torch 1995
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

A word of introduction and a warning: I had a weird dream one night and when I woke up, the narrator of this story was talking in my head. It appears to take place in an alternate, Memnoch-free universe (DC comics,anyone?). But those of you who were upset by the ending of Memnoch the devil should be warned that there is some (admittedly off-stage) death and violence here, too. This is not related to Pandora's box.

Standard disclaimer: this is a piece of speculative fiction, not written for commercial distribution. No infringement of the rights of any copyright holders is intended. This spec contains spoilers for Queen of the damned and Tale of the body thief (and probably The vampire Lestat and Interview with the vampire as well...). Do not archive this story without permission.

For all tomorrow's parties

This is it.

What I wanted, what I begged for. Why I did it — why I let it be done to me. Tonight. And last night, and tomorrow night, and a thousand nights from now. This is the future I wanted badly enough to die for. And I'm up here, in our drop-dead chic apartment high above the city, dead yet alive, looking out the window, seeing the lights and the darkness and wondering what I would have done if I'd known it was going to be like this.

It.

The future.

The future isn't what it used to be. Oh, very funny, Daniel. Any other appropriate lines coming to mind? Be careful what you wish for, and so on?

I thought it would be more like living in the past. A stupid idea, I know. But when I saw the old ones and heard them talk, heard all their stories of times long gone, it sounded so wonderful, and I thought what was to come would be more of the same.

I never really faced the truth I should have known all along: the future isn't a story. It hasn't happened yet. You have to spin your own tale out of it, if you survive it. And I wanted to see it, I wanted to know what would happen. I was a reporter, remember? I wanted to find out for myself, to be there, experience the whole thing. The future is the biggest scoop ever.

That wasn't the only reason, of course. Not even the main reason. The most important reason is sitting behind me on a genuine old leather couch he's owned since 1985, looking at my back. Without turning my head, I know what he looks like, how he's sitting — one knee up so he can wrap his arms around it, head tilted to one side. The same beautiful hair spilling over his shoulders, dark red silk; he hasn't cut it yet tonight. Eyes wide and burning, the look of a demented angel on his lovely unchanging face.

We've been through so much together. For love of him, I've travelled so far from the time that made me; because I loved him, because I could not bear to lose him.

Because I loved him — ah, who'm I fooling? I still love him. I've always loved him. I even stuck with him when he fell for the 'green antenna' hair craze and went around looking like a schizoid Martian, and if that's not love I don't know what is. Even when I don't like him very much, I love him.

And he loves me, too. Or says he does. We keep more and more to ourselves these days. We don't go out much. He's adjusted better than I; claims he's had more practice. All the same...

Turning from the window, I watch him watching me. "At least we are together," he says gently. "At least we are still sane."

He does that a lot. Not read my mind, he can't. But he reads my face. And I know what he's thinking: there are others who have coped less well with the future. Some have adjusted in their own way, or even embraced it whole-heartedly, but what works for them wouldn't work for me, I don't think.

Only consider Mael, the piercing performance artist, easing his pain with more pain. Last time I saw him he was more metal than flesh, barbed wire threaded into his right arm, spikes radiating from his head like a halo. He was talking about cutting his fingers off, using different human appendages every night, changing himself beyond all recognition.

He is utterly mad. But he's happy in his own tortured way. That's what keeps me from considering myself insane, too. Whatever I am, I'm not happy.

At least Mael's doing better than Maharet. She lost all reason to live and she can't die. I don't think even emulating Pandora and standing on the site of a nuclear explosion would work for her. It's enough to make me think of ending things now, while I still can. Jesse tells me Maharet just sits there in the Sonoma compound muttering 'deficient, deficient' to herself, taking the full blame for the genetic quirk that made the Great Family the perfect target for the White Plague back in 2013.

Hell, it may as well have been something in Khayman's genes, or something that developed along the way. I expect she thought getting distant branches together in marriage was a way to make it easier to keep track of them. Unfortunately, it made them more vulnerable.

Turning around, I see my lover's eyes fixed on me, as I knew they would be. He is lovely beyond words to me, and I drink in the sight of him as though it has been years rather than hours since we last saw each other.

"Want me to cut your hair for you?" I ask. He shakes his head.

"I don't feel like going out, anyway. Are you?" He's always this gentle with me. Except when I ask him not to be.

"Yes. Yes, I am."

He nods softly. Understandingly. I cross the room in three long strides, lift him bodily from the couch, clutch him to me. He allows me to. I'm talking into his hair. "I love you, love you, love you... hate you... love you so..."

And he grips me right back. The sheer strength of him, unbelievable. "We're still alive," he says fiercely. "We are still together." Then he lets me go.

I leave the room, not looking back. Every night lately I've roamed the streets, trying to make sense of things. For a month, maybe. Or is it two? I'm looking for something, yet I don't know what it is. Something that will make me feel connected again. The huge darkness all around, people dying, being born, screaming and laughing, making love, getting mugged in an alley. All of it has happened before. To touch the minds of mortals, so frantic, rushing here and there, trying to live live live before the greatest darkness of all comes down — I shut it all away. I don't need it.

The five members of Wrecking Crew won't even see me when I walk past them on their street corner. I look at them and smile. Darlings. Yes, you are so very dangerous, darlings. But not to me.

Just to walk is a soothing occupation. It gives me a sense of purpose. I don't know where I'm going, but at least I'm moving. I could feed, that would give me something to do. But I don't want it, don't really need it right now.

Maybe I could develop a particular feeding habit. Kill only black-haired virgins on the night of the full moon, or something. I'd be a demon out of a fantasy romance.

Before I know it I'm down by the river. I follow it, watching the black water ripple. It's not toxic any more, I know that. People still don't come here. The riverfront houses have all been abandoned. But new shoots are growing next to the old dead trees, and there's grass under my feet.

Up ahead there's a small shack, and a light showing through a crack in the wall, and suddenly I know where I'm going. When I reach it I lean my face against the wall, feeling a splinter bite into my forehead. The wood looks grey in this faint light. It looks old, even older than I feel.

:Why don't you come in?: a soft voice says in my mind. So I do.

He's sitting in a chair, and there's a single candle on the table next to him. As he looks up from the book he's reading, I can see that his green eyes are already warming into a smile. A smile just for me, imagine. "It's been a long time," he says.

I nod, still standing in the doorway. "What are you reading?" He looks down at the book, caresses the pages with one long delicate finger.

"Dickens. A tale of two cities."

"It's the wrong book," I say. "These aren't the best of times, they are only the worst. Where's Lestat?"

He shrugs. "Off annoying the Christ-campers, I imagine. I tell him to stop, but..."

"Why? You approve of them?"

"No. But wrecking their irrigation systems will only cause innocents to suffer. Can the children help it if their parents have decided to create Paradise here on earth and shut out everyone they don't approve of?" His face is animated. He cares. So does Lestat, in a different way.

I feel tired. Maybe coming here was the wrong thing to do after all. "No," I say listlessly.

Louis hears it. He looks at me differently now, intently, searchingly. "Daniel. Daniel, what's wrong?" He puts out a hand, not to touch me, but to show he cares. "Are you all right?"

The question is so simple that at first I can't answer it. What is 'all right'? What does he mean? When people ask you how you are, you should answer 'fine' and leave it at that, it's one of the first things you learn in life — that no one means that question to be taken seriously, they just want reassurance.

But this is Louis. And we are not just ordinary people, and ordinary manners were left behind a long time ago. And the truth is, is—

"No," I say, "I am not all right. Nothing is all right. Everything is strange and the night and the very stars are alien to me, and all the faces of friends are becoming those of strangers. I don't understand anything any more, Louis. I'm lost. This is not the world I knew."

"No," he agrees neutrally, "it isn't."

I drop to my knees. It all seems so futile. So silly. "They don't even make Reese's peanut butter cups any more," I say pointlessly, and begin to cry.

Louis moves. He puts his book aside, and kneels down on the floor, the dirty unswept floor, and holds me very carefully. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here. Wouldn't know anything about this unlife that has kept me roaming the night for decades now. I wonder if he's thinking of that, too. But for all that he is cold and hard, his embrace is wonderfully comforting.

"You are nearing the end of your lifetime," he says.

I stiffen in fear. "You mean this is — this is all I—"

"No. Hush. If you were mortal, you could not live much longer than this. And the world as you knew it has changed beyond recognition. This is the first change, and the hardest. After that, things become far easier." He's stroking my hair.

"So to you this is just a century like any other?"

"Less enjoyable than the previous ones," he acknowledges. "I'm thinking of abandoning this so-called civilization for a while. Until it comes to its senses."

I lift my head to look at him, see the calm good sense in his green eyes. "But what if it never does? What if it just goes on like this?"

"It's a possibility. But I don't think so. Don't you remember how Khayman once told us that he found the Inquisition intolerable, and despaired of mankind? And others of the old ones have done that in various places, in various centuries. And at the same time others have found reason to go on and share themselves with their companions in love."

My tears have almost stopped now. We are sitting on the floor together, his arm around my shoulders. And I know that if anyone has ever shared himself and given of himself with love, it is Louis. Even in utter despair, he will go on loving. He loved Lestat for most of a century believing him to be all but dead. His heart and soul are made of different stuff than mine, I think.

"So is that your advice? To retire to the wilds and wait it out, like a dance I don't care for?"

"Only if you like gardening," he says, deadpan. Something comes back to me, an old memory, and I find myself humming an REM song I didn't even think I knew.

"Gardening at night?"

"It's an idea, certainly." Louis looks around, and seems a little startled. "Perhaps I should encourage guests to drop by more often. It must be weeks since I swept the floor in here."

"Months," I disagree. He is no longer exclusively focused on me; he has given me what he can. "I think I should leave now."

"As you wish." He smiles at me. "It was good to see you, Daniel. I wish you'd come around more often. Don't move to the country without telling me."

"I'll join the Christ-campers, then Lestat can tell you."

He laughs, such a sweet sound. "Don't forget," he says. "The first lifetime is the hardest one. And joy comes when you least expect it."

We embrace briefly. "Say hello to Lestat," I say and go, closing the door carefully behind me.

The streets are just as dark on the way back. I walk, then I run, so fast that mortals perceive me only as a wind brushing past them. I can make myself invisible in many ways, which is sometimes disturbing, but more often practical. Back near our house I slow down. The doorman might be surprised to see me appear out of nothing and demand to be let in. Now, when I saunter up he smiles as he holds the door open for me.

We own this house, Armand and I. But when I touch his mind I find that he is smiling because he likes me. And although we've lived here many years, he has never become suspicious at our unchanging faces and forms.

Too many years. There are other places, after all. For years David has tried to persuade us to come and visit him in New Zealand, and see the house that he and his sometime companion Eric have created. There have been other invitations, too, that I have ignored. Perhaps that was foolish. We've been here too long, and others are not as gullible as this doorman.

I ride the elevator to the top floor. The mirrors throw my own face at me from all directions. I always looked younger than my years. Now this is so true it is starting to be funny. Tentatively, I smile at my reflection. It smiles back.

And when the doors opens I am in the penthouse and there is my love, my lover, the eternal adolescent with the wisdom of centuries in his eyes. Waiting for me. I stand still for a little and just look at him. In this long confusing night, this darkness punctuated by more darkness that is the life I lead now, he is my bright particular star, the center of my existence. And I love him.

So brief, those words, how can I make them express all I want to say? When I try, I end up sounding like the writers of cheap song lyrics. But I have to try.

"Armand," I say, holding my hand out to him, reaching out. The words all feel wrong. "Beloved..."

In an instant he is there, in my arms. Not soft and yielding, no, he is not soft. But there, looking at me. "Daniel." And the distance that has grown between our hearts is suddenly gone as surely as the distance between our bodies.

"All I can do is say it. All I can do is mean it. I love you. And tonight as well, tonight as much as that night in the Villa of the Mysteries, I want to live forever with you."

He doesn't reply. It frightens me at first. Then I sense a different quality to his silence. And looking at his face, I see crimson drops sliding down his cheeks. I bend to lick them away, and tasting him like this is so unexpectedly sweet that I can feel my soul soften and my grief grow lighter.

"Yes," he whispers. "It's all we can do, to love and keep living."

And I shudder, feeling a pervasive chill, a bone-deep fear. I'm committed to it now. The future is all ready to happen to me, and I can't get away from it. And perhaps Louis is wrong, and things will just go on getting stranger and stranger, and the fear in me will grow.

But I have no choice now. Stripped of its affectations, my soul knows not only pain, but also love. I am not alone. I would die for him. I did die for him. We are the future.

* * *

The black angel's death song

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