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Descent

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Part One

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Even as he watched his feet step inexorably down the twisting, narrow spiral staircase, Justin wondered dimly what the hell he was doing. It was a distant sort of incredulity, the sort he’d feel reading about a long-ago catastrophe happening to someone else, something remote and not related directly to him. Yet these were his feet moving steadily down a creaking wooden stairwell that was growing darker with every step. These were his hands drifting lightly and confidently down the cool iron handrail, not grasping, not hesitant at all.

He should feel some fear, he thought dreamily. He was going into forbidden areas of the Order’s archives and breaking some important rules in doing so. There were reasons for the rules, and even if he didn’t know what the reasons were he had plenty of respect for them. He’d been part of the Order for over a year, and a full-fledged novice for more than nine months now, and while he’d chafed at the rules more than once he’d never broken any of them. And it would be many years before he was allowed to enter the levels of the archives he was descending to now.

Justin shuddered but he didn’t hesitate as he reached the bottom of the stair and turned left, his eyes still on his feet as they stepped steadily across a hallway and to the top of another steep spiral stair. His mind drifted fitfully, a part of him convinced that he was still in the well-lit library three stacks up, surrounded by the scent and feel of old and lovingly cared-for books, his mind firmly on his latest research project. There had been a fire crackling warmly in the large stone fireplace, the furniture was comfortable wood and leather, the books had been heavy and comforting under his hands as he made notes on the Tahitian prophets. If his research was good enough perhaps he would be allowed to make this investigative trip without supervision, he thought vaguely as he continued his path deeper into the archives. He had plenty of time to prepare, he could give it his very best shot.

His mind skittered away from the fact that if he were caught in the lower archives -- and in a house full of people with psychic abilities, how could he avoid detection? -- any field investigations would be a long, long way off.

Yet Justin never deviated from his even pace, his eyes half-closed as he descended steadily into the darkening caverns of the Order’s archives. Dimly he knew that he was reacting to one of the books that he’d picked up, a heavy untitled leather tome with shredded edges and fine, faded paper, which had inexplicably gotten mixed in with his research books. It had borne a fine velum label on the binding that had marked it as belonging to the lower stacks, books that were still out of Justin’s reach. Had it been misplaced? Had he picked it off the shelf by accident? Had it been left on the table by another, less careful scholar? All Justin knew was that the book had been heavy and welcoming in his hands, and that when he’d touched it the book had fallen open almost eagerly to a single page.

The page was covered with what looked like a pen-and-ink sketch of an old portrait featuring a young, very handsome man. It was fuzzy and of a poor quality, but something about it had captured Justin’s attention. He didn’t know how long he’d stared at the page. Long enough for the dim afternoon light to fade from the tall, deep windows. Long enough for the library, which never closed here in the Order’s London house, to empty as the hour grew late. Long enough for his limbs to grow stiff, so that his legs tingled and burned when he finally rose, mind curiously blank, and began his steady descent down into the archives.

Chris had told him more than once that there were fantastic treasures to be seen in the lower archives below the main library, dangerous things locked away for safety. Artifacts from real hauntings, marble statues that had manifested actual physical reactions, relics from ancient times and historical events that still hummed with power. He’d offered these things to Justin as an incentive to work harder, study longer, strive for the advanced membership in the Order so he could have access to these things and to the greater investigations of them. These were the things Justin’s ambitious nature craved. But Chris’s stories only made Justin more impatient.

He continued his steady progress, at last coming to the final, forbidden level of the Order’s archives. His eyes watched his careful steps, but his mind was filled with the sketch of the portrait he’d seen in the book, the slender young man sprawled easily in what had seemed to be a large, black chair. One leg crossed over the opposite knee, one hand cradling the side of his head, it was far too casual a pose for the period suggested by his clothing, the ruffled shirt, the dark, severely cut coat, the heavy ring on the long slender finger of his left hand. The sketch had been poor indeed, or perhaps the original portrait had been substandard, but there was something about the face, the half-smile and the bright eyes that leapt off the page, holding Justin completely in thrall.

He was in almost complete darkness now, with only the dimmest of lights far above him. Justin drifted down the spiral staircase, and of its own volition his hand reached to the wall where a light switch waited.

The lights sprang on, an entire series of them stretching down a very long and empty corridor. There were doors evenly spaced on either side, neatly labeled with an index system that Justin could not decipher, would not be allowed to know for many years. He was utterly alone, his quiet footsteps completely muffled by the thick carpeting even this far below. He paced down the corridor, passing doorway after doorway until he came to a stop before one.

It was a wooden door like any of the others in the corridor, the same size, the same shape, the same indecipherable label on a bronze plaque. It would be locked -- he knew everything down here would and should be locked, but Justin was not surprised when he turned the handle and the door opened easily. It should creak, he thought dimly, like any good horror movie door. His stomach tightened with suppressed laughter even as sweat broke out on his forehead, and he realized that he was terrified.

The light from the hallway behind him illuminated a small neat room that smelled heavily of dust and stale air. There was a small metal filing cabinet, several storage boxes, a tall wardrobe made of heavy oak. And on the wall to his right there was a large portrait, covered completely in a thick black cloth. He stared at it, feeling his heart pound heavily in his chest and echo in his ears.

He should not be here. He should return to the main level immediately and talk to Chris or any of his superiors, admit to entering the forbidden archives, relate this entire strange incident to them. He pictured himself doing it, closing the heavy wooden door, retracing his steps back to the spiral staircase, turning off the light and leaving everything on this level in the darkness where it belonged. It was so real that he gasped in surprise to find that he had in fact entered the dark room, that his hands were bunched in the cloth draped over the portrait on the wall, that he was stepping back and pulling the cloth with him.

The light from the corridor slanted harshly into the room, illuminating a narrow stripe of the painting. And of course it was the same portrait, Justin thought, hysteria bubbling at the edges of his mind. It was the same man, it was the same portrait, but now there were colors that hinted at the vivid blues and greens of his eyes, the pale luster of his skin, the full pink lips.

Justin realized that his breath had grown short, that his heart was pounding as if he’d sprinted a kilometer. Alarm splintered through him, making him shudder, and it was his suddenly buckling knees that forced him to finally tear his eyes away from the dark haired man in the old portrait.

As soon as he did the spell was broken. The enormity of what he’d done flooded him with horror and he scrambled out of the room, pulling the door securely shut behind him. For a moment he hesitated, his thoughts in chaotic disorder as he laid one hand on the surface of the wooden door, eyes closed as he saw again the man’s eyes in the portrait. They seemed to know him, he thought semi-hysterically. They seemed to know him very well.

With a gasp he flung himself away from the door, ricocheting almost drunkenly against the opposite wall as he stumbled and then ran to the spiral staircase at the end of the corridor. He hit the light switch without slowing down and leaped directly on to the stairs, sprinting frantically up them three at a time. By the time he reached the main level of the library he was gasping for breath and closer to tears than any twenty-three year old man would ever admit to.

He stopped in the hallway, ducking into one of the library’s remote aisles to compose himself should he meet any of the other members of his Order. He drew deep breaths, calming his racing heart. His shirt was damp with sweat, and the hand he wiped across his forehead was still shaking. He caught a glimpse of his watch and stared -- it had been more than five hours since he’d sat down with his research materials and notebooks in the main library. What the hell had just happened to him?

Justin took another deep breath, fighting the urge to go back down the stairs, stifling crazed thoughts about taking the portrait from the archive and hanging it in his own room. One more deep breath as he walked into the sitting room where his books and backpack were neatly stacked, exactly where he’d left them. He would look at the book again, he would find out more about the mysterious man. Perhaps there would be something that would tell him who and what he was, explain why his likeness had exerted such a strong pull on Justin.

But when he returned to his chair in the silent and deserted library the mysterious leather-bound book was gone. He stared in disbelief, rifling frantically through his research books, looking under the table, in his messenger bag. Gone. He slumped heavily into the deep leather chair and stared at the space on the table where the book had been.

"Hey." Chris’s voice pierced the quiet room like an arrow, and Justin jumped, startled. His thoughts swirled in confusion and an inexplicable panic, and he struggled to suppress them, to make his expression smooth. Suddenly it was of paramount importance to hide what he’d just done.

"Whoa there," Chris said, hands out. "Sorry, man. Didn’t mean to scare you."

"You didn’t scare me," Justin said automatically, even as he clutched a hand to his galloping heart. "You almost killed me, but scared? No, not at all."

Chris laughed, but his eyes were sharp. "Pretty late to be doing research, isn’t it?" he inquired casually, but his eyes were keen on Justin’s pale face, the black circles under his eyes. "Looks like you’ve been hitting it pretty hard."

Justin forced a smile, getting to his feet and gathering his materials to him. "Pretty hard," he said, injecting humor into his voice with an effort. "Right up to the part where I fell asleep."

Chris’s eyebrows rose. "Well, that must have been some dream you were having, because I . . ."

"And if you tell me you felt a strange disturbance in the force, I won’t be responsible for my actions," Justin threatened, and felt huge relief when Chris laughed delightedly.

"Fine, I won’t say it," he said agreeably, and Justin missed the way his dark eyes narrowed on him as he bent to pick up his books. "You all done here?"

"Yeah," Justin answered, carefully placing his glasses in their case and stacking his notebooks. He stretched until his back cracked sharply, making Chris wince. "I’m going to hit it. See you tomorrow, right?"

"Right," Chris said, shooing him away. He watched Justin’s form as he walked out of the library, and when he was gone Chris turned to look at the hallway leading to the restricted archives, his eyes puzzled and dark.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC closed his eyes as the blood spread over his tongue: thick, warm, and metallic, it sang its way through his body. He was half hard already, and as the woman in his arms gasped and struggled, her small fists hammering desperately against his back, he grew harder still. Oh, there were so many things he wanted to do, so many sweet games he could play, but this was his first kill of the night, and he was taut and hungry -- plus, he was in a grimy, trash-filled alley. It was unlike him to kill in such an ugly, public place, but when he'd seen her from across the street, JC hadn't been able to resist: curvy and pale with chestnut-brown hair, she'd reminded him powerfully of someone he'd taken great pleasure in a while back. That had been a particularly delicious kill, and if this woman could in any way bring that feeling back, JC wanted her.

And so before he'd really even thought about it, he'd neatly crossed the road, dragged her into the alley, and smiled down at her, letting her see his fangs. She'd wanted to scream then, but he'd stroked her hair and murmured soothingly to her, staring deeply into her eyes and she’d subsided. He didn’t take her as deeply as he could have because he wanted her to fight; he needed her to struggle for him.

And oh, she had, and she was gorgeous, and she wasn't going to be able to stand for much longer; JC realized, and nearly moaned in excitement. As she began to sag against him, her legs wobbling madly on her high heels, he half-dragged, half carried her across the alley and backed her hard into the brick wall of the building in front of them. Her head rolled weakly against the dirty wall and JC pinned her with his hips, letting her feel his erection, and then looked deep into her eyes and gripped her shoulders with his hands so he could gently slide his thumbs over her collarbones and trace the beautiful curved lines they made. Her eyes were wide open, and her lips moved a bit, but she couldn't speak -- she was much too weak now.

"Relax, Bobbie," JC whispered although it wasn't her name, and then kissed her thoroughly, taking his time and letting her taste her own blood on his tongue. She wasted the little strength she had left in a desperate last attempt to try to fight him off, which only made it that much more delightful to slowly, teasingly kiss and lick his way back down to the punctures in her throat so he could drink more. It felt so good, and he wanted to -- oh god, why hadn't he taken her to his room? He needed so much more time with her.

"Would you hurry up?" said an annoyed voice from the other end of the alley.

JC lifted his head, neatly licking the blood from his lips, and glared hard at Lance as his victim shuddered and moaned a little bit, her head lolling forward onto his shoulder. JC stepped back, held her away from him a little bit. He didn't want to get blood on his shirt.

"Shh, honey," he murmured gently when she whimpered again, probably trying to ask Lance for help. "It's all right."

"Seriously, JC. Now," Lance said.

JC stuck out his arm and glanced at his watch. "You're early. You said eleven, and it's still ten till."

"Your watch isn't working," Lance said flatly. "Look -- just kill her and get it over with okay? I hate it when you play with your food."

"Liar," JC said, and then slowly bent his head again and listened to Lance's sharp intake of breath as he drank quickly and fiercely. And then he just let it happen, no playing, no going into her mind, just simple straightforward hunger assuaged. After the woman had drawn her last breath, JC let her slide to the ground and then stood very still and braced his hand against the wall for a moment, not quite shivering but too overwhelmed to move or speak while the pleasure radiated through his body.

"Sensualist," Lance mocked softly, fondly.

JC looked down and breathed deep, then shook his head, straightened up, and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to snap out of it. He hated being weak, hated letting Lance see him like this.

Lance moved quietly and surely across the alley to crouch before JC's victim, the gold in his hair glinting in the dim glow of the streetlight. He looked flushed and satisfied, so he'd already fed.

"Oh my," he said in amusement, running a hand through the woman's chestnut hair. "Yet another trip down memory lane."

JC shrugged.

"You're so cute when you're predictable," Lance said, then gestured to the woman's feet. "C'mon."

JC groaned a little, then moved into place and grabbed her by the ankles. He hated cleanup.

"If I get sick from eating too fast, it's your fault," he told Lance, as they staggered toward the dumpster.

Lance gave him a quick assessing glance. "You'll be just fine," he said, and then turned halfway around to flip open the dumpster

"Okay," JC said as the lid fell shut again. "Now it really is eleven o'clock. What's the game?"

Lance grinned but didn't say anything, just beckoned for JC to follow him and led them out of the alley.

They walked slowly and easily through the street, not looking at each other but perfectly in step, a habit borne of years and years of friendship. JC closed his eyes for just a second and enjoyed the aftershocks as the blood spread through his body, warmed him. They were in the nightclub district, and the clubs were just beginning to fill. The people he saw were relatively neat and together, but soon they'd be drunk, clumsy, and pliable, which was exactly how JC and Lance wanted them.

As they moved in front of an upscale club with an annoying neon sign, Lance put a hand on JC's arm to still him, then quirked an eyebrow.

"Yes, and?" JC said.

Lance leaned in and murmured, "Kill inside, as many as you can get without arousing suspicion or commotion. High number wins. Okay?"

JC raised eyebrows. "I can't believe you actually want to try this again, especially after Madrid."

"Let's just say I feel lucky tonight," Lance said as they walked to the front of the line of people and were waved in by Todd, the bouncer, who was absolutely gorgeous. For quite some time now JC had thought that he'd make one hell of a kill, but he and Lance had decided not to take people who could be of some use to them, and it was quite nice not to have to stand outside when they could be inside hunting.

JC winced a bit as he stepped into the club: humans always had their music too loud for vampire ears. He rummaged in the pocket of his jacket and then groaned as he realized he'd forgotten earplugs.

"Okay, then," Lance said, eyes already locked on the crowd, searching hungrily. "I'll see you in a while."

"Lance," JC said softly so only he could hear, and Lance slowly turned around to face him.

"This time, try to make it last for more than ten minutes, okay?"

"Very funny," Lance said, and then weaved into the crowd.

JC walked around the periphery of the room; he liked to watch a while before moving in. The club was decorated in red and pink and reminded him of a very bad valentine, but the people who came here were delectable: warm, eager, and clueless, lots of very young, very stupid rich kids, amazingly easy marks. JC sank onto an empty sofa and closed eyes for just a second, reveling in the scent of so many bodies moving together, so much blood and sweat under one roof. When he opened them again, there was a woman staring in fascination at him: she was tall and willowy in a tight black dress, and the red and white lights of the club were flashing in random patterns all over her body. Some nights it was so damn easy.

JC watched her for a few seconds, arched an eyebrow and waited patiently, smiling a little bit as she walked toward him, not really sure why she was doing it but not able to stop herself either. Quickly, JC scanned the room. Lance was already dancing with someone. He'd have to work fast.

"Hi," JC said as she sat down next to him, careful to keep his voice soft and welcoming.

"Hey," she said, and JC liked her immediately: her voice was confident and sexy, and her dress was cut very, very low.

JC smiled at her again and watched her eyes grow wide. Humans tended to find him very beautiful. "Man," he said. "This place is so --"

"Over the top?" she suggested, and JC nodded.

"I almost just want to sit here all night and watch people," she said.

"We could do that," JC answered, and she grinned up at him.

"What're you drinking?" he asked, looking into her eyes and lifting a hand to stop a waiter who was walking by. JC ordered her a vodka tonic and a beer for himself. He wouldn't drink it unless he absolutely had to, but it was useful to pretend.

As the waiter brought their drinks, JC made sure to look into her eyes and enchant her just a little bit, not so much that she'd be groggy, because that would make this too easy, but enough so that she'd probably not do any screaming. This was where Lance always went wrong: he was so awkward sometimes, strangely uncomfortable with the dance of seduction. Lance was much better at fast, efficient killing, which made his continuing desire to try to win this game even more amusing.

JC and his new friend inclined heads and talked: she was called Kathryn and she was very young and very pretty. She thought the woman over by the bar had on the most ridiculous dress ever and that the couple on the edge of the dance floor absolutely had to be on an awkward first date -- furthermore, if it were up to her, there would be laws against haircuts like the one on the guy who'd tried to chat her up earlier tonight. She was funny and sharp and JC thought that if he had time to get to know her, he'd probably like her very much.

However, the game was afoot, and he'd have to move quickly. JC was just about to lean in and brush Kathryn's long hair away from the side of her neck, when he felt the soft pressure of her hand on his thigh, watched her sway toward him a bit, her breasts lovely and full against the low neckline of her dress. JC caught his breath in pleasure and surprise -- so gorgeous of her to make the first move, to participate in her own destruction. He looked hungrily at her for a few seconds, watched her begin to tremble, and then easily bent down to press her back into the cushions and kiss her. Out of the corner of his eye he could see people's legs, smell their drunken excitement, hear the slow, steady pounding of their hearts. Drinking from Kathryn in plain view on this sofa would be the utmost in danger and stupidity, which of course made it very nearly impossible to resist. As he gently scraped his teeth over the sweet-smelling curve of her throat, JC sighed; as he slowly sank them into her skin, he very nearly moaned. Kathryn stiffened in shock as JC drank, but she didn't draw back; by now, she was in thrall to him. He fed for just a little bit, not even a full minute, then reluctantly drew back and arranged her hair so it concealed her neck again.

"Let's dance," JC suggested, and Kathryn nodded dumbly.

As they moved together on the dance floor, Kathryn mumbled, "You know, I don't even know your --"

"JC," he said, and let one of his hands move slowly up the curve of her back, fingers bumping over vertebrae. Her dress was backless, and her skin was soft and smooth.

"You know, I like you a lot, JC, but maybe I should -- I think my friends --" Kathryn began, and JC looked at her in admiration. She was strong -- most people could hardly even speak once he'd gotten them to this point.

"Shh," he answered, smiling at her, and then looked into her eyes until they went a little glassy again and she relaxed. Now all he had to do was keep her feeling good and slowly move her to someplace relatively hidden. JC lifted his head and scanned the club for Lance. He was nowhere in sight.

JC had just lowered his head to suggest to Kathryn that they get some fresh air when he first felt it, a cautious but decidedly strong touch at the edges of his mind. Immediately, his head snapped up; then, he narrowed eyes and tamped down hard on his thoughts. This . . . exploration or whatever wasn't coming from another vampire, so who dared? No sane mortal would try to enter the mind of a vampire, at least not one who valued his life. Annoyed beyond belief at the audacity of the intrusion, JC swept his eyes hungrily, systematically, around the room.

When he finally found him, JC smiled almost in spite of himself, because he was lovely -- very young and very stupid and absolutely delectable, with dark blue eyes, messy, short curls, and a distinctly unsettled look on his face. He wasn't looking away, though -- he stood at the end of the bar steps and stared back at JC with a confidence he had no right in this world to feel. It was almost as if he were --

JC very nearly laughed then, because the idea of this guy daring to look at him like he had half a chance in the world was so outrageous it was amusing. For several seconds, JC checked him out right back, looked him up and down until his chest rose and fell rapidly and his face and neck flushed red. Once he caught him and took him home, JC was going to -- well, first he'd examine him thoroughly inside and out, root around in his mind and have a little fun. Then, he'd strip him naked and bring him close, tease him, make him tremble for a while. It would be such a pleasure to watch as he slowly realized the gravity of the situation he was in. And not until then -- not until he knew exactly who JC was and exactly what he was doing -- would JC begin to feed from him, and he'd do it so carefully, so thoroughly; he'd take infinite pleasure in each slow struggle, each gasped protest. It would take hours, just hours, and . . .

No, wait. JC looked once more at the young man’s shoulders, at the sweet curve of his mouth, and then let his eyes travel downward. Maybe he'd fuck him first.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin couldn't breathe. He'd come to this club hoping for a release of sorts, but he hadn't envisioned anything like this, himself panting like a teenager and staring raptly into the eyes of a man with a woman in his arms. There was something so unnerving about the gaze; it felt so knowing and hungry and intense. Surely he couldn't have figured out that Justin had been trying to read his mind? The chances of that were pretty slim, and yet it was so strange. When he'd first reached out, Justin had sensed a whole host of emotions in the guy, an unsettling whirl of hunger, sensuality, and excitement Justin hadn't been quite able to get a grip on. But then everything had gone blank, almost as if the guy had suddenly put up a wall.

And now it was almost like he had Justin under some sort of spell, because while Justin knew in his head that he should probably look away, he absolutely couldn't bring himself to do it, not even when he felt himself start to tremble and grow hard, not even when he saw unmistakable amusement and pleasure in the guy's face. It was utterly embarrassing, but there was nothing he could do but stare helplessly into the eyes holding him in place and let his body betray him.

No, the evening definitely wasn't supposed to have gone like this. Justin had wanted a simple release from the strictures and formality of the Order, from the Tahitian prophets, from Chris, even. Everywhere he looked, it seemed, there were people watching him, judging his performance and finding him lacking. It was frustrating as hell being the youngest person there, and while Justin was quite conscious of the honor bestowed upon him, he was quickly starting to hate the looks of condescension and worry everyone kept giving him. They seemed to think he was a loose cannon, which was just ridiculous. If they'd just let him get out there on a real project, let him go out in the field, they'd be more than grateful for it; of this, Justin was completely, serenely confident. His talents were wasted in straight research -- he wanted to be contributing in a meaningful fashion.

Tonight he'd sought a place as unlike the motherhouse as he could find, and this garish club, with its focus on bright colors and beautiful people, had seemed ideal. Justin had taken a seat at a table near the edge of the bar, gotten a beer, and had settled down to people-watch. It was strange -- only a year or so ago, he would have been out there dancing and talking to people, but now his first impulse was to watch. The Order had definitely influenced him.

It was after he'd downed the second of his drinks that he first saw him, lean and elegant and dangerous-looking in his black shirt and pants. Justin had been fascinated by everything about him: the way he moved, the line of his cheekbone, the curve of his lower lip, the angle of his jaw as he leaned his head back and laughed. Justin was pretty sure he'd never met this guy -- very rarely had Justin ever encountered such beauty -- and yet there had also been something oddly familiar about him, something Justin couldn't quite place. Since he was fond of a puzzle, Justin had focused on him, and had watched in mingled admiration and jealousy as he'd moved in on this girl, had gone in rapid succession from eye contact to introductions to making out on the couch in full view of everyone in the club. And oh, he was confident: his hands were everywhere on her, and he'd bent his head so gracefully and unhurriedly to her neck, his every movement beautiful and languid. Justin had shivered as he'd watched the guy unhurriedly run his fingers up and down the woman's back, tracing complicated, invisible patterns into her naked skin. He'd never seen someone so sensual and so sure of himself.

Although he knew full well that it was a violation of the rules of the Order to frivolously invade people’s privacy, it didn't feel frivolous to want to get closer to this man. It had seemed more like an imperative, and so Justin had pushed his ethics aside and delicately gone in. But then the guy had found his eyes and everything had gone mad.

Justin would have stared forever if he could have, but as he watched, the guy slowly lifted his head and then looked off to the hallway beside the bar, almost as if he were listening to something no one else could hear. Then he looked with regret at the woman in his arms, bent down to whisper something in her ear, and stepped away from her and started to head for the front of the club.

Before he really knew he was doing it Justin was plunging forward, trying desperately to get through the packed room so he could see him before he left, set eyes on him one more time. He was fast and impolite and he earned more than a few hostile stares on his way, but it wasn't good enough -- he was still at least ten feet from the door when the guy reached it. To make matters worse, the guy had apparently come with someone else, another man who was every bit as handsome and strange as he was.

"Oh," Justin had said softly to himself in disappointment, watching as the two men laughed and murmured to each other. He wasn't ever going to see this guy again, and all he wanted -- all he needed -- was one last look into his eyes, one final glance. He struggled forward one more time and in his haste somehow got tangled up with a waitress, one who was carrying a tray full of drinks. In the ensuing cacophony of breaking glass and shrieking Justin had kept his eyes trained on the front of the club, watched in strange excitement as the man had quickly turned around to see who or what was responsible for the commotion. His eyes swept quickly over the scene and his mouth had curled in amusement as he'd noticed Justin on the ground and covered in beer. To make it worse, just then, the waitress had started yelling at Justin. She had been so furious that Justin's concentration had suffered, but unless he was going crazy, and he was pretty sure he wasn't, he'd made eye contact with the guy again, who had smiled once, lazily and teasingly, and then said, "Bye, Justin" inside his head.

~ ~ ~ ~

The whisper was sibilant and low, sliding icily down his spine like a cool finger. Justin . . .

He shuddered and felt the sweat break out on his brow as he turned, searching for the source of the whisper, for the man belonging to voice. Anonymous bodies jostled and lights swirled around him, causing his vision to prism. Streaks of darkness and light made his eyes burn and his head pound, funneling into a deep rhythm that throbbed low in his stomach, making him gasp. The voice came again, whispering his name and beckoning him forward, rich with a dark and knowing amusement. Justin moaned, desperation rising and threatening to overwhelm him as he twisted again, and now the whisper was right in front of him, so close, echoing his pounding heart. But the lights faded to black and the music became deafening, and through the thick darkness he reached out to touch the man that he knew was right there. Close enough to feel, to taste, but there was nobody there.

Without warning strong hands were sliding fingertips down the side of his face, so cold that Justin shivered despite the heat, the sweat beading on his temples and sliding slowly down his neck. Just as suddenly the fingers were gone, leaving Justin cold and shaking. He drifted to where he thought the body was, and felt nothing. His body hummed in awareness and frustration, and his helpless groan tangled hard in his throat.

Out of the darkness the whisper came again, close to his left ear this time, and his entire body shuddered into goose bumps. Abruptly the cold was replaced with scorching heat, a deliciously firm body pressing hard against Justin’s back, bold hands curving possessively around his hips as the music pounded. His breath shortened and gasped for air, all senses straining toward the body behind him. There was a low, sweet laugh, no more than a breath against his ear, and the hands curved inward, crossing low over Justin’s groin and pulling him backwards. Justin moaned helplessly as he was teased, stroked in the pulsing darkness, his hands clenched into fists as his hips rocked forward into a firm and knowing hand and back against blistering heat. He strained against the hands holding him, begging for more, harder, faster, and as his world began to splinter into white he felt the warm wet lips and sharp teeth against his neck and heard the whisper again, Justin . . .

He came awake with a sickening shock, gasping as cold air swirled around him and cooled the sweat coating his body. He was standing on the balcony of his room in the Order’s house, the long French doors wide open to the bedroom behind him. He stared around him blankly, heaving for breath. He’d gone to bed in sweats and a t-shirt, mindful of the cold English nights, but now he was stark naked. He shook his head, disoriented. What was he doing naked on his balcony in the middle of the night?

He’d been dreaming, he realized slowly, backing quickly into his room and closing the balcony doors securely. He lunged for his sleep clothes, finding them balled up on the floor by his bed, his teeth chattering with cold and tension. He’d been dreaming, and he’d walked in his sleep. That hadn’t happened to him since he’d been a child.

And fuck, he was freezing. Justin shivered violently, the painful erection from his vivid dream fading quickly as he dove under the covers of his bed. He lay still, shaking, waiting to be warm.

The dream had been -- well, powerful. And obviously triggered by his glimpse of that man he’d seen at the club this evening. The man with the deep eyes, the sharp cheekbones, the sly and knowing smile. The man who had . . .

Abruptly Justin jumped out of bed, grabbing his slippers and pulling a heavy sweatshirt on as he paced his cold room. The strangely familiar man in the club, the one who’d looked at Justin like he knew what he was thinking, the one who had spoken Justin’s name at the door as he’d exited, leaving Justin to struggle against the broken glasses and the crowd. It had been just a glimpse, really, the electric blue eyes, the sly smile, the voice.

Justin had been watching the man dance, he remembered. He’d been struck by the man’s grace, the sinuous way he moved with his partner, the sharp slant of his cheekbone, the fall of his dark hair. Attractive, certainly, but there was something familiar about him, and once he had seen him, Justin had not been able to stop staring. He’d wanted the man to smile, he’d realized dimly. He wanted him to look up, to see Justin watching him and meet his eyes, and to smile.

And he had, Justin knew, the man had smiled and it had been both approving and taunting, and he’d . . . spoken? But Justin had been too far away to hear, he knew this with a shudder that had nothing to do with the cold, a cautious thrill of excitement. The club had been packed and very loud, the music pounding at the decibel level of a small jet. The man had looked at him, and smiled, and spoken, but his lips had not moved. Justin had heard the voice in his head.

And the man had known Justin’s name.

Justin sat down abruptly in the easy chair in his bedroom, acknowledging that he wouldn’t be sleeping again any time soon and flickering on the gas fire in the fireplace with a small, absent gesture. Warmth began to steal into the room, but Justin continued to shake.

Another psychic? He wasn’t anyone Justin knew from the Order, and Justin was never in public without his own defenses up. And his defenses were good. Better than good -- even Chris had admiringly commented that nobody in the Order had barriers like Justin’s. Nobody read him without Justin allowing it. But this man had looked at him, plucked his name right out of Justin’s head, and called him by it.

Agitated, Justin rose from his chair and began to pace, his eyes unfocused as he moved back and forth in front of the fireplace. The flames spun eerie shapes against the paneled walls and high ceiling, casting his shadow as a ghostly image. He felt suddenly uneasy, exposed, and even though his rooms were high on the second floor of the Order’s house, he went to the windows and pulled the heavy draperies shut.

But that was somehow worse, the room feeling closed and stifled, and after banking the fire he headed through his sitting room and out into the silent hallway, pacing swiftly past other members’ quiet rooms. It was so late, past four o’clock. He hadn’t been asleep for very long before the dream . . .

He laughed a little, rubbing his face in embarrassment. Yes, quite an intense dream. Painfully intense, and his body was still thrumming with the after effects even though it seemed less vivid already, fading at the edges like an old piece of parchment. Perhaps it was his body’s way of telling him something, he thought with wry amusement. Like, it’s been too long since you got laid.

He continued to stride through the corridors, his feet silent on the thick carpeting, meeting no one. He was tired, he realized, although he hadn’t done much dancing. It was always exhausting being in crowds, having to block his own thoughts as well as filtering out the mental jangle of everyone around him, the press of people, the mob. He was adept at it after all these years, but he understood why it was difficult to get other members of the Order to go out clubbing with him. None of them were fond of crowds.

Justin turned toward the huge common rooms, calming as he moved, the faux gas lights on the walls warm and soothing. It was part of being one of the youngest members of the Order, he reminded himself. Not too many people interested in going out to play, to dance, to drink, to . . .

. . . hunt . . .

pick up a stranger and spend a few minutes in the dark alley behind the club, or to be taken home, the thrill of sex with a beautiful stranger in an unfamiliar bed . . .

Justin came to a complete stop, blinking in confusion. He’d traveled far from his room in the north wing. Now he was in the corner of the library, and had already taken four steps down the spiral staircase leading to the restricted archives. The lights were low, the fires out, and the library was completely silent. Nobody awake at this hour, although he could sense activity far away in the east wing as the kitchen staff began preparations for the day. From the rest of the Order there was peaceful sleep and utter quiet.

A thought flickered slyly across his mind: no one would know if he went down to the restricted archives. It was much less risky than the last time he’d been there all those weeks ago, the time he’d felt the strange compulsion to see . . . something? His mind skittered away from the details and when he came back to himself he’d descended to the very bottom level of the restricted archives without even realizing it. His hand was already flipping on the light switch, illuminating that long, familiar corridor.

He hesitated, realizing for a painfully clear moment that he was breaking this rule again, that only blind luck had kept him from getting caught the previous time, and that such luck could not be counted on. He needed to go back to bed, he needed to stop doing foolish things. He had so much work to do: research on the Tahitian prophets and two other projects Chris had mentioned he’d want him to get started on. He was falling behind and that was no way to prove his worth to the Order, to get permission to view the restricted archives, to show that he was just that good, just that powerful, despite his youth and inexperience.

But now that he was already here . . . Justin drifted a little, weaving with exhaustion, and he was startled to realize that he’d traveled all the way down the corridor, that he was in already in front of the same door he’d been considering going to. His hand was already on the door knob, turning it. It wouldn’t hurt just to look inside, just for a moment.

As before, the knob turned smoothly beneath his hand and the door swung open easily, almost welcoming Justin inside. This time he reached for the switch and a bright light flooded the contents of the little room with harsh white light. Justin squinted, his eyes protesting, and thus his first real look at the portrait on the wall was through a haze of tears. He blinked them away, and for a long moment he just stared.

The quality of the painting was not particularly good, and it was bleached with age although the colors had probably once been vivid. Justin’s eyes traced the curve of the jaw, the slanted cheekbones, the wide blue-gray eyes. It was the same man. The same man he’d seen in the club tonight, the man who’d moved with such an exquisite and menacing grace. The man who’d locked eyes with Justin and smiled slowly.

It wasn’t like the smile in this portrait though. The painted smile had an open sort of sweetness -- it spoke of joy, of pleasure, of anticipation, and now that Justin could tear his eyes away from the expression he could see the man sitting casually in the chair, dressed in period clothing. Justin’s mind spun with confusion. It was the same man, he was certain of it, but how long ago had this painting been done? And what was it doing in the Order’s restricted archives?

He tore his gaze away with an effort that caused him physical pain, spinning around to take in the rest of the room. A tall, free-standing armoire stood against the far wall, its wood heavy and dark, the mirror on the door old and stained and cracked in one corner. Justin moved to it, placing his palms lightly on the door handle and closing his eyes, concentrating as he reached out. He felt nothing. He pulled the door open, seeing the old clothing inside. Luxurious fabrics but dusty, ancient, falling apart at Justin’s light touch. Why were they here? What were they for?

Breathing quickly, he moved to the other object, the small modern filing cabinet made out of metal. The tag at the front of the large drawer was labeled "Joshua Scott Chasez," and he whispered the name under his breath as he pulled the drawer open.

There were a series of thick files in the drawer, case study files of the sort he was accustomed to dealing with, the same manila research files the Order had used for years. His heart thudding in his ears, he crouched in front of the drawer and removed the closest, most recent file. Slowly, hands shaking, he opened it.

On the left was a fuzzy mimeographed copy of what looked like a fairly recent photograph, a picture of the man Justin had seen earlier that evening in the club. Justin’s eyes traced the dark curling hair, lean body hugged by jeans and a black turtleneck, hands thrust in the pocket of a long, black wool coat. He seemed to be crossing a street at night. The photographer had left the shutter open for too long and there was a blur of movement and light in the background. London, near Hyde Park perhaps, Justin thought. Justin’s eyes lingered on the profile, the straight nose, the long slender neck. The skin seemed to glow, he thought disjointedly. Even in the inferior photocopy he was beautiful.

Justin frowned as he leafed through the file to the most recent group of reports, his brow knotting in confusion when he saw it was dated over five years ago. The entry was from a senior investigator named Roberta Thomas, someone Justin didn’t know. Her writing was loopy, hurried, almost illegible, and Justin scowled again. These files looked like photocopies; there were even smudges on the pages as if they’d been done in haste. Why hadn’t these been transcribed into electronic data? Justin had spent his first few months with Order transcribing files but he was quite certain he’d never seen these. He scanned the entry hurriedly, feeling a strange sense of urgency.

. . . sightings almost nightly now. I find that I can easily tell when he is near, something in the air changes when he is close. He leaves me clues, hinting at where I can find him, and I feel strongly that he wants to be known, he knows of the Order’s interest and wants to be cooperative.

Another entry, three pages and three weeks later:

. . . dream of him every night, vivid fever dreams that make me hope that he is trying to communicate with me, that he is as focused on me as I am on him. The elders will not allow me to conduct my research at night in the city now; they speak of danger, of his talents for mesmerizing and mind control and I try not to laugh at them, for none of them knows this subject as well as I . . .

Justin glanced back at the picture, goose bumps prickling his skin underneath his thick sweatshirt. He was suddenly aware of how deeply within the earth he was, the massive building looming heavily above his head. His heartbeat thudded in his ears and suddenly he flipped the file closed and read the label on the front cover.

"Joshua Scott Chasez," he whispered aloud. "1776 - 1804. Vampire."

Vampire, he thought dizzily. Vampire. He rubbed the short curls on his head vigorously, breathing deeply. Vampire.

He opened the file up again, flipping to the final entry on the last page. He was breathing rapidly, his heart pounding and his vision jumping across the entries.

. . . conversations grow more intimate, although he will not tell me where he lives . . . certain that it is somewhere in the warehouse district south of Gracechurch, it seems a perfect place and twice now I have seen him near there, early in the evening . . .

. . . uneasy about his intense interest in the Order’s file, but then he seems not to care so much . . . surely there can be no harm in showing it to him; isn’t that what the Order’s policy has always been? I don’t know why I hesitate -- he has shown me so much already, so much I can add to the Order’s store of knowledge . . .

And then finally:

I know he is out there now, waiting for me, calling me. My superiors have forbidden me to leave the house but they are shortsighted and I refuse to feel guilt about disobeying. They will understand when I return with the knowledge I am gathering, the information JC is offering. It is a chance in a lifetime, to see the world as he sees it, to walk the night at his side and have him reveal everything he is to me. I hear his voice now, constantly in my head, his rich, beautiful voice. He whispers to me, he calls my name, and I am helpless . . .

This was the last entry, and there followed a brief note that the researcher had been left for dead at the Order’s front gates the following morning, her throat mangled, mutilated. There were pictures.

Her original file was gone, along with all earlier files on this subject. What Justin held in his hands, he read, were documents rescued from the archives and copies made clandestinely, without the researcher’s knowledge. The senior members at that time had feared her loyalties had become divided.

The file on this subject had been closed, Justin read, the decision made to change the status of the Joshua Scott Chasez file from level two caution to level four restriction upon the murder of Roberta Thomas. Justin heaved a deep breath, his head pounding, and let the pages slip through his fingers, preparing the read the entire file from the beginning.

"What the hell are you doing down here?!"

Justin started violently, shocked not only to hear a voice but to realize that he had not sensed anybody coming. His surprise was complete and the file fell to the ground as he leapt up, gasping. He gripped his chest, feeling his heart flutter like that of a small trapped animal as he stared at Chris.

Chris had been asleep, apparently, his hair sticking up in all directions, his face still creased from his sheets. His eyes snapped fire, and his face was like a dark thundercloud as he glowered at Justin in surprise and anger. "Justin," he said again. "These are restricted archives! What the hell are you doing?!"

For a moment Justin didn’t know what to say. The memories of the past few days flooded him, the book, the first guilty visit to the archives, the club, the man (Chasez his mind whispered, savoring the taste of the word), the dream, the portrait . . .

"Chris," he started, and stopped, glancing again at the portrait. He stared again, battling the overwhelming and completely unacceptable urge to ask if he could take it with him and hang it in his second floor room. He was barely aware of Chris grabbing him by the arm, replacing the file in the cabinet and closing the drawer, bundling Justin out of the small room and switching off the light. Justin gasped when the door slammed shut, the portrait hidden from his vision. He blinked stupidly at Chris, and Chris shook his arm.

"Justin," he said, and now he sounded less angry and more worried. "Justin, man, you gotta talk to me. You have to tell me what you’re doing down here. Right now." His eyes burned into Justin’s, and he could feel Chris’s agitation, his concern, beating at Justin’s mind like the wings of a bird. His fingers dug into Justin’s arm and shook him again. "C’mon, Justin. Spill it."

Justin took a deep breath, forcing his mind out of the slow, dark molasses it seemed to be mired in. "I don’t know, really," he started slowly. "Chris, I don’t know. It’s . . . weird."

"Weird," Chris repeated evenly, and in the year he’d been Justin’s mentor Justin had never heard him use this dark, serious tone. "Justin, you could be dismissed from the Order for this, sent away in disgrace, and all you can say is that it’s weird?"

Justin struggled to explain himself, taking another deep breath. His mouth was bone dry and a headache throbbed dully at his temples. Start at the beginning, he told himself. Start talking. Do it.

"Okay, there was this book," he began. "Last month, when I was doing the Tahitian prophet research, and outlining my report . . ." And he told Chris everything he could remember, leaving out only the violently erotic nature of his dream.

When Justin finished he was breathing shallowly and rubbing his eyes. The headache was worse, making the corridor lights flare painfully. Exhaustion curled around him, dragging him toward the floor. He focused on Chris’s face with an effort, feeling himself shiver as he saw how pale Chris was, the sweat blooming at his temples despite the chill in the deep archives. "Chris," he started again, shocked at the pained whisper of his own voice. "I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t know . . ."

Chris pulled Justin to him, awkwardly patting him on the back as he took a deep, shuddering breath. "All right," he said slowly, "Okay, take it easy." He turned to face Justin, putting his hands on his shoulders, looking into his eyes.

"Look. Justin. This Chasez vampire, he’s dangerous. Very, very dangerous. He’s killed several members of the Order, people with a lot more experience than you. His files are restricted for a reason, Justin, and that reason is your own safety." He watched Justin closely, his eyes dark and serious. "Do you understand?"

"Yeah, but Chris." Justin felt the beginnings of a rare excitement sparking through his exhaustion, the exhilaration he felt whenever he discovered the first crucial pieces to a new and fascinating puzzle. "Chris, I was drawn to this stuff, the book, the archive vault, I mean, that was not me making decisions. Something pulled me here. And then earlier tonight, I saw him." He paused, breathing quickly, eyes intent on Chris’s face. "I mean, don’t you think that means something? Don’t you?"

Chris’s eyes were steady, his expression forbidding. "Yeah, Justin, I think it could mean a few things. Like maybe you’re too inquisitive for your own good. Or that you depend on your barriers to protect you instead of your own common sense. Or that you’re not skilled enough at hiding who you are to be let out alone in London just yet." He paused, his voice like ice in the silent corridor. "Or, that maybe your ambition is outstripping your experience level."

"But Chris," Justin started again, and he froze when Chris yanked at his arm, realizing that he’d been reaching for the doorknob again. "That portrait . . ." he broke off, helplessly, unable to communicate his need, the way the man in the portrait had gripped him.

Chris watched him steadily, his mouth pressed into a firm, straight line. "I don’t know much about that painting, Justin. I think someone told me that it was acquired by the Order ages ago. It was painted by someone who knew the Chasez vampire before he became . . . well, you know. But I don’t know anything else about it. And I’m telling you right now: you don’t need to know anything about it either."

Justin started to protest, and Chris cut him off. "No. Listen to me. It doesn’t matter that you saw the Chasez vampire, it doesn’t matter that you are interested in his file, that you think you have an opportunity for fieldwork. What matters here is that you’ve broken some very important rules, rules that don’t exist just to make your life challenging, but to protect you. You are years away from having the experience necessary to take on a project like this. Years."

Chris took a deep breath and rubbed his forehead, wearily. "Look. I don’t want to have to report you. You’re my novice, and when you break rules it reflects badly on me too. But Justin, you have to promise me that you won’t come down here again. You have to promise me that you will not pursue the Chasez vampire. Believe me when I tell you that your very life depends on this." Chris waited, watching Justin closely. "Promise me."

Justin struggled with his arguments, his mind swirling with the portrait, the man in the club, the fascination with the idea that he was real. He was real and he’d shown himself to Justin, called him by his name. Chris shook his arm again, hard.

"Justin. Your word. Right now, or we go to the senior members."

Justin clenched his fists, head pounding, swaying on his feet. The words came out choked, dragged reluctantly through his throat. "Okay. Okay, you have my word."

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin had never been able to resist a puzzle or a challenge, and the unusual pull exerted by the portrait of the vampire was something completely outside of Justin’s experience. The sight of the vampire himself (and his mind still whispered Joshua Scott Chasez in a tone of wonder whenever he thought about that night at the club) had fascinated and exhilarated him. He was on slow burn, consumed by the tantalizing thought of knowledge dangling just out of his reach, unable to think about anything else.

It was driving him crazy, but he’d given Chris his word, and for the next few days Justin worked very hard at not thinking about that which interested him most. He resisted going to the library to read up on the known lore of vampires or haunted portraits, and refused to think about the storage room deep in the restricted archives. He applied himself with determined concentration to his report on the Tahitian prophets and the other study projects that he was beginning to fall behind on.

But Justin had trouble concentrating, and more and more often caught himself drifting. Twice since the confrontation with Chris Justin had roused suddenly from formless daydreams to find that a great deal of time had been lost while he sat in the library, staring blankly at dusty tomes on subjects that did not catch his interest, his pens idle and his notebooks empty. Once he had startled himself awake in his own sitting room, where he’d started out reading peacefully by the fire and ended up staring blindly out into the black night, dreamily tracing the moon as it traveled across his window. It was the sound of his own voice speaking the name of the vampire he’d glimpsed that had jerked him back to the present with a nauseating sort of shock. The flat tone of his own voice had been unfamiliar to his ears, strange and foreign and more than a little exciting. On some level he knew his concentration issues and the amount of time he was losing were unusual, unnatural, and that he needed to mention them to Chris. But he kept putting it off.

There had been tension between Justin and Chris after Chris caught him in the restricted archives, and although Justin believed that Chris had not betrayed him, Justin had the feeling that he was being watched. Not suspiciously, suspicion was not part of what the Order was, but watched closely, and with concern. Justin felt badly for making the people he cared about worry, people who’d been so good to him, but more and more he couldn’t help but think that they didn’t know as much as he knew about this situation. No one had seen the vampire except for Justin. No one else in the Order, a huge house filled with sensitives of all varieties, had been so powerfully drawn to the hidden portrait. It seemed painfully obvious to Justin that there was more going on here than the conservative Order would acknowledge, and he couldn’t believe that they would care more about the breaking of a few rules than about the larger issue. The head of the London house and all the senior members were at a meeting in Amsterdam, and in the back of his head Justin wondered if he should approach them directly when they returned.

In the meantime he had work to do and restricted archives to avoid, and he felt badly about disappointing Chris. Chris was more than his mentor; he was a good friend, and it hurt to know that Chris was disappointed in him, that his trust in Justin was compromised. He was relieved when Chris invited him to accompany him into London one clear and cold Saturday evening. It felt like the beginning of a mending to their friendship.

But in reality it appeared to be more of the surveillance that Justin had been aware of since his last unauthorized trip to the restricted archives. Chris drove carefully through the heavy London traffic, but Justin caught him frowning more than once, his eyes dark and worried as he watched Justin examine the pedestrians walking the brightly lit streets. Chris initiated careful dinner conversation about neutral topics – Chris’s upcoming field work in India, the last NBA game they’d caught on the satellite, the possibility of Justin teaching the new novices something of his uncanny skill with mental barriers. Justin doubled his efforts to participate cheerfully, to show Chris that he really was fine. By the time dinner was over Justin was tired and more than a little stressed, but he could tell from Chris’s demeanor that he was somewhat reassured about Justin’s state of mind. It was a good feeling, and Justin was glad he’d resisted the strong impulse to suggest they visit the club where he had last seen the vampire. Or at least take a walk through that neighborhood.

Chris wanted to stop at the large bookseller across the square before heading back to the Order, mumbling something about a gift for his sister’s birthday, and Justin agreed. He was grateful for the opportunity to find something new to read. Sleep had been very hard to come by in the last couple of days, and new material that didn’t have to do with the Tahitian prophets would be welcome.

The Bindings and Castoffs Bookstore was a huge, cavernous building boasting multiple levels, knowledgeable clerks, its own coffee shop, and a selection second to none in the whole of downtown. It was also, Justin thought, cold, drafty, poorly lit, and full of strange people with nothing better to do on a Saturday night than drink coffee and try to look intellectual. Not one of these nerds could get a date tonight, he thought scornfully, and then had to laugh at himself. He didn’t have a date either, now did he?

He and Chris parted ways at the top of the staircase on the second level, Chris heading for the Young Readers section and Justin moving to the section the map had indicated held historical biographies. The curving path led him on a meandering journey through tall, dark bookcases that seemed to absorb the illumination from the weak fluorescent lights high above. Justin found what he thought was the correct section and moved down one of the narrow aisles. There were small, decorative lamps at the end of the row, but their light didn’t reach the center of the aisle and Justin strained to read the titles. He thrust his hands into his pockets – suddenly it seemed very, very cold.

He was about to give up and head back to the better-illuminated concourse when he turned a corner and narrowly missed bumping into another person, standing silently and perfectly still in the shadow of the tall bookcase. Justin opened his mouth to apologize, and froze.

It was him (Chasez, his mind whispered frantically), standing utterly still and silent as if he’d been waiting for Justin. His back was to the window, throwing his face into shadow, but Justin could see the glimmer of his eyes, the smooth and pale skin of his face, the curve of his elegant jaw above the ribbed black turtleneck he wore. The eyes creased a little as he slowly, slowly, smiled and Justin felt his mouth go dry, his heart stop for a painful, breathless moment before plunging into a hard rhythm, flooding his body with adrenaline. He scrambled to pull his mental defenses up, every lesson he’d been taught about protecting himself from dangerous creatures skimming disjointedly through his mind. But he couldn’t keep his eyes from tracing the smooth curve of the vampire’s cheekbones, the softly curling hair, the generous and soft lips that showed just a hint of white teeth through the small, knowing smile. His body reacted violently, beginning to hum with energy as his breath shortened. And as Joshua Scott Chasez, Vampire, took one measured step toward him, Justin shuddered and stood his ground.

But was it only one step? Because now he was right there, right in front of Justin, close enough for Justin to see the crystalline depths of his blue-gray eyes, the length of his dark eyelashes, smell the faint scent of a very expensive cologne, feel his breath as he raised one elegant hand to hover next to Justin’s face.

"Justin," he murmured, his voice rich and deep and beautiful. "Now, you’re not going to scream, are you?"

It wasn’t a question, and as he trailed one long, cool finger across Justin’s lower lip, making him tremble and gasp for breath, it seemed to grow darker in the bookstore, and colder. The vampire’s smile was confident and mocking and utterly cruel. He brought the finger, moist from Justin’s own lip, to his own mouth and showed Justin a hint of unnaturally long teeth as he languidly touched his tongue to it, watching Justin intently. His eyes were fathomless, the gleam in them both chilling and inviting, and Justin trembled as the room started to spin around him. His heart thudded painfully in his ears and his pulse raced, but nothing mattered but this man in front of him, nothing mattered but Justin’s need to get closer to him, to stare into those deep eyes and have those elegant hands and gorgeous mouth all over him, now . . .

Chasez, his mind whispered in wonder and need and the beginnings of a slowly burning fear, and Justin watched, captivated, as the vampire’s smile grew and warmed.

"Justin, Justin," he mocked softly, tilting his head in a way that was almost teasing. His hands reached out slowly as if to cradle Justin’s face, and Justin was dying for it, swaying closer to those cold hands as if they’d save him. Goose bumps broke out on his body, and Justin stared in unblinking fascination as the pink tongue reappeared, wetting the full lower lip. "Seeing as you and I are going to be so . . . close," he whispered, almost crooning. "Why don’t you call me –"

"JC," and this time Justin said it out loud, jolted by his own low tone, the way his voice shook.

JC leaned back infinitesimally, the arrogant smile fading as his eyes narrowed on Justin’s face. Dimly Justin was aware of surprise, curiosity and suspicion prodding sharply at the edges of his mind, so much stronger and more focused than when Chris or the other members of the Order tested him. He tried to focus, but JC’s eyes pulled him slowly in and he swayed dizzily, wanting to get closer, needing to be closer.

His body knew he was in danger even if his mind refused to listen. Justin made a last-ditch effort to save himself, jerking his eyes away with a superhuman effort. He thought he was shouting, every word an agonizing effort as it clawed out of his throat but what emerged was a choked whisper. "I know what you are," he whispered finally, feeling the room stop spinning as the vampire straightened, suddenly alert. "I know your name," he hissed, terror and arousal making his voice shake. Justin threw out a hand and gripped the bookcase beside him, feeling his strength climb sluggishly back to his numb limbs as he dug his fingers painfully into the hard wood. Fascination, wariness and arousal warred within him, making his legs tremble and threaten to buckle as he looked up to meet the JC’s icy blue eyes and still face. "I know who you are, and I know where you live," he continued, shaking. "And I know that you’re helpless during the day."

JC didn’t move a muscle but to Justin he seemed suddenly taller, darker, infinitely more menacing than a moment ago. All warmth had fled from his face, leaving his features sharp and predatory as his lips curled in a savagely mocking sneer. "I don’t think you want to discuss helplessness with me right now, Justin," he snarled, and Justin heard him drawing deep, heaving breaths. "You trembling, arrogant, smart-mouthed fool," he hissed viciously. "You and your Order fucking dare . . ." and Justin realized with a shudder that he was reading him, despite Justin’s much-vaunted skill and best efforts JC was reading him, and what he was seeing was making him absolutely furious.

Justin reached desperately for his scattered faculties, his mind spinning with visions of this man at the club mouthing the long neck of a gorgeous young woman, of these same blue eyes smiling brilliantly at him from the depths of an ancient oil portrait, of the file with this man’s name and picture on it. The vampire frowned, his eyes intent on Justin’s face and again Justin felt that brutal prodding at the edges of his mind. He grit his teeth, steeling himself to resist when all he wanted right now was to move closer, to touch, to taste . . .

Then JC lifted his head swiftly, his eyes narrowing as they darted to the left, past Justin’s shaking form. His mouth tightened and he drew his coat around him as he took one long step back, moving quickly. He threw a single ferocious glance back into Justin’s face. "Justin," he said softly, menacingly, as if savoring the word. "I’ll see you later," he whispered, a tantalizing promise, a deadly threat. Justin trembled hard, and when he blinked JC was gone.

The room was suddenly warm again, stiflingly so, and Justin found himself on his knees in the dark and musty aisle with his entire body bathed in sweat. He was aware of Chris loping down the aisle toward him, throwing an arm around him, helping him up.

"Sick," he mumbled to Chris’s frantic inquiries. "Let’s go, please Chris, I don’t feel well."

"Did you see anyone up here?" Chris asked urgently, slinging one of Justin’s arms around his thick shoulders. "Did you see anyone?"

Justin closed his eyes, a stab of pain translating into a heavily pounding headache as he whispered, "No, no one." Chris was silent as they hurried down the central aisle toward the main staircase. Justin got his feet under him, pulling his arm from Chris’s shoulder as his vision cleared a little. "Did you?"

Chris’s face was grim, his eyes wide. "I saw a vampire down on the first level. I don’t know what he’s doing here, or if he’s alone." He threw another sharp look into Justin’s pale face, his arm gripping his elbow as they started down the staircase. "I thought . . ." He shook his head, his hand hard on Justin’s shaking elbow. "Never mind. Let’s get you out of here."

"Maybe they like to read too," Justin joked feebly, and Chris snorted.

"Maybe they do, but if they’re around, we have to get out of here. Right now." Chris’s eyes scanned the room sharply. "They don’t like members of the Order," he said quietly. "Or, rather, they like them a little too much."

Justin was still shaking, and he couldn’t keep his eyes from darting nervously around the room, probing into dark corners, searching for a tall, lean form. "My dinner," he said quietly as they moved down the stairs. "I must have eaten something bad."

"Actually, no. I put something in your pasta. It was my intention to poison you all along," Chris said sardonically, but his usual humor was flat and his face was grim as Justin stumbled and he reached out to steady him. A fine sheen of sweat covered his brow and he looked carefully around at the quiet bookstore as they reached the front door and stepped out into the deep London night.

The cold air hit the sweat on Justin’s forehead like an ice cube, helping his head to clear. He threw a panic-stricken look over his shoulder, certain he’d heard quiet footsteps pacing behind them, but there was nothing there. They reached the car and Justin waited an agonizingly long time for Chris to unlock it, diving into the passenger seat with a gasp of relief.

"Justin," Chris said, watching him closely as he jerked around to scan the empty back seat. "Justin, what’s wrong?"

"Nothing," Justin gasped, sliding down in the seat. "I just want to go home, Chris, please." He grabbed his seat belt, fastening it with hands that shook.

Chris threw a sharp look behind them before starting the car and pulling out into the road. He made a careful u turn, and Justin struggled to avert his eyes from the front of the book store and its deep shadows, covering his eyes with a trembling hand. He concentrated on breathing deeply and evenly as the car made the turn that would take them to the outskirts of London proper, where the motherhouse was. Justin leaned back, closing his eyes and clearing his mind with a painful effort. He could feel Chris’s concern, worry and anger and the cold certainty that Justin was lying to him, that Justin had seen something or someone in the dark aisles of the second floor, that Justin was keeping something important from him.

"Chris," he whispered, opening his eyes and rolling his head on the seat to look at him. "Please, it’s nothing. I just don’t feel well. Okay?"

Chris gave him a long hard look that Justin met evenly, then he nodded, shortly. "Okay, Justin. Okay, let’s get you home. We’re almost there."

Justin leaned back with a sigh. London’s dark and dangerous corners loomed heavily behind him, making him shiver, and he resisted the urge to ask Chris to hurry.

~ ~ ~ ~

Rage propelled him. It burned in his throat, radiated through his arms and legs, and then settled low in his stomach, and that felt so awful it made him even angrier. JC walked as quickly as he could down the street, his footsteps loud on the sidewalk, glaring balefully at the few people who dared cross his path. They widened eyes and then skittered away nervously.

So yet again the Order was after him, and this time they'd sent an even younger child -- a very, very pretty one, because they were smart and they knew what JC liked, -- but also someone a little stronger than usual, someone who could protect his thoughts in a way most humans couldn't. He was also well-informed, and had clearly had access to JC's file -- a file that was not supposed to exist. JC took in a long, deep breath and held it, let his fury grow exponentially. He had been so sure that Bobbie had destroyed everything -- in fact, that had been the whole point of his flirtation with her. JC thought back to her adoring gaze, her trembling hands, the eager, almost wheedling tone of voice she'd used with him. It was disgustingly easy to manipulate members of the Order: they were so earnest, so naive, and so essentially unskilled, though their pride prevented them from seeing it. Bobbie had been so pleased with herself at penetrating JC's mind a few times -- thoughts he had decided to show her, though she of course hadn't realized it -- that she'd been easily convinced that she had special insight into him. What she'd failed to realize was that the series of increasingly open encounters she'd had with JC were not owing to her own investigative acumen but rather to JC's careful planning. He'd played her beautifully; he'd been so sure of it: he'd drawn her in so slowly, revealed "secrets" so reluctantly, given her more information than she'd ever dreamed of to write up for the snooping, contemptible Order. Her job had been to bulk up the file on him: his job had been to draw her in, turn her against the Order and get her to destroy the file, after which point, of course, he'd destroy her. So he'd teased her, he'd seduced her, he'd made her trust him and then tricked her into believing that she loved him -- all of which had made the act of finally killing her even more exquisite.

It was a memory JC had often relived, and even now in the midst of his fury, he was drawn to it again. Really, it had been one of the very best kills of his life, so beautiful in the gray light of early dawn, she helpless and spread-eagled in front of the motherhouse itself, he feeding slowly, knowing that with each passing second the sky grew brighter and the likelihood of someone coming upon them was greater. She'd known that, too, and it had given her desperate, ridiculous hope, which had in return given JC pleasure so stabbing and so dark he'd barely been able to control himself. He remembered how she'd begged him for her life, her voice low and broken, struggled feebly to call out, to attract attention. It was then that JC had asked her about the file, told her that the pain and the fear would stop at once if she told him the truth about it, that he would step away and let her live if she told him what he wanted to know. Though she hadn't known it, she'd been too far gone to live then, and so she had sobbed and pleaded and assured him again and again that it was gone, that she’d destroyed it all and everything she'd learned about him would remain secret forever. "Thank you," JC had whispered, and then kissed her one last time before killing her.

It had been so good that he'd staggered when he slowly rose from the body, and for a moment he'd been afraid for himself, worried that in his present state he wouldn't be able to make it to shelter in time. Even that hadn't stopped him from carefully arranging her for the Order, however: he'd lifted her skirt a bit, unbuttoned her blouse, and showed them that he knew exactly what she was -- their whore. After that, he'd had no further trouble from the Order, and JC had relaxed, relieved and pleased with himself. It had been relatively easy and certainly most pleasurable to defeat them.

But now it seemed that maybe Bobbie had bested him, that she'd somehow had the possession of mind to lie to his face even as she lay dying before him, and that the Order, instead of stepping back, was going to be every bit as annoying and intrusive as they'd been before. It was infinitely distressing to know that he'd been tricked by her in the end, to think that all of his efforts had been in vain.

And Justin was even worse than Bobbie had been, with his confidence and his arrogance and his infuriatingly closed mind. JC had known at once that he was a member of the Order -- none of them could conceal that fact -- but Justin's resistance to him on other fronts had been a most unwelcome shock. It had been a very, very long time since JC had been unable to make a human do exactly what he wanted him to, and that unpleasant realization had been rendered even worse by Justin's taunt that he knew where JC lived.

At that thought, JC's anger arose again. He loved his house. He and Lance had been living there for decades, and it was perfect: secure and comfortable, with lots of rooms and corners for game-playing. Save for service personnel, every single human who'd known of it or had been in it had died, and there was no way JC could suffer having the entire Order know where he slept. Now he and Lance were going to have to move, and it was going to be a huge annoyance, difficult and unwieldy. It was the Order's fault. It was Justin's fault. JC clenched his fists. He should have killed him in the bookstore, he thought fiercely, should have pressed him silently into the shelves, tilted that pretty little neck, and then drunk to his heart's content. And when he was finished he would’ve gone to the motherhouse and thrown that body on their front steps as well.

That he hadn't done so was actually somewhat surprising. Had he lost his nerve? Not possible. Was he growing soft? Again, simply not possible. JC scowled and worked on the puzzle, bending over a bit and watching his feet as he walked quickly down the sidewalk. There was something so . . . confounding about Justin.

"JC," Lance said from a distance, and JC raised his head in surprise and waited until Lance caught up with him. Without really knowing it, he'd wandered into a residential neighborhood, and modest townhouses and brownstones lined the street beside him. JC frowned. It wasn't like him to lose himself in public like this, and as Lance approached, pink and glowing and with an expression of absolute self-satisfaction on his face, JC's already horrible mood grew even worse.

"So you ran out of the bookstore," Lance said, not even trying to conceal his glee. "You ran out on your own game without a single kill -- and what's more, you apparently ran away from a novice of the Order."

JC glared at him.

"I mean, of course he's pretty," Lance said, grinning. "Those shoulders, that mouth -- there's absolutely no denying that. But to be scared of him? What the hell, JC? Oh, and by the way, you lost. Two, JC. Two bodies in the reference section."

"You know, I'd love to be happy for you Lance, but right now I'm just a little more concerned with the fact that this child told me that the Order knows exactly where I live," JC said, and then grew even more livid when Lance laughed out loud.

"Oh, JC," Lance finally said, the condescension in his voice very nearly intolerable. "Oh, god. Don't tell me you actually think he was on official Order business."

That brought JC to a full stop. Pausing in front of a bus stop, he looked intently at Lance and waited.

"Think about it," Lance went on. "He interacted with you; he talked to you; he taunted you. That violates every single one of their principles, and you know it. He might well be researching you, but it's definitely not at the request of the Order. This one's acting on his own."

JC flashed back to the fear and excitement in Justin's blue eyes, to the soft velvet of his lower lip, to the breathless, excited tone under the threats he'd thrown at him in the bookstore.

"Oh my," he said softly, and a savage, clear pleasure spread through him. "I think you might actually be right about that."

"So, see, really there's no worry here," Lance went on.

"He knows where we live," JC said slowly and clearly, because Lance was being so utterly stupid. "He knows about the house, Lance."

To JC's annoyance, Lance remained unperturbed. "Are you sure about that? I mean, did he give you a location?"

"No," JC said slowly, and fought the urge to fidget.

"Okay, so did you find it in his mind?"

Embarrassment welled up in JC. Oh, but he was going to make Justin pay for this. "I actually -- well, his mind was a little -- I couldn't quite get it from him."

Lance laughed out loud. "You couldn’t read his thoughts? You?!"

"I could get the big things. I knew exactly what he was feeling, but I couldn't -- well. There's something about him, something that makes him able to resist me."

Lance laughed even harder. "Oh my god, that's beautiful. You're going to agonize over this for months -- I see it in your eyes. But as for the house --" Lance pulled himself together a bit, spoke more calmly, which was wise of him, because at this point JC was shaking with fury, on the verge of knocking him down. "He was probably bluffing, JC. If he really knew, he wouldn't have been able to conceal it, I don't care how resistant he is. You know how they are -- the thing they don't want you to know is always the easiest thing to get."

"Maybe," JC said thoughtfully. "But the fact of the matter is that it might be true, and if he knows, then so does the entire fucking Order, and I can't -- this is going to drive me insane, Lance. I have to get him, get that file, and figure it all out. I have to know what he knows."

"I don't think you should let it get to you, JC," Lance said slowly. "And besides: he may or may not know where we live, but you definitely know where he is," and then, as JC lifted burning eyes to him, quickly added, "No, JC. No. Not tonight. You're too upset by far, and --"

But already his voice was fading in JC's mind, fading as quickly as the hunger and anticipation of the hunt arose. He would, oh yes -- it was perfect. He would walk right though the Order's front doors and show Justin, show them all, what knowledge and power were really about.

" -- even listening to me?" Lance asked in exasperation.

"No," JC told him. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some business to attend to."

Lance stepped forward quickly and grabbed his arm. JC could have thrown it off, but given the look in Lance's eyes, that would have meant a fight. And if he fought Lance tonight, he'd be too weak to do what he really needed to do -- which was probably what Lance wanted anyway. JC wasn't about to be manipulated like that.

"All I'm saying is that you shouldn't do it at the motherhouse," Lance murmured. "He committed this sin alone, he should atone for it alone. And even if they do have our address -- aside from this single kid, they're obviously not doing anything about it. Their job is to watch, JC, never interfere, and I know that infuriates you, but it's not -- we shouldn't let that throw our lives in an uproar."

"He threatened me, Lance," JC said stiffly.

"Yes he did, and yes, he should pay for that. But look -- he can't stay in that house forever: eventually, he's going to have to come out again. And when he does, then you get him, you take him home, you have your fun with him, and then it's over. It's safe, it's clean and it's done with, and we have no wars with the Order, no messiness, no danger. Remember the last time you killed someone from the motherhouse? We had to eat in Paris for months after that."

"I have to tell you, Lance -- your fear of the Order is disturbing."

"And I have to tell you that your inability to think clearly about this whole thing is disturbing," Lance shot back. "There's absolutely no reason for you to do this right now, unless, of course . . ."

"Unless what?" JC asked in a dead, calm voice.

Lance rubbed the back of his neck. "Unless you can't stop yourself -- unless you've already let this child get under your skin."

JC laughed out loud. "Get to me? I want to kill him, Lance, not build him a shrine."

"Are you sure about that?" Lance carefully asked.

"Of course I am!"

"Okay. All right then -- how about this? I'll do it -- I'll go in there and kill him for you."

JC opened his mouth and then closed it, and then felt himself flush. He couldn’t stand the thought of Lance having Justin. JC didn't even want Lance to touch him.

"That's what I thought," Lance said softly.

JC quickly regrouped. "Look -- it doesn't mean that I'm obsessed -- it just means that I'm angry at him and that I want to get him back myself."

"You believe what you need to believe," Lance said dismissively, and then let go of JC's arm. "Okay, look. You know what I think about this, but I'm not going to press any further. You want to go out and do stupid things, that's your choice. You want to give an insignificant human power over you, that's your idea. Just don't come to me when it all goes wrong and you need help getting out of it."

"Believe me, I won't," JC said acidly, and then turned and hurried off.

~ ~ ~ ~

Typical boring Victorian architecture, JC thought as he pushed the body of the guard he'd just killed into the underbrush and then watched the lights in the motherhouse turn off one by one. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened to them breathe inside, listened to their hearts, their feet on the carpet, their stupid, small conversations. There were fewer of them in there than usual -- far fewer. JC smiled in the dark and waited.

Eventually, a van with "Capital Cleaning Service" lettered on the side pulled up. JC stepped into the shadows and watched as a lone woman got out; middle-aged and heavy, she looked tired and unhappy. Leave it to the Order to make their workers miserable. JC thought of his own pretty maid, thought of how sweet she looked bending over to dust, how long her legs were and how shiny her long, dark hair. One of these days he was going to have to reward her for all that good work.

As the cleaning lady slowly approached the service entrance, her arms laden with buckets and bottles of cleaning supplies, JC emerged slowly from his hiding place and smiled at her. Thanks to the guard, he looked pink and fresh and human, and he put on his sweetest, most harmless smile.

"You look like you could use some help," he said.

The woman looked suspiciously at him. The Order was rather good at training employees to think about security.

"Seriously," JC said, looking deep into her eyes. "It's late and you look tired. Let me take some of that."

After a moment, the woman sighed and gestured to a bucket and a mop still inside the van. "I suppose you could carry those if you wanted," she said, and then reached into her pocket and pulled out a key card. Ignoring the mop and bucket altogether, JC moved close behind her as she opened the door, then memorized the password she keyed into the alarm system.

"So should I come in, too?" he said off-handedly, leaning up against the doorjamb.

The woman looked at him in confusion. "What? Yes, of course. Come in," she said.

"Thank you," JC said politely, and then walked straight into the doorway, gripped her hard by the shoulders and slammed her into the wall. He lowered his head to her neck, gashing her throat messily so there would be lots of blood when they found her. It didn’t take long at all. Afterward, JC heaved her body back out to the van, cursing and staggering a little at her weight; then, he grabbed the key card from her pocket, entered the building once again, and stood absolutely still in the lower hallway of the motherhouse, looking slowly around and trying very hard not to laugh.

Long dark hallways and horrible, stuffy paintings, statues JC wouldn't have put in his basement; ridiculous, stupid Victorian trash. He moved calmly and surely through the house and listened carefully for the one heartbeat he was interested in. Upstairs -- Justin was somewhere on the second floor. As JC moved quickly toward the grand staircase at the front of the house, he noticed several security cameras tracking his progress. All that technology, and they still couldn’t prevent a vampire from stalking right into their precious motherhouse.

JC's feet were quiet on the stairs. It was calm and silent here, and they were all so vulnerable, all at his mercy. The feeling was very nearly intoxicating, and as he turned the corner and headed down the hallway toward Justin's room it grew even stronger, because now he could smell his sweat and his cologne, could hear the soft sighs he made in his sleep. JC breathed deeply and licked his lips in anticipation. This was going to be so, so gorgeous.

Midway down the hall JC caught his breath and slowly reached out to Justin with his mind, sifted gently through his thoughts. He was having light, whispery dreams -- random feelings and thoughts and shadowy figures flitting to and fro. Slowly, carefully, JC attempted to nudge Justin into giving him the security code to the alarm in his room. It was a difficult process, involving more effort than JC would have thought necessary, and again a grudging respect for Justin's mental defenses arose in him. However a sleeping Justin was apparently more pliable than an awake one, and after a while, JC had the numbers in his mind. JC reached Justin's door, entered the code, and then looked down and grinned as he heard the lock give way. Right before he entered Justin's room, JC let himself look pointedly at the security camera. It would be downright rude not to acknowledge the Order in some way.

JC walked first into what appeared to be a sitting room with a fireplace, a chair for reading, and bookcases lining the walls. There was a door at the far end of the room; JC moved quickly to it, inclining his head and listening for a moment. When he heard Justin sigh, desire rose up in JC like murder. He ignored it for the moment, however, and stepped quickly over to Justin's desk to look through the papers strewn across the top. No file, just boring, dry notes about Tahiti. The desk drawers revealed little else of interest: financial statements, a collection of letters from a woman, probably his mother, a long row of absolutely deadly boring articles on the paranormal. No wonder the kid was so desperate for action.

Once he finished with the desk, JC went quickly through a leather messenger bag sitting on a truly abhorrent chair -- more Victorian foolishness -- and drew out Justin's laptop and set it on the desk. The pockets on the front of the bag yielded pens, pencils, gum, and then, finally, Justin's wallet, shiny black leather worn soft by years of use and curved sweetly to fit his body. JC impatiently flipped it open and glanced at Justin's driver's license, learned that he was twenty-three years old, just over six feet tall, and that he was an organ donor. The Order would be glad to know that tonight when they found the body, JC thought with savage amusement. There were only two pictures in the wallet: one of a woman with curly hair much like Justin's, obviously his mother, and one of two small boys. There was a work permit, a few credit cards, a small amount of cash, a bus pass, and a ticket stub to a very bad movie that was playing downtown. Nothing of interest, and so JC sat the wallet on the edge of the desk, and then powered up the computer. Aside from the speedy wireless connection -- the house was old, but the technology was new -- JC again found nothing, nothing having to do with himself. If Justin were keeping notes on JC's file, they were hidden, and JC really didn't feel like hunting much more at this point. Justin could tell him what he needed to know.

For a moment, JC sat perfectly still at the desk; then, he slowly stood up and stretched languidly, closing his eyes in delight as his body strained in anticipation. Finally, he walked to the door, quietly opened it, and then moved to the side of the bed and gazed down. Justin was stretched out on his back, breathing lightly and easily, one arm curved up around his head, the other bent so that his hand rested neatly in the small of his back. JC looked greedily at his long neck, his jaw, and the soft skin at the base of his throat, and clenched his teeth, struggling for control. His mouth watered; Justin looked and smelled so beautiful. Then JC remembered the file and reluctantly drew back.

In sleep, Justin's defiance and arrogance melted away: now, his lips and legs were both parted, and his skin was smooth and pale in the soft light of the desk lamp. He had on a worn t-shirt that clung tightly to his chest and rode up slightly; JC gazed first at his flat stomach, and then at the soft hair that trailed downward from his navel, and then breathed quickly and deeply until he felt in control again. When Justin made a tiny, restless noise in his sleep and shifted a bit, JC moved quickly and silently to the desk chair and placed it at the side of the bed. For a while, he simply watched Justin sleep, took note of the rise and fall of his chest, the slow pounding of his heart, the regular rhythm of his breathing.

Then JC began to ask Justin about the file, nothing too harsh, nothing too upsetting, just general, easy questioning and encouragement. Justin shifted fitfully, again holding back, again refusing to release details. JC nudged him a little harder, then sat up very straight in his chair as a series of images began to appear: Justin walking down a set of stairs, a long dark hallway, and then, from Justin's point of view, a file that appeared to contain a picture of JC in it, a bad picture, JC noted in annoyance. He frowned because now Justin seemed to be looking at a book, an old leather bound book, and then it was a file again. JC longed to see more: other documents, the title of the file, more clues about where Justin had found it and how long ago, but the vision, and Justin, remained maddening, vague and fuzzy. JC pushed harder still, and the image expanded just a bit: Justin was in a large, dark room, and his hand pushed away the photograph to reveal another document, something that might or might not have said "Chasez Vampire" at the top. JC tried desperately to focus on it, but again the vision refused to coalesce into anything useful.

This wasn't going to work. JC hissed in annoyance and sifted through Justin's feelings instead, which was much easier work, and rather interesting as well. Justin was, it seemed, almost as obsessed with the file as JC was; he was dying with curiosity to get to it again, desperate with frustration. He had to know more about JC, had to find out everything about him that he could, had to get closer to him somehow, needed to. It didn't make sense and he didn't know why, but he couldn't stop himself.

JC drew in a long breath and closed his eyes as part of him recognized the feelings, identified with them, then shook his head fiercely to get rid of the thought. He was perhaps a little more forceful than he should have been when he tried to get Justin to tell him whether he really knew the location of JC's house, but he was starting to get well and truly annoyed, thoroughly sick of coyness. If Justin had the information, JC thought grimly, Justin was going to give it up. Justin's thoughts about JC's address yielded at first only a blank, and then, in the emotional register, something absolutely infuriating: amusement. Justin had actually taken pleasure in foiling JC in the bookstore. He was proud of himself.

Before JC knew it, he was a mere inches from Justin's neck, his entire body craving the kill. No one knew he was here: it was still and silent in the motherhouse, and if JC got in bed with Justin, he could spend hours with him, make this a very memorable experience. Oh, he wanted this; it was painful how much he wanted to take Justin. Gradually, rational thought returned, and JC frowned and drew back. He couldn't kill Justin until Justin had destroyed the file, and what was worse, JC wasn't completely sure the file was in this house at all. The Order had houses all over the world, and it was quite possible they'd moved it after Bobbie’s death.

JC considered waking Justin up right this moment and forcing him to reveal everything, thought about how empty the motherhouse was and how much easier it would be to get the information with Justin helping him. However, if he did that, then he'd have to kill Justin afterward so Justin couldn't raise the alarm, and if JC killed Justin, then, well . . . there would be no more Justin. And if there were no more Justin, then JC would be bored again, and that would be the absolute worst outcome of all. There was still so much to learn about Justin, so much fun to have with him. Plus, a dead Justin would never know about right now, never know how easily and boundlessly JC had moved through his rooms, his thoughts.

Well, maybe not his thoughts. JC thought again of Justin's amusement at holding back, and drew his brows together in annoyance. That was another reason not to kill him yet; first, he had to figure out a way to break into that mind. The best thing to do to Justin right now was not to kill him, which would be too sudden and too final, but rather to have him wake up tomorrow knowing that JC had been here, knowing that JC had taken advantage of him, that JC had bested him.

For a moment, JC exalted in his plan, but when he looked at the serene expression on Justin's face and the easy, relaxed position of his sleeping body, he suddenly wasn't so sure who had the upper hand. He needed something else, something to make this visit memorable for Justin. JC closed his eyes for a second so he could think, and then slowly opened them again and leaned over the bed. Smiling lazily, JC reached out to Justin's mind again, more intensely and more urgently than before, the images in his imagination spilling over in rich, dark, detail, going straight into Justin's dreams. Justin was receptive to this, and it wasn't long before his breathing quickened and he shifted a little fitfully, the hand over his head clenching once or twice, then releasing. JC caught his own breath and kept going, leaning forward to watch as Justin gasped once in his sleep, then softly moaned as a flush spread slowly down his throat and over his chest. His nipples erected, his mouth opened even further, and he restlessly turned his head from side to side on the pillow. By the time Justin's cock hardened and he lifted his hips from the bed, his entire body straining with want, JC was hard as well, breathing almost as raggedly as Justin was, spellbound by the beauty of his response. When Justin gasped raggedly and spread his legs, JC murmured, "Come on, Justin," and then watched in amazement as Justin cried out, shuddered, and came before collapsing back onto the sheets. JC stood up and looked down at him, hands aching with the desire to touch him, but it wasn't -- not this time. He'd save that pleasure for later.

But there was one thing he could do, one thing he'd allow himself. Bending over Justin one more time, JC slowly slipped something around his neck; then, he neatly grabbed one of the credit cards from Justin's wallet and headed out.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin awoke slowly the next morning, his head fuzzy, and then grimaced as he realized he'd come in his sleep last night. Groaning in annoyance, he quickly stepped into the bathroom and cleaned himself off, then went back into his room and stripped the bed. This was just embarrassing; this was something that happened to teenagers, not people in their twenties. As he bent over to fold the sheets into hospital corners, Justin frowned. He felt weak and sluggish, almost hung over, though he definitely hadn't been drinking last night. Aside from his fright in the bookstore, he'd actually had an incredibly uneventful evening. Justin lumbered off to pick up a pillow, slowly, experimentally running a hand up and over his chest as he did so. He was sore, he was really sore actually, and in places where -- well, in places where a person just shouldn't be sore unless he'd had pretty great sex. What in the world had happened to him?

After he'd smoothed out the last wrinkle in the clean sheets and double-checked to see that the old ones were at the bottom of his laundry hamper, Justin sat down gingerly on the side of the bed and tried to think. His head was groggy, his mind dull; it was almost as if he weren't really awake yet. He must have had some pretty powerful dreams last night, or maybe some sort of paranormal experience. Justin tried to remember all the stories he'd heard about spirits and ghosts in the motherhouse, but nothing interesting came to mind.

If he could just relax, he might be able to remember the dream. There had been something about the archives -- had he been dreaming about the picture again? Justin drew brows together, closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. He was also getting vague flashes of conversation -- okay, so he'd been dreaming about talking to JC about the location of his house, which only made sense given that he'd been talking about that with the real thing earlier in the night. And of course his mind would also have him talking to JC about the archives, because the archives were where all the good information about JC was. And JC would have been the person he'd talk to about this because sneaking into the archives scared Justin almost as much as JC did, and last night, JC had just about scared the living daylights out of Justin. He wasn't upset anymore, but of course he would have tried to work through it in his dream.

However, none of this made for a wet dream. Justin sighed. Okay. So obviously, he'd been a little preoccupied with JC lately -- it would be pretty stupid to deny that. But had his obsession gone that far already? He tried to go into an empty, receptive state, hoping that images from the dream would emerge. Eventually, they did, slowly at first, and then with such intensity they scared him. Justin felt himself flushing red all over as he remembered being almost beyond his mind with pleasure, his body aching and hungry, and JC right there, murmuring in his ear, asking him what felt good, telling him how good he looked, encouraging him to lift his shirt just a bit, to spread his legs just a little more.

With difficulty, Justin tore his mind away from the images, then groaned once and breathed deep. He was getting hard again, and the very last thing he needed to do at this point was indulge in more dreaming about JC. His subconscious mind might have been taken over, but there was no reason to give JC his waking thoughts as well.

Justin had had erotic dreams before, but there was something so much rawer about this one, so much more vivid. Truly, it was strange. Maybe he'd ask Chris about it, not, of course mentioning JC, but asking in general terms about unusually vivid dreams, about what caused them, how they could trick the body into believing it was feeling things it wasn't actually experiencing. But before he could do that, he should shower. Justin squinted at a spot on the carpet and bent over to pick up a dried leaf he'd probably tracked in last night. As he grasped it, something swung forward and bumped him on the chin, something around his neck -- a gold chain with a pendant. Justin sat up quickly, then pulled it out and examined it, murmuring to himself in confusion. It definitely wasn't his necklace -- he didn't own anything quite this old and quite this expensive. How on earth had it gotten there?

The craftsmanship really was exquisite: it was a ruby in a fairly exotic setting, very ornate though decidedly masculine: the chain was thick, and the design too heavy for women's jewelry. Justin would probably place it somewhere in the eighteenth century, and he again tried and failed to think of any ghosts or spirits from that era who were known to haunt the motherhouse. Fortunately, there were several people in the Order who had more knowledge than he did about both history and jewelry. Justin looked in admiration at the dark red of the stone, the beautifully wrought links of the chain. It was such a lovely piece that he was almost reluctant to surrender it for study. His brow wrinkled in curiosity, he turned the pendant over to look at the back of the setting. There was something etched into it, and Justin moved quickly to the bathroom so he could peer at the script under the bright lights.

Just about the time he realized that he was staring at the initials JSC rendered in mirror image, the pounding on his door began.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin watched the security tape of JC's walk through the halls of the Order so compulsively that they finally forbid him to look at it again. By that time, however, it was imprinted on his mind: JC walking easily, unhurriedly, down the corridors, not bothering to evade or acknowledge cameras, his movements graceful, catlike, economical, and then JC neatly climbing the stairs to Justin's room. At one point in the hallway, JC had closed his eyes for a few seconds and inclined his head a little bit. "He's probably reaching into your mind for your security code," Chris said when he saw it, thus confirming for everyone how weak Justin was, what an easy mark. The next clip on the camera showed JC heading straight to Justin's room and keying in the numbers to his lock, then turning his head and giving the camera a head-on glance with just a little smile, a taunting one, before he stepped into Justin's room and closed the door again. Then, JC had done things to Justin in his room and nobody knew what and it was awful, but at least it hadn't been captured on camera. The final image on the Order's security tapes showed JC bursting out of the French doors in Justin's room and stepping out onto the balcony, satisfaction written all over his face, before jumping gracefully down to the ground and slowly ambling off again. He didn't even have the decency to look hurried.

It had been a humiliating day. Justin had been thoroughly examined, prodded, and poked until the medical staff of the motherhouse was absolutely certain he had not been violated in any physical way when JC was in his room, and now they were threatening hypnosis and regression therapy too, wanting to get inside Justin's mind for more details. Justin had balked outright at that, and while they were disappointed, they hadn't forced him, either -- that wasn't how things operated at the Order. As he passed his colleagues in the halls, Justin took special care to conceal his thoughts -- not that anyone would ever intentionally violate his privacy, but he was worried about broadcasting. There were certain things about this experience he definitely wanted to keep to himself: Justin hadn't spoken a word about the wet dream, and he sure as hell wasn't going to tell them about the necklace.

They had probably all guessed about the sexual attraction, though. "Vampires are very seductive," one of the senior members had said in an understanding voice during the first conference call about the security breach. "And when they fixate on a human, as this one seems to have done with you, they'll go to great lengths to get to him, to draw him in. So whatever might have happened to you in that room was not your fault, Justin. You should not be ashamed."

As if conversations like that weren't unbearable enough, Justin was beset with deep grief in addition to his embarrassment. Two completely innocent people had died because of his obsession. "It's not your fault," Chris had said softly, but Justin knew better. He might not have meant to make JC snap, but he certainly had wanted to taunt him, to infuriate him. Now, JC had paid him back in full.

"You must avoid him at all costs," Justin heard over and over again. "Any move you make toward him will be interpreted as an invitation, and the very last thing you want is for him to become even more interested in you. He could attack your family, your friends, or threaten you with violence unless you agree to become his victim. The best thing for you to do at this point is stay as far away from him as possible."

Chris had of course reported Justin's forays to the restricted archives once the break-in had been discovered, only being Chris, he'd explained it as an accident, something for which JC and not Justin was responsible. When it came out that Justin had spoken to JC in the bookstore, the look of shock and hurt on Chris's face had been hard to bear.

He'd ruined everything. His already unstable relationship with Chris was even more precarious, and any new-formed trust his colleagues might have had for him was demolished. Worst of all, people had died because of his stupidity -- people had been annihilated because of his obsession.

He was now confined to the motherhouse at night, allowed out only for emergencies, and this was only until they could get him on a plane back home to Tennessee. They weren't exactly kicking him out, but they did want him to spend some time alone to think carefully about his priorities and options, to reconsider his role within the Order and his behavior as a novice.

That night, Justin collapsed fully clothed onto the bed in a guest room (the Order's forensics team was still busy taking apart his room) and then slowly drew out the pendant JC had given him, gently turned it in his hands and watched the blood-red ruby glow in the light. It was strangely soothing to touch it, to hold it -- the one small degree of peace Justin had had all day. He wanted to sleep -- longed to, actually, but each time he closed his eyes, he felt the dream again, was reminded that JC had almost at will shattered the sanctity of his home and his mind. Maybe he really was out of control. Maybe it would be best to step back from this obsession for a while.

~ ~ ~ ~

It was late afternoon on a weekday, and the international concourse was almost deserted. Justin watched the rain hit the window, obscuring the planes taxiing up and down the long runways. He closed his eyes and leaned forward, elbows on his knees as he took a long, slow breath.

Was it possible that only a few short weeks ago he’d been so confident that the next time he used his passport it would be go to some exciting destination on Order business? He hadn’t been imagining it, and he was certain even now that his talents and dedication could be huge assets to the Order, that he could do wonderful work, that his rise through the ranks would be meteoric. He’d been so sure that the great and interesting projects were right around the corner, that his future was bright and certain. Never in a million years would he have thought that being sent home in disgrace was the next item on his career agenda.

Not in disgrace, he corrected himself wearily, recalling the senior member’s words. A small sabbatical, she’d said, her voice kind and compassionate. He’d had a terribly traumatic experience, something far too intense for such a young member of the Order. And while it was true that he felt terrible about the deaths, sick with a huge, guilt-stricken horror, he didn’t understand how sending him away would help that. Clearly the solution was to let him stay, let him re-open the files on JC Chasez and learn about the vampire. But she’d cut him off when he started to argue, to try to persuade the senior members that this was an incredible opportunity that should be taken advantage of. Perhaps a once in a lifetime one. The vampire was interested in Justin, enough to make contact with him, and research and learning was what the Order was all about.

The seniors had been sympathetic, but essentially unmoved. Justin was admonished to remember that such fascinations were simply a manifestation of the vampire’s hypnotic skills. The Chasez vampire was trying to draw him in, they said sternly, and if he thought any of his ideas about undertaking the study himself were good ones, it was an indication that he was already too far in. Justin felt another flush of shame at the memory, embarrassment and resentment. They hadn’t even listened to him, he thought dully, angrily. They’d made up their minds before he’d even opened his mouth. It was so monstrously unfair.

Justin sighed again, shifting in the uncomfortable plastic seat, stretching his arms up and rolling his neck until it cracked. The pendant dropped back against his skin, smooth and warm and welcoming underneath his thin sweater. He touched his fingers to where it rested beneath the smooth cotton, pressing it into the skin of his chest.

"Look, it’s not forever, you know." Chris’s voice was uncharacteristically quiet, but his leg bounced in agitation as he sat beside Justin. "Really, it won’t be long at all. You’ll be back before you know it. It’s not like you’ve been kicked out of the Order, they just want some distance between you and the Chasez vampire. A little time, a little distance." He motioned vaguely, uselessly, before dropping his hand back to his vibrating knee. "It’ll be nice to see your family, though, right?"

Justin kept his eyes on the rain streaming hard against the window. It was tough to see through the clouds, but it was getting definitely getting darker. "Well, I was just home at Christmas," he said, quietly, and heard Chris sigh.

"Justin," he started, and Justin sat up abruptly.

"It’s okay, Chris. Really." He nodded firmly, rubbing his hands briskly on his knees. "You know what? You don’t need to wait here with me, man. I mean, the plane’s already been delayed once, it’s raining. It could be hours yet."

Chris regarded him silently. "I don’t know, man. I don’t want to leave you here, sitting by yourself."

Justin turned his head slowly, meeting Chris’s eyes. "You don’t need to worry about me," he said, unsmilingly. "Seriously. I’m fine. "You should probably be getting back, Chris. I’m sure you didn’t expect to be stuck here this long." He waited until he had Chris’s full attention, until the eyes focused on him and he could feel Chris’s concern prodding lightly at the edges of his mind. Justin made certain that he revealed absolutely nothing as he cocked one eyebrow and nodded at the window. "And it is getting dark."

They stared at each other for a moment, then Chris laughed uneasily. He slapped Justin on the shoulder and stood up. "Alright man. Call me, okay? And you’ll be back before you know it, I promise."

Justin smiled, broad and false, watching as Chris winced a little. "Sure thing." He watched Chris walk down the concourse, nodding at him when he turned a corner and waved. Justin heaved a deep breath and relaxed with a sigh that was more of a groan.

Finally. After days and days of tension and fear, days of feeling guilty, disloyal, angry, frustrated, days of constant vigilance about hiding his thoughts and the never ending certainty that he was being watched, worried about, judged. Finally he was alone, and the relief was overwhelming.

He checked the departures monitor - a delay of almost two hours, now – and walked slowly over to the window, watching his reflection against the steadily darkening glass. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and made fists, resisting the temptation to reach up and touch the heavy pendant under his sweater for what felt like the thousandth time in the last two days.

The rain beat down, distorting the lights of London in the distance. He stared soberly as the gloom gathered and the lights gradually grew brighter. Somewhere behind the thick gray clouds the sun has disappeared beneath the horizon, he thought disjointedly. Somewhere out there JC was awake. His breath hitched at the thought, and he cursed himself tiredly.

What would it be like? he wondered, leaning his forehead against the cool glass. To wake up to darkness and artificial lights, to never see the sun or to have another normal meal? To live your life at night, to hunt other living creatures for food?

He closed his eyes, feeling the coolness of the glass against his brow, soothing. What would it be like to walk unafraid through the dangerous places of the world? To be young, and strong and beautiful forever? To have absolute control over your own destiny and to never again be forced to do something you didn’t want to do?

He realized that his heart was pounding, his breath harsh in his throat. The window in front of him was fogged, and as Justin stepped back he saw his own reflection, bright against the now dark window. His eyes were huge, his mouth straight and set and his face pale, and his hand was over his chest, clasping tightly at the pendant under his thick blue sweater. He examined the even proportions of his face, the full lips, the blue eyes. The short cropped hair, the long, lean outline of his own body, and thought this is what JC sees. He stared for a long, hushed moment, feeling his heart beat, his blood push through his veins.

Abruptly he spun around, heading for a deserted corner of the airport’s lounge and pulling the pendant from under his sweater with hands that trembled. Turning toward the weak fluorescent lighting, he examined it closely.

It was old; even he could tell that much. The stone was brilliant and seemingly flawless, but the cut was an old-fashioned one, as was the heavy setting around it. Justin’s fingers traced its bright oval, caressing it smoothly as he thought about the dream, about JC’s sharp blue eyes and the way they looked him over in the club, in the bookstore, out of the portrait. His breath caught as he turned the pendant over, rubbed his fingers over the old, old fancy monogramming that said "CSJ."

Dimly he heard the announcement that his flight from London to Baltimore had been delayed yet again, but when he lifted his eyes he was in front of a monitor displaying available flights to Paris. No delays there, in fact there was one leaving in twenty minutes. He ran his fingers around the shape of the pendant, feeling the sharp edges and the smooth ones, seeing the antique engraved letters on the back. He breath grew short again, his heart pounding frantically as he stared, and considered, and decided.

They hadn’t told him he had to go home, he thought as he started to pace again, moving faster and faster down the deserted concourse. They’d strongly suggested some distance from London, that was all. A little time, a little distance, just until things calmed down. He heard their platitudes in his head again, their careful calm voices, and his hand gripped the necklace tightly, feeling its edges gouge deeply into his palm.

He left the pendant out, swinging freely across his chest as he walked, then ran to the ticket window to change his flight.

Chapter Text

~ ~ ~ ~

Part Two

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin checked the name and address he'd scribbled on a piece of paper: Jean Marteau at the magasin de bijouterie on Rue de Linon. The store was squashed awkwardly between a bank and an insurance company; clearly, it belonged to an earlier era. When Justin first entered, he was blinded for a moment: although it was approaching dusk, the sun was still out, and the store was very dimly lit. As his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness, he saw thick, dark blue carpet on the floor, and standing upon that, rows and rows of gilt-edged cases full of glinting gold and colorful stones. The walls were covered with elaborate antique mirrors, some of them warped, and on top of the jewelry cases sat assorted lamps and elaborately beaded handbags. Justin pushed one of them aside to peer at the jewelry and saw several beautiful antique pieces: garnet rings from the Victorian era; a pocket watch; a series of elaborate bejeweled combs and hat pins, probably circa eighteenth century. There were countless cameos and miniatures, painted face after painted face, all of them belonging to people now long gone. It made Justin want to sigh, and he rubbed his hand a little anxiously over the pendant concealed under his shirt.

"Monsieur?" a voice questioned, and Justin snapped back to himself.

"English?" he said hopefully, and was relieved when the man nodded, even though he didn't look very happy about it. Justin didn't relish playing the ugly American, but he really needed to understand what was going on here, and he was much, much better at reading French than speaking it.

"I'm looking for Jean Marteau," he said, and the man behind the counter nodded abruptly. "C'est moi," he said, and waited. He was tall and thin, elegant in carriage, with striking white hair and deep blue eyes. He appeared to be somewhere in his fifties, but it was hard to tell with some people. Justin took a deep breath and spoke.

"I'd like -- I brought a piece of jewelry I was hoping you could assess for me."

"Ah yes," Jean Marteau said, and then turned away to grab a velvet cloth and a lamp, which he then sat on the counter. "Please," he said, gesturing to the expanse of black velvet.

Justin stood absolutely still for a moment, beset with a reluctance he didn't fully understand. It was just that the pendant felt so warm and smooth against his skin, so comforting. He wasn't so sure this Jean Marteau person deserved to see it -- it was his gift, his necklace. It felt wrong, somehow, to share it.

"Monsieur?" Marteau gently prompted, and that threw Justin into action, allowed him to slowly draw the chain out of his shirt and then cradle the pendant in his palm and hold it forward for inspection.

"I don't want to take this off unless I have to. Is this worth looking at further?" he asked.

Marteau's eyes narrowed as he looked at the pendant. "It could be, but I'm afraid I can't tell from this distance."

Justin grimaced and then bent his head and slowly drew off the necklace. The stone pressed warmly into his hand, and he ran a thumb over the inscription on the back.

"It's okay, monsieur. I'll treat it with the utmost respect," Marteau gently said, and Justin very nearly laughed. What in the world was wrong with him? Slowly, he placed the necklace onto the velvet, then leaned forward to watch what the jeweler would do.

First of all, he pulled out a chamois cloth and polished first the casing and then the jewel; then he lay it back down on the velvet and looked closely at it, turning it to and fro, glancing closely at the setting, the links in the chain, the clasp. Justin stared in awe as the gold of the chain glinted, the stone winked at him.

Monsieur Marteau carefully turned over the necklace to inspect the engraving on the back.

"Oh my," he said quietly to himself, and then picked up the pendant and peered again at the chain.

"I would need some more time to be absolutely sure, but I believe you may have a very valuable piece here," he said to Justin. "The craftsmanship, the quality of the stone, the apparent age -- it's really quite extraordinary."

"When was it made?" Justin asked almost breathlessly.

"I'd say mid-to-late eighteenth century," Marteau answered. "If I'm not mistaken, I believe you have a necklace created by the famous jeweler Michel Partoit – and what's better still, sir, is that this is a highly specific piece, something made for a single purpose and a single person. One of the distinguishing features of Partoit's work in this series was that he rendered the initials of the person for whom the piece was designed in mirror image."

"JSC," Justin said, and his face heated up a bit.

""I see you've studied it a bit as well," Marteau said, and smiled.

"How do you know it's Partoit's work if there's no signature?"

"See the intricate work of the chain, the way it almost looks like leaves interwoven?"

Justin nodded.

"No one other than Partoit was capable of such exquisite workmanship, and this particular design was reserved for a very specific group of people."

"Who?" Justin asked, his heart pounding a bit even though he already knew the answer.

"A family by the name of Chasez," the jeweler said. "They're still actually quite prominent; their lineage has continued unbroken for hundreds of years. It's a family steeped in tradition and ritual, and for them, these necklaces have significant value."

"What does the necklace mean?"

"Excuse me for one minute," the jeweler said, and headed to the back of the shop. When he returned, he had a book in his hand entitled Les Bijoux des Chasez, 1600-2003. Justin stared in amazement.

"The tradition in the family is that the oldest son in each generation receives a necklace with his initials engraved on it, always backward, so they could be read clearly by the heart," Marteau said, and opened the book to the center, where there were several color plates. "The tradition was started in the early sixteen hundreds. Partoit was not the originator of the project, but his designs were so exquisite that they were the ones the family adopted thereafter."

Justin stared at the photograph of a series of necklaces, all of them with chains similar to the one he had, all of them shot from the back as well to show the initials. "Why are the stones different?" he asked.

"At first the practice was to alternate rubies, diamonds, and sapphires, but in later years the family started using birth stones," Marteau said.

"And these -- there aren't any other necklaces like these in the world."

"No," Marteau said, "and as a result, they're quite valuable. Collectors will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for them, particularly ones that were thought to have been lost."

"And the one I have --"

"If it is in fact real, you have perhaps the most valuable one of them I've ever seen," Marteau said, and then grinned as Justin's eyes went wide.

"Why?" Justin whispered.

"This particular necklace," Marteau said, gesturing back to the jewel on the black velvet, "was owned by Joshua Scott Chasez, born in 1776. What's particularly interesting about Joshua is that he was in fact not actually a true member of the family: he was adopted by Robert and Clara Chasez and treated like one of their own at a time when bloodlines and family connections were everything. That's extraordinary enough: that Robert and Clara would then also choose to give to Joshua all the rights of an eldest son makes things even more remarkable."

"They must have loved him very much," Justin said quietly, and Marteau nodded.

"Owing to these . . . irregularities, this necklace -- and I believe the initials and the chain establish provenance, I'm very nearly certain of it -- has been sought after by collectors for years."

"Because of the adoption thing," Justin murmured.

"Well, that, and because of the story associated with Joshua Scott Chasez."

"What story?" Justin slowly asked, and swallowed hard, trying desperately to appear calm.

"He was quite a colorful character: handsome, kind, loved by everyone, according to the diary of Hélène, his sister. But there were also a few eccentricities about him -- rather interesting deviations from the status quo."

"Such as?"

"For one thing, as the eldest son, it was his duty to marry and have children as soon as possible to ensure the continuity and longevity of the family," Marteau said. "However, it appears that by as late as age twenty-seven, Chasez had still not married, though his younger brother, Tyler, did by this time have a son. Some speculate that Joshua had made a deal with his adopted parents: they would give him all the privileges of the first-born son if he in turn agreed to let the Chasez bloodlines reassert themselves by not reproducing. Others have offered more . . . interesting theories."

"And what are those?" Justin asked almost breathlessly and looked down at the pendant as if it could answer him. To think that it had been JC's, that he had worn it every day, that it had been a source of pride for him, was incredible. It was so difficult to imagine the JC he knew in a different role, to see him in a different context. For a moment, the portrait in the restricted section of the archives flashed into Justin's mind, the one in which JC's eyes were so open and so warm. It was amazing.

"It was well known even at the time that Joshua Chasez was very close friends with Julien de Montparnasse, a son of an equally distinguished family whose estate was not far from that of the Chasez. According to Hélène's diary, Julien and Joshua spent almost every waking hour in each other's company: they hunted together, they attended court together, they went to parties and salons together. In fact, Hélène even reports that the two of them slept together, that they shared a bedroom in the Chasez chateau."

"But the time period -- they couldn't have --" Justin began, his heart starting to pound and his mind reeling a bit. JC in love with someone, JC sleeping with someone, JC showing tenderness and kindness.

"Sexuality in the eighteenth century was a lot more fluid than we tend to think, and it's not completely out of the question that a romantic relationship might have existed between the men. We'll never know for sure, unfortunately."

"How long were they together? Do we have any idea?"

"Ah, it's a sad story," Marteau said. "What happened, again according to Hélène, is that one night Joshua simply disappeared. The family was incredibly distraught, almost devastated by grief, and they never saw him again after that. He was only twenty-seven at the time."

"And Julien? What did he do?"

"After Joshua disappeared, he grieved for several years, but eventually he seemed to recover: he married Hélène, in fact, and lived to a rich old age, a life of unquestionable rectitude."

"Oh," Justin said, and frowned. How difficult it must have been for JC to be taken away from Julien, to be plunged into a life of darkness and murder. It was really quite sad.

"These diaries," he said out loud. "Hélène's diaries. Where are they? Is there an archive nearby I can visit to read them?"

"They are at the Chasez chateau," Marteau said, "which is about an hour outside of Paris. The family still lives on the grounds, though they have built a more modern home for themselves. The old house, now a historic landmark, is used as a tourist attraction; a part of the original library has been converted to an archive for family historians."

"Do you think -- could I visit the archives?" Justin asked. It was suddenly very, very important for him to do so.

"Alas, they are by appointment only, but I am acquainted with the present Chasez heirs, Anne-Sophie and Marc," Marteau said. "It would be my pleasure to write you a letter of introduction that would get you into the archive -- if you could do me a favor as well."

"What is that?" Justin asked, trying to keep the wariness out of his voice when Marteau looked longingly at the pendant.

"I have a longtime relationship with an agent of the family, someone who acts on their behalf to bring family keepsakes back home to them. These necklaces -- they are of immeasurable significance to the family; they speak powerfully of continuity and tradition, and they provide, well, a sense of connectedness to them. It is in all cases the right thing to do to return such relics to the families who own them," Marteau finished a little pointedly.

At that, Justin reached out and seized the pendant again, drew it over his head and tucked it into his shirt. The metal was cool against his bare chest, but it felt wonderful to have it on again -- almost as if he were made complete again in some strange way.

"I don't -- I'm not going to sell it. Absolutely not," Justin said in a voice somewhat more strained than he would have liked.

"I can see that you're very attached to it," Marteau said, and then looked hard at Justin for a while. "May I be so bold as to ask how you came by it?"

"I -- a friend gave it to me," Justin said even as he felt his face staining red. "Someone who means a lot to me, and --"

"An affair of the heart," Marteau said, nodding. "Believe me, I understand where you are coming from, but I must emphasize for you just how wealthy and powerful the Chasez family has become over the past hundred years. They would, I'm quite sure, compensate you so handsomely for this necklace that you could buy something even more valuable and exquisite."

"It's not the money," Justin said in a low voice. "It's just not."

"Would you please, Monsieur, at least do me the favor of speaking to the person I mentioned?"

Justin rocked back on his heels, reluctant.

"My French is very bad," he said discouragingly.

"That is probably true, but this gentleman is American," Marteau said. "And it would be a huge favor to me if you would talk to him, and I would write you a letter that would give you full access to the Chasez chateau and archives."

"I don't -- I don't want the family to know I have the necklace," Justin said in embarrassment. "Would it be possible -- can I trust the agent not to mention it?"

"He is extremely discreet," Marteau assured Justin. "And he would never speak of this artifact to the family if he were certain it could not be obtained. He would not wish to disappoint them in that way."

"All right," Justin finally said, sighing unhappily. "I'll talk to him, but I'm telling you here and now that I'm not going to sell."

"Many people have said that upon first speaking to this gentleman," Marteau said, reaching for a cell phone and scrolling through the directory. "He is extremely persuasive, however. May I have your name so he will know to whom he is speaking?"

"Justin Randall," Justin blurted out, and then waiting as the phone connected and Marteau began to speak, a flood of rapid French in which he discerned only a few pertinent words. As he waited, Justin took a closer look at the book Marteau had shown him before, gazed in amazement at all the necklaces and pendants on the page. This was JC's history -- this was a part of JC's life. It was captivating.

"Monsieur Randall?" Marteau gently prompted, and Justin lifted his head from the book and slowly took the cell phone. Clearing his throat once or twice, he slowly raised it to his ear and said hello.

"Mister Randall," JC said, his voice low and amused, and Justin felt shock course through his body, realized that he'd lost his voice altogether.

"Monsieur Marteau tells me that you're very reluctant to give up the necklace belonging to my family," JC went on. "He thinks someone very important might have given it to you, a lover, maybe."

"I --" Justin managed to get out, his voice cracking and uncertain. "I just --"

"In fact, he said you blushed every time you talked about it," JC murmured. "He tells me that you're apparently so possessive of the necklace that you can't bear to let it out of your sight."

"That's because it's yours," Justin blurted out, then felt heat rise up in his chest and face, because that sounded very, very wrong. "Which is to say that it's not mine, and so it would be wrong for me to sell it on my own, particularly for profit," he hurriedly finished.

"Maybe it is yours," JC said. "After all, I gave it to you."

Justin breathed hard and tried to think of something clever, something challenging to say. However, all he came up with was, "But why? I don't understand -- I can't -- it makes no sense to me."

"Are you wearing it now?" JC asked, and Justin had to bite his lip, clench his fist a little bit, because JC's voice was so sensual and so intimate he didn't trust himself not to respond in like fashion. He opened his mouth to speak, then had to shut it again, his heart pounding in excitement and shame.

"Good, then," JC said after a few seconds had passed.

"I don't -- it's not --" Justin began, and then broke off.

"I want you to keep wearing it, Justin. Will you do that for me?" JC asked.

Yes, Justin thought immediately, but he squelched the word before it rose to his lips.

"Good, then," JC said again, and Justin felt panic arise in him. Could JC have read his mind at this great distance?

"I'm sorry, but I just can't sell the necklace to you," he said as briskly and coolly as he could, and then hung up the phone and carefully avoided the gaze of Monsieur Marteau.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC's family's house was similar to some English country houses Justin had seen: it opened with a vestibule that led to a magnificent staircase top-lit by a crystal chandelier. The staircase led visitors up and through a circuit of connected rooms -- a reception room, a library, a ball room, and a bedroom -- and then back down again to the front door. The house had been built in the 1760s and the rooms were all high-ceilinged with elaborate moldings and ornate fireplaces. Each of them was painted in a different color -- they had been intended to showcase the family's wealth and to amuse their visitors. The walls of the house were crammed with portraits and other paintings in wildly carved gilt frames, and sofas and chairs in pastel fabrics and gold were situated at evenly measured points throughout the rooms. The more private sections of the house were further back and less accessible to the general public. They were less showy but no less beautiful. The house was both excessive and measured, unrestrained and controlled. It reflected the culture of an era, but even more than that, it reminded Justin of JC.

The most unforgettable part of the tour for Justin was the display of the Chasez family necklaces in the ballroom. Justin very nearly pressed his nose against the glass covering them as he looked at the various stones and shades of gold. Here was a wealth of family history and tradition: here was a nearly unbroken chain from one generation to the next. As the pendant hidden under his own shirt rubbed against his skin, Justin suffered a flash of guilt. If this necklace was not with JC, it should probably be here in his family's home. Once again, Justin puzzled over why JC had chosen to give his pendant to him. It seemed obvious that it was not a frivolous or casual gift.

Justin was glad to note that the Chasez family had restored not only the showier public rooms but also some of the private ones, and it was with more than a little interest that he strolled through the family's quarters. The tour guide was polite and answered a few questions, but she was not well-versed enough in family history to say specifically which room had been JC's, Justin figured, and he wasn't about to ask her about it for fear of seeming crazy. However, it was fairly easy to discern the master bedroom, and then after that, the children's rooms, and of those, surely the biggest and best would have been JC's as the eldest son. The room in question didn't really feel like JC, but since there were many generations and several restorers standing between the past and the present, Justin couldn't quite rule it out.

He was very much looking forward to his meeting with the archivist for the family, Marie-France Ridault. Justin repressed a shiver as he thought of sifting through the Chasez family's papers. Although JC's diary was gone, it was not unlikely that some of the papers there would be in his hand, and Justin wanted very much to see his writing, to touch the same pages he had, to get a sense of how he expressed himself.

Once the tour had concluded, Justin met Marie-France, who had bleached-blonde hair and was attired in what appeared to be a very fancy, very expensive suit. She smiled when he showed her his letter of introduction from Jean Marteau, then pulled out a key card from her leather handbag and led Justin to one of the two heavy wooden doors flanking the staircase.

"These rooms are not quite finished," she said in a cheerful voice as they passed through a series of threadbare, dusty rooms. "The library that houses the archive is in much better shape."

"I thought I already saw the library," Justin said.

"Oh no. What you saw was a room for public gatherings, for visitors and guests. The room to which I am now taking you was a more private library -- almost a study, really," Marie-France said. "It belonged originally to the very person who interests you, actually, the one you told me about on the phone."

"Joshua Scott Chasez?" Justin said quietly, feeling strange as the full name left his lips, but knowing that it would be folly to call him JC here.

"Yes," Marie-France answered, smiling at him. "That study was actually, erm, appended to his private rooms -- it was a part of his suite."

"So none of the rooms on the tour was his."

"No," she answered. "They were not. We hope to restore more rooms soon, however. The Chasez family has been most fortunate over the years: they have had almost unlimited funds for restoration owing to a patron who assists in preserving the family's history."

"Who is the patron?" Justin asked, and felt his mouth go dry.

"Ah, that is something of a mystery. A trust was established years ago, and over the years various agents of that trust have contacted the family and agreed to work with them and support them provided they do not attempt to seek the identity of their benefactor."

"But how could they stand not knowing? Wouldn't that drive them insane?"

"In past years, certain family members have sought to discover the patron: each time this occurred, the financial support was immediately revoked until the next generation came of age. So the Chasez have learned over the years not to ask too many questions."

"When exactly was the trust established?" Justin asked.

"Shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century," said Marie-France. "It has been a most fortunate thing."

"Who are the agents? Does the family ever meet them?"

"Oh no, of course not. Right now, I believe, there is an American, a youngish man, but no -- the family does not seek to press him for more contact than he is willing to give."

Jean Marteau had described JC as an American. Justin struggled mightily to control his sense of wonder and excitement. JC had continued to take care of his family over the years; there was something in this world that JC felt love and concern for. It was a little overwhelming to take in, and without even realizing it he stopped walking.

Marie-France grabbed his arm and laughed a little. "It is lovely work, isn't it?" she said reverently, gazing up at a fresco on the ceiling "We will pause and look at it for a while."

As Justin stared at a series of gods, goddesses, and cherubs, trying desperately to clear his mind, Marie-France said, "The trust mostly pays for the restoration efforts. However, it also provides for the education of the children in the family, and for the pendants and necklaces that go to each of the eldest. You talked, I believe, with Monsieur Marteau about these necklaces."

"Yes," Justin said, and fought the urge to yet again touch the pendant he himself wore. "It's a wonderful tradition."

"Truly so," Marie-France said, looking carefully at him, and then squeezed his arm. "But we are so close to the archive now. Let's move onward, shall we?"

Justin followed her into the study, JC's study, and then had to take a deep breath and concentrate very hard on looking normal, because now he could very much feel JC's presence: in the walls, the floors, the books on the shelves, everywhere. There was a modern cooling and heating system, electric lights, and a series of shelves, cabinets, and tables for the documents, but there was also a section of the room that had been relatively untouched. Justin laid eyes on a very old desk with elaborately scrolled legs and pictured JC sitting at it with his head bent over a letter. It was very nearly intoxicating.

It made no sense to get so wrought up. He needed to put aside silly fantasies about JC, his family, and the trust, and focus on the papers instead, to think carefully and systematically, to find out about JC's past like the historian he was. Justin knew that the Order would forgive him for the transgression of coming to France if he could bring them solid information about the Chasez vampire, and what he needed to rebuild his reputation was very likely in this room. It was time to concentrate and work hard.

Marie-France led him to the list of the archive's holdings -- it was on a computer and was fully searchable.

"There are no papers that haven't yet been archived?" he asked anxiously.

"We have finished cataloging through 1920," she said. "There is much work to be done still, but I believe we have fully covered the period in which you are interested."

"Thank you," Justin said.

"It is my pleasure," Marie-France said, and then launched into standard rules for handling documents: Justin was to wear white gloves, to use lead pencil only for taking notes, and to photocopy nothing. "We have an extensive security system," Marie-France said, pointing to a slowly roving camera high on the wall, "and if you are caught mishandling or mistreating the collection, the family will seek full restitution, both legal and monetary."

"I understand fully," Justin said, having heard similar speeches many times before. "I'll be extremely careful."

"Bien," Marie-France said, and then smiled. "I will be at my desk over there." Justin followed the path indicated by her bejeweled fingers to a small cubicle in the corner of the room. "Do not hesitate to ask for me should you need assistance."

"Thank you," Justin said, and then sat down at the computer and began to run searches. Half an hour later, he printed out a list that included the location of Hélène's diary, the papers from Julien's later years after his marriage to her, and finally, and most exciting of all, a list of a few documents JC had penned: a letter to his mother from England, a list of expenses, a brief thank-you note to his sister for a birthday gift. It was to the boxes and folders that held these documents that Justin went first; soon, he was sitting reverently and a little uneasily at a table with gloves on his trembling hands. The letter to the mother first, Justin thought, and then carefully opened the folder and lifted out the paper.

It was lovely stationery, thick parchment. The wax seal that had closed it was broken, but Justin could still discern the tops of the letters J, S, and C in it. When he unfolded the letter, Justin drew in his breath, astounded in part that he had even found it, much less by the fact that the person -- or being -- who had written it was still very much alive. Well, sort of alive.

JC's handwriting was distinctive; it was full of broad, assured strokes and loops. Justin had heard that the aristocracy had prided itself on having very messy handwriting, but the prose here was perfectly legible. It was clear that JC wanted his mother to be able to read his letter. The date at the top told Justin that JC had been about eighteen years old when he wrote it, newly come into his inheritance and family responsibilities. Despite these outward trappings of adulthood, JC had written a rather whimsical letter: he apparently couldn't stop himself from making pretty flourishes on his letters, and he'd decorated the margins with amusing sketches of people he'd seen in England. They all looked stern and unhappy. Justin laughed and had to wonder whether JC's opinion of the British had changed over the years.

The letter was of course in French, and it was written in a formal style now long abandoned, but Justin translated as he read and got the basics. JC had written:

Maman,

I take up my pen to wish you, Papa, Tyler, and Hélène all the best and to let you know that I miss you all very much. Aunt Sylvie has been extremely welcoming, the model of civility and kindness, but it is still very unpleasant in England: the skies are always gray and the ground is always muddy. How lovely and how far away our house is, and how ardently I wish to be back with you all. Fortunately, I have Julien here with me; he gives me much comfort and reminds me always that we are not to be away forever.

As to the business Papa sent me on --

Here the letter went into a series of business transactions JC had apparently carried on for his father. The letter continued in like fashion until it neared the end, where JC had written:

Why must I spend the most time and space on things that are, in the end, of the least importance to me? Please tell me how you are, Maman; write me a long letter that describes everything. Are your roses blooming? Did Hélène finish the tapestry she was working on? How many times has Tyler fallen off his horse this week? Tell me all; I long for news of you and wish with all my heart that you were here with me. You are my guardian angel, and while I always feel your presence, I still miss you and everyone else most desperately. The days until I am home again cannot pass quickly enough.

Until then, unfortunately, I will remain your melancholy but very loving son,

Joshua

Justin was grinning madly as he finished the letter, smiling in part at the sheer sweetness of it and in part at the utter thrill of just holding it in his hands. He wondered . . . Sometimes he could get impressions from objects if he touched them with his bare hands. If he were to slip a glove off very surreptitiously, he might be able to get a reading of JC.

But if he got caught, he'd be kicked out of the archive, and that was the very last thing Justin wanted. Sighing a bit, he put the letter away and reached for the thank-you note to Hélène. This had been written by a slightly older JC -- he had been twenty-five at the time -- and both the handwriting and the expression were more polished, more sophisticated. However, the warmth of the sentiments was the same, and Justin was smiling yet again as he finished reading it. JC had obviously loved his family very much.

The list of expenses, which had been written a year after the thank-you note, turned out to be the most interesting document, however. It had come from JC's personal papers, which meant that it was much less guarded and completely informal. The list had been written almost in a shorthand of initials and abbreviations, but eventually, Justin puzzled out the system and figured out that JC had bought jewelry for his mother, a new horse for himself (quite extravagantly), a carriage for himself (more extravagantly still), and a couple of dresses for his sister. What was most fascinating about the list, however, was a note JC had written to himself in the margins under the heading "J's birthday soon." Following that was a frustratingly incomplete sentence that read: "sapphires to match his eyes; gold to wrap his throat, his wrists; must show him --"

Justin reread the phrase at least ten times, then found that he was breathing a little rapidly. JC had been planning to buy gifts for Julien, and clearly, they were significant. JC wanted to wrap Julien in gold, wanted to, in some way, possess him, show tenderness through adornment and display. Given that JC's family had a history of using jewelry in symbolic fashion, it seemed quite fitting. The gesture was at once controlling and loving, and it made Justin blush a little to think about JC slowly wrapping a bracelet around someone's wrist. It was almost like putting a necklace on someone while he slept and then telling him that you wanted him to wear it because --

No. No, that was completely different. What JC was doing with Justin was inscrutable and frustrating, and Justin was -- Justin was -- Oh, it was just confusing, and this was too upsetting to think about right now. Justin carefully returned the list to the folder it had been stored in and then slowly got up to walk around a bit, stretching and trying not to think about the warm gold around his neck, the pendant pressing against his chest so his heart could read the letters JSC.

As he walked around the perimeter of the room, Justin eventually calmed down enough to look at the bookshelves lining the walls. They were filled with volumes from the eighteenth century, presumably from the house and maybe even from JC. The scope of the collection was impressive: everything from philosophy to mathematics to novels. Justin had never once considered whether JC read, had never, in fact, thought at all about what it was JC might do when he was alone, what he might think about. It was a sobering thought. JC had an interior life -- had had several lifetimes, in fact, of thought, experience, and knowledge. If Justin could just get JC to sit down and talk to him, he could learn so much -- there was no doubt that JC would have fascinating things to say.

As he pondered the rather improbable notion of a free exchange of ideas with JC, Justin wandered over to the desk that may or may not have been his and then past that to stare at a portrait of a nameless Chasez ancestor. Who had done the portrait of JC, Justin wondered, and how had the Order gotten hold of it? Maybe something in these archives would tell him.

"Are you quite all right?" Marie-France said from behind him, and Justin turned around in surprise.

"Yes," he said. "I'm sorry -- I was just stretching a bit."

Marie-France smiled. "You have selected a great many documents to look at today, Monsieur Randall. You are of course welcome to return tomorrow if by chance you do not get the opportunity to work your way through them."

"Thank you," Justin said, smiling. "But I think I can actually get a lot more done this afternoon, so --"

"Unfortunately, I am afraid that that will not be possible. I have had a call from my daughter, who has taken sick at school. I must collect her and then take her home."

"I'm so sorry," Justin said. "I hope she'll be all right."

"These things happen," Marie-France said, shrugging philosophically. "I'm sorry for disrupting your research, but I simply can't let you stay alone in the archives."

Justin felt a surge of annoyance, but tamped down on it before it showed on his face. Then, he looked right into Marie-France's eyes, softly said, "But I'll be fine here alone. You won't worry about me at all," and nudged her with his mind.

Marie-France blinked once or twice, shook her head. When she looked at Justin again, she said, "But I'm sure you'll be fine here alone."

"Yes," Justin said. "You don't have to worry."

Marie France gave him a tight smile.

"Adieu, Monsieur Randall. The archive will open tomorrow at 10:00 in the morning; I will be here should you choose to return to us."

"Thank you," Justin said, and then murmured. "Um. The bathroom. Is there one nearby that I could--"

"Out in the hallway," said Marie-France, and reached in her handbag to hand Justin a key card. "Use this to move back into the archive -- leave it on my desk before you leave. I will tell you now that the key card will not work after 5 p.m."

"Thank you," Justin said, and stuck the card in his pocket, then looked at his watch. It was 3:30.

Once Marie-France left, Justin returned to his table and carefully opened Hélène's diary, which was witty and wry in spite of the fact that it was almost completely devoted to dresses and balls and boys. Every so often, Hélène wrote about her brother and his handsome friend Julien; Justin devoured these passages with special interest even though they were largely inconclusive. It certainly did seem as if Julien were at the Chasez house rather often, but Hélène mentioned nothing about him and JC sharing a room.

The diary was very long and very detailed, and before he was halfway through it, Justin stood up and squinted, his eyes burning from trying to decipher the faded ink and Hélène's spidery handwriting. He wandered the edge of the room, again approached the desk, and then decided suddenly that he'd take advantage of the key card and leave the archive altogether for a short while. It was becoming rather stifling.

As he wandered down the hallway, Justin bit his lip. It was almost as if -- well, he couldn't be quite sure, but he thought maybe he heard whispering in some of the rooms he was passing. Maybe there were workers there, more tour guides, other staff hired by the Chasez family. He turned a corner and then frowned as a row of closed doors and even more hallways greeted him. This was a seriously huge house. He should go back to the archive or he'd get lost for sure.

As Justin made his way back, he heard more whispering, and then, just before he reached the door to the archive, a burst of animated conversation from the room right next to it. It was faint, but it made Justin's heart stop nonetheless, because for all the world, one of the voices sounded exactly like JC's. Holding his breath, Justin moved in carefully to press his ear against the door. There it was again. In a panic, Justin glanced up at the window at the end of the hall, then reassured himself when he saw sunlight. There was no way JC could be waiting in his house for him, especially not in the daytime. However, there was a strange cast to the light -- it seemed to be hazy and indistinct, and the voices Justin was hearing suddenly sounded both near and far away. As more laughter broke out, Justin drew his brows together in consternation, then slowly moved a hand to the doorknob, closing his eyes and pressing his cheek to the smooth wood of the door.

Finally, curiosity outweighed caution and Justin slowly turned the doorknob and stepped carefully into the room. He opened his mouth almost immediately to apologize to the inhabitants, but instead of getting words out, Justin drew in a long, uneasy breath. JC was there, only it wasn't -- it wasn't really JC, it was a reflection of him, shimmering and luminous in eighteenth-century dress. Justin stared unblinkingly at the vision, his heart pounding, and tried to think through what he was seeing. Rationally, he knew that this was a simple manifestation and that what he was seeing were merely impressions from the past. He'd learned about spectral impressions at the Order, and he knew it was fairly common for telepaths to encounter them. However, that didn't lessen the shock he felt at actually experiencing such an event.

It didn't lessen the shock of seeing JC, either. He was partially undressed, rumpled and sweet with his hair in a messy ponytail at the base of his neck and a ruffled shirt unbuttoned a good deal of the way to show the pale skin of his chest. Justin's hand went convulsively to his own chest as he saw the pendant gleaming red against JC's fair skin; his heart calmed a bit when he felt the hard lump of it through his sweater. JC had on breeches and stockings but no shoes, and the waist of his breeches -- oh god. It was unlaced, and Justin could just about see the trail of hair leading down and over JC's flat stomach to -- to --

To distract himself, Justin looked quickly at the rest of the room: there was a bed, a couch, a table, a few chaises, and a wardrobe, as well as several smaller tables, bookshelves, and a desk, the very desk Justin had seen in the library. He also saw two pairs of shoes and two elaborately embroidered silk jackets on the floor: they had obviously been discarded in a hurry. So this was JC's personal chamber. Justin would have spent hours staring at JC and the furnishings alone had a second voice not sounded. Slowly and almost reluctantly Justin followed it to the couch and saw a man who could only have been Julien smiling up at JC. Julien gave Justin pause: he had blonde hair and blue eyes, and his body type was very similar to Justin's. His face was quite different, however, his features broader and more elegant and his voice much lower and richer. Justin sighed in aggravation and something that might have been jealousy. Julien was hotter than he was.

Not that he cared, of course. Definitely not. That was absolutely not what any of this was about. Justin shook his head to emphasize the point and then tried to listen to what Julien was saying to JC.

Since they were speaking eighteenth-century French and speaking it rapidly, Justin was unable to figure out what they were talking about, but the tone of their voices told him everything he needed to know: this was a private conversation between people who knew each other very well. Justin caught his breath and felt something akin to pain as JC looked down at Julien with naked, unguarded affection. Julien was apparently teasing JC about something, and JC was shaking his head and laughing, but it was definitely not the kind of laughter JC had ever let Justin hear. This was a laugh that made JC's eyes crinkle up, the kind of laugh that made him throw his head back in glee. It was full of excitement and joy, and it took Justin's breath away.

Julien said something else now, his voice low and teasing, and JC laughed even harder then and collapsed next to Julien on the couch, slouching and grinning at him. Julien shook his head affectionately, then said something else that amused JC even more, something that made him break into a high, unselfconscious giggle. Justin looked carefully at Julien's face: it was full of indulgence and fondness, full of adoration. They were in love, and Justin stifled a completely inappropriate stab of pain and jealousy.

As he watched breathlessly, JC slowly slid across the couch and into Julien's arms, his hands moving slowly up and over his back, his face burrowing in his neck. JC was whispering something very low; it was obviously about either love or sex, because Julien moaned in response and then pulled JC back so he could kiss him on the mouth. Justin stood silent and motionless as JC ran fingers through Julien's hair, murmured sweet things to him, gently kissed his mouth, his cheek, his throat, and then his chest, his movements confident and relaxed, completely assured. Julien was murmuring back to JC, and his hands were busy, too: they slid inside JC's shirt, moved eagerly over his chest, made him tremble and gasp a little bit. Justin watched as they kissed and caressed each other, but when Julien gently pressed JC back into the couch and then slowly began working his way down JC's chest, his hands pulling JC's breeches even further apart, Justin had to leave -- he had to get out of the room absolutely right then because it was hot and he was uncomfortable and there was no way in heaven or hell that he was going to watch JC let someone else do . . . that to him. Absolutely not. His eyes clouded and his feet clumsy, he stumbled to the door, slamming it shut just as JC's first moans reached his ears.

Back in the hallway, Justin stood very still and waited until his breathing calmed down; then, he reached for the key card and approached the door to the archive. He was just about to swipe it and return to Hélène's diary so he could do formal research like the formal scholar he was when he groaned out loud and quickly went back to the other door. It didn't matter if it hurt to see; he wanted to know what JC looked like when he --

Justin threw open the door, eyes hungrily scanning the room, and then groaned again. The only thing he saw now was a lot of old furniture covered in drop cloths. Fine, then. He hadn't really wanted to see anyway. The JC in that room was gone forever -- the JC in that room knew how to love, knew what it meant to show kindness and to be tender. The JC in that room was someone Justin would have loved to meet -- but that was now utterly impossible.

God, this was depressing. Justin returned to the door of the archive, entered it, then quickly wrote Marie-France a note saying that he'd be back tomorrow before grabbing his coat and heading out. There was no way he could do research with the sound of JC's laughter ringing in his mind.

~ ~ ~ ~

The train ride back to Paris seemed endless. Justin napped sluggishly in the too-warm car, the bright sun streaming through the window giving him a dull, throbbing headache. The conductor’s voice announcing his stop in Paris was welcome, as were the vivid colors in the sky as dusk descended over him. It was such a tremendous change from the peaceful and beautiful place he’d just been, and for a wild moment he wondered if the things he’d learned there were just another of the vivid dreams he’d been having since first encountering JC.

He walked slowly toward his hotel, feeling the pendant bumping gently against his chest in time with his steps. A family heirloom, he thought, and realized he was smiling. An original and valuable piece, loaded with history and sentiment and meaning. The senior members would tell him that it was a trick, bait used by a wily and cunning creature intent on hunting and killing games, but Justin’s heart whispered differently.

Or perhaps that was part of the vampire’s lure, he thought disjointedly as he passed his hotel’s brightly lit entry and continued on in the rapidly gathering dark. He pulled his coat on almost absently, shrugging his shoulders into it and adjusting the sleeves, touching his fingers to his chest and feeling the pendant’s edges press into his skin. Perhaps JC had been counting on Justin’s curiosity when he gave it to him, knowing that he’d be intrigued, knowing that it would draw Justin closer.

But JC had been so furious when he’d learned about the Order’s file from Justin in the bookstore. Had JC known that the jeweler would tell Justin of the Chasez estate? Could he have known of the things Justin would learn there? Just how close did JC want to bring him? And how far was Justin willing to go?

He sighed as he thrust his hands deep into the pockets of his coat, feeling the air chill as the city’s lights came up around him. The fact of the matter was that he didn’t know, and he could second guess himself until he lost his mind and still not know. And the only way to know for sure was to go back to London, and with or without the Order’s blessing or assistance get closer to JC Chasez. He felt a strong compulsion to do that now, pack his things and return to London immediately, while it was still dark, find JC and make him talk to him. The urge was almost physical in its intensity, an ache deep inside his chest, fluttering in his stomach almost like anxious nerves.

But Justin wasn’t afraid, not exactly. He thought about the face in the portrait deep below the ground in London, remembered the smile and the laughter he’d seen in the unexpected spectral impression at the chateau. Then he thought about JC the last few times he’d seen him, the sly sideways smile in the Order’s security camera video, the deep blue eyes drawing closer to Justin in the bookstore, and the rich, knowing voice on the other end of the phone at the jeweler’s shop. Justin shivered, restless and agitated, his breath coming faster as he wet his lips.

He shook himself out of the reverie, stopping on a busy corner and looking around distractedly. He was a fair distance from his staid and sober hotel, in a colorful section of the city full of clubs and restaurants. Already there were velvet ropes set up and large, well dressed men watching the doors. In a few hours there would be music spilling from these doorways, people full of life and energy out partying, dancing, and that’s what he needed right now, he thought. To hear some music, to drink and dance until he was sweating and exhausted, to talk to people who were interested in these same things. Maybe find one to take back to his hotel, or at least to spend some time in a dark corner with, to forget for one night that he was a member of a serious scholastic order and remember that he was young, and handsome, over twenty-one, free, single . . .

Abruptly he wheeled and headed back towards his hotel. He did a mental inventory of his luggage, wondering if he had something appropriate to wear to a Paris club, and if it would go with the pendant around his neck.

~ ~ ~ ~

The club he’d chosen was absolutely packed when he finally arrived, a long line of people waiting impatiently outside. One of those, Justin thought in annoyance, hating the system of entrance that included being judged by a hired bouncer. He strode confidently past the line, caught the doorman’s eye and raised his own eyebrow just a bit as he nudged the man into unhooking the velvet rope and motioning him through in an obsequious manner. He was aware of the stares from the people in line outside, curious and admiring and envious, and he smiled a little to himself. This was going to be just what he needed.

It was late. He’d stood in front of the full length mirror in his hotel room frowning at his reflection for far longer than he’d thought. The black pants were fine, they fit well even though he had not worn them in over a year, and while he didn’t remember packing them when he left the Order he blessed whatever impulse had made him do it because they were more than appropriate for going out in Paris. The shirt he’d chosen was also appropriate, one of his favorites, actually, a button shirt of almost sheer fabric in a deep midnight blue that looked deceptively demure until it was on. He’d shrugged his shoulders then raised his arms over his head, eyeing the narrow strip of skin exposed at his waist, his belly. It had long sleeves, but he could roll them up when he got too warm. The shirt was fine too.

What wasn’t fine was the gold pendant still around his neck. Its antique beauty jarred heavily with the sleek shirt, the black pants. If it had been silver, Justin had mused, it wouldn’t clash with the silver ring he wore on his right hand, a gift from his grandfather and the only other piece of jewelry Justin never took off. Or if the chain was thinner or shorter, but even then the blood red stone wouldn’t have gone . . .

Oh, for Christ’s sake, he’d thought impatiently. Just take it off, leave it in the in-room safe. Nothing will happen to it here. Five times his hands had gone to the chain, moved to pull it over his head, leaving his chest bare beneath the shirt. And five times he’d frozen in the act of lifting the chain away from his skin.

He had finally given up, letting it drop heavily under the shirt and centering the pendant against his breastbone, smoothing it into place. He felt it now, oddly warm against his skin as he made his way through the crowded club, past a dance floor seething with people toward the bar in the back. He was glad he hadn’t left it in the hotel room. Some things were more important than fashion, he told himself, and smiled.

The smile was returned by a petite brunette in a screamingly sexy red halter top and mini skirt. Justin raised his eyebrows in approval, feeling her interest, but he kept moving. He could afford to be choosy tonight.

Drink in hand, he squeezed to a place at the edge of the balcony and watched the dance floor for awhile, nodding his head to the music, feeling the bass throbbing low in his abdomen. He drank a little too quickly, enjoying the feeling of the alcohol swirling dizzily into his bloodstream. He got another, and when that was gone he was more than ready to head for the dance floor.

The lights spun, multi-colored pinpricks revolving faster and faster in time with the music, and the floor reverberated with people’s feet and the thudding of the bass. The floor was packed, full of young people and in the vibrant light and dark swirl every one of them was beautiful. Justin closed his eyes halfway, blocking out the confusion and stress of the past few weeks and letting his body relax into the music, his mind blessedly blank. He felt the brush of appreciative hands and smiled a little but kept moving, his head buzzing pleasantly, feeling his body loose and limber and strong as he moved. Sweat bloomed on his chest and he raised his arms, feeling the pendant drag heavily across the damp skin of his chest as he moved. The air felt cool on the sensitized skin of his waist, and he arched his back a little when someone ran a finger along the line where his shirt didn’t quite meet the low waistband of his pants. He turned his head and saw a beautiful young woman, dark hair and dark eyes, smiling at him with admiration. He smiled back and danced closely to her, feeling her smooth body sway against his for one voluptuous moment before he rolled his head, moving his hips easily as he twisted slowly away. Not yet, he thought fuzzily. Not yet.

The music pounded in his chest and throbbed low in his belly, but gradually it seemed to dim, and Justin frowned in puzzlement as he became increasingly aware of the sound of his own beating heart, growing heavier and louder in his eardrums. He heard his breath, rapid and shallow with exertion, and nobody was touching him right now but slowly he became aware of a heated body behind him, drawing deliberately closer, breathing in his ear. His skin tingled suddenly in anticipation and suspense, goose bumps breaking out on his arms. His eyelids felt weighted and he pulled them open with an effort.

The dense crowd surged around him, a dizzying kaleidoscope of light and color and movement, but Justin’s own movements slowed as he gradually came alert, his senses sharpening as the sinuous form curved against him, right behind him. His arms were still above his head, and with a shudder he felt cool fingertips tracing the exposed skin at his waist, lazily tracing a pattern up his ribs. The lights revolved over the floor, blinding him suddenly as his heart slammed into his throat. He gasped and the hands on his ribs tightened, preventing him when he would have turned around.

"Dance for me now, Justin," a voice whispered into his right ear, and when the music crashed into him again Justin pushed away the last of his fear, and did.

It was like a dream, he thought dizzily, an endless fever dream of flashing lights and thick darkness, vivid colors and scents and sounds that couldn’t drown out the warm breath against his right ear, the feel of the long form behind him, the hands wrapped easily around his hips, fingertips stroking across his flat belly and into the grooves inside Justin’s hip bones. They smoothed against the low waistband of his pants, pulling them snugly across his abdomen. The friction of the soft material created a new level of arousal that was at odds with the fear he knew he should feel when warm lips opened on the side of his slick, flushed throat. It was terrifying and perfect and he strained backwards, arching his neck, almost moaning when he felt cool fingers stroke into the v neck of his shirt, finding and fingering the heavy chain and following it down to the pendant dangling at Justin’s chest. Heat suddenly scorched him as it was pressed heavily into his skin, and then he did gasp, feeling the room spin dizzily as that warm, perfect mouth moved lazily up the side of his neck, tonguing into the pulse under his jaw.

Abruptly he was spun around, and face to face with JC. JC, his hair curly and wild, his lips parted and still glistening from Justin’s own sweat, his gorgeous blue eyes watching him with heated approval and a dark sort of amusement. "Justin," he said softly. He moved his hands slowly down to Justin’s hips, pulling them firmly against his own and smiling when Justin shuddered hard. "We really must stop meeting like this."

They stared at each other for a moment, moving slowly, until one of the girls Justin had been dancing with moved up behind him, her hands greedy on Justin’s waist. JC glanced over Justin’s shoulder at her and said something short and sharp that caused her to scramble away. Then he took Justin’s hand, which was hanging lax and useless at his side, and with a single electric look turned away, leading him off the dance floor. Justin stumbled after him, frantically trying to pull himself together. He was being led to the back of a club in Paris by a vampire known to be dangerous, and he should pull his hand away, stop moving forward, start screaming. He shook his head a little, trying to clear it. Do something, anything other than what he was doing, which was following JC docilely off the crowded floor and through the packed club, weaving easily through the crowd toward the back.

He was aware of JC nodding shortly to a bouncer positioned at the bottom of a steep spiral staircase. The man stepped aside, his eyes skating unseeingly past Justin, and then he was following JC up and up the staircase, seeing the dance floor spiral dizzily below them as they climbed. At some point JC had released his hand, and still he followed.

Some sort of VIP area, he realized, glimpsing a bar on one side, a few tables and dark alcoves with small candles twinkling dimly. Movement flickered in some of them but Justin was not interested, and kept his eyes on the back of JC’s head as they moved along the balcony. JC motioned to a passing waiter and then turned, reaching out and pulling Justin into a small half moon booth almost hidden in a dark recess. He gestured and Justin sat, staring as JC slid easily onto the curved bench beside him. Close, but not too close. Not close enough to touch, and then the waiter was right behind them, setting two tall glasses of dark liquid on the table and lighting the small candle. JC dismissed him with a word, never taking his eyes off Justin’s.

Justin couldn’t quite catch his breath, gulping in air deeply and trying to calm his wildly pounding pulse. The bass from the club’s sound system throbbed, making the seat beneath him vibrate a bit, but in the alcove there was only charged silence. The candle’s flame caught and steadied, making JC’s face glow with warm color, his eyes flash. Justin wrenched his eyes away, reaching out to the glass in front of him, picking it up with hands that shook a little. He lifted it to his nose, sniffing warily, catching JC’s smile from the corner of his eye.

"Doesn’t hurt to be too careful," he muttered, and JC chuckled.

"No, of course not," JC said, his voice low and amused. "It’s wine, Justin. That’s all." The grin sparkled, and the grips around Justin’s heart tightened. "All that dancing," JC mused. "I thought you might be thirsty."

Justin took a cautious sip, grateful as the cool liquid slid down his parched throat. "I guess I am," he said, and looked at the other glass, identical to his own, sitting untouched in front of JC. "Aren’t you?"

JC’s smile changed. His lips lifted slightly, offering Justin a glimpse of white teeth. "Of course I am," he murmured, and Justin shuddered, pressing his legs tightly together in a vain attempt to stop his body’s reaction. He gulped hard and searched for something to say.

"Why, I mean, how did you know I was here?"

JC leaned back against the upholstered seat, stretching one arm easily along the back. His face was in shadow now, but his eyes gleamed in the light of the small table candle. "Well, you are wearing something I’ve had around my neck for centuries," he said quietly, his voice carrying perfectly to Justin’s ears despite the loudness of the club, and Justin sat up, his mind suddenly clear.

"Oh," he said, "I’ve been meaning to, I mean . . ." He reached up, fumbling for the chain under his shirt, fingers suddenly slippery and uncooperative. "I mean, now that I know what it means to you, to your family . . ." He pulled the pendant out from under his shirt, moving to pull it over his head, and was shocked into utter motionlessness as JC placed his hands over his, stilling his fingers. He looked up and JC was right there, so close, smiling at him with amusement.

"Keep it," he said softly, his eyes holding Justin’s, his hands soft and cool against his skin. "For now." His hands slid slowly away, leaving Justin tingling and short of breath, and JC smiled again. "Have some more of your wine," he suggested softly.

Justin nodded slowly, his mind spinning again. The face, the eyes, even the smile reminded him so vividly of the old portrait, and the two hundred-year-old descriptions of this man by the people who had loved him. He strained to keep from remembering the vision, JC laughing, his hands on another man’s body, happy, in love. The envy twisted hard, and something deep inside spoke urgently, reminding Justin about the murders at the Order, the security cameras, the dream he’d had, but it faded into a distant murmur when JC’s eyes narrowed, the smile dropping away as his head tilted inquisitively. The silence stretched between them, the noise of the club dim and faraway.

"Well," JC finally said. "Haven’t you had an interesting day." There was a fine thread of steel in the rich voice. Anger, Justin realized with a sinking feeling. "Nosing around, finding out all sorts of good things," JC jeered softly. "All sorts of information to take back to your precious Order." Now JC’s eyes were dark with fury and menace, and Justin realized with dismay that he’d been broadcasting, that JC knew about his visit to the Chasez estate, what he’d seen there, about his vague plans to redeem himself to the Order with this knowledge.

This was it, he realized, and he gathered up his courage, leaned closer, and forced himself to catch JC’s eyes.

"No," he started, fumbling with the words a little. "No, it wasn’t like that. I wanted to know, I needed to find out more, and I thought," he hesitated, and took a deep breath. "But I’m not taking anything to the Order about you. I won’t." He indicated JC and the alcove and the club with a vague gesture, watching JC’s eyes narrow on him. "Nothing about any of this," he finished, and hated himself for the blush he felt rising on his cheeks. "I wouldn’t do that to you, not after today."

"Oh really," JC shot back. "And what reason do I have to believe a scheming, ambitious brat like you?"

"Well, you should. Because it’s the truth," Justin countered. He took a deep, shuddering breath, held JC’s eyes, and let him see.

There was a long, suspended moment when Justin forced himself to allow it, to feel JC’s surprisingly gentle touch on his mind, running over the memories of the day. The beautiful estate, the portraits in the main hall, the diaries. The display of jeweled necklaces so much like the one now hanging around Justin’s neck, and when he finally shuddered and shut down JC was watching him closely, intently, his anger gone.

"So strong," he murmured, his hand lifting to almost, but not quite, brush across Justin’s cheek. "You shut me right out." JC’s voice was low and warm, the dark alcove creating an illusion of intimacy that Justin felt himself responding to, leaning closer.

"Not so strong," Justin countered, vaguely surprised at the husky sound of his own voice, the way his body angled on the seat, twisting to face JC. "I mean, I have an idea what you can do, and I know that you could very likely kill me right now."

And now JC’s hand did curve along his cheek, its smooth coolness sending a shock wave all the way down Justin’s spine, tingling deep in his belly. He swayed closer, feeling his hands tremble as he clenched them into fists, straining to keep from reaching out and pulling JC closer.

"Oh, I wouldn’t do that," JC whispered, echoing Justin’s words, even his tone of voice. His mouth was just inches away from Justin’s own. "I wouldn’t do that to you."

~ ~ ~ ~

It was just because it was Paris, JC thought darkly, watching Justin’s blue eyes go glassy and his mouth part as he leaned closer. Paris always made him a little nostalgic, although he’d rather be staked than ever let Lance guess this, and here was Justin. Gorgeous, hot-as-fuck Justin, who was wearing his pendant and had just spent some quality time at JC’s old home, reading diaries and walking the halls, and . . .

And doing research, god damn it, and JC struggled for just a moment, hesitating. But the heat from Justin’s body was making him weak, weaker then he already was after watching him dance in this noisy club for almost an hour, so uninhibited and free, his body loose and relaxed, his narrow hips lethal. JC had watched intently, leaning over the railing in a darkened corner of the very balcony they were now on, unable to look away, tantalized by Justin’s lean body, the way he gave himself over to the jarring trance music, feeling a fierce possessiveness as he caught glimpses of the heavy gold necklace hidden under Justin’s trashy little shirt.

At first he’d thought he’d wait until Justin left the club to walk back to his hotel. It would be easy to grab him then, pull him into one of the dark, narrow alleys that riddled Paris even now. And he could certainly afford to wait. Until he observed the steady stream of people, men and women, who approached Justin, and while Justin hadn’t selected one yet, he saw clearly that Justin didn’t intend to go back to his hotel alone tonight. JC had set down the drink he’d been pretending to nurse and moved to take what was his.

And Justin was his, dancing with him, following JC upstairs without a single whimper of resistance and now here he was, splayed wantonly against the thick cushions like every wet dream JC had had in his dimly remembered adolescence. He was beautiful, and so turned on he almost couldn’t contain himself, and his mind was full of JC himself, and images of the Chasez estate, of portraits and writings, and when Justin’s hand reached up, daringly, to smooth over JC’s jaw, he sighed and brought their mouths together.

Justin’s mouth was slick and tasted sweet, and his tongue curled around JC’s own like he was starving for him. JC’s mind fogged, a pounding rhythm beginning deep in his belly and sparkling along his spine, making him force Justin’s mouth wider, curving his hands around his jaw and the nape of his neck, stroking, coaxing Justin to open for him, swallowing Justin’s low moan. And it was good, it was so good, better than anything had been in so long.

Justin’s hands moved restlessly up JC’s arms, his palms scorchingly hot as they stroked over his biceps, gripping him as he pressed Justin back into the soft cushions. He shuddered as they curved over his shoulders, and with one hand JC pushed the little round table out of the way, sliding closer to Justin, angling him further against the cushions. Justin’s hands pulled at him, urging him closer, and they sank into the shadow outside the candle’s flickering light.

Justin was moaning continuously now, his hips twisting, one leg stretched on the seat and one foot braced on the floor. JC broke away, breathing hard, almost gasping, and he watched as Justin’s dazed eyes fluttered open. Deliberately he slid his thigh between Justin’s and was rewarded when Justin surged against him, his face twisting in a grimace of painful ecstasy. He opened his mouth on the soft dip of skin between Justin’s collarbones, moving slowly down his chest and unbuttoning as he went, nudging the pendant to the side as Justin writhed beneath him, his hands and body growing frantic. JC visited the new mark on Justin’s breast bone, soothed his tongue across the freshly reddened flesh, smiling as he heard Justin gasp hoarsely. He tongued it again, resisting the urge to use his teeth and then Justin’s hands were in his hair, urging him back to up meet his sweet, deliciously talented mouth.

JC soothed him a little, stroking the side of Justin’s face, tracing the full lower lip, watching hungrily as Justin’s mouth dropped open and his tongue reached for JC’s finger. His eyes were dazed, blurry with excitement and it was all him; JC hadn’t done anything to help him along here, had used none of the arsenal of hypnotic tricks at his ready disposal. He felt a surge of lust that almost crippled him at the thought, and unable to wait anymore he angled his owns hips closer to Justin’s and dropped his mouth to Justin’s throat.

The pulse pounded against his tongue and JC closed his eyes against the surge of arousal, fighting with the steadily growing hunger that was always, always with him. Justin’s body was lithe and tight, flat and hard in all the right places and steaming with heat against JC’s. Justin’s hands were in his hair and one was snaking down JC’s back, curving intimately over his ribs and the flat plane of his lower back, grasping desperately, urging JC closer. Justin had slid so far down on the bench that he was almost sprawled flat, and JC used his leverage to twist his own hips closer, nestling into Justin’s groin and absorbing his shudders. Slowly his tongue traced the hot vein pulsing under Justin’s skin, tasting the beginnings of rough stubble and the clean saltiness of his sweat. He couldn’t get enough air, gasping desperately as he heard Justin moan, almost whimper in frustration, his hips working steadily beneath JC’s, and he pulled away from Justin’s perfect throat with an effort that made him hiss.

Justin seemed to have no idea of the danger he was in, his face flushed with arousal, pupils dilated and his lips swollen and wet as he wrapped his arms, his strong, lean arms, around JC and pulled him even closer. They both gasped and JC shook his head a little, trying to gather his faculties. The alcove was private and they weren’t doing anything that anyone passing by hadn’t seen before in this place. But he couldn’t do more, he thought fuzzily as Justin pulled his head down, pressing against his lips and murmuring sweet, imploring, demanding things into JC’s mouth. Wouldn’t do more.

He slid a hand slowly under Justin’s body, luxuriating in the smooth fabric over the lean heated skin, curving a hand around Justin’s ass and squeezing, pulling him closer, positioning him right where he needed him to be as he twisted and thrust. Justin was groaning rhythmically, soft grunts as his hips worked and JC was right there with him, feeling the heavy weight build in his abdomen as he thrust in counterpoint. Justin’s lips were so full, so soft, and he pulled the lower one into his mouth gently, sucking on the faint roughness where it was chapped, running his tongue over and over the small raw spot and tasting the faint sting of iron. He was aware of Justin’s hand scrabbling frantically at his back, of his own hand pulling ruthlessly at Justin’s ass as he ground into him, and then Justin gasped and froze beneath him, his entire body stiffening as his hips lunged desperately. JC angled his mouth over Justin’s to swallow his cries, closed his eyes, and let himself go.

~ ~ ~ ~

They were both panting and Justin was limp and boneless beneath him, one hand stroking jerkily at his back. JC closed his eyes for a moment, ignoring the hunger gnawing at his nerve endings and allowing himself to revel in Justin’s warmth, his sharp clean smell, his pliancy, the feel of his warm hands on JC’s back. He pushed away the thought of how long it had been since anyone had touched him like this, and then moved himself away from Justin’s mesmerizing heat. He didn’t need this sort of thing anymore, he reminded himself, and forced himself to focus on what he did need. He sat up, shook his hair back into place and grimaced a bit at the dampness at his crotch.

Justin was sitting up slowly, his pretty mouth slack and his eyes blinking dazedly. He looked . . . well, he looked pretty much like JC felt, he thought darkly, and it was time to focus on the other things he needed from Justin. He handed Justin his glass of wine, smiling a little as he took it with hands that were still shaking, and as Justin tipped it to his lips he reached out slowly, oh so gently, and utmost in his mind were those brief images of the Order’s file he’d previously seen in Justin’s mind.

There was immediate resistance. Justin fumbled his wineglass and dropped it, looking at JC in confusion and accusation as the wine spilled all over the table, running across the smooth wood and dripping onto the floor. JC met his eyes evenly, and still they hadn’t spoken a word to each other.

"Why? I mean," Justin’s voice was shaky, hoarse, and his eyes were huge with distress and the beginnings of anger. "Why would you do that? If you want to know something, why don’t you just ask me?"

"I’m not much in the habit of asking anybody for anything, Justin," he replied laconically, and watched Justin’s face heat up, his mouth snap closed.

"So, this, all this." Justin gestured jerkily at the alcove, the club, the table with its slowly dripping red wine. "All of this is, what? Just another part of your game?" He was breathing shallowly, hard, and JC was annoyed to feel his heart twist. He got to his feet and stepped out of the alcove, and Justin scrambled out to face him.

He really was so brave, JC thought distractedly, admiring the clean lines of Justin’s face, the deep blue eyes now stormy with anger and betrayal. Brave and strong, and very smart. Or very stupid. He stepped closer, seeing Justin’s breath hitch a little as he did, a muscle jerk in his jaw as his teeth clenched.

"You know nothing about me, Justin. But you might know enough to realize that I will not tolerate the fact that your precious Order has researched me. My life. Has a file on me," he said, making his voice low and as menacing as possible. It wasn’t difficult; already the rage at the invasion of his privacy was rising, battling with the ever present hunger that was rapidly growing too urgent to ignore. His head throbbed dully and he clenched his teeth against the steadily rising need. "Now, you listen to me."

He stepped closer, backing Justin against the dark wall with one hand on his chest as he leaned into his face. "We can continue this conversation later, and we will, Justin. We will. But right now, I want you to walk out of this club, and hail a cab, and take it directly back to your hotel."

"No," Justin said, his mind a whirlwind of anger and hurt and a deep, helpless sort of longing that JC didn't want to think about. Not now. "JC, no. We need to talk about the file. I need to know what's going on in your--"

"No," he hissed, pressing his hand hard into Justin’s chest, feeling the outline of the pendant against his palm. "You’ll go right back to your hotel, and when you get there you’ll stay there, and sleep, and you won’t let anyone in. Not the maids, not the concierge, not room service." He paused, breathing hard, his mouth inches from Justin’s as they stared each other down. He stroked his hand lightly up the chain hidden inside Justin’s shirt and pressed his mouth lingeringly, softly, to Justin’s, feeling him shudder heavily in response. "I’m hungry," he murmured against his lips, letting Justin feel the edges of his sharp teeth. "And unless you want to get to know me a lot better tonight, right here, right now, and with blood, then I suggest you do exactly what I say. Now."

"Oh," Justin said, his eyes widening and his breathing becoming more rapid, and that only made it worse, because he was so beautiful when he was uneasy, so lovely when frightened. It would be so easy to lean closer, just a little closer, to . . .

JC angled his head purposefully and Justin gasped, nodding slowly, his blue eyes wide. JC released him and stepped back, watching as Justin smoothed his shirt and adjusted his pants, grimacing a little and making JC smile grimly. Then, without a single glance he turned and walked stiffly down the dim balcony. The lights from the dance floor below reflected and twisted over his body as he moved to the spiral staircase, and JC couldn’t tell if he looked back at him, standing in the shadows, or not.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin woke with a violent start at daybreak, shuddering in pain at the harsh light of the rising sun slicing into his room. He’d neglected to close the curtains, he realized fuzzily. Had there been a moon the previous night? He hadn’t noticed when he’d entered the room early this morning, and he was too high in the hotel’s tower for the city’s lights to disturb him. He rolled over, hitting the button that would lower the blinds on his windows automatically, and groaned with relief as darkness descended.

Apparently he’d also neglected to pull on his sleep clothes, he noted fuzzily, since it seemed that he’d fallen asleep stark naked and face down on top of the covers. It was a wonder he hadn’t frozen to death, but he didn’t remember being cold. It had only been a couple of hours, but when he’d stumbled into his room he only remembered being drunk and sweaty and overheated and numb with exhaustion. He’d simply peeled out of his clothes and left them in a pile on the floor.

He rolled over lazily, trying to maneuver under the covers and still stay horizontal. The pendant dragged heavily across his chest and he frowned, twitched until it lay comfortably against his skin. He relaxed with a sigh. It was far too early to wake up.

Except he had a mother of a headache, and the parched throat feeling that came with drinking and dancing and . . .

Justin gasped and his eyes opened abruptly. His mind spun with images of the club, the lights, and the music and JC, the pendant, the VIP lounge and the dark alcove where he’d. Where JC had.

"Oh god," he said out loud, and struggled upright at the sound of his own hoarse voice. He leaned against the headboard, breathing heavily. He had a jumbled but vivid sensory memory of the feel of JC’s lean body under his hands, the sound of his breath in Justin’s ear, the heat of JC’s mouth on his throat, and his entire body flushed. "Oh god," he whispered again.

He scrubbed his hands across his face and dug his fingertips into his forehead, massaging the headache that was starting to pound. Fuck. What had he done? Chris’s warnings, the warnings of the senior members of the Order had seemed so dim and unimportant in the days he’d been in France. He’d dismissed them completely while he’d explored the Chasez estate, examined documents written in JC’s own hand, opened himself to the memories of the place, of the man JC had been. And last night the warnings had become even more distant, squashed easily under the force of Justin’s excitement and arousal.

Arousal. Oh god. He stretched a hand under the covers, gingerly examining his private parts, feeling the remote tenderness in his thighs, his groin. He closed his eyes in humiliation. Fuck.

Abruptly he flung the covers off of his body and swung his feet to the floor. A low level panic beat quietly at the edges of his mind as he remembered the examinations the Order’s doctors had given him the morning after JC had invaded the London motherhouse, their faces drawn as they looked closely for puncture wounds on his throat, his wrists, his groin. Justin took a deep breath as he stood, swaying slightly as he got his feet under him.

Calm down, he told himself sternly, rubbing his hands briskly on the goose bumps rising on his arms. He hadn’t been that drunk, and now that he was awake his recollections of his time with JC the previous night were pretty clear. There had been kissing, quite a bit of amazing kissing. And more, oh yes, there had been much, much more, certainly, and Justin had been driven out of his mind, but he was quite, quite certain that if JC’s teeth had punctured his skin, anywhere, he would’ve known it. There was no way that he’d been that far gone.

He lunged unsteadily for the bathroom, flipping on the bright lights and squinting painfully as he moved to the full length mirror. He waited for his eyes to adjust, blinking rapidly and breathing hard.

He looked at his neck first, finding a lurid hickey right under the left side of his jaw, but no puncture wounds. Carefully he examined the other side of his throat, under his arms, pivoted to peer anxiously over his shoulder as he inspected his back. There was a faint bruise on his right buttock that was just about the size of a single strong hand, and his breath hitched as he remembered the feel of JC’s fingers curling viciously into him, pulling him against his hard body as Justin writhed.

He closed his eyes and gulped, leaning his head against the cool mirror. He was okay. There were no open wounds on his body and surely he would feel different if something like that had happened. The fact was he felt good, tired in a purely physical, boneless sort of way that spoke of pleasure and sated need. He kept his eyes closed and let himself remember. The dim, flickering light from the small candle on the table at odds with the vivid lights and loud music from the club, JC’s face smiling knowingly at him, the touch of him in his mind and on his body, the clear blue eyes . . .

Justin jerked himself upright, horrified. He’d just fallen into a mooning daydream like an adolescent girl. About a vampire. A creature who killed people in order to survive. A creature who had killed people in Justin’s own Order. A creature more than capable of killing Justin, who certainly would kill him once he’d gotten what he wanted from him.

He rolled his head on his neck, feeling the ache in his shoulders and neck. What did JC want from him? The Order’s file? Was that what he was after? Was that all that he was after? He remembered the conversation outside of the alcove with a stab of humiliation. Yes, that seemed to be what JC was after, and Justin knew suddenly that if JC hadn’t rummaged for it in such an overt way, he would have been only a few short steps from offering that file to him outright.

The file and whatever else JC might want, he forced himself to admit. Panic sparked through him, nibbling uneasily at the edges of his mind. He would’ve broken god knew how many of the Order’s rules. He was that close to betraying them all.

He opened his eyes, forcing himself to look closely. Pale, shaky, eyes squinting with tiredness. His mouth was swollen. There was a hickey on his neck from a vampire, and that same vampire’s pendant was hanging around his neck like a statement of ownership.

With a quickly indrawn breath Justin grabbed the pendant and jerked it up and around his head, pulling it from around his neck and grasping it tightly in his hand. The chain swung and he stared at his reflection in the mirror, frozen. His breath caught in his throat and he moved carefully toward the mirror in the silent bedroom, staring unblinkingly at the mark on his chest.

It was small, centered perfectly on the dip between his pectorals, vivid and raw against his winter-pale skin. It looked like an indent, a red line mirroring the outside edge of the pendant still clutched in his shaking hand. And inside it, clearly distinguishable despite the angry redness of the burned skin, were the initials JSC.

Justin dropped the pendant with a clatter against the antique tile as his fingers flew to his chest, feeling the sharp sting of seared flesh. His breath stuttered and he realized he was shaking, panic-stricken. "Oh god," he whispered, his voice shaking in the silent bathroom. It was a burn, a perfectly burned outline of the inscription on JC’s family pendant scorched into his skin. A brand.

He wheeled away from the mirror and stumbled back into the bedroom, hitting the button to raise the blinds and staggering to the bright sunshine streaming into his room. He closed his eyes against the light but stood as close to the window as he dared, drinking it in and trying to calm his breathing. Then he strode directly to the phone and placed a call to London.

~ ~ ~ ~

Still pale and shaky, but clean and bundled against the winter chill of Paris, Justin stood outside the magasin de bijouterie on the Rue de Linon, JC’s pendant clutched tightly in his hand at the bottom of his coat pocket. The store didn’t open for another half hour, but he was already packed and ready to flee Paris, and there was only one thing left to do before he caught his plane.

Chris had taken Justin’s call although he hadn’t even been awake yet, eager, Justin sensed, to read him the riot act for not calling earlier. But his anger at the fact that Justin had ignored the Order's directive to go back to Tennessee had quickly been replaced with concern as Justin told him an abbreviated version of his latest encounter with JC. By the time Justin had finished speaking, Chris could barely control his fear, and he put Justin on hold to call Mathilda, one of the senior members of the Order. When Chris came back on the line he informed him that Mathilda had said that Justin must come back to the Order. That there would be an airplane ticket waiting for him at the airport, and that he must return immediately, while it was still daylight. Justin had agreed, almost faint with relief.

But first, he had to do this.

There was movement behind the drawn shades of the windows, still twenty minutes away from opening, and Justin moved closer to the doors. It was so cold outside. Something warm to drink would’ve been nice, but he couldn’t drag himself away from the store. He was afraid he’d lose his nerve if he did.

The blinds twitched and Justin saw Monsieur Marteau peer carefully out the window at him, his expression one of surprised recognition. He dredged up a smile from somewhere, taking a deep breath as the tall man looked pointedly at his watch, then shrugged and turned the keys in the doors, allowing Justin to step in.

"Monsieur Randall?" he queried, his tone clearly implying that Justin had no business there at such an unforgivable hour.

"Monsieur Marteau," he began. "I’ve come," and Justin hesitated, the words sticking hard in his throat as he struggled to pull the pendant from his pocket. His thumb rubbed ceaselessly over the smooth face of the ruby. "I mean, I’ve come here so you can . . ." Again he trailed off, flushing uncomfortably, and Marteau’s eyebrows rose disdainfully.

"Monsieur Randall, really. We are not yet open, if you would be so kind as to wait outside."

"No." Justin sucked in a deep breath. "I apologize, Monsieur. I’m not quite myself." He clenched his teeth and pulled the pendant from his pocket with an effort, placing it carefully in the jeweler’s outstretched hands. His heart was pounding like a hammer in his chest, his head.

"Monsieur Randall, you have changed your mind about selling the pendant back to the family, I presume?" Marteau’s voice was carefully even, and he frowned as Justin shook his head violently.

"No, not sell. I don’t want to sell it, I want . . . Monsieur, I believe I can count on you to deliver the pendant to the family’s agent, am I correct? I want to return it to its rightful owner."

Marteau slowly coiled the pendant and its chain into his palm, and Justin thrust both hands deep into his coat pockets, clenching them into fists as he fought to keep from reaching out and taking it. "Of course, Monsieur Randall," he said slowly. "I can, of course, be trusted with this task, but perhaps you would prefer to meet with the family’s agent yourself? I am certain he would appreciate your generosity, and would thank you for your kindness."

Justin shook his head violently. "No, no that’s not necessary. I’m leaving Paris immediately, this morning. I won’t be back, and I must trust you to do this for me. If you don’t mind." He paused, and took a deep breath. "Please."

Marteau studied him silently. "If you would but leave me your address, Monsieur Randall, so the family may write . . ."

"No, that’s not necessary," Justin said briskly. "As you said last week, it’s the right thing to do, and I’m doing it. That’s all." He backed toward the door and paused, meeting Marteau’s eyes. "The family’s agent, Monsieur. I have your word."

Marteau drew himself up, offended. "Of course," he said coldly.

Justin nodded, sighing as he turned to the door. "Thank you," he said quietly as he exited. He pushed out of the shop with a rush of cold air and stepped out. For a long moment he hesitated, frozen in the doorway, feeling Marteau’s eyes on him through the thick glass as he struggled. Then Justin turned determinedly toward the hotel, and walked away.

Chapter Text

~ ~ ~ ~

Part Three

~ ~ ~ ~

Lance probably heard JC stepping into the house, but he didn't say anything to greet him; it wasn't his way. JC put down the bag he'd taken with him to Paris and stretched, rubbing his shoulder a bit. Lance was sitting lazily on the gray couch and reading, somehow managing to look comfortable even though the lines of the couch were sharp and unforgiving. Lance had decorated the house this time around, and it was full of glass and steel. There was granite and marble wherever there was not glass: on counters, table-tops, the tile in the bathrooms. The hardwood floors were blonde, the furniture was dark gray when it was not neutral, and the carpets and rugs contained yet more shades of ivory and gray. It was precise, spacious, and clean, much like Lance these days. JC had decorated the house before this: he'd been in an art deco phase and had filled it with willowy statues, stained glass, lilies and cluttered patterns. JC hadn't realized how much Lance must have hated it until he'd seen the spareness of the present design. It was fine with JC -- his own taste varied wildly depending on mood and context, and if Lance wanted to live in a giant steel and glass box, then JC could do that for a while. If the sterility of it sometimes nagged at him, he could console himself with the fact that next time around, the design choices would be his.

Fortunately, the two of them had retained creative control over their own bedrooms, which were deep in the earth several stories down, girded with fireproof walls and guarded by nearly indestructible doors. JC wanted to go straight to his, to lie on his bed and think about certain things, but he didn't want to seem upset, either. And yet there were things he desperately needed to mull over. JC still didn't fully understand why Justin had left Paris so abruptly. Even when persuaded by JC, the clerk at the front desk hadn't been able to offer more information other than that the young gentleman had taken off early in the morning in a rather agitated state and that he had left no forwarding address. There was absolutely no reason to it.

"How was Paris?" Lance finally asked, still not looking up from his book.

"Same as it was the last time you were there," JC said, pushing Justin from his mind and heading for the kitchen. There was usually blood in the refrigerator, and while he had fed after his plane had landed in London, it wouldn't hurt to have a nightcap.

"Why was it you went again?" Lance's voice was light and almost careless, which meant that he was intent and very serious.

"I told you," JC said, taking out one of the square, sharp crystal tumblers with which Lance had filled their cupboards and grimacing at it a bit. It was beautiful in its own ascetic way, but there were virtually no cuts in the crystal, no facets for the light to sparkle through, no color for it to catch. It was a shame, really. "Family business."

"Ah yes. The prodigal son routine never grows old for you, does it?"

JC kept the set of his shoulders easy and the tone of his voice casual. "Let's not have that conversation again, all right? We established years ago that we think very differently about family connections."

Lance laughed. "To say the least," he wryly replied, and then finally put his book down and cast a clear, green stare at JC.

"Anything interesting happen when I was gone?" JC asked.

Lance shrugged. "Your little stunt over at the Order caused them to completely rehaul their security system. I heard they've been messing with motion sensors and hidden cameras for days now."

JC smiled broadly. "And they still won't be able to keep me out," he said, pleased with himself.

"But why would you even want to get in?" Lance asked softly. "You didn't by chance see the child in France, did you?"

Although he'd heard exactly, JC absently said, "I'm sorry, what?" and turned away.

"I'll take that to be a yes," Lance answered after a brief, charged pause.

"You could do that, but it would be a mistake," JC said as casually as he could, and took a big swallow of his drink, shuddering a little in pleasure as it coursed down his throat. He hated it cold, but blood was blood.

"So you didn't see him."

"Honestly, Lance -- give it a rest, will you? I thought I was supposed to be the obsessed one," JC said, putting his glass down and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"I still think you are," Lance said thoughtfully, and then fell silent for a few moments. JC washed his glass and was headed back to the living room to pick up his things when Lance said, "Oh, by the way, a package came for you earlier today. It's on the table."

"A package?" JC felt something close to horror as his heart pounded, as excitement rose in him. What was this ridiculous behavior? Why should he care in the least about receiving a package? "From where?" he asked.

"Paris," Lance said. "Delivered by special courier -- it must have cost a bundle."

"Hmm," JC said, and then made his way over to the table to pick up the padded envelope. A quick glance at the return address showed that it was from Jean Marteau's magasin de bijouterie, which made no sense, because JC hadn't ordered anything from him recently. JC frowned and ripped the package open.

Lance wandered slowly from the living room to stand next to JC as he reached into the envelope and pulled out a small red leather box with the name of the store on it stamped in elaborate gold lettering.

"So tacky," Lance said delightedly, and JC raised his head and gave him a genuine smile. On this, they were in perfect agreement. Marteau was a preening fool.

JC peered into the envelope and saw that it held a note as well. He picked it up and scanned it: "Sir, once again your powers of persuasion have proved invaluable," Marteau had written in his careful English. "Just this morning our friend Mr. Randall appeared at the store and insisted rather passionately that I return this necklace to the family. It is thus with considerable happiness that I enclose the following precious relic. I trust you will soon be in communication with the family."

"You're flushing," Lance said in a low, amused voice. "What is it, a love letter?"

"Don't be an idiot." JC quickly folded the note again and stuffed it in his pants pocket, hoping desperately that he appeared unmoved. As unhurriedly as he could, he reached across the table and picked up the jewelry box.

"I'm going to my room."

"Wait, wait," Lance said. "You haven't even opened your present."

"It's not a present," JC said, annoyed. "It's just my necklace, okay? I had it cleaned."

"Cleaned?" Lance's eyes sharpened. "You've never done that before."

"Yes, well, that's exactly why it needed it," JC answered, and turned to leave.

"Wait, wait," Lance said again. "When did you even take it off? I hadn't noticed."

"A few days ago," JC said.

"Which night exactly?" Lance pressed, his voice edged with amusement.

"Look, could we save the twenty questions?" JC snapped. "It's late and I'm very tired."

"It couldn't have been the night you went to visit the Order, could it?" Lance said, then laughed when JC rolled his eyes and walked off.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he added, laughing. "It's just that it's so easy to upset you anymore. You can't deny me these small pleasures, JC."

JC looked over his shoulder and glared at Lance, then relaxed into a grin. "Good night, Lance." Stopping down to pick up his bag, he shoved the jewelry box into his jacket pocket and then headed for the elevator at the back of the house that led to the bedrooms.

Once the doors of the elevator slid shut in front of him, JC grabbed the box from his pocket and cracked it open, his face twisting in disbelief as he saw his pendant nestled on white velvet. That was just -- that was --

JC quickly closed the box again, shoved it violently back into his pocket, and stared stonily at nothing until the elevator stopped. When he stepped out again, he walked briskly to his bedroom, tapped in his security code, then stepped inside the cool interior of his room. Letting his bag fall on the floor, JC headed straight to the bed and perched on the side of it, digging once more in his pocket for the box. When he opened it this time, he drew the pendant out all the way and dangled it from his fingers, watching it glitter in the light and frowning as it swayed back and forth. His stomach clenched, and an awful, indefinite feeling started to take over him.

"Stop it, you fool," JC said out loud, and then thought even worse of himself as he slowly studied the necklace. Had Justin cleaned it before he returned it, or would it smell a bit of him? Fighting the urge to degrade himself further by actually lifting it to his nose, JC forced himself to focus.

What in hell had happened? Why had Justin gotten rid of it? JC wondered, and frowned as the disagreeable feeling rose up in him again. It really was quite unpleasant, something he hadn't felt in years, something he clearly had gone to great lengths to avoid and to forget. Sighing a little, he opened the clasp to the necklace and put it on again, biting his lower lip a bit as the pendant slid into place on his chest. As he felt the metal press into his skin, JC smiled a bit. Justin might have gotten rid of the necklace, but he couldn't get rid of everything JC had given him.

But then he thought of Justin looking at him with clear blue eyes in the club, so interested in JC even though he was in equal part terrified of him; Justin with his mind full of JC's house and JC's family, their history; Justin who was trying, against all odds, to connect with him, to get to know him. Justin was one of the very few people in the world who knew what the pendant actually meant to JC, and to have given it back like this without even a word . . .

JC grimaced, then hunched over for a split second and tightened the muscles in his abdomen, trying to control his breathing as the full force of the emotion took over him. This was what it felt like when someone hurt your feelings.

Utter ridiculousness. This was folly -- this was idiocy. Suddenly, JC was on his feet, striding quickly across the room to his desk. He was getting senile in his old age, soft and weak. Of course he didn't have feelings for Justin, and of course it didn't matter if Justin had returned the necklace. It was nothing but a power play, a move in an elaborate chess game, and if JC let it get to him, then he was losing already. Justin Timberlake might think he knew how to get to JC, but Justin was a novice at such things, a lamb in the wilderness, in fact. Once JC really got started with him, Justin would rue the day he'd been born. The thing to do now was strike decisively, not to waste time whining and pining like an adolescent.

Walking briskly across the room to sit at his desk, JC pulled out a piece of stationery, one with the initials JSC monogrammed boldly across the top in the exact same font as they appeared on the pendant. For just a moment, his mouth curved into a smile. Let Justin see that and think about things that could and couldn't be returned. His fountain pen poised over the paper, JC tried to think of something sharp and devastating to write, but his mind veered infuriatingly to Justin beneath him in the club, gasping and arching his back, his sweet, pink lips parted, the cords in his lovely neck straining.

"Dammit," JC breathed, then stood up again, walked back to the bed, and opened his bag. When Marteau had called him two days ago to tell him that Justin had brought the pendant to the shop, JC had packed for Paris in a rush, and so there wasn't much in it: a few shirts, some underwear, and a pair of, good god, soiled jeans. In disgust, JC dragged all of the clothing out of the bag and threw it into the trash, then continued riffling through the remaining items. He thought he remembered picking something up at the club, a book of matches -- ah, yes. There. Clasping the matchbook in his hand, JC headed back for the desk, folded it up in the sheet of stationery, then shoved both of them into an envelope and scrawled Justin's name and the address of the motherhouse on the front. Justin didn't need a note -- he'd more than get the message without words.

JC hardly ever sent letters, but he thought he remembered having seen a stamp in the back of his wallet. He pulled it out of his pants and began to search, and then froze, his eyes widening in delight and his mouth curving into a smile as the hologram on Justin Timberlake's Visa card glinted in the lamplight.

It took only five minutes at the computer; soon, Justin would be the proud owner of one copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula, one copy of The Rules, and one copy of The Joy of Gay Sex. That was a good start, at least.

But the stamp, the stamp! JC went back to his wallet, found it, and then hurried upstairs in the dawning light of morning to shove the letter into the mailbox before rushing back downward and succumbing to sleep, hoping like hell it'd be dreamless.

~ ~ ~ ~

A week later, JC headed to the motherhouse to see the new security measures. Indeed, there were motion sensors, barbed wire, more lighting: it looked almost like a fortress now. From a fairly safe distance across the street, JC stared fixedly at the front door, and closed his eyes. Justin was probably in there right now, sitting smugly in his fancy little suite of rooms and adding page after page to JC's file. Why wouldn't he come out? JC angrily wondered for at least the thousandth time that week, then clenched his jaw, his fists, the muscles in his legs. If those bastards in the Order were holding Justin hostage, he'd burn their precious house down, kill them all, rip them limb from limb and suck the marrow right out of their bones.

Surely, Justin wouldn't choose to hide, would he? None of it made sense. Night after night, JC called Justin on the phone to hear his voice, and night after night, Justin breathed raggedly for JC, sometimes even whispered, "JC, please," the longing in his voice absolutely unmistakable. And yet Justin never tried to say more than that, and Justin certainly wasn't responding to the completely interesting and amusing presents JC was sending him, so it was difficult. JC was absolutely convinced that he still had a hold on him -- surely, there was no question about that. But if that were so, then why was Justin still hiding? Why had he returned the necklace?

JC scowled, then moved quickly into the darkness again, away from the motherhouse and all the headaches it gave him. He could think about this forever and not come up with answers, because Justin made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Justin was the most capricious, annoying, impenetrable human JC had ever encountered -- which made the fact that JC absolutely could not stop thinking about him even more unbearable. Huffing a sigh, JC lifted his head and forced himself to head to a different part of town.

~ ~ ~ ~

The ponderous words of Monteleone’s treatise on the Tahitian prophets blurred before his eyes, and Justin sighed heavily as he pulled his glasses off his face, scrubbing his hands vigorously over his forehead and scalp. All the trappings of serious research were before him – he had his laptop powered up and humming, his notebooks open, his favorite easy glide pen ready, and a stack of research books piled on his left. What he didn’t seem to have was the ability to concentrate and get his work done.

Pushing back from his desk he stood and stretched hard enough to make his back crack. He walked around his sitting room, restless and frowning. It was warm and inviting, the soothing amber lamps and soft music perfect background for the work he needed to do. The atmosphere was perfect. Why couldn’t he work?

He’d been settled determinedly in the library earlier in the day, but had been distracted by the amount of traffic in and out of the room. He’d been spoiled by the relative emptiness of the London house before his trip to France, days when he’d had the huge library and its comfortable sitting spaces completely to himself. Now there were so many people coming and going, having hushed conversations, and, he was annoyed to see, watching him. Some eyed him with speculation and curiosity, some with sympathy and several of the senior members with what could only be perceived as suspicion. He had, it appeared, acquired something of a reputation. And it wasn’t the one he used to long for and aspire to.

In addition, since JC had broken into the house more than a month ago there were always several senior members around, patrolling the halls and the common rooms. It wasn’t like he wasn’t trying to get his work done, Justin thought resentfully. It was simply impossible to find a quiet place to concentrate.

After his incendiary encounters with JC in Paris, returning to the Order’s house in London had almost felt anti-climactic. Justin had still been shaken when he disembarked at Heathrow, full of conflicting feelings about his encounter with JC at the club and his return of the Chasez pendant to Monsieur Marteau. He’d felt agitated and itchy. The burned skin at his chest had chafed and smarted, and every time he’d reached up to it he’d had another shock when he realized the pendant was no longer hanging around his neck. He’d been trembling with exhaustion and shock, and his relief when he’d trudged down the ramp and seen Chris and Mathilda waiting to meet him had been just short of pitiable.

They had welcomed him warmly and with such obvious relief that Justin was deeply ashamed of himself and contrite over his actions in France. As he hugged them both in the airport he’d made a private promise to himself that he would re-dedicate himself to the Order, that he would put the foolish infatuation with JC aside and once again become the best, the brightest of the Order’s novices. He would never again give them reason to doubt him.

And for a little while it had been good. He had started to relax as the large black limousine had eased effortlessly through the snarled airport traffic, listening to Mathilda describe the additional security measures the Order had implemented to make certain that Justin was safe. That they were all safe, she’d said kindly, explaining to him about the new infrared motion detectors, so sensitive that for the first few nights they’d gone off every time an insect had crossed their beams. The outer gates had been upgraded, she’d said, heightened and charged with enough electricity to knock a grown man unconscious. There were more cameras now and they had been extended to the grounds around the house as well as the gates and the roads bordering the property. The security code keypads had been replaced with palm print scans, and there were at least two senior members awake and aware from the time the sun went down each night until daybreak. Members like herself, she’d told Justin, experienced in the study of vampires, and their arsenals of seductions and mind-tricks.

They were so happy and relieved to have Justin home, she’d added with the gentle smile he’d always loved. She’d chided him for changing his travel plans and not going to Tennessee, but now that had worked out for the best because obviously Justin was better off closer to the motherhouse. He was one of them, she reminded him gently, and they would do anything to protect him, keep him safe. He’d smiled back at her, squashing the bitter inner voice that questioned why they’d sent him away in the first place. They were good, they meant well. And he was relieved to be home.

They’d arrived back at the mansion before dark, so Justin had been able to see the new fence around the vast property, the steel thick and shiny. A staff member had taken care of Justin’s luggage while Mathilda and Chris escorted him to the new fully staffed security offices in the east wing, where his palm was carefully scanned and added to the system’s database. Justin had stared in amazement at the new bank of security monitors showing vivid color images of areas all over the Order’s grounds and the vast digital screen monitoring the motion detectors. So much had been accomplished in such a short amount of time. It made Justin feel like he’d been gone months instead of one short week.

And there was more, Chris told him quietly after they’d left Mathilda and were walking to Justin’s rooms. The room in the restricted archives where Justin had found his first tantalizing hints of JC had been emptied and cleaned out. Not destroyed, Chris had hastened to say when Justin had stopped and turned pale. Just moved, somewhere safer and more protected, where Justin wouldn’t be tempted to visit them.

Justin had frozen right outside his door, staring at Chris in astonishment. Did they really believe that they could move JC’s things anywhere that he wouldn’t be able to find them? He’d almost laughed right into Chris’s face, surprised at his own feelings of incredulity and contempt. All their knowledge, all their resources, and even after all that had happened they still didn’t have a clue.

But he’d squashed those feelings, because wasn’t that what Justin wanted too? Wasn’t putting the whole JC encounter behind him exactly what he’d promised himself he would do? Over and over on the short airplane ride back to London he’d repeated it to himself as the tender skin on his chest burned and the lack of the heavy pendant around his neck drove him to distraction. It was over, it was behind him. He determinedly pushed away speculation about how JC would react when his pendant was returned to him, what he would think, how he would feel. It was over.

And he was doing his best to settle back into his routine, but each day it seemed a little more difficult. He sighed again, realizing that he was pacing his rooms in a constant circle like a caged animal. He stared longingly at his large comfortable bed, but he hadn’t been sleeping well lately, and he knew trying to nap was folly. He did another lap and stared out at the grounds before glancing at the clock on his desk. Too early for dinner -- in fact he had a meeting with Mathilda in just under an hour. She hadn’t said why in her message, and he hoped tiredly that it wasn’t going to be another research project. He wasn’t able to muster much enthusiasm for such things these days.

He stared at the research materials scattered over his desk. This particular project was already overdue, the fact of which sent a tendril of apprehension squirming through his belly. He’d made two trips from the library, lugging all the books to his room so he’d have everything at his fingertips as he prepared his final pre-investigation report. It was all there, ready for Justin to read and synthesize into information useful for the upcoming field work. Except for the fact that he’d read the same page four times now, and had not comprehended a single line.

Next to the stack of library books was the telephone, seeming to mock him with its silence. Every night since he’d returned from Paris it had rung unexpectedly, startling Justin out of his restless sleep. And every time there had been nothing there, no answer to his groggy hello. Just a charged silence that brought Justin to full wakefulness like a bucket of ice water dumped on his head. A long, achingly empty silence that had squeezed Justin’s pounding heart into his throat, then a click and a dial tone.

Then there were the other things, the mysterious packages that arrived with Justin’s other mail. The plain envelope with only a single monogrammed piece of heavy stationery folded carefully around a book of matches from the club Justin had visited in Paris. The small box of books, the titles of which made his face flame with humiliation. And then the small package which had arrived only that day.

Justin moved to the dresser in his bedroom closet and opened the bottom drawer, rooting under the folded clothing for the flat black box. He drew it out carefully, sitting down on his bed and opening it slowly. Folded carefully in heavy tissue, the scarf was a deep, vibrant blue in the softest of cashmere. He stared at it for a long moment, biting his lip and resisting the urge to stroke it. Instead he picked up the small card, pulling it from its envelope and reading the words written in a strong, elegant hand that he recognized from viewing documents at the Chasez estate. His breath grew short as his eyes skimmed the words for the hundredth time.

I thought of your eyes when I saw this. Use it to keep your throat warm for me.

Justin gulped hard. Was it a threat or a promise? It sounded menacing and demanding, but also in Justin’s mind was the fact that he’d forgotten his favorite scarf in his haste to leave Paris, that he’d been without one since then. Perhaps JC knew this, meant it to be a rather nice gift, he thought slowly. Before he could lose his nerve again he pulled the scarf from the box, unfolding it gently.

It was luxuriously thick and light as a feather. Its softness beckoned to him and he raised it to his face, closing his eyes as he drew it across his cheek and over his mouth. Justin breathed deeply, catching the faintest whiff or a subtle cologne, but that could have been his imagination. What wasn’t his imagination was the brief, crystal-clear glimpse of JC handling this scarf in exactly the same way, pulling it gently over his face and through his long, elegant fingers, his mind full of the color of Justin’s eyes . . .

Justin pulled the scarf away from his lips with a little start, his heart pounding like a drum. He stared at the card again, then determinedly wound the scarf around his neck, fingers lingering on the folds. Nobody needed to know that it was anything other than a gift from a friend. And it was warm, and beautiful. And it was winter; he needed a scarf.

Justin shrugged impatiently and strode back into his bedroom to pull a heavy coat out of the closet. He’d take a walk around the grounds and get some fresh air before his meeting with Mathilda. It would clear his head, relax him a little. After his meeting and dinner he’d be fresh and ready to tackle the Tahitian prophets, he told himself, and left his room with relief.

He used to love walking the grounds around the house. They were laid out so cleverly, with the perfect balance of order and wild English country garden chaos. There were long meandering walkways, fountains and koi ponds, game fields for outdoor sports and hidden benches and gazebos bordered by fragrant blooms in the spring and summer for privacy. But now, with winter’s early dark descending on the bare trees and snow-hidden grounds, it seemed stark and sad. Bleak, he thought as he pulled his coat tighter around his neck. Empty and lonely, and he thought with a wry twist of his lips that it fit his mood perfectly. He should spend more time out here.

His watched beeped cheerily at him, reminding him that it was time for his meeting with Mathilda. Time had been getting away from him a lot lately, and he’d been setting the alarm so he wouldn’t miss any more meetings, or meals. Anything to keep the scrutiny on his actions from getting any more intense. He hurried back to the house, determined not to be late.

Mathilda’s office was on the first floor of the main wing, and he’d been there many times before. She’d been his sponsor and counselor when he’d been a brand new initiate, and he had a great fondness for her. He wondered if this summons meant she had a new assignment for him, another research project, and despite his love for her he couldn’t dredge up much enthusiasm for it, whatever it might be. He really had to get his act together, he thought grimly. And soon.

Justin tapped lightly on the big heavy door, stepping in when he heard her voice calling for him to enter. His smile froze when he saw that Mathilda wasn’t alone; a short, portly man was standing in front of the fireplace, his hands extended toward the flames. He didn’t turn when Justin stammered an apology and started to exit.

"No, Justin, please come in," Mathilda said, rising from behind her desk and beckoning Justin forward with a graceful gesture. "My goodness, what a beautiful scarf," she said with a smile as she walked forward to greet him. "Is that cashmere? Such a lovely shade, it exactly matches your eyes."

Justin blushed a little, his fingers reaching up to smooth the scarf against his chest. "Thanks," he murmured, blushing a little. "My mother sent it to me."

Mathilda patted his arm, turning him to face the man standing by the fire. "Thank you for coming this evening, Justin. There’s someone I want you to meet."

Justin closed the door carefully behind him and advanced, holding his hand out to the man. "Justin Timberlake," he said politely, and blinked when the man heaved a tired sigh and finally turned to face him.

"Yes, yes I know," he said dismissively, reaching out to clasp Justin’s hand briefly. It was warm and damp, and Justin resisted the impulse to wipe his own on his pants leg when it was released. "Lou Pearlman," the man said perfunctorily, and Justin scanned his own memory quickly. Had he met this man before? Had he done something to make him dislike him?

Mathilda broke into his thoughts with her usual warm smile and gentle voice. "Please, Justin. Sit down. Lou is here at our request; he’s done some amazing work with vampires over the years and is generally considered to be the Order’s foremost authority on dealing with the creatures."

Ah, so that was it. Justin stifled his irritation at Mathilda’s use of the term "creatures" and took a deep breath. He sternly restrained himself from reaching up and tracing the edges of the brand, which was tingling under the skin. He eased into the chair Mathilda indicated in front of her desk, aware of Lou’s beady eyes watching him, his curiosity a greasy prod at the edges of Justin’s mind. Lou stared at him for a moment and then turned abruptly to Mathilda.

"I thought you said he’d be cooperative," he said impatiently, and Justin raised his eyebrows, annoyed at being discussed as though he wasn’t there. Although, he thought with grim humor, he really should be accustomed to it by now.

"Just a moment, Lou." Mathilda’s voice was as low and pleasant as always, but underneath it Justin detected an odd tension. She was hiding it well, but she was anxious. Also, it appeared that she didn’t like the man either. Justin was meanly and irrationally glad.

"Justin," she said, waiting until he lifted his eyes to meet hers. "I know that what you’ve gone through was frightening in a number of ways, and I don’t want to make you dredge up any of that just yet, although I know Chris has spoken with you about the necessity of preparing a report." Justin nodded mutely, and under his sweater the brand on his chest itched maddeningly.

Outside, the sun had dipped below the horizon and darkness was settling on the grounds. Mathilda continued, her eyes intent. "Lou is here to help us, Justin. He really is the very best the Order has, and he’s kept us safe in the past when there have been vampires whose behavior has escalated." Her faded blue eyes coaxed him. "It was very good of him to interrupt his own research to come here and see what can be done to neutralize the Chasez vampire. Anything you can tell him would be very much appreciated." She smiled at him gently and he found himself smiling back even as he experienced incredulity at their assumption that JC could be neutralized. They could protect themselves, and perhaps Justin, from him, but neutralize? What a joke.

"I really don’t think I have anything to say that would help," he replied blandly, and took a petty sort of satisfaction at the irritated huff from the man still standing by the fire.

"We’re wasting time," Lou said impatiently. "Mathilda, I know he was one of your initiates and a favorite of yours, but stop coddling him." He turned to Justin and shook one fat finger in the air between them. "Now, I’ve come a long way today, Mr. Timberlake. And, I might add, left a very pleasant and warm climate to come to this frozen wasteland of a country expressly to help you out. I don’t think it’s out of line for me to expect some cooperation." He strode to the chair opposite Justin and sank into it with a grunt. "Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way, but it’s going to be done one way or the other."

Justin watched him impassively. He twined his fingers tightly together and fidgeted with his ring, turning it around and around his finger. "What sort of questions do you have?"

Lou rolled his eyes at Mathilda, who looked studiously out her window. There were floodlights now, illuminating the grounds at night in an eerie black and white.

"Fine," Lou said shortly, and settled his bulk deeper in the chair. "It would much easier if you’d just allow me access to your memories, Mr. Timberlake. But have it your way."

"I’m sorry," Justin murmured with false contrition. "I just don’t feel comfortable enough to let you do that." He was growing steadily more angry, and he hardly knew why. The man was annoying, but Justin had met thousands of annoying people in his life. There was no reason yet for him to be feeling this level of rage. He shifted in his chair as the brand under his sweater burned.

"Justin." Mathilda’s voice came softly from the window, and Justin could feel her concerned eyes on him. "Lou is here to help us. I’d consider it a personal favor if you would let him do his job."

Justin nodded shortly, not taking his eyes off of Lou’s. "I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have," he said, and gave Lou his broadest smile.

"Excellent. Perhaps you can start," Lou bit out, "by telling me what you’ve done to make this vampire so interested in you."

The words caused Justin’s traitorous mind to feed him vivid images of the feel of JC’s taut waist, his narrow hips grinding slowly against Justin’s, his lips burning Justin’s throat. He kept his face completely impassive and clamped down viciously on his body’s immediate reaction, forcing himself to remember where he was. This was not the privacy of his own room, this was not the place to indulge himself.

"It was a chance encounter, really," he said easily. "I saw him at a club downtown, I didn’t know he was a vampire. I thought he was handsome, but I didn’t do anything to encourage him. I didn’t even talk to him."

Lou stared at him grimly. "Well, you must have done something," he said in disbelief. "He killed two people here at the house trying to get to you. And what about your unauthorized trip to Paris? Did you see him then?"

Justin shrugged, noncommittal, and turned his eyes away to study the fire.

"What about since you’ve returned?"

Justin shook his head, slowly. There were the dreams, which grew more vivid and erotic every night, but he was almost positive those were not coming from JC. The one he’d had the night JC had come into the Order’s house and visited his room had felt very different. He didn’t know for sure, and couldn’t be certain unless he talked to one of the dream analysts, which was something he just didn’t want to do. At least not yet. Besides, JC couldn’t get in to see Justin now, not with all the security measures in place. No, Justin thought morosely. JC had not been here to see him, and he himself was still not allowed out of the house after sunset.

Not that he wanted to go, he reminded himself sternly. He had work to do, and the JC thing was over, behind him.

"Have you had any dreams," Lou asked softly, "or perhaps received any interesting gifts?"

Justin looked up at him sharply. He was good, Justin thought warily. He was very good. Justin would have to be cautious.

"No," he replied simply, and shrugged. "I mean, nothing about the Chasez vampire. I had a great dream the other night about playing in the NBA and winning the rookie of the year trophy, but I’m assuming you don’t really care about that. Am I right?"

Lou’s eyes narrowed dangerously. He looked, Justin thought suddenly, like a very angry piglet, and he stifled a burst of totally inappropriate laughter.

"Perhaps it would be more productive if I simply read your notes, Mr. Timberlake," Lou said, his voice insufferably and falsely kind, and Justin widened his eyes innocently.

"Well, I’ve been very busy with some other research projects. I haven’t actually completed a report yet, not on this."

Lou threw his hands up and heaved his bulk out of the chair. "Mathilda, I really don’t know how you can expect me to take care of this situation when the boy is so completely uncooperative." He turned his back on Justin, obviously dismissing him. "I think the best thing is for you to reopen that file and give me access to whatever you have in the archives. I really don’t need Mr. Timberlake’s help to deal with one nuisance vampire."

Justin felt the room spin dangerously at the words. He clenched his hands hard into the leather armrest, wrestling himself into silence before he could speak up, demand that he be allowed access to JC’s files. The thought of this repulsive man looking at the portrait, reading about JC’s life and death made him seethe with a crippling rage.

Dimly, he heard Mathilda offering an apology for Justin’s lack of cooperation.

"No, no, no need to apologize," Lou said, quietly. "It’s a common sort of thing, really. Once vampires make a connection with a human their hypnotic powers can be very powerful." His voice turned scornful. "I’d heard Mr. Timberlake was strong, and I’d wondered if he’d have some resistance to this particular vampire parlor trick. But it doesn’t surprise me that he doesn’t."

Justin’s fingers curled in fury.

"So, what is your plan?" he heard Mathilda ask from what seemed a great distance.

"Well, it’s fairly simple, really," Lou said briskly. "Vampires are nomadic by nature, and in truth it’s remarkable that the Chasez vampire has lingered so long in the London area. I’m sure he must have some sort of enticement to stay." Justin felt rather than saw the dark look leveled at him. "But I think all we need to do is find his daytime lair, let him know that he’s been discovered, and he’ll move on. If not, well, there are other measures we can take."

Justin stifled another furious surge of anger, outraged at the thought of this hideous man finding JC when he was helpless, looking at his handsome face while he slept. He realized that his hand had crept to the center of his chest and was pressing hard. For a confusing moment he could almost feel the letters there scorching his fingers, although that was impossible through his heavy cable knit sweater. He closed his eyes, feeling sweat break out on his brow.

"Justin?" Mathilda’s voice was concerned, and he opened his eyes to see her frowning at him. "Are you okay?"

Justin nodded, relaxing his hands and taking a deep breath, feeling Lou’s presence like a thundercloud in the corner of the room. "Just a little dizzy," he said lightly, rising to his feet and ignoring Lou as if he wasn’t there. "I skipped lunch."

Mathilda smiled at him and nodded understandingly. She patted him on the arm and Justin could feel her honest sympathy, mixed with a deep concern. She was afraid for him, Justin realized, and fought back a sharp pang of guilt. "Well, go on then," she said quietly. "Get something to eat, and we’ll talk later, okay?"

Justin gathered his coat and left without a backward glance. The main lobby was empty, and he hesitated, turning indecisively away from the main dining hall. He would ask for dinner to be brought to his rooms, he thought, beginning to climb the wide, curved staircase. He needed to finish his pre-investigative report. And, he grimly acknowledged to himself, he didn’t want to be away from his room, just in case the phone rang.

~ ~ ~ ~

In the dream, JC stared at him from across the room, the ghost of a smile on his lips, his eyes dark and searching. Justin felt them on his skin, felt JC urging him to return the gaze, to move across the room and into his arms. Justin wanted to go to him more than anything, but he couldn't do it -- he had to hold back because it was wrong to think about JC, wrong to want him, wrong to in any way encourage him. In desperation, Justin tried to talk to Chris, Mathilda, and the other members of the Order standing next to him, only it was so strange, because everyone but JC and Justin was wearing baseball uniforms and pendants just like JC's, and the motherhouse wasn't the motherhouse at all but instead JC's family home. Justin looked from Chris to Mathilda to the other senior members to JC and then back again, very worried what they would say about JC, but he was the only one in the room who was not oblivious to JC's presence. Chris was going on and on about the Tahitian prophets, gesturing animatedly and talking a mile a minute. Justin tried to listen, but Chris's voice kept cutting in and out.

That was JC's fault. "Leave me alone," Justin said to him, annoyed because his voice was shaking, then turned around to glare, but JC was gone, the only reminder of him the familiar twinge of the brand on Justin's chest, the ache he felt all the time now. Justin looked back down at Chris and could hear him again.

"He's really too young for all of this, but I guess that's how it is in baseball," Chris said to Mathilda even though Justin was right there, which smarted especially badly since Mathilda had been the one to first bring him in.

"I think, you know, I'm improving a lot," Justin said in his defense, then felt anger rise in him as Chris and Mathilda fiddled with their necklaces and gave him disbelieving looks. He was trying so hard, and they didn't even notice.

"I'm serious here," Justin said, and then clamped his mouth shut tight and tried not to breathe, because there was JC again, only this time he was at the bookshelves, slowly taking out book after book, leafing through them, and then dropping them unceremoniously on the floor. Justin peered anxiously at the cover of the book in JC's had at the moment; it read Getting What You Want. When JC threw that one on the ground too, Justin longed to go yell at him for being so disrespectful, but he couldn't, not in front of Chris, Mathilda, and all these people.

So Justin looked back down at Chris instead. "What do you do when you see something you don't want to see?" he asked.

"Whatever you're seeing, Justin, it's wrong," Mathilda said urgently. "If you learn nothing else about baseball, learn that."

"But I can't help it; I can't stop it," Justin said plaintively, and then took in a long, unsteady breath because JC had dropped the last book to the floor and begun purposefully walking toward him.

"Yes you can," Chris said flatly. "And if you don't, you'll lose the game for us, Justin. Every last time, you'll lose it for us."

"You know, maybe it was a mistake," Mathilda said. "Maybe we shouldn't have drafted him after all."

"Nah," Chris said confidently. "Justin'll pull through for us -- he always does. There's absolutely no reason --"

And then Chris's voice cut out again, because JC was very, very close now. Justin looked at him with wide eyes, then took a step or two backward, because although JC was smiling, Justin knew that he was very angry, as angry as Justin had ever seen him. He looked hungry, craven, and utterly cruel. Suddenly, Justin realized that JC was going to kill him, really kill him, and that no one else in the room could do anything about it.

"Come here, Justin," JC said patiently, and opened his arms.

"Please," he said to JC. "Please leave me alone. I can't do this if you don't."

"That's exactly what I'm counting on," JC said, and then the brand on Justin's chest began to hurt in earnest and all was lost. He cleared his throat once or twice, then stepped toward annihilation.

"-- okay, sir?"

Justin groaned and opened his eyes and then realized in panic that he had no idea where he was, realized as well that the scarf JC had sent him two days ago was now wrapped almost uncomfortably close around his neck. He loosened it quickly, his face reddening, and then looked dazedly around him and slowly took in row after row of seats, the huge white screen at the front of the room, the popcorn boxes and empty cups scattered on the floor.

"I fell asleep at the movies," he murmured.

"Yes you did, sir. It's time to go home now," the usher said, and Justin stumbled to his feet. He felt dizzy and sluggish, sleep-drunk, and as he slowly walked out of the theater, he weaved a bit. Stupid, stupid thing to fall asleep at the movies, but it wasn't entirely unexpected. He hadn't been sleeping very well at the motherhouse, even with the new security measures in place. All the motion sensors in the world couldn't stop JC from moving into his dreams.

As he got out to the lobby, Justin froze a little bit as he looked out the window, then glanced in disbelief at his watch. He'd slept for several hours: it was 9:30 at night, and completely dark outside. Just great. His first afternoon out after having returned from France, and already he'd blown it. He had to call the Order right now, get someone to pick him up, to escort him home safely. Justin fumbled in his pockets for his cell phone, then frowned as he remembered that his phone was in his coat. And his coat was . . . it was . . .

"I'm sorry, sir, but I don't see it," the usher said unsympathetically as Justin walked unhappily up and down the row he'd been sitting in. "Someone probably walked off with it when you were sleeping."

His coat, his wallet, his keys -- the keys to the motherhouse. Justin groaned out loud. Now they'd have to change the locks a second time because of him.

"Could I please use your phone?" he asked the usher. Fortunately the guy took pity on him and led him down the hallway of theaters to the employees' break room. Justin sat miserable under fluorescent lights and slowly dialed the motherhouse and asked for Chris.

"I really -- I ruined everything Chris. I'm going to be kicked out for sure now, and I just -- I didn't mean for it to happen, I swear to you," Justin said all in a rush.

"Justin, it's okay," Chris said quickly, and Justin could practically hear him thinking. "This is absolutely fixable, okay? You and I are gonna take care of this on our own -- we can deal with it as long as you don't panic. Can you do that for me? Can you stay calm?"

"Yeah," Justin said, and felt calmer already.

"Okay," Chris said. "The first thing I want you to do after we hang up is protect your thoughts, all the way, tighter and closer than you ever have before in your life. If he's out there, we don't want him to be able to find you."

"Right," Justin said and bit his lip.

"All right. The next thing -- you have to be somewhere bright and loud and full of people."

"I'm at the Wiltington multiplex, Chris. It doesn't get much brighter and louder than this."

"Okay," Chris said. "Okay, good. You stay there and you stay around people, Justin, you hear me? I'll be there in about --"

"Thirty-five minutes," Justin said glumly. That was a long time to wait with no money and nothing to do.

"I'll make it faster than that -- promise you, J," Chris said, and then lowered his voice. "So don't worry, all right? I'll get you out of there safe. It's going to be okay."

"Yeah," Justin said, and then added, "I just -- it's so stupid, Chris. The one thing I really don't need, you know? I think there's something wrong with me."

"No there's not," Chris said firmly. "You're just fine and we're going to get you out of this. Everyone makes mistakes, and as soon as you realized it, you did the right thing," Chris said. "That means a lot in my book. And besides -- it's not like he's, you know, omniscient or something. London's a pretty big place, and the chances of him finding you are actually pretty slim."

"I know, I know," Justin said, and then sighed, because he really didn't believe it. "I'll see you in thirty-five, Chris."

"Sooner than that," Chris promised again, and then hung up.

~ ~ ~ ~

It hit him like a slap in the face, Justin's scent, warm and rich and utterly tantalizing. After almost three weeks of nothing, finally Justin's scent. JC stood motionless in the middle of the sidewalk, ignoring the people brushing by him, and simply enjoyed it for a few seconds; then, he narrowed his eyes and began to search. Somewhere very near, somewhere so close. He took a few steps and it got stronger, and then JC had to clench his jaw a bit, resist the urge to shiver with every muscle in his body, because dammit, he was responding to this; he was acting like such an idiot. This entire obsession, this stupid, stupid crush had to end. Soon.

Maybe tonight, even. JC closed his eyes for just a minute and reached out carefully, his brow creasing in puzzlement when he found nothing. As amazing as Justin's mental defenses were, it'd be close to impossible for him to hide altogether, especially at this proximity. But the scent was still there, still driving him insane. JC frowned and then started looking hard at the people around him: a woman with a briefcase probably going home from work; two or three men in drab gray suits; a filthy homeless guy crouched against the wall and begging for money; a young family with shiny, blank faces.

JC smiled when he figured it out, then moved quickly and decisively toward the homeless guy. "Good evening," he said in not-very-pleasant voice, then smiled and showed his fangs and watched as the man grew white.

"Please, I don't -- you can take anything I have," he blurted.

"Actually, I was just thinking about how much I admire that coat." JC said, and then sank into a crouch and looked deep into the man's eyes. After a few seconds' confusion, he got to his feet and slowly followed JC to the back of the building. No one was in sight, but it was still dangerously in the open. JC didn't care.

"So where did you get it?" JC asked smoothly, and then backed the guy hard into the wall, running hands up and down the lapels of the coat. God, it smelled like Justin; it was Justin everywhere, in his nose, on his hands, in the air. JC fought the urge to rip it off this man, to shred it into pieces and hold them to his face.

"I don't -- I -- it's not mine -- I -- the movies, okay? I took it from someone at the movies this afternoon!" he was stuttering.

JC leaned in. "Where?" he demanded. "Which theater?"

"The one with the fountain in front!" the guy said desperately.

"Where?" JC said again, letting his voice grow even more dangerous.

"I can't remember the name! I just -- it's --"

JC sighed in annoyance, then plunged into the guy's mind, not bothering to be gentle at all, sifting ruthlessly, impatiently around until he found the image he wanted. The man groaned in agony, babbling and writhing until JC let him go.

"Take off the coat," he said to the man, then stepped back and yanked it away from him. JC neatly folded it, set it carefully down on the pavement, and then moved in and swiftly snapped the guy's neck.

"Crime doesn't pay," he advised the corpse, and then draped the coat over his arm and headed back out to the street.

~ ~ ~ ~

Fiddling with the edge of his scarf, Justin leaned wearily against the window at the front of the theater and sighed. Ten minutes down and at least twenty-five more to go, and absolutely no sign of either JC or any danger, really. Clearly, he'd overreacted; he was a stupid child afraid of his own shadow. He should go back, find that usher, call Chris's cell, and tell him he'd find his own way home.

He couldn't do that very well without money, though. Justin groaned and pressed his head against the window, watching people file in and out of the coffee shop and department store across the street. It was a Friday night, and there were lots of couples strolling aimlessly, hands linked, faces inclined toward each other. They depressed the hell out of him, but he couldn't stop staring, and he also couldn't help remembering JC and Julien, who had looked every bit as happy. Justin tamped down hard on that thought, amazed at how much it irked him to think of JC with someone else. It was beyond ridiculous to be jealous of someone dead for over two hundred years, but Justin couldn't help it, couldn't help feeling that it was incredibly unfair that Julien had gotten the gentle part of JC, the part that understood tenderness and affection. Then Justin flashed back to Paris, to the look in JC's eyes at the club, and felt a little better. JC might not have been as gentle with him as he was with Julien, but he'd definitely been focused and intense, and that had been its own gift, hadn't it? JC hadn't branded Julien, JC hadn't given Julien the necklace, and as far as Justin knew, JC hadn't sent Julien as many gifts, even if they were mocking. JC hadn't -- well, aside from that not-even-really-finished comment, JC hadn't at all seemed to want Julien in the same way he wanted Justin. Justin looked down at popcorn pieces on the brightly colored carpet and tried to contain the strange pride that rose in him at the thought, tried to clamp down on it and transform it into contrition. He was not obsessed with JC anymore; he was not devoting his time to worrying about how JC felt about him. In fact, he was here right now hoping to be rescued from JC, and so there wasn't any use in thinking further about it.

If anyone were allowed to be thinking about JC right now, it was Lou Pearlman. At that thought, Justin's desire to reform exploded and anger took over again. JC would slaughter Lou, eat him for breakfast and then drop his bones on the front steps of the Order. JC didn't want someone like Lou around him -- Lou didn't deserve --

Oh god. What had he been thinking? How had he let himself veer so madly in the very direction he was trying not to go? Justin sighed heavily and tried to devote himself to people-watching again. Eventually, they all started to blend into each other, and his eyes slid carelessly, lazily from one face to another. Every ten minutes or so, a new wave either entered or exited the theater, so he was in a crowd at all times. It was exhausting trying to resist the multitude of thoughts and feelings surrounding him, and he actually found himself slipping once or twice, drifting into someone's thoughts, which was completely unlike him. He really hadn't been getting enough sleep lately.

When the brand on his chest began to tingle, Justin closed his mind all the way, however, then looked anxiously out onto the street before him. The newly forming scar bothered him much less now than when he'd first come back from France, but it was still sensitive, most particularly when he tried to sleep. It felt strange to have the response in public, unseemly almost, and Justin wished desperately for it to end.

After ten minutes, the sensation began to subside, and it was with relief that Justin felt his body begin to uncoil. Chris had been right: there was close to no chance that JC would find him here. He breathed more easily.

He'd just caught himself figuring out that the woman in the couple right behind him was having an affair when Justin felt it -- gentle and persuasive and just at the corners of his mind, and it was JC, it was absolutely JC, and Justin was terrified. He slammed his mind shut, then slowly moved back from the window, his heart pounding and his breath coming in short, quick gasps. Okay. Okay. The thing to do was not to panic -- if he could just stay around people, stay in the light, he'd be just fine. Not even JC Chasez would risk kidnapping in the middle of a public place.

Justin looked hopefully at his watch: it was just coming on twenty minutes. Chris would be here very soon; all he'd have to do then was make it out to the car and hop in, and that was -- well, it was totally feasible that he could do that. Besides, the fact that he'd felt JC's mind for a moment didn't mean that JC was all that close to him. JC was a powerful telepath -- JC could probably make connections from miles away.

The theater was jam-packed right now: the last shows of the night were beginning, and people milled around the lobby buying tickets, meeting up with friends, and buying huge vats of popcorn. Justin tried to feel safe and calm, tried to let the swell of humanity reassure him, but he still kept eyes trained anxiously on the doors, scanning nervously for a familiar form.

Just then, a black Volkswagen pulled up in front of the theater, and Justin's heart leapt. Chris: at long last, Chris. Justin lowered his head, moved carefully through the press of people to the front door of the theater, then darted out to the car, loping quickly across the sidewalk in front of the theater until he held the door handle in his fingers. He yanked it toward him, then drew his brows together in consternation. It was locked -- what kind of game was Chris playing? Justin bent down in annoyance to peer in the window, then immediately stepped back, mortified, as he met eyes with a very frightened-looking woman.

"I'm so sorry," he said out loud, slowly moving away from the car. "I thought you were someone else, and I just -- I'm so sorry," he repeated, and then made everything worse by very nearly backing into someone else. "Sorry," he mumbled to the new person, and then began making his way toward the theater again, his eyes tirelessly sweeping the crowd. Just before he reached the door, he felt it again, another gentle nudge, and Justin froze in terror. What if JC were in the theater now, just waiting for him to walk into his arms? What if JC was counting on that? Or maybe JC was over there behind those trees, or maybe JC was in one of the many other cars in front of the theater. Maybe JC was right behind him this very minute.

Justin slowly turned around, his heart slamming against his ribs, then sighed in relief when he saw nothing. He was losing it. What he needed most right now was to stay in the light and near people, and the lightest, brightest place right now was back in the theater. Shoving his hands deep in his pockets, Justin headed for the doors again and stepped inside.

It was then that he saw him, saw JC standing perfectly still at the opposite end of the lobby, his face fierce with concentration, his body tense as he methodically scanned the crowd.

"Oh," Justin said quietly, and for a few seconds couldn't help himself: he stared in absolute admiration at the tense curve of JC's shoulders under his black coat, the stretch of his legs, the way his hands rested motionless and relaxed at his sides. He was searching the crowd with an almost feral look on his face, and Justin shuddered in fear and amazement as he realized that this was what JC probably looked like when he hunted. Justin was caught helplessly between arousal and fear at the thought of JC hunting him: feet rooted to the ground, heart and lungs contracting wildly, he stood motionless and tried to calm himself, stop the slow ache in his groin as he watched the ruthless eyes get closer and closer to meeting his own.

"Justin," he heard then, and although it was in his mind, he gasped out loud. That was when JC saw him, too; that was when JC opened eyes wide and looked directly at him, triumph written all over his face.

Justin plunged forward blindly, opened the door and stumbled out, running as quickly as he could across the plaza to the department store. As he reached the revolving door in front, he cast a furtive glance over his shoulder. JC, about twenty feet back, grinned at him.

Justin burst hurriedly into the store, then headed blindly past brightly lit counters and painted make-up girls until he reached the escalator. He bounded two floors up, pushing people out of his way and then cutting sideways across the floor. He was in the men's clothing department -- just great. Justin wanted to look over his shoulder again, but the possibility that JC was right behind him was too terrifying, so instead he moved quickly among circular racks of jackets and pants until he reached the fitting rooms. They were, amazingly, unlocked, and it took only a second for Justin to slip inside one of them and then close his eyes, lower his head, and focus every fiber of his being on calming himself and shutting down his mind.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC paused absently to finger a jacket, fingertips caressing the fabric in appreciation, then slowly began to make his way back to the dressing rooms. Justin was in the second or third one in, had been for at least ten minutes now, or at least that had been where he was before he'd gotten control of his thoughts again. JC moved slowly across the floor until he reached the suite of rooms, then paused, closed his eyes, and smiled to himself when he heard Justin breathing.

~ ~ ~ ~

"Justin," JC said almost jovially as he stepped into the dressing room, his mouth quirked into a grin.

Justin stumbled backward quickly until he felt the far wall of the room pressing into his back, trying desperately to conceal the worst of his panic and his need. It felt shamefully, desperately good to see JC again, wonderful to run eyes over the lean lines of his body, to hear his voice, to admire the easy and almost lazy way he moved. JC was apparently in a very good mood tonight, which only made him even more beautiful: his eyes were clear and bright, and he was practically vibrating with energy.

"Oh my. What a lovely scarf," JC said in amusement, and then closed the door behind him and leaned back against it, his eyes darkening a bit as he watched Justin hurriedly unwind the scarf from his neck and place it on the chair next to him.

Once he'd finished, Justin stared back at JC, appreciating against his own better judgment the fine black wool coat he had on, the handsome line of his jaw against the fabric, the way his hair curled back from his forehead in a series of neat waves. He also had something over his arm -- something that actually looked a little bit like --

"Oh my god! You stole my coat!" Justin exclaimed.

JC looked down at it and actually laughed out loud before raising sparkling eyes to Justin's. "You actually think I --" he said, delighted. "Oh, that's wonderful."

"Well, what else am I supposed to think?"

JC stepped carefully across the room, one hand up to indicate that he meant no harm, and then gently set the coat down on the chair holding Justin's scarf. "What happened, Justin," he said more quietly as he slowly backed up again, "is that I met the man who did steal it from you and then persuaded him to give it back. I was worried about you without it on this cold night."

"Right," Justin said flatly even though part of him melted a little bit. "Well, thank you for that, JC, and thank you also for the scarf, of course. And, um, I guess the other things, too, even though I did just figure out that it was my credit card paying for them."

JC smiled at him. "I believe you'll find --"

"Yes, yes, I know," Justin said quickly, because he didn't think he could stand to hear JC say the rest. "And I think -- it was certainly generous of you to pay off that balance, but JC, I can't accept-- I don't want to accept that from you."

"Frankly, I don't think you have a choice in the matter. The deed is done," JC said serenely, and Justin colored again. He was losing control of everything, acting like an utter idiot after only two minutes in JC's presence. No wonder Mathilda, Chris, and everyone else was so worried about him. He needed to take control of this interview at once, put things on more stable ground.

"Okay, know what, JC? I think we should probably just leave, because I really, really don't want to talk to you right now."

As soon as he got the words out, Justin crossed his arms over his chest because the brand on his skin was burning and he needed to touch it. JC raised an eyebrow as he watched the reflexive gesture, but he didn't say anything.

"You use gifts to manipulate -- you always have -- and all you want from me is information," Justin continued a little more loudly than he meant to, and then grew even more confident. "You showed that well enough in Paris. It's really best, I think, if we just not -- if, you know, we don't see each other anymore."

"You know, it's funny," JC mused. "You say that you don't want to see me, and yet when I meet your eyes, you can't look away. You claim that you don't want to talk to me, and yet you sit for minutes on end with the phone at your ear waiting for me to say something. You spend weeks in the motherhouse locked up like a virgin, but the first thing you do when you leave is stay out after dark, when you know I can get to you. When you know that I absolutely will get to you." JC paused and inclined his head politely. "What am I supposed to think about all that?"

"I don't care what you think about it," Justin said as embarrassment swept over him, looking carefully at JC's hands instead of his face so as not to see the knowledge in his eyes.

"And when you finally do let me see you, you run -- and thank you for that, by the way, thank you very, very much -- but the chase, Justin? I hate to be rude, but hunting you down tonight was surprisingly . . . " JC broke off and gestured broadly as he pretended to search for a word, and Justin wanted to hit him. "Well, I hate to say easy, but no other word suffices," JC finally finished, and then smiled.

Justin felt his temper rise and his cheeks burn. "You're wrong about everything," he said in a low voice. "And your pride is absolutely out of control."

"So why did you chose to hide in here, Justin?" JC asked with mock innocence, looking up at the ceiling, around at the four small walls around them. "What made you leave the busy parts of the store, where you were surrounded by people, in favor of a deserted, enclosed space with only one exit? Hmm?"

Justin looked down at the floor and held his breath. More than anything he hated having other people realize things about them before he figured them out himself.

"I'm waiting," JC said, and then moved even closer.

"Yeah, well, while we're having this little chat, maybe I can ask you a few things, too," Justin quickly said, mostly to make JC stop approaching, but soon after that, words came to him: "You keep threatening to kill me, but you don't do that -- instead, you break into my room and give me gifts, valuable gifts, gifts that actually really mean something to you. You say that I'm sitting there listening to you on the phone, but who made those calls, JC? Who put me in the position to do that? You say that I'm trying to get caught, but it's no small wonder I can't get away from you, because no matter where I go or what I do, you're right there, always. You could have killed me each time, JC; by now, you could have done it easily several times over, and we both know it. And so I guess -- I guess what I'm wondering is, you know, why I'm not dead yet if you're such a great vampire."

Barely a second after Justin got out the last word, JC had pinned him against the wall, one arm braced across his chest, the other at his throat, his hips pressing tight into him.

"You're right about one thing -- I have shown considerable self control," JC murmured, and then stroked Justin's neck with his thumb, digging into his pulse point, his eyes locked on Justin's face as Justin shuddered under his touch. "But maybe it's time for that to stop, because if you can really be so stupid as to dare me to kill you, then you've clearly forgotten who you're dealing with. And that, Justin, would be a serious mistake."

Terror spread through him, but Justin forced himself to speak. "I know exactly what you're capable of," he said in a thin, shaking voice, trembling as JC tightened fingers around his throat. "The one time I did let myself forget it, two people died, and I'm not -- well, I'm not ever going to do that again. Not ever. But that still doesn't mean --"

"Be very, very careful now," JC said in a low, dangerous voice.

"I know!" Justin said, and to his horror, his voice cracked. "I know, JC, but I still have to -- I have to tell you that I still know that you're not going to kill me. I just do."

Slowly, and in stages, JC loosened his grip on Justin and then stepped back a bit and looked away.

Justin reached out very cautiously and put a hand on JC's arm. "Don't you see? It's not something either of us can stop, not something we can control. We've just -- there's this strange thing between us."

"Maybe," JC quietly said after a long pause, not sounding happy about it at all.

"More than maybe," Justin said. "So why don't we stop fighting it, you know? Maybe the best thing to do at this point is to make it work for us, not hurt us."

JC cocked an eyebrow. "How so?"

"Well, I think, you know, that we both want -- things from each other, right?"

"Right," JC said very softly.

"You want me to destroy the file in the Order, and I want you to teach me more about vampires," Justin quickly went on. "And if we could work together on those counts, I think we'd both benefit."

JC looked hard at Justin. "So what exactly did you have in mind for us?" he asked after a short pause, in a voice that made Justin anxiously sink his teeth into his lip.

"I guess I just -- well, it seems to me that it would make sense to spend some time together. Like, discussing things, exchanging information."

JC rolled his eyes.

"It's not stupid!" Justin shot back, annoyed. "Look -- if we're truly going to help each other, than we have to have a certain comfort level right? And I'm not -- it's not marriage I'm proposing -- not even a date, um, or anything. I just want -- well, why don't we just spend some time together, okay?"

"Doing what?" JC asked.

Justin felt his face heat up but didn't rise to the bait.

"You know what I mean, JC," he said in a low voice.

"Of course. You want to hang out," JC said in amusement. "Absolutely. I'd be happy to do that for you, Justin."

"But, see, it'd help you, too," Justin said. "It wouldn't be just for me."

"Of course not," JC said, and Justin struggled not to react.

"Okay, then. So let's do it. We'll spend time together," Justin said, and JC laughed for a moment before falling quiet and giving him a thoughtful look.

"Okay, then," he finally said, and then smiled a bit. "Let's say, what, Friday at 9:30, all right? I'll pick you up at the Order."

"Um," Justin said until he figured out that JC was joking. "Right."

"Meet me at the bookstore," JC said. "Where we saw each other before."

Justin remembered that night and very nearly laughed. Things had certainly changed since then.

"So okay," he said, suddenly feeling awkward and silly. "We're all set, then."

"Yes," JC agreed. "We're all set."

"Right," Justin quickly said, and then, because JC had on the thoughtful look again and he felt uncertain, quickly added, "Know what? I should probably go out there and look for Chris,"

"Oh, don't do that just yet," JC murmured, and then slowly reached inside his shirt pocket. "I have something for you."

"Oh," Justin quietly exclaimed as he saw the necklace, as he watched JC undo the clasp and step very close to him. The stone was beautiful even in the fluorescent light of the dressing room.

"I want you to wear this for me again," JC said.

Justin felt his world start to reel a bit, felt himself grow a little weak. The intensity of JC's desire was unsettling, but his need to do what JC wanted him to was even more frightening.

"Justin," JC prompted.

"I -- of course I'll wear it," Justin whispered, because it was what he wanted, and then immediately doubted himself. Accepting the pendant again suddenly seemed foolhardy, and Justin anxiously wondered whether he were undoing whatever positive steps he'd taken with JC just a minute ago.

But it was too late for that: already JC's fingers were brushing the nape of Justin's neck as he fastened the clasp, and already Justin was on the verge of shivering as he felt the pendant slide down over his chest.

"This belongs to you now," JC said, putting a hand over the pendant and pressing it into Justin's chest. "Don't ever take it off again."

"I won't," Justin promised, and then JC leaned in to kiss him, his tongue urging its way into Justin's mouth, his hands sliding possessively over his chest. Justin pressed wantonly into the touch, breathing raggedly as JC kissed the line of his jaw, just below his ear, slid his tongue gently over the diamond earring in his earlobe. It was impossibly good, almost too good, and Justin felt a flash of fear as his body began to take over, to become JC's.

"That's right. Let go," JC murmured into his neck, and Justin realized dimly that he must be broadcasting his thoughts. He was in the middle of an attempt to summon up the strength to stop that when JC slowly worked hands around to the small of his back and then slid them down inside his jeans, inside his underwear. Then there were no more coherent thoughts at all.

Justin reached desperately for JC's hips as JC dragged him roughly forward, brought their bodies close together. Justin dropped his head to JC's shoulder and moaned into it because the sensation was so good and so frustrating at once.

JC kissed him deeply then, his hands sliding up and around until they were under Justin's shirt. Justin shuddered in anticipation as JC's cool fingers traveled up his chest, searching for the brand. He wanted JC to touch it, wanted to feel his fingers on it.

"Oh god," JC said huskily as his fingertips finally found the raised skin, and then pressed his palm against it. Justin moaned shamelessly. It felt as if JC were touching something very private and intimate, and he wanted that; he wanted to give JC everything.

"How did you did you do it?" Justin whispered. "How did you give it to me?"

JC only smiled and shook his head, and then, keeping his hand firmly in place, kissed his way up to Justin's neck, finding the pulse at the side of his throat and sucking greedily at the skin. Justin cried out as JC's other hand slid down to his groin, and then JC had him everywhere; JC was touching him everywhere it mattered. He rocked desperately, eagerly into JC's hands, silently begging for more, begging JC never to stop.

And when JC slowly moved away, Justin begged out loud, his voice needy and thin.

"Shh, Justin," JC murmured, and Justin saw that he, too, was flushed, that his mouth was swollen and his eyes were dark with longing. "You're going to go meet Chris, right?"

"Right," Justin said breathlessly, and then collapsed back into the wall again, pressing a hand to his mouth and trying not to shake. Oh god.

"JC," he said quickly. "I -- that. What we just did."

"Don't analyze," JC said firmly. "For once in your life, Justin, don't analyze."

Justin looked into his silver-blue eyes and then stood stock still, struck silent, because unless he were seriously mistaken, that was -- it looked like -- could that be fondness in JC's eyes?

"Here," JC said, and bent to the chair, picking up Justin's coat and scarf. "It's very cold out. Put these on."

Justin slowly wrapped the scarf around his neck, carefully not watching JC watch him do it, and then shrugged into his coat, buttoning it up and shoving hands into pockets. When he felt his wallet, keys and phone, Justin made a sound of amazement and relief. Looked like he wasn't going to have problems with the Order after all, and it would be easy enough to tell Chris that someone had returned his coat to the theater.

"Thanks for getting the coat back," Justin said sincerely.

"It was nothing," JC said.

"He, the guy you took it from -- who was he?" Justin asked. "Why'd he do it -- what was he like?"

"Gee. Is that a car horn I hear?" JC said, and looked impatiently at the door. Justin stared hard at him for a moment before slowly shaking his head. He probably didn't want to know anyway.

"Friday at 9:30," Justin said one more time. He really, really didn't want to leave.

"Yes. In the bookstore," JC said, and then smiled and tilted his head impatiently, telling Justin to be gone. Justin took one last, slow look at him, and then obeyed.

Chapter Text

~ ~ ~ ~

Part Four

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin scowled ferociously at the full length mirror on the back of his bedroom door. He eyed his long-sleeved sweater critically, plucking restlessly at the sleeves. It was a nice sweater, finely knit and in his favorite shade of deep green, and he liked the way it looked on him. But the pendant underneath made a bulky sort of lump, and not wearing the necklace was simply not an option. Now that it was back around his neck he didn’t even take it off to shower.

He sighed and pulled the sweater over his head, tossing it unceremoniously onto the pile of clothing on his bed and stretching slowly before looking at his desk. Once again he was ready to work, his laptop humming, books stacked neatly. His mouth twisted wryly. Once again he couldn’t focus on the research he’d been assigned.

But it was still early, he thought optimistically. He’d still have time to get some serious work done, as well as the other things he wanted to accomplish before darkness fell. He wanted to shower again, and shave, do something about his hair, make certain he looked his very best.

And there were other things too, he reminded himself as he turned away from his neatly organized desk. Important research things. He had a chance to spend time with, have a serious conversation with, a vampire. A vampire who had promised, or at least implied, cooperation. How many members of the Order had ever had such an incredible opportunity? It was amazing, so exciting, and Justin wanted to be ready. He wanted to prepare a detailed outline of the topics he wanted to cover, and he hadn’t even started that. A list of specific questions, perhaps. He wanted to be businesslike and organized.

And he’d get started on that in just a moment, but first he needed to make some decisions. Justin turned determinedly back to his closet and flipped through his hangers. His usual uniform of baggy track pants and sweatshirts was simply out of the question -- he’d never seen JC dress in anything that looked sloppy. JC always looked, well, amazing. Totally amazing and like he had a tremendous amount of money to spend on clothing. Everything Justin had seen him in, even in the grainy copy of the photograph in the archive file, had fit him perfectly. Even his jeans looked custom tailored. Or maybe, Justin mused, JC just had the type of body that always looked great in clothing. His body certainly felt good, he thought, leaning against his dresser and playing with the pendant around his neck, staring into space. Lean, and firm, not an ounce of softness anywhere that Justin had been able to put his hands that night in the club. And warm, he’d been very warm, and the skin at his waist had felt like velvet . . .

Justin jerked himself back to sensibility, running a shaking hand across his forehead. This wasn’t helping, not at all. He needed to focus, to prepare for this . . . meeting. It was a meeting, JC had agreed to spend the evening with Justin, to perhaps answer the questions he had about JC’s life. And while Justin still wasn’t completely without fear, it certainly was submerged beneath his rapidly building excitement. And anticipation.

Where would they go? What would they do? He should’ve asked more questions, he wanted to be appropriately dressed and. Well. Justin wanted to look good. JC had approved of the way he’d looked in the past, and Justin wanted that again, he wanted JC to look him over in that intense way he had, for his eyes to go hot and narrow . . .

With an impatient gesture Justin grabbed another shirt off its hanger and stepped determinedly back into his bedroom, pulling it on. His mother had sent it as a birthday present a couple of weeks ago. It was a deep burgundy, thin and sheer, not really meant for winter in London. He’d have to wear a tank top underneath. But the pendant would look really, really good with it. The stone was almost exactly the same color, and the intricately designed chain would glow against his black undershirt. He could leave the shirt partially unbuttoned, showing his neck and the pendant’s chain. He eyed himself critically in the mirror, turning to the side, smoothing the shirt over his waist. Yes, this would work. This would totally work.

Quickly he stripped the shirt off and hung it carefully next to the pants he’d selected, pleased to have the issue of what to wear resolved. He checked his watch. 3:00. Plenty of time.

He’d told Chris that he was going to dinner and a movie with someone he’d met at the museum’s impressionist lecture the previous week. Chris was still a little concerned about Justin being out at night alone, but he’d been reassured when Justin told him he’d stick to public, well-lit places. Then he’d questioned him rather seriously about his research work, how far behind he was, when he could expect to have those reports ready. It had gone on a little too long, and Justin tried to answer confidently even as he’d squirmed, but finally Chris had slapped Justin on the shoulder and grinned, told him to have a good time.

"Maybe you’ll get lucky," Chris had joked and he’d been turning away or he would’ve seen the way Justin froze, the way his face flushed red. For the millionth time in the last few months, Justin blessed his natural gift for keeping people out of his head. There was far too much there that would alarm the other members of the Order these days.

But there was no need for such alarm, he told himself firmly as he pulled his sweats back on and sat down at his computer. He and JC had come to an agreement of sorts. They were curious about each other, drawn to each other, and it wouldn’t hurt to go with this, see where it took them. Justin had been doing a lot of reading about vampires lately and he was consumed with questions. It seemed none of the experts really agreed on anything other than the basics -- vampires existed, they drank the blood of living creatures in order to exist, and they were strictly nocturnal. On other details there was vast disagreement, and Justin’s scholarly instincts were piqued. These were questions he could get answers to now. He couldn’t wait.

He frowned at his computer and spent some time with the Order’s archives and main accessible files, trying to figure out where Lou was in his investigation. There was frustratingly little to discover; either Lou hadn’t made any progress yet, or he kept his notes private. He might have to take further steps, Justin mused thoughtfully. It was unthinkable that Lou should have information on JC that Justin himself did not have.

He swiveled back and forth on his desk chair, staring out the window as late afternoon turned to dusk. JC had said 9:30, and that was hours after the sun set. Justin would rather meet earlier, have more time to spend with him, but of course JC would have things to do. Justin shifted uncomfortably in his chair, fingers tapping restlessly on his desk as his idle laptop hummed. He rose and walked to the window, staring unblinkingly out over the grounds as darkness fell. His hands stroked gently up the warm skin of his neck, then pressed into the pulse under his jaw.

It wasn’t until darkness had fallen completely that Justin shook himself out of his reverie. Time to shower and get ready, and he hadn’t made any notes or prepared an outline. He huffed impatiently, but it didn’t matter, not really. All his questions were in his mind -- he had no need for a formal outline. The important thing was to get there, to be there on time. In fact, Justin thought as he stripped off his clothes and turned the water on, he wanted to be there early. He wanted to watch JC arrive.

~ ~ ~ ~

The bookstore was very crowded for a Friday evening, and Justin frowned in frustration. Why didn’t these people just go home? He would’ve preferred for some of the tables lining the coffee shop to be empty, or the seating areas less populated. There was no place in this store to have a private conversation, there really wasn’t. Not unless you trekked up to the dimly lit second floor stacks. He thought of his last encounter with JC there and hesitated. Justin was shivering a little with cold and tension, but his palms were slick with sweat. No, upstairs was out of the question. He drew a deep breath, starting to scan the main floor for a decent place to wait. He was quite early.

He hadn’t had any trouble leaving the house. Even Mathilda had seemed pleased that he was going out, enjoying himself. Like Chris, she had made a point to caution him to stay out in public, reminding Justin to avoid dark areas and to call if he had any problems of any sort. They had people in the city, she’d assured him, and help could be there in no time at all. He’d had no problem reassuring her.

There was nothing to reassure her about, Justin reminded himself as he started toward a chair on the opposite end of the main lobby. He wasn’t in any danger, not anymore. He felt the tendrils of excitement curl through his belly again, making his cheeks flush. He actually had a scheduled meeting with the one person everyone in the Order was talking about, the one responsible for the Order’s heightened security. He couldn’t believe his luck.

He sank down in the chair and it was ideal, offering a perfect view of the front doors and most of the main floor. He would wait here so he could watch JC walk in. He hadn’t gotten around to making an outline or even jotting down any notes, but he would use this time to organize his thoughts and prepare his questions. Justin drew off his gloves and tucked them carefully into his pockets, looking around a little anxiously. The brand on his chest itched and he reached inside his shirt, using the edge of the pendant to soothe it.

Justin leaned back in the chair and then immediately bounced forward, rubbing his hands on his knees. He couldn’t sit still, was antsy and agitated, and all the deep calming breaths in the world wouldn’t help him. He wanted to see JC, kept scanning the crowd in the main lobby for his lean form, and a glance at his watch told him he still had almost 20 minutes to wait. He wondered what JC would be wearing. He wondered what he’d done in the hours since the sun had set. He hoped, with a sudden stab of alarm, that JC wouldn’t be late. Or even worse, stand him up completely. His hands fingered the pendant, smoothing his thumb over and over the smooth stone and he leaned back in his chair stiffly. Relax, he ordered himself. Relax.

As soon as he did he became aware of eyes on him, of a razor-sharp presence nearby watching him with dark amusement. Quickly he scanned the main lobby again, then froze for a moment before slowly, slowly raising his eyes to the wrought-iron railing running along the second floor balcony.

And of course JC was there, arms crossed on the railing and leaning indolently, looking down at him with a small, secret smile. With an effort Justin restrained himself from jumping to his feet, racing up the stairs two at a time to reach him. His cheeks flared when their eyes met and JC’s smile slowly widened, warmed. The noise of the busy store faded away and Justin simply stared, his heart pounding.

JC held his eyes, his own smile slowly dying, and then pushed himself away from the railing and walked around the concourse, heading for the stairs. Justin watched until he passed out of sight and held his breath until JC reappeared, striding leisurely across the main lobby toward him, sinking gracefully into the leather chair perpendicular from Justin’s.

"Hi," JC said quietly, his blue eyes sharp and revealing nothing. "Don’t you look nice."

"Thanks." Justin responded. "So do you," he added in a tone striving for casual, but the effect was ruined when his voice cracked embarrassingly. JC grinned briefly, offering a brilliant flash of white teeth, and Justin closed his eyes and cursed himself.

"And again with the scarf," JC said slyly. He seemed to be suppressing his amusement with an effort, and Justin blushed.

"This is the only one I have now," he said defensively. "I lost mine."

"Yes, in Paris," JC said in a low tone of voice that made Justin shudder. "I know." The silence stretched thinly for a moment and Justin tried to gather his scattered thoughts. His palms were sweating.

"I guess I should tell you, one of your little friends is sleeping deeply up on the second floor." JC continued. His voice was pitched for Justin to hear, but he sat up and leaned closer anyway. "Did you know you have people following you?"

"No. I mean, yes. I mean," Justin hesitated, trying to get his whirling thoughts in order. Why couldn’t he think straight when JC was near? It was so distracting. "They told me there were others in the city tonight, if I needed, um, help." A new thought occurred to him and his eyes flew to JC’s in a panic. "You didn’t . . . I mean, you wouldn’t."

JC raised his eyebrows in elegant disdain. "Of course not," he said. "You can’t possibly think I’m that . . . desperate. I just made her sleep, so we wouldn’t be disturbed. Big, homely woman." The eyebrows rose a little further, and he tilted his head, running his eyes over Justin’s body. "I hope you know that I have much better taste." The look he sent Justin was frankly smoldering and Justin felt it like a blow. He sat back in his chair and tried to breathe.

"You’re early," Justin murmured.

"So are you," JC countered pointedly, and Justin sighed and decided to be candid.

"Okay, yeah. I wanted to be here first, because I wanted to watch you walk in." He shrugged. "I like the way you move." JC watched him closely, and he struggled not to blush. "There was a treatise done in the fifteenth century," Justin added with a rush. "About vampires and certain characteristics they take on that help them -- well, you know." He was talking faster and faster. "Anyway, the ability to move soundlessly was one of them, and also some were observed to have a talent for making people they pass not see them if they didn’t want to be seen, and . . ."

"Justin." JC was eyeing him closely and Justin stopped, his throat closing up as JC smiled slowly. "So, you wanted to watch me come in," he said quietly. "Yet the last time I went looking for you, you ran away." His voice was low and Justin couldn’t look away from his eyes, so blue against his pale skin and dark hair.

"That was when I still thought that it was wrong," he whispered, and JC leaned forward in his chair, cocking his head in inquiry.

"You thought what was wrong?" His voice was just as quiet as Justin’s.

"Wanting to do this," Justin replied simply, and JC sat back, a pleased smile playing around his lips.

"And now?" he queried and Justin sat up, rubbing his hands vigorously on the thighs of his pants.

"Well, I’m sure you know it’s a great opportunity for me," he said earnestly. "I mean, to be able to talk to you, ask you questions, that’s the sort of thing a researcher dreams about."

"Oh really," JC said disbelievingly. "Even though you can’t share whatever you might learn with your Order."

Justin nodded firmly. "Absolutely. It’s enough for me to have my curiosity satisfied."

JC’s eyes widened as his eyebrows rose enquiringly. "And?"

Justin blinked and swallowed. "And?"

"And. This is all very charming, Justin, it truly is, but I think you should tell me the real reason you’re here." JC leaned forward, his eyes intent on Justin’s face, skimming over his mouth, his throat, resting on the pendant he could glimpse through Justin’s open coat. Justin struggled to breathe.

"Would you please stop that," he finally said, dismayed at the strangled sound of his own voice.

"Stop what?" JC’s eyes resumed their leisurely inspection of Justin’s body and Justin fought to keep from squirming, his blood singing through his veins.

"Looking at me like that," he managed and shifted in his seat, the squeak of leather unnaturally loud in their quiet corner. "I can’t think when you do that."

"Oh, we can’t have that." But JC leaned back, lifting his eyes from Justin’s body and Justin was gratified to see a light flush across his smooth cheeks. And for the first time he noticed that JC was dressed nicely as well. Perfectly tailored black pants, leather boots, a sweater so deeply blue it was almost black. Far too nice for hanging around a bookstore. He lifted his eyes to JC’s, seeing the amusement in them at Justin’s inspection.

"Are we going somewhere else?" he asked quietly, and JC nodded.

"Unless you’d rather hang out here all night with the ever-exciting bookstore crowd," he said, and smiled at Justin’s surprised chuckle. "I thought we’d get you some dinner. I know you’re hungry."

Justin blinked, perplexed. "You do? How?" There was no way that JC could know that Justin had skipped both lunch and dinner. He’d forgotten himself until just now.

JC’s face softened into a smile, a real one, so much like the vision Justin had had at the Chasez estate that his heart squeezed painfully. "I think most of the people in this store can hear your stomach rumbling, Justin. C’mon."

Justin lunged to his feet when JC rose. His gloves fell out of his pocket and he reached for them, almost tripping over the small table in front of his chair. JC reached out a hand to steady him and Justin froze at the feel of his hand on his arm, even through multiple layers of clothing. JC was there, he was right there, and Justin’s mind spun dizzily.

"Justin," JC said quietly, his voice low and intimate. "There’s no reason for you to be nervous." JC’s blue eyes were amazingly sharp, intent and dark. "We’re not going to do anything tonight that you don’t want to do." He smiled a little, a brief quirk of his full lips, and Justin thought oh god, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.

~ ~ ~ ~

He fought for and regained much of his composure as they headed out of the bookstore, JC holding the door open for him politely and falling into easy step beside him as they walked down the street, for all the world just two normal young men out on a Friday night. Justin busied himself with his gloves, pulling them on and restraining the urge to reach out and touch JC, put his hand on the small of his back, even hold his hand. He cursed himself fiercely. He was as antsy as a virgin on prom night and this was so not the impression he’d wanted to make.

"So," JC started. He sounded amused, Justin thought, and cursed himself again, clamping down on his mental control. "I’m thinking you and I can work a deal here. You are here, obviously, because you want to ask me questions." Justin flushed at the gentle mockery and thrust his hands in his pockets. "I’m thinking," JC continued, "that you should go ahead and ask, and if it’s something I’ll answer, then I get to ask you a question too. What do you think?"

Justin nodded dumbly, struggling to order his thoughts. He’d had a ton of questions, had thought he’d need an outline, but now all he could come up with was

"So, I’m going to have dinner. Will that bother you? Watching me eat food?"

JC laughed delightedly, and Justin blushed.

"It sounds like you’ve been reading some very old, superstitious research materials," he said. "No, it won’t bother me. I’m a big fan of food." JC was still smiling. "And now I get to ask a question, don’t I? What type of food do you like?" He stopped on the sidewalk and turned to face Justin, the streetlight casting him in sharply edged black and white. JC raised his eyebrows as Justin stared. "Justin?"

"Oh. I pretty much eat anything. Except eggplant. Or, um, liver."

"Anything." JC nodded and smiled slowly, moving closer until his mouth was inches from Justin’s own. "Well, good. I’ll give you something you’ll like," he promised softly. He nodded down a side street and put his hand on Justin’s back as they turned and walked.

Justin felt like he was running a low grade fever, his surroundings fading to dim and faraway images. Every sense he had was focused on the man walking beside him, the sound of his boots on the cold sidewalk, the puffs of his breath in the cool air. He couldn’t seem to collect his scrambled thoughts, or catch his breath or calm his jangled nerves. His entire body was humming with excitement and tension, his heart pounding heavily in his chest and echoing slyly in his groin, and with a sudden despair he wondered if he’d ever feel this way around anyone else again.

JC led him to a discreet doorway with a dark sign that Justin couldn’t focus on. Inside the cramped entryway the restaurant was deceptively large, a long dark room with tables and booths, most of them occupied by couples talking in low voices. The maitre d’ led them to a small corner booth on the far side of an empty stage, and as he peeled off his coat and gloves Justin tore his eyes away from JC and looked around.

Elegant, was his first thought. Subdued lighting, enhanced by flickering gaslights on each private table. Leather upholstery, fine linen table clothes, a circumspect but very attentive serving staff. It was soothing, and as Justin slid into the booth across from JC he felt the knot of nervousness ease a little.

Menus were produced and Justin was surprised to see JC actually open his and examine it seriously. He was forming a question when JC looked up and silenced him with a single, brilliant smile.

"Let me order for you. Will you?" The question he’d been about to ask tangled in his throat and Justin simply nodded, closing his menu and setting it aside. He watched with fascination as JC ordered what seemed like a huge amount of food, questioning the waiter at length about the preparation and presentation, and Justin lost track of the words and just watched JC’s mouth move, his hands gesture, the animation on his face. It was the closest he’d seen to the JC of his vision, and he was completely entranced. I could watch him forever, Justin thought starkly, and when JC looked up suddenly and caught his eye he knew that JC had heard him, and he didn’t even care.

They were interrupted by a waiter bearing a bottle of wine and two glasses. JC lifted the glass to his lips, pretending to sip, and nodded for the waiter to fill Justin’s glass. His eyes were intent on Justin’s face and for a moment Justin thought JC would address what he’d just heard from Justin's mind. Instead he quirked a half smile and indicated the wine. "One of my favorite wineries," he said quietly, "although, of course, I haven’t tasted anything they’ve put out recently. Tell me what you think."

Justin tasted, then drank deeply. "I don’t know a lot about wines," he said honestly. "But it tastes very good. Um, fruity, not too heavy." JC’s smile was his reward and he smiled back, enthralled.

An appetizer of stuffed wontons was next, and JC leaned forward, watching avidly as Justin picked one up and lifted it to his mouth. "I should use my silverware, I guess," Justin said with a smile and JC shook his head.

"No, you shouldn’t. Use your fingers, and don’t forget the sauce." He watched closely as Justin dipped, brought the wonton to his mouth and chewed slowly. "How does it taste?"

Justin chewed and swallowed before answering. "This is really good," he said softly. He paused to lick the sauce off his fingers, more slowly than was strictly necessary when he saw JC’s eyes linger on his lips. "It’s stuffed with pork, and the sauce, I think it has some ginger in it. It’s a little spicy." JC breathed out slowly, his own tongue flickering over his lower lip and Justin dropped his eyes, breathless. He scrambled to gather his thoughts.

"JC." Justin started. "Will you tell me, when is your birthday?"

"Which one?" JC asked unsmilingly and Justin paused, blinking. "I was born around the beginning of August in 1776," he continued quietly. "I lived a pretty normal life, until this happened when I was 27."

Justin looked up. "Normal? I, um, read that you were adopted, but that they treated you as their first born, even though they had natural children after you." He took a deep breath and gathered his courage. "And that you had a lover. A man."

JC’s eyebrow arched slowly. "Well. You have done your research," he marveled softly, and something about his voice sent icy tension down Justin’s spine. He took a deep breath and prepared to speak, but the look in JC’s eyes froze the words in this throat.

"Have another wonton," JC suggested softly, his eyes gleaming as Justin complied.

"Now. Tell me, because I know exactly what is in my family’s public archives and what is not, Justin, believe me. Tell me how you know about Julien. Is there information about my personal life in your Order’s files?" His eyes burned into Justin’s and Justin felt his anger like a sharp nail, pricking at the edges of his mind.

"No," he said, and realized he was whispering. "I mean, I don’t know, JC, I haven’t seen hardly anything in Order’s file on you. They won’t let me see." He paused and swallowed hard, leaning forward. "While I was visiting the estate in France, I saw something, sort of a sensory impression, I guess. Like, a memory imprint in your rooms." His throat worked for a moment, desperate to not see the vision of JC and his lover again, not wanting to see JC happy and laughing and in love with someone who wasn’t him. He gulped, dismayed by the violence of his own denial. "That’s all," he finished simply.

JC regarded him in silence. "Well, then," he said grimly. "Don’t look so miserable, Justin. I’m not angry at you. It was all . . . a very long time ago. Julien was a friend in childhood, and my lover, and when I -- left, he mourned for a little while and then married my sister and continued his life." His mouth twisted wryly. "I was more outraged that he sold the portrait he’d painted of me to your accursed Order, but that was probably not his fault. Perhaps my sister made him do it. There were some very confusing years." He shrugged dismissively, but Justin could see the bleak set of his mouth and was suddenly furious.

"But JC," he started, and was interrupted by the presentation of the main course. St. Louis ribs, he noted absently, with some sort of red sauce. He nodded briskly, impatient for the waiter to be gone, to be alone with JC. He leaned forward as soon as the man moved away and took a deep breath. "JC, that’s just, it’s so wrong that he did that, that he sold the portrait. I can’t believe he would do that, that anyone who loved someone would do such a thing." He struggled for a moment, fighting to put his outrage into words.

"Justin." JC’s voice was low and intimate and Justin felt the tone all the way down his spine, blooming into warmth in his abdomen. He looked up, still heaving a little for breath, and met JC’s warm smile. "Justin, it’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay that your Order has my portrait, but perhaps that’s something you can take care of for me. And," he slid a little closer and Justin leaned toward him almost without realizing it. "I do appreciate your fervor." Their eyes met for a long, electric moment and when Justin looked back to his food he was flushed.

"There’s something else," he said quietly, eyes intent on his meal as he fiddled with his silverware. "The Order, they called in someone. For you, they called someone in specifically to open your file, to deal with you. They want to make you leave London." He raised his eyes to JC’s, helplessly noting the grim set of his mouth, the icy clearness of his eyes. "I couldn’t not tell you," he finished miserably. "I can’t stop him, they’re already watching me. I want to, but I can’t."

There was a long, thick silence between them. Justin was suddenly aware of the murmur of other voices, the discreet clink of silverware, the sound of the small jazz quartet beginning their warm-up on the stage. He heard JC sigh and wondered miserably if this was it, if JC was getting up to go, if he’d ever see him again. He was startled when JC’s hand covered his on the table, stroking the back of his hand with long, warm fingertips.

"Justin," he whispered, and Justin looked up at him. The sound of his voice and the fingers sliding against his skin made his head spin.

"I knew this," JC continued. "I knew it already, but thank you for telling me. Thank you, very much." His smile was rich and soft and Justin could feel JC’s pleasure and a little surprise in Justin’s confession. "I think that had to be hard for you."

Justin shook his head slowly, feeling dimly like he was drowning in JC’s eyes as he turned his hand over, smoothing his fingers into JC’s palm. His heart was thundering out of control, beating heavily in his ears. "That’s the thing," he whispered. "It wasn’t."

JC’s face softened, warmed and dimly Justin perceived a thought that wasn’t his, a single tendril of emotion that said he’s so beautiful. Honest and brave. And then, maybe I’ll keep him.

"And now I think it’s my turn," JC said and Justin nodded jerkily as he leaned closer, his eyes intent on Justin’s face. "Tell me about your lovers, Justin."

Justin looked down and tried to gather his thoughts. "I can’t imagine why you’d be interested in something like that," he started, and fell silent when JC’s hand tightened on his wrist, fingertips pressing heavily into the pulse.

"Oh, I don’t think so, Justin," he said, amused. "We had a deal."

Justin nodded, slowly. "Okay, yes. Yes, we did. Well, I’m 23, and I’ve had lovers," he said firmly. "Several." He flushed a little under JC’s steady regard. "I had a girlfriend in high school, and another in college for the first two years."

"And then?" JC prompted softly. His fingers were tracing light patterns on the inside of Justin’s palm, and Justin couldn’t take his eyes off the lazy movements.

"Um, then. Then I transferred to Oxford," he said softly. "And I dated. A lot."

"More women?" JC inquired lazily, and Justin nodded jerkily.

"Those too," he said, and flushed when JC chuckled, the sound low and amused. JC drew his hand away and the air felt suddenly cold on Justin’s skin.

"Finish your dinner," JC said when Justin blinked in confusion, his arousal a burning punishment in his groin. JC leaned back quietly and watched Justin attend to his meal as the quiet music started from the stage. The lights lowered further as people finished their meals and moved to the small dance floor.

"The ribs are good," Justin said before JC could ask. "Perfect, tender and the sauce is amazing. It tastes like the sauce they make from scratch at home."

"And where is home? Somewhere in the South, I know."

Justin looked up, surprised. "You do?" He’d thought his accent was all but gone.

JC’s smile was dark and predatory. "It comes out during certain -- moments," he said softly and Justin gulped and pulled his eyes away.

He focused desperately on his food, chewing and swallowing before answering, struggling to keep his eyes from shifting toward JC every two seconds. "Yes, the South. Tennessee. But it’s my turn."

"So it is," JC murmured, and he sounded like he was smiling as Justin licked the sauce carefully from his fingertips.

"You said there were some confusing years," Justin said quietly. "Right after it happened. Confusing in what way?"

JC made a dismissive gesture, shifting gracefully in his seat. "Oh, it was nothing. Just -- adjustments to my new life. I traveled for a few years, more than a few, I guess. I lost touch with my family for a while, but that’s for the best," he said, and raised his hand when Justin started to speak, to ask another question. "No, Justin, that’s all you get. It’s my turn again." His mouth was set grimly, the lines of his face harsh in the dim light. "But first, I want you to eat some more." He leaned closer, his eyes pinning Justin to his seat.

Justin lifted another rib slowly from his plate, bringing it to his mouth. He could feel the gentle prodding at the edges of his mind, a polite request more than a demand, he thought fuzzily, and as he sank his teeth into the tender meat he relaxed just enough to allow JC to ease closer, to let him taste what Justin was tasting.

There was absolute silence between them for a few moments as Justin quietly finished his dinner and JC watched, his eyes gleaming. And when Justin drained his fourth glass of wine JC took his hand again, curling their fingers together, and pulled him to his feet.

"Dance with me, Justin," he said softly, and Justin shivered at the words, echoes of the last time they’d danced together. But JC pulled him gently toward him, one hand clasping Justin’s loosely, the other resting lightly on his hip. There was an almost-funny moment when they both tried to lead and then Justin relaxed, the wine creating a pleasant haze in his mind. He dipped his head so his cheek could feel the warmth from JC’s, closing his eyes and breathing him in as they eased their way into the music.

It was like a dream, Justin thought fuzzily, and he knew it wasn’t the first time he’d had such a thought. JC’s body was lean and warm, his breathing soft and even in Justin’s ear, and even with the soothing music Justin felt excitement sparkle down his spine at JC’s nearness. He felt JC turn his head the smallest bit, slide his soft lips gently across the side of Justin’s neck, and he shivered. The hand at his hip slid around to the small of his back, but not pulling, just resting easily there, encouraging Justin to come closer. He did, his chest just brushing JC’s as they moved easily together.

"My next question is this." JC’s voice was a whisper against Justin’s ear, a vibration that made him swallow hard and suppress the weak shudder that danced along his spine. "I want to know, do you have a lover now?"

Justin shook his head slowly, resisting the urge to tilt his head, rest his cheek against JC’s. "No," he murmured. "Not since I joined the Order." His voice was breathless, his heart galloping like he’d been running up a flight of stairs. He gulped and forced the words past the tightness in his throat. "Do you?"

Justin felt JC’s hand shift over his, lacing their fingers together, his palm a heated brand against Justin’s own. "No one special," he murmured lazily. His hand on the small of Justin’s back became heavier, coaxing Justin slowly closer, and Justin closed his eyes.

"Kind of different from the last time we danced," he whispered, and trembled as he felt JC smile against his neck.

"It’s not so different," JC whispered back.

Justin’s hand was resting on JC’s shoulder and he couldn’t resist, gliding it over the sleek material of his sweater to the soft, smooth hair curling at the back of his neck. He tangled his fingers gently into the dark hair, rubbing a curl between his fingers, hearing JC’s sudden intake of breath as Justin gently stroked the back of his neck. Feeling incredibly courageous, he mimicked JC and tilted his head to clasp his lips to the warm skin below JC’s ear. JC swallowed convulsively, his fingers tightening on Justin’s free hand, and he pulled back to look into his eyes.

"Not so different at all," he whispered. He brushed his lips chastely across Justin’s. "Are you ready to go?"

"Yeah," Justin answered, breathless. "Where are we going?"

JC hesitated, the tips of his teeth worrying at his bottom lip. Justin stared. "I should take you home," he murmured almost to himself. "But I don’t think I can."

"I don’t want to go home," Justin whispered. "I want to go with you."

JC’s eyes searched his, brilliant and sharp. "You don’t know what you’re asking. Not really."

Justin held his eyes, his arousal thrumming through his body, pressing intimately against JC. "I think I don’t care."

They stared at each other, oblivious to the rest of the people on the floor, the music, everything. "Okay, then," JC said finally. He twined his fingers with Justin’s, raising his hand briefly to his lips, his eyes hooded on Justin’s face. "Let’s go."

~ ~ ~ ~

When they stepped out of the restaurant, it was snowing a little, but before either of them could really get wet a cab pulled into the alley and then stopped on a dime when JC slowly lifted a hand to hail it. JC opened the door for Justin and Justin scrambled in, feeling awkward and still a little dizzy from the wine and the dancing.

JC eased gracefully into the cab behind him, pulled the door shut, and leaned over the front seat to have a quiet discussion with the cab driver. Justin couldn't hear what they were saying, but he did catch a flash of what appeared to be a hundred dollar bill in JC's hand, so he figured they were going either someplace far off or someplace dangerous. He bit his lip and looked out the window at a couple hurrying toward the restaurant, both of them covered in snow, laughing in defiance at the weather. They seemed so happy together, so natural and so easy, and Justin held back a sigh as he looked at the curve of JC's back.

JC settled into the seat and looked briefly over at Justin, his eyes dark and speculative. Fighting an urge to slide toward him, Justin stretched his legs a little, trying to calm himself down. He had gotten far too aroused from the dancing and the conversation, had let JC seduce him, and he really, really needed to get control of himself for a minute.

"This place we're going," he began, hoping that he kept the nervousness out of his voice. "Can you tell me a little about it?"

"Not right now I can't," JC said, inclining his head just a fraction toward the cab driver. "It's someplace my friends and I like to go."

Justin sat back and took a deep breath. JC's friends -- he knew exactly what that meant. "So it will probably be pretty, um, instructive for me."

JC looked down and smiled. It was almost a private gesture. "You could say that."

"Right," Justin said, and then looked out the window again as his mind began to reel. He saw Mathilda and Chris in his mind, both of them earnestly urging him to be careful, telling him to stick to bright, well-lit places, assuring him that people were out there to take care of him. There was now no one in the world looking out for Justin Timberlake -- JC had taken care of that in the bookstore, and now he was taking Justin in the dark of night to an undisclosed place. Justin bit the inside of his cheek and closed his eyes. He was being unconscionably, astoundingly stupid, and he should tell JC right now to stop the cab; he should get out and save himself before things spun further out of control. He imagined himself leaning forward, calmly telling JC, "I'm very sorry, but I'm going to have to leave," visualized himself getting out of the car and heading back to the restaurant to call someone from the motherhouse to come get him. That would be the safe and smart thing to do.

But he wasn't going to do it, and he knew it. He didn't want to leave, didn't want to be safe: all he knew was that he had to be with JC right now, no matter what the consequences. Justin cast a glance at him: he was looking out the window, the lines of his profile sharp and beautiful against the lights of the city. Justin swallowed hard, then leaned forward a bit, resting elbows on his knees and pressing his fingertips together in a mockery of prayer, trying desperately to reach a place of calm in his mind. When he felt a hand on his thigh, he started almost violently, then looked in embarrassment at JC.

"You don't have to do this, you know," JC said lightly. He was still looking serenely out the window, but Justin thought he heard the slightest touch of amusement in his voice.

"I know that," Justin said with far more assurance than he felt, because however casually JC had spoken, Justin knew that he'd had meant the words as a challenge, and some remote, primal corner of Justin's brain absolutely did not want to concede to JC Chasez that he had unnerved him.

"In fact," he went on, "I'm looking forward to it. Like I said before, JC, this is a wonderful opportunity for me. I'm grateful to you for giving me this sort of exposure."

JC smiled, still not looking at him, and then gently tightened fingers on Justin's thigh before slowly drawing his hand away. "Believe me, I'm happy to provide you with as much exposure as you can take," he said very softly and very seriously, and Justin felt his bravado evaporate.

Now Justin could feel the amusement and anticipation rolling off of JC in waves, and he blushed furiously. He sat back in the seat, took a few deep breaths, and decided to do what JC was doing and stare out the window.

They were moving into a run-down warehouse district in a part of the city Justin was unfamiliar with, and the cab driver was taking a strange, circuitous route that made absolutely no sense. Justin knew that he'd never be able to get back to this place on his own, which was probably exactly how JC wanted it. After what seemed like forever, they finally pulled up to an unmarked door in yet another alley. All the places JC went to seemed to be in dark alleys, Justin thought as he clambered out of the car.

JC bent over to look directly at the cab driver, and Justin watched in amazement as JC peered into the cabbie's eyes and said "Go back to the restaurant and forget you ever took this trip," his voice quiet but commanding, utterly assured. The cab driver wrinkled his brow, but then his face went blank and relaxed, and he nodded at JC before putting the car in gear and preparing to drive off again. JC stood up again and smiled at Justin, slowly approaching him.

"Not me too, okay?" Justin said quickly, looking at the brick walls beside them, the wet pavement of the road, anything other than at JC's eyes. "Please. I don't want to forget this."

"Don't be silly," JC said, moving closer still. "I did that for his own protection. You, I think, are probably going to be smart enough not to come back here on your own."

Justin frowned. "JC," he said in frustration. "Will you please stop it with the man of mystery routine? What is this place?"

JC laughed out loud at that, and despite his concern, Justin had to smile in response.

"You're no fun at all" JC said quietly, and Justin held his breath as he gently reached up to wipe snowflakes from Justin's shoulders, to lightly brush hands over his hair, straightening the collar of his shirt, frowning a little in concentration. "And we're already here, and it's ugly out, so I'd really rather not waste time on explanations. However, I do have one small piece of advice for you."

"Go ahead," Justin said.

"Just this," JC said softly, and then leaned in and kissed the side of Justin's neck before looking at him with smoldering eyes. "Fear is an aphrodisiac for vampires, so I'd suggest you put those famous defenses of yours to use."

Justin narrowed eyes at JC. "If that's true, then why are you trying to frighten me even more?" he asked.

"Do you really have to ask?" JC said with a slow, sweet smile, and then lightly took Justin's arm and urged him toward the door.

~ ~ ~ ~

Since they were in a warehouse, Justin expected the interior of the place to have high ceilings, but they had apparently been lowered, because the feeling in the room he and JC entered was enclosed and tight, with couches and chairs crowded against portrait-covered walls, and thick red carpet underfoot. Several figures lounged on the couches -- it was clearly a waiting room of some type -- but Justin didn't let himself look at them. He didn't really need to. Even without meeting their eyes, he could feel their menace, their hunger, and he knew that for this moment in time, he was its object. The air was heavy and warm, and Justin had to struggle a bit to breathe as he fought to stay next to JC without looking too terrified.

JC walked to the desk at the front of the room and waited calmly, fingertips gently smoothing over the polished wood. A second later, a flushed young woman, human, burst in from a back room, her long brown hair in disarray.

"Mr. Chasez, I'm so sorry," she said breathlessly. "Welcome."

JC nodded slightly.

"I -- let's see," the young woman said, and began paging through an appointment book. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick, Justin noticed. "Just let me check--"

"You won't find me in there," JC calmly interrupted, and then, when she moved to the computer screen, added, "Or there. Just tell Anne-Claire I'm here, okay?"

The young woman nodded, and then left the room as quickly as she'd entered.

"I can see why she doesn't like her job," Justin murmured, much more confident after having seen a relatively unharmed human, and JC raised his eyebrows.

"The clientele obviously sucks," Justin added.

"You're very funny," JC said absently, and then slowly turned around to gaze at the other occupants of the room, his eyes meeting each in turn. Justin felt his heart begin to pound as several of the other vampires lowered their heads, reluctant to face JC, which meant that he was either a figure of some respect or someone very terrifying in the vampire world. As he caught the calm, unbothered look on JC's face, Justin was pretty sure the answer was somewhere in between the two.

After what seemed like an eternity, JC turned his back on the other vampires and grabbed Justin by the shoulder, gently turning him, too. "They won't bother you," he said softly, and Justin took a deep breath and forced himself to believe him.

"Okay, um, she's just -- you can go on in," the brunette said nervously as she entered the room again. JC gently put a hand in the small of Justin's back and guided him toward the door at the far end of the room. Just as he reached it, it swung silently open, and the two of them stepped into a huge open space with marble floors and a grand staircase swooping upward. On the first level were rows and rows of doors, all of them unmarked. Justin cast a glace at the walls: they looked as if they were covered in rich silk or some sort of tapestry. He took a step toward one of them to get a closer look, but then JC's fingers pressed into his back and Justin went still and waited. A second later, one of the doors opened and a tall, angular woman emerged.

She was elegant in a black pantsuit and ivory blouse, her pale blonde hair in a French twist and her mouth painted dark red. Her heels made sharp clicking sounds as they struck the marble.

"Hello, Anne-Claire," JC said.

"JC," she said delightedly, moving in to hug him, and as Justin looked more closely at her, he realized that she was a vampire too. When she stepped away from JC, she narrowed her eyes and gave Justin a long, appraising stare. He shivered.

"Oh my," she said softly.

"This," JC said with some amusement, "is Justin. He's mine."

"I'm sure he is," she said, but her eyes were still bright and focused.

Justin moved slightly closer to JC, who gently rubbed the small of his back and smiled at him. The look in his eyes was actually not that much more consoling than the one in Anne-Claire's, but Justin didn't have much choice at this point other than to trust him.

"If ever you feel like sharing," Anne-Claire thoughtfully began.

"If he were yours, would you share him?" JC asked, and she laughed, and then sighed.

"Alas. Point made. So, JC, what brings you here tonight?"

JC shrugged. "I'd like to take a look around, see what you've got before I make a decision."

Anne-Claire nodded. "All right, then. You know the way. Find me in my office afterward."

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin had to summon up all his will to remain calm as he and JC slowly entered an elegant drawing room. There were beautiful men and women everywhere, draped over chairs, standing in twos and threes and quietly talking, grouped together around a fireplace, the warm glow of the fire flickering softly against their skin. They were all human, and they were all dressed in evening wear, the women in long dresses, the men in suits of varying degrees of formality. Justin looked admiringly at the column of one woman's throat -- many of them seemed very long-necked, actually, graceful and almost gazelle-like -- and then caught his breath. This woman's neck was scarred; there were old puncture wounds, and --

Justin looked nervously around the room, and suddenly they were everywhere: healed bite marks on the insides of wrists, at the base of people's throats, and in one memorable occasion, on the back of someone's hand. Revulsion and fear rose in him. What kind of place was this? Did these people actually know what they were doing, or were they trapped here? Who would live solely for the pleasure of vampires?

"Justin," JC said softly. "It's all right. They want to be here -- it's their job to be here."

"I don't like it," Justin said quickly, then quieted when JC gave him a warning look.

"You wanted to know how I spend my time, and I'm showing you. If you can't take it, I can send you away."

"No, no," Justin said quickly, and turned away in embarrassment as the people nearest to them looked at him with interest, one of the women laughing a little bit and covering her mouth with her hand. "I want to do this -- I --"

"Good, then, because you're going to choose our entertainment for the night," JC said in a low voice, gesturing at the room.

"Oh no," Justin said flatly, immediately, then tensed as JC moved behind him, rested hands on his hips and spoke directly into his ear.

"Tell me what you like," JC murmured. "Tell me who's beautiful to you, who you want for us."

"JC, I can't!" Justin whispered fiercely, trying to retain some semblance of control as his body reacted to the proximity of JC, the many curious eyes on both of them. "Please," he finally got out in a low voice. "You do it, JC. You."

JC sighed, his breath hot against Justin's throat. "All right then," he whispered, and then added, "Stay right here," before moving languidly through the room, graceful and self-assured. He was a bit arrogant, too, Justin thought, and then clenched his teeth because he didn't want to find that exciting. JC paused to speak to several of the prostitutes, especially the most beautiful ones; they smiled provocatively at him and ran long fingers up and down the sides of their throats. JC seemed to know some of them by name. It made Justin scowl.

"JC," a young man hungrily murmured. "JC, please. One more time."

JC smiled politely and kept on moving.

At the back of the room was a tall and almost gangly blonde man who seemed to be about Justin's age. He was trembling a little -- Justin could see it even from where he stood -- and when JC slowly approached him, he flushed, too, shifting nervously on his feet, eyes locked on JC. He was very handsome.

JC spoke gently, quietly to him, and Justin felt a sick sort of feeling in his stomach as the guy ducked his head, smiling shyly, his teeth flashing as he laughed at something JC said. JC kept him talking for at least five minutes, during which point Justin became increasingly anxious, particularly when JC responded to him, threw his head back and laughed. Justin shot them both an angry look, but they didn't notice it.

Eventually, JC leaned close to the young man and murmured something in his ear, and Justin drew in a shaky breath as the guy slowly smiled and gazed, besotted, into JC's eyes. JC nodded encouragingly, gently, and Justin knew then that no matter how much he protested, this guy was going to end up with JC tonight. When JC wanted something or someone . . .

Justin canceled that thought with a gasp as he watched the man slowly draw the material of his shirt away from his neck, his eyes locked on JC's. JC leaned in, looked hungrily at his throat, and then nodded once, at which point the guy blushed vividly. JC laughed.

Justin wasn't feeling amused at all, but he didn't want JC to notice, so as JC slowly headed back toward him, Justin composed his face and waited silently. JC nodded at him, then drew Justin out of the room. Anne-Claire was waiting for them in the hallway. JC gestured somewhat imperiously to a chair by the wall, then looked Justin in the eye: sighing, Justin sat down and waited as JC went to talk to Anne-Claire, a low, murmured conversation that involved a lot of nodding and gesturing. They were negotiating, Justin figured out after a while, and then determinedly looked elsewhere because he didn't want to think about it.

Finally, JC motioned for Justin to join them.

"Who do you want, little one?" Anne-Claire said as if she were talking to a child.

"I thought I was, you know, going to watch you," Justin said to JC, his voice going lower with each word of the sentence. "For research," he finally added, and caught Anne-Claire concealing a smile.

"That's right," JC said lazily, exchanging a look with her that made Justin's face burn.

"Your usual room," Anne-Claire said to JC. "Michael will be waiting for you there."

JC led Justin slowly up the beautiful staircase and then down a beautiful hallway lined with sculpture, paintings, and vases of flowers on antique tables. Justin strained his ears as they walked past door after door, but he couldn't hear anything. Next to him, JC was quiet and apparently unconcerned, and Justin thought dark, uncertain things about what JC was about to do with Michael.

Finally, JC drew to a stop outside one of the doors and motioned for Justin to wait, drew him aside.

"Are you all right?" he asked, and looked Justin right in the eye. Yet another challenge.

"What are you going to do with him?" Justin asked.

JC raised eyebrows and then smiled. "I'm going to make him feel very good."

"But are you going to -- will you --"

"Drink from him? Most definitely. That's why he's going to enjoy it so much."

Justin frowned.

"I chose him for you, you know," JC murmured.

"How so?" Justin asked a little uncomfortably, because JC was looking rather fixedly at his mouth and neck.

"He's a virgin too," JC said, and then, as Justin began to protest, quickly said, "Oh yes you are. You are in this way," before going on. "And I want you to pay close attention when I'm with him. I want you to see what he sees, feel what he feels. It will be good for your . . . research."

Justin looked away, and then caught hold of himself and said, "Maybe we shouldn't use him like this, you know? Maybe it's not right."

JC gave him an incredulous look. "It's his job to be used," he said after a brief pause. "He's being very well compensated to let us do this."

"Yes, but --"

"Yes, but nothing," JC said.

"But you're not going to hurt him," Justin said.

JC made a small, frustrated sound and gently backed Justin into the wall. "He's going to be fine, Justin. I'm going to make him feel very, very good -- just like I made you feel in Paris, in the club. You liked that, didn't you?"

JC's voice was low and seductive, and Justin looked down at the floor in an attempt to remain in control.

However, JC caught him by the chin and raised his head again. "Trust me," he murmured in the same devastating voice. Justin had absolutely nothing to say in response to that.

~ ~ ~ ~

Michael was sitting nervously on a chaise lounge when JC and Justin entered the room. The moment he saw JC, he sprang anxiously to his feet, his brown eyes eager. He didn't even seem to know that Justin was in the room.

"Hello, Michael," JC said gently, and he stammered back a response. Justin stared sharply at him. He didn't like the way JC looked at him at all, and he most certainly didn't like the way Michael was looking at JC. What if this whole shy boy thing were an act?

"Sit," JC said off-handedly to Justin, gesturing at a chair right inside the front door, and Justin rolled his eyes before obeying. JC moved quickly and gracefully across the room; Michael stood awkwardly and uncertainly, eyes fixed on JC, and then sat down on the couch with him.

JC started by talking softly to him, murmuring just quietly enough so that Justin couldn't make out the words, which drove him crazy, though Michael's responses -- "yes," "no," "twenty-four" -- came out clearly.

"Do you know what I'd like to do with you tonight?" JC finally asked Michael in a normal tone, and then, infuriatingly, dropped his voice again. By the time he had finished murmuring, Michael was scarlet and breathing heavily, and Justin was gripping the edge of his seat so tightly his fingers began to ache.

"So is that all right?" JC teased, and Michael nodded shyly. When JC gently took Michael's hands into his, Michael breathed rapidly, then leaned back into the couch and looked at JC, waiting.

Justin held his breath as JC finally leaned in, as he sighed in pleasure and began to kiss Michael's face, his hand curving intimately around the side of his neck. Michael made soft, acquiescent sounds as JC kissed him, his gangly arms sliding eagerly around JC. JC was still murmuring to Michael, and Justin could hear a chorus of soft, eager yeses.

As JC kissed him, the tension and the awkwardness floated away from Michael -- soon, he was spreading his legs, bending them, and tilting his head back on the couch cushion. When he did that, showed JC his neck, gave him access to it, JC moaned. The low sound cut through Justin like glass, and he drew his brows together in consternation as his body vibrated with need. It was incredible to see JC so excited, though Justin couldn't help but frown as JC unbuttoned Michael's shirt and spread it open, exclaiming softly at the soft, flushed skin he found there.

The only sounds in the room were Michael's moans, the kissing, JC's quiet sighs as he spanned Michael's waist, then slid hands upward. Michael bent forward, gasped, "JC!"

When JC buried his face in Michael's neck, Michael panted, and his clumsy hands slid up and under the back of JC's shirt. JC undulated like a wave, murmuring softly into Michael's neck. He must have been sucking the skin, playing a bit, because after a while, Michael began to beg, "Oh, please. Please do it. Please."

It was far too hot in the room, and Justin tugged impatiently at the neck of his undershirt, his breathing labored and his body aching. It was hard to think and harder still to focus on this the way he wanted to. There was no way on earth he could eavesdrop on Michael's responses, not when he could hardly sit still.

Justin watched Michael's hands on JC and frowned, and then bit his lip as JC slowly slid a hand up and over Michael's groin, cupping him as he continued kissing and teasing his neck. Any minute, Justin realized through a haze of longing and sensation. Any minute now, JC was going to break the skin of Michael's throat.

"Okay, okay, no. Stop it, JC. Stop it, okay?" Justin blurted out, then realized in rapid succession not only that he was speaking a lot more forcefully than he meant to, but that he had sprung up from his chair.

JC's back arched for just a second; he lifted his head from Michael's throat, but didn't turn around.

"JC," Justin said insistently.

"What is it, Justin?" JC asked in a deadly, controlled voice, and then slowly turned to look at Justin, his eyes dark and hungry, the expression on his face predatory.

"I want," Justin said, then stalled, heart pounding.

"You want --" JC prompted. His hands were still curved intimately around Michael’s body, and his eyes burned through Justin.

Justin struggled for control, his desire battling with the knowledge of what his friends in the Order would say if they saw him here, if they heard what he was on the verge of admitting. JC’s eyes were clear and cold, and for a moment Justin struggled to hold it back, but he couldn’t; he had to say it: "I want it to be me," he murmured. "Not him."

"No," Michael said immediately, and reached out to grab JC's arm. "No. Stay with me, okay? Please. You won't regret it -- I promise."

JC looked down at him. "I'm sure I wouldn't," he said softly, and then bent down to kiss him very gently on the lips. "But that'll be all for tonight. I'm sorry."

Michael reluctantly got off the couch and pulled his shirt back around him, glaring at Justin as he did so. Justin didn't care at all.

After the door had clicked shut behind Michael, JC leaned back, legs open a bit, one arm slung across the back of the couch, his eyes glittering.

"Well, then. This is a surprise," he said lazily, and Justin found it hard to remain still, impossible not to rock back and forth on his heels much as Michael had before, to unconsciously lift a hand to cover the side of his neck.

"Oh, so you're going to hide your throat from me? JC said softly. "That wasn't exactly what I had in mind."

"JC," Justin pleaded.

JC stood up and walked slowly over to Justin, eyes locked on him. Justin stood frozen as he watched him advance, his legs quivering and his breath coming in shallow, quick gasps as an almost irresistible urge to run possessed him. So this was what it felt like to be approached by a hungry vampire. As terror wove its way through Justin, his face flushed, and by the time Justin realized with a start that this terror felt a lot like arousal, he was already gone, hard and ready as JC reached for him, put hands on his hips.

JC leaned in to kiss the side of his neck, scraping the soft skin just once with his teeth, murmuring in pleasure as Justin moaned for him.

"Just like that," JC murmured, and shivered a little himself. "Now tell me what I can do for you."

"I--" Words were inadequate to express the desire thrumming in him, and for a moment, Justin looked almost hopelessly at JC. There was no way he could explain it, particularly not when JC was so close.

"So show me," JC coaxed, and Justin fought a nagging sense of unease and reluctance. If he let JC into his mind, then he gave up everything, stripped himself bare.

"That's what I want," JC whispered, and Justin made a small, surprised sound, embarrassment flooding him. The more time he spent with JC, it seemed, the more easily JC could come into his thoughts, and that probably wasn't going to change. Then, too, maybe it worked both ways, because in the restaurant, he had certainly gotten a few glimpses of JC's mind. If he knew a little bit more about what JC was thinking right now, maybe it would be easier to proceed. Biting his lower lip a little, Justin reached out delicately, questioningly, and then stiffened in shock, tensing against JC as immediately he was pulled into JC's mind.

"Oh!" Justin breathed in shock as he felt the depth of JC's hunger, saw what was in JC's mind. There he was, naked on the bed with JC on top of him, his legs locked tight around JC, his fingers twined desperately into the sheets beneath him. He was not quite crying, but he was on the verge of it, almost sick with need, and he was begging, oh god. Justin felt heat spread through his body as he heard himself saying the things JC wanted him to say -- and it grew worse as he recognized them as the things he wanted to say himself. JC knew already, knew exactly what he wanted, exactly what he would do, exactly how Justin would fall apart for him.

"JC, that's enough!" he exclaimed, trying desperately to lessen the unbearable intimacy of the moment, and immediately JC was gone, and Justin was back fully clothed and standing before him. JC's cheeks were tinged pink, and he was breathing hard now, his fingers curving almost cruelly into Justin's hips. Almost involuntarily Justin nudged his hips against JC's, and JC rocked back. The world went white for a split second, and Justin squeezed his eyes shut tight.

"JC, that's --" Justin began, and then quieted as JC opened his mind again, again let Justin feel how badly he wanted him. It was a hunger beyond measure, and Justin shivered as he realized that the confusing swirl of blood and sex in JC's mind was focused on him. Although he was close to horrified at the force of what he saw, Justin very nearly slid his arms around JC to comfort him right then, because JC's need was so painful and so raw that Justin didn't know how he stood it. This was the hunger of someone who had been honing his desires for almost two hundred years, Justin realized with a start; it was intense and devastating. When JC slowly closed off his thoughts again, Justin stared at him in astonishment.

"That's how vampires want. That's how I want you," JC said, and watched greedily as Justin drew in a long, shaky breath.

"It's always like that?" Justin whispered.

"You always make me feel like that," JC said, and smiled as Justin widened his eyes in amazement.

"How do I make you feel?" JC added after a brief pause.

"JC," Justin said in a low voice. "I think you'd be -- it's so silly, and I don't know if I want to --" His vision was so much tamer, so much softer: it involved JC murmuring sweetly to him, caressing him gently, looking at him in the way Justin had seen him look at Julien. He was a sap; he was a fool. It was very, very embarrassing.

"Justin, please," JC said in a low voice, his expression open and almost gentle, and astonishment threaded its way through Justin. This was the very first time JC had ever asked him for anything, asked him for something he could withhold if he so chose.

Of course it would have to be a request for something Justin absolutely didn't want to reveal, and he groaned in discomfort and closed his eyes as it unfolded, as he showed his longing to JC. For a moment there was silence in the room.

"Okay, stop it," JC finally said, almost fiercely, and Justin opened eyes again as he felt his cheeks grow hot. Had he angered JC? Were his immaturity and his youth alienating him? For a long moment, they locked gazes, until JC slowly brought a hand up to the side of Justin's face, his fingertips brushing delicately over the line of a cheekbone. JC looked conflicted, almost at odds with himself.

"I'm sorry," Justin said. "If I upset you, I --"

"You didn't," JC said so quickly and emotionlessly that Justin would have smiled had he not felt so anxious. "You surprised me, but it's not -- that's okay," JC finished, and then stepped back slightly.

"All right," he said, obviously desperate for a new topic of conversation. "Why don't we just go into the bedroom, then?"

"Um. Shouldn't we talk a bit more first?" Justin asked, confused, but letting JC take his hand nonetheless.

"I think we've talked more than enough," JC said, not ungently, but not leaving room for disagreement, either. "Either come with me now or I call Michael back in here and you watch."

"Oh, see, no. I don't think we need to do that," Justin said quickly, and then looked away so he didn't have to see JC's smile.

"But why the bedroom?" Justin asked a little breathlessly. "Why not just stay in here?"

JC raised his eyebrows, then pulled on Justin's hand until they were standing face to face, only inches apart.

"Because I want to take my time with you," he said, his voice low and rich.

Justin swallowed hard. "I, um. I, okay."

JC smiled, then tugged at his hand again.

A series of questions and worries flooded Justin as he followed JC, and as the two them got closer and closer to the door leading to the bedroom, they expanded into low-level panic. There was so much he needed to explain to JC, so much he needed to tell him. They should talk about Julien, say more about the Order, and Justin should really -- he hadn't even gone into his past sexual history, not in detail, and he hadn't told JC about the things he especially liked, and --

"Justin," JC said in amusement just before he opened the bedroom door, and then moved in close, arms sliding around his waist, mouth warm against his ear. "Calm down, please."

"Easy for you to say," Justin huffed back, and JC laughed in his ear, and then gently kissed the soft skin right below it, making Justin quiver like a bell.

"All you have to do is relax -- I'll take care of the rest," JC murmured in a voice that made Justin feel even less relaxed; then, he opened the door to the bedroom and motioned for Justin to enter.

Justin swept eyes over dark wood, antique furniture, elaborately detailed molding on the ceiling, an ornate woven rug over soft, deep carpet. There was a long mirror on one side of the room; not wanting to see the look on his face right now, Justin directed his attention instead to the portraits decorating the wall, all of them eighteenth-century men and women with elaborate wigs, pale faces and blushing cheeks.

"Of course you like this room," Justin said to JC, who was standing still at the doorway and watching him, his face unreadable. "I'll bet they made it specially for you."

JC began to move slowly toward him.

"And I'll bet you've used it lots of times before," Justin quickly went on. "I'll bet you've had lots of men and women in here, bet you've taken them all, and, and --"

When JC reached him, his eyes dark and his mouth curved into an almost-smile, Justin fell silent, frozen in place.

"Why don't you sit on the edge of the bed for me," JC murmured, and Justin went scarlet and nodded.

The bed was high off the ground and framed in heavy swathes of velvet that swooped down from the ceiling. As he settled gingerly on the mattress, Justin realized that once they were actually all the way on it, they'd be virtually surrounded by fabric, cut off from the rest of the world. He glanced at the ornately carved bedposts, at the tasseled pillows in dark blues, greens, and reds, and then at the delicate crystal lamp on the night stand. It was so beautiful; everything here was beautiful.

Especially JC, Justin thought as he looked at the brightness of his eyes, the glow of his skin in the lamplight, the curve of his shoulders under his shirt, the tendril of hair that had fallen down to curl at the side of his forehead.

JC smiled a little, then murmured, "You're the beautiful one," and moved in, resting hands lightly on Justin's thighs.

"JC," Justin said softly, then shuddered with wanting as JC kissed him gently, slow, sweet teasing kisses, one at the corner of his mouth, one at the bottom, one brushing off to his cheek. Justin parted his lips, inviting; JC quirked his mouth and kept teasing. Justin closed his eyes and braced his hands on the mattress, fingers clutching the edge as JC's mouth met his again and again. When JC finally stroked Justin's lower lip with his tongue, it felt like a victory, and Justin shivered in triumph and gasped softly as JC's hands tightened a bit on his thighs. The next time Justin sighed, JC nudged Justin's thighs apart just a bit; by the time he finally stroked Justin's tongue with his own, Justin's legs were wide open around him. Justin slid arms around JC's back and pulled him close, delighting in the warmth of his body, the smell of his cologne, the expanse of his chest. JC hugged him back tightly, then gently pushed Justin, encouraging him to recline partway on the bed. Justin leaned back on his hands and watched JC through his eyelashes as JC unbuttoned his shirt for him.

"Nice," JC murmured, then spread the shirt open and slid hands over the ribbed fabric of Justin's undershirt, fingers bumping lightly over ribs, pausing for split second to tease his sides, and then tracing up and lightly over his nipples. When the chain of Justin's necklace brushed his fingers, JC grabbed the pendant, caught it in his palm, and pulled gently until Justin moved forward for him. JC made a sound of satisfaction, then let the necklace go and leaned in to kiss Justin's collarbones, the base of his throat, his mouth hot against Justin's bare skin. Justin clenched his teeth and fought the urge to push JC away, his heart pounding hard as he wondered, Is this it? Will he do it now?

JC laughed a little, then slowly lifted his head, resting hands on Justin's shoulders and looking into his eyes.

"Relax," he said again, and Justin groaned in frustration. How many times was JC going to tell him that tonight? JC kissed him once on the mouth, then gathered the fabric of Justin's shirt in his hands and gently eased it down and over his shoulders, his fingers hot through the thin fabric. Justin closed his eyes and waited eagerly for the feel of JC's mouth and hands on his bare arms, an experience he'd never had before. When nothing happened, he opened his eyes in impatience, said, "JC--" and then broke off in surprise. JC was gazing raptly at the side of his biceps, his lower lip caught under his teeth, his expression bemused and maybe a little shocked.

"What?" Justin asked, and then quickly exclaimed, "Oh. Oh my god," as he remembered his cross tattoo and quickly clamped a hand over his arm to cover it. "I'm so sorry --I totally forgot about that. Does it bother you? Should we cover it up?"

"You spend all this time studying vampires and you don't know?" JC softly asked.

"Of course I've researched it, but the literature is contradictory." It was hard not to be a little defensive. "No one really knows for sure."

"This would be quite a coup for you, then," JC said. "Something exciting to take home to the Order."

"JC, you know, maybe this is something you need to relax about," Justin said, glaring at him and shaking his head. "You keep telling me to trust you. Maybe you could trust me, too."

For a moment, JC looked steadily at him; then he said, "You should get angry more often," and straightened up a bit. "Take your hand away. It's okay."

"Really?"

"Really," JC said, and then smiled slowly when Justin slowly uncovered the tattoo. "It's beautiful," he said quietly. "Did you choose it yourself? Why did you get it?"

"It was the first thing I did when I was twenty-one; I had been saving my money and . . . " Justin trailed off and closed his eyes, leaning his head back and sighing. Apparently JC was just fine with crosses, and it was impossible to talk with JC kissing his arm like this, JC's tongue gently tracing the outline of the tattoo, the cross, over and over again.

"What else have you kept hidden from me, I wonder?" JC whispered, his voice soft but with a thread of steel in it, and Justin took a deep breath and tried not to moan.

After he'd examined the tattoo to his satisfaction, JC stood and kissed Justin again, this time pressing in closely enough so Justin could feel how hard he was, rolling his hips slowly, gently into Justin. Justin gasped in delight, his arms beginning to quiver underneath him as he grew weak with desire.

"All the way, then," JC murmured, and gently eased Justin onto his back, leaning over him and smiling when Justin looked up at him with hungry, dilated eyes.

"I think I'd like for you to be naked now," JC said, and Justin exclaimed "Oh god" as JC began slowly working Justin's undershirt upward. Justin arched his back, sat up halfway, did everything he could to help JC, and then fell back, flushing as he saw the gleam in JC's eyes as he looked at him. JC slid hands lightly over his pectorals, murmuring "Yes. Oh yes," as Justin trembled under him, and then reluctantly stepped back and moved to Justin's feet.

"I can get that -- I --" Justin said quickly as JC began taking off his shoes. "You don't have to --"

"I know," JC said as Justin's shoes hit the carpet with two muffled thuds, and then drew off his socks, grinning when Justin giggled helplessly as he stroked the arches of his feet. As he moved back upward, however, JC's expression grew more serious.

"This is your last chance to back out," he warned.

"I'm here. I'm in," Justin said, and then let out a choked sound as JC moved sinuously, kissing his way across Justin's abdomen and then lower, lower still. Justin reflexively bent his legs, breathing hard and fast, stomach fluttering as JC's hand slid over his groin, moving slowly up and down. It was impossible not to thrust in response, impossible to hide from JC how good it felt. Justin closed his eyes and hummed in delight, pressing again and again into JC's fingers, JC's palm.

Finally, JC moved fingers to the waist of Justin's pants, nimbly unbuckling his belt and opening his fly, and then sliding his hand over the cotton of Justin's boxer briefs, his hand heavy and hot. Justin made a strained, needy sound, then held his breath as JC hooked fingers under the elastic and drew off his underwear and pants both. JC threw the clothes onto a chair across the room, and then said, none too gently, "Move back."

Clearing a path through the decorative pillows, Justin worked his way to the top of the bed and leaned back against the headboard, his eyes trained on JC, who was sliding off his sweater, kicking his boots onto the floor, shimmying out of his pants and underwear. Silk, Justin noted, and then widened eyes as he took in the lean planes of JC's body, the toned arms, the flat, tight stomach, the curve of his hipbones. In the dim light, JC's skin was smooth and glowing. His cock was dark and hard, beautiful, and Justin lost his breath as he stared at it, trying to commit everything about JC to memory.

JC was looking just as eagerly at him, but Justin knew it wasn't going to last long, because JC's brow was already creased with impatience, his eyes nearly black with need. "I can't wait much longer, Justin," he said in a low voice.

"You don't have to wait," Justin said, still mesmerized by the sight of him, and then watched silently as JC opened the drawer to the night stand and rummaged around for a second. When JC lowered himself onto Justin and moaned, Justin squirmed desperately against him, reveling in the feel of JC's skin, the heat of him, the hardness of his cock as it rubbed eagerly into him. JC kissed his way down Justin's chest, nuzzling the muscles of his abdomen with his cheek, and then paused to lick slow circles around his belly button before moving lower still. Justin felt himself start to vibrate with tension as JC's mouth got closer to his cock, felt his mind slip out of focus and uneasiness flood him. When JC licked his lower lip in anticipation and slowly began to lower his head, Justin gasped, his thighs quivering a bit.

JC went very still, and then looked into Justin's eyes for a long moment, his gaze burning. "Trust me," he whispered, and Justin was lost hopelessly in the depths of his eyes. JC moved his hand to the inside of Justin's thigh, rubbing gently, soothing almost, and then swept down and took Justin's cock in his mouth. Justin's thighs strained as he sought to spread them even wider, and he took long, desperate drinks of air as JC sucked him, his mouth hot and tight. After only a few moments, Justin cried out, his voice high and growing thin as pleasure brimmed in him. JC slowly drew back then, smiling, and moved to kneel between Justin's legs. Justin sat up a bit, swaying toward JC, longing to kiss him, to feel his skin, and JC suddenly swept in, kissing Justin fiercely, hands traveling down his sides until they grabbed his hips.

"JC," Justin said, and moaned eagerly when JC moved a hand behind his knee and pressed one of his legs upward. Justin eagerly drew up the other one as well, then waited breathlessly. When finally he felt JC's slick fingers sliding into him, he cried out softly, giving way for JC, desperate to have him. JC's breathing was ragged, his eyes wild, and Justin trembled as he slowly leaned forward to kiss his neck. When JC lifted his head, his fangs were bared, and Justin very nearly quailed, but then JC's fingers moved inside of him, sliding deep, fucking him just right. When JC moved back up to Justin's neck again, Justin undulated, caught hard between fear and arousal, crying out and bearing down on JC's fingers even as he strained away from the sharp teeth at his neck.

"JC, I--" Justin began, and then gasped sharply and thrust his hips almost convulsively as JC crooked fingers in just the right way. It was then that he felt JC's fangs break the surface of his skin, felt them sink deep.

"Oh god!" Justin breathed in utter terror as JC moaned brokenly and began to drink. Justin grabbed JC's shoulders, intending to push him away, but then JC's fingers moved again, and he howled, almost began to sob, utterly overwhelmed. JC's mouth was suctioned tight at his neck, and he was groaning in deepest pleasure as Justin's blood pumped into his mouth. Justin panicked as he felt himself losing strength while JC grew stronger and hungrier by the second. JC was trying to calm him down, trying to reassure him; Justin stanched those thoughts and then groaned helplessly as JC's fingers hit the mark yet again. He was utterly lost, his life's blood oozing away, and when Justin felt his balls begin to tighten, his body tense in preparation for what was going to be a very intense orgasm, he felt something like despair. He was hemorrhaging everywhere; he couldn't stop any of it, and JC was just asking for more, so hungry, so turned on, his fingers plunging deep, his mind telling Justin to let go, let go, let go. "Stop," Justin said weakly, then groaned so hard it hurt and released everything just like JC wanted.

The minute Justin's body relaxed, JC drew away from him, neatly licking his lips, one hand pressing hard into the wound on Justin's neck as he raked eyes hungrily over him. Justin shuddered and looked at the ceiling when he realized JC was still hard, and then cried out when JC bent his head to gently kiss and lick the wound. JC's mouth was swollen, and his eyes were full of lust, full of need.

"Justin," he gasped. "Are you all right?"

Still shivering from the force of his orgasm, Justin took a shaky inventory. There was a sharp sting at his neck but his vision was clearing, and he didn't feel weak or frightened anymore. In fact, warmth and a lazy delight were spreading through his limbs, and he arched his back, feeling JC’s eyes on him as he stretched deliciously. He looked up and saw his come on JC’s chest, and then looked down and saw that JC was still hard. And then, he looked right into JC’s narrowed blue eyes and saw exactly what JC wanted from him now.

"Okay?" JC asked softly, and Justin saw the need from before in his eyes, saw the pain and the agony of it. And then, to his own surprise, Justin realized that he had some of that need himself, that he did want more, that he was probably always going to want JC like this, and that he was going to be utterly powerless to stop it.

"We can't help it," Justin murmured in amazement, and then opened his legs and reached his arms up, pulling JC to him.

"No," JC agreed, and then swooped down to kiss Justin, moaning a bit as Justin froze upon tasting his own blood. When JC slowly moved back again, he grabbed one of Justin's ankles and pressed his leg up. Justin slowly nodded.

JC was not gentle, but the heavy pounding, the sheer force of it, was exactly what Justin needed. He clenched the sheets in his fists, kept his legs open wide, and rocked forward to meet JC, rocked forward again and again until light exploded behind his eyes with each deep thrust. When JC finally froze, cried out, and then shuddered in his arms, Justin kissed him and stroked his back, trying to soothe him.

JC moaned softly, still shaking, and Justin frowned a little. He didn't seem all that relaxed -- maybe for vampires, sex was less satisfying? Poor JC, he thought, and moved to stroke him some more, to run fingers through his hair.

It was then that he realized that JC was kissing his chest, his collarbones, that JC had lifted a hand to the side of his neck again and was looking with clear, hungry eyes at the wound he'd made before.

"JC?" Justin asked uncertainly.

"I'm sorry, Justin, but I want you again," JC said simply. "I need more, and I know -- Look. I could probably stop. If you want me to, I could stop. We could talk to Anne-Claire, maybe have her send Michael back in here, and --"

At the sound of that name, Justin tensed. There was absolutely no way in the world he was going to let Michael see JC like this, see him vibrating with hunger, straining almost desperately toward the pulse in Justin's neck. It was too private, too intimate, somehow, to share, and besides: JC didn't want Michael. JC wanted him. JC needed him. Oh god.

"You aren't that out of control -- um, I'll be okay, right?" he finally asked, gasping as JC's arms tightened around him, pulling him back under his body.

"You'll be just fine. I promise you," JC said in a strained voice. "You'll start to feel weak, maybe dizzy, and you'll need to sleep, but I'll be right here. I'll be right here and I'll take care of you."

Justin was still frightened.

"I know, and I'm sorry," JC said very quietly. "I thought I could get away with -- that I wouldn't need as much, but --"

"It's okay, "Justin said, summoning up a firmness of tone he didn't necessarily feel. "JC, it's okay. Here." Slowly, he tilted his head until the side of his neck was open to JC.

When he felt JC's fingers instead of his mouth, Justin frowned and looked at him in confusion, wondering what JC was doing until he felt him gently slide the necklace higher on his throat.

"No," Justin murmured, reaching for it, worried that JC was going to take it away.

"It's okay," JC consoled him. "It's just that I don't want it to be in the way."

"Oh," Justin said, and tried once more to tamp down on the fear as JC trembled, then slid between Justin's legs, murmured, "Justin," and lowered his mouth.

Justin tensed in anticipation of pain, but surprisingly felt nothing other than calm and a sense of lazy well-being. For what seemed like a long while, he looked dreamily up at the ceiling, stroked JC's back as it flexed, whispered gentle things. Poor JC. JC was so worked up -- JC was upset. JC was shuddering and moaning, his mouth hungry at Justin's neck and his hips restlessly rising and falling, but it was okay; it was okay because JC was going to take care of him. JC was in love with him and JC would always, always --

As JC cried out and came, his body going rigid, Justin smiled, then hugged him weakly when JC collapsed onto his chest and breathed very, very hard after clasping a white towel to Justin's throat. Justin held JC right back and felt happier than he'd been in a very, very long time.

~ ~ ~ ~

When he woke up again, Justin was underneath covers, layers and layers of them; they were so heavy, he couldn't move. He blinked hard a few times: he could see, but things were a little fuzzy, and he felt strange, almost as if he weren't really in his body.

When he glanced to his left, he saw JC, fully clothed, sitting in a chair across from the bed and looking intently at him.

"Where am I?" Justin murmured.

"You're with me," JC said softly, and put a gentle hand on his neck. "Do you remember what we did, Justin?"

"Oh!" Justin said out loud as memories flashed over him. "JC, I --"

"It's okay," JC quickly said. "You're okay, and I'm going to take care of you."

"I know that," Justin said, annoyed, because JC had already told him that six thousand times tonight, was still saying it inside of his mind, in fact. "I believe you, okay?"

JC smiled faintly, then crouched down next to the side of the bed, looked directly into Justin's eyes. "The bite is clean," he said softly. "You can take the bandage off before we leave tonight."

"That's good," Justin whispered. "I think 'm just gonna sleep some more."

"Okay, but first, I want you to drink this," JC said, and picked up a glassful of something that looked pretty heinous.

"JC, I'm not thirsty; I feel really, really weak, and I --" Justin said dreamily, and then slowly lowered his head back onto the pillow. "You know, you're just so beautiful," he added as an afterthought.

JC sat next to Justin on the bed and gently stroked his hair, smiling faintly. "Thank you," he said. "But you still have to drink this."

Justin tried to sit up, to move away, but it was too hard; the covers were too heavy.

"I'll help you," JC said immediately, and then the covers were swept down and there was an arm curved around his back, easing him up into a sitting position.

"Wow," Justin said muzzily, because JC smelled really, really good, and then frowned, because JC was bringing the drink closer and closer to him. "JC, I don't wanna," he said unhappily.

"Shh," JC said, and then the cool glass was at his lips, tilting forward, more and more, and if Justin didn't open his mouth, it was going to go all over, because JC obviously wasn't going to stop. JC never stopped. In resignation, Justin opened his mouth and took a few swallows. JC moved the glass away, gave him the same worried look, and said, "Okay? You're okay?"

"I'm okay," Justin said, but it was difficult to keep his eyes open.

"All right, then. Just a little more," JC said, and Justin groaned, because the cup was back. He drank and drank, but it still wasn't gone, and so then they had to go through the whole thing again, and then one more time after that. Finally, however, the glass was empty, and then JC let him lie back down and go to sleep.

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

~ ~ ~ ~

Part Five

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin woke sluggishly, his eyes pasted shut and his head pounding. His body ached dully in a dozen good and bad ways as he rolled onto his side. He curled up and then stretched experimentally. His muscles felt heavy and languid, and there were twinges of soreness in his groin, his thighs, his stomach. He pulled his pillow closer and hissed a little at the stinging tenderness in his neck. He ached vaguely all over, like he was coming down with something.

He pried his eyes open, blinking dully at the long french doors leading out onto his balcony. The light was wrong, he thought fuzzily. Strange and dim and . . . oh. It was afternoon. He’d slept the entire day.

He closed his eyes and rolled over gingerly so his back was to the window. His stomach growled ferociously but god, he was just so tired. He’d get up in a minute, he thought distantly, get a glass of water, maybe something to eat. His stomach gurgled again hopefully, but Justin was already drifting back into sleep.

It was much later when he next woke. The telephone on his desk in the sitting room was ringing. He tensed for a moment, but it was the short ring-ring of a call coming from inside the Order’s house, not an outside call. He relaxed again and closed his eyes as the phone silenced, but snapped them open again when it began ringing again, insistently. It was Chris on the other end, he realized slowly, and if Justin didn’t answer this time he was going to get Mathilda or one of the other senior members, get the master pass codes, open the door . . .

Justin levered himself up with a groan and lurched stiffly to his feet, grabbing desperately at his night stand as his legs wobbled beneath him. He stumbled to the other room, goose bumps peppering his arms and legs, and snatched the phone off its cradle, snapping a terse "yes" into the receiver.

Chris’s concern broke over him like a wave and Justin braced an arm on his desk, closing his eyes. Justin had skipped all meals today, hadn’t answered his door, when did he get in last night? Was he okay?

Justin cleared his throat. His vision blurred a little and he shook his head to try to clear it. His stomach clenched as his vision blurred and the room spun madly around him. Suddenly it seemed icy cold despite the warmth from the fireplace. His whole body hurt. He just wanted to crawl back into the bed, he thought groggily, into the high four-poster bed with the thick comforters, piles of soft pillows, and JC, lying naked and waiting for him, watching him with clear blue eyes, his body lean and glowing in the candlelight . . .

"Uh, Chris," he said, snapping back to his room, his phone call. "I’m sorry, man, I didn’t hear the phone. I was sleeping." He listened for a moment, his eyelids drifting shut as Chris spoke too fast and at too high a pitch. "No," Justin mumbled, "I’m fine." He pulled the desk chair out and lowered himself slowly into it with a soundless hiss, the vague ache morphing into a specific soreness that felt both bad and very, very good. He shifted gingerly as pain arced up his spine. "I think I’m sick," he said into the phone. "Yeah, I got in late. Very late."

Chris hesitated and asked a sly question that made Justin smile lazily. "As a matter of fact, I did," he said languidly, and grinned at Chris’s relieved laughter. Oh, he had, Justin thought dreamily. He most certainly had, and in a whole bunch of ways.

"No," Justin continued. "Thanks, I don’t need anything. I just want to sleep." His stomach growled anxiously and he rubbed it, looking down in surprise. He didn’t have any clothes on. Again. "No," he said distractedly. "I’ll call down for some soup or something when I feel better."

He curled his finger around the chain at his neck, idly sliding the pendant back and forth as his eyes drifted closed again. The chain tugged gently at his throat and he arched it slowly, feeling the deep pull of the small puncture wounds. He had a heated flash of JC on him, around him, in him, surrounding him with heat, and Chris’s voice droned to a faraway buzz as he flushed, stifling a gasp. Justin rubbed his face and breathed deeply, trying to focus.

"Yeah, I’ll call you later, sure," he said firmly. "Thanks, Chris," he added almost as an afterthought. "I’m sorry I worried you, but everything is fine." His eyes jerked to the books stacked on his desk as Chris asked another question, Justin’s notes about the prophets lined up neatly beside his computer. "Yeah, you know what? I’m almost done with that, should have it to you in the next couple of days. I’m sorry," he said softly. And for a moment, he really was.

His eyes shifted to the window. The sun had set and it was completely dark outside. The new lights on the grounds cast eerie shadows on his balcony and against his windows. Justin blinked, suddenly more alert. Night time. He needed to get off this phone right now.

"Okay," he said abruptly. "I’m sorry, Chris, but I’m really feeling like shit. I’ll call you later, when I wake up, okay? Yes. All right. Thanks man." He hung up the phone with relief and stared at it for a moment, willing it to ring.

He wasn’t at all surprised when it did, the long, low ring that meant it was from outside the house. His breath short with anticipation, he grabbed it and whispered "Hello?"

There was an electric, charged silence and Justin held his breath although he knew exactly who was on the other end. Then JC said "Justin" very quietly and he closed his eyes, toes curling in excitement.

"Hey," Justin whispered back, his voice hoarse. He felt himself reach out needfully, getting a confused impression of JC with a phone to his ear, his mouth stretched grimly. He was somewhere dark and cramped, and Justin frowned as noise filtered fuzzily through the earpiece. He opened his eyes, alone in his room again, with JC’s light breath in his ear.

"I just wanted to make sure," JC started, then hesitated. He sighed, and his voice dropped further. "I mean, you’re okay. Right?"

Justin smiled a little, pleasure pulsing through him at the sound of JC’s voice, the shuttered concern he could discern in his voice. "Yeah," he said softly. "I’m okay. Just a little tired, even though I slept all day."

There was more noise, loud voices and music and JC hissed in annoyance. "I have to go," he said abruptly. "Stay in tonight, rest. I’ll talk to you later." There was a click as the line was disconnected before Justin could protest, and his smile faded away. He closed his eyes and concentrated until sweat beaded on his brow, but he saw nothing. He sat naked in his silent and dark room for a long time.

Finally Justin blinked and got up, flipping on his lights and making his way slowly to the bathroom. He drank three glasses of water and calmly examined the new marks on his body. The brand on his chest was finally healed but still vaguely itchy in a way that couldn’t be scratched satisfactorily. He stared at the faint letters carved into his skin, running his fingertips over them again and again.

His breath grew short as he examined the small punctures on the side of his neck and the faint bruising around it. He fingered them gingerly, then pressed hard to feel the bright sting. He remembered JC’s face as he’d lifted his mouth from Justin’s neck, his eyes black and hungry, his mouth wet from Justin’s body, Justin’s blood. He shuddered and braced his arms against the counter. He was warm, but the tile felt cool and soothing against his sweating palms, and he wondered if perhaps he didn’t have a fever after all. Justin’s eyes strayed slyly back to his reflection, fascinated. The wounds were neat and precise, no tearing of the skin, very little bruising around them. He remembered JC’s file, the report that described how Roberta Thomas’s body had been mutilated, her throat torn out. Justin smiled slowly. JC had taken such good care of him.

He turned away from the mirror with a sigh and twisted the shower knobs until the water was scorching and filled the bathroom with steam. He washed thoroughly, taking lazy note of the way his body felt. He was weak, and the hot water was making him light-headed, but other than that he felt languid and sated and perhaps better than he’d ever felt in his whole life.

He saw his reflection in the mirror as he climbed out of the shower and raised his eyebrows at his own pallor. Moving back to his sitting room, he placed a call to the kitchen for chicken noodle soup, crackers and orange juice. And aspirin, he added on inspiration as he remembered his conversation with Chris. Yes, he was feeling a mite poorly, would they please just leave the tray outside his room? Thank you.

Justin dressed slowly as he waited for his meal, mind drifting back over the events of the previous night. It seemed like it had just happened, the dinner and the happenings at the vampire bordello crystal clear in his mind, while the aftermath was dim and hazy. He remembered JC waking him up, forcing some sort of drink down his throat. He remembered waking a second time, JC urging him up and out of the bed that Justin never wanted to leave, helping him dress. Justin had been little help, he recalled, his hands constantly reaching out to touch JC, lingering on the smooth skin of his cheek, the softness of his hair. JC had taken Justin’s hand and pressed a hard kiss to his palm, making Justin moan, but he’d been urgent and focused. Get dressed, he’d said, and hurry. There had been a faint light around the thick blinds on the windows. Dawn was coming.

JC had slipped his own turtleneck over Justin’s head. To hide the wound, he’d said, his voice low and a little rough, and Justin had smiled dazedly at him as he’d brushed his hand over the top of Justin’s head, scraping deliciously through his short hair. Justin, he’d said, taking his shoulders and shaking him a little. Justin, c’mon. Snap out of it, you have to get home . . . JC had trailed off and allowed Justin to move into his arms, wrapping them around him and holding him tightly as Justin sighed with tiredness and contentment. C’mon, he’d whispered. There’s no time, I have to go, and you do too. I can’t leave you here.

Justin jumped a little at the tap on his door and waited until he felt the kitchen staff person move away down the hall before opening his door. The tray was smooth antique silver, and was much heavier than it looked. He set it on his desk, pushing his books out of the way and lifting the cover. A large tureen of thick chicken soup, two kinds of crackers, a cold thermos of freshly squeezed orange juice and a hot thermos of fragrant tea. And, he noted with a smile, four individually wrapped packets of aspirin.

He sat down and fed hungrily, his body desperate for nutrition, his eyes fixed on the black night outside of his window. Strength flowed slowly back into his limbs and his mind gradually cleared.

Justin frowned a little, thinking about the telephone call from JC. He’d sounded rushed and irritable, but Justin had felt his concern mixed with a helpless sort of longing that Justin understood all too well. He wondered what JC was doing tonight, why he sounded so distracted and secretive, almost as if he were trying to hide what he was doing. Perhaps he was doing exactly that, Justin thought slowly. It seemed probable that JC was hiding his . . . his whatever with Justin in much the same way Justin was hiding it from the Order.

Unless it was all an act. Justin ate his crackers mechanically, one after the other, his eyes sober on the shifting shadows on his curtains. Vampires were incredibly accomplished mesmerists. He knew from the little he’d seen of Roberta Thomas’s file that she’d been completely under JC’s spell, had felt an intense connection to him that perhaps even rivaled Justin’s.

Immediately he shook his head in denial. It couldn’t be; there was nothing like the pull Justin felt to JC, the pull he suspected JC also felt to Justin. He remembered the previous evening, the sound of JC’s harsh breaths in his ear, the feel of his body and his hands, so urgent on Justin as he’d spread him open. Justin flushed and swallowed hard. JC hadn’t been gentle, but he’d taken great care to make certain Justin wasn’t hurt, had cared for him afterwards, made sure he would get home safely.

Because he wants the Order’s file, he thought treacherously, but he shook his head again. He didn’t believe that was all of it. He couldn’t.

Justin left the now empty tray outside his door and sprawled on his bed, closing his eyes and stretching luxuriously. He felt so good, so pleased and satisfied, and he refused to think about anything that would make him worry right now. Right now he was going to think about the previous night, and enjoy it. And maybe think a little about what the next night would hold in store for him. He drifted easily, relaxing into his hard bed, smiling.

There was something off, though. Something was not quite right. He frowned a little in concentration, focusing his attention with an effort. Eyes. Or ears, was someone listening? Trying to hear his thoughts? He concentrated, breathing deeply. Someone was watching him. Right now.

He pulled his eyes open and looked sharply at the tall french doors leading out to his balcony. The windows were backlit by the lights on the grounds, and the trees waved gently in the wind, making odd moving patterns against the sheer curtains. But there was nobody there.

Justin sat up slowly, tense and incredibly alert. He stood and faced the interior of his bedroom, breathing lightly, concentrating. He moved slowly around the room, reaching out, focusing intently and using his mind’s eye to navigate. Frowning now, he moved slowly into the sitting room and paused by his desk. His senses strained as he walked over to his couch then turned back to the desk, searching, searching.

There. The wall behind his desk. The electrical outlet near the desk, the one unblocked by any furniture. He sat on his couch with a studied weariness and closed his eyes, concentrating. Something was in there. Something was inside the outlet, and it was watching him.

Justin rubbed the goose bumps away and stood up, walking easily to his desk. He let the power cord for his laptop drop to the floor, then plugged it into the top of the two outlets. Turning the laptop on, he listened to it beep and hum as it powered up.

He sat down gingerly at the desk, taking care to place the screen of the laptop between his face and the outlet. The Order was watching him, and they were probably listening to him as well. Justin drew in a long, shaky breath and tried to keep his anger in check, and then looked at his telephone and felt a chill. It could be tapped -- and they could probably trace his calls as well.

He stayed still, breathing sharply. He was under suspicion. JC had said the night before that someone from the Order had followed Justin to the bookstore. He pulled his laptop toward him and opened his file on the now-overdue report on the Tahitian prophets, staring blindly at his outline. Was Lou behind the recording device? Was it a live camera, or some sort of recording to be retrieved later the next time he left his room? He couldn’t tell. He flushed with fury at the thought of Lou watching him, invading his privacy as he walked naked in his own rooms, talked to JC on the phone, examined the wound in his neck . . .

This is how JC feels about the file, he realized bleakly, and took a slow, deep breath. With an effort he calmed himself, forced himself to sit still in the chair and pretend to work, not leap to the outlet and rip the offending device right out of the wall.

The best way to allay suspicion was to behave as if nothing was wrong, to sit here quietly and do his work. His eyes lingered on the books stacked neatly in front of him, on his notes. He would finish this project, he thought. He’d work on it right now, treat it as a smokescreen while he ferreted out Lou’s plans for JC, and the new location of the Order’s files on JC.

And perhaps he’d even finish the report. It could be a goodbye gift to Chris, because Justin knew with a sudden chill that he wouldn’t be with the Order for very much longer.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC woke up at least two hours earlier than normal, his mind clouded and his eyes bleary as he cast a glance at the clock on his bedside table and then groaned. He hadn't slept for more than two hours at a time last night: again and again, he'd awakened, his body humming and his mind reeling, full of an edgy, animating energy he couldn't expel. It was profoundly unlike him to be sleepless, and for a moment, JC wondered wildly whether he was sick with some strange new disease previously unknown to vampires.

But that wasn't what was happening, and JC knew it even if he didn't want to admit it. In frustration, he rolled on his side, bunched up his pillow, and tried to relax back into sleep, commanding his body to unwind, his mind to slow down. After only a few minutes, however, he kicked his legs hard, becoming infuriated as they got tangled in the sheets, and then, with a groan of barely repressed fury, sat up, ripped away the sheets, and moved to sit on the side of the bed.

"Damn," he said out loud, his voice quiet in the room, and in wonderment pressed a hand first to the inside of his wrist and then to the side of his throat. Justin: it was Justin inside of him, and JC could practically feel the blood singing, pumping him full of manic energy and longing. With a small, choked sound, JC closed his eyes as pleasure reverberated throughout his body. It was very nearly unbearable.

So resist it, then, JC told himself fiercely. Don't be such a weakling -- and then plunged into the memory anyway, tamping down on a moan as he remembered Justin's soft cries, how Justin had trembled, how fully, gorgeously responsive his body had been. JC held his breath as he relived it, the regular surge of Justin's hips against him, the soft thud of Justin's anxious pulse against his tongue, against his lips, so hot and so ripe, and then that first sweet rupture, the blood flooding into his mouth, warm and delicious, the flavor beautiful and complex.

Justin's first impulse had been to tense, to fight him a bit, but that had only excited JC more. Before he'd known it, he'd pinned Justin down and reflexively sealed his mouth tight around the wound, sucking hard, determined at all costs to get everything he could, to draw as much of Justin inside him as possible. Such deep pleasure: the gorgeous, rich blood, Justin's arousal, Justin's fear, and then Justin calming slowly, his body relaxing, undulating as he relented, weakened, and gave himself to JC. JC had drunk sparingly the first time, fearful of what he might do, but during the second round, he hadn't been able to defeat the urge, hadn't been able to stop himself. He'd dragged Justin much, much farther than he should have.

It had been sheerest luck that JC had stopped himself in time, dumb, blind luck that he'd even heard Justin urgently breathe his name and clutch his shoulder in a way that slowly dragged JC back from the edge. JC shivered. The urge to consume Justin entirely had been very nearly overwhelming.

Maybe he should have done it, JC thought soberly. Maybe he should have put an end to all this confusion and trouble. Justin had been utterly pliant in his arms; it would've been easy to take him all the way, and so gently and sweetly that he never would have known it.

JC groaned out loud, hugging himself a bit as his body continued to throb, to ache. Justin's blood was driving him insane, flowing unchecked, taking him over, creating such painful need that JC wasn't sure he was going to survive it. He'd suffered voracious hunger before, but there had never been such an insanity about it, such an utter loss of reason, and it had certainly never been focused so exclusively on one person. All he knew right now was that he had to be with Justin again, absolutely had to have more of his blood, even if it drove him mad. Justin had somehow caught him, trapped him, drawn him into a cycle of desperate, terrifying craving.

JC lay down again, bringing legs up and wrapping arms around them, breathing deeply and seeing nothing but Justin. He couldn't bear it. The moment it was dark enough, he would head for the Order.

~ ~ ~ ~

"Would you please wake up?" Lance said, and JC startled into consciousness, staring at Lance in astonishment. Apparently he had fallen asleep after all.

"What time is it?" JC murmured, stretching and wincing.

"Ten-thirty," Lance said darkly. "You've wasted at least two hours of my time already, and if you don't get up right now, I'm leaving without you, game or no."

The game, the game. JC closed his eyes and groaned. It was his turn to set the challenge, and this was only because he'd been unprepared to take his turn the last time Lance had wanted to play. Justin had been taking up more than a little of JC's time and attention lately. The game was oddly important to Lance, and he was becoming increasingly annoyed with JC for neglecting it. Several times over the past few days, JC had felt his hard, questioning stare -- or, perhaps, had felt it more acutely since he was now hiding something from him.

"Okay, okay -- I'll be right there. Just let me shower," JC mumbled, and Lance slowly nodded, then collapsed into the easy chair in JC's room to wait.

In the shower, JC closed eyes and took stock: he could still feel Justin's blood in him, but the effect was much less upsetting; the frantic energy of it had abated into a low, regular pulsing, and it was, it felt . . . JC swore under his breath, then closed his eyes and thought again about Justin rising up beneath him, Justin's legs spread wide around him, Justin's deep, throaty moans. JC slid hands down to his cock but then shook his head and tried to concentrate on other things, on the game. If he could summon up the motivation to care even a little about it, he'd probably feel much better, but right now, all that seemed to matter was this strange, intense connection with Justin. All JC seemed to need or want was . . . more.

Stepping out of the shower, he wrapped a towel tight around his waist and then quickly shaved. His eyes looked dark and hungry, almost craven, and JC allowed himself the smallest of satisfied smiles as he remembered a similar expression in Justin's last night.

Was Justin all right? JC hadn't at all been gentle last night, hadn't held back one bit. As he thought of how pale and disoriented Justin had been when he'd hurried him out of the bordello early in the morning, JC groaned quietly and looked down at the counter as anxiety rose swiftly in him. He was going to have to be much more careful with him in future. House rules of the bordello required customers to check in on their sex partners sometime in the first forty-eight hours following contact. JC was pretty much ready to check in on Justin right now, Justin, who could be losing consciousness or slipping into shock even as JC stood here motionless in his own bathroom. No one in the stupid motherhouse would think to notice, think to look in on him, JC was sure of it.

He would call right now. JC quickly stepped out of the bathroom to get his phone, and very nearly winced when he saw that Lance was still there, and that he was practically thrumming with impatience. JC had to get it together fast, had to put on a convincing front until he could get to a phone or, better still, slip away to see Justin in the flesh.

"You came in late last night," Lance said as JC ran fingers through his hair and dropped the towel unselfconsciously.

"Um, yeah," JC said, and dragged on underwear, then headed to his closet and peered inside.

"So what were you doing?"

JC looked for inspiration in the row of jeans he was considering and found none. "I went over to Anne-Claire's," he finally said, then yanked a dark blue pair off a hanger and stepped into them.

"Really," Lance said quietly, and looked hard at JC. "And who were you with?"

"A new guy," JC said, buttoning his fly, and then grabbed a close-fitting shirt and buttoned that too before shuffling over to his dresser for socks, trying to control the heat in his cheeks as he thought once more of Justin. "He was very, very sweet."

"Ah," Lance said. "Her stock is always so good. You should have called me -- I would've gone with you."

"Next time," JC promised and then shoved his feet into shoes. "Hey, um, Lance. How about you give me ten more minutes or so to make a phone call? You know house rules -- I'd probably better check in on this guy."

"Last I heard, we got forty-eight hours to do that," Lance said calmly.

"Yeah, well, I'm afraid I'll forget."

"If you don't call Anne-Claire, she calls you, as I'm sure you remember." Lance narrowed eyes. "In fact, I'm pretty sure that's what's happened to you the last few times you were there. Why this sudden interest in the welfare of whores? He must've been good."

"Fine, fine, forget about it." JC hoped that his offhand tone was convincing. "Let's just go."

"Oh no," Lance said pleasantly. "By all means, JC, call. I can't have you tarnishing your good name over at the bordello."

"Lance, I said --"

"In fact, why don't I just place the call for you?" Lance added smoothly, digging his own phone out of the depths of his jacket. "I've got her on speed dial, of course, but then I'll bet you do, too, hmm?"

JC stared in annoyance at Lance, then stuck out his hand for the phone. Lance held up a hand to hold him off.

"Anne-Claire," he said in his rich, deep voice. "JC just told me he was over there last night, and we're calling -- well, JC, at least, seems very, very interested in the welfare of the man he was with last night, only he can't seem to remember his name. If you could help us out, we'd be most appreciative."

JC held his breath and moved in two quick strides to Lance's chair. "Give it to me," he said in a low, threatening voice. "Right now."

"Michael," Lance said, smiling. "That's a nice name, yes. JC said he was a virgin, yes? Mmm. I don't suppose he's still on the market . . . no, of course not. Of course. I know your policy. Hey, so JC's glaring at me right now. Could you speak with him, please?"

JC grabbed the phone and stepped quickly away from Lance. "So he's okay, then," he said to Anne-Claire.

"My boy? Of course, but you already know that since you didn't even drink from him. Poor thing was really rather worked up after all your teasing, but I suspect he'll live," Anne-Claire said, laughing softly. "The one you should probably be concerned about right now is your Justin. If he were one of mine -- I'll tell you right off, JC, you'd be banned from here for a good long time."

"I know," JC said grimly. "Believe me, I do, and I'm not -- that's not how I wanted it to unfold."

"Liar," Anne-Claire said in a low, amused voice, and after a startled pause, JC had to laugh.

"Okay," he finally said. "Maybe so. But still --"

"What the hell is going on over there anyway?" Anne-Claire said, and JC could practically hear her brain working through the phone. "Why is Lance checking up on you, and why doesn't he know about your sweet little boy? You must've been serious about not sharing. Is there trouble over there in paradise?"

"Thank you, darling," JC said quickly and rudely. "Of course I'll be back, and as always, I thank you for your discretion. Bye now."

"JC --" Anne-Claire was saying as JC cut her off, then handed the phone back to Lance.

"Any more phone calls you want to make on my behalf?" he asked.

"Not at the moment, but I'll let you know if that changes," Lance said, and then gracefully unfolded from his chair. "Okay. Let's go do this, then."

JC led them to a club because he wasn't able to think of anything else, and then made up the challenge on the spot as they stood outside on the sidewalk. "A couple, male-female, male-male, female-female, I don't care which. Take them both out and then come find me. First to finish wins."

Lance smiled. "What've you got against couples all of a sudden?"

JC shrugged irritably. "I don't know, Lance -- it's just what I want to do tonight, okay?"

"This one will take a while," Lance said in a measured voice. "And you haven't fed yet, either. Are you going to have the patience to do this?"

The fact of the matter was that JC truly was hungry, and it was making him vicious and disoriented, short-tempered and weak. He closed his eyes for a moment and felt Justin deep inside of him. If he fed again, he'd probably not feel him at all, and as painful as the growing hunger was, that somehow seemed worse. And yet biology was biology: he had to drink.

"I'll be fine," he said curtly, and Lance stepped back a bit, brought hands up.

"Why are you such a bitch tonight? Get your heart broken at the bordello?"

"Please fuck off now," JC said, and headed toward the entrance of the club.

Of course the place was throbbing with music -- live music, even -- and of course JC had again forgotten earplugs. He winced but moved right in, scanning the room with intent and carefully picking his way through the crowd of people pressing eagerly toward the stage. The lead singer of the band was whippet thin and gorgeous, with tight red pants and artfully disheveled hair, and for a moment JC wished he'd challenged Lance to take out musicians instead of couples. It was a little late for that, however. JC worked his way to the rear of the crowd, closing his mind to the chaotic thoughts of the people around him but enjoying the heat they generated, the smell of their sweat, their perfume, the alcohol fumes they were exhaling. At the back of the club were tables and booths in various dark alcoves where people who enjoyed the music but didn't want to stand up all night could relax and enjoy themselves. It was here that JC could get down to work and win this, he figured, and maybe, if he were lucky, also sneak off to make a phone call.

He moved to the bar and situated himself beside a man and a woman who appeared to be rather out of place: aside from JC and Lance, they were probably the oldest people in the club, and instead of leather and boots, they wore linen and loafers. Their faces were pinched with polite distaste, and it was with some effort that JC stifled a grin as he gazed at them. What on earth had brought them here?

"Hi," he said, leaning across the man to address the woman. He'd pitched his voice so she could hear him perfectly, but her companion could not, and JC felt the heady beginnings of bloodlust as he received a flash of incredulity and excitement from the female and territorial anger from the male. He glanced at their hands, saw matching wedding rings, and grinned.

"What brings the two of you here?" he asked, looking intently at the wife again.

"That's our son," the husband gruffly said, pointing at the lead singer in the band. "It's his first gig." JC gazed once more at the pretty young man, who was now slowly and seductively humping the microphone stand and then searched the faces of his now somewhat embarrassed parents for traces of him. His cheekbones came from his mother, his curly hair and mouth from his father. He wasn't sure which of the parents had taught him to move like that, but if he had to bet on it, JC would put his money on the mother. As he concentrated on the fluid rocking of the young man's hips, JC was suddenly reminded of the way Justin had writhed under him last night, and for a second, he wavered, considered leaving the club outright and heading straight for the motherhouse. But there was also Lance to think of, and part of JC really did want to win this challenge.

Wrenching his attention back to the here and now, JC untruthfully told the parents that their son seemed very talented and then had to grin as both of them tried to conceal their pride and happiness from him for fear of seeming conceited. They were really very nice people, and once more JC hesitated, considered trying to find a different couple to play with, at the very least people he found unpleasant. But that would be both soft and ridiculous, and he was absolutely certain that Lance wasn't suffering any moral qualms over his kill. Besides, JC truly was hungry, and he wanted to get this over with, wanted to save part of his evening for . . . for something else.

"You know, I bet you'd be able to see him a lot better from one of the tables in back," JC said, and when the husband turned his head to look at them, slowly slid his hand across the bar until he was touching the inside of the wife's wrist. Her eyes went wide with surprise and her cheeks stained pink, and she quickly withdrew her hand, nervously avoiding his eyes. JC would kill her last, he decided. She might be worth taking some time with.

"You know, honey, I think he's right," the husband said, getting up and gesturing to the back of the room. "And even if he's not, the booths back there have got to be more comfortable than these bar stools."

"Let's move then," the woman said urgently, still not looking at JC.

"Like to join us?" the husband asked JC because JC wanted him to.

"Oh, I'd love to," JC said, and looked intently at the wife one more time, watched her struggle not to squirm under his gaze. "Just give me a second to make a phone call and I'll be right there." As they made their way to empty booth, JC walked quickly to a fairly isolated spot at the end of the bar and drew out his cell phone, frowning as his body quivered with hunger, with lust, with need, all of it confused, all of it related in some way to Justin. He was hungry and he was weak, and JC clenched his jaw as the full force of it hit him. His prey across the room were fine and good, but what he really needed was another taste of Justin. Oh god. It would be so easy to head straight to the motherhouse, so easy to slip into Justin's room, bury his face in his neck and drink until he came. The desire to do it was very nearly unbearable, and JC had already taken a few steps toward the front door, Lance be damned, when a vision of how Justin had looked this morning flashed in his mind. Justin had been so quiet and so pale as he slept, and when he'd gotten up to walk, he'd stumbled, moving as if he were in a dream. JC had substantially weakened him, had possibly even hurt him seriously, and already he was thinking again about taking more.

And why shouldn't he take more? Why shouldn't he allow himself to have what he wanted? He'd certainly never stopped himself on this count before.

JC looked across the room at the parents of the future rock star, caught the wife staring at him in reluctant fascination, and then grinned. Actually, it might be better to have an appetizer first -- better not to visit Justin in the thrall of deepest bloodlust. He wasn't going to say that one day he might not descend upon Justin in that state, but it wasn't going to happen tonight. JC didn't want to think about the why of it, but the fact of the matter was that he needed Justin to be around for a while longer. He needed to hear his voice.

Hear his voice? JC grimaced. God, he was messed up. Sighing unhappily, JC dialed Justin's number and waited eagerly for him to pick up the phone.

~ ~ ~ ~

His mother’s kitchen faced west and the late afternoon sun was streaming through the windows in bright yellow stripes, catching the minute dancing of dust motes in the air. Tinny music played faintly in the distance but Justin was alone, moving slowly around the heavy wooden kitchen table toward the back door. Someone was tapping slowly and steadily against the window and Justin couldn’t move fast enough; the air was like molasses and he fought against it, terrified that whoever wanted in would give up and leave before he could get to the door. His hands reached desperately for the knob, he was almost there, surely it wasn’t too late . . .

Justin woke with a gasp, the quiet tapping still ringing in his ears. His face was squished on the hard surface of his desk, and there was a small spot of saliva on his notebook. He raised his head slowly, wincing at his stiff neck and back, blinking heavily. He’d been finishing Chris’s research and had fallen asleep at his desk, he realized slowly. And he’d been dreaming that someone wanted in, had been tapping at his door.

The tapping came again, almost silently from the doors off the balcony in his bedroom. He felt it more than he heard it, and Justin sat up with a jolt and froze. His eyes flickered around the room and glanced down at the outlet that hid the recording device. He didn’t know if it was audio, or video, or both. He didn’t know how sensitive it was. He couldn’t destroy it, he couldn’t tip them off that way, but he had to do something.

The tapping came again, almost inaudible, and Justin stood carefully, lifting his messenger bag from behind the chair and throwing it almost casually to the floor beside his desk. It blocked the outlet neatly, and as he hurried into his bedroom he flipped off the lights and closed the double doors to his sitting room tightly behind him. His eyes adjusting to the dark, he bolted across the room.

A stiff breeze caused shadows of trees to dance against his sheer draperies, backlit eerily by the security lights scattered across the grounds. And on the other side of the window was a silent and motionless shape, standing in the darkest corner of Justin’s balcony. His breath tangled in his throat and his heart pounded, making his hands shake as he struggled to open the tall french doors. He got a hand on each door knob and pulled hard. The wind caught the doors and blew them into the room, bouncing them on their hinges as the winter air flung the draperies into disarray and blasted Justin with cold air.

JC was standing quietly on the other side of the threshold. He seemed to absorb light, Justin thought distractedly, except for his eyes, which were very blue and burning with intensity into Justin’s own. His cheeks were flushed and his hair was wild from the wind, and as JC smiled slowly, Justin felt his breath drain away. His hands came up, helplessly reaching, and JC caught them with his own.

JC almost seemed to radiate heat, his hands a blissful contrast to the cold air blowing in from the second floor balcony. Justin took a deep breath and struggled to speak, but JC seemed content for the moment just to stare at Justin, his eyes moving rapidly and lightly over his tall form. Something seemed to relax inside of him, his mouth softening and his shoulders easing comfortably.

"Let me in," he suggested in a whisper. "It’s late, I don’t have much time."

Justin grasped his hands and stepped backwards into his room, pulling JC with him. "Yes, god, yes come in. It’s freezing out." He reached around JC to push the doors shut, latching them securely against the cold, and then he turned back to JC and stared at him. "How did you get here?" he asked in a whisper. Adrenaline surged in him as he remembered the gates, the motion detectors, the cameras. "Oh my god, JC . . ." he said in alarm, panic spiking his voice.

JC stepped forward and put his fingers to Justin’s lips, silencing him. "Shhh, Justin," he said softly. "It’s okay."

"But –"

"No, I mean it." JC smiled, amused. "It’s okay. Nobody and nothing saw me come in." His smile grew, and Justin blinked, his mind stuttering to a stop. "And if you don’t know how, then apparently you haven’t been doing the right kind of research." His hands lingered on Justin’s face, his eyes half-closing as he slid his index finger across Justin’s lower lip, over and over.

Justin leaned into his touch, holding his breath. Unable to stand it for another moment he opened his arms and JC stepped closer, wrapping both arms around him, hugging him gently. Justin buried his face into JC’s neck and breathed deeply, closing his eyes.

"You shouldn’t have risked it," he said softly, mindful of the device in the other room. "It’s gone crazy here, there’s so much security and they’ve -- anyway. Things are strange here."

JC’s hand stroked gently down the back of his head and smoothed down his back. "I had to check on you," he whispered. "It’s my responsibility to make certain that you’re okay the next day, it’s a rule . . ." His low voice drifted off as Justin leaned back to look at him.

"A rule?" he asked incredulously. "Whose rule? You have rules?"

"The bordello’s rules," JC said quietly. His eyes carefully examined Justin’s still-pale face. "Nobody leaves there without being sure that the person they were . . . with . . . is going to recover. Otherwise you’re banned." His lips quirked in a little smile, encouraging Justin to smile with him, but Justin took a careful step away.

"The bordello," he said slowly. A hard knot of tension was growing in his chest, making him flush. JC’s eyes narrowed as Justin took a long slow breath. "I’m not . . . I mean, JC, you can’t think that I’m like one of those people there." His hand crept up to cover the small puncture wounds on his neck even though the neck of his sweater hid them from view.

JC caught Justin’s hand before it could reach up, holding it loosely between his own as he eliminated the small distance between them. His eyes were very dark and there was no smile on his lips.

"No," he whispered firmly. "You’re not like them."

"It wasn't the same thing. What we did -- what you did with me," Justin said doggedly, and JC shook his head.

"It wasn't," he agreed. He lifted Justin’s hand to his mouth, opening his lips warmly on the palm and sucking gently. Justin’s mouth fell open slightly as he watched JC’s eyes drift shut, the lashes dark against his skin.

"So, why are you here tonight, JC?" Justin asked in a hoarse whisper, and JC raised his head, meeting Justin’s eyes levelly. The silence stretched thinly between them, vibrating like a taut rubber band. Then JC shrugged, carefully casual.

"I wanted to see you," he said simply. "I wanted to make sure you were okay after last night." A small frown creased his forehead, but his eyes didn’t waver. "I lost -- well, I’m used to being more in control, and I wanted to make sure you weren’t -- hurt."

Justin swayed closer as JC’s hands moved gently to his waist, curving inside the hem of Justin’s sweater and smoothing along the warm skin of his waist.

"You were worried about me," Justin whispered. JC’s mouth tightened, but he nodded a little as Justin watched closely. "You knew I couldn’t get out of here tonight, so you came to me."

JC was breathing more heavily now, the pulse at his throat beating in time with Justin’s heart. He pulled suddenly on the hem of Justin’s sweater, tugging it up and over his head, throwing it into a corner of the room. His hands returned to the smooth skin at Justin’s waist, sliding firmly up his sides and around his back.

"I didn’t want you going out," he said softly. "You need your rest, you didn’t need to be out in the cold tonight." His hands traced patterns over Justin’s shoulders, pulling him easily, slowly toward him. Justin gulped hard at the look in JC’s eyes and struggled to keep his thoughts in order.

"You came," he whispered, closing his eyes as JC’s mouth eased closer to his. "You came because you needed to see me. Because you knew I needed to see you." He waited, holding his breath as JC hesitated, his eyes on Justin’s mouth.

"Because I needed to see you," JC whispered roughly, and then his mouth was on Justin’s, hard and hungry, and with a shuddering groan Justin gave himself up to it.

"Shhhhh," JC murmured against his skin, his mouth licking and nipping at Justin’s jaw as Justin closed his eyes and slowly arched his neck. He skimmed his tongue gently across the neat puncture wounds, taking care not to open them as he gathered Justin closer, bending him against his body.

Justin’s hands stroked roughly down JC’s back, finding the bottom of his shirt and shoving it out of his way, frantic to feel skin against his palms. "Off," he whispered, "JC, off. Now. Now."

JC released him, stepping back and shaking the hair out of his eyes. His lips were full and his eyes brilliant as he grabbed the bottom of his shirt and pulled it over his head with a single clean motion. Justin’s hands were already at the front of JC’s jeans, pulling them open and sliding his hands inside. He dropped to his knees as he pulled them slowly down JC’s hips, licking his lips hungrily.

JC’s stomach was pale and flat and ridged with lean muscle. It heaved with his breath as Justin pressed his face to it, closing his eyes at the warmth and the slight roughness from the hair trailing downward. He opened his mouth on JC’s firm abdomen, sucking hard at the pale skin, hearing JC hiss above him. His cock was flushed and hard, reaching out from his body, and Justin closed his mouth around it with a sigh.

JC’s hands curved over his head, an oddly gentle contrast to his low, filthy curse as Justin licked up the underside and flicked his tongue over and around the head. His fingers tightened on Justin’s scalp and Justin spread his own hands around JC’s hips, encouraging them to rock gently as he sucked harder, his tongue busy. His eyes drifted shut and his world narrowed to the careful slip and slide of the flesh in his mouth, the faintly salty taste, the warm hands lightly cupping his head. JC moaned above him, a gasping sort of sigh, and Justin opened his eyes, drinking in the sight of JC’s face.

JC stared down at him for a long breathless moment, then pulled him to his feet and tilted Justin’s face as he covered his mouth with his own. His hands stroked greedily over Justin’s shoulders and waist, then dropped to his sweat pants, yanking the drawstring and pushing them to Justin’s knees. Justin gasped, his hands shaking as he wrapped his arms around JC’s shoulders and opened his mouth wider, inviting JC’s tongue in and curling his own around it. JC wrapped one long-fingered hand around his aching cock, stroking gently, and Justin’s knees quivered as he dropped his head to JC’s shoulder. He closed his eyes, his head swimming, moaning softly as JC supported him with one strong arm around his body and reached further between Justin’s legs, stroking.

JC’s mouth was busy on the sensitive skin of his throat and when Justin whispered his name JC wrapped his other arm around him, bringing their bodies together in all the right places. Justin kicked impatiently out of his sweat pants and stumbled back toward his bed, coaxing JC with him. JC followed, his eyes luminous in the dim light, breathing heavily as Justin pulled impatiently at his hands. He swallowed hard and paused at the side of the bed, closing his eyes for a moment. Justin felt his conflict, a colorful turmoil in JC’s mind.

"Justin," he said lowly, and Justin knelt up on the bed, his hands reaching for JC’s lips, silencing him.

"Have to be quiet. There’s a bug in the other room," he whispered, and watched JC’s face go tight with fury.

"Fuck. God damn them," JC hissed. He took a deep breath, looking at the heavy double doors leading into Justin’s sitting room. "Justin, this isn’t a good idea," he whispered finally, even as his palms rubbed slowly over Justin’s shoulders and down his chest, his fingertips brushing over skin that made Justin gasp.

"It isn’t," Justin agreed. "But I don’t care." His fingers smoothed over the lean planes of JC’s face, stroking the slant of his cheekbones and into the hair curling at his temples. He felt JC’s mind fog with desire, felt it echo in his own mind as his body surged demandingly.

"It’s too soon," JC said, his voice barely audible. He was breathing heavily, seemed almost to be talking to himself. "Too soon, for you. I shouldn’t be here." His hands moved lower on Justin’s body, curving over his buttocks and scratching a pattern on the smooth skin. Justin arched into him and tightened his arms around JC’s waist, pulling him backwards. He stretched out on his bed and gasped silently as JC followed him down and covered him, his skin silky and warm, his hips nudging Justin’s legs open. He wrapped his arms around him and held on tightly as JC’s hips began to move and his own mirrored them.

"I said I don’t care," he whispered desperately, fiercely into JC’s face. "I need you."

"Oh. Fuck, Justin," JC said roughly, then paused as Justin brought his knees up and pulled JC’s hips closer. He closed his eyes on a hiss, then dropped his face to Justin’s shoulder, mouthing the smooth skin. He drifted lower, pressing his lips to the brand on Justin’s chest, tonguing it lewdly as Justin stifled his cry with his own fist. JC’s mouth opened, and he nipped sharply at the scar and sucked hard, bringing the blood to the surface of Justin’s skin. One hand crept lower, drifting down Justin’s side to his ass, grasping hard and nestling closer as Justin squirmed deliriously. He muttered a vicious curse into Justin’s skin and Justin echoed it, shuddering.

Justin grit his teeth, his sore muscles protesting as he spread his legs wider. "More," Justin whispered, his hands frantic on JC’s body. He flung a hand out wildly, opening his night stand drawer and rooting around blindly until he found what he was looking for. "JC, more." He pushed impatiently at JC’s shoulder, urging him to sit up and thrusting the small tube into his hands.

JC was flushed, his eyes huge and dark as they flickered over Justin’s body. He took the tube and for a moment he seemed to hesitate. He glanced at the windows to Justin’s balcony, mouth tightening at the sight of the gradually lightening sky.

"JC." Justin slid a hand slowly down his chest until it wrapped around his own cock, stroking slowly. His heels nudged insistently at JC’s ass. "There’s time. But hurry," he hissed, and with a single electric look JC flipped open the tube and a moment later reached between Justin’s legs.

His fingers were gentle and slow, and dimly Justin appreciated it even as his body writhed and demanded more, harder. JC’s hands shook as he reached for his own cock, flushed and beautiful. Justin closed his eyes, feeling JC’s thoughts swirl chaotically. His desire was a black and pounding thing, beating along Justin’s pulse and echoing heavily in his eardrums, and when he felt JC slide inside him he didn’t know if the groan he heard was his own.

"Easy," JC whispered, his voice rough and breathless as Justin panted beneath him. "Slow, slow, I don’t want to hurt you."

But Justin shook his head no, hands pulling feverishly at JC’s body. His breath heaved as he writhed, urging JC to move. JC bit out a curse and squirmed closer, deeper. "Justin," he whispered, his mouth ghosting over Justin’s jaw, tongue reaching out to smooth across his skin. He flexed his hips and Justin gasped, catching JC’s face in his hands, kissing him.

"More," Justin whispered. "I need more," and he tilted his chin up and arched his neck, pulling JC gently to his throat.

JC’s hunger surged, a red haze flooding Justin’s mind and making him gasp. He couldn’t see JC’s face but he felt him open his mouth, his teeth hovering over the small puncture wounds still livid at Justin’s throat. Justin’s hands pulled JC’s head closer and his hips rocked, needing more, frantic to feel more, desperate to have JC a part of him, to be a part of JC. "Please," he whispered. His entire body trembled as he felt JC’s struggle, his hunger at war with caution and the memory of the previous night when JC had come so close to losing control.

"Just a little," Justin whispered. "I need it, I need you, please." And then he sighed with pleasure as JC’s heated mouth closed over his throat, as the sharp teeth carefully, slowly re-entered Justin’s body.

Sore muscles protested dimly but Justin didn’t care, was aware only of the gentle suction as JC fed slowly at his throat, as his hips rocked languidly between Justin’s spread legs. He smoothed his hands through JC’s hair, scratching deliciously against his scalp, feeling JC’s pleasure and need as if it was his own. And it was his own, Justin thought dimly as he arched and curled his spine, encouraging JC to thrust harder and faster. Their need and hunger for each other was alike.

JC lifted his mouth from Justin’s neck, bracing himself with one arm as he pressed the other thumb hard to the wound. He dropped his lips to Justin’s, letting him taste, swallowing Justin’s gasp at the bright metallic flavor, exploring his mouth thoroughly, slowly as his hips rocked faster and faster.

Justin tore his mouth away and buried his face in JC’s shoulder as his belly tightened and excitement sparked sharply down his spine. JC was close, his body screaming for release and his control splintering at the taste of Justin in his mouth. Justin reached between their bodies and wrapped his hand around his cock, stroking in time to JC’s rhythm. His vision swam and for a confused moment he didn’t know whose eyes he was looking out of, seeing JC’s pale, smooth shoulder rocking above him overlaid with a fractured vision of himself, his long torso flushed, the wound livid on his arched neck. His vision splintered as he closed his eyes, bit his lip, and JC was right there with him when he came.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin watched with hooded eyes as JC dressed silently, his silhouette black against the sky turning gray outside the windows. He felt weak again, lazy and dopey and unwilling to move. Even turning his head seemed like an effort. But as JC shrugged into his coat Justin pulled himself up and slid off the bed, standing silently before the balcony doors as JC approached.

JC’s face and mind were shuttered, but Justin felt the urgency in him, the need to get to safety before the sun crept over the horizon battling with concern, and unwillingness to leave Justin alone. He felt helpless, and it was making him furious, and that was something Justin completely understood.

"How will you get out?" he asked softly, breathing deeply as JC drew close to him and stroked a hand slowly down his naked hip.

"Same way I got in," JC answered, but his smile seemed tense, hollow. He was worried, Justin realized slowly. He didn’t want to leave.

"Be careful." Justin forced the words out over the thickness in the back of his throat. "I’m just -- you know, I’m going to eat a huge meal and probably sleep all day." He paused, watching JC’s face as he reached out and touched the chain around Justin’s neck, running a finger down the intricate design.

"Do you wear this while you sleep?" he asked softly and Justin nodded, jerkily.

"I never take it off," he answered quietly, and JC nodded grimly. "Don’t be worried," Justin whispered, and watched JC’s mouth go tight and narrow.

"I won’t," he answered shortly, and leaned in to kiss Justin on the mouth, hard and possessive. He turned toward the doors and Justin stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"Just a minute," he said, his fingers fumbling. "I want you to wear this." He picked up JC’s hand, brushing his palm over the skin on the back before sliding his grandfather’s silver ring onto the middle finger of JC’s right hand. JC froze, staring as Justin’s fingers settled the ring into place.

"Now you have something of me too. While you sleep," Justin whispered.

JC stepped closer, his eyes somber. "Your blood is in my body," he said softly, and Justin shivered. "I always have something of you with me." His lips quirked into an almost smile. "But I’ll wear it."

He turned away and was out the doors and onto the balcony before Justin could blink. By the time Justin caught his breath and moved out into the frigid pre-dawn there was no sign of JC. Justin pulled the thick down comforter from his bed and wrapped it tightly around him, eyes on the horizon as he waited for the sun to rise.

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

~ ~ ~ ~

Part Six

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin stepped carefully out of his shower and toweled himself gingerly, wincing at little at the stiffness of his body. He needed to get out of his room, he told himself. Take a long walk around the grounds, loosen up his muscles, get some fresh air and clear his head. But just thinking about getting dressed and going outside caused a wave of weariness to wash over him. He was so tired, so sleepy.

He slowly pulled on jeans and a turtleneck with a long sleeved t-shirt over it, smoothing the pendant against his skin as he stepped to his bedroom windows and leaned heavily against the tall french doors. Late morning, and the sun was out for the first time in what seemed like weeks. He squinted tiredly at the bright reflection on the white snow covering the grounds, his eyes gritty and dry. He sighed deeply. Maybe he should just go back to bed for a few hours.

Although that really wouldn’t help, he admitted, since he’d spent most of the night in bed and hadn’t slept a wink. And he hadn’t had much luck napping during the day, either. In fact, getting decent sleep had become an incredible challenge lately.

Justin sighed again, rolling his stiff neck on his shoulders and slipping his fingers under the collar of his turtleneck to prod gingerly at the small puncture wounds. They were closing up and beginning to heal cleanly, but still sensitive in a way that made his breath hitch a little. He smiled a little, remembering his last visit from JC. As if Justin really cared if the wounds healed. As if he even wanted them to heal. He had a heated flash of memory -- his own hands pulling JC insistently to him, JC’s breath at his throat, the urgency of his mouth, the steady and deep thrusting of his body. Justin closed his eyes, breathing quickly as he felt the slight pain at his throat echo deeply in his abdomen.

The sound of his own light moan brought him back to himself, alone in his room at the Order’s house in the late morning. He dropped his hand in exasperation and pushed himself purposefully away from the window. He would not spend another day having fevered daydreams about JC. No, it was time to show his face to the rest of the Order, find out what he could. At the very least he had to tell Chris that he’d finally finished his report on the Tahitian prophets. It was only a few days late, thank goodness, and he could blame that on the flu they all thought he’d been down with. And in his sleeplessness he’d outlined two other research projects as well. They were much smaller and easier to handle, and as soon as he got some food in him he was going to tackle them.

Justin threw open his double bedroom doors and smirked in grim satisfaction at the electrical outlet where the recording device had been hidden in his sitting room. Sometime the previous sleepless night he’d lost his temper and fried the little device where it lay hidden behind the outlet, shorting it out and rendering it useless with only a little effort on his behalf. Neutralized it, he thought without amusement.

He’d waited with baited breath for the next three hours, expecting someone in authority to come storming to his door, demanding to know what he was hiding. But from the rest of the people in the motherhouse there had been only silence, and gradually Justin had relaxed. Once he’d recovered from his red-hot fury over the existence of the device in his room he had suspected that bugging his room was not an officially sanctioned action. It just wasn’t the Order’s way, and the fact that nobody had come in to check on him after he’d destroyed it pretty much confirmed that theory.

But that was something else to pay attention to this morning, he thought as he closed his door firmly behind him and headed down the long, elegant hallway toward the main part of the house. He needed to check in with Chris, and Mathilda, and see if there was anything he could learn from them.

His progress to the dining rooms was slow. He was stopped by a number of people who’d heard that he’d been ill and kindly wished him a speedy recovery. They were all very nice, concerned but not curious or suspicious, and Justin relaxed a little as he entered the main part of the house.

The big dining room on the main floor was almost empty but there was a complete brunch menu offered, and Justin realized he was ravenous as he eased gingerly into a chair and gulped his orange juice. His waiter was a pretty, neatly dressed young woman and he smiled at her absently as she took his order, noting her blush with amusement. A couple of months ago he might have flirted with her -- she was very attractive, had a sweet way about her and she wasn’t much younger than he. But now he was content to watch her move away after promising that his eggs benedict and french toast and bacon would be right up. His mind was already drifting away, back up to his bedroom, to the night before and the night ahead, to the next time he heard his phone ring or an almost-silent tapping at his balcony doors. Justin took a deep breath and finished his orange juice with two more huge gulps, setting it aside and making sure his mind was barricaded cleanly despite the privacy courtesy that people in the Order generally granted each other.

Thus he was startled into a choking fit when someone suddenly clapped a hand to his shoulder in greeting and then laughed hard at Justin’s red face as he pounded him on the back.

"It didn’t used to be so easy to sneak up on you, Justin," Chris exclaimed in delight as Justin gasped for breath. "Really, you’re taking all the challenge out of it. It’s just not fun anymore."

Chris sat easily into the chair across the table, his smile bright but his eyes shrewd on Justin’s face as he coughed. "But I must say, it’s very good to see you back among the living," Chris commented idly. The waitress’s approach with more coffee and orange juice diverted his attention, so he didn’t see Justin freeze at his choice of words.

Justin got his face under control, grateful for the fact that Chris was momentarily distracted. "Hey, man," he finally greeted him weakly, and Chris smiled back at him.

"It’s good to see you, Justin. I was starting to get worried," he said easily, and Justin shook his head dismissively.

"No, feeling a lot better," he said, sighing in pleasure as his food was placed in front of him. Chris’s eyebrows rose in amusement as Justin grabbed his silverware and dug in hungrily.

"I can see that," he murmured as Justin forked a huge mouthful of eggs into his mouth. There was silence for a few minutes as Justin attacked his food, and Chris quietly thanked the waitress as she filled his coffee mug.

"I’m sorry, Chris," Justin said finally as his stomach filled and he slowed down a little. "Don’t mean to be rude, it’s just . . ." he trailed off as he took another huge gulp of his orange juice. He looked up and met Chris’s grinning face, feeling a smile spread across his own. "Chicken soup and tea, they’re just not real food, man."

Chris laughed a little, and Justin relaxed as he felt Chris’s amusement and sympathy along with more than a little relief that Justin seemed to be better. Chris was happy to see him, Justin realized, he was glad to see Justin really putting away a good meal although he thought he still seemed very pale and looked a little frail . . .

"Hey," Justin interrupted Chris’s thoughts before they could go too far. "You know what the worst part of being sick is?"

"The runs," Chris answered immediately.

"No," Justin answered, "the worst part is --"

"The barfing," Chris interrupted.

"No, dude, the worst part is," Justin paused, eyeing Chris suspiciously. "Are you going to interrupt me again?"

Chris widened his eyes dramatically. "Would I do something rude like that to you?"

Justin snickered and Chris grinned back at him, easy, friendly. "The worst part is the dreams," Justin continued, his smile fading and his eyes steady on Chris’s. "I kept having these weird nightmares, man. Really fucking scary ones. That there were, like, people in my walls, and they were spying on me."

He held his breath, concentrating, but he got nothing from Chris except idle interest and a relaxed and friendly concern. Chris’s mouth quirked. "Must be all that chicken soup," he deadpanned and Justin relaxed into a smile. Chris knew nothing about the bugging device in Justin’s room, he was absolutely sure of that. He let his breath out slowly, amazed at how relieved he was.

Chris looked up with a grin and a wave as Mathilda entered the dining room, looking about and spying them with a smile.

"Gentlemen," she greeted them easily. "Justin, my goodness, it’s so nice to see you out and about. Are you feeling better?" She brushed a motherly hand over his forehead and Justin smiled up at her, leaning into it.

"Much better," he said, standing and pulling out a seat out for her. "Just, you know, really tired of chicken soup."

"No no," she said, waving at him to sit down. "Eat your meal, you look like you could use it." She smiled at him. "And don’t overdo things," she admonished gently. "You don’t want to have a relapse. When you finish your brunch you should go back to your room and rest, Justin." Her frown held a concern that was nothing but friendly; still, Justin tensed a little.

"He’s afraid to go back to his room," Chris drawled. "He thinks there are little people in his walls, spying on him. We’re going to have to get him a nightlight or something."

Mathilda laughed in genuine amusement, and Justin sagged a little in relief as she made a general comment about illness and fever dreams. Her manner was casual and relaxed; there was nothing in her demeanor to alarm Justin and make him think that she knew anything about the device in his wall. It seemed certain that the bugging was not an officially sanctioned act, and Justin took a deep breath as they all laughed together. He didn’t even realize how much that had bothered him.

"Oh, no, I have to be going," she said to Chris’s invitation to be seated. "I just wanted to say hello, and that I’m glad you’re on the mend, Justin. And Chris, don’t forget you’re meeting with Dr. Furtado this afternoon, about that matter in Brazil." She smiled fondly at the two of them as she walked away, and Chris sighed with mock despair.

"Dude," he said as Justin sat down and again bent to his meal. "If I were just a few years older, just a few . . ."

Justin looked up, chewing his french toast and swallowing before answering. "You’d never have a chance with a woman like that, Chris," he said with a smile. "Not ever." He laughed at Chris’s theatrical mime of a knife through his heart, feeling at ease. They spoke casually, Chris updating him on some of the goings on around the motherhouse and Justin filling him in on the status of his research reports as he finished his meal.

Justin sat back with a sigh, his hand gently rubbing his chest where the raised initials etched in his skin itched slyly. He felt better after eating, a lot better, but now he was sleepy again. He blinked lethargically out the tall windows streaming sunlight into the quiet room. Perhaps the walk outside wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe he’d just take a nap instead. If he went back to his room and slept he would be more awake when the sun went down. That would make more sense, he told himself firmly. Really, he seemed to be getting the most work done during the nights -- when he was awake, and waiting.

"You look like you need more sleep," Chris commented as Justin smothered a jaw-cracking yawn. He laughed and got to his feet. "And I have a meeting to prepare for. Take care of yourself, okay? And thanks for getting those reports done, Justin. I know you were sick, and I really appreciate that you made the effort."

"No problem, man." Justin got to his feet as well, following Chris out of the elegant dining room, nodding to a couple of acquaintances on their way out. "I’m sorry they were late, is all."

Chris paused before turning toward his office in the north wing, turning to face Justin. "I don’t think I need to remind you about that other report. The one about the Chasez vampire, and the break-in."

Justin flushed a little. It was the first time since his meeting with Lou and Mathilda that anyone had actually brought up the matter with him. Chris watched him carefully.

"I don’t want to dredge things up for you, particularly when I know how upset you are," he continued quietly. "Nobody wants to make you remember things you’d rather not talk about, but your report -- it’s important, Justin. It’s important for our work, for the members who will be studying that file in the future."

Justin looked up sharply. "Like who?"

"Not you," Chris shot back, unsmiling. "Not you, not me, not anybody here who had to deal with the break-in and the people that creature murdered."

Justin flinched and Chris relaxed a little, stepping back and rubbing his head. "I’m sorry," he said quietly. "Look, I’m sorry. Just, you know, get that report done, and send it to me, and then you can forget it all, okay Justin? Get it over with."

Justin nodded, his eyes on the ground, and Chris slapped him on the shoulder as he turned toward the north wing. Justin stood silently in the giant lobby as the other members of the Order passed around him, and watched Chris walk away until he disappeared from view.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin turned away and hesitated for a moment. It would be good to go outside, but he’d have to go back up to his room for his coat and probably his sunglasses, and he was afraid if he did that he’d just go back to sleep. Instead he headed for the main administration office on the first floor, his steps gradually increasing in speed. He’d check for mail, he thought, see if anything had come for him in the last day or two.

There was a tidy stack in Justin’s cubbyhole, handed over by a smiling clerk who wished him a speedy recover from his flu. Justin thanked him absently, already flipping through his mail as he left the office and sank into a chair in the main lobby. A few advertisements, a late birthday card from his friend Trace back in Tennessee, an advertisement for the lecture series at the London museum, what was likely a plea for donations from his alumni association, and . . .

His breath grew short at the sight of the bulky, letter-sized manilla envelope, padded and heavy and neatly addressed to Justin in a fine and familiar hand. No return address. Postmarked from London the previous day, or was it two days ago? For a moment Justin couldn’t remember what day it was, and suddenly it didn’t matter, he didn’t care. His heart thudded hard and then raced as he gathered up his mail and prepared to retreat to his room where he could open it in private.

"Mr. Timberlake," a voice said, and Justin looked up, suppressing violent irritation when he saw Lou settling himself into the chair across from him. Justin’s fingers gripped his mail tightly, and with an effort he controlled his temper. He didn’t have time for Lou right now. He wanted to be left alone, he just wanted to open the envelope undisturbed.

"Mr. Pearlman," he said, nodding brusquely. He sat forward in his chair, intending to leave, but Lou held up a fat hand.

"Seems like you get quite a bit of mail," he said evenly, deceptively casual, and Justin stifled a curse as he felt himself flush.

"Yeah, well, my family is in Tennessee," he answered shortly, shifting his weight. "They miss me."

"Yes, I’m sure they do," Lou said idly, his eyes on the mail gripped tightly in Justin’s hand. "But isn't that a London postmark I see?"

There was a red haze over his eyes, and Justin controlled his fury with an effort. He sat back and forced himself to smile easily. "As if it’s any of your business," he said with barely concealed sarcasm. "It seems to me that if you have enough time to be curious about novices’ mail, well." He paused, watching Lou carefully. "Maybe you need a hobby or something."

Lou sighed. He looked tired, Justin noticed dispassionately, but he wasn’t fooled. Justin could feel Lou’s subtle prodding at the edges of his mind, strong and sure and clear. Lou was frighteningly adept, and Justin controlled his rage carefully. He could give away things without even knowing it, and Lou knew exactly what he was looking for when he read Justin’s reactions.

"Mr. Timberlake," Lou started, and this time he took his glasses off, rubbing his eyes as he leaned forward. "I know you think I’m some sort of an enemy to you, but I’m really not." He fixed Justin with his watery blue eyes, looking very sincere. "I’m very concerned for you, like I would be concerned for any member of the Order who’s been through what you’ve been through."

Justin stared at him. "Yes, a hobby," he said quietly, as if Lou hadn’t spoken. "I would guess that you’re the sort of man who likes to, what? Maybe watch movies?" He saw Lou’s eyes narrow slightly and felt his mind retreat from its subtle exploration. Justin allowed himself a small, triumphant smile as he got to his feet, pausing beside Lou’s chair.

"I destroyed it, you know," he hissed quietly, watching Lou go tense in his chair. "And if I find another one, I’ll have to take it up with Mathilda, and then you’d lose your cushy job, wouldn’t you? So let me suggest that you don’t try something like that again." He paused, eyes narrow on Lou’s flushed face. "You sick fuck."

Justin left the main lobby without looking back, his mail gripped tightly in his hand.

~ ~ ~ ~

By the time Justin got to his room he was almost running, curiosity about the contents of the mysterious envelope consuming him. He slammed into his sitting room with relief, throwing the rest of his mail carelessly on his desk and sitting on his couch, fingers already busy at the flap of the envelope. He wrenched it open impatiently and pulled the contents free, his mouth forming a silent o of appreciation.

Antique, was his first thought, very old and very, very finely preserved. A leather-bound copy of Beethoven through the Ages, printed in 1901 when books were produced on fine linen paper cut evenly for smooth and silken edges. There was a small note tucked into the first page, on creamy notepaper and in an elegant cursive.

Read it carefully, the note said. There was no signature, and there was no need for one.

Justin opened the book slowly, reverently, his fingers smoothing gently over the yellowed pages, exclaiming over the still-secure binding, the fine condition of the leather cover. It was a treasure, a true treasure, and he felt a thrill as he thought of JC finding this book, picking it out just for him.

He wasn’t really surprised when the ticket fell out of the book, fluttering gently to the sofa to land beside him. A symphony at one of London’s most beautiful concert halls. Opening night, he read. A seat in a private box. For tonight.

Justin closed his eyes for a moment, his pulse galloping out of control as he fought to contain his excitement. Beethoven. Opening night. Private box. JC.

He set the ticket and the book carefully on his sitting room table, all thoughts of naps and intrusive investigators gone. He was flushed and smiling as he headed for his bedroom closet, thinking only about whether his finest black suit would look better with his white shirt or his blue one.

~ ~ ~ ~

He’d had time to nap and eat another giant meal before the car came for him, and now Justin was walking briskly through the elegant theater district, part of the well-dressed crowd drifting toward the theater. His ticket was gripped firmly in his hand, deep in his coat pocket, and his eyes scanned the people around him in hungry anticipation although he knew the chances of seeing JC in this crowd were slim. He concentrated, opening himself a little to the crowd, feeling their excitement and pleasant anticipation of the performance, but he didn’t feel JC, not yet. Justin hurried on, crossing the street and turning the corner in a fever of expectancy.

But someone was watching him and Justin almost stumbled as he felt cold, malevolent eyes sweep over him, taking in his coat, his scarf, his formal clothing with scorn and a fulminating sort of rage. Justin looked around, confused and off balance, and his eyes met those of a man on the opposite side of the street. Medium build, blond head bare to the London cold, and sharp, eerily green eyes trained intently, unmistakably, on Justin.

Justin resumed his pace, jerking his eyes forward and feeling the hairs on the back of his neck prickle in alarm as the man across the street continued to stare. His thoughts swirled in confusion -- the man looked vaguely familiar. But where had Justin seen him before? And why did the man seem to be so angry?

Justin refused to look again, grateful for the thickening crowd that hid him from the man’s sight and breathing a sigh of relief as he turned the final corner and approached the elegant old theater. And as he showed his ticket and was escorted in he forgot about the man completely, his breath coming shorter and his whole body tingling with anticipation of seeing JC again, soon.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC took his time as he climbed the red-carpeted stairs of the theater. He'd lingered outside long after he'd seen Justin, looking grave and beautiful in his dark suit, hurry in, his body tense and eager as he bounded up the stairs. JC had gotten a brief, intoxicating impression of his thoughts: they were clouded with excitement and desire, disordered and intense. Justin had been looking forward to this all day; Justin was yearning to see him, touch him, to be touched by him. The thought of him sitting alone in the box and waiting for JC, his back straight, his knee bouncing in impatience, his eyes sweeping nervously over the crowd, had been so delightful that JC almost hadn't wanted to go in at all -- until, of course, he'd remembered that far greater rewards would come from interacting with Justin in person.

The concert hall was much the same as it had been twenty years ago, vastly improved from the unpleasant gutting it had received during the early sixties but still not nearly as charming as it had been during its gaudy heyday at the turn of the last century. To be sure, there were grander and eminently more sensible theaters, ones with less gilt, fewer fussy chandeliers, and far less velvet, but JC liked the riot of colors and textures in this one. And even more than that, he liked the privacy of the box seats he owned, the velvet drapes that could be adjusted to show as much -- or as little -- of oneself to the rest of the theater as one desired. Over the years JC had begun more "dates" here than he could count, had drunk from any number of lovely, soft necks, had slid hands over bare shoulders, had coaxed both men and women to yield. He had almost entirely positive associations with this place, and he was infinitely pleased with himself for having thought to bring Justin here.

JC handed his ticket to a somewhat awestruck young woman in black, then stepped neatly by her and headed for the door to box number 432, trying and failing to ignore the fact that his breathing was becoming more rapid, that his mind had begun to reel, that he, much like Justin, had been looking forward to this. When at long last he drew open the door and stepped in, JC had to catch his breath and fight for control, because the joy and the pleasure he felt at seeing Justin were almost too much to bear, and he was fearful of doing something excessively demonstrative.

Justin didn't share that fear. "JC," he said in delight, his voice almost cracking on the name, then rose quickly from his chair and bounded over to JC, throwing arms around him and pulling him close. For the briefest of moments JC stiffened -- Justin's feelings were absolutely a mess, a frightening combination of desire, affection, excitement, and uneasiness, and he wasn't quite sure what to do in response to them. Unselfconscious and beautiful, Justin kissed his mouth, his neck, slid arms around his waist and rested his head on JC's shoulder.

"Waited for this all day," he murmured in a low, urgent tone.

"I know," JC said, and then gave in and hugged Justin tightly the way he wanted to, lifted his head and kissed him sweetly, just lightly enough to enjoy the softness of his lips, the beautiful swell and curve of them.

"Oh," Justin said, heating up immediately, which was one of the things JC absolutely loved most about him. Already his hands were reaching inside JC's jacket and smoothing around his waist, groping toward the fastening of his pants. JC dragged in a long, painful breath -- it was so, so tempting -- but then smiled ruefully and intercepted Justin's hands, grabbing him by the wrists and smiling down at him.

"Behave," he said. "We have all evening, remember?"

Justin's color was high and his eyes were dark smudges in his face, but he took it in stride, and JC released his wrists almost at once.

Immediately, Justin's fingers curved around JC's, threading neatly through them and squeezing gently. JC raised an eyebrow as he watched Justin run fingertips over the ring he'd given him, saw the flash of pride and satisfaction that drifted over his features as he slowly circled the silver around JC's finger.

"I really, really like that you wear this," Justin said in a low voice, and for a few insane seconds, JC feared that he was going to tremble.

"Sit down," he ordered Justin, using the tone of his voice to tell him that he'd better stop it now, right now, and then felt a little better. Justin smiled briefly and moved quickly over to the two chairs sitting at the edge of the balcony.

"Here?" he asked, and JC nodded, following and watching as he sat down. Once Justin was situated, JC reached up and drew the velvet drapes on either side of the box until he and Justin were concealed from most of the rest of the theater.

"Can you still see the stage?" JC asked quietly, holding back a smile as he realized that Justin was breathing quite shallowly now, looking at him with barely repressed excitement.

"Yeah," he said, and then patted the seat of JC's chair. "Sit."

JC eased into his chair, brocade, padded seat, high back, no arms, and looked at his watch. Less than five minutes to curtain. Justin had taken out his program and was flipping manically through the pages; he couldn't possibly have been reading it, and JC crinkled eyes in amusement. That Justin could still be nervous around him given everything they'd done together was deeply endearing.

"I was thinking," Justin said, quickly shutting the program again and looking over at JC. "You've probably heard this symphony lots times over the years. I guess it's one of your favorites?"

"Yes, it is," JC said. "I've seen it performed more times than I can count." And if he didn't quite mention the fact that he'd chosen to listen to a piece of music he knew so intimately because he wanted to focus on Justin instead, JC figured he should probably be forgiven, because no one, absolutely no one in his right mind, could possibly focus on Beethoven with Justin Timberlake sitting next to him and looking like he did tonight. JC glanced appreciatively at the curve of his shoulders under his jacket, the sharp white of his shirt against his neck, the dark silk of his tie. It was an off-the-rack suit, nowhere near as beautifully tailored as JC's own, but it still looked wonderful on him. The fabric of his shirt was so crisp it almost looked starched. Suppressing the urge to run fingers over it, JC fumbled in his jacket pocket for his own program.

"So, how was your day?" Justin asked in a low voice. "I mean, before you came here, of course."

JC suppressed a smile. "Oh, honey, it was awful," he said sweetly. "The kids bitched for hours until I dropped them off at soccer practice, and then I was late for aerobics."

"C'mon, JC," Justin admonished. "See if you can do it. See if you can have a normal conversation."

"This isn't normal conversation," JC said. "This is small talk. It's . . . date conversation."

"Well, we're on a date, aren't we?" Justin said happily, looking pointedly at JC and then at their surroundings. "You sent me a pretty book with tickets in it, you asked me out, you planned it all, JC. I'm just responding to that."

It was true, shamefully true -- he'd set it up, he'd wanted to see Justin dressed up, he'd gotten dressed up himself so Justin could see him . . .

JC fought desperately not to blush. Here he'd been thinking Justin was the romantic one.

"So, JC," Justin repeated in a low, amused voice. "How was your day? What did you do?"

JC shook his head and then gave in, leaned back in his seat and thought. "It was fine, I guess."

"You can do better than that," Justin teased, and then reached out and lightly grabbed JC's wrist, his fingertips slowly stroking the inside. "Did you read? Did you buy something? Did you spend hours thinking about how much you wanted to see me?"

JC grinned. "Oh, definitely."

"JC, the thing is, I really want to know. It's not like I'm prying for the sake of prying," Justin said next, and JC looked carefully at him.

JC raised an eyebrow as an unwelcome tension descended on him. "Refresh me on the rules of polite conversation," he said. "Do you want the sugar-coated version or do you want to know what really happened?"

Justin looked serious for a moment. "How about something in between?"

"Honestly, Justin, I really didn't do a lot. I actually haven't been up all that long, so I kind of ended up eating and running."

"Oh. Eating," Justin said in a low voice, and JC looked hard at him, watched as he grew slightly uneasy. "That's one way to put it."

"We're not going there, Justin so give it up," JC said flatly. "I'm not going to defend for the fifty thousandth time to the fifty thousandth person what it is I do to live and how. Not tonight, all right?"

"I'm not," Justin said quickly. "Not, you know, attacking you. I just -- well, I guess I want to understand how it works for you, how you feel about it, what it means to you."

JC sighed. That kind of conversation usually tended to end his relationships with humans. So much for date talk.

"We'll see," he said, and then turned the tables. "And what did you do today?"

Justin frowned. "Tried to catch up on some of my work, got into arguments with annoying people, looked forward to this."

"That's all?"

"Pretty much," Justin answered unashamedly, and then grinned. "And I'm not going to tell you in what proportion I did those things, so don't even ask."

JC smiled back and thought about teasing him about it further, but just then the lights dimmed and the orchestra began to tune. Justin leaned forward a bit in his seat, and JC caught his breath as he traced eyes over the lines of Justin's profile, the lovely, strong sweep of his nose. Opening his mind a little, JC communicated his admiration to Justin, and was rewarded by the sight of Justin flushing slightly, then turning to JC and murmuring, "I think you look great, too," in a low voice. JC touched the side of his face for just a minute, ran his thumb under the edge of Justin's jaw, and then slowly leaned back again as the conductor took the stage and was greeted with applause.

It wasn't the London Symphony, but JC had heard far worse orchestras in his time. Besides, the music wasn't exactly the point of this excursion: the point was watching Justin -- and that show, JC decided a few minutes into the performance, was most definitely worth it.

For the first movement of the symphony, Justin strained forward, long eyelashes glinting in the light as he looked dreamily down at the orchestra, watching, JC thought, either the conductor's violent, almost spastic movements or the intricate bow work of the violin section. For the second, quieter movement, Justin sat back in his chair, relaxing a bit, his mouth curved into a secret smile. He looked utterly happy, perfectly self-contained, as if he needed nothing more than himself and this music to make him happy. JC's own response to this confounded him: he was caught between the desire to watch Justin go deeper and deeper into himself and the need to bring him back to the surface, to demand his attention, to remind him who he was with and why.

After a few moments' silent thought, JC slowly angled his chair toward Justin, moving in until their thighs were almost touching, so close he could practically feel the heat of Justin's body. As JC slowly slid an arm around the back of Justin's chair, again close but again not quite touching, he nodded briefly, and for a moment, JC smiled at him, waiting for an answering response, the raise of an eyebrow, the quirk of the mouth. He got nothing, however: Justin's eyes remained fixed on the stage, and his focus continued to be on something that was not JC.

It wasn't something he'd planned, but the moment he started to do it, started to slowly slide fingertips over the crisp white fabric of Justin's shirt, JC knew without doubt that this was the only thing in the world he wanted. His touch was so light and Justin was so preoccupied with the music that Justin didn't even realize what was happening until JC had effortlessly eased open the two middle buttons of his shirt.

"JC," Justin breathed so softly neither of them could hear it, and came out of his reverie to look him in the eye. JC inclined his head a little toward the stage, and Justin leaned back in his seat and took a deep breath, shoulders heaving once, and then looked forward again. As JC's fingers moved inside his shirt, Justin took a series of quick, shallow breaths; as JC slowly pushed away the warm metal of the pendant so he could gently run fingers over the raised skin of the brand, his brand, Justin shuddered and turned from the stage to train his dark, excited gaze on JC. There was no music as they stared into each other's eyes, no distraction in the world, and JC felt a confusing, exhilarating rush of feelings. Justin was his, Justin was absolutely his, and no one and nothing could change that, would ever change it. He touched his own initials; he touched Justin's warm skin. It was perfect.

"Please," Justin breathed, his voice thick with desire. "JC, please."

JC noted with pleasure his half-shut eyes, his parted mouth, the invitation in his voice; it was all so beautiful that he couldn't in good conscience make it go away -- not yet. Such a thing needed to be appreciated, drawn out for as long as possible.

"You're missing the performance," JC murmured, and Justin quivered in frustration, turning his head away and staring blankly at the musicians, biting his lip a little bit, his fingers moving restlessly on his thigh as a wave of sensation rolled over him. He and JC sat that way for a long time, the music swelling over them, Justin's chest rising and falling rapidly, JC leaning in closer and closer, his fingers gently and insistently stroking the brand. JC felt lazy and delighted, oddly sated even though he was aching with need, and certainly appreciative of Justin's response, the way he pressed back into his chair, tilted his head back slightly, and darted furtive, desperate glances at JC through his eyelashes. JC wondered whether he knew he'd spread his legs as well, and then closed his eyes, drew in a long breath, and was perfectly happy.

He heard the door to their box open long before Justin did, and he knew at once from the scent in the room exactly who had entered. JC let out a long breath and then slowly looked over his shoulder to meet Lance's shocked eyes. As Lance quickly moved from shock to anger, JC shook his head in annoyance, then reluctantly drew his fingers over Justin's chest and out of his shirt and turned partway in his seat.

"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, JC: it's gauche to date your food," Lance said, his voice dry.

JC shrugged lightly and then put a hand on Justin's shoulder as he felt anger and adrenaline surge through him. "Shh," he said quietly, still looking at Lance, and if Justin didn't relax, he also didn't do or say anything foolish.

Lance laughed. "I mean, what is this obsession you have? Honestly, JC, it can't be healthy. Do I have to cart you off to the vampire self-help group, find you an analyst?"

"This is neither the time nor the place," JC said quietly, but not hiding the anger and the menace in his voice. Justin tensed in his chair, his face drawn and unhappy as he looked back and forth between Lance and JC.

"What -- no apologies? You're not even going to try to explain why it is you've been lying to me? You know, JC, it's funny," Lance said, taking a few steps forward, his body tense, and JC knew he was on the verge of striking. "I think I'm starting to get annoyed with you."

JC tightened his grip on Justin's shoulder to reassure him, then slowly stood up to face Lance, his posture aggressive and protective, making it clear to Lance that if he wanted to get to Justin, he was going to have to go through JC first.

"Really annoyed."

"Okay, so you're annoyed," JC said. "That's that. Now get the hell out of here, Lance, and we'll talk about this later."

"I don't think that talking is what we need to fix this little problem," Lance said, looking meaningfully at Justin. "In fact, JC, the best way to fix this would be for you to step aside and let me take him outside right now and eliminate this ridiculous situation you've gotten yourself into. Think how much easier that would make everything."

As a wave of alarm went through Justin, JC felt blinding fury well up deep in his chest. The strength of it surprised him, and it took considerable willpower to keep his voice low and say, "You will never touch him -- you don't get to touch him, do you understand me? Not ever."

Lance rolled his eyes. "He doesn't know you, JC. He's not even capable of knowing you, not like I do, not like I have. In fact, the second he does find out more about you, he's likely to run away screaming. In the end, they're all the same, you know it and I know it. We've all had our share of crushes now and then, but the only thing that lasts, the one relationship you've got that won't fail you in the end is --"

"That's enough," JC said sharply as Justin grew increasingly upset, shifting unhappily in his chair, his eyes trained almost desperately on JC's face. "Get out right now, Lance, or I'll make you very, very sorry."

For a long time, Lance locked stares with him, neither of them backing down, the only sound in the room Justin's anxious breathing. Finally, Lance sighed and then slowly took a few steps backward, relenting.

"All right, JC, have it your way for now. But I promise you this -- as soon as we're alone again," and here he looked dismissively at Justin, "you and I are going to have a nice long talk about this."

"We," JC said slowly and clearly, "will talk about nothing. This is not your business; it is not your affair. Now get the hell out," he finished, and then turned his back to Lance and slowly sank into his chair, listening carefully as he heard Lance walk out of the room and quietly shut the door behind him.

Finally, Justin turned around, his face still white with terror.

"JC," he said quietly. "JC, what was that? Why does he -- what's going on? I --"

"Shh," JC said, and gripped his hands until they stopped shaking.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin murmured in appreciation when they entered the little coffee shop six chilly blocks from the theater, and JC was angry with himself for feeling relieved. The shop was wonderful, of course, JC didn’t patronize places that weren’t, and he especially liked this one because in the midst of downtown London it was sweetly, quaintly French with its delicate tables and chairs and Parisian decor. But this was the first time Justin had spoken to him since they’d left the concert hall. The silence between them had been a little too thick; the encounter with Lance seemed to have upset Justin badly. He was subdued and his mind was neatly, completely inaccessible. JC could’ve easily pushed, and with their odd connection he didn’t think Justin could have kept him out for long, but he was oddly unwilling to do that.

He led Justin to a table near the deep windows, which were brightly illuminated on the outside with festive little lights but tinted so people on the street couldn’t see much detail. He wouldn’t put it past Lance to follow them here and push the issue, JC thought savagely, and he must have been broadcasting because Justin looked up and around in confused alarm. JC soothed him with a murmur and a hand on Justin’s back as he followed him to the table, rubbing a little at Justin’s stiff shoulder until he relaxed.

JC took a moment to appreciate again how nice Justin looked in his dark suit, the way it stretched a little across his broad shoulders, the way the darkness of his tie brought out the vivid blue of his eyes, the way the fabric of his shirt moved against his chest as he peeled out of his coat and seated himself. He was lovely, certainly, but Justin also seemed pale and tired, and there were black circles under his eyes that made JC motion impatiently for a waiter, ordering a large croissant sandwich with roast beef and cheese as well as a random selection of pastries, hot chocolate, and, as an afterthought, freshly squeezed orange juice.

Justin acknowledged the order with raised eyebrows and a smile that was a little wan as the waiter moved away. "More food, huh," he murmured, and JC narrowed his eyes at him thoughtfully.

"You look like you could use it," JC answered quietly. Justin lifted serious eyes to his.

"Are you this considerate to all of your -- dates?" he asked quietly, and JC grit his teeth in anger. God damn Lance for even putting that thought into his head.

"I don’t have any other dates, Justin," he said evenly. "Don’t play games."

Justin flushed a little and nodded, murmured something apologetic and JC relaxed. But still, the fine glow seemed to have gone out of their evening and JC was furious with Lance for ruining something he’d been looking forward to for days.

The silence between them hummed with tension. Justin made low comments about the niceness of the little shop and the excellence of the symphony to ease the tension and JC answered just as quietly, reaching under the table with his foot until it nudged between Justin’s. He smiled a little as Justin shifted and pulled JC’s foot closer, bracketing it firmly between his. But still Justin was distracted, his thoughts busy and far away, and JC waited for him to say what was so patently on his mind.

The food was delivered and Justin hesitated only a moment before attacking his sandwich eagerly. JC pretended to sip at his espresso and quietly watched Justin eat. He seemed to be regaining a little of his color and again JC was annoyed at his sense of relief. It was stupid, but it hurt him to see Justin sick, exhausted and depleted. It made him feel guilty.

Justin finished his sandwich and the sinfully rich pastry that accompanied it, licking his fingers in a way that made JC catch his breath and shift subtly in his seat. "So, that guy," Justin said, finally, and JC’s eyebrows rose, encouraging him to continue. "That guy, Lance."

"Yes," JC said. "Lance. He is, as you’ve certainly figured out, an old friend. I guess you could say he’s my business partner, and my roommate."

Justin was quiet, his profile pensive as he stared out the window. JC waited.

"How old of a friend?" Justin finally queried, and JC snorted, leaning forward.

"Is that what you really want to ask me, Justin?" he impatiently asked, and watched Justin flush a little, smiled as he tried to hide it by taking a big swallow of his hot chocolate.

"Okay, no, that’s not really what I want to ask," he finally admitted, and JC leaned back in his chair, nodding. "What I want to ask is what does he have against me? I mean, why does he care if you and I spend time together?"

JC sighed. "You don’t have to worry about Lance," he said shortly. "He’s not going to hurt you. He knows I’ll kill him if he does." Justin sucked in a deep shuddering breath and JC watched him, waiting for Justin to meet his eyes. When he did JC caught a glimpse of the thoughts whirling dizzily below the surface calm on Justin’s face -- alarm and confusion over Lance’s hostility, some fear, and interestingly enough, a vicious sort of jealousy that was almost frightening Justin with its intensity. There was also a deep and gnawing craving to be alone with JC, a painful tightening of his body that threatened to overpower Justin every time he looked across the table at him. It would take very little effort for JC to make Justin forget about Lance completely; Justin almost wanted to be made to forget. But he was looking at JC with wide blue eyes that trusted him to tell him the truth, and with a sigh JC decided he would do just that. Mostly.

"All right, fine. This isn’t stuff you’ll find in any of your research books," he began. "But the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty unusual for vampires to have anything to do with humans, except to feed. I mean, we employ people to take care of things we need taken care of, naturally, but we don’t generally . . ." he struggled mentally with the word -- befriend? socialize? fuck? -- "uh, spend time with them. Not voluntarily."

Justin digested that in silence. "Why not?" he finally asked, and JC rolled his eyes.

"It doesn’t tend to turn out well," he drawled. "I mean, you get hungry, they catch you at the wrong time, it takes decades to learn any sort of control, really. Besides," he added, and watched Justin’s face carefully as he deliberately quoted what Lance had said earlier. "It is considered gauche to date your food."

Justin’s lips tightened, as he’d known they would, and JC sat back, angry with himself. He didn’t know why he was baiting him; this wasn’t how he wanted to spend his time with Justin. But certain of Lance’s accusations had hit home and forced him to realize just how stupid and pointless this, this thing with Justin was. It was preposterous -- vampires could not be friends, lovers, with humans. No good could possibly come of it. It further angered him that he was even trying to think of a way it could be made to work, a way he could keep Justin in his life without endangering them both, destroying their lives and sanity. When there was extended contact between vampires and humans the humans either lived in ignorance or died as prey.

Of course, there was one very specific way around all this trouble, but JC refused to consider it. Not even in his wildest and most private dreams would he consider it. He didn’t want Justin harmed, he realized bleakly. Not even by himself.

Justin was speaking again, softly, his beautiful eyes wide and intent on JC’s face. The words themselves were innocuous -- questions about how long he’d known Lance -- but what Justin really wanted to know was whether Lance was JC’s lover. He was insecure, JC realized. He was remembering Lance’s pointed barbs about other humans JC had toyed with, and he was worried.

"Why don’t you just come out and say it, Justin," he asked, almost hating himself for the bored tone of his voice. "Really, I can’t believe the way you’re dancing around this.

"Fine," Justin shot back, his chin coming up defiantly. "I thought we’d decided to be honest with each other; this is me being honest. You say that he lives with you, you say you’ve known him a long time. He’s upset that you were with me tonight, and I got the distinct feeling that it was not just because I’m, uh, food." He paused, taking a deep breath and JC inclined his head, politely waiting. "Okay, JC. Yeah. I want to know if you sleep with him."

Justin was breathing hard, and he really didn’t want to know the answer but he’d asked, and now stared at him, almost demanding JC’s honesty. JC smothered a smile. Justin's courage never failed to impress him.

"No, of course I don’t sleep with him," he mocked softly. "In fact, I’ve been completely celibate and saving myself for you for two hundred years." He raised his eyebrows, refusing to feel bad about the flush across Justin’s cheeks, the way his mouth tightened. "Don’t give me that look," he warned. "You’re the one being ridiculous."

Justin’s chin lifted haughtily, and JC admired the clean line of his throat. "I’m not being ridiculous," Justin asserted. He waited until JC’s eyes met his, and he said quietly, "In fact, at this point I think I have the right to know."

They stared at each other for a long moment and JC allowed the images in Justin’s mind to wash over him in gentle waves. Justin was full of memories of seeing JC at the club, of the chateau in France, of what it was like for him, for both of them, when they were alone in Justin’s room in the deep and dark hours of the night. The way Justin felt seeing his grandfather’s ring on JC’s finger, the pride and fierce possessiveness that would’ve surprised JC with its intensity had he not felt exactly the same way. Justin’s longing, right this minute, the deep and painful need that nibbled frantically at the edges of his mind even now when he was upset. The need that exactly, precisely, and mysteriously mirrored JC’s own.

"Okay," he said quietly, surprising himself. "Okay, Justin." Justin relaxed a little but was still sitting very upright across from him, afraid of what JC was going to tell him. JC sighed.

"Lance and I, well, we used to. It was a long time ago, and we were both pretty new to the whole lifestyle. I mean, we were both lonely, and sex between vampires is fucking amazing, but it didn’t last that long," he said quietly, and carefully hid the part about how it still happened once in a while, not anytime recently of course, but it was never completely out of the question as a convenience factor. Justin didn’t need to know things like that.

"Lonely," Justin murmured softly, as if he couldn’t believe it, and JC smiled a little, humorlessly.

"Sure. The thing is, while most vampires prefer each other’s company, the sad truth is we also really can’t stand it for too long," he said. "There are always, uh, competition issues, and usually food supply issues, so relationships tend to be of pretty short duration."

"But you’ve known each other for a long time," Justin commented quietly. His scholarly instincts seemed to be getting the better of his jealousy, JC noted with amusement.

"Yeah, and we keep a base of operations together, because it’s safer in a lot of ways. And we get along, spend a lot of time together, but not all the time. None of us can do that, really."

Justin nodded thoughtfully, thanking the waiter absently as he delivered another sweet pastry and another big mug of chocolate. JC waited, amused. He knew what was coming next; Justin was completely open to him and his thought processes were endearingly clear.

"So," Justin started, and then hesitated, clearing his throat. "So, what’s so great about sex between vampires?" He flushed as JC grinned at him, slow and deliberate.

JC leaned forward, crossing his arms on the table and looking intently into Justin’s face. "You know how you feel, Justin, when we’re together? When you’re thrashing a little, and panting, and I’m deep, deep inside you but you still want more?" He paused, watching as Justin shuddered and nodded, jerkily. "Do you remember how you feel when you want me at your throat, Justin?" he murmured, licking his lips and feeling himself heat up as the flush rose on the smooth skin above the collar of Justin’s crisp white shirt.

Justin nodded again, his eyes wide and his breath shallow, obviously not trusting his voice to answer.

"I know you like that," JC whispered. "I like that too." He smiled, slowly, watching Justin gulp. "And when you’re with another vampire, you can feel both sides of it."

He leaned back and watched Justin digest this information. He could read the play of emotions across his face, and wasn’t surprised when Justin drained his mug and set it down with a sharp clink on the little tiled table.

"I’m ready to go," he said, leaning forward and staring at JC, his eyes intent. "Can we go now?"

"I thought you’d never ask," JC murmured, and ran his eyes down Justin’s body just to see him tremble. He threw a bill on the table and rose, taking Justin’s arm and leading him to the door.

~ ~ ~ ~

"So, where do you want me to take you?" JC asked innocently. "You look pretty tired; do you want me to take you back to your car?"

Justin would’ve cursed him if he could just form coherent sentences. His body was on fire, his mind swimming with desire and need and he knew, he knew JC felt the same way. Damn him for making him say it, but god, if he tried to bluff him and JC called him on it . . . no. No, he wouldn’t be able to stand it. Justin took a deep breath and tried to calm himself down. JC was momentarily distracted hailing a cab, and Justin composed himself as one screeched to a halt before them. Then JC turned to him, his eyes luminous, his smile sweet and sexy as he held out a hand to him. Justin took it, almost gasping at feel of JC’s fingers tangling intimately with his own.

The cab was dark and warm after the chill of the London night, and Justin didn’t let go of JC’s hand as he leaned forward and gave quiet instructions to the driver. They took off with a jolt that pressed Justin back into his seat and JC turned to him.

"I asked," he whispered, leaning closer and angling his head slowly. "Where do you want me to take you?" His lips were warm and mesmerizingly soft, brushing gently across Justin’s mouth and away. Justin groaned, leaning closer. His hand stroked over JC’s, finding the silver ring and turning it restlessly around JC’s finger.

"Where do you want to take me?" he whispered back, and JC smiled. He leaned in again, teasingly close, his lips moist and parted. He brought Justin’s hand to his mouth, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to the warm pulse on the inside of Justin’s wrist. Then he dropped his hand to Justin’s thigh, sliding slowly up and in, scratching a pattern on the seam of his dress pants with his long slender fingers. Justin shuddered, his eyes slipping closed as he angled his mouth toward JC’s and waited, breathless.

Nothing happened, and then the cab turned a corner and Justin’s eyes flew open, seeing JC looking intently into his face, smiling a little. He licked his lips, watching JC’s eyes drop to them, his own mouth parting slightly.

Justin leaned back a little, his eyes intent on JC’s as he slowly loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. "C’mere," Justin whispered, shifting closer on the slippery seat and wrapping a hand around the back of JC’s neck, tangling his fingers into the soft curls and gently encouraging him to come nearer. "JC," he said, feeling his own heart pound, seeing JC’s breath grow short. "I want you to be closer." He paused, feeling the mingled desire and frustration and jealousy and possessiveness like a sharp physical pain. "Now," he whispered.

JC let out a breath that might have been a laugh and might have been a moan. He leaned in, slowly, slowly, too slow, and Justin almost groaned in frustration but now that elegant hand was firmly cupped over his aching groin and JC’s mouth was covering his, swallowing Justin’s gasp of relief and frustration, plunging his tongue into his mouth.

Justin’s hands scrabbled desperately at JC’s waist, pulling frantically at his shirt to feel his warm skin. JC slid his mouth up his jawline, and Justin froze, gasping as JC’s teeth scraped against his earlobe. His eyes opened, seeing the reflection of the cab driver’s interested eyes in the rearview mirror over JC’s shoulder.

"Keep your eyes on the road," Justin snarled. The man’s eyes jerked forward as if frightened and Justin gathered JC closer, his arms tightening greedily around his body. His desire was painful and breathless, galloping out of control, making him forget that they were not alone. His vision splintered as JC’s mouth left his ear and moved warmly, wetly down the side of his throat. Justin flexed his hips, squirming deliciously against JC’s hand, JC’s mouth, his hands restless on his back, and as they took another turn, faster, he closed his eyes and prayed they were almost there.

"Don’t you even want to know where we’re going?" JC whispered, his voice ragged with need. His hand stroked languidly between Justin’s legs, firm and then soft and then firm again.

Justin looked up at him, breathing hard. "I don’t even care," he said softly. "I just want to get there."

JC leaned in again, nuzzling the tip of Justin’s nose, his lips a breath away as Justin panted. Justin tightened his hand against the back of JC’s head, tilting his head to expose his throat, desperate to feel JC’s mouth, his teeth.

"Justin, no. I don’t have to feed," JC murmured, even as he bent to suck wetly at the warm skin of Justin’s throat, just below the healing wounds. Justin’s eyes squeezed shut as pleasure and anticipation shuddered through him. "I don’t, I took care of that earlier. And it’s too much for you, there’s too much . . ." He broke off with a sigh as Justin’s hand slid down his tight stomach and curled intimately between JC’s legs. Justin gasped softly as JC lowered his mouth again, closing it over the pulse pounding at Justin’s throat. "I don’t need that from you, not tonight," he whispered against Justin’s skin, and Justin trembled, hands shaking on JC’s back.

"Sure you do," he murmured, his hips rocking helplessly. "You need it," he whispered disjointedly. "And I want it, and I need you, JC . . ."

And now JC’s hand was busy between Justin’s legs, and Justin stopped trying to speak as JC clasped his lips around the soft skin between Justin’s collar bones, exposed by Justin’s loosened tie and unbuttoned shirt. Justin shivered as JC whispered against his wet skin. "I need you too, Justin. I do." He leaned back a little to look into his eyes, his mouth red and full, his eyes heavy-lidded. "We’re almost there."

~ ~ ~ ~

As the cab came to a jolting halt outside the warehouse that housed the bordello, Justin felt his face heat up. He knew that JC couldn’t take them to his house; after all, he’d just learned that JC shared his home, and with someone who violently disapproved of Justin’s very existence. But he couldn’t restrain a stab of disappointment at the fact that JC wasn't quite ready to take him someplace more personal and private.

And yet the bordello did have certain attractions, one of which was the electric look it put in JC's eyes.

JC had his hand and pulled him quickly into the cramped lobby, where the young woman they'd seen before was hovering nervously behind the front desk.

"Mr. Chasez," she said in greeting, beginning to fumble with the appointment book. "Let me just --"

JC nodded briefly at her but didn't stop moving until he and Justin had pushed through the doors to the great hall. The air was scented subtly, the sounds of faint music and laughter drifting in and out. Suddenly, Anne-Claire appeared in the doorway of the drawing room they'd been in before, a hint of a smile on her face. Although he saw her, JC didn’t slow down; he just kept urging Justin toward the wide curved staircase leading up to the second level.

"JC," Anne-Claire began as she figured out that he wasn't going to speak to her. "How lovely to see you, and of course your room is ready, precisely as you requested . . ." She trailed off as she caught sight of Justin, and her eyebrows rose delicately as she took in his flushed cheeks, his loosened tie and unbuttoned shirt. "Ahh," she murmured, and slanted a knowing smile at JC. "JC, really, you've got to stop this. You're disappointing my staff most cruelly."

JC smiled at her as he started to climb the staircase, Justin’s hand still clasped firmly in his. Justin felt his face heat up as Anne-Claire laughed delightedly as she looked at them. He was aware of her following them to the bottom of the stair, watching in fascination as they climbed.

"Have a lovely evening, gentlemen," she mocked lightly. "Oh, and JC, your friend Lance called earlier. If he calls again, what shall I tell him?"

Justin started but JC hesitated only slightly as he reached the top of the stair, and the look he shot over the banister was cold. "Surely you're creative enough to handle that one on your own," he said as he started across the balcony. He didn’t wait for an answer, wrapping an arm around Justin’s waist and moving quickly down the hallway.

The thick carpet made their steps silent as they moved out of her sight, JC's arm firm against Justin's back. He recognized the door immediately although it was no different from any of the evenly spaced doors down the long and silent hallway. Justin closed his eyes as JC entered the security code, desperately gulping air and straining to stay upright, not to collapse against JC's shoulder and bury his face in his neck. JC was already pulling off his jacket as the door opened on the luxurious sitting room, frantic to get rid of it. Justin heard the door close firmly behind them, the discreet chime as the alarm re-engaged, and then started to shrug out of his own jacket as well. His arms were still trapped behind him when JC grabbed him by the shoulders, spinning him around and backing him hard against the door. Justin hit it with a force that made him gasp, and then JC's body was pressed intimately against his, hands demanding and his eyes incandescent.

"Are you trying to make me crazy?" he murmured, his mouth opening along Justin's jaw as Justin gasped for breath.

Justin struggled, but JC had pressed him so tightly against the door that he couldn't free his arms. He made a noise of frustration and then craned his neck to the side, knowing that his shirt would open further, knowing that JC would see his neck, his throat.

"I'm trying to give you what you need," Justin said roughly, and then looked JC in the eye and added, "What I need."

He spoke the last words in the most seductive voice he could manage, and then closed his eyes in pleasure for just a second as he saw JC clench his jaw, watched his eyes grow dark and hungry as they settled on his throat.

"JC," Justin sang in a low voice, and then gently nudged his hips forward, groaning a little as he made contact.

JC swept in at once, his mouth hot and needy against Justin's, and he groaned when Justin sucked on his tongue, kept his hips rolling forward at slow, regular intervals.

"Do it," Justin urged when JC lifted his head, and struggled once more to free his arms. "JC, right now."

"Shut up," JC said sharply, and stepped back, looking at Justin with an almost haunted expression. "Seriously, stop it. I told you in the car that I'm not going to feed from you tonight, and that's how it's going to be. There's no negotiation on this point."

"Because it'd be gauche, right?" Justin said in a low, sardonic voice as the sting of rejection spread through him, and then stared defiantly at JC even though his eyes had gone sharp and frightening, even though the way he was standing indicated that he was absolutely furious.

"Either that or because you're so weak after I drink from you that you can't even walk," JC finally said, his voice cold and hard.

"That doesn't matter," Justin said quickly, and then took a step toward JC, trembling in anticipation as his jacket slid down his arms and fell to the floor. "All I need to do then is eat and I'm just fine."

"It doesn't work that way, Justin," JC said grimly, but Justin wasn't listening; instead, he moved hands up to his shirt and pulled it even further apart.

"JC," he coaxed, rubbing his throat and then trailing his hand slowly down his chest, over his abdomen. "Just a little bit. Just come here for a little while," he added, and then drew in a long, shuddering, satisfied breath as he watched JC start to flush.

"I'm sorry, Justin, but the answer is no," JC said, but his voice was distinctly strained and his chest was rising and falling as his breathing quickened.

"Yeah, well, maybe you don't get to say how things go tonight," Justin said, and then moved fingers once more to the healing puncture wounds at his neck and moaned softly. "JC, did I ever tell you how good it feels to touch myself here? Did I tell you that after I've been with you, I come home and move my fingers to the exact place your mouth has been and do this?" He pressed fingers against the holes and then rocked his hips forward in delight because it felt so, so good to show this to JC, so good to see JC look flustered and hungry and miserable. Justin pressed again, felt the slight swell of pain, and then cried out softly, backing into the door again for support, eyes falling shut, head tilted, neck exposed to JC. He shivered in anticipation, waiting, and sure enough, not a second later, JC was hard up against him, and JC's hand was dragging his away from his throat, baring it.

"Yes, yes, yes," Justin chanted, and arched his neck and waited for JC to take him.

"Goddammit!" JC said in a low, angry voice, and then moved in, head swooping gracefully, and Justin cried out in triumph and longing as JC's lips went straight to the wound. Justin cupped the base of JC's neck and squeezed, trying to hold him there, wanting to hold him to him as he drank.

"Mmm," JC said low in his throat, his breath hot against Justin's sensitive skin, against the punctures, and then slowly, tenderly licked them before fixing his mouth and sucking gently without using his teeth, without breaking the skin. Justin began to shudder, his body pressing desperately into JC's. JC's mouth was where it needed to be, but he was so infuriating; he was only teasing, and he was still in control. In frustration, Justin brought up his other hand and sank it deep into JC's hair, gripping his scalp and trying to urge him forward.

"Please," Justin begged, and then gasped sharply and strained desperately into JC as he felt the scrape of sharp teeth against his throat. "Do it now!"

JC groaned desperately against him, and Justin ached everywhere, was almost dizzy with power and need as JC aligned teeth against the wound and trembled.

But then JC went still, and Justin swore in impatience when JC slowly lifted his head and glared at him, the look on his face hard and fierce.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" JC demanded, and then reached out and grabbed Justin by the upper arm.

"I'm just -- I'm trying --" Justin began, and then swallowed the words in surprise as JC began to drag him roughly across the room to the chaise lounge, moving so quickly that Justin, in his already dizzy state, stumbled clumsily next to him. Once they reached the end of the chaise, JC roughly shoved Justin from behind so that he fell forward onto it, arms going out reflexively to catch himself. Before he could get his balance, JC had climbed on the couch behind him, pressing him forward, forcing Justin on hands and knees up to the incline. Then there were fingers at the side of his neck, hot and hard, and Justin hopefully began to turn his head.

"No," JC said, his voice harsh and angry, and Justin froze before slowly turning his head forward once more.

"You're not in control anymore -- do you hear me?" JC said menacingly and then moved fingers to the puncture wounds and began to rub them hard, fingers digging deep into the sensitive skin. Justin closed his eyes and cried out in desire, craning his neck once more, only this time in an attempt to get away, because this was -- he'd wanted to be touched, but this was too intimate, too rough. JC's fingers were merciless, and they sent violent, upsetting sensations through him.

"Here's a note for the scholar," JC said, leaning into him, and Justin groaned and pressed hips backward as he felt JC's erection dig into his ass. "The wound is sensitive because it's supposed to be. See, the better it feels for the victim, the easier it is for us to subdue you, and if we can get you to let us touch you here, actually invite us to revisit the wound, well . . ."

"Oh god, oh god, oh god," Justin said in a low, toneless voice, his cock straining against his pants, his skin aching against the fabric of his shirt, his ass rocking eagerly against JC. He couldn't stop it, couldn't stop himself.

"All I have to do is press like this," JC said softly, and then dug fingers in almost cruelly, laughing as Justin arched his back and yelped, forcing himself back hard, "and you're mine."

When JC's fingers finally left his neck, Justin fell forward into the incline of the couch and wrapped arms around it, breathing and moaning at the same time, his face and his body on fire as he felt JC watching him, taking it in.

"Remember that the next time you feel like taunting me," JC said very softly, and then leaned forward again and opened Justin's pants, jerking them and his boxer briefs down to his knees in rough, sure movements. When JC's hot hand grabbed his cock, Justin keened and rocked desperately forward as excitement flooded him and his skin grew hot. He could probably fight this, but maybe he would just let go and let JC do exactly what he wanted. The thought of it was intoxicating. JC squeezed him and then slowly began to stroke him from base to tip, and Justin felt his thighs begin to quiver under him, because he was going to -- very soon, it was going to be --

"Not that soon," JC said then, and Justin cursed in frustration as he took his hand away.

"I know," JC murmured, though he didn't really sound all that sympathetic, and then moved his hand to the side of Justin's neck again. Justin tensed and cried out, waiting for the unbearable pleasure and pressure of his fingers, but JC stroked him lightly instead, teasing and mean, and then began kissing the base of his neck. To his shame, Justin opened his mouth to beg, but JC spoke before he could do it.

"See the table right there?" he asked in a low voice, and Justin nodded as he laid eyes on it.

"Reach into the drawer and give me what I need to fuck you," JC told him, and Justin groaned, scrambling forward quickly, shivering as he heard JC opening his own pants.

"So can I at least look at you now?" Justin asked in a low voice. "I mean, I kind of have to turn around if we're going to --"

"Not if I take you from behind," JC said smoothly, and then put hands on Justin's shoulders and pressed him forward. "Hold on," he said, and Justin wrapped arms around the upholstery of the couch and closed his eyes.

"Okay, JC," he said through swollen lips, his voice raw. "I'm going to let you do this because you need it. I'm going to let go for you because it's what --"

When JC roughly grabbed his hips and pulled them backward, moving his thigh between Justin's to urge them further apart, Justin gasped hard, then spread eagerly, as far as his pants would let him.

JC's fingers were strong and slippery inside him, and Justin's voice was almost embarrassingly eager as he urged him on, his hips snapping backward almost convulsively as he tried to take in more.

"Thank you so much for choosing to do this," JC said silkily as Justin's movements got increasingly desperate. "It's so kind of you to indulge me."

"You can say all you want," Justin somehow managed to get out despite the fact that he was strung tight with desire, his nerves quivering desperately, "but you know it's true. It wouldn't happen if I didn't want it."

When he moved his hand to his cock, JC said "No," his voice sharp, and Justin groaned in frustration but obeyed. When finally Justin felt JC pressing into him, he closed his eyes, gripped the sides of the couch and bit down hard on a scream, refusing to let it out. Once JC had situated himself inside Justin, he leaned forward to rest his chin on his shoulder.

"You're so fucking hot -- you know that, right?" JC murmured, and Justin groaned impatiently and bore down, trying to bring JC even deeper inside. "Oh god," JC added, and then grabbed Justin's hips and helped, pulling him closer and closer to him. Justin felt the material of JC's trousers against his ass, the warmth of his thighs and his balls.

"JC," he groaned imploring, and rocked a bit, trying to urge him to move.

"Okay, okay," JC said comfortingly, and then slowly drew back, slid hands up to Justin's waist and caressed him for a moment, waiting.

"Now," Justin said. "JC, now -- I need --"

JC surged forward so quickly it took his breath away, and Justin closed his eyes and clenched his fists and groaned as JC slid deep into him, over and over again, his cock jabbing slowly and insistently, driving Justin up higher on his knees. Finally, JC's hand wrapped firmly around Justin's cock, stroking quickly and almost roughly. Justin was very close to screaming: everything was so tight, so close, and JC was so far inside him it felt almost as if their bodies had merged. When JC finally drew back a bit so he could take longer strokes, it took only a very short time for Justin to clench teeth tight together and groan in agonized pleasure as he came all over JC's hand, all over the velvet of the chaise lounge, long, heavy bursts that threatened to rip him apart.

"Yes," JC said in admiration, and then surged forward roughly, pressing Justin against the damp fabric before him and thrusting fiercely for several more seconds until he too disintegrated into helpless pleasure, leaning forward heavily and resting his head on Justin's shoulder.

"It happens because we both want it," JC finally said, his voice lazy and intent, and then turned his head and began kissing the side of Justin's throat, his mouth hot and demanding.

"Oh, so now it's okay," Justin said as JC moaned into his skin.

"No it's not," JC said, and his voice was tight and a bit strained. "But I can't stop, and you can't stop and it's just -- this is what's going to happen." He groaned and then grabbed Justin by the waist and slowly turned around so they were facing each other.

"I don't see a problem with that," Justin said softly, looking expectantly at JC as he neatly zipped and fastened his own pants before leaning forward to slowly, methodically, remove Justin's tie and then unbutton his shirt, first the cuffs and then down the center before slowly spreading it open and pushing it down and over his shoulders.

"Oh, so you want to die?" JC asked, and then moved in, straddling Justin's thighs and leaning forward to kiss him.

"That's not going to happen, Justin said against JC's mouth, and then roughly untucked JC's shirt and ran his hands slowly up and down JC's lean back, fingers curving over shoulder blades and backbone.

JC moaned deep in his throat. The longer Justin stroked his back, the more JC relaxed, and eventually, he began slowly kissing his way down Justin's jaw to his throat. Justin tilted his head back, quivering in anticipation as JC's tongue swept again and again over the healing puncture wounds, gently nudging them, teasing.

"Do it," Justin begged, and JC moaned, his body trembling under Justin's hands.

"I'm not sure I'm going to be able to stop," JC warned. "Do you hear me, Justin? I need you to understand that."

"I'm going to be fine. You're not going to hurt me," Justin said impatiently, and then gasped when JC pushed away roughly and sat up, glaring down at him.

"You know, people who tell me that tend not to survive very long afterward," JC quietly said, his expression somewhere between excitement and worry.

"Stop being such a coward and get back here," Justin fiercely said. "Honestly, JC. I've never in my life seen someone so afraid of what he wanted."

"What I want," JC answered in a razor-sharp voice, "is to annihilate you. How do you feel about that?"

Justin took a few quick breaths, confused and more than a little dazed at the feral look on JC's face. He was beautiful and frightening, and suddenly, Justin didn't know what to do. Maybe this was out of control; maybe they did need --

"That's what I thought," JC answered, and then slowly leaned in again. "But since you've been begging so sweetly all night . . ." he continued, and Justin tensed and sank fingers into JC's shoulders, unable to decide whether to push him away or pull him closer.

JC kissed the side of his neck just once, and then moaned with Justin as his fangs sank in deep, deeper than ever before. Justin gripped the back of JC's neck, grabbed his upper arm, and then moaned in delight and confusion as JC's mouth moved hungrily, as he felt JC swallowing his blood, bathing the wound with his tongue. He was spiraling downward, his body heavy and aching with desire, his blood pumping steadily into JC's mouth.

"JC, okay. JC, that's -- I --" Justin hazily said a few minutes later, the room swimming before his eyes and his tongue thick in his mouth. "JC, please -- I --"

JC groaned and kept drinking, even when Justin tightened hands on his shoulders, even when Justin tried to push him away.

"JC!" Justin gasped, his brain suddenly snapping into focus as he realized that he was in danger, that if he let this go on for very much longer, he'd lose consciousness -- and then there'd be no one to stop JC. "JC, stop!" he said, and grimaced at the terror in his voice. That would only make things worse.

Just as he was working out a plan to try to kick JC off of him, to summon up all his energy in a bid to break free, JC groaned as if in pain and roughly grabbed Justin's shoulders, using them to push off, to force himself away from Justin's neck. Once they'd broken apart, JC arose quickly from the couch and then stumbled backward, his eyes wide and shocked as he rubbed the blood from his lips with the back of his hand. Justin watched him as if in a dream.

JC moved quickly to a phone and spoke roughly into it, then moved forward one or two steps, eyes intent on Justin but clearly not trusting himself to be closer. Were it not for the distress on his face, he would have looked absolutely beautiful: his skin was flushed and vibrant, and his eyes were still glazed with pleasure.

"I'm okay," Justin said very softly. "I really. Tired, but it's. You didn't, JC. You stopped."

JC made an incredulous, furious sound, and then slowly moved back to the couch again and sat gingerly on the side, looking down at Justin.

"Really," Justin said again, and then slowly reached out to grab JC's hand. "See? Alive. Alive and well."

"Put your hand on the wound," JC said roughly. "Now, Justin."

Justin slowly pressed fingers to his neck, carefully keeping a neutral expression on his face as he felt the wetness of the blood, of JC's mouth.

JC sighed and then got up again, grabbed a towel, and handed it to Justin. "Justin, this isn't -- I feel -- it's so goddamned --"

Justin closed his eyes in surprise as the extent of JC's distress and worry flooded him. "Don't," he said quietly. "Don't worry. I teased you, remember? I made you."

"No, Justin," JC said in a low, unhappy voice. "We made each other, and we're going to keep making each other, and that's the problem. You think you're much more in control than you really are."

"And you think you're far more out of control than you really are," Justin retorted. "We should just -- we should enjoy this, because most people never even have this chance, never feel this way about --"

"Shh," JC said quickly, and then lifted his head, listening, before standing up and moving to the door, where he had a low, murmured conversation with someone Justin couldn't see or hear. When JC came back to him, he was holding a glass of the same stuff he'd made Justin drink the last time they were at the bordello.

"Oh no," Justin said. "JC, no. Not that again."

"Yes," JC answered. "Absolutely yes, Justin. If we're even -- if this is going to continue, we have to keep you strong, have to figure out a way to protect --"

When he broke off unhappily, Justin grabbed the glass and began to drink the awful stuff, grimacing as he did so, but somehow managing to force it all down.

"You worry too much," he wanted to tell JC, but suddenly his eyelids were sliding shut and a warm, heavy feeling was spreading through him. The last thing he was conscious of was JC gently picking him up and carrying him to the bedroom.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC sat impatiently next to the bed, eyes trained on Justin's pale, sleeping face, his fingers tapping an uneven rhythm into the carved arm of the chair. After decades of relative stability, his life had suddenly become profoundly chaotic and ungovernable, and JC hated it. Justin was driving him insane, causing him to engage in behavior he would have laughed at in scorn only a short while ago. And things weren't getting any easier. Justin was strong enough to break JC's control but too weak to handle the consequences when it happened, which placed the burden of keeping Justin alive on JC. And JC didn't want that -- he absolutely didn't want to have to protect Justin from himself, and even more than that, he didn't want the horrible, unsettling anguish that took him over after he gave up and indulged himself, indulged in Justin.

JC sighed. Everything that Lance had said earlier tonight was correct: this was shameful and he was unbearably weak, embarrassingly maudlin. Such behavior should have been unimaginable, far beneath him. But even as he understood this, JC also knew that there was now no way on earth he would be able to abstain from Justin, no way whatsoever that he could let him go. He could make promise after promise to himself, argue with Justin about it until they both lost their voices, but in the end, he was always going to relent, to give in to Justin, to the blood. And to make matters worse, Justin's blood was the most heavenly, delicious thing JC had ever tasted: it hummed in his veins, it filled him with delight, it drove him mad with longing. There was no sweeter substance in existence.

Because he loved -- no. Because he felt that it was important to take care of Justin, JC had been very gentle with him, had made sure that when he drank from him, Justin felt very, very good. The positive thing about that was that Justin no longer feared him -- not much, anyway. The bad part was that Justin now actively wanted JC to feed from him, wanted it with an intensity that rivaled JC's in its ungovernability. They were going to push each other over the edge; there was no way this could not end badly.

But there was also no way JC could stop himself, or Justin. He just didn't want to do it. Neither of them did.

~ ~ ~ ~

When Justin finally opened his eyes and slowly sat up, JC very nearly sighed in relief. He was stronger and far more alert than JC had expected, which heartened him.

"Hey," Justin said in a cracked, scratchy voice, and opened his arms. Without even thinking about it, JC moved forward and hugged him tight, his embrace tightening as gratefulness and relief spread through him. Justin was all right: he was warm and alive and willing, and he was all right.

"I'm glad you're up," JC said, the understatement of the century. "How do you feel?"

Justin smiled at him and stretched. "How do you think I feel?" he asked seductively.

"Weak," JC bluntly told him.

"No, see, you don't get it -- you still don't get it," Justin said, smiling gently at him. "What I feel -- it's -- JC. If I could just find the words to tell you how good --"

JC looked at the bandage he'd placed on Justin's neck and then forced himself to think about other things.

"So you enjoyed yourself tonight?" he asked.

"God, yes," Justin said. "The whole thing. That music, JC – it was so beautiful."

"Yeah," JC agreed, thinking once more of the lovely, abstracted look on Justin's face and tacitly agreeing with him to ignore Lance's visit and every other issue that faced them.

"It -- when we were, you know, touching, and --"

JC couldn't help but grin at him as he felt Justin's excitement, and as he felt his own in response.

"And anyway, it was like the whole world went away -- there was nothing but the music and me and you. I want -- that's how it should always be with us, JC. Always."

"I --" JC began, and then cut himself off.

"Go on," Justin urged, and JC felt longing and amusement and affection coming from him.

"I want that, too," JC said quickly and almost roughly, because talking about feelings made him uncomfortable -- it was so American, so naive -- and he didn't at all enjoy the rawness and the vulnerability it produced in him.

"All we need to get it is to be together," Justin whispered. "I need you, JC. I need to be with you more and more, need it so much it hurts. Every minute we're apart, I --"

"Shh," JC said, and leaned to kiss Justin's soft mouth, reveling in the scent and the warmth of him, his hand sliding possessively around the smooth skin of his waist. Words only brought worries: this was the truest thing he could say or do.

Justin moaned softly, happily, and his own hands moved to JC's shoulders, his back, stroking gently, holding him close. For a long time they simply held each other, clinging tightly and whispering stupid, silly things back and forth, and the longer it went on, the calmer and happier JC felt. If he weren't the sophisticated, urbane vampire he knew himself to be, he'd almost think he was falling in love.

"Maybe you’re already there, JC," Justin softly said in response. "Maybe we both are," and JC felt his face flood with heat.

"Know what else I think?" Justin whispered. "I think -- well. What we did in the other room, that was me letting you be in control, right?"

JC tightened his mouth. "Kind of," he said slowly.

"Yeah," Justin said. "That's what that was. And what it makes me realize, JC, is that it's probably time -- I mean, definitely time -- for things to, you know. Go the other way."

"You want --" JC began.

Justin shifted closer, his leg easing between JC’s and his hand sliding slowly up his hip. "I want to be in control," he said in a low, urgent voice, and JC felt his entire body come alive at the thought.

"Okay," JC said simply, and then held back a smile as Justin's brows rose in surprise.

"You're not even going to fight me?"

"Wouldn't that be beside the point?" JC said, and then smiled. "I have no problems with that, Justin. Whatever you want -- I'll give you anything you want."

Justin stared at him for a very long time before breaking into a lazy grin.

"All right then," he murmured. "Come here, JC."

JC went to him.

Chapter Text

~ ~ ~ ~

Part Seven

~ ~ ~ ~

All he'd wanted was some ice, some ice so he could enjoy a cold glass of water for once, not drink everything tepid and fetid like everyone else in the motherhouse did. Lou was tired and he was sleeping poorly, and he was absolutely sick of everyone here with their unconscious air of superiority and their annoyingly reserved manners. He hated being the ugly American, hated that they made him ashamed of the way he dressed, ate, acted, moved through the world. This was the worst assignment he'd had in years, and the fact that the person who had the information he needed obviously hated his guts hadn't made things any easier.

So it had been something of a shock to wander out of his bedroom and down to the kitchen at sunrise and then feel real concern as he noticed Justin Timberlake slouching in the service entrance, headed dizzily toward the stairway that led to the wing that housed his room. Although they had looked at each other, Timberlake hadn't said anything at all -- then again, he really hadn't needed to, because his face had spoken for him: the smudges under the eyes, the pallor to the skin, the glazed expression. He'd been letting the Chasez vampire feed from him, and judging from the careful, measured steps he was taking, he'd been letting him do a whole lot else as well. Lou stifled a groan, anxiety and anger battling in him as he watched Timberlake disappear drunkenly. The Chasez vampire was yet again on the verge of taking one of the Order's own. He really, really didn't need this.

And to make it worse, Justin Timberlake pretty much symbolized everything Lou hated about the Order these days: the privileging of psychic flashiness over substance; the recruitment of people far, far too young to handle the significant responsibilities that accompanied interacting with the paranormal; the move from serious, sustained scholarship to attention deficit disorder and Google searches. And as if that weren't enough, Lou also hated Timberlake's personality: the arrogance, the completely unfounded confidence, the almost mercenary ambition and single-minded need to advance.

Things hadn't always been this way. Fifteen years ago, Lou had known and worked with novices of great promise, young men and women whose desire for knowledge exceeded their need for renown, young men and women -- one woman in particular -- who revered senior members, who listened to their mentors, who looked into Lou's face and saw . . . something worthwhile, something different.

His face frozen into a grimace, Lou left the kitchen. The ice water could wait. As he moved through the darkened halls of the Order and into the mess of dirty laundry and half-emptied plates that decorated his own room -- Lou refused to let the Order's cleaning staff in; there was no reason to trust anyone here, anyone -- Lou heaved himself into his desk chair and groaned as he looked at the file spread out on it. Image after image of the Chasez vampire, hundreds of thousands of words and countless hours devoted to studying a creature who should have been eliminated entirely years ago. It was such a senseless waste. Frowning, Lou flipped through the pages until he found what he wanted. It hurt like hell to look at it, but this single photograph -- Roberta Thomas dead on the front steps of the Order -- had been his primary motivating force for years now. It was only through remembering her, the most intelligent, promising, and capable novice he'd ever known, and the only woman he'd ever felt true feeling for, that Lou was able to recommit himself to staying in the cold, grey wasteland that was London.

If he closed his eyes and went into a trance state, Lou could summon up memories of almost painful clarity: Bobbie coming to him nervously on that first day he'd been assigned to mentor her, her eyes clear and sure as she told him how passionately she was devoted to her research, how very much she wanted to contribute to the mission of the Order; Bobbie frowning over a complicated passage of Latin, and then laughing out loud as Lou teased her as he pointed out her mistakes; Bobbie looking grave and holding back tears on the joyous, bittersweet day she'd finally advanced from novice to full status in the Order. It had been a privilege to teach her and to guide her, and she had venerated him, respected his knowledge, had even, Lou knew, defended him to the other novices, for whom mocking him had become something of a pastime. "You're idiots -- all of you. There's beauty in his mind, and there's more beauty than that in his work if you'd take more than a second to actually look at what he does instead of judging him on appearance," she'd scornfully said to a tableful of them, Timberlakes all, unaware that Lou had been nearby to hear it. That had perhaps been the day he fell in love with her.

Despite his sadness, Lou smiled at the memory. She had been so smart, so brilliant, and also so absolutely beautiful. Sometimes it had felt almost like torture to be near her, to have to look day in and day out at the lovely curve of her cheek, the fine bones in her wrists, the muscles in her calves, and know that he could never touch her, never once be anything to her other than mentor and guide. If Bobbie knew how he felt, she'd never revealed it to him, and her own conduct had been nothing short of impeccable and gracious to him -- always. No one more correct and more tactful than she; no one so honest and so brilliant, so very, very sharp.

Which had made it all the more confusing to start receiving troubling letters from her several months into her first fieldwork assignment in England. Shortly after she'd become a full member of the Order, Lou had written a confidential letter urging the elders not to assign Bobbie to work with vampires so early in her career, not because he doubted her capability, not for a minute, but because he knew exactly how drawn to her vampires would be, knew perfectly well that her beauty and her intelligence would make her almost irresistible prey for them. He should never have encouraged her to specialize in them, should probably have directed her away from him as a mentor from the start. Lou sighed heavily. As usual, he had been right.

"I have made the most fantastic discovery," Bobbie had written in the first letter, and when Lou had held it in his hands and closed his eyes, he'd seen her blushing and smiling at she wrote. It had scared the hell out of him. "I cannot explain it just yet, Lou, but I promise you that if my plan comes to fruition, I will hand over to the Order the most incredible cache of information in years," she had gone on. "Truly, this is the opportunity of a lifetime." Lou had immediately called her -- damn the cost; damn the parsimonious American branch of the Order -- had urged her to talk more specifically about what she was seeing and doing. But Bobbie had held back.

"I'm so sorry," she'd told him during another conversation a few weeks later, right after she'd once again refused to reveal what was going on. "If there were anyone I could tell, it would be you, Lou, I promise. But if this is to work, I have to be silent. He's insisted, and --"

"What's his name, Bobbie?" Lou had sharply said as he'd gotten a glimpse of a blue-eyed vampire with a cruel, hungry gaze directed right at her, as he'd sensed her own attraction to him, her excitement. "I see him, Bobbie; you're sending his image straight to me, and if it's -- if you're that obsessed with him, then you've clearly lost all objectivity and need to --"

"Lou, no," she'd said. "You don't have to worry. What you're sensing is a façade. My real thoughts are still underneath it all, and I assure you -- I have lost not control. I might seem . . . not myself right now, but trust me in this -- I am going to get the information I want from him, and I am going to help the Order immensely in so doing."

"How old is he?" Lou had asked during yet another conversation.

"About two hundred," she'd said, unable to keep the excitement out of her voice. "And he's so cocky, Lou -- thinks he has me exactly where he wants me, but I'm going to beat him at his own game, going to play him. I'm --"

"Bobbie, stop," Lou had said flatly. "This arrogance -- that's not how I taught you, that's not what you're supposed to be doing. The Order's mission is to --"

"Lou, seriously, you don't have to worry. I'll be just fine -- I know what I'm doing, and I'm going to be fine. After all, I was trained by the best, wasn't I?"

He'd had to laugh at that, but the sharp sense of worry had not dissipated.

"From now on, you will call me every other day to report on this, or I'm going to contact the senior members at your house and ask them to regulate your behavior," he'd threatened during their final conversation.

"They've already tried that," she said, her voice low and amused. "And they're not as smart as they think they are, which is really -- well, after working with you, I guess it'd be difficult to find anyone intelligent again."

"Stop the flattery. You're in danger -- do you hear me? I'm very concerned about you, Roberta."

"Lou, please," Bobbie had said then, and for just a moment had sounded tired, beleaguered, and terrified. "It's difficult -- I'm not going to pretend that it isn't, and I'm not going to tell you that there isn't, that he doesn't have some hold -- because he's very talented -- you wouldn't believe how talented. But you have to keep faith in me -- you if no one else. I'm so close right now, so very close, and I need to know that there's at least one person behind me in this."

"Always," Lou had firmly said. "I'll always support you," and then had made a panicked call directly to Mathilda right after hanging up. "I'll go to her now," Mathilda had promised, and plans had been made to remove her from England that very night. But Bobbie had not been in her room when Mathilda had gone to search for her, and the next time anyone had seen her, she'd been stretched out on the front steps of the Order.

Brushing off grief counselors and offers of vacation, Lou had traveled to London the very next day, and in a state somewhere between fury and desperation, had demanded to be shown to her room. He'd spent hours poring over her notes, her trinkets. As he'd sifted through the gifts the vampire had given her -- gossamer-thin negligees, shining diamond earrings, piles of valuable leather-bound first editions, and, worst of all, the many letters intimating a relationship most assuredly carnal -- bile had splashed in his throat, and deep resentment. She had slept with this creature; she had let him -- he had --

Even now it made him sick to think about it. In anger, Lou shut the file, then thought again of Justin Timberlake's gaunt face, his dazed eyes. Compared to Bobbie, he was nothing. Instead of working for the Order, as Bobbie had thought she'd been doing even to the end, Timberlake had chosen to undermine it, skulking around and letting this vampire do perverted, sick things to him. He'd become totally overwhelmed by selfish desires, had done nothing but indulge himself, and people had lost their lives as a result -- innocent people. If anyone deserved to die at the hands of the Chasez vampire, it was Timberlake -- but the horrible reality of Lou's life right now was that if he did not act to save Timberlake, he would be dishonoring Bobbie, violating her memory. She more than anyone would have wanted to stop Chasez from killing again, she more than anyone would have wanted to bring her murderer to his knees.

Problem was, no one but Lou seemed to realize the depths Timberlake had sunk to. More than once, Lou had tried to explain his weakness to Mathilda, and more than once, he'd asked permission to watch Timberlake more closely, or to send him away altogether to a safer place -- each time, however, Mathilda had quietly vetoed him, arguing that she knew Justin, was in close touch with him, that she would know if Justin was in trouble. She’d also insinuated that Lou was not completely objective, and when Lou had asked permission to submit Timberlake to heavy interrogation under tranquilizers (see how famous his defenses were under that, Lou had thought bitterly), she'd actually had the gall to look horrified and walk away from him without saying a word. As soon as this thing played itself out, Lou was going to report her to the elders, get her demoted. No one that weak and stupid should have senior standing in the motherhouse.

Since Mathilda had proven so uncooperative, Lou had spoken to his Timberlake’s smart-mouthed, annoying mentor as well -- and had again gotten nowhere. None of them realized the severity of the situation, or the immediacy of the danger; none of them could see through the lies and deceptions wrought by Timberlake. This left one person -- Louis Pearlman -- to take custody of Timberlake, to protect him. As soon as he figured out the location of the Chasez vampire's lair, he would act swiftly and decisively, would put an end to all this nonsense. Timberlake and his cronies didn't deserve it at all, but Bobbie definitely did.

~ ~ ~ ~

Early morning sunlight streamed weakly through the eastern windows as Justin made his way slowly through the twisting hallways of the motherhouse, steps lagging, slumping with tiredness. The brightness made him squint even as he was drawn to the warmth of the sunlight. His head was fuzzy with a deep exhaustion that swirled confusedly with the exultation in his heart, making his vision blur. He felt so heavy, almost as if his feet weighed more than he could lift, as if he could curl up right on the floor of the hallway and sleep forever. But he also felt light, so light that if he opened this second story window and spread his arms the morning breeze would pick him up as if he were a feather, floating him away forever.

Justin realized he’d stopped in front of the window, his hands pressed hard against the thick, cool glass. He was swaying drunkenly although he hadn’t had a single drop of alcohol. No, he thought with a smile, he’d had something so much better. So very much better. He closed his eyes and licked his lips, breathing deeply and feeling the pull of tired muscles in his neck, his stomach and groin. Good, he thought dimly. So good.

He turned slowly toward his room, placing one foot deliberately in front of the other. The hallway stretched endlessly, as if he was viewing it through a wide angle camera lens. People passed him like ghosts, barely registering to him and Justin realized slowly that he must look unusual in his disheveled evening clothes, his tie loosened, the top buttons of his dress shirt unbuttoned. The collar of his suit jacket was crumpled under the weight of his coat; he could feel it but lacked the energy to reach up and fix it. And now there were more people in the hallway and he could feel amusement from some, curiosity from others. One of his colleagues paused as he passed, asking Justin a concerned question.

"No, no," Justin responded, and dredged up a reassuring smile. "Thanks, man, but I’m fine. Just headed to bed." The man nodded, his eyes still a little worried, but Justin shrugged him off and continued down the hallway, more briskly now. He blinked hard and shook his head, drawing a deep breath and trying to focus.

There were more people coming out of their rooms; it must be getting close to breakfast. Justin’s stomach grumbled hopefully but he couldn’t face the thought of the dining room, so many people, too many possible questions. He wanted to be alone, he thought as he turned the corner and stopped at his door. He needed to be alone so he could think about JC. JC, who had kissed Justin deeply, slowly and thoroughly in front of the open taxi door, his hands cradling Justin’s head, taking his time despite the steadily lightening sky to the east. He'd worked Justin up all over again although he would’ve thought just moments previously that such a thing was not possible after the night they’d spent.

Justin keyed in the code to his room mechanically and entered with a sigh of relief, shutting the door firmly behind him. He shrugged out of his coat and suit jacket, throwing them both carelessly on the sofa as he headed to his bedroom. He pulled impatiently at his tie, hissing at little at the bright sting on the side of his throat even as pleasure bloomed in his chest. He drank three glasses of water and smiled goofily at his reflection in the bathroom mirror as he stripped out of the rest of his clothing. Good. He felt so good.

But he was sticky with sweat and with other things, and hungry. First things first - - he’d order food so it’d be ready when he got out of the shower, then he’d eat, then he’d . . .

He frowned thoughtfully. What was it he had to do today? His laptop was open and humming where he’d left it the previous day - - a brief glance at his calendar told him he’d missed another research meeting and Justin winced a little. He’d forgotten the meeting completely. Not that remembering it would have made any difference; at 9:30 the previous evening he’d already been at the theater and very firmly engaged. The thought made him smile, but it faded after a moment. He should have at least called Chris and let him know that he couldn’t make the meeting.

Justin shrugged. He was caught up with his project reports and he would make it a point not to miss any more meetings. He tapped the top of his computer thoughtfully - - he really should check his email and made sure nothing else assigned to him had slipped through the cracks. But just then his stomach growled and Justin shut down his laptop and pushed away from his desk with a sigh. There was time to take care of such things after he’d eaten, and perhaps taken a desperately-needed nap. Naked except for JC’s pendant, he moved to the telephone in his sitting room to call the kitchens.

The call was made, the food was on its way, and his stomach was demanding that he delay his shower to wait for it. Justin slowly pulled on jeans and a thick sweater, carefully arranging the high neckline to hide the new puncture wound at the base of his throat. Very little bruising, he noted with approval, and moved to his balcony for some fresh air while he waited.

It was a brisk morning and Justin shivered in the cool wind as he lifted his face toward the weak sun. Nobody was outside yet, although he imagined that by the afternoon the grounds would be full of people, just as they had been the previous spring when the weather first showed signs of growing mild. The previous spring he’d been one of them, he remembered with a small smile. Newly arrived at the Order and full of enthusiasm and ambition -- up early every morning, staying up late every night, attending classes, studying, so anxious to prove himself. He sighed, taking a deep breath of the clean air and enjoying the peace and quiet. Those days seemed like an eternity ago.

Now . . . Well, now things were different. Very different than they’d been only a short time ago, much less a full year, he acknowledged soberly. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about the Order or his work anymore. It wasn’t that at all. If anything his interest had grown. It had just become . . . more concentrated.

Justin took another deep breath, filling his lungs with crisp air and closing his eyes as he exhaled slowly. At the back of his mind nagged the thought that there wasn’t a single person in the Order who would approve of the way Justin had spent his previous night. One of these days, he thought distantly, he was going to have to give that some thought. One of these days soon he’d have to decide whether or not the Order was the place for him; and he’d have to find JC’s file and return it to him. Of course it should be returned to him -- it was wrong of them to keep this file, to invade JC’s privacy. Then Justin would be free to go himself. But he felt something deep inside twist when he thought of leaving the Order, a dim sort of desolation that made him shiver unhappily.

But other thoughts were much closer to the surface, and with a sigh he let his mind drift to them. Thoughts of JC were like vivid technicolor dreams: his smooth pale skin and his husky voice and the way he’d flushed when Justin had wrapped his mouth around his cock, the carefully controlled violence in his hands as they’d gripped Justin’s legs and spread them carefully, forcing him forward over the chaise. And the sound of his voice later as he’d hoarsely urged Justin to go deeper, harder, faster . . .

Justin moaned, his hands clenching tightly around the pendant and the world spinning dizzily as he flushed, gasping. He squeezed his eyes shut and gripped the balcony railing for support. Breathing carefully, he waited for the throbbing in his body and the pounding in his ears to subside.

His vision gradually cleared but the pounding did not go away, and after a moment he realized that it was coming from his door. It must be his breakfast arriving. Checking to make sure his sweater still covered his throat, he went quickly into his sitting room and pulled the door open.

It was one of the staff with a big covered tray. Beside him stood Chris, looking irritated.

"It’s about time," Chris growled at him, pushing past Justin and walking into his sitting room as Justin took the tray and smiled his thanks at the staff member.

"Come on in, Chris," he said with mock politeness as he set the tray on his living room table. He raised an eyebrow as Chris sat in the easy chair across from him. "How nice to see you," Justin continued, seating himself on the couch and removing the tray cover. "Have a seat. Have you eaten?"

"I’ve eaten," Chris said shortly, and his tone made the smile drop off Justin’s face. "But you go right ahead."

"What’s wrong?" Justin asked quietly, and Chris sighed, rubbing his hand over his face wearily.

"Have your breakfast, Justin," he said. "You eat, and I’ll talk, okay?"

Justin nodded, taking a tentative bite of his scrambled eggs. He chewed and swallowed and took another bite while Chris watched him and the silence between them stretched and thrummed with tension.

Chris waited until Justin had swallowed his second bite before speaking. "So," he started quietly, his face grim. "How are you feeling?"

Justin eyed him cautiously. "Um, better I guess. Still kind of tired, but definitely getting better."

"Good," Chris answered shortly. "I have to tell you, you actually look worse than you did yesterday," he continued, his eyes intent on Justin’s face. "And I didn’t really think that was possible. But I suppose staying out all night when one is just recovering from the flu will do that to a person."

Justin sighed and put his fork down, clasping his hands in front of him. "Chris," he started, but Chris interrupted him.

"No, Justin. I told you to eat while I talk. Only the eating part is optional," he said tersely and Justin nodded, eyes on his hands.

"Okay. Couple of things. Number one? You missed another meeting yesterday." He held up a hand as Justin drew a breath to respond. "We covered the talking thing. Just listen to me." He waited until Justin subsided. "Yeah, I know it wasn’t an important meeting, or a meeting you would deem important. I know we’ve both mentioned that the novice meetings tend to be a waste of your time, and if you have more pressing projects -- or if you are really ill -- it’s okay to miss one." He leaned forward, his dark eyes very serious. "But you’ve missed too many, and last night? Going out when you had just been down with the flu? And then staying out all night? Dude." Chris leaned back and sighed. "I’m not your mother, and I’m sure not going to tell you how to live your life. But if this is your idea of being serious about your work and about becoming a full member, it’s fucked up."

Justin said nothing, his eyes fixed on the window beyond Chris’s head. The crawling humiliation of being scolded like a small child warred with a slowly building fury and outrage that Chris would dare to tell Justin what to do. He clenched his fists, struggling to keep his temper under control. Chris had no right, he thought fiercely. He was involved in something so much bigger, so much more important than anything the Order, with its passive research and safe distances, could offer, he thought scornfully.

Chris was talking again, his voice low and tight. "And lastly. The report on the Tahitian project? The research that you spent months preparing? The one that was late?" Chris raised his eyebrows, his eyes pinning Justin to the couch. He nodded slowly, his jaw tight with suppressed anger.

"Yeah, that one. Justin, I don’t even know what to say. It started out fine, it was good and thorough and thoughtful and everything I’ve come to expect from your work. But then it just disintegrated. I mean, I know you were sick, and rushing to get it done on time, but the last third of it literally made no sense."

Justin sat motionless, his breakfast growing cold in front of him as his face heated up. The energizing fury slowly seeped away and mortification took its place, flooding him with dismay and a growing panic. Chris’s words echoed in his head and suddenly despair seized him, so strong for a moment he thought he was going to pass out. He was failing. All the work, everything he’d strived so hard for, and he had no excuse. His lungs felt as if the air was being squeezed from them and his stomach heaved as he raised his eyes to meet Chris’s.

Chris waited. "Okay, you can talk now," he said, but there was no humor in his tone and Justin flinched a little, taking a deep breath to steady his voice.

"I’m, I just, Christ. I’m sorry Chris," he started quietly. "I knew the report was late, and I was in a hurry to get it to you, and . . ." Justin broke off and reached a hand to his chest, pressing the edge of the pendant sharply into his skin. Chris watched him carefully, saying nothing, and Justin sighed.

"I’m sorry. Let me look it over, again, okay? I didn’t mean to be careless, I really thought that it was done and fine and I was anxious because it was late." Justin nodded firmly, his breath short. "Just, let me fix it. Okay?"

Chris looked at him gravely. "There’s no time to fix it, Justin. You knew I needed this information to prepare for the field work, and I’m on too tight of a schedule to be able to wait for you to fix it," he said, and waited a beat. "Especially since you’ve become so completely unreliable."

Justin blinked in astonishment. "Hey, I know that report was a little late, and I’m sorry if I got sloppy at the end, but I had two other projects to knock out too, and . . ."

"Oh yes, Justin. Those other two projects, thank you for reminding me." Chris’s voice was flat and now it was shaking a little with anger. "Those other two projects were even worse than the end of this one," he said tensely. "It’s like you’ve been possessed by the spirit of an illiterate junior high school kid or something." Chris paused, watching as Justin flushed angrily. "I mean, Justin," he said in a slightly softer tone of voice. "It’s not like you. You’re missing meetings you would’ve never missed a month ago. You act like you don’t care, and the quality of your work proves that you don’t care. What the hell is going on with you?"

Justin turned his head, staring blindly out the window. The sun was higher in the sky now, and it must be warming up because he could dimly hear the sound of voices on the grounds, people laughing and talking in the distance. But between Justin and Chris stretched a silence that was longer and deeper than a canyon, and as Justin closed his eyes he had the bleak thought that Chris could have been a million miles away.

"Justin." Chris’s voice brought him back to the present, to this excruciatingly humiliating conversation, back to evidence of his inattention, his lack of control, his failure. "Justin, you have to tell me what’s going on with you." Chris’s face was stern, his eyes implacable. "This work you’ve produced, these reports, they aren’t you. They aren’t anything like you. Something is going on," he continued. "Something is going on with you, and I think I know what it is, but I need you to talk to me. I can’t do anything for you until you level with me."

Justin sucked in a quick breath and wet his lips, his mind swirling. Chris couldn’t know. Nobody knew. Justin could keep secrets better than any person in the Order, there was no way Chris could know anything. Cautiously he reached out, trying to get a sense of what Chris suspected, his mind already buzzing dizzily with denials.

"No, Justin," Chris said, sitting back with a frown. "Nice try, but that route’s a two way street. You’re not getting honesty from me until you give some up yourself." He raised his eyebrows and stared Justin down, waiting.

"I don’t have an excuse," Justin finally said quietly. "I was distracted by the stuff that happened before I went to France, and then I was sick, and I just got careless. I’m sorry, Chris. I am, I’m so sorry. But that’s it. That’s all I have." He spread his hands helplessly, and prayed that Chris didn’t press further.

Chris stared at him silently and then rose to his feet. "You know I have to take this to the senior members, Justin," he said, and something inside Justin cringed at Chris’s remote and formal tone. "It’ll be a mark on your record. You’re not going to trusted to work on your own for a while; you’re going to be treated like a brand new initiate all over again, with someone to give you deadlines and review your work every step of the way. And they’ll have to find someone else to work with you," he continued, "because obviously you don’t trust me anymore. And you’ve proven that I can’t trust you either."

He walked to Justin’s door and Justin stared at him, mouth open. For a wild moment he considered stopping Chris, telling him everything about what had happened in France, what had happened in the time since he’d returned, the wonderful and amazing things that were still happening now. For a moment the urge to tell Chris every single detail was so strong he clenched his fists, the words battling to come out of his throat.

Chris actually hesitated, hand on the doorknob, and turned toward Justin as if he’d heard his desperate, silent plea. But Justin said nothing, and as Chris turned away, mouth tight with disappointment, and shut the door behind him, Justin knew that his time at the Order was over.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin abandoned his barely touched and cold breakfast. His head was swimming with confusion and dismay and more than a little panic. Money wouldn't be a problem: since the Order paid very well and covered all his expenses, he had quite a bit stored away now. He could go anywhere and not have to worry about getting a job immediately, or a place to live. His thoughts swirled and he moaned a little, pressing his fingers to his pounding temples. God, what to do first.

He sat up and took a deep breath. First things first, he thought grimly. It didn’t matter that he’d devoted the entire past year of his life to the Order and its passive, scholarly pursuits. Things were different now; his life had changed, and only one item of Order business kept him from putting on his coat and leaving immediately. He needed to find JC’s file, and he needed to return it to JC. After he’d taken care of that -- then he’d decide what to do and where to go.

He showered first, hoping it and the meal would help clear his head, but his thoughts continued to buzz sluggishly in circles, running over and over his conversation with Chris. There were moments of debilitating fury over Chris’s harsh words and insults about Justin's work, followed by the deeply depressing conviction that Chris was correct; Justin had become distracted, inattentive and sloppy. But it was for a good cause, Justin thought defensively as he toweled himself off and dressed again. He carefully dried the pendant’s chain and centered the ruby on his chest, frowning a little. His time with JC was worth any sort of reprimand, he thought distantly, rubbing his finger over and over the smooth stone. JC. How soon would he see him again? He needed to see him again.

Justin jerked out of the reverie with a gasp and for a moment saw himself and his situation with an icy clarity that absolutely terrified him.

He was a member of the Order, and he was having an affair -- a violent and doomed affair -- with a vampire. An affair that would not, could not, end well. Reluctantly he remembered the people in the drawing room at the brothel, the hopeful, almost desperate ways their eyes had followed JC around the room. Justin clenched his fists and shuddered, bile rising in his throat. It was an affair that would end with Justin heartbroken, or dead. Or worse.

He stared at himself in the mirror, wide-eyed with horror. He was a scholar, a professional, and it was sobering to realize how little he actually knew. He didn’t even know where JC was, where he spent his days, where his home was. And the other vampire, Lance, was with him. What the hell was Justin doing? How had this happened to him?

He stumbled out of his bedroom and spun in a slow circle, unsure of what to do first. Part of him wanted to carefully review the report he’d given to Chris, and see if he could fix it and make amends. But another part of him strained to go immediately to the archives, to close his eyes and open his senses and let himself be led to where JC’s file must be stored. And a big part of him wanted to put on his coat, walk out of the motherhouse, and never, ever come back. But strongest of all was the maddening, teeth-gritting compulsion to find JC, to see him and touch him and have all these other things go quietly away, like they always did when they were together.

He closed his eyes and moaned unhappily as he let the idea of fixing the report go. He would find JC’s file today, this very afternoon, and then he would go to London and wait for JC to find him. That JC would find him was something he didn’t doubt. Justin took a series of low, quick breaths, struggling to clear his head. JC would find him. Whatever happened after that, happened.

He opened his eyes and took another deep breath, moving to his laptop and powering it up. While he waited for it to connect to the Order’s network he grabbed his wool coat from the couch and pulled it on, stepping again to his balcony. The sun had disappeared behind the clouds and the wind had picked up; it looked like it might snow. Such a bleak contrast to the bright morning just a few hours ago.

The icy wind blasted him and Justin pulled the coat around his neck, adjusting the blue scarf JC had given him to wrap warmly around his throat. Thrusting his hands into the deep pockets, he was surprised to hear the crinkle of paper. He wrapped his fingers around it and drew it out slowly, frowning in perplexity.

It was an envelope of heavy cream stationery, luxurious and rich, with JC’s name written on the center in a fine, ornate script. Vaguely Justin recalled leaving the bordello earlier that morning, JC’s hands warmly possessive and protective as they’d helped Justin on with his coat and hurriedly bundled him out of the door, and in the background Anne-Claire’s voice telling JC that she’d placed his statement in his coat pocket.

Slowly Justin pulled the envelope’s flap open and drew the document out, his heart rate approaching the critical level. Centered neatly at the top, under JC’s name, was an address.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin spent the next two hours at his laptop, desperately focused and applying all his skill to try to ascertain the location of JC’s file. In one short moment he’d gone from near despair to an almost frenzied excitement -- he would get the file, go to JC’s home, and be waiting for him there when he awoke. JC would be so pleased, Justin mused with a smile, delighted to finally have the issue of the file taken care of and Justin free from the confines of the Order. He wouldn’t think past that right now, he told himself firmly. Right now, nothing else mattered.

There had been a fair amount of activity in the storage rooms of the restricted archives, he noted with a frown, scanning Mathilda’s personal and encrypted email notifications. Many things had been moved, some just to more heavily restricted storage, some shipped to other Order locations. And one, he saw with narrowed eyes, Mathilda had authorized to be moved to the suite of a visiting member of the Order from the United States. He checked the date against his own calendar -- the move had been made just two days after Justin’s first interview with Lou.

Justin logged out of the Order’s server and pushed back from his desk, seething with fury. JC’s file, the pictures, his portrait, all being stored conveniently in Lou’s suite in the south wing. He clenched his fists at the thought of Lou going through JC’s file, his fingers touching the picture Justin had seen, his ugly little eyes examining the portrait. God, Justin thought, feeling sweat break out on his brow. God, he couldn’t stand it, not for another single minute. He leapt to his feet and grabbed his coat, striding to the door.

The ringing telephone made him pause, its shrill tone announcing a call from inside the motherhouse. Justin’s breath heaved, his vision swimming a little as he stared at the telephone. He closed his eyes -- it was Mathilda on the other end, Mathilda calling his room and preparing to leave her own office in search of him. She was worried about him, but her concern was buried beneath a deep anger and incredulity. His breath grew short and his panic intensified as the telephone continued to ring. Somehow Mathilda had seen what he’d done, somehow he hadn’t covered his tracks well enough. She knew that Justin had been snooping through her private files. And she had to know what he was looking for.

The telephone abruptly stopped ringing and Justin knew that Mathilda was leaving her office in the main wing, heading directly for his rooms. Justin closed his eyes and struggled with himself for a long, painful moment. It was torture to have Mathilda angry with him. He couldn’t bear to meet her eyes and see the outrage and condemnation in them. The thought whispered insidiously at the back of his mind -- he could wait for her, find a way to explain. He could tell her about JC, about his research. Of all people, perhaps Mathilda could somehow be made to understand.

But before the thought was fully formed Justin was already out his door and striding quickly down the hallway toward the south wing. He passed people without acknowledging them, striding down the back staircases to the lower level of the main wing. Keeping his eyes down and moving fast, it was only a few moments before he was outside the door he knew to be Lou’s.

Justin cast a quick look up and down the hallway before closing his eyes and concentrating. Far away, on the other side of the motherhouse Mathilda was approaching Justin’s room, her steps starting to slow as she brought her anger under control. Around Justin the south wing was almost deserted at this time of day. Nobody was around - no one was anywhere near him on this floor except elderly Anne Oakes in the suite around the corner, and she was asleep. Lou was not inside his suite. He was alone; for a few crucial moments he was alone.

Justin eyed the security pad on the door and placed his hand over it, closing his eyes and concentrating. An impression of a white and pudgy hand glimmered dimly in his mind and he frowned, trying to see the sequence of numbers the fingers pressed. The small vision splintered and faded, and Justin tried several combinations with no luck. He twisted the doorknob in frustration but nothing happened except a warning beep from the alarm.

Calm down, he told himself. Take a deep breath and calm down. You can do this, you know you can do this, you just need to be calm, and to concentrate. But he couldn’t focus; his hands were shaking now and his head was starting to pound sickly. The statement, still in his coat pocket, was like a brand burning his skin and the need to go to JC, to see him and wrap his arms around him, was like a fever in his blood. He turned uncertainly from the door of Lou’s suite, aware that he was unsteady on his feet and that he’d broken into a heavy sweat. On the other side of the motherhouse Mathilda had turned from his own door and was moving down the hallway toward the main building, looking for him. He closed himself down with an effort that made him wince in pain as he backed away from Lou’s door. Later, he thought disjointedly, moving slowly down the hall. I’ll come back later, and get the file.

Justin didn’t realize that he was leaving the house until the car pulled onto the wide circular driveway at the front steps. The driver smiled cheerfully at him. "Where to this afternoon, Mr. Timberlake?"

Justin smiled back, broad and cheerful, making absolutely certain that the driver suspected nothing. "Gotta do some shopping," he said calmly. "My mother’s birthday is coming up. Can you drop me near this address?" He repeated the numbers already memorized, already burned into his brain.

"No problem," the driver said, his attention already on the road as the thick steel gates closed securely behind them. "Do you want me to wait for you there?"

Justin turned to watch the motherhouse grow smaller and smaller in the back window. "No," he said quietly. "I’ll call you when I’m ready to come back."

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin waved and smiled cheerfully at the Order’s driver as the car pulled away from the curb and joined the late afternoon traffic through the quaint little shopping area south of downtown London. But as soon as the car disappeared he leaned unsteadily against a light post, his vision spinning and going gray with exhaustion. Giving in to his trembling legs, he sat down heavily on the bus stop bench next to the post. Just for a moment, he thought dizzily as he closed his eyes. Just until his head cleared.

The thick clouds were dark and threatening snow, and the wind stung bitterly as Justin wrapped his blue scarf securely around his neck and pulled his coat closer around his body, wishing he’d thought to bring his gloves. His head whirled with weariness and tension and he took deep breaths, trying to calm himself. It wouldn’t do to arrive on JC’s doorstep like this, strung out, exhausted and depleted. He realized with a sigh that he hadn’t slept in more than 36 hours.

The fatigue was mind-numbing but underneath it beat the excitement that had propelled him out of the motherhouse and across London, the knowledge that he was going to JC. He was so incredibly relieved to finally be away from the prying eyes of the Order, the suspicions of Lou Pearlman, the disappointment and condemnation of Chris and Mathilda. He hadn’t even realized how much the effort of hiding what he was thinking, feeling, and doing had exhausted him. Even with the events of the recent past dragging at his limbs with tiredness he felt a fierce joy. He was free. Free, and soon he would be with JC. And that, he acknowledged to himself, was the only place he wanted to be.

Justin drew a deep breath to calm his racing heart, sitting up and looking about him with interest. London was full of small elite communities like this one –- pricey boutiques and exclusive little restaurants and tastefully expensive homes and flats. A picturesque park was directly across the street from where Justin sat, full of trees and fountains that were beautiful even now, in the thick of winter. The pedestrians were all well-dressed and most of them carried shopping bags. It was nice, Justin thought distractedly. A nice, quiet, and very affluent neighborhood. No empty shops, no run-down yards. A beautiful neighborhood, he thought with a smile. No wonder JC loved it here, was so fierce about keeping it private.

And privacy was so important to JC, Justin thought soberly as he got to his feet and started down the street toward the address he’d memorized. Very important; so important that he might not be especially pleased to wake up and find Justin sitting on his front porch. Justin shuddered a little and paused to button his coat, telling himself that he was cold. His eyes scanned the discreet address posts anxiously.

But once he got over his surprise, JC would be glad to see Justin. Vampire or not, what JC felt for Justin was every bit as intense as what Justin felt for JC, he reminded himself firmly. Besides, Justin couldn’t leave London without telling JC where he was going. Not that he even knew yet where he was going, he thought distractedly, hunching his shoulders against the wind. But he was leaving the Order, definitely. He would go back tomorrow and get that file -- take it by force from Lou if he had to, but he’d get it -- and give it to JC, thus neatly severing both of their ties to the Order and all its concerns. Then, he told himself, then they would decide what to do next.

But he wouldn’t think about that now, Justin told himself firmly. He blinked the tiredness out of eyes that longed to close and rest, forcing them to focus on the on the ornate address post of a tall, elegant house. This was it, he thought with a thrill that made his teeth chatter. This was JC’s home.

Justin stared for a moment, completely enthralled. It was beautiful, a narrow three-story structure gracefully set back from the street behind an elegant fence, shaded by tall trees, surrounded by decorative gardens. The tall windows that looked out onto the street were open, but tinted for privacy. The front walk was stone and curved elegantly through the front garden before approaching the double doors at the entrance. The front porch lights were on, and as Justin watched small lights blinked on all over the garden walkways, responding to the rapidly gathering gloom of the day. It was gorgeous, Justin thought dreamily. Just like JC himself.

He rested his cheek against the cold iron of the fence and closed his eyes, trying to envision JC on this sidewalk, walking in these gardens at night, living in this house. He couldn’t wait to see the inside, he thought fuzzily, moving slowly toward the gate. He wanted to see all of it, to learn what it would teach him about JC.

Justin placed his hand carefully on the latch to the elaborate double gate and immediately got a flash of Lance pushing angrily through it, seething with murderous rage over . . . over Justin himself, he realized with a gasp. Lance had moved through these gates early this morning, after his altercation with JC at the theater, and he’d been so angry, so intensely angry and full of betrayal.

Justin pulled his hand from the gate, eyes wide and feeling clear-headed for the first time all day. Lance was here too, he remembered with a sinking feeling. Lance hated Justin but he was JC’s friend, more than his friend. And he lived in this house, had shared it with JC for longer than Justin had even been alive. He took a deep, shuddering breath and backed away from the gate, starting to tremble from more than the icy cold wind. If Justin was unsure of his welcome from JC, he was under no illusions about Lance’s reaction to his presence at their house. Despite JC’s assurances, Justin knew Lance would kill him if he could. Justin was more than an annoyance, more than something that distracted JC and made him act in ways that Lance didn’t approve of. Justin was something that Lance viewed as a danger to them both. Something, Justin thought slowly; not someone. Something that shouldn’t be thought of as anything other than a meal.

Shivering, Justin backed slowly away from the gate. He had no business being here, he thought grimly, and winced at the pain that thought caused him. He needed to go somewhere else, somewhere away from the Order, and wait for JC to find him. He’d check into a hotel, or a bed and breakfast, something out of the way, and later tonight he’d go to the bookstore. It would probably be the first place JC would think to look for him once he realized Justin was gone from the Order . . .

He was turning away when he realized that the main gate was closed, but not properly latched. He frowned, wondering for a moment if he’d opened it by accident, but upon closer inspection he saw that it had been forced open with some sort of heavy instrument. There were fresh score marks on the heavy iron latch, and paint scratches and gouges in the smooth metal. The alarm had been viciously disabled; Justin could see the side panel had been knocked away and the wires pulled from the device, broken and useless. He stared for a moment, his breath coming quickly and forming puffs of white fog in front of his face as the temperature dropped. There would be no reason for Lance to break in, he realized slowly.

Justin took a step forward, then another, then another until he’d pushed the gate silently open and slipped carefully through the narrow opening, closing it gently behind him. The stone path to the front door was clear but there were footsteps leading around the side of the house, a single set of closely spaced footprints in the crunchy, day-old snow, leading through the garden and out of sight in the gathering gloom. Breathing shallowly, Justin followed them.

They led along the side of the tall house, underneath the big trees and to a narrow side door. Something like a service entrance, Justin thought distractedly, straining to see. There was no light above this door, or it wasn’t turned on, but even in the darkness Justin could see that the electronic alarm beside the door was mutilated and dead, and the door itself had been forced open. The lock was jimmied; the doorknob dangled loosely.

Justin took a deep breath, than another as he heard a muffled crash from inside. Someone was inside, he realized. Someone had broken into JC’s house, in the daytime. Adrenaline surged through him, fury and anxiety making him dizzy, and he reached a hand to the doorjamb to steady himself. He flinched at the sound of someone moving heavily around the front of the house, something else breaking. He thought about and discarded the idea of calling the police, then took a deep breath, pushed the door aside, and slipped silently in.

He was in a butler’s pantry of some sort, with glass cabinets and smooth granite counter tops. Beyond that was a kitchen, sterile and gleaming. Justin closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, forcing himself to reach out and try to locate the intruder, but the house swayed dizzily around him when he tried. He had a jumbled impression of another house superimposed on this one; something less tall and more deep; rooms hidden deep in the basement, thick iron walls, more alarms. A sharp pain stabbed viciously at his temples and he stifled a gasp, leaning heavily against the cold granite counter as he broke into a sweat. What on earth was wrong with him?

There was some muffled muttering and another crash to his left, and with a glance out the door behind him at the rapidly darkening sky, Justin moved silently into the house. Dread and anger roiled in his stomach -- fury that someone would dare to violate JC’s privacy and terror that there would be more than one intruder. Pausing in the dark hallway off the kitchen, Justin reached out with an effort that made him squeeze his eyes shut and hold his breath, sweat trickling down the back of his neck. He saw only one man, but the violence and hatred swirling through him were equal to that of ten. Justin's stomach lurched uneasily. Despite the distortion of his thoughts, something about the man felt vaguely familiar, and Justin took a deep breath, leaning heavily against a small glass table and straining to see more, to make sense of it. Just as he realized that the person wreaking havoc in the front of the house was from the Order, Justin became aware of the presence of someone else -- someone who wasn't JC.

Lance, Justin realized with more than a little terror, clamping immediately down on his thoughts. Lance, deep below the floor Justin was standing on, somewhere behind the thick iron reinforcements that confused Justin’s senses. The noise upstairs must have roused him.

With a muffled gasp Justin lunged for the front room, his thoughts spinning dizzily between fight and flight. If it was someone from the Order - but why would anyone from the Order be here? Unless it was . . .

Lou. Justin rounded the corner in time to see Lou raise a heavy iron fireplace poker and smash it viciously into the front of a beautiful antique desk. The glass on top splintered into a spider’s web, shards spraying everywhere as Lou raised the poker and stabbed it hard into the front of the locked drawer.

"Lou!!!" Justin exclaimed in horror and backed slowly away as Lou whirled around, poker raised. He looked completely insane, Justin thought disjointedly, his face flushed and sweating and his eyes wild and staring behind his small glasses. He had a confused impression of broken objects and ruined furniture all over the spacious house. "What -- oh god, what are you doing?"

Lou stared at Justin, breathing heavily, poker still raised. "You," he spat. "You’re the cause of this, you lying, cheating, disloyal little bastard."

Justin held both hands up, aware that deep within the house there was machinery operating. Some sort of an elevator, and Lance was getting closer. Even with his thoughts blocked off, Justin could sense his fury, and more dimly, deeper and further away, he could feel that JC was awake now, too.

He panted desperately, trying to focus as Lou advanced toward him. He was still talking, Justin realized dimly, he was still advancing on Justin with the iron poker raised like an axe, spitting insults and accusations, calling Justin a whore, a traitor, and many other things besides. And who, Justin wondered in confusion, was Bobbie?

It didn’t matter. What mattered was getting Lou out of here before he was killed. "Lou," Justin interrupted desperately. "Lou, you have to get out of here, you have to leave now . . ." Deep in the back of the house he heard a door slide smoothly open and almost-silent footsteps moving toward them. "Oh god," Justin whispered. "Oh god, Lou, you have to go, he’s coming, they’re both coming."

"Funny, I don’t recall inviting company over tonight," came a low drawl from the opposite corner of the room, and Justin and Lou both froze. Lance leaned indolently against the wall, looking completely unconcerned and a little amused, but Justin was not fooled. His fury rolled off of him in waves, his eyes glittered coldly, and as Lance smiled Justin could see enough of his long sharp teeth to make him shudder with fear.

"Please," he started, wanting to tell Lance that they were leaving, that Lou had gone crazy. He felt a strange and confused urge to apologize for the mess, to explain that it wasn’t his fault, that none of this was supposed to happen. But the words dried up in his throat as Lance turned green eyes icy with rage on him.

"Ah, JC’s little pet from the Order," he sneered. "Showing your true colors, now aren’t you." He cast a look around the chaotic room, the broken glass, the overturned furniture, and shook his head in mock sadness. "JC hates a mess. He will not be pleased with you over this." He turned his head a little, shouting JC’s name over his shoulder, and Justin felt the air leave his lungs like he’d been punched.

Lou had been frozen, perhaps transfixed by Lance’s appearance, but now he lunged into action. He swung the poker wildly, screaming something foul about vampires being monsters, vile creatures who should all be destroyed. Lance laughed, taunting Lou and egging him on, and as Justin prepared to dive across the room to stop Lou he was frozen by a hand digging hard into his upper arm, spinning him around.

It was JC, his clothes rumpled and looking more pale and gaunt than Justin had ever seen him. Even as he quailed a little at the ferocity and outrage that floated around JC like a thick cloud, he was so glad to see him.

"JC," he gasped, aware of the commotion behind him and that Lou’s shouts had become odd, guttural grunts. "JC, I didn’t know . . ."

"Shut up," JC hissed, his blue eyes alive with rage in his white face. He looked over Justin’s shoulder, his mouth tightening with anger. "C’mon," he said as Lou’s grunts became screams. "Now," he snapped, pushing Justin hard into the hall as he tried to turn around, to go to Lou’s aid. "Now, now, now," and Justin was being shoved down the short hallway, through the shadowy kitchen and out the door he’d come in just moments ago.

It was now completely dark outside and it had grown considerably colder. JC’s fingers were like a vice around Justin’s arm, propelling him through the back part of the yard and through an iron gate. "JC," he gasped as they moved quickly down the street. "JC, I didn’t know he was here, I didn’t know that he knew . . ."

"I know that, Justin." JC’s voice was grim, dark as the night around them, and Justin shivered as they rounded a dark corner, heading deeper into the residential district. He twisted a little, trying to turn and look at JC’s face, but JC’s hand tightened, forcing him forward.

"I need to go back," Justin said softly. "JC, he’s crazy but he’s a member of the Order, I can’t just leave him there and let Lance . . ." he gulped.

"Forget it," JC said shortly, giving him a push as they walked faster, turning dark corners and plunging down sidewalks, gradually leaving the affluent areas behind. "If that was the Order’s big bad vampire expert, you don’t need to worry about him, now do you? Just keep walking."

It started to snow, their breaths making little puffs of fog as they walked faster and faster, JC’s pace making Justin gasp for air. The streetlights spun dizzily as Justin’s heart pounded. After what seemed like miles JC paused on a corner and stood motionless, holding his breath, his face turned back the way they’d come. He shoved Justin a little away from him so he huddled in the shadow of a tall brick building. Justin closed his eyes and struggled to breathe.

"All right, c’mon," JC said, and Justin opened his eyes to look at him. JC was utterly white, his features sharp and pinched, his mouth taut and his eyes huge.

"JC," he whispered.

"What?" JC bit out, not slowing down as they walked swiftly into the darker industrial area, tall buildings and very few street lamps. He would not look at Justin, even when he whispered his name again, even when Justin reached out and stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"JC," he said, "you need. I mean, you look like you need . . ." he trailed off as JC snarled impatiently at him, a soundless flash of white teeth.

"To feed," he hissed shortly. "Yes, how very astute of you." Still he wouldn’t look at Justin, and Justin moved closer, seeing how JC’s nose flared, how his face turned toward Justin even as his eyes remained fixed stonily ahead.

Justin swallowed hard, the gulp unnaturally loud on the dark and silent street as the snow drifted down. "JC . . ." he whispered, and took another step closer, shaking from the cold and from his own desperate need.

"Don’t do it," JC warned him in a low voice. "Don’t offer it, don’t even think it right now, Justin." He took a deep breath, closing his eyes briefly. "Wait here."

He moved to the sidewalk, leaving Justin frozen and bereft in the dark shadows.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin hunched deeper into the small doorway, shivering violently as he leaned against the cold brick wall and watched JC walk slowly to the curb. A vehicle was approaching, its tires muffled on the snowy street, and as the headlights moved closer JC stepped out in front of it, hunching slightly over and turning his face away. The car stopped and JC slipped into the blackness of the alley across the street, and as Justin watched in gradually dawning horror a policeman stepped out of the car. He hesitated for a moment with his hand on his nightstick, then walked carefully to the alley, calling out "Hey there!"

Justin held his breath; there was absolutely no sound as the cop’s footsteps faded away except for the deep thudding of his own heartbeat in his ears. It made his eyesight pulse as he stared tensely into the darkness of the alley across the street, its black mouth seeming to drift farther and farther away. His vision started to splinter and he leaned heavily against the wall, sliding down until he was crouching on his heels, gasping for breath. His exhaustion was like a high, pervasive buzz in his brain, derailing his thought processes and numbing his senses. There were a number of important things he should be thinking about, he knew this, but right now all he could focus on was the memory of JC’s taut features, the ghastly pallor of his skin and the unsteadiness of his footsteps as he’d slipped into the alley, easily luring the cop in. JC had refused Justin, and now he was hunting this stranger, Justin thought unsteadily. And as hungry as JC was . . .

There was a noise from across the street, a muffled shout and a thud and Justin’s eyes flew open, darting around in panic. Without thinking he levered himself away from the wall and ran across the street, his footsteps weaving uncertainly and stumbling even as his mind ordered him to go faster.

Just as he reached the mouth of the alleyway a figure came into view, lurching drunkenly and ricocheting against the dark stone wall as he staggered toward the dimly lit street and Justin. Justin froze, his pounding heart in his throat, but it wasn’t JC; it was the cop. He looked up and into Justin’s eyes, one hand pressed to his throat as blood seeped through his fingers, the other fumbling for his whistle.

"Run," he gasped desperately. "Get help." Justin stared at the cop in horror, and just then JC strode out of the darkness behind him.

He moved like a natural predator, Justin thought disjointedly, gliding soundlessly and looking almost casual despite his speed. But there was nothing casual about his face; JC’s eyes were wild, the brilliant blue dilated and focused intently. His mouth was open slightly and smeared with blood, and Justin gasped as JC took two swift strides and was upon the man before he could move another step toward the street.

He grasped him by the shoulder and spun him around, looking intently into his eyes, and the man groaned helplessly, hopelessly, before going quiet and still. Justin began to tremble as JC moved closer, tilting his head gracefully as the man slowly, reluctantly pulled his hand away from the gaping wound at his throat and let his head fall back. He moaned again as JC bent unhurriedly to his neck and Justin tensed, fighting with everything he had to shut his eyes and not see the rest.

But his eyes wouldn’t obey, staying wide and unblinking as JC’s arms wound tightly around the cop’s body and he buried his mouth roughly in his throat. Dimly Justin could feel JC’s desperate hunger and need, and the pleasure and satisfaction that flowed through him as the warm thick liquid filled his mouth, as he swallowed convulsively, pulling the man’s very life from him through the mangled wound. He felt JC’s power as strength flowed through his limbs, his vague and unformed arousal as he pulled the man closer, right up against him. He was taller than JC, heavier and broader through the shoulders, but JC held him easily, as if his weak struggles were nothing at all. Justin could almost hear the man’s heartbeat, slowing and becoming thready and desperate; it echoed in the deep thud of JC’s heart and in Justin’s own ears as his vision pulsed and turned gray.

Justin’s breathing grew more shallow, bright pinpoints exploding at the edges of his vision as JC growled low in his throat and bent the man’s body closer to him. JC’s body curved fluidly as the man’s knees buckled and he started to drift toward the snowy ground, his arms and head flung back, his eyes staring up at the sky as the snow drifted down. Justin thought semi-hysterically that the man looked like someone who had stared too long into the sun and gone blind.

JC finally released the body with grunt, letting it fall heavily to the ground at his feet as he took an unsteady step back. He licked his lips slowly, and as Justin watched JC pulled a dark handkerchief out of his coat pocket, wiping his face neatly. He threw the soiled cloth on top of the corpse and reached down to grab the ankles, pulling him easily into the dark shadows at the back of the alley. There was silence again. The snow fell more heavily and Justin blinked hard, over and over, but the little alley seemed pristine and undisturbed, as if nothing had happened.

It could have been minutes or hours when JC materialized slowly from the deep gloom at the back of the alley, standing motionless several feet in front of Justin as he huddled on the ground against the stone wall. Justin could feel JC’s eyes, steady on the top of his head, and he fought to control the emotions that swirled through his mind like a tornado, the fascination and the hideous revulsion, the awful fear tangled bewilderingly with the deep, throbbing desire that seemed to be always with him, even now. He shuddered and wondered helplessly how this had happened to him, how a serious and ambitious scholar like himself had ended up in a dingy alley in the middle of the night, watching a murder.

JC took a step closer, his touch at the edges of Justin’s mind tentative, and Justin finally stood and raised his head, looking up at him silently.

JC looked normal again. That is to say, Justin thought disbelievingly, he looked stunning and utterly beautiful to him, his cheeks lightly flushed, his eyes vibrant and alive. Snowflakes caught on the edges of his curling hair and he seemed to glow in the dim light of the distant street lamp half a block away. But as he took another step toward him Justin drew back against the wall with an involuntary gasp, and as he stared, JC’s mouth drew tight.

"Glad I didn’t take you up on your offer?" JC said sharply, and Justin flinched as if he’d struck him. He opened his mouth to speak, although he had no idea what to say, but JC’s low voice silenced him.

"Now we see how you really feel, is that right?" JC’s voice shook with the violence of his emotions and Justin closed his eyes as they battered at him: fury and mortification and a deep, sickening sense of desolation that mirrored Justin’s own. "Well, you can take your morality and your horror and go straight to hell, Justin." He paused, breathing heavily, and Justin gasped for air, his mind swirling with pain. "How dare you judge me? I never lied to you about what I am, and what I have to do to live."

For an awful moment Justin thought JC might leave, might turn on his heel and walk away in disgust, and that Justin would never, ever see him again. He scrambled awkwardly away from the wall but slumped back again, his cold limbs aching and stiff. "JC," he whispered, not recognizing his own voice. "JC, you have to . . . just stop a minute, please." He drew a deep shuddering breath, willing the alley to stop spinning around him, resting the side of his head weakly on the cold wall. "It’s just that I’ve never. I mean, this is all different to me, strange and scary, you know? Just, please, give me a minute."

JC didn’t move away, but he didn’t come closer either, and now his mind was completely closed to Justin. His body was stiff and angry; already he seemed a million miles away. And then he was speaking again, quietly, distantly, and Justin frantically tried to focus.

"Well, you wanted to do research. You wanted to know what we're like. And now you know, don’t you?" JC said lowly and Justin winced at the hollow tone of his voice, the weary gesture as he rubbed his hand across his eyes. "And you’ll have quite a story to take back to your Order, won’t you. God, Justin, what are you doing here? Why are you even here?"

Justin stared at him for a moment, struggling to set aside the events he had just witnessed and focus on the man in front of him. Slowly he pushed away from the wall and took a step forward, drawn by the smooth line of JC’s face, the curve of his cheekbone and the bleak line of his mouth. It was on the tip of his tongue to repeat his thoughts from earlier in the day, to tell JC that he was here with him because there was nowhere else he wanted to be. Instead he sucked in a deep breath and took another cautious step closer to JC, close enough to see the curve of his lower lip, the sweep of his dark eyelashes

"I found Anne-Claire’s statement in the pocket of my coat," he started, and paused to clear his throat, amazed at the raspiness of his voice. "It has your address on it," he added simply and JC nodded with a humorless twist of his lips. "I’ve decided, well. I can’t stay at the Order anymore," Justin continued quietly. "I just can’t be there anymore, and I wanted you to know . . ." he trailed off, taking a deep breath and hating the fear and longing that tangled painfully in the back of his throat, strangling him. "I had to go. I didn’t know Lou would be there before me, I just -- I just couldn’t stand the thought of you coming to look for me at the motherhouse, and me not being there," he finished in a whisper, and for a horrible moment he thought he might sob. "I didn’t want you to think I’d left without telling you."

Then JC was there, close against him, his arms wrapping warmly around Justin’s body, and Justin sighed with a relief that was so great his knees trembled as he leaned against him and rested his cheek on JC’s shoulder. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply as JC nestled him closer and stroked a hand through Justin’s damp hair.

"Justin," he said softly. "Oh, Justin. I would have torn this city apart looking for you," he said grimly, his hands stroking unsteadily down Justin’s back. "But, you’ve left the Order?"

Justin nodded silently against his shoulder, squeezing his eyes closed. "I’m going to go back and get my stuff," he said quietly. "And yours too," he added, and JC squeezed him tighter, turning his face to brush his lips against Justin’s temple.

"But why?" he murmured softly. "Why would you leave? I thought you were happy there. Or," he paused, frowning a bit. "Or that you were happy there before I came along."

Justin wrapped his arms tighter around JC’s lean form, nuzzling closer into the warmth of JC’s neck. "I can’t be there anymore," he said quietly. "I -- it’s just, my priorities have changed."

At that JC leaned back and Justin lifted his head to look into his eyes. There was so much there -- residual distress and joy, warmth and a strong emotion that Justin recognized with a thrill because he felt it too, beating strongly through his veins and soaring in his heart. The dark alley and the bitter cold and the falling snow all drifted away as JC murmured his name and bent to his waiting mouth.

The kiss was as raw as their emotions, spiraling immediately out of control as their lips parted and their tongues tangled desperately. Justin whimpered soundlessly as JC opened his coat and pulled Justin inside, bringing their bodies flush against each other. His hands curved possessively over Justin’s waist and dug hard into his ass and Justin’s knees threatened to give way as JC pulled him firmly into his body. He angled his mouth deeper and Justin groaned as his own body immediately heated up, his vision splintering and going gray around the edges. He gasped desperately for air but there was only JC, his face warm against Justin’s cold cheek, his body hard and demanding, pressing him against the stone building behind him. It was too much and not enough, it wasn’t ever enough, and Justin groaned in an agony of desperate frustration even as his vision went dark.

When he came to he was lying on the cold ground, his upper body wrapped tightly in JC’s arms, and JC was peering down into his face, murmuring his name. "You collapsed," he said bleakly in response to Justin’s groggy question. "You’re weak, and dehydrated, and god, Justin." He paused and stroked the side of Justin’s face, his mouth stretching grimly, furious. "When is the last time you ate? Or slept?"

Justin shook his head fuzzily. He didn’t even know what day it was. The events of the evening already seemed dim and far away; his excitement over finding JC’s house seemed like something that had happened long ago and to someone else. JC helped him gently to his feet, his hands smoothing over his arms, his shoulders.

"Justin, you have to go back," he said quietly. "I need you to go back to the Order. I have to go deal with Lance, and I need to know you’ll be safe."

"How can I be safe there?" Justin asked slowly, his voice slurring. He leaned heavily against JC’s supporting shoulder as he started to lead them down the quiet street. "I want to stay with you."

JC nodded. "I know, Justin. Just -- go there tonight and wait for me, okay? Lance won’t go to the motherhouse, no matter how angry he is. Go there and try to rest, and I’ll come and see you as soon as I can. As soon as I -- take care of some business." He paused as they turned the corner and the sounds of traffic floated to them, his hand lifting to frame the side of Justin’s face. "I just killed a cop," he said quietly. "There are - complications to this sort of thing. I need you to be safe. Will you do this for me? Justin?"

Justin tilted his face into JC’s hand and nodded dumbly, and JC sighed a little with relief. He leaned in and kissed him warmly, gently, and Justin clung to him.

"Okay, then," JC said quietly, drawing away. They moved toward the traffic noises, his arm firm around Justin’s waist. "Let’s get you home."

~ ~ ~ ~

JC squinted as he watched the cab Justin was in drive away and then delicately reached out with his mind, so subtly and so carefully that even Justin couldn't sense it. Although Justin no longer seemed on the verge of collapse he was still overwhelmed, dazed, and virtually incapable of coherent thought. JC grimaced as he was besieged with the powerful, conflicting emotions Justin was fighting: revulsion, fear, desire, love, and as always, the deep, aching need to be with JC, to have JC drink from him.

For a moment JC considered simply stopping the cab, grabbing Justin, and taking him somewhere, Paris maybe, but that would only delay the inevitable with Lance -- and at this point, Justin definitely wasn't up to traveling. What Justin probably needed most right now was to go to the emergency room, not to spend more time with JC.

JC lowered his head and began walking toward home -- his ruined home, which at last count had been full of shattered glass, splintered wood, one very angry vampire, and one apparently suicidal member of the Order. Everything in his life was unraveling -- everything was coming apart.

And Justin was dying. If it hadn't been apparent to JC before tonight, the dazed look in his eyes right before he had collapsed in the alley had made it brutally obvious. JC had been stupidly, willfully blind, had drawn him in far too quickly and skillfully, and now they were linked for good, trapped in an impossible cycle they couldn't help but repeat over and over again.

Maybe JC didn't want to get home so quickly after all. He began rambling, taking loping, circuitous routes through the city. Eventually, however, he got closer to the house, and as that happened, his mood grew even darker. He couldn't stop replaying the look of terror and disgust on Justin's face after he'd watched JC kill, and the surprising pain it had caused him. Somehow he'd managed to fool himself into thinking Justin would understand -- if ever there were proof that JC wasn't in his right mind when it came to Justin, that was it. Suddenly, JC wished ardently, angrily, that none of this had ever happened, that he'd never even heard of Justin Timberlake.

Justin Timberlake had seen him out of control, had seen him taut and ugly with hunger, craven, had seen him feed in bestial, desperate fashion. JC swore out loud to banish the memory from his mind, and then groaned quietly as shame and fury descended upon him. He had come to terms with what he was hundreds of years ago -- to let the disgust of one astoundingly young and clueless human affect him in this way was monstrous, deeply unbalanced. How could he have let things degenerate to this point? At what point had Justin started to matter so much?

If he could have, JC would have cast off Justin in an instant, sent him on his way to be young and happy, to realize his ambitions with the Order, to grow older, more beautiful, and more distinguished, maybe even to marry, have children. JC knew in his heart that Justin deserved these things -- he should be happy, should live long and well, should have a good life. And yet nothing was going to stop JC's deeply selfish need for him -- nothing was going to stop him from advancing again and again and again. He couldn't even think of it in terms of choice anymore. It was imperative; it was life. He would be with Justin no matter what, would be with him until he killed him.

It was deeply untenable. JC clenched his fists in his coat pockets and refused to think about it anymore.

When he reached the gate at the front of the house, JC saw that Lance had had the alarm replaced, and for an instant, he felt marginally more hopeful. If Lance was fixing things, then Lance was no longer in the grip of fury, and that could only be a good sign. JC keyed in the password, then reached for the gate handle. It didn't work at first, so JC jiggled it and waited, wrinkling his brow in puzzlement as nothing happened. He was far too distracted; he'd probably got the password wrong. JC entered his code once more, but the same thing happened.

After he'd failed for the third time, JC swore. So much for theories about Lance. JC fished in his coat pocket, sagging a little in relief as his fingers slid over the smooth plastic of his phone, and then drew it out and called Lance.

"JC," Lance said pleasantly. "How can I help you?"

"Give me the fucking password," JC said in a cold, flat voice.

"So you do still live here," Lance said after a short pause.

"Don't be an idiot," JC said. "What's the code?"

"Try 'whipped,'" Lance told him. "And if that doesn't work, move on to 'pathetic,' 'stupidfuck,' or 'weakling.'"

"Asshole," JC said.

"You know, I didn't think to use that one, but that's a good suggestion too," Lance answered, and hung up on him.

"Weakling" worked, and soon JC stepped into the front door, expecting to track through glass and feel the fleeting pain he'd come to associate with the loss of treasured physical objects. What he saw instead was a house emptied out: the pictures were down from the walls, most of the furniture was wrapped in drop cloths, and there were boxes stacked in neat rows along the baseboards. In the kitchen, he could hear the chatter of the maid and the cleaning lady as they packed away even more things. A slow chill settled in JC as he realized just how profoundly he'd forgotten his own perilous situation in the light of Justin's distress. The Order knew where he slept. He had killed a policeman tonight. Of course he and Lance were going to have to leave town.

"I couldn't stand to leave the house a mess," Lance casually said, coming into the living room and sinking onto the single uncovered couch and then fixing him with a long, calm gaze. "Thank god money talks just as loud at night as it does during business hours. Oh, and thanks a lot, by the way, for helping me out with the fat fuck."

"I'm sorry about that," JC said honestly. "I knew you wouldn't have any trouble handling him and Justin was -- well, you know what you're like when you're angry. So I just -- we got out of there."

Lance looked out the window, his face unreadable. "So it's 'we' now," he finally said.

JC shrugged out of his coat and sat down next to him. "Yeah," he said quietly. "It is."

A flash of what might have been pain flickered in Lance's eyes, but his expression remained calm. JC looked carefully at him and waited.

All Lance said, however, was, "I hope you can pack in a hurry."

"As you know, I've always been able to do that," JC answered, and then almost grinned as he heard the defensiveness in his own voice.

Lance rolled his eyes, his mouth twisted into a half-smile. "Right," he said politely, disbelievingly. "You have two hours, okay?" He looked out the window again. "I'm thinking someplace warm. I'm sick of rain and snow."

"Okay," JC said again, and looked down for a moment. "Listen. There's something I should probably just tell you. I -- there was a problem tonight."

Lance laughed out loud. "What, you mean in addition to the fact that our house is ruined and two humans know where we live?" he asked, then he caught himself and added, "Oh, wait. One human."

On a much better day, JC would have grinned at the smug, evil look on Lance's face, but right now, he was pretty much incapable of taking pleasure in anything. "In the grand scheme of things, it's nothing, certainly not as bad as -- all that," he said. "It's just that -- well, I killed someone I probably shouldn't have."

"Okay," Lance said, looking interested. JC took some comfort in that. Sometimes Lance actually liked mistakes. "So who was it?"

"A cop," JC said, then sighed a little as Lance shook his head in disgust, clearly not liking that very much at all.

"Yeah, well, that's pretty fucking stupid. You know better than that."

"Yeah," JC said, because it was true. "It was unfortunate but unavoidable. As you know, I'd just been rather rudely awakened, and so when I saw him alone and ready for me, I just -- I didn't stop."

"Wait a minute." Lance put up a hand and stared hard at JC. "Didn't you have your little pet with you?"

JC shrugged.

"Seriously, JC. You did, right?"

JC shrugged again.

"Okay, so you're not going to admit it, but you did. I know you did. You had Justin with you and you still killed a cop, JC. You had Justin with you and yet you chose instead to endanger yourself, and me, and all the vampires in the whole fucking city. Do you have even the slightest idea of how very, very wrong that is?"

"We're speaking hypothetically, right?" JC asked acidly.

"Jesus, JC!" Lance broke out, his face darkening with disgust and anger. "It's like I hardly even know you anymore. What kind of vampire neglects an easy kill? Think about that, JC. What kind of vampire would do that?"

"So I guess this isn't a good time for me to tell you that I'm bringing Justin with me when we go," JC said in a silky, dangerous voice, and then narrowed a hard stare at Lance and waited.

"Damn straight right it's not a good time. Here's a shocker, JC: I'm really not okay with that." Lance said sharply.

"Here's another one: I really don't care, Lance," JC said back, matching him exactly in tone.

"JC, think," Lance said in frustration. "He's ruined our lives -- and don't you shake your head at me, Joshua; don't you dare do that. He's ruined our lives, and your life for sure, and frankly, I don't know if I can stand to be around it. I certainly can't stand to be around him."

JC glared long and hard at him. "If we're both going to get through this discussion alive, you're not going to talk about him," he slowly said. "Do you understand me?"

"I'm sorry, JC, but we're going to have to talk about him," Lance answered. "He's a scheming little shit and he's got you right where he wants you, and if I accomplish one thing tonight, just one thing, I'm going to make you see --"

JC punched him in the face.

"Mmm," Lance softly said, showing no signs of distress and not putting up a hand to wipe away the trickle of blood oozing from his lip. "And here I thought you didn't care anymore."

"Fuck off," JC said, and forced eyes away from the blood and onto the space where the coffee table used to be.

Lance wiped the blood onto his fingers and licked it up, then said, "Even if you did bring him, he's not going to last that long. I mean, I don't know if you've taken a good look at your boy lately, but when he was here tonight, JC, there were circles under his eyes, and he was struggling to breathe. And his thoughts -- did you drop in on those at all? They were a mess, JC, way moreso than they should've been even though he was in a dangerous situation. I'd give him -- god. Maybe a week before he starts collapsing?"

JC frowned, hating Lance for so easily seeing all the things he'd been concealing from himself. There was no way in hell he was going to admit how blind he'd been, however.

"Obviously, Lance, if I brought him, I'd turn him first. I'm not an idiot." A liar, maybe, but not an idiot.

"I'm not sure I want him even then," Lance said venomously. "Thanks to him, the whole fucking world knows where we sleep. Thanks to him, the Order is going to go ballistic now, hunt us down like thieves. Thanks to him --"

"Yes, yes, yes, it's a long list," JC said tiredly. "I know you hate him."

"Yes, JC, I do, but that's not even the point. The point is that -- well, believe it or not, I'm concerned for you," Lance finally said in a low, uncomfortable voice, not looking at him, and JC felt his face burn.

"Lance, you don't have to --" JC began, then broke off. "I'm okay. It's okay."

"Okay?" Lance said incredulously. "JC, really. Okay?"

JC shrugged, then raised eyebrows in surprise as Lance reached out to touch his arm, to speak in a low, intense voice.

"Look, JC -- something has to change. You're acting erratically, you're making astoundingly stupid decisions, and you're -- well, I'm sorry to say it, but you're lovesick, at the mercy of someone who doesn't even deserve to tie your shoes, much less --" Lance broke off and struggled for control. "Anyway. The upshot is that you've essentially become unable to see what's right for you anymore -- and in that kind of a situation, those who do know need to step in and fix things. I've known you for a long time now, and I'm not going to let you destroy yourself over a human. I'm sorry, but I can't stand by and watch that happen."

"Lance, this is different. This is --"

"Everyone always says that, and everyone's always wrong," Lance answered. "JC, please. Listen to me, will you? For just five minutes sit still and listen -- really listen."

JC stared calmly at him. "Go ahead."

"The very best thing you could do for all of us right now is kill him," Lance softly said. "I know that's not what you want to hear, but it's the only way out of this mess. Take him slowly and take him gently: tell him you love him and then show him that it's true. Just -- put everyone out of this misery, all right? Hell, at this point, that's probably what he wants, too. I mean, he's probably already begun begging you to drink more and more, so why not just take him just a little bit further? He probably wouldn't even fight you."

JC tensed. The worst thing about Lance was that even when he was wrong, there were always ways in which he was also absolutely right. Looking at things from one perspective, the most merciful thing to would be to kill Justin -- but if that were going to have to happen, no one but JC was going to do it.

If it happened. Which it wouldn't.

"Are you still with me?" Lance asked, and JC widened his eyes a little and nodded. Lance was shaking a little. Lance really, really wanted Justin dead.

"And even if you did turn him, he wouldn't be the same -- you know he wouldn't. I don't know what it is, but something about killing people every day changes a person," Lance continued. "You'd change him -- are you so certain that you'll be able to love what he becomes?"

"That's a risk I'm willing to take," JC coolly said.

"Okay, so how about this?" Lance said, leaning forward, his green eyes unusually urgent and forthright. "What if he refuses to be turned? What are you going to do then?"

"He won't refuse," JC said flatly. "And even if he did, it wouldn't make a difference."

"I think you want to believe that, but it's actually not true at all, is it, JC," Lance said softly. "I think that if he cried enough, talked about the deep bond between you two and all the lovely unborn children he'd never be able to have, you'd break. In fact, JC, I'm not even all that convinced you could even kill him. I think he's got much, much more power over you than you're willing to admit."

JC rolled his eyes. "As always, Lance, you're seeing things that aren't there."

"But the thing about this whole situation is that I didn't see anything at all. You didn't let me see it, which is what you do only when something's deadly important to you," Lance said quietly. "And so I think I have reason to be concerned here."

For a while, they sat in silence and didn't look at each other, the only sound in the room the ripping of newspapers as the women in the kitchen continued packing.

"Two hours," JC finally said. "I have two hours, right?"

Lance slowly nodded.

JC stumbled toward the door, his head reeling. "All right, then. I'm going to go -- get him."

"JC," Lance said, and JC slowly turned around to look in his eyes.

"Bring him here as anything other than a vampire, and I'll kill him," Lance said pleasantly. "And if you fuck it up -- if by some chance you leave him alive, then I'll fix this problem myself."

"Say anything else right now and I'll kill you," JC snapped, and then swiftly left the house.

~ ~ ~ ~

The instant the cold night air hit him, JC began to shake, and he decided to walk to the motherhouse to give himself more time to get control of himself. There was a sharp wind out but JC welcomed it even as it dragged violently at him, slapping against his face. Nothing in the world should be soft or agreeable right now -- there simply wasn't room for it.

The time had come to make some very difficult decisions. Unless Justin agreed to become a vampire, JC would have to kill him -- and unless he killed Justin himself, Lance would do it, and would do it gladly. That meant only one thing: JC absolutely had to turn Justin tonight, and that . .

JC thought again of the look of revulsion in Justin's eyes in the alley and grimaced. And that was really quite possibly not going to work. JC clenched his jaw and his fists, fighting not to succumb to the white-hot fury building deep inside him. There was no way in hell Lance was going to touch Justin: not in this world, not in the next, not in any remote, star-filled galaxy in the universe was that going to happen. Justin was JC's to touch or not touch, JC's to kill or grant mercy to. JC was going to decide what happened to him, not Lance and not anyone else.

If he weren't pretty sure that they'd both die in the process, JC would go back to the house right now and kill Lance. But if he did that, then both of them would probably end up dead, and although Justin would end up alive, he'd be alone. JC didn't want to die, and he also didn't want to kill a friend of well over a hundred years. Annoying and hateful as Lance was, he had been there for JC for quite a long time -- was trying, in fact, in his own fucked-up way to be there for him even now. No, there had to be a way to keep Lance, himself, and Justin alive.

A young woman walking by JC on the sidewalk gently brushed his arm with hers, her hips swaying in tantalizing fashion when he turned around to look at her. As she slowly returned the glance from over her shoulder, she let a sweet, crooked smile play on her full lips, an invitation clearly dancing in her eyes. Oh, she was lovely, and for a moment JC contemplated feeding from her just to take his mind off everything, to relax for just a few minutes so he could forget the hell his life had suddenly become -- but then a sobering thought filled his head. It was necessary to take in a lot of blood to turn someone, and if JC were going to take care of Justin tonight, he couldn't go in there with a full stomach. JC slowly shook his head no at the woman and continued on his way.

He might actually do it -- he might bring Justin to him tonight. For a moment the gorgeous vision hovered in his mind: Justin reclining in his arms, his hands cradling JC's head, fighting his own fear and uncertainty but holding on, letting JC take everything from him, full of trust. It would be a privilege to taste him like that, to take him over, to drink until his heart very nearly stopped, and JC shuddered in delight as he thought of it. He couldn't say that he hadn't wanted to do this before, to push Justin beyond the point of no return, and if he could do it in the service of turning him, then he could both satisfy his darkest desires and get rid of his biggest problem in one fell swoop. It was seductive as hell.

Even more tantalizing, however, was the thought of what would happen next, how it would feel to have Justin feed from him. To use his own teeth to slowly slice his wrist and to bring it deliberately to Justin’s lips. To watch Justin’s hot, hungry mouth seal tight against his skin, to feel his long limbs thrash beneath JC’s body as he strained for more. To feel his own life’s blood being pulled from his body by Justin’s mouth, to be able to bury his teeth in Justin’s throat and draw it back again, to close his eyes and feel their hearts beating together. Justin would make soft, desperate noises; he would be so urgent, so beautiful, so strong and so needy, and he would be focused entirely on JC. JC would have everything in the world that Justin wanted, and it would be the most intensely erotic thing in the world to have Justin, gorgeous and starving and demanding, at his throat.

JC shivered again. The idea of sharp teeth breaking his skin and sinking deep, over and over again and again if JC were lucky, was intoxicating. He wanted Justin at his throat, his inner thighs, his wrists, all his most sensitive places. Oh, it would be beyond wonderful.

But Justin couldn't even stand to watch JC feed, so it was hardly likely he was going to acquiesce to that, JC thought, and sighed unhappily. Despite what he'd told Lance, there was absolutely no way he'd force Justin, no way he'd make him into a vampire against his will. That was how it had happened to JC, and he was far less than eager to visit that particular pain and distress on someone else, particularly someone he -- well, he probably loved.

So if Justin refused, he'd have to kill Justin -- or at least make Lance think he'd done it. Pragmatically speaking, this wouldn't at all be hard to accomplish: all he had to do was show up at the house with blood on him and then get the hell out of London with Lance, never to return. In the more complicated realm of emotion and feeling, however, the realm JC absolutely detested and wished ardently that he never had to think about, he was going to have to suffer some pain, because for this plan to work, he'd have to abruptly stop seeing Justin, to take one last look at him and then never speak to, think about, or drink from him again. It was going to be excruciating, agonizing, and for a split second JC got angry at himself all over again for having fallen for this most difficult of humans.

But the worst of it was that he wasn't the only one who'd suffer. It was one thing to be sad and stupid for himself, but to visit that upon Justin as well was nearly unthinkable. And yet if he didn't do it, Justin would lose his life -- Lance would make sure of that.

JC held up a hand: it was still shaking and he still felt like hell, but at least he now knew exactly what he had to do. Unless he could convince Justin to become a vampire, the two of them were in for a world of pain. There was no point in agonizing further: he simply had to do it. JC closed his eyes for a second, then moved at full speed to the motherhouse.

~ ~ ~ ~

Chapter Text

~ ~ ~ ~

Part Eight

~ ~ ~ ~

JC landed lightly on Justin's balcony and frowned as he looked inside the room, saw Justin sitting restlessly among several suitcases. His face was drawn tight with worry and exhaustion, and his hands rested uneasily on his thighs. He looked almost as agitated as JC felt, but when JC moved closer to tap at the french doors Justin pushed the worry off his face and hurried to let him in.

"Justin," JC said, embarrassed because his voice was uncharacteristically tight and urgent, thick with emotion, and then swept him into his arms, shuddering a little. So much would depend on the next few moments.

"Hey," Justin said softly, trying to lift his head, to look JC in the eye, but JC didn't let go. When he finally felt he'd composed himself, JC slowly stepped away.

"Well. You don’t look much better," he said flatly.

"JC, I'm fine," Justin impatiently answered. "That before -- that was just -- I hadn't slept in a few days, okay? I was in a trance or something."

"Oh," JC said carefully and in an almost conversational tone. "Okay. So the fact that I take more and more blood from you each time we’re together has nothing to do with it, then."

"That might be part of it, but it's not the main reason. I'm fine, JC," Justin insisted.

"No, Justin, you’re not," JC answered. "You’re not at all fine, and it’s not going to get any better, either – not unless we figure out a way to deal with it."

"Okay," Justin said slowly, and looked steadily at JC. "So we’ll do that -- I promise you we’ll do that. But that’s not really what’s on your mind, is it? You’re upset about something."

JC caught his breath and tried to appear unconcerned even as the shock of being so expertly read by Justin radiated through him.

"Justin, it's okay," he said reflexively. "There is something we need to talk about, but not yet, all right? I want -- just for a minute, let's sit here, okay?" JC pointed at the bed, and he and Justin situated themselves side by side.

Justin grabbed JC's hand, fingers going straight to his ring, gently playing with it. "No matter what it is, we can work through it. It'll be okay, JC."

"I know," JC said, and then used every bit of mental discipline he had to crush the need and anxiety welling up in him as he looked at the pink of Justin's skin, the soft rise and fall of his chest, and realized how very, very much he wanted this, wanted to bring Justin over.

"I see you’re still planning on running away from home," he forced himself to say in a fairly normal tone of voice.

Justin smiled faintly. "I can't stay here anymore, JC. Not after everything that's happened."

"And where do you think --" JC started.

"I'm not sure," Justin quietly said. "I was kind of hoping -- I guess I wanted to talk to you about it, maybe."

"That's -- yes," JC said, and fell silent yet again.

Justin slowly slid a hand to the back of JC's neck, fingers softly stroking, and whispered, "Tell me, JC. Tell me what's going on."

"Oh, I'll tell you all right," JC said, and then laughed. "It's not exactly as if I can't."

"Why not?"

Slowly, JC got up, moved away from Justin's warmth, his scent. It was too difficult to be near him knowing that there was a very distinct possibility that soon he might not have him at all, and again the almost frightening desire to have Justin with him, to have Justin join him in all ways, very nearly took over. JC’s need was so intense it hurt, and he felt a vague sense of forboding as he considered how Justin might react to it. If the intensity was upsetting him, he could only imagine how it would feel to a human.

If he’d had more time, JC could perhaps have seduced Justin, could have convinced him so gradually and so carefully he’d hardly known what hit him – or, better still, he could have actually gotten Justin to agree on his own, could have explained things to him in such a way that made everything self-evident and necessary. But this was not the time for finesse or indirection. This was the time to lay out things as plainly as possible. Looking straight into Justin’s eyes, JC slowly, wordlessly opened his mind and posed the question.

"JC," Justin finally said after a long, horrible silence, his voice trembling. He struggled to his feet, his eyes dark and unsure.

"Don’t," JC said quickly, because he already knew exactly what Justin was going to say, and felt something inside him begin to rip.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin staggered as the sudden flood of images crashed over him. He'd been sharing a thin thread of rapport with JC since he'd appeared suddenly on his balcony, enough to sense anger alongside the thrumming tension and familiar hunger that JC felt whenever they were together. The same dark craving that clawed at Justin whenever JC was out of his sight.

But this was too much. JC's mind was now full of vivid, dark images, visions of Justin, not human anymore but like JC; of waking up naked every night beside Justin's body; of feeding together and from each other, anticipating the erotic thrill of watching Justin hunt and kill. And in JC's mind there was such urgency, so much violence and overwhelming need that Justin reeled, gasping with a fierce joy even as he struggled to keep up, to take it all in. But superimposed over JC's visions of what could be were Justin's own stubborn memories of what was: the horror and agonizingly shameful excitement of watching JC kill the man earlier that very night, uneasy thoughts about the other people that JC had fed on and killed. Revulsion collided with a crawling arousal and a painful self-loathing, and Justin stifled a moan as his hands covered his face. His mind reflexively shut down, pushing JC out and away.

Abruptly the images were gone and there was a thick, shuddering silence in the dark room. "Well," JC said flatly. "I guess that answers that."

Justin shook his head, eyes still squeezed shut as he groped blindly for JC, wrapping his hands into the front of his shirt and holding on tight. "No," he said softly, alarmed at how thready and high his voice was. "I just, I don't understand." He waited, opening his eyes slowly, feeling JC's presence in front of him but unable to reach his thoughts. "I need you to explain to me what that was. Please."

"You know what it was." JC's voice was low, melodic and beautiful even when he was saying things that Justin didn't want to hear. But behind it Justin felt how carefully JC was controlling himself and dimly sensed the swell of emotion tamped behind the wall of restraint. He shuddered as a sickening dread started to prick painfully at him.

It was too much, Justin thought brokenly. The events of the past night spun in a dizzying whirlwind -- JC's beautiful house and Lou going rogue, the terrifying menace of Lance, the alley. The ride home in the anonymous cab, street lamps flashing stripes of light and dark over Justin's face as his head lolled drunkenly against the back seat. Entering the silent and still motherhouse as if nothing had happened, as if his entire life hadn't changed. Breaking directly into Lou's filthy suite, the very essence of the man who had lived there foul and disgusting, gathering up JC's file and breaking his final Order rule. Staring for a long, quiet moment at the portrait leaning carelessly against the far wall of Lou's sitting room.

It was too much, too much had happened, and his brain was swirling with confusion and an utter exhaustion that made his knees tremble and his head pound. And now there were these visions from JC, images that embodied both everything Justin secretly longed for and everything he feared. The rest of his life, all of eternity to be at JC's side, and his heart leapt with exhilaration even as his mind quailed with horror over the price that would have to be paid.

"I don't understand," he said again, stubborn and desperate, and this time JC wheeled and strode a few steps away, the shadowy moonlight casting him in an eerie blueish glow. Justin saw his hands clench into fists.

"Fine," he jeered. "Excellent, make me be the bad guy here." JC took several deep breaths and Justin felt a fine sweat creep on to his brow despite the chill of the room. "I'm leaving. I'm leaving London immediately. As I'm sure you've figured out," and here he turned and threw a sharp glance at Justin that made him shiver with cold dread, "things went down tonight that will make it prudent for me to get away for a while." He turned to face Justin, and the three paces between them suddenly seemed like a million miles.

"Okay," Justin forced the word through lips stiff with tension. He struggled to draw a breath and calm his jangling nerves. "Fine, we'll leave. I'm packed, I'm ready to go." He couldn't look at JC, his thin hope already dying beneath the weight of what he knew JC was going to say. He closed his eyes and grit his teeth as JC sighed.

"Justin," he said wearily. "You know better than that. You do."

"No, I don't," Justin said through clenched teeth. "I don't. I thought we were good. I know I was happy, I know that being with you has become the most important thing to me, more important than my work, than my family . . ." he trailed off, holding up a hand as he felt JC moving closer to him. "No. I've made you the center of my life, JC, and so I want to go with you, to be --"

"Well, then." JC's voice was quiet and remote, drifting toward Justin like a fog as he struggled to catch his breath. "If that's the case, then my proposal shouldn't be so . . . repugnant to you."

Justin rubbed his forehead, trembling violently as JC continued speaking quietly. "Don't lie to me and tell me this idea has never occurred to you," he said.

"I'm not. I mean, I don't know if I could." Justin stopped, took a deep breath. "Kill people." He raised his eyes, meeting JC's sober ones as he clenched his fists and fought for control. "But. Do you have to? Really? Every night?"

JC's face was almost completely in shadow, but his eyes were clear and laser sharp on Justin's face. "I told you not to lie to me, and I'm not going to lie to you, Justin. Yeah. I do. And you knew this."

"But do you have to?" Justin asked desperately and JC made an impatient noise as he turned away.

"Fuck. I'm finished with this conversation, Justin," he hissed. "You want facts and details? What you saw tonight, what you've seen in all the time you've spent with me, should tell you everything you need to know." He paused, a dark outline against the window to Justin's dazed eyes. "All I'm going to say to you is that I have to go. And you can't come with me as you are." JC stepped forward, slowly closing the distance between them, and Justin shakily took a step back.

"You said you weren't going to lie to me," Justin said fiercely. "But saying you're leaving . . . JC, I know how you feel about me. I can't believe you would walk away from me like this. That you even could."

JC was silent, and Justin reached out desperately but got nothing. It was as if JC was a shadow, as if he'd already gone and Justin was talking to a memory or a dream. The thought made him tremble in pain and JC took another slow step forward, his hands reaching out to frame Justin's face.

"There's more. Justin," he said softly, as if the taste of the word on his tongue gave him unbearable pain and unbearable pleasure. "The truth is that being with me is killing you. No," he said as Justin shook his head violently in the negative. "No, you know it's true. Look at you. You haven't slept, you can't eat. You're already so weak, and you collapsed in my arms just a couple of hours ago, and god, Justin. It's only going to get worse, don't you see?" His fingertips brushed firmly, carefully over the lines of Justin's face, smoothing over his eyebrows, his cheekbones. "Because I can't stop feeding from you," he whispered, his voice rough. "And because neither of us wants it to stop."

Justin tilted his face into JC's hands, his mouth dropping open as JC's hands slid over him, stroking sensuously as he shuddered and moved closer, needing to be closer. "Do you see?" JC whispered. "Do you see how it is between us? And why it has to stop?"

"No," Justin whispered back, his voice cracking. The pain was like a stone in his throat, cutting off his breath, his sight, his very life. "I just see that you're leaving me."

There was silence between them for a moment, JC's face rigidly controlled as he continued to softly stroke Justin's face, his eyes and hands memorizing him.

"It has to be this way," he said finally. "You should . . . I want you to have a life, Justin. A good one, full of life, and daylight, and people who love you." He paused, sliding his hands slowly down Justin's back, curving intimately over his hips. "You deserve more than what I have to offer you, and you know it."

Justin finally opened his eyes, JC's face before him blurring as he gulped back the panic in his throat. "But what about what I want?" he whispered brokenly, and at last JC's arms wrapped around him, his mouth warm on Justin's as he kissed him hungrily, deeply. And finally Justin felt JC's emotions, the simmering fury that barely masked the agony he was trying so hard to suppress and a rage and pain that matched Justin's own.

JC slowly lifted his mouth and Justin took a deep shuddering breath, setting his jaw. He stared directly into JC's eyes as he slowly leaned over and pulled the file out of the open bag on the foot of his bed with one hand. He held it out to JC, silently daring him to take it.

His mouth tight, JC reached out and lifted the file from Justin's hands. Justin paused for a moment, his breath shallow, then slowly reached up to his own neck, fumbling for the clasp of the intricate chain that bore the pendant.

JC reached out and stilled Justin’s fingers beneath his own, gripping them painfully. "No," he said quietly and firmly. "I want you to keep it. It’s yours."

"JC. This is crazy, and stupid. You know I'll find you," Justin whispered fiercely. "It's what I do, and I'm good at this stuff, I am, and the world is not such a huge place that I won't be able to . . ."

JC silenced him with gentle fingertips on Justin's face. The anger seemed to have drained out of him, and his eyes were somber as they he smoothed his palm down the curve of Justin’s jaw. "I have to go," he said simply. "And Justin, don't look for me." A final slide of his finger along Justin's full lower lip, his eyes intent. "Don't waste your time looking for me. You won't find me. Not ever."

JC leaned forward, brushing his lips slowly against Justin's before stepping carefully away and striding to the balcony of Justin's room without looking back. Justin strained to see, but his vision was blurred and when he blinked, dashing a hand impatiently across his eyes, JC was gone.

Justin moved slowly out onto his balcony, ignoring the brutal chill of the dawn as he braced his arms against the railing and waited, rigid, for the sun to rise.

~ ~ ~ ~

He awoke to bright light that hurt his eyes, the murmur of anxious voices, the quiet, regular metallic beeping of some sort of machine. Everything was sharp and harsh -- it hurt to be in this world.

A soft hand cupped his cheek, then gently squeezed his shoulder.

"JC?" Justin mumbled.

"Justin, it's me," someone tearfully said, her voice low and pained. It actually sounded a lot like his mother, and for a moment guilt swept over Justin, because he hadn't called, he hadn't called -- it had been ever so long and he hadn't even once attempted to reply to her increasingly worried phone messages.

Justin closed his eyes again and slipped away. He wasn't ready for this.

The next time he opened his eyes, it was for a nurse who was calmly taking his pulse, her fingers firm against his wrist, her face grave as she listened. It must have been late at night because the room was dark and silent, free of whispering for once. Justin looked in surprise at the IV needle in his arm, then up at the bag of blood hovering above his head, his mind slowly awakening. He opened his mouth to speak but frowned instead. He was too still too groggy.

"Shh." The nurse squeezed his hand. "It's okay. You're all right now."

Justin absolutely knew that to be false, but he couldn't find the words to express it, and his mind was too disconnected and too scattered for him to nudge her into saying more. In frustration, he grabbed the nurse's fingers, looked urgently into her eyes.

"Relax, Mr. Timberlake. We're taking very good care of you," she said, and then disentangled herself from him and left the room.

~ ~ ~ ~

"JC," Justin said when he awoke the next morning, his voice loud in the quiet room, and then looked up to see Mathilda and Chris staring down at him.

"Thank god." Mathilda's voice was shaking and Chris looked as if he were about to cry. "Justin, thank god you're all right."

Justin began to sit up, then sank shakily back again as he saw the tube attached to his arm, watched the blood slowly flowing into his body. "I feel awful," he slowly said.

"You were very, very weak when they brought you in." Mathilda's voice was shaking, but then she sighed and smiled a little. "You have no idea how good it is to see you awake."

Chris stepped closer and peered down at him, roughly wiping his eyes. "Honestly, Justin, if you wanted more attention, all you had to do was say something. This getting hospitalized thing? Not a good strategy."

Mathilda laughed at that, but her eyes were shimmering with tears as well.

"Is my mom here?" Justin whispered, guilt flooding him. Everyone was so upset.

"We finally convinced her to go get some sleep," Mathilda said. "She's been at your side ever since she arrived."

"So what's wrong with me?" Justin wrinkled his brow as he watched Mathilda's and Chris's expressions go tight and unhappy.

"The short story is that you collapsed in your room and lay unconscious for the better part of two days," Chris said. "The long story? Severe anemia and dehydration."

"Anemia," Justin said, and then sat up all the way, grabbing the side of the bed and gripping it hard as the memory of JC slowly stepping away from him and moving to the balcony flashed through his mind. The need to ask them whether they’d seen or heard from JC clawed at his throat, and it was only with great effort that he held it in. "Really?"

Chris scowled and stepped away from the bed. "It seems to be a long-term consequence of sneaking around with vampires."

"Look," Justin said, his mind whirling as it slowly dawned on him that everything was out now, everything was in the open. "No matter what you think of me right now, I just – I really need to know. Did JC -- did he came to see me? Was he at all here -- is he all right?"

"I'm going to assume that you mean the Chasez vampire," Mathilda said in an oddly distant, formal tone. "The vampire who killed Lou Pearlman. The vampire who very nearly killed you."

"He didn't!" Justin's voice was thin and unhappy. "He didn't kill me; he didn't even want to. He was -- with me, it was --"

"I think we know exactly what it was with you and him," Chris said stiffly, and Justin blinked at him in surprise, taken aback by the fierceness of his tone.

"Jesus, Justin." Chris ran a hand through his hair, then opened his mouth to speak again, but Mathilda stopped him by squeezing his arm and looking reproachfully at him.

"No, Justin, we haven't seen or heard of him. From the looks of his . . . nest, he and his partner have left the city altogether, which is probably the best for all concerned." Mathilda's voice was somewhat gentler than Chris's, but a distinct thread of disapproval still ran through it. "And again: Louis Pearlman is dead. He has been murdered."

As his heart began to ache all over again, Justin took a deep breath and tried to remember how all of this must look to Chris and Mathilda. "Yeah. The thing with Lou -- that was really awful, but it wasn't JC's fault; it wasn't at all. What happened there was --"

"Tell us about it later, all right?" Mathilda quietly said. "I think --well it's still too soon yet for certain discussions."

"Okay, but JC. Are you sure -- you haven't seen him at all; there's no sign of him?"

"No, Justin," Chris said coldly. "Looks like he took what he wanted and then left you."

"Shut up," Justin quietly said as misery began to spread over him. JC was gone. JC was really, really gone.

"If you just would have told us the truth, Justin -- the truth about anything --" Chris said, and then stopped himself with some effort when Mathilda shook her head sharply.

"Not now, Christopher, absolutely not. We need to give Justin time to think through all of this."

"Think through it? I can tell you right now, right this very minute what he was to me and what he did to me," Justin said fiercely. "And it was not -- all of you are wrong. Anything you think you know about him, you don't. Anything you think you understood about him, you had wrong."

"Justin, shhh," Mathilda said and then looked over her shoulder. "Mrs. Timberlake," she said brightly. "Come right in -- he's awake."

"Hi, Mom," Justin said quietly as his mother rushed across the room to take him in her arms, and then rubbed her back as she cried.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin’s mother sat quietly on the chair next to his bed, reading a novel and every so often reaching out to brush a hand gently over his forehead, to take his hand. She knew absolutely nothing of what had gone on, but she seemed almost intuitively to understand that Justin was in anguish of some sort. As he looked at her gentle, worried face, Justin was nearly overwhelmed with love for her.

"You okay, baby?" she softly asked, putting down the paperback and creasing her brow in sympathy.

"No, Mom, I’m not," he said stiffly, fighting the tears that threatened. If only she weren’t so concerned, if only she wouldn’t speak with such unbearable kindness.

"What happened, Justin? What’s going on?"

"I -- it’s just very complicated, and I -- hard to explain."

"You almost died, Justin. Surely there’s an explanation for that."

"I can’t. Not right now. I can’t talk about it," he said, and then took her hand, squeezed it carefully. "Please. It’s just -- I was -- I was in a relationship and it might -- well, it’s possible that it’s over now, and it’s just very hard to deal with." Now a few tears did trickle from his eyes, and Justin looked angrily out the window for a moment to hide them. After a second, his mother pressed a Kleenex in his hand.

"Did this person," his mom carefully began. "This person you were in the relationship with -- did he or she do this to you? Is this why you’ve collapsed?" She spoke softly, but anger simmered beneath her words.

"Mom, no. Not really -- no. It didn’t -- it was just the kind of thing that -- Well, I just really, really wanted it to work out, and it . . . Sometimes you can’t make it work, no matter how hard you try."

"Oh baby, I know," she said softly, stroking the inside of his arm with her fingertips, soothing him in the same way she’d done when he was young. "But this isn’t a lesson I would have wanted you to learn at such a young age."

"That’s life, I guess," he said bitterly, and then rubbed his eyes again.

"What was his name?" his mother gently asked. "Or hers."

"He," Justin whispered. "And it was . . . it was JC." He bit his lower lip and looked down, restlessly pleating the sheet between his fingers.

"Oh, Justin," his mom said, and then leaned forward and hugged him. "Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all you’d like?"

Only one thing sprung to mind. "Is there a necklace of mine around here?" Justin asked. "A fancy one, with a great big stone. I wear it all the time, and I don’t -- without it, I feel --"

"You know, I think there was," his mother said, and began to rummage through a pile of things on the counter on the other side of the room.

"Hmm," she said, "You know, baby, I don't see it. Do you think your friends at the Order might have taken it?"

"They might have," Justin said in a cold, flat voice, and tried to control his anger.

"Oh, no. No, wait -- here it is," his mother said, and Justin drew in a long, grateful breath, his heart pounding as she slowly turned around.

"Oh, Justin, this is beautiful," his mother said, looking in admiration at the ruby as it glinted in the light.

"Put it on me," Justin said urgently as the brand on his chest began to ache. "Right now, okay?"

"All right," his mother said, and then sat next to him on the bed, her perfume sweet and her fingers nimble against his neck as she slowly fastened the clasp.

"There," she said in satisfaction, and leaned back.

Immediately Justin grabbed the pendant and shoved it down the front of his hospital gown, trying desperately to conceal the shiver of pleasure and melancholy he felt as the cool metal slid into place over the brand. He would never again take it off. Never.

His mother was watching him closely, her face somehow full of both tenderness and curiosity. "He gave it to you, didn’t he," she softly said, her voice low and soft. "JC."

"Yeah," Justin quietly said.

~ ~ ~ ~

Three days later, Justin stood unsteadily in the airport to see his mother off again.

"Justin, I insist that you not let this . . . exhaustion happen to you again," she urgently said. "No matter how sad you are, you have to take care of yourself. You have to move on -- you have to keep going. Do you hear me?"

"I promise," Justin said.

"I’m very serious about this, Justin Randall," she said, and Justin fought the urge to take just a step backward in the face of her concern. "If you let yourself collapse again like that I’m going to -- well, you’ll just be sorry. Very sorry."

"I’ll be better," he said dully, not sure he meant it, but not willing to cross her, either, especially when she was in this frame of mind.

"Look, baby -- if you need help -- if things get to be too much, I want you to call me, all right? Don’t try to handle everything alone; you don’t have to do that."

Justin thought of Chris’s hostile face, of the disappointment Mathilda so obviously couldn’t hide, and held back a frown. Actually, he did have to do this alone, but his mother didn’t have to know that.

Back at the Order, he found himself the object of curiosity and suspicion and had to endure a series of concerned, pitying, and even angry stares as he slowly made his way to his room, his steps heavy and tired.

Murderer, someone said in his mind. Justin didn't even lift his head to see who it was.

~ ~ ~ ~

That afternoon, Mathilda came quietly into his room to find him sitting motionless in his sitting room.

"Oh, Justin," she said quietly and sadly, and then hugged him. Justin wrapped arms tightly around her and clung for a moment, shaking a little bit until he could get himself under control again.

"I --" he said in a low voice once she'd sat down across from him and neatly crossed her legs, her eyes curious but not angry, not distant like they'd been in the hospital. "I'm truly sorry for not having been honest. If there were anything I could change --"

"Justin, we don't blame you," Mathilda said. "Not at all. If Chris and I were -- well, less than supportive in the hospital, it's not because we were angry with you but rather with what had been done to you. We were so frightened for you, Justin, so, so worried. You'd become so secretive, so withdrawn, and we didn't know why -- we had, of course, absolutely no idea of the danger you were in. Now that we know you were in thrall to a vampire -- well, it makes me shudder to think of it, Justin; it makes me sick. We're so, so lucky to have you with us; you're so lucky to have escaped with your life."

"He wasn't trying -- it wasn't like that." It was exhausting even to get the words out.

"Someday," Mathilda tentatively began. "Someday, Justin, you'll have to sit down with one of us and talk about this, if you can. I think your experience -- well, you can certainly teach us a lot about how vampires operate, how they relate to humans."

"Are you sure there's been no sign of him?"

Mathilda looked sympathetically at him. "I'm sorry, Justin, but no."

Justin looked at his bookshelf, found Beethoven through the Ages and focused hard on it until the pain lessened a bit.

"There is one thing," Mathilda said tentatively. "One thing I'd like to discuss with you yet today."

Justin looked wearily at her.

"I believe there were gifts, yes? Things he gave to you." Mathilda looked a little embarrassed.

"Some, yeah."

"It might be easier, Justin, to put them away for a while, just a while until you're feeling stronger. For example, I believe there's a necklace . . ."

Justin forced himself to remember that she was doing what she thought was best for him, that in her mind, she was helping him. It didn't completely dispel the fury, but it kept him from shouting.

"I don't. No. You can't," he said. It wasn't exactly coherent, but he could tell from Mathilda's face that she got the message.

"All right, then," she finally said, and Justin nearly winced at the pity in her voice. "I think -- well, these next few weeks probably won't be easy for you, and I'd like to remind you that if you want to talk, I'm here for you, all right?"

"Thank you," Justin said politely, longing for her to leave.

"As stupid as this may sound to you right now, this could be a good thing," Mathilda said just before leaving. "You have a chance for a new beginning, Justin, a chance to re-evaluate what you're doing in the Order and why. And as painful as they are, your experiences could provide valuable insight for future researchers."

"Oh, that's just great," Justin said, finally allowing himself a little bit of anger. "I absolutely -- thank God for that."

"All right, then," she said very gently, and again with the annoying pity. "We'll talk later, Justin."

~ ~ ~ ~

The hopelessness of it was almost unbelievable. Never before in his life had Justin felt so powerless, so helpless in the face of unhappiness. Each time he realized that nothing about this would change, that this loss was irretrievable and permanent, he was filled anew with painful surprise. How could his life have worked out this way? How could JC have chosen to leave him? Thinking about it hurt.

Sometimes he got out of bed and sometimes he didn't, because showering took too much energy and it didn't matter anyway. Eating wasn't appealing, either; he set tray after tray of unfinished food back in the hallway for the staff to clear away, and it was weeks before he was able to summon up the desire to walk all the way down the hall to the dining room. When it came down to it, Justin didn't really want to do anything. The world was too sharp, too noisy, too chaotic. What he needed was quiet, a place where no one could intervene and where time dilated, where six days or five minutes could go by without pain or concern or bother.

And if there was agony underneath it all, that was fine, because really, he didn't have to think about it all that much. Except for the crying jags, he was fine. Except for the sleepless nights, he was fine. Except for the fact that he now stood outside of himself, watched his own activity from a place of distant pity, he was just fine.

One by one they came to him: Mathilda, Chris, various counselors hired by the Order to help. During these visits, Justin became himself enough to simulate regular conversation, though it was still much more like watching himself talk than actually doing it himself. That was a polite nod, he'd think; that was a friendly smile; that was very good. These were all normal things and it was good to go through them, good to watch himself play the role.

On the day he realized that the puncture wounds on his neck had transmuted into scars, Justin finally roused himself. If his body refused to bear witness, then his mind would take over. Everyone was so excited on the first night he appeared in the dining room, the first night he announced that he was going to resume work, to start going out again. They of course didn't know that work meant avoidance and that his outings usually ended up at the bookstore with Justin leaning over the railing on the second floor and searching for a familiar form, hoping against hope that every presence he felt behind him would be the one he longed for. If he wasn't happy at the bookstore, he went to the theater; if the theater didn't suffice, he went to the restaurant. If the restaurant wasn't enough, he took a cab to the warehouse district and walked the dark streets, searching for the bordello, not even bothering to think about how stupid or dangerous that was. And if he really wanted a bad night, Justin went to JC's and Lance's house; if he wanted to remind himself exactly what his life was all about now, all he had to do was look in the window at the ghostly, dusty shapes of the covered furniture.

Justin made no effort whatsoever to conceal his thoughts on these trips: if JC were there, then JC was going to feel him, to hear him. But it never happened.

~ ~ ~ ~

Four a.m., and Justin awoke with a gasp, looking desperately, hopefully around the room. He felt him -- he was right there -- JC had been standing next to the bed, his eyes warm and his arms outstretched, and he'd smelled like heaven, and he'd wanted more than anything for Justin to get up and come to him. He'd laughed and he'd said his name, and it had been -- it had felt --

Justin stumbled out of bed, his mind reeling with longing and hope, and moved quickly to the french doors. As he realized that the balcony was empty, just as it had been every night for the past several weeks, Justin tried to draw the disappointment and pain into his body, hold them still like a breath. The secret was to regulate the beating of your own heart, to focus with sharp precision on the slow rise and fall of your own chest. Justin walked carefully into his sitting room, eased gingerly into his reading chair, and didn't turn on the lamp. If he could sit very, very still and breathe very, very carefully for the rest of the night, then he might be able to make it to the morning. If he didn't acknowledge the tears on his face, then he was still in control, wasn't he? If he didn't let himself feel the despair, then he controlled it. Didn't he?

~ ~ ~ ~

Eventually Justin realized that he'd become something of a legend at the Order, or at least a very pointed cautionary tale. He was the boy who'd been duped by the vampire, the novice who got in over his head and made everyone suffer, the gullible American who'd betrayed the Order to a monster.

The worst of it was that he really had been coming apart a bit, Justin realized as he sorted through piles of unopened mail and unpaid bills, as he realized that he'd abruptly ceased communications with all of his friends, as he slowly regained the weight he'd lost. He wouldn't have given up his relationship with JC for anything in the world, but the fact was that it had come at a cost.

"Fuck 'em," Chris said one morning as two of their colleagues left the table just as Justin set down his breakfast tray. "You don't need the support of assholes like that. I personally don't want to talk to anyone who thinks they're too good to make a mistake."

"It wasn't a mistake," Justin said, only not out loud.

~ ~ ~ ~

"Justin, relax," JC said softly, pressing him into the bed and laughing a bit, his eyes sparkling with amusement. "I'm not going anywhere." He was naked and beautiful and very soon he was going to be inside of Justin, and it was going to be perfect.

"I love you," Justin whispered, trying to touch him, his entire body straining with desire. "JC, I love you so much."

"I know," JC said quietly, and gave Justin the tense little smile that meant he was probably feeling the same thing but was too fucking cowardly to admit it. Justin would have laughed, but he was too sad to do it.

"Now, JC," he said. "Do it now."

Finally JC leaned in and let Justin touch him, and he was so warm; his shoulders were firm and smooth under Justin's hands. When Justin slid arms hungrily around him, desperate to feel him again, JC laughed softly.

"Hey," he said gently. "It's okay, Justin. It's all right."

"I know, but I still --" Justin said, and then woke up.

~ ~ ~ ~

"Justin!" Chris said, ambling across the library to him, ignoring the angry glares from other scholars in the room. Justin looked up and smiled faintly.

"C'mere," Chris said, grabbing Justin's arm and dragging him into the hallway.

"What's up?" Justin asked, remembering at the last minute to sound as if he really meant it.

"So hey -- you were -- that was actual work you were doing in there," Chris said, unable to keep the excitement and pride out of his voice.

"Yeah. I was kind of going back over the Tahitian prophets stuff I was working on for you -- and man, Chris. It just wasn't very coherent. I'm really, really sorry about that."

"It's okay," Chris said, and lightly punched him in the arm. "You had other things on your mind at that point. I have to figure -- well, given the physical toll your relationship was --"

"So what I want to do is revise it, as an exercise. I think I can have it done by the end of the month," Justin said quickly, and Chris narrowed his eyes and then stared at him.

"I'm not going to pretend it didn't happen, Justin. If you -- well. If you loved him, then you can't just erase him -- you can't refuse to acknowledge that he existed."

"Oh, and who am I going to talk about him to, Chris? You? Mathilda? Everyone else in this place who looks at me like I'm fucking insane? None of you -- you see the hospital, you see the wound, you see Lou dead, you see everything except what was really there, everything but what we really had. And I'm not -- I'm not going to desecrate my memories of him like that. You don't get to talk about him. You don't get to think about him. He's mine." Justin was trembling and his face was red.

"You were dying," Chris said in a low, angry voice. "He was killing you, and I know, I know: you loved him, and I imagine that in his way, he loved you too. But it was what it was, Justin. Don't make it into something else."

"This is exactly why--" Justin began, and then cut himself off. "Okay. Okay, yeah. You can think what you want. That's fine, Chris. I can see -- well, I guess I'm just not gonna argue with you about this."

Chris nodded gravely. "Yeah. Well, whether or not you mean that, I'm going to accept it."

"Good, then," Justin said, and tried to tamp down on the anger.

~ ~ ~ ~

"What are you doing, little one?" Anne-Claire asked, her voice low and dangerous, her eyes razor sharp on Justin. "Why are you out here, so pretty and so very unprotected?"

It was three thirty in the morning in the warehouse district and the streets were silent and empty. Justin had made this walk several times over the past few weeks and never once encountered anyone else; he now saw that this had lulled him into a false sense of complacency. Remembering what JC had said about vampires and fear, Justin struggled to hide his terror, tried valiantly to forget the fact that Anne-Claire looked pretty much like she could kill him on the spot and not regret it a bit.

"Just walking," he said in a low, steady voice, looking earnestly at the warehouse in front of him, and Anne-Claire laughed.

"People don't just walk around here, Justin," she said softly, and Justin felt her at the edges of his mind: she was seductive and sweet, and she seemed to be offering support or counsel of some sort, maybe even relief. It was infinitely tempting, and yet he knew that he had to resist her, keep her out of his thoughts.

"Never mind," she said abruptly. "I've got the most important thing, which is that you are apparently still grieving for JC."

For a moment, Justin felt tears pricking at the back of his eyes. No one had said it to him like that before. To people at the Order, his sorrow was shameful, a sign of weakness, something not to talk or think about.

"But of course you don't have to be embarrassed," Anne-Claire said indignantly. "What the hell is wrong with these people?"

Justin had to laugh at that. "They see the world a little differently than you do."

Anne-Claire smiled evilly. "One would hope."

"So," Justin forced himself to say. "Have you heard from him?"

"You'd like to know that, wouldn't you," Anne-Claire said in a slow, measured voice, and Justin looked with new eyes at the red of her mouth, the whiteness of her teeth, the elegant lines of her body under the long gray coat she wore. She looked fairly relaxed, but then vampires often looked lazy right before an attack. JC certainly had.

Justin bit his lip. JC. "Please," he began, and looked unhappily at Anne-Claire. "If you tell me, I'll do anything."

Like lightning, Anne-Claire reached out for him, pulled him flush against her. Justin gasped, then brought up an arm between them.

"But you have to tell me first," Justin quickly added. "You have to -- I need to know about him before I agree to anything else."

Anne-Claire looked at him in apparent fascination. " JC must have been ridiculously gentle with you," she said quietly. "I don't know what makes you think any vampire would ever bargain with a human for blood. If I want you, Justin, I'll simply take you."

That was when the fear really started, and as it spread through him, Justin watched Anne-Claire's pupils dilate, watched her delicately sniff the air and look down at him as if he were meat.

"Could you just -- before. Before you do it, if you're going to. Could you just tell me how he is, where he's gone?" Justin blurted out, because now she looked positively feral, and he was fairly certain he wasn't going to survive this encounter. Oh, JC, he thought sadly, and felt his heart ache.

"Oh, for god's sake," Anne-Claire said in disgust, and stepped back a bit. "I feel like I'm in the middle of a bad romance novel."

"You're in the middle of my life," Justin said slowly, and then looked beseechingly at her. "Anne-Claire, please."

"No," Anne-Claire said suddenly, and then, as Justin just opened his mouth to protest, went on. "No, I haven't heard from him, no he hasn't called me, and no he's probably not going to call me. That's not how it is between us."

"Oh," Justin said, and tried to hide his despair.

"And that's not how it was between the two of you, either," Anne-Claire said, her voice clear and knife sharp. "If you're thinking that you were special, Justin -- if you believe that he was in love with you, or you with him -- well, consider this. In the time I've known JC, I've seen him lure and discard countless humans, seen this sad drama play itself out over and over again."

"That's not how it was," Justin said stiffly, trying to ignore the pain stabbing through his gut, because that couldn't be true, could it?

"Come now," Anne-Claire said mockingly. "It can't be as bad as all that. Surely you have other things to live for."

Justin raised eyes to her and slowly shook his head. "None of it means anything without him," he said slowly.

Anne-Claire straightened up and then reached out and rearranged the lapels of his coat. "JC, JC, JC," she said softly, almost singing the name. "What have you done to this one?"

"He didn't do anything. It was -- it just happened," Justin mumbled.

Anne-Claire smiled almost pityingly at him. "All right, Justin," she finally said. "Off you go. Get out of my neighborhood."

"If I wanted to -- are there ways that vampires can get messages to each other?" Justin quickly asked, because already Anne-Claire was turning from him, and then, as she began walking away, added, "It's very, very important -- if you could please, please just help me, I'd --"

Anne-Claire turned around. "The best thing you can do for yourself right now is forget him, Justin. I can assure you that he's already forgotten you."

Justin stood very still and controlled his breathing until she had disappeared. "No he hasn't," he whispered.

~ ~ ~ ~

Mathilda sat quietly, her blue eyes warm but watchful. Justin shifted in his chair. Her office was always too hot, and he was more than a little uncomfortable with this scrutiny.

"I'm sorry," Mathilda said gently. "I know you don't like being studied. It's just that I've -- we've all been very worried about you. Now that we know how close we came to losing you, I think it will be our tendency to watch you closely, to look again for signs -- for signs of any unwellness. Please forgive us, and please know that it comes from fondness rather than any attempt to intrude."

"I know," Justin said impatiently, and then took a deep breath. "But I've been doing a lot better lately. Everyone says."

"Yes." Mathilda looked at a folder on her desk and nodded. "Chris has been very pleased with your work, as have several of the senior staff you've been helping out. It seems that you've become a first-class researcher, Justin."

Justin smiled. At one time, this would have been a very happy moment for him.

"And so I've been thinking -- well, we all have -- that it might be time, Justin. It might be time for you to consider your first fieldwork assignment."

"I -- that's wonderful," Justin said, because that's what you were supposed to say. "I'm honored, Mathilda. Thank you so much."

Mathilda smiled and nodded her congratulations. "Do you have a sense of where you might like to go, what you might like to do?"

Justin shrugged. "I'll do anything, really."

"There's not -- you haven't been particularly interested in any of the research you've been doing?"

Justin looked calmly at her. "I'm interested in it all, and I'll do anything; I'll go anywhere you need me to. It doesn't matter where."

"I see," Mathilda said, and then sat back in her chair and looked outside at the summer sun, the flowers in the garden, the few people out there braving the heat.

"You know, there was a time when you would have been chomping at the bit for this," she finally said, and Justin felt a pang of guilt as he heard the disappointment in her voice.

"I'm very excited," Justin told her. "I'm eager to help out the Order, and I'm glad to have done so well."

Mathilda sighed and looked beseechingly at him. "Oh, Justin. When will you come back to us? When are you finally going to let him go?"

Justin sat forward in his chair. "What do you want from me?" he asked in a low, angry voice. "I go out, I see people, I work hard, I have friends. And as you've just told me, I've done well in my work, too. Frankly, I don't think you or anyone has any right to be disappointed in me."

"I'm not disappointed. No one's disappointed. It's just that we miss you, Justin. We miss your energy, your joy, your enthusiasm."

Ignoring the pleading in Mathilda's voice, Justin looked at the flowered carpet and traced a vine from one corner of the room to another. "I think I've changed a bit, maybe grown up."

Mathilda looked sadly at him. "Yes. Well. That's one word for it."

~ ~ ~ ~

As he walked back to his room, Justin's mind whirled. He could go to Egypt; he could go to Iceland; he could go to France -- anywhere in the world, practically, people from the Order were doing research. It would be so good to get out of England, so good to -- well, to be in a new place. And maybe, just maybe, he could do a little investigative work on the sly.

His room was cool and dark, and Justin sank onto his bed, his eyes falling shut as a familiar heaviness spread over him.

"I don't know if I can do this much longer, JC," he said into the silence.

~ ~ ~ ~

Family night had gone well.

"Oh my god," Lance laughed, stumbling out of the suburban house, his face red and sated. "JC, you twisted, sick fuck."

JC slowly looked up from the pool side chair he'd been reclining in, then went back to attempting to clean the blood off his shirt. It was one of his favorite new ones and he was more than a little annoyed with himself for having been so sloppy.

"So they're all gone?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah," Lance said, then looked at his watch. "How much do you want to clean?"

"We're leaving L.A. tonight?"

"Yeah," Lance said, and JC stood up, sighing and writing off the shirt as ruined.

"Let's just go, then."

Lance grinned and nodded. "Have I told you how magnificent you've been lately, JC? Really, you're surpassing yourself."

JC nodded but didn't really respond. The fact of the matter was that his boredom was back, and when he got bored, really the only thing that interested him was thinking up new ways of killing. Lance should have known that -- if Lance had thought about it, he definitely would have known it, and maybe other things, too, but Lance was still too eager for them to get along well for that kind of conversation to happen. JC had only recently started talking to him again in more than monosyllables, so it was no great surprise he hadn't called him on it.

Since they had several hours before their flight, they headed back to the city, Lance to a club to meet his friend Joey, and JC ostensibly to meet friends of his own at a different place. Once Lance was out of sight, however, JC headed to the UCLA campus instead, eyes sharp as he searched for a copy store. This was the last visible holdover from his stupid, tragic love affair, and JC didn't want Lance, or anyone, to know that he maybe wasn't quite as completely over it as everyone thought. One hand over the blood on his shirt, JC moved quickly and surely through the horrible fluorescent Kinkos universe to the computers, then pulled out a credit card and logged in to surf the Web. A second later, he was on the Order's private, encrypted Web site; a second later than that, he had logged into the members' services and began scanning for a certain name. When he found it, JC hissed quietly to himself -- as much as he longed to see the name, it still felt strange and awful to see the letters, to be reminded that Justin was out there living and breathing and doing things without JC.

Lots of things, apparently, JC thought as he noted that now Justin was being sent to Sydney. He traveled the world tirelessly, apparently accepting any fieldwork that would take him out of England. JC tried not to think too much about what that meant, or to indulge the coil of excitement that rose in him when he broke the rule and did it anyway. Moving to the members' only message board, JC quickly searched for messages written by Justin, found nothing, and then felt rage at himself for having done it at all.

He abruptly logged off the computer, standing and striding quickly out of the store. JC grimaced as he walked through hordes of college students, all of them close in age to Justin, all of them with that same awful, earnest look to them. Really, he didn't think about it much, but sometimes the longing to see Justin seized him with almost frightening intensity. It was demeaning and it was intolerable to have so little self-control, and JC had more than once engaged in uncompromising self-loathing in regard to own weakness, his inability to let Justin go once and for all. Tonight, he had a feeling, was going to be another of those times.

At least the dreams were becoming slightly less frequent, dreams so vivid and so painful JC woke up with both a hard on and tears in his eyes, scarcely able to decide which need to indulge first. Lance had noticed this, but Lance had for once kept quiet about it. There was a careful, taut silence between them on the subject of Justin. Ever since JC had come home on their last night in London, looked hard at Lance, and said, "He’s not coming. It’s done," Lance had stepped back, apparently deciding to let JC grieve in whatever way he best saw fit. This was wise on Lance's part.

As he walked past a bookstore, JC grimaced and looked carefully away, then swore under his breath as an image of Justin in Brazil sprung up in his head, Justin tanned and happy, his brow wrinkled as he read some hefty tome on the history of goblins or whatever, as he pursued the goals he had originally set out for himself. Although he would never be a fan of the Order, JC was oddly proud of Justin’s success in it. Now that they no longer had his file, their hold on him was nil, so JC could afford to be a little more tolerant when he and Lance occasionally encountered them on their travels, to let go of the worst of the resentment. Sometimes JC did quick, furtive scans of their clueless scholarly minds, searching for thoughts about Justin. No one was ever thinking about him. It was sad.

JC didn't want to walk anymore; it was hot and he was grumpy and he was unhappy, and so he headed into a bar that looked pretty much deserted and ordered a Corona to pretend to drink. JC stared at the table scored with old cigarette burns (though no smoking was allowed now), the peanut shells on the ground, the long, sweet neck of the waiter who occasionally checked in on him.

On the face of it, his life was what it had always been: he fed, he lived well, he engaged in reasonable risks in order to keep things amusing. Always before this had sufficed -- there had been long periods of ennui, to be sure, but that was to be expected; that was simply part of being a vampire. However, since he'd last held Justin to him and then left him forever, JC's wonderful life hadn't seemed quite so wonderful; in fact, it had become outright boring, wearying even. JC sighed heavily and felt rage boil up in him. So useless to moon like this, so utterly stupid to have let a human get to his heart like this. If he didn't watch himself, he'd still be grieving for Justin even years after he was dead, caught helplessly in a morass of longing and regret, weakened forever, compromised and pathetic. And yet if he finally did forget Justin, if he allowed himself to let go completely, then life would be utterly without motivation or reason, a useless cycle of eating and sleeping.

JC made a short, unhappy noise and clenched his teeth. This was no good; this was exhausting. If things didn't get better soon, he wasn't sure what he was going to do. JC looked at his watch, then slowly got up. Time to find Lance and stop being such a sentimental fool.

~ ~ ~ ~

It was the silence that awoke her. Not that the desert was ever noisy, but usually the first thing she heard in the morning was the clatter of activity around her tent, the sound of other team members moving around, speaking, striking their tents. She blinked slowly, raising an arm to shield her eyes from the brightness of the sun against her canvas, and that was wrong too. She was rarely the first one up in the morning, but she was never the last, either. She sat up, suddenly afraid that she was alone out in the middle of the desert, that the rest of the camp had deserted her, or that the mysterious moving oasis they were here to document had swept her away. All of these possibilities were ridiculous. The strange desert phenomenon they were hunting hadn’t even been found yet, and Justin and the other team members would certainly never leave her here. But she rushed to prepare to leave her tent anyway, hastily pulling on her clothing and tying back her hair.

She was a little breathless as she pulled her tent flap back and dived into the bright sunshine, her eyes squinting a little as they accustomed themselves. She looked around, puzzled.

The three of them had pitched their tents on opposite sides of a small clump of desert shrubbery, sheltered against the outcropping of desert rocks that sheltered the oasis. Mihail’s tent stood open to the early morning sun, but Justin’s slightly larger one was silent and still zipped up. This was unusual, and she frowned thoughtfully.

On the other side of the dune she could hear the muffled clatter of the rest of the caravan, finishing the morning meal and preparing to pack up and move. A few steps up the dune showed her that Justin was not among them. She looked around, puzzled. Mihail was near the camp tent, finishing his breakfast and speaking cheerfully with others from the caravan, but Justin was nowhere in sight. He’d looked very tired lately, but could he possibly be still asleep?

Perhaps he was simply taking an early morning walk, she thought, but her skin crawled and she cast another concerned look at his silent tent. The caravan chief approached, offering her breakfast and she was able to ask him, in her halting Arabic, if he had seen Mr. Timberlake yet that morning? He shook his head slowly and mounted the small sand dune to stand beside her, his weathered face and narrowed eyes easily surveying the surrounding landscape. There was no sign of anyone on a solitary walk, and he dropped his hand and suggested that perhaps Mr. Timberlake was still sleeping. But she could see the concern in his eyes as he turned to look at Justin’s tent, zipped up and neatly secured from the inside. After two weeks in the desert, he knew as well as she did that Justin was usually not only the last one up at night but the first to rise in the morning, and that often he seemed to be awake all night long.

Mihail approached and she was grateful for his fine language skills as she explained the situation to him and he politely asked the caravan chief to take his time packing, explaining that they wouldn’t be ready to move on until Mr. Timberlake was ready to do so. The chief was reluctant, despite the fact that this caravan’s journey was largely financed by Order money, but Mihail was polite and very insistent, and he finally agreed.

She could sense the chief’s unease as he moved back toward the camp, however. He was highly superstitious; already there were vague thoughts nudging the corners of his mind of fairy tales he’d heard as a child, of evil spirits that came to the desert in the night and made away with people. He would ask her again in half an hour, she knew, and at that time would insist that Justin be woken up.

Mihail followed her as she turned back to her their tents, trudging down the slight slope as the sun began to heat up the day. She couldn’t even go fifteen minutes without a hat here, her fair complexion was no match for this climate. Justin was even worse; he looked like he hadn’t been out in the sun in years.

They stood together and frowned thoughtfully at Justin’s silent tent. Mihail had joined them in Cairo; he was a member of the Order who had spent most of his time in the Middle East, and his language skills and knowledge of the culture had proved invaluable. His telepathy skills were negligible, but he was kind and honest and personable, and she’d been more than grateful for his assistance on this trip. Without him, she wouldn’t have had anyone to talk to, considering how withdrawn Justin Timberlake was.

He agreed that Justin had looked very tired lately, and that they should let him sleep as long as he could. With another long look at Justin’s silent tent, she crawled inside her own and rolled up her bedroll, preparing to pack up. She would leave the noisy dismantling of her tent until last, she told herself, giving Justin the opportunity for rest.

She maneuvered awkwardly in the small tent, gathering her belongings and lining them up beside her carefully rolled bedroll, still frowning. She’d overheard a story from an Order member who’d been on a field assignment with Justin in Australia earlier that year, commenting that Justin didn’t seem to ever sleep, that once in the middle of the night he’d gone down to the hotel desk for some aspirin and he’d seen Justin sitting quietly on the bar’s dark balcony, an untouched drink at his elbow, his eyes on the silent Sydney harbor. Just sitting, the man had said. Like he was waiting for something.

It was only one of several Justin Timberlake stories floating quietly around the Order, and she huffed impatiently as she neatly packed her few things. He had a well-deserved reputation as an incredibly gifted telepath, a meticulous and careful scholar, and a fearless field researcher. In the ten months she’d been based at the London house she’d never seen or heard of him making a wrong move.

But for some reason people talked about him. Older members discussed him in hushed tones and quickly became silent when she or any of the other novices came within earshot. She was enough of a telepath herself to understand that in addition to his accolades Justin appeared to have something of a scandalous reputation, and when she’d first arrived in London she’d been interested enough in him to try to find out what that was.

It certainly wasn’t because he was promiscuous, although such a thing would not have surprised her. He was young for a full-fledged member, and very attractive with his tall figure and short curls and bright blue eyes. But he seemed uninterested in social activities, she’d noticed early on. Even when the new novices went out of their way to invite him to parties or clubs (and they always invited him; she was not the only one interested in Justin Timberlake) he declined with a polite smile and complete disinterest. In fact, she’d noticed after carefully observing him, he seemed to have very few close friends in the London house. Mathilda, certainly, and the man who’d been his mentor when he was a novice. But those two were the only ones that she’d seen him treat with any genuine warmth. To everyone else he was polite and unfailingly courteous, but reserved. Distant, she thought.

It had been her own youth and curiosity and shamefully romantic nature that had made her decide he had some sort of tragic secret. Perhaps a lover had jilted him or died tragically, and his heart had been broken. She’d nursed this idea guiltily as she’d secretly dug for information about him, about his life.

Careful perusals of the Order’s files showed her that Justin was often assigned projects that would take him to remote places all over the world, and that he never protested such assignments although he’d more than earned the right to the cushier ones in more civilized areas. He rarely took time off, the last being a short trip to visit his family in Tennessee the previous year. He didn’t seem to have any friends outside the Order, he didn’t take vacations. His work seemed to be his whole life.

She’d also found a big empty space in his Order history. A space of several months where Justin had finished no reports, conducted no research, attended or conducted no classes. It was like he’d taken a leave of absence, she noted with interest. As if he hadn’t been there at all. And this time in Justin’s history coincided with dramatic improvements to the London house’s security measures, things that had been done when a vampire had, apparently, taken offense at the interest the Order had shown in him. There was nothing to indicate that the two things were related, although her instincts told her they were.

She carefully pulled her pack and bedroll out of her tent, stacking them beside it and sitting on the bedroll, her eyes thoughtful on Justin’s still silent tent. She’d learned nothing about him on this trip that would indicate that he had anything in his life other than his work. Usually field work forced you to get to know the people on your team, and she admitted to herself that this was exactly what she’d hoped for when she’d been assigned to take this trip as a junior member.

But Justin remained as cool and distant as ever. Always courteous and polite, but formal, reserved. There was no camaraderie between them -- tough to avoid with two telepaths on a remote field assignment. Their only conversation was work-related, and her one tentative foray at establishing a mental rapport had been met with a dizzying mental image of a thick, high stone wall, a clear warning. She’d been embarrassed, and more than a little disappointed.

When she’d first arrived at the Order’s London house she’d been thrilled when she was informed that Justin Timberlake would be her mentor. She was already intrigued by him, and it seemed to her that this would be the perfect opportunity to spend some time with him, get to know him. The other high-level novices had been envious, she remembered with a little smile.

But the very next day Mathilda had called her to her office and explained kindly that they would be assigning her a different mentor, that Justin had too heavy a workload right now and was not available. She’d suggested timidly that perhaps she could help him with his workload; that her novice training in the United States had been exhaustive and her work had always been highly praised. There had been something in Mathilda’s eyes that told her she agreed, that Justin having assistance would, in her opinion, be a very good thing. But her suggestion had been gently refused, and she’d caught a stray thought from Mathilda’s formidable mind which hinted that Justin had flatly refused to have a novice assigned to him. Any novice, but especially her. Apparently he’d viewed her enthusiasm for working with him as a nuisance.

It had been both sobering and humiliating, and she had decided then and there to not trouble him further. Whatever his secrets were, he could keep them.

It didn’t keep her from watching him, though. He was too handsome to ignore, especially now when they were somewhat isolated and far from the usual distractions of the busy motherhouse. She hadn’t been able to keep from stealing glances at him as he moved about the camp, rode the camel assigned to him on the caravan, poured over maps by the flickering kerosene lights in the evenings. Two nights ago she’d come upon him unexpectedly as he sponge bathed by the shallow metal tub they kept for such purposes, his body long and pale and glistening with moisture in the bright desert moonlight.

She’d been frozen for a moment in admiration but had started to turn away almost immediately, not wanting to invade Justin’s privacy. She’d hesitated, however, when she’d seen the heavy, ornate pendant hanging around his neck, its chain glowing dimly against his pale skin. It seemed so incongruous and gothic in this spare desert setting, and oddly out of character for Justin. As far as she’d seen, Justin didn’t wear any jewelry, although his ears were pierced. Just then he’d leaned over to rinse his hair and the pendant had slipped to the side, exposing a burn scar centered on his chest. It seemed to match the shape of the pendant, and something about it made her shiver.

It was fascinating, she’d thought as she moved silently away and back to the camp. She’d never seen that pendant hanging outside of his clothing. It seemed too old, too ornate to be a casual piece of jewelry. She wondered what it meant, but knew better than to ask him.

She shook herself out of her memories and ruminations, conscious that the sun had climbed higher into the sky and that it was up to her to wake Justin. The caravan chief wouldn’t wait much longer.

Taking a deep breath she crossed the small campsite and approached his tent, rapping ineffectually on the thick canvas sides as she called his name. He responded with an acknowledgment that was more like a grunt, his voice thick and groggy. Concerned, she rapped again.

"Yeah, I’m all right," he said slowly, but her alarm mounted at the thready tone of his voice. As the zippers were slowly undone from the inside she crouched to look in at him, frowning in concern.

He was not all right, she could see that immediately. His eyes were hugely dilated, seeming almost black even in the brightness of the day. His face was deathly pale but hectic color slashed across his cheeks. His lips were cracked and parched, and as she questioned him urgently he sat back, then laid slowly down on his bedroll, closing his eyes wearily. Crawling in after him she laid a hand across his forehead, gasping at the heat. Fever. A bad one.

Further questions elicited the information that he’d been bitten by something while out walking in the desert the previous night. Something small that had scuttled away before he could get a good look at it; he didn’t know what it was. But apparently, he said with a small smile, it packed quite a punch. There was a livid bruise on his foot surrounding a small, hard swelling.

She gave him water, which he drank thirstily, and asked Mihail to fetch the caravan chief. There was nobody with a medical background on the caravan, but hopefully the chief would know what sort of insect bite it was, and would suggest a remedy. But when he arrived at Justin’s tent and inspected the small wound, his brow creased in confusion. It wasn’t a scorpion, or any sort of snake, he said positively. Most likely it was a harmless sort of insect, something that Mr. Timberlake was highly allergic to. And she agreed; even to her untutored eye, Justin’s symptoms looked much more like an allergic reaction than a response to a bite.

The question then became what to do about it, and the next few hours were divided between frantic activity and a fretful vigilance. Justin grew steadily worse, his fever rising despite the rudimentary first aid they could give him. The caravan chief could not hold up the entire caravan for one sick man, but he would leave them supplies and their camels, and with a little luck they could easily catch up to him the next day or join with the next caravan that would be visiting this oasis within the week. But she fancied she saw a certain relief in his eyes as he moved away to collect the caravan and move off into the desert, caught his unguarded thoughts about evil spirits. She knew that he did not expect to see the three of them again, and was glad.

The day wore on and Justin grew worse, lapsing into a delirium that caused him to thrash and murmur incoherently. She and Mihail watched him closely and tried to keep his baking skin cool with the lukewarm water from the oasis, but nothing they did had any effect.

Just past noon she shook Justin gently. Mihail was more accustomed to desert travel than she. He had a camel, and a compass, and knew the way to the closest town, which was only half a day’s ride away. He would go get help, she told Justin, a doctor who would know what to do. Justin nodded weakly, his eyes slipping shut. As Mihail prepared to go, his face drawn with concern, she lowered the flaps on Justin’s tent to protect his eyes from the glare of the desert, and settled in the shade of the oasis to wait. If Mihail hurried and was lucky, he would return before midnight.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin lay in his own sweat and watched his chest rise and fall rapidly, watched and knew distantly that he wasn't getting enough air, knew that something was very, very wrong with him. He had been in and out of consciousness all last night, his thoughts unformed and chaotic. Everyone had been fussing over him today: the nice woman who was staying with him while they fetched the doctor, the man with the friendly smile, a series of people he'd known and worked with -- all of them came in to squeeze his hand and to say soft, reassuring things to him. Justin saw their faces and knew them, but for some reason, their names had evaded him -- even now, he couldn't recall them. Part of him suspected that he was hallucinating -- it really seemed unlikely that he’d have so many visitors in the desert -- but it really didn't matter in the end, did it? Justin looked lethargically at the walkie talkie his young friend had left with him. "Call me if you need anything," she'd said, but he didn't need anything; he didn't need or want anything in the world. Wanting took up too much energy.

His throat and mouth were dry as sand and his eyes were burning. The corners of the world had softened and everything he looked at was luminous and indistinct. The world was really so beautiful, but all Justin really wanted at this point was stillness and silence, a safe, calm place free of worry and sadness and striving. He had been trying so hard, struggling for years now to keep despair at bay. It had been exhausting and he had failed anyway. Life shouldn't have to be that exhausting. It shouldn't be nothing but a series of disappointments.

Don't try to find me, JC had said, and JC had probably been right. And now I'm going to die alone, Justin thought. A heavy, dullness rushed through him at the thought; it was something like sadness, but at the same time, there was considerable relief in it. It would feel so good just to let go, to stop worrying and hurting and put his head down forever. It would be wonderful to finally be unburdened from pain, to retreat.

Justin struggled to sit up, the world spinning dizzily around him. He wanted to open his tent, wanted to get rid of the stifling airlessness and look out at the desert sky, to contemplate something vast. Slowly, painfully, he swung one foot out of bed and reached for the flap of the tent with a shaking hand. It took forever just to grasp the zipper; he was ridiculously weak now, trembling and unsure. He had to pause a couple of times to collect himself, but finally he managed to create an opening in the tent. Justin fell back onto his cot, head pounding, his chest again rising and falling rapidly. He couldn't get enough air, he couldn't see, the thoughts in his mind were slowing down. For a moment Justin simply closed his eyes and tried to relax. If it was going to happen now, he should just accept it.

After an indistinct amount of time -- Justin was no longer sure whether minutes or hours were passing -- he slowly, painfully resituated himself in the cot so he could look outside. It was as he'd hoped: a dark, unending sky, moonlight, nothing but sand and space, impenetrable and fathomless. A breeze slowly wafted into the tent, the cool air like a breath on his sweaty skin, and it was all so beautiful Justin felt tears spring to his eyes. God had made a perfect night for him.

He had scattered thoughts about his mother, and for a few moments wished desperately for her to be there with him, for her calm, gentle touch on his forehead, her gentle presence, her sweetness. His cell phone was a few feet away in his backpack, but Justin was too tired to reach for it, much less to contemplate talking to her right now. She would understand. She would understand why things had worked out this way.

Oh god, he thought and realized that there were hot tears streaming from his eyes. JC didn't know that he'd never stopped loving him, that he never would stop loving him; JC didn't know that if he had it to do over again, Justin wouldn't have refused to come with him during their final conversation. Justin wanted so badly to touch his face, to feel JC's arms around him, to be reminded that what they had had was real, that he hadn't made it up, hadn't imagined an affection that wasn't there. Normally these thoughts lurked at the back of his mind, painful but manageable. Right now, however, they cut his heart, gave almost unbearable pain. For years his only desire had been for one last conversation, one last encounter. Now that need became agony.

Eventually, however, even that pain faded away, and Justin lay quietly for a very long time, eyes on the dark sky and the bright stars, the moonlight, the eddies and curves of the sand. It was getting very late and he was laboring to breathe. Exhausted, he let his eyes fall slowly shut and waited. It shouldn’t be long now.

~ ~ ~ ~

A few minutes or hours later, Justin slowly raised his head, then let it fall back again. He made a quiet, resigned sound and then watched the night again. Where there was once a clear, even line between sky and earth, he now saw a swirl of things, watched stars move in the skies, watched the sand slither in maddening, intricate patterns on the ground. And far in the distance there was a figure in white, someone making his way slowly toward the tent, his movements so graceful and so precise it almost reminded Justin of --

Justin smiled and felt immense gratefulness. If he were going to have a final vision, that was enough, that was what he wanted: JC heading for him. He closed his eyes and held tight to it.

Amazingly, the figure was still there a little later, only closer now, and it was definitely JC's gait -- he knew it perfectly even after all these years -- and he was in white and Justin couldn't see his face yet but he was going to be so beautiful when he got here, so lovely, and he would hold Justin's hand while he died. Hurry, hurry, Justin thought to him, and closed his eyes once more.

Vaguely he thought he heard footsteps, the rustling of clothing, the quiet shirring of the rest of the zipper at the flap of the tent, but now Justin was fading in and out of consciousness and it was hard to focus for long. He lay quietly and slowly opened his eyes, and then dragged in a quick breath that made him veer dizzily and almost lose consciousness, because this vision was so much like JC it almost hurt to look at him. Oh, he was beautiful, even though he was clearly very worried or unhappy about something. His eyes were the same silver-blue Justin had remembered, and they were deep and sad with love. Justin tried to reach out to him, to take his hand, but he couldn't seem to move.

JC moved to the side of the bed and took his fingers for him, and Justin would have arched his back if he could, would have done anything to get closer to him. It had been so, so long, and it hurt so much to see him like this. JC's fingers were cool against his, and Justin felt his own ring pressing into his skin and wanted to smile. He was so real, so vivid, that Justin couldn't keep himself from trying to talk to him although he was far too weak to form words.

I love you, he thought. I love you so much, and then smiled inwardly as the answering response filled his mind, as JC's love seemed to surround him, to comfort him, to finally take away everything that was unbearable. Justin gazed at him in adoration and prepared himself. Everything was done now.

"Are you ready to go?" JC softly asked, his voice low and his eyes shining hungrily, eagerly.

Justin smiled and said yes.

~ ~ ~ ~

The sound of approaching camels woke her sometime after midnight with a jolt, shaking her out of the heavy slumber she’d fallen into just before the sun set. Unbelievably and despite her worry over Justin’s steadily worsening condition it seemed she had slept very deeply; her eyes were almost sealed shut with sleep, and her mouth felt like it had been packed with dry cotton. A sharp headache throbbed between her eyes as she stood shakily to greet Mihail and the man she hoped was a doctor.

They had been lucky, Mihail told her as he dismounted from his tired camel. He’d made it to the small desert town before nightfall and found a doctor at their first aid center willing, for the sizable donation he’d made to the center on behalf of the Order, to ride out with him to the campsite. She greeted the doctor gratefully, trying to shake the grogginess out of her head as she led him to Justin’s tent. She lit a small kerosene lantern and held it aloft as she prepared to enter.

The tent was empty.

She gaped in absolute shock. She quite simply could not believe her eyes, and she backed up and cast a frantic glance around the campsite. She’d been asleep not ten feet away; if there had been any movement at all surely she would have been alerted.

The three of them searched the campsite with gradually growing alarm. There were no signs of disturbance; Justin’s camel was tied up and chewing its cud peacefully, the tent and Justin’s belongings, her own tent and pack and Mihail’s were exactly as they’d left them. Justin had been far too weak and feverish to have gotten up and walked away. His tousled bedroll was undisturbed, as were his pack and personal belongings. Everything was exactly the way it had been when she fell asleep, except that Justin was gone.

Mihail was atop the sand dune and she joined him with her binoculars, scanning all around the campsite. The moon was huge and bloated in the clear sky, illuminating the desert for miles in every direction, but there was no sign of life. Frantic now, she closed her eyes and reached out, stretching as far as she could in every direction. Even with Justin’s legendary mental barriers, if he were lost, delirious, wandering, she would be able to find him.

But the silence of the desert was oppressive and absolute, making her shiver even with the residual warmth of the sand, still bake with the day’s heat. There was nothing. Nothing.

"It happens," the doctor said philosophically. "People can go crazy in the desert, they go out of their minds and wander, chasing mirages . . ." It was on the tip of her tongue to correct him, but she swallowed the sharp words. They would serve no purpose.

She continued to feel oppressed by the looming silence of the desert as they continued to search, losing hope as the hours ticked away. When the sun came up they slowly packed their things, loading the camels and preparing to return to civilization. She thought about Justin, his silence and reserve, of her memories of him walking the desert alone at night, the reports of him sitting silently in the dark, of her own vague feelings that he’d been disconnected, waiting. As she turned the camel toward town and left the desert behind, she hoped sadly that he’d found what he was looking for.

Chapter Text

~ ~ ~ ~

Epilogue

~ ~ ~ ~

It began with a cold and nameless sort of dread, waking Chris several hours before his alarm and driving him out of his comfortable bed and into the silent halls of the sleeping motherhouse. He paced for hours, trying to pinpoint the source of his unease, but all was quiet and peaceful. Nothing had disturbed the house during the night. Nobody was ill, no one had received distressing news, there was no repeat of the vampire invasion from a few years ago. He took a silent trip through the library, smiling at a couple of sleepy novices pulling all-nighters on their research projects, but there was nothing there to cause his alarm. The lobby was empty, the dining room closed, the kitchens quiet. The people on security duty reported an uneventful night. Chris made another lap, frowning thoughtfully, trying to focus. But whatever was bothering him wasn’t coming from the motherhouse.

The sun was climbing the sky when he returned to his room to check his messages. A cheerful email from his mother in Florida, chatty and full of news of his sisters and their doings. It had been sent only a few hours ago; everything seemed fine with his immediate family. Other friends had made contact recently -- Tim was on a field assignment in British Columbia and seemed to be enjoying himself immensely -- one of his former novices had sent a research query from Hong Kong. He hadn’t heard from Justin and his team, but didn’t expect to for at least a couple of weeks. Justin’s last phone call, almost a week ago, had been routine and relaxed. Chris had teased him about having to cart a junior member with a crush around the desert, making Justin laugh ruefully. It was a little bit of a victory; Justin didn’t laugh as easily as he had a few years ago. But the field project had been going smoothly and Justin had seemed well. And everything seemed fine with all the people closest to Chris. Everything was routine, everything seemed okay.

But something was wrong somewhere. Troubled, Chris leaned back in his desk chair and stared unseeingly out the window at the bright London morning. There seemed nothing to be concerned about but if anything, his unease was increasing. He closed his eyes, taking deep breaths and trying to locate the source of the dread, the lurking sense of menace that was making his stomach knot and his skin prickle with goose bumps.

Eventually he shook himself philosophically and got ready for his day. He had a full one: classes to teach, a new novice to meet with, projects of his own to give attention to. Whatever was wrong would make itself clear to him soon enough.

But his disquiet grew steadily through the day, and by nightfall he found himself pacing around the library’s main lobby and staring blankly out its windows, drawing the irritation of the room’s other occupants. He was completely unable to concentrate on his own work, and seeing that his restlessness was disrupting others, he left the library and went in search of Mathilda.

He found her alone in the atrium on the edge of the west wing of the great house, watching the sun set beyond the London skyline with her laptop idle on the table next to her. She greeted him as warmly as always, but she seemed distracted, as if her mind was far away.

Chris launched into his vaguely prescient emotions of dread and menace, and Mathilda sat up and focused on him intently as he explained. For the hundredth time Chris was grateful for her complete lack of skepticism. Even in an organization like the Order where an open mind was absolutely essential, Mathilda’s easy acceptance of such things made her remarkable.

Mathilda regarded him thoughtfully as he finished, and Chris sensed her sharp attention. "Do you think there’s something wrong with Justin?" she asked abruptly, and Chris blinked at her in surprise, completely taken aback.

"With Justin? I don’t know," he said slowly. "I don’t know who it could be. I haven’t heard from Justin in a few days, but, I mean . . ." he trailed off, frowning at the grim line of Mathilda’s mouth. "Do you?" he asked finally, and realized that his heartbeat had accelerated. His hands were gripping the edge of his chair hard.

"I don’t know," she said quickly. "It seems -- well, it’s very odd that you would be having these feelings just now," she said thoughtfully. "Right before you came in I was dozing, it’s so peaceful here . . ." She trailed off and shrugged a little, and Chris smiled at her slight blush. "Just a short nap, really, but I had the oddest dream."

She returned her gaze to the deepening dusk outside the atrium’s clear glass, frowning. "I dreamed of that time a few years ago. You remember, Chris. The vampire, and Justin."

Chris nodded, his throat suddenly dry. Thinking about that time always upset him and made him angry, but tonight he felt more; the vague alarm he’d been struggling with all day seemed to be growing. Mathilda continued in her soft, even voice.

"I dreamt that the vampire came in to the house, like before," she said quietly. "But Justin wasn’t here; we’d hidden him in a vault in the archive, thinking we’d keep him safe that way." She turned her large, beautiful gray eyes to Chris’s as darkness fell outside. "We were all terrified, hiding in the security room and watching the vampire on the monitors, it was so odd," she murmured. "But we could hear Justin’s voice." She paused, frowning as she rubbed a hand wearily over her forehead. "At first I thought he was calling for us, that he was frightened at being alone in the archive vault, and you and I were trying to speak with him and calm him. But then I realized, well, it seemed to me that he wasn’t calling for us at all. It seemed that Justin was calling the vampire. That he wanted to be found." She sighed heavily. "It was a dream I was happy to wake up from."

Chris sat silently beside her, feeling his stomach clench anxiously. "But that would be a coincidence, right?" he finally asked. "I mean, that was years ago, Justin is over it, and there hasn’t been even a whisper of anything like that happening since."

Mathilda nodded slowly, but her expression remained grim. "I never felt like I handled that situation properly," she said slowly. "We did everything correctly and by the book, but I don’t think we served Justin as well as we could have. You’ll agree, Chris, that the Justin we have now, working so tirelessly – and grimly – on behalf of the Order, is not the same Justin who originally joined us."

Chris couldn’t dispute that, so he stayed silent. Together they watched the moon rise slowly in the east.

"I don’t know what to do," Chris admitted finally. "I know something is wrong, I feel like there must be something we can do. Something, somehow."

Mathilda smiled ruefully at him. "There’s nothing we can do," she said sadly, turning her eyes to the cold white moon as it rose in the sky. "All we can do now is wait and hope for the best."

~ ~ ~ ~

The telephone call that Chris had both feared and been waiting for came late the next day, from deep in the Egyptian desert.

~ ~ ~ ~

The meeting with the surviving members of the team was inconclusive. Mathilda later told Chris that except for one team member’s mysterious sleep during the crucial last hours of Justin’s illness, protocol had been followed to the letter.

"Yes," Chris had answered angrily, bitter with grief and rage. "To the letter, except for the part about where Justin was out of his mind with sickness and she fell asleep instead of watching him."

"But she handled herself well," Mathilda reminded Chris gently, her own eyes red and swollen. "And I know I don’t have to remind you what a powerful telepath Justin was. Weak, delirious, maybe raving with illness and fever, it’s not out of the question that Justin caused her strange sleep. You know as well as I that such things often happen when sensitives lose their minds," she said. "Blaming her is wrong. She did everything she could do, and she and Mihail did an extraordinary job organizing the search for Justin."

Chris muttered angrily and Mathilda’s voice sharpened. "Chris. I know you’re angry, and that you’re looking to place blame. And I understand. But you can’t blame Justin’s team members. They already blame themselves, and feel so much guilt." She sighed, placing her hand lightly on Chris’s arm as Chris struggled with his grief, his fury. "It’s over. You have to let it go," she said gently, and Chris nodded, reluctantly.

Mathilda hugged him gently and left to make the painful telephone call to Justin’s family in Tennessee. The sad task of packing Justin’s personal belongings and shipping them to his family fell to Chris.

Opening and entering Justin’s rooms was one of the hardest things Chris had ever done. Not because Justin’s presence was particularly vivid there – but precisely because it wasn’t.

Chris had memories of late nights in Justin’s sitting room, drinking beer and shooting the shit, laughing and joking, but as he looked slowly around he realized that those memories were years out of date. The room he stood in was tidy but sterile, and although Justin was gone more than he had been here in the last year and half, the emptiness was too strong to be the result of his absence.

As Chris closed the door behind him and took a deep breath he thought the room felt like the room of someone who had died not recently, but years ago. Other than a few books and a dusty photo of his mother and brothers on the desk, there was nothing about the room proclaimed it to be Justin’s. No knickknacks, no souvenirs, no personal pieces of art or decorative touches. Even the clothes in the closet and bureau were unremarkable. The rooms were completely devoid of Justin’s energy, his enthusiasm, his vibrant personality.

Unable to face Justin’s silent and echoing bedroom, Chris turned to his small traveling trunk, placed on the sitting room floor in the corner. The rooms held very few items worth sending to Justin’s family; his mother had requested that his clothing be donated to charity, and only his personal items and books be shipped to Tennessee. What he had so far, Chris thought sadly, wasn’t enough to fill a single box.

Justin’s travel trunk was of excellent quality, strong but lightweight and perfectly sealed. Nevertheless a small rain of fine desert sand sprinkled to the floor when Chris lifted the lid, making his mouth tighten grimly. Inside there was clothing -- light colored linens appropriate for the desert -- Justin’s compass, his cell phone, his new ultra-thin laptop in its slender case. There was a small, flat box containing his wallet and passport, a pamphlet on ancient Egyptian languages that made Chris smile a little, and a couple of wallet-sized pictures of his family. There were also several notebooks containing dry, factual diaries of the field work as it progressed; Chris set these aside to take to the archives.

These were all things that had been in Justin’s hands on a daily basis, yet Chris didn’t get a strong sense of him from any of them. It was almost as if a stranger had inhabited Justin’s body, done his work, made his notes and packed his trunk.

Chris leaned in to examine the carefully wrapped items at the very bottom of the trunk. The small flat box was from a boutique right here in London, and as Chris opened it and drew out the blue scarf he was suddenly overcome with a flood of emotion -- anxiety buried beneath a painful excitement, an awareness that was shocking in its erotic potency. He had a confused impression of Justin wrapping the scarf carefully around his own neck, of being naked and delirious with arousal as a handsome man with bright blue-grey eyes bent close to him, smiling, of that same man standing in a shop and lifting the scarf to his face, feeling the softness of the cashmere, thinking of Justin and the color of his eyes.

Chris dropped the scarf as if it had burned his fingers, feeling his heart gallop in his chest. He stared for a moment, seeing the card at the bottom of the box, underneath where the scarf had laid carefully folded, the unfamiliar handwriting. Taking a deep breath and preparing himself, he reached in again, picking up several books on random subjects, a precious antique book on Beethoven, lovingly wrapped, a dog eared copy of Dracula, several other well-thumbed books. There was a small envelope containing a faded ticket stub from the symphony. A piece of heavy stationery wrapped around a book of matches from a nightclub in Paris.

Yet from each of these things Chris received an almost overwhelming flood of emotion. This confusing collection of items were the things that Justin had truly cared about, the things that he lifted carefully out of his trunk and held in the middle of the night, his mind swirling with regret and with a desperate longing so intense and despairing that the pain of it made Chris gasp.

Chris backed away from the trunk and sat shakily down on Justin’s couch, trying to bring his rapid breathing under control. He felt tears sting his eyes and covered his face, pressing his fingers into his eyes.

Chris had convinced himself that Justin was completely recovered from his encounters with the vampire more than two years ago. And Chris, who counted himself one of Justin’s closest friends and confidantes, had been completely fooled. Worse, he told himself bitterly. He’d been willing to let himself be fooled. He’d been so worried and angry about the threat to the Order, the threat to Justin’s health and sanity, that he had stopped paying attention. He’d stopped being a good friend. He hadn’t once looked beneath Justin’s calm and competent facade to see the young man writhing with pain underneath.

He’d been a terrible mentor, and an even worse friend. And now, Chris thought with despair, there was no way to make amends.

~ ~ ~ ~

Mathilda had quietly asked him to take care of gathering the reports from the desert team, and, once Justin’s rooms were cleaned out and his belongings returned to his family, to please make the appropriate notations in his personnel file, and close it.

The file had been sitting on Chris’s desk for three weeks now. But when he opened it he was forced to remember Justin as he’d first arrived at the Order: his youthful enthusiasm, his amazing talents, his dedication and determination to become a full member. And then he would contrast that with the Justin of the last few years, how the joy and enthusiasm had been replaced with grim determination. How he’d stopped going out, stopped going on vacations, stopped taking joy in his life. And each time Chris would close the file, unwilling and unable to deal with it this day.

But it was past time to deal with it, Chris told himself as he approached his office. Yes, he was sad, and yes, he felt more than a little guilty, but procrastination wasn’t doing him any good. He’d always remember Justin, and would never stop missing the young man who had been his friend. But Justin was gone, and it was time to let him rest.

Chris opened the door to his office, stooping to collect the mail that was scattered on the floor beneath the mail slot and setting it on the edge of his desk. He sat down heavily and took a deep breath. He had a dozen urgent projects that needed his attention, but first he was going to say goodbye to Justin. He pulled the personnel file from his inbox, and set it firmly in front of him.

He powered up his computer, flipping idly through his mail as he waited for it to boot up. Halfway through the stack there was a postcard, and although he often received postcards in his daily mail, for some reason the sight of this one made him freeze.

Sweat broke out on his brow as he pulled it slowly out of the stack of mail and his heart started pounding. His computer beeped, letting him know that it had Justin’s death certificate loaded, and the proper report forms available. And still Chris stared at the postcard.

It was a picture of the sunset from the beach at Rio de Janeiro, colorful and beautiful and vibrant. Chris stared, holding it with hands that were beginning to shake. Nobody he knew was in Rio on assignment or vacation, he thought numbly. His eyes flickered to Justin’s personnel file, to the death certificate displayed in color on his monitor.

He grit his teeth and turned the card over, seeing his name addressed in neat printing that he recognized from a hundred reports. He read the single line with eyes that swam.

Don’t look for us. You won’t find us, not ever.

Chris set the card down carefully on his desk, turning his chair so his back was to the card, the file, the monitor displaying Justin’s death certificate. He stared unseeingly out his window into the bright London morning, feeling the sun on his face as he closed his eyes in pain and finally allowed the tears to come.

~ ~ ~ ~

Later, much later, Chris opened a formal Order research file, carefully transferring Justin’s personnel files into the new manilla folder neatly labeled Justin Randall Timberlake -- Vampire. He placed a level four security restriction on it, and late that night carried it down to the lowest level of the archives. There he placed it in the sealed vault containing what little the Order knew of Joshua Scott Chasez. Then he sealed the door carefully behind him and walked away, leaving the archives in darkness.

~ ~ ~ ~

(end)