Nadir walked quickly down the narrow cobblestones of the Rue Scribe, stopping only to glance behind and ensure that he was still alone. The little street was empty and Nadir advanced his pace, rushed forward. Night was falling fast but it wasn’t dark yet as he approached the gate, key in hand. Moments later he was inside, descending through the tunnel on the dark road heading down from the street. The grade was steep and Nadir was careful to watch his step. Finally he reached the end of the road and found himself on the bank of a silent black lake. Here Nadir stopped to wait.
There was no movement on the water, no lights. Nadir could hear no sound from above, nothing to give away that he was standing in the fifth cellar of Paris’s famous Opéra Populaire. This was another world from the one above. Another world entirely.
Nadir paced slowly along the edge of the lake. There was no sign of the boat, but it meant nothing. He had other means of entry and exit, Nadir was sure of that. He must be coming by another route today.
Nadir nearly lost his life the first time he arrived at this lake to find that boat tied at the shore. He knew who it must belong to and exactly what the discovery must mean. Nadir was close. He’d been searching for weeks. He entered the boat without hesitation, pushed away from the shore, used the pole to begin guiding himself to the other side.
He’d heard legends of sirens luring sailors to their deaths on the sea, their voices too beautiful and the sailors unable to resist their pull. Legends didn’t prepare Nadir for the song that he encountered on the lake far below the opera. The very water sang to him, beckoning him toward the edge of the small boat. Nadir found himself obeying, blind to everything but the desire to get closer to that music.
Erik had nearly killed him that day. Nearly drowned him in these waters. It was a miracle that he recognized Nadir in time. Back on shore, agitated and upset, Erik raged at Nadir even as he checked Nadir thoroughly and announced Nadir unharmed. He claimed that he hadn’t been aiming to kill Nadir at all, merely incapacitate, but Erik was clearly shaken by the encounter, perhaps more so than Nadir himself.
It was then, both of them soaking wet and Nadir shivering, that Erik proposed these weekly meetings.
“It seems it’s the only way to ensure that you don’t end up accidentally dead,” Erik reasoned as he entrusted Nadir with a key to the gate on the Rue Scribe.
Now, five weeks later, Nadir checked his watch. Erik was late again. It was a test, Nadir thought. It was a test to see how long Nadir was willing to wait. Each week Erik arrived just a little later, took his time, let Nadir sweat. He left the boat at the other side on purpose, wanted Nadir to question whether he would come at all.
Nadir wrapped his cloak tightly around himself and huffed a little into the dark. If Erik didn’t show, would Nadir keep his word? Would he go straight to the authorities, call in the Paris Sûreté? Surely not for one week’s absence. But what if Erik didn’t show for a month? Two?
Nadir had been so sure following the death of the scene shifter, Buquet. He’d been so sure that he could just hand Erik over, hunt him down, if that was what needed to be done.
Things had changed.
It was an easy threat with the distance that twenty-five years can bring. But now that they were spending this time together, now that Nadir had Erik back in his life, he felt far less sure.
There was a soft sound behind him and Nadir turned to find Erik standing there.
Erik tilted his head in greeting. “Daroga.”
“I’m going to buy you a new pocket watch,” Nadir grumbled. Nadir stopped his pacing when Erik didn’t come back with a sarcastic retort, when instead he just stood there and sadly regarded Nadir. “What is it?”
“I keep hoping,” Erik said as he began walking, resuming Nadir’s slow pace along the lake, “that one day you won’t be here when I arrive.”
“My company is that disagreeable?” Nadir asked, falling into step beside Erik.
“No,” Erik said. “But mine is.”
“I’ve always enjoyed your company,” Nadir shrugged.
Erik shook his head and turned away at the perceived lie.
“I’ve come to enjoy your company,” Nadir offered in correction. Truth be told, it didn’t take long at all. A few weeks, maybe, in the very beginning.
“Tragic,” Erik concluded with disdain.
“I don’t think so,” Nadir countered.
“Well,” Erik sighed as he prepared to change the subject. He turned back toward Nadir, his cloak fanning out around him for a moment, then falling to his sides. “Here’s something you can add to your black book. You’ll be happy to know that it has been an exceedingly uninteresting week since last we spoke.”
“Has it?” Nadir asked, as though he was completely uninformed. He knew already, of course. He had heard scarcely a word regarding the ghost at the Opera all week and had therefore concluded that Erik was laying low.
“No petty blackmail, thefts, or frightening of innocent chorus girls,” Erik confirmed dryly.
“I’m glad to hear it,“ Nadir said.
Erik shrugged, nodded.
“How do you spend your time down here?” Nadir asked. “What do you do all alone in these caverns?”
Erik was quiet long enough that Nadir was convinced that Erik wouldn’t grant him an answer. It was, however, a fair question. After all, just last week Nadir had told Erik of the years he’d spent in Paris prior to their encounter a few months ago, of Collette, the English woman that he’d met on the Bois, of the casual affair they’d been having ever since.
“I’m writing an opera,” Erik said after the lengthy pause.
Nadir stopped walking, reached out to pause Erik with a hand on his arm. He wasn’t sure of the sincerity of the statement, but when Erik turned to look at him, confused by Nadir’s touch, Nadir saw no mockery in Erik’s gaze.
“That’s wonderful,” Nadir said and meant it. He felt relief flood through his stomach at the news. He’d been so disappointed when he’d worked out Erik’s presence at the Opera. Erik could have been so many things. The greatest architect, healer, magician. The greatest musician. He could have done so much and what had he chosen?
He’d chosen to become a ghost.
But an opera. An opera written and composed by Erik would truly be an amazing thing, something the world would never forget.
“Wonderful,” Nadir said again, his voice trailing off.
“Yes,” Erik agreed. He was staring at Nadir’s hand where it lingered on his arm and Nadir let it drop away. “It must be very reassuring news for you.”
“I worry about you, Erik,” Nadir defended.
“And I worry about you, Daroga.”
Nadir shook his head, looked around at their surroundings. What had happened in the years after Erik left Persia to drive him so far underground? What had happened that caused Erik to shut Nadir from his life?
“You still play the violin then?” Nadir asked.
“A violin with strings crafted from human tendon,” Erik said. And then without waiting for Nadir‘s horrified response, he waved a hand in graceful dismissal of his joke and said, “The piano, yes. And a pipe organ. I‘ve always been fond of the pipe organ.”
“Oh?” Nadir asked. “Pipe organs were never common in Persia. I’d love to see this organ.”
“I’m sure that you would.” Erik laughed at the inevitable turn their conversation had taken. “I promise you that I’m not hiding a dungeon of tortured prisoners from you. I’m not conducting experiments on your fellow men, Nadir. It’s merely an apartment. A place to live undisturbed. Nothing more.”
“Then why shut me out?”
Erik stared at him for a long moment before he looked away.
“How many times have you slept under my roof?” Nadir pressed. “You‘ve been an integral part of my life for nearly thirty years. I owe you my life and you owe me yours.”
Erik winced at Nadir’s words, but he recovered quickly, his posture stiff and straight. The air between them was saturated with memories now. A bathtub of blood. Reza’s laughter, a scorpion, and a Mazanderan jail.
“I have to go,” Erik said.
“You can’t shut me out forever,” Nadir insisted.
Erik shrugged. “I can try.”
He walked off into the darkness, leaving Nadir alone once more on the banks of the underground lake.
Nadir often feared, that first year in prison, that the shah might discover that the body found on the shore of the Caspian was too short to be Erik, that the bone structure was too wide, the teeth all wrong. He feared that word would return to court, that Erik would be spotted somewhere else in the world. He dreamt of the khanum’s outrage and awoke still feeling the heat of the torture chamber, sure that it could be the only punishment fitting of Erik’s escape.
Nadir was lucky. No one ever questioned the corpse found with Erik’s mask. Nadir did not know where Erik went having escaped Persia, but wherever it was, he kept a blessedly low profile.
Nadir was released after five years. He’d aged fifteen, but he was free to go, free to live, yes. Anywhere but Persia.
“Where will we go?” Darius had asked, the faithful servant still, as they set out with the few belongings that Nadir was allowed to keep.
“I’d like to see France,” Nadir said after a moment, and Darius merely nodded, unsurprised.
They took their time getting to Paris. They spent time in Anatolia and finally Nadir began to hear stories. He heard talk of the mysterious consultant to the prior sultan who no one had ever seen, for he wore a mask that covered the whole of his face. It shocked Nadir that Erik would have lingered in Constantinople, within earshot of Persia, exactly where the shah feared he would end up. Nadir realized then how close he really had been to the torture chamber those five years.
They traveled through Germany and Belgium, and then finally Nadir arrived in Paris shortly after the Commune.
Paris agreed with Nadir. The French that Erik had taught him while sitting around his apartment on warm Persian nights was rusty by the time that Nadir arrived in the city, but it was enough to get by.
The truth was that everything in Paris reminded Nadir of Erik. The accents, the architecture, the manners. Nadir settled in, he planted roots. He began to see a woman, Collette. She was blue eyed with blonde hair, so different from the women of Persia, yet there was something about her that reminded Nadir of his late wife, Rookheeya.
And Nadir attended the opera. Of all the places in Paris it was the opera that conjured Erik most clearly for Nadir, and it was the opera that he returned to again and again.
If he’d only known. If he’d only known then that he’d been headed straight for the torture chamber all along.
Nadir watched as a thousand reflections of the Vicomte de Chagny slowly lost their sanity. He listened as Erik shouted and raged at Christine Daaé on the other side of the mirrored walls. Erik was going to kill them all, Nadir thought. He was finally going to kill them all.
It seemed fitting that he should die down here with Erik. So much of their lives had been intertwined, and Erik had already come so close to being the death of Nadir on more than one occasion over the years. The scorpion, the prison, the lake, and the torture chamber.
There was a door in this chamber. A door that led to the next room where Erik had finally snapped, had finally allowed someone to break him. Nadir was sure there was a door and he shouted to Chagny, told him to search for a lever, a weak spot no larger than a fingertip. The Vicomte’s response was of the forest, the trees that surrounded him and the heat. He wouldn’t last long. He hadn’t known what to expect.
“Just like the dressing room mirror,” Nadir insisted. “Like the stone in the third cellar.”
Chagny moaned in return. He was past reasoning and so Nadir began to search his side of the chamber, methodically checking the walls, protected here from the heat.
He wasn’t sure if Erik actually planned to kill him. Why make him wait here? Why make him watch Chagny suffer? No, Erik couldn’t kill Nadir. Not yet. But if he killed Christine Daaé first…
But it made sense that the release would be on this side of the chamber. It made sense that Erik would have placed the doorway in an area of the chamber that could be blocked from those inside. If Nadir could just get through, he could reason with Erik. He could talk him down.
Everything went quiet on the other side of the wall.
It could only mean one thing. He’d killed her, Nadir knew. He’d finally done it.
“Christine!” the Vicomte screamed from where he lay on the floor of the chamber, clearly coming to the same awful conclusion. Chagny’s voice was hoarse, raw from the heat. It came out now in a rough sob and it hurt Nadir just to hear it.
They both fell silent after that. The Vicomte closed his eyes and after a moment Nadir did the same, couldn’t bear to watch any longer. He’d seen so many people die this way, he couldn’t watch Chagny succumb as well.
His eyes were still shut when he heard a mechanism shift and felt the rush of heat on his face as the partition separating him from Chagny was drawn back.
This was it then. Erik would kill him after all.
Nadir took a deep breath and then stumbled to Chagny’s side. He brushed the damp hair from the boy’s forehead. Chagny hardly moved at the touch. He’d lost everything. It wouldn’t be long before he remembered the iron limb of the tree, the Punjab lasso that lay untouched on the floor of the chamber. It wouldn’t be long before he decided to join Christine Daaé.
Nadir found new resolve then. He’d locate the switch to the door. He’d get them out of here. Nadir couldn’t count on a change of heart, not anymore. He couldn’t count on a return to sanity.
Erik might already be dead.
Nadir stood and stared into the endless forest, at his reflection multiplied a thousand times. He would start at the wall beside the iron tree. It was the only way to get his bearings. Nadir made his way there. He groped along the mirror with his hands until finally he touched on the solid trunk.
And then, just as Nadir was about to begin his fruitless search, the lights shut off with a loud snap and a door behind him slid open.
Nadir followed Erik from the room, stood stunned as Erik shut the door behind them and stumbled toward a chair.
“Erik,” Nadir said. He reached out to help, but Erik managed to sit down without Nadir’s assistance and waved Nadir away.
Nadir stepped back and looked around the room. There were two large chairs, a fireplace, a fine piano. Nadir wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Of course, the coffin in the adjoining room had been a bit much, but it was hardly surprising when one was as familiar with Erik’s sense of humor as Nadir was.
Nadir removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow. The room felt cool, almost clammy, after the heat.
“So this is what you’ve been keeping from me then?” Nadir said after a moment. He thought it best to focus on the mundane.
“You expected a Palace of Echoes?” Erik asked from the chair.
“This opera house is another Palace of Echoes,” Nadir pointed out. These last months had confirmed that time and again.
“Yes,” Erik agreed.
Nadir surveyed the drawing room once more, the cozy though slightly morbid domesticity of it all.
“I don’t know what I expected,” he admitted. “The torture chamber was a surprise.”
“It shouldn’t have been,” Erik said.
“I suppose not,” Nadir agreed. He’d recognized Erik’s hand after all, he’d recognized it right away with the death of Joseph Buquet. He should have guessed then -
There was a noise in the other room.
“Should I see them out?” Nadir asked and gestured toward the door.
Erik gripped the arms of his chair and turned away.
“She knows the way,” he said.
Nadir nodded. He understood then why they were here. Erik couldn’t bear to watch Chagny take her away. And of course, Christine Daaé knew this place better than Nadir. She had spent time here, weeks alone with Erik. After a moment, Erik sighed and regarded Nadir once more.
“I would prepare the tea,” Erik said. “But I’m not sure I can stand at the moment. And I’d rather not try as I’m not sure what I might do if I find that I can.”
Nadir looked around then and located a samovar on a table against the wall. He occupied himself with the familiar tasks as he listened to the muffled sounds of the Vicomte de Chagny coaxing his prize out of Erik’s home. Mademoiselle Daaé’s voice was too quiet for Nadir’s ears to pick up. Or perhaps she was too stunned by the whole ordeal to speak at all.
Together Nadir and Erik listened as their voices moved farther from the drawing room door until finally they could not be heard at all.
Nadir moved away from the door, sat in the chair opposite Erik. He found himself thinking of Reza suddenly, of laughter ringing through the rooms of his home in Persia, of death and loss, and of Erik at his side.
Eventually Nadir remembered the tea and he stood, returned to the samovar, prepared two cups. He set his on a table and then moved to hand the second cup to Erik. Erik looked up at him for the first time since Chagny and Christine Daaé had departed. He reached for the cup that Nadir held out for him and as his long fingers touched the saucer he started and pulled away as though burnt, his hand flying instead to his face.
“Why didn’t you say?” Erik asked.
“What?” Nadir stilled the cup of tea, stared down into it as he steadied it on the small plate.
“I’m not wearing my mask.”
Nadir looked up. Of course it wasn’t a new sight to Nadir, though it had been many years since he’d last seen it. It wasn’t a face that was easily forgotten, after all.
He’d started when he’d emerged from the chamber to find Erik standing there, unmasked. It had been so long since he’d been confronted with that face, though he’d dreamed of it often over the years. Nadir saw them, how they stood together. Erik’s mask was on the floor and Christine Daaé was staring up at him, her hand raised as though to touch. Chagny moaned behind him, his voice filled with despair and Nadir turned to help him up from the floor, steadied him as they returned to Erik and Christine. He felt Chagny go stiff against him at the sight.
“It doesn’t matter,” Nadir said now.
“Your eye sight is failing you?” Erik asked, concern entering his voice. There it was. Reza again. A Persian breeze and a child’s clapping.
Nadir shook his head. “No.”
“Then it matters,” Erik concluded.
“Not to me,” Nadir began to protest. Not now. The absence of the mask was the least important detail of the evening. The mask didn’t matter, but Erik waved Nadir away and stood. He paused before the door, paused to steel himself, and then he opened it and stepped through. Nadir set down his tea and followed.
Erik stood in the center of the empty room. He took in the broken organ stool, the discarded wedding veil, the open door that led to the torture chamber. Nadir reached out to set a comforting hand on Erik’s shoulder, then stopped himself. He doubted that Erik would welcome the touch.
“Erik,” Nadir said quietly, but Erik ignored him.
Nadir stepped forward and retrieved Erik’s mask from where it lay on the floor. He moved to stand beside Erik, handed it to him.
“She was ready to stay with me,” Erik said, his voice nearly a whisper. “Do you believe that? I really think she was ready to stay with me.”
“I believe it,” Nadir echoed. He’d seen that way the girl continued to watch Erik as Erik spoke with Chagny, gave him his instructions and extracted his promises. She hadn’t taken her eyes off of Erik, not even for a moment. The tears coursed down her cheeks, but it wasn’t an expression of horror. No, there was no horror there. At least not anymore. She looked on him as though it was the first time she’d ever really seen him. Her expression was one of amazement, of love.
Nadir believed it. She would have stayed.
Nadir insisted that he remain in the apartment with Erik overnight. There was no telling what Erik might do if left alone now. No, it was imperative that Nadir stay. He must ensure that Erik did not harm himself, nor anyone else. What had happened tonight was already more than enough.
Erik fought him, but in the end he gave in more easily than Nadir had expected. Nadir liked to think that perhaps Erik wanted him there, that for once, Erik actually needed him too.
“I’m already here,” Nadir reasoned, talking now simply to fill the silence. “That’s what you were afraid of, wasn’t it? Letting me in?”
It was more likely that now, with the departure of Christine Daaé, Erik simply no longer cared. What was left to guard?
Erik sighed and gestured to the sofa in the sitting room. “You can sleep here.”
“It will do,” Nadir said. “Thank you.”
Erik showed Nadir the layout of his home, explained where to find the essentials. There was one room that he did not allow Nadir to enter, though Nadir caught a glimpse of the bedroom furniture before Erik clicked the door shut. Nadir didn’t have to be told whose room that was.
The house on the lake was quiet, but Nadir knew that outside the opera was alive. The police would be there, the newspapers. They would be searching the cellars. He knew better than anyone that they wouldn’t find anything. Chagny and Christine were gone. The police would find them safe at Chagny’s apartments when they finally thought to look there. They wouldn’t talk. Nadir and Erik were quite safe here, Nadir was sure of that.
Back in the sitting room, Erik moved to sit, then changed his mind and stood by the fireplace, unsure of what to do with himself. Perhaps he was thinking of the likely commotion happening above them as well. As Nadir sat in one of the sitting room’s large chairs, his eye caught something on the table beside him.
A deck of tarot cards with three pulled from the deck. He spread them across the table.
Death. The Lovers. The Fool. He stared at the three cards and thought about what they must mean to Erik. Death seemed pretty clear. They’d been surrounded by it that evening. The Lovers. Erik and Christine Daaé? Christine Daaé and Chagny? Either way it left Nadir for the fool.
"I should have left Persia with you that night," Nadir said. Erik started at Nadir’s voice, turned to regard him. "I was a fool to stay behind."
"I almost came back for you," Erik admitted after a moment. He moved away from the fireplace and came now to sit in a chair opposite Nadir.
Nadir smiled. "Then you would have been the fool. They would have killed you."
"Maybe," Erik agreed. "I think I would have done it."
"I was shot near Constantinople," Erik said with a shrug. "It changed my plans."
Nadir nodded. “I heard word of you there,” he said. “I was angered to think you would stop there, so close to Persia.”
“I had no choice,” Erik said. “I was detained.”
Nadir slid the cards together, and as Erik watched he stacked them back on the rest of the deck.
"Things may have gone differently," Nadir said after a moment.
"Yes," Erik agreed, the hint of sarcasm returned. "You could have saved me from this ghostly fate."
Nadir sat forward, leaned toward Erik and then reached out to set a hand on Erik’s knee.
"You know me better than anyone on this earth," Nadir said, sincerely. "You may say it is sad, Erik, and perhaps it is, but you are my closest friend."
"Has Darius died in the last week when I wasn't paying attention?" Erik asked. He was staring at Nadir’s hand, his body stiff beneath Nadir’s fingers.
"Of course not," Nadir said, dismissive.
Yes, there was Darius, Nadir’s faithful servant who accompanied him willingly across a continent to settle into a land of Christian nonbelievers. Darius would die for Nadir, kill for Nadir, but that respect and loyalty had never lost its formality. It had never reached that familiar comfort of friendship.
He let his hand slide off of Erik’s knee as he settled back in his chair. "It isn't the same."
Erik looked away.
In the months prior to the events that gained Nadir entry to Erik’s lair, Nadir spent the weeks between his scheduled visits with Erik at the opera. He watched and he listened, recorded notes of interest in the black book he kept on his person at all times.
He had believed Erik when he denied that he’d built some sort of house of horrors on the other side of the lake. He didn’t want to think that Erik could be capable of the things he’d suggested, though of course, Nadir had seen so much worse at Erik’s hands.
And then there was the blackmail, the extortion, the death of Joseph Buquet.
Buquet was found in the third cellar. Hanged himself, they said, right there between a farmhouse and a set from ‘Le Roi de Lahore’. One of the scene shifters spotted him first, but by the time they’d returned with the authorities, Buquet was slumped on the floor and the rope had disappeared.
It had sounded all too familiar to Nadir.
It was easy to fall back into the role he’d been required to fill during Erik’s time in Persia. Tracking Erik’s activities felt natural, essential to the order of Nadir’s life. It gave him purpose.
Perhaps it all really was as tragic as Erik believed it to be.
“Don’t wait for me here next week,” Erik had said during one of their visits, and Nadir had felt his stomach drop a few inches, his heart twist with worry. The managers were leaving, Erik informed him. He needed time to put the replacements in their place.
After one week Nadir was certain that Erik would be absent the next time they were to meet at the lake. He’d forget, or he’d refuse to show just to prove a point. Just to prove that perhaps Nadir needed Erik far more than Erik needed him.
Erik didn’t have to prove it. Nadir already knew it to be true.
Why else had he come to France when he was released from Mazanderan? Why, of all the places in the world, had Nadir chosen Paris? He had only one connection to this country. Only one reason.
Nadir had waited the two weeks that Erik needed to condition the new managers. He waited and he watched and when the weeks had passed he returned to the edge of the lake. He was early, anxious for the meeting. He expected to wait there, to sit alone for an hour or more, but he arrived to find Erik there already, pacing. There must have been other times when Erik had arrived first for their meetings, but he always waited out of sight, seemed to get a thrill out of materializing beside Nadir, watching him jump.
“You’re late,” Erik said then.
“You’re early,” Nadir countered. “Is everything all right? Was there something you needed?”
“Yes,” Erik said absently. He turned away from the lake and shook his head. “I’m sorry. No.”
“How long have you been standing here?”
“Not long.” He stepped into the shadows for a moment and when he returned he held something out for Nadir. Nadir took it without hesitation. It was a cup of tea, fragrant with lemon, warm.
“I was starting to think these past weeks that you might forget about me,” Nadir said. “That you wouldn’t come at all.”
“You’ve told me what you would do if I did not,” Erik pointed out. “I’d really rather not get the authorities involved.”
Nadir had smiled at the tedium in Erik’s voice. He knew that Erik was confident that the authorities would never find him and would not live through it if they did. Erik also knew that Nadir would resume searching for him if Erik did not show and it had already been proven that that search could easily turn fatal. Erik had no intention of killing Nadir. But he would do it, Nadir knew, if he felt it absolutely necessary.
“I assume that you’ve scared the new managers into submission,” Nadir said.
“I’m not sure that I have,” Erik admitted.
“I’m surprised that the dressing room floors running with blood wasn’t enough.”
“Oh, that,” Erik sighed. “Made up nonsense, I’m afraid. The dressing room floors have remained dry of my hand. No, it seems Richard and Moncharmin may not prove as easy as Poligny.”
“You could always give it up,” Nadir suggested once more. He’d pushed the issue two weeks prior and Erik had pushed back, sneered at Nadir’s ideas of redemption. This time even Erik seemed weary of the game. It surely couldn’t hurt to present the option one more time.
“Perhaps,” Erik said.
It was the first time that Erik had ever agreed, even just to appease, on the subject of his unfortunate ‘occupation’. Was he finally becoming weary of blackmail?
“I’m glad to hear it,” Nadir had said.
“Perhaps I’d be more suited to something else,” Erik mused. “Teaching, do you think?”
“Teaching?” Nadir repeated, surprised.
“Vocal lessons,” Erik clarified. “God knows most of the company could use them.”
It was only then that Nadir realized that Erik was joking, deflecting. It didn’t actually sound like such a bad idea to Nadir. Any singer would be lucky to receive a single lesson from Erik.
The conversation lulled then and they sat there in companionable silence for some time. Companionable. Had Nadir ever had a closer friend? A friend who knew him half as well as Erik did? It was a sobering thought.
Maybe it was as tragic as Erik’s body language suggested that it was. Erik felt sorry for Nadir. He’d said it and even if he hadn’t voiced the thought, Nadir could read it well enough. Erik felt sorry that Nadir looked forward to their meetings. That Nadir desired the company of a self-proclaimed monster.
“You could, you know,” Nadir said after a time.
“What?” Erik asked.
“Teach,” Nadir said. “You could teach.”
Erik had laughed and the sound angered Nadir, reminded him that after everything, Erik had chosen to lurk in basements and caves, to haunt stupid young girls and to scare superstitious old men.
The silence between them stretched on. Nadir felt his frustration simmer in his gut. He finished his tea and allowed Erik to pour a second cup. Nadir’s hand brushed Erik’s as he took the cup and Erik started and drew back the same way that he did any time that he was touched. The reaction cooled Nadir’s anger. He finished his tea and sighed, stood and looked back toward the passageway.
“Someday, I will regain your trust,” Nadir sighed. “Someday you’ll let me in.”
Erik’s eyes were sad as he shook his head, as he stood and turned away. “Next week, Daroga. By the lake.”
“Next week,” Nadir agreed.
Nadir awoke on the sofa in Erik’s sitting room to find himself face to face with The Glory of the Empire. He shouted and sat up with a start. The cat hissed at him, her back curved into a perfectly perturbed arch.
Even in the darkness of the room the diamonds managed to sparkle around her neck.
The cat’s tail swished back and forth erratically as she regarded him from a safer distance. Of course this cat was not the shah-in-shah’s favorite. She was not The Glory of the Empire, but despite the passage of twenty-five years, Nadir would recognize that collar anywhere.
“Cats,” Nadir muttered. Her tail swished again in response. “Do you know how much trouble that collar cost me?”
The cat simply glared.
Nadir heard movement in Erik’s chambers and he stood to investigate. His watch had stopped while he was still in the torture chamber, but it couldn’t possibly be morning yet.
He found Erik sitting at the organ, having pulled up a chair to replace the broken stool, surrounded by a disarray of papers. Erik didn’t acknowledge Nadir as Nadir entered the room, didn’t move at all until Nadir was standing beside him.
“So this is it then?” Nadir asked.
Erik looked up at him, his eyes questioning behind the mask.
“The organ that I said I wished to see,” Nadir said, gestured toward the massive instrument. “The organ that you refused to show me.”
“Yes,” Erik agreed. “This is it. I hope that it was worth the wait.”
Nadir smiled sadly. He nodded and turned away from Erik, toward the coffin at the center of the room. He reached in and touched the sheets, found them cool. Erik hadn’t slept.
“It’s finished,” Erik said when Nadir approached again.
“The opera,” Nadir guessed.
“Among other things,” Erik agreed.
“Will you play something from it?” Nadir asked.
“No,” Erik said. “I’m afraid it can never be heard.”
Nadir shook his head, sure that Erik was merely being dramatic. Of course it would be heard. It would be celebrated throughout the world, the work of a genius. Nadir bent and picked up a few of the sheets, studied the notes on the page. He’d never been musically inclined. It appeared a foreign language to him, one that he couldn’t begin to comprehend. He closed his eyes and imagined the beauty of the music that Erik was capable of creating, imagined how it would fill the opera.
“Come on,” Nadir said. He set the pages down and reached for Erik to take his hand.
Erik stared at the offered limb, but did not move to take it. Nadir reached out to set a hand on Erik’s shoulder instead and Erik sighed beneath it, stood and let Nadir guide him past the coffin to the large leather couch.
“You should rest,” Erik said, even as he followed Nadir, as he folded down onto the couch when Nadir gestured toward it. It was as though Nadir was working Erik’s own magic on him, as though the tables of years ago had been turned.
Nadir took a thin blanket from the coffin and set it over Erik.
“I had a nurse once,” Erik noted. “For a time.”
Nadir more or less moved in following the incident.
They conversed companionably for two days, talked as they had in Persia, though Nadir could see that Erik was in pain, that his every thought was of her. He was distracted, distant, but he was trying. Nadir’s presence forced him to try. And Nadir was keeping Erik’s mind occupied enough that as of yet Erik had not tired of him sufficiently to push good manners aside and kick Nadir out of the apartment.
There was Darius to consider, however. Darius would worry if Nadir did not return, so on the third night Nadir left, promised that he would be back the following morning.
Nadir kept his promise. He settled things with Darius, made plans to return within a week, and then returned to the house on the lake by the way of the Rue Scribe. The boat was there, but this time there was no siren waiting for him and he made the trip across the water with ease, the ride calm and uneventful.
The same could not be said for the events unfolding inside the apartment.
He returned to find Erik in a rage, destroying everything in his chambers. He threw a vase at Nadir, almost didn’t seem to recognize him at all. The vase missed Nadir only because Erik never intended for it to hit him in the first place.
“Stop this,” Nadir ordered. He took a step toward Erik but Erik was faster and he shoved Nadir away, screamed for Nadir to leave, swore and cursed. Nadir, stunned, retreated to the drawing room. He paced for a time and then he prepared tea, patiently waited for Erik to tire.
He listened as objects crashed into the walls, at the sound of glass breaking. He flinched when an especially heavy sounding object hit the wall behind his chair. Eventually the commotion died down and then finally Erik entered the drawing room and took a seat opposite Nadir. He looked composed, unruffled.
He wasn’t fooling Nadir.
Nadir stood and poured Erik a glass of tea, set it on the table beside him.
“Perhaps you’d prefer something stronger,” Nadir suggested.
Erik glared up at him from behind the mask. “The tea will do,” he said. “Thank you.”
“I have asked Darius to deliver some of my things to the edge of the lake,” Nadir said.
Erik nodded, did not respond.
Nadir finished his tea. He stood up and left Erik in the drawing room. He went to Erik’s chambers to survey the damage.
The coffin had been tossed on its side, broken. Fabric was ripped from the ceiling and the walls. Glass shards and ceramic pieces littered the carpet.
Nadir heard a noise behind him and turned to see Erik entering the room. Erik navigated through the mess and then sat down on the leather sofa.
“Maybe Chagny will keep his promise,” Nadir suggested, taking it all in.
Erik laughed. “The Vicomte is no fool. Would you return?”
Nadir shrugged. “I have,” he said. “I am here.”
“Yes,” Erik said. “But you don’t know me as well as Chagny does.”
Now it was Nadir’s turn to laugh.
He had often thought, while sitting through Mozart and Meyerbeer, that of all the glorious voices in the world, still none of them compared to Erik. Erik had not sung often in Persia. It wasn’t what he was there for. There were illusions to conjure, tortures to devise, palaces to engineer. Erik’s voice was far down the list of desires required by the shah-in-shah, by the khanum.
The only voice that came close was that of Christine Daaé.
Nadir sat up in his seat. The child had a beautiful instrument, there was no question of that. He came to the opera enough that he’d heard Daaé sing before, small bit parts, a line here or there. He hadn’t imagined she could sing like this.
When the music stopped, Nadir remained frozen, leaning forward in his seat. Over the roar of the crowd he heard Erik’s voice in his ear.
“Perhaps I’d be more suited to something else. Teaching, do you think?”
Vocal lessons, Nadir thought, and pulled the black book from his cloak.
As it turned out, Christine Daaé was indeed taking vocal lessons. She would not divulge the name of her mysterious instructor, not even to the girls she spent the majority of her days with.
Once Nadir heard her mention a story that her father used to tell. A story of an Angel of Music. He felt his heart grow cold at the words. Nadir had only ever met one angel, after all. A self-proclaimed Angel of Death with a voice from the heavens.
Allah, what had Erik done now?
Daaé’s dressing room was at the end of a long deserted corridor, far from the rest of the company. The room beside hers was used for storage. Old props, mostly. Nadir sat among the props for hours, listened to Mademoiselle Daaé withstand the chatter of chorus girls. She spoke of her vocal lessons only once, when declining an invitation to join the others for dinner.
“Oh,” one of the girls chirped. “The mysterious teacher.”
Christine Daaé laughed with them, brushed off their questions, and then shut them out of her dressing room.
The room was quiet for some time after that. Nadir was beginning to doze off when he once again heard voices in the room next door.
“Hello?” Daaé said. Then – “Angel? Are you there?”
Nadir felt dread fill his stomach. And then he heard it. Christine Daaé’s Angel of Music. The khanum’s Angel of Doom.
At first Nadir had been furious. Angel of Music. Just another ghost. He planned to confront Erik, to demand that Erik cease this stupid game. But then Nadir had actually started to listen.
Erik really was giving the girl lessons. Nadir listened at the wall of her dressing room, listened as Erik instructed her, sculpted her. He was an unforgiving maestro, expecting perfection just as he had on his building site in Persia, in everything that he set his mind out to do. And Christine Daaé responded, pushed, grew. Erik offered no praise, no encouraging words, but he rewarded her. Oh, how he rewarded her. Nadir could hear it in Erik’s voice when he was proud of her progress, could hear it even muffled through the thick walls. And then Erik would sing.
It had been decades since Nadir had last heard that voice. Years since it had moved him. It was just as unnaturally beautiful as Nadir remembered it to be and Nadir wept alone as he sat on a wooden box of forgotten costumes.
Erik’s grief and destruction lasted for days. Almost nothing was safe from his wrath. Not the pipe organ or the piano, not the many fantastic creations in Erik’s laboratory. Only Christine’s bedroom was left undisturbed. But Nadir would have gladly let the bedroom go and more if only it would have saved Erik’s opera.
Nadir pleaded with Erik to consider what he was doing, the magnitude of what he was destroying.
“Oh, I’ve considered it, Daroga,” Erik hissed. “I created it and it is mine to destroy.”
“Erik,” Nadir persisted. “Let me have it. I will take it from here. I’ll keep it safe in my apartment. I’ll hold it for you. Please.”
Erik could not be reasoned with. He did not respond to Nadir’s begging, to his bargains or his pleas. Erik was lost to Nadir, lost to everything but his own anger and despair.
Nadir had to rush from the room when Erik began tearing the opera to pieces, when Nadir realized there really was nothing he could do to stop it, that Erik hardly recognized him and would surely lash out if he tried.
Nadir locked himself in what was left of the sitting room with Erik’s blasted cat.
She paced by the door, alarmed to be imprisoned so suddenly with the likes of Nadir, but eventually she settled on the sofa and refused to look at him.
He wasn’t sure how long they stayed there. He must have dozed off. He remembered dreaming of the opera, of weekly meetings by the lake with an old friend, of the warm desert air as they talked late into the Persian nights. It was the cat who woke him. She was pacing by the door again, scratching and howling.
Nadir listened. It was quiet in the rooms beyond.
“Oh, all right,” he said, his heart heavy as he stood from the chair. The floor of the sitting room was littered with Erik’s belongings. He looked down and saw the deck of tarot cards strewn about at his feet. They’d fallen when Erik had lifted the small table where they rested and thrown it against a wall. Several of the cards were bent, many were torn, but there beneath the toe of his boot was the Fool. Nadir bent to pick up the card. He stared at the drawing, at the jester smiling back at him.
The cat cried out again, a grating howl, and Nadir shook his head, let the card fall from his fingers and flutter back down to the floor. He crossed the room and opened the door. The cat rushed through, ran straight for Erik’s chambers, her tail a stiff line extending straight up from her back.
Nadir followed her to Erik’s chambers and then stopped short at the sight, stunned for a moment before he was propelled forward again. Erik was lying among the destroyed remnants of his life, curled in on himself, shaking as he tried to push himself up off the floor.
Nadir fell to his knees beside Erik. What sort of attack was it? A seizure? Unsure what to do he reached out and attempted to unfasten the mask from Erik’s face. If Erik was having trouble breathing, surely –
Erik’s hands flew up to knock Nadir away.
“Erik,” Nadir said when Erik’s movements ceased.
It must have been a full minute before Erik managed to voice a reply.
“Did I forget to mention that I’m dying?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“How long has this been happening?” Nadir demanded. “Was this the first?”
“No,” Erik said. “Not the first and surely not the last.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Nadir assured him. “I owe you that.”
“You see,” Erik returned with some difficulty. “I let you in and you never leave.”
Nadir shook his head. It was hardly the time for jokes. He helped Erik up from the floor, guided him to the sofa. Once Nadir had Erik stretched out on the sofa, he sat down on the end by Erik’s feet.
“You owe me nothing,” Erik said, his tone serious now. “Not anymore.”
Nadir shook his head. “I disagree.”
“Well, it’ll be over soon enough,” Erik assured him with a sigh. “You needn’t worry. I won’t have to resort to suicide.”
One only needed to look at Erik to know that it was true.
It had been something of a miracle that Erik had recovered at all from the poison all those years ago, but it had taken its toll. The poison and the morphine.
There were two more attacks over the course of the following days. Two more attacks and –when Erik was well enough – more destruction as well. But there were also stretches of peace. Stretches where they sat together in the sitting room, Erik too weak to do much else. They talked as they had by the lake, as they had in Persia. They talked as old friends who had shared too much.
One afternoon, Erik told him of Giovanni, a master mason in Italy who taught Erik everything he knew about masonry. Erik’s voice broke Nadir’s heart, just as Erik’s must have broken at Luciana’s persistence, at her fall. He told Nadir of the tudor he’d had as a child in his mother’s home, of the architectural books he loved, and of Charles Garnier and the arrangement that they’d had during the creation of the opera house. He spoke of his beloved childhood dog and Nadir thought he saw tears in Erik’s eyes when he voiced her name.
In turn, Nadir spoke more openly of Reza and Rookheeya than he ever had before.
He spoke of Reza as a young child, of the way in which he filled the hole in Nadir’s heart that Rookheeya’s passing had left, of how much he had brightened Nadir’s days before he began to fall ill.
Erik understood this, of course. Erik had known Reza. He had made Reza’s last days more beautiful and magical than Nadir could have imagined. And then he had done what Nadir could never do. He had allowed Nadir’s son to slip peacefully from this world into the next, had spared him the pain and suffering that would surely have followed.
Erik didn’t believe that Nadir had ever forgiven him for any of it. He didn’t believe that Nadir ever could. Nadir knew that, but he also knew that Erik was wrong. Nadir understood now the gift that Erik had given to Reza. He understood and he told Erik so again now.
“Nadir,” Erik breathed. Nadir could feel the pain in the way that Erik spoke his name, but there was something else there too. Nadir thought that perhaps it was fondness. He thought that, in its own way, perhaps it was love.
It was easier now to speak of these things, of the memories that haunted the living. It was easier when one could feel death approaching so quickly.
Nadir told Erik of Rookheeya’s smile and her kind heart. He laughed as he recounted old arguments that he’d had with her, so insignificant now after all this time.
“Do you love her?” Nadir asked after he was finished.
Erik turned to him instinctively, his eyes flashing before he reigned himself in and turned away. It was all of the answer that Nadir needed. Of course Nadir had known. What other reason was there for everything that had happened? What other reason was there for the chandelier, the torture chamber, the destruction? Oh, Erik.
“And does she love you?” Nadir asked.
“I don’t know,” Erik said. “For a moment I thought that she might.”
“I thought she might too,” Nadir agreed.
“It’s enough –” Erik concluded eventually “– to know that she might.”
Another attack, worse than the last few. This one left Erik barely able to stand. Finally after some convincing, Erik allowed Nadir to take him to the one room in Erik’s home that had not been destroyed in Erik’s rage. Christine Daaé’s bedroom. It was exactly as it had been left. The door had not been opened once since Erik closed it as he showed Nadir around that first night. There was the smell of dust in the air, but something else too. Lavender, perhaps.
Nadir wondered, as he helped Erik to settle onto the bed, if Erik would ever leave it again.
“The furniture belonged to my mother,” Erik informed Nadir as Nadir smoothed the blankets over Erik’s thin form.
“It’s beautiful,” Nadir said.
“It’s old and outdated,” Erik returned. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I think it’s obvious that it matters a great deal to you,” Nadir pointed out.
Erik didn’t respond. Nadir finished getting Erik settled and then he reached for Erik’s mask.
Erik caught Nadir’s hand.
“Erik,” Nadir said. “You’ll be more comfortable. You’ll breathe easier.”
“Don’t,” he insisted, his hand lingering for a moment on Nadir’s. “Leave it.”
They stood there at an impasse. It was Erik who pulled away first, released Nadir and let his hand fall to the blankets. He shut his eyes and turned away from Nadir with a sigh.
Nadir set some books beside the bed. He picked up a handkerchief folded there, traced the embroidered ‘M’ with his finger and then set it back down. There was a dress thrown over a chair and Nadir recognized it as the one Christine Daaé was wearing when Erik brought her here that final time. When Erik was asleep, Nadir would come back in, hang it in the closet out of sight. There was a spot of blood on the wall beside the chair, a dark stain that marred the flowered wallpaper.
“What are you doing now?” Erik asked from the bed. The exasperation in his voice was unmistakable.
“I’ll let you rest,” Nadir said and left the room.
Nadir found the chess board in the drawing room. He searched the room for the pieces. Kicking Erik’s broken belongs aside, righting overturned furniture, he picked the chess pieces out of the rubble. He pushed aside chairs and pulled the sofa away from the wall. Finally he found the last missing pawn behind a cupboard.
“It was nearly impossible finding all of these pieces,” Nadir said, bringing the set into the bedroom. “But at least you only threw them, scattering them among your mess. I feared I’d find some crushed into dust by your feet.”
Erik regarded him from the bed. “Yes,” he said after a moment. “Crushed chess pieces. It’s enough to make you wish you’d never approached that cab, is it not? You could have spent the rest of your days wondering what had become of me, but at least your imagination would have devised something better than this.” He gestured toward the room, toward the two of them and the game set up between them.
“No,” Nadir said, dismissive. “Must you be so dramatic?”
It was true, however, that he had said something similar to Erik once. It was after he’d worked out Erik’s position at the opera. Opera Ghost. It was such a waste, and when Erik had arrived at Nadir’s apartment, Nadir had made his disappointment known. It was just like Erik to remember words spoken in such frustration.
“You know that I don’t wish that,” Nadir said. He cleared the table beside the bed and set down the chess board. “Not anymore.”
Erik sighed, but he pushed himself up in the bed and began setting his black pieces on the board. Erik, of course, always insisted that his side was black.
He let Nadir win the fourth game and once it was over he sat back against the bed.
“When I’m gone,” Erik started, but Nadir held up his hand to cut him off.
“There’s no need for this now,” Nadir said.
“There are things that must be done,” Erik said
“I will take care of everything,” Nadir assured him. “You need not worry.”
“And Ayesha,” Erik persisted.
“Ayesha?” Nadir repeated. A woman? One of whom Erik had not yet spoken?
“Yes,” Erik said and gestured toward where the cat was curled at the end of the bed, her collar gleaming under the electric lights. “My cat. I want you to take her.”
Nadir sighed. “You know how I am with cats, Erik. And yours accepts my presence even less than you do.”
Erik laughed. “She’s territorial, yes. She puts up walls and she won’t let you in easily. But eventually she will warm to you.”
Nadir couldn’t help but see past Erik’s words.
“So you’ve finally warmed to me again then, after all these years?” he asked, with a smile.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Erik said.
“The way you speak of the cat,” Nadir said, though he was sure that Erik had followed the first time. “It sounds like it could describe someone else that I know as well.”
“Will you take her?” Erik asked, impatient with Nadir’s warm poking.
Nadir wasn’t fond of cats who liked him any more than he was those who wished him harm. But he owed Erik this. Who else was there for Erik to ask?
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, of course I’ll care for the cat.”
Erik wasn’t getting any better. Not this time. And Nadir guessed that there was only one thing that kept him from growing any worse. A shot in the dark.
Chagny had promised to return with Christine Daaé, had promised to bring her back one last time, to hand deliver her wedding invitation. But who would blame him for breaking such a promise? Erik himself had said he didn’t expect Chagny to allow her to return, but until Erik heard word of the wedding, nothing was certain. The possibility lingered.
Nadir had Darius reading the papers for the announcement. He was to report any word of the nuptials to Nadir when he delivered Nadir’s food and supplies. So far there had been nothing. Not a word about the couple.
Erik had laid out all of his instructions. He’d made arrangements years ago, a tomb beneath the fifth cellar. If Nadir would only get him there, that would be enough. Nadir could leave him be, let him perish in peace.
“Nonsense,” Nadir said, alarmed by the very thought. “You think I’m going to let you die out there alone? You’re insane.”
Erik quietly seethed as Nadir dismissed his protests and set forth a new plan. Erik would stay here until the end, comfortable in this bed with Nadir at his side. When it was over, Nadir would take him to his desired resting place himself.
“That isn’t necessary,” Erik said.
“You don’t trust me to do it?” Nadir countered, a flash of anger. After all this time. After everything.
“Of course I trust you,” Erik spat back at him. Nadir nodded. He’d won this round, and he left the room without another word.
Nadir stood in front of the samovar. It had become his station of sorts. The table held the things that Nadir had salvaged from Erik’s life while Erik slept. The chess set, the shredded pieces of Erik’s opera, the three tarot cards. Death, the Lovers, the Fool. Nadir wasn’t sure why he was keeping those. He wasn’t sure why he thought he should hold on to any of it.
He touched the cards.
Death. Erik’s, of course. There was no question of that now.
The Lovers. Chagny and Daaé.
And once again, Nadir was left for the Fool.
Nadir remembered what Erik had said to him years ago at his home in Ashraf. He’d been thinking of it all morning. He’d surveyed the contents of Erik’s laboratory, collected all of the vials that had not been smashed, placed them together in a basket should they be needed. Erik was hiding it well, but it had become obvious to Nadir that Erik was in a great deal of pain.
“The child does not deserve to suffer all that will soon lie ahead of him,” Erik had told Nadir all those years ago.
And now it was Erik who suffered. Erik, of course, was far from an innocent child. He was far less innocent than an ordinary man, but if it became unbearable, surely Erik could tell him how it was done. The clear vial of liquid, the flutter of Reza’s last breath as Nadir whispered his prayer.
It wasn’t enough time. There was never enough time. Not with Rookheeya or Reza. Not with Erik. Nadir caught himself longing for those twenty-five years. He caught himself wishing once more that he had left Persia with Erik when he’d had the chance. Perhaps they wouldn’t have made it. Perhaps they would have been caught and executed before the shah. But they might have. They might have made it out of Persia together, and then how might the years have passed? There was no way to know now. The moment was lost.
Nadir poured the tea and carried it into the bedroom. Erik watched as he moved across the room, set the tea on the table and sat himself in the chair by the bed. How many times had he done this now? How long had it been? Nadir was losing track. It was so easy to lose track of time here where night and day melded seamlessly into one another.
“Is this is then?” Erik asked beside him. He was watching Nadir closely.
“Is this what?” Nadir asked as he was pulled from his thoughts, from the past.
“Look at you today. You look as though I’ve already died. Have you come now to ask me to accept Allah?” Erik asked. “To recite the Shahaadah? I must be close enough to death for it now, am I not?”
Nadir was quiet. He sat down in the chair beside Erik’s bed, his hands folded in his lap. Finally he said, “Do you want me to ask it?”
Erik sighed. “No.”
“Then I will not,” Nadir promised.
Erik seemed to accept this, though Nadir felt Erik continue to watch him closely.
“You were ready to die that night, weren’t you?” Nadir asked eventually. He remembered the moment, standing in the desert with Erik, a handshake, a look. My friend, Erik had said with affection that Nadir had only ever heard from him when directed at Reza. My friend.
“I think perhaps I was,” Erik agreed.
“I should have let you,” Nadir said, not for the first time.
“Yes,” Erik agreed again. “Perhaps you should have.”
“I was selfish,” Nadir concluded.
“Selfish,” Erik repeated. It sounded like he was smiling beneath the mask.
“These past months,” Nadir continued. “I keep returning to that moment in the desert. I’m stuck there wondering how things might have been if I had left Persia as I instructed you to do, if I had arranged to meet up with you far from the shah’s reach. How different our lives would have been.”
“Or,” Erik said. “Perhaps they would have been exactly the same. This is tiresome speculation.”
“I don’t think so,” Nadir countered. “I think things would have been very different indeed.”
He set the tarot cards down on the bed.
“What is this?” Erik asked, though Nadir saw the recognition in his eyes. Yes, Erik had studied these three cards often, just as Nadir had done since he’d arrived.
Death, the Lovers, the Fool. Nadir slid two of the cards away, let them fall to the floor. Take away Death and the Fool and what was left?
Erik stared at the card, and then finally, without looking at Nadir, he flicked the card with the tip of his graceful finger and it fluttered off the edge of the bed to join the other two on the floor.
“Save me your pity,” Erik sighed.
Nadir turned away. Some of it must be pity, yes, but the rest could only be love.
Nadir could easily have been seduced by those hands, by that voice. And what would it have mattered? What would it have mattered who he shared his bed with? He'd loved Rookheeya more than the world, but Rookheeya had been gone for thirty years. Reza had been gone for twenty-five. He'd pushed everyone else away. He'd created his own fifth cellar apartment in the world above. And when Erik returned he'd latched on, demanded attention, resumed the obsession that had begun in Persia all those years ago.
Yes, Nadir thought. It all could have gone very differently.
Erik looked up at him. Nadir's thoughts must have been written all over his face, but this time whatever Erik saw there did not cause him to turn away.
After a moment, Erik spoke. "You've lost your mind, Daroga. I should know."
"Perhaps," Nadir agreed. “Perhaps I have.”
Nadir reached out and set his hand over Erik’s. Erik visibly stiffened as he always did, but he did not pull back. He allowed Nadir this gesture. Erik’s hand was thin, so thin, and cold as Nadir curled his fingers around it. Erik watched him, wary, ready to take flight, though there was no where left that Erik could go.
Nadir’s thumb slid over the bones of Erik’s wrist and he thought he heard Erik gasp at the caress – for that was surely what it was – such a simple caress. People were touched in this manner every day and thought nothing of it. But Erik - Erik was still beneath Nadir's fingers. When Nadir looked up it seemed to him that Erik had not even blinked, had not dared.
Nadir lifted Erik’s hand from the blanket, turned it in his. He brought his other hand up to trace the scars on Erik's wrist before sliding his palm across Erik's palm past the tips of his fingers, which curled, limp, once the pressure of Nadir's hand was gone. He raised Erik’s hand closer and pressed his lips to the curl of Erik’s fingers, then leaned down and pressed them to his forehead.
And then finally, Nadir felt it. Erik’s hand tightened around his. Erik held him in return. Nadir looked up. There was a noise from Erik’s throat that sounded almost like a sob, and then he spoke.
“You’ve wasted your life on me.” His voice was hoarse, as though he hadn’t spoken in months, though of course it was only a few minutes ago.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Nadir said.
“Of course it’s true,” Erik countered. “Look at what I’ve done to you.”
Nadir shrugged. “Yes,” he said. “Look at what you’ve done.”
They sat there for a long time, their hands folded together until finally Erik’s began to feel warmed by Nadir’s touch. Erik’s eyes were closed and Nadir thought that perhaps he had drifted off to sleep. He let Erik’s arm fall to the bed, his hand resting back on the blanket. Nadir kept Erik’s hand covered with his own, his thumb sliding in small circles over Erik’s skin as he sat back in his chair and shut his eyes.
Nadir started at a noise from the other room. They’d both fallen asleep, Nadir slumped awkwardly in his chair so that his whole body seemed to cry out, stiff, as he moved to straighten himself now. His hand still rested over Erik’s and he squeezed gently, unsure if Erik had heard the noise.
“Ayesha,” Erik said, his voice low and tired, dismissive.
Of course. Erik’s home was such a mess now that even the cat had become clumsy as she tried to navigate it. Nadir relaxed in his chair.
Erik was awake, his eyes studying their joined hands. After a moment he slid his hand out from underneath Nadir’s. Nadir sighed at the loss, only to have Erik’s hand tentatively settle back over Nadir’s instead. When Nadir looked up he found that Erik was no longer looking at his hand, but was watching Nadir for his reaction instead.
“I should have gone back for you,” Erik said. “Perhaps you are right.”
Nadir shook his head. “You were shot. And if you had not been shot, you would be dead.” A Persian trophy.
“It might have gone differently," Erik murmured, quiet, as though he was testing the words, tasting the truth of them. His hand pressed tight over Nadir's.
There was another noise from the hall and Nadir started, moved to stand, but Erik’s grip tightened as he held Nadir close.
“I should thank you,” Erik said. "You're the only friend I've ever known."
“And I am honored to have known you,” Nadir returned with a heartfelt nod.
“I’m glad that you are here with me now,” Erik said, admitting it to Nadir for the first time.
It was enough. For them, it would have to be enough.
There was another noise from the hall and Erik turned, attention drawn. Nadir followed Erik’s gaze, followed it across the room to where Erik’s cat perched, curled on top of an armoire, her ears back as she listened.
“Nadir,” Erik said, his voice low. “I think perhaps we have a guest.”
None of it mattered anymore.
Christine Daaé had returned.
Nadir stood by and watched as she removed Erik’s mask. Erik moved to stop her, but there was no force behind his gesture and she ignored him, gently pushed his hand aside. She had asked Nadir to stand witness and Nadir did as was asked of him. He watched as she leaned in. He watched and he couldn’t help but think that this was it. Finally after all these years.
This moment was the reverse of that afternoon so long ago, the terrified slave girl cowering at Erik’s feet. Nadir felt his heart quicken as he watched Erik’s tears begin to fall. He watched as Christine Daaé kissed the tears from Erik’s face, leaned in to kiss him again and then again. Nadir quietly left them then, the door clicking softly shut as he departed.
It was over, of course. That was the end of Erik’s waiting. Christine had filled Erik’s heart, filled his soul, and three days later he passed away, peaceful in his mother’s bed.
“Good-bye, my friend,” Nadir said for the last time. The words sounded so beautiful in Erik’s native tongue.
There was nothing else to say. Erik would not have wanted words from his own rejected religion. He would not have wanted words from Nadir’s either, and Nadir did not speak them, but he couldn’t help the recitation in his heart as he pulled the bed’s sheet up to cover Erik’s still form.
Nadir didn’t take much. The chess set, a few scraps of the opera and a single tarot card. Christine Daaé had thankfully accepted possession of Erik’s beloved cat.
Back in his apartment on the Rue de Rivoli, Nadir spent a week assembling the scraps of paper. There was the opera, yes, and the Palace of Echoes. Those things would endure, but Nadir knew there should be this as well, this memorial to the musical genius. In the end he was left with one sheet that contained pieces of Erik’s work.
He framed the assembled sheet of paper and placed it on his mantle. He did not display the tarot card. That he slipped into a drawer in the table beside his bed.
When it was over and Erik was gone Darius helped Nadir to carry out Erik’s final instructions. Together they gathered his body, so light and frail now that life had left it, and took him to the specified location. Nadir ran his fingers across the cold stones of the floor until he found the expected divot. When he pressed, a stone slab sank and then slid aside, revealing a coffin.
Nadir felt his chest tighten as the stone slid back into place, concealing Erik beneath his beloved masterpiece. Nadir knelt and pressed his hands to the cold stones of the floor.
“I was a fool, Darius,” Nadir said. “I was such a fool.”
He’d done all that he could do. He’d said all there was to say.
For them, it would have to be enough.