"Okay. Ready?" Josef asked.
"Exactly how am I supposed to get through these woods with a blindfold on without falling on a limb and staking myself?"
"Don't worry, I won't be far. I plan on staying close enough to see you, at least at the beginning. I just want you to be able to sharpen your sense of me without relying on your sight. You did good last time. You finally got to the point where you could ignore your other senses in favor of the link, but you still try to rely on sight too much when you think you're close enough to see me."
"I can't help it. Once I get so close, I just feel you all around. It's hard to pinpoint your exact location when you're hiding."
"And that's exactly why we're doing this. Think of it like a beam. Or a laser. You can follow the sense up to the point that you feel it at it's strongest, but then you get confused. If you can't see me, you'll learn to sharpen that 'all-around' feeling into a sharp point, like an arrow, that you'll learn to follow like a visible trail."
"Okay. I'm ready, I guess. But do you really think this is a necessary skill?"
"You never know what'll be good to know, Mick, and I found it useful quite a few times with my own sire." Josef reached up and slid the blindfold across Mick's eyes, then tied it behind his head.
"Really? Like how?" Hearing Josef say that made Mick remember when his own father had given Mick a pocket watch when he'd turned eighteen. His father had told him that the heirloom had been passed down from father to son for generations, and now it was Mick's turn. Mick had that same sense of solidarity at hearing Josef mention passing down skills from his own sire. He tried to picture Josef as an unskilled young vampire, but the picture just wouldn't come.
"I'll tell you the stories sometime."
Mick decided he'd have to remember to remind Josef about that later. Too bad he couldn't find someone Josef would have known those centuries ago. He'd give anything to hear tales of his friend's early days from a source other than Josef himself. Josef would no doubt gloss over any embarrassing or undignified events, which of course make the best stories. And ammution.
They spent the first couple hours honing Mick's skill at pinpointing a hidden Josef. This would make the fifth such lesson since the first, and Mick had to admit, it was getting easier. Even with the blindfold, it was coming easier and easier as the night wore on. He was able to catch on quicker than he had at the beginning. And it was a good distraction, keeping his mind on other things than his own worries. None of the sessions since that first one had devolved into the same free for all play, but they weren't an unpleasant way to spend his time, and he enjoyed the variety that saved him from some of the boredom that he'd begun to feel some nights in Josef's company when the other vampire was too busy with his work at the office to spend time entertaining Mick.
With all the previous learning session, the only downside had been the woods. He'd always liked being outdoors, especially since becoming a vampire. There was something about nature that his predatory side identified with, being in the fresh air and moonlight, hearing and scenting the animal life around him. But since the 'Josef dream', being in these woods had only served to remind him of his fears. Fears that had become stronger after Sylvia's first visit, when she'd pointed out the differences between Mick and Josef. She'd visited several times in the couple weeks since the first suprise visit, but she'd never again brought up that particular matter. She did continue to warn him to be careful, but usually now they just talked. He'd begun to let his guard down with her more than anyone he'd ever met, except Josef. Despite her age, she was easy to talk to, and he'd found that they have a few things in common.
But since that same night of Sylvia's visit, when Mick and Josef had finally had that intense conversation, Mick no longer felt the same fear. Even despite the other things they had to worry about, Mick had felt more peace in these last couple of weeks than he had his whole vampire life. He still had to go to Josef at least every couple of days to counter the fledgleling anxiety that crops up at too long a seperation, but he was becoming used to that. It was now a normal part of their relationship. Mick was back to his usual self-assured self, and he hadn't realized how much he'd missed it.
Even Beth had noticed it. She'd commented several times on his change of attitude, and Mick had found himself telling her a little bit about what was going on. Once he'd started confiding in her, she'd become even more curious, but she curbed her questioning nature as much as possible out of respect for Mick's feelings. Mick hadn't realized how much pressure she'd been putting on him until most of it was removed, and he was grateful to her for seeing it. He would have hated himself if he'd pulled away from her because of all the stuff he'd been dealing with.
Mick breathed in the scent of the night woods surrounding him and smiled. It was much stronger with the blindfold on.
"What?" Josef asked at Mick's smile.
"Nothing. Just enjoying the woods, the night. Everything."
"It's been a long time since I've seen you like this."
"It's been a long time since I've felt like this."
"It looks good on you. You did great tonight, Mick. Go ahead and take the blindfold off and take a break for a minute. I think it's time for the next level."
Mick reached up and pulled the blindfold off, blinking his sensitive eyes as they adjusted to the moonlight. "What's the next level? It's still early." He glanced at his watch. "Not even ten, yet. Are we staying here?"
Josef just smiled mysteriously. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He dialed, still smiling. Mick could hear one faint ring on the other end before it was picked up, but no one voiced an answer.
"C'mon in. We're in the clearing. If you get lost, call." Then he hung up.
"What are you up to?" Mick asked him. Josef looked like the cat that ate the canary.
"Do I want to?" Mick asked, just a little worried. Josef had something up his sleeve, and with him you never knew whether it would be good or bad.
"I think you'll be pleasantly suprised."
"As long as it's pleasantly-" He cut himself off as he suddenly felt the familiar presences of other vampires. It felt like two, and though he didn't know which two, he knew they were two of his now-usual watchers. They hadn't let up on thier surveillance activity, but they hadn't yet made any negative moves either, so it had become easy to ignore them. It didn't feel like Sylvia, though. He'd been spending a little more time around her, enough to get a sense of what she felt like
"Josef!" He exclaimed in warning, but Josef replied before Mick could say any more.
"I know," Josef's voice was terse. "I feel them."
They both scanned the trees and surrounding plantlife, their sharp eyes penetrating the shadows, but after a couple minutes the foreign presences faded. They both cast out with all thier senses, but niether could feel any trace of the intruders.
"This is the first time they've ever come so close while I've been with you. Usually I'm alone or with Beth."
"They're upping the ante, trying harder to intimidate. I don't think we'll have to wait much longer to see what they have planned."
"Should we hunt them? Maybe they're still here."
"No. They're gone. I can cast out further than you. They're nowhere near."
Mick was about to reply, but he became alert at another approaching presence, this time human. He spun to face the direction it was coming from just in time to hear someone crunching and moving steadily nearer through the trees and bushes, feet crunching on the fallen leaves. Even if he hadn't sensed the presence as human, it would be obvious by the ungraceful noises that this newcomer was no predator. But humans aren't always harmless to his kind. Mick barely suppressed a snarl as a figure pushed through the nearest trees and into their clearing.
"Damn, Josef! You could've at least left me a clear trail!"
"Beth!" Mick exclaimed in suprise, then looked over at Josef, who wore a smug smile. Mick looked back at Beth. He was suprised that he hadn't sensed it was her, but he knew it was probably because he'd been so tense and on guard just moments ago.
She was beautiful under the moonlight, messed up twiggy hair and all. "What are you doing here?"
" Well, hello to you too, Hungry Jack," she retorted, eyeing his denim jeans and flannel shirt they both used for their nights in the woods. "Josef asked me to come. I've been waiting in my car for him to call. I used the time to catch up on work on my laptop."
"Josef? What is this?"
"Think of it as a reward for doing so well. I figured she could help with the next level." "What is the next level?" Mick moved over to Beth and took her hand, glad to see her. He was suprised that Josef had done this. A big part of the reason that Mick was trying so hard to keep her from the vampire part of his life was because of Josef. Josef had made several comments about Mick being too enamored with humans and Beth in particular, and Mick had promised Josef that he would do his best to keep Beth out of vampire affairs, of which she was entirely too curious about. And in Mick's opinion, the first step to that was to keep her away from Josef. He figured that would keep Josef from harping on him about it. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.
"The next level is basically the same thing we've been doing, only now with a distraction. And who best to distract you than Miss Turner, here?"
"But.." Mick glanced at Beth, wondering if he should bring this up with her there, but he decided to go for broke. "What about all that stuff you said? And I promised that-"
"We'll talk about that later," Josef interrupted with his own glance at Beth.
"Yeah, cause it's not like I'm right here or anything," Beth toned in sarcastically but with humor.
Mick looked back at her with a smile and squeezed her hand. "Sorry."
"Ah, to be young again," Josef fake-sighed with a grimace at thier little moment. He clapped his hands twice in a business-like manner. "Okay, kiddies. Playtime's over. We're here for a reason. Ready?"
Hours later, Mick pulled onto the highway in the direction of home, Beth's headlights in his rear view mirror. He'd almost wished Josef had driven them tonight so he could have ridden back with Beth, but she was headed straight home anyway- night owl she might be, but the night life is not as natural for her as it is for the vampires and she was ready for bed. Besides, this would give Mick and Josef a chance to talk.
"I get rewards?" Mick asked in a joking manner, thus beginning the conversation.
"How else to motivate you? You did very well. I told you it would get easier the more you do it."
"What made you decide to ask Beth to come?"
"You seemed to be happy with it. Was I wrong?"
"No. I enjoyed myself. Thank you, it was a good idea. But what made you do it?"
"I told you. It was a reward, and I needed a human volunteer for the next part."
"I know what you told me. But what's the real reason?"
Mick glanced over at Josef and saw his friend looking at him appraisingly. "What?" he asked Josef, then put his eyes back on he road.
"Nothing. Just....when was the last time you've really spent any time with Beth?"
Mick threw another quick glance at Josef. It wasn't like him to be so interested in his dealings with Beth. Sure, he'd make lewd jokes or listen as Mick vented. Even give advice. But Josef had never cared about the specifics, like what they do when they're together or how often they spend time with each other.
"Why?" Mick asked, mystified.
"I've just noticed you haven't seemed to spend much time with her lately. You haven't said anything about problems between the two of you, so I know that's not it. You still talk about conversations you have over the phone, so you're still talking. And I know how you still feel for her. So I was wondering if there's something wrong?"
"No, of course not. Everything's fine."
"Talk to me, Mick. I have an idea what this is about, but I want to hear you say it before I say what I think."
Josef was no fool, Mick knew. Mick had figured Josef would see it sooner or later and put two and two together. The only question had been whether or not Josef would bring it up when he figured it out. Well, now Mick had his answer. He should have known. Josef wasn't one to let something slip by.
Mick really didn't want to get into all that, but he was the one that had brought it up, in a roundabout way. "I promised I'd try to keep her out of Community business, Josef. It just got harder and harder to spend time with her when she knows enough to be curious. And then there was that whole business with invesigating the Elders."
"Right," Josef confirmed. "Which turned out to be a bust. I didn't figure you'd find anything on them. Council members take secrecy to the highest level."
"Right. So of course that took up a little time until I gave up." He didn't dare tell Josef he hadn't quite given up. "I've been trying my hardest to keep her out of vampire stuff. That's what you asked me to do, and I promised. I also promised I'd spend more time with the Community and less time with humans."
"Maybe I shouldn't have asked you to do that."
Mick almost swerved into the wrong lane out of suprise. He looked over at Josef, not sure if he'd really heard him say what he thought he'd heard. Josef raised his eyebrows at Mick and Mick looked quickly back at the road.
"You heard me," Josef confirmed, knowing what Mick was thinking. "And I don't make a habit of admitting I might have been wrong, so I won't say this a second time. You'd better listen up. Are you listenting? Watch the road!"
Mick tore his eyes from Josef again, this time just in time to jerk the car back into their own lane and out of the path of an oncoming vehicle that blared it's horn as it passed. "I'm listening."
"Keep your eyes on the road. I have no intention of dying a fiery death. I know how you feel about Beth. I know you've been dealing with a lot and that maybe some of it has interfered between the two of you. Some of that has nothing to do with me, it's something you need to figure out how to handle and whether it'll be with her or without her. But I also know you've been pulling away from her a little because of what I said and the promises I made you commit to. I didn't mean for that to happen, and I'm sorry."
"Let me finish. You know how I feel about a relationship with a human, and I still feel that it's in your best interest to take a bigger part in the Community. But I also know that she's good for you, for some reason. How you handle her incessant chatter, I'll never know, but I digress. I know you've been keeping alot from her, again because of me. But she knows too much about you for you to be able to keep these things secret from her. If you want to keep her, anyway. You two need to talk."
"But I promised you."
"Well now I'm rescinding that promise. It's now null and void."
"Are you sure? You wouldn't have a problem with it?"
"Didn't I just say that? Now don't get me wrong, Mick. This doesn't mean she has to be in my face every where I turn, but I don't mind if you invite her over on some of the nights you're at my place. My office is off limits to her, and so are your future lessons unless I okay it first. But you can bring her to the house sometimes, and I think maybe you should spend a little more time with her if that's what you really want to do. I can't believe I'm saying that, but there it is. Just make sure you don't confuse my acceptance of her for the acceptance of the Community as a whole. You still need to keep her out of that stuff. Not everyone will be as gracious as me."
"I'll do my best. Thanks, Josef."
"You're welcome. You can clear the air with her and have that talk when you take her to dinne tonight."
Mick's brow wrinkled in confusion as he shot another quick look at Josef. "Beth and I don't have plans tonight."
Josef smiled in self-satisfaction. "Sure you do. Later this morning at nine a.m., Beth will recieve a delivery of two dozen roses with an invitation to accompany you to the Rose Room tonight. You have reservations for eight o'clock. The reservation is under your name, but they're instructed to charge it to me."
Mick gaped at Josef. The Rose Room was one of the most exclusive restaraunts in Los Angeles. It often took weeks just to get a reservation, and usually you had to be someone just to be permitted a reservation in the first place.
Josef smiled at Mick's speechless-ness, guessing what he was thinking. "Being me can have it's advantages. Also, they're vamp-friendly, so the two of you will be escorted to the back dining room that caters to our kind and their guests, which is even more exclusive, if you can believe it. Beth will recieve the same exemplary service, but you'll recieve a special menu with quite a few great choices, if I do say so myself."
"Josef-" Mick started, but Josef interrupted.
"With the roses, Beth will also recieve a package. It'll contain a dress in her size that I expect she'll look exsquisite in. This afternoon you'll recieve a package also, with an outfit suitable for the evening. Don't worry, it's not a suit."
"Josef, you don't have to-"
"I know I don't. I want to."
"I...wow. Josef, this in incredible. How can I thank you?"
"At least let me pay you back."
"Absolutely not. It's a gift, from me to you. I considered sending a limo, but I know you prefer to drive. Also, with your clothes that will be delivered later today, you'll recieve a charge card in my name. After dinner, take Beth somewhere else to have fun, anywhere she wants to go. Dancing, to the movies, for ice cream, whatever. Don't worry about the cost."
"Josef, that's too much."
"Don't argue. Like I said, it's a gift. I want you to get things straight with Beth. And if I find out you pay for any of this stuff yourself instead of using the card I'm sending you, I might just choose to be offended. So just say thank you, then shut up."
Mick smiled. "Thank you, Josef," he said. Then he shut up.
Later that morning, Mick was awakened by his ringing cell phone. He pushed the lid of his freezer up and reached over the side for the device, grumpily wondering why he'd set it to ring so loud. It was a bit of a stretch to reach the table it was setting on, but after a couple of fumbles and two more rings he had it firmly in his grasp. He didn't bother looking at the caller ID when he pushed the talk button. As he brought the phone to his ear he let himself flop back down into the freezer on his back, but he left the lid up.
"Hello?" he answered, his voice raspy with sleep. He'd only been asleep for a couple hours. He was still tired.
"Oh, God, Mick. They're beautiful. Thank you."
"Of course! Who else did you send twenty-four gorgeous roses to?"
Mick chuckled, finally getting his wits about him as his mind woke up a little. "Absolutely no one."
"I've never been to the Rose Room before. I've always wanted to, but I'd never get a reservation, and besides, it's way out of my budget."
"I've never been there either, but I have it on good authority that it's excellent."
"Thank you for the dress, it's beautiful. And it fits perfectly, it's just the right size."
"I can't wait to see you in it," Mick responded, careful to give no hint that he had no idea what it looked like. He wondered how Josef had known what size to get, then decided maybe he didn't really want to know. Sometimes Josef's hidden talents were best left hidden. "And be thinking about what else you want to do after dinner. Tonight's for you, and the sky's the limit. Just let me know if it'll require a wardrobe change so I can be sure to be prepared."
"Anything you want."
"I'll be thinking about it. How do you feel about dancing?"
"I love it. Is that what you want to do?"
"I don't know."
"Well, think about it. You've got all day."
"I can't wait, Mick. I've missed spending time with you."
"So have I. With you, I mean."
"You seem to have gotten over whatever's been bothering you for forever."
Mick smiled, even though she couldn't see it. "I guess you could say that." She had no idea how right she was.
"I'm glad. I missed you. The real you. So everything's okay?"
Mick hesitated before making the commitment, but Josef's words from last night floated through his head. He didn't want to lose her, and if they ever decided to fully act on their feelings for each other, he wanted there to be as few secrets between each other as possible. And he knew everything there was to know about her, from the age of four, in fact. It was only right she knew more about him, now that they were both admitting how they felt about each other. Turnabout is fair play.
"I'll tell you everything at dinner."
When they'd both said their goodbyes, Mick fell asleep with a smile on his face and no regrets.
Mick could hear Beth inside as he knocked on her apartment door, and he waited patiently for her to do whatever it is women do in those last few seconds before opening the door. And when she finally pulled the door open and stood before him, he was glad he had no need to breathe. He would have surely caught his breath hard enough to lose consciousness at the sight he beheld. She was gorgeous. He'd always thought her beautiful, but now she was....sexy. He didn't like thinking that word, it sounded so base, but he could think of no other description as accurate. She looked like a sexy angel.
Her blonde hair was piled on her head in some no-doubt complicated style, but it wasn't a severe look. It was piled softly with a few long tendrils hanging loose and gracing her neck and bare shoulders, which were glittering faintly with some kind of sublte glitter she'd sprayed lightly.
And the dress.... oh man, that dress. It was black sequined so that it glittered under the lights with each breath. There were patterns of roses and vines coiling around the dress in darker maroon sequins, so dark they were almost missed against the black, but standing out just enough to catch the eye. Her shoulders and back were left bare, one thin but sturdy sequined strap going up behind her neck.
But what really got his attention was the way the dress lay against her. The length went to just below her knees, and it literally clung to her, defining her form. It moved with her like a second skin, obviously comfortable, but it looked like it had been painted on, every beautiful curve and dip and swell of her body so obviously accentuated, yet modestly covered. It was- again, that word- sexy, and a touch revealing, but without being unclassy. The outfit was completed with very sheer, almost invisible pantyhose with heels of the same dark maroon as the sequin roses. She had a small handbag of the same matching maroon, sequined as well, and when she turned to grab it off a table near the door, Mick was treated to the sight of her bare back. The back of the dress dipped to mid-spine, clinging smoothly to her waist and lower back- and lower, but he quickly raised his eyes after a too long glance- just as smoothly as it did the front and hips.
Josef was right. She was exsquisite.
"Mick? You ready?"
He blinked his eyes, realizing he'd been staring as she'd been waiting for him to step away from the door so she could exit. He cleared his throat, a little self-conscious, and took a backward step. "Uh, yeah. Yeah. I'm ready. You look beautiful."
"Thank you. You clean up pretty nice yourself. Thank God you're not wearing your Paul Bunyun outfit like you were last night," she joked, refering to his jeans and flannel for the woods.
He glanced down at his simple but formal attire. Josef had picked something closer to Mick's own style this time, and he had to admit it looked pretty good. But he wondered if he was going to have to have a talk with Josef about this new obsession of supplying Mick with clothing. He was starting to feel like an oversized barbie doll.
The drive to the Rose Room was passed with small talk while Mick watched the traffic. He listened as Beth talked about how much she liked her new job working for Talbot and he answered a few of her curious questions about the lesson she'd helped with last night. Apparently Josef hadn't told her much about it, and Mick had no problem with further explaining what they'd been doing and why.
As he drove, he held her hand between the seats. At the restaraunt, he put his hand lightly against her bare back as they walked from the valet curb, up the walkway and into the entry way. At their table, he took the waiter's place behind her chair to pull it out for her and as she sat he let his fingers trail along her shoulder. When she looked up to thank him for the chair, he brushed a thumb lightly against her cheekbone.
He couldn't stop touching her. As well as he had to fill his eyes with the sight of her, his nose with the scent of her, his ears with the sound of her voice and laugh, he also had to let his hands touch her. He'd missed her, more than he'd even known. How could he have ever thought that those small, strained visits that had become their norm would ever be enough? There was nothing in the world like the feeling of being with her and knowing everything was okay between them. It was feeling he'd been sorely lacking most of his life.
These past two weeks he'd experienced the closest thing to inner peace he'd ever had. If anyone were to ask him, he would have said that despite all the recent changes in his life- or maybe because of them, who knows?- he was finally content. He'd been experiencing a sense of completement. His new relationship with Josef was under control and offered a fufillment he'd needed but lacked. In spite of a couple of his own issues, he was beginning to come to terms with his nature. And now he was making things right with Beth.
True, he still had a couple things to worry about- like what the Elder's have planned. But life is full of problems to be taken care of, and he's going to have a very long life, so he might as well get used to that. But despite that small complication, everything else in his life is now good and right.
Is it possible that he, Mick St. John, is....happy?