"And therein lies the problem, my friend", Josef said to his friend. Would Mick understand?
Mick frowned. "What? What problem, Josef? If it's the fact that I don't need you to take care of me as you so concietedly imagine, that's not my problem. It's yours."
"The problem, Mick," I said, enunciating slowly, " is not that you don't need me. The problem is that you think you don't need me. And that does make it your problem, friend. And mine."
"Well. Aren't we feeling very self-important today." Mick stood up from the couch abruptly, and paced a few feet away. He came to a stop, his back to Josef.
Josef stood up as well and approached him. He knew what Mick was feeling, as well as he knew his own emotions. He'd had that ability before, but only slightly- it had come from the power of his age and because he and Mick are so close as friends. But now it was so much stronger that sometimes he had a hard time with it. Just a little, he tried telling himself. And he had the age and experience to handle it. It also required an amount of training that Coraline must have overlooked. He knew that to Mick, without the experience or power yet, it must be overwhelming. Training, Josef thought offhandedly. Coraline had apparently skipped a few lessons that would now fall under Josef's domain, albeit half a century late. Never let it be said that Josef Kostan was one to shy away from responsibility. But that is something for later.
"What can I say," Josef quipped in response to his childe's caustic remark. " I have a very high self-esteem."
That Mick was not amused was clear. Even if the link between them didn't exist, any idiot could read the straightening of the spine and tensing of the shoulders as a clear sign of anger. And Josef was no idiot.
Josef hated to see his friend hurting, and the Sire inside him had a strong desire to comfort Mick, to calm his fears and uncertainties. For the last two weeks, he'd been pushing down many of the things that were now instincts where Mick was concerned, knowing that until he could make Mick face up to the changes, very little would be well recieved. And of course, there was his own coil of apprehension, knowing that this situation is different than any other either of them had ever known. He wasn't completely sure what to do with a new fledgeling that isn't really altogether new. Of course, no one ever needed to know that he occassionally second guessed himself. Ever.
And supressing instincts is hard. It's tiring- exhausting, really. It wears on the mind, and he knew that was part of Mick's struggle. And Josef decided right then and there to stop doing it. Right now. And Mick would, too, if he had anything to say about it, though that might take some time. It's unnatural, and he was sick of it.
And right now, his wish was to make Mick feel better about himself. Still behind Mick, he put a hand on his shoulder.
"Mick," he began, but was interupted when the younger vampire roughly shrugged his hand away. Josef felt the first tiny spark of anger, but knew that wouldn't help. He snuffed it out, at least as much as possible, as much as his unpredictable temper would allow. He let his hand fall away and began again, this time uninterrupted.
"Mick, I know how you feel. Literally. I can feel it all, and some of it's normal. The confusion and uncertainty. But some of it's not. I can feel how angry you are, but I'm not understanding why." Josef paused, hoping for a response. When none was forthcoming, he continued. "Is it...." and here he paused again, almost afraid of voicing the question. No, not voicing it, but hearing the answer to it. "Is it because I turned you back? Are you unable to forgive me for this?"
Mick's anger flagged, and Josef watched as the proud-straight spine loosened and the shoulders sagged. "No, Josef," Mick said quietly. "Don't ever think that. I asked you. You only did what I wanted."
Something loosened a little within Josef, but he tried not to show his relief. "Then where is this anger coming from? What's going on in your head?"
Finally, Mick turned. He looked at Josef and Josef could see that the anger was still there, in his eyes, just dormant for the moment. "I'm mad at me, Josef. At myself. And maybe at Beth, for being the reason I had to make the decision to turn back. I don't know. I hope to God not. But I can't be mad at you for this because you only did as I asked, and you didn't even want to do it. And that's where my anger is coming from, okay? That I can't be mad at you for turning me back."
Josef thought he understood. Mick had spent his whole vampiric life hating what he was, his very nature, and the woman that made him that way. He'd had a place to focus his anger and hate- at Coraline. But now, he's back the way he was, he's lost what he'd most wanted, and it was by his own doing. He no longer had anyone else to blame. Josef thought back to Mick's earlier angry outburst, and to some of the emotions he'd gleaned from Mick in the past two weeks. He thought about the fact that Mick had begun to resist the strong instincts of the fledgeling inside him by resisting Josef's calming presence, thereby hurting himself even worse in the process. And in Josef's mind it all came together, clicked into place. He was angry at himself for not seeing it sooner. As well as he knows Mick, he should have thought about this.
"Being a vampire's not the issue at all, is it, Mick? You're actually coming to terms with that now, I think."
Mick stilled, and Josef felt the spike of apprehension that shot through the younger vampire. Yep. He was on the right track. Of course, far be it from Mick to make it easy.
Mick opened his mouth to voice what Josef knew would be a denial, seemed to think better of it, and just looked at him, obviously debating. "What are you getting at, Josef?" He finally asked, almost cautiously. Not a denial, but not an admission. Not quite yet.
Josef smiled, sure now that he'd been on the mark. "Yes. I see it now, Mick. All these years you've moaned and groaned and pitied yourself for being a 'monster'. Because you'd been given no choice before being turned. But now that you've been turned back willingly, by your own decision- even forced as it might have been- you no longer have the same pitying ideas about your nature. You've lost the mortality you wanted, but you no longer mind being what you are. Or at least that's the direction you're headed. Am I right?"
Mick didn't reply, and looked anywhere but at Josef, and Josef nodded and gave a little smile. "I'm right," he answered himself smugly. "It is me you have a problem with, isn't it? Not that I turned you back, but because now that I'm your sire, you're dependant on me. Not near as much as a truly new turn, it's true, but much more than you've ever been since your newborn days with Coraline. And since you broke away from her as early as you could possibly manage, you've been self-sufficient all these years. You're actually mourning what you percieve as the loss of your independence."
Mick's jaw tightened, but he no longer tried to deny it. " I remember those days, Josef, and I don't want them back. It's not as bad now as it was then. No bloodlust and I'm already familiar with my heightened senses, so that was no problem. I don't feel the need to cling to you every minute, like I did Coraline at first and I don't need your blood like I did hers. But there's so much more here now. I don't want our friendship to change in that way, Josef. I don't want to have to need you like that."
Josef felt for him, he really did, but they had to face reality. "But you do, Mick. I
didn't choose it that way and niether did you, but that's how it is and we have to face it. We can come to terms with it, Mick."
"But, Josef," Mick protested, an almost pleading tone in his voice now, " even as old as you are, you must remember your early days. What it was like. I don't want that back. I don't want a 'master', Josef."
"And I'm not, Mick. I'm your friend, your brother. But now I'm also your Sire, and that's not going to go away. Did you even stop to think that I'm dealing with the same strong instincts? I've been suppressing part of my nature and you know that's not like me. But I was doing it for you, Mick, because I know you've been having a hard time with this and I didn't want to push you. But I realize now that that was a mistake; my mistake. I can see you headed down a whole new self-destructive path of your own design, and I can't let that happen."
Josef saw Mick flinch a little, knowing that the younger 'man' was aware of his rising anger. But Josef was done coddling him. It was time to lay it on the line and see what happens. They couldn't continue this way.
" I know that you've been resisting the urge to come see me, and for no better reason that that you don't like the idea that you need it. But it's affecting you. That's why you haven't slept, and don't try to deny it. Have you even fed recently? The urge to gain comfort in the security of a sire's presence is as crucial as feeding to a fledgeling. And yes, before you say it, I know you're not a newborn, but you have the urges, which means you're at that stage where it's necessary."
Mick stared at him for a moment, his new instincts pushing him toward Josef, but his own natural reticence and stubbornness pulling him away. Then he sighed with unneeded breath- an old habit- and said despondantly, " I still wish things could stay the same."
Josef nodded in agreement, and sensed that they were over this particular crisis. Hopefully. "C'mon," he said lightly, smiling. " It won't be that bad. Think of it this way; your standing in the community has changed."
"What do you mean?"
"You've traded up, Mick."
"Your levels of narcissistic behavior never cease to amaze me, Josef."
"No offense, buddy, but you've got to admit it. You're a young vampire by any stantards, and until now you were an 'orphan'. You and I both know that a vampire's place in the Community owes a large part as to who your sire is, until you make a name for yourself. And your resistance of our very nature didn't do you any favors, you know. No matter how they think of you, you did okay at holding your own, but a big part of that is because the fact that you're my friend is well known. No body wants to piss of the Community Elder."
"Wow, Josef. Thanks for the vote of confidence."
Josef was glad to see Mick regainging some of his usual humor. "You're welcome. Until now, you've been hanging around on the fringes of the Community, and spending more time with the humans than your own kind. But now that you belong to-" and here Josef caught himself just in time- or maybe not, judging by the glare Mick was shooting him. Josef cleared his throat. "I mean," he doggedly continued, " Now that I'm your Sire, you'll be respected. You'll have more status. But," and now Josef hesitated, not sure if he should continue this now, but deciding to bite the bullet, so to speak, " as the childe of the Community Elder, you- both of us really- have appearances to keep up. Responsibility to set an example. There are a few things that ....need to be done differently now, Mick."
Mick narrowed his eyes. "And what things would that be, Josef?" he asked suspiciously.
"I think it would be a good idea for you to spend a little more time within the Community. Whether you like it or not, vampires need each other. Eternity is a long time to be at odds with your own kind. Just come to more of the meetings and gatherings. It's going to be expected now. And try not to be so embroiled in the afffairs of the mortals."
Mick gave a little shake of his head. "Don't do this, Josef. Don't try to change me to fit what you think I should be."
"I'm not trying to change you, Mick. I'm trying to enrich you. You've never let yourself be free, to feel the joy of embracing your true nature. And I'm not saying I want you to disregard your friends or break away from your precious humans. Just keep it in moderation, even if it's just for a little while."
"Fine. I'll spend more time among the community, show my face. If that's what you want. I'll even play nice. But I'm not going to stop seeing Beth. You can't ask me to do that."
"And I'm not. I'm not blind, Mick. I know you care for her more than you let on. But I would like you to put forth a little more effort into keeping her out of the affairs of our kind. She already knows too much, and that's dangerous for both of you."
Knowing that was an undisputable truth, Mick didn't even try to protest. "Fair enough," he agreed.
"Good," Josef answered. "Another thing, Mick," - Josef knew this one was going to go over about as well as a spoonful of silver- " I want you back on tap."
The expected response was immediate. "No," Mick shook his head emphatically. "No way, Josef. I can't do that. You know how I feel about feeding from humans. I may be coming to terms with what I am, but I'm still holding on to my principles."
Josef's irritation was mounting. " It's for your own safety, Mick. For one thing, it's unhealthy. You can't get the proper nutrition needed without fresh blood, even if it's only every so often. I've told you that before, and it's still true. You're young enough that you need it still. Even in your youth, you should have developed a few skills by now that you don't have. Your power is weaker than it should be and you don't even realize it."
"I don't care about that, Josef. Maybe later I will, but right now I'm still-"
"Also," Josef interrupted Mick and silenced him with a glare (knowing that probably wouldn't have worked as well before the turning), "there's the matter of security. Now that I'm your sire"-he was becoming much more comfortable saying it- " my enemies are your enemies. If anyone wants to get to me, they could easily use you. Or maybe just go after you as a matter of principle. You could be a target now, and right now your an easy one. It would be much harder for that to happen if you stay strong."
"I can take care of myself."
Great. Back to that. "Didn't we just go through this?"
"I can't do it, Josef. I won't."
"This is necessary, Mick. It's not something I'm willing to debate."
"And niether am I. I won't be forced into something I'm against. Even by my best friend."
Josef had to fight the rising tide of anger. His next words were almost a growl. "Patience is a virtue, Mick, but not one of mine. And you're doing a good job of draining whatever I had in reserve."
Mick's eyes were flashing angrily and his voice reflected the emotion. "I won't do it. You can't make me do this."
Josef lifted his chin, but he didn't say anything. He didn't need to. They both knew that if it came to that, he could make him. He had the right and he had the power and that was all he needed.
But he got his point across. Josef felt a pang as he watched Mick's eyes go flat, and when Mick spoke, his voice was cold and devoid of inflection.
"So. That's how it's gonna be. You issue your decrees and I blindly follow your commands. I guess if that's how you want it, I have no choice. But don't expect me to just fall into line and accept it unconditionally. Now if we're finished here, I have to meet a client."
The dismissal was evident. In seconds, Josef went through a myriad of emotions. Indignation at being dismissed like an underling, annoyance at Mick deliberately taking it the wrong way, and a sharp hurt at the coldness in Mick's voice and words. And he was aware that it stemmed from Mick's own hurt at what he percieved to be a betrayal by Josef. But the emotion that ruled him right now was the anger he'd been trying to extinguish for some time and it was almost a relief to let some of it through.
If this was the way Mick wanted to play it, then fine. Josef could play hardball with the best of them.He made his voice cold- easy for him- and he made sure to project his anger at Mick. He wanted him to feel it. "Fine. I'll expect you at my place at least twice a week to feed from a fresh source. There's a city wide Community meeting at my place a week from today, ten pm. Be there."
Mick walked to the door with a stony face. He jerked the door open for Josef and stepped back. "As you wish," he said with sarcasm and derision.
Josef clenched his teeth and fought the urge to put this young upstart in his place, and instead he stalked angrily past Mick and out the door. Mick slammed the door behind him, and Josef heard the bolt on the other side being engaged.
As if the slamming door were a signal, all but one emotion drained from Josef's body. He was filled with regret. He hurt at the thought that he might have just thrown away their long friendship. In a moment of indecision, he raised his hand to knock on the door or force his way back inside, he wasn't sure. But at the last second, instead, he just settled his palm on the surface of the door, wishing for a moment that he'd been able to handle this differently.
He had no idea that on the other side of the thick steel door, his best friend had done the exact same thing, and their hands lay atop each other- palm to palm and fingers to fingers- with only the door to separate them.
Then he turned and walked away. He had a business to run.
On the other side of the door, Mick's forehead was pressed against the steel despondantly, and his hand slid down the door slowly to hang at his side as Josef's presence faded.