On his twenty-fifth birthday, almost exactly thirteen months after his father dies, Nadir Khan visits the Opéra Garnier.
Nadir has visited the Opéra a few times before, when he was younger and followed his father on a diplomatic trip to Paris. His father had enjoyed the opera, though Nadir is not entirely sure why; the elder Khan had never had any particular fondness for music before he started visiting the Opéra. Nadir, however, has loved music from a young age, from the twirling Persian dances to the elegant English waltzes of the visiting diplomats.
Charles Gounod’s Faust is on tonight. The soprano performing Marguerite was one Nadir hadn’t heard of before, but she had good reviews. Tonight’s Faust was a man Nadir remembers hearing last time he’d been at the opera; he’d been young then, an up-and-coming star, and was now quite popular among the rich of Paris.
Nadir arrives an hour early at the Opéra, greets the doorman with a smile, and wanders through the Opéra, memories of his father around every corner. Here, on this staircase, they had sat and talked; in here, they had waited for the opera to begin, in here-
Finally, he sits down in the Night Room, off the Grand Foyer, where no one would disturb him. He sits there quietly for several minutes, listening to the distant sound of the staff of the Opéra readying the stage, backstage and seats for tonight’s Faust. Still he weeps soundlessly, for his father, and for his mother, dead the last nineteen years, and for the happy memories that they shared.
“Monsieur,” whispers a voice quietly, and Nadir nearly falls over, and would likely have fallen off his chair if he weren’t sitting on the floor. “Are you quite alright?”
Nadir quickly wipes his eyes and nose with a handkerchief hastily pulled out from his pocket. When his face is clean and dry, he rises to his face and looks around the room in search of the speaker. He sees no one.
“Why do you ask?” Nadir finally replies. If the voice speaks again, perhaps he can pinpoint the speaker’s location.
“I do not often see people… so visibly distressed in the Opéra, monsieur.”
“Oh, well, in that case,” Nadir scoffs, feeling defensive but strangely unafraid.
“I- I apologize for disturbing you, monsieur,” says the other, stiffly, and Nadir still can’t pinpoint his location.
“Don’t go,” he says quickly, rashly. “You did not disturb me- quite the contrary.”
No reply, but Nadir doesn’t hear footsteps, so he continues. “I- my father died, a little more than a year ago. He brought me here often, when I was younger.”
Silence, and then the other speaks again, softly. “I am sorry for your loss.”
Nadir breathes out, silently, and bows his head. “Thank you.”
More silence, and then- “Have you seen Faust before?”
“No,” answers Nadir, truthfully. “And if I did, I do not remember it.”
“It is a beautiful opera,” says the other. “The first I ever truly loved.”
“What do you think of tonight’s Marguerite?” Nadir asks, genuinely curious. “I have never seen her before.”
“She is talented, but young,” answers the other. “Her acting is flawless, and she knows her voice’s limits well, but she is sometimes unconfident.”
Nadir mulls that over. “Would you say she deserves to perform as so grand a venue as the Paris Opéra?”
The other man is quiet for a few seconds, most likely thinking, and then says “I believe that she does, yes. She could be better, but so could anyone.”
“Monsieur,” Nadir begins, deciding to ask. “Is there any particular reason I cannot see you?”
When the other man’s answer finally comes, it is so quiet that Nadir almost misses it. “I had hoped you were not going to ask that.”
Nadir almost laughs. “It’s slightly difficult to ignore, monsieur.”
“I knew that.”
“I never said you didn’t.”
A pause, and then a sigh. “Yes. There is a reason.”
“Would you enlighten me?”
“If you swore never to tell anyone what you see unless I give you permission, then, yes.”
“Will this threaten my life at any point in the future? Knowing, but not being able to tell?”
The other considers. “It’s not likely.”
“Alright, then. I swear.”
A hinge creaks in the opposite wall, and Nadir spins on his heel, turning to face it. A door opens, and a man steps out.
The first thing that Nadir notices, of course, is the mask, off-white and covering almost his entire face. It looks somewhere between porcelain and calf-leather, and the only thing it doesn’t cover is his mouth (lips pressed into a thin line) and his eyes (gold, actually, literally bright, liquid gold).
Nadir falls a little bit in love immediately.
The other is dressed in shades of black and red; the cloak and jacket are black, the waistcoat and trousers the same shade of russet red as his long open hair, and the light shirt clean white.
Doesn’t he get really hot in that though, Nadir thinks, almost giggling at the absurdity of the question as soon as he’s thought it.
“It’s never hot in here,” the other man says, smooth tenor almost warm now.
Nadir feels his cheeks redden. Allah, he said that aloud?
Quickly, he gathers what is left of his dignity. “Last time I was here…”
“Yes?” and Nadir can hear the raised eyebrow.
“I heard rumors. The phantom of the Opéra…” Nadir lets the words trail off, eyes firmly trained on the other man.
“A phantom, monsieur? Don’t tell me you believe in ghosts,” the other man says, and even though there is a hint of a smile tugging at his lips, there is nothing betraying his emotions in his face.
“No,” answers Nadir, managing to keep a smile off his own face by sheer force of will. “I do not. But I believe in people seeing shadows and being afraid, I believe in humanity’s capability to make up an explanation for something they do not understand, I believe that those who spoke of the phantom of the Opéra saw something in this building.”
“I see,” says the other man- the Opera Ghost, Nadir is surer of it the more he thinks about it. “You believe I am the phantom of the Opéra.”
Nadir raises a regal black eyebrow. “Aren’t you?”
A pause, tension hanging heavy in the air, and then the Phantom speaks (Nadir’s not entirely sure why he’s capitalizing ‘phantom’ in his head when referring to the other man, but somehow it makes sense. The Phantom, the one and only. ) “You’re right.”
“I am?” Nadir asks, faking incredulity. “You’re not just another masked man who apparently lives in the Opéra and spends his time talking with people through walls? You’re sure?”
Nadir’s not entirely sure why, but until the Phantom laughs, there’s a strange twisty feeling in his gut. But then he does -and it’s a beautiful laugh, just as smooth as his voice- but there’s also the warm pure joy in Nadir’s gut at having made someone, having made the Phantom of the Opéra laugh, and so he laughs too.
“I am fairly sure,” the Phantom says, and really, doesn’t the man have a name? This is making Nadir feel slightly ridiculous.
“Do you have a name, then? Or did your mother actually name you ‘Phantom of the Opéra’? Because that would be-”
“No,” the Phantom interrupts, and there’s something in his voice that might be grief but could just as easily have been anger. “My mother named me Erik.”
“Erik,” Nadir says thoughtfully, tasting the name in his mouth. It feels inexplicably right. “Good evening, Erik, I’m Nadir Khan,” he continues, grinning helplessly as he holds his hand out for Erik (erik erik erik) to shake.
Erik stares at him for what seems like eternity, and then just as Nadir’s grin begins to falter he reaches out with one white-gloved hand and takes Nadir’s hand in his. “Good evening, Monsieur Khan,” he says, soft, and is Nadir imagining it or is he lingering on Nadir’s name just as much as Nadir lingered on his?
The handshake is firm but still gentle, and Nadir holds on a little longer than is strictly necessary, just because he wants to.
“Now that we’ve been introduced properly,” Erik starts, but Nadir blurts out “Do you have a ticket for Faust?” before he can get to the point.
Erik looks at him, gold eyes narrowed in confusion. “No, why do you ask? Have you lost yours?”
“No! I mean, I haven’t lost mine. In fact, I- I’ve got extras. I thought a friend of mine here in Paris and her family were going to come with me tonight, and I thought-”
“You realize I can’t go out in public, don’t you?”
“You don’t have to!” and okay, Nadir, quiet down a bit, or people will come looking, it’s almost time for Faust- “I’ve got Box Five, and there’s curtains, no one will have to see you-”
“You…you want me to watch Faust. With you.”
“I-” and here Nadir’s voice almost breaks, and he goes quiet, head down. “I don’t want to be alone. Not tonight,” he looks up at Erik, standing there silently, and manages to smile. “And you’re pretty good company, even with all the ghost business.”
“You think I’m good company.” Erik’s voice is flat. Nadir can’t tell what he’s thinking, especially with the mask covering most of his face.
Nadir looks straight at him. “Yes.”
Erik stares at him. Nadir stares back and suddenly, desperately, wants to kiss him.
Nadir starts. “What?”
“Okay,” repeats Erik. “I’ll watch Faust with you.”
“Thank you,” Nadir breathes, and hugs him.
Erik’s stiff, thin under the black jacket and russet waistcoat and white ruffled shirt, warm even through them. Nadir holds him close, buries his head in Erik’s chest and listens to the heart thumping there.
(After a few seconds, he feels Erik’s arms close around him, and he smiles against Erik’s chest as the other man relaxes, laying his chin on Nadir’s head. )
“Thank you,” Nadir says quietly as the curtains close and the clapping peters out, the orchestra starting up the quiet exiting song. “For staying.”
Erik, sitting at the edge of the box where he can watch the stage without being seen from the audience turns to look at Nadir. His eyes glow in the dark like a cat’s, and not for the first time Nadir wonders what he’s hiding beneath the mask. “It was a pleasure.”
There’s silence between them, and then Nadir says, doing his best to keep the hope out of his voice. “Meet you in the Night Room?”
“What?” Erik asks, sounding genuinely confused.
“Do you want to meet me in the Night Room?” Nadir repeats. “I’m guessing you don’t want to just walk out of here through the door with me, and I’m okay with that, but I would appreciate the chance to make arrangements for another meeting- are you quite alright?”
Erik’s got one hand on the back of one of the chairs and is gripping it quite tightly. His gold eyes are wide, but slowly, beautifully, a smile begins to tug at his mouth. “Yes,” he says, and now he’s smiling properly, “yes, but of course, Monsieur Khan. Of course.”
Nadir smiles back, pulls on his jacket, and steps out of the room, making his way down the hallway. He’s still smiling as he reaches the front room, and if happiness could light a room he wouldn’t need the chandeliers.
They meet often, over the course of the next few months. They see Faust once more, and there’s other operas (Erik next to him in Box Five, always Box Five, whispering sarcastic remarks in his ear when anyone on stage makes a mistake or anyone in the audience does something particularly amusing, but clapping harder than Nadir when it’s over anyway. Erik whispering into his ear, using his ventriloquism to make sure no one else hears as he directs Nadir to wherever they’re meeting this time, or tells him something funny that happened at the Opéra in the hopes that he can make Nadir laugh at seemingly nothing in front of all the others-), but most of the time they just talk, either in the Night Room or in some other dark secluded corner when no one’s around but the two of them- on the rooftop, in the higher levels of the catacombs that Erik leads him through with practiced elegance, sometimes in the different boxes, even once in the Empress’s box.
He talks with others once or twice throughout it, of course; he meets the conductor after an opera in which the orchestra performed a particularly difficult piece; he becomes friends with the second violinist, a nice man with a pregnant wife Nadir asks after when they meet; and one of the chorus girls enjoys telling him the gossip of the day, which is where Nadir gleans information about the rumor of the Phantom, something he enjoys laughing about later.
There’s smiles in dark hallways and music everywhere Nadir looks, and even if he does wish there was more he wouldn’t give this up for anything.
And then one day when Nadir’s strolling through the Opéra on his way to meet Erik he hears footsteps behind him and turns to see Monsieur Carrieré walking up behind him. “Monsieur Khan,” the older man says, and Nadir acknowledges the almost-question with a nod. “Monsieur Carrieré.”
“Monsieur, I would appreciate the chance to talk with you privately.”
“Of course, monsieur. Where do you-?”
“In here should be adequate, monsieur,” and Carrieré pulls open the door to the nearest storeroom, gesturing for Nadir to enter. He follows Nadir in and closes the door behind them.
“Why did you request this meeting?”
“I have heard rumors. If they are to be believed, you have been speaking to the Phantom.”
Nadir immediately straightens, turning to look at Carrieré. “The Phantom, monsieur?” he asks, deciding quickly to play dumb until he knows more about how Carrieré feels about Erik and how much he knows.
Instead of clarifying, Carrieré sighs. “Monsieur, I appreciate the effort and I am sure Erik-” and again Nadir jolts at hearing the name on the other’s tongue “-does too, but I know him. Do not attempt to lie to me, please.”
“You know him?” Nadir asks, incredulous. It makes sense, he supposes; if Erik knows someone in the management that can help him stay hidden while being able to survive, that would be only reasonable, really.
Carrieré sighs again. “Yes. I do. I’ve known him since he was born. And that is why I wanted to talk to you.”
“I- what did you want to tell me?”
“Call me Nadir,” Nadir interrupts.
“-Nadir, Erik is not- he does not know how love functions. He does not know how to deal with it. And I think you might not be prepared for what loving Erik might mean for you.”
Nadir gapes. “You think he’s in love with me.”
Carrieré smiles, not his usual smile but something weary and more than a little bitter. “I notice you don’t protest me saying you’re in love with him. No,” he says as Nadir opens his mouth to shoot some sarcastic comment at him. “Nadir, I don’t think Erik is in love with you. I know he is.”
Nadir searches for a sentence for several seconds before finally settling on “How do you- why do you think he’s in love with me?”
A laugh. “If you could hear him talk about you, you wouldn’t doubt it either.”
“He talks about me?” Nadir asks, the words slipping out of his mouth before he can stop them.
“Of course he does. You and I are the only people he talks to nowadays. It’s not like he can go out and make friends with just anyone.”
“Monsieur Carrieré-” and here Carrieré interrupts just like Nadir did before. “I must insist you call me Gerard.”
“-Gerard. Not that I don’t appreciate it, but did you only want to talk to me to tell me Erik’s in love with me?”
“No, there is something else. Nadir- you are going to have to be very careful.”
“Erik is not an expert on humans and feelings. And he has killed, Nadir. Do not mistake it. If you hurt him, he will lash out. Don’t break his heart, or he might break yours, and your spine along with it.”
Nadir stares at Gerard. He tries to imagine Erik killing, snapping someone’s neck with his long-fingered, white-gloved hands, shooting someone, blood on his hands and his clothes and on his mask-
(Don’t break his heart, or he might break yours, and your spine along with it. )
“Please leave,” Nadir says, flatly.
“Nadir,” Gerard says, expression concerned. “Are you alright-?”
“You’ve made your point.” Nadir turns away. He’s not angry, not really. He feels- he doesn’t even know, not really. But if Gerard has any more nerve-wracking revelations to make, he can make them tomorrow. Right now, he needs to process this, and decide what to think about it. “Please leave.”
A quick intake of breath, and then a whoosh out. “Okay.”
Footsteps, neither slow nor fast, and then the door creaks open. A pause, and then Gerard speaks again, soft and low. “Nadir- good luck.”
The door closes with another creak of the hinges, and Nadir sits down in the nearest chair, burying his face in his hands.
The voice is soft, smoother than Gerard’s. It’s undoubtedly Erik’s.
“Erik,” Nadir replies, voice muffled by his hands. He doesn’t look up.
Erik steps closer, clearly hesitant. “Are you- are you alright?”
>Maybe it’s the words, maybe it’s the stress of the last few minutes and the revelations that came then, maybe it’s the fact that Gerard said almost exactly the same thing, but Nadir stands up, knocking his chair over, and spins to face Erik. “No, I am not ‘alright’! Apparently the manager of the Opéra knows you and thinks you’re in love with me, which would be brilliant except for the fact that apparently you have no qualms about killing people!”
At the last two shouted words, Erik flinches back, Nadir essentially yelling in his face.
“Are you-” Erik’s voice catches, and he clears his throat before trying again. “Are you angry? At me?”
Nadir deflates and turns away, running his fingers through his thick black hair. “I- no, not really. It’s just- Allah, Erik, murder- you didn’t seem the type.”
“I- I don’t like it, Nadir, killing people, I don’t go out and just randomly murder people-”
“Then why did you do it?”
“I can’t let them find me,” and Erik’s voice almost breaks there, going rough for a few seconds “I can’t let them hunt me down like an animal, can’t let them put my body on display, no matter whether they’d kill me first or not, and they would, Nadir, they call me a ghost and a phantom and a monster and maybe they’re right about that last one, but if they find out that I’m human they will not let me go free-” “Erik,” Nadir says, and Erik’s mouth snaps shut. “Erik,” he repeats. “You can’t know they’d do that-”
“I can,” Erik snaps, and this time Nadir shuts up. “I’ve left this building once in my entire life, Nadir. I wasn't more than nine years old, and I saw the sunlight outside, and when no one was looking I ran out the door. Within the day I was in a cage without a mask, without anything. I’m never going through that again, you understand me? Never.”
Nadir looks at Erik, looks at his gold eyes filled with pain and can see, for a fleeting moment, the kind of person that would kill.
He leans forwards, closes that last inch, and kisses him.
They never go further than that, in the next few months. There’s kisses, up against the wall of Box Five behind the curtain, in empty storerooms and in corners at the occasional masked balls, but there’s never anything more. Erik doesn’t take off the mask. Nadir doesn’t ask him to.
(Nadir is fairly sure that this, this is love.)
Then a letter arrives from Persia from the Shah. It’s addressed to Nadir Khan.
He reads it at his flat in Paris, and a stone lodges in his throat.
The Shah is calling him back to Persia. He wants Nadir to be the new Daroga of Mazenderan- apparently the old one died a few weeks ago.
After a few minutes of silence, Nadir stands and takes a hackney cab to the Palais Garnier.
“You’re what?” Erik asks, beautiful gold eyes wide.
“I’m leaving,” Nadir repeats. He’s not going to lie to Erik. If the Shah says jump, he, as a loyal Persian, is required to jump, no questions permitted. And if it’s not high enough, he loses his head.
“But- you can’t-“
“I have to, Erik,” he says, dully. “You can read the letter yourself.” He hands it over, the brown parchment dark against Erik’s white gloves. Erik unfolds it carefully, hesitantly, and scans it.
He looks back up at Nadir, and the letter falls to the floor. Nadir meets his eyes.
“Nadir,” Erik whispers, and Nadir hugs him, letting Erik bury his face in Nadir’s chest. He strokes Erik’s long hair, combing out some of the knots Erik had missed with his fingers, careful to avoid the string that holds the mask in place. (One time, Nadir had touched that string, and Erik had jerked back and didn’t let Nadir within a yard of him for the rest of that day. )
They sink quietly to the ground. “I don’t want to go,” Nadir whispers into Erik’s hair.
“Then stay,” Erik actually pleads, raising up his head to look straight into Nadir’s eyes. “Just- just stay here.”
“I wish I could,” Nadir says softly. “But the Shah-”
“I don’t care about the Shah, Nadir,” Erik says, a soft whisper Nadir can barely hear. “I care about you.”
Nadir’s throat tightens. “I- I care too, Erik, but-”
It’s not Erik that cuts him off. He just can’t, can’t keep going like this, can’t keep pretending this is okay, that he’s fine, that he hasn’t fallen in love and isn’t still falling.
His eyes are wet, he realizes. He’s not entirely sure when that happened.
Nadir swallows. “As soon as possible. Probably tonight.”
Silence, and then a sigh (Erik’s). “Are you coming back?”
“If I can.”
“Okay,” says Erik, and then repeats it more firmly. “Okay.” He pulls away, stands up. Nadir does too.
“Kiss me goodbye?” Erik whispers, and Nadir is almost positive that beneath the mask he’s crying too.
It’s the first time Erik has asked for a kiss- for anything- from Nadir.
Instead of saying anything (Nadir doesn’t think he could say anything, at this point), he just leans forwards and presses his mouth to Erik’s. His hands tangle in Erik’s hair, cradle his skull, and Erik’s hands come up tentatively to rest on Nadir’s shoulders.
When they pull apart, they stare at each other.
“Farewell,” Erik finally says, perfectly composed again.
“Farewell,” Nadir finally replies, voice catching and almost breaking on the last syllable.
When Erik doesn’t say anything more, Nadir turns and walks out the door, Erik watching him leave.
It is the last time Nadir will see Erik for the next ten years.