Hello, all! Here is a love story as promised since evidently, sad stories are traumatizing! :) This one is more musical oriented and is a variation that begins after the fall of the chandelier. Enjoy!

SUMMARY: After the chandelier's fall, Christine regrets her actions, and Erik regrets the consequences of his temper.

"The Unlikely Hero"

A black void existed like a cavernous hole in the very center of Christine's heart. She stared, lost behind lifeless blue eyes, her pretty exterior acting as only a shell for her tortured soul. Empty, …mercifully numb for a blissful respite to the true extent of a regret that would otherwise cut like a sharp knife.

Across from her, seated in the elaborate carriage bearing his family crest, Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, observed her with the sincerest of concerns. She had been the willing victim to this near comatose state ever since they had fled from the opera house desperately trying to escape a chandelier-dropping, disfigured madman. It amazed him that only an hour before she had been seeking safety in his arms begging him to take her away and protect her, terrified yet willing when he had kissed her and practically proposed marriage. The woman across from him was the very furthest thing from a grateful and elated bride-to-be. No, …if anything, she seemed completely brokenhearted.

With a dejected sigh, Raoul peered out the carriage window before hesitantly calling, "Christine, we are very nearly at my house…. I insist that you make yourself at home. Whatever you need will be at your disposal as my guest…." Guest…, it wasn't fiancée…. For the time being, he could not bring himself to attempt to utter the very word, almost certain that it would be unwelcome.

Christine's vacant eyes regarded him with a nod of her head, and yet her hollow expression did not reveal if she had comprehended a single word. Dear Lord, she seemed to be a million miles out of his grasp even as she sat only a foot away from him. The chasm between them had no path across it, and something inside told him that no matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to reach her again.

Arriving at the de Chagny mansion, Raoul relinquished her to a trusted maid with instructions Christine did not hear even as they were spoken right in front of her. Nothing made sense…. Nothing was real…. It couldn't be real….

Actions were a blur all around her, her own movements unconscious, and the next coherent moment she had was when finally left alone in her bedchamber. Somewhere in the unrealized haze of her arrival, a tub had been readied for her, and there she was seated in the warm cocoon of the water and piles of bubbles.

Her eyes focused on the sparkle of the candlelight dancing over the opalescent surface of every bubble. The simplicity of their natural tendency intrigued her addled mind for a brief instant. It was her own natural tendency that responded as her small fingers dared to touch the delicate treasures and caused them to pop and vanish, leaving nothing in their wake to qualify their existence. Almost accusingly, she stared at her damning fingers. Destructive…. She was destructive, wasn't she?

"No!" The tortured, desperate cry of an utterly anguished being resounded in her memory as pain returned to her numb heart with a bitter sharpness that took her breath away. It was far beyond a word torn from a beautiful voice in agony. It was agony; it was betrayal and loss; it was a complete denunciation of hope and life and a prayer for the release only death could bring.

Was it any wonder then that the regret and self-hatred Christine now felt in the warm embrace of her tub created mirroring prayers that fell as silent tears down her cheeks? That it seemed only the blissful haven of death could be a retreat from the viselike torment suffocating her?

Did she even deserve to know regret for her unthinking actions? She was the cause of the pain, of everyone's pain. And what sort of excuse could she give for herself? Did any exist? Fear…, yes, it was fear, always fear and perhaps a weakness in her very character. And then beneath all of that, wasn't there an unwarrantable wish for some sort of revenge…? She had wanted to cause pain in some small, unacknowledged way….

Her breath caught in a hiccupped sob in her chest. She deserved this pain and this emptiness, but Erik…. Dear God, what had she done?…

He had lied to her…. He was no angel, and according to the rest of the world, he was a murdering monster. And yet…had she ever considered him such? She knew what he was, and yet had never let herself believe it, …not until Joseph Buquet's body had fallen from the rafters mid-production tonight.

A chill racked Christine despite the water's heat. She knew why Erik had done it; it had been for her. Wasn't everything he ever did for her? For her career, for her wellbeing, …for her love…. And the world of morality was never an issue to stand in the way, and murder meant nothing more to him than manipulated coercion.

It had been on the wings of her fear for the man who had committed that crime, the one who surely could not be the same as her Erik, that she had sought something to cling to from Raoul. What foolishness! She had ignorantly led Raoul on, encouraged his very real feelings with no true intention of returning them. And he had kissed her, …and she had let him.

The tears were falling in currents as she imagined what Erik must have felt witnessing that scene. Sabotaging the chandelier could almost be considered justifiable by anyone who knew of Erik's passion and his very soul.

In her head came another memory, one of a hesitant, timid Erik who did everything in his power to avoid even brushing her hand with his, awkward in every endeavor he practiced concerning how to treat the woman he so often claimed to adore, always so desperate to please her at every turn. It would never be that way again; how could it be?

Succumbing to the hopeless misery gnawing her heart, she brought her knees to her chest, hugging them close as she cried. She yearned to enfold into herself and disappear from the world's prying eyes. They all looked upon her, judged her, told her how to feel and what to see, and she was constantly their victim. Had she ever tried to fight, tried to be anything more than their pretty porcelain doll? No, and yet again, she'd let them steer her to the acceptable path, the mundane, and broke her own heart in the process.

A little while later, Christine lay awake in the elegant canopy bed in the de Chagny mansion. No tears remained to be cried from her aching eyes, yet the pain within was as sharp and acute as any physical injury could bring. And yet physical injuries healed and left scars in their wake; she was not sure ones of the heart did the same.

The room was dark save for the streaks of moonlight coming through parted curtains. Odd that she could see every detail as well as she could in the day. It was the result of long hours spent below the earth's surface where natural light was only an unwelcome traitor. Yes, she saw…, and she saw quite well as her curtains parted with a sudden gust of the night's breeze, telling her that her balcony's door had been opened.

She did not move, did not rise from the bed or attempt to scurry away; perhaps she had known all along in the deepest recesses of her heart that he would come and had been anticipating his presence. She simply waited and watched with blue eyes that were afraid to hope.

He was angel, as always, and his mere aura stole her breath in the instant that he entered the room. So easily could he blend with the shadows, virtually a part of their existence already, but that stark white mask betrayed him. Didn't it always? As his mismatched eyes lighted on her small form cuddled beneath her blankets, the mask seemed to beam its own luminescent glow.

No words would form on her lips, no greeting, no apology, no endearment. What could be suitable in the face of the pain in his eyes? He allowed her to see it, allowed her to look deeply into his soul, and he only stared back, not daring to speak, never trying to approach. Tears she thought had dried up filled the corners of her gaze, making his image fuzzy until they found their predestined path down her cheeks. She was cold, so cold, even buried under thick blankets, shivering from the inside out.

Without thought, she slowly sat up, her long, dark curls falling in a cloud over her shoulders. As the blankets parted and fell, exposing her richly made nightdress, her arms came free and gracefully lifted toward him.

Erik had been so meticulously keeping his emotions in his control, but her unspoken invitation was his undoing. Then the walls broke within him in a great burst, crumbling their shoddy foundation and leaving raw aches behind. In the next breath, he was at her side, drawing her in like she was a little girl, stroking her silken curls with shaking hands and grasping her as close as he could.

Burrowing her cheek against the rough material of his suit jacket, Christine breathed him in, letting his scent fill her soul. Fists clenched in his cloak, holding tight, unwilling to have their necessary grip severed, and tilting her face to meet his tear-filled gaze, she whispered, "Take me away. Please, Erik, take me away with you."

His eyes seemed to flash with an acquiescence, and suddenly, she was weightless, wishing she could disappear within him as he cradled her in his arms in the same way that she had earlier wished to disappear into herself. To be lost from existence, but fading away into him was far preferred to vanishing into nothingness alone.

Her cheek was pressed to the continuous beat of his heart, marveling at its symphony even as her tears continued to fall in crystal contradiction. She gave only a fleeting thought to Raoul as they left the de Chagny grounds. She didn't love him; she never would, and even if he favored the illusion to a broken heart, he knew the truth.

Erik brought her back to the opera house, unburdened by her meager weight, relishing her warmth and nearness as he had never been able to before. He could almost forget the evening's events in their present situation…, almost, but every time he attempted to slip into the present with her, the pain and memories cruelly returned to torment him all the more, taunting his naïveté and reminding him that this was what he couldn't have. Even as he clung to her, she could never be his.

He did not bring her to his home as she presumed would be their final destination, but instead carried her into through vacant lobby and into the darkened, empty theatre; it was the very scene of a show that had been far more real than any production performed on the stage. The evidence of his passionate outburst littered the aisles with shards of glass while the remaining, broken frame of the great chandelier lay exactly where it had landed, on the stage floor inches from where Christine had been standing at the time of its tumultuous descent.

Erik knew his own regret burning away inside of him as he surveyed the scene again now. Had he intended to kill her with his actions? Or maybe in some twisted vein, had he only wanted to cause her an injury? Scar her perhaps as he himself was scarred? Make her undesirable to the handsome Vicomte and his vain society? The very idea seemed unbelievable and sickening to him now, but he could not say that earlier it wouldn't have been appealing.

Bringing her up onto the stage, he set her on her feet before the mangled golden shell that had once held so many brilliant flames and crystalline beads. Pieces of glass crunched and crumbled beneath her slippers, their agonizing sounds of destruction deafening in the empty theatre. They resonated and echoed as beautiful music had from the very same place.

Moving a fair distance away, his steps creating similar crushing sounds that became something of a duet with hers, Erik allowed his gaze to find her and absorb every detail. He began to speak, and his usually clear, beautiful voice held a roughness that betrayed the many tears he himself had been victim to. "You called me a monster tonight. That's what you told your precious Vicomte, …a murderer, a freak, a madman…. Here is your proof, I guess, …the very actions of a murdering monster, the tragic curtain fall of Act Three before the hero sweeps in to save the day…."

His expression contorted to a feral snarl as he growled bitterly, "Look upon it, Christine! Look and see how right you were! Look and see the death your angel brings! Understand that angel and monster are one and the same! For far too long, you have avoided seeing what has been right before your eyes. Now it is blatantly staring you in the face. This could very well have been your death scene tonight, ma chere, the sort that you would not arise from for curtain calls and extravagant curtsies. Your beautiful body could be lying in a twisted heap of bloodied limbs beneath the chandelier's frame. Are you imagining that as you look upon it now? Can you see it?"

Tears were rolling in shimmering streaks down her face, and squeezing her eyes shut in a desperate attempt to block out both him and the vision he was creating, she softly begged, "Stop."

"Why? I am only affirming your own words." Coming up behind her, he suddenly grasped her harshly by her upper arms, forcing her to face the damage and ordering, "Look at it, Christine!"

She could not refuse. Never had he handled her or spoken so brusquely, and for the first time, she knew a brief instant of fear. As her gaze took in first the tensed appearance of his taut fingers on her arms and then the destroyed chandelier, she could not contain a small sob from escaping her lips.

Leaning near to her ear, his breath tickled her sensitive skin and created unexpected ripples down her spine as he whispered, "I could have killed you tonight. You could be dead right now."

Erik stated it aloud as much for himself as for her. He needed to hear the words, needed to accept them as real, needed to realize the extent that he had allowed himself to act on his rage. His own sob choked the back of his throat as he gasped out, "You see, I am not the handsome prince in this story. I am the villain. It is a role I was born to play." His voice cracked as he considered the blatant truth to his claim.

Before he could stop himself and reign his emotions, his arms caught her around the waist and dragged her back firmly against his chest. Burrowing his masked face in the soft curls at the nape of her neck, he sobbed with shame, regret, and the bitterness of loss with its every gaping facet.

She is alive, she is alive, his mind insisted. She wasn't the lifeless corpse his imagination could vividly see under the chandelier. But she will never be yours….

Christine's arms came to rest atop his as his grief flowed into her. His every sob racked her frame as if it was her own, her tears unceasing until she was certain that she must be sobbing with him. This was a shared grief, a shared lament, and yet she could feel that there was so much more in the desperate way that he clung to her as if terrified to let go, something that ran far deeper.

For a long time, neither of them spoke, even after the tears subsided and the intensity dulled back into respectively named emotions. Erik gently nuzzled his face deeper into her cloud of hair until the curls parted to the smooth column of her neck, his tears wetting her skin with the contact.

Christine closed her eyes to the shiver that assaulted her as she contemplated the contrast from his chilled cheek and his masked one. It disturbed her that she was desperately yearning for the mask to be gone, to feel his disfigurement against the sensitive skin at the back of her neck. The thought of it alone made her knees weak beneath her weight until it was only his fixed hold keeping her upright.

Lost to the intoxication of the moment and her very nearness, Erik dared to tilt his head enough to press a gentle, timid kiss to the nape of her neck, surprised at her immediate shudder to such a contact. To think that she could be so disgusted by any inch of him…. With a rush of hopeless melancholy, he began to draw back and released the viselike grip he had on her.

She almost cried out her disappointment. Was it strange to feel as he pulled away as if she herself was being split apart into two separate yet incomplete halves?

Slowly, she lifted her anguished eyes and faced him, cringing at the pain in his desolate stare.

"You were right to run from me," he told her, his voice flat and devoid of the true emotion she could see in him. As his hand came forward to idly stroke one twisted limb of the chandelier, he insisted with conviction, "I will only destroy you…. One would have thought that I would have learned long ago that I am not meant to have pretty things…. I would have no concept how to take care of them without tarnishing their perfection." Shaking his head, he remarked with such detachment that she knew he was only pretending not to feel. "Music is beautiful; it is the only beauty I am meant to know because it cannot be touched, cannot be hurt, cannot be destroyed. In the end, it will always be all that is left…. You should know that better than anyone else. When the villain is finally dead, there is always music…, celebration, …a happy ending…."

Christine's brow was furrowed under the weight of his pain. "You are not the villain, Erik," she whispered tearfully.

"There is already a hero in your story, Christine." He was so matter-of-fact, as if he was stating something she should already know herself. "What role does that leave for me?"

"Don't speak to me of roles in opera stories," she replied adamantly.

He gave no acknowledgement to her words as he continued, "Villain is the best fit for me…. Cruel, unmerciful, …ugly…. Those are all the traits of a perfect villain. Don't you see that, Christine?"

Frantically shaking her head, Christine retorted, "Life is not a story made up of the set roles that you are casting us in. It is not good and evil thrown into categories of white and black; it is a myriad of shades of grey."

"Is it? Or are you just too naïve to see? Perhaps blinded by longing and emotions that have no real validity beneath their saccharine exteriors."

Christine shifted uncomfortably, tucking a loose curl behind her ear with trembling fingers. "What…what do you mean?"

A wisp of a laugh escaped him as he shook his head. "Further proof of my monstrosity. You already know what I mean, Christine. I am a liar and deceiver, and whatever you have come to feel for me is equally as false. It was all under the pretext of manipulation on my part. You don't see how truly and purely evil I am because under the guise of your beloved Angel, I made you feel something for me…, not love but not the fear and hatred you should know. Your heart holds flimsy little ties to my own, and even though they are slowly fraying and snapping, they are clouding your better judgment."

Her brow furrowed, her eyes suddenly glowing with an intensity he was unfamiliar with seeing. "You make me sound a fool; I am no fool, Erik. Albeit I have been devoid of knowledge I should have had to make my heart's decisions, but I have some amount of sense and intuition. I am not subject to flights of whimsical emotion that steal my rational thoughts. From the moment I heard your voice, before I even knew that you were a man and not an angel, I sensed your soul, and then when I did learn the truth, I saw your heart. You wear it so prominently displayed on your sleeve whenever we are together. The man that you so claim I have heartstrings tied to is not the Opera Ghost or the Angel. He is Erik, the mortal man, scarred and damaged but most assuredly not the villain in my story."

Erik could not even look at her, unwilling to dare allow himself to believe her words. "I am a monster, Christine. Let us leave it at that. Believe in what you told the Vicomte and nothing else, and you will save everyone an exorbitant, agonizing heartache."

That heart she knew so well was as fragile as the broken chandelier at her feet. It dangled as it always did just out of her reach; if she but attempted to raise herself up on tiptoe and grab hold of it, it could be hers. Never before had she dared, always only admiring and perhaps yearning in her subconscious heart of hearts, but this time she was terrified that if she didn't try, she would never get the chance again.

Her voice a soft whisper, it still managed to resonate in the acoustically brilliant room and pierce straightway into him. "In some way, you are right. You are the phantom; I know the many crimes on your head; I have witnessed half a dozen in my time here alone. And yet I chose to forget about them and ignore their existence when I was with you. But was that truly wrong and a failure on the part of my better judgment? When in doing so, I was granted the vision of all the shades of you? And fear was never a wall between us and our hearts? If I had chosen from the beginning to only see your past and your crimes and not your soul, how could I have ever learned to love the man?"

A flash of passing tears gathered in the corners of his mismatched eyes as they met hers with a sudden burst of accusation. "And yet you ran to the Vicomte tonight. You betrayed me and our indefinable relationship with your words. The names don't matter; I have been called far worse in my miserable lifetime; but to run to him and into his arms? To indulge his deluded hopes of love? To allow his kisses?"

Christine tried to stand her ground despite her instinct to fall back. "We both have committed seemingly unforgivable acts this evening, wouldn't you agree?" As tears threatened to overwhelm, she lowered her eyes; she couldn't bear for him to see and think her weak at this moment when she needed to be strong for them both. Moonlight peeked in from the windows above their heads and sparkled upon fragmented glass, melding into one beaming glow through the veil of her tears. "I was afraid of you for the first time tonight, and I sought safety in the comfort of a childhood companion. It wasn't out of love or even affection; it was a way to further avoid the truth. I realized tonight that to love you, I have to accept every side of you, even the ones I would rather forget when we are together. …The violence and rage inside of you terrify me."

Any shred of control he still had deserted him with her words, and his features, half-concealed by the mask's presence, cringed with the desperate pain that shot through him. "I would never hurt you," he sobbed, drawing her tearful gaze from the floor. "Oh God, Christine, but I almost did tonight. …If I had ever thought you could love me…, if I had even had one hope of that,…. But I thought so sure that I had lost you to the Vicomte…." His voice caught in another sob as he choked out, "And now I have lost my chance, …I've lost you…."

The harsh coldness of reality with its every bitter trapping hit him like a punch to the gut, and under its brutal strike, he crumbled to his knees on the glass-coated floor. Shards punctured through material and cut into skin, but their biting stings were not acknowledged; they were like caresses compared to the pain in his heart.

Within a breath, Christine was at his side, but as she immediately began to crouch, he caught her in a tight grip and attempted to keep her upright. "No, no," he insisted, easily defeating her with his strength, "you'll hurt yourself! Don't!"

Her eyes took in the glass beneath her feet. Grasping his hands, she futilely tried to get him to rise with her. "Erik, then you must stand up. Did you cut yourself?"

"It doesn't matter." He was gazing at her, hardly aware that he was still crying.

Christine was still pulling at his hands, though she knew that her will alone would not budge him. "Erik, please come away from here. Let us go home. It is useless to stay in this scene full of regrets; it is masochism. Please come away from here with me."

He hesitated before giving a dull nod and allowing her to help him to his feet. Not a word escaped his lips as he hid the tumult of emotion she had just seen behind a determined façade, and moving only with her guidance, he walked amongst the shattering glass off the stage.

The journey to the underground lair was silent. She searched for anything to say but feared she had no way to set things right. And what did that mean for her heart? Would pain be all it was meant to endure?

Erik hardly granted her even a glance as they arrived at his home. Apathy radiated from his weary body and a decisive avoidance to feel anything else. He trudged with weighty footfalls through the door and to the soft couch facing a flaming hearth and without a word, sat numbly before its warmth. His head felt heavy, and almost on its own accord, it rested in his hands, hung low and lost.

Christine was hesitant to follow him in. He didn't regard her presence anymore, his heart once again beyond her reach and this time much further than it had ever been. As her slippers made barely a whisper, she came to join him, creeping ever so timid.

With flustered eyes, she surveyed his defeated appearance and slowly slid to the floor at his feet, studying the damage left in the wake of his actions. Little tears were scattered over his pants across his knees and down his shins, and the dark stains on what remained of the material hinted at the wounds beneath. Without pause, her fingers deftly closed over the hem at his ankle and attempted to draw the torn fabric upward.

"What…?" Erik stammered, lifting his head to meet her worried gaze. He immediately jerked away but not before she was granted a glimpse of bloodied cuts beneath.

"Erik, you're hurt. Let me help you." A flush of relief swept through her to have a task to tend to. Rising, she instructed even as she was hurrying from the room. "You need to take off those pants; they're covered in bits of glass. I am going to get a wet cloth."

He watched her go, but made no move to comply with her commands. Oh, what did it matter anyway? He deserved far worse.

When she returned, washcloth in hand, she only shook her head and took her previous place, kneeling at his feet. She knew that she had not the physical strength nor the disregard for the boundaries of modesty to strip his pants on her own, and she guessed that he knew it as well and considered he had won this unattested battle of obstinacy. Well, there was more than one way to get what she wanted, and with only a small huff of annoyance to betray her, she carefully began to pry up the material again on her own.

"Leave it be," he insisted in a cold tone, though this time he did not pull away as she uncovered the bloodied, white flesh of one calf.

"No, I won't," she insisted right back. "You may think nothing of it, but you are bleeding from your unconsidered actions."

The situation never occurred to her to seem awkward as she inspected when propriety would have called it an indiscretion. But she was too distracted surveying injuries to care. Some were fairly deep gashes while others were simple grazings, and the stark vividness of the red blood against the paleness of his skin made her cringe with an echo of his pain.

"God, Erik, what did you do to yourself?" she muttered as she gently bathed one of the gashes with her cloth. "This is probably going to hurt."

He gave a nonchalant shrug and watched her with an aloof stare as she began her task without hesitation. It took a long time to treat one leg and then the other, and as she worked, she pretended she was a nurse for a stranger, not her Erik, preferring to handle him with precision over compassion. Dear Lord, if she had only one thought of whose deep gash she was extracting a particularly large chunk of glass from, of whose blood covered her fingers, she would be in tears for his suffering.

Only once did she dare glance up at him and to her surprise, she found him staring at her intently, granting not a single glimpse of any pain, as if he was playing along with her detachment; it was not his leg, not his cuts.

Finally, the last was treated to her satisfaction, and she sat back on her heels and let her eyes take in that injured flesh. And for the first time, they were Erik's calves before her, his pant legs rolled up above his knees.

Before she could know the looming shyness within herself, she leaned forward to press a delicate kiss to one particularly angry gash at his knee.

Erik jumped with an abrupt start that racked his frame. His eyes were desperately on her as if by stare alone, he could will her to meet his gaze and show him why she had committed such a seeming transgression, but she never once looked up, only hesitantly lowered her head until her temple was resting gently against his knee.

In a hushed tone, she revealed, "Sometimes I wish I could hate you. It would make things so much easier if our world was like an opera story, good and evil, white and black. Then I would know how to feel."

Erik listened and watched as the firelight created strawberry strands among her dark curls. He had never noticed such a thing before; likely he would have if he had glimpsed her bathed in the sun's glow, but he had never been afforded that luxury. His fingertips tingled with the urge to touch such silk.

Lost in thoughts, she gave a frustrated sigh, speaking so candidly only because she was staring intently at the intricate patterns on the carpet and not into the penetrating abysses in mismatched eyes. "I should want to embrace the life Raoul is offering me with eager and open arms; any other girl would be only too ecstatic to accept his love, his wealth, his title. It is far more than I could ever deserve…. Yet why is it then that every time I am with him, all I want is to be with you?…"

Her whisper echoed in the silence that extended between them as he fought to understand before he dared let his heart leap. As his hand shook, he brought it to one of her red-hued curls, capturing it between his fingers and letting it form its natural shape around his knuckle as if it was ensnaring him in a hold that was far less delicate than it was capable. Daring to weave the curl further in his grasp, he gently tugged as he went until she had to raise her head under such an urging. His free hand caught a curl on the opposite side and mimicked motion until he was drawing her in and making her meet his stare.

Christine held his mismatched eyes and was immediately as trapped by them as by the hands in her hair. Only half under her own will, she followed the lead of his subtle pull until she was gently being drawn onto his lap. The ferocity of his stare never softened not even as she came to be only inches from it with her body curled atop his. Never had she been near to him in such an intimate manner. It drew her attention for the briefest breath to the curve of his bottom lip beneath the mask's encompassing barrier.

Finally with her captive in his grasp, he huskily told her, "I am not a patient man, Christine. I have a temper the likes of which you cannot fathom, but always, always I have kept it in my control. The sins I commit have always been calculated, never on whim…until tonight. To watch that milk-sod Vicomte hold you and kiss you as I have ached to, as I have only dared to dream of…. I abandoned my sanity in those moments. I wanted to wring his perfect neck, destroy his flawless face, whatever it would take to rid him from our lives…. And I hated you, hated you as much as I love you. I could only think to cause you as much pain as you had caused me. I was so sure that any chance I could ever have had was gone…." His eyes flashed with a depth of emotion that took her breath away. "My God, Christine, I am terrified that if I lost you, I would lose myself as well. You are my sanity."

"You are my soul," she replied without hesitation, forcing back the wall that her cowardice threatened to build. For far too long, she had been victim to its power, avoiding the very situation she was now in, and at what cost to them both.

Erik was shaking his head, his hands unconsciously tightening to fists within her curls. "Christine, I beg you not to say such things. You are breaking my heart. It will kill me to remember this…, your words, your eyes, the very feel of you so close to me,…when you are at the Vicomte's side."

"No, no," she insisted desperately. "I won't go back…. I won't. Erik, please."

There was such inconsolable sadness in him, laced with his longing. His fingers completed their journey out of her curls so that his hands could cup her face. With the lightest of touches, he traced the curves of her lips with his thumb. "If only the world was different…. I have never wanted anything as I want you, but it isn't meant to be, Christine. I have deceived you and confused you for far too long, and in some way, you know that. When I am gone, you will realize it fully, and you will know that by my own sacrifice, I have made the right choice for you."

"Erik, no," she pleaded softly, tears rimming her sorrowful eyes. "Don't, please don't."

"I have to; you know I do, and you know why. My heart will always lie with yours; my soul has been yours since before I was even aware of your presence in the world, but you are destined for far greater things than this ravaged face and this overwhelming darkness. If you stay with me, it will be the product of lies. You will learn to hate me and resent our life together…. I couldn't bear that." Slowly, he drew his hands away, his fingers curling into his palms. "And after tonight, I cannot take a chance of what I could do to you. It terrifies me to realize how easy it was to wish you harm, to act on such irrationality without conscience…. You know, I've never cared enough about anyone or anything to know any inkling of regret for my actions, and consequences were never a consideration. But now…. I will not make you a casualty of my temper."

"You have very little faith in either of us if that is your fear," she retorted, shaking her head.

"It is warranted, Christine. Trust that to me your welfare is far more important than my own desire."

Her tears formed shimmering paths down her cheeks as she whispered one final protest, "But you love me."

He sighed a confirmation. "How could I not?… But you aren't meant to be mine."

"Erik," she attempted, but he silenced her.

"Sshh." Gentle in every endeavor as if terrified that a touch too sure would shatter her, he drew her in until she was resting her cheek against his shoulder, his hand moving to idly stroke her loose curls. In his ethereal tone, he began to hum a sweet lullaby, the golden notes wrapping her in their embrace until she knew only warmth and safety.

It was a trick, another manipulation that he so unthinkingly played, lulling her to a sweet state of sleep with the power of his voice. She had so often called it angelic and beautiful, further proof of her naïveté. Did she realize what he did with it? Did she know how persuasive one note alone from his cords was? It only convinced him further that he was doing the right thing.

Consciousness evaded her as she took a deep inhalation and let his scent intoxicate her further, the constant thud of his heart like a metronome in her ear, …the heart he had so adamantly claimed was hers. That was her last coherent thought before she entered her dreams.

The harsh glare of the sun returned awareness, stealing the delicious bliss that had been hers in the world of dreams. Squinting against its bright power, Christine waited for her eyes to adjust before surveying her surroundings with a bitter wave of disappointment. She was back in her bed at the Vicomte's mansion as if she had never left for any secret midnight rendezvous, as if it had all been a product of a vivid subconscious intent on seeking an end to her story…. Perhaps it was…. It had contained a surreal quality, hadn't it? Blurred at the edges like a dream. Perhaps she had not left the mansion at all. Perhaps only her soul in dream state had returned to its proper home, seeking its lost other half. Perhaps the lingering memory of the way it had felt to be held in Erik's arms was only the result of a longing so great that it was consuming her. It had to be…or else why would Erik ever let her return?

A soft rapping at her door returned her mind to the present and reality as her hesitant lips bid, "Come in."

Her expectant heart fell with a dull weight when her visitor was revealed to be Raoul. The Vicomte, fully dressed and as always impeccably groomed, smiled warmly as he came to her bedside as if the past evening's events and fleeing the opera ghost's murderous intent had never occurred.

"Good, you are awake," he said as without hesitation, he very comfortably tucked a haphazard curl behind her ear, making her resist the urge to shy away. "I hadn't wanted to wake you, but I was growing impatient." A sheepish grin lit his lips. "And maybe a part of me still couldn't believe you were actually under the same roof. I half expected to come in and find an empty bed as if I only imagined the entire thing, …our kiss, our engagement. I suppose it is always so when one finally gets what one wanted after dreaming it for so long."

Dream…. Christine felt a queer chill down her spine, but forced her own smile. "No, not a dream, Raoul."

"And thank heaven for that. Now that you are awake, I thought perhaps we could go out for breakfast and celebrate our engagement."

Deep lines of worry creased her brow. "I asked you last night to keep this secret for the time being."

"Of course," he replied, catching her hand in his. "And we will celebrate it in secret as well. Just you and I and the finest breakfast Paris has to offer. You cannot refuse that."

The change in his demeanor from the previous night amazed and confused her. She had been so sure that he had given up, but perhaps as she herself had acted with Erik, Raoul was choosing to be blind to anything that destroyed the illusion he wanted.

"All right," she replied, studying the vision of her hand in his. How she didn't want to cause any more pain! "Let me dress, and we will go."

Raoul lifted her hand to his lips for a quick kiss to her knuckles before taking his leave. When he was gone, she moved to rise from the bed, and as her blankets fell back, a sharp gasp fell from her lips.

There it was, her proof that she had not been dreaming. Blood left a few smears on her nightdress, dried to brown and starkly vivid against the white material…, not her blood, Erik's blood. With the vision of it, a shudder raced her spine, bringing a rush of memories and yearning as her insides seemed to cry out his name. And to her dismay, she had to keep the emotions at bay. They could not be indulged at the present, not with her fiancé awaiting her. Soon, Erik, soon….

It took every ounce of her feminine wiles of persuasion to convince Raoul that she must return to her usual rehearsals at the opera house. If she had loved him, she would have found his concern and overprotective nature endearing, but when her soul was so desperate to be with Erik again, Raoul's every utterance was a nuisance and source of aggravation.

Arriving at the theatre, she found that the chandelier and its remnants had been cleaned up and taken away as people bustled about back to their jobs as if nothing unordinary had ever happened.

That was how things were to go on in the next days and weeks, without mention of Erik and his actions. It was quite an easy method of dealing with the situation as the resident opera ghost gave no hint that he even existed any longer. Christine was the only one who was affected by his absence. It was a harsh sting to her heart, but Erik made no effort to approach her. She didn't even feel his eyes on her anymore, watching her as he always had before. She was utterly alone, and her soul felt lost.

A month drifted by, each day like a blur as Christine seemed not to live them anymore. Opera house life was back to normal, and the management was preparing to dedicate their very new, very expensive chandelier at the company's annual Masquerade Ball at the week's end. It was something hopeful, healing the scars Erik's existence had left behind. Christine's excited anticipation for the event was fake and exaggerated, but as usual, Raoul did not notice and believed it real. Dear Raoul, searching for anything to believe.

The night before the ball, Christine was asleep in her bed at the de Chagny mansion when her curtains silently billowed and parted with a whisper of silk fabric. Without the sound of even one footfall, Erik entered the moonlit room and sought out her shape with sad eyes.

How long it had been; how torturously long! It had been a matter of a willpower he hadn't known he possessed. For a month of endless days and nights, he had successfully avoided the aching of his soul, burying himself in his home and his music, existing on the music's passion alone, thriving and surviving but not living. How could it be living when half of his soul was gone so far beyond his grasp? It had only been as the notes had ceased that the true extent of his loneliness had overcome him and had drawn him to her once again.

Dear God, why wasn't he stronger? Why wasn't he able to let her go as he knew in his right mind he had to? Why was the simple thought of her with the Vicomte suffocating him with jealousy and a possessiveness that bordered insanity?

His eyes found the graceful line of her throat and the curve of her cheek above the lace edge of her covers, and he sucked in a breath between clenched teeth. Every pore of his body screamed to touch her, and hardly with a will of his own, he glided to her bedside, his eyes caressing as his hands burned to.

Was she always so beautiful, or had he forgotten, dulled the memory of her beauty in his mind to keep her loss less poignant? Her lashes formed dark crescents against her creamy cheeks, and he had a flash of the endless blue depths that they shielded behind them, of the expression they had given him upon their last meeting. As his gaze traveled to the loose curtain of dark curls fanned out on her pillow, his fingers dared to entwine among their softness, immediately recalling the texture with his every cell.

The hint of a smile was on his lips. He felt suddenly regenerated as though his soul had fused with hers in that moment and brought him back to life. It amazed him to realize how dead he had truly been.

Erik's gaze came to rest on the sweet strawberry shape of her pink lips, and without a second thought, he slowly leaned toward them, acting on pure necessity, his breath ceasing in his lungs until his lips at last met hers.

Christine was dreaming of Erik, her temporary atonement to her broken soul. Awareness began to return with the delicious sensation of his kiss, his lips retaining the slight chill every bit of his body possessed as they gently moved over her warm ones. She was kissing him back before she was even fully awake, bliss radiating like a healing light through her. She knew him and his kiss, and when she felt the gentle brushing of his mask as it grazed her nose, she nearly cried with relieved happiness.

He was going to pull away from her; she knew it before he even tried, and without hesitation, her arms untangled from the covers and came around him, hugging him while her fingers clenched so tightly in the material of his suit jacket.

Erik was surprised by her eagerness, his kisses quickly going from gentle to passionate, coaxing her to follow and overwhelmed with desire when she did. His arms came around her, gathering her closer and closer yet, his hands sliding beneath the covers to press flush to the small of her back. His tongue parted her lips to slip inside and taste her, a moan in his throat at her sweetness. He couldn't believe this was real; he couldn't, fearing he would awaken and find it to be a dream of what he'd never have. But no, it had to be real; she was too warm, too soft to be only a figment of his desolate soul.

Drawing his lips away from hers, he held his breath and waited for her to regard him as her blue eyes fluttered open. Would she scream or shudder with terror, be disappointed to see him? Had a month apart shown her that the Vicomte was the desire of her heart?

But the radiant smile that made every one of her features glow vibrant caused every trepidation to vanish. "Oh God," she breathed with a quiver in her voice, "you're real. You're here."

"I shouldn't be." Even as he spoke, his hands caught and tangled in her curls. "Every sense in my head tells me to stay away from you."

"And your heart?" she pushed urgently.

"It tells me never to let you go."

She closed the distance between their mouths and found his lips and his hungry kiss, arching her body toward his with the desperate need to be closer. She yearned to melt and be completely lost into him so that they could never be parted again. Her fingertips threaded in the thin dark hair at the nape of his neck as her palm cupped the hard curve of his mask, reminding herself in her mind's eye what lay beneath. The image on the wings of memory caused her to tremble with the overwhelming need to feel the various textures and shapes of those scars, to assure herself that this was her Erik kissing her and not another dream of his image.

Erik was so enthralled by everything that was her in that moment that he knew he would not refuse if she dared strip his mask away. He could practically read the impulse in her touch. He almost wanted her to act on it and thereby steal away one of the final barriers between them and prove that they were meant to be together. His hands created wayward paths through her hair, down her cheek, along the line of her throat, skimming the neckline of her nightdress; they acted as an unspoken urging to act.

It was just as her fingers found the corner of the mask and fitted over it that a sharp knock resounded through the room.

"Christine," came the Vicomte's voice on the opposite side, "may I come in?"

Without a word, Erik drew back off the bed, out of her reach, his eyes alone retaining contact as she read the same sad disappointment and longing she herself felt.

"Please," she whispered desperately, but before she could beg him not to leave as she ached to, he disappeared behind her blowing curtains, becoming only a silhouette and then nothing at all.

"Christine," Raoul called again, this time more impatiently.

"C…come in," she replied, her voice shaking with the chill that had overtaken her body.

The Vicomte de Chagny practically burst into the room, making two long strides to her bedside as she modestly rearranged the covers around herself, her skin still tingling everywhere Erik had been touching her. He wore his own nightclothes, his disheveled appearance betraying that he had recently been asleep.

"Raoul, what is it?" she demanded with a hint of annoyance.

"Are you all right?" His hands cupped her face, his eyes searching hers, and she knew an irrational fear that perhaps he could read what he had interrupted in her mind.

"Y…yes, of course," she stammered, drawing out of his hold and lowering her guilt-ridden eyes. "Why? What happened?"

Raoul was already walking about her room, peering into corners as if searching for something…, someone. "I was awakened by one of the night guards on the estate. He claims to have seen a shadow on your balcony."

A cold fear formed goosebumps on her skin as she forced an incredulous stare. "A shadow? That is ridiculous. Raoul, you can't believe such a thing. Most likely, he was half-asleep at his post and created such an illusion."

Raoul cast her a quick glance but did not cease his endeavors of drawing back her curtains to inspect her balcony. "Yes, that was my thought as well, but with all of your previous drama not long past, I didn't want to take any chances, especially when your welfare is my primary concern."

Her annoyance at his invasion became guilt. How could she begrudge his sweet protectiveness even if it was misplaced? Poor Raoul, she knew she would break his heart.

"Any shadows?" she prompted, though she knew with fair certainty that Erik was gone.

"No," the Vicomte replied, drawing her balcony doors closed and locking them in place. "You shouldn't leave these open at night. I wouldn't want you to take a chill."

Christine knew his concerns were for far more than chills and colds, but she simply nodded with a small smile. "Of course. And now that you have seen to my safety, I must insist that you go back to bed."

With nodded agreement, Raoul returned to her side and placed a kiss on her forehead. "I believe I shall. I will say, though, that I am much more at peace with you under my roof rather than the opera dormitories. I feel you can be kept much safer here. Once we are married, I feel I will need to worry even less."

She nodded, avoiding any sort of reply. It was wrong to continue fueling his hopeless dreams of their happy ending when her heart only sobbed at the very idea.

One more kiss to her brow, and Raoul left her alone to her thoughts. As soon as the door clicked shut, she was on her feet, hurrying to open the balcony doors again. Her mind told her surely Erik was gone, but her heart begged her to give him a way back in lest he return.

For the remainder of the night, she lay awake gazing at the billowing curtains, searching their shape for his silhouette, but he did not come again.

Crowds of masked people flooded the opera house's annual Masquerade Ball, talking, laughing, dancing, and in playing the role of one of them, Christine was flawless. No one, especially not the Vicomte, could see that she was actually there in body alone, her mind busily searching the masked faces for one in particular. He would be there; he had to be.

Raoul left her side for the first time that evening to greet his fellow patrons, and grateful for the moment to let her façade crack, she scurried through the vast number of people, seeking a quiet corner. Before she could escape the throng, her attention was drawn to the great staircase. It felt like such a necessary act, and as her eyes lighted on the upper landing, she saw why. Her heart leapt, thudding with deafening beats against her chest, her entire frame suddenly light of its weight.

His eyes, those brilliantly mismatched orbs, bore into only her, their expression vividly clear despite the concealing mask of Red Death he wore. He wanted her, and the power behind it stole her breath away.

"Erik," his name fell in a whisper from her lips, and as if he heard her, he suddenly took a step back and allowed himself to be swallowed in the crowds.

"No," she softly muttered as her legs were already guiding her toward the staircase in pursuit. Her eyes were scanning faces with sheer desperation, and she nudged between people.

Just as she reached the bottom stair, her hand closing over the cold wood of the railing, someone caught her arm and drew her a step back.

"Christine," Raoul called worriedly at her distraction, "where are you going?"

"Let me go." She pulled free of his hold, and yet while her soul screamed to go after Erik, she had to deny it and faced Raoul hesitantly.

"Christine, tell me what's wrong."

Perhaps he could see the secrets her eyes shone, see that there was somewhere else she yearned to be because he took a step away, his brow knitting.

"He's here, isn't he?" the Vicomte asked.

"I'm sorry," she replied softly, her eyes casting furtive, impatient glances up the stairs at the crowded landing.

Raoul nodded numbly and yet still protested, "But he is a murdering monster; you said so yourself."

"And I love him in spite of it," she revealed honestly.

Tears glimmered in the Vicomte's eyes. "I could make you happy," he attempted one last time.

"You could, but my heart will always belong to him." Compassion for the boy who had stolen her girlhood fancies a lifetime ago, but her heart was in control and insisted that she would have to discount his broken heart if she wanted to keep her own intact. "Raoul, I'm sorry, but I must go."

He didn't reply, only backed away into the consuming throng, falling behind a malaise of masks. Christine could not dwell on his loss; she had to go and was off on shaking knees up the stairs.

Erik was gone; part of her had known he would be. But, oh, where would he go? She pushed a path through bodies, hurrying between brightly colored skirts out of the theatre and down one long corridor where only a handful of ball-goers had congregated, talking and laughing without the music to hinder them. Christine was only half aware of their presence, her mind reeling with desperation. Her slippers brushed the hard wooden floors as she made her way past and into the vacant, darkened corridor that followed.

Here the ball was a dream. Music filtered in like a lullaby, the muffled voices of people like static in the background. Anyone else would hesitate, so far from the semblance of safety remaining in crowds offered, but Christine relished the quiet aloneness and the dark that was quickly stealing away any bit of residual light from that other world outside.

She could think of only one place Erik would go. There was an entrance to his hidden passageways through a small room that subsequently led up to the rafters. It had always seemed interesting to her that the room was a conduit up above the world and deep below it at the same time. Of course, Christine had only entered Erik's world with him as guide and had little idea how to open the passageway herself. She only had the hope that she would reach him before he disappeared back to the shadows again.

Moving like a phantom herself, Christine silently hurried down one more hallway to the small room at the end, peering inside with all of her hopes anticipating. Everything was wood, wood planks for all of the walls and the floor beneath as if the room had never been finished. In front of her was the ladder leading up and behind that was the open doorway to Erik's world and his caped form slipping inside.

"Erik!" she cried before he could be out of earshot, and with a start, he flipped around, his surprise a welcome delight to her.

She smiled with a strange nervousness fluttering in her heart. She had not contemplated what she would say when she was actually with him, intent only on finding him, and now hesitant, she shifted in her place while her eyes took in the image of him. Dear Lord, he was so close at last!

Erik looked less willing to hope than she, his face setting into stern, apathetic lines beneath his mask. "Christine, what are you doing here? You should be dancing with the Vicomte, laughing and flirting as girls your age do. You should definitely not be chasing shadows in your pretty gown."

"If you are so keen to escape to the shadows yourself, then why did you come tonight?" she demanded, her hopes suspended in midair between them. His reaction was unexpected; she had been sure he would be happy and open his arms in welcome.

"At present, I don't know," he replied, shaking his head. "Perhaps I believed that I would see you and that you would be so out of place amongst that pretty world, it would convince me further that you were meant to be with me."

"And you are not convinced?" Her heart stopped in its constant beat.

"How can I be? When you are so beautiful, so exquisitely made?" Tears created a thin sheen across his mismatched eyes. "You belong there on the arm of the noble Vicomte de Chagny, the envy of every woman, the desire of every man. Just the vision of you among the crowds…. It was like a light was shining on you alone, an internal glow that makes you luminescent. It draws all eyes to you…. How can I selfishly steal you away and claim you as my own?"

"And so, as usual," she interrupted and finished with a hint of annoyance, "you are making the decision for me, and it matters naught what my heart wants and needs, only what you feel I deserve."

Erik was taken aback by her tone, his temper flaring as he argued in retaliation, "I am trying to do the right thing and what's best for you. Do you think it is easy for me, that I want this separation from you? It is killing me. That is why I stayed away from you, in hopes that it would stop hurting as much, and that you would see that though I made a sacrifice, it was not in vain. It was for you."

"If this was your selfless sacrifice, then why did you return? Why didn't you stay away for good?"

Acting on his impulse, he suddenly strode toward her until he stood only inches away. For a moment, he paused to appreciate her elegant beauty in her masquerade finery, hiding a tremble and retaining his dominant air. "Because it was agony. Because it felt as if I was dead inside, …empty and lost. Because without you, my life isn't worth living anymore. How quickly you became my very purpose to breathe! Without you, if I had never seen you, I would have let myself rot away underground without caring. It wouldn't have mattered because I would have never known what I was lacking. I would have died believing life was only pain and torment, nothing more. Even if you could have never loved me in return, just learning what it feels like to love at all is more than I could have ever dreamed of."

Christine yearned to reach out and touch him, to stroke her fingertips over his brow and soothe the lifelong torment that left such evidence there, but she kept still, waiting, needing him to assure her that her dream was real. "Life is far more than loving someone you believe you can never have. When love is returned, it is far sweeter."

"A pity then that I shall never know it."

Closing her eyes, she shook her head miserably. "Erik, stop please. You are making it sound as if you are going to leave me again. Is that your intention? To rip my heart in two a second time?"

"What choices are mine?" he snapped bitterly. "You belong to that other world, Christine, the one I can never be a part of. I have nothing to offer you but darkness and ugliness, a face that is not meant to be loved. I have told you once before, your Vicomte is your hero, and I am the villain, here only to destroy what is pure and beautiful."

"And you are so sure that I am the heroine in this tale. Perhaps I am not. What heroine would crave the darkness far more than the light? And would want to lose herself to the villain completely and entwine together so intricately that no one or nothing could separate them again? Perhaps I am just as much of a villain and just as dark as you are. My only flaw is that on the outside, I appear to be a part of that other world. If you would look past my own face and look at my heart, you'd see exactly where I belong."

Erik was hesitant to believe, shaking his head with the remnants of his resolve. "No, Christine, you are mistaken. You are so beautiful-"

"Beauty, ugliness," she interrupted, extending a hand for each point. "Neither of them reveal the heart and soul within. It is hypocritical of you, who places so much emphasis on his physical faults, to punish me for my lack of them. You do not want to be judged by your face, and yet you judge me by mine."

"I feel I have all the right!" he suddenly roared, his jaw clenched with the power of the rage welling within him. "How dare you trivialize what I have spent a lifetime being persecuted for?"

"I am not!" she argued with equaled fervor. "I am only trying to make you see that it doesn't matter."

"Doesn't matter," he repeated in a hiss, and before he could control his impulse, he yanked the Red Death mask from his face and put his deformity on display to her wide eyes. "Go on, Christine. Look at this face, these scars, and tell me it doesn't matter. You are so heart-set on the argument that we belong together. Well, look upon what you are choosing. You cowered from it once before and called it a monstrosity to your perfect Vicomte. It hasn't changed; it hasn't transformed to anything less vile than it ever was. Look at it, and tell me that one as flawlessly formed as yourself belongs with such an abomination."

Christine had almost averted her eyes when he had pulled the mask away, purely on instinct, a memory of the last time she had seen his face still so fresh on the surface of her mind. But she made herself look at it, regard and survey it fully in a way that she hadn't been able to do before due to the striking venom of his temper.

Her blue eyes broke the intense hold his mismatched gaze had on them and trailed over the scars revealed to her. She took in the extent of the damage, the sunken eye socket, the sallow, barely fleshed cheek, the vacant space where a nose should have been, the peculiar twist of his upper lip. And then she gazed at the unscarred portion of his face, the always unhidden side that cruelly teased at how handsome he could have been if Fate had not cursed him. One side perfect, one side malformed, and yet together as one face, they made Erik. That was what she saw, gazing silently at him. She saw only Erik, angel, phantom, and yet love just the same.

The smile that curved the corners of her lips was as much out of a sense of self-satisfaction as anything else. "Erik," she called, "that is what I see when I look upon you, only my Erik, my beloved."

Erik nearly staggered on his feet with the surprise that hit him. "W…what?"

Far superior to word was action, she concluded, especially where Erik was concerned, and taking a small step toward him to close the gap between, she raised a tentative hand to his scars, never once faltering in the gaze they shared. Her fingers, enclosed in silk gloves, made contact with that mangled flesh, trailing the length of his indented cheek and then back upward to circle his deep-set green eye. The color of that eye was so vibrant, such a deep emerald shade, that she had always found herself overcome by its beauty. It was such a pity that its loveliness did not have a more perfect casing.

Erik stared at her, holding the breath he had taken in his lungs till they burned with the need for release. Never had he anticipated her actions, sure that she would only shy away, perhaps attempt to hide the true revulsion she felt. But this Christine before him was not disgusted or taken aback; she was stronger than he had ever imagined she could be.

To his disappointment, she suddenly drew her hand away as he repressed the urge to moan the loss of her touch. But as if she could read his wanting, she explained as she reached for the cuff of her glove, "These gloves are hindering me from touching you as I so want to. I want to feel your skin."

Anticipation coiled with impatience in her until that obtrusive material was removed, and her bare fingers sought his cheek once again. The first brush of her skin to his made him shudder hard down the length of his spine, and though she felt it, it did not deter her actions as she followed the path her gloved hand had taken, sucking in a breath at the foreign texture of his flesh. It was smoother than she would have thought and more silken. In some places, it was sharp, where bone was so near the surface. The very tips of her fingers grazed the open recesses from which he breathed so like the nasal cavities of a corpse, and she could feel his harsh intake of a trembling breath as if he was reminding her that though he looked a corpse, he was alive. Her finger drifted lower to the swollen form of his upper lip. Her memory of the kisses they had shared the night before held no consideration of such an abnormality. It had never crossed her mind, and even as she gazed upon it now, she was too engrossed in the idea of kissing him again to feel disgusted. Disgust seemed trite, and being disgusted by what was nothing more than different from the horde of humanity was ignorant and vain.

"Erik," she whispered, breaking into the low symphony their breathing had created in the vacant room. "I…I am aching to kiss you…. May I?"

She had torn her gaze from his mouth to meet his, and he was surprised at the amorous glow he glimpsed. All he could manage for a reply was a slight nod of his head, his heart a frantic beat.

Silly that she felt a wave of shyness, her entire being shivering with anticipation as she inched nearer and nearer until with one last tremulous glance in his awaiting eyes, she met his misshapen mouth with her kiss.

A sigh escaped him at such bliss. He had not allowed himself any fantasy of this turn of events, preferring to imagine only a broken heart so as not to incite the affliction known as hope. It took a long moment to convince himself that the soft lips pressed so gently to his were not a dream. She was in control, and as her mouth moved in a sweet motion laden with such innocence, he responded with equaled tenderness, mimicking and holding back the swelling passion in his veins.

Christine's bare hand caressed his deformity while her gloved one slipped into his thin hair, cupping the crown of his head. She knew he was allowing her the reins, and it was a new, strangely pleasant concept. Acting on the desire growing within her, she edged close enough to press her body flush to his, drawn to his chill as one would be drawn to a flame. It was an oddity that her own body's heat seemed to bring his to life because within moments, he was burning with feverish heat.

Drawing her lips back, she kept her face so near and told him in a breathless whisper, "Conventional beauty is subjective. Just because you do not have the same features as any other man does not mean that you are not beautiful, even more so because your beauty is rare and unique. That makes me far luckier than any of those ladies dancing with vicomtes downstairs because I have the most extraordinary of men kissing me."

He was silent for a long moment, turning her words over and over in his mind. Then leaning forward so that he could press his forehead against hers, he replied, "I am unaccustomed to any sort of compliments in regard to this face."

She grinned, encircling his neck with her arms. "Well then I shall fill your ears with only words of love and devotion and so many words that declare your true beauty, and soon enough I will make you forget every awful insult you have had to endure until none of this matters anymore, and we are just a man and a woman in love."

His heart was warmed and overcome with the idea, and he felt his misshapen lips curve into a smile. "I doubt we will ever be only an ordinary man and woman."

"No, not only. We are far more special than that," she agreed with a light flutter in her voice at the rush of happiness within her. Had anything ever felt so right? Than to be this close to the other half of her soul with only pleasantries and sweetness being exchanged between them?

A brief shadow marred the glow of his eyes. "Then you are determined to give up that other world to be with me?"

She guessed that hesitance would always exist within him no matter how hard she tried, but she only grinned patiently and answered, "Giving it up for something far better. You cannot begrudge me that when you yourself have insisted that you want only the best for me. This is where I'm meant to be."

Dear Lord, could he believe her? Did he dare? Closing his eyes for an instant, he inhaled the delicious scent of her, wishing he could suffocate in it. "And all it took was for me nearly to drop a chandelier on your head for you to see it."

She giggled, a bubbling sound that fascinated him as he opened his eyes again to regard her. "I've never heard you joke before," she told him with a lingering smile.

"Yes, well, I can be quite funny; I've recently had little reason to exercise that quality. A lifetime or so ago in Persia, the shah used to lighten tense situations by asking for my commentary as if I were the court jester. He enjoyed my sarcasm."

Christine stared at him in revelry, drawing back to listen intently. "I know only scant bits of your life before we met."

"That's because my life did not begin till we met." Reaching out one hand, he delicately trailed her hairline before following the curve of her cheek. It was still so new to him to act on the impulses of his heart rather than hold them back. "But if you would like, I will tell you of it; I will tell you everything no matter how dark and bleak it was because with you here right now, it must have been only a nightmare but necessary to lead me to this point."

"And the nightmare is over," she said with a smile. "And the dream begins."

Reflecting her smile, Erik gazed at her as if he could never bear to lose her again and replied, "Yes, the dream." His voice dropped to a whisper as he breathed, "I love you, ma reve."

"And I love you, mon ame."

Erik had no other words as he captured her lips with his, repeating in a mind that desperately fought to accept this foreign happiness that this was only the beginning….