Hope is such a masochistic emotion. Realism calls its existence futile, but it thrives on and tortures with its concocted hint of optimism. It didn't seem to care that the only woman I'd ever loved had abandoned me with another man. It kept alive with this persistent flicker in the background of every heart-wrenching tear I shed even as I desperately sought to extinguish its cruel fantasy. She wasn't coming back; I insisted it over and over again to myself, and yet infuriating hope recalled a kiss and idle touches and tears. Hope kept me in an awful state of suspension between living and falling completely apart and teased me with the hushed assurance that she must return.

I don't know how much time I spent lost to a state of emotional hypnosis: hours, maybe a day, long enough for my insides to remain thankfully numb and stagnant, dulled to details in a way that wouldn't last. If only it would…. Pain awaited me at the end of its tunnel, and I was loath to feel it.

At some point, I slept, taking up residence in her abandoned room, refusing to consider that she'd never have it again as hers. No, no, not yet. Sleep was a reprieve, and dreams were their own fabricated version of torture when they could only be of her. My beautiful Christine…. I dreamt of her…, of her face, her eyes, her voice. I heard her speak the words I'd spent a lifetime denied in my inner ear.

"Erik…," her sweet voice whispered, lingering on those simple syllables of my name. "…I love you."

How cruel was a dream world! How unfair and bitterly constructed! It showed me the very things I longed for, tempted and teased me with possessing them; it put her within my grasp when in reality, she was already only a memory. But in a dream, I believed, and I felt her there with me, her warmth and softness, her breath grazing my unmasked face with her subtle approach. I dreamt that she dared to kiss my face as if it was ordinary…. Could any more vicious lie exist? Even in the midst of subconscious, I could not fully accept it; nobody, not even my Christine, would have dared kiss my deformity, and it was that very realization that returned truth. No, no, Christine won't kiss me because she is gone….

I was doomed to awaken alone; I knew that before full awareness was mine. But…her warmth, her nearness, her soft body barely pressed to mine, those things did not abandon me as hastily as I had presumed they would. My eyes were yet closed, refusing to open and glimpse the empty space of mattress beside me, but my senses were muddled and off their equilibrium. …My love…. I could feel her….

Not even a peek, and I extended my fingers to the mirage in my brain, picturing her shape behind my lids, etching it to such perfection that hope could thrive on its contours. And when my fingertips struck solid matter, soft, silken flesh, a terrified cry ripped from my lungs. "Haunted," I gasped, still refusing a single look. "And is this all I'm meant to have of her? Her ghost to haunt me until eternity? It won't be enough! I will get greedy and take more. …A ghost…, maybe in death I'll have what life would never allow."

"Erik…." It was that beautiful voice again in a reprieve from the angels, and I had no doubt at that moment that I had died, that a broken heart had suffocated the life out of me, and I knew no regret if death meant a fantasy of my very own living angel. "Open your eyes." She spoke the very command that I was terrified to consider obeying. Open my eyes and destroy illusion and subsequently, the lingering remnants of hope's sweet taste.

"No," I decided firmly. "I'd rather be ignorant than finally suffer for my foolishness and its sins. I want to live in the dream a little longer."

"Dream…," her voice bid so tenderly, and I would not look, even as my head tormented me with the vision of the gentlest of smiles on her beautiful lips. Yes, …if this was a dream, she would be smiling. I didn't move, didn't breathe, but I felt. And what I felt were two small hands, cupping my face so tentatively between their warm palms, holding each of my cheeks as if they were equals.

"No," I whimpered from the gaping wound that thrived unhealed in my soul. "No, …don't be a dream…. Oh God, please be real."

I wanted to speak more coated words, more begging, more pleading, anything to breathe life into her, but my chances were stolen as warm lips touched mine. Dear Lord, this felt as real as I'd yearned for it to be! Familiar! Desired! My mouth recognized hers as its perfect mate. She was my only kiss after all, and to my touch-deprived body, she meant kiss and caress and love at its essence! She was the embodiment of every emotion and sensation I knew! It was an amazement to me in its permanence. Kiss could only mean kiss with Christine, and love could only mean love if it was for her. Christine! This was Christine!

My hands caught her frame then, finding shoulders and arms where they were supposed to be, tracing her collarbone upward to her throat, molding its column. Christine! I had barely ever touched her, and yet I knew from so many times of envisioning it that this was how she would feel! She was perfection!

Her lips were innocently moving against mine, drawing the passion that she wanted out of me, and when I conceded and mimicked her motions even daring to further this condemnation by letting the tip of my tongue emerge to barely graze her velvety lips, she urgently scooted nearer to my body. Real! Oh God, she was real! Only then did I dare open my eyes and gaze at her, her own lids closed to gentle arches and crescent lashes with our intimate act. She lay upon the bed with me, half-stretched out and half-modestly still curled into herself, but as I dared to repeat my action and this time allow my tongue between the willing seam of her mouth, modesty seemed to dwindle as she again edged close, unfurling timid limbs until she could match my pose and fit herself to my shape. It was some sort of blessing I didn't deserve, that mere movement by itself because of what it meant, and yielding lips parted and permitted my exploration and let me taste her! Oh God, how I yearned to drown in the intoxication of her!

…Not yet. It was a reluctant groan that escaped separating mouths and told my disappointment even though I had been the one to end our kiss. And as her blue eyes fluttered open and regarded me with such uncertainty, I was undoubting why I had had to do it.

"You were gone," I accused in an empty phrase, yet succumbing to the suspension I had been victim to all night. "I let you go, and you were as real then as you are now."

"No," she replied softly. "You let go of a child who was playing a role, always playing a role. She wasn't real and neither was the man posing ultimatums and laying ridiculous choices at my feet. We were acting our parts with each other and hurting each other without consideration until it was too late. We would have carried on in their guises forever and destroyed ourselves with our hearts."

"Guises? My guise was the double-cast role of your prince charming. Foolish and presumptuous when truly I have been unworthy of that title all along," I attempted to snap, but temper couldn't seem to spark into flames with her so close and not scurrying away when she should have been. "I scripted our fairytale, Christine, to exact detail, every hardship and twist that would lead to love and happy endings. In my head, I saw it carried out to perfection like the well-tailored libretto to an opera. I was so certain in plot and casting and…," I shrugged and would not meet her eye with rising shame, "and characterization, the duets and heartfelt arias that would reveal the inner workings of the heart. …I cannot expect your understanding; I have lived my life with a gullible heart when love is its attempted emotion; it knows no better than to dream and to hope." Shaking my head sadly, I dared, "And cruelly, it hopes on despite every argument of better judgment. It taunts me with the vision of you spread beside me, your palm yet against my face. It concludes a why that doesn't exist. So I pose it to you; tell me why, Christine. Why are you here? Why are you touching me as if I have any right to be your lover? This is not our ending."

"You love me," she stated with only the slightest waver and the tinge of pink upon her cheeks. "You said that you love me, and you were so certain that I loved you, too."

"And…do you, Christine?" I questioned with hope singing in my veins. "I won't conclude it again for you. Our lives are not the sugarcoated destiny of fairytale characters."

"And why may I not choose to believe in fiction over reality? I did once. I believed in an angel without doubt, and I loved him unconditionally."

"He did not exist. An angel…, and I am a murderer and a monster instead." It was fact, blatant and cold; I refused to continue denying what I was; I couldn't outrun it if I tried.

"A monster who let me go rather than force his chosen destiny upon my shoulders," she posed back. "I have been unable to contemplate anything else since you released me. You gave up everything, every detail you'd envisioned and hope you had; you sacrificed your heart for mine, …only you never knew that you were breaking it instead."

I could endure no more. So far, beneath hope's interference, I had been yet half-certain that every nuance of this scene was a sort of drawn-out goodbye, a means to leave me alone without the guilt a good girl like Christine would have known for it. Breaking her heart…. My hand made a slow path from where it had been loitering at her jaw down to press firm to the thudding of that supposedly damaged organ. "And what does this heart say, Christine? Whose name is whispered in its echoes?"

She was ever patient with me, her eyes so calm and deep that I wanted to fall into them and drown, and smiling so slightly, she covered my hand with her own, fitting her palm to my knuckles and clasping it in place. "Your name, ange," she answered avidly. "Only ever yours. My Erik, my angel."

My eyes widened with the possibilities suddenly seeming to be offered to me. Without hesitation, I caught her hand and dragged it with mine to press it to my own beating heart. "And my heart is screaming your name, Christine, in its every beat. You, only ever you. Please tell me that that is acceptable and wanted!"

And I waited with a mixture of impatience and hope, with longing so intense that it created tears in my eyes, tears from a heart that ached to be hers.

"Yes, Erik, wanted and cherished."

"Love, Christine?" I pushed without consideration. "Is it love? In spite of what I am and what I've done? …In spite of my face?"

Her free hand suddenly found my cheek again, her fingers trailing scars that disgusted me with their existence. She learned their every oddity with a tenderness that made my tears fall faster. "You are not an angel," she softly told me, "or a monster or a ghost. Erik, you are a man who deserves love as much as everyone else does. …And I have loved you and the story you created for me since the very first day. …It's always been our fairytale, Erik."

A fairytale…. And I was determined it would be just that. No longer the tragedy it had seemed at its culmination. This could be my happy ending; it was exactly my dreams brought into existence and blended so irrevocably into reality that it had to seem as blissful as fantasy.

Most of humanity cannot believe in the magical context of a fairytale world. I myself should have been a pessimist to such saccharine ideals and surely must have seemed a fool to put faith in their destined finish. But love has taught me that life is what one wishes it to be. I wanted a fairytale, and I treated my life and my future with Christine like those same fairytale stories and my vision of them. I shouldn't have been so fortunate to have such a gift, not after a past that could only be condemned, but I was blessed. In spite of it all, I wasn't forgotten and as unwanted to the world as I had always believed. Trauma had begotten trauma through every hardship; I had been tortured and retaliated the same without consideration to consequence. I deserve no pity or justification, but I was not a villain, not the devil as I'd been called. I was just a creature longing for love and acceptance like every other member of the human race. And I was reminded as I felt Christine's warm body curled against mine while she slept that a hero did not have to be handsome or righteous or perfectly designed; he just had to be loved to be worthy. And I…I was indeed loved.