A/N: OMG it's been forever, and I'm sorry to any of you that might still be reading the story of a lowly procrastinator (is there anybody left?!). No excuses. Life got its paws on me and wouldn't let go. Yuck.

Big, heaping thanks to Barb the Beta! She saved my life and rocks hardcore for it (yes, I consider editing someone's work as a life-saving event).

Enjoy! I wrote you guys a nice long one. : )

Chapter Eleven: Following into Paradise

With a breathy sigh I eased myself under the silken covers of Erik's bed, a wriggle of my toes and a languorous stretch of my arms accompanying the grin that danced across my lips. My long, black tresses of hair lay strewn across the pillows, a wild tangle of messy dark locks. I sighed again as my eyes slid shut with lazy contentment.

A bed. A real bed, with a plump mattress beneath me, and plush pillows to cushion my head, and the silky texture of blankets all around to cool my skin. Oh, Allah, it had been so long since last I rested in such a bed as this. In comparison, the ridiculously small and stiff cot that I used back on the Laroche estate would function better as a rock. I breathed deeply at the long forgotten and yet comfortingly familiar feel of it, my mind taking me away from this dreary little place and into another world entirely. All the tiresome daily thoughts and fears that buzzed through my mind drifted away so easily, like little grains of sand sliding through my fingers; and for just this one moment, if I just forgot everything, I could almost imagine I was back in Persia; I could almost pretend that I was home.

My nose pulled in a deep breath, and I swear I could almost smell the familiar scents of opium and sweet plums as they possessed the air; a sweet and reassuring perfume that had graced the halls of the harem with their wafting presence. The fire that burned steadily in the fireplace transformed into the heat of the desert, flowing over my skin as the sun beat down upon me; the sound of sheets snapping through the breeze as the wind blew in wildly from my balcony. I could hear it; I could feel it. I swear I could.

A smile, small and wistful, tugged at my lips.

Upon my tongue came the sugary taste of gaz; the dribbling goo of honey and slight crunch of little pistachios, the wonderful sweetness of it. I licked my lips as if the sticky ooze of sweetmeats had dripped there, and imagined the delectable taste of it.

Oh, I missed it. I missed all of it, so terribly much. Despite all the pain, all the hurt and sadness, despite everything, I missed it. As I lay there imagining and wishing and aching, I felt as if that world were just barely beyond my reach. As if maybe, if I could stretch my fingers just a little further, if I just wished for it a little bit harder, I could reach out and take it back, take everything back. My home, my life, my naïve youth and all its innocence; I wanted it back. I, at least, was not fooled by my charade of indifference and capable courage. I was scared and alone, in a land entirely foreign to myself, aching for home. And Allah, did I ache; I ached so very much to go back to the beginning. But I knew I never could. You can never go back; life is not that simple.

My eyes cracked open slightly, and it was disconcerting to realize how much I had hoped that I would glimpse all those things I imagined, how much I wished that I had indeed gone back. I shrugged my thoughts away. Harmless as those wistful dreams might seem, I knew it was dangerous to think such things. I stared up at the dull ceiling above me, reminding myself of all the things that had been done to me, made myself remember how lucky I was to be away from it all, told myself that not only could I not go back, but that I didn't want to go back; not ever.

Perhaps my imagination was going further than it might; I was still feeling the drink very much. Even as I lay there, the room still managed to spin circles around me. I closed my eyes again and pressed a hand to my temple, as if to stay the foggy dizziness I felt in my head. I was woozy and disoriented, and sorely regretting having so much, now that it was starting to wear off, and in its stead was brewing a violent headache.

I glanced over to the side; in the bleak darkness that shadowed the room, despite the warm glow of the fire that burned low in the hearth, it was only a vague outline of Erik's rather imposing form that I could discern through the gloom. He stood before the window, one of his hands clutching a glass of the bitter-tasting brandy he drank; it seemed he stood at that window a lot. I wondered, with a piteous smile on my lips, if he might dream of things forbidden to him as well. If, just as I wanted to go home, he wished so badly that he could live as others; just be a normal person like everyone else, and not fear the idea of going out-of-doors to brave the crowds outside. I felt sad for him, suddenly, that he must shut himself away from the world. More and more, I was beginning to see him in an entirely different light than I once did in Persia. There, I had known him as a powerful man to be greatly feared, and respected at all times, a man with no fear, no heart, no shred of feeling whatsoever. But he was more like everyone else than he knew. I sensed deep heartache in him; a man with no heart would not carry such pain as he did. A man with no fear would not keep himself hidden as he did, with all his talent and genius reduced to nothing more than for the viewing of one lowly little slave girl.

A man with no feeling would not have looked at me the way he had, when he had asked me to stay. A look that spoke so much more than his words ever did. Surely a man with no feeling would not gaze at me as if…as if…

As if nothing. He did not care for me, he cared for Christine. For even as he had stared at me, with that barest little glimmer of adoration in his eyes, I could sense a shadow in his gaze, as if, even as I stood before him, distantly he still saw that small flame of brave hope that Christine had given him, still saw the woman that he had loved so terribly much and could not quite forget. Even when he was looking at me, he was not really seeing me; it was her he saw, her he wanted.

A frustrated sigh of impatience whistled through my teeth, and I turned to my side, propping my head up on my hand as I stared at him with a glower. What was he doing, anyway? I was dead exhausted; I wanted sleep. But it seemed rude, somehow, to just drop off while still he stood there, fully clothed and looking in no mood to sleep any time soon.

"Are you coming to bed, Erik?"

I blinked in surprise. Had I actually said that, just now? Had I really invited a man to bed? It had slipped so easily from my tongue, as if it were the most natural thing to say, as if I had spent a lifetime of scolding him for staying up too late and that he had better come to bed with me, or else. I was afraid of how normal it felt to say that, terrified even more at the thought that I wanted always to be the one woman that asked him to her bed, and yet deep down I was pleased with how right it seemed.

"I'm really not tired." His reply was distant, distracted; my eyes detected the movement of his chin lifting, his gaze settling skyward. I wondered if he appreciated the beautiful opulence of the night sky as much as I did; that glorious stretch of velvety darkness that blanketed the world far above and spread farther than one could ever imagine, impervious to the decay of time, resolutely pitching the world into the shadowed obscurity it brought each night. I glimpsed from the window a vision of the moon, at the time a small crescent strip of glowing white that grew blurred behind a patch of murky clouds. Stars winked imperiously from above, like little flecks of diamonds that sparkled from the riches above.

More beautiful than the dawn of day, more beautiful than the shimmer of sunlight playing over water, or the vibrant hue of color that took to the sky as the sun sank below the horizon, nighttime, to me, was the most breathtaking loveliness to behold. Perhaps because it reminded me so much of my mother, and made me feel that much closer to her. In my mind, the lush darkness that took the world at night was the heavy fall of her black, wild hair; the gentle, shadowy sky above reminded me of her great big midnight eyes; in the glitter of stars I saw the flash of her smile. I did not need the picture I had to remind me of her every day. In the quiet gloom of nighttime, in the gentle sway of a passing breeze, I felt her presence, and remembered her from the distant recollections of my mind. Her voice, a whispering sigh of serenity, her hands, a gentle touch upon my cheek.

Her screams…Oh, Allah, would I ever forget those screams?

I blinked quickly, holding back the pressure I felt building in my eyes; I had already had enough of crying. There would be no more of that today. Quick fingers ran under my eyes, wiping away any small moisture that had escaped, and then my head drooped back down on the pillow, a heavy sigh escaping my lips.

Erik still hadn't moved from the window. I tapped a finger against a pillow impatiently, my eyes already hooded with sleepiness. With growing determination, I slipped from the bed, stalking towards him with a firm, no-nonsense scowl upon my features. Despite my fortitude, however, my feet wouldn't seem to work right. It was a slow and staggering pace I set as the room tilted and danced about me.

I stepped between him and the window, surely looking a fool as I swayed on my feet even as my arms crossed with more boldness than I felt. I cleared my throat as I tapped my foot impatiently, waiting for him to glance down. When he finally did, it was with a quirk playing at the corner of his lips; on any other man, it would have been a well-suppressed smile; on Erik, it was his attempt at a smile.

His dark brow arched in question. I ignored the flutter in my stomach.

"A woman could get very lonely waiting on you, Erik." The scold in my voice did not go unnoticed. His brow hiked up even further, and the corner of his lips twitched as if he truly was suppressing a smile now.

"You sleep. I'll be along in a moment, I'm not –"

His voice instantly halted as my arms went up around his shoulders. Rising up on my tiptoes, I was able to pull my face up closer to his, and I nuzzled my nose against his cheek, my lips brushing against the corner of his as I purred a breathy whisper.

"Please come to bed with me, Erik," I breathed softly, "Hmm? Please?" And I pressed myself closer, emboldened by the drink perhaps, one hand straying up to brush back a lock of his hair. A smile blossomed on my lips as I heard that strangled little sound buried deep in his throat, a noise he seemed to make often as of late.

He pressed my back against the window, his head dipping down to allow his lips access to my throat. "Well, if you insist," he whispered, his breath hot against my flesh, and his sly purr infinitely more dangerous than mine. "I'd be much obliged to –"

I slapped away the hand that had slipped its way up my chemise and was gliding up my thigh.

"Incorrigible man! You know the rules." My voice returned to its hard, uncompromising tone. I folded my arms again, bending my face away from his so as to avoid those lecherous lips of his. My features had turned from crafty to pouting; it seemed he'd turned my own game against me. I didn't like it one bit.

"You were the one that –"

A finger upon his lips stopped him. "Ssh…" His lips felt so soft against my finger. He looked down at me, his expression running from exhilaration to indignation and then to something that rather resembled the way he had looked at me before, at the piano; my heart beat faster at the look of guarded affection in his eyes as he gazed at me.

"Come to bed," my voice had grown small with weariness, my eyes heavy as I removed my finger from his lips and instead took up his hand, leading him towards the bed; he followed behind hesitantly. "I'm tired." A quiet yawn attested to the truth of that; my jaw ached by the time it was gone.

In the darkness, or perhaps the drink had just made me particularly nonobservant, my eyes missed sight of the table in my way; my hip caught the edge of it and I staggered to the side, my feet tripping over themselves. Erik's arms came around my waist easily, and I righted myself as a flush spread to my cheeks.

"Please, lie down Ria, before you hurt yourself." He scolded me wearily, but I detected a vague amusement buried in his tone. I scowled back at him.

"Your fault," was all I muttered, but I had to agree that laying down sounded quite agreeable.

I crawled into the luxurious bed, a small groan escaping my lips as I settled back under the blankets and snuggled closer to the pillows. My toes couldn't help but wriggle again as I settled in, and a soft sigh gave dreamy credence to my abundant satisfaction. I turned onto my side, hugging a pillow to myself, and stared up at Erik.

During the display of contentment, I had missed him sliding into bed. Of course, earlier I had already done him the favor of removing his cravat and waistcoat, though I blushed to remember it. The only thing he'd removed was his boots; but despite the case, he had been quick, and exceedingly silent; I hadn't even heard him getting into the bed.

I was glad, however, to see that he still wore his trousers and shirt. It made me feel safer, somehow, as if the layers of clothes provided me with more protection. I rolled my eyes. As if clothes could stop the man. He was the extreme of incorrigible. I had meant it wholeheartedly when I'd said just as much.

His back was resting against the headboard, his gaze settled upon the low-burning embers of the fire as his thumb and forefinger absently stroked his chin, as if he were deep in thought. I sighed again and turned over onto my back; he didn't look to be sleeping anytime soon. I felt more than uncomfortable sleeping next to a man still awake.

Perhaps conversation would wear him down. I closed my eyes tiredly and pulled the blanket up to my chin before I started.

"Do you ever miss your home, Erik?"

"This is my home."

I sighed intolerantly. "No, I mean where you were born. Where you come from. Do you miss it?"


Well. Other than his one-worded and rather harsh answer, he didn't seem particularly forthcoming in saying anything else on the matter. I opened my eyes and impatiently blew a lock of hair from their vision; it floated briefly and then settled back over my eye. My hand flicked up irritably to wisk it away.

"Never?" I turned onto my side, facing him again and propping my chin up with a hand.

"Never. I am sure you do not miss your home. This is the same concept."

A wan smile crossed my features as I looked away from him, staring towards the window, my eyes latching onto the sliver of moon that hung high above in the winking darkness.

"On the contrary, there are many times I miss my homeland."

"You miss Persia? After…you miss Persia?" Finally he was looking at me, his brow raised in consternation. My eyes settled on him again, and I nodded earnestly.

"Of course. I was born there, raised there. It is not foreign to me such as Paris is. I miss that familiarity; the smells and the sounds." My smile widened as my head sank down onto a pillow and my eyes closed in reflection. "The wild expanse of desert and the near constant heat of the sun from above. Oh, and the food." I ran my tongue over my lips. "France has no concept of how to properly cook something. Food needs spice."

"But –"

"I know a great many terrible things happened in Persia, Erik. You need not tell me so. There is not a day that goes by that I do not remember it." My voice had turned to a low whisper. "I may have hated my people, I may have hated our custom of slavery, but I could never hate my homeland. I miss it very much, and it saddens me that I can never return."

"Well, it is not the same for me. I do not miss my home." His gaze had studiously returned to consider the fire before us, and his tone became distracted again.

"Where were you born?"

He was silent for a long while, one long finger absently touching one of his wrists. My eyes glanced down, and in the faded light I could vaguely make out the tracery of scars upon the flesh. I wondered where they had come from.

"Boscherville." His voice had gone very quiet, almost nonexistent, but it nevertheless jolted me from my thoughts, and my startled gaze lifted to his face; I hadn't thought he would answer after the length of his silence.

"Is it very far from here?" He gave a small shrug, an obvious gesture that he didn't want to talk about it anymore. But my persistence knew no boundaries; I couldn't help but wonder about his past.

"What was it like? Was it a pretty place? A big city?"

"Just a feckless little town filled with feckless little people."

In his reply, I heard just the barest glimmer of menace laced through his tone, and decided to drop the subject. My mind tossed about for a new topic.

"Well, if you do not miss your home…do you ever miss Persia?"

"Not particularly," he said in a voice feigned with detachment; in his eyes, however, I detected a vestige of bitter pain simmering. "I did many things in Persia that I would much rather forget."

That certainly eased some of my discomfort with him. He made it sound as if he truly regretted the unspeakable acts the khanum had ordered him to carry out. Perhaps the designs of all those murders, all those treacheries, had come from his mind, perhaps he hated humanity, but…I suddenly had the feeling he had not relished in it. I couldn't help my sigh of relief.

I sat up suddenly at the thought of the khanum; I recalled the words I had spoken to him, about the khanum, and him. A small groan worked it's way past my lips when the effects of sitting up entirely to quickly hit me; the room felt as if it might crash down upon me it was spinning so fast, and with a sigh I lay back down, holding my head. Closing my eyes, however, did not assuage my guilt.

'The Khanum's own Angel of Doom…what were you but a whore for her?'

"Erik, I'm…I'm sorry about what I said before, about the khanum, and you being her…well, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

Erik sighed heavily. "Yes, you did."

I attempted to sit up again, more slowly, and scooted closer to him, hesitantly touching a finger to his cheek, turning him to look up at me. I tried to smile, but it felt forced.

"We all do things we regret, Erik. Perhaps you did allow the khanum to use you, and perhaps you did a great many unspeakable things, but…it is that regret that matters now. It is too late to take all of it back, but your regret proves that despite everything you still have humanity, and heart."

He was, as ever, silent. With a faltering heart, I moved to sit right next to him, resting my head on his shoulder and slipping my arm across his chest.

"I do not think you're wicked, Erik. Perhaps you are hard to understand, and you do have a bit of a temper, but…I think you are a good man, Erik. I do. You're just afraid to show that you are."

He gave a derisive 'hmph', but his arm curled around my waist, pulling me closer.

"That," he said, in a voice that sounded almost amused, "is a grossly misguided opinion."

I couldn't help but laugh as I leaned my head against Erik's shoulder, the little sound of hilarity bubbling forth with such ease, it was hard to remember a time when laughter had evaded me and I had been but a joyless shell of a person, going from master to master and asking myself why, why did he abandon me? Why did my father go away?

A frown crossed my features at the thought. It was a daily struggle, to batter away those moments when I could not help but wonder about him. If I could only know his name; if I could only remember what he looked like…just the barest glimmer of a picture of his face…

"What are you thinking about?"

I glanced up towards Erik with a frown still on my face; my father was never a subject easily spoken of. I could not remember a time when I had even mentioned him aloud. I swallowed thickly, turning my gaze back down, my fingers idly playing with a button on the front of Erik's shirt.

"My father." I said quietly; it almost wasn't even a struggle anymore, to keep even the barest scrap of emotion schooled from my face whenever my chagrined thoughts were turned towards my father. "Sometimes I can't help but wonder about him. My memories of him are but the dimmest recollections." I cleared my throat and blinked my eyes a few times as I pursed my lips, as if to stay the wave of sadness that swept over me. "I can't help but ask myself why he left me there, at that place."

Erik was silent, no doubt unsure of what to say. My eyes flitted up to see him staring down at me, and I rolled my lips together with uncertainty.

"What about…what about your parents?"

A scowl settled on his features just before he turned his face away from me, his eyes gluing themselves to the ceiling, his countenance turning back into the grim expression of forbid that I knew so well. Not a word came past those turned down lips for several tense moments; his displeasure was evident.

"It's in the past. You'd do better to leave the past alone." It was all he uttered when he finally deigned to speak.

And I don't know why I suddenly felt the confidence to say to him what I longed for most; the words poured from my lips without a second thought, and the instant after I spoke, the regret spread through me like wildfire.

"I wish so much that you could speak to me without regret or shame…" it was whisper-soft, my voice, and drenched with the dire longing I felt to truly know the man I lay next to. I kept my gaze down, embarrassed to feel an impromptu flush heating my face, my fingers still plucking at Erik's buttons, as if desperate for something to occupy them.

In my day, I could stand before the men of Persia with a prideful chin and flow through my dances of loathsome seduction without ever a falter. But this…this admission of emotion that I felt so deeply in my gut; this dive into waters unknown that I had never before desired to swim through…this, I could not do without uncertainty; I could not do it without thinking that I would fail. I was in over my head, surely to drown within the tide of affection I felt for this man, to sink beneath it's surf and into the arms of blackest despair. It scared me that I cared so much for him.

And his response was the bitterest thing I'd ever heard. "If I spoke to you as such, you would be the one regretful and shamed. You think you understand what it is to lead a path of darkness, to follow a road of loneliness and wretchedness, but you have not a clue," My eyes dared to turn up towards his face, indignation written upon my features, and I was surprised to see the hateful glare he wore as he stared stubbornly towards the fire, the shoulder my head lay against suddenly tense, his arm around me frigidly unwelcoming. "You would never understand."

I tried to control my fury at his carelessly thrown away words; tried to breathe deep and focus away from the haze of red anger I saw; I tried, I really did.

After all that I had told him days ago, still he did not understand. My hand upon his chest fisted and fell into my lap as I turned my gaze towards the dance of flames in the hearth, a frown on my lips and my eyes glowering with anger.

"Why can you not understand what I have been telling you," I whispered in a strangled tone of both anger and weariness. "I have faced my share of demons, Erik, and I will not be told that I couldn't possibly understand the reality of life that you have faced; reality that both of us have had to face. I will not tolerate having myself thought of as some pretty little woman leading her pretty little life; it just isn't so." A small sigh of resignation left my lips, my eyes closing in the sudden exhaustion I felt; exhaustion at the bitter thought that he and I might never understand each other. And I'm afraid my voice broke on what I whispered next:

"All I want is to know you."

He was silent for an immeasurable amount of time. I felt awkward sitting so close to him, my head still upon his shoulder, his arm still held around my waist, as if both of us feared to move. Erik cleared his throat, and I chanced a glance up in his direction. His lips opened, as if he were about to speak, and then closed again. I sighed despondently and looked away from him, my hand rising of it's own accord back to the buttons of his shirt.

"How about a fair bargain?" I fought hard to keep my voice even, to keep back the glum mood that had somehow crept over us.

I felt his chin tilt down; lifting my head a bit, our eyes met for a brief second, his narrowed with suspicion. A forced smile was all I could attempt as I lay my head back on his shoulder.

"Fair bargain?"

"You know, a question for a question. We can take turns, one question at a time."

He didn't reply. I snuggled closer, attempting to draw him out of the wall of ice he'd built around himself.

"I'll let you go first." I baited him slyly, my fingers rising to smooth the collar of his shirt. A small noise sounded in his throat; I wasn't entirely sure if it was amusement or disapproval. I figured it was more than likely disapproval when he didn't make any further replies.

There was silence for a long moment.

"Why are you here?"

I blinked, turning my gaze up towards him in confusion. He still wasn't looking at me.


"You said, a question for a question. That is my first question. Why are you here? What is it you want from me?"

"What do I…want from you?" I spoke in a haltingly skeptical tone. What did he mean, what did I want from him? Was that all he thought this was? That I wanted money or jewels?

"What I mean is…what is it you…see in me. Why do you stay?"

Oh. A surprised smile tugged at my lips. I hadn't really expected him to participate in the little game I'd devised. And I had hardly anticipated that that would be his first question. Wasn't it obvious why I stayed?

"Because…" I started, and then hesitated.

Because I care so much about you.

My nose scrunched up and my lips pursed as I considered how to respond. How could I say anything without embarrassing myself?

Because I think I may be falling for you.

My eyes opened wide at the unbidden thought. Where had that come from?

I think I may be falling in love with you.

"B-because…" I was stammering now, unsure of what to say. Allah save me, my own thoughts had thrown me off. And now that the idea had surfaced, there seemed no other worthy answer.

Falling in love? With him? Was I? My heart pounded wildly at the thought.

Erik tilted his chin down to look at me, and my eyes were drawn to his inexplicably, as if some magnetic force somehow connected us. He gazed at me expectantly, his eyes searching mine, and though I self-consciously wanted to look away, as if afraid he could see the answer all too easily, I found I could not. I suddenly found I didn't ever want to look away. I stared into his too-beautiful eyes, as bright and glorious as real gold, my heart leaping to my throat and my stomach plummeting to my feet. Was that love? Did love make your stomach plummet?

Was love the reason why, whenever I looked into those eyes, my past seemed to vanish? Was that why his touch left me feeling unafraid and desirous? Was that why I felt that shocking jolt every time our eyes met, why I felt fire whenever our skin brushed? It made a strange sort of sense, to think all of that was love.

Yes, Erik. I do think I may be falling in love with you.

My eyes slid shut at that thought. Maybe I didn't love him, not yet, for how could you love someone you barely knew? But there was this feeling inside of me, deep inside of me, and I didn't understand, really, what it was, but somehow I just knew; knew that I could never want any other as I wanted him. That man had stolen a part of my heart the very first night I met him, and I had not even known it until just now. He was, after all, perhaps the best thief I had ever met. A little smile started tugging at my lips.

"Is it that bad?"

My eyes snapped open to see Erik glaring back into the fire, and I realized I still hadn't given him an answer. I bit my lip abashedly.

"No, of course not," I started, licking my lips as I considered my answer. "There are just…so many reasons why." I gave a nervous laugh. Erik turned and raised a brow at me. My eyes softened.

"Isn't it obvious, Erik?" I ran a finger along his chin, and suddenly I couldn't stop smiling. "Isn't it obvious to you that I care very much about you?" I don't think I'd ever spoken more softly. But he heard me. I read an unfathomable expression in his eyes, and I wasn't sure if it was affection or disbelief or hope; I wasn't really sure of anything anymore, except the fact that I cared for him almost just as much as I cared for the little girl that was just as much a part of him as she was of me. That, I was suddenly certain of.

But I didn't want to tell him just how far my affection went. I didn't want to say that I was falling in love with him; not in so many words. Perhaps because a part of me thought he wasn't ready to hear something like that yet. These things take time, after all.

Maybe that was it. But I knew that deep down, way down where my most selfish thoughts lived, that I was scared to tell him. Scared that he wouldn't say anything to me at all, or that he would reject me.

Scared that he would say he didn't love me, not even the tiniest bit. Of that, I was suddenly terrified.

"Why?" he whispered. I read the confusion in his drawn brow.

"Oh, there are many reasons. Who really knows what draws two people together? But there's just something about you, Erik."

He shook his head with disbelief. "I fail to see what that might be. I'm…not a very nice person. And I'm –" he raised a hand very briefly towards the masked side of his face, and then shrugged helplessly, dropping the hand back down to his side.

"Well, yes, you do have your negative qualities. Everyone does. You're arrogant, self-centered, unpredictable, very stubborn, you have an exceedingly bad temper –"

Erik frowned down at me, but I saw from the twitch in the corner of his lips that he was suppressing a smile. "Do go on. Tell me what you really think of me." I grinned up at him.

"I'm sure the list goes on, Erik. But it's as I said. I know, I know, deep down you're a good man –" a derisive snort from him. "– And a complete gentleman, and I've seen that you can actually be very caring." Was he rolling his eyes at me? "When you aren't making the wrong assumptions and taking things wildly out of hand with your anger, then you're actually rather pleasant company to keep."

"Pleasant." His voice was filled with disdain.

"And that's all well and good," I continued, as if he hadn't spoken. "But there is so much more to it than that. So much more." I kept my eyes cast down, trying to ignore the burn of his gaze upon me.

"The thing is, it doesn't matter. Even in Persia, when I thought you were nothing but a murderer," I attempted to smile at him, to lessen the sting of my words. "I still…I felt something. Even if you were still that man today, I think, I would still want to be with you more than anything."

There. I had said it. I wanted to be with him. I wanted to be with him.

"But why?" Frustration had ebbed its way into his voice. He seemed ridiculously upset by the fact that he just couldn't understand that which I had grasped so simply. I smiled shyly at him, having no idea at all how to express my words to him.

"Because…be-because…" Stammering. I was stammering. Allah have mercy on me.

"Because when you…when you look at me, I feel – ah – I feel –" like I'm flying. My thoughts shuddered at the idea of saying that. I skipped that part. "When you touch me, it's like…it is like –" it's like an explosion of fire spreading across my entire body, all radiating from one tiny little spot, ignited by the touch of your hand. There was no way in the name of Allah I could say that! "When you say my name, I feel like, ah, well –" like the only person in the world that matters.

"Ria, if you could speak in full sentences please, I would greatly appreciate it."

A hot flame of scarlet splashed its way across my cheeks as I glanced anxiously up at him. He looked like he was ready to wring the truth out of me. I shifted my gaze down again.

"It's a little hard to describe, Erik. Why don't you try?" My voice was flat.

"Try what?" I glanced back up and quickly away again.

"What do you…ah, well do you feel any…you know, when…"

"Full sentences, Ria. You're still not using them." I glared at him irritably.

"Damn you, what do you feel when we touch?"

Oh Allah. I was shouting at him now. About that. I turned away in complete embarrassment.

"Oh." Oh? Well, now I'll never be able to look at him again if that's all he has to say on the matter.

"What happened to using full sentences, Erik?" My voice was surly, and my lips pulled down in a pout. A very justified pout, damn it. He'd better have more to say than just 'Oh.'

"Well, I…You still have not completely answered my question! It is not my turn yet." His voice somehow managed to sound just as surly as mine had.

I most certainly did answer it! He's had more than one question!

I sighed with resignation. "Let us just say that I feel…nice when I'm around you."

"That's an inadequate response and you know it." Obstinate. Completely obstinate. The man never gives up. I rolled my eyes toward the ceiling.

"Well, Erik, you are just going to have to trust me on this. I care about you and I enjoy being with you, and that's that. You know, for such a genius you certainly are absurdly blind to some of your own attributes."

"Well I –"

"Ah, ah, ah," I shushed him, halting his mouth with a finger. I still couldn't look him in the eyes, though. "I believe you've had at least two questions already. Maybe even more. It's my turn now."

His glare returned to the fire. With more than a little exasperation, I heaved a sigh.

What to ask him? There was so much that I wanted to know, so much that I was dying to hear about. I couldn't fathom where to begin.

Perhaps begin where he began. A small smile stitched itself across my face. I was curious, after all, to see how he might answer such a question.

"Why do you stay with me?"

Silence stretched across the room as he gazed at the fire, considering. His expression was so serious, his brow lowered in thought. The seconds ticked by, so long that it seemed like it was hours going by as I waited for him to speak. Waited, and waited, and felt my poor, foolish little heart dying in my chest, and each breath I took felt strained, and seemed to spread a wave of hurt straight through me.

He doesn't care for me. He doesn't care for me one bit. And now he's trying to think of some way to let me down easy, now that I've gone and told him that I'm practically in love with him! Oh, what a little fool I am, what a stupid girl!

"I'm sorry," he whispered, casting a small glance my way. My heart sank even lower. "I just…can't seem to find an adequate answer." I pursed my lips and looked away.

"I suppose you could say it is for similar reasons as yours." Another glance towards me, quickly averted.

I managed a stiff reply that I found that answer as inadequate as he had found mine. A sigh escaped his lips.

"I don't think I have ever met even one person that is quite like you, Ria." I looked up at him and away again. "You are…you are…"

I'm what? What?

Another of his sighs echoed around the room, one of extreme frustration this time. His brow furrowed as he shook his head and then turned his gaze to me. The look in his eyes made me feel feverish all over. Feverish, even though I shivered as if I was chilled.

"I find that I'm having as difficult a time as you were with words. Nothing seems to explain the way I…f-feel about you, or what you…mean to me."

And then very softly, so very, very gently he pressed his lips to mine. With his hands cradling my face, his lips seemed to send a message straight to mine, saying exactly how he felt about me, and what I meant to him. It was there in the tenderness of his hands against my cheeks, and the softness of his lips against mine. It had been there in his eyes, just before he kissed me. It was there in his lack of words.

A little ball of warmth bubbled up in my chest, and then spread all through me. Right then, his lips said very clearly, very precisely, 'I care about you, I need you, you mean everything to me.' A small, choked noise stirred in my throat, and we both shuddered. I brought my hand to rest against his chest, and his heart was racing beneath my palm.

Just as gently, just as sweetly, his lips parted from mine. His hands still cradled my face as his forehead bent down to rest against mine, the nose of his mask brushing alongside my nose; maybe it was nothing more than hard plaster, but the warmth inside of me burned that much brighter for it. He let out a long sigh, one that sent that ball of warmth straight down to my toes and had them curling into the blanket as another shudder ran through me.

"Does that answer your question?" Erik's voice was a whisper, and his breath ran across my lips; I was hard-pressed to stifle another quiver that begged to run down my spine.

"Umm…I think I might need another example, please?" I whispered back breathlessly with my eyes still closed, snuggling into his chest. His answering laugh made the bubbling warmth inside of me clench tight around my heart. I opened my eyes to find him watching me intently, and that look was back in his eyes again, and why was I blushing all of the sudden?

"You wouldn't elaborate on your answers. You can hardly expect me to." I pouted at him. "Besides, it's my turn to ask again." Why is he still looking at me like that? He's never looked at me like that for this long before?

I smiled up at him, and brought an arm around his waist. "Well, why don't I go ahead and answer before you even ask?" And I angled my lips towards his.

His fingers on my chin stopped me. "You make it hard for a man to keep some self-control, Ria." I huffed and disentangled myself from him, sinking back down on the bed and flinging an arm across my eyes dramatically.

"Fine. Ask your question."

He settled himself down next to me, and I shifted my arm a bit to peek at him. He was still looking at me with that look. I hid my eyes back under my arm.

Silence pervaded the room for a moment; I could almost feel the building tension in him, and when I glanced back at him he was looking towards the fire instead, his expression serious.

He took a deep breath, and when he voiced it, his question was spoken in a very soft, tense voice.

"How many men?"

A frowned curved my lips down. I feigned ignorance.


"After me. How many times did you have to…" his voice trailed off, and he took another big breath. "How many men?"

I stared up at the ceiling above us and clenched my fingers into fists.

"I really would rather not talk about that," I mumbled unhelpfully, my gaze resolutely tracing the wooden beams on the ceiling. From the corner of my eye I saw his sidelong glance.

"Is it that many?"

A shudder went through me and I frowned, clenching my fingers tighter.


"I'm…I'm sorry."

A tiny shrug lifted one of my shoulders. "It wasn't all bad. There were even a few men that weren't interested in the more…questionable acts I was required to perform. Some that just wanted simple companionship."

There had only been one, really. But I knew he might perhaps feel better with the knowledge that my past wasn't all brutality, even if it truly had been. Only one man that hadn't forced me into his bed.


Of course, he'd tried. And I would have done so obligingly, as was my duty. But Kamal Hisami Khan wasn't interested in duty, wasn't interested in the dispassionate responses I gave him. Whenever I was sent to him, during the day I was merely company for him; a companion to partake in his reading pleasure, or to join him in a short exhibition of riding horses across the wild terrain of our country, or enjoying sweet desserts while walking through gardens around his expansive lands.

And at night, he would ardently throw his physical attentions upon me with unsubtle attempts at seduction. I did everything duty required of me, but other than that, I was rather stubbornly mechanical with him. And he would grow tired of it and send me away, saying he didn't want to dirty his bed with a whore.

For some reason, his dismissive comment always stung. But the next day it would be forgotten, and we would continue with our sort of friendship. And never once had Kamal managed to gain any form of honest passion from me. And because of that, he had never forced me.

A frown pulled my brows down as I puzzled over it. It was something I never understood, though I was grateful for it. I wondered at it, and wondered over that strange friendship the two of us had developed. Friendship with a man who rightfully should have just been my master, with a man who had seemed…somehow familiar from the very moment I was first sent to him. My frown deepened. Understanding danced coyly along the fringes of my mind, and I reached towards it, only to encounter shadows and vague, indistinct lost memories that wouldn't surface. Something that must have happened long ago, something that happened when I was only a child, maybe. Before…

Erik's voice pulled me away from my musings.

"I want you to know, Ria. I don't think less of you for it." I looked towards him and his eyes caught mine, their expression grave. "I know I've made some rather…derogatory comments towards you about that, and I want to apologize for it."

He attempted to smile at me, and my own lips curved up in a genuine smile back at him as I scooted a little closer towards him.

"Thank you." I murmured, one of my hands touching his wrist.

He was silent again, and I looked up at him, trying to brush past the shadowed ghosts plaguing my thoughts and arching a brow in his direction. "Is it my turn to ask now?"

His lips tilted up again. "I suppose."

My eyes dropped back down to the wrist I touched, my fingers tracing over the surplus of scars there. "How did you get these?"

He was quiet for a long while before he looked at me, his gaze even more serious than before. I was surprised to see resignation written in his eyes; as if he'd finally decided maybe some things he could share with me. The thought gave me abundant amounts of satisfaction.

He took a deep breath, still looking at me, and answered my question in a blunt fashion.

"When I first saw my face, it scared me. I used my hands to break the mirror."

My breath caught and my fingers flinched on his wrist as I looked down the study the scars again, my other hand moving to touch at his other wrist tentatively.

A voice took up a steady chant in my head.

Don't want to see, don't want to see, talk about something else! I don't want to see!

I scowled and closed my eyes, trying to keep myself from shaking. When I realized I'd stopped breathing, I attempted to draw in a breath of air, and when I did, my lips trembled and my breath wheezed shakily.

Allah damn you, Ria. You're selfish and horrible and you don't deserve him when you think things like that. So stop it.

With slightly shaky hands, I brought one of his wrists to my lips, kissing along the scars softly, and looked up at him with a small smile as he palmed the side of my face. He attempted to send another smile my way, but it looked more like a grimace. I dropped his wrist and wrapped my arms around his waist, hugging him tightly.

The tension I felt running through him informed me that he most certainly didn't want my pity. So I dropped the many questions budding in my mind, and settled for something slightly more mundane.

"What's your favorite opera?"

The smile that tilted his lips up told me he appreciated the gesture of a topic change, and he delved immediately into the finer workings of the world of musical art. I looked up at him as he spoke, noting with growing fondness the sudden reverence that seemed to light up eyes as he spoke. I tried to tell myself that I had changed topic merely for him. But I would be foolish not to recognize that I had done it for myself. Done it so we didn't have to talk about his mask, and his face, anymore. And I felt horrible for it.

I'm just…I'm not ready for that yet. I don't know what he hides. I don't know how I'll react. I don't want to hurt him by reacting badly.

Right, you're only concerned about him, sure. Of course it's not because you're simply scared to see the face of a monster –

He's not a monster!

Of course it's not because you're so vain that you don't want to see how truly ugly he is.

I closed my eyes and tried to keep my frame from shaking.

How can you even think that you might love him? How is that love?

I wanted to shout that I didn't know, that I didn't understand any of this love business, and that I needed time to sort things out. But I was tired of arguing with my subconscious; I already felt like I was going insane.

Without realizing it, I curled closer to Erik, unable to completely stop the tremors that were still running through me. He must have noticed and thought I was cold; quite considerately, he pulled the blanket up around us, tucking it snuggly around me before curling his arm around my waist, his fingers splaying across my hip and idly stroking the silken material of my chemisette. My eyes drooped as a yawn overtook me, and I blinked up at him blearily. All the arguing I was doing with myself was really wearing me down.

"It looks like I've finally tired you with all this talk. You should sleep," he murmured as he sank lower onto the mattress, bringing me down with him so his head rested on a pillow and mine against his shoulder. I smiled despite the bitter monologue I'd just had with myself, and draped a leg over one of his as my fingers played across his chest.

"Will you sing me to sleep, Erik?"

"If you'd like." I could almost hear the smile in his voice; it made my arm instinctively tighten around his chest, and I sighed as I felt it swell beneath my palm as he took a breath. He turned towards me, bringing his other arm around my waist as he pulled me against him. The warmth was back in my chest again, tingling all over.

And then he was singing, softly and sweetly, his lips right beside my ear, his breath pleasant against my skin. I sighed again and sank against him, and felt as if I might drift away and follow the sound of his voice all the way to paradise.

"Paradise," I mumbled in a thick voice muffled against his chest. A heavy fog settled over my mind and dragged me into sleep, pulling me towards its empty abyss. But it turned out not to be so empty, for I took the voice with me to my dreams, and there I followed it into paradise.

By the way, I love reviews, just letting you guys know. So if anyone is still reading this, review so that I'll know you're out there. Reviews motivate me, and motivation helps me get off my bum and write more stuff.