By CarolROI

"Come, we must return. Those two fools who run my theater will be missing you," Christine's Angel said as he extended his hand down toward her, the uncovered side of his face as devoid of emotion as the masked half. They were the last words he had spoken to her.

She huddled in the bottom of the gondola, wiping at the tears that refused to stop falling from her eyes. She was a horrid, wicked girl, and every moment of silence between them impressed that fact deeper into her soul. She hadn't known, of course she hadn't known, but that was no excuse for how she had hurt him. And she had hurt him, wounded him terribly. His howls of anguish still resonated in her mind.

She should apologize. It would be the right thing, the only thing she could do. And yet every time she opened her mouth to speak, when she even glanced up once or twice at his cold, hard, expressionless face, all her words seemed inadequate.

So she sat in the boat and let tears soak into her dressing gown where her head rested against her knees. She remembered the trip to his home the night before, the details sharp and clear now, when everything had been so soft and dreamlike then. They had sung together, their voices rising and blending, echoing across the vast lake. Christine had never heard anything, never felt anything like it. It as if she was a box, and he was the only key to the treasure inside her. He made her feel things, strange and wonderful things...beautiful things.

Oh, how she wished she could go back, to slap her wicked, evil hand as she had reached for his mask. She didn't know why she had done it, snatched the scrap of leather from his face. She had known it was wrong, though, known it as she had crept up on him, known it as she had laid her hand along his bare cheek. A silent sob shook her as she recalled the look on his face then. It had been so calm, so peaceful. Bliss, she realized, it had been bliss.

She glanced back over her shoulder at him. There was no trace of bliss in his features now. His lips were slightly parted, and she could hear him breathing heavily as he poled the boat through the water. His eyes were no longer the warm emerald of the night before, but a chilly turquoise that made her pull her dressing gown closer around herself.

Looking forward again, Christine could see the shore of the lake approaching. What would happen when they arrived? Would he just leave her there? Fear made her stomach clench. What would she do if he sent her away? She was a thoughtless, selfish child. Why would he want anything more to do with her?

The boat thumped against the little dock, jolting Christine from her thoughts. Leaping lightly onto the stone walkway, her Angel tied the gondola up then took Christine's hand to help her out of the boat. Without a word, he began to pull her toward the stairway.

"Angel, please..." she stammered. He turned his face toward her, and the anger and pain in his eyes shattered her heart. He was going to take her back and leave her. "Please," she begged, "Please, Angel. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Please don't leave me!"

Her pleas had no effect on him. He simply dragged her up the stairs to the first landing. "No! No! I'm sorry! I won't do it again, I promise. Please, please, I promise to be good. Don't send me away. Don't leave me!"

He rounded on her then, his features contorted in a snarl. "That's enough, Christine!" he snapped.

She felt as if he had slapped her, so sharply did his words sting. Meekly, she followed him up the next few steps, but the closer they got to the opera house, the more panicked she became. Christine couldn't lose him; he was all she had. He was the only one who understood her; he knew all her secrets, her hopes and dreams.

How could it possibly matter to her what he looked like? He had been a voice from the shadows for as long as she had known him. She had thought him an angel, but she was not disappointed to discover he was simply a man. Being a man made him flesh and blood, made him someone she could hold, someone she could love. She would not let him send her away.

With that thought, Christine sat down in the middle of the stairway.

"Christine!" he growled.

Wiping her nose on her wrist, she looked up at him determinedly. "Please," she tried again, "please don't send me away. I'm sorry I hurt you. If I could go back and change things I would. I would tell you you have no reason to be afraid of me. I would tell you how much I've longed for you, how much I need you, need your friendship. I would tell you your appearance could never change the way I feel, change how much I care for you."

His gaze softened, and he knelt beside her. "Christine..."

"Please don't send me away," she cried, her tear-filled eyes meeting his. "I could not bear it if I could never see you again, never hear your voice, never know your love for me." He looked quite startled at her mention of love, but the grip he had on her hand gentled.

Christine raised her right hand to stroke his cheek and was filled with horror when he flinched away from her touch. "I'm sorry," she choked out. "I won't hurt you, I swear. It doesn't matter to me. I just...I just need you...."

His gaze searched her face, looking for any sign of deceit then he reached out to her, brushing away the tears on her cheek. He took a ragged breath then whispered, "I won't leave you, Christine, I promise."

With a little cry, she flung herself at him, wrapping her arms about his neck and burying her face in the soft fabric of his shirt. A moment later she felt his arms around her waist as he pulled her closer. "I won't leave you," he breathed into her hair. "Not ever."


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