by torch, 1995; revised in 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 spoilers for Interview with the vampire, 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.

Chapter one

Voices in the background.

"She's doing it again."

"I like it, it's beautiful." That was the dark-haired one speaking, Louis. And she knew he could hear the pain in it and find it lovely.

"I think it's disturbing!" Displeasure in that voice, stern disapproval. But the voices were too faint and unimportant to really reach her now. She went on playing, just one note after the other but all of them connected, the same theme repeating over and over then changing slowly, subtly, into something else.

Pandora kept on playing. She was lost in the sounds she was making. The piano was perfectly tuned. Beautiful, yes. And this was hers alone, she was creating it, the music. This was something she understood. It was close to her.

If she did not think about it, she could just barely remember that once it had frightened her that she could play music without ever having learned. But that had been a long time ago, when older instruments had intrigued her. She had a sudden memory of playing reed instruments, a long series of them, finally giving up on the bagpipes, deciding they were just too undignified. Now, many of her other powers disturbed her, but this did not. It seemed simple, it was expressive, and what she played came from herself finally and not from some ancient horror in her blood.

Don't. Don't think about it. Just play this lovely music that goes on and on and on. Forget what you are, who you are. Forget that sunrise is waiting, that Marius will come and lead you so lovingly down into the cellar room where the coffin is waiting and lay you there and put the lid on the horrible box with his own hands, carefully—

The playing broke off suddenly. Pandora's box, she thought, it is Pandora's box and when it is opened, all the evils of the world come out.

She began to laugh softly to herself. It was too terrible, this. She was evil, and who was Pandora?

She was still laughing when Marius came.

* * *

The scent on her skin was light and spicy, very pleasant. Marius had dabbed it on her carefully, and brushed her hair with long gentle strokes. Then he had put new clothes on her, but not the soft clinging feminine garments he usually chose for her; no, this time he'd given her tight black jeans with metal studs along the side seams, and a tightly laced leather vest, and heavy boots with steel toecaps. She wondered who had put him up to it. She thought she looked ridiculous.

He had painted her skin and his own with pigment-dyed oil, the way he'd learned from Khayman, and taken her out to hunt. And now here she was getting out of Armand's speedboat in the last hours of the night, and she had drunk someone's blood again, but it meant nothing. Nothing to her. Perhaps it meant something to Marius, she didn't know. He was looking at her now as if he expected something to happen.

She checked that the boat was made fast properly, since Marius was just standing there. Armand should get another one, she thought, everyone was using this, he could hardly get near it himself because all the other vampires went joyriding in his boat.

"Pandora," Marius said. "Pandora, speak to me, please." With an immense effort, she turned her head to look at him. Oh, he was so handsome. He had been unbearably exotic to her at one time, and she had wanted him more than anything. Now he was familiar as her own face. She watched his lovely straight eyebrows pull together in a frown, then separate again. He had two small creases there, between them. She had envied him those at one time. Her own face was so frighteningly unlined! She had been very young when she was made. Imagine that, her having been young once.

Pandora turned away and walked towards the entrance to this strange coven house she was now living in. There was a long silence, then Marius followed her, deliberately making a noise as he walked so that she would know he was there. As if she would forget. But how could she forget when he was always there?

Back inside, she drifted through the rooms, watching. So much here that she did not understand. The uncomplicated drunken joy of Daniel, the innocence and purity that was Khayman. Louis. She liked Louis, liked his haunted, earnest eyes, his achingly sad beauty. And Gabrielle, look, there was Gabrielle. Pandora did not like Gabrielle. Such a cold blonde creature, absolutely self-sufficient and never doubting herself, deliberately isolating herself from others.

Now why did that make Pandora want to cry? Something about the very idea of being cut off from others by choice made her want to cry. Best not to think about it. She went to the piano.

As she began to play, she coud feel someone try to touch her mind, read it. It was Lestat, being passionate and troublesome as usual. She let him do it. It was less of a bother that way and anyway, it did not matter to her. No, nothing mattered to her now, and what he wanted to do with her memories was his business. And when Marius came and tried to speak to her again she forgot to answer. When he took her from the piano and led her down and down, she began to cry.

* * *

On the screen in front of her, Micha Bergese smiled a wolf's smile, and the lovely young girl was seduced. Armand was next to her, and this was the third time in a row that they were watching The company of wolves, or so she thought. And now he was reading out loud to her, reading the short story of Angela Carter, the words blending perfectly with the moving pictures. It was kind of him. But why was he doing it?

Then a movement caught her eye and she saw Daniel, Daniel's violet eyes wide with fascination. So, the performance was not for her. But she let herself sink into it until the credits began to roll once more.

Pandora half expected Armand to rewind and start the movie playing all over again. But not this time. He rose from his seat next to her on the leather couch, and pulled Daniel to his feet, and they walked over to the window, talking softly. Pandora stayed where she was, tracing small patterns on the leather with one finger. So smooth, worn over the years to this perfection. She imagined Armand sitting here every night for years. But no: he had stillness, but not of that kind.

"It was beautiful," Daniel said. "But then I always liked it."

"Yes, but did you see beneath the surface? Was this not the Savage Garden Lestat describes? But it was envisioned and fashioned by mortals! The meaning of this, the depth!"

"Meaning." Daniel shook his head. "It's a work of art. The meaning is in the beauty."

"But I must know—"

Daniel kissed Armand, trying to silence him. Armand grew annoyed and pushed Daniel away. Pandora sat, letting their incomprehensible emotions wash over her since they did not bother to hide them, until Marius came in. He turned his eyes towards Armand. "Did it work?"

"No," Armand snapped, "it did not."

"Thank you for trying," Marius said with impeccable courtesy. Pandora heard the soft stifled sound of Daniel's giggle. She wondered what it was he found funny now.

"And what of your little plan, did that work?" Armand asked.

Marius nodded. "Yes. Now all we have to do is wait for Lestat to return."

"Oh, all right. And no doubt he will do the exact opposite of what we hope. After all, he usually does. I will see," Armand said, "if Khayman will play chess with me."

He went out of the room. Daniel and Marius looked at each other uneasily. Finally Marius offered in a tentative voice, "I never understood him, either."

Daniel burst out laughing. "Oh, how you reassure me!" And he left the room, too.

Pandora reached out with her mind and turned off the flickering screen. Daniel had been right, it had been a work of art, this movie. And brought to her by such complex means. Technology made her nervous. It wasn't that she didn't understand it. She did, and found it marvelously clever. But the very cleverness and complexity of it created such a remoteness. Even in this beautiful performance, made permanent by a camera, there had been a distance. Sitting in a real theater, seeing a performance, she felt connected, knowing that what she saw and heard was happening now and now only.

When performances could be recorded this way, were they still as real every time?

She shivered. There was a difference. There was a distance somewhere. She didn't know what it meant. She didn't know what anything meant!

And when she thought too long about these things an icy void opened within her and she felt she would fall into it and be lost forever, trapped the way Marius had been trapped in the ice.

Pandora rose from the couch. She went past Marius who was standing there talking, he was always talking, and went to sit by the piano and feel nothing but the music again. And later she sensed things happening in the house, the fuss of Lestat leaving to follow someone — Louis? — but did not bother to investigate it. It wasn't important.

* * *

Khayman sat down in front of her, and set up the chessboard carefully. Pandora looked up in some surprise, to see his large eyes on her face, his mouth gently smiling. He pushed the board slightly towards her. She had been given white and that meant she should begin. Pandora reached out and moved a pawn almost at random.

It was a lovely chess set. The wood gleamed. The little figures were so cunningly carved that she could have watched them for hours. So intricate.

"But he took the book with him," Armand said behind her.

"Of course," Gabrielle said coldly. "What did you expect?"

"Not common sense, certainly."

"Don't put all the blame on Lestat," Marius said, moving to forestall a quarrel as usual. "Many of us have given him the information he wanted. We are all equally responsible if he does publish an account of what has passed."

"If he does!" Armand sighed. "There is no 'if' about it. He wants to be seen. We are not enough for him. Only the world is a big enough mirror for Lestat."

"He should have been in advertising," Daniel said with a soft laugh. Gabrielle, surprisingly, laughed with him. Pandora had never heard the woman laugh before and it was a shockingly sweet, even girlish sound. "I think you're right."

"But he cannot be always breaking the rules," Marius said, not sounding as if he believed it at all.

Khayman had made a tricky move. Pandora considered the board. It was not immediately obvious that either of them was winning or losing. She knew Khayman was a far better player than she. It occurred to her that perhaps he was being kind to her.

If that was so, how sweet of him to take the trouble. Imagine, being kind to her. But pointless; could she explain to him how pointless it was?

And suddenly she lost interest in the game. Little carved pieces of wood moving over a board in a certain pattern. Why? Why the pattern, the deliberate pattern, this piece can move so but not so, forward but not backward.

We can no one of us move backwards, she thought. We are trapped in time, being rushed forward ceaselessly towards the end of it all, but what if there is no end? Will we go on hurtling through the centuries forever, powerless to stop it? I am immortal, I cannot die. And they are immortal. And they are talking about rules, rules as silly and arbitrary as those of chess. It doesn't matter! None of it matters! We will just go on and on, and the lid of Pandora's box will open every night and death will come out, and that's all there is to it. All there ever will be.

She began to cry, slow blood tears rolling down her face and dripping onto the white silk skirt, ruining it. Slowly, she seized the chess pieces one by one with her mind, and crushed them into fragments. One by one. And she could not stop crying.

"Marius." It was Khayman's worried voice, from a distance. "I'm sorry, Marius, it didn't work. She is hurt, she is in pain."

And Pandora wondered why Khayman was sorry, why he would care about her, why he would care about anything at all.

"I need to take her away from here," Marius was saying. "I'll make arrangements at once."

"I rather liked that chess set," Armand remarked lightly.

And Marius snapped, "Damn you, do you have to say things like that!"

So he had liked it. Pandora was sorry. So sorry that she seized the board itself, and flung it out through the closed window, hearing the glass shatter.

"It doesn't matter," she said, and not having spoken for so long, she couldn't tell if her voice was too loud or too low. "It doesn't matter!"

And then she simply did not move any more.

Chapter two

"I almost can't believe he did that."

Marius was stalking up and down the gravel path that led from the garden door to the fountain, talking. Mael was with him. Fireflies danced around the two figures. She watched the small dots of green and gold as they swirled in and out of the dense dark hedges of the formal garden, and then away down the hill. Their flight was random. No pattern. They made a mockery of this garden, so carefully laid out, trying to mean something.

Pandora smelled the air, warm and rich with the scents of night. If she had never opened her eyes again she would still have known where Marius had taken her. Italy. Tuscany. He had bought an old fattoria just outside a small village, restored it lovingly and not too much.

Many rich people were buying houses here now. Foreigners were settling down all over the lovely rolling hills, nothing strange about two more. No, one more. No one had ever set eyes on Pandora. Marius tried to take her out, to make her move. He talked endlessly to her, trying to tempt her: a walk in the vineyards, a trip to the pinacoteca in Siena, a stroll along the shore of Lake Trasimeno, would she like that? But the lake was old and polluted now, and she had seen all the paintings, and it was too much trouble finally to move. She let him talk. She drifted.

He still dressed her in new clothes every day.

"Believe it," Marius said. "He lost his body. He got it back. And he made a new vampire!"

"Extraordinary," Mael said thoughtfully. "He has made more fledglings in two hundred years than I have made in two thousand. He does have a certain capacity for—"

"Flamboyance," Marius said.

"Love," Mael went on, undisturbed. "I do not love easily or well. Ask Jesse. But I can recognize those who do. It takes courage to have such an open heart."

"It is a challenge, nothing more. And David Talbot of all people! He is Talamasca, Mael!"

"Not now. Now he is one of us. And perhaps he grew tired of the Talamasca. Even a priest may grow tired of the church he serves, finally."

"You should know," Marius said. "But we have to do something about this."

The shadows under the tall cypresses were a deep blue. Tiny bats flitted around the dim streetlight farther down the hill, on the road to the village. And above, the whole of heaven arched infinitely, studded with stars. Pandora looked up, but did not cry. She rarely cried any more.

Mael stood with one booted foot on the edge of the fountain. He bent forward and trailed his fingers in the water.

"I do not see that you can do anything," he said in his slow measured way. "Lestat cannot be harmed, you know that. As for the fledgling, he can't help having been made, can he? All he did was accept immortality when it was offered to him, as we all did. None of us can really blame him for that. Would you seek him out and try to destroy him? I do not know if it can be done. He was made with all the new strength Lestat was given by Akasha. And if you try it—"

"If I try it," Marius said, "Lestat and I become eternal enemies. And I do not want that." He sighed deeply. "He is angry with me now, for not helping him."

"That will pass."

"Ah, you think you can predict him!"

Mael looked up from the fountain. He smiled. "Everything passes with Lestat, doesn't it? Let's hunt together, Marius. Then I will leave."

Marius turned to look towards the house, towards Pandora. "I hate to leave her alone."

"Come."

They walked slowly through the garden and out by the gate, then disappeared with preternatural speed.

Pandora remained where she was, watching owls swoop low among the trees, hearing the dogs bark down the hill, one setting off the next, at some passing late-night wanderer. Sometimes a car would pass, going fast on the narrow winding road, and she would sense the driver's mind touch hers like the touch of the night breeze. She did not move.

Marius and Mael returned near dawn. She saw how their blond hair gleamed among the black shadows of the garden, heard them singing softly together, an old chant in a language she had never bothered to learn. Marius took her by the hand and made her rise, and she followed him docilely.

"You are determined on this?" Mael asked as they walked into the house.

"Only to talk to him," Marius said. "I need to find out what is going on, and it's no use talking to Lestat."

"Not about this, certainly."

* * *

Mael stayed at the fattoria while Marius was away. Pandora rarely saw him. Sometimes he would take her out to the fountain, and bring her back inside just before dawn. Most of the time she just sat in her favorite chair in the long low living room that faced the garden. She amused herself by opening and closing her mind, listening to the din of the world then shutting it away again.

Sometimes she sensed Mael's thoughts quite clearly. He was worried about Jesse, about Jesse not being as happy as he wanted her to be, about Jesse acting a little strangely. He hoped that while he was away, Jesse would tell Maharet what was wrong.

Pandora did not care about any of this. She drifted. It was so much easier not to care about anything.

When Marius returned, he was in a strange new mood. She saw it in the way he moved, the way he would suddenly smile and then cease to smile, in his hasty confused gestures. He brought her into the garden, and spoke with Mael by the fountain again.

"Did you see him?" Mael asked.

Marius nodded. "Yes, without alerting either Lestat or Louis."

"And?"

"He is very well-spoken. Very articulate. Even when he says he does not know something, he expresses himself beautifully."

"This I could have told you myself." There was something of a laugh in Mael's voice. "But what did you speak of together? Did you tell him that you had considered destroying him?"

"Your sense of humor is atrocious," Marius said. "I merely wanted to find out some things about him, what kind of a vampire he will make." There was something almost dreamy in his voice.

"But what did he say?"

Pandora did not like the canvas chair Marius had seated her in. She thought herself down on the ground next to it, and was there. The speed of it no longer bothered her. It was like dreaming, it was all a dream.

"We just talked," Marius said.

Mael began to laugh."You go away because there are things that you must find out, then you come back, and can tell me nothing. Was he so charming?"

"Go back to Rangoon, Mael. Go back to Maharet and Jesse."

And Mael did go away, laughing still, though Pandora could not tell where he went. She observed the change in Marius, but did not reflect on it.

* * *

"We cannot leave now. Mael isn't back. And I have neglected the records of the Family for a long time," Maharet said.

"But I would really like to see this ballet," Jesse said.

Maharet smiled at her with great gentleness and affection. "There will be more, Jesse. There will always be more. In time you will learn how to choose and discard."

Then Maharet walked out of the room. Jesse sat down on a chair and looked at the door where Maharet had disappeared. Then she turned her head and saw the telephone. Her memory presented her with a phone number, then another. She considered the clock on the wall and made a swift calculation. It was near the end of her night; darkness was falling on the other side of the world.

Jesse picked up the receiver and dialled. After several rings, she got a sleepy "Hello."

"Daniel? It's Jesse. Is Armand there? Don't say anything, then. Just listen to me."

* * *

Daniel laughed silently as he put the phone down. "Who was that?" Armand asked from the next room.

"Insurance salesman," Daniel lied cheerfully. "I really don't think I need any life insurance." He pushed the connecting door shut, then picked the phone up again, and dialled. "David, how clever of you to answer. I need to talk to you."

"I really don't think I need to be talked to, or talked at, any more," David said frostily. "I have had enough of that."

"Yes, exactly," Daniel said. "Listen to me just a little. Jesse didn't want to call herself."

"Jesse wants to talk to me?"

"We both do."

* * *

"Marius! Marius!" The peace of the night shattered into a thousand fragments. Lestat stood by the fountain in the garden, vibrating with rage. "Marius!"

"I may be old, but I am not deaf."

Marius opened the door from the living room out into the garden, and beckoned for Lestat to enter. Pandora sensed him coming nearer, sending out angry pulses with every step.

He flung himself into the room and stood at its center. There was frost on his clothes from the flight. "Marius, what is the meaning of this! David has left me!"

"Lestat, you are making a puddle on my carpet. Why do you think I know everything? Is David really gone?"

"Oh no, he just slipped out for a packet of cigarettes!" Lestat raged. "You said something to him, I know you did. And now he's gone! Are you hiding him here? Have you harmed him? If you have, I swear I'll—"

"Lestat, please. No, I do not have David locked away in the attic." Marius came up and put his hands on the other immortal's arms. "I spoke to David recently to find out what manner of vampire he had become. I was worried because of his Talamasca past. But I did not threaten him in any way."

Lestat appeared to grow a little calmer. He smoothed his long hair away from his face and for the first time, looked down and saw the moisture that was dripping off him. "Well, good."

"Why don't you ask Louis where David has gone?" Marius asked gently.

The rage blazed up again. "Louis refuses to tell me! He just declines, in the politest way you can imagine, to say anything, and sits there reading a damn book!"

"Then if Louis is so calm, surely no harm has come to David."

"That is not the point!"

Deep inside the house, the doorbell rang. Pandora reached out a little with her mind, and pushed the front door open for a familiar presence. Within seconds Armand entered the room, immaculately dressed in a grey suit, with anguish in his eyes.

"Daniel has left me," he announced dramatically.

"Well, tough luck," Lestat said.

"What happened?" Marius asked.

"He's gone off somewhere with David and Jesse." Armand held out a note.

"What!" Lestat tore the note right out of Armand's hand. "I don't believe it."

Pandora watched the three of them as they stood arguing. They made a lovely group by the whitewashed wall, with only the light of a single candle to cast dramatic shadows. Armand's eyes were enormous. She could see the spiky shadows of Lestat's eyelashes fall across his cheekbones. So very beautiful, all of them, and the sound of their voices was sweet to her. What they said was not so important.

"Perhaps it's not so strange after all," Marius said. "They do have something in common, you know."

His hands moved as he spoke, long and white, flying like doves in graceful gestures.

"What do you mean, they have something in common! David was a cultured British gentleman, Daniel was a hopeless young lush! They have nothing in common!"

"A hopeless young lush, now that sounds familiar," Armand murmured. "Though I admit you have improved, Lestat."

"They do, though," Marius went on in his deep, no-nonsense voice. Pandora just loved that voice. He could make you believe just about anything. "They have something in common with each other and with Jesse, don't forget Jesse. And I'm grateful that Maharet at least has more sense than you two. At least she isn't here having hysterics in my living room."

"Cut the insults and get to the point," Lestat growled.

"They were made almost at the same time," Marius said simply. "No matter how different their experiences as mortals, they are children of the same century, the same culture."

"Big deal."

"Well, just look at me and Mael," Marius said. "We do not, superficially, have much in common. But we knew the same times. David, Daniel and Jesse need to deal with vampire life on their own terms, discuss it with others who have the same cultural and spiritual references. They need each other now."

"But I need Daniel," Armand whispered softly. "I need him more than anything."

Deep inside, Pandora laughed, soundlessly. The blood tears glinting in Armand's eyes were so beautiful! That was how she remembered him really, in one exquisite attitude of pain after another as she had watched him secretly down the centuries.

"Have you ever told him that?" Marius asked.

"Of course not," Lestat said instantly. "You don't really think Armand would actually tell someone something without brooding on it for a couple of centuries first."

Pandora smelled the incense that permeated the air in this room. It gave her such a sense of continuity. It was always the same. She could close her eyes and open them again and it would be the same night or a year later; the smell would never tell her the difference.

But Lestat's voice kept something of her attention in the present. Everything seemed to matter so to him: talking, thinking, moving. Doing things. She couldn't understand it. He was completely alien to her.

"I didn't come here to talk to you," Armand said.

"And I didn't come here to talk to you. Who cares about their cultural references? I want David to come back!"

"Maybe that isn't for you to decide, Lestat," Marius said. "And you've still got Louis for company."

"Oh, Louis. He won't talk to me, I told you. I'm going to find David somehow. He certainly doesn't need the company of Armand's boring fledgling."

"If you just sit back and wait, he'll come—"

"If I just sit back and wait, eventually I'll be just like her!" Lestat gestured at the seated Pandora. She looked at him, but felt no urge to acknowledge him. "Marius, what is it with you and the living statues! First Akasha and Enkil, now this. Do you think you can win prizes for her at the harvest fair, or what?"

"Why don't you try playing the violin for her," Armand suggested maliciously.

Lestat ignored him. "Just stick her in the cellar and forget about her!"

"Lestat, I love her." Marius' face was calm but he was really beginning to be upset.

"She's a vegetable, Marius, get real!"

Marius turned his back on Lestat for a moment. The small candle flame flickered and nearly went out, then rose steadily once more.

"Tell me something. If this had happened to Louis, if he became silent and withdrawn like this, would you just put him in the cellar like an old trunk and go merrily on your way?"

Pandora saw Armand's eyes narrow in anticipation. And she thought she knew why, and she thought she knew what the answer would be. They were so much alike, these two, in some ways. If they hurt, they would cause equal pain in others, no matter what the cost.

"Yes," Lestat replied, "yes, I would!"

And Armand nodded with some inner satisfaction.

Chapter three

She felt the pain even before the first timid knock could be heard. Such pain, it soaked through her half-closed mind in a great blue-black wave. Pandora surfaced slightly, became aware of her surroundings. The garden, the house. And Marius was not here, and someone was knocking on the door in a charmingly mortal and ordinary way, but it was no charmingly ordinary mortal standing there. She knew this mind, so delicate and precise, and now so full of suffering.

Pandora opened the door the way she had opened it for Armand. Then she merely sat and waited.

Eventually, he found his way through the house and out into the garden. He stopped just outside the doors, on the topmost of the wide shallow stone steps. The face that still showed his feelings was dazed, confused.

Louis wore black. He felt like an open wound.

Seeing only her, he walked out into the garden slowly, fearlessly, and sat down at her feet and looked up at her face.

"You probably heard it all," he whispered. "If you hear anything at all. Do you hear words, or only sounds, Pandora? Do we mean anything to you any more?"

He was actually shaking with pain. It kept slipping past her defences and into her mind. Oh, how he hurt.

"I have to know if he really said that. If he meant it. But you can't know that, can you? And perhaps Marius won't tell me either. But I need to know." He was whispering to himself more than to her, reminding himself of the purpose he had. And again, Pandora trembled on the brink of his mind, and slipped inside where the same simple narrative was repeated obsessively, in a quest for understanding.

Louis loved Lestat so much. He had really believed it would be different this time. That they were back together again, as the saying went, and everything was forgiven, all the old hurts. That it meant something, it was real, it was special. The two of them in that old apartment again.

The sudden appearance of David had been something of a shock. But not a wholly negative shock. David wasn't difficult to get along with. They had interests in common. And if accepting David as a third member of the household was what Louis had to do in order to live with Lestat, then he would do it.

He hadn't blamed David for wanting to spend some time away from Lestat, either. Lestat could be overpowering, and David did not like to be overpowered. For David and Daniel and Jesse to be together for a while would probably be good for all of them. And with David away, he and Lestat could be on their own again.

Pandora was so caught up in Louis' pain that she felt it as her own as she followed the next part of his little story. Lestat had not accepted that David had gone. He had tried to bully Louis into betraying David's whereabouts. He had stormed off in a rage to see Marius.

And Lestat had not returned. Instead, several nights later, Armand had come past the flat in Rue Royal, and with the deceptively kind phrase 'there is something I think you should know' he had shattered Louis' illusion that what he and Lestat shared was in any way special.

"If he will put me in a cellar and forget about me if I come to bore him," Louis said softly, "I may as well remove myself now and spare him the trouble."

He was crying now, dark tears rolling down his face. His pain was so keen and so real. And so different from hers. She could not bear the way he refused to harden his soul, the deliberate way he wore his suffering like a badge of honor. Pandora reached out and touched his wet cheek, stroked his forehead. She put her arms around him, pulled him into her embrace. He was soft and sweet and yielding, and now she understood his fearlessness: he felt that nothing worse could happen to him.

"My poor darling," she said into his soft black hair. "Oh, my poor child."

"I thought that nothing mattered!" he sobbed into her lap. "I thought for so long that I would live in this void of meaninglessness, and slice through the world like a sharp knife, and not be known — really known — by anyone."

"I know," she whispered. And she did. This emptiness was something she understood. "To be known only as death, as random and cruel as any other accident."

"Yes, exactly." Through the tears he shaped the words with such exquisite care. It was important to him that the words should be right. "But then he came back. And my feelings were alive again. And, and," he lost the ability to speak clearly again.

Pandora held him and rocked him. She knew what had happened. "And you gave him everything," she said. "This time you held nothing back. And now you have nothing of your own to fall back on, except the pain."

"You heard it said, then," he said. "Armand didn't make it up. And to Lestat I am nothing more than a toy, to be put aside when it no longer amuses."

It took a long time for him to stop crying. Slowly, he straightened up and looked at her. Pandora looked back, only now becoming aware of the moment. She was in the middle of time again. For once, she felt an urge to talk. For the first time in years she had something to say to someone. She wanted to keep on talking to Louis.

"What will you do now?" she asked.

He shrugged, such an achingly mortal gesture. "Go somewhere. Be there when I get there. I don't know."

"But not destroy yourself," she said half questioningly. "You could, you know. It is possible for you as it is not for so many others."

Louis looked into her eyes. "No, that is not my way," he said. "Would you do it?"

"I have survived so much," she whispered. "I am frightened of trying." And she felt herself trembling on the brink again, but now she was about to fall back into her own mind again, back into the comforting timelessness, no thought, no memory.

Louis put a hand on her arm and spoke softly. "Come with me," he said. "No one else will create our lives anew for us. I need to remember how to be whole again, and so do you."

He looked at her softly, almost beseechingly, silent as if he felt he had said too much. But she felt a strength in him that had to be respected, although it was far removed from anything she had understood before. Patience, endurance, the ability to accept and go on.

Pandora nodded. She did not wish to be Marius' living statue any more. And though she knew it would hurt him that he had not been the one to wake her, that it would hurt him to find her gone, still she sensed that Louis was right.

"Yes," she said. "We will go together."

She rose from her seat. How simple it was suddenly, to move of her own free will.

"I have a car outside," Louis said. "Unless you would rather..."

She shuddered. "No. Oh, no." The car would be fine. Anything would be fine, rather than flying. Rising, she smoothed out her clothes and looked at them thoughtfully. "Do you mind if I step inside and change first?"

"Not at all," he said courteously. "Do you know when Marius will be back?"

She stopped. "No." Thinking carefully about it, she added, "I do not even know when he left."

Louis smiled a little, and gestured for her to precede him into the house.

It wasn't hard for her to find the rooms where Marius kept all the clothes he bought for her. He did buy them and not steal them. That was a quirk she had always found endearing in the past, the way he paid for things.

There was so much, and she wasn't certain what she was looking for. But then she found the outfit he had devised for her on the Night Island years ago. Leather vest, boots... look, there were leather pants as well, and a studded jacket. It was so utterly different from anything she had ever worn before that she could almost believe herself another creature and not Pandora at all. Not the same Pandora.

And so she did not stop to think of what she as doing, but dressed herself quickly and went down to Louis again. He was standing in the living room, looking down on the carpet. It had stains now where Lestat had dripped on it, dirty water and blood sweat. What a shame, Marius would be so sad, he loved that carpet.

She saw herself in a smoky mirror as she would see a stranger, a tall woman with masses of dark brown hair spilling down over her black leather clothes. Such a pale stranger this was, with her wide fearful eyes. And then another appeared next to her, also pale and in black, and his clear green eyes stared into hers in the mirror. It seemed he understood something of her, her inner self, something that was hidden so well that even she had forgotten.

This one, so young and so hurt, was nevertheless stronger than she was!

Pandora felt a slight shock. She was old and hard and powerful. But her soul had for the longest time lost the will to survive. This one, whose body she could easily have crushed, this one who ached so much that it set up an echo in her, he knew he would live.

And she knew she had to follow him. This was something they could share: not only the pain, but finding out what came after the pain. This was what she so desperately needed to know.

Without speaking, without even touching minds, they left the room together and stepped out of the old building. Pandora carefully shut and bolted the door behind them. She did not want Marius to think that she had been careless in leaving his home.

The car outside was an old, battered Volvo, a station wagon. Pandora looked at it and almost smiled. It was so utterly unglamorous, just like Louis' worn and shapeless old clothes, something no one would notice.

"Do you want to drive?" Louis asked her.

"I can't," she said.

"I'll teach you. It's easy. Get in."

And as she fumbled with the ignition key and swore in koiné over the intricacies of shifting gears, Pandora forgot to think about the pressure of time and future, and was only concerned with the here and now.

* * *

"This is a great place," Jesse said.

The brickwork vaults were genuine and old, she had seen that at one. She reached out a hand and touched them, smiled to herself in pleasure that a place like this was still in daily use, not shut away from people by some preservation society.

Daniel caught the edge of that thought and said, "There are privately owned houses on this island where the cellars are even older than this place, and people store their skis and old clothes in them."

Jesse laughed. That was wonderful; she could picture it, the old medieval vaults stuffed with old teddy bears in paper bags, and snowboards in bright neon colors. This island was the Old Town of Stockholm, a place of narrow winding streets and fascinating little shops and cafés. They were in one such café now, and Daniel had bought them all mugs of hot chocolate which he said was the correct thing to drink here, not that they would drink it.

All around them were young people, artsy students dressed in black, proper private-school girls with immaculate lipstick and the poise of models, young would-be poets scribbling furiously in notebooks, hoping someone would ask them a question about their deathless verse.

Jesse was absolutely delighted, and said so. "You could even hunt in some of these deep alcoves," she said. "No one would notice."

"I used to come here a lot, before," Daniel said. "When I was in Stockholm I'd end up here over a cup of coffee, or this hot chocolate, and I'd just sit here and watch the kids. And I'd see some of them reading my book, well, Louis' book really, and later Lestat's book."

"And you would wonder," David said, "what they'd do if they knew it was all true, what they'd do if they knew who you were and that there was a vampire following you."

"Yes," Daniel confirmed, "I would. You have felt the same way."

"Not quite the way you did. After all, I was not the only one of the Talamasca to know vampires were real. But I was the only one to have one for a friend." David's face darkened a little.

Jesse reached out and put her hand on his arm. "We have all been caught up in something," she said.

"Swept off our feet. Yes. At least I was."

"That happens with Lestat, doesn't it?" Daniel's voice nearly always had that teasing note to it. But he was gentle, friendly. Not for him the little sharp pinpricks of comments that Armand specialized in. "Perhaps it was different for me because I chose it."

"Either way, I'm so glad you both came," she said. "I hope you had no trouble leaving."

"I just got up and left," Daniel said. "Well, I wrote a little note, but I didn't say where I was going."

"And do you think Armand will resume his old habit of chasing you all around the globe?" Jesse asked.

Daniel shrugged. "I honestly don't know," he said. "I have absolutely no idea what he will do."

David put his elbows on the table and leaned his chin in his hands. The soft mop of hair fell forward over his forehead; he looked so sweetly young, it was difficult to remember he was the oldest of them in human years, if not as a vampire. Jesse thought back to the old David, the Talamasca David. It seemed to her that he was less serious now, less concerned with having to do things in a certain way, less concerned with order and propriety.

Well, that was good.

"Louis knows I have gone to be with you," he said. "But he has promised not to say anything. I do hope..."

"What?" Daniel asked when David fell silent.

"That Lestat will turn his attention back to Louis again. Lestat tends to forget that relationships aren't made to endure through anything, like diamonds; he forgets that they need to be maintained like the living things they are, like flower gardens, that only then can they grow."

"You could tell that to Armand, too, while you're at it," Daniel murmured into his mug of hot chocolate, which he was carefully sniffing at.

David smiled, a gentle, sad smile. "Well, Jesse, now we are all here," he said. "Will you open the meeting?"

Chapter four

"Jesse the chairperson," Daniel said with a smile. "Or should we call you madam chairwoman?"

"Or I could just slam you through that wall," Jesse suggested.

"Oh no," Daniel said. "You used to be an archaeologist, Jesse, you'd never damage such a beautiful old wall. Not to mention such a beautiful young vampire."

"Keep it up with the smart remarks and find out." Jesse stared down into her hot chocolate, watching the light froth. She felt very comfortable in this small café, and very comfortable with Daniel and David. That confirmed her suspicions. She had been right to do this.

"Jesse?" David motioned for her to speak. She nodded.

"I think you've both felt something of what I have," she began, "or you wouldn't be here. We're the youngest members of the vampire community, and frankly, I think we should be allowed to play a little."

David lifted an eyebrow at her. "Play? Jesse, what are you getting at?"

She looked at him, then at Daniel. "The truth is, I feel lost in Maharet's world. The immensity of it. I love her, and all her knowledge, I'm not saying I don't. But I'm young, I want to do things for the first time, have fun, not always have someone with the perspective of millennia looking over my shoulder."

"I see," Daniel said with an air of spurious brilliance, clearly trying to mime a lightbulb over his head. "Maharet doesn't let you play. But what of Mael?"

"Oh, I love Mael," Jesse said instantly, and felt a deep inner surge at the thought of how much. "Don't doubt that. But Mael's even worse than Maharet in a way, because he's so terribly protective of me, which is ridiculous, really. There's very little that can harm me."

Daniel smiled. "I certainly wouldn't try."

"I felt I needed to get away," Jesse resumed. "And I thought you two might understand, that you might be going through the same thing. This being caught up in something, having to adjust to someone else's world. Do you feel it, too?"

"Yes!" David and Daniel said simultaneously. They laughed, and David politely gestured for Daniel to speak first. And Daniel's violet eyes clouded over and became serious for the first time since the three of them had met there.

"It's really bad sometimes," he said quietly. "Sometimes I have trouble remembering who I am, that I have a separate existence. That's why I jumped at the chance to get away, to be myself. And not be watched all the time."

"You mean Armand is with you constantly," Jesse guessed.

"Yes. No. Oh, that wouldn't be so bad," Daniel smiled a little. "But I'm not sure who it is that he's with constantly, if that makes sense."

"No," Jesse said.

"It's not me he is with, really." Daniel gestured with one hand to emphasize. "A lot of the time I feel like the object of a field study. Armand just keeps looking for meaning, for patterns. He says he will know this age through me. It's as if he wants the Grand Unified Field Theory of Everything and he thinks it's encoded in my brain waves."

Jesse laughed abruptly, then sobered. "That sounds horrible. But I've always thought Armand really cares for you, I mean that's what it has looked like to me..."

Daniel sighed. "I don't know. He says he loves me, but I'm starting to wonder. Above all, I'm wondering if I'm really a person to him or just a riddle he thinks he can solve. Daniel, the mystery of the twentieth century, now appearing in a vampire coven near you. I want him to love me for myself!"

"Yes, of course," David said, and put an arm around Daniel's shoulders comfortingly. There were tears in Daniel's beautiful eyes.

"And what if he decides someone else would make a better companion for the next century?" Daniel went on. "The information in my brain waves may grow obsolete, you never know."

"Oh no," Jesse said, responding to the feeling, not the flippant words. "No, surely not."

"Well," Daniel shrugged, "hopefully while I'm gone he'll decide whether he really misses me or if a newspaper subscription might not provide the same service at a lower cost."

Jesse grinned. "Do you always try to make people laugh?"

"Yes," Daniel said. "Well, people. Have you any idea how difficult it is to make Armand laugh? But I keep on trying." He turned to the brown-haired vampire next to him. "What about you, David, are you comfortable with the life you're leading at the moment? Sorry, un-life."

"I feel much the same as Jesse does," David said. "Not that I have her youthful vim and vigor."

"You do now," Daniel pointed out.

"Yes, you're right, and perhaps that's it. I want to see things for myself! I've been given a new life, full of grand possibilities, but Lestat wants to fit me into his old one, just like that. And that isn't going to work."

"You live with Lestat and Louis," Jesse thought out loud, trying to imagine it.

"Yes." A frown passed across David's handsome face. "And it isn't working at all, this business of me and Louis."

"Are you having trouble with Louis?" Jesse asked incredulously.

"No, no," David said hastily. "Possibly the other way around, though. I mean, I would feel a lot more comfortable if Lestat paid less attention to me and more to Louis, and I rather imagine Louis feels the same way."

Daniel was nodding thoughtfully. "That makes sense," he said. "Not that you aren't a delightful person, David, but I know that if Armand had made another fledgling without even telling me first I'd be—" he gave a helpless little shrug, "—insanely jealous."

"Mm." David twisted a strand of hair around his finger. "And because there were some objections to my being made, Lestat feels he must flaunt my existence in the face of the vampiric world. Sometimes I feel like just an object, too, this year's model, as it were. A remarkable sensation for an old man such as myself. Marius even came to inspect me in person."

Daniel grinned. "How flattering."

"Well, he was quite polite to me, really." David looked down. "He was different from how I imagined him."

Jesse looked up to see some people enter with a purposeful air. A short dark man with angelic blue eyes, a woman with waist-length brown hair rather like Pandora's, a slight, freckled girl whose sudden smile showed fangs.

Jesse almost jumped.

Then she heard Daniel laugh. "Plastic," he said softly. "They're only playing."

Scanning them, she easily saw that he was right. These were only mortals playing at being vampires; as she watched, a few others joined the three first. And they had no idea that they were only steps away from the real thing.

"At least they haven't made us into a board game," she said.

"How did you like Marius, then?" Daniel asked David, returning to the earlier thread of the conversation.

David looked slightly embarrassed. "Well, being interrogated about an organisation you have just left is hardly an ideal way to meet someone."

"Ah." Daniel looked as if he had gleaned quite a lot from David's short reply, Jesse thought. She cocked her head to one side and looked enquiringly at him, but he only grinned.

"So," she said, "would you be interested in playing with me, gentlemen?"

They returned their attention to her.

"Probably," Daniel said. "What did you have in mind?"

Jesse smiled. "Anything. Everything. But for a start, I'd like for all of us to show each other a favorite place and something to do in it. Is that all right with you?"

They both nodded.

"Who gets to begin?" David asked. "Do we draw lots?"

"Too boring," Daniel said. "You asked, you get to start."

"Very well. But perhaps we should hunt first."

Jesse nodded. She had no great need for blood, and she didn't think David did, either, but Daniel was a different matter. How polite of David to suggest hunting before Daniel's hunger became too apparent. David was always such a gentleman.

They rose, leaving the table with three untouched mugs of hot chocolate — now very cold chocolate — and going towards the door.

Jesse, who was last, suddenly couldn't resist. She looked at the blue-eyed man, and smiled. Then she widened her smile a little more, knowing he could see her fangs.

He blinked, no doubt thinking her part of the game. Then before she could reach out for him, he came towards her.

Jesse seized him and drew him gently into the darkest corner. She bent her head and bit into his neck. And felt pure delight radiate from him. He was thrilled, and utterly fearless! This was what he had always been hoping for! It was the strangest feeling.

She only took a little blood, then released him. He was muttering something in Swedish that had the general feel of 'I don't believe it.' Jesse touched his mind and blurred the memory, but did not erase it, or the sense of wonder he felt. His friends would probably think him mad, even when he showed them the marks, but what the hell. She could play at being a vampire, too.

And perhaps Lestat did have a point — it did feel good to break the rules.

Jesse laughed softly to herself as she followed her new companions out into the night.

* * *

As soon as he entered the garden again, Marius saw that Pandora was gone.

At first, the hope rose in him that she might have decided to move, that she was waiting for him inside the house, alive and vibrant with passion again as she had once been. He let himself dream of it briefly, the true Pandora returned to him, and felt happiness and unease in quick succession.

But a brief search that turned into a longer search showed him that it wasn't so. She had simply disappeared.

And he had no way of knowing if she had left the fattoria, or gone into the earth.

Marius sat down heavily on a chair in his living room, head in his hands. For a moment he felt, absurdly, that she had left because she had felt the change in him, had suspected that he was tempted to abandon her and had taken the choice off his hands. Then he shook his head. She was his child; she could not have sensed his feelings, assuming that she had even been conscious enough to notice any kind of difference in him. And anyway, he never would have acted on those feelings.

If only Lestat had not said what he had about putting her in the cellar! Because the truth was, horrible as it sounded, that was exactly what Marius for a brief moment had been tempted to do, to be free of her.

He loved Pandora. He would probably always love Pandora, even if she sat without speaking until the end of the world. And he wouldn't abandon her. But he had been tempted.

Because Marius was in love.

He laughed to himself, or tried to. It was absurd, the whole thing was absurd, and he would just as well put it out of his mind. What he needed to do was to find out what had happened to Pandora! If she had gone into the earth, he would never find her. If she had merely awakened and gone out to hunt, she would hopefully be back.

All he could do was wait. But what if she never returned? If she wasn't back by dawn, Marius decided, he would have to contact someone else, someone who could search telepathically for her. He needed to know where she was and find out if she was all right.

At least she had moved. He ought to be happy. But as he reached out for a book and began to flip through its pages unseeingly, Marius knew that he wasn't happy at all. If Pandora was awake and aware, she needed his love and companionship. And that meant he would have absolutely no chance of trying to get close to David.

"You are a fool," he said to himself. "An ancient fool." No fool like an old one, his mind whispered.

* * *

It was near dawn when Lestat returned home. He walked the last bit, striding along arrogantly in the middle of the narrow street. There was frost on his clothes again but it had not cooled his anger. There had been no sign of David at Talbot Manor. There had been no sign of David at the Talamasca Motherhouse. Or in any other place that Lestat had looked. What did David think he was doing! He couldn't just leave like this!

Armand showing up at Marius' villa had been a stroke of luck, he supposed. At least now Lestat knew who David was with.

But not for long, Lestat thought, annoyed. To run away with Jesse and Daniel, of all people; it was absurd. How childish of David.

When Louis found out Lestat already knew who David had taken off with, surely he would reveal where David had gone, and Lestat could go and fetch him back.

There were no lights on in the house. Lestat frowned. Even the single candle that Louis sometimes preferred to read by rather than use the electric light should have been visible. He stalked inside and went to Louis' room. Louis wasn't there. Nor was there a pile of half-read books on the desk. The room looked unnaturally tidy.

Lestat began to search the house systematically, room by room. He ended up looking ridiculously in closets and storage rooms, knowing Louis wouldn't be there. The place was empty.

But where was he? Daylight was imminent. Even if he had gone out late to hunt, he should have been back by now. Louis could not stay awake this long, really. And he was not where he should be, sleeping.

Lestat felt suddenly cold. He tried to shrug it off. If Louis had been caught by the dawn too far from the Rue Royal, he had sense enough to find himself another resting place. It was strange behavior for Louis, but that was no reason to assume the worst.

And he had to rest himself. Lestat walked swiftly to his own room, and entered it.

There was a note lying there, waiting for him. He recognized Louis' writing on the folded sheet of paper. But there was no time to read. The daylight sleep was claiming him, his eyes closed irresistibly. He held the note clutched tightly in his hand as he slept.

* * *

The merry Masquerade players tired of their game and left the café. As they strolled along the cobbled streets of the old town towards the subway station, the brown-haired woman scanned the group and frowned.

"Hey," she said, "did anyone see where Martin went?" The blue-eyed man was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter five

Lestat woke to feel that he was pressing a piece of paper to his face. For the first few moments he couldn't remember why, or what he was doing lying on the floor. It was very uncomfortable. Pieces of gravel that someone had tracked in were digging into the underside of his left leg, and the collar of his plain white shirt had twisted itself uncomfortably tight around his throat.

But these were only physical discomforts, and unimportant, really. Something else was troubling him, had troubled him all through his sleep and given him strange dreams. Something to do with this piece of paper he was holding so stupidly.

Then it all came back to him and he leapt to his feet, lunged to light the desk lamp, and unfolded Louis' note with fingers that shook with haste and suspense. He closed his eyes for a second before looking. Perhaps this was nothing, an explanation of where he was that would be rendered unnecessary within the hour by the appearance of Louis himself, with a sweetly apologetic look in his green eyes.

But Lestat had to read it. He opened his eyes again. The note was so brief that he took in the entire contents in one look: it read, 'You don't need me,' and was signed merely with an L.

Lestat stood staring, at first completely unable to move or speak. This was preposterous. This had to be some kind of bizarre joke.

But Louis did not play jokes, or at least not such cruel jokes as this. And it was undoubtedly Louis' handwriting.

"But what does it mean!" Lestat crumpled the paper in his hand heedlessly. "Is he gone? And how can he say such a thing!" He paced the floor.

Louis had left him. Louis was being a fool. Louis wasn't here and Lestat missed him. The house was completely deserted, an empty echoing shell. First David had left, and now Louis, as if they did not need him at all. As if they did not love him.

Twin floods of rage and helpless love rose within him, warring for expression.

"Why is everyone leaving me!?"

Rage gained the upper hand as he smashed everything on the desk, then stormed out of the house, leaving the door open. It was a conscious decision, not an accident. There was nothing left worth taking, after all.

* * *

Pandora had not returned, but Marius discovered that she had changed her clothes before she had gone. That made it clear to him that she had not chosen to go into the earth. She had merely left him.

He shook his head in bewilderment. Pandora had neither moved nor spoken for years. And now — now she had left the fattoria while he'd been away. Dressed, apparently, in black studded leather, surely as atypical of Pandora as anything could be. Marius would have laughed if he hadn't been so confused.

And he didn't know what to do. Should he try to find her? Did she want to be found? Pandora had never been one to run away for the sake of encouraging pursuit.

But he had to at least know that she was all right. Both Armand and Lestat, Marius decided, owed him a favor since he had let them scream at him when their children had disappeared. They could very well help him search for Pandora. And then he could help them search for Daniel and David. And then...

Marius shook his head. Things were rarely so simple. They were not so simple now. Armand would demand Daniel's return; Lestat would demand David's. And Marius believed the fledglings deserved their freedom and the right to make their own choices. They had left for a reason; they would return, when they chose to return, also for their own reasons. He couldn't let himself be part of forcing them back if they did not want it.

And he admitted to himself secretly that the real reason he was tempted to help with the search for the missing young vampires was so that he could see more of David. Marius was intrigued by David as he had not been by anyone for centuries. David was so calm, so sensible, so enclosed in himself — yet there was a spark in him, a hint of mischief, a flair for adventure.

Well, that was a later problem. He would start with searching for Pandora.

* * *

Louis found it amusing to think that he and Pandora were probably the only two visitors to Corfu who were not there for the sun.

The white house they had found and moved into was underfurnished in the way of all Greek houses. The garden was beautifully kept for such a dry climate. Someone had taken great pains with this garden decades ago, and it still showed. The house was full of memories of laughter. Louis decided he could very well picture Lawrence Durrell writing dark steamy novels in one of the rooms.

The bare rooms with their high white walls were a perfect background for Pandora, who walked as if she had only just remembered how, and watched everything with her wide, sorrowing eyes. Louis found himself mesmerized by her. Often she would pick up ordinary objects and hold them for a little while, stare at them, fondle them, then put them down — or break them. It was as though she were unconnected to the world around her, unable or perhaps unwilling to remember the hows and whys of the most simple of actions.

But she could talk, now, and they did talk, talked obsessively through the long sultry nights. This night was no different, though the conversation had been punctuated by her inability to stay in one room for very long. Louis had finally decided not to try to keep up with her, and was waiting for her to come around to where he was, in her meandering around the house.

When Pandora finally entered the room, she seemed almost surprised to see him. She sat down on a hard wooden chair and stared at him. "I am so afraid," she said abruptly. "Aren't you?"

He thought about it, and watched the light from the single candle play in her hair and call up glints of gold and auburn from the thick brown strands. That something so dead should look so alive had been a mystery to him when he himself was still alive. Now he understood it far better.

"Not afraid exactly. I would have said, lost." Pulling up another chair, he seated himself next to her. "But that is not entirely true, either. I think I would be more comfortable if I were truly lost."

Pandora shook her head emphatically. "No. No." The sad little smile on her face was heartbreaking, and he realized she wasn't just saying that, she really did know. The temptation he had been feeling to surrender to the pain and go into the earth grew a little less. Pandora was already in her own world again. "Just imagine someone looking in through the window," she said. "How human we must look, sitting on chairs, conversing. Just like people."

"Well, that's civilization. People sitting and talking," Louis reflected.

"Yes," Pandora whispered intensely, "but what does that mean to us? Why should we need to be civilized?"

That brought back memories: a scornful Lestat asking Louis why on earth he thought Claudia needed to learn to use a fork! She would never have to use a fork in her life! Lestat had laughed at the absurdity of it. It hurt to remember Lestat laughing, to remember the way he used to look, the way he used to be back then. It hurt even more to remember all that had happened since, the changes Louis had thought were for real.

But Louis felt that he still believed what he had believed in those days, that what he had taught Claudia had been necessary, no matter how absurd it had seemed. If not the use of knife and fork then the proper way to tie a hair ribbon or greet an acquaintance in the street.

"It's a question of culture," he told Pandora now, as he had tried to tell Lestat then. "We need manners, the accepted forms, the ways of doing things that we share with others. Culture is the difference between men and beasts."

She lowered her head, and the thick hair fell over her face and hid it from view. Pandora still wore the leather clothes she had taken from Marius' villa. She had made them her own so completely that Louis had been surprised to see others wearing black leather in the narrow dusty streets of Kerkyra. Not many, of course; not in this heat.

This casing of leather could not hide her essential vulnerability. "But which side of that divide are we on?" she asked. "Are we human or animal, men or beasts? I was mortal for such a short time and so long ago that it seems like a distant dream to me, those days when I saw the sun and laughed and loved without a thought of forever. I lived so briefly and so intensely. But when you know that you have forever, something changes."

"Does it truly?" Louis asked. "I cannot fit my head around the concept of forever. It is not forever that I fear. Only the next night, and the one after that."

Pandora smiled at him, tragically, helplessly. "I tell you, I have been a predator for centuries. Not a hunter, but a hunting animal, really. And I have lost myself to the inhumanity of it. As have others," she shuddered. Louis lifted an eyebrow in mute enquiry. "In Azim's temple," she said, "I was called a goddess. And I was a goddess to those people, but what kind? It was a return to the earliest forms of belief, fearing and trying to propitiate wild animals and the powers of nature. Only later did the gods grow more human. But I have grown away from my humanity. I cannot remember who I once was!"

It seemed almost rude to break in on her pain, to speak while her haunting words echoed in the room. Yet Louis knew why he had never been troubled in his mind in exactly this way.

"This is why manners are truly needed," he said. "And the whole concept of civilization. I know I am not a mortal human being, but I don't think of myself as an animal. We are what we make ourselves."

"Oh, like those old imperialists maintaining their absurd standards deep in the heart of a foreign land." Pandora shook her head. "You know what happened to them."

"Yes, but you said it yourself, they were absurd. They standards they tried to maintain had no relevance to their surroundings. It is different for me; I share a culture with the human race, I am not trying to understand something alien to me."

She sighed, shook her head repeatedly. "Do you remember Heart of darkness?" she asked. "What happened to Mr Kurtz?"

Louis nodded. "Yes, I do. But Kurtz was in his own way also absurd. It is implied, is it not, that he could do nothing except on a grand scale. There was no way for him to be great the way he needed to where he was, so he went grandly insane instead. I never felt any real sympathy for him."

"I did, I do. I think he just forgot," Pandora said. "Forgot what one is supposed to do, and not supposed to do. These manners you talk about, they eluded him finally. You have to remember what civilization is in order to be saved by it."

"You have felt deeply for this character," Louis said gently. "You felt you understood him."

Pandora nodded. "I felt a certain recognition. But there was a crucial difference. 'Mistah Kurtz — he dead,'" she quoted. "Only I can't die, as those who have gone mad so frequently do in literature. I am still here. My humanity has gone, has been replaced by dark and deadly rites that in the end have taught me nothing. And you speak of civilization! How can there be such things as culture and moral values in a world such as ours!"

She was afire with passion, and looked more alive than Louis had ever seen her. He knew she could kill him easily if he enraged her, but somehow he could not be afraid of her.

"It is not our world," he said seriously. "And this universe was not made for us and you cannot expect anything to finally be revealed to you." There was a mute plea in her dark eyes. He could feel her on the verge of collapsing again. Quickly, before she could disappear deep inside her own haunted soul, Louis seized her hand. "We have to make sense of it on our own. We can."

"This is the Savage Garden," she moaned, "and I am lost in it."

Louis closed his eyes briefly. "I hate it every time I kill," he said, steeling himself to make this intimate confession. "I love it, yet I hate it. And I know — I know I need to do both. My revulsion keeps me alive as surely as my ecstasy, as surely as the blood itself."

"So it still matters to you," she said. "And this is why you remain the way you are, because they are never just prey to you; you are still one of them."

He nodded, unable to say more at that moment. Pandora was watching him closely; it felt as though she were studying him, but he was not offended by it. She was trying so hard to understand!

* * *

There was a boat that went with the house. No sleek black speedboat this: it was old and worn and very comfortable. Pandora liked boats, she always had. They took it out sometimes late at night, and lay down side by side staring at the stars, listening to the soft sound of the sea.

The stars were very large and close here. Or so it seemed. Pandora thought about how things had changed since she had first seen stars. They were no prettier now because she knew things about them that had been unthinkable in the age of her birth.

Louis was a comforting presence next to her. He was invariably gentle, so careful of her feelings. She liked being with him. And she wished she could do something for him. It seemed he had already decided that this suffering that rested on him like a velvet cloak was something he would always wear. He had accepted the pain and did nothing to lessen it: this was simply how he would feel in the future.

She realized that she was even feeling a trace of unfamiliar anger, anger towards Lestat for what he had said, anger towards Armand for repeating it.

Pandora tried to think back to that night and remember how it had really been. But her memories were like memories of a dream. At one moment she would be convinced that Lestat had not meant a word of what he had said, had merely talked himself into a corner and refused to admit that he was wrong. At others she could recall a sneer and a cold look in those grey eyes that also seemed entirely convincing.

She did not dare speak of this to Louis, not knowing what the truth was. But she was curious about how he felt, about the intensity of his feelings.

He stirred a little next to her, and put one arm beneath his head. "When I'm drifting like this," he said softly, "the pain doesn't matter. I can almost manage to think of nothing at all. And then the moment shifts and passes, and I return. And I wonder if it's worth it, the drifting, because there will always be the return that makes the pain more intense still."

"And so you accept it," Pandora said. "Aren't you worried that it will wear a groove in you, like a ring that's never taken off?"

She could feel Louis smile. "Lately I've been thinking that I'm nothing more than the sum of my hurts," he said.

"Don't forget your manners."

That brought a more genuine smile. "Thank you. That's the kind of reminder I need."

Pandora rolled over on her side and looked at him, propping her head on one hand. "You really mean it, don't you," she said, not asking but telling. "This love that you felt permeated your entire life to such a point that there is nothing that is not touched by the pain of that love being rejected."

"Don't," he whispered, the first silent tears gathering at the corner of one eye.

But she went on, "You gave him your soul. On a silver platter. And now you don't know if he noticed and didn't care, or if he never thought about it at all—"

"Pandora, stop!" His whole body jerked as if she had stabbed him. Now the tears were running freely down his face. "I love him still, don't you see? All that's best in me is tied up in loving Lestat. And if I can't be with him, then the pain is all that's left. That and my manners," he didn't even manage a smile.

"But you can't live like that!" she said.

"I have to!" he whispered passionately. "There isn't anything else!"

She reached out and pulled him close, just held him gently for a while and let him cry while she stroked his hair. It was so soft and silky, not long and thick and coarse the way hers was. "Tell me, Louis," she said. "Do you love him more than you love yourself?" Pandora felt him nod. "Then you must stop."

He jerked upright, rocking the boat. "What!" Louis' green eyes were wild with grief. "You don't know what you're saying. You might as well ask me to stop living as to stop loving Lestat. He," he sagged slowly down again, "he is all the joy I have ever felt."

"I didn't mean to hurt you," she murmured. "But truly, Louis, this love you feel would have damaged you even had Lestat not said what he did." Pandora looked up at the stars and tried to remember if she had ever listened, when she had been young, to those who were older when they had tried to counsel her about love. Probably not, she thought. And it was only to her that Louis seemed so young. "Louis, do you love yourself?"

He looked bewildered. "I suppose — I don't know. What do you mean?"

"You wanted to lose yourself in Lestat, didn't you?" she said. "In him and in your love for him. But you must love yourself first of all, Louis, care for yourself, not hurt yourself. Or else the love you give others will be flawed, and you will expect too much of them. Others cannot make you into what you are not."

He frowned. "And is this the flaw Lestat sensed in me? Is this why he would just as soon be rid of me?"

"You don't really know that," Pandora dared to say.

"It doesn't matter now, does it," Louis said. "I've left him, and what I feel isn't important any more."

"But," Pandora said slowly, "I think it is. This — the way we are talking now — this is what's important. Manners alone could never keep me alive. But love, love is different. You have made me remember what it is like to feel, to feel so deeply and intensely that it colors the entire world. And I won't stand by and watch as you let those feelings slip into dullness and disappear. We need to talk more about love, Louis."

Louis sat up and stared out across the sea, that black and smoothly rolling surface. Pandora watched him. Then she saw a sudden, unexpected smile light up his face.

"Look," he said. "A dolphin."

She sat up next to him, and together they watched as the dolphin played alone among the waves that rose and fell with such peaceful inevitability. It seemed content to be the only frolicker in the waves, to share with no one but itself this simple pleasure.

"I sometimes think they are joy incarnate," Pandora said. Louis turned his head to look at her.

"Is this what you mean by loving one's self?" he asked. "To have that — that inner joy?"

She nodded softly, and they said nothing more that night, only watched the sea, each deep in silent thought.

Chapter six

Some nights, Rome resembles nothing so much as one vast club, and ghosts of all centuries brush up their best clothes and come out to play with the beautiful people. Then the air is rich with the scent of strong coffee and a thousand perfumes, high heels clatter on ancient paving stones and the water in the myriad fountains tinkles like music and splashes merrily on passers-by. On a night like that, the addition of three frolicking young vampires seems wholly natural.

"Get out of there," Jesse laughed, clutching her sides. "You do not look one bit like Anita Ekberg."

Daniel grinned, disappeared under the surface of the Fontana di Trevi and came up clutching a handful of 500-lire coins. He looked down at himself thoughtfully. "I did wonder if that breast implant surgery was worth it."

"They cheated you, Daniel," Jesse said. "Unless you checked the wrong box by mistake and ordered the Twiggy look."

"They probably put the silicone in his head," David offered briskly. "Get out of there, I want to go to the Colosseum."

"Nobody's stopping you." Daniel rose from the water like an unorthodox Venus from the foam, and waved regally at a cluster of bewildered German tourists. "Can we stop along the way for a snack?"

"You," Jesse said in his ear as he came up to them, "have been complaining ever since we arrived in the Eternal City about not being able to eat the tartufo from Tre Scalini which you claim is the best in the world, not that I'm arguing. Are you telling me you're finally resigned enough to this fact to be able to contemplate an alternative?"

"Hungry enough," Daniel grinned impishly. "But not so hungry that I'll go for food that's wearing lime green and yellow striped pants." He looked over at the tourists again, wincing visibly.

"Oh hush, they'll hear you." Not that Jesse didn't agree.

"Tourist pizza," Daniel murmured thoughtfully. "Special offer, just for you. Map and camera included."

"Charter barbecue," Jesse offered, getting into the spirit of it. "Interrailer kebab? Tourist menu, free drinks."

"No taste," David sighed, looking at them. "No manners." But there was laughter, faint but unmistakeable, dancing at the back of his eyes.

"No food," Daniel said. "C'mon, this is not the best place to stop and nibble." He looked down at the puddle that was growing swiftly around his feet. "Damn, I'm wet."

So he was. His white silk shirt had turned nicely see-through; the black jeans could not have been any tighter to start with. Jesse caught glimpses of frank lust from some of the bystanders.

That was perfectly understandable. She put an arm around each of the two best-looking men in the piazza, smiled maliciously at the tourists and said, "Let's go."

Not that she was going to put the moves on either of these two. Daniel belonged heart and soul to Armand, and Jesse knew with a bone-deep, cold certainty that Armand was not someone she wanted for an enemy, and no matter that she was stronger than he was even though so much younger. If Armand wanted someone's head on a platter, he would get it, regardless, she suspected, of who that someone was.

Jesse thought Daniel was very attractive, but she wasn't going to get involved in a major intervampirical war because of him. He probably wouldn't be interested, anyway — and she had Mael, who did love her — and the whole idea of casual flings became very different when you were a vampire, since there were so few partners to choose from, and so many years for everyone to hold a grudge in.

And David was, well, David. He'd been almost a father to her before, and no matter that he'd been turned into the hunk of the century, their relationship was eerily similar to what it had been in their mortal days; she teased him, he lectured her, both of them concealing their affection behind a script they'd acted out many times before.

There was the little matter of Lestat, too. Jesse decided she didn't even want to think about what Lestat would say if — not to mention what Lestat would do if—

At least David was more playful now. And he didn't insist on wearing tweed all the time. Jesse had explained at great length that a tweed suit, no matter how proper, was not the correct thing to wear in Rome. So David had raided the Armani shop with the aid of Daniel's credit cards, and now he was wearing white, an outfit of great and lazy elegance that looked as though it would fall apart if you did anything more strenuous than breathe in it, but all the same held a hint of last century's big-game hunters.

And he did hunt. He was fastidious about it, but he did it well. The three of them had been self-conscious at first, and hesitant about the intimacy of hunting together, but by now it felt natural, perhaps because their attitudes were similar — if you have to do it, you might as well enjoy it.

Nor did any of them have the habit of playing with their food. Jesse would have found that repellent. She didn't think she could befriend someone first and kill them later, the way some vampires did; she prefered not to speak to her victims, to maintain a distance to the part of them that was more than just food for her deep and relentless hunger.

That made her wonder a little about her decision to drink from the man in the café in Stockholm, and leave him with the memory of it. She ought to have killed him, or not touched him at all. But done was done, she was in Rome now, and the man who had been playing a vampire only to meet a real one was half a continent away and probably halfway into the nearest psych ward if he'd mentioned to anyone what he'd experienced.

Remembering the sweet taste of him brought on a renewed craving, and as she walked swiftly along the narrow streets with her two companions she was on the lookout for what Daniel would call a suitable midnight snack.

* * *

Daniel had pronounced the Colosseum boring, and the area around it far too crowded with tourists even at night, and they had ranged farther afield, feeding satisfactorily on the way. Now they were at the baths of Caracalla and Daniel was trying to do a Montserrat Caballé imitation.

"No, no, no," David groaned. "You're off by about two octaves, you realize."

"And a few pounds," Jesse added mischievously. "I'd love to see an opera here, though. Is it true they actually drive a two-horse chariot onstage?"

"It depends on the opera," David said solemnly. "I believe they would have some trouble fitting a chariot into the plot of La Bohème, for instance."

Jesse cuffed him affectionately.

Daniel turned three perfect cartwheels and ended up next to them. He still had much of that sheer exuberance and joy in his own abilities that had characterized him when Jesse first met him and that was, she suspected, one of the reasons Armand loved him so much; Armand who never seemed to do anything quite whole-heartedly, who Jesse felt was always holding back a part of himself.

Now Daniel gave them both a spontaneous hug, then grinned widely, tapped Jesse's shoulder, and took off.

She was right after him, even when he leapt over the nearest wall and doubled back. David just watched them at first, looking amused, so Jesse veered from her determined pursuit and tagged him instead. He looked startled, then delighted, and joined the chase.

* * *

The dark-haired man leaned against the crumbling wall, in the deepest shadows, and tried to control his breathing and the excited beating of his heart. He pulled his sunglasses down a little along the bridge of an attractively snub nose. Behind them, his eyes were a startlingly innocent shade of blue. Even dressed in dirty black jeans and a worn leather coat, he had somehow the look of a displaced angel.

Unconsciously he rubbed at the marks on his neck as he peered out at the marble ruins. The three glorious creatures who were playing tag didn't notice him. They could have; he knew that; it was part of the thrill that if they wanted to, they could catch him so easily, even though he shielded his mind the way the witch had taught him. They could kill him. Or they could give him life everlasting. His heart lurched a little, perhaps at that thought, and he put a hand to his chest. Strange to know that one carried death in one's own heart.

He was unable to decide which of them was more beautiful. Reading descriptions had not prepared him for the reality of them; not even when he had wished most eagerly for them to be real had he been able to imagine them with such clarity. And here they were, his own personal miracles.

That was Jesse, the slim red-haired woman whose perfect face would sometimes turn blank with a concentration so absolute it seemed almost cruel. And next to her the man with lovely violet eyes, Daniel, the laughing one, who displayed his face and figure as if he considered himself a work of art. Finally a serious gentleman masquerading as a GQ model; David, still unaccustomed to being gorgeous, but as seductive in his way as Daniel.

The dark-haired man smiled. Yes, they were wonderful, a joy to behold. And watching their exuberant play, he felt tempted for a moment to step out, to reveal himself, to join in the game, even... they were having such fun!

But he knew even as he thought it that if he did, they would kill him before he could say a word.

There had to be another way. They killed easily, but he had to make them understand that he was different, special. Would one of them be susceptible to persuasion?

Two of the vampires, Jesse and Daniel, had been rescued from what would otherwise have been certain death by being given the Dark Gift. Would they understand, perhaps? Understand the way he feared death, longed for it, understand that he wanted to be there for his own death and live to tell the tale.

It was risky, the idea of talking to them. If it didn't work, they would undoubtedly kill him. Then again, he'd rather die like that, in the arms of one of these heavenly creatures, than by the painful solitary failing of his own sorry heart. Death was going to come for him soon, in one shape or another. At least he could choose for death to be beautiful.

Because there was no way he could take the blood by force or by trickery. Was there?

He watched the three of them again, with minute concentration. Jesse and David were cautious creatures both by nature and by Talamasca training; Jesse somewhat less so before she became a vampire, but since then she had changed.

Daniel, though, Daniel was truly reckless sometimes. Yes, reckless. Careless, maybe. It was something to ponder.

Chapter seven

He woke instantly, without any transition state between sleep and full wakefulness: suddenly his eyes were wide open and he was staring into darkness, wondering where he was.

Lestat couldn't remember falling asleep. He tried for a memory of the previous morning, of finding a resting place.

Nothing.

He was just here, wherever here was. Sitting up, he bumped his head, and cursed with annoyance. There was a low vault over him, brickwork, as he found when he put his hand on it. He turned to one side, and fell down off the ledge he'd been lying on and into about a foot of mud.

"This," he said between clenched teeth, "is not my idea of a wonderful night out."

Out of sheer perversity he waded through the mud instead of floating over it. It got deeper and deeper, and when he finally made it out of the old tunnel he looked as if he was wearing brown, sludgy thigh boots. These clothes were ruined anyway.

Lestat snatched at the stray thought flitting through his mind. Why were the clothes ruined anyway...? He looked down at himself. He was wearing rags. Shirt and pants were torn, ripped, dirty and smeared with blood. Lots of blood. In fact, it looked as though someone had bled to death all over him. Or—

He smelled his clothing, twitching at the mixture of potent smells. Several someones. He had the blood of at least ten people all over him. And he didn't know where he was, or what he'd been doing.

Looking around, he deduced easily enough that he was in an old churchyard. By reading the gravestones, he placed the churchyard somewhere in Wales. The questions remained of why he was there and how he'd got there in the first place.

"Wales," he muttered to himslf. "Sheep and rain. And mud, don't forget the mud."

He needed to get clean, and he needed some new clothes. Lestat strode decisively through the churchyard, headed for the narrow road. He was halfway up a mountain, or halfway down it, depending on how you looked at it. As he drew nearer the road, it began to rain; a fine drizzle at first, that steadily increased into a solid downpour. In the distance, several unhappy bleats spoke of company.

"Wales. Rain and sheep." Lestat flung his arms wide in despair. "What am I doing here?"

* * *

Gabrielle did not often read newspapers. The doings of the mortal world were largely uninteresting to her, except as they infringed on her own concerns: to walk with perfect freedom in the wildest parts of the world.

The wilderness she loved was growing rarer, these days. More and more, the jungles were disappearing, to be replaced by highways and farms, and wild animals that she had loved and fought and drunk from in savage glory were vanishing off the face of the earth. And that made her perfectly furious.

It also made her laugh to think that she was, in her own way, part of what some mortals liked to call the 'green movement'. She had wrecked her share of bulldozers at midnight, and fed on company prospectors. Not out of starry-eyed idealism, but from an instinctive desire to protect her own hunting grounds. And her hunting grounds were all the wildernesses the world had to offer. She wasn't prepared to give up what was to her the quintessential Savage Garden to the mortals' notion of progress.

But she had been thinking lately that it was time to hunt the big cities again, and explore a different kind of jungle. She had none of her son's fascination with the niceties of mortal culture, with changes in fashion and in manners; it was all the same still, to her, people and their vain motives for doing things. Nothing had changed, really, since the time when she had become a vampire.

To her, the amusement lay in visiting civilization, and finding it a wilderness after all. Passing for human was only the means to an end, not anything she particularly wanted or really needed. She had no desire to speak to mortals or to be understood by them. She was barely interested in her own kind. So many of them were obsessed with petty concerns, wasting their immortal years on trivialities. Gabrielle did what she wanted, when she wanted, and those who did not or would not, bored her.

Now she was here, in London, where there were more humans than she'd seen in years crowding the streets at any given moment. And she was even reading a newspaper. Then man next to her on the park bench had left it behind, and the two drawings on the front page had caught her attention. Surely she knew one of those faces.

SERIAL KILLER ON THE LOOSE! screamed the headline, and then the article went on to say that there were probably two killers actually, with the same modus operandi, and choosing exactly the same kind of victims. Eight young men had been killed in New Orleans, and another six in London, and one was in hospital but not expected to survive. All of them had had a very close resemblance to one or the other of the sketches on the front page. Their bodies had been savagely mutilated, necks broken, inner organs torn out. It was terrible.

The paper went on to say that anyone who looked like that should probably stay indoors until the killer was caught, and went on to speculate about why the killer would have such an antipathy for two particular types of handsome young men. Gabrielle lost interest at that point and let the paper fall from her hands. But not before she had torn out the two sketches.

One of the pictures showed a young man with dark curly hair, large eyes and handsome, youthful features. The other was a picture of Louis.

Oh, it was far from perfect. It wasn't really him, rather a drawing of a number of people who resembled Louis a little. It had none of his cutting beauty. But she could see what it was meant for.

Gabrielle felt a faint stirring of concern. She was fond of Louis, probably, she admitted to herself, because he was so very far from the kind of person she would have said she liked. Gabrielle appreciated his perfect courtesy, and the fact that under his diffident manner was a core of tempered steel without which he could never have lived and loved and fought with her son for so long.

Since she had decided to rejoin the world a little, she thought to herself, she might as well try to find Louis. Just to see if he was all right, and ask him if he knew why someone was killing his doubles.

* * *

When Marius arrived on Night Island he had managed to calm himself down to the point where he was almost convinced he wasn't worried about Pandora at all. She was probably fine — there was no reason she shouldn't be. Still, it would be good to be certain of it.

He realized that he had always worried about Pandora, from the moment he had made her — no, even before that. His feelings for her had always been dominated by an urge to cherish and protect, and concern that she could not handle the world on her own.

The unwelcome thought seeped into his mind that perhaps she had finally come to believe him.

Marius walked towards the house, noting in passing that the black speedboat was gone. Perhaps that meant Armand was out. Or he might have got rid of it; it had been a few years, and such things grew old-fashioned, didn't they?

Knowing that he couldn't sense Armand's presence, he hadn't bothered to be particularly alert, but as he drew closer he heard voices. Armand's, and another's. Marius stopped, a little guiltily, and listened.

"You are unhappy. You miss him very much."

"So?"

"So, nothing," there was a shrug in the voice that Marius recognized as Khayman's. "Merely, if you want to talk about it, I am here."

"You're the only regular visitor to this place any more," Armand said with a touch of bitterness. "No one else can be bothered."

Khayman laughed his soft little laugh. "There are many families like that, I believe," he said, "most loving when they are farthest apart. But did you feel so lonely here before Daniel left?"

"I didn't say I felt lonely!"

"Talking to you is like trying to embrace a hedgehog," Khayman said gently. "You hurt. You may as well admit it. If you pretend not to care about things, in the end you forget how to care. Be careful what you turn yourself into."

There was the sound of something breaking, and Marius deduced that Armand had, for once, lost his temper.

"Don't just stand there with that saintly look on your face, you old killer! I don't need someone ancient and wise telling me grand truths. I need to know that I'm here and it's now!"

There was a brief silence, and Marius felt a cold fear that Khayman had been hurt by Armand's outburst, that Khayman would perhaps grow angry. Armand would not stand a chance against one of the First Brood.

But when Khayman spoke again his voice was as gentle as before, and only a little sadder.

"Is that what Daniel is to you? Some kind of time-keeping device?" Marius realized that he had been moving slowly nearer through the whole conversation. He could see them now, standing just outside the back door he had used to take Pandora out hunting all those years ago. Khayman was leaning against the wall, simply dressed in jeans and a sweater; he could have passed for a college freshman if you hadn't looked at his face, into his eyes. Armand stood a few steps away, and had just turned his back. His shoulders were shaking under the elegant coat he wore; with tears or with anger, Marius couldn't tell.

"What do you want?" The words were spoken too low for anyone without preternatural hearing to catch them. "That I admit I love him, need him? Need him, not because he's my link to this or any other age, but just because he's Daniel."

Armand turned around. He fell silent; tears began to roll slowly down his face. Once again he looked the perfect innocent sufferer, the mystic, the saint weeping tears of blood. Marius found himself thinking of his old paintings again, of painting Armand with that very expression on his face. But no: centuries had refined Armand to a new beauty, and that look in his eyes, surely no sixteen-year-old had ever had that look.

And now he opened his mouth to speak again. "But don't you see, that has always been the case. He has always been Daniel to me, only Daniel. I just had to have an excuse."

Khayman straightened up and went over to where Armand was standing, weeping, and wrapped his arms around the younger immortal. "Don't stop," he said calmly, authoritatively, when Armand stiffened. "It's about time you cried this out."

Marius became suddenly aware that he was an intruder, an eavesdropper. His business was not so pressing that it couldn't wait a little. He reached out carefully and brushed Khayman's mind with his own, grateful that Khayman was always open and receptive to such a touch.

:It's Marius. I'll be back later.:

* * *

When he returned to the house after two hours, everything seemed peaceful. He found Khayman in the kitchen, where he was devouring a pile of paperback novels evidently borrowed from Armand's substantial collection. Marius looked around, amused. He'd never been in this room before. Now he opened cupboards and pulled out drawers, and found cutlery and plates and an abundance of glassware. He shook his head, a little bewildered.

"It all came with the house," Khayman said without looking up from his book. "He ordered it fully furnished; it would have been odd not to have a kitchen, or to leave the kitchen empty."

"I suppose so," Marius said vaguely, and dropped down on a chair across the table from Khayman. "Where is he?"

"In his office, he calls it," Khayman said and now he did look up. "Trying to forget that he actually showed a little of his soul to someone."

"Ah." Marius sighed. Was he responsible for the way Armand was, so walled off from everyone else, so afraid of being hurt?

Khayman put his book down. "And why are you here?" he asked. "What is wrong with you?"

The directness of his manner was offset by his strange gentleness; questions that would have been offensive from anyone else never seemed rude when Khayman asked them.

"I want to find Pandora," Marius explained. "She has wakened, and left; I have no argument with that, but I would like to know that she is all right. I thought to ask Armand to help me..."

"Or I can do it," Khayman said. "But you should ask him, he needs to be doing something."

They sat in companionable silence for a while. Marius picked up one of the books, which was a collection of horror fiction, and read a short story about zombies in Calcutta. Armand came into the kitchen.

"Marius," he said. "Why are you here?"

"It's nice to see you, too," Marius replied mildly. "And I need you to help me track down Pandora."

Armand snorted. "You mean she actually moved? And now you want your statue retrieved?"

"She's not a statue," Marius said tightly. "And no, I don't want her back if she doesn't want to come back. I want to know how she is, that's all."

"Mm hm. And what I would like to know," Armand said, flinging a newspaper down on the kitchen table, "is why Lestat has gone off his head. He really has broken all the rules this time."

Chapter eight

Pandora stretched slowly, lazily, and draped herself in a new position on the cliff shelf. The heat of the day still lingered in the stone, and she savored it, and also savored her ability to enjoy such things again. The small, simple and ultimately priceless details of life... Louis had given them back to her by making her see that no one else could enjoy them the way she could.

I am Pandora and I am unique, she mused. Now why was that so difficult to remember?

She'd lost her sense of self in the immensity of life, trying to contemplate forever and failing. That was best left to mortals, she now thought. Something of Louis' philosophy had rubbed off on her. She no longer felt that the future was an abyss waiting for her to fall into it; she could think in terms of tomorrow and the day after and be content with that. The years would come anyway.

And she thought a lot of it had to do with abandoning her coffin in Marius' villa. She no longer felt so caught by it, caught by her own unlife.

No more Pandora's box, she thought, even if I get to be teased for claustrophobia. No more having to do things a certain way. I never want to see another coffin for as long as I...

She giggled a little, trying to think of a sensible way to end the sentence, and failing. For as long as I'm dead?

Turning her head, she looked at Louis and found him sitting up, looking calm and collected as always, particularly contrasted with her own untidy sprawl. Despite his beauty and undeniable sensuality, there were times when Louis didn't seem entirely comfortable with his own body. And the way he would dress for camouflage instead of emphasizing his spectacular looks was beginning to get to her. It seemed a profligate waste of good material. Something of a Puritan, she thought. Something ought to be done about that.

She remembered saying that they must talk more about love. Pandora suspected that she needed to think about love, to deal with it in relation to herself. She still was not clear on what her feelings for Marius were, Marius, her former lover and patient caretaker. A lot of the time she felt like a swimmer resurfacing after a long dive, unsure of exactly where she had come up and if things still looked the same. But she would figure it out eventually. Right now she was far more interested in the quirks of Louis' psyche.

"Louis," she said gently, attracting his attention. He looked down at her and smiled. She felt a flicker of mischief; he suddenly seemed very young to her, a younger brother perhaps, made to be teased. "Tell me something. Were you ever in love when you were mortal?" An expression of confusion flickered across his face. "Before you met Lestat, I mean."

Louis frowned. "In love?" He shook his head. "I — well, not really."

"But you had a few affairs," she teased him.

"No!"

"No?" Pandora lifted an eyebrow. "Did I use the wrong word? If not affairs then how about mistresses? Lovers? Passionate horizontal encounters?" She grinned wickedly. "Not that you have to be horizontal, but you get my drift. Or at least I hope you do."

"Well, yes, but." He was blushing. Pandora suppressed an urge to laugh. She'd meant to talk seriously about love. Oh well. "You can't mean to tell me that you were a virgin body and soul when you met that blond boyfriend of yours," she went on relentlessly.

Louis appeared incapable of speech; he was staring at his toes. Finally he mumbled, "Well, no, not exactly. But..."

Pandora waited patiently for the 'but' to grow into a sentence. Nothing happened, just like with the last one. "Let me put it this way," she said when she grew tired of waiting. "You lived in a society where the people you could sleep with and the people you could fall in love with were not synonymous, at least not before a marriage had taken place, am I right?"

Louis nodded. "Yes," he said, a little more confident now that the conversation appeared to be back on slightly more neutral ground. "I'm glad that the old madonna-whore way of looking at women seems to be going out of fashion in most civilized areas of the—"

"What about men?" Pandora cut him off. Louis went pink again. "I see, no men. So you had, shall we say, encounters with prostitutes, if I understand you correctly... did you enjoy them, by the way?"

Even the tips of his ears were pink, and he couldn't meet her eyes. "I was usually pretty drunk," he mumbled.

"Oh, Louis. The poor girls." He stared at her in shock; she grinned. "Drunk clients are the very devil," she said. "Trust me, I know. But that wasn't what I wanted to talk about."

"You could have fooled me," he muttered.

"Were you in love with someone? Like that Babette woman in your book — no, that was later, wasn't it, that was just a classic case of mortality nostalgia as I recall it. We've all had them."

Louis took a deep breath and let it out again before answering. "You're right," he said, sounding surprised. "That was probably what it was. But about being in love... You really want to know? I mean seriously?" She nodded. "I can't remember. I think I may have been, or may have believed myself to be, in love. But I can't remember. Because when Lestat happened to me, that was such an event, it just overshadowed everything I'd ever felt or thought up until that moment."

Pandora rolled over and smiled lazily up at him. "Love at first sight? How sweet."

"Don't condescend."

She shook her head. "I didn't mean it that way. But hasn't there been anyone else? And I don't mean Claudia, that was different and you know it. Weren't you pretty heavily involved with Armand at one time?"

"I might have been," he replied with surprising frankness, "but the parameters of that relationship changed before it even began, and I really will have to talk about Claudia if you want to know why."

"If it hadn't been for her death you could have loved him?"

"Things would have been different," he said, returning to his typically guarded Louis manner. "I did feel more strongly than I had felt in a long time."

Pandora sat up and looked disapprovingly at her. "You," she said, "are a master of circumlocution." She put a finger in the center of his chest and pushed, not too hard, just reminding him of her strength. "How did what you felt for Armand compare with what you felt for Lestat? And were you and Armand ever lovers in any sense of the word?"

Louis groaned. He looked at her out of eyes that suddenly blazed green. "I feel like a harbor being dredged out," he said. "Are you determined to poke through every feeling I've got?"

"Yes," Pandora said frankly. "And I won't lie to you: half of this is for your own good, but the other half is for my personal entertainment."

He made a face and yanked her braid; she punched his shoulder gently. It really was almost like having a brother again.

"All right," he said almost angrily. "As to comparing feelings, I very carefully did not. I guess I knew deep down if I tried, I'd realize that whatever I felt for Armand, it wasn't a patch on my love for Lestat."

"Did you ever even try? I mean, did you really give the relationship a fair chance?"

He opened his mouth and shut it again, and disappeared behind his eyes for a while, thinking it over. Then he finally said, "No. I didn't. After Claudia... It was doomed from the start and I should have known it. We did try to be lovers, by the way. It didn't work."

"What, were you drunk again?" Pandora teased, but stopped when she saw the hurt in his eyes. "Sorry, Louis."

"I think the truth is that I didn't really want him," Louis said, "didn't really want to be intimate with him in any way, but that was the only part that became obvious. I was just..." He broke off.

"Might as well admit it," Pandora coaxed him along.

"Just using him," Louis finished his sentence, "to take my mind off the fact that what I really wanted was to be with Lestat again."

"Ah. Yes. So after some time with Armand, unsurprisingly, that relationship ended. And then you were alone for a long time. And then you were back with Lestat again. You've lived together for years now, haven't you?" Pandora briskly summarized the past century or so of Louis' life.

"Yes."

"Have you ever told him that you love him?"

"No."

Pandora blinked in surprise. She'd thought Louis would say 'yes' so she could lead up to an 'and what did he say?' and discuss that. This didn't sound promising. "Why on earth not?"

"Things have been mostly unspoken, tacit understanding..." Louis murmured brokenly.

"Oh dear," Pandora said in dismay, "that never really works, does it. So he's never told you he loves you, either."

Another green blaze from those eyes. Pandora was beginning to understand why no one could spend any longer amount of time around Louis without starting to spout poetic nonsense about his eyes; they really were extraordinary.

"That's probably because he doesn't," he said.

"Kind of hard for anyone who's read his books to believe that," Pandora said dryly. "But you two seem to have a real problem trying to communicate. Otherwise you wouldn't be here now."

* * *

Pandora had changed greatly in the short time they had spent together on Corfu. Louis had found it enthralling to watch her wake from her sleepwalker state. She was alive again, present and vibrant, and the body that had been cool and remote as stone now exuded a controlled, smouldering sensuality; she was like a banked fire.

Her wide eyes no longer stared blindly into space but narrowed in thought or glinted with genuine laughter. Tall and slim, almost frail-looking, she possessed a very human beauty, a beauty that owed as much to movement and attitude as it did to feature.

And when she turned her full attention on someone or something, the effect was almost intoxicating. She was one of those people who give the impression of listening with every fibre of their body. Talking to her, Louis was always certain that she found what he had to say interesting.

Unlike Lestat, he reflected bitterly. He shifted his position a little.

"I'm here because of what Armand told me," he said.

Pandora shook her head decisively. "There's more to it than that. If you and Lestat were in the habit of communicating," she said, "you would have stayed and fought it out. Or stayed to find out if it was true in the first place. Or perhaps you wouldn't have believed it. I can't believe you don't talk; I mean, what do you do together? Surely you can't spend all your time in—"

"We do talk," Louis cut her off briskly. "I never said we don't talk."

"I don't care if you discuss vivisection till dawn or spend the nights reciting Elizabethan poetry to each other. You don't talk about what's really important to you, and that's stupid. Louis, you can't have a relationship and not talk about it. You have to know what's going on."

He shrugged. "Things just happen," he said.

Pandora flung her hands up. "Of course they do!" Then she laughed, a throaty uninhibited laugh that would have been unthinkable from her only a few days ago. "I sound like Aunt Pandora giving advice to the lovelorn. They never listen, do they? Louis, don't take this the wrong way, but I do wish you'd had a few affairs before Lestat, and I mean real love affairs."

"Why?"

She looked up at him, her expressive face serious. "Because then you'd know a little more of how love works," she said. "It doesn't just run itself, Louis. It's not like a mountain that's just there. I'm putting this badly, but what I'm trying to say is that love isn't an absolute. It needs to be figured out, and understood, and worked at. And you don't have any experience, you have nothing to use as a basis for comparison."

"But I don't want..." He thought about it. "You sound as if you're telling me to have an affair. I don't want that."

"It's too late now," Pandora said. "You should have had one before, when you had the chance."

"You mean you're out of them?" Louis frowned. "Darn. I'll just have to order one straight from the manufacturer."

"Are you sure you want a straight one?"

They looked completely seriously at each other for two seconds, then collapsed in each other's arms, laughing. Pandora's hair covered them both, thick and heavy with salt water from her swim earlier.

"You're doing things to me," Louis said when he could breathe again. "I had a perfectly good depression going before you decided to elope with me. I'm even starting to talk like you!"

"Well, I'm even starting to talk," Pandora said with a giggle. "So, forget about affairs and all that. What do you want out of your relationship with Lestat?"

Louis didn't even have to think about it. "Companionship," he said. "Love. Respect. I have the first — occasionally — but the two second seem a little harder to come by. Especially the last."

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me," Pandora hummed. "Hey, maybe you could—"

"No! I'm not going to imitate Aretha Franklin!"

"Believe it or not, that wasn't what I was going to say." When Louis looked more closely at Pandora, he saw that the glint in her eyes was only half mischievous. "But you need a booster in the self-respect and self-confidence departments. I hate to say this, but there may be a good reason you don't feel you're getting any respect from Lestat."

"I'm not worth it?" He was only half joking. Pandora seemed to hear it; she sighed.

"I suspect you don't always act as if you're worth it. And since you freely admit to loving him more than you love yourself, we'll have to do something about that as well. Lestat's got to realize you're more than his abject worshipping slave."

"Hey," Louis said, "you've been a piece of interior decoration for the past decade or so, you're not supposed to know what our private life is like." Then he turned serious. "I'm not sure what I can do about it. Just thinking about the way I feel about him... I feel utterly consumed by it. It's almost more than I can handle."

Pandora was leaning against his knees, trying to untangle her hair without much success. She gave it up, and reached out to stroke his cheek. "I think I remember feeling like that," she said. "Once." Then her voice became matter of fact again. "In that case, we'll just have to see to it that Lestat starts feeling the same way about you."

"Piece of cake," Louis agreed and let his head sink onto her shoulder. "Nothing to it. I could do it standing on my head. Damn it, I'm not going to start crying again."

"Not on my leather, you're not. Buck up, Louis. Remember how intelligent and gorgeous you are."

"So's he."

"Sure, but mirrors get boring after a while. I'm going swimming again, are you coming with me?"

"All right," he grinned at her. "Let's have a fish-catching contest. First one to catch a fish gets to drop it inside the other's clothes tomorrow night."

"Yeah, love you too," she said and took his hand, and they set off down the slope towards the beach.

Chapter nine

In the shadowy room, the three vampires burned like living flames, pale and beautiful each in his own way. Sparks shot from blue and brown eyes as Marius and Armand faced each other from opposite corners of the old Persian carpet, while Khayman was a brooding presence in the background. They looked elegant, mystical, creatures out of a dream, timeless and ancient and wise.

Unfortunately, they didn't act it.

"I really feel—"

Marius got no further. "I know you're worried about Pandora. Forget Pandora," Armand growled. "She's probably in a museum by now, getting dusted once a week and having the time of her life. We have to do something about Lestat!"

He strode around the room, waving his arms as though planning a major confrontation. Marius hadn't seen Armand so upset in a long time. Not since the last time we quarrelled, anyway.

He sighed deeply. His and Armand's reunion, in the shadow of Akasha's threat against vampires and mortals, had gone well enough; there had been no time for anything but the knowledge that no matter how complex their past, there was still love between them. And as long as Armand was happy, they got along just fine. But when things were not all right with Armand, he always managed subtly to imply that it was all Marius' fault, and then Marius would feel guilty and try to reason with him, and...

I don't exactly envy Daniel, he thought. In fact, I completely understand why he left.

"What are you planning to do about Lestat, then? Spank him?" Khayman asked with a gleam in his wide, innocent eyes that denoted mischief. Khayman was the only one of them who hadn't raised his voice yet tonight. "Calm down, little Amadeo."

"Don't call me that! Lestat's obviously gone mad, we have to—"

"I agree he's become somehow unbalanced," Marius said. "But first we certainly need to find out—"

"Unbalanced! You mean unhinged! We need to stop him! Don't you see—"

"If we can only talk to—"

"When I get my hands on him I'll—"

"Silence!" Khayman's voice made the window panes vibrate and set up a ringing in Marius' ears. "You are making my head ache. If you have to argue, do it later and elsewhere." He looked sternly at them; they both wisely kept silent. "Now, as we all of us know, we need to find Lestat and, if necessary, find a way to stop him from killing everyone who resembles his lost fledglings. Finding out why he's done it comes later."

Marius nodded slowly, knowing that Khayman was more reasonable than anyone else in the room at present. "You're right. I'm sorry. And we also need to find him before he finds David and Louis and tries to harm them."

That thought made Marius very nervous. Louis had almost no defences against Lestat, other than the fact that Lestat could not find him by using the powers of his mind. Imagining Louis as the victim of Lestat's full fury wasn't pleasant; Marius wanted to believe that Lestat's love for Louis would stop him from doing any real harm, but considering the way Lestat had acted over the past few nights, he knew he couldn't be certain of that. David was far stronger than Louis, and more capable of standing up to Lestat, but all the same, Marius felt cold. He very much wanted to know that both of them were safe.

Armand sniffed dismissively. "I don't care if he fries that Talamasca nuisance to a crisp," he said. "He should never have been made."

"David's one of us now," Marius said, "and if you try to harm him—"

"Just because Lestat always breaks the rules—"

"Not another argument!" Khayman said warningly. "Amadeo, I mean Armand, no matter how you feel about this new scholar vampire, you do not want Louis to be hurt, do you?"

"Erm, not really."

Armand flushed faintly. Marius peered suspiciously at him; what had happened to his fledgling's poker face? Losing Daniel seemed to have made Armand lose part of his composure as well. You could almost read his thoughts as they passed like shadows across his face, and what Marius saw now wasn't pleasant.

"Amadeo, what have you been up to?" he asked abruptly.

"Nothing," Armand said hastily. "And don't call me—"

"You wouldn't happen to know why Louis took off, would you?" Marius went on relentlessly, wanting to confirm the suspicions that had suddenly popped into his head. "Or by any chance to have anything to do with it?"

"I thought he needed to know," Armand said, a trace of defiance in his voice. Marius sighed to think that he still brought it out; it made him feel like a father with a teenage son, except that this child of his had been a teenager for centuries now. "Lestat's always been negligent towards Louis, but this—"

"Armand!" Marius said reproachfully. "You shouldn't have done that!"

"Needed to know what?" Now Khayman was bewildered. "Young one, what is it you have done?"

With exaggerated patience and several complaints about being called young, Armand told Khayman about Lestat's upset comments at Marius' villa and how the brat prince had claimed he'd simply go off whistling if Louis turned silent. "So you see, he only wants him for amusement, he—"

"Armand, you know that's not true, Lestat really loves—"

"Can I just once get to finish a sentence around here?" Armand asked acidly. "What I said to Louis, no matter how fascinating the two of you seem to find it, isn't really the point right now. Do you want to try to find Lestat, or not?"

"Yes," Khayman said immediately. "Where is he? Is he at all sane? We should all try to find him, I think, but what do we tell him once we do? That should be agreed on between us before we start."

"It's obvious," Armand said. "We tell him to stop this, or else—"

Marius felt moved to protest. "It's not that easy, we need to talk to him—"

"Talk! He just needs to be told! He's a—"

"He may need help! What if—"

"SILENCE!"

Marius clutched his head, glared at the equally stunned Armand, and sighed at his own unreasonable behavior. Poor Khayman. It was going to be a long night.

* * *

Lestat told himself he was being silly. Here he was, walking in the rain, getting bleated at by stupid fuzzy animals. He was an incredibly powerful vampire, who shouldn't have to concern himself over wet shoes and uneven roads. All he needed to do was use his powers to fly away to, to, well, that was the problem, wasn't it? He had no idea where to go, or even where he'd been. Instead he trudged on, feeling obscurely comforted by the simple physical exercise; it made him feel that he was at least doing something.

Lestat tried to get his rain-drenched hair out of his face, and stepped in another puddle. The truth was, he didn't have the faintest idea what he ought to do, and he felt a little...

Go on, admit it. Frightened.

He couldn't remember anything from the past few nights, and trying to think back made him nervous, as if his mind was trying to hide something from him. That was silly, too. Lestat frowned. It wasn't as if his memory was competely blank. He knew David had left, and...

And I yelled at Louis, he thought uncomfortably, wondering if perhaps he hadn't overdone that a little. His erratic memory presented him with a vivid picture of Louis in the living room of their apartment, his jaw stubbornly set in an attitude of refusal, but was that a tear glinting in one green eye?

Lestat didn't like that thought. But Louis was so easily upset, and anyway, he never yelled back.

Then there had been the meeting at Marius' home in Italy, and Armand had been so ridiculously upset about Daniel going off with the others. Daniel was, in Lestat's considered opinion, overrated both as a human being and as a vampire. Oh, he probably could be nice enough, but why tell someone all your most private thoughts and feelings just because he had pretty violet eyes? Especially when he goes on to tell the world about it afterwards. Well, Daniel was probably good enough for Armand. Lestat snorted.

After the attempt to pry information out of Louis, he remembered, he had tried to find David on his own. Although he felt no real concern for David's whereabouts right now, it had seemed pretty urgent at the time, he thought. And then...

He stopped, frozen in the middle of the road as he reached the most upsetting memory of all so far, feeling it rise from his unconscious to the surface of his mind slowly but surely like a whale about to blow.

Louis. Oh, my Louis.

Louis had disappeared, too. There had been no sweet, comforting presence in the apartment when he had returned from his fruitless search, no one to whom Lestat could have poured out his woes and his irritation. Louis never yelled back, no, but he'd walked out. Lestat felt a sudden sickening wrath, and tried to fight it down.

No. He can't have left me. It's not possible. Not because I was a little upset about David. It wasn't the first argument we've had. Or the worst. At least, I don't think so. He tended to lose track of them as he lost interest in the subjects over the years.

Lestat made himself start walking again. Louis had left a note and there had been nothing in it about the argument, or about David. He didn't know where the note was now, but the words felt as if they were branded into his mind — how could he have thought he'd forgotten?

"You don't need me."

Speaking the words out loud, Lestat considered the statement. He shivered, and told himself it was the rain even as he knew such things did not affect him. Of course he needed Louis, needed him to be there, loving and supportive and acquiescent. Louis gone. There was a word for how he felt at the thought. Desolate.

Lestat wandered off the road and stopped at the edge of a field, staring blankly and seeing nothing. A firm but kind mind-touch almost made him jump.

:Young one.: It was Khayman. :At last.:

:What do you want?: Lestat asked, trying for politeness but missing his goal by a lightyear or two.

Khayman's mind voice was joined by another. :You've found him! Lestat, we've been looking everywhere for you!:

:Oh, really?: Lestat thought sourly. :Did you check under the bed? Marius, Khayman, what do you want?:

:We want you to come to us,: Khayman sounded perfectly unruffled, :to explain yourself and to talk it all out with us.:

:What?: Lestat gave the mental equivalent of a snort. :Did I inadvertently in my sleep sign up for group therapy with you two? I think not. I don't need to talk anything out. Go away, will you?:

:You found him!: A fourth voice joined the fray. :Lestat, damn it, get here at once and you'd better be prepared to talk, and talk fast!:

:Oh no. I take it he's the reason you all need therapy. Armand, stop talking like a bad cop show and get the hell out of my head!:

:Don't think you can get away with this, you over-conceited immortal idiot—:

:Don't start this now, and don't call him—:

Lestat suddenly had a sensation as of being picked up by the scruff of his neck and shaken violently. He gasped for breath as Khayman's powerful voice resonated through his head.

:Armand, you will be quiet. So will you, Marius. Lestat, we are very upset at what you've done. If you don't come to us...: Something like laughter unexpectedly warmed Khayman's mind voice. :I'll send Armand after you. We are on the Night Island. Lestat, will you come?:

Lestat tried to gather his whirling thoughts. :I don't understand.: He made an effort to shut Armand and Marius out of the conversation, and directed his question at Khayman only; Khayman was by far the easiest of the three to deal with right now. :What — what is it I've done that you're so upset about?:

There was a silence that stretched until Lestat was close to screaming. He knew there was blood all over his clothes, he knew he'd done something, but how could the others know anything about it?

All Khayman said finally was, :Lestat, please come here. Talking this way is not comfortable, and I can see that it will be a complicated conversation. Come to us on Night Island, and we will try to understand.:

Reluctantly, Lestat gave in to the pleading in Khayman's voice. :I'll come.:

He shook himself with relief when the connection between his mind and Khayman's was broken. Khayman was so old and so strange, his thoughts decptively simple, plain but disturbingly different. Leaning on a badly-repaired fence, Lestat found himself staring at a sheep, which stared intently back. He was glad Armand couldn't see him now.

Apparently those interfering busybodies over on the Night Island knew more about what he'd been doing over the past nights than he did himself. It almost made sense: Armand was a confirmed snoop, and Marius had always known more about other people's business than what was really good for him.

Lestat knew he was being unfair, at least to Marius. He didn't care. When he arrived on the Night Island he was going to be abused, yelled at, teased and tormented by Armand, asked searching personal questions by Marius... it was going to be sheer hell.

Still, he had to go. Whatever they told him, or did to him, it couldn't be worse than the torture of not knowing what he'd done. Rising slowly into the air, Lestat waved an affectionate farewell to the bewildered sheep.

Chapter ten

Jesse sang in the shower, soaping herself carefully. Blood sweat, she had decided a long time ago, was a real nuisance. It didn't smell as bad as the human version, of course, but it was far harder on clothes.

That's the only reason I go shopping so often. Really. She stepped back into the hot spray and turned round and round, abandoning herself to the pleasures of hot water.

"Soon you're dead," she hummed to herself, and reached for the bottle of shampoo. The first thing she'd seen on her arrival in London had been a garish poster advertising a concert with the Wannadies. Neither David nor Daniel had ever heard of the band, but as Daniel had put it, with a name like that, how could they resist?

Jesse had really meant to take them to an out-of-the-way pub to listen to folk music. Maybe they could do that tomorrow. It wasn't as if they were in a hurry; they could play for as long as they wanted. I can remember when a long vacation meant three weeks. Now I think in terms of decades.

She rinsed her hair and wished the miraculous advantages of vampiric life included automatic unsnarling of elf locks. Undead or not, you still needed conditioner. Jesse sighed deeply and then had to snort water out of her nose in an undignified way.

Eventually she was as clean as she was ever going to get, and stepped out of the shower. The bathroom was huge: they'd taken the bridal suite for the three of them, which had earned them some funny looks. Jesse grinned: if she'd still been mortal, and locked in a bridal suite with those two drop-dead gorgeous guys, the funny looks would have been more than deserved.

As it was, they only enjoyed each other's company for conversation, and would rather be together than apart.

She wrapped one towel around her hair and another around her body and went out to see what the boys were doing. Unsurprisingly, David was reading a book and Daniel was watching MTV. They both looked up as she entered the room, and Daniel whistled. "That's what you're wearing tonight? This'll be an interesting concert."

Jesse grinned affectionately at him. "Fool. It's your turn now."

He bounded up out of the chair and made a playful attempt at snatching her towel before he disappeared into the bathroom; Jesse heard a faint complaint of "You used up all the conditioner!" before she closed the door behind him.

David had put his book down more soberly, but there was a gleam in his eyes as he said, "Daniel's right, it's very becoming."

"Thanks," Jesse said dryly, "but with him around, not to mention gravity, I think I'll go for something with a zipper." She started to rummage around among the suitcases and plastic bags on the floor, and eventually located dark grey tights, a short dress of thick cotton the colour of old blood, and a pair of black leather boots that laced up to the knee. "You know, I really appreciate not having to wear a bra any more."

"What?" David said faintly, as if he doubted he'd heard aright.

Jesse looked up from pulling her tights on. "Now my body is so firm, nothing wobbles any more," she explained, then saw that he looked rather embarrassed. "You're excused for never thinking about it before." She slipped the dress over her head and saw that David looked considerably more relaxed. Jesse smothered a laugh, and looked at herself in the mirror. "Mael would have a fit. He's always trying to talk me into wearing nothing but leather."

David smiled. "You'd look good in leather, too, Jesse. Is it true Mael doesn't wear anything else?"

Jesse laughed. "No. I've talked him into quite a few things over the years, including white cotton boxer shorts. But he's like an old biker, he likes leather best." She stopped in the middle of lacing up one boot. "You know, I think I miss him."

"Are you regretting this little vacation?" David sounded concerned, and Jesse felt the emotions coming from him: if she wanted to call it quits and go home, he'd accept it.

"No!" She shook her head vigorously. "Not at all. I'm having a wonderful time with you and Daniel. I just realized how lucky I am to have him there waiting at the end of it, how lucky I am to know that he loves me."

"Yes," David said slowly, "you're very lucky. Knowing that you are loved must be a wonderful feeling."

"One of the best things," Jesse went on, absorbed in her own thoughts, "is the communication, being able to share things so closely. I love Maharet dearly, but I'm not sure I could ever feel so close to her as I do to Mael, being able to share my mind with him, feel his thoughts. I'm so glad he's not the one who made me. No wonder things are so difficult for Daniel and Armand when they have to be wondering all the time if the other really means what he says."

"It's been called a curse, hasn't it, the distance between the maker and the child? Perhaps it's natural to look for a deeper love elsewhere."

"Different, anyway," Jesse said. "As I said, I feel very close to Maharet, too. And it would be too sad if someone who had made his beloved a vampire then found he had destroyed the relationship."

"I worry about Louis and Lestat," David said. "Things aren't as they should be between them."

Jesse dropped down on the bed next to him and nodded soberly. "So I've gathered. But what's wrong, really?"

David shrugged. "I don't know either of them well enough to tell — and I haven't known them long enough, either. But what I do know is that they need to talk, in words since that's the only way they can do it, but Lestat never sits still long enough. Louis needs to think things through before he speaks, and he doesn't get the chance. And Lestat's not going to initiate a serious conversation; he won't talk about how he feels."

"But he feels a lot," Jesse said tentatively; whatever she'd thought of Lestat, it wasn't that he was cold.

"Oh yes," David said, "he's got emotions enough for six ordinary people. But..." He seemed to be searching for words. "Lestat's the kind of person who'll rush by, say 'I love you', and rush on again without waiting for a reply, because he's scared you'll say you don't love him back."

Jesse nodded, feeling she was beginning to understand. "And Louis will think it's so casual, Lestat probably doesn't mean it, and so he won't say anything in return."

"Exactly."

She put an arm around David. "And where do you fit into all this?" she asked.

"I don't. Why do you think I'm on this little vacation?"

Jesse opened her mouth to reply, when she felt David stiffen. "There's someone here—"

A knock on the door interrupted him. Then the door was opened; Jesse had time for the brief thought of 'but it was locked!' before she saw who stood waiting outside. A slim woman dressed in grey and white, blond hair falling down from an untidy knot at the nape of her neck, large eyes regarding them quizzically...

"Gabrielle!" Jesse bounded up from the bed and threw herself into the older vampire's arms.

"Hi, Red. That dress clashes with your hair."

"Those clothes match yours, Blondie. You know, we should put a purple ribbon on you so we can at least tell where you are. People who disappear in front of a white wall are so hard to keep track of."

Gabrielle growled, let go of Jesse, and stalked into the room. When she caught sight of David she stopped dead and stared at him. "Who the hell," she said politely, "are you?"

Jesse was amused to see that David's gentlemanly instincts had already made him rise to his feet. "I'm David Talbot."

"Nonsense. David Talbot is a dried-up old stick of a Talamasca scholar—" Jesse had heard of people doing double takes, but she'd never actually seen it until now. David had apparently opened his mind to Gabrielle. "Holy shit." Gabrielle even looked dumbfounded for a second.

Jesse laughed. "What are you waiting for," she teased, "the church to proclaim it a miracle?"

"You be quiet, Red." Gabrielle shook her head. "You're my son's fledgling? The new body's an improvement, but you can tell me that story later. What I want to know right now is, who's the enemy you and Louis have in common?"

David looked as bewildered as Jesse felt. "I don't understand you, ma'am."

"Call me Gabrielle." A smile quirked up one end of Gabrielle's lovely mouth. "Since you're Lestat's fledgling, I expect we're related somehow. Depending on how you think of it, I'm either your sister or your grandmother, or maybe your mother-in-law."

Jesse began to laugh; Gabrielle had never thought quite like anyone else, and her off-beat sense of humor was always a treat. David looked less certain of this, but he did smile.

"All right, Gabrielle. You don't mind, do you?"

"Mind what?" Gabrielle sat down in the chair Daniel had vacated earlier and swung her legs over its arm. "That Lestat's made another vampire when we all agreed we'd do no such thing? I'm not too surprised, and no, I don't mind, it's none of my business." David looked relieved. "Do you know where Louis is?"

David looked surprised. "Surely he's in New Orleans?"

"What was all that about an enemy?" Jesse cut in, feeling concerned. "What's been going on?"

"Just what I was about to ask," Daniel said, entering from the bathroom. "I didn't think we'd see you again this side of the millennium, Gabrielle."

"Well, surprise, here I am. And here you are, too; are you tired of Armand already or is it the other way around?"

"I can see where Lestat got his great sense of tact," Daniel muttered.

Gabrielle fished in the capacious pocket of her trenchcoat and produced a crumpled newspaper page. "Take a look at this, would you?"

* * *

Watching them as they crowded around the newspaper clipping, Gabrielle thought she'd rarely come across a more appealing bunch of vampires. They were young enough to lack the tendencies towards angst and self-absorption that made the older vampires such a drag to be around. These fledglings had a zest for life that would sustain them for at least a few more decades, and they obviously had a great deal of affection for each other.

Lestat's newest fledgling was something of a surprise. Not his existence as such — if there was a rule, Lestat would break it, Gabrielle thought and smiled. Nor was the fact that he was devastatingly handsome much of a shock. But a Talamasca scholar with a mind of his own... Lestat usually liked to at least pretend he was the one in charge. This David Talbot wouldn't let him get away with that.

Now he looked up, consternation on his face. "I don't understand this at all," he said. "I don't know of any enemy that Louis and I have. And why not come after us directly? Is this intended as some kind of threat? If it were, whoever did it would have done better to make sure that we would actually read the papers. I know Louis rarely bothers to."

"Sensible of him," Gabrielle said briskly. "A lot of nonsense, most of the time. But something's up and I'm worried."

David nodded solemnly. "Yes, I can understand that. But as I said, as far as I know, Louis is in New Orleans with Lestat, and surely Lestat won't let any harm come to him."

"Probably not," Gabrielle said consideringly. "I'd just like to be sure. I was going to scan for Louis when I noticed the three of you were here. I hope I haven't spoiled your evening."

"It's barely started yet," Daniel reassured her with an impudent grin, "and meeting you has been the high point so far. Listen, why don't you come out on the town with us tonight? As David says, Louis is probably fine, but we can check up on him later, towards morning, how about that? It's still daytime in New Orleans now."

Gabrielle considered the idea. It had been a long time since she'd had any company. And to go out 'on the town'? It sounded like something Lestat would do. Or something a mortal would do. But their high spirits were infectious, and she'd actually missed Jesse from time to time. And finding Louis would be easier if she had people to help her.

"All right," she said. "What are we going to do?"

When she saw the grin on Jesse's face, Gabrielle almost changed her mind and bolted. "Well," the redhead said, "first of all, you are getting out of those clothes."

"There's nothing wrong with my—" Jesse was already unbuttoning her shirt, and Daniel, catching on to the spirit of the thing, had knelt down and was swiftly undoing her bootlaces. Gabrielle cast a pleading look at David Talbot, but he was laughing.

"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," Jesse said. "Gorgeous you are already, but Blondie, when I'm done with you, you'll knock 'em dead at a hundred paces."

* * *

Jesse was a fast worker. One hour later, after being showered, dressed and made up, Gabrielle stared at herself in the mirror in some bewilderment. "This is me?" High-heeled boots, patterned stockings with little skulls and crossbones on, a tight dress in blazing scarlet. "I look ridiculous."

"You're a babe," Daniel said. "Love the ribbons in your hair, too."

"Oh no," Gabrielle wailed.

"Oh yes." Jesse was adamant. "C'mon, Blondie, let's go rockin'."

To her surprise, Gabrielle found herself getting into it. The appreciative stares she got in the crowded streets, the wolf whistles... she even liked the music, once they got inside the crowded club and the band began to play. You could feed in a crowd like this and no one would be the wiser, she thought and glanced to one side only to see Jesse in the clutches of a tall brown-haired man who was shortly going to get more than he had bargained for from the pretty redhead he'd picked up.

Gabrielle found herself humming along to the song the band was playing. "The beast cures the lover." She turned to Daniel next to her. "Interesting idea. What do you think of it?"

The look he gave her, open and vulnerable and full of pain, made her regret the question.

"It's worth a try," he said and disappeared into the crowd.

Chapter eleven

It was easy for him to follow Jesse, David and Daniel from Rome. They travelled the way mortals would, catching a plane from the crowded airport where tired tourists spent their last lire on Fernet Branca in the bar. The man following the three vampires could hardly believe other people did not notice them the way he did. They had the grace and serenity of angels, shining with inner fire, souls burning like torches.

On the flight he sat a few rows behind them in first class, terrified of discovery but thrilled to be so close. He could even observe them a little; how they talked quietly among themselves, read books and flight magazines, toyed with the awful plane food and, unsurprisingly, sent it back untouched.

Jesse dozed against David's shoulder, her long red hair hanging over him like a cape made from strands of silk; Daniel produced a battered Sony Walkman and listened to music for a while, tapping his fingers on the armrest. Ordinary enough things to do, but somehow the three vampires seemed to invest even the most trivial word or gesture with magic. They were simply mesmerizing.

And he wanted them so badly. Wanted to be with them, to be one of them. To be free of the limitations of his pain-ridden body, to set his own appointment with death. When he put one hand on his chest and felt his own heartbeat, the familiar unsteadiness was there, and he imagined every muffled beat as a grain of sand slipping though the hourglass of his life, bringing him closer to the end.

The vampires could free him from all that. They could turn him into something completely different, change his mortal nature and make him a work of art, as they were. Once out of nature, he thought dreamily, and spent the rest of the flight trying to remember the rest of the quotation. Damn it, I used to know the entire poem by heart!

The blue-eyed man was so intent on his thoughts of mortality and immortality, he never even noticed his habitual smiles and kind words had charmed one of the flight attendants, until she slipped him a folded note with her phone number as he was leaving the plane.

Then he laughed softly to himself. At another time he might have been intrigued by her straightforward approach, but he was chasing vampires now, and no mere mortal could compete with them.

He was afraid of losing them at Heathrow, but they moved slowly, seemingly in no hurry. He didn't have any luggage to wait for; they did, and he watched them retrieve expensive suitcases and carry them as if they weighed next to nothing. Again, nobody else seemed to notice them, or be surprised that the frail-looking Jesse was easily hefting a suitcase that would have made a strong man tremble; she'd done a great deal of shopping in Rome. The blue-eyed man wondered if they were deliberately obscuring their presence. It wasn't working on him — he could see nothing but them.

When they caught a cab, he got another one right behind them, and turned to the driver in some apprehension. "Follow that—"

"Not again," the driver groaned and took off, seemingly unsurprised by the request. "Why does everyone think they've seen the love of their life at the airport? I met my Ange down at the pub and now we've four kids. What's wrong with the girl next door?"

"I'm dying," the blue-eyed man said conversationally, "but one of the people in that car might be able to help me."

The driver's hands jerked a little, but he swiftly got back control of the steering wheel. "You want me to drive faster?"

His passenger smiled, touched by the man's evident concern. "No, it's all right. I've got a few weeks. I've two kids of my own, by the way. What are yours called?"

The rest of the drive was passed in cheery conversation of children's antics and related matters, as the man did his best to put the driver at ease again. When they finally slowed to a halt, it came as no surprise to see the vampires checking into an extremely elegant and expensive hotel. The blue-eyed man paid the bemused cab driver, got out, and stared thoughtfully at the imposing entrance. Then he shrugged, and smiled. So what if he couldn't pay his credit card bill? He'd be dead, one way or another, before it came in.

He booked a single room, strewed a few things over it to make it look vaguely lived in, and went downstairs again to wait for his quarry. He was watching the stairs and elevators so intently, he didn't see the woman who entered from the street until she crossed the lobby in a few determined strides and passed not two feet in front of him.

A mane of blond hair, a coldly perfect profile, and the feeling of otherness that was as real to him as a cold breeze would have been... He gasped. It had to be, could only be, the Marquise de Lioncourt. Gabrielle.

The man frowned, surprised and displeased. What was she doing here? Why wasn't she off in a jungle somewhere, the way the books all said she liked best? If she was anything like the way her son had described her, she wouldn't be easily fooled. Perhaps he needed to rethink his plans. Gabrielle wasn't a bored young fledgling looking for fun, and she could become a dangerous enemy.

As she entered the elevator and disappeared from his sight, the blue-eyed man sank deeper into the armchair and tried to think of a way to entice one vampire away from the group. It would have to be Daniel, he had already decided on that. While the gorgeous violet-eyed vampire was outwardly the most mindlessly cheerful of the lot, it seemed clear to the watching man that Daniel was really suffering. And suffering clouded the mind and made thinking more difficult, and confused people were far easier to talk into things, or to fool, if it came to that.

So, the decision had been made. Now it was a question of how to initiate the actual contact, without ending up as dinner.

The man smiled a little to himself. It was an interesting problem.

* * *

Only one candle burned in the small room, its still flame reflected in a bowl of water. A smell of incense hung in the air. The silence was so powerful it seemed a living creature rather than just the absence of sound.

A young woman sat cross-legged on the floor. She was naked, wearing only her long dark hair. Staring into the bowl of water, she sat perfectly still. It almost seemed as if she weren't even breathing, or as though time had stopped, leaving her stranded in the middle of a heartbeat.

The water in the bowl was dark, opaque. Besides the candle flame, it reflected nothing. There was only a black unmoving stillness.

Abruptly, the young woman blurred into motion, rising in one smooth move that ended in a kick connecting solidly with the wall.

"To hell with ritual," she said between clenched teeth, standing on one leg and rubbing her bare foot. "This isn't working at all."

She stalked to the window and opened it, letting the sweet scent of the incense drift out into the night. Then she pulled on a loose blue cotton dress that had been hanging neatly over the back of a chair, tied her hair back with a strip of leather and pushed her feet into a pair of boots.

He had been gone for a long time, and she needed to find him, it was that simple. A year ago, she could have done it easily, but he was more accomplished these days. The witch cursed the day she had shown Martin how to veil his mind. She'd taught him too well.

Thinking back, she knew she had last seen him on the night when they'd taken their Masquerade game out on the streets. It had been Martin's idea in the first place, of course. As he drew nearer and nearer to his own death, he wanted to be doing things constantly, and dragged them all along into one crazy escapade after another. Playing vampires on the street had been relatively harmless, and the witch had been happy enough to go along with it.

But Martin had become separated from the rest of the group somehow. In the café, she thought, although she wasn't certain. And no one had seen him since that night: not his best friends, not his girlfriend, not his lover, not the mother of his children. Not even his heart-sister, the witch.

He wasn't dead, she knew that much. They were linked to each other securely enough for her to have felt that. But he was probably getting into trouble somewhere, as was his wont, and this was a bad time for it.

Sitting down on the floor again, the witch drew a deep breath to calm and focus herself. Martin was dying. He needed to make his peace with the world, and prepare himself for what was to follow. "And knowing him," she muttered wryly, "he's probably out either robbing a bank or seducing some hapless innocent."

Well, she wasn't at the end of her resources yet. She'd find him, one way or another, and bring him back home.

* * *

It was a small club, and even though the band wasn't too well known here, the place was packed. Jesse smiled happily. She had no fear of being trampled. Putting one arm around Gabrielle's waist, she pushed forward through the crowd, offering sweet smiles as apologies, until they were close to the stage.

Gabrielle leaned in close to say, "So what's the band like?"

Jesse shrugged. "Mixed. Sort of Gothic pop, if that makes any sense."

"No. What's Gothic?" the Marquise wanted to know.

Jesse tried not to laugh, and failed. "Gabrielle, I really do love you."

David and Daniel were right behind them. Funnily enough, David was the one who looked most at home in the club; simply dressed in a black jeans and sweater outfit he might have stolen off of Louis, the brown-haired vampire was looking expectantly at the stage, and joined in the welcoming applause and cheers as the band entered.

They launched straight into their first song, the same Jesse had been singing in the shower earlier — Soon You're Dead. Jesse cheered. Daniel shouted in her ear, "Don't tell me you're going to rush the stage just so you can kiss the singer."

Jesse stuck her tongue out at him.

* * *

He hadn't recognized the name of the band, but he knew the music; the witch liked it. Remembering her made him feel a faint twinge of guilt, but he pushed it down. She wasn't the one who was dying; she couldn't know how he felt! And this song was so very appropriate.

The vampires were in the middle of the crowd, up close to the stage, where he couldn't possibly get at them. The blue-eyed man swore to himself in Swedish. He could see Jesse dancing, and to his great surprise, Gabrielle right next to her, body swaying in time to the music. David seemed to be getting into it, too. Martin was enchanted by the sight, and gave himself up to the music.

The singer grinned and said the usual things about being happy to be there, then the band launched into another song with a catchy refrain Martin remembered very well. "I keep you apart from the things that you love, things that you love, things that you care about, not to be evil, I just want to have you for myself..."

There was a movement in the crowd. Martin looked that way to see Daniel making his way back towards the bar. Moving quickly, he got there first and the vampire came up to stand next to him. There were tears in Daniel's eyes. Martin dug into his pocket and produced a large white handkerchief. "Here," he said.

Daniel gave him a surprised look and accepted the proffered handkerchief. "Thank you," he said gravely. "What are you, the Good Clubbing Samaritan?"

The blue-eyed man smiled a little. "Even in a place like this, you'd probably get a few strange looks if you wept blood too obviously."

A cold look crept into Daniel's eyes, and Martin felt a little frightened. Perhaps he'd miscalculated. He felt a push inside, a pressure — Daniel was trying to read his mind. And failing. Now the vampire looked puzzled. "What are you?" he asked again, more urgently.

"An admirer," Martin said frankly. "With your looks, you should be used to them." Daniel smiled a little at that. "Why were you crying? Is something wrong?"

The sincerely caring look in Martin's eyes had earned him a thousand confidences in his life. He wasn't even aware of doing it.

"I was thinking about my lover," Daniel said, his voice so soft he might have been talking only to himself. "And wondering why he keeps me apart from the things that I love."

"How does he do that?" Martin asked gently.

"He wants to call the shots all the time. He wants to be in charge all the time. Whenever I spontaneously try to do something he takes control of it, changes it into something he can deal with."

"So you live your whole life on his terms," Martin said. "Just so he can have you to himself."

"Oh yes," there was bitterness in Daniel's voice now. "And the worst thing is..."

"What?"

"He keeps me apart from himself as well. I know he's there, but I can't get at him." Daniel's lower lip trembled.

"I'm sorry. You deserve better than that." Martin put his arms around Daniel. He'd almost forgotten that this was a vampire, almost forgotten that he intended to trick this vampire into offering him eternal life. All he could see was someone who was suffering; the labyrinth of love had entangled yet another confused victim.

Daniel rested his head on Martin' shoulder, and cried.

Much later, he straightened up and looked surprised. "I apologize," he said. "I don't normally do this to perfect strangers."

"I'm glad you think I'm perfect," Martin said with a quirky smile. "So you're not just doing it because you know you can kill me later?"

Daniel's violet eyes narrowed. "No," he said slowly, "although it is true. You know what I am, don't you?" It wasn't a question.

"Yes," Martin said, "and I know who you are, too, Daniel Molloy. But I'm no threat to you."

"Open your mind and let me read you, then."

"You don't think I deserve a little privacy?" Their eyes met and held, full of subtle challenges. Then Martin opened his mind.

"Oh," Daniel said, catching his breath. "Oh, my."

Chapter twelve

"Sometimes I wonder if you really are a vampire," Louis said lazily. "You seem more like a mermaid to me."

Pandora giggled and thrashed her legs, splashing water all over him. "Does this look like a fish tail?"

He blinked and grinned. "I thought I saw a scale or two."

She rose out of the water and landed in the boat next to him. "Sweetheart, don't tell me you need glasses. And here I was thinking you wore green contacts. You mean that's actually your real eye color?"

"I was going to tell you you looked like Aphrodite rising from the foam," Louis commented, "but what does a myopic vampire know?"

"I already know I'm gorgeous," Pandora stated with dignity.

It was true, too. She was. She reached for a towel and began the time-consuming job of drying her hair.

Louis sighed. "Sometimes I wish the old myth about being invisible in mirrors really were true," he said slowly.

"Why?"

"I've been called beautiful too many times," he said. "When I look at myself all I can think of is how different I look from when I was mortal. Now I look like a statue, as if someone's made me. All cold and serious and distant."

Pandora made a choking sound, and Louis stared at her suspiciously. "Someone did make you," she said innocently. "At least, he did it once."

Louis felt himself turn ever so faintly pink. "That's not what I meant."

"Maybe it would be better if I got you embarrassed before you looked in the mirror," Pandora went on. "That blush does wonders for you. And you could try smiling at yourself one of these nights. I've noticed over the years that there's a startling degree of correlation between feeling serious and looking serious. You should try to get out more, have some fun." Her smile flickered a little. "Actually, I could do with that, too."

He reached out to her gently, hand and mind. "Marius?" he asked.

"No. Yes." Pandora leaned against his shoulder. "I need to come to a decision."

"And you don't know how to, and you'd rather have some fun."

"Yes, of course. Wouldn't everyone?" Pandora smiled wryly. "It's not just that I'm trying to get away from thinking, though. I need to have fun because I'm afraid I've forgotten how to, and it's those moments of pure joy that give us the courage to stay alive. You know that — just think of the things that have made you truly happy."

"I'd rather not. I might start crying."

She gently punched his shoulder. "Are you trying to tell me you can't remember any happy times that aren't connected to Lestat?"

"Not many," Louis said. "And that's not to say that being with him is unadulterated pleasure all the time, either." Pandora gurgled with laughter. "But this time with you has been... really good."

"We're not done yet, sweetheart. But maybe we should think about going somewhere else."

"Bored?" He leaned his cheek on the top of her head and smelled the lovely fragrance of her hair, spiced with salt water.

"Hmmm, not exactly. It's been lovely here, it was just what I needed — peace, a night sky full of stars, and wonderful company. It's just that now I feel the urge to play a little."

"Oh, God," Louis groaned, "you sound like Lestat."

"As long as you don't close your eyes and pretend I am Lestat. Where would you like to go?"

"I don't know... anywhere."

"That won't do," Pandora said sternly. "We are going to go to the place of your choice. There must be something you actively want, as opposed to all the things you would passively accept. Lestat's not here to call the shots any more. Make a decision or we'll be stranded here on Corfu well into the next century."

"All right, all right," Louis laughed. "To tell you the truth," he suddenly felt a litle shy, "there are all these clubs in San Francisco that I really wanted to go to when I lived there just to find out what they were like, but I never did."

"Why not?"

"I don't know, it just didn't feel right."

"Vampires don't dress up and go dancing?"

Louis smiled a little. "Something like that."

"Well," Pandora said, "I have news for you. They do. And we will."

* * *

The flight was boring, as flights generally are. Louis felt a little lost, not having any books around; the airport had only stocked Italian paperbacks, and he didn't feel up to trying to puzzle them out. He leafed through the flight magazines, watched the movie, politely refused all offers of drinks that the cheerful flight attendants made every five minutes.

"About Marius," Pandora said softly somewhere over the Atlantic.

"Yes." He turned his full attention to her.

"I do love him, you know. And he is infinitely kind, and infinitely patient. And-"

"And it makes you want to scream?"

"Yes," she said, sounding surprised. "Exactly. I owe him a great deal for looking after me, but I don't think I can go on living with him just out of gratitude. There is love between us, I'm not denying that, but not the passion of lovers, not now. And he'd be tempted to try to take care of me, and I'd be tempted to let him."

"And you'd be back to where you were before," Louis said.

"At worst, yes. And even at best it would only be a poor substitute for living, for me, and a poor substitute for loving, for him."

"So you really have decided."

"Yes, I suppose I have," she said. "But I don't think I'm ready to find him and tell him that just yet."

"No rush," Louis said with a smile. "I'm enjoying your company far too much to let you run off and break up with Marius right now. And I very much doubt he's in San Francisco."

Pandora grinned. "Gods, I hope not. We'd have to take him along, and he's not much of a club-hopper."

As soon as they got off the plane Louis inhaled deeply, again and again, and looked around in pleasure and contentment. "No other place smells like this one," he said. "Isn't it wonderful?"

"Plane fuel and dust?" Pandora teased. "You have such strange taste."

They caught a cab from the airport, but had trouble deciding on their exact destination. "Some hotel, I suppose," Louis said a little helplessly.

"Why not simply name the grandest place in town?" Pandora asked.

"To tell you the truth, grand hotels bore me. Lestat's the luxury freak, not me. I'd rather stay at some small family hotel that doesn't watch its guests twenty-four hours a day. Less attention, and who needs room service anyway?"

Pandora laughed. "Not me."

Soon enough they were ensconced in a comfortable, small hotel not far from Union Square. Leaning out the window, Pandora said she could see the cable cars go past on Powell. "How touristy."

"We can ride one tomorrow," Louis offered teasingly.

"Tomorrow night," Pandora said with great authority, "we go shopping."

* * *

Lestat prowled the beach on the Night Island, trying to get around to entering Armand's sumptious palace of a home so he could face the formidable trio waiting for him inside. He was certain that they knew of his presence already. No one could hide from Khayman, and Marius and Armand would have been scanning for his arrival as well.

Still, he wanted to put it off for just a few more minutes. And that in itself was a strange feeling. Hadn't he always rushed headlong into things, faced up to challenges almost before they were stated? Now here he was skulking, that was the only word for it, skulking along a deserted beach worrying about what the three vampires he was about to meet would say to him.

He'd always accepted full responsibility for all his actions, even when others had scolded him for them, or only berated him affectionately. Now, though, things were different. He didn't know what it was he was supposed to have done! And since he couldn't remember, and Khayman, Armand and Marius seemed to know, that meant he was in their power. He'd have to accept whatever they said as the truth.

They had no reason to lie to him. But he still didn't like it. And worried as Lestat was, he still couldn't keep his attention focused on the problem of his loss of memory all the time. Visions of the look in Louis' eyes the last time they'd seen each other kept intruding. And each time, he felt a wave of mixed anguish and panic threaten to engulf him. Louis simply couldn't be gone. It wasn't possible.

He stopped abruptly, and took a deep breath and squared his shoulders the way he would have done if he'd still been a young mortal man. Then he marched off across the beach and entered Armand's home through the usual back door.

When he came up into the living room, they were all there: Marius sitting regally on the couch, Armand straddling a chair and leaning his arms on the back, Khayman standing by the cd player. As Lestat entered Khayman punched a button and the sound of a skilled pianist having the time of his life filled the room.

Before Lestat could say anything, Armand turned to look at Khayman. "I don't recognize this," he said. "What is it?"

"Jan Johanson. I expect it's Daniel's," Khayman replied. Ignoring Armand's immediate glower, he smiled. "Welcome, Lestat."

"Yes, welcome," Marius echoed.

Lestat eyed the two of them suspiciously. "Don't be so gracious. I want to know why I'm here."

"Lestat, when did you last see Louis?" Marius asked unexpectedly.

"You made me come all this way just so you could ask me about Louis?" Lestat said. "I don't believe it. And you picked the wrong person to ask, anyway. He's not with me any more. He's left. As you undoubtedly know." He saw Louis again, green eyes hazy with unshed tears, perfect mouth drawn into a tight line of refusal.

"What's the last thing you remember?" Armand asked, completely ignoring Lestat's answer to the first question.

"What is this, a court of law?" Lestat lost his temper. "Damn it all, tell me what you're up to instead of standing there asking me stupid questions, or I swear I'll reduce this damn place to cornflake-sized pieces!"

"Oh, Lestat," Marius sighed. "Lestat, you are—"

"A brat prince, yes, I know. You should get someone to change your cue cards."

Marius ignored the muffled crack of laughter from Armand. "Really, Lestat. We have good reasons for our questions."

"I'm sure you do. And I'd like to know what those reasons are. Now." His curtness was more impatience than anything else; he wasn't feeling one tenth as tough as he wanted to sound. They were playing with him!

It was Khayman who came forward and spread a sheaf of newspaper clippings on the low table. Lestat found himself leaning over them, scanning with inhuman speed, until he reached the crude artist's sketches of two faces that were almost familiar.

"We believe you to have done this," Khayman said with his usual simplicity. Lestat felt a cold wave of shock run through his body. A killer dismembering young men who looked like... that... all the blood on his clothing, the missing night of his life... He could have done this! He still didn't remember!

And the faces, crude copies of David's and Louis' faces, lacking their unworldly beauty yet distinctly recognizable. Only to a vampire would those two faces be so special. Only to one particular vampire, the one who knew them, loved them, made them, and had been left by them.

Thinking back, he focused on the last thing he was sure he remembered: leaving his home in New Orleans after waking up in the evening and reading Louis' note. He tried to see himself going out, not even closing the door, tried to see his feet walking away from the house, feel his way into what he had been thinking then. A dark scream rose up within him, and he clutched at the edge of the table for reassurance, pushing that horrible feeling down into the depths again. What a monstrous sensation! The cold, the... loneliness... he couldn't bear to feel it again.

"Lestat, you're breaking my furniture," Armand hissed.

"I'll buy you a new table," he forced out from between clenched teeth. "This one is ugly, anyway. So you all think I've been on a killing spree? You heard of dismembered bodies and thought 'ah, this has to be Lestat'?"

"We had our rea—"

Khayman shushed Marius with a wave of his hand. "Did you do it, Lestat?"

The gentle concern in his voice worked its usual magic. The rage drained out of Lestat, leaving him limp and tired.

"I expect so," he said. The time had come to talk. But he couldn't face making Marius his confidant as he had done so many times before; Marius judged, he always had, and it was tiring to try to live up to what Marius felt he should be. Armand was simply out of the question. They'd strangle each other in minutes. "Marius, Armand, if you don't mind, I'd like to speak to Khayman alone."

Armand regarded him suspiciously. "I know Khayman is stronger than you, or I wouldn't leave you alone with him. Try not to break anything, okay?"

"No wonder Daniel left you," Lestat said as Armand walked to the door. "You're fussing like a museum curator — 'don't damage my priceless furniture!' What happened, did you yell at him once too often about putting his feet on the table?"

The redhead turned and retaliated, "I'm only hoping Louis left you before it was too late — before he got torn to pieces!"

Lestat seized the table and was about to hurl it at Armand when he was held back by Khayman. "There, there."

"These displays of rage are not helpful in convincing us that you're rational," Marius commented. "If you'd throw a table at Armand, what's to say you wouldn't hack Louis to bits?"

Lestat growled and felt Khayman stagger, trying to hold him down. "That's a very different matter and you know it! Just about every vampire alive has wanted to give Armand a good smack at one time or another."

Marius suddenly grinned. "And some of us have done it," he remarked. "All right, all right, I'm leaving. But you can't keep all of us out of it forever, you know."

He left, shutting the door behind himself and Armand. Khayman cautiously let go of Lestat's arms, and sat down on the couch, patting the place next to him.

"Well, then," he said. "Shall we start from the beginning?"

Chapter thirteen

"Now, isn't that a pretty creature?" Jesse nudged Gabrielle and nodded in the direction of a young man hanging at the bar. "What say we have a little late-night snack?"

The blonde pouted thoughtfully, taking in the details — long curly black hair, soulful blue eyes, tight jeans — then nodded decisively. "That sounds like a perfectly splendid idea to me."

David watched the two stunning female vampires bear down on the hapless young man, thinking if nothing else the wind from their fluttering eyelashes should knock him over. Gabrielle and Jesse were all over the mortal within heartbeats, cooing endearments and nuzzling his neck. Poor thing, he'd never know what hit him... bit him, rather, David punned to himself since no one could hear him and complain.

The club had calmed down now that the band had finished the set. Some music David didn't recognize was playing over the speakers and he strained to make out the words.

"One of us is dying..."

He frowned and wondered if he'd heard aright. Then it occurred to him to wonder where Daniel had disappeared to. Looking around, all he could see were happy mortals dancing, talking, smoking, drinking, flirting, and Jesse and Gabrielle having the time of their life at this tempting smorgasbord.

:Daniel!: he thought, calling out to his friend's mind. :Daniel, where are you?:

The reply was slow and sad. :I'm here. In the corner by the bar. Don't worry about me.:

David looked that way and finally caught a glimpse of ash-blond hair in the darkest corner. It looked as though Daniel were talking earnestly to someone, but he couldn't make out anything about the mortal.

Not that it mattered; it was rude to stare at someone else's food. In fact, if everyone else was feeding, he might as well pick something up, too, mightn't he?

David sighed and dropped the jargon. The frivolous, Lestat-like attitude was too hard for him to maintain right now. Real vampiric feeding was no casual matter to him. And he didn't really need any blood tonight. He only wanted the comfort of it. He only really wanted to hold someone in his arms.

Looking at the mortals all around, he shook his head. They wouldn't have to die here tonight just because he felt lonely. It wasn't their soft, tender flesh he wanted to feel against his own but skin white and hard as marble.

Marius had never really touched him. Just one brief clasp of his shoulder, as the older vampire had taken his leave. Still, David could quite easily imagine what it would be like, how it would feel to run his fingers down Marius' neck, through the thick blond hair, so beautifully tempting. Marius had an almost unendurable presence, not only mentally, but physically. He was so solid, so undeniably there. David wanted to fling himself at Marius, envelop him, like a wave breaking over a rock.

He sighed again, and frowned at himself for it; what a ridiculous mortal thing to do. Lovelorn languishing, of all silly things. He should be too old for that—

David caught himself in that thought, and nearly laughed out loud. He had been old as humans counted years, but now he was very young indeed. A child compared to Marius, anyway.

But he has Pandora. Not that she can be much company the way she is.

David pushed away the disrespectful thought. Still, there was something about Pandora that he found disturbing. He found himself wondering if she'd ever wake out of her silent state, and what she'd be like then. The others had tried to describe her to him, and he'd read Lestat's book, but still he felt he'd come no closer to understanding her. She was a silence, a very powerful silence, one that bound Marius too.

And I want him, David acknowledged to himself. I want him so badly. Lestat would die if he knew. He doesn't want me for himself, but he doesn't want anyone else to have me, either.

David felt trapped. He wanted to break away from Lestat, but not by running away as he had done now. He needed to tell Lestat the truth, that he wanted a life of his own, a lover of his own. Except that he couldn't tell Lestat about Marius. And he couldn't tell Marius how he felt, either, not while Pandora remained dependent on the Roman vampire. Not while she was...

...unable to fight back, he thought wryly. I'd tell him if he were free to choose, but he's not. He has to keep her, he is responsible for her. And to try to seduce Marius behind Pandora's sleeping back — no, that simply wasn't done.

And what makes me think he'd even want me? David thought despairingly. He's seen the fledglings of millennia pass before his eyes, more beautiful and enchanting surely than I. Why would he choose me, even if he were free to make a choice?

His obsession with Marius was beginning to embarrass him. They'd only had one very short and neutral conversation; why had it sparked such intense emotions in him? Marius had been polite, not cold exactly, but reserved. Had asked him ever so subtle questions about his new life as a vampire, in a new body, and about his old life with the Talamasca.

David hardly ever thought of the Talamasca any more. The people of that organization had been his family, yes, and he had loved them. He'd had a life with the Talamasca and it had on the whole been wonderful, a great adventure. But he had left all that behind when Lestat had taken him. The anger and confusion he'd felt then was past, too.

Now he had a different life that promised to be even more exciting. He felt no loyalty to the Talamasca, or any desire to contact his old friends in the organization. It would never work. He was separated from them by the narrow but deep chasm that separates researcher and subject. David knew that the Talamasca now would regard him as a something, not a someone; a vampire fledgling, not David Talbot.

I am both, he thought, and I am most comfortable among those who know that. Among vampires, in other words. He had tried to make that clear to Marius, without speaking too bluntly.

A young woman tapped his arm to get his attention, and asked him if he wanted to dance; he accepted more out of surprise than any real enjoyment of the music. As he tried to learn the rules of this modern dancing that seemeed at first sight to have no rules at all, David Talbot managed to forget both Marius and Lestat de Lioncourt.

Much later, Jesse came skipping up to him and twined an arm around his neck. "You getting ready to leave?"

He nodded. "Yes, that would be..." :Child, you have blood in the corner of your mouth.:

:I'm older than you are, child.: She wiped her mouth discreetly and dragged him from the dance floor; David smiled apologetically at his partner, who stomped off into the crowd again. :Older as a vampire, that is.:

Daniel was with Gabrielle, chatting unconstrainedly with her. David decided he might have imagined the depression he'd thought he'd noticed in Daniel before. Right now, Daniel seemed as cheerful as ever.

Gabrielle smiled at them. She was so lovely in the clothes Jesse had picked out for her! A stunning woman, she had people watching her all over the club. "If we go back to the hotel," she said in her swift, decisive way, "we can have a try at locating Louis before dawn."

"Better than here," Daniel agreed.

"Yes," David said. "I believe we should make a concerted effort."

Jesse led the way to the door, and they caught a taxi back to their hotel. Once or twice as David looked out the window he could have sworn there was another taxi following theirs, but he chalked it up to a last remnant of Talamascan paranoia, or maybe it was all those James Bond films he'd watched in the sixties and seventies.

Once they were inside their comfortable suite, Gabrielle took the lead again. David admired her: a woman who knew what she wanted and went for it without any subterfuge. She might be annoying in her bluntness, but one could trust her not to be dishonest.

"I just want to find him and make sure he's all right," she said. "I think we may have greater range together. Will you trust me to lead?"

"Sure," Daniel said, sounding a little surprised that she'd ask. The vampires meshed the surface levels of their minds, each careful not to think or feel anything too 'loudly' and so disrupt the unity. David felt how they strained, through Gabrielle, to contact Louis. It seemed to go on forever, and he could hardly remember what it felt like to have his mind to himself; then Gabrielle suddenly dropped out of the link, shattering it.

He rubbed his temples. Someone might teach her a more gentle technique.

"I couldn't quite get him," she said. "He's shielding. But I picked up a location. He's not in New Orleans at all, he's in San Francisco."

"That's where I was planning to take us next," Daniel said thoughtfully.

"So let's go," Jesse said. "We can chat with Louis and warn him about this strange enemy if necessary, and then amuse ourselves with whatever fun and games Daniel has thought up."

"I think that's a good idea," David supported her. "Gabrielle, do you want to join in our band of merry travellers?"

"Crazy travellers, you mean. Yes, I'll come with you." Gabrielle smiled. "Civilization's so much more fun when you have company."

* * *

Sitting on the neatly made bed, Martin breathed deeply and tried to calm himself, feeling a rush that was almost like a drug high. He'd spoken to Daniel! He was still alive!

He might go on being alive.

Looking around, he saw neither the well-appointed hotel room nor the dark night outside the window, framed by red curtains like the beginning of a play. Martin was reliving the moment when he had opened his mind to Daniel, sharing his pain, his hopes, his passion. He had felt many things in the mind of Daniel Molloy, probably more than the young vampire had been aware of. The witch had taught Martin well. He wished he could thank her, but dared not even think of her for too long. She was skilled enough to pick up on it, to find him, and he couldn't let her do that. He'd set his own agenda the moment he'd understood that Jesse was a real vampire, and he couldn't let anything sway him from his chosen path now.

He returned to his memories of Daniel, the feel of Daniel's mind opening against his own.

Martin had felt the vampire's pain, his longing for love and companionship, the alienation growing between him and his beloved, his maker and mentor. Ah, the redhead Armand. It seemed Armand was every bit as seductive and every bit as difficult as Martin had thought, from reading the books, that he would be. He almost wished that he could have met that one instead, but then, he knew that Armand would not have been so easily swayed as Daniel had been. Daniel's sadness made him the perfect target.

I'm not really playing with him, Martin thought defensively. I could love him, I really could.

And he might as well start now. He would have paid just about any price for immortality, but sharing his afterlife with Daniel Molloy would not be a hard burden to bear. The vampire needed a companion; Martin would be that companion.

I love you, Daniel. And I'll make you love me, too.

Chapter fourteen

Lestat sat silent for a while, trying to gather his scattered thoughts together like torn leaves fallen from an old book. He looked intently at Khayman, trying to fathom what lay behind the smooth inhuman face, the wide eyes that seemed innocent as those of a child. Khayman never lectured or scolded the way Marius did, nor did he assume the role of teacher and revealer of grand secrets as a reward for good behaviour. No, that was unfair to Marius. But it occurred to Lestat that maybe Khayman didn't believe there were any grand secrets.

"Yes," the ancient vampire said gently, acknowledging that he had been reading Lestat's surface thoughts. "That's how it is. Your accounts of your various quests have intrigued me. All that looking for meaning. To me, it is different. But then I knew it all from the beginning, and often wished I did not. I don't look for the things you do. I am, I continue to be, time passes and the smallest things come to matter the most, the beauty of a tree silhouetted against the evening sky, the feel of cool air rushing into a heated room at night. Meeting those I care for, seeing them happy."

"But what do you want?" Lestat burst out. "What do you want out of this — this eternal instant you say your life is?"

Khayman smiled. "To remain aware, to keep my memories. What we all want — companionship. Love. To be made welcome by someone."

Lestat felt himself on the verge of tears. He told himself he was only weeping for Khayman, only empathizing. "You've been alone for so long—" The piano music was slower now, an echo of the conversation.

"Yes," Khayman said simply. "And I don't want the same thing to happen to you."

"We're vampires, Khayman," Lestat said, trying to recapture his hard edge. "We can make new companions."

Khayman looked deep into his eyes. "We can make a new tool when the old one breaks or is lost, Lestat. But companions are not made, or kept. The ones you love are always unique, and their own. Louis does not exist for your amusement."

"I never said he did!"

"You've acted as though he does. Your amusement, your convenience. Lestat, we've all admired your passion, your burning intensity, the way you rush gleefully in where the more prudent proverbial angels would not only fear to tread but actually run in the opposite direction. But every time you claim to stop and think, it ends up with you plunging headlong into another mad adventure. Can you not be still a little, and reflect on your life? What do you want, Lestat, out of your existence?"

Lestat leaned back abruptly, away from the question in Khayman's eyes; he couldn't bear the eye contact any more. He looked down. "I thought we were going to talk about the newspaper stories, the killings, whether I did them."

"You did." Khayman was authoritative. "What we're going to talk about is why you did them. What's been happening between you and Louis, Lestat? Why did you become so angry?" Lestat still avoided Khayman's eyes. "Where is Louis now?"

"I don't know! All right? I don't know."

"Is it part of... what you don't remember?"

Lestat shook his head tiredly, seeing what Khayman was after. "No. I didn't kill him in amnesiacal madness, if that's what you're worrying about. He left. I remember that. I came home and he'd left. He even wrote me a note. A note, for chrissakes! Like the ending of some stupid... two-week affair. I'm not crying!"

Khayman pulled him close, bent Lestat's head down. He rested his brow against Khayman's hard shoulder.

"There, there, young one."

"I'm—" He swallowed, then growled the words out. "I'm scared." Lestat lifted his head against the pressure of Khayman's hand. "Will you help me find him? Will you help me find Louis?"

The old Egyptian vampire was thoughtful. "Armand and Marius told me you wanted help in finding David, before. Just to have him back. Do you still—"

David. His David.

No. Not his David, really. Just David Talbot. And of course Lestat wanted to see David again, wanted to know what had gotten into him to make him leave so abruptly. But—

"That's not so important any more," Lestat admitted. "Of course I still want to find David. But I need to find Louis. Just to — to talk to him. Hell, there's three of you, surely you can hold me back if you think I start to look vampiricidal!"

Khayman winced. "I don't think even the devil himself could hold you back if you were really intent on something, Lestat. But as long as you stick to mutilating language, I'll support you."

"All right." Lestat pulled himself together into decisiveness. "Let's get the rest of the committe in here. Marius! Armand!"

They appeared in a suspiciously short time, but from the way they were glaring at each other, Lestat deduced that they'd been fighting rather than eavesdropping. For the hell of it, he attempted a rapid scan of their minds, but met with firmly maintained blankness. Armand was a master of control, and he'd learned from Marius. Marius even gave Lestat a look that said quite clearly, 'None of your business, young one!'

Lestat was strong enough to challenge Marius now if he cared to do it, and he resented being called 'young one' by anyone other than possibly Khayman, the very oldest of them all these days. It seemed to confirm his status as the eternal brat of the family; really, there were many who were younger than he!

But the vampire community was no wolf pack — or not entirely, he amended. They knew each other's strength, didn't need to continually test themselves. If they had to fight it would most often be verbally.

And we're very good at that, aren't we? Lestat thought wryly. When you've known someone for a couple of centuries, you know their weak points so terribly well.

He thought back to his last confrontation with Marius, the things he'd said about Pandora. How could he have done that! I don't really think when I'm angry, do I? I just rush right in.

And he'd certainly taken that behavior to a new extreme now. He'd killed so many innocents, killed them for nothing else but a fleeting resemblance to his beloved fledglings.

Marius and Armand sat down at opposite ends of the room. Armand sat with his legs drawn up and his chin propped on his knees, the pose of an urchin, utterly at odds with his elegant suit. He looked like a child dressed up in his father's clothes. And how that deceptive appearance must irk him sometimes.

Not for the first time, Lestat was grateful that he had been a grown man when he'd been made into a vampire. Not for the first time, he realized what havoc Marius' love had wrought on its object.

Marius cleared his throat. "Amadeo." No response. "I'm sorry."

Armand still did not move. Lestat was tempted to rouse him by comparing him to one of those maudlin 'little boy blue' or weeping Harlequin paintings, but held back. This was none of his business. And when he looked at Armand he had to admit that his sneering comparison did not ring true. There was nothing sentimental, cheap or second-rate about Armand.

Marius tried again. "Amadeo. I shouldn't have said what I did. I—"

"I wish you would call me Armand," he said conversationally.

Marius looked almost shocked. "Call you — I do sometimes, but— You know you've always been Amadeo to me."

"I know." Armand nodded. "Beloved of God, and you were my god, then. But that's not who I am any more. And I prefer a name I've chosen myself to one I was given in captivity by the Venetians."

It was obvious that Marius had trouble accepting this. With the final disappearance of the name Amadeo, would the boy he had once loved disappear too?

"Yes. All right." Marius looked swiftly aside, then back at the deceptively fragile-seeming redhead. He seemed to be steeling himself. "Armand. I had no right to speak as I did. I forget, sometimes. We've both changed while we were apart. If — if I try to get to know Armand, will you try to see me also the way I am now, and forgive me for the way I once loved Amadeo?"

Lestat didn't move a muscle; he could sense Khayman's corresponding stillness next to him. They were trying to make themselves invisible. Armand and Marius were concentrating on each other to the exclusion of all else. Armand's whole body seemed a tight knot of intensity. Marius, the calm and collected, dignified Marius, was opening up, his face naked and vulnerable.

"Yes," Armand whispered. "I'll stop — stop trying to challenge you, stop trying to prove myself to you. Let go of who you have become in my mind, in your absence. I have a life, it's my own life and doesn't need you as its witness." There was a brief silence. Then Armand rose. His eyes were so huge they seemed to be half his face. Hesitantly, he smiled. "I have a life of my own, but I would like you to be in it, whoever you feel that you are now." He walked across the room to where Marius had risen to his feet, too, and stretched his arms out. "Marius."

"Armand—"

As the two embraced, Lestat averted his eyes. It was too personal, too intimate for him to share in even as a spectator. Khayman touched his arm and gestured at the door. Silent as shadows they slipped outside.

"They would not appreciate our presence, I think," Khayman said as he walked ahead of Lestat, leading him into the kitchen. Lestat looked around; it was a high-tech miracle, changed and improved from the old coven days. Exactly what he would have expected. Opening the refrigerator, he found it running but empty.

"No, not at all," he said. And it had been almost impossible to watch; yet he couldn't shake his feeling of curiosity, of wanting to see and understand how it was managed, this reunion, this katharsis that was taking place. Those two were actually letting go of each other at long last, relinquishing the roles of master and fledgling, leaving behind their long history of love and betrayal to meet finally as equals, as just themselves.

"Maybe this will help Armand to forgive Daniel," Khayman was saying, sitting down at the kitchen table.

"Yes, well, it's all very touching but I want to find Louis," Lestat said, switching moods abruptly. "Since those two will probably spend the rest of the night in a clinch, will you help me?"

It galled him to have to ask for help again and again. Maybe he should have bought Louis one of those nifty little portable telephones that people were carrying everywhere these days.

"I know," Khayman said. "I can do it for you, I think. But what do you want me to tell him when I do find him?"

"Tell him?" Lestat turned around to face Khayman. "I don't want you to tell him anything. I just want you to find him for me, find out where he is so I can go to him. I'll tell him everything I want to say myself."

"You do not want him to be warned that you are coming, is that it? What are you going to do when you find him?"

Lestat grimaced. "I just told you. I want to talk to him, that's all. It won't have the same effect coming from you. If I can talk to him, he'll understand."

Louis could never resist me. It had always been that way, hadn't it? Lestat had always been able to persuade or cajole or bully Louis into just about anything. Yes, that irresistibly sweet submissiveness of his...

But there was unease in him at the thought, too. Things were changing. Something had gone horribly wrong. The cold feeling rose in him again, that feeling of utter desolation, of being abandoned. He was sinking into darkness.

Lestat pulled himself up and out, once again became aware of his surroundings, Armand's space-age kitchen, Khayman at the table with a faraway look in his eyes, looking like an ancient royal Egyptian statue. Probably scanning for Louis already.

Lestat turned away and started to rummage through the kitchen cupboards to make himself forget about the way he felt. It seemed that Armand had developed a passion for brightly colored plastic utensils. Or maybe they were Daniel's. The closer he looked at them, the more ridiculous they seemed, objects that might have been useful in an ordinary kitchen but were absolutely pointless here. Lestat caught himself feeling almost sorry for them.

Get yourself together, you're going crazy, he told himself irritably. Mixing bowls do not have feelings!

No, they didn't, but perhaps he was going—

Khayman let out a little gasp of surprise. He looked up and blinked at Lestat. "How interesting," he said.

"What? Whatwhatwhat???"

"Louis is in San Francisco," Khayman said. Then he added calmly, "And Pandora is with him."

"What?!"

"I think this warrants disturbing Marius and Armand," Khayman went on blithely. "Marius has worried so about Pandora, he came here to ask for help in finding her. I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear that she's all right."

"But what is she doing with my Louis?" Lestat asked, outraged. "What are they doing together!"

I'm not going to put up with this. I am not going to lose Louis to some old Greek vegetable!

Chapter fifteen

When Louis slipped back into consciousness from the depths of vampiric sleep, Pandora was already awake, as usual. She had removed the elaborate covering they had fashioned and sat by the window, looking out onto the street below. When he moved, she turned her head towards him and smiled. "Sleepyhead. It's the early bird..."

"That gets the worm. And you can have it, Pandora dear." He rose, and tried to smooth out his wrinkled clothing. "I'll just take a shower."

"Don't take too long," she said, turning back to the window. "The stores aren't open all night."

Louis stopped halfway into the bathroom. "You mean you're going to let a little thing like closing hours get in your way? I thought you were a serious shopper."

He entered the bathroom to the sound of her laughter. It warmed him. He had really come to love her, this intense and passionate creature, so full of sad-eyed longing one moment, the next making dirty jokes. She seemed more aware of herself and her own nature than most other vampires were, more accepting of her own vibrant and at the same time insecure personality. Many in the vampire coven were most unfit for prolonged introspection; Louis rather felt that they made themselves into what they wanted to be, and the mask endured as the face itself.

Standing in the shower, he found himself wondering if he did that, too. Was he creating himself nightly, refusing to see his own true self? Was he lying to himself so well that he'd never noticed?

No, he decided, rinsing herbal schampoo out of his hair. If anything, he had been accused of looking inwards too much, not too little. Louis felt that he knew himself reasonably well. And under Pandora's gentle guidance, he was coming to like himself better, too.

He had believed for a long time that because he wasn't boldly independent, like Gabrielle, or incurably rash, like Lestat, or even manipulative like Armand, there was something missing in him. The vampire coven consisted of overachievers and extroverts, except for him.

But now he had come to see that that wasn't entirely true. Pandora had made him think, and one of the things he'd thought had been that this belief of his own essential boringness and inadequacy had been to a large extent fostered by Lestat's condescending manner. Louis knew now that although he was fascinated by Lestat's daring exploits, he didn't envy them, nor did he have any desire to emulate Lestat.

If he finds me boring, Louis thought, so be it. This is the way I am. I can do whatever I feel like doing. That thought was becoming something of a mantra to him.

It seemed that the members of the vampire community all too easily took on roles. There were the loners, Gabrielle, Santino, Eric, to some extent Mael. There were the wise old counselors, Marius, Khayman, Maharet — at least, she could be when she was in the mood for it. Louis could see that David was headed in this direction too, and no matter that he was a few millennia behind the others; he'd played the role too often as a mortal to let go of it now.

We typecast each other, he thought. I'm sure that when the others think of me they think 'Louis — the brooder — the human one — perpetually depressed' and that's it.

Well, I dont want to shock them or 'show them' by doing something they never thought I'd do. But it's time I stopped thinking of what I ought to do and concentrated on what I want to do.

He turned the water off and stepped out, grabbing a towel. At least now he was making a start. A start at accepting himself exactly the way he was, without feeling inadequate. After all, he'd never really envied the others. He did not particularly want the ability to fly, the physical aspect of a marble statue, the responsibility for a huge mortal family, the ability to tumble into one scrape after another.

What he really wanted right now, Louis thought, slipping into his clothes, was to go shopping with Pandora and have a good time.

He came out from the bathroom to find her brushing her hair and twisting it into a simple bun at the back of her head. "Ready?" she asked.

"Ready and willing," he said with a grin.

They left the hotel, smiling at the receptionist who only lifted her head from a Diana Gabaldon novel she was reading by candlelight long enough to mumble "Bye" at them, and walked towards Powell. Pandora smiled again as a cable car went past, then slowed to a stop as crossing traffic got in its way.

"You really want to ride one of those, don't you," Louis said.

She snorted. "Do you think I was born yesterday? Do you think I'm a tourist?"

"Yes," he said, gripped her hand and ran with her out into the street, boarding the cable car just before it started moving again. Pandora laughed breathlessly.

"Louis, you silly—"

A few dazzling smiles at their fellow passengers, and no one found anything odd in what they'd done. They rode over the hill and Louis took great pleasure in pointing out the location of various San Franciscan landmarks to Pandora, who invariably responded, "I know that!"

They were giggling like children by the time they arrived at Fisherman's Wharf. "That's Alcatraz out there."

"I know that!" Pandora tugged at his hair. "We're completely in the wrong place now, you realize that?"

He poked her waist with one finger, making her jump. "So let's go to the right place! And don't you 'eeep!' me. Vampires aren't ticklish."

"Says who?" Pandora hailed a cab and dragged him into it. "Haight-Ashbury, please."

"You are a tourist."

"Am not! I'm a shopper and don't you forget it!"

They squabbled amicably all the way to the Haight, where Pandora paid the driver, overtipping outrageously enough to make him blink. "Oh no, that's really too much," he said, revealing a British accent.

"Nonsense," Pandora was brisk. "Now come on, Louis." They left the cab before the driver could say anything further. The place looked the same; dirty, colorful, a ragtag mix of the summer of love and the winter of commerce.

"I can't believe there's a Gap store here," Louis commented, nodding at the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

There was a new, feral gleam in Pandora's eyes as she gripped Louis' arm and dragged him along Haight. She stopped suddenly and dove into a small, dimly lit clothes store. "Look, isn't it adorable?" she said, picking up a preposterous red silk hat and dumping it on his head.

He looked in a dingy mirror, and shuddered. "No." Taking the hat off and putting it back on the shelf, he discovered that he was really enjoying himself. Louis spotted an interesting item on a rack, and pulled it out. It was a velvet jacket made from hundreds of tiny patches of dark blue, red, grey and black, with silver stitches, and tiny mirror chips glued on. "Hey, Pan, try this."

She squealed with delight. "Perfect! Louis, I swear you must be an old hippie."

"Not as old as you, beautiful. Do you think I'd look good in a see-through pink plastic raincoat?"

"If you take the rest of your clothes off, sure. Is that the kind of club we're going to?" She was standing by the counter, picking through strands of cheap, garish beads.

"I don't think pink is my color," Louis hedged, trying to cover his embarassment.

The owner bustled up to him. She was a small, slim woman with greying hair and an engaging smile.

"I have just the thing for you," she said in a conspirator's whisper, drawing him off into a corner. "Not everyone could wear it, but..." She pushed him into a small, cramped changing booth and thrust a couple of garments after him. "Here, try it on!"

Louis obediently wriggled out of his clothes and into—

"Good lord!" It was a skin-tight suit of green velvet, from the same design company as Pandora's jacket. The pants had pearls and mirror bits sewn on down the side seams.

Pandora stuck her head in and whistled approvingly. "Wow! You look positively indecent. Wonderful. Forget about the coat, you won't need it."

"I'm only selling that as a set," the owner said decisively, and looked over Pandora's shoulder. "I knew it would suit you."

"Thank you," Louis said diffidently. "Ladies, would you please withdraw while I change back?"

Pandora leered at him, there was no other word for it. "You don't have anything I haven't seen before... all right, I'm going!"

She paid for their purchases while he put his old jeans back on, and barely gave him time to say farewell to the store owner before dragging him on.

"Now what?" he asked plaintively as they went through another door.

"Shoes. We need shoes."

Louis could only watch in amazement as Pandora chose a pair of blue and silver striped lace-ups with high heels. Then she plunked down a pair of high suede boots in front of him. Louis looked uncertainly at them.

"Pan, aren't these women's boots in this century?" he asked in a soft whisper.

"Who cares? They're perfect for you. See if they're the right size."

They were. Again, Pandora paid and dragged him off, this time into another cab. "The Castro?"

"Right. It's time for the serious shopping." Louis began to feel faint.

* * *

"What do you think?" Pandora posed unselfconsciously in the opening of the changing-room cubicle, wearing a catsuit of thin dark grey latex. Everyone in the store turned to stare at her. Louis smiled.

"You're stunning, darling."

"Why, thank you. You say the nicest things." She twinkled at him and disappeared. Louis went back to browsing through various items made of studded leather, wondering what their purpose might be. The salesman coughed to get his attention.

"You want to try that on?"

Louis guiltily started and stared down at what he was holding. It looked like a dog collar. "Er, well."

"I'll help you, it fastens at the back." The man walked around the desk and buckled the collar around Louis' throat with deft hands. "It's a nice understated model, classically simple."

Pandora reappeared, clutching the catsuit. "I'll take this, please. Louis, you keep surprising me. Are you getting that?"

He shrugged uncertainly. "I don't know."

She grinned. "It looks great on you. You-know-who would have a fit."

:Lestat wouldn't like it?:

:Certainly not. It makes... a bit of a statement.:

"I'll take it," he told the salesclerk.

"Very good," the man smiled. "And if you're interested, we have a nice selection over here." He gestured towards a row of rather smaller leather 'collars'.

"I don't think he needs one of those," Pandora said.

:What are they?: Louis asked her curiously.

:Cockrings, dear heart.:

:Oh.:

"Do you have them in any other materials?"

* * *

Pandora eyed Louis suspiciously as they left the store. "Don't tell me you've been having a kinky secret life all along."

He chuckled at her tone of voice. "No. I just thought I might as well do things thoroughly. Besides," he winked at her, "Lestat will freak."

"He most certainly will. All right, now you need a jacket."

"They had some nice models in there, I thought."

"Yes, but I had something different in mind." She led him down Castro, round a corner and up a flight of stairs to a door with a sign saying 'KJ Clothing — RenFaire Costumes'.

Louis halted outside the door and tilted his head to look curiously at her. "How do you know about these places? You seem more knowledgeable about the city than I am. Was the vegetable period just an act?"

Pandora shook her head. "I listened, though. To mortals, to other vampires. I know a lot of things indirectly, you might say."

She pushed the door open. A young woman with wildly curling reddish-brown hair and a determined face came to greet them. As Louis watched, she removed a pair of ear plugs. "They help me concentrate when I work," she explained, seeing the direction of his look. "I'm KJ. What can I do for you?"

"We need something special."

Louis fell to studying a gorgeous dress in late thirteenth century Italian style as Pandora began to explain her requirements. He was jerked from his admiration of the beautifully cut sleeves when the seamstress thrust a collection of leather strips at him. "Here, try this on."

It was a jacket, but the leather had been slashed at regular intervals, the strips only connecting at waist, shoulders and once halfway down the back; the similarly slashed sleeves were caught together at elbow and wrist. Pandora helped him put it on.

"Shouldn't I have a different shirt to go with this?"

:You can forget about the shirt, darling.:

"Is that all?" KJ asked. "I don't want to rush you, but there's an all-night special starting in half an hour — all the 'Tales of the City' episodes in one go. I don't want to miss that."

"I thought that was a book," Louis said.

KJ grinned at him. "Well, they filmed it."

"Damn, I'd forgotten. I want to see that," Pandora said unexpectedly. "Come on, Louis, pay for your nice new jacket, then we're going back to the hotel."

"You can stay here and watch with me if you like," KJ offered. "I'd like some company. I've tons of popcorn and there's plenty of Pepsi in the fridge."

"Thank you," Louis said gravely, "but we really should get back—"

"There's no hurry," Pandora said unexpectedly. "If we're not in the way?"

"Wouldn't have asked you if you were. In fact," KJ grinned, "you can help me. Catch!"

Louis found himself with an armful of rich red velvet.

"I hope you can sew buttons," Pandora giggled.

Chapter sixteen

"Wait, I should get—"

"No!" Lestat said forcefully, cutting off Armand's comment. "Not another delay! We've been dawdling here forever. We're leaving now, and if you're not ready you can just stay here."

Armand turned and gave him a long stare. "You should work at controlling your aggressive tendencies, Lestat." He left the room, returning shortly with a small flat box that he stuffed into the inner pocker of his coat. "There, I'm ready now."

"At last," Lestat growled.

There had been one delay after another. Armand and Marius had gone hunting together last night — vampiric bonding, Lestat thought dismissively — and it had been impossible to locate them until near dawn. Then most of this night had been wasted in fruitless discussions. Marius had somehow not been as spontaneously happy at hearing that Pandora was found as Lestat had thought he would be. Rather he had gone into a long argument, mainly with himself, as to whether he should go see her or not. Meanwhile Armand had been lobbying vehemently against Lestat going to see Louis.

He called me insane, he called me a ruthless killer, he—

Lestat growled, fighting for control. Only Khayman's presence had averted an all-out fight; that, and what Lestat reluctantly had been forced to acknowledge, that Armand's protests were because he genuinely cared for Louis and what became of him.

Now there was an uneasy truce among the four vampires who left Armand's house and walked out onto the beach. While Armand fussed with locks and security systems, Lestat stood still, looking up at the stars. Suddenly he was gripped by the chill of panic again; he felt as though he were falling upwards, into the void.

Lost, he thought. I'm lost. Nothing seemed certain, his grip on the world was loosening slowly...

A hand like living stone closed on his shoulder.

:Someone will always come to find you,: Khayman's voice spoke in his mind.

:That's what I'm afraid of,: Lestat thought back, more harshly than he'd intended. :Someone's always coming after me, saying I did something wrong.:

:And you don't do a thing to bring it on, do you?: For a moment Lestat thought Khayman had finally lost all patience with him; then he caught the glimmer of humor in the words, but was unable to respond to it.

:I'm sorry,: he sent. :I'm just not up to being the Brat Prince tonight.:

Armand left the door and came to join the group. Khayman gripped him unceremoniously around the waist and held him tight. Lestat was a little surprised; he'd thought that Marius would be taking Armand. "Let us leave, then."

"Yes." Lestat was already speeding into the air, putting all his impatience into the release of flight, and the others rushed to catch up.

* * *

"...and the first guy says, 'I told you to hold the pickles!'"

Pandora and KJ burst out giggling together. Louis watched them with affection. This time Pandora had met someone who knew just as many dirty jokes as she. He threw a shirt at them to get their attention. "It's getting early."

Pandora looked up. "Oh, yes, you're right." She looked at the shirt he'd tossed and pulled experimentally at the wrist laces. "Bondage sleeves."

That set KJ off again. Louis turned from them in resignation and looked at the TV screen instead; the TV was still on, the sound muted. He reached for the remote and began to make his way through the available channels, stopping short as he found a local news channel broadcasting live from the scene of a fire. Something about the building on fire looked awfully familiar. Turning up the sound, he heard, "...perished in the fire. Most of the guests—"

"Pan! Pan, our hotel's burning up."

"What?" She twisted around to look at the screen. "Gods, you're right, it is."

"That's terrible," KJ said. "That poor receptionist. You were lucky not to be there."

Louis looked at her sharply. "The receptionist?"

She met his eyes. "Didn't they say the receptionist probably caused the fire, and she died in it?"

"No,"Pandora said. "They're saying it now."

"Oh." KJ looked oddly guilty as she returned her attention to the screen. "I guess I'm ahead of my time."

Louis met Pandora's eyes. :Psychic. Talamasca?:

:Perfectly shielded.:

"We have to find another place to stay," he said out loud. The reporter was saying that the building would be saved, but was taking heavy damage.

"You can crash here," KJ offered without taking her eyes off the TV screen. "I have a great basement. I won't disturb you; I sleep up here, and I'll be working all day."

Louis couldn't believe his ears. She was speaking as if she knew exactly what he and Pandora were, yet her voice held no fear; it sounded like a casual offer from one friend to another. Did she know?

"I don't know," he said, hesitant about where to begin, when Pandora intervened.

"Sounds great, actually," she said. "Does that basement lock?"

"You can bolt it if you want to get up to any private monkey business," KJ said with a grin. Louis felt oddly relieved. So she did believe they were as mortal as she. And if she thought they were lovers, she'd find nothing strange in their remaining in the basement for longer than mere sleep would seem to demand.

"We'll take you up on that, then," Pandora said. "Thanks. But before we crash I'd like to look at that video tape you had here — what was it again — something about a rocky horror picture show?"

* * *

It was an exhausted band of travellers that arrived at San Francisco's international airport a couple of hours before dawn. Jesse found herself thinking it might have been better if she and David had flown, carrying Gabrielle and Daniel. At least they wouldn't have had to put up with the in-flight movie, and the squalling three-month-old two rows back, and the incessant pestering of the flight attendants. She was beginning to think she wouldn't even have minded leaving all her luggage behind.

Clutching their bags, they grabbed a cab, piled everything into it and sat, heaving a collective sigh.

"Where to?" the driver asked.

Daniel gave an address in Pacific Heights. Jesse looked curiously at him.

"That's not a hotel, is it?"

"Nope." He gave her a wan smile. "We — I own the place."

"Do we have time to look for our friends before we have to retire?" Gabrielle asked.

"Tomorrow, okay?" Daniel said. "I didn't think I could get migraines any more, but..."

Jesse patted his hand. "You poor thing." To Gabrielle she said, "It's almost dawn. I think we can wait."

The blonde nodded reluctantly. "I'm worried, that's all."

They didn't speak any more until they arrived at Daniel's house. It was a classic Victorian, with a small garden. Although the garden had been neglected lately, it was still pretty; the overgrown flowerbeds had their own shaggy charm. The house itself was immaculate, painted a delicate grey-blue with white trim. David roused himself enough to comment on how beautiful it was as they stood unloading their luggage. "Have you owned it long?"

"Not very," Daniel said. "Armand bought it for us a few years ago, but we haven't spent much time here. I should hire someone to fix that garden." He unlocked the front door and led the way indoors. "All the rooms come with special sun-proof shutters, or you can go into the cellar if you prefer, I don't care. I'll be in here. See you tomorrow night." He disappeared and shut the door to his room firmly.

Jesse, David and Gabrielle looked at each other, unwilling to say what they thought of Daniel's behavior while he could still hear them. They walked upstairs, admiring the staircase. The whole house was perfect, and furnished in a way that balanced old and modern in a harmonious way. David chose a room and said a polite goodbye.

Jesse smiled at Gabrielle. "You know," she said, "I miss real late-night snacks. If we were still mortal I'd make you sit up and drink cocoa in the kitchen with me."

Gabrielle said, "And I'd fall asleep with my head on the table." She hooked an arm into Jesse's, and walked with her into the other bedroom opening off the hallway. "Anyway, if we were still mortal, you wouldn't have me here at all. How about if we just talk?"

Together they secured the window. Jesse peeled her jeans off. She was still stuck enough in mortal habits that it didn't come easy to her to 'sleep' in her clothes, and anyway, they got wrinkled. Gabrielle smiled at her.

"You should try sleeping in the earth," she said. "Wrinkles isn't the half of it."

"I get claustrophobic," Jesse confessed, "and I keep imagining worms crawling into my ears."

"Did you have to say that?" Gabrielle grimaced. They lay down one on each side of the huge double bed.

"You think David has one of these all to himself?" Jesse asked drowsily.

"Probably," Gabrielle said dryly. "This strikes me as a well-appointed home." She stretched, rolled over on one side and leaned her head on one hand. "It is quite comfortable. One appreciates these things more if one's been away from them a long time."

Jesse made a small face. "I'm not sure I could live in the jungle," she said. "Don't you miss hot baths, and clean clothes, and — and books?"

"Not really," Gabrielle said. "I've bathed in hot springs far from civilization that have been better than any modern tub. And as a mortal I spent many years reading when I could not live. Now I'm living. Maybe there'll come a time when I'll do things differently, but for now, I'm content."

"Even with being alone?" Jesse asked diffidently.

This time Gabrielle's response came slower. "I don't know," she said. "I enjoy solitude, I truly do. And there are not many people whose company I would appreciate for any longer time. I've invited Lestat to come with me, but he's always refused. He can't bear to leave what he thinks of as the civilized world, for fear he'll miss something."

"And you've never made a fledgling?"

"No." Gabrielle shook her head firmly. Then she yawned, showing her delicate, pointed teeth. "No, it's never seemed right. I never met anyone that I might consider... that way."

Her head was dropping down. Jesse was already settled comfortably with a fat pillow under her head, her body securely wrapped into a part of the huge down-filled comforter.

"Well, it's not like having a baby when you're a mortal," she said. "There's no time limit. But Gabrielle, what do you think about the way Daniel is acting?"

There was no response. Gabrielle was asleep. Jesse smiled, and closed her eyes.

* * *

Like a flight of falling angels, they tumbled from the skies, down, down, to land outside a delicate glass palace, shimmering eerily white against the dark trees. The conservatory in Golden Gate Park.

"We're here," Marius said unnecessarily, feeling impelled to break the silence.

"The sun is about to rise," Armand said softly. "We need shelter."

"I don't see why we didn't go to Union Square instead," Lestat said, sounding irritated. "Now we have to cross the city again to get to a decent hotel."

"We didn't want to be seen when we landed," Marius began.

"Fine vampires you are, that can't even cloak such a simple thing—"

"There is no time," Khayman said. "Dawn is all around us." And indeed, the first rosy flush of light was illuminating their pale faces as he spoke. Khayman swiftly led the way away from the conservatory, into the wilder parts of the park. As the light grew brighter, he took them away from the paths and into a small leafy canyon. "Here," he said, "we will rest here."

Armand was the first of them to make his way into the earth; Khayman followed. Lestat snorted with annoyance, but even he was not fool enough to argue with the dawn. He buried himself swiftly.

Marius was left alone. He stood there a little, looking at the earth, at the spots where his fellow vampires lay buried, invisible to mortal eyes and to the great golden light that was about to wash over the world. He was tired, but not too tired to feel content at the way things had developed between him and Armand. It was difficult — it would be difficult for years to come, perhaps — but their relationship was true and good now in a way it hadn't been in a long time.

Perhaps not ever, Marius acknowledged to himself. He had finally dealt with a piece of his life that had troubled him a long time, and now he felt curiously released, but with that release came another wave of worry for Pandora. What was she doing with Louis? It was so strange, so unexpected, the two of them together. Marius visualized them silent, brooding, weeping even, then doubted the truth of that vision.

He didn't know if he had the right to confront her; she'd left him, after all. But he had to know how matters stood right now; if she'd gone for good, if she was coming back. Perhaps she wanted her own life now. Or perhaps she wanted things to be as they once had between them. He had no way of knowing.

But she hadn't come to him, hadn't let him know she was awake. Was she angry? Uninterested? Was it Louis who had awakened her? Marius had all but thought her lost forever; what had Lestat's quiet fledgling done to spark her fire back into life again?

Pandora. Awake and aware. Was she still the same Pandora, that headstrong and irresistible creature, the woman who could make him laugh and cry and blush and tremble all at once? Marius' memories came over him in a great rush, all the things they had done, all the things they had been to each other. How he had loved her — how he still loved her — but there was a difference there.

:Get down here, you fool! The sun's almost up!: It was Lestat breaking in on his musings. And he was right, too. It was time. Marius let himself sink into the cool welcome of the earth, and closed his eyes.

I'll see her soon, he thought and barely had time for a small quiver of anxiety before the sleep claimed him.

Chapter seventeen

The witch was biting her nails, something she hadn't done since she was thirteen. "Damn him," she muttered to herself.

"Did you want something? May I help you?" the passing flight attendant said cheerfully.

"More tomato juice, please, and some black pepper if you can get it."

She felt she'd already drunk enough tomato juice to float the QE2, but it gave her something to do, and it was certainly more nutritious than nail-biting. When her drink arrived, the witch dumped the pepper into the juice, ignored the way her seat neighbor was staring at her as she drank, then settled back into the uncomfortable plane seat and tried to relax. She was on her way and there was nothing else she could do right now. She tried not to think about the fact that if her divination had been faulty, she was off on a very expensive wild-goose chase. The rent for the next two months had gone to paying for the plane ticket.

I'll take it all out of Martin's hide when I find him, she vowed silently, then grinned. The irony of trying to save a friend from a fate literally worse than death only to beat him up yourself didn't escape her.

At least he picked a good place to run off to. If Martin was anywhere in San Francisco, the witch would find him. She downed the remains of her tomato juice, and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the FASTEN SEATBELTS sign was blinking cheerfully at her. Looking out the window, she saw that they were over the Bay. Finally.

She caught herself with the index finger of her right hand only an inch from her mouth. Stop that! She was beginning to wonder if she'd have to put tabasco on her fingertips. Then again, she liked tabasco.

The witch was first off the plane. She had no luggage to wait for; everything she needed was packed into the small backpack she'd kept securely next to her during the whole flight. Striding briskly out into the noise and confusion of the airport, she headed for the nearest unoccupied payphone and dug around in her pocket for change. After five signals she started to get nervous. Just when she was about to hang up, she got the answer she was waiting for. "I'm working!"

"I know you are, KJ. I'm at the airport. Come get me?"

There was a squeal that nearly punctured her eardrum. "Of course!"

After hanging up, the witch walked outside to enjoy the last of the sunshine. Sitting down on a bench, she dug a tattered copy of Emma from her backpack and began to read.

KJ arrived half an hour later, pausing only to throw the car door open and yell, "Over here!"

"You must have driven like a maniac," the witch said, jumping in and slamming the door shut.

"It's so good to see you again! What are you doing here?"

She fastened her seatbelt. "Remember Martin? He's up to something very stupid here and I'm going to stop him."

"Ah."

"I might need your help."

"All right. I've got two vampires staying at my house, though, so I'm kinda busy."

"You have what?"

"S'okay. They like Tales of the city, they can't be all bad."

"Oh God, KJ. Tell me all about it, right now!"

* * *

There was still a reddish tinge in the sky overhead when Lestat rose from the earth. Looking around, he saw Marius and Khayman sitting on the broad trunk of a fallen tree, having a low-voiced conversation. When they saw him they greeted him with smiles. "Armand?"

"Not up yet," Marius told him. "There's no hurry, anyway. Pandora doesn't rise this early, and neither does Louis."

Lestat kicked moodily at the end of the log, taking care not to do it too hard. Marius was right. "So what do we do till then?"

"We could try to decide upon a course of action," Khayman said.

"Please," Lestat said. "You were a steward in the royal house, not a goddamn general. What's to plan? We find them, I talk to Louis, Marius talks to Pandora. It's as easy as that. The way you're talking makes it sound like we're trying to operate a Pentium—"

He broke off when he saw that Marius and Khayman were blinking at him, equally baffled. Finally Marius said, "It may be that simple for you, Lestat, but Louis and Pandora may not feel the same way. I know I don't."

Lestat looked more closely at Marius for the first time since his return from Wales. It was strange that you could grow so accustomed to people that you forgot their overwhelming allure, their heartbreaking beauty. He was travelling now with three fellow vampires who were nothing short of magical, each in his own way, yet he'd hardly seen them, couldn't offhand have mentioned what any one of them was wearing or repeated anything they'd said. His desire to be reunited with Louis was so strong that it wouldn't allow any competition.

Marius was the same vampire who had come to pull Lestat out of the earth that long-ago night and shown him such wonders and mysteries, the same almost god-like creature in whom dignity and humor blended to create something as close to perfection as vampires ever came, and Marius was looking nervous. There was a sudden restlessness in him that Lestat had never perceived before. Marius had always seemed firmly fixed in place in his own universe, sure of his purpose. Now, he seemed oddly off-balance.

"You're scared, too," Lestat said, realizing it for the first time. "Marius, what if they've really left us? What if Louis and Pandora have — what if they are— Oooh, Marius! I can't bear this!"

"Yes, you can." Marius rose and put his arms about Lestat. "We have to accept that they've made their own choices!"

Lestat jerked back. "You know? You know that this is so?"

"No," Marius shook his head. "I'm just saying that if Pandora and Louis have chosen to be together, I won't interfere."

"Well, I will! It's unthinkable!"

A soft rustle from behind made Lestat spin around. Armand was brushing the dirt from his clothes. "What is?" he asked softly.

"It just can't be," Lestat said. The more he thought about it, the less he could accept it. It seemed impossible that Louis could be with anyone else. Not when — not when I—

Armand joined their little group. "Have we decided on a course of action for this night, gentlemen?"

"Not you, too," Lestat groaned.

Marius was smiling with great affection. "We're discussing it. Though there may be some merit to what Lestat says: that we should just find them, and go to them. Nothing will be resolved by our sitting here in the park."

"True enough," Armand said. "Though I would like to hunt first."

Lestat took a deep breath and tried to curb his impatience. "Can we just try to locate them first?" he said. "Then we can hunt on the way there."

"Yes, that is reasonable," Khayman said. "I will try."

* * *

They met up in the kitchen. It was spacious, with large windows facing south: in the daytime it would be warm and sunny. The kitchen door led out into the back garden, which was just as charmingly overgrown as the parts in front.

"Weird," Jesse commented. "You'd think we were planning to have breakfast together."

David smiled at her. "Kitchens are a habit I'm finding it hard to break. They're usually so comfortable."

"Yes." Jesse looked around. "I wonder if Daniel or Armand furnished this one. It's not quite high-tech enough for Armand."

"It reminds me of Talbot Manor," David said.

Jesse nodded. As Daniel entered the kitchen, she smiled at him. "Good evening, twentieth century boy. We're admiring your kitchen."

Daniel's violet eyes glinted. "Glad you approve. I heard something funny the other night. Do you know how many Talamascans it takes to change a light bulb?"

"Shut up," Jesse and David groaned in unison.

"No, I don't know," Gabrielle said, entering behind Daniel, "so why don't you tell me?"

"I don't dare," he said. "They'll hit me."

Jesse chuckled. "Talamascans don't change light bulbs," she said. "It's part of our 'look at it but don't mess with it' policy."

"That's the answer?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.

"No," Daniel said. "The answer is, two: one to do it, and another to find him at it and report him to the Elders for unwarranted interference. And we all know what happens then."

"Daniel—" Jesse caught his eyes and frowned. David was beginning to look sad, and she was pretty sure he was thinking about Aaron Lightner.

"What is it, Jesse? Trying to tell me what kind of jokes I can and can't make in my own kitchen?"

His voice was suddenly a lot harder. Jesse was confused. She tried to lighten the mood by saying, "Well, it's not all yours, I'm sure parts of it are Armand's too—"

It was the wrong thing to say. "Don't mention him," Daniel said icily.

Jesse looked at Gabrielle and David for support. David seemed as bewildered as she felt herself, while Gabrielle was giving Daniel the kind of look usually reserved for seeing a tame beast suddenly turn feral.

"Try to behave yourself," Gabrielle said. The chill in her voice was easily a match for Daniel's. "What's gotten into you?"

"I just can't hack this any more," Daniel said, spinning around. "You don't want me here, fine, I don't want to be here. It's been a trip. See you some other time."

He tried to walk straight through Gabrielle, but she held him with one hand, gripping his shirt. "Wait. You didn't answer my question. What's made you so edgy all of a sudden?"

"It's not sudden!" The shirt was torn apart and Gabrielle left with a piece in her hand as Daniel wrenched himself free and strode to the door. "I'm leaving. At least I know there's someone out there who wants me!"

He disappeared and a few moments later they heard the front door bang shut behind him. Jesse shook her head in utter bewilderment. "Now what was that all about? I haven't seen such mood swings since I was a mortal. If I didn't know better I'd say it was PMS."

"He hasn't been like this before?" Gabrielle asked.

"He was fine the whole trip," David answered. "Well, perhaps not fine — he was sad about Armand — but he was still very pleasant, funny and considerate. This," he gestured in the direction Daniel had departed, "seems like a person I do not know at all." He turned to Jesse. "You've known him longer."

"I've never seen him like this," she said. "And what was all that about someone who wants him?"

"I have no idea," David said. "I didn't realize he has been seeing anyone but ourselves lately."

Gabrielle cut their discussion short. "Look," she said, "I admit he's acting strangely, but he's not in any actual danger as far as we know. I'm going to find Louis. You can come with me if you like, or you can go look for Daniel, but either way we should get going now."

Jesse hesitated only a moment before deciding. "I'll help you with Louis first," she said. "David?"

His face showed his conflicting emotions. "I'm not certain what would be best—"

"There are three of us," Gabrielle said, not unkindly. "If you want to follow Daniel, do. We can stay in touch, after all."

"Yes," David said, "you're right. I'll do that." He walked up and kissed each of them on the cheek, very decorously. "It's been a splendid vacation, hasn't it? I hope we'll meet soon again."

Then he went out. Jesse and Gabrielle were left facing each other in the kitchen. There was a faint smile on Gabrielle's cool, lovely face. "It may have been a splendid vacation," Jesse said wryly, "but it hasn't exactly turned out the way I envisioned it."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Win some, lose some," she said. "How's your telepathy these days, Red?"

"Never better," Jesse assured her. "Calling Louis, calling Louis..."

* * *

"I can't find him," Khayman said.

"You mean he's left?" Lestat said in dismay.

"I don't think so. I can find neither him nor Pandora, but I think they are shielding, and still here."

"Why?" Marius asked. "They weren't before, were they?"

"Somewhat," Khayman said, "but not so well. Either their skills have improved, or..."

"Or what?"

"Or they're under someone else's shields."

"Oh, great." This time Lestat didn't hold back when he kicked the log; it sailed through the air and hit the side of the little canyon with a deafening THWACK that sent every bird in the area sky high.

"Well," Armand said philosophically as the sound of human voices raised in exclamation drew nearer and nearer, "I guess we'll have to leave our little place in the country."

* * *

Jesse met Gabrielle's brilliant eyes and saw the same answer there as she'd gotten herself.

"Nothing?"

"Not a whisper," the Marquise confirmed. "Damn it, I know he's here somewhere!"

Jesse didn't want to say it, yet she couldn't keep her mouth shut. "What if — what if that killer—"

Gabrielle suddenly seemed smaller, more uncertain. "That's what I'm afraid of," she said.

Chapter eighteen

When Pandora and Louis rose that night they found a note from KJ on the living-room table.

Gone to pick a friend up at the airport. If you leave before I'm back, don't forget to see to it that the door locks. (Poke that little button under the handle.) Hugs, KJ

"She's very trusting, isn't she?" Louis said, running a finger along the top of the sewing machine as if checking for dust. "We could steal everything she's got."

"She hasn't got that much," Pandora said, looking around. "Maybe we could bury a gold treasure in the basement for her to find."

"Gold coins are nothing but trouble these days," Louis said. "Or were you thinking of leaving an American Express gold card?"

Pandora burst out laughing. "What a lovely idea." She reached out and tousled his hair. "I'm going to leave something, anyway, then I won't feel guilty about using her shower and borrowing her makeup."

"You haven't used her shower."

"No, but I'm going to now. It's time for our night on the town, love!"

She strode into the bathroom and found it surprisingly well-appointed and comfortable. There was even a huge tub on clawed feet. Pandora ran a bath and poured sweet-smelling oil in it. She sank into the water and sighed with pure pleasure as the hot water surrounded here.

It was funny, she reflected, how so many little mortal habits were hard to break, particularly those to do with breathing. She didn't need to breathe any more except when she wanted to speak out loud, yet the act of drawing breath and letting it out again was so much a part of her body language that not all the years that had passed since she'd been a mortal had made any difference.

Well, but this wasn't the night for spending hours meditating in the tub. Washing her hair with herbal shampoo, Pandora took care to leave some in the bottle for Louis as well. She found a pile of fresh towels in the cupboard by the door, as well as a hairdryer. Wrapped in one of the towels, she left the bathroom and yelled at Louis, "Your turn!"

By the time he was done in the bathroom she'd dried her hair and applied makeup, and was slipping into the latex catsuit.

"There's no hurry," he said. "Nothing much will happen before midnight."

"It's ten-thirty already," she said. "What took you so long in there, anyway?"

"Me? It was you who took forever—" He began to rummage around in the bags. "Where's my dog collar?"

"Sit down, I'm going to paint your eyes."

"No, wait a little, Pan. I'm not wearing makeup."

"Just a bit of eyeliner," she coaxed. "C'mon, live a little."

A reluctant laugh escaped him. "This from one of the undead to another. Nothing outrageous, all right?"

"Wouldn't dream of it," she assured him, pushing him down on a chair. "Don't move."

It was close to midnight when they finally left the house. KJ hadn't returned, which Pandora thought was strange, but there was nothing they could do about that. "Did you want her to come with us?" Louis asked.

Pandora shrugged. "Maybe. I like her."

He looked thoughtful. "It's not right to make friends out of mortals," he said. "They will find out, and whether there is fear or desire, things always go wrong." His eyes, always his most striking feature, seemed to leap at her. She'd done a good job on the makeup.

"This might be true," she said. "But I still remember being one of those mortals. It was desire, with me. When I knew what Marius was, I wanted it." Pandora shook her head resolutely. "Another time. This is the wrong moment for being serious. C'mon, let's hit the town!"

They ended up in a club on Folsom Street, almost wall-to-wall leather and rubber. Louis felt the impact of so many strangers looking at him at once almost like a physical blow.

"Pan," he whispered, "why is everyone staring at me?"

"Because you're beautiful," she replied, grinning wickedly. "Dance with me?"

"Love to."

As they stepped down onto the dance floor, Pandora noticed a slight frown on Louis' face. "What?"

He shook it off. "Nothing. I just thought I saw someone who resembles Daniel back at the door."

* * *

"I've got them," Armand said suddenly.

Lestat spun around, almost losing his balance. "Where? Have they left?"

"No. They suddenly appeared, in the middle of the city. They must have been in some shielded place."

"That's odd," Marius said. "There aren't many—"

"Can you show me?" Lestat said.

Armand turned and gave him a measuring look. "I'll take you there," he said. "All of you. Follow me."

* * *

Martin leaned against the wall, scanning the crowd. Now and then someone would come up to him with a smile, a cigarette, a drink, a proposal. He shook his head and kept on waiting. Surely he'd given explicit enough directions that a vampire would be able to follow them? Daniel had lived in this city, after all. Martin had only ever been here on vacation with the witch. They'd had a great time at this club, along with her friend KJ.

A most gorgeous couple hit the dance floor. Their dress style, an unusual mix of velvet, leather and latex, stood out in this rather clonish crowd, and they wore fantastic makeup; their faces looked almost perfectly white under the strobe lights. Martin watched them appreciatively, then turned his head to see a familiar figure with ash-blond hair and violet eyes walking towards him.

Daniel.

A chill ran through him. It was really going to happen. The vampire seized his arm and pulled him farther back into the darkest corner.

"I am so glad you came," Martin said carefully, allowing some part of his joy to shine through, knowing that the vampire's sensitive mind would pick up on it.

"I said I would."

Daniel was looking at him, and the expressive violet eyes showed a mixture of emotions — sadness, passion, flashes of manic hilarity that made Martin slightly nervous. He knew Daniel would not be quite stable right now. If that wildness took over, anything could happen. Well, he had known from the beginning that he was taking an immense risk.

"And you've thought about it."

"Well, obviously." Daniel's smile showed real humor this time, and Martin relaxed a fraction. "But if you expect me to say yes now and go right ahead, you're in for a disappointment. I've separated from my earlier travelling companions. I thought we might take some time to get to know each other."

"Yes," Martin said softly, but risked a little added pressure by continuing, "I am a bit short of time, though."

He watched again as different emotions struggled for dominance in Daniel's eyes, and took the opportunity to reinforce the truth of what he was saying as best he could. The witch would have been able to do this so much better. The witch would never have done this at all.

"Yes," Daniel said slowly. "We need to talk. We need to get out of here. I don't know why, but there are some people on the dance floor that..."

His voice trailed off. Martin saw that Daniel was watching the same couple that had caught Martin' attention before. And when he looked more closely at them, Martin cursed himself for a blind fool. The white skin, the unearthly beauty, the way they moved...

Vampires. More vampires.

This would require a great deal of dexterity. "We should leave," he prompted.

* * *

"I guess we're lucky I took the time to lend you some clothes," Jesse said as the doorman scrutinized them before waving them inside.

:We could have made him let us in anyway.: Gabrielle adjusted one of the thin spaghetti straps that held her black silk dress in place.

:Yes, but then we'd have had to work at being invisible the whole time,: Jesse replied. :It's far less trouble to dress inconspicuously right away.:

:First time I heard anyone call pink leather inconspicuous,: Gabrielle snorted. :And how many times do I have to tell you it clashes with your hair?:

:It's a fashion statement,: Jesse said.

Once inside the club, they stopped and scanned the crowd. Leather and clanking chains met their eyes wherever they looked, though Jesse spotted a woman in neon green leopard print and one man wearing nothing but a pair of see-through nylons.

"I can't imagine Louis in a crowd like this," Gabrielle said bemusedly but got no further. A familiar figure appeared before them, wearing rather less than the last time they'd seen him.

"David!" Jesse blinked at him. "I thought you were following Daniel—?"

The most recent addition to the vampire community was still wearing his black jeans, but now there were great rips in them in various strategic places, and his shirt had disappeared.

"I was, I am. He's here, with a stranger, a—" :A mortal,: he went on cautiously, although there was little enough chance of anyone overhearing their conversation. :Over by the far wall. I don't think he's noticed me.:

Daniel's ashen hair gleamed in the intermittent glare of light from the dance floor, making him clearly visible. He stood with his back to them, and opposite him was— Jesse all but jumped with surprise. It was the man from the café in Stockholm! It seemed impossible, yet here he was, on the other side of the world. The same dark hair, blue eyes, engaging smile.

Before she could say anything, Gabrielle asked, "Well, have you seen Louis?"

"They are on the dance floor," David said and there was something in his voice that made Jesse look more closely at him; he seemed on the verge of laughter suddenly. "They haven't noticed me, either."

Jesse slipped past him to see better, and got her second shock of the night. Louis and Pandora were indeed on the dance floor. They were gyrating to the music, two wondrously sensual creatures dancing with abandon and enjoyment. Easily the most beautiful couple on the floor, they had drawn a great deal of attention, and seemed to thrive on it.

Jesse could hardly believe her eyes. Was this Louis — Louis — writhing down there, rotating his hips in a way that would have made any mortal woman go weak at the knees? And Pandora, for heaven's sake! She hadn't stirred in nearly a decade, and to look at her now she could have put any professional belly dancer to the blush. In fact, as Jesse took note of how Pandora danced, she became convinced that the beautiful vampire must have been a truly outstanding hetaira once.

I wonder if she teaches dancing classes. Jesse found herself positively envious of the way Pandora moved; if Louis was all set to cut a swathe through the women, Pandora could probably stop any straight man dead in his tracks with a swing of her hips.

"That seems understandable," Gabrielle said dryly next to her. "But I think I can get their attention. Let's meet them at the bar."

Jesse was pleased to see that Gabrielle's mind-touch did not cause Louis to exhibit any outward sign of surprise. He and Pandora remained on the dance floor until the song they were dancing to ended; then they moved through the crowd, attracting many interested and envious looks, and reached the bar just where Jesse, Gabrielle and David stood waiting.

"What a surprise," Pandora said, as a mortal might say it, before anyone else had a chance to speak. "Fancy meeting you here."

"Extraordinary, isn't it?" Jesse agreed, responding to the underlying ironic twinkle. No, she hadn't imagined it; there it was again as Pandora smiled at her. This formidable woman was infinitely different from the silent creature Jesse remembered from their time on Night Island. Something had obviously happened to restore her to herself.

Whatever it was, Jesse was on the whole pleased, though she caught herself feeling mildly resentful of Pandora's effortless beauty and intense femininity. There was something about her that would probably always make every other female feel just a little awkward, believing her shoes wrong or her nose too big. As to the effect on males, well, Jesse had ample proof of that in the way the bar patrons were looking.

She and Louis were on very easy terms, too. Jesse saw it in the way they remained standing close to each other, although Pandora was speaking to her and Louis had turned to greet David.

I wonder what Lestat will make of that, she thought. Louis and David sounded like old friends. In fact, Louis was teasing David gently.

"And so you had to strip in order to get in..."

"Yes," David said mournfully. "I even destroyed my favorite jeans, and I still don't look right. I obviously don't have your flair for dressing up."

Louis laughed, a sound so rare that Jesse found herself wondering if she'd ever heard it before.

"Well, you've certainly changed," Gabrielle said to Pandora.

"No," Pandora contradicted her gently, "I've only become more myself. You should know about such things."

One of Gabrielle's eyebrows twitched dangerously. Then she smiled. "Yes. I do. But we're here because of—"

"I'll talk to him," Jesse said. Turning to the two men next to her, she first looked at David. "Would you please go see what Daniel's up to?"

"I can try," he said. Jesse sensed a certain reluctance in him, a slight distaste for interfering in another's affairs without his consent.

:He's been getting so strange lately,: she reminded him.

:Yes. All right.:

David moved away. Jesse smiled brilliantly at Louis. "C'mon, gorgeous, let's dance."

Chapter nineteen

Pandora remained at the bar as the others moved away. There were many things going on here, that much was obvious. Everyone was tense.

So Armand's reckless fledgling was here, too. She hadn't spotted him, but then, she hadn't been looking for him. And having learned from Armand, Daniel would likely be good at shielding himself. Jesse had taken Louis off for some private communication.

That left Pandora with Gabrielle, the cold Marquise, who had always made her feel uncomfortable before. Nevertheless she turned to her and tried the effect of a smile. "So what brought all of you here?"

"We were looking for Louis," Gabrielle replied shortly.

"Well, you found him. I thought Louis told me David and Daniel and Jesse were travelling together...?"

No response. Pandora watched Gabrielle's profile as the blonde scanned the club, paying no attention to her. This self-sufficient, distant creature acted as though Pandora weren't even there. In times gone by that kind of behavior might have caused her to wonder whether she really was there or not, starting a spiral of isolation and confusion.

But the presence of Louis confirmed to her that things were different now, and if others hurt her, well, she had a friend who would make up for it and of whose genuine affection she could entertain no doubts.

So instead of retreating into her own silence, she grabbed Gabrielle's shoulder and spun her around so that they were face to face, and said, "It's not like you to act sulky on a whim, so you must have something against me personally. Do you want to tell me what it is?"

Gabrielle removed her hand; Pandora let her. "You just swept him off his feet, did you?" she hissed. "Do you expect me to be pleased that you've ruined my son's happiness?"

Pandora blinked. Then she realized that the 'he' in the first sentence wasn't the son of the second sentence. "You've got it wrong," she said gently. "It wasn't like that at all."

"Oh?" Gabrielle eyed her skeptically. "Next you'll be telling me it's true love. Try to explain that one to Lestat!"

"I won't tell him or you anything of the—"

"You should have thought of that—"

:Damn it,: Pandora sent, picking the other woman's mind up and shaking it like a rug, :will you listen?:

She poured the whole story into Gabrielle, telling more than she meant to, her long silent years, Lestat's foolishness, Louis' appearance at her feet and how his pain had touched her, the way he had helped her, the way she had tried to help him. And the truth of what they were now to each other. Sister and brother, siblings who had chosen each other.

When it was over she felt a little weak, realizing what she'd done. Out of sheer anger and frustration she'd shown her soul to a virtual stranger. Now Gabrielle knew the truth about Pandora and Louis, but she also knew a lot of things about Pandora herself. How would she react? Wrapped in her own supreme self-assurance, Gabrielle probably had nothing but scorn to spare for less confident beings.

Trembling a little, Pandora dared a look at the Marquise's face. To her surprise, she saw that Gabrielle's cold eyes were warming a little, and she felt a hesitant mind-touch. :Pandora? I'm sorry. I misunderstood.:

And then a soft brush of pictures and emotions, a crack in the veneer of perfection, showing her Gabrielle during her long trips to the edge of the civilized world, not always as content with her solitude as Pandora had imagined. The perfect companion had never appeared. Slightly envious of her son's passionate relationship with Louis, Gabrielle would nevertheless do almost anything to ensure their happiness; she wanted them to share the companonship and intimacy she herself did not have. Pandora found herself warming to the woman, as well.

"I'm very fond of Louis," Gabrielle said out loud. "And he certainly seems happier now."

Pandora laughed. "He's a wonder. But you can feel sure that he does love your son." Then she thought a little about that statement. "Don't tell him that, though."

"Don't tell who that? Louis or Lestat?"

Pandora smiled a little and leaned in close to Gabrielle, and began to explain. "You see, it's like this..."

* * *

Martin was starting to feel nervous. Yes, Daniel was very affectionate; he had put his arm around Martin's shoulders, and was letting his fingers drift through Martin's hair. The sensual chill of being touched by the vampire's cold fingertips sent shivers down Martin's spine. But Daniel seemed disinclined to leave the club, even though he'd said several times that he was worried about the other vampires being there.

And here was someone coming up to them. Martin all but groaned. It was David Talbot, tall and handsome and suave, who stopped next to them and looked at Martin as a man might look at a piece of cheddar in a deli. Martin half expected the vampire to ask for a taste. "Daniel—"

"Leave me alone."

"I merely want to know if you are all—"

"Yes, I'm fine, now will you just get out of my life!" David took a step backwards at Daniel's ferocious words, and Daniel suddenly blinked. "I'm sorry, I didn't... Please, David. Just leave me alone."

Something was definitely wrong. Martin sensed that. But he couldn't go back now! He didn't even know how that might be done. Instead, he tried to reinforce the binding with all the power he could bring to bear, even dropping his shields to do it. He wasn't foolish enough to try to talk while the other vampire was there. He wanted as little notice from that one as possible. But he had to get Daniel to calm down, or things could become so sticky he didn't even want to think about it.

"Very well," David said reluctantly, "if you're certain. But Daniel, if anything is wrong, you know you can always come to us."

"Yeah, Vampires Anonymous," Daniel muttered. "Go away."

Martin groaned silently, seeing the shocked look on David Talbot's face when Daniel said the word 'vampire', and the way David's eyes had flickered to his face and away again. He was doomed. His only chance lay in getting Daniel out of here as fast as possible.

As David walked away, he reached out to stroke Daniel's cheek gently, and said, "It would be better if it was just the two of us."

Daniel nodded. Then the red gleam reappeared in his eyes. "Damn them, anyway! Damn them!"

God, Martin thought, I think I'm in over my head. Where's the witch when you really need her?

* * *

It was a lot of fun to dance with Jesse. She flirted with him, then moved away, swaying gracefully, and every now and then she'd shake her head violently and the wild red cloud of her hair would stream out in all directions. A mortal trying that would probably break her neck. It looked wonderful.

:Louis,: she spoke into his mind, and he sensed that she was waiting for acknowledgment and his permission to proceed. Knowing that she was powerful enough to scream his eardrums out from the inside, Louis was grateful for that politeness.

:Tell me,: he answered, encouraging her. :You're here for something, right?:

:Yes, you,: she said, whirling like a demented dervish. :We were having a wonderful holiday until Gabrielle caught up with us — oops. I didn't mean it that way!:

He smiled and caught her at the end of the turn, moving them together. :I know that.:

:She'd read something in the papers that worried her.: Jesse poured a tale into his mind of grisly murders and victims who looked like Louis and David. He was utterly taken aback. What a terrible thing! And so Gabrielle had wanted to make certain that they were all right.

Louis felt warm inside at that thought. He was fond of Gabrielle, but intimidated by her, too; he'd always wondered if she really thought he was good enough for Lestat. It was good to know that she cared at least a little for him and his well-being.

:What did David say?: he asked urgently. :Did he know of any enemy—:

:No. Nothing.:

Louis shook his head, making it part of the dance. :I do not understand this at all. I certainly can't think of anything...:

:Well,: Jesse said and there was a hint of a smile in her mind-voice, :David can take care of himself, and if anyone's coming for you now, they have to go through me, Gabrielle, and Pandora. So I wouldn't worry if I were you.:

:Wouldn't worry?: Louis flashed her a smile. :I'm surrounded by the three strongest, most beautiful and possibly wildest women I know and you tell me not to worry?:

Jesse laughed out loud. :You're right, I'm wrong. With us around, and you in that outfit, you should worry!:

* * *

The witch jumped in her seat. "KJ, turn the radio off! I've got him!"

At the wheel, KJ turned to look at her. They'd been cruising San Francisco for hours, trying to pick up a trace. "You'd better. To think I blew another night of hanging out with vampires for this."

The witch stuck her tongue out at her friend. "Shut up and drive. That way."

"It's a one-way."

"Just go, okay? I have a feeling he's in trouble."

Chapter twenty

"In there," Armand said. "It's a club."

"I can see that!" Lestat snapped. If nothing else, the stream of leather-clad men and women disappearing through the door was kind of a hint. "And you won't get in wearing that suit."

Armand lifted an eyebrow in a way that had always infuriated Lestat. "Did I just hear a vampire worrying about what a mortal crowd will think of him?"

"That's not the point," Lestat said. "The point is, everyone in there will be wearing stuff like that and if we're not they'll stare at us and I don't want to cause a fuss. Got that?"

"Yes. But I'll believe it when I see it. So what do you want us to do?"

Lestat considered the company.

"Well, Marius is wearing suede pants, he can just take his shirt off. Did you steal those off Mael? But the rest of us—"He turned around and looked through the store window he'd been leaning against. "The rest of us will just have to commit burglary."

"Oh, really!" Armand sighed. "Isn't this too much trouble?"

Unexpectedly, it was Khayman who smiled serenely and said, "I think it might be enjoyable."

There were no alarms, just a set of solid iron bars shielding both door and window. Lestat had no trouble with them. He had his companions in through the door in no time. Moving feverishly among the racks and shelves, he tossed items at them.

"Here, Armand, wear a harness. Khayman, leather shorts?" When he found a pair of leather pants that were roughly his size he pulled them on swiftly, added a jacket and tied his hair back with a black bandanna. That should do it. Turning, he found that Khayman had discarded the shorts for an outfit similar to his own, that Marius had found and put on a skin-tight red tank top, and that Armand looked just divine wearing a harness, a pair of Levi's, and a pout. "Ready? Let's go!"

He even remembered to close the door and push the bars back into place as they left. They swept past the line that had formed outside the club, fixed the doorman with four identical icy stares, and demanded to be let in. "Uh — all r-right — this w-way, please."

Inside it was dark and hot and crowded, lights flashed, and the air smelled of perfume and sweat and the underlying subtle scent of blood. Music pounded into Lestat's head and for a brief moment he was the rock star again, riding the beat. Then he remembered why he was here. The others were already way ahead of him, staring at the crowd below.

Marius in particular was staring, and he looked as though he simply couldn't believe his eyes. Following his gaze, Lestat found himself watching the dance floor. And felt his jaw drop.

There was Jesse, moving like a professional go-go dancer; there was Pandora the living statue looking set to seduce everyone in sight; there was Gabrielle, grooving along with them, looking as though she went clubbing every night of the week! And—

And there was Louis. Louis, wearing something outrageous that showed just how gorgeous he was to a lot of people who had no business knowing it. Louis dancing — he moved like a god, too. He would. He was so heart-stoppingly beautiful that Lestat just stood there and couldn't tear his eyes away, aware that he probably looked like the worst kind of fool, but unable to stop.

Was this Louis? The shy, retiring Louis? Had he left Lestat simply to have a ball with these three? Just Pandora would have been bad enough. As Lestat watched, the Greek vampire smiled at Louis and they went into a routine together, moving like a couple. He growled.

Marius put a hand on his arm. "Easy, now."

"I can't believe it," Lestat said. "Can you?"

Marius shook his head. "No."

"Damn it!"

Lestat jumped, and cursed himself for being nervous. It was Armand he'd heard. And Armand wasn't concerned with anyone on the dance floor. Armand was staring at the far wall of the club, his eyes fixed on something that looked like Daniel. Daniel with his arms around a mortal. Daniel kissing that mortal very gently.

A small red-haired fury bounded down the stairs and started to cross the dance floor, leaving chaos in his wake.

"He'll kill him," Lestat said, not specifying the him.

Khayman could move so fast that even other vampires sometimes had trouble seeing it. When Marius and Lestat caught up, going around the dance floor rather than across it, the ancient one was already holding Armand back, speaking soothingly in his ear.

Daniel threw his hands in the air and swore repeatedly at the sight of them all. The mortal just looked terrified. And he does well to do so, Lestat thought grimly. Our faces may well be the last sight he ever sees.

"Without a word, you would leave me without a word, for him?" Armand was so upset, he had tears in his eyes.

"Why can't everyone just leave me alone!" Daniel screamed. When he looked at Armand his face twisted into a mask of rage and resentment.

"We're far too visible here," Marius muttered in Lestat's ear.

"Not to mention audible."

"The room behind that door is empty," Marius nodded towards their left.

"Fine, you go in there. I'm not here to help Armand with his love life."

"Lestat, this is serious! We're going to have to deal with this mortal!"

"What's to deal with? We'll just waste him. All right, all right."

Lestat reached out and grabbed hold of Daniel and the trembling mortal and dragged them along, making sure to wrap a little you-don't-see-us razzle-dazzle around them as he opened the locked door and they went inside. Together, Khayman and Marius managed to bring the furious Armand.

The room was small and dingy. It had no windows and was only furnished with a scarred and stained desk overflowing with papers, and a couple of rickety chairs. Probably it was the place where the club owner did his accounts. Marius had barely closed the door behind them when it opened again.

Lestat watched silently as they all entered: Gabrielle, who winked at him, Pandora looking so sinfully attractive in her latex outfit that his heart twisted with jealousy, Jesse grinning with exhilaration from dancing, Louis with an innocent look that must have been studied, and there was David, too, Lestat had missed seeing him before. He was the only one who looked worried as he looked from one vampire to another, finally settling his gaze on Marius. The only one with any sense.

Lestat put the question of what they were all doing there off until later. He was only interested in Louis, but he had to wait out Armand's fury before there would be a quiet moment for them to talk.

"I'll kill him. I'll tear him right out of your arms and kill him." Only Khayman's hands locked on his arms were keeping Armand back from making good on his words.

Daniel glared right back. "Don't. You. Dare."

The mortal was clinging to Daniel for protection. He was handsome enough, Lestat acknowledged, taking in the angelic face, the blue eyes. And even in terror of his life, he exuded a sweet charm. Still, that was no real reason for keeping him alive. And there was an air of violence about him that made Lestat think that the mortal might be a killer himself.

"Daniel, he knows what we are," Marius said reasonably. "You have put us all in danger."

Daniel snorted. "Danger! One of the most powerful creatures in the world, and you're afraid of one single man? Don't touch him. He's mine."

A look of worry swept over Marius' face at those words. "Daniel, you don't mean, you can't mean—"

"Daniel, no," David said softly at the same time. Marius seemed to nod approvingly at this plea.

"Yes!" Daniel said defiantly. "I have promised him. I love him."

At those words, Armand jerked as though he had been shot. Suddenly Lestat felt his annoyance at his old friend and enemy disappearing, melting away, leaving only grudging affection. Here was Armand's fledgling, his lover, rejecting him and claiming to love another. It was just what Lestat was afraid would happen to him once he got to talk to Louis. He could feel nothing but sympathy. Oh, Armand had probably been difficult to Daniel — when was he ever anything but? — but this public humiliation was far more than he deserved.

"You can't do this," Marius said. "We agreed—"

"He is dying," Daniel said, sounding more upset than Lestat had ever heard him. "You can't be afraid of him. He's dying, and he loves me, and I love him and I, I can't let this happen, I—"

"We would do right to be afraid. We may be powerful," Marius returned to his earlier subject, "but we are few and humans are many, and they have the daylight. And making ourselves conspicuous may bring other threats. Need I remind you of why there are so few of us now?"

"That was Lestat's fault," Daniel said sulkily.

"Oh, fine! Bring me into this, please do!"

"Daniel." Lestat had to admit Marius was at his best, persuasive, paternal, caring. "Don't you understand what must be done?"

Daniel hesitated.

"Excuse me," the man spoke up in a shaky voice, "excuse me, but would you please stop talking about killing me as though I weren't even here?"

* * *

Marius started. The mortal was, in his way, right; they were being, he was being, horribly callous. All the same, how could they let this man live? He had seen them, knew who they were and what they looked like, probably knew something of their habits from Daniel.

Nor could Daniel be allowed to make a fledgling. A pouting protest of "but Lestat did!" wouldn't change that, although Daniel would undoubtedly try it.

A swift glance in the direction of Lestat's newest fledgling showed Marius that David, a thoughtful expression on his handsome face, was stepping forward out of the group. Marius could barely look at him. Not the way he was dressed; not with Pandora in the same room.

Pandora, no, that was too much to think about right now. She'd acknowledged his presence with a brief smile, but nothing in her demeanor now gave any clue to what she intended for their future relationship. She stood close to Gabrielle, and the looks that passed between them hinted at telepathic communication. Since when did those two even know each other?

"I am sorry," David was saying. "It seems we are all a little too upset to be polite. But surely you can see our point of view."

David's voice was soothing, almost hypnotic. Marius nodded approvingly. That was the way of it, to calm the man and make him believe.

The mortal laughed briefly, incredulously. He was more resistent than Marius had given him credit for. "You're asking a lot, aren't you?" He seemed to have reached a point beyond fear. "What do you want me to do, gracefully accept my own death at your hands, to save you the inconvenience of my screams? I am dying, as Daniel says. I want life, your life. Don't you understand that?"

There was a tightly reined-in desperation in his voice. His question made David stop short. And to Marius' surprise, it was Pandora who left the others and came up to stand by David, facing the mortal.

Seeing the two of them so close together caused Marius what felt like physical pain. Pandora was back again, wholly herself; no longer a banked fire, she blazed with life, and her dark eyes shone. Next to her David was still and thoughtful, intricate mind working behind that smooth young face. Marius wanted to know David's thoughts, find out what lay under his immaculate manner, tease out the buried gleam of mischief he sensed beneath the calm surface.

Get a grip. You've met him once. And we're in the middle of a very tricky situation here, so stop thinking about how gorgeous he looks!

"Yes, I understand," Pandora was saying. "I wanted it, too. And I wasn't even dying." Oh, how he remembered that, how she had come to him, talked to him, made him love her. "So you went looking for vampires?" she asked.

The man shook his head. "Not at first. They, you, found me. Jesse bit me—"

"What!" Daniel looked furious; he seemed utterly possessive of this mortal.

"Er, yes, I did," Jesse said, not leaving her place by the door. "I — I just wanted to tease him."

"I'm grateful," the mortal said. "You showed me there was more to reality than I'd ever thought. I went looking for vampires and I found love." His hand stole out and closed around Daniel's.

"How touching!" Marius wondered how Armand had managed to stay silent all this time. Then he saw Khayman wince with mental pain and realized that the ancient one must have been restraining Armand as best he could. Now, Armand erupted. "You are going to die. Do you realize that? Jesse, you idiot, why didn't you drain him? That would have been a painless death compared to what I'll give him. You fool, I will rend you limb from limb, I—"

The door burst open and slammed against the wall. Framed in the doorway, backlit by glaring strobe lights, were two young mortal women, one of them carrying a backpack. The other one fixed Armand with a steely and utterly fearless look.

"Don't touch him," she said.

Chapter twenty-one

Pandora was amazed.

"KJ!"

Her friend of the night before turned to look at her, and gave her a ghost of a smile. "I thought you'd be mixed up in this somehow," she said. "Hi, Louis."

The other young woman was heading for Armand. Before anyone could react she was standing squarely between him and his intended victim. Pushing waist-long hair back over her shoulders, she stared straight into the vampire's brown eyes.

"I am going to take him away," she stated flatly.

"Ohhh..." The mortal man behind her actually, literally groaned. "Oh, witch, what are you doing here?"

"I'm here to save your ass," she tossed at him over her shoulder. "And your soul. I thought we'd talked about this!"

"You're not the one who's dying!"

"Not right now," she agreed.

"You can't take him!" Daniel said feverishly. "I love him!"

"Martin!" the witch exclaimed, and spun around, concentrating her attention on Daniel. "Martin, what have you done?" She grabbed the man's shoulders and shook him, physically shook him, although he was half again her weight. "How many times have I told you not to mess with magic?"

Pandora watched breathlessly as the man dropped his gaze. A whole group of vampires were waiting silently as this strange drama unfolded. Such sheer presence did the long-haired young woman possess that no one was considering attacking her, not even the enraged Armand.

Reaching out with her mind, Pandora found shields even more flawlessly executed than KJ's, and far stronger. Witch, indeed. KJ had bent down next to her and was rooting around in the backpack, looking for something. The man, Martin, tried weakly to defend himself.

"It works! You can see that it works! I don't know if it—"

"It works badly," she cut him off. "Meant for humans, and a bad thing, on the whole. Fool." Turning back to Armand, the witch addressed him calmly. "I am taking this one who distresses you so away. You will not be troubled by him any more. The effects of what he had done will wear off eventually, but you will need patience, patience and love—"

"But what has he done?" Khayman voiced everyone's question. "And why should we trust you?"

"I trust her," Pandora volunteered, gesturing at KJ, who was straightening up with something in her hands that gleamed softly.

"Thank you." KJ smiled sweetly, and tossed what she held at the witch. "Here!"

It was a crystal necklace. Swift as a snake striking at its prey, the witch turned and put it about Martin's neck. An extraordinary change came over him. He trembled briefly, all over, then became calm, and tears as clear as the crystals gathered at the corners of his wide, cornflower-blue eyes.

"Thank you," he said quietly. "I'm sorry, witch, I really am."

"I know." She hugged him warmly. "The fear became too much for you, didn't it?" She added something else, a comforting murmur in a language Pandora didn't understand. Then she turned to Khayman. "Martin is dying, as he said. I think he may have feared karmic retribution... he's no angel, never was. What he has done is to use a spell on this one," she nodded at Daniel, "and it hasn't worked very well. As I said, the effects will disappear."

"A spell," Armand said incredulously. "A spell has taken Daniel from me? A love spell?"

"Well, yes," the witch acknowledged with a tiny shrug. "But it's reversible." She gently tugged Martin out of the bewildered Daniel's arms. "C'mon, it's time to go."

"No," Daniel pleaded. "You can't take him."

"We have to."

KJ had zipped her backpack and put it back on. She took Martin's other arm, and they all walked towards the door. Passing Pandora, KJ winked at her. "Thanks for the card. Feel free to stop by any time. My basement's always open to friendly visitors."

Pandora smiled back. She did so like this mortal — friendly, fearless, utterly devoid of any wish to become a vampire. Here, there was neither fear nor desire. This one could be trusted. Pandora didn't know why the young woman didn't loathe vampires as the killers they were; she thought she'd try to find out one day.

"I might take you up on that," she said. "Take care."

"You, too. Bye, gorgeous." KJ quickly darted in and planted a kiss on Louis' cheek.

He smiled radiantly at her. "See you around, chèrie."

The door closed and the mortals were gone. Pandora was still smiling when she turned and caught sight of Lestat's expression; he was staring at Louis with the look of a hurt child. Well, good.

:I have to agree,: Gabrielle murmured in her mind. :As long as he's sad and not angry...:

The sound of the closing door seemed to release Daniel from a nearly trance-like state. Pandora wondered if the witch had meddled with his mind, too, despite her reprimands to Martin. If she had, Pandora decided she couldn't be blamed for it. When you were facing down a roomful of vampires, anything that could give you an edge was probably welcome. She was still dazzled by the incredible courage the mortals had shown.

"It can't end like this," Daniel said. "It can't be over—"

"We can go home now," Armand said, the rage in his voice replaced by a dawning hope. "Go home, and be with each other."

"No!" Daniel was growing agitated again. "I won't, I won't go with you!" He spun towards the door. "I'm going to go after him."

"No, you are not." The one called David was there, barring Daniel's way. From the little she'd seen of him, Pandora thought him a bit dull, but he was certainly good-looking. "Daniel, the way you feel now will change. Give it time."

"No! I—"

"Daniel," Marius joined David to take up the thread, "think. Don't do this to Armand. This is for the best."

"I want him. I want to go after him."

David put a hand on Daniel's shoulder. "I understand that," he said. "But you should consider what is best for him." Pandora caught the look that Marius flashed at David; it was filled with undisguised admiration of this sneaky tactic. "If you truly love this Martin—" A small, strangled sound escaped from Armand. "—then you should leave him to find his own way. He chose to go with them, Daniel. If he should return to you of his own free will, that is one thing. But will you give me your word you won't seek him out?"

There was a silence as Daniel considered David's words, his face working helplessly. "Yes," he said finally. "Yes, I'll promise you that. But I won't go with him," he nodded towards Armand. "I just won't."

"Why not?" There was quiet heartbreak in Armand's voice. "I know you believe that you love that man, but you did love me, once."

"Yes!" Daniel's violet eyes were shaded with red — the red of tears, not anger. "I did, and I got nothing for it. Martin loves me, he said he wanted me more than anything. You treat me like — like I'm a machine or something. I'm not going with you. Not anywhere, not any more. I'm leaving."

He shouldered his way through the collected vampires and disappeared out the door. Armand was left alone, and Pandora sensed that the awareness that most of the vampire coven had watched his defeat was adding to the rage building inside him. He lifted his head, and his eyes fastened on Jesse.

"You," he said quietly, but with menace. "This is all your fault."

"I didn't mean it," she said helplessly. "It was an accident."

Armand took one threatening step closer. Again, it was Khayman who took hold of Armand, though now he seemed to hold him more for comfort than restraint.

"Wait," the elder said gently. "Don't act hastily. I know you're hurting, but..." Khayman's voice lowered to a soothing hum and eventually trailed off altogether; Pandora guessed that he was speaking directly into Armand's mind. Armand allowed himself to be held, but his eyes reflected unending sorrow.

* * *

When the mortals left, Lestat stopped paying attention to what was happening. As Daniel began to rant and rave, Lestat slowly edged closer to where Louis was standing. How beautiful he was! And how little attention he was paying to Lestat! Not as much as a hello, then he went about kissing mortal girls! Well, no, she had kissed him, actually. All the same...

And then there was Pandora. Louis seemed to have found a lot to amuse himself with. This calm, serene, outrageously dressed Louis was a far cry from the one Lestat remembered from their last meeting, the silently weeping Louis he had carried around in his mind ever since he woke up in Wales. Could his fledgling have changed so much? Didn't he need Lestat at all?

The bleak fear gripped him again, worse than ever. He was trembling on the brink of something, and now he knew what it was, and the fear he felt of that was enough to pull him back, for now. He reached out and touched Louis' arm gently.

Louis lifted his eyes, pools of peaceful green, to Lestat's face. There was no rejection there, but neither was there the shy delight Lestat had wished for. "We need to talk," Lestat said so quietly that no one else could hear it. "Come outside with me."

Louis tilted his head to one side and looked thoughtful. Then he said, "Very well, I may as well. You're right, it's time."

Unnoticed, they slipped through the door. Once they were outside it was Louis who led the way, before Lestat even had time to look around, to a small table at the back of the club. He sat down, and gestured for Lestat to take the chair opposite.

"Talk," he said.

Lestat's mind was whirling. He said the first thing that popped into it. "You're wearing makeup."

Louis grinned unabashedly. "I know. It was Pandora's idea. Don't you like it?"

Lestat scowled. "No. Yes. You look—" He blinked, assessed the effect. "You look wonderful."

"Thank you."

So Pandora had done that. Had she made Louis even more beautiful, just for her own enjoyment? He had to know. "Tell me," he said bluntly. "Is this what it looks like? Have you left me for her?"

Louis smiled a small, amused, mysterious smile. "Left you?"

That tiny return question hit Lestat with the impact of a sledgehammer. He sat there reeling, unable to take it in. If Louis had not left him, had he ever been there? Had their relationship been all in Lestat's mind? Had Louis rejected it? Never accepted it in the first place?

In a way, Louis was right to question what Lestat had said. There were so many things they had never spoken of, all of them important. What were they to each other, really? What did he want them to be?

Lestat squared his shoulders. "I'm sorry," he said with some difficulty. "I didn't mean to make any — any assumptions. But we were living together and you went away to travel with someone else." He tried for humor. "Are you coming back, or can I give your old books to the Salvation Army?"

"Don't you dare touch my books," Louis said pleasantly. "As to your question, I don't quite know for how long Pandora and I will be travelling together."

"That was not my question!" Lestat tried to control himself, to lower his voice. "Do you love her?"

Again, Louis looked amused. "Yes."

Lestat found that his fingers were sinking into the plastic of the tabletop as though it were Jello. The emptiness within him beckoned, the terrible fear, the loneliness. The fear of loneliness. The—

The madness.

It was there and waiting for him, smiling, with teeth like knives. The terror that filled him was like nothing he had ever experienced before. He didn't know how to conquer this. He didn't think he could do it alone. It was time, he had to say it, had to tell the truth.

"You were wrong," he managed to gasp out. "In your note. I do — I do need you. Louis. I..." He had to say it. Had to. "I love you. Please. You must do as you wish, but — oh, please don't leave me!"

Louis' hands settled on top of his own. "Lestat, the poor table. I only went on a vacation. Calm yourself."

"You have to know." Lestat felt tears rising to his eyes; when he'd told Louis everything, then Louis would really have a reason to leave him. But he had to explain what had happened. "I'm frightened, Louis, I'm so frightened!" Haltingly, he told the tale of how he'd returned to their home in New Orleans and found the note, then discovered himself in Wales. He explained how Armand, Marius and Khayman had found him, how they had made it clear to him what had been going on. "Louis, I think I may be going insane. I need you. I need you so badly."

Chapter twenty-two

Louis leaned back in his chair and looked at the familiar, beloved immortal across the table. In the flashing many-colored light, he could see that Lestat was crying, quietly and undramatically. It was so unlike him not to make a production of it that Louis had to marvel.

The tale Lestat had told was far from anything Louis had expected. He had thought he would be scolded, cajoled and threatened as Lestat tried to make him return to the life they had led before. That hadn't been what Louis had wanted at all, but that had been what he'd been prepared to deal with.

This — this was utterly different. Lestat really was frightened. He was pleading with Louis. He had said that he loved him, needed him. It was so much more than Louis had ever dared to hope for that he found his heart singing.

But this story of madness and murder! It explained the newspaper items that had caused Gabrielle such worry. He wondered what she'd say when she found out her beloved son was responsible for the threat she had discovered.

"Lestat," he said, taking pleasure in just speaking his loved one's name. "You say you killed people for just looking like me, in the grip of this madness. What's to stop you from going mad again, and trying to kill me? You're asking me to trust you all the same?"

Lestat's eyes, gleaming blue and violet in this light, fastened on his with a deep and intense pleading of their own. "It was because I was so upset that you'd left. If you were with me, it would be different."

"It might," Louis agreed. "And it might not. If I accept your offer now, I might not be able to leave your company alive."

"I won't hurt you." There was a world of sincerity in Lestat's voice. "I will try never to hurt you again. Louis. I need to know. Do you love me? If I could know that, if there could be that trust between us—" He took a deep breath. "Louis, I am so afraid of being left alone! I hate it! To be abandoned, unloved... and you, you are the one I , oh, I need you so!"

Louis couldn't hold back any longer. His carefully cultivated facade was slipping; tears rose to his eyes. He had been cautious this far but he couldn't stop himself now. Pushing the table aside, he went to his knees next to Lestat's chair and wrapped his arms around him.

"Hush, my darling, my love, don't cry. I love you, I do love you so. I've always loved you, you know that." He was stroking Lestat's hair, marvelling at its softness under his fingers. "You're not alone. You are always with me, in my heart."

* * *

Marius felt tired. So much had happened, so many intense emotions had been played out in this little room. Gabrielle and Pandora and Jesse had gone into a huddle by the door. Armand was still weeping quietly in Khayman's arms, and the sound of it was a constant tiny pain in Marius' heart.

He wished he could do something to help his fledgling, but couldn't think of a single thing. The comfort Khayman was offering, of mind-to-mind soothing as well as a physical embrace, was probably all that could be done at the moment. No doubt the spell would wear off, as the young woman had said. There had been something in her manner that made it impossible for Marius to consider that she might have been lying. But he did suspect she had kept things from them.

Deciding to test his theory, he turned to David. "You should know more than most of us about witches' spells," he said in a low voice, intending this conversation to be private.

David nodded cautiously. "It wasn't my main area of study, but yes, I have some knowledge of the subject."

"Did she tell the truth? Will the spell wear off?"

"Yes," David said immediately. "But she was clever not to say more than she did." He fell silent. Marius felt the brush of David's mind against his own, and thrilled secretly at it. :The spell will fail when the caster dies,: David told him, :as he will do, soon.:

"I see," Marius said. It was as he had thought. And so David did not want Armand to know this, either, or he would have spoken out loud. They appeared to think alike on that subject, at least.

:I find myself reluctant to do anything that will bring that young woman and Armand into a confrontation again,: he thought back at the young vampire. :I don't know but what she might not be a match for him.:

Marius sensed David's agreement. Then David withdrew from the telepathic contact. Marius felt somehow rebuked. Had this been an unwanted degree of intimacy? They'd only been talking! Surely his control wasn't slipping so much that he'd sent more private thoughts and emotions into David's mind.

What if he had? He was tired, his control might be slipping, and David did look so damnably desirable in those torn jeans.

No, Marius, he told himself sternly. Leave those thoughts alone. It's none of your business that he has great legs.

His eye was caught by the motion of Armand stepping out of Khayman's embrace. Armand looked exhausted, drained, but collected enough, as he looked around at the assembled vampires. Then Armand's eyes narrowed and a renewed spark leaped in them.

"Where's Lestat? Where's Louis?" he demanded. "Damn it, Marius! You were supposed to keep an eye on them!"

Armand was right , the two vampires were missing. "It must have been when I was talking to Daniel," Marius said.

"Well, what if he's out there killing him? Did you consider that?"

"What?" That was Gabrielle, her voice sharp. "What if who's killing whom? Tell me what you're talking about!"

"Your precious son, killing Louis," Armand explained impatiently. "Well, he's been wasting everyone who even looks like Louis!"

"Lestat did that?"

Gabrielle looked stunned. No wonder, Marius thought. She was so deeply attached to her son that it had probably never occurred to her that he might be responsible for those horrible deeds.

"Oh dear," Pandora said, and immediately turned for the door. Marius was startled to see such a degree of devotion to Louis in her behavior. Armand was quick to follow Pandora's lead, and they all poured out into the club.

At first they were blinded by the strange lights and the wave of noise that met them; Marius shook his head to clear it. "There," Jesse said, spotting them before anyone else. "they're over there."

Well, she was probably more used to this kind of environment. Everyone looked in the direction that she was indicating, and saw Lestat and Louis perched uncertainly together on one chair, arms wrapped about each other as they kissed passionately, clinging tight as if they never meant to let go.

"Not exactly killing each other, are they?" Pandora said.

After a brief pause, Gabrielle suggested, "Maybe it's mouth to mouth resuscitation."

* * *

Eventually, as Louis and Lestat became aware that they were being watched, they disentangled themselves and came over to the group. Watching them approach, Pandora could see love radiating from them like a halo. She breathed a deep sigh of relief. Louis would be all right. They would both be all right.

:I was worried, though,: Gabrielle thought. :I never thought of Lestat.:

:Louis will straighten him out. I don't have a doubt of it,: Pandora replied.

:You know, I do believe you're right.:

"We've only come to say goodbye," Louis said, holding up a hand to forestall comments from both Armand and Marius. "We're going away together for a while."

"Louis, you can't," Armand said. "You can't leave with him. Don't you know what he has done?"

"Yes, I do know." Louis was so serene. "But that is our business." He smiled. "Armand, I know you mean well. Please don't worry about me. I'll be fine." He gave Armand a hug, which the older vampire reluctantly accepted.

"You know Lestat is a maniac."

"Yes." Louis smiled. "But he's the maniac I love."

Meanwhile, Lestat had walked up to David. "I hope you had a good time with the others," he said. "I'm sorry to leave you so abruptly, I know you're still pretty new to all this."

It seemed to Pandora that Lestat was having trouble speaking coherently. She smiled, feeling pretty sure of the reason why. David apparently noticed it too. He smiled.

"Lestat, don't worry. Go with Louis. It's a big coven, if I need help I know where to find it. I won't be alone. Take care of yourself, my friend."

"Yes." Lestat's smile was relieved. As he turned to resume looking at Louis, the look on his face turned positively ecstatic. But he managed to turn his attention to Gabrielle. "Mother. Didn't expect to see you here."

"I can tell," she said with a smile. "Did I really bring you up to act like that in public?"

Lestat snorted and put his arms around her. "I wouldn't mind seeing you again one of these nights. Stay in touch, won't you?" Pandora missed Gabrielle's reply; she moved forward and intercepted Louis as he released Armand.

"So, sweetheart, you're leaving me here?"

The smile he turned on her was mischievous as well as loving. "I certainly am. Hell, Pandora, you knew all along if I found a good-looking blond I'd dump you like a shot."

"Yes." She slipped into his embrace. "Yes, I guess I knew that. At least you picked a good one."

:I'll miss you,: he thought at her. :What are you going to do now?:

:I'll tell you when I know. Get going now before you're both smothered in good wishes and unwanted advice.:

She gave him a squeeze and released him. Louis and Lestat walked off, holding each other, heads leaning together. The people in the club parted almost reverently to let them past. The power of such a love,Pandora thought, could part even the Red Sea.

She looked around at those who were left: Marius, Armand, Khayman, David, Jesse and Gabrielle. Gabrielle winked at her. :I couldn't ask for a better son-in-law.:

:The best,: Pandora replied.

"Well," she said out loud, "now what do we do?"

"It's not that far till dawn," Khayman said.

Jesse looked around in some confusion. "I thought this place closed at two."

"They only stop selling alcohol at two," Gabrielle corrected her. As the others looked at her in surprise, she grinned. "I had a little chat with the bartender."

:Was he pretty?: Pandora asked.

:Very.: Gabrielle rolled her eyes. :But he would stay behind the bar, so I couldn't get at him!:

"I'd prefer not to sleep in the park again," Marius said. In the tight red top he was wearing, he looked younger than Pandora had seen him for ages. But something of his old manner reappeared now that he was getting tired; she knew the signs.

"I own a house here," Armand said.

"I know," Jesse said, then retreated a little under the onslaught of Armand's look. "I mean, we stayed there before. With — with Daniel."

Armand reined himself in with what was obviously a great effort. "If someone would be kind enough to find out whether Daniel is there..."

"He is not," Khayman said immediately. "He left, going east. He is already on the other side of the Bay. I believe he has stolen a car."

"In that case," Armand said, "I'm offering you my hospitality. All of you." He stared pointedly at Jesse. She smiled nervously back.

:Don't worry, Red,: Pandora heard Gabrielle think. :I'll share a room with you again if you like. We'll probably have to, anyway.:

They all trooped out of the club, a solemn-looking gang, and hailed cabs outside; for a miracle, they found two almost immediately. Armand gave the address, and they sped off through the night.

The driver of Pandora's, Jesse's and Gabrielle's cab played hot salsa music and grinned constantly at them in the rearview mirror. "This is like church in the old days," Gabrielle commented. "Men in one place and women in another. Red, you're too tense."

"Armand's scaring me," Jesse said frankly. "He blames all of this on me."

"That's stupid of him," Pandora said. "He'll get over it. He takes everything that happens to him so personally."

Jesse frowned. "There's another way? Most of the things that happen to me are pretty damn personal."

Pandora shook her head and saw Gabrielle doing it at the same time. "We, our lives, are parts of a random reality. Sometimes our existence laces into that of someone else in a way that's as unstoppable as rainfall or the way the wind blows. The world tells all its stories at once, and sometimes they become confused. Armand's the eternal child of night, he hasn't grown up into those truths yet."

"I'm not sure I understand," Jesse said. "But you put it beautifully." The red-headed vampire yawned. "Maybe we can all share a room."

"I'd be pleased to," Pandora said.

Chapter twenty-three

In the end the three of them had crowded into the same bedroom Jesse had shared with Gabrielle the day before, and sprawled in a heap on the huge bed, talking idly until they were taken into sleep. Armand had glared at Jesse as she'd retired, but said nothing more. She believed Khayman had spent the day with him, but wasn't certain; there had been some kind of polite commotion outside their door at dawn when the four males had divided themselves up into the two remaining bedrooms, but she hadn't listened too closely.

When she woke now, Pandora and Gabrielle were still lying in their death-like sleep next to her. Both of them had their eyes closed, which was a relief: Jesse had never grown used to the empty stare of a vampire caught open-eyed by the daylight hours. It reminded her too much of that time she'd seen Mael and Maharet, long before she'd become an immortal herself.

To her immense surprise, she discovered that the two women were holding hands. Jesse had somehow never expected that of either of them, and she was oddly touched to see it.

Sitting up, she leaned her chin on her knees and sank into thought. This had been an interesting vacation, indeed. Her little adventure hadn't turned out anything like the way she had envisioned it... well, at first it had. The good times they had had in Rome and London, she mustn't let herself forget those, before the spell had taken hold of Daniel and made him act so oddly.

Jesse deeply regretted her impulsive act that night in the Stockholm café. No matter what Pandora had said, she did feel responsible. Martin would never have become part of their story if she hadn't acted on an impulse and broken the rules. The cautions Maharet and Mael had been dinning into her ears forever did make sense. Perhaps it was only Lestat who could get away with breaking rules all the time.

Mael.

Suddenly she missed him so much her throat hurt with it. Missed his deep velvety voice, his stubborn argumentative ways, the gentle way he'd brush her hair out of her face. She even missed his lectures. She wanted to go back home. Back to the hot, wet nights of Rangoon, shared with the two persons she loved most in all the world.

Pandora stirred next to her. She opened her huge dark eyes and lay for a moment staring into space; then she turned her head and looked at Jesse. "How are you feeling?"

"I've decided to leave," Jesse said.

Pandora nodded, not seeming too surprised. "Yes, that is probably for the best. And Jesse, dear, try not to worry."

Jesse attempted a smile. "Hell, now I've something else to worry about instead. God only knows what Maharet and Mael will have to say to me when I come back."

"Ah, yes. I'm relieved they stayed out of this, at any rate. Shows a great deal of sense." Pandora sat up, too, and ran her hands through her hair. "I need a shower. See you in the kitchen."

She rose and slipped into the bathroom. Jesse grinned — so she didn't rate a shower, did she? Getting out of bed, she rummaged for more appropriate clothing than pink leather and spandex, and at the bottom of one suitcase she found a pair of plain jeans and a checked shirt. Jesse wondered why she'd bought anything so dull, but put the outfit on anyway.

When she came downstairs she found David and Marius in the kitchen already, making desultory conversation across the table. "Good evening, gentlemen."

David looked up, and smiled at her. "Indeed. You look pretty tonight, Jesse."

"No," she all but wailed. "I do not! Last night I was a total babe and you didn't say a word. Tonight my hair's all tangled and I'm wearing boring clothes, and now you tell me I look pretty?"

David laughed, and exchanged amused looks with Marius. "Well, I tried."

"I'm going back to Rangoon," she said. "I think this little trip of ours is over, David. I hope you don't mind."

"It's all right," he soothed her. "I take it you're missing Mael?"

"Yes," she acknowledged. "Very much."

"Well, then go to him, girl!"

"That's telling her," Gabrielle said sleepily from the doorway. Pandora was right behind her, her hair wrapped in a towel. They were both smiling.

"Well," Jesse said, "I may as well go now, before..." She didn't finish the sentence, but waited for David to rise and then caught him in a hug.

"I really enjoyed this," he said quietly into her hair. "The next time you want to play, Jesse, call me."

She grinned up at him. "Oh, this from the staid David Talbot! Of course I will."

Marius shook her hand, rather formally, but there was a friendly enough smile on his face.

"Oh, Red." Gabrielle and Pandora caught her in a three-way hug, and sent waves of affection washing over her. "You go off and raise hell with that druid of yours!"

"I'm sure she will," a cool voice said.

Damn. Jesse twitched. She'd waited too long. Armand was up.

There he was in the doorway, poised like a cat about to leap at a mouse. She was both taller and more powerful than he, so why did the mere sight of him terrify her so? It was probably his intensity, his conviction. Jesse didn't really want to hurt Armand. But she felt completely certain that he wanted to hurt her.

"I'm leaving now," she said, trying to sound self-assured. "Thank you for letting me stay here."

"Think nothing of it." His eyes burned into her. "And never come close to me or mine again, Talamascan."

Over Armand's shoulder, Khayman was offering her a soft smile. :I'll try to talk him out of it, daughter.:

It was the first time he had ever called her that. Despite Armand's threats, Jesse felt a warm bubble of contentment rise within her. :Thank you — father.:

Before she could start crying on everyone's shoulder, she walked out of the kitchen, out of the house, and into the night sky. To hell with her clothes. She could always buy some more.

* * *

Pandora watched Jesse stride away, outwardly confident. The girl would be all right. A good roaring fight with Mael would soon restore her to herself. Gods, but that man could be so infuriating! Pandora was prepared to believe that he'd met his match in Jesse, though.

Armand stomped off towards the living room; Khayman, his faithful shadow, followed. Pandora ignored them. She smiled sweetly at Gabrielle. :It's time,: she thought at her. The response was a squeeze of her hand.

"Marius? Don't get up. And don't look so worried, we just need to talk, that's all."

David, ever the model of politeness, tried to rise from the table. Pandora put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down again. She didn't mind witnesses.

"Yes," Marius was saying. "We do. I haven't even said I'm glad to see you up and about again."

Pandora giggled. "You make me sound like a recuperating invalid. I guess in a way I am. Marius, dear one, I'm sorry if I caused you any distress. I had to go away at first, to think. Meeting Louis was the best thing that could have happened to me. I want to thank you for caring so much for me. You've always been there when I've really needed you, even when I couldn't say that I needed you."

He looked at her, her handsome Roman, blue eyes clear and open. "I love you," he said with almost painful honesty. "You know that."

"Yes," she said. "And that makes it more difficult to say what I have to say. Marius, I'm going away again. I won't be coming back to you; not now, and I don't know if I ever will. I'm sorry if this is hurting you, but..."

Marius reached out and clasped both her hands in both of his, an old familiar gesture of love and comfort between them. "It's all right," he said huskily.

"You care for me so much — too much. Don't feel responsible for me any more, please. I do love you, I always will. But — but—"

"It won't be the two of us again that way, will it," he said for her. "Things have changed. I can feel that, too. But if you need me—"

"You'll be there," she said. "I know. Don't wait for it to happen, though. And if you need someone, I can be there for you. Really."

He rose and pulled her close. Familiar, so familiar, this embrace. And there was no pain, no resentment when they held each other. They could do this, part like this; this, too, would be all right.

"Are you — are the two of you leaving together?" Marius asked.

"Yes," Pandora said. "If you need to get in touch with me, you know who to look for."

"I'll see if I can break her of some of those city ways," Gabrielle drawled.

Pandora snorted. "Want to bet? I'll get you into a ballgown sooner than you can get me to buy a pair of hiking boots!"

* * *

The past few days had been one long rush of events, one more surprising than the other. And now this. Marius released Pandora from his arms, and looked deep into her wide, dark eyes. What he saw there reassured him — the sparkle of genuine humor, and a deep lust for life. She was strong now, and ready for the future. He could finally let her go.

Gabrielle was waiting for her at the door. "You stealing that towel, Pan?"

"No." Pandora unwrapped her wet hair, and tossed the towel at the unsuspecting David. "Catch! Nice meeting you, David Talbot. I might see you again one of these decades."

One final blindingly brilliant smile, and she was gone. The sound of giggles echoed through the hall, then the door slammed. Just like that. She was gone, just like that.

And Marius felt relieved, and lost, and confused, and happy. The morning had been difficult, maneuvering politely about bedrooms only to find that Khayman had no intention of letting Armand out of his sight.

That had left Marius with David and a certain embarrassment. Still, the bed had been big enough that a whole soccer team could have lain in it without touching. And vampires weren't exactly known for tossing in their sleep.

Waking up, it had been a shock to find David already awake. The young fledgling had been watching him, too. Marius had felt rather unsettled. Still, they'd struck up a conversation that had brought them all the way to the kitchen, where Jesse had bounded in.

That one was a delight, Marius thought. He hadn't seen her since the time the coven had stayed on the Night Island, when she'd still been rather traumatized by her making. Now, ah, now she was something else, indeed.

David cleared his throat, and Marius returned to the present to find himself once again subjected to a scrutiny by those brown, considering eyes. "Will you miss her?" David asked.

It was by far the most personal thing Marius had ever heard him say. He nodded. "Probably. But I'm so happy to see her like this, herself again, alive again. And she's right, we don't belong together any more the way we did."

So now what was he going to do? He had lived in Italy, bound to his villa by Pandora's presence. The house was still there. He could return. Or he could choose not to. The sudden freedom he experienced made him feel dizzy. There was Armand, but Khayman was caring for Armand. Khayman, able to talk to Armand mind to mind, and not bound up in centuries of conflict with him, would probably make a better job of it.

"I see. Marius, I wonder if..." David broke off.

"What?" Marius asked encouragingly. If nothing else, he wasn't going to cut this conversation with David off short. He had all the time in the world now.

"Well," David was smiling shyly, "now that Lestat and Louis have gone off God knows where, I'm somewhat at a loose end, you might say."

"Yes," Marius agreed.

Does he mean — he can't mean—

"I'm still new at this business of being a vampire, and I — I'd rather like some company. I mean," David continued in a rush, "perhaps you really want to be alone, in that case I won't bother you, but I thought..."

Marius let the edge of his mind brush David's, and felt a tentative touch back. A reaching out, a wish for contact. Attraction. Interest.

He put his hand on top of David's hand, on the kitchen table. "It won't be a bother," Marius assured him. "No bother at all."

Chapter twenty-four

Louis leaned his head on Lestat's shoulder and breathed deeply of the still night air, enjoying the coolness, the sound of the waves. The fact that they were together, just the two of them. They hadn't gone as far as the others were no doubt believing. Just up the coast a bit, and then into the earth as the dawn had approached.

Rising here, out at the beach near Point Reyes, they had found solitude and blessed stillness, and a place where they could sit and just be themselves, without being disturbed by anything or anybody. Louis had always found the presence of the ocean soothing — any ocean, really.

Watching the huge breakers of the Pacific roll in, he felt his mind unwind and untense. All the uncertainties of the past weeks were slipping away; he was unable to hold on to any worry in the face of this new-found happiness. When Lestat put an arm around him and kissed his temple, he sighed contentedly.

"You really aren't afraid, are you," Lestat said. Louis smiled mischievously at him.

"Maybe I'm just hiding it very well."

"It's not fair," Lestat said. "I'm afraid."

"I can't believe I heard you say that."

Lestat held him even tighter. "You'll hear me say a lot of things."

"And will you mean them?"

"Always." Lestat's lips brushed his forehead, the tip of his nose, then Lestat's mouth descended on Louis' in a kiss so gentle, it almost made him laugh and cry at the same time.

"Beloved," he whispered and kissed back, with passion. "I won't break."

Gradually, they went from sitting on the sand to lying in the sand, exchanging caresses that grew more and more heated. Curled into Lestat's arms, Louis felt a delicate touch brush at his mind, a voice he recognized. And he'd thought no one would bother them here. He'd been wrong, but he didn't mind, not when it was this one.

He fended off Lestat's right hand, worrying at the buttons of his shirt, and concentrated his mind on accepting the communication. :Sweetheart? I'm not interrupting anything, am I?:

:Nothing that can't be put off until later,: he sent back, tinging his reply with laughter. :Where are you?:

:Leaving San Francisco,: Pandora stated, sounding highly content. :I'm going travelling with Gabrielle.:

:What a wonderful idea. Did you talk to Marius?:

:Yes, I did. He was so understanding, even more than I'd hoped for. So, now I'm free.:

:And I'm caught.: He sent an image of himself and Lestat, entwined, and heard her deep, sensual chuckle.

:Caught, and enjoying it, I'd say.:

:Well — yes.:

:Get out of the sand,: she advised him. :It has a way of getting in just about everywhere.: The image she sent along with that thought made him laugh out loud and blush at the same time.

Lestat gave him a suspicious look. "I'm trying to get your shirt off and all you can do is laugh? Well, thanks!"

"It's not you," Louis said a little breathlessly. "It's Pandora."

"Oh? What's she doing?"

"Running away with your mother, for one thing."

Lestat looked genuinely dumbfounded. "No! Really?" Then he smiled. "Well, give them both my love. And tell her to get the hell out of your head. I want you all to myself right now." He went back to working on the buttons, with single-minded dedication.

:I heard that,: Pandora sent. :Louis, darling.I just wanted to say thank you. We had a wonderful time together, didn't we?:

:We did,: he agreed. :We have to do it again some time. Any time you suddenly get that nasty marble feeling, just tell me and I'll come and weep all over you.:

:I know,: she laughed. :Thanks for the offer.: Then she turned more serious. :But I'm free now. There is no more Pandora's box. I'd shut my soul into a cage, but you released me.:

:We did it together,: he told her. :I have been released, too. We both freed ourselves from our pictures of ourselves.:

:Yes. And look at us now. I love you, sweetheart.:

:I love you too. Give those jungle beasts hell, now!:

:I will, sweetheart, I will.: The last thing he received from her was a picture of Pandora locked in mortal combat with a tiger; she was beating it over the head with one spike-heeled shoe.

Louis lay back into Lestat's arms, laughing quietly to himself. He caught Lestat's chin in one hand and dragged his head down for a kiss. "Let's move," he said when he could speak again. "I want to get out of the sand."

"Who cares about the sand?"

"I do. You wouldn't believe how unpleasant it can get."

Rising, he pulled Lestat up as well — or rather, Lestat allowed himself to be pulled up. They walked along the beach towards the woods. A sleek black head popped out of the waves and regarded them intently.

"Look, a seal." It followed them all the way along the beach. Lestat made shooing noises. "I can't kiss you when it's watching. I get embarrassed."

Louis chuckled. "I don't." He slipped his hand into Lestat's. "I am afraid," he said. "Only not as afraid as I would be if we weren't together."

Lestat turned serious. "You'd be afraid that I was coming after you?"

"No. That you weren't. Love, I'm only ever really alive when I'm with you. I don't care if you're going mad. I'm never leaving you again. And don't you even dream about leaving me."

His beloved caught him in an embrace that left him breathless. "Never. Never, do you hear me?" Lestat cupped his face in both hands and stared at him, eyes a smoky grey-blue the very color of the night sky, trying to burn their way into Louis' mind, his soul. "I won't say I've changed, that I'm a new person after all this. But I know more about myself now. And you know me better, too. My fears, my flaws. And the love I feel for you. This is who I am, all I am... will you have me?"

Louis felt the tears rise, let them flow freely. It didn't matter. Nothing else mattered, in the end, but that this moment was here and that he could look into Lestat's eyes and say, "Yes. Always, forever and forever. Yes, I will."

* * *

Pandora's box epilogue

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