Around the opera house, there were all sorts of rumors about the opera ghost, many of them about his hideous visage, many of them specifically about his eyes. Eyes, they said, yellow and fiery, crinkled and ancient and inhuman. Eyes from another world.
Whenever the daroga heard them speaking of such things, he had to laugh a little.
Eyes from another world? Certainly…if you called Persia another world. Which many in Europe did, he supposed, and its ways were rather different, but ultimately it was still on this Earth and the people there were equally human though different in customs. As for Erik, he was not even originally from Persia, and his eyes, which he had been born with, had along with the rest of him exited a human mother’s womb.
Ancient, inhuman—ways to describe a monster when you wanted to avoid the truth: that he was both monstrous and human, altogether too human in his skeletal ugliness, too much like something you might one day become. Erik looked, if anything, like the embodiment of a human soul.
That did not mean he was not terrifying.
And now, as the daroga found himself staring Erik in the face after another failed attempt to cross the lake, he once again had to admit that they were right about another fact: Those eyes did burn with a mortal fire. They felt like a heat on his face, on his clothing. But although it was a fierce heat, the daroga welcomed it. He himself, after falling into the lake once more and nearly drowning—due to Erik’s booby traps, no less—felt altogether too cold. He would take what warmth he could get.
They were still on the far side of the lake from Erik’s house. Yet again, he had failed. Yet again, he looked like a fool.
At least Erik’s eyes, though they burned with anger, were not mocking, and his face, though hideously unmasked at the moment, did not seem to be smirking. And when he spoke, his voice was cutting but not amused at the daroga’s pain.
“Were you any other man trying to enter my domain, I’d question whether you were very brave or very stupid.”
The daroga coughed. He had barely finished retching out lake water, which was rancid on his tongue, down his throat. The taste of sewers and rot mixed with underground mud and something chemically metallic that he couldn’t pinpoint. He wondered if he would be sick. He had not vomited yet this time, and although Erik had seen him at his lowest before, although Erik had even seen him close to dying a few minutes ago, he hoped he could still preserve some modicum of dignity.
“What am I then?” he finally rasped. He began to think he was stupid lately, constantly trying to get through to a man who was better left alone. He liked to pretend it was for the good of the Opera Populaire, for the good of Paris, that he keep an eye on Erik, but he knew all too well his own lies. He’d kept coming to Erik in Mazendaran, too—and back then there had been little reason for the chief of police to continue associating with the sultana’s torturer. Everyone else had avoided Erik like the plague. Had the daroga been wise then, he would have only spoken to Erik when necessary, about business. Were he wise now, he would leave Erik to do as he pleased and live his own life far, far away.
Stupid, of course.
But Erik sighed and said, “Very much both. Very brave and very stupid, you imbecile. What the hell are you trying to accomplish here?”
The daroga shrugged. “I was coming to visit you.”
“For old times’ sake.” When Erik continued to stare at him (those incomprehensible yellow eyes! Their laser began to scorch his brain), he added irritably, “I don’t think that’s too much to ask from a man whose life I—”
“That’s the stupid portion,” Erik said, interrupting him. “You saved my life! I do not deny it. But you should know that if you keep coming down here such facts will cease to matter to me. I cannot hold myself back forever.”
He always talked like this. Holding himself back. Telling the daroga that if he didn’t stop coming he might do something he’d regret. Veiled threats, veiled insults; expressions that mingled hostility and self loathing without making the hostility less potent. He could not hold himself back forever. What was that supposed to even mean?
“So?” the daroga said. “Next time you will let me drown.” His voice came out as a croak.
(He didn’t know why Erik hadn’t let him drown tonight, or the time before. Duty, yes. A sense of debt. But every time he said it was wearing thin. The daroga would have expected the thread to have snapped by now, yet it somehow remained strong.)
Erik grimaced. “I am not always here to save you from your own folly. If I am here, you will not drown at the hands of the Siren! But it is still far too dangerous for you, and more dangerous with me here than when I am not.”
“So you have said before. And yet you have not hurt me up until now.”
“And so I must be harmless,” Erik said drily. He sat down next to the daroga. Losing the height advantage should have made him less threatening—instead he became more threatening by proximity. “I would have thought you would know better. You, of all people, who have stood by my side and seen the victims of my design!”
He reached out a bony hand and placed it on the daroga’s shoulder. “Very brave and very stupid,” he said, almost tenderly. “And far too trusting of your Erik.”
“You have never hurt me.”
“No,” Erik agreed. “But still. You are…tempting fate. Coming to me like this, so vulnerable.” He stood up, stepping back, and gestured at the daroga’s body. “Your clothes are slicked to your skin, for God’s sake. If you knew what was good for you, you would stay far away from me. My seeing you like this—I can hardly keep my hands off you, daroga. Now run along before I do something we’ll both regret.”
The daroga flinched. He had thought Erik was beginning to soften, speaking of his old friendship with the daroga and touching his shoulder. Apparently that had been merely play, and now they were back to threats. Stay away, don’t come back, don’t be stupid, don’t even speak to me. I want to hurt you, the sight of you disgusts me, I can hardly hold myself back—these were all things Erik had said again and again but every time the daroga hoped, since Erik had never yet acted on his threats, that he might sooner or later rescind them. As it was though, things were not getting better. They were only staying the same.
“So you cannot bear the sight of me.”
“You’d tempt a better man.”
The daroga clenched his fists. He’d heard enough derision and disgust from a myriad of Europeans since leaving Persia. He’d been threatened enough; he’d been ostracized enough. He was sick and tired of it, and hearing more from the man whose life he’d saved, to whom he had been a true friend, was more than he was going to take.
He stood. “Go ahead, then.”
Erik blinked. Odd to see those yellow eyes squinting in confusion. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You keep saying you won’t be able to restrain yourself. I’m not going to beg for your mercy.” He stretched his arms apart. Inviting violence. “Do what you wish.”
Erik hesitated. Quietly he said, “You do not know what you are talking about.”
“I know I’m sick of hearing your threats,” the daroga said tartly. “Either strike me, or be my friend. I will not continue to live in the limbo of your love.”
“My love.” Erik laughed, short of breath. “My dear daroga, you cannot mean…”
“My appearance is enough to give offense? You want me to leave you alone, or you’ll commit some atrocity?” The daroga had not lowered his arms. “You say a lot of things. The man I used to know would have either acted or kept his mouth shut.”
“I restrain myself for your sake!”
“I never asked you to! For God’s sake, do what you wish or let it rest.”
“Leave this place.”
The daroga smiled, and he could feel the smile burning on his face, smug and ugly. “I think you’re bluffing.”
Erik was in front of him in two large steps, hands reaching up. The daroga could barely resist grabbing at them—they had to be heading towards his neck, he was a dead man now, a dead fool—but he let his arms drop to his sides instead, forcibly relaxed.
Erik’s hands landed on his cheeks. The horrible face moved closer, closer (they would have bumped noses if Erik had a nose to bump) and then…
The daroga was confused.
Erik’s hands continued to hold his head in place. The lips parted slightly before Erik’s head drew back a couple inches again. Yes, that was what would generally be considered a kiss. But coming from an old comrade, an old enemy…
Erik’s eyes had half closed. He was looking at the daroga’s chest instead of his face. Afraid to meet his eyes, it seemed. A rare event.
But his hands were still on the daroga’s cheeks.
The daroga spoke in a voice that did not feel like it really belonged to him. “Is that it?”
“Do not mock me.”
“You who trembled with such rage, such temptation. Is that all that you feared, when I kept coming to your house across the lake? You were afraid of such a little kiss?”
“Do not mock me.”
The daroga reached out his own hand now and took hold of Erik’s chin, tilting it upwards. Their eyes still did not meet. Erik had closed his.
“If you’re going to make boasts about your passion,” the daroga said. “You ought to follow through.”
He kissed Erik on the lips.
Erik did not move away from him; he seemed frozen as the daroga had been before. But while Erik had only known how to make the equivalent of a symbolic gesture, the daroga had somewhat more experience. He knew how to take advantage of an opening.
So Erik thought he had such passion as to hurt the daroga? Such power, such mastery, such fiery will? Ha.
The daroga would teach him about temptation.
He sucked at Erik’s bottom lip, scraped it with his teeth, licked at Erik’s mouth and then, just when Erik began to reciprocate, pulled away. He kissed Erik’s neck instead—he’d always wanted to touch those bones that protruded far too obviously, and of course the trembling Adam’s apple—then took Erik’s hands and placed them on his chest.
Erik stared at him uncomprehendingly.
“You said my shirt was too wet and that it tempted you, did you not?”
“If it tempts you, take it. Rip it off. It’s too cold for a wet shirt, anyways,” the daroga said. “And no one is here to be offended—unless such a sight would grant you offense.”
“Of…Daroga, I…” Erik fumbled with the buttons at the top, working down towards the daroga’s belt line. The daroga sighed and leaned back in. His renewed attentions to Erik’s neck seemed to cause Erik to fumble even more. He felt a bit guilty, since Erik had been so sincere about the daroga’s earlier awkwardness, but could not help being amused.
“What do you want?” he said in Erik’s ear, as the final button came undone.
“You,” Erik growled, his voice low and husky. He seemed to have acquired a sense of purpose again. Well, good.
The daroga stepped back. “Me, hm? Well, I’ve been offering regularly, but you never let me into your house. If you want me so badly, perhaps you ought to consider turning off your booby traps for once and letting me in.”
“Daroga,” Erik said. He was almost whining.
“You’re an ungrateful wretch, you know? After all the trouble I’ve gone through for you all you can do is mewl about how you can’t control your damn feelings.”
“If you want me, fine! But if you’re going to play hot and cold I have little interest in such matters. It is no way to treat a friend.”
“I’ll let you into my house. Is that what you want? You can visit me every day. I’ll make you tea. Touch me, damn it.”
The daroga nodded. “Where do you want me to touch you?”
He had not thought it was possible for Erik to actually blush.
“Fine.” He kneeled in front of Erik and unbuckled his pants. The man was already very aroused—a rare occurrence with the usually well controlled Erik. He felt a little proud. “You call yourself an opera aficionado lately?”
“Let’s hear you sing.”
Erik did not exactly sing. He certainly emitted a lot of noises. Moans, growls, yelps—at one point a very loud wail, like a man in anguish. None of these were performed with the usual proficiency of a man whose voice was to him a source of pride. This, however, could be excused. The daroga also had certain oral skills—though of a different variety—which no doubt were somewhat distracting.
The daroga pardoned him.
When he was done he rose to his feet, and Erik was the one who dropped to his knees. He did so without intent, however. It seemed his legs could no longer support him.
The daroga wiped his mouth off. “Now,” he said. “What was it you were saying about restraint?”
Erik groaned. With limp hands he pulled his pants back up. He cast his gaze about for his belt. The daroga picked it up and handed it to him with a smirk.
He also picked up his own shirt. It was too wet to put back on. He turned to Erik. “Are you going to let me into your house now? I need a change of clothes.”
Erik cleared his throat. “I…suppose I might as well.”
“Some tea wouldn’t be bad either. It’s very damp down here, you know. Have you ever considered getting a flat?”
Shaking his head, Erik stood. He walked towards the boat which was still moored nearby. “You’re going to be a damn nuisance.”
“I was already a nuisance, wasn’t I? With my rage-inducing looks…”
“Oh, Lord,” Erik muttered. He beckoned to the daroga. “Come along. I’ll make you some dinner.”