Harlequin's Slash Fic

The Love that Dares

Title: The Love that Dares
Author: Julien
Universe: Ted & Ralph (The Fast Show) and Queen of the Damned
Characters featured: Ted/Ralph, and David Talbot/Marius
Category, Word count: Short story; 5891 words
Rating: R
Summary: Ralph has invited David Talbot to visit the estate to study the ghosts that haunt the big house. When Talbot’s partner Marius also arrives, he is rather less interested. But then matters become complicated after Ted works out that the pair are vampires – and perhaps responsible for the death of the village grocer.
Notes: A rather odd crossover, I guess, but hey it works for me! I saw the 2002 movie Queen of the Damned while still enjoying my Ted & Ralph obsession, and this is the result!
First published: 22 April 2004 in Homosapien 7


The Love that Dares

‘We can expect a visitor this evening, Ted,’ Ralph announced over breakfast.

‘Yes, sor?’

‘A, er … a Mr David Talbot. I met him in London when I was there last week, ran into him at a pub – ran into him quite literally, I’m afraid, and he ended up with the best part of my pint down his suit. But he was a perfect gentleman about it and I, well, er, I … Didn’t I happen to mention him before now, Ted?’

‘No, sor.’ It was a long long time since Ralph had felt the need to avoid Ted’s gaze; Ted knew from that, if nothing else, that there was something a bit fishy or foolish about all this. He poured the young master and himself another cuppa, and waited for whatever it was that might come next.

‘I’ve invited him to stay overnight at least, and he may well stay for a few days. I hope – I hope that doesn’t inconvenience you, Ted.’

‘Not at all, sor.’ Ted sipped at the perfectly–just–too–hot tea, waited for Ralph to glance at him – and snared the man’s gaze as soon as he did. ‘Unless,’ Ted added ominously, holding Ralph there like a deer before headlamps – ‘Unless it might be that you fancy the Lunnon gentleman, sor. I would find that a great inconvenience indeed.’

Ralph went bright red and immediately denied everything. ‘Good heavens! No, Ted! No, I do assure you. No, no, no … No,’ he added firmly, grasping the edge of the table in both hands, ‘I am a one–man, er, man, I promise you.’

Ted couldn’t resist: ‘Beggin’ your pardon, sor, but what is it they say about protestin’ too much …?’

‘Oh, Ted!’ Ralph cried, looking at him with such earnest innocence that Ted condemned himself for the heel he was. ‘I could never – That is, I admit, I do admit that Mr Talbot is an oddly … well, an oddly compelling man, and maybe you’ll see what I mean when you meet him tonight. But I have loved you all my life, Ted, quite hopelessly for most of it, and now that I’m blessed enough to have you to myself, well, I could never –’

‘I know that, sor. I know that.’ It was a belated rescue, but a necessary one. ‘I’m sorry, sor. I know I shouldn’t tease. Esther tried to cure me of the habit, but it never took.’

Ralph sighed deeply. ‘Ah, yes … She was a grand woman, Mrs Ted, really grand – which was just as well, given the trials she had to bear.’

‘We’ll call that a draw, then, sor.’

‘Yes, all right, Ted.’

They companionably ate their eggs and toast, drank their tea, read the newspaper. Until Ted prompted, ‘Is it a shooting party, then, sor? With your Mr Talbot. Do you want me to organise –’

‘Oh, no! Oh, I completely forgot to explain –’ Ralph was reddening again, and avoiding Ted’s eyes. ‘Well, David and I began talking about – I can’t remember for the life of me how we got onto it, but we began talking about ghosts, you see, and I told him about the ones we have here in the big house –’

Ted snorted; he couldn’t help himself.

‘– and he asked if he could visit in order to study them. Yes, I know you don’t believe in ghosts, Ted,’ Ralph continued very evenly, ‘but if you had seen what I have seen – and felt, and heard, in this very house! – you would change your tune pretty quickly, I assure you.’

‘Yes, sor,’ Ted replied, knowing he conveyed a complete lack of assent.

‘Well, if you care to at least meet Mr Talbot, I will be glad to introduce you.’

‘Yes, sor.’ He meant it this time. ‘I’ll be having a pint with Tom when the day’s done, sor, and then I’ll be back to meet the gentleman.’ Then, if Ted had his way, he’d escape the supernatural craziness which may well last all night, and stay at the cottage – the comfortable little cottage he’d called home for much of his life – the humble cottage which was not, most emphatically not haunted.

It was already dark when Ted began walking home from the village that evening. The countryside around him was quiet under the dimness of starlight, for the moon hadn’t yet risen, and the place seemed to become quieter still as he walked on. Firmly believing that any eeriness was naught but foolishness, Ted sang to himself in a low voice, a new hybrid sprung from a favourite old perennial: ‘And there’s no mountain too high, no river too wide / Sing out this song and I’ll be there by your side …’

In the darkness as he walked under overhanging trees – Something suddenly flew by him. Something flew by him, far too fast for him to identify, and so close that the turbulence all but knocked him over.

Ted stood there, feet firmly planted, peering down the road, trying to make it out. ‘Must’ve been a bird,’ he said to himself. He walked on. After a while, it seemed that the countryside slowly came back to its usual life. ‘Must’ve been a nocturnal bird of some kind,’ he repeated. And yet it was a damned large one, and it was following the road.

Ted reached the big house to find Ralph already deep in conversation with his guest. Apparently Ralph had raided his cellar, and the pair of them were now wandering the ground floor with tumblers of dark red wine in their hands, talking back and forth about Ralph’s family history. It was obvious that Talbot had at least done his homework, for he passed on a few details that Ralph hadn’t known.

‘Oh, Ted!’ Ralph cried as soon as he realised he was there. ‘I’m so glad you’re back. David, if I can introduce you to Ted, my, er … my man, my groundsman, and, er – well, so much more! And, Ted, this is David Talbot who I told you about.’

‘Pleased to meet you,’ Talbot said, shaking Ted’s hand in a friendly and respectful way – though with the barest hint of anxiety, too.

‘Likewise, Mr Talbot,’ Ted replied.

‘No, please, it’s David.’

Ted nodded acknowledgment, without any intention of obeying.

‘You must be very proud of this place, Ted. The house and the grounds are quite delightful.’

‘Oh, it’s the master’s place to be proud,’ he responded, Talbot’s anxiety prompting him to prickliness.

‘Nonsense, Ted!’ Ralph exclaimed. ‘You know as well as I do that the place is yours as much as mine …’

Well, Ted wasn’t going to argue the issue in front of this stranger, so he remained silent. Ralph, predictably, tugged on the hem of his coat, lost for the right words to say. Talbot rescued them. ‘You were saying, Mr Mayhew, that the nursery is haunted as well?’

‘Yes, the old nursery – and that led to a few sleepless nights in my childhood, I can tell you!’

‘You’ve seen the ghost?’

‘Well, yes, I believe so. I believe so …’ Ralph seemed quite pensive. After a moment, he began the story: ‘One of the mistresses of the house – her name was Georgia – died in childbed in 1763. Her husband and the midwife both described how she died calling out for her baby, weeping and wailing, protesting against God for not letting her have even a moment to hold her daughter in her arms.’

The three men stood there silent for a moment, respectful of Georgia’s sad tale.

Ralph continued, ‘A few years later, the little girl – Georgiana – told the nurse that her mother often came to play with her. Apparently she talked about it as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world; of course mothers play with their daughters, even if they can only come at night. And the story goes that Georgia still visited the nursery when Georgiana had children, and also when it was occupied with Georgia’s great–grandchildren. But the sad thing is, of course, that it was her daughter who Georgia loved most of all, and when Georgiana finally died at a grand old age, she went to a place where Georgia couldn’t follow. And Georgia became, well, rather less friendly and maternal.’

‘Yet the nursery was still used?’ Talbot asked.

‘By some, yes. Not by all. My parents saw fit to place me there, but other generations tended to use other rooms.’

‘A broken–hearted mother,’ Talbot mused. ‘It’s certainly not unknown. But it does seem a particularly sad case.’

‘Yes, indeed.’

‘And there have been sightings over the years – over the centuries?’

Ted took the opportunity to observe his master’s guest as the two men discussed various anecdotes and evidence (‘Evidence: hah!’ Ted muttered to himself) regarding Georgia’s alleged appearances.

Talbot was a gentleman tall and lean; perhaps just past his prime but still vigorous. His skin was overly pale and his eyes were bruised–looking, yet he was still handsome in a bookish kind of way. It was clear that Ralph could hardly keep his eyes off the man, even when Ted was there at his side. Ted didn’t blame the young master, though; there was indeed something compelling about this David Talbot, something that Ted couldn’t quite put his finger on, but something real nevertheless.

‘Can we go up there?’ Talbot eventually asked.

‘The old nursery? Of course!’ And Ralph turned to lead the way.

Ted took the opportunity to announce, ‘I’ll be off home now, then, sor.’

‘Oh! Oh, yes. Oh …’ Ralph darted a glance at him, another at Talbot, stared in a confused manner at the floor; it was obvious he wanted to say something more personal to Ted, but didn’t dare, and maybe he couldn’t tell any more where the line was drawn between socially acceptable and too personal. ‘Well, Ted, I suppose I’ll see you in the morning. As usual. In the lower field, perhaps.’

‘Yes, sor. Night, sor. Goodnight, Mr Talbot.’

‘Goodnight, Ted, my, er … Yes – Goodnight!’

‘Goodnight, Ted.’

And so Ted escaped from the ghost–hunting expedition.

It was rather later than usual when Ralph met up with Ted in the lower field, and even so Ralph still appeared to be half–asleep. ‘Good morning, Ted, my darling.’

‘Morning, sor.’

‘How goes the, uh – Oh dear!’ Ralph said after a glance at his watch: ‘the afternoon.’

‘All is well, sor. And you? Were you up all night chasing ghosts, sor?’ He managed to ask this without laughing, though he had to lower his head to hide his smirk.

‘Pretty much, yes, Ted.’ Ralph squinted into the sunlight. ‘Our guests didn’t leave until after five this morning. I almost saw the dawn! Well, I would have if I hadn’t fallen asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.’

Guests, sor?’

‘Ah, yes. Yes, David’s friend Marius arrived in the small hours. Just popped in out of nowhere! Gave me quite a fright at first … You’ll meet him tonight, I expect, Ted. Quite an odd fellow, I must say, and European, if you know what I mean – strange, but very gracious. Almost like … well, you know that hoary old cliche – royalty in exile. He seems to have seen a great deal in his life; I think I could sit and listen to him talk for hours.’

Ted smiled to imagine his loquacious master fascinated into silence. ‘I expect I’ll meet him before tonight, sor, if they’re stirring. I was just about to come up to the big house to sort through what’s needed in the pantry; there’s plenty of taters and carrots ready in the garden.’

‘Excellent, Ted. But our guests declined my invitation; said they’d rather be out of our way; they’re staying in Winslow. I suppose … I suppose it’s not unexpected in a man who studies ghosts – to only appear at night!’

‘Yes, sor.’ Ted grimaced, wondering again if there were a polite way of putting this: ‘Er – They’re not after any – They haven’t asked for, er – Well, I was just wondering, what’s their interest, sor?’

Ralph smiled at him, and clapped his hands together. ‘Purely academic, I assure you, Ted. If they were con–men, they’ve picked a rather poor target!’

‘Yes, sor.’

‘Well, I’ll see you up at the house, then, Ted. Maybe I can help you in the vegetable garden.’

‘I’d appreciate that, sor.’

And with a nod, and an enormous yawn which he tried in vain to hide, the master headed back up the field again.

As it happened, neither of them had the chance to look into the pantry or work in the vegetable garden that afternoon. When Ted arrived at the big house, Ralph was just finishing a telephone conversation which had obviously troubled him. Once he’d hung up, he said, ‘Bad news, I’m afraid, Ted: it seems that Bert Miller has died.’

‘Sorry to hear that, sor. He’ll be missed.’ Bert had run the village grocers for so long that few remembered he wasn’t born locally.

‘They’ve asked me to go in to – to – to view the body. A matter of formal identification. Because, on top of everything else, his son’s missing. They’re looking for him now.’

‘Never was the man his father was,’ Ted muttered.

‘No … No, Tom had a lot to live up to,’ Ralph said, though it was obvious his mind was on other aspects of the situation. ‘There’s no one else, Ted. Dr Milton is still on his holiday in Majorca; the locum has never actually met Bert; and Mr Birkin – well, he’ll be there, too. But they asked me along as a backup.’

‘Are you sure you want to do this, sor?’

‘I have to say that Constable McIntyre sounded a little … spooked.’ Ralph – the man who could not shoot his own deer, the man who closed his eyes when firing at pheasants – looked awfully pale. He rubbed at his forehead, as if he could wipe away his troubles.

Ted went over to his master, laid a gentle hand on his arm. ‘Sor?’

Ralph belatedly caught up with Ted’s question. ‘No, I must do this, Ted. Obligations as – as – as well as privilege, you know.’

It was a damned pity Ralph had to be involved, Ted thought, but the master had always taken his duties seriously, even though in this day and age few others did. Ted drove the man into the village, and waited outside the police station while Ralph fulfilled his obligations. And then he took Ralph down to a quiet spot just off the green, and sat beside him while the sun warmed the man through again.

‘It was very sad, Ted,’ Ralph eventually said, voice barely above a whisper. ‘Poor old Bert! He’d aged twenty years since I saw him, and that was only last week. He was all dried out; nothing but the husk of the man he used to be.’

‘What do they think it was, sor?’

‘They didn’t say as much, but I don’t think they know! Constable McIntyre and the locum – they seemed a bit … well, baffled. That must be why they’re searching for young Tom – it’s not that they suspect him of anything, but they want to find out what they can.’

Ted patted Ralph on the arm. ‘Why don’t I take you home now, sor, and I’ll make a pot of tea. Esther always swore by a pot of tea for easing past the shock of anything.’

‘She was a wise woman, Ted. Thank you.’ Ralph looked at him with a gratitude that far outweighed Ted’s offer. ‘Thank you. I don’t think I could ever manage without you. Not now. Not now …’

‘There’s no danger here.’ An educated London voice, full of happy ease, followed by a superbly contented chuckle.

‘I wouldn’t be so sure …’ Dark and exotic tones, with a depth and a richness that must be beautiful in song.

Ted looked up. He could have sworn the exchange had just floated down to him from the treetops, which made no sense at all. It was an hour after nightfall, and he was out walking the woods with his rifle under his arm, unable to shake the sense that something was wrong – an inner warning that had heightened as the countryside around him fell quiet again, just as it had on the previous night.

‘Ralph Mayhew,’ the first voice continued – it was David Talbot, Ted was sure – ‘Ralph Mayhew is as innocent as a fresh blue sky just washed by spring rains.’

‘How poetic you become out here in your English woods. Yet they are quite tame compared to the magnificent old forests I have known.’

So the other must be Marius. Except that if Ted was hearing aright, then the two men were perched in the branches at the top of a mighty elm, where no human being had any right to be. He stayed as still as he knew how, and listened carefully.

‘I love our tame woods, nevertheless.’

‘As you love the blue skies and the sunshine I have denied you.’

David sighed an assent.

‘You know the other one is here below, and has heard us? Is he an innocent?’

‘Not at all.’ David raised his voice a little, and called down: ‘Are you, Ted?’

‘No, sor.’

‘What are you doing down there …?’

Ted considered this for a moment. ‘I mean you no harm,’ he said in an ordinary voice, guessing that these creatures would hear him even if he whispered, ‘if that’s what you’re asking. But that only holds good as long as you do no harm to the master.’

‘Fair enough,’ David agreed.

‘And your friend?’ Ted insisted.

‘I pledge Mayhew’s safety,’ came that serious, seductive, exotic voice, ‘for as long as it is ours to command.’

Ted frowned. He couldn’t really see himself or his master as threats to these two. So: ‘What did you mean, Mr Marius, about there being danger here?’

Silence for a long moment. And then, abruptly, David dropped down beside Ted. With a rustle of foliage but no visible movement between there and here, Marius was standing there, too – and while David had landed on his feet, he had nothing of Marius’ catlike grace.

Introductions were made; Ted and Marius did not shake hands.

Then Marius announced, ‘There is a coven of vampires in your town.’

‘Winslow?’ Ted blurted. ‘Vampires?’ He looked from one to the other of these creatures, and knew that he could now name them.

‘Yes,’ Marius continued with a smack of impatience. ‘It is only a small pack, and they are newly made, still quite weak; but their intentions are vicious. They are little better than animals.’

‘You want to kill them,’ David slowly said, gazing at his friend, as if he were only just realising this. ‘Don’t you?’

‘Yes.’ The dark voice was very firm, though it was accompanied by a throwaway gesture that indicated Marius didn’t think this was terribly important.

‘We don’t kill our own kind anymore.’

‘Don’t you?’

‘No. You wanted me – You said you made me so that you could learn how people today live; what we do and why, what we believe. Well, I am telling you that we – we humans would not just go there, with no provocation, and wipe them out simply because they do not suit us.’

Marius lifted a sardonic eyebrow. ‘And so people do not kill their own kind in Belfast, in New York, in Kabul, in Sarajevo …’

David growled – apparently surprising himself with this physical manifestation of emotion. ‘They are not your serfs to work or to kill at your pleasure! Times are changing, I promise you.’

‘A growing herd cannot always sustain itself; there are times when it must be culled. The least worthy are the first to go.’

‘You are wrong!’

‘And you,’ Marius countered, ‘have spent far too many years hidden away inside your damned Talamasca, always watching and never acting. Sometimes, David, one cannot live and let live.’

‘You are wrong,’ David repeated. Though he sounded less certain now. He appealed instead to Ted. ‘What would you do?’

‘Well, sor,’ Ted carefully replied, ‘you’d know better than me. But I was wondering about how old Bert Miller died.’ And he told them what Ralph had said, about the remains being little more than a dry husk. He ended with a significant stare at David Talbot: ‘Who was responsible for that, would you say?’

Talbot lifted his hands palm–out to underline his innocence. ‘Neither of us. But it may well be this coven’s doing.’

Ted nodded, and made up his mind. ‘If they’re nothing but predators, sor, then I’m with Mr Marius. If I can’t keep a wolf from the sheep, though I try all manner of fences first, then there’s no question what I do about it.’

Marius was gazing off into the night sky, withdrawn and a bit smug now he’d won his point. David, however, was looking at Ted keenly. ‘There’s a particular person you want to protect from wolves, isn’t there, Ted? Wolves of any kind.’

‘Yes, sor.’ A silence lengthened, until Ted asked, ‘Are you, uh, ghost–hunting again tonight, Mr Talbot?’ He was particularly careful not to hint at his real thoughts about such activities. Honesty in dealing with such creatures was one thing; deliberately giving offence was something else again.

‘Yes. Yes, of course. Ralph will be wondering where we are. Will you walk with us, Ted?’

He eyed each of them in turn. ‘I have your word,’ Ted reminded them.

‘Of course,’ Talbot answered. And, when Talbot glanced at Marius, the older one nodded as if regally granting a favour.

Ted nodded as well; though he planned to fetch a few tomato stakes from the greenhouse as soon as he decently could. He turned and accompanied the two of them to the big house. The vampires deferentially walked rather than flew, though Ted would have sworn there were times when Marius’ feet didn’t quite touch the ground.

Ralph was surprised and extremely pleased when he realised that Ted intended to stay with the ghost–hunters that night. ‘Have you changed your mind, Ted?’ he asked. ‘Or do you think we’ll benefit from a sceptical witness?’

‘I haven’t changed my mind, sor.’

‘You may well do so tonight!’

‘We’ll see, sor,’ he stoically replied.

Ralph offered his guests food, which they politely declined, and wine, which they happily accepted, and then the ghost–hunters headed up to the attic with an already weary Ted trailing behind. He sat himself down on an old chest, as near to Ralph as he could reasonably be, and as he sipped at the wine his thoughts wandered …

Ted woke with a start. The attic was dark around him, and empty of life. Heart pounding, he pushed himself up, spilling the last of his wine, dropping his glass, and he gazed about – Ralph wasn’t there. Ralph wasn’t there!

Movement to his right. Ted swung around into a fighting stance, stake in hand – to see the sardonic coolness of Marius. The vampire stepped towards him through the attic’s clutter, almost daintily as if he wished to avoid the dust, but also solidly as if nothing could ever pierce his marble–hard flesh, and certainly not the laughable splinter that Ted carried.

‘They are in the cellar,’ Marius informed him. ‘Some story about a young boy accidentally locked in the old strong room down there. Quite a heart–rending tale,’ he coolly continued; ‘his people searched and searched, but did not find him until weeks later. His fingers were torn from scrabbling at the bricks … So, of course now he haunts the wine cellars.’

Ted slowly straightened again. ‘Do you believe in all this?’

‘Of course.’ Another of those carelessly dismissive gestures. ‘But ghosts are so tedious …’ Marius headed for the ladder. ‘Come – I said I would bring you down to them when you awoke.’

After a moment, Ted took a deep breath and then put the stake back in his coat pocket. ‘All right, then.’

Marius laughed, and turned back to him. ‘Yes, all is right – but only for the moment. David has forgotten the first rule of our kind. He is used to being an exception, he and the other fools in the Talamasca; he doesn’t think about the danger he places you in.’

Ted’s heart abruptly renewed its pounding. ‘What rule?’

‘None of us can allow a human who knows about us to live. It’s quite obvious when you consider it; I’m sure you’d do the same.’

‘Mr Mayhew don’t know about you,’ Ted said. Fiercely: ‘Remember that! Mr Mayhew doesn’t know. And he won’t ever, not from me.’

Marius nodded. ‘You will have a choice, Edward. I’m sure David would make you one of us, if you wanted.’

‘Wouldn’t stop you culling me, if you saw fit.’

‘One way or the other, you must die.’

Ted glared at him, then deliberately walked towards and past him to the ladder, as cool as ever Marius himself was. ‘The cellars, you say.’

‘Just so,’ Marius murmured, and he followed Ted down.

By the time their guests had left, and they were readying themselves for bed, it was nigh on dawn. Ted felt more awake – alive – aware than he had for a long time. As for Ralph, well, he was as happy and excited as a boy on Christmas morn; his eyes shone and his mouth kept curling into a smile.

‘Did you see your ghosts, then, sor?’ Ted asked him.

‘Oh, no … No, not really, Ted.’ Though this didn’t seem to dampen Ralph’s spirits at all. ‘David tells me all the signs are there; he quite agrees this house is haunted; but we haven’t really had any sightings.’

‘So maybe the gentlemen will be returning to London, sor.’

‘Not quite yet! David says he’ll come back for one more night.’ Ralph laughed with glee. ‘Oh, Ted – it’s like an adventure! I always thought one had to go to – well, Borneo or Morocco or Timbuktoo for adventures, but here we are having one in our very own home!’

‘Yes, sor.’

Ralph, looking like a great big cuddly boy in his pyjamas, got into bed. Ted, who usually wore boxers, got in after him wearing nothing – which prompted another gleeful giggle. They shifted into each other’s arms, a place comfortable and familiar, yet still new and delightful. ‘I’m glad you were with us tonight, Ted. I – I – well, I was glad not to be alone.’

Ted’s heart stopped for a moment. ‘The gentleman gave you no cause to worry, sor? Or, uh –’ He felt foolish adding this, but he mustn’t alarm Ralph in any way or hint at the creatures’ real nature. ‘The ghosts didn’t scare you?’

‘No – oh, no! Neither the ghosts nor the – Yes. David and Marius really are … perfect gentlemen, aren’t they, Ted?’

‘Yes, sor,’ he murmured, pressing his face against Ralph’s hair, breathing deeply, closing his eyes, taking in the scent and the feel of his beloved master. His dearly beloved.

‘There’s – there’s something different about those two, isn’t there, Ted …?’

That set Ted going again. He tried to keep the fear from his voice. ‘Sor?’

‘I would swear that they were … well, I’m sure that they’re, er …’

‘Yes, sor?’

‘Well, lovers.’

Ted sagged in relief. After a moment, he managed to say in something close to his regular voice, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t really know about that, sor.’

‘Wouldn’t you, Ted?’ Ralph sounded a tad disappointed.

Ted shifted his head back on the pillow in order to meet the man’s gaze – and he winked conspiratorially, much to Ralph’s delight. He lifted a hand to stroke Ralph’s cheek. ‘That I believe in, sor. But all this other stuff … I can’t believe in any of it.’

‘That’s all right; I don’t expect you to.’

‘Witches and werewolves,’ Ted meandered on, determined to test the matter once for all, ‘warlocks and vampires, ghosts and bogeymen, trolls and demons. It’s all just stories to frighten children with.’

Ghosts are real, Ted,’ Ralph said with utter seriousness. ‘But I agree about the rest; they’re just fairy tales. Although,’ he added pensively, ‘I’m not so sure about crop circles … I wonder what’s going on there …’

Ted chuckled, and forced himself not to comment on the absurdity of UFOs or mathematically–inclined Druids, or whatever the latest theory was. Propping himself up on an elbow, he watched Ralph, taking in the fascinating, endlessly–changing look of him. Running his fingers from that sensitive place just behind Ralph’s earlobe, down his throat, and then back up again and around that beloved face.

Ralph gazed up at him, mouth curling in the most provocative of smiles. ‘Are you – Are you tired, Ted?’

‘No, sor. Why, usually I’d be waking up about now, sor. I’m not sleepy at all.’

‘Good … Good …’ Though for now Ralph was content to just lie there and be gently adored.

Life was precious, and Ted did not want to lose his. But the most precious thing in his life was lying here next to him; Ralph Mayhew, who was happy and contented and safe, Ted prayed, safe for the rest of his years. Such a precious thing; and there was nothing that Ted would not protect him from.

He did not doubt for a moment that Marius’ threat was serious. Not that Ted had no hope of such a fate being averted: everyone knew what rules were made for. But he must enjoy what time he had. Not that that meant anything had really changed: finding a new love at his age, well, Ted always knew he must make hay while the sun still shone.

Leaning down, he met Ralph’s mouth with his own. Kissed him with the reverence due to God’s gift of life. Settled in close to the man, willingly finding himself encircled in Ralph’s arms – and Ted loved him until Ralph’s yearning moans turned to satiated sighs, and then he kept loving him some more.

Ted waited patiently through the next night’s ghost–hunting until he could have a private word with Marius. ‘This coven in Winslow,’ Ted said to him once Ralph and David were in another room: ‘it has to go. And I’ll come with you to see the job done.’

‘I hardly need David’s assistance, let alone yours. There are only five or six of them.’

‘Just the same, sor, I have to see it done. Bert Miller was too close to home. You do what you have to do about that rule; but I need to know the master’s safe before I go.’

Marius considered him for a long moment, preternaturally still. And at last he said, ‘All right. We’ll meet you outside the village after midnight tomorrow. But do not expect me to be satisfied with those weak fledglings. I have not tasted a man’s blood for far too long.’

Ted almost laughed, though the humour was wry: My tired old blood? he thought to himself. A bit thin for a victory feast.

Not so, came the echoing answer: it would be rich and warm, and taste of the good earth.

And, with the coolest of smiles, Marius floated off into the next room, toes skimming the floorboards the whole way.

So it came to pass that Ted walked into the village late the following night, and then Marius took him into his arms and lifted him high into the night sky. There below him was the big house bathed in moonlight, perhaps the last time he’d ever see it, and even as he watched the last light was turned off, and he imagined Ralph curling up alone in the bed. Then the band of vampire–hunters flew towards Winslow.

The coven were soon found in the garden of a cottage on the outskirts, sitting there joking and laughing around a roaring bonfire with the drained husks of humans cast behind them. Marius glided down and set Ted on his feet on the far side of the garden wall, and then he swooped into the garden and the laughs turned into screams. David Talbot followed him. By the time that Ted had scaled the wall, there were three mounds of dust, and one vampire trying to rise from the flames but now falling back in and finally being consumed.

There was only one member of the coven left. Marius effortlessly held him with one hand despite the creature’s struggles; Marius beckoned Ted, and said, ‘This is the one you wanted.’

The vampire looked up, and Ted saw that it was young Tom Miller; and given the no–account life Tom had led, and given old Bert Miller’s death, and given the cruelty in Tom’s eyes that only grew when he recognised the man approaching him, Ted felt no compunction in slaying him. The creature that used to be Tom Miller fell into dust at his feet.

When all was quiet again, David walked from one human corpse to the next, blessing them with his hands and his compassionate gaze, and then placing them respectfully on the pyre. Then David took Ted up, and carried him away from there. Marius followed.

Deep in the hills, far from all other living creatures, David offered to make Ted a vampire. ‘We need more like you. There is a demon within us, but in some the human is stronger still; so it would be with you.’

But Ted replied that he would not become something that could not be – He did not voice the word, but he thought it. Loved.

David smiled at him with tender sadness. ‘But he would still love you, Ted. That is the tragedy of it. Even without understanding, without forgiveness, there is still love.’

Ted replied once more that he couldn’t. And then he turned to Marius, for he knew what his fate would be.

But Marius merely sighed, and said, ‘You understand the need for secrecy.’ Ted affirmed that he did. And Marius said, Then we will let you be.

Ted closed his eyes for a moment, and knew that the others would hear his wordless but heartfelt gratitude for this precious gift of years, this precious gift of time in which to make hay in the sunshine.

‘Though don’t tell Lestat,’ Marius muttered to David, ‘or the brat will think that he has changed the world after all.’

And then they journeyed on, with the vampires walking beside Ted as if they were equals. At last they strode over the last hill and came to the main road, and then David and Marius took to the air and headed for London; and Ted could hear David happily laughing as they went and even Marius chuckled. But Ted turned towards the village, and so came back up the country lanes as dawn was nearing once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and a fire within; and breakfast was ready, and he was expected. And Ralph drew him in, and set him in his chair, and poured him a cup of tea.

Ted drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m home,’ he said.

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