torch 1996, revised January 1997

This story is a work of amateur fiction and in no way intended to infringe on anyone's copyright. This spec contains spoilers for Interview with the vampire, The vampire Lestat, Queen of the damned, Tale of the body thief and Memnoch the devil. It is part of a story arc consisting of three long and three short specs, meant to be read in the following order: Reflections: Not at first sight, A monument more lasting than bronze, Pandora's box, The lilies and the roses, The last gift, and Epithalamion: The wide world dreaming.

I should probably add a romance warning, and there's a fair bit of blood sharing between consenting adult vampires of the same gender, too. This one's dedicated to some people who deserve it: to Cindy, who wanted something mushy; to Auden, because I can't reach to hug her; to Theresa, because I give my children candy when they want it; and to Steph because David finally gets some. Comments are welcome. Do not archive this story without permission.

Epithalamion: The wide world dreaming

"I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use them for your closer contact?" — T. S. Eliot, 'Gerontion'

"Come back, my baby." — David Bowie, 'It's Gonna Be Me'

Marius paid the cab driver, overtipped her for some reason — maybe because she'd been considerate enough to switch radio channels when he'd been bothered by the music. Then he picked up his bags and headed for the house, wondering again if he was making a mistake in coming here. The invitation had been worded in very insistent terms, though. Get your ancient ass over here! We're having a party! And then Louis' milder addition, We'd appreciate very much to have you here as a witness, Marius.

Crossing the courtyard he stopped by the fountain to admire it and listen to the gently tinkling sound of water. Then he thought he could hear music in it, the song that had been playing on the radio, an old one. I ain't missing you, I ain't missing you at all... I can lie to myself...

He shrugged it off. Only the water playing. He could hear no noise from the house and wondered if he was the first to arrive. That might give him some quiet time with Louis and his beloved brat prince, time to straighten out the stories of what had been going on this winter.

Perhaps Lestat would once again be angry with him for not coming to the rescue. But it seemed they had done fairly well anyway. And now it was summer, and they had sounded very friendly when they'd invited him here, and what was the use of borrowing trouble? He rang the doorbell.

As he stood waiting for an answer it occurred to him that it was ridiculous for him to use this very mortal means of announcing his arrival.

There was the sound of running footsteps and then the door opened under his hand. Louis stood there, smiling, green eyes shining. He was practically incandescent with joy; it radiated out of him like painless sunlight. "Do come in, Marius. It is so very good to see you here."

"Thank you. I am pleased that you invited me." Simple and conventional phrases, but there was genuine feeling in them. Real affection.

Marius stepped forward, and Louis took one of his bags and walked ahead of him, leading the way to the front parlour. Then Louis turned and asked quickly, "Would you rather be shown to your room first, or do you want to come in and say hello?"

Before he had a chance to answer that, Lestat came bouncing out. "Marius!" All the breath was squeezed from his lungs as Lestat pounced on him and hugged him thoroughly. Through the ringing in his ears he thought he could hear Louis laughing.

"We're not going to have any guests left if you keep that up!"

"Nonsense," Lestat said, letting go. "Marius is strong, he can take it. Can't you?"

"You're the same," Marius said with a loving smile. "No manners."

Lestat drew himself up regally. "Manners are for other people." Then he grinned back. "Wouldn't want you to think I didn't love you any more. Consider it gratitude that you didn't turn up here and add to the mess."

"The affair seems to have blown over," Marius remarked a little hesitantly. "It seems the girl and the veil have vanished."

He studied Lestat closely but could detect no real sign of disturbance; the eyes, those eyes that always showed what Lestat was feeling, remained unclouded.

"Just forget about it, Marius," Lestat said. "It's over."

"The sooner left behind, the better," Louis added as though pronouncing judgement.

Marius nodded. He still wanted to hear more, but felt no real need to press them here and now. Once Lestat realized that Marius was not here to lecture, he might volunteer the details.

"Very well," he said out loud. "Am I the first — do you have other guests here?"

"Jesse's here," Louis said. "She's on the computer right now, sending email to Mael, but she'll be out any minute."

"I wouldn't count on that," Lestat said. "Not if she finds the games."

Louis and Lestat continued in this light vein as they both guided Marius to a comfortable bedroom; he was too relieved to keep up with their conversation. At least he thought he was relieved. So David wasn't here. Well, that was good, then Marius wouldn't have to face him. He tugged unconsciously at the cuffs of his red silk shirt. No David. Good.

"This is wonderful," he said at last, looking around. The room was furnished in an eclectic mix of old and new, beautiful Chippendale cabinets next to modern wood-and-steel book cases. It looked good. "Could not be better."

"That is good to hear," Louis said, more soberly than his previous teasing remarks to Lestat. "Unpack your things and get comfortable. We'll be out in the living room."

Marius smiled. "I will be along shortly. Thank you."

As they left he saw them reach for each other's hands, a gesture that seemed so ingrained they weren't even thinking about it. A gesture so simple and loving, Marius was awed by it. How had they arrived at this perfect passion?

It was frightening.

He opened his bags and began to fill the closet and a couple of drawers. Silk shirts, velvet suits, red and black, and Armani white. It was warm here, and he took off his blazer and then, after a moment's consideration, changed his white shirt for a deep red polo shirt.

Standing in front of the mirror, he looked into his own eyes. Now he was here. Perhaps a foolish decision, but how could he have refused? No, he would just have to see what would happen. Very likely nothing. Hopefully, nothing.

Marius shrugged. He thought about brushing his hair, then realized he was trying to put off going out into the house again. Which was silly, because David wasn't here. And surely Lestat and Louis did not know.

He wasn't feeling sad, either. It had all been for the best. Really.

Decisively, he turned around and walked to the door.

When he got back to the large, beautiful room, he found Lestat and Louis occupying the huge couch, and Jesse standing over by the fireplace with a book in her hand.

"—so they're not coming here." Jesse grimaced. "Just as well, maybe."

"They would be welcome," Louis said gently.

"Even Maharet?"

"Even Maharet," Louis said, and now it was Lestat who made a face. "Marius, come in, sit down."

Jesse turned around, saw him, smiled. She came towards him with swift, impetuous steps and he caught both her outstretched hands in his. "So you answered the summons, too?"

Marius nodded. "How could I not?"

"Summons!" Lestat muttered.

"Would you prefer that I call it an order?" Marius quizzed him. "It's no matter, Lestat, I'm pleased to be here."

He allowed Jesse to tug him along and they sat down in comfortable chairs. The book she was holding turned out to be the Canterbury Tales, and they read parts of them out loud together. Louis and Lestat made a wonderful audience, though Lestat would keep quoting Shakespeare whenever he thought of something that seemed appropriate to him. Finally it turned into a contest, Marius and Jesse reading the Miller's Tale, Lestat reciting Macbeth from memory, and Louis alternately throwing in lines from The Waste Land and singing snatches of popular music.

"There's husbandry in heaven, their candles are all out."

"Hir mouth was swete as bragot or as meeth, or hord of apples leyd in hey or heeth."

"All that she wants is another baby, she's gone tomorrow..."

Louis was laughing too hard to keep singing, Lestat was getting the lines mixed up and Jesse and Marius dropped the book. They were startled to hear applause from the open French windows. Marius looked up quickly and the two shadowy figures outside came into the room. He'd know that throaty laugh anywhere. And so, apparently, would Louis, who jumped up from the couch and ran towards one of the newcomers.


Louis and Pandora embraced and spun around, both laughing and talking all at once. Marius couldn't help but notice the sweet, indulgent smile on Lestat's face. He wondered if Pandora had even noticed he was there. Then the other newcomer spoke. "Bon soir, messieurs. Hi, Red."

Jesse and Lestat were both on their feet in an instant; Jesse beat Lestat to Gabrielle by a nose. After a warm hug, though, she stepped back to let Gabrielle greet her son and maker.

"You came," Lestat said a little guardedly.

"Of course." Gabrielle was wearing a trenchcoat, but now she shrugged out of it and demonstrated that under it she had on skin-tight jeans and a low-cut velvet top with lace insets. She looked very attractive. Lestat eyed her up and down, amazed.

"Nice outfit."

"Thank you. Did you really think I would miss this?" She reached up and patted his cheek affectionately, and he finally pulled her into his arms.

Watching their profiles so close together, Marius marvelled at the family resemblance. Where Gabrielle looked calmly determined, Lestat often seemed to waver between arrogance and petulance... until he smiled. And then she smiled too, and they were nearly identical for one moment, one face looking into a genderswitch mirror.

Pandora and Louis let go of each other and Pandora came striding across the room. Marius realized that she was heading for him. She was every bit as beautiful as the night he had made her. Watching her move, he could feel the ghost of their past obsession whisper to him. But only a ghost. Her presence didn't tug at his heartstrings any more.

She wore a long dress, but it was slit to mid-thigh. With Pandora, Marius suspected that this was for mobility first and for visual appeal later, but the effect was, nevertheless, considerable.

"Chaire," she said huskily. Then she grinned. "Or at least try to look happy."

Marius smiled. "I'm glad to see you," he said. "What have you been doing?"

"Lots of things." Her eyes were bright, laughing, full of happy memories. Marius relaxed. She was fine, then. Looking at her, he knew that fragility was not the first impression a stranger would get, but he had always worried about her. Always.

"I'm glad."

"And you?" She looked him over. "What have you been doing?"

"Oh, nothing much."

"What about D—" Pandora broke off as everyone else began to move back to the couch and a musical chairs-style scramble took place as everyone tried to find a good place to sit. When it was over Pandora and Gabrielle were curled up at one end of the couch with Pandora sitting between Gabrielle's legs, leaning back against her shoulder. Lestat and Louis occupied the other half of the couch and Jesse was back in the chair next to Marius'.

Marius breathed a sigh of relief. Pandora couldn't know about David, could she? But that's what it had sounded as though she was going to ask about. Of course, the last time she'd seen him he had been sitting opposite David Talbot at a kitchen table. It was only natural that she'd be thinking back to that. He hoped.

"It's so good to see you," Louis said softly, tangling his legs up with Pandora's. "I've missed you."

She stretched out a hand and touched his knee briefly. "I've missed you too, sweetheart. We'll have to have a long talk later." The grin she flashed him made Lestat look slightly nervous; Marius felt it was just as well that Lestat could not see Louis' answering wink.

Louis sank back against Lestat, wriggling a little to get comfortable. Their attitude mirrored Gabrielle's and Pandora's exactly, and Lestat gradually seemed to become aware of this. He looked at Pandora, then at Gabrielle, then at Pandora again. Marius stifled a giggle into a cough behind his hand and found Jesse looking sideways at him with glittering eyes.

"So," Lestat said in a voice that was just a little too hearty, "what have you two been up to?"

"Oh, this and that," Gabrielle gestured airily. "Wandering the jungles, fighting wild animals..."

"Raiding the shops in Florence," Pandora added. "That kind of thing."

"Swimming in the Mediterranean..."

"Under a full moon."

"Pan, you're such a romantic," Louis teased.

Pandora snorted. "It would have been a lot more romantic if she hadn't been trying to swim races against the dolphins all the time."

"I was too romantic," Gabrielle protested. "If I hadn't been romantic I would never have worn that bathing suit just so you could — never mind." She broke off, seeing her son's face.

"So does this mean that — I mean—" Lestat had trouble expressing himself. "Are you two—"

"Yes," Pandora said with her accustomed frankness. Gabrielle nodded, long strands of her pale blond hair falling forward over Pandora's bare shoulder. "Didn't Louis tell you?"

Lestat looked uncomfortable. "No, I mean yes. I mean, he told me that you were still together, but he didn't tell me that you were together."

Louis twisted his neck in an effort to look up at Lestat. "I thought you understood that."

"Well, I didn't!" Lestat snapped.

"Does it matter?" Gabrielle asked cooly, but there was steel in her voice. "Do you have any... objection?"

"No." Lestat swallowed. "Of course not. I — I'm pleased for you. For you both."

It did not ring entirely true, but apparently Gabrielle and Pandora were prepared to accept it for the time being. Marius relaxed again. He'd been thinking about stepping in, saying something. But he had no idea what he might have said.

Now Lestat was bending forward a little, hugging Louis tighter. Louis, to judge by his face, did not appear to mind this at all; he craned his neck again and kissed Lestat's cheek.

Marius was distracted from this sight by Jesse's hand on his arm. She leaned closer to whisper, "If they're going to be like this all the time I'm going to go crazy."

Marius smiled at her. "What did you expect, given the invitation?"

Jesse sighed theatrically. "Yeah. But all the same. Now we have Gab and Pandora smooching away, too. When Danny and Armand get here I'm breaking out the insulin."

He couldn't help but laugh. But there was a sting somewhere. "You could have brought Mael."

"What, and added to it?" Then she looked down for a moment. "One of us had to stay with Maharet. She doesn't want to be alone. And she didn't want to come here, considering... well."

Marius was tempted to ask why, to get Jesse to tell him the story, but he could wait; he'd rather speak to someone privately about it, and besides, he did not know if everyone who had been involved would be equally eager to tell him, and to tell Pandora and Gabrielle at the same time.

And the way Jesse spoke of Maharet disturbed him. No matter how much Maharet had annoyed him during the time of Akasha's awakening, he had never wanted to see her weak, humbled. Well, not very much, anyway.

He settled back into the chair and crossed his legs, watched and did not say very much as Louis chatted with Pandora and Jesse was reviving her old friendship with Gabrielle. Lestat sat quietly, too, looking abstracted, staring into space.

It was very pleasant to be in the company of others of his own kind again, Marius thought. People who knew him, with whom he could be himself. It had been a long time since he'd seen another vampire. About... about a year.

One year.

He had come back to the fattoria and found it empty. That in itself had not worried him. But then he had gone upstairs to find that David's clothes were missing. That every possession of David's was missing. And finally, downstairs, he had found that damn card with its incomprehensible message.

He had walked out of the fattoria himself and never gone back.

Marius hadn't thought about that decision since then. He had just known that he could not stay.

Not in a place where every room, every piece of furniture, every book held memories of David, David sitting there, David reading that, David laughing with his head thrown back, David tearing off his shirt... He slammed down on the thought, forcing it back. This was not the time.

David had left him. It was that simple truth he had to learn to live with. David had walked away and that was it, that was the way it was. Probably David had been discontented for a long time and had finally acted on it.

But why had he never said anything? Marius clenched his jaw to stop himself from cursing with frustration.

Looking up again he became aware that Lestat was watching him, and forced a smile. Lestat bent his head and nuzzled at Louis' neck for a moment, and Marius saw Louis' eyelids drop, a slight shiver running through him; then Lestat was untangling himself and standing up, walking around the coffee table.


"Yes?" He rose too, and they walked across the room together, over to the windows, out on the balcony. Lestat went to stand with both hands on the railing, leaning on it, looking out into the night.

"Marius, do you think we're doing the right thing?"

He didn't even have to think about the answer to that. "Yes, of course I do."

Lestat turned his head and Marius saw that he was smiling, a smile at once embarrassed and blindingly happy. "I think so too. Marius, I'm so happy." He swallowed. "I'm so happy it scares me." Looking away again he went on in a lower voice, "I just worry that I'll suddenly be more scared than happy, and take it out on Louis."

"Oh, Lestat." Marius went to the railing too, stood there next to Lestat and put a comforting arm around his shoulders. Of course Lestat was frightened. There was so much passion in him, burning bright. And to feel it for once not directed outwards at the world, but concentrated on one other creature...

"We wasted so much time," Lestat said almost inaudibly.

"You have the rest of forever," Marius said.

"Mm. Sometimes I think that's what scares me most. Forever's such a long time."

"Are you afraid that — is it too much of a committment?"

Lestat's hair was working free of the ribbon that bound it; stray curls fell around his face, softening it. "No!" He took a deep breath. "In a way. I'm scared that he'll stop loving me, that forever will be too long for him. That I'll have trapped him in something he finds he does not really want..."

"He loves you," Marius said.

"How do you know that?" Lestat said with an edge of irritation. "Are you snooping in his mind?"

Marius burst out laughing. "What kind of a Peeping Tom do you take me for? Lestat, I've seen him look at you. That's enough. And you can't doubt, you can't possibly doubt that he loves you. Whether he will love you forever, or you will love him forever—"

"I will," Lestat said intensely. His eyes, grey in the moonlight, pinned Marius in place. "I will."

"You can't live more than one night at a time," Marius said gently. "Stop worrying about what may or may not happen a hundred years from now. You love him, he loves you. You'll never find greater perfection than that."

Lestat finally, grudgingly smiled. "I expect you're right." Then he slipped out from under Marius' arm and jumped up to sit on the railing. "And what about you, are you happy?"

"I'm very happy to be here," Marius said, reluctant to lie to Lestat and equally reluctant to tell the full truth. How could he admit that he was haunted by the memory of Lestat's youngest fledgling? Lestat trusted him to be wise, sensible, balanced. He couldn't show that his heart was bleeding.

"Good." Lestat looked slightly worried, preoccupied. "I hope everyone will get along."

Marius grinned. "Oh, I don't think there's even the faintest hope of that. Remember Night Island?"

"Yes." Their eyes met and they both burst out laughing.

* * *

The smell of jasmine. The sound of water.

He stepped forward, out of the shadows, only to stop in surprise as the woman standing in the middle of the courtyard with her back to him suddenly turned around.

"Hi," she said calmly. "You're David, right?"

When she spoke, he recognized her. The mortal psychic, KJ. Her curly hair had grown since the last time he'd seen her and now it hung almost to her shoulders. She was still wearing the same kind of outfit: jeans, a checked shirt and those ugly sandals with the German name.

"There was not much time for introductions when we last met," he acknowledged with a polite nod. "Yes, I am David Talbot. So you were also invited here...?"

She grinned. "Yeah. Feels a bit strange."

David wasn't surprised. Of course she was a very talented psychic — so talented that he wondered why the Talamasca had never contacted her — and thus probably better equipped to deal with strangeness in her life than many other mortals. All the same, he remembered the effect just one vampire had had on him after a lifetime of researching strange phenomena, and marveled at her composure.

"I can certainly understand that," he said. "Who is here?"

"You're one of the last to arrive, I think," she said. "Our hosts are here, of course. Pan and Gabrielle, Marius, Daniel and Armand. Khayman," she smiled a small, affectionate smile. David wasn't really paying attention, he was too busy trying to hide his reaction to Marius' name. "I'm not sure if they're really expecting anyone else to show up. Mael and Maharet are staying in Sonoma."

David nodded absently. "I see." He wasn't going to miss Maharet, but it would have been nice to see Mael again.

And then there was Marius.

David swallowed. He had known that Marius would be here. And so would Louis, and Louis would inevitably ask him if he'd talked to Marius yet... not that the answer to that question wasn't extremely obvious. No, he had not talked to Marius. He still hadn't gone to see Marius. He didn't know what he wanted to say.

"Don't you have any luggage?" she asked.

David shook his head, and returned to the present. "No. I left a few things behind here last time."

"And you're going to go shopping," she said confidently.

"Yes, I may do that." He looked at her. "Why are you so certain?"

KJ smiled. "Every vampire I've met so far has loved to shop," she said. "Even Khayman. He tries to buy me designer dresses, if you believe it."

David looked solemnly at her. "You might look well in a dress."

"I don't care what I'd look like, I'd feel like an utter idiot," she said cheerfully. "I prefer to make clothes for other people." She looked at her watch. "And I have a few more hours' sewing to get through before it's bedtime for me. Wanna come inside?"

"Certainly." He offered her his arm; she gave him a teasing look, but took it. If she hadn't been there, David knew, he could have remained standing outside indefinitely, rooted to the spot by the knowledge of Marius' presence.

He wondered if Marius had already picked up on his arrival. Nothing would have made him reach out to investigate this. It would be bad enough when they met.

What the hell am I going to say to him? There were so many alternatives. None seemed particuarly good now that the moment approached when he would have to pick one.

"You want to shield a little better," KJ said in his ear. "You leak when you get upset."

David gave her a horrified look. "I do?!"

"Only a little," she said reassuringly. "I wouldn't have picked up on it if I wasn't touching you." But she was merely a mortal, and in here were some of the most powerful vampires in the world. "Hey, don't knock my abilities," she went on. "I've even read Armand once. Now shut that mind of yours."

David obeyed.

When they got inside, she brought him to the living room, where they found Louis and Daniel standing by the book shelves deep in conversation, while Khayman sat on the couch reading a magazine. The ancient one looked up and smiled at their approach. "David. I am sorry for not answering your summons that time. But I understand that things were settled anyway."

"Yes," David said, not going into detail. Khayman's presence might not have made a difference. And he'd picked up on some odd undertones from Daniel about Khayman, enough not to make him question the Egyptian vampire's decision to stay out of the Memnoch affair.

Besides, he liked Khayman. He could not believe that Khayman had refused to help out of malice.

Now Khayman stretched out a welcoming hand towards KJ, but she avoided it skilfully. "I have to go play with my sewing machine."


She grinned. "I promised Pan. Not to mention, I promised Louis."

"Very well," Khayman said, "but I should like to see you again before you go to bed."

"I'll be back," she promised and stepped in to kiss his cheek quickly before leaving the room.

David wasn't aware that he was frowning until he realized that Khayman was looking up at him with a challenge in his dark eyes. Then David quickly, gently shook his head. He wasn't going to say anything. It was their business.

Khayman relaxed, and David sat down next to him. Although not deliberately eavesdropping, he could not help hearing a few words here and there of Daniel and Louis' conversation.

"...a different type of closeness," Louis was saying.

"Such a big step."

"Not... all a question of what you put into it..."

"...tell me you're not serious?"

"No, of course... completely sure."

"...our own kind."


Khayman smiled at him again. That open, friendly face that was nevertheless just a little frightening. "And how have you been?"

"Fine," David said automatically. Then honesty compelled him to modify it to, "Mostly fine."

He wondered how long it was going to be until Louis noticed him. As he thought that there was a huge crash somewhere in the house.

"Oh, hell!" Daniel said.

"Did he hurt him?" Louis asked.

Daniel shook his head. "No, but it seems he's broken a chiffonier. I thought it was safe to leave them alone!"

"Well..." Louis shrugged.

David watched them, bewildered, until the door slammed open and an enraged Lestat strode into the room and stood in the center of it, glaring at everyone. A few moments later he was followed by Armand, who was pushing his hair back with one hand and straightening his shirt with the other.

"I thought you said he didn't try to hurt him," Louis said.

"Oh, I rather think that was affection," Daniel said. He and Louis grinned at each other. Then they separated, Louis heading for Lestat and Daniel for Armand.

David watched, fascinated, as Louis wrapped an arm around Lestat's waist and snuggled in close despite the fact that Lestat was about as responsive as the Statue of Liberty. "You broke something again, didn't you?"

Lestat growled, "He said he did it for my own good!"

"Well, he did," Louis said in a sweetly reasonable tone of voice. "It didn't work, but—"

"But nothing! I won't have him patronizing me!"

Faintly, from behind them, David heard Armand at the same time, "So what if I had a stupid idea?! His was worse!" and Daniel answer him, "You could be a bit more civilized about it. I lost my bet. I thought you wouldn't start fighting till past midnight."

David sighed and looked at Khayman. "Fancy a game of chess?"

"I'd be delighted," the ancient one said promptly.

They were halfway into the game before David felt a hand on his shoulder and Louis' voice said, "I'm sorry, David. I should have welcomed you a lot earlier, I just wanted to try to keep my home intact."

David reached up and squeezed Louis' hand affectionately. "That's understandable. Ah... have Armand and Daniel been here long?"

"No," there was laughter in Louis' voice. "Fortunately, though don't take that the wrong way. Lestat and Armand have just withdrawn for round two. I should send you along to referee."

"Declined with thanks," David said.

Khayman chuckled. "You could at least try to save the furniture."

Louis sat down with them. "Daniel said they should just be locked into the cell in the attic until they've settled things."

Khayman nodded. "Daniel has a practical mind."

David studied Louis, seeing as if for the first time his friend's stunning beauty. He was beautiful the way a perfectly balanced knife is beautiful, the way the flight of an arrow to the heart of a target is beautiful. It was as though his beauty had a use as precise and deadly as that. And at the same time, a strange inner sweetness shone through.

There was no doubt that Louis was happy, that Louis would continue to be happy even if Lestat and Armand reduced the house to rubble around him.

:Will they be all right?: David asked silently.

:Oh yes,: Louis answered with absolute confidence. :Sooner or later they'll remember that they love each other. It's just taking them a while this time.:

:No wonder, what with the...: David passed along a swift image of the pillar of flame outside St Patrick's. Louis nodded.

:Armand is screaming mad at Lestat for not trying to save him, and Lestat is screaming mad at Armand for doing it in the first place. But they'll work it out.:

:If you say so.:

Out loud David asked, "Where is everyone else?"

"Well, KJ is sewing," Louis smiled at Khayman, "Pan and Gabrielle went shopping..."

"Jesse went with them," Khayman added and moved a knight.

"Oh, that's right. And I don't know where Marius disappeared to, he's bound to be around here somewhere." :And you still haven't talked to him, have you?:

:No. Don't nag.:

:You've given me permission to nag. Don't think I'm not going to use it.:

David studied the chessboard. "Khayman, I am utterly lost."

"Yes," Louis agreed. "Really, David, you make the most elementary mistakes."

"You take him on, then," David said, rising. "I think I'll go to my room, take a shower, change my clothes. Then I'll come back and see if you did any better."

The two dark heads bent over the chessboard, swiftly absorbed, and David walked out of the room, wondering vaguely where Daniel had disappeared to. He passed the open door to the back parlour and heard voices, Daniel's and KJ's, and the persistent hum of a sewing machine, which answered that question. So that was where she had set up her workshop.

Turning the corner, heading for his own door, David found himself face to face with Marius. It was so unexpected that at first he did not even register who he was looking at. Then it hit him with such force that he had to reach out and steady himself against the wall.

Marius looked just as he always had: the same calm, almost stern face saved by the humorous quirk of the mouth; the unnaturally tidy white-blond hair; the broad shoulders. David knew he was staring.

"So you came after all," Marius said quietly, as if to himself.

"Of course I did," David said. "You thought I wouldn't?"

Marius shook his head slowly. "No."

"Marius," David said, swallowed, tried again. "Marius, we need to talk."

Marius looked at him. "You did not think so before," he said, walked past David and continued down the hall.

David debated running after him, but he just knew that if he did, a door would burst open and Lestat would throw out a vase, or KJ would come walking to make Louis try on whatever it was she was making. He couldn't make a scene here. Marius was going to stay, after all. He'd get more chances.

At least, he reflected as he opened the door to his own room and walked inside, he knew now what it was he wanted to say to Marius,the only thing that had been running through his mind as he'd looked into Marius' face.

I love you. Do you love me?

This was going to be difficult.

* * *

Well, he had known it would happen.

Marius had retired to the balcony, hoping for some privacy, just a few moments to settle his thoughts and suppress his feelings. Meeting David again... he'd felt nearly dizzy with the shock of it. David was so... so...

He did not have any words for it. Only, looking at David, every single detail impressed itself on Marius with its utter rightness. Beauty alone did not account for it, though everything about him was gorgeous. This was David, and so he was perfect.

And David wanted to talk. To offer explanations, no doubt, and recriminations. Well, Marius did not want that. If David felt the need to justify himself now, one year later, he could damn well write a letter. David had walked out on him, and that was the simple truth; now Marius had learned to deal with that. Almost. Practically. He did not need to have the whole thing raked up again. He had come here to celebrate and be happy for Louis and Lestat, and if he had to do it through clenched teeth, then so be it. He wasn't going to let David's presence wreck his composure.

But the simple truth was that just looking at David set him shivering with suppressed longings.

Oh, not just for that gorgeous body, for the sweet taste of him. No, Marius wanted him, David, his self, his soul, to be close to him and talk to him and hear him laugh and find out what went on behind those thoughtful brown eyes...

Wanted it just as much now as three years ago, as one year ago. More.

"Damn it all to hell," he said clearly.

There was an outbreak of feminine laughter, and then a voice called up to him, "Language, dear!"

Pandora. He looked down to see her in the courtyard, Jesse and Gabrielle on each side of her, all three laden down with bags and wearing matching, satisfied smiles. "You three have brought the hunter-gatherer culture to new heights," he said.

"We try," Jesse said, dug around in one of her bags and lobbed something up at him. "Catch!"

It was a small cardboard package, and as he caught it he felt something sliding around inside it. "What is it?"

"A present. Don't show it to Louis, he's getting the same thing."

"Oh?" Marius looked at the package. "Thank you, Jesse."

"Don't thank her until you've looked at it," Gabrielle advised, and the three women began to laugh as they walked towards the door.

Marius opened the box and shook out the contents into his hand. Slithery, silky, scratchy... he was holding a silk and lace g-string. Although he was alone he knew that he was looking embarrassed. And they'd bought one of these things for Louis?

He wouldn't put it past them to demand that he try it on in public, either.

"Terrible women," he said and smiled affectionately. Then he stuffed the g-string back into the package and returned to the living room.

Louis and Khayman had finished their game of chess, and Louis had lost, though it had been a real battle. Now their attention was on Gabrielle, Pandora and Jesse, who had just entered and were now demonstrating some of the more interesting things they'd bought. Marius came up behind them just in time to hear Khayman politely decline to try on a champagne-colored teddy. "Not even for you, Jesse dearest."

She grinned at him. "It was worth a try. I got a few interesting archaeology books, too, I thought I'd discuss a few of them with you if you don't mind... and Louis, look at this!"

As Louis and Jesse became engrossed in the possibilities of some computer game or other, Marius became aware that Pandora was approaching him with a determined look. He tried to lean closer over Khayman's shoulder and fake an interest in the colorful cardboard box Louis and Jesse were gracing with their attention, but she took his arm and dragged him back unceremoniously.

"You want to go out on the balcony again or just into a corner?" she asked.

"Do we have to go anywhere?" Marius asked, not really hoping that it would work. It didn't.

"I'm just assuming you'd like some privacy," Pandora said, not letting go of him as she dragged him towards the other end of the room. "Because I want to talk to you about David Talbot."

"I don't want to talk about—"

"You really screwed up there, didn't you?" she overrode him. "But you're going to have to deal with it if he comes here—"

"He's already arrived," Marius said gloomily.

"Oh!" Pandora was diverted for a moment. "I'll have to try to get to know him, then. He seems like a nice guy. Have you already made up, then?" She peered closely at him. "No, you haven't, or you wouldn't be looking like someone out of a country and western song."

"I'm not—"

"You two need to have a good long talk."

"Would you stop it?" Marius asked, frustrated. "He left me, okay? It's finished. Settled. Over. Done with. And how do you happen to know about it anyway?"

"Oh. Um." Pandora gave him a small smile, just a very gentle curve of her mouth. She was all curves and shadows, he thought. No one with a figure like that could really look delicate, but still she managed, in his eyes. Marius was aware that not everyone else saw her the same way he did, which was probably a relief to her. It had taken him quite a while to realize that he really did not have to care for her any longer, that she was fully capable of taking care of herself.

"Well?" he asked.

Thick lashes swept down, casting shadows over her cheekbones. "Gabrielle and I were passing through Italy last summer. And we, well, came to call on you. Only you weren't there."

He knew what was coming. "And so you went into the house anyway."

"It was only after we went inside that we knew you weren't there," she corrected him gently. "And we stayed there over the next day. And... we found that card he left you."

"Damn it," Marius said quietly.

"Really, Marius, what did you do to that poor boy?"

"I didn't do anything!" he hissed. "He just left! I came home and all I found was that card and I couldn't make head or tail of it—"

He broke off as he realized that there was something odd about the way Pandora was looking at him, somewhere between laughter and pity, it seemed to him.

"No, you couldn't, could you?" she said. "Oh, Marius, really. And he must have thought you'd understand."

"Well, I didn't," he said irritably. "Why should I have been happier with someone dressed up as Santa Claus? I wondered if he meant that I asked too much of him—"

"Marius, my poor darling," she said and patted my cheek, "that was definitely not the problem. The other way around, I think. That was a picture, you know. Pretty and stupid. Cardboard. Undemanding."

"But that's not what I want," Marius was startled into saying. "How could he think that?!" He glared at Pandora. "Anyway, this is only what you think he meant."

"Yes," she agreed. "But I have a certain advantage."

"You don't know him."

"No. But I know you." She put a finger across his lips before he had a chance at rebuttal. "I'm sure you were perfectly nice to him, and I'm sure you respected his intelligence and everything. But did you ever happen to breathe a word about how much you love him?"

He stared at her. She stared back challengingly. The silence drew out. Then Marius finally dropped his eyes. "No," he said quietly. He met her eyes again. "I know how that story goes, Pandora. I wasn't going to smother him."

"It didn't occur to you that he might want to be smothered?" Then her voice softened. "No, nobody wants that. But dear heart, did it never occur to you that he might think you did not love him?"

Oh, those words cut. Somehow she always knew exactly what to say to him. It came pouring out, "And hasn't it occurred to you that he doesn't love me, and what I feel for him doesn't matter? He wanted a bit of guidance, someone to help him get adjusted to this new life. Good advice. And I... the gods help me, I wanted him. I used him, Pan. He needed a mentor and he got—"

"A lover," she said calmly. "Marius, David is a grown man. He is quite capable of saying no if he should consider it necessary."

"He left me," Marius said.

"You're scared," she said.

He stared at her. "What are you saying?"

"You," her forefinger bored into his chest, "are scared. You're terrified of committment. You're scared of telling him that you love him, because you think it will be just like with me, or with Armand. With the risk of winning an award for most obvious statement of the year, I would just like to point out that David Talbot isn't remotely like either me or Armand. Have you spoken to him since he got here?"


"And what did he say?"

"He wanted to talk."

"And what did you say?"

"That — I sort of said no."

"Marius, you're an idiot." She sighed. "Look, you probably hurt him again. Talk to him, damn it! At least try to decide which is more important to you, your stupid pride or getting him back."

"You have no way of knowing that that was what he wanted—"

She flung her arms up and rolled her eyes. "I give up. If you're going to be this way about it, you deserve being heartbroken." Pandora stormed off, and Marius was left alone in the corner with his thoughts.

* * *

More chances? He'd thought he was going to get more chances? David spent a few moments reviewing curse words in all the languages he knew. He'd reckoned himself a good hunter, both as a human and as a vampire, but Marius was the most difficult prey he'd ever tried to stalk.

When he had returned to the living room, after having showered and moped a bit and changed his clothes, Marius had been having an animated discussion with Pandora in a corner of the room. David's heart had nearly stopped when Pandora had touched her fingers to Marius' lips; he'd figured the two of them were all set on reviving their old romance again. But then they'd separated and Pandora had settled into one of the armchairs with Gabrielle, where the two of them had proceeded to be quite affectionate, which seemed to rule that theory out.

Louis and Jesse had gone to install something on the computer, so David had sat down next to Khayman and they'd had a peaceful talk about various museums and art galleries in Paris. Then KJ and Daniel had come in trailing yards of royal blue velvet, and dragged Pandora out of the chair to wrap things around her and pin them in place, and somewhere in all the bustle, Marius had managed to slip from the room without a word to anyone. David would have followed him, but KJ had made him stand and hold part of a sleeve on pain of pain. It was a heavenly dress. Pandora had looked like a queen. Then she had turned her head and winked at him as though she could read every thought in his mind, and he'd dropped the sleeve anyway.

David had been crawling around on the carpet with Daniel, looking for stray pins, when Santino had arrived. Pandora had gone to welcome him and they'd started a rapid conversation in medieval Latin that had so fascinated David that Daniel had had to stick a pin in his hand before he responded.

"Ow! That's Santino, isn't it?"

"Mm." Daniel's large violet eyes had narrowed a little. Then he'd grinned. "He's sort of a priest, isn't he? I mean—"

"No," David had said firmly. "Not what you're thinking. I can't believe that."

"Neither can I," Daniel had admitted, "but it was a funny thought. Hell, even Armand might do under those circumstances."

"I thought your opinion was that Armand could 'do' under almost any circumstances."

Daniel had looked at him with a broad grin. "Ha! I knew sooner or later you'd get your mind down in the gutter with the rest of us." Then he'd added, "I think they've asked Khayman."

David had nodded. "Makes sense."

Then Armand and Lestat had returned, having apparently managed not to break anything this time, and in the general conversation that followed, David had tried to slip outside to see if he could find out where Marius was. But he'd only managed to put his hand on the door knob when KJ had called out to him, "David? Could you please go get Louis if you're going that way? I need him to try his things on, too."

Muttering darkly at himself for having the kind of upbringing that made it impossible for him to say no to a request like that, David had obeyed. And now he was in Louis' study. Louis was refusing to budge.

"I just want to see if I can make it to the next level."

"Come on, Louis," Jesse said. "KJ wants you. It's my turn now, anyway."

Louis was smiling happily, his eyes sparkling as he navigated the labyrinth on the screen with preternatural speed and unhuman reflexes. "Oh, that wasn't blatant or anything, Jess."

David thought of another argument. "Louis, KJ will need to sleep soon. You should not keep her up waiting for you too long."

As he'd thought, he had much better luck with that. Louis' hands left the keyboard instantly. "You're right. Jesse, it's all yours."

She kissed his cheek. "Thank you kindly. I'll be right along, really — I just want to try it once."

"Right," Louis said sarcastically and stood up. "I'll come by before dawn and close the shutters, okay?"

She stuck her tongue out at him and then turned towards the screen. David led the way outside, and Louis soon caught up with him, taking his arm and giving it an affectionate squeeze.

"What is it KJ's making for you, anyway?" David asked.

"Oh, just this... outfit," Louis said secretively. "You'll see it later." Then Louis smiled. "Have you talked to Marius yet?"

"No, I haven't," David said, trying to keep his voice even. "I'd probably succeed a bit better if people wouldn't make me pick up pins and go fetch computer geeks all the time."

"Sorry," Louis said unrepentantly. "But you're both stuck here for a few nights now. You'll manage."

"I suppose so," David said. "I really don't know how to start, so perhaps it's just as well I haven't tracked him down yet."

"I've told you before, David—"

"—'just say what's in your heart'," David echoed. "I know, I know. But I — it doesn't come naturally to me to roll over at someone's feet and invite him to kick me."

"Is that what you want him to do?" Louis feigned surprise. "The things I never knew about you..."

"If I didn't love you dearly, I would spank you," David said.

"You and your old-fashioned British public school upbringing."

They paused, looked at each other, and laughed. David decided to change the subject. "Santino's here."

"Really?" Louis looked mildly pleased. "I wonder who else will pop up that we haven't seen in ages."

"There aren't all that many to choose from," David pointed out, and then they entered the living room together. Louis went to Lestat first, and they exchanged a kiss before KJ dragged Louis away, brandishing a measuring tape. Lestat had apparently been extending a formal welcome to Santino, who now went to chat with Khayman and Daniel.

David stood near them, close enough to be part of the group but not actually participating in the conversation; then he moved away and sat down in front of the fireplace. No fire tonight, of course. The french windows stood wide open and hot, damp air rolled in. David lay down on his back, stretched out with his arms underneath his head.

Daniel was telling Santino about the best places to shop for leather. David felt it was safe to assume that they weren't talking about gloves and suitcases; he smiled to himself. That frankness of Daniel's never ceased to delight him. Santino sounded just a little shocked.

Listening harder, David could make out parts of another conversation farther off. "Of course I don't mind," Lestat was saying. "You know that I've worried for you, that you'd feel lonely. And even more that you — that you couldn't feel lonely."

"Well, I could, I did, and now I don't," Gabrielle said succinctly. "So what is it that's bothering you about it?"

There was a pause, and David picked up on Khayman saying something about studded boots.

"That you didn't tell me," Lestat said finally. "Pandora told Louis. You're my fledgling, my mother..."

"I don't owe you anything," she said in a clipped voice.

"Damn it!" Lestat was breathing heavily. "I'm sorry, all right?! I'm not trying to — to lay a guilt trip on you. But... I love you. I care for you. I'd like to have just a small part in your life, if that's all right with you!" Despite the sarcasm, his voice was breaking.

Another short silence. "I see," Gabrielle said and her voice had changed. "Come on, let's go outside."

David sensed them moving out onto the balcony, and forbore to keep listening; he hadn't meant to overhear as much as he did. Instead he rolled over on his side and prepared to join in the other conversation, the one closer to him. But Pandora came strolling up and dropped down to sit by him, giving him a sweet smile.

He did not trust that smile an inch.

"You're going to have to make the first move," she said.

David tried the effect of a polite, "I beg your pardon?"

"With Marius," she said impatiently. "He's being an idiot, but then that's nothing new." Now her smile was positively companionable. "It's up to you to do something about it."

"I don't see what I can do to change his state of mental health," David said stiffly.

"Lots, I bet," Pandora said. This time David could not find any words for the way her smile looked. Well, he could, but... "If you want to. You do want to, don't you?"

Her straightforward way was appalling. At the same time it was a relief. "Yes," David found himself saying to his surprise. "I do."

"Well then, you're the one who has to take action." By now he was hardened enough not to wince at the emphasis she managed to put on 'action'.

"How do you know—? Did he tell you—?"

Pandora shook her head. "Oh no. No, we were paying a visit to the fattoria and found that card of yours."

"Hell," David said quietly and felt himself blush. He certainly had not meant for anyone else ever to happen onto that piece of pettiness.

"Hey, no need to look like that," Pandora said. "Made me see that you loved him. You still love him, don't you?"

"This is a private matter—" David tried valiantly.

"Not for much longer if he's going to keep running from the room every time you appear," she said. He had to admit that she had a point.

"Very well," David said finally. "Yes, I do. But if he keeps running from the room, it makes it a little hard to get to talk to him and tell him so. I don't suppose you'd consider tying him up somewhere convenient where I can get at him?"

She laughed throatily. "I'd have a hard time explaining that one to Gabrielle," she said. "But I will find out for you which room he's in." To his surprise, she dropped a light kiss on his cheek before rising and walking away.

David lay back down, his head spinning. He really had not expected that from Pandora. Of course he knew nothing about her except that she was just about Louis' closest friend. He'd never seen her in her 'vegetable' state, and the few brief glimpses they'd had of each other in San Francisco had not been enough to base an opinion on. Now — well, he was beginning to understand why Louis had been found dancing in a leather club in SF, and he was beginning to think that Gabrielle was probably a very lucky woman.

* * *

Marius had found a quiet refuge in the back parlour, and the sound of the door opening startled him enough that he leaped to his feet. The lights were turned on and he saw that it was Louis and KJ who were coming inside.

"You're not supposed to be here," Louis said, mildly reproving. "We're trying to keep this private."

"I let Daniel in to help me with Pan's stuff before," KJ said as though confessing to some minor crime.

"You didn't show him—"

"Uh-huh." She shook her head. "But really, Marius can stay — do you want to stay?" she asked him. "I'll probably need another pair of hands somewhere. Unless you mind, Louis."

"Oh, I trust Marius to keep a secret," Louis said.

"Of course." Marius made himself smile. He still had no idea what they were talking about, but illumination began to come to him as KJ moved towards a table where a sewing machine stood surrounded by mounds of cloth, and started to pick out a number of things.

"Did you give up on the rest of our guests?" Louis asked. There was something in his voice, some slight undertone that made Marius worry, but he decided to ignore it.

"I just... needed to sit and think for a little while. It's been a long time since I was in the presence of so many of our kind, and it can get," Marius smiled, "a bit overwhelming."

Louis nodded. "You're telling me. At least no one's fighting right now." He turned as KJ held out something to him. "Thank you... now let's see..."

Marius watched in amazement as Louis calmly stripped out of his clothes and began to put on the items KJ was bringing him. Finally he felt moved to comment, "Leather pants?"

"Not very traditional, I admit," Louis said with a smile. "On the other hand, I've been told I look good in them."

"Not 'good'," KJ contradicted him. "I believe 'absolutely fucking gorgeous' is the correct term."

Louis laughed, and so did Marius. "I think you're right," he said. "Is this where I get to help you put something on?"

"Yes." She handed him parts of what appeared to be a very elaborate garment. "His head's supposed to go here. Now please just hold it in place while I pin the sleeves on. Don't move, Louis."

"You mean you don't know acupuncture as well?"

KJ's grin was positively feral. "No. But I know some people who refer to this process as 'instant voodoo'."

"I'm a statue," Louis assured her.

Once everything was in place and held together by a seemingly endless number of pins, Marius stepped back to get a good view. The leather pants were black and laced up along the sides. And the — jacket, shirt, whatever — was nothing short of amazing. Tightly fitted black velvet clung to Louis' shoulders, chest, waist; a row of tiny silver buttons gleamed at his throat. The sleeves were equally tight, with more buttons drawing a silvery line up from the wrists, where a cascade of black lace fell. Marius looked more closely: yes, lace at the throat, too.

"You look stunning," he said frankly, then turned to KJ. "My congratulations. You're a very accomplished young lady."

She smiled at him. "Thank you. Call me young lady again and I'll slug you, but thank you anyway." She moved around Louis, twitching the cloth this way and that, moving the occasional pin.


"Oh, hush. Do you want to look beautiful or don't you?" Finally, she pronounced judgement: "Yep, this is it. Time to put it all together." Marius went to help her and they unpinned everything again and laid it out on the table.

"You should go to bed now," Louis said.

"Oh, sure," KJ said in a preoccupied tone. "I'm just going to fix that shoulder seam—"

"Now," Louis repeated.

She looked up at him and flashed him a sudden grin, looking like the complete urchin. "All right!" She unplugged the sewing machine and draped what looked like a sheet over the piles of cloth. "I just want to go say good night to Khayman first, if I'm allowed to do that?"

Louis, dressed again in his old clothes, put an arm around her shoulders. "I think I might grant you permission to do that," he said solemnly. "Come on, Marius, let's go along to make sure she keeps her word." He reached out a hand, and Marius had no choice but to take it and walk with them back to the living room again.

Armand and Daniel were on the couch, trying to pretend they weren't necking. In an armchair, Gabrielle and Pandora had apparently given up all such pretenses a long time ago. Louis went straight to Lestat; KJ walked over to sit on the armrest next to Khayman.

David lay on the floor, propped on one elbow, long legs sprawling. The bottom dropped out of Marius' stomach. He couldn't look that way, he couldn't. But he was so painfully aware of David's presence.

Instead he cast about for a distraction, and found that Santino was staring at KJ with disbelief and a shadow of disapproval. Of course. It wasn't to be expected that Santino would take the presence of a mortal as naturally as the rest of them did; he'd never met her before.

Marius caught Santino's eyes and nodded almost imperceptibly. Not long afterwards Santino rose casually from the couch and strolled over towards Marius. Marius had to admire the way he did it. Not for the first time, he thought that Santino would have made an excellent actor.

"What is going on here?" Santino asked quietly but intently. "Has Khayman finally lost it?"

Marius shook his head. "It's all right. She's a friend."

"A friend?" Santino looked at him as though he, too, had lost his mind. "She's a mortal, Marius."

"Yes." Marius returned the look with a stern one of his own. "She is also a very dear friend to Daniel, Armand, Louis, Pandora and Khayman, none of whom you want for an enemy, Santino. So try to curb your disapproval. She's a powerful psychic; she probably knows already how you feel about her."

"I did not mean that I would try to harm her," Santino said curtly. "I merely meant that to make a friend of a mortal usually ends in disaster."

"Or in a fledgling," Marius said.

Santino blanched. "Khayman to make a fledgling?" He shook his head. "Oh no. That would be most unwise. She'd be far too strong, too fast."

"Still stuck in the old coven way of thinking," Marius said. "Just consider Jesse."

"I don't like it," Santino said.

"No one asked you to like it!" Marius snapped. "Just behave while you're here, that's all."

Santino sighed. "I thought we were friends now, Marius," he said. "I'm sorry to have upset you. But you were the one who used to chastise Lestat when he broke the rules. Now you're all breaking the rules and you expect me to just take it in my stride."

At the genuine note of apology and regret in Santino's voice, Marius simmered down. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm just a little... edgy right now."

"Over David Talbot?" Santino asked.

Marius froze. He looked into Santino's black eyes. "What the devil," he asked between clenched teeth, "do you know about that?"

Santino took half a step backwards. "Calm down, Marius, please." Then a sly smile crossed his face. "You were so pointedly not looking at him that I had to wonder. You act like there's a black hole in the room right where he's sitting and you're scared of being sucked into it."

Breathing deeply, Marius tried to relax. Was he really being this obvious, or was everyone just out to make his life hell for some reason? He ran a hand through his hair and tried to look unconcerned. "It's really nothing," he said airily.

"I'm sure," Santino said. "Marius, I know suppressed desire when I see it. Go un-suppress it, for heaven's sake, or you'll burst or something."

"Thank you for the unsolicited advice," Marius said dryly.

Santino just grinned at him. "Any time."

"But it's close to dawn and I'm going to go back to my room now."


"Good morning, Santino."

He made it out of there without having to talk to someone else, and walked slowly along the hall, thoughts spinning around and around in his mind. Everything came back to David. Santino knew nothing; he could perhaps discern something of what Marius felt, but he'd said nothing about David's possible state of mind. Pandora had seemed convinced that all he had to do was talk to David, but Marius still doubted.

David did not look as though he were suffering. He'd said he wanted to talk, yes. But he probably just wanted to rake up the past, justify himself. List his complaints. The fact that this kind of behavior was wildly out of character for David did not stop Marius from trying to believe it.

He reached his room and walked inside, and flopped down on the bed. No point turning the lights on; he was going to seal the windows shut any moment, and lie down and try to sleep even before the dawn took him. He felt tired.

Well, it had been a long night. Marius let himself fall back and stared up at the ceiling. All in all, things were going well, he felt. They'd been right in guessing that there would be fights, but it seemed that Armand and Lestat were at least temporarily reconciled, which was really all that one could hope for, and Santino would not make trouble about KJ. Perhaps they'd get through this well and it would be the happy event that Louis and Lestat were hoping for—

A knock on the door interrupted his musings, and he sat up in time to see the door open and David Talbot walk in and shut it behind him.

"What are you doing here?" Marius asked brusquely.

"As I tried to say before, I would like to talk to you," David said. "And it's been remarkably difficult to get hold of you, I might add, or I would not resort to this — this bedroom farce behavior."

"David." Marius took a deep breath. "Please leave."


"This is pointless. No good will come of going through the whole business again—"

"We never even went through it the first time," David pointed out. "Look—" He took a step closer, then seemed to change his mind and stopped. "I'm not going to break down and cry all over you. I just want to talk. That's all."

"It's nearly dawn," Marius finally said. "There isn't much time."

"No," David agreed. "We can do it tonight instead. But don't try to disappear again. You don't want this hanging over your head the whole time, do you?"

"No," Marius managed to get out. David was so calm, so collected!

"Tonight, then." David turned towards the door. "At ten or so?"

"Very well," Marius said, feeling as though he were signing his own death warrant. "Where?"

David turned, his hand on the door knob. "The balcony seems a popular place for private meetings," he said with a smile. Marius was nodding in agreement, when David went on, "So I think we'd better make it here. I don't know how you feel about it, but I don't want to be interrupted."

Then he was gone.

Marius fell back onto the bed again. Oh, dear heaven.

* * *

It was a good thing he woke early.

David prowled the house, listening to the silence. Seemed that all the lovers had decided to sleep in... or whatever. Not that he could blame them. For a moment he flashed back on waking in Marius' arms, that feeling of utter contentment. Peace.

Had he ever really appreciated it enough during the time they'd had together? Perhaps he'd wasted some of those awakenings on restlessness and displeasure, had not taken the time to savor them. Too terrible to think of now, when he would give anything to return to that time—

Well, no, not anything. There had been a reason for his leaving, after all. He did not merely want Marius' company, he wanted Marius' love. Had there ever been love? No way of looking back objectively now; he could only try to remember how Marius' clear eyes had really looked at him.

Before he got too nauseatingly sentimental he was distracted by the sound of a sewing machine. Of course the resident mortal would be awake. David headed that way, eager for company, anything at all that might distract him from his nervousness. He was meeting Marius at ten. Oh, god.

What am I going to say to him?

It was probably best not to try to figure it out ahead of time. Planned speeches usually came out sounding silly and muddled; as long as he remembered the most important parts of what he wanted, he should at least be able to communicate that.

Unless he died of embarrassment first. That was always an option.

David looked into the back parlor and saw KJ surrounded by the velvet sea of Pandora's royal blue dress, humming contentedly to herself along with the more tuneless hum of the machine, her wayward curls held back by a black bandanna printed with tiny white skulls.

He knocked on the doorframe; she looked up and smiled.

"Another early riser? You can come in, I have all the secrets tucked away."

David did not need much encouragement. He found himself a chair and sat down at one end of the table, careful not to disturb anything, and equally careful not to accidentally seat himself on one of those ubiquitous pins.

"Another?" he asked. "Who else have you seen?"

"Khayman's already gone out," she said.

She didn't elaborate on that statement, but David could tell from the slightly haunted look in her eyes that she knew just what Khayman was doing out in the city, and was more bothered by it than she liked to let on. She knew, of course, on a purely intellectual level, that they all drank blood to survive. But to see someone you cared for actually go out to do it was a different thing. He remembered that very well.

Still, although she looked troubled, she did not look afraid. It was the morality of it all that bothered her, then, not fear for her own survival.

David had no comforting words for her. He just nodded. Then he reached out and brushed his fingers across the dress she was making. "It's beautiful. You're making something for Louis too?"

She nodded, but refused to elaborate. "Yes."

"But not for Lestat?" David probed.

KJ smiled. "Nope. Don't know anything about that. I'm starting to think that he's going to go through with this naked."

"Oh, I think that would be entirely too distracting for everyone involved," David said, deadpan.

She laughed, long and loud, her curls bouncing. "Yeah," she said finally, "I bet it would. A guy like that could even make me think twice. Hey, David?"


"Excuse me for getting so personal on short notice, but how come you wouldn't sleep with Lestat back when you were both mortal?" she fired at him.

It wasn't what he'd been expecting. David blinked and tried for dignity. "Young lady, does the word privacy mean anything at all to you?"

KJ groaned. "Not another one. Would you guys stop calling me 'young lady'? It's driving me crazy. Anyway, what was it? Didn't you fancy him in that body?" She nodded towards him.

The sheer audacity of her question amused him more than anything else. And he could think back on that time without feeling too troubled any more; he'd come to terms with his life and his death, after all.

"Oh, I did," he said. "Or — well — I loved him, and I wanted that body. But there was a considerable difference there. I loved Lestat, just as I still love him, but I did not feel that kind of physical desire for him. And I did feel desire for the body — this body," he looked down at himself with a grin, "but there he was inside of it. I couldn't do it."

She was smiling, too. "Interesting problem. Why didn't you tell him that?"

"I was worried that he'd see it as a personal rejection."

"Oh, more of a rejection than you not wanting to sleep with him in the first place?" KJ teased.

David laughed. "I assumed he would get round to blaming it on my weak heart sooner or later. I just didn't want it mixed up, I did not want that kind of desire added to the love I felt for him. Particularly not when we were trying to put him back in a body that would be incapable of such acts."

"Oh, that's right," she agreed, "too embarrassing if you'd still had the hots for him then." An impish grin lit up her face. "Imagine the Talamasca trying to deal with a Superior General who wants to get a vampire into bed."

"I don't imagine I would have remained Superior General for very long, under those circumstances. You've never had any contact with the Talamasca?"

She shook her head. "No. Just as well, I don't imagine I would have fit in there. I'm not very good at taking orders, and particularly not from nameless Elders."

David could very well see that. "You know that I had decided to do something different with my 'second' life. I knew something was wrong within the order but I felt no urge to straighten it out. It was strange, I'd loved the Talamasca, given them a lifetime..."

"Well, that's enough, isn't it?"

"Yes," David sighed, "I think it is."

KJ nodded with a grin and went on with her work. To his surprise, she got him to help in pinning up the hem; David remembered some story about Louis learning how to sew buttons. It began to sound believable now. KJ had remarkable strength of character; she wasn't forceful exactly, but she had a way of getting you to do things.

David discovered that he was growing to like her immensely. He was just relaxing in his chair and telling her a few stories from his youth, his time as a mortal rather than a preternatural hunter, when they heard the front door slam.

KJ jerked upright. "Oh, God," she whispered, even her lips turning pale for a moment.

David caught her fear, scanned the house as fast as he could. A mortal. Alone. Mind so carefully and thoroughly closed that nothing leaked out; there was just the presence of the body, moving towards them.

"You know who this is?" He tensed, ready to deal with the matter summarily.

"Yes," she said. "I know."

They did not have to wait long. Moments later, a figure appeared in the open door; slim, almost gaunt in appearance, and with long, long hair.

"Hi," the witch said huskily.

KJ was looking at her out of wide, still eyes. "Hi."

The witch walked into the room. Her blue shirt hung loose on her, and the long dark grey skirt swirled as she moved. It was cinched at the waist with a broad brown leather belt; she looked ready to break in two, her waist was that narrow. "You can drop the surprised look. I was invited too, you know."

KJ nodded slowly. "Well... here you are."

"Yes." A short pause. "I wanted to see everyone again."

David could feel the tension all too clearly. It puzzled him between these two that he had believed to be best friends, but it was really none of his business. He knew he ought to walk out of the room now.

But KJ gave him a swift, beseeching look that he could not fail to interpret as a plea to him to stay. He didn't know why she wanted him there, but if she did, he would remain.

KJ's head dropped and she spoke the next words to the velvet lying on her lap. "You're here to check up on me, aren't you." It wasn't a question.

"You're included in 'everyone', yes." Then the witch took two more steps and fell to her knees all at once by KJ's chair, putting a hand on her arm. "I worry about you."

"I can take care of myself."

"Not that tired old line." The witch sounded angry. "I'm your friend, I'm entitled to worry."

KJ smiled, but it was a twisted smile and far from happy. "Well, don't. I'm fine. I've found someone I care about, who cares about me. Wasn't that what I was supposed to do...?"

"I never said you were supposed to do anything—"

"Oh no? You said I needed to find someone who would love me—"

"I didn't mean a bloody vampire—"

"—because you couldn't love me—"

"—I do love you—"

"—not that way—"

"Well, neither does he—"

"You don't know anything about—"

"I've read the damn books, haven't I, and I never meant—"

"And yes, I still love you! Is that what you wanted to know?!"

The silence was deafening. It grew longer and longer, as the two young women stared at each other, neither willing to give. Finally the witch made a small sound and fell forward, resting her forehead against KJ's leg. Her shoulders shook with suppressed sobs.

David rose and walked silently towards the door. The last thing he heard was the witch whispering, "I'm sorry," and KJ's tender, tired, "For heaven's sake, when did you last eat something?"

He went into the living room instead and walked around aimlessly, picking out books and looking at them and putting them back, touching small objects here and there as though checking whether they were dusty. Some of the beautiful ornaments and paintings from the orphanage had found their way here. David was surprised to see that, but pleased. He hadn't expected Lestat to want them around, perpetual reminders of that time. But perhaps this was the right idea after all; no need for them to languish unseen, when constant exposure would dull the memories.

His mind roamed back to the two he had left behind in the back parlor, but there was nothing he could do for them. David certainly did not wish to see KJ as a vampire. Not because he did not like her. Rather the opposite.

But it would be nearly impossible, at the same time, for her to take her leave of them all and try to go back to a normal life. Once caught up in the vampires' world, David knew, you would never be the same again.

He wondered idly what Daniel's advice would be. But then Daniel had wanted it. And Daniel was happy now. Daniel could have no regrets.

David closed another unread book and carefully replaced it, his fingers caressing the leather-bound spine, tracing the gold lettering. He crossed the room yet again, aware that he was pacing but unable to stop. This time he continued out onto the balcony and stopped there, leaning back against the wall of the house, savoring last remains of heat: the sun had baked this wall not so long ago. It felt good.

So he was going to have that conversation with Marius, finally. Well, it would be good to get everything out in the open, Louis was right about that. When he'd left the fattoria, David had been too humiliated to want to give Marius a chance to confirm his suspicions that this was just a no-account affair. Now... he was strong, he could take it, if it turned out that that was indeed what it had been. And if that had been all Marius had ever wanted from him, David would certainly not suggest resuming the relationship. He had his pride.

Oh, who was he kidding? David closed his eyes. The truth was that he would do anything, anything at all, just to be in Marius' arms once more. To hold him, touch him, kiss him. The closeness he'd felt when they made love, had it just been his imagination... or had there been something more there? He wanted it, he missed it so badly.

There was a sound in the courtyard below. David opened his eyes again and leaned forward. Two figures were sitting on the bench, close together. One was clearly Louis, and the other looked like Jesse. He thought about calling out to them, but they seemed to be having an intimate, silent conversation. David slumped back again and tried to relax.

It wasn't working. He had never, ever been so nervous. Not even aboard the QEII trying to defeat the Body Thief. Then he'd been so concentrated on making a plan, reaching a certain goal. This was different: there was no enemy now. He couldn't trick Marius into doing what he wanted — couldn't trick Marius into loving him.

All he could do was ask.

And it was the thought of that, of opening himself up and making himself that vulnerable, that made David shiver.

He never had before, he knew, reviewing his life. The wild adventures of his youth, all those torrid affairs, had always been entirely on his terms. He remembered Carlos, poor Carlos, swept off his feet and then discarded when David had become the student of Carlos' mother instead. There had been passion there, certainly. But David had chosen to see it only as a physical passion... to accept only that side of it.

He stared moodily down at his feet. Carlos had loved him. And he... could have loved Carlos. But conquest was one thing, yielding another, and he had never yielded to anything or anyone. Except Lestat, that night in Barbados...

Now he wondered if he could give up his heart, admit to love, love freely. He did love Marius. Simply, wholly, with no selfish intent. It was so ingrained in him now, it was part of who he was. Ah, yes, that was it.

He felt himself on the verge of a revelation. The love he felt was not alien to him, was not an affliction or an illness or anything that had 'struck him down', oh those colorful metaphors. It had grown inside him, it was the way he had changed. Could it be that simple? A love stronger than anything.

Down below, the pair on the bench rose and embraced, and separated, Louis going back towards the house. And Jesse— David frowned. That wasn't Jesse.

The slim, redheaded woman in the courtyard looked straight at him for a brief moment. Vertigo seized him, his mind turned inside out.

:If love were not stronger than death itself, none of us would be here now. You will do well, young one.:

And then she was gone.

David stood quite still on the balcony until he heard someone enter the room; then he looked in through the French doors and saw that it was Louis, who settled down on the couch. David knew that he could go in and tell Louis about Mekare's words to him. But then he decided he did not want to do that. It had been something just for him.

He leaned against the rail instead, looked down, wondered how to pass the time until ten o'clock. David did not know if he wanted the time to pass in an instant, or not at all; he wanted this meeting and dreaded it with equal fervor.

Then he sensed someone else approaching, and in a moment another vampire stepped into the courtyard. The figure of a man, thin and wiry, with brown hair and a rather angelic face; yes, very much a Botticelli face, David thought. Just like those angels who look like either men or women depending on who is seeing them. And David knew who this had to be, this vampire he had never seen before.

"Good evening," a soft voice called up to him. "May I come inside?"

"Certainly," David said with a smile. His words were echoed by Louis, who also stepped out on the balcony.

"Of course you may come inside, Eric. It is good to see you. We were beginning to worry that you would not show up."

Eric shrugged, contriving to make it look both polite and graceful. He had very much the look of a ballet dancer, David thought. "And now I am here." A stunningly sweet smile lit up his face. "I would not miss this extraordinary event for the world, Louis."

"Thank you, I think," Louis said.

Still smiling, Eric disappeared from view carrying his one small battered brown leather bag. David turned to Louis. "The last guest?" That was as close as he was going to get to mentioning Mekare's presence before.

"The last," Louis nodded serenely. "I sometimes think he is too — well — too nice to be a vampire."

David chuckled. "I see what you mean. But it's worked for the past three thousand years, hasn't it?"

"Apparently." Louis' smile was, in fact, almost as sweet as Eric's. "David, have you talked to Marius yet?"

"This amazing persistence is something that I have always admired in you, Louis. Before."

"You haven't, then."

"I have tried." David swallowed. "I — we are going to meet tonight and talk. In a little while." He looked at his watch. "At ten. I don't know why I did not say at sunset instead. This is killing me."

Louis slipped an arm around him. "It is so good that you are finally doing this."

"It doesn't feel good," David said with a sigh. "I'm absolutely terrified."

"That is no reason not to do something that's important to you," Louis said.

David turned his head and looked straight into Louis' brilliant green eyes. "Ah, you know, don't you? You're frightened too."

"Yes," Louis admitted. "I am and I am still going to do it." He rested his head against David's shoulder. "I know it's right. And being frightened is part of that. If a committment like this did not frighten me, it would be because I were emotionally dead."

"So you're saying fear is part of a healthy relationship." David tried to keep a straight face but he knew his eyes were twinkling. Louis snorted and punched him, with surprising strength.

"You can be so infuriating." Then Louis grinned. "Just what Marius needs."

"Someone to annoy him? I'm not sure he's going to see it quite that way."

"I'm sure the idea would horrify him," Louis agreed. "And I can't imagine the two of you fighting all the time the way he and Pandora apparently did. You are rather more... subtle than Pan is."

David heroically refrained from saying that no one could be less subtle than Pandora, and settled for, "We haven't fought yet, but tonight may be a first."

"Don't fight him. Kiss him," Louis advised solemnly. Then he slipped out of David's embrace. "I think I should go and make our new guest welcome. Just don't stand here and brood so much you miss your big date."

"I cannot imagine anything I am less likely to do," David said gloomily. Louis laughed and walked inside.

* * *

Marius was finally driven from his room by the sound of Armand and Lestat fighting on the other side of the wall. He had no idea what the fight was about, and he did not intend to stay and find out. It was an immense relief that Lestat had not asked him to step in and judge the matter. He didn't feel that he had anything to contribute. He was tired of trying to make sense of others' problems.

And he fervently hoped that they would have stopped by the time he was meeting David. That conversation was going to be difficult enough without being constantly interrupted by the sound of breaking china.

Marius did not know what David imagined would come of this talk. But he had decided to go through with it anyway. If David needed this to make himself feel better about the breakup, well, then Marius could take it. He owed David that much; he had used him, no matter what Pandora had said.

Then he remembered the other things she'd said. She was right. He did love David. He had loved David all the time, he thought, ever since the first time he'd gone to speak with that quiet, thoughtful, brilliant young fledgling.

But how could he say so? It was all too much, too intense perhaps to be expressed in words. David was so young and strong, so recently come into this life. It wasn't to be expected that he should understand the way Marius felt.

It had frightened him from the very beginning. As soon as they had gone away together. Marius had meant to take it easy, slow. He knew that he was immensely attracted to David; he'd sensed that David was in some measure attracted to him, too. But then David had just been left to fend for himself in a world that was still rather new and strange to him. It would be only natural for David to attach himself to someone who offered to help him. Marius had been aware of that, he had not wanted to create a situation where David was too dependent on him.

Only there was something about David that drew him so strongly he could not maintain full control. He'd given in to what he felt; looking back, Marius could hardly believe it had taken them so short a time to become lovers. He had tried, honestly tried, to hold back. Unguarded passion had caused him to commit one mistake after another in his past; this time he had been determined to be sensible. Apparently it had not helped.

He still wanted David. He still loved David. But he couldn't just fall to his knees and beg David to come back. Pandora had called him proud; well, so be it, that was the way she saw it. It was not really David's refusal that Marius feared. No, he worried that David would indeed agree to come back, out of guilt or a sense of obligation, and with no love in his heart.

I couldn't stand that, he thought. I would rather spend the next century under the ground than that.

Marius avoided the living room. He was genuinely fond of nearly everyone who was here, but he didn't think he was capable of holding an ordinary conversation right now, and he most certainly did not want anyone asking him what was wrong. Or even worse, telling him what was wrong, the way Pandora and Santino had done. It unnerved him to think that he could be that transparent. Had love turned his brains to mush?

Instead Marius went outside and settled down on the bench in the courtyard, prepared to wait calmly until it was time for him to return to his room and face David. He had not lived to be this old only to waste his time on such a mortal thing as fretting. He could sit here and admire the night sky and listen to the soothing sound of running water.

And not, for heaven's sake, think of David all the time. Marius leaned back and tried to empty his mind, tried to drift on the night breeze, light as a feather.

He could smell earth and growing things in here, heard the soft sound of voices from the open French doors. Then two voices growing gradually stronger and the sound of light, deliberate steps out on the balcony.

"...a bit lonely."

"Why is that?" The deep, slightly sarcastic voice: it was Santino. No mistaking that. Marius took just a little, twisted pleasure in the fact that Santino had found someone else to stick his barbs into.

"I don't see anything of Maharet," the first voice went on, and Marius identified it as Eric's. "She has secluded herself with Jesse and Mael in Sonoma and they have made it... fairly clear that they do not want visitors." A pause, an almost audible shrug. "It is no matter."

"And is Maharet the only one you might want to see?" Santino asked, a little more sharply this time.

"I know her very well," Eric said calmly. "Now you and I, we have not met in a long time."

"It's been two years," Santino said with some precision. "I rather thought we fought the last time."

"We did?" Marius tried to figure out if there was a teasing note to Eric's voice or if he was just imagining that. "Ah, yes, I remember. I needed to see Maharet and asked you to go with me."

"She has never liked me," Santino said.


"So, I did not wish — a repetition of time past, of old scenes, old arguments."

"And I went to see her alone." Pause. "I wish you had come with me."

"Why?" Santino was having trouble maintaining his sarcastic drawl now; it was slipping, and some other, purer emotion was starting to show through underneath it. "So you could watch her tear into me one more time?"

"No." Eric was more placid than ever. "So that we could have gone away somewhere else afterwards."

"And done what?" Santino asked harshly.

"Oh... nothing in particular. Just been together."

"That sounds wildly entertaining."

Marius wanted to jump up and scream in Santino's ear. Idiot! Don't turn love away when it's being offered to you! But he wasn't going to do that, wouldn't even try the effect of a soft mental communication. He sat still and quiet, not moving a muscle for fear they would notice him. They would not be allowing their minds to roam; it was too crowded here, that would only lead to confusion.

"So you don't want to come with me when we leave here, either." For the first time there was something in Eric's voice that might have been uncertainty, a faint sorrow.

Another pause followed his words, and Marius found himself infected with their tension. He clenched his hands, hoping for the right answer. It was no use interfering. But if they got it wrong, oh...

"I... might," Santino said finally, and the whole night seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. "Did you have any place in mind?"

"No," Eric said sweetly. "I just thought that I would like to be with you."

"I see." It was amazing really that those two tiny words could carry such a world of emotion. And then there was silence up on the balcony, and Marius let his mind drift again. He enjoyed the night scents, the random sounds, even the feel of the bench's hard marble under his hand, its texture against his fingers. It would be so easy to just sit here, like this, for the longest time. All night perhaps. So easy to miss that promised meeting.

But there was no way of avoiding David if he wanted to stay here. And he did want to stay. It had to be done, this confrontation had to come about, then, sooner or later, and it was better to have it sooner.

I thought I'd lived long enough to face every fear I ever had, Marius thought wryly. What he felt when he thought about David... it was most closely akin to terror. And that word set up echoes in his head, lines of poetry speaking themselves almost without his consent.

'Who then devised the torment? Love, Love is the unfamiliar Name Behind the hands that wove The intolerable shirt of flame Which human power cannot remove. We only live, only suspire Consumed by either fire or fire.' Marius sighed. He doubted that Eliot had had David Talbot in mind when writing that, but the lines felt horribly appropriate nonetheless.

It was nearly time. He wondered if he could do it. His heart did not beat faster, as a mortal man's might have, nor did his nervousness cause sweat to bead on his forehead. The nature of what he was set him at a distance from such common physical reactions. And now, of all times, he found himself strangely missing that. Why should this body of his be so calm, incapable of mirroring the storm of feelings raging inside of him?

Then he shrugged, rejecting the romance novel terminology. If he really felt the need to demonstrate anguish, he supposed he could always bite his nails.

Marius rose slowly and rolled his shoulders, trying to concentrate on physical sensation again, the silk of his shirt sliding over his skin, the movement of his muscles. Grounded in reality again, or as close as he was likely to get, he walked back inside.

Music came from the living room, and the sound of several conversations being carried on at once. He paused just outside the door, and saw Pandora at one end of the couch, both arms on the armrest, chin propped on her hands, speaking intently to Louis who was sitting on the floor looking up at her. Something about the way they looked made him smile.

Armand and Lestat were in the background, their differences apparently settled for the moment as they walked arm in arm around the room. Daniel appeared, crossing Marius' line of vision, stopping to sweep Armand into his arms for a quick turn in time with the music, then releasing him and disappearing again. Clear laughter trickled out into the hall, and Armand was shaking his head in loving exasperation.

So good, to see Armand so happy. He and Daniel were a joy to behold. Marius wanted to tell him that, tell them both that. But it could wait a little longer. He moved on.

Passing the back parlor he heard voices too, low and intense, two women speaking in near-whispers and then a man's deeper voice added to theirs. Out of respect for their privacy he hurried past, reached his room and stepped inside.

Marius looked at his watch. Five minutes to ten. He walked to the window, looked outside, turned around and walked back again towards the door. I can't do this. I'm going back to the living room.

His hand was on the door. And then it opened.

"I trust I am not late," David said.

"No." Marius cleared his throat and tried to look unconcerned. "No, you're not." He stepped backwards. "Come in."

David moved forward with long easy steps, closing the door. He did wear that body well. Better than Lestat had, truthfully. There was something unusual about David's relationship with this body of his; it seemed he had just enough inner distance from it to be able to appreciate it. Almost, Marius thought, as though it were a lovely possession David did not mind showing off.

Marius kept backing away. Finally he made himself stop, in the middle of the room, and watched as David tilted his head enquiringly. "May I sit down?"

The formality of David's manner made Marius calm down a bit. Perhaps this would not be so bad after all. He nodded. "Of course. Please do." He gestured towards the chair at the desk, taking the armchair near the window for himself.

To his surprise David did not turn the chair around but sat astride it, arms propped on the backrest. Brown eyes regarded him intently.

"I'm sure you're wondering how we're going to start this."


"Well," now David smiled suddenly, warmly, and Marius' heart turned over, "it's quite simple really. There are a few things that I... need to ask you."

This was it, then. Accusations would be hurled and tempers would be lost. Marius braced himself. All he could do was try to be honest. "Ask away."

"Why do you think I left?"

He did not quite know what he had been expecting, but it wasn't that. David was watching him; his face gave nothing away. "I — I suppose — I thought it was because you did not wish to be with me any longer." Marius swallowed, hoping that that hadn't sounded as childishly resentful as he feared it might have.

David just shook his head. "No, I mean the real reason I left, not what it resulted in."

"David, I don't want to—" Marius broke off and tried to examine what he had been going to say.

"Don't want to talk?" David made as if to rise. "If you really do not want to then there is no point to this, and I'll leave."

"No!" The urgency he heard in his own voice was startling. Marius instinctively held out a hand though David was far too far away for him to touch. "No, David, don't — don't leave." He took a deep breath, regained control. "We'll talk. That's not what I meant. Stay. Please."

David looked closely at him, then settled down again. "Very well. I will stay. And you'll tell me...?"

Marius nodded, defeated. "Yes."

"I'll tell you some things, too," David promised gently. "You won't be the only one talking." And then settled in, and appeared to be waiting.

"I was surprised," Marius said slowly, feeling his way through what he remembered from the night. "Very surprised. Perhaps that was stupid of me... not to see earlier the way things were going. There must have been signs. But then I suppose I did not want to see. Once you were gone it became clear to me that I had... handled the situation wrong. But," he underscored it with a firm gesture, not wanting David to think that he was trying to make him feel guilty, "I knew then and I know now that I would have to respect your choice. Staying or going, it was up to you. It was always up to you."

He had to say that. Had to make it clear that he had accepted what had happened and that he did not want David to offer to come back out of guilt. Or pity. Because the ugly truth was that Marius just might be weak enough to accept that, he wanted David so badly.

No. Not on those terms. Not if he doesn't really want me. He clenched his hands together.

And how could he think that David would want him, when David had already left him? It was a finished story; this was just the epilogue. Nothing more would happen.

"Not much of a choice," David said. "Take you as you are or leave you as you are, is that it?"

Marius blinked, surprised again at what he heard. As far as he knew, he did not have a third setting between 'on' and 'off'. "What other choice would there be?"

"It could be," David said in a measured tone, not looking at him, "that I wanted something different from you than what I got."

Ah, this was the heart of the matter, and he'd known that all along, hadn't he? Marius supposed that he would just have to face the music. David had been looking for help and assistance, not for an old Roman vampire who'd thrown himself at him body and soul. No wonder he had felt disappointed.

"I know," Marius said, dreading what would come next. Pandora had been wrong and he had been right. But that was not much of a comfort. "It was stupid of me."

He just did not want David to put it into words, he wasn't sure he could bear a detailed dissection of just how wrong he had been. It was enough that he himself knew, that he had tormented himself with going over it again and again in his long hours of solitude since then. Old fool. Fool for love.

"You mean you knew what would...? If you had such a clear vision of what the future would bring, you should never have invited me to go with you," David said sharply, reproachfully.

Marius looked down. It was going to start here. "No, I shouldn't," he said. "I'm sorry."

It had been truly irresponsible of him. He knew that. But then he had just found David so — so — wonderful, so lovely and clever and just a delight to be with. And the better he got to know David, the worse it got, and he was falling deeper and deeper all the time. Though of course he should have called a halt to it far earlier. Not to save his own heart, it had been too late for that when he'd first met David. But it seemed he had hurt David, and that was unforgivable.

"Well then." There was a twist to David's mouth that Marius had never seen before. "If you know already, I don't have anything to tell you after all. We're agreed on what went wrong, we can... leave it at this."

"I... yes." Marius felt cold. This was not the fight he had feared. But it was worse, much worse. With a fight, at least he would have seen some emotion in David's eyes. Not this, this strange, bloodless encounter. It was all so civilized, it couldn't be real.

David rose from his chair with slow grace. "I'll go. I'm sorry to have disturbed you."

"That's quite all right," Marius said meaninglessly. He stood up too, waited as David walked towards the door. Then he could not help saying, very quietly, "But I wish it did not have to end like this, David."

David turned around with his hand on the door knob. "You wish... What do you mean, Marius?"

"What I said," he went on recklessly, having already started. "That I wish things had gone differently."

"But this is your choice," David said, and now, listening oh so closely, Marius thought he heard something like pain in the younger vampire's voice. "If you feel that the whole affair was a mistake, why do you regret the way it ended?"

He could not remember that his mind had ever moved so quickly, sorting through the various options, the implications of what they'd just been saying to each other. "Wait," he said. "David. I don't feel that. I mean, I do feel that, but... oh," he threw caution to the winds, "I wouldn't stop you from leaving me, but... I wish you hadn't."

Then he turned away. He'd said it, he had been honest, now David could just go away. The silence unnerved him. Then David spoke right next to him, having crossed the room again silently. He was close enough to touch now.

"Marius. I'll ask one more time. Why do you think I left you?"

Still not looking at David, Marius let it pour out, "Because I was using you. Because you had learned all you could from me. Because I did not interest you any more. Because I asked too much of you. Because—"

"Marius, you are out of your two-thousand-year-old mind," David said.

"No cute insults, please," he snapped. "Why don't you just leave? Again?"

"I left you because I love you."

Marius turned his head then and stared at David. "Well, that just makes a hell of a lot of sense," popped out of his mouth before he could think.

"I left you because I did not think you loved me." David's eyes were on him now. Eyes as brown and steady as earth. Under their relentless gaze Marius felt himself begin to shake and crumble, his inner barriers dissolving. "Was I right?"

He gasped. It was a release that felt like a physical pain, accepting the truth of what David was saying. And the possibilities it brought.

"You were..." One more time. One more try. He had to get it out. "You were... wrong." And he felt it then, the searing joy of confession, like ice breaking up in the spring, sudden wild freedom. "You were wrong."

A hand closed around his, cool and strong. David leaned towards him, speaking in his ear. "Say it."

Marius took a deep breath. "I loved you. I — still love you." And he turned towards David blindly, reaching out, finding, being found. So much to say still, but it could wait, everything could wait, the whole world would just have to wait a little while.

* * *

David pulled Marius into his arms. He could feel that Marius was shaking. Slowly, carefully, he tugged the ribbon from Marius' hair and let it tumble free, ran his fingers through it. Thick, straight, neatly kept. Rough as rope, Marius had once jokingly said, but he was wrong. It snagged on the skin like raw silk.

Marius' eyes were closed. David kept a tight hold of him with one arm. He was still half expecting Marius to change his mind, to bolt. Cupping his free hand around Marius' face, he ran his thumb along that beautiful straight jawline, paused to caress the firm chin with its very slight indentation, not quite a dimple.

So they had been separated, had been apart all this time because of an idiotic misunderstanding. And because Marius was — no, because they both were stubborn fools who would not talk about their emotions. Suddenly David found himself shaking, too, with fear at the thought that if it had not been for Louis and Lestat's invitation, he and Marius could have spent centuries not knowing of each other's love.

"Idiots," he whispered.

Marius' eyelids fluttered, the corner of his mouth quirked up. "I'm an idiot?"

"Yes. And so am I." Touching his fingertips to those lips, waiting to see if they would speak again. Rediscovering this, once familiar territory. He wanted to touch everything at once, wanted it all so much it made him feel hollow inside. Played with himself by holding back. Small, careful touches.

He had always taken what he wanted. Now he needed, oh how he needed, to give.

Slowly Marius' arms closed more tightly around him, Marius' hands began to move up and down his back, as though mapping and measuring him. A small playful bite at his fingers, then Marius did speak. "You're so beautiful."

"Your eyes are closed," David said.

Marius smiled. "Yes." He moved closer, his lips against David's now. "I can feel it. I know. I can... taste it."

:Yes. Taste me.: David offered himself, pressing in close.

:Not that way. Not yet.: They didn't fall, they drifted down very slowly, or perhaps the bed came up to envelop them. In either case they were lying down now, together. Wrapped up in each other. They kissed again, and again.

"I missed you so." He freed one hand and began leisurely to undo the buttons on Marius' shirt, one after the other. The passion in him was making him gentle. Nothing but sweetness would do. Nothing but the most delicate touch, fingertips drifting like feathers on the breath of love.

"David." The sound of Marius saying his name broke him open, made him unfold like a flower in the sun. "David."

:Yes.: Another kiss. :I know.: And he did know, and he was drunk on that knowledge. He pressed his lips against the smooth skin just beneath Marius' ear, let his tongue trace a slow line down the neck, flicking over the jugular vein. Ah, the love-making of predators. It was all the more precious for that, the potential for violence seeming to underscore the lightest touch.

David felt amazed at how soft and pliant Marius was in his arms, so unexpectedly submissive, so amazingly responsive to David's every caress. He could judge quite closely, by Marius' breathing and by the half muffled little sounds Marius was making, just what pleased his lover most. It was as though Marius knew just how badly David needed this, needed to give Marius everything he could, needed to know that Marius wanted it.

Every part of Marius was simply perfect. David had tried not to be driven into obsessive reminiscences about Marius' smooth skin or his sculpted back where the gentle curve of the spine seemed to ask for kisses. Now it was all here for him, he could do all those things he had wanted so badly. Touch him everywhere, broad shoulders, strong chest, those legs... And the hands; Marius had the most beautiful hands. Strong, capable, at the same time elegant in their still-human grace and vampiric economy of movement.

David kissed the palms, followed the remaining lines with the tip of his tongue, wondering if this was the life line, the love line. He sucked at the tip of one finger, then the next, trying to resist the temptation, finally giving in and piercing the skin carefully with one sharp fang. No more than a small drop of blood seeped out. But that tiny taste was enough to make his mind reel and his breath come faster. Oh, God, I don't know if I can draw this out any longer.

But Marius pulled his hands away and gripped David's shoulders, pushed him down gently but firmly. Marius began to strip him with great precision, almost impersonally. David shook his head in protest, tried to press closer to Marius' body, arched involuntarily under every touch of his lover's hands.

"Hush now."

"But I want... to please you."

"Oh, David." And Marius was suddenly lying on top of him, skin against skin, mouths pressed together in a long slow kiss. :You do. There is nothing in this world that pleases me more, my love.:

:Take me, then. Taste me. Please. I want to be — yours.: It was almost like fighting, trying to get closer, and closer still. :I missed you, I missed you so.:

A hand on the back of his neck. Drawing him in close and now his lips were pressed against smooth skin and he could feel the blood pulsing there, so close. Did not bite. Waited, relishing the feel of that temptation.

:Gods, do I have to beg you?:


Laughter. And fangs in his neck, and blood on his tongue, smoke and salt and iron. Love.

If there were images here he did not remember them afterwards. And that wasn't truly important. Sharing the blood this time they weren't sharing the past, they were sharing the future.

When, later, he was lying flat on his back with Marius' head resting on his shoulder, David smiled to himself at how easy it was. He could feel strands of Marius' hair tickling his neck. Turning his head he pressed a kiss on that broad smooth forehead. It was so good to just lie here like this, he thought they could probably stay in bed all night. The house was crowded enough that no one would miss them.

Oh, right. Louis would certainly notice that they were both absent, and draw his own conclusions. And that reminded David of the reason they were here in New Orleans to start with. Reality began to return slowly.

Marius seemed to feel it too. He shifted in David's arms, and then hoisted himself up on one elbow, looking serious and happy at the same time. "David?"


"I... am so glad I decided to come here."

"Well, so am I." David smiled. He reached up and brushed his fingertips across Marius' cheek. "I thought it was all over and I was a fool for not being able to forget."

Marius shook his head. "No more of a fool than I am," he said and his answering smile was almost shy. "But why did you never say anything?"

"Why did you never say anything?" David countered.

Marius dropped his eyes. "I didn't want to... be all over you all at once. I thought I would let it take its time, see what happened."

"Well, what happened was that I left. I never dared to say anything! You were so... not cold, but distant." He couldn't help it, those last words came out sounding almost accusing. He still had too many bad memories from the past year.

"David, you don't understand!" Marius said immediately. "I know. I know I was that. I felt I had to. You don't know what... All my problems have come from loving too much too soon. I actually thought I was doing something right for once."

David shook his head but he could smile now. "Two years is a bit long to play it cool." Then he saw Marius lift an eyebrow. "Well, it is for me. I'm not all that old yet, remember?"

Marius bent closer and trailed his lips along David's jaw. "It was a long time... for me too. But not nearly as long as the time has been since you left."

David turned his head, captured that roaming mouth with his own. Kissing like this, he could do it forever. Then it occurred to him that that expression was ridiculous when you had literally forever, and the kiss ended in laughter. "I am sorry. It's been — far too long. What did you do when you found I was gone?"

"Nothing much." Marius shrugged it off. "I left the fattoria, I did not like to be there without you. I travelled in northern Africa for a while."

"Egypt?" David asked with a half-smile. They had talked about that from time to time.

"No." Now Marius looked sheepish. "I'd imagined so often going there with you one day. I didn't want to do it on my own."

"We'll go," David promised. He found he really wanted to, not as any kind of historical pilgrimage, not because they were what they were, no, just because it would be something special that Marius wanted to show him. "We will. Now, though..."

Marius understood his meaning immediately. "Do we have to?"

They both smiled. "I don't suppose we have to do anything. But we're here for them really, we should perhaps try to be good guests, don't you think?"

"Very well." All the same Marius leaned in for another wonderful, unending 'this one will be the last' kiss. :I am trying.:

:No, you're not.: And David had to admit he wasn't trying very hard himself. This was far more pleasant. :At least, you're not trying to get up.:

:Can I help it that I would rather be with you than anyone else in the world?:

In the end it took them another couple of hours to get out of the room.

David had to borrow a white polo shirt off Marius because the shirt he had originally worn was inexplicably missing one sleeve. He tugged self-consciously at the collar as they walked along the hallway. "I feel somewhat embarrassed."

Marius stopped short. "You do?"

It did not take David long to read the expression in his lover's eyes. He took hold of Marius' arms, horrified to see that Marius could think such a thing after what they had just shared. "Not that way. Not because of you. It's just," he shrugged, "oh, I feel that everyone is going to look at me, and look at you, and look at this shirt I'm wearing, and smile."

"I suppose so," Marius said philosophically. "But then, the masses have to be entertained somehow."

"What a Roman you are."

"I am more an antique Roman than a Celt."

"Don't let Mael hear you. Or Shakespeare."

They entered the living room laughing. It was more crowded than ever before, and someone had put on some early jazz music. Daniel was dancing with Pandora in front of the fireplace; Armand was, it appeared, being less successful in persuading Gabrielle to tread a measure with him. She just shook her head and refused to get up.

Lestat, Louis and Khayman were having a serious conference on the couch, but Louis looked up to catch David's eye and gave him a wide, knowing smile.


:Don't let us upstage you,: David replied politely.

:Not a chance.: Louis laughed. :Does this mean I can put the witch in your room? The house is getting crowded.:

David looked around and spotted the thin young woman with Jesse, both of them sitting on the floor with their knees drawn up to one side, heads close together. It looked as though Jesse were explaining something, trying to clarify it now and then with expressive waves of her slim white hands. He found himself idly curious about what it might be.

:Of course you can. If you think it's necessary.:

:That's gratitude for you,: Louis teased. :After all, I just gave you a perfect excuse.:

* * *

They had tried quite hard to stay separate while they were among other people. David seemed to be so easy about it, too. Looking at that open, handsome face smiling at Lestat, Marius had felt a twinge of insecurity, wondering if David could really be longing as much for a simple touch as he was. But then as the night wore on towards morning, and the other, more acknowledged lovers went around showing their affection openly, they found themselves drifting closer and closer, too.

Sitting by the fireplace, watching the dancing flames, Marius smiled to himself. Daniel had built up the fire earlier. A ridiculous thing, a fire in the moist warmth of summer. The room was as hot as a sauna. None but vampires could really be comfortable in heat like this. Indeed, the two mortals were sitting as far away from the fire as they could; through the wide open French doors he could see them out on the balcony, on wrought-iron chairs, leaning towards each other in affectionate silence.

And he felt a hand on his own, fingers entwining with his. That was exactly as it should be. The simple, loving touch reassured him more than any blatantly passionate embrace would have done. Marius rubbed his thumb across David's palm lightly.

"It's really not very traditional, is it?" Jesse was saying. "I mean—"

Louis laughed. "No, not very traditional at all. But then I doubt there is any tradition to follow in matters like this."

"It will turn out well. You will be pleased," Khayman said softly. "Excuse me, everyone." He rose from his place on the couch and walked away towards the balcony. Marius watched him go, and saw Armand come up, a silent shadow, to intercept him.

"Who cares about the proper way to do things?" Gabrielle asked, lying on her stomach on the floor with her head propped up on her arms, the single thick braid of her hair looping down around her neck, a rope of moonlight. She was wearing khaki again, those clothes that looked permanently dusty, sturdy pants and a pair of boots that seemed to have seen several years' hard wear.

"Not you," Lestat said.

"And not you," she teased him right back. "Not that I ever noticed, anyway."

He smiled lazily at her. "I may surprise you."

"I'm counting on that."

Marius looked away from them to see that Armand and Khayman were still talking silently. He was still somehow amazed at the change he had been able to discover in his fledgling. Not the obvious change... the deep brown tan that Armand had somehow, and Marius did not want to ask too closely about that, acquired. What fascinated and deeply gladdened Marius was the sense of freedom, of release that Armand radiated now.

When he turned his head he saw that Daniel was watching him, and there was a smile lurking in Daniel's violet eyes. :I see you've got a boyfriend.:

Marius nearly jumped. He had somehow not expected Daniel to be that accomplished and that subtle when it came to telepathic communication, or indeed that straightforward about what he said, though thinking about it he realized the latter at least should not have surprised him. :Yes,: he finally answered, trying to keep his confusion from showing.

:Tell me something. Do you miss Armand?:

Marius frowned. He could detect no tension in the voice in his mind, and nothing in Daniel's face either, but it was such a loaded question, he could not believe that it had been asked casually. Was Daniel worried that a five hundred year old love affair would suddenly resurface now that Marius and Armand found themselves together? Perhaps there was no real trust between Daniel and Armand after all, no matter what it looked like.

:I don't want him back,: Marius said bluntly, answering what he thought was the real question.

There was a pause and then, to his astonishment, something like laughter. :Well, good, because he says he does not want you back, either. That's not what I meant. I just thought—:

:Did you say,: Marius interrupted him, :'he says'?:

:Yes. We've talked about this, of course.:

:You sounded as though he were saying it just then.:

Daniel looked thoughtfully at him. To all appearances he was just leaning back against the side of the couch, while Pandora sat above him, playing with his hair. :Surely you don't believe such a thing is possible,: Daniel said. Then the corner of his mouth twitched as though he'd just heard something funny.

Marius decided not to go deeper into the question. He returned to their real subject. :What did you mean, then?:

:That we might come and visit you later if you would care for our company.: From the inflections of Daniel's mental voice it was quite clear that the 'you' referred to more than one person.

Marius thought about that. Thought about finally getting to talk to Armand again in a calm place with no interruptions, getting to know him all over again. Thought about having Daniel's bracing company, the young vampire's irrepressible sense of fun that would probably get them all into mischief before the visit was over. Thought about David there with him, the two of them together in a more perfect closeness than any he had known before.

He smiled.

:Of course,: he said. :Though perhaps... not just at once after this.:

:No, no,: Daniel readily agreed. :You need some time to yourselves. Whenever you're ready to get out of bed.:

Marius choked. He felt David's hand close more tightly about his own, and squeezed it back reassuringly. That touch made him want to pick himself and David up off the floor, and go back to his room and not come out until the sun had risen and set again. Perhaps Daniel was right.

:Later,: he said severely, and was tricked into a smile by Daniel's teasing wink.

The two shadows at the other end of the room embraced each other gently, then parted. Khayman went out onto the balcony and Armand returned to settle into Daniel's embrace, resting his head against Daniel's shoulder. He looked sweetly young and innocent. With that color to his skin, and when his hair fell in a tangle of curls that looked as if it had never known a comb, Marius thought he looked somewhat like the mortal boy who had once been purchased from a Venetian brothel.

In a way, Armand looked exactly like the youth he had once been. But it was not true, Marius reflected, that they remained unchanging. The transformation of their flesh always went on, and as their spirits changed, so did their looks. Happiness and unhappiness left their marks, if more subtly than on mortal faces.

And now, Armand was happy. Marius could feel no doubt of that and it healed some little wound deep inside him that he had not even been aware of. He remembered Armand's mingled joy and grief after making Daniel, remembered all too well Armand's desperation when Daniel had disappeared. Now those things had been lived through and others had come to take their place.

:More happiness than I ever thought I deserved.:

He thought that was Daniel's voice again, but Daniel was looking down at Armand and they were sharing something private, the prelude to a kiss. Marius let them be in peace. He turned back to David and was surprised to see something resembling a blush on his cheeks. Marius lifted an eyebrow enquiringly.

:Pandora,: David told him. He even sounded embarrassed. :She, erm, she just wanted to know if — whether—:

:I can imagine,: Marius said hastily. He definitely did not want to hear any details. Pandora was giving them both her best 'who, me?' look. :You didn't tell her, did you?:

:No. But I think she knows.:

Undoubtedly she did. Marius shook his head slowly. He was pleased that he and Pandora could not hear each other's thoughts; that way he did not have to hear her triumphant 'I told you so!' echo through his mind. Seeing the smile that was spreading across her face now was bad enough. Then again... he knew she only teased those she loved.

Remembering Pandora's frankness, he began to wonder just how intimate her questioning of David had been. She was more than capable of going into specifics, and he would rather keep his experiences with David private.

Not to mention, repeat them. This line of thought was leading straight to the bedroom, and that was something he would not mind at all. They had a lot of lost time to make up for.

:It's getting close to dawn. Maybe we should... retire.:

David nodded. :Louis has given my room to the witch. Would you mind very much... sharing?:

Marius grinned wolfishly, not caring who saw. :Not at all. Should we go at once?:

:Wait.: David's hand on his held him back from rising.

On the couch, Louis was looking from one immortal to the next, a small smile on his face. Marius felt a soft brush against his mind, a gentle request for attention, and relaxed again, settling back to see what would come next. When everyone was listening, some of them looking a bit surprised, Louis said, "It will be time for us to sleep soon. I just wanted to ask... does everyone know the arrangements for tonight?"

"Tonight?" Lestat sat up and looked confused. "What about it? I thought I'd go see a movie, if anyone wants to come."

"Shut up, you." The ease with which Louis pushed Lestat down against the back of the couch astonished Marius. Then he caught himself up; of course, if they were sharing the blood... and he really could not imagine that they were not...

"I think we're all prepared," David said with a smile.

"Oh God!" That was KJ bolting inside from the balcony, overturning one of the wrought-iron chairs with a loud crash. The witch bit off a curse; it must have landed on her toes. "I still have a sleeve to fix! See you later, everyone!"

She tore out of the room at high speed. Pandora leaned back and grinned at Louis.

"You think that was your outfit or mine?"

"Yours," he said decidedly. "Mine's ready."

"There's no need to sound that smug about it, sweetie."

Eric spoke up from the depths of an arm chair, sounding, as always, sweet and not entirely serious. "Is there a dress code?"

"I think we would prefer it if you wore something," Louis said.

"Oh, I don't know—"

"Shut up, Lestat."

"Don't be so rude. I might change my mind."

"Oh no, you don't." Louis pounced on Lestat and kissed him. After a little while, as the kiss showed no sign of ending, everyone politely looked away. Daniel and Armand rose and drifted out of the room, arms around each other.

"I think it's broken," the witch said mournfully from out on the balcony. "I can tape it up myself."

"But you should have a doctor," Khayman answered. Marius felt a momentary concern until he heard her reply,

"It's just a toe. Or two, maybe."

They went on arguing and Khayman seemed to be winning as the witch grew more aware of the pain. Finally Khayman just took her away. He could easily fly her to an emergency room and return here before dawn. No point in wasting time. Marius approved.

And that thought, of course, reminded him of other things. Marius met David's eyes and they both nodded almost simultaneously. If they wanted any time to themselves before the sun rose, they would have to go now.

Getting to his feet, Marius suddenly realized who was missing from this happy gang. That absence surprised him, in the light of what he had overheard earlier. He sent out a careful tendril of thought. :Eric? Where's Santino?:

:Out in the city somewhere having a crisis of confidence,: came the prompt reply. :I think he is busy thinking that I cannot love him because he is so very wicked.:

Marius almost laughed at Eric's matter of fact tone. He began to regret not knowing Eric better. There was so much more to him than met the eye. :Oh, I see. And can you?:

:I expect if I try hard enough, I may manage it.: A smile glinted, but there was a serious undertone as Eric went on, :He still does not believe entirely in your forgiveness, you know.:

:I'll take the time to speak with him,: Marius promised. It might help in straightening a few things out. He felt David's hand in his, tugging at him, and followed him out of the room. :Some time tonight.:

:Of course. I wouldn't want to keep you from anything more important,: Eric sent after him, and the mock innocence in his voice could have taught even Pandora a thing or two.

Once they were outside Marius put his arm around David's waist and felt David's arm across his shoulders. They walked slowly towards Marius' room, relearning the pace of each other's steps. He thought of the flowers he had arranged to have delivered to the house in the evening, and wished he had some of them already. The thought of making love to David on a bed of rose petals drifted through his mind. What an appealing image. He was turning into a hopeless romantic.

Marius laughed. How terrible.

"What is it?" David asked, opening the door.

"I just love you," Marius said and they both walked inside.

* * *

Waking in the evening, David found that he was snuggled up with his cheek resting against a reassuringly broad shoulder, Marius' marble arms trapping him where he lay. He was pleased to stay just like that for the few minutes longer that it took for consciousness to return to his lover's body. When the hard embrace grew pliant and then tightened around him, he smiled.

"You're still here," Marius said into his hair. "I dreamed..." A soft chuckle. "I dreamed that it was a dream."

"I'm here." He pressed a row of small kisses just beneath the collar bone. "Let's go outside."

"There are times when your actions and your words don't quite fit each other," Marius said.

David smiled and sat up. "Can't imagine what you mean. But I would like very much to go outside with you and see the last of the sunset."

Marius nodded his agreement and rolled out of bed, getting to his feet in one smooth movement. They both dressed quickly and casually, knowing they would have to change later. As they went out into the hall and walked past the back parlor David listened for the sound of KJ's sewing machine, but the house was eerily silent. Perhaps she really had finished everything this morning, then.

Going outside, they stopped together at the fountain and stood hand in hand looking up at the sky. The flaming colors of the sunset lit the west, while towards the east night had already fallen. David moved closer to Marius, admiring the way his blond hair shone in the remaining sunlight. And his eyes were clearer than ever before.

"It is beautiful," Marius finally said with a sigh. "A very good start to this night, I think."

"Yes. I hope there are others watching this too. I feel sorry for those who can't get up early enough to see it."

They sat down on the bench, arms around each other, and remained still and silent until the last light had faded from the sky and the stars were out. The city was noisily bustling all around them and voices began to be heard from opening windows in the house. There was a feeling of excitement in the air.

The witch entered from the street, juggling bags and parcels and a pair of crutches. David jumped up to help her. "Thank you," she said as he caught a small box that slid from her grip. "The cab driver just flat refused to help me."

He relieved her of everything she was carrying and looked with concern at her plaster-casted foot. "It was more serious than you thought, then?"

She made a deprecating face. "Three broken toes and one fractured metatarsal bone. I had a hard time persuading KJ to finish up the clothes she was making and not wait on me all day out of guilt." Adjusting the crutches, she began to hop forward. "I'll be all right."

"Of course, but you are not going to hop up those stairs," Marius said and picked her up. David smiled at the sudden surprise on her face.

"You don't have to—"

"It's no trouble, you hardly weigh anything."

That made her laugh. "Oh please, I know you could carry ten of me without a problem."

"In that case, stop fretting," Marius said.

David followed behind with the parcels, wondering what she'd been buying. One bag definitely held books; the edges of a hardcover novel banged against his shin. And this, he sneaked a look down, was something crepey with a flower pattern.

"Don't poke around in my shopping!" she tossed at him over Marius' shoulder. "I have strange and wondrous gifts there, you know."

He laughed and passed them to hold the door open. "Where should I put it all?"

Her smile in return was more than a little wicked. "I think you know what room I'm in."

And he did, of course. As Marius took the mortal into the living room, David walked back to the bedroom he had recently vacated. It was very neat, hardly any sign of the witch's occupancy showing except for a pair of earrings lying on the bedside table on top of a photograph.

David put everything as tidily as he could on the bed and took one step towards the door. Then he walked back again and looked down at the picture, pushing the earrings aside. It had been taken in brilliant sunlight, and the three people in it were squinting a little. The witch, looking far healthier than now and not nearly so thin; KJ laughing, with her hair cropped short; and between them a handsome dark-haired man with angelic blue eyes. David recognized that face. It was the man called Martin. He was dead now.

Slowly putting the earrings back, David found himself hoping that Daniel would never see this photograph. He remembered when Daniel had told him about it all. Daniel's eyes had looked haunted as he'd said, quite simply, "I did love him. No matter why I did it, I loved him." And so, it seemed, had the witch.

Feeling a little uncomfortable at having trespassed into her private life, though he could not claim he'd done it accidentally, David left the room. He checked his watch and saw that it was nearly time. Why had the courtyard been so empty? Had something gone wrong? The sudden attack of nerves amused him. He wasn't even remotely responsible for any of the arrangements here, he wasn't personally involved in what would happen. He should just relax.

When he came back to the living room he saw that Jesse and Gabrielle had come in, both dressed up. Jesse wore a long lavender dress with narrow sleeves and a wide flaring skirt; Gabrielle was soberly elegant in grey velvet.

:We should go change,: Marius said in his head, and David nodded. It was definitely time for that. The witch looked comfortable enough in the armchair, with her crutches within easy reach, and anyway Jesse and Gabrielle could help her if she needed anything.

They cleaned up and put on new clothes quickly. David had opted for a sober suit, the kind of solid British tailoring he still felt comfortable in. Not tweed, he wouldn't wear tweed in this climate and for this occasion. But pure Savile Row elegance. Marius, of course, wore red velvet. He was possibly the only person David knew who could look dignified in something that flamboyant. They looked at each other and smiled.

"Come as you were?" David asked delicately, and Marius laughed.

"I did not think a toga would be appropriate."

"Hmmmmm." David tried to visualize it. "Maybe not."

Stepping out again, they met Armand and Daniel who were walking along the hall holding hands. Daniel looked at Marius and grinned. "The Scarlet Vampire."

"And what are you, the Gothic poster child?" Marius retorted. David smiled. He had actually never seen Daniel look so good before, wearing a top hat and tails — but with black lace underneath instead of a white shirt and tie. Daniel took the hat off and shook his hair back, then settled it at a jaunty angle. His violet eyes were outlined in kohl.

"Actually, yes." A tiny silver skull gleamed in one ear. David was delighted.

"Come on," Armand said firmly and got them all moving again. Armand was being formal in a suit as soberly elegant as David's. He did not look a day over seventeen for all that.

Nearly everyone else had gathered together in the living room and they were milling around uncertainly, making casual conversation and being a lot more polite with each other than they ever had been before. David noticed, to his amazement, that someone had gotten KJ into a dress. He wondered who and even more how. When she forgot that she was feeling ridiculous, she looked good. Santino was apparently in a bad mood about something and sprawled defiantly in a corner, encased in black leather and studs; no one went too close to him.

Eric came up to them. He looked sweeter than ever in a simple silk shirt and loose, comfortable pants. "So now you are here too. Isn't it time?"

"I don't think they'd start without us," Marius said. David nodded. At least, he hoped they wouldn't. Not unless they'd had a serious attack of nerves.

There was a gentle tapping at the doorframe, and everyone fell silent. Even Santino sat upright and paid attention. Khayman stood there, wearing white and gold, looking like the leader of an ancient cult. He smiled beatifically at them.

"Come down to the courtyard."

* * *

Marius held his breath, hoping that everything had gone as he had planned it. And yes: there were flowers everywhere. The florists had come and gone in record time leaving behind long wreaths trailing along every wall and small flowering azalea and hibiscus trees in pots around the fountain. He wondered who was responsible for the lights — a gentle pearly light was coming from somewhere, softening stark vampire features. The courtyard was not suddenly transformed into a fairyland. But then again it always looked beautiful.

As if everyone knew what to do they arranged themselves in a half-circle, facing Khayman, and waited patiently. There was no music, only the sound of water trickling into the fountain. Pandora came walking, looking regal and dignified in the blue velvet dress, her hair pinned up with just one dark curl sliding down over a bare white shoulder. She carried a small carved box and came to stand by Khayman's side, facing the others.

Marius felt even more frightened now. There was a danger in ceremony, he knew that. What if this did not work? It was supposed to be beautiful. It could so easily be ridiculous. Someone could laugh, someone could be bored. The sheer courage that Louis and Lestat were showing in doing this in public made his throat hurt.

Next to him, David squeezed his hand carefully. The touch made Marius relax, made him remember how happy he really was. And then they arrived.

They seemed to get there out of nowhere. Together. Louis was a black star, silver glinting among the velvet and lace, green eyes like gems. And Lestat wore black also, plain black with not even the metal of a button to relieve it, with his blond hair falling free. Marius began to wonder where the brat's vanity had disappeared to when Lestat moved again and he took in just how tight those black clothes were, outlining his body, and how Lestat's hair and eyes positively seemed to glow by contrast. A jewel in a stark setting.

Both of them were beautiful. And when they were next to each other they were truly more than the sum of their parts; something resonated between them that infected the air in the courtyard with electricity. Khayman nodded at the couple in acknowledgement and greeting and then faced the assembled vampires, speaking to them all.

"We have all believed in things," he said softly. "Among us we have believed in gods and ancestors, principles and rituals. And we have lost beliefs, had beliefs destroyed. Our personal universes have been built up and torn down. Time has given us many things and taken away others. And in the end there is only one thing left, only one thing that we can look to with any certainty. That one thing is love."

And Marius heard David's voice in his mind, slow and solemn, sounding as though he were quoting something. :If love were not stronger than death, none of us would be here.:

"This is not a religious ceremony," Khayman went on. "It is a celebration of love. It is an exchange of vows, because vows are important to the heart. It is a statement, something that needs to be said, to be done. And you are invited to witness and to know that love is indeed here."

He took a step back. Louis and Lestat faced each other, quietly solemn. Then Louis drew a deep breath and began to speak, his voice low and smooth and without hesitation.

"I am here because I love you. I am here to pledge myself to you. To say that you are the one I want, the one closest to my heart. The one I want to share everything with. Love is the only thing I believe in, and it is the only gift I have. It's what I give you, now and forever. Do you accept it?"

Marius saw Lestat's lips move twice before the blond vampire found his voice enough to say, "Yes."

Louis turned to Pandora, who walked forward and opened the small box she held. He picked out something small that gleamed in the soft light. It had to be a ring, Marius thought, though he could not get a good look at it.

"This is a symbol," Louis said. "A token, a visible reminder. It's yours to do what you want with. Wear it when you need to remember how much I love you." He reached out and took Lestat's hand, and easily slid the ring onto a finger. There was an expression of such tenderness on his face that Marius had to grip David's hand tight.

Pandora stepped back again, and the two lovers were once again facing each other. Lestat looked almost helpless, almost suffering. This was hard for him, harder than it was for Louis. He looked down, then up again.

"My love," he said softly, huskily. "You are all I have ever wanted. I am here to pledge myself to you. To give you my love, as I have before, as I always will." It seemed there were tears glittering in Lestat's eyes. "To give you myself if you will have me, because without you I am nothing. Do you accept this gift?"

"Yes." That one small quiet word, and everyone in the courtyard heard it, sensed it, felt what was being vowed here tonight. It swept over them, rocking them all.

Pandora was there again, standing by Lestat's side now, and he opened the box and took out something that looped in a thick silver coil around his fingers. "This... is for you." Lestat's voice was still clear and steady. But only just. "Wear it if you want to; wear it because it will look beautiful on you. It is the symbol of everything that I have said to you tonight, but it is no more of a pledge than my body and my breath. It's yours, just as I am yours." And he put the chain of beaten silver links around Louis' throat and deftly fastened the catch.

Louis looked utterly, wonderfully stunned. He was looking at Lestat, his heart in his eyes. Marius felt certain that if anyone had asked him what he wore around his neck he would not have been able to tell; he could see nothing but his lover.

The scent of all the flowers around them all was intoxicating. And fractured rainbows sparkled in the fountain and the stars, high above, bore witness. If the city that teemed all around them made a sound, no one heard it.

Khayman stepped forward again, serious and smiling. He looked at Louis and Lestat, and reached out to take their hands.

"I don't have the power to join you together," he said. "Only you can do that. And you have. You've given yourselves to each other and you have given yourselves over to love. That is an act of courage, an act of faith. And you will have to do it over and over again, every night." Khayman put their hands in each other's. "We have been your witnesses tonight. We know it's true."

Louis took Lestat's other hand too. "From now on," he said softly, sweetly, "you are the witness to my life. To my love."

"We're part of each other," Lestat whispered. "From now on."

They moved forward, closer, and nothing could have stopped them; when their lips met it had the impact of worlds colliding. Irrevocable.

Marius, watching them, trying not to cry, trying to make sense of two thousand years of living, thought he finally understood the meaning of the word forever. David's arm came around his waist and they leaned against each other for support. Looking around the half-circle, Marius saw that all the on-lookers had the same rapt expression on their faces. The witch was weeping silently, tears sliding down her face. So, to his surprise, was Santino, his head bent as if to hide it.

Finally Louis and Lestat broke apart, though they kept on looking into each other's eyes, oblivious to their surroundings. It seemed they would be able to just stand like that all night. Marius wondered if Khayman would do something else, something to break the spell, to release them all.

But he did not. It was Daniel who was the first to move, walking up to the absorbed couple and getting their attention by the simple means of putting his hands on their shoulders.

Marius felt a sudden twinge of worry. But what Daniel said was, "I am honored to have been a witness to this. It is a joy knowing you." Then he kissed first Louis and then Lestat on the cheek and moved on.

The others began to follow his example. One by one they walked up to the two lovers and spoke softly to them, confirming what had happened, sharing their feelings. Mostly Marius could not make their words out, did not try to. It was personal. But he did overheard the witch, balancing on her crutches, say, "Love is stronger than anything. You do right to be frightened."

He and David were the last two left; even Pandora and Khayman had slipped into the stream of people moving past Louis and Lestat. They went up together. Lestat looked at them and smiled, a smile that radiated pure happiness.

David caught them both in a hug and did not say anything at all. And Marius could not find any words at first, either. This had been such a strange and such an overwhelming experience that when he thought about it he felt himself shivering. What these two had done, what they had promised each other...

"I am glad you were here," Louis said. "That everyone was here."

"Oh, it was real," Marius said. "It happened. You did it." He took Louis' hand. "And it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."

"Yes," David agreed.

"Come along," Lestat said, nodding towards the house. "This night is not over yet."

"In a moment," David said and took Marius' arm, making him stay behind. Louis and Lestat walked away, still locked together in a private world.

When they were alone together, David put his arms around Marius' waist and drew him close, kissing his cheek gently.

"What is it?" Marius asked.

"I was watching your face before."

"Mhm?" Marius said, surprised, wondering where this was leading.

"You were terrified."

Marius thought about it. "Yes," he said, with reluctant honesty. "I was."

David smiled. "Don't be. I won't demand a pledge from you. I'm not asking you for forever. Just... for as long as you want me."

"But don't you see," Marius said, looking into David's eyes, feeling his fear transmute slowly into some other emotion, "that might well be forever."

David looked nonplussed. Then he shrugged. "Well, we'll find out," he said. Then he slipped out of the embrace and tugged Marius along. "Come, now. Those two aren't in any shape to play hosts here. Someone has to keep the guests in order. I bet Santino is up there breaking things."

As long as he isn't breaking Eric's heart, Marius thought to himself and walked with David back into the house again. They followed the sound of the music and eventually came upon the rest of the party. Lestat and Louis were dancing, so close it looked as though they were trying to fuse their bodies together. The others watched and smiled, some of them swaying with their arms around each other. Daniel was trying to talk to Santino, who was snapping at him. The music changed to something faster. Armand and Gabrielle were dancing too, and Jesse and Khayman, talking together with easy affection. Marius tilted his head and looked at David. "What do you say?"

David seemed a little taken aback. "Well..." he smiled. "Who would lead?"

Marius grinned, and in deliberate mimicry of David's earlier comment said, "Well, we'll find out."

* * *

That dance was an interesting experience to say the least. But in the aftermath of the ceremony in the courtyard, David thought he would probably have agreed to anything. He was still dazed by it. And Louis and Lestat were so absorbed in each other that it was doubtful whether they noticed anything of the party going on around them.

Daniel had given up on Santino and cut in on Armand and Gabrielle; Gabrielle had dragged Pandora onto the floor. The witch was looking longingly at the dancers, as though she would have loved to join them. Food had been provided for her and KJ, and they were drinking fine champagne; KJ's eyes were getting brighter by the minute.

"I'm not sure I can handle this much longer," David said frankly. "You keep stepping on my toes."

Marius made a face at him. "Some romantic you are."

"I'll sit in a corner and kiss you all night if you want."

That made Marius laugh. Then he said, "Wait here a moment, would you? I have... a debt to repay." His eyes glittered with unholy amusement, and David watched interestedly as Marius walked over to Santino and, bending down, began to whisper something in his ear.

Right then Daniel turned to fiddle with the stereo, and the light jazzy dance music was replaced by a fast thundering rock beat. The couples who were dancing staggered to a halt, but then Jesse let go of Khayman and whirled around the center of the floor, her hair flying. Daniel grinned and came to meet her.

It was very suggestive, this music. David found his foot tapping out the rhythm. Now Louis was dancing to it, too, and Lestat followed him. They were beautiful to watch; they were performing for each other, still not noticing anything outside of their own private world.

Armand was carefully taking off his suit jacket and his waistcoat and shaking his hair out of its neat ponytail. Then he threw himself into the dance with complete abandon, his beauty coming alive. David was suddenly certain that this was how Armand had danced at the Sabbat so long ago. But there was nothing dark about this celebration.

When Marius came back to David's side, he was smiling still. Santino sat in the same place but looked less moody and more, well, surprised.

"What was that all about?" David asked.

"Something that needed to be said." Marius followed the dancers with his eyes. "I want to do that, too." There was KJ, unexpectedly graceful, shimmying through a series of steps with Pandora. David grinned.

"You want to dance?" That was fine by him. He had discovered that he actually loved to dance. Then he saw something that distracted him. Eric went up to Santino and stretched out his hand, pulling Santino out of the chair and in among the dancers. "Now that's unexpected."

"Why?" Marius asked. "I wanted to dance before too."

"No, that's not what I meant." David nodded towards Santino. "I don't know what you said to him, but it seems to have helped."

"I can only hope so," Marius said seriously.

David wasn't feeling intrigued enough to ask about it. Not right now. The music was calling to him, this music that he would never have liked in his mortal days. But then it would not have been appropriate for him to dance like this, either. Here, he could give in to the temptation. It was intoxicating.

Everyone was smiling, laughing, surrendering themselves to a wild and frenzied joy, eyes flashing. They were celebrating, yes, and there was an edge to it as the passion and sensuality that Lestat and Louis were exuding infected everyone. Flirtatious, arrogant, seductive, they teased each other, coming together and breaking apart to the heated rhythm. Pandora swayed with her arms above her head, hips gyrating, her hair breaking loose finally and cascading down her back in thick, shining waves. A wolf whistle cut the air at the sight. She was performing for them, turning and turning at the center of the circle.

Clothes were discarded and flung across the room. It was so hot in here now. But that was not the only reason. They were daring each other to do more, all looking for a way to release the intense emotions that were building up. Daniel was the first to tear off his shirt, greeted by wild screams and encouragement to take off the rest as well. It did not take long for Lestat to follow his example.

David sensed the music change almost in response to what they were doing, slowing down just a little, giving room for teasing displays. He noticed that KJ had left the dance, looking exhausted, and was sitting with the witch. Both of them were staring at the vampires in rapt fascination. David had no idea how long they had been dancing. Time did not seem to matter any more. He couldn't remember taking off his suit jacket but he did remember Gabrielle and Jesse together tearing his shirt into shreds. Their sharp nails had scratched his skin too, but not hard enough to draw blood.

Now Eric was at the center of the room whirling around like a demented dervish, spinning impossibly fast. An angel dancing on the head of a pin, David thought. Then he slowed down and swayed drunkenly and was caught and steadied by Santino's arms.

They were all giving in to the madness. White, white skin shone in the light of the candles that the mortals had lit all around the room, and Armand's hands looked shockingly dark against Daniel's back. The music wailed. Faster, faster... Time stretched and collapsed on itself.

Somewhere in the middle of this wild party, Louis and Lestat disappeared. One minute they were there, glued to each other on the dance floor; the next they were gone. With their disappearance a little of the tension seemed to fade. It was possible to breathe again, to think again.

David caught hold of Marius and pulled him to one side, out of the circle of dancers. They leaned against the wall, clinging tight to each other, and kissed. "What I would like," Marius said very softly in David's ear, "is to just take you here and now, to sink my fangs in your throat and let everyone see the expression on your face and hear those sounds you make, and—"

"Stop," David pleaded. "Don't... I feel... intoxicated. Drugged." He froze, scenting blood in the air. When he turned his head he saw Armand and Daniel stumble from the room, incapable of letting go of each other; thin lines seeping blood striped Daniel's back. David shuddered.

"The mortals have gone," Marius said, nodding towards the empty couch. "And Khayman."

"Good..." David ran his hands along Marius' arms, across his shoulders, cupped his palms around Marius' neck and rubbed his thumbs along the veins. He heard and felt Marius draw his breath in sharply.

The next to leave were Pandora and Gabrielle, slightly more dignified, though Gabrielle was trailing the shredded remains of a grey velvet suit jacket, and her hair was a wonderful mess. Jesse just vanished out the window, no doubt to ease her sudden blood lust in a solitary hunt.

The music had changed again. A slow song, a saxophone wailing. Marius pushed David back against the wall again and kissed him. David yielded to the passion of that kiss, felt himself cling to Marius in utter abandon.

"Let's go," Marius said. "Or I can't answer for the consequences."

"I can't— Yes," David said breathlessly. They had to get out of here, had to. "But should we leave them—"

Marius' arm around his waist guided him to the door. David, driven by the last remnants of his sense of responsiblity, turned his head to look back. The candles were burning down, shadows flickered along the walls and the music throbbed with relentless sensuality. Alone now, Eric and Santino looked at each other. Then Eric smiled, a small and wicked smile, and moved closer.

"Oh, I think they will do just fine," Marius said and pulled him away from the sight of Eric and Santino holding each other, swaying in time to the music.

The hallway outside seemed strangely dark and silent by comparison. They walked fast, hurrying each other on, and all but fell through the door into their room. David kicked the door shut and ripped at Marius' clothes, hearing the cloth tear under his hands but not caring very much.

"I can't believe this," he said. "Something happened here tonight that was just..."

Marius pounced on him and they were on the floor, overturning a chair. The crash must have echoed all over the house. "Incredible." A hard kiss that left his lips bleeding, Marius' tongue licking at them. "I've never seen — anything like it—"

David moaned, pushing against Marius' caressing hands. :Yes, touch me right there.: His chest heaved and he drove his nails into his palms, striving for some measure of control, of rational thought.

:It's all too much.: Marius was nibbling on David's neck, sucking at the flesh, nipping it with sharp teeth. :I love you so much, I don't think I can stand it.:

David gripped Marius' shoulders. He flipped them both over and pressed Marius down against the floor, holding him there. They had never fought, he did not know which one of them was the strongest, but Marius was looking at him in a daze, surprised, not trying to fight back very hard really.

He looked so beautiful, with his hair all mussed up. There was a trace of blood on his full lower lip and his eyes were glazed. David smiled and tilted Marius' head to one side, exposing his throat.

"You'll just have to," he said. "Now shut up, beloved." And with a silent cry they joined together, and the blood pounded through them, and the night spun around and away in darkness and pleasure.

* * *

the vampire chronicles || e‑mail