torch 1996

This is a non-profit piece of fan fiction. Spoiler warnings: contains spoilers for everything up to Tale of the body thief. This is the sixth and final story in the Roman Holiday series, which takes place in the same universe as And death shall have no erection. Do not archive this story without permission.

Phoenix of my heart

"The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire." — T. S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding'

Santino lifted his head and looked at the man who was standing at the other end of the terrace. In the darkness, Marius was a shimmering ghost with moonlight hair. He wore a blue shirt that fitted snugly across his shoulders, and black jeans washed so often they'd turned grey, and comfortable suede boots. Very casual. Very unlike Marius. Santino waited, and finally Marius moved, walking slowly towards him.

He stopped when they were barely a yard apart and stood still, forcing Santino to lean back a little in order to look at him comfortably. Marius' face showed nothing, no emotion at all. The silence that stretched between them was growing so loaded, Santino feared to break it.

But finally he said, trying to keep his tone light, "Why did you leave?"

That fast, Marius dropped his eyes and looked away, and Santino felt the disturbance as clearly as though it was happening inside him, too. Marius took another few steps and sat down on the balustrade, a little distance away. It was impossible for Santino to even try to read his mind; besides, he knew Marius was well shielded, as neither he nor Eric had sensed Marius' approach. But he could feel the tension anyway, could feel the tightness in Marius, all wound up.

His hands wanted so badly to touch, to gently caress those muscles into relaxation, then into another tension altogether... He remembered it all too well, that was his curse.

"I'm sorry," Marius said, to his immense surprise. "I lost my courage."

Santino raised an eyebrow in mute enquiry, but Marius wasn't looking at him and finally he had to say, "How do you mean that?"

"I panicked," Marius clarified. "I just felt I had to get away."

"Oh, realizing that you'd made a mistake," Santino said, feeling his voice grow sharp again.

"No." Despite the obvious tension, Marius sounded almost unnaturally calm. "I didn't want to admit that I had done exactly what I wanted to do."

Santino blinked. He couldn't believe his ears. "You wanted..."

"I wanted you," Marius went on in the same even tone. "I think I've always wanted you." Now he did turn his head and look at Santino, and Santino felt an almost physical shock. Oh, those eyes. Burning blue.

Without quite being aware of it he began to move closer, leaning towards Marius, who remained still but made it clear that he was aware of this and welcomed it. Santino bit his lip. Control. He couldn't lose it again. He thought Pandora was very likely right in what she had told him before.

"And do you still want me?" he asked.

Marius nodded. His eyelashes fluttered, moth wings, too quick for thought. The hand he reached out shook. "Yes."

Santino felt his voice grow rough and husky. "What do you want me to do?"

"Take me." Marius moved closer with languid abandon. His posture, his voice, the look in his eyes all spoke of barely-repressed desire, a primal lust that could not be held back much longer. Santino felt an ache start deep inside, sweetly familiar. He had to take a deep breath and swallow before he could speak.


Marius' blue eyes clouded and grew dim with confusion.


"No," Santino said violently, a bit shaken by the disgust he felt. "Who do you think you're talking to? I won't pander to those desires."

"But I want you," Marius said in a low voice, nearly a whisper. Santino shook his head. It took every ounce of willpower he could summon up to lean back, to shake off Marius' hands, reject his caresses. To put distance between them again. Still, he made himself speak.

"You just want what I represent to you. But I'm not going to give you that." Santino rose to his feet and looked down seriously. "I want you to see me as myself. I won't fuck you just because you're turned on by what you fear most. As long as you're afraid of me, Marius, I am not going to be your lover. Is that quite clear?"

By now Marius was pale with shock, and had rise as well and taken a step backwards, his lips thinning with the pain of rejection. It was all Santino could do not to reach out, to undo his words with actions and draw Marius into his embrace. He wanted to, oh, how he wanted to. Instead he stood calmly still and just managed not to cross his arms forbiddingly.

Marius wavered for a moment, hurt and anger warring in his face. Then he just twisted around, turning his back, and started crying. Santino felt his heart contract. Everything shifted and the sexual tension was gone. He took one step forward, two, then put his hands gently on Marius' shoulders. Marius was a tall man and he had to crane his neck uncomfortably in order to lean into Santino's embrace. But he did it.

"Hush," Santino whispered tenderly. "My dearest darling. Sssshh, my love, it's all right. It will be all right."

Marius was still shaking but it was tears now, not terror. The storm was breaking, slowly. Santino rocked him and talked soft loving nonsense, things he would never have said to anyone else, ever. He stroked the soft pale hair, kissed it, all comfort now. Every sob was like a small cut and he was trying to heal them both.

When Marius straightened up much later and dried his face on a white linen handkerchief, his eyes were clear again. He looked at Santino with a slight frown. "We should talk," he said. "I mean, really talk." Looking around, he smiled a small smile. "Not here. Will you come with me?"

Anywhere, Santino wanted to say. Instead he tilted his head enquiringly. "Where?"

"Back," Marius said and stepped in close again, putting an arm around Santino's waist. The next moment they were rising into the air, and Santino clutched at Marius' shoulders. The earth disappeared and he felt utterly disoriented.

:I won't let you fall,: Marius told him gravely. Santino swallowed, and closed his eyes, and tried to think of something else. But the only immediate distraction that offered itself was the fact that he was once again holding Marius very, very closely, and that disturbed him so much that on the whole he would have preferred to surrender to vertigo.

Santino had no idea what would happen now. He felt somewhat at peace with himself, having turned Marius down. It had been the right thing to do. But oh, he ached for him, he was burning up inside just from thinking about it.

The earth flashed past, revolving underneath them. They were going north along the coast, Santino thought, and he had as much knowledge of geography as the next vampire. It came to him suddenly that he knew exactly where they were going. Back, indeed.

Then looking down turned him dizzy and he closed his eyes and buried his face against Marius, taking what he felt would be his last opportunity to breathe in deep the scent of his love, just to feel him so close. And if that made him suffer, then that was just the way of things.

Numb with cold, he did not mark the passing of time very clearly, and could not have said how long it was before they were once again at peace with gravity. Santino opened his eyes, rubbed the frost out of his hair and looked around. Yes, this was San Francisco again. And this was the very house where he had found Marius reading in one small room.

"I wonder if they've replaced the window," Marius said as if to himself.

"You may not be welcome back," Santino said, teasing just a little. To his surprise Marius actually smiled.

"We'll sneak in the back way, then," he said. "I did pay for two months, in advance. So I broke a window. I'll pay for it."

They walked in by a small side door, up twisting stairs and through narrow corridors until they reached the right room. Marius paused in front of the door, patted tentatively at his pockets, then turned to Santino. "I've forgotten one small detail."

"It's all right. I didn't lock the door behind me."

Marius' eyes met his with a deeper awareness, an acknowledgment that that would not have been the first thing on Santino's mind. He turned the knob and the door opened. The room was just as it had been; the window broken, the desk overturned, the bed unmade, rumpled.

"I don't remember breaking the mirror," Marius said as he looked around.

"I did that. When I woke up."

"Oh." Marius had walked into the room; now he turned around and regarded Santino steadily. "I know it's not enough to say I'm sorry. But I am."

Santino shrugged. "You wanted to talk," he said brusquely. "To say something more than 'I'm sorry', I hope."

Marius nodded slowly. He was walking around the room, avoiding the bed; Santino wondered if he even was aware of that. Finally Marius pulled out the chair, which was still standing and in one piece, and settled down on it. He wasn't nearly as relaxed as he was trying to appear, but Santino didn't think he was likely to bolt just yet. No, there really would be an opportunity for them to talk.

Santino sat down on the floor, leaned back against the edge of the bed and stretched his legs out. He looked at Marius expectantly.

"It was true, what I said before," Marius began. "I really have always wanted you. Probably from the same impulse that makes people who are afraid of heights climb trees. There is something about doing what you fear most that, well, turns many people on."

Santino nodded softly. "It's that paradox that is at the heart of our own appeal, is it not?" he commented, keeping his tone light, almost academic. "Something to want and fear at the same time."

His heart was screaming inside, but he'd be damned if he let Marius see that. So it was true, he had been used, a suitable tool for Marius' strange terrors. Santino wanted to cry. Not just because he knew now that it had been a once-only, never to be repeated experience, but because he realized that it had never been as perfect as he had thought. No meeting of equals, just Marius' fears surrendering to Santino's desire. It still made him feel sick; he'd committed an involuntary rape and believed it to be an act of love.

Santino looked away from Marius. Guilt tore at him. What was once done could not be undone.

"Yes," Marius agreed. "That is how I felt."

"But there's no real reason for you to fear me," Santino said, then held up his hand to stop the comment that seemed to be hovering on Marius' lips. "I know, fears aren't always rational. I'd no idea you felt like this. Only that something bothered you. If I'd known how much, I would never have pushed as I did, kept bothering you. I want to apologize for that."

"You couldn't know," Marius said. "At least, I always did my best to keep you from finding out."

"But now," Santino went on quietly, "do you still feel the same way? Because if you do, there has to be a way to change that."

Marius shrugged. "It's all right. I'll deal with it."

"It's damn well not all right!" Santino yelled before he knew he was doing it. "How do you think that makes me feel?"

Marius sat quite, quite still and just looked at him. Then, just as Santino started to wonder if this was his night to turn into a charcoal briquette, Marius nodded. "I'm sorry," he said. "I thought of it as none of your business, but—" Was that embarrassment? "—what I did has already made it your business. It was unforgivable. I hope you can learn to disregard it."

Fat chance, Santino thought. He drew his nails into his palm, trying to control memory. He would never, ever forget. Not the helpless joy he had felt then; not the helpless shame he was feeling now.

Instead he said, "You've heard about aversion therapy?"

To his surprise Marius laughed. "Some would say I'd already taken that method to extremes."

Santino laughed, too, he couldn't help it. "Oh. Yes." He breathed, tried to calm down. "Perhaps if you beat me up, broke a few bones. It would make you realize how much stronger you are. That you've got nothing to fear."

Marius jumped to his feet and stood staring down at Santino. "You're insane."

"That's a distinct possibility."

"What makes you think I would—" Marius turned his back and stood still, his shoulders quivering. Santino wanted to go to him, but felt it would be best to stay where he was and wait. He watched Marius clench his fists, unclench them, wondering with some detachment whether Marius was in fact contemplating taking him up on that offer. Finally, Marius turned around again. "What makes you think I would do such a thing?"

"Nothing," Santino said honestly. "I just thought it might help."

There was puzzlement on Marius' face. He was more open and easy to read than Santino had ever seen him before. "You offer to let me hurt you as badly as I can just because you think it would help me?"

Santino looked down. "If it made you stop looking at me like the bogeyman in your own personal closet, it would help me, too, wouldn't it?"

Then he chided himself for being dishonest. The truth was that he felt he owed it to Marius after what he had done. Part of him wanted to suffer for it, he felt that bad. But he wasn't going to say that; this wasn't the moment for them to start discussing his little psychological quirks.

Instead he slowly rose to his feet and walked over to the broken window, looked out at the late-night sky. It was strange to think that his life had changed so much in the space of a few nights. He had been given his heart's desire and then it had been taken from him again. Santino supposed that might account for the fact that everything looked so different. It made him feel as though he was suddenly thrust into a brand new world, and he thought he would have preferred the old one.

"I can't do that," Marius said behind him. "Look, I'm not sure I can..."

"What?" Santino asked a little too impatiently.

"Talk about this." There was something in Marius' voice that spoke of an effort, trying to put distance between them again. To re-erect all the old barriers. Santino wanted to stop that, to fight it, but he didn't know how.

"You were doing fine just now."

"It just feels so absurd. Unreal." The strain was growing more noticeable. Santino turned around and looked Marius in the face. Marius was looking very uncomfortable; the same way he had always looked when Santino had prodded at him before, about different things. Santino felt an urge to protect him, but he also felt another overriding imperative, to do what would be better for Marius in the long run. So when he spoke, instead of soft words of reassurance he said, "Marius. Deal with it. It happened, ignoring it won't change anything."

Marius wasn't looking at him any more. Fair hair was slipping free from its confining band and tumbled around Marius' face. It made him look strangely young. Santino knew just what that soft, fine hair felt like; his fingertips provided him with instant sensory memory.

"I keep wondering why you went along with it."

The question startled him so much that he must have sounded brusque when he answered, "Well, don't."

"Don't, what?"

"Don't wonder." Painful even to think about this. Was he ready to lay his heart bare, to explain everything, to be honest?

"Santino," the sudden intimacy of hearing his name spoken almost undid him, Marius used it so seldom, "tell me something."


"Did you mean all those things you said?"

"What things?" Santino asked, knowing already. He could feel the next question, the next answer, hover somewhere over his head ready to crash down. Oh, what a night this was turning out to be. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Come on in, walk all over my soul.

"When I was crying."

He took refuge in flippancy, aware that it couldn't last. "Oh, those things. No, I say that to all the guys. Don't be so dense."

"I am not," Marius said, speaking very carefully, "being dense. I'm trying to figure out how I feel about you."

"Marius." Santino took a deep breath.


"You drive me crazy."

Marius looked thoughtful. "Yes, that could be it."

Santino couldn't help it, he had to laugh. So, suddenly, did Marius. They chuckled together, sharing a common emotion, and it relieved the tension in the room perceptibly, making it easier to breathe. Santino felt that Marius was somehow right, it was all absurd. But that didn't mean that reality could be put on hold. So when they'd stopped laughing he took the opportunity to say what was on his mind, to redirect the conversation towards his own worries.

"Look, I'm really sorry about what happened. I feel terrible about it."

Marius' face was neutral, the laughter had vanished somewhere and only polished surface remained. Somehow he had managed to shut himself off again and bring in the polite distance that was his best weapon in any kind of emotional crisis. In his head, Santino cursed. If the closeness of shared laughter had been too much for Marius, they weren't going to get very far.

"You do?"

"Of course I do!" The anger was genuine, but part of him was trying to spark a reaction again, to achieve contact. "For want of a better phrase, I feel that I took advantage of you."

"I threw myself at you," Marius pointed out with the same careful neutrality.

"I could have said no."

"You could?"

"No." Santino suddenly, suicidally smiled, letting it all shine through, including his genuine humor at the realization. "There is no way in hell that I could have managed to turn you down, Marius. I wanted you so."

Marius took a deep breath and let it out again without saying anything. The mask was still in place, but there was something behind it. He took two steps away from the chair and the desk, then almost absently turned back and pulled the desk upright. Papers cascaded from one drawer and Marius picked them up. Then he turned around and pushed his hair away from his face.

He was fidgeting. Santino nearly smiled. Marius, graceful and unflappable, master of the elegant yet dignified movement, was fussing like a nervous mortal. Not a sight he thought many had seen before.

Of course the stubborn old Roman still looked gorgeous. Nothing seemed to change that.

"You did?" Marius finally said. "I wondered."

"You couldn't have wondered," Santino said, exasperated. "I thought I made that fairly clear, actually."

"Oh yes." Now Marius did look at him and there was an intimacy in that look, an onrush of memory, a shared awareness of what it had been like. An acknowledgement of desire, though Santino couldn't tell if it was past or present. He could only hope. "I never doubted that you were, well, a willing participant. That's not what I meant."

"You just thought I'd sleep with anyone, so why not you," Santino finished for him. "Well, thanks."

"Do you have to interpret everything I say the worst way?" Marius asked sharply. "If you'd done it because you wanted to, rather than because you wanted me, I wouldn't have blamed you."

Santino asked very softly, "Would you have preferred it that way?"

"No," Marius sighed. "Santino, I'm trying to find a way to tell you that I was confused and upset and I acted on impulse and then I panicked, and it was a hell of a way to treat you and I'm sorry, and could we start over?"

"What, you want to pretend it didn't happen, again?" Santino demanded. "That won't work—"

"No," Marius said, "that's not what I want at all." He finally left the protection of the desk and walked slowly towards the window. His hair was hanging free, framing and partially shadowing the regular features, and there was a softness and near-insecurity in his eyes that made Santino wait, breathlessly, for what he would say next. Marius came to a halt so close that if they just leaned towards each other, they'd be touching. "I meant start over." He reached out and drew his fingertips very lightly over Santino's cheek. Santino couldn't help it, he shifted slightly under that caress, like a cat. Wanting more. Then he schooled himself into stillness.

"But I told you that — look, don't make me turn you down again, it was hard enough the first time."

Marius smiled at him. "You were right to do it the first time. And you're probably right to be questioning my motives now as well. It's like this. I am frightened." Despite the light tone, Santino could tell how much it took for Marius to be able to admit that. "But I'm not sure if I'm actually afraid of you, or just of how much I want you. There is something about you that turns everything upside down for me, and I fight that, I've fought it ever since we met. It was tied in with a lot of other things. My fear of fire. That's mostly gone now. The way you make me feel, it's, I feel like I'm falling, losing control." Another soft touch.

Santino shook his head and tried very hard to move away from the touch of Marius' fingers. "And you think you want that kind of surrender." He reached up and gripped Marius' wrist, carefully pulled his hand away. "No."

"I want you," Marius said. "Because you do this to me, because you make me feel dizzy and excited, you challenge my security, you unsettle me. I want that. And I want you." Marius was looking straight at him now, and Santino thought Marius' eyes looked the way he remembered the summer sky at high noon, too blue for words. "If all I wanted was the kick of danger I'd take up sunbathing. But you, you make me feel alive like nothing else does." Marius fell silent and slowly, slowly looked away. "I think I'm in love with you. Are you going to say no again?"

Santino swallowed hard, cleared his throat, and nearly choked on a laugh that wanted to get out no matter what. "I don't think I can answer that question without sounding ridiculous," he said and then, because he was still holding Marius' wrist, he turned Marius' hand over and kissed the palm gently. "Are you sure? I mean, I'm not, I don't want to—"

"Yes, you do," Marius said and kissed him.

Yes. He did.

Santino settled into Marius' embrace, giddy with happiness, wanting to laugh out of sheer joy. At first that was all he could feel, the sensation of being back where he was supposed to be. A feeling of homecoming. And then, as they slowly pressed closer and closer to each other, the first delicate shivers ran down his spine and made him aware that it was back, the impossible desire he'd never thought to feel as a vampire, that Marius had made him aware of.

Only then did he start to wonder what had given Marius the idea to even try it. But he didn't wonder enough to want to stop kissing Marius right at that moment. He didn't ever want to stop. Santino thought he would be content to just stand like this forever.

Marius, however, had other ideas. Cool hands slid down Santino's back and up again underneath his shirt, fingertips tracing his spine, skipping over the vertebrae with delicate attention. Up over his shoulders, pausing to rub soothingly at all the places where tension gathered and tied muscles in knots. All the way along the back of his neck, nails scraping gently, raising a chill. And then down again, and Santino had to break the kiss after all so he could yelp when Marius suddenly pinched him.


Marius smiled at him. "Just being appreciative."

"Of course." Santino reached out again. "Come here and let me appreciate you."

It felt so good, the way the two of them fitted together, the way it was when they held each other, when they kissed. But despite that, Santino knew he was holding back ever so slightly. He didn't want to do anything wrong. Last time, he'd thought he was reading Marius correctly, but obviously he hadn't been. Now, although he wanted this more than anything else, there was restraint, a bit of awkwardness.

He bent his head to place slow lingering kisses along Marius' neck, and wondered at the fact that he felt no real inclination to bite it — not too hard, anyway. A small nibble wouldn't hurt, he thought and was pleased to hear a sharp intake of breath in response. Santino made his way down to the hollow of Marius' throat, felt the pulse against his lips. Then he slowly undid the first shirt button.

:Can we please,: Marius asked, his mind voice projecting both lust and humor, :get on that bed? I never liked doing it standing up even when I was a young man.:

"If you go on like that," Santino murmured against Marius' skin, "I'll start treating you like the precious antique you are."

"You do that and I'll swat you across the room."

Santino picked Marius up and carried him the few paces to the bed, and they melted together in a tangle of arms and legs.

:Really?: Santino started to work on the next shirt button. :In that case, of course, I certainly won't try to polish your skin with kisses all over. I thought I'd lick the dust off, but—:

The images he sent along with that thought caused a return wave of desire and anticipation that sent a jolt all through Santino's body. He closed his eyes and let it carry him away.

* * *

Marius kept on stroking Santino's back carefully, silently amazed at the way Santino practically purred under his hands, muscles tensing and relaxing, tensing and relaxing. Marius could almost imagine paws kneading at him, the occasional scratch as the claws slid out too far. No sweet domestic animal this, but it was easy to picture Santino as a big cat, all lazy muscles and deceptive languor. A black panther? Marius teased himself. Oh, your imagination just loves clichés.

Still, the idea stayed with him. There was something about Santino that was pure menace. Marius wondered if his victims felt more love or more fear as they were captured in a final embrace.

At least Marius knew what he felt when Santino held him. It was strange that the sharp edge of all feeling should be so keen; anything could cut if it was intense enough, and it was easy to get confused. Now he knew, though. Knew that he needed this for very different reasons than the ones Santino had mentioned before.

Marius tugged at the black cloth in his hands. :You just had to wear a polo shirt, didn't you?:

:Sorry, but I didn't know I was going to get laid,: Santino shot back, light-hearted enough but with a wealth of emotion behind that Marius wanted to explore very slowly and thoroughly. He pulled the shirt up and Santino wriggled out of it, tossing it to the floor. Marius slowly ran his hands over Santino's chest. He must have been strong as a mortal man, with his height and those broad shoulders. Now the strength was no longer an issue, but the sheer beauty of the way he was built remained, and Marius' fingers acknowledged it, sought it out.

"You're gorgeous," he whispered as his lips found the hollow above Santino's collarbone, one of the most inviting places the body had to offer. Little kisses, and then his tongue traced the collarbone itself.

"So are all vampires," Santino unexpectedly said, finishing with a small gasp when Marius began to nibble on his neck. "You could say that about — to — any one of us."

"I could, but I don't, and I won't," Marius said and licked at Santino's ear lobe. :You're the one who's beautiful to me,: he went on, abandoning the spoken word. :You're the one I want to hold and touch and kiss and caress, the one I want to make love to until neither of us can stand it any longer.:

:That could take a very long time,: Santino's mind breathed back at him, the touch heavy with longing and lust.

:That's what I'm hoping for.:

Only now did Marius notice that Santino had been slowly unbuttoning his shirt and was now pushing it back over his shoulders. He took a moment to free himself from the sleeves, and Santino drew one finger lightly down his chest, flicked a nipple and went on. A jolt of pain-tinged pleasure shot through Marius and he let his head fall back for a moment, savoring it.

Then he retaliated, pushing Santino down on his back and laying a trail of kisses along the edge of his ribcage, then trailing his tongue up the breastbone. His mouth drew a spiral on Santino's chest, getting closer and closer, but so slowly that Santino finally hissed, "Marius, please!"

:So impatient,: Marius teased as he reached his goal, but Santino just moaned. Marius smiled. This was so good. Better than the first time, because his mind was his own now, he was certain of what he wanted and he could let it take its time. Marius wanted to pay more attention to Santino, to learn more closely every step of his lover's arousal.

:It hurts less this time,: Santino said.

:Good.: Marius found the other nipple with his fingers and was delighted as Santino suddenly jerked underneath him and something that could only be described as sensory overload shot across the light connection between their minds.

"Oh! I'm going to die, Marius, I'm going to explode from this, and how are you going to explain that to everyone else?"

:I'll say I was conducting experiments that would benefit the whole coven and you were a brave volunteer who died in the name of science.:

Santino laughed out loud, breathlessly. :What a way to go.:

When Marius finally released him and leaned back a little to study the result of his caresses, Santino was flushed, his eyes closed. One hand reached out and found Marius' arm, moving softly across the tender inside in a touch almost too gentle to be really stimulating, until Santino started using his nails. Marius sighed, out loud and again with his mind, sending encouragement, urging his lover on.

:Now who's impatient?: The dark undertone in Santino's voice carried through in his mental touch as well, a certain sharpness in the velvet, like a touch of lemon in a sweet dessert. Marius loved it, now that he had finally understood why it made him shiver.

"Touch me," he said, the words spilling out before he knew what he was going to say. "I want to feel your hands on me, I want you to touch me everywhere."

Then Santino was holding him very, very tight and they were kissing, deep and passionate kisses, or maybe it was just one long kiss. It was hard to tell. The heat was rising. Marius knew this fire, and he'd go into it willingly. Oh, he was burning indeed, and it felt wonderful.

"Everywhere," Santino said into his mouth, then unexpectedly went on, :Marius, let go of me.:

:Why?: he asked rebelliously.

:I can't get the rest of your clothes off if you don't.: There was space between their bodies and Santino's hands were tugging deftly at Marius' fly buttons. Marius took a deep breath and rolled away, standing up to undress. Santino stayed where he was and looked, with eyes blacker than midnight and sparkling with stars of desire. Then he unbuttoned his own pants and wriggled out of them slowly and provocatively.

Marius knelt on the bed and ran his hands down Santino's long legs and up again, defining this body through the touch of his hands. He closed his eyes and sought for recognition. Yes, this is right, this is the one. This is how he feels, and that's the sound he makes when I caress him like that. "Beautiful," he whispered insistently.

"Let me touch you," Santino said breathlessly. "Everywhere."

Skin against skin, it was almost too much. They pressed against each other and Santino thrust his pelvis suggestively against Marius'. Kissing again, they moved together, and Marius felt the lust build up again, still with that same sweet bite of danger, and now he knew what the danger was and he welcomed it.

But he became aware of a slight insecurity in Santino, something held back, held in check. With an effort, he stopped kissing, stopped moving, and asked, "What's wrong?"

Santino looked at him and then looked away. "I just want to be certain that... Are you sure you really want this?"

"Yes," Marius said, and for added emphasis ground his body against Santino's. :Yes. I am sure. I want this — and this — and this—: The images he sent along with those thoughts made Santino's eyes go wide and then, when for a split second Marius wondered if he'd made a mistake in being so explicit, Santino sighed deeply.

:Oh, yes.: Long fingers pinched Marius' nipples, teasing them with pleasure and pain. :I want you, I want you so.:

Marius scratched Santino's spine with his nails, grazing the skin lightly, and Santino answered by pressing against him, moaning. Letting Marius deeper into his mind, where he could feel Santino's desire. Shared like this it was all the sweeter.

:Are you sure?: Marius teased.

Santino sank down on his back, tugging Marius along. He seemed to consider swearing but then gave it up. Instead he caught Marius' mouth with his own. :Shut up and take me.:

Marius ran his hand down Santino's side, across his hip, then shifted to kneel between Santino's legs. Tickling the inside of Santino's thigh with his nails, he had to use the other hand to hold Santino down. And then he moved his hand higher, and Santino, straining, arched his back despite being restrained.

Tiny beads of blood sweat glistened on Santino's white skin. Fairytale colors, Marius found himself thinking strangely, with the black hair as well. He bent down and licked at Santino's stomach. Oh, he loved the taste of him, wanted suddenly to lick him all over. But there was no real bloodlust, it didn't take over his mind. What it did was to make him want to taste everything Santino had to offer.

Vampires were probably orally predisposed by nature, he decided, moving to take Santino into his mouth. The strangled scream he heard almost made him regret that, only he remembered exactly how it had felt for him, and then an insistent hand wound itself into his hair and refused to let him pull away. Marius began to feel Santino's pleasure as it washed into his mind, and it set his senses reeling.

Just the sounds Santino was making were enough to drive Marius crazy. And he gradually became aware of another aspect of the mind link between them, not quite feelings, not quite words, something that could have been passion and lust and terror and yes and no and please and don't stop all at once.

He didn't stop; couldn't have. This was far too fascinating. Marius was trying to stay sane, to keep his mind at least partially clear. The first time he had been completely gone, a victim of the sensations he'd discovered, abandoning himself passively to Santino's desire once he had woken it. Now he wanted to be aware, to savor this in a different way.

And it was such an incredible turn-on to do this, and to hear Santino practically sobbing with lust.

:Give in to it,: Marius whispered softly. :Let it take you.: To reinforce the message he slipped his right hand up between Santino's legs and carefully worked a finger into him.

:You're touching me... everywhere.: Santino was barely coherent, fighting himself, fighting with the pleasure. :It feels like... not dying... the part that came after dying.: Another finger, and Santino's body bucked and quivered. :Marius, I don't know what I... don't stop or I will die... yes, yes that's it oh god I love you I love you I—:

Words failed and emotions broke through, so strong that Marius nearly lost all control himself. He clung to Santino, both of them lost, then tasted blood and swallowed.

Finally all he could say was, "You are so beautiful."

A ragged whisper reached him. "That felt like having my soul dragged out of my body with red-hot pincers."

"I'd no idea you were into that kind of thing."

The link between them rang with exhausted laughter. :Anything you want. You should know that.:

:And you should know what I want,: Marius answered, moving his fingers again in that same deep caress. Santino growled softly as echoes of pleasure resounded through his body. Marius felt his lover's sensations as a shadow to his own, subtly exciting. He rose to kneel between Santino's legs and put a hand on his hip, exerting gentle pressure to turn him over, but Santino shook his head langorously.

"I want to see you," he said huskily. "I want to see your face when you come."

Marius swallowed. Hearing it like that made him feel a touch of the terror and ecstasy from last time. He suddenly felt exposed, and vulnerable, and shocked to discover that that turned him on even more. Marius felt an icy doubt; was he able to do this, to consciously choose intimacy? Then he remembered the way Santino had shared everything with him, and felt humbled. Surely he had the courage to offer himself as he was, without the pretense of madness.

It's not a power game, he reminded himself. And he looked at Santino, and at the wonderful contentment and unashamed love to be read in Santino's face. He had to swallow again, to fight back the tears.

Nothing had prepared him for the sensation of sliding into another's body yet again. He'd been ready for the pain, but the pleasure, oh dear heaven, it was the pleasure that made him freeze and cry out, helplessly. Santino shifted under him and took him in even deeper, and he stayed there, struggling to catch his breath.

Finally they both began to move, the smallest of rocking motions, together, apart. Marius bent down for a kiss and it grew long and intense. They were so close, part of each other; if he paused to think about it he grew breathless. He knew Santino could read his every feeling and he forced himself to stay open, to share it all.

:The way you feel,: he desperately tried to find words for it. :The way you make me feel, it's just...:

Santino moaned, renewed desire sweeping him up and making his movements more eager. It was all too easy for Marius to fall in with that, to let his own lust set the pace. Control and restraint were suddenly the things farthest from his mind. All he wanted to do was to keep that look on Santino's face forever.

It was so hot. Like last time, a fire burning and the fuel was his heart. Love burned, he was being tempered in that flame and he ached with it, and it felt so good.

:More,: Santino pleaded. :Don't hold back.:

Marius did not dare hold Santino any tighter. They rocked together, bodies slamming into each other now with a force and power that would have left mortal lovers crippled. And still it wasn't enough, and Marius was close to screaming; he wanted to tell Santino that he was giving everything, everything.

Then he knew. He breathed in sharply. The truth his soul arrived at hurt more than this joining had ever hurt his body, and he could only hope it would turn into a deeper sweetness. Marius closed his eyes and opened himself completely so that Santino could take his mind as thoroughly as he was taking Santino's body.

And he made himself say it out loud. It was a whisper, a sob, a desperate cry. "I love you." Heat coiled inside him, wound up tight. "Santino, te voglio, ti amo..."

"Yes," Santino hissed, and nails dug into Marius' back. "Tell me. Say it."

"I love you!"

:I love you.: Whispers like flashes of lightning in the hot darkness. :Love you, want you, together like this, I can't tell where I end and you begin and I want you want you want you, don't stop!:

:I can't.:

Frantic for release, he struggled to surrender to it. To throw himself into the heart of this fire and be consumed by it. To give every part of himself, so that nothing remained untouched. He could feel, reaching blindly for fulfillment, just how it would shatter him.

And then it did. The world cracked open and the flames rose up and took him and burned everything out of him except the pleasure. A soft cry of surprised ecstasy shot through his mind and followed him down as he fell.

The steady beat of Santino's heart was the first thing he became aware of again. Marius was almost surprised to rediscover his body. He'd expected only ashes. Slowly he lifted his head and looked into black eyes rimmed with red.

"You're crying." At first it was just a statement, but then he realized what he was saying, and froze. "I hurt you—"

"No." Santino's fingers wound themselves lovingly into the hair at the nape of Marius' neck. "You most definitely did not hurt me. No more than love always hurts." Santino smiled. "You were beautiful."

Marius looked down, suddenly embarrassed and at the same time delighted. He found himself wishing that they could stay like this forever, in this dreamlike state of contentment, minds and bodies joined. The terror he had felt at being known so closely was replaced by a realization of how it would feel not to be open to Santino, not to be aware of the love that held them together.

"I don't know what's happened," he said. "I feel as though I belong to you more than to myself."

"You love me," Santino said.

"Yes, I love you!" Marius felt almost fierce. "Don't be so casual!"

The hand in his hair moved in soothing caresses. "I'm not. Heaven knows I'm not. Marius." Santino tugged his head up, pulled him into a kiss. :I love you, I've loved you since the moment I saw you. I don't dare not believe that this is true, I don't think I'd survive finding out that it wasn't.:

Marius sank gratefully into the comfort of this embrace. There was so much to share. Just moments ago he had thought he would not even survive their lovemaking. And here, where he had worried there would be only ashes, their passion burned up and consumed by itself, he found everything alive and more intense than before.

"It's true," he said. "It was worth it, every moment. All the pain."

"All the pain?" Santino questioned shyly. "All those years."

"Yes." Marius licked idly at sweat-slicked skin, finding reassurance in the taste, the undeniable reality of it. "All those years, and the fire and the ice, and the suffering, and the madness."

"My love," Santino breathed. "Caro, mi amore..."

"I wish I could undo all the time you spent as an outcast."

"I wasn't," Santino protested. "I had friends."

"You were hurt and you were lonely."

Tiny little kisses on his eyelids. "I was. But it's past now. Don't obsess about it." Santino chuckled unexpectedly. "Remember that being in the grip of past events was what got you into this much trouble to start with."

"Oh, you're the right person to complain, are you!"

"I'm not complaining at all," Santino told him and the truth of that was undeniable.

Slowly and reluctantly they separated and then lay down in a looser embrace, exchanging an occasional light kiss, a gentle mind-touch. Marius closed his eyes and reflected, with bemusement and a touch of humor, on the unlikely chain of events that had led him to this moment, and the fact that it was only through doing the impossible that he had finally found peace.

Peace was in this fire that burned but did not consume. And freedom, he had found freedom in his lover's arms. For the first time since he'd been imprisoned in the ice he felt changes in himself and didn't fear them. At least not much.

:My love,: he thought in utter contentment. There were things he should do and people he must speak to, there was Pandora's forgiveness to be won, but none of that mattered quite yet.

"We should cover up that window," Santino said drowsily. "In case we fall asleep."

Marius chuckled, and shifted, moving carefully but with definite intent in the circle of Santino's arms. "Oh, I don't think we need to sleep just yet," he said. "Not yet."

* * *

The mortal moon

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