To my delightful reader Leah Taylor,

Thank you for your complete lack of respect towards me as a hobby writer. Your impatience has been consistently addressed by me and I have been as apologetic as possible - above the 'nails down a chalk board' way that many of your comments have left me feeling. I work 35 hours a week, maintain a clean and organized household, and am a dedicated mother to a five month old baby. While I have been very passionate about this fanfiction my priorities will consistently remain fixed on my involvement with my family and my work. You speak to me as though I am writing this for you, and you alone - like I have all the time in the world and am deliberately holding out just to torture my readers. (who by the way, unlike you have been very supportive and understanding, so please do not compare your miserable self to them!) I am not sure where this idea came from but it is totally misguided and indeed extremely rude and unappreciated. I refuse to write under pressure! I write whenever I have the free time, and in my life free time is very hard to come by! Having long enough to shave my legs in the shower is a miracle let alone having long enough to write an update - and lets not even get in to the sleep deprivation that comes along with motherhood! I appreciate that you've read and reviewed as much as you have, but I do not appreciate being goaded this way. Take your negativity elsewhere or please just accept that I WILL update when I can and that my lack of punctuality is by no means derived from some sort of personal vendetta that I have against you or my faithful readers.

To the rest of my wonderful, supportive, and awesome followers,

THANK YOU FOR STICKING WITH ME! I will never abandon Echelon! I don't care how long it take, I WILL finish this story! I am doing my best to update as often as possible but given the current circumstances it has been especially hard. I love you and appreciate you all more than words could describe. Please feel free to pm me at any time if you ever have any concerns at all. I may not be updating as frequently as you all would like, but I do at least hop on for a few minutes every day and always make sure that I respond to everyone that messages me.

-Christine-

Now fully dressed, and waiting the last few minutes before the opening act for Il Muto, Meg and I stood at of the wall to wall mirror in the front of the costume department and analyzed our wild ensembles.

"You look ridiculous."

"Well, you look like a boy wearing a skirt."

"You look like a poodle wearing a wedding cake."

"A poodle wearing a - You know what Meg, you're right!" I laughed and pat the circumference of the enormous white powdered wig that had been fitted to my head. It was true that I looked rather silly. The layers of pink and white skirts that surrounded me were excessive and grand. Still, it felt wonderful to be dressed as diva... even if it meant that I looked like a poodle wearing a wedding cake.

Meg gasped and spun me around by the shoulders to face her. "Christine! Your love bite is gone! How did you manage to heal so quickly?" She reached up to touch the seemingly unaffected area and I squealed and flinched away as if I was avoiding the plague. The sudden movement coupled with the weight of the clothing I was wearing sent me flying backwards and if it wasn't for Meg clutching at my dress with both fists at the last second, I would have toppled to the ground.

"What is the matter with you? Why are you jumping around like an animal?" Meg asked as she hurriedly worked to smooth out any wrinkles she might have made on my dress.

"Erik worked very hard to mask the mark earlier today. I'm not sure what he used or how he was able to make it invisible, but the mark is still there and he warned me not to touch it or else the makeup would come off." I explained all in one breath.

She laughed and stepped back to give my dress a once over and nodded in satisfaction. "He's a talented man." she said approvingly. "Is there anything that he can't do?"

I considered her question and shrugged, truly not being able to think of anything at all that he wasn't capable of. "Honestly I don't know. I suspect that if he ever came across anything that he didn't understand that he would learn in the blink of an eye." I thought of the way that he had willed my candle to light and the mysterious way that he spoke in to my mind while avoiding Megs detection. More than likely I would someday discover even more fascinating talents of his beyond the things that he'd allowed me to know so far. "He says that he is only a man, but I think that he must have been some sort of wunderkind when he was very young, to have achieved such brilliance before reaching the age that he is now."

"You've sorted out how old he is then?"

"No!" I snorted and waved a hand dismissively. "Knowing his age wouldn't change my feelings towards him. I care too deeply. Do you think that it matters very much?"

"Well, I would want to know." she shrugged. "It doesn't really matter right now, but I think that it will matter to you some day in the future."

What was Meg hinting at? Something about her tone suggested that she was keeping secrets from me on the subject, but I couldn't think of a single thing that she could possibly be aware of that I didn't already know... Meg and I always told each other everything and I'd never known her to keep a secret from me before, so why would she start now? I blamed my paranoia on my nerves being stretched thin due to performance anxiety and chose to ignore my intuition and cast aside my doubt.


The moment that the curtain rose up and revealed a full house of happy patrons, all of my stage fright and confusion disappeared. Meg and I had quite a bit of fun playing out our comedic roles as secret lovers, and hearing the reassuring bouts of laughter coming from our crowd gave us the confidence needed to fuel our energetic performance. Although I couldn't see him, I could sense Erik's presence flitting all around me between the rafters and box five - could feel that he was pleased. I spread out my new fan as largely as I wanted to smile and thought of his encouraging praise until the very end.

Shortly after the last encore Meg and I were whisked away by the managers and cast to greet our admirers. It should have been the most rewarding part of my evening, but more than anything in the world I wanted to slip away to find my angel. His approval meant so much more to me than the grovelling tornado waiting for us back stage and in the entrance hall. Every time I thought that I had the chance to escape the crowd someone new was tapping on my shoulder to shower me with flowers and congratulatory words. No matter which way I turned I was assaulted by clouds of cigar smoke and bubbling flutes of glittering champagne. I'd always tried to avoid spirits before, but on this night to refuse every drink that was handed to me was impossible to do without taking the risk of being offensive. Soon the entire theater started spinning around me - or maybe I had drank a little too much and I was the one spinning, but suddenly the atmosphere felt overwhelming and the echoing celebration around me became deafening. If it weren't for Madame Giry coming to my rescue and escorting me back to my peaceful dressing room I doubt that I would have survived the party.

Her years of experience working at the theater came in handy as she made quick work of removing the multiple fluffy layers of my costume and helped me in to a much more comfortable lavender dress and warm wool stockings. Before she left me to return to the party she forced me to lay down on the récamier and handed me a cloth rinsed in the icy water of my wash basin. She insisted that I rest because I looked exhausted, but I knew that it was a combination of tirelessly making my way through the crowd and all of the champagne that was the real cause of my helplessness. I felt about as productive as a rag doll, and my mind was still buzzing from all of the excitement. I would have skipped lounging around all together and went straight to bed if it weren't for the fact that Erik was going to be coming to see me any minute. God, how I wished that I could hide and that he wouldn't see me this way. What if he became angry with me once he noticed that I had indulged in alcohol? Would he be disappointed?

The latches of the mirror clicked open just as I remembered that he was probably already on his way, and I didn't even get a chance to sit up or take the wet cloth off of my forehead before Erik stepped over the threshold. He surveyed the situation and flashed a smirk - obviously withholding the way that my condition amused him, and then walked over to offer me his gloved hands. "I find that after consuming that much champagne, that it is easier to walk than to lay down. Say that you will walk with me?" his invitation was velvety and soothing. How could I possibly refuse? No matter how difficult going on a walk currently sounded to me, I was delighted to try my best to enjoy it if it meant spending time with him. It had been such a long time since we'd been able to be in each others company without having to worry about the time, or of being interrupted.

"Oh, alright." I sheepishly accepted his offer. He intertwined his fingers with mine and carefully guided me up to my feet. As I briefly fought against the vertigo that I felt while he helped me find my balance, I became aware of the way that he had carefully polished his appearance this evening. Aside from a few small but interesting details, I couldn't quite pin point what it was about him that seemed so different, only that he was unbearably handsome. He carried himself with the same enveloping, perfunctory edge of masculinity and power that I'd learned to associate with his presence, and he wore his classic black on black attire, but today the vest underneath his jacket had a jewel toned paisley print and he had retired his black and gold cloak for a heavier black and burgundy one that perfectly matched... and was that the smoky scent of vetiver? I wanted to lean in and breathe in the smell, but denied myself the pleasure. The startling memory of the way that he looked up in to my eyes with his mouth on my breast invaded my mind and I swayed backwards on to my heels. Surely the moment to be closer to him would present itself in time - if he would allow it, but I wasn't sure that I even had the energy to handle any more closeness of that kind of nature.

He drew his hands up to brace my shoulders and affectionately brushed his lips across my forehead. "Can you stand on your own if I step away to fetch you a covering?"

"I'm sure that I can manage." I assured him with a wobbly smile and lazily pointed towards wardrobe. Did he notice that I was trying to focus more out of one eye than the other? "I keep it all in there - are we going outdoors?"

"Yes." He stepped back and waited to judge whether or not I really could stand unassisted before letting go and turning his back on me to find me a suitable cloak. I thought that I might have heard him mutter something under his breath - something he never intended me to hear, but I didn't dare question him.

Whatever he had planned was fine with me, regardless of my doubts, but I wondered why he would want to have a walk outside after the sun was down. Certainly it would be too dark to see anything... and where would we go? While he pushed my clothing around on the screeching hangers to find what he was looking for, I stole a quick glance at myself in the mirror. Contrary to the sloppy way that I was feeling, the dress that Madame Giry had helped me in to was more than satisfactory. My hair was still loosely pinned up on top of my head and my makeup wasn't running down my face. Knowing that I looked somewhat 'together' was comforting but I still felt common in comparison to his fine tuned perfection. I took a deep breath and tore away from my reflection. Needlessly fussing over my appearance wouldn't do me any good, and it was going to be dark wherever we were going anyway.

Erik returned to me with a cozy gray hooded cloak and draped it across my shoulders. He then tightly locked my left arm under his own and took my hand in to his with a reassuring squeeze. "Lean in to me and use my weight to stabilize you as you walk." He suggested as he led me through the mirror with surprising effortlessness.

I was torn between enjoying his attentive care and being embarrassed for requiring it. I grinned nervously and bit down on my bottom lip but was unable to withhold my thoughts from him. "You are always so composed, and here you are taking care of me while I am so utterly useless!"

"Useless? Calm your senseless worrying and be proud of your success." He tipped face down at me and smiled - beaming with the pride that he wanted me to feel safe enough to enjoy. "The crowd was very pleased with your performance, as am I."

I let my head rest against his supporting arm and sighed, relieved to hear how happy that he was with me. "I couldn't care less about what anyone else thinks, as long as I know that you are impressed."

"Is that so?"

"Without a doubt." I nodded. "Finding my way back to my dressing room tonight was a very draining and suffocating experience. Yours is the only attention that I was hoping for. Not to mention that as it turns out I am not very fond of all of the excitement that comes along with large crowds of people after a show... Maybe it's because I lack the experience needed to enjoy the festivities." I thought of how controlled my free time had been since joining the theater as a child. My angel of music had always been very strict and demanded that I keep away from 'frivolous celebrating' to focus on my training. Knowing the truth about his identity now helped me to make better sense of our confusing past together. Erik hadn't been keeping me away from everyone else just to focus on my studies. All along I bet he'd been trying to keep me... groom me for the stage and for himself. This revelation should have been disturbing, but I couldn't summon the negativity. Regardless of the reasons how or why, I was in love with him, and the love that I felt for him was so permanent and consuming that to try and deny it's validity would be hopeless. To be with him made me feel alive. He was my music, my happiness - my oxygen! To be away from him... the separation would shrivel up and destroy me.

"Perhaps an arrangement can be made to limit the time that you're forced to spend socializing after each performance." As if he could sense the way that I was privately agonizing over our past, he massaged his thumb along the tops of my knuckles, still keeping me close enough to his side to support me as we continued downwards on the cold path. "Regrettably as the diva to evade these party's would be considered suspicious and discourteous. However, I will do what is within my power to shield you from whatever comes along with fame."

Along with his reassuring words, each tiny circle that he rubbed in to my skin assuaged my fragile nerves - made me feel foolish for allowing my mind take off on such dark tangents over the rocky truths that could never be changed. "I'll learn to manage." I promised. "I don't wish to do anything that might damage my reputation." Although if anyone could see me wandering off at night with this masked man as my chaperon my reputation would undoubtedly be questioned.

That's it for tonight. I'm sorry if some of this chapter seemed a bit choppy. Life has had me under a lot of pressure lately and I've been finding it difficult to concentrate - forgive me! I already have quite a bit of my next update written (because it's one of the chapters that I've been planning since the beginning so I've been super excited to write it) and considered waiting to post until I had more finished, but that wouldn't have been fair. Thank you all for reading and for your reviews!