A/N: I love Pullman so very much, and I love these two characters. I only hope that I did them justice. (Moreso, I hope that the upcoming movie does them justice... for once in my life, I am optimistic.) If anyone's into this pairing and has a LiveJournal, you should check out the marisa-asriel community. It's small, but I have a feeling it'll be growing once the movie is released... in 40 days. (!!!)

Anyway, feedback is greatly appreciated. Enjoy!

The hall was dappled with alternating shadows and pools of light. When she entered she completed the primary color scheme, sweeping into the chamber as a smear of dark red among the blue and golden, an additional glimmer of gold following gracefully behind her in the form of a lithe, silky monkey. Instantly, without conscious thought, every eye in the room moved to fix upon her for a brief moment before returning to its occupation; gazes of admiration or jealousy or appraisal flitted over her long brown waves of hair, her shimmering daemon, her full figure; none of the gazes was indifferent.

This woman would inspire myriad feelings in people over the years: indifference would not be one of them.

Across the room, a snowy leopard cocked her ears and swung her tail, her attention captured by the willowy movements of the golden monkey. Next to the great feline a strongly built man turned his head and stared straight at the woman in red, and the instant his eyes fixed on her the leopard purred a deep sound of appreciation. The pair watched as the woman and her golden daemon made for an older fellow standing beside a table of hors d'oeuvres; the fellow was called Stodgson and was an old colleague of the man's. Absently, the man grasped the fur of the leopard's head, fingers tensing for a moment; then the two of them moved as one towards the long table.

"Stodgson." The man's voice rang clearly, a harsh baritone that scratched pleasurably at the senses; several people looked up to locate the source of the voice, then quickly looked away. Stodgson glanced about and smiled jovially.

"My noble Lord!" he cried as the man's powerful stride slowed. "Smashing to see you! I trust you are well?"

"Very well, thank you," the man responded as the two took hands. His eyes were focused not on Stodgson's visage, but upon the back of the woman's glossy head, and at that instant she turned and met his gaze.

A frozen moment when the man's eyes glowed, the monkey's golden coat bristled, the woman took a breath that was just short of a gasp, the snow leopard purred again, and the invisible Dust infusing the air swirled a little bit faster, and flocked a little bit nearer to two strangers meeting; then the man was looking at Stodgson calmly and saying, "You must introduce me to your charming companion."

"Oh, of course!" Stodgson exclaimed, dropping the man's hand and taking the woman's arm. "My Lord, this is Mrs Coulter, Edward Coulter's wife, you know. Studied at the Academy in London; she's clever, this one, though naturally she has left her pursuit of scholarship for the time being to support Edward."

"Of course," the man agreed, his eyes never straying from Mrs Coulter's face. "It is quite the ascent Edward has been enjoying."

"Yes, yes indeed," Stodgson nodded. "He'll go far, that man. Ah, and my dear Mrs Coulter, allow me to present Lord Asriel Belacqua."

Lord Asriel Belacqua took Mrs Coulter's hand in his and kissed it, bowing his head to meet it, and there was something of a challenge in the gesture, though who was challenging who was unclear.

"Mrs Coulter. Lovely to make your acquaintance."

"Please, my Lord," she said sotto voce, lip curling almost imperceptibly. "Call me Marisa."

The Lord's eyes flashed, catching the naphtha light at the slight movement of his head. "It would be my pleasure, Marisa," he responded in a gentle rumble. "And it would please me if you addressed me as Asriel."

"Asriel," she repeated, her voice a low, throaty tremor that matched the leopard's purr.

On the polished wooden floor below, a golden tail and a white one flicked forward to touch.

She lay down on the bed, and he did the same.

Stodgson, turning to reach for a quiche across the table, caught sight of a group of young men entering the hall, and with a cheerful exclamation he excused himself from his company and moved away to greet them.

"Marisa, I hope I am not being presumptuous when I say I would like it very much if you would join me for the evening. I would consider it generous of you to allow me the honor of getting to know you." Asriel gazed at her steadily, confidently, with just the right touch of humble entreaty in his demeanor. Marisa had yet to learn much of what future experiences would teach her, but she was far from naïve and she appreciated the skill with which he impelled her. She smiled graciously.

"My husband Edward is out of town for the time being," she said delicately. "It would be a privilege for me to keep your company tonight."

Asriel smirked inwardly at the multiple possible interpretations of these two statements being voiced consecutively; ambiguity which he was almost certain was intentional. He found the possibilities intriguing. He sensed that the gesture was his to make; he also sensed that Marisa wanted to be in full control of what that gesture would be. He was exceptionally good at reading people, and he knew precisely what move was expected of him… he just had to be wary of when and how he made it. Timing and flair could make or break a situation like this one, and Asriel had no intention of letting this woman slip from his grasp and focus her attention on another captivated audience. For Asriel was indeed utterly captivated by her: her bright vitality and relative inexperience in the world Asriel dwelled in, accompanied by an undercurrent of sharp, calculating cleverness, served to fascinate him as no human being had in a long time. And there was no ignoring the fact that she was stunning. Absolutely ravishingly beautiful, almost dangerously attractive in a way that did not have entirely to do with looks.

Asriel smiled at Marisa and held out his arm for her to take.

It was not the first time that Marisa Coulter, at age twenty-three, had made love, but it was the first time she enjoyed it for its own sake, rather than for the pleasant flush of confidence she gained from seeing how her partner was enjoying it. Her mind registered surprise at how perfect it could feel; however, her body had been preparing, building up to this since its first moment in close proximity to Asriel, and instead of surprise it felt only an overwhelming wash of 'this is right.' Moving beneath him and atop him in turns, she found she knew what to do to make her body burn and shiver without thinking about it, and Asriel matched her rhythm as though he already knew what it would be. She opened herself to him completely, and her entire self breathed pleasure.

Over the course of the evening, Asriel found himself growing more and more aware of Marisa's natural ability to be perfectly compelling. In this woman was a well of pure persuasiveness which Asriel could tell she had only just barely begun to tap. He knew, with a keen certainty that almost made him uneasy, that should she so choose, this woman could manipulate anyone in the world to do anything she liked. Asriel split his attention in two: on the one hand, he allowed himself to languish in the pleasure of her company, allowed his masculine vanity to preen itself as he circled the hall with Marisa on his arm; yet he kept a part of himself coolly removed, observing her, committing to memory the nuances of her character, the precise way in which she slid individuals smoothly under her thumb and held them there without their even taking notice.

By the time the event started to wind down, Asriel had come to a decision: by no means was he going to pass up his opportunity with Marisa Coulter, for after several hours spent at her side, he wanted her more than he had wanted anything in a long time. However, he would never, ever allow himself to be manipulated by her. This woman could be dangerous to his will; the moment he felt her tampering with it, he would sever all ties. This was the compromise Lord Asriel Belacqua had made with himself, the terms he had set down clearly in his mind, when he inclined his head towards Marisa's and suggested that they retrieve her wrap and enjoy a midnight turn along the sloping grassy lanes behind the Institute before they brought the evening to a close.

She acquiesced, naturally. He had played his part correctly. He had only to go through a few more paces without a misstep and she was his.

She gasped sharply and fell limply to one side; Asriel followed her movement and rolled over to pin her to the mattress, holding her body steady with the weight of his limbs even as he let out a deep groan and buried his face in her shoulder. She locked her ankles behind his back and shuddered, her nose in his hair inhaling his scent with every rapid breath. Little by little, she felt herself settle, her breathing and Asriel's returning in tandem to a normal rate. She rubbed her hands up and down his back. He said nothing but twitched briefly against her, making her bite her lip and arch her back as tail-end sparks of pleasure ignited her for a quick spell before once more petering out. Then all was still.

The air was brisk and cool as they strolled the grounds with their daemons padding along behind them, and Asriel found it necessary to wrap his arm tightly about Marisa's shoulders to supplement the warmth of her gold-red fur. Stepping lightly at his side, her fur gleaming faintly in the moonlight, Marisa resembled the golden monkey prowling in her shadow.

"It would be terribly bold of me to seek your permission to kiss you, I presume," Asriel rumbled, keeping his eyes forward.

"Indeed. Almost unforgivably bold." Almost.

"I see."

They walked on.

"You strike me as being quite a bold man, Asriel. That, at any rate, is the impression you have given me thus far."

They turned at a bend in the path and headed for a small copse of trees.

"Marisa, I would like very much to kiss you, once, upon the lips, if you will permit it."

"Asriel, I grant you permission to kiss me once, upon the lips, in the cover of those trees ahead."

They reached the trees. Asriel's right hand took her left. He bent his head to hers and kissed her, once, upon the lips.

In the stillness Asriel lifted his head abruptly from her chest and kissed her deeply, intensely; she moaned with surprise before responding with ardor; then all at once Asriel rolled off her, turned onto his side, and pulled the sheet out from the tangle of blankets they had kicked to the foot of the bed. He tugged the soft fabric over their bodies and was motionless, and several minutes later Marisa heard gentle snoring. She closed her eyes.

Asriel felt Marisa's lips crack apart beneath his; when he gently probed at the opening with his tongue, however, he felt them seal together, and Marisa drew back. She was blinking rapidly, and if Asriel didn't feel how absolutely unlikely it was, he would have thought she was caught off guard. Certainly she seemed ruffled; she raised a hand aimlessly to her hair and looked around. Out of the corner of his eye, Asriel spied the golden monkey flicking its tail restlessly and leaning towards the snow leopard; Marisa reached down and took a firm hold of the back of its neck, hoisting it sharply up to her hip.

"That," she said, looking straight into Asriel's face, "almost went too far." She pulled her fur more closely around her shoulders and turned away, heading down the path away from the trees.

Part of Asriel felt that this was the time to put his pursuit to rest for the night, to gather his forces and bide his time until the next opportunity arose. Yet a vague instinct in his gut told him that this was instead the moment to be bolder than he had been all evening. It was his gut that he heeded when, after only a second's indecision, he strode hurriedly after her down the hill and towards the back of the Institute. It was in the shadow of a vast column that he caught her; grabbing her by the upper arm, he turned her, pressed her back into the column, and kissed her deeply, separating her lips and plunging his tongue into her mouth. A loud, involuntary noise sounded from her throat; then her arms were wrapped around his back and she was kissing him back with wild desperation. Asriel pressed his whole body against hers and enfolded her in his arms, and she was his.

For an hour, perhaps two, Marisa lay in Asriel's bed with her eyes shut, but she did not sleep. She breathed. She allowed her thoughts to take what path they would. When an hour, perhaps two, had passed, she opened her eyes. She rolled over and placed a single kiss on the back of Asriel's neck. She slid out from under the sheet and dressed in absolute silence. When she was ready to leave, she reached down and gently stroked the silky fur of her daemon, which woke instantly and uncurled itself from the slumbering snow leopard. A white tail and a golden one lay coiled tightly together on the carpet. Marisa watched as slowly the golden was withdrawn, leaving the white lying in an empty spiral. The golden monkey swung noiselessly up Marisa's body to settle on her shoulder; the pair turned and left without glancing back.

Asriel was murmuring into her ear in a fierce whisper. His hands gripped her shoulders and his eyes were bright and intense as he repeated over and over again that she had never known true passion, true fire; she had never lived the love that humans were permitted, nay, meant to feel; she deserved more, she deserved more, she deserved him; she had no idea, no idea; what she had felt in the past hour was nothing to what she could feel tonight if she allowed him to show her, to want her, to have her, to make love to her. With everything he had, Asriel pressed her; every ounce of persuasiveness he possessed, he poured into his impassioned words. For all her power over others, Marisa was powerless against him. Their evening together had started as her game; now it was his victory. She nodded yes and followed him around the back of the Institute, onto his carriage, through his front door, and into his bed.

It was not the first time that Marisa Coulter, at age twenty-three, had made love, but it was the first time she had made love with Lord Asriel Belaqua.

It would not be the last.

A story had begun.