I dreamt of Raoul. It wasn't some sort of horrible nightmare, but it might as well have been. It was a fantasy of the life I should have wanted, easy and free, lacking the powerful emotions that so violently scared me. I was a Vicomtesse in my dream, beautiful and loved even if I wasn't loving in return, and Raoul was at my side, doting upon me, lavishing me with gifts and every luxury money could buy. I seemed happy; I would have almost believed it and likely was smiling in my sleep. But then I looked closer at my dream self, and smiles became frowns. I was a shell, empty and hollowed out. If one looked into my eyes, one saw nothing looking back, no spark, no soul, only a gaping black void. And I suddenly considered that it was no different than if I was dead. On the outside, a blissful dream and fantasy, but beneath the exterior, it was a nightmare. I had finally killed my own heart….

In the rush of a throbbing heart that seemed to scream of its unchanged existence, I was abruptly returned to awareness and nearly cried to find myself in my canopy bed in Erik's home. Erik! I was out of the covers and rushing to my door before my mind had the chance to realize my heart's intentions.

Without a betraying sound, I arrived in the living room's doorway, and yet he sensed my nearness anyway, raising his gaze from the hearth where he stood and focusing on me as I leaned idly against the wooden doorframe in hopes that he would not read how intently I was actually shaking.

"You…you're not asleep," I stammered, clutching with my fingers at the wood's stability as if it was a necessity to keep upright.

"No," he answered with a fraction of coldness. "I could not take the chance of waking up with your throat in my hands."

Even as I nodded, I confirmed for him, "You're sure you would have had a nightmare tonight."

"Undoubtedly, and it would certainly involve you. And I cannot say that my subconscious wouldn't be content to hurt you back. …Why are you awake, Christine? As you can see, I won't be suffering from any nightmares that will require your assistance tonight. In fact, I would greatly prefer it if you went back to bed and locked your door."

"I'm not afraid of you," I declared with the most resolve that I could muster.

"No, you're afraid of your own heart; we've already established that. And in denying it, you may create a sleepwalking monster that attacks you. Do you at least have enough sense to be afraid of that?" When I made no move to leave or gave any reaction to a pretense I considered ridiculous in its essence, he huffed in perturbation and stated decisively, "Go back to bed, Christine."

The easy route for a scared child would have been to obey him, and though instinct tried to encourage that path, I made my acquiescent limbs listen and remain in their spot, clutching tighter at the doorframe in an imposed battle between sense and heart. No, no, heart had to win this time; I could accept nothing less!

"Christine!" he snapped under his flickering temper. "I don't have the patience left to continue with your games. Go to bed now, or I will put you there myself!"

I didn't believe that he was making such a threat with any intent to carry it through; he truly was convinced that I would concede and follow his command without valid protest. That was why I almost expected the shock I got when I replied as steadily as I could, "No."

"What?" he stammered with a bewilderment that surpassed anger.

"I won't be sent to bed like a disobedient child." My stern voice made me seem more resolute than I actually felt, but whenever I threatened to falter and back down, I recalled my dream and the hollow version of myself that I could potentially become, no feelings, no heart, no soul. It made me stronger than I'd ever been.

"Won't you?" Erik coldly snapped. "Well, then since you are so accomplished at games of pretend, especially when they involve appeasing me and my wrath, pretend to be the weak child you actually are and go to bed. I am in no mood to continue being toyed with tonight."

My eyes narrowed with his insult as it struck me more harshly than I wanted him to realize, and it convinced me to refuse to quiet the twisting annoyance in my gut. "If we are done with games of make believe love, then it will be easy for you to choose anger, won't it?"

"Why are you taunting me this way? Do you think I won't give in?" His jaw was clenched tight, hands fisted, and even with the fire of his stare to speak for him, I stayed firm.

"I'm proving that you won't hurt me," I stated back. Maybe I was being foolish to tempt his aggressive side, but I felt so entirely confident that I would be right. And I was proving it to us both, that there was nothing to fear in this room, nothing to continue hesitating over, nothing to keep running from. Gathering my mediocre bravery, I forced my hands to unflex and release the doorframe, determined that they would not shake and give me away as I slowly approached him where he stood, wary but undeterred. "You want me to love you," I said with only the slightest waver. "Then you can't hurt me."

This was like teasing a wild animal; I could see the inferno in those eyes, and yet I stepped closer and refused to consider myself ignorant. And for one instant, I thought he was calming or at least less apt to break. One instant, because in the next, he was lunging toward me before I even realized he intended to move. My only consideration in that space of slow motion attack was that I had brought this upon myself. He had told me not to push his temper, and I hadn't listened; and now….

Erik's hands, those dangerous hands, caught my shoulders, and before I could even cry out a protest, he threw me back onto the couch and practically pounced atop me, crushing me into the soft cushions with his weight. I squeezed my lips shut and did not make a sound, focusing intently on his harsh, gasping breaths, on the hard planes of his body against mine, on his masked face hovering a breath above mine.

"Damn you, Christine!" he hissed, eyes locked fixed and fiery on mine. "What are you tempting me to do to you? I vowed to you last night that I would never force my desires upon you; but do you not realize that this could have been the outcome tonight had I suffered a nightmare? You were so adamant that I wouldn't hurt you, that I hold no danger to you, but now do you see a monster? This could have happened, and I would have been unaware, asleep. I wouldn't have been able to remember to stop myself."

I should have been terrified; he expected as much. But as he purposely ground his hips into mine, purposely made a desire I had avoided and ignored for far too long prominent in its evidence as an unyielding threat driven into the soft curves of my body, I could only shudder with the violent trembling that overtook my entire frame.

"You wanted a game of pretend," he went on in a growl. "And I was allowed to love you, but it wasn't enough. How could it be enough? I knew the whole time that I was going to lose you, that even if I reigned in this damning desire and played the gentleman for you, I wouldn't be able to keep you in the end. So I've burned alone and been respectful and begged you to love me back. And still you cower even when I gave you nothing to fear; well, now here's something worth fearing, and will you cower again, Christine? If I did not have you pinned to a couch right now, would you be running from me in terror? At least this time you'd have a genuine reason."

I couldn't move, and yet I never struggled. Once again I was permitting without ever actually being an active participant worthy of blame, and I scolded myself for that and for a weakness that seemed inherent in my very makeup. Was that all I'd ever be? But no, that was unacceptable!

Forcing myself to speak meant releasing my lip from where I clenched it between teeth, and as I did, a soft sigh escaped as a natural response that I had been stifling before words could even be considered. Barely breathing and convicted through our shared gaze, I repeated my earlier attestation, "I'm not afraid of you, Erik."

His expression never altered even a bit, and since his weight and size kept me unable to flee from him, he suddenly lifted one hand to his mask. With his face so close to mine that we were sharing the same breath, he lifted that barrier free and tossed it away, putting those features on display almost cruelly.

"Still not afraid of the monster, Christine?" he taunted, and I wasn't sure if he was hoping that I would cringe with my assumed revulsion or if I would be unaffected. Was he looking for a reason to hate me, or was he searching for hope? And was it cruel on my part to take the path that sowed that hope in every single tentative step?

I wasn't shocked or disgusted by that face; I hadn't been in a long time, probably since my first glimpse of it. Since then I had seen it enough times in my mind's eye to dull any lingering astonishment. I had even considered that it was utterly ridiculous that he still wore the mask in my presence, but deemed it was for his own sake, not mine. He thought I'd stare; I knew I wouldn't, but I never corrected him and altered his thinking. I let him believe that disgust had always thrived, and I had done so rather convincingly or so the surprise overcoming those mangled features told me. …And yet he couldn't seem to accept it as real.

Forgetting his previous wish to win this unnamed quarrel, he suddenly pleaded with me, letting go of every inkling of bravado that he had. "Pretend a love story with me, Christine; play your game, and pretend that you love me and this horrible face."

Erik was giving me my excuse if only to have the smallest piece of what he truly wanted, but this time I refused to take it. In a soft whisper, I insisted, "But pretending isn't real, …and this, here and now with you, is."

Hesitant to put any credence to my words, he pushed, "Then tell me, Christine: what do you want? …Is it this? …Is it me?"

"And if I say yes, what then?" I suddenly blurted out, my eyes filling with unwanted tears of desperation. "I don't know how to love you as you want me to. And what if I can't do it, Erik? …What if I can't be that brave?" I shook my head against the cushion, and a few stray tears broke free from the corners of my eyes to slide down and invade my tangled curls; they were my inarguable proof that real emotion existed no matter how often I had tried to deny it. "You were right. Loving Raoul was easy because it wasn't love at all. My heart was always my own, and all I had to do was tell myself that I wanted to be with him and that was enough. But you…you want everything."

Erik did not correct me. No, he suddenly sought one of my pinned hands between our bodies and carefully pried it free, cupping the back of it in his palm. He was shaking with a timidity I could not understand; had he not just buried me beneath him on the couch without a single second of hesitation? But this simplicity that lacked a valid threat in its gentle overtones seemed to terrify him as he guided my willing hand to his face and carefully set my palm against his deformed features, shuddering almost violently with that first contact. It was intimate; yes, to him, it had to be intimate.

"I may want everything," he was saying softly in a tone that was saturated in emotion, "but I know you can give me everything. You love me," he stated as he had earlier, utterly and completely certain. "If you didn't love me, you wouldn't be permitting these violent indiscretions that I am committing with you right now and giving no fear or disgust as your reaction. You would be fighting for your innocence, for your very life. …But you have yet to voice a single protest."

Protest? I was far too intrigued with the oddities that constituted his face, welcoming their every brushing against my skin and even curving my palm closer to feel more. I was fascinated by the strange texture of the tautly pulled flesh, letting one of my fingers bend and trail the pronounced bone surrounding an eye sunk so deeply into its cavity. Onward in such a similar way to how he had learned the shapes and nuances of my features, I broke my hand free of his grip so that I could explore, always under a certain aspect of uncertainty from him. He had started this new game in hopes of steering us closer to reality, and yet even as he permitted me, he was shaking, every inch of untouched flesh beneath my fingers quivering.

As my fingers traced the flat expanse where the cartilage of a nose should have existed, he gave the smallest whimper, repeated when I grazed the two gaping holes where shallow, trembling breaths puffed out. And I realized that maybe if I didn't love him, these things would hold their own sort of disgust. Aesthetically, they were unappealing; he was nothing like the fairytale princes whose stories I had had my head filled with as a child. And yet just because a prince was handsome did not mean that he could love with even an inkling of the fire and devotion in Erik's heart. It was shining through his mismatched eyes even now, an adoration that surpassed his own lingering fears, made all the more bright by my resolved actions. And as my fingers outlined his misshapen mouth and crossed the seam between his lips, he dared to press a hesitant kiss to their tips.

"What do you want, Christine?" he repeated in a whisper, and his breath tickled my fingers with every letter that passed his lips.

"You." The word escaped me before I had time to even consider that it would become more than a thought on its own; it was almost a betrayal of my own mind.

A sudden burst of relief overcame those twisted features as if he had been fighting some hopeless battle and finally, finally, could know rest; I even felt his weight sag against me with a barely audible sigh, and his arms suddenly wrapped about my small body and clutched me tightly to him as if he would never have the strength to let me go again.

He didn't ask for flowery promises or undying vows at that moment; he seemed content just to hold me as I held him back with willowy arms that trembled awkwardly down their lengths with my every nervous breath. This was a new role for me, one I had always seemed to want to be cast in yet never thought I had the potential to be; and yet didn't it seem to be written and composed just for me? A role…, a game…, but no, this wasn't pretend anymore. This was me, and this was my life. I had chosen its course, and I was determined suddenly to embrace it wholeheartedly.

As Erik lowered his head to my cloud of curls strewn along the cushion, I did not let myself ponder my actions; I followed emotion's guide, and I gently set my cheek to his deformed one, resting it without pressure, light as a feather but skin to skin, my unmarred features filling in the gaps of his and making them perfect and beautiful. And it was that simple action that made him cry. Cheek to cheek, tears were equally mine, and they were a revelation because they mattered so much to me; because when sense tried to argue that I was being held down upon a couch by a murderer whose bloodstained hands were clutching fitfully at the material of my nightgown in every effort to hold me tighter, those tears made my heart pose instead that he was just a man, and he was learning to love and what love was in the same way that I was. And everything else faded away: the roles, the games, the pain we had continuously seemed to cause one another. None of it mattered; none of it could touch us.

For a long while, we stayed that way, as tears ran out and breaths synced themselves as one, not thinking too much, not pushing too hard. In that one silent embrace, we seemed to heal months of pain.

Finally, as the fire in the hearth was becoming only flickering embers that cast shadows about the room, I softly bid, "Promise me that we're going to leave this place before the Vicomte returns to try to take me away from you."

"If you love me, he will never part us," he vowed back equally as quiet, soft whispers in the dimness.

"I know, and I won't have the two of you fighting to the death for me when I myself have made my choice." I had drawn back enough to meet his adamant stare, and the adoration beaming there took my breath away as always. It seemed that when I wasn't holding his eye, I forgot how overwhelming and intense his stare could be only to be shaken every time I met his gaze again. To know someone loved me so much and to see it vividly displayed without walls or resentment in between…. It was an amazement to me.

"And your choice is me," he repeated as if he needed to hear it plainly put to believe it.

And I gave him what he needed. "My choice is you." I did not quell the impulse as it bid me to touch him, but I still trembled a bit as I caressed his scars as if they were unmarked perfection instead. "Without doubt or reservation, I choose you, Erik."

"Heart and soul, Christine?" he pushed urgently. "Despite who I am and what I've done?"

Yes, he was a murderer; my head took the opportunity to scream it in my mind, but even that confirmed appellation did not sway the emotions swelling within me. No, because this was not a black and white situation where only good and evil existed; there were too many layers in between for that to be true. I could not give him excuses for his tainted past, but I could try to understand it and carry the utter certainty that no matter what he'd done, he'd never hurt me.

As my answer, I leaned closer and pressed a gentle kiss to his mangled cheek, sure he'd never known such an intimacy. As he gasped his surprise and arched nearer to my tender touch, I made one kiss into a dozen and cherished each neglected feature. It was suddenly my right and privilege. He had said his only happiness had come from being an intangible angel; I was determined to far exceed that and show him how imperative touch was to existing.

"Christine," he breathed as my kiss grazed along the swollen expanse of his upper lip, and I shivered myself to take his very breath into my lungs with his exhalation, edging closer and closer to him as if I could disappear within his molecules. Our lips were but inches from each other, yet still he said, "Earlier I asked permission to dare touch you. Must I now ask if I may kiss you as well, or will you simply allow me? At least assure me that you feel this desire as I do. …Let it be your choice, Christine. You kissed me once as a sacrifice; if you kiss me now, it will only be because you want me."

I couldn't have denied it, not while existing that close to that malformed face, and I didn't want to. My fingers trailed up his cheek, over scars until they were barely grazing the fine hair at his temple, and knowing that this was about to change my entire life and for the first time unafraid of that very thing, I kissed him. This kiss was so very different from the only other one we'd shared; this one held about a million more strings that attached through joined lips and formed unbreakable knots from his heart to mine and back again. It was pure and untainted; it was freely given and accepted. As I moved my mouth against his so very gently, I could feel his hands fisting and unfisting restlessly in my nightdress at my hips, wanting more yet never taking it. No, he was careful to follow my lead, reigning in the full extent of that desire that had never for an instant dimmed, and I was the one to coax the passion onward, daring to let my tongue just barely enter the parting seam of his lips to capture a hint of his taste. It was just so blissfully innocent and yet still hinting at something more, something I had to deny my instinctual urge to fight against. I had run from this once; I wouldn't do it again.

When I reluctantly drew back again, he breathed desperately in the air between our lips, "I love you, Christine; I love you; I love you."

Before I could return his beautiful sentiment, he stole my chance, capturing my lips this time, and in my one and only coherent thought before passion clouded over my mind, I wondered if he was perhaps still afraid that I would have avoided the words. Even if he doubted the extent of my bravery, he couldn't doubt my passion as I met his kiss and stifled timidity. His tongue was seeking its rightful mate, trailing mine so teasingly and bidding it to surrender in some intimate form of dance, and I shuddered from head to toe and squirmed against his hardness with my undeniable consumption. I was being swallowed, and even as my lingering trepidation broke the surface of desire's waves, it was so much easier and preferred to let myself fall back under, to drown and be suffocated in the intensity as it tingled across every inch of my skin and left goosebumps in its wake.

Ripping his lips away with an abruptness that left me dizzy, Erik insisted in a hoarse echo of his usually golden and clear timbre, "You can't imagine how I ache for you, Christine. But you need not permit me. When we began this game, I never intended such things."

"Game…?" The shock hit me so brutally that I flinched and jerked in his hold, suddenly desperate to be free of his hold. "Game, Erik? …You truly believe that we are still playing a game? …That I am only pretending to love you? That all of this has been some sort of acted display?"

"Well, of course," he snapped matter of factly, and indulging my attempt to recoil, he lifted himself off of my shaking body and reached for his mask. "What else would it have been? I asked for a game of pretend, and you gave it to me. …And it was brilliant in its portrayal on your part. You very nearly had even my most rational of senses convinced that you truly wanted me, but I guess that when it is your future happiness hanging in the balance, you would venture to any extreme that you must…, even touching a monster."

I had curled into myself upon the couch's cushion, wrapping my arms protectively around my body as I watched him with wide, horrified eyes. "But you…you said you knew that I loved you and that you weren't going to let me leave with Raoul."

"The dramatic twist of plot," he insisted without waver. "Every decent opera must have a point of hopelessness and desperation before the final act. I sought to provide one for you."

"No, no," I was muttering, feeling the warm tears as they traveled down my cheeks. Everything I just believed to be true…, all a lie…. And it sickened me because I had done this. I had destroyed this man so completely, had trampled over his heart so thoroughly, and then on top of that, I had been the one to pose a game of pretend love. He was incapable of believing me, and it was all by my own doing.

"Christine," he called with a snap, his temper rising and tightening the line of his jaw, "whatever is wrong with you? You'll get your happy ending just as you wanted. I don't understand. This was initially your idea. To give me some supposedly happy memory to cling to when you are gone. Isn't that right? And this scene just now was my very fantasies brought to life." Shrugging off melancholy and replacing it with apathy, he retorted, "You've become such a wonderful little actress; your disgust was so well-hidden that I never even caught a glimpse of it."

I was sobbing by then, but what could I have argued with him anyway? Any word I said would have been considered a further part of the game I wasn't playing. Dear God, my heart was aching in my chest, and this time when courage tried to make me fight back, I succumbed to weakness instead. Staggering to my feet, I fled that room and never looked back, knowing one more look in those eyes would destroy me.

Worse than dreaming that one was a hollowed out shell was dreaming that one was unwanted in spite of baring heart and soul and practically having her future in her hands. It took me a long, horrific moment upon arising in my bed to realize that that hadn't been a dream at all. No, that was my reality.

Replaying the events over and over in a continuous loop in my brain seemed inevitable as if should I consider hard enough, I could find something, anything that would have convinced him that we were still playing a game. I had thought that he had understood that the game had been ridiculous, an excuse to lie to myself. And every act in between…, how could he have not seen my heart in my eyes and my love for him as prominently displayed as his? That was when I came to one decided revelation; I had given him his heart's desire by loving him in return, but Erik preferred the easier path of loving what he believed he could never have. It was less painful to let me go and suffer a broken heart than to love me and have to believe that I spoke true to love him back; that meant losing control in another game where he'd always been the one deciding every role.

I had no doubt in my conclusions, and I found myself obsessively pondering what I was going to do about it. I could let us both take our easier paths; I could leave with Raoul and grant Erik the future he'd believed he'd have, alone and suffering. Or I could attempt to put us upon the more difficult path where we attempted to love each other as best we could. The answer seemed obvious, but I knew the only way I could fix any of this was to find the courage I had been unable to hold onto; he deserved the truth and a woman who was convicted enough to follow its meandering turns.

Leaving my room in a haste, I sought out my Erik, and when I came upon him in the music room idly skimming through an opera score, I took the unnoticed moment to stare at him, to condition myself to the sheer power that was carried within the invisible aura always surrounding him, to gaze at that masked face and recall scars and how delightful they actually were to the touch.

Erik might have been aware of my presence all along because when he raised his eyes to me, all I saw was forced apathy. "Good morning. And what roles are we undertaking today so that I may know how to properly greet you? Will it be amicable companions or bitter enemies? I daresay that we've tired out lovers, don't you agree?"

I never bothered to answer; in four quick steps, I closed the distance between us, leaving him little choice but to ignore his music and face my approach, half in confusion. Good, I concluded; let him be confused; let him wonder at the suddenly strong girl before him; let him ponder her very existence.

I was resolute. Without pause, I caught that infernal mask in my hand, curving my fingertips along its shape and drew it away without protest save that continued stare of confounded bewilderment. Tossing the mask aside and reveling an instant in his true face, I eagerly grazed a caress to its odd contours before leaning on tiptoe and catching his rise of astonishment in an undeterred kiss. A kiss for the survival of my heart; that was how I saw it, and as such, I did not choose coy or demure. I followed passion's urging and poured desire into its construction. My tongue sought his, and my taste buds tingled deliciously with his taste, yearning to know only that flavor for the rest of eternity. Despite Erik's seemingly calm acquiescence to my fervent display, he imitated my motions, and I thrilled from head to toe, clutching his face between my desperate hands, cupping scars and cupping perfection as if they were equal halves. Deeper, deeper, how I ached to drown!

But so suddenly that I did not expect it, his hands caught each of my wrists and pried my touch away, drawing my rigid and struggling limbs behind me to pin them fixedly to the small of my back.

"No, don't," I whimpered urgently, trying only to kiss him again, but keeping my arms immobile, he forced me further from him with an abrupt pull.

"What has gotten into you?" he demanded curtly, but even if he wanted to seem unaffected by my forwardness, he could not force away the harsh hoarseness upon his voice as a tattling telltale for what he really felt.

"I love you," I admitted without hesitation, reveling in the power those three simple words possessed, and try as he might for detachment, I saw that fierce intensity of their combination strike him as well, chipping a dent into his iron shield of armor.

And so I used their might again. "I love you, Erik; I love you."

"Christine, …I conceded to play your game yesterday, no matter how bitterly cruel it actually was to imagine a love story with you; I have not the strength left to continue it for even another minute."

"No, this is not a game, Erik; this has never been a game. You know that, but you're afraid to believe it." I wanted my hands free, so sure that if I could touch him, I could assure him, but he never let loose, clasping tighter yet to my struggles. He wanted only words and only a truth I was suddenly eager to give him.

"Christine, if you are lying to me still-"

"No," I interrupted with a desperate shake of my head. "Erik, please just listen to me. …I haven't loved you the way I should have. I pushed you away, and I denied your heart even as it has always been so pure and transparent with what it has felt. I envy that; you've always been confident with what you've wanted. You offered me the most incredible love time and time again, and I shunned you and ran from you. I hurt you so much, but you loved me still." I couldn't tell if my admissions were having any effect; he was so determined to be guarded, only staring at me with the power of those eyes and a sense of emotionless self-protection.

"And what if I told you that I intended to take you back to the Vicomte this morning?" he demanded, studying me so intently for any response to merely the mention of Raoul. "That I was going to let you free entirely without consequence to have your ending, Christine? What will you say then? I pray you retract every word you just spoke; I will not hold you accountable. We can be on our way in minutes to the de Chagny estate, and I can give you your happiness."

"No," I declared without waver, "no, I will only tell you once again that I love you, and I will beg you not to make me leave you." There were flickers of hesitancy in accepting my honesty, and I had to make myself recall just how tortured his life had been to create such vibrant skepticism like another unfading scar. As a final desperate plea, I asked, "What can I do to prove that I love you?"

"Marry me," he declared back flatly, still looking for a crack in my countenance.

But I only nodded without pause, smiling with a wave of relief and replying, "Yes."

That visibly shook him and startled away any apathy he was encouraging, and when he finally let my answer register, he shook his head and intentionally pushed, "Today. Now, in fact."


"Marriage is binding, Christine," Erik continued to insist. "Permanent. You can't change your mind again when you suddenly come to realize who exactly you have committed yourself to."

"I know who I am committing myself to, and I have no doubts, Erik. I love you," I adamantly said. It felt so unfamiliar to be grinning after what had seemed to be so hopeless of a situation, but I couldn't keep its shape from my lips, practically beaming to almost be holding my heart's desire in my hands.

"And…and last night…," he stammered, seeking assertions that I readily gave with convicted nods.

"Last night was never a lie or a game. I loved you then just as I do now, and I meant every word I said. I want us to leave this place before Raoul ever comes; I never want to fear losing you. Please, Erik. That must convince you."

"I want so badly to believe you." The desperation was vivid across those mangled features, creating creases on an already tarnished surface. "And I wanted to believe you last night. My God, it was such a brilliant fantasy, wasn't it? Practically a fairytale brought to life…, but I learned long ago that I wasn't meant to know happiness, that I was cursed to suffer for my existence. And what worse torture is there than to believe you only to learn that it is a lie? I'd rather break my heart on my own terms."

"No, no, it's not a lie; it was never a lie." I was staring at him, bearing into his eyes, willing him to see that my gaze could be just as powerful and moving as his when my conviction was behind it. "I love you. And I'll marry you and bind you to me so that you must be mine forever. There is nothing I want more. And I won't be afraid to make my choice if you won't be afraid to accept it. Please, Erik…. Pushing me away from you will break my heart as well."

My hands were still captive in his, and drawing me forward slowly, tentatively by that hold, he brought my body to his, clutching me to him with questions always playing in his stare. Was this tolerable? Would I deny him? Was I doubting? And hesitant yet, he lowered that disfigured face toward mine as I tilted upward to meet him, eager when his kiss found me. I knew he still bore suspicions, but I also knew that no matter what it took, I would make each and every one vanish, one at a time, day by day, until he had no other choice than to believe that I spoke true.

That night he didn't have a nightmare because he slept in my arms. …And I held him to me and whispered of my love to his peaceful features, hoping that my words permeated into his dreams and blessed him with happy images of our forever.

Realism told me that it couldn't be the fantasy…yet, but someday when he realized that I wouldn't leave him ever again, when we were away from this place that had only seen tragedy and still bore idle threats in the background, that was when fantasy and reality would meet and entwine and give us a happy ending. As he slept on, I clutched him to me with hands that would never let go, and for the first time, I considered myself strong and finally where I belonged.