I do not own the characters; they are from various versions of the Phantom of the Opera.

Hello! I have a new story for you. I haven't posted in a few weeks, but I am going to try to keep posting more stories every so often as I get the chance. Hopefully, this will compensate in the meantime. Anyway, this particular story is an epilogue story told from Christine's point of view, but it revolves around the idea of Erik holding her to her choice and making her stay. I hope that you guys enjoy it!

SUMMARY: Instead of letting her go with Raoul, Erik makes Christine stay with him. In an attempt to understand what she truly wants, she proposes a game of pretend: to pretend to love each other. But where does the game end and reality begin?

"Dreaming With Your Eyes Closed"

That night he had a nightmare. It was not the first time I'd been the solitary audience to this uncontrollable event; he had had one the very first night I had spent under his roof, and I was equally certain that he suffered their traumas quite routinely, even though after that first time, he had been more careful to keep me oblivious to their frequent occurrences. I could never have said how he had achieved such a feat when I vividly recalled being awoken that first time by unbridled shouts of a mental terror I had no concept of; perhaps he slept with a pillow over his disfigured face to muffle the screams. All I knew for certain as I darted up beneath the covers of my bed on this night already over-laden with traumas was that I had not born witness to this sort of pitiable suffering in long enough to be uncertain how to react.

I could remember his response during the one and only similar incident; he had made me promise never to come upon him again when he was lost to that state. He had almost killed me that night. Unwittingly so, of course. He had not recognized me when consumed in that torture, nightmare world, and to him, I had been no different than the ones assaulting him. That night had been the only time he had ever put his hands on me in a malevolent way, unintentionally but enough to keep me to hold true to my promise, even if I had never had to prove it.

But this night was different entirely, and the promise of a gullible girl hardly felt worthy of holding. That had been a vow from before, and now…well, our world was upside down, wasn't it? And I was no longer sure which rules still applied.

Another cry from outside of the sanctity of my room brought me out of my warm bed and tiptoeing along the carpeted floor with bare feet and a nightdress that tangled about my legs. Was it any wonder that he was suffering a nightmare on this night of all nights? Considering every trauma that had been endured, it was a surprise to me that I myself wasn't equally a victim to such internal masochism. My life was practically over, my burden the greatest of us all to bear, and yet my dreams had been calm and undisturbed with rest as a welcome escape. I had committed myself to the devil; perhaps my mind realized that dreams were all that were left for me now.

A lingering fire from the living room hearth called to me, and I noted with the gasped sob echoing down the hall to my ears that Erik had not gone in to bed and must have fallen asleep before its comforting glow. Alone…, when I myself had taken to my room hours before. Alone, when he was not supposed to be alone any longer. Wasn't that why he had forced me to stay with him to begin with? Wasn't that the very reason that he had put on his audacious display this very night and had made me choose to remain to save Raoul from death? He wanted a companion; he wanted to no longer be alone. I had thought my word had given him that; obviously, he had not felt the same.

With trepid footfalls, I came to stand in the living room's threshold and sought my once angel teacher, slightly nervous as to what I would find. As suspected, he was asleep in his chair before the flickering embers of the fire, but even though sleep typically meant peace, there was no peace to this scene. He was in agony; it was blatantly announced along features partially concealed by his mask, the created creases in the visible flesh forced taut, the tears randomly escaping through eyes screwed shut. My focus traveled over every telltale detail and settled on his hands. Hands capable of murder, they were the part of him that had always posed the most threat to me; deceptively designed, they could at times be considered as beauty brought to life when music was their only creation. How often had I fallen victim to their guise and grown enamored by their grace? But now that was not even an inkling of a thought in my head, not while they were clawing and clutching with furtive desperation at the sides of his chair, knuckles white and flexed, fingers lost in leather material and beyond view. Those hands were a weapon as deadly as a sword or gun, and even as I naively crept closer to this scene of torture, I kept my guard raised and a good deal of attention always upon their fixed shapes, knowing that one wrong step or movement could have them about my throat instead. The last time only some sort of unacknowledged miracle had saved me and had woken him before I had become a lifeless corpse beneath his unintended fury, but I had carried the bruises of the attack for weeks after, hiding their presence beneath high collars from anyone's observance, most especially Erik's. He had known guilt enough; to let him see the damage…. I had feared that it would have broken him.

I was hesitantly lingering a modest distance from his chair, prepared to jump and dart back if necessary as another whimper escaped his subconscious, his body shifting about the leather cushions without comfort. "Erik," I called softly, tentatively studying him for any response to my voice, but he was so deeply lost that it made no impression. "Erik…."

What to do…. I was realizing that I had put myself at his mercy whether he was consciously aware of it or not. Calling out to him was going to do nothing to wake him. I was going to have to be more aggressive, and merely with the idea, my stomach fluttered with the usually avoided trepidation I still held for who and what he was. Perhaps, as sense argued, I should just let him be; let him suffer, my heart corrected sharply, and I knew I couldn't do that. For every rift between us in these past months, I could not attempt to remain aloof and return to my bed knowing that he was being tortured just beyond my reach.

Adamantly determined, I closed the remaining gap between us, my nightdress brushing his knees with my nearness, and extended a trembling hand through the air in the middle until it came to rest with a feather-light touch upon his shoulder. "Erik," I called again, louder this time with the jerk of my gripping hand to aid my effort in popping the bubble he was encompassed in. "Wake up, Erik."

Abruptly enough to startle me and make me recoil with arms that enfolded protectively against my chest, he jolted upon the chair and gasped so harshly that it seemed as though he was unable to breathe in that instant before blue and green eyes shot open. He just stared at me, raking a feverish gaze over my presence, my guarded posture, and widened, hesitant expression fringed in looming fears I did not want to entertain but could not control.

"Christine?" Shock was fading with the dissipating clouds of dreams, and on its heels came a bitter rising of that temper I knew so well. "What are you doing here?"

At first, I was unsure how to answer him, wondering if he was still confused from being roused so suddenly. What was I doing there; my tongue was bit to contain the sharp answer that I was a prisoner and sacrifice for Raoul's life per his own inventions, that if he was so unaccustomed to houseguests, he should not have forced me to stay! But the haziness of sleep was no longer in his eyes and the question was still put forward. And chastising my assumptions, I replied steady as I could, "You were having a nightmare."

"Yes, and I recall that you were never supposed to approach me in that state," he snapped, leaning forward in his chair and setting his elbows upon his knees. He didn't want me to be able to tell that he was violently shaking, but there was little avoiding its evidence. Shift about all he liked, his entire frame was victim to its tremors.

"Erik." I tried to seem unthreatening and gentle, refraining from a touch even when instinct begged for exactly that act, to touch a shoulder, an arm, anything to grant him some sort of human contact and comfort. Surely solace was the least I could give, and yet my own hands would not comply with my brain, thinking for themselves, it seemed, and clenching fitfully against my body as a viable barrier between us instead. "I was just trying to-"

"Get yourself killed?" he finished for me, and I could not offer protest to fears I shared. "I realize that our relationship must now be redefined, but I was unaware that we were going to toss out all of our past's stipulations. The last time, did I not awaken with your throat between my hands? One would presume you had learned your lesson enough not to repeat your folly. Or was that what you were hoping for? Your predicted outcome, your throat between my hands, you dead by my own doing. A fitting punishment for my every crime against you. You would rather die than be mine, and if I had been the one to do it, it would be the one and only sin on my soul to incite guilt."

It actually bothered me that I could understand such a ludicrous train of thought. To a man like Erik with a life that had included nothing but pain and disappointment interlaced in every single, breathing moment, that would seem the logical and even expected explanation. And I could call him absurd to conclude such nonsense, but he'd think it anyway.

So in lieu of protesting against a brick wall, I tentatively took a seat upon the soft couch beside his chair, curling up on its cushions and leaning idly on the armrest as he watched my every motion with fixed eyes. In a voice I had to manipulate to keep unwavering, I instead bid, "Tell me what you were dreaming about."

He laughed at me, mocking and grating in its essence, but I remained firm in my resolve, giving no crack away. "Why in the world would you want to know about it?"

Why indeed…; I knew why. It astounded me that between the two of us, I was the one accepting the turn of fate thrown in my direction. This was my future, one I had taken upon myself no matter what the impetus for its choice had been. I didn't want to be a prisoner here in a life that was the equivalent of existing in a jail cell with no one but a detached warden as my companion. I was determined to have more than that, and dwelling on what I had lost had never been an option. How could it have been when a part of me had always known that this would be where I would end up? That, fight as we might, Raoul and I were doomed from the first moment? Who could go up against the almighty Opera Ghost and win? This was the fate I had assumed would eventually be mine, and denying it was a waste of energy.

"Was it a memory?" I pushed, unshrinking beneath the power of those unnerving eyes. "Are your nightmares events that happened, or are they ones you feared could come to pass?"

Erik was shaken by my demeanor; even if he didn't want me to know it, it was obviously etched on whatever features lay unhidden by the mask. And I think it was only because I surprised him so completely that he answered me. "It's always memories…." As soon as he said so, he cringed to himself, and I knew how much he did not want to seem weak in my presence.

"And this particular one?" I probed, unable to keep the compassion from my voice. And it was not fabricated. How could it be? No matter our sordid relationship; to know the extent he'd been made to suffer in his life bewildered any hostility within my body and transformed it back to the care and concern that I had always carried for an angel.

Huffing his distaste, he coldly replied, "It should be of no surprise to you that I've endured many vicious beatings because of my face. Before I learned to defend myself with ropes, of course. As a boy, I was frequently assaulted by those whose paths I crossed. They always assumed that my face made me some sort of demon, even the devil himself. If only that were true! I would have smote them with fire and flame before they ever dared to lay a single hand upon me! The devil would never stand for such degradation with little more than a whimper. And that was all I gave them, a whimper. They'd knock me into unconsciousness long before I'd have ever given them the pleasure of a scream."

I knew that the horror of his story must have been clear on my face, and perhaps that encouraged him to want to shock me further. Perhaps knowing that he was inciting my emotions, even if at the moment they were only astonished pity and that constant compassion, pleased some part of his longing heart. It may not have been love, but it was genuine.

"The nightmare you only just interrupted," he continued, watching me carefully all the while, "was one I've had before; it's one of those memories I only wish I could forget. In my waking hours, it's possible, but sleep is never that kind. I wasn't much beyond a boy when it happened. You have to understand; I knew my limitations. By then, I was well-versed at how to get by with as little regard from the rest of the world as possible. But what I hadn't realized was that even if I wasn't interacting with the world, the world took notice of me. I always ran my errands at night when the city streets were nearly empty. Well, one night they waited for me, a group of random individuals whose sole common thread was that they'd all seen me and were intrigued by my existence. It was this damn mask. No matter how I try to hide the horror of my face, masks, capes, scarves, the mysteriousness I ignorantly incite can't be ignored by the curiosity of mankind. They saw the mask and had to know what lay beneath it. Evidently, it's intriguing; I myself don't see the appeal. If I saw a man traipsing about in a mask, I wouldn't waste my time to care why he did. But other human beings can't stifle that inner voice of curiosity." He paused a breath, eyes bearing into mine, and he never needed to say it; we both knew I was equally a member of his stereotype. Was I truly still being held accountable for my past folly as cruelly as his biting glare made me believe? Considering that that one event had led us through a maze of only pain and to the place we now were, I reluctantly concluded that he had every right to hate me for it for the rest of eternity; it made me little better than those persecuting him in his dreams.

Desperate to push the conversation onward, I dared to ask in a voice that trembled in spite of my enacted bravery, "What did they do to you, Erik?"

He spoke the rest of his tale with utter detachment as if it was anyone's life but his own. "They cornered me in an alleyway, a dozen of them, and they stole my mask away, making it seem like some sort of playful joke until they saw my face, of course. Then it was the same as always, and I was called all sorts of horrible obscenities and beaten half to death. It's never any different; that is the usual outcome even when time and place are changed. I woke up in an alley, covered in blood, bones fractured, ribs broken. I found my mask and crawled back into the shadows, vowing never to come out again. Can you now understand why I did not wish to share this story with you? And now you're crying as you hear it, and your tears are pointless. I am not that weak and pathetic young man anymore. It is only in my dreams that I am still their victim."

The tears were chilled on my cheeks, announcing their presence but only after he'd drawn my attention to them. I hadn't even realized. But to envision this man who was such an integral part of my life assaulted so brutally and left for dead pierced straight to my heart, stabbing through compassion and pity to a deeper layer within me. And I hadn't wanted it or willed it to happen. I just found myself caring with a desperation and intensity as if I had shared in the very horrors he had recited so candidly.

My voice was little more than a choked whisper, but I intently demanded, "And have you never known even a single moment of happiness? Has there truly only ever been pain in your life?" Maybe I already had an idea what his answer would be; maybe I just wanted to hear it spoken aloud to deafen my ears to the horrors I had only just heard and override their cruelty with some sort of peace.

"Happiness…?" he breathed softly, and I saw it in the mismatched depths of those eyes, that telltale flicker of warmth as they trailed my features with his every slow breath. And I shivered; Lord help me, I couldn't stop it from happening or denounce its presence! It felt so natural, the inherent response to a look so tender that I yearned to be deserving of it. "The only taste of happiness I've ever had, brief as it was, was in the time I was an angel to you. Do you even recall it now, Christine? After all of the darkness in between? We adored each other then even if it was under the pretext of a lie. And…I was happy."

Even as I contemplated his words, I was shaking my head. "But it wasn't enough; it was never enough for either of us. That was why you had to give up the guise of an angel and reveal yourself to be a man. …And perhaps we could have known happiness in between, but I…."

Every second of the true agony that was our story appeared in a rush in those eyes of his, stealing softness and warmth and turning them cold, temper flaming anew, and my gaze lingered on those deceptive hands as they fisted upon each armrest of his chair with their threat. In a sudden growl, he snapped at me, "I have no need to ask you why you chose as you did tonight. I took the 'why' out of your hands and dragged it as far away from you as I could. But what I am curious to know is how you can talk to me this way, sit in my presence even, and act so convincingly like you feel anything but hatred for me. I took your entire life away from you tonight. Why don't you hate me for that, Christine? Especially after you've spent so long running from me as if I was indeed the devil sent to steal your soul. Why are you here in this room waking me from nightmares and asking about my life? You should be cursing the fact that I exist, that I lived through those attacks to one day condemn you. But you…you sit there and cry for me instead…. Why don't you hate me?" he suddenly roared, fiercely enough to make me jump. "Or is this all a part of your plan to eventually escape? Pretend to care about the monster until he lets his guard down and then find a way out of this living nightmare that you are trapped in?"

"No," I finally protested, weak as I knew it must sound. "I chose to stay with you, Erik; I have no intention of leaving."

"Of course," he sarcastically retorted, "because if you did, you know I would go after your lover and this time follow through on my threats." In a shout so severe that I trembled with the power of it, he commanded, "Be cold to me, Christine! Hate me. Try your damnedest to escape this hell I've condemned you to. But don't you dare act as if you care for me! Now go to your room and don't come out again even if I am screaming in horror! I don't need you or want you! Go!"

To say that his words did not strike me with a genuine wave of pain would have been a blatant lie. I tried not to let it show on my face, to act as detached as he wanted me to, but tears streamed through to betray my countenance, blurring my image of that enraged, masked face, and I made no move to swipe them away. I simply obeyed like the weak child I preferred to be, falling victim yet again to my lack of bravery as if it was an illness stealing soul and body with its onslaught. And it wasn't a fear of Erik and his fluctuating temper. No, I wasn't afraid of Erik's rage; I was afraid of his love. Love was the constant catalyst to my cowardice, an inability to accept it, an inability to return it. And even after the events this night and a flicker of the strength I could possess as witnessed in one solitary kiss, I followed the path of faintheartedness instead. And why? Because it was easier, because being brave would have stirred the waters around us into a tidal wave and would have born too many casualties. Being brave meant moving beyond my chosen boundaries and restrictions and into a foreign land controlled by the instability of emotions. Dear God, the very concept terrified me!

As I claimed the sanctuary of my room, slamming my door closed to the surging of emotion's vigorous drumbeat, I buried myself away beneath the covers of my bed and let memory assault me with its laden guilt. A kiss, …a kiss; I had broken my wall long enough to give him a kiss. It was an action I would rather have forgotten than acknowledge and interpret. I had never kissed anyone, not me myself; Raoul had kissed me, but I had never before been the instigator. And to have such a dominant role in such an intimate contact shamed me in some ridiculous way. I hadn't known what I was doing, nearly as inexperienced as my partner in this indiscretion, and to consider that I had made the decision to do it, there right in front of Raoul, my supposed fiancé; it could either be called bold and brazen or immature and far too impulsive to have any viable credibility.

A kiss…, and I would have taken it back if I could do it over again. It made me seem like I knew what I wanted when really I didn't know at all.

I wasn't awakened again that night; no more screams, no more horrors of the past. But I myself suffered a nightmare, albeit one that was endured in silence and tears that I awoke to find saturating the material of my pillow around my face. It startled me by how real the dream had felt, almost so much so that I believed it at first with conscious' return. In the midst of its spell, we had been reliving the previous night and its traumas, only this time after a solitary kiss, Erik had let me leave with Raoul, insisting that we go and abandon him alone. Raoul and I had won, beating the Opera Ghost's power to be free, but I had never felt more defeated in my life, as if I had lost everything instead.

Erik…; I needed to see him as if it was a necessity to continue surviving. Hastily dressing and readying myself for the day, I impatiently fled my room, never giving a thought to the unpleasant terms we had ended upon. No, no, I had to see him and prove to the wisps of a dream still fluttering in my brain that he was not a broken shell of a human being, alone and empty in the wake of my departure. No, no, even if he currently abhorred every aspect of my existence, he wasn't alone. I was with him; I had chosen him, and even without my bravery to assure conviction, he had to understand that I had made the right choice.

I rushed room to room in the underground house, but to my aghast horror, he was nowhere to be found, and I was locked within the meager confines. Not even a note was left to at least convince my addled brain that he would return at some unknown point to end my current anxiety. Rationale knew that he wouldn't just abandon me, but it was yet fuzzy and muddled, giving rise to doubts as I paced in my agitation in haphazard treks in one room and then the next, unable to keep still.

I was on the verge of insanity a little later when I finally heard the clicked turn of the lock and raced to the opening front door with feet that barely touched the ground in my hastiness. The shock on Erik's masked features in the instant he saw me was entirely justifiable; I likely looked as if I had had the wits scared out of me, wide-eyed, pale, catching his arm in my shaking hands even as I rarely ever invited a physical contact from him on my own.

"Christine, what is it? What's happened?" he demanded with avid worry, his free hand never hesitating to land atop the backs of mine as I clutched at his sleeve with desperate fingers.

"You…you left me," I stammered, realizing that I had no answer for him that would not appear fringed in madness.

But he shook his head, skepticism still alive, and insisted, "I didn't leave you; I was never beyond the catacombs. You were always safe, petite."

Safe? I wasn't concerned with safe so much as alone. But I did not tell him so as I forced deep breaths to return some semblance of calm and asked instead, "Why? …Why were you gone?"

"I needed space to ponder; here in this house…," he hesitated, watching me carefully before he revealed, "your presence permeates through every room and often makes it impossible for logical thought. I think too much with my heart when you are near."

"Oh, …and…what exactly did you conclude?" In my mind were those infuriating images from a traumatic dream and the rising fear that its most significant points were about to be brought to life.

A breath escaped him in a huff, and for an instant, I truly believed that he was seeking the most polite and undamaging words to crush his own heart with the morality of the right thing to do. I had to beg myself not to stop him from replying, to wait and find some semblance of calm, even as his piercing stare drifted from mine to inquisitively study our intersecting hands upon his sleeve. "I must apologize to you, Christine, …for a great many things but most especially for last night."

Here it was, my anxiety argued. He was about to let me go, and I instinctively fisted my hands tighter into the material of his coat as if my grip was unbreakable. "Don't," was all I could manage to utter.

"I treated you terribly," he continued. "You meant to be kind, and whether it was sincere or not, I should not have been so cruel to you in return."

Oh God! I nearly cried in relief, and I knew I smiled. I could not contain its appearance as I gaped. "Your nightmare…. You mean about your nightmare."

Erik was suddenly regarding me oddly, and I felt the smallest laugh escape my lips before I could stop it. "What in the world is wrong with you, Christine? Are you feeling ill?"

"No, no," I muttered, grinning yet. "Please go on."

The only brow I had view of arched suspiciously, but he indulged my request and said, "As I was walking the catacombs, I came to realize something, as morbid as it is. I don't have much time left with you; I should not be squandering it by the whims of my temper."

My smile evaporated as suddenly as it had appeared, and I shook my head. "Don't have much time…? What do you mean? I…I don't understand."

But his expression was strangely gentle on mine even as he explained, "It's the reality of the situation, of course. The Vicomte will come for you; I have little doubt of that. He would never just leave you with me despite the threats and ultimatums I laid in place. It is only a matter of time."

"Then we'll leave this place before he can," I heard myself offer even when sense wondered why I was speaking at all. Raoul coming…, I hadn't truly considered it. I was so sure my decision would be permanent, an ending and a new path I had set into place, no matter the impetus for its creation, but I had the sudden revelation that Erik was right. Raoul would indeed come for me; he loved me almost as much as Erik did. He would believe he was being my knight, dashing and gallant. He could never understand that I had wholeheartedly chosen danger and inevitably the fire and damnation that came with it.

My unconventional offer was received by the nearest to a smile I had seen Erik give in months as he pried his sleeve free of my unwilling grasp and replied, "I mean to do right by you in the end; that's what I've come to realize. You made the noble sacrifice, and you should be rewarded for it, not punished. …You deserve the life you truly wanted, Christine, not darkness and shadows and nightmares. When the Vicomte comes, I will pose no further battle. I only ask that we not continue on these regretful terms until then. …I can't bear to spend what little time I have left blaming and hurting each other, not when my future consists of only these moments to sustain me."

I felt sick at that moment, soul sick. My choice, one I had had to collect bravery to make, was about to become invalid. I realized that I was currently walking some unscathed landscape between two paths; one was the easy, weak path I had been traveling with Raoul, one where I made no impact, not even any footsteps upon its surface, only his in existence, and the other was one I had never been upon before, one with Erik, one where I would be an equal if I only had the courage to do what I must to put myself upon its trail. One moment of bravery wasn't enough, not with all of the other factors playing their part to weigh me down and hold me back. If I wanted to be upon a path with Erik, I needed to quit being the acquiescing passenger steered in every direction and take charge of my life, as terrifying as that seemed to me.

At present under the power of those mismatched eyes seeking so urgently to read my face, I knew I would fall to my weakness again, unable to find a reply to him as he truly believed he was granting me the means to my happy ending. If only he was! I wanted to beg him at that moment to be brave for me! To hold me to my choice because that made my role the easy one to play, one where I never needed to consider emotions and their intensity, where he kept me where I truly wanted to be and I never had to admit that I was not there by his coercion. But I did not say a word…; I just nodded absently as if agreeing to his terms when I actually resented their presence.

Even if I knew otherwise, congenial was his preferred emotion of choice, and as such, the rest of our day was spent rather amicably. Its essence was contrived; how could it not be, considering how awfully we had hurt each other over and over again? But we weren't dealing with contrition or repairing bonds. We were acting as if a rift had never happened to begin with. And even if it was a lie, it was almost delightful to play along.

In truth, this was not a new relationship for us. We had held to something akin to such closeness months ago, before Raoul had appeared in our lives. It had grown out of the revelation of his angelic lie and had started through respect and companionship. Tear everything apart, create chasms between our hearts, but we always had a bond beneath the surface, one that bore no logical explanation. It always thrived on through pain and separation. It was our foundation.

I wanted this new sense of peace to be enough. I knew that we both carried a strange desperation to suck the marrow out of every possible second because of the threat looming on the horizon, and I was just as vehement to hastily build the life we might have had and act it out with seeming conviction…even if something still felt lacking, something imperative, something more than congeniality could ever offer.

But we played on. Erik cooked us supper, and we ate together amidst pleasant conversation. Afterward, he played for me on his brilliant pipe organ, and I sang a bit, thrilling at the occasional grins my impromptu performance inspired on the lips of my once teacher. Perhaps we weren't loving each other full hearts and souls, keeping a structured division between every emotion and grasping it firmly within our control, but this was safe. This was without pressure or definition, and yet to my innermost heart, this was the most painful of any relationship we had ever attempted. I wasn't loving him as he wanted, and he would accept that as enough.

That night brought another nightmare, and when his muffled cries roused my dreamless state, I did not hesitate to scurry out of bed and seek him out. Once again I found him restlessly asleep in his chair before a dwindling fire, and once again I knew without doubt that he had not intended to sleep. Gazing upon that twisted face with a wave of compassion so great that it created tears in my eyes, I wondered what horrors of his past were torturing him tonight, which particular agony among dozens, which trauma to an already damaged soul.

"Erik," I called tenderly as I moved to stand before his chair, and leaning into him, I dared to delicately touch the tear-stained, unmasked side of his face, calling again, "Erik, ange, wake up."

"Christine," he gasped, and it took me a moment to realize that he was not yet awake, still in the nightmare's embrace. Dear God, he was dreaming about me; I was the cause of this nightmare….

"Ange," I breathed, my voice catching on a sob. It astounded me to realize what I had done to this man, enough to torture his subconscious as cruelly as memories of physical assaults. It made me suddenly hate myself. "Ange, please wake up."

All at once before I could have ever even realized his unconscious intentions, his hands darted out from the fists they had been confined to at his sides. Hands, danger, my mind shrieked, but I hadn't the chance to avoid them. They caught and clawed at my forearms, the sleeves of my nightdress wrinkling in the fierce grasp, and without pause, they were jerking me to him until I was viciously crushed against the hard wall of his chest, my attempted rigidity of limbs having to bend and cave into the awkward embrace.

"Erik," I finally managed to say with a voice, but he was still lost to awareness and did not respond save to clutch tighter to my yielding body, his arms weaving about me and holding me in place.

"Don't go," he muttered to the Christine in his dream's eye, the one he was so desperate to cling to. "Christine, don't leave me."

Erik's uncovered cheek was rubbing against my temple, his tears striking my skin to scream blatantly of their presence, and I ceased my feeble struggle and allowed him even though I was afraid to hold him back. I didn't move; I savoured the moment, unknown to him, unshared in reality even. I savoured an embrace with a man who didn't even know he was holding me.

"I won't leave you, Erik," I whispered, and with all of the timidity of a little girl, I slowly encircled his torso with my arms, tentatively returning the unacknowledged affection and relaxing against him.

That was it, dream broken. Perhaps it was my words that were unspoken by my dream self, but I felt the shift in his breath, his lungs so flush to my own. His entire frame went stiff and tense against me, his hands abruptly releasing so that he could cower as far back into the chair's leather cushions as our close proximity would allow.

"Erik." I attempted to sound unafraid, never accusing, gentle even, but I could sense the terror fluctuating from him, terror to have me so near.

"Oh God, Christine…. Did I…?" His wide eyes would not meet mine, glancing frantically about the room to avoid what he likely assumed would be disgust and blame. "I'm so sorry…. I…."

It took that long for me to recall the true impropriety that modesty should have insisted was present in our intimate position, and blushing so fiercely that I felt my skin burn, I awkwardly stumbled off of his lap. My knees shook under my weight in the instant my feet hit the floor, and it was with an added element of necessity that I sat on the couch as I had the previous night, certain I couldn't have run away from the situation even if I had wanted to.

Erik still would not fully regard me beyond a furtive, occasional glance, but those threatening hands were fisted in his lap as if to ensure us both that he would not try to touch me again.

"You…you were having another nightmare," I pointlessly said, searching for any way to break the growing discomfort in the air. "…About me."

"Yes, well, …I do that from time to time," he replied solemnly. "I truly wish you would exercise some form of caution and keep away from me. Surely this incident just now has proven to you how dangerous I can be when I am asleep."

"You didn't hurt me," I offered adamantly.

"Not this time, not beyond violating propriety anyway. But still…. I can be as violent in my sleep as I am when awake, and worse yet because I wouldn't even realize what I was doing. Please just promise to stay away. I couldn't bear it if I hurt you."

At least he wasn't angry; that was my first thought, followed by a desire to disagree and prove his assumptions wrong. "How is it that all of the other times I stayed with you, you didn't suffer from these nightmares? I cannot believe that you did, and I was just unaware."

Finally, he met my eye, and I noted that the trembling he had been suffering upon awakening was quieting to a subtle shiver. Studying me all the while, he admitted, "After that first night, I never slept when you were with me. It wasn't a difficult feat; you were only ever here random nights from time to time. But lately…well, after our current traumas, I've found myself quite exhausted. I don't even recognize it when I fall asleep anymore."

I understood his fatigue all too well: mental, spiritual, emotional, exhaustion of body and soul after months of torture. "But…do you have nightmares every time you sleep?"

"No, they usually appear at times in my life when I feel reality is spinning beyond my control."

I would have argued with his reasoning if I considered he'd take a single word I said to heart; instead I pushed, "You said last night that your nightmares were memories, but…this one…. I didn't leave you, Erik."

"Not yet," he corrected, and I caught the briefest flicker of the true melancholy incited within the fictitious boundaries of a dream and spilling out into our ill-fated reality. "This one may not yet be a memory, but it will be soon enough."

Nodding half to myself, I concluded, "And you will mourn my absence and continue to suffer without happiness as yours."

"I never considered my future to be any different than that. I am doomed to be forever unhappy; I've known that my entire life. Optimism is a waste of hope."

"No," I protested with an adamant shake of my head. "You must have anticipated that you would be happy…with me. That was the future you truly wanted."

"And realistically knew I'd never have," he added sharply. "Don't you see by now that good things do not come easily to me? I've always anticipated failure, and yet I had to try or carry the regret. You were never meant to be mine, Christine, no matter how desperately I've wanted to believe otherwise."

"And yet I am yours," I insisted. It was the nearest to any sort of revelation that I felt I could give.

"At present." His agreement was as pointed and somber as every word had been.

"Exactly," I declared inarguably and encouraged further denials, stating the blasphemous, unwanted lie again. "I am yours for the present, and you have yet to let yourself love me. You said that you wanted to know no regret for the terms we end upon, but you've spent all day keeping me at arm's length from your heart. Tell me, ange; when you envisioned a relationship between us, even one that must be doomed, was this what you wanted? This congenial acquaintanceship we've been indulging? This isn't love."

"And it never will be," he decided with a snap of his temper as it was stirred to life by my boldness. "How can I hope for a love with you if you love someone else? Even temporary, it isn't real."

"But why not pretend it is?" I offered. My own internal voice called it absurd to even fathom such a thing; it was only a further means to deny and escape the true feelings blazing unintentionally within my chest. Love him without ever telling him it was real? Absurd…, yes, it was, but to some inkling of yearning in my addled head, it seemed oddly logical.

Erik, however, did not share my sudden enthusiasm over my forming plan. "Pretend that we love each other?" he retorted, his hands suddenly gripping at the armrests of his chair with repressed rage seeking a way to get free. "You want me to love you and pretend that you love me back? Even as my head knows that you are lying? That is the most cruel betrayal I can imagine enduring, Christine."

"But don't you want something happy to remember and cling to as yours? I'm here with you now, Erik, and…and you could love me as you want."

"While you lie in return," he finished with the part I did not want to consider.

"That doesn't matter. You could be happy, Erik; you'd know forever that you loved me, whole heart and soul, and this would be only yours, a happy memory instead."

"But you-"

"I would be giving you something," I interrupted before he could call it a lie once again. "I have done nothing but cause you pain; if I could give you happiness for even a short time, perhaps it could make up for some of the damage I've caused."

"This is ridiculous," he snapped, shaking his head in a fiery refusal. "Preposterous and at its essence, a deception. …It would kill me to do this and then lose you." His admission was little more than a whisper, and even as I glimpsed the depth of pain beneath, I did not falter in my resolve.

"And when the alternative is never loving me at all?" I posed back. "Temporary happiness must be better to a lifetime of only loneliness."

Even as my offer was making an impression and diminishing his preferred rage, he was yet hesitant to accept it. "And what happens when you cower away from me, Christine, as you've always done? What happens when barely a brushing of my hand makes you cringe? It is impossible to pretend love when you only know disgust for me. Your countenance will hold flaws."

"You will never know the difference," I vowed confidently, knowing disgust had not been an issue for me in months. Disgust? I hadn't known a single instant of disgust since my startled and manipulated reaction to the first appearance of his face. No, my cowering solely had to do with fear, and as far as I was concerned, this game would give me the excuse I needed to let fear go. If it was feigned reality, then I did not need to be afraid of it. "Please, Erik," I begged for us both. "Love me as you've always wanted to. Let me be who you've wanted me to be."

Never an answer was given; his solemn stare traveled from my intent expression to the fire, unwilling to share the thoughts in his head, and I wondered if I had only caused more anguish with my attempt at healing. I had this impeccable tendency to break this man over and over again even when that was not my intention at all; it was practically an unwanted talent. How often had the most miniscule gesture on my part, a single unconsidered word even, been enough to insult and hurt him? And this time I thought to be giving him exactly what he longed for, but under the preface of a lie, it was just as harmful.

Minutes ticked by unheeded, and I eventually curled up onto the couch cushions, resting my head silently on the armrest with an inability to find the strength to keep it lifted any longer. He might have occasionally spent full nights awake, but I was accustomed to at least a decent amount of sleep. I could feel myself starting to drift off when he suddenly spoke, never even glancing in my direction.

"If I agreed to your offer," he quietly and hesitantly said, "I want you to understand that I would never force any emotion or desire upon you…. I would be a gentleman with you. I would never hurt you, …and you need but say the word and this game will be over. …Christine?"

He still would not look at me, perhaps unsure how I would accept his vows, perhaps embarrassed that he even had to speak them, but I softly replied, "I understand," and watched his subtle nod, studying his mask and its unnatural glow in the lingering firelight. Without his regard, I was able to continue on, gazing at that face, scrutinizing the unconcealed features and imagining the flawed ones beyond my sight. And as my eyelids grew heavy with a need for sleep and my view of him began to become hazy at its edges, I felt fantasy and reality combine until my mind saw his bare face before me, unmasked and unhidden. And it wasn't odd or disconcerting; it was just his face. As sleep took over, I could still see its nuances and shadows as if I was awake and regarding him yet by the firelight, and it was so vivid that I could not call it sleep with any certainty. No, not until a little later when I reluctantly stirred out of its calm peace.

I was being carried; that was my first coherent thought, but I continued to feign unconsciousness, careful to keep unmoving and yielding, absolutely pliant in the strong arms holding me. Erik was carrying me to bed; I knew it without ever opening my eyes to confirm it, and I concentrated my analyzing senses on him and only him, his nearness, his chest against my cheek, his heartbeat drumming steadily in my ear, his soothing scent intoxicating my every breath. It was only too delightful, and I knew disappointment as he lowered me onto my bed and released me from his firm grasp. Everything felt immediately chilled without him, even as he lifted the blankets over me and their thickness incited warmth; I still felt cold, inside and out.

I anticipated that he would leave now that his task was complete, but I could feel his presence remaining, stoic and frozen at my bedside, occasionally catching a barely audible sigh that escaped his lips. And though it should have disturbed me to know he was there, I was oddly comforted by his presence instead, lulled back toward my dreams with a serene sense of completion radiating from his silhouette to my body. This was the way things were meant to be; that was my chanted thought that nearly made me smile to myself.

I was on the verge of finding sleep's arms again when my guardian angel shifted in his vigil. I assumed he was leaving. I never expected the feather-light touch I received, cold, a grazing of fingertips to my cheekbone so delicate that it was almost impossible to believe that it was from the same hand that I perceived to be a dangerous weapon. How could something so gentle cause any sort of pain? It seemed an exaggerated lie in that moment. These hands could only be tender; they couldn't ever take a life, no, not these hands.

Those caressing fingers followed the curved contours of my face, and I desperately fought a shiver that seemed so natural at the welling deliciousness tingling my skin. Along my jaw, outlining my lips, and they lingered at the bridge of my nose, learning the construction of something he himself did not possess upon his corpse's face. Tears threatened to escape my closed eyes, and I hoped he would not notice. But there was such adoration in every single cherishing touch, such controlled reverence, and all I could think was that I had rarely let him touch me before. My God, this man had never touched anyone unless violence was attached, and to worship my features with such timid delicacy, to know I was the only one, …it made my heart ache desperately within my body and instinct beg me to touch him in return.

But I continued with my fake state of sleep, accepting every silent tribute he had to give me, and though I was disappointed when those fingers were pulled away, in my next breath, I felt him leaning over me. His mask was a barrier and made every gesture awkward, but as he loomed above me, he brushed as much of a kiss as he could manage to my brow, truly only a touch of his lower lip to my skin. In the merest gap between our faces, he breathed without voice, "I love you, Christine."

I nearly sobbed aloud and gave my awareness away; it was a result of endless determination that I kept silent until I heard him go and caught the sound of my door closing into place behind him. Only then did my eyes dart open and glance to where I knew he had been, praying for a lingering outline of his silhouette to assure me that I had not dreamed the entire scene. But nothing but darkness met me, and only darkness saw my tears.