"...You are not alone...."
His lips were so soft against hers, so warm and gentle, as if she was a delicate flower and he was the sun. His marred cheek was hot under her palm and damp with sweat and tears, but it was real, a part of him no other hand had ever touched. Did he feel this most wonderful of miracles happening right here, right now, this simple kiss joining two hearts, two souls, together? She had to know.
Ending the kiss, she moved back just far enough to look into his eyes, her hands never leaving him, her fingers moving lightly against his shoulder and chest. Their gazes met, and for an instant, she saw the brilliant light of rapture shining in his emerald eyes. As quickly as it had appeared, it vanished, to be replaced by a look of agony and heart-rending sorrow. He trembled under her hands, his face twisting in pain as his mouth tried to form words but only managed a ragged sob.
He pushed away from her, stumbling like a mortally wounded man toward the shore. "Take him, forget me, forget all of this…"Christine started after him but a strangled noise from Raoul stopped her. With a worried glance at her Angel, she turned and slogged through the lake toward her trussed up fiancé. Loosening the noose around his neck, she pulled it off over his head then untied the ropes holding him to the portcullis. As soon as he was free, Raoul wrapped her in a crushing hug. "Oh, thank God, thank God!" he murmured as Christine stood stiff and unyielding in his embrace.
Taking her by the arm, Raoul dragged her toward the boat. "Christine, come on. You heard him. We must leave here at once, before he changes his mind!"
She shook free of his grasp. "I'm not going with you." She started toward the shore. Her Angel had disappeared up the stairs and into the bed chamber.
"Christine? What do you mean you're 'not going with me'?"
Reaching the rocky water's edge, she looked back at him. "I made a promise, Raoul," she said, holding up her left hand so that he clearly saw her Angel's ring. "And I will not break another promise to him, not when I have broken so many."
Splashing to shore, he grasped her by the shoulders. "So you will break your promise to me instead? Or have you forgotten you promised to marry me, not that creature!"
Christine took a deep breath before she replied. She forced herself to look into Raoul's eyes, to see the confusion and hurt there, both of which were her doing. "I'm sorry for the pain I have caused you, but I was never free to make that promise to you."
His expression grew more tortured and he shook her. "I can give you everything, Christine! How can you choose that monster over me? How can you even stand to look at him, let alone—"
She tore herself free from his grasp before he could complete that damning sentence. "Is that what you think of me? That I am so vapid and shallow that the only things I find attractive are wealth and a handsome face?"
"He noticed me when I was a scrawny, sniveling child, and he loved me then! You—you did not even remember your childhood playmate until there was a limelight on her and she was coiffed and painted within an inch of her life!"
"Christine, I love you!"
She shook her head sadly, her brief outburst fading to resignation. Raoul would never understand. "You say you love me, but you don't know what that means. You could have anyone you wanted, anyone in the world. He has only me."
"Pity? You would stay with him out of pity? Don't you deserve to be happy, Christine?"
She let out a long sigh. "I was happy—before you reappeared in my life."
Anger flashed in his eyes. "So this is my fault?"
Christine shook her head, beginning to feel arguing with him was pointless. "No, I take all the blame on myself." She blinked back tears at the memory of all the ways she had hurt her Angel in her confusion. "I couldn't see how truly wonderful my life was until all I knew and loved was taken from me. I didn't appreciate what I had until it was lost. I won't lose him.
"He risked everything for me. All those years of fear and loneliness, until he found the courage to speak to me, to be my friend, my teacher. I am the only one to ever look at him as a man, to treat him with compassion, and he let me go! That is what love is, Raoul. And that is why I will not leave him!"
He had the decency to look ashamed. "This is goodbye, then?" he asked finally.
She nodded. "You are a good man. I'm sorry I've hurt you."
He took her hands and pleaded with her. "Please, Christine, please don't do this. There is a mob coming and if they find you with him, they will show no mercy."
She held her head high as she took her hands back. "They won't find us. Now go, before they find you!"
Reluctantly, he got into the gondola and took up the pole. Christine released the lever controlling the portcullis, raising it. She waited until he was through then lowered it again before hurrying up the steps to the Phantom's bed chamber.
She could hear the gentle chiming of the music box, the melancholy sound joined by her Angel's voice. "Masquerade, paper faces on parade, hide your face so the world will never find you..." She caught sight of him as she silently entered the room; he knelt on the floor next to the bed, his gaze on the monkey as its music played. The tears she had been holding back spilled down her cheeks at the fragility of his song.
He looked up then as she paused in the doorway. She felt a flush rising to her cheeks under his questioning eyes and a most peculiar fluttering in her belly. She looked down at the ring on her finger, its presence calming her nerves. She raised her gaze back to his face. "Christine, I love you...." he whispered, his voice breaking.
She took a step toward him and his face lit up. There was a glimmer of hope in his eyes and her heart wrenched at the sight. His life had been filled with nothing but torment and suffering from the moment he was born, and yet he could still believe in love. He still had hope. And that, Christine thought, made him beautiful.
Moving to his side, she knelt on stone floor next to him. She traced his features with her fingertips, her gaze never leaving his. "Angel, I love you...."
Tears slid down his cheeks and he reached out a shaking hand to touch her face, startling when his fingers came in contact with her skin. "I...I thought I was dreaming..."
Shaking her head, Christine smiled at him through her tears. "No, my love, I am here, now and for always, if you will have me."
She opened her arms to him, and tentatively he moved into her embrace, his own arms wrapping around her as if she was made of smoke and would disappear if he held her too tightly. He pressed his face against her shoulder, silent sobs shaking him. She longed to hold him this way forever, to show him the physical comfort he had been denied all his life, but she could hear shouts and splashing in the distance.
"Angel, we have to leave here," she told him. He lifted his head, his attention obviously on the approaching mob. She wiped the remnants of his tears from his cheeks with the back of her fingers.
Taking a deep breath, he shook himself, and the formidable mantle of the Phantom's power seemed to flow over him. Getting to his feet, he extended his hand down to Christine. "Come, we must hide for now. When they've gone, we will return and salvage what we can then we shall leave this cursed place forever."
Smiling, Christine rose and kissed his lips softly. He stared at her in surprise then shyly smiled back at her. She thought his smile was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Taking his hand, she followed her Angel, trusting him with her life as he had trusted her with his heart.
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