"This haunted face, holds no horror for me now. It's in your soul, that the true distortion lies." She said the words as gently as she could. There was no hate in her heart for her fallen angel, only sorrow.
His eyes closed as his head lowered and Christine saw shame cross his marred features, his anger draining away. She started toward him with the thought of taking his hand, of telling him she cared for him, but the madness, the violence had to end. He knew it was wrong; it was there in every line of his face.
Her fingers were inches from his when the noise of splashing water broke the moment. His head came up, an expression of feral cunning in his eyes. "I think, my dear, we have a guest."
Christine turned toward the portcullis to see a soaked and bedraggled Raoul approaching. No...No! She had been so close to reaching her Angel, to breaking through the haze of pain that blinded him to everything but his desperate need to possess her.
Erik taunted Raoul, pulling Christine roughly to him. "Please, Angel, stop this," she pleaded, but he didn't seem to hear her. Walking over to a lever rising from the floor, he raised the portcullis to let his rival in, wading out through the water to meet him.
At first, Christine was relieved that this time neither of them had swords, but then she gasped in horror as Erik reached down into the water, his hand coming up with a rope. Raoul, distracted by the gate descending behind him, could do nothing as the lasso settled over his shoulders and tightened, pinning his arms to his side. Erik shoved Raoul against the portcullis and lashed him in place.
He turned to face Christine, his eyes nearly glowing with rage and pain. "Start a new life with me, buy his freedom with your love. Refuse and send your lover to his death! This is the choice! This is the point of no return!" he snarled, his body contorted with fury. He stared at her, his disheveled hair in his eyes, his chest heaving like some rabid beast.
Christine's gaze searched his features, but she could find no trace of her angel. Tears blurred her vision and grief washed over her. Erik...her teacher, her friend and, in a moment of clarity that came much too late, the man she now knew she loved, was lost to her. "The tears I might have shed for your dark fate, grow cold and turn to tears of hate!"
His expression changed for a fraction of a second. Was it resignation she saw flicker in his eyes? Then the moment was gone and Erik strode back to shore, moving stiffly past her to pick up a coil of rope. He started back toward Raoul.
Christine stepped in front of him, holding her hands out beseechingly. "No, Erik, you don't have to do this." She laid her hand on his wrist. His gaze softened for an instant and she almost thought he believed her.
Then he pushed her aside and waded back into the water, shaking the noose free of the rope's coils. She blinked back tears, feeling all hope leave her. Her Angel was gone, buried deep in the abyss of his tortured soul. Words were useless.
He was barely two steps away from shore when Christine leapt on his back. Unprepared for her assault, Erik staggered and went down, plunging both of them under the lake's surface. Christine popped up almost immediately, the water not much more than hip deep on her. Pushing her dripping hair out of her face, she looked around for Erik. There was no sign of him.
Panicked, her gaze went to Raoul, still tied to the portcullis. "Where is he?" she cried.
"I don't know." He, too, stared at the now still surface of the water as if willing the Phantom to reappear.
"Erik!" she screamed, moving deeper into the lake and sweeping her hands back and forth under the water. "Erik!"
A few feet from where they originally went down her fingers closed around cloth. Frantically, Christine yanked upwards. Erik's head and shoulders broke the surface of the water, blood pouring from a gash in his forehead. He coughed and sputtered. Relief flooded Christine. He was alive! Grasping him under the arms, she towed him the few feet to shore and staggered out of the lake, dragging him with her.
He collapsed on his side on the stone floor, still hacking up brackish water. Christine knelt beside him, uncertain of how to help him. He looked up at her, his gaze unfocused then his eyes slid shut and he was still. "Angel?" She shook him. "Erik?" He didn't respond. Blood was still flowing from his injury, a small pool forming under his head.
Jumping to her feet, Christine ran to the work area of his home and snatched up the first bit of cloth she found. Kneeling at Erik's side once again, she carefully turned him on his back, her hand behind his head to hold it steady. She folded the cloth she'd found and pressed it to the cut on his brow, recognizing the length of silk as one of his cravats.
She held the makeshift compress in place with one hand and laid the other on his chest. His heartbeat thundered under her fingers as his chest rose and fell with his ragged breaths. She touched his face, bending low to whisper "Angel…" in his ear. "Erik, wake up," she said, slightly louder when he didn't respond.
"Christine--" She ignored Raoul as he called her name.
"Please, please wake up," she repeated to Erik, hearing an edge of hysteria creep into her voice. "I'm sorry, so sorry, Angel."
Tears stung her eyes and she let them fall, thinking it was just like her to realize how much she needed him only when she was closest to losing him. She was a stupid, idiotic child who hadn't been able to see beyond her petty fears to notice how deeply Erik loved her. She thought of all the careless things she had said, all the little hurts she had inflicted upon him over the years. In spite of the pain she had caused him, Erik had risked his life to be with her on that stage tonight, to sing to her, to touch her hand, to tell her he loved her. Oh, God, what had she done?
Taking his limp hand in hers, Christine brought it to her lips and kissed his knuckles. "Can you ever forgive me, Angel?" she whispered.
She finally glanced in Raoul's direction.
"Christine, leave that creature be and untie me so we can escape!" he cried.
A surge of irrational anger rushed through her veins. "Shut up! This is all your fault! You're the one who planned this! You're the one who wanted him dead!" she screamed. "You should be happy!"
Raoul shut up.
Christine leaned down and kissed her Angel's scarred cheek. "I love you," she breathed against his skin. "I should have told you before. Maybe...maybe if I had, we wouldn't be here now." She pressed her lips to the corner of his mouth. "We would be together, Erik, together somewhere warm. A beach! Yes, we would be walking on a beach, just the two of us, and you would have your hand in mine and I...I would be wearing your ring." She looked around on the ground for the ring he had given her before Raoul showed up. She had dropped it when she had tried to stop Erik from harming Raoul.
Spying it lying a few feet away, Christine got to her feet and retrieved it then knelt by Erik again. She slid the ring on the third finger of her left hand. She bent over him, her face inches from his, her tears falling on his cheeks. "Open your eyes, Erik. Look at me and see I'm yours. I choose you."
She held her breath, waiting for an answer to her prayers.
The face leaning over him was soft, blurred, a nimbus of light crowning the angel's dark hair with a halo. "Erik," the angel said in a low voice. "Oh, Erik, I was so worried." He blinked in surprise at the angel's words, and as his vision cleared, he realized it was Christine and not an angel staring at him with concern in her eyes.
All other thoughts fled as his head chose that moment to explode. He cried out, his hand automatically flying to his brow. The sudden movement sent a wave of nausea through him and he rolled to his side and vomited.
Christine's hands were cool as they touched him, one at the back of his neck, the other gently cupping his forehead as he retched until his throat burned. When the episode finally passed, she helped him to his feet and to a nearby chair, careful not to jar him.
Once seated, Erik leaned his head in his hand, realizing for the first time that the two of them were soaking wet. "Christine...what--what happened?" he rasped.
She touched his cheek as she peered intently into his eyes. "I knocked you down in the water and you hit your head."
His fingers went to his forehead and touched the painful line of a cut over his right eye. "Why were we in the water?"
The light of relief in her eyes dimmed and she bit her lower lip. "You don't remember?"
Erik started to shake his head and instantly regretted it. "No, I--" Bits and pieces drifted back: singing in Don Juan with Christine, pouring out his heart as she stripped the mask from his face, the screams, cutting the rope to the chandelier, dragging Christine through the cellars, thrusting the wedding gown at her and forcing her to put it on...It's in your soul that the true distortion lies...He closed his eyes in shame for the second time that night. "I'm sorry, Christine, I'm sorry. I am a monster..." he choked out, grief and loss nearly overwhelming him.
He felt her hands so soft against his cheeks as she cradled his face. "No, no, you are an angel, my love. My Angel."
"Christine!" Another voice drowned out her quiet words. "Christine, you are bewitched! He's a devil, a monster. We must escape from here!"
Erik lifted his gaze to stare over the top of Christine's head at the Vicomte de Chagny still tied to the portcullis where Erik had left him. He remembered holding the punjab lasso in his hands, could feel the rough fibers of the rope against his skin. He had started toward the boy with it, envisioning it around the fool's neck, Erik tightening the noose until he choked and sputtered....
He thought he would be sick again. "Christine, take him and leave me," he croaked, struggling to rise.
"Erik, no," she pleaded. "I choose you. It's you I want--"
A sound reached his ears and he waved his hand for silence. Voices, many voices raised in anger. They were coming for him. They must not find Christine here!
Grasping her by the shoulders, he shook her, stemming the flood of tender words spilling from her lips. "They're coming, Christine! You must leave here at once with him!"
He pushed her in the direction of the lake then turned and stumbled up the stairs to the bedroom. He meant to sit on the bed to wait for the mob, but his legs gave out before then and he fell heavily, coming to land on the floor beside the huge black swan. His skull throbbed with pain but he pulled himself up into a sitting position, knocking the small table next to the bed with his shoulder as he did so. The monkey in Persian robes began to play, the tiny clash of the cymbals more than his aching head could stand. He would have smashed it with a sweep of his arm if he had had the strength. Instead he laid his cheek against the swan's cool wooden feathers and closed his eyes. Masquerade, paper faces on parade, hide your face so the world will never find you....
Erik felt a smile twitch at the corners of his mouth. His masquerade was coming to an end now, soon they would find him and take their revenge, and he could hardly blame them. He was a murderer, after all, though if someone asked him now, he was not sure he could explain why he had done the things he did. Madness perhaps, obsession, most assuredly. Out of love, though, he thought not. His love for Christine had been the only thing precious and pure about his miserable, wretched life, the one thing he could take pride in was he loved her, and he let her go. "Christine," he whispered, "oh, Christine..."
A hand touched his hair lightly. "I'm here, Angel."
He opened his eyes to see Christine kneeling beside him, a towel in her hand. "No, no, you must go! I don't want you to be here when they find me! I would not put you through that horror!"
She began to dry his hair gently. "Shh. It's all right. Raoul's gone to lead them away."
He blinked at that, his mouth hanging open for a moment before he could form words. "The boy? He will lead them straight to us, Christine!"
She shook her head, moving the towel down to dry his neck. Tugging his drenched shirttails out from the waist of his equally soaked pants, she peeled his shirt off his shoulders. Patting his chest with the piece of cotton, she said, "He won't, Erik. I made him swear, and he will not break an oath. He is going to tell everyone he saw us perish in a cave-in."
Erik turned that over in his mind, cursing the pain that made thinking so difficult. So many questions floated in his head, but he chose one that seemed most important at the moment. "I don't understand, Christine. Why didn't you go with him?"
Her eyes shone as she looked up at him, and there was a tender smile on her lips. "I chose you, Erik." She held up her left hand and wiggled her ring finger for him. He gasped involuntarily at the sight of the diamond ring he had placed carefully in her hand what seemed years ago.
"Christine, I--" Words failed him and tears burned his eyes.
She stroked his cheek gently, her gaze intent on his. "I love you," she said quietly, then she was leaning in towards him and her lips brushed lightly against his. She sat back, still watching him, her tongue flicking out to wet her lower lip.
His tears spilled over. "I love you, Christine," he breathed then her arms were around him. He buried his face in the soft curve of her neck. She smelled of algae and lake water and no perfume had ever had a sweeter scent.
"Everything will be all right," she whispered as she kissed the top of his head. "We're together now. Nothing else matters."
"Nothing else matters," he repeated, holding tight to her, and for the first time in his life, he felt peace.
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