The More Things Change

By:  Julie

© 2000-2001

 

Julie jumped when the phone rang. She was so engrossed in the afghan she was making she hadn't noticed that the CDs in the changer had run their course and the apartment was silent, so the sudden noise had scared the bejeezes out of her.

 

"Hello?" she said, cradling the handset of the cordless between her neck and shoulder while she stretched and bent her cramped fingers.

 

"Hey baby, how you doin'?" the deep bass voice rumbled in her ear.

 

"Ooo, you know I just love it when you call me baby," she said dryly.

 

He chuckled. "Sorry sweetcheeks."

 

"Oh, that's much better...."

 

"Glad you like it. Now, what are you doing tonight?"

 

"No plans. Why, what's up?"

 

"There's a new little club in town and a few of us thought we'd go check it out. Live jazz music, relaxed atmosphere....."

 

Julie made a face. "Euch. Lance, you know I hate jazz."

 

"Oh I know, but it'll be fun. Chris and Dani will be there, and I think a couple other of Chris' friends, and Justin and Lara. You like her."

 

She laughed at his efforts to convince her to go. "It's not a matter of not liking your friends. It's just... I don't know, I feel like this is more of a stay in night. I'm sorry, sweetie. You go ahead without me." Truth be told, she did have plans for the night, but they involved nothing more than a bubble bath, a terrycloth robe, and curling up with a good book. Or a good man, whichever made itself more available. The book was looking good to win tonight. Step right up and place your bets.

 

"Are you sure?"

 

"Positive. Look, we're still on for tomorrow, right?"

 

"I'm yours all day and all night." She could hear the smile in his voice.

 

"Okay then. You go, have fun, say hi to everyone for me, and then stop here on your way home. We can start tomorrow with breakfast," she finished teasingly.

 

He moaned. "How did I get so lucky?"

 

"I still ask myself that sometimes."

 

"Gee, thanks..."

 

"Any time, hon. Go on, get yourself ready, and have a good time tonight."

 

"Alright. Love you."

 

"Love you too. Bye."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Lance wandered into the intimate little club and looked around. He found his friends already there, seated at a large table in a back corner. He was greeted by a chorus of voices as he sat in an empty seat, and he ordered a beer from the waitress who immediately appeared.

 

"Hey man, where's Julie tonight?" Chris asked.

 

"This isn't really her thing, so she decided to just stay home."

 

"What, spending an evening with her boyfriend and his friends isn't her thing?"

 

"No, going to little jazz clubs isn't her thing," he snapped back, then he relaxed his voice. "Besides, we're spending the day together tomorrow, so it's all good. She says hi to everyone, by the way." He liked the fact that he was finally with a woman who didn't feel the need to spend every waking moment by his side, but his friends didn't always see his point and they gave him grief over it.

 

"Hey, I hear this place is supposed to have great live talent," Justin said, changing the subject.

 

Dani nodded. "A friend told me about it. She said they get a new act just about every night........"

 

They all got into a discussion about other clubs and singers, though it wasn't long before a tall, exotic looking woman appeared on the small stage at one end of the room. When the noise level had died down and she had everyone's attention – which didn't take long, as she seemed to have a presence about her that simply demanded attention – she welcomed everyone and introduced their entertainment for the evening. She left the stage and was quickly replaced by a solo male singer with a backup band.

 

"Damn, I was hoping she'd sing for us tonight," Justin whispered, for which he was rewarded with an elbow to the ribs from Lara. "Ouch, woman."

 

No one spoke for the rest of the set, as the man on the stage had as much of a presence as the woman who had introduced him. He sang with a low, sultry sound, with a power in his voice that betrayed the soft volume he used throughout. He spun every note as if his life depended on its existence. The room was mesmerized, and when he finished the set there was a hush before the applause broke out and conversations started again.

 

"I'm gonna get another drink," Lance said. "Anyone want anything?" No one did, so he headed off for the bar along the far side of the club. Being the between-set break, there was a line-up, so he waited his turn.

 

"Enjoying yourself?" a voice said behind him.

 

He turned to find himself facing the singer. He smiled. "Yeah, it's great. I mean, we're all really enjoying it. You're very talented." He cleared his throat and cursed himself for stammering like a school girl.

 

The man smiled warmly, though something different flashed in his eyes. "Thank you," he said, then he extended his hand. "Eric," he said.

 

"Lance." He shook Eric's hand, though he never broke eye contact. He finally forced himself to look away, and his eyes traced the soft sandy hair that fell in short waves around Eric's forehead and ears.

 

"I see you're here alone."

 

"No, I'm here with a group of friends." Lance motioned to the table where they were all sitting.

 

Eric didn't look over there, but continued his unnerving gaze on the young man before him. "Yes, but you came alone."

 

It was a statement, not a question, but Lance was stunned into answering. "Uh, yeah, I did."

 

Eric nodded briefly, and his eyes took on a pitying look, though in a moment it was gone, making Lance wonder if he'd seen it at all. "Enjoy the rest of your evening. Perhaps we'll meet again."

 

Lance tried to stammer an answer, but Eric was already gone. "Damn," he muttered under his breath, and he shook his head quickly to clear it. "What the hell was that?"

 

He got his drink and returned to the table. He unconsciously started rubbing his hands together, then he pinned his right hand between his left arm and side.

 

"Cold hands?" Dani asked him with amusement.

 

"Yeah, from carrying that darned chilled bottle over here," he answered quickly, though something nagged at him. His conscious mind wasn't allowing him to register how cold Eric's hand had been when he shook it.

 

The second set began, followed by a third, and though an eerie quiet descended over the room during the sets, everyone talked animatedly between them. Before they knew it the bar was warning last call, and then the room was clearing.

 

Chris looked around at their small group while they filtered towards the exit. "Dancing anyone? I think The Zone is open for a couple more hours."

 

"Sounds great to me," Justin said, getting a nod of agreement from Lara. The others with them all chimed in their own agreement, Lance included. He briefly considered calling Julie to see if she'd like to come along – dance clubs *are* her thing – but one look at his watch assured him she'd already be in bed asleep. That thought made him consider ditching the dancing idea and heading to her place now instead of later.

 

"Leaving so soon?" Eric appeared at his side.

 

Lance shrugged and gestured around the room. "Club's closing."

 

Chris, Dani, and the others were farther ahead, but Justin noticed Eric standing there. "Hey man, great work tonight."

 

Lara nodded and smiled at him. "I loved your last song especially."

 

Eric thanked them graciously enough, though he acknowledged them with barely a flicker of a glance. "The owner lets me stay as late as I like," he continued speaking to Lance. "I hoped you'd stay, and we could jam a little. You are a musician, aren't you."

 

Again, it was more of a statement than a question. Lance groaned inwardly. He had hoped he'd make it through the evening without being recognized. "Yeah, I am..."

 

Eric smiled. "Good. I could see it in you."

 

'Maybe he didn't recognize me,' Lance thought. But what a strange statement to make... "I should really go...."

 

"She can wait a few more hours." Eric fixed Lance with that intense gaze of his. "You were going to spend more time out with your friends anyway."

 

"True, I was..." 'How did he know all that?' he thought, but he found himself calling to his friends, without really thinking about it. "You guys go on without me. I'm gonna stay here for a bit, then I'll just go home."

 

"Sure, whatever you want, dude." Chris looked at him strangely but chose not to comment. "Catch you later?"

 

"Yeah, sure...."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

When Julie awoke the next morning, the first thing she noticed was that she was alone in her bed. The second was that it was barely 8 am. She sat up and cursed, her temper flaring. "Goddamn bastard. Tells me he'll come straight here, we're supposed to spend a nice day together....." Her rational mind soon took over, though, reminding her that this was not at all like him, and maybe she should actually be worried. She pulled on her robe and decided to at least check the couch – maybe he hadn't wanted to wake her up. "Even though he knows he can crawl in whenever he wants...." she muttered. Nope, couch was empty. She grabbed the phone and dialed his home number. The answering machine clicked in and she heard her own giggling voice. "Hi, you've reached Lance's place. He, um, can't come to the phone right now, so leave him a message and he'll call you when he's, uh, not busy any more." She hung up. She still hadn't completely decided if she was angry or worried, though she did know her own temper; better not to risk leaving a message she might regret later. Next she dialed his cell phone, but she only got his answering service there, too.

 

She sat on the couch and took a few deep breaths. She ran through her options in her mind. She could call the people she knew he was with last night to see if they knew anything about when he'd left and what he'd said. No, she didn't want to seem clingy, or like she was checking up on him. She could go over to his house to see if he was there and not answering the phone. She shook her head. Checking up again. Besides, he might call while she was out. She could wait and see if he'd call her on his own later, or show up at her doorstep. That sounded like the best option, saving the first two for later. They were planning on spending the day together, after all. If he was too late, she'd have grounds to be worried and to start checking on him.

 

That decided, she had a long hot shower, then fixed herself a small breakfast. By 9:30 she was wearing tracks in her carpet, pacing the apartment. By 11 she'd had enough of waiting. She sighed and tried both of Lance's numbers again, both with the same results as before, then she dialed Chris' number. No answer. Damn. She started to dial Justin's, then remembered that he'd changed it recently and she didn't have the new one yet. She didn't have Danielle's number, but Lara had given her hers at a party a few weeks ago. She fished in her purse for the card she'd slipped in there, and came up triumphant. She dialed the number quickly.

 

"Hello?"

 

"Hello, may I speak with Lara please?"

 

"Speaking."

 

"Hi, this is Julie calling." She hoped she'd remember her; they'd only met a few times.

 

"Julie, hi! Hey, we missed you last night."

 

She smiled despite herself. "Thanks." Then she remembered why she was calling. "Um, Lara," she sighed, "okay, this is going to sound really paranoid, but... Did Lance say anything last night when you guys all left? Like, did he say where he was going, or did he seem strange to you?" Lara hesitated before answering, and Julie cursed herself, wondering what she must be thinking of her right now, checking up on her boyfriend like this.

 

"Actually, now that you mention it, he did seem a little odd." She explained what had happened as they were leaving the club, and how Lance had stayed behind. "Why, didn't he show up there this morning?"

 

Julie frowned. "No, he didn't. And he's not home, either. At least, he's not answering his phones." She paused. "This isn't like him at all."

 

"No.... Well, I'm sure he'll turn up sooner or later. He's probably just sleeping off a late night." She brightened her voice, trying to reassure her friend. She decided to change the subject to get her mind off it. "You really should have come with us to The Haven last night, the guy they had was really great."

 

Julie lifted her head. "Wait, Lara, what did you say the club was called?"

 

"The Haven, why?"

 

A random thought occurred to her. It was a long shot, a really really long shot, but she had to know. "What was the singer's name?"

 

"Um, Eric something. Wait, I think I've still got the flyer around here somewhere..." Julie could hear papers rustling over the phone line. "Ah, here it is. Zane. Eric Zane."

 

"Oh, God...."

 

"What is it? Julie, are you okay?"

 

"Yeah, I'm fine," she answered, her voice shaking. "Um, where is The Haven?"

 

Lara read off an address from the flyer, and Julie jotted it down. "Thanks for all your help, Lara. I've gotta go. I'll call you again later."

 

"Okay, no problem. And don't worry about Lance, I'm sure he's fine."

 

"I hope so....."

 

 

Julie hung up and stared at the phone. The Haven. Zane. She had to find Lance. Had to find him *now*. Julian. She had to call Julian. He'd know where to look. He'd know what to do.

 

She had started running through the apartment, never making it more than 3 steps before changing her plan of action and heading a different direction. Finally she stopped in the middle of the living room. "Julie! Focus!" she shouted at herself.

 

She dialed the number of Julian Luna's cell phone in San Francisco. While it rang, she put on her shoes and grabbed her purse from the kitchen. She ended up at his voice mail. "Dammit, is nobody home today?" she muttered, then left him a message to call her immediately, with her cell number.

 

She ran down to her car and started driving. She'd try The Haven first, since it was closer, and then Lance's house. If he wasn't there.... she decided not to think about that until she had to. She pulled to the curb outside the small club and got out. Of course, the doors were locked, but she walked all around the building, being sure to check every nook and cranny in the alleyways behind and beside. 'He wouldn't leave him lying in the alley,' she thought. 'This is Zane we're talking about, sure he would. Just not this close to home,' the inner voice added with dismay.

 

The place was clear – well, clear of what she was looking for anyway – so she headed to his house next, not expecting to find him there. Halfway there her phone rang, and she grabbed for it eagerly.

 

"Hello?"

 

"I got your message. What's wrong?"

 

Julie allowed herself a small smile. Julian never was one to waste words. "I thought you and Lillie took care of Zane years ago."

 

"Excuse me?"

 

"Zane? Remember, the nightclub singer who would embrace young groupies then desert them in the streets?" Her voice dripped with sarcasm. No one could forget Zane or the havoc he wreaked. "He's back, he's in Orlando now, and he's not just going after groupies any more." She knew she was jumping to a lot of conclusions, but she didn't care. She was scared, dammit.

 

"I watched Lillie end his life with my own eyes."

 

She could hear his voice smouldering. "Well then it seems he has an imitator. Maybe he kept one childe near him long enough to teach him a few things."

 

"Wait, Julie, how do you know all these things? Are you alright?"

 

"Not exactly. Some friends of mine went to The Haven last night – sound familiar? – and met a singer named Eric Zane, who apparently seemed to take an interest in my boyfriend. Who is now missing." She couldn't keep her voice from shaking on the last part. It wasn't the complete truth, she hadn't checked his house yet, but she figured exaggeration would work in her favour in this case.

"I'll be there by tonight, if not sooner."

 

"Thank you, Julian."

 

"Be careful."

 

She hit "end" and tossed the phone onto the seat next to her. She felt a little better having spoken with Julian, but she was still worried as she pulled up to Lance's house. His car wasn't in the driveway. She did a cursory check of the grounds immediately surrounding the house first, then used her key to let herself in.

 

She checked every room on the lower floor before heading upstairs where the kitchen, den, and bedrooms were. Even though she knew that if he was there at all he'd most likely be in his bedroom, she saved that room for last. She hesitated outside the closed door, afraid of what she might – or might not – find inside. She pushed the door open.

 

She peered inside the dark room and was extremely surprised to see Lance's form sprawled out on top of the bed. She blinked back the tears of relief that sprang to her eyes, and slowly walked over to where he lay. She watched him breathing peacefully in his sleep, making happy mental notes of the facts that there were no marks on his neck or arms, and his face and neck were completely clean. Her mind had a conversation with itself: 'That doesn't tell you anything. Kindred clean up pretty well after themselves.' 'Not Zane, he never bothered.' 'This isn't Zane, remember, it's a protιgι. Maybe he learned a thing or two on his own.' She knew what she had to do. She took a deep breath and knelt by the bed.

 

She bent over and placed an ear on Lance's chest. Nothing. She bit her lip. She felt first at his wrist, then at his neck. Nothing in either spot. She finally gave into the tears, laid her head on the bed next to Lance, and sobbed until she couldn't breathe.

 

Her sobs finally subsided to sniffles, and after awhile she felt Lance stir beside her. She wiped her eyes and tried to smile at him. "Hey there," she said.

 

"Good morning," he mumbled, then he noticed her red puffy eyes. "Hey, what's wrong?" He wiped the remaining tears from her cheek with his thumb. She didn't answer – she had no idea what to say – but he quickly filled in for her. "Oh, God, I was supposed to go over there last night, wasn't I? Oh, I'm so sorry honey...." He started to sit up and move towards her, but his head swam when he tried to move.

 

She quickly reached out to help him, and shook her head. "No, no, that's okay. How... how are you feeling today?"

 

He cleared his throat and shook his head as she helped him to stand. "I feel like death warmed over." She winced at his choice of words and followed him to the kitchen. He poured himself a large glass of Gatorade and downed it quickly. He shook his head again and blinked hard a few times. "Ah, geez... I feel like I've got the worst hangover of my life, but I didn't even drink that much last night. At least I don't think I did....."

 

'It's not how much you drank, but what,' Julie thought, but she kept quiet.

 

"Come to think of it, I don't even remember how I got home last night. Man, what happened...." He winced in pain and leant against the kitchen doorframe before continuing into the living room. He collapsed on the couch, wincing and groaning again.

 

Julie sat next to him, and when he turned to look at her, the fearful eyes she saw were golden instead of their natural pale green. She swallowed. She had seen those eyes before, but she never thought she'd see them coming from Lance. She held her right wrist out to him, willing it not to shake so much.

 

"Here," she said, "just try not to take too much, you don't want to do permanent damage." She hoped his new instincts would take over, and she wouldn't have to explain too much until she'd had more time to think. But he looked at her, not understanding. "I can go get a knife, or you can just use your teeth," she prompted.

 

He ran his tongue across his teeth, and sure enough his incisors had grown long and pointed. He was sure they were normal a minute before.... He looked back at his girlfriend. "Julie, what the hell's happening to me?"

 

She placed her left hand gently but firmly on the back of his neck. "Sssh. I'll explain everything later. Right now you need blood."

 

"Blood?!? No! What..." He tried to push her wrist away from where she still held it before his face, but she kept it there. He needed to drink; she needed to convince him somehow. She leaned closer to whisper to him. He shivered at the feel of her hot breath tickling his ear.

 

"You can hear my heartbeat, can't you? You can see the blood in my veins; you can smell it....."

 

He slowly reached out both hands to her outstretched arm and cautiously pulled it closer to him. He stopped when his lips just brushed her skin. He closed his eyes and grit his teeth together. "I'm sorry," he whispered, then he sank his teeth into her wrist. He quickly removed them to allow the hot liquid to flow freely. He didn't hear her yelp of pain; the sound of her heartbeat and the taste of her blood pulsing against the back of his mouth were overpowering all other sensations.

 

She resisted the urge to yank her arm away from him. Not that she could have. He had always been stronger than her, and now, even as a new childe, he was stronger than most humans.

 

He drank. He sucked at the wounds on her arm, swallowing deeply. Finally, a voice started to break through the haze filling his mind.

 

"...Lance, that's enough. Lance, stop. Stop!" He pulled back and squinted at her, not seeing clearly. Blood flowed down her arm from the gashes he had left. "Seal them, quick."

 

"How..." His head was so fuzzy, he could barely understand anything.

 

"Just...." she waved her other hand at her arm. "Lick them."

 

He ran his tongue over the marks and they disappeared as if by magic. He lapped up the red rivers on her arm, then sat back and looked at her. He shook his head slowly; his breathing was ragged. "I.... I'm...."

 

"It's okay." She stood. "Sleep. Rest. I'll be here, don't worry."

 

He barely nodded, and stretched out on the couch. Julie had been pleased to see that when he had looked at her just then, his eyes were back to their beautiful green. 'That'll be enough to hold him, for now,' she thought. She wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep next to him – the day's activities thus far had left her feeling rather drained, no pun intended – but she had to make a call.

 

She took her cell phone out to the deck with a large glass of juice from the fridge and sat in the chair such that she could still see inside the house. She dialed Julian's number for the second time that day, and this time he answered on the first ring.

 

"I found him," she said after their greetings. "He was at home, if you can believe it."

 

"And is he alright?"

 

She laughed wryly. "Depends on how you define 'alright'."

 

"Zane embraced him."

 

"Yeah."

 

"I'm sorry."

 

"Yeah."

 

"I was able to get away quickly, I think I should be there in about an hour."

 

"How on earth...."

 

"Birds can fly faster than planes," was all he would say, though she could practically hear him smirking.

 

"No they can't," she protested.

 

"Well, we have to make less connections...."

 

She laughed – and boy, did it feel good.

 

"I actually am on a plane. I wasn't home when you called, I was closer than that. We should be landing soon, then I'll fly myself to where you are."

 

She gave him Lance's address, directions from the airport 'as the raven flies', so to speak, and a few landmarks to look for from the air. They hung up, and she wandered back into the house, curled up on the easy chair by the sofa, and dozed off.

 

 

Julie swatted at something annoying at her forehead. It came back. She swatted again, and it returned again. She finally opened her eyes and found herself looking into the dark eyes of a man with fine, chiseled features who was brushing a stray lock of hair from her face. She smiled and stood.

 

"Julian!" she whispered.

 

They held each other silently for a long while. It had been years since they had seen each other.

 

"Thank you for coming so quickly."

 

"You knew I would, for you. I've already spoken with Francois Cartier, the Prince of this city. It seems he's been suspecting a problem for about a week, but had no proof and no clues until now." He turned to look at the sleeping figure on the couch. "How is he?"

 

"He's doing okay, actually."

 

"Have you explained things?"

 

She shook her head. "He's figured out the basics, but I haven't told him anything yet."

 

"How long ago did he feed?"

 

Julie looked at her watch. "Not quite an hour ago."

 

Julian nodded. "He should stay asleep for at least another hour. Let's go outside so we can talk."

 

They wandered a little way into the landscaped garden in the yard before stopping and facing each other.

 

"You look good," Julie said to him. He hadn't changed a bit, but of course she hadn't expected him to.

 

He smiled. "So do you." He traced a finger down the side of her face, and frowned at her pale complexion. "He took too much from you."

 

"Not quite," she said, not mentioning that he had come close. "I'll be okay."

 

Julian glanced back at the house. "I didn't realize who he was when you called."

 

"The great Prince Julian recognizes a boyband member?" She was quite amused.

 

He raised an eyebrow at her. "I do own a group of newspapers. It's my job to know what's going on in the media."

 

"Mm-hm."

 

His eyes darkened, all amusement gone from them. "He's a danger to the Masquerade."

 

She coughed. "What, just because he lives in the public eye?"

 

"He doesn't live in the public eye, he lives under the public microscope!"

 

"Yeah, so he knows how to keep things hidden about himself. He can learn to hide this, too. Julian, you of all people know it's possible to live a normal life within the bounds of the Masquerade."

 

"He doesn't live a normal life! There's no way he can keep this hidden for long."

 

"Give him a chance," she snapped defensively. "Besides, what are his options? Leave the group to regain a life of obscurity, and without a good enough reason the media digs and pries until they find the truth. Fake his own death so they won't follow him, but then not only does he destroy so many lives, the media will again be all over it until they realize it was only staged."

 

"It doesn't have to be staged."

 

Julie slapped him before she even knew what she was doing. "How dare you?!?" she hissed. "You, with all your precious morality and your precious laws, you would condemn his life when he hasn't even done anything! And you know you can't take a Kindred life without just cause, and without the Prince declaring Blood Hunt."

 

"I *am* the Prince!"

 

"Of San Francisco! You're a little out of your bounds here."

 

"Aren't you being a little too protective of what you don't know?"

 

"I think someone has to maintain some level of humanity here, since you seem to have lost yours."

 

She might as well have slapped him again. The little of his humanity he had left after all these years was something he clung to like a liferaft, and she knew it. She felt bad for the words as soon as she'd said them, but she wouldn't apologize.

 

She softened her voice. "Give him a chance," she said again.

 

He gave a resigned sigh. "Alright. Explain as much as you can to him when he wakes up. I'll be back tonight to help fill in the blanks. Until then, I have to meet some of the locals. But first, I'd like to know what happened."

 

She told him the story of the night before and that morning as best she understood it. He left, with a promise to return that evening, and she went back into the house. She curled up in her chair again and watched Lance until he awoke.

 

"Hi," he said with a small smile. "What time is it?"

 

"Just after 3."

 

"Wow. Man, did I sleep." He sat up and ran a hand through his hair. "I had the strangest dream last night..." he stopped when he saw the sad look in her eyes. "It wasn't a dream, was it?" She shook her head. "Damn. I was hoping that it was."

 

"Sorry."

 

He sighed. "I figured even my brain couldn't come up with something that bizarre. But it was worth a shot." She laughed. He ran his tongue around his mouth and frowned. "My teeth feel normal again."

 

Julie nodded. "The fangs will come and go as you need them. I think eventually you should even gain some conscious control over them."

 

He considered that, then he looked at her sharply as something occurred to him. "Are you..."

 

"No," she said quickly. "But I do know a lot about them... you," she corrected herself. This was going to be hard.

 

"How?"

 

"It's a long story. Why don't you go have a shower and change into some clean clothes, then we can go for a walk."

 

Lance looked down at himself and realized he was still wearing his clothes from the night before. "Good idea." He stood and reached for her. "Come here," he said. She stood, and he held her tightly. She buried her face in his chest and wrapped her arms around his back. He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head, then pulled away. He left the room without another word, and soon she could hear the shower running.

 

 

Ten minutes later Lance was back in the living room, freshly cleaned and dressed in light sweat pants and a T-shirt. Julie tried to hide her smile. It seemed his new

fashion sense hadn't taken over yet; no self-respecting Toreador would ever wear

sweats, even just around the house.

 

"Shall we?" he asked.

 

"We shall." Julie stood and led the way out the doors to the porch. He started to follow her, but he stopped short at the threshold.

 

"Wait a minute. Won't the sun.... hurt me?"

 

She struggled to control her mouth. 'Don't laugh,' she chided herself. 'He doesn't know any better yet.' "No. It won't bother you as long as you've fed recently," she said to him. "Forget everything you've learned about.... vampires... from movies and books. Most of it's wrong, fed to the media to keep people in the dark."

 

He laughed. "Really?"

 

"Oh yeah. Kindred actually hired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, deliberately giving him misinformation to base it on, so the hunters of the time would be sent off-track."

 

"Very clever."

 

"It worked, didn't it?" She held out her hand to him. "So are you coming?"

 

He reached out and took her hand, then slowly stepped out of the house. He breathed a small sigh of relief. Despite her reassurances, he had still half-expected to be burnt to a crisp when the sun's rays hit him. He smiled and turned his face into the warmth. He had been dreading the thought of living out his life without ever feeling it again.

 

Lance entwined his fingers with Julie's as they walked, headed for the small lake on his property. "Kindred," he said slowly, testing the word. "So that's what we're called?"

 

Julie nodded. "Vampire is a human word. Most Kindred don't like it, they see it as an insult actually." She paused, not sure where to begin her explanations. He soon helped her.

 

"So, what else about the movies has been wrong?"

 

She decided that was a good place to start. Comparing movie falsehoods with Kindred fact would help him put things into perspective. She thought for a moment. "Well, one thing they got right is that you do have to drink blood to live. But not nearly as much as they've made it out to seem. You can still eat and drink regular food, though you don't have to. It just helps to maintain the Masquerade."

 

"The Masquerade? What's that?"

 

"I'll get to that later. It's probably the most important part in all this, but you need to know the basics first."

 

"Okay. Keep going. What else did they get wrong?"

 

"Let's see.... you do have a mirror reflection. You don't have to sleep all day and come out only at night, obviously. And you don't sleep in a coffin, either."

 

He chuckled. "That's good to know."

 

"I'm sure."

 

"Will I live forever? I mean, assuming I'm not forcibly killed at some point."

 

"No. But you'll age about 10 times slower than us humans. And even though you'll always heal really quickly, the right kind of damage, or simply enough damage, can still kill you."

 

"What about things like garlic and crosses?"

 

She gave him a funny look, then reached over to him, lifted the ever-present cross hanging from his neck, and let it fall back to his chest.

 

"Oh.... right." He hadn't even thought about that. "Can I read minds? The guy who did this to me seemed to be able to, but I can't... like... I don't get anything from you, not yet at least."

 

She pursed her lips. "Hmmm... I'm not sure about that one. I think it must be an individual thing, since I know Julian can't, but you say Zane could." She shrugged.

 

"Zane? Oh yeah, I guess that was his last name. But who's Julian?"

 

"Julian is... an old friend," she decided was the easiest way to put it. "He's here actually. He'll come by later tonight to answer questions for you that I can't."

 

"That's how you know about all this, isn't it? And how you knew to come find me."

 

Julie nodded. "When you didn't show up last night or this morning, I made some calls, and Lara told me where you'd all gone last night. I recognized both the singer's name and the name of the club from back in San Francisco. The 'Zane' there must have been Eric's sire; he did the same things over there as Eric seems to be doing here."

 

"I see."

 

They had reached the lake, and they sat on a bench by the shore. Julie looked out across the water. "If I had gone with you last night, I would have recognized the names then. I could have stopped this."

 

"He would have just chosen another victim, who more than likely wouldn't have anyone there to help them. I'm glad you're here to help me."

 

Julie scoffed. "Too little too late."

 

"No, it's not." Lance lifted her hand and kissed her fingertips, and she managed a small smile. He thought for a moment, trying to remember other things he'd seen in movies and read in books. "Can I fly?"

 

"Not as you are, you can't. But you can change into a bird."

 

"Really?"

 

She giggled. He sounded like a little boy in awe. "Mm-hm. And a wolf."

 

"Wow. How do I do that?"

 

She shrugged again. "Beats me. You'll have to ask Julian that one."

 

He nodded and thought again. "What else do I need to know?"

 

"Oh, gosh. Tons..... Okay. The clans." She briefly described each of the four other main clans to him – Gangrel, Brujah, Nosferatu, and Ventrue – then went into his own in a little more detail. "You're a Toreador. They're the artists. Poets, painters, sculptors, musicians.... free spirits, creative minds, and all that." She went on to describe more of the clan's culture and attitudes, along with Kindred hierarchy. Each clan in a city has a leader, called the Primogen, and every city has one Prince.

 

Lance thought about that for a moment. "So, with these clans, are they just the types of people who are typically...." He searched for the word.

 

"Embraced," Julie provided.

 

"....embraced, or are these characteristics that will eventually take over anyone in the clan?"

 

"Definitely the second. Though I suppose it's natural for, say, an artist to be more likely to choose another artist to embrace, so I guess it's a little of both." She paused, and chuckled lightly. "It's almost too bad Eric was Toreador, really. With your business sense, you'd have made a formidable Ventrue."

 

"Thank you," he smiled, then he furrowed his brow. "But since I've already got a natural business sense, and I've always struggled a bit with my creativity, won't my Toreador nature help me with that?"

 

"It might. Or it might overpower your business side completely. You could end up finding the professional music industry too stifling, eventually."

 

"Preferring to play small clubs like The Haven," he finished softly. He shook his head slowly. "Ironic, isn't it? Professional musician becomes an artist by nature, and ends up driven from the music industry."

 

"We don't know that's what'll happen," Julie quickly reassured him. "It's like personality. You can generalize, but you can't pigeonhole. Just wait and see. Your two sides could end up complementing each other."

 

"Yeah..." Something occurred to him. "Wait, don't I have to leave the industry anyway? Become a part of Kindred society?"

 

"Oh, no. Everything stays the same, from the outside. That's the Masquerade."

 

"Really..... So that means....."

 

She nodded. "There are Kindred everywhere. At the club last night, probably half the crowd was Kindred."

 

"Wow. I had no idea."

 

"Exactly. 'Masquerade' is basically the title covering all Kindred laws that collectively allow you to remain undetected." She started ticking things off on her fingers. "You have to continue to obey all human laws; you can't kill another Kindred unless the Prince calls for it first; you can't kill a human, or embrace them without the Prince's permission...."

 

"Then what about Eric? Somehow I doubt he got permission for this." He gestured at his own body.

 

"If Eric's not dead by now, he will be soon."

 

Lance paled and swallowed. "Go on...."

 

"Well, beyond that it's all little things, most of them common sense, really. Being able to eat and drink, and to tolerate sunlight, help you maintain the illusion of being human. Plus you can make people forget, if they see something they shouldn't."

 

"And I take it Julian will teach me that too?" Julie nodded. He blew out a breath of air. "Wow. This is going to be hard, with the media on me the way it is. The guys'll be a big help, they can cover for me when I need it.... Oh, geez, what are they gonna think about all this?"

 

"They're not going to think anything, because they won't know anything." He looked at her, not quite understanding her point. "Lance, *nobody* can know what you are. Not even them."

 

"What? Come on, Julie, we don't have any secrets between us, you know that. Besides, how can I keep this from them? We're all so close, emotionally *and* physically, sharing busses and everything, they're going to figure it out eventually."

 

"Then you'll make them forget."

 

"I can't do that.... I can't lie to them...."

 

"I'm sorry, but you're going to have to. No one can know that anything has changed."

 

"No....." He rested his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. The realization that he'd have to start lying to everyone he knew hit him like a brick, and it brought with it the full meaning of everything that was happening to him.

 

Julie placed a comforting hand on his back, and when his shoulders started to shake she pulled him close to her. He cried on her shoulder, mourning his own life, afraid for the future, and overwhelmed by it all.

 

 

When Lance finally lifted his head, he saw the trails of blood soaking into Julie's shirt. "Oh, God... What..."

 

At first she couldn't figure out what was panicking him, then she saw the stains. "No, Lance, it's okay." She reached out and wiped his cheek, then showed him the red streak on her thumb. "It's your tears." She started to bring her thumb to her mouth – sucking on scrapes and paper cuts had never bothered her – but she quickly stopped herself, wiping the digit on her already bloody shirt. "I can never taste your blood," she explained. "It's... It'll... Well I'm not really sure what it'll do. Julian wouldn't tell me that, only that it was very bad."

 

He sighed. "Great, now on top of everything else, I cry blood tears." He started wiping his face on the sleeve of her shirt (no sense ruining two), and soon they were both laughing at the absurdity of the situation. "You know, I think this might be the hardest part to hide. I've never been ashamed to cry in front of the guys, so I don't even think about it. Now I've got to remember to bottle it up or get out of there." He sat back and watched some ducks paddling slowly across the lake. "If no humans are supposed to know about us, how do you know so much?"

 

She was wondering when he'd get to that question. "When I first found out what Julian was, he tried to make me forget. Unfortunately, he tried to wipe out too long a time period, and it wasn't totally effective. It all gradually came back to me. I guess he couldn't bring himself to kill me, or make me like him, so we forged a pact. I would live within the same bounds of the Masquerade that he did, and he would protect my life. With the understanding, of course, that if I ever broke it, well....." She didn't need to finish. It was the same fate for any Kindred who broke the Masquerade.

 

"I'm sure the others weren't happy about that."

 

"They weren't, but what could they do? He was the Prince. They could argue and fight, but they didn't dare cross him. By now, they know they can trust me."

 

"Nice to have friends in high places," he said. "What clan is Julian? Just out of curiosity."

 

"Ventrue. Most Princes are."

 

They sat quietly for awhile longer, then Julie stood. "Come on, let's go back inside. I'm *starving*."

 

"Oh yeah, I guess you still need to eat." He stood with her and they headed towards the house.

 

"I do, and I haven't since this morning."

 

"Sorry. It didn't even occur to me."

 

She sighed dramatically. "How quickly they forget...."

 

"Oh, be quiet."

 

He helped her cook dinner (after she'd changed into a clean shirt), then sat at the table with her while she ate. She finally rolled her eyes and pushed the plate so it was halfway between them.

 

"Here. I know you don't need it, but I feel weird with you watching me like that."

 

"Sorry." He laughed and got up to grab a fork from the drawer. Even though he wasn't the least bit hungry, a fact that in itself struck him as strange, even considering everything he'd been through and everything he'd learned in the past 24 hours, it did feel good to be eating. The sheer normalcy of it was reassuring. They chatted about other things while they ate, but the subject again drifted to his new living status.

 

"So who is my.... what's the word again? Prime... primal...."

 

"Primogen," she said.

 

"Right, Primogen." He shook his head. "Why couldn't they have picked an easier word?"

 

A voice from the doorway startled them both. "It's a term that's been used for centuries. It goes back to the early days of the Kindred."

 

Lance stood and turned to see an imposing man standing between the kitchen and the living room. He was tall, though not overly so, had dark hair and fine features, and was impeccably dressed in a casual dark suit with a dark blue turtleneck underneath. Although he seemed to radiate power, he did not seem unkind.

 

Julie stood and moved between the two men. "Julian, this is Lance Bass. Lance, Julian Luna."

 

Lance took a step towards him, then stopped. He remembered that this was the Prince of San Francisco. "I'm not sure if I'm supposed to bow, or kiss your hand or something..." he stammered.

 

A slight smile lit Julian's eyes. "Not necessary," he said. He stepped forward and held out his hand, which Lance shook. "As far as the answer to your question, your Primogen is Kimberly Johanssen, and your Prince is Francois Cartier, also a Toreador. You'll meet them tomorrow."

 

Julie laughed. "Orlando is a Toreador city? Why am I not surprised.... I'll bet New Orleans is, too."

 

Julian smiled fully now. "Has been for as long as I can remember." He had been embraced in New Orleans just over 100 years ago, making him a very young Prince, by Kindred standards. He turned back to Lance. "I'm sure you have many questions."

 

"I do. I mean, Julie's been telling me a lot..." he smiled at her gratefully "...but I know there's so much more."

 

"Let's go, then. Some things will require demonstration, and I'm sure Julie doesn't wish to play guinea pig."

 

She laughed and shook her head. "Tempting, but I think I'll have to pass on that one. Go on. I'll be here, but I won't wait up."

 

Lance kissed her then followed the older man out into the darkening evening.

 

After she finished cleaning up the dinner dishes she decided to go back home for a bit. She had a feeling she'd be staying at Lance's for awhile, and she needed to gather up some things. On her way out the door the phone rang, so she ran back to answer it. It was Justin.

 

"Hey there, Jules! I heard your man went missing, there."

 

"Yeah. Stupid overreaction, really, he was home the whole time. I guess the guy at that club gave him a few extra drinks after closing, and he was just sleeping off a hangover so bad he didn't even hear the phone."

 

He laughed. "Woah! I've never even seen him that bad! Is he there now?"

 

"No, he had to go out for a bit. I'll tell him you called, though. Oh, and don't be too hard on him, I think he still feels pretty rotten."

 

Justin seemed to think the whole thing was quite hilarious. "Alright, alright. I'll catch you guys in a few days, 'kay?"

 

She agreed and hung up the phone, staring at it. "And so it begins...."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Lance and Julian sat together on a park bench in downtown Orlando. Julian had been filling him in on the finer points of his new life, also giving him tips on where he was most likely to find fellow Kindred in any given city. He had shown him how to mesmerize people and erase their short-term memories, and Lance had practiced on a few passers-by. He hadn't drank from any of them, just convinced them to walk with him for awhile, then made them forget it had ever happened. They watched his last test-subject get up from the bench a few feet away where he'd placed her. She looked around briefly, then smoothed her coat and walked away, humming a tune.

 

Julian rolled his eyes. "You had to add that in there, didn't you?"

 

"What?" Lance smiled innocently. "If I'm going to mess with them, the least I can do is leave them on a positive note."

 

The Prince shook his head. He wasn't sure if he should chalk up the younger man's behaviour to his youth or his clan. Probably both.

 

Lance grew serious. "When I shook Eric's hand in the club, it was stone cold. But my skin is still warm, and so is yours."

 

"That's because we've both fed recently. He had probably been starving himself for days." Julian scoffed. "Typical Toreador behaviour. They think the deprivation adds to their craft, or some other such nonsense. No offense."

 

"None taken," he answered quickly, though he had felt a surge of anger at Luna's derisive tone. He realized with mild amusement that it was probably just his clan pride finally starting to assert itself.

 

"You should get home," Julian said after a few moments. "You've done very well tonight."

 

"Thank you. But there is one more thing I'd like you to show me before we go."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Julie awoke slowly, feeling a warm body beside her. She smiled and stretched out a hand to touch it. She sat up and came fully awake in a flash when that hand contacted fur. The small wolf curled up on the bed beside her whimpered a little and pushed its nose into her palm, giving it a couple of friendly laps. Her initial fear began to subside.

 

"Lance?"

 

He lapped at her hand a few more times, and a smile spread over her face. She ran her hand along his amber coat.

 

"You're beautiful!" she whispered.

 

He rested his muzzle on his paws and looked away. If a wolf could have looked bashful...

 

She absently started to scratch behind his ears. Her eyes tracked back and forth along his length, admiring his lupine form. His fur was short but thick, and it seemed to shine in the moonlight pouring through the window.

 

After a few minutes of this, she giggled lightly. "You know, you could change back to your human form any time now." He whimpered again and pushed his head up against her hand. She laughed outright. "Oh I see! You're enjoying this, are you? And would you like a belly rub next?"

 

He growled, though there was little conviction behind it. In short time she was sitting next to a very human looking Lance. "Very funny," he said, shaking out his hair and using one hand to smooth down the back.

 

She was still laughing. "I'm sorry, I just couldn't resist." Her laughter finally subsided, but her eyes were still shining. "Well?"

 

He smiled. "It was incredible. Exhilarating. The freedom... you can't imagine it. I can't even describe it. We ran all through the park, along the streets...." He sighed. "Absolutely incredible." He got a gleam in his eyes she knew all too well, from before this had all happened. He pushed her back on the bed, slipped under the covers, and rolled on top of her, supporting his weight on his hands placed on either side of her head. He punctuated his words with kisses along her jaw and neck. "You told me I can still eat and drink, but what about other.... human pleasures?"

 

She trailed her fingers along his growing erection through his thin pants. "You tell me."

 

He grinned wickedly. "Good. At least we can keep some of our original plans for the day....."

 

 

Lance quietly disentangled himself from Julie's arms and slipped out of bed. The clock on the bedside table read 8 am. One of them had closed the drapes at some point in the night (he wasn't sure who), so the room was totally dark, but he found he didn't need much light to see. He was leaning over the dresser, trying to decide which shirt to pull out, when he felt a pair of arms slide around his middle.

 

"Good morning," she purred in his ear.

 

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."

 

"I'm glad you did...." She nipped at the skin along his shoulders.

 

He turned in her arms and looked down at her with a chuckle. "What got into you?"

 

"You did," she growled. "Oh, don't worry, it'll fade in a day or two..." she flicked her tongue against his earlobe... "Unless you do it again...."

 

He laughed and kissed her deeply. He finally pulled back. "I'm sorry, honey. I'd love to stay in bed all morning with you...." he moaned as her hands searched his chest, then drifted towards his waist... "...but I just don't have time. I really have to get going."

 

"Awww... you're *sure* you don't have *any* time?" Her hands wandered lower, and she nibbled a trail along his collarbone.

 

He breathed deeply, and he could feel her smile in response. "You know if you keep doing that I'm never going to get out of here...."

 

"That's what I'm hoping." She looked up at him with a teasing smirk, but saw in his eyes that he wasn't going to budge. She pouted. "Oh, alright." He kissed her once more, briefly, then headed into the bathroom. She pulled on her robe and went to the kitchen where she poured herself a bowl of cereal.

 

Within minutes Lance was in the doorway to the kitchen. He turned a circle for her. "What do you think? Good enough to meet a Prince?"

 

Julie looked up from the comics section of the paper and smiled. He was wearing a pair of light tan khakis and a lightweight forest-green sweater. "Mmm. You look great." She got up from the table to put her empty bowl in the sink, and on her way back through the kitchen he caught her in his arms.

 

"I'll probably be gone for most of the day, but will you come back this evening? After everything that's happened, I feel like I need some time to be normal, and I'd like to spend that time with you."

 

She smiled again. She had been afraid she might start losing him if he started to favour time with his "own kind" instead. She was glad that wasn't happening, at least not yet. "Of course. I have to get ready for a class this afternoon anyway, then I have office hours. I can be back here by around 7, that okay?"

 

"Perfect." The doorbell rang. "Gotta jet. I'll see you tonight, I promise." He gave her a final kiss goodbye, then he was out the door.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

They would be meeting Kimberly and Francois at The Haven, as Kimberly used it as her day time office space. When they arrived, Lance went to check on his car where he'd left it on Saturday night, but Julian went inside without waiting for him. He sat at a table, facing the other two who were already waiting for them.

 

"You wanted to speak with me?" Julian asked calmly.

 

Francois looked at him, his expression a blank mask. "This kine woman who's been spending time with him.... she knows about us?"

 

"She does."

 

"And where did she learn it from?"

 

"I told her." He knew where this was heading. "She has abided by Kindred law for over five years. She's never been so much as a concern, let alone a threat."

 

"I don't like it."

 

"You don't have to like it. She's under my protection."

 

Francois laughed, without humour. "You have a far reach, Julian, but it's not that far."

 

Julian fought to keep his rage in check. "If you'd like, I can have every Kindred in San Francisco on your doorstep by morning."

 

"Oooo, touchy."

 

Luna smouldered a moment longer. "As I said, she's no concern."

 

"We'll see about that."

 

Lance spoke from across the room, where no one had seen him enter. "If it wasn't for her, you'd still have nothing on Eric. He'd be choosing a new victim every night, and no one would be stopping him."

 

They all turned to look at him, and Kimberly hid her smile. Not many people stood up to Francois; she would like this one.

 

Julian stood and introduced them all. "I'll leave you to get better acquainted," he finished, then he was gone.

 

Lance took the vacated position at the table and spread his hands, all business. "Tell me what I need to know."

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

After spending the morning with the two Kindred, Lance headed to Joey's house. Their new tour was starting in two months, and they were meeting to fix up some final plans before starting rehearsals the next week.

 

"Dude!" Justin called out to him. "Heard you took a pretty big hit Saturday night!"

 

Lance tried to laugh. "Yeah, I guess I don't know my own limits."

 

Everyone ribbed him and laughed at him, and he tried to brush them all off. He still wasn't at all comfortable with the whole lying thing. They finally eased up, and settled around the large dining room table, with papers spread out before them.

 

JC looked at him, concerned. "You sure you're okay? You look a little pale."

 

"Yeah, yeah, sure. I'm fine. I'm still just recovering, I guess."

 

"Alright, if you say so." He didn't look convinced, but he decided to drop it, for which Lance was grateful.

 

They got all the details for the tour ironed out over the next few hours, and as they were leaving Chris reminded them all about the party at his house on Friday night.

 

"Party?" Lance looked at him.

 

"Yeah. Remember, just like every tour, one last blowout before we have to buckle down in rehearsal mode?" Chris prompted him.

 

"Oh, right, right! Sorry, I almost forgot." With everything else on his mind, he had completely forgotten.

 

"You'll be there, right, man?"

 

"Of course. Wouldn't miss it." Lance tried not to groan. Parties at Chris' house generally meant lots and lots of people. He knew he'd have to face that scene eventually; he hoped he'd be ready for it so soon. "See you Friday."

 

Lance was back home by 6:00, with just time to shower, change, and get dinner underway before Julie arrived. She inhaled deeply as she entered the kitchen.

 

"It smells wonderful in here." She smiled and inhaled again.

 

"Thank you. Seafood pasta with chocolate pudding for dessert." Two of her favourites. He put down the spoon he'd been using to stir the sauce and crossed the room to where she was standing.

 

"Mmmm.... I knew I could smell chocolate."

 

"Hon, you could smell chocolate a mile away."

 

"You know it." She grinned up at him, and he enveloped her in his arms and kissed the tip of her nose.

 

"How was your day?"

 

Julie groaned and rested her forehead against his. "Extremely long, and extremely boring. Yours?"

 

"It wasn't bad. I met my... elders, I guess you could call them. We spent the morning basically feeling each other out, and I learned a lot more, too." He kissed her left cheekbone. "But you know what?" The right cheekbone got attention. "I don't want to talk about any of that tonight." He moved on to her lips, just brushing them lightly with his own. "Let's just spend a normal night together, like we always used to."

 

"Fair enough. Need any help with dinner?"

 

"Nope, I've got it all covered. You just sit and relax, it'll be ready in a few minutes." Instead of sitting, she crossed to the stove and picked up the spoon, dipping it in the sauce and scooping a bit off the spoon with her finger to taste. He smacked the back of her knuckles lightly. "Get your hands out of it!" he chastized, and they laughed together.

 

Lance had a small plate of food with dinner, leaving the rest for Julie. As promised, he had made chocolate pudding for dessert, and rather than use spoons he produced a bowl of fresh strawberries for scooping it up. They talked and laughed all through the meal, allowing themselves to temporarily forget about the past two days.

 

To end the evening, he turned on the gas in his fireplace, and they curled up together on a pile of pillows in front of it. Julie was soon asleep, her head falling back against his chest, but for Lance the sandman was not so kind. He lay there for a long while, enjoying the feel of her in his arms, listening to the sound of her heartbeat, his eyes lost in the dancing flames of the fire. He finally sighed. This was useless. He carried his girlfriend to the bedroom, careful not to wake her. She murmured in her sleep and burrowed under the covers. He smiled briefly and left the room, heading for the back porch.

 

Lance leaned back in the patio chair and stretched. He stared at the moon, amazed at how much brighter it seemed with his new eyesight. Or maybe it was just his imagination. Thoughts of the day went swirling through his head. There had been one thing in particular that he had learned that he hadn't wanted to talk about with Julie, not wanting to worry her. He didn't even want to think about it himself.

 

That afternoon, Kimberly told him that for all their searching in the past two days, they hadn't found Eric. They knew he hadn't left town, but he apparently had some Kindred convinced to protect him. They warned Lance that Eric might try to find him again. To convince him that his was the way to go, and to join him in his dangerous escapades. Lance shook his head as he thought. That was one thing they didn't have to worry about.

 

A movement in the trees at the edge of his yard caught his eye. He sat up. 'Speak of the devil and you'll see its horns,' he thought. 'Or should that be his fangs....'

 

 

The two men both crossed the yard, meeting in the middle.

 

"What are you doing here?" Lance challenged.

 

Eric favoured him with a disapproving smirk. "Ohhh, now is that any way to greet me?"

 

"You know they're looking for you."

 

The smirk turned into a chuckle. "I know. Those fools actually think they can stop me."

 

Lance scoffed. "You're awfully cocky, for someone so young."

 

Rage flickered across Eric's face for a second, but his smirk was quickly pasted back in place. He decided to switch tactics. "You know, you could show a little gratitude."

 

"Gratitude?!?" Lance couldn't believe what he was hearing.

 

They began to circle each other, like two predators sizing up their adversaries.

 

"I gave you life. I set you free!"

 

"You gave me nothing! You've put me in hell."

 

"You brought the hell on yourself. You surround yourself with these kine as if they were your friends."

 

"They *are* my friends!"

 

"*We* are your only friends now! *They* are nothing more than a convenient meal." Lance just glared at him. "Come with me!"

 

"Never!"

 

"I am your sire!!"

 

"*You* are my MURDERER!!!"

 

If Lance had thought about it, he probably wouldn't have done what he did next. He pounced. He gathered all his strength and threw himself at Eric, sending them both flying. Eric was pinned to the ground for a moment, but he quickly overcame his surprise. Flying fists soon became snapping jaws, and anyone drawn to the scene by the sounds of the growling would have only seen a rolling mass of fur.

 

They both scored their share of hits, but it was clear who was the stronger of the two. They backed off and stood facing each other, crouched, haunches tensed and ready to pounce again, the hair on the backs of their necks standing on end. Eric growled and bared his teeth. Lance jumped forward and snapped, but stopped short of his goal. The standoff continued. Then they were both distracted by the sound of more growling coming from the trees by the lake.

 

Two large wolves, one silver, one black, came at them at a gallop, both snarling. Eric turned and bolted from the yard, the black one in hot pursuit. The silver one – Julian – slowed and approached Lance, who sat and started licking a wounded paw. Julian looked down at him disapprovingly, then motioned towards the house with his head. They both reached the porch on two feet, and Lance perched on the edge of the table, gingerly cradling his arm.

"That was really stupid," Julian chided him.

 

"I know." He tried flexing his fingers and winced.

 

"What were you thinking? You could have been killed."

 

"A little late for that, isn't it?"

 

Julian continued his rant. "You should have left him for us to deal with."

 

"Tell me you wouldn't have done the same thing, in my place!" Lance hissed in pain as he moved his hand the wrong way.

 

Julian just sighed. He was right. He rolled up his sleeve and held his thumb to his wrist. "Here," he said, "you'll heal a lot faster with my blood in you."

 

Lance looked up at him, student looking to teacher again. "I.... I can do that?"

 

"It's actually better this way. Our blood is stronger than any human's, and there's less concern for the Masquerade." He cut through his skin with his elongated thumbnail while he spoke, then held his wrist out to the younger man.

 

Lance only hesitated a moment before drawing Julian's wrist to his mouth. He drank his fill, then sat back. He could practically watch the gashes on his own wrist healing.

 

Julian remembered what he had gone through when he was first embraced, and he had done so willingly. Lance had been thrust into it all without asking, without a good sire for a teacher. He took pity on him.

 

"I'm sure Eric won't get far," he reassured him. "He's wounded, and he was probably starving again." Lance nodded silently. "I should go help with the chase. You go inside and get some rest. The way Julie sleeps she probably didn't hear a thing. Get in there with her and she'll never have to know this happened."

 

Lance nodded again and went into the house without a word. He just wanted this whole nightmare to be over with. Unfortunately, the nightmare was now his life.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Apparently Eric wasn't quite so easy to catch, because Lance didn't hear anything more from Julian, Francois, or Kimberly for two days. Life went on as usual, and he went about his business as if nothing was wrong. On Wednesday afternoon, he was at JC's place, working with him in his private studio on a song he'd gotten an idea for. (He found he was getting a lot of ideas lately.) Lance's cell phone rang, and he fished for it where he'd flung his coat on a nearby chair.

 

"Hello?"

 

"We've got him." Francois didn't need to explain.

 

Lance tried to swallow, but his mouth suddenly felt as if it was stuffed with cotton. He grabbed a slip of paper from a nearby surface and scribbled down the address the Prince was reading him.

 

"I'll be right there." He hung up and addressed JC. "Sorry, man, something's come up, I've gotta go."

 

"Everything okay?"

 

"Um, yeah..." He thought fast. "Julie's car broke down, she needs me to give her a ride home from the shop." He prayed she wouldn't find any reason to call JC before he had the chance to talk to her.

 

"Alright, catch you later."

 

"For sure. See ya."

 

Lance practically ran out of the house, and he drove as fast as he could to the address he'd been given. He pulled up in front of an enormous mansion on the outskirts of the city, and when he got to the front door, the person who answered led him to a room in the basement.

 

It was obviously a formal meeting room of sorts. It was dominated by a large polished wooden table which was surrounded by eight chairs. At the far end of the room, Eric was being held by two large men who were bald and had slightly misshapen ears and faces. Lance surmised they must be Nosferatu. To the right of the entry stood Francois and Kimberly; to the left were Julian and a woman Lance didn't know.

 

He nodded greetings to the people gathered. Julian gestured to the woman.

 

"This is Lillie Langtry, Primogen of the Toreador in San Francisco. Lillie, Lance Bass."

 

Lillie stepped forward and extended a slim hand, palm down. Lance took the cue and grasped her fingertips lightly, pulling them to his mouth and barely grazing her knuckles with his lips.

 

"I apologize for what's happened to you. His sire was my childe. I should have taught him better."

 

Lance cocked his head and barely smiled. "It seems that everyone is willing to take responsibility for this except the one who caused it." With that, he turned to face Eric, still at the other end of the room.

 

"You should have come with me," the condemned man pleaded. "I could have taught you...."

 

Lance scoffed. "Why, so I could carry on your legacy? Sorry, killing's not my style."

 

Eric strained against his captors, though it was a useless effort.

 

Everyone in the room faced Francois as he spoke, addressing Eric. "For crimes against the Kindred and against humanity, and for endangering the Masquerade, I sentence you to Final Death," he said formally. He picked up a ceremonial dagger from the table, its handle beautifully carved and encrusted with gemstones. He held the handle towards Lance. "Would you like your revenge against the one who sired you against your will?"

 

Lance looked from the blade back to Francois and shook his head. "Like I said, killing's not my style." He turned on his heel and walked from the room, though he wasn't fast enough down the hall to escape the sounds of the screams that followed.

 

 

Lance and Julie arrived at Chris' just as dusk was starting to fall on Friday night. Julie unbuckled her seat belt and started opening the door, then realized Lance wasn't moving, so she stopped. He was staring out the window at the house.

 

"What if I can't do this? I mean, what if I let something slip, or they figure out that something's different?" He didn't look at her while he spoke, instead he kept staring at the building where all his friends and their friends were already gathered.

 

Julie put a hand gently on his arm. "You'll do fine," she reassured him.

 

He finally broke his gaze from the house and ran both his hands through his hair, making a frustrated noise. "Why am I so worried about this? I've seen them already once since the weekend, and no one suspected a thing. Why am I nervous now?"

 

"Because that was just the five of you, and now there's a house full of people to face. Lance, you can do this. You're ready. Just relax and enjoy yourself."

 

"Yeah." He took a deep breath and seemed to steel himself. He turned in his seat to face Julie. "How do I look? Everything normal? Nothing out of the ordinary?"

 

She smiled at him. "You look fine." He looked better than fine, she thought. He was wearing black dress pants, a loose-fitting blue and grey patterned silk shirt, and his sliver-framed, blue-lensed glasses.

 

"Okay." He got out of the car, but didn't move towards the house. Julie also exited, and joined him on his side of the vehicle. He took another deep breath and looked once more at the house, then back at Julie. "You're sure I can't tell them? Just the group members, no one else. They know how to keep a secret, and they could really help."

 

"I know they could, but the more people know the more chances it could slip. Besides, you know what happens to people who break the Masquerade."

 

Lance closed his eyes and nodded. He remembered that all too well. Finally he opened his eyes, took Julie's hand, and started across the street. "Well, let's do this."

 

Chris opened the door and let them in to a chorus of greetings and hellos. Busta came running to the foyer, barking up a storm. "Busta! Be quiet!" Chris reprimanded his puppy. Lance knelt to pet the dog, as was his usual custom, but the animal growled and backed off, throwing in a few more barks for good measure. "Hey, what's wrong?" Chris pet the raised fur at Busta's neck, trying to calm him. "It's just Lance, you know him."

 

Lance stared at Busta, who was still growling, and he let a low growl escape his own throat. Busta whimpered and looked away, then slowly slunk forward and licked Lance's palm submissively. Lance ruffled the fur between the dog's ears, then he stood with a chuckle. 'It worked!' he thought with disbelief.

 

Chris looked from his dog to his friend. "*That* was weird," he said.

 

Lance shrugged. "I just had to show him who's boss." He winked and tried to laugh it off, but he was thinking that it was actually one of the stranger things he'd experienced so far. They all headed for the back yard, and Julie looked at him with amusement clearly on her face. He shrugged again. "Dogs and wolves, I guess....." he whispered to her. She struggled very hard to keep from laughing out loud.

 

The music was blaring and everyone was gathered in the yard, sharing drinks and finger foods in the fading light. A few people were dancing in an open area near the centre of the yard, and that was where Lance immediately dragged Julie. They stayed out there for well over an hour, grinding and swaying to the pulse of the music. They danced together most of the time, splitting off with other partners for the odd song here and there. After a particularly energetic song with Joey, during which he had swung her around nearly the whole yard, Julie decided it was time for a rest. She motioned to Lance so he'd know where to find her later, and he nodded and kept dancing with his partner of the moment. She found where a couple of the other girlfriends were sitting, and flopped down into an empty chair with a sigh.

 

"I don't know how anyone keeps up with that boy," she said, then took a long draught from the drink Lara had passed her from the open cooler nearby.

 

Tonya laughed. "Maybe that's why he goes through so many girlfriends. He just wears them all out!"

 

"Wouldn't surprise me. So how have you ladies been doing?"

 

The three of them chatted and caught up with each other. It had been awhile since they had all been together, so they had plenty of girl talk to go through.

 

Finally Tonya sighed. "You know, I really hate these parties."

 

"What?" "How come?"

 

"No, I mean the party itself is great. It's what it stands for I don't like." The other two women nodded in understanding as she continued. "After this weekend they're nuts with a rehearsal schedule, and then they're gone for another tour."

 

"More months of lonely nights and long phone calls," Lara muttered.

 

"And this time they're touring Europe, so they can't even come home for visits when they have a day or two off." Tonya sighed and shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder why I put myself through this."

 

Lara smiled as she saw Justin headed towards them. He was wearing a tight shirt, and she could see every muscle defined beneath it. "Yeah, but I never have to wonder for long," she said in a low voice just before he got within earshot.

 

Julie and Tonya stifled their giggles, and Justin sat with a sigh on the bench beside Lara, draping one leg across her lap.

 

"Good evening ladies. I see you're enjoying yourselves."

 

Julie cleared her throat and tried to stop laughing. "Oh, um, yeah...."

 

"What? What's so funny?"

 

"Nothing, sweetie." Lara ran her fingers through his curls, then she jumped up and grabbed his hand. "Come on, I want to dance."

 

He groaned but allowed her to drag him off of the bench. "But I just sat down...."

 

"Too bad!" the two remaining women could hear her say before they disappeared among the bodies on the "dance floor".

 

Tonya stood and shook her head, still laughing. "I should go find out where JC has gotten to. You're okay here?"

 

"Oh yeah. You go ahead." Julie waved her on and sat back to watch the crowd. Before long, Lance came rushing out of the group towards her. He sat on the chair next to her, out of breath and looking around wildly. "Hey there," she started, then she realized something was wrong. "Lance, what is it? What's happened?"

 

"Nothing. I...." he panted. "I don't think..... ah, man...."

 

"Come on." She stood. "Let's go inside where we can talk." Once inside the house, she sat him down on the chesterfield. "Okay. Tell me."

 

He took a few more deep breaths and then started. "Every time I think I can handle it, every time I think it's all under control, something comes up. It's always something little, something I didn't think about." He looked into her questioning eyes. "I was dancing with this girl. I don't even..." He waved his hand in the air. "One of Joey's friends, I think. Anyways, it was a slow song, and she decided to rest her head against my chest. At first I thought, fine, whatever, but then suddenly it occurred to me. She was short, so her ear was right by my heart. What if she noticed..." he dropped his voice to a whisper... "that I didn't have a heartbeat? I panicked. I didn't know what to do."

 

"Lance, calm down. First, she probably didn't notice. It's not something people really pay attention to. Second, you *do* know what to do if someone notices something like that. And third," she tried not to smirk, "you probably got yourself so worked up over it that your heart started beating anyway. It'll do that when you're agitated."

 

"You're right." He leaned back against the couch. "You're right," he said again. He shut his eyes and found that he could, in fact, hear his own heartbeat. He breathed slowly and willed it to slow and stop. He opened his eyes when he felt calmer. "I'm just so worried that someone will find out."

 

"I know. But you're managing okay so far. I don't think anyone suspects a thing."

 

"Probably not. I think I'm hiding it pretty well, for the most part."

 

"Of course you are. Nobody has any idea that there might be something wrong," she reassured him. "Now come on, let's get back out to the party, or else they will start to wonder."

 

They passed Tonya coming into the house on their way out of the living room. She went past the room and around the corner, nearly crashing headfirst into JC. "There you are!" she said. "I've been looking for you."

 

He mumbled a hello and snaked an arm around her waist, but his eyes were distant.

 

She whistled to him. "Hello? Earth to JC...."

 

He shook himself out of his thoughts. "Hm? What? Oh, sorry, hi sweetie."

 

"Is everything okay?"

 

"Oh yeah, fine. C'mon, let's go outside."

 

 

Hours later, attendance at the party was starting to dwindle, but those who were left were still going strong. Lance was getting more food from the fridge when JC approached him.

 

"Hey, man, can I, uh... can I talk to you for a minute?"

 

"Sure, what's on your mind?"

 

"Can we go upstairs? It's quieter up there."

 

Lance looked at his friend strangely. "Okay. Just let me bring this stuff outside first."

 

JC nodded and waited in the kitchen. When Lance returned, he turned and walked silently up the stairs. They went into a small den, and JC shut the door behind them. Lance sat on the couch, but JC remained standing. He didn't say anything for awhile, but he seemed very nervous, which in turn was making Lance nervous.

 

"Well?" Lance finally prompted him.

 

JC took a deep breath. "First just let me say that I am really, really sorry. I know it was wrong, and I know I should have just left when I heard voices, but.... I overheard you and Julie talking earlier tonight."

 

Lance put his glasses on the coffee table and buried his face in his hands. 'Shit,' he thought. 'I thought I'd done it. I thought I'd made it through the night.....' "How much did you hear?" he asked softly, not looking up.

 

"Not much. Just the tail end. I only know that you're hiding something from us." He paused to give his friend a chance to say something, but when he didn't, he just continued. "What's going on, Lance? I mean, you looked so awful on Monday, and then you left in such a rush on Wednesday, and now this.... Are you sick again? Because if you are you can tell us. We'll delay the tour, we can work something out."

 

Lance mentally thanked JC for doing the quick thinking for him. "Yeah," he said. "Apparently my, uh, my heart's been acting up again..." ('Well, that's not entirely inaccurate...' the voice in his head intoned.) "It's just minor, and it shouldn't affect me too much. That's why I didn't tell you. I didn't want to worry you over nothing."

 

JC gaped at him. "It's not nothing..."

 

Lance shook his head and waved his hands dismissively. "Nah, really, it is. I had a couple of rough days early this week, but it's short term. Nothing serious. Really." 'Please buy it,' he silently willed his friend. 'Please, please just buy it....'

 

JC sat on the couch next to him. "Are you *sure* you're gonna be okay?"

 

"Positive."

 

"Alright, if you say so. But you'll come to us if you need anything, right?"

 

"Of course."

 

JC nodded and placed a hand on Lance's shoulder. Lance's head reeled, and he shook it to clear it. Suddenly he felt as if JC was way too close, and he realized just how hungry he was. It had been four days. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. The scent of the other man filled his nostrils, overwhelming his senses. He struggled to control his breathing. 'No way, not him,' he counselled himself. 'Never him. Never anyone in the group.' He repeated it to himself like a mantra, but it wasn't helping. JC reached his other arm across to grab Lance's far shoulder. This, of course, only brought him in closer.

 

"Lance, what's happening? Hey, come on, are you okay?" Lance shook his head, not in response to JC but to something in his head. "Help me out here. Tell me what I can do."

 

Lance tried to resist. He couldn't think straight. He reached for the forearm stretched across his chest, pulling it away from his shoulder and closer to his face. JC, thinking he was looking for support, grabbed onto his friend's hand and held on tightly.

 

Lance inhaled deeply at JC's wrist. He shook his head sharply, trying to clear it. "No..." he whispered. He jumped from the couch, pushing JC back onto it hard. "No!" He strode across the room quickly, but his friend called after him.

 

"No what? Lance, what the hell...."

 

Lance paused at the doorway. He couldn't leave like this. JC was still hollering at him.

 

"Would you please just tell me wha- oh, Jesus...." He recoiled in fear and backed up a step. Lance had whirled to face him, his fiery golden eyes meeting JC's concerned blue ones. "Jesus Christ, what are y...." He didn't get the chance to finish his sentence, as Lance passed a hand over his face, putting him to sleep.

 

Lance laid the man back on the couch, and after a few whispered instructions, he bolted from the house. He ran as far as his legs would carry him, then he leaped into the air and flew until his shoulders hurt. He perched on a high building and looked out over the city, trying to make sense out of what had just happened, but there was no sense in it.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Not long after, JC came wandering downstairs. The few remaining people at the party were sitting in the rec room talking.

 

"Well it's about time," Tonya said with a laugh. "You keep disappearing on me tonight."

 

JC stretched. "Sorry. I went upstairs to talk with Lance about something, and I wanted to stay up there for awhile to think it all through. I guess I nodded off on the couch." He frowned as if he couldn't quite believe it himself.

 

Joey shook his head. "JC the cat. Only you could fall asleep at a party, man." JC just laughed at that.

 

"Where is Lance, anyway?" Chris asked.

 

"I think he said he was going for a walk. He should be back soon." He shrugged.

 

As if on cue, Julie's cell phone rang in her purse across the room. She stepped into the hall to answer it.

 

"Jules, you've got the spare keys to my car, right?"

 

She could hear the raw emotion in his voice, and he sounded out of breath. "Um, yeah, I do. Lance, where are you? What's wrong?"

 

"I'm at home. Can you just.... I'll talk to you when you get here, okay? Please?"

 

"Of course. I'm on my way." She returned to the others, laughing and shaking her head. "That ninny," she said. "That was Lance. He walked and walked, and now he's too lazy to walk back. He wants me to pick him up in his car and then we'll just go home from there. He says goodbye to everyone, and he'll see you guys on Monday." Hugs and kisses were exchanged, and then she was in the car, on her way to Lance's house.

 

When she got there, all the lights were out, and she found him sitting in the living room in the dark.

 

"I can't do this," he said when she entered the room. "I thought I could, but I can't. I just can't."

 

She sighed. She knew he was going through hell, but they had been over this so many times in the past week. "You don't have a choice. This is your life now."

 

"Well then maybe I don't want to live it!" he shouted.

 

She stepped back, shocked. "Don't say that," she whispered.

 

He stood and advanced on her. "Look at me, Julie. Look at me! I'm dead! I'm not even human! I'm a monster! I am a fucking predator who preys on his friends, for God's sake!!"

 

"Wha..... did you.... oh, God...." Julie remembered JC coming downstairs from his "nap", and she cringed. She tried to reach a hand out to him, but he pulled away.

 

He sank to his knees on the floor and stared at his lap. "No," he whispered. "But I almost did." He sighed, his breath shaky. "I hate myself. I hate what I've become."

 

"Lance, please...."

 

"Please WHAT?!?" he roared again, looking up at her. "Please don't say that? Why not? It's the truth. Please just think about it? What do you think I've been doing every minute of every day? Please let's talk about it?" He shook his head. "What more is there to say?"

 

She shook her own head, tears beginning to fall. She moved to sit next to him, but he rose and walked quickly out the sliding doors to the porch. She ran after him. "Lance, wait! Don't go! Please...." she sobbed. But he was already gone.

 

 

Lance wandered aimlessly, or so he thought, but he eventually found himself at the doors of The Haven. He stood, looking up at the glowing sign, then he shrugged and went inside. He found a small empty table in the shadows and sat. He didn't know how long he'd been there when a voice interrupted his thoughts.

 

"Care for some company?"

 

He looked up to see a young woman standing by the table. She had long auburn hair that fell in waves around her shoulders, and hazel eyes set above high cheekbones. She seemed rather plain, but at the same time she was stunningly beautiful. He thought she looked to be in her mid-to-late twenties, and he wondered how old she really was.

 

"I lost track after 200. I count it in decades now," she said.

 

Great, a mind reader.

 

"You'll learn it eventually."

 

He shrugged and shook his head, rolling his eyes.

 

She waited another few moments. "Well?"

 

He gestured at the empty chair across from him and leaned back in his own. He still hadn't said a word to her.

 

She watched him in silence for awhile, then extended her hand. "Emma Fischer," she said.

 

He took the offered hand and shook it. "Lance Bass."

 

"I know. So do they," she said with a nod to the rest of the room.

 

He looked around for the first time and noticed a few of the bar's patrons giving him sidelong glances, furtive looks, and not-so-subtle stares. Some were merely appraising him, while others were openly hostile.

 

"They don't think you can do it," she said matter-of-factly.

 

"Finally, someone agrees with me." His voice was totally void of emotion.

 

She laughed wryly. "You're not exactly giving yourself much of a chance. You know,

the longer you keep trying to stay human, the harder this will be."

 

He looked at her, confused. "I thought that was what I was supposed to be doing."

 

She shook her head. "No. You're supposed to make people *think* you're still human."

 

"I'm not sure I see the difference."

 

"You will." She paused, then continued. "I've seen this before. You keep all your old friends, you keep in touch with your family... you're not giving yourself the fresh start you need."

 

"But I can't just disappear. The media'd be all over it."

 

"Aye, there's the rub," she quipped, and sat back in her chair.

 

He shook his head. She was making no sense.

 

"Look," she said, leaning forward again. "Your humanity's important. It's what lets you live among them. But don't hold onto it too tightly, or you'll never make it."

 

"So what am I supposed to do?"

 

"I can't tell you that. But I can tell you that the sooner you accept what you are, the easier it'll be." He started to protest, but she cut him off. "No, you haven't." She got up from the table and leaned over to him. "You have to hide it from them. Don't hide it from yourself." And with that, she left.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The things Emma said to him rolled around his mind all weekend, but by the time Monday morning hit they weren't making any more sense than when she'd first said them. Stop trying to be human? He knew full well that he wasn't human any more. That was the whole problem. And accepting it.... he may not like it, but he certainly wasn't in denial about it, either. He pushed her words from his mind. He had rehearsals to focus on, and if he wanted to continue getting away with this, he would have to *be* focused.

 

Rehearsals.... he dreaded the idea of facing the guys all day every day, especially JC. He knew his friend wouldn't remember a thing about what had happened Friday, but that almost made him feel more ashamed. There was some tension between them at first, since JC did remember that he had "admitted" to being ill and keeping it a secret, but once he had gotten through a few days with no apparent weakness, JC seemed to let it go.

 

Lance immersed himself in the familiar flow of rehearsals, appearances, and interviews. Once they were back on tour and performing regularly he started to feel much better. Being on the stage again he truly felt he was in his element, and he revelled in the exhilaration of the crowds. He was also growing more accustomed to the rituals of feeding. He did so as little as possible, for it was the most pointed reminder of everything he hated most about himself, but he had learned not to push himself too far without it. Everything was going smoothly until one afternoon on the bus.....

 

For various reasons, all five of them were sharing one bus for this short tour. Justin, Chris, and JC were sitting together in the "den" area at the back of the bus. Justin and JC were watching a movie, while Chris was poring over some texts and notebooks spread out around him.

 

"Hey Justin, come over here, I need a test subject." Chris motioned to his friend to come closer.

 

Justin rolled his eyes. "Dude, why are you even taking that course? You're giving yourself extra work.... You don't even need biology for what you do."

 

"I'm expanding my horizons," he said matter-of-factly. Justin replied with a very skeptical look. "This shit's really interesting," Chris defended himself. "Now come on, I need to take someone's vitals for this lab."

 

Lance came into the room from the front of the bus and sat on the couch between Chris and JC.

 

"Why don't you use Lance, he's right there," Justin protested.

 

"Use me for what?"

 

"Here, gimme your hand." Chris held his hand out and took Lance's when he obliged.

 

"What are you gonna do, read my palm?"

 

"Nope, I'm gonna take your pulse." He started fishing for the spot to place his fingers on the other man's wrist, but Lance pulled his hand away.

"No way, man, find another guinea pig."

 

"Oh, come *on*! It's not like I'm doing rectal exams or anything...."

 

"Gee, thanks for that visual, Chris," Justin said from across the room.

 

"You know you loved it."

 

Justin just licked his lips suggestively then turned back to the TV.

 

"Come on, Lance, it's just the basics. Pulse, respiration, that's it." Chris pleaded with him.

 

"No. You are not taking my pulse." 'You couldn't even if you tried,' his inner voice chimed in. 'Shut up,' he answered it. Chris just looked at him. "No," he repeated, and he got up and left the room.

 

Chris turned to the young man across the room. "Justin?"

 

"Oh, alRIGHT..." He took Lance's vacated spot on the couch.

 

Neither of them paid much attention when JC rose and left the room also. He found Lance sitting on his bunk, playing with a Game Boy. JC leaned against the bunks across the aisle from him.

 

"You know, I don't think Chris is good enough to notice a bit of a beat irregularity." He kept his tone light.

 

"I didn't want to risk him trying," Lance replied without looking up from his game.

 

JC paused a moment, watching him play. "It's more than that, isn't it? There's something else." Lance just looked up at him, then went back to the little machine. "Come on, Lance, talk to me." He paused again, but Lance didn't even look up this time. He sighed in frustration. "We don't keep secrets! We're too tight for that."

 

"There is no secret."

 

"Bullshit."

 

"Jace, would you please just drop it?" He finally looked up and met his friend's gaze. "Please."

 

JC evaluated the pleading look in the young man's eyes. He nodded. "Alright, I'll drop it. For now." He went back into the den, shutting the door behind him.

 

Lance dropped the Game Boy on the bunk beside him and laid back. He sighed and draped an arm across his eyes. 'I can barely keep this secret for 3 months. How am I going to last 3 centuries?'

 

 

It was a week later, and Lance was stretched out on the bed in

his hotel room, on the phone.

 

"So how are things going?" Julie was asking him.

 

"Great," he said cheerfully. "I'm racking up quite the phone bill, taking care of FreeLance from over here, but it's all coming along. The fans are as rabid as ever. I'm tellin' ya, they're nuts in Europe!"

 

Julie laughed. "So I've heard. How about the concerts?"

 

"Oh, the concerts! It's amazing! I mean, I've always loved performing, loved being on stage. But now.... it's like the entire place is just alive. I can *feel* every pulse of the music, every wave of screams from the crowd. It's like I'm drugged when I'm up there, or like things are more... real..... I can't even describe it." He paused and listened for a moment. "Are you laughing at me???"

 

"No, no I'm not!"

 

He shook his head and chuckled. "Yeah, yeah. You've probably heard all this before, and now I sound just like all the others."

 

"Actually, I never really talked to any Toreadors before." She giggled again. "But you do sound just how I pictured them, from all the griping Julian used to do about Lillie."

 

"Gee, thanks for that there, hon."

 

"Aw, I'm just glad you're enjoying it all. And what about.... the rest of it?"

 

He paused, trying to decide how much to tell her. "Outer circle, never been better. The interviewers never ask anything that could lead some place bad, so that's fine. I'm really finding that as long as I'm careful about what I do and where, it never becomes an issue of having to lie or cover up."

 

"Mm-hm. And inner circle?"

 

Lance sighed, and right away she knew it wouldn't be good.  "Everything *was* going along fine, and then...." He sighed again. "I don't know what happened, but..... it's all falling apart," he finally finished.

 

"Oh, no. That bad?"

 

"Well, JC's the only one with any idea that something's wrong, but he's being such a.... a.... a *bitch* about it, it's making everything tense! You'd need a hacksaw to cut through the air on the bus some days."

 

"How come? I mean, what... "

 

"He just seems to notice all the little things. He never comes up with enough for me to bother.... y'know.... But he knows something's up and he just won't leave it alone. He never says anything in front of the other guys, he just gives me *looks*, or talks to me in private. But it's starting to affect everyone." He rolled over on the bed and readjusted the phone. "I don't know how much longer we're gonna be able to keep it all together unless I fix this," he said softly.

 

"Fix it how, Lance?" He didn't respond to that. "Lance, you know...."

 

"No, I don't know!" he cut her off. "All I know is we can't keep going like this. Look, don't worry, I'll take care of it. It'll all be okay."

 

"I hope you're right, sweetie."

 

"Yeah, so do I."

 

They said their goodbyes and hung up. Lance lay there for a long while, letting his mind wander.

 

'You could just let things fall apart,' the voice inside of him said. 'Then you could slip back into the woodwork and nobody would care, because *NSYNC would be gone.'

 

'Sure, and then add the guilt of ruining my friends' lives and careers onto everything else. No thanks,' he answered it. "I have to fix this," he said to the room. But how......

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Another week passed, and things continued to deteriorate. Lance felt like JC was watching his every move, and he felt like he was slowly being driven crazy. Everyone in the group was picking up on the tension, and finally one night, after a bad show, Chris had had it. It was the first time it had actually affected a show, but once was enough.

 

"You two! Sit! Now!" he bellowed at them as they all stormed on the bus angrily. Lance paused in the doorway to the bunks, and JC leaned against the counter in the kitchen. "I said SIDDOWN!!" He waited until the two men had sat on the ends of the benches around the little table. "I don't know what the hell's going on between you two, but it's gone too far. What happened out there tonight will never happen again, do you understand me?"

 

"Yes, Dad," Lance mumbled.

 

"Don't you pull attitude on me. You were on that stage, you know exactly what I'm talkin' about. Whatever it is, you guys either need to have it out for once and for all or put it behind you.  Now which is it gonna be?"

 

JC looked at Lance, challenge clearly in his eyes. Lance met his stare for a moment, then he finally got up and started walking.  "Fine. In the back. I'll tell you everything."

 

"No way, man," JC called after him. "You got something to say, you say it to all of us." Lance paused halfway down the little hallway of bunks and turned back to face the rest of them. "I mean it. No secrets."

 

Lance looked at each of them in turn, reading the looks on their faces. Finally Justin spoke.

 

"I'm with JC. If there's something going on, I wanna know about it."

 

Lance threw his hands in the air and turned back the way he'd been walking. "Fine," he said again. "Whoever wants to hear this, come along. We'll make it a party." He waved his hands in the air sarcastically.

 

All four guys followed him into the little den in the back. Joey shut the door behind them and they all found seats while Lance stayed standing. He paced back and forth in the tiny space, options running through his head. There were really only two: make up yet another story, or tell them the truth. He looked around the room at his friends, then ran both his hands through his hair, making his decision. The anger of the four other men was slowly dissipating as they watched him with this obvious struggle.

 

"Alright," Lance finally said. "But you're not gonna believe this. I didn't either, at first, and I was the one it happened to."

 

"What happened?" Justin asked, almost afraid to.

 

Lance faced him, taking a deep breath. "Remember that night we went to The Haven? And I stayed behind after you all left?"

 

He and Chris both concentrated, thinking back. Finally Chris looked up. "Ohhh yeah. And you were all messed up the next day."

 

Lance rolled his eyes a bit. "You could say that."

 

Chris thought again, then he looked sharply at Lance. "Oh, no.  No, he did NOT get you into drugs...."

 

"No, no, no.... Come on, you know me better than that."

 

"Yeah, I *thought* I did. It'd sure explain a lot, though."

 

"Well, no, it wasn't drugs. He...." Lance looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. "This is gonna sound so nuts...." He took a deep breath and looked at the room again. He finally just blurted it out. "He made me drink his blood, after he had drank all of mine."

 

Joey coughed from his chair in the corner beside Lance. "You're telling us.... that you think you're a vampire?!?"

 

"I don't think, I know, and we're called Kindred."

 

"Oooo, Kindred, big fancy word..." Justin laughed from his own chair in the corner across the room from Joey.

 

JC was in the third corner, at one end of the couch, and Chris stood from the other end of the couch where he'd been sitting.  "Dammit, Lance! We've got real problems here, and if you're not even gonna take it seriously..." He reached for the doorknob, but JC stopped him.

 

"Wait." He looked at Lance squarely and calmly. "Prove it," he said.

 

Lance looked back at him for a moment, then he shut his eyes. He mentally crossed his fingers and concentrated. He was getting better at a lot of the things, but his conscious control of his teeth and eyes was still touch and go, for some reason. He opened his eyes and looked around the room; when he saw Chris pale and return to his seat, he knew he'd at least gotten the colour to change.

 

"Believe me now?" he asked, baring his fangs.

 

Joey shifted in his seat. "You can pick those up at any costume store," he hedged.

 

Lance gave him an 'oh please' look. "Can I get this at a costume store, too?" This was one he was better at, since he enjoyed it so much. He paced the room a few times as a wolf, then quickly returned to his human form.

 

The room had erupted. "Jesus Christ!!" "Oh my God!" Finally Chris' voice raised above the others and he stood up again.

 

"Holy fucking shit!! What the hell...."

 

"Chris, calm down and I'll explain everything." Lance took a step towards him, but he drew back. Lance dropped his hands and looked away in dismay, but Chris said nothing, returning to his seat in silence.

 

"Look, let's all try to be rational here," Joey said. "I mean.... I can't really argue with.... that.... but..." He thought for a second. "Okay. It was a bright and sunny day today, we were all outside for most of the afternoon, and you didn't even so much as get a tan. I thought you were supposed to burn up in the sun."

 

Lance shook his head. "Sunlight doesn't bother me, as long as I've... fed." He mumbled the last word, and Joey grimaced.

 

Justin spoke next. "We all had to get tests done before we could travel overseas. Wouldn't the doctor have noticed something?"

 

"I found a Kindred doctor, he faked all the tests for me."

 

Justin swallowed. "You mean that new doc we all went to...."

 

Lance nodded with a half-smirk. "We're all around you," he quipped.

 

"Shit....." the young man whispered before Chris took a turn.

 

"Wait a second, wait a second..... You say sunlight doesn't bother you if you've 'fed'. So you still need to..." He couldn't bring himself to say it, but Lance nodded, understanding exactly what he meant. "So why haven't the police been knockin' at our doors, wanting to know about the trail of bodies behind us?"

 

Lance looked insulted. "Come on, Chris. My body's changed but I haven't. I've never killed anyone."

 

"Well the media then. Someone's gotta talk eventually."

 

"They don't have anything to talk about. I always make sure they don't remember what I've done after I leave them."

 

"Woah. You can erase peoples' memories just like that?" Justin snapped his fingers.

 

Lance shrugged. "Short term memories, yeah. But it's not quite *that* easy."

 

"Cool trick." Justin sounded wary.

 

"It's the only way to keep it a secret," Lance mumbled, looking at his hands.

 

Joey immediately noticed his change in demeanour. "Hold up, there. You mean no one's supposed to know any of this?"

 

Lance looked at him. "Why do you think you haven't heard any of it before? Why do you think it's taken me this long to tell you?"

 

"Well then why are you telling us now?!?" Justin demanded.

 

Lance actually laughed at this. "Do you think I could have gotten away with telling you anything but the truth, after tonight?"

 

"Yes! *Anything* else!! Geez, man!"

 

Lance shook his head. "No way. Guys, this has been killing me.  The lying, the cover-ups.... And you've seen what it's done to us, too. No more."

 

"Oh great. So you'll just unload your little burden, tell us things that no one in the world is ever supposed to know, just so you'll feel better. Thanks."

 

"Wait," Joey spoke again. "You're not going to try your little mind trick on *us* after this, are you?"

 

Justin started shaking his head. "Nu-uh. I like my mind just the way it is, thankyouverymuch."

 

Lance quickly started trying to reassure them. "No.... I won't...."

 

"You should, shouldn't you?" JC finally spoke from his corner. He spoke softly, but everyone stopped talking and looked at him.  Lance didn't answer. "And you have before, haven't you?" It was more a statement than a question, and the look of pure shame on Lance's face as he stared at his hands again was the only answer they needed.

 

"When?" Chris stared daggers at Lance. "WHEN and WHO!?!?"

 

JC answered him. "At your pre-rehearsal party." He looked at Lance, who wouldn't return his gaze. "We went upstairs to talk, and then you left. I didn't just fall asleep on my own, did I?"

 

Lance finally looked at him, tears streaming down his face in bright red streaks. "I'm sorry. I... I couldn't.... There was nothing else I could do."

 

JC looked away and didn't say any more, but Joey went ballistic.  "Jesus, Lance! Friends aren't supposed to mess with each others' minds, for God's sake!"

 

Lance looked at him, angry. "Yeah, well friends *are* supposed to accept each other for what they are, and that's certainly not what I'm getting here!" He wiped his face on his sleeve, not caring about the stains.

 

"And what are we supposed to say?!? 'Gee whiz, you've become a blood sucking monster. Hey, anyone up for a movie?!?'"

 

Lance stepped back, wounded. "Well I was expecting a little better than this."

 

"What else has there been?" Chris said, and it sounded much like an accusation. "You've never... oh, shit.... you've never made lunch out of one of us have you?"

 

"No! No, never, I swear to God...." He reached a hand out to Chris, who pulled back again.

 

The look of pain in Lance's reddened eyes when he did so was one Chris didn't think he'd forget for a long time. He took pity and softened his voice a little. "No, you've got... you're...." he gestured at Lance's face and then at his own. Lance figured out what he was referring to, and he wiped his eyes more thoroughly with his shirt.

 

"Those tissues in the bathroom the other day after we watched that movie...." Justin said softly. "That wasn't a nosebleed, I guess?"

 

Lance tried to laugh. "No. I guess I'm still a sucker for sappy movies." His lame attempt at humour fell flat. He looked around the room now that quiet had descended. The other four were no longer jumping and screaming, but they were far from accepting him. The looks he could read in their faces were blends of anger, disgust, fear, and sorrow, and his heart sank. These were his closest friends, his brothers, and they wouldn't even let him get near them.

 

A memory rose in his mind, that of the night he had sat in The Haven and Emma had come to talk to him. Her words came back to him now, and suddenly they all made sense. He had been looking to the group as his peers, asking their acceptance of him as an equal despite all the changes. Things were clearer now. They were still his friends, and he would love them and protect them, but they would never again be equals.

 

He looked up at them all and started to speak. "Look, guys...."

 

"The longer we sit here, the harder it'll be for you to get this out of our heads," JC interrupted him. His tone was still quiet; he wasn't accusing, just stating a fact.

 

Lance sighed & nodded. "Yeah, but that would take hours. We're still okay."

 

JC shrugged. "The sooner the better."

 

Justin sat up. "Woah, wait, I thought you said you wouldn't do that?"

 

"I'm sorry, Justin. I.... I never should have told you guys. I should have come up with something else, some other excuse."

 

"And what about the next time this happens? When someone else starts to notice things are funny with you. Are we gonna go through all this again?" Chris wanted to know.

 

"No. I've learned my lesson, you shouldn't notice anything again. And if you do... I think I can leave you with suggestions that anything strange doesn't really matter."

 

Everyone sat and looked at each other in silence for awhile. Finally Lance stood, opened the door, and stood back from it. "Let's do it then. You can all go lie in your bunks. In the morning, you'll just think we went straight to bed after the show."

 

They all filed past him silently. Chris was the only one who looked up at him, and Lance wished he hadn't. He stared at him for a second, then shook his head and kept walking.

 

Once they were all situated in their beds, Lance put them out one by one then spoke to them as a group.......

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

They pulled into the hotel that morning just in time to have quick showers in their rooms before their scheduled photo shoot.  JC, Joey, and Chris filed off the bus first, and Lance was at his bunk shoving some things into a bag when Justin squeezed past him.

 

The younger man noticed the blood stains on Lance's pillow. "Hey man, you have another nosebleed last night?"

 

"Huh? Oh, yeah. I woke up with it in the night."

 

"You should get that checked out. It's not normal to have so many in a week."

 

"Nah, it's fine. We just need a humidifier; the air's so dry in here...."

 

Justin started to head off the bus, but he stopped. "Hey, you okay? You seem down, or something."

 

Lance shrugged and tried to sound nonchalant. "Yeah, I'm good. I think I'm just homesick."

 

Justin chuckled and resumed walking. "Yeah, I hear ya. You'd think we'd be used to it by now. I guess nothing ever changes, huh?" he called over his shoulder.

 

"Nope...." Lance answered him, then he sat on his bunk and whispered to the empty bus. "And the more they change, the more they stay the same......"

 

The End

 

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