1995, 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. Contains minor spoilers for The vampire Lestat, Queen of the damned and Tale of the body thief. 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.

The lilies and the roses

"...and change in a trice
the lilies and languors of virtue
For the raptures and roses of vice" — Swinburne

Part I: Lilies and languor: Gabrielle

The sky was overcast and showed not a single star, and a chill wind blew, tugging at their clothes as they walked up the uneven road. It was slow going even for powerful creatures such as they. They plodded along, one step at a time. One of them could have abandoned all pretense at simple humanity, swept the other up and risen into the air in flight. Gabrielle was grateful that Pandora did not even suggest this. She needed to do it the hard way, needed the time it took. It was more than just a place she was returning to.

Every step was familiar to her, and with every step she walked deeper into the past. Things had changed, of course, the trees, the way the fields were laid out, the depth of the ditch next to the road. But all in all, things looked surprisingly, achingly similar, and the line between present and past began to blur. Only faint traces of car tires in the road ruts, and the distant sweep or power lines cutting through the woods, betrayed the presence of the twentieth century.

Gabrielle walked on, staring down at her feet rather than up ahead. She did not need to see; she knew all the same when the road ended and they stood in the presence of the hulking ruin that had once been her home. There was no way to stop the shudder that ran down her spine.

Pandora took her hand comfortingly. "We're here now, honey." Between them, Gabrielle and Pandora spoke twenty-seven languages, but most often they conversed in the modern American idiom they found both amusing and refreshing. And it was only when they were startled or deeply moved that either of them would lapse into the tongues of their mortal life. "I didn't come all this way with you to watch you count the holes in your shoes."

"So don't look." Defiantly, Gabrielle lifted her head. Even in ruins it was as big as she remembered it, and as oppressive. It loomed over her, heavy with uncounted shadows.

"You'd think it would be a tourist attraction," Pandora went on idly. "Maintained by a preservation society, or cleaned and carpeted by a some company to be used as a conference center."

"Or bought by a rich American and shipped stone by numbered stone to Texas," Gabrielle filled in. "Don't I wish."

Someone had put chains around the iron gate at the entrance, probably to prevent children from getting in then falling into the dungeons and breaking their little necks. Gabrielle gave the chains an experimental tug, and turned to her companion.

"We can't put them back," Pandora said. "Do you want me to take you in?"

Reluctantly, Gabrielle nodded. Pandora put one arm around her waist, and they rose straight up into the air, their hair blowing out like banners, one dark, one light. The vertigo Gabrielle normally felt at this was almost completely suppressed by other emotions.

They landed on the top of a ruined tower, its roof torn away by some ferocious storm long ago. The floor was uneven, and several stones had worked loose from the grainy old mortar to drop down into the darkness below. The dark room smelled of dust turned to earth and of cold stone. Only a little light filtered down through the broken roof.

"My son lived here." She remembered coming up here to talk to him on rare occasions, seeing him sprawled sulkily across his bed, arms around the big smelly dogs he loved so much. He'd smelled too in those days, winter days with no baths. Such a physical creature, Lestat. Always posing, displaying himself to the best advantage even to his own mother, always in the middle of seducing the whole world with his defiant young male sexuality.

And how she'd envied him that, trapped in her bodice and her propriety, trapped behind the identity of wife.

"One of them," Pandora said, although she did not ask which one; she knew. "Weren't there more?"

"Oh, yes." Gabrielle shrugged dismissively. "Dead at birth, even the ones who grew up, but I was the only one who noticed."

How had she ever managed to have such dull children? Lestat had been the only one with any spark of life in him. From the beginning he had thought and acted differently. She had seen herself in him, and thrilled at the sight, and feared for him. So much had she loved him that she had never been able to show it. Gabrielle hadn't loved him because he was her son, but because of the way he was.

I lived through him, she realized, and it was a painful realization, now.

:Why?: Pandora's thoughts meshed so naturally with her own these days that she didn't feel surprised or offended at finding the other vampire in her mind. :Why didn't you live through yourself?:

:I couldn't do anything — I was married — trapped.:

:But—:

A sound below interrupted their silent conversation abruptly and made them both jump. Reaching out, Gabrielle felt the presence of a mortal female who stood right outside the castle, leaning against the gate. She raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Seems we have company."

Pandora nodded. "You want to leave? Come back later?"

Gabrielle went on scanning the mind she'd sensed. The woman was here because she needed to get away and think. Her thoughts, tinged with worry, revolved around a man and around marriage...

"C'mon." Gabrielle tugged at Pandora's arm and dragged the other immortal with her through room after ruined room, marvelling only a little that she still remembered the layout of the place so well, when she had spent so many years trying to forget everything about it.

Finally they reached a window on the far side, and Gabrielle jumped out of it, taking Pandora with her.

:This isn't Lovers' Leap,: Pandora thought at her, :will you stop trying to squeeze my lungs out of my mouth?:

Gabrielle chuckled briefly, but took her friend's hand as they landed and led her back towards the castle gate. Still in deepest shadow, invisible to mortal eyes, she watched the woman who stood there looking at the sky and nervously braiding and unbraiding part of her long hair.

Then Gabrielle stepped out, confident that Pandora would follow. "Bonsoir."

The woman jumped, then relaxed as she got a better look at them. Gabrielle could sense her relief when she saw that she was faced with two women. So, we're not rapists. Aren't there any female muggers?

"God, you scared me... I didn't think anyone but me would come up here at this time of night."

"We didn't think anyone else would be here, either. It looks like the set of a horror movie," Gabrielle said.

The woman nodded. "Yes. But it's lonely up here and it helps me think..." She blinked. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean—"

"Don't worry about it," Pandora said. "We didn't mean to disturb you."

"No, that's fine. I'm not doing anything important, just trying to figure out whether I should get married or not." The woman grinned. "Do you have any good advice?"

Pandora returned the smile. "I've never actually been married... my friend has, though."

"Yes," Gabrielle agreed, "I have." She smiled without humor. "Based on my own experiences, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."

All of it was coming back to her now. She had detested her life in the de Lioncourt castle so much that she had managed not to live it. At every available opportunity she had fled into her books, into herself, into the citadel she had built around her soul. Every day had been another fight not to give in, not to sink into this state of torpor that everyone around her seemed to think was life. She had struggled to retain her sense of self, of being something other than mother, wife, lady of the castle.

:All the parts you didn't want to play,: Pandora whispered.

:Yes! They wanted to reduce me to something dull and comprehensible. I could not let myself become weak.:

"Do you love him, your future husband?" Pandora asked the woman.

"Of course!" The woman looked surprised and a little offended.

"This is the age of the love-match, isn't it..." Pandora's voice trailed off, then she seemed to return to the present. "I'm sorry — what's your name?"

"Jeanne."

"Jeanne, I didn't mean to insult you. I just wondered, since you do seem to have doubts..." Pandora's smile, always charming, seemed to melt away the slight aggression in Jeanne's manner. Gabrielle was amazed. All too often, Pandora triggered insecurity and low-level hostility in other women, probably because of how beautiful and confident she was, but she nearly always managed to undo the damage if she noticed it.

"Yes." Jeanne sighed. "I do love him. But do I love him enough to surrender some of my independence to him?"

Gabrielle instinctively wanted to tell the woman not to do it. Independence was the most important thing in the world. She had had to be cold and remote to be even a little independent of the situation she had been in, but it had been worth it, hadn't it?

:But there are other ways,: Pandora said.

Gabrielle started a little at finding her friend in her mind again. :Not here,: she said bitterly. :In this closed little world.: Unchanging.

:This woman's world is different. There are new possibilities for her.: Pandora had a solemn look in her eyes.

"I think in part you have to," Pandora said. "You have to learn to think 'we' instead of 'I', to have that consideration always, and it might limit you. But if you don't, if you expect to be able to do things the same way as before, that will surely break the relationship apart."

"I thought you hadn't been married," Jeanne said tentatively.

"No. I lived with someone for a long time, though," Pandora said seriously. And Gabrielle paused to think — she'd had thirty years with her husband, Pandora had lived for two centuries with Marius, and more.

"Is that the same?" Jeanne asked. "Marriage seems somehow more final..."

Pandora shrugged. "It's all a question of choice, isn't it? Whether something is legally binding or not isn't as important as your own degree of commitment. We play so often by rules that were set by someone else, we seem not to realize that we can make our own game up as we go along, that we are free to do anything, anything, and this freedom brings about the responsibility of choice..."

"Isn't that terrible?" There was a tremor in Jeanne's voice.

Pandora smiled. "Yes, it is. And it is the most wonderful thing in the world. That is independence, Jeanne. Thinking for yourself. Deciding what your life will be."

The young woman took a deep breath. "What it will be... I'm afraid of change, you know. I think everyone is. I want my life and my self to be the same even though this has happened to me, this love that has changed everything."

Gabrielle shuddered with recognition. Afraid of change, yes. Even when life is wretched, it is a familiar wretchedness, a wretched familiarity, and one might be loath to exchange it for something unknown, even though it promises freedom and happiness.

And when life seems to be good, when it holds much of sweetness and comfort, then... oh, then it takes more courage than many have to turn it upside down and take a new path, follow the heart's strange logic.

"You can't," she said slowly, "have the past and the present both at the same time. And you can't have the present and the future at the same time. And although this sounds obvious when spoken this way, I assure you there are many who never realize, who think they can have it all... but the only constant is change, no?"

"Yes," Jeanne agreed. "And whether I choose to go to him or not, there will be change."

"You have a choice," Gabrielle said, wondering what her life would have been like had she had a choice... had she realized she'd had a choice. Why had her inner sullen rebellion never turned outward? She couldn't regret it now, the long, sometimes tragic, sometimes dreary chain of events that had led to her immortality and the way things were, but she could wonder at it. "So use it."

Jeanne fell silent and looked up at the skies, communing with herself. Gabrielle forbore to look at her mind, shutting herself courteously out of all knowledge of the mortal woman's most private thoughts. Seen thus, in the chill moonlight, Jeanne looked the perfect Botticelli angel, sexless, fearless. And strong. Mortals usually looked frail to Gabrielle, even big men with their pride and their muscles, yet there was something in this young woman that was different.

Turning her head, she saw that Pandora was watching not Jeanne, but her. :It isn't your old marriage she is making,: Pandora said gently. :It isn't your husband she goes to. Relationships can be... different...:

:I know that!:

:Your head knows it. But does your heart really believe it?:

Gabrielle looked up at the castle. Why had she wanted to come here? To revisit the past, to wallow in it, to feel every echo of her old pain?

It was so solid in her memory, this castle, a great lump of stone and misery that had weighed her down and choked all life out of her. But look now, there are cracks in the mortar and the roof has caved in and the stairs are disappearing stone by stone. A castle made of shadows, nothing more.

"Very well," Jeanne said, with sudden determination. She looked at the two women facing her; her eyes were almost black in the moonlight. "I'll do it."

Gabrielle suppressed a gasp, as though Jeanne's choice had been made by her, for her. "Fine," she said.

"I wish the two of you could come..." Jeanne looked almost beseechingly at them. "I know it's probably impossible."

"Well, when you've set a date—"

Jeanne interrupted her, smiling. "The date has been set for a long time. Why do you think I was so nervous? We are getting married in Athens in three days."

"Athens? That's interesting," Pandora said smoothly. "We are going there ourselves."

:We are?:

Pandora was only a whisper in her mind. :I was going to ask you if you'd like to... would you?:

:You came with me here, I'll go with you wherever...: Gabrielle drew back from their mental contact for the first time, suddenly shy.

"We may not be in time for the wedding itself, though," she said out loud.

"It will be at the embassy," Jeanne explained, "so there might not be room anyway. But the party! Oh, I would love to see you there. Here," she dug a piece of paper out of her pocket, "I'll write down the address and everything for you."

When Jeanne had left, walking down the same treacherous road, Gabrielle turned to look at Pandora. "Oh, so now we are going to a wedding."

"Only to the party." The merest hint of a smile touched Pandora's mouth.

"Have I ever told you that I hate weddings?"

Pandora looked up at the castle looming over them. "Do you want to go back inside?"

Gabrielle thought about it. "No." She was finished with this; the place itself was nothing but a heap of stone; she needed to deal with other things now. She sighed. "What should we wear?"


Part II: Raptures and roses: Pandora

Two years, Pandora thought, two years and she still hates to fly.

Oddly enough, it was Gabrielle's fear of flying that had increased Pandora's own tolerance for and even appreciation of her own talent, in much the same way as, in her mortal years, her cousin's horror of snakes had helped Pandora overcome her own lesser dread. She now took to the skies, if not with relish, then at least not with terror. Gabrielle's slim body in her arms was no burden at all.

Although her hair gets in my face even more than my own does. And Pandora felt the faint stiffness of body that was Gabrielle's way of hiding her tremors and coping with her fear.

They went southeast at a leisurely pace, towards northern Italy. There was no hurry. Pandora could have brought them to Athens in hours, but she had her own agenda, and a different destination in mind.

:Florence?:

:You did say you needed new clothes.:

Inner laughter, no true sound yet Pandora would have known it anywhere for Gabrielle's, the unique touch of her mind. :Ah, you take every chance to drag me into civilization.:

:I spent three months in Patagonia with you. Three months! No shops for miles, no hairdresser...:

:You liked it.:

An invisible smile, yet she knew Gabrielle would sense it. :Yes. I liked it. And you liked the weekend at the Algonquin—:

:I wasn't the one who kept eyeing the room service waiter—:

They dissolved into laughter together, and Pandora could feel Gabrielle relax a fraction, her fear momentarily forgotten. At moments like this, their relationship seemed strong enough to stand any and every test time might throw at it — perhaps even any test they themselves might devise. But she didn't know for sure how much of that was truth, and how much was wishful thinking.

:There is a place I would like to visit,: she said presently. :Marius' fattoria outside Siena, where I — stayed — before.: To say that she had lived there seemed something of an exaggeration.

:You want to talk to him?:

Pandora shrugged, and felt Gabrielle cling nervously tighter, afraid of being dropped. :Sorry. I just want to see how he and the young one are getting along.:

:It was kind of Marius to give David a home when Lestat and Louis took off on their own,: Gabrielle mused.

:I don't think kindness had much to do with it,: Pandora chuckled. :If I know my Marius, and believe me, I do, David Talbot is exactly what he cannot resist. Intelligent, cultured, handsome, young and old in one body, passionately interested in history...:

:A passionate interest in history could so easily turn into a passionate interest in Marius, seeing as he embodies quite a lot of it,: Gabrielle agreed. :So you think they're lovers?:

:Actually,: Pandora said slowly, :I know they are.:

Gabrielle's startlement washed through her mind. :You do? How?:

:Mekare told me.: Pandora remembered it very clearly. That communication with Mekare had been far from the gentle yet precise mind-to-mind conversation she'd enjoyed with Louis and perfected with Gabrielle. The Queen of the Damned had dropped into her mind with all the subtle accuracy of a stone dropping into a pond, filled her with images and feelings, then disappeared. It had taken Pandora the better part of the night to recover. :I got the impression that she felt it was something I should know. It was hard to tell, though.:

:I see.: Did Gabrielle sound the tiniest bit hurt that she had not been told before? :And how do you feel about it?:

:I'm hardly raging with jealousy.: Pandora wasn't really sure how she felt. She and Marius had released each other, had agreed to friendship and nothing more, and she expected him to go his own way when it came to future relationships, just as she herself intended to do. Still, it might be — she searched for words — tricky, that was it, tricky to see him with his new lover. :But more embarrassing for him, probably,: she concluded.

:Probably,: Gabrielle agreed dryly. :Are we going there now?:

:Yes.:

Silence fell between them for the rest of the trip, as each kept her mind to herself and the night flew by in a glimmer of stars. Finally Pandora let them drift down towards the earth, and they set their feet down on a narrow unpaved road at the foot of a low hill. Before them was an unmowed meadow sloping up, and beyond that, the untidy row of cypresses that led to the gardens and to Marius' home.

In the distance, a dog barked. They were surrounded by the lush Tuscan countryside, hill after rolling hill of vineyards and curving fields, crossed by the uneven grid of dusty roads surrounded by borders of wild flowers. At their back was a dark wood where the tangled undergrowth hid wild boars as well as timid rabbits.

"It's much warmer here," Gabrielle said, unbuttoning her short jacket.

"Come on." Pandora jumped over the ditch and began to stride across the meadow, deliberately putting her feet down hard, savoring the sweet smells that rose as herbs and wild grass were crushed under her feet. Gabrielle caught up with her at the rusty old iron gate, and they opened it together and walked into the garden.

Fireflies danced in the dark, and Pandora was reminded of one long-ago night when she had sat motionless here and heard Marius and Mael sing ancient songs in ancient tongues, and the fireflies had swirled around them like tiny fireworks.

"It's very silent," Gabrielle said. "I don't feel anyone."

Pandora reached out with her mind towards the silent, dark house. She could feel nothing, either, but that was hardly conclusive evidence. She did not believe that David Talbot could be able to shield himself from her, no matter how powerful he was; he was just too new to it, and she had always been strong. But Marius was a different matter. Pandora couldn't sense him, and she was certain he could hide from Gabrielle should he want to.

"Let's go in," she said. "If someone doesn't want us here, now's their time to say so."

But they remained undisturbed by thought or presence as they crossed the gravel path, walked up the stair and pushed the door open.

At first they walked around quietly, shyly, but then they began to search and even call out, as though a vampire wouldn't have sensed them the moment they landed beyond the meadow. There were no traces of recent occupancy in the house. "Of course," Gabrielle said, "we don't leave much behind as a rule."

"No. But Marius is fussy about dusting." Pandora sank down into a chair in the living room. "Perhaps they decided to take a vacation."

Gabrielle curled up on the couch with the boneless grace of a cat. "Mm. We'll find them some other time. Do we stay here?"

"Yes, why not..." Looking idly around the room, Pandora found her eye caught by something on the mantlepiece. "What on earth..."

Gabrielle looked that way. "Someone's sent Marius a Christmas card."

"Can you imagine anyone doing that?" Pandora was up again, and crossed the room with vigorous strides. "And in September, too... Look, it's a Tom of Finland beefcake Santa."

"A what?"

Pandora smiled. "You didn't stay long enough in San Francisco, Gab." She turned the card over. "Well, well."

By now Gabrielle was on her feet and reading over Pandora's shoulder. "'I think you'd be more comfortable with one of these. I'm leaving.' And signed, what else, 'David'." Gabrielle flipped the card over again and studied it. "Do you really think this is what Marius would go for?"

"Not unless the beefcake has a degree in philosophy." Pandora smiled fleetingly. "I guess he's tried to play it casual and it didn't work."

"Isn't that how he normally does it?" Gabrielle asked.

Pandora shook her head. "Don't let those sensible manners fool you. Marius can be very passionate and very impulsive. I think that's why he keeps such a tight rein on himself. And I suppose that after his experiences with me and the redheaded choirboy, he was through with falling for people like a ton of bricks."

"But it does take time," Gabrielle said. "To trust, to — love—" She cleared her throat. "I think David should've given it another chance, before leaving."

"We don't know how many chances he did give it," Pandora pointed out. "And it's true that it takes time, yet sooner or later you reach a point where you have to speak, have to take the relationship seriously or not at all. What if you find out you're deeply in love with someone who considers you only an amusing pastime?"

Gabrielle turned away towards the window. "Do you think that's what Marius feels for David?"

"I don't know, but it would be sad if it were so."

"I suppose so," Gabrielle said listlessly. Then she drifted slowly from the room.

They didn't talk more for the rest of that night. Pandora spent her time going through some of her old stuff that was neatly stacked away in boxes, marveling at the things Marius had saved for her — out of love? — before succumbing to her daytime sleep.

* * *

The next night they went to Florence as soon as Gabrielle had wakened. Pandora bought herself a red suit, the skirt short and tight, the jacket neatly tailored to cling to her curves and show off her narrow waist. Gabrielle settled for a simple grey dress, very plain, and then added a provocative little black hat with a lace veil that turned her into a thirties vamp.

"I hope this is appropriate," she sighed.

"If not, at least we'll give them something to look at," Pandora smiled.

They both spent a fortune on Ferragamo shoes, then loaded themselves down with finely worked gold chains from the shops on the Ponte Vecchio. The rest of the night they drifted in and out of churches and museums, high-fashion ghosts carrying glossy bags from expensive shops. Gabrielle fell into a trance in front of the Fra Angelico annunciation and had to be dragged away by Pandora when dawn was imminent.

After spending the day in an expensive hotel near the Piazza della Repubblica, they woke and gathered their things together in a leisurely manner, and drifted down over Italy and across the sea as lazily as any luxury cruise passengers. Pandora threatened Gabrielle with dire punishment if she dropped any of the shopping bags. They arrived in Athens just after midnight and checked into a hotel near the Sintagma square.

"Sleeping in the ground is both easier and cheaper," Gabrielle commented. "I knew I had a reason for not wearing fancy dresses."

"Stack the shoe boxes over there, then we'll go hunting."

* * *

Pandora woke first on the next night, and lay silent for a while, studying Gabrielle's profile in sleep. Cold and lovely, precise, remote. When Gabrielle's eyelids began to flutter, Pandora rose and headed for the bathroom. She showered and washed her hair, and used scented body lotions she didn't need, just for fun. Blowing her hair dry, she struggled to comb it, then began to put it up in an elaborate braided knot.

Gabrielle banged on the door. "The party will be over by the time you get out of there!"

Reaching out with her mind, Pandora flung the door wide open. "Don't be shy, just step right in."

Gabrielle dropped her robe on the floor in a puddle of red silk and disappeared into the shower, the ghost of a moving statue behind steamed-up glass walls. The mirror began to cloud over again and Pandora left to put her makeup on in the room outside.

Once dressed and ready, they went out into the street and had no trouble finding a cab. Gabrielle handed over the note with the adress Jeanne had given her, and they were rapidly driven through the confused, noisy jumble of streets that were the center of Athens, and out towards more restful suburbs, finally coming to a halt at an imposing gate in a forbidding wall.

At first they had some trouble getting in, as they had no invitation cards, but then Jeanne came running to greet them, holding her long white dress up with both hands and laughing like a child. "You're here!" she said and embraced them impulsively. "I'm so glad — please, come in—"

They crossed a large garden and entered a house that was filled to bursting with people, food, music — both traditional Greek and modern rock — drink, flowers, lights and the blending of a hundred expensive perfumes. Jeanne introduced them to her husband of that afternoon, Stavros, and to thirty of his relatives and twelve of her own, as well as about a hundred assorted friends. Pandora began to feel dizzy.

Jeanne, noticing, pulled her and Gabrielle into a quieter corner and smiled warmly at them.

"Congratulations," Gabrielle said, and though that was all, yet she sounded deeply sincere. Pandora was a little surprised, but more pleased.

"It's a bit much, I know," Jeanne tossed her head at the wild party. "I was afraid it would take over my life, not just Stavros but all of it..."

"And will it?" Gabrielle asked.

"No." Jeanne's eyes roamed the room until she saw Stavros over by the other wall; then her face melted into a look of undisguised love, fearless passion. "My life has just gotten larger, that's all."

Then she was snatched away by a passing aunt, and Pandora and Gabrielle were on their own.

"Mortals," Gabrielle whispered to herself. "They do everything so quickly — they fall in love, they marry, they have children..."

"And then they die." Pandora looked at the room full of men and women, full of life, full of joy. "They have no choice; they must do things quickly or not at all. And we who have forever, we grow slow and hesitant and unwilling to trust, until it is too late even for us."

"'Then love is lost, and a fountain empties itself into the grass...'" Gabrielle quoted softly.

"David is young enough still to feel the pace of mortal life beating through him," Pandora said. "And I hope it takes him a good long time to lose that. Marius and he do not think on the same time scale, no, not at all..."

"And have you lost that?" Gabrielle asked in a whisper. "Are you caught in the cautiousness of time?" She laughed a little, and wound her hair about her finger, a nervous gesture utterly uncharacteristic of her. "Would you dare take another chance, girlfriend?"

"Let's go outside," Pandora said, and led the way to a french window standing partly open. They stepped out into the garden and walked across a carefully watered and cut lawn, its green richness foreign to the dry, hot climate. Once they were away from the house, Pandora turned to Gabrielle again, and chose her words carefully. "You say another chance as if it were more of the same. I don't believe relationships are repetitions. Each one is new, is different. This is what we forget when the heart hardens. And I — I want—"

"I want you," Gabrielle said simply. "And if you can't deal with that, we'll have to split up right now."

Pandora burst out laughing. "Oh," she gasped. "Of all the—" Then she saw the uncertainly in Gabrielle's face, and how she stood poised for flight. Reaching out, she caught Gabrielle's hands in her own. "I've been worrying forever about what to say to you. I wasn't going to be that blunt about it, though."

"You never are." A ghost of a smile passed across Gabrielle's face as she stepped closer, as her hands travelled up along Pandora's arms. Closer still and they were holding each other in a gentle embrace. Gabrielle was slightly taller.

"No," Pandora whispered, "but no matter how I say it, it's still true." She lifted a hand and traced Gabrielle's face with her fingertips. Gabrielle was so young, still so soft... her lips had the gentleness almost of a mortal woman's... and then she had to feel them, taste them, and the first light kiss turned into a deeper and more intense one, and they fell into each other in silent shivering passion.

Suddenly there was a burst of louder noise and they broke apart, startled. The party was spilling out of the house and onto the lawn. As one, they turned and made for a more distant part of the garden, beyond rows of neatly planted trees and bushes.

Here a small brook trickled its way through, entering and leaving by grates in the surrounding wall, and a few old olive trees had been left to stand witness to the landscape that had been here before real estate agents and gardeners had had their way with the land.

Pandora and Gabrielle sank to the ground together, heedless of dirt and grass stains, crushing their elegant clothes. Pandora took the chic black hat and flung it into the brook, then released Gabrielle's hair to fall about her shoulders, pale as moonlight, thick as cream.

"You are so beautiful," Gabrielle said, her hand tracing Pandora's spine. "So lovely..."

:I love you.: Pandora caressed the sloping shoulders, the high curve of the breasts, the slim waist and hips that made it almost impossible to think that this woman had borne seven children. Gabrielle sighed in her mind, shared her pleasure to feed Pandora's own.

:I can... feel it. Vows must be made with the heart, to matter. I love you. You're not just an amusing pastime to me, Pan.:

And she tilted her head back and offered her exposed throat.

A column of ivory... Biblical similes fell through Pandora's mind and scattered like leaves in a storm of longing. She was all want, all desire as she brushed her lips along the silky skin and then sank her teeth into the other woman's throat.

And in a rush of blood, thick sweetness with a tang of iron, she was adrift on Gabrielle's soul. What she sensed was not so much Gabrielle's life as her emotions, her stubborn independence, her wish to be free... and the love she felt now, her conviction that this was different...

Pandora slowly lifted her arm and touched Gabrielle's face lightly as a fluttering moth, then pressed her wrist against Gabrielle's lips, begging her wordlessly. Those soft lips parted and then Gabrielle sank her fangs into Pandora's veins. Together they were a spiral reaching up and up and up, unable to tell light from dark or themselves from each other, or to know anything that wasn't love.

* * *

Much later, two women in dusty rags of clothing leaped impossibly over a high garden wall and danced away into the distance, their hair flying free like banners, traces of blood still on their lips, two mad maenads drunk on joy. And the shadows about them were only those of the night as they raced, laughing, into a future of their own.

* * *

The last gift

the vampire chronicles || e‑mail