Hello, all! I can't believe it's been a month since I last posted a story! But between working edits for my novel, which should be out soon, and rehearsals for The Magic Flute, I've been extremely busy! Anyway, this is just something short, but I'm working edits on something much longer to start posting in the next few weeks. And if anyone is interested on updates for "The Devil's Galley's" release as well as dates for book signing I have coming up and performances, check out my Facebook page. I'll keep updating that as well as my website. :)

Hope everyone is doing well! Winter's halfway over despite what the groundhog said!

SUMMARY: Christine laments the final night at the opera and the importance of a kiss.

"The Anatomy of a Kiss"

A kiss… A touching of mouth and mouth, lips to lips, breath given and breath taken. Who in the history of mankind decided that such a mundane contact should mean so much? It didn't fully make sense. Lips kissed, but lips also lied. Why were they given the important task of making a heartbeat hold significance? The rewarding act of a kiss, and it said more than the same words that past lips' threshold.

A kiss… It shouldn't possess the determining factor to change the world, not something so simple and so often indulged in frivolity. How many kisses were given in a day, and how many were genuine? Not every kiss shifted the earth's axis, more games from betraying lips. Kisses given, kisses received. Kisses thrown away, kisses savored. A kiss didn't have to mean love, but…it was intimate. There was no denial in that. An intimacy I had given, and at the time, I hadn't realized how much it would change things.

With a heavy head, I gazed at my reflection in my vanity mirror at the de Chagny estate. The beautiful, virginal bride, gowned in white, ready to marry the perfect prince and flee to happily ever after. I looked the part but didn't feel it. A kiss was the culmination of every fairytale. Why was I so sure I'd already given mine to someone else? I'd kissed the monster, transforming his soul, transforming my soul, and yet here I was about to wed the forgotten hero. And it was a sad reality that Raoul had kissed me numerous times since the fated night I'd chosen another man, and not a single one felt tied to my heart. Not a single one moved me or touched my innermost core the way Erik's had. What was wrong with me?

A kiss… I'd given one to the wrong man, the one who wasn't meant to be mine, and I was half-convinced I'd lost a piece of my soul in the act, granted it through touching mouths and committed it to Erik's possession. What had I done? That night was yet a blur. Weeks later, and I still could not fully recall the details, nothing beyond fear, terror, desperation, and then that kiss. It seemed to be the clarity in the fog.

I had kissed Erik… It was a truth I often had to repeat to myself to be sure it hadn't been a dream. And why? …I had no answer, and the question tortured my brain at every second. I'd once denounced that face, cursed him for what he was, for the sins he carried and committed, and I had kissed him. It had been an odd impulse. Giving my word to stay with him and save Raoul hadn't felt like enough. It needed punctuation, and I had given it and made a vow into a surprising devotion. Had I wanted to shock everyone including myself? No one could have expected it, not Raoul dangling from a noose and perhaps calling it a betrayal, and certainly not Erik. I vividly recalled the way he'd tensed against me, terrified of a kiss.

A kiss had broken the almighty Opera Ghost, shattered his persona, and made him nothing but a man again. A kiss had indeed been a transformation, and it was bitter that it included a return of reality. He'd let me go because a kiss brought guilt with its awakening. It was…magic. I had no doubt that it had sparked his heart to truly beat for the first time. …And it had inspired my heartbeat for the first time, too.

I hated myself as I stared blamefully at my reflection. Here I was, about to wed Raoul and only thinking of Erik and a kiss. I was obsessed with that one intimate act to the point of not caring about anything else, not Raoul's good heart, not the future I was about to commit myself to live at his side. A kiss consumed me until I could no longer reason.

My mind turned its details over and over again. Erik, his misshapen lips, swollen and bloated on one side, as distorted as every other feature of that corpse's face. Disgust had been irrelevant; it had faded to something akin to wanting. I wanted to kiss him. The truth stung me and erupted more guilt and shame. It had been more than just the impulse I preferred to dub it; it had been an unconscious longing since the days he'd been my deceiving angel. A kiss, an intimacy, I'd given it to my angel and somehow turned him into a man. Opera Ghosts and angels couldn't love, couldn't exist on the ordinary plane of mankind, but…a kiss made me believe in his love and want it with a craving I could not quench.

Mewing in disgust at my betraying thoughts, I fought for focus and fingered my curls, drawing half back with hands I pretended weren't trembling. No, I was about to be Raoul's bride and give him my vow and my every kiss. He trusted me and hadn't pushed for more since the night at the opera. He'd been tender and gentle, over-attentive, and yet never forcing me to make promises in return. He said he loved me at every chance, and when I couldn't say it back, he acted like it was all a part of the trauma, as he called it. He didn't put words in my mouth and took only sweet kisses. …And those kisses were lies. Lips kissed, but lips also lied. My lips were lying to Raoul.

Secrets I'd carry to my grave. I refused to tell him any truth that would hurt him. He'd stood at my side through every horror of the past year; he'd given his heart without reservation. …How I wished I could give him the same gift! He deserved it; he deserved to be loved.

But so did Erik.

"No," I muttered, rubbing my temples in a futile hope to wipe the thought from my mind. Erik…, but Erik had given me away, hadn't he? He'd made my choice inconsequential and decided that my kiss wasn't important. In some way, I hated him. How dare he trivialize the bravest moment in my life? It made it easy to be the coward again and marry Raoul without protest. Bravery had won me nothing the first time; why try it a second time?

Desperate for distraction, I sought my veil, white lace and delicate, and lifting it atop my curls, I completed the portrait. The Vicomte's bride…

"Christine…"

My heart halted its constant pattern before speeding like a drumbeat against my ribcage. At first, I told myself it was imagined, the voice that played in my dreams, but…hope made me turn upon my vanity bench.

He looked out of place, standing within my open balcony doors, illuminated in the peeking sun's beams when I was so accustomed to seeing him by shadows. It felt like the fairytale had clawed its way into the real world and dropped my dark prince upon my doorstep. But…he wasn't the man I'd left that final night; no, he was the Opera Ghost again, masked and powerful, untouchable by any detail in the ordinary, mortal world, a god back upon his pedestal. I detested this image and had the urge to rip the mask away and hopefully, the persona with it.

"Why…are you here?" I fought to make words when my eyes longed only to stare. All I could glimpse was a lower lip exposed from the mask's protection, and it wasn't enough. I wanted to see the full mouth and learn if my mark was still imprinted upon its malformed shape.

No explanations, no excuses. He extended one gloved hand, his eyes alone insisting his fear that I would refuse him. He was far too good at putting on the show; if not for the revelations in blues and greens, I truly would have believed that this was all about control and regaining a lost possession. No, his eyes spoke his heart, and losing my held breath in a sigh, I obeyed like the dutiful student I had once been.

Rising on shaky knees, I crossed the meager gap and took that offered hand, weaving my fingers between his when I had once only set a palm. I wanted it clear this time that this was my decision to go with him without a single coercion on his part. No, I was too curious to know his intention, and…how could I refuse the rapid anticipation beating with my heart?

His fear calmed with my acquiescence, and drawing me near by joined hands, he lifted me off my feet and cradled me in his arms. I could feel his own unsteady heartbeat insisting more uncertainty, more anxiousness. He wasn't the confident Opera Ghost, and I felt an urge to cry in relief.

As if it were only so easy, he carried me. I pressed my faced against his jacket, unwilling to look and observe a single detail of the betrayal I wittingly committed, but I felt the hasty motion and his every flustered breath and knew he was being extra careful with daylight to reveal his crime. Purloining a bride from her wedding; no one would believe I'd gone willingly.

My gown was like a beacon, but I did not feel the heat of the sun's rays penetrating, only a chill of shadows as he rushed our pace and kept me firm to his heart. But I could not help my nervousness. My white gown, his white mask, each their own revelation for what needed to be hidden. We were practically a walking sin.

The journey felt short when I longed to remain in the protection of his embrace forever. There, nothing could touch me; there, I didn't have to be brave and change the world. I could just feel, and it was enough. But as he halted our escape, I dared to lift my head from his erratic heart and meet his mismatched eyes far closer than usual to my own. That masked face so near my touch… There was a certain appeal that guilt dubbed unacceptable. It wasn't right, and here I was encouraging it. I was another man's bride!

Purposely dragging my gaze away, I tried to concentrate on our surroundings, but one view brought new confusion. "Erik, …why did you bring me here?"

He lowered me to my feet, and the stage stretched out before my white slippers, its surface caressed by my thick, bridal skirts. The stage of the opera house… I had not been back upon its platform since that last night when I had surrendered and sang an impassioned duet, knowing full well from the first note who my masked partner was. Yes, I had known Erik had slipped into Don Juan's role, but I had claimed ignorance afterward to my flustered fiancé. Better Raoul think me a fool than know I sang desirous lyrics and made provocative gestures to his enemy.

"It's the perfect setting, Christine," Erik quickly replied, pacing an unsteady path before me, and I watched him with growing worry. "The stage, of course! Are not the best performances acted out in exactly this place? Another show for an eager audience. And your goal is to make them believe you, to feel with your character. Yes, yes, this is ideal!"

"Ideal for what?" I tentatively asked, noting that he could not seem to keep still and jittered on his feet. Was it inspired only by anxiousness, or…was there something off-kilter with him? He had been on the verge of madness the last night I had seen him, ready to kill or die to be with me… "Erik, …this is no opera show, and I am not here to perform another role. I…am to marry Raoul today."

"Well, of course I know that!" he suddenly snapped, rounding on me with fire in his eyes. I preferred his rage to considering him crazy and was grateful to see it. "The Vicomte's virginal bride…unless he already soiled the illusion, but…that's not my concern at present. No, …no, he's entitled to you, isn't he? I sent you off with him for that very thing. That…isn't my concern today," he repeated, and I didn't believe him, not when I saw the idea alone made him quake with a possessiveness he obviously did not think he had a right to feel.

"Then…why are we here?" I pushed and inched closer to force his focus. "You snuck into the de Chagny mansion to get me; certainly, it is for something important."

"Yes, important, an issue in need of a resolution. You are about to become another man's wife, and if I waited any longer for an answer, I would have been prompting adultery. You don't deserve sins on your soul because I hesitated."

Crazy… I began to call it a valid theory again. He wasn't making sense, those mismatched eyes darting the open space and never remaining on me. This was the one Erik that truly scared me; broken, and I wasn't sure I could fix him this time.

"Erik, …you said you needed an answer. Well, I do not know the question. Won't you tell me?"

"That kiss, Christine!" he exclaimed, and I jumped from more than his abruptness. So I wasn't the only one fixated on meeting mouths. "I can't get it out of my mind! I was so sure in my assessment that it was done purely as a ploy to save your lover. A lie! I called it a lie! But I've spun the details over and over in my head, and then it dawned. I know nothing! How could I? I have no basis for comparison. I called it a lie and let you go, but how did I know there was not truth lingering somewhere? How can I know I made the right choice if I can't decipher that kiss? I need you to help me; you're the only one who can. I will go mad without an answer, Christine!"

I believed him…if he weren't mad already, but shaking my head somberly, I asked, "How? What can I possibly do to help you?"

"Kiss me again, and make it a lie. I want to know for certain what it feels like to receive lies from your lips, and then I will know the truth. And what better place for a show than the stage? You are a superb actress when in the spotlight. Here is your spotlight, and here is your role. You may close your eyes if you like. I don't care if you can't hide your disgust this time. Please, Christine, will you do this for me? Will you kiss me as a lie?"

I trembled, shivering from head to toe merely with the concept of kissing him again, never mind the rest of it. But as his words slowly registered and reminded me to stop staring at his exposed bottom lip, I stammered, "That…that's absurd!"

"No, it's not. I've analyzed it from every angle, and this is the most logical way to gain my answer. I need to know without a doubt what a lie feels like to determine the truth. There must be a difference. You wouldn't kiss the man you loved the same way you'd kiss a monster. So kiss the monster, make it a lie, and if you know disgust, all the better. Act, Christine. Make it believable. Kiss me with contempt in your heart, the hatred you must have felt that night. I just stole you from your life again; that should give plenty of inspiration. Take up the role. If it feels as it did the last time, I'll know I was right and sending you away was the correct solution."

"And if not?" I pushed, unable to stop trembling.

His breath left in a huff, heavy with his thoughts, and I wondered if he'd considered that side of it, perhaps only dwelling on being disappointed again. "You don't want such an answer, Christine, not standing before me in your bridal finery."

I felt my stomach knot, desperate to understand him. If he were wrong and saw reason to regret sending me with Raoul, …would he recant? Keep me this time? Was that what I wanted? One kiss would give him the answer I was still reluctant to speak in my heart.

As he approached and began to lift a hand to his mask, I hastily insisted, "No, I won't kiss you."

"Why? I already told you that disgust is irrelevant. I won't hold you accountable for it. I need to understand a kiss. I need to feel you lie to me as you did that night and know that there was no hope. You didn't love me; there was no chance you could. I need to know these things and stop letting doubts waver in between. You kissed me; it was a lie, wasn't it? …But no, I don't trust your words. I need proof when your lips have lied so often. Showing me a lie will be the only way I'll know without question left."

"Why do you think it was a lie?" I demanded, unable to fully denounce a rush of annoyance. "It was a kiss; not every kiss is a lie, but you are adamant mine was. I gave you no reason to think that."

"Your fiancé did! He was the one dangling from a noose a tug away from expiration. You chose me to save his life."

He said it was such conviction, a detail he obviously was certain to be truth, and yet…I was the one wavering. It seemed obvious: choose Erik and save Raoul. Those were the terms that had been laid out, and I had played right into Erik's hands with my so-called choice. Make the sacrifice of myself to preserve the man I supposedly loved, but that night, even as Raoul had struggled for breath and his existence had been my responsibility, he wasn't the impetus for my choice. He was the final push to a choice that had always existed and raged in debate in my secret heart. I wondered if Erik would believe me to say so. Perhaps it would only ignite more confusion from a man straddling the border of insanity.

"But…why did I kiss you?" I demanded instead and did not falter as his eyes flashed in flames.

"Why? You tell me, Christine. Why?"

"I…I don't know," I admitted honestly, and yet it only infuriated him further as he forced a grating laugh that made me tense.

I wasn't afraid; fear hadn't been relevant in longer than I cared to admit. Even that final night, fear for the unmasked villain ready to bring death and destruction hadn't been real. My fear was not rooted in Erik; it was rooted in my own shortcoming. Fear to be brave, fear to embrace a life that was unacceptable by society's terms, …fear of a love that I knew would destroy everything I felt sure of in life. Loving Erik would change the world, and I wasn't sure I wanted such an epiphany.

Erik huffed his obvious disbelief and quickly decided, "All right, don't kiss me as a lie. Pretend instead that I am your darling Vicomte and kiss me as you kiss him. Kiss me with love, and I'll decipher the differences between this kiss and the last you gave me. I'll feel what was lacking from that kiss to make it true."

"What? No."

"You are an actress," he reminded as if that were the point that would change my mind. "You act all the time on the stage. My God, you produced a love scene with me in my opera, and it was prodigious. I almost believed you! You are quite accomplished when you apply your skills."

His words brought an impulse to cry. This was all my fault. I'd never given him anything to believe in, never a single concrete truth from the instant he'd stopped being an angel, and now the truth meant nothing to him. He saw lies; he saw only lies. For all my confusion and uncertainty, I found threads of truth that I was afraid to sew together; he was adamant that even truth was deceit.

"Do you require an audience?" he pushed on when I gave no answer. "Is that it? We had an audience to every detail that night. Perhaps having someone watching makes it easier for you to lift the façade into place. Can you imagine one, and will that be enough? An audience watching us act a farce on the stage. Just close your eyes and envision it, Christine. It will help if your eyes are closed, and you do not see my face. Then disgust won't come, and you can truly convince yourself that you are kissing your fiancé."

"No," I abruptly insisted. "No, Erik. I will not play these games with you."

"Then how am I to learn, Christine?" he asked a question that seemed so simple, and yet I stared at his hands and saw them fist to hide their shaking.

He was afraid. The Opera Ghost was the confident persona; the angel was strong. He was neither of those. He was terrified of learning the truth as much as I was terrified to give it. It wasn't just my world that would be altered.

Trembling as hard as he was to face my fear, I softly bid, "Let us be ourselves. No roles, no lies; let me kiss you, Erik, and we'll learn together."

"No, no," he whimpered. "You have knowledge of kisses and their nuances. You will be able to interpret, but I know nothing. I have never been taught what a kiss is and what it means. You could lie as you did that night, and I wouldn't know."

I shook my head and concluded, "You know better than I do. You felt the truth, and you came for me. You're teaching me more than I could ever teach you. So…kiss me now without the mask, without the threats and ultimatums, without an audience, and we'll find the truth together."

Simply to speak the words made me shiver. How I ached for it! I'd never felt anything as I had that night, and despite every trepidation, I yearned only to feel it again. A kiss… Who decided it would change the world if it were true?

Erik made no motion, petrified in place and unsure whether to believe me. I couldn't blame him; bravery was new for both of us. So I edged the remaining distance to stand before him in my wedding gown, two words from belonging to Raoul and yet about to seal vows with Erik. And which would have been the real façade? I had no doubt when I let myself be vulnerable and did not bury my heart as it shown in my eyes and steadied the hand I lifted to his mask.

He shuddered, desperately trying to read me at every breath, but he did not stop me from removing that intrusive barrier and finding his damaged face.

"No roles," he whispered without sound, "and yet I find no disgust in your eyes. Are you acting, Christine?"

"No," I answered honestly and trailed my gaze over his scars, recreating them in my lackluster memory. How much better reality was! "I am only me, and you are only you."

"And without a ploy in place, do you wish to kiss me, Christine?" His heavenly voice wavered with the words, and I knew how desperately he fought to trust what he saw as I nodded. To my surprise, he inched a step back and ducked his mismatched eyes from mine as he admitted with unhidden shame, "I…don't know how, …not as myself. Playing a part was different. I could be the Opera Ghost and never waver, but…I don't know what a kiss is, what it is meant to be and feel like."

"Neither do I," I admitted, and he raised eyes to me again. "Kiss me, and teach me what a real kiss feels like."

He nervously licked his misshapen lips, and I shivered with my desire to feel them upon me. Oh God, I would have begged him for it had he not given in. But to my delight, he slowly bent and barely brushed his lips to mine. Tentative, hesitant, and he met my constant gaze with an unspoken question, making certain I did not regret before he took more.

As he sought another attempt, I met his mouth with mine, raising myself on tiptoe and sliding trembling arms about his shape to stop him from disconnecting. Not yet… An urgent cry vibrated the abnormal swell of his misshapen lips, and he suddenly caught me with demanding arms, weaving them about my waist and holding me to his body. I longed to sob in relief and too much emotion for one person to hold. This was truth and revelation; this was genuine and seared my heart in one ordinary contact.

A kiss… A touching of lips to lips, and for the first time, I understood why such a mundane connection meant love. Love swelling my heart, streaming the paths of my veins, love to every corner of my soul and echoing in every heartbeat. Mouth to mouth, lips to lips, and only one breath caught in between. To breathe meant to live, to love meant to live, and I was alive for the first time.

His kiss was gentle, unsure, and so very timid that I loved him more for it. I followed his lead, learning the same, and as my fingertips pressed restlessly against the nape of his neck, a groan rumbled low in his chest and enchanted me. I wanted to make more sounds like that, to inspire such fitful responses that the word 'lie' would be forgotten in my boldness. And so I guided my hand along his neck and jaw and found his distorted face, cradling dead scars and bringing them to life.

He shuddered, and I felt him start to draw away. No, I refused to let go and took the reins, kissing his misshapen lips hard and intent, molding my mouth to his and stealing every gap that would ever exist between us. No more. This kiss meant love, and I wanted him to be as certain as I was. My hand was still upon his scars, gentle when my lips were anything but. I wasn't sure if I could cause him pain; every touch became a tender adoration, and as my fingertips grazed the open place where a nose should have been constructed, I felt his desperate exhalation tickle my skin.

"Christine," he finally dragged his lips away to gasp, "is this kiss a lie? Oh, you must tell me! I don't know what it means."

"It means love," I vowed and did not doubt it. "Love, Erik; it always meant love. The only lie will exist if you send me away again."

"No, no," he whimpered, and his arms clutched tight and hugged me to his heartbeat. "No, my love, never again. …You love me, Christine? I am your choice?"

"Yes," I replied and pressed my cheek to damaged flesh to feel the wet of tears smear in between. "And I learned it through a kiss. Promise me that you'll never let me go."

"I promise. …Oh, Christine."

He pressed kisses to my cheeks and brow, shivering when I did the same, and I felt love in every single delicate token. Love and a kiss and an answer in its intimacy.

The inventor of a kiss sought one perfect touch that spoke love more than words. I had never understood it until that final night when I made a kiss out of a vow and learned love in joined mouths. I loved, and a kiss spoke the words before my lips ever could. It was a revelation and set me on the path to a happy ending. A kiss…, and now I knew what it meant.