I don't own the characters; I want to say that first and foremost. This is the first story I've ever posted even though I've written dozens and dozens (and dozens!!). I'm tired of writing and then putting it away in a closet so no one ever reads a single word. It's time to be brave!! I feel like I want to inspire people in the way I've been inspired and share my ideas and creations with people who would appreciate them. If I get interest, I may post more; as I've said, I have practically a library of Phantom-related stories that I've written!!! My stories tend to be very passion-driven, and I am definitely a fan of Erik/Christine; sorry Raoul lovers.

My version of the characters comes from a combination of books and musicals. I like to give Christine a bit more character in general and make her more likeable, and my Erik has aspects of LeRoux mixed with Andrew Lloyd Webber (ie. I don't consider him to be as old as he is in LeRoux's version when I write him).

I hope you enjoy my story and a trip into my world.

Summary: After the unmasking, Christine escapes to a vacant church, seeking answers to her destroyed illusions, only to find herself once again at the mercy of Erik's wrath.

"Blessed Are The Forgotten"

It took every ounce of remaining strength Christine possessed to fight wind and snow and manage to pull open the thick, wooden door. She was only too relieved to escape such brutal conditions and steal into the stone walls of the warmly lit building, its glow like an unspoken welcome and promise of peace. And wasn't that just what she was looking for tonight? Peace and the sense of safety that was connected to it. …And forgiveness. Dear Lord, she needed forgiveness.

Lingering in the back of the small church, she purposely avoided thought to survey the details of her surroundings, desperate to find something else that could matter. Dozens of sconces encased flickering flames all around an upraised altar and down the short, wide aisle that led to it. Their glow glinted off of the images trapped and portrayed in stained glass panels on the walls, portraits of faith, and there hanging above the altar was the very cornerstone of Catholicism, a large, carved crucifix.

Immediately, she made the sign of the cross and bowed her head to behold it. Reverence for such religious icons had been engrained in her from birth by a father who had only been able to face the death of her mother with prayers and God at his side. When he had realized that he, too, would be abandoning his only child to live alone in the world, he had reminded her again and again that her faith would be her own salvation. And she had believed him so completely that it was no wonder she had chosen the path she was now walking. Faith was a blind commitment. One wasn't supposed to question or doubt; one was just to believe. …She had believed, and how foolishly disillusioned was she now for it!

Tears were choking the back of her throat again; their earlier counterparts had blended with the melted treks of incessant snowflakes leaving her usually pale cheeks tinged pink from a frozen burn. Their demise meant nothing when too many more were ready and eager to take their place. When was the last time she had been their victim? …It had to have been months before, after her father's death. She would have cried more often for his loss, all the time even, but faith and hope had materialized into reality and tears had become forgotten in the background. What were their use if she was no longer alone? …She had had an angel….

A breath suddenly fled her lips caught in an agonized sob. …Angel…. How naïve she had been! In her head had thrived vivid pictures of golden halos and shimmering wings, visions of heaven. …Heaven, did it even exist? Perhaps all of it was as childish a belief as believing in angels. …Perhaps everyone in the world was alone, …and yet wasn't alone better than being cursed by the devil himself? Haunted by the devil; it was a bitter reality to face, but it was indeed hers.

Crying softly, incessantly, Christine forced her legs to carry her weight down the aisle to the front pew and reverently knelt before the warm glow of a faith that was suddenly cold and foreign to her. One moment of one day had changed everything; one act, one hasty motion had shaken her very foundation to its core like a violent earthquake and nothing could possibly be the same. She couldn't help but feel she was being punished. …But for what?

In the farthest recesses of the shadows at the very corner of the sacred scene, Erik watched her, crying his own silent tears. He had followed her, stealthy and unnoticed as always, from the operahouse, unsurprised by her chosen destination. The good Catholic girl…, seeking answers in her faith. His eyes trailed over the back of her bowed head, her dark curls glistening with strawberry red in the candlelight, and a fleeting memory of their silken texture tingled his fingertips. One touch. He had had one touch, and was that to be enough to last him to eternity? Because he knew it never could be. Had it really only been last night that his dream had been realized, and he had actually held her in his arms? It felt as if ages had passed since then, and surely miles of distance had been ripped like an endless chasm between their hearts. He knew the dull, empty ache as acutely as any physical pain he had ever endured, and he was desperate to remedy it.

Oh, Christine…. He thought her name, terrified to breathe it aloud, trembling with the very idea of alerting her to his observing presence. She was the love of his life, the only woman he had ever wanted, and at the same time, she was his condemner, his tormentor, single-handedly shattering his dreams with her small, white fists. Why couldn't she have let well enough be and not pushed for more? Why couldn't she have remained the innocent child, willing and eager to believe and grasp onto anything he could give her with greedy hands? But no, she had had to fall victim to the lure of curiosity and allow it to pull her into its devious arms. …Foolish girl. She had been expecting a glorious angel. Was it a surprise then that she had cowered in disgust and terror when faced with the visage of a demon instead? Time and time again he had endured such reactions from a superficial world, and yet never had it broken him until today, until it was those beautiful features of his Christine screaming revulsion at him. In that one moment, one response, hope had been shredded along with his very dignity. He had lost everything; she was to blame. He found himself hating her as much as he loved her.

Continuing to watch from the darkness, he spied her slowly lifting her eyes to that cross. He himself had no taste for religion; funny then that he had so eagerly accepted a role as an angel….

Gazing into the very image of salvation, Christine began to speak, her voice ragged from tears and yet echoing through the small space to her unknown audience, "Why am I being punished…?" It was the agonizing question of her soul, and Erik cringed to hear it. "You took my father from me and left me alone and now…. I had thought I had been blessed. I had thought that I hadn't been forgotten…. An angel. He was supposed to be an angel…." Her voice broke off in a sob with the reality, and it took a calming breath for her to continue in hushed tones. "Whatever wrong I have committed, I beg Your forgiveness. Perhaps it was in my readiness to believe without question and follow the devil's plans; I didn't know. I didn't realize what…, who he was. I was a gullible child…; perhaps I deserve this."

Erik's heart felt constricted in his chest, and he had to stifle the full extent of a sob, catching it between lips that he could only consider were misshapen…, unworthy. But pain was laced so deeply with resentment that he suddenly found himself retorting bitterly, "And I, Christine? If you are so deserving of this unjust punishment from your ignorant God, am I equally as deserving? Was I as deserving as an infant to be born with the face of the devil?"

Christine had gone rigid at that voice, frozen with her back to him a long, held breath before she could find the ability to rise and turn guilt-ridden eyes to the shadows. At first, he was only a gleaming mask with one radiating green eye in its casing and one of the same caliber of shine but brilliantly blue, both gazing at her with contempt before he reluctantly stepped forward into the far reaches of the light, as if he had been delivered to her from out of the dark itself.

A man…, she had to remind herself that he was only a man, even when her soul cried out that such an explanation was a blasphemy and he could only be an angel yet. A trick of the devil, trying to corrupt her soul against her. And how weak she was to so desperately yearn to believe it all over again!

Erik strode with the elegance and grace of a heavenly being into the aisle, approaching her even as he took note how she shrank ever so slightly into her pew, her hand clutching at the wooden back as if he meant to pry her away when he had yet to lay a single finger on her. He would have laughed at her ridiculous fear if it didn't sting him so deeply. As he neared, his eyes casually roamed the church, catching the silhouetted bursts of snow against the stained glass windows and the echoes of howling winds outside. No one else was here, and no one would come; they were alone. He wondered if she realized, and yet she seemed too preoccupied with regarding his approach for the moment, her wide, blue eyes locked on him.

"God, Christine?" Erik dared to taunt with a mocking gesture to the cross she herself had so reverently praised. "You called yourself a gullible child for believing so readily in an angel, and yet here you are bowing before a pathetic faith, equally as gullible and foolish."

She made no reply, words evading her when in the vicinity of his powerful aura. It was still so new to her, to hear that once-beloved voice and see it attached to a being, but beyond that, to feel the sheer essence of this man as it exuded past a seemingly inconsequential body to touch her; it made her knees shake beneath the dark blue wool of her skirt and her heartbeat hold and mutter erratically in both a warning and a failure to stay strong. She wondered if that power he possessed was a reflection of his soul and, nervous with the idea, if it was tied to the dark and evil, the very legend of his existence…, phantom, opera ghost, murderer.

"Now I don't believe in a god," Erik went on as he halted mere feet from her, desperately seeking anything beyond fear in her eyes. "I find it a pointless endeavor to live one's life under the fear of pleasing some potential higher being that will determine our fate in the afterworld. It is futile and absolutely a manmade attempt to control the race of human beings as a whole, to establish order. What better threat to keep the peace than an invisible, omnipotent creator? The first of this species were wise enough to see the charms and advantages of such a story."

"I…I don't believe you," she softly protested, and he could tell she was fighting with better judgment to speak at all. Was it really only the day before that she was so unguarded of her tongue in his unseen presence, eager to speak freely, teaching him, even if she did not know it, what it was to be ordinary?

"You," Erik replied, "have been manipulated to follow your faith your entire life. I wouldn't expect you to believe otherwise."

His implication ignited a wave of argumentation and a need to prove him wrong. "What about the soul?" she demanded of him, a bit less timid. "If you don't believe that God exists, do you believe in a soul? Or is all we are nothing to you?"

Months ago, he would have instantly referred to every living being as precisely that nothing, but she and her very existence had proven his views wrong. Whereas the rest of the world was a faceless blob of cruelty and pain, she had shone like a beacon of salvation and had taught him so much more. …He couldn't tell her that, though, not after the day's traumas.

"Soul," he instead spat back to her. "Souls are another of your fairy tale stories meant to ease the fear of death. Consider how truly ridiculous such a notion is, Christine, and how utterly narcissistic to believe in a piece of yourself that will go on forever. According to your stories, mine would be black, tarnished, and shriveled up beyond recognition. And that would be all I am. Ignoring and contradicting your very own belief as a Catholic in the forgiveness and redemption of all, I am supposedly meant for hell by your teachings, already condemned, already set to the path to burn. If your merciful God exists, how is that fair?"

"You are a murderer." The accusation tumbled out of her even though she did not will it to be so. Part of her grew immediately terrified of what his response would be with a fleeting memory of his fiery, enraged outburst and how sure she had been at the time that he would kill her and add her name to his list of victims. But to her surprise, his casually debating demeanor did not alter.

"Perhaps, but your God is supposed to forgive all and rule with mercy and love. Isn't that correct?"

She gave the smallest nod and insisted, "He forgives the penitent…. Are you sorry for your sins?" A bold question on her part, and she found herself admiring her own courage to ask it.

A scowl creased what bits of his features the mask allowed her to see, and he abruptly snapped, "I need not answer to you or to your God. You know nothing of my life save the lies I placed before you, and yet you are as willing as your God to pass judgment over my supposed soul. What you are neglecting to consider in all of this is the simple fact that if there is a God, why does He punish the undeserving? It was your very own question but minutes ago, and yet you have bypassed its validity to defend your faith to me so adamantly. But what is your answer, Christine? Why does God punish the undeserving?"

No response came even as she contemplated the question or rather, no response she knew he would accept. It seemed at that moment that he was seeking it as urgently as she was, that he wanted and needed an answer for himself. If she could find it and convince him of it, would it really matter so much to him? Was it that important? …Would it save his soul?

When she said nothing, he snapped his fingers before her and pointedly said, "Another contradiction then! The Lord God is fair, but not to all. To some, He closes His eyes and forgets they exist, allowing cruel humanity to destroy them and their supposed souls, and for no other reason than He didn't care enough to save them."

"No," she immediately protested. "That isn't true."

"It isn't?" he taunted back. "You yourself were just His willing casualty, manipulated by lies, very nearly the next victim of the Opera Ghost. And was it His divine intervention that saved you? Did His influence keep me from snapping your pretty little neck earlier today?" His temper was flaring at both her and himself, and his eyes landed a beat on the clenched fists she had gripping the pew, stretched white with her viselike hold. He was almost pleased to know he was frightening her, and daring to push it further, he leaned closer until he was breathing her heavenly scent into his lungs, intoxicating himself on it like a heady wine before he sharply bid, "And yet if it is solely due to His saving grace that you are still alive, why did He deliver you right back into my clutches? Why did He bring us together in His very house, alone as it seems? Will He save you again when the danger comes for you, or will He turn His back on you this time?"

Tears were rimming her blue eyes, and her legs were frozen in their place and keeping her captive to the intensity of that stare and the contrasting gentleness of his every ragged breath as each breezed across her features. A man, this was a man, not an angel, and this man had bloodstains on his soul. An angel might have loved and protected her, but this man would not hesitate to kill her. With a fire in his eyes so consuming, he stared at her, long and hard, wanting her to argue, to beg maybe, but words were reserved for a terrified mind and would not come forward.

With an impatient growl, Erik suddenly caught her upper arms between his hands, yanking her without thought to benevolence into the wide aisle with him, finding it surprisingly easy to sever her grasp on the pew. She did not scream or sob; all he received was the smallest whimper like a distraught child, and the tears held still and shimmering in her eyes cut him to his core.

"Where is your God now, Christine?" Every bit of his own self-hatred was served into his hiss, into the fire of his rage, his hands digging into the wool of her coated arms, likely bruising white skin beneath. No, he wouldn't care! He wanted to hate her as he hated himself! He wanted to blame her for the pain eating a hole within him! Shaking her in his grasp, he demanded, "Will God save you? Will He smote the wicked phantom and preserve your innocent body from harm? Or will He allow you, as pure and undeserving of such cruelty as you are, to fall to my sins? Will He turn a blind eye on you? Let's see, shall we? Go on, Christine. Cry and beg. Pray for God's salvation! Pray that He comes for you! Pray, damn you!"

She could only cry silently, and every tear glimmering like a diamond in the reconciling candle glow tore at him with even more bitterness, reminding him so vividly of what a monster he was. To hurt this beautiful woman he so loved…, what could be a more heinous sin?

Practically roaring, his hands abruptly caught the collar of her coat and ripped it wide open, buttons darting everywhere, bouncing off of pews and getting lost along the carpet. A cry fell from her at the viciousness, and she fought to suck a breath into terrified, constricted lungs.

"Pray, Christine," Erik commanded again, not permitting a single flicker of compassion to enter his stare as it concentrated on her fear. "Pray! Say, 'Dear God, save me from this deformed madman'. Say, 'Preserve my innocent body'." As he spoke, his fingers curled in the neckline of her blue, wool gown, lacking any inkling of gentleness. This wasn't her; that was what his mind kept insisting. No, not his Christine because he would never be so heartless to his Christine. No, this was only the chit who had robbed him of his every dream, the one who had ripped away his mask and his self-respect with it. Yes, that was what he saw, not the small, sobbing woman before him. It wasn't Christine's gown in his fisted hands; it wasn't Christine's gown that he tore open, creating a deep gash down the center to her waist. No! No! And it couldn't be the creamy flesh and white silk undergarments of his Christine meeting his horror-stricken stare.

"Pray!" he shouted at her. "Damn you! Pray! God must save you before I put my hands on your body! God must strike me down and destroy me! He can't think that you deserve to have my sin-laden hands upon your pure body! You don't deserve that!"

Christine was staring at him as she sobbed, her entire frame shaking in his grasp. Chilled air was passing over exposed skin, making her shake harder inside and out as gasped breaths entered her trembling lips. To her own surprise, as those fiery eyes trailed over her, taking in the flimsy barrier of her chemise and the fitted outline of her corset before they raised back to her accusing gaze, she saw realization peek through and then, in its wake, guilt.

"Christine," he moaned as tears rapidly clouded his vision of her. It was that beauty of her, that flawless perfection that insisted everything he would rather have denied. His body spasmed with his sobs, his hands daring to remain on her arms, palms open and flat; she could have pulled free, but she didn't, staring with her blame as blatantly on display as the violent tear in her gown.

"No," he whined miserably. "No…. It isn't supposed to be this way…, not with you. This isn't what I wanted…." As he sobbed, his hands slowly made a path up over her shoulders and neck until they were cupping her face between them, his sense refusing to consider how she shuddered to bear his touch on her skin. Not even gentleness would wipe away her disgust or suspicion, and cringing with self-revulsion, he curved his fingertips into his palms, nails digging into skin yet kept only the slightest pressure on her cheeks. No…. He wouldn't hurt her again.

"You don't deserve this," he softly told her. "You deserved an angel, a real angel, but you were given a demon…. And yet was my sin so great? I lied to you, yes, but I gave you something to believe in. I gave you the answer to your prayers that your God never could have. …And you weren't alone anymore…. And neither was I." His words broke off with a sob, his head ducking as if its weight was too great to hold up any longer, and unworthy, shaking hands lowered to barely grasp at her concealed shoulders again. No, no, he didn't deserve the pleasure of touching warm, silken skin. And without daring to meet her eye for fear what he would see, he admitted, "For one moment, I did believe in God. My entire pathetic lifetime, I had been sure that if He did exist, He was a cruel, unfeeling bastard, that He had cursed me for no reason but being born. It's easier to deny His existence than accept His unqualified hatred. …But then I saw you, and you were so beautiful, so pure…. You needed me as much as I needed you. I was certain that you were my salvation and…my proof that I wasn't forgotten."

Christine listened intently as he spoke. Forgotten…, had she not thought the very same thing? That his presence proved the same for her? Her heart twisted within her chest in a sudden bout of guilt. What had she done? She had destroyed the illusion he had almost lovingly created for her and them both with it.

Still, he would not meet her constant gaze, staring at a spot of smooth skin just below her collarbone, part of him desperate to forget that his own actions had exposed it. "I should have remained the angel, should have confined myself to being the voice in the darkness and nothing more by whatever means necessary. I should have never come to you as I did…. But angels can't be touched…. And how I longed to touch you!…"

It was odd that his words did not upset her; perhaps had anyone else said such an intimate thing or had he not spoken with that exact longing in his golden tone, brimmed over with it even, then she would have remembered to be timid and at least a little afraid. But he spoke as if the voice itself came out of the sharp-edged recesses of a broken heart, and she was shaken for a second time that day off of her very foundation. Before she could rationalize and fathom the meaning it brought, he grew suddenly bitter with a distant sneer.

"But then," he muttered half to himself, "you betrayed me…." Her frame went rigid in his grasp, and though his grip on her arms tightened to keep her from fleeing, he did not even grant her a glance. "I never considered that the mask would hold such a lure for you. Anyone else, maybe. But in my mind, you were above such mundane things. I was expecting questions maybe; you do possess quite the inquisitive streak. …I did not place it within your character simply to act."

"I…I'm sorry," she stammered softly, hoping to thwart the festering embers of temper beneath the surface. Everything felt unstable, even the solid ground beneath her feet, as if at any moment, the earth would part and swallow her whole with one wave of his ferocious rage.

Abruptly, his eyes shifted back to her, searching deeply into her own, penetrating to her soul to seek his answer for him as he demanded, "Are you, Christine? But what are you sorry for? Are you sorry for betraying my trust in you and acting like a frivolous child? Or are you sorry that it was not the ethereal visage of an angel you found? …Perhaps you are only sorry with the hope of saving yourself. I would have never taken you for such ruses before, but…I also would have never expected to be stripped of my rights as a human being by you and your curiosity either."

Shaking her head slowly, she insisted, "I did act like a child. I did betray you."

"And you are sorry for it?"

"Yes!" she vehemently replied, catching his immediate flicker of doubt. "You know me, ange, better than anyone I'd say. You'd know if I was lying to you."

Erik was searching her unceasingly. His gut believed, but his heart had to question, terrified more so that she did speak true. To believe her meant to be vulnerable. …Vulnerable…. Keeping her eye captive in his, he lifted one hand from her arm and brought it, trembling mid-air as it was, to the corner of his mask.

"My face," he said as his suddenly clumsy fingers worked the lacing they usually knew so well, "is disfigured and ugly. I have spent my lifetime hiding it away behind my mask, hiding myself away from every cruel person in this self-centered world. But you…you could learn to see beyond it; I know you could. Christine, I've seen the heart of you, the soul, as you would call it. You're strong and as passionate a creature as I am. It's why I adore you so much. If you would just…look upon me and not judge me…. Think past what you know and what you've perceived beauty and ugliness to be. See more. Want more. Please, Christine…." The lacings were loose, yet his hand still kept the mask in place, his eyes bearing into hers with a desperation she could hardly comprehend. Hesitating and wondering if she could feel how his entire body was shaking with a rise of his own fears, he added, "Disgust is a perception, Christine, a learned aversion due to society's aesthetic principles. You don't have to be disgusted."

What was she doing? She felt herself nod her acquiescence before she was even justifying it to herself. Behind that mask was a horror; she had seen enough of it earlier to last her entire lifetime, and yet here she was encouraging him to reveal it again under a false hope that she could see the more he wanted her to. She was undeniably sure that he was giving her far more credit than she deserved because she had never seen herself as strong. In the back of her mind was an incessant voice that asked, when she looked at him and could only know aversion, what would happen then?

Slowly, Erik was lowering the mask, his eyes never drifting from hers as he exposed his flaws to her widened blue gaze. …Vulnerable, yes, this was vulnerable. No words existed at that moment; he only watched her so carefully, scrutinizing, and above all, needing one sign, just one….

This was different than the last time; that was Christine's first thought. Her earlier encounter with his face had been followed immediately with a rage the likes of which she had never before been victim to, contorting already warped features into something beyond ugliness, …terrifying at its essence. This…, this was inciting pity, not fear. He was…corpse-like, scarred and disfigured, that side of his face skeletal. Whatever flesh it bore was drawn taut and thin over the bone structure, transparent up to his exposed scalp with the hairline far back and oddly irregular as it joined a normal setting on the other side. His green eyeball was deeply sunken into its socket of smooth bone and a very flimsy lid that did not appear as abnormal as it was when shadowed by the mask's presence. Even staring solely into his eyes during their conversation in warm candlelight, she had not taken notice that he had no lashes and above it, no eyebrow to frame it. Bare, exposed, and as malformed as the swollen bulge of his upper lip…, one more flaw on a demented palette. Her mind called it a face of death; without fire and fury attached, the devil was no longer even a faint consideration to her.

Tears were slipping free of the restraint he had been harboring and spilling over the damaged flesh as he whispered, "I don't see disgust in your eyes…. I…I don't know what I see…. I've never seen it before."

"It's compassion," she whispered back, "and empathy…. You were born this way?" The subject felt taboo, and she was inclined to stifle herself from broaching it, but her inquisitive urge would not listen. It could be as powerful as her curiosity at times.

He tentatively nodded that corpse's head, and she felt intrigued by every motion, the movement of his mouth when he spoke, every blink of his lashless eye. It was odd to her, odd but not repulsive.

"Now do you see why I hold such little credence in God?" he demanded. "Did I deserve to be born with this face, Christine? Did I deserve to be shunned and tortured for it? You believe that faith and prayer can change anything; well, I prayed and prayed for a new face. I prayed for acceptance, and I never was heard…. Perhaps if you pray for me, Christine, if you pray for mercy for my tarnished soul, I will know some peace. A prayer from your beautiful lips would be as lyrical as a symphony."

How cold reality could be! Her eyes were caressing those misshapen features again and again, and all she could think was how unfair it was for her to be mourning her own loss. She had ignorantly never considered how she had hurt him in her initial response to his face, never considered beyond escaping his rage and his ugliness. She had acted no differently than everyone else, and it made her feel guilty to realize he had been expecting better of her.

"Christine," he whispered, crying quietly, and then on a sudden whim he could not deny, he leaned close to her as she watched with hesitant eyes until, taking a tremulous breath for courage, he could set his disfigured cheek against the smooth skin at the top of her chemise. He nearly sobbed with the first contact. She was so warm, so soft, so alive! He purposely would not notice the way her body tensed and was petrified against him because she did not pull away in spite of it. She could have; his hold on her was minimal at best, but she stayed rooted to her spot, even as her unpatterned heartbeat and shallow, gasped breaths gave her away.

His tears were wetting her skin and absorbing into the silk of her chemise, but her focus was instead riveted to the texture of his scars. It wasn't the same as touching and learning with fingertips; his cheek was laid to a sensitive expanse of flesh and the strange smoothness of it and incessant chill were creating tingles down her spine. So timid and afraid even, his arms weaved around her waist until he was delicately holding her small body, noting that her automatic rigidity to allow such a transgression was gradually calming until she relaxed in his grasp.

Sighing against her so that his breath danced across the surface of her skin and made goosebumps arise, he gently bid, "You can't imagine how it feels to me to have you so close, …to hold you…. It's all I wanted, all I've dreamt of. No one has ever…allowed my touch before…." He paused, unsure that he should say more, but he felt such an intimacy with her in that moment, one only enhanced without a shared gaze to raise question and doubt again that he indulged himself and spoke freely, things he had never believed he would reveal to anyone. "When I was a boy, maybe three or four, I tried once to touch my mother…. I just wanted to be held; …I was only a child…, but she…she could never tolerate my presence. She believed I was the devil incarnate, that she had given birth to the antichrist, and she never forgave me for it. …All because of my face…. She wanted me nowhere near her, and…she attacked me with a hot poker…to remind me never to dare try again."

Christine listened in absolute horror, hardly comprehending that it was his life he spoke of. It was too awful to consider, and yet he remained so detached and aloof as he told it. Holding her with one arm, he raised the other and drew down the collar of his shirt at the nape of his neck, cheek still to her skin, eyes still away from her reaction, and exposed one strawberry-shaped, upraised white scar. She could already guess it was only one of many on his body, and she was glad he did not see how she cringed to behold it. As he brought his arm around her again, she dared to raise her own, and shaking in their path, her fingers trailed a soft caress across that scar, grazing skin just within his collar. To her surprise, he cried out as if hurt and went rigid against her.

"I…I didn't mean to hurt you," Christine stammered, abruptly yanking her hand away. Realization cut her like a dull knife, and with tears suddenly gathering in her eyes, she instead insisted, "I didn't hurt you, did I, ange?"

"No," he breathed so softly she almost did not catch it.

"This…is foreign to you," she pressed. "I could be as gentle as it is within my capabilities to be, and you wouldn't know how to respond."

"Forgive me," he vehemently begged as if for the greatest sin he could have possibly committed. "I didn't know you intended to-"

"Sshh," she crooned, and with only a breath's pause, she again brought her fingers to the scar, noting how he tensed but did not draw away in the instant her skin met his.

Erik was holding his breath, his entire body shivering against her. A willing caress, freely given; it was more than he had ever fathomed asking for. There was no threat there, no pain as a result. Pokers caused pain; fists and kicking legs caused pain. But her touch was tender, her fingertips as soft as every bit of her. As she grew bolder in her actions, she brought her hand from that scar up over his thin hair and down again, soothing him in the only way she knew she could. And it was so pleasant that he longed to cry at the same time as he feared that if he did, she would stop, and oh, how he never wanted her to stop!

Christine had shooed away the voice in her head that insisted that what she was doing was wrong, refusing the pull of both it and her own modesty. Sense knew what he was and the past that that implied, but she had set it aside. He needed her; that was all she could rationalize at the moment. To be needed was such a consuming feeling, one she was eager to indulge and know because it was so much better than reality. In reality, he was a murderer; at the present, he was a broken man, and she was his angel.

"Ange?" she softly called after long moments of only tremulous breaths had passed by.

"Erik," he corrected gently.

There was a flash of a memory with the name in her head. He had told her during the commotion after her betrayal and the eruption of his temper that had followed, and yet much of that scene had remained a blur until now, shadowed by the seeming horror she had uncovered.

"Erik," she repeated and felt him shudder down the length of his spine simply from the sound of his own name on her lips. "Why did you lie to me all of these months? Why did you pretend to be an angel?"

"You know why," he insisted back.

"Yes," she replied steadily, her caresses never ceasing, "but I want you to tell me anyway."

Releasing a soft sigh, his grip instinctively tightened on her before words would even come, part of him needing reassurance that she was there yet still terrified to look in her eyes. "Because you needed an angel, not a monster. You could have never loved a monster, never spoken so freely of yourself and your life, never opened your heart and soul…. You would have held back a piece of yourself, and I wanted everything." Erik paused, momentarily terrified to go on so much so that he had to collect his courage to force himself to continue. "And you did love the angel, Christine; I know you did. …Could you never learn to love the man beneath? …Could you never see that beyond the monster, he can be the angel you want?"

"The angel I want…doesn't exist." No bitterness crept through her words; how could it when she was being held in his safe arms. It had to feel the same to be wrapped in an angel's white wings.

"He could!" Erik insisted passionately. "He feels the same as the man; both love you beyond anything in the world. I beg of you to see it. Forget fear; forget what you think you know. Just feel, Christine. Tell me what your heart is saying."

She bit her lip, her brow furrowing with a greater weight than he could know. "It's saying that I don't want to be alone again."

How could she promise beyond that? How could she promise anything to this man she barely knew? Yes, he had been the angel she had been so certain she had loved, and holding her as he was, without a glimpse of that malformed face, she could almost pretend nothing had changed, that that voice she knew so well as her angel's was essentially that. Angels were perfect; he nearly had been, yet now that was lost and this was all she had left.

"You won't ever be alone again," Erik vowed, and she had the smallest suspicion in the back of her head that perhaps that was not a blessing at all. Perhaps it was the beginning of a nightmare.

"My…lessons," she stammered, shaken with her own contemplations. "You will still teach me, won't you?"

"Of course. You are my protégé; there has never been a lie in the music. It was always only pure." A sadness pricked his heart where hope had been thriving because he felt the wall she was establishing between her heart and his, a wall he worried he wouldn't be able to break down. Love…, it was so easy for him to love her, but having her love in return, he realized, was something he could not force her to give. If he dared try, he would push her further out of his grasp. The only way to get what he wanted was to earn it, and he felt determined at that moment with that mere taste of what it would mean dangling before him that he would succeed and keep his usual impatience within his control.

With more reluctance than she could ever imagine, he slowly released her from his embrace, ducking his face low and beyond the candlelight and her possible regard as he sought his mask. He did not straighten until it was replaced and he was the regal phantom again, his very aura reestablished.

Christine immediately missed his nearness, though she did not let on of it, drawing her torn gown closed with shaking hands and hugging herself tight. Her eyes were riveted to him, and she could hardly believe he was the same man who had only just held her. Allowing herself to be held by the opera ghost and murderer…; no, she couldn't have permitted such a sin. Was it all another trick and manipulation? …Was her soul already tarnished for yearning to feel him near again?…

"I…I apologize for my earlier outbursts," Erik was saying with a modicum of reserve. "You need not fear I will ever lay an unwanted hand on you again."

Unwanted…, her mind dwelled on that one word. And if such a thing was wanted, would he touch her then? She felt angry with herself for the very question as it flitted through her brain.

Passing one last long glance over her, he added, "I will come for you tomorrow at our usual time for your lesson, and if my presence is tolerable to you, we will begin to work down in my home instead. It is a safer situation for us both as I would not want your name connected to my reputation around the opera."

Secluded away in his home, the idea should have shaken her, but she could not deny that angel's voice; it would always be her undoing. "Tomorrow," she simply repeated, and with one more shared stare, she wearily walked back up the aisle toward the church door.

Erik watched her somberly, and just before her hand reached the knob, he dared to call, "Christine?" His entire being lifted just to see her turn back and return those blue eyes inquisitively to his. "Would you have rather I had stayed the intangible angel to you? With never a hope for anything more?"

Christine pondered his question a silent breath, unsure she wanted to know her own answer when it seemed such a blatant betrayal of her conscience. But then she earnestly replied, "An angel could have never loved me back, could never have touched me; you said so yourself. And at some point, intangible wouldn't have been enough for me. I would have needed more…. No, Erik, I wouldn't have preferred you stayed the angel. I prefer you to be a man."

"Even a broken and ugly one?" he pushed, denying the temptation of hope.

Hesitating to muster courage, she whispered back, "An angel couldn't have held me as a man could. Broken and ugly were inconsequential when your arms were around me…." Trailing off with a scolding of her inner voice, she kept his gaze one last breath before hurrying out of the warmly lit church, out into the night and the cold and the storm, unsure which situation was truly the more dangerous to be a part of.

Erik stared after her, unable to cease the rise of tears in his eyes as his body recalled the softness of hers and begged for its presence once again. She may not have been able to give him love, not yet, but she had given him hope enough to push on and seek more. He was confident that in time she could love him. She had to; she was made for him.

Suddenly turning back to the overlooking eyes of an ever-present crucifix, he awkwardly bowed his masked face and dared to pray one single prayer, …that she would be his.