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The Couple Downstairs

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They moved in on a blustery Thursday, the moving van interrupting Erik as he unenthusiastically stared out the window. His music had deserted him for the moment and he was watching the leaves fall lazily one by one from the lone deciduous tree in the garden of the apartment block he lived in. The far hardier eucalypts surrounding the ash tree swayed in the breeze as a young couple screeched to a stop on the curb and tumbled out of their two door Festiva.

The tiny two bedroom flat below him had been vacant for some time now. He believed the owner was getting anxious to rent it out and had dropped the price for the young pair of students now inhabiting the apartment underneath his.

He only hoped they kept their voices down and kept their no doubt appalling music sufficiently low to not interrupt him at his. He'd rarely seen the previous occupant and to be honest he'd liked it that way. The woman who lived across the hall from him worked shifts at a local hospital and he hardly saw her, and the elderly couple who lived above him were a pair of lovely septuagenarian lesbians who had been together for the last fifty years and saw no reason to change that in their golden years. They kept to themselves - old habits, Erik guessed, which suited him fine because he did the same. His life was solitary - not lonely, he told himself, just private.

But as he aged - forty three at the last miserable birthday - he felt the absence of the rest of the world more keenly. He longed for a wife, to hold at night, to spend the lonely afternoons with. Tea and toast and crumpets and all that shit, but Erik had found (long ago, in the far distant past) that he could not have love without a muse. The heavenly voice he heard singing his arias and his operas - it only existed in his mind. There was no one else in the world who could measure up to the angel crooning in his ears, and Erik had long since given up trying to find her.

Needless to say, it was when he least expected it, that the angel would come along.

He was returning from grocery shopping, bags wound around his hands. Climbing the stairs, passing the deficient elevator with a disparaging eye, he found himself stopping in front of apartment 12. The door was closed, but the voice within transcended time and space; a door was nothing to it. He stood there, bags clattering to the floor. The brunette with the wild curls and sunny grin - could it be possible the voice was coming from her?

“Excuse me, mate.” It was the boy who lived below him, and he didn’t appear to be bothered by a strange masked man lurking in front of his door. “She’s something, isn’t she?” he said proudly, unlocking his front door. “I’ve lived with her for four years and it still knocks me for six.” Smiling jovially, the lad went inside his flat, leaving Erik stunned in the wake of that voice.

She stopped singing abruptly, voice breaking off to greet her… well, Erik was not entirely sure what the lad was to he. Boyfriend? Lover? Gay flatmate? He sincerely hoped the latter, even while acknowledging a middle-aged deformed recluse had no chance with such a lovely girl. Gathering up his shopping once more, he headed up the stairs.

Erik had known, long ago, the physical love of a woman. She had been a prostitute but she had been immeasurably kind about his fumbling lack of expertise, about the mask he refused to take off even as she shed her clothes. When it was over he thought back on what occurred and didn't feel much about it one way or another, aside from that she was a nice woman and should probably be getting home to her children.

Physical love did not come into his feelings for Christine. Except, of course, when they did. When he woke hard and aching for her skin on his, or dreamt of her lips and woke just before she could kiss him. The part of him that had been asleep all these years - it woke up, ravaging and powerful, an opera singing its way through his veins and into his heart. Then, he wanted Christine.

And perhaps that was the only explanation for what followed. Or there might be others, for how he ended up in her flat with her, her glimmering eyes and endless skin. Other reasons. He was a little bored. He was looking for something to take his mind off of his failed compositions of the night before. And he couldn’t get her voice out of his head.

In that moment, whether subconsciously or consciously, Erik had found his new obsession.
"Hi!" she'd gasped out the moment she'd seen him lurking in a corridor, a month after they'd moved in. Her dark curls bounced up and down as she practically danced across the space between them and pumped his hand enthusiastically.

She hadn't even looked at the mask.

"Hello," he replied, staring down at her hand in bewilderment. He wasn't used to people touching him.

“You must be Erik! Raoul’s told me all about you.” Erik sincerely doubted that, considering he’d spoken to the lad for all of ten seconds. “We hear you playing your piano sometimes. You’re amazing!”

This, at least, was something he knew how to handle. “Thank you, Miss…”

“Daae. Call me Christine. Only my lecturers at uni call me Miss Daae and frankly, I find it bizarre.”

“Very well. Christine. I understand you’re a singer?” The girl blushed.

“Hardly,” she demurred. “I mean, Dad wanted me to major in music, but I chose nursing instead. I’d like to make a difference in people’s lives, you know? And I’m not going to stop singing. I love it, but doing it full time would drive me crazy. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a musician or composer full time,” she stammered, belatedly aware she might have offended him. “It’s just not for me.”

Erik wasn’t offended. He was charmed.

He kept bumping into her, after that. By the letterbox, or on the second floor. Always she had a smile for him, an anecdote from her waitressing job or Raoul’s latest misadventures. Her bubbly exterior gave very little away, but despite that Erik sensed she was a very clever girl underneath her sometimes ditzy exterior. Occasionally, he caught her watching him out the corner of her eye with an assessing gaze. Always when caught she would grin and shrug as if to say, can’t win them all. Strangely, he didn’t mind her looking. It was not the penetrating stare most people levelled at him, as though by force of will alone they could stare through his mask. He didn’t mind so much Christine staring at him.

After the third instance of their corridor chats, after a polite conversation on the weather, his work, and her father’s health, she appeared to make up her mind.

“You want to come in for a while? I’ve got this kick-ass documentary about the Paris Opera House saved on the TV, and we even have normal milk for tea instead of Raoul’s soy shit - hell, I’m not selling this very well, am I?” she asked, eyes wide and imploring. He’d chuckled in spite of himself.
“Miss Daae - Christine,” he’d amended at her glare. “You had me at Paris Opera House.”

And thus he saw, for the first time, the inside of their apartment. It was both more and less than what he was expecting. Much like his own, the kitchen and dining and lounge rooms were all in one open plan area. Art prints covered the walls, Monet and Van Gogh seeming to be the favourites, alongside band and movie posters. An old, comfortable looking sofa and a battered but elegant arm chair, a dining table covered with papers and textbooks, the small kitchen clean but cluttered.
He stepped inside gingerly, weaving around a pair of muddy football boots and a empty beer carton. Christine winced and coloured slightly, evidently embarrassed by the mess. Erik had the sudden desire to tell her it was infinitely preferable to his own, sterile, apartment, but he restrained himself.


“Mind Raoul’s shit,” Christine said apologetically. Raoul evidently played a lot of football and drank a lot of VB. Erik shuddered.

“Your boyfriend has terrible taste in alcoholic beverages,” he pointed out. Christine grimaced.

“I know, right? It’s disgusting. But hey, you know, as long as he’s drinking that shit, he’s not drinking my wine.” Erik agreed, but he was more hung up on the fact that she hadn’t denied he was her boyfriend. So much for thinking she liked you, old man, he berated himself. Bloody idiot, aren’t you?

Christine put the kettle on while he was giving himself an internal lecture. He snapped out of it to respond to her query re: milk and sugar, and went back to calling himself every bad word under the sun.

She sat him down on the hideous sofa and draped a quilt over him, before returning with two mugs and placing them on the coffee table. "You don’t mind, do you? It gets cold in here," she explained with a grin, settling down beside him and picking up the edge of the quilt to crawl in under him. He wasn’t surprised. His own flat was chilly enough, even though it was only May.

“Then how do you pick up your tea?” he asked, and she shrugged.

“With a great deal of skill?” she retorted, her knee brushing his underneath the quilt.

They talked more throughout the documentary than they watched. At first he could hardly think what to say to her, but slowly she drew him out of his shell. She teased out of him his favourite books, films, music; memories he hadn’t even known he had. And in return she gave him snippets of herself: Cancerian on the cusp of Gemini, third year nursing student, daughter of Gustave and Marie. Her mother had died when she was four and her father had wanted her to study music. It turned out her father was that Gustave Daae, moderately well-known violinist. Her musical talents made far more sense after he discovered that. The difference between voice and violin aside, such untapped talent had to come from somewhere.

The credits were rolling and the light was starting to dim outside when she fell silent. Erik was unwilling to let the quiet be broken as gold and pink and orange light flooded the room. The autumn sunset filled the room with a last few rays of warmth, but winter is coming, as the Starks say, and the chill was in the air.

“Erik,” she said suddenly, and like the great fool he was, a shudder rolled down his spine as she said his name.

“Yes, Christine?”

“What you said before, about Raoul being my boyfriend?” His heart skipped a beat, but he managed to reply noncommittally enough.

“What about it, my dear?” She chewed on her lower lip for a while, lost in thought.

“He’s not… not exactly my boyfriend.”

“Oh?” he asked indifferently, even though his heart was singing. “Some other form of relationship you young people have these days?” He was kidding, but his smile died at the worried expression on her face.

“Something like that… oh, hell,” she snapped suddenly. He stiffened at the irritation in her voice, but she waved it off. “No, I’m not cross at you. It’s like this. We’re polyamorous.”

“…Poly-what?” Erik asked blankly. He prided himself on being up with the times, but he’d never even heard of poly-what’s-it before. Then again, he had been hermiting for the last twenty years. Perhaps he’d missed a few things.

“Polyamorous,” she replied clearly. “It means, well… basically, being in a relationship with multiple people at once.” Seeing the crinkle of his brow above his mask, she tried to explain. “It’s not cheating or anything like that, and it’s more serious than a threesome. It’s more like being in a relationship with three people, all as equals, rather than just two.”

Erik’s head was spinning. “And you and Raoul?” Christine gestured helplessly.

“We like each other well enough, it’s just… without another person with us, we get bored with each other.”

Erik was standing before he really knew what he was doing. “I have to go,” he said, and Christine looked stricken.

“No, Erik… please, wait…”

“This is just a little too odd for me, Christine,” he said, and the girl nodded without meeting his eyes, the fight going out of her.

“I understand. This isn’t the first time we’ve lost friends because of it. People find it hard to wrap their heads around.”

He couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Typical, that the girl he fancied would turn out to be a sexual deviant, he seethed as he stalked up the stairs. But soon, his ire faded to acceptance. ’Sexual deviant’ was being too harsh, even in the privacy on his own mind. Erik decided it wasn’t as big a deal as he’d first thought, but by that point, Christine was avoiding him. Hell, even Raoul was avoiding him. She must have told him, because that was the end of his interaction with Raoul, too. No more friendly chatter about the football, no more man nods on the stairs.

He did some research. It wasn’t as weird as he’d first thought, after he grew to understand it more. And that was how he found himself at the door one evening, Cheesecake Shop cake in hand, knocking on their door.

She answered. “Hi,” she said softly, dressed in her evening attire of tank top and boxer shorts, even though it was late autumn and nippy.

“Peace offering?” he asked, holding up the marble cheesecake with the air of a sacrifice. Christine eyed him without expression, and doubt crept into his mind. Perhaps their relationship was irredeemable.

And then he saw it, the tiny flicker of amusement in her eye. “Cheesecake,” he said, jiggling the box invitingly. “You know you want it.”

Christine smiled up at him, all attempts at levity forgotten. “Is it chocolate?” Basking in the warmth of her forgiveness, he allowed a smile to creep onto his face too. She couldn’t see it behind his mask, of course, but he fancied she could see it in his eyes.

“Dear girl,” he scoffed, reaching out to wrinkle her hair, “of course it is chocolate.”

“Someone say chocolate?” Raoul bellowed.

“Erik’s here!” Christine shouted back. His ears were ringing and his face crimson as Raoul yelled a boisterous hello, and he was happier than he’d been in weeks.

“How’d you get into it?” he asked four hours later. It was almost midnight and he and Christine had knocked off three bottles of wine; Raoul, a six pack of Cooper’s. They both had class the next morning, they’d told him, but Christine had giggled, “Fuck class!” and Raoul had agreed. Erik found himself next to Raoul on the sofa, while Christine was curled up in the worn armchair.

Christine and Raoul glanced at one another, and neither of them had to ask what he meant. “Ladies first,” he said, taking a deep pull of beer. Christine flipped him the bird.

“But my story’s longer, it‘s not fair,” she complained, but sobered quickly. “The short version is, I’ve never been able to love just one person at a time,” she said. “Always two, or three, even four. I thought there was something wrong with me.”

“Whereas I’m just straight up bisexual,” Raoul interrupted. “Date a bloke, miss girls. Go out with a chick, crave a dude. It wasn’t until I met Chris that I hit a happy medium.”

“Don’t call me Chris,” she replied tartly, nibbling a slice of Jamaican chocolate cheesecake thoughtfully. Raoul, seeing she was busy indulging, picked up the story.

“We met about five years ago, when I moved to her high school. Christine was dating some stupid bastard -”

“He wasn’t, he was nice -”

“But that didn’t last long. And a year after that, we took the same girl to our year twelve formal -”

“Emily Graves, she was so hot -”

“And after high school we took a gap year, went travelling around Europe. Met some crazy people, did some stupid things, and eventually -”

“We met some people like us. Joe and Anastasia, and their girlfriend Chloe, in London. And then Sophia and Claudia in Paris, Sophia was a lesbian but Claudia was bi, so they used to hook up with guys casually. And -”

“The point is,” Raoul finished up, “We worked out what we were and what we liked. When we got home, Christine and I got jobs at the restaurant to pay for all the debts we incurred while we were overseas. It was too late to apply for uni, but the following year, she got into nursing and I got into teaching.”

“And now you’re in your third year?”

“Yes,” Christine sighed. “I have like six months of placements coming up and Raoul is rediscovering his hatred for high school maths.”

Erik’s head was spinning, and it must have showed in his eyes. “Erik, you look confused,” Christine said, and he shrugged helplessly.

“Not for the reason you think,” he replied. “You’ve done so much, packed so much living into such short lives. I’ve lived almost twice as long as you, and what have I got to show for it?”

“Financial stability?” Raoul ventured.

“Hundred of completed operas?” Christine wondered.

“No,” he replied. “Just an empty apartment, and hollow music.” And maybe he was drunk, but there were tears pricking at his eyes. Wordlessly, Raoul squeezed his shoulder, and Christine stumbled to her feet to clumsily perch on the arm of the sofa. A blink, and her soft arms were around him. It was the first hug he’d had in over thirty years.

“You know,” she said, her chin resting on his forehead, his mask a hairsbreadth from her shoulder. “We might be kind of weird, and probably a bit crazy to boot, but we consider you our friend, which makes us yours. So… I suppose that’s better than nothing, right?”

It took him a moment to find his voice. “Indeed,” he replied a trifle unevenly, as Christine released him. “Far better than nothing.”

The next morning, he woke up uncomfortable and with a headache, and light spiking at his eyes. There was rustling, the curtain flapping at the open window, and he could see a body on the floor out the corner of his eye. Blinking, he lifted his head, and Raoul came into focus. Snoring lightly, hugging a pillow and under a quilt, Erik grinned. The kid was at least two hours late to his morning tutorial.

“Coffee?” asked Christine’s chiming voice from the kitchen. Erik shuddered, and Raoul groaned. “Yes,” he said, as Erik said, “Good God, no.”

“More for me,” the lad yawned, crawling up onto the sofa beside Erik. “You look like shit,” he said, and Erik tensed for a moment before realising the joking tone in the younger man’s voice.

“I always do,” he replied. For a moment, the room was very still.

“Is that why you wear the mask?” Christine asked, but when he looked up at her, she was focussing on pouring the tea and stirring Raoul’s coffee. Raoul, too, was determinedly not looking at him, as he checked the morning Facebook posts on his news feed.

“Yes, Miss Daae,” he said, unconsciously reverting to the formal term of address he’d used for her before he knew her. She made a face at him, and he amended, “Yes, Christine.” He was rewarded by her smile.

“Fair enough,” Raoul put in, sipping his coffee gingerly. “But, you know, we’re pretty accepting people. I mean, you’re cool with our alternative sexual lifestyle, I’m pretty sure we can handle your alternative face.” For a moment, offence and amusement warred within him, but amusement won. Erik felt a grudging smile stretch his face.

“I’ll keep that in mind, Mr de Chagny,” he mocked gently, and Raoul choked on his coffee.
“Yeah, that does sound weird,” he said to no one in particular, as Christine giggled.
Which is how Erik found himself with two best mates, just like that.

xx

Raoul and Christine were… unusual, to say the least. For a start, the heating in their flat often failed, leaving them to curl up under blankets in the lounge in the evenings. Raoul ate at least twice as much as Christine and twice as frequently, while she frequently forgot to buy milk and was occasionally at Erik’s door to borrow some for her morning tea. Christine usually worked the evening shift at the restaurant waiting tables, while Raoul worked in the kitchen under the head chef. “Hellish,” he had shuddered fervently when Erik asked him what it was like, and Christine agreed. “Like purgatory ruled over by a five foot French Hitler,” she’d elaborated. One night, he had braved the stares of strangers to venture into their restaurant, watching Raoul’s harried face appear occasionally, or admiring the way Christine’s short black skirt and white shirt emphasized her curves. Christine had stopped briefly to give him a hug and recommend the chicken, and he’d floated home, buoyed by half a bottle of red and the memory of her touch.

Foolishly, he opened a bottle of scotch when he got home, knowing he’d be feeling it in the morning for mixing his drinks. But Erik’s best emotional soul snatching was done blind drunk, as he’d discovered many years ago. In Iran, as a matter of fact, with an old friend.

So far, he’d been visiting them in their flat below him. They had never stepped into his home. It was the last barrier, of sorts; a physical representation of the final obstacle to an uninhibited friendship. Even when Christine knocked on the door early in the morning for milk, she waited patiently outside of his apartment. She seemed to know his space was important to him, almost sacred; to let others into his home was to metaphorically let them into his heart. And that scared the living daylights out of him. Erik and his heart were more carefully guarded than the average bank vault.

Raoul and Christine had managed to wrangle an unexpected night off from the restaurant. Thusly, they insisted, the only appropriate way to spend the evening, was having a Mummy marathon. Erik had never seen the three Mummy movies or the Scorpion King, for that matter. “It’ll take about eight hours!” Raoul reminded his flatmate, who pointed her wooden spoon at him.

“It’s only four o clock!” she protested, stirring the hearty stew. “What have we got to do tomorrow morning? There’s no uni, no work until five o clock! We can sleep all morning!”

“Erik might have something to do,” Raoul protested. “Erik, are you busy tomorrow?” Erik arched one droll eyebrow at the younger man, even as he knew Raoul couldn’t see beneath his mask, but the lad seemed to get the point regardless. “Yes, we know, Maestro, you’re self-employed and a musical genius and all that but, I don’t know, you might have groceries or laundry or a date?”

“In the morning?” Christine asked quizzically, as Erik choked incredulously and rasped out, “A date?” Raoul looked uncomfortable.

“Yeah, or have to do laundry or something - dates aren’t that extraordinary!” he defended. “I had one just the other day -”

“Did you now?” Christine asked keenly, frowning through her spectacles at her flatmate as she looked up from her newspaper. “You didn’t tell me about that.”

Raoul opened his mouth, closed it, and appeared to give up on the whole argument. “The Mummy it is,” he said, resigned.

All their evenings seemed to end in late night movies and group tipsiness, Erik reflected. It wasn’t entirely an unpleasant way to live, if only in the short term. “Who’d you go on a date with?” Erik asked idly seven hours later. Christine was curled up in her armchair, apparently asleep. Raoul contemplated his empty bottle thoughtfully, deliberating whether to get another or stay in his spot. Laziness won out, and he set the bottle on the coffee table.

“Guy named Jarred,” he replied. “Nice bloke, but there wasn’t really a spark, you know?”

“No, I wouldn’t know,” Erik retorted dryly. “I’ve never been on a date.”

“Never?” Christine asked drowsily. “Not even in school?”

Erik chuckled, but there was no amusement in it. “Christine,” he drawled. “In school I was a masked loser who got the living daylights beat out of him until he grew a foot taller practically overnight. I put three kids in hospital, and after that, no one would talk to me anymore. Least of all any girls I might be interested in.” Raoul groaned, and reached for his wallet. Christine held out one small hand imperiously, and Raoul put a twenty into it.

“Thank you, dear one,” she said, tucking it into a pocket. Erik regarded them with confusion.

“You bet on whether I beat up kids in school?” he asked, genuinely curious, and Christine chortled.

“No. We bet on whether you were straight or gay,” she replied, and Erik found the corners of his mouth lifting.

“Give it back, Christine,” he said tartly. “I’m undecided.”

The looks on their faces was worth it.

As far as he could tell, they didn’t have a partner at the moment, despite Raoul‘s odd date here and there. “We used to be with Jemima, and before her, Darren,” Christine reminisced over pasta a few nights later. “Jemima was gorgeous.” Raoul held his hands out from his chest in a universal gesture indicating Jemima was particularly well endowed in the breast department. “And Darren was a good bloke. But he met someone else, and Jem went a bit weird toward the end there. Got very possessive of old Blondie, here.”

Raoul shrugged modestly, but Erik could see where the unknown ex girlfriend was coming from. Raoul was a tall lad in his early twenties, blonde hair down to his collar, warm brown eyes that looked unusual on such a light haired boy. Broad shoulders and muscled arms belied Erik’s use of ‘lad’ or ‘kid’ when referencing Raoul, but he did have a certain immature charm, Erik reflected. A solid understanding of the world, yet he was possessed of a hopeful optimism that was often mistaken for naiveté.

By contrast, his flatmate and sometimes lover was dark haired and blue eyed, generous of hip and breast, and shorter than Raoul and Erik by more than a head. Yet she undoubtedly ruled their little flat, wielding her power with small dainty hands holding a large wooden spoon. Christine was short and sexy and Raoul was tall and sexy and Erik felt utterly hideous beside them. Later that night, safe back in his apartment with a tumbler of scotch beside him, he set the only mirror he had on his desk. A clean, white mask looked back at him, eyes glinting in the half light. With only a candle burning, he slipped the mask from his face, eyes wedged tightly shut.

Fumbling, he drank straight from the bottle of scotch, the burning tightening his throat and searing his eyes. Dragging his forearm across his face, he steeled himself, and opened his eyes.

Erik thought he was accustomed to his face, right up until he looked at it again. Usually he shaved by touch alone in the shower, decades making him deft, and he rarely cut the fine skin of his cheeks and chin. But now? Now he could see everything, despite the semidarkness. He’d always had good eyesight.

The first thing he saw was the ruin of his nose, a shadowy void in the middle of his face. Next, the sunken hollows of his eyes, golden and unnaturally bright, as they’d always been. Lips too thin to be considered human, high cheekbones that on another man would be attractive, and eyebrows that were almost normal, really. Long eyelashes the same inky colour as his hair, what little there was of it these days. At least he’d never considered wearing a wig. For the most part, his hair covered his head and anyway, most people were too busy eyeing up his mask to notice.

Erik was not prone to overlong contemplation of his looks, and indeed it took several stiff drinks for him to even bear the sight. Thus the mirror went back where it belonged, in the back of the hall closet, and he crawled into bed, hair in disarray from running his fingers through it. But, despite thoroughly reacquainted with his own hideousness, even in his dreams he felt Christine’s hand entwined with his own. (And someone else’s, perhaps?)

In the morning he awoke with an alcohol headache and legs tangled in his sheets, and he did not remember what he dreamed.

xx

“Want to watch Lord of the Rings?” Christine asked, and Erik did a double take.

“I presume you mean read, Miss Daae?” They knew one another well enough by now that the formality was more of an endearment, but she wrinkled her nose up at him anyway.

“No, watch, Mr… Erik, I don’t even know your last name!” she said in astonishment. “Do you have one?”

“Does he have one!” Raoul snorted, up to his elbows in textbooks and journal articles, but still able to have a sarcastic comment at the ready. “Of course he has one, it’s… it’s…Erik, what‘s your surname again?”

“Again? Raoul, you never knew it in the first place,” Christine bickered, but her flatmate was immersed again in his essay. “Well?” she asked Erik, hands on hips. “What is it? Something pretentious and French?”

“Hardly,” he replied.

“That’s a weird last name,” Christine considered. He started to argue, but saw the glint in her eye.

“Wench,” he said, only half teasing. “Thorne.”

“Like the thing on a rose?”

“Very like, but with an E on the end.”

“Cool,” Raoul said absently. “Christine, can you check my Harvard referencing?”

“Check it yourself,” she growled at him, but crossed the room regardless to peer over his shoulder. “Budge up, then.” She read rapidly, eyes flicking back and forward. “So, Lord of the Rings,” she said. “They made it into movies.”

“When?” Erik asked in astonishment. Christine nibbled her thumbnail as she corrected Raoul’s essay.

“I don’t know, a few years ago? They’ve even made the Hobbit into a trilogy.”

“It’s awesome,” Raoul put in from where he was making himself industrial-strength coffee. Looks like the lad was in for an all nighter, Erik reflected wryly. “I’ll have to take a raincheck, Christmas. This is due tomorrow morning.”

“Christmas?” she muttered in irritation. “Are you fundamentally incapable of getting my name right? We’ve known each other for years!”

“I know your name well enough,” Raoul replied offhandedly, eyeing Erik as he stood and gently elbowed Christine out of the way. “I just like the reaction I get - Erik, what are you doing?”

There was silence as Erik read the half of the essay Raoul had already completed and examined the lad’s notes. “You’re on the right track,” he said. “Focus on discussing your interpretation of how it should be taught, as opposed to the established conventions. Creativity is always worth more than rhetoric.” He stood, only then noticing that they were staring at him as quickly he penned a few ideas for the lad to explore.

“How do you know anything about teaching?” Raoul asked, and for a moment Erik considered telling them how intelligent he really was, before deciding against it. It wouldn’t do to brag, after all.


“I know a little about a lot of things, Raoul,” he retorted. “My best friend in Iran was a teacher. You pick up bits and pieces here and there.”

“Thanks, man,” Raoul said, clapping him on the shoulder as they switched places. “Now, can you write the whole bloody thing for me?”

“Very well,” he said smoothly, enjoying Christine’s gasp.

“That’s cheating!” she said in astonishment, but it was impressed astonishment, not outraged.
“Only if anyone finds out, Miss Daae,” he retorted, and then astonished himself by giving her a suggestive wink.

He excused himself into the bathroom while Christine hunted for the Lord of the Rings DVDs. Business concluded, he perched on the closed loo, trying to gather his thoughts. Flirting, for God’s sake! He was too old for this, and yet he felt younger than he had in years. Strange times indeed.

“I know he says he’s ugly and all, but those shoulders!” Erik blinked, and realised he was shamelessly eavesdropping. He also realised he didn’t care.

“Shut up, I’m focussing. If you want an ‘Erik is extremely shaggable’ discussion, you’ll have to wait for my coffee break. Or preferably when he’s out of the house in case he can overhear us.”

“Don’t be stupid, you know how thick the bathroom door is. It’s like a bunker in there.” True, but they didn’t know about his Vulcan hearing.

“Fair enough. Have you seen his hands?”

“I know, right? Last night I had a dream they were on my -”

He forced himself to stop listening after that. Clattering about with excess noise, he washed his hands and returned to the lounge-kitchen-dining room. “Find them?” he asked, attempting to act normal. Christine nodded, but her flatmate beat her to it.

“Yeah, they were behind the microwave. No idea how they got there,” Raoul said, tanned face stretched into an evil grin.

“I put them there!” Christine said. “They were hiding the IT DVD for me. It’s got that creepy Pennywise clown on the front AND the back and I can’t bear the sight of him, so I hid him there and the LOTR DVDs were the buffer so he couldn’t see me! And I can‘t get rid of it because I can‘t look at it and it‘ll get me!” Her voice had risen hysterically towards the end, and Erik patted her shoulder comfortingly. Was it just him, or did her eyes linger on his hand?

“There, there, Miss Daae. Would you like me to take the evil clown DVD downstairs to the dumpster?” Christine nodded fervently. “Very well, be back in a minute.”

As he left, he heard her say, “You don’t think he heard us talking about how doable he is, right?” Erik grinned.

Later that night, after Fellowship and Two Towers, after climbing into his bed, he considered his current situation. He’d been so absorbed in being their friend that he had nearly forgotten his initial desire for Christine. Well, ‘forgotten’ was the wrong word. Rather, it lingered at the back of his mind, a banked flame occasionally reigniting, but for the most part glowing embers rather than an open flame. But overhearing them talk about him - him, as if he was desirable! - changed everything. For a start, he no longer considered just being with Christine. She and Raoul were a matched set, a pair, and he could not have one without the other. Raoul was a good friend, a good man, the first true male friend he’d had since Nadir. He couldn’t imagine being intimate with him, though.

Except:

“Wake up, Erik,” coaxed a sweet, female voice in his ear. “I need you.” Silky, sinuous limbs wound around him, full breasts against his chest and soft feminine curls brushing his erection.


“Yeah, man,” said another voice, a deep, familiar one, as a long male body pressed against his back. Big hands caressed his shoulders, his arms, coming around to tweak his nipples playfully and then to cup those lovely breasts. The girl moaned, throwing her head back with abandon. “You’re not going to leave us high and dry, are you?”

Erik woke up with a hard on and a sense of impending doom. A half hour shower later, he still felt deeply out of sorts, utter confusion forcing him to retreat to his music room. He wasn’t sure what had disturbed him the most: a sex dream, a sex dream about a man and a woman simultaneously, a sex dream about his friends…

Or the fact that in the dream, he had been maskless, and completely unafraid.

xx

Raoul was walking around the flat without a shirt when Erik arrived the next day. Erik tried and failed to not look at the other man’s muscled torso, the faint golden line of hair that disappeared into his shorts. It really wasn’t fair, he thought, for Raoul to look so much like a Greek god when Erik was already struggling with his attraction to him, but luckily the thunderous expression on Raoul’s face dispelled the illusion. “Where the fuck is my footy shirt?” he was growling at his flatmate. Christine shrugged.

“Fucked if I know, I’m not your maid!” she retorted angrily, but her expression changed when she saw Erik. “Shh,” she whispered conspiratorially from her spot in the kitchen, waving the hapless shirt at him while Raoul’s back was turned. She stuffed it into a cupboard surreptitiously.

“Why are you hiding it?” Erik murmured back, as Raoul hunted through his bedroom furiously, swearing a blue streak. Christine frowned.

“He ate all of my baking chocolate,” she hissed. “Left an enormous pile of dishes in the sink, didn’t vacuum when I asked him to, can’t do the laundry to save his life. And he’s a tosser,” she added as an afterthought. “He’s been in a foul mood all day and I’m sick of everything being my bloody fault all the time!”

“Come on, Christine,” Erik coaxed, even as he thought that the outraged look on her face was completely adorable. “The sooner he’s gone, the sooner we can watch the next Lord of the Rings movie…” She scowled at Raoul for a moment longer, and then relented.

“Yeah, all right,” she conceded, pulling it out of the cupboard. “Raoul, I found it!” she called, tossing it at the boy when he emerged from his bedroom, red faced and angry.

“Where did you find it?” he asked suspiciously, eyeing them both with hot, angry dark eyes.

“Laundry basket,” Christine replied without missing a beat. Erik hid a smile behind his hand. But Raoul wasn’t appeased.

“I thought I looked there…” he said slowly, pulling it over his head and emerging tousled and cross. Christine rolled her eyes.

“Like isn’t a fucking conspiracy theory, Raoul. We don’t live in the Da Vinci Code. Anyway, I thought you were late?” she asked, and her flatmate checked his watch hurriedly.

“Yes. Fuck! See you both later,” he shouted on his way out, fishing the car keys out of the bowl, evidently deciding to solve the mystery of the missing shirt later.

“Bye,” Christine called unenthusiastically after him. “Wanker,” she said. “God! He drives me crazy. See what I mean when I said we have trouble living without a partner?”

“I fail to see how another person would help,” Erik said dryly.

“They’re like a buffer,” she said, switching on the TV. “This one is my favourite,” she said, referring to the movie. “The other two are great, but the action scenes in this are epic.”

“Mmm,” Erik retorted. “More to do with Aragorn waving Anduril around and looking impressive and rugged?”

“Shut up, Erik,” she said.

She was asleep by the time Eowyn and Merry defeated the Witch-king of Angmar, head resting on the edge of her beloved armchair. How someone could squish themselves up so small, he couldn’t guess, but he watched til the end of the film and switched the TV off. Plucking a book from the overflowing bookcase, he read quietly until Raoul got home from football practise. Usually Christine would be up like a shot, but she slept on.

“Hey,” Raoul whispered, muddy and tired, but looking far calmer. “I’m going to jump in the shower. Want to go get some dinner after?” Erik nodded mutely. “Cool. Won’t be too long.”

True to his word, Raoul was back, hair wet and dripping, within fifteen minutes. He scooped up the car keys once more and silently, Erik rose from the sofa to join him.

They drove for a good ten minutes before Raoul spoke. “I’ve been an arsehole to live with, the past week or so,” he confided, stopping smoothly at the traffic lights. Well, as smoothly as the ‘94 Festiva could manage. “Work’s being a nightmare and Chris cops the brunt of my frustration.”

“Why?” Erik asked gently, and calmly Raoul considered it.

“I suppose,” he said, turning a corner, “that she’s the one I trust most, in the whole world. Even when I fuck up, or when I’m a prick, she always forgives me. She always understands in the end. And I don’t have anyone else that I can trust like that in my life.”

“Your family?” Erik asked, but before he even finished his question, Raoul was shaking his head.

“My dad kicked me out the first time he found out I had a boyfriend,” the younger man replied. “Mum is an absolute doormat, she’s never stood up to him. I barely see my brother and sisters.” Eyeing Erik out the corner of his eye, he asked abruptly, “Do you still speak to your family?”

Erik swallowed around the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. “I never knew my father, he died before I was born,” he said quietly. “My mother and I have never got on. She sent me away to boarding school as soon as she was able to. Couldn’t stand the sight of me. She’s remarried now, but there was never any more children, not that I know of. I haven’t seen her since I was, I don’t even remember, perhaps sixteen?” For a long moment he looked down at his hands, fisted tightly together. “She wanted a perfect child, and I… was not.”

Raoul pulled into the parking lot, and together they sat in silence for several minutes. “Do you reckon Chris will be down for fish and chips for dinner?” he asked finally, and Erik cleared his throat violently.

“Yes. Yeah, I think she would be all right with that.”

Christine was awake when they arrived back to the apartment. Erik carried their dinner into the kitchen, while Raoul walked straight over to his best friend in her armchair. She stood, and Erik turned away to unpack their dinner and to find cups and plates. When he looked back at them, they were hugging silently in the lounge room, Christine’s face tucked into Raoul’s chest. “I’m sorry,” Erik heard Raoul say into Christine’s hair, and she nodded against him.

“Me too,” she replied, and turned her face up to his. They kissed, gently at first, but the passion between them was undeniable and quickly their kiss grew more intense.

Erik looked away, half sickened and half aroused, and cursed himself for being the worst creature to ever exist upon the earth.

Well, he’d always had a dramatic streak.

That night, once more he dreamed of being with Christine and Raoul. Of kissing the boy and making love to the girl - or was it the other way around? He woke, hard and covered in sweat, reaching for the two beautiful people he’d fallen in love with. Like an idiot, he berated himself. Like a youth in the bloom of his first love.

One long cold shower later, he returned to bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. And for all the thoughts in his head, only one mattered.

He was in love with his best friends. And he knew that it couldn’t continue.

xx

He descended to their flat with a sensation of deep trepidation, and knocked once, hard. Christine answered the door. “Hey, Erik,” she chirped, hugging him quickly and ignoring any attempt he might have made at conversation. “Come in, I’m just changing the sheets.”

He sidestepped the heap of laundry on the floor to reach his normal spot on the sofa. “I thought you asked Raoul to do that days ago,” he commented. Christine made a noise somewhere between a grunt and a growl.

“I asked him to,” she confirmed. “But does that mean it actually got done? No. Boys, honestly. He’d only change the bed once a year if I let him get away with it.”

“If it’s his bed, what does it matter?”

“It starts to smell weird,” she informed him. “Not that I go in his room much, but he always leaves the door open and it permeates the whole apartment.”

“Don’t you two sleep together? When you don’t have a partner, I mean.” He regretted the question the moment it was out of his mouth, but Christine, stuffing pillows into pillowcases, was absorbed in her task. Maybe if he offended them, they’d tell him to get lost, and he could go back to the way things used to be…

“By sleeping together, you mean fucking, I presume.” He winced at her language, but nodded.

“Sometimes,” she said absentmindedly. “Not recently, though.”

“Why?” he asked, expecting a pillow to be chucked at his head for his invasiveness. Hell, he wanted to drown himself in the bathtub. When would he learn to think before he asked questions?

“Just feels wrong,” she said vaguely, regarding him out the corner of her eye. Long minutes passed before she continued. “We’re kind of keen on someone right now. It feels wrong to do it without them.”

“Oh,” he found himself saying inanely, dropping into her armchair as she fought with the quilt cover. His heart felt like it was in his boots. “Fair enough.”

“You’d think so,” she grunted as she wrestled with the linen, “but I don’t think he’s interested.”

He. Pure masochism compelled him to ask, “What’s he like?”

Christine abandoned her task for a moment to give him a hard stare. “Erik, you’re a fantastic friend,” she said. Dully, he considered, yes, a friend. Always and only, just a friend. “Are you sure you don’t mind talking about my daft love life?”

“Not at all,” he replied, and Christine shrugged.

“If you’re sure,” she said, taking a minute before she continued. “Tall. Brilliant, brilliant bloke. I’ve always found intelligence attractive,” she mused. “Beautiful eyes, amazing shoulders. Makes me want to cling to them and never let go.” Christ, but this was painful. He didn’t think he could hear anymore.

“Handsome?” he asked sadly.

“We think so,” she said calmly, “even if he doesn’t.” She gazed at him meaningfully for a moment, but he couldn’t for the life of him work out what she meant.

“Will we still be friends?” he found himself asking - pathetically, he thought furiously. Like a starving dog begging for crumbs. Even the metaphor made him sad. Erik loved all animals, and the thought of any of them starving made him mist over. “When you and Raoul have a partner, will I still be welcome?”

Christine was regarding him with a mixture of pity and frustration. “Oh, Erik,” she sighed. “Don’t you understand?”

“Understand?” he asked, but she afforded him no other chance to speak, as she kissed him. Kissing through the mask was difficult but she managed, lips soft and sweet. It was short, only a few seconds long; chaste, but full of promise.

He was glad he was sitting down, otherwise he might have fallen over.

“Now do you understand?” she asked, perching on the arm of the sofa, meeting his eyes with her level ones. “We like you. We think you’re awesome. You’re the guy we’re keen on.”

“I don’t understand why,” he said warily. Christine shrugged.

“The heart wants what the heart wants,” she retorted. “Why does anyone like anyone? It’s a mystery.”

“But you don’t even know what I look like,” he stammered. Christine sighed and stood up, returning to her chores.

“Well, whose fault is that, then?” she asked, and to that he had no answer.

He was still there when Raoul got home around two in the afternoon. “Fucking hate maths,” he said, apropos of nothing, throwing himself down next to Erik on the sofa. “I feel like my brain’s been put through the wringer.” And then, as though it’s the most ordinary thing in the world, “Chris told you, then?”

“I hate being called Chris!”

“How did you know?” Erik asked. Raoul waved his mobile phone in response.

“Christine texted me,” he replied. “With many exclamation marks, I’ll have you know. Speaking of which,” he said, rounding on his flatmate. “I’ve a bone to pick with you.”

“Hmm?” asked the girl, who was thumbing through one of her nursing textbooks.

“You got the jump on me, you got the first kiss!” Raoul accused pseudo-angrily. “You bitch!” Christine just smirked at him.

“You snooze, you lose, sweetheart,” she informed him, and he scowled.

“I was at uni! In a lecture!”

“And were you sleeping?” she asked shrewdly, and he flushed.

“Well, maybe -”

“Maybe,” she repeated, winking at Erik conspiratorially.

“Great,” Raoul snapped. “I can see how this is going to be. You two ganging up on me, right?” But he was smiling. One got the impression that he didn’t really mind.

“Hell yeah,” Christine affirmed, setting her book aside. “But if you mind so much, you great fool, go over there and kiss him yourself.”

“Over there?” Erik questioned. “He’s a foot away from me.”

“From your body language, it might as well be a kilometre,” Christine retorted. “He’s a boy, not Cthulhu.”

“Leave him alone, Chris,” Raoul moaned, throwing an arm over his eyes. “I don’t much fancy kissing me either, I’ve been in lectures all day and I’ve had like a million coffees and I probably stink. In fact, I’m hitting the shower.” Standing, he shed his shirt before heading into the bathroom, tossing the garment at his flatmate.

“He’s right, he does smell,” she said reflectively, and threw it in the general direction of the laundry. “Erik, do you have any opposition, moral or otherwise, to kissing Raoul?”

Erik, mildly stunned by the rapidity of their exchange, blinked in bewilderment. “I’ve never kissed a man before,” he pointed out.

“Well, if you can’t kiss him, you’re going to have a problem getting naked with him,” the girl countered. “And you can’t have one of us without the other.”

Erik was truly astonished by this point. “I didn’t know I could have you,” he replied, and shuddered internally on the way his voice broke on the fifth syllable. But Christine didn’t seem to mind, her clear eyes meeting his as she perched in her armchair, small hands framing her cup of tea.

“Darling,” she murmured. “You could have both of us before dinner, if you like.”

They sat in a long silence while the water ran in the bathroom, even though intellectually Erik knew it couldn’t be longer than fifteen minutes. Hr knew - from Christine and Raoul’s bitter comments on the subject - that their hot water service was unreliably fickle, even though his above worked like a charm. Strange.

“What are you two doing, sitting out here all dour and gloomy?” Raoul asked, appearing through the bathroom door like a figure by Michelangelo come to life, shaking drops of water from his golden hair and clad in nothing more than a towel. “Thinking about me in the shower, you dirty sexy creatures?”

Erik flushed at both the compliment and the innuendo, but Christine scowled. “You think flattery gets you everywhere,” she said sweetly into her mug. Raoul grinned impishly.

“So far, it has,” he replied.

“I hate it when he’s right,” Christine muttered. “Go put some clothes on!” she shouted at him, and presently he reappeared in jeans and a T-shirt and slumped onto the sofa.

“Now will there be kissing?” he asked, but Erik sat bolt upright, and Christine raised an eyebrow at him.

“Before anyone kisses anyone,” he said nervously, “there is something both of you need to see.” Neither of them looked surprised. “Under this mask, I am…”

“Hideous?” Raoul offered up when Erik trailed off. Christine smacked him in horror.

“Shame on you, Raoul! Erik, I’m sorry,” she implored.

“He’s not wrong, Christine. A while ago, I… I heard you both talking about me. My… my hands, my shoulders. That you thought I was… doable. You’re both entitled to your opinion, of course, even if I think you’re both mad. Stop laughing, the pair of you. But my face… it’s entirely another matter. I look like something that’s been dead a while.”

“Erik, you do have the most remarkable way of describing things,” Raoul said.

“Thank you. But the point remains, I am -”

“Just take the bloody thing off,” the lad said. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

“Don’t say that,” Christine implored. “it’s like asking for trouble. Quickly, tap some wood.” Moments later, she winced. “On second thought, never mind.”

Erik had to laugh. “The pair of you are incorrigible.” But he sobered quickly. “Are you sure you want to see?”

“Are you sure you want us to see?” countered Christine. “Stop putting it off, Erik. We won’t look away.”

“You may come to regret that,” he promised grimly, and slipped it from his face.

For what seemed like an interminable time, nobody spoke, but he kept his eyes on them. He was prepared for their reactions, or so he thought. Raoul went as white as a sheet of paper and Christine’s eyes were the size of saucers, it seemed. But neither were shrieking. Neither were calling him a monster and a freak and pushing him out the door. And while part of him, a very big part, wanted to fumble for his mask and stumble blindly out the door and never come back, another part held sway.

“May I…?” Christine asked, fingers questing for his cheek, and he closed his eyes as her hand touched his face.

“Your diagnosis, Nurse Daae?” he questioned without opening his eyes as her small hand migrated to his forehead, gingerly skirting the ruin of his nose. He peeked out of one eye to see her small face gentle with sympathy, but never pity.

“You’ve been very lonely and you should let us look after you,” she pronounced.

“Us?” he rasped. “Your offsider there looks like he’s been petrified.”

“Him?” she asked. “Don’t mind him. He’s always quiet. Never says a word.”

“What a load of shit, Christine,” Raoul said lowly. And Erik was forced to agree with him. Although he had to concede he’d never heard Raoul be so quiet for so long before. He never shut up unless he was asleep or eating or playing his Nintendo 3DS. And even then, he’d been shouting at the Pokemon. “Just let me catch you, you stupid creature!” Raoul was never still. He’d thrash in his sleep, twitch, murmur. Christine had mentioned once that one night he’d sat bolt upright in bed and recited the Lord’s Prayer.

“Did I shock you, Raoul?” Erik asked him, the air on his face both unfamiliar but strangely enjoyable. Out of Christine and her flatmate, Raoul was the one who he thought would have taken it worse. Christine was a nurse, albeit a student nurse. She had no doubt seen medical things she wished she hadn’t, and she had a nurse’s compassion and her own innate sweetness besides.

“My uncle was in the Vietnam war,” Raoul said reflectively. “He lost an eye. Had some pretty messed up scars on his arms. And my mum used to tell us stories about her grandfather. He came back from the Great War with both legs amputated above the knee. Blown off.” He faded into a silence.

“What are you getting at, Raoul?” Christine asked. Her flatmate and sometimes lover shrugged.
“Scars are just scars, Erik,” he said, addressing the musician directly. “You’re different. So what? I still think you’re doable,” he winked. “And Chris agrees with me.”

“She does?” he questioned, and the girl hummed from where she was idly examining a nursing journal. Nursing. He was rather sure that nursing was the thing Christine loved most, even above sex and chocolate. Probably the only thing that could distract her from the soap opera going on in her living room.

“I’d bang you in a heartbeat,” she offered absentmindedly. “Oh, this is good, it’s about new anti-dementia meds for the elderly.”

“Thrilling,” Raoul said dryly. “Erik and I will just go have dirty hot sex in my bedroom, okay? See you later. Come with me, mate,” he said, steering Erik towards his bedroom. “Just follow me, she’ll get it in a bit.” They stopped in the doorway and waited for the penny to drop.

“Sex… bedroom…dementia… wait, what? Wait for me! And we’ll be doing it in my room. Yours smells weird. Lucky I made the bed this morning…” And so he found himself hovering awkwardly in the corner of Christine’s bedroom as she flopped down on it happily. Raoul made himself comfortable on her tiny desk chair and unashamedly pulled his shirt off.

“I don’t know how long it’s been since I had sex,” Raoul mused. “Five months? Maybe? I might have forgotten what to do. Erik, mate. Sit down.” Gingerly he perched himself on the edge of Christine’s bed.

“Five months?” Erik echoed. “You poor thing. Try twenty years.” He was met by blank expressions melting into astonishment.

“Jesus,” Christine said finally. “Well. What better way to break your losing streak with a three-way?” He must have paled, because she said hurriedly, “Of course, if you don’t want to.”

“I want to,” he assured her. “I just… don’t know how to go about it.” Christine brightened.

“We were confounded on our first time having a threesome,” Raoul confided. Christine scowled.

“You were confounded, I just wanted you to make out with that cute guy.”

“What was his name…”

“Buggered if I can remember,” she replied carelessly. “Why are we discussing a long distant shag when we could be having one very much in the present?” Erik liked their banter, liked following them like a tennis match, not that he could abide tennis, of course. He didn’t like it so much when they switched back to him. Being the sole focus of their dual intensity was a little terrifying.

And kind of arousing. And as he felt crimson staining his cheeks, he realised they were uncovered.

“My mask!” he said loudly, just realising he’d left it in the coffee table. “I left it - I need it, I’ll be -”
Christine rolled on top of him, effectively stopping him from running away. “You’ll be fine,” Christine soothed, placing both hands on his cheeks. “You’ll be fine,” she repeated, and leaned in to kiss him.

xx

It was different to the kiss before. Now he could feel her pressed against him. He could slide his hands into her hair, feeling the silky curls against his hands. He could smell her perfume and the laundry powder she used on the sheets, and her hands pressed against his back, crushing him into her breasts. She kissed languorously and deeply, like swimming through an ocean at night, and she pulled away to breathe his name against his lips.

“Yes?” he replied, fingers toying at the hem of her shirt.

“You can help take that off,” she said, raising her arms and leaving her in her black lace bra and her jeans. “And Raoul, it’s practically indecent the way you’re watching us and touching yourself.” Erik turned his head and discovered this was indeed the case.

“Don’t you want a more hands on role?” Erik asked, lifting his chin to receive more kisses.
“Nope,” Raoul said, stroking himself through his jeans. “I like to watch.”

And so Erik found himself flat on his back, stark nude under a girl similarly attired, while her flatmate and sometimes boyfriend (also naked) watched them. But oh, it felt marvellous, better than being upstairs and smashed off a bottle of whisky and miserably wanking and giving up halfway through because he was too drunk. His erection pressed against the slickness between her legs as Raoul flipped a condom packet at them. “Safe sex, Christine,” he reminded her. “No glove, no love. Don’t be silly, protect your willy. Or his, in this case.”

“You always want to go straight to the endgame,” she said tartly, slithering down Erik’s body like a serpent. “Myself, I like to meander off along the way.” And smoothly she took him in her mouth.
He could feel his body tense like a bow string. The sensation was indescribable, sweet and wet and it consumed his mind like a fire consumes kindling. He found himself saying things he’d never said before, and he didn’t possess enough presence of mind to feel shame at them. Later, perhaps, if there was a later and he didn’t have a coronary event from the feeling.

“Christine. Dear girl. God, fucking hell. You’re amazing.”

“She is,” Raoul echoed, hand a blur as he stroked himself. “Show him that trick you do with your -”

“Oh, God!”

“Oh good, you showed him.” With effort, Erik raised his head, wrapping his hands around her shoulders and pulling her up.

“Stop, Christine. Bloody hell, stop. If you don’t stop I’m going to -” Words failed him, and he settled for waving his hand in the general direction of his crotch.

“That’s kind of the point,” Raoul chuckled, but strangely Erik didn’t feel mocked. Christine smiled.

“I know what you want,” she said, and rolled the condom onto him and was lowering her hips before he could blink. And if he thought the blowjob was amazing, then this eclipsed anything he’d felt before.

"Erik," she moaned, the sound of his name growled out in pleasure almost enough to bring him to the edge. Out the corner of his eye he could see Raoul grinning, hand fisted around his cock as he watched them together.

“Make yourself useful,” Erik ordered, and obligingly Raoul leaned forward, kissing him messily, all teeth and tongue.

“That’s so hot,” Christine breathed. “My turn.” Watching them kiss as she straddled him and Raoul’s hardness pressed against his hip, he couldn’t help himself.

“How did I get myself into this?” he wondered aloud. Christine grinned wickedly at him.

“Luck?” she asked.

xx

Later, much later, they’d reached the part of the evening where, had they been in a movie, they’d all be smoking a cigarette and talking in low, sexy voices. Instead Raoul had been sent out for chips and had returned bearing chocolate ice-cream and enough deep-fried potatoes to feed a small army. Two bottles of wine later, they slumped on Christine’s bed, sticking spoons lazily into the melting sweetness. Raoul choked out an expletive as Christine stuck her icy spoon against a tender portion of his anatomy, and a small spoon war erupted. By the time they finally settled their dispute, Erik had quite contentedly finished at least half of it, and the sheets were splattered with chocolate.

“I love you two,” he said fondly, and it sounded far more serious than he had meant. Startled, they looked at him mutely, and he back-pedalled frantically. “Not love! Well, yes, love, but friend love. Not ‘let’s all get married’ love,” he said helplessly. Christine and Raoul exchanged glances.

“That’s a shame,” Raoul said, voice carefully neutral. “Only, we were going to ask you to be our boyfriend.”

Now it was his turn to be stunned silent. “Boyfriend?” he asked in stupefaction. Christine placed a soothing hand on his arm.

“Only if you want to,” she murmured. “We can take it slow.”

“Or we can do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” Raoul muttered, earning a hard smack from his flatmate. “Ouch! Yeah, slow. Like snails. Do snails have sex?”

“Fucked if I know,” Erik said softly, borrowing one of Christine’s favourite curses. “But the boyfriend thing sounds nice.”

“That’s a yes, then?” Christine asked, bare breasts brushing his arm as she cuddled closer to him. On her other side, Raoul gave Erik a high five over her body.

“Good choice,” he said approvingly. “Now, what do you two say to some freaky three-way sex?”


xx

Things changed, and they stayed the same.

Raoul and Christine kept their flat, although they spent an increasing amount of time upstairs with Erik. And they still entertained him in their tiny little living room, snuggled him between them on the ugly old couch and cocooned in blankets because they were still too poor to run the heat. But most nights they ended up in his bed, treating their place as more a combined storage and dressing space. Erik was astonished how easily he took to having two people around most of the time, after a lifetime of solitude. More astonishing was his flourishing relationship with Raoul as well as Christine: he’d never considered himself as even the slightest bit gay before, but perhaps it was not a sexuality or gender thing. Perhaps it was just a Raoul and Christine thing.

He contemplated this in his music room as he put the last touches on his opera. The Couple Downstairs was not the most conservative thing he’d ever written, nor the most technically difficult, but for the first time his music was imbued with true passion. He rose, entering his bedroom, resolving to play some of it for them later as he washed the ink from his fingers in the en suite.

"Babe!" Christine called; Erik assumed she meant him. "That documentary you wanted to watch is going to be on in a minute!"

"Yeah," Raoul echoed. "Wait any longer and you forfeit. Shotgun Top Gear."

"Top Gear? Please. We'll watch The Block."

"Oh, the hell we will - "

As they degenerated into bickering, Erik glanced around the changed bedroom. Christine's socks were on the floor and one of Raoul's ties over the bedstead. They'd used it to tie Christine up a few days ago. His lonely bedroom, strewn with the possessions of his lovers.

His girl, and his boy. His.

Erik smiled, and rose to join them.


 

Glossary:

VB (Victoria Bitter) and Cooper’s Ale: two brands of Australian beer.

Apologies to all and any teachers / teaching students who have read this: I know very little about your profession and as such as basically guessing. I’m a nurse.

The Block is an Aussie TV show about a renovating competition.