torch 1996, revised January 1997
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

This story is a work of amateur fiction and in no way intended to infringe on anyone's copyright.

This 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 stories, 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. Do not archive this story without permission.

Prologue: When in Rome...

"Nobody can break their bondage. Everyone can feel their chains." — David Bowie, 'Who can I be now?'

He walked silently down a street that was much like any other street, neither knowing nor in the end caring where he was. A long time had passed since he had last spoken to anyone. Passing a plate-glass window, he saw his own reflection. Too thin, and with matted hair. He ought to wash, and get clean clothes from somewhere. He ought to feed, before he turned into a walking skeleton, a horror that would send mortals running from him and screaming in fear.

The truth was, he didn't care. He'd been in worse states before. Back when he was mortal, for instance. Then he'd been close to death; now he was only slightly unwell. Perhaps a little mad. Not enough to do any lasting damage.

Turning right into a narrow alley, he followed it to a cobbled square where rats skittered into their holes under the old houses every time the noise of the surrounding city turned too loud. They did not heed his footfalls. In the center of the small square was a fountain, just a shallow marble basin holding gently gurgling water that flowed slowly from a carved marble shell.

Daniel stood staring at it thoughtfully for a while — hours or mere seconds, he neither knew nor cared. Then he slowly bent down and removed his socks and shoes, turned his trousers up, and stepped into the water. It was cool, but not cold, and he enjoyed the sensation of it moving gently against his bare skin. Sitting down on the broad marble rim, he placed his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, and watched the night and the water and the moon, and listened to the silence.

What was beginning now was the third year of his wanderings. He was entering the third year of his solitude. And he recalled the two years that had gone before as a man recalls a dream, imperfectly, on waking. He had spent his time going from place to place, reading, looking at paintings and sculptures and gardens, watching films. Had concentrated on beautiful things, interesting things, things outside himself.

There was much to be seen in the world. And a completely self-sufficient individual could lead a perfect life with money enough for his every whim and eternity to enjoy himself in.

Daniel sighed. He let himself slip forward, down, until he sat in the water; then he lay down underneath the surface and stared up at the sky that way. The heavens, refracted through liquid silver. Beautiful and out of reach.

He was painfully lonely.

In his deathlike daytime sleep he had dreams that saddened and bewildered him. Sometimes he would dream of a man with black hair and blue eyes, a man with mortal death in his eyes and a gentle smile. And sometimes he would dream of a youth with long red curls and a white face that seemed to reflect the light, and in whose deep ancient eyes another kind of death lay waiting.

Always he woke up crying. There was a feeling of loss in him so strong that it could not be pinned down and given words with which to express itself. It was connected to these two, yes, but he'd rather not think about it.

There was much he had been able not to think about, all by himself.

Rising out of the water, himself wet and white and marble like any other carved deity in this city of fountains, Daniel stretched his arms towards the sky and implored the stars to light his way.

"We are lost, I tell you," he sobbed, the words setting up an echo in his mind. Hadn't he said that before? "But that was long ago, in a different country... and besides, I'm dead."

Blood tears mingled with the water that should be filthy but seemed somehow clean. Rome reminded him of a vampire coven, the ancient and the new coexisting in a state of timelessness. And there was the taint of knowledge yet again, the remembrance he tried to avoid. There had been a coven once, he thought. And now there was only him.

A shadow of doubt passed through him — was this all real, or was he only pretending?

Daniel threw his head back and howled at the moon.

Chapter one: The new deal

"Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitious annunciation?" — T. S. Eliot, 'The Dry Salvages II'

The lamp hanging from the ceiling of the front parlor was a wonderful thing, an intricate marvel of hammered steel with a punched pattern of stars, all of it looking impossibly light. From its depts came a warm golden glow that made even pale vampire faces seem gentle and close to human. Sprawling on the enormous modern couch, hugging two of its many pillows, Lestat watched what seemed like a magical transformation — across the low coffee table, dark wood and silver inlays alike almost completely covered by stacks and heaps of books and magazines, sat Louis in an overstuffed chair looking sheerly mortal and as alluring as he had ever seemed in his living days.

Not that it took much to bring the look of a living creature to Louis' face. Not if he had fed properly. Lestat loved the way it made him look, loved the softening of the stark pale face, the almost-human blush, the added ease and fluidity of motion.

Louis was reading a magazine. Not an old and crumbling book, not some rare and obscure manuscript. He was, in fact, reading Cosmopolitan.

Lestat blinked, and looked again. Yes, Cosmo. He looked more closely at Louis' face. Perfectly serious. The green eyes moved swiftly along the lines.

"What is it that absorbs you so? A test to find out if your husband is straying?"

Louis looked up. At first his face was abstracted; then he smiled, the kind of smile that always made Lestat catch his breath, though he refused to acknowledge it too often, for fear of making Louis vain.

"I don't have a husband," Louis said softly. "I have a significant other who will barely move from the house. And it seems that short skirts are coming back into fashion. I feel I have already seen all the knees anyone could wish for."

Lestat sighed, then laughed. "Never mind the knees, Louis. Think of the lovely shape of a long leg, or a rounded luscious thigh..."

Tilting his head to one side, Louis appeared to consider this proposal carefully. "Yes. There is that, of course. Oh, and it does say here that when your SO pays over-much attention to how other women are dressed, he may be considering infidelity."

Lestat rolled forward and twitched the magazine out of Louis' grasp. "I can't let you read things like this. They give you strange ideas. Trust me, when I pay attention to women's legs I'm usually thinking of—"

"—dinner," Louis finished for him, resignation and irony blending nicely in his voice.

"Yes. And don't call me your SO."

"Why not? Are you worried I really mean sex object?"

"Oh, and that should worry me? There you go, flashing your knowledge of the modern idiom again."

A green flash shot from Louis' eyes — of amusement, not anger. Lestat relaxed.

"What's wrong? Am I messing up your pretty picture of me?"

Lestat laughed. "No, love. I like it. And I was kind of hoping you did mean sex object."

"I've been thinking lately," Louis said, ignoring Lestat's inviting smile, "that I'd like to go out west for a little while again."

"That could be fun," Lestat immediately agreed. "We could go down to Baja California, I've always wanted to see the whales. Or we could—"

"Lestat, were you listening?" Louis chided him gently. "I didn't say we, I said I. First person singular. Your favorite word, surely you must know it."

Lestat pouted, playing for time. "That's not fair."

"No," Louis said consideringly, "it isn't. I'm sorry. Nonetheless, I've been thinking of going west. On my own. Out to San Francisco, maybe, check out some of my old haunts. And I might go up to Sonoma and visit Jesse and Mael."

"Jesse and Mael are in Rangoon."

"If you ever bothered to read the email you'd know differently."

"Email? We have a modem?"

"Lestat, your powers of observation leave me speechless."

"Sarcasm doesn't become you, Louis. Leave it to me. Besides, why would vampires need email? Telepathy is cheaper."

"As if that has ever been an issue with you! Not everyone in this house has the telepathic strength to reach halfway around the world, Lestat. And telepathy can be a very imprecise method of communication — have you ever tried talking to Mekare?"

Lestat sniffed. "You should be a lot stronger by now, Louis. My blood doesn't seem to do anything for you. You remain the runt of the vampire litter."

"As you say, my love. Which is why I find the modem useful." Louis took the glossy magazine back. "You can have this, I'd just like to tear out some ads. Plane tickets to California are cheap right now."

"Louis, I'd fly you there." Lestat spoke softly, trying to keep the begging note out of his voice.

Louis sat back and looked up, and seemed to look straight into Lestat's eyes for the first time that night. "I know. I know that, beloved. And I would enjoy having you there with me. Really."

"Then why can't we—"

"Lestat, we have not been apart one night since San Francisco." Louis ran a hand through his black hair. "And I know you don't want to be. But believe me, my love, it has to happen sooner or later. We can't stumble through eternity joined at the hip."

"Are you angry with me?" Lestat asked so softly that his voice would hardly have been audible to mortal ears. "For calling you the runt of the litter?"

Surprisingly, Louis laughed, an earthy chuckle that Lestat thought of as his Pandora laugh. "No, I'm not. It's not how I feel. And I know you don't mean it."

Again, Lestat pouted slightly, although Louis' smile was so sweet it was hard not to return it. "You talk about me as though I have a glass forehead."

Rising, Louis stretched, and Lestat forgot his annoyance in watching the familiar lithe form, the long legs, narrow hips, that gorgeous curve of the spine leading up to the slim neck set so enchantingly over shoulders neither scrawnily narrow nor vulgarly wide. Surely Louis was perfection.

And yet... Lestat felt a small frown creep across his face. Louis was the same now as he had always been. If anything, he was more human-looking than before. And how this was possible was a mystery to Lestat.

He hadn't meant to be cruel to Louis. Not at all. The truth was, he had just expressed his own frustration. He had thought that once they began sharing the blood, Louis would grow strong, would develop amazing talents. Would be able to fly, perhaps. But after over two years of that thrilling intimacy, Louis was still just Louis.

The which should be enough for anyone, Lestat thought, ashamed of his disappointment. It was just that he had been so curious, had wanted to know so much what would happen, had envisaged the most amazing changes.

Then again, it was difficult to imagine Louis as anything but Louis. He was so sheerly himself, he might have been an elemental creature, created of one substance, not only immortal but unchangeable.

Lestat snorted. That wasn't true. Pandora changed him. But I can't.

"You are fairly transparent at times," Louis said, breaking into his meditations. "But seriously, Lestat—"

"I hate sentences that start 'But seriously, Lestat'," Lestat said. "I can tell where they're going."

"It is time for you to be on your own," Louis went on without heeding the interruption. "I know you can do it."

"So do I know I can do it," Lestat flashed. "Fine. Agreed. But I'd rather be with you. That's all. I happen to love you, or had you forgotten that?"

Louis walked over to the couch, sat down, and ran a hand up Lestat's spine. "I know," he said. "I haven't forgotten anything you've told me. Lestat — beloved — trust in yourself. I'm not keeping you sane, you are keeping yourself sane. You'll be fine."

"If you already believe this—"

"You don't believe it." Louis' voice was firm. "Don't think you can fool me. It's not sheerly out of love that you haven't stirred a step from this house without me at your side for the past couple of years." He held up a hand as Lestat tried to speak. "I'm not saying you don't love me. I'm just saying that you're afraid, too."

Lestat closed his eyes and studied the blackness behind his lids. There was no madness lurking there. Not now. He was in control of his own thoughts. For now. Ever since he and Louis had been reunited across an ugly formica-topped table in a leather club in San Francisco, he had been fine. The blinding fear that had brought madness and violence in its wake had been kept at bay.

But it was Louis' presence that had done it. Whenever Lestat felt the dark pain rising within, all he had to do was reach out and touch Louis' hand, or just look at him, and he would know that he wasn't alone, he would know that he was loved. That had been enough to keep him safe and sane.

To be on his own. He felt a chill run down his spine.

"Yes," he said reluctantly. "Yes, I'm afraid." He rolled over on his back and stared up at Louis' face. "You know that I hate being alone."

Louis nodded, and swung his legs up, and lay down within the curve of Lestat's arm, and pillowed his head on Lestat's shoulder. For a moment they lay still, savoring the closeness. They did this always, every night, sharing a moment of peace, resting in each other's souls. Soon enough, Lestat knew, his hands would begin to wander over Louis' body, or Louis would become distracted by a stray thought and run over to the bookshelves to track down some obscure reference. But this moment was his favorite of this and every other night. The simple togetherness...

He rubbed his cheek against Louis' hair and breathed in its sweet scent. :I love you,: he thought, knowing Louis couldn't hear it, knowing Louis could feel it all the same.

"I know," Louis said, speaking into his chest, voice muffled by Lestat's shirt. "But it won't be the same. I'm not abandoning you. I never could. But you need this, we need this."

"You need to be on your own?" Lestat spoke around the lump in his throat that had suddenly appeared.

"I think everyone does," Louis said. "Even you, beloved."

Lestat tightened his arms around Louis. "If you say so. You're not leaving now, are you?"

He felt the body in his arms shake with laughter. "No, I'm not, so stop trying to break my ribs. I need to pack, get plane tickets, tell Jesse and Mael I'm coming..."

"You don't even like Mael."

Louis shrugged. "I don't mind him now. And Jesse loves him."

"What's different now?"

"He doesn't hate Pandora any more." Louis reached up and brushed his fingertips lazily over Lestat's jaw. "Just a faint trace..."

"Of what?" Lestat was bewildered.

"Stubble. I can barely feel it. Had you shaved just before you were made?"

"Shaved?"

"Are there any vampires with beards? I've never met one."

Lestat began to laugh. "Louis, you say the most ridiculous things. If you don't tilt your head up, I can't kiss you."

Smiling, Louis obliged. "That better?"

"Mmmmmm."

"You know, I really want to be with you all the time, too."

Lestat tensed. "Well then, why can't we—"

"I think I've maybe held you back. That I've somehow taught you to be dependent on me."

"Louis, remember who you are talking to."

"The one and only Vampire Lestat. Yes. Lestat, stop trying to live up to your image, you know I don't buy it." Louis unwound himself and sat up, breaking the spell of intimacy. "Want to learn how to use the modem?"

"I can figure it out on my own."

"Suit yourself." Louis rose and walked away. Lestat sighed and rolled onto his side, and looked at the doorway where Louis had disappeared. Louis, leaving. What would that feel like?

Not like last time, of course. Not like that terrible time when Lestat had come home, angry with David and the whole world, to find the flat abandoned and Louis gone. Nothing could ever be that bad.

* * *

Louis walked down the hall and entered his study, and looked consideringly at the screen of his computer, where three kittens were chasing a butterfly. Actually Armand had sent him the computer, complete with software and modem, six months ago. He still didn't know why, though he and Armand corresponded occasionally by email.

While Lestat lost all interest in computers when he wasn't writing novels, Louis found them rather endearing, once he had gotten past his first technophobic reaction. Internet newsgroups, for instance, were addictive. And Lestat had had to physically drag him away from the computer at dawn the first time he'd played Myst.

Sitting down, he called up Eudora and found that he had new mail. Some letters from acquaintances in newsgroups who had no idea who he was. One letter from Armand, and one from Jesse.

Louis began with the one from Armand.

Louis sighed and shook his head. He grieved so for Armand's pain, and even more when he thought that he and Khayman were possibly the only ones who listened to Armand's grief any more, his only sources of solace. At least Louis hoped Khayman was a source of solace. Armand never mentioned the ancient vampire living with him in his letters, although he would pass on messages meticulously.

Louis listened, unless Armand began to curse Jesse as the instigator of his own personal disaster. These days Armand had learned not to mention Jesse. Louis did wonder how Khayman coped with Armand's anger. After all, Jesse was as a daughter to Khayman.

Still thinking about her, he called up Jesse's letter, smiling at the subject heading: Greetings from Sunny California! It was typical of Jesse's sense of humor, he thought.

Louis sat chuckling to himself for a moment. Then he hit R and wrote back,

He went through the letters from his other acquaintances, laughed at some and shook his head at others. There were some strange people on the net, certainly.

The last thing he did was to write a brief reply to Armand.

Sending his replies, he shut the computer down and tidied his desk. He wasn't going to bring very much on his trip. He could just buy what he needed, when he needed it. Louis felt a smile quirk up one corner of his mouth. Lestat would probably like to claim that as one of his influences. It was Pandora, though, who had taught him to go along as he pleased, to free himself of possessions when necessary, and load himself down when he wanted to.

As he left the room and turned the light off, he had a momentary sense of separation, of something shutting down or closing like one of those rolling metal doors grinding down in action movies, under which the hero always manages to roll to safety, if barely. He paused for a few seconds, caught by the sensation, then continued to the room he and Lestat shared during their daytime sleep. It was nearing dawn; he could feel it very clearly, like a dull throbbing ache along his skin, a feeling he dimly remembered from his mortal days — pressing down on a bruise already fading into green and yellow. Yes, it was like that, and then it grew more painful, like candle-wax spilled on the inside of the arm, if he tried to resist it, tried to stay awake, tried to remain outdoors.

But he rarely did. Fighting laws and limitations just because they were there was a mannerism of Lestat's that he had never even considered adopting. Louis was able to stay awake a little longer now, to rise a little earlier in the evening. Those were the only clear signs of what sharing Lestat's powerful blood had done for him. Now he was tired and he meant to sleep.

The bedroom was furnished with a combination of austerity and extravagance, as though two widely differing personalities had tried to mark it as their own at the same time. Louis smiled, taking in the familiar surroundings, the stark white walls hung with long narrow mirrors in dark wooden frames, the windows with their triple shutters, the smooth wooden floor polished to the color of honey, and the huge bed overflowing with white, huge down pillows, thick eiderdowns, the softest lamb's wool blankets. He had pointed out to Lestat that they did not really sleep as others slept, did not toss and turn, had no need to be comfortable when they slept really. Lestat had looked at him, and sniffed, and said, "I don't know about you, but I like being comfortable when I wake up!"

And then, they did not only spend their time chastely in sleep in that convent-white bed. In fact, Louis thought, considering it dispassionately, it would have been much cheaper to have sheets and pillowcases and all the color of blood. Mortal lovers were lucky that the spots and stains they left behind were less embarrassingly colorful.

He laughed under his breath as he remembered Lestat striding into the living room, grimacing with annoyance, complaining about having wrecked yet another exquisite shirt with the blood of some victim, and the annoyance turning into outrage and disgust when Louis had suggested he learn to wash the blood out.

"I am the vampire Lestat! I don't do laundry!"

And Louis had laughed and laughed and laughed until Lestat had pounced on him and they had wrestled on the rug before the open fire, and the shirt had been torn to strips and utterly wrecked and so had Louis' sweater, and no one had mentioned laundry again.

Now Louis took his clothes off, slowly and unhurriedly, and walked into the closet and put them neatly away. He guarded his favorite garments against Lestat, who was far too prone to thinking that Louis needed a whole new wardrobe every three months and that anything older than that should be thrown away. Louis had tried to explain that older clothes were more comfortable, that he enjoyed plain black, simple styles, the anonymity of the ordinary. Lestat would shake his head and say, "But Louis, you look like somebody's poor cousin!" and Louis would say, "Lestat, poor cousins went out with the nineteenth century. I look like a college student, that's all."

He walked out to see Lestat standing in the doorway. One slim brow rose and Lestat's eyes followed him appreciatively as he walked across the floor and climbed into the huge bed. "Are you coming to bed, too?"

"I think I like you best when you don't have anything on at all."

Louis smiled and burrowed into the pillows, wrapped himself into the huge eiderdown, feeling as though he were sinking into a bowl of clotted cream. "Dawn is getting close now."

"Yes." Lestat tore out of his clothes carelessly; Louis thought he heard the dull crack of a few stitches giving way. Then Lestat turned the light out, and in the perfect darkness Louis only sensed a weight landing at the foot of the bed, and then felt a cool smooth shape wriggle upwards under the bedclothes and envelop him in its strong arms. Lestat's breath ruffled his hair.

"Perhaps we should get a hot-water bottle," Louis said thoughtfully, and felt Lestat tremble with laughter. "Well, I like being warm even in winter."

"I'll install a sauna," Lestat said extravagantly.

"Not to sleep in! Oh, don't be a fool." Louis turned sideways and burrowed his face into Lestat's shoulder, pressing his lips against the spot where neck met shoulder and dipped enchantingly down into a most kissable hollow above the sharp slanting stroke of the collarbone.

"What are you doing?" Lestat asked, not sounding at all displeased.

"Just indulging in a bit of scientific curiosity, that's all."

"About what, for heaven's sake, Louis?"

"Hickeys."

* * *

Waking with brisk immediacy, far from the langorous surfacing from dreams that mortals experienced, Lestat lay still and enjoyed the softness of the bed, the sweet weight of Louis in his arms. A deep breath brought him a hint of green apples so pure that it had to be synthetic — Louis' shampoo. It seemed incredible to him that that soft silky black hair should smell of apples, though when he considered it, he didn't know what fragrance would be appropriate for Louis. Certainly apples were an improvement over dust.

Lestat wondered how long he had before Louis would again raise the subject of leaving. It had been mentioned before, though not nearly so directly or with such decisiveness. He tightened his arms about Louis' still unmoving form.

"I don't want to let you go," he said in a low voice, knowing he could have shouted out as loud as a vampire could and not woken his sleeping love. Only the gently falling darkness had the power to unlock the soft sealed lids so that Louis' eyes could gaze out on the world again.

Oh, that look of his, head slightly to one side, eyes clear and faintly troubled, a man considering a problem that does not touch him too personally, a scientific question, perhaps. The world a grand puzzle spread out before him, a puzzle that sometimes amused, sometimes failed to amuse.

And Lestat came to realize with an inward chill how much he depended on seeing a spark of laughter and passion in Louis' eyes when they alighted on him, on being able to raise that sweet smile, to hold Louis' attention completely. What if one day Louis' eyes passed through him in knowing boredom and disaffection? What if one day the fascination Lestat seemed to hold for Louis were to vanish?

These were thoughts he'd never have entertained three years ago, when he had still seen himself as the strong one, the adventurous one, and Louis as the quiet and cold one only warmed by his encounters with Lestat's own brilliant spirit.

Well, events had proved him wrong. Those roles were no longer appropriate. Perhaps they never had been. And sometimes the vulnerability he had discovered in himself still made Lestat seethe in impotent rage.

What if Louis one day ceased to love him?

Lestat closed his eyes. This world uncertain is, he reminded himself and burrowed more deeply into the comfortable linen embrace of the bed. Next to him Louis stirred, and Lestat felt the exact moment when he awoke. There was a brief silence, then soft lips brushed over Lestat's cheek. "Don't pretend you're not awake."

"Maybe I decided to sleep in." Lestat opened his eyes, flicked the light on in a casual display of his mental powers, and met Louis' green gaze, soft with love, and felt an inner trembling that was half fear of being deserted, half a melting passion that cut just as deep. "You're beautiful tonight, beloved."

Louis smiled sweetly. "Thank you. And you," he winked, "are beautiful every night." He tried to sit up; Lestat held him down. "I have to get up."

"Why? We have all night." Lestat trailed a finger along Louis' collarbone, a clear invitation.

Louis just shook his head. "I'm going to the airport."

"What?? Now?"

"Yes, now. " Louis took advantage of Lestat's stunned stillness, and jumped out of bed. Lestat watched him stride across the floor towards the closet, stepping carefully over Lestat's discarded clothes that lay in a heap on the floor.

Not a minute later he reappeared wearing worn black jeans and a faded lavender t-shirt he was tucking in as he walked. Around his neck was a silver chain supporting a small, finely worked silver heart. Lestat blinked. "Where did you get that?" he said involuntarily.

"Where did I get what?"

"That." He nodded. "The... decoration."

"Jesse gave it to me. I thought it might please her if I wore it." Louis crossed to one of the mirrors and looked at himself as he finished tucking the t-shirt in and buckled his belt tighter.

"You're so beautiful!" Lestat whispered desperately.

Running a hand through his hair, Louis turned around. "You will do very well on your own, Lestat. You can watch all your Rutger Hauer movies all over again."

Lestat refused to smile. "And what will you do if I don't pass this litte test of yours?"

"Come back, and watch Ladyhawke with you." Louis began to head for the door. Lestat erupted out of the bed, pillows and eiderdown and blankets flying every which way. "I'm only going to call the airport, Lestat. Then I am going to call a cab. And I won't leave without saying goodbye." He went out the door.

Lestat looked at the disordered bed. He looked at his clothes on the floor. Then he ignored them and walked out into the house naked. Louis was already on the phone, speaking in a low competent voice, making notes. Lestat watched him in silence and waited until he had hung up and was looking at what he'd written.

"Aren't you going to pack?"

"I have a few things there," Louis nodded at a small worn backpack. "If I need anything else, I'll buy it. I don't need much, you know that." He lifted the receiver again and began to dial.

"I can drive you." Lestat suddenly saw a way of getting himself along without Louis really noticing. "You don't need a cab."

"Don't trouble yourself—"

"It's no trouble." Lestat took the phone out of Louis' hand. "Don't put on that polite stranger act! I'm your lover and I can damn well drive you to the airport!"

Louis faced him, green eyes steady and serious. "Yes, and then you'd buy a ticket and before I knew what was happening you'd be on the plane next to me, and—"

"Shut up!" Lestat said furiously, his secret half-formed plans exposed and shattered. "Shut up, shut up! I only said I'd drive you, that's all, don't get that way, don't say those things!"

Louis watched him for a moment, calmly, silently. Then he said, "I'll get a cab in the street," and turned and picked up the pack. Lestat shouldered him aside and made for the door in a fury of rejection. Behind him the familiar voice of his beloved asked, "Where are you going?"

"Out!"

"You don't have any clothes on," Louis pointed out.

Lestat spun around and faced him. "Damn it, I'm leaving, all right?! I'm leaving!"

"No, I'm leaving."

"Well, then we're both leaving." The suspicion that the situation was ridiculous flashed into Lestat's mind; he tried to get rid of it. Louis walked up to him, pack slung over one shoulder, and put a hand on his arm.

"I'm the last person to deny that you're gorgeous, but wherever you're going, do put on some clothes first."

Lestat slumped back against the wall. "Louis, I'm trying to quarrel with you, why is it always so impossible?!"

"Raising your voice is only a way to try to hide that you have nothing to say." Louis stroked Lestat's cheek affectionately. "Or so I was taught. I'll miss you, love. I'll send you mail from Sonoma, so you'd better get the communication software figured out. Oh..." Louis winked, slowly. "I've coded all my personal mail, by the way."

"Louis! You think I would read your mail?"

"Yes." Louis released him. "Now, I really am going. Will you kiss me goodbye or are you going to sulk until I'm gone?"

Lestat took a deep breath, ready to hurl out a reply. Then he changed his mind. He moved closer, and put his arms around Louis very gently, and rubbed his cheek against Louis and planted a trail of small kisses down to the corner of his mouth. Louis was turning towards him, lips moving softly, and they were kissing slowly and intensely and it seemed it could never end, it was their ultimate and perfect purpose, the point around which their lives would revolve forever.

And then, before he had even realized it, there was an end and they were apart, and Louis was looking at him with much gentleness and sadness, and then disappeared out the door without another word.

Lestat looked at the wall, and at his own fist, and compared the hardness of each. Then he imagined Louis' face at returning to find workmen plastering over holes. He sighed, and shook his head, and went back into the bedroom to get dressed.

Chapter two: The deserts of the heart

"I rise up in the evening and rebuild a heart of stone
all around the border where your memories have grown" — Dream Academy, 'In the lowlands'

"These fragments have I shored against my ruins." — T. S. Eliot, 'The waste land'

He was standing by the open window.

Anyone walking past outside on the shore would have seen his black and Beardsley silhouette, the clear shape of a rather muscular young man, not very tall but with a grace that was obvious even when he was not in motion, a grace that communicated itself in his stillness perhaps most of all. A perfect profile outlined against the warm yellow light.

And from inside the room the lone watcher sitting on the couch saw him as a figure carved in ivory, immaculately immobile, the clothes somehow incongruous and lending him the faintly ridiculous air of a dressed statue.

The lamplight called up golden glints in his auburn hair, but could not penetrate into the depths of his dark eyes that seemed to go on forever like inverted space. He had the appearance of a figure in an old, posed photograph, captured forever in one mysterious moment, his past and future locked away from sight and imagination.

And then...

...he moved. And became real and solid and living, though no less the stuff of dreams for all that.

"Shall we have a slow evening together?" he asked. There were no hidden depths of irony in what he said. His voice was flat, lustreless even. "I thought perhaps we could play chess."

"If you like, certainly."

"Unless you would rather go into Miami—"

"No."

Shrug. "Chess, then."

Khayman rose from his place on the couch and padded silently on bare feet across the room, fetching the chess set from where it rested next to a bright blue glass vase on a narrow modern bookself set into the space between two doors. His hands caressed the ornately carved box. It was a very old set, though new to this house; it had arrived anonymously in the mail a year ago, in a package bearing Greek stamps. They had both been able to guess who had sent it — the beautiful and no longer silent vampire who had thrown the previous chess set out the window ten years earlier.

Ah, Pandora. Khayman smiled a little, wondering how the mysterious Pandora had come to remember such an odd little debt. This was the most anyone had had from her in years, unless Louis knew more.

Returning to the low coffee table, he set the board down and blew away the thin layer of dust from the prettily carved figures. "White?"

One corner of Armand's mouth twitched, as something seemed to return to him. "Black, I rather fancy."

Khayman couldn't help it; he began to laugh. "Very well. Match your mood. I'll give you a pawn if you like—"

"Oh no!" Now there was a flash of life in the deep dark eyes. "I'll take you on on your own terms. Make your move!"

The game began. Both of them were slow and cautious players by nature, and sometimes they would play all night, until Khayman had won too many times in a row and Armand, irritably, would challenge him to a game of Chinese checkers, which Khayman would also win, or Scrabble, which he would invariably lose. His spelling wasn't so much atrocious as the product of several thousand years' change, and Armand wouldn't accept the obscure words in some long-dead dialect Khayman's mind sometimes came up with, insisting that they stick to one language at a time.

Soon Khayman sat with his legs crossed on the couch, intent on the game. He enjoyed chess, the limited but complex universe of it, the concentrated silences and the soft sigh of pleasure at a good move. Yes, he'd far rather play chess than go into Miami. But if Armand had wanted to go, they would have gone.

"Would you mind some music?" he asked.

Armand looked up, startled from some deep reverie. "What? No—" he waved his arm towards the far wall— "by all means, anything you like."

Khayman crossed to what he called in his mind the wall of sound, and began to browse the cd collection. He knew it quite well. Not much had been added over the past three years. Here were Armand's classical recordings, proof of a wide-ranging and catholic taste, medieval madrigals next to the complete works of Mahler, and wonderful Mozart that Armand pretended to sneer at for being too pretty but nevertheless listened to obsessively. And there was Daniel's half, some jazz, some folk music, and a stack that seemed to chart the best of alternative rock music up until the summer of 1991, where it came to an abrupt halt.

Khayman had made only two additions: a good recording of the Carmina Burana, in surprise that Armand did not already own it, and one other cd that he now slid into the player. He had bought it on an impulse the previous night, and didn't really know why, except that he liked the way the women's voices sounded, one lighter, one darker, and the simple power of their soft but relentless songs.

Returning to his place on the couch he saw that Armand was listening, and without objection. As long as Khayman would not try to play Daniel's music all would be well. Of course, sometimes he would have to pretend to forget, and do it all the same. It was an act he put on, because he understood Armand so well, and Armand did not wish to be understood quite as well as that. Sometimes he'd have to make a mistake, cause some trouble, to make Armand believe that the intricate labyrinth of his mind still kept its savage secrets.

Oh, Khayman understood. He understood only too well.

They played on, and the women sang sweetly to them through the loudspeakers, and Khayman was winning the game again. And then, bending over the board, deaf with concentration, he became aware of a painful tension in Armand, a white-hot intensity of emotion building up.

"Fare thee well, my bright star... the vanity of youth, the color of your eyes... Maybe if I'd fanned the blazing fire of your day to day, or if I'd been older, I'd been wise..."

Armand gave a harsh little laugh. The smooth planes of his ageless white face were suddenly marred as his brows drew together and two knife-sharp narrow creases appeared. "How old do I have to get before I get wise?"

Khayman closed his eyes. This was a real mistake, not one of his carefully engineered ones. "Years don't help," he said. "I'm sorry—"

"Sorry!"

"...with a memory so clear, it's as if you're still before me..." The song was abruptly silenced. Armand rose.

"I'm going out."

Khayman nodded and remained sitting where he was. "Yes. All right."

"You're coming with me."

He looked up. "Yes, if you want, but—"

Armand was already stalking from the room. Khayman sighed, and looked down at the chess board. Three more moves and Armand would have lost. Again. Khayman hadn't lost a game of chess in centuries — except that he would have lost against mad Pandora that one time, had she not cut the game short by throwing the set away. He stood up slowly and luxuriated in a long stretch he really did not need. Then he followed Armand out.

* * *

Armand, dressed in well-worn black jeans fraying at the seams and ripped with what seemed like neat and deliberate artistry just below the left back pocket, showing a hint of delicately veined marble flesh. Armand, in a too-small t-shirt washed into shapeless softness that clung to him, bearing a barely visible reproduction of Munch's Scream. Armand stepping into steel-toed Doc Martens and pulling his rich red hair back into a ponytail...

This was unusual. Khayman watched unblinkingly, and followed his friend and tormentor as Armand stepped out from the private recesses of his house and into the public part of the Night Island. Most of the time Armand would wear suits, would dress with great propriety in highly expensive clothes. Khayman had long ago worked out the reasons for this; Armand looked so young! The high-powered clothes he fancied lent him a certain air of authority. Now, in this teenage uniform, he was merely a bored mortal boy who would have blended in with the crowd if it hadn't been for the terrible sharpness and clarity of his beauty.

And there was something more, something else that drew people's eyes and then made them look away hastily. Armand walked as though shielded inside an invisible sphere of his own making, and from his huge dark eyes and his stark white features and his deceptively small and young figure came an emanation that Khayman could only describe as the sound or smell or color of grief, radiated with such purity and strength that even the most insensitive mortals might shiver as though they had walked into a cold draft when Armand crossed their path.

Oh, he was suffering so. Suffering magnificently, splendidly. And nothing Khayman could say or do would ease that terrible pain. Because that pain was Armand's constant companion, his lover, his dearest friend. He cultivated it as a man might grow a rare flower in a hothouse. He clung to it, cherished it, burnished it to perfection, dedicated himself to it the way he had once dedicated himself to the rites of the sabbat in chtonic Paris.

Khayman followed, slouching casually behind, blinking at the early Christmas decorations, unnoticed in the radiance Armand brought with him wherever he went. Mortals would veer aside as Armand neared, and perhaps glare at this impudent teenager who had made them step out of their way, but not quite daring to say anything to his face. Young men, high on testosterone and their own invulnerability, would move his way and then off again, unable to say what had made them change their mind about challenging this — this—

Poseur, Khayman picked from one mind, and then a bewildered mental blink — no, not a poseur at all. Khayman laughed silently. How right the confused young man was. Armand had no studied poses, no complex build-up of image to present to the world. He was simply, compactly, self-sufficiently himself, and what went on behind those unfathomable eyes was screened carefully from the world's knowledge.

Into Miami they went. Armand led and Khayman followed; they weren't walking together, Armand was barely acknowledging Khayman's presence, but Khayman knew from bitter experience that to leave Armand alone now would mean either cold reproaches or a wounded silence once they met again. And gradually Khayman became aware that there was something in the air other than the clarion-call of Armand's sorrow. Yes, another and more insidious whisper.

Armand was hunting.

And as Khayman listened, he was chilled to his ancient bones. This was not Gentleman Death, on his best behavior, reaching out to pluck those who were half in love with easeful death to despatch them with strange dreams into the long sleep. No, this night the call was going out in a different manner.

Armand was calling to those who hated themselves, who despised their own souls, the pitiful mortals who were corroded with self-hatred and disgust. And his promise wasn't that of release, but of punishment. Yes, come to me, he whispered, come to me and I will treat you as you deserve. Come to me and I will take you to depths you have never imagined.

Khayman shuddered. Looking again at Armand's face, that innocent beauty, he saw a gleam in Armand's eyes that frightened him. Frightened, but did not surprise him. Had he not always known that Armand was capable of just about anything? What had he tried to fool himself into believing — that in caring for Armand he was caring for a stray kitten? No. The fluffy cuteness was gone and Armand was all predator now.

And Armand wanted to hurt someone. Khayman shook his head slowly. Regret, and guilt, and suffering wrought strange things in the mind. Pain creates its own bitter causality. And those who were going to suffer for what they perceived as their own wrongs, were also going to suffer in the place of one vanished fledgling vampire, and for the sake of that vanished fledgling vampire, and they were going to feel all the torment that Armand inflicted nightly on his own heart.

It was wrong, so very wrong. Had not Armand always respected his victims, loved them in a way? Had he not always given them a death of their own, each unique, savored, appreciated? Tonight the blood would feed Armand's pain, not his soul.

Khayman shook his head. He could never be a party to this. He wanted to leave, to run away. He did not.

They had come to a halt in an open lot where junked cars and the occasional skeletons of stolen bicycles formed surrealistic sculptures. Grass was poking up through cracks in the brittle grey asphalt.

Armand stopped in the middle of the largest open space and stood there with his eyes turned to the sky, arms hanging loosely at his sides, an expression of supplication on his face. It was that painting again, Khayman thought. The temptation of Amadeo, and as the first tentative footsteps were heard he wondered with a sharp pain who was tempter, who was tempted.

They came; oh yes, they came. Hating themselves, twisted into anguish and loathing, they crept out of the shadows and into the presence of Armand, towards the promise of horror worse than anything they could have created for themselves. Khayman watched. He thought, I am a predator, too. I am a killer, we are all killers, does it make a difference?

Yes. It does.

And Armand stood there and slowly he began to smile.

* * *

He lit one candle by the mirror. An old mirror in an old frame. Venetian. Perhaps there was some kind of hidden irony in that. The candle, beeswax, gave off a sweet smell.

He leaned forward and looked into his own eyes to see that it could still be done. Yes, there was still a soul inside, looking back. There were red highlights in his hair and he suddenly thought he caught glints of red in his eyes as well. His face was nearly flushed, nearly human.

What did I do? What have I done, tonight?

Throwing his head back, he put his hands over his face and tried not to scream the question out loud: What am I turning into?

He had called out and been answered, had asked for someone to hurt as badly as he was hurting inside, and they had thrown themselves into his arms, on to the ground at his feet, had offered their bodies to him and begged him to make them suffer. Claimed that they deserved it. And he had accepted that claim, and set about inflicting his own inner torture on their helpless flesh.

With a shiver, he recalled that in the middle of that butchering horror he had turned to Khayman and said, "I was happy for the first time in five hundred years. I was happy!"

And Khayman had just looked at him in silence, then reached out and killed the poor creature in his arms, swiftly, compassionately.

He had half expected that this gruesome exhibition would have driven Khayman away. It wasn't a scene fit for the ancient one's gentle soul. But Armand had reckoned without the greatest strength in Khayman, the ability to accept and go on. Khayman had no illusions: the world was what he saw, that was all. Even the worst of horrors were a part of it, and he did not need to condone or explain them to be able to live through them.

Armand sat down abruptly, picked up a silver-backed brush and began to untangle his hair. He couldn't meet his own eyes in the mirror any longer. Not that he was afraid of seeing a monster look back at him. No, it wasn't that. He felt embarrassed.

Around him the room held only silence. Thick black velvet curtains had been looped aside to let in the moonlight, but there was precious little of that. The faintest of silver shimmers fell across the floor.

He had been happy.

The brush stroked the red curls of his hair into smoothness. Daniel had loved to brush his hair for him.

It all tumbled down on him like snow falling from a rooftop and he choked on pure emotion. Daniel.

Throwing the brush aside, Armand walked to the other end of the room and turned on the computer. Its soothing hum filled the room and the screen flickered into life. He called up a file and began to type away furiously without rereading what had gone before.

I miss him so damn it, I miss the sound of his voice and that infernal laugh and the way his hair felt sliding like silk on my skin. He has beautiful hands. The way he would sneak up from behind and kiss the nape of my neck. And his eyes — those unbelievable eyes — no one really has violet eyes. Only he did. Does. My Daniel. And his questions and his answers, and he laughed at me and called me an immortal idiot and I would have broken anyone else's neck for that. The way we were together. And Jesse, damn her, took him away, and that wretch of a dying mortal man stole his love from me and now he is gone and I can't stand it. I don't want to go on. I don't want to live without him I can't bear it I think I'm going crazy. Maybe I only *want* to go crazy it would solve a lot of problems. Can I cry to the sky for God to bring him back to me? There is no God. Every call I send out only echoes against the walls of my soul. Is this my damnation? I had stopped thinking myself damned. I believed in something finally and I lost it. I believed in love.

Then he stopped typing with the suddenness of a piece of machinery breaking down. Without looking at his text, he deleted it all.

After a few moments of stillness he decided to check his mail. While the computer downloaded he sat and chewed absently on one glassy fingernail, listening for any sound from the rest of the house. He had left Khayman in Miami.

There wasn't much mail, but one message from Louis caught his eye. Armand read it swiftly, then again, slowly.

"So he really is going," he murmured to himself. He wasn't going to contact Louis at the Sonoma compound. Oh, no. What Louis could possibly see in the dreary and annoying Mael was beyond him, and as for Jesse, that thoughtless, careless fledgling—

Armand made a small sound, and discovered that he'd run his nails into his palm hard enough to pierce the skin. Blood trickled across his hand and began to run down his wrist.

He cradled the hand to his chest, and sat quietly rocking back and forth, back and forth, until close to dawn Khayman came and found him.

"Shall I close the shutters for you?" the ancient one asked.

"We're leaving," Armand said.

Khayman's face never showed any trace of surprise. "Now?"

Armand shook his head. "Tomorrow night will do."

"Then I'll close the shutter." Khayman crossed the room and bolted the window shut, closed out the first hint of dawn and sealed them into a chamber where no sunlight could reach.

Armand turned the computer off. "Stay here." Khayman turned and looked at him. "Please."

A nod of understanding. The door swung shut, untouched by any hand. Rising, Armand walked to the bed and stood there forlornly, looking at it. It was new. There were no memories of Daniel buried deep in the feathery softness of the mattress, no hairs caught on the pillow.

(But deep in a closet, Armand's mind whispered, he had stashed away one of Daniel's old sweaters, and even after two years it retained, faintly, the scent of his loved one, that unique and heartstoppingly familiar smell that he missed at times so intensely he could scream. The scent was fading. Of course. It couldn't last forever. And then every hint of Daniel would be gone from this house.)

Khayman came up behind him and picked him up as a man might lift a child, and laid him down, and curled up around him. Like sleeping in the marble embrace of a statue, Armand thought drowsily. As he drifted off he felt a faint sensation of warmth enfolding one hand and realized with the last conscious part of his mind that Khayman was licking the dried blood from his palm.

* * *

Khayman wandered aimlessly around the house. It was already beginning to take on a stripped, lifeless air. In two days mortals would come and pack all valuables that remained, would with loving care put the Lalique collection into padded boxes, take down the heavy velvet curtains, put plastic covers on the furniture and load everything onto a boat to be shipped to Miami and storage. All the books, every video tape and compact disc, and the paintings, all the marvellous paintings would be stacked in a special rack and carried carefully out of here.

Armand had packed a small suitcase of clothes and personal trinkets, and had then declared that Goodwill could have the rest. Khayman, staring at the rows of suits and blazers and the piles of crisp white shirts in Armand's closet, had merely nodded. He didn't care one way or the other. And when he had called them up on the telephone, the people at Goodwill were more than willing to come and fetch all the clothes. Yes. And the shoes, too. The ties, the lamb's wool sweaters, the Italian coats, the gloves, lovely tiny leather gloves lined with cashmere that had fit perfectly on Armand's small, strong hands. Even the silk underwear would be taken away with the rest.

In the hall Khayman had set down his own scuffed canvas sack next to Armand's elegant suitcase. He hadn't brought much here, nor had he accumulated anything. Only the Indigo Girls cd was new.

Walking back into Armand's favorite room yet again, he saw that Armand was still seated at his desk, one hand holding the phone, the other tapping at the computer keyboard. Armand was selling this house, was selling Night Island, was moving his funds around to make them — untraceable, was the word he used. He was disappearing from sight in the mortal world of finance and business. Armand was speaking to agents on the other side of the world, where it was daytime, telling them what to do.

That thought was something Khayman found intriguing. One could pick up the phone and speak to a man on another continent, a man who might be standing in the sunlight, feeling its warmth on his skin — day and night really did exist at the same time. Oh, he had known that for a long time, really. But modern communications had given him a new sense of how real it was.

They wouldn't leave this night, either. It was taking longer than Armand had anticipated to dismantle the little kingdom he had built for himself. But tomorrow night, yes.

Armand wanted to travel as mortals did. Khayman had acquiesced, although he did not like to fly through the air shut up inside a metal frame with wings. What if they were to crash, fall from the sky in a cloud of fire? Or tumble into the ocean. Khayman shuddered. Closing his eyes he saw a vision of two great stone coffins on rafts, pushed out into the sea.

To distract himself, he went all around the house to see whether he had forgotten anything, and as he moved through the rooms he lit sticks of incense everywhere, perfuming the air with the scent of sandalwood. It seemed as fitting a farewell as any. When he was done the place smelled like — he sniffed for a moment — like a temple. It smelled like some place he had known before in his long and confused life. He couldn't place it, but it made him feel comfortable and happy.

Khayman curled up on the large couch in the living room and sat there quietly reading his way through The golden bough, chuckling at the silliest parts. Towards dawn Armand came looking for him and slumped down next to him on the couch.

"I'm nearly done. Tomorrow night."

"Yes." Khayman put the book down. As he had thought, then. "Where are we going?"

"Paris."

"Paris?" Khayman blinked. Somehow that was the last thing he had expected. "Very well. To Paris."

Chapter three: No Bird Sings in Arcady

"Tremblez, vous êtes immortels." — Jacques DeLille

Armand wanted a loft. Khayman wasn't sure if it was because it took him back to his New York days, or if he just wanted to be as far as possible from the underground cemeteries and all the memories associated with them. It was probably better, Khayman decided, not to ask.

They found the perfect place, and Armand set about furnishing it with single-minded dedication. He chose none of the old-fashioned furniture that had characterized the most comfortable rooms on Night Island. No, everything had to be modern. Khayman did not mind; he nodded and admired and easily shifted enormous couches and chrome-and-wood book shelves when Armand decided at four in the morning that everything was in the wrong place.

And he did like the decorations, the colorful glass vases, the strangely shaped mirrors in their plastic frames.

When Armand came home one night with three Hydman-Vallien glasses, an amaryllis in a burnished copper pot, five computer magazines, a new Jeanette Winterson novel, a smoke-grey Persian kitten and two delivery men carrying a huge armchair, Khayman fell back onto the couch and burst out laughing uncontrollably.

"If shopping were an Olympic sport, you'd win a gold medal."

Armand looked down his nose and said, "You can go out and get the kitty litter."

Towards dawn they were all tangled together on the couch, Khayman with his head on the armrest, Armand resting on his chest reading Jeanette Winterson, the kitten sprawled across Armand's legs, purring like a tiny chainsaw.

:Does it have a name?: Khayman asked.

:I expect we'll think of something.: Armand stretched a little; the kitten, annoyed, dug its claws into his leg to keep its balance. :Ow, you ungrateful wretch!:

Khayman felt another laughing fit coming on. "Wretch it is, then," he said out loud. And Wretch it was.

As the year turned to December and the weather turned even more bitterly cold, they seemed to lead a comfortable life together. They went to art galleries and exhibitions, to every play and every opera they could discover — some of them over and over again — they haunted the museums. Armand was an excellent companion. His interest in culture was as strong as ever, and he knew a great deal about art history; Khayman had largely missed out on the recent centuries, and was content to listen to Armand's elaborations.

Armand also enjoyed clubs, especially when they were illegal. Khayman grew used to spending the hours between three and six in the morning in badly lit basements among pale young people dressed in everything from black rags to pastel latex, listening to intense music full of screams. On other nights they would go out into the suburbs somewhere and hear rai, and be stared at suspiciously, and Armand would dance and be stared at even more.

Wretch grew in size and sneakiness, and particularly loved playing with — or rather in — Armand's hair.

Khayman was beginning to relax. The black despair that had haunted Armand as he sold off the Night Island and prepared to move seemed to have disappeared as soon as they'd landed on French soil. These days Armand was cheerful, content, talkative. Perhaps a change of environment was all that had been needed, a chance to get away from the house that, no matter how Armand had tried to change it, held so many memories of Daniel.

Here, there was nothing to bring those memories back. And Khayman was beginning to hope that Armand would, in time, forget.

* * *

Paris was — well, Paris. And he'd always loved it, hadn't he?

"I've always loved Paris," he muttered to himself as he walked the tree-lined boulevards, but himself wasn't convinced. David Talbot looked up at the tall flat-faced buildings with their wrought-iron railings like black eyelashes drooping in front of the long windows like eyes, and knew this could be nothing but Paris. An icy wind tugged at his overcoat, there was an all-pervasive smell of really good coffee and ancient dust, and look at the headlines of that paper blowing in the gutter...

He had always loved Paris.

On an impulse, he reversed his direction completely and headed for a certain cafè. Being in Paris made him remember that strange little incident from the time before Brazil, the time before the Talamasca, the time before he became any of all those things that had kept him occupied all through his mortal life.

Now he had all the time in the world to think about God and the Devil, should he want to. And now he found the thought of that mysterious overheard conversation more intriguing and more frightening than ever before. Thinking back, he recalled telling Lestat all about it, wondering how Lestat would react. He had half believed, David remembered with a silent little laugh, that Lestat would leap up and set off on a quest for either God or the Devil, or possibly both, right there, right then. It was the kind of thing he had expected of someone like Lestat. Lestat would probably claim to be quite eager to have a word with both the celestial lord and his adversary.

And how he had loved that, Lestat's eagerness and his youthful vitality. Hard to remember, then, that this being that wore the outward form of an impetuous young man had seen over two centuries pass.

But Lestat had become entangled with the business of the Body Thief instead. For a creature possessed of preternatural intelligence and powers, as well as longer experience of the world than any mortal could claim, he was amazingly stupid at times. David shook his head, though there was an affectionate smile hovering on his lips as well. Lestat was — well — there was no one else quite like him.

David hadn't seen his maker since Lestat and Louis had taken off on their own after that business with Daniel and the mortal man. That was another escapade that had gone terribly wrong. When he'd been to visit Jesse in Rangoon in August, she had still been upset about it. She seemed quite prepared to take all the blame that Armand was so determined to foist onto her.

"Jesse, don't be silly," David had told her. "Daniel made a decision to come with us, he did it of his own free will."

"Yes, but if I hadn't bitten that man in Stockholm — or if I'd, well, killed him..."

"Don't blame yourself, Jesse."

But she did.

David sighed. He wouldn't mind seeing Lestat again. It would be easy to go to New Orleans, and surely after over two years Lestat and Louis weren't still locked in a romantic clinch every waking moment of their time. He'd love to warm himself at the blaze of Lestat's high spirits, and have a quiet philosophical discussion with Louis. He and Louis had never really talked enough.

He'd reached the Left Bank now, and the boulevard he remembered. The cafe was still there, though it had changed. And no one was sitting outside at this season, at this hour, in this weather. David went in, and left the cold late fall night behind. Inside, yellow light blazed, voices chattered brightly in an incessant din, papers crackled, there was much clinking of cups and rattling of spoons. He breathed in the delicious aroma of strong coffee, hot chocolate, vanilla and raspberry tart, and someone was wearing a delicious scent, what was it? Oh yes, White Linen.

And buried beneath the everyday sounds and smells were the scent of blood and the regular steady beating of strong hearts. David had fed already, so it did not tempt him; it was merely a pleasant experience, something to enjoy in the same way that he enjoyed the quick French conversation all around him. He did so love the little everyday details of life, the sights and smells and sounds that most mortals took for granted and never even noticed.

He bought a cup of coffee, black, and found a small round table in a corner where he managed to squeeze in. Yes, he would quite like to see Lestat again, to talk and laugh and argue. And Lestat would have his head full of some madness again, and...

David winced. That had been the wrong word to use. Hopefully, Lestat would not have his head full of some madness again. At least not the same madness. No, Louis would have cured that. Under Louis' gentle ministrations, Lestat would have become perfectly recovered.

And talking with Lestat, David reluctantly admitted, would be safe. Lestat, all life and ideas, would not notice that anything was wrong with David. Louis, though, Louis was a different matter. And this was why David hesitated, why he was here in Paris alone. He'd always cherished his solitude, of course. Always enjoyed being on his own. But now he felt he needed company. Lestat would have been perfect, but with Lestat came Louis. Louis whom he dearly loved, but did not, when he considered the matter more closely, really wish to meet at all.

Because Louis would not be content with the long philosophical discussions David was longing for. Louis would look at him with clear, intelligent green eyes and ask him what was wrong, and then David would probably tell him.

Oh, he was embarrassed. He was terribly embarrassed at all of it. At his age, he should know better than to let an affair get the better of him this way. At his age he should know better than to conduct an affair quite so badly, too.

Not to mention that Marius at his age should know better, an insidious little voice whispered in his mind.

David shook his head to clear it. Really, being a newborn immortal was worse than being a teenager, as far as he could see. He had been given a new life and amazing powers, and what had he done with them so far? Gone on a rash adventure that had ended in disaster for one of the involved, and had a casual relationship with a man twenty times his own age, that hadn't worked out at all. Was this what vampires did? Was this how he intended to spend the eternity of his existence?

It had been over six months now since he had packed his bags and gone away from the fattoria in Tuscany, leaving only a note that, he now feared, had been ridiculous and spiteful. Over six months since he had seen or heard anything of Marius. And that was not long, as vampires reckoned time, not long at all. But it was a long time for a confused, hurt and bewildered man, waiting for his lover to come after him.

Ah, no. It was over. Definitely and decidedly over. No one need ever know about it. David held on to the thought that perhaps the other vampires had never even heard. Jesse certainly hadn't, or she would have asked about it, no doubt about that. She was neither shy nor reticent. But there had been moments when David had felt that Maharet had given him looks that were a little too knowing.

Still, it was easy to imagine things when it came to Maharet. She gave the impression of holding all the world's secrets in the palm of her cold white hand. David was uneasy, thinking of her, but he was also powerfully fascinated. He would have liked to spend more time with her during his visit to Rangoon, but Jesse had had first claim on him, and then the atmosphere in the household had tensed up for some reason. Feeling that they'd do better without him, David had taken his leave. He'd tramped slowly across the Asian continent into Europe, travelling by car, train, boat, bus, sometimes on foot. Sometimes riding. It had been a good trip, leisurely and pleasant. And lonely.

Now he was in Paris. And the important thing was that he had to think of something to do. David warmed his hands on the cup of hot coffee. He could buy a flat, furnish it with books, lead a quiet and studious life. But did he really want to live in Paris?

He thought longingly of Talbot Manor, away to the north across the Channel, in England's green and pleasant land — though it would more likely be grey and unpleasant at this time of year. No. Not there. It was too soon, he did not wish to go there just yet, the same way he didn't think he could go back to Barbados for a while. He needed time to put his life and death in perspective. So far all he'd done was tumble out of one scrape into another.

Then the thought of describing his experiences with Marius in just those terms struck him as slightly funny, and he was laughing silently to himself when someone slipped into the chair across the table.

"Mind if I join you?" Idiomatic French, with an old-fashioned intonation utterly at odds with the appearance of the gorgeous teenager slouching there with a mug of hot chocolate held casually in one slim white hand.

"Of course not," David said politely, though a little reservedly. "Have you been in town long?"

"Not very," said Armand, switching effortlessly to English, which he spoke with a distinct American accent. "About a month. I thought you were in Italy...?"

"Well, I'm not," David said, trying not to sound too stiff, and failing. Of everyone he could have run into, it had to be Armand. He never quite knew where he was with Armand — on the wrong side, usually.

"No, well, he does tend to lose interest in people after a while," Armand said with a distinctly malicious tone to his voice. "Not one for long-term commitments, our Marius. At least not to people who are still moving and conscious."

"I thought he and Pandora stayed together longer than anybody else," David said. "Though I suppose every relationship's different, really." Then he drew himself up, appalled.

"No doubt." Armand looked even paler than usual.

"Look, I'm sorry," David said impulsively. "I didn't mean to—"

Armand set his mug of chocolate down on the table. "It is of no importance to me," he said. "I have a message for you."

David was well-mannered enough not to attempt further apologies that would only cause additional discomfort and trouble. "Yes?"

"Lestat is looking for you. He wants you to come to him."

"Oh?" David perked up a little. "What are they up to now?"

"Not they," Armand corrected him, "just Lestat. And he didn't take me into his confidence on that issue."

"Thank you for coming to tell me." David looked closely at Armand. There were none of the obvious warning signs Maharet had told him about. Armand was wearing modern clothes, was speaking easily and well, looked at ease with his surroundings. He had fed well, too, there was nothing of the gaunt or starved look about him. And nevertheless David could feel something, some intangible emanation of trouble, wrongness, unrest. Yes, Armand was still...

"...unhappy. How kind of you to notice. How kind of you to be concerned. It is always easy to be wise after the fact, isn't it?"

"There was no way any of us could have known what would happen," David said with unimpaired calm, though he was quaking inside. "Nothing was done deliberately, Armand, it was just a chain of unlucky circumstances."

"The eternal excuse of those who don't think," Armand retorted. "'I didn't mean it, it just happened!'"

"Things do," David said. "Surely you can't have lived as long as you have and failed to notice that chance plays a great part in our lives, that not everything can be controlled, planned ahead, perfectly executed. The best-laid plans—"

"Don't," Armand said, "quote that damn Scottish poet at me. What Jesse did was more than just irresponsible, it was unforgiveable. I would have killed a coven member for that. Maharet seems not even to have spoken sternly to the girl."

"There is no need for that," David said. "She blames herself more than even you can blame her, I do believe."

Armand snorted. "Much good that does now."

"If there were no use in repentance, we could never change," David said. "And she's hardly the first. Lestat made a friend of a mortal, if you remember."

"I remember," Armand said. "And just look at you now. It was either this or death, surely you realize that? One of us would have come to kill you if Lestat had not given you the blood."

"I'm sure you would," David said, noting that the velvet glove had slipped well and truly off. "But what would you have done to Lestat?"

For the first time in their encounter, Armand seemed slightly at a loss for words. "Well." Then he recovered. "Lestat is, unfortunately, too powerful."

"So's Jesse," David said, "and you know it. She was, after all, made by Maharet."

"Sounds like a cheap knockoff," Armand muttered. David almost laughed, but recovered himself in time. "Well, someone should at least have spoken to Lestat about it."

"But you didn't care then, did you?" David said. "You were happy and the rest of the world could go to hell." The next second he could have bitten his tongue off. "Anyway, I assure you Jesse deeply regrets the whole unfortunate incident."

Armand's eyes were blazing. "Well, Talamascan," he said in a voice that was pure steel, "unless you have any more little insults to shower over me, I do believe I will leave you to your own devices."

"The man should be dead by now," David said.

"So?" Armand rose. "That fact hadn't escaped me either."

Another second's thought was sufficient to make David see what Armand had long ago realized: the mortal ought indeed to be dead and the spell dissolved, but in that case, where was Daniel?

Looking out over the cafe, at the happy buzzing throng of mortals, David saw a shade glide over them. The room changed shape, the ceiling heightened, and the lighting was all candles, myriads of candles. Someone in the corner was stretching canvas over a frame and nailing it in place. And look at the tall man in the center of the room, the way the candlelight illuminated his blond hair, his face a mask of concentration. A paintbrush in one hand. There, his painting, the kneeling boy, the black-winged angels, the strange and too-intense details. And there the model himself, a young mortal boy of unsurpassed beauty. Their eyes meet, painter and model, in love, and they walked closer to each other, the boy shyly putting his arms around the painter, the painter bending down, his heart in his eyes.

David shook his head to clear it; he could feel a tear on one cheek, and hastily wiped it away, not wanting another cafe guest to see and wonder. Looking up, he saw Armand's eyes on him.

"Thank you for sharing that with me," he said quietly, "it was lovely."

Armand's face lengthened in utter surprise for a moment; then he was gone. David sat back. His coffee was cold, so he signalled for another. It was impossible not to feel sorry for Armand. The mental display had been meant to hurt him, David felt certain of that, but it had had the opposite effect. And how could he be jealous of something that lay five centuries in the past, anyway?

No, Armand was having trouble, and David, though he had his own pains to deal with, did feel concerned.

The waitress brought David another cup of coffee, and he smiled gratefully at her, taking care to shield the still-full cold cup at his elbow. He held the new one, feeling it warm his fingers. Sources of heat were a new delight to him as a vampire; he relished warmth almost more now than he had done as an aging man with aching joints. Of course, there was nothing to compare with the heat of a struggling victim in one's arms, and the blood, like drinking liquid sunlight, he had thought once. He could well understand that the first king and queen had been embarrassed at taking so much pleasure in the blood. He, at least, had been warned.

And then there was the similar and yet utterly different pleasure of tasting the blood of another of one's own kind, the richness of it, thick with years and years of life, the intimacy and sharing, the almost unendurable closeness of soul to soul communication...

David's hand trembled at the remembrance of it, and he put the cup down. Why did he pretend to superior pity? He was in just as bad a state as Armand.

Staying in Paris suddenly seemed like a bad idea. To go back to the States and see Lestat, yes, that held a certain appeal. Lestat without Louis... David heaved a small inner sigh of relief. He didn't know why the two immortals he thought of as virtually inseparable were apart, but there was no denying it made things easier for him. Meeting Lestat would be the perfect distraction right now. Leave Paris to Armand — that one was used to it, after all. He could sit here as he had done over a century ago, poised like a spider at the heart of an empty web.

The uncharacteristic nastiness of that thought brought David back to his senses. Of course he'd have to go see Lestat, if his maker was asking for him. Perhaps, he slowly realized, Lestat was in trouble again. Helping him would be the responsible thing to do.

But first there was something else he ought to do. He sat back, and closed his eyes as an aid to concentration. David knew his powers were strong enough now for him to do this as easy as breathing, but old habits died hard — no matter how offhand he'd been about it to Lestat, reading minds had been work for him when he'd still been mortal. Anyway, he wanted to shield this from Armand.

* * *

Wretch was chasing his own tail in the overstuffed armchair, his favorite place to be; Khayman hoped the kitten would remember that he was old enough not to have 'accidents' any more. The most old-fashioned thing in the apartment was an open fireplace, a concession to all vampires' love for heat, and Khayman was lying on the floor in front of it, reading. He had raided a bookstore and brought back a pile of detective novels, old and new, that he was making his way through with preternatural speed.

Armand had looked down his nose again, of course, only to become ensnared by Lindsey Davis' tales of a private eye in Imperial Rome. "Was it really like this?" he'd asked Khayman, who had smiled and answered, "Not exactly, but it should have been."

But then Armand had stiffened with a listening look on his face. Khayman, sensing what had happened, had deliberately shut his mind, not wanting to intrude. Armand had gone out a few minutes later without explanation. Now only half of Khayman's mind was following the exploits of Lauren Laurano; the other half was engaged in speculating on the nature of the message Armand had received, and who he had gone out to meet.

Closing the book, Khayman rolled over on his back and stared up at the ceiling. Curiosity got the better of him, and he slowly opened his mind and began to cast about for traces of the presence of another immortal. He could sense that Armand was out there somewhere, but did not try to touch the younger vampire's mind. That wasn't who he was looking for, and if Armand thought Khayman was trying to spy on him, they would have the fight to end all fights, or so Khayman suspected.

Then, as he swept the beam of his telepathic powers over the city, it was met by another, strong and focused. :Khayman?:

This was a mind he recognized, though he did not know it well. A second's thought was enough to give him the face of this, the newest fledgling — David Talbot. They had only met briefly during that episode in San Francisco, and Khayman had been distracted by Armand and Armand's suffering. But he remembered this one, a clear-headed and sensible creature, it had seemed. He had gone off with — Marius, wasn't it?

:I hear you,: he sent back, reassuringly, welcomingly. :Are you the one who called to Armand before?:

:No. But I know who... I would like to speak with you — in person, if I may.:

Khayman rose, and damped the fire quickly with his mind. :Of course. Keep calling and I will come to find you.:

He turned the lights out and went into the hall, where he put on overcoat, boots and gloves appropriate to the season and weather, though he really could have gone naked on a night like this and been none the worse for it. As the centuries went past his admiration for mortals grew and grew — to survive in such harsh climates as they did, with such weak and fragile bodies!

Going out, he followed the clearly sensed presence of David Talbot. He was careful not to move too fast; the night was still young enough to be the domain of mortals, many of whom were driving or strolling along the boulevards, looking at the Christmas displays in the windows, and Khayman did not want to take to the rooftops and leap about like Wretch pouncing on his toy mouse.

The signal led him to Notre Dame, and they met outside its floodlit facade. Khayman had no trouble recognizing the tall, brown-haired man in the elegant clothes who stood with his head tilted back, looking up at the gargoyles. David Talbot looked so comfortable in this body, though it had only been his for a few years. Perhaps a little too comfortable at times. He wore it like a flattering garment.

"Good evening," he said, inclining his head politely.

Khayman came up to stand next to him, and pretended also to be absorbed in studying the church. :You wanted something, no?:

:Yes.: Talbot was a very skilled telepath. Khayman had to admire the ease and dexterity he displayed. :It's about Armand. Forgive me for being inquisitive, but are you two still keeping each other company?:

:We live here together,: Khayman said slowly. :He's all the company I need, but if I'm any kind of companion to him, I really don't know.:

A sigh drifted through his mind. :I see.: There was a hint of embarrassment and sadness, briskly conquered. :I met him earlier, I don't know if he told you..?:

:No, he did not.:

:He worried me.: It was the first simple and fortright statement Talbot had made so far. :Perhaps you'll think it insulting of me to tell you this, but I wanted to know if this was something you were aware of.:

:That you were worried, no, I wasn't aware of that. Why was that?:

After a brief hesitation, David Talbot opened his mind and showed Khayman the particulars of his encounter with Armand. :He's not happy at all,: he concluded. :And he seems a little... Has he talked about going underground?:

Khayman shook his head violently. :No!:

:Or — or any other kind of — drastic action?:

Talbot's large brown eyes were kind and concerned. Khayman began to feel that the ground was vanishing from underneath his feet.

:You think he might try to kill himself, don't you,: he said bluntly.

:I think it may be a possibility,: Talbot said. :Something seemed very wrong. I just thought that — if you care for him, you would want to know, keep an eye on him.:

"I thought things were getting better," Khayman murmured to himself. "I thought he was getting over it."

David Talbot put a hand on Khayman's arm. "Look, if you want me to stay, to help, I'll do anything I can, but I don't think he likes me, so my presence may be more of a hindrance than a help, really. I'll be leaving for America shortly. If you need me, let me know."

Then the young vampire walked away briskly, and Khayman didn't try to stop him. David had been both kind and considerate; now it was up to Khayman to find out the truth of the matter.

He hoped that David might be wrong. Armand had seemed so much lighter of heart here in Paris. But thinking back to what David had shown him of the encounter in the café, he knew that the darkness had returned again. Khayman wondered if Armand was out hunting again, trying to ease the relentless pain that drove him forward.

Or what if Armand had already tried to end it all — in a huge fire, perhaps? That was what it would take, or prolonged exposure to sunlight.

There was still some time until dawn. Again Khayman searched Paris for the presence of another vampire mind. David Talbot, entering a hotel — no. That was not what he wanted. He felt only mortals, the myriad mayfly minds that surrounded him, bursting with life, love and sadness. And there were fires, of course, there was always a fire somewhere. His search grew faster and more frantic.

When he did find Armand, climbing the stairs to the apartment in a black mood and with his hands in his pockets, Khayman could have wept with relief.

He is still alive, still among us — oh my love, my beloved...

Then Khayman gasped with pain as he realized what he had just thought. He had never spoken those words even to himself before. Now, though, the words made it all the more real to him, and he couldn't turn away and pretend not to notice any more.

For how long had it been like this? It could have been since the first time in the crowded concert hall in San Francisco, when he had known that this one was special, this one was someone he would give anything he could to, freely and without reservations. And he had, hadn't he? He had given all he could — all he had, to the last corner of his soul. The love he felt was like a splinter of glass caught in his heart.

He did not try to touch the younger immortal's mind. Instead he just maintained a light contact with Armand's presence as he left Notre Dame. Looking up at the façade one last time, he could have sworn one of the gargoyles, a big black strange thing with wings, leered at him.

The rain-washed streets were emptier now than when he had gone out. Walking slowly, Khayman watched streetlights reflect in puddles, like stars that broke apart under his feet as he walked. His fine suede shoes were soaked, ruined. And the light, steady rain soaked into his coat and weighed it down, and plastered his hair to his face. It was just another sensation, just another thing happening to him. And he could remember any number of nights when he'd been out in the rain, nights when this city in all its beauty and splendor had not even been thought of. Memory, such a curious faculty. And he who had once feared the descent into mindlessness more than anything would, right at that moment, have welcomed it with open arms.

When he walked into the flat, his shoes making squelching noises, Wretch leaped forward to welcome him, then hissed as Khayman took off his coat and rainwater showered the unfortunate kitten. Khayman reached down to tickle Wretch's ears in apology, and got five small claws in his thumb for a reward. He hung up his coat and walked into the living room.

Armand was standing by the fire. He turned immediately as he sensed Khayman entering the room. His dark eyes were larger than ever, and there was a lost look on his face that made him appear terribly young.

"Khayman." It was no more than a whisper. "Khayman, I need you. I need you to help me."

He stepped forward swiftly, wanting to do anything, anything in the world, for this poor lost child and for the old and beautiful soul that was inextricably melded with the child's body. "You know I will," he said softly, and took Armand's cool hands, and felt Armand's body fall against his in a final acknowledgement of tired helplessness that went to Khayman's heart. "You know..."

Armand lifted his head and looked up into Khayman's face. "You must help me find him. Daniel. You have to."

Chapter four: The dying of the light

"We must love one another or die." — W. H. Auden

"Come here I think you're beautiful
My door is open wide
Some kind of angel come inside

Come here I think you're beautiful
I think you're beautiful beautiful
Some kind of stranger come inside" — Sisters of Mercy

Khayman released Armand as though he'd found himself accidentally embracing a statue of barbed wire rather than the immortalized form of a beautiful young man. He took a step backwards and looked straight into Armand's eyes, and saw the pleading look there, the first sign of that glacial composure beginning to shatter. Armand's lips were actually trembling, trembling like a mortal's. Armand looked as though he were about to start crying. His eyes were glazing over with a misty red sheen.

And Khayman knew that every time a lover looks at his beloved, the beloved seems even more beautiful than last time. Now seeing Armand like this, he wished for blindness.

"I can't do that," he said.

"Why not? What do you mean?"

"I—" Khayman took a deep breath. "You promised not to. You said you wouldn't follow him."

Armand's eyes narrowed. "No, I didn't. I didn't promise anything. It was Daniel who was made to make all kinds of promises. I just decided to wait and see. And I've waited. And waited. I thought the spell w-would break. All spells do break, and the girl promised it would. But now so much time has passed." The first dark red tear slid down Armand's cheek. "And I do think he may not be sane. I'd leave him to his choice, truly I would. But I — I need to know that he is — all right."

Khayman looked at Armand, crying. He looked down at his own hands, long white narrow hands clenching into fists. So as not to begin asking himself what he ought to say, he started to speak.

"But I don't think you should," he said slowly. "If he wants to, he'll come to you. But if he doesn't, then..."

Then he doesn't want you. And I'll still be here. But he took care to shield his mind when he thought that.

Armand's head snapped up. His pretty features were distorted by rage and suffering, and the red gleam in his eyes wasn't just tears any more.

"I don't care!" he said. "Things have gone too far. I'd crawl to him on hands and knees and beg him to come back. I've tried to be patient. I've tried to forget. But I can't. And I'm not going to let it go. This means more to me than anything else. It's the only thing that means anything. My world used to be in color but now it's black and white. I can't stand it." He sounded nearly hysterical.

"But I can't help you," Khayman said weakly, miserably.

"Why not? You have to!"

"It's not right." Khayman couldn't straighten his thoughts out.

"I just want to see him. Talk to him. You were ready to help Lestat find Louis, and Lestat was out of his head and likely to kill! I'm not — I just—" Armand seized Khayman's arms. "So what's different this time?"

Khayman froze, staring into those eyes again, the eyes that could unlock every part of his mind, his heart, his soul. The eyes that weren't looking for him, would never look at him with love.

Then he tore himself free of Armand's grip, spun around and ran out of the apartment again. He could feel Armand's mind battering at his own, but he had greater strength, and even if he had not had it his desperation would have been strong enough.

Once outside, he took to the air and disappeared into the clouds.

* * *

I know I'm dying. I'm not stupid. Though it's amazing how many people started treating me as a mindless idiot as soon as they knew. It happens even now. One doctor, at a loss for any rational medical explanation, conjectured that maybe I was still alive because I refused to accept that death was inevitable.

While I honor his belief in the power of my psyche, he's got the reasons wrong. I know, oh yes I know, what is coming. Every beat of my heart is a grain falling in the hourglass of my life, and time is running out.

We moved here a few months ago. Well, half a year, more like. It was summer, it was hot, and back then I could still sit out of doors and enjoy it. Peace and quiet, birds singing, and the open fields all around.

The house used to belong to the witch's grandmother. It's old, I can never remember how old, with thick white walls and deep-set windows, and a green roof. Here on the inside there are hand-woven rugs on the floors — wooden floors made of wide planks, not fancy modern parquet. Pine furniture. The kitchen table is big enough to serve up a whole roast pig on, and it's covered by a red-and-white checked cloth.

I asked her to take me home, and she knows I've never had one. So she took me to the best one she knew.

If I could rise out of this deep soft bed and walk over to the window, I would see winter. I'd quite like to. It's my last winter, after all. I'd like to put my hand on the windowpane and feel the chill of the glass on my skin. I'd like to feel everything again, the taste of hot chocolate early in the morning, a lover's hand resting on my shoulder in wordless affection, the strong scent of lilacs in early summer. Everything. I can remember, but remembering isn't quite the same.

I can hear them moving downstairs. I hear steps crossing the hall, and cupboards being opened and closed in the kitchen. It's almost time for dinner. They're speaking together in low voices, though sometimes they'll laugh. It's a sweet sound.

KJ came here only a few days ago. That's when I knew it couldn't be long. Well, I knew that anyway — my heart and my blood and my bones speak of death every day. But when your psychic friends start turning up out of the blue, you can be certain that the end really is near.

But it can't come yet. Not — quite — yet.

I'm trying to work up courage enough for what I have to do, and courage enough to look the witch in the eyes afterwards and bear whatever she'll have to say to me.

The witch has never blamed me for what I did. She's hardly said a word about it. On the plane back from California she let me sleep with my head on her shoulder. I knew then that she'd forgiven me. And I hope she can forgive me again.

I hear footsteps coming up the stairs. It's KJ; she props her shoulder against the doorframe and looks at me. "I know you're awake," she says. "I've made a chicken curry."

"Very Christmas," I mutter.

"Witches don't celebrate Christmas."

"I'm not a witch. And she does anything she wants to."

She walks across the room and helps me to my feet, slowly and carefully. She's very strong, KJ, much stronger than she looks; she could probably carry me downstairs, but I won't let her.

When we get down the witch is waiting at the table. And it isn't chicken curry at all. It's a full Christmas dinner, with five kinds of pickled herring, white sausage and a baked ham, meatballs and marinated salmon and brown bread redolent of syrup and spices. And there is the dreaded lutefisk, dried fish that has been boiled to a translucent jelly, served with white sauce and potatoes. And Janson's temptation, potatoes and anchovies baked in a cream sauce.

I sniff in the air, inhaling all these familiar smells. Look, there's vodka, and dark Christmas beer. I smile at them, a wide smile, a grateful smile. Everything that's bad for me. And now I know for certain that I will not live much longer.

We sit down and the feast begins. Of course, I can't eat very much. I'm getting thin. The suggestion of a beer belly that's troubled me all my life is gone now. The witch counts my ribs in the bath from time to time.

It's all delicious — they must have worked so hard! The witch and I spend a lot of time trying to teach KJ drinking songs and Christmas carols in Swedish. They're letting me drink as much as I like. And eat whatever I want. And I'm grateful. They know I wanted one last Christmas.

I look at their faces in the candlelight, listen to the sound of their laughter. During the last stages of my life I've come to feel like an onion peeled layer by layer as things have been found unimportant, and discarded, and left behind. People and places and things have receded into the past. I've said my goodbyes. And now there is only this left, my still-beating heart, the love I have for these two dearest friends and the love they have for me.

When we're all stuffed, and can barely move, we sit and smile at each other for a while; then we abandon the table and take some beers into the living room. The witch and KJ are eyeing each other complicitously, and they let me go first.

And there's a Christmas tree! I smell it before anything else, then I see the lights. It's a tall straight tree hung with tiny silver angels KJ has made, and old lovely ornaments shaped like stars and spheres and hearts, in red and silver and blue.

"It's beautiful," I say. "Thank you." And I hug them, and they hug me back, gently and carefully.

There are no presents. I should have known. It's tactless to give gifts to a dying man.

We sit up and eat oranges and nuts and chocolates, and drink hot spiced wine, and tell stories and old jokes, and play silly games. When they finally help me up to bed I'm more than half drunk, and tired to the bone, and happier than I've been in a long time. The happiness wraps around me like a nice warm blanket, and the more comfortable I get, the more clearly I can feel the tiny sting inside. It's time, now. I won't get any stronger; I'll almost certainly get weaker.

I curl up in bed and lie silent, watching the tiny dancing flame of the candle beside my bed as it settles into a steady light. I feel the hand-stitched quilt around me, and then the white-washed walls of the room, and the whole house, my shelter, my cocoon, and outside the walls the endless sky dotted with tiny winter stars, small stubborn lights like the one my eyes are focused on. And then I relax the way the witch taught me long ago, and open my mind, and send my wordless cry up through all the layers of self, quilt, room, house, to bounce against the sky and be sent forth by the stars to whichever distant part of the globe that he wanders now. I'm calling him with the last of my strength and in full certainty of my death. He has to come.

* * *

Khayman stood unmoving in the swirling crowds of Christmas shoppers rushing down the London street, his eyes fastened on a window display. He saw nothing, heard nothing. Trying to think, all he could do was feel. Again and again, he saw Armand's face with its layers of calm stripped away, anguish laid bare, and heard the simple request. "Help me find him." And he trembled.

He had never tried to find out where Daniel was, not since the long-ago night when he had felt the young vampire leave San Francisco behind in a fury of rejection. It had only seemed right to let him follow his own path. The young witch woman had said the enchantment would pass, Daniel would come back to his senses. Khayman had assumed that the young one would do best on his own until then. And he had turned his attention to Armand, a closer friend, one he felt called upon to help.

He shook his head slowly, sadly, not noticing the curious stares of passers-by. Oh, he had walked straight into this one. He'd gone to live with Armand thinking to heal him, and had only managed to hurt himself.

Dark tendrils of thought rose from the depths of his mind and whispered to him. I don't want to find Daniel. I don't have to. I can keep Armand with me.

There had been good times. Times when they had been happy, times when they had had fun together. And the last month together in Paris, that had seemed very good indeed. Armand had seemed content.

He had wanted Armand to be content. Not the same thing, not the same thing at all. And Khayman realized that he had let himself believe at last in Armand's facade, in the part Armand had played, when what he had always loved had been what lay below the surface, the intricate hidden depths, the enchanting spirals and labyrinths of Armand's mind.

Another realization followed, as though carried by the little toy train laden with Christmas presents that was making its laborious puffing way across the window display. Khayman knew that he was the only one who could help Armand. At any rate, he was the only one Armand would ask. And if he did not help, then Armand could spend years searching for his fledgling. Might never find him.

The words of David Talbot came back to him. Has he talked about going underground? Or — or any other kind of — drastic action?

If a stranger could see such things in Armand, while he remained mind-blind to them...

Khayman sighed. What he was doing was wrong. And it hurt. Armand loved Daniel, and there was nothing he could do about it. Armand needed Daniel. And Khayman loved Armand. It was all very simple.

He stepped away from the window and walked down the street, turning into a small Soho alley where no one saw him. Then he rose into the sky with aching swiftness and sped south, back to Paris again.

During the cold flight he let his mind drift, listening to the random thoughts of mortals as he passed above them, emptying himself of thought and emotion. And coming down lightly in front of the Paris house, he felt cleansed and whole. Khayman went in and walked swiftly up the stairs.

Wretch was sleeping on the couch. Armand was not there. Khayman sat down and waited. He picked up a book, opened it at random and read without surprise, I am two fools, I know, For loving, and for saying so.

"Well then," he said heavily, "I'll only be one fool. For now."

"Why be a fool at all?" Armand's voice asked from the door.

Khayman rose. "I've changed my mind," he said abruptly.

"That's not necessarily foolish," Armand said. His voice sounded strained. "And what does this change entail?"

"I'll help you find Daniel, of course," Khayman said.

Armand nodded slowly. He did not look immediately happy. If anything, he looked a little more afraid. "I see."

"It's what you wanted, isn't it?" Khayman asked.

Armand looked straight into his eyes. "'Just because I said that's what I wanted it doesn't mean I'm necessarily ready for it,'" he quoted. "But yes. It's what I wanted. What I want. Thank you."

Khayman couldn't quite bear to be thanked, not for this, not now. He turned his head away.

"When do you want me to begin?" he asked.

"Never," Armand said. "Now."

* * *

Preparing to leave his hotel room at last, David realized he had forgotten to ask Armand where Lestat was. Should he go to New Orleans? It would make a good place to start the search, if there had to be a search. Perhaps Armand had just assumed David would know that it was indeed New Orleans that was meant, since Lestat hadn't stirred a step from New Orleans in so long.

He could have asked Khayman for confirmation. But there had been too much unrest in Khayman, and the ancient one's mind had been so completely preoccupied with Armand, that David had momentarily forgotten his own concerns.

Yes, Armand. Trouble. It was almost, David felt, as though he had the gifts of some members of the Talamasca — the ability to know trouble even before it arrived. Smell it in the air, maybe. Armand. Trouble. But he didn't know how or why and it had been made very clear to him that his interference was not wanted — neither of the two had contacted him again in the nights that had passed since their meeting.

So he would go to New Orleans, take the risk of meeting Louis, and see what Lestat might want. He didn't quite believe that Armand did not know. But no matter, he would find out.

Turning to pick up his bags, he became aware with a sudden shock that someone was standing just inside the door, having entered the room unnoticed. David straightened up swiftly and walked closer.

"Always so unafraid," a voice said, a female voice full of preternatural resonance, a voice that had lost all mortal timbre thousands of years ago. "Or do you know me?"

"I do know you," he said with a small smile, "unless you have changed greatly in a short time. I am pleased to see you again, Maharet."

She bent her head in acknowledgement, her shimmering red hair falling forward over her shoulders. "And I am pleased to have found you, David Talbot. I would like to have your company for a little while."

Taken aback, David floundered. "Well — yes — of course. I meant to go to see Lestat — but—"

"I know," she said. "I have heard his call. But he can manage without you for a little while longer, David. Will you come with me?"

It was like being commanded by a queen, only she did not command, she asked, pleaded. And her all too human eyes looked beseechingly at him.

David nodded.

"Yes," he said, "I will come."

* * *

In a cellar deep below the city, on hard grey flagstones that smelled of years of dust and forgetfulness, he lay and stared out into the darkness. And darkness was all he could see. No light reached in here, not even in the daytime. That, after all, was the point.

Nor did sounds reach him. The whole great roar of the city-beast over and around him was shut off by the thick walls. Here was only deepest thickest blackness, and silence.

Not even the scurrying of rats. He'd eaten all the rats.

Daniel didn't know how long he had lain here, how many cycles of death-like sleep and silent staring wakefulness that had come and gone since he had first stumbled down here escaping from the dawn. He liked it here. Nothing happened. He felt thirst, but not enough to make him move. He felt sadness, but he didn't have to think about it. The world had disappeared.

And he was all there was, contained in himself, a seed in the earth.

He closed his eyes, but quickly opened them again. Open eyes were best. When he closed his eyes, sometimes his mind made pictures for him, and the pictures made the sadness so keen, too keen, almost like thought. Almost like missing someone.

Something felt like a whisper along his skin. Daniel felt his muscles clench and unclench. Something was touching him yet nothing was there. A haze of feeling was pouring into his empty mind. Something — a call. A plea. Something was suddenly tugging at him and it felt as though—

He gasped for breath and began to rise, with short jerky movements, bumping into things in the total darkness. He knew this touch! He had felt it before. And the sadness was suddenly as keen as a razor's edge, keen as the edge of his madness, and it was like missing someone, and it was like finding someone, and he had to go.

It felt as though someone had gripped his heart in both hands and was pulling him along.

He found his way up the stairs, banging his toes on the steps, hitting his head on the ceiling, not even noticing. There was a door at the top. It was locked. Was this the way he had come down? He couldn't remember.

Putting a hand to the door, he pushed and pushed, until it burst open and splintered under his hand and he could walk out into a room. It was the back room of a shop. Boxes that had been stacked in front of the door were tumbling away and overturning other boxes. Looking around, Daniel saw that the merchandise was mostly expensive stationery. He trod on a pile of dove-grey envelopes as he stepped out.

Crossing the room, he found another door that was also locked, and when he pushed it open an alarm went off. Daniel stepped out into the narrow alley, left the door open, and began to run. He didn't know what direction he was going in, but he knew it was the right one.

In one of the outer suburbs he found a derelict sleeping in a cardboard box, guarded by a small dog. The dog ran away when Daniel approached. He lay down next to the old man and looked seriously at his face, at his dirty, matted white hair, at his torn and smelly clothes worn in layer upon layer. Daniel put a finger on the man's bulbous nose and pressed down a little. The man did not wake up. He slept with all his neck muscles tensed and his head sticking straight out, an inch above the ground.

"You are mad," Daniel said, surprised that his voice flowed so smoothly though he had not used it for so long. "I can tell. I will give you a great and wonderful gift."

And he bent down and very lovingly sank his fangs into the man's throat.

After feeding he ran the rest of the night without stopping, and as dawn was coming on he went down to sleep in the earth, under a half-dead olive tree.

The next night his head was clearer. Daniel located a cheap motel with a broken neon sign, and snuck in, finding an unoccupied room. It was ugly, but it had a bathroom and there was plenty of hot water. He showered and washed, and looked at himself in the mirror. Horribly thin, yes. But reasonably presentable, if he stole some clothes.

The occupant of the next room down was too fat. When he was discovered in the morning it was assumed that he had died from a heart attack. Daniel moved on and found a young businessman who had more elegant suits than he needed, but also a pair of designer jeans and a silk shirt at the bottom of his bag. It would do.

Dressed and clean, he left the motel in the same unobtrusive way he had entered it. And it occurred to him that there were faster ways of getting places than running. He found a large road, and stuck his thumb out. He didn't have to wait long before a truck braked and the driver, a German with a load of vegetables bound for München, asked him where he was going.

"That way."

"North?"

"Yeah."

"Well, get in."

It was easy to hitch rides all through the night, switching cars whenever the chosen driver stopped to eat, or sleep, or simply got too curious. He didn't have a passport, of course, so he crossed the borders on foot, a silent shadow. Once he got into Germany he found plenty of fast drivers who would have taken him all through the country, but he needed to stop as the daytime was getting closer.

He slept that night buried in the earth beneath another tree on the long rolling slopes in southern Germany. Even in that sleep he felt the call and yearned to follow it. And the next night he rose earlier than he had ever done before, as soon as the last hint of daylight had faded from the sky, and found a young woman driving a red Porsche. She was in a hurry, too, and took him all the way to Hamburg.

Then he stowed away in the luggage compartment of a tourist bus. On the ferry between Germany and Denmark he stood outside and stared down at the water, its solid blackness. A sudden image came into his head of all the water in the world freezing solid, so that everyone could walk from continent to continent — the water, instead of dividing, would connect. It was a frightening thought.

The journey across Denmark went quickly, and so did the crossing to Sweden. Then he began to hitch rides to a place he didn't know, with drivers who sometimes didn't speak a word of his language. Yet the call pulled at him so strongly, he felt he couldn't get lost of he tried.

And not long before dawn, he stood alone on a narrow unpaved road that curved gently between two snowy fields. Rows of black trees were silhouetted against the white, their spidery branches hung with snow like clotted cream. The road was slippery with ice, and the gravel crunched under his feet.

At the end of the road was a white house with a green roof. A light shone in one window, a red star hanging there, warm and welcoming. And behind the thick walls he knew someone was waiting for him.

Daniel walked forward.

Chapter five: Sleeps with angels

"There's a glass of punch below your feet and an angel at your head" — The Pogues, 'The sick bed of Cuchulainn'

She wasn't asleep. These days she had keyed herself to Martin so completely that every uncertain breath, every stutter of his failing heart was enough to drag her from her own dreams, and sometimes directly into his. When he subsided into sleep once more, she remained awake, lone guardian of the midnight hours, keeping watch over what she held dear, sheltering Martin's soul the way the house sheltered his body.

She worried from time to time that she was too close, too intimately linked with his dying body, not just his spirit. But, well, she would find out. When the time came. And that time, she knew, would not be long in the coming, now.

The witch lay silently curled up in her bed, listening to KJ's regular breathing from across the room, and the soft sighs and creaks of the old house all around them. It was no longer midnight; it was morning, winter-dark. She listened to everything, her own heartbeat, the swirling of stars above.

And gradually she became aware of something, a presence approaching like the beating of a great though muffled drum, irregular, growing stronger and stronger, closer. The earth did not shake, as for a god's passing. But she felt a faint tremor almost as though the house itself, her grandmother's house, sensed the creature's approach and tried to warn her of its coming.

Slipping out of bed, she pulled her wooly robe on on top of the ankle-length flannel nightgown she wore, and pushed her feet into slippers lined with fine lamb's fleece. She walked quietly out of the room and stopped at the top of the stairs for a moment, listening with all her inner senses. Then she strode down through the dark house, drew back the bolt and flung the front door wide open.

Moonlight on snow. The wide white fields, the winding road, and the jagged silhouettes of pines, black as the sky, barely perceptible against it.

And one scrawny figure, a man and not a man, a beautiful scarecrow with straw hair and fingers like claws. In the moonlight his nails glinted like glass under the dirt.

"You are not the one who called me here," he said. He spoke English with an American accent, the syllables rounded, slow.

"No," she agreed and repressed a shiver as the cold air caressed her ankles and played about her neck. His voice had confirmed her suspicions; now she recognized him, saw past the grime and the confusion. "So you were called? You did not come of your own accord?"

His face was young. Confused. Almost human. And she had to remind herself again and again of what he was, remember his true nature, and the reason behind his presence.

"Called," he said, his voice growing to take on a resonance that was utterly lovely and completely unhuman. "I was called and I'm here."

She nodded. "You may as well come in," she said. "Dawn is less than an hour away."

With blinding swiftness he was at her side and she saw the mad gleam of his eyes. He did not move with the deliberate humanity KJ had described in Pandora and Louis; his body was only a vehicle, something he used.

The witch shook her head regretfully. So this was what Martin's spell had wrought. And by holding off his own death, he had prolonged this process, driving another thinking creature to insanity.

"Where do I go?" he asked her. "I can't feel it any more."

"You're too close," she said, and then, because there was nothing else she could do, "Come with me."

She led the way up the stairs again, and had to look back a couple of times to verify that there was indeed someone following her; his footsteps made no sound even on the oldest and creakiest boards. Going to the door of Martin's room, she pushed it open silently and motioned to the vampire to step inside.

Martin was awake, and now he managed to lever himself up on one elbow. He was pale, white, not the vampire's hard opacity but a translucent and all too mortal fragility, skin like the petals of a frail flower stretched over bones brittle and light as a bird's. The last of his life lit him from within and his extraordinary blue eyes burned like the blue heart of a flame.

"You came," he whispered. "You are here."

The vampire moved forward and knelt at the edge of the bed. Very gently, he took Martin's hand between both of his own. "I am here. I remember you. I remember everything, now."

And there was fear and pain and love in his voice, coming alive. He bent his head and the ash-blond hair fell forward as he pressed a cold kiss to Martin's palm.

"It is a morning to be born," Martin said.

The witch, in the doorway, held her breath. She watched the vampire lift his head again, profile stark as bone. "And do you still want—"

The tired head shook, once, twice. "I meant only that this is not the morning I will die. Not on Christmas day."

Reassured, at least for the moment, the witch turned away and went back to her room to dress. KJ was sitting up in bed, arms around her updrawn knees. The witch went to the window and found the light-switch, and a circle of warm yellow lamp-light lit the room.

"What's happening?" KJ asked in a low voice.

"We have a mad vampire in the house," the witch replied.

"Oh." KJ yawned. "I guess he can sleep in the cellar." Then she frowned. "Did you say mad?"

"Yes."

"Then Martin—"

"—called. Yes."

KJ ran her hands through her thick curly hair until it stood on end. "Can we do anything for him, or will he just have to suffer the same slow wait as we do?"

"I hope that he will," the witch muttered darkly. "Or he may decide to gift Martin with the eternity he asked for."

KJ groaned, and came awake in an instant. "Want me to go keep an eye on them?"

"It would do no good," the witch said. "We must trust to Martin's strength of character."

They shared a wry smile; then KJ rose to dress, as well. When they finally left the room they encountered the vampire Daniel on the landing. The witch found that she was already beginning to accept his presence. It was like having a ghost in the house. Turning to them, he said without preamble, "Martin says there is a cellar."

"Yes," the witch agreed.

"It's under the house," KJ said helpfully. Then she relented, "I'll show you."

"He says you will not harm me while I sleep." It was difficult to read his tone of voice. Was he fearful, or threatening? Or neither? The witch sighed. KJ found vampires intriguing, but she merely found them exasperating. They were close to impossible to read, and just as difficult to order around — she found herself grinning at the thought. Me, bossy?

"We won't," KJ said. "I've sheltered others of your kind before, back in San Francisco. Now get down there before you fall where you stand."

The vampire nodded and disappeared. He wasn't one to waste words, that much was clear. At least, not in his present state.

"I thought you were going to show him the way."

"I did," KJ said.

"Don't you feel uncomfortable allowing a vampire inside your head?"

KJ shrugged. "No more than you feel uncomfortable allowing him inside your house. We're bound by mutual considerations, aren't we? He won't do anything to hurt Martin, and neither will I, nor you. The real problem will come later."

When Martin died, the witch agreed silently. That was when things would turn complicated. They walked over to Martin's room and looked inside to find him asleep, and elected to leave him so for the time being. Instead they walked downstairs and sat down to breakfast, both too worried to eat.

The witch looked around the kitchen. It had always been the most comforting room she'd ever known. It wasn't just the way it looked, the white-washed walls and the silky-smooth floorboards, the sturdy old pine furniture, the cotton curtains and the rag rug woven from scraps of old clothes, some of which she recognized from her childhood. The memory of her grandmother's presence was strong everywhere in the house, but most particularly here, where the old woman had spent most of her time.

Now there was a stranger in the house, and the witch was concerned. The delicate balance she had struggled for was beginning to be upset. It had nothing to do with the stranger's physical nature, everything to do with his state of mind. Martin's own spell might be his undoing, if the vampire who had been enchanted was no longer capable of reason.

They spent the morning together, weaving on the witch's grandmother's old loom. Around noon KJ looked a question at the witch. "Think he's awake yet?"

"He'd better be." The witch rose and tried to brush the lint off her black corduroy skirt.

"Don't get angry at him."

The witch looked up in surprise, then smiled. "I'm not angry. Not angry exactly. I'm just not inclined to be gracious about it."

"I suppose having a vampire turn up is a bit different from me calling from the airport to say I'm coming over," KJ conceded. "But I think we're largely here for the same purposes."

"Yes, but you came of your own free will," the witch said, "and I have a strong suspicion that the vampire did not."

Shaking her skirt one final time, she led the way back upstairs to Martin's room. He was lying on his back, propped up on all the pillows he'd been able to drag together, and as they entered the room he turned his head to look at them with the half-mischievous, half-rueful expression of a grown man caught at some childish foolery.

The witch sat down next to him on the edge of the bed, and took his hand. The sheets smelled faintly of the dried lavender her grandmother had always kept in little cloth bags in the linen cupboard, and the scent had transferred itself to Martin now that he spent so much time in bed. KJ knelt on the floor and leaned her elbows on the bedframe.

Martin looked from one of them to the other. "Well," he said, "which of you will begin?"

"You will," the witch said. "Martin, what is this? Why have you brought that creature among us?"

He sighed, softly. And he looked so frail that the witch's heart was wrung all over again. "I wanted to see him again," he said. "I know I've done wrong against him. And I don't know how to undo it, so the only thing I can do is... die."

The witch put her hand over his and held it, lightly, comfortingly. "Martin. Dearest."

A slight smile lit up his face. "Well, I wanted to see him again, before that. I know it's not real. I know that what he feels for me is not real. And he will be released." He dropped his lids, hiding his eyes from her. "But what I feel for him, that's — different."

"Real?" she asked with sudden breathlessness, suspecting what the answer would be.

"Yes." He looked up. "It's silly, isn't it? I've been caught in my own trap, love. I don't need you to tell me that. Nor to tell me that this is the way things work."

"I'm not your judge, I'm your friend," she protested.

Martin smiled. "Yes. Don't worry, death will free both him and me from this troublesome feeling. Surely you can let him stay here until then? It won't be long."

"I'll let him stay. You know I will. But he's a difficult guest, you have to admit that."

"He won't harm you," Martin said.

The witch nodded. "No, I don't think he will." Her eyes met KJ's. Should they keep the rest of this discussion from Martin and not trouble him with it? KJ nodded imperceptibly.

"It won't be for a very long time," Martin said again; not trying to draw pity from her, merely stating a fact.

"I know," the witch whispered and bent to kiss his forehead. "I don't grudge you this, dearest. We will deal with it. If it is love, I can have no objections."

"Your tolerance will be the end of you," he said affectionately.

She raised an eyebrow. "Premonitions?"

Martin shook his head, with obvious effort. "Just deathbed ravings. When I start to prophesy I'll make sure one of you gets here to take dictation."

KJ smiled and tousled his hair. "Our own sibyl. Better speak slowly. You know how bad I am at shorthand."

He laughed, but turned to the witch again. "I know that frown of yours. Tell me truly now, is it unacceptable for you to have him here?"

"No, I told you — well," she admitted, "I don't know. Because you love him, he is welcome. Because he is hurt and needs help, he'd be welcome anyway, I'd have no choice but to shelter him. But I'm not sure what etiquette prescribes when you have a guest who is liable to go out at night and eat the neighbors." Then she bit her lip; this was just the discussion she had not meant to have with Martin.

"The blame for that is mine, surely, not yours," Martin said.

She shook her head, not asking him if he was prepared to accept that blame fully. "It's not that easy. By letting him live I am contributing to the death of others."

"So you're debating whether to kill him or not?" Martin tried to sit up, but KJ forcibly pushed him down again.

"Martin, no, I won't do that." She shrugged. "I hardly know if I could, practically or emotionally. I'm no killer. I just can't see what is right." She turned to look at KJ. "You've been a host to vampires before. Didn't you have this problem?"

KJ shook her head. "Frankly, no. I liked them too much to begin to think about it." She smiled a little. "A fine case of denial, I do believe. Anyway, like you, I'm not comfortable with the idea of killing."

"But is it right to let him live?" the witch whispered.

"It's out of your hands for now," KJ reminded her. "Out of our hands."

"Yes, but that's no way to solve a moral dilemma." The witch pushed her hair back out of her face. "I don't know what to think, but think I must."

Martin's eyelids fluttered. "If I'd known it would cause you so much worry..."

The witch looked at him and smiled tenderly. "Then you would have done it anyway. Don't fret, dearest. I'll cope, you know that. And you'd better sleep."

He managed a nod. "Will you wake me later?"

"I'm sure someone will," KJ said. "Sweet dreams, and all."

"What, no flights of angels?"

"Later," she said.

They left his room and went downstairs again. Entering the kitchen, the witch walked straight to the window and looked out at the cold winter. The sky was overcast, and they needed lamps lit indoors though it was the middle of the day. The sun would set not much after three o'clock in the afternoon. After that — oh, it would be a long night.

She walked over and opened the fridge. "Want some wine?"

"It's the middle of the day," KJ said behind her. Then she heard the sound of a cupboard being opened and the clink of glasses. "I'd love some. Or rather a lot."

The witch got out a corkscrew and opened the bottle. "This will look great in our biographies one day. 'It was the sudden arrival of a vampire in their midst that caused them to take to drink.'"

KJ laughed and brought the glasses over. "Pour me some of that. You have to admit it's an original excuse."

They took bottle and glasses with them and settled down opposite each other at the kitchen table. KJ had decided to grow her hair, and now it hung in curls as separate and perfectly formed as steel springs, down over her ears and forehead. The witch caught one of them and stretched it out so that it reached down to KJ's chin, then let it go and watched it spring back again. KJ slapped at her hand and mock-frowned.

The witch sipped at her wine, put her glass down and said, "You know, the spell will break."

KJ nodded. "Oh yes. Once Martin dies, the spell will break."

Their eyes met in perfect understanding. It was too much to expect of Martin that he would think past his own death and envision the consequences, but they had to. At the instant of his death the spell would shatter; Martin would be gone and they would be left with a vampire who would be coming to his senses rather suddenly, no longer controlled by his love for Martin, or by the spell that had ensured it. The witch couldn't begin to guess how Daniel would react. She shuddered, and drank deeply from her glass.

"You know, we may be in more trouble than we can handle here."

KJ nodded. "And I thought it would be bad enough when he wakes up in the afternoon and feels hungry."

"It could have been worse," the witch conceded. "There could have been more of them."

"I wouldn't mind having Louis or Pandora here," KJ said.

The witch frowned. "Wouldn't the problems be the same? We'd have three guests with disturbing dining habits."

"Yes, but at least we could talk to them," KJ said. "Daniel's not himself right now, and who knows if he'll even remember what we say later."

"At least Armand's not here."

"I'll drink to that."

* * *

Daniel woke to find himself in surroundings that seemed strange to him at first. One weak light bulb burned above his head and showed him stone walls, rows of shelves holding jam jars and mysterious bags, a carpenter's workbench with tools hanging in neat rows over it, a large wickerwork chest containing strips of cloth, and two baskets full of onions.

The place smelled of earth, but in a nice, clean way.

He rose and looked around, and saw a stone staircase leading up to a door, painted green. Daniel walked up the staircase and took hold of the doorhandle, and as he did so he remembered with perfect clarity just where he was, and why.

He pulled the door open and stepped out into a warm and welcoming kitchen. Candles burned on the kitchen table where two young women sat facing each other over full glasses and an empty bottle of wine. The one with her back to him had thick curly brown hair and wore jeans; the other, who looked at him now with appraising grey eyes, wore her hair long and straight and looked, in her long black skirt and long-sleeved black shirt, so severe that he hardly dared to smile at her.

Then he saw a glitter at the back of her eyes. She was either laughing or drunk or both. Daniel could smell the wine in them, could smell their blood, sense their heartbeats. And the very slight quickening of their pulse. They knew. They were afraid. But not very. That intrigued him.

The other one also turned to look at him. "I don't think we were introduced last time we met," she said in a deep, attractive voice. "I'm KJ."

"And I'm Daniel." Before he could stop himself he added, "That's the vampire Daniel to you mortals."

To his relief they both giggled. "Do we have to call you that?" the long-haired one asked. "Or can we shorten it to VD?"

KJ, who was sipping her wine, barely avoided snorting it through her nose. "Manners!" she said in a chiding voice.

"Oh, sorry." The one Daniel remembered as the witch looked him over a little more seriously. "There's a bathroom upstairs and we can lend you some of Martin's clothes. I suppose you don't feel the cold as we do, but that shirt hasn't improved by being slept in."

Daniel looked down at himself self-consciously. "I guess you're right. — Look, I'd really like to talk to you later. Before I see — Martin."

Their eyes met, then they looked at him again. It was KJ who spoke first this time. "Of course," she said. "Just come back down after your shower and we'll have found some clothes for you. Try not to wake Martin while you're up there."

Daniel nodded and left the kitchen without another word. He found the bathroom easily enough. It was very comfortable and more modern than he would have expected, given what the rest of the house looked like. Without thinking about it he pitched the clothes he was wearing into the laundry hamper and stepped into the tub, drawing the shower curtain. Then he changed his mind and decided to take a bath instead. He found the plug and ran the tub full of hot water, and added a dollop of a bath oil scented with rose leaves that was standing on the edge of the bath.

Once in the water he began to relax. Daniel let his mind range more freely and sensed the presence of Martin, sleeping, not far away. Dreams danced slowly through his head. Downstairs the two young women were still in the kitchen — Daniel could sense their physical presence, but their minds were closed to his. He tried to marshal his memories and impose some linear order on all that had been returned to him at Martin's touch early that morning. Oh, he'd been so confused when that happened. Now he did remember, as he had said, everything. At least he thought it was everything.

The woman with long hair was the one who had taken Martin from him back in San Francisco. He felt a surge of anger, recalling it, but he knew Martin would not want her harmed. She seemed friendly enough now.

But then, Martin was dying now.

Daniel bit his lip, hard, and saw a drop of crimson fall into the bathwater and spread, turn to pale pink as it dissolved. Yes, Martin was dying. Daniel would have been able to see it even had Martin not told him as he opened his mind and invited the vampire in.

His first reaction had been to make the offer he had never quite gotten round to making that night two years ago: to bring Martin over to him, to make the blue-eyed man a vampire.

But Martin had refused. Sadly, simply, he had turned the offer down. Now Daniel wondered over that, as he lay in the sweet-scented water. Martin had indeed wanted the blood back then. And Daniel wanted him, loved him. Would do anything for him.

It seemed 'anything' was to be to watch his beloved die. And he would have to do it in the company of two mortals, who knew his nature and his name. What kind of threat might they be to him, once Martin, their common interest, was gone?

Perhaps it had been more comfortable to be mindless and in despair. Then Daniel remembered how the memory of Martin's face, dimly recalled, had pained him even when he could not remember the man's name. No, it had not been better. And that recollection woke another one, of another face, and this time he found a name there, too. Armand.

Daniel shuddered. A wave of acute dislike ran through him. No, he never wanted to see that one again.

Would it be so wrong to bring Martin over? Once Martin died, Daniel would be so lonely.

He found a piece of soap and washed thoroughly, more for the pleasure of it than because he needed scrubbing. Rising from the tub and pulling the plug, he dried himself on one soft, worn old towel, then wrapped another one around his hips. Daniel shivered a little with cold as he left the warm steamy bathroom and walked downstairs.

The curly-haired woman, KJ, stood by the kitchen table. She greeted him with a smile and gestured to a pile of clothes hung over the back of a chair. "Here," she said, "help yourself. The witch and I are in the living room getting plastered, you can join us there when you're ready."

He waited until she'd left the room, then approached and picked up a shirt. It was well-worn, washed many times, and the blue and white stripes were faded, but it smelled comfortingly of Martin and of Ariel washing powder, and he pulled it on. A pair of boxer shorts, ordinary white ones, and white socks. Black jeans that were also worn almost see-through in places. Daniel had to belt them in at the waist, and the legs were a little too short.

The women had also left him a hand-knitted sweater in dark blue wool with a pattern of gold leaves around neck and wrists. He hesitated over it, then pulled it on, not needing it against the cold but liking the design. One of Martin's hairs was caught in it and he pulled it loose and held it between his fingers for a little while before dropping it to the floor.

When he entered the living room he found KJ and the witch sitting on large pillows in front of an open fire. He walked up to them, remembering this time to make some noise as he walked, to advertise his presence. They both looked up and then scooted aside to make room for him.

"I guess it's no use offering you a glass of wine," KJ said.

Daniel smiled. "I'm afraid not." He sat down between them and stretched his hands out towards the fire to warm them. The heat was very pleasant and so was the body heat he felt coming from the two women. "I'm sorry if I was a bit incoherent before. It wasn't until I actually met Martin and touched him that I began to remember things." He turned towards the witch. "Now I know that you and I have met before."

One of her delicate eyebrows twitched. "Yes, we have. And you can have no reason to remember me with affection," she said bluntly.

"You meant well," he said. "I know you did, because I know how much Martin loves you. And I won't harm you — either of you. I'm just here because of him."

The curly-haired one nodded. "So are we," she said.

Daniel steeled himself to speak of what hurt him most. "He'll die soon, won't he?" he asked timidly. Of couse he'd seen that for himself, but he felt somehow as though their confirmation would make it all more settled and irrevocable.

"Yes," the witch said. From the way she looked Daniel could tell that her feelings ran deep beneath the bald statement of fact. He also guessed that she would never share those feelings with him. "And you'll stay until then?"

"Unless he changes his mind," Daniel said.

He saw them think about that one and understand it, swiftly. "There's not much we can do about that," the witch said, though a defensive look crept into her eyes and he got the feeling that if Martin decided to ask Daniel for eternal life, that decision would not go uncontested. But her words pretty much summed up his own feelings; there wasn't much he could do about that. He'd deal with it when and if it happened.

"Tell me," KJ said, "just how much do you remember now?" There was some hesitation in her voice. "You said you remember meeting us before... do you remember the first time you met Martin?"

Daniel frowned. "Of course I do. I met him in London. And I knew from the moment I saw him that I loved him."

The women's eyes met. "It must have been very sudden," the witch said gently. "A complete change in your feelings, for you had another lover before, didn't you?"

"Lover!" Daniel snorted. "If you can call him that. I'm sorry, but I can't stand the thought of him now. I don't know how I ever put up with him." He envisioned Armand's angelic face and felt his heart burn with passionate rage. "He just used me and lied to me and—"

"Hush, it's all right," KJ said, patting his arm, and Daniel realized his voice had been rising steadily as he spoke of Armand.

The witch and KJ were looking at each other, and Daniel found himself wishing he could read their minds; they looked so serious. Yet when he tried to reach towards them there was nothing to be felt, and he had to conclude that if they were communicating it was by means of looks and signs alone.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know what's been happening to my temper lately. I used to be a more cheerful person."

KJ drank deeply from her glass and sucked the last of her wine from her lower lip; Daniel watched the tip of her tongue appear for a moment, then disappear, and found himself wanting to bend closer and closer. When she asked him, "How much do you remember of the past two years?" he jumped back, startled.

"Oh," he shrugged, "this and that. I've been travelling a lot. Keeping to myself."

"Why?" the witch asked.

"I didn't really want to see anyone. After you took Martin away," he took a deep breath, "and David persuaded me not to go after him, there wasn't anyone else I wanted to be with. I wanted to avoid Armand, and the others, I couldn't stand to be around them — just couldn't stand it. They never understood anything!"

"Did they ever try to contact you?"

"No," he said uncertainly. Then went on with more fervor, "I should hope not!"

The two women remained silent, and he watched their profiles against the fire, the beauty of living flesh. No matter what mortals looked like, he could always find them entrancing, and these two were, if not strictly beautiful the way his mortal self would once have judged female beauty, very appealing to his enhanced vampire senses. Their focus and determination had shaped them, made them special.

Then he felt another awareness intruding on his own.

"I think Martin is awake," KJ said before he could speak. "Are you going up...?"

Daniel nodded. "I am." He rose to his feet. Nothing could have kept him away; he would not drag Martin from sleep, but he wanted to share every waking minute of his loved one's last nights. The witch gave him a slow smile, then turned back to the fire. He slipped out of the room.

* * *

"It's worse than I thought," the witch said softly. "He only thinks he remembers; everything in his mind is still just as clouded as it was that night in San Francisco."

"And he still feels the same anger," KJ added.

"All that's holding him back is love of Martin."

Their eyes met in perfect understanding. Once Martin was dead and the spell broke, would Daniel recover his senses — or would he lose his mind completely?

Chapter six: Your crooked heart

"Now I've swung back down again, it's worse than it was before
If I hadn't seen such riches, I could live with being poor..." — James, 'Sit down'

:Are you certain that we're going the right way?: he asked, trying to slide unnoticed into Khayman's mind, focus on the elder's conviction and make it his own.

Khayman was far too experienced to fall for a trick like that, and shut Armand out, seemingly without effort. Only one thought came back to him with any real clarity. Then again, it was the only one he needed.

:I'm certain.:

Khayman would never lie to him.

The cold was terrible. It was a winter that broke hearts and limned souls with frost. And they were flying through it, through the snow and darkness, Armand borne aloft by Khayman's strenght.

He closed his hands more securely about Khayman's arms, although he knew that his friend would not drop him. It wasn't a fear of heights he felt, exactly. That they were high up he sensed more than saw; the darkness, and the clouds they passed through, kept him from perceiving just how far from the ground they were. Armand was disturbed by their isolation. Though travelling at great speed,they had nothing to measure that speed against; they could have been floating slowly through a void, a nothingness, just the two of them adrift in space. He shuddered, and felt Khayman's arms tighten about him in reassurance.

Even so close to the ancient Egyptian, Armand could sense a new distance between them. Khayman had agreed to help him after all, and had done everything Armand could have dreamed of, and now they were going to find Daniel, but Khayman spoke more seldom now, and did not share his thoughts as easily and freely as he once had. Armand could only conclude that Khayman disapproved.

Well, so be it. I can't turn back now because of how he feels about the whole thing. I can't turn back. The thought of Daniel burned through him and he wished for greater speed, he wished the force of his love and longing alone could be enough to bridge the distance and the misunderstandings and the effects of that cursed spell.

Instead, he projected another thought into Khayman's mind. :At least tell me where we are going.:

There was a moment's silence and then the reply came, :North. Or more northeast.:

As clearly as though a map of Europe had unrolled in his head, Armand knew where they were heading. :Stockholm,: he cursed.

:No, farther south,: Khayman thought at him.

That made no difference. It was That Country. And Daniel would, after all, be with the man who had enchanted him. Leaning his forehead against Khayman's shoulder Armand felt the barbed wire of despair twist more tightly around his soul. Was he on a fool's errand?

He could kill that man, could do it quite easily. A mortal presented no challenge. Daniel, though strong for a fledgling, would not be able to stand against him. For a moment Armand did wonder; he had put so much of himself into the creating of Daniel, had wanted to make his child, his lover, so strong.

In the end it would depend, he thought bitterly, on which one of us was the most desperate.

Armand closed his eyes and waited.

Much later they drifted down to earth again. Armand opened his eyes when he felt the light jolt of Khayman's feet touching the ground; an instant later he himself was standing on hard-packed snow mixed with gravel, in a night that rang and vibrated with silence.

They were standing outside a house, a white house with a green roof, and thick walls, and windows that showed warm golden light. And all around them stretched a forest blanketed in snow. There was a fairy-tale feeling to it that reminded Armand of The company of wolves, and he looked around, listened for the familiar sound of howls even as he knew it would not come.

Armand saw that Khayman had tiny snow flakes caught in his midnight black hair and even in his lashes, and knew that the same must be true for him. The cold was deep, intense.

"He's here?" he asked, more for re-establishing communication between them than because he doubted Khayman's ability to find Daniel or any other vampire. No one could hide from Khayman, any more than they could hide from Mekare.

"Yes." There was no real expression on Khayman's face; he was far too smooth, too burnished by millennia of living, for that. But what his face had lost, his voice had gained, and every tiny inflection of his words spoke volumes about his feelings. Armand knew, as surely as if Khayman had voiced his opinions constantly during the flight, that the elder disapproved of this venture.

He put a hand on Khayman's arm. "Come, then," he said and took a step closer to the house.

But when he got close enough to its walls he felt a slight drag, a slowing down as though the air around him grew imperceptibly tighter. And then the door opened. Neatly framed there, with a candle in one hand, stood a young woman Armand recognized immediately. She was the one who had taken the man Martin away when Armand would have killed him; she was the one who had stood up to a gathering of vampires and walked away unscathed with her mortal companions.

"Oh no," she said wearily, her voice breaking just a little, "it's you."

Armand's first impulse was simply to kill her. She was in his way and what was more, it was clear she knew what, even who, he was. And he couldn't bear at that moment to have anyone speak to him in that tone of voice. But then as she looked straight at him and he met the look in her grey eyes, saw the reality of her, something shifted in his mind.

"It's me," he said. "Don't tell me you don't know why I'm here."

"I can guess," she said and again he heard the tiredness in her voice, as though she had been driven far past the point of exhaustion, and remained conscious and on her feet only through an act of will.

"You can't hide him away from me."

She left the doorframe and stepped out to meet him. Her hair hung loose, straight and silky, swept back over her shoulders and cascading down below her waist. She wore a dark grey dress that fell in soft folds down to her feet; it was unornamented and of such utter simplicity she had to have made it herself.

"No, I made it," another voice said from the door. "We're not hiding anything. But which one of them are you here for?"

It was the witch's companion, KJ, the one Louis and Pandora had befriended. The one who had sheltered them so well in San Francisco, not even Khayman had been able to find them. A powerful psychic indeed; she'd lifted the thought from Armand without raising even a shadow of suspicion in his mind. She stood with her arms crossed and her hair on end, giving an impression of being as sturdy as the witch looked frail.

"I've come to see Daniel," Armand said. "As for the other one, he should be dead, and if he doesn't realize that it is perhaps time I made him see."

"Don't make such threats here." The witch's voice was cool. "You will not touch him."

"I'll do what I please! Daniel is mine!"

"Oh, really! All paid for and wrapped up, I take it. And you are how old?" Her words fell on him like drops of acid. "You can take your verbal posturing and your infantile threats and vanish from my door, vampire..."

He made as if to strike her, but even though he moved faster than mortals could see, ended up hitting the wall next the door, and breaking a knuckle. Armand stopped and looked at his hand in surprise. The wall was not even dented.

"Really, you guys," KJ drawled. "Relax." She sauntered forward. "Never threaten a witch on her own doorstep, you'll be in for any number of nasty surprises. And if you don't stop yelling — both of you," she said with a pointed look at the witch, "Danny boy is going to be down here any moment asking a lot of questions."

"He hasn't noticed us yet," Khayman volunteered. "Armand, I didn't want to bring you here, but now that I have, I ask you to listen."

"To you?"

"No. To them," he nodded towards the mortal women. "Daniel is not himself yet, is he?"

The witch shook her head. "No. The spell is still functioning." She turned directly towards Armand. "Martin is dying. The spell will indeed break. But it's more tightly wound than I suspected. If you kill Martin, and I know you were thinking about it so don't try to fool me with that innocent look, it might free Daniel, or it might make him snap. We need a formal ceremony of release. Particularly since..." She broke off.

"Since what?" Armand demanded, fear sharpening his voice.

It was Khayman who answered. "They are linked. Daniel and Martin. That is why neither of them senses our presence. They are so much absorbed in each other."

"It's not love," Armand hissed, protesting the idea in his mind more than anything Khayman had said. "It's magic."

"It's both," KJ said. "And you need to work on your attitude. Why don't you both come in, I'm freezing my ass off." She glanced at the witch. "It's your job really, inviting vampires inside."

"It's just an old wives' tale that we need to be invited," Armand said impatiently. "I can enter any house I like."

"Not this one," KJ said. Looking down at his hand, feeling the broken knuckles healing with painful speed, he was forced to acknowledge that she might be right.

The witch walked back to the door, stopped and looked at them over her shoulder. The moonlight washed all color from her face, turned her skin white and her hair black, and grey, and more grey. So thin and light and brittle, breakable. "Come on in," she said.

* * *

I'm part of him. He is part of me. I don't know quite how it happened, but shortly after he arrived here, I found him in my mind, and I don't think I could throw him out even did I want to.

It worries the witch. And she is not easily worried.

I lie here dying but part of me can feel what it is like to be him, to have that preternatural strength, that utter freedom from all mortal ailments. And I did want that once. I can remember the feeling, the burning wish to live, the wish to change. And now I have changed, but not as I once thought I would. Not for me, to be wrought in gold as an eternal amusement to the emperor of time. No, my soul does clap its hands and sing, and louder sing, and the forever that's waiting for me is utterly different from the one that empowers him.

Yet for now, we are together.

* * *

Daniel looked up at the sound of footsteps, drawing himself reluctantly part-way out of the silent communion with Martin, prepared to deal with the rest of the world, but only as an unwelcome intrusion. The witch entered the room, gesturing at someone behind her to stay. She looked stiff, uncomfortable, and her tension communicated itself wordlessly to him so that his first words were, "What is it?"

She sat down on the edge of the bed, all bones and shadows, and with one long hand brushed the hair out her face. "In a moment," she said softly to him, dismissing him gently but definitely, and turned to Martin. "Dearest, I'd meant to ask you later. But there's not much time now — you do know that we will need a formal ceremony..."

The dying man nodded once, painfully. "Yes, I know. And I know how."

They dropped out of English at that and spoke together in Swedish, and Daniel gave up on trying to follow the conversation, though he could have gathered the gist of it easily enough from Martin's mind. It didn't seem polite, and for once, he truly cared about that. If Martin wanted Daniel to know, he would tell him.

The exchange between Martin and the witch was short and to the point, and ended with her kissing his cheek as though setting the seal on a contract. There was still trouble in her eyes as she turned back to Daniel.

"I must ask, before I tell you what I came to say, that you please try to control your anger. When you're linked to Martin like this, he feels everything you feel, and..."

It didn't take her serious gaze fastened on him to make Daniel realize just how much damage his uncontrolled emotions, slamming into Martin's unprotected mind, could do. He nodded, though he didn't see what she could have to say that would upset him so much that he would lose his temper so badly.

"Speak out," Martin said, catching something of Daniel's impatience.

Her hands shifted on her lap. "Armand has arrived," she said. "He insists on seeing you, Daniel."

She had been right to warn him. He'd been prepared for a shock. But not this shock.

"No," he said immediately. "No, I won't see him." It was more difficult than he'd thought to keep his anger reined in. More than anger, pain. It hurt, almost physically hurt, to think of Armand.

Then he felt a light hand on his arm. "Please," Martin whispered, "I think you should." Blue eyes watched him steadily. "I would like to see him, too."

Daniel blinked. "But why do you want—" He collected himself, got a grip on his voice and emotions. "All right," he dragged out grudgingly. "If you want to, beloved."

Martin and the witch shared a long look. Sensing Martin's mind as he did, Daniel knew that there was nothing of arcane communication in that look, only the silent knowledge of each other that these two old friends had. Then the witch nodded, ever so slightly. And a few moments later, Armand stepped into the room.

Daniel's breath caught.

Armand was dressed as a scruffy street-child, in jeans and several layers of shirts and sweaters, his hair loose and flowing in perfect curls, like a Botticelli angel's. As soon as he entered, his eyes sought Daniel's, cutting the air until they locked on him, drew him in. It seemed to Daniel he could almost hear a click as their gazes met.

Only the soft soothing presence of Martin in his mind kept him from screaming at Armand to go away. Daniel looked back, but shuttered his eyes, kept himself from giving too much away.

"So you are all right," Armand said. And his voice was different, uneven and full of little breaths and pauses, balancing on the edge of something. Daniel would have been unmoved, but he could feel a slow wave of emotion from Martin, and was swept up in it.

"Yes," he answered instead. "I am all right." And he dropped his eyes. "Now that you know that, will you go away again?"

Soft steps on the floorboards, then his head was wrenched up, Armand's hand under his chin. "Do you still hate me, then?" Armand was down on one knee, his large brown eyes less than two inches from Daniel's own. "Do you?"

Daniel gasped for breath. He couldn't speak. He couldn't think. Then he felt Martin's gentle touch again, and it gave him strength enough. "I can't stand to be near you," he said, but softly. And it was nothing more nor less than the truth. Everything in him screamed out at Armand's touch.

Like ice breaking, something deep inside Armand's eyes shattered. And then the control returned, stronger now, and the red-headed vampire released his grip on Daniel's head and stood up with swift predatory grace. He turned to look at Martin. Daniel wanted to fling himself between them, but the witch was next to him now and put a hand on Daniel's shoulder as if she feared that very thing.

:If you let Armand hurt Martin, I will kill you,: he sent at her.

Even the voice of her mind was dry, ironic. :You have a great deal of faith in me,: she remarked.

"I never thought I'd have to look on your face again," Armand said. "And how you can live with what you've done..."

To his surprise Daniel saw that Martin actually smiled at that. "A breach of manners you would love to correct, no?" Then the dying mortal moved, despite the protests of his body, and reached out to grab Armand's hand. The vampire did not resist. "I need to speak with you."

"You are speaking with me," Armand said.

"Alone."

"No!" Daniel said immediately.

Armand half turned towards him, then stopped and went on speaking to Martin as though nothing had happened. "If you insist."

:Martin, no. You can't.:

:He won't hurt me, love.: There was such absolute confidence in Martin's voice that Daniel let himself be dragged from the room, the witch's hand placed firmly around his elbow.

Once they were outside in the hall, and he felt Martin gently draw most of the way out of their joining, Daniel turned to the witch, his body jerking uncontrollably with fear. "How can you just stand there!" he hissed. "What if he kills him?!"

"He won't," she said with something of the same calm confidence Martin had shown.

Daniel flung his arms out. "Why not? You can't tell me Armand gives a damn for Martin's life."

"That's not the point," she said, and he had the sudden impression she was being gentle with his stupidity. "Armand would do anything not to hurt you. And that includes refraining from killing Martin."

Thinking that over, Daniel was stunned into silence.

* * *

There was an open fireplace in the living room. Khayman went to it and was busy coaxing the fire back to life when he felt someone enter the room. One of the two mortal women, the one called KJ. On seeing him she stopped but did not leave.

He finished what he was doing and turned to look at her. "I wouldn't keep you from using a room in the house where you're living."

The woman smiled a little. "I would've thought your kind felt pretty uncomfortable around fire."

Khayman shrugged. "Many of the younger fear it, of course, with good reason. But there isn't much that can hurt me. And I like heat." He held his hands out, felt himself begin to thaw again after the long cold flight.

She walked forward and sat down opposite him. "Hot showers, too? Louis and Pandora used up all my hot water."

"They used — oh yes, I'm sorry. You are the one who shielded them so well that I could not find them. I didn't recognize you at first." He looked at her with new respect. "What is your name?"

"KJ," she said. "So, you were the one who found Louis and Pan and now you're the one who's tracked Danny down. Does this mean you're some kind of vampiric search system, private detective, what?"

Her gentle teasing put him in a better mood. "It's easiest for me," he said. "I am of the First Brood; there is no one who can hide from me, save the other two elders. But I think," his mouth curved into a smile that was only half bitter, "that it is mostly due to always being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"You didn't want to do this." It wasn't a question, and for a moment Khayman was startled at the certainty in her voice, and even more startled to realize that he wasn't absolutely certain she hadn't been reading his mind.

Closing himself up as tightly as he could, he nevertheless replied, "No, I didn't."

"Why not?" When he didn't reply she went on, "Armand wants Daniel back, that much is clear. And you think it's a bad idea? You're worried about Daniel's sanity? You don't want Armand and Daniel to be together?"

He looked at her, at her thoughtful young face, her bouncing curls that seemed to have a life of their own. "I don't approve of taking our business among mortals."

KJ shrugged. "These particular mortals already know you exist. I can see the point of your reasoning, but it's not valid for this situation."

Khayman looked down. What was he doing, trying to explain his behavior to this stranger, this mortal? It was none of her business, and why wouldn't she take no for an answer? "Does it matter?" he asked.

She propped her chin on her hands and stared into the fire. "Not to me," she said, "but you look — and feel — like you're hurting and I thought you might want to talk about it." A sideways glance and a fleeting grin was all he got before she was absorbed in watching the fire again. "It's not a vocation with me like it is with the witch, but I guess she's rubbing off on me."

Khayman smiled a little. "I've lived more centuries than you've lived years," he said.

"So?" She was completely unfazed. "That doesn't automatically make you smart and me stupid. Want him for yourself, do you?"

He winced at the unexpected question and knew that in that single almost imperceptible motion he had given himself away. "Yes," he whispered. "Oh yes, I do." He looked up, met her eyes. "But I did take him here."

KJ reached out and took his hand, not flinching at how cold his fingers were compared to her own. Her touch was soft and comforting. "Yes, you did. What made you decide to do it?"

"I'm the only one who could," Khayman said. "The only one he could ask. If it hadn't been like that, then maybe I would've refused, or just gone away. But he had only me to ask, and — and he needed it so."

"So you don't just want him," she breathed, "you love him."

She was bringing all the pain back up to the surface again and Khayman wasn't sure that was such a good idea. "What's the point in talking about it?" he asked. "I know it's hopeless, I know he's never going to forget Daniel. I can deal with that."

"Can you?" she asked with the same gentleness.

"I have to, don't I? I have, so far."

KJ coaxed him into telling the whole story, the years in Miami, the months in Paris. The change in himself. He talked and talked, and as the night turned into morning and dawn came nearer Khayman found himself crying, the slow blood tears soaking into KJ's jeans as he lay with his head in her lap. She stroked his hair slowly, and that simple gesture soothed him more than he could ever have admitted. Mortals could be such wonders.

"You poor thing," she crooned softly to him. "Oh, you poor thing."

"You can't pity me," he murmured. "I am an immortal with unbelievable powers and godlike beauty, you're not supposed to feel sorry for me."

Her soft gurgling laugh shook her whole body. "There wasn't a chapter in Miss Manners dealing with vampires. And I'd feel sorry for anyone who'd gotten himself into this kind of mess. No matter what he looked like," and as he struggled to sit up, she brushed his cheek lightly with her fingertips. "It hurts to make the right choice, doesn't it? And, well, I can't say I'm happy to have Armand here 'cause he'll undoubtedly cause a lot of trouble, but you can take a great deal of pride in bringing him."

"And all the same, perhaps I'd rather have done wrong," Khayman said.

"Of course," KJ agreed immediately. "But it wouldn't have worked, would it?"

Khayman looked down. "No. So I'm still more pragmatic than altruistic, then."

"If something is the right thing to do, does it make any difference if it is the only thing to do?" KJ shrugged. "It's more to the point to ask what you're going to do now."

"I don't know," he said so intensely that he half expected her to shy back from him. "I've never known. I have a capacity to be happy for short period of time only. Life is nothing without purpose. And I thought I'd found one in this newly discovered love."

Armand, he thought. Armand's presence. Armand's happiness. And that was the problem. Armand would be happy with Daniel, not him. Perhaps. Who knew how this present situation would turn out?

"Even pain," KJ remarked, "can keep you going for a long time."

Khayman shook his head at that. It wasn't an existence he could support for very long. :Tell me,: he asked, :will it work? Will Daniel be freed from his madness?:

Her mind-voice was as clear and decisive as her speaking voice. :If you ask me, the odds are pretty even. So I hope you'll stay around to help us mop up what will be left of Armand if it all goes wrong.:

She didn't say it, but Khayman understood all the same that she also counted on him to restrain Armand from wreaking bloody mayhem on her and the witch. He nodded slowly. It was the least he could do.

* * *

"Agreed, then?" Martin whispered.

"Agreed." Armand could bear it no longer; he rose and went to the window, wanting to look anywhere but at the man in the bed. Daniel's beloved. He wasn't a monster. He was a human being.

It was getting close to dawn, and he felt the first faint stirring within of the force that would eventually make him descend into the cellar of this house and send him into the death-like daytime sleep. He could stay here a while longer, could watch the icy winter dawn with impunity. Armand pressed his fingers against the cold glass.

Then he turned abruptly. Martin was watching him. Armand sought for something to say, but there was nothing and finally he left the room, closing the door carefully. Not for him any temperamental slamming of doors.

As he came out into the hall he saw that Daniel lay sprawled on the landing, the witch standing at his head, looking down. She acknowledged Armand's presence with a faint smile, and her calm made the flicker of fear he'd felt at first fade away again. "I couldn't make him leave," she said.

Armand saw that Daniel's eyes were closed, his fingers lightly curled; he looked almost like a sleeping mortal. The rising sun did not harm him any more than it harmed Armand, not yet, but he had succumbed fully to its force.

"I'll take him down," he whispered, knelt and gathered up Daniel's unconscious body in his arms. He saw a flicker of surprise in the witch's eyes as he rose. Had she forgotten what she ought surely to know, that a vampire's strength had little to do with the body he or she possessed?

She led him downstairs, into the kitchen, and pointed out the small door that would take him to the cellar. "Don't lock it," she said, "or Khayman will have to break in when he decides to retire and that will be very inconvenient."

"Very," he agreed, matching her tone.

Then he was through that door and down in an oddly pleasant room where a heap of blankets and a mattress testified to Daniel's sleeping presence on other days. How like mortals, Armand reflected, to give a vampire a mattress to sleep on. Utterly unnecessary.

But pleasant, he admitted as he sank down on it, still cradling Daniel. Having him so close... Armand bent forward and breathed in the familiar smell of Daniel's hair, watched the way his eyelashes curled just so, the heartbreaking curve of his lips. He drew a finger gently down one smooth cheek, and shivered.

Then he wrapped himself around Daniel's sleeping body, his face pressed against Daniel's neck, and closed his eyes.

Chapter seven: Under the passing stars

"This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks" — T. S. Eliot, 'Ash Wednesday VI'

It was the biggest Christmas tree Louis had ever seen. The biggest he'd seen indoors, anyway. It rose high and proud, filling a corner of the vast hall, and glittered with silvery tinsel and merry lights. Gaudy ornaments hung from every branch. Looking at it he felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. It was so utterly and totally Jesse.

"But how does Mael feel about this?" he asked her.

Jesse smiled and kissed his cheek. "He's indulging me. Anyway, I don't see what's wrong with maintaining a few mortal customs, as long as they're fun."

He grinned. "Do you still brush your teeth?"

"Of course!" She raised an eyebrow in mock disdain. "You mean you don't? Really, Louis. You'll lose your fangs before you're a century older."

He laughed again and felt himself warming from the inside. This visit had been a very good idea. At first he had worried that the closeness he and Jesse had developed in their e-mail correspondence wouldn't translate well to a face-to-face meeting, but almost immediately they had fallen into the same jargon, the same silly jokes, the same easy affection.

And Mael wasn't nearly as difficult as Louis remembered him, either. Here he came striding in from the garden, muddy to the knees, leaving druid-sized footprints all over the wooden floor. "I have done it," he said.

"You moved the rose bush?" Jesse asked. "Oh Mael, you're an angel." She looked at the floor. "Or something. Louis, want to come into the garden and have a look?"

"Of course," he said.

Jesse led the way out and Mael trailed behind them leaving another row of footprints. The garden was very appealing, full of night-blooming plants, and flowers with strong sweet scents, and making good use of form and shadow.

"It gets more beautiful every night."

"I like grubbing around in the earth," Jesse said. "And imagine, as a vampire you can plant a tree and watch it grow. I think Mael's planning a grove of oak trees."

"Yes, and an altar to sacrifice virgins on. Too bad you don't qualify."

"Mael!" Jesse swatted at him playfully, and he stumbled into the rose bush.

Louis suppressed a smile and helped Mael out. All in all, Jesse had adapted quite well to her vampire nature, but she still had trouble remembering just how strong she was. This delicate, fine-boned redhead could bring the walls tumbling down if she chose. It was a good thing her chosen mate was old and sturdy, the product of a robust age and hardened by a long life. Louis wouldn't have cared to pick himself out of the roses quite so often.

"It's not really Christmas weather," he said.

"No." Jesse sighed. "I have just the best present for you but you'll have to go somewhere cold to wear it."

"Trying to get rid of me, are you?"

She dragged him down on a wrought-iron bench that had been delivered just a week earlier. "Oh no no no! It's great to have you here, I'm so glad you decided to..." Jesse looked over her shoulder. Mael, Louis saw, had pottered off to the gardening shed where he was apparently attempting to dig out a couple of pots that had been left in a corner behind accumulated debris. Even very new gardening sheds attracted junk at an alarming rate of speed.

"Decided to?" he prompted her just a little.

"To come stay with us," she finished the sentence with a toothy smile. "It's just that I never quite understood your explanation of why Lestat had to stay in New Orleans."

"I never did explain why," Louis said.

"Oh, that must be why I didn't understand it, then," Jesse said. She put a hand on his shoulder. "Louis, why didn't Lestat come with you? Did you two have a fight or something?"

"More of an 'or something'," Louis said. He sighed. "We just needed to be apart, that's all."

"'That's all'," she mimicked. "Come on, you two haven't been apart for even a single moment for years."

"Then don't you think it's about time?"

"Yes, of course. I also think you've had a fight." Jesse put a finger on his forehead, right between his brows. "When you don't think I'm watching, you get the cutest little worry wrinkle right here. And I don't think you're all that concerned about aphids eating my garden."

"Hey!" Mael bellowed from inside the shed. "Stop pawing him!"

Jesse stuck her tongue out. "Go fall in a rose bush, Mael." She turned back to Louis. "I'm having a hard time learning immortal manners," she said. "It's not the done thing to interfere, I'm starting to grasp that. I just don't see why not. Poor David spent the early fall with us in Rangoon, and he was obviously heartbroken, but both Maharet and Mael told me not to meddle." She pouted. "I'm sure he really needed a shoulder."

"David?" Louis said incredulously.

"Yes, David. You know, David — used to be old and wrinkly and now he's this tall good looking guy with brown hair and fangs."

"Brown fangs?"

"He doesn't brush them, either." Jesse shrugged impatiently. "I just get concerned about my friends, is all."

"I haven't heard anything from David in ages," Louis said. "You've no idea what he's been up to?"

"No," she muttered. "You know he wouldn't say a word without having his arm twisted. Whoever wrote the Vampire Book of Manners must've been an Englishman." She eyed him narrowly. "You know, Louis, frankly I thought you'd be more of the chatty type."

"What on earth gave you that idea?"

"You told the story of your life to Daniel, for heaven's sake. You must've been desperate for conversation."

Louis sighed. "I'm never going to live that down, am I? I talked more that night than I'd ever done before in my life." He remembered that long night so very clearly — not the sound of his own voice, but the vivid pictures he had called up, lived through, and Daniel's eager questions. Remembered the grief he had talked himself through, the longing for Lestat so ruthlessly suppressed in word and thought, the tired, brittle resignation. And Daniel's determination to prove him wrong. "He just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place. Poor Daniel."

"I wonder where he is now," Jesse said in a barely audible voice. "I wonder if we'll ever find out."

Louis shared her feelings. The Daniel he had last seen had been a far cry from that happy-go-lucky reporter. Two nights in San Francisco, but so utterly different.

"Give it time," Louis said. "After all, we have forever."

Jesse grimaced, showing her fangs. "That," she said, "is exactly the attitude that drove me crazy in the first place. You guys have the mañana mentality down pat."

"And you have all the impatience of a mortal." He smiled and stroked the hair away from her face. "Several mortals."

"Damn right I have. So, about you and Lestat," she returned tenaciously to the previous subject, "what was your 'or something' all about?"

Louis turned his head aside for a moment and looked across the shadowy night garden, towards the dark woods beyond. He remembered the scene of their parting all too well, Lestat naked by the door, eyes flashing, magnificent and helpless.

For how long? he wondered to himself. There had been no e-mail message, and he didn't want to ask Jesse to contact Lestat; didn't want to appear to be checking up on his lover, when he had claimed to be so confident that it was all right to Lestat to his own devices.

But he had doubts, nagging worries, that resurfaced whenever anything reminded him of Lestat. Lestat had been so upset at their parting — what if he decided to try to do something wild, in Louis' absence?

He doesn't have to be mad to do crazy things. Then Louis chided himself for that thought. Lestat had certainly been very sensible for the past two years.

A bit too sensible, a little voice whispered in his mind. We're about due for another wild adventure.

Louis tried to let go of those thoughts, and turned back to Jesse,who was watching him with steady eyes.

"I just thought we needed a break," he said lightly.

She raised an eyebrow. "And he didn't agree?"

"Something like that."

"I'm surprised he hasn't just turned up here, then." Jesse looked around as though expecting Lestat to fall out of the jasmine bushes. "It's the kind of thing he would do."

Louis shook his head in disagreement. "Not this time," he said. After all, he had more or less challenged Lestat to make it on his own, and Louis believed Lestat would sooner put out his own eye than admit he couldn't cope.

"And you still claim it wasn't a fight?"

"Jesse, your insistence on the idea of a fight says more about your relationship with Mael than anything else."

"That was sneaky!" she said. "We don't fight. Not really."

"So why do you toss him into the roses the whole time?"

Her elfin face was transformed by a lascivious leer as she bent to whisper in his ear. "So I get to pick the thorns out of his—"

"Jesse!" Mael yelled from across the garden. "Get your tongue out of his ear!"

Jesse dissolved into giggles, and forgot about her inquisition for the time being.

They celebrated Christmas as mortals might, though without the characteristic abundance of food. Louis needed to feed far more often than Jesse and Mael, and he appreciated the delicacy with which they gave him plenty of time to do so, even putting a car at his disposal. On Christmas Eve he hunted in Santa Rosa and returned to find Jesse piling gifts under the Christmas tree and Mael making cracks about mortal customs, Christianity and the winter solstice.

"Shut up, darling," Jesse said affably. "Louis! Do you know how to play Scrabble?"

"No."

"Good. I'll teach you."

They spent the whole night talking and laughing and arguing. Mael had a deadly aim with the small Scrabble tiles and managed to break several of the Christmas tree ornaments when his spelling did not meet with universal approval. Jesse's bubbling laugh and the crackle of the fire she had insisted on ran together in a merry carol. In the small hours of the morning they exchanged Christmas presents. Louis was particularly taken with an illustrated edition of Shakespeare's sonnets that Mael had procured for him, and sat leafing through it as Jesse tried on a flimsy but rather appealing garment from a shop with the peculiar name Victoria's Secret.

Absorbed in the verses, he did not notice when Mael left, only gradually becoming aware that there was no more conversation. When he looked up Louis saw Jesse sitting close to the fire, her hair streaming down her back and seeming to reflect the flames. All in white lace, she looked both innocent and vulnerable.

"Where did your druid go?" he asked softly.

"Out to do druidish things," she replied with a faint smile. "He teases me for keeping mortal habits, but he's just as bad, really. I don't mind."

"You seem well-matched," Louis said with a smile.

To his surprise Jesse looked sad. "Yes. We are. But..."

"But what?" He rose from the couch and went over to her, sitting down next to her on the floor, and reaching out to draw the veil of hair from her face. "What is wrong, Jesse dearest?"

"Nothing," but her lips trembled a little. Suddenly she fell forward into his arms. Louis held her lightly, surprised, until he heard her next words, muffled against his shoulder. "I miss Maharet."

He rocked her as she wept. "Hush, dear one. Why is she not here? Is there trouble among the three of you?"

Jesse nodded. When she lifted her head, Louis saw that her tears had stained the delicate white lace. "Trouble enough," she breathed. "Trouble, and too much love."

"If I can do anything—"

Her green eyes filmed with red essayed a smile. "Just hold me a little longer."

* * *

David lifted his head from the book he had been immersed in and sighed deeply, a sigh of pure pleasure. He sat curled up at one end of the large couch, within a warm golden circle of lamplight. More books were piled on the low table in front of him.

At the other end of the room Maharet sat by the computer. Her face reflected the blueish glow from the screen as she peered with her dying blue eyes at what she was writing. Her stolen vision was beginning to fail her yet again. The soft clicks of her rapid typing was the only sound that broke the stillness.

There was so much here, so much to read, and see, and learn. When David had been here in late summer, Jesse had been a distraction, and the tension beween the others had prevented him from fully immersing himself in Maharet's library, or in Maharet's conversation. He knew now that years would not suffice for him to acquaint himself with the sheer extent of her knowledge, and again he felt the shiver of pleasure that there was so much to be found out, and he here to do it.

Now, with Mael and Jesse gone, the house in Rangoon was very quiet. Very conducive to study. Except, David admitted to himself, that he had no idea what he was doing there. And that simple fact kept him from relaxing completely.

Putting the book down on top of the others, he stretched lithely and rose in one smooth movement. He was still full of delight when he contemplated his new body. To be able to move so swiftly and easily, to be so strong, almost invulnerable, no longer to feel all the little mortal aches and pains, the everyday ailments — it was still nothing short of miraculous to him.

Davdi crossed the room to stand behind Maharet, looking over her shoulder at the screen. She was typing in information about some of the most recent additions to the Great Family, new-born children in Italy and Ukraina, Canada and New Zealand. Her fingers flew over the keyboard.

She didn't speak, and David felt reluctant to disturb her, she was so intent on her work. Instead, he walked to the window. It was open, but covered with fine mosquito netting. Although insect bites were not a matter that concerned vampires, the creatures were still an annoyance.

What am I doing here?

After bringing him to Rangoon, Maharet had not said a word on the subject of why she had wanted his company. Nor had she explained where Mael and Jesse had gone, or what had caused them to leave. When David looked at Maharet he no longer had the impression of her as a goddess or a primeval force. She looked brittle, porcelain frail. Although she shared her knowledge freely, she kept her thoughts to herself.

David was content to let himself be distracted from his own confusion and grief. He hadn't thought of Marius in a long time — well, not since last night. And the memories were growing less painful as time increased the distance to that golden summer, those halcyon years. It was over and done with. They had loved. They had lost. At least, David had loved and lost. And that was popularly reputed to be better than never having loved at all, so really he had no reason to complain.

And yet he wondered. What had it been, really? A short affair, he would have called it. A fling perhaps. Certainly so brief in the way vampires reckoned time that it hardly counted at all. They'd had fun together, shared some rather intimate moments...

Had it been serious, ever? Surely not to Marius. No, surely not. David frowned. Their conversations had all been easy, erudite, calm; everything had been so well ordered. Marius had never been less than completely in control. And the few times David had come close to mentioning feelings, Marius had deftly turned the subject. Only in lovemaking had he been closer, more tender.

The blood did not lie. But neither did it tell the full truth.

And could he not tell how I felt, either?

David shrugged. More convenient now to think he had never loved at all. Only he had, he had loved and lost in what seemed the blink of an eye, and half a year later was still wondering what he had done wrong.

:David.: Maharet came so easily into his thoughts that he began to wonder if she had been there already, listening. :David, there are some things I want to ask you about.:

He turned from the window. "I would be pleased to answer," he said.

"In his latest book Lestat tells of one of your experiences in a café in Paris..."

"Oh. Yes." David smiled a little. "That old story. I didn't know it would interest you."

"It does interest me," Maharet said, her voice low and husky. "Won't you tell me again, in your own words?"

"Of course, if you want me to, but really Lestat recounted my story practically word for word; I don't have much to add to what I said to him."

Her eyes held him pinned in place. "David. Do you really believe that it was God and the Devil you heard speaking?"

David shrugged slowly. "Those are labels, nothing more. I believe that I truly heard two beings that spoke to one another. But who, what they were..."

"You thought differently when you spoke with Lestat."

"I have never really known what to think on this question," he admitted. "But you, you if anyone should know—"

"I know nothing," Maharet said. She shook her head slowly. "With everything I have seen, in the end it turns out that I know nothing."

David was stunned, listening to her. During his time in Rangoon he had been given knowledge he would have sold his soul to possess as a mortal, as a member of the Talamasca; he had immersed himself in the immensity of Maharet's wisdom as in a hot bath. And now she claimed to know nothing! She, nearly the oldest, certainly the most experienced of their kind.

"But Maharet," he said softly, "this isn't true. You who have seen everything, who hold the years in your mind... The whole world has passed through you."

"No," she insisted. "It has passed me by." Tears flowed slowly from her eyes. Then she rose abruptly and came towards him. David felt his knees begin to shake but he stood his ground. "Forgive me, David," she said. "I am tired."

She touched a cold hand to his cold cheek, turned with the same impetuous swiftness, and made for the door. He put a shy question to her retreating back. "Is Lestat still calling for me?"

"Yes." In the doorway she stopped and turned to look at him once more. "I will tell you later, David. Tomorrow night, perhaps."

* * *

I'm fine. Just fine.

Lestat roamed aimlessly around the Rue Royal flat, in and out of rooms, up and down halls. He was fine, there was absolutely nothing wrong with him, he'd been on his own for a long time now and he was doing great and everything was perfect and why wouldn't Louis come home!

He stopped in the door of the bedroom and looked in. Empty. He hadn't slept in that bed since Louis left. Instead he had reverted to using his well-hidden coffin — how charmingly old-fashioned! — or just sleeping in the ground when he had been out hunting, or watching Dora.

Dora. Yes. The thought came to him that he wanted to go watch Dora again. It was so soothing. Distracting. And in her presence he did not feel haunted.

Something was watching him. Louis had abandoned him and now he no longer felt safe.

But I'm fine! he insisted to himself. I just want him to come home! I just need for him to come home, and everything will be all right.

Finding Roger had been a godsend. Roger had been a wonderful, a miraculous distraction and he had led Lestat to the even better distraction of Dora. Marvels, both of them. While he was watching Roger, Lestat did not have the creepy feeling that someone was watching him. He had to stalk others in order to avoid being stalked himself.

Something is after me. Something is out to get me.

He moved farther into the bedroom, touching things lightly. Then he walked into the closet, swiftly stripped out of his clothes, and put on some of Louis'. Black jeans, slightly too tight, and a fraying shirt, the sleeves a little too short. But only a little. Lestat felt brief surprise; he was used to thinking of Louis as smaller, slighter. Perhaps it wasn't true. Perhaps he only thought of Louis that way because of his lover's lack of vampiric strength.

Lestat wrinkled his brows. I don't understand that, really I don't.

Louis' boots did not fit him, though, and he had to make do with a pair of his own. Then he left the closet, the bedroom, the whole house behind and took to the streets, walking at a brisk pace though not too brisk for a mortal.

At first he thought he was only roaming the French Quarter aimlessly. But gradually he became aware that however much he was trying to go in circles, he was really headed for the orphanage. For Dora.

He felt a surreptitious thrill, the feeling of doing something forbidden, though no one had ever forbidden him to go near Dora. There was just that feeling to it whenever he went to look at her, the sensation that he was doing something faintly naughty and shameful and at the same time pleasant. It was a very mortal feeling, and he tried to be amused by it.

Reaching the old orphanage, he sensed her presence at once, and instead of prolonging it, savoring the sensation, he immediately chose a spot where he could observe her. Slim girl-child, woman-child, walking the halls of this vast building fearlessly. Oh, Dora, don't you know there are terrible things in the night? There is a vampire at your doorstep, Dora, surely you feel fear.

But she didn't. Her mind was wrapped in a faith so absolute that she did not know what fear was.

Lestat felt a rush of gratitude for his old habit of chasing killers. Without that habit, he would never have found Roger. And Roger had led him to Dora. Roger, that twisted old criminal, that quintessential Bad Guy, had created Dora.

That thought made Lestat stop in his tracks. There was nothing good about Roger, was there? That was why Lestat had chosen him. He was corrupt. But he had created this pure and innocent creature, this joyful maiden.

Deep down Lestat knew that his fascination with Roger was due at least partly to the fact that the mortal man resembled himself just a little. And Roger, flawed as he was, had created Dora. And Lestat had created...

...he shuddered to think of it. So many. Poor mad doomed Nicki. Claudia, the terrible child. And he realized as he thought of them that already the suffering he had felt for them, through them, was turning into memory, that soon he would think of them in the terms of the convenient labels his mind came up with now. He was losing it, losing them. To time. The vast reality of their existence was being narrowed down to just a few words in the mind of a bewildered vampire lurking outside a window.

There was Gabrielle, so strong. And David, surely perfection, of a kind. They were not flawed, were they?

But they had nothing of the stunning purity of Dora, either. They were, after all, killers.

And the other one, the one of his fledglings that he could not bear to think about right now, that one was also a killer, the most compassionate and merciless of them all.

Lestat sank to his knees. Unmoving, he shook with silent tears, as Dora walked the halls of the orphanage singing and singing.

Chapter eight: Brightness falls from the air

"No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell.
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe." — Shakespeare, Sonnet no. 71

"No more let Life divide what Death can join together." — Shelley, 'Adonais'

Khayman worried about them all. He had thought himself drained of emotion, drained indeed even of the ability to feel. But this place could call up emotions from the dead. So he worried.

There was much to worry about. The witch was becoming a ghost of herself, as though she were fading along with Martin; her lustrous grey eyes were not dimmed, but she grew thin and fragile and shivering. And she never seemed to sleep.

Armand and Daniel passed each other and did not speak, a hard thing to do in this small and warmly friendly house. They were skilled at ignoring what they did not want to see, and that included nearly the whole world. It wasn't just the witch. Khayman felt that he was residing in a house of ghosts.

And what must it be like for the dying man upstairs? Khayman rarely saw him, but his presence overshadowed everything else in this house.

Only KJ, solid dependable KJ with her irrepressible bouncing curls and her strong hands, seemed truly alive. Khayman spent most of his time with her, keeping out of the way of Armand whom he could not bear to look at, Daniel whom he could not bear to look at either, and the witch's preoccupation with Martin. The two of them would curl up in front of the living room fire, and she would drink wine, or brew hot chocolate, or toast marshmallows, of which she had brought an immense supply from San Francisco, and they would talk and talk and talk.

Like all mortals she was vastly curious about history. She wanted to know what it had 'really been like', as she put it.

"Nothing is ever 'really like' anything," Khayman said slowly. "I could tell you about the weather, and how we used to plant grain, and what songs we sang then. I can tell you that people believed in gods, but I cannot tell you how they believed in them. I can tell you what the streets looked like in cities that are long gone, and what it cost to buy a horse in Spain in 1597. I did that. Though I cannot recall why. Simple facts, fragments. It's all different, don't you see, I only knew myself."

"As many realities as there are people?" She sipped at her hot chocolate. "All anyone can offer is their own version. I want to know what it looked like. What people talked about. What they were afraid of."

On and on they would talk, while upstairs Martin and Daniel shared a silent communion, and the unsleeping specters of Armand and the witch drifted around the house. The icy winter outside held them all bound inside this plain white house. More and more snow fell, and the wind would toss crystal spiderwebs over the windows.

"Are you getting used to not talking to Armand?"

"No." He winced. He wasn't getting used to her blunt questions, either.

"You'll have to, you know."

Khayman growled at her. "You have no tact."

"No." KJ smiled a little. "But I have an ability to sum up the obvious."

"It hurts," the words tore out of him. "To see him. To think of him. He is so — so—"Khayman shook his head, unable to put into words what it meant to him to look at Armand, what it had been like to touch him. "I was alone for so long."

"And he didn't want to be alone at all."

Khayman lifted an eyebrow, almost angrily. "That's not the way it was. I just moved in, I was the one who..."

"He didn't try to stop you, did he?"

Then she fell silent and he was left to think that over for a while. No, Armand hadn't protested. But in the early days he had hardly been in a state to do much of anything. Armand had been a wreck, alternately raging and crying. It had been right to care for him.

Later... Had Armand been using him? Khayman didn't know. The thought hurt. It wouldn't have been deliberate, not conscious choice on Armand's part, he felt fairly certain of that. But all of it, every moment on the Night Island, had been on Armand's terms from first to last. And he had gone along with that, never questioned it, because...

Because I loved him even then. Because... I love him still. He shut his eyes tight, trying to block memories of Armand, trying to block out the knowledge of Armand's presence.

When he looked up again KJ was munching peacefully at a marshmallow. She handed him a kleenex, then helped him wipe the blood tears away.

He had wondered, with the roads blocked as they were, where the food that sustained the mortals was coming from. KJ had just smiled at him and said that a witch rarely starved to death in her own house.

The vampires did hunt the countryside. Not often, and they ranged far. But it was a sparsely populated area, and they would not be able to keep this up for much longer. It was hard, too, to hide the kill when the ground was frozen solid and nearly impossible to dig even for someone with Khayman's immense strength. He did not think Daniel could manage it at all.

"And I wonder," Khayman said dejectedly, "how will it all end?"

"You of all people should know that things rarely end."

As always she could bring a trace of a smile to his lips. "Yes... how will this all change, then?"

"Oh, so now I'm your prophetess." She stroked his hair; he was lying, again, with his head in her lap. "I don't know what we're waiting for."

"I thought we were waiting for Martin to die." A blunt statement, but he knew of no other way to put things, and this one wasn't likely to be offended. She knew.

"He must release Daniel, first," KJ said. "And I don't know why he hasn't done it already. He's just putting it off." She was silent for a moment. "Well, I guess I would, too. Under the circumstances. Wouldn't you?"

Khayman looked up at her seriously. "I've put off my own death for several thousand years. I don't begrudge your friend a few days."

* * *

I know it is time. I have held it off for long enough, but now it is time. Tonight is the last night of the old year, the first night of the new. A perfect time. To cease upon the midnight with no pain. Or so I hope. It's hard to know ahead of time what death will be like, and yet I cannot stop speculating, wondering.

Through the link I can feel Daniel, sleeping. Will his dreams be troubled when I talk to the witch? Can he sense it, that I am at last making clear and final that which has been pending for so long? I don't want to hurt him, my loved one, my poor confused one. But I'll have to do it.

"I'll do it tonight," I say.

She's pale. When did she get to be so pale? Almost as pale as my beloved. There is a fineness to her, a thinness that is not only of the body. It is clear that she knows at once what I mean.

"All right," she says. Her voice sounds tired, too. "Have you thought it through? Do you need any help?"

I shake my head, or try to. "No," I say. "I know just how to do it. This is one thing that I do know, witch — trust me."

She's nodding silently. I can see that she believes me. It is the death in me that gives me such knowledge. A remarkable sensation but one that no one is likely to experience for very long.

"Well then," she says and smiles a little, so very little. "Tonight?"

"Yes."

"There are a few hours," she says, "before they wake."

"And some more hours before it is time," I say. Darkness comes early. "We'll make the time pass somehow. Perhaps we could all play Pictionary."

"Oh, Martin." She starts to laugh and then she is crying. Her hair falls down across her face, hiding her pain from me. I move, take hold of her hand, tug her down towards me.

She's afraid to hurt me but then she gives in and lies down next to me, sobs into my shoulder. She cries for a long time and I feel her whole body shaking, feel it as closely as if it were my own.

"My dearest darling," I whisper. "You don't have to be so strong all the time. It's all right. I lived, I loved, I did some good things, and a lot of stupid things. Does it matter how I spend the last few hours of my life?"

"I'm going to miss you so," she says, words muffled by the sheets.

"And I'll miss you. Wherever I'm going, I'll miss you."

At long last she cries herself out and her body takes on a new tension, less shrill than before, more resolute. She lifts her head and looks at me, red-eyed. "So what do you want to do until tonight?"

I grin. "I want you to feed me peeled grapes and read out loud from Winnie the Pooh."

"We'll have to take turns," she says. "KJ and I."

"What, you can't read out loud for an hour or two?"

"Of course I can," she says and her voice is suddenly that of an actress. "But how many grapes do you think I can peel?"

She gets KJ and in the end the two of them share the bed with me, KJ leaning against the wall, legs under the cover, and the witch curled up at the foot with her hair falling into the book. She reads, we talk a little, grapes are eaten and thrown. It's good. It's a good afternoon. It is well enough for my last hours alive. Every time my heart lurches sideways in my chest the witch gives me a short sharp look, but she says nothing.

Once dusk begins to fall there is another presence in the house. It's the old one, the early riser. He remains downstairs; he is polite, this one. The deliberate noises he makes are just enough to remind us of his existence, yet he does not impose himself on us. And KJ, though she hears him, chooses to stay with me.

Later, halfway through the story of Eeyore's new house, the old one downstairs is joined by Armand. I feel a moment of insecurity. What if he will not do as I have asked? I know I can't trust him on my own account. But I am trusting in his love for Daniel, which is as strong as my own.

Finally Daniel wakes. I can feel it happen, and the swift fiery touch of his mind on mine, making sure that I have not been lost, that I have not vanished into true death while the death-like sleep lay upon him. He moves through the house with silent determination and there he is in the doorway, tousled hair, wrinkled clothes, his eyes wide and violet, loving and fearing.

There is a brief pause. Then the witch moves over, makes room, pats the bed.

"Join us," she says. "It isn't time yet."

* * *

Close to midnight the young psychic woman, KJ, came downstairs to get them. Armand turned from the window when she entered the room, and saw the quick, sad smile she shared with Khayman. "You're wanted upstairs, gentlemen," she said.

"Both of us?" Armand walked towards her, trying to glean something from her. Her mind was still closed to him and what was more, she gave him a look as though she'd caught him stealing.

"When I want you inside my head, I'll let you know. Yes, both. He wants all of us there."

He nodded his acceptance. Khayman was already rising from the floor, putting the book he had been reading aside. "Then we will come."

Armand watched with a shadow of amusement as Khayman escorted the sturdy American girl in the checked flannel shirt upstairs with the same reverence he would have shown a queen. He and Khayman had grown distant in this house. There had been no time to wonder at that. Armand had had other things on his mind. Did have other things on his mind, still.

And if Khayman enjoyed the company of a mortal with barely a quarter of a century's worth of experience, well then... Armand wasn't going to complain.

Upstairs they walked into the small room that was the heart of this house, Martin's bedroom. In the bed Martin was lying propped up against Daniel's chest, while the witch moved about the room lighting candles, burning incense, her face remote and preoccupied, her hair a veil cutting her off from the others.

Armand met Martin's eyes across the room. He read the confirmation of all the mortal man had said there, and nodded slowly. He was ready.

The witch ended her preparations and turned towards the bed. Armand felt awkward standing in the middle of the room. KJ had already drawn Khayman into a corner by the head of the bed and they both stood unmoving and statuelike, not talking, at least not out loud.

"So how shall this be done?" the witch asked.

Armand was surprised that she did not know. Martin must have kept it from her — to keep her from worrying? Or because she would have objected? He began to fret.

The dying man turned his head and smiled at Armand as though sensing his thoughts. "Come here, then," he said. "You remember your promise?"

Armand nodded. "I will do nothing," he said, "save what you have asked me to do."

"I feel I'm bargaining with the devil," Martin said with a wry smile.

"Do you trust him?" Daniel said harshly.

"Yes." Martin reached up with one thin hand and touched Daniel's cheek. "Don't worry."

Slow crimson tears began to trickle from Daniel's eyes. "I don't worry," he said, but then fell silent.

Armand stepped up and knelt by the bed and looked into Martin's brilliant blue eyes. The mortal was burning, burning himself up. "A complete release?"

"A complete release from me," Martin said solemnly. Armand nodded. "Witch, I know what you've been doing. KJ, will you hold on to her? I'd rather not take her spirit along when I leave."

The others began to move behind him but Armand had eyes for nothing but the mortal man in the bed and Daniel's grieving face. He waited until there was silence again, and no one stirred; then he asked, "Now?"

"Now," Martin confirmed, and stretched his hand out. Armand took it carefully, feeling the frail bones, the skin pale as his own but hot, so hot to touch. Burning up. And the scent of blood. He brought the arm to his mouth and sank his fangs slowly into Martin's wrist.

Oh, the blood. So rich and thick with life and memories, so perfectly suited to increase his hunger even as he fed — he almost lost it for a moment, but then he felt the spirit in the flesh, and Martin was with him and in him and reminded him of the bargain they had struck.

No illusions. No stealing or borrowing. No clouding of the dying man's mind.

Armand struggled with the blood swoon, tried to stay calm. And beyond the steady reassurance of Martin's presence he felt something else.

* * *

:Oh, damn.:

KJ's voice was so quiet in Khayman's mind that he could almost have believed the thought his own. Yet he knew the shape and flavor of her too well, and he heard the genuine fear.

:What?:

She tugged him along across the room. :It's the witch. Damn it, he could have told me earlier. I should have noticed myself.: Her mind-voice was heavy with self-recrimination.

What had Martin told KJ? 'Hold her', that was it. Now KJ flung her arms around the witch as though taking the command literally, and growled in her ear. "You fool."

Khayman shot another wordless question at his mortal friend. And she answered, :She's been holding him up. The energy Martin has lived on for the past week has only been half his own, if that, even. He'd've been dead long ago if she hadn't shared her life with him.:

Khayman looked again at the witch's thin and ghostly face, her faded air. It was plain to see now that KJ had mentioned it. The witch and Martin could almost be sister and brother, so great was the likeness between them at that moment.

:Can I do anything to help?: he asked.

:I don't know,: KJ said. :What do you know about the magics of life?:

:Nothing,: he told her sadly.

:Then lend me your strength, and I'll do the work.:

Hearing the desperation, he could do nothing but nod and let her in.

As soon as he had agreed, she was deeper in his mind than she had ever been before, and he finally sensed the full extent of her power, and the reach of her skill. She was spinning thin threads of gold, of love, a fine net to catch a soul in, binding them all tightly together. And already Khayman could feel the first faint tugs, could feel the witch racked by Martin's dying. Looking at the bed, he saw Armand feeding from Martin's wrist, slowly. Martin was leaving them, and the witch was indeed being drawn along.

:What happens if—:

:If she goes, we all go,: KJ said tersely. :So hold on.:

* * *

Daniel watched with fear and outrage as Martin turned the gift of his blood and his life over to Armand. It couldn't end like this — it was wrong. What promises had Armand made? And could he be trusted to keep them?

Through the link with Martin he could feel — almost nothing. Love, and a profound absence of fear.

Then his beloved turned his head and smiled. "There is more to it than this," he said and slowly lifted his other hand. Daniel blinked, unbelieving. Then Martin pressed his wrist against Daniel's mouth, at first gently, then insistently. "Do it."

"I don't want to be the one who kills you!" Daniel said.

"Do you love me?" Martin's weak voice held an edge.

"Yes."

"Do it."

Pressure. He could smell the blood, both here in the flesh offered to him, and where Armand was feeding. And Martin's eyes held insistent encouragement. It was probably the last request his beloved would ever make of him.

Death.

He did it. He bit down and felt the blood flood his mouth, hot and sweet and metal-salt. And then he was being reeled in, drawn into Martin's mind, comfortable familiar presence.

Love.

My love, my lover...

But almost at once there came a wrench at their togetherness, and another one. He felt the beginnings of dissolution, of a vanishing, and a sickness reeled him round and round in his mind, wrenching painfully at him. Oh, it hurt. Something was hurting him very, very badly, and he wanted to run away from it, tried to run away...

* * *

Before I slip into unconsciousness I have to know that everything is going the way it should. And it isn't. I can feel Daniel's confusion as the spell begins to loosen its grip on him. He has been bound too tightly. Now that it is free his mind is squirming wildly like a fish on dry land.

He is going to go mad. He is going to go away. It will all have been for nothing then, this ceremony, all a mistake... if he drifts away with nothing to anchor him to reality... I cannot hold him, I am leaving myself.

I am leaving. But I am the only one who is leaving.

And then I know what to do.

* * *

:Give yourself to me.:

Armand was startled at the faint but clear voice in his mind. :What do you mean?:

:Give yourself to me,: Martin repeated imperiously. :Now. Give yourself over to me. I need you.:

:Are you mad?: The very idea that he should give over his control to a mortal, a dying mortal... :Would you try to take me with you, perhaps?:

To die trapped in another's mind, dragged into death as the mortal's heart stopped beating — he shivered in fear. But Martin's thoughts cut across his own, precise and acerbic.

:Don't be an idiot. I'm dying. Don't waste my time. Daniel needs you. He will go mad without you.:

Armand looked up, blood dripping from his mouth. He met Martin's eyes and saw the clarity there, the calm reason. And he saw Daniel, wild-eyed, sharp teeth making a bloody mess of Martin's right arm. The mortal did not even wince at the pain. His blue gaze held Armand pinned in place.

:What do I do...: Armand could hardly believe what he was saying. He did not, did not want to give up control. Not to anyone. Not to this stranger, this thief, this beautiful mortal, dying in front of him.

But he could see that Daniel was losing every semblance of control. And he could not bear it, could not bear the thought of losing him again.

:Drink from me again,: Martin said calmly. :Drink, and open yourself up to me. You must drop your shields, Armand; you must drop everything.:

So easy to say and so hard to do. Again he sank his fangs into Martin's left wrist, more gently than Daniel, reopening the wounds he had made, and felt the blood, tasted Martin's essence. He made himself relax. Open up. Oh, he feared it. Never before, never such intimacy; he had never dared. He could be hurt so badly this way.

:Not by me,: Martin whispered in his mind. :Not by me.:

And to give himself to a stranger in complete trust, it went against everything he had ever done.

But it was that, or lose Daniel again. Perhaps forever.

I believe, he thought and let himself go.

The sudden wrench startled him. But it did not hurt. And he found himself supporting a lost and bewildered mind, a confused soul, found himself tangled in thoughts more familiar to him than anyone else's on earth, thoughts lost to him ten years ago when he had done the one thing he had sworn never to do, and brought this wayward, wicked, wonderful one over into the eternal vampire night.

The love he felt was enough to choke him.

:Daniel. Oh, Daniel.:

A startled silence, a pause that stretched on and on, almost into forever. And then slowly, hesitantly, a reaching out.

:I know you... don't I?:

:Yes, you know me.:

:Can you make it stop — can you make the pain stop?:

:Only if you come to me.:

:But I can't — you're not...: Then, with renewed clarity, :Yes you are. I know you... my demon lover. Armand.:

That single word of recognition brought the walls tumbling down, and they flooded into each other, sharing it all. They were one, holding, being held, loving, loving.

:Beloved. I have missed you so.:

:I have been a fool.:

:No. No. Not your own fault. Not... it doesn't matter. I love you.:

Deep wrenching sadness. :I loved him.:

:It doesn't matter.: Together, together at last.

Slowly they became aware of another presence, one fading fast, but reaching out to touch them again. :I really have to go now,: Martin's voice whispered. :Share yourselves in love.:

Armand felt Martin's soul tear itself free finally, felt the heart cease to beat as the last of the blood poured into him. And he felt the soaring upward, the white warmth, the welcome, the beginning of a dissolving and reshaping and a great wonder — found himself drifting with it, eager for that joy, the approaching miracle. He wanted to know—

Daniel tore him back. :Don't leave. Don't leave me now.:

Then he knew what was tempting him, and held back. They clung tight to each other, and death passed them by.

Armand felt weak. Gasping, he opened his eyes to see Martin's blindly staring body, its wrists torn. But the face looked so peaceful. Almost smiling. And there, sitting by the wall, was Daniel, beautiful Daniel. Daniel's eyes were clear again. As Armand watched, Daniel reached out and slowly, gently closed Martin's eyes.

He could feel no jealousy, not any more. It was right to do it. Armand nodded approvingly.

:Are you really — back?: he asked shyly.

Daniel's violet eyes met his in a look at once delighted and startled. :Yes!: Daniel replied, tension vibrating through the thought. :I can't — I don't know what to say, I—:

:It doesn't matter,: Armand repeated again. It was as though his fear had died with Martin. :All that matters is that I can tell you that I love you.:

:And I... Armand, I can hear you! I can feel you.:

Armand blinked. Martin, their link to each other, was gone. He had sensed that passing too closely for it to have been anything but truth. Yet here they were, sharing every thought, every feeling. It was almost painful. It was the greatest joy he had ever experienced.

He put a hand on the dead man's chest, wishing he had known, wishing he could have said this while the man had still been alive. "Thank you."

* * *

Khayman could feel the strain that KJ was under. He poured his strength into her frantically, gave her everything he had. There was no point in holding back, when giving less might mean his death, her death, the death of the witch. All of them were caught up together in KJ's glowing web.

There was a wrench and a tug and a searing pain as the witch nearly slipped away, nearly pulled them along. But Khayman held back, imagining himself as a dragging anchor. He resisted. And KJ was full of passionate fury, refusing to give in.

Then all at once something snapped and they all tumbled together in a mental heap, and Khayman could feel the witch's mind weeping, and he knew what must have happened.

Still holding KJ, who was holding the witch, he looked towards the bed. Armand and Daniel were sitting one on each side of Martin's body, staring at each other with transcendent happiness. They glowed with inner joy.

As Khayman watched, Armand put a hand on the dead man's chest and said, "Thank you." Then the two vampires on the bed fell into each other's arms, crying.

Khayman had to look away. It was too private. He'd seen Armand's eyes shine with such utter love that nothing could compare to it. Not until this moment had he realized just how vain and foolish his hopes had been — nothing but Daniel's presence, Daniel's return could have brought that look to Armand's face.

And I, he knew, have been a fool.

He bent his head and laid his cheek against the top of KJ's head. He wouldn't ask her to comfort him, she was preoccupied with the witch, speaking softly to her, trying to find out if she was all right. But he could draw a little solace from the young woman's presence and feel the better for it.

Eventually the witch straightened up, tears still running down her face. "Did you feel it?" she asked softly. "The light, the happiness..."

Khayman had no idea what she was talking about. But on the bed, the red head lifted from the blond and Armand answered.

"Yes," he said, "I felt it." And there was something completely new in his voice. "We felt it."

Daniel also looked up. He looked shy; as he accidentally caught Khayman's eyes, he began to blush in an almost mortal fashion. Khayman averted his gaze once again. He felt KJ's hand slip into his own and squeeze gently. That she took the time to comfort his foolish heart, when she had just lost a dear friend, touched him so that he couldn't utter a word, or do a thing except very carefully squeeze her hand right back.

"There will have to be a funeral," the witch said.

"There will have to be a lot of things." Armand sounded almost raw, but content at the same time. "It will be arranged. If," now he sounded as shy as Daniel looked, "if you will let me share in it."

"Would you?" the witch asked.

Armand nodded.

"It's the least I can do." Then his eyes returned to Daniel again, as if drawn by an irresistible force. They stared at each other for so long and in such concentrated silence that Khayman began to wonder if they were all right. But KJ tugged at him, drawing him towards the door.

:You don't have to torture yourself. Leave them.:

He nodded, and followed her out of the warmly lit room and into the darkness of the house.

Chapter nine: Who can I be now (you've found me)?

"Within our nakedness, nakedness still
Is the naked mind. Past and stars show
Through the columned bones. Tomorrow
Will blow away the temple of each will.
The Universe, by inches, minutes, fills
Our hollowed tongues. Name and image glow
In word, in form. Star and history know
That they exist, in life existence kills." — Stephen Spender, 'Explorations'

Daniel woke up.

He opened his eyes and blinked, slowly, like a mortal. The jumble of light and shadow and blurry colored shapes resolved into a background of walls and ceiling, and a pair of huge dark brown eyes staring at him. A smile broke across Armand's face like the sun rising. Daniel felt close to being blinded. He felt all the love Armand felt, sensed it rushing and pounding and tearing at him, at them, at—

"You're going to have me crying in a second," he whispered, struggling to separate his own feelings from Armand's. "Ease up — please—"

"I'm sorry," Armand said, moving closer, trailing his lips across Daniel's face. Tiny little kisses on his cheek, his eyelids. So soft — too soft — too utterly sweet.

"No, you're not. I can tell now, remember?" Armand had time for a short breathy laugh before Daniel turned his head and captured those wandering lips, kissed his lover deeply, intensely, showing just how much he had been affected. Except that Armand already knew.

"One of these days," Armand tore himself free to speculate, "we might stop talking entirely."

Daniel made a face at him. It was a disturbing possibility, yet he knew exactly the feelings that had prompted the thought, which in itself made it a lot more likely. "I hope not."

"No." Armand turned serious. "We are going to have to ask for help, you realize."

"I don't want to ask for help." Daniel reached for Armand again. "I just want to lie here and kiss you all night."

"And we have to talk," Armand went on, disregarding him, avoiding his embrace. Daniel made a small disappointed sound. "Yes, my heart, really. We do."

"All right," Daniel muttered. He knew Armand was right, it just didn't please him to have his beloved turn rational so soon. Wasn't Armand as intoxicated as Daniel was by this new connection between them?

"If you keep sulking you're going to turn me bad-tempered, too. And you were the one who told me to back off."

"Oh, great." Then Daniel burst out laughing. "This is ridiculous. Let's pretend that we don't — I mean, let's just talk."

"No kissing?"

"No kissing," Daniel agreed. "Not until we can't think of anything to say."

They stared at each other, silent for a moment that grew longer and longer. Then Armand sighed, and moved back into Daniel's arms. :Foolish of me.: Their lips met. The cellar room vanished.

All at once they were deep inside each other's minds. Daniel had never felt so complete — so sheltered — so loved. He remembered the night of his making, the last time they had shared thoughts and imagination, when Armand had built him a wonderland of dreams to ease his passage into the existence of the undead. That had been love, that had been sharing. But not like this.

:Because it isn't just me,: Armand said.

:No.: Another spark of delighted laughter flickered through Daniel's mind. :It's us. We're equals now, my love.: That seemed to strike home. A shadow moved inside Armand. :Does that bother you so much?: Immediately the insecurity echoed back and forth between them, growing, as Daniel tried to probe deeper and Armand tried to withdraw.

"It's not quite that," Armand said out loud. "But I — it's difficult for me to have anyone so close."

"Oh, so this is just your problem?" Then Daniel saw Armand's eyes widen, felt the hurt almost before it happened and bit his tongue. "Damn. I'm never going to be able to insult you again. I didn't mean it like that. It isn't a problem. I don't want to be rid of this, just learn how to handle it. And I'm more used to having you in my head than the other way around. But it's kind of upsetting for me too, you know?"

Armand nodded. "Yes," he whispered. There could be no doubting any more that either one of them spoke the truth. As things were now they could not dissolve their connection.

"So tell me why it worries you so." Armand was silent. "I can feel it, you know. You can't run and you can't hide. You can't lie to me, love."

A fleeting smile crossed Armand's face, making him look the perfect urchin. "Well, it was fun while it lasted."

Daniel reached out and tugged at his hair. "So that's the way it was. Now tell me."

He saw Armand's face turn blank, the shuttered look he had always dreaded before, when Armand would close up and be a stranger and nothing would make sense. Now, though, he could feel what was happening inside Armand's mind. He was finally beginning to perceive the depth of Armand's pain. And it ran bone deep, bedrock hard. Daniel gasped.

:I'm sure a psychiatrist would have a field day with me,: Armand whispered fiercely, pushing it even harder into Daniel's mind.

Daniel wailed. :Don't. Stop.:

:Why? You want to know, don't you?: Armand was defiantly stripping away layer after layer, tearing into himself with cruel nonchalance.

:Yes, but not like this.: He cradled Armand in his arms, held him protectively as he had never dared to do before, knowing he could bear to be attacked by Armand, but not that Armand turned on himself. :Don't belittle yourself. Don't despise yourself. Stop trying to anticipate my reaction. I love you, goddammit! You think I would make fun of your pain?:

"I never trusted anyone," Armand rasped, the words tearing out of him, lips pressed against Daniel's shoulder, speaking into his flesh.

"No, not even me," Daniel whispered into Armand's hair. "But you're going to have to, now. It's either that or kill ourselves, Armand. You know that."

"Do you really love me?" Armand's confusion was growing, his fear, his suffering, all building up to a singing tension inside. "Do you?"

:You are inside of me, beloved,: Daniel stated. :You can know me as well as yourself if you only go look. I'm not afraid to let you in. I'm here, Armand.:

A small gasp of pain. "It was all right before."

"You were surprised? And I was bewildered."

"I love you," Armand said suddenly. "Love you as I have never loved anyone in all my five hundred years of existence." Then he laughed a little. "What a dramatic thing to say."

"Mm." Daniel kissed Armand's forehead. "And I love you as I have never loved anyone in all my, what is it, forty years? Forty-five?"

Armand snorted. "You can't even remember how old you are?"

"It doesn't seem all that important any more." Daniel stroked Armand's hair, smoothing it, silk under his fingers. He had time. He could wait. He certainly wasn't going anywhere.

:I'm afraid to let anyone in,: Armand said abruptly. :Ever since I've had a choice I've created limits, drawn the borders of myself where I chose.:

:Always in control.: Daniel certainly knew the truth of that.

:Did you think,: Armand burst out, :that I was going to let anyone else control me — take me — do things to me ever again...:

It staggered him, a gut stab, as memories of Armand's youth suddenly burst into his mind. Things that had been hidden away for a long time. The pain of rape, of being used. Of knowing himself absolutely without control of his own fate. After that, the slow process of learning how to trust in Marius' gentle love and care, only to have it all betrayed, ripped away. Loss of control again.

No — there had been no control to lose. From harsh and brutal slavery, to gentle and loving domination, to the expectation of yet another kind of blind obeyance. The world had simply been one set of arbitrary rules after another.

Until finally Armand had achieved mastery of his existence...

:And set about controlling everyone else,: Daniel stated, careful not to make it an accusation.

"It was the only choice," Armand said. "Control or be controlled. Either master or slave, and I was never going to be anyone's slave again. Not even if the enslavement was done in the name of love."

"Is that what you felt Marius did to you?" Daniel asked gently.

"Yes," Armand said. "He loved me into submission. I was drunk on that love. I thought it meant freedom. But I was his."

:It's different now.:

:Is it?:

Daniel sighed. :You really think one of us can win over the other, the way we are now?:

:Perhaps.:

:You're not going to try it.:

:How do you know that?:

:Armand. Beloved. Stop fighting. I am not the enemy. I am not your enemy. I am not trying to enslave you, and I won't let you try to control me. We're just two people who love each other. Love is sharing, not stealing. Or force-feeding. We can't get rid of each other now.:

"So I have to trust you or kill you, is that it?" Armand asked.

Daniel met Armand's brown gaze, hard. "Yes. Because I certainly won't try to kill you." He wanted to hold Armand tighter, shake some sense into him, but he knew that that would be interpreted as a declaration of war. It was enough that Armand could feel his frustration through the bond that united them. "Look, if you hadn't wanted this you could have let me go mad. Why did you agree?"

Armand went very still and quiet, immobile in Daniel's arms. Finally he said, "Because I didn't want to go on without you."

"Well," Daniel said. "Good decision. Now live with it."

Armand didn't even make a sound, there was just a flare of intense emotion to warn him before he was attacked by an auburn-haired terror who wrapped arms and legs around him and kissed him fiercely. :Damn you, Daniel.: They were wrestling on the mattress, Armand's fingers digging into Daniel's back. :Damn you.:

:Damn us both.: Flipping them over, Daniel managed to pin Armand down long enough to kiss his cheek, his neck, the delicate hollow above his collar bone. Armand fought back savagely, fangs bared; he ripped the shirt to tatters and forced Daniel back against the chilly stone floor. One glassy nail cut into Daniel's chest.

:I'll sign my name on you.:

:The hell you will.: They rolled again, kissed again, broke something that ended its days with a loud rattling crash. Daniel felt pieces being ground into dust under his elbow. Something scored Armand's leg and suddenly the smell of blood was everywhere.

:Damn you.: It was so intimate, the curse of a lover. Daniel kissed him again, hard, cutting his lip.

:No one is going to win, Armand.:

:You're wrong.: And this time Daniel recognized the feeling in Armand's mind for what it was, wild and crazed happiness, utter and unholy joy. :You're wrong... we're both going to win.: Gaining a brief moment of freedom, Armand did not slip away but thrust himself closer, and sank his fangs in Daniel's neck.

Oh, the shock of it. The immediate painful delight, and he felt himself sinking into it, loving it. But he wanted more. And Armand wanted more. It wasn't difficult, the only difficulty was in moving, when the waves of pleasure crashing through him were so intense, yet he searched blindly and found what he wanted.

Now. Yes. Breaking the hardened skin, and then the blood. It was done; they were sharing each other. And slowly, one by one, the barriers in Armand's mind sank away and were gone. It was done. Together.

:Forever.: Shuddering, enraptured.

* * *

It was impossible to arrange a night-time funeral. In the end KJ and the witch settled on a date and in bitter icy cold Martin's friends, family and lovers crowded into a small modern chapel in Göteborg and tried to say goodbye. Outside, sunlight trickled down on the snow, raising sharp glints that hurt the eyes. Inside everyone wept. It was strangely relaxing, the witch felt. She leaned her head against KJ's shoulder and blew her nose.

"I can't remember what life was like without him," she whispered. "I know I spent twenty-one years not knowing him but I can't remember. Once he became part of my existence, he'd been there forever."

A piercingly sweet and mournful soprano voice began to sing Gounoud's "Ave Maria" and dust motes danced in the light from the windows. The coffin was entirely covered with flowers, mostly roses. Everyone seemed to feel that Martin had been something special in their lives, and that they had been something special in his.

"They were, too," KJ murmured. "He really did love everyone. For a while."

The witch nodded. "And he finally learned how to let go in time." She wiped her face yet again; the drying tears itched. "I can't help feeling the dead should be here to watch over him."

"The living aren't enough?"

:It seems unfair that Armand doesn't get to see the funeral he paid for.:

:I think he'll cope,: KJ said dryly.

Afterwards everyone gathered at the home of the witch's parents, devoured the food and drink set out for them and began to tell all the stories of the Martin they remembered. The witch knew from experience that that could take all night. She wasn't surprised when, not too long after sunset, three new guests arrived in their own version of mourning: one sporting black jeans and a pony tail, one in an immaculate suit with his hair shorn short for the occasion, one in supple dark leather and lots of tiny braids. They blended in rather well with the crowd, and she decided to let them come to her when they felt it was suitable.

Armand cornered her in the kitchen where she was making more coffee.

"Is everything as it should be?"

"Everything's going wonderfully," she said, walking past him to throw the old coffee grounds away.

He nodded and she knew he'd seen as much already. "I hope no one's going to ask us what we do here."

"Why, have you given up lying?" Then she smiled at him. "Everyone will just assume you're a bunch of old lovers."

Armand smiled back. "Why not just old friends?"

"With your looks?" The witch reached out and ruffled his hair familiarly. "Everyone here knew Martin, after all. If you'd been mortal he'd have been trying to get in your pants within five minutes of meeting you. Less."

For a moment she thought that he was going to take offense. Then a corner of his mouth quirked up, reluctantly. "He seemed to have a zest for life."

The witch nodded, amazed that Armand would even go that far. Had he forgiven Martin, then? "He did have that."

Armand stood silent a little while. Then he said slowly, "We have a favor to ask of you."

She put a hand on the coffee machine as it sucked air noisily like an obscene phone caller or a miniature Darth Vader. "I'm rather busy right now."

"Not tonight," he said. "Later."

The witch cocked an eyebrow at him. She still did not trust this one. Though after what he had done for her friend, she was prepared at least to give him a chance. "What is it, then?"

"Daniel and I need help," he said and she could see that it cost him a lot to ask. "We need to learn how to cope with this — what happened to us."

"What did happen to you?" she asked, watching the pot fill up with strong black coffee. "I didn't have the time to look."

"No, well, you were busy not dying right then, I think," Armand said.

"C'est vrai," she acknowledged, slipping over into French.

"We were joined together," he went on in the same language. "Your friend Martin broached the silence between maker and fledgling — he gave us something we have always wanted."

"I see." She busied herself rooting out some more cups. "But what's the problem? Vampires are telepaths by nature, no?"

"Yes," he confirmed, nodding. "But this isn't like that. We don't have a choice any more. We are linked together and we can't shut it off. Daniel says to tell you," he wrinkled his brow, "that it's like having a radio talking in your head all the time, only it's broadcasting emotions as well as talk. Well, thanks. At least there aren't any commercials."

The witch smiled fleetingly. "And you want to — what? Be rid of this gift?"

"No!" he said violently. "Never. But there has to be a way of handling it. I thought you and KJ could perhaps help. I think there may be a difference between human telepathy and the vampiric gifts and when Martin linked us together he just used what he knew best. And you might like to take a trip to Paris, get away from things."

She thrust the coffee pot at him. "Take this into the living room and make sure people have everything they need and no one's passed out from drink yet. I need to think."

When he came back ten minutes later she had shut off the coffee machine but was no nearer a decision. His "Well?" only made her shake her head.

"I don't know. Have you asked KJ?"

Armand nodded. "Well, Khayman told her about our kitten. I think she's a lost cause." Then he got that listening expression again. "Daniel says to tell you that KJ seems to be the only one who can make Khayman smile right now and he feels she's more likely to go if you do."

The witch laughed a little. "Dragged to Paris to make a millennia-old vampire smile." Armand frowned at her. "There's no one here to hear us," she said calmly. "Well, it's an idea." She leaned back against the kitchen counter. "I wouldn't mind leaving the country for a while, you're right."

"You could use some good French food," Armand said.

She looked down at herself. "I could use some food, period. I can't believe I was that stupid." Looking up again she met his big brown eyes, and finally understood the attraction that this one wielded, the charm that had seduced so many. She smiled and gave in. "All right. It's only to meet the kitten, mind you."

Armand smiled, gave her an elegant bow and kissed her hand. "We are in your debt, mademoiselle."

* * *

They caught a night flight to Paris. Khayman had said that he couldn't very well carry all of them and their luggage; he'd meant it as a joke but he wondered if Armand hadn't taken it seriously, the way he'd immediately assured Khayman that they'd bought plane tickets already. The distance between Armand and Khayman was growing. It felt strange. They had spent two years together. Had they never been as close, then, as both of them had believed?

Khayman shook his head and looked out the small plane window, seeing nothing but darkness. The one creature he had come to love deeply and helplessly, and who was utterly beyond his reach. He felt lonely again; he began to feel touches of that creeping, paralyzing anguish, the torment that had driven him out of the world and into the earth time and time again during his long existence.

A warm hand squeezed his, and he turned his head to find KJ watching him steadily. "Don't lose it now," she said.

"Would it be so bad?" he said. "I could go into the earth again, sleep and dream for a while again..."

KJ frowned. "And forget who you are. Is it really worth it?"

"It's peaceful. For a while."

"The soft option," she said. "Mortals can't do that, they have to live through everything, they can't close their eyes and wait for the centuries to pass. Have you forgotten what it's like to deal with things?"

"Maybe I have."

"And don't you have anything you want to go on for?"

Khayman fell silent. He did feel a deep grief over Armand, over the love he felt for Armand that would never be reciprocated in the way he wanted it to be. But he didn't feel the numbing loneliness that had dragged him underground so many times before. No, it wasn't quite that.

Thinking back, he remembered the night at the Sonoma compound when he had finally gotten round to asking Maharet why she had never come for him in all the millennia that had passed since they had been separated. She had apologized in her own way, by acknowledging that the Great Family was his family, too. And since then he had watched over them, a little, and over Jesse, a lot. It had been one of the few things he had kept secret from Armand, since Armand's fierce enmity for Jesse had not faded over time.

Jesse, his daughter so many times removed. She was strong, she could manage on her own, she didn't need another ancient guardian watching her every step. But Jesse, his sweet daughter Jesse, would never say no to love and affection.

He'd been shortchanging her during his time with Armand, never going to see her, communicating in brief flashes. Khayman realized with a frown that he didn't even know why she and Mael had chosen to leave Maharet and go to California. It wasn't too late to find out.

Khayman looked sideways at KJ, who was watching him intently. Then she yawned. He smiled at her.

"Maybe I do," he said. "A few things — kittens and children and friends." He tugged gently at her. "You can sleep with your head on my shoulder if you like."

She snuggled up to him and yawned again. "Very comfortable. Like trying to get cosy with a marble angel." Another yawn, then her breathing slowed and in another instant she was asleep.

Khayman let his fingers drift through her hair, and thought forward. It had been kind of Armand and Daniel to take the two women to Paris. But as soon as the reunited couple had gotten their bearings on their new-found communication, with or without the help of the witch and KJ, they would want to be alone with each other. The women would probably go home, one to Sweden and the other to America.

And he, where would he go? Khayman thought seriously about it. Maybe he would go to Sonoma and visit Jesse and Mael. He knew he would always be welcome there. He found Mael oddly likeable despite the grouchy reaction he'd drawn from the other vampire at their first meeting. By now Mael knew that they shared a deep and abiding love for Jesse; that had been the main reason Khayman had gotten closer to the Celt, in their infrequent meetings over the years.

He sat with his eyes closed and pondered his future, the soft and only occasionally verbal squabbling of Armand and Daniel in the seats in front of him providing a counterpoint to his own thoughts. It seemed no one except Daniel could wake Armand up like that, could tease him and infuriate him and puncture his pretensions and love him at the same time, Khayman thought. Yes, that was certainly love. And it seemed Daniel wasn't going to fall in with Armand's every wish the way he had once done, the way Khayman had always done. And it also seemed that this was what Armand truly needed.

If I'd tried to take charge he would have rebelled against me, Khayman thought tiredly. And when I obeyed his every whim he came to take me for granted. And... He faced the truth. And I could never have been the thorn in his side that Daniel will always be. His greatest torment — and his greatest comfort. They'll never have an easy time of it. They won't have peace. But they might find some kind of equilibrium.

By the time the plane landed at the Charles de Gaulle airport, Khayman had combed out every single snarl in KJ's hair, and he felt easier with himself than he had in a long time. They caught two cabs to the apartment and as Armand went to open the place up, Khayman checked that their neighbor was awake and called to retrieve Wretch. Soon the lights were on in the loft, fires were blazing in both fireplaces, the witch was baking something in the kitchen and Wretch tumbled happily between everyone's feet, having the time of his fuzzy little life.

Khayman had wondered if they'd all manage to live with each other, but to his surprise he found that everyone got along perfectly well. The witch even seemed to thaw a bit towards Armand after he'd stopped trying to read her mind, and acknowledged his abiding gratitude to Martin for what the dying man had done for him and Daniel. According to KJ, Armand and Daniel were doing fairly well in learning to handle the new gift they'd been given.

"They'll do even better once they accept that it will never be completely under their conscious control. They're just going to have to learn to live with it." She made a face. "Unlive with it. Whatever."

"Well, if they were given the choice, all makers and fledglings would take that over the silence."

KJ nodded. "Figures." She looked at him curiously. "How many fledglings have you made?"

He sat up on the couch. "I don't know. Lots. But none for the past few thousand years."

"Why?" KJ's mouth curled up in a smile. "You don't approve of the youth of today?"

Khayman threw his head back and laughed. "The youth of yesterday was just as bad, I assure you." Then he stopped laughing. "I made a lot of mistakes back then. And then I came to realize that I might make a lot more. So I decided, no more fledglings. I didn't trust my own judgment."

"Perceptive of you." She winked at him.

The loft seemed like a new place with so many people in it, and it smelled of food all the time now, as KJ was forever trying to get the witch to eat more. It turned out that the two mortals had friends in Paris; a steady stream of people came and went. Khayman loved it. He hated to be lonely. This big noisy crowd, with the witch and KJ at its warm core, suited him perfectly. And Armand and Daniel didn't seem to mind either. When they felt the need to be alone they'd take off somewhere, or simply sink into silent communion, staring for hours into each other's eyes.

"It's almost perfect," Khayman said out loud one night.

Wretch purred in agreement.

"Why the almost?" a voice asked behind him.

It was the witch. She looked a lot better now than she had when they'd left Sweden. There was more color in her face, and her figure had filled out in what Khayman considered to be all the right places. Of course her eyes sparkled the way they always had. Tonight she was wearing a tight blue dress, a 40's style dress with slightly padded shoulders and a skirt to just below the knee.

In response to her question he said, "I think it's just superstition."

"Calling something perfect means it will be ruined?"

Khayman nodded. "Yes. It's a very old superstition, you know."

"I can imagine," she said with a smile, sinking gracefully to the floor and beginning to pet Wretch, who had wrapped himself around her ankle. "But I agree with you. It's almost perfect." The witch paused briefly as she tickled Wretch's furry tummy. "You seem to be very fond of KJ."

"Yes," Khayman said immediately. "She is, oh, very easy to talk to. A wonderful companion."

"Mm," the witch agreed. Her eyes met his.

"Oh no," Khayman said all at once. "No, I wasn't thinking of it. And I don't think she'd want it anyway."

"That hasn't necessarily been a deterrent, in the past."

"Not to some," he said. "But believe me, this is something that I regard as very serious. And that I would never do it against anyone's consent. And," he smiled a little, "unlike our Brat Prince I do not feel compelled to break a promise just because it has been exacted from me."

The witch met his smile with one of her own. "I hope I haven't offended you. It's just difficult to judge what people will do, on the rebound."

Khayman nodded. "Well, I'm content to let my broken heart heal in its own time. Meanwhile I will enjoy the almost-perfection."

"Good. I will sit here," she made herself comfortable, pulling a cushion off the couch, "and knit you a sweater. Come here, I want to measure your shoulders."

The sweater was lapis blue and earth brown with thin stripes of pale green like the first growing things when the seasons turn. Khayman asked her to add a little brick red on the sleeves and she complied. As it grew over the days and nights, Khayman felt more and more relaxed around the witch, as well as KJ. He came to the reluctant, almost grudging conclusion that she understood him.

He wore the sweater as soon as it was finished, and went in search of Armand.

The red-haired imp was in the kitchen, listening to a woman who played the Uilleann pipes. As always, Khayman felt a slight catch inside when he first saw Armand's face. It always seemed at the same time hauntingly familiar and stunningly new.

:Hey,: he said, grateful that he did not have to make the attempt to speak over the noise of the pipes — he could have done it, of course, but the mortals in the kitchen would have been very surprised. :How many of you am I talking to?:

:Just me at the moment.: Armand's sweet face did not betray that he was having a silent conversation. :We're practising.:

:Do you try to turn it off most of the time, or...:

:No.: Now Armand did smile, a radiant smile. :We're nearly always together.: There was no mistaking the utter happiness. :I've gotten used to it, we both have.:

:I'm glad to hear that.:

:Why don't you come in, sit down and join us?:

:This isn't my kind of music,: Khayman stated. :It's fine for scaring away malignant spirits, but not to listen to.:

:You're being old-fashioned.:

:I have a lot of old fashions to choose from.:

Laughter trickled from Armand's mind. :Yes. Listen, Khayman. I just want to say that I'm—: He seemed to struggle for the words. :—very grateful to you. It must have been hell to live with me. But I'm glad someone was there.:

:No problem,: Khayman sent easily. He knew how much that small admission had cost Armand. :Any time, as they say. And I'll be back when the noise stops.:

He walked away silently, turning the brief encounter over in his mind. There wouldn't be anything else, he realized. This was the point to which his years with Armand had brought him, and he had to accept that. Must accept it, else it would all have been meaningless.

Love is something in itself, he thought. I don't believe it can be wasted. Armand was the stronger for it. And perhaps Khayman himself was stronger, too.

Catching sight of himself in a mirror, he smiled at the stranger with the open, friendly face, the stranger who was wearing a beautiful knitted sweater.

Chapter ten: Absolutely barking stars

"Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured..." — W. Shakespeare, Sonnet CVII

"You'd better go."

"What?"

David froze at the book shelf, the third volume of Gibbons' "Decline and Fall" still in his hand. Such intense silence had reigned in the room that he had given up on expecting any words out of Maharet tonight. Much less those particular words.

Now he turned and saw, across the long room with its white walls and low ceiling, that she was standing up also and looking straight at him. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders, a fleecy cloud that seemed a separate, living creature.

"He's calling you. He's been calling you all the time."

"Lestat?" It was a stupid question. Who else could be calling, that David would not hear?

Except that he had hoped for one brief moment that it might be Marius, taking the roundabout way to establishing contact.

No. Forget about that.

"Yes," she confirmed, patient with his slowness. "He's been calling you incessantly ever since you came here."

David frowned. "Why hasn't anyone else told me?" he finally asked.

Maharet walked closer to him. She was very self-contained tonight, tight, compact, enclosed in herself, and she did not seem vulnerable at all. He missed that. It had made him think he could help her. But she never got round to confiding in him, though he had several times had the feeling that she was on the verge of it.

Then again, for the oldest of them all to confide in the youngest — it didn't make sense. She had so many others who knew her better, who were closer to her, dearer to her heart — Mael, Eric. Jesse.

And he, what was he but a Talamasca fool.

David sighed.

"The others are busy," she said tiredly. "Many of them. Others... aren't listening."

He looked suspiciously at her, but did not comment. It occured to David that Maharet herself might have something to do with it. "And now, finally, you think I should go?" It was as close to challenging her as he had ever come.

"Yes," she nodded, "I think you should go." All at once she crumbled, the unconcerned mask falling away. "Oh, I don't want you to go!"

"Maharet." He walked up to her, took hold of her, something he had never dared to do before, just a very light grip, his hands around her elbows. "If you told me what is troubling you..."

She was looking down, down at her feet, not at his face. "No," she said. "I've asked the questions I needed to, and it's clear you know nothing of this creature."

"What creature?" He wanted to shake her all of a sudden, grip her chin and make her look at him. But that wasn't the kind of thing he did; the mere thought turned to absurdity after a moment and he was close to laughing at it. Only this was no laughing matter. "Maharet, I don't know what you are talking about, and I do wish I could help you, that you felt you could confide in me. Whatever knowledge I have is fully at your disposal, you know that."

"Oh, I know that," she acknowledged and even in her casually possessive tone of voice, he heard something close to despair. "But there is nothing, nothing you can do. I will deal with this."

"It's something about those experiences of mine, isn't it?" he asked with sudden surety. "About God and the devil in the Paris café."

Then she did look up, and there was nothing he could read in her poor fragile mortal eyes. "Yes," she said. "Yes." There was a short silence. "And you should go now. Go to Lestat, he is here... " And she showed him.

David nodded slowly. "Very well," he said, "I will go. I will obey you, my lady."

"I have a great deal of faith in you," she said. "Talamascan."

He studied her closely once more, her smooth face, her simple dress, long sleeves, a long full skirt. Her impossibly narrow waist. And her hands, slim and long-fingered and delicate, hands that could crush human skulls like eggs.

"Not that, any more," he said. "I am not of the Talamasca any more."

"It made you what you are," she said, "as surely as Lestat made you what you are. I am counting on that."

She left him, on those words, and he did not see her again as he went about packing only to finally decide, when he had assembled his possessions, that he did not want them. He walked outside slowly, wanting to find Maharet and take a more sensible farewell of her, knowing full well that he could look forever and not find out where she was.

Then David nodded to himself. Lestat. Lestat needed him, wanted him. He might as well go. He rose up, fast as a thought, into a sky thick with stars.

* * *

Mael had dug a pond and now several koi swum in it, taking lazy turns in the sweet brownish water. They loved bread crumbs, and Louis, who had not bought bread in a supermarket before in his life, now stood feeding them the remains of Boudin's best sourdough. He had fallen deeply in love with Jesse's garden, and these days, his earlier comments about vampires not being gardeners forgiven and forgotten, he spent hours helping her out, carting earth and pruning bushes and pulling out weeds. He enjoyed the feeling of moist earth on his hands, and green scented things all around.

Brushing the hair out of his face and trailing a line of mud across his forehead, Louis turned to look at Jesse and Mael who were discussing trees. Trees! He wasn't really comfortable with that concept. Planting a tree and watching it grow. But Jesse seemed to be, she who was so much younger than he. She was staring fearlessly at the future. Mael, of course, had seen trees grow up, grow old and die.

Louis felt uncertain. There was still something about facing an unlimited number of years, of facing forever, that unsettled him. The thought of being himself forever...

He seemed almost to hear Lestat's voice saying, "Well, who else would you be?" and it made him smile at first. Then he paused, and the koi never got the last piece of bread.

He wondered how Lestat was doing.

Probably, Louis told himself severely, probably Lestat had recovered in about five minutes from his reluctance to be left alone, and was in the process of having a hair-raising adventure, or out playing with some other friend. David, it could be. Or Marius. In a while he might try to call Lestat, do as ordinary and simple a thing as pick up the phone. Or ask Jesse to contact him.

Maybe.

He walked back towards the others, the piece of bread still in his hand. A grey squirrel chittered reprovingly at him, and he tossed it a smile and a crumb. So fearless, that short-lived little creature.

Jesse lifted her head to see him coming, and smiled. "Redwoods," she said.

"Well, why not?"

Mael frowned. "They're so..." He waved a hand.

"Big?" Louis asked innocently.

Jesse laughed. "Vulgar." She hooked an arm through Louis'. "And how are you feeling tonight, handsome?"

"Oh, I am fine. Perfectly all right."

"No," she contradicted him flatly, "you're not."

"Really, Jesse." He tried a smile. "I was just thinking that maybe I should give Lestat a call, see how he's doing."

"Oh. Yes." She looked at him, her eyes so wide with innocence she had to be hiding something.

"What is it?" he asked, more sharply than he'd intended.

"Well, you never said what the trouble was, between you."

He shrugged. "There wasn't anything to tell, Jesse. I thought we should be apart for a while, and he didn't, that was all. And why do you ask now?"

"He's been calling for a fair while," Mael said.

Louis stiffened. "Lestat's been calling out? He's been calling for me?"

"No," Mael said.

"No." Jesse was the one who went on. "No, he's been calling — calling for David. As though his sanity depended on it."

Slowly, Louis closed his eyes. Does it?

* * *

David sat quietly, unmoving, looking at the vampire who was walking away from him, his beloved maker. Lestat's swift kiss still burned his forehead. He could almost feel, reflected on his vampire skin, sparks from the way Lestat's eyes had gleamed. Oh, Lestat. Lestat had stuffed his gorgeous body into a Brooks Brothers suit as though into a strait-jacket. It was holding him together, but barely. And David recognized this. He'd seen Lestat this way before, all mad smiles, back when his maker had been trying so desperately to get Louis back.

No, he was not going to shiver; he hadn't shivered before. Nor had he allowed anything of how he felt to appear in his eyes, and David felt deeply grateful, for once, that he and Lestat were mind-blind to each other. David had preserved a calm front. Had, in fact, been the perfect British gentleman Lestat seemed still, rather innocently, to believe him to be.

But as Lestat had gone on rambling through tangled tales of mortals, and fear, and being stalked by a... Something, as he had veered this way and that from Jesse to televangelists and never once mentioned Louis, David had felt more and more nervous.

It wasn't just the fact that Lestat's madness seemed to be back, though that was a pain that cut deep, to see it rising again and to see Lestat so unaware of it. No, it was more than that; it was those questions about God and the devil again. The same questions Maharet had asked him, the same issues Maharet had circled around warily in all their more serious conversations. The same, now that he thought about it, slightly haunted look in their eyes.

What was really going on? As Lestat's conversation had grown wilder and wilder, David had done the unforgivable and burst out, "You are on the verge of being truly mad."

The next instant he could have bitten his tongue off. But Lestat had not seemed to take offence, had not seemed to really notice what David had said, or understand the implications of it. Lestat had only given him another of those over-bright smiles, and said, "No, not at all. Look at me. I can tie my shoelaces. See?"

David would have liked very much to have broken down and cried, right about then. Instead he had waited patiently, keeping half a mental eye on the mortals who had fascinated Lestat so. This thug of a man and his vapid young daughter, his mind a coil of polished steel spirals, hers a white blank sheet of paper, with a paper's sharp edges, ready to cut.

And he had wondered what it was about Lestat's great capacity for love, that he always had to be loving something. That he was capable perhaps of loving anything, and breaking it with his love. David slumped against the wall, wondering where the hell Louis was.

There hadn't been a good moment to ask. Not at first. And when he had seen the look in Lestat's eyes, he had known that there would not be such a moment in this conversation. No, if he wanted enlightenment he would have to look elsewhere for it. And he had no idea where to start looking.

I want someone to hold my hand, he thought, and recognized that the feeling was strange to him, but not uncomfortable once he'd admitted to it.

Something was wrong, and Lestat — something had to be done about Lestat. David smiled a little, despite the aching worry in his heart. Wasn't that always the way it was? Oh, that brat prince. It hurt to see Lestat damaged, to see him less than his sharply defined self. Hurt more than it had done the last time, for now Lestat seemed unaware of it, seemed to exist inside his own shimmering cocoon of madness.

Louis; he should get hold of Louis. Or someone.

What if Lestat and Louis had had a fight; what if Louis would not listen? But no, that was absurd; no matter what fight might have occurred, Louis would have risen from the dead to call Lestat back from insanity. David felt utterly certain of that. So, Louis did not know, and if he were told, he would care. All that remained was to find him.

David wished, but only faintly, that Lestat's blood would have worked its magic, would have translated Louis to a creature of power such as they were. But then again, it was difficult to imagine Louis as anything other than Louis.

Early evening here. Where was Louis? Should he send out a call eastward, into the reigning night, or wait for the west to fall into darkness?

In either case he should perhaps not do it here, no matter how low-voiced and civilized this place was, this graceful hotel bar with its delicate gilded surfaces and well-spoken, quiet staff. It was the wrong place for it, and besides, David knew himself to have the flaw of the telephone age. He was quite accustomed to speaking to people he could not see; his face showed his inner conversations. Marius had called it endearing.

Never mind that now. If, questing, he were to meet the wrong mind— Oh, Marius would want to help Lestat, surely. But David would not, could not ask him. He rose, and left, went out into the snow and the cold and did what Lestat had asked of him, arranged for that apartment in the Olympic Tower as easily as buying a magazine.

It gave him a place to start from, anyway.

He wished he could track Lestat, wished he could knew what foolishness that blond demon was getting up to out there in the vast, chilly city. But he couldn't; all he could do was get someone there who might help him with it.

Oh, he wanted to get hold of Louis. But both he and Louis were going to need someone who could get inside Lestat's mind.

David took a deep breath, more out of habit than anything else, and closed his eyes carefully though that was also only a habit, and he knew he would open them again presently. And then he sent out his questing call, its aim rather more precise than not, its message very simple. I need help.

* * *

KJ was toasting marshmallows again, and the smell of slightly burned sweetness hung in the air together with apple wood and some cologne that Daniel was partial to. That particular violet-eyed imp was sprawled in front of the fire with the boneless grace only cats and vampires seemed to achieve without effort, looking blissful as a slim white hand stroked his ash-blond hair. Very like a cat, the witch thought and smiled; Wretch purred on her lap, receiving similar treatment.

The owner of that white hand was sitting on a huge cushion, Daniel's head resting against his thigh. Armand's hair was held back by a colorful elastic band that the witch suspected KJ of giving him, though a few tendrils had worked loose to curl around his angelic face. For once he gave an impression not of youth but of agelessness. She sensed other eyes on him than her own, and looked down. Yes, Khayman, that wide-eyed dark stare, so hard to read. Half sitting, supporting himself against her chair, his long legs reaching out to define the space KJ was curled up in.

One happy family, the witch thought, and that smile wouldn't leave her alone. Oh, they were a motley group, to be sure. But for all their various tensions, there was something here very close to happiness.

"Want one?" KJ turned to her, the only other marshmallow-eating member of the group, and held out a melting lump with browning edges. The witch nodded politely and plucked it loose with her fingers, hissing at the heat.

"If those things taste anything like the way the smell," Armand said lazily, "you're about to poison yourselves."

"You know not whereof you speak," Daniel growled. "There are some things I really miss."

"A fifth of bourbon?" But it was only teasing, and only courtesy to the others that brought that teasing out in the open for all to hear. Armand bent down quite unselfconsciously and kissed the spot between Daniel's eyebrows. "You poor deprived twentieth century child. How can I ever make it up to you..."

The lazy grin Daniel shot at his maker made even the witch's insides turn over a little, and she thought herself immune by now to vampire blandishments. "Want me to tell you how?"

"I'd rather you showed me—"

Their sweet, light-hearted mutual seduction was cut off abruptly. She raised an eyebrow at the sudden, absorbed, blank look on both their faces, looked down to see Khayman vanish into some inner silence. And then KJ, too, frowned and tilted her head with an expression that the witch did know, and know well, so that she wasn't surprised when those familiar thoughts reached out to her and brought her into the fray.

:I need help.: That voice was a stranger to her at first, but then KJ showed her the identity of the vampire behind it, the one she'd never quite noticed back in San Francisco in that hurried hour, the one called David. There was such an intensity to him now. :Help, I need help.:

:In over you head?: That was Armand, ready to tease unhelpfully, though it was less cold now than it might have been a month ago. But Khayman cut him off, matter of fact.

:We're here, so tell us.:

:Khayman?: Something close to relief was what was coming from David now though he faded in and out; the witch thought it felt rather like listening to a bad radio station. She felt suddenly grateful for not being as talented as KJ in this matter. :It's all gone wrong again.: Love and concern. :It's Lestat, I think — I believe he has gone mad again. I can't handle this on my own. I must have help. I cannot control him.:

:No one has ever been able to control him,: Daniel remarked, sounding as though he felt it was foolish to try.

The annoyance, though controlled, sparked through them all. :This is serious. I ask you to come. At least one of you.:

:You are in...:

:New York.: Clear images, the Manhattan skyline of all things, precise as a movie set; the witch almost laughed. And then a vertiginous view of church spires, and a bland apartment.

:Why us?: It was Armand again.

:I found you.:

:We cannot get there tonight,: Daniel cut in.

:Is that—: David sounded incredulous. :Daniel?:

:Yes.: Daniel's mind voice was resigned. :Yell a little louder, why don't you?:

Clear and true, :I am very glad to know that you are back.: David faded a little, then returned more strongly. :Come here. Please. I need you.:

The words were shaped by someone who did not often use them, and the witch even felt faintly compelled by them herself.

:Someone will come,: Khayman stated firmly, and then the frail contact was gone, and they all fell back into their separate existences again, except, of course, for Daniel and Armand.

After a short silence while they all reoriented themselves, KJ was the first one to speak.

"Doesn't that guy ever do anything but get in trouble?"

Armand snorted. "You've read the books, haven't you?"

"I was hoping it was all poetic license," KJ grinned at him.

The witch's hand had stilled on Wretch's furry little tummy and now, annoyed, he bit her thumb. "So, when will you go?" she asked calmly.

"We could catch a plane tomorrow evening," Daniel said. "I'll book seats and everything, if..."

"If what?"

"If someone tells me how many of us are leaving." His eyes flicked over them each in turn. The witch was surprised that he extended that much courtesy to her and KJ, including a pair of mere mortals in that 'us'.

"I'm not going," Khayman said calmly, surprising them all.

"You're not—" Armand swept the flyaway strands of hair back out of his face. "So I am expected to deal with the brat this time? We did not part on friendly terms."

"But Armand," Daniel said, "that's true of nearly everybody you've ever parted with."

There was a tense silence as Armand looked down on Daniel, his brows drawn together. Then KJ broke it, unexpectedly, by giggling. "I can see why," she said. "Look, guys, the witch and I should stay out of this. We weren't popular the last time we appeared at a vampire gathering and I don't imagine we would be this time, either. And this time we don't have anywhere near as good a reason."

"And it isn't the sole purpose of your lives to help lost vampires, is it?" Daniel said, grinning.

Armand was still frowning. The witch saw that this was still no joking matter to him, and might never be. Daniel had coped with his madness far better than Armand had coped with his grief, and Daniel was working out their new closeness in an easier manner, too. But Armand might — would, she hoped — come to it in time. He was such a hurt one, but there was still hope for healing him.

"So I'll go to soothe away Lestat's madness, is that it?"

"He'd do it for you," Daniel said.

"Yes," Armand said grudgingly. "And throw it in my face for ever more."

"You're not being fair to him." Daniel was gently persevering, and the witch was amazed.

She didn't know if he'd said something along their inner link, or what that might have been, but something lightened in Armand's eyes as he replied, "No, and I never will be, so stop nagging me about it." Armand straightened up. "Very well. I will go — we will go," he corrected himself, "and see what we can do to help Lestat and reassure that officious, over-anxious Talamascan."

"He wouldn't call if it wasn't serious," Daniel began.

KJ was already giggling again. "Don't you like anyone?" she asked, her eyes twinkling at Armand's choice of words.

"No, he doesn't," Daniel told her in tones of mock confidentiality. "He only tolerates me because I'm good in—"

"Shut up," Armand said crossly, to both of them. Then he turned to KJ. "Don't you have enough concerns of your own without having to meddle with mine?"

"You asked me here," KJ pointed out.

"I'm starting to regret it."

The witch caught KJ's head and shook her head the slightest fraction, telling her friend to ease up. Armand was still raw, still sensitive, and he wasn't someone who would learn how to be laughed at overnight. They would have to trust to Daniel, to the all in all rather delightful person that Daniel had turned out to be, to take care of that over the years.

And those two did have as many years as they needed. At first, that thought chilled the witch as she looked at the beautiful creatures by the fire in a new light. That slender youth had been a youth for five hundred years and more, but it did seem, finally, as though his heart was being granted the change his body could never achieve, and considering that, her mood lightened again.

"You really aren't going with us?" Armand asked Khayman.

The old one shook his head. "You'll do well without me. I did my share of trying to heal Lestat's madness last time."

Armand shook his head. "There's only one who can do that, anyway."

"Louis," Daniel said with some certainty.

"That can't be right," the witch said.

"Oh, but it is," Daniel told her. "Without Louis, Lestat would be lost. As it seems he is now."

She shook her head. "Then it's all wrong. The only one who can heal Lestat's madness is Lestat himself."

Daniel quirked an eyebrow at her, but said nothing. He'd see the sense of it eventually, she thought, this child of wild and psychedelic times. The funny thing was, she thought, that Daniel was far more 'new age' than she herself would ever be; she was far too firmly rooted in the real traditions of the past.

"Well, I still vote for involving Louis somewhere," he said lightly. "But I guess it can wait till we see what's up, unless David has already called him." He rose lithely, straightening his rumpled shirt. "I'll go see if anyone's awake at the airport, and find out when the flights leave tomorrow."

As he left the room, Armand hesitated, then got up to follow. "You may be right," he said to the witch. "But to get Lestat to heal himself, he first has to understand himself, and that might take a few centuries." Then he went out, too.

The witch looked at KJ, who smiled wryly. "Amazing, isn't it, how people are so damn insightful about everything except themselves. Never fails."

"You said it."

Wretch had been tempted away from her lap by Khayman, and was now lying curled up in a happy furry ball on the vampire's chest; Khayman had slipped down to lie flat on the floor. The witch looked down at him.

"So what will you do now?" he asked her.

"I don't know." She sighed. "Go home."

"And you?" He transferred his intense dark gaze to KJ.

KJ shrugged. "I don't know. Go home."

"You could stay here for a while if you wanted to," he offered quietly.

Again the witch tried to catch KJ's eyes, but she failed this time. KJ was looking into the fire, her expression faintly dreamy. "I could," she said. "I could."

Chapter 11: Divers alarums

"This is the sound of poison, the sickness no one knows
No one is crying for us this time, our shapes are blurring
Under miracles of snow...
Weave a circle round him three times
You have to plan your moves at these times
Our hearts are breaking, one more song to go..." — Shriekback, 'Faded flowers'

He knew that Armand would have been more comfortable if they had flown in a chartered plane, but Daniel had made the arrangements and his lover had gone along with them. Now here they were in first class seats that were still a bit too cramped, constantly having to fend off offers of drinks from soft-spoken attendants.

KJ, Khayman and the witch had followed them to the airport and waved goodbye, and Daniel had felt as though they were all part of one big family. He almost expected one of them to say "Take care, and call us when you get there."

They hadn't, though. They had merely hugged and smiled and waved, the witch slim and delicate-looking all in black, KJ tousled and scruffy, standing as if surprised at it in the circle of Khayman's strong arms.

Daniel wondered about Khayman. But it was a private, quiet sort of wondering, one that was unlikely to be noticed. KJ had taught him and Armand to keep their thoughts untangled and to some measure apart. Emotions were more difficult to manage, far harder to control. Feelings always flared up at the most unsuitable moment. But this wasn't something Daniel felt all that strongly about and he thought he could keep it to himself.

Daniel knew that Khayman and Armand had lived together for the more than two years that he had been gone. Mad. Let's use the right words, shall we? Crazy. Ensorcelled. Bewitched. Out of my head...

He wasn't jealous of that time. It wasn't really in him, and besides, he knew Khayman and Armand had not been lovers — nothing for him to be jealous of even had he inclined that way.

But he wondered about Khayman, wondered about the dark silence in that old one's eyes, wondered about the sudden reserve towards himself that did not agree with what he had known of Khayman previously.

The witch was worried for her friend KJ, and the closeness that had developed between KJ and the ancient Egyptian. Daniel could see that much. But he didn't know if she needed to be.

He turned his head slightly and looked, through a thin veil of hair, at Armand, who sat beside him studying the night outside the small plane window. Armand wore his hair in a ponytail again and his profile was bone stark and perfect. Daniel reached out and trailed a finger down it, the smooth high forehead, the dip beneath the eyebrows, the straight nose with the very slightest of tilts at the end, the delicate pout of the lips...

:There are other people on this plane, you know.:

:I know,: Daniel said, caressing the pointed chin that had never known, and would never know, the growth of beard. :You mean you're not going to let me tear your clothes off and show everyone on the flight where you like to be bitten?:

Annoyance and humor coursed through him, and he felt the usual complicated joy at sparring with Armand unwind in him as a response.

:I love you, you know,: Armand countered unexpectedly.

Daniel made a small sound.

"What?"

"You just shot all my defenses to hell."

"I know." Then, even more unexpectedly, Armand laid his head on Daniel's shoulder, resting against him.

Daniel sighed in peace and contentment. :I don't know what we're getting ourselves into, but I'm glad we're together.:

The annoyance hadn't quite died out, but it only flickered. :I suppose we must.:

Daniel only smiled. Armand would never say that he helped Lestat out of affection, or friendship, or love. No, he would claim that it was to protect the vampires and their secrets, he would say it was so that the mortals would never know, he would even pretend it was so he could gloat when Lestat made a fool of himself.

Daniel knew better. And he'd get around to telling Armand so, one of these nights.

:I love you too,: he said, and managed to slip one arm around Armand's back, holding him tighter. Armand's hair was in Daniel's face. He didn't mind.

:You don't think we are getting too — what is that word KJ uses — saccharine?:

Daniel laughed out loud. "Not us," he said.

"Can I get you anything, sir?" A flight attendant had appeared next to them as if by magic, eyes flickering with repressed curiosity.

"No, thanks," Daniel said again, as he had said every time before.

"I'd like some coffee," Armand said unexpectedly.

:No, you wouldn't,: Daniel said as the attendant vanished to get it.

Armand shrugged. :Everyone else is consuming vast quantities of the stuff.:

:They're drinking champagne.:

:I can't warm my hands on champagne.:

:And what do you plan to do with it when it gets cold? Pour it out the window?:

Armand grinned and straightened up to receive the cup. "Thank you." :Inside the collar of your shirt. Fool.:

They sat silently for a while as Armand warmed his fingers, and Daniel enjoyed the sensation relayed through him. It was part of what KJ had made them practise, and they were quite comfortable with it. Physical sensations were harder to transmit than feelings and thoughts, but they were getting there. KJ had said they needed to be able to recognize that too, in case they ever did it by accident. 'You're already doing too damn much you shouldn't be able to.' Daniel smiled at the memory.

It was odd, this sharing. Decidedly odd. Of course he was, they were both, highly skilled in the arts of the mind, in tricks and illusions as well as communication. Being inside someone else's thoughts wasn't unusual. It was being so close to Armand that was strange.

It was like standing too close to a fire, and all they could do was get used to the heat. Often enough, they scorched each other, but sometimes they were set alight with passion instead of anger, and those times were worth a thousand hours of struggling through everyday awkwardness.

:You used to be my demon,: he told Armand. :My dark angel. My personal devil.:

:You said so,: Armand commented cautiously, :often enough. But I was never certain what those words meant to you.:

Daniel smiled a crooked little smile. :Oh, that you obsessed me, that I didn't know it was love unless it hurt me, that you were everything I wanted but did not know how to hold, and had no sanity to understand.:

The silence between them was thick with unfelt emotions. :And now?: Armand asked, his mind-voice slow with hesitation. :Is it different?:

:Yes.: Daniel put his arm around Armand again, drew him close. :I'm not trying to understand you. I'm not trying to pin you down, or hold you fast.:

:And I don't enchant you any more.:

:I've had enough of that.:

Armand had already caught his poor choice of words and was regretting them. :I didn't mean—:

:But it was the right thing to say,: Daniel said. :I suppose I'm susceptible to enchantments, of one kind or another. But no, you don't enchant me any more. I love you of my own free will these days. You don't torment me, though you do your best,: he added teasingly.

The attempt at humor went past Armand who had sunk deep in thought, and remained that way until they were preparing to land. Then he shook himself out of a deep trance Daniel had known better than to spy at, and said, "Perhaps we should let someone know we're coming."

Daniel nodded. "Carefully, though. We don't want Lestat to find out that the new nursemaids are in town."

Armand snorted dismissively, but Daniel felt him reach out with the most fine-tuned and precise and intimate of calls, questing for one mind and no other with a simple message. :We have come, Talamascan.:

:Oh, you're so conciliatory,: Daniel breathed at him.

At first he thought there would be no answering touch, and the silence spun itself out. Then a swift, powerful touch. :You're here. Get a hotel room. I'll find you.:

The contact was severed so quickly that Daniel blinked. "Well," he said. "So much for old-fashioned British hospitality."

"I expect," Armand said, "that he already had company. And now that we have hurried here, we shall have to possess our souls in patience, it seems."

"You're not really annoyed," Daniel said.

"No." Armand gave him a faint smile. "I can think of a lot of ways to pass the time."

* * *

"He thinks," David said carefully, "that he is being chased by the devil."

Armand was silent for a moment. "Well, he always did think big."

"He really believes it." David ran a hand through his hair, a comforting old mortal gesture, and slumped down in the chair. It was very pleasant, this big suite that Armand and Daniel had rented for themselves, but he knew that he had to get back to the apartment in the Olympic Tower before dawn, or Lestat might very well come looking for him.

He was tired. He was so tired; and it had nothing to do with the exertions his vampire body had gone through during the past few hours. It was too strong, he was too strong for that, and he'd fed well besides. Still, he was tired to the point of screaming.

Only the sight of Daniel, thoughtful and himself as he perched on the armrest of Armand's chair, brought David any real solace. Here was one, at least, who had seen much improvement since their last meeting.

"But it's preposterous." Armand made a small, elegant gesture. "Ridiculous."

David closed his eyes. "Yes. Well."

"That's insanity for you," Daniel said, wryly.

"He's killed one of the mortals," David said, eyes still closed, "but his obsession with the other has doubled. Tripled."

"The assassin and his daughter?" Armand asked. "That — missionary girl?"

"A televangelist," Daniel said wonderingly. "But what have you been doing all night?"

"Moving furniture," David said with some bitterness. "Trying to protect Lestat from the consequences of his folly. Trying..." He let his voice fade.

:I'll show you.: And he took them both into his memories.

Lestat showing up with that manic light still in his eyes, claiming not only to have killed the man he had been stalking so long, but to have met his ghost — to have had a long conversation with this ghost, interrupted by the menace that was stalking him. David had listened patiently and tried to say all the right things. Unable to quite grasp the whole concept: Lestat afraid and shaking and elated, Lestat speaking with ghosts and devils, Lestat determined to watch over and care for the black-haired girl he had followed for so long.

And in his determination to rescue Dora's inheritance, Lestat had dragged David along on a mad chase to an apartment that was, David had to admit, full of the most wonderful things. It was true that the dead man must have been remarkable, though how he came to haunt Lestat's conscience in this way was still inexplicable to David as they set out like mad burglars over the rooftops with their precious burdens, moving everything that was valuable until their apartment in the Olympic Tower resembled a junk shop.

:You didn't!: Armand exclaimed softly.

:Well, what else could I do!:

To contradict Lestat, while he was in this wild feverish state, seemed unthinkable. Even when he looked about madly and said he was going to hell.

And in the end everything had indeed been moved and all of Roger's things, now Dora's things, were safe, and Lestat was beginning to seem the merest touch tired and David had tried to get away on his own, saying he had to hunt. But oh no. Lestat had come with him, had watched him. David tried to fast-forward the memory of taking that poor ragged insane young man, but found Armand picking at it delicately and with curiosity. And the moment after, when, exasperated and intoxicated, he'd said to Lestat that he didn't think he'd last much longer.

Lestat, of course, hadn't understood that at all.

It wasn't until they were back in their by now overfurnished rooms again that Lestat, tired and wary but trusting in David's company, had fallen asleep.

"And if he wakes and finds I'm gone," David said, "I don't know — he may decide not to trust me any more. But I had to get away. I had to tell you all this." He looked up again, looked at them. "Do you understand?"

"I understand that Lestat's lost his marbles," Armand said crisply.

"But it seems to be possible to talk to him," Daniel interjected more gently. "You've done pretty well, not losing him in all this time."

David smiled a tired thanks. "The problem is that he won't listen to me," he said. "All he talks of is Dora. Claims he has Dora to think of." He sighed, remembering his own reply, the words incautiously harsh: 'Yes, and thanks to you, I have Dora too, now don't I?' But Lestat had smiled sweetly, taking the words at face value.

"Have you tried to get hold of Louis?" Daniel asked.

David shook his head. "I thought of it, but then I found you first. And," he articulated what had been in the back of his mind for a while now, "if this is what Louis left behind, I'm not surprised he and Lestat aren't together. I thought, I think, he might need a break."

"It's possible," Armand acknowledged. "Or else this has all been caused by Louis' departure."

David nodded. "I don't know. I simply do not know." He straightened up. "We go to New Orleans tomorrow, I'm sure of that. Can you arrange to go also?"

"But we only just got here," Daniel teased. "Yes, of course. This is on account of that young woman?"

"Dora. Yes, because of Dora." David frowned. "I worry constantly that he will simply walk into that convent of hers and start talking to her."

"This must not happen," Armand said. "We can't let that happen."

"No," David said. "What did you tell me, Daniel? That no one has ever been able to control Lestat?"

"Only Louis," Armand said.

"Only love," David agreed. "Let us hope that our love will be sufficient for now."

He levered himself out of the chair with as much difficulty as though he were still an elderly gentleman and not a vampire of immense strength in a new body. The reluctance he felt to return to Lestat's side startled him. David hoped his love would indeed be enough; he was feeling an unease so profound that it made him want to simply run away.

"We'll see you in New Orleans, then," Armand said.

David nodded. "Yes. Thank you."

He left, and made his way back to the Olympic Tower as fast as he could, refusing to give in to his wish of prolonging the journey. What if Lestat had indeed woken up while he had been away? What if Lestat had left and gone somewhere else?

But no. When he walked back in, there Lestat was, sleeping on a couch, sprawled in some impossible, uncomfortable pose right under the cool gaze of the marble angel. David found himself smiling tenderly at the scene. Lestat looked so, well, sweet. Innocent even. David carefully smoothed some stray hair out of Lestat's face, and Lestat did not even stir. Then he set about securing the windows against the coming dawn.

* * *

"I still think we should get in touch with Louis," Daniel said.

"So do it."

Daniel made a face. "We don't even know where he is."

"I know." Armand sighed. He'd hoped not to have to acknowledge it. But Daniel was right. They did need Louis. He wasn't sure why David wouldn't see that. "The last I heard, Louis was in Sonoma with Mael and Jesse. He's probably still there."

Daniel sat silent for a moment, his mind almost entirely shut away from Armand's. Then he said, "Are you still mad at Jesse?"

Such a simple question, yet so very loaded. Armand began to think that Daniel had learned a great many things from that young mortal woman, KJ.

"She lured you away from me," he said softly. "She was foolish enough to reveal herself to a mortal, and that mortal enchanted you and made you forget me, and I spent two years thinking — knowing — that you hated the very sight of me. That is not something I'll forget easily."

"No," Daniel said, and there were pulses of understanding coming from him. "I do see. But you forgave Martin."

"There's no point in hating a dead man."

"Armand!" Daniel rose from the arm of the chair and took a couple of steps away. "Will everyone who injures you have to pay the price of death to be forgiven? If anyone has issues with Jesse, it's me. I was the one who lost two years out of my life."

Armand tried to probe. "So, what are you going to do?"

Daniel stopped his prowling, stood still in the middle of the room, looking younger and happier than he ever had when he was alive. He shone like a candle in the dimly lit suite.

"I like Jesse," he said. "I have always liked Jesse. She didn't do it on purpose. I guess I'll call her and we'll talk. You have the number for the Sonoma compound?"

Armand was stunned into silence. Was that all? Daniel had been out of his head for such a long time. Armand had shared some of those memories, he knew just how empty and bleak an existence it had been. And now Daniel was just going to let it drop, forget about it?

"You mean you'll just forgive her, just like that?"

"No, not just like that," Daniel said and there was something that might have been a smile in his eyes. "She probably feels terribly guilty about it all. It might take time. But we'll get it straightened out in the end."

"If I were you," Armand said slowly, "I'd never speak to her again."

"That's restrained, for you," Daniel said. "I'd think if you were me, you'd make her next five hundred years a living hell. But I'm not like that."

"So what are you saying?" Armand felt himself pulled together by tension. "That I am some kind of monster, you're judging me, calling me cruel."

"I'm just saying that I'm not you. That's all."

"That's not all and you know it."

Armand rose out of the chair as Daniel came towards him, and they met in the middle of the room, standing close, though Armand disliked fighting thus face to face, disliked having to look up at Daniel.

But Daniel did not have the light of battle in his eyes.

"Listen to me," he said softly. "You do not forgive hurts easily. But I do. You've been hurt far more than I have. No one ever taught you to forgive. We're different."

"And you'd teach me that?" Armand didn't know where to go. Daniel was soft but perfectly unyielding. He felt unsure. Was he being accused or not? It couldn't be this simple.

"But it can," Daniel said. "It is simple. I can't force you to forgive Jesse. Though I'd be happy if you at least started talking to her again." He put his arms around Armand, who stood unmoving and stiff, refusing to give in to the loving embrace. "It's going to look ridiculous if I'm friends with her and you're not."

"You are accusing me of things yet again," Armand said. "You tell me I am cruel and unforgiving, you tell me I am afraid of looking ridiculous as though that's an argument for me to do something that's foreign to my nature." He cupped Daniel's face in one hand. "You're judging me."

"No." Daniel shook his head. "I love you."

"And you cannot do both at the same time?"

A smile broke out on Daniel's face. "I could," he said, "but I'm not. Armand, I know you. That's not the same as judging you. All I've said is what I think and what I feel. You know what I'm going to do. You can do whatever you like." Armand closed his eyes as Daniel pressed a gentle kiss on his cheek. "Now, do you have that phone number?"

Slowly he lifted his arms and returned the embrace, leaning into Daniel's arms, putting his head on Daniel's shoulder for a moment. Daniel's cheek was rubbing against the top of his head. Armand breathed in, breathed deep of Daniel's scent, faint but there. Here they were, together again. And it was like nothing else, it was better than it had ever been. Better than he had ever dreamed it could be.

Daniel didn't want to drag his past around with him every day. And Daniel had so few years to forget. Armand smiled a little. The weight of centuries of unforgiven crimes was a heavy one. Perhaps Daniel had a point.

It was hard, but he pulled himself free and went to rummage in a bag, pulling out a leather-bound note book.

"Here," he said, tossing it to Daniel. "Go ahead and call."

And the smile he saw then was worth it.

* * *

Louis jumped at the sound. He'd forgotten what a ringing telephone sounded like. No one had called in all the time he'd been there. Now the signal cut decisively through the air, expecting an answer.

"Should I get it?"

"No, no." Jesse appeared, her arms full of books. "I'll answer it." She dropped the books on the couch and bent to pick up the receiver. "Hello." Louis was on his way out of the room to give her some privacy, but at the sight of the expression on Jesse's face, he froze. "Daniel?" she gasped. "Oh God, Daniel — of course I'm glad to hear from you. What's happened? Are you — all right?"

There was a long silence. Louis still remained, both out of curiosity and because Jesse suddenly looked so frail. She was almost shaking.

Mael came into the room and lifted an eyebrow. "Who is it?" he asked softly.

"Daniel."

Mael's eyebrows shot up.

"I'm so glad, Daniel," Jesse said. "I feel terrible about all that happened. I don't know if you can ever forgive me." She blinked. "Oh, you." A few dark tears began to slide slowly down her cheeks.

Mael growled and started towards her, but Louis took his arm and held him back. "No, wait," he whispered. "I think it will be all right."

"No, I didn't mean to. But what about," she took a deep breath, "what about Armand?" A smile worked its way through the tears. "I'm sure. I'm sure you can. Oh, Daniel. I wish you were here so I could hug you, and to hell with how Armand would feel about that. I've never been so glad to hear anyone's voice in my life."

Mael nodded consideringly at Louis. "Hm."

"Yes, he's here," Jesse said. "Do you want to talk to him or— Yes. Yes, of course. What do you think? We'll— Oh, God. No. Of course we will. I'll call him over." She turned towards them. "Louis. It's for you."

"For me?" He walked slowly across the room towards her. "But I thought it was—"

"Daniel. Here." She thrust the receiver into his hand. Louis couldn't decipher the expression on her face, and in another instant she'd turned to Mael, hugging him tightly. Louis shrugged and decided to find out for himself.

"Daniel?"

"The very one," a voice he recognized well said in his ear. "Louis, we have a bit of trouble. Can you take Jesse and Mael and meet us in New Orleans tomorrow night?"

"What? I suppose so, but I thought... Daniel, how are you? Are you with Armand again?"

There was a brief silence. "I'm sorry. Didn't mean to start in the middle. I'm fine, and yes, I'm with Armand. I'll tell you the whole story later. Louis, when you left Lestat, was he okay?"

Louis felt his knees give way; he half fell onto the couch, landing painfully on the books. "What's happened to him?" he gasped.

"Nothing," Daniel's voice said quickly, "he's fine, or, well, he's not hurt."

And the choice of words told Louis everything he didn't want to know. He fought it, fought the realization, but it was there anyway, and forced itself out.

"He's gone mad again, hasn't he?"

And Daniel's long slow sigh of confirmation, "Yes."

"Is that where he is, where you are, in New Orleans still?"

"No. We're in New York, but we're leaving tomorrow. David is with Lestat. I'd talk more, I'd explain it all to you — what I understand, anyway — but we have to get organized. Can you come tomorrow? Jesse said yes. Meet me at the Pontchartrain hotel. Just check in there and wait for me."

"All right," Louis said, in a daze. "All right. We'll do that, Daniel. All right."

"Louis? Are you okay?"

"Oh, of course, Daniel. I'm fine. I'll meet you there." The receiver fell from his hand and thunked against the floor. Louis closed his eyes and felt the tears spill over. He was vaguely aware of others moving, of Jesse's voice.

"We'll be there, Danny," and the the click as she hung up. Arms around him. "Louis. Ssssshhh, it will be all right..."

He shook his head. "In a little while," he said, sobbed. Then he turned in her arms and cried on her shoulder, cried for it all, for Lestat and for himself. Not until he was sore with it did he stop, sit up, wipe the trail of tears from his eyes.

"Better?" Jesse asked carefully.

"Not really," he said. "But I had to do it here and now or I couldn't have done it at all. How do we go? By plane, or—"

"The fastest way, I think," Jesse said. "Mael?"

Her partner nodded. "Certainly." He looked sharply at Louis. "But will you be—"

"All right?" Louis smiled wryly. "I'll have to be, won't I?"

Chapter twelve: Vanishing trick

"Pick up the receiver and I'll make you a believer." — Depeche Mode, 'Personal Jesus'

"David, we changed the plan a little."

In the deep darkness the park was mostly silent, only the occasional rustling of branches, distant sound of sleepless birds. Armand was waiting at a heavy stone bench. It seemed that he hadn't even changed after the journey; he looked crumpled and untidy and waif-like, though all the more appealing for it, David thought. Armand could do that look to perfection. He made you want to take him home and feed him milk and cookies. He fit into this night, making it his. And something shone in his eyes, a restless peace, a shivering happiness.

So very different from the wounded and wounding creature in the Paris cafe.

"But where is Daniel?" David asked.

"That's what I'm trying to tell you, David. We changed the plan — we called Louis. Daniel is meeting Louis and Jesse and Mael at the Pontchartrain."

"I see," David said a little blankly.

"David." Armand came slowly and deliberately towards him, put a hand on his arm. "We need Louis."

"Yes," David nodded his agreement. "Yes, you're right, we do. Lestat needs him."

"That's right."

Another careful look, but Armand did not ask why David did not want to meet Louis. And it wasn't that he didn't want to, really. He did. And if Louis was all caught up in Lestat, he would never even notice David's problems.

Then David was appalled at himself. How could he even think of his own problems in this context! Lestat was mad. And oh, how Louis would suffer at hearing that — or did he already know? Lestat never mentioned Louis' name. Was it possible that—

"Have you told him?" he asked.

Armand nodded. "Briefly. I think..." His eyes went unfocused. "Daniel will be telling him about it soon."

David gave Armand a narrow look. He didn't know from whose mind Armand was picking things up, nor how he could read Daniel's intentions so well. But that could wait. "Well, we need to decide what to do," he said. "We can't just tell Lestat we think he's going mad and will he please go off quietly with Louis..."

Armand shrugged. "Why not?" he said, an impish look on his face. "It would be a perfect solution, I rather think. Or are you telling me Lestat would be unwilling to go off with Louis?"

"He hasn't mentioned Louis' name once," David said. "Not once."

"So?"

"Armand, have you ever known Lestat not to drag Louis into the conversation every five minutes?"

Armand fell silent for a moment, considering this. "No."

"Well, then."

"So they've had a fight. They can kiss and make up." Armand seemed to regard this as the normal way of conducting a relationship.

"I don't really think it is that simple," David protested. "To have Louis kiss and make up with a madman..."

"It worked last time," Armand pointed out.

"You were the one who was most worried about Louis and against the idea, last time. You were worried about Lestat hurting Louis. And I tell you, he's different now."

"You keep saying that." Armand perched on the back of the stone bench, regarding David thoughtfully. "All right. Maybe there is a danger to Louis after all. Tell me. How is he different?"

"Well." David found a convenient tree to lean against. "When this happened before, Lestat had a spell of madness during which he lost his memory; after that he was his old self again. More or less. Now he is suffering from a constant delusion, and although his conversation seems rational enough to begin with, it becomes clear after a while that he's not—"

"He's coming," Armand interrupted him. "He's picked up on our location — shall I let him find us?"

"You may as well," David said. He straightened up again, and began to pace. "We seem unable to decide on a course of action anyway."

"I cannot say anything until I've seen him," Armand said. "The devil, of all things. It seems so — absurd."

They waited in silence for Lestat to come to them.

When he did, he was tender and sweet enough to make David want to cry; his affection for Armand shone clear and he made only a token attempt at hiding it. Lestat pulled them both along deeper into the park, into the darkness, and spilled the whole tale almost without prompting, including the fact that he had been speaking to the young woman, Dora.

David and Armand looked at each other at the same moment, and in Armand's eyes David saw mirrored what he himself felt: dismay and irritation. It seemed that Lestat's imagination had fastened itself onto this girl and was busily making her a thing of wonder. Lestat wanted to believe her a saint.

:Have you seen her?: Armand sent a small tendril of thought.

:Yes.: David did not hide his disapproval.

Armand did try to get along with Lestat, David could see that. He did not lose his temper once. He spoke sweetly of the Savage Garden, and of the way Lestat had seen things before.

But nothing they said made any impact on Lestat. He seemed to hear something different, to hear only what suited him. And what suited him was to think that the mortal Dora was the only one who could tell him what to do. After talking to them — at them — for the longest time, he announced that it was time.

"Please don't go to Dora," David said, hoping an unabashed plea might work where reason would not.

"I have to, and it's almost morning now." That was something of an exaggeration. "I love you both." They couldn't doubt it. Whatever else was unpleasantly different with Lestat, he had become charmingly frank about his emotions.

"If you love us," Armand said, "will you not stay with us a little longer? You said the Devil gave you a couple of nights. It cannot take so long for your little mortal sibyl to give you her advice—"

"I need to hear what she has to say," Lestat said feverishly. "Don't try to stop me, Armand. You are always trying to stop me. Are you jealous that the devil chose me and not you?"

To David's surprise, Armand stepped closer to Lestat and laid a hand against his cheek. "No, mon cher, I am not. I'd not want to be chosen by your devil. I wish rather that you could know what I have known of heaven."

Lestat blinked. For a moment he seemed to be wholly there again, the old soul looking out of his eyes; then they glittered as maniacally as before. "Heaven? You know nothing of heaven, Armand. You are an earthbound creature, as you said. I need Dora now; she is the only one who can advise me." He turned and began to walk away.

"Lestat, wait!" Armand called after him.

And David dared to call, "Lestat — what about Louis?"

But neither Armand nor David received an answer. Lestat had gone.

"He's closed his mind to me," Armand sighed bitterly. "He will not respond. David, this is trouble on a grand scale."

"An understatement, I think," David said. He rubbed a hand over his eyes; they hurt, he felt as he thought Maharet must feel. "And heaven only knows what that girl will tell him."

* * *

It felt strange to be returning to New Orleans carried in Jesse's slim, powerful arms, and to go to the Pontchartrain instead of returning to the house in Rue Royal. Louis could not shake the feeling that the world was slightly skewed, that someone had turned a caleidoscope in front of his eyes and everything had tilted sideways. The new pattern wasn't to his liking — but he could not turn the world back again.

Jesse must have felt his unhappiness. She took his hand and squeezed it gently as they checked in. They went directly to their rooms, as Daniel had asked them to, and settled down to wait. Mael sat on a couch, and after a moment Jesse came to rest against him, her head on his chest. They were perfectly harmonious together, at ease in their silence.

His throat hurt and his eyes burned with unshed tears. Louis turned away from them and stood at the window, looking out. After a moment he nudged it open, and breathed in the night air, and listened to the rattle of the streetcar going down St Charles.

So Lestat was mad again. But what had happened? Surely there hadn't been another trail of victims, another blatant series of killings. He would have heard of that, it would have been in the papers, on the television.

And when do you read newspapers, Louis?

Hardly ever.

He was so tense. Louis wanted to rip the window from its hinges, leap out into the night and set off after Lestat. To find him and look into his eyes and talk to him and talk to him. That would make everything all right, wouldn't it? If only he could get to be with Lestat, Lestat would relax and come back to himself.

But he'd been asked to wait here and so he was waiting. Reluctantly, but still waiting. Daniel had seemed to think they needed more information first.

Daniel, now there was a miracle in itself. Daniel should know a thing or two about returning from the brink of insanity. Louis forced himself to think slow happy thoughts about Daniel for a while. He was very glad that Daniel was well again. He had always liked Daniel, ever since the first time he had met him when Daniel was a happy-go-lucky young reporter with no more sense than to follow mysterious strangers to their rooms in seedy hotels.

Louis smiled a little. Daniel had lived for taking risks. Who else could have fallen in love with Armand?

There was a brief rap at the door and then it opened briskly, and Daniel himself stepped inside. "Hi."

"Daniel!" Jesse launched herself from the couch like a rocket and threw herself at the newcomer. She caught him in a tight hug, drawing a whoof! from him. "Oh, Daniel."

Louis heard a quiver in her voice. She was crying. Daniel had collected himself enough to hug her right back, patting her shoulders and stroking her long shining hair. "Jesse. Jess. It's all right, Jess. I'm fine, I'm more than fine."

"You'd better be," she told him, and wiped her face unabashedly on his shirt sleeve.

"Jesse! My clothes!"

Louis walked over to join them. "Daniel. It's good to see you."

He stretched out his hand, but Daniel disentangled himself of Jesse and wrapped his arms around Louis instead. "I feel awful," he said in Louis' ear. "I'm so embarrassed. I think I was terribly rude and a total idiot the last time I met everyone and I'm not sure whether to apologize for it or pretend it never happened."

"Just don't do it again," Louis said and ruffled Daniel's hair affectionately. "We were all terribly worried about you."

"Indeed," Mael said; he had come up behind them. "Welcome back."

"Thank you." Daniel smiled. Then he grew serious. "But really, I hate the fact that it's trouble that's brought us together again." He pulled Louis with him. "Come sit down. I'll tell you everything I know, which isn't everything there is to know, but it's the best I can do."

"All right," Louis said and allowed himself to be pulled down onto the couch, Daniel next to him. "But wouldn't it be better if I just went to Lestat and talked to him?"

"I don't know." There was a worried frown on Daniel's face. "Look, I'll just tell you all this — I mean, Lestat will still be there, right?"

Louis nodded reluctantly. "All right. Go ahead."

Daniel sat still for a moment, apparently marshalling his thoughts. Jesse and Mael had settled on the floor at his feet like disciples.

"It seems," he began slowly, "that Lestat believes himself to be courted by the devil. He called out for David, and David was told of this and met him in New York, and Lestat said he was being followed by something he believes to be the devil, and the devil has offered him a job." Daniel paused and ran a hand through his hair.

"A job?" Mael looked unbelieving.

"Yes. As a sort of junior devil, I think." Daniel looked frankly bewildered as he said it.

"Did David see anything of this devil?" Jesse asked.

"No. Nothing. But he said it was obvious that Lestat really was, well, afraid of something. That he really believed in this, whatever it was. And apparently Lestat was also obsessed with two mortals, one a criminal, a kind of contract killer, I believe, who had a thing about church art, and the other his daughter, a pretty televangelist who dances for Jesus."

"Daniel, you're making this up." That was Jesse again.

"No, I am not." Daniel looked at her and Louis could tell that there was reproach in his eyes. "I wouldn't..." Daniel wouldn't tell such a story, would not make such a tasteless joke, in front of Louis. "Then, David said, Lestat killed the man and met his ghost."

"But we can't see ghosts," Jesse wailed, unable to stop herself from objecting. "We just don't. I haven't seen Miriam," her voice caught a little, "since Maharet made me. And I'm sure I would have if it were possible, Daniel." She sat there on the floor, wide-eyed in her cloud of hair, and looked like a little girl, ready to cry at the memory of her mother, whom she had never met. Whom she had only met as a ghost.

"Jesse, I'm just telling the story. This is what David said that Lestat told him. Lestat was convinced of this." Daniel went on, "Then there was some business of moving all the dead man's art and stuff — I'm sorry, but I missed out on the details here, I didn't understand half of what David was saying about icons and Veronica's veils and whatever. But Lestat considers himself the guardian of this mortal girl. He," Daniel gave Louis a sideways look, "seems to be very attached to her."

"You mean that he's fallen in love with her," Louis said. "You can say it."

"Well." Daniel still hesitated. "That seems to be — that is what it looks like, yes."

"Very well." Louis drove his nails into his palm. "Go on."

"But Louis," Daniel said, "I think it's just because — because of his madness, not what he really—"

"If he's mad," Louis said, "he may have forgotten about me entirely, no?"

"Yes," Daniel said, then a corner of his mouth tilted up in a smile. "What can I say — been there, done that. I came to my senses. I'm sure Lestat will, too."

"We'll see," Louis said, refusing to give in to the well-meaning but empty comfort. "Now do go on, Daniel."

"I don't know any more," Daniel said. "Or not much more. Lestat wanted to go here, to New Orleans, because Dora lives here. There were some papers or books she ought to have, or something. David went with him. Then they parted company. David is with Armand." Daniel fell silent for a moment, bowed his head and seemed to study his hands. "They are — they will try to talk to him."

"So do I want to talk to him," Louis said quietly, but with determination.

"Yes, of course," Daniel said. "We just felt you should know all this first, that you should know what he is saying, what he believes."

"Now I know," Louis said. "Where is he?"

"I don't know where Lestat is."

"You can look for him." Louis turned his head to look at Jesse and Mael. "Either one of you can find him."

"In a moment," Mael said. "Give David and Armand a chance."

"Daniel," Jesse said sweetly before Louis could get his mouth open to object, "please, if it doesn't bother you to talk about it, won't you tell us what's been happening to you?"

Daniel nodded. There was reserve in his face, but only a little. "No, I can tell you. I mean, I'm still confused by it all. But I think I can tell you most of it." He leaned back on the couch, more at ease now than he had been in telling them of Lestat's madness. "I went all around the world in the past years," he said. "I never spoke to anyone. I hated everyone." There was real pain in Daniel's voice, and Louis reached out and touched his arm. Daniel relaxed and went on, "Then I went to ground in a cellar in Rome and didn't rise until I was called."

"Who called you?" Jesse's voice was hushed.

"The mortal man. Martin. He was dying. I went to see him, and Armand came looking for me. Then when Martin died, I was released, I became myself again."

Jesse was looking at Daniel intently, her eyes narrowed. She looked uncannily like Maharet. "There's something you're not telling us."

"There are lots of things I'm not telling you. Can't I have a little privacy?" Daniel winked at her.

Louis stirred restlessly. This wasn't half the story, he was certain of that, but he didn't have the patience to even begin to winkle the truth out of Daniel. He didn't want to sit here a moment longer. He wanted to go out and look for Lestat; he wanted someone to tell him where to look. There wasn't much time to play with. It was getting late — early — whatever.

"If you tell me where to look," he began.

"Relax, Louis," Jesse said, patting his knee. "Armand and David are right here in New Orleans and so is that girl. Lestat's not going anywhere."

"How can you be so certain of that?" Louis tried very hard not to snap at her. He loved Jesse dearly. But it was impossible to second-guess Lestat. All one could do was to try to keep up. He glared at the others as Jesse looked into Daniel's eyes and something swift and silent seemed to pass between them.

"We've been in Paris lately," Daniel said, picking up the thread of his story smoothly as though he hadn't noticed the interruption. "Oh, Louis, KJ sends her love."

"You met her in Paris?" Louis remembered that young woman fondly — her dry sense of humor, the fact that she'd taught a vampire to sew buttons.

"She was a friend of Martin's, remember?" Daniel dodged the question neatly.

"Of course I remember." He rose abruptly and walked over to the window again, contemplating simply jumping out of it and going off into the night. But he had no idea where to go. Would it work to go to the house in Rue Royal and wait there, and hope for the best?

Behind him Jesse and Daniel were talking again, their voices low and intimate. They were settling into friendship again. Louis had rarely seen anyone as happy as Jesse had been when she'd realized Daniel was no longer insane. He'd never realized to what an extent her guilt had burdened her. It was a joy to see her free of it.

But he could not stay here any longer! It was unbearable. He couldn't. There was so little time left before dawn, so very little. Especially for him. Sharing Lestat's blood hadn't given him more than maybe another ten minutes. That wasn't much.

He spun around, fully intending to leave no matter who tried to hold him back. But then the door opened and Armand and David walked in.

"What's happened?" Daniel and Jesse said simultaneously.

Armand dropped onto the couch next to Daniel, the place that Louis had vacated earlier. He looked down at Jesse, a long cool look.

"Jessica, don't sit on the floor," David said, teasing her gently. "It's not ladylike."

"Oh, David." She jumped up and hugged him.

"Lestat says that the devil is coming for him tomorrow night," Armand said. "He's gone to ask Dora what to do."

"What!" Louis came away from the window and strode into the middle of the room. "And you just let him go to her?!"

"Well, what could we do!" Armand said. "He's about as easy to stop as an earthquake, you know that. He was set on this!"

"He's already revealed himself to her," David added. "Earlier tonight."

"Damn it all to hell," Louis said slowly.

He looked down at the floor. Then he became aware of someone coming close to him, of Armand reaching out to hold him, to hug him, a soft and comforting embrace. Armand's clothes still smelled of the cool night air outside and he was very gentle. "Louis," Armand said softly, resonantly. "Louis, if I could have thought of anything to say that might have stopped him, I would. I couldn't — nothing we said got through to him."

Louis lifted his head and looked into Armand's brown eyes, so close. They hadn't been this close to each other in many decades and it suddenly struck him as funny that he should remember the details so well, the exact slant of the eyebrows, that small green fleck in one of Armand's eyes.

"I understand," he said. "I know you tried, that you did your best. But you must let me go to him now."

Again he had the feeling that the others were communicating briefly. "Not now," Armand said slowly. "Think, Louis, it's nearly dawn, there's not time enough..."

"There won't be if I don't go now!" Louis said furiously, and tried to break free of Armand's embrace.

"Louis, wait!" David came up too, and took hold of him. Louis thought about struggling, but he knew he could never overcome both of them — and how ridiculous they would look, standing there fighting like drunken mortals. "Louis, we'll all go with you tomorrow night."

"But I don't want you all to go with me," Louis said, trying to sound reasonable. "This is my lover we're talking about, and I think I'm the only person he might listen to. He will definitely not listen if you're all hanging around my shoulders like a Greek chorus."

"No, well," David said. "Still, it might be best—"

In a flash, Louis realized the truth of it. "You think he might hurt me, don't you? You think he might be dangerous to me!" He looked accusingly at all of them — David, Armand, Daniel, Jesse. Even Mael. "But that's ridiculous!"

"Really, Louis," David said gently. "Last time Lestat went mad, he killed people who'd done nothing but look like you."

"Yes," Louis said, "but he didn't kill me. Once we were together again, things were fine. And you have even less reason to think he might hurt me this time — unless there's something else you're not telling me," he added pointedly.

"No, Louis," David said. Practical, rational David. "We're not hiding a trail of dead bodies. But Louis..." He pulled Louis with him until they both sat on the couch. The others withdrew, but only a short distance. "Louis, he is worse now. I am sorry to have to say it, but that is the way of it. He appears rational, but isn't. It's impossible to talk to him, to get through to him."

"And you are saying that he wouldn't listen more to me than to any of you." Louis could hear that his voice sounded harsh.

"I don't know," David said. "I would hope so. I would like to believe that love counts for something." He sounded tired. "But I don't want you to take the risk of speaking to him alone. We all care for you, Louis. We want you to be safe."

"And what about Lestat? Don't you want him to be safe? You're protecting me against him, but no one's protecting him against himself."

David made a small shrug, elegant, restrained. "Yes, but what is there that can harm him? He is virtually indestructible now. It's the rest of the world we should fear for, Louis, though we think mostly of you."

Louis had to smile a little, and he reached out and squeezed David's hand. "You're kind. David, you look so tired. This has been wearing you out, hasn't it?"

"It has been troublesome," David acknowledged.

It was growing a very little lighter in the room, and the air that came in through the open window had a new freshness. Louis saw that Jesse and Mael had already retired to one of the suite's bedrooms, and Armand and Daniel were standing by the door to the other, talking intimately — at least Louis thought they were talking, though he could not make out any words.

He turned back to David, who did indeed look worn out. There was a sad, resigned look to him. "Very well, I will wait. You've done so much," Louis said. "Wasn't it inconvenient for you to rush off from, where were you, Italy?"

"No," David said, "I was in Burma. And it was no trouble at all." But when his brown eyes met Louis', they spoke of grief.

* * *

Daniel was the last to wake, though he could tell that Louis had not been conscious much longer. When he walked out of the bedroom he found Jesse, Mael and Armand crowded together uneasily at the window, looking out at the Garden District. David and Louis stood apart from them and waited, silent and uncomfortable.

:Why at the window?: Daniel asked Armand silently. :It makes no difference, does it?:

:No, but the fresh air is nice,: Armand answered with aplomb. :Now hush up, impertinent child.:

Daniel decided that the Lestat-trackers did not need company. He walked over to Louis and David instead and nodded at them. "Good evening."

"They can't find him," Louis said bitterly."'Lestat's not going anywhere', indeed."

"They will," David said. He had a hand reassuringly on Louis' arm. "He's probably just out somewhere on his own and they're not looking in the right direction."

Daniel couldn't think of anything else to say, and they looked at each other and then at the three at the window. They were still for the longest time, finding nothing, it seemed.

:Why not?: Daniel asked Armand. :Is Lestat trying to hide?:

:Yes. He must be somewhere very lonely. I cannot get anything from the minds of mortals even...:

:What if he's flying?: Daniel asked.

The only answer from Armand was an unverbalized curse, and he withdrew from the contact, deciding he'd done his bit to help.

Daniel thought about putting his arms around Louis, thought about hugging Louis and telling him everything would be all right. But he knew that that was what they all wanted to do in here, and what no one was doing because they couldn't be sure of it, because they were all such damnably poor liars. They all loved him too much to try to deceive him, even had Louis been likely to have been deceived by their good intentions.

Th silence stretched out longer and longer. It was completely dark outside now, had been for quite a while, though with the lights from the street, it was hard to tell unless one looked up into the sky.

"Oh, damn him," Jesse said suddenly.

"What?" Louis asked.

"I've got him — I think. He's walking down a street. He's very far away."

"Where?" David asked.

"How the hell should I know?" She was silent for a moment. "I think it's — yes, it is. New York. But I can't get anything clear; he's trying to hide. He's buying food," she said incredulously.

"That means the mortal girl is with him," Armand said.

Louis said nothing, but the silence that hung around him seemed to scream.

"Then we shall have to follow," David said, and his decisive words snapped them all into action. "Come, we'll go down and settle things at the desk quickly — who booked the suite?"

"I did," Jesse said. "I'll put it all on my card, it won't take a minute."

"Good. Then I'll take Louis." They strode towards the door, Louis swept along by David's arm on his shoulder. Daniel tagged after, last, and made a brief check through the rooms, finding a sweater of Jesse's, and Armand's sunglasses. He bounded down the stairs with these items and found the others ready to leave. David still had hold of Louis, and Armand was looking with some dismay at Jesse and Mael.

Daniel would have laughed if things hadn't been so serious. He handed Armand his sunglasses, then turned to Jesse with a grin. "Yours, I believe," he said and held up the sweater. "It'll get cold up there." He winked at her before saying, "Mael, give me a ride?"

:Daniel, I'll get you for this, I swear.: Jesse was such a powerful telepath that the words ricocheted around his mind, shaking him. But Mael was already giving him a piercing look and then nodding agreement, and they were all going outside, turning away swiftly to a side street where no one could see them. David had already launched himself into the sky with Louis. Daniel put an arm around Mael's waist and felt himself gripped by strong arms, and then the cool air whistled past him as they sped upwards. He blinked and tried to look down, tried to see how Jesse and Armand were getting on, hoped he hadn't precipitated a crisis.

:Daniel, you are a devil.: It was Armand, hissing at him.

:Let's just hope I'm the only devil we'll have to deal with,: Daniel sent back.

The flight, though speedy, was not instantaneous, and he found himself dropping off to uncomfortable sleep; he trusted Mael that much, little though he knew of the other vampire. It was mostly, Daniel realized, that he knew Jesse would skin Mael alive if anything happened to him.

He woke again as they were swooping in over the great sprawling New York area and descending quickly to a certain place, all of them still following David. Daniel looked around, unconcerned, and once on his feet in the street tried to look as though he'd been there all along. It didn't help that three of them were dressed for a California winter rather than New York's snow.

"Let's get indoors," David said.

And only then did Daniel realize where they were — the Olympic Tower. "Are you sure he's here?" he asked.

"The mortal girl is here," Armand said. "As to Lestat..." He looked at the others. "I've felt nothing of him since not long after we started our flight. Have any of you—"

Jesse shook her head, and Mael said, "Nothing. Not even from her mind."

"Let's go ask her, then," David said.

Louis was already on his way in through the glass doors. They did not heed the surprised looks meeting mortals gave them as they crowded into an elevator and went up. No one could say a word; they just eyed each other uncomfortably. When Daniel sent his mind questing ahead, he found no trace of Lestat.

The elevator doors opened and David stepped outside first, followed by Louis, and took them to the right apartment. David unlocked the door and they all filed inside.

The place was crammed with strange things, piles of books, lovely paintings and sculptures, small precious statuettes, rows of gilded miniatures laid out neatly on tables. Plastic packaging material lay in heaps on the floor. Daniel blinked. David hadn't been exaggerating. And here, in the large room, a marble angel leaning lovingly over a couch, and the remains of a meal, and a thin young woman in black sitting there looking at them all fearlessly.

They all stopped around the door. All except Louis. He pushed his way through the small crowd and walked up to her.

"So you're the one," he said softly, then his voice took on an edge. "Where is he?"

The woman, Dora, looked up at him. It struck Daniel that they were really very much alike, these two, slender and because of that appearing taller than they were, both with the same black, black hair and white, white skin and dark eyes — Dora's eyes black and Louis' green. Both of them fine-featured, too. They could have been sister and brother.

Dora smiled sweetly.

"He went with the devil to hell," she said. "He's gone to find me a miracle."

Chapter thirteen: The love of comrades

"Now although I'm forsaken, I'll not be cast down
It may be that my true love one day may return..." — 'All Things Are Quite Silent', trad.

Louis stared at Dora in disbelief. "He what?"

"Went with the devil," she said patiently. "To see heaven and hell."

"The full guided tour," Daniel said behind them. "Meals not included." Then he fell silent quite quickly as if someone had pinched him.

"Have you seen the devil, too?" Louis asked, forcing himself to stay level-voiced and rational as he looked into her eyes.

"No." Dora shook her head, and her straight black hair clung smoothly to her head, more like a carved ornament than real, loose strands. She looked like something that had been made, rather than a creature of birth and growth; looked as though her present shape was her only and definitive one. Almost like a vampire in that. It was part of whatever attraction she held for Lestat, Louis supposed. "But don't you see, it has to be true. The fact that I'm seeing you here, it's just proof that everything I've ever believed is true."

"The fact that you've met vampires proves that the devil exists?" That was Daniel again, unable it seemed to keep silent. "Of course. Can't think why I didn't realize that a long time ago."

Dora looked annoyed at being laughed at. She rose from the couch and took a step towards the vampires. Louis reached out swiftly and cupped a hand around her cheek. "You really believe this," he said. "You believe that the devil is real. And believing that, you've sent Lestat off to hell."

"You are hurting me," she said calmly. "And if you do not believe there is a hell, why are you so afraid that he's gone there?"

"Because I love him," Louis said. "And because now that you've encouraged him in his madness, he's gone somewhere that he believes is hell, and I don't know where that is, and I don't know how to get him back again."

"He will come back," she said. There was not a shred of doubt in her voice, in her mind, what he could feel of it.

Louis let her go. Tiny dots of red on her cheek — the marks of his fingers. He could have broken her neck by a quick turn of the wrist, and she'd known it, yet she'd felt no fear.

She wasn't stupid. She was a puzzle.

David came up to stand next to him. The taller vampire put a comforting arm around Louis, holding him very lightly, and looked at Dora.

"Have you any idea — apart from the fact that he went to hell," he added meticulously, "have you any idea in what direction he went? Did he vanish in a cloud of brimstone from this very room, or did he in fact leave under his own power?"

"He walked out the door," Dora said in a tone of voice usually reserved for explaining things to two-year-olds. "He would not have let the devil come here. He would not let the devil come near me."

It was beginning to grate on Louis, the constant repetition of the word 'he' as though there were only one 'he' in the entire world.

Of course, he felt the same way himself.

"I still can't pick up anything," Jesse said in a low voice from somewhere near the door.

"Not a whisper," Armand said.

"I cannot find him either," Mael finished the report.

Louis turned slowly to look at them. Apart, they were powerful. Together, they were more powerful still. Theoretically, even Lestat should find it hard to hide from them.

"He will come back when—"

"Shut up," Louis said, rounding on Dora. "I don't want to hear one more word out of you. Is that quite clear?"

She opened her mouth and closed it again, and blinked her ink-black eyes a couple of times, and finally nodded.

"Sensible girl," Daniel said. He was standing a little apart from the others, leaning against the wall, ash-blond hair falling into his eyes. "Now what do we do?"

"Wait, I think," Louis said.

"That's all?" Jesse blinked.

"What else is there?" he asked. "Of course I'd be happy if you kept looking for him. But if we don't find him, all we can do is wait for him to turn up again. We'll have to split up. I'll go back to New Orleans — he may decide to go there." Louis paused, and felt as though something had hit him so hard he couldn't move. It was real. Lestat really had disappeared. "I don't know what else to do," he went on slowly. "I'd go into hell to get him back if I could. But it seems I don't have the right contacts, and I don't know where it is."

"Maybe you could get Tammy Faye there to take you," Daniel said, nodding at Dora.

Louis looked at her and shook his head. "I wouldn't ask her to see me to the door."

Jesse came towards him, silent and solemn. She took his hand in hers and rubbed her thumb gently over his palm, in the places where he would have had calluses from gardening had vampires developed such things. "We'll keep looking, of course," she said. "Maybe he's in Wales again."

"Maybe," Louis said with a tiny smile, remembering Lestat's story of waking and finding himself surrounded by sheep. "But I think it more likely that when he does come back from wherever he is, he'll go either here or to New Orleans. I think some of us should stay here and some of us should go back, just in case."

"He will come here," Dora said. "He will come to me."

Louis sighed. He could feel her mind, very clear and sharp — yes, she was intelligent, there was no doubt. But everything in her had only one side. She was so utterly concentrated on one belief, one goal, that there was no room for anything else in her head. "You don't even realize how rude you're being, do you?" he asked.

She lifted her chin. "I am telling the truth," she said.

Daniel caught Louis' eyes and shook his head. "Forget it," Daniel said. "She's a lost cause. I'll come with you to New Orleans."

Louis looked at him in surprise. "Thank you, Daniel."

Daniel shrugged. "It's not a problem." His eyes dropped for a moment and a strange expression crossed his face. "Not a problem at all."

Louis looked sideways to see Armand the perfect picture of a frowning cherub, but he was distracted by David, who crossed his arms and said, "I'll stay here with Theodora. Lestat knows I know about her, he won't be too surprised or upset that I'm with her when he comes back."

Louis silently blessed David for that 'when'.

"I'll stay here, too," Armand said, in a curiously reserved voice, but obviously meaning it.

"Well," Jesse said slowly, "we'll—"

"Use this as a base," Mael said. "We will try to track him. Not just by mental scanning. We will go out and look for him."

"Thank you," Louis repeated, feeling a little stunned.

Mael smiled. "You don't have to thank us," he said. "We'd be poor friends indeed if we did not do this."

"Yes," Jesse agreed. "You helped me with my roses, I'll help you with this."

Daniel pushed himself away from the wall and brushed his hair out of his face. "Is there a phone in this place? I'll take care of our plane tickets."

He felt more than stunned, he felt overwhelmed, and in another moment he was going to cry. Louis twisted his hands together, tried to maintain control. He could handle Lestat being gone, he tried to tell himself. He could deal with Lestat being mad. He could cope with Lestat being in love with this dreadful girl. If only, if only, everyone wasn't being so terribly nice to him...

They all spoke quietly together, making plans, arranging everything that needed to be arranged. Daniel came back, having called the airport and arranged for a taxi. David and Armand were calmly discussing how to deal with their daytime arrangements in a household that would, however temporarily, include Dora. Louis could tell from the look in Armand's eyes that Armand was tempted to solve the problem of Dora in a very final and efficient way.

Shortly he found himself being handed around from vampire to vampire as they all embraced him, or pressed his hand, or kissed his cheek. Jesse sent him a gentle, wordless pulse of affection; David hugged him more spontaneously and more warmly than ever before. And Daniel took his hand and led him out of the room. Louis turned his head and looked back at Dora, and met her intense black gaze, and a moment of something like recognition passed between them before he had to break the eye contact and give in to Daniel's insistent tugging.

They found a cab within moments of stepping outside. The cab driver kept up an unending monologue about his personal problems, and they both stared out the windows and tried to avoid giving any answers. The familiar airport routine was something they could both have gone through in their sleep, Louis felt. There was some polite surprise at their lack of luggage, but a charming smile or two took care of that. Daniel's charming smiles. Louis felt if he moved his face it would break into little pieces.

Once on the plane they settled into their seats with a sigh of relief.

"You can let it out now, Louis," Daniel said as they took off and the ground began to recede beneath them. "It's okay."

Louis looked at him. "But then—"

But then I'll never be able to hold it in again, he wanted to say. I can't let go, it will kill me.

"It will be all right," Daniel insisted. He put one hand carefully on Louis' shoulder, then shrugged and simply pulled Louis into his arms, disregarding safety belts and arm rests. It wasn't comfortable. Louis clung to him.

"I can't," he whispered, and began to shake.

"Hush now," Daniel said softly. "Don't be afraid."

"I hate her," Louis said into his shoulder.

"I know."

"I can't believe that he's done this. That he has been — such an idiot. That he has gone mad again, yes, that I can believe. But this? Jesse was right to think it a bad joke."

"It looks as though the joke's on us," Daniel whispered.

"I hate her," Louis repeated. "I'd like to — no. I would not like to kill her. I don't want her blood in me. I don't want her anywhere near me."

"Does she frighten you?"

Louis stiffened at the question. Then he slumped against Daniel again, needing the closeness, the comfort. "Yes."

"She frightens me too. And she's the first thing that's really frightened me since I became a vampire." Daniel was speaking very softly now, but Louis had no difficulty making out every word. "Not even Akasha scared me this way."

"You were still high when Akasha came," Louis said, seizing on this as a distraction.

"High?" There was curiosity in Daniel's voice.

"Well, what else would you call it, that amazing feeling when you've first been turned and everything explodes into life, everything is endlessly beautiful and fascinating and there is this strange and potent blood in you, setting you on fire..."

He felt Daniel shiver slightly, and knew just what memories he'd woken. "Yes," Daniel said slowly. "And I thought I knew what intoxication was. I was lost in it. I didn't come down for days. I knew I should be afraid of Akasha but I simply couldn't remember what fear felt like."

"Yes, that's it." Louis twisted a little further, laid his head on Daniel's shoulder. "And I was afraid for Lestat then and I'm afraid for Lestat now. Some things never change."

"Can I get you anything?" It was a flight attendant hovering in the aisle with a squeaking cart laden with drinks.

"No," Daniel said, "but you can get yourself some respect for privacy and go away."

The attendant looked more confused than insulted, and pulled the squeaking cart away.

"Really, Daniel," Louis said, almost laughing.

"Well, I think they do it deliberately," Daniel defended himself. "Maybe they're obsessed with finding out if all those 'I made love on an airplane' stories are really true."

"They chose the wrong couple," Louis remarked.

He heard Daniel chuckle. "The way things are now, I'm surprised I could get away with this much."

"The way things — what do you mean?"

"Nothing," Daniel said airily. "Never mind that now, Louis. We're not dealing with me here. Will you let someone else kill her, then?"

Louis shook his head. "No. I'll not have anyone else do my killing for me. And it's not her fault that she's so awful, or that Lestat has taken a fancy to her, either. I know many would gladly kill her just because of what she's seen—"

"You don't have to say 'many' when you mean Armand," Daniel put in.

Louis actually found himself smiling. "Oh, he's not the only one. Mael wouldn't think twice about it. And David, you know how horrifyingly practical David can be."

"He's a fine one to complain on the subject," Daniel commented.

Louis put up a hand to Daniel's shoulder and gripped it tightly. "Lestat has to come back," he said with quiet intensity. "I have to talk to him. If he — if he leaves me for her, well and good." He drew a shuddering breath. "As long as I know he's doing it out of his own free will and not because he's out of his mind."

Daniel wrapped his arms more comfortably about Louis, and did not complain about the fingers digging into him. Louis felt a light kiss on the top of his head. "I think I was the wrong person to go with you after all," Daniel said. "It should have been Armand."

"Why?" Louis asked, a little confused.

"This is what was going through Armand's mind for two years."

"Oh," Louis said immediately. "Yes. I remember. But you," he said, "you are rather more of a comfort to me. Here you are, back again. It gives me some hope."

"It's nice to be appreciated for something," Daniel said. "And for what it's worth, I don't see Lestat falling for that little snippet of mortality if he'd been more together. She looks like a bad copy of you."

"Really?" Louis lifted his head and looked gravely at Daniel, who looked just as gravely back. "I look like that?"

Daniel's violet eyes sparkled with laughter. "I said a bad copy."

"Still, it's a scary thought."

Louis sat up straighter, drawing himself out of Daniel's arms for a moment. He tried to get his hair back into some semblance of order but gave it up as a bad job. He felt lighter now, up here among the clouds, and in Daniel's company. But he knew that traveling is easy but arriving is hard. Things might change, would almost certainly change when they got to New Orleans.

He tried to imagine a message on the machine, David's serious voice saying Lestat had been found. But that wasn't the way it would be. Any message would be swiftly pounded into their heads — there was nothing to anticipate.

"In fact," Daniel went on slowly, "she doesn't just look like you."

"Daniel, if you want to preserve my sanity, please think about what you're saying."

"I am thinking about it. She is a bit like you. Or rather like you used to be. All that concentration, and the air of being perfectly unreachable..."

"Was that how I appeared to you?" Louis asked, diverted.

"When I wasn't being terrified, yes." Daniel smiled. "I think I only realized it afterwards, when I could think about you — the short time I had to think before Armand found me and stole every waking moment of my time."

Louis smiled. "I do see. But really, it's not me she is like. She's like my brother. Not just concentration, but conviction. Absolute belief."

"Your brother? Oh, Paul, wasn't that his name?" Daniel nodded. "But you didn't hate him."

"No," Louis said. "I doubted him. And now I doubt her. It's always that way with absolute faith — the more the other person believes, the more one wants to doubt. Perhaps it's foolish."

"Louis!" Daniel gave him a swift look. "You're not going to — I mean—"

"I still doubt," Louis said calmly. He took Daniel's hand. "And I'm less likely to believe her than Paul. I loved Paul."

"And Lestat loves her." The words came out reluctantly.

Louis shuddered. "Yes."

"If we're lucky she may fall off the balcony," Daniel speculated.

Louis shook his head; he was shaking harder now. "Daniel, please."

"I'm sorry—" There was genuine regret in Daniel's voice. "I never think about what I'm saying, you know that." Louis was once again pulled into Daniel's arms. "I'm sorry, maybe I should shut up and you should try to sleep, or something."

Louis buried his face in Daniel's soft cotton sweater. "Do you really think I could sleep after everything we've said now?" He took a deep breath to calm himself. "I'm glad that you're with me, Daniel. I am terribly glad that you're here."

* * *

David moved around the apartment setting things in order. He tried to stack the paintings out of the way in the living room, handling them lovingly. There was a king's ransom in art in this apartment now, the most amazing things all jumbled together. He still loved the huge marble angel best of all. Perhaps just because of the sheer size of it; it looked absurd and wonderful, standing indoors. He left that one where it was, right behind the couch, though it angered him to see Dora seated beneath it as though it were nothing more than a stage prop placed there for her convenience. David remembered Lestat lying right there, his face so very young in sleep.

All the marvelous carpets could at least be put to some good use. He spread them out, hiding the bland modern wall to wall carpet from view, turning the nondescript rooms into warm and intimate spheres filled with mystery. Tapestries hanging from the walls. And the icons set up here, yes...

Then he paused. There was no use decorating this place too much. Everything, all of this, belonged to Dora, and sooner or later she was going to want to ship it off somewhere and be done with it. Probably it would all go down to her house, that big old orphanage in New Orleans, or she might sell it and give the money to charity. David looked around. If she did, he would be tempted to buy some of the items himself.

As he moved around he was aware of voices speaking quietly, but not so quietly that another vampire might not hear. He wondered if he was expected to listen, or if they had merely forgotten his presence.

"I'd ask your forgiveness," Jesse said softly, "but I don't know how."

"I don't either." That was Armand's voice, light and clipped.

"You know I never meant to do any harm. You know that." No reply. "And Daniel has forgiven me."

"Daniel," Armand stated, "is kind."

"And you are not?" Mael asked. "You are making this far too complicated."

"Mael, please," Jesse said, not so much asking as requesting. "Armand and I need to settle this — between ourselves."

"Very well."

The footsteps could not be heard, of course, but shortly David found that he had company. Mael looked at him and made as if to pull the door to the living room closed. Then he smiled a very small but genuinely friendly smile, and left it open, and came to stand beside David.

:Isn't Dora out there?: David asked him.

:Yes.: Mael shrugged. :I think they have both decided that she is a piece of furniture. And if she interferes...:

:...Armand will throw her out the window,: David finished for him.

The silence out in the living room had grown long and tense. David knew that if Jesse and Armand decided to speak mind to mind instead of out loud, he could never bring himself to listen in to their discussion. He found himself hoping that they wouldn't.

A fool for gossip. At least I'm not trying to make myself feel better about it by calling it information.

He glanced at Mael again; the rugged Celt was waiting patiently. And then the two out there began to talk together again.

"It was idiotic of you to reveal yourself to a mortal," Armand said. "I'll never pretend to think otherwise."

"You did it yourself once," Jesse said, her voice low.

"Yes!" he exclaimed. "To one I followed, and never let out of my sight..."

"I know it was stupid," Jesse said. "But how many times are you going to make me say it? I won't crawl before you, Armand."

"I never said I wanted you to." He spoke cooly. "Jesse, I needed someone to blame. The mortal, of course. But it had to be you, too, for if it had not been for your actions, Daniel and Martin would never have met. Yes, I still think your actions in Stockholm were hasty and ill-considered. But I know you have realized that too. I had to — please try to understand, Jesse. I had to make someone else suffer, too."

Towards the end Armand's voice had been stripped of its layers of cool affectation, and raw pain showed. Jesse answered him almost at once. "I do understand," she said. "And while I can't think it right of you, I realize you were following your nature, as I followed mine."

"Yes." Some dry humor showed. "We're almost too much ourselves at times, don't you think?"

"There's nothing else we can be," Jesse said. "But sometimes it's possible for us to change."

"That's a private process."

"Sometimes," she said wryly. "I had a whole damn coven around me."

Armand laughed a little. "Oh, that change. Yes. But we did try to give you good advice, Jesse."

"I know — you often did. I did listen. And I'd like for us to be able to respect each other again," Jesse said.

"I thought you were going to say that you wanted us to be friends."

"That's for later," she said seriously. "We can't just stumble into friendship and forgo the foundations."

"So sensible, Jesse."

"Someone has to be." She was mocking him right back, but there was no hint that Armand was taking offense. "Believe it or not, I'm more careful now than I used to be."

"So I should hope." Armand's tone did not bite very hard. "But you and Daniel, did you not just stumble right back into friendship?"

"Yes, but the operative word here is 'back'," Jesse pointed out. "We had some time to get close, he and David and I, bumming around the world."

:'Bumming around'?: David could not resist whispering into her mind, though he knew she might be offended at finding out he was overhearing this. :I am a dignified British gentleman, Jesse. I do not 'bum around'.:

Her answer was instantaneous. :You can just take your tweed and stuff it, Dave.:

David almost laughed out loud. But he got a grip on himself, and instead turned and walked towards the other end of the room. Mael remained near the door. David felt convinced that whatever was going on between Jesse and Armand, it would settle itself in an orderly fashion; there would be no fight, no heart-searing trouble here. If nothing else, he didn't really think any of them were capable of a real, ripping fight among themselves while they had Lestat to worry about.

Instead he stood by the window and looked down at the cathedral with a faint sense of unease. It seemed heavy, not beautiful and aspiring to the heavens — he was already higher up than those sharp spires. A symbol of faith, a faith that was worrying him. What did he really believe? What had he ever believed in?

Doubt, to him, had been a wonderful thing. Doubt, and possibility.

David seemed to hear Jesse's words echo in his head again. 'Sometimes it's possible for us to change.' And how did he feel about change? Oh, he did not wish to become static. Trapped in an unchanging body, was it possible for the mind to become locked in a certain pattern, too? It seemed far from impossible. Yet he found himself hoping. Armand, even Armand was changing. Some layers of his cold and protective mysteries were being sloughed off. So, a change.

And that, he realized, was why he feared Dora and her faith. She was too certain. There was no room.

David turned his back on the view and leaned against the wall next to the window. He found himself desperately wishing that Lestat would come back.

Trying to thrust the constant, nagging worry away, he found his mind circling back to the concept of change, and this time, the face that rose up for his inner vision was Marius'. David set his jaw. He'd no right to make a judgment call on his former lover. But he found himself thinking it anyway: that Marius badly needed to change. That he, as much as Armand, needed to let go of his fear.

Fear? Wasn't that a ridiculous thought. Marius, the wise, sensible one, the one who could and did change with the time, the one who was responsible, yet kind, friendly. On the surface, he seemed to be far from having any of Armand's convoluted fences and defences. But David had flung himself against the walls of Marius' heart for a long time, before giving up.

David bent his head and felt the sting of tears in his sensitive eyes. He had never cried easily in his mortal life. Now, he wondered if it was a result of having so much of Lestat's blood in him. Maybe it was catching.

He didn't want to cry over Marius any more. He'd done enough of that, and tears wouldn't change anything. Marius could have found him, had he wanted to. Now... perhaps they would meet in later years. Perhaps they would be friends, distant friends. Polite to each other at rare coven meetings, never essaying any deeper conversation. Perhaps it was all for the best. They'd never been meant for each other. And—

"David!" Hands gripped his shoulders. He looked up to see Mael, a concerned wrinkle between the older vampire's eyebrows. "David, there is no need for so much tears."

"But I'm not—" He brought a hand to his face, saw his fingers come away wet, stained with red.

"He'll be back," Mael said, and shook David lightly, reassuringly.

It took David a moment to realize that Mael was speaking of Lestat. "Yes," he said. "Yes, he will be back."

Chapter fourteen: Burn baby burn

"On the battlefield with eyes of flaming fire
Standing in the sun, cried aloud to all around
Come together, come gather round the fire...
—-
To the community of faith from the source of imitation..." — Dream Academy, 'In the hands of love'

"An honest God is the noblest work of man." — Robert Green Ingersoll

The door to the dark, silent apartment was torn open with such force that it was nearly ripped off its hinges, hitting the wall with a loud slam. They barely had time to react to the unexpected noise before he burst in on them as though the devil was at his heels. He looked terrible, his clothes ripped and torn, his hair on end, all bloody and dirty and...

One-eyed. One eye was missing and the beautiful face was drawn together around the wound, creating a frightening scowl. David winced in pain and saw the same small shiver in Armand as well. There was sheer wildness in Lestat's face, in his every gesture, and he barely noticed them, intent on the mortal Dora. Intent on Dora's blood. David, trying not to feel embarrassed, turned his back and went to close the door.

When Lestat, wrapped in the security blanket he'd asked them to give him, demanded to be let alone to sleep for as long as he needed, they could hardly say no. David felt a chill at Dora's nonsensical request to be allowed to join him, but fortunately Lestat had enough sense to refuse her. Although David admitted to himself that he wouldn't have missed Dora had Lestat strangled her in his sleep.

And then Lestat stumbled into the room he'd chosen and the door closed on him and on the chest with the Wynken books, and they were left in an artificial silence, a pale imitation of what had reigned before his return. It was as though a tidal wave had broken over them and left them gasping for breath. Even Dora was quiet, for a wonder.

"Dear heavens," David finally sighed.

"At least he's back." Armand dropped into a chair and leaned his head against the high back, flipping his hair out of the way. He looked stunned. "Do you think..."

"What?" David asked when Armand didn't go on.

"About his eye." Armand looked down. "I mean—"

David drew his breath in in a horrified gasp. "You think he might have done it himself?"

"Well, it's a possibility. There isn't much that can harm him."

"Oh no." David followed Armand's example and sat down. "I can't believe — I can not believe he would do such a thing."

Surely not, he tried to reassure himself.

"Well," Armand said slowly, "I find it hard to believe, too. I always thought his vanity would be the last thing to leave him. But if he didn't do it himself, then we're in real trouble. Something that could damage Lestat — do you want to find out what that might be? How powerful it is?"

It was like Armand, David thought, to be so quick to see a threat. But that did not prevent him from being right. If there was something out there that was capable of leaving Lestat in this state...

"It's enough to make you believe in the Devil after all," he said.

Armand snorted. "I've worshipped the Devil," he said. "I don't need to start believing in him as well."

David, taken by surprise, laughed. But Dora got to her feet and stormed up to Armand. "You're a fool, then," she hissed, "because the Devil surely believes in you. You saw what Lestat has been through! You would never have been chosen. You would never have made it back alive. You—"

"Be quiet."

"Open your narrow mind! Try to see the truth. Lestat understands this, he has come to see—"

"Lestat had come to see what? Are you saying he sees better with one eye than two?" Armand rose out of the chair and stood nose to nose with Dora; she took an involuntary step backwards. "Let's get a few things straight, shall we?" he purred. "One, I would be infinitely obliged to you if you stopped trying to convert me. I have pondered the questions of God and the Devil for centuries; I don't need you trying to explain them to me in five minutes. Two, you sent Lestat off on this mission that has ended with him being badly hurt. Lestat has a number of friends who are going to be less than happy about that and they will very probably hold you responsible. You'd do well to learn to keep a low profile. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but that cuts no ice with vampires."

David felt an unwilling twinge of admiration for Dora as she recovered to face Armand, chin up. "I am sorry that you feel you have to threaten me," she said. "But Lestat will protect me from harm."

Armand lifted one eyebrow. "Lestat? Not God?"

Dora scowled. "If it is God's will—"

"Don't be boring and fatalistic," Armand interrupted her, "it doesn't suit you. Lestat is currently being a bit stupid, even for him. He is going to recover and when he does, you are going to regret being around."

"I feel sorry for you," Dora repeated. "You are trying so hard not to believe. Lestat has changed, yes, but he will not change back. Knowledge cannot be unlearned. He's grown away from you, can't you accept that? It's possible for you, too, to step into this world, to—"

She broke off when Armand picked her up and carried her across the living room. David studied her face. She was still fearless, though a little angry at being handled this way. Her long legs were dreadfully thin and he found himself wondering with a remote corner of his mind if she were anorexic. David frowned, trying to remember when he'd last seen her eat. It wasn't the kind of thing he normally thought of. He had, in fact, been trying to ignore Dora's presence as much as possible.

A cold draft swept into the apartment as Armand wrenched the balcony door open. The auburn-haired vampire walked out and held Dora over the balcony rail. Snowflakes whirled through the air and caught like little white stars on her black wool dress.

"I'm not trying to frighten you," Armand said quietly. "I am just showing you what it's like. To me, it would mean nothing to drop you. The only reason I don't do it is that I don't want to upset Lestat any more. I am excruciatingly tired of you. Now, I am not going to drop you. I am going to put you down, and I am going inside to talk to David. I don't care much what you do, as long as you don't try to talk to me."

"If you kill me I shall be a martyr," Dora said in a small voice that was nearly lost in the cold whipping wind.

"If I kill you, you will be dead," Armand said with some finality. "What happens to you after that is none of my concern."

There was a long silence. Snow blew in through the open door and melted on the carpets. David found himself shivering. He hated being cold. But he couldn't tear his eyes from the two out there, the beautiful auburn-haired youth gripping the slim girl with the black hair, holding her with the ease of a dancer on outstretched arms over the street, over the darkness, over the spires of the cathedral. She was almost as pale as he was.

Finally Dora said, "Put me down." David felt more than heard how she took a deep, gulping breath. "Please."

"But of course." Armand swung her around, over the rail again, and set her on her feet; again David thought of dance, of the graceful fluidity of ballet. And here the ease was real. "Do go inside before you catch cold."

Dora almost stamped in through the door, her mouth set in a tight line, her eyes flashing. She looked at David; he met her gaze with as much indifference as he could muster, and said, "You should eat more. You're too thin."

Dora glared at him as she passed him and went out into the kitchen. A moment later he heard her on the phone, speaking in a low voice, ordering pizza. David smiled.

Armand had closed the balcony door again, and crossed the room to sit in the chair next to David's again. "There are moments when I regret that foolish promise to Lestat," he said.

David shrugged. "We had to," he said. "Out of love for him if nothing else."

Armand gave him a sharp look. David smiled, and finally Armand said, "Well, yes." Then Armand grinned, too. "Ah, I am growing soft in my old age."

David knew better than to follow up on that, but he was glad to hear it. Instead he said, "Now where were we?"

"I have no idea." Armand paused for a moment. "You know what we ought to do."

"What?" David said out of habit. Then he met Armand's eyes. "Well, yes."

Neither of them wanted to be the first to say it; they sat in silence while the room warmed up again and Dora had her pizza delivered and paid for it. David felt the smell of cheese and pepperoni and felt faintly sickened. He ignored it.

Finally Armand gave in and said, "We should tell Louis."

Again, they eyed each other unhappily. It was beginning to be evident that Dora planned to spend the rest of the night in the kitchen, sulking. David felt this was just as well. She'd been a trying guest to live with. He remembered with horror the time when she had tried to get Armand to go out and buy her food. That had not been pretty. All in all he was surprised that Armand, who even at the best of times was not the most patient person in the world, hadn't dangled her over the balcony rail before this.

She had at least been sensible enough to arrange for shipping her inheritance to New Orleans herself instead of requesting it in her imperious way of Armand or David. The apartment was far from empty, but it wasn't the jumble it had been before.

"I don't want to," David said. "I can't tell you how much I do not want to tell Louis this."

Armand's thin smile was answer enough, but then he went on, "Oh, but yes, David, you can tell me. Because I do not want to tell him, either." A gesture with one delicate hand underscored this. "To tell him that Lestat is back, yes. I imagined the joy of telling him that. But to tell him that Lestat is back, like this..."

David nodded. "But what should we do? He must be told, Armand. He would want to be told. He would want to be here."

"Yes." Again, they looked at each other in perfect understanding. "Perhaps if we waited to hear Lestat's story," Armand suggested.

David found himself nodding. It wasn't fair to Louis, of course. Louis had never asked them to protect him — had, in fact, asked the exact opposite. But the thought of telling Louis that Lestat was apparently worse, that Lestat had lost an eye, that Lestat thought nothing of making love to Dora in the presence of others... David just couldn't do it. He was still too shocked himself to even think of a way he could say this to anyone else. They could wait until Lestat woke up, and spoke to them; wait and see if things really were as bad as they had seemed.

"Still," he said, "we should tell Jesse and Mael to stop their search."

Armand shrugged. "Oh, let them circle the globe a few more times."

"Armand!" David scolded. "Really, they have worked so hard, they have done everything they can to help Louis and Lestat and it's not their fault that—"

"Yes, yes, yes!" Armand threw his hands up. "David, really. You are worse than Marius."

David became very silent. In another moment Armand realized what he had said, and the ghost of something that might have been a stricken expression passed across his face. The silence stretched out like elastic and snapped when Dora dropped a plate in the kitchen.

"I expect the coven doesn't need two," David said finally.

"David," Armand said almost at the same time, "about Marius..."

"Yes?" David tried to look politely disinterested.

Armand looked down and for the first time David saw the other vampire as purely himself, disassociated from all the images, all the accumulations of words and expressions that others had used to describe him, all the loving and hating pictures in Louis' book and in Lestat's books. There he was, the — no. It was too easy to fall back on the well-known phrases. He was simply Armand, that was all. And no doubt excruciatingly tired of being reduced to a cliché.

But we do that to each other all the time, David thought. Of course, it wouldn't have worked in the first place with a less colorful collection of personalities.

"I am sorry for trying to torment you when we met in the café," Armand said.

"But really, you did not hurt me," David said. "I thought that what you shared with me was beautiful."

Armand smiled. "I know. Another thing that rebounded on me. But I meant to hurt you. And I'm sorry for it."

"It doesn't matter," David said. "You were understandably upset, about other things."

Armand's brown eyes were so intense. "David, about Marius... "

David held up a hand. "It's over. I am sure you mean well, but—"

"Over?" Another smile glittered in Armand's eyes. "David, you are immortal now. Things are never over."

"Oh, God," David groaned, then clapped a hand over his mouth and looked quickly at the open door to the kitchen. Armand followed his look, and burst out laughing. After a moment, David joined him. The sheer absurdity of it, that they sat here together, two powerful vampires, worried that a young mortal woman should start upbraiding them for taking God's name in vain...

It had been too long since he'd laughed at anything, David realized. He felt almost cleansed as they recovered enough to look at each other without setting off another fit of giggles.

"Anyway," Armand finally said, "I just wanted to ask you what happened. Though I realize you may not want to tell me."

"I don't know," David said, sobering. "It was all very, well, nice. And that was all it was. I felt like a toy. Something pretty to be played with but not taken seriously."

Armand raised an eyebrow. "Well, that's a new approach," he said. "I've never known Marius to take things anything but seriously. But then," he went on with a wry smile, "I don't know if I ever knew him. Loved him, yes, but knew him..."

"That sounds familiar," David said before he could stop himself.

Armand's hand coming to rest on his own was cool, but comforting. "Do you love him, then?"

"Well." David blinked. "Yes. I think so." He'd named his misery out loud; now he felt, perversely, better. "Yes, I do."

"Well, I won't try to advise you," Armand said. "All I know about Marius and relationships is five hundred years out of date. But..."

"But, what?" David had to ask.

Armand grinned engagingly. "But if I were you I'd give him another chance. He does have a few good points."

David mock-frowned. Then he very daringly held and squeezed Armand's hand, and put his other hand on Armand's other arm, and in the next moment Armand had left his own chair and flowed smoothly onto David's lap and was holding him lightly. David rested his head against Armand's shoulder, and they stayed silent like that for a long time.

* * *

:I stay out of your head for a few hours and find you in someone else's arms as soon as I get back...:

:It's only fair,: Armand retorted, :after all that canoodling you and Louis did on the plane.:

If thoughts could blush, Daniel's would have. :Well, he needed it.:

The extent of Daniel's embarrassment made Armand wonder if he'd missed something. He reached out and nudged Daniel's memories carefully, and found something he'd been unaware of before. :You kissed him?:

:Only a little,: Daniel pleaded. :Because he looked so unhappy. You can always kiss David to get even:

:Thank you, but I really don't think that's necessary.: Then Armand softened. :You know I don't mind. If I minded, you'd feel it.:

:This is true,: Daniel said and appeared to put the whole thing out of his mind. :What's happening?:

Armand hesitated for a moment, but he could feel everything start to leak through the link in spite of his best intentions. :Lestat is back.:

A wave of joy poured into him. :That's wonderful! Wait 'till I tell Louis.:

:No, don't. I mean, wait a little.:

:What? Why?: Daniel's confusion was clear, but as Armand began to replay the events of the night, he sobered gradually. :Oh, wonderful,: he groaned when the recital reached its end. :But really, beloved, we should tell Louis. He's in so much pain.:

:I know,: Armand replied. :But would he feel better at hearing this?:

:I think he might feel better at knowing something instead of nothing, whatever that something might be,: Daniel said.

:So do you want to be the one to tell him?:

Put on the spot, Daniel hesitated,then said, :No.:

:Well then, let us wait and see what Lestat says.:

:All right,: Daniel said grudgingly.

They shared a moment of silence and love; then Armand felt David begin to move, and pushed his connection with Daniel into the back of his mind again. David lifted his head from Armand's shoulder and looked at him.

"We still have to tell Jesse and Mael."

"Oh, all right," Armand said and rose as Dora entered the room. She gave them both a disapproving glance but said nothing. Armand was pleased. It seemed she was learning.

"Do you have an idea of where they might be now?" David asked.

Armand shook his head. "No. I think they said north, but I am not at all certain. We will just have to try, and see what we can pick up."

As he prepared to send out a call through the night, he noticed Dora going into the bathroom and a moment later heard the sound of retching.

"Oh, dear," David said. But he did not go to assist her, as Armand had half feared. Instead, he opened his mind and called out, and Armand followed his example.

As it happened, it did not take them very long to find Jesse and Mael; they were returning to New York after another long and fruitless search. After a brief consultation, Armand and David asked them to take rooms at a nearby hotel, but not actually come to the Olympic Towers. It would be easier if Lestat only found the same number of people he had left.

:But stay close by,: Armand requested. :We may need you.: He did not speak it out loud, but the thought was there, that he and David might not manage to restrain Lestat by themselves if Lestat's madness should happen to turn to violence.

When it was all settled, David picked out some clothes for Lestat to wear when he woke again, and laid them where they would be noticed. Then he went to start remonstrating with Dora about her eating habits.

"No wonder you are so thin, Theodora. You are mistreating your body."

:David,: Armand sent, :you don't even like her. Why do you bother?:

David's answer was quick. :It gives me something to do. Besides, she has lost her father, she has lost her job, it's no wonder she's feeling a bit off.:

:She'd be feeling a lot more off if I had anything to do with it,: Armand muttered but left David to it. The death of Dora's father was still a popular item in the press. No doubt Lestat had tried to hide the body — at least he'd had the sense to cut it up, so the lack of blood could be explained. About Dora's television show Armand knew little and cared less. If all these things were forgotten, so much the better. And dawn was coming, and the next night Lestat would rise, or so Armand fervently hoped, and say something that might make sense of this whole mess.

* * *

Cleaned up and properly dressed, Lestat was even more grotesque than he had been the night before. Now that the rest of him was tidy and proper, the missing eye was even more noticeable than before. He looked like a horror-movie version of himself. Armand found it almost unbearable to look at him. Despite all his good intentions, something made him ask almost at once what had happened to that eye.

And when Lestat began to answer, the whole story reeled out, long and complex and strange and... and, in the end, unbelievable. Armand held himself still, tried not to shake his head. Tried not to weep. But he found himself unable, in the face of Lestat's mania, to resist making little comments that grew more and more sarcastic. Only Lestat seemed not to understand that. Even when Armand went into full prayer meeting mode, saying, "You bore witness. I believe it's true. All of my long wandering through the valley of death, I've believed it was true!"

"Don't be a common fool," Lestat said, but not with a word or with a thought did he acknowledge what he knew very well, that Armand had never believed such a thing in his life or in his death. Had wanted to believe, yes; had pretended to believe, yes; had manipulated others into believing, yes. But that Lestat now was convinced that Armand was completely overcome by this tale, that was the final straw.

Lestat was blinded by his own madness, and Armand found himself prepared to do almost anything to shock him out of it. They'd been listening all night, caught up, forgetting everything but this. Perhaps it would indeed have been better had Louis been here. Louis! They had not called Louis this night either!

And then Lestat brought out the Veil.

It was smaller than Armand had expected it to be, though when he thought about it that was only logical; Lestat's story had led one to expect something the size of a flag, but it did not take that much cloth to show the face of a man.

Or... whatever. Armand held his breath as the Veil was unfolded. And the he heard Dora's shrill cry and sensed her mind collapsing in on itself and flaring out again, all unified purpose and senseless faith. Over a piece of fabric with a face on. He fell to his knees and wept. He did not know what this was, but something vast and unpleasant was happening here, something that was all wrong. If only he could stop Dora from believing, if only he could stop Lestat from believing...

Mocking Dora's behavior had no effect. And when she rushed away with the Veil in her hands, an idea began to take shape in Armand's mind.

They followed her, of course. Armand called out, :Jesse! Jesse!: She finally acknowledged him. :Jesse, I need you and Mael to come to St Patrick's. Now. Please.:

She was already moving when she said yes.

Dora was beating on the church doors with her tiny fists; she was crying out and waving the Veil and acting so much like a maniac that Armand could not understand why the police were not there already. But the church doors were opened. People were drawing near, this was all happening, and still Lestat stood there making not a move to stop it. Armand felt sickened. Even when he said what he meant to do, Lestat made not a move to stop him. What would it take? Would this work? But he had to try it, had to make one final attempt at showing Lestat what this madness of his might lead to.

Jesse and Mael were there, ready to help him persuade the crowd of what they were seeing. And the light was growing in the sky, and he stood there on the church steps and wondered at his own panic, and at Lestat's unreason, and at the general perversity of things, and then he cried out,

"Bear witness, this sinner dies for Him!"

And then the flames came down on him, and he only had time to think that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.

* * *

Louis was in his room when he heard Daniel start to scream.

He dropped the book he was holding and rushed out, too stunned to even speculate on what had happened. Daniel was lying curled up in a ball in the middle of the living room, eyes squeezed shut, blood tears seeping out. The scream had died down to a thin wail that intensified when Louis bent down and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Daniel! Oh, Daniel, please..."

But there was no response, and finally Louis lifted Daniel despite the small sounds of pain the younger vampire let out when he was touched, and carried him up to the cell in the attic that Lestat had built, and laid him down there. Tiny blisters were forming on Daniel's face and hands. But dawn wasn't here yet!

Unable to understand, but feeling his heart wrenched by Daniel's pain, Louis closed up the cell and lay down next to Daniel. More blisters were coming up; Daniel's skin was turning red. Every breath was a hiss of pain. Louis hesitated for a moment; then he lifted his hand, and gently brushed the hair out of Daniel's face, and pressed his wrist to Daniel's lips.

:Drink,: he projected. :Drink, and tell me what has happened.:

There was a moment of hesitation, and then Daniel's fangs drove into him, and a single image suddenly blazed between them.

Armand. On fire.

Chapter fifteen: In the widening gyre

"The dove descending breaks the air
With flames of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire." — T. S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding'

"Been burned, and with both feet on the ground
I've learned that it's painful comin' down..." — Neil Young, 'Burned'

David did not want to wake up. There was no choice, though. He missed mortality and its drowsy languorous mornings, the half-sleep, the lazy dreams. Now night would fall and he would be conscious, just like that. Even that could be pleasant under the right circumstances — waking in someone's arms, for instance. Though it had been a while since he had done that. He found himself reaching for the memory of the last time—

No, he wasn't going to think of Marius now, either. This was no moment for senseless nostalgia.

But to come to himself under the earth deep beneath a cellar was not something David would have chosen for himself. He had not been given the opportunity to choose, or the chance to say anything at all in the matter. Lestat had just been reeling in shock, and it had been up to David to drag Lestat along in blind and panicky flight away from the terrible sight.

Last night. Dawn, and a pillar of fire. O sages standing in God's holy fire, as in the gold mosaic of a wall... But this fire had burned.

Armand. Oh, Armand.

There was a smell of cold earth and dry stone. He was held in an uncomfortable embrace and roots prodded at him, and he imagined staying down here for so long that a tree would grow around him and the building under which he'd slept would have fallen down and disintegrated. Staying here until this was all forgotten and all his bleeding memories had scabbed over, healed.

But that was a very irresponsible wish. David knew he ought to be ashamed of himself for the thought. Despair had never gotten anyone anywhere.

Then he was out of the earth and dusting himself off, and looking around for Lestat. His maker was sitting on the floor in the darkness, looking at nothing, but as soon as David moved towards him Lestat began to move very fast, up, out, and David could barely follow him as he came up into the city and blurred through the streets faster than mortal eyes could catch.

Then they were suddenly together in a more silent place. In Central Park, one of the more isolated parts. Lestat stood leaning against a tree; he had managed to procure a patch from somewhere, and now resembled a pirate who had raided a Brooks Brothers store. The thought passed through David's mind that it might not have been a wise idea to introduce Lestat to the concept of the double-breasted suit.

How could he think of a thing like that, now! Only, looking at Lestat, it was the first thing anyone would think of.

David walked up to Lestat and looked carefully into his face, and Lestat held out his arms like a child seeking comfort. David stepped into them. They embraced each other closely, wordlessly, both of them leaning against the tree now as if seeking its support and strength.

Snow on the branches, snow on the ground, more snow falling from the sky in wide soft sweeps like angels' wings. Lestat would know about that. Lestat would know what angels' wings actually looked like, or think that he did, at least.

David decided not to ask.

He pressed his palms flat against Lestat's shoulder blades. He thought of trying to comfort Lestat at other times, and abruptly and painfully missed his old mortality, the detachment it had given him that had been almost a strong as the excitement when he'd been faced with a vampire. With this particular vampire. Now he was himself one of these creatures, and deeply and inescapably involved in their fate, and his heart ached at the thought of everything that had happened.

Armand.

The pillar of fire.

Now Lestat was crying. He was sobbing into David's shoulder, and David stroked that shining hair slowly, brushing the falling snowflakes out of it, one by one it almost seemed. And they kept on falling and falling.

All the most common and beautiful ways that poets had written about snow came to David's mind unbidden. But most of all the image of snow as a shroud for the earth. The way that snow and winter was linked to death. And he found himself wishing for a shroud of snowflakes, thin and delicate as lace, to wrap Armand in, to cool that fire.

He could not get it out of his mind, Armand's black silhouette, arms stretched wide, outlined in flames, head thrown back — in ecstasy, or in a final silent scream?

David found it hard to believe and even harder to understand. Had it really happened? But Lestat was crying in David's arms, crying over this. Lestat had seen it happen. And David found himself crying too.

They stayed for a long time in the park. It was quite peaceful. No doubt people were being mugged or killed somewhere near by, but they remained isolated, surrounded by an invisible wall. Here were only trees and snow and the sound of tears. A strange kind of wake. And the sky did not weep but merely tossed its pretty white confetti all over the city.

Finally Lestat wiped his face dry and let his arms fall to his sides, and turned away from David, and began to walk, at an ordinary mortal speed now. David instantly followed, and kept pace with him. He thought he knew where Lestat was going, and he wasn't wrong. As they drew nearer it became very clear that they weren't the only ones headed this way. No, everyone was going in the same direction, more and more of them the closer they got. David could see that Lestat was beginning to shake, seeing it, as if starting to realize the immensity of what was happening.

And then they were back where they had been just before dawn, standing to one side, watching.

There were so many people outside the cathedral! Hundreds of them, and nearly all wide-eyed and reeling with newfound faith, believing firmly in a face on a cloth and in a burning vampire. The miracles, the miracles they had seen on television, the miracles some of them, the very lucky ones, had actually seen for themselves right here. Right there, yes, on that very spot he stood and caught fire just as the sun came up! Can you believe it! David found himself disliking them intensely, disliking their innocence and their absorption, the way they told each other the story of what was going on.

"It is my fault," Lestat breathed, looking out over it all. He stepped forward and raised his voice to a cry, lifted his hands to heaven. "No! No! It is all my fault!"

"Hush." David took hold of his maker's arm and pulled him to the side again, out of the way of the mortals bustling towards the church steps. He tried to shield them from everyone's attention, throwing a soft glamour all around them, willing the crowd to neither see nor hear them.

"She is in there," Lestat went on as if he hadn't heard. "Dora. My Dora."

"She's not your Dora," David said, more brusquely than he had intended.

"No. No, she is not, is she? She is not — oh! Oh, oh, oh..." Lestat clutched at his head, at his face, his fingers gently cradling the place where his eye should have been. The desperation in his voice cut like broken glass.

"We should not be here."

David found himself wanting to keep a tight grip on Lestat; he could not predict what Lestat would do and he was worried, almost as worried as he was sad. Lestat seemed to want to rush right out into the crowd, to tell them all the truth, if only Lestat could figure out what the truth was.

"Armand," Lestat whispered. "Armand." He turned his face towards David and there was more grief and horror in his remaining eye than David could bear to see. "David... Armand!"

* * *

Daniel did not wake up when darkness fell that night. When Louis came out of the death-sleep he found Daniel still and unmoving at his side, with small traces of blood still on his lips. And when the next hour brought no change in Daniel's condition, Louis unlocked the cell and carried the young vampire downstairs. Although he knew it really made no difference, he bedded Daniel down in every conceivable comfort in the best spare bedroom, the one with clouds of thin white gauze for curtains and swathes of raw black silk on the walls, and any number of fine white sheepskin rugs on the floor, and the huge brass fourposter bed with its black silk sheets.

That bed always made Louis think of brothels in New Orleans in the old days. When he'd said that, back when they'd first bought the bed and installed it, Lestat had given him an incredulous look, and Louis had raised an eyebrow right back and told some stories from those brothels, and then Lestat had laughed and laughed and laughed and they'd fallen onto the bed and wrecked another set of sheets, though the black ones did last longer than the white.

The memory was so sharp, so vivid. With an effort Louis forced it back. It was no use thinking of that now. Doing so wouldn't make Lestat come back any sooner. And Louis had more immediate problems to deal with here. He fluffed up the downy pillows, and tucked the light but warm comforter gently and carefully around Daniel's shoulders.

The infusion of Louis' blood the night before seemed to have helped somewhat, though Daniel's skin still looked red and raw. It was the strangest thing Louis had ever seen. Sunlight or fire would do that, but Daniel had not been exposed to either.

At least this was ordinary sleep now; Daniel was moving a little, tossing his head restlessly on the pillows; his eyes were closed and raced beneath the thin, nearly translucent lids.

Louis hated to leave him. He did not want Daniel to wake up and find himself alone and abandoned. But Daniel needed more help to heal and recover, and Louis could not keep giving and giving without taking something for himself. So he saw to it that Daniel was resting as well as could be expected, and went to rummage around in the closet. He changed his lightweight wool suit for black jeans and a green silk shirt, and a leather jacket that belonged to Lestat really. Louis had just gradually come to appropriate it for his own, because he liked to wear his lover's things. Then he left the house to go hunting.

This early in the evening, all the streets of the French Quarter were full of people. Louis walked among them with his hands in his pockets like any careless mortal, and looked around with a sinking heart. No wolf among sheep, he. He could not stop looking closely at them, could not stop seeing each and every one of them as a unique individual, a miracle to be cherished — they were alive, as he was not alive, they were alive and breathed and thought and loved and they were so achingly real, every one of them. So full of life.

Impossible to say that this one would make a suitable meal, to decide that that one would have to die so that he could go on living. And at the same time impossible, once he felt the sweet scent of blood and living humanity all around, to resist. He wanted it and he hated it. Nothing Lestat had said could ever change that. Nothing could make him look on his victims with anything other than respect and grief and painful love and desire.

Louis walked on, trying once again to accustom himself to this feeling, and to concentrate on the hunger. That made it a little easier. Daniel had taken quite a lot of blood from him before they had both lost consciousness that morning. He felt thin, starved, needing. And he knew that he would feed sooner or later, no matter how he felt about it.

Finally he found himself alone in a narrow alley not too far from the French Market with a woman who had lost her way. She had long reddish-brown hair and some foreign accent he could not quite place, and when she came up to him and asked him to help her, showing her map, he tried to speak to her, tried to point out helpfully the best and quickest route she could take to get back to her hotel... and the blood pulsed sweetly at her throat, and in the veins of her fragile wrists, and she wasn't evil, and she did not want to die, she was just someone who had crossed his path at the wrong moment. He reached out for her without any conscious thought, suddenly and utterly and for these few moments absolutely in love.

Tangled in his arms she was frightened and pliant, yielding without a fight, the sweetest of lovers as he began to take her blood, and he felt her sigh and shudder and give up hot memories of biting into a ripe peach, of making love in the afternoon in a room heated by the summer sun, of a ripple of salt spray falling on her skin, what beach was that?

And then she died. Her heart ceased to beat. Nothing of her remained except the dried husk he found himself holding. All that sweetness, gone. Louis bent his head and kissed her cooling forehead. He would like to remember her. If he lived forever, then so would she. Somehow.

When he finally headed back to the house, after having disposed of her body in a suitable manner, the moon had risen and a soothing breeze ruffled his hair. Louis crossed the courtyard and stopped at the fountain, paused to bend down and dip a hand in its clear water. To wash a tiny trace of blood away. He felt grief, but no guilt. Straightening up again, he went into the house and headed directly for the bedroom where Daniel still lay.

Nothing had changed. In his restless tossing and turning Daniel had thrown off the covers, but there was no sign that he had woken up. A thin film of blood sweat covered Daniel's forehead; it had begun to stain the pillows. His fine ash-blond hair clung to his face, all tangles and snarls.

Louis called back the few images he had been able to glean from Daniel's mind before the death-sleep had claimed them both at dawn. The only one that was really clear was that of Armand, on fire, standing with his arms outflung as though about to be crucified on a pillar of fire. Louis felt a chill run down his spine; the vision frightened him more now than it had coming from Daniel's confused mind earlier.

It couldn't be true. Could it?

And where had Daniel picked it up? Louis tried to imagine who might have thrown such an image, true or not, into Daniel's mind. He tried to imagine any reason why he himself should not have felt it.

In the bed, Daniel turned over, and moaned. Tears ran from beneath his closed eyelids.

Daniel looked as though he had been the one who'd tried to face the dawn. There had been blisters on Daniel's face last night! Or had there? Louis had certainly thought he had seen blisters. But there was no way for him to tell now whether it had been merely his imagination, or if the worst of these strange burns had been healed when Louis had let Daniel drink of his blood.

That thought reminded him of why he had gone out to feed in the first place. Louis sat down on the edge of the bed and ran his hand absently over Daniel's tangled hair, smoothing it back, thinking it would be impossible to comb out those snarls; Daniel would have to cut it all off.

Louis did not easily conceive of sharing himself with other vampires. The only one with whom he had ever wanted such an intimacy had been Lestat, and it had taken them a good long time to get round to it. But in the face of Daniel's sudden and obvious pain Louis had acted without thinking. And now that he had committed himself to helping the younger vampire heal, he might as well go on with the best — the only — cure. Louis wanted Daniel to recover, lose the pain, be himself again.

Then again, he admitted to himself, curiosity played its part, too. He simply had to make Daniel wake up and tell him what had happened.

Louis took a deep breath, and again pressed his wrist to Daniel's pale lips. This time, though, Daniel turned his head away in his sleep, like an infant refusing to nurse. It sounded as though he whispered something. Louis bent closer, and thought he could make out 'Armand'.

He felt a cold chill.

Well, he would have to resort to more drastic methods. Louis used the nail on his left index finger to slash at his right wrist and when the blood began to well up he held the wound to Daniel's lips, let the blood trickle over them.

And now Daniel did open his mouth, obeying his instincts more than anything else, Louis thought, and drank in long powerful painful draughts, and then just as suddenly wrenched himself away. Blood splashed all over the pillow. Louis hastily pressed his other hand to his wrist, staunching the flow.

"No," Daniel whispered. "No, no, I don't want it." He turned onto his side, his back to Louis. "I want to die."

* * *

"It really did happen," Lestat said. "All of it. It happened to me! I don't know if it's true, but it happened to me!"

He waved his arms wildly, not looking where he was going. David snagged his arm just in time to prevent him being hit by a bus. He did not imagine that a man who could break a bus to pieces by having it run into him would go unnoticed, even in New York, even at this strange time. He was getting quite adept at snatching Lestat back out of trouble.

It was always the same thing; Lestat would start out by trying to speak quietly and reasonably of his experiences and what they had led to, but within a few moments he would begin to raise his voice, to cry out and shout at the heavens as though expecting a sudden answer, a revelation. Mortals would hear him and be startled and in some cases frightened.

Now Lestat was shaking his fist helplessly at the stars, and David was trying in desperation to get him to come inside and sit down and please, please be quiet. It was getting to be impossible to keep the mortals from noticing Lestat's wild eye and his loud voice and his constant claims that he had seen it all and he did not know if it was true.

"Please, Lestat. We can sit down just a little while. We can talk this over in ease and comfort."

"There is no more comfort." Lestat sounded desolate. David felt heartbroken.

"No, no, there is not. But let us get out of all this snow."

Crowded into a dark bar with the pennants of American sports teams on the walls and dusty mirrors hidden behind wilting plants, they saw Dora being interviewed on television, her face glowing and her small white hands gesturing firmly as she talked and talked and talked. She was radiant, ecstatic, describing her encounter with the messenger from God, explaining that he had been the one to bring about this true miracle.

The reporter started out skeptic, trying to ask confrontational and hard-hitting questions, and ended up awed by the Veil. The Veil was also shown on television. And the people in the bar looked at the bright TV screen, and looked at each other thoughtfully, and some of them set down their glasses and paid for their drinks and left, and David could sense them making their way towards the cathedral, to see for themselves. He could feel people coming from everywhere, all of them intent on this one spot. More and more people coming to see the miracle. On the screen, Dora still smiled. She was transformed.

David found himself thinking about the sculpture of St Theresa in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, thinking of the expression on her face that was supposed to show religious ecstasy. And how most people, seeing it, said it looked like a wholly physical ecstasy to them. How did one tell the difference? Had the sculptor, Bernini, thought of there being a difference? Had Dora, when Lestat had returned to her and given her her miracle, taken her blood?

Perhaps Dora did truly look as though she had experienced a miracle. Perhaps just the belief was enough. The glow in Dora's black eyes was that of a zealot and a missionary. Her only purpose now was to spread the word about the Veil.

And Lestat was still trying to put his confusion and his doubt into words, seemingly struck with terror at the realization that faith is so much clearer to articulate and easier to communicate. Looking at Lestat wrung David's heart. And Armand, the thought of Armand being gone! It felt wrong, it felt nearly impossible. Armand who had been so down to earth, so wry, so profoundly unimpressed by everything. Armand who had treated Dora with more scorn than David had ever felt.

Lestat was falling apart. He seemed to want to turn time back on itself; seemed almost to think that he actually could do it.

"If I could only talk to her. If I could only be alone with her for a while—"

"It is already too late," David said as gently as he could. "It was too late in the instant she saw the Veil."

"I did not realize," Lestat whispered. "An instrument of terror, sweeping the earth. Destroying us." Then Lestat gasped, and buried his face in his hands, resting his elbows on the dark wood of the bar. "Oh, Armand! My brother, my dark brother is gone."

David put his arm around Lestat's shoulders, bent his head towards Lestat's. There was nothing he could do except share this grief.

Someone bumped into them, easy enough as crowded as it was. But then David heard, "Oh hell, fuck'n faggots."

He looked up and found himself utterly devoid of empathy for the man who stood scowling at the two of them. David reached out and twisted himself into the man's drunken mind, snagging lightly on both intelligence and prejudice. And then he sent an image of his old mortal self and his Brazilian lover, all tangled up in each other, sent everything, the physical sensations, the stunning pleasure, and the feelings. The passion. Such a searingly hot, erotic memory.

The man staggered backwards and looked at David with growing horror, and then he turned and stumbled away, pushing past the other mortals in his struggle to get out. David smiled a small vicious smile. From now on that memory would be embedded solidly in the man's mind; he'd feel it all as though he'd experienced it himself.

It might make him less prejudiced. It might drive him insane. David didn't much care, at that moment, one way or the other. He turned back to Lestat, who was crying again.

* * *

"But what are we going to do?"

"...still alive?"

"I don't know."

The sound of someone weeping.

Pain.

"We have to try. We have to keep trying."

Blood on his lips, the rich, sweet, powerful blood of another vampire pouring into his mouth, and he drank and drank, feeling as though it were the first time. Feeling as though he were being born again. Resurrected. There were no visions at first. Then, strangely, all he could see was roses and earth.

He opened his eyes and winced at the dim light, caught a glimpse of red hair.

:Jesse.:

* * *

Daniel sat bolt upright and Louis jumped to his feet, expecting another scream. But then he saw the expression on Daniel's face. It stunned him into speechlessness and all he could do was look, and listen as Daniel, with tears streaming down his face, sobbed over and over again, "He's alive! He's alive!"

Chapter sixteen: Uro, non luceo

"Signs are taken for wonders, 'We would see a sign!'
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger" — T. S. Eliot, 'Gerontion'

"Is this a closed marriage or can anyone join in?" — Harvey Fierstein, 'Widows and Children First!'

The windows were covered with black plastic, garbage bags, in fact, ripped apart and taped to the frames with duct tape. This was no elegant hotel suite. He could tell that much even though he could barely crack his eyes open. The room where he lay smelled of dust and neglect, the air was damp, and there was probably mold somewhere inside the walls where it would be impossible to get it out.

Although even this scant light hurt his eyes, he could make out cracks in the plaster of the high ceiling, and the yellowing wallpaper curling away from the wall in long strips. He'd never been so happy to see anything in five hundred years' worth of nights.

His body hurt. It burned. It felt as though his skin were peeling away just like the wallpaper. But he relished even this pain; it meant that he could still feel. Because the last thing he remembered feeling was absolute conviction that he was going to die. He shivered, remembering it.

Something had gone wrong. Standing there on the steps of the cathedral, ready to dazzle the crowd with a show of fireworks as a by-effect of trying to shock Lestat back to his senses, he had suddenly become aware that he was no longer completely in control. He'd intended fire, yes. But the fire that had come had not been wholly of his own making. And it had hurt him.

Armand did not understand how that had happened. But he felt utterly certain that it had not been a miracle.

Something moved at the edge of his vision, coming closer. It was Mael, looking scruffy and tired. Armand met Mael's eyes and there was suddenly no resentment between them, no sense of distance, or power-politics. How could you start to play games with someone who has just saved your life?

He knew there had been a time when he would have done exactly that. But right now, he just wanted Mael to know how grateful he was.

:Don't try to talk,: the older vampire cautioned him before he did more than attempt to draw a deep breath. :Your face is a mess. If you try to move your lips they'll probably fall off.:

:And Jesse says you have no sense of humor.: Armand tried to lift a hand to his face, but found that he couldn't move. The first chill of real fear stole over him as he began to wonder how badly hurt he was. He wondered why he wasn't screaming with pain, why he could think so easily and rationally. :What did you do, discover how to give me morphine?:

:The pain will come soon enough, when the effects of Jesse's blood wear off.: Mael dropped down to sit by Armand's side. :She is out hunting. She didn't want to leave you, but she badly needed to feed; she gave you a lot.:

:I'm grateful.: This time Armand tried to move his head. With enormous effort he managed to turn it a little towards Mael. It felt as though bits of his neck stuck to the mattress and flaked away. :What happened?:

Mael looked at him out of deep-set, intense eyes. :You burned. We pulled you away. No one saw that, they saw only the fire. And then we brought you here.:

Armand did not want to be bothered with where 'here' was just yet; one derelict building was much like another, and if Mael and Jesse believed it to be safe, then he would trust them.

:But Lestat, what did Lestat see!: That had been the important thing, that had been what he had meant to do, to show Lestat what terrible and far-reaching consequences these revelation of his might have.

:I do not know,: Mael thought heavily. :The sun was coming up, it all happened so quickly. Jesse and I only barely got you away. Lestat must have left with David.:

:And you have not tried to—: Armand had to break off for a moment as the pain of fire ripped up his left leg with ferocious suddenness. :To contact David?: he finished, taking shallow little breaths, trying to stay in control.

Mael shook his head and locks of shaggy blond hair fell forward over his face. "No, not yet," he said out loud. "He is with Lestat and we were not sure what you wanted Lestat to know."

:Nothing,: Armand thought with a flicker of anger. He did not have a word to say to Lestat. Lestat had done nothing to stop him! Lestat would have let him die for that ridiculous veil! He gasped again between clenched teeth as another wave rolled over him. It hurt more than anything had ever done before.

"You must not try to move," Mael said with concern in his voice and Armand realized that he had arched upwards in an involuntary spasm.

"I'm not — trying," he managed to gasp out loud though his tongue was strangely thick and he felt his lips crack and blood run down his chin.

"Well, stop it," Mael said with what almost sounded like irritation, though Armand realized before he said anything unforgiveable that it was really concern. Mael picked up a corner of the sheet and blotted Armand's face very very carefully.

:You're rubbing off my skin, aren't you?: Armand sent. :I must look like a piece of raw meat.:

:No.:

:Well, what do I look like? What's happened to me?:

After a momentary hesitation, Mael dropped a little more of his shields, and let Armand in, let Armand see through his eyes. It was hard to adjust to the new perspective. Then Armand let out a wail. What he saw, what Mael saw, was a dried and blackened thing that stood out sharply against the white sheets. Bits of burned black skin were indeed flaking off from the thing, everywhere. And the rich auburn hair that grew on its head looked utterly incongruous.

:It will get better,: Mael said reassuringly. :It is better already.:

Armand winced, partly from the relentless pain that was now pounding through him constantly, partly from the idea that he had looked worse.

Back inside his own head again, looking up, he saw Mael hesitate, then lift one hand.

"You hurt, don't you? I — do you want to—"

Armand understood. And he understood the hesitation. It was a very intimate offer, after all. And it was one thing to accept help when you were in no state to refuse it and probably on the verge of dying without it, another to consciously agree to take someone else's blood.

He knew he needed it. And he knew that when Jesse returned she would insist that he drink from her, too.

No choice, really. He needed it to heal and Mael was offering it.

:Please,: he said.

And then his mouth was filled with liquid light and he drank and drank, greedily, fearlessly. So this was what Mael was like! Armand was confused and delighted. Then the visions began to spin slowly in his mind. He saw Mael with Marius and Pandora long ago, saw Mael's resentment of the beautiful brown-haired vampire. Then he felt Mael realize that Maharet had lied to him about something. A personal and embarrassing memory, Armand almost shied away from it, but Mael was offering it freely.

More images of Maharet. Much later, this, and there was Jesse, too. Armand was seeing the three of them living together, and Mael and Jesse being driven near-crazy by Maharet's jealousy of them both, and her increasingly strange behavior, until they finally fled to Sonoma to be by themselves. He even had a glimpse of Louis' arrival and of them all playing and frolicking in a place as dark and sweet and exciting as any Savage Garden ever imagined, before Mael pulled away from him.

"I'm sorry," Mael said breathlessly, "but I cannot give you more." He looked drained, and Armand wondered with a small shock how much blood the older vampire had allowed him.

Would it change him? Would Jesse's even more powerful blood change him? Or perhaps it would only allow him to heal faster — the infusion from Mael had slowed the pain down again, and he took advantage of that to again try to catch up on what had been going on.

:Do you know if anyone has said anything to Louis?:

Mael shook his head. "Not that, either," he said. "I know very little. No one has tried to contact us, Armand. And you lay as one dead until just now. We have been too concerned with your condition, to think about much else."

:Mael, I cannot thank you enough,: Armand said quietly.

Mael shrugged. :How could we not help you? But I do not quite understand what happened. Did you — misjudge,: he asked carefully, :what the sunlight would do to you?:

Armand clenched his teeth a fraction, then forced himself to relax again. :It wasn't the sunlight,: he said. :Something went wrong.:

:You called up the fire yourself, then?:

:Yes — but—:

The sound of a door opening nearby made them break off their silent conversation. Armand heard the door close again, and an instant later he saw Jesse, her cheeks flushed from a recent kill, her hair hanging loose. She swooped down to kiss Mael's cheek, and then sat next to him on the edge of the bed and looked critically at Armand.

"You're looking better."

Armand groaned. :I wish the two of you would stop saying that. I hate to think what I looked like before.:

:You don't want to know,: Jesse told him with enough of a serious edge that he believed her. :I thought you were dead, Armand.:

She reached out and brushed lightly at his cheek. He tried to recoil but he was too weak to move much, and to his surprise it didn't hurt as badly as he'd thought. "You're healing," she said. "You don't look so much like the remains of yesterday's barbecue." She grinned at him suddenly. "Redheads never did tan very well."

"Jesse, really," Mael said reprovingly.

But Armand understood perfectly her need to make jokes, and he tried to smile. :Jesse,: he whispered, aiming the words at her and her only. :Thank you. I owe you more than I can ever say.:

:Nonsense,: she said. :You could consider it atonement for Daniel, if you want.:

Armand made an attempt to shake his head. :That's all settled,: he said. :It's ridiculous to weigh everything on a scale of damages and restitution.:

:Well then,: Jesse smiled at him. :That was nothing, and this is nothing. I didn't do it because I owe you anything. I did it because it needed to be done.:

"You need more, though," she continued out loud. "Will you drink from me again?"

"Yes," Armand managed to say.

Jesse turned her head and looked critically at Mael. "You gave him more, didn't you?"

Mael nodded. "Yes. It eases the pain." He looked almost embarrassed. Jesse winked at him.

"Well, then." She began to turn up one of her sleeves, clinical and brisk as any nurse. Armand watched her almost in amusement, but watched also the way Mael looked at Jesse's slim white arm and the blue veins beneath the delicate skin. Jesse seemed to laugh a little, and tossed her hair back over her shoulders though it immediately began to slip forward again. Then she brushed at Armand's forehead. "Yes, definitely getting better."

The touch brought pain, but it wasn't unendurable right at that moment. Armand seemed to hear the sound of a heartbeat and it was so seductive that he could think of nothing else. The rhythm of Jesse's heart.

And then her wrist was at his mouth and his cracked and bleeding lips drew back, and he sank his fangs into her flesh and drank. Oh, the heat of it. She'd fed well. And there was something about her, her youth and vitality taken together with the ancient power of her blood, that made it all doubly sweet. He could feel it course through him like light racing to illuminate a building that has been dark and deserted a moment before.

An image floated into his mind of Mael looking on Jesse with love and longing and desire in his eyes, of Mael flicking back Jesse's long hair and brushing his lips against her throat, kissing the smooth alabaster skin, and then sinking his fangs right there...

Armand felt an added shock, and realized that these were not visions of the past that Jesse's blood was giving him. He forced his eyes open and saw the same thing he had when they had been shut, Mael drinking from Jesse's neck, her head thrown back, lids half-closed. Intoxication. He shuddered, taking in her blood in long deep draughts.

Then suddenly Jesse had wrenched herself away from both of them and slumped down beside Armand, deathly pale now. Armand met Mael's eyes and saw the same guilt there. They had taken too much from her, they had — weakened her—

The weak and faint Jesse reached up with one hand and drew Mael down with terrifying ease and locked onto his neck in an instant. Armand heard Mael sigh softly in unashamed pleasure. He watched them, fascinated, as they clung to each other, their bodies writhing together. So close! A few drops of blood trickled down Jesse's chin, and Armand finally managed to move a hand, and catch them, and lick them off his own burned fingertips.

When Jesse finally released Mael, she turned her head and looked at him. :I'm sorry,: she said, :didn't mean to ignore you.:

And she brushed her fingers over his lips and lapped at his blood the way he'd taken Mael's blood from her chin. Then Mael stirred, and simply bent over and licked the blood from Armand's lips, and Jesse moved over to the other side and blew on his neck and he felt it hot and cold and the blackened skin flaking away more and more, and then her fangs were in his neck! Armand moaned. He reached up, it seemed almost impossible, and took hold of Mael, trying desperately to draw him closer, he needed it so. Blood, more blood. And he did not need to tug imploringly at Mael really, no, Mael was already there, offering himself.

And this was not given in kindness, this was no charity, this was affection, and lust, and love. They all drank from each other, frantically at first, then with slow sensuality. Strange visions tumbled among them, memories and dreams, and everything shimmered red like Jesse's hair that covered them all, a shining veil far more lovely and compelling than the one that hung in the cathedral now.

Armand did not know how much later it was that they lay tangled together, silent, sated, relaxed. They had given him far more than they had taken from him, and he could not feel any pain at all in that moment, though he knew it would come back soon enough. Now he was only burning from the inside, with the blood that filled him, a sweet warmth. Jesse and Mael were exchanging leisurely kisses. He marvelled at them, at their lack of shyness. Their passion for each other had swept him up, too. Now he felt light-headed. He tried to sink back into himself and relax, enjoy the absence of pain while it lasted.

When he did, he sank back into love.

:Armand.:

He clung to the feeling, to that mind-voice, and with startling suddenness felt tears rise to his eyes. :Daniel. Daniel. Oh, my love.:

For a moment neither of them could say anything, only let their feelings resonate along the bond. Armand knew that he was crying now but he didn't care. He'd almost lost this.

Finally Daniel returned to words, and said, :I tried to touch you before but you were — busy, it seemed. What was that, an orgy?:

:Very bloody,: Armand couldn't stop himself from saying. And a flash of laughter shot back and forth between them. :Daniel, it wasn't — I mean—:

:I know what it was,: Daniel said. :I could feel it.: Then a wave of anger rose out of him, anger that had nothing to do with Armand rolling around on a mattress with Jesse and Mael. :What the hell did you do?:

:You didn't — did you feel it all?:

:Of course I damn well felt it.: Daniel was still angry. :I'm in the best spare bedroom with a very worried Louis hanging over me like a mother hen because I'm unable to take two steps on my own and I've got a bad case of second-hand sunburn! Yes, I felt it!: Then the anger collapsed into worry in the space of a heartbeat. :Armand, beloved, what did it do to you? What happened?:

Armand sighed and unlocked his memories, and showed Daniel all of it, from the moment Lestat had stepped out of the bathroom up to Jesse and Mael sharing their blood moments ago. :I'm sorry. I should have warned you.:

:Damn straight,: Daniel agreed. :What possessed you to — no, I do see. But Armand, you shouldn't have.:

:I had to show him!: Armand protested. :He didn't seem to realize what this could lead to!:

:And neither did you, my love,: Daniel said sadly. :Someone else followed your example the next sunrise.:

Armand shook his head in immediate, frantic denial. :No! And how do you know this, you're in New Orleans, you can't have seen—:

:It's on TV, Armand. It's all over the news, Dora and her veil and people going up in flames at dawn!:

:Oh.: Armand caught the image from Daniel's mind, another fire on those cathedral steps, someone else burning there, a living torch, and he wailed silently. :I never meant that! I never meant for anyone else — oh, oh no...:

:I know that,: Daniel said softly. :But it happened. As to what effect this had on Lestat, well — he did not try to save you, did he?:

:Ne, he didn't, damn him.: Armand fought back the tears. :It all went wrong, didn't it? I hurt you. And I fooled someone else into taking my idiotic stunt seriously.:

:You were badly hurt yourself.: Daniel was concerned.

:I'm beginning to think I deserved it.: Armand felt suffused with guilt. :I have to do something about this. Are you all right where you are, with Louis?:

:Yes. He is very kind.: Armand caught an image of Louis slashing his wrist and practically force-feeding Daniel his blood.

:Just don't overdo it.:

:This from you?: Daniel nudged a little at the sensuous memories of the blood-sharing with Jesse and Mael. :I'm not the one who just got carried away on the tide of passion, sweetie.: A moment of silence. :Louis must be told about Lestat.:

:Yes,: Armand agreed. :No one else has told him, then?:

:Not as far as I know.: Daniel pondered this. :Of course, he might keep it from me, not wanting to worry me in my present state. But no, I don't think anyone has done so.:

:We'll be coming down,: Armand said as plans began to form in his head.

Shock. :You can't travel!:

:Well, neither can you. Jesse can take me down.:

:When you're better,: Daniel insisted.

:When I'm better,: Armand agreed, not specifying how much better. :Or would you rather tell Louis yourself?:

:I don't know,: Daniel hesitated. :I'll just have to see how things turn out.:

:I'll be with you soon, my love.:

:You're always with me.: The rush of love Daniel sent with those words made Armand shiver. He let the link fade to the back of his mind, and opened his eyes again. Jesse and Mael were lying peacefully next to him, Jesse's head on Mael's chest, her hair a splendid mess.

As though feeling his eyes on her, Jesse looked up. "How are you feeling now?"

"Better," he said honestly. Of course he was still in pain. But he could move now, a little, and speak, and he was no longer quite as black and wrinkled as he had been. It would take much more time and much more blood before he'd be anything that was fit to be seen, but he was improving.

"That is good," Mael said with a sharp smile. "Now that we've put such an effort into healing you, it would be a shame if you died."

Armand promptly ran his tongue out at the old Celt, and was amazed to find that he could. Then he recalled his mission, and turned serious. "Mael, I need you to do something for me. Please."

"What is it?"

"Go back to the cathedral. And make sure no other fool tries to imitate me. It seems — someone did — last dawn."

Jesse's slim white hand went to her mouth in shock. "Oh no. Was it someone we—"

"No, no one we know. Someone we could have known, perhaps, if it hadn't been for my folly." Armand was harsh with himself. He'd never even dreamed that anyone else would copy his drastic action. But then he'd never dreamed that Lestat would just turn his back and walk away. Everything had gone the opposite way of what he'd planned. Instead of shocking Lestat back to his senses, he'd fooled some other poor soul into the same crazy belief.

"But how do you know?" she asked.

Armand closed his eyes. "Jesse, listen to the radio. Listen to the television."

He watched them both fall silent and concentrate on their preternatural senses. And it became evident that they did hear just what Daniel had told him. That they were shocked at how public an affair this veil had become.

"And Dora is telling stories of Lestat!" Jesse gasped. "Oh, this is really too much."

"Well, she's not getting much of it right," Armand said. "Lestat as an angel. I mean, really."

A faint twinkle appeared in Jesse's eyes. "It is hard to picture," she agreed.

Mael rose and floated easily over the two of them, landing on the floor. "I'll go," he said. "Anything I can, I'll do. Perhaps there's no one else, perhaps this was just a confused vagabond, some poor wanderer half out of his mind who would have faced the dawn anyway."

"Do go," Jesse said. "Please. We can't let it happen."

"Of course. I'll try to get back here afterwards — after the dawn — and if I don't have the time, I'll just go to ground somewhere." A nod to them both, and then Mael was gone, silent and efficient. He had power and presence enough to dissuade with either words or force.

Armand relaxed a little, now that that was taken care of. He did not feel quite so horribly guilty any more when he knew that Mael would be there to take care of anyone else who might have taken Armand as an example. Turning his head, he faced Jesse.

"We need to go to New Orleans."

She wrinkled her brows. "Why?"

"Because Daniel is there. Because Louis is there and he needs to be told the whole story, and I think we should tell him face to face. Because," he shivered a little, "because I'm tired of this damn winter. And I want to get away from this city and the hysteria and the cathedral and all of it."

Jesse nodded slowly. "I see," she said. "And you're very right about Louis. But Armand, you won't be in a state to travel for a long time yet."

"I have to be," Armand said. "I can't stay here. Jesse." He looked at her with what he hoped was appeal, though his face as it was now perhaps could not show any expression. "I want to be with Daniel, Jesse."

He could see that that got to her. Her green eyes softened, and she touched his cheek gently. "I do understand," she said. "But the way you look, Armand, you couldn't possibly go on a plane, you'd scare the mortals senseless."

"You could carry me. Fly me down."

She shook her head. "It's too cold up there!"

"You could wrap me up," he persisted. "I could have a couple of hot water bottles. Jesse, I want us to get to New Orleans before Lestat does."

"How do you know he hasn't gone there already?"

Armand shrugged. "Call it a hunch. But he will."

Jesse nodded seriously. "Yes, he will," she agreed. "But I can't—"

"You can." Armand looked at her. "If I'm wrapped in blankets and what have you, with hot water bottles, and then some kind of plastic covering on the outside, it would work."

"You've really thought this through." She actually grinned at him and he felt a rising hope. "Yes, it might work."

"Let's do it, then."

But that was moving too fast. Jesse frowned. "Later, Armand. When you're better. Stronger."

"No, now. Please." It was getting to be easier and easier to say please. "Mael can follow later. Or you can go back up here to him. But, Jesse..."

"I do want to see Louis again," she said. "He'll need a shoulder once he gets to hear all about Lestat." Jesse began absently to chew a fingernail, looking very mortal all of a sudden. "I wish David would get in touch. I wish I knew a little more of just what the hell is going on right now."

"Mm." Armand could only agree. "But it will be hard for David to contact any of us, if he's still with Lestat, and Lestat is as paranoid as he was before. Lestat wouldn't want anyone to know anything."

"Still, we can wait a while—"

"No." Armand put as much force into it as he could. "No, we need to do this now. Think of Louis, Jesse. And besides..." He did not quite know how to put it. "I have a hunch. I just feel very strongly that we should go now!"

She sat up, and stretched, and ran her hands through her hair, drawing it back and beginning to braid it neatly. Once the braid was done she held it together with one hand and dug in her pocket for a moment, producing a pink elastic band.

Armand waited patiently as Jesse rose and straightened her clothes and took a long slow look at him. He tried to look awake and aware, tried not to let the pain he felt show on his face.

Finally, she nodded. "All right," she said abruptly. "We'll do it your way. Just don't turn into an icicle on the way, is all I ask."

Chapter seventeen: Come together

"Everything I lost was found again.
I tasted wine in my mouth.
My heart was like a firefly; it moved
Through the darkest objects laughing." — Brian Patten, 'Poem written in the street on a rainy evening'

Even after he and Armand had let go of their tight connection, Daniel remained floating in a haze of love and contentment. A soft but determined voice brought him out of his reverie.

"I know you're awake, you might as well open your eyes."

"And if I don't?" Daniel teased, discovering that he was smiling. He felt helplessly happy in spite of the troubled situation. He also felt more in control now. Finally finding out that Armand was still alive after all had turned him into a weeping, near-hysterical wreck, and he'd spent the rest of that night crying in Louis' arms. Now, when he and Armand had finally managed a bit of coherent communication, he felt a little, a very little bit more settled.

This had been the emotional roller coaster ride of the century. The moment when he had felt Armand burn had been the worst of his entire existence. Now, though, with the most pressing of his anxieties settled, he was prepared to try to deal with the outside world again.

The mattress dipped a little under Louis' weight, and Daniel did open his eyes, to see Louis sitting there again as he had last night. Louis' fine black hair was spilling forward over his high, smooth forehead, and his wide green eyes were still and serious. Then a smile glinted in them.

"I suppose I would have tried to give you more blood to snap you out of it," he said.

Daniel promptly closed his eyes again, and heard Louis laugh.

"Well, it was worth a try." Daniel grinned. "After all, it's taken me almost twenty years to figure out how to make you do it."

"What — oh." The perplexity in Louis' face gave way to understanding, and he looked down a moment as if reliving the ending of that long ago night. "Do you know, I'd almost forgotten. Yes, well, we have come a long way since then. And the funny thing is that you were right. It didn't have to end like that."

Daniel smiled wryly. "Yeah, me and my fancy philosophical motivations. I tell you, after a few years of running around the world after Armand and vice versa, I'd practically forgotten why I wanted it in the first place."

Louis' eyes on his were kind but sharp; they seemed to see beneath the surface of him, cut to the heart of things. "Yes, but you found other reasons to want it, didn't you?"

"One other reason," Daniel said quietly.

Louis nodded. "It was the same way for me, I suppose. I woke up again, I came alive again. When I was with Lestat."

"Yes," Daniel agreed. "There's more to it than that though, it's not just all for love and mortality well lost."

"Well," Louis looked thoughtful, "the whole point is that one must have some reason to go on and the best one is love, and not love for just one person, though that is necessary too. Loneliness is our most secret and terrible fear, and so much stronger when we know that loneliness could last forever. We need others for companionship and to remind us of reality, they are our mirrors, to make sure we aren't warped out of all recognition, that we retain the qualities that make us persons and not merely predators."

"I bet there've been a few splendid cases of vampiric folie a deux though."

Louis' eyes gleamed wickedly. "Daniel, darling, there are those who would have called you and Armand a perfect example."

"Touché." He held up a hand, relieved that this simple motion was now all but painless.

"And your French accent is terrible."

"All right! Point taken, okay?"

Louis drew up one of his legs and propped his chin on his knee. "Good." He grinned. Daniel couldn't help laughing, unable to really get angry. "Now, Daniel, there are a few things I'd like you to explain to me." Daniel found himself wanting to sit up straight so he could meet Louis' gaze more easily. He pushed himself up against the mound of pillows. "About yourself and Armand."

Aiming for flippancy, Daniel said, "You want to know why he hasn't taught me any French?"

"No. I want to know what's been going on over the past couple of nights."

"Can't a guy have any secrets?"

Louis reached out and started to fluff the pillows under Daniel's head, and paused with his face close to Daniel's, the look in his eyes sharp as a laser beam. "You've tried that line before. I didn't help you heal just so you could lie there making smart remarks." Then he sat up again and tilted his head to one side expectantly.

Daniel considered the question for a moment. He and Armand had agreed without discussion to keep their connection secret for the time being. They didn't fancy being exclaimed over and investigated by the rest of the vampire community — and the way they had acquired this connection was still too personal, too intimate an experience to be treated as a public matter.

But Louis had seen Daniel's collapse and comforted him when he wept at Armand's recovery. Louis already knew there was more to this than met the eye. And after the generous help he had given Daniel, he deserved to know why that help had been necessary.

"Armand was badly hurt," Daniel began tentatively, trying to gain time by stating the obvious. "You know, you saw that, didn't you. The — the fire."

Louis nodded. "Yes. But what, how — what happened, and why did that affect you?"

Daniel swallowed. He held up a hand and looked at it. Amazingly, there was the suggestion of a tan. Not much, but he no longer had the perfect pallor of a vampire. "We weren't going to tell anyone about this yet."

"Whatever your plans were," Louis said, "I'm sure they didn't include what happened the night before last. Damn it, Daniel, I want to know why I had to mop you up off the parquet!"

Louis wasn't really angry, but Daniel could tell that he was serious. Faced with so much quiet determination Daniel found himself unable to stall any longer.

"Well. All right. Remember the mortal who put a love spell on me?"

"Of course I remember," Louis said, raising an eyebrow. "I was there. And you only told me about it again a few days ago. I'm not that absent-minded. And aren't you getting a little off track here?"

"No. Bear with me. I didn't tell you the full story before. I didn't tell you about how Martin died."

Now Louis' face softened in response to the very real pain in Daniel's voice. "No, but he was dying, after all, his heart..."

"Yes, but that's not what killed him. He arranged for us to kill him, Armand and myself. We drained him. And as he was dying, he linked us together." Daniel experienced an echo of that first connection again, the sudden uprushing of doubled feeling, the shock of finding another there, the burning ache of memory regained.

Louis' black brows arched, then drew together. "I don't understand."

"He gave us a mental link." :Louis, you know what I mean!:

The startlement Louis felt was unmistakeable. :You mean — like this?:

"Yes, exactly." Daniel pushed himself up even more and leaned against the headboard. "Or rather, not exactly. It's a lot more intimate. And we couldn't turn it off and had no idea how to handle it at first."

"That must have been interesting."

"You could say that," Daniel said with a crooked smile. "Not all bad, though."

"I think I'd rather not know the details." To Daniel's surprise, Louis actually winked at him. "But I don't understand how he did that, how he managed it."

"I don't either," Daniel said frankly. "But Martin and I had established a deep connection, and when he was — dying — I was losing it, I was breaking up completely, when he went away and the spell began to break all at once, so he replaced the link I had to him with a link to Armand somehow. Not even KJ could really tell, but the bond is there and it's apparently unbreakable, except by death," he finished with a shiver, thinking of how close he had come to finding that out. "It transmits just about everything, feelings, thoughts, even physical sensations. As you might have figured out by now."

Louis sat quite still and silent, looking down, his face blank. When a full minute had passed, Daniel tentatively reached out and gripped Louis' arm. Louis lifted his head and there was a shimmer in his eyes, a delicate sheen of red-tinged tears. "What a gift he gave you," he whispered. Daniel nodded. "To break the silence, that silence..."

Daniel could hear the raw longing in Louis' voice, and he understood it. That silence. The silence between those who loved each other most dearly yet were denied the closest of intimacy. No one really knew why there was that silence between maker and fledgling. Daniel remembered the shock of that barrier establishing itself so suddenly, and how that had been the only thing that lessened his joy and delight as Armand had brought him over.

"It is a wonder," he agreed in a low voice.

"And no one knows how it was done."

Daniel shook his head. "No. I somehow doubt that the exact circumstances could be replicated."

"Of course not." Louis tried to sound brisk. He was pretending not to care, Daniel could tell, pretending not to want it really.

Though of course he did.

"Anyway," Daniel said, attempting to match Louis' tone of voice, "that's why I collapsed. When Armand was hurt I felt it as though it happened to me."

"Yes, I understand." Louis was more collected now, though there was something in his eyes still that showed Daniel that this would not soon be forgotten. "But Daniel, how did Armand come to be hurt in the first place?"

Well, there was that question, that Daniel should have known from the start was coming.

"I'd rather not try to explain that right now," he said, knowing himself for a coward.

"Daniel!" Louis glared at him. "I care for Armand, you know that, I want to know—"

"Yes, yes! But it's complicated — I mean — I can't—" He floundered, wondering how to get himself out of this, or if he should just give in and tell Louis all he knew.

:You do express yourself beautifully, love.: The teasing mind-voice cut Daniel's attempt to sidetrack Louis short.

:Well, thanks. You try it, then.:

:I will. We're on our way. Jesse is bringing me down to New Orleans and we'll be there soon.:

:What!: After the inital shock, Daniel growled in frustration and punched the wall behind him. :Armand! Damn it! You are not in a state to travel!:

:I'll be fine,: Armand insisted maddeningly, even though he must know Daniel could feel the pain that burned every part of his body. :And there's nothing you can do about it now anyway. Just stall Louis till we get there and we'll all do the talking. Together.:

:Oh, all right,: Daniel agreed.

"Is there any particular reason," Louis' cool voice cut into his concentration on that inner communication, "that you just put a dent in our wall?"

Daniel turned his head and looked guiltily at the mark his fist had left. "Um. Sorry. It was Armand."

If Louis' eyebrow had climbed any higher it would have hit his hairline. "Armand hit the wall?"

"Armand made me hit the wall." Daniel sighed and ran both hands through his hair. "You know how he can be. You must know, you lived with him too. He's coming here."

"Oh!" Louis' eyes lit up. "He's not so badly hurt, then?"

"Yes, he is," Daniel grumbled. Once he and Armand were reunited he could at least keep his beloved from any more such escapades. Armand needed peace and quiet for his healing. "He's just coming here anyway. With Jesse. So you see..."

"Not really," Louis said. "I don't recall that Armand even at his worst ever made me destroy other people's property."

"Louis, don't be such a prig!" Daniel snorted in outrage. "What about the Théâtre des Vampyres, then?"

Then he could have bitten his tongue off as Louis' face changed from mock aggrievement to genuine grief. "Oh, that," he whispered. "Yes, that..." Then he seemed to shake it off, with a light shrug, as he might have shaken raindrops out of his hair. "But Daniel, quite apart from what you've done to the wall, will you tell me—"

Again Daniel held up his hand. "When they get here. We'll all tell you. Okay?" He began to feel real exhaustion now. And he felt sure Louis could see it too, because Louis leaned forward and pushed Daniel down again quite gently into the bed, and pulled the covers up around him.

"Yes, very well," Louis said. "When they get here. And until then you will try to sleep. You must rest to get better."

Daniel attempted a leer. "I could do with a bit more blood, too."

"Pleasant dreams, Daniel."

* * *

It was amazing, yet Louis could find no real reason to doubt it. It was the only explanation that fit all the facts. Armand and Daniel did possess some kind of mental link.

Louis shook his head slowly as he walked away from the bedroom where Daniel was still recuperating. He made his way to his study and sank down by his desk, absently running one finger over its smooth polished surface in an unthinking caress. A thin covering of grey dust clung to his fingertip; he frowned.

Linked.

Sharing each other's feelings and thoughts.

He bent his head and clenched his hand, trying to fight down the almost nauseating wave of envy that swept through him. To have that closeness — if he could show Lestat once and for all how much he loved him, then there would never be that terrible insecurity again.

But words were the only way for them to try to communicate.

Then again, people had been making do with words for a good long time. Mortal lovers rarely had anything else to use. And Louis could think of a few times when he would not, really, have wanted to be deeply linked to Lestat. He thought of Daniel's collapse at Armand's injury, and remembered the time when Lestat had tried to fry himself in the Gobi desert.

All the same, to share feelings and sensations like that... The thought would not leave him alone. He sighed, and picked a book at random from one of the small piles that littered the desk, and began to read. It was slow going at first, as he had to fight thoughts of Daniel's extraordinary revelations, but gradually the story sucked him in and he had all but relaxed when he sensed a disturbance, and then a bright voice spoke in his head.

:Hey, handsome! Permission to land!:

:Jesse!:

There was no mistaking her. And now he would finally get the explanations he'd been craving. In an instant he had put the book down and rushed out to the courtyard where Jesse was already standing, with a huge bundle in her arms. Louis wrinkled his brow in surprise at the sight.

"Do you need a hand with that?" Then he realized how ridiculous the question was, from him to her — yet some things would never be worn out of him, it seemed.

"No, she doesn't," something snapped from the bundle. "Get me inside."

The voice! It was Armand! Louis held the door open as Jesse walked inside.

"Where's Danny?" she asked and without waiting for an answer, walked upstairs and headed immediately in the right direction, walking so fast that she seemed to be floating. Louis had to put on a burst of speed to reach the next door first and hold that one open for her, too.

In the bedroom Daniel was already sitting bolt upright again, his eyes feverish with anticipation, and he moved over to the far side of the bed as Jesse put the bundle down next to him and something began to claw its way weakly out of it.

Louis gasped, but it was drowned out by Daniel's low cry. "Armand!"

They must both be feeling the same shock. There was no mistaking what had happened to Armand. Oh, he was burned, scarred, damaged indeed, a ghastly blackened and shrivelled copy of what he used to be. The hair, the eyes were Armand's, and somewhere there were Armand's soulful features too, but the fingers were like claws, the body thinned, a dried-out husk of itself.

:You're lucky you didn't see him before,: Jesse breathed in his mind as Daniel flung himself on the body of his lover. :If you think he looks bad now...: She left the sentence unfinished and Louis was just as glad.

On the bed Armand and Daniel seemed to be trying to meld their bones together, they were clinging so tightly to each other, making little sounds of love and reassurance. Louis felt tears rise to his eyes and had to turn his back on them for a moment. He and Jesse ought to leave, give them some privacy.

She came up next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "They need time to themselves, but I think we all should talk first — and it's mostly Armand's story."

"You mean I'm finally going to find out what's been going on?" Maybe he put more bitterness into that than he should have; Jesse actually flinched back. Then she nodded and lifted her chin with new resolve.

"Yes. I — I'm sorry, Louis."

It sounded genuine. And that didn't make him feel any better. It meant anything could have happened.

"Come over here." The voice was so smooth and perfect that when he wasn't looking, Louis could pretend that Armand was just the way he'd always been. "We need to talk."

Armand and Daniel had propped themselves up as best they could; Armand was resting against Daniel's chest, Armand's head on Daniel's shoulder. Rich red curls framed the ghastly face. Louis tried to hide his discomfort at the sight. He knew this would heal, would in time fade to something resembling a suntan and then vanish altogether if Armand took proper care of himself. No permanent damage had been done. Yet he could not look at Armand without feeling both shock and outrage. The pain he must be feeling!

He settled, with Jesse, at the foot of the bed. Jesse curled up with her legs under her; Louis leaned back against the bedpost.

"Yes," he agreed. "It seems there is much that needs to be explained. But not if you are in too much pain, Armand, it can wait." At the same time he fervently hoped that Armand would choose to speak. Louis could read the others well enough and they were tense and uncomfortable, and it had to do with him. And so, consequently, with Lestat. And he had to know.

"It can't wait." Armand shrugged slightly in Daniel's arms. "I hurt, but talking makes no difference. Louis, you must know that Lestat is back." Armand paused, but all Louis could do was sit there and stare at him, stunned. "He came back three nights ago."

"Three nights — and you didn't tell me!" Louis sat bolt upright now, his chest rising and falling rapidly, then slowly forced himself to relax again when he discovered that Daniel was holding one arm up as though trying to protect Armand from a sudden attack. That made him feel embarrassed, but still furious. "Why?"

"Well." Armand sighed. "We chose not to. It was perhaps foolish of us. We wanted to — we couldn't—"

"Lestat was in a really bad state," Daniel said bluntly, "and they didn't want to tell you about it."

Louis' heart was in his throat. "How — bad?"

"He's still mad," Armand said with obvious reluctance, "and he's lost an eye."

Louis looked aside, shying away from the compassion in Armand's eyes. He tried to picture it and couldn't. It seemed wrong to feel Lestat's disfigurement so deeply when he was faced with Armand's much more serious injuries.

"What happened?" he asked around the lump in his throat. "How is he now? And what happened to you?"

"Lestat told David and me a strange story, that he'd met the Devil, and met God, and that he had come into possession of Veronica's veil, the real one. With the face of God on it." Armand swallowed slowly and painfully. "Dora saw it and she, well, she took it, she ran off to start a crusade, I think. And I wanted to show Lestat what he had done and what the consequences might be, and..."

it was all too bewildering. Louis felt a tentative touch; Armand was giving up on words and wanted to show him instead. He nodded his consent and found himself swept up in those feelings and images, perceiving the details of what had happened, sensing Armand's reasoning, and even getting an idea of the shock and pain as the flames rose.

"And he just left you there!" Louis said finally. He shook his head. "I can't believe it. I can't... oh, Armand. This is terrible."

"It's worse than that," Armand said, his eyes closed now. "I never imagined that others would imitate me, but someone did. Another of our kind burned for the cameras last time the sun rose. Mael is staying behind to make sure no one else does."

"They were there," Jesse spoke up suddenly. "David and Lestat. At the cathedral. Mael saw them, spoke to them. He was worried that, um..." She broke off.

"That Lestat was there to face the dawn, too?" Louis filled in for her.

"Yes." Jesse shot him a grateful look as he saved her from having to say it herself. "But they left again. He thinks Lestat thought that that was what he was there for."

"And you kept all this from me." Louis was still reeling at the enormity of it. "I could have been there!"

"It was a mistake," Armand admitted simply. "But we did it."

"And you're the one who's suffered for it." Louis reached out and took Armand's wizened hand in his. "You tried to do so much for him. Thank you."

Armand might have looked embarrassed. But Daniel, with a small smile at Louis, kissed Armand's temple, and Armand relaxed. "The problem still remains," Armand said, "of what to do now."

"You've done enough," Louis said immediately. "You and Daniel should do nothing but try to recover."

Jesse nodded her agreement. "I brought you here, Armand, but I'm not letting you go anywhere else until you can move under your own steam."

"But there are so many levels to this problem," Armand said. "There is Lestat, and most important of all we must find him, though hopefully David has him well in hand." Armand shot an almost apologetic look at Louis, who just nodded at him to continue. "Then, the issue of our safety. Dora has seen us. And a vampire did burn to ashes on the steps of the cathedral. What if the scientific community has gotten hold of a sample?"

"It's also possible," Jesse said reluctantly, "that others will do this later. Mael can't be hanging around those steps forever like an immortal policeman."

Louis shook his head. "No, of course not. We can only try to spread the word somehow that this is a foolish thing to do. But what goes on in the mortal scientific community is not so easy for us to affect."

"They still believe it to be some kind of spontaneous combustion," Jesse said. "I've tried to follow the news. That, or a miracle, of course. Though there are some voices questioning why God should want human sacrifices burned in his honor."

"Not human, of course," Louis whispered, "but they can't know that. And they're right, what cruel God could be pleased by that..."

"Judging from Lestat's story of God," Armand said dryly, "He would probably just consider it an interesting stage in our evolution."

"I don't know," Jesse said slowly.

But Louis got to his feet and started pacing around the room. "We need to find Lestat," he said. "Forgive me for making this your first priority as well as mine. But I do believe it is important. If he has become so closely enmeshed in the mortal world, who knows what he might be tempted to do and who he might be tempted to speak with."

"Dora," Armand said with loathing.

Louis flinched. "Yes. For instance." Then he went on, "Jesse, did Mael have any idea of where David and Lestat went?"

She shook her head. "No. But the fact that they left St Patrick's is something of a relief, I think. Perhaps Lestat is drawing away a bit from what he's created."

"Poor David," Louis said softly. "This can't be easy for him."

Jesse gave him an amazed look. "You're concerned about David?"

"Well," Louis said with a shrug, "it beats screaming and hitting my head against the wall."

Chapter eighteen: One angel in another's hell

"Innocent bystanders,
Caught up in the crossfire, whenever we speak
They don't understand us
They stumble on the tripwire you lay at my feet
And I don't believe a word,
no I don't believe a word
That you say to me
I don't, I don't believe a word..." — A Bigger Splash, 'I Don't Believe a Word (Innocent Bystanders)'

"God is a gentleman. He prefers blondes." — Joe Orton, 'Loot'

Flying, it was very easy to feel disassociated from most things. The world fell away and there was only the cold and the darkness and the small stubborn sense of direction. A feeling that one could go on forever and circle the globe like a dreaming satellite, released from all earthly fears and concerns.

But David shook that feeling away. He knew that he was going somewhere and there would be an arrival. He followed Lestat, who blazed like a comet through the night sky, wild with incoherent fury and grief and passion. David held the books, those unique and intriguing books, in his arms, wondering if he would ever be given a few quiet hours in which to study them as intently and thoroughly as he really wished.

He did not quite understand the deep significance Lestat seemed to attach to them, but they were fascinating in and of themselves. Those illustrations... more than a few hours, really. The delicate little figures were really wildly indelicate, and David would rather have liked to have met the man who had so painstakingly described his amorous encounters.

But there were more urgent matters to deal with, far more urgent! He had to remember to stay alert, to think ahead, not just tag along blindly wherever Lestat went.

And it came to him suddenly, with the realization that he had been a blind fool, that the one person he truly needed to talk to was the only one Lestat would never hear answer. Of course, why hadn't he thought of that before...

With a sigh almost of relief, David reached out.

:Louis. Louis.: He knew who it was he sought, and where Louis was to be found. It was quite a precise operation after all. There. That particular mind, cool as blue glass, seemed to shimmer to his inner sight and he touched it gently.

A moment of wonder, and then came recognition. :David?:

Louis was not a strong telepath. But he did have more of an ability than he gave himself credit for. David sensed the instinctive shields, the wish for exact and private communication, and approved.

:Louis, I need you — I need to talk to you. We are on our way to New Orleans. Lestat and I.:

:Finally,: it shot through him with the speed and sharpness of an arrow, an almost aggressive thought that did not quite hide the relief underneath. And then the quick, efficient questions, :When will you get here? Are you coming to the Rue Royal?:

:No, we are not. We're going to this place...: David described the orphanage as best he could, only to find that Louis, naturally, knew it quite well already. Louis seemed, in fact, oddly collected, and did not ask nearly as many questions as David had been anticipating. :Louis, do you know what has been happening?:

:Not everything, of course. But they've told me all they knew,: and from Louis' mind came a series of images of people talking earnestly to him, Daniel reclining in a bed, Jesse gesturing for emphasis, and a something... a something that looked so strangely familiar...

David nearly dropped the Wynken books. He felt stunned, and then elated almost beyond words. :Armand? Louis, is that Armand?:

A faint :Yes:, and then more strongly, :I swear I'll beat Lestat up when he gets here. And you too, David. How could you just stand by when he did that! What did you think he was up to!:

The wave of anger from Louis startled David but then he wondered why he was so surprised. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to say. Why hadn't he tried to rescue Armand, attempted to stop him? David could not exactly account for what had been going through his mind at the time.

:I don't know,: he said honestly. :I was terribly surprised. And Lestat panicked; I think we both did. It was so horrible and unbelievable.:

:I can understand that,: Louis admitted.

Now David began to feel more relaxed, to accept the fact that Armand really was alive. That there existed somewhere still that sharp and relentless mind, those huge melting brown eyes. He had not known how much he had really felt the loss of Armand until now when he found out that Armand was not dead.

:And I am so relieved to know — please, do tell Armand that I am overjoyed, indeed, at hearing he is alive.:

:No thanks to you,: Louis snorted. Then he softened. :But he did say that he should have told you, too, what he was planning to do, only there was so little time.:

David blinked. He hadn't been expecting that.

:Planning?:

Now Louis sounded almost condescending. :David, you didn't really think that Armand seriously tried to kill himself over the Veil?!:

:What was I supposed to think!: David exclaimed, feeling both annoyed and embarrassed that he had indeed believed it. He'd wept long and hard over Armand, and he could feel Louis sensing it, and giving him a gentle touch of compassion, understanding. :But if he didn't — was it Jesse who came to his aid?:

:Jesse and Mael.:

:I did wonder where they'd disappeared to. So why did Armand do it then? Was it just — for Lestat to see—: David was stunned by Armand's courage. It had been a terribly dangerous thing to do, and Armand seemed to have suffered badly from it.

:Exactly. How did Lestat take it?:

:Badly.: David peered ahead through the darkness, tried to see the shooting star that was Lestat. :He's not very balanced right now.:

Louis hid his grief well, but not quite well enough. David could feel it subtly tinge every word.

:Why are you going to the orphanage?:

:Dora gave it to him.:

David felt the almost palpable silence before Louis asked, :Are they still...:

:No.: David swallowed. :They've spoken, that's all. She uses him as an argument in her gospel but I think she found his actual presence an embarrassment. She says he's a messenger from the Lord and he, well...:

.He's starting to doubt?: Louis was hopeful.

:He's falling apart,: David said heavily. Then he remembered who he was talking to. :I'm sure he'll be fine though—:

:Oh, David.: He could almost see the expression on Louis' face. :Never mind. I'll be there.:

:Thank you,: David whispered, and they gently disengaged from each others' minds. He clutched the books closer and began to feel the piercing cold seep in through his clothes and bite at his limbs, paralysing him. Not much farther now, he tried to comfort himself. Not much farther, and they'd descend into the reassuring comfort of the New Orleans night.

He hated to travel like this. He could understand Pandora's recorded dislike of flying, and if he ever met her again he'd tell her so. Though David felt not so much divorced from the last remnants of his humanity as isolated from the rest of the world, and he often had to open his mind to listen to the myriad thought-voices pouring through the ether to soothe himself when he'd started to imagine that he was the last creature left alive.

Or whatever.

Lestat was still ahead and showed no sign of acknowledging that he had company. There was something about Lestat now that made David feel truly frightened. He had tried not to show Louis that fear. It wasn't worry that Lestat would toss a fiery brand into the midst of mortality again — the blond vampire was suffering so for already having done it. No, David feared that Lestat had disappeared into some unreachable place inside himself and would never be the same again.

At least, David reflected wryly, recent events had taken his mind off his own personal heartbreak. That seemed a small and insignificant thing in this context. Perhaps he would finally be able to let it go and forget all about it.

Having thought that, his mind worried at memories of Marius for the rest of the trip. He found himself longing more than ever for intimate companionship, for love. Some kind of closeness that would support him through all this and help him make sense at least of his own private universe.

But then he had never had that closeness with Marius, had he? Though he had desperately wanted it. That had just been a dream, a silly, vain dream. Too foolish of him to accord the whole thing any significance, really. For Marius it must have been rather like having a weekend affair. A brief nothing.

When they finally descended to land lightly outside the orphanage, David felt the humid air on his skin with a sigh of relief. He stood still, his head tilted back to look up at the sky from whence they'd fallen, as Lestat walked up to him and carefully took the Wynken books from him.

David felt a momentary pang at releasing them; he did so want to read them! But there might be an opportunity later, and it wasn't really important now. The scholarly desire to read was just one of the ways his mind sought to protect him, sought to take him away from all this. A distraction, just as he had even used the painful thoughts of Marius for a distraction.

He saw no sign of Louis. But he felt confident that Louis was here somewhere. Lestat vanished into the house carrying his precious burden, but David stayed outside for a moment, breathing the night air, feeling himself thaw slowly until he felt comfortable slipping his heavy wool blazer off.

"I am disappointed, David," a voice as soft as the night breeze said behind him.

He spun around and stared in amazement, all dignity forgotten momentarily as he gazed on a slight, ethereal, familiar form. "Maharet!"

She came closer, moving like the wind too, so light, just drifting over the ground and he was stunned yet again by her sheer presence that overawed even more than her beauty. And then he got a close look at her face.

Maharet was frightened.

David blinked, and when he opened his eyes again she was just standing there, her usual imperturbable self, a marble goddess. Surely he had been wrong. But he felt unease, and could not tell whether it was his own, or coming fromher.

"I thought Lestat could be left safely in your hands," she said in a reproving voice.

Only now did David realize what she was saying, and the implications chilled him. "What do you mean? Are you saying that you knew, you knew what would happen? No, that is not possible. Maharet. Say that it isn't so."

"I've come to settle things," she went on, disregarding every word he'd spoken. "Lestat is a menace to everything and everyone this way."

"You're not going to hurt him!" David took a step closer and actually took hold of her, seized her shoulders. "You won't — you can't, Maharet."

"I will do what is necessary," she said in a measured tone of voice. "I have a message for him." And then she shuddered and again he saw a glimpse of absolute, unreasoning panic in her eyes. "Yes, a message — to the messenger of God."

"Well," David said, perplexed but determined to try to make some sense of this situation, "I expect we should go and find him, then; he went inside."

"He is with Louis," Maharet said.

David relaxed a fraction. The world righted itself slightly around him. At least one thing was back to being the way it should, then — surely if anyone could bring Lestat back to his senses it was Louis. David had ceased to fear that Lestat would harm Louis, or anyone else. This might be just what Lestat needed.

"Perhaps we should not disturb them," he said.

"Why not?" Maharet asked blankly. "It's not much of a conversation they're having."

David felt a jolt of surprise both at that fact, and the way in which she reported it.

"But they've been apart for so long — and—"

"I have things to do here," she said and strode ahead of him, and all he could do was follow.

But David was aghast at what actually happened inside, in that dim little vestibule.

Chains, Maharet was talking about chains! Saying that she would chain Lestat... no wonder he spoke so wildly of being a devil thrown into the pit. This was absurd, why was she talking this way, why would it be necessary to even suggest—

David stood frozen in shock and sensed that Louis felt the same way; they did not move a muscle when Maharet asserted that they would help her. Nor did she seem to care whether they agreed with her or not. What was this, what was going on!

And then David had to put a hand out and touch her, and he felt her tremble, and then he did not protest her outrageous scheme. Because she took out something and held it out to Lestat and said it would make him scream, and when David saw what it was, well, the world made another little spin and made him utterly dizzy,and it might have made him scream, too.

It was Lestat's missing eye.

And Maharet claimed to have received it from Memnoch.

David could almost feel his jaw drop, he was stunned, speechless. Had it all been true, then? Had it all been true?

Louis did not move, he was a silent presence there in the darkness radiating quiet pain, as Lestat, predictably, began to rage. And then Maharet went to Lestat and took him in her strong, strong arms and dragged him down underground.

* * *

"This is absurd," Louis said. "Chains! He could snap those chains like dry twigs."

"The point is that he believes in them," Maharet said. She was pushing her hair back behind her ears, smoothing out her belted coat that had become mussed as Lestat had struggled against her. Louis regarded her with open hostility.

"Chain the patient down and lock him up. How enlightened. Missed out on the latest developments in psychiatry, haven't you?"

Maharet looked straight at him. "He will stay there until I say he can be released," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. "The kind of chaos he's been causing!"

"But surely if we talked to him," David began reasonably, trying to smooth things over. Always trying to keep everyone calm.

"I'm disappointed in you, David," she said. "I thought you could keep him out of trouble."

"Really!" David exclaimed.

"I thought surely you would see more deeply into this matter."

Louis glared at her, though he did not think she could see it, not here in the darkness of the underground stairs. He disliked the way she kept talking to David, and apparently disregarding him as someone of no account. The way she'd taken charge of the whole situation made him furious.

"I don't really understand why you think that," David said slowly. "And I did not understand it the first time you said it, either. I'd like you to explain—"

"It doesn't matter," Maharet said, veering off the subject with some speed. "I've taken care of this now and everything will be fine."

"Oh, of course," Louis murmured, knowing she could hear him very well. "Lestat's chained up in the basement and everything's just dandy."

Maharet finally turned to look at him, as though she'd just noticed his presence. "I'll release him when he's rational again," she said with exaggerated patience.

Louis exploded. "And of course you're the only one who can judge that! Damn it, that's my lover you just tied up and I want to talk to him!"

"It was necessary," she said.

"Maharet," David intervened, "Louis may have a point, it was surely a rather drastic action."

"Louis does not know what we are dealing with here," she said. Then she turned her back as though that was the last word to be said on the subject, and strolled away upwards. Louis impulsively started to follow her, but was held back by David's strong hand on his arm. He looked at David and decided to accept that slight shake of the head for the time being.

Once Maharet had left, David came closer and put his arm around Louis.

"I know," David said in a low voice, "I know how difficult this must be for you. But don't take too much offense, please. I am afraid that Maharet may not be completely well-balanced right now, either."

"Yes? I'd say she's several cards short of a full deck," Louis agreed. "So why she should be entitled to storm around locking others up like some kind of vampire supercop is more than I understand."

"Louis, please listen."

"What? You're going to tell me all about her sad childhood and how this is all perfectly justified?"

"Louis—" Now David pulled Louis closer and embraced him, and just held him very very firmly. Louis tried to tear himself loose, tried to fight it, but then something broke inside him and he rested his forehead against David's comfortably broad shoulder and would have fallen had David not held him up.

"This is hell, David," he whispered. "I don't care where Lestat thinks he's been... why, this is hell, nor are we out of it."

"I know you think it is terrible," David said in a soft voice. "And it is terrible. But Louis, at least Lestat will not come to any further harm right now, and—"

Louis could hear the exhaustion in David's voice, and that was all that kept him from lashing out at the younger vampire. He knew David did not really mean that he wanted Lestat to be chained up. But David, poor David, had been struggling for days to keep Lestat still and out of trouble, and it was no wonder really that having him firmly located in one place and unable to wreak more havoc should seem at least a little appealing.

"Very well," Louis said. "I will not pick a fight with Maharet. After all," he could not prevent the acid tone from creeping into his voice, "if I argue too much with her, she may decide that I'm a danger to the coven too, and destroy me. David, what is this nonsense! She's acting like Armand in the bad old days, for heaven's sake. What's unhinged her?"

"I'm not absolutely certain," David said and there was thoughtful reason in his voice; Louis could tell that David's mind was winding its logical way through all the factors of the problem. "But when I was staying with her in Burma she was behaving rather strangely, and she kept asking me about God and the Devil in the Paris café."

"Well, she had Lestat's eye!" Louis shuddered at the memory. "She must know more about all this than she's letting on, and I want to find out all of it. Though she doesn't seem too eager to share her knowledge."

"Louis." David stroked his hair gently. "Think how this has affected Lestat, the things that have been happening to him. How should it be different with Maharet?"

Louis lifted his head and stared at David. "Are you saying they're both out of their minds?" He began to laugh, half-hysterically. "Oh, w-wonderful — maybe we should just ask her to chain herself to the wall next to Lestat." His laugher echoed in the hollow stairwell.

"Hush, now," David said. "She'll hear you."

"I don't care." Louis broke free of David's embrace. "I don't see why I should have to be considerate of her feelings when she doesn't give a damn about mine."

"Give it a little time," David said softly. "I believe she is overreacting at the moment."

"That's one way of putting it."

"it will be dawn shortly," David said and looked at Louis with something almost like appeal in his brown eyes. "At least leave off your quarrel until tonight."

Louis rubbed a hand between his eyes, trying to recover something of his lost equilibrium. "You're right, David. I'm sorry for taking it all out on you, you've had enough of a hard time as it is. Are you all right?"

David leaned back against the wall. "I've been better. But I'll live, as they say," he said with the merest hint of a smile.

"Well, I am glad to hear that." Louis stood there indecisively for a moment. Then he took a step downwards. "David, if you can, make certain that Maharet doesn't leave. She owes us an explanation at least, of where she got the eye back. And if she's decided to imprison Lestat, she must take some responsibility for that. Can you talk to her?"

"Without getting into an argument? I trust I still remember how to do that," and now there was a decided twinkle in David's eyes. "You won't be going back to the house—?"

"No. Not now." Louis did not have to explain; David nodded. Turning around, Louis followed the stairs down again into the cool stone-walled room where Lestat lay wrapped in chains and telepathy. It was dark down here yet he could make out the almost ghostly gleam of a white face, and a few glints of gold where Lestat's hair fell in tangled waves.

"Sing," a hoarse voice whispered. "Sing..."

Louis moved quietly closer, sat down on the floor. Lestat. With two blue eyes looking at him, for the moment without recognition. He remembered with a chill their brief conversation in the chapel; Lestat babbling wildly, seeming not to realize who it was he actually spoke to...

Or was Lestat simply choosing not to acknowledge it? Louis sighed. He'd left a lover, but heaven only knew what it was he had found now. Lestat was trapped in a great big WHY screaming itself over and over again, and there seemed no way to get through to him on any other terms than those of what was happening inside his head right now.

"My love," Louis said almost inaudibly. "Perhaps it really is for the best, that you sleep yourself back to sanity. If I cannot reach you with words, and words are all I can offer..." He remembered Armand and Daniel, and for the first time since he had been reunited with Lestat, he felt tears rise to his eyes.

"Lies," Lestat said. "All lies, but it could have been true! Don't you see, it could have been true..."

"I do see, my dearest," Louis said. "I understand." He wanted to reach out and touch Lestat, but he did not know if Lestat would even notice, in the state he was in. "No words, then. Nothing, it seems. It can all be a lie, so what could I tell you?"

He felt very tired suddenly, and it was not merely because dawn was so close. Louis rubbed his hands across his eyes, brushing away the tears.

"Sing — they were singing before, why did they stop? Sing..."

"Oh, dear one. You can't hear them singing," Louis said. And then he began to hum softly, a slow gentle song with no words, or if it had words he'd never known them. Just a lullaby, and he didn't know if it was something that had once been hummed to him when he'd been a mortal child.

The ghost children weren't singing, but Louis sang Lestat to sleep, watched the blue eyes close and the face relax and go through its transformation. Only in sleep did Lestat really look as young as the mortal he'd been when he'd been brought over. Only in sleep, true sleep, did he seem at peace.

Finally Louis fell silent. The ache in his bones and on his skin was growing nearly unendurable. He did not have much more time. It was perhaps only vanity, but he disliked being caught by the daytime sleep in some absurd position, he wanted to be prepared for it.

But he could not stop looking at Lestat's face.

"I missed you so much, my love," he whispered. "I thought of you so often, you were always there, part of me. And I heard the sound of your voice echo in my mind, I could feel the touch of your hands on my skin and I burned, longing for you. All the time. I love you. I will always love you."

And unable to resist any longer, dragged down, Louis stretched out on the bare stone floor. The heaviness was coming over him, stealing thought and motion. With one last effort, he moved his hand across the flagstones, so that his fingers were tangled into the silky strands of Lestat's hair.

Then he closed his eyes. It was dawn.

Chapter nineteen: Hell of a long way home

"I need my body to move loose through the world
Need my fingers to touch the skin
of children adrift in their temporary world
Beneath their dreaming is a drop of blood
refusing the sun's heat
a drop of blood more pure than any other blood

I need to walk through this pale light
that occupies the world
and believe it when a drop of blood says
Listen,
paradise is never far away
and simpler than you think it" — Brian Patten, 'A drop of unclouded blood'

"Oh, Children...! I daren't disclose to You
The licentious things some rabbits do!" — The Hon. 'Eddy' Monteith, 'Loves, Have You Heard?' (from Ronald Firbank's 'The Flower Beneath The Foot')

"You have to lie on a couch to be a proper invalid."

"I don't want to be any kind of invalid!" Brown eyes flashed between long sweeping lashes. "Horrible word, anyway. Makes me feel like a mistyped computer password."

Daniel cracked up, laughing so hard it made him wheeze and gasp. He wrapped his arms tenderly around Armand, lifted him and carried him unceremoniously across the floor and put him down on the couch, ignoring his protests. "You," he said, "are the most beautiful mistyped computer password I ever saw."

The choice of words had been very deliberate. Now Daniel felt the body in his arms stiffen. Armand bent his head and the auburn hair fell forward, a curtain shielding him, giving him separation, as though that still worked between them. "No."

"Yes," Daniel insisted. :Yes. Believe me.:

It was a large modern couch, as wide as a bed and piled with dozens of cushions. The Rue Royal townhouse no longer looked entirely like a set out of Masterpiece Theatre. It seemed that Louis and Lestat had begun to at least flirt with the present age here and there. They might even enter the twenty-first century only twenty years out of date instead of two hundred.

Armand rolled away towards the backrest, out of Daniel's embrace. He could only move slowly, but Daniel let him go, wanting him to be able to maintain his integrity despite the physical weakness. Armand's hair clashed with the mustard-yellow upholstery, but Daniel suspected that wasn't the reason he didn't want to lie there. One hand clenched convulsively on the corner of a pillow, the long dark fingers looking frighteningly brittle.

"Don't be kind, I can't bear it."

:I'm not being kind.: Daniel sat down, plumping up a couple of cushions to lean against. :I'm mean and cruel and evil, and I love you. And you're beautiful.:

Armand, taken by surprise, stifled a giggle. "You're being silly."

"Oh. Yes. I forgot silly. Mean and cruel and evil and silly." Daniel shifted himself into a more comfortable position and pulled Armand up to rest against his shoulder. "I know it bothers you to look like this. But it will pass, and you're changing fast. And honestly, I don't care. I'd love you no matter what you looked like."

"Even if I look like this forever?" A casual question but there was just that tiny edge of fear in Armand's voice.

"Yes." Daniel bent down and kissed the tip of Armand's nose. "Not that you will, but yes." :Idiot.:

Armand smiled up at him, and Daniel sensed that the dark mood was lifting. "I don't really doubt it," he said. "I just feel so..."

"You hurt," Daniel said, planting another kiss at the corner of Armand's mouth, at the very spot where it would begin to curve into a smile. "I can feel it too." He felt his voice drop and grow husky. "Want a drink?"

"Hmmmm." Now Armand began to grow tense again, but so differently. He ran one hand lightly along Daniel's arm that lay across his chest. Daniel felt the sharp, glassy nails drift across his skin on the sensitive inside of the arm, and shivered uncontrollably. "I might," Armand said. He shifted slightly, rubbing his cheek against Daniel's shoulder.

"Of course it might not do much good," Daniel said, feigning indifference to the contact. "I'm the least powerful vampire around, I'm not sure my blood helps all that much. You should probably ask Jesse or someone."

Armand leaned up and kissed the side of Daniel's neck, the tip of his tongue flicking out to tease at the skin, tracing the veins beneath it. "I don't want Jesse," he said softly. "I want you."

"Well, when you put it that way." Daniel shifted, too, turned sideways and slipped down; some of the cushions spilled onto the floor. Their legs tangled together, and Daniel's fingers found Armand's spine and stroked gently up and down through the sheer silk shirt. Armand's skin was so terribly sensitive now, a careless touch could bring pain. But a careful touch could bring intense pleasure.

Daniel felt Armand press closer, lips seeking his own, and he gave himself up to the kiss, thinking he could spend years kissing Armand. So sweet. So tender. And then the heat and the tension grew and grew...

"Oops!" The sound of something falling to the floor, and they both jumped. "I'm sorry! I forgot to check... We'll leave, okay?"

Daniel reluctantly turned his head to see Jesse standing in the doorway with a daffy grin on her face, Mael, as usual, right behind her. Mael had given up finally on his vigil at the cathedral in New York, saying that those who really wanted to kill themselves for this silly veil would do it anyway, somewhere else. Instead he had come to offer his support to Jesse and Daniel, and his blood to Armand. And somehow, Daniel reflected, the atmosphere in the house had lightened at his arrival. Mael didn't say much, and he could certainly be a grumpy old stick in the mud, but he made Jesse sparkle.

Armand raised himself on one elbow and studied the couple at the door critically. "Were you just giving in to your voyeuristic tendencies, or did you actually want something?"

Jesse snorted. "And they call Lestat a brat. What does that make you?"

"Our darling enfant terrible," Daniel said. "And no cracks about my accent."

Armand pinched him, but mercifully said nothing.

Jesse took a few steps into the room, almost stumbling on the pile of clothes she'd dropped. The new soft stuff she and Mael had been buying for Armand, more silk shirts, and pants of finest Egyptian cotton. A fleecy track suit printed with the logo of some company or other... Daniel smothered a smile. Now that would please M. le Dandy something terrible.

"I did want something, or we did," Jesse said.

"So." Daniel worked himself up to a sitting position again, realizing that if he didn't ask, he'd spend the rest of the night wondering. "You've already disturbed us," he grinned to take the sting out of the words. "Spit it out."

"No serious matter," Mael said in that solemn way that led people to believe he had no sense of humor. "Only that you seem well enough now to be left alone for a while and so we thought..."

"We thought we'd go to the orphanage tonight," Jesse finished for him. "To talk to Maharet."

"I see," Armand said quietly.

Daniel didn't see, quite, but he nodded anyway. He'd been too concentrated on Armand to wonder much about the sudden appearance of Maharet, why she'd done what she'd done to Lestat, why she stayed at the orphanage and never came here.

Louis and David practically lived there too, though they had both been back at Rue Royal at regular intervals, looking drawn and hollow-eyed. Neither of them fed enough, or rested enough, though when Daniel told them so they just brushed his comments off and went back again. David was writing down Lestat's memories for him, with obvious reluctance. Louis was just suffering.

"It's time," Mael said. "Silence doesn't change anything. We'll go talk to her."

"Try to," Jesse amended. She didn't look happy. Daniel began to wonder what was up. He didn't even know there had been a fight, but from what things sounded like they could all use a reconciliation.

"I wish you good luck," Armand said, with genuine feeling. "And don't worry. We'll do well on our own."

"I noticed," Jesse said with a sly grin. "Just remember to feed outside the house now and then, Danny, or you'll turn anemic."

"You're so considerate." Daniel stuck his tongue out at her. "Give my love to David and Louis."

"Not to Maharet?"

Daniel shrugged. "Sure, say hi. I don't know her, though." He became aware that Armand had captured one of his hands and was kissing his fingertips. The sensation made it difficult for him to think about anything else. "But if you think she'll appreciate it..."

"Who knows," Mael said heavily. "It will at least give us something to say."

"I've got plenty to say to her," Jesse muttered. Maybe it wasn't time for reconciliation yet; that was the light of battle in her eyes, if he'd ever seen it.

"You're not the only one. David says she and Louis fight on a regular basis," Daniel said, trying to cover up a gasp as the tip of Armand's tongue flicked across his palm. :Stop that!:

:Make me.:

"They do?" Jesse looked amazed. "No one tells me anything. I didn't think Louis had it in him."

"Don't underestimate him," Armand said softly, giving her a serious look. He seemed to have no problems with carrying on a rational conversation and driving Daniel insane with desire at the same time, damn him.

"Well." Jesse grinned. "I have a problem with fighting with Maharet. I'll have to ask him how he does it."

"If she had your lover tied up and made regular threats to destroy him, I think you'd manage," Daniel said. David's account of Louis' suffering had wrung his heart.

If Jesse had looked surprised before, now her jaw dropped. "She does?" Jesse shook her head in amazement. "No wonder David and Louis only come here separately. I wouldn't leave Lestat alone with Maharet either under those circumstances." She looked at Mael. "Did you know this?"

Mael shook his head. He was frowning heavily, and Daniel thought he would not like to be on the receiving end of the old Celt's anger once he let it rip.

"I guess Louis wouldn't speak badly of Maharet to the two of you, knowing how you care for her," he said. "And David..."

"David, being David," Armand said, "is far too polite, for the same reasons."

"Well!" Jesse drew herself up and her rising temper showed in her eyes again. "I'd say it's definitely time for us to talk to Maharet." She took Mael's arm. "Gentlemen, we leave you to your amusements."

"Your pleasures," Mael amended with a sudden wink, as he was turned around and bustled out of the room.

"Oh, my." Daniel heaved a deep sigh. "Armand, I wish you wouldn't do that when there are others present."

Armand stopped sucking on Daniel's index finger long enough to say, "Do what?"

"Anything that makes me want to ravish you before witnesses," Daniel said and pinned his lover down against the back of the couch, reveling in being the stronger for once. "Now that we're alone, though..."

He bent his head and kissed the hollow of Armand's throat, feeling the flickering pulse, sucking lightly at the skin without breaking it.

Armand gasped, and chuckled. "Right. I feel like a Gothic romance heroine. Ooh, ravish me." He squirmed under Daniel, working an arm around him, caressing the back of his neck.

"I will."

"Go ahead."

"I'm serious."

"Mm, so'm I..." It became impossible to talk through the kisses. :Daniel — love you.:

:Love you too.: The slow sound of cloth being torn to shreds. :Armand, that was my best shirt.:

Laughter. :I'm devastated.:

:You'll have to pay for that.:

:Well, that was the general idea.:

* * *

David walked up the stairs, flexing his right hand and rolling his shoulders in an attempt to dissipate the tension. He wasn't getting writers' cramp, but he was feeling tired. Tired and sad, and his sorrow grew every time he sat curled up in that cellar room with pen and paper. Lestat insisted on having everything written down just the way he remembered it. And that was often nothing like the way David remembered it. It made him feel concerned. If Lestat's memories of New York were so vague and strange, what did that say about his memories of 'heaven' and 'hell'?

Maharet would occasionally help scan Lestat's mind and confirm that what he said was what he remembered. But David didn't think Lestat was deliberately lying to him. That wasn't the problem. And it seemed Maharet failed to understand that.

He came up to hear the sound of Louis' voice raised in anger, something that had also come to be sadly familiar to him.

"...the same old threats again! What more do you want?"

"I just want to be certain that he'll do no more to cause trouble."

"And he's so likely to do that when you've got him tied up!" Louis' voice grew sharp with sarcasm. "Is this your secret bondage fantasy, or what?"

David rounded a corner and came upon them, Louis leaning casually against a wall, a stylish, modern young man in tight black pants with his hair on end; Maharet standing there with her air of timelessness and mystery and those dying eyes that all the same could show sparks of her real temperament. For the first time since she'd come to New Orleans, she looked truly angry.

"I don't think you understand how serious this is."

"Then why don't you explain it to me?" Louis challenged.

David sighed. The same impasse. This was how Louis tried to work out his frustration, throwing himself recklessly at the wall of Maharet's patience. And Maharet, well, she wasn't saying anything, really. She'd never given him a real answer, and so his demands grew more and more heated.

"The mortal world is in turmoil," Maharet said softly, "because of this."

Louis raised an eyebrow. "Slight exaggeration. I've seen things in a worse state than this; surely you must have too."

David cleared his throat and they both rounded on him swiftly. "Up already?" Maharet asked.

Almost simultaneously Louis said, "How is he?" Speaking of Lestat, Louis' face softened and grew concerned, and David found himself wishing more than anything that he had good news to give.

"He fell asleep," David explained. He pulled the notebook from his pocket. "If you'd like to read..."

Louis shook his head. He looked as tired as David felt. "No."

"Yes," Maharet said. She stretched out her hand and took the small book.

"What's the use," Louis sighed softly. "Give up. You're just encouraging him."

"This could be very important for us all—"

"I'd like to have it back when you're finished," David interposed smoothly.

"Though what you think you're going to get out of that I don't know," Louis grouched.

David felt like kicking the wall and screaming. He couldn't stand this much longer. Louis and Maharet were on a permanent collision course, and he was the one who had to step between them again and again. He honestly did not know how much longer he could manage it. In his heart of hearts, he'd have liked to give the pair of them a good talking-to; his sympathies lay more with Louis, but his patience was being worn thin by them both.

Then he heard the sound of a door opening, and saw that both Louis and Maharet turned towards the sound, distracted for a moment from their animosity.

They did not have to wait long to find out who was coming to see them. Brisk footsteps clattered towards them, and Jesse swept into the room, all brightly colored clothes and tangled red curls, Mael following right behind her. Louis broke into a smile.

"Hi, sugar," Jesse said and pecked Louis' cheek. "David," she bestowed a similar salute on him. "Maharet, long time no see." This was more in the manner of an admiral spotting an iceberg.

David turned to look at Maharet to see how she was taking the distinctly unfriendly greeting. She stood frozen, staring at Jesse and Mael as if she couldn't quite believe her eyes. Finally she said, "I was going to come to the house. To see you."

Jesse lifted an eyebrow. "Oh? And when would that have been? Some time next century?" David began to feel sorry for Maharet, on the receiving end of that tone of voice.

"Later," Maharet whispered. "When I'd made sense of all this." She bent her head and touched one hand hesitantly to her cheek.

David was amazed. It was as though a set of stage lights had switched from red to blue. Everything about Maharet had changed. Now she stood trembling, all of her seeming to plead for help. Once again she'd made the transition from goddess to frail and ethereal being. Even Louis appeared unsettled by it, moving away from her and changing his body language.

Mael stepped forward, solid and calm. "We could help you," he said. "If you tell us what's wrong."

"No," Maharet gasped. She backed away towards the wall.

"Yes," David added his own little plea, unsure of what was happening here but willing to act on his own suspicions. More and more memories of his time in Burma were coming back. He'd been a fool to leave her without trying harder to find out what had been behind her peculiar behavior. Except that questioning Maharet had never come easily to him — he'd always been too much in awe of her. She was good at keeping her distance. But he knew the right question to ask. "What was it that frightened you so, Maharet? What is it that frightens you?"

"I just don't understand what happened," she said, shaking her head. "There has to be a way to make sense of it. I've got to keep Lestat here — keep him from doing anything foolish—" She turned around, leaned against the wall for support.

"Maharet!" Jesse abandoned her aggressive pose and almost ran across the room, flinging her arms around her maker. "Oh, you're shaking!"

"I'm sorry, Jesse," Maharet said incoherently, and turned to bury her face in Jesse's shoulder. There was sheer need in the way she hugged her fledgling back. "I'm sorry that I drove you away... when I needed you so."

David began to feel embarrassed. This wasn't anything he ought to be a witness to, really. He caught Louis' eyes and they both began to edge towards the door, hoping to slip out quietly and leave these two — three — to their reunion.

But Mael was in their way, and he stopped them. "Wait a little," he said. "Maharet, dearest — domina mea — tell us about it. Tell us all about it."

She drew a shuddering breath and lifted her head with obvious reluctance. "It should have been me," she said.

"What should have been you?" Jesse asked gently.

Maharet was silent. But her eyes were pleading with them to understand.

"You were the first choice! That's why you were asking me about what I'd heard in that café," David said, not knowing until he spoke the full extent of the realization he was having. "That's why you wanted me to be the one to go to Lestat — you thought I'd have some special understanding, because of what I'd experienced then."

"Yes," Maharet confirmed with a nod. "He came to me, too. But in the end he chose Lestat instead."

"He, who?" Jesse asked. Then, incredulously, she appeared to realize what Maharet meant. "The devil?"

Maharet nodded. She wasn't meeting Jesse's eyes. "I couldn't tell you. I knew you would have believed me crazy."

Jesse hugged Maharet more tightly. After a moment Mael, too, walked over and put his arms around them both, and they stood like that together.

Then Louis cleared his throat and said in a soft voice, far from the manner he'd used with Maharet before, "Excuse me, but what exactly happened? What made — him — change his mind? And how did you get the eye?"

Maharet's voice was muted by Jesse's and Mael's bodies. "He came to me with it, said he didn't want to be responsible for destroying such beauty. Said it would be a waste." She raised her head and spoke more clearly. "I said no all along. I said I wouldn't go with him. But I think he was considering Lestat even then. Who else would have..."

Louis was shaking his head, more in grief than anything else, David thought. It was true; who else would have?

But could all this really be true? The stubborn core of skepticism in Louis did not appear to have been swayed, though he was looking more kindly at Maharet than he ever had before. Oh, Louis had said that he believed in Lestat before, but there was a difference. Louis believed that Lestat really believed. Now, though...

David did not know what to think, himself. But at least he was beginning to understand why Maharet had been acting so strangely. Simply being in the presence of her loved ones again seemed to have utterly dissolved her rigid self-control. She'd started to cry. It shook him more than he'd ever suspected it would. All her strength seemed gone.

"Maharet," Mael said gently, "you don't have to stay here."

"Yes, I do!" she flashed. "Lestat, have to care for Lestat — he could do something crazy."

"Not now," Jesse said in the same gentle but firm tone of voice. "He can't do anything now, you took care of that. He's safe now, and when he calms, he'll find himself free. You know David and Louis could care for him very well."

David found himself holding his breath, waiting for the outcome of this.

"David," Maharet said. "I trust David."

David heard Louis snort, but not very loudly. Louis wasn't going to waste any time arguing now, not when things were moving in a direction he wanted them to go.

"Of course I'll care for him," David said with conviction. "You know that."

"And you could come home with us," Jesse went on. "To rest. I can tell you're tired. You did fine. It will be all right now."

"All right," Maharet whispered.

And David couldn't tell whether she was agreeing with what Jesse said, or yielding to Jesse's persuasion. But the expression on her face was heartbreaking.

* * *

:There is no one like you, no one.:

A deep, contented sigh. Then, teasingly, :No, of course not.:

:Shut up.: But there was no real force to it.

:Love you, too.:

They lay still, savoring the silence, the proximity of the other. It felt wonderful to be so close to each other, in every sense of the word. Here they had suddenly, unexpectedly, found peace.

"I've been thinking," Armand finally said, though he was feeling so relaxed from the pleasure that it was hard to form, let alone utter, a complete sentence.

"You've been thinking?" Daniel mock-pouted, apparently not suffering from the same problem. "Ah, I should have known you were faking it all along."

"Before, idiot. I thought that we should, maybe, give some thought to leaving this place."

"The couch?"

Armand groaned, and pinched the nearest part of Daniel's anatomy his fingers could find. Ignoring the ensuing squeak, he went on, "The house. New Orleans, perhaps."

"Wild talk, my love." Daniel shook his head. "You shouldn't be going anywhere. You're still too weak." He pressed Armand deeper into the couch pillows to underscore his point.

"Oh yeah?" Armand grinned and flipped them both over, pinning Daniel down. "I do believe I'm being underestimated here. Would you care to revise your opinion?"

"Oh, I don't know." Daniel looked up at him and licked his lips slowly, sensually, and the sight was so distracting that Armand relaxed his grip, and then Daniel surged upwards, and they both went tumbling off the couch and spilled onto the floor in a writhing tangle of arms and legs, accompanied by a shower of cushions.

"I was trying to have a serious — conversation," Armand gasped.

:I don't want a serious conversation. I want you.:

A wave of sudden, fierce desire slammed into Armand from Daniel and it left him stunned, shaking, tingling all over and then they were once again trying to get closer and closer to each other while at the same time struggling to hold off the final shocking intimacy for as long as possible.

Armand trailed his lips along the inside of Daniel's arm, biting gently, as a human lover might, not hard enough to leave marks, let alone pierce the skin. He exerted every last ounce of willpower on ignoring the sounds Daniel was making, and instead concentrated on licking Daniel's neck and throat, which looked as sweetly fragile as any mortal man's. His hands strayed across Daniel's chest, alternately scratching and caressing, and now Daniel was crying out incoherently, pleading, sobbing with sheer lust.

:My love.:

:I want you, want you so — please...: It was more than words, it was shivering raw emotion, and it was more than he could resist. So he tilted Daniel's head gently to one side and sank his fangs — right — there, where the last set of bite marks had not yet faded, and Daniel's body bucked against his own in violent ecstasy and he was spiralling away, falling into a blood-red vortex of love and love and love.

Much later he broke away. Daniel was looking up at him languidly, eyes so large and vulnerable in the hollowed face. "You look light as a feather."

Daniel lifted a hand and cupped Armand's cheek. "I love it when you do that to me," he said sweetly. "And now..."

"And now?" Armand obligingly asked though he could guess at the answer and it made him shiver.

"Now I'm going to do it to you."

"Yes."

:Yes.: Armand allowed himself the unaccustomed luxury of being utterly passive, not acting, just reacting, allowing himself to be claimed by Daniel's touch, those clever fingers teasing him, the hot hungry mouth. This, yes, this. And that. Do it to me. Touch me, there, everywhere. I'm yours. :Yours.:

:I thought I'd lost you. Thought you were gone.: The sharp thoughts did not interfere with what Daniel was doing; he went right on, driving Armand over the edge. :I thought... never again... You'd better be strong enough, now.:

And Armand arched his back and screamed.

* * *

"About that serious conversation..."

"Oh, no. I know what happens when someone says that."

"And do you mind?"

Armand grinned. "No."

"Anyway, I thought I'd give you a chance, see if you did have something to say or if it was just your way of seducing me. About that serious conversation..."

"Oh, all right. We should leave, I think. Louis and David have enough to do with caring for Lestat, they are not in a state to accommodate guests, nor are we quite in a state to do anything to help them."

"Hmmm," Daniel said musingly, toying with a strand of Armand's hair. "You're right. I don't think I can stand up."

"Idiot. And Mael and Jesse need to concentrate on Maharet."

Daniel frowned. "What's going on with those three?"

"I don't really know," Armand said, "but whatever it is it's important to them. Okay, I'm not fully recovered, but I'm not at death's door any more. I don't want them to feel that they have to stick around and look after me when they should be dealing with her."

"Fair enough," Daniel said lightly. "But you weren't planning to rush out the door right this moment, were you?"

Armand laughed. "No. I just thought we could start planning for it."

"I'm planning. Where do you want to go?"

"Doesn't matter. Somewhere peaceful."

"Back home?"

"No." Armand shook his head firmly. Home was the Night Island — only he'd stripped the house and sold most of the rights to that complex pleasure palace, and Daniel did not yet know that. "Some place no one will come looking for us. I want to be alone with you."

Daniel smiled at him. "I'm not about to argue with that."

"Do you have any ideas?"

"A few. I saw many places in the past two years that I don't think I appreciated the way I should have."

Armand nodded gingerly, still uncomfortable with Daniel's references to his earlier madness. "All right. Somewhere peaceful, please. Or reasonably so."

"Sure," Daniel agreed. "Peace and quiet. I'll call a travelling agency tomorrow night. And we can take it easy until then—"

He lifted his head and looked around, then let it drop back down again. Armand saw a half-guilty, half-amused look appear on his lover's face.

"What?"

"Just having a few second thoughts." Daniel's grin was pure mischief now. "Maybe we'd better leave right away after all. We can write Louis a note and say we'll be paying for the reupholstery of the couch."

Chapter twenty: What I did on my holidays

" — If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid." — T. S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding I'

Louis left the room, feeling in the way as Maharet, Mael and Jesse were hugging and kissing. He hesitated for a moment, then walked outside. The air on his skin felt as cleansing and refreshing as cool water. He stood still and breathed. It was good to be out of doors. He didn't feel quite so badly trapped.

This place was his prison, as surely as it was Lestat's. And he wondered for how long he would have to wait before recognition returned to Lestat's eyes, before Lestat gave any sign of being interested in the world outside his own head again, before Lestat spoke to him like a lover.

If that would ever happen again. If this experience hadn't changed Lestat so utterly that he would never again return to what he had been before; if it hadn't made him reject entirely what Louis thought of as the real and desirable state of affairs between the two of them.

No way of telling. And Louis would not make the first move. He wouldn't dream of making any kind of advances to Lestat while Lestat was anything less than his usual self, and tied up into the bargain.

It's free will or nothing, he thought wryly. I'm starting to feel like Armand. Of course, Armand had given in eventually and chased down his lost one, his loved one. Louis' loved one wasn't lost, though. Or not physically, at any rate. What he was, mentally, was another question altogether.

Louis felt his shoulders begin to tense up and recognized the onset of another wave of frustration. He wished he were Lestat and could smash things just for the pleasure of it. This situation was driving him crazy. He'd feel better if there was only something he could fight. He thought about kicking the wall. But what good would it do? It was just a wall, and he wasn't Lestat, to kick walls just because they happened to be there.

Taking a few steps away from the house, he turned and looked at the open door he'd come out of. Maharet and the Devil. Well, well. And she'd had the gall to say that Lestat was insane.

Then again, Lestat was insane. And heaven only knew what Maharet was. Louis did feel a little more forgiving now. No wonder he'd thought she seemed different from how he remembered her from the time in the Sonoma compound and on the Night Island. Now as to what was true and what was not, in her story and in Lestat's story...

It had shaken him a bit that they had both had exactly the same experiences. It had been a surprise to Louis that Lestat's madness had taken such a religious bent; it had been the last thing Louis had expected. And to find that Maharet, too, had been playing with strange entities made him begin to feel the first shocks of real wonder.

He wished he could find out for himself what was really true.

Louis tilted his head back and looked up at the stars, reassuring himself that they were still there. The world still looked the same to him. No revelations there. But then he remembered that the stars were so far away that they might already have vanished by the time their light reached him. Simple truth and reality slipped through his fingers yet again. What is a revelation, anyway? When he looked down again, he caught a glimpse of a shadowy figure at the corner of the orphanage and started towards it, thinking David had come out to keep him company.

But when he got closer he saw that this figure wasn't tall enough to be David. Nor did it have David's broad shoulders. No, this person was reasonably tall but slender, and with a cascade of rich red curling hair falling all the way to the slim waist. Louis' mind struggled with what he was seeing. Jesse, Maharet, either one of them, but the clothes were wrong and something else, some undefinable other thing did not match up with what he was thinking.

Besides, Jesse and Maharet were busy with each other inside. And that left only one alternative.

She walked towards him, too, with a firm stride that was somehow decisively earthbound. He was half expecting to hear the earth tremble to her footsteps, feel her approach like the thunder of a huge drum, the way Lestat had described Marius' arrival once. But there was nothing, and he wondered if he could not sense it, or if she was cloaking her presence.

Oddly, she looked more there than Maharet ever did. When they were face to face he looked into her eyes, living vampire eyes, shining with the magic of their beauty, the eyes her sister should also have had. And he felt suddenly and absolutely reassured. Queen of the Damned, perhaps, but no Queen of the Mad this.

:Beautiful child.: The last greeting he'd expected, and the way she said it, it seemed a simple statement of fact.

Finding no suitable words himself, all he could offer was respect and polite curiosity. He did so want to know what she was doing here. Was she here to see Maharet? Or to help Maharet — his mind fluttered through wild possibilities and he felt frightened. Maharet was frail and civilized compared to this creature, who would never hesitate before taking action.

:My poor foolish sister,: she said abruptly. :This has made her suffer.:

Louis nodded. :She's not the only one.:

:No.: Her eyes were soft as she looked at him. :No, there have been too many suffering already.:

:You know everything, all that has happened?:

She nodded. Of course, it had been a silly question. It was part of what she was to know everything, wasn't it? But he had thought her to be a silent shadow, incapable of interpretation. Not the focused and powerful creature standing before him.

And who now asked him a question that went straight to the heart. :Will you help me? I have it in mind to change things.:

Oh, there was nothing he would rather do. To be able to actually do something, at least try, to take action instead of waiting and waiting.

"But how?" he blurted out loud, feeling sudden suspicion.

Mekare smiled. No, she really did not look or act at all the way he remembered her, and the feel of her mind was clean, clear, though she was a rather heavy-handed telepath. It was as though she was so powerful that she did not realize how overpowering she could be.

:It is time to put an end to the madness.: Then she had a lightning change of mood and Louis' knees buckled as her grief poured into him, along with images of vampires burning at dawn, sacrificing themselves to the God of the Veil. This was what she felt she had to change. He'd had no idea she felt so protective of them all.

:My family,: she stated and the images twisted into a spiral; Maharet watching the mortal Great Family; Mekare linked in a strange network to all the vampires. And the pain and distress she'd felt when some of them burned.

Louis reeled, but managed to push back at her an image of Armand, recovering, alive. As he had hoped, it soothed her somewhat. :Can there — can we? Do something?: he asked.

:We will try.: To his surprise, she reached out a hand and gently interlaced her fingers with his. :I expected better of Maharet. If she had said a word to me...:

:Please tell me,: he pleaded, feeling a sudden rush of hope at her calm and confident demeanor. :Do you know what is truly going on?:

Mekare shook her head, but she still emanated the same serene belief in herself. :I have suspicions. And an idea of how to act on them. It will at least relieve some of your frustration.:

Louis flashed her a crooked smile. "I get to go to New York and beat up on Dora?"

That made her laugh and he could feel communication between them growing even faster and easier. :No one's stopping you, dear one. But I had something different in mind.: She paused. :You did not answer. Will you help me?:

:Yes,: he said fiercely. And then hesitated, :But I don't know why you want me. I — I'm still not very powerful. You'd be better off with someone else.:

Her hand squeezed his, and it was eerie, that sensation of being trapped inside a grip of living stone. Mekare must have sensed his discomfort, easing up almost at once.

:It's you or no one, my gentle child,: she said.

Louis nodded resolutely. "All right," he said out loud. "Where do we start?"

She put her arms around him then. :I'll take you there. Trust me. I will not let you fall.: And then she took to the air.

The cold began to overcome him almost at once. And the speed. Air whistled past him. She went high, so very very high, sure of her power — she who had once walked across two continents, not knowing what she was truly capable of. Louis clung to her, but soon he began to feel his fingers grow numb, and became aware that her arms were the only thing holding him up.

But he did trust her. She was frightening, yes, this slim and beautiful creature who looked like a woman and whose body felt to the touch like an animated statue. Louis could barely understand the scope of her thoughts when he sensed them. The immensity of her strong will was something he felt he would never be able to withstand if it was directed against him, but it wasn't directed against him.

He felt a momentary pang of guilt at leaving Lestat. And another one for not even telling David he was going. But it was just irresistible to be asked to help, to do something. And if it could save the lives of others who would otherwise have sacrificed themselves at dawn, it would be worth it. Lestat had never meant for anything like that to happen, Louis felt sure of that. And neither had Armand meant it.

:He meant well,: Mekare stated, showing that she had been following his thoughts all along. Louis thought about being offended. But then, she had no other means of communication. It must be so utterly natural to her to do it.

:Yes, and he was devastated by the consequences,: Louis mused. :But why are the others doing this? The belief seems to be growing.:

:Everywhere,: Mekare agreed. :It is spreading like wildfire, this. As with the Veil,: tumbling images in his mind showed the face on the Veil being transferred from cloth to cloth.

:A virus,: Louis said, making a dry joke.

:Yes,: the tone of her mind-voice was grim.

He drifted off for a while into a state of near-sleep, or rather hibernation, induced by the cold. Their sudden rapid descent woke him and he felt his ears pop and his stomach turn inside out at the speed.

Just when he was beginning to feel frightened, they slowed down and landed gently outside a largish building. Louis shook his head, feeling disoriented; Mekare let go of him and walked to the nearest door and calmly ripped it off its hinges. An alarm began to blare. He followed her as she strode inside.

Long white corridors met his eyes, and white doors. Mekare was heading for one of the doors and ripped that one open, too. Louis almost had to run to keep up with her. When he entered the room he saw that it was a laboratory of some kind; piles of closely annotated charts and computer printouts jostled with complex equipment he did not recognize.

And there — he gasped. There was a replica of the Veil, carefully sandwiched between two sheets of glass. He found himself staring at it. The face that burned a thousand vampires. Well, not quite. Then the glass shattered and the cloth caught fire.

Mekare caught his arm and dragged him outside. Then she turned and looked back into the room, and all the papers inside caught fire as well. Moments later a fire alarm added its bleeping to the cacaphony of sound and water began pouring from sprinklers in the ceiling. Her hand tugged him along and they ran outside and took to the skies again.

:But why?: he asked, feeling breathless. :Just to see if it would burn?:

:It's more than that,: she replied with slow satisfaction. :I am pleased that it does burn, of course, but that was not my real purpose. This is a challenge.:

They visited more laboratories. Churches. Even some private homes. Copies of the Veil had spread, but not as widely as Louis had at first feared. It seemed Dora was being jealous of her possession after all. But now he and Mekare were setting the world on fire.

Or rather, Mekare was. When they made their tenth stop that night and she torched the cloth hanging over the altar in the small church, carefully not damaging anything else, Louis had to ask her, "But why did you bring me? I'm not being much use."

:I appreciate your company,: she said, turning back to him as they began to walk out of the church. :But these small fires are merely preliminaries, Louis.:

He stopped out of habit to pick up a candle, and it came alight in his hand. :Thank you.: Then he wondered what he was doing with it. Light a candle to a saint. Light a candle, say a prayer. Lestat, of course, had lit a candle for himself. And now Louis was lighting a candle for him, too.

Please bring him back to me. He stared at the small flame in utter concentration. But to whom was he praying? Not the face on the Veil. Not to Dora's pop-icon God, nor to the cool and uncaring being of Lestat's story.

:Do you believe in God?: Mekare asked him. She was still skimming the surface of his thoughts, and it came to Louis that she was absorbing much of what she was seeing, the patterns of him, the way he thought and expressed himself. Part of what and who she was to do that, to learn this way of speech, that little snippet of culture. And she seemed to do it without even thinking about it.

:Perhaps,: Louis replied slowly. :But I do not believe that that was God,: he nodded at the small pile of ashes that was all that remained of the copy of the Veil.

:I thought you were a 'nice Catholic boy'.: She was teasing him with what she found in him and for a moment he felt almost shocked; he hadn't imagined her as playful.

:No,: Louis replied, :I'm a bad Catholic boy. Though I'm quite good at being that; I do everything I'm not supposed to.:

He'd never heard Mekare laugh before. :I thought that was Lestat's prerogative, to be good at being bad.:

"Oh yes," Louis agreed. "But he's never been a good Catholic boy. Lestat's the unbeliever, or used to be. I'm the one who suffers from chronic damnation."

:Really?: She seemed uncertain what to make of his flippant tone of voice. :I cannot sense it in you.:

"I've accepted it," Louis said. "I still find it hard, to be a predator with a conscience. A wicked joke. Or a freakish accident. But I may as well make the best of it."

They walked outside together and carefully closed the door. A small and simple church this, he had felt quite comfortable in it. :But to be damned you need a god,: Mekare said.

"Yes, to be damned, but not to suffer," Louis replied. He smiled. "If it turns out that there is no god, should I then feel good about killing? Or if God is the way Lestat described him, does it even matter what I do?" Louis shook his head. "Life is still something to be cherished."

:And yet you kill.:

:Yes.: He looked at her. :Indiscriminately.: Not for him to take the evildoer, to pick and choose his victims according to who they were just to make himself feel better. He thought back to his discussion with Pandora years ago, and how he had seen himself then — 'death, as random and as cruel as any other accident.'

They stood facing each other there outside the church, their eyes level. :In love,: Mekare said. :You kill in love. You love every one of them.:

Louis looked down. :Don't we all?:

Mekare shook her head. Again, she moved forward so swiftly that he could barely follow her movements, and took him in her arms. :You're precious, child.: They were going up again at that dizzying speed, but Louis was getting used to the sensation by now. :You are unique. So tender and so relentless.:

Her mind caressed him, and he leaned his head on her shoulder as they swept through the night to their next bonfire.

* * *

Their last flight was their longest and fastest, a race east against time, and as dawn approached they landed in Rome and checked into a large, luxurious hotel, the Forum. Louis was amazed at how strange it felt to have to arrange everything while Mekare stood silent and smiling beside him, now and then prodding him with her voice in his mind. She couldn't speak to mortals! Not in the ordinary way. She was cut off from the game everyone else played, 'passing for human.'

In the elevator on the way up he wondered why she had never adopted her sister's solution and stolen body parts from her victims.

:Louis!: She sounded disgusted. :Would you like to have someone else's tongue in your mouth?:

:That would depend on whose it was,: Louis answered without thinking.

Her laughter echoed in him. :Ah, the passion of the young. But I am uncomfortable with the idea — no, not that idea,: an image of himself and Lestat flashed through his mind so quickly that he could barely take it in, :but taking the tongue of a victim. It does not feel right.:

Louis wasn't paying complete attention to what she said. The elevator door opened and they both walked outside. He kept trying to recapture the picture she'd sent of him and Lestat locked in a fervent embrace. It had been so long. So terribly long, it felt to him, since they had last held each other. And now he did not dare to force even the smallest gesture of tenderness on Lestat.

He did not know whether Lestat still wanted it.

Mekare unlocked the door to their room and gestured him inside, following him only to stop and lock them in, after hanging out the DO NOT DISTURB sign. Louis felt uncomfortable at the idea of sleeping in a strange hotel room, though he'd done it before. He was so much more sensitive to sunlight than Mekare, if an accident should happen. It had taken him a long time to adjust to sleeping in the bedroom of the Rue Royal house, despite the shutters he and Lestat had installed. Though once he'd grown used to it it had been a pleasure to sleep in a real bed, to wake up in Lestat's arms.

And thinking about that wasn't making things any better.

"Will he ever be all right again?" he asked, almost desperately, looking at Mekare as though she held the answers to all the mysteries of life. "Will he ever be—" He cut himself off, knowing that it didn't matter because she could hear the rest of the question in his mind. Will he ever be mine again?

:I cannot make any predictions on that subject,: she said, being the unhelpful oracle. :But we are going to do something about the cause of it. I know why Lestat was chosen and not my sister.:

Louis sighed. "Who else would have been foolish enough to say yes?"

:That is not all. He was perfect. One of the strongest, certainly the most reckless, and with madness in his past.:

:But—: Then Louis made himself relax and analyze what she'd said. :Maharet's strong, but not even being followed by whatever it was drove her completely over the edge. Khayman's not the type at all, is he?:

:No,: Mekare agreed. :It has been a long time since he was young and angry. So, Lestat. All that power and not very much experience. Even so, he has held up well.: There was almost admiration in her tone.

Louis looked at her sharply. :So you know what has been happening to him?:

:I have suspicions. Very strong ones. Something that fits this pattern. Of course it helps that you and David are so strong in your sense of self, too. It is a good thing that Armand and his fledgling never came to the orphanage; that one is too easily intoxicated, too easily influenced.:

"What?" Louis felt totally bewildered. "I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you are talking about."

Mekare went to the window and began to pull the drapes shut, making sure there were no cracks. Even so, Louis began to wonder if he'd have to spend the night in the bathroom, which hopefully didn't have a window.

:If it makes you feel more comfortable, young one. Though you would be safe out here. You are stronger than you think.: She turned back and came to sit on the bed next to him. :I don't mean to tease you, Louis. I merely want you to see what happens with unprejudiced eyes — if it does indeed happen. If not, I will tell you all I suspect.:

:And how long should we wait before whatever-it-is happens, or doesn't happen?:

Mekare smiled at him. :Tomorrow night,: she said, :we are going to St Patrick's. With a small detour around the Vatican.:

"Oh," Louis whispered, feeling cold to the pit of his stomach. Then he felt himself slowly sinking backwards onto the bed.

* * *

Nothing happened in the Vatican. Nothing except some very precise destruction. They were in no hurry; the sun would not set in New York for a few hours yet. Louis felt tempted to suggest that they should wander the museum for a while, but he could tell that Mekare was not really in the mood for a romp through the Renaissance. Her tension was catching, too. He found himself waiting, though he did not know for what.

They walked, slowly, humanly, through the crowded streets, up and down the seven hills, a slender woman with long red hair and her quiet, dark, attentive companion. It gave Louis a chill to stand in the middle of the huge deserted Circus Maximus and realize that Mekare predated this place, and had not even known of the existence of this whole culture until a few years ago.

:Maharet is the keeper of the past,: Mekare said; he was getting used to the way she followed his thoughts and slipped in her own comments. :I know nothing. Why don't you tell me?:

So as they wandered on and found themselves following the grey and sullen Tiber, Louis spoke slowly and thoughtfully about Rome, the city of all ages. He felt ridiculous at first, lecturing a six thousand year old woman on history. But she kept nodding and listening, and asking questions.

They stopped at the Pantheon, and found seats outdoors at a small bar in the piazza. Mekare sat holding a small cup of steaming coffee in her long, delicate hands. There was a quiet elegance about her that Louis admired; he felt scruffy by comparison.

:Oh no,: she said almost with laughter. :No, never that, beautiful one.: And an image floated into his mind of Mekare as he had first seen her, covered with earth, clad in a torn blanket. :I admit I have improved.: Then she sighed. :It doesn't really matter to me. I have learned that it is best to look like this. That's all.:

:Utilitarian,: he said.

:What else? These things, they don't mean very much to me. I'm still learning, trying to feel connected. I can understand what goes on around me but I don't feel myself to be part of it.:

Louis impulsively put a hand on hers. :But you're part of us,: he said, :part of us all.:

Mekare nodded. :That's what keeps me anchored here,: she said. A small smile crept onto her face. :I've spent much time keeping an eye on my children. Maharet says those who like their privacy would be disturbed at knowing how much.:

:I might be,: Louis admitted. He thought about it. There were moments, especially in latter years, that he would not care to know that he had been sharing with anyone except Lestat. He wondered whether he should ask Mekare just how much she knew about his private life, then decided he'd be more comfortable not knowing.

:Probably,: she agreed and he gave her a sharp look; she met his eyes with such blatantly faked innocence that he couldn't help laughing. :It's time now.:

For a moment he didn't quite understand. Then he did, and felt faintly afraid though he still did not know what they were going to do. :All right.:

They left the bar and walked deeper into the tangle of small streets and alleys until they found themselves alone. Then Mekare swept him up again and they were on their way back.

Louis had grown more used to flying. He didn't like it much. It would probably be different, he thought, if he could do it himself. Not that he didn't trust Mekare, or hadn't trusted Lestat, or Jesse, or David. But being flown around by someone made him feel uncomfortable. He felt like a piece of luggage.

Resigned, knowing it had to be done, he tried to ignore the cold and the height and sleep away the time. But he was still infected with Mekare's tension. Trying not to think of where they were headed, he found his thoughts running to Lestat instead, which was hardly more comfortable. When he did eventually fall asleep, he had nightmares; Mekare woke him out of them as they landed.

New York, and bitter cold instead of the damp greyness of a Roman winter.

The scene was much as David had described it. A long line of people moving towards the cathedral, hordes of cheerfully opportunistic street vendors selling Bibles and hot dogs and everything in between. The camera teams were gone now; this particular spot was no longer national news, unless of course there should be another case of spontaneous combustion at dawn. But the crowd had not lessened.

Many of the people were singing. It all looked peaceful; strange, but peaceful. Mekare took his arm and guided him through the crowd, all the way up to the steps, looking around carefully. Realizing what she was looking for, Louis added his effort to hers, but could not make out any pale preternatural face hiding in the shadows, no one waiting here to be the next miracle.

Of course it was only early evening. A long time till dawn.

They went inside, past the line, no one noticing. And inside it was all lit up, it was like a huge festival of some kind, with people rocking to the hymns they sang, and crying out, and hugging each other, and speaking either in tongues, or some language Louis had never heard before.

:And now,: Mekare thought at him, :for the — what is that word? Show-down?:

Louis looked around. All the other places they'd visited had been empty. But this place, the heart of the crusade, was never empty or silent. And he realized what Mekare meant to do. :Right now, right here, among them all?:

:Yes.: And as though she needed a gesture to make it more formal, or perhaps to steady herself, she lifted her arm and pointed her hand towards the veil, the real veil, the one hanging there high enough that everyone could see, and she frowned in concentration.

The veil burst into flames, and the singing turned to screams.

Chapter twenty-one: A season in hell

"And God closed the Book of the Life of the Man, and said, 'Surely I will send thee into Hell. Even into Hell will I send thee.'
And the Man cried out, 'Thou canst not.'
And God said to the man, 'Wherefore can I not send thee to Hell, and for what reason?'
'Because in Hell have I always lived,' answered the Man." — Oscar Wilde, 'The House of Judgment'

People began to run this way and that, hysterically. Louis could smell the smoke. He turned his head to look at Mekare, to ask her silently what they should do now. And then he noticed that their little group of two was now a little group of three. Someone stood by them, having appeared silently while their attention was concentrated on the veil. A man, an ordinary man, someone who would never be noticed in the street. Louis realized at once who it had to be.

"Do you really think you can fight me?" The voice wasn't ordinary at all, and that was what confirmed the creature's identity. Rich, powerful and threatening, his speech flowed like dark cream.

:What makes you think it was a challenge?: Mekare asked.

Louis stared at the figure. He knew who this was now, but what was it? It was quite clear, of course, that the being was not a mortal. He could sense that, all right. Had never really thought it would be. And whatever this was, it was menacing. Something about it felt like hunger.

"I suppose it might be revenge for showing one of your kind more than he could deal with. You'd hardly set fire to the veil on a whim. But it will not have the effect you hoped."

Louis looked to Mekare, but her eyes were already on him, calm.

"It brought you here," Louis said. "It made you notice our presence. If what we did doesn't matter, you are free to ignore us."

The ordinary man smiled, and lowered his voice to an intimate note. "Why do you want to try to fight this? The day of truth and revelation has finally come. Here you can look on the face of the living God," he gestured to the veil and Louis saw that it was no longer burning. "Isn't that what you always wanted, what you always wondered about? He exists and you can make atonement. Your place is out there at dawn. Showing your burning faith."

Louis shook his head, wondering why he felt so shocked by that last pun. Was he disappointed? He could not really have expected the creature that had driven Lestat to a breakdown to be a nice guy. "That would not be my preferred way of making my opinion known."

The being's demeanor changed from persuasive to threatening. "Then why be here at all? I've already tried your lover and found him wanting. Why are you here?"

:We are here because I know what you are,: Mekare said.

He turned towards her and Louis could see anger in every line of his unremarkable body. "I am Memnoch," he said.

:I'm sure you are.: Mekare was calm. Louis found himself studying her closely for any hint at all of what she was talking about, what she really was after. Her face could have been a porcelain mask.

"But do you understand what it means?" And then the shape of the ordinary man was gone, and the cathedral was gone, and black wings flared against more blackness, a huge presence overshadowing them, a hollow thunder of fear all around. The ground was rushing away from under their feet for a moment leaving them suspended in empty nowhere, barely able to sense each other's presence...

...and then they were back again, where panicked mortals still ran in circles and the man stood looking at them, smugly smiling. "Don't play with the devil."

Louis turned his gaze on Mekare again, searching for her reaction. He understood the terror Lestat had felt on being stalked by this creature, whatever it was. The impression of power it exuded was enormous. But what it was, and whether that hint of brimstone was more than just a game...

"Are you truly the devil?" Louis asked.

It was the wrong question. The man looked at him out of eyes that slowly turned into fire, burning red, and reached out and took hold of his arms in a grip that was hard and inescapable, and then the ground fell away below him again — no, the whole world fell away, faded as though it had merely been an illusion and another grey and bleak place took shape around them, a wind-whipped nothingness filled with screams of pain and the soft sobbing of those who have lost all hope.

And the hands on Louis' arms were huge and black and the shape that held him was hooved and horned, a vast monster, the more terrifying for not being clearly visible; any attempt to concentrate on one detail of its appearance made another invisible.

All around them, pale wisps of people carried out their inner torture on others, performing rigid rituals of suffering and ignorance, a dull and uncomprehending litany of pain. Louis tried to make himself watch them, but the things they were doing made him want to scream, too. They were caught in repeating loops of behavior, saying and doing and feeling the same things over and over. It was too impossibly cruel, too outrageous, too—

"Welcome to hell," the smooth voice said to him.

"No," Louis said.

Memnoch flickered, rolled in waves like a huge black bank of fog, then compacted and changed into the form of the ordinary man again. There was no change of expression on his face and yet Louis could have sworn that he was taken aback. "Oh, but you are welcome," he said.

"I don't believe that this is hell," Louis stated.

"Then you are a fool." Memnoch gestured at it all. "What else could this be? A fool, vampire, to doubt it."

"Perhaps." Louis made himself look around again. It became easier after a while, as the level of suffering and horror around him became more predictable. He was no longer overwhelmed by it. "Why did you bring me here?"

"To show you how foolish it is to doubt."

"I see. And now that I still doubt, what will you do?"

"You can look hell in the face and still doubt?"

"Perhaps not." Louis took a step away, trying to understand what was under his feet, what the substance all around him was. Loving attention to detail all around. "Perhaps I will be convinced that this is hell, and that your hell is the right one. Will you let me walk through it? Alone?"

Memnoch looked at him and now there was incredulity on that bland face. "You would do that? You aren't safe here, little vampire. This is the place that broke your lover."

"No." Louis turned his head to look at the man. "You are the one who broke him."

"And you're saying you're stronger? You would perhaps have accepted the kind of offer I made him, to rule here?"

Louis snorted. "A good reason not to ask me, if that were so. Because you never wanted that, did you?" A sudden thought struck him and he nearly laughed. "What would you have done if Lestat had really said yes? You must have been counting pretty strongly on his irresponsible nature and his fear of commitment."

"He would never have said yes," Memnoch said dismissively. "Not agreed to do this," he nodded at the scenes being played out all around him, "to allow this to be done."

"No, he wouldn't. You calculated that one nicely."

Memnoch came closer again and closed a hand around Louis' arm. "Ah, my friend, you stand there being cool. Won't you come take a closer look?" His other hand gripped Louis' chin, turned his head around. "Look here," a woman stood on a burning pyre, her hair a comet's tail of fire, her skin blistering and peeling off her, and those around the fire either fanned the smoke away so she should not suffocate, or tried to throw themselves into it, "and here," the murder victim gathered his severed limbs together and came towards the killer again, bleeding, "and here..."

"No," Louis whispered, startled by how hesitant his voice sounded.

"Would you like to meet your dead? They are here." Memnoch smiled at him now, cruelly, sure of himself. "Every life you've ever taken, as a mortal and as a vampire. Imagine what you could learn from them."

"No!" Louis said more firmly.

"But yes, all of them, they are eager to see you—"

"No! You think I could learn something from them now? I already have, Memnoch. My victims taught me everything I know of love and pain. I don't need to meet them again. They're inside me, part of me, do you really think I have forgotten them?" He moved sharply aside, walking straight through a man who was holding his guts in with his hands. "No, I don't want to meet them. It's not true. This is not true." Louis made himself take hold of Memnoch. "I can close my eyes and walk through it. This is not real."

"You can try that if you like," Memnoch said. "I'll leave you here, vampire, and you can suffer with the rest of the damned. Forever."

Louis shook his head. He gripped the arm he was holding even tighter and felt muscles tense; was there pain? "I don't believe in this," he said. "Take me out of here."

"And if I won't?" Memnoch said with a lazy, teasing edge. "I might not care to let you leave."

"Why, in that case," Louis said, "I'll accept that offer of yours. I'll be your lieutenant. I'll work for you, Memnoch."

Again that momentary flash of surprise, of confusion. Then the face returned to its studied blandness. "You won't do," Memnoch said. "I'll not have you."

And black wings flared and space folded around them, and Louis felt himself tumbling through something vast and cold, and held on to what he had grabbed, the solid substance at the core of the creature he was challenging, until he found himself landing on the floor of St Patrick's as easily as though he had been standing there all along.

"Why, this is hell," he said softly, almost laughing, "nor are we out of it."

Mekare was there, and she reached out and put an arm around Louis; he leaned against her gratefully. :Have you played enough, spirit?: she asked.

"Ah, looking for a simple solution," Memnoch said with something like a sneer. But Louis lifted his head and nodded.

"Of course!"

Mekare reached out and took hold of Memnoch's arm as Louis had before. :Solid, indeed.:

Memnoch frowned, only now seeing the implicit insult. "Fool. Fool of a witch."

"Why not," Louis asked diffidently, "try to set yourself up as God to begin with?" Then he shook his head. "No, stupid of me. Of course you did that too." He nodded towards the remains of the veil. It was odd that although wild confusion reigned inside the cathedral, the three of them seemed to stand inside a charmed circle; no one noticed them, or ran into them, or bothered them in any way at all. "One of your many faces."

Memnoch loomed over them again, his two different gestalts superimposed on each other. :You will regret that.:

"Does that mean you won't take me to heaven?" Louis asked. Then he bit his tongue. He really was frightened of this creature, this being, Memnoch. But he was angry, too. To play games with mortals like this, use them, use their belief — it was wicked. If it succeeded, this would be hell, indeed.

:They will forget,: Mekare said, nodding at the people who fled the building. :They'll go home, call it mass hypnosis.:

"Go back to whatever they believed before," Louis added.

"But it's the same belief," Memnoch said. He evidently believed himself clever to have chosen an existing structure, thinking he could merely lace himself into it, take all the power of it, and become in truth the living God. Or the living Devil. And in a way he was right; in a way, that was what he was now.

"You know, it was a mistake to choose such a concrete symbol," Louis said. "You know that it is not the same thing at all." He took Memnoch's hand. "You're harder to get hold of. Fading. Take care, or we'll not see you any more."

:Why the vampires?: Mekare asked.

Memnoch did not answer. He seemed to be concentrating on his body, as though he had suddenly been gripped by the most profound uncertainty. Louis fought down the inner satisfaction as his bait was well and truly taken. "I'll still be here," he said. "I was here before. Lestat knows how tangible I was."

"But why us?" Louis asked, as Mekare had.

Then Memnoch looked at them again and the last pretense fell away. "No rivals," he said. "No one else. I would be the only one."

Louis shook his head slowly as the true meaning of that penetrated. "But you don't understand. We are not Amel," he said. "We are ourselves. Amel was made flesh, yes, but it lost its identity in that. How can a diffused force without personality be a rival?"

"I won't share," Memnoch said. "Taking the flesh of others was crude, stupid. Much better to let the humans' belief make me reality. Make me," he smiled, "God."

"God Incarnate indeed," Louis said and shuddered. To give over humanity to this creature, to let Memnoch shape the mortals' faith for its own purpose — no, never. He did not have to pretend to feel fear, and saw that the creature was relaxing, secure in its power.

:Such a sweet dream.: Mekare smiled, lifted her hand towards the smoking veil, and then the last fragments all but exploded and only fine grey ash sifted down over the altar. Memnoch shook violently.

"You cannot destroy me like that! I am real!" And after that first tremor, he did seem to close in on himself, to be even more of a presence.

Louis looked intently at him. "Real. You are flesh, aren't you?"

"Yes." There was an expression of sly triumph on Memnoch's face. "Your destruction does not matter any more. I am in the flesh now, fully, and I still have my powers. I — am — real."

Reaching out, Louis took hold of the ordinary man, felt the solidity of flesh under his hands. Memnoch had pulled every last bit into himself, all that had been expended on illusion before. He was, indeed, a living, breathing creature.

"Here in the flesh," Louis said.

"Yes," Memnoch agreed, triumphant. "Real!"

"Good," Louis said and pulled the hot, living body into his arms, and sank his fangs into its neck.

Blood pumped into him, blood like nothing else he had ever tasted. So this was what belief created. It did indeed taste like God; it was rich and intoxicating and it was like living sunlight and molten gold.

Memnoch struggled in his arms, much stronger and more powerful than Louis really, but then Mekare gripped him from behind and held him also, and her fangs went in on the other side. And they drank, drank deeply, and the very real heart in this very real body slowed down, and slowed down, while the hot blood fed its power to them, and finally there was no more and the slow pounding heartbeat had stopped, and Louis fell to his knees, reeling, drunk. He could hear it thudding inside him still, a sound sometimes like a heart, sometimes like huge wings beating the air. It burned through him, tracing a path through every vein in his body. It hurt, and oh, it felt wonderful.

Mekare sank down next to him and put her arm around him, and they leaned against each other, adjusting slowly to what they had taken into themselves. It did frighten him, now that he could feel it working. It was doing something to him, but he could not quite tell what. Mekare seemed to feel it too; she was racked by occasional shivers.

:It does not want to get along with the other presence,: she said.

"What will we become now?" Louis asked quietly, then answered the question himself. "No way of telling, but time will let us find out. Is it paining you?"

She nodded. :Yes, but no more than I can handle. And you?: Her voice was filled with concern for him.

"It's passing," he said. "It doesn't hurt all that much. It feels good." He ran a hand through his hair, tried to feel more collected. "We should do something about the body."

:I'll take care of that,: Mekare said. She reached out and touched the drained corpse lying next to them on the floor. :The dangers of becoming embodied.:

Louis almost laughed. "Indeed." He felt light as a feather and suddenly, absurdly happy. Tilting his head back to look up at the ceiling he found himself grinning widely at the beauty of it. It felt incredibly like the sensations he'd experienced on first becoming a vampire; his senses seemed to have grown even more acute, and every tiny thing he heard or saw or felt affected him intensely. Even the thin wail he became aware of hearing sounded beautiful to his ears at first.

When he rose to his feet and turned to face the altar he saw Dora standing there, looking like a lost child, staring at the place where the veil had hung. Her lips curled back from her teeth and her eyes opened wide, turning her face into a caricature of itself as she cried out in horror. She was shaking, not just her head but her whole body, rocking back and forth in utter denial. Louis took a step towards her, then looked back over his shoulder at Mekare and the body of Memnoch on the floor.

:I'll take care of this,: she said. :You deal with her, if you want to.:

Did he want to? But even as he asked himself the question he found himself going that way, drawn to her by strong, conflicting emotions that were nearly impossible to sort out — curiosity, pity, jealousy. Part of him did not want to have anything to do with her, part of him wanted to understand her...

She did not turn at the sound of his footsteps, so he reached out and touched her arm. Then she spun around and faced him and he was struck again by her stark looks, the black and white simplicity of her.

"It's gone," she said.

He nodded. "It wasn't the real thing, Dora."

"And how would you know?" she accused him. "You never believed. But I did, I knew, and—"

"And you nearly created a monster." Then he tried to be gentle. "You can still believe in your God, Dora. But not in the God of the veil."

"But that was God!" she gasped. "I knew it! I could see it."

Louis smiled wryly at her. "Well, in this case it's a question of, blessed are those who have seen and yet not believed. It wasn't true, Dora. We're back to not knowing. Back to uncertainty. Can't your faith deal with that?"

Tears were running down her face. "I knew," she whispered. "I had certainty."

Oddly enough her weeping made him feel less for her. "Didn't you have that before, too? Wasn't it your certainty that made you order my lover to go to hell for you?"

"Oh, stop that, your narrow perspective," she said. "What does it matter whose lover he was? When we could find out the truth!"

"Would you reduce God to a fact?" he asked. "And make that knowable fact more important than love? Dora, I thought you were a Christian."

She took a step away from him and flung out her hands. "I am, and you are a walking horror, a creature of evil."

"Oh, we're evil now, when it suits you!" Louis took a quick step and closed the distance between them again, gripped her narrow waist between his hands.

"Don't do it!" she gasped.

"Don't do what?"

"Don't," she forced out between clenched teeth, bending back to expose her neck, "drink my blood."

"I wouldn't take your blood if you paid me." He held her in a tight embrace. "I'll not be evil to suit you; you could order Lestat around, but don't try it with me." Looking into the depths of her black ink-dot eyes, he saw something that made him smile. "You'd really like me to, wouldn't you? Martyrdom could be sweet. You'd die proclaiming your God. Well," he released her abruptly, "I won't let you do that. I don't care what happens to you, personally. But I won't provide you with a spectacular death just so you can prolong the life of this religious movement of yours."

She'd staggered backwards when he let her go. Now she looked at him wordlessly, miserably. Turning towards the altar, she moved to scoop up the fine grey ash that had once been the veil. Dora rubbed it between her fingers as if she thought she would find something there, expecting a revelation of alternate reality. Nothing happened and a thin moan broke from her, she was rocking back and forth again until in a quick motion she smeared the ash over her face, both cheeks, forehead, chin. Ashes in her hair.

The girl tilted her head back and screamed, "God! Show yourself to me!"

And the echoes of her voice died away and there was only silence.

Louis slowly turned away from her, reluctant to leave her but unable to think of anything that could be done for her. Even hating her seemed too time-consuming and unnecessary. She'd already broken herself to pieces.

The deliberate sound of his footsteps going out did not make her speak again.

On the steps outside he found Mekare, a reassuring presence. There were still crowds, people running this way and that, shouts, attempted explanations. At least three TV crews were approaching the scene. Louis smiled wryly — the biggest news item would be something that didn't exist any more. Now that did not make for good television. Maybe they could film the ashes on Dora's face.

He turned to Mekare. "Did you—?"

:Yes.: She offered no explanation of how, exactly, she had disposed of Memnoch's body, but he found he did not really want to know. :I'll take you home.:

:Thank you,: he said, going into her by now familiar embrace with complete trust. And if anyone's eyes were on them, anyone who would wonder where the couple standing there on the steps had vanished to, neither of them cared.

:No more fires at dawn,: Mekare said and the satisfaction was thick in her mind-voice. :He was doing that, you know. Helping along those who, like Armand, would not really have been hurt at first.:

Louis growled. :I'm not surprised. He's kept hold of Lestat's mind, too, hasn't he? Strengthening the madness.:

:It does — did — work a little like what you said it resembled, a virus,: Mekare said. :That is why I wanted you to come along. You were exposed to it and yet you were the least affected. Even David was more prepared to believe than you were.:

Louis smiled into her hair :And I couldn't understand why you dragged me along.:

:It's simple, child,: Mekare smiled affectionately at him, and he could feel it even though he couldn't see it. :It was your strength I wanted.:

They were high up in the coldest reaches of the night sky now, yet Louis felt less uncomfortable here than he ever had before. The blood of Memnoch still warmed him from the inside, still sang in his veins. The wind tearing at his clothes seemed a minor annoyance.

:Let go of me,: he said.

:What?: He could feel that she had been completely unprepared for that request.

:Let go of me,: Louis repeated. :Surely you can catch me if I fall.:

There was a short pause, and then she said, :Yes,: and at the same time her arms released him. He did not know what he expected would happen. Certainly not that he would spin slowly away from her, floating directionless in this void, unanchored by gravity. Mekare, where was Mekare — and then they slammed into each other.

:Sorry!: Louis offered.

:Direction, Louis,: she said. And then he saw a smile on her face. :You're flying!:

He nodded, not as overjoyed as she, more surprised and somewhat suspicious of this experience and what it felt like. This had not been what he expected Memnoch's blood to do to him. Nor was he sure that he would have taken it, had he known.

:You must not hesitate,: Mekare said sharply. :It's too late for that. You have it now. Use it.:

Ah, yes. Wasn't that what he just had been trying to tell Dora — it was no use denying reality, one had to learn how to deal with it. It had been a hard lesson to learn, for him, but he thought he knew it by now. Louis nodded.

:All right. I'll make my own way home, then.: He hugged her awkwardly, not knowing how to say goodbye any more than he had known how to say hello.

:You will see me again,: she said confidently. :I could never have done this without you, beautiful one. Thank you.: A cool kiss on his cheek, and then she was speeding away from him, and he had to find his own strength and direction and move or fall.

But once he'd thought of home he felt it draw him like a magnet, as though the place itself were the driving force and he merely something tugged along by it. The speed felt less shocking now that he was the one who controlled it, but he was still surprised by the precision that made him land exactly where he had wanted to be, right in the courtyard, with the fountain playing there and the banana plants coming up and lights on somewhere inside.

And he tried to stand there for a while and relax, and think about it, all that had happened, the things he had done. Whether he was different now, and what that would do to him. What it meant to interfere in the affairs of mortals in this way. The truth of what had been happening.

But then he just shrugged, and decided to go inside.

Chapter twenty-two: What then is love but mourning?

"I am paralyzed by the blood of Christ
Though it clouds my eyes
I can never stop

When the sunset's glow drifts away from you
You'll no longer know
If any of this was really true at all" — The Cure, 'The Blood'

"Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea." — Dylan Thomas, 'Fern Hill'

Louis had simply disappeared out of the room when Mael, Jesse and Maharet were reunited. Not that David could blame him for that. It was an intimate scene and one that must have been more trying for Louis than it would have been for many others.

Maharet had suffered the same way Lestat had, after all, but she had been more resilient — at least, David hoped she had been more resilient — and now she was with those who loved her, and they were talking to her and she was answering them, and it seemed safe to say that she would be well. Lestat still showed no sign of recovery.

After much kissing and hugging and crying, the Laocoön figure in the corner separated into three individuals again, and they began to make plans for leaving. Maharet absolutely refused to return to Burma; the very idea made her shake. Jesse and Mael soothed her, and it was decided that they should go to Sonoma instead.

"We can leave straight away," Mael said. "We brought nothing with us here, and you travel light, don't you, Maharet?"

She actually smiled. "Yes." Holding out her empty hands, "I came here with nothing."

"But now you have us," Jesse said tenderly. "We can try to make this work again."

Maharet's voice lowered to a whisper and David cursed his acute hearing and felt he should have left too, as Louis had. This was much too personal, nothing he should be witness to. "I just don't want to be alone. I don't want to be without you..."

He felt silly. She'd been suffering like this all the time he had been staying with her, and he'd never noticed, never tried to comfort her. So much for his Talamasca-trained powers of observation. Was it his fate to be so wrapped up in his own childish sorrows that he didn't notice others' pain?

While Mael held Maharet and rocked her as she cried, Jesse came over to him and put an arm around his waist. "Hey, Davey."

He smiled at her, though it was something of an effort, and kissed her temple. "So you're going away again?"

"Yes." Jesse pursed her lips, seemed to hesitate for a moment, then nodded. "I think it's all right to leave Armand and Daniel now. I mean, they're getting better. Danny's almost completely healed. And, and—"

"And Maharet needs you," David said. It was obvious what she wanted to do, and as far as he could see, there was no reason why she shouldn't. "I'll look after the Terrible Twosome. Don't worry about them."

"Okay." Jesse gave him a wide smile. "Hug them for me and everything. I'd do the mind meld style goodbye but they seem to be," she winked at him, "busy."

No real surprise, that. Together again, Armand and Daniel had become fused at the hip, the most devoted of lovers. This time he wasn't sure he really succeeded with his smile, because Jesse started to give him a worried look, but then Mael called from across the room, "Jess, we should get going," and she turned her head to answer.

David tried to relax. He was happy for Armand and Daniel, really. He followed the others all outside and looked around for Louis, but didn't spot him. Instead he found himself hugged, to his surprise, by Mael, and by Maharet whose strength seemed less overawing now that her eyes showed her fears.

And finally, Jesse pounced on him and nearly cracked his ribs, and hissed in his ear, "Wish I had the time to figure out what your problem is, David! Take care, okay? Get happy."

Then all three vanished with such speed that only another vampire could follow them as they rose into the sky and flew off towards the west.

David sighed. He stood there for a moment with his face lifted towards the heavens and tried to empty his mind for just a moment of all concerns. Get happy, indeed. And yes, wouldn't that be nice? Jesse, I think I've forgotten how.

There was still no sign of Louis, so David concluded that his friend had gone to feed. About time, too. Louis starved himself, taking little interest in his own state. A few times David had had to literally push him out the door of the orphanage. If Louis had followed his own inclinations he would have stayed by Lestat's side night and day.

David could understand that.

He pushed the door open and went inside again, into the hallways and rooms he knew so well after all the nights he'd spent there. Only now did he realize that they had never used the lights. He didn't want to turn them on now, either. Didn't know if they worked any longer, for that matter; Dora had certainly not been paying any electricity bills lately.

David walked around in the dark, looking at all the things that Dora had shipped here, all the things that were Lestat's now. His earlier fascination with them had all but vanished. Not that he had ceased to admire the beauty of the artwork. It just didn't seem very important. They were just things. He'd destroy them all in an instant if it made the light of sanity return to Lestat's eyes.

David missed his maker's presence, his reckless good humor. He missed warming himself at that bright light, though he recognized that regret as too terribly selfish and tried to push it away. His own feelings were the least of it. Louis, what about Louis! How long could Louis go on like this? Lestat had to return to them.

If — no, when Lestat recovered, of course, David would no longer be needed here. Lestat and Louis would want time to themselves without a third party hovering around them all the time.

And what would he do then? He picked up a small, lovely icon and balanced it on the palm of his hand. Jesse, Mael and Maharet needed time to themselves too, caught up in private issues. Armand and Daniel were glued together with no room to spare for anyone else right now; they were nice to him, of course, but distant. The world was full of lovers—

David caught himself on the verge of crushing the frail object in his hand. Appalled, he put the icon down again and walked slowly around the chapel. Ordinarily he would have found the presence of all this glorious art soothing. Now he felt tiny stings of pain looking at it. Seeing it for himself wasn't enough. He wanted someone to talk to, someone to share it all with. And he knew who that someone was, and that train of thought wasn't going anywhere.

He missed Marius so much he thought he was going crazy.

Part of it had to be the way things were now; caught here, caring for his maker, David found his mind straying back to happier days. It was only natural. Perhaps he was exaggerating the importance of his time with Marius, anyway. It hadn't been all that good really, had it? It hadn't been the serious relationship he'd been looking for. Just a fling. Just intelligent conversation and incredibly sensual lovemaking with the most fascinating man he'd ever met. No big deal. He could take it or leave it.

Apparently Marius had been able to do so, at any rate. David had walked out of the villa in the middle of the hot Italian summer and since then, neither he nor anyone else had heard a word. Though of course, David reflected, it was possible that everyone else had been speaking with Marius and was just refraining from telling him.

Where was Marius now, what was he doing? Still sitting peacefully in his villa in Tuscany, watching the fireflies dance in the garden? No, it was the wrong season for fireflies, but the cypresses would be marching in their stately rows across the gently rolling hills, and winter rain would break the surface of the garden pond into thousand of tiny perfect circles. Inside, warm lights would glow and there Marius would be, at his desk perhaps, silently absorbed in a new book delivered by mail from some obscure publishing company. At peace, on his own.

Stop it, he told himself. It was useless, this torture. Much better if he could manage to concentrate on the here and now. Then perhaps he'd start feeling better, and no longer feel his heart turn over every time he happened to see a blond man wearing red.

He should go down and see to Lestat instead. Being here, alone with his thoughts, he'd soon work himself into a full-fledged depression. David sighed, and felt in his pocket for the ever-present notebook. When his fingers touched it he made a face of revulsion. But he knew Lestat would not rest until the whole story was written down. And they were nearing the end now.

Thank God for that, at least, David thought. Or whoever.

* * *

Louis did not return that night. David couldn't really blame him; he'd all but lived in the orphanage since Lestat's return. Perhaps Louis had gone to the house in Rue Royal instead. Perhaps Daniel and Armand could cheer him up.

David concentrated on Lestat, who was restless, almost fretting. No, no more writing that book, he didn't want to speak any more of what had been happening and David would only get it wrong anyway, and it could all have been a lie. But it needed to be told, the whole story. Are you writing it down, David?

He couldn't feel any anger at this, at Lestat's wild talk and all his contradictions, and he managed to conceal his impatience. This would pass. Sooner or later, it would pass. Lestat would be all right again. He sat by his maker's side, and answered when Lestat spoke even if it was only random words or fragments of dreams. It made the time pass; it gave him something to think of.

He did love Lestat, loved him dearly. The mortal man he'd been had loved Lestat too. But it was different now; they were two of a kind now. Hunters, both. David had rediscovered the sharp edge inside himself. Prepared to accept death gracefully, he'd been given a new life — two new lives.

And a right mess he was making of them so far.

"No," he said out loud, chastising himself. Not back to those thoughts again; he knew where that would take him.

"No, what?" Lestat asked with surprising clarity.

"Nothing," David said. "How do you feel?"

Lestat did not answer that, but after a moment said, "Where's Louis?"

"Out hunting, I think," David said. "He's been tired lately."

"That's Louis for you," Lestat said, "always whining and dining. I won't do it. I won't."

"No one's asking you to," David said soothingly, and Lestat turned his head away again, falling silent.

Lestat still had not fed since his return from wherever he had been, except for the — incident — with Dora. David hoped that Armand hadn't told Louis about that. He knew that he never would be able to. It wasn't the taking of blood in that manner that he found so disturbing; it was the shameless way Lestat had made love to the mortal woman so publicly, pleasing both her and himself in utter disregard of the others present.

To be a vampire and still be concerned about manners! David almost smiled. But they had their own codes of behavior, didn't they? Their own etiquette, and now Lestat had broken another taboo. Perhaps one shouldn't be surprised at it after all.

He stayed the rest of the night in the little cell, and allowed the death sleep to overtake him at dawn right there on the stone floor. One of the worst things about being a vampire was that you couldn't wake up if you had a nightmare. It seemed too cruel to dream in that sleep, yet they did. He did. Dreamed of red velvet, and little devils chasing everyone he knew and loved.

When the sun set and they both woke again, Lestat was restless, struggling against the chains his mind believed in. David wanted to tell him the truth of that. But he did not know what a free Lestat would do in this state. No, he wouldn't be the one responsible for that release. Perhaps Louis would, now that Maharet had left. Only Louis wasn't here. David waited and waited, but there was no sign of him. And Lestat was tossing his head and muttering.

David wondered if Lestat needed to feed. But Lestat was still refusing that, had said no every time David or anyone else had offered to bring a victim here, and several times when they hadn't offered. David suspected that face to face with a mortal, with a tender living body in his arms, Lestat would overcome his reluctance. But he wasn't willing to test that theory just yet. Lestat could go for a long time without blood, as strong as he was.

So once he saw Lestat calming down again, David felt he might well leave his maker alone, might go out to hunt himself. Not that he had such a wild hunger that it could not have been put aside for another night. But he wanted to see something else than these four walls, and Lestat's face, handsome though it undeniably was. He wanted the sweet release that the blood would bring, wanted to forget himself for a moment in a victim's tender embrace.

Making sure that Lestat was as comfortable as he could be under the circumstances, David left the underground room and walked out of the orphanage and up towards St Charles. Once he got there he followed the streetcar tracks, heading downtown. It was not too late; there were plenty of people in the streets, and for some time he enjoyed just being one of them, part of this vast and teeming crowd. It seemed that the whole city had a heartbeat, a slow irresistible pumping, and the blood that coursed through the mortals all around him was being driven by it in a sweet rhythm.

And he wanted it. Wanted to be caught up in it. Then he saw the young man come out of a side street and stop on the corner, and the hunger kicked in, all the old instincts: this was the one, this was his prey. Hair like pale tangled silk, and blue eyes, and a face so sweetly open and dreaming — he looked like a ghost or a visitor from another realm, and David wanted him. He moved closer, and the delicious scent all but overpowered him.

"Excuse me, I'm looking for a friend — have you seen a guy with a guitar somewhere around here? With black hair and looking really really pissed off?"

David shook his head, feeling a sudden urge to laugh. Everything changed with those words. This young man would never know it, but those words had saved him from certain death. A hunter does not want his prey to roll over at his feet, and smile at him.

"No, I'm afraid I haven't," he said. "But I'm sure you'll find him." Then, because it was just irresistible, he tipped the young man's face up and kissed his cheek before walking off and letting himself get lost in the crowd.

Later he did hunt, down by the riverfront, and fed on a savage young thing who fought him fiercely and tried to spray him with Mace. An experience he didn't care to repeat. Still, it made him feel better, the hot blood, the momentary intoxication. Finding himself not all that far from the house in Rue Royal, he decided to pay a visit there before going back.

He wasn't as familiar with this house as he'd have liked to be; he had his own set of rooms here, but had rarely used them. It had always been Louis' and Lestat's private place. But he moved confidently enough through the rooms, only to feel the silence and emptiness in them. David reached out. Nothing.

The bedroom that Daniel and Armand had been using was tidy and empty. There was still a dent in the wall above the headboard of the bed; David smiled a little at that, but then he walked on. Where were they?

Finally, in the front parlour that even Louis now referred to as the living room, he tracked down the note that was lying on the desk, one corner weighted down with a stone containing a fossilized trilobite. When he picked it up he noticed that his fingers left traces in the thin layer of dust that had gathered atop the beautiful polished wood. He rubbed absently at a spot, admiring the warm sheen, before reading the note.

"Well, we're off. People kept walking in on us. We'll go in search of privacy." Then in a different handwriting, "Thank you. For everything. We will be in touch." The first handwriting again, "Eventually. And the couch will be delivered back on Thursday night." It was signed, "hugs and kisses, A & D."

David looked up to see what he should have noticed from the start, that the huge modern sofa was no longer standing where it should. He wrinkled his brow and wondered what on earth they'd done to it. Not that it really mattered.

He sat down, the note still in his hand. They were gone, and he sensed they'd left as soon as Armand was capable of it so as not to be an intrusion, another chore for him and Louis to attend to. Oh, probably Armand really needed more help in order to get back to himself as speedily as possible. But they'd manage on their own, or they would meet someone else. David felt confident of that. They wanted their privacy more than anything else, and that was a decision he could understand and respect.

He stared out of the window into the night. They were out there somewhere. Together. And that was fine, just perfect, why did the thought make him want to cry? Angrily he wiped away the first few threatening tears. No, he wouldn't, he just wouldn't give in to his weakness.

"David," a soft voice said from the doorway.

He turned his head to see Louis standing there, leaning against the doorjamb, wearing the same wrinkled black clothes as when David had last seen him. "You're back," he said dully, keeping his voice stripped of emotion.

Louis came into the room, walked towards him. "Oh, David," he said, "has it been so terrible?" He came up to stand right next to where David was sitting. "I'm sorry. You've been carrying the whole burden and you've driven yourself too hard. You should rest, David."

David shook his head. "It's all right."

"But it's not," Louis disagreed gently. "You look worn out. Don't do this to yourself, take it easy."

"I don't want to take it easy," David said, feeling faintly rebellious.

"Why not?"

"Because," he looked up into Louis' face, "because it might give me time to think." He felt his lower lip quiver, and bit down on it resolutely. He wouldn't let Louis see how much that little admission of the truth hurt him. But of course Louis went straight to the heart of things.

"And what is it you don't want to think about?" Louis perched lightly on the arm of the chair and put his arms around David, holding him very carefully. "What is it, David?"

He took a slow shuddering breath, trying to put it as impersonally as possible, this issue that obsessed him. "Oh, it's nothing," he said. "Small things should not really matter now, should they? I mean, I have been given the gift to live forever, so why care about events that are as ephemeral as mayflies?"

Louis shook his head with great firmness. "Don't think that way, David. Don't ever think that way. It is far too easy to lose the moment, but you never get to live in the future that way, only in the past. It's so very easy for creaures like us to lose track of time, and it becomes increasingly hard to slip back into the present. Do your suffering here and now. What bothers you? Is it Lestat?"

That was the easy way out. David made himself nod. It was true that Lestat's current state bothered him. "Yes, I am worried about him."

"How is he now?" Louis asked with real concern, his eyes searching David's face.

"Restless." David shrugged. "He was asking for you. Then he turned a bit more confused for a while, but he seemed calmer now and I thought it would be all right to leave him alone a little."

"Alone?" Louis raised an eyebrow. "But there were tons of people here. Where is everyone?"

"Jesse and Mael went with Maharet to Sonoma, and Armand and Daniel have taken off somewhere—" He broke off as he saw Louis, too, notice the change in the room.

"David, where is the couch?"

David handed Louis the note, and watched as he read it, watched the amused smile that curled his mouth. "I expect someone had better be here tomorrow to receive it."

"Yes," Louis said, still smiling. "Those two... David, what is really the matter?"

"What do you mean?" David raised an eyebrow and leaned back in the chair, trying to exude unconcern. "The matter with Daniel and Armand? They're both improving."

"Don't be dense. Something is the matter with you. It's not Lestat," Louis said. "Though I'm sorry you were left here on your own to deal with him. It's something else you're trying not to think about. What is it?"

David dropped his gaze, unable to look any longer into Louis' penetrating green eyes. "It's nothing, really," he said. Louis' hand squeezed his shoulder encouragingly.

"Tell me."

"I just feel," David struggled for words, "lonely. Not that I don't appreciate your company," he said quickly. "Or Lestat's. But there is such intimacy between many others of our kind, whether it is the product of millennia as with Mael and Maharet, or mere years as with Daniel and Armand. And it seems to me that this closeness and this love is what makes everything worth while."

Louis was nodding firm agreement. "Yes," he said. "It's the love we have that makes our strange lives real. But you are not unloved, David. You are a dear friend to me, you know that. And Lestat loves you, too. We've seen too little of you lately, we've neglected you, but that doesn't mean—"

"I understand. I know you've not excluded me on purpose. But you and Lestat, you belong together," David said, putting a hand on Louis' arm. "It's, oh, I feel horrible saying it, I have this envy of others' closeness and it makes me feel like a monster."

"Don't," Louis said. "You can find that too, David."

I won't say it, he thought. I won't, I won't.

"I thought I had." David bent his head. "I thought..." The tears, so long suppressed, rose to his eyes again and the world took on a seductive red shimmer.

"David!" Louis was distressed.

David allowed himself to be pulled tighter into an embrace, to cry on Louis' sweater that was cold and smelled of fresh air. Louis' hands were icy, but their touch soothed him. "It will pass," he said fiercely into Louis' shoulder. "This will pass."

"I know so little of what you have been doing," Louis said. "It makes me feel ashamed. There has been hardly any contact between us since San Francisco. I'd call myself your friend, David, but I don't even know who's broken your heart."

"Does it matter?" David muttered. "I have to forget about this. I swore I wouldn't even mention it. Oh I despise this, this maudlin sobbing, this..."

The mental contact was stronger than he had expected. :David! Stop it. You sound the way I did during most of the present century.:

:What?: David was taken off guard by the remark. :What do you mean?:

:Trying to deny that I'd ever loved Lestat.: David had forgotten how easily Louis could turn that penetrating clarity onto his own soul as well as that of another. :It was the most profound waste of time. Don't make the same mistake, David. If you tell yourself repeatedly that something does not matter, you may find yourself in a position where nothing matters any more and your soul is barren as a desert. Don't give up on your emotions. Don't ever forget how to feel.:

Louis both sounded and felt utterly sincere. And David once again realized that he had made the same mistake he'd made so often with Lestat in his mortal days — allowing himself to forget the true age behind the lovely young face. Louis might be one of the youngest vampires, but he was far older than David, and certainly well qualified to give advice on this matter. It was a relief, too, to find that Louis did take it seriously, would not laugh it off or tell David to come back in a decade or two. Or a century or two.

And in return for the genuine care and affection Louis was showing him, David shyly opened his mind and offered a compressed version of the past years, his time with Marius and the way it had ended. He even tossed in a few glimpses of the way he'd felt since then.

Louis was silent for a few moments, one hand running absently over David's hair in a soothing gesture. Then he looked up and smiled, a wide and happy smile. "But David, how perfect!"

"What?" David felt annoyed.

"You and Marius — really, you were made for each other!" Louis was still grinning. In those scruffy black clothes and that casual pose, with his hair so uncharacteristically untidy, he could have been any young intellectual posing in a café, except that the smile was unguarded enough to let his fangs show.

"But it's over," David tried to point out, feeling that Louis was missing the most central part of what he'd been trying to explain. Then he remembered what Armand had said to him on that subject. You're immortal now. Things are never over.

"Exactly," Louis said, not even apologizing for still reading David's thoughts. "David, do you really want it to be over? Think about it. You have to decide how badly you want him and on what terms. Then once you've decided that, confront him with it. And I do mean confront." The impish grin returned. "I'm sure he'd have a hard time resisting you in the flesh, so to speak."

David snorted dismissively to hide his sudden upsurge of interest at the appealing picture those words had conjured up. "But I don't want to go running after him."

"You shouldn't have left without a fight in the first place," Louis said. "He might think you don't want to come back."

"No, but—" David shook his head. "It would have been so—"

"Childish?" Louis' eyes were twinkling. "Undignified?"

David blushed. "But he's so — I mean — Yes, damn it. Childish. He's two thousand years old, I must seem like an infant to him. I didn't want to, well," he couldn't find words to express it. "I can't believe I even left that note. Petty."

Louis folded up Armand and Daniel's note and put it back on the desk, tapping it softly. "At least that was one sign you left because you thought something was wrong and not because you were bored with him."

David sat up abruptly. "But he can't have thought that!"

"Why not?" Louis asked quizzically. "Unless you worshipped at his feet every night..."

"Louis, you can be quite infuriating, do you know that? You — you haven't heard anything from Marius, have you?" He held his breath.

Louis shook his head. "No. And if I had, I wouldn't tell you; this is something between you and him. David, you need to take some time to think about this, and I do mean, think — not anguish. I know it's selfish of me, but I want to ask you to stay here just a little while longer, because of Lestat—"

"Of course I will," David said quickly. "You don't even have to ask."

"—but once he's better," Louis went on relentlessly, "you should go somewhere on your own and straighten out your priorities. All right?"

"All right," David nodded, defeated. "Louis, I believe you missed out on your vocation. You could have made a fortune as a psychiatrist, the way you make people say things they never meant to."

Now the grin on Louis' face was positively devilish. "You think? I'd rather have been a talk show host. No, David, stop that — vampires are not ticklish — eep!" The chair tipped over and sent them rolling across the floor, both of them laughing helplessly.

Chapter twenty-three: Home is the hero

"Oh won't you stay, stay a while with your own ones..." — Van Morrison

Louis stretched and straightened his back, looking away from the softly glowing computer screen. Spending time online was a good distraction; he'd been chuckling happily at the Code of the Geeks, and reading oddly compelling fan fiction based on TV shows he'd never even seen. He'd answered all his mail, too.

Well, nearly all.

Turning back to the screen, he called up the letter from Jesse again.

Louis sighed. He tried to keep his mind in safe channels. David, yes. So Jesse had seen that. She was right; David would certainly have to work out his problems, pretty soon. As soon as Lestat was — better—

They had agreed that Lestat was better. Calmer. He had stopped telling the story of what had happened to him and no longer tossed and turned, muttering wildly about lies and deceptions. Rather he seemed to have retired to a place deep inside and lay silently in that cellar room, saying nothing.

An improvement? Louis did not know. And he couldn't bear thinking about it too much. Better to wonder and worry about David. Better to think about anything rather than who would come out of that cellar room finally.

He began to write a reply, forcing the words out.

Louis broke off for a moment, almost ashamed of the wave of emotion he felt. He missed Jesse and Mael; it had been good to be with them, back before he'd known of Lestat's return to madness, and it had been good to have them as company and support afterwards, too. But he certainly did not grudge them the right to lead their own lives. He could cope on his own. Of course he could.

Then he stopped writing. What about Lestat? It always came back to that. Jesse's mail had been sitting around for days in his inbox and he still hadn't managed to answer it. He saved the letter and rose from the chair, stretched again to work the kinks out and walked to the window.

Maybe he should go out to feed. That thought provided sufficient distraction for him for a moment, and he ignored the glowing computer screen in favor of pondering his own thirst. Not all that strong, really, he decided. There was no real need in him. He could not feed every time there was something he'd rather not think of; what kind of glutton that would turn him into, he didn't even want to imagine.

There was a sound outside, David in the living room dropping something on the floor. Or... Louis cocked his head to one side. Or had it been the sound of the front door closing? Had David left? He walked out of the room and headed for the place where he'd last seen David, finding the door to that room ajar.

David was still there, standing by the desk. And he had dropped something on the floor; one of the Wynken books lay there, a precious page crumpled in the fall. David wasn't even looking at it. Neither was Louis.

Because Lestat stood in the middle of the room.

His clothes were dirty and frayed; Louis had not realized how badly they'd deteriorated, down in that underground room. And he was lean with starvation, pared down, all of him refined. The minimalist version. His golden hair was tangled and matted with dirt. But his eyes were calm.

David found his voice first.

"You're back," he said simply, investing the words with both love and joy.

"Yes." Lestat looked at David, then his eyes flicked briefly to Louis. "Yes, I'm — look, I need to get cleaned up, I can't go around for a moment longer looking like this. I'll talk to you as soon as I'm — are my clothes still—"

Louis cleared his throat, unsure whether he could still speak. "Yes," he got out, "everything is where it was, Lestat."

"Good." Lestat gave him one of those quick looks again, then passed by him and went out, clearly heading for the bathroom. Louis remained where he was and stared at David, who stared back at him.

Finally David said, "Not much of a hello."

"No," Louis agreed uncertainly. He didn't know what to make of Lestat's manner, the abruptness of his words, the distance that had been so clearly marked out between them. "But David, he's out of the cellar."

"Yes." David smiled. "Now that really is wonderful. And it's no wonder if he is feeling a little out of place here after being absent so long, and—"

"And wearing the same clothes for so long," Louis said, grinning suddenly. "You know how he is about clothes."

David nodded, then took a step back and sat down on the couch; after a moment Louis came to join him. They sat in silence for a while, both of them working their way towards believing that Lestat was really with them again. Louis listened to the distant sound of running water and imagined Lestat under the shower spray, sloughing off madness and filth together. Water pouring down over Lestat's white, smooth skin, slicking his hair back, beading on his shoulders...

He swallowed. Lestat was back; that was enough for now. Anything else would have to come later, when they'd talked, when they knew where they had each other now.

But I know where he's got me, Louis thought. He's got me in the palm of his hand — the only question is whether he wants me or not.

He looked up at David, who also sat absorbed in thought, smiling a little to himself. After a moment David seemed to sense the look and lifted his eyes to meet it. "It's almost unreal, isn't it?" the smooth voice asked. "I've hoped so much for this that I'm surprised it actually has happened."

Louis nodded. "I feel the same way. I keep expecting to wake up. Ow!" He swatted at David's hand. "You didn't have to pinch me!"

"Well, now you know it's really happening." David captured Louis' hand with his own to prevent another tickling attack. "I don't think he's fed yet, do you?"

"No." Not to judge by the way he'd looked, anyway. "We'll have to try to persuade him to do that. Starvation isn't healthy."

"And you should know," David teased. "Let's see what he has to say for himself first, though."

* * *

Lestat stood under the hot hard spray, letting it beat down on his head until his hair lay flat and clung to his skull, neck, shoulders. The constant pounding soothed his tense muscles and he could feel the beginnings of relaxation steal over him. His first really comfortable moment since Maharet had chained him up.

Squirting another dollop of shampoo into his hand, he began to work it into his hair, tugging at the knots. The fourth time he did this, and still he did not feel entirely clean. He couldn't believe he'd let himself get into such a state. Blood sweat had dried on his skin, in his clothes — he would have to throw them away.

And his hair was just one tangled mess. Finally he gave up on trying to work his fingers through it and just leaned back and let the water rinse him off. Then he stepped from the shower and grabbed a towel, drying himself and letting out a small sigh of pleasure. Once he was dry Lestat went to stand in front of the mirror and look seriously at himself.

What looked back was fairly good-looking, really. In fact, all was well except for the hair, so he opened the bathroom cabinet and dug around for the scissors. Frowning with concentration, he began to cut, watching the beginnings of dreadlocks fall to the floor. Short, very short back and sides, a little longer at the front, one curl falling over his eyes. It didn't look too bad. He grinned at himself suddenly. It was only for tonight anyway.

Lestat dropped the towel on the floor too, just as carelessly, and walked naked into the bedroom. But once he got out there his confident steps began to falter as he took in the familiar surroundings, this room, that huge bed. He could almost see, in strange double vision, pale bodies writhing together on the silk sheets. He had to drop his eyes and stifle an involuntary gasp.

Seeing Louis again, really seeing him — he'd wanted to pounce on him, take that luscious body in his arms, lose himself in a kiss. It had taken all his self control not to do it. He couldn't embarrass Louis like that in front of David—

He couldn't take the risk that Louis would reject him, in front of David.

Turning around, he walked into the closet and picked out some simple clothes, a blue and white striped cotton shirt, a pair of jeans. Hand-made cowboy boots. A belt. He was drawing this out, putting off the moment when he'd have to step outside and confront his beloved fledglings again.

Finally he ran a hand across his cropped hair, feeling it tickle his palm, then straightened his back and strode outside.

Louis and David were still in the living room, curled up together on the big couch. Lestat halted in the doorway, taken aback by the casual intimacy implied in their position. It seemed like they'd grown much closer than ever before in his — well — should he call it absence? How much closer, he realized with a sinking heart, was something he would have to try to find out, very carefully.

Then he stepped in resolutely, grabbed the chair away from the desk, turned it around and sat down astride it, facing them across the low coffee table, resting his arms on the back of the chair. So far, so good, but his resolve deserted him yet again. Rushing in where angels feared to tread? He had absolutely no idea where to begin. And when he thought of all that had happened and all the pain he'd caused them, his head dropped.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I never meant for it to be like this!"

"You never do," Louis said. Voice so soft, and yet it cut him. Were they back to this again, apologies and recriminations — and the fact he'd often tried not to face, that Louis was right. He never meant for things to go wrong, but they did.

"How are you feeling?"

That was David being considerate. Lestat found that he could look up and meet David's eyes, even if he couldn't look at Louis just yet. It was so easy to see, in David's deep brown eyes, the echo of the white-haired old man he had been. Yet the almost stiff dignity that David had brought with him into his vampire life had softened now; the old David would never have sat like that with his legs drawn up and holding — Lestat blinked — holding Louis' hand.

Oh, hell. This was it, then. They'd found each other. There had always been an affinity between them, these two quiet-voiced, careful, bookish ones. It wasn't so strange that they'd finally acted on how much they had in common.

He swallowed hard. He'd have threatened to kill anyone else for laying a finger on Louis. But not David.

"I feel—" Like hell, he wanted to say, take your hands off each other, stop it or I'm going to scream. But it seemed the last gift heaven had chosen to bestow on him was that of caution, finally. He breathed. "I'm all right. Physically, I'm fine."

"Starved," Louis corrected him.

"I could starve for decades and live through it," Lestat said with a trace of arrogance. "This is nothing."

"If you say so."

"And mentally?" David asked.

He wanted just to say 'all right' and be done with it, but he was only going to get one chance at honesty here and Lestat made himself take it. Of course it wasn't any of their business, and he didn't want to talk about it. That was always the way it was, whatever he'd done. But they deserved to know, and it might make them — he swallowed — might make them stay with him just a little longer.

"I've been better." Oh, they already knew that, didn't they? "I still don't understand it all. And I feel tired. And," come on, spit it out, "scared."

"Scared of what?" That was Louis, that calm voice. He sounded so strangely distant, so unconcerned. All the same Lestat burned to answer him...

But he didn't have words for it. There was so much and it was all so far from anything he'd ever thought he'd feel. But he was scared. Scared that the world might do another flip turn. Scared that Memnoch might turn up again and drag him to hell. Scared, because Louis was going to leave him.

"Everything," he muttered finally. "Nothing. I don't know. I don't want to," he swallowed, "don't want to be alone."

His head felt too heavy and he let it drop, resting his forehead against his arms on the back of the chair. He couldn't feel any joy in this, his awakening. Could not find himself in this time. Lestat found himself wondering and worrying about what had happened while he'd lain wandering in his mind. It was ridiculous. It hadn't been that long. He'd rested underground for decades and risen again feeling renewed, back into the heart and spirit of the day in an instant. Now there was an uncertainty in him as though this present hour and its changes were a test he knew he couldn't pass. He felt lost.

"But you're not alone." A gentle hand on his shoulder; David's hand. "You know that we are here, that we would do anything for you, Lestat." There was a short pause, and then David went on, "I think you should feed. Of course you are strong enough to forgo the blood for long periods of time. But you need it to remind you of who and what you are."

"I won't do it," he said at once, though it lacked the intense conviction he'd felt during the time he'd lain in chains. He could feel no real connection to the way he had been then; he knew the experience had been intense but he could not really recapture it. Nor did he feel any contact with his life before Memnoch.

Lestat clung harder to the back of the chair. He wanted to find his way back to himself. To the way things had been before. To Louis — oh, he wanted that most of all. Louis. To drown in him. Lestat wanted the touch of Louis' hands to spark him back to life. Wanted to throw himself at Louis, or lie at his feet and beg if that were necessary. Anything, he'd do anything at all.

Only he did not dare. Not this time. He'd gone too far this time. The world in an uproar, that was terrible enough. And Armand dead, that was in a way even worse. He did not know what might have hurt Louis more. And although Lestat did not doubt that there would be some kind of forgiveness, there was a deep chill in him, a fear that things would never again be as they had been.

"You should, Lestat," Louis said, still in that soft, even tone of voice. "It will make you feel better. You know the blood helps everything to heal, not just the body."

"It will clear your thoughts," David added. Lestat looked up to find them both watching him with nearly identical expressions of serious concern. That was another tiny sting of pain, too. He could not see any difference between the way David regarded him, and the look in Louis' eyes. He wanted to reach out and take Louis' face between his hands, stare deep in those emerald eyes, search for the love and passion that had been there before. But he didn't dare. For every moment that passed while he sat there on his hard chair, while Louis and David held hands on the couch, Lestat felt a distance growing between himself and the one he used to think of as his lover.

"But I said I wouldn't," he whispered. "I may be damned already, but..."

"So may we all be," David said. Lestat tried to read his tone of voice and failed.

"Are you — blaming me? For giving you the dark gift? For giving you—" Giving you over to hell, he was going to say. But David just shook his head.

"No. That was not what I meant. But if we are damned, Louis and I, won't you join us in our damnation?"

Lestat blinked; it wasn't what he had expected to hear. But when it was put like that, he realized that there was nowhere he wouldn't follow these two. Even back into hell if that was what was required of him.

"Leave off the poetry, David," Louis said with a small smile. "Lestat, go hunt."

And that casual, possessive tone undid him completely. He nodded. His fate was decided, then. He'd do anything if Louis spoke to him like that; Lestat hoped Louis would never find out, but feared that he already had. And for Louis to possess that much power over him, now that it seemed Louis had left him for David — that scared him even more, but he couldn't resist.

"Good," David said. "I know it will make you feel better."

He managed to scrape up a little of his old assertiveness. "I don't want to go alone, though." Assertiveness? He was scared to go alone. He really did not want to be alone. "I want — one of you — to come with me." If Louis would, if only Louis would share the hunt with him! Lestat prayed silently, for the first time actually relieved that neither David nor Louis could hear his thoughts and sense the helpless need in him.

They were looking at each other and silent communication passed between them. Such easy intimacy. It might not be what he suspected, Lestat tried to tell himself. Although his memories of his time in the orphanage were fragmentary, he knew that both David and Louis had been there with him, the whole time. That would have brought them closer, but why they had to sit there touching each other...

"I will come with you," David said calmly, and Lestat's heart sank. "Do you want us to go at once?"

Lestat shook his head. Now that he had begun to think about hunting again, now that he knew he would do it, he could feel the blood thirst begin deep inside, the sweet, insidious craving. But he was going to resist it a little longer.

"Not yet," he said. "There are some things I want to say to you first. Both of you." But after that beginning he could get no further. They were both waiting for him to continue; he let his eyes stray to Louis' face again and then realized what a mistake that was. So beautiful. As always after an absence it hit him with full force, rendered him speechless. Lestat stared into green eyes, paralyzed. Only when David cleared his throat did he manage to look away.

"You can tell us anything you want," Louis said. "Now, or later."

Lestat looked down, tried to regain his equilibrium. Before he could gather his scattered thoughts, David said, "It does not have to be now. If you prefer, we can go hunting and then come back and resume this conversation."

"I don't know what it is I want to say!" he burst out at last. "Nothing, no explanations. I've already said all that, it's written down and it's no use changing it. I just..." He looked from David to Louis. "I just want you to — I just need you to forgive me."

There, as simple as that. It was out. And his fledglings were silent for the longest time, until he felt he was on the verge of just getting up and leaving, going back to the orphanage, burying himself under the cool stones, deep in the earth.

This was what he needed, but it certainly wasn't what they needed to hear from him. Yet he could not take it back.

"Lestat," David said. "I cannot believe that you are saying this to us."

He hunched his shoulders, bracing himself for rejection, tried to find some cold remark that would hide his vulnerability.

"I can," Louis said and Lestat did not know what to make of that, but then Louis went on, "Do you really feel that you have to ask?"

"If I didn't, I wouldn't do it," he said from between clenched teeth. "If you can't, just say so."

"Of course we can," David said. "Do you really imagine that we would care for you and stay with you all this time only to turn on you now?" There was real hurt in David's voice and Lestat looked up, meeting his eyes.

"No," he said finally, softly. "I don't. I just — need to hear it."

"We do forgive you," David said firmly. "And you've always known that we would." David seemed to be assuming that Lestat was still his old self. And Louis had said nothing. Lestat wasn't certain just how much he could rely on David's 'we'. Or did it mean — were they really— "Now, I really think you should come and hunt with me. We have all night to talk later if it should be necessary."

David finally let go of Louis' hand and rose from the couch, stretching a little. Accepting it as inevitable, Lestat also stood up, and put the chair back to its accustomed place. Very well; he would go with David, he would go hunt. At least there would be a later.

* * *

Once they were down in the courtyard, David turned to Lestat again and smiled. "It is so very good to see you again," he said. "I'd begun to worry."

Then he caught himself up. Lestat might not want to hear about just how worried David had been. There was something about Lestat that was different now; he looked, for the first time since David had met him, fragile. David did not quite know what he could or could not say to his maker.

But Lestat responded to his words by turning and catching him in a hard embrace. "You worried about me?" The words were muffled against David's shoulder but he had no problem making them out. "You worried — oh, David. I've really screwed up this time, haven't I?" Then even more faintly, "I don't know why you still care about me."

He put an arm around Lestat and with his other hand tried to loosen Lestat's frantic grip just a little. If anything, this was making him more worried. It was so unlike Lestat. David realized that in some corner of his mind he had always assumed that when Lestat finally got out of the cellar he would be miraculously restored to his old self again. It was being brought home to him now that this had been a very unreasonable expectation.

"But I do care," was all he could find to way at first. "And really, things are not so terrible. Nothing that cannot be repaired."

The body in his arms stiffened, and Lestat looked up at him with something close to outrage on his face. "How can you say that! With Armand gone—"

"No!" David was stunned. Neither he nor Louis had thought to tell Lestat that Armand lived! Perhaps that would have helped, would have speeded his recovery, would have relieved some of his guilt. "Lestat, Armand is not dead."

"Yes, he is," Lestat insisted. "I saw him, we both saw him burn, he did it on purpose, David."

David sighed and maneuvered Lestat over to the bench and made them both sit down. "You are partly right. He did do it on purpose. But he is not dead. Jesse and Mael saved him. He's still alive and he will be fully recovered eventually." David hesitated for a while, then went on, "He did it to — shock you, Lestat. He wanted to see if you would really believe that he would do such a thing. I failed that test, too. I did not try to rescue him."

"And Jesse and Mael did?" There was an edge to Lestat's voice.

"They were in on it from the beginning," David said, feeling more and more uncomfortable. He did not want to go through all the details of what had been happening behind Lestat's back.

"How could he do such a thing!" There was pain and anger in Lestat's voice. "I thought he was dead, David! I really believed it." The voice dropped to a whisper. "I never realized until then quite how much I loved him. Love him. When I get hold of him I'm going to — to — I don't know, toss him into the sky and see if he lands on a star!"

Davud chuckled. This was better. "Yes, well, if you do that, you will have Daniel right next to you screaming blue murder."

"I'm sure." Lestat slumped forward, elbows on knees. "Daniel must hate me. And Armand. How the hell could he do that!"

David hid a smile at Lestat's almost instantaneous swings between guilt, joy and anger. "You will have a chance to make up with them later. Now, perhaps, we should go hunting as we said we would."

"Yeah." But Lestat didn't move. "David?"

"Yes?"

"I—" Pause. "I'm sorry I got you tangled up in all this."

"You didn't," David said, settling on a partial truth. "There is still something of the Talamasca in me. I would have involved myself anyway."

Lestat shook his head, not quite denying, not quite agreeing. "You were always there with me, David. You've done it more than once, tried to keep me in line. And I always hate it when you're doing it."

David sighed. "I know. I'm—"

Lestat gripped his hand. "No, I'm sorry, David. And — thank you." David felt amazed, and he certainly wasn't expecting more. But Lestat went on, "I owe you, David. I — won't get in your way."

"Now, don't be silly, Lestat," David said, feeling strangely like his old self again, as though he still refused to believe that Lestat was the older of them. "I won't lie to you. Caring for you was indeed a chore, and it made me tired. But I would do it again if it were necessary. I love you, you know that."

"Yes, but you love Louis more, don't you?"

David pondered the question for a moment. "I don't know. It's different, I believe. You I love because you are at once a hopeless brat and a constant source of intellectual stimulation. Louis, ah, he is ruthlessly gentle, more difficult to love sometimes I'd say, but then you know all about that." He shrugged. "Does it matter? No, I don't love Louis more than I love you. Just differently. And now, my dear friend and maker, shall we finally go hunt?"

"Not yet." Lestat sounded choked. He was still looking down and not meeting David's eyes. "What I am trying to say, if you would listen to me for once, and not pontificate, David, is that I'll go and leave you two alone if you want."

David had heard of people's jaws dropping but he had never expected it to happen to himself. He put a hand on Lestat's shoulder and pulled him into an upright position again, looked into his face.

"Go? But you just came back to us! Please, Lestat, you can't leave now."

"I'll just be in the way."

"In the way! Lestat, we have watched over you and wept over you and wanted nothing but to see you well again! And now you say you want to walk out, as soon as you've rejoined us! You can't do that to us. No, I take that back. You cannot do that to Louis, Lestat. He will be devastated. And where do you want to go, anyway? You just said that you did not want to be alone. I don't understand, Lestat, you are not being logical—"

"David, you're babbling."

"Well. Yes. But Lestat, I honestly do not understand. Why would you want to leave?" David felt so deeply troubled by this that he let himself branch into speculating on his worst fears. "Are you still — do you want to go look for — Dora?" He couldn't help the grimace of distaste that twisted his face as he mentioned her name. Anything but that, he prayed. He did not want to imagine how Louis would take that.

"No," Lestat muttered. "I don't think so. Not again." Lestat ran his hands across his short hair. "She'd probably ask me for another message from God. David..."

"What?"

A reluctant smile appeared on Lestat's face. "David, why is it that every mortal woman I get involved with turns into a religious fanatic?"

David opened his mouth although he had no idea what to say. Then he began to laugh. So did Lestat, and although there was pain in there, there was true humor too, release. And for the first time since Lestat had showed up at the house, David let himself begin to hope that everything would indeed be all right.

When they'd stopped laughing David said, "Stay here, then."

And Lestat nodded slowly. "All right. If you don't feel that I will be in your way."

"You keep saying that," David sighed. "How could you possibly be?"

"Well." Lestat looked away again, the laughter gone. "If you and Louis..."

"If I and Louis, what?" David asked patiently.

"If you want to be by yourselves..." Lestat muttered.

"We've already been by ourselves," David pointed out. "It's very, very good to have you back again, Lestat. I wish you'd believe that. We're not angry with you."

"No." Now an edge was creeping into Lestat's voice. "No, you've been able to comfort each other, haven't you?"

"Yes, of—" Then David finally heard what Lestat was saying. He didn't know what to say at first; he felt on the verge of bursting into laughter again, but that would really be the worst possible response. The best thing would probably be just to get it out in the open. "Lestat. Do you — are you saying that you think Louis and I are, are having a relationship, is that what you think?"

"Damn it," Lestat exploded, "you just told me you love him!"

"Yes," David agreed. "I also said I love you, and if we are having an affair, it's escaped my attention. I do love Louis, he is a very dear friend. That's all." David sighed and leaned back. "In fact, I—"

He broke off. He wasn't ready to tell Lestat about Marius, and hoped Lestat hadn't picked up on that discarded sentence. But Lestat, apparently, was still caught up in thoughts of David and Louis.

"So why were you sitting around holding hands?" Lestat might have meant it as a dramatic accusation, but it came out petulant, the question of a fretful child. After a moment he seemed to hear it himself and actually smiled.

"You did mention the word 'comfort' a while ago," David said.

"I suppose I did." After another moment Lestat bounded to his feet and held out a hand imperiously; when David took it he was tugged swiftly to his feet. "Well, come on, David! We are going out to hunt, are we not?"

"That was the plan," David agreed and let himself be pulled along out into the street. He did not feel any great need for blood, but the familiar sweet feeling came back to him. Hunter. He smiled.

"Oh, and David?" Lestat turned back a little, looking at him.

"Yes?"

"I love you, too."

Chapter twenty-four: Talk to me

"Want to give you tenderness, and my affection too,
If it's through clenched teeth, that's what you've driven me to.
I want us to be lovers
I want us to be friends
Want it like it's the living end." — Go-Betweens, 'The House That Jack Kerouac Built'

"Your hands are tired,
Your eyes are blue.
I'm keeping you right here.
Whatever I have is yours
And it's right here." — Go-Betweens, 'Right Here'

"I think the time has come for me to leave, Louis." David looked towards the door to make sure that they really were alone. He did not want to find Lestat eavesdropping on this particular conversation. "You don't need me around here any more."

The small, tired smile on Louis' face almost made him change his mind. But Louis said, "Of course you should go, David. Lestat is... well, better. And you have a life of your own that you need to get back to."

"My so-called life." David grinned and let himself fall bonelessly on the couch next to Louis. Lying there limply in the embrace of the soft cushions felt so good he considered never getting up. Of course, that had nothing to do with not wanting to deal with his relationship with Marius.

"Yes," Louis said sternly. "Go have fun somewhere."

"Somewhere else."

"Mm." Now Louis smiled too. "Of course, this has nothing to do with my wanting to get Lestat to myself."

Their eyes met with perfect understanding. Louis slid down and laid his head on David's shoulder.

"You know if he walks in now, all my hard work to persuade him we're not having an affair will have been for nothing."

Louis chuckled quietly. "Really!"

"I will leave," David said. "I just don't know where I'm going to go."

Louis pretended to ponder this. "Oh, there are lots of places. I hear Italy is lovely at this time of year."

"Louis!"

"No tickling!" Louis wriggled. "Well, it is."

"Yes. But," David sighed, "I am not certain that I'm ready to meet Marius just yet."

"No weaseling out now, David."

David lifted his head and, with an effort, looked down at Louis' face. "Gods and little fishes, you are persistent." Then he dropped back down. "I'm not trying to 'weasel out', Louis. It is merely that I need to consider things first, decide where I stand. I can't confront Marius until I know exactly what it is I want to say to him. Surely you can understand that."

"Yes." Louis' voice softened. "It makes perfect sense, David, and I'm sorry I tried to push you."

"I think I may need the occasional push, in this particular area."

"Get a cellular phone and I will call you every night to hear how you're doing."

"I trust that was a joke."

"Of course not. I'm the depressed and angst-ridden one. I don't have a sense of humor."

David smiled, thinking to himself that Louis being silly was probably one of his favorite things in the world. It made him feel strangely privileged that Louis would be like this around him, as though he'd been admitted to a charmed circle. Louis was polite to everyone, kind to everyone, but he was very reserved. David suspected that only Pandora, and Lestat, of course, had seen much of this side of Louis.

That he was one of this select group now made him feel better. He propped himself up against the headrest and pulled Louis closer. "You smell of apples."

"Well. A certain someone kept complaining I smelled of book dust all the time." Louis gave another little hiccup of laughter. "Lestat wears expensive shaving lotion. Very stylish. And so convenient not to have to shave before he puts it on."

David nodded, half-serious. "Shaving is something I really do not miss from my mortal life, you know that? I can't count how many hours I have spent scraping bristles from my face and cutting myself. Really too terribly dreary."

"No more cutting nails," Louis added. "Oh, David, do you know if Jesse really brushes her teeth or if she just says that?"

"She doesn't!"

"You know that she doesn't?"

"No, I mean... Does she really say that?"

"Yes."

David couldn't tell if Louis was joking or not. "I wonder what kind of toothpaste she... This is really silly, Louis."

"I know." And with that comment, the mood changed, and David felt a little guilty; he could tell Louis had turned serious now. "I just need a little silliness now and then. Things are solemn enough in this house."

"Louis, you know that if you want me to stay—"

"—you'll stay. David, don't take this the wrong way, but I actually don't want you to stay."

David nodded. "Yes, of course." He squeezed Louis closer for a moment, then sat up. "It is time, indeed. I'll gather my things together."

"Where will you go first?" Louis asked, sitting up as well and smoothing his mussed hair.

"I'm not certain." David let his fingers wander idly across the armrest. "I'll find a place I haven't been to, somewhere. Or perhaps..." A new idea came to him. "Louis, I believe I'll go back to London."

"That's a new departure for you," Louis teased gently.

"I haven't been to England since, well." David still could not find a good way to refer to it. "Since Lestat made me," he settled on finally although he did not like that phrase.

"It may be about time," Louis nodded. "Now go pack."

David rose and bowed. "Yes, master. Anything you say, master."

"Already practising for when you're going to see Marius again?"

Halfway across the room, David turned. "No, that was my Daniel imitation."

Louis fell back onto the couch again, laughing so hard he was holding his sides. "Do you do an Armand imitation, too?" he gasped out.

David shook his head. "I've stopped doing that, it sets off the fire alarm. But I can sit in a corner for ten years and pretend to be Pandora."

The cushion hit the door as he closed it behind him.

* * *

Lestat thought he was going to go insane. As soon as he'd thought it a dry, humorless laugh whispered through his mind. Been there, done that. But the way things were going, he might be in for a repeat performance.

He rose from the chair and began to pace the room, measuring the carpet with his strides. He couldn't stand it. They were back here, in their own house. Their home. And he was finally recovered enough to handle real life, or what was left of it. He thought he was. It felt as though he might be. Better, anyway.

Here they were, he and Louis, but somehow things were not at all back to the way they ought to be.

Lestat had thought the situation would improve when David left. Not that he had really urged David to leave or anything like that. No, he was far too grateful to David to even hint that David might be in the way. Still, when David had packed a suitcase and taken off for England, Lestat had allowed himself to hope that everything would settle down into the familiar routine he longed for.

It hadn't happened. If anything, David's departure had made things more awkward. They moved around each other in this house as politely as strangers in a hotel. No, closer than that, he corrected himself. Louis was so careful of him, paying great attention to his wishes. A nurse with a patient, that was a better simile.

And of course it was good that Louis was being so considerate. Just wonderful. Lestat picked up a porcelain vase and considered hurling it out the window. Then he looked at it, rubbed his thumb over the fine glaze, put it down again.

Louis cared for him. Cared as in, took care of. But they never, ever touched. It was as though their old intimacy had never existed. And now David was no longer with them to act as a bridge, the distance was even more noticeable. Lestat was getting to the point where he wanted to level mountains to express his frustration.

I never claimed to be a patient man. He eyed the vase again. It was beginning to be really painful now.

To see Louis every night, that sweet smile, the long lovely hands with their delicate yet strong fingers — a shiver of longing went through him and he tried to force his mind away from memories of long-ago caresses. But whenever he was in Louis' presence, he suffered.

Lestat strode to the window, pushed it open and leaned outside. Night air flowing in, enveloping him, that felt good. All the rich scents that assaulted him were familiar, hadn't changed that much really in all the long time that he had lived here. Except for the addition of car fumes, dusty and sharp at once.

It was driving him crazy, the way things were.

He knew what it had to be, of course. After everything he had done, it would be a miracle if Louis ever wanted to go back to the way they had been before.

Louis had kindly accepted Lestat's fumbling apology, had said that he understood the whole Memnoch episode, though Lestat knew it couldn't be true. He didn't understand it himself, so how could anyone else?

And Louis had agreed that Lestat could not have known what Armand's reaction would be, and had even acknowledged that Lestat might have been respecting Armand's wish to kill himself in any manner he wanted to. Though the quirk of Louis' eyebrows had spoken volumes at that point and Lestat realized, humbled, that Louis would never have been as foolish as that. Thinking back on it now he was surprised to realize that it might have been the first time he had ever taken anything Armand had said or done at face value.

Stupid.

Lestat shook his head; that was not the issue now; he would deal with it when he next saw Armand, whenever that would be. Still, the fact remained that he had put everyone he loved through agony. Including Louis. And simple forgiveness was one thing, but from that to putting the whole matter away and resuming their earlier relationship...

Perhaps Louis did not wish to risk being caught in the same situation for a third time. Twice now he had picked up the pieces after Lestat's bouts with insanity. And Lestat could not say that he wasn't terrified of it happening again, terrified of becoming that unbalanced again. It was his second worst fear right at this moment.

His worst fear was that Louis was going to leave him as soon as he was judged well enough.

So he clung to whatever weakness remained, despising himself for it. He'd claim to be afraid to go out alone, hoping that Louis would hunt with him, though Louis merely accompanied him, and kept a distance from the actual kill. He would pore over the Wynken books and mutter, secretly thrilled at those marvelous pictures, and at the same time as hot and bothered as any teenage boy with a stash of pornographic magazines at the excitement he felt on seeing the closeness the pictures expressed. People making love.

And there was one more thing. One more thing that Louis might not be able to forgive him.

Dora.

Just thinking about it made Lestat blush, and he was grateful for the cool air on his face. He could no longer quite tell what he had felt for her, how much of it had been real and how much had been the madness. Perhaps she had really been someone he could have loved even had he met her without the pressure of Memnoch's presence bearing down on his mind.

Or perhaps... he remembered the face David had made on hearing her name, and wondered whether David and Armand might not have a very different picture. The girl crusader. The insane gleam of joy in her eyes the last time he'd seen her.

What he had felt for her... Lestat tried to define it. She had given him, strangely, a sense of security. It was due to her belief, her acceptance, the way she'd so easily fit him into her world-view and gone on to encourage him in what he was going through. Her faith had made sense of his experiences, she'd given him structure, a framework to pin his encounters with Memnoch to. And he'd needed that, when he'd felt that his world was breaking apart at the edges.

Now, he could only be deeply grateful that he would never have to see her again.

But how to explain this to Louis, when he couldn't even ask if Louis was jealous... Lestat turned away from the window and leaned against the wall, considering this. It might not be jealousy at all. Perhaps Louis had simply given up on him, considering him a hopeless case.

Louis would do fine on his own, Lestat realized glumly. There was a strength in him now that was equal to the challenge of the centuries. On the other hand, the idea of someone as beautiful and charming as Louis spending eternity alone didn't seem likely. Louis would find someone, or someone would find him. It hadn't been David — at least not this time — but still—

Lestat felt himself spiralling deeper and deeper into depression. It made him feel edgier than ever; he could hardly bear to be close to Louis, fearing that he would lose control and simply leap at him, but on the other hand he did not dare let Louis get too far out of his sight, in case Louis should silently vanish. It was agony.

Drawing a deep breath, he crossed the room and pushed the door open. Time to go sit in the living room and act strange again.

* * *

It was over now, wasn't it? This was supposed to be the happy ending. Only it was more like a nightmare. Louis walked through the house, hearing his footsteps tap on the floor, hoping he'd never lose that habit of moving through the world like a human being. He did not want to turn into a silent ghost.

He knew that Lestat was in the living room, going through one of those damn books again. The Wynken books seemed to obsess him, yet if Louis tried to join him in reading, or asked anything about them, Lestat grew flustered and tried to change the subject, and closed the books and put them away. So, it wasn't an obsession that would be shared.

Not, Louis sighed to himself, that they were sharing anything else, either.

He'd been overjoyed when Lestat had showed up at the house, freed from the restraints Maharet had put on him. The two of them back to living in the house together — it had been a dream come true, his fondest wish fulfilled.

But they weren't living together, really. Not the way they once had been. They just happened to be in the same place at the same time. Apparently the Memnoch encounter had changed Lestat in some profound way. There was almost nothing to be seen now of his old playfulness, and there was no — Louis closed his eyes and swallowed hard — no tenderness in his manner. Just a tense and disturbing distance.

He would just have to learn to live with it. If Lestat did not want to go back to the way things had been, then so be it. Louis had done his best not to push Lestat, not to try to shove him into the kind of behavior he would have preferred, wanting Lestat to be perfectly free to choose whatever he wanted.

And whatever he wanted did not appear to be Louis.

It could be that what Lestat had gone through in his mind, in that cellar, had changed him deeply. Louis could understand that. It could be that what Lestat had gone through with Memnoch had turned him into a different person. Louis could certainly understand that, too. Whatever the truth was of what Lestat had experienced, it had certainly affected him.

Or perhaps, the sharp sting of another suspicion returned to haunt him, perhaps Lestat was still in love with Dora. And if that was so, there was nothing Louis could do, nothing anyone could do. And he might as well pack up his things and leave, because that meant things would never get any better.

He stopped outside the open door to the living room, seeing the warm lights; he guessed that Lestat was sitting by the desk off to the right, out of his line of vision. Lestat did not know yet that Louis was here.

Should he leave? Not just walk away from this room, but leave the house? Make a clean break of it, stop this charade. But he'd thought that before, and never been able to bring himself to do it. No, he clung on — pathetically, he told himself — hoping against hope that something would change, that Lestat only needed time. And every night it was the same.

But as long as Lestat wasn't fully recovered, Louis really did not feel that he could go. He did everything he could to help Lestat through what remained of his fears, even going with him when he went to hunt, something he was still so reluctant to do. Louis only drew the line at joining Lestat in the kill. If the bloodlust was on him and Lestat was close, he wouldn't be responsible for his actions any more, and the result would be highly embarrassing for them both.

He wouldn't leave tonight. But he'd have to leave soon. Louis swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. His strength was running out. He couldn't bear it much longer.

Stepping into the room, he saw that Lestat wasn't at the desk but curled up in one corner of the big couch, now reupholstered in khaki with mustard yellow accents. And yes, one of the Wynken books lay open on Lestat's knees, and Lestat was looking closely at the tiny, intricate pictures.

Louis stood still and just watched him for a while. In this light Lestat's eyes looked almost violet, and the gentle play of shadows softened his starkly handsome features, making him appear more otherworldly than ever, a creature out of a dream. The wide, sensual mouth was relaxed at first; then the lips tightened together momentarily and softened again, the response to something he was reading. Thick blond hair fell in waves, brushing against his shoulders.

Louis remembered too well the feel of that soft hair against his fingers, and then the hard smoothness of the throat underneath, a marble column. He blinked and had to look away.

Moving towards the left wall he pretended to peruse book titles, hardly seeing them. All he could think about was the man sitting in the room with him, the man who had once claimed to love him but who now hadn't even noticed his presence.

* * *

Lestat stared down at the delicate illustrations. The lion lying down with the lamb. How sweet. He'd heard the footsteps coming into the room, knew that Louis was there. But Louis didn't speak, didn't even say a word in greeting, just moved off to go look for something in a book shelf. It hadn't even been Lestat's presence that had brought him here, then.

This couldn't go on. He ached for the situation to change, but the only real change he could see happening was for Louis to consider his duty finished, pack up and leave as David had done, and Lestat couldn't bear the thought of that happening. He had sometimes suspected — hoped — that David was leaving to give them some privacy, though Louis had told him that David was suffering some personal unhappiness that needed to be dealt with.

Well, so did Lestat's unhappiness need to be dealt with! Though what he was going to do...

He lifted his head from the book finally to see Louis standing there, his back to the room, head tilted to one side. Slender throat perfectly exposed. Lestat made a small sound. No more, he couldn't bear it. He slammed the book he was holding shut.

The sound made Louis turn around, one eyebrow raised, an expression of concern on his face. "What is it?"

"I can't stand it," Lestat said out loud. "I just can't stand it."

He put the book aside and rose, unable to face Louis from a sitting position; he needed to be at least on equal footing with his fledgling. But despite being both taller and stronger, he felt at a disadvantage. Louis looked so cool, so collected. And he, well, he knew he had his eye back and his hair combed, but he still felt like that wild maniac who'd looked at him out of the bathroom mirror in the apartment in the Olympic Tower.

"What, the book?" Louis asked.

Lestat shook his head. "No, this. We can't go on like this, Louis."

For a moment he thought that Louis would make him explain what he meant, and wondered if he could actually do that, but then Louis just nodded, as if it was something he'd realized himself a long time ago. He probably had, Lestat thought. It could hardly have escaped Louis' attention.

"Very well," Louis said. "I'll go, then. I'll need a little time to pack my things."

Lestat let his head drop forward and stood staring down at his feet. It was done, then. This must be what Louis wanted. Louis must have planned for this moment, counted on it, to have taken it so calmly, so matter of fact. Lestat had hoped, desperately hoped for a protest, a question, anything. Even a blank statement that Lestat still wasn't fit to be left alone would have have postponed this terrible pain.

And yet, how could he blame Louis? Lestat sometimes felt like just a shell, the twisted remains of his former self. It wasn't strange if Louis had decided that this wasn't what he wanted. Louis deserved better.

But it hurt, it hurt so much that he could hardly breathe. The simple realization.

"You don't want me, then." He didn't realize at first that he'd said it out loud. Then he hunched his shoulders and turned away; only with his back to Louis, unable to see his face, could Lestat let the words slip free. "I understand," he said quickly. "After what I did, I hurt everyone, and that business with Dora... I'm sorry, Louis, I really am," his voice caught on a sob. "It was stupid of me to think we could go back again and be lovers as though nothing had happened — oof!"

Something slammed into him from behind and he found himself falling, and twisted around in the fall, to land on his back with a thud that jarred every bone in his body, only to have the breath driven out of him the next instant when another body landed on top of his. Green eyes flashed at him and the voice he loved more than any other on earth said, "Lestat, you idiot!" and then Louis was kissing him, and crying, and he wrapped his arms around Louis and knew that he was never, ever going to let go again.

"Love you," he murmured, speech muffled as he buried his face in the inviting hollow between Louis' neck and shoulder. "I love you so much, you know that, don't you, you must know that..."

"You never even tried to touch me..." Louis was tearing at his shirt, struggling with the buttons. Lestat heard the sound of cloth ripping. "I thought you didn't want me any more—"

He tangled his hands into silky black hair, dragged Louis' head down for a deep, hard kiss. "But I do, oh, I do, more than anything."

Lestat felt breathless. Louis. Louis in his arms again, and the rest of the world was just blotted out and didn't exist any more, had no sound or smell or taste, there was only this. Only Louis.

"Show me." The tip of a tongue flicking his earlobe. Hands caressing him. He licked at Louis' throat, tasted blood sweat, shivered. That insistent voice again. "Show me."

"Louis, we're on the floor in the living room."

"So?" A soft bite in his shoulder.

Lestat moaned. "Do that again."

"But we're on the floor in the living room." He was being teased.

He flipped them over — tried to. Louis fought back, they were wrestling, rolling around, all tangled up and more seams tearing and the coffee table went flying. Didn't matter.

Then suddenly Louis was lying quite still, looking up at him. And Lestat kissed his temple, and his cheek, and the corner of his mouth. "I'll show you," he said. "Oh, I'll show you." He couldn't stop his hands from closing hard around Louis' arms. "You're not leaving."

A sweet smile. "How can I leave when you're lying on top of me?"

Lestat grinned wolfishly. "If this is what it takes to get you to stay, I'll just have to keep on doing it."

"Yes, please," Louis said and kissed him again.

Epilogue: Eternal city

"It's the sun that burns
it's the wheel that turns
It's the way we sing that makes 'em dream
And to Christ: a cross
And to me: a chair

And to love: a god
And to fear: a flame
And to burn a love that has a name" — Live, 'Selling the Drama'

"If I had known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself." — Anon.

They stood together, holding hands, fingers loosely linked. The rumble of traffic was distant, muted, nearly drowned out by the sound of gently burbling water. There was no one else in the small piazza. Just the moon high above them.

Daniel was the first to move. He took a step forward, tugging Armand along. This place felt weirdly compelling. He looked around, studied the houses, all the different shutters heavy with street dust, and the pots of geraniums on the window sills, that looked as though they would fall on the next person passing below.

And he looked at the fountain, listened to the water.

"Rome," Armand said, the sound of his lover's voice clear as a bell where only silence had been before. "That is your idea of a quiet place?"

Daniel indicated the space they were in. "This is my idea of a quiet place."

Armand nodded slowly, admitting the truth of that. Daniel put an arm around him and pulled him close, studied his face intently. He was much better. His skin was a deep walnut brown now; it looked strange, very strange with his auburn hair, but at least he could move among people without raising undue attention.

It still hurt. Daniel could feel that. Sometimes, when Armand was tired and felt the pain more, it would leak through as clear as anything — then Daniel would try to alleviate it, the best way he knew how. He smiled.

Armand smiled back, sensing what way his thoughts were running. Then Armand looked up. "That is such a moon," he said. "A Gothic moon, a moon out of a horror movie." And it was, full and yellow, with wind-torn blue-grey clouds framing it, ragged ends whipping across the sky.

"Don't turn into a werewolf on me now," Daniel said.

"I don't think I'm really the badly hirsute type," Armand said.

Daniel stroked a thumb gently across Armand's chin, his smooth cheek. "No."

They leaned against each other. Cool moonlight, and uneven cobblestones under their feet. The house walls, leeched of ochre and umber, showed only a pale grey. There was something about this place, the gentle susurrus of the fountain. Daniel felt so at ease. Tensions he hadn't even been aware of were beginning to slip away.

Rome had always been one of his favorite cities. He remembered playing tag with Jesse and David in the ruins of Caracalla's baths. And bathing in the Fontana di Trevi. You had to love a city where you'd done something as silly as that.

"Were you here before?" Armand asked. "I mean, when you were..."

"When I was crazy," Daniel said deliberately. "You can say it, you know."

"Yes. Well." Armand looked down. "Perhaps I love you too much."

"No." Daniel shook his head. "Not too much."

A cat padded across the small piazza, jumped up on the broad marble edge of the fountain and bent its head to lap delicately at the water. Its tail swished from side to side, a quiet warning to them not to get any closer.

"I think I'd like to stay here for a while."

"I thought you hated Rome."

"No. Not with you."

"Good."

"Anyway, if you thought I hated Rome, why did you take me here?"

Daniel shrugged. "I don't really know. I just felt I had to go here. To this place." He looked around it and committed it to memory, every detail, the crumpled copy of the Corriere della Sera lying on the ground next to the left front wheel of the red Fiat Uno, the closed corner shop with the iron grille across the window.

Somewhere not too far away, someone was cooking a late dinner. He could smell hot olive oil.

"And does it feel better now that you have seen it?"

"It feels right." He smiled. "Then again, we're together. I think anything would feel right."

Armand planted a light, cool kiss in the hollow of his throat. "Good. Now, if you've finished studying this masterpiece of architecture..."

"Hey."

Armand grinned. "I'd like to go somewhere and dance."

"Dance?" Daniel couldn't keep the surprise from his voice. Armand grinned even wider.

"Dance. It's what I did in Rome, you know. Way back. I'd like to do it with you."

And Daniel finally understood that the only things from the past that had any weight were what they had experienced together. He felt free suddenly, light as a feather. The piazza wasn't important. The old sabbats weren't important. He tipped Armand's face up, kissed him eagerly. All that future to play in, the two of them, together.

"Let's go, then," he said.

* * *

Epithalamion: The wide world dreaming

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