Here I am once again, returning from my hiatus and presenting chapter 13. I apologize for the cliffy last chapter; incidentally, this picks up right where chapter 12 left off, so you might want to go back and re-read the last bit. I've missed writing this and I'm very happy to pick it up again, so hopefully the next chapter comes sooner. Massive thanks and huggles to everyone, both readers and reviewers, who has stuck with this. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
"What the hell do you want, Daroga?"
The man stepped back, flustered, yet obviously pleased. "Aha! So the Opera Ghost has vacated his position at last. Then again, I couldn't blame you…"
I paled, stepping behind Erik, quaking with fear. We were discovered!
Erik laughed, a sound without humor, cruel and merciless. "You know, Daroga, you're one of the few people on this planet that realizes a monster like me has at least some semblance of good taste and self-preservation."
The man gave a loud snort of amusement. "You expected otherwise?" He made to enter the apartment, but Erik's lithe frame blocked him.
"The point is," he hissed, "you weren't expected at all."
"Oh, come now, Erik. You wouldn't turn an old friend away, now, would you?"
"Damn you, you insolent, nosy little bastard! What do you think gives you the right to just come waltzing into my home?"
"Erik, I really would rather not do it this way, but…"
The man sighed. "Very well, Erik. Adieu." He nodded politely in my direction. "Sorry to have troubled you, Madame."
I returned the gesture, unable to say anything; I was still in shock.
The man continued, looking at Erik gravely. "You can expect the authorities in two hours' time. I'm sure that'll be sufficient to get both yourself and the girl out of here safely." And with that, he turned on his heel and left.
"Dammit," muttered Erik. He was positively seething with rage. "Dammit, dammit, dammit." He sighed, glancing at me; my eyes were wide and I had resumed my trembling with even greater force.
"Nadir!" he finally called. "Get the hell back over here."
I watched as his head popped out from the stairwell around the corner. "Somehow, I knew you'd say that." There was a wide, friendly smile on his face that contorted his features such that it appeared he was grimacing slightly.
Then again, perhaps he suddenly was, because Erik was entirely without humor, staring at the man in a way I had never seen before. I counted myself lucky as to never having been on the receiving end of such a look; that was pure and unadulterated loathing written across his face, his eyes burning.
Erik and I stood there waiting until the man returned to us and entered our apartment; I could feel Erik behind me shaking in restrained rage the whole time. I felt timid, unsure, nearly gasping when he gripped my upper right arm too tight, pushing me towards the door, following closely behind me and casting a glance in the hallway carefully before closing the door and bolting it. To this day, I'm surprised he managed not to slam it; I feared he might have, and who could possibly come running to investigate in response.
Now that he was inside, the man seemed to lose some of his confidence; he was in foreign territory now, and though he made an effort to relax, even I could sense the obvious tension in the room. It was almost tangible.
Erik, it seemed, took no notice of the apparent anxiousness of the man. Rather, I think he only served to heighten it, still raging and storming, mumbling to himself in languages I couldn't understand, slamming things as he put them away, clearing off the quasi-table that he had transformed into his personal work desk.
He disappeared for a moment, during which I became aware that our unannounced visitor was now staring intently at me. My first instinct was to blush and turn away, which I did, but even that attempt at making my discomfort apparent did not sway him. My neck prickled with the strange sense of known observation. And, even then, I couldn't bring myself to be entirely upset at him; he must be wondering how I had ended up here, with Erik, just as I was wondering the same about him.
He had effectively called Erik an "old friend", which, though resorting to blackmail to gain entrance to our apartment, could not be discounted, in my eyes at least. The very fact that he had not killed the man on the spot was mute though horrifying testimony. Also to be observed in Erik's actions was the sense of a potential threat; why else had he reacted so? I'd never seen anything quite like it before, which, considering his latest penchant for maintaining a certain sort of tenderness in our interactions, was all the more shocking.
I reflected on all these new, alarming questions with a grimly satisfied smile on my face; and Erik said I couldn't reason things out for myself…
I shot the stranger another glance as Erik emerged from the back room with an extra chair, realizing suddenly from this awkward angle that I must have seen him somewhere before, as he was vaguely familiar to me. But where…?
"Sit," commanded Erik somewhat imperiously—again something I was now unaccustomed to seeing from him—setting the extra chair down across from his own, gesturing at our visitor.
The man seated himself with some trepidation, shooting nervous glances over his shoulder at the bolted door across the room. I saw Erik smile viciously at him.
"Regretting it, are we?" he said, sitting down in that unnervingly graceful manner of his, steepling his hands together and resting his chin thoughtfully on his index fingers. "You're in the lion's den now."
He plucked the strange little hat from his head, crunching it with his hands out of nervous habit. "Don't be ridiculous, Erik. I know you'd never harm me."
"Do you? We might have to shake some of your misplaced faith, Daroga."
"But…" He looked at me surreptitiously.
Erik laughed, still cold, though considerably thawed since the last time. "You think because she is here I wouldn't do anything? Oh, don't worry about that, my friend, Meg is quite familiar with my…habits." He paused, watching the man shrink a little under his golden gaze, before catching my eye. I knitted my brows together in disapproval, and his eyes twinkled back at me; all good fun, then. "Which reminds me," he continued, almost business-like in manner. "Come here, Meg. I haven't yet introduced you."
All traces of tension seemed to dissolve as I stepped towards the two of them, not quite sure if the calming effect was my own doing or something else entirely.
Erik reached out for me and wrapped his arm about my waist, pulling me close to him. After the shock of this morning, I welcomed this simple, familiar contact, but all the same, it felt awkward being watched like this. "Nadir," he said, somewhat proudly, almost reverently, "this is Meg."
The man called Nadir stood and approached me, bowing. "A pleasure," he said in French; for the first time, I noticed his accent was tinged with something else, another accent that I couldn't quite place. I extended my hand to him politely, and he took it, making to bring it to his lips, but Erik made a noise somewhat akin to a rather nasty snarl, so he settled for a quick shake instead. "Again, I apologize for troubling you."
"Oh, it's nothing, I assure you…Nadir, is it?" My words sounded flowery and foreign to me as I spoke. I would never have survived living in high society; this meeting ritual always seemed so false.
"Yes, that's correct."
"It's an unusual name," I said. "Forgive me, but… I thought Erik called you something different earlier…?"
"Oh, do you mean 'daroga'?" I nodded. "It's a title, you see. I was chief of police in my old country. Retired, of course," he added quickly as I took an involuntary step back, deeper into Erik's peculiar one-armed embrace.
"He has other titles as well," said Erik unexpectedly. "Such as 'political exile', 'victim of the Shah', and sometimes even 'traitor'." Nadir scowled, but Erik chuckled. "Though perhaps you know him best by yet another: 'The Persian'?"
"The Persian?" I gasped, drawing away from him a little more, crossing myself in habit, suddenly becoming a little ballet rat again as my memories ran rampant. How could I forget scurrying about the Opera corridors with the others, swapping frightening stories about the Ghost and the mysterious Persian that both haunted the place, crossing ourselves when we came across the latter of the two, giggling anxiously as he spared us a glance before going on his way? How appropriate that I should now be acquainted with the both of them, The Ghost and The Persian. It was almost comical in its irony.
And it almost made sense. Why else would The Persian have been at the Opera, but for the Ghost? Yet, how had the two met? It could have been any time during Erik's extensive travels; I racked my memory for any mentioning of a venture to Persia…
"So she was at the Opera as well," said Nadir, seemingly just as shocked as I. He moved back around the table to his seat. "Just when I was about to congratulate you on getting a girl without resorting to kidnapping… Tell me, Erik, was she before or after the one you were so utterly besotted with?"
Erik was silent except for the deep, quick breaths he was taking through the gap where his nose should have been. "Meg," he said quietly, letting go of me. I turned to look at him; he was terribly angry again, his gaze fixed on The Persian. "Meg, if you would go into the pantry and bring me a glass of water, I'd be very, very grateful." He was working hard to keep his voice where it was, nearly shaking from the effort of controlling his violent temper.
"Of course," I replied. I moved around behind his chair for a moment on my way to the pantry, placing my hands gently on his shoulders, kissing the top of his head. "Breathe, Erik," I murmured into his skin. "Relax. It'll be fine." He brought his left hand up to briefly touch mine where it rested on his shoulder—my signal to go. I hoped he wouldn't do anything rash.
He didn't even wait until I was in the back room to start. "You stupid, pathetic excuse for a piece of unmannered shit!" I heard him fume, and winced, opening the door to the pantry as silently as I could. "How dare you mention Christine to me? Who do you think you are, invading my home, troubling, belittling, insulting myself and my wife—"
"Wait just a moment, Erik, I did no such thing—"
"Shut up!" he roared, and there was a thud; I prayed it was only Erik pounding his hands on the table, or something similar. "Shut up, Daroga, and listen. You will listen to me. I wouldn't have spared you all those years ago, if I had known you would become such a damn nuisance; I'm starting to regret my decision." There was a pause; in the silence I found I was holding my breath, and exhaled, chiding myself and reaching for a glass to fill with water.
"Now," began Erik again, "I shall be asking the questions, not you. I know it will be difficult for you, chief of police as you are, so let me put it in terms you will better comprehend. Consider this an interrogation, Daroga, an interrogation where one wrong answer, one foul move, means death. Do we understand each other?"
I gasped, almost dropping the glass in shock. He wouldn't…
"You wouldn't," said Nadir, his voice quivering.
"Wouldn't I?" quipped Erik. He seemed like he was holding back laughter, but the cold, cruel kind, the kind I hated hearing. "You of all people know better than to underestimate me."
I grabbed the pitcher and filled the glass to the brim, some of the water sloshing out over the sides from the trembling of my hands. Out of the pantry I rushed, spilling more of the water as I went down the short hallway, dreading what sort of sight I would be met with in the main room.
Things were relatively unchanged, though Nadir looked like most of the blood had drained from his face, and Erik had taken to pacing slowly, his chair lying on the floor from when it had been knocked over, thus explaining the noise I had heard. I set the glass on the table, tugging on Erik's shirt as he passed me, still pacing. "Erik," I said as quietly as I could, drawing close to him once he stopped to regard me. "Erik, please… please don't kill anyone. I don't want any trouble."
He sighed. "I know. I'm sorry for frightening you, Meg. Thank you for the water," he replied, equally as quiet, brushing a few fingers across my cheek for a moment, the hint of a sad smile on his lips.
I nodded, then turned and headed into the back hallway once more, this time stopping just outside the pantry and not going in; I wanted to make sure I heard everything.
"And now," said Erik, "we begin."
"Where has she gone?" asked Nadir quietly.
"You're lucky I'm in a better mood," replied Erik. I could imagine him glaring at the poor man before answering, "She's gone into the back room to unobtrusively overhear our conversation, of course. And we shall oblige her." There was a pause, and he began once more, "What is your purpose here, and what do you want?"
"News," came the quick reply. "And a proposition."
"And what makes you so sure that I'm even interested in hearing what you have to say?"
"These are why," said Nadir. There was a lull, and then a sudden thump of something being dropped onto the table.
"Hmm…" I heard Erik say, and all was silent except for the turning of pages. Then, quiet, astonished, nervous: "Where did you get these?"
"I have connections, you see."
Erik merely laughed. "You probably stole these, didn't you."
"I'll leave the stealing to you, Erik," came his sour reply. "Don't believe me? Fine. But these are in your handwriting, you can't deny that."
"No, I cannot. Even if it was a rather good copy, the color of the ink is too exact a match." A chair squeaked, and I imagined Erik leaning back into his chair, his arms folded on his chest. "So this is how you tracked me down, you old devil. Must you meddle in all my affairs? I wanted these gone, dead, and buried, not connected to me."
"Any idiot can see—"
"Then I suppose I'm worse than an idiot, Daroga. I want those burned."
"Erik, you don't know what you're saying."
"I do, actually. Burn those. Or I'll do it, and you with them."
"Even if I wanted to, which I don't, I can't. Little wants them back."
"Dammit, Nadir, that sorry excuse for a journalist is getting into everything—"
"I know, I've read—"
"If he finds me, if he finds Meg—"
"He won't, I'll be discreet, I swear."
"You will. Your life depends on it, Nadir. If that man finds us, I swear to God I'll find you, and I'll kill you."
I closed my eyes and leaned against the wall of the hallway, my head reeling. What were they talking about now? I couldn't focus, and I felt a little faint again. Perhaps some water would do me good.
I opened my eyes but immediately regretted it, as the hallway began spinning. I shook my head and closed my eyes again, bracing myself against the wall, waiting for the nausea to subside. What was happening?
Slowly, very slowly, I managed to prop myself up once more, breathing hard. I didn't want to open my eyes for fear of experiencing that strange, frightening feeling of vertigo again, so I felt my way along the wall, looking for the door into the pantry. I risked opening my eyes once inside, hoping the dark would let me adjust.
I had guessed right, but now I could feel a dull thumping in my skull, drowning out all snippets of conversation. I thought I heard my name a few more times, but then there was an imperceptible shift to the flow and tone of the voices, combined with my headache, thus rendering it unintelligible to me. Needless to say, I was very put-out.
I grabbed a glass from off a shelf and filled it with water, drinking deeply, filling it up a second time, and then a third. The liquid was cool and refreshing, and at first my head felt as if it would begin spinning again, though the sensation subsided quickly.
Sighing, I sank down to the floor, glass in hand, my back leaning against an empty storage shelf. What wouldn't I give just to lie down and rest my thumping head? These fainting spells were getting to me, and I was just so tired.
But what was that? It seemed like a peculiar music of some sort, floating in and out of my consciousness. I strained to hear the conversation once more, but it was completely gone, replaced by this odd music of short phrases and slight nasal tones, strung together impossibly, but so beautifully. It almost made sense to me, the meaning just beyond my grasp; I closed my eyes and merely listened, encompassed in dark, and in sound.
I could now distinguish two melodies in counterpoint with each other. One would sound, and then the other, sometimes the two coming together in a loud clash of jumbled noise and notes before subsiding again, falling into their respective parts. One of the lines was lower than the other; a baritone, if I could remember correctly, but my head was giving me problems enough as it was with its soft, constant drumming in my ears, dancing in and out of the music that was all around me. The other was a beautiful, almost unearthly tenor, though it would fluctuate on occasion, dipping down into the lower register for a threatening rumble of notes, at other times nearly a falsetto, cascading back to its normal range slowly, like water trickling down a gradual slope to fill cool, quiet pools at the end of its journey. It seemed almost comforting, how familiar it was, and yet I had never heard anything quite like it in my life. The closest I had come to it was… was…
Erik. I opened my eyes, and the dark room swam quickly into focus. My head throbbed, but I sat up anyway, took another great gulp of water; it wasn't music at all, I realized, it was their conversation. There, Erik was speaking, and now Nadir. It sounded positively heated, the way they were carrying on, going back and forth.
Oh, but what were they saying? Why couldn't I understand them? It was a form of strange, foreign music to my untutored ears; could it be another language?
I listened more intently this time, determined on distinguishing meaning instead of floating with the musicality of the conversation. There—Nadir's voice sounded more natural, as if this was the language he was meant to speak, the one he had been born into. I couldn't find any other explanation as to why he sounded so strangely confident, though perhaps it had to do with the topic of conversation as well. Erik spoke again, musical as always, but it perplexed me; he was as much a native speaker of this language as Nadir was! And he was speaking fast, as if excited, or nervous. Again I wondered what they could be talking about, and why they had switched languages mid-conversation, to something Erik knew I would be unable to comprehend, no less. Perhaps Nadir had simply lost patience and felt more comfortable speaking his native Persian—if that was, in fact, what they were speaking—but I had a half-formed suspicion that there was another reason in play as well.
I took another drink from my glass, draining it, fully intending to stand and get more before returning to the main room to try and understand what was going on. But their voices were so beautiful, working in conjunction as they were, and the room was so nice and cool and dark, and my head was thumping so dreadfully…
"Meg?" Someone was shaking me by the shoulder, jostling my head around, something I didn't like.
"Go away, " I moaned, batting at the person half-heartedly with my hand, turning my head away gingerly, but it was too late: the thumping had already started up again.
There was a soft clink of glassware, another shake on my shoulder. "Meg, you fell asleep."
I opened my eyes, but they would only go half-way, and I was in no hurry to force them open any time soon. "Erik…?"
In a moment he was there, his face rather close to mine. "I'm right here. What do you need?"
"Is… is he gone?"
"Nadir? Yes, he is gone. Finally."
I made to sit up, but the pain in my head doubled, an all out pounding now. "Oh…"
"Meg? Is everything all right?"
I shook my head no, but instantly regretted it—the shock of pain was excruciating. "Erik, oh, it hurts…"
"My head," I whispered. He peered into my eyes, swimming in and out of focus.
"Let's get you out of here," he murmured, and without warning I found myself scooped up into his arms. "Christ, Meg, what have they been feeding you?" he teased, carrying me out of the pantry.
"S-same as you."
He kissed my forehead before setting me down slowly onto the bed. "I know."
I sighed, closing my eyes, feeling drowsy once more.
"Are you hungry? I'll get you something to eat, perhaps that's it."
"No, I'm… I'm all right. What… what did he want, after all?" Oh, the pounding was getting unbearable.
"It's nothing; I'll explain later. Get some rest," he replied, backing away from the bed. I could hear him moving around on the other side of the room, putting papers in order, humming softly.
I fell asleep to that sound, that music, the last thing I heard until mid-morning the next day.