“You're sure?” Josef asked his friend. His voice was full of sorrow and his eyes matched.
“I'm sure.” The answer was breathy and thin; there wasn't much time left.
“It could be like....like before.”
“No it couldn't.”
“You could try. Why won't you even try?”
“You want me to try for you, Josef. Not for me. You have to let me go.”
Josef did not answer, but his silence spoke for itself. Josef would do what his best friend, his brother, requested. Even if it meant that Josef spent the rest of eternity alone.
Mick looked up at his friend with rheumy eyes. There was no fear in them. Only peace, and sympathy for Josef.
“This is right, Josef. This is what I wanted. What I always wanted. A full life with a natural end. You know that.”
Josef came closer and sat next to the ailing man's bed. “You miss her so much. You're anxious to join her.”
“Yes. I miss her. These past months have been hard without her. She was my life, for so long. Anxious to join her? No. I've loved life. I have family. I don't like leaving you behind. But I'm ready. I'm so ready, Josef.”
Josef nodded, pretending he understood. He'd long become used to Mick's aging face, the body that had begun to die the moment he'd regained his mortality many years before.
Mick's body had followed the natural course of nature while Josef had remained as he always had been.
If Mick would allow Josef to give him back his immortality, Mick's body would keep much of it's aged appearance, but he would feel like a kid again, fully healed inside and out of the pain and stiffness of the elderly.
Josef didn't care what his friend would look like. He'd have Mick back. A slightly different Mick, older and wiser in the ways of life than when he was last a vampire, but Mick all the same.
Mick was right, though. He did seem ready; it was Josef that wasn't.
Mick had lived a full life, one fully enjoyed with the love of his life, Beth. Josef knew it was true; he'd been there every step of the way, part of Mick, as always, yet somehow still on the outside.
Three truly was a crowd.
Josef had been there to see their tentative love grow into something true and special. He'd been there for the births of children and seen them grow. His god children. He'd also seen a couple of them die. They were not young anymore, either. Some had grandchildren of their own.
Josef had traveled the life with Mick and Beth, the good times and the bad. The loves and the losses, the good fortunes and the bad, the successes and the failures. Josef had listened with an open ear as his dear friends battled illnesses, offered advice or solutions over lost jobs, fears and hopes for the future.
Josef had been there every step of the way; he'd watched as they'd lived.
He couldn't pretend there hadn't been occassional envy at what he would never experience.
Both Mick and Beth had been resolute in seeing it to the end. Neither of them ever gave a thought to accepting Josef's occasional offers to bring them to immortality- in Mick's case, for the second time.
Josef had to admit it had been purely for selfish reasons. He could see the time coming, even so many years ago, when they would be gone from the earth.
And he would be alone.
But he respected their wishes. He never offered vampirism to their children or grandchildren, never considered forcing it upon Mick or Beth, no matter what happened.
Beth had given in to her aged health months ago. She'd fought valiantly, but she'd gone in peace. Her life had been full and happy. On her deathbed she'd reminded Mick of their pact to see the end of life, to never take the offered mortality. To let their souls rest as they should.
Josef missed her. He'd come to love her almost as he did Mick. He could not be angry with her for reminding Mick of the promise he would never go back on. That their souls would meet again some day.
Josef had known, even then, that Mick would not be long for the world without Beth. He was at peace, yes. And Josef didn't doubt that Mick was ready. But Mick would never convince Josef that no longer having his Beth wasn't a part of it.
Josef sat through the night with Mick. They sat quietly, comfortable and at peace with one another. Waiting.
Josef watched Mick as his friend's breaths became shallower. He listened as Mick's heartbeats stuttered and became weaker.
Josef reached out and grasped Mick's hand near the end, careful not to squeeze the old bones too tightly.
“I'm gonna miss you, man,” Josef said. For one of the few times in his life, Josef allowed tears.
Mick smiled, not afraid at all. He squeezed Josef's hand back, surprisingly tight for his frailness. “I'm sorry, Josef,” Mick said faintly. He would soon be out of the breath required to speak. “I know this is hard for you. Promise me something?”
“Anything,” Josef gasped in a sob. Mick's eyes were already dimming. Josef's tears flowed freely.
“Don't mourn too long. Okay? And don't-” a small pause as his lungs missed a breath. His hand tightened in Josef's minutely. “- don't stay alone forever. Promise.”
Mick's eyes closed as he breathed one last exhale and became still.
“I promise,” Josef said quietly. Mick would not hear the words, Josef knew. Mick was gone now, between one breath and the next. But he had to say it anyway, he had to fulfill that one last deed of friendship.
Josef laid Mick's hand on top of the crisp white sheet. He reached out with his other hand but did not lay it on his best friend's body. His fingers hovered above the shell that Mick had left empty. Josef spoke the words of an ancient language, a blessing of his time and homeland. He'd done the same for Beth; it was the only thing left that Josef could give them that they would accept.
He would make some calls; there were people that needed to know of Mick's passing. Josef would attend Mick's funeral, as he had attended Beth's not long before. He would say one last goodbye to those he'd come to care for; the descendent's of his two closest friends, their children and grandchildren and even a few great grandchildren.
Then he would leave.
They would all go on with their lives, as they should. Josef would not hang around any longer. With Mick gone, it was time for him to move on.
He would try, and probably fail, to keep the promises Mick had extracted from Josef with his last breath.
But Josef would never grow old, never die of age. Never live life as fully as he'd seen Mick live it, with the knowledge that he must make it as good as he could until the end.
Josef would never simply know, without a doubt and with every part of him, that he would someday die just by virtue of being alive.
And he tried to pretend that he was okay with that.