A/N – Many thanks for reading, critique, comments, and help go out to loupe, D, Stefanie, and aurens. This fic was written for dialogician, for the phanficxchange LJ community.
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I am nothing, just a mirror in the palm of your hand,
Reflecting your kindness, your sadness, your anger.
- Rumi, "Hidden Music"
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My little flat in the Rue de Rivoli was by no means luxurious, but I found it comfortable enough. My modest pension allowed me the freedom to enjoy the necessities of life without worry (and amongst those I count the inestimable Darius), as well as the occasional small luxury.
Today's indulgences were an Anjou pear and poetry. I had my book open flat in my lap so that I could read without soiling the pages. I sat in my usual armchair by the window overlooking the garden of the Tuileries, enjoying the beauty of the fading autumn day and cutting up the pear with a small silver fruit-knife, when I heard a knock at the door.
I knew who it would be even before Darius opened the door to admit Erik. Though it was usually I who followed him, on rare occasions he came to seek me. Darius took his cloak and hat and retired discreetly, while I gestured to the armchair opposite to my own. Erik, however, preferred to stand next to me, crooking his neck to look at my book.
I was in dressing-gown, shirt, and trousers, and my visitor was not much more formally dressed, lacking cravat, waistcoat, and gloves. He tended to dress more casually than was his usual wont when he came to see me on certain occasions. His forehead gleamed like white marble over the top of his mask, as did his chin below. The rest of his face, with the exception of his eyes, was hidden.
"What is that you're reading?" he asked, beginning the conversation with no preface, and with his characteristic disdain for the usual protocol of greeting. "Sufis again, I expect?"
"You used to like them, too," I reminded him.
"That was long ago and far away," he said, dismissively.
"Not so long and not that far."
He hmphed, finally settling his spare frame in the empty armchair. "Poetry that's supposed to be all about God but which sounds more like a love-song." It was a statement, not a question, but I answered anyway.
"The Sufi mystics do and did often speak of their God as the Beloved," I said, though he knew it as well as I did. He liked to put me on the defensive, and I could never resist rising to his bait. "The point is that Love, wherever it exists, is divine in origin. The longing of earthly lovers is like the yearning of the poets for union with God."
"Or so they say," he sneered, provoking me intentionally.
"'In Love no longer 'thou' and 'I' exist," I quoted, "For Self has passed away in the Beloved. Now I will draw aside the veil – '"
"Attar," he said. "I remember. I like this one of his better: 'This world is like a closed coffin, in which we are shut and in which, through our ignorance, we spend our lives in folly and desolation.'"
"That one ends more hopefully, though, with wings flying to Eternity. You've only quoted the depressing bit."
"That's the bit I like."
There was no arguing with him when he was determined to be perverse. I gave it up, changing the subject. "To what do I owe the honor of this visit?"
"The usual reason," he said, carelessly, but sliding me a glance with those deep-set yellow eyes; a glance I could read, even through the mask, though his next words belied his thoughts. "To ask whether you have any interesting news. One can't stay in the cellars all the time, you know."
Here I was in a bit of a quandary, for I spent nearly as much time shut up underneath the Opera as he did; he doing whatever it was he did down there, I, following him around and trying to figure out what he was up to – and well he knew it. I offered him what news I had.
"For one thing, they're working on the Opera again."
"As if I couldn't hear the hammering! When aren't they working on the Opera?" he groaned.
"Well, then, there are some new girls coming from the conservatoire."
"For the chorus or the ballet?"
"Both, I believe."
"Then I've heard this, too! I don't know why I bother asking," he laughed. "I always know things before you do – always, daroga! Anyway, this lot is sure to be nothing but another bunch of shrieking schoolgirls. Not a real talent in the bunch, I'll wager."
"They've taken in girls from all over, this time," I said. "They're not just French girls. There's an angloise, a Swede, a Finn –"
He gave another short bark of laughter. "Yes! A Swede! They are expecting another Jenny Lind. Hah! And Finns have no voices. Perhaps the English girl may come to something…" he looked thoughtful for a moment.
"Well, you shall hear them soon, and then you can make all the rude remarks you please," said I. I decided to be rude myself and eat in front of him, since my pear was quickly browning. I popped a slice in my mouth.
Erik peered hungrily at it. "Is that an Anjou pear?"
"Indeed it is. Would you like one?"
He nodded, and I signaled to Darius, who brought him a pear and a serviette.
Erik's manners were of a piece with the rest of his behavior: an odd combination of the extremely formal and the barbaric. Though he could be quite dainty over a meal, he liked to gnaw at his fruit, sinking his teeth into the flesh. He did not get fresh fruit often, and liked to relish it when he did. He was not tidy during this process, and I liked to watch it. He ate with animal pleasure, taking large bites; his crooked mouth was not well-shaped for this approach, and the juice ran down his chin.
I often wondered how it was that he produced such beautiful sounds with those strange lips and that pale throat – or was that the secret?
"How you stare," Erik glowered, wiping his chin. "Really, it quite unnerves one. What's on your mind?"
As if you didn't know… I popped another slice in my mouth, chewing slowly and looking him directly in the eyes.
The skin at the base of his neck darkened, and I knew he had read my thoughts.
"No," he said. He had always to make a show of resistance.
"You used to let me." More often than you do now…
"You make too much of it. It's that blasted poetry. You should not think of it."
"And you do not?"
"Not as you do," he said. This stung, for I knew it to be true. I popped the last slice in my mouth, chewed, and swallowed.
"Those were good days," I said.
"Those days led to my damnation." He looked out the window, though the garden was growing dim in the fading afternoon light.
You're alive, Erik, I wanted to shout. Alive. If you are damned it's by your own hand and your own mind. Change. Live your life; I know you hunger for it. Reach out for it. Taste it greedily as you did the pear…
His gaze returned from the window to my face. "What shall I do with these?" He held up the pear stem and the crumpled serviette.
"Darius will take them."
"Darius doesn't have to bother with my pear-stem!"
"Well, here he is, all the same."
Darius duly appeared and removed the offending items; he took the plate and fruit-knife from the table by elbow as well, then silently vanished to see to their proper disposal. Dusk was now beginning to fall, so my ever-vigilant servant reappeared directly, lighting the lamps and drawing the blinds. Erik and I sat quietly, companionably, waiting for these tasks to be finished; each lost in his own thoughts. I studied him out of the corner of my eye, though I pretended to have gone back to reading my book. I knew he was aware of my scrutiny and that he consciously tolerated it.
What you don't realize, I thought, is that your very monstrousness makes you desirable. The unique is often irresistible; who does not, in their heart of hearts, long for a demon lover or for a fallen angel?
You'd find lovers aplenty were you content to be bedded for the thrill, that frisson of fear; for the sheer novelty of what you are. But no, you must be loved for yourself, and by one of your own choosing, or spurn love of any kind entirely, you who take such care to hide the very thing you long to be loved for. Your true self, your innermost feelings. Erik's secrets. I would dare to touch your essence, you monster, you wonder, but you won't let me in…
Our views on many things are not so different, my dear friend, if you'd only consent to realize it.
I cast my gaze down at my book again. A line from Rabia seemed to leap from the page. In love, nothing exists between heart and heart. Speech is born out of longing.
I, of course, was the first to break the silence, once Darius had finished and had left the room. He would not come back now unless summoned; he could be trusted. Erik had fallen into a brown study and appeared to be lost in his own thoughts.
"What really brings you here on this fine autumn evening, my friend?"
"Is it autumn, daroga? All seasons are alike to me underground."
"You should not hide yourself away."
He laughed bitterly. "It would mean my head and your pension were I to be found out."
"The government of Tehran is convinced you are dead. You'd be safe enough. I'm not suggesting you should go on the stage."
"And what are you suggesting?" he said, becoming serious.
Why do you come to me, and then make me ask? I know why you have come tonight; these times happen so rarely, but you are different when you hunger. I can always tell. You'll never admit it, though, not even to yourself. You crave this bittersweet torment, the longing, the withholding, even the pain, just as I crave the joining, the union with the beloved.
"What do you think?" I rested my elbows on the arms of the chair, steepling my fingers. "Perhaps you should get what you came for."
We looked at each other. He did not like the ball tossed back into his court, where this was concerned.
"Well?" I said.
"Erik has changed his mind," he said, sulkily.
"Does Erik need to be…persuaded?" My tones were silky, but I saw him shiver with pleasure at the implied threat. As if I'd ever really harm him. As if I could. But that was how he liked the game to be played, when he'd consent to play at all. Poor Erik, the unwilling (yet eager) victim. Poor Erik, who sought out and embraced his own torments in reparation for sins real and imagined.
I stood up, stroking my chin, and walked over to his chair to loom over him, though we both knew who really held the reins. And it was not me.
"No," he said. "Erik will be good." He made a shrugging, resigned movement, determined to fight himself no more for this night, all the while pretending it was me he was no longer struggling against. The way his bony shoulders moved within the space defined by his starched shirt was something I never failed to find both arousing and oddly touching.
"Stand up," I said, and he obeyed.
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