First off, I don't really own a thing and all credit here goes to Geston Leroux and Susan Kay.

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Erik lay sprawled out on his lavishly cushioned divan, his arms resting at his elbows, long-fingered hands playing some unheard melody in the air from limp wrists. He brought one elegant hand to his mouth and inhaled deeply, sighing and tipping his head back to stare at the ceiling with closed eyes, as smoke billowed about him. His head lolled to the side and he looked at me from behind a stark white mask. It made most people uncomfortable; something about the nondescript, expressionless countenance made all his movements seem startling and unnerving. It was always impossible to tell what he was thinking.

I sighed and shook my head. "Again, Erik?"

"Ah, Daroga," he drawled, turning his head away from me again. "Who else would invite themselves into my home unexpected--"

"You really shouldn't let that become a habit Erik. It's quite harmful to your health."

"--and immediately begin lecturing me like a child? Me--the Angel of Death-- The Living Corpse. I've killed people for lesser crimes."

"Of course you have," I said solemnly, humoring him.

He cocked his head to the side, as if slightly confused by my response. "You know, you really should show more respect for what I am capable of."

"Don't worry. I am fully aware," I replied curtly, seating myself in a chair nearby. "But you like to exaggerate things when it is convenient to you. If people are destined to be afraid of you, you might as well take advantage of it, am I right?"

He shook his head, as if dismissing the question and sighed. "You know me too well," he said, dramatically throwing his hands up in defeat. "I submit to your infinite wisdom and insight into myself... Why don't you write a book? I'm sure there are many people simply dying to get their hands on such a fascinating study."

As he said this, his tone changed from playful banter to bitter sarcasm. I grimaced inwardly. Why did our conversations so often turn this way?

"I was only showing concern, Erik," I began quietly.

"Of course," he broke in. "You are always only showing concern, Nadir. You are always wanting the best for others, always looking for the righteous and moral thing to do. That's my friend: the saintly, virtuous, God-fearing Daroga. Am I ever lucky to have you in my life! What a blessing! What a splendid benediction.."

I narrowed my eyes, feeling my jaw tense in indignation. "I have never claimed to be a saint, Erik! You know as well as anyone that I am not perfect, nor do I strive to be perceived as perfect!"

"Ah, but you do not deny that you do strive to obtain perfection," he countered with a sly grin.

I breathed deeply. "I should think that everyone would like to improve themselves in the course of their lifetime, and do a few worthwhile things.."

"Am I then, your 'worthwhile thing'?" he asked, his tone quiet, but clear and icy. "I am honored to be the selected beneficiary of your boundless charity."

"This is pointless," I breathed in frustration, not wanting to argue any longer.

"Yes," he allowed, sounding hollow and faraway. "It is all pointless..." He was staring at the ceiling again, lost in his own world. I sat by his side in silence for a few minutes, squinting at the floor in pain from his accusations. It came from nowhere, but he must have been thinking it for a long time, and it simply came out now with the flow of the conversation. He was not even particularly angry; he seemed to merely be stating facts.

Perhaps he was right... Perhaps I was, after all, nothing but a selfish creature, and merely deceiving myself in my motives. Was I trying to be some sort of martyr in my friendship with him? Did I only have patience with him to prove I had that patience, and not to help him at all? Did I only help him to be pleased with myself for helping him? Am I looking for a reward of sorts in the afterlife for my good works? Ah, what a sly, self- serving fool you are, Nadir. I flinched as I recognized the self- satisfaction that resulted from that thought. What a maddening paradox - being proud of being humble.. I shoved the feeling aside, and immediately, felt pleased with myself for doing so. This could very well go on for hours..

I supposed, in the end it was irrelevant whether I found myself to be humble or proud, selfish or sincere... There were more important matters to consider: the situations at hand, the people around me.. Erik did not say those words to bend my thoughts against myself and cause me pain (well, if he did, that was not the full purpose at any rate) - he said them because he believes them to be true. And he believes them because it is the best answer he has come up with to the question that nags him. The question of why. Why do I come to visit him? Why do I say I am concerned for him? Why am I his friend? Of course, he cannot accept that it is because I truly do care for him. He simply cannot conceive that anyone could care for him.. I could not let him continue thinking that.

"You are wrong," I said simply.

He stirred suddenly, turning to me with his cold blue eyes. "I forgot you were here.."

"Well, here I am. Still. And you are wrong."

"Oh?" I could sense the eyebrow raised behind his mask.

"I'm not here because I want to do good deeds and earn salvation, or anything of that sort. I'm your friend, Erik. It's as simple as that."

A single word floated out into the room in his disconcerting voice. "Why?" His glowing eyes bore into mine and I met them with determination and patience.

"Well," I said nonchalantly and smiled. "No one else offers such a challenge in a chess match. I enjoy your insight, your humor.. What makes any two people friends?"

He gave a very slight, wry smile, but his eyes remained doubtful and questioning. "Ah, but we are not any two people, Daroga. One of us is hardly a person at all."

"That is not true."

"Why make such an effort? How can you sit here time and again, chatting and having tea with a murderer? As if it is nothing! You should be terrified, repulsed.. You've seen what I've done to people. What I do to people! You've seen the horrible creations of my twisted mind. You've seen my face, for God's sake, Nadir!"

"Yes, but I've also seen the results of it, the cruelty inflicted on you from other human beings. I've seen your wrists and your hands. And I know there are more scars I haven't seen," I said quietly. He looked away from me. "I have seen terrible things come out of your mind, it's true, but that doesn't make me forget the beautiful creations that have been born of that same mind. Your music, your buildings.. Yes, I've seen what you do to people, Erik. And I see what it does to you."

I paused and quietly observed him. He was sitting with his feet on the ground now, his pipe long abandoned, his hands grasping his head, which was bowed to the floor. He seemed on the verge of tears and I felt uncomfortable seeing him so vulnerable. He usually seemed so invincible and impenetrable. But I knew him better than that. I saw his strength, and I saw his pain and weakness too.

"I see you, Erik. I know you. I feel your pain like it's my own. And I know that you are more than this. You are more than you believe yourself to be. Everyone has told you all your life that you are a monster, a demon, that there is something inexorably wrong with you - but that is not true."

"How could so many people be wrong, Nadir?" he asked sadly, tiredly. "One or two, perhaps, but nearly every person I've met... Either I am wrong, or all of humanity is. It seems rather arrogant to assume the latter. Though I cannot say I have much admiration for humanity."

"I can't change the life you've known, Erik. But you must trust me that not all people are like the people you've known. After all, I am here, am I not?" I paused for a moment, uncertain, expecting some sort of flippant remark like earlier, but he was silent. "And I'm really not that remarkable, Erik - there are many others like me.. I just happen to be here in the same place and time that you are. And that is why I have a responsibility to tell you this, to make you see this," I paused. "If you truly believe yourself to be a monster, of course you will begin to fully assume that role. It is only because you have let yourself believe that, that you are what you are, and not the reverse. You are what you make yourself."

"And a fine job I've done there, eh Daroga?" he said, smiling bitterly, still staring at the same spot on the floor. I failed to suppress a frustrated sigh. He looked up at me, saying smoothly and sardonically, "This is all such fine wisdom you've imparted me with. It's a shame you are forced to deliver speeches such as this to me, as your son is sadly not available to hear them."

I inhaled sharply and stared at him in disbelief. How could he speak of that in a tone so casual, so callous and cruel, after everything... I swallowed, in immense pain, as a wave of still fresh grief for my son came crashing into consciousness. He lowered his eyes. It was a low and cruel thing to say and he knew it. Part of me knew it was just an irrational form of self-defense because he hated being seen weak, being analyzed, and was having trouble accepting what I was saying. But it still hurt, and it went too far.

"No," I heard myself reply coldly. "You took care of that."

He bowed his head and nodded a few times, shoulders hunched, then breathed deeply and raised his head slightly to stare across the room unseeingly. "You see?" was all he said.

Oh.

"Erik, you know I didn't mean that," I breathed, closing my eyes. "And you didn't mean it either. I made you do it, it was the kindest thing we could do, he didn't have a chance... We had no choice.." I trailed off, running a hand through my hair and pacing across the floor in agitation. He did that on purpose! He knew I'd get angry and inadvertently prove his point! "Why must you make this so difficult? What are you trying to prove? Why do you argue when I tell you, you are not a monster?"

"Perhaps because it is the truth, my friend," he answered, rising as well. "I will not live in denial. I am not going to fight the truth in vain; I am going to accept it, and use it for my own purpose. Someone can call a monster a monster all they like - it won't stop the monster from destroying them, from winning." He stepped close to me, and his height forced me to raise my chin to look at him, as he continued with silky menace. "If the world wants a monster, Nadir, I will give them a monster. And they will choke on their words with my hands around their throats."

"Ah, I understand," I said as calmly as I could, refusing to let him intimidate me. "It is easier to believe evil is all you are capable of--it provides a wonderful excuse. You don't need to accept the responsibilities of other human beings. You do not need to try. This way, it seems you are doing all you can. You can wander aimlessly unleashing all of your anger on everyone you meet, as if somehow gaining revenge on the people from your childhood." He snarled at me, but I went on boldly. "Don't you see that it is an empty victory? Every triumph you have of this manner is really their triumph! In the end, you are only proving them right."

A tense silence followed my little tirade as Erik stared down at me fiercely and I waited for his response. I was frightened for a moment that he would be angry at me and lose his temper, but then his eyes softened as he watched me catch my breath warily and he turned back to the divan and gracefully flopped down onto it.

"What does it matter? What is the point in all this abstract debating?" he mumbled, relighting his opium pipe. "It changes nothing."

"But it could," I insisted, sitting down beside him. "Things don't have to be the way they are. It's up to you to make the decision to change things. You could leave this place, find a new job--a real job--build a new home.. Start a new life, Erik."

He leaned back and said nothing for a long time. Then, a barely audible sigh. "I think you overestimate my options, my friend."

That seemed to be the end of the conversation, as he had closed his eyes again and refocused his attention on the music in his head, and I ceased to exist to him for the time being. I reluctantly stood and escorted myself out, stopping at the door to glance back at him, a figure of splendor and youth, holding such power and beauty within... Such potential.. beaten down and perverted... There was a man with a great mind, and a great heart, hidden away and wasted...

I shook my head sadly and shut the door. I'd be back tomorrow.