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Blood, Flesh, Bone

Title: Blood, Flesh, Bone
Fandom: (Susan Kay's) Phantom
Pairing: Erik/Nadir
Summary: Friendship can be a strange creature. Written for Penknife for yuletide 2006. (mild S, D)

"I'll kill you if you hurt Reza," I told Erik, not for the first time.

Erik looked at me. Behind the mask, his eyes were flat, sardonic -- /Why are you bothering to say this?/ -- but there was a smile in his voice when he spoke. "Of course."

On one level, it was a ridiculous thing for me to say. If he truly intended to hurt Reza, both of us knew that I wouldn't be able to stop him. He was the tiger and I the fool clinging to his tail pretending control; if I pushed him too far or if it amused him to do so, he could swat me aside, and I would stand little chance, daroga or no. But Reza was my child, my only remaining link to Rookheeya, and for him I would fight tigers if I had to.

I had said this to Erik once before, early on, when he hadn't met my son yet, and again as a reminder now, when it was too late to change much of anything. (Much later, when it was clear -- sharply so to him, growing (reluctantly) so for me -- what would happen to Reza, and what the only possible course of action would be, I didn't bother repeating my warning. What would be the point, after all? since action and inaction both would hurt Reza. But I saw echoes of it in his eyes when he looked at me, then.)

This second time, we were in Reza's chambers, speaking in quiet tones. I was on one side of Reza's bed, Erik on the other, and Reza asleep between us. Erik already knew what I did not; at the time, though, I didn't register the regret I was seeing in his eyes when he told me, "I would never harm Reza without your permission."

I stared curiously at that; it was odd wording. "Without my permission."

"You never know," Erik murmured. One hand, fingers long and white and cold as bone, rested on Reza's forehead. The boy didn't even stir under his touch.

I knew from the start that Reza worshipped Erik, and had done so since before meeting him, since the first moment I'd even mentioned him. It took me a while to understand quite how much Erik tolerated and encouraged this behaviour. Not that encouragement was entirely surprising -- in Reza, Erik had a purely devoted audience, with none of the caution I held, the mistrust of others, the political machinations of the shah's court.

At first I thought this worship was just a childish fancy, an obsession that Reza would grow out of.

(Then again, at first I thought he would grow out of his health problems as well...)

I entered Reza's chambers one day to find him sitting on cushions on the floor at Erik's feet, face tilted up, eyes closed, expression suffused with a sharp sort of happiness, like something that is almost too beautiful to be borne. Erik himself stood as motionless as a statue but for his breathing; he gazed down at Reza, and he was singing.

I do not know whether Erik had sung for Reza before; if so, it was without my knowledge. I had heard him before, even before I brought him home, but Reza had not. I also suspected that I wasn't supposed to know about this -- I was home earlier than expected. Both of them were oblivious to my presence, and I knew that if I broke that connection between them, the song would stop. I hesitated and then backed soundlessly out of the room, turning the corner so that I would be out of sight, before I leaned against the wall to listen to Erik's song.

And oh, oh, what he sang.

If there were words to it, and I think there were, they were in no language I recognized. And yet, just as the other times I'd heard Erik's voice, I understood it at a deeper level. Beauty, but bittersweet, flavored with longing. Need, at once desperate and resigned to failure.


For several minutes (I was never sure how much time it was) I lost myself in Erik's song, in the tapestry he wove with his voice. It resonated through my body and soul; when I came to myself again, I had slid down the wall to sit on the floor. My face was wet with tears I didn't remember shedding, there was a yearning ache in my groin and in my heart, and Erik was standing over me, glaring narrow-eyed down like some dark angel come for vengeance.

"Erik--" My voice was hoarse. I swallowed hard.

"That song was not for you," he said, more wry than disapproving.

Before he spoke, I don't think that I could have moved if my life depended on it. My body felt strangely out of my control. At his words, though, anger sent a jolt of energy that got me to my feet and into his face. Threatening him was pointless, but from me he tolerated it with a fond amusement. "That song should not have been for Reza either. My God, Erik, he's just a boy! What were you thinking?"

He gave me a long look before bemusement slid into a sort of understanding. "I sang nothing specific, my dear daroga. That song gives you an illusion of what you want most, what you need. Reza, I believe, was running, in his mind."

"--oh," I said, not quite understanding. It had been some time since Reza had truly run, and I would give anything to see that happen... but I didn't see how Erik's song could have done what he said it did. Or, for that matter, how it could be so different, what I heard and what he heard.

Erik gave me an odd look. "I wonder," he murmured, "what it was you heard."

I didn't dare answer him, and after a moment he turned and left without pressing the matter. I entered Reza's room again, and he smiled brightly up at me.

"I heard Erik singing," I said to him with feigned interest. "Was it a nice song?"

"Oh, yes." His expression turned dreamy, remembering. "Oh, father, it was splendid! I felt like I was flying--" Reza described it for me, not very clearly, like someone trying to describe a dream. It was just as Erik had said.

I smiled, and stroked Reza's hair, and tried not to think of the reasons why I had heard something completely different.

I dreamed that night of the first night Rookheeya and I had spent together. It wasn't the first time I'd dreamed of that; ever since her death, flash-memories haunted me in my dreams. But it was the first time that the body lying beside mine was tall and thin and bony, without Rookheeya's gentle curves and warmth; when we kissed, it wasn't Rookheeya's lips that met mine, and when I touched her face, it was a cloth mask under my fingers and not Rookheeya's soft skin. I woke sweating and trembling, alone -- for the first time feeling relief rather than loneliness at that -- and with an ache in my chest that wasn't just due to the absence of my Rookheeya.

Allah help me, I thought, despairing.

I had not taken a wife since Rookheeya's death. Out of grief, or loyalty, or selfishness, I never was fully sure. She had been perfection itself; who could compare to that? Who could fill an unfillable void?

None that I had found.

Not until Erik.

I'd been aware of a growing resentment towards him, deep in my soul, but it was with a queer jolt one day that I realized why. I'd assumed it was resentment that he was being a better father to Reza than I was managing to be. But he was not replacing me; the place he was filling for Reza was that of a mother.

It wasn't intentional on Erik's part, I'm sure. He would never have condescended to a role as mundane, as human, as that. I don't know what compelled him to act towards Reza as he did, as I would lay a confident bet that Erik was not capable of -- or willing to express -- compassion, at least not towards humans. Perhaps he saw Reza as some stray and ailing puppy.

But in Reza's eyes, Erik was everything, in the way that mothers were. I took second place, and I resented Erik for it. He was taking Reza away from me... by replacing Rookheeya...

With the awareness of what was happening came an unsettling worry. I had been waiting for another Rookheeya to wed, without any real hope of finding one. Here was someone who in all other respects seemed to be--

No. I cut the thought off before I could even form it in my mind. Allah protect me, no.

(So why couldn't I shake the memory of that song?)

(Because, I told myself wearily, it was Erik.)

"Is there nothing you can do?" I asked Erik in a low voice, already knowing the answer. Reza slept, but at this point even his sleep was labored.

Erik's voice was equally low. "One thing." He reached out and touched my arm; even in the dullness of my grief, watching my only son die slowly before my eyes, I was slightly surprised at the gesture. For all his sensuality, which was partly deliberate and partly not, Erik was not one for casual contact. "You have only to ask me."

I wouldn't harm Reza without your permission, he'd said once. He, who killed with little thought or regard for those affected... holding to an absurd promise he'd made me so long ago! I wanted to weep with the realization. Instead I shrugged his touch away with a harshness it didn't warrant. "You know I will never do that."

After a long silence, which was in itself a sort of answer, he said, "I know of nothing that can cure this, or even slow its progression."

"The physicians at the shah's court still say he will grow out of this in time." I didn't add that their doubt was visible even to me now. They had probably doubted before -- Erik's opinion, which was most likely true, was that they had never had any idea of what was happening -- but I had not been willing to see it before. They at least gave me hope, vague though it was. Erik... he gave me truth, and wary sympathy, and I hated him for both.

"Nadir," Erik began.

I gave a smile of sorts, a wry humorless deaths-head grin that matched the way I felt. "I know, Erik. I... have not believed them for some time." Since I started believing you, I added silently. "Leave me, please."

He touched my arm again. I wanted to cling to him, for comfort he could not give. I didn't move, and he left without another word. I stroked Reza's hair back from his forehead, and he shifted restlessly and murmured but did not wake.

"Rookheeya," I murmured. "What should I do?" She would have known; she would tell me, and I wouldn't have to make the decision alone. But she wasn't there, and she didn't answer, and I ignored the whisper in my brain that said I wasn't alone... if I just let Erik choose for me.

I dreamed that night of Reza -- not as he was now, blind and crippled and on a slow painful path to death, but as the active happy child he had once been -- with Rookheeya standing behind him, her hands on his shoulders. I could touch neither one of them.

"I trust you, Father," he said, looking up at me with a brilliant smile. "You'll take care of me, won't you." It was a statement of sheer unfailing belief, not even a question.

"Yes," I barely managed to say. Rookheeya mouthed something at me that I didn't catch, and I woke sobbing, aching, full of a dull and despairing hatred for everything.

One of the shadows in my room was not a shadow. It stepped forward, taking Erik's form -- I was never sure, later, whether this was truly what happened, or whether it was a layer of dream -- and gave me a clear, sweet liquid to drink. "It will help you sleep," he said, as much command as explanation. I drank without question, and fell back into a dreamless sleep.

I would have been within my rights, both legally (as daroga of Mandazeran and servant to the shah) and morally (as father to Reza and witness to other atrocities that Erik had committed) to arrest him as the shah ordered. And there was an even chance that Erik would submit to me in this -- not that he would remain in the shah's custody long enough to be executed; no one alive could keep Erik captive without his consent, I think -- through his sense of honor, which was twisted in some ways but true to itself.

I would have been within my rights, but I didn't hesitate in helping him leave. I never explained it to the shah, could never even explain it to myself, nor to Erik.

The past months had been hard on him, between Reza's death -- for though he'd had no qualms about the killing itself, I also think he missed my son more than he'd ever admit -- and the increasingly vulgar demands from both the khanum and her son the shah. I could see exhaustion in his eyes, when he looked at me.

There were words I could not speak to him. Words of forgiveness, words of friendship, words of dreams, words of comfort and caution and warning. Words of how I wish things had been between us.

Except... Even if I could speak those words, would he believe them?

(...would I?)

I told myself that he would not; told myself that it was for that reason, rather than cowardice, that kept me from speaking of those things. I said what I could, and left the rest to silence.

Just before he left, before I saw him for (what I thought would be) the last time, he looked at me again, and called me friend, and I saw in his eyes echoes of many of the things I was not saying. I said nothing, and made no gesture towards him, for anything I could say or do at that point would be awkward; but in my mind I leaned over, closing the gap between us to kiss his strange scarred cheek, before he rode away into darkness.



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