and then he shook his head. "I do not want to spend the rest of my life listening to you apologize for what you did in the past."

Christine took this to mean that he did not want to be with her, and the hurt which suddenly filled her heart made a lump rise in her throat. Her efforts had been for naught; she had resolved to leave behind the life she had been building for herself for the past fifteen years only to be rejected by the one for whom she had made that resolution. Now she was sure that she was feeling how he must have felt when she had left him behind the last time they had encountered each other.

Taking a deep breath in order to prevent her emotions from getting the best of her, she looked down so that he might not see that she was fighting back tears; she didn't want him to feel guilt for choosing not to be with her the way she had when she had left him.

He gently grasped her chin then, tilting her face upwards so that her brown eyes met his grey-green ones.

"What I meant," he said softly, "is that I do not want to hear an apology every day for the rest of my life. I instead want us to make up for lost time… every day for the rest of my life."

At the meaning behind his words, her heart became filled with joy, and the tears which began to roll down her cheeks were tears of happiness. And then, without even a moment's hesitation, they threw their arms around each other, beginning to kiss passionately.

The time that passed as they continued kissing seemed to be an eternity, but in truth, it was only about a minute. And once that minute had passed, he pulled away from her, his eyes sparkling in a way that she had never seen before.

"I love you, Christine," he declared to her, a smile coming to his face as he did. "I love you, I always have loved you, and I always will love you."

Smiling a smile which was as wide as his, she mirrored his words—"And I love you, Erik. I love you, I always have loved you, and I always will love you."

They then began kissing again, holding each other tightly as they did, their tongues doing a delightful tango. After a few moments, Christine felt something hard begin to press against her belly, and she moaned, for she knew that it was his desire for her.

He pulled away from her once more, his eyes sparkling even more than they had after he had stopped the first kiss. His breathing was heavy and his face looked slightly flushed.

"Christine… I…"

When his voice trailed off, she smiled slightly, and then she untied her cloak, allowing it to drop to the floor. Then she did something which he hadn't anticipated she would do—reached down and touched him.

"Ohh," he moaned, slowly closing his eyes. "You probably shouldn't do that, my dear…"

"Why not?" she inquired with a slightly mischievous tone, and then she began to knead him through his trousers, causing him to groan.

"Because…" He bit his lip momentarily, which she knew he was doing in order to try and keep from letting her know how good it felt to him. "Because I just might end up taking you to bed if you continue."

She moved her hand away from his desire, then softly kissed a spot on his neck, causing him to shiver.

"Take me," she whispered.

He opened his eyes, looking down at her and seeing that she wanted him as much as he wanted her. So without any more hesitation, he scooped her up in his arms, carrying her bridal style toward his bed before gently placing her down.

After looking down at her momentarily, he leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. Then he shifted his focus to her feet, removing her shoes and stockings before placing kisses on her now-bare legs as he stepped out of his own shoes and removed his socks.

She then took hold of his shoulders, pulling him down so that he was atop her on the bed and grabbing the bottom of his shirt, pulling it up so that it became untucked from his trousers and then so that she could pull it over his head and remove it. He finished it the rest of the way, completely removing it and dropping it onto the floor.

They kissed for several moments while she ran her hands all along his chest and back, feeling the scars that he had received in his time as the main feature at a Gypsy circus and wishing that she had been there when he had been young in order to prevent him from ever getting them. But she hadn't been, so she instead had to be grateful that he had escaped and that they had been able to meet.

"Here," she then said, and without any warning, she reached up and made to remove his mask.

Before she was able to do so, however, he grasped her wrist and shook his head fervently. "No."

"Don't worry," she said softly, managing to slip her wrist out of his grip. "It makes no difference to me…"

Then she removed his mask before he was able to make any further protests, and upon feeling the air strike his bare face, his chest tightened and he bowed his head so she wouldn't see him. He was so ashamed at his appearance, his deformity—the reason why he had been so isolated from the world the vast majority of his life. A man with his face was unworthy of having a woman as lovely as Christine and he knew it.

"Come here," she said gently, taking his face in her hands and making to tilt it upwards so that she could look at him. "Erik, let me see you."

"No," his whispered in response, his voice thick, and he kept his head down so she couldn't see his ugliness. "No, I… I don't want you to look. Please let me put my mask back on."

"It's not necessary for you to do that," she replied firmly, pressing her hands against his face in a gentle-yet-insistent manner. "Look at me, Erik. I want all of you… I want to see all of you."

No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn't deny her request—after all, she was Christine; he could deny her nothing. And so, with a deep breath, he allowed her to tilt his face upwards so that she could see the entirety of his unmasked face.

She looked at him in silence for several moments, her heart aching at the pain and embarrassment which showed itself so clearly in his eyes.

"It's all right," she murmured, moving one of her hands so that she began gently stroking his malformed cheek, feeling the warm ridges of irregular skin underneath her fingers.

Then, after she'd done this for several moments, she drew him down so that their faces were closer and softly placed kisses all over his deformity, running her fingers through his hair as she did so.

When she had finished her kissing, she looked into his eyes and said in the most sincere tone he had ever heard anyone use, "I love you, Erik. I love you so much."

Tears welled in his eyes and a faint smile came to his face as he whispered, "And I love you, Christine."

And then, without any more hesitation, they began passionately kissing once more, their tongues tangling as they held each other close.

Once they had kissed for several more moments, he suddenly broke their kiss and looked down at her, and she noticed that there was an anxious expression on his face.

"What is it?" she inquired, lightly brushing a hand through his hair.

"Well, I…" He bit his lip in a gesture of embarrassment. "I've never…"

She sat up and looked rather surprised. "You're fifty years old… and you've never had a woman?"

At this, his face turned red and he shook his head. "I—I've been to brothels a few times with the intention of doing so, but I always ended up backing out whenever I had gone to the bedroom with the woman I'd chosen. I really wanted to experience what it was like, but… I never wanted to experience it like that. I didn't want my first experience to be with some woman who gave herself to men she didn't even know… I wanted it to be with a woman who knew my name, who understood me, who wanted to be with me for reasons other than money. I wanted it to be with a woman who cared about me and who I cared about in turn."

She smiled at him and kissed him softly. "I love that reasoning, Erik. It's so logical… so beautiful. And now you will be able to get what you want…"

They began kissing again, and after several moments, he somewhat tentatively slid his hands up her body until they came to her breasts. He then began massaging them through the material of her dress, deepening their kiss.

She let out a sigh of ecstasy through their kiss, wrapping one leg around him and arching her back slightly. After a few more moments of massaging her breasts, he moved his hands toward the buttons of her dress, beginning to undo them.

When he had finished unbuttoning her dress, he grabbed the top of it, sliding it off her shoulders and down her body until he had removed it, discarding it on the floor with their shoes and his shirt.

At that point, she rolled over so that she was lying on her stomach, allowing him access to the laces of her corset. He got on top of her, straddling her from behind and causing her to feel his desire for her pressed against her bottom. Then, placing soft kisses on her bare shoulders, he began unlacing her corset.

Once he had completely unlaced her corset, she turned over and sat up once again, and they removed her corset together. They wrapped their arms around each other and pressed themselves together as best they could while still sitting up, allowing him to feel her naked breasts against his chest.

"Here, lie back," he said softly to her after a few moments of kissing, placing his hands on her bare shoulders and having her lie back, and he straddled her once again, massaging her breasts as he had before and additionally toying with her nipples.

She evidently liked this new action, for she shivered and let out a rather lusty moan. "Oh, Erik!"

This reaction inspired him to do something else involving her nipples, and with a rather sneaky smile on his face, he lowered himself slightly and began sucking on one of her breasts, closing his mouth over the nipple while toying with her other nipple. She let out a soft gasp, the heat between her thighs increasing as she wrapped both her legs around him.

He switched breasts then, beginning to suck the nipple he had previously been toying with and toying with the nipple he had previously been sucking.

"Mmm," she sighed, giving the barest shiver. "Erik, that feels so good…"

For a few moments, he continued what he was doing, but then he moved his mouth away from her breasts, that sneaky smile coming back to his face, and began kissing down her body, moving from her breasts to her stomach. Then he moved farther down to her ankles and began kissing upward, moving from her calves to her thighs and moving her underskirt up in order to expose new skin for him to kiss.

Much to her surprise, he didn't stop when he got to her thighs, and a few moments later, she felt him press a deep kiss against the center of her desire, and she let out a low, soft moan.

"Do you like that, my dear?" he inquired, pressing another kiss there.

"Yes," she whispered, shivering a bit. "Don't stop, Erik…"

For a few moments more, he continued kissing the petals of her womanhood, but then he decided that he wanted to pleasure her further and began running his tongue along her folds.

She let out a cry at the sensation, arching her back and shuddering. "Erik!"

He spent a few more moments exploring the center of her desire with his mouth, and then pulled away, moving back up and beginning to kiss her once again. She wrapped one arm around his neck and placed her other hand down and inside his trousers, beginning to massage his manhood with nothing in between it and her hand.

"Ahhh," he groaned, beginning to press hard kisses to her neck, and she felt him become harder in her hand. "Christine…"

They then began kissing passionately, and she grabbed the waistline of his trousers while he grabbed the waistline of her underskirt. Then they removed their respective lower garments from each other, discarding them and then pressing against each other. They both moaned at the ecstasy of feeling skin on skin with nothing in the way, but Erik especially did, having never experienced that sensation before.

"Oh… oh, Christine…" he breathed, wrapping his arms around her tightly and kissing her all over her face, neck, and shoulders.

She wrapped her legs around his waist and began kissing him deeply. "Take me, my love. I want to be yours."

A moment passed in which they simply kissed passionately, but then he took a deep breath and placed himself inside of her, softly groaning at the feeling of being inside her warm, moist depths. When he could go no further, they kissed deeply and held each other tightly for several moments.

Once these several moments had gone by, he began moving within her, slowly thrusting in and out and shuddering at the indescribable ecstasy which he felt coursing through his veins. She sighed and lifted herself up slightly, tenderly brushing her cheek against his deformed one and running her hands up and down his back.

It didn't take long before he began to come close to his release, and he moaned rather loudly. "Christine…"

"I know," she whispered, wrapping her arms around his neck and kissing him softly. "I feel it. Don't stop…"

He did as she said and continued thrusting, the ecstasy in his body becoming greater and greater with each new movement. He heard her begin to pant with pleasure, telling him that she was coming close to her own end.

Then, all of a sudden, he felt as if his body was exploding with the most incredible feeling it had ever felt, and he cried out as he held her tightly and poured himself inside of her. Just bare seconds later, she let out a long, soft moan and shivered, holding him tightly in turn as she experienced her release.

For some time, there was nothing but a peaceful silence as they held onto each other, he resting his head on her breast while she rested her hands on his back. Then, however, he lifted his head and kissed her, rolling onto his back and removing himself from her. She adjusted her position as well, lying slightly atop him and now resting her head on his chest. He placed a hand on her arm while running the fingers of his other hand through her curls.

She pressed a soft kiss to his shoulder. "How is this going to work?"

"What do you mean?" he inquired, glancing down at her.

"I mean… how are we going to go about starting our life together? We can't just go off together, even though that would be nice. I want to say goodbye to my children… we need to make travel arrangements, since I'm sure you'd really rather not stay in Paris… Raoul and I need to begin the process of divorcing so you and I can get married…"

"Get married?" he echoed, sounding rather surprised. "You… you want to marry me?"

At this, she chuckled and kissed his shoulder again. "Of course. Why wouldn't I? I love you, after all, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

For a moment, he looked down at her with a completely taken aback expression, but then he smiled widely and kissed her hard.

"Oh, Christine… I think you have no idea how happy you've made me by saying that. But, of course, I think our engagement should be a little more official than that, don't you? I need to ask you to be my wife by way of getting down on one knee and presenting you with a ring and actually asking you."

"Well, I suppose going about it in the traditional fashion would be nice," she said, smiling and resting her head on his chest once more.

He cleared his throat. "Does deChagny know you're here with me?"

"No. He went out of town a few days ago and won't be back for two more days."

There was a momentary silence, and then came a soft "Oh."

She looked up at him and saw that he looked rather disappointed. "What's the matter?"

"I…" He let out a soft sigh. "I thought he knew your plans; I thought you had already told him everything before coming here."

"Don't worry," she reassured him, pressing a soft kiss to his lips. "He will know… and I'm quite certain that he won't be angry. He may be hurt, but I think he'll understand. Everything will be all right."

For a moment, he looked at her, feeling anxious, but then the love clearly sparkling in her eyes reassured him, and so he smiled and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "All right."

"But for now, my love, I think you and I both need to rest," she said, wrapping an arm around him and bringing herself closer to him. "We'll have all day tomorrow to make our plans."

"Very well," he replied, kissing her tenderly. "Good night, my beautiful Christine. Sleep well."

"And you, too, my sweet Erik. Good night."

And with that, all grew silent, and they fell asleep while holding onto each other, each one dreaming of the future which they intended to have with the other.

~ o ~

"Erik… Erik, wake up, my love. It's morning…"

Erik sighed slightly, stirring and rubbing his eyes and opening them to see the most beautiful woman in the world sitting naked before him and beaming at him. His woman. His Christine.

Her smile became even wider as she leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. "Good morning."

"Good morning to you," he replied, placing his hands on her arms and pulling her down so that she was now lying down next to him. He then pressed an eager kiss to her lips, holding her close to him.

She chuckled a little when he finally chose to pull away from her. "You're in a very good mood this morning."

"Well, I have every reason to be, do I not?" he inquired of her, tucking a strand of her curls behind her ear and smiling at her. "For the first time in my life, I am completely and indescribably happy."

"I'm glad I've allowed that to happen for you," she said softly, smiling back at him and stroking his deformed cheek for a moment. And then, without another moment of hesitation, she leaned forward and kissed him.

That one kiss was not the only one they shared; they kept kissing each other, and he wrapped his arms around her and pressed his body against hers, allowing her to feel his awakened desire for her.

Upon feeling this, she moaned softly, but then she broke their kiss. "No, my dear—not now. If we start now, I fear that we'll stay in bed all day."

"And what would be wrong with that, may I ask?" he inquired, smiling mischievously and holding her even closer as he pressed a kiss to her neck.

"If we stay in bed all day, we'll make love all day. And if we make love all day, we'll never make plans for our future."

"Hmm," he murmured. "I suppose that would be a problem. Very well, then."

"Don't worry," she reassured him, kissing him. "We have the whole rest of our lives to make love together. So come on—let's get up, have breakfast, and start planning."

"Oh," he said, frowning a bit. "I generally don't eat breakfast, as a matter of fact, so I don't have any of the traditional breakfast food. If you'd like to have breakfast, however, I'll certainly go out and find something suitable."

"Let's do this," she suggested, sitting up. "I'll go and find something for us to eat… and in the meantime, how about you begin packing? After all, we'll be leaving rather soon, I'm sure, and I think we should only be focused on our plans and not packing whenever we're planning."

"All right; that's a good idea," he agreed, nodding as he sat up next to her. He lightly took hold of her chin and began pulling her face toward his. "One more kiss before we begin, though…"

She smiled, and then they shared a soft, simple kiss.

"Now let's go," he continued when the kiss ended, gently stroking her cheek for a moment before moving out of bed and beginning to locate some fresh clothes to change into.

For a moment during which he was doing that, she remained in bed and observed him, feeling happy at the simple pleasure that came from observing his always-graceful movements. Such easy contentment had never happened with Raoul; it seemed that he had always had to do something particularly special to make her feel the unquestionable love which she felt in that moment.

Thank You, God, for allowing him to be here so I would find him again so easily, she silently prayed. Thank You for giving him some of the mercy which is so infinite with You and having him take me back… thank You for allowing us to finally be together.

Once she had prayed this prayer, she watched him for a moment more, and then she rose from the bed, wrapping the sheet around her body and walking over to the area where she had left her carpetbag the night before. She opened it and dug through it until she found a clean dress to wear, pulling it out and then returning to the bedroom in order to dress.

After dressing, she walked over to Erik, who was putting on his shoes.

"I'm going now," she announced, running a hand through his hair momentarily. "Is there something in particular you'd like me to buy for us to eat?"

He looked up at her and smiled, shrugging. "Whatever you want will be fine with me."

"Very well," she replied, leaning down and giving him a kiss. "I'll see what I can find."

"Don't be long," he said softly, taking her hand and kissing it.

She kissed him again, squeezed his hand, and then turned and walked away, picking up her nearby cloak and putting it on before getting aboard the gondola and rowing away.

Ten minutes then proceeded to pass before she made it back to the front of the Opera, where she had entered the night before, and began walking toward the market.

While walking, she pondered upon what Erik would possibly like to eat. It was true that he had said he would eat whatever she picked, but she wanted to get something that she was certain he would want. The difficulty in making this choice, however, came with the fact that she had never seen him eat before—not breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Perhaps he would like some fruit, she thought to herself. But what kind of fruit would he like…?

As she thought about the various fruits that she herself liked that would be in season that time of year, she arrived at the portion of the market where the fruit vendors were.

"Bonjour, madame," the fruit vendor whose table she first approached greeted her, smiling and inclining his head slightly. "What could I get for you today?"

"I'm not sure," she said in response, smiling back at him. "What is something that has been a popular sell as of late?"

"Not too long ago, I received a shipment of passion fruit from South America," he said, picking up a piece of fruit which had a purple skin on it that she had never seen before. "Those who have purchased it from me have been very satisfied. I have yet to try it myself, but my customers tell me that it is quite delicious. I should tell you, however, that if you are going to try it, you need to remove the skin first."

"Hmm," she murmured, taking it from the man and examining it for a moment. "I think I might like to try this… how much does it cost?"

"Just one franc, madame."

She opened the purse she had brought with her and pulled out a franc, handing it to him. He took it from her, and then he watched as she peeled the skin off the passion fruit and looked at it momentarily before taking a bite of it.

To her pleasure, the man's customers who had liked the fruit had been accurate in their description of it, for it was indeed delicious. It contained a taste both sweet and sour and was delightfully soft. She enjoyed it immensely.

Without any hesitation whatsoever, she proceeded to eat the remainder of the fruit within about two minutes, and when she had finished, she looked up at the man, who was looking at her in a rather expectant fashion.

"Did you enjoy it, madame?" he inquired.

"Absolutely," she breathed, smiling at him rather widely. She looked down at the passion fruit which remained on his table. "I'll take all the rest of them which you have there."

"Very well," he replied with a chuckle, picking up a burlap sack which was behind him and placing every piece of passion fruit on the table inside it. Then he handed it to her. "That will be thirty francs more, if you please."

She pulled the requested amount out of her purse, handing it to him and nodding. "Thank you very much, monsieur."

"And thank you, madame. Bonne journée."

Without another word, she turned around and began to head back to the Opera, having decided that she and Erik would have a breakfast consisting only of passion fruit—she was certain that he would like it as much as she did.

Passion fruit, she thought to herself, a smile coming to her face. I suppose that is rather the perfect fruit to have with the one you love…

Then, as she continued walking, a carriage suddenly went by her rather quickly, and on the door there was a design which she knew all too well—the crest of the deChagny family.

Her eyes widened in alarm, as there was only one carriage which Raoul owned that had the family crest on it, and that was the carriage in which he had ridden to go out of town. That meant he had returned to Paris a day early!

At this, she realized that she had to make it back to the Château deChagny as quickly as possible, so she began to run back towards the Opera, making her way back inside the way she had entered the night before and making it back to the catacombs, to Erik's home, in about half the time it had taken her to leave it earlier that morning.

"Raoul's back a day early!" she exclaimed to Erik the moment she arrived on the shore of the lake, practically jumping out of the gondola and handing the burlap sack of passion fruit to him. She then rushed to the bedroom as quickly as possible while he followed her. "While I was walking back here, his carriage drove by me… I don't know why he's back; he wasn't supposed to be back until tomorrow… but now he's already arrived home and he knows I'm not there!"

"I must have missed the part where that's an issue," he finally spoke as she finished, frowning a bit.

She sighed and turned to him, placing her hands on his shoulders. "I came here last night because I knew that he wouldn't be around to see me leave and wonder where I was going… and I intended to be back there tomorrow morning because whenever he leaves town, he normally returns in the afternoon. My intention was for him to not know that I had ever been gone—at least, not until I had told him what was going to happen. But now he's there and I'm not…"

"Well, I suppose that means you'll be able to tell him of our plans sooner."

"That's part of the problem, though," she responded, sighing again. "We haven't made our plans. We were supposed to make them when I had come back and we had eaten. But now I need to leave…"

"Don't worry about it," he reassured her, placing his hands on her shoulders as she had done to him. "We'll simply do this—meet me at the train station at three o'clock in the afternoon tomorrow. From there, we'll decide where we would first like to travel and board the next train headed toward that destination. We can just improvise for a while."

"I suppose that's what we'll have to do, isn't it?" she murmured, resting her hands atop his arms for a moment. "All right."

"All right," he replied, smiling and pressing a kiss to her forehead. "Now get your things together and I'll take you across the lake."

She nodded and turned away from him, gathering the clothes she had worn the night before and placing them back in her carpet bag. While she did so, he reached inside the burlap sack of passion fruit and pulled out one.

"Passion fruit," she informed him when she saw that he was examining it with a somewhat puzzled expression. "It's from South America. It's very good."

"Hmm," he murmured, nodding and making to take a bite out of it.

"No, you don't eat it like that," she interrupted. "You have to peel the skin first."

"Oh," he said, and then he peeled the skin before taking a bite. Then, as he chewed it, he smiled, looked down at her, and nodded.

"That bag contains all the ones the vendor had," she said, nodding towards the sack. "There are thirty—or, actually, twenty-nine, seeing as how you just ate one."

"I take it they're only in season during this time of year?" he inquired.

"Yes."

"Well, then we'll have to get as many as we can get our hands on whenever they're available," he said, smiling down at her. "They're wonderful."

She smiled back at him, then closed her carpet bag and rose to her feet. "I'm ready to go now."

"Very well," he replied, wrapping an arm around her waist and walking over to the gondola alongside her. Then he took her hand, pressed a kiss to it, and helped her into the gondola and into a sitting position.

"So," he continued as he began rowing the gondola away from the shore, looking down at her and smiling. "What kind of wedding would you prefer to have? Would you like to have a church wedding?"

"Aren't you an atheist?" she inquired, frowning a bit. "Why would you agree to have a church wedding if you are an atheist?"

"I'm not as much of an atheist as I used to be," he replied, briefly glancing towards the direction in which he was rowing before turning his attention back to her. "I believe in God, but only on certain occasions, really."

"Like what?" she inquired, raising her eyebrows in interest. "What's an occasion where you believe?"

"Well," he said, smiling at her, "I surely believe in Him right now. And how could I not? You have returned to me and you're going to be mine at last."

"You believe in Him when something which is in your favor occurs, then."

"Not only then, but yes, I do." He paused as they reached the other side of the lake, at which point he stepped out of the gondola. "I'll have to tell you the other instances in which I believe in Him at a later time… for now, you must go."

"But aren't you going to walk me to the mirror?" she asked as he helped her rise and step out of the gondola.

He sighed and shook his head. "I don't think that would be a good idea. The longer you are around me right now, the more I am tempted to not let you go back to deChagny at all, the more I am tempted to have us simply leave today and without any further delay."

She nodded in understanding, but she couldn't help but feel somewhat disappointed that she had to say goodbye right then—for now, at least.

"I will see you tomorrow," he said to her then, evidently seeing that she wasn't entirely happy with what was happening now, and took one of her hands, clasping it between both of his. "Three o'clock at the train station."

"I've already begun counting down the hours until that time comes," she said, lifting his hands to her lips and placing a kiss on each of them.

"And I have already begun to count the seconds," he replied, kissing the hand which was between his in turn. "I love you, Christine… so very, very much."

She smiled, leaning forward and kissing her masked lover. "And I love you, Erik—with all my heart, I love you."

The most beautiful smile she had ever seen on anyone came to his face. "Now go. I will see you at the station."

Once the two had shared one final kiss, Christine turned away, picking up her carpetbag and beginning to walk toward the two-sided mirror which allowed her access to his world. Erik watched her go, and when she was out of sight, he began to row the gondola back toward the place which would not be his home for much longer.

Although she had been worried about the fact that she would arrive at the Château deChagny after Raoul already had, and with a carpetbag, which would indicate that she had been somewhere else the previous night, she took her time in exiting the Opera. After all, it wasn't as if it would be very long before Raoul learned the truth of what had already happened and was going to happen. She wasn't concerned, however; instead, she was happy. For the past fifteen years, she had denied herself of the greatest happiness she had ever known, but now she was finally going to get it. And she was certain that Raoul would, of course, be hurt, but that he would accept her decision and let her go without very much of a fight. For as long as she had known him, Raoul had always placed the happiness of others before his own happiness.

It will hurt to see the pain I'm inevitably going to cause him, she thought to herself, letting out a slight sigh. After all, he is my husband of fifteen years and the father of my children… and I may not love him nearly as much as I love Erik, but I do indeed love him. But I know he will heal in time… he will move on and marry a woman who will love him the way I love Erik, a woman who will be a good stepmother to the children.

Half an hour later, her contemplative journey back toward the place which she intended to permanently leave the next day had ended; she had returned to the Château deChagny. She opened the door and was immediately greeted by those who had surrounded her for at least some portion of the fifteen years when she had been separated from Erik.

"Oh, hello, Mama!" Vivienne, the oldest deChagny child, a girl of fourteen, said happily, coming forward and kissing the Vicomtesse on the cheek. "I'm so glad you've returned; Jeanette said you weren't coming back until tomorrow!"

"Well, I decided to come back a day early," Christine replied, kissing her daughter's cheek in turn. "I missed you and your siblings very much."

"I missed you, too, Mama," Jacques, who was twelve, informed Christine, getting onto his toes in order to follow his older sister's example and kiss his mother on the cheek.

"But I missed you most!" ten-year-old Claude, who was always in competition against the older deChagny boy, insisted, kissing Christine on the cheek like his siblings had.

"No, you didn't!" Jacques, who was well-aware of the unending contest which Claude had created between the two of them, retorted. "I missed her more."

Vivienne sighed. "Oh, boys, stop this."

"Come off it, Jacques!" Claude exclaimed, pushing his older brother slightly. "Everyone knows that I always miss Mama more than you do whenever she's away."

"Well, if you miss her so much whenever she's gone, then why do you behave so badly?" Jacques asked, using sarcasm—an art he had already mastered in his short life.

Claude had nothing to say to that, but he continued fighting back, and after a few short moments, the slight pushing became rough pushing and the rough pushing became punching.

Once the punching began, Vivienne and Christine did their best to stop the brothers from fighting before someone got hurt, but it was to no avail; they each managed to fight off the two who sought to restrain them and continue to fight each other.

"That's enough out of you two, Jacques, Claude!" a new voice suddenly cut in after a few moments, and Raoul appeared, managing to separate the two despite their efforts to struggle out of his grip. "What have I told you two about fighting?"

"Don't do it," the boys replied unanimously, looking as children in trouble typically do with their bowed heads and their hands folded behind their backs.

"Indeed. And since you just did that, I want both of you to go to your own room and sit on your bed with the door closed until I tell you that you may come out. You are going to learn to behave. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Papa," the brothers said, once again speaking at the same time, then turned and went upstairs. After a few moments, two doors were closed, and then there was silence.

"Well, I'm glad that's over—for now, anyway," Raoul said with a relieved sigh, turning and clasping his hands together as he looked at his wife. "Hello, my dear."

"Hello," Christine replied, smiling as he came forward and pressed a soft kiss to her cheek. "How was your trip?"

"Quite good. I missed you, though," he informed her, smiling back and taking her hand, kissing the knuckles.

"I missed you, too," she said, and she said it with at least some sincerity. "You're back early; I didn't expect you until tomorrow."

"My business out of town finished earlier than I thought it would," he explained. "I did briefly consider staying an extra day and perhaps doing something more interesting than what I had been doing while I was there, but then I decided that I would instead come home and surprise you."

She smiled in a rather nervous fashion as she thought about how alarmed she had been when his carriage had passed by her earlier. "Well, you certainly did that."

He smiled back at her, taking her hand and squeezing it. "I'm glad. And now come—I have something upstairs which I would like you to see."

"All right," she agreed, following him up the stairs and into their bedroom, where his still-unpacked suitcases were lying on the bed.

"This was at a local jewelry store; it had some of the finest jewelry I've ever seen—some of it ever finer than what can be found here in Paris," he said as he opened one of the suitcases, removing a thin, rectangular velvet box from it. He turned to her and opened it, revealing a pearl necklace. "I remembered how much you adore pearls and I knew it was the most beautiful pearl necklace I'd seen anywhere, so I thought I would get it for you."

"Oh, Raoul," she sighed, placing a hand on her throat for a moment in a gesture of surprise. "It really is lovely."

"You own it now, then," he informed her, removing the necklace from the box, walking behind her, and clasping it together at the back of her neck. Then he moved her hair so that the necklace was no longer over it, pressing a soft kiss to the back of her head as he did.

"How does it look?" she inquired, turning and facing him so that he could see how it looked on her. "It's too short for me to be able to see any part of it on me."

"It looks beautiful on you, of course," he said with a smile. "Your beauty reflects onto it and makes it even more beautiful than it is just by itself."

And then, without another word from either of them, he leaned forward and kissed her more deeply than he had in at least two years, causing her to feel both surprised and slightly weak-kneed.

When he broke their kiss, he pulled her into a warm embrace and held her close. "I really did miss you, Christine. I wish you had been able to take this trip with me."

She heard the sincerity in his tone, and it caused a lump of guilt for the betrayal she intended to do and had already done against him to rise in her throat.

Before she had a chance to say anything in response, he pulled away from her slightly, resting his hands on her shoulders and looking into her eyes. A slight smile was on his face.

"Enough about me, though. Jeanette tells me you weren't here last night… she says you told her that you would be taking a trip last night, today, and tomorrow morning. Where did you go?"

The lump in her throat rose even more, for she knew that she wasn't going to tell him the truth in this moment, and she swallowed it back down with effort. "I just went to a hotel for the night. I wanted to get out of the house for a little while and have some time to myself."

"You obviously came back early, though."

"I missed the children," she lied, feeling like a terrible mother, for in her time with Erik, she hadn't missed her children—her children, whom she was going to basically abandon when she left with Erik the next day. "So I decided to come back."

"Ah. Did you enjoy your time away when you had it, though?"

"Oh, absolutely," she replied, nodding fervently while feeling the guilt continue to pile up within her. "It was wonderful."

Yes… being unfaithful to you was the most enjoyable experience I've had in a while, she then thought to herself rather miserably.

"Well, I'm glad," he said, smiling and interrupting her thoughts. He placed a hand on her arm. "You know, you and I haven't had very much time to ourselves as of late. When was the last time I took you out to dinner?"

She shrugged. "I'm not sure."

"That means it's been too long," he declared, lightly squeezing the arm he was holding. "How about I make arrangements for us to dine at your favorite restaurant tomorrow evening?"

For a moment, she was silent, thinking about how she would no longer be residing at the Château deChagny when the next evening came. From that point on, she would no longer be able to really consider herself a deChagny, as she was only such by marriage, and the next day, she would begin the proceedings to no longer be married to the dear, clueless man who had given her that surname.

Guilt filled her once more as she lied again by smiling and saying, "Yes, tomorrow evening sounds wonderful."

He kissed her for a brief moment, then pulled away and smiled at her. "Tomorrow evening it is, then, my dear."

"Monsieur le Vicomte!" Jeanette's voice called from downstairs. "The mailman has just arrived and you told me to let you know when today's mail had come."

"Very good, Jeanette," he called back, giving Christine one more kiss before turning and beginning to exit the bedroom. "I'm on my way down now."

And then, without saying anything else to her, Raoul left the bedroom, slightly closing the door behind him. A few moments later, she could hear him descending the staircase and thanking Jeanette for alerting him as he'd asked her to.

Poor Raoul, she thought to herself rather sadly, sinking onto the bed and sitting on its edge. He's been nothing but wonderful to me these past fifteen years… he's always so sweet, so considerate… how will I be able to live with myself after I break his heart tomorrow?

Now feeling that she was a terrible wife in addition to being a terrible mother, she rose to her feet and headed out of the bedroom and downstairs, silently praying that God would give her the strength needed in order to begin her life with Erik, a life which would allow her to experience the happiness which she only felt in his presence.

~ o ~

Late the next morning, Christine lay in bed, feeling mixed emotions—anxiety, excitement, anticipation, and, most of all, guilt.

Raoul had surprised her by having her awaken to breakfast in bed, which he had both cooked and served himself. Then he had told her that, in preparation for the nice dinner out which he would be treating her to that evening, he had arranged for her to have her hair and nails done at the most elegant, reputed, and expensive beauty salon within an eighty-kilometer radius.

"Your appointment is scheduled for four o'clock this afternoon," he had informed her, causing her to feel a pang in her heart, for she certainly wouldn't be able to have a four o'clock beauty appointment if she was to meet Erik at the train station at three o'clock. At four o'clock that afternoon, she probably wouldn't even be in Paris anymore, depending on where she and Erik chose to go and when their train departed.

Her guilt for the betrayal which she would commit that afternoon by leaving the Château deChagny with no intention of ever returning as a resident was considerably dampening her desire to leave with Erik, a fact which both made her feel a little more reassured as to her moral character and frightened her.

Certainly she did feel reassured that she was beginning to second-guess her plan to leave Paris and go with Erik, since it indicated that she wasn't as terrible a wife and mother as she had been thinking herself to be over the course of the past twenty-four hours.

But I love Erik, she thought to herself rather miserably, sighing and rubbing her forehead in a gesture of frustration. I love him and I want to be with him…and so it scares me that I'm feeling less and less like leaving with him.

For several more moments, she sat in bed and contemplated how she was ever going to quit feeling guilty enough to be able to leave in order to meet Erik at the train station three o'clock, and then she let out another sigh and rose, pulling on her nearby robe and slippers and picking up her carpetbag. She had thought about using a suitcase in order to pack things to take with her in her new life with Erik, but then she had decided that such would not be a wise decision—and therefore, she would only take a few things which her carpet bag would be large enough to hold. She would have to purchase new clothes and other such things that she wasn't packing much of to take with her, but that would be better; it would allow her to have very few items which held any ties to Raoul, if any at all.

Then she began packing, placing all the items that she had ever received from her children, a pair of shoes, and a few of her favorite dresses into the carpetbag. She decided that these items would be the only ones which she would take with her, so she then closed her carpetbag and placed it on her side of the bed which she had shared with Raoul for the past fifteen years, knowing that Raoul wouldn't see it until she was carrying it on her way out that afternoon.

Once this had been done, she decided that it would be a good time to get dressed and ready for the challenging day which surely lay ahead of her, and so she went to the closet, picking the plainest dress she owned and deciding that it would be the one which she wore.

After all, she reasoned, within a few hours, I will no longer be able to call myself a Vicomtesse, for I will no longer consider myself the Vicomte's wife. I will be an ordinary woman… leading an extraordinary life with an extraordinary man.

With this thought in her head, she smiled and began to dress, feeling as if she was wearing the grandest clothes in the world because she suddenly felt so confident in her decision to leave with Erik.

I'm making the right decision, she thought to herself firmly. I'm going to be with the man I love most… it's true that I'll hurt another man whom I love in the process, but… everyone deserves the greatest happiness he can find in the world, and I will have that with Erik. And I'm certain that Raoul will be far happier with another woman than he ever has been with me, for the woman he'll find to be his next wife will be one who loves him the way he deserves to be loved.

Her confidence boosted to the point at which it had been when she'd arrived at the Opera two evenings previously, and her guilt and anxiety diminished, leaving her to feel only excitement and anticipation in forms far stronger than they had been before she'd gotten out of bed.

"Madame la Vicomtesse! Vivienne, Jacques, Claude!" Jeanette's voice came from downstairs. "Lunch is ready!"

Sighing happily, Christine examined herself in her armoire mirror briefly, decided that she looked perfectly fine, and then exited the bedroom, going downstairs and into the dining room, where Vivienne, Jacques, and Claude were already seated at their assigned places at the table. Raoul was out of the house, having announced that he had several errands to run during the morning and early afternoon and wouldn't be back in time to join his family for lunch.

"Bon après-midi, my darlings," Christine greeted her children, kissing the tops of their heads before taking her own place at the table. She looked at Jeanette, who was standing nearby. "And what have you prepared for us today, Jeanette?"

"A turkey breast with potatoes and buttered asparagus, Madame."

"Very good," Christine replied, clasping her hands together as Jeanette briefly disappeared into the kitchen before returning with three plates that already had the aforementioned turkey, potatoes, and asparagus on them. She took a deep breath as her plate was placed before her. "Mmm. It looks and smells delicious."

"Thank you, Madame," Jeanette said, curtsying as she placed the children's plates before them. "Now go on and eat."

Upon hearing this from their maid, the three deChagnys picked up their forks and began to eat their lunch, which they all clearly enjoyed due to the pleased expressions which came to their faces. They found the meal so enjoyable, in fact, that they had seconds but still managed to finish within about twenty minutes when eating only one serving of a meal generally took them about fifteen minutes.

"It was wonderful, Jeanette," Christine said gratefully to Jeanette as she placed her plate and silverware in the kitchen sink, which was filled with hot, soapy water because Jeanette had already begun to wash the children's plates.

"Très bonne, Madame. I'm glad you enjoyed it," Jeanette replied, nodding her head slightly in a gesture of humility and thankfulness.

Christine briefly smiled at Jeanette, then turned and made her way back upstairs to the room which would not be her bedroom for very much longer. A glance at the clock on the wall told her that it was now one o'clock in the afternoon. Walking to the train station took about fifteen minutes, so in order to meet Erik at three o'clock, she would have to leave at a quarter to the hour. She therefore only had an hour and forty-five minutes left before leaving.

I hope Raoul has returned from whatever errands he's running by that time, she thought to herself somewhat anxiously. He deserves a face-to-face explanation of what's happening… and if he's not here before I leave, he won't be getting it and he'll instead have to learn of what has happened through a note which I'll have to leave him. And I'd really rather not do that to him…

After a moment, she no longer felt really concerned about the matter, for she was certain that it wouldn't be much longer before Raoul returned. She therefore decided to occupy that time by doing several things about the bedroom—and the first thing she wanted to do was begin to disassociate herself from Raoul and her marriage to him in any way she could.

She walked over to the armoire, sitting down and reaching at the back of her neck. She then unclasped the pearl necklace which Raoul had given her the day before, removing it and setting it atop the armoire. Next came the earrings, which were pearls that perfectly matched her necklace and which Raoul had given to her as a gift for their anniversary the year before. After that, she took off the diamond bracelet which she had received from Raoul on her seventeenth birthday—the first birthday she had celebrated as a married woman.

Once these pieces had been removed and placed on the armoire, she took a deep breath, for she knew the last item which she had left to remove—her wedding ring.

Removing her ring was unquestionably going to be the most difficult part of removing her jewelry—after all, it held more sentimental value than any other piece of jewelry she owned or had ever owned; it was the most important symbol of her connection to Raoul which she had.

For fifteen years, I've worn this ring every day without ever removing it—it's always remained on my finger, she thought to herself, looking down at her left ring finger and regarding the ring which was on it. Despite countless times of bathing, three instances of going through childbirth, several bouts of illness from both myself and others in my household… despite everything, I've never taken it off.

Then she wondered if she should really be removing the ring right then. Should she wait until she was just about to leave, and then, in the midst of apologizing to Raoul for hurting him the way she knew she was going to, take it off and hand it to him?

Perhaps not. Such an action would probably be a bit too dramatic… and she knew that the moment would be dramatic enough without her removing the ring during it. And besides, she could remember that when she had left Erik and gone with Raoul fifteen years previously, the last thing she had done to him before leaving had been to remove the ring which he had intended to be her wedding ring for him, place it in his hand, and then walk away. She still remembered the look of pain and brokenhearted disappointment which had come to his face in those moments, and she decided that she didn't want to do such a thing to Raoul. He was already going to look sad enough, she was sure, and she didn't want him to look any worse than he was going to look when she told him what was happening.

Taking a deep breath in order to brace herself for the significant action she was about to take, she took hold of her wedding ring and then slowly removed it. Once it had slid all the way off her finger, she examined it for several moments, thinking about how important this ring had been to her for fifteen years and that the fact that she'd taken it off held even more importance. By performing an action which really seemed rather simple, she had almost completely removed herself from the life she had been leading for so long.

Goodbye, Raoul, she thought to herself, thinking the words which she would shortly be saying to her husband, and then she placed her wedding ring atop the armoire with all the rest of her jewelry which she'd removed, intending to never touch it again after that point.

At almost the precise moment in which she set down her ring, she heard the front door open downstairs, and then she heard Raoul calling out.

"Christine? Children? I'm back."

She rose to her feet, exiting the bedroom and going downstairs to the front entryway of the house, where Raoul stood, a rather large vase of pinkish marigolds—her favorite flowers—in his arms.

"Oh, Raoul!" she exclaimed, rushing over to help him, as she saw that he was having a bit of difficulty holding onto it by himself—because after all, the vase was quite large and it was as filled with marigolds as it could possibly be. "What on Earth? Why do you have these?"

He chuckled as he peered at her around the large mass of flowers. "They're for you, of course. Why else would I have brought a big vase of your favorite flowers home?"

"For me?" she echoed, blinking in a somewhat incredulous manner. "But… why?"

"Don't you understand that today is your day, Christine?" he inquired, raising his eyebrows at her and smiling. "I bought you a sizable vase of your favorite flowers, you're going to a hair and nail appointment at the best beauty salon in the general vicinity here in just a short while, and tonight we're having dinner at your favorite restaurant. I want this to be a day you'll remember for a long time, so I'm doing everything I can to help make it so."

For several moments, she didn't know what to say and instead stared at him. And while she did, the guilt she'd earlier felt about her plans to leave him suddenly returned, causing her heart to squeeze in the most painful way.

"Thank you," she finally said once she'd managed to make the guilt downsize just a bit, speaking slowly. She gave him a believable smile. "You're doing an excellent job of making this a day to remember."

He smiled back at her. "I'm glad you think so. But just wait until you see what I have planned later…"

"I can't wait," she lied, her heart squeezing even more intensely than it had a few moments earlier, and she gently pulled the vase out of his grip. "I'm going to take these upstairs to our bedroom. I'll be back in a few moments."

"Are you sure you can take them by yourself?" he inquired as she turned away, taking a few steps toward her. "They really are quite heavy, as I'm sure you've now noticed."

"Don't worry; I can manage," she said, and then, without another word to him and without waiting to see if he'd say more, she went upstairs, carrying the vase to the bedroom.

She set the vase atop her armoire and closed the door. And with tears welling in her eyes, she sank down onto the bed and let out a long, shuddering breath.

Oh, Raoul, why must you make this so difficult? she thought, slowly closing her eyes. Why is it that, on the day when I plan to leave you, you suddenly decide that you're going to be as romantic and spontaneous as you can? Why did you have to be so wonderful today? Couldn't you have picked an earlier time… like before the time when I decided that I was going to find Erik, tell him that I wanted to be with him, and then leave you for him?

Without warning, the tears that had been in her eyes suddenly began to roll down her cheeks, and the most powerful feeling of guilt that she'd ever felt in her thirty-one years of life overwhelmed her. So she did the only thing which she felt that, in that moment, she could do—covered her face with her hands and began to cry softly.

Things weren't supposed to be this way. She wasn't supposed to be wavering back and forth between leaving with Erik and staying with Raoul; she was supposed to be firm in her decision one way or the other. She wasn't supposed to be making a choice between the two men at all, in fact; she was supposed to remain loyal to her husband, the man whom she herself had chosen to be with.

You've got to stop this crying, she then thought to herself rather angrily, roughly wiping away the tears on her face and sniffing. And you've got to stop this uncertainty in your decision-making. All you're doing is hurting yourself—and, really, you're hurting both Raoul and Erik as well, though they don't know of the conflicting feelings which lie within you. So choose what you're going to do now—and once you've chosen, don't allow yourself to change your mind once more.

Once this thought had gone through her head, she swallowed hard and took a deep breath, looking at the clock on the bedroom wall and seeing that time had flown by rather quickly since she and the children had eaten lunch, for it was already two o'clock in the afternoon.

Her time was running out quickly; she had forty-five minutes to make a firm decision about whether or not to leave with Erik.

She thought about Erik then; she thought about all the things she loved about him and the memories she had of him—all of which she held dear. She thought about the enamored manner in which he had looked at her the night they had first met, which she could remember despite the fact that she had been completely mesmerized by him and therefore insensible in all other aspects of her mental state. She remembered the wild way in which her heart had pounded when, after six months of being unseen, he had appeared at the New Year's Masquerade. She remembered the incredulous expression on his face and the way he had cried after she'd chosen to be with him instead of Raoul and given him his first two kisses. She remembered the look of pure happiness that had been on his face two nights previously when she had told him that she wanted to be with him… she remembered the passionate way in which he had kissed her… she remembered the tender, loving way he had held onto her while they had made love…

Passion for the masked man whom she had always loved filled her to the brim, causing her to think of the lack of passion which she felt for Raoul. She didn't feel passionately about her husband, despite the fact that she had been married to him for fifteen years and he had done so much for her in that time. She was entirely certain he knew that she held a rather deep affection for Erik, or at least had for the first while that they were married, despite the fact that she'd done her best to hide it, especially since he had risked his life for her sake before their marriage and nearly been killed by Erik. And yet he had never said anything to indicate any sort of frustration or jealousy towards that affection or loved her any less because of it. He had remained faithful to her in every aspect… he had fathered her children… he had been so good to her… and now she was intending to leave him…

A lump rose in her throat and she tried her best to swallow it down, but it didn't work; it remained lodged in the same place. She was determined not to start crying again, however, and that determination worked, for no tears began falling.

I want to be with Erik so badly, she thought to herself, letting out a rather long sigh. But if I leave Raoul after being with him for so long, if I hurt him like that, I'm sure that I'll regret it for the rest of my life… I'll never forgive myself. Then I'll begin to resent what I've done and, eventually, resent Erik for being the reason that I left Raoul. And I don't want to resent Erik… especially since this isn't his fault by any stretch. He didn't try to win me back; I was the one who put forth the effort.

With this thought in mind, she finally made her decision—she would remain with Raoul. The choice would kill her, she knew, because she truly wanted to be with Erik… but she felt that if she went with him, it would end in unhappiness for both of them, her because she would feel guilty for leaving and consequently hurting Raoul and him because he would know that she wasn't completely satisfied with him. And more than that, the decision made her feel even worse because she knew that Erik was trusting her to meet him at the train station at three o'clock and she would be breaking that trust by not appearing.

I have to let it go, though, she thought. I have to let Erik go… if I had chosen to be with him fifteen years ago, things would obviously be all right. But I didn't make that decision… and I thought I could change it, but I can't do that without feeling an incredible amount of guilt and, eventually, unhappiness. It's better this way. Erik won't feel that way initially, but I'm sure he will someday.

She looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was half past the hour—in just thirty minutes, Erik would be awaiting her arrival at the train station… only to find that she wouldn't come.

"Forgive me, Erik," she whispered softly, slowly closing her eyes and swallowing hard. "I've been such a fool… but it is I who will suffer most because of it, because now I will never see you again. I'll want to every day for the rest of my life… but I simply won't allow it. All it will do is hurt the both of us. But I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I hope you'll someday be able to find it in your heart to forgive me."

All of a sudden, there was a knock at the door.

"Christine?" Raoul's voice came from the other side of the door. "Are you all right? You've been up here quite a while."

"Oh, yes," she responded, wiping away tears that had suddenly sprung into her eyes and rising to her feet. "I'm fine. You may come in if you want."

The door opened and Raoul stepped inside, smiling at her and walking over to her. Then he wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close to him, and kissed her softly.

"What have you been doing up here all by yourself?" he inquired, continuing to smile at her. "I was beginning to worry."

"Nothing, really," she lied, shrugging and shaking her head a bit. "I was just thinking."

"Hmm," he murmured, nodding. Then he happened to glance toward her armoire, and when he did, he suddenly looked rather surprised. "You're not wearing your jewelry?"

Just as he'd done, she glanced over at the armoire and saw her earrings, necklace, and wedding ring sitting in the same place that she'd set them down earlier. A small sense of panic ran through her then, for she was worried that he would suspect what her plans had been when she had removed those items.

"They were just bothering me a bit, that's all," she replied, turning to face him as he did the same with her. "So I decided to take them off for a while. I'll put them back on before I go to the beauty salon."

"All right, then," he said, nodding, and she was relieved to see that there was no sign of suspicion or disbelief on his face. He then slid his hands down her arms until they reached her hands, which he took hold of. "Now how about you quit being so reclusive and come downstairs? The children and I are playing a game of poker. Perhaps you'd like to take part."

"Certainly," she agreed, and then he turned and went out, heading back downstairs to the parlor, where he'd previously been.

She intended to follow him—but before she did, however, she picked up her necklace and earrings which had been resting on the armoire and put them back on. Then she picked up her wedding ring and looked at it for a few moments, thinking about how she already regretted the decision she had made—how she regretted having made the exact same decision fifteen years earlier.

I love you, Erik, she thought, letting out a soft sigh as she slid her wedding ring back onto her finger. And I always will.

Once she had taken a deep breath, she straightened herself and then turned, exiting the bedroom and going downstairs in order to join her husband and children in the parlor. She saw that all four of them were sitting at the table, playing a game of Five-Card Draw Poker.

"Hello, Mama," Vivienne greeted her mother when she came into view, smiling at her. "Would you like to play, too, once this game is over?"

"Yes, I certainly would," Christine replied, smiling the best smile she could muster back at Vivienne. She seated herself in the chair next to Raoul. "Who's winning so far?"

"Papa is," Claude hastened to inform her, frowning a bit. Then he leaned rather close and continued in a low voice—"I think he's cheating."

Raoul, having heard his youngest child although he hadn't been meant to be able to, chuckled softly. "I'm not cheating. It's just that I'm older and more experienced in playing this game… and therefore, I'm doing better. And you know that. You don't want to admit it, though, because you don't like to lose."

"Neither do you, if I recall correctly," Christine teased gently, leaning over slightly so that she bumped her husband a bit.

He smiled and lightly bumped her back, his eyes remaining fixed on the cards in his hand. "You're right. I don't like to lose… in fact, I rather hate it. But losing in a game of cards is far less significant than losing in other aspects, so it's not quite so terrible."

"I want to replace one of my cards," Vivienne informed her father, who was dealing the cards. She placed the card which she wished to discard face-down on the table, at which point Raoul removed two cards from the deck sitting next to him. He then set the first one he'd drawn face-down on the table and handed her the second one.

Upon receiving her new card, Vivienne frowned and let out a sigh. "Oh, I wish I could take my old card back."

Raoul chuckled at this. "Chérie, you're not supposed to let anyone know if you think the hand which you've been dealt is bad. Remember, the other players should think that you have a good hand and therefore have a legitimate chance at winning."

The deChagny daughter's frown became deeper. "I know… I'm just not very good at keeping it a secret."

"Well, you'll never win if you don't learn," Raoul replied. He then turned his attention to Jacques and Claude. "Do you have any cards you'd like to replace, boys?"

After a moment of silence, both brothers shook their heads.

"Very well," Raoul then said, clearing his throat and straightening himself a bit. "Then it's time for everyone to show their cards so we can see who's got the best hand."

Everyone then laid their cards down on the table, allowing their competitors to see what they each had. Vivienne had a pair of sevens, Jacques had a high card due to the Ace in his hand, Claude had a straight flush, and Raoul had a full house.

"Hmm," Raoul murmured raising his eyebrows and looking rather impressed. "Well, it looks like Claude just won his first game of poker."

Claude momentarily examined his hand, then everyone else's, before his face brightened. "Oh, I did!"

"You have a very impressive hand, too," Raoul informed him. "Remember what I told you about the different kind of hands you can have in poker? The straight flush, which is what you have, is the second-best hand one could possibly get. The only hand that can beat a straight flush is a royal flush."

"Right, I remember," Claude replied, nodding fervently. "Wow! I knew I had a straight flush, but I didn't remember how good of a hand it is."

"Well, now that it's helped you win a game for the first time, I'm sure you'll remember from this point on," Raoul said. He then gathered together all the cards which had been played in that round, placing them back in the deck, and looked over at Christine. "You're going to play with us now, aren't you?"

"Of course I am," she replied with a smile, scooting her chair a bit closer to the table. "Deal me in."

He nodded, and then he shuffled the deck of cards while the children—knowing that they were giving up the chips which they had won because they were starting over now that there was a new player—gathered all the chips together and pushed them back towards Raoul, since, being the dealer, he had control of the chips. Once everyone had their cards, he redistributed the chips so that everyone had an equal amount.

"Now it's time for the small and big blinds," he then announced, placing a white chip, which was the chip of smallest value, down on the table as the small blind. He turned to Christine. "You place the big blind down."

She nodded silently, taking a black chip, which was equivalent in value to two white chips, and setting it apart from her pile of chips. Then the children each placed down a black chip in order to continue participating in the game, while Raoul took away his white chip and set down a black chip as well.

Once that had been done, Raoul gathered the five black chips together and placed them in the center of the table before dealing five cards to each player, himself included. Then the family picked up their individual hands, examining them in silence for several moments.

"All right," Raoul then said after those moments had passed, clearing his throat and straightening himself a bit as he had done earlier when the previous round had ended. "Well, I think I'll begin this round by immediately betting."

With that, he placed two black chips on the table and waited to see what his wife and children would do.

"I'll stay," Christine almost immediately said, following her husband's example and putting two black chips down on the table and smiling at him. He smiled back at her.

"This hand really isn't good… and I had hardly any chips at the end of the last game," Vivienne concluded, setting her cards down as a sign that she was folding. "I think I'll wait to play until I start with a hand that looks at least a bit promising."

Claude, apparently feeling confident from his recent first win, placed down two black chips and a white chip. "Raise."

Raoul chuckled, ruffling the boy's hair a bit. "That's the spirit, son."

Not to be outdone by his younger brother if he could help it, Jacques let out a rather loud sniff and placed down three black chips. "Raise."

"Well, since I was the first one to place a bet, I suppose I rather have to continue," Raoul said, adding a black chip to his bet. Christine and Claude followed suit.

"All right," Raoul then continued, looking to the three of his family members who were continuing in the game. "Would any of you like to replace your cards?"

"Just one," Claude said, pulling one of the cards out of his hand and pushing it over to Raoul. Raoul took it from him and gave him another card.

Christine momentarily examined her hand and saw that, so far, she had a three of a kind—the last kind of poker hand whose odds of allowing one to win a game were greater than one in one hundred. So she looked up at Raoul and shrugged. "I think I'll stay as I am."

He nodded, then turned his attention to Jacques. "Anything you'd like to replace, Jacques?"

For a moment, Jacques regarded his hand, and then he pulled out two of them and gave them to Raoul, who gave him two from the deck.

"I'm not going to trade out any of my cards, so we'll continue now," Raoul said as he placed Jacques's two discarded cards at the bottom of the deck. "Does someone want to place a new bet?"

While briefly contemplating whether or not she wanted to place a small or large bet, Christine happened to glance at the clock which sat above the fireplace—and when she did, her heart shattered into a million pieces.

The time was three o'clock.

She felt a lump begin to rise in her throat as she thought about Erik—poor, dear Erik, who was surely pacing about the train station, awaiting her arrival with hope, trust, and excitement. She pictured those emotions beginning to wear down as the time passed and she continued to not show… she pictured the look of pained disappointment, that which had been on his face when she'd left him fifteen years ago, that would cross his face as he realized that she wasn't going to come.

Oh, Erik, she thought to herself sadly, I'm so sorry, my love…

"Christine?" Raoul's voice suddenly came, causing her to snap back to reality and look at him. She saw that he looked rather concerned. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," she lied, nodding and letting out a somewhat soft sigh. "My mind just wandered for a moment, that's all."

"Ah." He looked up at the clock, telling her that he evidently knew she'd been looking at it. "Is there a particular reason you were so fixated on the clock? You haven't got somewhere to be, have you? You have an appointment at the beauty salon in an hour, after all."

"No," she replied, shaking her head, at the same time thinking, Someone is expecting me to be somewhere, but I'm not going to be there… I'm going to disappoint him, just like I did so many years ago.

"Very well," he said, nodding and shrugging, and then he placed a hand on her shoulder, gently squeezing it. "Then let's continue with our game, shall we?"

She nodded silently, giving another brief look toward the clock before turning her attention back to the game, the decision which she already regretted having made filling her with guilt. And in that moment, she was entirely certain that she would continue to regret her decision for the rest of her life.

~ o ~

Early one morning, Christine lay in bed, feeling rather miserable—just as she really had every day since she'd decided not to spend the rest of her life with Erik the way she wanted to.

Nearly two months had passed since she had made that decision, the decision with which she had broken both her heart and Erik's once more, and her demeanor had been noticeably sullen in that time. Everyone had been asking her about it, especially Raoul, and she had dismissed it by simply responding with the excuse that she was feeling somewhat ill.

This excuse, however, wasn't entirely untruthful—for a few weeks, she had been feeling sickness-inducing changes occurring within her body, causing her to feel an intense anxiety. She certainly hoped that the changes weren't happening for the same reason that they had happened the other times when she'd experienced them.

Her ailment must have known that her thoughts were directed toward it, for at that moment, it began to flare up. She felt bile begin to creep up her throat, and she quickly rose from the bed and rushed to the adjoining bathroom, kneeling before the toilet and almost immediately beginning to vomit.

A number of minutes passed before she finally ceased, and as she flushed the toilet, she looked up and saw Raoul, who had risen about an hour before her and was already fully dressed, standing before her. She jolted slightly with surprise, not having heard him enter, but said nothing.

"You are with child, Christine," he said quietly after a moment, his voice solemn.

She knew that he was phrasing it as a statement and not a question, forcing her to finally stop denying what she had known ever since she had begun to get sick. She was, indeed, pregnant… and, due to the never-before-experienced intensity of her consequent sickness, she knew that the child she was carrying belonged to Erik.

Therefore, she had no choice but to nod, and then she inquired, "How did you know?"

A small smile twitched at the corners of his lips. "Christine, you and I have had three children. If I still wasn't able to identify the symptoms of a pregnancy after that, I would have to be a fool."

"Oh," she said softly, nodding again and then looking down at the floor, wondering how he would respond when he inevitably discovered that this newly-formed child wasn't his. She'd never before had Erik's child, but she knew that at least some characteristics the child would undoubtedly possess would indicate that Raoul was clearly not its father.

"It's not mine, is it?" he then asked, his voice even more quiet than it had been before, and she snapped her head back up and looked at him in surprise.

"Why… why would you even think that…?" she breathed incredulously, her voice trailing off at the end. She was astonished that he already knew—especially since she couldn't think how he could possibly know. Had Erik, in his grief at her second abandonment, sent a note to Raoul and told him of the night that she had come to the Opera?

He shrugged. "The timing is right for it to be believable that it's mine. But I have known for a week… which means that you have known for at least a week longer. And if the child were mine, you would have told me the moment you knew."

Feeling both guilty for the betrayal which she'd committed against the dear man before her and afraid because she was certain he'd be angry when she told him that the child was Erik's, she bowed her head and began to cry softly. Her whole body shook, for though she wasn't crying loudly, she was crying more intensely than she ever had before.

"Christine," he murmured, kneeling down next to her and gently brushing some of her curls away from her face. "Please… talk to me. Do you know who the father is?"

Not daring to look up at him because she didn't want to see whether or not his expression was angry despite the gentleness in his tone, she nodded.

"And who is it?"

She took a deep, shuddering breath and looked up at him, her heart squeezing painfully when she saw an expression of trusting, unwavering love all across his face. And in that moment, she felt that she simply couldn't tell him the truth—she had already lost one of the men she loved; she couldn't afford to lose the other.

"Erik… Erik raped me," she lied, her body quaking in shock at the crime which she'd just wrongfully accused her masked one-time lover of committing.

Upon hearing this, his eyes widened in anguish and his face hardened in fury toward the pseudo-rapist.

"While you were out of town, he broke into the house in the middle of the night," she continued to lie, her voice now dropping to a whisper that made it seem as if she was ashamed of what had apparently happened to her—but instead, she was ashamed of the irreparable damage which she had now caused through her deception. "Our bedroom window was unlocked… he opened it from the outside and climbed inside. And then he came over to me, threw the covers off me, and forced himself upon me. I tried to scream, but he covered my mouth with one of his hands and stifled the noise."

He squeezed his eyes shut, apparently trying to control the wild anger she knew he had to be feeling. "I didn't even know he was here in Paris."

"Neither did I… but how would we have known? The last time either of us saw him was fifteen years ago," she replied, somehow managing to swallow down the lump of guilt which had risen in her throat.

For a moment, he was still and silent, but then he opened his eyes and looked at her. The determination which she suddenly saw in his eyes and expression made her anxious.

"Don't worry, my poor, sweet Christine," he then said to her, his voice containing both a gentle tenderness and a hard edge, reaching out and lightly stroking one of her cheeks. "That monster will pay for the crimes which he has committed—those which were committed years ago and that which he has just recently committed against you. I will go to the police station right now, tell them what has happened, and begin forming a hunting party… and once that party has been created, we will search for him to the very ends of the Earth… and when we find him, we will bring him back here and ensure that he is punished accordingly."

She gasped, her eyes widening in horror. "No!"

At this, he looked astonished. "No? Christine, you must be out of your right mind! How could you possibly protect him? It's understandable that you attempted to do so fifteen years ago when you were young and enamored with him, but now? He raped you and got you pregnant with an illegitimate child in the process!"

"I don't want this to be pursued," she said softly, slowly rising to her feet. He did so as well, at which point she put her hands on his face. "I just want to let it go. I don't want anything more to do with Erik… and besides, the last time you decided to go against Erik, he nearly killed you. I don't want anything happening to you, especially not now in my current state."

For a moment, he simply looked at her, but then he sighed and nodded his head. "All right. All right, Christine. I won't go forward in trying to avenge your dishonor. I'll simply consult with a doctor and see what remedies he can recommend for terminating an unwanted pregnancy."

"What?" she exclaimed, her eyes widening again. "No! I don't want to get rid of this baby."

He scoffed incredulously and threw his hands in the air in a gesture of frustration. "Why not? The child you're carrying is a rapechild; why would you want to keep it? It would constantly serve as a reminder of what Erik did to you. One would think that you would want no such reminder around you."

"This child is innocent," she said softly, placing a hand on her stomach. "It shouldn't have its life ended prematurely simply due to the criminal circumstances in which it was conceived."

"No person who shares Erik's bloodline is innocent," he replied rather darkly. "But you don't want to get rid of it? Fine. You can give birth to it… but then you'll have to choose whether or not you want to deliver it to an orphanage or simply turn it loose on the streets."

She swallowed hard; she didn't at all like the options he was giving her regarding Erik's child. "I want it to stay here with us."

"Absolutely not," he retorted, the expression on his face almost turning into a snarl. "There is no way I am raising Le Fantôme de l'Opéra's bastard as my own child."

Upon hearing her husband call her unborn child a bastard, a great sense of anger rose within her, and it took all the willpower she had to suppress it as she said, her voice trembling slightly, "This bastard doesn't just belong to Erik. It's my child, too. Shouldn't I therefore be able to raise it myself in my own household, as is my privilege as a mother?"

"Oh, Christine," he sighed, suddenly sounding rather tired as he closed his eyes and began massaging his temples. "You're not making any sense to me. This child's father got you pregnant by raping you… yet you want to associate yourself with it! I've never before met a woman who was raped and consequently impregnated that wanted anything at all to do with the child."

"Well…" She reached out and took his hands in hers, gently squeezing them. "I can't explain the bond that almost immediately occurs between most mothers and their unborn children. All I can tell you is that it's very powerful… and it's making me want to keep this child and raise it… and have it know that I am its mother."

A few moments passed in which he stared at her with an expression which seemed to consist mostly of disbelief, and then he simply sighed in a rather resigned manner and shrugged.

"It seems you've already made up your mind—for now, that is. So you may keep the child, if you like." He paused, and then his expression became somewhat hard as he pointed a rather stern finger at her. "But know this—I will never claim that child as my own. It will not be a deChagny; it will be a servant without a last name. And no one outside of this household will know of its existence. So once it begins to become evident that you are pregnant, you must not go out until you have given birth… and that child will not be permitted outside at any time for any reason. And if we are having guests, it will not be allowed to be seen; it will have to stay hidden in its room. As long as these conditions are met, the child will be allowed to live here. Do you understand?"

She was silent for a minute or two, thinking about how she didn't like the circumstances under which Raoul was saying her child would be forced to live. But she knew that living as a servant was far better than living in an orphanage or on the streets, and so what choice did she have? She wanted to give Erik's child the best she was able to give… and it seemed that servitude was, at this point, the best.

And after all, she thought to herself, perhaps the child will grow on Raoul. It will take time, of course, but I'm sure he'll eventually come around and change his mind about how he wants the child to live. Of course, it's doubtful that he'll ever say that the child is his… but once the child has managed to come into his good graces, he'll probably have no issue with taking it in as his ward.

With these thoughts in mind, she finally nodded. "Yes. Yes, I understand."

He nodded. "All right. Now, if you change your mind about wanting to keep the child or even give birth to it…"

"I won't change my mind," she replied, shaking her head fervently.

"You think that now, but a few months from now, you may have, in fact, changed your mind. But anyway, if you do change your mind, you must let me know what you'd rather do instead. I don't want you to feel as if you're under any obligation to raise this child."

"Okay," she said, nodding and shrugging.

For a moment, he regarded her silently, and he turned and began to walk away. "I suppose we'll have to find somewhere for it to sleep… somewhere in the servants' quarters, of course. I think there are a few empty rooms…"

Then his voice trailed off as he exited the room.

She walked out of the bathroom then, lying on her back in bed as she thought about what the future now held for her.

Erik, I'm pregnant, she thought to herself. And, of course, it's yours. Can you believe it? I've always dreamed of having your child… I just didn't think it would be like this. And now I really regret not being with you because now this child will never have the extreme privilege of knowing you. But I promise you that I'll do the best I can in raising our child without you. I'll give it everything I can.

Resting her hands on her stomach, she thought about what her child would be like. Surely it would have the gift of music… and she was certain that it would have at least one physical attribute which would indicate that Erik was its father.

Perhaps it will have his eyes, she mused. Those beautiful grey-green eyes… oh, yes, I certainly hope it has Erik's eyes.

For a moment more she contemplated how the child might look, and then she decided that it was time to begin the day. And so she rose from the bed once again, dressing herself and already feeling that she couldn't wait to meet her unborn child.

~ o ~

Christine paced about her unborn child's bedroom anxiously, resting her hands on the small of her back. She glanced up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was five o'clock in the morning.

Her pregnancy had now come to term, and for the past six hours, she had been having contractions. They hadn't become bad enough that the family doctor needed to be called, however; she knew that the child still wasn't yet ready to come into the world. So ever since the contractions had started, she had been walking around the baby's bedroom to try and combat the pain a bit. She had occasionally taken short naps on the bed which she'd had placed in the room in case a situation where she needed to stay rather close to the child overnight ever occurred, but for the most part, her contractions had kept her awake.

If she hadn't already known that the child she was carrying belonged to Erik, what she'd been through since eleven o'clock the previous night would have made it clear—in giving birth to her previous three children, the birthing process had never taken as long as it was taking for this child. With Vivienne, Jacques, and Claude, she had given birth within four hours; with the baby that was about to arrive, it was obviously going to take quite a bit longer.

All of a sudden, Raoul entered the bedroom, closing the door behind him and walking over to her as she stopped pacing.

"How are you doing?" he inquired, placing his hands on her shoulders, and she could tell that he was feeling rather concerned.

She shrugged, managing to smile a bit in the process. "The same as I've been ever since the contractions started, really."

"There hasn't been any change?" he asked, his brow furrowing a bit. "The contractions haven't gotten any closer together since I last came to check on you? That was nearly two and a half hours ago."

"No, they haven't really gotten any closer together," she replied, shaking her head and shrugging again. "I mean, there's been a slight change, but it's not much."

He sighed and shook his head, looking more worried than he had a moment ago. "I don't like how long this is taking. It's making me feel as if something's wrong."

"Well, you have to remember that this is different from the other times," she said. "This child has a different father, which means that it has different genetics and other such things which would likely affect how long it takes for it to be born."

"At any rate, I think I ought to call the doctor and have him come so he might see if there's anything he can do to remedy the situation," he replied. "I mean, you've been at this all morning. Surely you're getting tired… surely you want this to be over now."

"I do," she admitted. "But I don't know if trying to rush things would be the wisest choice."

"Still, I'm going to send for the doctor so that we can get his opinion on the matter," he informed her, gently taking her by the shoulders and having her lie down on the bed. "Try resting a bit… because if the doctor decides that it's time for the baby to come out, then you're going to have to use all your remaining energy on that. I'll bring the doctor when he's arrived."

Knowing that it wouldn't do any real good to try and argue with him, especially since he had good intentions, she nodded silently and closed her eyes, attempting to take a nap.

It didn't take very long before she drifted into an easy sleep, and it seemed that she had been asleep for hours before she heard Raoul's voice again.

"Christine? Christine, the doctor is here. Wake up."

Upon opening her eyes, she looked up at saw Dr. Beaufort, the deChagny family doctor, standing before her with Raoul at his side. She liked Dr. Beaufort; he was kind and he always knew the best and most progressive solutions to any medical problem.

"Bonjour, Madame la Vicomtesse," the doctor greeted her with a gentle smile, kneeling beside her and taking one of her hands. "Your husband tells me that this baby is being rather difficult."

She nodded, giving him a small smile back. "I've been having contractions for six hours."

"Yes, I've heard," he replied. "Let's see what we can do to help it along, shall we? Now tell me… has your water broken yet?"

"No," she said, shaking her head. "I've only had contractions."

"Well, perhaps that's the problem," he informed her, removing his jacket as he pulled up a nearby chair. Then he placed his jacket on the back of the chair and sat down. "If you would turn yourself so that you're stretched across the bed, please, Madame."

It took a bit of effort, but she managed to do as the doctor requested.

"That's good, thank you," he said and then he turned his attention to Raoul. "Monsieur le Vicomte, if you would please have one of your maids bring a basin of hot water, two towels, and a blanket when she joins me, I would greatly appreciate it. Also, I would advise that you wait outside."

Raoul looked as if he rather didn't want to be away from Christine at this time, even if the child she was preparing to give birth to wasn't his, but he nodded silently. Then he walked over to Christine and pressed a kiss to her warm forehead.

"Everything will be all right, Christine. I'll see you when all is said and done. I love you… so very, very much."

She smiled softly at him. "And I love you."

He smiled back at her briefly, and then he exited the room.

"Now, Madame la Vicomtesse, just relax and take deep breaths while I break your water," Dr. Beaufort instructed, taking a small item which looked something like a grappling hook in his hand.

After a moment, she felt him begin to poke and prod at her, and she briefly stiffened her shoulders in a gesture of discomfort. She didn't have to tolerate it for very long, however, because she soon felt her water break.

"Good," the doctor then murmured, more to himself than to her, leaning back in his chair and letting out a soft sigh. "Now the rest of the process ought to be rather easy… it won't be long before the contractions intensify to the point where we'll be able to get the baby out."

Jeanette then entered the room, a somewhat large basin of steaming hot water in her hands, two handtowels resting on one of her arms, and a blanket resting on the other.

"Oh, hello, Jeanette," the doctor greeted the maid, who he knew from previous encounters when he had come to the Château deChagny in order to treat a sick member of the household. "Just stick one towel in the basin so that it will soak in the water, please, and sit the other towel and the blanket next to it. Then come here and tie back Madame la Vicomtesse's hair so that it won't get in her way while she's giving birth."

"Certainly, Doctor," Jeanette replied, nodding slightly and placing the towel in the basin before setting the basin down on the table next to the bed. Then she walked over to Christine, gently pulling her hair back and tying it into a loose knot.

"Thank you, Jeanette," Christine murmured, and then, all of a sudden, a contraction which was more intense than the previous ones had been went through her body. "Oh!"

"Are the contractions stronger, Madame?" Dr. Beaufort inquired.

She nodded fervently. "Yes… yes, they certainly are."

"Let me know when the next one arrives," the doctor said, pulling out his pocketwatch and examining it in silence.

A few moments passed in which nothing occurred, but then Christine was struck with another contraction, causing her to moan. "There was another one."

"Just about a minute," the doctor announced, putting his pocketwatch back inside the pocket of his trousers and then rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. "Jeanette, bring the basin closer—oh, and get a washcloth and put cold water on it so that you might dab Madame la Vicomtesse's forehead with it. Madame la Vicomtesse, get ready—we're going to have you start pushing now, all right?"

Wincing as another contraction hit her, Christine let out a bit of a sigh and nodded. "All right."

"Good. Then push," he instructed her, and she did as she was told, sitting up as best she could and pushing with as much effort as she could muster.

Dr. Beaufort nodded encouragingly. "That was a good, strong first push. Keep going—if you make the other ones just as strong, your child will be born in no time. Again… push."

Taking a deep breath, she pushed again, letting out a soft moan as pain ran through her body.

"Keep going, Madame," the doctor said as Jeanette came over to Christine and placed a cool, wet washcloth on her forehead in order to slightly ease her discomfort. "Push whenever you feel ready… don't wait for me to tell you. Go on. You're doing all right."

Upon receiving these instructions, Christine continued on, going through the process of pushing, briefly resting, and pushing again several times. Each time the pain worsened, and after several minutes had passed, she let out a somewhat shocked cry as she felt the baby begin to crown.

"Your child is crowning!" the doctor then announced, telling her what she already knew. He leaned forward, apparently taking light hold of the baby's head. "Push, Madame… as best you can. This is almost over now. Give this all your might and you'll soon have been through another successful birth."

For several moments, she simply lay there on the bed, panting and trying to muster some strength in order to continue. Then, after she'd managed to do so, she continued pushing, her cries of pain continually increasing in volume and intensity as she became more sore.

"The baby is almost out!" the doctor exclaimed, turning his attention to Jeanette. "Jeanette, come over here and hold onto the basin so that we might immediately wash off the newborn once it's out."

Doing as she'd been told, Jeanette came over and picked up the basin with hot water and a towel. Christine, meanwhile, gave the two biggest pushes she could, practically yelling at the unbelievable pain she was experiencing.

"We've got it!" Dr. Beaufort announced triumphantly once those pushes had been done, reaching out and taking hold of something.

Once he had picked up this something, however, the expression on his face changed from one of gladness to one which indicated shock—his face paled a bit and his eyes widened slightly. Jeanette, upon seeing what the doctor saw, immediately gasped before covering her mouth with one hand and staggering back slightly.

After just a moment or two, however, the doctor recovered and proceeded in the way he was supposed to when children were born—he spanked the infant, causing its strangely musical cry to fill the room.

"Here, Jeanette," he then said to Jeanette, holding the baby in a proper manner, cutting the umbilical cord, and then holding the baby out to her. "Clean it off with the wet towel… and then dry it off and wrap it in the blanket."

Jeanette looked afraid and shook her head, taking a few steps away from the doctor and the infant he was holding.

"Come now!" the doctor snapped, rising from his chair and practically shoving the baby into the maid's arms. "Treat it as if it was a normal baby… go on and do as you would with any other child."

Evidently, Jeanette was more afraid of what the doctor would do if she didn't do as she'd been instructed than she was of the child, for she took hold of the towel that had been immersed in the basin and wiped the baby off with it. Then she did the same with the second towel, except with the intent of drying off the baby. Then she picked up the blanket, wrapping it around the child before walking over to Christine.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, evident sympathy in her tone as she held the bundle out to her mistress. "I'm so very sorry, Madame."

Frowning slightly in confusion, Christine took her newborn child from Jeanette and brought the bundle to her chest. Then she looked down, and when she did, she saw what Jeanette had been referring to.

Her baby was so completely wrapped in the blanket that all she could see of it was its face, which was moving slightly as the newborn evidently got used to its new environment. And, without much surprise, she saw that the upper right side of the infant's face was deformed as Erik's was.

She sighed in a gesture of disappointment; she had hoped that the child wouldn't be deformed so that its life would be easier—so that it would be spared from ridicule or any other kind of cruelty due to its appearance. And she knew that her child's deformity certainly wouldn't help it come into Raoul's good graces; her husband wouldn't like being further reminded that the child belonged to Erik.

Fortunately, however, she wasn't entirely surprised like Dr. Beaufort and Jeanette were, and therefore her expression betrayed no shock. She instead lightly brushed a finger against the child's deformity, feeling an intense love for the infant in her arms beginning to rise within her.

"What's the sex?" she inquired of Dr. Beaufort after a moment, looking up at him.

"It… it's a girl," he replied, and she saw that he swallowed rather hard. "Madame… is there something you would like me to do?"

Raising her eyebrows at him, she echoed, "Something I would like you to do? What are you talking about?"

"Your child is obviously atypical in comparison to other infants," he said, nodding down at the baby girl. "Is there something you want me to do in order to remedy the situation?"

"How could you remedy the situation?" she inquired, her eyes narrowing a bit, for she had a feeling that she knew what he was implying.

Clearing his throat, he leaned down so that he was closer to her. Then, speaking softly, he said, "I could get rid of it. I could cut off its air supply… drown it… take it to an alley and leave it there…"

"No!" she gasped, horrified despite the fact that she'd felt he would suggest such a thing. She held the child closer to her in a defensive gesture. "I am appalled, Doctor. I can't believe you would help bring new life into the world only to offer to extinguish it just minutes later!"

"My apologies, Madame la Vicomtesse," he murmured, his face reddening slightly. "I didn't mean to offend you. I am just trying to be sympathetic. I would understand if you didn't want to keep it… and if you didn't want to keep it, I would not hesitate to help you get rid of it in some form or fashion."

"Her, not it," she snapped. "And I certainly would not want you to murder an innocent child whether I wanted her or not!"

"I was not offering to only kill it—I mean, her," he replied, looking more anxious with each passing moment. "You didn't let me finish. If you did not want her but you did not want her to die, I would take her to an orphanage."

"Well, I don't want to get rid of her," Christine said. "When I became pregnant with her, I knew that it was possible she would be deformed. If I hadn't wanted her while having that knowledge, I would have either had an abortion early into my pregnancy or told you that, upon her birth, I wanted her to be taken away."

Dr. Beaufort nodded. "All right. Once again, Madame, I apologize. I didn't mean to imply that I am a heartless baby-killer or anything of that nature. I was merely trying to help."

"Just don't bring it up ever again and we'll let the matter pass," she replied. "And promise that, if ever this child is sick, you will treat her as you would anyone else in the house—to the very best of your ability… and promise that, whenever you are around her, you will do your best not to show any sign of fear or dislike on account of her deformity."

"Of course I will, Madame." He glanced down at the infant in her arms. "What are you going to name her?"

She briefly contemplated a decision which she hadn't even thought about in the nine months of her pregnancy, looking at her daughter as she thought. She wanted her daughter to have a beautiful name… a name which she could always say with fondness, both toward the name itself and the one who carried it.

"Marielle," she then said decidedly, and as soon as the name passed her lips, she loved it more than any other name she had ever said. "Her name will be Marielle."

"That is a lovely name, I think," he replied encouragingly. "Marielle… Marielle deChagny."

"No," she said, a feeling of anxiety going through her as she looked up at him and shook her head. "She is not a deChagny."

At this, he didn't ask questions; he simply nodded, and no expression of judgment or confusion came to his face. "Well, congratulations, Madame la Vicomtesse. So far, it appears that Marielle is in perfect health."

She smiled down at Marielle, who now appeared to be sleeping peacefully, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I'm glad."

"I will return in a few weeks to see how she is doing," he said, dipping his hands in the basin of water and then drying them with the towel which had been used to dry off Marielle. "If something happens with her or anyone else in the house before that time, however, of course you shouldn't hesitate to call."

"Well, I won't hesitate. Thank you for your help, Doctor."

"My pleasure, Madame. I'll see you next time." He picked up his jacket and pulled it on, then turned his attention to Jeanette, who had been standing there in silence ever since giving Marielle to Christine. "Goodbye, Jeanette. Please take these towels and basin and see that they are cleaned… and the bedsheets as well."

Jeanette nodded and went forward with doing as she'd been told, and then Dr. Beaufort exited the room. Christine heard him speak with Raoul, who had apparently remained right outside throughout the whole event, for a few moments, and then there was silence as the doctor evidently left.

Raoul then entered the bedroom, walking over to Christine. Feeling anxious, for she didn't know what the doctor had told him about the baby, she brought Marielle closer to her in a rather protective manner.

"Let me look at her," he said, his voice soft yet containing a tone which told her that it would be best not to argue.

Taking a deep breath and feeling her heart begin to pound a bit, she moved Marielle away from her breast a bit so that he might see her face.

For a few moments, he looked down at the sleeping infant in silence, and she saw his face harden somewhat in the process. This change in expression confirmed what she had already known in her heart—since Marielle was deformed, it would take a long time for her to win Raoul's approval… if she had any hope of winning it at all.

"I suppose we need to get a mask for her rather soon," he finally said, looking up at his wife. "We can't have her in other parts of the house with her face exposed… she might scare the servants and the children."

She nodded silently. "Until we get her one, I suppose we'll have to keep her in here all the time."

"Yes, that's right," he agreed. Then he cleared his throat a bit. "What's her name?"

"Marielle."

He nodded. "Very well. Now I suppose you'd better go on and bathe yourself… Jeanette needs the sheets so they can be washed… and she needs to put new sheets on the bed."

"All right; I'll go," she replied, slowly rising from the bed with Marielle in her arms. Then she placed the baby in the nearby cradle.

"I'll leave you alone now," Raoul then said. "I'll come check on you later… when it's dinnertime, I'll join you in here and Jeanette will bring our meals to us."

"That sounds good," she said softly, nodding, but she didn't look up at him and instead remained focused on her newborn daughter—Erik's newborn daughter.

For a few moments more, he stood there and looked at her silently, but then he turned and exited the bedroom, closing the door behind him.

Once he had left, she continued to stand over the bassinet and look down at Marielle in silence for several minutes.

Well, Erik, our baby has been born, she thought to herself. Her name is Marielle… and at least as far as her deformity goes, she looks like you. Oh, I wish you were here so you could meet her… but don't worry. I'll do my very best to ensure that she does know you, however indirectly.

"Marielle," she then murmured, bending over the crib slightly and lightly kissing her sleeping infant's deformed cheek. "Marielle… my Marielle."