A week later, Greg and Luce were just arriving home from the orphanage when the phone rang. Greg had already managed to get through Shub and Rubeus' welcome-home assault, but Luce was still fending them off, so he called "I'll get it," and answered the phone.
"Hello?" he said.
"Yes? Hello?" answered a warm voice Greg wished he didn't recognize. The voice sounded confused. "I'm looking for Lucian."
"He's here," Greg said, feeling stiff all over. He glanced over his shoulder. Luce was laughing on the floor as Shub and Rubeus crawled over him, chirping and meowing. "He'll be free in a moment."
"Thanks. Er, is this Greg?"
Greg closed his eyes. "Yes," he answered tightly.
"Oh! I don't suppose you remember me but—"
"I remember you, Cregan."
"Right," Cregan said, laughing nervously. "How have you been?"
"I saw the advertisement for the orphanage in yesterday's paper. It looks brilliant."
"Thank you," Greg said grudgingly. Sweet Lucifer, why did Luce get the nice ex? "We're very excited."
"It's a great thing you're doing," Cregan said, seriously. "I haven't always – well, nevermind." There was a pause. "Whom would I speak to about donating to the orphanage's foundation?"
Greg covered the receiver and let out a harsh breath. Luce looked up from the floor sharply, his hands frozen in play. He raised an eyebrow questioningly, and Greg turned his back. "Luce," he said. "He handles that."
"All right," Cregan said. "Is he, er, free yet?"
Just then, Greg felt Luce's warm hand settle on his shoulder. "Yes," he replied. "Hang on."
He covered the mouthpiece again and handed the phone to Luce. "Cregan," he said simply.
The color drained from Luce's face, and he swallowed twice, hard. "Okay," he said, taking the phone. "Hello?"
Greg watched him.
"Yeah, I'm good," Luce said. He half-turned away from Greg. "Uh huh, thanks. We're really proud, too." He paused, listening to Cregan, and Greg saw his eyebrows shoot up. "How much? That's . . . Cregan, that's amazing. Thank you."
Cregan said something else, and Luce laughed quickly, short and sharp, like he hadn't meant to.
Greg balled his hands into fists and left to give Luce some privacy. His stomach was churning like he'd taken a hit of bad blood. The hallway stretched out, long and warped, and it took him years to reach his bedroom door, fighting through air that tasted like mud.
He remembered Cregan in perfect detail: handsome, charming, and warm-blooded. He was willing to bet that Cregan also didn't come with centuries of emotional baggage like Greg. And he'd been with Luce before, so he knew what Luce liked. If Cregan wanted Luce back, Greg knew he didn't stand a chance.
What was he even thinking? He'd never try for Luce anyway. How many times was he going to have to remind himself that this was only temporary?
Luce knocked on his door not long after that. "Greg?" he said quietly.
"Yes?" Greg replied. He'd managed to get himself under control.
Luce pushed open the door. "Hey, uh. Sorry about that. Cregan, can you believe it? Fuck."
"Are you all right?" Greg asked.
Luce shrugged. "It just surprised me. I'm fine."
Luce didn't smell fine. He smelled tense and unhappy. Greg felt a bit guilty, because that cheered him up.
"Anything you want to talk about?" he said.
Luce barked out a laugh. "Not really. He's gonna make a donation to the orphanage, though. A crazy donation."
"He's trying to buy his way back into your good graces."
"Fuck lot of good it'll do him," Luce snorted, crossing his arms and leaning against the door. "I don't think the king of the leprechauns has that much money."
Greg smiled wanly. "Never say never."
Luce rolled his eyes. "I know, I know, you told me. Maybe he's trying to change."
Greg cursed himself for ever being supportive. "Yes."
"Well, whatever," Luce said. "I'm hungry. Let's go eat."
"Let me feed the beasts first, so they don't maul us when we come back through the door."
Luce smiled and pushed himself away from the door just as Shub and Rubeus scampered into the room, making demanding noises. "All right."
Greg got up, and they walked toward the kitchen, shoulders brushing. Greg decided he'd steal these moments while he could. He could store them up, like his heart was a granary. Then, when the famine came, he could survive.
They ended up at a sportsbar, watching a game of headball. It was like the human game, football, with one key difference.
Luce ordered a burger, a basket of greasy onion rings, and a pitcher of beer for himself; he ordered four blood shots for Greg and grinned.
"Trying to get me drunk and pliable?" Greg teased with a raised eyebrow.
Luce chuckled and slapped his back. "Please, I wouldn't need you high on blood to take advantage of you."
Greg laughed obligingly, and hoped Luce didn't notice how the sound wobbled.
Before long, he felt loose and happy. Blood buzzed through his veins, and Luce was warm and solid next to him at the bar. They were both shouting at the game, groaning when a player kicked the head and got his foot stuck in the mouth.
"Amateur," Luce grumbled.
"Hope you didn't put money on this game," Greg agreed.
"Oh, shut up," Luce said. "I'll buy you the damn spiders tomorrow."
Greg turned his head to the side so Luce wouldn't see his amused smile. "I told you not to bet with me. I have an innate sense about these things."
"Yeah, yeah," Luce said. "Just wait. I'll get you back."
"You're lucky we bet on food, and not diaper duty."
"Please," Luce said, "Even I'm not crazy enough to bet with something like that."
They stumbled home a few hours later, after Luce had finished cursing at the TV screen and downed another pitcher of beer to drown his pain.
"They lost by fifty-seven points!" he complained, leaning against Greg for support as Greg tried to unlock the front door. "Fifty-seven! Don't they have any shame? I mean, for fuck's sake, they had to stop the game to get a new head! That's totally unprofessional."
"Yes," Greg said, laughing, as he steered Luce down the hall. Luce stayed pressed to Greg's side. He loved drunk Luce. "But you still owe me a box of blood chocolate spiders tomorrow."
"I bet you rigged the game," Luce said.
"Yes, Luce. I rigged the game from the barstool."
Luce leaned away to look down into Greg's face, one arm still wrapped tightly around Greg's shoulder. "Yeah," he said, squinting one eye. "You could do that. You're crafty."
Greg grinned and felt joy and contentment curl his smile. "Go to bed," he said, pushing Luce into his room.
"Making me sleep alone, too. That's just cruel."
Greg's heart stuttered. "You're drunk."
"Yeah," Luce agreed morosely.
Greg laughed. Luce was always a flirty drunk. He should learn to keep it from getting to him. "Go to bed," he repeated.
Luce grinned lopsidedly. "I'm gonna spit on those spiders before I give 'em to you."
"I already drink your blood," Greg said. "A little spit wouldn't bother me."
"Gross," Luce said, wrinkling his nose.
"Kind of," Greg agreed, still grinning. "Good night."
Luce opened his mouth to reply, when the phone rang again. Greg blinked. It had to be nearly midnight. Who could be calling?
Luce caught his eye, looking disturbed, and shoved past Greg before he could react. Greg followed Luce into the kitchen and watched Luce pick up the phone.
"Yeah?" Luce said gruffly. His expression changed from fear to puzzlement. "Oh, uh, yeah. He's here. Why?"
Greg started forward to take the phone, but Luce waved him away. "Uh huh. No, actually, I don't think he'll need the service again. Yeah, I'm sure. No, he's got a source. A fucking fine source. Uh huh. Right, I'll let you know if the source dries up. Bye."
Greg raised both eyebrows. "Was that for me?"
"Yeah," Luce said, standing there.
"And?" Greg prompted.
"And I took care of it."
"Lucian," Greg said.
Luce snickered. "You're so easy to piss off. Relax, it was that Ivan guy."
Greg paused, replaying Luce's conversation. "If that was Ivan, why did it sound like you canceled my service?"
"'Cause I did," Luce said proudly. "You're drinking from me now."
Greg blinked. "Yes. And now I have to keep drinking from you."
"Duh," Luce said, like that was perfectly logical.
"I thought we agreed this was only until I could get my regular supply back."
"Well, yeah," Luce said. "But my blood is better for you. You said so. Your spells have been stronger since you've been drinking from me, and your powers are heightened. Super phoenix juice!" he giggled.
Greg pinched the bridge of his nose. "Yes, but eventually I'm going to have to stop drinking from you. And then I'll have to find another source."
Luce rolled his eyes. "Please. Anyway, Ivan said he was just gonna suspend your account in case you changed your mind. And you know you can drink from me as long as you want."
"No," Greg said, anger making his voice hiss and crackle, "I can drink from you until my job here is done and I leave."
Luce's mouth snapped shut and an angry flush rose from his neck to his cheeks. "Don't say stupid shit. I'm going to bed." He swayed a little as he left the room.
Greg glared at his back. He hated drunk Luce.
"You, uh, still pissed at me?" Luce said two days later.
"No," Greg replied.
"Really? 'Cause there was a hex on my desk this morning."
"Oh?" Greg said. "Hm, I must have missed that in my sweep."
"Greg, I was spitting butterflies for two hours."
"Yes, Emma thought it was pretty."
Luce rubbed a hand over his face. "Look, I'm sorry I canceled your blood subscription, okay? But I meant what I said. Just drink from me until you . . . leave. Then call Ivan back and unsuspend your account."
"Lucian," Greg said, "I don't appreciate people making decisions for me. I make my own decisions. I control my own life. I don't like meddling by friends who think they know best."
Luce looked away, guilt painting his features. "It's not like I'd do anything to hurt you on purpose."
For a second, Greg wondered if they were talking about the same thing.
"I know that," he said eventually.
"I'm sorry," Luce said. "Can we just . . . can you stop being mad at me?"
"Were you wrong to make my decision for me?" Greg prompted.
"Yes," Luce said, with an exasperated smile. "Yes, okay. I was wrong, you were right."
"That's a start," Greg said. "But I can't forgive you yet."
Luce's shoulders drooped. "Why not?"
"Because," Greg said patiently. "Someone still hasn't given me that box of blood chocolate spiders he owes me."
Luce laughed and punched Greg's shoulder lightly. "Ass," he said. Then his expression shifted, going shrewd and calculating. It put Greg immediately on the defensive. "Actually," Luce said, "I've got some things to take care of right now. But I could give you some money so you can go to the store."
"That's hardly any fun," Greg said. "Working for my own reward."
Luce grinned. "I was hoping I could talk you into running a few errands for me, too. I didn't think I'd have time today."
Greg sighed. "Now I see why you apologized. You needed the manual labor."
"Damn, you've uncovered my dastardly plan."
"Grocery shopping and errands do not constitute a dastardly plan. You've got a long road to reach evil mastermind."
"Do you mind, really?" Luce asked, glancing at his watch. "I've got a whole list of things I needed to do. It'll keep you away for at least a couple of hours."
"No problem," Greg said. It wasn't as though he'd ever refuse Luce.
When Greg walked through the front door several hours later laden down with packages, Luce, Frank, and Drake were standing in line in the middle of the foyer.
"Yes?" Greg asked warily.
"Let me get that," Frank said cheerily, darting forward and grabbing the shopping bags from Greg.
"Hey, so," Luce said, coughing. "You like surprises, right?"
"No," Greg said flatly.
Luce stopped. "Oh. Okay. Uh, then, happy . . . not . . . surprise . . . birthday."
Luce grinned. "Remember how I told you we were planning a party for your birthday? Uh, today's that day."
Greg remembered. Luce had been lying that day, planning something with Frank and Drake that he didn't want to share with Greg.
Greg took an experimental sniff of the air. Luce wasn't lying now. "What?" he said again.
"Happy nine-hundred and thirteenth, grandpa," Frank said, slapping Greg on the back. "Lookin' good."
"Happy birthday, brother," Drake said. "I realize it is not the exact date of your christening, but this was the only day we could gather everyone together."
"You're throwing me a party?" Greg said, still disbelieving.
"Head into the parlor and see for yourself." Luce smiled wide and grabbed his elbow to steer him down the hall. When he opened the parlor door, a burst of laughter and music assailed him.
"Happy birthday!" several people shouted in unison. Confetti showered down on his head, flecks of black and red and white.
Greg turned to Luce and arched an eyebrow expressively, wiping confetti off his cheek.
"You like it?" Luce asked. "I mean, I know I told you we were planning it, so it's not too much of a surprise. We had to set it up pretty fast."
"That's why you needed to get me out of the house today," Greg said, amused.
"Yeah," Luce said sheepishly. "I was afraid you were gonna stay pissed at me about the other night, and I'd never get you to agree to go out."
"Looks like you really did have a dastardly plan," Greg said.
"Told ya," Luce said smugly.
Greg smiled and looked around the room. He spotted Granny Sweets and Russell arguing by the refreshment table – Granny was probably trying to keep Russell from eating everything; Flea and Hattie were involved in a heated embrace by the window, but they broke apart long enough to wave at him; Althea, Paul, and Summer were on one of the couches, talking to the Count and his wives; Gill and his wife, Francesca, were near the punchbowl, talking in low tones that sounded iambic. Bill and Bob stood sentinel near the door.
"You invited my father?" Greg asked.
"Yeah," Luce said cautiously. "I mean, he asked if he could come. And you two seem to be getting along better these days, ever since he brought that album over."
Greg nodded. "Just don't let me open any presents from him."
"My father is known for creative birthday gifts. Usually, they are things he feels are interesting and harmless, and they somehow always turn into something evil and dangerous."
Luce blanched. "He brought a really big gift and put it in the refrigerator."
"Then," Greg said, glancing nervously toward the kitchen, "I would suggest you never open the refrigerator again. You may want to tie chains around it and send it to the bottom of the ocean."
Luce laughed nervously. "Right."
Just then, Gina sauntered up to him. "Hey, birthday boy," she said. "I got something for ya."
"Oh?" Greg said. He and Gina had been involved in a prank war of sorts for the past week or so, and Greg was winning, but Gina was not taking defeat lightly. He'd caught her in his office yesterday erasing critical parts of his spell and penciling new runes in place that would have made his hair purple and his nose three feet long.
"Yeah," Gina replied. There was a teasing, mischievous light in her eye, and Greg didn't trust it for a second.
She licked her lips and then yanked Greg's face down, planting a wet kiss on his mouth. She giggled against his lips, and Greg knew she was doing it to embarrass him. She was entirely annoying.
Greg sputtered for a moment under the onslaught of Gina's mouth, his arms flailing, before he narrowed his eyes. If this little upstart thought she was going to get the better of him, she was sadly mistaken.
He reached out and wrapped his arms around Gina, drawing her closer. He bent her small body until she was arched backward, fit snug against him, and then flicked his tongue across her lips. She gasped and opened her mouth, and Greg dove inside, sweeping his tongue along the roof of her mouth and biting down gently on her lower lip. He kissed her for a long minute, sloppy tongue and bruising pressure. Somewhere near the end, Gina's tail wrapped around his leg.
When he let go, Gina was staring up at him with pupils blown black and wide, breathing heavily.
"Whoa, Stoneface," she said. "I, uh. That was. Dammit!"
Greg chuckled and wiped a hand across his mouth. "Next time, know what you're up against. I always win."
Gina's narrowed eyes promised that this was not over. She huffed and flounced away to flirt with Bill and Bob.
He turned to grin at Luce, but Luce was staring at Gina's retreating form, his hair smoking wildly. His expression was two seconds from a chainsaw massacre.
"Er, Luce?" Greg said.
Luce's eyes shot back to Greg. "Quite a show," he said, sounding strange. "Should I leave you two alone? Get you a room? Don't forget to use those venom-proof condoms."
"You're hysterical," Greg said, scowling. "She's practically an infant. And you might have warned me what she was planning."
"Believe me," Luce said, eyes flickering fire. "I didn't know she was going to do that."
Greg believed him. He shoved at Luce's shoulder. "Then don't blame Gina for being her obnoxious self. The child lives to cause controversy."
Luce sighed. "I just –" He seemed to catch himself. "I just want you to like the party."
Greg smiled. So that's why Luce was upset. "Luce," he said, and took the risk of touching Luce's arm. "She didn't ruin anything. And despite present company, I think I'll quite enjoy the party."
Luce grinned, though it didn't quite reach his eyes yet. "Funny. I hope so. Anyway, now that you're here, we can have the cake and ice cream before Russell explodes."
"Ice cream?" Greg asked, trying not to sound like an overeager puppy.
"Bloodswirl," Luce replied, and this time the grin reached his eyes.
"You are my favorite monster," Greg said. "Have I told you that today?"
Luce laughed and slung an arm around his shoulder as he led them to a table piled high with refreshments. In the center of the table sat a large, glistening red cake with artful drips decorating the side; it looked like someone had dipped the cake in blood. Beside it sat a smaller cake, chocolate with ghost-shaped icing. Finger sandwiches were lined up in rows on neat little plates; bags of chip and dip were scattered along the table; ghoulash steamed in a large pan; and eyeballs floated in the punch, which smelled like a giant vat of Bloody Mary. A smaller punchbowl sat to the side filled with lemonade.
"Grab a plate," Luce said, handing one to Greg. "C'mon, you get first dibs."
Greg looked around the room at the smiling faces. These people were here for him. They liked him enough to spend time with him. And Luce had brought them all together. He clutched his plate tightly and stared at Luce's broad back as they made their way to the cooler at the end of the table. No one had ever done anything like this for him. No one.
Luce glanced over his shoulder, eyes sparkling, and Greg gulped. Deep, deep trouble.
"Okay, one scoop or two?" Luce asked, his hand poised above the ice cream tub.
"Three," Greg replied, holding up his plate.
"Greedy bat," Luce laughed, but obediently doled out three scoops.
"It's only greedy if I don't eat it all."
"Gregori!" a shrill high voice demanded. Greg winced and turned around.
Granny Sweets stood smacking her gums together, her hands planted on her hips. "You'd better be saving room for cake!" she accused, wagging her brown, wrinkled finger.
"Cake?" Greg said, eyeing the giant object in question. "Granny, you know I cannot eat food."
"Food!" Granny Sweets gasped, clutching her chest. She faked heart attacks quite frequently. "Food, he says! I'll have you know it's nothing of the sort! Frank got the ingredients for me from the bakery and he withdrew seventeen pints of fresh blood from the bank!"
Greg's brows furrowed. "The cake is glazed with blood?"
"Glazed! Glazed!" shouted Granny Sweets. "You say these things to make an old woman cry, I know you do. Boy, that is a blood cake! Finest you'll ever taste."
Greg looked at the cake again. "I've never heard of blood cake."
"'Course not," Granny Sweets said. "I invented it today. Do you know how hard it is to bake with blood?" she demanded, poking him in the chest with her gnarled finger. "Not that I'm a stranger to it," she added, cackling gleefully. "But it takes a deft hand to keep the blood from curdling in the oven and making the cake fall."
"It looks delicious," Greg said.
"Hmph. Well, even if it isn't, you'd better pretend you love it, boy."
Greg smiled. "If you baked it, Granny Sweets, I'm certain it will be more than edible. It will be a culinary miracle."
Granny Sweets snorted, but her wrinkled cheeks flushed with pleasure. "You're a silver-tongued devil, you are." She reached up and patted his cheek.
Then she grabbed his ear and yanked him closer. Greg experienced a sick, nauseating moment where he was terrified Granny Sweets would kiss him, too. But she only leaned up to whisper. "Happy birthday. Thanks for giving a crazy old sweetch another chance." Then she patted his cheek again and tottered off.
Greg watched her go back to Russell and smack his slimy appendage away from a tray of cupcakes. A grin tugged the corner of his mouth.
He cut himself a large slice of cake.
Luce came up next to him and bumped his shoulder. "Pretty good, huh?" he said. He ate a big spoonful of butter pecan ice cream and grinned, his smile milky.
Greg laughed. "It's all delicious." He took a spoonful of bloodswirl and mimicked Luce's grin.
"And there are totally presents," Luce said. "If one is a magical egg that has yet to hatch, please save yourself the trouble."
Luce grinned. "What if it was a cute little puppy with a red bow?"
"What's his blood type?" Greg asked.
"I hate you," Luce said, laughing so hard ice cream dribbled over his bottom lip.
Greg caught himself before he tried to lean in and lick it away. He used his fork to cut into the cake, but before he could take a bite, Flea and Hattie bounded up. Well, Flea bounded; Hattie was dragged by her wrist, and looked resigned to it.
"Happy birthday, Greg!" Flea said. "Oh man, are you, like, really nine-hunnerd and thirteen? That's crazy, 'cause that means you're older than countries and stuff, and castles, and everything, I mean, you look awesome for bein' so old, not dusty or nothin', but you're, like, almost as old as my dad! 'Course, you're not as old as Hattie's dad."
"Few are, dear," Hattie murmured.
"Yeah, right," Flea laughed. "But your dad totally pulls off the wrappings. Not sure if Greg could, 'cause the bandages wouldn't really go with his whole 'dark thief' thing and he might trip over 'em when he was robbin' somebody, like I've seen yer dad trip over the strings on his feet sometimes."
"Well," Althea said, coming up to join them. "We wouldn't want Greg to cover that handsome face of his, anyway. Would we, Luce?"
Luce flushed. "Mom," he said. "Don't embarrass the guy."
Greg smiled. He'd had tea with Althea twice a week since the auction. She still terrified him.
Althea patted Greg comfortingly on the arm. "I got you a little something. I mean, Paul and I got you something, but you know I picked it out. He cares, too, he just doesn't know how to pick out presents."
Greg nodded, and took another bite of ice cream. Althea always smelled like cookies and something sweet and creamy and warm. It was similar to the way Luce smelled, though Luce smelled darker and muskier and Greg wanted to lick the smell from Luce's skin. Althea smelled – he hesitated to call it motherly – she smelled comfortable. If he'd had a mother, he would have wanted her to smell like Althea.
"Anyway," Althea continued, as Luce and Flea joked and Hattie looked on. She leaned closer. "I got you some socks and underwear. Luce said he saw you doing your laundry all the time. I know you're a grown man, and an evil vampire, but even evil vampires need a good clean pair of underwear and socks that don't make their feet sweat."
"Thank you," Greg said.
Althea smiled. "You let me know if anything doesn't fit right, honey, and I'll take them back for you and get a different size." She patted his hand again and left to go sit by her husband.
Greg's throat felt thick, and he coughed to clear it. His gaze traveled around the room. Being looked after was a new feeling. Having friends was a new feeling. His eyes settled on Luce, who was laughing as Frank told him a joke.
There were a lot of new feelings to think about.
"Hey," Frank said, coming over. "Having fun?"
"Yes," Greg said. "Thank you for this. And thank you for helping Granny Sweets with the cake."
"Oh yeah? Did you try the cake yet?" Frank asked, a strange gleam in his eye.
"Not yet," Greg replied.
"You should," Frank said. "There's a secret ingredient."
Greg eyed the cake. He knew enough not to trust Frank's tone. "If you've done something to Granny Sweet's cake, she'll kill you and make you into a pie."
Frank rolled his eyes. "Like I'd risk the cook's wrath. C'mon. Do you think I'm that stupid?"
Yes, Greg thought, eyeing Frank warily as he lifted a forkful of cake to his mouth. Frank's eyes followed the movement greedily. Greg sighed. Whatever Frank had put in the cake, he might as well get it over with so the idiot could laugh at his hilarious prank.
He took a bite and swallowed. His eyes flew open.
"Do you know what you did?" he gasped, as fire spread through his veins. He collapsed weakly to the floor, his plate of cake and ice cream splattering messily.
"Whoa," Frank said. "What the hell?"
Luce was at his side in an instant, his hands on Greg's shoulders. "Greg?" he asked, sounding frantic. "Greg, what's wrong?"
"Get away," Greg said, pushing at Luce's chest. He didn't have – there wasn't – he moaned and curled his fingers into Luce's shirt. Demonic saints below, it was starting already.
"Brother?" Drake asked. A small crowd had gathered around Greg. "What is wrong?"
"Ask your idiot," he panted, tugging Luce closer. Luce looked confused as he tried to help Greg sit up, but he wrapped his arms around Greg and let Greg lean into his chest. Greg could hear Luce's heartbeat, smell his sweat and fear. Fear for Greg. Luce was such a good friend. Such a good, handsome, delicious friend.
He buried his head in the crook of Luce's neck and licked a wide stripe across the exposed skin. Luce jerked away, but Greg held tight, determined to get more of that taste.
Drake swung his gaze to Frank. "Franklin?" he asked warningly.
"This guy at the bakery said it was harmless," Frank sputtered. "Seriously. We talked, and I told him we were baking a cake for a vampire, and he said if I sprinkled this stuff in the blood batter, everyone would have a good time."
Drake went very still. "What stuff?"
"Uh," Frank said. "These red crystals. They tasted kind of like candy when I tried them. But they didn't do anything to me, so I thought it was all right. I thought it'd be a joke. The guy said it'd be funny."
Drake closed his eyes. "Blood sugar," he said. "You dosed the cake with blood sugar."
"Yes, he did," Greg hissed. He fisted his hands in Luce's shirt and dragged Luce closer until their noses touched, until he could taste the air Luce breathed out, like cinnamon and honey.
Then he kissed Luce.