Merry Christmas to all of my amazing phans! :) As a little early gift, here is my latest creation. This story is dedicated to my dear friend Katie who asked for a dark Masque scene and was eager for me to gift it to all of you as well. In a way, it's Christmas appropriate if half of it was concocted while I was at church, right?

And please check out my website. I just posted a picture of the cover for my next novel! So much to look forward to next year!

I wish you all the merriest, most wonderful holiday season ever! Enjoy!

SUMMARY: After six months of separation, Erik attends the Masquerade Ball, desperate for one touch.

"Monsters and Masks"

Erik loved to watch her dance. The lithe, graceful movements of her agile body, the pure elegance on her feet. Such details had been the core in desire's awakening. Back in days of ballet slippers and tulle, his eyes had been drawn to every curve of her woman's body. He'd learned the potent power of wanting, possessed through rehearsals spied from Box 5 with images he could not escape. Pirouettes and plies, every gesture, every motion had taken her beyond the broken child he'd sheltered under his wing and reminded him that she was not a little girl seeking his tutelage and praises; she was a full-grown woman. Her naïveté often made him forget that very real fact. A woman's body, and lusting from his hidden regard, running feverish gazes up expanses of bare legs and along attributes too well-defined by scant costumes, he had been awakened to the baser yearnings of the human body. Before her, such urges had ending points and were trained in denial. She sparked them into uncontrollable infernos. She…with dance as her weapon.

Dancing in a room full of masked patrons and cast mates was not the same. The steps were conventional, the costumes formal and overdone. This was not the opera ballet being practiced to only his furtive spying, and Christine was not one in a gaggle of tutus, shy of her talent, nervous to stand out. Layers hid improper views of shapely calves and thighs, and when a mask stole a need to be oneself, it was simple to fall into a role and play a part. He'd never had that excuse.

Masquerade, to ordinary people, meant make believe and fun. He took it as an insult, as if they were taunting him and only him with their little game of dress-up. That was the reason he avoided this yearly mockery, confined himself below and pretended not to know that the opera house above him was filled with noisy people treating masks as favored accessories. It sickened him.

So why attend this year? Because he longed to see her dance. Months without a single glimpse of her had taken their toll. At first, separation had been necessary. He'd dropped their precious chandelier with a rage so intense that it had frightened him, all inspired to life by her betraying, little heart. And so, he had locked himself underground with music as his only ally in penance. Six months lost in melodies and lyrical lines, and yet it had been her voice singing in his inner ear. He had turned desire into a fierce hunger to compose, pouring its telltale yearning into his opera and giving lust its own song. But…when it was finished and the notes ran out, he had nothing left and nowhere else to steer a need, and so here he was, back to watching her dance from the shadows.

Standing on the upper landing, hidden in the rafters, he gazed down at the couples whirling by across the dance floor. Christine stood out like a beacon light shown upon her. Her blue eyes were aglow in the brilliance of her soul, her smile genuine and blissful. He recalled days when such a look had been his. …Or rather, an angel's. She'd never granted him such luxuries. No, they were stolen away with a mask, and when reality had carved itself in pictures, smiles had become only tears and fear. An angel's smiles had found a replacement, and he currently matched her grin for grin with his perfect face only half-concealed by a pathetic excuse for a mask. Erik should have known a Vicomte would not want to hide his flawless features like everyone else at this charade. No, he'd want to flaunt and distance himself from being a man in a mask.

Sneering disgust, Erik refused to waste thought on the Vicomte and returned his attention to Christine. His Christine, dancing in the arms of another man, giving grins meant to be Erik's. Her lace and silk mask covered most of her precious features, and he had to wonder if in wearing it, she gave a thought to him. Was he a forgotten nightmare somewhere in the background, or did she think of him even for an instant in the midst of this melee? But…she looked too happy, and he had never brought her happiness. No, …no, she must have forgotten. Six months without incident would have such an effect…

Erik's eyes drifted along the exposed line of her jaw, down the column of her throat to one bare shoulder exposed by her low neckline. Such perfection, like a sculpture crafted by God's own hands. His memory teased with recollections of silken skin, so warm and soft. He'd had only fleeting caresses, too few to imprint the texture on his cold hands. Fingertips tingled with a need to steal a touch. Just one. To touch her skin and remember what it was to feel. For months, he'd suffocated every emotion and every craving in the music. Now they burned their brightest and insisted one touch would calm their addiction. One graze of skin too smooth to be real, too flawless to ever be entrusted in his care. Oh God, if he touched her, it would remind him that he was alive.

With great stealth, Erik dropped down into the wings and ignored the crowd as he slipped within its boundaries. He was masked and for the first time, an equal. No one knew he had reason for his 'costume', that the skeleton face of the Red Death he'd chosen was satire and as close to reality as he dared go. He was that veritable corpse, but they looked and saw another willing participant in their make believe world. To his disgust, a few ladies even attempted to catch his eye! Hussies! And let them peel away his mask and then see if they were still so shameless! Only one person in the horde had the potential not to scream in horror and run, but she was too busy denying her heart of its rightful beat to learn to be brave.

And there she was. He stood on the outskirts of the dancers, letting her image fill his view. Christine… How easy this would be! She was bumped left and right by too many people crammed on the small dance floor, so many others unwittingly being blessed by touches they could not give proper reverence to. All he had to do was approach and take the offer freely given.

He waited until the orchestra ended their piece and couples were about to split and scatter. Just as the Vicomte took his accursed hands from her and gave release, he ducked between bodies, focused on only one, and rushed close.

A single touch. It was an obsession because it was so attainable. One, and it would quiet the yearning. It must, or he would go mad!

He was near enough to see the lights reflected in her curls, adding strawberry hues in a sea of dark. More temptation. More touches he could steal. But as he rushed past, he settled for the one he was after, brushing her bare shoulder with the pads of his fingertips.

Immediately, a gasp tore from his lungs. Oh, the ache! She was as silken as remembered, warm and soft, her skin a template for passions he longed to bestow. One touch, and it seared the surface of his fingers and shot a rush through the limb, down his torso, racing his bloodstream until it settled with a dull throb so intense that he trembled on his feet. One touch…, but no, one wasn't enough. One was a tease, a prelude to greater and better things. One was a disappointment.

The next dance was about to start, and quivering with the rapid spin of his plotting mind, he made an impulsive choice. He was an equal in this room, masked, unrecognized. He should be entitled the same liberties as everyone else when a face was no longer a hindrance.

The Vicomte was about to claim her again when Erik came behind her and dared to brush his fingers through her hair, shaking to be so bold.

"A dance?" he lowly muttered, disguising his one revealing betrayer with whispers, deep and concealing. He was yet behind Christine, out of a direct view of blue eyes that would have rattled his pretense, but he dared meet the Vicomte's stare with firm resolve. Well, of course, he was just another man asking a dance with a masked lady. The Vicomte could pose no argument as long as the guise was in place.

And yet Erik kept wary beneath bravado, on guard with an undying fear to be identified. But the Vicomte reluctantly nodded, his disdain obvious and unhidden as he gave Christine's gloved hand a fond squeeze and walked away with arrogance in every step. The puffed-up peacock, not wanting to show defeat! It was as if to boast that Erik may have won the battle, but Raoul was determined to win the war.

Christine laughed. Erik heard the sound, and it tickled his eardrums with its longed-for timbre. It was a precursor to the wave that struck as she turned to face him, her supposed dance partner. He had to lower his mismatched eyes, hide their colors behind lash-less lids with a sudden terror that she would know him in a single look. He focused on layers of pale pink and lace instead, on the way her gown hugged her curves, fitted snug the way he longed to fit her in his arms. Dragging an anxious gaze up, he trailed womanly graces, now so close that they were within his reach, the swell of her breasts beneath a low-cut neckline. …And the gold chain sitting so unthreateningly upon the pale skin of her chest, its pendant tucked under a lace edging so prying eyes would not see. Others would think it a family heirloom, a necklace, possibly fake if they recognized her as cast, but Erik knew what dangled from its fettering cord. It was humorous that the Vicomte had claimed Erik held Christine to him using music as his chain when the Vicomte had chosen a literal chain, proclaiming ownership every spot it touched her skin. Damn him!

No longer willing to play timid, Erik abruptly captured Christine in a dancer's pose and began to whirl with her about the dance floor, following the paths of other couples. She was surprised with his abruptness, stumbling a bit to match his steps, but she went willing, convincing him that she had yet to realize who she was allowing to hold her.

Rage fueled the dance; it was the fire beneath his feet, encouraging him to take her harder and faster around the dance floor. And she…she saw it as a game! She laughed delight beneath her breath and fought to keep up, probably thinking him a half-drunk patron or another cast mate. A night full of make believe and pretend! Of course, danger couldn't touch her in such a magical setting! Of course, she must be safe from any monster and his yearning clutches! Ah yes, because she wore proof that she belonged to another and was already taken; her dearest lover would keep her safe! Erik had the urge to rip the chain from her throat if only to free her.

She was yet laughing, that delicious sound that he longed to bottle up and steal, and daring to race his stare over her masked face, he savored the smile, the glow in her blue eyes, the happiness. Why was it a sin for this to be his? He'd treat it like a blessing much more than anyone else ever could. It was beautiful.

So engrossed in his fantasy, he faltered a step, cursing his uncharacteristic clumsiness and blaming it on her, and as she stumbled with a small cry, he did not hesitate to catch her bare shoulders between his hands to keep her upright. Dancing had ceased as abruptly as began, and he felt his palms and fingers burn at first contact and shake despite their firm hold.

Skin! So much skin! He'd longed to touch bare shoulders, and now they were searing his flesh from his bones as a consequence he eagerly permitted. He ached to beg for her to burn his entire body the same. He was so cold, but she was a flame. He would burn alive willingly in her hands.

Perhaps his chill gave him away, or maybe it was the harshly gasped breaths he could not keep quiet or just the meeting of blue eyes to mismatched ones full of feelings he could not hide. But he felt her tense in his hold, all laughter a distant memory as she stared with slow realization and aghast horror.

"No…" The word left her in her exhalation, soundless and yet heavy, and his fingers instinctively tightened, taut and digging into soft flesh he'd just blessed until he saw her cringe.

"Was I forgotten all this time?" he dared to taunt, choosing anger over the pain her terror inspired. "Speak my name, Christine. Let me know I am still a thought in your head."

"Erik," she muttered miserably, tears crowding the corners of her eyes. He wanted to tell her not to cry, that tears stung when they were caught beneath a mask and held to skin. She wouldn't know such things. Maybe she needed to learn them herself.

Before her gallant hero could spot tears and steal every opportunity, Erik released her shoulders, wincing to see a discolored imprint left behind, and catching her gloved hand instead, he dragged her with him through the crowd. She didn't struggle or scream, only cried softly. He wasn't sure he could take that as hope.

Out of the throng and into silent corridors, and he pondered his options as her whimpers deafened his ears. This was unintended, uncalculated. He hadn't considered taking her with him tonight, but…just the idea of the Vicomte playing savior and filling her head with more fear and terror, cursing the reappearance of the Opera demon, making Erik's love sound like a degradation and appalling sin… No. This was his. Too long without her, and he was dead and hollow in between. Now life flowed anew, and he'd be damned if he'd let it go so easily.

Erik drew her to her empty dressing room, pulling her inside and locking the door behind. Still, she yielded with never a spoken protest, unless tears could be counted. Darkness engulfed once out of the dimly-lit corridor, and when a small cry left her lips, tainted in fear, he released her if only to light lamps and give her solace. He knew her so well, knew she had an irrational fear of the dark and its secrets. Maybe that should have been the point to make him realize why she could never be his. He was the dark.

But candlelight stole the blackness with warm comfort, and Erik kept back and watched her in tentative apprehension as she wove shaking arms about her waist and sobbed quietly to herself. As always, a part of him ached with her. How he hated to see her cry! Something so lovely should never know sadness. But he forced himself to recall that she knew sadness because she was with him, and compassion faded to ash.

"You foolish girl," he muttered lowly. "You brought this upon yourself, Christine. You and your cursed innocence. Did you truly believe it was over? That six months apart would cure me of my obsession? No. It is a disease, an affliction of flesh and bone, a poison in my veins. Did you think my love was frivolous and fleeting, that it would burn out with time apart? It burns more brilliant now than ever. You, you, always you. Like an elixir I must consume or die without. And why? I have no answer for such a question. Why you? Why an immature, spoiled child who refuses to see beyond her homemade illusions of the world? Why a girl without compassion or pity who spent so long running from my love and blighting it to her lover? You are cruel and heartless, and I love you still!"

She flinched with every word he spat at her, tears tumbling faster, and with a suddenness that made her start, Erik closed the distance between them and clasped her shoulders in a brutal hold, fingers fitted to their previous marks.

"This is your fault!" he shouted and refused to falter to her cries. "You could have left this place and never looked back. I let you go! An intelligent girl would grasp such an opportunity with both hands and flee the madman in love with her. But you! You stayed in Paris at the opera! You cruel child! You love knowing that you have my heart at your feet and the power to trample it and destroy me."

"No," she whimpered, shaking her head miserably, but she would not meet his fiery glare, and it only convinced him that he was right.

"No?" he taunted. "Why didn't you go? You wanted me to fail, to crawl back into your life, pathetic and pitiable. You wanted to hurt me."

"Hurt you?" she stammered. "No, I didn't… I…"

But Erik extended one tensed hand and grabbed the chain about her neck. With barely a graze of silken skin, he ripped it free, ignoring her cry of surprise and dangling the glistening diamond ring hanging from its cord between them.

"How…how did you know?" she sobbed. "You were gone. All this time, you weren't a part of my life."

"Yes, because you chose to forget me. You went from one game of pretend with an imaginary angel to the next with your noble fiancé, never a care for anything else. Merciless child," he hissed again and waved the ring before her eyes. "You wanted me to see this and mock me with what I can never have. Any consequence is your fault for being here with your valiant Vicomte to hold you in his arms, …for being so beautiful and making me want you in spite of it all. Damn you, Christine! You have destroyed me!"

Tears had never ceased their fall, and yet he caught guilt in their sparkle and an empathy he hated her for feeling. And as she gently spoke his name, he tossed the ring from his hand and caught her shoulders again with a fierce growl, shaking her hard.

"Damn you!" he shouted. "You have taken a god and made him mortal and worthless. I am supposed to be the legend, feared and obeyed. I earned that place, but you have made me pathetic. And I wallow and cry because I can't have your love! Because I want you so much that my own body has become my enemy! It's your fault! The devil tempts with sin, Christine. He places it before man and urges him to fall and take. You are sin. The devil wants me to possess you and fully condemn myself to hell. He made you beautiful and sensual; he created you to arouse my desires and make me hunger this way. And perhaps I should give in. You brought it upon yourself by remaining. You could have left this place and been done with the nightmare!"

"Erik, you're hurting me," she whimpered. "Please stop."

"Why? Because if your fiancé sees bruises, he'll tell you I'm a monster? But you already know that. He's poured his beliefs into your head and made them yours. I wasn't a monster before, not to you anyway. But now…well, masquerades mean pretend, don't they? Being someone or something you are not. I'll be a monster and take. And you, Christine, …you play your part. Be the victim. Cry and beg me to stop. It will fuel the flame."

"No," she suddenly cried. "I don't want to play pretend games anymore!"

A cold chuckle left his lips. "No more pretend? But you came here in a mask ready to play like the rest. Another role, another part. Play the game with me now. I'll let you choose your character. Will you be a victim and beg for mercy, or will you be a coquette and pretend you want me instead? It's funny that we are allowed to be something we are not tonight because a mask makes it so. Why am I not permitted that excuse everyday? I can fluctuate between monster and man but cannot blame it on a mask. No, it's only seen as a failure in my soul. There is no joy in wearing a mask, and yet everyone at this Masquerade laughs and flirts, plays dress-up like overgrown children. When a mask can't come off at the end of the night, make believe no longer applies. Perhaps that is why I can't have you: because you can play make believe and I can't. I am only allowed reality, and a mask is my life."

"I…I'm sorry," she whispered, and while a part of him longed to believe it, the rest could not. She was a child of fairytales and sugarcoated illusion. She needed truths and harsh realities instead. She needed to see or she would never be his.

Christine gazed at him with fear quivering her limbs. This night was supposed to be about bliss and excitement, …fun in a mask. She suddenly called herself ignorant for never considering anything else. But…Erik had been no more than a memory for six months, and her world had spun onward without him. Was she to be blamed for never considering he would appear at the Masquerade? …She'd been half-certain he was gone for good.

"Erik," she attempted to sound gentle and soothe him. "You're right. We need not play games in masks. It…is cruel. I never realized-"

"That you can remove yours when the last dance has ended?" he snapped with that unpredictable temper that always left her nervously on edge. "That tomorrow you will be only Christine again and carry on in the world as ordinary as every other?"

With an abruptness that shook her, he jerked the lace-trimmed mask from her face. She felt oddly exposed without it. Holding it up to his inspection, he waved its flimsy material with never a care for delicacy. "What is this? An elegant accessory? And look what lies beneath. Beauty, perfection. No scars. Not a single one. You are as breathtaking as ever. If you wore scars, everything would make sense. But you don't; you choose to be masked with this decoration."

Tossing it to the floor, he glared at her hard enough to make her shiver on her feet as he decided, "And now I will play your equal. Games of pretend are over and done, and now the masks come off. And what shall you find? Not beauty. Of course not. The same horror as ever before. I would have kept it hidden, but you don't want pretend."

He still had one hand upon her shoulder, keeping her in place with a forceful hold, and though she trembled to watch him, she did not look away as he reached for his skeleton mask and tore it free. The masks were off… And reality wasn't the beauty and elegance of a Masquerade Ball. It was ugly and scarred. That face…

She hadn't seen it in consciousness since the day she'd stolen his mask and shattered the illusion. Dreams were its confines now, a place where she could never fully study its nuances, where she could not touch or inflict more damage. And in some strange way, six months of only envisioning it had left a sting of disappointment. Reality awakened here with this vision. It was…horrible and disturbing, but it was real.

Her breath came in soft gasps; she could not control such a natural response as he stood exposed and vulnerable before her. It felt…intimate, and she wondered if she should consider it a betrayal to Raoul that she did not scream or fight, …that she did not fear or recoil. No, she stared and let her gaze wander as she hadn't been allowed the first time. The masks were off, …and the bravado and persona with it. A man stood before her, nothing but a man.

Erik seemed upset that she didn't respond with terror, and as he shook his head in uncertain confusion and fought to accept her silent curiosity, she saw every crack in a veneer. Opera Ghost evaporated as quickly as a mask and left him nothing to hide behind.

"Cry," he suddenly commanded with firm adamancy. "Scream, Christine. Tears, I want tears and fear! Cry, damn you!"

She jumped with his pinching hold, but she refused to obey. Her voice wavered with a flustered and uncommon bravery as she demanded, "Why? You said no more pretend and no more roles."

He was urgently trying to read her; she felt the penetration of a stare so intense that it sought secrets beneath skin and carved in bone. He looked for lies, but she showed him none, and it only seemed to enrage him.

With a frustrated growl, he yanked her to her mirror's glass. She kept pliant, unsure how far she could push his temper. She wanted to believe he would never hurt her, but she'd seen him lash out before, seen him drop a chandelier and shatter it to pieces like his broken heart when she'd run in fear the last time. The symbolism was not lost on her; she had to excuse the horror if only for the truth. His heart just as delicate and beautiful as that chandelier, and she bore the blame for its destruction. But…considering he could have come for her, shattered her instead, it left an inkling of trust as he positioned her before her reflection, lit by her mediocre lamp that cast only warm gentleness in its glow.

"Erik, what…?" She'd been prepared to be taken with him, dragged into the passageway and to his home. She was ready to go, unconsciously waiting for this day for six months. Surprise came to be released before her image with him moving like a shadow behind her.

"Look and see. Truly see this, Christine. I will not play a game back and forth with your inconstant heart any longer. Understand, foolish child. For once in our sordid relationship, I need you to understand what I am."

He spoke in broken phrases so full of his uncertainties that they kept her wary, and to her astonished gasp, he lifted his discarded mask, the skeleton's visage, and held it over her face. One hand kept it there while the other clutched her shoulder and kept her body before his, his unmasked features nothing but shapes above her shoulder.

The breath left her lungs in a gut-wrenching sigh. The weight of the world in one piece of manmade material. It was…uncomfortable, hard and pressing to her soft skin, …warm. Warm because it had just cradled his damaged features. The idea alone brought tears to her eyes, and she gasped air into suffocated lungs, the mask stifling every inhalation and hurting her. It wasn't beautiful or fun. It wasn't anything like the one she had spent the evening wearing. This was real, and staring at her reflection, her face hidden by its barrier, she shuddered and quivered, the tears coming faster and getting stuck and smeared to her skin.

"What if this was your reality, Christine?" he lowly bid, and she heard tears in his voice as well, the hands upon her trembling as hard as she was. "A mask, every minute of every day. Hiding yourself from the world. Met with horror at every turn. What would that mean to you? To have no one bear the sight of your face. It isn't a game, Christine. It's never been a game for me. But you…you think life is a fairytale, and you've cast me as your villain. In a fairytale, the villain never touches the heroine; the hero always saves her. …I don't want to be the villain. Is it this face that has given me my part without my choosing? Because I'll give you one to mask, and then we'll be the same, and you can stop running from me."

Tears came faster, and a sob made her lightheaded as the breath was trapped and swallowed in the next. A skeleton's features over her own… A corpse's face like Erik's… And that was the only way he thought he could have her.

Erik was crying; she felt a sob leave him and shake her with its intensity as he choked out desperate words. "Sometimes I wish you were ugly. I wish you were so damaged that no one else would love you. Only me. You'd truly be mine then. I wouldn't have to battle the world simply to touch your shoulder." Shaking his head, he admitted, "I thought to scar you once. To make you as undesirable as I am, but… My God, Christine, I could never hurt you."

She calmed with his words because she knew they were true, and without a thought, she edged inches closer until her back was to his chest and his breaths were hers by proximity and desire. Why did it feel necessary to breathe with him? To feel his body close and savor every second? Months apart, and this was what she'd longed for. In the deepest recesses of her heart as she had played her part and put on a figurative mask for Raoul's sake, this was what she needed to fill the hollow hole within her. Just to breathe with him, as if his life were hers. …She hated herself to admit it and to realize that the horror of a mask held to her features faded away with his nearness. It meant nothing if he were the one to keep her grounded. Perhaps that was the essential core of this lesson in tolerance. Two hearts beating in succession, two breaths shared the same, and nothing else mattered.

"You…you asked why I didn't leave," she softly whispered and felt him hold his breath. Anticipation? Fear was more likely the cause. "Because I was waiting for you to come back."

His exhalation was so harsh that she shivered with him, but in husky words, he commanded, "Prove it to me."

"How?"

"Return to the party with me like this. Without the Vicomte's bauble claiming you as his, but with my mask claiming you as mine."

He stated it so simply as if carrying through would be easy and wouldn't take more bravery than she possessed. Erik's. Hadn't she run from him once to avoid that fate? And why? The reason felt silly now. He'd already vowed never to hurt her, and his face was exposed and couldn't hold weight. So why was she determined to reject this place once before? Perhaps because it wasn't just loving Erik involved; it was being brave enough to stand at his side, not caring what the world said and how it viewed her for committing herself to the Opera Ghost. Following the acceptable route was easy. To be envied and adored for being on the Vicomte's arm instead of ridiculed for being on Erik's. He was an admitted murderer with a temper that carried its own trepidation; loving him meant going against everything she'd ever been taught and believed. Loving him meant traveling the untaken path… She wasn't sure she was strong enough for that.

"But…if Raoul sees you, he will come after and try to hurt you."

"If Raoul sees my face, you mean," he taunted sharply near her ear, and the shiver that traveled her spine was from more than fear… Fear, what fear? It tingled her body and made her press a little tighter to him when sense told her to pull away. "You don't want your precious Vicomte to glimpse what lies beneath my mask and know that you chose such abhorrence over perfection. It's degrading, isn't it, Christine? To want an ugly man? You're ashamed. …But you do want me, don't you?"

For as confident as he sought to sound, she heard anxiety. He didn't believe his own claim, and yet the hand at her shoulder made a timid path, snaking about her waist and pulling her tighter still to him.

Oh God… She stared fixedly at her masked face in the mirror's glass and saw herself overcome. But…to feel him, his desire so much more than words, a threat against the small of her back whispering wanting with a throb and an ache. She was afraid of it, and yet she wanted it with a responding thrill that traveled her limbs and made her gasp.

"Do you want me, Christine?" he demanded again, more intent when she was certain her own body gave a definite answer. And it became an uncontrollable whimper slipping from her tongue as he dared to bend and press his bare, damaged face against her bare shoulder. This should repel her, repulse, disgust, make her sick with abhorrence, but…it didn't! It made the ache deeper, pulling within her and spinning reality out of focus. She forgot scars existed! How could she possibly? She forgot that his face once brought terror to life. It was disfigured, and Lord help her, she wanted it pressed to her skin! To feel its every abnormality against her!

Misshapen lips found the curve of her shoulder and set a tentative kiss against it, oddly shy when his erection was boldly put forth and arching against her to insist its strength.

"My masked beauty," he whispered, every husky consonant lifting goosebumps upon her skin. "But tell me why you shiver and quake. …You came with me willing, away from the Masquerade and your supposed fiancé. Why, Christine? Is the fairytale over and pretend at its end? Can the villain finally possess the heroine?"

His lips pressed more reverent kisses to her shoulder, each its own question, and answers were nothing beyond gasped breaths. Letters could not move past her lungs; they were suffocated in sensations ebbing from the abnormal swell of his mouth and its branding mark.

But he seemed to need words, and with a frustrated huff, the arm at her waist turned her until she faced him and every scar she'd forgotten. He lowered his mask from her face, gave her nowhere to hide and no place to look but his fiery mismatched eyes. The thick longing creased his ugly features and made them a vision that tightened her stomach. His lips…, they were malformed, the upper swelled and distorted, and yet as she considered that they had just kissed her shoulder, that they had been against her skin, she shivered.

Trembling hands removed her gloves, one at a time, desperate to be as free from their encasement as from a mask. With all the tenderness she possessed, she lifted a touch and trailed one fingertip along the abnormal swell of his upper lip, outlining its distortion and learning its soft texture. She felt him shudder, so violent that it reverberated against her fingertip, and those demanding eyes flamed and flickered with fervency amidst avid surprise.

As her finger grazed the seam of his lips, he formed desperate kisses that gushed a gratitude she didn't comprehend. To be so thankful for one touch… It seemed like touch was the right of every human being, not a privilege. A blessing? One touch from one finger? …It made her long to give a million more simply to overwhelm gratitude and watch it become elation instead.

"Tell me you want me, Christine," he bid, his breath tickling the pad of her finger. "Make a choice and end this game. Say that you're mine."

One short syllable, and it hung upon her tongue, dangling between consciousness and desire. Before it could be uttered, a sharp knock echoed the room and made her jump.

"Christine? Christine, are you in there? Christine!"

"Raoul…" His name fell without sound from her lips as she glanced between the door and Erik's rage. The Vicomte loved her, adored her, …would break down any door to get to her. And as if sharing the thought, Erik grabbed her forearm in a vicious hold and yanked her to the mirror's glass, opening his secret doorway and heaving her inside with him. He closed the world out, but light permeated through, a window between worlds with the Vicomte's frantic calls echoing and bouncing off stone walls.

A kick, a crack, and as the dressing room door gave way and let the Vicomte inside, Christine watched from the mirror's protection, terrified to even breathe.

She felt Erik creep behind her before she ever dared peek at his murderous eyes and that uncovered face. One glimpse, but he edged close, his lips hovering at her ear. "Go on, Christine. Scream and call his attention. Beg him to save you. Go on."

Every word was hissed out into shadows, and his arm caught her about the waist again and pulled her back against his hardness, arching it firm to her body. His misshapen lips pressed sudden kisses at the crease of her neck, and she swallowed a gasp as passion was too great to bear, coursing through her veins in ribbons of sensation. Desire whispered its secrets and urged her to imitate his motion, to let him clasp her hips between his palms and keep her flush to him.

"Call his attention," he ordered coldly, and to her horror, he purposely edged her forward until she had no choice but to catch her balance with palms set flush to the mirror. If she pounded fists, she'd call focus; she'd bring notions of ghosts and haunted rooms to life. And if she called for Raoul, he'd know where she was. He'd burst through mirrors as he'd burst through doors. He'd save her, but…did she truly want to be saved?

Erik's mouth was at her throat, his malformed lips parted so his tongue could lap delicately at her skin and make her writhe back against him and swallow more urgent sounds from fleeing her lips. Silence. Not a word to give it away.

The Vicomte had found the discarded masks, his terror plain to be seen, but Christine couldn't bear to glimpse his perfect face. She was betraying his love and a vow, and she didn't care! Closing her eyes, she shut out his image and concentrated on Erik's mouth devouring her shoulder's bare curve as if it was the most glorious detail imaginable.

"Scream," he taunted again, hissing the words into her ear. "Call the hero, Christine. Or choose me, want me. Stop playing games."

His words stung a path through her veins. No more games.

He bent to her throat again, but before his misshapen mouth could burrow in its crease, she turned and met it with her own, finding his disfigured face in the dim shadows and kissing him hard. Her attempt was obviously unexpected. She felt him tense and shudder, fight an impulse to pull away as his body inched back. Every shuffle of a shoe resonated deafeningly back through the corridors, but she did not falter in her intent. She kissed him and found his swollen lips pliant to her assault.

One stumble, and Erik regained composure. His Christine, her sweet mouth voracious in its claiming seal. A kiss he'd never predicted or thought to feel as his. He nearly forgot to kiss her back. He was too astounded, allowing her control and following the motion of her demanding lips. He couldn't reason what it meant and simply let desire be desire, finding his footing and kissing with more pressure and fire to match and exceed.

His arms weaved about her small body, jerking her to the planes of his, arching against softness and making it supple to his whims. He wanted this, ached for this. It was a hunger denied for far too long. Gathering her to him, he urged her back to one stone wall, pinning her to its cold shape and thrust hips with more force and necessity against her.

Pulling lips free, he kissed a frantic path along her jaw and found her ear to restlessly insist, "Do you feel this fire, Christine? You must. It is searing flesh with its flame. Tell me you feel it."

Every word was hoarse, muttered to her ear between more kisses, and as she shivered and fisted her hands to his shoulders, she gave a slight nod. It was enough. He had the urge to gloat his achievement, but arrogance had one question that demanded an answer.

"And…does your gallant Vicomte make you feel such things?"

She hesitated, stiffening muscles with her obvious unease, and the rage gnawed at his insides and made him clasp her tighter, forcing her firmer to stone.

In a low growl, he demanded bitterly, "Does he touch you this way, Christine? Does he press his desire against you? Do you kiss him with the same fervency that you just kissed me? Tell me!" He hissed the command against her ear, his stomach turning with possessive jealousy.

"Of course not," she replied in quiet whispers, and pushing him back, she dared to meet his eye and make her reply more honest. "Erik, please."

"Please? The masks are off, Christine, and this is just you beneath all the layers and pretenses. You are the same passionate creature that I am. How dare you deny that we are meant to be together and carry on with that pompous buffoon? As if my heart cannot account to his? How fair is that? And now I ask you to state your choice, to shout it to the world, and you can't. It is acceptable for such perverse yearnings to breathe in the shadows, but they must not see the light of day. Isn't that so, Christine?"

"Erik, it isn't-"

But he pulled her away from the wall and made her face the mirror again, this time without a reflection. No, this time it was a window that showed her just as many realities. On the opposite side, the Vicomte was searching corners, looking for clues as he clutched Christine's gloves in a fist, his mask as discarded as the rest of theirs.

"Christine," Raoul called, scanning with desperation. "Christine!"

"And what will you tell him?" Erik muttered. "Will you say a monster took you, put his hands all over you? Will you make it a sin when I felt you come alive in my arms? Another mask, Christine. Who between the two of us will keep playing make believe?"

Christine dragged her focus from Raoul and his love-fueled quest to her companion in the dark. Compared to the smooth elegance of the Vicomte's features, his pristine suit, his boyish charms and soft locks that grazed his forehead, Erik was truly the nightmare monster. His deformity was half-shrouded, the faint traces of permeating candlelight granting more crevices to abnormal skin, more spots light was not allowed to caress. He was the corpse, walking the earth dead, and yet hadn't he just kissed her with all the passion and virility of a mortal man? He said he'd felt her come alive in his embrace; she thought the same of him. Alive. No longer the creature denied every emotion, every gift living bestowed. And she was overwhelmed to know she was the one to inspire him.

Something inside begged her to touch his face, to feel such distortion and unacceptable atrocity and make it worthy to be a face. One touch… But before courage could catch up, Erik huffed and coldly concluded, "Come on. I'll return you to your Masquerade. You can chase down your Vicomte and play your innocent façade again, tell him you were there all along and his worrying was for naught. Save us all the drama of your lackluster strength tonight. Lord knows, I am quite tired of being its victim."

Christine stayed silent and ducked her eyes to hide a rise of tears. Of course, tears! And they made her seem weak. Always weak, the fragile little girl in need of protection from her own heart and its desires. When would she be strong? …Would she ever be strong?

Not a single word passed between them on their trek through dark secret corridors, and with the taste of intimacies shared yet on her tongue, Christine took silence as rejection. She'd hurt him because she couldn't carry her heart with the same confidence that he did. She wondered if she'd only ever cause him pain. It seemed her curse.

Erik halted before what her eyes dubbed another wall. She was doubtless it was a doorway instead, a threshold back into the fairytale when for the first time, she wanted to stay in reality.

"I pray you remember tonight," he told her, and she heard his reluctance, the disappointment, the longing for more that she matched but did not reveal to him.

"How could I forget it?" she posed back.

"You're going to need to draw from every desire you just embraced. You cannot run from them again. They will be the inspiration for your character."

"Character? Erik, what do you speak of?" She sought an answer herself, and even though shadows veiled, she studied the details of that face and yet was incapable of reading him. He was always his own mystery.

"My opera, of course. This sojourn in the public world tonight was not just for you." His sharpness pierced her heart and brought a hurt she didn't want. "I finished my masterpiece and delivered it to the managers' office. They will find it tomorrow, and if they are wise and they must be after the chandelier incident, they will schedule its performance. You are the heroine, of course, but…well, your usual roles are so pure and innocent, and Aminta grows to be anything but. You cannot portray her without a sensuality I was unsure you could possess before tonight. She is temptation. It will be your greatest challenge to show the world what you just showed me."

"Erik, …I hope I won't disappoint you." She meant her words. How much weight his opinion still held to her! She wanted to please him just as much as she'd once sought to enamor an angel with her talent.

His gaze had been cold as he'd stated his plans, but she saw it soften. With a gentleness that surprised her, he lifted a trembling hand and cupped her cheek in its curve. She glimpsed his trepidation and timidity, an uncertainty to even grant one touch, but he was brave enough to travel the distance, to expose vulnerability and try. Why couldn't she seem to do that?

"Sing it with the passion you just displayed, Christine, the raw desire, the flames and absolute possession. If you can do that, if you can stand on that stage opening night and give that to me, …then I'll know your choice. I'll know you are mine."

The title alone made her shiver. And she understood. The masks were off, and he wanted her to expose everything she was, to make her choice and leave it on the stage. It was a starting point for a bravery that felt unstable and easy to falter.

"Make a choice, Christine," he commanded again. "Decide if you want me or if you want him. Stop cowering behind your mask, the innocent little girl afraid to live. Sing it for me and show me what you want. Show me the real fire in your soul."

Christine gave a single nod, unable to decide that she could be that bold, but for the first time, she wanted to be. If for no other reason, then for the man standing before her with his heart as revealed as his face. He showed her everything he was in one look, and she knew that if she gave it up, betrayed his love, never knew the sensations he inspired again, she wouldn't be alive. The fairytale was suddenly boring and unfulfilling when compared to the truth in the darkness.

"Go," he commanded, drawing away before she had anything to keep as hers, and yet before he released her from his world, he hesitated long enough to touch her shoulder one more time. One touch. "Proof that I am nothing but a monster in your eyes or that I am a man possessed by passion. The decision is yours alone."

She glanced and saw what he did, marks left by a fierce grip upon her skin, fading but evident enough to call attention. Her mind flashed memories of being pressed flush to his desire, of fingers digging firm into her skin with taut wanting, and she had an undeniable yearning to bear his marks over every bit of her body; the surface of her flesh branded forever in his possession. Monster? No, she only saw proof of lust and an ache that left her empty inside.

With a heavy sigh, he drew off the red cloak from his costume and set it upon her shoulders, concealing bare skin and its telltale marks. It was as claiming as Raoul's ring had been, and yet she gave no complaint as she cuddled beneath its silk and felt it tickle flesh that was sensitive and charged with need.

"Go," he reluctantly ordered again and opened his doorway, letting wisps of light inside. She gave his shape a final glance and etched the distorted face into her mind's eye to recall later when alone and given time to relive every last minute without judgment for what she desired.

Dutiful and yet afraid, she left the darkness and heard the doorway close her out from its delicious embrace. She regretted it at first breath beyond its world.

Christine found herself in the far wings just beyond the loud clatter of the party. Before she made a decision to rejoin its lies with a heart that still beat in the dark, a voice halted her.

"Christine! My God, where have you been?"

Raoul came from the direction of her dressing room with terrified eyes as he rushed and pulled her into an embrace. He was shaking, and she hated herself for causing his fear and making him worry, …for betraying him and wanting only to do it again. This embrace was…uninspiring, devoid of anything Erik's had made her feel, and in some manner, she resented Raoul for not bringing such wanton emotions out of her.

"Christine!" Raoul drew away and spoke in frantic phrases. "I thought he was back, that he'd taken you away with him!"

"Of course not, dear boy," she assured and saw him calm with her forced smile as she replaced an invisible mask she hadn't realized she'd been wearing until tonight. The innocent little girl afraid to live. "I went to my dressing room to get a cloak. I was…cold."

She had a feeling he'd believe anything she said when he equally did not want to face the truth, and she was right. He grinned his usual beaming elation and dared to touch her cheek, and all she could do was long for another's hand.

"I found masks, and I thought the worst," he gushed and never questioned the skeleton face discarded on her floor. "And…this."

He opened a fisted hand and revealed his ring on its chain, and she feigned surprise, lifting a hand to the spot it had once rested. "Oh, the chain must have broken… How lucky you found it!"

Taking it in her hand, she tucked it into a pocket of Erik's cloak and hid it away from view.

"Well, …perhaps that is a sign that you should make it official and put it in its proper place around your finger," he replied, setting his hand to her shoulder. She stiffened, wearing Erik's mark beneath and considering the Vicomte as trying to take something already claimed.

"No, …not yet, Raoul."

"But when, Christine? We've been engaged for months, and you still refuse to speak of it to anyone. It makes me worry that you aren't happy."

"After the next show…," she impulsively decided. "Then I will announce to the world what I want, and no one will dare question it again."

"Christine…"

"Can we go home, Raoul?" she inquired with her sweetest smile. "I…I've had enough make believe games."

Desperate to please her, the Vicomte nodded and slid his arm about shoulders that did not belong to him as he guided her though the throng and out of the opera house.

Christine went willingly, but she felt…changed as she climbed into the awaiting carriage with Raoul. One night, one touch, one kiss, and her entire world felt transformed. Her eyes were open, and it seemed ironic that a night of masquerading and pretending to be someone else had shown her who she truly was. She knew what she wanted…

And as the carriage returned her to another role and more pretend, she was convicted that this would be the last mask she would ever wear. She'd learned the truth behind monsters and masks tonight, and she was about to destroy every illusion without regret. It was her choice, and she was entirely certain that it was already made. Sing for an angel. Wasn't that the grounding point of every desire? Sing for her angel, and make her decision known. His opera awaited and a role she was born to play if she was brave enough to claim it as hers. And she knew what to do…