Mick was pulled from one of his now daily nightmares. He wasn't sure at first what had awakened him prematurely, but before he opened his eyes he became aware of a thumping immediately above his head. He opened his eyes and had a quick moment of fright at seeing a blurry form through the frost covered lid of his freezer, the nightmare still clearly in his mind.
"Mick!" Josef called impatiently from the other side of the frost. He banged on the glass again. "Rise and shine, buddy."
Mick groaned, then pushed the lid up and peered at Josef in bewilderment. "Josef? What are you doing here? What time is it?" He thought maybe he'd overslept. He'd planned on heading to Josef's as soon as he'd awakened, as had become his custom since those terrible nightmares began almost two weeks ago, but if he'd overslept maybe Josef had become worried and come to check on him. The older vampire's mother-henning sometimes went over the top these days, in Mick's biased opinion.
As Mick sat up, he glanced at the clock. The hour it displayed was a little earlier than he'd planned on awakening. He'd gotten into the habit of succumbing to sleep as late in the day as he could manage to put off the nightmares as long as possible, and as a result he'd been sleeping a little later that he used to. Normally he'd have complained, but he was actually grateful to have been pulled from his nightmare.
"Here," Josef tossed Mick his robe, which hit Mick in the face before he could grab it, "get up and get dressed. We're going out."
"I'm not really in the 'going out' kind of mood, Josef. Can't we stay in and play chess or something?"
"No, we're not staying in. You've been staying too cooped up. We're going out."
Mick sighed, knowing when he was beat, and climbed out of the freezer. He donned the robe over his bare body. "Out where?" he asked curiously, then took a second look when he noticed Josef's attire. "And what are you wearing?" he added in unhidden amusement. That was the most dressed down Mick had ever seen Josef, and he gawked at the simple blue-jeans and long-sleeved flannel shirt that the other vampire was wearing. And timberland boots! Mick wondered for a moment if he was still asleep. Maybe my nightmares have taken a turn for the worse, he thought to himself. He couldn't help the small laugh that forced it's way from his mouth. Josef looked like a skinny logger!
"Don't laugh. I brought the same thing for you," Josef held up and shook a shopping bag, presumably containing a similar outfit in Mick's size.
"I thought you said we're going out?" Mick questioned. He couldn't imagine Josef willingly appearing in public in such an outfit, and to be honest, Mick wasn't too keen on that particular style himself.
"We are," Josef answered mysteriously. "Trust me, these clothes will be much more suitable than what either of us usually wear. Get dressed." He tossed the bag to Mick.
Mick caught it and pulled out a flannel shirt just like the one Josef was wearing, only a different color. He held it up for inspection and looked at it doubtfully. Where could they possibly be going that would require such a drastic change in their usual preferred styles of dress? "Suitable for what?"
"For your next lesson."
Mick groaned and let his head fall forward in dismay. "Not another one, Josef."
"Get used to it. There's gonna be plenty of them."
"But what did I do wrong?" Mick asked. He could think of nothing he'd done to warrant another of those.
Josef smiled at Mick's assumption and shook his head. "Nothing, Mick, it's not that kind of lesson. It's just something I think needs a little honing."
Mick remembered his last lessons well. As soon as he'd returned from San Diego two days after the last vampire gathering, Josef had spent a week immediately following through on his threat to provide lessons on protocol and etiquette when interacting with Elders. Josef had been demanding and strict, harder on Mick than he normally would be while teaching him. He'd been determined that Mick would understand that the lessons were more punishment for his behavior than anything else, knowing Mick already knew most of the etiquette he was teaching but had never bothered to implement it. It had been unpleasant, to say the least, and Mick had gotten the point immediately. The young vampire had decided then and there that he would do whatever possible to avoid similar conseqences in the future.
Mick pulled the accompanying pair of jeans and the shoeboxed boots out of the bag, pulling off the price tags. He had no idea why Josef brought him jeans. He already had jeans.
"I've already fed but I brought a freshie for you. She's downstairs. You'll need fresh blood to help strengthen your mental abilities tonight," Josef informed him.
Mick sighed. He really, really didn't feel like doing this. To be honest, he never really felt like doing anything these days. The constant nightmares and his limited sleep kept him constantly tired, and with this new strong sense of insecurity he'd been experiencing, he always felt much safer in a controlled enviroment. With Josef of course; that seemed to be his only saving grace. He looked over at the older vampire and with a hint of a plea in his expression and tone asked "Do we really have to do this tonight, Josef? I'm tired. I'd really rather just relax with you at the office while you work or something."
"Suck it up, Mick, and put the face away, it's not gonna work. We're going. I'll wait downstairs while you get dressed, but don't take too long. You still need to feed before we leave and the limo's waiting to take Candy home."
Mick sighed in defeat as Josef left the room and closed the door behind him. Ever since the night Mick had submitted to Josef's dominance, acknowledging him as his sire, Josef had been even more protective, if possible. And he'd often become more commanding as, well, in a way that Mick found it hard to fight. They somehow so far had managed to walk that fine line. They'd managed to maintain thier easy friendship from 'before' while still maintaining their new realationship, as well, somehow both instinctively knowing how to intertwine the two successfully.
Although Mick had taken to feeding from Josef's freshies on a regular basis, he still held a dislike for it. It wasn't as bad as it used to be, but even though the donors were always willing, there was just something so.... animalistic....about the act. He still had to fight the feelings of guilt afterwards for his involuntary enjoyment of the feeding itself. But he knew that any childe of Josef's would be expected to feed fresh, and he didn't want his own behavior to make Josef look bad in front of the Community he was responsible for leading.
As soon as Candy had departed, Mick slipped on his new boots, tied them, and stood up.
"So are you going to tell me what we're going to be doing tonight, or are you going to make me wait in suspense?"
Josef smiled slyly and answered, " You, my young friend, are going hunting."
Mick stopped, stunned. Then panic flooded him. "Uh uh, no way. You promised, Josef! You promised you wouldn't try to make me do something like that."
"Calm down, Mick. Not that kind of hunting. I don't even do that anymore, you know that. It's barely this side of legal these days. At least in the U.S."
When Mick just looked at him in bewilderment, Josef chuckled. "C'mon. I'll explain when we get there."
Mick stood, mystified as to what they could do out here, but he now understood the need for their sturdier than usual clothing. He'd had a frightening moment of deja vu when Josef had pulled over in the middle of nowhere after an hour's drive and led Mick into the woods, but he'd forcefully pushed the memory of his 'Josef dream' from his mind.
Now they both stood in the dark woods, the trees above obscuring the moon, but their predatory night vision piercing the darkness effortlessly.
He'd tried a couple more times during the drive to cajole Josef into heading back into the city for a quiet night at one of their homes, but Josef had been adamant. Mick had finally given up when he'd detected that the old vampire was becoming impatient with his efforts.
"You still haven't told me why we're here," Mick reminded his friend.
"You need to develop your link with me, and the only way to do that is to practice."
"But the link is strong. I can feel you all the time. I can follow the link to find you when I want to."
"Yes, but that's basic, and it's an unskilled instinct. Could you find me if I'm actually evading you? Could you use the link to successfully evade me If I'm hunting you? By the time I'm finished with you, you'll be able to sense me through the link so clearly it'll seem visible."
Mick looked at Josef warily, again remembering the last lessons Josef had subjected him to. "If I don't do it right, are you gonna yell at me and smack me on the back of the head like last time?" He asked only half joking.
"I told you, it's not that kind of lesson." Josef tried to hide his amusement and satisfaction. Seems he'd gotten his point across quite well. He had no doubt Mick would think twice before doing something so dangerous and stupid again, if for no other reason than to avoid Josef's ire and another 'lesson'. "We'll start out easy at first with something I already know you can do. I'm going to hide somewhere within these woods, and I want you to find me. Each time you do, the next round will get harder. After the first couple of rounds, I'll start actively evading you and hiding from you. You'll have to follow the moving link to find me, while trying to keep up with me. Each time you get close enough to find me in my hiding spot once I stop moving, you'll have several seconds to pinpoint my exact location. If you don't before your time's up, I'll reveal myself. If that happens, you've lost the round."
"What are the stakes for each round I might lose?" Mick asked. One thing he'd learned from Josef in the past several years- he fully believed that you learned best if there were consequences for failing, whether small or large. More often than not, Josef had instituted that method any time he'd taken on the role of instructor for his younger friend, and Mick had no delusions that he planned on changing any time soon. Especially now that the lessons were more serious in Josef's mind. No longer simple pastimes that Mick had decided he'd like to learn, but the skills every vampire should know as he matured, and now Josef's job to make sure Mick learned them.
"Not yet determined. I'll let you know later."
Mick frowned, not liking that arrangement. That usually meant Josef already had something in mind that he would unexpectedly spring on Mick later.
"Now, close your eyes, " Josef instructed. When Mick complied, he continued. "Now just to warn you ahead of time so it's not a suprise when you feel it, I'm gonna block my end of the link for a few minutes so you can't feel which way I'm going."
Mick's eyes flew open in a panic, and before he'd even registered that he was moving, he'd crossed the few feet seperating the two of them and had a handful of Josef's flannel shirt clutched in a fist, as if he thought Josef would disappear before his very eyes.
"No! Please don't!" That would be way too similar to his nightmare. He didn't think he could handle that right now.
Josef took a step back in suprise at the reaction, Mick still clutching him tightly. "Mick! What's the matter with you?" He pulled his shirt loose from Mick's grip.
Mick took a step back in embarrassment and tried to think of a reason Josef would buy. "Nothing. I just.... I don't like it when I can't feel you there."
"That's a natural reaction, Mick, it's okay. It's usually only the reaction of newborns, though. I thought you didn't have that inclination."
"It's new, I guess," Mick tried to diminish it. "Just please don't block yourself from me right now, okay?" he pleaded unashamedly. "Okay, Josef?"
"If it bothers you that much.... then okay. We'll save that for the more advanced lessons later."
"Sure," Josef answered Mick's grateful answer with a worried look of his own. He wasn't sure yet what to make of his fledgeling's uncharacteristic behavior, but he was going to have to think about this. "Okay....ready? Close your eyes for a couple minutes." And with that he was gone, using his vampiric speed to try and throw off Mick's sense.
The first couple rounds were easy, as Josef had promised. Mick just had to follow the link to wherever Josef had stopped out in the open and was waiting for him. Mick had done this countless times before without even thinking about it to find him in Josef's large home.
But then Josef made it harder, each round going faster and further, and then hiding himself better and better once he'd stopped.
Several rounds later, the hardest yet, Mick walked slowly, feeling for Josef. He could feel that he was near, Mick knew he had to be almost right on top of his friend, but though he knew he was within a couple yards he just couldn't pinpoint his exact location.
"Time's up," Josef's voice startled him, then Mick was tackled to the ground as Josef dropped from the trees above.
"Aw, man," Mick griped as he sat up and brushed dead leaves from his sleeves. "I didn't even think of looking up."
"Why not?" Josef asked simply, in his 'instructor' voice.
But Mick could think of no good reason. "Uh...well.."
"Because you were relying only on your other senses. That's good in some situations, and we'll be working on that another time. But the objective tonight is to strengthen the link. You followed it to the area you knew me to be in, but then you stopped. Why?"
Mick sighed, knowing the answer to Josef's little quiz. Standing up, he answered, "Because I thought once I got to the area you were hiding in I'd be able to find you by sight or scent. I thought maybe I'd see you or be able to smell exactly where you were."
"Why didn't you sharpen the link to pinpoint my exact spot?"
"Because I don't know how yet. It's hard."
"Exactly. That's why we're here. But you'll never accomplish it if you don't try it. It's like a muscle; it's gets stronger and easier the more you use it, and once you actually get it, it'll get easier the more you do it. But no more trying to take the easy way out. You follow up on the link till you find me, don't just stop when it gets harder."
"Okay," Mick sighed.
"I mean it. I don't want to catch you trying it like that again. It's the lazy way out, and it will do nothing to help develop this skill."
"Yes, Josef," Mick agreed meekly. That had become his standard phrase whenever he thought Josef was upset with him, or when Josef felt the need to turn on the sternness. He figured that, in the interest of his vows to become the childe Josef would want, that was one of the ways he could show his respect. By refraining from arguing or protesting. Most of the time. It wasn't always easy to remember. But the fledgleling inside made it easier sometimes by automatically responding to it's sire's displeasure, and sometimes Mick relied on that to combat his usually argumentive nature.
From there it turned into a glorified version of hide and seek and tackle tag. They took turns evading each other and hiding from each other- all for the benefit of Mick's learning- and before long they were racing and dodging through the woods, bellowing out yells and laughter like small children whenever one was found or tackled, sometimes one racing off with the other close behind, dodging trees and jumping fallen logs, and sometimes making the persuer work for it by making fantastic leaps from tree to tree, high above the ground. Occasionally a tackle would turn into a short wrestling match, in which they would laugh and issue mock threats like young boys.
Childish game it may have seemed, but 'lesson' or not, it was the most fun Mick had had in a very long time, and he reveled in seeing the usually poised Josef letting loose and not having a reason to worry about how he looked to anyone scrutinizing him.
By the time Josef called a halt to the evening so they could get home before the sun rose, Mick was smiling and relaxed, reveling in the fun and the fresh air and the light of the waning moon. He felt almost giddy.
Josef smiled in amusement and pleasure at his childe's wide smile as they reached the parked car on the lonely two-lane highway. "Have fun?"
"The most I've had in a long time," Mick admitted, unable to quell his grin.
"Good," Josef smiled. It felt good to see Mick so happy. It had been his aim to get him out and let him have some fun along with the learning, but it had worked much better than Josef had expected, and he felt a surge of the now familiar tenderness he often felt toward Mick. He knew vampires felt emotions and feelings differently and much stronger than mortals, but he wondered if this was anything like what mortal fatherhood felt like.
The drive back was silent, Mick giving in to his relaxation and his lack of sleep to doze as Josef drove them back to the city.
As usual, the dreams began- this time the Malcolm one- but he was pulled out of it barely after it had begun. When he opened his eyes from sleep and looked around, Josef's hand still on his shoulder, he saw that the car was stopped and they were no longer moving.
"We home already?" He looked around, r