VIEWS: 11 PAGES: 338 POSTED ON: 7/14/2011
Monument My heart shattered into a thousand pieces the moment she disappeared from my view. The pain hit me so suddenly I sank to my knees on the floor, my eyes fixed upon the area that had held her only moments ago. I felt distinctly outside myself, displaced. The ring on my finger felt heavy. I removed it and let it drop to the carpet. She had kissed me. I did not deserve her love. I had used her, manipulated her, and cut her off from everyone but myself. I had behaved like a tyrant. I had acted the jealous lover. And see where it got you? . I put my head in my hands. I hadn‟t been able to help myself. Christine compelled me in a siren-like way. I couldn‟t think clearly around her. I couldn‟t sleep at night for dreaming of her. She ruled me utterly, and even now I feared that had not changed. My spirit lay crushed; no amount of time could heal this wound. Three weeks, six meals and a brick of hash went by with curious numbness. My eyes felt full of sand. Music did not flow through me. My creativity withered with inattention. I sensed my downward spiral as a blessed descent into oblivion. Emil found me in a pile of cushions in the corner of the parlor. I beheld his brown eyes with numb indifference. He frowned, lacing his hands behind his back. I remained still, saying nothing. Raising a slim eyebrow, Emil sat on the granite before me, his movements exaggerated and slow. I‟d heard him coming from leagues away of course; there wasn‟t any need for him to be careful. He‟d always treated me like wet gelignite. “Erik?” “Yes Emil?” I asked simply. “You can‟t go like this. Someone like you has to survive.” Emil looked to the side. “I cannot pretend to know the extent of your trials, Allah knows I cannot even comprehend it, but let go of it and go on.” His gaze shifted back to me briefly before flitting off. I felt faintly amused by his trepidation and dropped the pipe into my lap. “What do you mean Emil, someone like me?” I asked softly, goading him. He flushed underneath his mocha complexion, clenching his hands together in his lap. “You aren‟t like anyone else Erik, and for more than your face.” Emil grimaced, showing his even, white teeth. “I hardly need to tell you your talents, but you‟re very smart and very inventive. I hate the thought of you wasting your life for that fickle woman.” “You don‟t like women anyway Emil, except in the biblical sense.” Packing a sticky ball of opium into the pipe, I looked directly at him. “But I do know what you are trying to say. I‟m not attempting to kill myself.” Inwardly I acknowledged that perhaps I slowly starved myself, but he didn‟t need to know that. “You‟ve lost weight Erik,” Emil snapped, “And I‟ll bet the amount of poppy and hash in your system would kill me. I know what your malady looks like; I‟ve seen it in dozens of love-smitten fools.” Emil got to his feet, pacing before me with his tailcoat flying out behind him like a flag. “It is my duty to come down here and my desire to see you well.” “You were always so concerned over my welfare Daroga,” I replied, setting flame to the metal of the pipe. “Even though I was willing to let you die in the torture chamber a bare few weeks ago.” As the lovely ball of latex bubbled, I inhaled. “I suppose I‟m not living like I care about tomorrow,” I said as I let out my breath. “The thing is Emil, I don‟t care. I don‟t understand why you have this fascination for my health either. It touches me, but you needn‟t waste your time.” “Satan take you for a fool!” Emil swung his head toward my position, his eyes blazing. “You are no one to tell me how to waste my time with worry. Look at you!” He gestured helplessly toward me. “Sitting there on a dozen knitted silk pillows with drugs all around you. I‟m surprised you even know who I am.” “How could I forget you Emil?” I chuckled, feeling humor rest on me for the first time in weeks. “You won‟t go away.” “You know what I mean.” Emil sighed, rubbing a thin, brown hand across his face. “Damn it Erik, I knew what I‟d encounter coming down here. You‟re stubborn beyond belief.” “I suppose.” I threw the pipe at him. He caught it automatically, wrinkling his nose in distaste as he realized what he‟d caught. Flinging it back with force, he favored me with a scornful look. “You know what your problem is Erik?” Emil said quietly. “You‟re too aware, too sensitive, too finely attuned to things. Those drugs only make it worse.” “I disagree, they numb the pain.” “They put it off, not numb it.” Emil sat down on the arm of the sofa. “You like to blame your face for your difficulties, but it‟s your lack of morals and your terribly high standards that cause you the most pain.” He folded his arms sternly, gazing down at me with mortifying gravity. “You scared that woman to death with your demands, not your face.” He paused, his eyebrows lifting. “And if you were feeling like yourself you‟d have strangled me for saying that.” “Maybe, but I wouldn‟t have killed you.” I rose up, feeling my head swim from the sudden exertion. “I don‟t kill people for being direct with me, just for lying and sneaking around behind my back.” “Yes, I know.” Emil snorted. “While you sneak around and set the standard for deception.” “Deception has kept me alive.” I retorted. “And alone.” Emil‟s face softened. “It‟s only because I can see inside of you that I am here.” “You have seen the heights of both my depravity and generosity, nothing more.” I leaned against the mantle, closing my eyes to regain lost balance. “The reason you are still alive is I consider you my friend.” I looked at him, watching his eyes widen. “And I appreciate you Emil, I really do, but this is not something you can help me with.” “I want to help you in any way I can.” Emil sighed. “If that is leaving you alone, I will do it, but I would like to know I am not forbidden to return.” “I need to be alone.” I straightened. “I promise not to die until you return, whenever that will be.” “Good.” Emil turned to go, his back as stiff as a poker. At the door he cast me a glance. “You remember what I‟ve said though Erik, you have to survive.” With that he was gone. *********** The Rue Scribe alarm shattered the silence. I threw off the afghan I‟d wrapped around my shoulders and felt for the thin strip of catgut in my sleeve. I had a few minutes before the intruder got even remotely close to the house. My fingers twitched at the thought of killing some clumsy interloper. Murder tended to set me right no matter what. Just as I started to leave, a loud knock came at my door. Surprised, I merely waited to see if the intruder would knock again. “Monsieur, please open the door,” a voice called me. Raoul DeChagny. I couldn‟t believe it. What did the boy want with me? Hadn‟t he gotten the most precious of my possessions already? And why hadn‟t he taken Christine north yet? She had said they were to take a northern train. I gritted my teeth. The knock came louder this time, and more frantic. “Please monsieur, this is important.” DeChagny pleaded, his voice muffled by a solid foot of stone. I relented, tripping the mechanism with a heavy heart. Raoul stumbled in, closely followed by Christine. She wore a long dress and a hat with a veil, but I knew her figure anywhere. The sight of her wrenched my gut and set my heartbeat racing. I could already feel my skin begin to heat up. “I did not know where else to turn,” Raoul slowly began to draw off Christine‟s cloak, his eyes on me. “Christine is ill.” I looked at her directly, crossing my arms across my chest. I saw her head move, but she did not speak. A swell of concern rose up in my breast. “She is sick,” Raoul continued, turning to her. “Christine dear, would you please be seated while I have a word with the maestro?” To my surprise she complied without a murmur, seating herself gingerly upon my divan. Raoul came close to me, the fever of worry shining brightly in his eyes. “Will you speak with me alone?” he asked softly. I hesitated. Something was not right here. I could not deny hearing the Vicomte‟s account of how Christine became ill for I had made him promise to take care of her, yet I did not trust this sudden visit. Didn‟t the stupid boy realize Christine was the only reason he yet drew air? I stared at him, watching his pupils dilate. Brash, heroic arrogance swam in his gallant green eyes. It hadn‟t even occurred to him I might refuse. It was a unique view, this sideways juxtaposition. He felt so justified in calling me a monster, but he expected basic human kindness from me as well. I could have told him a thousand ways I wasn‟t human at all. I looked back toward my diva. She had her back to us but her head alert. Raoul followed my eyes and straightened. “Will you speak with me alone?” he repeated more firmly. I caught a fleeting glimpse of fear. I nodded, motioning him to follow me into the kitchen. No sooner had we entered the room than Raoul collapsed into the nearest chair. Moaning, he brought his hands up to his face. “We were riding home that night,” he said, not needing to specify a date. “Our carriage overturned in a rut. When Christine came to awareness she did not immediately know who I was.” Raoul took a deep breath, his eyes skirting around the room. “After time and many physicians I have come to believe you might be the only one who can draw her out of herself.” “Oh?” I put a kettle of water on the stove, my hands mechanically going over the implements for tea. “What exactly is the problem Vicomte? You say she did not recognize you immediately, yet she must now.” My heart was beating faster. Why would Christine retreat within herself to escape her Vicomte‟s reach? “Oh, she remembers me, but as a boy who rescued her scarf.” Raoul laughed strangely, bringing his eyes back to me. “She does not remember anything past her first dance recital here. It is as if the last two years never happened to her.” My hands stilled over a stack of cups. “What?” I asked dumbly. “She cannot remember anything?” “Nothing Monsieur. She does not know you and she does not know she sang as a diva. She remembers nothing of our courtship or the disaster here in the opera.” Raoul clasped his hands together as a shudder wracked his body. “Her memories end on the day she was accepted into the ballet, her second day here.” The implications of this struck me like a thunderbolt. I could start over with her. I looked to the handsome Vicomte, wondering if he had thought of this as well. By his expression I knew he had. He smiled wryly. “Of course I‟ve thought of how you could use this to your advantage,” he said bitterly, “I would be a fool not to think of it.” “Yet you still brought her.” I sifted black tea into two cups and poured the water. “I could kill you and keep her.” “You wouldn‟t, you want her whole as much as I do.” Raoul‟s voice shook slightly behind his confident words. “I was sure enough of that to risk it.” “I see.” I handed him a cup of tea, keeping my calm. I smiled invisibly. “I will bring her back to herself, but only if you promise not to interfere.” “Leave her with you indefinitely?” He seemed horrified. “It is out of the question. I will stay here with her.” “You will not.” I stirred my leaves gently, keeping his eyes. “I figure prominently in her last year. It will confuse her to have you here. She must reside without your influence.” “But I do not know if you‟ll tell her everything she needs to know.” Raoul growled, appearing rather unimpressive for all his passion. “Simply telling her what she has done isn‟t going to solve her problem.” I looked at him pointedly. “You deduced this or you would never have brought her.” I felt myself strengthening at the mere sight of him, warming me to the subject. “I have to give you credit, you aren‟t a coward and you must have swallowed a good deal of pride before setting out for my house.” Folding my arms, I leaned against the doorframe. “I‟m not inclined to like you, but I think I‟ve proven I have her best interests at heart.” I paused to chuckle at the sudden ridiculousness thrust in my face. “You certainly have nerve boy, to take Christine from me, to venture in here like the hero and then voluntarily come back only three weeks after our little opera played out. I‟d really like nothing more than to kill you, to be honest. It wouldn‟t take seven seconds of my time.” Raoul stood, color draining from his face. His left arm jerked, coming halfway up in front of him to go rigid. I knew what movement he waited for. “Your hands at the level of your eyes,” I taunted softly. “I‟m not going to kill you DeChagny, I merely remind you. I am a man with two weakness, music and Christine.” “I only have one weakness, and that is Christine!” Raoul shouted. “Perhaps I am the better man here.” “You‟re a boy.” I did not move as I spoke, pinning him with my eyes instead of my itching hands. How I would enjoy killing him! “And Christine is a child,” I added softly. “I wonder if you are prepared to be a father as well as a husband.” “I suppose you were?” Raoul asked coldly, tightly controlling the shaking of his hands by clenching them together. He looked on the verge of violence. “I‟m old enough to have fathered either of you.” Raoul gave a start, his eyes sweeping over me in an involuntary jerk. “What difference does it make anyway? I love Christine and I want what‟s best for her.” “How do you presume to know what is best for her?” I laughed. “I did not know what was best for her, no one can know but the lady herself.” “But you can help her,” Raoul said, avoiding the issue. “I could rebuild her mind from farther back than the last two years,” I sneered. “Don‟t be an idiot Vicomte. Forget that you hate me; take a look at what I have done.” “Nearly any man could have accomplished your crimes.” Raoul spat. I lowered my eyes at him, anger stirring my soul. “Is that so?” I pushed him with my voice, putting beauty in every tiny syllable. I beheld the deadening of his eyes instantly, the sign I had control. “Pick up the tea,” I ordered quietly. He did immediately. “Drop it,” I said. He dropped it. “Now, pick up the paring knife by your elbow.” Raoul trembled as he accomplished this task. I smiled to myself. “Hold it over your wrist,” I bade insistently. I held him in the position while watching him struggle against my coercive humming. Finally, I stopped. He threw the knife into the corner, panting. “You‟re a monster,” Raoul swore. “Such a skill is inhuman!” “I‟m the angel of music,” I reminded. “And I will help Christine.” “Not without me!” “You really are an obstinate boy.” I sighed, feeling my anger drain a bit. My words were true. He was just a boy. “Come every Saturday and spend an hour with her,” I relented. “Just take her key back with you.” “An hour is not nearly enough time. I must have contact with her more than once a week!” Chagny ran a hand through his already rumpled hair. “Take it or leave it.” I shrugged. “I will not give you more.” “You‟re a bastard,” Raoul murmured, but the light of certainty drained from his eyes. “I thought I was a monster.” I shifted with a sense of impatience. “Say goodbye to her now. This is Saturday; your hour is up.” Wordlessly, Raoul stalked from the kitchen. I followed him, barely able to contain my elation in silence. Christine was mine again, and her fiancé had brought her right to my door. I could scarcely believe what was happening. Christine still sat stiffly on the couch. She had not removed her hat or veil. As Raoul circled to her position she rose gracefully to her feet. “Raoul?” she questioned softly. “Is something wrong? You were gone a good while.” “Yes, I was having a talk with the maestro.” Raoul took her hands gently, looking down at her. “I‟m going to leave you with him and I am not coming back for a week.” “A week?” Christine‟s voice sharpened. “I feel fine Raoul. I don‟t have to take up this gentleman‟s time.” “Darling, it may not seem like it, but you do.” Raoul gripped her hands more firmly. “You are missing two years of your life and you need to get them back. He can help you.” At this, Christine shot me a careful glance. I could not see her eyes behind the gauze, but her stance told me she felt curiosity. Yes, she was an inquisitive little thing. She turned back, her shoulders slumping a bit. “Very well Raoul, if you insist. I really don‟t see the need of this though.” “You will darling, you will.” Raoul let her go. “I have to leave now. The sooner I go the sooner you can start getting better.” He walked to the door, throwing me a venomous look from his shoulder. “Until Saturday,” he said roughly. I nodded. He slammed the door as he went out, sending fine sand into the room. I was alone with Christine. I looked at her with that old sensation of falling, that whirling hubris that always swept me up in her presence. She was an electromagnet and I a simple pile of iron filings. I felt vulnerable and disgusted with myself for both sensations. Christine turned to me, an awkward anxiety to her shoulder set. Without a word she walked closer. As she drew nearer, her hands fussed with her veil. Coming to stand before me, Christine finally wrenched free of the hat and fully exposed her face. I drew in a sharp breath at her features. I beheld her as I had first beheld her more than a year ago. The worry lines, the fearful eye movements, the tenseness of her lips were all gone. Once again she shone with youthful health, with open-minded exuberance. The gold of her hair and the blue of her eyes threatened to blind me. Those indigo eyes wandered over me and my mask, with innocent interest. “I don‟t know why Raoul brought me here.” Christine smiled slightly, but nervously. “Am I supposed to know you?” My heart bled at her natural question. She really did not know me; I could see that. DeChagny had not overstated her problem. I nodded, holding back on speaking. I retained hope she would not forget my voice, but I wanted to see if she could be persuaded to remember despite it. She frowned at my silence. “I would hope I could remember someone who lives underneath an opera house,” Christine murmured thoughtfully. “And someone who wears a mask,” she added, her eyes floating around my covered face again. “But Raoul seemed to think I needed to see you. Are we friends?” I hesitated. I did not know how to respond. Our relationship couldn‟t be narrowed down into so singular a category. I had felt confident of being her friend for a long time, until I understood no woman could befriend a man who knew her every movement. Christine frowned again, but her gaze drifted over me in a strange sort of appraisal. A question formed behind her eyes. “Dare I ask were we lovers?” she whispered, her eyes growing frightened. “Raoul does seem to dislike you, for all his insistence I be brought here.” “We were not lovers,” I replied, finally using my voice. “Though not because I didn‟t make the effort.” Christine blushed, but I saw her shiver at the sound of me. She was hearing me for the first time, after all. It tempted me to wash her in audile pleasure as I had done so many times. I could have anything I wanted of her if only I exercised my vocal chords a fraction toward that goal. “Why did I refuse you?” Christine came a little closer. I fought the urge to just seize her. The last few weeks had sharpened my ever-present ache for her into torturous longing. Just having her in the house again made me insane with want. I would have to manage myself at all costs or I‟d harm her. I looked away from her unearthly beauty with effort. “You were in love with the Vicomte,” I said, hearing my terseness. “That did not change no matter what I did.” I hated to say it, to even think about it. It was going to be hard to tell her the things she wanted to know. She would ask me questions that would draw blood. Telling her of how she loved DeChagny would be the most profane and blasphemous knowledge to ever escape my twisted lips. “My pursuit of you had a few other dimensions than simple romance,” I continued, avoiding my testimony to their love and softening my harsh tone. “I taught you how to sing. I am your Angel of Music.” Christine paled. “My Angel of Music?” Her lips trembled, betraying the memory of her father‟s old tales. Daddy Daae had filled her mind with enough fantasy to ready her for the really fantastic; else I could not have beguiled her so thoroughly. “Yes.” I moved closer to her. She smelled like roses and neroli, her favorite perfumes. It had been so long since I had smelled either scent… “I am your angel,” I vowed. “I will always be your angel.” Christine retreated a step. Her eyes flew to the door. “You are a man,” she murmured, looking uncertain of that for just a moment. I watched her conviction grow as she shook her head. “You are a man,” she said firmly, “An angel wouldn‟t want to make a lover of me.” “Life isn‟t as tidy as that Christine.” I moved toward her again. “I am not like anyone else.” I backed her up slowly by walking toward her, maneuvering her to rest her back against the wall. There was no place she could run from me now, no Vicomte to rescue her from the monster. I could lay bare every inch of my bloodstained soul for her scrutiny, and I would do it. My spirit simply ached to be seen. “D-don‟t come any closer, please,” Christine stammered, her eyes darting left and right for a way around me. I stopped advancing to oblige her little attack of nerves. I would have to employ a bit of clemency. I wasn‟t feeling at all gracious, the sting of seeing her was too sharp, but I still had to make an effort. “I saw you arrive and watched you for an entire year before I came to know you wanted to sing instead of dance,” I said slowly, watching her eyes widen again. “I was spying on you, stalking you.” Christine swallowed hard and laid her palms flat on the wall. She looked ready to flee but fear had her frozen to the spot. “T-to what end?” Her gaze darted left and right by turns. “To have you,” I answered with a chuckle. “Why else does a man stalk a woman?” “I cannot believe Raoul has left me with you,” Christine whispered, her eyes large. “He‟s left you to my tender mercies a few times,” I remarked. “You insisted upon coming here to see me. Weren‟t you listening when I said I was your Angel of Music?” I walked away, throwing myself into the pile of cushions I‟d fairly lived out of for weeks. “Sometimes you came here simply to hear my voice, and sometimes you came to forget about the world and pressure above. Of course, you‟ve come here under duress as well, I admit it.” I threw her a pointed look. “You react favorably to my voice, without fail. Its how I‟ve controlled you again and again.” I leaned my head back, watching her absorb my words. “I hope you don‟t intend to do it now.” Christine‟s jaw set into an obstinate, aggressive position, the stance of a cornered badger. Body tightening even further, she met my eyes. “I‟ve had quite enough trouble; I don‟t need any from you.” She drew up proudly, squaring her shoulders. “If you are the Angel of Music my papa said he would send, prove it.” I repressed a sigh. I had been content as her angel. The untimely arrival of her Vicomte had been enough to force me into giving up that role, but I really believed I could have gone on as simply her angel. I hadn‟t been brave enough to think of wooing her… I cleared my throat. “I am not the Angel your father spoke of, but I was your angel very effectively.” The words seemed to choke me. “I am still your angel, even if you don‟t like it or believe it,” I added. “You talk in riddles.” Christine moved off the wall. “I get the feeling you are testing me and I don‟t like that.” A little frown settled onto her forehead as she looked away. “I suggest you grow accustomed to it. Your little hero won‟t be back until next Saturday.” I smiled as she gasped. “How dare you make fun of Raoul?” Christine pressed her lips together, narrowing her eyes as well. “He is a very sweet gentleman.” “I cannot say I see his charm.” I chuckled lightly. This was entertaining, but it worried me too. It was troublesome for my songbird to have lost two years of her existence. Why would she forget all her time in the ballet, and the chorus? Had the opera damaged her so much? Had I damaged her so much? It was a sobering, appalling idea. I could imagine she might want to forget all that had happened to her. I could still see marks on her wrists of the ropes I had used to bind her to a chair in the Louis-Philippe room. I looked at her flashing eyes and determined chin. She certainly had a little more backbone than I remembered. Perhaps in her current frame of mind, ignorant of the monster I was, she could afford to be brave. I could either show her how mad I really was or watch new facets of her buried personality develop with my benevolence. I confessed to myself that seeing new aspects of her interested me. Christine had depth she wasn‟t even aware of. “You judge Raoul merely by an affair of the heart,” Christine continued over my silence. “You could speak with him man to man and see how wrong you are about him. He is a hero.” I looked at her with that falling feeling again, on edge with its familiarity. She was so beautiful, so courageous in her fear of me. Always she had thrown herself in my path to protect her Vicomte, and it had worked for a good while until I‟d gone unhinged with need of her. “I‟ve never been afforded the courtesy of man to man speaking with him; your noble Vicomte hates me for far more than my interest in you.” I paused, watching the draining effect my words seemed to have on her. “The only reason he would ever, ever bring you back to me is if he was a desperate man.” “I cannot believe I have been left here with you.” Christine repeated her earlier claim, wrapping her arms around her chest and shivering. “I can‟t even believe I‟ve forgotten anything, much less you.” “I can‟t either my dear, I thought I‟d scarred you for life.” I wrapped my hands around the opium pipe, feeling its cold smoothness under my fingers. I didn‟t want to look at her anymore. Not only did she make me feel guilty, she made me feel anxious. “But I won‟t hurt you, even DeChagny knows that. Though I have frightened you nearly to death and taken liberties I had no right to, I have never harmed a hair on your head.” “And why not,” Christine asked, her voice trembling slightly. “Your behavior tells me you aren‟t afraid of hurting people.” She squeezed herself even harder than before. “I don‟t hurt women, they‟re poor sport.” Christine slumped a little, her hand going to her forehead. I heard her sigh. “Monsieur, this is all too much for me.” “No it isn‟t, you just don‟t want to think about it anymore.” I threaded my fingers together, laying my hands across my chest. Her eyes kept squirming away from me. “It doesn‟t please you to think about a complete stranger knowing so much about you.” At this, Christine‟s eyes snapped back to life. Whipping her head around, she glared at me. “You are correct monsieur; I do not like the thought of you. I am obviously missing some important memories where you are concerned, and that makes me terribly uneasy. I want to know,” Christine frowned, her gaze going over me again. “I want to know how you came to be my Angel of Music. I can‟t understand how anyone with your insolence ever masqueraded as an angel.” “I sang to you.” I closed my eyes to the memory of my first song to her. The old gypsy lullaby had made her weep with joy. “I came to you in your dressing room from behind the mirror and sang to you.” “That‟s ridiculous, you can‟t hide behind glass.” Christine put her hands on her hips. “And lovely as your voice is, it wouldn‟t convince me you were an angel. Why don‟t you sing to me and prove this silly claim?” “Prove this, prove that,” I scoffed. “Honestly my dear, you require a lot of persuasion.” I got up, watching her tense at my sudden return to movement. “I don‟t need to prove my claims, and I don‟t intend to ever sing for you again.” It would be a good way not to make mistakes with her again, keeping my singing voice silent. “Then you can‟t do it.” Christine smiled in victory. “I can do anything I want,” I said lowly. I was getting angry now. My little diva seemed to be showing an unheard of amount of nerve. “I don‟t think my singing will help you, and to be honest I don‟t feel like putting forth the effort.” “Will you ever feel like putting forth the effort?” Christine asked smugly, showing she thought I merely lied to her. I clenched my fists in a wave of ire. “You don‟t know how much effort I have already put into singing for you,” I replied darkly. “I painted worlds for you with my voice and I got very little in return.” “It‟s no wonder if you were stalking me and making me do things against my will.” Christine turned away to stare into the fire. “How can I trust you to make me well when I know these things?” “What choice do you have?” I ran a hand over the mantelpiece in a calculatedly smooth stroke, coming very close to her. Catching her frightened eyes, I held them. “But your trust in me has never wavered before.” “Truly?” Christine asked, hopeful in a way that crushed my irritation with her. “Truly.” I let her eyes go. “You‟ve always believed in my ability to do what I say I will do, and I have never disappointed you. I will help your remember the last two years even if it kills me.” I made the vow and the sense of falling stopped with a sudden lurch. Christine looked hesitantly at me, hope shining behind her azure gaze. The sight was so reminiscent of our earliest days I felt like weeping. Remembering how my heart had been broken and relating every wicked thing I had ever done to her would be the blackest of hells. Choking back an ache in my throat, I looked away. “Even if it kills me,” I repeated. And it just might. What little repairs I‟d done to my heart were already gone, swept away by her mere presence. I was weak to her and would be always weak to her. “Are you ill monsieur?” Christine stepped toward me, her tiny hand outstretched. I dreaded her touch yet longed for it with rabid hunger. I quivered as she closed the final few inches, her hand brushing the fabric of my jacket. Just as she would have applied pressure I broke inside, jerking away. I could not bear it, I decided. I could not think of her as mine. When she remembered her past I could either be her friend or her enemy, and I could not be her friend if I repeated the mistakes of the past. I would settle for friendship and be thankful for it. This was my chance to rectify the breech between us; I did not have to go to the grave with my guilt. “I am troubled by you,” I said, surprising myself with honesty. “Your beauty is like a knife in my heart.” Christine drew back instantly, her eyes growing large and luminous. “I-I can‟t help the way I look,” she murmured. I realized she‟d completely missed my meaning. If she could not remember how infatuated I was, she could not understand my pain. Should I explain my feelings or let them lie? My options were uncomfortably weighted. “I don‟t mean your beauty hurts me, not in that respect.” I laughed shortly, suddenly amused by her assumption. She couldn‟t help the way she looked. An outrageously simple, truthful claim, yet so many people had missed that with me. “Then in what way?” Christine frowned worriedly, drawing her delicate brows into a sharp vee. “Should I put my veil back on?” At this the bubble of indecent hilarity rose in my throat. God, she was so innocent. I had thought her naivety to be strong before, but in her current timeframe she was doubly naïve. I couldn‟t bear to tell her, I just couldn‟t. “Never mind my dear,” I said, straightening. “The only person in this house who needs a mask is me.” I walked back, keeping her eyes. “You look tired. Perhaps you would like to have a short rest?” ******************************************* I knew without being told that this was my room, my initials were on everything. I felt worried that I couldn‟t remember why I had a room this pleasant underneath the opera, a room kept up by that man. I opened the closet, curious as to what I might have left from the days I knew this place. A massive collection of dresses met my eyes. Amazed, I pulled a few out. Their quality and design seemed first class. Had I needed so many clothes? How had I afforded so many dresses? I thrust everything back inside and shut the door, turning to the bookcase. The books seemed mostly poetry, though a few romance stories hid among them. A piece of paper caught my eye. Pulling out a book, I opened it to the marker. Both the page before me and the marker showed a poem. I sat down to read the book poem first. [i]To crown my transport, at the end, These two one perfect song should blend; And from a wild magnolia tree Might steal the haunting melody. So weirdly sweet the stream would swell From singers singing far too well Their thirst in harmony to slake— Sudden—the gentle hearts would break. And with a mortal ecstasy In one long burst of rapture die. Perchance, what these, God-taught, had sung Might loose, at last, my timeless tongue: In such a spot, on such a day, I, too, might sing my soul away.[/i] I looked for the author‟s name and found it on the bottom. Danske Dandridge. I had never heard of her. I looked to the place marker, curious to see what had been written and shoved inside the poetry book. There, in my own hand, lay a few lines. [i]At length I reached the charmed ring Wherein that demon sat to sing; His lark-like strain was sweet to hear, And slowly, slowly, I drew near. It was a hollow, dark and dern, With tumbled grass and tangled fern. Again I smelled the blood-red flower -- Ah me! it was a fearful hour! He smiled, he beckoned with his hand, I had no power to sit or stand, He held me with his gleaming eye, I had no power to speak or cry. I sank upon the matted grass, And waited for my soul to pass, The while he sang my threnody, Airily, O airily.[/i] A chill raced up my spine. Carefully, I put everything back. Something prickled upon the back of my mind but I couldn‟t catch it. So, the mysterious man of this house had taught me to sing. I had lived here long enough to have a hundred different outfits and my own collection of books. He said I had sometimes come here to forget the world above, or to rest. I couldn‟t imagine resting in his presence. How could Raoul leave me here? I felt angry when I thought of it. He claimed to love me yet he‟d left me with another man for an entire week. Oh, he said he was worried about my mind, that I had to catch up on two years I‟d lost, but those years couldn‟t be that important. To the maestro‟s account all I‟d done was learn how to sing and fend off his stalking. For Raoul to just dump me on the doorstep of this cave was unthinkable. I did not have the faintest clue who the man in the mask might be, and I was afraid of him. Sitting on the bed which amazingly held the shape of a boat, I thought of the maestro. The look in his yellow eyes when I‟d asked if we were friends… frightening. I‟d never seen a person with such intense eye contact. He looked at me with terrible attention, like he could see inside of my soul. I‟d lied to him upon claiming his voice wasn‟t good enough to be an angel‟s. Every syllable he uttered resonated with aching beauty. No earthly creature sounded like this man. I shook my head wearily. I needed rest. Raoul jerking me from one doctor to another for two weeks had taken a toll on me, and the problem of the maestro seemed an impossible one. I hoped a few hours sleep would refresh my mind and give me strength. Closing my eyes, I resolved to sleep. ****************************************** Not willing to subject Christine to the sight of me with my drugs, I resolved to find something else to do. It seemed too soon to let her hear me play, but I could compose quietly enough. I didn‟t need the instruments to hear the music. Sitting down in the music room, I gathered the stack of staff papers and a pencil. I would work on something new; I didn‟t feel like working on anything I‟d already done. After weeks of silence perhaps I could write something extraordinary. Just as I finished the time measurements for the first grouping, the door opened. Christine peeked inside, giving a frightened little start at seeing me. I put my work down and looked expectantly at her. She‟d obviously slept in her clothes, by her rumpled appearance. Surely by now she had been in the closet, why hadn‟t she changed? I watched her come inside and lean against the doorframe. She looked nervous. “Monsieur, I am sorry to bother you, but I have a terrible thirst. I was trying to locate the kitchen.” Christine blushed as she spoke. “You are not bothering me,” I assured, standing up. She shrank back even further if possible, her eyes measuring my height. I realized I hadn‟t been this close to her before and smiled. “Allow me to familiarize you with the kitchen,” I continued, taking the last few steps to where she stood. She followed me out the door and down the hall. I preceded her inside the room, holding the heavy oak door back so she could enter. She skimmed inside like a skittish doe, quickly placing herself near a corner. I sighed inwardly. I would get nowhere with Christine if she persisted in being afraid of my every movement. Her earlier bravado must have been only for the sake of her beloved. “Christine my dear, there isn‟t any need to be so anxious,” I said softly, walking past her to the stove. “I never meant you any harm and I never will.” I took the tea down, glancing back at her. Her eyes were fixed on the Vicomte‟s broken teacup, which lay scattered in a fairly tight pattern on the stone. “Pay no mind to that dear,” I said, “Your little hero had a fit while I granted him his private audience.” “Why do you keep calling him that?” Christine‟s voice held more than a touch of impatience. “Because he went into the sea to rescue your scarf,” I said with a sigh, “Or so you have told me.” “Yes, he did.” Christine took a napkin from the table and bent to the shattered teacup. Carefully, she began picking up pieces and gathering them into the cloth. “But that was a long time ago,” she added thoughtfully. “I do not know this grown-up Raoul very well.” I put the water on and repeated the process of making tea for the aforementioned DeChagny. “You made me think you knew him. He wooed you for several weeks.” Thinking about it made my blood boil. I myself had suggested pretence at being engaged to him, to make him as happy as I hoped to be. No doubt these had been the days she had developed rapport with him. “You are wearing his engagement ring even now.” Christine looked to her hand automatically, frowning. Slowly, she resumed picking up the ruined cup, a worried look in her eyes. “I wondered about that; I hadn‟t asked him. He told me we were to be married.” She looked up at me fearfully, but this time the fear did not seem to be born by my presence. “If you know so much about me, did I love him that much?” “I don‟t know Christine.” I ground my teeth as I stared back at the kettle. “You certainly seemed eager to be in his company.” “But if I‟ve only known him as a suitor for a few weeks, how could I already be in love with him?” she persisted. “He‟s a wonderful man, but that seems a little fast.” I closed my eyes. Every innocent question she ventured opened a wound. These wounds weren‟t old enough to have solid scabs yet. “I cannot help you with these questions,” I managed to say. “I wasn‟t privy to your inner workings, at least for the most part.” “But you seem to know me very well.” Christine finished her tidying job and bundled up the china, tossing it into the nearby trashcan. “I- I have a feeling you know me better than he does.” “I feel I do,” I snapped, “But it didn‟t make a damn in the long run.” I poured the water, watching the black leaves swirl and uncurl in each cup by turns. “In any case, all I could say would be my opinion, and you don‟t need my thoughts muddling up your healing process.” “I understand that, but I have nothing to go on.” Christine sat at my table, taking the very place her Vicomte had occupied. “I‟m confused about so much. You say you taught me to sing and that I‟m in love with Raoul. Well, I don‟t feel much in touch with either idea.” “That is because you can‟t remember, not because it isn‟t true.” I placed her cup before her, taking the opposite seat. “I did teach you to sing. You were the diva in this opera.” I ignored her surprised gasp and went on. “You planned to run away with your Vicomte. If that isn‟t love, then what is?” “I was the diva here?” Christine stared at me. “You have to be joking with me monsieur.” Her eyes held more than amazement. I got the distinct impression Raoul had underplayed her triumph in the opera. The thought made me crazy with anger. Of course he would want to minimize anything that threatened to take her out of his control. I gripped my cup in a spasm of hatred. I might yet kill the boy. “I am not joking,” I assured. “Your voice brought the house down and made grown men weep.” I stared into my tea. “No one has ever sung the role of Marguerite like you.” I lifted my mask a bit to drink, feeling I would somehow have to stop my throat from closing up. I hadn‟t intended to actually join her at tea. “You have a flawless instrument Christine. We must make you remember that again if we do not make headway in any other respect.” “But if I was to marry Raoul, surely my career would have ended,” Christine murmured, her eyes on the table. “If you cared about my voice that would have upset you.” “It did!” I shouted, stood up so fast I almost knocked over my cup. Christine shrank back in her chair, her eyes wide. I clenched the table, forcing control. Sitting down again, I took several deep breaths. “It did upset me,” I continued calmly. “I molded you into a singer without compare. I hated the knowledge that it would all go to ruin over a silly little soldier boy of noble birth. But it was what you claimed to want; I could not deny you what you wanted.” “What do you mean?” Christine eyed me hard, her hand trembling on her cup. “If we weren‟t lovers you were never in the position to deny me anything, ever. You speak as if you owned me.” “I did.” My stomach clenched to think about it. I had ruled her life from sun up to sun down for nearly an entire year. “You were frightened of my temper, which prompted you to obey my wishes no matter how disagreeable.” “Yet you apparently aren‟t thinking of owning me now.” Christine looked away briefly, but reluctantly her eyes slid back to me. “What changed?” “My perception changed.” I leaned back, balancing the chair on two legs. “You might say I had an epiphany. Once I understood that I couldn‟t own you I was able to let you run off with the illustrious Raoul DeChagny.” “Yes, Raoul.” Christine shifted. “He left me here with you. That isn‟t exactly fiancé behavior, is it? One doesn‟t leave their betrothed with another man.” “He didn‟t have a choice.” I smiled to myself. “Once he brought you I wouldn‟t let him take you back, and I refused to let him stay.” I waved my hand, feigning a casualness I didn‟t really feel. “But he had no cause to worry over you here, only his own skin was in danger.” Christine blushed, clamping her eyes to the table again. “That hardly makes me feel better monsieur, to know Raoul left for fear of his own hide. What would you have done, killed him?” She made a frustrated noise, shaking her head. “It‟s a distinct possibility.” I chuckled. “I‟m really quite able to kill anyone I want to; I have no moral objection to murder.” Christine looked to me swiftly, her blush turning white. Sudden fear made her unable to let loose of her cup even though she slopped hot tea all over her hand. Saying nothing, she nonetheless spoke volumes with her tense stance and hunched shoulders. Again I let loose an inward sigh. I‟d frightened her again. I hadn‟t meant to, but it seemed to be common between us. “Christine, you have to get used to me,” I murmured. “Your nerves won‟t withstand a constant assault, I know from experience.” “My experience or your own?” Christine asked suddenly, biting her lip. “From watching you here the last six months,” I clarified softly. “If you were yourself you‟d know the truth of my harmlessness for you. I couldn‟t even hurt you when you-” I stopped myself from blurting out the pain, rising with effort. “Never mind. Don‟t bother about the dishes my dear, just leave them.” I walked out, desperate to look at anything but her beauty and her innocent eyes. ******************** I felt like an insect caught in a spider‟s web. For a while I just sat in the kitchen. The warmth of the stove helped combat the shivers going up and down my spine. I drank cup after cup of tea, feeling my nerves heighten even further. The house held nothing but silence. It scared me to be sequestered with someone who confessed to having no morals about murder. I had no reason to believe I had special dispensation, no matter what the maestro claimed. He didn‟t seem dangerous in a violent way toward me, but he did seem dangerous overall. Who knew what might set the man off? Who was he? I was dying to know. What I would give to have Raoul to rake over the coals. The man had left me here with someone whose energy felt like scalding steam. Could I have been in love with him as well as Raoul? I felt drawn to him in some strange way, but he frightened me too much to even consider him as a mate. Some terrible thing had happened here, it was becoming very clear. Whatever had transpired between the maestro and me had been utterly serious. He looked at me sadly, when he looked at me at all. His supernal voice flitted between pain and anger and calm indifference when he spoke to me. “Christine.” I jumped at the sound of my name coming from so close and so richly spoken. The maestro sat opposite me again. I looked into his tawny eyes with alarm. I hadn‟t heard him enter, or seen him sit in front of me. He would have had to pass me to get to the table too, which meant he‟d been inches from my body. He sat as if he‟d been there for quite awhile. “All that tea is going to wreck your nerves my dear,” he said, taking the cup from my hand so lightly he didn‟t even touch me. “And it isn‟t good for your throat either,” he continued placidly. “I am still your voice instructor; I shall continue to act as one.” “What good is my voice if I can‟t remember your lessons?” I asked coolly, perturbed at having him make my decisions for me. “It isn‟t as if I‟ll get to use your knowledge when I marry Raoul.” He flinched. Drawing back, the maestro folded his long arms over his chest. “Even if you only sing for that boy,” he said with an acerbic twist, “or for some church choir, you will be the best. I refuse to let you ruin your voice while you live here.” He shifted, lowering his eyes to stare at me solemnly. “Of course I can do nothing after your precious Vicomte takes you home with him,” he added quietly. “I question if you will even want to sing after you bond with him in high society.” His words took me aback. I hadn‟t even considered Raoul‟s class. “His nobility wasn‟t a problem while we were children, why would it be one now?” I asked hotly, feeling myself turn red. “You aren‟t children anymore.” The maestro seemed to smile, but I couldn‟t tell of course. “DeChagny is gentry; he is expected to marry a woman of noble birth.” He chuckled lightly. “You have more nobility than any, yet your blood is not blue. It will be difficult to find friends or acceptance in your fiancé‟s circles.” “It doesn‟t matter,” I declared flatly. “Love overcomes such criteria.” “Love should conquer all but it doesn‟t, get used to it.” The maestro sighed. A ripple of his nearly indifferent sadness struck me like a wave. “I am not trying to depress you my dear,” he went on softly, “but I don‟t think you should overlook the problems you‟re going to have.” “Right.” I tapped my fingernails on the table, suddenly very irate. Why on earth did he have to point something like this out? Did he take joy in making me uncomfortable? Who was he to bring up this topic? Pointedly, who was he anyway? I didn‟t even know his name and he hadn‟t volunteered it either. “What is your name monsieur?” I asked a bit sharply. “Erik.” He blinked his tawny eyes at me, unhesitating in his answer. “So you are Scandinavian like me?” “I don‟t know.” Erik chuckled again. “You asked me that the first time I told you my name, how quaint. The next thing was an inquiry on my last name, so I‟ll tell you now I don‟t have one. I‟m just Erik.” He put his hands on the table. I noticed with a small shock how long, supple, and white his fingers were. The cords and veins stood out on him like a DaVinci sculpture. I could not take my eyes away from their beauty. I had never seen hands like this. “What is it?” he asked as I sat and stared. “You have beautiful hands,” I replied without thinking. As soon as the words left my mouth I tensed. I hadn‟t meant to say anything like that to the man. He was frightening and unstable, it was best for me not to comment on him at all. He met my eyes and captured them; I could not look away. My insides quivered in rebellion and panic. He could see my every thought and I could not hide from him. “I don‟t think you‟ve said that before,” he said quietly. “Actually, I‟m certain of that.” A sudden pain hit the back of my eyes. In my mind I could see another image of Erik, dressed in a long black cloak and fedora. I was looking down at him from the back of a large white horse. He held out his gloved hand and I took it without hesitation… I snapped back to the present with a hard jerk. Erik stared at me with knowing eyes. Another pain hit me. This time I stood in the Opera‟s Grand Ballroom. A costume party raged all around me. People jostled me to and fro as I focused on a faraway splotch of dark red amongst the gaudy colors swirling all around. The figure of Death came down the staircase and I knew it was Erik. The rich red velvet and shining gold of his coat and the magnificent size of his hat did nothing to hide his eerie, graceful glide down the Grand Staircase. People parted from his path like butterflies in a sudden windstorm, terrified that his grinning skull would turn and look at them. Reaching out, he ripped a necklace from my throat, brandishing it before my astonished eyes. “Your chains are still mine,” he whispered cuttingly. I stared into the maelstrom of his swirling yellow eyes, terrified he would- I stood up with a cry, my hand at my neck. Erik stood with me, his breath shattering the descended silence. I kept feeling for what was missing. “You beast,” I cried angrily, “Where is my necklace?” Erik started to laugh. “The chain was probably picked up by some greedy raven months ago,” he wheezed. “As for the little bauble it held, it now rests on your finger.” Humor obvious, he reached across the table and snatched my hand. His touch felt like ice. Presenting my own hand before my eyes, he met my cornered gaze. “You wore it on a chain then, so I wouldn‟t know your little champion gave it to you,” he laughed again. “From your expression I deduce you just remembered the masquerade. What a terrible memory to start with.” He dropped my hand, sitting back down. “How can you laugh?” I remained standing, too furious to even think about sitting still. “You scared me to death!” “I meant to,” Erik returned softly, his voice deadly earnest. “I meant to make you frightened. I was enraged at the sight of you wearing the Vicomte‟s engagement ring. You lied to me. You said he was nothing more than an old playmate.” “I am not a deceitful person,” I protested hotly. A creeping sense of being wrong stole into my brain. But I wasn‟t a liar! I never lied. “You aren‟t?” Erik tilted his head back. “I must bring out the worst in you then. That would be fitting since you seem to do the same to me.” “I can‟t believe I would ever deliberately lie for any reason,” I said stubbornly, holding onto my convictions despite my unease. He could not see my indecision; I would not let him see it. Erik nodded, as if thinking my claim over. “I probably translated a lot of your vacillating incorrectly, since I‟m nearly without social graces,” he conceded. “However, you have deliberately lied to me more than once.” “Over what?” I demanded. “Over DeChagny of course,” Erik said gently. “And it was understandable; you only wished to protect him from my wrath. I did so want him dead and out of my way.” “You would have killed a man to keep me?” I whispered, horrified. “I would have killed all of Paris to keep you my dear.” Erik‟s voice lowered to a sweet timbre. “I would have killed until the streets ran crimson.” My head swam with his words. Knees shaking, I let myself fall into the chair rather than collapse before his eyes. He kept my eyes and in moments I was lost in two swirling pools of molten gold. I felt hot, burning up, yet I shivered and shook as if I stood in the freezing cold. Every nerve in my body vibrated and buzzed. Time seemed to liquefy and slow. In fear I tore my eyes away from him. “Yet Paris still stands,” I heard myself say. “The streets are as bleached as they have ever been.” “Yes.” Erik agreed distantly. “And your little Vicomte even now prowls the opera, looking for you.” “How do you know?” I felt a stab of terror for Raoul. “Haven‟t you been hearing that little chime?” Erik tilted his head. “Listen,” he said gently. I heard the sound he referred to, feeling outside myself with nameless dread. “What of it?” I asked, the words rushing out of me in a breathless exhale. “That chime is hooked up to your old dressing room. Its how I knew you wanted to talk to me. I arranged it so the mirror relayed a signal to me.” Erik propped his chin in his hands, looking at me with eyes gone soft. “I spoke to you behind your mirror for months before you knew I was flesh and blood. You would come in and touch the glass…” He trailed off in a dreamy tone. “And Raoul is attempting to get here through the mirror,” I concluded aloud. “He remembers how I snatched you through it right in front of him. He won‟t find the trigger,” Erik added confidently. “He ought to know better than to try and force his way down here. The last time nearly proved his death.” “You aren‟t going to hurt him, are you?” I was suddenly filled with horror for Raoul‟s sake. “No, it would break your heart if I did.” Erik eyed me with gimlet, golden eyes. I began to feel even more confused than before. The passion in Erik‟s voice as he confessed to wanting to murder people for my sake and his current words lay distinctly at odds. I felt like crying and I didn‟t know exactly why. I felt like I‟d lost something very significant. “Erik,” I whispered brokenly, “Tell me, what did you hope to gain by keeping me here?” I held out my hands. “I can‟t believe you would talk to me with such feeling over voice lessons.” “What did I hope to gain?” Erik made a small noise. Putting his hands behind his back, he gazed at me intently. “What do you think? Make an intuitive leap my dear, and try to imagine what I would gain.” “A singer? A servant?” I stood again, my nerves twitching. “A lover? I don‟t know!” I thought I would burst from this stony unknown, this silent menace that hung in the air between us. He was telling me everything and nothing, and I wasn‟t even able to know how much he was leaving off. “I never wanted a servant,” Erik murmured. “We weren‟t doing anything down here but going through scales and exercises. Except of course for the time you ripped my mask off as I sat at the pipe organ. I can safely say that was something of significance.” A tremor ran through his body, but his voice remained perfectly even. “The latter option of lover became quite obsolete after that.” “Why?” My heart began to beat sluggishly in my chest. I had been wondering about the mask but too afraid to venture a question. “You want to see?” Erik asked tonelessly, putting his hand up to his face. “You‟ve seen it all before. I have a hard time accepting you won‟t remember it.” Before I could protest, Erik took off his mask. I could only stand and gape at the perfect horror of his face. He had the visage of a skull. Only thin skin stretched tightly over his bones. I could see the blue rivers of his veins pulsing underneath this skin. I knew of no malady that could achieve something like this. This was like a deliberate act of cruelty by God. His topaz eyes stared at me. I looked deeply into them, forgetting to look anywhere else. Suddenly the mask was back on. Erik swept back an unruly lock of black hair with a casual flick of his hand. “I have to say, you reacted rather badly the first time,” he said softly. “How strange you didn‟t this time.” I could think of nothing to say. I didn‟t know how I had reacted the first time. I really didn‟t even know how I‟d reacted this time. I found his eyes again, noticing he did not seem to want to look at me. He appeared weary. “Ah well, it was better to get that out of the way quickly,” Erik murmured. “At least I don‟t have that hanging over me now.” Still unable to say anything, I simply sat. My God, to hear his voice and see his face…the two did not match. I wondered if I was the only person who‟d ever seen his face, for he would certainly not walk about unmasked. He‟d scare children. He‟d scare grown men. His ruin was simply beyond the pale. “Are you alright my dear?” Erik asked, his voice a soft caress. I felt a jolt of pleasure at the way his inflection opened for me. His tone seemed deliberately warm, and my body liked it. I was horrified. Tearing my attention from his mask, I met his look. “I suppose. I wasn‟t expecting to see you.” I tried to smile and failed utterly. “You weren‟t expecting see such ugliness you mean.” Erik‟s tone further stoked my inner fire, though his words left me cold. “It had to be done, I‟m sorry. I could have saved us a lot of misery if only I‟d done that to begin with. Only good can come of my being honest straightaway.” “Your face doesn‟t make who you are,” I said in a soft tone. I felt sorry for Erik. He couldn‟t have had a normal life at all. “If you have the ability to turn me into a diva and build this house you must be a remarkable person.” I paused, trying to think of something conciliatory without it sounding like condescension. “If you want to know, there‟s no such thing as normal,” I said finally, hoping it would do. This was very awkward and I was not on firm ground to begin with. “The loss of two years has changed you Christine.” Erik did not say it mockingly, but sadly. “This opinion is a new one to me. You were very concerned with everything being normal when I knew you before.” “What changed me?” I stood up and began to pace. I felt supremely frustrated, sad, and uncertain of myself. “What happened to me?” Erik turned his head. “I happened,” he answered. “You shied away from the darkness here, and the darkness within me.” He closed his eyes. “You are a creature of the sun,” he sighed. “I have all the lamps up for you right now. If you were not here this house would be swathed in a thick blanket of night, a few candles scattered here and there for stars.” “Then let it be that way now,” I said, hypnotized by the loving way he described the darkness. “I don‟t mind the night, I never have.” Erik laughed very softly, looking at me. “Yes my dear, you have minded.” I felt desperate to regain some control over our interaction. This landslide had to stop soon. “This is your home Erik, it should be the way you want it.” I wanted to see if he was right, to observe him the way he preferred. I wanted him to feel at ease and I didn‟t understand why. He certainly didn‟t put me at ease. “All this light hurts my eyes anyhow,” I added. “I‟m still tender from the carriage wreck.” In an instant Erik was up and snuffing the gaslights. “Why didn‟t you mention it?” he chided softly, leaving a single light burning in the back of the room. “I wouldn‟t want you to be uncomfortable. Perhaps I should examine your injury.” “If you like, but Raoul‟s doctors kept saying the same thing. I have a concussion, but a mild one. It isn‟t dangerous for me to sleep anyway.” I leaned on the wall, suddenly very tired. “I am expected to heal, at least physically.” “You will heal mentally as well, I will see to that.” Erik brought himself and a candle to the doorway. “Come with me into the parlor,” he bade. “Relax near the fire and calm yourself. You‟ve had a very full hour with me; most people can‟t stand me nearly that long.” I let him lead me down the hallway. He put out lights as he went, pausing to counter the blackness with a random candle or two. The soft fire felt much better on my sore eyes. By the time we came into the sitting room my headache had improved greatly. A part of me admired the shape of Erik‟s shadow. I watched his image leap and dance on the far wall as I seated myself on the couch. His shoulders looked very broad. I looked at his real image, measuring him with my mind. Turned away and busy as he was, he didn‟t see me examining him. I judged him to be more than six and a half feet tall. His body stood in slender proportion to his height. Those broad shoulders that I kept noticing tapered off into a trim waist and narrow hips. His legs looked well muscled through the perfect cut of his trousers. His arms looked long and strong. Erik caught me looking at him in the last possible second. Tilting his head, he crossed his arms. “What?” he asked; guarded wariness in his tone. I wondered if I ought to tell him the truth. He had been telling me nothing but brutal honesty all evening long; surely I could return the courtesy. “You move about like a dancer,” I said, settling for a less revealing truth. “Do you have formal training?” “No.” Erik gave a short laugh. “No, I‟ve never received instruction.” He chuckled again, shaking his head as if greatly amused. “Why is that funny?” I murmured. “I think you know where your every step is going to land.” “Hm.” Erik sat across from me in the loveseat, stretching his long limbs out over the sides. He more unfurled than anything, and I caught myself liking the display. “I generally know where I‟m going to step, this is true. I wasn‟t aware it was good for anything but silence.” “You‟d be wonderful,” I replied, not able to let the subject drop. This was as close to civil, normal speech as we‟d come. Perhaps I did treasure the normal things, like he claimed. “My head tells me it was only a short time ago Madam Giry was looking for a male dancer who could perform a tango adequately, but I suppose that really was years ago.” “Yes Christine, it was a long time ago.” Erik shook his head. “I don‟t think people want a masked man on stage either, as ludicrous as it sounds. I think I would eventually slip up and strangle someone who continually stepped on my toes too. And anyway, tango would please La Carlotta, and I am loathe to please her in anything.” “She is an odious woman,” I agreed, thinking of how she‟d been rude to me when I came into the opera for auditions. She hadn‟t even been part of the casting, she was a diva, but her opinion had figured heavily over the course of the day. “She seems not to like me and I never did a thing to her.” “You are young and beautiful Christine, it is enough to make you bitter enemies,” Erik replied softly. “Compounding youth and beauty you have talent. People like Carlotta hate for others to shine their light, they fear being shadowed.” “She must not have taken my diva status well,” I thought aloud. “Oh, she hated you for your abilities,” Erik seemed to smile. “She did everything she could to hold you back, and those idiot managers obeyed her every whim.” He looked up at the ceiling. “How I longed to see you slap her. Your breeding was too good to allow such uncouth behavior. I never so much as heard you curse at her, in public or private.” “Cursing doesn‟t help anything, and neither does brutality,” I retorted, somewhat pleased I‟d at least adhered to this small standard over the years. This was the first clue that I‟d been anything like what I ought to be. “I don‟t agree,” Erik said, lifting his head from the couch. “I think you‟d enjoy a good fight. I think it would be very healthy for you.” “You‟re entitled to your opinion,” I sniffed. “I won‟t have a gutter mouth and I won‟t hurt anyone if I can help it.” “Some people need hurting to keep them from acting foolishly,” Erik corrected, chuckling again. “And sometimes it does help if you scream out a good, colorful word or two.” “I don‟t even know any bad words,” I said archly. “I wouldn‟t know how to use them.” “Oh come off it Christine, you know a few hair-curling words by now.” Erik laughed gently. “I dare you to say one.” His manner was nothing but a challenge. “I don‟t have a reason to.” I would be firm about this stance. I had always found cursing to be abhorrent and he would not goad me into it. “Sure you do.” Erik sat up, leaning his elbows on his knees. “Try this one sentence. Say, „I wish that horrible Carlotta would go to hell.‟” The persuasion dripped from his tone and I knew he was smiling. I returned his smile despite myself. “I wish that horrible Carlotta would go to hell,” I repeated almost at a whisper. “You see? It‟s easier with a warm subject.” Erik relaxed back into the cushions. “How about something more vicious? Say, „I wish that damned third row cellist, M. Fredan would choke on his bow.‟” I giggled. Fredan bothered even my inexperienced ears. “He is awful, isn‟t he?” “He‟s terrible. It‟s his genuine love for music that keeps me from ridding the world of him.” Erik snickered. “Reyer has my respect for persistence with the man, and he seems to want to try new things, so I can‟t complain about him very much. I wish he would take the strings out of Fredan‟s cello though.” “I found M. Reyer to be a little impatient,” I ventured. “He told me not to move like a dying swan.” “That‟s ridiculous, you don‟t move like a dying swan.” Erik snorted. “Reyer isn‟t a judge of dance anyway, he simply conducts the orchestra.” “I must have listened to him though, for I eventually stopped dancing.” I felt saddened by this. “I have always liked to dance, I don‟t understand it.” “Then pick it up as if you never left it,” Erik suggested. “For all it seems to you, you haven‟t. Why not take advantage of that?” “I need music to dance to,” I argued. “And it couldn‟t be anything strenuous.” “I will play for you whatever you like,” Erik offered kindly, his eyes gleaming behind his mask. “If not now, whenever you feel like it.” I smiled and nodded. It was strange, but I suddenly felt more comfortable with Erik. Of course I could attribute that to conversing on something more familiar to me, but somehow I didn‟t agree with that all the way. I couldn‟t quite drop the awful shock of his face however, but the mask helped me to forget. “Is it possible for us to be friends Erik?” I asked softly. “I see that a lot has happened between us, and I‟m sure there is much more, but is it possible?” Erik‟s hands convulsed. A tremor ran through his body in a short, violent burst. Inhaling sharply, he closed his eyes. In a moment he released his breath, looking at me. Heat burned in his eyes. “For you, Christine,” Erik murmured, “Anything is possible.” I felt myself blush as we stared at each other. For what seemed like an eternity he held me with his eyes. Finally, he released me with a blink. Turning his head, Erik sighed. “Of course we can be friends,” he whispered. “It would please me to be your friend.” My heart constricted. I had hurt Erik. I wondered how my friendship could hurt. If we had never been lovers, where was the harm in trying to be friends? I winced as the obvious conclusion struck me. If Erik had been in love with me my friendship would serve as a constant reminder we could never be anything more. And why couldn‟t you? A little voice whispered. There isn‟t anything wrong with his body. Flushed, I burrowed farther into the couch and looked down. Something had to be wrong with me; I didn‟t think things like that. I was supposed to be in love with Raoul for goodness sakes. And Raoul left you here. Isn‟t that strange? The little voice seemed to mock me now. Erik might be ugly and scary, but isn‟t he exciting? Telling the voice to shut up, I simply stared into the fire. [i]My dearest Madam Giry, A certain mutual friend has recently fallen into difficult times. Perhaps you already know of the carriage accident? Her guardian has entrusted our friend into my care. When the time is fortuitous, may I count on you paying her a visit? Leave your reply in Box Five. Ever your servant, O.G.[\i] Madam Giry carefully folded her letter, a smile edging out onto her normally stern countenance. Picking up a pen, she hastily wrote the word yes onto a piece of paper and began walking to Box Five. After an awkward evening in the living room, in which Erik and I tried desperately not to look at one another, I went to bed. I heard him puttering around for several hours before the sound of his front door shutting came to my ears. I sat up, listening hard. Nothing. Unsettled, I tried to go back to sleep. No matter what I did I could not seem to relax. I tossed and turned endlessly. Finally, I heard Erik return and fell deeply into a coma-like sleep. Beautiful violin music greeted my ears first thing upon awakening. I had no clock in my room and no sunlight to judge by, but I thought it must be early morning. The melody wrapped around my ears soothingly though the open door as I stood before the closet. I noted Erik was a fine player. The tune he played had a rich complexity. I ran my hand over a blue velvet day dress, comparing the smooth knap and the smooth music. A flash of white caught my eye near the back of the closet. My fingers closed on slippery satin. It was a wedding gown. My breath caught as I drew it out. I‟d never seen anything so fine in my life. Laying it out on the bed, I drew the folds flat and stared at it. Heavy, ivory satin made the first layer, satin so smooth and expensive it caught every rough piece of skin on my hands. The piece laced like a corset in the back, with whalebone reinforcements and flat, slick ribbon ties. The neckline plunged deeply, but not indecently. The entire torso of the gown boasted pearls in the beadwork, thousands of them. The overlay of gauze that followed the train had sparkling stones in it. Upon looking closer I felt my breath escape in a whoosh of astonishment. The sparkling stones were diamonds. I found the veil to be similarly bejeweled. The dress was a masterpiece and a fortune in one. With shaking hands, I put the dress back in the closet. Grabbing the first dress I saw, I took it with me to the bathroom. I had yet to go in there, and I half dreaded what I would find. If I could find a wedding gown fit for a princess in my own closet, imagine what decadence my bathroom held! All this was mine? My bathing chamber was all white marble. The freestanding tub, also of white marble, sat upon a Japanese red and white rug. My sink‟s spout came out of the wall instead of the sink itself. A low divan made for dressing sat nearby. Near the tub was a gas fireplace. After several attempts with the matches, I lit the fire. The squeak of the tub taps told me I hadn‟t used this bathroom for a while. The small detail shook me to my core. It had been just an idle observation but it only rammed home the point that I stood in my bathroom. I couldn‟t remember a bit of it, but evidence of me lay everywhere. A low shelf held the types of perfumes I liked. A robe very much to my taste hung on a nearby hook. A hairbrush with my own hairs in it lay precariously on the edge of the sink. My favorite lemon verbena soap lay melting under a steady leak. I wrenched the taps shut, knowing I had been the careless one to leave them loose to drip. Catching sight of myself in the mirror, I looked into my own eyes with dismay. Why couldn‟t I remember any of this? The question haunted me. Until meeting Erik I hadn‟t been very worried about my two-year memory gap. Steadily, I had come to realize I wasn‟t missing simple dancing and singing lessons. I was missing a giant, significant chunk of Erik. My bedroom and bath stood as a testament to something deeply personal. I couldn‟t have afforded anything in either room. Erik must have purchased everything for me, and he‟d spent a fortune on two rooms of his house just for me. We hadn‟t been lovers? I couldn‟t accept that anymore. The dress alone was reason enough to suspect him. I got in the tub, forcing my muscles to relax. The heat, the dim light, the faraway music, it all flowed through me. Gradually, I could stop forcing the lassitude and it came on its own. A thought came to mind as I lay there. You could check. I shied away from the idea at once, yet I couldn‟t drop it entirely. If I hadn‟t been Erik‟s lover my barrier would still be in place. But, I had never felt for it to begin with, how was I to know if I encountered the thing? You‟ll know. Slowly, I slid my hand down my body. Fumbling past the tesseracts of flesh, I extended a finger. The inside of my body seemed alien to me. The smooth, curved tunnel that clenched around my finger felt hot and slick. Probing deeper, I encountered resistance and the slightest feeling of pressure inside. Relieved, I pulled out. I was still a virgin. Erik had bought me expensive things, set rooms aside for me, but I remained intact; which meant he‟d been in the act of wooing me, not keeping me. “Your beauty is like a knife in my heart.” Erik had tried for my love and lost to Raoul. Had I chosen well? I finished washing and simply lay there to think about that question. I could believe I‟d fallen in love with Raoul; he was handsome and gallant. It made me smile to remember how he‟d ruined his clothes rescuing the scarf my papa had given me. Even as a boy he‟d doted on me. But people do grow up. I frowned, thinking of the blur of the last three weeks. While Raoul had spared no expense in employing physicians for me, he‟d also smothered me like a mother hen. I hadn‟t been able to take a step without him right behind me. At first I‟d thought Raoul‟s attention to be chivalry. Raoul had always been very attentive to me, so it hadn‟t stretched my mind in the beginning days of our re- acquaintance. After five days of being followed from place to place and only being freed to use the toilet, I‟d been seriously irritated. I hadn‟t voiced my ire though, for fear of hurting his feelings. After all, he was only being solicitous because he cared, I would be rude to assert myself. Now that I‟d had a day away from my fiancé, I felt more distant about his motives. It had been as if he thought I would vanish the second he let me out of his sight. His eyes had darted back and forth whenever I‟d neared a window. He‟d slept in a chair at my bedside with his back to a wall. When a servant would come in he‟d jump like a wind up toy. Perhaps he‟d thought the maestro would come for me. I could well believe Erik was not a gracious loser. Aside from that, I would have to be blind and deaf to not notice how well Erik paid attention to me. Erik watched me, heard me, and hardly ever took his eyes from me when we spoke. I had his undivided attention. I knew from his own lips he‟d have killed to keep me with him. He‟d wanted to kill Raoul. He was obsessed with me. Raoul had to know these things if I knew them. Yet here I was at Erik‟s mercy, and by Raoul‟s own design. “I was spying on you, stalking you.” I shivered, reaching down to pull the plug. The water drained out with a gurgle and a sigh. I pulled a towel off the rack and threw it around my shoulders. “The only reason he would ever, ever bring you back to me is if he was a desperate man.” Still shivering, I threaded myself into the blue dress. “I was enraged at the sight of you wearing the Vicomte’s engagement ring. I molded you into a singer without compare. I hated the knowledge that it would all go to ruin over a silly little soldier boy of noble birth.” Upon reentering my bedroom, I sat down at the little writing desk in the corner. My fingers slid across the onionskin parchment and linen foolscap pages as my mind slid over Erik‟s plain truths. The man spared no one when he spoke his mind, not even himself. “We were not lovers, though not because I did not make the effort.” I jerked at the thought of him courting me. He was intense. I could only imagine how he pitched woo. He‟d used his voice to entice me, he‟d admitted to controlling me with it. The thought made me angry and curious at the same time. Erik said he‟d never sing to me again, surely that said it all. I had to be grateful for his generosity, for just listening to him speak made me weak in the knees. I had to admit I found him compelling. His hideous face though… I wondered what it was like to go through life so ugly. I had been a pretty child and I had grown to be a fairly good-looking woman. I hadn‟t really known a moment‟s awkwardness in my life. I‟d danced through the years most girls were stumbling over their own feet, and I had never gotten a bad complexion. I still had all my teeth, which were very white, and my hair gleamed with health. Knowing I had no reason to be ashamed for my fortune, I nonetheless felt bad thinking about Erik. With that face he would have been unable to lead a normal life. The mask kept everyone from running in fear or disgust. It was only the sudden shock of confronting his ugliness that had kept me still. If I‟d had only a moment more time to prepare, I might have even fainted. I might have almost fainted afterward, had it not been for the sound of his voice. It staggered my mind to think about having to hide like that all the time. Erik had never been able to walk free with the sun on his face, or feel the wind and rain hit his eyelids. He‟d probably hidden in shadows his entire life; it would explain his unconventional home. I wondered if anyone had ever touched his face in love. ************************** Just when I thought she would never come out, Christine emerged from her doorway. Halting mid-stride, she looked at me. Careful yet guarded interest flitted across her face. I soaked in the sight of her with greedy eyes. Wearing the rich sapphire dress made her blue eyes burn and her blonde hair glimmer. She smelled of her favorite soap and of fear. I tried to ignore the scent of her unease, but I couldn‟t banish it from my mind. I studied her, making her keep contact with my eyes. Christine‟s pupils dilated, her lips parting in a silent inhale that moved her breasts. Her fear was different now. I wondered if a random memory had surfaced as she slept, or if she‟d come to an epiphany in the tub. Regardless, she now understood why I would never hurt her. The evidence of my infatuation lay everywhere in her chambers; I never intended to deny it, but I mourned the lost chance to talk to her without this knowledge. Now she would close up like a clam. But I could get around her. If nothing else I could try to have her trust again, which meant worlds to me. Christine had entrusted faith in me that would not have been given to a knight of the round table. Though I had nearly driven us both mad, I had not violated the skeleton of her conviction; I had remained her angel. To have that again would make me die a happy man. “Did you sleep well?” I asked politely. She trembled at the sound of me. “Very well, thank you Erik,” Christine murmured. “I heard you go out and come back though.” I smiled at her subtle probe. “I went to deliver a letter. Perhaps you would like to go out today?” She had always loved for me to offer going out. “No, I want to stay inside today,” Christine answered somewhat distantly. “I have a lot to think about and I don‟t feel like doing it in public.” “I imagine you do,” I replied, stretching out my legs. “Have you remembered anything else?” “No.” Christine‟s eyes slid away. “But I have made some observations.” I sat up straighter. “What have you observed?” Christine squared her eyes upon me. “You‟ve spent a lot of money on me,” she announced. “So I have.” I‟d spent a fortune on her already. I‟d spend six more if she wanted it. “And you‟re obsessed with me.” Christine brought her brows together in a wrinkle of worry. “I‟m getting better,” I defended lightly. “You can‟t expect me to change overnight.” “I‟m not attacking you.” Christine frowned again. “I‟m finding my place in this book we‟ve written together.” “Very well put.” I stood up. “Have you made any other observations?” “Yes. With what you‟ve told me about yourself I shouldn‟t trust you, but I do.” She worried at her lip with her teeth as she spoke. “And why is that?” I felt myself growing tense as I waited for her reply. “I can feel you want what‟s best for me. I‟ve felt the feeling before, with my father.” Christine tilted her head, her eyes growing thoughtful. “But you aren‟t assuming a father role at all, it‟s something deeper.” Again she stopped, her eyes retreating even farther. “Did I know this before now?” “I‟m not sure,” I managed to answer. “I was never certain.” This was the truth. I had never been privy to her inner workings, not even to knowing how she felt about me. Sometimes she‟d seemed quite warm to me, and other times quite distant. Always there had been a tinge of pity in her warmth though, pity I neither wanted nor tried to do anything about. If sympathy was all the feeling I could ever get from her now it would break my heart twice over. “If I had known, you would have known.” Christine shook her head slowly. “Raoul must know that too or I wouldn‟t be here, because this is all highly irregular.” “It‟s possible. Your boy isn‟t as stupid as I paint him to be.” I gestured for her to sit down on the couch. “Come over here and relax Christine, I‟ve made us tea.” She obeyed me hesitantly, sitting down on the other end from me. I poured her tea from the samovar, laying a freshly cut piece of lemon on her saucer. When I handed it over she brushed her hands across mine. The sensation of her casual caress stirred heat into my veins. With effort I made my own tea and sat back down. Christine made a face as the Russian tea hit her palate. I smiled at this. I hadn‟t expected her to change her mind just because she couldn‟t remember she hated my tea, but it had interested me to experiment on it nonetheless. “What is this?” she asked lightly. Her fingers squeezed the lemon over her cup, her eyes darting back to me. “Please tell me the lemon makes it drinkable.” I laughed quietly. “Probably not for you Christine, you‟ve always hated Russian tea.” I whisked her cup away, replacing it with English tea. “I just wanted to see if you still did.” “Mercy.” Christine swished the substitute tea around her palate before swallowing. “It‟s so bitter Erik; the tannin content is off the scale.” “Well, you don‟t have to drink it anymore.” I smiled, sitting back. “Is there anything else you want to talk about before I begin breakfast?” “Yes.” Christine‟s hands clenched around her cup in a sudden and mysterious spasm. “But I‟m not sure if I want to ruin your good humor.” “My mood moves quite often I‟m afraid; you might as well hope the sun doesn‟t come up.” Balancing my cup on my knee, I folded my hands together and looked at her expectantly. She met my eyes for only a few seconds before casting them down into her tea. “I found a stunning wedding gown in my closet,” Christine murmured. “Have I ever worn it?” Ah, the gown. Closing my eyes, I fought a tremor. How recently she had worn that gown, and how her imagine had been burned into my retinas. No woman ever filled a dress out so well. “Once,” I answered. “I‟m surprised you took the time to put it away.” “You mean to tell me you haven‟t been in that room since I left?” Christine still wouldn‟t look at me, but her tone told me she‟d already come to that conclusion. “That is correct.” I set my tea on the table, reaching forward to also take hers. “Look at me Christine,” I commanded softly. She did as I bade, but her eyes seemed shadowed. Passing a hand over my vest, I drew out her ring. “This is yours as well, but I do not expect you to wear it.” I dropped the shining gold into her hand. “I do not expect you to ever wear the gown again either,” I went on. “You made your choices and I abide by them. I will not take advantage of your lack of memory; you are not to worry about either of these things.” “How can I not worry?” Christine bit her lip. “I trust that you mean exactly what you say, but I can‟t remember anything. The dress seems like the lid on the powder keg, if you‟ll excuse the expression.” “It was the lid on the powder keg,” I answered, seeing a touch of humor to the situation. “But since the Seine has drowned all the gunpowder, you have no need to concern yourself over it.” “I hear words in my head,” Christine answered sharply. “I have no images, just the sound of your voice.” “What words?” “The scorpion or the grasshopper?” Christine eyed me hard. “And the grasshopper jumps jolly high.” “Ah, that would be the moment I asked you to choose,” I said, feeling uneasy. I hadn‟t expected to go over this before she remembered other things. “You‟ll be very angry when you remember that in detail.” Christine scowled, standing up. “I thought you wanted to help me remember.” “I do Christine, but I‟d rather you not remember this before anything else. It‟s like getting to the finish line without running the race at all.” At this Christine began to pace in silence. Several times she stopped as if to say something, but each time she would only shake her head and go on. Finally, she stopped for good, putting her hands on her hips. “Well, I will say this then. It is a beautiful gown.” A lump formed in my throat. “I‟m glad you like it,” I replied, my voice faint. “I did not hear your opinion on it until now.” “I don‟t see how any woman could have let it pass without comment.” Christine smiled faintly. “I won‟t mention it again until I remember, but it will be hard.” “Thank you.” I stood up, shaking off a deep melancholy. It would do neither of us any good if I succumbed to the sadness of my loss. I would think about it when I was alone. The burden of this memory had to be borne only by me for now. “But now I think I should feed you,” I said, glad to move on to something mundane. “I hope you still like pastries for breakfast.” ********************************* I watched him move about the kitchen, fascinated by the ease of his actions. Erik wore informal clothing this morning. The soft white fabric of his billowy shirt and formfitting black pants accentuated his every motion. Again I compared him to a dancer, and again I came to the conclusion he would be a wonder on stage. It was strange, but I could forget about his face entirely while I observed how gracefully he walked or listened to the mellifluous quality of his voice. Without the confrontation of his face I would have never believed he could be ugly underneath that mask. His golden eyes strayed to me several times while he cooked. I did not look away from him, preferring he know I watched him. If he could be honest with me I could be honest with him. “Could I ask you a personal question?” I ventured as he put my plate down before me. His eyes shot to me before he sat down, and I thought I saw him shiver. “Of course Christine,” he answered quietly. “Do you wear your mask even while you are alone?” Erik sighed, as if relieved I had asked him something so easy to clear up. “Yes. I have other masks that inhibit me less,” he went on, “But I do wear one all of the time. I never know who might call on me.” He paused. “It was best for you to see it and know.” I thought about his earlier claim to the same as I ate. The food tasted very good, even better than what I had sampled at Raoul‟s home. The knowledge that Erik had prepared it by his own hands made it taste even better, I thought guiltily. “Do you have an agenda for us today?” I asked as I finished. Erik chuckled. “Feeling exploratory are you?” His words stirred something deep within my body. If only he knew the extent of my explorations. I would have made an answer of some kind, but he continued talking. “I thought I would take you to your old dressing room, it might stir a memory or two.” Erik leaned on the table, eyeing me straight on. “I thought I might be able to convince you of the magic in mirrors, since you seem so unwilling to accept I sang to you through one.” “I just don‟t see how you could,” I admitted. “Mirrors are glass; things I‟ve come to believe are pretty solid.” “The opera ghost does not worry about solid objects,” Erik replied with a slightly nasty chuckle. “You aren‟t a ghost,” I returned evenly. “Oh, but I am Christine, I am.” Erik leaned backward, crossing his arms over his chest. “I‟m very much a ghost when I want to be.” “To what purpose?” I was starting to feel uneasy. I‟d noticed Erik‟s strange ability to swing from one mood extreme to the other in mere seconds; his tone had dropped into a perfidious pitch. “To the purpose of meddling in complete freedom,” Erik chuckled again. “The managers of the opera pay a lot of money to me to ensure the ghost doesn‟t get angry and cause mysterious accidents.” “You‟re blackmailing them?” I felt horrified. “More like extortion,” Erik corrected. “I do have enough information on both of those idiots to blackmail them if I wanted to though. I doubt M. Firmin would want everyone to know of his mistress, or that M. Andre would like for Paris to know he has an incurable venereal disease.” I felt my mouth drop open. Leaning forward, I whispered, “He does?” Erik laughed. “Yes. His habit for ladies of the evening is detrimental to his health. I am pleased to further say that he stopped spreading himself so thin after the doctor told him of his malady‟s meaning.” I shook my head in disgust. “He must be a weak man to go out and pay for his-” I stopped; aware I‟d almost been vulgar. To my surprise, Erik laughed again. “Don‟t make such a hasty judgment my dear, as a woman you are in a position of power. Think about it. Aside from rape, when does any man have the upper hand in satisfying his natural urges?” “I‟ve never thought about it,” I muttered, not liking the topic at all. No one had ever spoken to me of such intimate matters before. I felt embarrassed but oddly curious. “Of course you haven‟t,” Erik agreed. “You haven‟t needed to think about it.” “Why does that sound like an insult?” I snapped. “I mean no insult Christine.” Erik spoke gravely, lowering his head to gaze at me with somber eyes. “What I‟m saying is that women have power over men, and that is really the best way. If they did not have this sexual card to play they would be exploited even more than they are.” “Well I don‟t like the whole business,” I declared, feeling hot. “Men and women should be equal.” This topic was making me squirm inside. “I don‟t think that‟s a good idea either,” Erik countered calmly. “The struggle between the sexes makes both healthier. If we did not challenge one another there would be no growth for either.” “But it‟s a waste of time.” I felt my face heat up. He would not drop the topic and I felt unable to. “You think so?” Erik seemed to smile. “Then why are we talking about it?” At a loss for an answer, I hunched down in my chair. Why indeed? If it really didn‟t mean anything to me I wouldn‟t even want to discuss it, would I? “I see your point,” I acquiesced. “But doesn‟t it all seem very base to you?” “Of course it does, it seems base to anyone who has more between their ears than what lies between their legs.” Erik laughed softly. “Monsieur!” I protested in embarrassment. I felt my face begin to burn in earnest. “Well?” Erik moved his head in the motion of one who is smiling and trying not to. “We might as well speak plainly over it Christine, it figures heavily into our relationship. Don‟t pretend you haven‟t felt it. Your questions let me know how very aware you are. The funny thing is, right now you‟re just as upset over thinking of Raoul as your lover as you are of me.” “That‟s true.” I surprised myself by admitting it. I must have surprised him as well, for he sat back even farther, raking me with his eyes. I shrugged. “Well it is,” I added defensively. “I‟m still thinking of him as a boy. I can‟t imagine him wooing me.” I picked nervously at my napkin. “I‟m not very grown up either Erik, I know this about myself.” “You‟re more grown up than you know,” Erik replied silkily, his voice dropping. “I never thought you were immature. Sometimes you deliberately turned your back to reality, but I don‟t think that should be held against you.” “Then why do you confound me?” I challenged. There, I thought. Try to second-guess me and still give an infernally honest answer! “I‟m rather forceful my dear,” Erik answered softly. “I require a lot in a companion. You will remember just how much.” “I‟m not remembering fast enough.” “Yes you are you‟re just impatient.” I sat back. Raoul never spoke to me this way. I hadn‟t had one serious conversation with him yet that I could recall. Raoul treated me like a child in many ways, and I had been comfortable with that. Now I wasn‟t so sure it was the best for me. Somehow I didn‟t think Erik had ever treated me like a child. Perhaps that was the crux of the matter. Perhaps I had resisted Erik on the grounds of personal comfort. I knew I tended to be lazy about what I wanted, and Raoul would have indulged me most happily. On the other hand, Erik apparently wouldn‟t let me dodge uncomfortable, delicate issues. I couldn‟t help but think about the natural outcomes between childhood and maturity. If Raoul allowed me to remain a child I would have only childish rewards for my behavior. With Erik I would have adult rewards. I didn‟t completely know what adult rewards were, but I had an idea he certainly did. He compelled me to find out every time he opened his mouth. And though I felt fear over him, I also felt a strange pull toward him. “How you look at me,” Erik murmured. “Would be too much to ask what goes on in your pretty little head?” His eyes seemed to shutter in the dim light. I squirmed. He would ask me. Raoul had never yet asked me what I was thinking. “I‟m just trying to come to terms with you,” I answered. “I‟m trying to understand how you knock my defenses down so easily. I haven‟t been here very long and already you‟ve swept away a lot of my convictions.” “I couldn‟t knock your defenses down without your permission.” Erik blinked slowly, looking rather like an owl. “Then I must want you to tear down my walls.” I swallowed hard, fighting a swell of panic. “It doesn‟t make me a very good person to let you take the reins.” Erik stood up suddenly. “Not only are you picking yourself to pieces with more efficiency than I ever did, but you‟re doing it out loud.” He shook his head rapidly, looking from side to side. “It‟s very hard for me to listen to.” His fists clenched before striking his thighs. “I‟m still in the habit of trying to influence your thinking.” “So I shouldn‟t ponder our relationship out loud?” “No, say what you want to say.” Erik ran a hand through his hair. “I will do my damnedest to remain your impartial guide.” Again he sighed. “But bear in mind I have not lost two years.” “I can‟t help but rely on it,” I said sharply. “I‟m depending on you for your honest answers.” “And I will give them, but you may not like them.” Erik‟s eyes seemed to glow for an instant, but the fire banked so quickly I wasn‟t sure. “I may not like a lot of things, but I feel it‟s important for me to know them anyway,” I protested. Erik laughed shortly. “Many do not have such an unswerving view of things.” He turned to the clock, not waiting for my reply. “Shall we pay a visit to your old room, or do you want to wait?” He seemed all impatience now. “We can go now,” I said. “I admit to curiosity.” “You always were inquisitive,” Erik muttered almost to himself. “You should put a cloak on, it is colder going across the lake than by the entrance you and the Vicomte used.” With that he left the kitchen. I made my way back to my closet and found a long cloak. Just as I put it on, a knock came at my door. I opened it as I struggled to work the clasp. Without a word Erik reached forward. In a half second the clasp clicked shut, his nimble fingers making short work of it. “Shall we?” he asked, holding out his arm. Laying my hand on him I looked up. Erik wore solid black now from head to foot. A large brimmed fedora sat at an angle on his head. The image of him overlapped with the memory of him I‟d had yesterday. It was at once very familiar and very unnerving. He looked entirely dangerous now, like a specter. His black mask, cloak, clothes, hat and gloves made him a living shadow. Standing as lone argument against his darkness, his gleaming ocher eyes studied me with quiet reserve. Power radiated from him. I knew I would be terrified to encounter him on the street, or in a dark alley. “I‟m still your angel Christine, no matter how you see me.” His words held a gentle melancholy that I did not understand. “But we may find people in your dressing room, most likely your boy. I usually don‟t have to kill anyone when I simply frighten them off.” “But Raoul won‟t be frightened off,” I pointed out. “He‟s stubborn. And he brought me here in the first place.” “It makes no difference,” Erik said, batting my argument away like a bothersome mosquito. “I can make your Vicomte leave without any effort. I don‟t even have to hurt him to do it.” “You can?” I felt rather dubious of this claim. Erik had a commanding presence to be sure, but some people were immune to commanding presences. “Oh yes,” Erik answered, his voice confident and ominous. “I haven‟t yet met anyone who could fight my powers of persuasion.” “Really?” I raised an eyebrow. “Really.” Erik turned us toward the door. “Have a little faith in me my dear, I promise it is well placed.” ******************************** Taking her out in the boat proved painful. After explaining how she had to get in, I aided her to sit. The sight of her looked so familiar it hurt. How many times had I rowed her in this boat? I didn‟t know. I did know that I never wanted to stop. Her Vicomte would claim her though, and I would have to row alone ever afterwards. Having to go through that truth was no easier the second time. I watched her as I began poling us across. She had always fallen into silence when I took her back and forth over the water, however this time she surprised me. As we reached nearly the middle of the lake, Christine suddenly began humming one of my songs. It wasn‟t a piece I had used against her, just a simple melody I‟d composed one day while she read in the parlor. I had never heard her acknowledge the song in any way. Christine trailed her hand in the black water, her expression dreamy. My heart lurched as she gazed out into the blackness, her eyes covered with a veil of false time. She had slipped into the past. I searched my mind for what had happened the day I‟d composed the song. That had been a light little melody. Christine‟s lesson had gone splendidly that day; I had praised her for her progress. Shortly after the lesson I had taken her home, bidding her to rest before her big debut. Christine was inside one of her most gentle memories of me. To her she was being ferried by her mentor. I was her angel of music. I asked nothing of her she could not give, not yet. “Are you worried about tomorrow?” I asked, testing waters different than what flowed beneath us. “A little Angel, a little,” Christine smiled softly. I remembered this conversation. I had reassured her of her readiness. “You are ready,” I vowed. “So you say, but the flawlessness I hear in your voice makes my own seem rather pale.” I winced, both in remembering and in present pain. “You are beauty,” I whispered. Tears came to my eyes. “You will make the audience weep.” “If you say so Angel,” Christine smiled again. “I can believe anything you say.” “I know my child,” I answered. I could barely see through the water in my eyes. “I am so proud of you, do you know that?” I recited while meaning every line. “I do now.” Christine looked at me, eyes sparkling. “But why are you proud? I can only be as good as you‟ve made me.” “No Christine, your voice is your own, I cannot sing for you. I can only instruct.” I shoved the pole down into the silt with force; we had started to drift. I knew what she would say next. I dreaded what she would say next. “I will sing only for you.” “And I for-” I choked on my line. I could not say it. The pole almost slipped from my hands. With an effort I wrenched it free and propelled us the rest of the way to the embankment. Christine‟s eyes fluttered against my break in continuity. Leaping out onto the bank, I reached for her. A split second elapsed. Christine came to the current moment, amnesia stealing her naturalness. Looking down at my hands, she started to rise. The boat lurched at her forgetful feet. Sweeping in, I caught her about the waist and brought her to shore. Her gasp rent the silence. Turning, I caught the prow of the gondola before it slipped fully back into the water. Giving it a mighty tug, I landed the thing and looked back to her. Christine was weeping. Almost numb with fear for her, I stood and watched as she buried her face in her hands. The sight of her pain had never been easy for me. Reaching out, I stroked the air around her hair. She felt it, looking at me with mystified pain. “I‟ve lost something Erik,” she whispered. “What?” I feared her answer. “My ring.” Christine held up her hand. Raoul‟s engagement ring was gone. My heart sank. “You must have dropped it in the water,” I said, thinking of when she began trailing her fingers in the lake. Slowly, I began to peel off my cloak and hat. “What are you doing?” Christine asked fearfully. “I‟m going to find it,” I answered, clenching my teeth. “We can‟t have that stupid boy wondering where it is, can we?” I felt close to a fit now. She had lost my ring too, but I had found it. It seemed she was doomed to lose tokens of affection and I was further doomed to find them. “What‟s wrong with the boy, can he not even buy you a ring that fits?” Christine had no answer, and I felt grateful for her silence. Taking a last look at her, I dove into the lake. The water felt like ice, but it always did. I had swum the lake many times and for many reasons, but I never thought I would be swimming it to get the Vicomte‟s property. Doubly damning was the idea that as long as she didn‟t wear his ring, she didn‟t belong to him. I should have celebrated the victory as a sign from the gods and just taken her. Getting out to the point I estimated as the scene, I dove straight down. Again and again I felt the sticky silt at the bottom of the lake, coming up for air as I needed it. Finally, my fingers brushed something solid. Grasping the hateful, gaudy band, I broke the surface and swam back. Christine edged away from me slightly as I climbed ashore. Holding up her ring, I brandished it before her widening eyes. “Would you like me to put it on a chain for you?” I asked, not able to stop myself. “I promise not to rip it off.” Christine snatched the jewelry. “I didn‟t make you go out there,” she said in an equally biting tone. “I would have been able to explain to him.” “I rather doubt it,” I commented dryly. “The loss of that ring as good as makes you mine. I would have had to kill him if he didn‟t see it on your finger.” “You wouldn‟t dare!” Christine slid the ring back on, clenching her fist. “Don‟t tempt me,” I warned. “Do not tempt me to do just that. Bad enough he claims you without understanding your worth, but he will silence you forever and I find that truly unpardonable.” “Why Erik?” Christine stamped her foot. “I‟m just a voice. I‟m just a little lost dancer, over my head no matter how much I remember.” “And I am a lonely old ogre who has a hard time with right and wrong.” I counseled impatiently. “I‟ve been as clear as I can be on this. It would be nothing for me to kill him anyway, much less if he irritated me. His death would be my perfect opening.” I gestured for her to get back in the boat. “And as I have pointed out, I am rather too old to be standing in this chill while soaking wet. We will have to go out tomorrow or later tonight.” I sped us back to the house, glad she hadn‟t argued with me. Several times I caught her looking at the damnable ring. Her fingers twitched across it every so often, as if she made sure it was still there. Every time she noticed the thing I felt more hateful. I wouldn‟t stand in the way of her love for the Vicomte DeChagny, but she would have to stop flinging him in my face. If she lost the ring a second time, I vowed it would stay lost and I would keep her, damn the consequences. I disembarked first as before, reaching out for her. She stood less clumsily this time, opening her arms for me. Again I simply caught her, swinging her to shore with ease. Again she made a small noise. As I secured the gondola, I heard her murmur. “You are so strong Erik.” “My strength has limits,” I answered grimly. “You couldn‟t weigh much anyway my dear; you are as light and delicate as a flower.” A slight breeze touched my neck. I stopped talking, listening to the quiet. The smell of cheap rum came from a small distance away. As if nothing was amiss, I handed Christine the lantern. “Will you take this a moment my dear?” I asked lightly. “I need to look through my pockets.” I could hear shuffling now. Intruders in the labyrinth always were as loud as gunshots to me. Pretending to search my vest, I discerned our interloper was not the boy. Very well, he would die. I was on him in a flash. Catching the man around the throat with catgut, I felled him in one jerk. He landed directly at Christine‟s feet. With a startled gasp, she dropped the lantern. I did not recognize the face, but I did recognize the key in his hand. The clumsy Vicomte must have dropped it the second he left the opera. With amusement, I noticed the man‟s other hand held a very poor knife. “Oh my God Erik,” Christine stepped over the corpse with a shudder, pressing herself to my side. “What happened?” “He meant to kill me,” I replied, bending down to get her key. “I believe this belongs to you my dear,” I said. “When your Vicomte comes on Saturday you will have to give it back to him. I think he could use a chain too.” Christine stared down, her eyes reflecting the dead man‟s image. Her hands wrapped around my arm in a death grip. “How did you know he was there?” “I could hear and smell him.” I pushed the catgut back into my sleeve, my movements slightly hampered by her clinging. She grasped the edge of it before I completely slid it in, drawing it back out. Dangling it between her fingers, she stared at it. “You used this?” Disbelief colored her voice. “This is what killed him?” I removed it from her gently. “Yes Christine, it is. I‟m sorry you had to see that.” “But that is just a piece of cord!” “It‟s more than enough.” I took her hand. “Come inside my dear, I am freezing.” Erik went toward a door down the hall, shedding his shirt as he went. It landed in a sodden heap on the floor. I caught a mere glimpse of his ivory, muscled back before he disappeared behind the door to his room. Moments later I head the sound of his shoes hitting the wall. Making my way to my own room, I took off my damp cloak and hung it back up. It smelled of darkness and must. *********************** I couldn‟t get over the suddenness of the attack. Erik had heard someone I didn‟t even suspect existed, and had killed him in the blink of an eye. Why, he hadn‟t even exerted himself! A little piece of leather, barely thicker than my shoelace had done the deed. Shuddering, I lay down on the bed. Conflicting images of Erik swam by my eyelids. He seemed so willing to do whatever I wanted, going so far as to retrieve my ring from the bottom of the lake. I thought it a miracle he‟d been able to do it. Yet, with all the concern he had toward me, it hadn‟t bothered him in the slightest to kill the man with the knife. He professed no morals and no reservations about wanting to kill Raoul. He could do it too, so fast I wouldn‟t know what was happening until it was over. “I‟m really quite able to kill anyone I want to; I have no moral objection to murder.” I drew the blankets up, squeezing my eyes shut. The key in my hand felt like ice. Erik had murdered someone right before my eyes. What made me so special to Erik? I imagined nothing in myself to give me special immunity to his temper. If anything I seemed to anger him fairly often, or make him sad. I should have been subject to him the same as anyone else, but I wasn‟t. I wasn‟t because he still loved me. Erik loved me. He had to still be in love with me, for he was trying to help me. Raoul knew it too, and he had brought me down here! I desperately wished to comprehend it. If I could only remember the events leading me to this point! Everyone knew what had happened but me. I lay in the path of two different men, two very different men. Suddenly needing action of some kind, I got to my feet. I would go into the kitchen and make something hot to drink. I worried about Erik‟s comment on his age. He didn‟t seem at all old, but how could I tell with a fleeting glimpse of his ruined face? All objects seemed to respond to me with rebellion. The kettle made a bang as I dropped it in the sink, and again when I fumbled over the stove. The knobs on the oven baffled me, but after nearly singeing my hair off I managed to get flame on the proper disc. I set out cups and saucers, my eyes lighting on a tin of cocoa. That would do. After searching an eternity I found a small canister of sugar and some vanilla extract. “Are you well Christine?” I shrieked aloud as Erik‟s voice came directly at my elbow. Spinning, I caught the edge of the sink with both hands and faced him. “You never make any noise Erik,” I panted. “My heart can‟t take it.” “I‟m sorry.” Erik did sound sorry. “I forget about that sometimes.” I nodded, my eyes taking in his change of clothes. This time the shirt was white muslin. I could see his entire neckline. He was every bit as pale on his breastbone as he was everywhere else. Moisture still gleamed on his skin. He smelled of amber and patchouli. “I was making cocoa,” I said in a small voice. “I‟m afraid I‟m clumsy this morning.” “You‟re under a lot of stress and you just watched me kill someone.” Erik moved nearer. “Don‟t worry; you will remember things soon enough and you can go on with your life.” “Did I even have one?” I laughed shakily as I spooned cocoa into a steel mixing bowl. “I can still remember what happened previous to the last two years, and I can say I don‟t think much of my life so far.” “What was wrong with it?” Erik voice went softer, if possible. “Everything and nothing.” I poured the boiling water, sugar and vanilla into the mix. “My mother died of consumption when I was six, I don‟t remember much of her at all. My father kept me a little girl far too long and when he died it left me defenseless. I was sheltered and loved and suffocated.” I gritted my teeth at even voicing my memories aloud in this condensed version. I didn‟t know why I felt compelled to spew out my pain, but it felt good. I‟d never spoken to anyone about my childhood but Mama Valerius, and she didn‟t count because she had been there for it. “I didn‟t know.” Erik reached out, taking my completed drink and pouring it into each cup. He didn‟t spill a single drop. “You never told me how you remembered your childhood.” His eyes seemed to caress me, but his voice coated me like warm honey. I felt like he really cared to listen to what I had to say. The feeling took me aback. No one ever took the time to listen to me. “I haven‟t thought about it.” I sat down, watching him take his cup with long, strong fingers. “And all I‟ve thought about since I got here is you.” “Hence the Vicomte‟s plan,” Erik murmured, glancing away. “I left quite an impression on the both of you. He hoped if you saw me it would shock you back into awareness.” “At no trouble to him,” I seethed outwardly. “You shouldn‟t have done it Erik. I-I can see how I trouble you.” I blurted. “What was I to do?” Erik looked down into his cup. “You must be whole again Christine. You need the last two years.” “I agree, but I‟m starting to believe they‟re going to hurt me.” I gulped down the entire cup of scalding chocolate. “And you.” Erik‟s head snapped up. “Don‟t,” he said softly. “Don‟t even think about that. This is not the reason you are here.” His eyes flashed a warning. “I can‟t help it.” “You have to,” he stressed. “I can‟t let you color your mind with my problems; you have enough on your own.” Lifting the corner of his mask, he took a sip of cocoa, but his eyes were still upon me. In a flowing movement he set the cup down with a soft click of china on china. “Ignore my little fits, they mean nothing.” “Perhaps you think I have another mask, hm? Well, go ahead, rip it off!” My cup overturned as I saw myself raking my fingernails into his face. Again and again he used my hands to tear his flesh. I stood up so fast I knocked my chair over. Immediately, Erik followed my movement. I felt sick. “Erik,” I whispered. “Will you take your mask off for me again?” Erik shuddered. “Don‟t ask me to do that,” he said softly. “Ask me anything else. Once was quite enough.” “Then tell me,” I said, clamping down on the table. “Did I leave scars?” Erik tilted his head. “Scars?” He sounded as if he didn‟t know what I spoke of. “Yes, from the day I took off your mask without permission.” “Ah.” Erik looked ceilingward. “I don‟t know my dear; I never look at my face.” Shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, he looked back to me. “Of what consequence are scars? It isn‟t as if they will detract from my roguish good looks.” He laughed at his own observation as he ran a finger around the rim of his cup. “You maimed yourself with my hands,” I protested. I could feel his mighty grip around my wrists, phantom pressure from the past. “It kept me from killing you.” Erik eyed me steadily. “In one fell swoop you ruined every plan I had. I barely knew what I was doing.” “What happened after that?” I had to know. “I cried like the damned soul that I am, and you gave the mask back.” Erik cleaned up my spilled drink with a napkin as he spoke, his eyes firmly on the mess. “It‟s over and done with Christine, it isn‟t a memory you need to give weight. I‟ll never hurt you.” “Apparently not,” I agreed quietly. “But it‟s all I‟ve ever done to you.” “That isn‟t true.” Erik poured another cup for me, placing it on the table. “You‟ve given me some of the greatest joys in my life. You trusted me. You treated me as someone with feelings.” “Of course you have feelings,” I said sadly. “Everyone has feelings.” “You‟d be surprised how many people assume otherwise.” Erik sat back down. “At least forget this for now. You‟ve had a hard morning. I will discuss it all you like when you seem more relaxed.” “If you say,” I surrendered. I could tell by his tone I‟d gotten all I would out of him. Besides, it made me uncomfortable to hear about how I had given him joy. The man had stalked me, by his own account. Of course I‟d brought him some joy, I‟d been his victim. Why did I have to remind myself of this? I seemed incapable of remembering how nervous he made me on a moment to moment basis. “Good.” Erik finished his drink. “Would you like to practice your dancing?” “I don‟t have anything to wear.” I thought that was just as well. I couldn‟t imagine being close to Erik while wearing skimpy ballet clothes. I never caught him actually ogling me, but he didn‟t have to be so direct for me to feel his attention. The wedding gown in the closet stood as mute testimony to how closely he looked at me. “I didn‟t think of that, when you came here you had already stopped dancing.” Erik tapped his fingers on the table a few times, his shoulder set appearing strained. “Yes, you were my voice instructor, not my dance instructor.” I felt myself smile. “Though I think maybe you could have managed it.” “Maybe my dear, maybe,” Erik laughed dryly. “So what would you like to do?” “I don‟t know. I haven‟t had free time in quite a while.” “I didn‟t realize that. I suppose the boy has kept you rather busy with doctors.” “An endless supply of them,” I sighed. “Perhaps I shall read.” “Shall we go into the library then?” Erik put his hands behind his back. “You spent a little time in there when you could.” “Then let me do so again,” I agreed. ****************************** I pretended to read, but in fact I merely watched her. The drowsy silence between us wavered only as she turned pages. In the firelight‟s artful dimness she flickered, looking like a heathen goddess at rest. All that the scene needed were worshippers. I supposed she could make do with one very ardent angel. ***************************** I knew he watched me. I pretended not to notice, but I found it very hard. His gaze looked molten, even from my peripheral view. Such concentration made me hot inside and out. The next time I braved a look in his direction his eyes were closed. His long, supple body took up the entire couch. I beheld the gentle rise and fall of his chest realizing he‟d fallen asleep. I felt like I was looking at a panther at rest. I thought if I made even the slightest sound he would awaken. My story didn‟t interest me anymore. I closed the book quietly, easing myself back until I could view Erik with comfort. My eyes wandered over the muscle in his arms and legs. His willowy frame contained unlikely power. Lingering on his fingers I felt a thrill pass through me. He was strong all right, very strong. The top lace of his shirt drew me next. Erik had a smooth, seemingly hairless chest. His skin glowed like alabaster. His every breath looked easy. The high sculpture of his collarbone and neck reminded me of artist‟s models. And what of Raoul‟s beauty? I tried to think of it. He had wheat colored hair and blue eyes. His nose was straight and long. His teeth were perfect, like mine. In fact, Raoul and I were very close in appearance. The idea startled me. People might mistake us for brother and sister. In a way I felt of Raoul like a brother. Until this time I had never had cause to believe there was anything wrong with that. Slowly, I reached into my dress and brought out Erik‟s ring. The plain gold band glimmered in my palm. I held it up, seeing writing on the inside. Forever and a day. Next, I looked to Raoul‟s nearly lost ring. The setting was without a doubt the most expensive I‟d ever clapped eyes on. Three large diamonds and two emeralds sparkled at me. The inside had no writing. Pulling my hair ribbon out, I threaded Raoul‟s ring onto it and hung it from my neck. I didn‟t feel right wearing it, not when my feelings were so conflicted. I put Erik‟s ring back into my dress, laying it underneath the weight of one breast. I didn‟t feel right wearing it either, but it felt right to keep close. I looked to Erik automatically. To my shock his eyes were open and staring right into me. “You won‟t lose either now,” Erik rumbled, his voice low and amused. “I wonder though what the Vicomte will say.” “He can say whatever he likes.” I blushed, picking up my book again. “I‟m not entirely sure I want to marry him. I have only your word and his on the fact that I ever did.” “What more do you need my dear?” Erik sounded both mystified and irritated. “My own mind,” I said firmly. “If Raoul wants me he‟s going to have to prove it again. If he means what he says, if he really loves me, he won‟t think it‟s a waste of time, will he?” Erik laughed softly. “How evil of you Christine, how delectably cold.” “It‟s nothing of the kind. It‟s only right.” “True, you should never hear the end of your praises.” Erik folded an arm underneath his head, looking at me with sleepy, indulgent eyes. “You are Helen of Troy.” “Helen started a war with her face,” I replied coolly. “So did you my dear, so did you.” Erik laughed again. “But your voice captivated thousands as well.” “You have the splendid voice,” I pointed out, acting as if I held a place in the book with my finger. “I‟m rather disappointed you won‟t sing for me.” “I can‟t take that power in my hands where you are concerned, I‟d lose a different war altogether.” Erik‟s eyes flared in the dimness. “But in that occurrence, it would really be you who would lose. It‟s better not to remind me of the topic at all.” I shivered. His brutal honesty never stopped. “As you say Erik,” I said, looking back to my book. I wanted to ask him how he was so certain I wanted Raoul, but it didn‟t seem wise. Erik radiated a strange tension even though his body remained completely still. I didn‟t find his energy at all unpleasant, but some inner sense told me that was due to being the cause of it. “I think I must be in the dark quite thoroughly, and not just in your home,” I said. “Are you still enjoying the dark?” I paused. Actually I was still enjoying the diffused light. I hadn‟t even considered asking him to turn up the lights, not once. “Yes,” I answered cautiously. “Why?” “Curiosity my dear, nothing more.” Erik‟s eyes flickered. “You used to hold a book closer to your face than that.” “I did?” “Yes.” Erik shifted slightly. “I doubt a concussion would help one‟s eyesight. It makes me wonder what the difference is.” “I wish I could tell you.” I sighed, tossing the book down on the table. I was tired of pretending to read when all I could do was pay attention to the maestro. “What do you like to do Erik?” I asked. He blinked rapidly, surprise evident. “You want to do something I like to do?” Erik asked. “Yes, I‟d like to see the kinds of things you are fond of.” “Really?” His tone seemed one of disbelief. “Really.” I paused as an ugly thought reared its head. “Did I not care before?” “You didn‟t seem to.” Erik tilted his head. “You know Christine it really is quite odd what a blow to the head has done to you, in some ways.” “Like what?” I knew my present self and my former self didn‟t match up very much, but I needed to know more. He apparently knew me very well. “You‟re more open to experiences and very outspoken.” Erik brought his head level again, his eyes meeting mine fully. “I believe I can take the blame for the way you used to be.” “You shouldn‟t,” I said sharply. “I make my own decisions. If I am different it must be from something other than you.” “Why?” Erik sat up. “I know I caused you a great deal of stress. I imagine nervous tension could have made you solemn and quiet.” “Maybe so, but I don‟t see how you could have been the only stressful influence on my life. My father‟s death hurt me a great deal; it took him a long time to die. I have no family now, and as far as I know, no friends.” I toyed with the spine of my abandoned book looking away from Erik. “Actually, there is one discrepancy in my life that really sits on my mind.” “And what is that my dear?” Erik paid me full attention; I could hear it. “I told myself years ago I would never get married. I can‟t imagine I would have changed my mind.” Still looking down, I frowned. “I don‟t like the way men own women, either by consent or otherwise.” “Indeed?” A ripple of surprise passed through Erik‟s sublime voice. “Yes.” I made myself look at him. “I was never interested in marriage and children and running a house. I don‟t normally deal with large groups of people very well either, yet you say I became the diva here. I don‟t know the woman everyone says I used to be.” Erik drew in a long breath, easing back into the cushions. “What did you want Christine?” he asked softly. “I wanted to understand.” I looked down again swiftly, feeling tears brimming up unbidden. Some nameless panic seemed to grab me all of a sudden. Perhaps it was born of Erik‟s unusual solicitousness, or from fatigue. I resolved to go no further. “Understand what?” Erik probed gently, his voice as smooth as silk on glass. I was powerless to resist his honeyed tenor. It wasn‟t like I had anything to hide, was it? After all, Erik knew me better than I did at the moment. And he didn‟t seem the kind of person to make fun of my fears. “The whole purpose of being here, of knowing I exist.” I heard my voice crack. “Sometimes everything seems so pointless.” “Everything?” Erik‟s voice remained gentle, but insistent. “Well, not everything. I love the arts of course.” Taking a deep breath, I exhaled as if to purge a demon. “I just don‟t see why most people seem to be so concerned with petty things when the largest conundrum is life itself. Why are we put here to age and die?” The spark in my belly ignited into a fire as I spoke. “Why did I have to lose my mother and father so quickly? Why am I not supposed to put these questions to God? If God is there, what is he doing and why is it a sin for me to even ask Him?” I had never voiced any of my eternal questions aloud. Knowing I could do it in front of someone felt positively electric. Even better, I knew Erik would listen and tell me exactly what he thought. “I mean, what can I accomplish in so little time?” I went on in a rush. “How can I care about wooing and love when I know it isn‟t the all-cure everyone seems to think it is? How can I worry about what I‟m going to eat for dinner when I pass beggars on the way to the market?” I stood up, furious for activity. Pacing, I whirled on Erik. “We‟re just meat Erik, I‟m proving that. Without my memories I am nothing. Maybe all the good I can do is become fertilizer.” Erik shuddered, closing his eyes. “Christine,” he murmured, “Please don‟t say that. Many other people are just meat, but you are different. No amount of blows to the head will change that you have a beautiful soul and a very compassionate heart, I promise you.” He seemed to smile. “As to the other questions you have, I cannot be of much help. I‟m a bit amused to hear your opinion on wooing though my dear; I didn‟t know you thought it was all a waste.” “Well, it can‟t all be a waste.” I sank back into my chair. “It‟s just mostly silly. And untruthful,” I added darkly. “Men always swear to sweep a woman off her feet, and then they hand her the broom.” Erik laughed aloud. “Mostly,” he conceded, his eyes sparkling. “You‟re right, it is silly. So the question now is obvious.” “What question?” “Why do you want the Vicomte to prove his love all over again? If it truly is a waste of time, you won‟t want to go through it. Can‟t you take his word and mine on that fact and just go on?” “Because I‟d rather see for myself,” I answered, feeling my hackles rise. “I might have been seeing what I wanted to see. God knows I‟m only too biased to accept fantasy over reality, reality never lives up to the things my father told me during my entire childhood.” I stood up again. “I want to know what I‟m supposed to do Erik; I want to make educated choices. I want to be loved for who I am, not for how I look or what I can accomplish.” Erik flinched. I stopped my rant to look at him. He wasn‟t meeting my eyes anymore. “What?” I asked suddenly. “My dear,” Erik replied slowly, “You can‟t fall in love with DeChagny by forcing him to show his affection, it doesn‟t work that way. If you set out upon your Vicomte with this conviction that he has to absolutely prove his worth before you can love him, you will lose him. No one can ever prove his or her worth well enough to make you fall in love. Not only is it impossible, but also it lays your heart in someone else‟s hands.” Erik shook his head. “Suppose Galahad impressed you so much that you gave him your hand. Doesn‟t your entire future rest with him then? And what of that future when the polish and newness wears off, what are you left with?” Erik sighed, standing up. “No, you cannot rely on others to allow yourself to love. You either love or you don‟t.” I watched Erik skim his fingers over a shelf of books. Casting me a glance over his shoulder, he took one and opened it. The page he wanted must have come immediately, for he began to recite. “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, So do our minutes hasten to their end, Each changing place with that which goes before In sequent toil all forwards do contend. Nativity, once in the main of light, Crawls to maturity, wherewith, being crowned, Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight And Time that gave, doth now his gift confound. Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth, And delves the parallels in beauty's brow, Feeds on the rarities of natures truth, And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow; And yet, to times, in hope, my verse shall stand, Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.” Erik shut the book. “The Bard has the same outlook you do,” he said quietly. “There is one difference between your questions and his convictions.” Erik put the book away, turning to face me. Even from across the room I could see how his eyes burned. “He has already found hope in love. All he suffers is but fuel to show his devotion. It is his little cry in the darkness, his entreaty for a bit of affection. He knows that all things fall to ruin over time, yet he is certain he will grab what happiness he can while it is to be had.” Erik crossed over to a writing table and sat down. “The Vicomte has said that the two of you are in love.” As he spoke he began folding a sheet of paper until one piece became a square. “I have said that you chose him.” He ripped the square off and began to fold it. “You wear his ring and you are here at his decision.” Erik folded a few sides in quick succession. “You stay here in the hope of getting well and remembering your past.” Erik bent a few more sides into a bewildering arrangement of creases. “Today you are questioning yourself, but you will be questioning him on Saturday. What do you think is going to happen when you let loose a barrage of questions upon him?” “He‟ll be upset.” I bit my lip. “He‟ll want to know why I‟m not just agreeing with him anymore.” “This is true. What will your answer be?” “I don‟t know. I don‟t know why I‟m questioning him, or why I‟m so eager to make him prove himself.” I collapsed once more onto the chair, groaning. “I‟m not a mean woman, but I have this horrible feeling something‟s gone terribly wrong with me.” “There isn‟t anything wrong with you Christine, you‟re just anxious about the choices you‟ve made.” Erik slid back his chair. “You are very concerned that you cannot remember two entire years, and anyone would be.” Getting up, Erik came to me with his hand outstretched. In his palm lay a perfect, paper rosebud. As I took it he put his other hand on top of my head. “You will recover from this Christine, I promise. Just relax and let your journey pass with faith in yourself. Everything else will fall into place behind you.” Giving my hair a soft, gentle stroke, he moved back. Crouching before me, he captured my watering eyes with his own. “Just think about this though my dear. You do not have to repeat the past if you don‟t want to. Your life belongs to you.” I tore my eyes away to look at the floor. Seconds ticked by on the grandfather clock, sounding magnified to my ears. Erik‟s advice and reassurance made my heart swell. Not only did he understand, he cared. He cared enough about my pain to listen, and enough about my feelings to show it. The paper rose in my hand was suddenly the most precious thing in the world. I obeyed the impulse to lean down, and I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. “Thank you,” I whispered. “I can‟t think of another person who‟s ever spoken to me with such concern.” He resisted my embrace for a bare moment. I felt him stiffen as I hugged his shoulders. A shuddering breath escaped him. Suddenly he pulled away, gently but firmly. “Forgive me Christine, but my concern for you hasn‟t always been altruistic.” Erik‟s body shook with his words. “In fact, I have been quite selfish. I hope you can remember this moment at a later date, and know that I have it within me to be the kind of person you always said I could be.” Erik left the library. I sat alone for a few minutes. The air still smelled of his amber and patchouli. What did he mean the person I always said he could be? ****************** I hadn‟t known the meaning of pain. I could still feel Christine‟s soft arms around me, and the smooth, twin curves of her breasts pressing into my chest. Nothing could have hurt me more than pulling away, nothing. Yet, I would have pushed my pain to the farthest limits if I had stayed in her embrace one more second. I damned the stupid boy, her, God, and myself by turns for this hell. He had to bring her to me. Raoul DeChagny, noble Vicomte and royal, had thrust a knife in my heart by bringing her to me. Every minute I spent with her opened me to conflicting hopes and despairs. One minute I stood firm in my resolve of impartiality, and the next minute I pushed back schemes to own Christine completely once and for all. Even now, in my room, far away from her bewitching presence, all I could imagine was keeping her. I felt like I burned inside. Such simple contact. Her chaste embrace of goodwill and gratitude swamped my numb body with outrageous sensations. I was lost all over again. Her sporadic memories were not enough of a warning; she did not know the danger of me, not yet. To remain strong against her engaging warmth took everything I had. Her wavering devotion to Raoul could be pushed away so easily. With a single, well-chosen sentence I could topple her to my side and have her. I groaned aloud, barely knowing the sound came from my own throat. I could not think of it, I could not! Christine had made her choice weeks ago; she would not thank me for repeating my earlier transgressions and influencing her. Once she awoke from this peculiar void of recall she would not be thankful for any wrongdoing on my part. If I couldn‟t have her love in a pure form, I would not force it from her. **************************** I heard someone knock on Erik‟s door. Surprised, I got up and went to the area I remembered as our exit. “Open up Erik, I‟ve come to see you haven‟t smoked yourself to death!” An unfamiliar voice shouted at me irritably. “For the love of Allah it is freezing out here, open the door!” “Who are you?” I shouted back. A brief few seconds of stunned silence elapsed before the voice started again. “That isn‟t funny Erik; I know you can mimic anybody you want. Open this door before I turn into a block of ice. I can‟t abide this damp chill.” I deliberated. This person certainly sounded as if he knew Erik. Could this be the friend he‟d mentioned in passing? I looked around to see Erik striding toward my position, a hand over his eyes. Muttering, he walked past me to put his hand on the wall. “Christ Emil,” he grumbled as he thumped on the hidden release. “What in thunder do you mean by hammering on my door at one o‟clock in the afternoon?” The door swung open, revealing a thin, brown-skinned man in a suit and fez. He clapped eyes on me in an instant. His mouth opened and closed uselessly for just a few seconds, but he shed the temporary muteness in an explosion of words. “For the love of all that is holy! What have you done Erik?” The man named Emil came forward, his eyes sweeping over me critically as if looking for injuries. “Please tell me this is some kind of gross illusion!” “Oh come in and sit down Emil,” Erik commanded impatiently. “Christine, this is my friend Emil Alzir,” he added quickly, looking to me. “Emil and I have been friends for many years.” “Too many years for you to treat me to this!” Emil threw himself into the couch. “You‟ve spirited her off again, haven‟t you Erik? Why didn‟t you just put a knife in my heart, or leave me in that infernal room of heated glass?” “I have done nothing of the sort. Christine is here on the Vicomte‟s notion.” Erik walked over to the side table, pouring a glass of brandy and handing it to the little brown man. “She is suffering from a memory lapse and he had the hope I could make her well again.” “A memory lapse?” Emil Alzir eyed me hard. “Is this true mademoiselle?” “Yes.” I gave him a frown. “Why wouldn‟t it be true?” Alzir shot Erik a terrible look over the rim of his glass. Erik seemed not to notice. “Anyway Emil, what are you doing here?” Erik asked with a touch of asperity in his tone. “You didn‟t tell me when to come back, so I came back when I felt I should.” Emil spoke to Erik, but his eyes were on me. “Imagine how it feels for me to come here and find this woman.” I would have said something to that, his tone sounded so scornful, but I didn‟t need to. Erik spoke for me. “None of that Emil, she doesn‟t know.” His voice brooked no argument; I trembled at the sheer force in his tone even though it was not for me. “She is learning,” Erik went on in a milder pitch, “So please do not upset her.” “She doesn‟t remember anything?” Emil still had not taken his eyes off me. “I remember some things M. Alzir, but not you,” I answered for myself. “I am right here; you do not have to direct your questions at Erik.” Erik laughed as Emil‟s face arranged into a shocked look. The brown man, an Arab I guessed, frowned at me as if I had said a very bad word. “And don‟t look at me like that,” I added. “I‟m not a gross illusion, nor am I insane.” Again Erik laughed. Thrusting a glass of brandy in my hands, he gestured for me to take a seat. “Now Christine, calm yourself,” he soothed, but I could hear high amusement in his voice. “Emil is not a threat to you by any means.” “Of course I‟m not a threat.” Emil jerked his glass around to swirl its contents irritably. “I‟m actually quite benevolent. Just not used to hearing her speak up for herself is all.” Again I wondered just what I had become. In two days I had come to believe I‟d transformed into some stranger over two years. I was engaged, a diva, quiet and unassuming without a spark of temper. I had never expressed interest in anyone but myself and had almost gotten married to Raoul, the Vicomte DeChagny. Clearing my throat, I nodded at M. Alzir, hoping it passed for a friendly gesture. “I‟m sorry M. Alzir,” I said. “Please forgive me. I am not sure of myself and I go on a defensive stance rather quickly.” Emil shot Erik a swift, mysterious look before turning his eyes back to me. “It is understandable mademoiselle,” he assured. “May I ask what took your memory?” “Apparently a carriage ride three weeks ago. Raoul claimed I was unconscious an entire week.” I noticed movement as I spoke and felt a jolt as I watched Erik‟s hands clench and unclench in rapid succession. “I feel fine, but I can‟t remember the last two years.” “Two whole years?” M. Alzir sounded horrified. Turning to Erik, he eyed him attentively. I thought I could see sympathy in his brown gaze. “You can help her of course,” he said, sounding completely confident. I felt reassured at once, hearing him speak so positively on Erik‟s abilities. “Yes, I can help Christine,” Erik said, his eyes wandering over to me slowly. “But it seems she is quite able to help herself too.” A smile flitted into his stare. “Well good.” M. Alzir finished his brandy. “I hate to drink and run Erik, but I want no part of this.” Rising, he pulled a box out of his coat. “I brought a gift for you actually, which is why I‟m here.” Holding the cube of wood out, he dropped it into Erik‟s outstretched palm. “Don‟t open it near your face.” “I love presents Emil, thank you,” Erik replied warmly. He slid the box lid open very carefully. All I could see inside was white powder. Erik chuckled softly. “Emil,” he said in a chiding tone, “Is this cocaine?” “Yes.” M. Alzir said stiffly. “Call it an antidote. I thought it would wake you up, but I did not know about the mademoiselle being here.” “Thank you,” Erik murmured, putting the box on the mantle. “Should I ever need artificial help in staying awake for days at a time, or want to talk someone‟s head off, I shall go right to it.” “Now damnit Erik,” Emil began, but Erik cut him off. “I‟m teasing you Emil, I‟m teasing.” Erik held up his hands in a self-depreciating way, his fingers spread open and his palms out. “Good,” Alzir responded gruffly. Casting me a lingering, mysterious look, he shook hands with Erik and stomped out the door. A feeling of déjà vu settled over my shoulders as I watched dust and sand blow into the room with his exit. “He knows I don‟t take cocaine,” Erik muttered thoughtfully. “Horrible, excitable stuff.” “Does he always enter and exit with such drama?” I asked, a tinge of condescension bleeding into my tone though I tried to stop it. “Nearly always,” Erik admitted with a short laugh, looking at me. “At least when he‟s not sure how he‟ll be received.” “I see.” I shrugged, affecting what I hoped to be a nonchalant air. “He didn‟t want me here.” “I suppose not, but this is my house,” Erik answered mildly. I heard a bit of warning in his tone, a subtle caution not to pursue my line of thought. “You have always and will forever be welcome in my home.” “Th-thank you,” I stammered back, taken off guard by his declaration of hospitality. I felt warm, especially as he continued to look at me. Softness stole into his eyes. “Do you think you would be up to the stress of another visitor?” Erik asked. “I suppose. Who?” “You‟ll see.” Erik‟s voice dropped into a playful tone. “Don‟t worry, this visitor won‟t declare over your presence here.” Thus saying, he went to the coat rack. Donning his cloak in one graceful sweep, he then put on his hat. The sight of him gave me a thrill. Erik changed when he put on his cloak and hat. Like a kingly mantle, the moment he wore the black he assumed a regal yet dangerous air. Power too followed. Combined with the gleaming black mask and oiled leather gloves, his clothing made him a creature of the night. I felt my skin ripple in goose bumps as he turned to face me. “Try to relax my dear, and think of music,” he bade. His splendid, magnificent voice washed over me like hot bath water. I nodded in reply, not trusting myself to answer out loud. A few minutes after Erik‟s departure, I sank back onto the sofa. I would take a short nap while he was gone. Maybe when I woke up I would have command over myself again, and not feel my heartbeat accelerate every time Erik stroked me with his voice. *************************** Despite Madam Giry‟s familiarity with Box Five, she never felt comfortable in it. She sighed inwardly, tracing her hand over the arm of the seat. The Phantom wanted to meet her here, but why? Surely the old dressing room would have been more convenient for them both. “Madame Giry.” Suppressing a shiver at his voice, Madame Giry rose with all the dignity she could muster. Turning, she came face to mask with the Opera Ghost. She had never been this close to him before. He towered over her, his golden eyes regarding her from high above. “Did you bring her old costumes?” he asked softly. Giry gestured toward a bag, hating how her hands betrayed her nervousness. “I brought her warm up clothes and her best dancing tutus,” she answered. “Her shoes have been lost, but I secured a pair in her size. She will have blisters.” “I don‟t think she‟ll mind.” The Phantom crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you ready to go now?” “Of course.” “You will not be missed? You will be gone several hours.” The Ghost sounded concerned. “I make my own schedule Monsieur Phantom,” Giry replied. “I believe my years here have earned me that right.” “I believe you are correct,” the ghost chuckled. ************************* I did not expect Christine to so readily accept Madame Giry‟s instruction. I watched half in amusement and half in worry as she danced for the ballet mistress. I could see Madame Giry thinking along the same lines as I did. Christine‟s body knew how to do the dance steps, but her mind did not remember. The more she danced however, the easier it became. “No mademoiselle Daae, you must concentrate!” Madame Giry thumped her cane on the floor, causing me to jump. Christine blew her breath out in a little puff of irritation I recognized so well. “I cannot concentrate!” Christine responded, wiping sweat from her brow with a careless swipe of her hand. “Why can you not concentrate?” Madame Giry moved forward, lifting Christine‟s arm over her head. “This is the position. Your arms cause you trouble.” She made a tsk-tsk noise. “You usually step properly, but you forget you have arms as well.” Looking to me, she motioned me forward with an imperious crook of her finger. “Monsieur Phantom, please assist,” she said sternly. I responded to her tone in the way that her ballet corps did, much to my own amusement. Standing next to Christine, I waited for further instruction. “Mademoiselle, please put your left hand on Monsieur Phantom‟s shoulder,” Giry commanded. When Christine did as she said, she frowned. “Not like that. Imagine he is your partner and not a bar.” “But Erik doesn‟t dance.” Christine shot me a sly glance. “Oh he doesn‟t?” Madame Giry also looked at me. “What a pity. Everyone should dance.” Drawing herself up to her full five-foot height, she shook her head. “Never mind. He is your support. Hold him for balance and bring your right leg straight out.” Christine did as she was told, but lost her balance as she tried to maintain her stance. Clamping down on me painfully, she made a face. “This is horrible,” she muttered, not looking at either of us. “I feel like I haven‟t danced in years.” I exchanged a glance with Madame Giry, who seemed to sigh. “You haven‟t danced in years Christine,” I answered softly. “Remember?” “No, I don‟t.” “Of course not,” Madame Giry agreed, her manner going brusque. “But all that means for you is work. If you want to dance, then by heaven I will make you dance.” Looking at me, she waved her hand. “Thank you Monsieur Phantom, but I think we will have to start further back. May I call you when you are needed?” “Certainly. Would you like me to play something to dance by?” “That would be nice. We will adapt to whatever you decide on.” Madame Giry rapped her stick on the floor once more. “Ready mademoiselle?” I played a bit of Chopin, my eyes upon the images reflected in a highly polished brass urn. Christine seemed to be having a terribly hard time. My heart went out to her, though I tried to maintain distance. I compared it to watching a fledgling attempt to fly for the first time. After several hours of this faltering Madame Giry seemed satisfied. Bidding her pupil to stop and rest, she came over to me. “Monsieur, that is enough for the time being. I would like to rehearse with her again soon if that is agreeable to you.” “Fine with me.” I got up and stretched. “I will take you back now.” “Very well.” We left Christine sweating on the sofa and glowering at each of us. As I assisted Madame Giry into the gondola I caught her looking at me. Casually, I took up the pole. If she wished to speak I would know it. Madame Giry was not known for her reticence. “This must be incredibly painful for you monsieur,” Madame Giry said at last. “It hurts me and I do not have so much invested as you.” “Thank you Madame,” I said. “I do find this very difficult, especially so soon after-” I halted, not willing to continue. “You don‟t have to go on monsieur,” Madame Giry assured. “I am very astute and I have some idea.” “I suppose you do.” “Has she made any headway at all since you brought her here?” “A little, but it was the Vicomte who brought Christine to my home, not I.” “Indeed?” Madame Giry shifted slightly. “He must not be as stupid as I surmised.” “I wouldn‟t say that Madame,” I laughed. “It was desperation to make Christine well.” “And foist the blame on you if she did not recover,” Madame Giry said sharply. “What does Christine think of having her finance bring her to you?” “Not much,” I admitted. “She doesn‟t like the thought that he would give up. I am assuming she feels mistreated by him.” “And well she ought to,” Madame Giry snorted. “I would not stand for it.” “You are rather more assertive than Christine,” I said, swallowing back my humor. “Remember, she is not certain of how she feels.” “I understand that monsieur, but I will tell you this. Christine will have lost respect for her suitor by Saturday if he does not defy you and come to call earlier. A woman likes to feel she is important enough to risk danger for.” Madame Giry regarded me with black, glittering eyes. “And though none of this is my business, I feel I must add that if I were you, I‟d make sure she loses that respect. She will go to waste with the Vicomte; she would not go to waste with you.” “Bless you Madame,” I answered, “But I am not in the business of pursuing young singers anymore. I learned my lesson very well the first time. Besides, you cannot approve of a young girl languishing down here.” “I approve of very little that goes on here in the opera,” Madame Giry announced. “I never said I wanted anyone to languish. You seem perfectly healthy to me.” “I am suited to the dark and cold, I‟m a living corpse.” “You‟re not a corpse; you are a maestro and a gentleman.” Giry pinched the thin bridge of her nose as if warding off a headache. “I don‟t believe any of the nonsense people say about you, I never have, so don‟t fall back on that with me.” She shivered, pulling her cloak up closer. “You are extraordinary in every way, but you are still very much a man.” “How well I know.” I landed the gondola, springing out to offer her my hand. When she had the same trouble as Christine, I lifted her out. Her gasp of surprise rippled across the lake. “My word, don‟t haul me around like a sack of potatoes,” she fussed, arranging her dress and cloak as if I had mussed them beyond repair. “Honestly.” Again I had to smother my amusement. “My apologies Madame. There is no other way to assist a lady from the gondola.” “Good thing you‟re a strong as Sampson,” she muttered. “I can find my way back from here Monsieur Phantom, there is no need to escort me.” “If you say Madame,” I acquiesced. “I thank you for coming today.” “If you want to thank me Monsieur, you will contrive a way for this opera to hear your voice.” Madame Giry began walking away, her lantern swinging with her steps. “I can think of no greater crime you can commit than to deprive the world of your talents.” She stopped at the main tunnel, her face briefly illuminated before concealed in shadow once more. “And teach her to sing again,” she commanded. “She was going to waste in the corps de ballet. I can only teach her so much before she remembers that.” Nodding as if satisfied that she had said her peace, she turned once more. *************************** “You are still in your dance outfit,” Erik rumbled from a position above me. I cracked open an eye. “You are still in your ghost outfit,” I replied. “I just got home,” Erik defended. “You have been here alone for thirty minutes.” “And I was almost asleep.” “Are you not feeling well?” Worry tinged his voice. “Aside from having my muscles wrung out like a dishrag you mean?” He laughed. “She put you through it.” “She nearly killed me,” I amended. “She is a hard woman.” “She is the best, such people often are.” “You aren‟t like that.” I sat up to grab a blanket. Erik swept forward, taking it and draping it over me as I reclined again. “I was once, and to you as a matter of fact,” he said gently. “I drove you harder than anyone ever has I daresay.” “I don‟t remember so it doesn‟t count.” I closed my eyes again. “It does count Christine; you are going to learn how to hate the sight of me.” “I doubt that.” I answered before I could really think about it. The need to deflect his rather unique self-depreciation seemed strong. If I gave in to his sense of drama he‟d change his mood to something dark again. “Why?” Erik sounded skeptical in the extreme. I closed my eyes to his rigid stance. “Because I don‟t despise you right now,” I answered. “Once the past catches up to me I hope to remember how good you have been. I can‟t rely on my memory of course, but I don‟t seem to be forgetting anything I learn.” “Good?” Erik gave a short laugh. I opened my eyes in time to see him throw his body into the opposite couch. “I‟ve been mediocre at best.” “Don‟t say that Erik, please.” “Why not?” “You sound like me expounding on the reasons to consider myself nothing more than fertilizer.” I turned my head to look at him with sleepy eyes. “How could I despise the sight of you when you are trying to help me?” “I‟m probably the cause of your injury, that‟s why.” Erik clenched a fist. “Your memory loss‟s timeline is curiously close to when we met.” “I shouldn‟t have bad memories of an angel singing to me.” “Maybe not, but having him abduct you is another matter, as is having your angel try to murder your fiancé.” Erik let his head drop on the sofa. “I‟m tired Christine,” he whispered. “I‟m so tired.” Erik threw an arm over his eyes. “I‟m a recluse, you‟ve figured that by now I would imagine.” Sighing, he uncovered himself, turning his head. Erik‟s gold eyes softened. “I have nothing to prove anymore Christine; I‟ve done enough to believe I can do anything I want.” I felt a stab of pain as I looked at Erik. “What does one do and where does one go when they‟ve accomplished everything?” I asked softly. “And don‟t say one comes here. Nice as your home is, you can‟t see the sun.” “I haven‟t seen the sun in a very long time,” Erik chuckled, his graveyard tone sweeping upward once more. “But I can‟t answer that question. Perhaps I should buy a little island home somewhere, keep no servants and try my hand at fishing.” “You‟re too elegant to fish for a living.” I bit my lip to ward off a smile. “And if you‟re rich enough to just go buy a house, maybe you should consider it.” “I‟m rich enough to buy whatever I want,” Erik replied with a harsh laugh. “There are benefits to being sly.” Waving his hand, he produced something shiny out of thin air. A glittering diamond fell into his other hand, easily several carats in weight. “But wealth cannot fix my problems Christine, it never could. It can make my life easier but it cannot give me a normal face or a better temper.” I leaned out to snatch the gem, turning it over in my fingers. “I would imagine that there are places where your mask wouldn‟t draw as much notice. This is Paris, where everyone tries to be beautiful all of the time.” “Beauty is sought after everywhere, it is a very human drive to surround oneself with beauty.” Erik argued with a sigh. “Keep the diamond my dear, you might need it.” “I can‟t keep this!” I tried to hand it back to him, but he held up his hand. “I don‟t want it,” he asserted softly. “I meant to give it to Madame Giry but I forgot. I will give her another. You may find you have need of it one day. Have it set into a necklace or something.” “Thank you.” Not wanting to argue and set Erik into a mood, I tucked the expensive gem into my bodice with his ring. “I may give it to charity though.” “Don‟t you have things you want for yourself?” Erik looked at me again. “What if you decide not to marry the Vicomte? You will need funds until you set a path for yourself.” “I‟m not equipped to handle large amounts of money Erik,” I chided softly. “I‟ve been poor all my life and I can‟t turn off the habits that took so long to build.” “Ridiculous.” Erik‟s eyes turned sharp. “You‟re smart Christine, even if you don‟t want to believe it. You can do anything you want to do.” I had nothing to say to that. I had never heard anyone exclaim to my mind before. Plenty of people had praised my face and body, but never my head. Sometimes I felt my skull was stuffed with cotton. “What‟s the matter?” Erik sat up, prompting me to straighten a little. “Oh, nothing. It‟s just hard for me to imagine I might have plans. Sometimes I don‟t think I pay enough attention to reality to know what I need to do.” I got up and sat beside him on the other sofa, keeping a polite distance. “Being observant for my own sake puts my head in a spin. I have a feeling I never knew what I wanted.” “I see.” Erik looked away briefly, but brought his gaze back to me almost immediately. “That would explain a great deal. You were very ready for an angel of music.” “I suppose you filled in an emptiness inside me,” I agreed. “I can‟t remember it of course, but I can hear your echo.” I brought my knees up to my chest, hugging them. “If we parted on such bad terms Erik, why do I feel so welcomed by you?” “I mean for you to feel thusly.” Erik‟s voice dropped to a silken whisper. “I wouldn‟t say you and I parted on bad terms. I would define our parting as needful.” “Needful?” I shivered as I looked back to him. “In what way?” “In the way that one gives up a habit that is detrimental to health and sanity.” I was addicted to you and you no less to me. I provided a voice to make you forget everything unpleasant and worldly while you provided only yourself. It was a deadly combination of need.” He lowered his gaze. “Even now if I should weaken I would do it all over again.” Erik‟s eyes darkened. “I enjoyed watching you abandon everything to hear me; I could not stop myself from pouring your every fulfillment into my voice. I can barely withstand the temptation to influence you now.” He blinked, his eyes returning to normal. “But I want you well again. I want you to be everything I wouldn‟t allow you to be, your own woman.” Erik got to his feet. “I feel the need to compose,” he announced suddenly, his voice tight. “When I am finished I will start thinking about our evening meal. If I were you I would rest in preparation of Madame Giry‟s next visit. She seems quite determined to make a dancer out of you again.” Nodding, Erik left the room. Determined to get to a place of safety before Erik‟s words got the best of me, I got up and made my way back to my room. I flopped back onto the bed. I could hear Erik composing on his tremendous pipe organ. The music seemed very ambiguous, almost sad and almost hopeful yet nowhere in between. It suited his disposition and my swirling thoughts. What I needed to make sense of all this was a diary. I usually kept one, why hadn‟t I found one here? Perhaps I had taken it to that dressing Room Erik spoke of? It didn‟t seem safe for me to leave a personal book in a dressing room. It had to be here if anywhere. Where would I have stowed such a thing? An idea struck me. Leaning over, I gazed up underneath the bed. A red book lay sandwiched in between the mattress and box springs. My heart began to beat very fast. As quietly as possible I wrenched the heavy mattress off and retrieved the book. Neatening everything up took a few minutes, but I didn‟t want to have to do it later. Book in hand I went back into the parlor to sit where I could read comfortably. I would notice when Erik stopped composing, I felt relatively safe in my choice of reading spots. Opening the little red tome, I turned to the first page. [i]My Angel is not an angel at all, but a man! I was so angry with him for the deception I tried to rip off his mask. I will never forget the strength of his hands as they caught my wrists and forced me to remain still. “You are in no danger so long as you do not touch the mask,” he said solemnly. What can he mean by this dishonesty, this sham? I believed in him! I believed he was the angel of music. No one on earth could have a voice like his, no one. I can hear him now, singing a little passage from Tosca. My God, if only he would let me come to him I would throw myself at his feet, but he has locked me in my room. “For your own protection my dear,” he said as he closed the door. My own protection is the last thing on my mind.[\i] I felt my heart accelerate. At last, here was proof I‟d heard him. I went to the next passage. [i]His name is Erik. I asked him if that pointed to a Scandinavian heritage, but he only laughed and said he didn‟t know. How can he not know where he came from? He made me sing today. I positively sang my heart out for him. Drained and happy, I sank down at his feet and cried. My tears upset him. Getting up from the bench he hovered over me, wringing his hands in indecision. “Do not cry Christine,” he pleaded. “Please do not cry. You have done well and I am proud of you.” “I am crying for happiness Erik,” I said. “Your tears make me sad, and I cannot bear it,” he answered. “Even for happiness I cannot bear it. I never want to see you cry.” I made myself stop, but only because he insisted. I have so much joy inside me it has to come out some way.[\i] I stopped reading, feeling a lump in my throat. I couldn‟t remember this happiness. I seemed so delighted to have Erik‟s instruction. What had happened to destroy this? Curious and yet full of dread, I brought my eyes back down. [i]Today after my lesson Erik asked me if I had enjoyed my gala performance. I had, it had been such a thrill to sing for the opera and know he listened from Box Five. I had sung only for him and I think he knew it. I was surprised by his question though, more for his voluntary display of interest than for the content. Erik seems so distant these days. When I told him of my reunion with Raoul he seemed quite irritated. I protested that I would not let him interfere with my career, but he didn‟t seem to believe me. I pointed out that he wasn‟t really an angel, to tell me I couldn‟t see whom I wanted to see. After all, his earlier insistence that I stay away from Raoul had been over the idea that I couldn‟t focus on worldly matters when I was being graced by instruction from an angel. It was the wrong thing to say. Erik stalked from the organ and shut himself in his room. The house is very quiet now. I hear the clock ticking and the fire burning away at the wood, but loudest is Erik‟s silence. He knows the greatest misery he can bestow upon me is the withdrawal of his magnificent voice. I crave to hear him like I crave to breathe air. I know in my heart he will insist upon taking me above soon. I will have to wait and wonder by myself in my dressing room. Raoul never asks such devotion from me. He attends to my every want and doesn‟t criticize me at all. I think I will go see him when Erik has taken me back. I feel the need to be admired and treated like a woman, not a machine for producing magnificent sounds.[\i] So this was how I thought of Raoul, a savior from Erik‟s demands? I shook my head. I couldn‟t understand how I could be addicted to anyone‟s voice. True, Erik‟s voice was supernal, but it did not rule me. It bothered me that I had claimed Raoul would never take me from my music too, for I knew he would have. I had made that assumption first thing upon knowing he intended to marry me. I might not have meant to lie to Erik but it seemed I had done just that. [i]I am trembling so badly I can barely write. I took Erik‟s mask off. I snuck up behind him as he played his organ, unaware of my presence. The horror that he hid made me insensible with fear. With a cry of utter despair, unholy rage, Erik grabbed me. “Perhaps you think I have another mask, hm?” he taunted. “Well, go ahead, rip it off! Feast your eyes; glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” And then, taking my hands, he dug my nails into his face. Blood fell like rain on the Persian carpet as I sobbed and cringed away, but he still held me fast. “Know,‟ he shouted, while his throat throbbed and panted like a furnace, `know that I am built up of death from head to foot and that it is a corpse that loves you and adores you and will never, never leave you! Look, I am not laughing now, I am crying, crying for you, Christine, who have torn off my mask and who therefore can never leave me again!...As long as you thought me handsome, you could have come back, I know you would have come back...but, now that you know my hideousness, you would run away for good. ...So I shall keep you here...” He tossed me to the floor as easily as if I were a toy. I watched him collapse like a broken marionette at my feet. His words tumbled out upon me, sounding like the breaking of glass. “Why did you want to see me? Oh, mad Christine, who wanted to see me! When my own father never saw me and when my mother, so as not to see me, made me a present of my first mask! “I handed his mask back to him and he put it on with shaking hands. I fled back to my room like the hounds of hell were at my heels. My God, the suffering! I don‟t know who to cry for more, Erik or myself. I must get away from this darkness. I must get away from Erik. [\i] The organ went silent. The sound of a chair moving brought me to life. With a guilty jerk I shoved the diary underneath the sofa. In a way I was glad for the interruption, for reading my tear-stained words made me sick. No wonder Erik had commented so strangely on my lack of reaction to his face. He‟d expected the worst. We had both done our worst. Erik came into the room, stopping short of going to the fireplace as his eyes rested upon me. I looked at him, trying to hold in my thoughts. It did not work. He came to me, crouching so that our eyes were level. I thought of keeping silent, of denying my feelings with a lie, but I just couldn‟t. I couldn‟t stomach the idea of becoming a liar again. Maybe Erik had been right; maybe I had deceived him many times. “What is it Christine?” Erik asked softly. “Did you remember something?” “I betrayed you,” I said. “If not with my hands, then with my curiosity.” “Ah.” Erik sat back on his heels. “The day at the organ. I thought it might surface fast if you kept dwelling on it.” He seemed to shrug. “I betrayed you first,” he answered softly. “If not with my voice, with my intentions. Don‟t worry about it.” “But I must worry about it if I am to repair the damage I‟ve done.” I fell silent, looking at him. The idea that I might not be able to repair the damage came to mind. “Just because you deceived me didn‟t give me the right to rip off your mask.” Erik reached out, brushing my hair away from my face in one gentle sweep that allowed for no contact with my skin. “I‟m not concerned with damage control Christine. For me the damage was done long before you ever came to the opera.” Erik‟s sentiment only increased my feeling of wretchedness. I could have helped him, if his life had truly been so unhappy up to that point. I wanted to be good and kind and help those in need. I looked away, feeling water escaping my eyes. “Oh Christine, don‟t cry, please.” Erik made a noise in the back of his throat. “There is nothing to cry over now, believe me. I promise you everything will soon be alright.” He touched my hair again with a hesitant motion, as if wanting to do more but fearful to try. “Don‟t let these memories rule you. Accept what has happened and move toward your future.” “My future?” I covered my face. “What is my future?” “I don‟t know. That is up to you.” Erik stroked my head gently. “You have many options.” “Not according to me,” I protested, my voice strangling on emotion. “All I‟ve ever loved was my father and music, and one of those is gone. Before long I will lose the other.” “No, you won‟t.” Erik‟s voice became firm. “You will not lose the music.” “How can you know that Erik?” I gave a weak laugh. “I‟ve lost a good bit so far.” “Because I am your Angel of Music and I deem so.” Erik stood up. “I can twist the future to suit my needs; it is no effort for me to extend that to you.” He grabbed his cloak and hat from the stand. “Get a coat my dear. We are going out for a little while.” I thought he would take me to the opera, but as he drew me to the street I came to understand this was not the case. Erik hailed a cab, his shadow imposing enough to do this quickly even though night had fallen and all men looked like shadows. After seating me like any gentleman would, he gave the driver directions and came inside the carriage. His eyes gleamed golden in the dimness as he looked at me. “You haven‟t asked where we are going,” he commented, sitting a polite distance away. “You didn‟t volunteer and I‟m up for a surprise,” I answered with a weak smile. His only response was a short, genuine laugh. Some twenty minutes elapsed in which I watched buildings go by. Suddenly we were stopping outside Notre Dame. “The children‟s choir practices tonight,” Erik explained, leaping out to open the door for me. “They have an unaffected beauty I think you will find very welcome.” Sweeping me through the doors, he led me past a multitude of people to a set of stairs. We climbed up a great distance. The upper seats were empty. I marveled at this as we took a close balcony seat. Practice or not, surely some parents would like to hear their children. Perhaps that had been the throng below? I watched the children file in; their solemn faces made all the more sober by the black of their robes. The conductor and musicians made ready while they lined up in order. After a few practice chords from both sets, they began. Erik had not guessed wrong. The pure, virginal voices that drifted up to us seemed sublime. I had never heard children sing before, not organized like this. Fully relaxing, I let them sweep me away on wings of praise to God Almighty. They stirred within me a passion to sing, to rejoice with my voice. Without looking, I reached for Erik‟s hand and found it. Giving him a short squeeze of thanks, I surrendered my soul to the music. All too soon it was over. We let everyone leave ahead of us. I felt a bit nervous as I realized I heard the sound of the cathedral door shutting and latching. Erik saw my little start and laughed. “Don‟t worry, we may easily leave. I wanted us to stay for a little while.” He shifted in his seat, listening. “And we are alone,” he said, sounding satisfied. “Come; let us go down to the scene of this music.” Down we went. Erik pulled me gently to where the children had stood. “This is where the acoustics are perfect,” he said, sweeping his arms out wide. His eyes now absolutely blazed with feeling. “From here a man may preach about God or sing his praises and everyone in the building will easily hear. This is where I want you to sing.” “But I don‟t remember how,” I protested, feeling frightened. I‟d never even run through scales with him yet. “You will.” Erik stepped slowly backward until the shadows swallowed him up. “Forget I am here Christine. Sing to your God and tell Him how you feel. Pray for the guidance you want, only pray with the instrument He gave you. You can get no closer to God than in His house.” “Erik, I-” “Pray Christine,” Erik commanded, his voice firm. “Forget about me. Raise your voice with the innocence and purity of a child.” A feeling of déjà vu swept over me. I was certain Erik had spoken to me this way before. I thought for a moment, my head bowed and my eyes to the floor. If he wanted me to sing, I would try. It was important that I try. More essential even than that, I needed to please Erik. I opened my mouth and began to sing. I did not know my own voice. As I poured forth the foreign words I wondered at how I knew them. My song burst forth in a tide of longing and vituperative despair. Every desolation my heart held, every desperate, nameless emotion I had swept out on dark feathered wings. I sang to heaven my feelings of abandonment, my anger at Him for allowing me to hurt. I slandered love and kissed the feet of Christ in the same breath. And then, when I could sing no more, I fell in a heap on the stone floor. Like the birds in the marked poem in my room, I had sung my soul away. I felt Erik gather me up. Saying not a word he carried me down the long aisle, setting me on my feet just outside the tremendous doors. Bracing me against the walls, he hailed another cab. As I waited I kept my eyes on him. How had he known? How had I sung? How had I given up this feeling, this majesty of sound? It was as if a door had unlocked and allowed me inside myself. The painful magnificence of my own desires had been in Erik‟s hands all the time. I did not speak the entire way to his home. My head dropped against the seat and stayed there. Afterwards, on the gondola I merely lay and looked at him. His eyes burned with a feeling I could only understand as triumph. When he bent to carry me inside I did not protest in the slightest. I would have let him carry me to Hell itself now, for showing me who I could be again. It seemed as if I only shut my eyes for a moment, but suddenly I was on the couch, covered with a blanket. I felt Erik watching me. Turning my head I beheld him sitting only a short distance away. His fingers were steeples, his head bowed. “You are still glorious Christine,” he praised in a soft whisper, stirring the fine hairs on my neck. “Do you know what you sang?” “No,” I whispered back, sitting up. “What was it?” “You sang from my opera, my Opus Magnus. You became Aminita, singing of her desperation to God.” Erik tilted his head, looking at me with a heated intensity that brought answering heat to my face. “You never once practiced that piece with me.” “How is that possible?” I brought a hand to my swimming eyes. “How can I have sung something I couldn‟t even remember twice over?” “I don‟t know. You must have seized the past and sung for tomorrow.” Erik sounded warmly content. “You sang as I always wanted to hear you sing, and the very part I wrote to precision just for you. You snatched perfection for yourself my dear, and held it to your heart with ferocity I have never seen you show.” Bringing his hands down, he leaned forward in his chair. “Do you believe me now? Do you believe you were diva here?” “Yes.” I smiled as well as I was able. “I believe you.” “Good,” Erik drew the word. “Do you feel any better about your future? About music?” “Yes, I do.” My smile deepened. “I am not without prospects.” “Just as I hoped,” Erik chuckled. “You should believe in yourself Christine, you have every right.” “And you made me this way, didn‟t you?” I stopped smiling with the seriousness of the thought. “You taught me to sing.” “No my dear, I taught you to suffer. You always knew how to sing.” Erik probed me with his eyes. To suffer? I blinked my confusion. What good did suffering do for my ability to sing? Suddenly, I realized the truth of his meaning. Suffering had taught me to put emotion into my voice. “I had walls that needed tearing down,” I ventured. “Yes, but you have already begun to build new and better walls. Tonight, you laid the foundation.” Erik reached into his jacket to pull out a small sheaf of staff paper. “I found the passage you sang from while you dozed on the couch. I want you to look at it.” I took the stack and settled back down. The Italian words meant little to me, but the score took my breath away. I‟d never seen such an arrangement of music in my life. The pages fairly crawled with red ink. After a moment I found my beginning and followed it to the end. It was a masterpiece, and I had sung it to please the composer. My eyes went back to him. The word genius echoed around in my mind. I continued to gaze into his eyes, feeling lost and yet unafraid of being lost. I could not be afraid; I had been shown a ray of light at the end of a very dark, long tunnel. Erik held a lantern to light my way. Patient and unwavering, he waited for me to advance. I wet my lips. “What kind of walls do I need Erik?” I asked. Erik sighed. “You have to make the strongest walls you can Christine, but by all means make a few doors. Neither the Vicomte nor I are as good at climbing over walls as we are at turning a doorknob.” As if on cue, a tiny chime rang above us. I recognized it at once as the bell Erik claimed was attached to my mirror. Erik gave a snort. “And the little soldier boy is knocking again,” he commented in an acid tone. “I suppose I should let him in this time.” Rising, he put his outerwear on once again. “I‟ll go fetch him,” he announced. “Do you want to stay or go with me?” “I‟ll see my old dressing room another day,” I answered. “I‟m tired.” “Are you too tired to allay your hero‟s fears?” Erik stopped moving, his hat halfway to his head. “No, I‟ll see him,” I said wearily. “I have to give him the key back anyway, don‟t I?” “I think it would be best, yes,” Erik replied, sounding amused. “Catch a nap; I‟ll be gone at least forty five minutes. I have a feeling you‟ll need your strength.” With that he was gone. ********************** I cursed in every language I knew as I navigated the lake. Just when Christine seemed to get a good grip on herself, the boy had to come meddling. It was late, I was tired, and I felt very bad-tempered at imagining the scene that might play out tonight. My God but Christine had sung her very heart out this evening. She had none left for the noble Vicomte or me. I knew it but he would not. He would barge in, overwhelm her with his beatitudes of love, and then leave her reeling with emotion. It made me ill to even think of it. The question of how she had known Aminita‟s part plagued me. I plunged the pole into the dark water, thinking of how splendid she had been. How could she have sung so well with no rehearsal, ever? I hadn‟t known she even knew the part; I had never shared it with her. Perhaps she had read my music while I was otherwise occupied? It would be like her, I decided with a laugh. Her curiosity made her predictable at times. The sound of her voice lifted to God with bitterness made gelatin of my best intentions. The silken tendrils of my menacing opera twined most lovingly around her vocal chords. She sang the sinister majesty of Aminita‟s longing like she‟d written it. I had envisioned nothing better, and it unmanned me. Up the passage I went. Three floors below Christine‟s dressing room I heard the Vicomte‟s voice raised in anger. I stopped, listening to discern whom he argued with. The reply came so indistinctly I moved the rest of the way up. Behind the mirror I beheld the nobleman and Madame Giry. Surprised, I stood back to listen and watch. “Even if I knew how to work the mirror I would not tell you,” Giry said coldly, crossing her arms. “Who are you to barge in on a man at this hour?” “That man, that monster has my fiancé, and I want to see her!” DeChagny put his hands in his hair, pulling in frustration. “You left her there; I heard it from his own lips.” Giry frowned. “I took her to him to make her well, not to cut her off from me!” “You should have considered his methods before you gave him your problem.” Giry turned her head in obvious dismissal. “I have seen her just today, she is in no danger and she never was.” “I was mad to take her,” the Vicomte raged, ignoring her words to slam both his fists against the glass. “All else had failed, what was I to do?” “She should never have gone with you in the first place, you would ruin her.” Madame Giry drew herself up. “Christine‟s soul is music, and you would deny her that. Refute me if you dare.” Her eyes snapped a cold blackness that drew the Vicomte up short from his fit. “I would not!” “You are a liar.” Giry opened the door. “Get out of the opera before he hears you. I cannot imagine his generosity will be extended to you much farther.” “His generosity! How has he been generous?” “How many others have crossed him and walked away?” Giry made an impatient gesture toward the open door. “You insolent puppy, even now you remain ignorant of what he can do. He could kill you with his voice and you‟d never even fight him.” The Vicomte paled, to my amusement. No doubt he was thinking of the paring knife now. “But Christine,” he began pitifully. “Is safe,” Madame Giry stressed. “She is safer with the Phantom than she would ever be with you. You almost killed her, pulling that stupid stunt with the carriage. Your driver didn‟t overturn the coach, you did. It is your fault she can‟t remember anything.” “How do you know?” The boy sat heavily in a chair, his eyes darting this way and that. “I spoke to your driver this very afternoon, to ask him what had happened. He seemed very willing to take the blame from his shoulders.” Madame Giry thumped her cane on the floor, causing him to jump. “I can‟t imagine it sits easy on him, taking the fault for you. No one else would ever hire him after you spread that lie. Shame on you, Raoul DeChagny, shame on you indeed! A man would admit to his crimes.” “I couldn‟t let her know I did it,” he cringed, putting his head in his hands. “She would not have trusted me after that.” “That wasn‟t for you to decide.” Madame Giry swept out her cane, knocking him in the shin. “Get up and get out. My supper has gotten cold while I waste time with you.” “You can‟t make me leave,” DeChagny answered, rubbing his leg with a sullen expression. “This opera doesn‟t belong to you.” “You‟re quite right; it belongs to the man who lives across the lake. It always has and it always will.” I resolved in that moment to reward Madame Giry beyond her wildest dreams for her loyalty. I had known she was a woman to be trusted, but I hadn‟t known I inspired such fierce devotion. “I will leave when I am ready.” The Vicomte folded his arms, looking away like a child. Madame Giry sighed. “God forgive me for saying it, but I hope he thrashes you,” she said. “I wouldn‟t have you die, but I‟d like to see you be made to grow up.” With a whirl of her skirts and a forbidding look, she slammed the door behind her. “Hateful old crone,” DeChagny muttered. I decided I had waited long enough. As my prey turned his attention to the door I stepped out of the mirror. “Impatient so soon Vicomte?” I asked mockingly. “It has only been three days.” God, but the urge to kill him for his carelessness with Christine‟s welfare was overwhelming. I had made him promise to take care of her! The ignorant fop had nearly rid the world of it‟s only true angel. Worse, once I had mended her he would clip her wings. Raoul jumped to his feet, his eyes wide. “You,” he spat. “How long have you been there?” “I might have been here from the very beginning, how would you know?” I asked softly. My fingers played with the end of my catgut garrote. One movement and I could be done with him…“I came to bring you to Christine and a measure of peace,” I answered finally. “But after seeing how you treated Madame Giry I hesitate.” “The woman is impossible; she refused to open the mirror for me.” The Vicomte defended himself with a quaver of uncertainty in his voice. “She cannot open the mirror you idiot, she is not in league with me.” “I did not believe her and I do not believe you.” “It makes no difference to me,” I responded. “The fact of the matter is that you couldn‟t open the mirror even if I showed you the switch, you are so stupid.” “How dare you insult me like this!” He came closer to me, his eyes blazing with anger. “I‟ve had enough of you and your abuse! If you knew what honor was I‟d call you out for a duel and Christine and I would both be free of your poison!” “Why don‟t you just pretend then, boy,” I said darkly, riding the edge of my control. My hand slid inside my sleeve. “Draw that gun in your jacket and fire if you think you‟re fast enough.” The boy stepped back instantly. “I‟m not falling for that,” he swore; sweat beginning to form on his brow. “Wise.” I relaxed my stance. “Too bad you weren‟t wise enough to drive your carriage with some sense.” I decided I couldn‟t kill him. Christine would never forgive me. DeChagny moved even further back, his eyes going black with fear and guilt. “What do you mean?” he stuttered. “I heard. Be glad I‟m more focused on healing Christine than punishing you.” I waved toward the mirror. “Are you coming with me or not? If not I must insist you stop prowling around in here and setting off my alarms. I can‟t sit down to dinner with chimes going off around my head all the time.” He followed me like a lost puppy, to think of it in the analogy Madame Giry had used. It pleased me to deliberately confuse him with random twists and useless passages. Twice I lost him on purpose, simply waiting for him to feel his way to where I lurked in silence. Finally, at the lakeshore, I shoved him into the gondola a bit too forcefully. He fell in more than sat. Making a show of my natural grace, I landed in the gondola with ease. “Hold tightly Vicomte,” I advised, taking up the pole. “The water can be treacherous. If you fall in I might not be able to find you.” Raoul clamped down on the boat sides with fearful enthusiasm, his eyes even more firmly clamped to me. It amused me to know he believed I meant to tip him out. What a tempting notion it was. So many problems solved so easily. But Christine would never believe I couldn‟t find her fiancé‟s body when I could find his ring at the lake bottom. Hoist by my own petard. About the middle of the lake, where all incidents seemed to happen these days, he finally relaxed. In a way it gladdened me to see him release his death grip, for his conscious worry had elevated my own tension. Unfortunately, a few rats in the process of swimming across found his arm a convenient bridge. The Vicomte jumped to his feet with a blood-curdling scream, wildly shaking both arms like windmill blades. Before I had the time to adjust the gondola he was in the water. I watched him thrash in the lake, thinking. He knew how to tread water, I observed with disappointment. The temperature would freeze up his muscles before long however, he was soft and unaccustomed to any kind of rigor. The unintelligible sounds of fear he made as the rats climbed upon his head and chattered simply did me in. Laughing, I brought the gondola to full stop and stared down at him. “Stop thrashing,” I ordered through my tears. “Hold still.” I picked up the rats and set them in the boat. Raoul made a moaning noise as they sat on the edge and stared at him. “I‟ll hold the boat still,” I said. “Climb back in.” “Not with those rats,” he declared. He sounded breathless. The water temperature had already begun stealing his breath. “They won‟t hurt you, you stupid boy,” I rasped impatiently. “Nasty,” The Vicomte said distantly, shuddering. “I won‟t get back in the boat.” “Then you‟ll die,” I said succinctly. “You‟ll die and you‟ll leave me to have my way with your lovely soprano.” Raoul‟s arm shot out and grabbed the boat. “You dirty bastard,” he gasped. “You would wait for that, wouldn‟t you?” I thought he meant to climb back in, but instead, he shook the boat with all his force. Only my superb balance and the firmly wedged pole saved me from falling. The boat drifted away from him as I righted myself in fury. Never had I wanted to kill a man more than I wanted to kill Raoul DeChagny. A strange calm settled over my shoulders as I watched him try to follow the gondola. All I would have to do is lower the pole and I could save him. If I chose not to, he would go away and leave me in peace forever and ever. I imagined Christine asking for him, and my inevitable response. “Why, he‟s dead my dear, I let him drown in the lake. I couldn‟t avoid it really; he was outnumbered by rats three to one.” Raoul made a choking noise. I heard the water splash as he spit out a lungful of the Seine. His sounds were much feebler now. It wouldn‟t be long, surely. The rats would even take care of his body for me; I wouldn‟t have to lift a finger. Madame Giry would not betray me. I could easily get away with this murder. “Help,” I heard him gasp. “Please.” I deliberated. Why on earth would I help? “Help!” Raoul spluttered and coughed again. “Please, Erik.” “Oh, you know my name?” I poled back in two strikes and gazed down upon him. “Why don‟t you ask me the way I‟m used to being asked?” “H-how?” Raoul‟s teeth chattered. “You know monsieur, you know,” I taunted. “Ask the monster for his help.” Raoul‟s eyes went lifeless. He feared to obey me. I sighed. I couldn‟t hurt Christine with Raoul‟s death, much to her benefit it might be. Leaning over, I grabbed the Vicomte‟s collar and hauled him in. Dumping him at my feet, I took us the rest of the way over. I more pulled than aided him onto shore. As he bent to vomit out more water I tripped the door latch and thrust him inside. Christine shot off the couch as her boyfriend landed in a graceless, sodden heap at her feet. Saying nothing, I walked into my bedroom and shut the door. Muffled voices sounded behind the oak. I ground my teeth at her conciliatory, concerned tone. Even worse was his pathetic, attention-getting pitch, his air of assumed harassment. I tore off my formal clothing, changing into relaxed trousers and my Persian print robe. Changing into my black, full mask, I exited the bedroom with both a change of clothes for the dim-witted schoolboy and a dismal mood. “Here,” I said, throwing the clothes into his arms. “You‟ll get sick in that wet wool.” “What do you care?” Raoul shot back, throwing my offering in the floor. Christine gasped. “Raoul, that‟s no way to behave,” she scolded, bending down to retrieve the pile of silk and cotton. “He didn‟t throw you in the lake.” She thrust the material in his arms in much the same way I had. “What‟s made you so silly?” “If there had been rats in the ocean,” I broke in dryly, “he‟d have never gotten your scarf.” Raoul turned scarlet. “You son of a bitch,” he muttered, swiping the clothes from Christine while glaring at me. “I knew this would be hard, but I didn‟t know you were going to have rats attack me.” “I?” I laughed. “The rats belong to the rat-catcher; I have nothing to do with them. Can I help it if you looked like a piece of driftwood?” “The rat-catcher,” Christine echoed faintly. For a few seconds Christine seemed to drift. With a small shake, she focused on Raoul. “But you‟re fine now Raoul,” she said lightly as if nothing had happened. “Why don‟t you change clothes so we can talk awhile?” Raoul‟s jaw tightened. Without a word he stamped past us, heading for my bedroom. I heard a vase fall and shatter as he slammed the door. Christine brought her eyes up to mine. “I know you didn‟t push him in Erik,” she said softly. “I think if you had he wouldn‟t be here, would he?” “No, he wouldn‟t.” I folded my arms. “He nearly stayed in the water anyway, but I scraped up enough pity to fish him out.” “Thank you.” Christine‟s eyes dropped to my arms and chest. I realized I had forgotten to pull my sash. Self-conscious under her scrutiny, I yanked my belt shut. “Forgive me,” I muttered. “I did not dress well enough to keep your company.” “I‟ve seen that robe before,” Christine murmured, ignoring my apology. “I compose in it sometimes,” I replied. “You were wearing it the night I pulled off your mask,” she went on stubbornly. “Yes, I was.” “It‟s beautiful,” Christine smiled, her eyes taking on a faraway look again. “Is it Persian?” “Yes.” I had had this conversation with her before. Thankfully, this one would not be as loaded with emotional pain as her earlier remembrance. “It is a memento of sorts. I have one other that I purchased for a gift and never delivered.” “Oh?” Christine reached out to touch my sleeve, her fingers dangerously close to my skin. “Is it similar in color?” “It is royal blue and gold,” I said, smiling. “It might have been made for you; it matches your eyes and hair.” “It would be too big,” Christine protested with a pretty blush, drawing back. “It is a woman‟s robe,” I replied. “Indeed?” Christine raised her eyebrows. “Why was it never delivered?” “I did not have a particular woman in mind. I thought any woman I knew well enough to give such a gift would surely have similar tastes as mine,” I chuckled. “It seems the gift is about to be delivered.” “I can have it?” She smiled with delight. “It is already in your closet,” I answered. Raoul came out, slamming the door a second time. For once I was sorry my mask hid my emotions, for he looked ridiculous. My pants did not reach far enough around at his waist and were far too long. Even the shirt showed our difference in height, the sleeves hung down oddly over his hands. Resisting a chuckle, I nodded to Christine and sat on the sofa. The Vicomte came over to me, glaring down. “Do you have to be in the room while we speak?” he asked, sounding both exasperated and furious. “I‟d like to speak to Christine alone.” “Then go in her bedroom, if you have the nerve,” I responded calmly. “It is the only place I can‟t hear you anyway.” “But it‟s the closest room,” DeChagny said suspiciously. “And mostly corked in the walls,” I answered. “I couldn‟t subject her to my odd hours and music without respite.” “It‟s true,‟ Christine murmured. “I can hear the organ only faintly.” “Fine.” Raoul turned, taking Christine by the elbow. “I would like to talk to you alone dear,” he said obstinately. She looked down at his hand, raising an eyebrow. “Certainly Raoul, as soon as you let go of me,” Christine responded. Raoul blinked in surprise, and then slowly released her. Silently, they both entered her bedroom, shutting the door. “Christine darling, what is the matter?” Raoul moved closer to me, arms outstretched. I allowed him to hug me, but for some reason the contact felt hollow. I moved to sit on the bed. “I‟m very tired Raoul, that is all,” I said. “I sang tonight.” “Here?” Raoul looked alarmed. “Why didn‟t I see you?” “Not here,” I shook my head. “At Notre Dame.” “Why on earth were you at Notre Dame?” Scorn tinged Raoul‟s voice. He‟d never been one to appreciate church in any respect. Funerals and weddings were his limit. He hadn‟t even attended mama‟s funeral for me… “To sing,” I repeated. “Erik asked me to sing.” “And you did it of course,” Raoul huffed, looking angry. His clear eyes clouded with what seemed to be repulsion. “You shouldn‟t have done it; it might set your recovery back. It wasn‟t right of that monster to take you there. If I had known-” “Monster?” I interrupted sharply. “That is uncalled for Raoul. I thought you wanted me here.” He needed to make up his mind what he wanted. “I‟ve changed my mind. I don‟t want you here with him. If he can take you out to sing when you are sick then he can‟t know what‟s best for you.” Raoul raised his aquiline nose in the air. “I‟m taking you home with me tonight,” he declared flatly. “And I don‟t have any say in this?” I stood up, angry at his assumption. When and where did he get the idea I‟d come running to him like a dog whenever he called? Was he incapable of listening to me at all? “You don‟t understand Raoul, I sang tonight.” I had sung, and sung very well. It meant something to me. “You shouldn‟t have, it put too much of a strain on you.” Raoul reached out to touch me, but I drew away. How could he expect to lay his hands all over me when he denied my feelings any importance? He made me feel like a child with a skinned knee. “I‟m tired Raoul, not in the middle of a relapse.” I moved to the edge of my dressing table, putting us on opposite sides of the corner. “I‟ve been remembering things.” “What have you remembered?” Raoul‟s face pinched with worry. “Different things.” For some reason I hated to elaborate for him. My memories felt almost…private. “I remembered a little of a masquerade ball, and a little about coming here on horseback.” I lowered my head as fog stole into my brain. It seemed the harder I tried to remember the harder it was, but in my unguarded moments the memories came clearly. “I remembered unmasking Erik,” I continued, looking up at Raoul. “You seem to be rather centered on him, I‟m sure he appreciates that,” Raoul snipped. “But I‟m glad you remembered how ugly he is,” Raoul added, muttering darkly and glancing at the door. “Why?” My breath caught in my throat. “It would have been too much of a shock to live through twice,” Raoul answered. In his tone I heard a lie. I wondered why he would lie over something like me remembering Erik‟s ugliness. It raised the hair on my neck, this casual deceit. If he would cover my eyes in falsehood when all I wanted was the truth… “He showed me his face well before I remembered it.” I answered with a shrug, feigning nonchalance as best as I could. “He showed me my second day here as a matter of fact.” Raoul drew back in astonishment. “Oh Christine, I‟m so sorry.” He came around the corner, arms out yet again. I went stiff as he embraced me. It felt wrong, oddly out of place. “What are you sorry for?” I asked softly. “You didn‟t make him that way.” “For allowing this to happen,” Raoul answered. “You could have lived your life without remembering his face.” “I‟m fine Raoul; Erik‟s face didn‟t bother me that much.” It was a lie, but I didn‟t feel obligated to tell him the truth when he lied to me time and time again. Besides, it wasn‟t Erik‟s fault he was ugly, and it didn‟t make him a monster. True, he said he had no morals, but I didn‟t entirely believe it. He had a few standards or he wouldn‟t be trying to help me. “Well, it‟s a moot point now anyway, we‟re leaving here tonight.” Raoul went back to his old line of thought, abandoning my view of things like yesterday‟s newspaper. I wasn‟t quite ready to leave; I had more to learn. I had spent three weeks at Raoul‟s villa without learning anything. Two days with Erik and I felt on the brink of self- discovery, of true awakening, and not just for my lost memories. No, I wasn‟t leaving. Raoul would shelter me just like my father did and I was bone weary of being protected. “I don‟t want to go yet Raoul,” I said resolutely. “I need to stay longer.” “I can‟t let you do that.” Raoul answered me with no expression on his face or emotion in his voice. His eyes were fixed on the doorway as if he expected Erik to come charging in at a moment‟s notice. Was he afraid? The idea dismayed me. “Can‟t or won‟t?” I snapped. He had no right to make my decisions for me, no right at all. An engagement wasn‟t a paper of ownership. I wasn‟t property. “You brought me here Raoul, and I‟m staying at least until Saturday.” ”What‟s the matter with you Christine? You‟re acting strange.” Raoul swept his eyes over me. Suddenly, he made a grab for my hand. “Where is your ring?” he almost shouted. “Here.” I pulled my ribbon loose so he could see. “It‟s too big, I nearly lost it.” “You have it on your neck,” Raoul muttered, his eyes glowing with displeasure. “The last time you wore it on your neck was to hide it from him.” “Well this time I‟m wearing it that way for other reasons,” I said. “And the way you‟ve been talking to me makes me wonder if I need ever put it back on my finger.” “You don‟t mean that,” Raoul said quickly, looking away. “How would you know?” I shoved the ribbon back into my bodice, angry at his dismissal. “You‟re almost a stranger to me Raoul; I can‟t remember what we‟ve shared, what we‟ve come to know about each other.” “You can learn again.” Raoul held out his hand. “I can‟t go on without seeing you Christine, and he won‟t let me see you whenever I want. The only thing to do is to go.” His plea sounded like whining. “But Erik is helping me to remember, and I want to remember.” I felt almost in tears now. He refused to hear what I was saying. Couldn‟t he understand how important this was to me? Why wouldn‟t he want me to be a whole person again? “You can remember later, now I have to get you out of here.” “Raoul, I don‟t want-” I tried to tell him for a final time, but again he cut me off. “No arguments Christine, I know what‟s best for you.” Raoul held up his hand. “No.” I took a step back. “Come back Saturday.” “I‟m taking you now.” “No you aren‟t!” I shouted, finally losing my temper. He wasn‟t listening to a thing I said. “I have my own mind and my own plans, you can‟t make me leave.” “I‟m to be your husband,” Raoul corrected calmly, as if I hadn‟t said anything at all. “Come along.” Grabbing my arm, he proceeded to pull on me. “You let go of me this instant,” I said, wrenching free. “How dare you drag me around like a carpet- bag?” I was so angry I couldn‟t see straight. What gave him the right to assume possession of me? “You‟re not acting right Christine; I have to protect you from yourself.” “You mean you can‟t stand for me to be down here with Erik,” I hissed. “It was alright to pawn me off on him when you were overwhelmed by my illness, but now you‟ve thought better of it. You don‟t care if I never remember!” “That isn‟t true,” Raoul protested, his eyes going soft and watery. “I want you to remember our love.” I stared at him. “Prove you love me,” I responded coldly. “All I‟ve got is your word on it.” “Prove myself?” Raoul‟s eyes flared. “After all I‟ve done for you?” “What have you done for me?” I shouted, throwing my hands in the air. “I can‟t remember what you‟ve done Raoul, understand? I need to know what I‟m missing, so I am staying here.” “I‟m not arguing with you anymore Christine, you aren‟t making sense.” Raoul shook his head sadly. “If you won‟t listen to reason I‟ll have to take you out myself.” I had had enough. Raoul wouldn‟t give weight to a thing I said. Worse, he wouldn‟t allow me the benefit of the doubt. I strode past him and opened the door. “That‟s better,” Raoul said, his voice sounding sharp and superior. “No, it isn‟t,” I shot back. Looking around I spotted Erik standing at the large granite fireplace. He glanced up automatically, and then straightened as both Raoul and I approached. Just as Raoul reached for my hand, I stopped. “Erik,” I said coolly, “I am finished speaking with the Vicomte DeChagny.” “Christine!” Raoul staggered back as if I‟d struck him, his eyes going wide as saucers. His display only served to increase my irritation. I wasn‟t betraying him; there wasn‟t any need to be so dramatic about my refusal to talk. He was the one who wouldn‟t listen, not I. He couldn‟t expect me to obey him utterly and without question. I looked at him, keeping my emotion hidden. “Goodbye Vicomte,” I said. “I look forward to seeing you on Saturday.” Dropping his lost key in his hand, I turned around, retreating back into my room. I was safe to refuse him; Erik wouldn‟t let him lay a finger on me. “She, she-” Raoul shook his head in obvious disbelief. “She said goodbye,” I finished for him. “I trust you can see yourself out.” “But-” DeChagny looked at the key, frowning. “I lost this,” he said weakly. Turning to me, he seemed to get a hold on himself slightly, drawing up with a fresh attack. “You‟ve influenced her against me,” he pronounced. “She always wanted to see me before this.” “Before this she also knew who you were,” I answered. “She doesn‟t know you Vicomte, and she barely knows me.” “Everything she said she remembered involved you,” Raoul spat. “So what? She will remember everything soon enough. You must be patient and try to be supportive of her problem.” Sighing, I crossed my arms to look at him sternly. “Insisting on your way won‟t make her love you, I ought to know.” “You were listening!” Raoul threw the key onto the floor in a fit of temper. “I knew it!” “I wasn‟t.” My temper stirred to life though I tried to forestall it. “I don‟t care enough about your feelings to lie. It doesn‟t take a genius to make educated guesses about how you might approach Christine. The fact that she was finished with you so soon told me enough.” “But-” “Go home,” I interrupted. “The more you stand here and argue with me the worse it looks for you.” In the end I had to escort him out the Rue Scribe. Fuming, I made my way back down the twisting staircase. Frustration threatened to consume me. It wasn‟t in my nature to be noble; I seethed. My nature lay in a delicate balance between gift and madness. I hadn‟t enough room in my heart for this ridiculous power play. Christine didn‟t belong with the spoiled nobleman; I knew it with ever fiber of my being. Forcing myself to play the intermediary, the adjudicator, the kind and patient mentor made my stomach churn. She deserved to sing, as she loved to sing. She deserved someone who would appreciate her talents, and it definitely wasn‟t Raoul DeChagny. It worried me being Christine‟s counselor, positively ate me up inside. I made myself be honest with her, determined not to repeat the past‟s mistakes. I flinched from the truths I showed her; yet show the truth I did. She had been no less honest with me; I knew it in my bones. That was the part that worried me. I wasn‟t used to relating to her like this. I feared I would mistakenly reveal even more than what she asked for. I feared I would hurt even more for it, because she would eventually leave me again. Yet… I thought I could stand to have her leave if she could do it without hating me. If I could look into her eyes and see acceptance, even platonic love, I might survive her departure. I could surely hope to expect no more than a companionable relationship with her; no woman had ever wanted my touch. Stopping outside my door, I looked out across the vast, black lake. My breathing came quietly despite the exertion of the stairs and the frenzy in my head. I focused on it, finding myself more peaceful by the minute. I loved this place. I loved the quiet here. I enjoyed the security of living where no prying eyes could see me, where I did not have to endure the noises and confusion of others. Eternal night reserved me in her cold cocoon, kept me safe from myself. While in my underground home I did not have to worry about my temper. While here I did not have to concern myself with being accidentally discovered. Peace washed over me. Centered in mind and body, I turned from the lake and opened my door. I wasn‟t surprised to see Christine sitting on the hearth, waiting for me. Her blue eyes held a deep sadness. “Are you upset with me?” she asked softly. “No,” I answered, hanging up my cloak and hat. “Should I be?” “Maybe.” Christine held my eyes. “I bring nothing but upheaval for you.” “Upheaval?” I smiled to myself. “Christine, that is what men and women do to each other, isn‟t it?” “I suppose so.” Christine dropped her gaze. “I feel very sad and angry right now, and I can‟t blame Raoul because I let him upset me.” She wrung her hands together nervously. “I could have shut him out instead of drawing out that ridiculous argument, but I didn‟t. I felt like I had to make him understand me, and I wanted him to rejoice with me over finding my voice again.” “But he didn‟t rejoice with you,” I intuited softly. The stupid boy. He couldn‟t stand for her to sing because it made him think of how much she‟d cared about me. I could have thrashed him for that. Christine‟s soul was music. I cleared my throat and pushed the rage back into my blood instead of my belly. It was safe for me to let the anger run freely in my muscles, but the moment it coiled in my stomach I had to be ruthless in self control. If Christine had taught me nothing else about myself, it was self control. “If we could halt the power others have over our emotions, we would all be free.” I evaded the Vicomte‟s transgression against her heart, much as it pained me. I sat, noticing she had set out a tea service. The silver teapot had steam escaping it. It occurred to me we both drank more tea than any good Englishman. Too bad she insisted on that weak, sugary infusion instead of my good, black tea. “Erik,” she said as she sat back with a cup, “I enjoyed singing tonight. I enjoyed it more than anything I‟ve ever felt.” Biting her lip, she stared into the depths of her drink. A smile broke out over lips, but a faint smile. “It made me feel complete for a few minutes. It made me want to sing every day of my life.” Her smile vanished, replaced by anger. “And Raoul doesn‟t understand that. How can he not understand? Did he not meet me here as a patron of the opera?” I shifted uneasily. She still wanted to talk about him? I wondered if that was wise. He wasn‟t a subject I took kindly to at all. But of course, she did not remember that. Perhaps she just wanted me to listen? I tilted my head in encouragement, yet remained silent. If there was anything I could do well, it was listen to her. “What makes him love me if he cannot love my voice?” Christine went on. “Any woman would suit him, what made him choose me? And why did I choose him?” Sipping briefly at the cooling brew in her hands, Christine gave a low sigh. “Of all the memories I must be missing, the one that plagues me is the moment I decided to hand my life over to him. I am tired of having other people determine my fate. How could I have done it?” “Love makes us insensible to reason,” I said at last. It was a safe truth even I knew. “Yes, but doesn‟t it take more than a scarf?” Christine said sharply. “He protected you from me,” I said reluctantly. “At least, he made the effort. He showered you with flowers and affection at every available moment, which women do seem to enjoy. His light hearted plea for your love was a great contrast to the demands I put upon you.” I grabbed the arm of the chair, gripping it tightly to keep from shying away from her questions. This condensation of our relationship cut me like razors, yet I had to go on. She had to know the truth. I was not going to hang twice over the same mistake. “I asked for nothing less than all of you Christine, in every conceivable fashion,” I explained, watching the heat rise to her face. “DeChagny asked for nothing but your love.” “Well he‟s asking for more than that now,” Christine retorted. Her eyes flamed with righteous indignation. “He‟s actually not so much asking as informing me what I‟ll do and think.” “He‟s desperate.” I was sure of that. Christine made me desperate every second I drew air in her presence, surely the Vicomte was no different or he wouldn‟t be so foolish as to keep coming here to the depths of hell. “It isn‟t fair and it isn‟t becoming.” Christine set her cup down with a sharp clink. “And you say you did the same thing?” Her voice was as tight as a drumhead. “Essentially,” I answered wearily. God I was tired. The peace of the lake had evaporated from my soul. “How did you differ?” Christine eyed me hard. She was determined to shake me to pieces with her questions. I looked away. “You were too afraid of me to ask questions. You rarely had the opportunity to think for yourself; I lived in your head.” “How could you do that?” Christine straightened, a look of alarm passing over her porcelain features. “You let me,” I said simply, meeting her eyes. “You didn‟t mind being completely open to the Angel of Music. You trusted me.” “Am I wrong to trust you now?” Christine raised an eyebrow. I caught a glimmer of anger behind her eyes, anger for me as well as her Vicomte. “Maybe it is,” I admitted. “I have the best of intentions but I also thought I did before.” “I see.” Christine‟s voice was as cold and brittle as ice. Her hands wound together and tightened. “I have no doubt you suspect, but I don‟t think the image is clear.” “How could it be clear?” Christine gave a bitter laugh. “What you tell me about yourself is a contradiction to how you handle me now. What you tell me about Raoul falls into the same gray, inconsistent area.” She stood up suddenly, placing her now shaking hands behind her back. “If I was too afraid of you to ask questions, if you lived inside my head, I must anticipate a terrible awakening in the future. What is going to happen to me when I try to reconcile the black and white between both you and Raoul?” “I don‟t know Christine; I don‟t know how you will react.” I answered her evenly enough, but I felt myself begin to quiver inside. How would she unite her memories with present day? “I hope you will take everything into consideration the way you currently do, with intelligence and control.” “I don‟t have any control!” Christine brought her hands out in a kind of desperate supplication, raising her palms upward. “I don‟t think I ever did! Raoul seemed to expect me to obey him without a murmur of complaint. On the other hand, you won‟t ask a thing of me. This is in direct opposition from what you tell me used to be between us three. My loss of memory shouldn‟t change other people like this!” “By whose notion?” I stood up as well. The twisting viper in my stomach had returned. “I help you because I care about you Christine.” Oh God, that was so true. I loved her as much as I ever did. I would never stop loving her. “The Vicomte insists upon having you because he has fought long and hard to gain your affection. You influence both of us whether you like the idea or not. There is nothing insensible about the way things have transpired.” “I disagree; I can‟t make sense of this at all.” Christine dropped her arms. “By your own mouth I have heard how I should trust you, but then you tell me things that make me question my faith. Raoul has smothered me in a thousand words of love and praise since I woke in his villa, but I can‟t find one thing to make me believe his ardor. Both of you are driving me crazy!” Christine brought her hand up to her face, giving a tiny sob that sounded choked. “I‟m missing some terrible revelation, some epiphany! I don‟t know myself and I don‟t know either of you.” She turned and took flight. In a few minutes I heard her sobbing her heart out in her room. Every cry from her throat cut me. I listened to her weep for what seemed like forever, waited for her to fall asleep and silence the demons in my guilty conscience. I heard her grow hoarse, yet still she gasped and sighed like a woman dying of heartbreak. Never had she cried before me like this. I had pacified her with my voice countless times in the past, but now I could not rely on my voice to soothe her. It was unthinkable to let her continue, she would be sick if she did not stop. I paced back and forth in a fury of indecision. Time ticked on. Christine‟s cries became moans. I marveled at her endurance. Passing the stage of sorrow, she wept for herself now. I hoped it meant she would tire and fall asleep. I couldn‟t take much more. If she didn‟t bring her tears to an end soon I would have to act. I looked at the clock and gave her twenty minutes. If she hadn‟t stopped by midnight I would go to her. The clock chimed twelve. I went to her door and knocked. “What?” Christine asked in a weak voice broken by hitching breaths. “Open the door Christine,” I commanded gently. The sound of her moving off the bed followed by the doorknob turning made me step back. The sight of her brought agony to my heart. Rumpled and small, Christine stood before me. Her eyes were so red I couldn‟t accept their color at first. Trembling and swaying with every repressed cry, she nonetheless met my gaze with painful dignity. “What can I do to stop your tears?” I asked, feeling humble and broken. “What will bring you peace?” “I don‟t know,” Christine answered hollowly. “You are in a better position to know that than I am, surely.” “What I used to do is not an option,” I said lowly, knowing she would understand my meaning. “You used to sing to me,” Christine wiped her eyes with a feeble backslash of her hand. “You won‟t do that anymore.” “That is correct.” “For both of us,” she went on, finishing my thoughts. “Forgive me Erik; I don‟t think you can help me anyway. Lovely as your voice is, it can‟t make me feel better.” Smothering a sob, she pulled at a section of her hair. “I just feel so lost. I wouldn‟t even miss those two years if I didn‟t know about them. And, I know just enough about them to be aware of how important they are.” “They aren‟t important enough to be sick over,” I said sternly. “Everything worked out for you in the end; you don‟t have to mourn like this.” “I‟m not crying to be sick or to make you uncomfortable,” Christine snapped. “It isn‟t all about you Erik, or Raoul.” “Precisely. It‟s about you.” “It is.” Christine straightened, tossing her head. “It was about me when you made me believe you were an angel. It was about me when Raoul insisted I leave here. It was about me when I became your instrument this evening. I seem to be the center of everything, and yet I have no center.” “Your center will come.” “I don‟t think it will, not so long as I don‟t see who we really are.” Christine brought her arms around, hugging herself. “You aren‟t showing me who you are.” “I am Christine, I‟m just showing you what Erik is like when he has control of himself.” I felt myself slipping into narrative, a defense. I had been dreading the moment she began to pry. I had hoped to prevent her questions by showing her my face straightaway, but apparently it hadn‟t been enough for her. “I don‟t want to subject you to what Erik is, not a second time.” “Why not?” Christine came closer to me, her eyes lit with anger. “Don‟t you want me to know? Wouldn‟t you rather have me know you for who you are than for what you force yourself to be? You know me very well, yet I am not allowed to know you?” You don‟t want the real Erik,” I whispered, riding the very boundary of my control. I could feel myself unhinging in the brunt of her angry demands. The mere illusion that she might want me was enough to make me ravish her luscious little body. “You don‟t need Erik; do not even pretend you want him.” “Pretend?” Christine drew back slightly, her tone twice as sharp as before. “I don‟t know how you came to that. I‟m not pretending anything.” “It makes no difference.” I started to step away from her. I had to get away from her before I did something terrible. “I‟m not going to show you what you imagine you want. I am only thinking of your safety.” “I‟m sick of safety, it‟s keeping me ignorant!” Christine matched my slow, backward retreat, following me. “Raoul‟s idea of keeping me safe is taking me from you. Your idea of keeping me safe is keeping me from you. What‟s so horrible about you Erik? What do you have inside you? What if you hold the key to my memories and I never see it because you hold out on me?” She backed me up until the door touched my shoulder blades. “I can feel something, something powerful and secretive in you, in this house. What you allow me to see isn‟t a fraction of what lies beneath.” “You will have to go on without knowing,” I growled. “If you really want to know, search within yourself. Everything you wanted to forget about Erik is there, deep inside your mind.” “Erik isn‟t coming out unless I make him?” Christine asked dangerously, a challenging lilt to her voice. “What would it take, I wonder?” Her eyes were gunmetal, hard and steely. “Don‟t.” I clenched my fists against the doorframe. “Don‟t pry,” I warned. “The last time you played Pandora I almost killed you.” “That was different, Erik, that was nothing more than having to look at your face. You‟re hiding something from me that a mask could never conceal.” Christine leaned closer. “It isn‟t fair that I am laid bare to you and I must only guess at what you are.” She had me trapped. I closed my eyes against her anger, against her beauty, wondering at the irony of it all. She was furious I wouldn‟t show her the mystery; positively irate I wouldn‟t do as she wanted. Such a short time ago I had been the one laying myself bare, while she had flitted this way and that on what she desired. Well, she had chosen the Vicomte DeChagny, what more was I to act upon? “You require so much my dear,” I said, looking at her. “You drove your little soldier boy off and now you‟ve taken aim for me. Is there any way of pleasing you?” “Giving me what I want is a good start,” Christine retorted. “All I want to know is the source of all this pressure, the reason I‟m supposed to resent you and the reason Raoul fears you. If I only knew these things I might be able to recall everything else.” She glared up at me, bare inches from making contact. “Can‟t you let me make up my own mind about what‟s safe and what isn‟t? Or are you just like Raoul?” I knew her insult to be deliberate, to be a way to get me to comply with her demands, but it didn‟t matter. I wasn‟t in control of myself anymore. I snapped. “You always want to see more,” I snarled, reaching out to grab both her wrists. “What is it about me Christine, that you can‟t stop from trying to see me? Maybe I hide myself for damn good reasons; did you ever stop to consider it?” As she struggled, her eyes wide with fear, I transferred her wrists to one hand. “Didn‟t you believe me my dear?” I taunted. “Can it be you‟re afraid now? Go ahead and thrash about, I‟m stronger than your stupid boy three times over. It is unfortunate for you, but it is how I am made.” I laughed as I drew her against me. Her body felt so soft, so vulnerable. “So, you want to know what Erik hides, is that it?” I asked in a goading tone. “You want a push in the right direction?” “Erik-” “You want the real Erik?” I continued on, deaf to her pleading, numb to her pitiful flailing. “Well he‟s here now Christine, he‟s laid bare more than I ever exposed you.” I twined my free hand in her glorious hair, feeling the slippery slide of gold between my fingers. Making a fist I pulled her backward, revealing her slender throat to my greedy eyes. “It should be obvious now,” I breathed against her ear, “what Erik keeps from you. Do you wonder if you‟re safe now?” “Erik,” Christine moaned. “I‟m sorry.” “So am I,” I whispered. “I tried to tell you Christine, I tried to warn you.” I traced her pulse with my jaw, feeling the blood thundering in her veins. She was so warm, so full of life. “I told you as plainly as I knew how. Now I have so little control over myself it isn‟t worth mentioning.” Christine went limp. Releasing her hair I wound an arm around her waist. Her surrender banked the fire in my brain. Looking down at her tear-stained eyes and trembling lips, I felt ashamed. Remorse struck my heart. I had hurt her again despite all my best intentions to the opposite. The monster inside me didn‟t care about good intention or noble purpose; all that the monster wanted was her. Very slowly, I brought her hands up to my chest. “You never could take me Christine,” I whispered. “I can‟t give you the real Erik; he brings the sadness and fear back into your eyes.” I released her and fled. “The scorpion or the grasshopper, which will it be?” I dropped into the bed, hearing Erik‟s door slam shut from far away. My vision tunneled. Erik‟s proud form burned on my eyelids like a backdrop. “The grasshopper jumps jolly high.” I saw him holding a bag. “This is the little bag of life and death.” “Where is the voice now? Is it here? Is it there? It is in Carlotta‟s golden throat.” “She is singing to bring down the chandelier.” With a cry I clapped my hands over my ears. “Foolish Christine, who wanted to see behind the mask. Now you know that it is not an angel who loves you, but a corpse.” “You would have me wait for you forever? You would have fled and left poor Erik waiting below?” “You have burned up my heart Christine, burned it up and left ashes that still whisper your name in the breeze. I have always been and will ever be a dog to do your bidding.” I beat my hands against my head, but the horror would not stop. Erik‟s voice filled my ears, filled my head, filled my soul with his wretched despair. “You will not see the Vicomte, I forbid it.” “Do I not please you anymore Christine?” “Forget me, forget you ever knew me.” “Take her Vicomte, protect her, and keep her safe.” Moaning, I pulled the covers up over my head. “He does not wear the mask in front of me now, at my insistence,” I recited dumbly, numb with horror at my own treachery. I tore off the blanket, running to the bathroom. In seconds I heaved the contents of my stomach into the toilet. I remembered now. I knew Erik. I- I remembered his voice. The past and the present collided in my head. Raoul had left me with Erik! And Erik had accepted my presence! It was impossible, fantastic. For me to be in Erik‟s home was hell on earth for him. Unthinkable that Raoul had tucked his tail between his legs and run away from my illness. He said he loved me! He said he‟d do anything for me. Trembling, I rinsed my mouth in the sink and stumbled back to bed. The carriage ride slammed into my recollection like lightning. “Go faster damn you, the monster could be right behind us!” Raoul climbed out of the door, hauling himself to the top. The coachman moved over as he grabbed the reins. “We have to get out of here!” He spurred the already frantic horses, cracking the whip like a madman. The world tilted on its axis. My grip on the seat did not hold. My head struck something hard as the carriage overturned. Sick, I rolled on the mattress. Waves of nausea churned my gut again and again. How could he do it? How could Raoul have been so foolish? Erik had given me away, given me to him with his blessing. Raoul could not have found him a threat at the end. Erik had turned his back to us with a quiet, awful finality, his eyes gazing at me mournfully in the reflection of the silver samovar until the last moment. “Darling, everything is all right now, just rest.” Raoul looked at me with soft eyes. “I‟ve explained what happened; do you really need to hear it again?” “Yes Raoul, I‟m so confused.” “We were escaping a madman who is obsessed with you. The carriage fell over. I have dismissed the driver.” “But it was an accident, perhaps it wasn‟t his fault.” “He put your life in jeopardy, it is unforgivable.” I returned to the bathroom and vomited again. Raoul had lied to me. Was there no end to his lies? “You were a singer here Christine, don‟t be bothered about it.” “A singer? But I dance, not sing.” “Well, you sang for a little while, but I fear it disappointed you. Your teacher wasn‟t the best and you never stood out very much.” “Oh.” “But don‟t worry about that now; when we are married you won‟t have to show yourself on stage to make a living.” Crying, I sank down onto the floor. Raoul had taken my amnesia as a way to erase the past for himself. He would never have to live in Erik‟s shadow if I couldn‟t remember my angel, my beautiful and ugly teacher. Erik‟s voice stole into my head, louder than my pain and soft as velvet. “He‟ll never appreciate you Christine, not in the way he should. Don‟t let him silence you.” Time crawled by. I grew insensitive to the floor and my sickness. Welcome blackness closed around me. My heart stopped beating. Christine lay full out on her bathroom floor, her hair a golden fan. The smell of stomach bile was strong in the air. I felt her pulse beating strongly in her throat and let out a gasp of relief. Carefully, I lifted her from the cold floor. Moaning to bring up every hair on my neck, she whispered my name. Unadulterated fear shot through me. Carrying her gently, bringing her to the bed, I placed her on her back. Her hand shot out as I pulled back. Eyes opening, Christine met my gaze even as she caught my shirt. “Erik, mon ange,” she sighed. Her eyelids fluttered. Fainting away before me, Christine‟s lips formed the ghost of a smile. I stayed with her, I had no other option. Sleep would not come to a soul as panicked and guilt-ridden as mine. I wondered if she would awaken in her right mind if she awakened at all. Her breathing seemed so shallow. Her pallor came close to matching mine, a nearly bloodless washout. Dark smudges appeared underneath her eyes, which jerked behind her lids with alarming rapidity. She bit her lip, as if holding back cries of pain. Never had I been so afraid for Christine. I sat with my head in one hand and her hand in the other. Every time she gripped me tightly I feared it, and every time she let loose I dreaded the worst. Incoherent mumbling spilled from her lips, filling the room with disjointed, nonsensical misery. My name came more than seven times; Raoul‟s four. At the chiming of five Christine fell into an unnatural sleep. She neither moved nor spoke. The blankets barely moved with her thin breaths. She lay before me, like a beautiful, stricken angel. I wept with wretchedness. I was the cause of this. One weak moment and I‟d brought her to death‟s door. Her misery was my fault from start to finish. First I had deceived her, and then I had controlled her and almost driven her mad. Now she wallowed in the horror of me. I had painted myself very well for her. What made me think I could ever touch her purity? At noon Christine‟s eyelids fluttered. Her brilliant azure orbs opened. “Erik,” she said softly. My name sounded like a prayer. Turning her head, she looked at me. “I believed you were with me,” she thought aloud. “Yes Christine, I am here.” I swallowed back my joy for fear of frightening her. Her eyes were clear and her voice strong. “How do you feel?” “I feel…” Christine frowned. “I feel strange.” “Strange?” “Yes.” Christine frowned slightly. “I have a terrible headache.” “Let me get you something for it,” I said, rising. “No, stay with me a little while, please,” Christine raised her hand. “My headache can wait until I‟ve talked to you.” “Then take this,” I said, bringing a foil ball of opium from my pocket. “It will help your headache and I won‟t have to leave.” She took the drug without a murmur, placing it under her tongue. In a few minutes she made a sour face and swallowed. “Ugh,” she said with a shiver. Her eyes drifted up to mine. “That‟s bitter.” I smiled helplessly. “I‟m sorry my dear, I can‟t change its taste.” Sitting back at her bedside, I clasped my hands together. “But I am listening. What is it you want to discuss?” As if I didn‟t know. I deserved every rebuke she could dish out and more besides. As I looked at him sitting there and trying not to appear worried, I felt something wrench inside my ribcage. The past and present were together now. I knew him more deeply than he suspected. I knew him and I wasn‟t angry. Erik had been doing his absolute best with me. I marveled he had allowed Raoul to dump me here in the first place. How it must have hurt! I had to say something to him, but I didn‟t know quite what to say. My excuse to make him stay had no foundation. What could I say to a man who was willing to ruin himself on my behalf, to a man willing to kill and kill and kill to keep me? What could I say to a man who held graciousness and blackness side by side in his heart? Reaching out, I touched Erik‟s mask. He fought not to retreat, fought every instinct he possessed and won. My fingers slid over the warm porcelain, but I did not pull at it. When I retreated he gave a shuddering sigh of relief. He still couldn‟t abide showing me his face. His little display my first days here had been for the sake of honesty and nothing else. He meant to be honest with me this time. I hoped God would forgive me for not being honest in return. I could not tell him I remembered, not just yet. He would return me to Raoul and I wasn‟t certain I wanted that anymore. Raoul had lied to me. I had three more days to decide what I wanted… “Are you sure you‟re up to speaking Christine?” Erik asked, his yellow eyes probing me for my state of mind. I smiled faintly. “No, but your presence is a comfort,” I answered. “You‟ve been with me all night, haven‟t you? I could feel you sitting there.” “Yes, I was here.” Erik looked away. “I can‟t accept that I‟m a comfort to you, I am the reason you‟re sick.” “How could you be?” I took a deep breath. “I wasn‟t feeling well this morning,” I lied. “My stomach isn‟t acting the way it should.” There. My first real lie of my new life. Erik‟s entire body relaxed with my untruth. He believed me. Putting a chill hand on my brow, he seemed to evaluate me. “You are still very warm,” he admitted. “You should have told me you felt unwell.” “I didn‟t give it much thought until it became very unavoidable,” I replied. “All that crying I did, that selfish crying, seems to have just accelerated it.” “Don‟t scourge yourself over that,” Erik commanded firmly. “You‟ve had a bad time of it Christine, anyone would cry over what you‟ve endured.” He pulled his hand away, taking his marvelously cool touch off my burning forehead. “And I only made it worse, don‟t pretend I didn‟t.” His voice reeked of self-disgust. “I wouldn‟t say you made it worse, and I‟m not pretending.” A flare of heat blossomed in my pelvis at the memory of his hand in my hair, his body against mine. His touch did things to me. “I don‟t recall exactly what happened.” I cut off my thought, looking away. Another lie, but it was essential to put Erik at ease again. I could get nowhere with him while he whipped himself. “Perhaps I was too sick,” I finished. “All I know is your apology seems out of place.” Again Erik relaxed, but a flash of deep guilt burned behind his eyes. He was too good at feeling accountable for me, for my ills and tribulations. I‟d pushed him into a corner yesterday night and I knew it. While there was no excuse for his ultimate reaction, I wasn‟t nearly the sterling paragon of virtue he thought I was. He imagined me unable to bear his intensity; it was plain by his every nuance. Perhaps that had been true at one time, but I was awake now, awake from the longest sleep of my life. “But I do know one thing,” I said suddenly, startling Erik out of a reverie. “I know that Raoul was driving the carriage. I am very, very angry about that.” I was enraged with the Vicomte DeChagny, which was no exaggeration. “He lied to me. He told me the coachman overturned us.” “I know,” Erik disclosed in a bitter tone. “I found out yesterday morning.” “Why didn‟t you tell me?” I felt a bit resentful over this news. “Because you would remember eventually, and I didn‟t want to see the anger and hurt in your eyes.” Erik shook his head. “I didn‟t think it would help you heal, which is my first priority.” I sighed. Yes, my welfare was always Erik‟s first priority. I‟d never had a more ardent shield against pain and suffering than Erik, yet he helped to make me ache and burn in inexplicable ways. Even now as I looked at him I felt a throbbing that had an implicit center. Erik animated my blood; I couldn‟t deny it. I measured his movements ever and always, watched, listened to him with aching focus. Each golden syllable that fell from his throat resonated, distilled emotion and longing to absolute decadence within my soul. He did not know even half the power he held over me. I became conscious I had completely forgotten about Raoul while thinking of Erik, but Erik had no idea of it. He watched me, waited for me to continue speaking about my anger with Raoul. Wetting my lips, I complied with a sense of displacement. “Well, I don‟t suppose it matters who was to blame, not really,” I said softly. “What really matters is who is trying to help me.” Erik‟s backbone stiffened, as if he couldn‟t believe what he‟d heard. “What do you mean?” he asked slowly, his angelic voice smooth despite his uncertainty. “I mean it has been shown to me who has the stomach to deal with my illness,” I said. “Raoul himself is showing me the truth of your claim; he is just a boy.” I paused meaningfully, letting my eyes wander over Erik‟s shoulders. “You, Erik, are not.” Erik went still. “I am very much older than your Vicomte,” he agreed in a strained tone. “He still has a lot of growing up to do.” “As do I,” I amended. “Raoul is three years older than me.” “Women are not the same as men even in this way,” Erik said, waving his hand in light dismissal. “You might as well weigh the differences between a fern and an oak tree. I don‟t think of you as a child anymore.” He fell silent again. I thought perhaps he believed he‟d said too much. Well, one thing was certain. I didn‟t feel like a child around Erik. I felt like a woman. I felt like a very desirable, much cherished woman. I only thought about our age differences when he spoke of what he‟d done in his life, or when he used a word I hadn‟t heard before. Erik was intelligent, worldly, but he didn‟t throw his knowledge about. He didn‟t make me feel dumb or use his comprehension of the world against me. Erik treated me like a grown woman with feelings, a person with valuable ideas and thoughts. I couldn‟t think of a single time he‟d talked down to me. Yet Raoul spoke to me like I had no understanding of anything. He took it for granted he was superior, employing his bias in the shelter of chivalry. He never asked my opinion; never listened to a word I said when it didn‟t agree with his own mind. Like a fool I had gone along with it, accepting the idea I was weak and helpless. As long as I had him to protect me I hadn‟t needed to think. Being relieved of my memories had given me the chance to think for myself again. I‟d ripped off my own veil and I couldn‟t slide into that negligent comfort again. Again I realized I had let natural conversation lag for the sake of rumination. Erik was looking at me uneasily. I smiled warmly at him. “I think I‟d rather be a fern than an oak tree,” I said, thinking to lighten the mood. “Not only do ferns have more grace, they aren‟t cut for firewood or made into squirrel‟s homes.” Erik laughed in soft appreciation, the remaining tension draining from his shoulders. “If I had to be a plant, I would be a willow tree,” he declared. “No one cuts them for the fire either and they bend more than they break.” He sat back, putting his chin in his hand. The twinkle of mischief lit in his tawny eyes. “I would make your Vicomte an aspen tree,” he chuckled. “They are handsome and they shiver in the wind.” I giggled. “Erik,” I admonished, not meaning it. It made me giddy to see his humor again. “Well how about crabgrass then?” Erik countered, his head tilting. Again I giggled. “Because you can‟t get rid of it?” I queried. “Just so.” Erik‟s teasing eyes brightened. “But you know, it is pretty, it remains green when drought kills everything else.” “So does a cactus,” I sniggered. “Ah, but I would be more the cactus,” Erik sighed. “Tall and prickly and left strictly alone until one is thirsty enough to risk losing a little blood.” Leaning toward me, he placed his hand back on my forehead. “And truth be told Christine, you are more like the rose than the fern,” he said lowly. “It is the queen of flowers. No one can deny the rose‟s beauty.” He sat back, looking at me with gentle eyes. “Your fever is going down my dear. Would you like a little breakfast?” So we were going back to safer topics then? I nodded for my answer, pretending to be fatigued. “I‟ll sleep while you cook, if you don‟t mind,” I murmured. “I‟m sure I‟ll feel better when I eat.” “Yes, I‟m sure you‟re right.” Erik got up. “I‟ll be back in just a little while. Rest.” I watched his graceful legs carry him to the door, admiring the way he moved. I felt disappointment when he vanished from sight. In that moment I remembered probing myself in the bathtub, suspicious of his claim we had not been lovers. It seemed even vaporous amnesia couldn‟t protect me from the meaning of the way he moved. Erik would be a splendid lover; I knew it in my bones even though I had never made love. Lightning hot desire shot through my pelvis as my mind pictured us together in bed. I gasped and squirmed under the sheets, fighting the feeling. My newest awakening to Erik came at a natural enough time, but I could not let him see it. One look at my shivering body and heated eyes would tell him all. In his current state he believed me still forgetful of him, and it would have to remain that way for the moment. Getting up, I washed in the bathroom quickly. Feeling feeble, I chose a white dress from the closet. I made the mistake of running my hands over the wedding dress before closing the door. It washed me with pain, that dress, yet I felt drawn to it more than ever now. I felt gloomy as I sat before the mirror and looked at myself. I probably had broken Erik‟s heart into pieces too small to pick up. Was there even a suitable penance for the likes of me? I brushed out my hair with mechanical motions. I felt so heavy inside. Was I truly being fickle now? I had only just awakened, only just remembered all I had forgotten, and I already suspected I didn‟t want Raoul anymore. No, I corrected myself. I had never chosen to go with Raoul. Erik had given me over to him at the end and I had complied out of not knowing myself. “You didn‟t sleep, did you?” Erik appeared in the doorway, a tray in his hands. I looked at the way he filled the wooden frame, a shiver of awe rippling my nerves. Standing, I shook my head no. He sighed as he set the tray on my dressing table. “I suppose you know when to sleep and when not to sleep,” he replied. “But here is your meal. I made it light due to the sensitivity of your stomach.” Looking down I beheld fresh sliced peaches, toast with butter, and a cup of tea. My belly rumbled in appreciation. “Thank you,” I said. “Are you not hungry?” “No, my appetite seems to have flown.” Erik shrugged. I noted he seemed thinner then when we‟d first parted and hoped I wasn‟t the cause. He had a notorious habit of skipping meals anyway, but the least little thing threw him off of food. Sometimes when composing he would go days without eating. “I promise to eat lunch with you, if that‟s what you want,” he continued cautiously, his eyes skirting the room. “Good,” I replied lightly, “I‟d enjoy that.” He eyed me curiously, shook his head, and then went toward the door. “Eat and rest Christine, there is no reason for you to hurry about anything. All is peace and calm here.” Raking his eyes down me briefly, Erik left. Thinking that all wasn‟t as calm and peaceful as it could be, I ate my breakfast. When finished I applied a little eye shadow and liner, coated my lips in gloss. On impulse, I swept the upper section of my hair into a knot, letting tendrils hang here and there. I might not feel the best, but I wanted to look nice. It was important to me to look nice for Erik. Not only did he never fail to notice, he never failed to show his appreciation, at least silently. The way his eyes moved over me… I saw myself flush crimson in the mirror. Perhaps he would pass my color off as fever- induced. I half-hoped he wouldn‟t. If he directly asked me to explain myself I‟d tell him the truth and see what happened. As in days past I found him in the music room. He‟d changed into casual dress similar to what he‟d worn when retrieving Raoul‟s ring. Candlelight and gaslight worshipped the planes and angles of his lean body. The gold hoop I‟d seen in his ear once was back again. Even more golden and shiny than that hoop, his eyes tracked me as I walked across the floor. Only the slightest tremor in his hand as it hovered over a sheet of music betrayed the importance of my presence. Erik had learned to control what I did to him. What pleasure it would be to push him back over the edge. I knew him to be volatile when properly nudged. Erik had a fire in his belly, for life, for music, for me. I hated to have that fervor dampened. I hated the thought that I had brought it about. No one knew me like Erik. Now, for his sake and mine, I had to give us more time without betraying myself. I had to pretend I didn‟t know him. Such a thing would be nearly impossible. I had gotten away with it so far, but only because he was worried about me. It was time to begin the acting of my life. “I feel much better now,” I said. “What were your plans for the day?” “Plans…” Erik looked down at the papers beneath his hand. “I planned to hover about you solicitously, getting any and every little thing you wanted,” he said, his banter light and teasing. “Other than that my dear, I had no idea how to entertain you today.” The undercurrent of genuine hesitance eroded his air of playfulness. No doubt my sudden illness had thrown him for a loop. Well, he would have to get over his guilt if I didn‟t acknowledge its existence, wouldn‟t he? “Oh, I don‟t need to be entertained,” I protested. “I just wanted to make sure my agenda wouldn‟t interfere with yours. I was going to relax and sew, hopefully with your music in the air around me.” “You would like to listen to me compose?” Erik tilted his head. “Yes. I like to hear your music even if I cannot hear you sing.” I brought out my embroidery from behind my back. “Would you mind?” “Of course not,” Erik picked up his papers, glancing at me. “I might forget about you being here though, which is boorish.” “Thank you for the warning,” I smiled. “But I don‟t care if you forget I‟m here.” I settled down near the fire, putting myself sideways to the instruments and worktables he had scattered about in the room. This way I could observe him without seeming to make it obvious. After a few minutes of listening to Erik shuffle his music around, my eyes firmly on the work in front of me, I heard him sit down at his piano. He warmed up his fingers with a few flawless scales and began. Ah, but I had not prepared myself, even with what I knew. I hadn‟t heard him play in so long, not from so close. Erik wrought worlds and wilds from his fingers, spinning effortless perfection that snared me fast. My heart melted under his music. I could imagine nothing better than to live with such beauty all of the time. It stung me to know I‟d allowed him to give me away and take me from the chance to do so. Hours passed like liquid. Erik‟s playing brought a precise tempo to my sewing. By the time he closed the lid on the piano I was nearly finished. I looked up at him in time to see him stretch. Glorious muscle and sinew rippled under his backlit clothing. I stabbed myself with the needle as I gawked, but barely took note of it. All that power. It quickened my blood to know of his strength and speed. He never merely walked, but strode, paced, or stalked his way from place to place. He looked incapable of clumsiness. He really would be a magnificent dancer. “Christine,” Erik murmured as he looked to me. “You are very beautiful this morning despite being sick. I haven‟t seen you wear shadow outside of stage.” I blushed. “It was there, I succumbed to the impulse.” “I see,” Erik laughed softly. “I like your hair style too my dear, it frames your face in a very flattering way.” Again I blushed. I enjoyed this attention. Erik had never been so free with his compliments before. “I like it too, but I feel it will get irritating in a few hours,” I admitted. “I keep batting hair out of my face.” “Well, it is still pretty.” Erik moved toward me. My breath caught in my throat. He was poetry in motion this morning. Being at his music had loosened him up in my presence. I hoped he would not remember himself and tighten back up. “You have a pin loose,” he commented as he came to a halt in front of me. “Do you want me to fix it?” “Yes, please,” I answered breathlessly. Gazing at me in silence, Erik raised his hands over my head. I felt the minute adjustment keenly, smelling his amber and patchouli scent all the while. Having him so close for even a moment made my blood sing. “Check the one behind it,” I asked as he started to draw away. I took the excuse with relish. Erik complied. I felt drawn to his chest as he worked; it took effort not to fall against him. When finished, his nimble fingers moved to every other pin. When he stepped away I felt winded. “I think you‟re mostly in place now,” Erik said in a soft and thoughtful tone, taking one last swipe down a hair tendril. It wasn‟t quite a touch. “Are you ready for our lunch?” “Oh.” I cleared the lethargy from my head with a shake. “I believe so.” “Good.” Erik held out his arm. “Allow me to escort the mademoiselle to her table,” He said with a bow. I smiled. “Thank you kindly sir.” *** *** *** Something seemed different about her this morning. She appeared more at ease, but some other quality glimmered behind her eyes. I saw glimpses of emotion in her I‟d never seen before, something quiet and forceful at the same time. She watched my every movement. I began slicing bread, my eyes wandering to her. Meeting my gaze openly, Christine smiled a secret smile. “I‟m only guessing,” she began softly, “but this must belong to you.” Holding up a shining gold ring to my sight, she then cradled it in her palm. “It looks as if it will fit you.” “Yes, it is mine,” I agreed. My heart fluttered with a well-known pain. “It is the mate to the one I gave you.” Quickly, I turned to stir the soup. “I thought so, but you didn‟t inscribe it.” Christine gave a sardonic, unfamiliar laugh. “But I suppose you wouldn‟t, seeing as how you bought it. Still, it should have had something in it.” Like what? I thought in a burst of irritation. Forever and a day a fool ye be? Aloud I merely grunted, hoping the noise would suffice as an answer. I also hoped the answer evasive enough to dissuade her from further pursuit of the topic. I was exhausted this morning, yet happy Christine had recovered so quickly. The emotions swirling like a maelstrom in my head made me cranky and confused. “Something positive, something simple yet all encompassing,” Christine continued on, not in the least bit perturbed by my short answers and evasive tactics. Convinced I would have to stop her verbally now, I looked at her. “I can‟t imagine you could know enough about me yet to even walk that road,” I replied with a bit of intentional curtness. “Discounting of course a romantic theme for the ring, what would you put on it?” Christine blinked. Not taking her eyes from me, Christine rolled the ring back and forth on the polished table. “Genius,” she answered lightly. “Maestro would do very well too, but that falls into genius.” With a quick motion the ring disappeared into her hand again. “Strange. One could use the word brilliant instead of genius, but brilliant means very bright as well. And the word bright can mean intelligent too.” “What are you getting at?” I asked, feeling distinctly off balance. I wasn‟t used to her talking about me; her ambiguous line of thought wasn‟t the firmest ground for me to walk on. “Nothing, just pondering on the meaning of words.” Christine leveled her gaze, boring her blue eyes into mine. “One could say you are the light in your very dark home. Philosophically, you are akin to a bonfire in the night.” “A bonfire,” I repeated. “Yes, a conflagration.” Christine smiled again, another secret smile. “And all this from the word genius, which I‟m not sure describes me anyway.” I stated flatly. Christine snorted delicately, turning her head to the side. “If you don‟t want to discuss your good points, I‟ll change to a safer matter,” Christine said disdainfully. “But for the record it would be very telling if you don‟t.” “Oh, would it?” I replied, hearing the sarcastic tone in my voice and yet failing to control it. How did she put me on edge so easily? “Pray, make it clear to me,” I urged. “You want to know?” Christine raised an eyebrow. “I‟m dying of curiosity,” I bit out. “Very well.” Christine sat back, putting her hands in a steeple. “It would mean you aren‟t about to make yourself vulnerable. If you evade my subject, you evade judgment.” She smiled, but this time her smile seemed kind. “I would try to do that myself, but I can‟t stop hearing about how wonderful I am, not from you or Raoul. You at least can tell me the negative things I‟m capable of though. I appreciate that, strange as it may sound. I never have to question your sincerity.” I stared at her. I had no reply suitable. Slowly, I went back to stirring the soup. Either my brutal honesty was rubbing off on her, or she was growing up. I couldn‟t think of a thing wrong with any of the two answers. “You know,” Christine said. I winced in readiness. “I didn‟t really expect you to admit to genius, you‟re very modest for being gifted.” “Then why bring it up?” I ground the words out. “I wasn‟t sure you knew.” “What? That I‟m a genius?” I threw the bread in the oven forcefully. “No.” Christine laughed dryly. “I wasn‟t sure you knew I knew that.” I turned to look at her. “You‟ve mentioned it before, but only in regard to music,” I offered, feeling like I‟d lost a battle. Since I had no idea what that battle might have been, I felt distinctly less brilliant than she claimed. “Which brings up an interesting question.” “What?” Christine smiled her ever-appearing secret smile. “Music hasn‟t figured as heavily into our time as of yet. On what are you basing your opinion right now?” I thought I had her. “I have not sung to you.” “How well I know.” Christine murmured, her smile vanishing. “And you are the very soul of music.” Eyes sad, she opened her hand to look at my ring. “I don‟t have to look very far to give my opinion weight Erik,” she said in an indistinct tone. “You obviously built this house. Everything in it that happens to be foreign just screams out to me you purchased it on location. You read at least ten languages, two of which are long dead.” Lifting her eyes, she again pinned me to the spot. “I stuck my head in your lab, but I was too afraid I‟d ruin something to actually go inside. Your research table in the library shows you do math for fun. The only thing I don‟t see you do is write.” Her words shook me. I never imagined she paid attention to know my habits. With her memory gone I assumed she would focus on herself, as I would have done. Even had Christine been her old self I wouldn‟t have credited her with this. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I merely continued to look at her. “And I think it‟s a damn disgrace I‟ve obviously never told you how smart you are.” Christine folded her fingers over the wedding band. “I think you deserved better than that. For what it‟s worth, I‟m very sorry.” Almost like an automation, I filled our bowls and took the bread out of the oven. Mute for the first time in my life, I felt a curious freedom. Christine said no more and neither did I, but the room resounded with our thoughts. My diva‟s eyes wandered only between her lunch and me, while my eyes resisted moving from the tabletop at all. Without speaking, Christine took my empty bowl and cleaned the table. I watched her in equal silence as she washed the dishes. Her fingers were long and slim like mine and made elegant work out of a task she was too good for. Eyes far away, dreamy, Christine wiped her hands and applied lotion from a jar inside her pocket. As she flexed and rubbed the cream into her skin I noticed my ring now encircled her left thumb. The change I‟d been trying to pin down about her came like lightning. When had she learned silence? Christine seemed calm to her very core. I had never seen her so composed, so self-possessed. It was as if she‟d gone to bed as a child and awoken as an adult, such things did not happen overnight. “If you don‟t have anything for me to do this evening, I‟d like to go see my dressing room,” Christine said softly. I agreed, my eyes landing on a conspicuous absence on her person. Christine wasn‟t wearing her little ribbon anymore. The Vicomte‟s ring wasn‟t on her body unless she had it concealed. I wondered what it meant. She had tucked the ring I gave her in her bodice a few days ago. Was it still there? Again we took the gondola. I reclined as Erik began our journey, watching him. I wondered at how I had never appreciated his finesse. He might as well have been walking, so gracefully did he maneuver our craft. In his Phantom persona again, I beheld him as a shade of black on black. The lantern played up the gold of his eyes. I had missed Erik‟s darkness. My three weeks and odd number of days as a stranger had put distance between us, but I felt closer to him in kin than ever before. A layer of newness coated my eyes and experiences now. I remembered seeing Erik pole me across the lake many times, but now I found it something to enjoy as well as tolerate. The atmosphere wasn‟t so bad. I could ignore the cold while looking at him. “You‟re looking at me very intensely Christine,” Erik said as he brought the pole down for a hard thrust. I smiled, knowing he could see me despite the iron dark. I found I could see him rather better than I used to, strangely enough. “I can‟t help it Erik, you‟re very engaging.” “Perhaps.” Erik did not confirm or deny my notion. “Am I bothering you in some way?” “No.” “Then I must be the most convenient thing to look at.” Erik made a small laugh. “If you can see at all down here.” “I can see you Erik,” I replied. “I think I see you better than I ever have before. As far as you being convenient to look at, you happen to be very interesting.” “In comparison to black water and stone columns,” Erik amended with a laugh that had a nervous edge. “In comparison to many things.” I looked down at the ring on my thumb. “It doesn‟t escape me that you are entirely multi-faceted. Being a bit one-dimensional myself, I wonder what in the world about me captures your attention.” “If I told you you‟d jump out of this boat,” Erik answered lowly. A tremor of excitement seized my muscles. “I‟m not sure about that,” I answered in return, bringing my eyes up to his. “I‟ve spent lots of time with you.” “Some of it enforced,” Erik murmured in counterpoint. “Some of it voluntary,” I argued softly. “I‟m here by choice right now.” “I‟ve managed not to be cruel to you yet.” Erik countered me again. “I fear I had less success in that endeavor the first time around.” His voice sounded bitter with self- recrimination. “You could spend all the time in the world with me and never, ever feel safe, at least once you remember the truth of me.” “And what truth is that Erik?” I asked softly. I was as tired of his self-recrimination as much as I was toward Raoul‟s lies or my own vacillating. “Is it something you haven‟t covered yet?” Erik looked at me, his movements with the pole becoming short and jerky. I smiled inwardly at his discomfiture, his irritation with my questions. He longed to release some of his pent-up emotions; I could taste it in the air around us. “Besides being a kidnapper, a murderer, and a stalker?” I prompted. “Do you kill people out of personal spite or because someone else tells you to do it?” Erik rammed the pole into the deep silt at the lake bottom, stopping us with a sudden lurch. His harsh breathing reverberated in the damp air. Staring down at me like an irritated parent, he folded his arms. “Is there some reason you‟re pushing me Christine?” he asked, “Or is this some kind of capricious entertainment for you?” I thrilled at his quiet outburst. The real Erik needed only a little encouragement to show himself. This passion he displayed was exactly what I wanted and what he needed. Feigning calm, I shrugged. “Pushing you is incidental; I want to know if you kill on a personal level or not.” “Of course I kill on a personal level, what other way is there?” Erik said silkily. “There‟s at least one other way,” I pointed out gently. “A soldier usually has nothing against the enemy he‟s trying to kill, just the country that pits him against his foe.” “Well I‟m glad that little mystery is cleared up,” Erik retorted with a harsh laugh, taking up the pole again. “I was never a soldier; it wouldn‟t have been a useful addition to my credentials.” Laughing again, he shook his head. “I can‟t think of anything more useless than getting myself killed for ideals. I suppose I have a failing there.” “Not a failing Erik, a sensibility.” I leaned further back, studying him. “You‟ve answered my question quite well.” “I‟m so glad,” came his acrid response. Even in the grips of sarcasm and ire his voice was seraphic. “I‟m not entirely sure what you asked was what you wanted to know,” he continued. “And don‟t imagine for an instant that I can‟t see you are pushing me on purpose. It‟s true I can‟t fathom why, but I still feel it.” I let him stew in silence. It wouldn‟t do any good to tell him why I wanted him at a fever pitch. If he knew he would shut down and become emotionless, I‟d seen him do it before. Nothing could budge Erik once he decided not to react. Upon disembarking, Erik turned to retrieve me in his normal fashion. My foot slipped on the prow, but rather than catch myself as I easily could have done, I deliberately made my balance worse by flailing. Erik caught me easily, as I knew he would. His embrace made my heart ache, fleeting as it was. Setting me down, he secured the boat with apparent ease. “Are you sure the Vicomte‟s doctors made the right conclusion?” he asked, concern in his tone. “You are a dancer Christine; you never used to be this clumsy getting in and out of the gondola.” “My shoes are slick,” I defended, putting indignation in my answer. “Women‟s wear isn‟t made for this kind of thing.” Dusting myself off needlessly, I cast him a glance from beneath my eyelashes. “As long as you are close by I won‟t worry about the failings of my attire.” Erik chuckled at that. “Trusting, aren‟t you?” “It isn‟t hard to trust you‟ll catch me Erik, you‟re very strong and very quick.” I smiled. “I might as well be made of feathers when you catch me.” “But what if I‟m not paying attention to see you fall?” Erik asked, regarding me seriously. “Then I guess I‟ll land on my ass,” I replied. “I like my shoes.” Erik blinked in astonishment. “Did you just curse Christine?” A tremor of delight edged his tone. “Did I?” I looked at him with widened eyes. “I don‟t use profanity.” Erik chuckled long and hard as he began leading me to the passageways. His humor held all the way through the twisting tunnels. As we approached the back of my mirror however, his mood sobered. I wondered how he felt as the burden of his past came closer. The mirror was like a crime scene to him. I wasn‟t sure how I felt about it either, for although I knew he‟d lied to me behind it for months, he‟d also given me the gift of joy the whole while. “Are you sure you want to go in?” Erik sighed. For a moment I thought his tone implied his personal discomfort, but when my eyes swept past him I saw the real reason for his behavior. Raoul sat in my divan, reading a book. He looked completely at home. “This is what I get for disabling the alarm,” Erik muttered. “For sake of peace and quiet I get an ugly surprise.” Eyeing me askance, he drew in another deep breath. “I wish you‟d let me kill him.” You can‟t kill crabgrass, I thought distantly. “I won‟t though,” I answered aloud. “Though I‟m not particularly happy to see him right now.” “Why not?” Erik asked in a cutting manner, leaning closer to me. He looked like an annoyed schoolteacher. The only thing that threw the image off was his hat. “He‟s your suitor, your hero; you ought to be thrilled to pieces!” His scathing tenor hit me like shards of ice. “Don‟t you tell me how I ought to feel,” I whispered back in a quality to compete with his. “I‟m sick of being told who I love, who I fear, who I admire.” “I thought that‟s what you wanted,” Erik sniped back. “All you‟ve done is quiz me about your love life!” He loomed over me now, genuine anger lighting his eyes from behind. “When I tell you you‟re in love with that dolt I mean it!” “Well how the hell do you know Erik?” I poked his chest with my finger. “Did I ever tell you that?” Erik straightened immediately. Gesturing to Raoul, who read cluelessly on behind the glass, Erik made a growing noise. “You didn‟t have to,” he ground out. “Would the boy pursue with so much enthusiasm if he didn‟t feel he was justified?” “I don‟t know Erik; he practically drowned himself getting my silly scarf!” “That just makes him stupid.” Erik hissed, “It doesn‟t make him unjustified!” “You know, whatever!” I threw my hands up in the air. “Just make him go away!” “And how do you propose I do that?” Erik sounded amazed. “The idiot boy looks very comfortable to me!” “You said and I quote, “I can make your Vicomte leave without any effort. I don‟t even have to hurt him to do it.”‟ I looked at him expectantly. “I‟ve never yet met the person who could fight my powers of persuasion,” I finished. Erik‟s teeth gnashed together so hard I could hear it. “I said I wouldn‟t sing-” he began, but I cut him off. “To me.” I raised an eyebrow. “I don‟t care how you do it so long as you don‟t hurt him,” I added. I had him now. He‟d have to sing in front of me. Erik‟s eyes flared. “You little minx,” he whispered in a wondering tone. “You‟ve gotten slippery as an eel.” “I didn‟t know he was going to be here,” I defended. “No, but you certainly improvised with breathtaking speed,” Erik answered. “I wonder who taught me to think on my feet?” I asked rhetorically. “It certainly wasn‟t my father or Raoul.” Erik leaned back. For a few minutes of silence he merely looked at me. I wanted badly to squirm away from his gaze, but he held me fast. Finally he made the motion of a sigh without the sound of one. “My dear, I‟m tempted,” he uttered lowly. “You don‟t know how I‟m tempted. This could all be so very easy for me. I‟m not obligated to play the hero like your little merman.” “You don‟t play at all,” I argued, ignoring the warning in his tone. “Weight of meaning loads down everything you say and do.” “And when I sing it is worse,” Erik snapped. “Have you no sense of the danger you‟re in with me? While it‟s true I would never hurt you physically, I‟d do you injury in other ways.” He shook himself. “You seem hell bent to get the one thing out of me that I have said you couldn‟t have.” Well, that makes us a pair, doesn‟t it Erik? I thought with remote humor. “How could I help that?” I asked. “Just hearing you speak makes me weak in the knees. Am I not supposed to want more?” I laughed. “You might as well ask me to quit breathing!” In the aftermath of my hasty confession I knew I‟d made things worse. Erik‟s body gave a grand shudder as he staggered backward and away from me. His golden eyes turned molten behind the black mask. Breathing harshly and slowly, he watched me with an intensity I could not fail to understand. Temptation had given way to full scale, ravenous appetite. I too shuddered, listening to my rasping lungs and rapidly heating blood. Suddenly the distance between us shortened. Erik‟s hands shot out and grabbed me, twisted me to face the mirror and held me fast. “You‟ll be the death of me,” he whispered into my ear. I smelled his amber and patchouli scent, and underneath that the musk of his desire. “You want me to get rid of your little royal suitor with my voice, is that it?” Curling an arm around my waist, he nudged me forward with his legs until I nearly touched the glass. “Very well, but you aren‟t going to like it. Better that you don‟t like it though Christine, better that you close your ears off right now.” A strange resonance emanated from everywhere at once. The vibration of Erik‟s chest was the only proof to my ears that a human being could make such a sound. Electric, it vibrated and hummed in appalling discordance. I felt like my bones would shake to pieces and my eardrums burst with the almost inaudible noise. Pressure built up behind my ears and eyes. Panic seized me. I clapped my hands over my ears and made as if to get away, but Erik kept me against him. I watched as Raoul covered his ears, wincing. Erik increased his terrible, hypnotic undercurrent of energy. In moments Raoul rose from the bed and left the room, slamming the door behind him. Erik released me, stopping the horrible sound. “There isn‟t a sound I can‟t mimic,” Erik said calmly, opening the mirror and gesturing inside. “What was it?” I asked breathlessly, too upset and shaken to move. “It‟s the sound one hears right before being struck by lightning,” Erik explained with a short laugh. “But how would you know that unless you‟d been struck?” I leaned on the wall, shaking my head to get it clear. “You wouldn‟t I suppose,” Erik replied. “Are we going to stand in the passage or go inside?” he asked curtly. I brought my head up, anger rising in my breast. “Yes, we are going inside,” I answered. “Thank you for making that possible.” “You are very welcome.” Erik executed a mocking bow, even removing his hat and placing it on his chest. “I kept my word, I didn‟t hurt him.” “And you didn‟t sing either,” I muttered, sweeping past his lanky form. “Oh well, perhaps you‟ll devise something else,” he replied lightly, following me in. Gritting my teeth, I resolved to ignore him. With exaggerated movements, I went to my dressing table and stared at my reflection. The light was different up here. I looked tired and pale. Had I looked this haunted a few days ago? I didn‟t think so. Catching Erik‟s refection in the glass, I willed him to look at me. “How many times?” I asked abruptly. “How many times have I sat here to brush my hair while you watched me?” Erik waved his hand in dismissal, but his eyes fell upon me and did not waiver. “More than several hundred times I imagine,” he replied, not sounding the least bit repentant. “Enough for me to know you give each side a hundred strokes.” I felt a spasm run through me. Still, I kept his eyes. “Have you seen me undress?” I had to know. “No.” Again I heard no remorse, not even a tinge of embarrassment. “Oh? Being a gentleman?” I asked. “Not especially.” Erik dropped his gaze briefly to the rest of me before going back up to my eyes. “I didn‟t think I could stay on the other side under that circumstance,” he murmured. Heat blossomed in my face. Averting my eyes, I conceded he‟d scored a point against me. I sat down and opened the top drawer without looking for him again. The drawer was full of dried rose petals, red and white. I remembered each and every time I‟d stripped one of Erik‟s roses. I‟d had dozens and dozens from him and Raoul both, but Erik‟s I had kept here. Raoul‟s were in my flat in a box. I looked back at him despite myself. “Where did these come from?” “The rose petals?” “Yes.” “They came from me.” Erik spun gracefully to sit on my divan, his cloak flying out behind him. Looking away from me and down, he picked up the book Raoul had been reading. “There were others, but I think you brought them across the lake with you.” He glanced at the title, as if bored with the conversation. “You‟ve always liked roses.” Saying nothing, I shut the drawer and opened another one. I had to make my performance a good one now. This drawer too was completely full of petals. I slammed it shut and opened the last one. My eyes took in a pile of familiar petals. I looked at his reflection. “Erik,” I said quietly. “How can I have amassed this many rose petals?” “A dozen here and there add up, especially if you never throw them away,” Erik replied serenely, tossing the book down. “You kept the Vicomte‟s too, but there were too many to store here. I believe you took them to your flat.” “I haven‟t been there yet,” I replied. “I haven‟t either.” Erik stood. “I know where it is if you want to go there.” “I don‟t have a key.” “That isn‟t a problem.” Erik glanced at the clock. “It‟s late; your landlord won‟t even know you‟ve come home.” He paused. “There really isn‟t anything else in here to look at. Did anything spark your memory?” “Not as such, but I don‟t want to go to my apartment.” “Why not?” “I have a feeling about it.” I went back to the mirror. “Please take me back to your house now,” I asked. I felt sad and old now. It hadn‟t been good for me to remember how attentive Erik had been. I nursed only a small hope that I could gain his affection once more. I had really, really hurt him. “Are you sure Christine? I can‟t help but feel you should try anyway.” Erik moved closer to me. “I know you must be sick of all this remembrance, but I ask you to try.” His voice turned soft, pleading. “Let me take you Christine, I want to see you get well.” As if I could resist his wishes. I sighed. The guilt of my deception seemed unbearable. If only I could buy the time I needed without the lie. “Very well Erik, take me to my flat,” I gave in. *** *** *** It was dark by the time we left the opera to hail a cab. I thought of the night he‟d taken me to the church as I watched him flag down a fast coach. Erik had a mastery that everyone responded to whether they liked it or not. I climbed inside, smiling at how incredibly handy he made himself. With Erik around I would never worry about trivial matters, or even dangerous matters. A hard bump several miles down the road threw me into Erik‟s lap, proving my thought. His large hands simultaneously embraced and shielded me from anything hard inside the cab. As I righted myself a hard lurch to the side tipped me over again. This time Erik simply absorbed the shock of my descent, letting me fall backward across his body. I stared up into his eyes, self-conscious and mortified at my own clumsiness. He chuckled at me, keeping me still as I tried to get up. “Stay, it will be easier in the long run,” Erik murmured. “Construction has torn the road here and we have another mile of it.” Even as he spoke I felt his muscled arms clamp down over my waist and a large jolt from underneath us. “The driver is one of those public- transport maniacs who knows his job too well, don‟t worry.” He paused to catch my head from slamming into the arm of the seat. “And I did tell him to be quick about it; I thought you wanted to return in a timely manner.” “I do, and in one piece,” I answered. “Shall I tell him to slow?” Erik raised an arm as if to thump on the ceiling. “Please, it‟s making me think of another ride.” I buried my face in my hands as the memory of Raoul‟s coach flashed behind my eyes. We had overturned so slowly and yet so fast. I had been powerless to prevent the fall. “I‟m very sorry my dear, I didn‟t even consider that.” Erik pounded on the barrier briskly. Instantly we resumed our earlier, saner pace. Gently, Erik helped me up. I held onto him instead of moving back to my original seat. “I‟m cold Erik,” I said, tucking my head against his shoulder. He pulled his cloak around, drawing me even closer to his side under it. In moments I felt his heat. I couldn‟t remember ever feeling so safe. The memory of the wreck dwindled to nothing, helpless to have control over me while I lay against Erik‟s hard, reassuring body. I was half asleep when we arrived. Groggy and displaced, I had to hold onto Erik to even exit the cab. We entered the building together. I looked to the right, my breathing slowing as I strained to hear a sign of the landlord. I had been gone almost four weeks; the rent was overdue by nearly three days. Passing the obstacle, I let Erik take the lead. “I hope you know which one is mine,” I whispered as he bent close. “Of course I do.” Erik muttered. “I knew your address even if I never came. What stalker worth his salt wouldn‟t?” “I‟m sure you were the very standard for stalkers,” I shot back. “You don‟t have to be rude about it, I was only asking.” “My apologies.” Erik did not sound the slightest bit sorry. He led me to my apartment and looked at the door lock. “Terrible,” he said under his breath. “If I had known it was this kind of lock, I‟d have been paralytic with fear for you.” He turned, plucking a hairpin from my head. Two quick twists and my lock released. Putting the pin back, he pushed open the door. As one we drew in a breath. Raoul sat on my worn couch. I stared at him dumbly as Erik quietly shut the door. I couldn‟t tell if I heard the sound of the hinges or the sound of him as he sighed. I found my voice as Raoul came to his feet. “Raoul! What are you doing here?” “Nothing but trying to catch a glimpse of you,” Raoul answered fervently. “I try to be in the places you might be,” he added. His eyes went to Erik and hardened. “But of course you would have an escort.” “It seems the boy has a twin,” Erik said, batting Raoul‟s attack aside. “I shudder to even imagine two of them in the city.” “What do you mean?” Raoul fixed him with a hard stare that rapidly acquired the light of comprehension. “Aha! I knew that horrible sound had to be your fault!” “Would you rather I set some rats upon you?” Erik returned swiftly. “You-” “Raoul, Erik, stop it.” I wasn‟t up to this. If only I had known Raoul lurked in my flat I would have insisted on going home. I hesitated as my thoughts caught up with me. Home. I had thought of Erik‟s home as mine. I looked at both of them, hoping my faltering expression wouldn‟t be noticed. “I need to look around and go,” I stressed. “Of course, you‟ll come back to the villa,” Raoul said insistently. “I have a new doctor lined up for you, one that says he can help.” “They all said that,” I replied, walking to my little bookshelf. “I‟m not going back to the villa.” “Don‟t be silly Christine; it‟s only a few miles from here.” He tried to grab my hand. I sidestepped. “Don‟t do that Raoul, don‟t talk down to me.” I picked up my art box and took it to the table by the door. I wanted it. “I know what I want to do and it doesn‟t involve going back to your villa to be poked and prodded.” “Then we can forget the doctor, you don‟t need him anyway,” Raoul improvised, unperturbed at my refusal for medical attention. He stepped into my path as I went for my sewing kit. “Just come back with me and rest.” “I don‟t need any more rest Raoul I was in a coma for two weeks,” I said, trying to dodge by him. He moved with me yet again. “But Christine, it isn‟t safe for you to go back there,” Raoul went on, as if Erik wasn‟t standing directly behind me. He‟s proven to me he doesn‟t have your best interests at heart. Besides, it isn‟t within the realm of propriety.” “And staying in your home is?” I answered coolly as I took the shawl Mama Valarius had given me and placed it with the rest of my impromptu reclamations. “I have servants to vouch for my respectability, that‟s different.” “And Erik wouldn‟t do a thing to me that I didn‟t ask him for,” I argued, dodging him a third time. “I‟m not having this conversation with you Raoul. I only want to get the things I remember and leave, I‟m too tired to fight with you.” “Sometimes you have to endure unpleasant things for your own good,” Raoul replied, grabbing my shoulder as I passed. I stopped dead in my tracks. Turning, I looked at his hand. Why did he always think seizing me the solution to our fights? It did not bode well that he felt so free to do it, especially when I figured in his little way of thinking he owned me. It made me furious. “You don‟t have the right,” I said harshly, pushing off his hand. “I didn‟t say you could. I didn‟t even invite you in here; you used my key without permission. I‟m leaving now and you had better not even think of talking to me until you can understand I‟m not some little toy.” I was finished with this futility. I was about to go when he grabbed my hand. “Whose is this?” he demanded, pointing to the ring on my thumb. “And where is mine?” My insides turned to gelatin. I had on Erik‟s ring. I had left Raoul‟s ring on my bedside table in Erik‟s home. I brought my eyes up to Raoul‟s enraged face. “This belongs to Erik,” I said, proud my voice did not quiver. “Your engagement ring to me is in his house.” “What?” Raoul fairly roared. His fingers tightened on me. I gasped with the pain of it, writhing to get away. Before I could even protest or manage to get away, Erik‟s hand came across my shoulder and took Raoul‟s away. “You don‟t own her,” Erik said, his quiet menace filling the room. “No one owns Christine.” Anger, real anger that I recognized from his early days seeped from his imposing aura. I hoped for Raoul‟s sake he would hear it. “That is true monsieur, and it applies to you also!” Raoul stepped forward again, reaching out to take me by the elbow. “If either of us has a claim on her, it is me.” “Stop.” The word rippled through the room on an irresistible pulse of command. “Sit down Vicomte.” Raoul sat on Erik‟s authority, his muscles jerking with the effort to disobey. “You will remain here one hour after we depart.” Erik‟s voice was the smooth silk of a newly honed razor. “You will think about what Christine has said to you.” Again Raoul jerked, but he did not come off the sofa. I gathered my things, listening to the beat of my own heart. Erik took them from me, except for the shawl, which he placed around my shoulders. I looked up into his eyes, searching his thoughts. I felt him smile. “Come along my dear, we should let the Vicomte have his time for proper reflection,” he said, winking. All the way back I watched him, my mind whirling. Erik had never, ever enticed me to do anything simply by speaking. It opened up an entire new world of thought. Was nothing beyond him? Why had my coercion always come on a beautiful song? If it was truly this easy for him to get what he wanted, why did he ever hesitate? The next time I paid attention to where I was I was coming inside the hidden door to the house. I had missed the entire gondola ride in favor of thinking about Erik. He put my items on the divan and divested me of my shawl. “Are you still cold?” he asked. “Should I make something hot to drink?” I made a faint reply to the affirmative, sinking down into a pile of cushions in the corner. Erik favored me with a curious and worried look before gliding away toward the kitchen. I could smell his scent on the pillows, and the odor of opium. Dropping fully into the silk and linen, I closed my eyes. “I never did that to you,” Erik said from above me. I opened my eyes to see him standing over me with a steaming cup. “I can see what you‟re thinking. I wanted you here, but I also wanted you to come here in the pleasantest way possible.” “I know it, you didn‟t need to assure me,” I answered, taking the hot cup from Erik‟s hands. “But how do you accomplish such things you do with your voice?” Pausing, I cradled the cup to my bosom. Black tea, orange pekoe and bergamot wafted up my nostrils. “I mean, how can you control people?” I could understand why I responded to him, but Raoul wasn‟t female. Sitting in front of me on the floor, Erik crossed his legs Indian style and stared at me. “I don‟t know why Christine, I just know I can. I‟ve always been able control others with my voice, even before I knew how to speak.” Shifting, Erik began to look uncomfortable. “Without the ability to manipulate people I would likely be dead now. All it takes is a pair of curious hands or an accident to reveal my ugliness. You might be surprised at how superstition and fear can begat violence, even these days.” Erik paused to adjust his mask needlessly, his long fingers fluttering over the porcelain self- consciously. “You are the only person I‟ve known besides Emil who can bear how I look.” Eyes darting to me, he laughed in a soft yet nervous way. “Emil is simply numb to all ugliness; he‟s dealt with it his entire life. You are a mystery though, for your beauty outshines even the sun. If anyone should be afraid of my face it should be you.” “But Erik, beauty fades.” Now it was my turn to feel self-conscious. “In a way I will be glad when I start to fade. I won‟t have to think of myself as a face anymore.” I began to squirm in much the same way as he had. “People might be afraid of your face, but mine is too actively appreciated. No one thinks I can be anything but a decoration, except for you.” I too laughed as a sudden thought hit me. “Perhaps what we both need is to be average.” “Yes,” Erik mused, taking my idea seriously. “Too bad God doesn‟t see fit to grant our wishes. I suppose it is a lesson.” “A lesson on what?” I bit out. “A lesson on how to love yourself and despise the judgment of others?” I asked bitterly. “Perhaps on how to love yourself despite the judgment of others,” Erik said softly. “You can do that Christine; you have a good soul and a kind heart.” “I don‟t feel particularly good and kind.” Finishing my tea, I sat it aside and leaned back. “I feel outside myself with righteous indignation. What right does Raoul have to follow me and harass me the way he does? I‟m my own person and I have the right to figure that out. He is trying to hinder my progress.” “That is secondary Christine,” Erik said gently. “Raoul is trying to keep his status with you, he isn‟t thinking of himself as an obstruction to your health.” “No, he‟s thinking of you as an obstruction to his plans, even though he is the one who brought me here.” I looked at him pointedly. I knew why Raoul would be terrified of the time I spent with Erik; he feared I would choose him again. Apparently Erik had no such fears. He had made up his mind I would choose Raoul and though he didn‟t agree with it at all, he was determined I would have what I wanted. “Your Vicomte is afraid I will fall into old tricks,” Erik said, smiling a hidden smile, “Which I have done to some degree tonight. He doesn‟t trust me and he has no reason to. He brought you to me as a last resort. Now that you are showing a bit of independence he takes it to mean you‟re well enough to return to him.” “It‟s arrogant,” I retorted. “It‟s natural.” Erik leaned back until his shoulders rested on the sofa behind him. “He hasn‟t lost his memory. He thinks you would follow him to the ends of the earth.” “Well I won‟t,” I snapped. “I‟m not following anyone to the ends of the earth.” Erik shut his eyes. “Oh Christine, you don‟t know how glad I am to hear you say that,” he murmured. “I knew you had a spark of autonomy.” Looking at me, Erik gave a small sigh. “If nothing else, your accident has opened your eyes. I hope you remember what you‟ve said when the weight of the last two years comes back to settle on your shoulders.” “You think I won‟t?” I quavered inside at his doubt. I remembered everything now, was it making a difference? “I believe it will make all the difference Erik, for I‟m apparently not the same woman I was.” “You are still Christine Daae, and my hope was only voiced as a way to cement your sovereignty.” Erik placed his untouched tea to the side. “Give me your hands,” he said, reaching out with his own. “Let me see your palms.” Mystified, I nonetheless did as he said. Erik wrapped his fingers underneath mine, gently bending back my hands until my palms were fully exposed to his view. His touch made my insides tremble. “Your hands are very similar to mine,” Erik said quietly, his golden eyes scanning left and right. “Not the lines of course, but in shape.” “Are you reading my palms?” I asked, a bit excited at the prospect. Erik had never professed any of the gypsy arts, but I had picked up on his aptitude for such things over the years. “I suppose you could look at it that way.” Erik ran a finger over the center of my hand, prompting me to shiver. “Every part of your hand shows development toward specific talents.” Stopping on a raised area between my thumb and first finger, Erik tapped my skin. “This high mount tells me you have an inclination toward psychic abilities.” Moving down, he stroked the muscle that enabled me to move my thumb. “This one says you have a love of luxury, a passion for experiencing life.” Erik released me, sitting back once more. “With time I could tell you more.” “Time,” I repeated faintly. I didn‟t have much time left. Saturday lay two days ahead. Raoul would come for me. Erik would probably insist upon me departing anyway. I couldn‟t imagine my presence made him easy. I was an open wound. “I don‟t have much time.” “According to whom?” “According to the agreement you made with Raoul.” “I didn‟t tell him he could take you from here on Saturday, I told him he could come back here to visit on Saturday,” Erik chuckled. “I wager he has also made this assumption.” “You mean I‟m not leaving Saturday?” I felt amazed. Erik‟s eyes twinkled. “For all I care you can stay forever.” I looked at him. “Would you really not care for me to be here longer?” I asked. “Christine,” Erik admonished lightly, raking me with his eyes. “You will always be welcome in Erik‟s house.” He said it lowly. Warmth spread inside me from his tone. “I could never refuse you anything,” he added, his honeyed pitch making me dizzy. “And I think you know why.” Erik blinked slowly. “I wouldn‟t try to fathom your thoughts,” I countered, plucking at my bodice. It was hot in here. “You don‟t have to.” Erik murmured, his gaze dropping to where my hand worked at the satin on my dress. “But I would think the bulk of my motivation to be fairly obvious.” I swallowed hard. Heat threatened to positively engulf my body. Erik‟s golden gaze followed my every nuance. “I don‟t know what to say,” I replied faintly. “Then don‟t say anything,” Erik advised. “But you can safely take my word that I will never throw you out of here.” “I see.” I thought about the myriad number of occurrences in which he‟d sent me from his house. Always I‟d found myself staring at the décor in my own dressing room after one of his fits. At the time I‟d had so much faith in his judgment I never questioned his motives. Even in my most lucid moments I‟d passed off his behavior as simply a reaction to my repeated mistakes with the voice lessons. Of course in the end there had been little doubt where his true motives lay. Wedding dresses and rings were as straightforward as one could get. “Do you doubt me?” Erik said, breaking into my thoughts. I blinked, shaking my head to look at him directly. “No, I don‟t doubt you, why would I?” “You look at me with a peculiar expression,” Erik answered. “I was thinking, I‟m sorry.” I blushed. “I had gone back to an earlier topic,” I added quickly. “Oh?” Erik reclined until his legs lay stretched out beside me, apparently unconcerned we would not pursue this line of thought further. “And what topic might that be?” Desperately I searched my mind for some excuse. “Autonomy,” I said. “I think being free means you chose where to go.” “Indeed.” Erik‟s eyes flared briefly. “How do you like it?” “I don‟t know.” My blush returned. “I‟ve never had the choice really, or maybe I never knew I did. I would be in Raoul‟s villa right now if you had not been behind me earlier.” Erik crossed his arms. “You seem very determined not to allow that boy of yours the time of day lately.” “You don‟t like him, so don‟t preach to me,” I warned. I did not want to hear a lecture of any kind on Raoul. “I‟m doing nothing of the sort.” Erik unfurled his arms to throw them across the back of the couch. “I‟m interested in what you‟re thinking.” “I‟m thinking exactly what I said. I‟m not truly autonomous yet.” “No one ever is, believe me.” Erik chuckled. A painful note resonated in his flip response. “But I forbid anyone to force you into anything while I live.” “So I‟m free as long as I have you?” I felt like challenging him there. “No Christine, you will be protected; there is a rather large difference.” Erik sat up. “You might never be free of me.” Our eyes locked. Slowly, so slowly, Erik dropped his gaze to my hands. “You are still wearing my ring,” he pointed out quietly. “It got you into trouble tonight.” “I don‟t feel like giving it back,” I argued, curling my other fingers around it protectively. “It reminds me of things.” “What things?” Erik‟s voice fell heavily in my ears. “Your benefaction for one,” I answered with a little head toss. “But also it warns me not to take anything for granted.” “All that in a simple gold band?” Erik‟s eyes flicked to my bodice. “Even under those justifications you shouldn‟t find my ring more interesting than your own.” His eyes came back up to mine by degrees. “I would think you‟d focus on it much the way you focused on the wedding gown.” “I can‟t account for myself, I‟m not sure of my reasons.” I clutched my hand to my chest, feeling like a child yet unable to stop acting like one. “You didn‟t want it or I wouldn‟t have found it on the floor,” I added. “This is my house.” Erik laughed softly. “If I want to keep my things in the floor I will.” “Do you want it back?” I bit my lip. I didn‟t want to give it back to him. Erik let his head drop backward as if weary. “You ask me if I want it back,” he muttered to himself. “No, I don‟t want it back. Keep it if it pleases you.” “What did I say wrong?” I asked irritably. “I can‟t decide how I‟m supposed to take you Erik. If I‟m causing you this much difficulty-” “Difficulty?” Erik straightened, fixing me with his amber gaze. “My dear, difficulty isn‟t the word. You positively madden me.” He stood in one smooth motion, stalking to the fireplace to stare moodily down into the dying flames. “I was like a well oiled machine until I met you, now I‟m full of sand,” he muttered. The fire reflected against the glossy black porcelain of his mask. “I have only so much self control, you‟d know that if you could remember me the way you should,” he rumbled. Picking up the poker, he began stabbing a log. “I don‟t know which is worse, your infernal purity or my ham-fisted good intentions.” “I‟m trying anyway,” I said, getting to my feet. “I‟m not as innocent as you might believe and I‟m not goading you on purpose.” Erik gave a short bark of a laugh, shooting me a glance. “Oh yes you are Christine, on both counts. And your vehemence only enforces my opinion.” Falling silent, he resumed staring into the orange flames at his feet. My first thought was how familiar this was. Here was Erik, going off on one of his minor tirades about our basic incompatibility. I was never to blame for how we clashed, oh no, he was to blame. He assumed the burden of how our relationship didn‟t work; it pleased him to be the villain. I was supposed to play the role of a child here, and he was supposed to assume the role of parent. We had played this game a thousand times and I always had been the loser. I went along with it ever and forever, believing his judgment true and trusting in his ability to work things out. I was sick of that. He was no more advantaged over me as I was with him. My second thought was the natural conclusion. I had to stop being the submissive and carry myself to equality. Erik would never respect my decisions if he didn‟t know I had the intelligence to make the right ones and the grit to carry through with them. I marched over to Erik, who drew back slightly at my sudden close proximity. I had to crane my neck to look up into his eyes. “You think I don‟t know what you want?” I asked shortly. “You don‟t think I know how men and women treat each other behind closed doors?” I brandished the shining band on my thumb, holding it up before his eyes. “You think I don‟t know what any man wants?” “Christine,” he began, but I cut him off as he had cut me off. “Just answer the question Erik,” I said. “Do you think I don‟t know?” “I-” “I do know.” I let my hand fall to my side. “And you don‟t scare me with your crazy double talk.” “My intention isn‟t to scare you.” Erik‟s eyes darted back to the fire. “But if you understand what you claim, you should not want to keep that ring.” “Oh?” I leaned closer, watching his gaze flicker from me to the fire in short bursts. “If you scare me you can excuse yourself of having to explain things to me.” “And what am I supposed to explain?” Erik‟s voice dropped to a dangerous level. “What enlightenment am I supposed to shed for you Christine?” He faced me; looming over me so close I could feel his heat over the fire. The scent of his genuine anger made me tremble inside. “Or maybe it is more a question of who you want me to be?” This was more like the Erik I knew. It was a homecoming, a familiar heady rush. My pulse quickened. “You‟re supposed to be Erik,” I answered, fighting the dryness of my mouth. “I know enough to identify a glimpse of him right now.” I put out my hand, not quite touching his chest. His heat felt incredible. I had his full attention now. Erik‟s body shuddered as my hand brushed his shirt. Hard muscle twitched underneath my fingertips. My heart skipped a beat. I had never been allowed to touch him like this before, not in such a premeditated way. He felt solid, pervasively strong, and even savage. I almost felt afraid as he brought a hand up, startled by experiencing the range of movement in his chest. Sliding my hand over, Erik rested it above his heart. The erratic throb raised my fingers with each beat. “This is what you do to me Christine.” Erik pressed my hand back to my side with gentle care. “How many chandeliers do I have to drop?” he whispered. I was breathless with the significance of his confession. I had never heard how he felt, not once. He showed how he felt in thousands of ways, but never verbally. I felt as if he believed speaking of his love profane. With my newfound memories I well recalled the very moment I first knew how deeply he felt. It had been the moment he gave me to Raoul. Erik loved me enough to give me the best of everything, or whatever I desired. He believed he answered for neither of the two. But I wasn‟t supposed to remember the chandelier yet. In his honest desire to be seen, Erik had forgotten that. I shook my head, feigning confusion. “Chandeliers?” I questioned. “When I first came here I began to wonder if we had not…” I broke off as his eyes flickered in a renewal of passion. He was alert, cagey as a cat. “I mean, you feel familiar to me even if my memory is out of order,” I continued. “The way you look at me made me doubt we were never lovers.” “But you believe me now?” Erik tilted his head back. “Why? I haven‟t said or done anything these last few days to strengthen my very first words to you.” “It doesn‟t matter.” I did not want to tell him what I‟d done. The very thought made me squirm with embarrassment. I should have kept my mouth shut in the first place. I should have tried to change the subject to a safer matter, at least until I felt more on secure ground. “It matters to me.” Erik‟s eyes flared again. “How can I know your faith in me has really been won? I think it‟s a key matter, really Christine, a matter that bears upon my caliber.” Erik dropped his voice. “Tell me. Maybe it will give me some insight on how to make you believe I mean what I say.” I began to panic inside. Not only was I powerless to resist Erik when he used that tone, he had a way of getting me to talk. If he figured out I‟d regained my memory…“I have faith in you now, isn‟t that enough?” I murmured. “Not really, you‟ve been very inconsistent in the past.” Erik crossed his arms. “Do I have to drag it out of you my dear?” he queried, lilting his pitch to an irresistible resonance. His stance bore no argument. “All right!” I shouted, startling him out of his stern pose. With my face growing hot, I looked him in the eyes. “I put my finger up inside me and made sure! Happy now?” Stunned disbelief passed through Erik‟s tawny stare. “You-” “Yes!” I thrust my jaw out at him. “I haven‟t been with you or anyone else for that matter!” I raised my hands helplessly, a hysterical laugh bubbling up in my throat. “I just couldn‟t understand how it would be true Erik.” A forceful shudder passed through him as I watched, shaking him from head to foot in one violent effort. I saw him clamp his hands together behind his back. His eyes closed. “I suppose I asked for that,” he murmured through clenched teeth. “You‟re damn right you did!” I advanced upon him again, wary eyes upon his quivering arms. I didn‟t want to push him into another fit, but I meant to have my say after eons of silence. “It‟s your fault I had to look.” “And how did you come to that?” Erik asked harshly, his eyes snapping open. “I‟ve been honest with you from the start, from the moment your little soldier dragged you in here and dumped you at my doorstep.” “How did I come to that Erik? The very sound of you makes me ache exactly where I had to go exploring!” I gasped at my own confession, but I couldn‟t hear it over Erik‟s sharp inhale. In seconds he disappeared from my sight, vanished through the front door with a hair- raising growl. *** *** *** I plunged into the lake full force. The icy water swallowed my burning skin, made me pant with shock. I felt I would have a heart attack, yet I submerged again and again and again. What did she mean by such painful candor? How could I bear the knowledge she threw at me? I shuddered as her words echoed in my head, and dove again. I couldn‟t tolerate this anymore. I walked a razor‟s edge with her. I felt I might snap at any moment and drag her down to the floor from the very spot she stood upon. I swam until my arms felt like lead and every breath came hard won, but the fever in my groin still ached. Damn the woman anyway, for her persistence, her innocence, her ever-luminous blue eyes and her confounded honesty! Did she think I was made of stone? A man could not hear a confession like hers and remain in control! Of course I knew how my voice effected people, I'd relied on that so many times I couldn't even count, but I wasn‟t trying to seduce her. I had made every effort not to seduce her with my voice! Was it my fault she heard me like a siren? All my efforts were falling apart before my very eyes. She seemed determined to break me, to thrust me into a frenzy of baser actions. If she didn‟t stop pushing me I‟d take her, to hell with the Vicomte and my higher intentions. I would take her and take her and take her until she couldn‟t remember a time I hadn‟t been between her legs. I could see her in my mind, twisting and writhing under my hands, her marble white flesh gleaming in the gaslight. I would twine my fingers in her hair, holding her still while I claimed her body. Not an inch of her would go untouched; my greedy hands would memorize every plane, fold and curve she possessed. I would watch her rock underneath my every desperate thrust, knowing she was mine and mine alone. Even the frigid water could not banish the burning in my groin. I could end the torment with a song… I hauled myself from the lake and stretched out in the miry sand. If Christine was determined to break me there wasn‟t a power in hell I could use to stop it. Songs or not, I was powerless to resist her. To keep her intact I would have to take her back to the Vicomte, and I had promised she could stay as long as she wanted to stay. I worked on borrowed time now. If only I could get her to remember. Looking at me with older eyes would surely deter her from this course of madness she seemed hell bent on. If I could let her see what she pursued with such abandon, then my work would be done. Christine would fall back into Raoul‟s arms and I would go back to rotting in solitude. She would never choose me over him. I sat by the lake and wept. God could not have devised a more fitting punishment for my crimes than this. ****************** “What is it?” Christine asked quietly. I glanced at her. She had not volunteered until now to speak to me this morning. “A letter from Madame Giry,” I answered, tucking the missive into my jacket. “She keeps me informed of things inside my opera, and sometimes even outside it.” I slouched against the edge of the table. “Have you decided to stop avoiding me?” “I‟m not avoiding you Erik,” Christine said calmly, too calmly for my taste. Her fingers skimmed the very edge of her teacup as her azure eyes lifted to mine. “If you think about it, I‟ve followed you into every room this morning.” I thought about it and conceded it true. It startled me. My perception of avoidance was due to silence, not absence. “On purpose?” I ventured, feeling the ground slide underneath me. “More than half the time.” Christine‟s eyes misted over in a dreamy quality. I noticed her pupils seemed dilated. “Are you well?” I reached out, touching her forehead. She wasn‟t any warmer than usual. “My head hurts something awful, I took some laudanum,” Christine sighed. “It seems to help, but it makes everything so vague and faraway.” “Where did you get the laudanum?” “From your bedroom,” Christine brought her eyes back to me. “I got it while you were tinkering with that death trap of yours.” Her voice was smooth as silk. “You used to keep it there, I knew where to start.” “You remembered?” My stomach gave a terrible lurch. Christine smiled softly. “I did. You gave me laudanum after my gala performance, when I couldn‟t sleep. Do you remember that?” “As a matter of fact, I do.” I smiled to myself at the memory. “You‟d never had anything stronger in your system than chardonnay. You were a bit nervous about taking it.” Again she smiled. “Do you remember what followed?” I paused. “I sang to you,” I said. “Yes, a song from my dark, cold homeland.” Christine closed her eyes. “My father played it for me when I had nightmares.” “I didn‟t know that.” “I never told you I suppose.” Christine opened her eyes again. “He would have liked you Erik, though he was a gentle man who never hurt a living thing in his life.” A sigh escaped her lips. “But he never had reason to. If he had been forced to defend either of us at any time I think he would have failed. He was naïve and childlike, and he fostered such qualities in me.” “Does that anger you?” Her simple, cutting opinion fascinated me. She was completely comfortable with truths that should have hurt to say. Perhaps she remembered enough of me now to know I would never judge her for her words. “No, it is simply a reminder to me. I need to focus on not making his mistakes my own.” Christine leaned until her chin rested on her hand. “My father was a good man, but hardly a role model.” She blinked slowly. “They say women look for fathers when they choose mates. I wonder if that‟s true.” “Perhaps a little,” I conceded, sitting across from her. “Perhaps men seek a little of their mothers as well.” “You think so?” Christine lifted her eyes sleepily. “Have you ever done that?” “No, I have no idea who she was. My father was a master mason, but that is all I know of him.” Christine‟s sleepy look evaporated like morning mist. “You don‟t have the faintest idea who your parents were?” “No. I remember a mask sliding over my face as I lay in a crib, but I have a gap from that point until about the age of two, at which point I was given to a freak show.” The words just tumbled out of me before I could stop them. But what did it matter? Christine would not think harshly of me for my lack of parentage. “The circus?” Christine‟s face hardened. “Then who raised you?” “No one. Some female must have served as a wet nurse, but my memory is patchy that far back.” I slouched back, my eyes firmly upon her face. It interested me to see how she absorbed this information. She had never asked me anything of my past, not really. “I do vaguely remember a woman with long white hair and green eyes. She taught me to speak.” Christine sat up with a jerk, her eyes narrowed upon me. Her gaze flickered. “How old are you Erik?” “Forty three,” I answered somewhat hesitantly. I‟d never seen my birth certificate and felt no confidence over it existing at all. “At least that is as close an approximate as I can manage.” “Forty three,” Christine echoed. “I‟m twenty one.” “Quite a gap,” I murmured. And it was. “Not really.” Again her eyes swept over me, lit from within by a strange light. “I would have guessed you much younger. You move like someone my age.” “You flatter an old man,” I said with a wink. Fleetingly, a look of humor passed over her face, but she shook her head. “I mean it. I wouldn‟t have guessed even thirty, not by how you get around. I thought maybe you were some older than me because of how much you seem to know, and by your mature philosophies.” Christine‟s attention fell back toward some bit of interest on the floor. “My mature philosophies,” I chuckled. “What philosophies are these Christine?” Christine eyed me directly. “Cold practicality,” she answered. “Brutal efficiency and strict self-government seem to make up your fabric. Men of today are much more easygoing with themselves than with others. You are just as inflexible with yourself as anyone else.” For the second time in ten minutes I felt admiration for Christine. She spoke like an adult now, a very serious, sober-minded woman. I had expected her newfound maturity to evaporate as quickly as it had appeared, but it seemed her new mien was here to stay. Again I had to wonder just how she could have gone to bed as an adolescent and woken as fully developed. Such a change didn‟t seem possible. “Also,” Christine continued, “you have good manners despite your fondness for killing people.” A tiny smile flitted across her lips. “You have no idea,” I replied dryly. “I‟ve strangled more people than it takes to staff the opera.” I refrained from adding how much I‟d enjoyed it. While Christine showed more mettle these days it didn‟t seem right to deliberately test that. Besides, I was starting to enjoy her interest in me. Christine stiffened. “Why are you still alive?” she asked. “You must be wanted.” “Another country and another king,” I answered easily. “I was a high executioner for many years.” Again I omitted a small facet. I had been an assassin as well. “Did you like it?” Christine‟s twin blue flames seemed to pin me to the spot. “For a while,” I answered. I wasn‟t going to lie to her over it. She deserved to know as much as I could give her, as long as it wouldn‟t harm her of course. “Why did you stop?” She ran a hand through her hair and I noticed she was trembling. If the topic frightened her, if I frightened her, why did she keep asking questions? “I grew weary of it, it isn‟t a challenge,” I replied softly. “I‟m smarter and stronger and faster than anyone I know. It isn‟t any different than walking into a hen house and wringing a chicken‟s neck.” Christine went from pale to positively white. Still, she remained seated. “If it‟s as easy as that Erik, why is Raoul still alive?” Her face contorted. “For that matter, why am I?” “I could never hurt you.” I leveled my eyes upon her. “I would never hurt you physically.” A bit of color began returning to Christine‟s face by degrees. “I don‟t understand how I could have that kind of power over you,” she confessed. “I‟m not sure how to feel about that.” “You don‟t have to understand. I didn‟t say I understood either, did I?” I asked pointedly. “No, you didn‟t.” Christine sighed. “And to follow up on that, I must be Raoul‟s protection.” “Just so.” I answered. “But my patience is narrow against his arrogance.” Ah, what a spectacular truth that was! I‟d love to put him through even a fraction of the things I‟d endured. I wanted to see if his conceit could bear up under the pain of being a sideshow freak. However, Christine would be sad if I hurt the little popinjay, so he was safe. “My patience is thin all around,” Christine replied, looking at me strangely. “What little I have is tied up in the both of you.” “Understandable, but there isn‟t any need to walk around me on tiptoe. I respect the decisions you‟ve made and I am content that you consider me at all.” “How could I not consider you Erik?” Christine retorted, her misty eyes clearing with a burst of irritation. “It‟s very hard to reconcile my growing memories of who you were and who you are right now.” “If I was the same person, you wouldn‟t be considering going back to the Vicomte at all,” I snapped. “I‟d have killed him the second he came in my front door and you wouldn‟t have any choice but to stay here. You ought to be glad I‟ve learned from my mistakes.” This conversation was growing tedious and uncomfortable for me. “The man I used to be dominated you, terrified you, and reduced you to an emotional wreck on a daily basis,” I continued. “You were tricked, beguiled, seduced and manipulated by me, and I did it with an intensity that even frightened me at times. It staggers my mind you persist in wanting to see that Erik again.” I was starting to work myself into a froth. “If you preferred him, why did you choose the Vicomte?” I asked finally. Christine stood so quickly her chair fell over backward. “I must not be the only one in this room with a selective memory!” She closed her eyes, swaying on her feet. “Did I or did I not turn the scorpion?” she asked lowly. “Under duress,” I answered, my mouth gone dry. So she was remembering this now? Curse the luck. I would be fortunate to get out of the room unscathed. “You didn‟t have any other option,” I explained, hoping to forestall another one of her verbal assaults. Christine‟s eyes snapped open. Fury blazed in her brilliant blue orbs. My pulse quickened at her righteous, angered beauty. I had never seen her so heated. Making her way to me in an instant, she leaned over my chair until her face was only inches away from my mask. “You liar,” she whispered. “If it makes you feel better to assume all the blame, then go ahead, but don‟t sit there and tell me I didn‟t choose you. You pushed me into his arms yourself, gave me away like I didn‟t have the sense to make the best decision for myself.” Drawing back, Christine looked down at me. “I felt like an object,” she finished lowly. Guilt and confusion welled up within me. I started to speak, to tell her I never meant to hurt her feelings, but she wasn‟t finished. “I‟ve been laboring under a misconception this entire week Erik,” Christine said. “I thought I turned my back on you. I thought I‟d left here under dire emergency. As it turns out, I left with your blessing.” “Of course you did,” I answered, getting up. “I couldn‟t keep you here when you were so willing to give everything up for that boy. You wanted him, not me. You don‟t have the right to attack me for trying to keep you safe.” “Oh yes I do,” Christine hissed. “I have every right.” Reaching out, her fingers caught my tie and began to wrathfully work out the knot. Before I could even think why she would want my tie she had it in her hands. “I gave up my soul to you with a kiss.” Christine wound the tie around her eyes, knotting it with a jerk that made the fabric creak. “If you aren‟t going to hold it close to you, then I want it back.” Tilting her head up, she parted her lips. Christine‟s meaning staggered me. She wanted me to kiss her, now, here in my little kitchen. I stared at her full, red lips and heaving bosom, a tremor of longing shooting past my initial shock. I would be lost all over again if I dared comply with her demand. Only too well did I recall the softness of her, the hot silk that made her lips. My eyes traveled over her curvy body. Her rigid, fuming stance did nothing to dampen her allure. In fact, her vehemence made me wild with longing. I ached to crush her against me, feel the slide of her golden hair between my fingers. The need to consume her, to slake a raging thirst in her made my every muscle spasm. I would be insane to refuse. I did not have the will to refuse. She could offer nothing more valuable to me than herself. ******************** I could barely hear his breathing over mine. Nerves aflame with anticipation, I felt a trembling begin in my muscles. He was so close. The scent of him made my blood burn. I sensed movement. The soft sound of brittle porcelain against polished wood reached my ears. He had taken off the mask. My sigh of relief turned into a gasp of surprise as Erik‟s long arms encircled my waist. I raised my arms in time to be crushed against him. “I did my best,” Erik whispered in my ear, his breathing hot and ragged and his voice infernally supernal. “God help you Christine, I did my best.” His mouth came down upon me. Fire shot through my veins at the first contact, spreading out into every muscle in my body as he forcefully parted my lips. Molten want poured into me, pooled in my womb and burst forth between my legs in a rush of wet heat. His hands were everywhere. I panted and quaked under his touch while his tongue caressed the innermost recesses of my mouth. I felt my head fall back, my body turn languid under his assault. A long, large brand pressed into my stomach and I knew his arousal. The instinct to accommodate him relaxed my legs. He held me up with ease, one of his long arms wrapping around me like a silk-banded vice. The power of Erik surged through my very core. I groaned as he left my mouth to kiss a trail down my neck, each small contact shooting lightning through me. He tasted me between my breasts, a hand reaching up to palm one of my straining nipples. Even through the satin he scorched my flesh. I writhed, wrapping a leg around his to bring us closer. My backside hit the table. I used the wood as a lever to bring up my other leg. Erik sucked in a gasping breath as I clamped him between my thighs, shuddered as I forced him against me. He throbbed hot and insistent in the junction of my ache. His hands gripped my buttocks and thrust me forward. I cried out when his rigidity struck the excruciating center of my need. “He can‟t have you,” Erik growled into my throat. “To hell with DeChagny. I‟ll die before I let you step one foot out of this house with him again.” He pushed against me once more, tearing a sob from my throat. “I‟ve taken all I can stand Christine, more than I ever thought I could bear.” I gasped as his teeth captured the delicate flesh at my collarbone and bit down. “I tasted your heaven and still I let you go. It won‟t happen a second time.” “Erik,” I moaned. “Oh God…” “Yes, the Erik you kept pushing to see,” he replied, his lovely voice raw. “Here he is in all his selfish, evil glory.” His mouth came down on me again, nipping the top of a breast so that I squirmed for him to go lower. “And he wants to do things to you that you can‟t even imagine. He wants to chain you to a bed and keep you there.” I heard the sound of my bodice ripping only seconds before Erik‟s mouth closed over my diamond hard nipple. I did not know such bliss existed. Every movement of his lips brought an answering pull deep within me. Twining my fingers in his soft hair I drove him closer, held him against me insistently. His teeth grazed me; he bit and suckled me by turns in a maddening, relentless tempo. I swelled inside, feeling more and more that I had an emptiness he could fill. An inferno raged between my legs… “My God Christine, make me stop before I take you on this table,” Erik groaned, spreading a hand over my hip. “This isn‟t what you deserve; you have to tell me to stop.” His entire body shuddered against me. “I can‟t stop unless you tell me to.” He drew his shattered breaths as if dying. “I don‟t have the willpower.” His lips began to drag across my nipple again… It hurt more than anything had ever hurt, but I sat up and pushed Erik away. Waiting until I heard him retrieve the mask, I untied my blindfold. The sight of him shocked me. Erik‟s clothes were rumpled and askew. His eyes bored into me as large black orbs with only the thinnest band of gold encircling. Breathing heavily, he leaned against a chair. His fingers dug into the wood so hard I heard it creak. By the angle of his back and the tilt of his head I knew he anticipated the worst from me. He waited for me to curse him, to protest over my virtue and run crying from the room. I pulled my dress together and stood from the table. I couldn‟t do it. I‟d loved what he‟d done to me. I had always known this was what he hid. It lurked behind his eyes, flaring to life and banking all in the same instant whenever we touched. I was weary of being denied this passion. He set me in a bonfire of yearning. I couldn‟t imagine anyone else making me feel like Erik made me feel. “I meant what I said,” Erik said in a strained voice. “I‟m not giving you back to him.” Straightening, he put a shaking hand to his mask. “He doesn‟t deserve you, and if I thought I deserved you we‟d never be able to eat off this table again.” Striding past me, Erik fled the kitchen. In a few moments I heard his bedroom door shut. I made my legs carry me back to my own room, but my movements were hampered by having to hold my bodice together. ************* I stared into the fire, thinking of what I had done. It was a tribute to Christine‟s character that I had walked away unscathed. Well, not completely unscathed, I amended. My nerves felt hotter than the flames before me. I meant to keep her… What she had said was true. She had chosen me. I had only given her to DeChagny because I thought it was what she wanted. If I had done wrongly it was in her best interest. I wondered what would have happened had I not given her back to the Vicomte… I curled into a miserable ball on the sofa, burying my head in the cushions. Every beat of my heart pushed more blood into the raging hardness between my legs. I couldn‟t imagine any feeling in the world as frustrating, as maddening as this. My body pulsed as one gigantic ache from head to foot. Oh to crush her underneath me! To touch her naked flesh! What did she want from me? I used to think I knew. Now I was so confused and jangled I didn‟t know anything but this feeling of outrageous lust. She would have let me take her on the kitchen table… ************* I could feel him brooding in the den. His energy made me crazy so I covered that with activity. I hung up my wedding dress to air out. My hands shook as I stroked the pristine satin. To judge by Erik‟s ardor I might not get an entire wedding gown back. My ruined day dress lay in my keepsake drawer as a reminder. I still burned inside. The wedding dress might be a rather useless item, or at least an item of the wrong color. Did he think of what we‟d done? I wondered. What a question. He likely sat and tormented himself for ravishing me. The next move was up to me; we both knew it. ******* I bought a bed while she slept. It nearly took me all night to move it into the house, for I had to dismantle it and carry it across piece by piece. The rest of the night I put it together. When I finally finished and had the covers on it I felt rather proud of myself. Carpentry was an easy skill for me, but my mind wanted to wander on Christine instead of the task at hand. The clock chimed six as I built up the fire. Morning. Taking one last look at the enormous bed, I made my way into the bathroom. I would need to bathe and rest a few hours before braving those cerulean eyes. It might have been a pointless thing to buy a bed, but if there was the slightest chance in hell Christine would choose me again, I wouldn‟t have her in a coffin. *** *** *** “I‟m going out.” I looked up. Christine met my surprised look with calm, level eyes. “I‟ll be back in two hours.” Christine threw her cloak around her slender shoulders with a flourish, making quick work of the clasp. “Is there anything you want from the Upperworld?” she asked, her lips twitching. “Or is Orpheus well situated in his corner of the Elysian Fields?” I blinked. “I don‟t need anything,” I answered, feeling like I took a terribly long time to speak. Christine nodded as she drew the strings of her purse shut. I noticed her outfit as one of the more formal and expensive confections I‟d designed. A sudden stab of worry hit me. She would look exceptionally tempting to any unscrupulous person or criminal that crossed her path. I was merely the showcase to that truth. I would follow her of course. “Two hours will put us close to dinner,” I ventured. “Do you want it waiting for you?” Perhaps after what I‟d done to her she wanted to escape me. I couldn‟t blame her. I had acted like an animal. She had yet to talk to me about it too. This sudden interest in going into the city was probably her attempt to flee. I would guard her nonetheless. “No, I like to watch you put it together.” Christine smiled. “I might bring something back to make anyway.” Walking to the door, she turned as she hit the hidden latch with her palm. “See you in two hours Erik,” she called out, vanishing behind thick stone. I waited ten minutes before donning my phantom persona to pursue. Pausing only to set my perimeter traps on the way out, I sped up the Rue Scribe staircase. I emerged from the opera just in time to see Christine enter a cab. The overcast sky hurt my eyes, but my ears told me her destination. She was going to the shopping district. As in the past I found it easy to keep up with her. She did not hurry once she left the cab, but walked at a sedate and graceful pace. Many men followed her with their eyes, and I could not fault them for it. Her blonde hair and flawless cream skin offset her dark maroon dress and cloak. She was the brightest, most vibrant woman for miles, a spot of cheer on a rainy day. I watched her pause by a fruit merchant and speak. The poor man stuttered and stammered like a small child as she pointed to some pears. He wrapped them for her while grinning like a fool. I smiled to myself, pleased I wasn‟t the only one who behaved like that in front of her. Christine wended her way down the street. So smoothly did she move I almost missed her darting into a jeweler‟s shop. I waited, wondering what she could want. If I had known she wanted jewelry I would have given it to her already. My rumination broke as she emerged with a yellow voucher slip and began walking once more. My diva stopped outside a bookseller‟s store, her brow wrinkling. Just as I thought she would move on, she went inside. For an eternity I waited in the alley, my eyes glued to the shop door. I marked nearly the passing of an entire hour before she came out, her arms laden with a stack of books wrapped in cloth. Her face looked a little pink and I worried she had too much of a burden to walk with. I trailed along behind her as she began walking the way she arrived. Returning to the jewelers, she came back out in ten minutes looking even more flushed. It gave me a sense of relief to see her hailing a cab. “To the opera,” she instructed softly. It took extreme measures to return before Christine, but I made it. I had only just put my other clothes back on before I heard her opening the door. I came out of my room to see her going in her own. The sound of books hitting her bedside table made me smile. She had said two hours and she had meant it. What was more; she had left and returned without coercion, spending her time in the most innocent of pursuits. I allowed I had forgotten how she liked to shop. ***************** Erik had beaten me home. I grinned at hearing him emerge from his bedroom. I hadn‟t caught sight of him once on my trip, but I‟d felt him behind me nonetheless. Of course he would follow me. He tirelessly worried about my safety. Making sure my door was shut; I quickly changed back into more comfortable clothes and sat down with my purchases. The jeweler‟s bag disgorged our rings into my lap. The man had been surprised to be paid with a diamond, but he‟d made change easily enough. For what I‟d wanted done to the rings he‟d had to make only nominal restitution. I threaded both bands onto a chain and put it on. They would lie out of sight between my breasts, only I would know of their presence. When the time was right I would give Erik his ring. Thinking of him made me look toward my new books. I debated on whether or not to read them while in his sight. I didn‟t have sufficient space in my room to spread out like I would need. If I worked in the library he was bound to see. It might be a fun game to let him see. Then too, it might be perilous. I felt ready for peril. I was tired of listening to caution and tired of not getting what I wanted. I wanted Erik and I wasn‟t ashamed of it. I could not be embarrassed over how my body responded to him, or feel chagrin over how I hung on his every syllable. The truth of the matter was that he made me happy. I did not want to leave him again and I did not want to spend my life without him. I ran my hand over the Indian tomes, thinking of the way he always spoke to me. He had no qualms over admitting I made his world. With all of his genius and passion he chose me as his preferred mate. Surely I had to be special in some way to gain his attention. Or maybe not. I knew Erik had been bereft of attention all of his life. It showed in his unconscious tenseness when he got close to others. Even my close quarters seemed to make him edgy. So who was to say I was special other than that I had been brave enough to touch him? I had touched him many times in tiny ways before this last explosion of intimate contact. I wanted to touch him all over. I knew also that I was worse than a child in the ways of love, hence my book purchases. The seller had been quite shocked at what I wanted, but when I mentioned I was to be married he seemed to snap out of it fairly quick. It was perfectly acceptable for a woman to want to please her husband on her wedding night. Yes, the Kama Sutra had illustrations, but I would have to translate from the foreign calligraphy to understand the text. I flipped open to a random page. The picture brought heat to my face. I would have to familiarize myself with the idea of seeing such bold artwork. Thankfully I had other books that would simply tell how to do certain things without showing me. I would have to start with one of those. I might be able to read about intercourse in Erik‟s presence, but looking at pictures would do me in. Taking a book at random, I went back into the parlor. Not seeing Erik, I took his pile of cushions by the fire. His amber cologne stirred up as I opened the book. Men are sexual creatures. The average man thinks of intercourse once every few seconds. To him this is normal. I looked up to see Erik strolling in. He grazed me with his careful, golden eyes, sitting on the far couch. I smiled at him. His eyes brightened with his returned but hidden smile. No doubt he‟d been relieved to get me home without incident. And no doubt he wondered when this artificial peace of ours would last. I still hadn‟t said anything to him about his conduct in the kitchen. Well, I had no recriminations for him and he wouldn‟t believe me if I told him how much I‟d enjoyed that little taste of passion. All I could do was wait for the evening… “It‟s rainy today, and overcast,” I volunteered. “Paris is awash in tones of gray and blue.” He knew it of course, but he didn‟t know I knew it. Erik nodded. “If you‟d like to hear the rain down here I can arrange it.” His eyes grew soft, seeming to drift as he spoke. “I‟ve always loved the music of rain.” Ah, the music. Everything was music to Erik; he was made of it as much as he made it. I smiled again. “Next time you get up then,” I replied. Erik nodded once more as I went back to reading. He will let you know in subtle ways when he is vying for physical attention. Men become attentive in nearly every way possible when they hope you will bestow sexual favors upon them. Well there was a surprise. I rolled my eyes back up to Erik. He was attentive all the time. I paged forward a few leaves to get to something less dry. Men enjoy a soft touch as much as we women do. The throat is an especially erogenous place to stroke a man, as is the area of his back just above the buttocks. If you are lucky enough to have a well-muscled man, this last area will be even more sensitive than normal, as his skin will be tightly stretched. I blushed as I remember grabbing Erik on the kitchen table. Another less known place to stimulate a man is his hand. Put his finger in your mouth and watch how quickly he reacts. Another rush of heat seized me. Do not overlook his lips in the desire to cover new territory. Frowning, I marked my place and closed my eyes. Now came the dilemma of the mask. I wanted to do away with that barrier. It made kissing a formal affair and robbed me of seeing Erik‟s emotion. But I understood his desire to keep the protection. Perhaps someday… “Today is Friday.” I opened my eyes. Leveling my gaze, I stared into the twin golden pools behind the mask. Saying nothing, I waited for him to continue. After a moment I thought I felt him smile. “You‟ve been here almost a whole week.” Erik went on. “Have you considered what you‟ll do when you leave?” His voice sounded calm but interested. I realized I hadn‟t an answer for him and blinked my hesitance. His eyes caught the motion of mine. “Perhaps you haven‟t,” he murmured uneasily. “Are you interested in making a glorious return to the opera?” “Return to the opera,” I repeated flatly. “No, I don‟t think so.” “Why not?” Erik queried softly. “Because I‟m not the one who belongs on stage wringing the hearts of millions,” I replied. “You‟ve taught me to do it, after all.” “You want me on stage?” Erik seemed about to laugh but his body contorted instead. He flung himself deeper into the divan to level his citrine stare at me. “You know it‟s impossible.” “No it isn‟t, not to you.” I slid my fingers in the book to mark my place. “There isn‟t anything you can‟t do. And no, I don‟t want you on stage unless you feel it‟s something you also want.” Pulling my gaze out of his hold, I looked to the side. “I‟d like to see you get the things you want without paying for them with your blood.” Nervously, I looked back at him. “Or your soul,” I added. Erik remained silent for some few minutes as we stared at each other. When he finally ended the quiet I almost jumped. “I have no soul my dear, but thank you for assuming otherwise.” Erik folded his hands and continued to stare at me. “You and Emil are the only two people I‟ve known to assign me that kind of merit.” I closed my book and slid it under the couch. If Erik wanted to argue with me on whether or not he had a soul, I would accommodate him. There were many things I was willing to take his judgment on, but not something like this. “Everyone has a soul,” I argued. “Deeds don‟t make souls, neither do intentions.” “Care to explain further?” Erik asked, seeming to smile. “Go ahead; quantify what makes a soul for me.” “Ooooh Erik,” I spat, standing up. His tone made my hackles raise something fierce. “You know good and well this is an argument of opinion, not cold hard facts. I can prove nothing and neither can you.” “I‟m just interested in hearing your opinion then,” Erik replied in a conciliatory tone, raising his hands. “But don‟t you think I might know better than you whether or not I have a soul?” “No, I don‟t,” I snapped. “You have a curious blindness to certain parts of yourself.” “I do?” Erik blinked. “Such as what?” “Such as your unwillingness to assume human qualities.” I shook out my skirts in a jerk of anger. “But that‟s only one example.” I squared my shoulders as I met his gaze. “You also seem determined to prove you aren‟t human at all, at least by way of moral code. What do you get out of trying to convince me of these things?” “I‟m not trying to convince you of anything my dear,” Erik murmured. “I know better than to think a woman‟s mind can be changed by anything a man might say.” “What?” I felt myself slide into a fishwife stance, my arms on my hips and my legs apart. “Are you implying I can‟t be reasoned with simply because I don‟t have a-a-?” I halted, feeling heat coming to my face. “I can‟t believe you!” “Calm down Christine, I don‟t mean anything nearly as crude as that.” Erik chuckled lightly. “And stop facing me off like you want to smash me with the poker.” “Maybe I‟d like to smash you with the poker Erik,” I panted. “Maybe I‟d like to hit you for implying I‟m inferior to you on a cellular basis.” I grabbed that word out of one of his books, pleased when he tilted his head in sudden attention. Of course hearing his scientific balderdash would get his attention! “I know of at least one thing I can do that you can‟t,” I finished, holding my head up high. “And it proves you have soul, at least to my reckoning.” “What is that?” Erik asked simply. His eyes betrayed his skepticism. “I can hold two souls in my body at once.” I smiled. “If I can hold two, you can hold one.” Silence descended upon us. After a moment Erik gave a little laugh of defeat. “A bit of philosophical logic that is,” he said, waving his hand for me to sit back down. “Very well, I will be open to the idea I have a soul, but for now that is all the humanity I can assume.” He looked at me brightly behind the mask. “I have to admit I never thought of a woman being able to hold two souls at once.” Not quite soothed, I dropped back down into the pile of pillows. “You make me so mad sometimes,” I fumed. “Don‟t argue with me with gender bias, it doesn‟t wash with you.” “I suppose not,” Erik admitted. “But it was fun to stir you up nonetheless.” I rolled my eyes. Very soon, I was going to stir him up. I‟d see if he thought it was quite as much fun on the receiving end. I already had a plan worked out. “And anyway, if you knew I didn‟t mean it, why did you walk into it?” he asked. “That doesn‟t make any sense.” “Maybe not to you,” I countered swiftly. “I‟m not judging myself by your standards.” “Good.” Erik threw his legs over the side of the couch. “I‟m glad to hear you say that.” “Your standards are lopsided,” I continued, as if he hadn‟t said anything. “You assign value in a peculiar way.” “I think you‟re grasping at straws now,” Erik responded placidly, twining his fingers together. “Either that or begging me to continue this argument.” “Whatever pleases you,” I huffed. I was really mad now. The awful part of it was that I knew entirely why he was pushing me. I was used to Erik goading me. He knew exactly how to rile me and every so often he did it. This time it was to keep me at arm‟s length, to put distance between us. He was comfortable with my anger in this time of uncertainty. I would shatter his habit of making me mad to keep me away, one way or another. “But just for the record Erik, I think it‟s awfully handy to not have the responsibility of a soul,” I went on. At this Erik seemed to stiffen slightly. “Are you implying I avoid humanity with a convenient excuse?” he asked darkly. “Essentially,” I answered easily. At last he was showing signs of being uncomfortable, like me. “Aside from your face and your gifts, you could be any man on the street. You know how to be any man on the street; I‟ve seen you do it many times.” Erik bristled. “Pretense is not reality,” he ground out in a soft voice. “It‟s a valuable tool for getting what I want, not truth.” Mashing himself further into the sofa, he favored me with a maddening look of condescension. “I thought you understood my personality more than that.” “I understand more than you think,” I snapped back. “You don‟t know me either Erik, or you would have seen I‟ve had full retention of my memory for three days now.” A silence heavier than any previous dropped upon the room. Erik‟s eyes widened, turning into circles of deep, tawny amber. Body still, he looked at me in disbelief so complete I felt instant shame. But, I was justified. I lifted my head and stared right back. “Before you fly off the handle and start making exclamations over my deceit, remember how long I believed you to be anything other than flesh and blood.” “But why conceal it Christine?” Erik asked quietly. “What good did it do?” His shoulders relaxed slightly as he spoke, and he unwound his long body from the tight coil it had assumed. “I only want you well. Withholding this from me had no purpose.” I sighed. He wasn‟t angry. No, he couldn‟t hold on to ire for my sake, he never would. My confession couldn‟t have fizzled out more effectively. “Erik,” I began gently, “I just admitted to deceiving you. Can‟t you at least be upset over it?” “But I‟m delighted for you to be well again,” Erik said, tilting his head. “I‟m confused, not angry.” “Are you really confused?” I asked, feeling sad. “Can‟t you think of why I would pretend to be ignorant?” Erik blinked and looked away. Hands clenching, he drew a shuddering breath. “I can think of nothing outside the realm of pure fantasy,” he said almost to himself. “But I don‟t suppose it matters anyway, as I have slid back into most of my old ways with you already. I‟ve given up on my altruistic goal.” His eyes glided back to me. They were molten. “I‟ve made the decision that you will not go to the Vicomte de Chagny, and I‟ve never made a decision so correct in my entire life.” “So you‟re taking away my right to choose?” I ventured. It was what I hoped. It was crazy, but I wanted him to keep that vow. I had fallen in love with Erik the way he was, not as this unselfish paragon of virtue he kept trying to be. Even amnesiatic I had felt this. “In this instance, yes,” Erik replied. I heard not one scrap of chagrin in his tone. “I know it is very important to you these days to have your own way, but I can‟t relent on this even if you insist upon it.” “But I am still free to make my other decisions?” I persisted. “I may still choose to come and go as I please?” This was important. If he denied me my freedom utterly I would rebel. I would take what was left of my heart and sneak away like a thief in the night. “Your other matters are strictly your own,” Erik murmured, looking away once more. “You‟ve proven to me that it is important to have your own mind.” I relaxed with a sigh. Purest relief flooded my body. It wasn‟t as if I ever intended to go back to Raoul anyway, but I just couldn‟t have other decisions taken from me. I would have found something to say, but Erik was talking again. “When did you get your memory back?” he asked. “I‟m curious as to the specific moment.” “The night I had my crying fit.” I looked at him. “I remembered the carriage wreck and vomited until I passed out.” Erik winced. His hands grabbed a fistful of his shirt and twisted until the fabric began to give. “I suppose that was a natural enough beginning,” he began. “But why not something more specific to me? I would imagine my-” He stopped, his eyes going back to me. “I would imagine I caused it,” he finished simply. “Furthermore, it makes me wonder what you‟ve been thinking these last few days. Have I been undergoing some sort of test?” “I never test anything but your patience Erik, and I do that with unseemly fondness these days.” I gave him a wry smile. “I like seeing you the way I knew you before this accident, and you wouldn‟t show yourself to me without deliberate goading.” Erik let go of his shirt, rolling his eyes ceilingward. “Are you still trying to goad me? Even your answer seems curiously calculated to draw emotion from me.” “Of course I‟m doing just that,” I answered. “You‟ve handed me a great deal of power here Erik, power I can‟t ignore. You‟ve had such control over me I can‟t help but indulge in turning the tables.” “I deserve it.” Erik let his head drop onto the back of the sofa. “No you don‟t,” I responded coolly. “You deserve a high amount of recognition for helping me.” “Do I now?” Erik rumbled. “You positively wind me up.” He stood suddenly, walking over to put his hands atop the nearest bookshelf. “For instance, I am overjoyed you are whole again, but I wonder why on earth you are still here.” “We‟ve been through this already.” I stood up as well. “You aren‟t a prisoner this time Christine,” Erik ground out. “But think how quickly that could change. Think about our evening in the kitchen.” I felt my pulse quicken. Oh, but this would be a fun old game to play with new eyes. If only he would allow it! He‟d come close already with his refusal to let me go with Raoul. He really had no idea I was as willing to be his prisoner as I was anything else. I enjoyed surrendering to Erik. I absolutely delighted in handing my power over to him. But I had to be careful. I couldn‟t toy with Erik‟s emotions, I‟d done that enough already. It really wasn‟t a good idea to reduce us back to student and master. Erik had to know I preferred to be with him, not that I felt I couldn‟t leave. “Do you remember what you said about our parting being needful?” I asked. “Yes.” Erik looked over his shoulder at me. “Why?” “You haven‟t sung to me once.” Erik started. “That doesn‟t explain why you are still here,” he replied, shaking his head. “I suppose your company isn‟t enough?” I said calmly. “I don‟t suppose you think I might prefer it?” “Christ,” Erik muttered. His fingernails scraped the wood underneath his grip. “No, I can‟t see the likelihood of that,” he laughed harshly. “I almost raped you in the kitchen Christine. I tore into you like I hadn‟t a bit of sense about me. How in God‟s name could you prefer that kind of behavior?” “It makes singing to me a much lower crime, doesn‟t it Erik?” I answered, picking up my book. “When I figure out what‟s going on inside my head, maybe I‟ll be able to figure yours out. For now I‟ll settle with being here with you, enjoying the best freedom of my life.” I walked past him, pausing to stroke the side of his head on my way by. He was so surprised he didn‟t even jerk away. ****************** In the silence I waited for some sign of her distress. I heard nothing but her low humming as she ran bathwater. I really didn‟t know what to think now. If she stayed here because she wanted to, because she liked it, my fondest dream had come true. My fondest dreams never came true. In the past I would have distrusted her claim to like being here, but now…Now I wasn‟t sure. Christine had changed. In one week with me she had become strong and flexible. She no longer cringed in my presence, nor did she avoid me. She sought me out, she spoke with me, and she listened to what I had to say as well as how I sounded. She really seemed as if she did like my company. I sat down on the hearth. I could hear her in her bath. I was sensitive to sound and attuned to her in particular. In my mind I could see her soaping the sponge, drawing it down one flawless leg at a time. I had blessed her dance lessons as an excuse to look at her perfect legs. What if I were to go about as if she told me the truth? Did I have anything to lose? The water splashed gently. I heard her bar of soap fall into the deep end of the tub. She made a small laugh and retrieved it. The sound of it being placed in the dish again closely followed. “Clumsy,” she admonished herself. “No wonder you decided to sing instead of dance.” A pause followed. “It‟s a good thing Erik was listening to your voice and not judging you by how you flop around,” she giggled. I smiled. I had never known she talked to herself, like I did. I did it to fill in the occasional long-runs of silence. It seemed she did it for fun. She sighed. The sound of her washcloth hitting the water in a slap came clearly through the ductwork. “I miss hearing him sing,” she went on in a sad tone. “But if that is what it takes to be here with him, so be it. At least I remember now. I was lucky to ever hear him at all.” She thought herself lucky? I marveled at this. I had brought her nothing but trouble with my voice. She ought to be glad I didn‟t intend to manipulate her with it anymore. She let more water into the tub, but not much. I heard her splutter with the sound of a large splash. Perhaps she was rinsing her hair. As I waited to hear more it occurred to me what she‟d said. She was willing to never hear me sing if it meant I wouldn‟t make her go away. My voice meant a lot to her, but it didn‟t mean everything. It didn‟t mean everything. I put a hand over my heart. What else did I have of merit but my voice? I wasn‟t handsome. I wasn‟t kind or safe. I wasn‟t well situated. I wasn‟t even normal. I couldn‟t give her an ordinary life of sunlight and walks in the Bois. She could never point me out to some friend and say, “There he is, that‟s my husband.” She would live like a recluse with me. She was like a flower; she needed the sun to flourish. Didn‟t she? I was so confused. My heart didn‟t know whether to lie down and quit or thump like a bass drum. Wasn‟t I too old for her in the first place? Didn‟t she really deserve some younger man? I probably only had thirty or forty years left. By the time I died she would not be readily able to remarry. I was so tired of not knowing my path. It had been so easy before this. I had pursued her with enthusiasm, uncaring about who got in my way. Forcing myself to interact with her with honesty, to endure her soldier boy, to try and make nice had changed my thinking markedly. I wasn‟t so short tempered, but I wasn‟t entirely tamed either. It was a new feeling and it had me flummoxed. Christine splashed a little more. A large object dropped into the tub with her. “Merde,” she exclaimed hotly. “Now it‟ll be ruined. I paid for that book!” The pages flopped a bit. “Oh, it doesn‟t look too bad,” she said after a minute, her voice relieved. “Except the people look a little runny.” For some reason this set her into gales of laughter. I clearly heard her from two directions now, her voice floated past the barrier of her cork door and down our connected chimneys. She laughed long enough to worry me. Shaking off my introspection, I walked to her door and knocked. “Christine,” I called, “Are you quite well in there?” “I‟m fine Erik,” she shouted back in between giggles. “Just read something funny is all.” “Very well,” I answered, drawing away. Her moods were mysterious these days. Even discounting her explanation that she preferred my company I had to wonder about her state of mind. Maybe she had been down here in the dark too long. And maybe I had been down here in the dark too long. Maybe I just needed to go to bed. *** *** *** I tossed the soggy book onto the hearth to dry, casting it an apologetic glance. I was so clumsy. How did I ever think I‟d make a good ballerina? Well, the book didn‟t matter. It was useless; I didn‟t have the time for it. I was going to him tonight. If he hadn‟t been pleading to me with his voice in the kitchen I wouldn‟t have let go of him in the first place. He had to really care about me to make me push him away. I still marveled at his self-control. I couldn‟t imagine Raoul having that kind of stamina at all. But I wasn‟t considering Raoul anymore. I got out of the bath and dried myself with shaking hands. I was so nervous. I didn‟t even know if Erik would accept my advances at this point. He was still so eager to prove himself as „good‟ Erik instead of „bad‟ Erik. He didn‟t understand what I saw in „bad‟ Erik. I loved it when Erik lost control. I loved the power he gave me over himself. I felt like a queen when I looked at myself through his eyes. He would give me anything I wanted, anything. No woman in the world had as much to treasure as I did. Erik‟s love was more precious than platinum, more lustrous than pearls. I was the luckiest woman alive and finally I understood that. What else was I to do but show my love in return? I slathered on a light oil over my freshly cleaned skin. I felt as smooth as satin. I‟d shaved my body as I did in my dancing says, when hair was too bothersome underneath silk tights and binding taffeta. Erik would touch nothing rough on me tonight. I would make his journey an exploration of feminine softness, inside and out. The perfume bottles called to me. I looked at all of them carefully. „Give him a scent,‟ I thought with wicked pleasure. „Give him a scent that he‟ll remember.” I chose attar of Bulgarian Rose. He always gave me roses. I dabbed the perfume on my pulse points and in my wet hair. A pleasing, aromatic cloud swirled around me, calmed my nerves ever so slightly. I went to the wardrobe and retrieved the blue and gold Persian print robe. I had never worn it despite how I‟d admired it. It was somehow more intimate than any of the diaphanous creations he‟d stocked my closet with. I pulled in an appreciative breath at how it felt sliding on my body. It warmed to me instantly. I felt so hot. Would Erik be asleep yet? I bit my lip, looking at the clock. He was actually in bed very early. He almost never slept, in fact, and only did so when he was exhausted. I‟d been preparing myself for him nearly two hours all in all. Yes, he would surely be asleep. I began to panic inside. He couldn‟t be asleep! I didn‟t have the nerve to just walk in there and begin a seduction. A few pictures in a dirty book and a few lines of instruction in no way prepared me for that kind of aggression. And Erik was so unused to contact it might frighten him to awaken to it. It might even take him too long to realize it was me. He might accidentally kill me. Get hold of yourself. I sat down at the vanity and looked myself in the eyes. I looked every bit the virgin I was. How could Erik even stand to look at me? How could he want this weak-willed little snipe? I frowned at my reflection, feeling my backbone stiffen like a steel rod. I didn‟t have to be weak anymore, I knew what I wanted. What I wanted was just a few doors down… I knew I could just profess my love to Erik and give him his ring. He would say that I‟d made him happy, cry some very real tears and still I‟d find myself in bed alone. He would never think I wanted him. Erik was ignorant of his truest worth. As his friend I was duty-bound to enlighten him. As the woman who loved him, I was the worst traitor if I did not. Erik‟s bedroom door stood slightly ajar. I studied the room in the dim light. Erik himself lay flat on his back in the middle of an enormous bed. He wore only his trousers and the mask. For a moment his unguarded beauty simply hurt me. Even in the low illumination of his single candle I could see his scars. He had hundreds of them. I was no expert, but they looked like whip marks and knife wounds. But Erik‟s deepest scars weren‟t on his splendid body, they were in his mind. Did I seriously think I could help smooth over those hidden scars? My God, I‟d made more than a few of them myself. I wasn‟t worthy of him. I stepped inside and came closer. On his wrists were abrasion scars, the kinds of marks one gets while tied. His abdomen showed a red line cut so deeply I knew it would never go white. Over his left hip bone the flesh gathered in to show an old burn. Muscle after muscle moved with his every gentle breath. He had no hair on his body at all, not even fuzz. He had the appearance of a fine marble statue, tossed down from his pedestal by a new regime of gods. My nerves burned. I looked at his tight flesh. God, he would be magnificent. He had not an ounce of spare skin. His strength rivaled reason. He could take me all night long and not tire. What a paltry thing to lose, one‟s virginity. It was a very flimsy barrier to me, and had not a bit of importance. What did my purity have to do with my merit? Was Erik pure? I let my eyes linger on his sculpted arms. Erik was not pure. I didn‟t find him less attractive for that, did I? No, his lack of purity made him very stimulating in fact. As I stood there, pondering and looking, I lost my window of opportunity. Sensing me, Erik‟s eyes opened. For just the briefest moment I saw it. Hope. It was gone equally fast, replaced with wariness and resignation. He sat up. I watched an entire line of muscles bunch and twist in tandem underneath the skin of his trim little waist. “Are you unwell?” he asked. The magnetic, sensual pull of his voice made me weak. This was it. It was now or never. I would show him how much I loved him. The rings would have to come later. “I actually don‟t feel right Erik,” I answered, moving closer. “You don‟t?” Erik stood up, putting a hand on my brow. “What are your symptoms? I knew something was wrong with you.” It made me sad to know he had to excuse my presence with sickness. He never expected I would be here in his room for any other reason. I leaned into his touch, allowing myself to drift against him. “I‟m on fire and I can‟t seem to get my breath.” Erik immediately flinched. Backing me up toward his bed, he motioned for me to sit. “When did this start?” he muttered, tilting my head up to examine my eyes. “About two years ago,” I murmured, leaning into his arms. “It‟s worse when we‟re in the room together. I‟m hoping you have the cure in your bed.” Erik grew very still. In the ensuing quiet I heard his breath coming ragged and shallow. I felt a violent shudder tear its way through his slender frame. “Christine,” he sighed, “You couldn‟t make me stop a second time. If you allow me this claim I won‟t ever give you up, not for anything or anyone. I‟ll own you body and soul.” I rode the passion in his voice. How sweet of him to warn me, but I knew it didn‟t matter now. I could no more stay away from Erik than I could stop breathing. He already owned me body and soul. “I don‟t want you to stop Erik, I want you,” I whispered. “You can have me, every part of me; just don‟t leave me in this bed alone.” I matched his breaths as he began to lean down over me. The fire in his golden eyes took the very air from my lungs. Slowly, he put a hand on each side of the mattress. I leaned backward as he advanced. “If you have to, extinguish the light,” I said shakily, “But I want to feel your lips. I want all of you.” Again Erik grew still. Suddenly he moved off the bed. With a sweep of his arm the candle went in the floor. The door shut and all was complete blackness. But I could still see his eyes. It was a faint glow, barely visible, but his twin golden orbs came closer once more. I heard the soft click of his porcelain mask touching wood. “You shall have what you want,” he said in a rumble. His voice held no hesitance now. Erik would have me and he wasn‟t turning back. The bed dipped as he put his weight on the mattress. “God help you, I‟ll give exactly what you want.” His kiss narrowed my universe to two inches of flesh. His tongue plundered my mouth as his hand twined in my hair. I gasped, overwhelmed at the intensity, the suddenness of the assault, but he paid no heed to me. Leaving a trail of fire, he kissed down my jaw and stopped at my pulse. His teeth scraped me. I shuddered with pleasure as a flood of wetness escaped me. “Christine,” Erik breathed. My name sounded like a heathen prayer on his lips. Another shudder wracked me. The robe slid off. “Christine, you drive me mad.” His cool hands slid over my collarbone. “Your smooth skin drives me mad.” I felt his lips open against my shoulder. My nipples hardened painfully. I needed him to touch me everywhere at once. My fingers slid over the taut muscle of his arm. He trembled against me. Slowly, he came to crouch over me, his hands slipping underneath my back. I arched as he lifted and held me with his limitless strength. My legs wrapped around his hips. Only my head and bottom touched the bed. “You‟ll kill me,” Erik whispered. “Yet I can do nothing about it.” I sighed as he skimmed my waist with his lips and tongue. “I can‟t believe I have you,” he murmured. “I can‟t believe you would come in here and ask me for this. Do you know how I‟ve dreamed of you?” His voice, his magnificent voice that never faltered, shook with emotion. “I used to think I could let you go if only you would favor me with a single night of bliss. I was a fool to ever think I could let you go. If you leave me after this I will die.” My hands found the fastener on his trousers. As I scraped him with my fingernails he shuddered. I felt his hard hips flex under my grip. His breaths escaped in sudden exhales as I found him. He felt smooth, rigid, large and hot. I wrapped my fingers around him and squeezed. “My God,” Erik panted, “I won‟t survive it anyway.” Snaring my wandering hand, he pinned it to the bed. “But I‟m taking you with me,” he growled. Taking my other hand he laid my palm flat on my stomach. Our fingers laced together. And take me with him he did. I felt my own smooth skin rolling underneath my fingertips. Erik‟s leone eyes burned in the darkness as we glided over my curves and valleys. Slowly he cupped my breast. As one we felt the weight of it, explored its round, firm shape. My nipple felt hard in my palm. Erik folded his hand and I pinched myself. My womb answered every gentle squeeze with convulsions of need. The tiny button of flesh between my legs throbbed. I wanted him to touch me there too. I brought my hand down, listening to his shattered breaths. I pressed him against my need, moaning in the onslaught of pleasure as he began to explore on his own. I had never felt anything like this. Erik‟s touch seemed limitless. He was no longer cool, but burning hot. Every sound I made showed him where to touch, how to touch, and he did not falter. In gentle circles he moved my tiny key of pleasure, his rhythm perfect. He released my pinned hand to cover my breast, moving the sensitive nipple in perfect synchronicity with his other hand. My mind emptied of anything but the hunger between my legs. I cried out his name and arched toward him, opening myself as far as I could. Erik moved into another rhythm. I writhed in rapture, gasping as he first stroked me, then pinched my nipple and pushed a gentle finger inside me. Over and over he coaxed me, moving with my bucking hips and never uncertain. I heard the melody of his voice urging me to topple over this precipice of ecstasy. “Yes Christine, yes,” he whispered. “Touch heaven with me; let me be the one to take you there.” Again I said his name, and again, feeling myself build toward a climax. I needed him inside me. I would die if he didn‟t take me. I clenched my walls around his long and slender finger, digging into his back with my fingernails. “Oh my God, please Erik,” I sobbed. “Please take me now!” He did not stop. Our weight shifted as he brought his body over mine. He felt hard all over, slick and frictionless against my trembling hands and thighs. I cried out in disappointment as his finger withdrew, feeling unfilled. Almost immediately he pressed the head of himself at my entrance. “Christine,” he whispered, hesitating. I dug in my heels. Our gasps came as one sound. Erik shuddered violently and went absolutely still. I listened to him fight for each breath of air, felt the sharp pain inside me dull. He was gigantic between my legs. I felt stretched to my limit and filled to the edge with him. The moments ticked by in heartbeat spans as we clenched each other in wonder. As the scent of blood ascended, I moved my hips. Erik groaned like a lost soul, wrapping his arms underneath my waist. I felt his teeth between my breasts, scraping me in his spasm of rapture. “God in heaven,” he moaned. The twisting spasm of his entire body shook me like a rag doll. „Good Erik‟ died. Raw and beautiful, like a starving beast he claimed me. He lifted me, bending his head to each of my aching nipples by turns. He thrust inside me as he began suckling, slamming into me with force that stole my breath. Again and again he struck me, his inhuman strength now serving us both. I heard myself crying out as if from a long distance… My cries enflamed him. Dropping me on the mattress, Erik took my ankles in his hands and spread me to my limit. And though I could not get enough of him I thought he would split me in twain. I devoured him, clenching around him with all my might. “You are mine,” Erik growled. “Say it Christine, say it for me.” His brutal thrusts pierced me to my womb. “Say my name, my little diva.” He pushed his thumb into the junction of my legs and stars shot through my darkened eyes. “Tell me you want me, tell me now. Open those beautiful lips and kill me with your words.” His tempo rocked my entire body, his monstrous strength relentless. “Erik!” I sobbed his name. “I belong to you!” I thought I would shake to pieces in his arms. I heard him gasp as I quaked around him, heard myself gasp as he slammed into me again and again. His muscled arms clamped around me, arching me upward for his deepest thrust. “Christine,” he whispered. “My beautiful, beautiful Christine.” His body shuddered as he emptied his loins inside me, his liquid heat striking me inside, branding me as his. But I was over the precipice, falling with him like a blazing, dying star in endless space. I was burning, falling... Erik slumped over me, still holding me in his arms. I pressed my lips against his sculpted, throbbing throat and drew a shuddering breath. “Oh Erik,” I sighed. The vibration of his soft, wordless answer hummed underneath my lips. Slowly, gently, he lowered me to rest against the mangled sheets. I rolled as he collapsed beside me, straddling him before he lay fully on his back. His impossibly gleaming eyes gazed up at me, looking stunned. He was still inside me and he was still rigid. I kissed his mouth gently, breathing into him. He rested his trembling hands on my thighs, stroking me with gentle reverence. My heart swelled to bursting. I could not help the sob of joy that escaped my lips, and I pressed my face to his. His skin was wet. “You are everything I‟ve ever wanted and nothing I deserve,” Erik whispered. “And I‟ve hurt you. I can smell your blood.” “If that was pain, I want you to hurt me for the rest of my life,” I said in his ear. He was shivering underneath me. I clenched my inner walls around him slowly, feeling his body tighten in aftershocks of pleasure. “Oh Erik, you made me feel so good. Please tell me you enjoyed me.” Erik made a strangled noise in the back of his throat. His hands pressed me harder against him. I felt him swelling anew, stretching me… “I enjoyed you Christine,” he murmured. His liquid voice washed over me. “Let me show you how much.” *** *** *** I stared at her sleeping form, watching every breath that moved her beautiful breasts. She was a goddess in my bed, a living, breathing goddess. She didn‟t stir as I smoothed her hair away from her face, but she smiled to break my heart. “Erik,” she sighed. My eyes and ears refused to assimilate the moment. I was as filled and emptied as I‟d ever been in my life. New tears took the dried paths of their predecessors, ran freely over my naked face. I leaned closer to her, breathing in the combined scents of blood, roses, and feminine musk. My vision might fail and my voice leave, my hands might gnarl with arthritic knots and my back might sink into my chest, but I would never lose this moment. How could I make her stay here? She‟d given me everything she had to give, willingly and joyfully. I could not make her stay. She deserved so much more than a life of shadows. But if she insisted upon staying I did not have the will to make her go. Gently, I disengaged from the sheets and slid out of bed. My legs trembled at the renewal of activity. How many times did I have her? Twice? Three times? It all blended together in my mind as one long, rapturous orgasm. My senses were full of her even now. I staggered to the bathroom and lit a candle. The sight of blood all over my body momentarily staggered my mind. I marveled she wasn‟t dying of blood loss. Those new sheets were ruined and I would be damned if I let her throw them away. I would sleep on the stains until I died. I washed as best I could with my shaking hands. When finished I leaned against the countertop and let myself cry again. This was unbelievable. My wildest dreams never let me imagine I would be washing Christine‟s virginal blood off my manhood. Even if she‟d agreed to marry me those long weeks ago I wouldn‟t have been able to bring myself to- God, these murderous hands all over her delicate, sweet body! I had no more right to touch her than a leper. But she came to me! She came to me on her own idea and offered herself with complete sincerity. This was not a dream at all. I had been loved in the night by an angel, an angel who bled at my touch and still wanted more. I could still hear her mewling pants in my ear, driving me on and on to complete madness. “Oh God Erik! Yes, yes! Give me more!” No matter how hard I pounded into her she wanted more. All night long with her and she still urged me on. She was insatiable, starving. My back felt like it was on fire with her nail marks. I bled too. Christine… She would never know how happy she‟d made me. Even if I‟d had her in my bed for the first and last time I would die happy. But by God, if she stayed here I would have her again. I would have her every day of my life. ****************** The sound of distant hammering brought me out of bed. Disoriented, I strained to hear where the noise came from. It seemed to be the front door of Erik‟s unusual house. I looked to the side. Erik was not beside me, but a light shone under his bathroom door. It had to be Raoul making that noise. This was the day he expected to “rescue” me. I threw on my robe and hurried to the front room. I bit my lip as I listened to Raoul pounding and yelling on the other side of the wall. If I let him in without Erik behind me he was likely to drag me out without preamble. I couldn‟t have that. I wanted a peaceful parting from Raoul, at least as peaceful as I could make it. It wasn‟t his fault I‟d finally found my own mind on things. Erik floated by me as I stood there contemplating. The sight of his muscled, fingernail- gouged back startled me. He hesitated at the door, casting a look backwards to me. I shivered at the way his eyes took me in. He still didn‟t believe I wouldn‟t run off with Raoul. He thought I was even now regretting lying with him, and despite his vows he would still let me go. Erik loved me enough to give me up again. I wasn‟t going anywhere, not even at his insistence. Tripping the latch, Erik walked over to the fireplace and stood. His body rigid, he rested his head in one of his hands. Raoul charged inside as I tore my eyes away from Erik‟s shirtless body. “Christine!” I looked at Raoul. I felt calm. “How are you darling?” he went on in a rush, coming forward to clasp me by the hands. I allowed him the contact for a moment, then broke away to sit on the sofa. “I‟m myself,” I answered simply. Raoul blinked, swinging his gaze from me to Erik. As stupid as he was, he could smell the change in the air. “Are you truly yourself,” he asked bitingly, “Or are you a construct of Monsieur Phantom?” Erik and I flinched as one. I watched Erik ball up his free hand into a powerful looking fist. I shook my head. Raoul would have to go on the attack as soon as he entered. Erik wasn‟t the kind to mind his manners and Raoul knew that. He also knew he was safe from Erik while in my presence. He probably hoped to goad Erik into a temper tantrum, to illustrate to me why I should not have anything to do with a maniac. In his own way, Raoul could be very devious. But so could I. “I am who I am,” I answered, drawing Raoul‟s gaze. “Perhaps it is egotistic of me, but I prefer myself the way I am.” I looked at the grandfather clock in the corner. “It is very early Raoul, you woke us.” Raoul made a noise through his nose, coming toward me with the light of purpose in his eyes. “It is sunrise,” he answered. “I thought that late enough.” “What is the sunrise?” I answered airily. “More specifically, what is the sunrise to us? We cannot see it.” Raoul cocked his head. Confusion flitted over his face. I glanced at Erik. Erik was looking at me with much the same expression. I smiled to myself. “And anyway Raoul, you never get up before noon unless some twist of your schedule demands it,” I went on. “I hope you didn‟t come so early in the hope I would be agreeable to losing sleep.” “Losing sleep?” Raoul shook his head. “I don‟t understand you these days Christine,” he said in a mildly accusing tone. “I believed you would be ready to leave, not lounging around in your night clothes.” He came to stand before me, looking down at my state of undress with irritation. “It isn‟t seemly to walk around like that in public.” “This isn‟t a public place,” I answered serenely. “This is Erik‟s house, where I can walk about however I want.” I spied one of Erik‟s Afghans on the edge of the sofa and dragged it over my lap. “However, I will cover up if it bothers you,” I said. I still had blood all over my legs; perhaps it was best to hide that anyway. All I needed was for Raoul to figure out I‟d given myself to the “monster”. The fit he‟d throw would end up as his last fit, for surely Erik would kill him if he said one word about it. Erik and I had shared something magical, something special. He treasured our night as much as I did; I knew it in my bones. Raoul‟s profanity against our love would be his death. “As for being ready to leave, I‟m not,” I finished simply. I just wanted Raoul gone so I could go back to being all Erik‟s. “Not ready-?” Raoul‟s eyes widened. “But it is Saturday!” “I don‟t care what day it is.” I smiled. “I am not leaving with you now or ever.” I reached into my pocket and drew out his ring, placing it on the coffee table between us. “Our engagement is off,” I murmured. “I would not marry someone who blames others for his accidents.” Raoul staggered as if I‟d hit him. Slowly, he righted himself and picked up his ring. “You- you remember,” he said weakly, his eyes darting to Erik before coming back to me. “But it was an accident Christine; I would never put you in harm‟s way deliberately.” “Not even to catch a ghost?” I answered, unable to keep the sarcasm from my tone. “I seem to recall being used for bait once upon a time.” Beside me I heard Erik shift. “But that‟s not the issue Raoul,” I continued. “The issue is how you were willing to ruin your driver‟s life to keep your secret. I don‟t assign value to people over how much money they have or what they do for a living. I don‟t assume ownership. I would never rest easy in my mind if I married you, for I would always be wondering what you were lying to me over.” I brushed an imaginary speck of dust from my blanket, my hands remaining steady. “I‟m done with lies, with deceit, with having my life in the hands of someone else.” “Yet you‟ll hand your life over to him,” Raoul spat, looking at Erik once more. “You‟ll give him all the power he wants and more besides!” He clenched his fists, looking back at me. “What does this ghost hold over you Christine? What does Monsieur Phantom offer you in his opera house tomb?” I bristled at Raoul‟s venomous questions. All my ideas of a peaceful parting evaporated. Who was he to question me over Erik? I stood up, letting the blanket fall to the floor. In my peripheral vision I saw Erik straightening his back. “Erik is not the focus,” I began hotly, “But to answer your question Raoul, Erik offers me himself.” “As do I!” Raoul tore at his hair. “There is nothing I wouldn‟t give you, nothing I wouldn‟t be able to give you! Your answer is ridiculous!” “Wrong!” I shouted, watching both men jump. “You won‟t give me your flaws! You won‟t give me yourself!” I walked over to Raoul, raising a trembling finger to point at him. I was angry. I was so angry I was shouting and I didn‟t care. “You are incapable of giving me honesty! You have done nothing but lie to me from the moment I woke in your villa.” I walked around him, seething with the unsaid things that had festered in my mind for an entire week. “You never wanted me to remember how I triumphed here in the opera; you told me my voice wasn‟t good. You told me I didn‟t have a proper voice coach. You told me I was disappointed with how things turned out.” I whirled on him, watching his eyes grow larger and larger. “You want a little doll to dress up and show off, you don‟t want an opera singer! You want someone proper, Raoul, someone without any sense of her own mind.” I put my hands on my hips. “Did you think you could take a whorish diva and turn her into a refined woman? Is that it? Was it some kind of game to you?” “Christine-” “Did you think I would never remember having thousands at my feet? Did you think I would just let that victory go without a word of complaint?” I laughed harshly, feeling my anger come to a head. “Did you think I could forget my own needs in light of your own? I‟m sorry Raoul; I could never put my life aside to make yours seamless and proper.” “I‟ll let you sing,” Raoul protested, wiping away a bead of sweat from his forehead. “You may sing all you want!” “Oh? In a church choir perhaps?” I asked in an ugly tone. “Or maybe for the entertainment of your rich socialite friends? Surely I would have to be satisfied with that!” “No, you can sing at the opera,” Raoul claimed quickly. “You can do whatever you like!” “You‟re damned right I can do what I like,” I whispered. In the quiet of Erik‟s home my voice sounded like a hiss. “And what I like is not becoming the Vicomtess de Chagny. I am not going away with you, and I am not marrying you.” For the space of several heartbeats I stared at him. His eyes flickered between disbelief and despair. The light of desperation birthed in his hollow gaze. In a burst of movement his hand went inside his vest. The little derringer he always liked to carry came out. “This is your fault,” he growled, raising his weapon at Erik. “She loved me before you came into our lives. Now she is poisoned with all your thoughts.” His thumb came up to cock the hammer. “But it is of no matter,” Raoul went on. “Once you are gone she will have no choice but to return to me.” Fear for Erik slammed into my heart. Raoul meant to kill him; I could see it in his eyes. “If you kill Erik you‟ll have to kill me too,” I cried, rushing forward to put myself in the path of the pistol. “Get out of the way,” both men said at once. Erik put his hands on my shoulders, meaning to set me aside, but I turned and clung to him with all my might. He twisted to protect me, turning his back to Raoul. I heard Raoul suck in a breath and knew he‟d seen my handiwork on Erik‟s flesh. A searing pain lanced my shoulder and Erik staggered. Blood welled up at the skin of his bicep. I felt myself falling and heard both men saying my name… I woke in my room. Raoul stood in the corner, hunched over into a miserable ball. I searched for Erik frantically, relieved beyond measure to find him sitting just beside me. I found his hand as our eyes met. “You‟ll be fine Christine, the bullet only grazed you,” Erik said softly. I looked at his shoulder to find a bloody bandage. I thought I felt him smile. “I‟ll be fine too,” he assured. “It isn‟t the first time the Vicomte has shot me. He‟s no better with a pistol now than he ever was.” “Oh Erik,” I breathed, ignoring the pain in my shoulder to throw my arms around him. Raoul made a sound of disgust and stalked from the room. In seconds I heard the front door slam shut. “Well, I stand corrected,” Erik chuckled. “The idiot boy could find the door release, and I didn‟t even have to show him.” He laughed once more, gently disengaging himself from me. “How do you feel my dear?” “Wrung out.” I plucked at my bandage before looking at his. “Is the bullet still in there?” “No, I removed it while you slept.” Erik reached behind my little end table, bringing out a teapot and cup. “Have a little tea,” he bade in a soothing tone. “You are safe and you don‟t have to worry about the Vicomte taking you out of here any more.” “And why is that?” I did as he asked, savoring both his assurance and the burst of orange on my tongue. “I think your display was too much for him,” Erik said solemnly. “After he realized you were willing to die to keep me safe, he simply lost his mettle. He has been as meek as a lamb these last few hours.” He paused. “He changed his demeanor so completely I was able not to kill him, though I easily could have. Especially since he fainted at the same time you did.” Erik paused to chuckle in a nasty way and even I couldn‟t help but smile over the mental image of Raoul fainting. “After he came around he decided to wait and make sure you were going to be alright.” I sighed. It was over. For Raoul to act like he had sense meant he respected my decisions. I could forget about him and concentrate on building a new life with Erik. I looked at him as I finished off the tea. His eyes seemed to glow. “I have an edict,” he said. “And what is that?” I asked, smiling a bit. “Only that you are never to place yourself in harm‟s way for my sake,” Erik answered, his eyes going soft and serious. “My death is never going to be as important as your life.” “Oh?” I handed him my empty cup. “Well, if it will make you feel better I‟ll agree to your new edict. I fear though you‟ll never be able to make me mean it.” Erik contemplated me silently for a moment. Just as the silence began to stretch into an uncomfortable duration, he gave a sigh. “I will have to make sure I never need to see my new edict fail,” he murmured. “I suppose it will have to be enough that I saw you speak your mind to the Vicomte.” “I meant every word,” I vowed lowly. “I know what I want.” Erik leaned backward slightly, crossing his arms loosely. “I know what you don‟t want, that is certain. Why don‟t you tell me what you do want?” His eyes were carefully blank. I realized he prepared himself for the worst. It was my fault he couldn‟t trust that I‟d want him. As splendid as our night had been, he thought it was all about to be ripped away. Erik was the noblest villain in the world. There he sat, prepared to let me walk away even though it would kill him. I had the power to kill him. It should have scared me to death, but it didn‟t. It didn‟t scare me because I never intended to hurt him again. I would never leave him again. This was my moment. “If I tell you what I want will you give it to me?” I asked softly. Erik blinked. “Of course I‟ll give it to you, whatever it is,” he assured gently. Love for me lit his eyes. “Do you have to ask?” He unfurled his arms and took a deep breath. “So, what is it?” I smiled softly. From my bedside table I drew our rings, holding them out in the fitful gaslight where he could see them. “All I want is you,” I said. “Nothing more, nothing less, ever and forever, all I want is you Erik.” His hand shaking, Erik reached for the larger ring. His eyes caught the inscription as he brought it closer. “Loved,” he read aloud. A shiver passed through him. Slowly, slowly, his golden eyes drifted to mine. “Does this mean you‟ll marry me?” he asked; his voice uncharacteristically small. I felt tears well up in my eyes. “Yes Erik, I‟ll marry you,” I declared, straightening my shoulders to look at him proudly. “And if that proves impossible for us we‟ll just have to live in sin.” Erik‟s eyes fluttered. I knew his mouth hung open even though I couldn‟t see it. Suddenly, he threw back his head and roared with laughter. Then I was in his arms, twirling in tight circles with my feet dangling off the floor. I laughed with him through my tears, feeling my heart swell. “This is what you were doing on your shopping excursion,” Erik said, putting me down to look at the ring gleaming in his palm. “I never dreamed of this.” His eyes were radiant amber, reflecting red from the many rare, crimson diamonds across the band of the ring. Again he looked at the inscription. Drawing a shuddering breath he met my gaze once more. “You knew you wanted to marry me days ago,” he said quietly. “I knew I wanted to marry you weeks ago,” I corrected softly, holding out my ring. Making sure he watched me, I slid it on my finger. “I‟m putting this ring on but you are the only one who will ever remove it,” I vowed. Erik closed his eyes. Slowly, he put his ring on. When his eyes opened I gasped at their brilliance. “Marry me today Christine,” he urged, a gentle but fervent quality to his tone. “I know a priest that will do it right now.” I giggled. “You know a priest?” I said in feigned astonishment. Erik chuckled. “Yes. Will you marry me today?” “Yes Erik, but let me change first. I don‟t want to marry you in my nightgown.” I could hardly fathom it. She was mine. Christine belonged to me by laws both worldly and godly. The knowledge made my hands tremble as I aided her into the boat. The smile she gave me made my heart thud to a halt and lurch back to life in the space of a moment. I picked up the punt and set us into motion, knowing I now took her to her chosen home. Still, I could not believe it. I couldn‟t even speak to her for fear I would blurt out something to ruin this fragile paradise. Christine apparently had no such reservations. “Do you want children?” Christine asked, breaking the stillness with her pure, soprano silk. Her eyes watched me carefully. I tried to bring enough water up in my mouth to answer. I realized the emotion that had paralyzed me the entire evening had a name; fear. Now that I had her, I didn‟t know what to do with her. All well and good that I finally reached the doors to Eden, but with my hand on the latch I no longer had certainty. Without the constant struggle to seize her I was curiously free and yet completely immobile. And now she was asking me if I wanted children? I felt like weeping. Of course I wanted children! I wanted to walk in the sun with my wife like any normal man, unmasked with the wind on my face and unobstructed smiles. I wanted to watch the ocean, to compose on the shore, to make love in the primordial waves of creation itself. I wanted to watch my offspring grow without masks, to instruct them in music and leave a legacy behind that would make any man die of envy. And I wanted to do all of this with her. I now even had permission to try. I was overwhelmed and the feeling was very, very new. Not even Christine‟s departure with her Vicomte had affected me like this. I knew what a broken heart felt like; I had felt it many times in my life. Though seeing her leave twisted my heart, I‟d still known the sensation as familiar. But this… This mixture of bliss, fear, and new direction set me in hubris. I wanted to devour Christine and yet I feared to even touch her. I needed to answer her question but what could I say? “I would find Nirvana,” I said softly, “If only I could see any child you created.” I meant it and it shocked me. I hadn‟t even thought about seeing her grow heavy with my child, I hadn‟t dared. It astounded me to even see her in the wedding dress, to know she wore it because she was mine. Christine‟s face softened, and she flushed a delicate shade of pink as I watched her. With a little smile creeping across her full lips, she trailed the back of her hand across the water. “Oh Erik,” she sighed softly. “If only you knew how impossible it is for me not to love you.” I felt a rush of pleasure at her words. Her sincerity rang out in the darkness, echoed around me, reverberated with truth. “I think we might burn each other to ashes,” Christine went on, her eyes darting back to me and remaining. “What I feel for you lies in the deepest place.” I swallowed back my emotion. I could not let fear have the dominant position in my spiraling consciousness. My movements centered on the pole, the boat, and the tiny lantern on the faraway shore. In a few moments we would be in the house. “You cause me to feel, Erik, to savor the moment.” Christine let her eyes drop back down to the water. “I‟m overcome by the reality of you. You were perfect as the Angel of Music, but your imperfections as a man make you irresistible.” Despite the intense weight of the moment, I chuckled. I knew Christine‟s words as the sweetest ever spoken to me, yet I couldn‟t deny how silly I‟d made this entire adventure. It was laughable that I‟d come to her as an angel, that I‟d been audacious enough to woo her as one. And just as silly, she had accepted it. Our entire relationship was an opera even bigger than my Don Juan Triumphant. Our story of passion, murder, mystery and romance could set the world reeling. Together, Christine and I were history in the making. If we managed to pull off this impossible love we would be cataloged beside Homer‟s Odyssey. What a burden for a beautiful girl and her beast! I looked at Christine and found her grinning shyly. She knew why I laughed. I drank in the sight of her pleasure. She wasn‟t afraid of me or my moods, not anymore. It was easy to believe she never had been afraid. She tilted her head to one side and looked away, unaffectedly coy. I brought the pole down and stopped us. Christine looked up in surprise but didn‟t speak. “We never really passed the point of no return Christine,” I said gently. “That is what is wrong with you and me. There is no moment we will ever realize we‟ve gone too far.” Christine swayed with my voice. She heard my longing for her underneath the ambiguous words. “As it should be,” she answered. “We‟re supposed to be together.” “I‟ve tried to tell you that,” I answered in mock severity, pushing us forward again. I would have to force a little levity if I wanted to make it to shore. “But I‟m sure I can forgive your beginning reluctance in light of my terrifying attempts at courtship.” Christine giggled. “You didn‟t do badly for a ghost,” she said in soft merriment. “And I must admit your intensity is beyond flattering. There‟s something to be said for your black knight approach.” “The black knight,” I repeated with appreciative humor. “A bit more honest than angel, don‟t you think?” “Only in certain ways,” Christine said slyly, looking at me from under her eyelashes in a way that sent my blood racing. “Lucifer was an angel too, dark and beautiful.” “But Lucifer means light-bearer,” I commented. “Unless the word is being used euphemistically, light is not what I am about.” “We had this discussion in your kitchen,” Christine smiled. “You mean the light of awareness and knowledge as opposed to the light of day.” Christine raised an eyebrow. “I can see you offering me the apple of knowledge. Perhaps it might have been more like a pomegranate.” I gave our craft another good push. We were close to the shore now. “But where will you vacation in the summer, when it is time for fair Persephone to return to the Upperworld?” She always did enjoy likening me to Hades. “I‟ll be wherever you are Erik,” Christine answered. “I didn‟t stop with six seeds. I ate the whole damned fruit.” She smiled pointedly, casting her gaze around the lake. “I can‟t help but think I‟ll enjoy my time underground.” “I hope you do Christine, I hope you do.” I was scared to think about disappointing her. “I hope you can stand eternal night.” “It isn‟t completely dark down here Erik,” Christine answered, her eyes wandering back to me. “I meant what I said before. You are truly a bonfire in the night.” I had no answer for that. I ran the boat aground and leaped out, turning to aid her. The sight of her standing to face me with open arms almost unmanned me. What a sight for any man, but what bliss for a demon to see a willing angel. I swept her up and held her, listening to her breathe against my neck. Her curves pressed against my angular body. Fierce protectiveness swelled up inside me. “I can‟t believe you married me,” I confessed. “You deserve someone better than me or the Vicomte.” Christine let out a tiny huff of amusement against my skin. “I couldn‟t do any better than you Erik.” Her hands came up to remove my mask and I didn‟t even think about stopping her. Her kiss closed the gaping hole of loneliness in my chest. I did have a soul after all.
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