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Sanguinis Debitum

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Up in the loft of a trendy mid-town apartment, a beam of afternoon sunlight snuck through a hole in the blackout shades.  It transformed ordinary dust into glitter, illuminated the gilded locks of a head buried in a fat feather pillow, and stabbed mercilessly into the eye of a sleeping vampire.

 

Mick St. John winced and grunted, shifting his head away from the beam, and the movement jostled Beth, who moaned and stretched luxuriously against him.  Mick threw his arm over her and hauled her up onto his chest, and she smiled, snuggling down against bare skin.  He dropped a kiss into her hair and whispered, “Sorry.”

 

“For what?” she mumbled.

 

“For waking you.”

 

Beth stretched again, eliciting a hum of appreciation from Mick as the action roused him much more pleasantly than the sunlight had done.  She smiled sleepily up at him and propped her chin on her hands, blinking.  “I needed to wake up anyway.  Dating a vampire has its perks, but it’s playing hell with my sleep schedule.”

 

“Yeah?”  Mick regarded her quizzically, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear before he moved his hand down to stroke along her spine.  “What kind of perks?”

 

“Well, for one thing, you never drink milk straight from the carton,” she mused, reaching a finger up to trace it over his mouth, “or splatter soup in the microwave.  And for another thing,” she flattened his full lower lip, “the sex is fantastic.”

 

He grinned and caught her fingertip between his teeth, quirking an eyebrow playfully, and she laughed and squirmed her way up his torso to press a kiss to the scruffy underside of his jaw.  “Maybe that’s not a vamp thing, though,” she murmured, as she freed her finger in order to comb through his mussed curls.  “Maybe it’s just you.”

 

He gazed intently into her eyes for a moment, smoky grey to electric blue, then muttered, “God, I love you,” and crushed his lips to hers.  Mouths opened, hands wandered, bodies shifted, and  --  DING DONG!

 

They froze, Mick swore, and Beth grinned.  “Don’t answer it,” she urged, her breath tickling a sensitized patch of skin.  “Maybe they’ll go away.”

 

“No, I won’t,” called a chipper voice from outside the door, “but I’m happy to wait out here and check my stocks while you lovebirds finish up.”

 

Mick’s head fell back on the pillow, and Beth looked at him, halfway between amused and appalled.  “Would he really?”

 

“Hell, no, he’s got a key.  I’m surprised he hasn’t already let himself in.”  Beth snorted and collapsed next to him.  “He’s lucky he’s so charming,” she grumbled.

 

“Why, thank you, Beth,” Josef called as he opened the front door.  “You’re quite a lovely morsel yourself.”

 

Mick and Beth scrambled for their clothes as Josef made his familiar way to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a Scotch.  By the time they descended the loft stairs, hair and clothing in order but lips still swollen, Josef was comfortably settled in the black leather armchair.  He tipped his glass to them in a mocking toast.  “Ah, you crazy kids,” he said genially, “so sorry to disrupt your Afternoon Delight.  Mick, I figured you’d be asleep at this hour.”

 

“I usually am.  What the hell are you doing out and about?”

 

Josef leaned back and crossed an ankle over his Armani-clad knee, revealing a cranberry colored paisley sock that matched his tie.   “Well, human CEOs generally prefer to conduct major transactions over a three-martini lunch, so I had to break out the SPF 80 today.  It was worth it, though.  Three martinis became five, and before the man knew it, he was signing an amazingly lucrative purchasing contract.  Lucrative for me, of course.”  He sipped his Scotch.

 

“And you’re drinking that on top of five martinis?” Beth asked, nonplussed.

 

“Me?  No, I drank Bloody Virgin Marys at lunch.  This is my post-signing victory libation.”  He turned the glass in his hand, admiring the clarity of the liquor.  “This stuff’s not bad, Mick.”

 

“Thanks.  You gave it to me.”

 

“Figures.”  He sipped again.

 

Mick went to the refrigerator to grab a bag of A-positive and some iced tea for Beth.  “So, what are you doing here?” he asked pointedly.

 

“Ouch, Mick, since when does ‘fantastic sex’ excuse bad manners?” Beth flushed as she realized just how long Josef had been eavesdropping.  “I came here to see my best buddy, and getting to ogle the missus is an unexpected bonus.  You playing hooky, Beth?  Told your editor you’re chasing down a ‘hot lead?’”  Josef crooked his fingers into air quotes and grinned easily at her, his sunny expression and boyish face completely at odds with the stereotypical Creature of the Night.

 

Beth gulped her tea and replied, in a tone of rather forced casualness, “Actually, I’m between jobs at the moment.  I gave my notice at BuzzWire several weeks ago.”

 

Mick chuckled, “If you could call it that.”

 

Beth hid her face behind her glass and refused to elaborate, so he continued, “The way I heard it, she stormed out in a blaze of glory after calling Grant a muck-raking fame whore who -- what was it? -- wouldn’t know credible journalism if it hijacked his hair gel.” Mick beamed fondly down at her.  

 

“Oh, really?”  Josef’s tone was light, but he gazed intently at Beth, and his warning from the incident with Dean Foster passed silently between them.  As long as you’re involved with Mick, and you work at BuzzWire, his secret will always be in danger.  Beth nodded tacit confirmation, and Josef raised his glass to her in a subtle salute.  That’s my girl.  Well, actually, she was Mick’s girl, but he was proud of her.  

 

“Well then, seeing as you suddenly have so much free time, would you both like to join me this evening?  Some up-and-coming theater producer has been after me to back his show.  He’s giving an exclusive viewing of the first act to potential investors tonight at the old Burlesque Hall in Anaheim.  You two want to get gussied up and be my entourage?”

 

Mick and Beth looked at each other in bemusement.  They’d recently discussed the possibility of a theater date, and here was an unusual opportunity, Josef’s ego notwithstanding.   They agreed to meet him later that evening at his apartment (where renovation from the firebombing was nearly complete), and from there they’d travel together in style to the theater.  Beth kissed Mick good-bye so that she could go home and get ready, and Josef gallantly escorted her out to the street.

 

As Beth rummaged for her keys, Josef lounged against her car with insouciant grace, framing the edge of her personal space with one arm even has he maintained a scrupulously correct distance.  She triumphantly raised the keys from the jumble in her purse, her smile softening to puzzlement as she met his eyes.  Mick’s eyes were the proverbial windows to his soul, letting her read his emotions and passions like a well-beloved book.  Josef’s, though, were often like a one-way mirror.  No matter how intense his gaze, she could only perceive her own response to it.

 

“I know that wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Josef said.

 

“What,” she hedged, “going out for a night on the town?”

 

He gave Beth a look.  

 

She sighed, then dropped her eyes and fiddled with the keys.  “I loved that job, but I love Mick more.  As decisions go, it was easy.  Though I am finding it harder to figure out what to do next.”

 

“Do you want to stay in journalism?”

 

“I do, and I’ve sent copies of my portfolio to local and national networks all over the area.  Also, I’ve gotten a rather interesting offer from the new ADA.”

 

“Talbot?”  Josef’s eyes narrowed at this.

 

“Yeah, he called me up yesterday, offering to create a special position for me in the DA’s office as a PR coordinator and media liaison.”

 

“Sounds like it could be right up your alley.”

 

“It does, I know, but...” Beth trailed off, looking perturbed.

 

“Too many memories in the DA’s office?”

 

She met his eyes.  “That, and Talbot gives me the creeps,” she stated flatly.

 

Josef looked thoughtful.  “He does me, too.”  Then he smiled and chucked her under the chin.  “Keep your chin up, kiddo, I have no doubt that you’re going to land on your feet.  I’ll see you at eight.  Wear something fantastic.”

 

She rolled her eyes at him and got in the car, then waved as she drove off.  Josef strolled down the shaded side of the street toward his Ferrari, pondering the various contacts who owed him favors among major news networks.  Surely there was an opening somewhere respectable, somewhere that wouldn’t deign to report on pulp tabloid stories like aliens or vampires.  He smiled as several options presented themselves, and he pulled out his Palm Pilot to make some notes.

 

**********

 

At 8:10, Beth knocked on Josef’s door.  Mick answered, looking dapper and dangerous in a charcoal blazer and trousers with a shirt of midnight-blue silk.  His eyes widened, and a smile lit his face as she stepped over the threshold.  Beth was stunning in a crushed velvet sheath the color of dark caramel that nipped in gently at the waist before flowing down to her calves.  An artfully tousled up-do showed off dangling gold and topaz earrings.  Mick pulled her close and got a pleasant shock as his hand met bare skin -- thin, crossed spaghetti straps in back were the only fabric to touch her from shoulders to hips.

 

“You look delicious,” she whispered against his lips.

 

“Isn’t that supposed to be my line?”

 

Josef emerged from the kitchen, drinks in hand, and paused to appreciate how beautiful they were, wrapped up in each other.  He indulged in a short, melancholy trip down memory lane, then advanced, host’s smile in place as they broke apart.  After he handed them their cocktails, he circled around Beth with predatory grace to admire her ensemble.  His scrutiny lengthened and intensified, however, approaching the line between flattering and insulting, and Beth began to get annoyed.

 

“Do you want to check my teeth?” she asked, with an edge to her tone.

 

“Actually, I was checking for Mick’s teeth.”  

 

Mick choked on his drink.  Beth started in surprise as he sputtered, “Josef, for God’s sake, she’s not a freshie!”

 

“Well, no.  She’s the new love of your life and all that, I get it.  But don’t tell me you’re denying each other the pleasure?”

 

For a moment, there was only tense, awkward silence.  Then:

 

“P-Pleasure?” Beth blurted, and Mick muttered something incoherent.  Josef smirked, and color bloomed over her cheekbones.  “I- I mean, I’m aware that feeding from a human is a very... personal act for the vampire, but...”

 

“Intimate,” Josef corrected her.  “It’s a very intimate act, like sex.  It’s contact, nurturing, an exchange of bodily fluids, potentially life-giving, and yes,” he smiled, devilment in his eyes, “very pleasurable for both parties, if the vamp has any finesse.”

 

Beth’s thoughts carried her along a well-worn track to that grimy bathtub in the desert.  How many nights had she lain awake (next to Josh, no less), remembering the sensation of Mick’s mouth on her wrist?  The pain, the panic... and the sensuality, creating desperate heat.  She’d berated herself for being a sick puppy, but...

 

By now, Mick had regained his equilibrium.  “And just like sex, it can mean different things in different circumstances,” he stated firmly, shooting Josef a quelling look.  “There are one-night stands, there are quickies, or” he looked into Beth’s eyes, his tone gentling, “there’s consummation.”

 

Beth blinked and swallowed, moved and -- well -- darkly thrilled by what he implied.  “I see,” she answered hoarsely.  She cast about for something else to say.  “So... I had wondered, with Simone.  Freshies are kind of like friends with benefits then?”  Josef barked laughter, and Mick nodded, smiling.  “I guess you could say that, yeah.”

 

“Well, the best ones are,” Josef put in.  “Some of them are just whores.”

 

Beth raised an eyebrow and gave them both a cool stare.  

 

Anyway,”  Mick ground out, “I’m sure that’s a private decision Beth and I will come to when the time is right.”

 

Josef shook his head.  “Puritanical Americans,” he sighed.  “Next you’ll tell me it’s ordained for nourishment only.”

 

Mick’s mouth quirked.  He knew for damn sure that wasn’t true, and his first tutor in such matters was the vampire in front of him.  He didn’t think Beth was quite ready for that, though.  

 

Meanwhile, she had turned a speculative gaze upon Josef.  She had a question, he could tell, and he smiled, encouraging her.

 

“Did you ever feed from Sarah?”

 

The heavy shot glass in Josef’s hand cracked.  His smile stayed fixed, but his eyes dulled.  The silence stretched out for several long seconds.

 

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” he asked lightly.  Then he flipped open his cell phone and ordered his driver to bring the limo around.

 

*******

 

The ride to the theater was... strange.  Tension buzzed in the car’s luxury interior, but Mick wasn’t sure what kind.  Before they walked out of the apartment, Beth had laid a hand on Josef’s arm.  He’d paused and looked down at her, polite but remote, and she’d raised up to brush a kiss on his cheek, apologizing with her eyes.  His expression had thawed, and, lifting her hand from his arm, he’d kissed the back of her fingers with Old World courtliness before laying her hand in Mick’s.

 

Now Mick and Beth were sitting across from Josef as he regaled them with tales from his recent travels.  Beth seemed to be attentive as she questioned him about Helsinki, but her hand... Mick hoped Josef couldn’t see what her hand was doing.

 

For that matter, he hoped Beth didn’t see what Josef’s leg was doing.

 

This was weird, and confusing, and -- okay -- quite stimulating, and Mick didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved when they pulled up to the theater.  He escorted Beth to the lobby doors while Josef dismissed the driver, and for a moment he was still too flustered to notice that anything was off.

 

“Are we early?” Beth asked in confusion.  The door was unlocked, but the lobby was dark.

 

“Not that early.” Josef came past them and approached the entrance to the auditorium, from which low light flickered.  Foreboding prickled along Mick’s scalp as an unseen presence stirred familiar agitation within him.  What?  It couldn’t be...

 

“Hello?  Are you Duchêne?”  Josef advanced down one of the aisles as a figure leaped lightly from the stage.  “The show doesn’t look ready to go on, here.  Did I miss a memo?”

 

The figure advanced into a circle of light, revealing a young man who appeared to be in his late 20s.  He was dressed somewhat eccentrically in a loose, embroidered linen tunic tucked into battered black jeans.  Heavy, silver-toed boots encased his feet and lent weight to his arrogant stance.  Long, blue-streaked blond hair was caught back in a low ponytail.  His face was sharp, with a long, aristocratic nose and jutting cheekbones.  His blue eyes were ancient.

 

“Josef Kostan,” he said, with a heavy French accent, “I am Christophe Duchêne.  At last we meet.  Lance speaks most highly of you.”

 

Josef felt his hackles rising.  “Does he now?”  Oh, this was bad.

 

“Ah, oui.  He assures me that you will be most difficult to kill.  I myself am not convinced, as luring you here was mere child’s play.  But who are your charming friends?”

 

“The other vampire is Coraline’s get, the one who has caused such problems,” came a cold voice, and Lance emerged from behind the curtain at stage right.  “I believe the human is his companion, and it must be assumed that she has knowledge of the compound.”

 

“Little Beth,” crooned Coraline from the balcony, “of course she knows.  She and Mick have become so very clossse!”  she hissed the last word.

 

“But this is wonderful!” exclaimed Christophe with sincere, insane delight.  “We can complete our mission and carry out Coraline’s punishment in one grand execution.  Assuming that Cécile and Luc have dispatched all of her little laboratory rats, we can be home tout de suite.  This climate does not agree with me at all.”  He glared at Josef as if he held him personally responsible for sunshine and smog.

 

Chapter Text

Knowing that they were outnumbered vamp-wise, and unsure of what to expect from Coraline, Josef decided to skip the traditional exchange of witty insults and go straight for the jugular.  Literally.

 

Christophe shrieked with rage as fangs ripped through flesh and sinew.  Josef had missed the major vein, but now he hung on like a pit bull, exchanging body blows with the other vampire as he made a determined effort to sever the trapezius with his teeth.  When Mick moved to assist, Lance intercepted him with blinding speed.  Only a vampire could have tracked his progress from the stage to the aisle -- to Beth, it looked as if he’d teleported.  With a powerful side kick to the gut, he launched Mick in a rising arc so that he tumbled like a rag doll to the stage.  Beth cried out and threw herself heedlessly onto Lance’s back.  He reached back and, as if she were a clinging kitten, plucked her from his shoulders and flung her to the far wall.  She slumped and was still.

 

With a bestial roar, Mick gathered himself to spring to her, but Coraline vaulted from the balcony and landed gracefully before him.  She advanced slowly, arms open to embrace or imprison -- at that moment, even she wasn’t sure which.  Glancing across the auditorium, she saw that Lance was absorbed in watching the brutal struggle between Josef and Christophe.

 

“Mick, baby,” she whispered, “this is our chance, our only chance.  Run with me, now!  I know a place where we can hide for a few days until they’re gone.  I have friends in Ontario who can forge new identities for us...”

 

“What?”

 

“Come with me, quickly!”

 

“Coraline, what are you talking about?  Let me by, I have to get to Beth!”

 

Coraline growled long and low, staccato beats rattling her throat.  “Don’t be a fool, Mick.  She’s either dead or she soon will be.  Choose me now, or I swear you’ll join her!”

 

Mick gaped at her in disbelief.  “I don’t think so.”  

 

He feinted left, then lunged to pass her on the right, only to be caught squarely in the jaw by her spinning heel kick.  As he reeled from the blow, Coraline picked him up and hurled him as hard as she could upstage.  He flew through the slit in the velvet curtains, raising a cloud of dust as he landed with bone-jarring impact backstage.  With the speed of a striking cobra, Coraline followed and dropped to straddle his abdomen, pinning his arms with her knees.  The curtain flapped shut, plunging them into darkness.  Even so, Mick could see the stake she withdrew from her waistband.

 

“I didn’t know how I’d ever bring myself to do this,” she said, shaking with rage as tears fell down her lovely face.  “You’ve made it easy, though, betraying me time and again for that human whore.  I suppose I should thank you.” She plunged the stake into his heart, and he arched off the floor, eyes and mouth wide, then fell still.  She pulled an elegant platinum cigarette lighter from her pocket.  “Now,” she hissed, “see how you like it!”

 

*************

 

Meanwhile, Christophe had finally extricated his mangled shoulder from Josef’s fangs, and he was howling in frenzied delight, raking his opponent’s face with black-polished claws, stomping, punching, choking, kicking -- Josef was beginning to see where Coraline got some of her moves.  He held his own, though -- his cooler head allowed him to deflect the worst of the blows, and Christophe was temporarily fighting one-handed while broken fingers healed.  Face scratching?  Really?  Bet you’ll think twice next time, you freak.  Not that Josef was going to allow a ‘next time.’  He delivered a sharp C-strike to the other vampire’s throat, causing him to stumble backward, coughing and gagging, up the aisle to the lobby exit.  Josef stalked after him.

 

“Christophe,” Lance called from his perch on the back of a red velvet seat, “finish this, or I will.  Our time grows short.”

 

Mais mon frère, you said I could play!” he whined, wheezing through his traumatized throat.  “I’ve not yet had the chance to test my innovative new toy!”  He slipped his uninjured hand in the back pocket of his Romeos.

 

“Now is the time, then,” Lance snapped.  “It seems that Coraline has accelerated our schedule.”

 

At these words, Josef noticed the acrid smell of smoke, growing stronger at an alarming rate.  He paused at the lobby door and twisted around to look -- in the dim light at the far end of the auditorium, the heavy vintage curtains were smoldering along the entire length of the stage.  A single tongue of flame licked up one fold of the drapery.  

 

Christophe took advantage of Josef’s distraction to whip out a beautifully crafted sterling silver stake.  With a savage yell of triumph, he jammed it high into his side, shattering ribs, collapsing a lung -- and missing the heart by an inch.

 

The pain was brutal, searing, and Josef bellowed, vibrating the chandelier in his anguish.  He collapsed to the lobby floor, gasping, and crawled a few feet before the sickening poison of the silver combined with the raw pain to drop him completely.  He clutched weakly at the stake but couldn’t muster the force to pull it out.

 

Lance walked over to look at him.  “You missed the heart,” he announced dispassionately.  “He is still moving.”

 

“I am sure I can remedy that,” Christophe sneered, and he pulled a small device from his front pocket and flipped off the safety switch.  At this, Lance’s mis-matched eyes widened, genuine alarm animating his stoic features.  “Arrêtez, espèce d’id-”

 

The frantic command was cut off by an ear-splitting thunderclap as Christophe set off the remote charge, and the stake in Josef’s torso exploded.

 

Shards of silver flew everywhere, both inside and outside the tortured vampire’s body.  Due to his close proximity, Lance was caught in a stinging barrage.  His leather coat and gloves protected him from the worst of the blast, but several gleaming splinters embedded in one side of his face.  The largest one smoked just under his obsidian eye as he turned a murderous glare upon Christophe.

 

“Oops.”

 

Coraline arrived at the door, breathless, summoned by the noise.  “Lance!” she cried, and she reached out to him, holding his head steady as she delicately plucked the largest silver shards from his skin.  She dropped the last one with a hiss, sucking her blistered fingers into her mouth.  

 

Then she looked down and saw the bloodied, smoking mess at her feet.

 

“Oh, Josef,” she mourned, and she stooped to run a hand gently over his head.  “I’m so sorry it had to end this way.”

 

Christophe walked over, still panting, and nudged him with a silver-toed boot.  “You were right,” he conceded, “he is difficult to kill.  I think it will not be long, though.  Can we stay to watch him die?” he pleaded.

 

A muffled *floomph!* sounded from the auditorium as one of the stage curtains ignited fully.

 

“That would be unwise,” Lance responded coldly.  “Sister,” he addressed Coraline, “I take it that you have fulfilled the terms of your punishment as agreed upon by the family council?”

 

“Yes, Lance,” she replied demurely, still crouched, eyes glistening.

 

Pauvre pétite Cora, did you fuck him one last time before you killed him?  Just for old times’ sake?”

 

“Pig!” she shrieked and launched herself up at Christophe’s nose, fist first.

 

“Enough!  Let us depart before the fire draws outside attention.”

 

At their leader’s command, the siblings ceased their scuffle and vanished quickly into the night, leaving agony and ruin behind them.

 

It certainly wasn’t the first time.

 

*******************

 

Seventy-three eternal, sizzling, scorching seconds later, smoke and heat triggered the overhead sprinkler system.  The drenching spray collected in rivulets on the angled floor, puddled on the stage, and soaked the curtains, sending up angry billows of steam.  Weakened by fire, weighted by water, one of them tore with a great ripping noise and collapsed on Mick St. John, driving the wooden stake further into his heart and smothering his flaming left arm.  Now he lay, enveloped in sweltering darkness, unable to move, unable to see, almost unable to breathe.  Tears tracked back into his hairline, and he prayed for he knew not what.

 

Chapter Text

Something was pounding.  Make it stop, make it stop.

 

It didn’t stop.  Beth gradually realized that it was her head.  How much had she drunk last night?  She whimpered as the thudding pain careened through her skull, pounding hard enough to echo in her stomach... oh, God...

 

Beth scrambled to her knees and vomited.  Once the spasms passed, she sat back on her heels, eyes still screwed tightly shut, and waited for the dizziness to settle.  Her stomach slowly unclenched -- she hoped nobody had seen her.  The cold rain felt wonderful as it drummed gently on her head and sluiced down the back of her neck.

 

Wait... rain?

 

Beth took a steadying breath and opened her eyes.  The theater -- the vampires!  She shrank back against the wall and peered wildly into the gloom, but there was no sign of anyone, friend or foe.  Eventually, her battered brain made sense of the choking stench of smoke and wet ashes, and she edged out from under the sprinkler directly above her.

 

Cautiously, she stood.  The pain in her head had lowered to a dull throb, but she still felt unsteady.  She leaned against the wall and wrestled the strappy heels off of her feet.  Better.  

 

A low, gurgling, retching sound floated through the spray, and her head snapped up, eyes wide as she looked toward the lobby.  Mick!  She lurched up the aisle and slipped in a puddle. She caught herself on the back of a sodden velvet seat, and the cold water welled between her fingers, chilling, distracting.  She took a deep breath as the water iced down the panic surging through her -- that could be anyone up there.  Best to approach cautiously.

 

She padded to the door and peered in.  Her stomach heaved as she assimilated the sight before her, and she was dimly grateful that she’d already emptied it.  Josef.  Oh my God, don’t be dead don’t be deaddon’tbe-  She stumbled in and dropped to her knees beside the wreckage.  His face was in vamp mode, eyes pale but unseeing, mouth pulled back in a rictus of pain over bloody fangs.  She couldn’t tell if he was breathing.  Her hands skittered along his arm to his wrist.  Do vampires even have a pulse?  Shit, is that silver?  He’s smoking, does that mean he’s alive?  She found the worst of the damage, a gaping, shredded wound in his shattered ribcage, where chunks of silver glinted malevolently as blood bubbled and hissed around them.  

 

Steeling herself, she dug into the torn, slick flesh.  Two jagged pieces came out with some careful manipulation, and Josef uttered a soft, rasping cry as she tugged the second one loose.  “You’re alive, you’re alive!” she gasped, “Thank God... okay honey, I’m going to get this big one out now, you’re okay, just hang on...” Beth was babbling, but there was no answer.  She wasn’t sure if he was actually conscious.  

 

When she realized how deep the largest piece went, she hoped he wasn’t.

 

It was lodged too tightly for her blood-slicked fingers to get purchase, so she grabbed her skirt and tore off a strip of fabric to wrap around the protruding silver.  She gripped it firmly, counted to three -- and yanked.

 

The rusty, agonized, hair-raising howl that came from Josef would haunt her for some time.

 

The splinter came loose from bone, and the sudden release landed Beth on her butt.  Josef reared up on his knees, yowling, hands scrabbling over his body as he clawed at the dozens of silver shards still sizzling inside him.  Blood poured from the gaping wound, and Beth scrambled toward him, reaching -- the bloody silver spike still in her hand.

 

***************

 

Pain.  Weakness.  Dying.  Fatal agony was the ruler of all his senses, and the raw fire of it threw the others into murky dysfunction.  He could smell nothing but blood, taste nothing but bright metal, hear nothing but his own caterwauling... and see nothing but blonde hair and a silver stake, clutched in a hand that was smeared with his blood.  Christophe.  Hissing with rage, he struck.

 

Fangs skewered flesh, and he took savage joy in the cry that erupted.  Yes, you bastard, scream like a little girl.  I’m taking you with me.  He tore at his prey and drank deeply of the blood pumping into his mouth, savoring the feel of it coating his ragged throat as he pulled his victim closer.  Warm, sweet...

 

...healing....

 

...human.

 

His eyes flew open, and new sounds penetrated the roaring in his ears.  Sobbing.  Begging.  Confused, he tried to lift his head but found he could not stand to relinquish the nourishing vitality beneath his mouth.  So good... One more succulent, pain-soothing swallow, and the sounds organized themselves into words.  “It’s me, it’s me, please Josef, stop, I’m your friend, PLEASE-”  

 

Hands in his hair, tugging desperately.  He froze.  No.  Oh, no.  He wrenched out his fangs, panting with the effort.  Slowly, he released his bruising grip on her shoulder and slid his hand up to press on the ragged punctures, closing the vessels, stopping the heady flow of blood.  When he thought he could bear it, he lifted his head to look at the terrified, tear-streaked face before him.   “Josef, please,” she whimpered, and the pain came crashing back.  Face crumpling, he slumped sideways to the floor, curled in a tight ball of misery as she scuttled backward until she fetched up against a sofa.  

 

Lightheaded, she leaned back against the lobby furniture, resting her head against a brocade seat cushion, watching with dull surprise as he sobbed.  Words muffled by anguish drifted senselessly to her: “sorry... já ji miluju.. Sarah... sorry... Mick’s... mi líto...”  With increasing detachment, she noticed that his tears had a silvery shine to them.  That’s right, she thought numbly, cry it all out.  Her eyelids grew too heavy to control, and she slid into merciful darkness.

 

**********

 

At last....

 

(“Did you ever feed from Sarah?”)

 

Desire, surrender, consummation, satiation.  Her urgent insistence, his fervent promise.  

 

(“Yes, darling!  Please-”)

 

Love that transcended all hunger, a love that would blaze for eternity.  This, at last, was his gift to her, and hers to him.  The night was incandescent with dreams of Happily Ever After.

 

Except...

 

She was still dreaming.  On and on, she dreams.  Dreams can’t come true if you never wake up.

 

(“Josef, please-”)

 

Was this a nightmare?  Could he wake up?  Or had he ruined everything -- again?

 

Josef jerked awake with a gasp and bit back a groan.  In his nightmare, he had watched Mick lay Beth’s limp form alongside of Sarah’s in the quiet New York townhouse, grief and accusation blazing at him across the bed.  He’d woken up when Mick had released his burden and leaped for his throat.

 

“Beth,” he whispered.  There she was, propped against the sofa.  Not a bed, not Sarah’s bed.  He tried to go to her, but needling splinters of silver still tore at his insides, making every move excruciating.  He felt sick and dizzy, but he wasn’t sure if it was from the silver or the dream.  So he listened, instead, centuries of experience assuring him that her heartbeat was steady, and that her breathing, though deep, was regular -- not the intermittent gasping of a human with low oxygen.

 

However much he took from her, it had caused no lasting harm.  Physically, anyway.  The harm to their... friendship... was not something he could bring himself to contemplate at the moment.

 

His thoughts returned to Sarah, as they had so often lately.  After her disastrous botched turning, he had fled across the country, unable to endure the guilt and pain of loss.  He had shut down for months, a mask of brittle gaiety shielding him from his own self loathing.  When Coraline had called, begging him to help rehabilitate her idiot boy toy, he had taken on the project, grateful for the distraction.  Little did he know that project would be his salvation.

 

Mick was walking proof that Josef could successfully turn a human into a vampire.  Coraline may have brought him over, but Josef had brought him through.  Child, brother, comrade in blood and passion, the bond between them was hard to define, but it ran deep.  

 

And now there was Beth.  Josef was happy for Mick -- no, damn it, he was, no matter that jealousy sometimes slithered in with its subtle sting.  The guilt, though, the guilt that he’d been fleeing for over fifty years was finally catching up to him, forcing him to remember and reflect.  

 

Because he knew.

 

Always brutally honest, even with himself, Josef knew that the jealousy wasn’t just for the love between Mick and Beth, what he himself had once had, what had been cruelly ripped from him by Sarah’s endless slumber.  It stung, humiliating as it was to admit it, that he was no longer everything to Mick.  

 

Damn, it’s hard to share, he thought ruefully.

 

And even that wasn’t quite the end of it, was it?  Fuck this, he thought, I’m getting as maudlin as that rockabilly son-of-a-bitch on an absinthe bender.  But it was too late.  The truth had slipped through to the surface, and not even his usual sardonic mockery could banish it.

 

“It’s not that I love her, Sarah,” he whispered. “I swear, you’re the only human I’ve ever loved.  It’s just that...”

 

It’s just that he could.

 

He closed his eyes to shut out the sight of her, peaceful in sleep, the rich scent of her blood still perfuming the air.  Healing.  He’d concentrate on healing for awhile, and maybe by the time she woke up he’d be able to move again.  He relaxed, comforted by the knowledge that she would wake up.

 

Chapter Text

Hot... too hot.  Again with the pain and trembling weakness and why was he covered in hot bricks?  Wasn’t that a bit much?  Josef cracked one eye open -- and yelped.  It was most undignified, but these things happen when you’ve been stabbed, poisoned, blown up, and then your enemies leave the fucking front door wide open so that you wake up in a brilliant patch of morning sunlight.  “Dejte mi pokoj...”

 

Okay, enough of this Chicken Soup for the Long Dark Night of the Living Dead’s Soul shit.  It was time to master the situation.  Now move it.

 

Easier said than done.

 

Standing was out of the question.  He could crawl... but he was damned if he’d crawl.  Rolling!  He could definitely roll.  Rolling was acceptably cool and actually kind of fun and “Oh, FFFUUUUUUU-”

 

Beth was jolted awake by the bellowing snarl.  Josef was writhing on the ground clutching his wounded side, bright sunshine pouring itself over his lower half, steam rising from his legs.  For all that, he looked better than he had last night.

 

She stood up, wincing at her stiffness and myriad aches, and circled carefully around him to shut the door.  His head fell back in relief as the glare ceased.  He watched her as she moved slowly, deliberately, no sudden movements, over to a wall thermostat.  Eyes still trained on him, she flipped on the air conditioner.  A floor vent to his left rumbled to life and blew deliciously cold, compressed air into his face, and he groaned in pleasure.  Oh, YES.  No wonder Mick was so gone on this girl.

 

A minute passed.

 

“Good morning,” he finally ventured.

 

“Not exactly.”  

 

Okay, fair point.  He sighed.  “Beth, I know I’m not your favorite vamp at the moment, but if you could help me to the sofa -- and never mention it to anybody, ever -- I’d be terribly grateful.  I, uh, promise I won’t bite.”  They both winced.

 

She nodded, tight-lipped, and padded gingerly over to him in her bare feet and damp ruin of a dress.  He struggled to get his feet under him as she crouched down.  He lifted his head, and their eyes met, hers carefully expressionless, his warm, velvety brown, calm, non-threatening.  A ghost of a smile crossed her lips.  “If it’s any consolation,” she said, “you’re still several notches above my least favorite vamp.”  He quirked a brow in wry acknowledgement, and they heaved him to his feet.

 

He bit back an unmanly scream -- or three -- as they crossed to the sofa.  She deposited him on one end, then sat at the far end to observe him.  Pain was evident in every rigid muscle, his normally pale face was almost grey, and he was sweating.  Damn it.  She knew what he needed, and she was grateful to the point of gibbering that he had enough control to abstain until she was ready.  She was trying to psych herself up into readiness.  Really.  She just... needed a minute.

 

To buy time, she asked the question she’d been dreading for hours.  “Is Mick alive?”

 

His gut clenched at her soft query, and he looked into blue eyes that were blinking back tears.  “I don’t know,” he confessed.  “Last I saw, Cora had taken him backstage.  I- I’d like to think I’d feel it if he were dead, but I’m guessing my Wonder Twin Vamp Powers are on the fritz, all things considered.  There was...” he swallowed.

 

“...a fire,” she finished.

 

He nodded and gritted his teeth, forcing himself painfully to his feet.  “Come on,” he grunted, “let’s go find him.”

 

“Wait!”  Beth looked poised for flight, even as she blocked his path.  “You- you need to feed.”

 

Dumbfounded, he stared at her, incredulous that she would offer, even as need rose ravenously to flood his throat.  His mouth watered as he remembered the taste of her, rich and sweet and -- completely off limits.  There was such a thing as propriety, even for him.

 

“Beth, that’s incredibly generous of you,” he said thickly, “but you’ve done more than enough for me already.  I’m okay.”

 

Liar.

 

Beth lifted her chin.  “Josef, I can see that you’re struggling.  You’re a mess, you need blood, and frankly, I’d rather you feed from me now, while you still have some control, than overextend yourself and...”

 

Beth’s voice trailed off, unable to speak of what had transpired earlier.  She drew a shuddering breath, chest tightening as she recalled the way blackness had bloomed in her peripheral vision, her dim terror of encroaching death.  The torn and jagged flesh on her neck still throbbed, and she hoped desperately that he would know when to stop.

 

Josef could smell her fear, and remorse twisted in him, sharp and bright.  Beth, Mick’s golden Beth, had always looked at him boldly, with the respect, amusement, and appreciation befitting his power, wit, and style.  Now she eyed him warily, and who could blame her?   He had savaged her like a feral newborn, heedless of everything but the voracious need for blood.  The shame of it burned, rivaling the corrosive fragments of silver that still seared his organs.

 

Fighting nausea, quelling shame, Josef held a hand out to Beth and approached her slowly, as if she were a skittish animal.  She caught his hand in hers, whether to connect with the Josef she thought she knew, or to halt the monster she’d learned he could be, she wasn’t sure.  He carefully laced his fingers with hers, then stood still before her, demonstrating that he was in control now, damn it.

 

Mostly.

 

“Beth,” he murmured, “I’m sorry.”

 

It wasn’t the first time he’d said it, but she wondered if he even remembered the aftermath of his wounded feeding frenzy.   The apologies, the tears.  She rather hoped he didn’t.

 

She looked up at him.  “I know you are.” Her voice was shaky.  “I’d, uh, rather not repeat the experience though, so, um...”

 

Trembling, she turned their linked hands over and lifted her wrist to him.  With pale, haggard eyes, he gazed down on it and slowly licked his lips, and she turned her head away and braced herself.  She jumped a little when he made contact, but instead of the sharp pain she had expected, there was only a gentle touch.  She looked back to see him lightly tracing the scars where Mick had fed from her in the desert -- it seemed a lifetime ago.

 

He locked eyes with her, blue and brown flickering as he tried to suppress his vampire visage, and he brought her wrist to his mouth.  To her surprise, he kissed it.  She felt the tip of his tongue as he tasted the scar, then he lowered their hands.

 

“You’re right,” he admitted.  “I do need to feed again.  Your willingness to permit me -- it means more than you know.”

 

He pinned her gaze with that laser focus that she’d always found rather fascinating.  His words from yesterday hung unspoken between them.

 

Intimate...

 

“Just... maybe try for some finesse this time, okay?”

 

His eyes flared as blue as hers, and he grinned.  She gulped, and an unexpected jolt of lust twinged through her.  Good God, what possessed me to say that?

 

He gestured to the sofa.  “Please, let’s sit,” he said formally.

 

She sat, feeling absurdly like a teenager on a first date, with no idea where to look or what to do with her hands.  Josef leaned in to examine the tender wounds on her neck, and she recoiled.  Not there.

 

“Shh-shh-shhh,” he soothed her.  “I won’t touch.  I just want to take a look.”   He moved closer and inhaled.  He didn’t have Mick’s sensitive nose, but any vampire could smell the tang of infection brewing.  He frowned and looked ruefully up at her.  “I did a number on you, kiddo,” he said.  “This is getting inflamed.  I’d like to sterilize it, if you don’t mind.”

 

Beth looked around dubiously.  “Um, I guess there might be a first aid kit in the box office.”

 

Josef smiled, and he was close enough that she could see the crinkles around his eyes, a tiny hint of his true age.  “No,” he replied, “I carry my antiseptic with me.  Vampire saliva is anti-bacterial.”

 

“What?  You’re kidding.”  Her look was openly skeptical.

 

“Would I kid?  It can reduce scarring, too.”

 

Beth cocked an eyebrow as she filed away that tidbit.  “So, you want to, what, slobber on me?”  Her words were derisive, but images flashed in her mind:

 

(Mick, tonguing his way up the taut cord in her neck, tracing complicated patterns below her ear and nipping her with blunt teeth as she gasped and surged against him... )

 

She unconsciously moistened her lips.  Truth was, the neck was a major erogenous zone for Beth, and her ambivalence about Josef’s proposition was not entirely due to the increasingly sensitive pain there.

 

He affected a look of wounded indignation.  “Please, credit me with more finesse than that,” he huffed.  “I’m offering... to kiss it better.”  His mouth smirked with its usual acerbic humor, but his eyes...

 

His eyes begged.  Let me atone.  Let me fix what I can before I plunder what isn’t mine again.

 

Beth closed her eyes and tilted her head.  Exhaling quietly, he lifted a stray tendril of hair from her neck and gently, reverently, closed his lips over the ragged punctures.  He probed each one as carefully as he could with the tip of his tongue, sweeping out the contamination, rubbing the base of her skull with sure, calming fingers when she cried out.  “That’s the worst of it, sweetheart, relax now,” he whispered.  He laved the livid flesh thoroughly, tenderly, imagined himself spreading balm over her hurts, his own angry wounds forgotten for the moment.

 

With lengthening strokes, he ran his tongue up and out, tracing paths away from the punctures.  “What are you doing?” Beth gasped, her voice unnaturally high.  “Just sterilizing the area,” he murmured, all innocent solicitude.  “Don’t want to give those nasty germs a second chance.”

 

By the time her neck was sterile to his satisfaction, Beth’s heart was thudding to beat hell, and she was fighting to breathe normally.  It was music to Josef’s ears, though he thought it prudent not to comment.  This exchange would go much better for her; she was ready. He hoped she was too far gone to notice that he was practically salivating.

 

“Okay honey, get comfortable.”  He settled her next to him, then picked up her left wrist.  “You’re right-handed, right?”  She opened her eyes and nodded at him.  Her pupils were dilated, her skin was flushed, and her lips were parted ever so slightly.  Even in his sorry state, the sight was intoxicating, and he briefly contemplated inviting her to sit in his lap.  Down, boy, don’t push it, he thought.  If Mick was still alive, it would be nice to stay on speaking terms.

 

“Beth-” he began.

 

“I know.  At some point, I’m going to have to stop you.”

 

He smothered a grin.  “I hope not,” he countered, “although it is certainly your right to do so at any point.  I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate this.  When we get out of here, it’s all-you-can-eat filet mignon on me, okay?”

 

She smiled at him, and he returned the smile, lifting her wrist as if in toast.  Then he bit, closing his eyes and abandoning himself to her blood.  Silken, savory and warm, it quenched and strengthened, and he moaned unashamedly against her, the vibrations skittering all along her flesh, distracting her from the pain, agitating, stimulating, crinkling her nipples, tingling between -- Oh, God.

 

That tongue of his should be licensed and registered, she thought, then coherence dwindled as sensation swamped her.  The nimble appendage fluttered and undulated against vulnerable skin, sliding and pressing to corral every precious drop, and when the initial well of blood slowed, he began to pull.  Beth throttled a whimper, her breathing increasingly ragged as his rhythmic suction set up a pulsing echo between her legs.  She squirmed on the sofa, trying to ease the maddening pressure, or increase it, something, please...

 

Josef couldn’t resist.  Never leave a lady in need -- it was part of his code.  Eyes still closed, he slid his free hand up her thigh, under her skirt, and he stroked her through damp silk.  Tiny sips now, again, again...

 

again...

 

and again, until the tension within her splintered.  She came with short, choking gasps, and the throbbing against his fingertips was matched by a final, glorious gush of blood into his mouth.

 

Her pleasure was delicious.

 

He swallowed one last time, withdrawing his hand discreetly and bringing it to help cradle her wrist as he slid his fangs out.  He pressed his lips firmly over the bite, clamping the vessels, waiting patiently for them to clot while Beth collected herself.  When her breathing had calmed and her pulse was steady, if threadier than he’d have liked, he sat up and leaned against the sofa’s high back.  He pulled her head against his shoulder, encouraging her to rest.

 

Beth didn’t know whether to purr or to cry.  She was mortified, she was exhausted -- and she was euphoric.  She damn sure wasn’t feeling any pain, and perhaps it was enough to leave it at that.  She looked down Josef’s torso, and where rents in his shirt had left skin exposed, she could see little beads of silver dotted all over, like toxic perspiration.  “Are you better now?” she asked huskily.  “Was that enough to- to clean out the silver?”

 

It was enough to stain my boxers with it, he thought, then winced at his own crassness.  “I feel a lot better,” he said out loud.  “I can feel a few bits still in the aorta, but,” he took a deep breath, testing, “my lung is healed.  I’m back in action.”  To prove it, he stood up smoothly, almost with his normal ease.  He grinned and held a hand out to her.  “I owe you, valiant girl.”

 

She smiled a little as she took his hand and rose unsteadily to her feet, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes.  His grin faded, and he realized that their relationship was, in this moment, balanced on some precarious point.  “Beth, look at me,” he urged.

 

She did.

 

“I care about you,” he said, with uncharacteristic gravity.  “You know that, right?”

 

“As- as what?” she asked tentatively, unsure of the answer she sought.  “As a friend, a- a savior?  Or...”

 

Good question.  “I don’t need to define it,” he said.  “I just need you to know.”  

 

Well, okay then.

 

“I care about Mick, too,” he said firmly.  “Let’s go find him.”

 

Now, there was a plan to feel positive about.  Uncertainty was finally banished as she hurried after Josef into the auditorium.

 

 

Chapter Text

The sprinklers rinsed silver residue from Josef’s skin as he and Beth helped each other down the slippery aisle.  Beth’s heart was pounding as they ascended the stage, from anxiety as well as blood loss.  She looked frantically around the backstage area, but Josef, recognizing the unlovely odor of charred vampire, went straight to the sodden mass of curtains and peeled them back.  Mick’s pupils contracted in the sudden light, and Josef breathed a sigh of relief.  Beth uttered a soft cry as her knees buckled, and Josef looked at her sharply as she hauled herself to Mick’s side.  

 

“I’ll be okay once the room stops spinning,” she muttered.  The burnt barbecue smell was not helping.  “Help him, please.”  

 

Josef grabbed the stake and pulled.  Mick jack-knifed into a sitting position; his roar swelled and dwindled to a groan.  They all watched, mesmerized, as his arm slowly healed, and the blackened skin flaked off and dropped to the stage floor.  He reached for Beth, his heart in his eyes, and she smiled weakly at him as she passed out.

 

*****

 

Beth woke flailing as the world swooped and jerked to a stop.  Dizzy and disoriented, she took in the cracked naugahyde beneath her cheek, the cheap film-tinted windows, and the faint odor of stale cigarettes and mildew that rumbled all around her.  She seemed to be in some clunker of a car... that Mick had just pulled over to the side of the road... so that he could he could haul Josef up by the remains of his shirt and yell in his face.

 

“HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO HER?”

 

“Mick, I’m sorry.  I said it to her, and I’m saying it to you.  I’ve said it more in the last twelve hours than I have in the last thirty years, and I mean it, but I’m done.  It’s done.  It was an accident, and I’ve made all the reparation I can for now.”

 

“And the second time, was that an accident, too?  Your left hand didn’t know what your right hand was doing?”

 

Josef smirked.  “No,” he replied coolly, “that was a courtesy.”

 

Mick’s eyes iced over, and his fangs ran out as he hissed.

 

“Mick!” Josef barked.  “If you spill my blood right now, you are literally spilling hers.  And that would be a criminal fucking waste of her sacrifice.  She saved my life.”

 

Mick held very still, nostrils flaring and eyes melting back to grey as he studied the older vampire, noting his pallor, scenting the corrosive bite of silver still lurking within.

 

“I was dying, brother,” Josef said quietly.  “I was bound by sanguinis debitum before she ever offered up seconds.  And then, God help me, I was still in no condition to refuse.  Think about what that means.”

 

A long sigh deflated Mick.  He closed his eyes and leaned forward to rest his forehead against Josef’s.  “Damn,” he finally muttered.

 

Josef scoffed.  “What are you griping about?  She loves you.”

 

Mick let go of Josef’s shirt and slid his hand up to squeeze the back of his neck.  They stayed that way as long seconds spun out, letting the silence speak.

 

Beth hated to shatter the moment, whatever the hell it meant, but it was time to get this show on the road.

 

“Have you two kissed and made up?  I am starving.”

 

Mick’s head whipped around.  “Beth, thank God!  We’re on our way to the ER.  I’m afraid you might need a transfusion.”

 

She pushed herself into a sitting position.  “I don’t want a transfusion.  I want a milkshake.”

 

Mick blinked.  “Um, you need something with more iron than that.  Or at least some vitamin C.”  

 

Beth glared at him.

 

“How about one of those fortified, healthy shakes?” Josef put in helpfully.  “What are they called, smushies?”

 

“I do not want a goddamn smoothie,” Beth ground out.  “I want a chocolate milkshake with toffee in it right fucking NOW.”

 

“Her blood sugar is crashing,” Josef murmured.

 

“Ya think?” she snapped.  “Put this junk-wagon in gear, St. John.  And what the hell, did you steal this thing?”

 

“No,” he said patiently as he pulled back onto the road. “I bought it with the cash Josef had in his wallet.  There was a used car lot a block from the theater.  It’s registered under a false name so that no one can trac-”

 

“Sonic!”

 

“What?”

 

“Pull into that Sonic before I rip somebody’s head off.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.”

 

“Beth, could you please take your hair down and cover your neck?” Josef asked politely.  “It would be so awkward to be arrested at this point.”

 

Beth pulled out hairpins with shaking hands as Mick parked by one of the speakers and cut the engine.  He ordered a chocolate Heath Bar Blast, a double burger, and a large apple juice, then he shrugged out of his blazer and gave it to Josef.  The burnt-off sleeve made an odd fashion statement, but it covered the bloodstains nicely.

 

*****

 

An hour later, the trio were travelling east through Riverside while Beth refueled.  She had insisted on riding shotgun and was now chewing cautiously and with great dignity.  So far, her stomach was cooperating.  Once the urge to rip heads off had abated, she made an attempt at civil conversation.

 

“So, where are we going?”

 

“To Josef’s nearest bolt-hole.”

 

“Josef has bolt-holes?  Plural?”

 

“Like a rabbit.”

 

“Mmm-hmm,” Beth sipped her shake.  “One of those fluffy ones?  With the droopy ears?”

 

“Very funny, you two.  Like a fox, is more like it.  Paranoia pays, and you’re about to collect the dividends.  Do you like camping, Beth?”

 

“Not really.”

 

“Me neither.”

 

An hour passed, and Mick turned off the highway, following the signs for Joshua Tree National Park.  He slowed to a crawl just short of the park’s boundaries as Josef consulted a GPS device and began muttering coordinates.  Josef navigated them down an unmarked dirt track that meandered past the spiky trees toward a looming ridge of cliffs and broken boulders.  One of the rock formations was unnaturally spherical, about fifty feet in diameter, and it seemed to be half-buried.  As they got closer, Beth realized that it was a dwelling.

 

“It’s a monolithic dome,” Mick told her.  “Extremely durable, and so energy efficient that it can function off-grid with solar panels.  And, in this case, hard to see from a satellite image.”  He pulled the car around to the back and parked under an overhanging section of bedrock.  Josef unlocked the dome’s back door and ushered them in with a flourish and a grimace that was supposed to pass for a smile.  The long ride in mid-day sun hadn’t done him any favors.

 

Beth was surprised by the interior.  Instead of the warehouse atmosphere she’d anticipated, this was a comfortably appointed, 4 bedroom / 2.5 bathroom house.  The furniture was tasteful, if nondescript, and the great room boasted home office equipment and a state-of-the-art entertainment system.

 

“The bedrooms are upstairs,” Josef said.  “They’re all equipped with freezers, so take your pick.  One of the bathrooms has a hot tub.”  Beth perked up considerably at this.  “I’d recommend tepid water until your blood pressure recovers, young lady,” he told her sternly.  “I once had a freshie keel over on me at the worst possible -- well, never mind.  You two make a list of everything you need for about ten days: clothes, laptops, munchies, chess board -- whatever makes you happy.  We borrow wi-fi from the ranger station, so the internet is yours, but you’ll need to set up dummy accounts, no logging in with your usual IDs or passwords.  I’ll get Rider to do... whatever it is that he does to forward your e-mails.  And let any calls go to voicemail.  Les Enfants de Valois think we’re dead right now, and I want to keep it that way until we have a lot more information.”

 

“The Children of Valois?” Mick translated, frowning as the name danced at the edge of hazy memory.  “Like... medieval French royalty?”

 

“Yeah, that bit Coraline told you about the French Revolution?  Tip of the iceberg.  Get going on your lists, I’m going to check the freezer for O-negative.  Then I need to call Guillermo.”

 

*****

 

By evening, Josef had arranged delivery of everything necessary to make their stay both comfortable and productive.  Groceries, including organic produce and some beautiful cuts of beef, appeared in the kitchen as if by magic.  Beth heard muffled voices as Josef gave instructions to someone, but she never heard an exterior door open.  She wondered whimsically if he employed house-elves.  

 

Around sundown, a knock at the back door heralded the arrival of Guillermo.  Mick clapped him on the shoulder in greeting and helped him bring in several cases of blood.

 

“I hand-picked those units,” he told Josef, “but the most recently donated that I could access were still collected yesterday.  Once it’s refrigerated, it loses some of its essential vitality.  I’m not sure if this will effectively flush out the rest of your silver.”

 

“Well, it’s got to do more than those stale bloodsicles did, that was hardly worth choking down,” Josef groused.  Mick pulled a face and nodded in agreement.

 

“Come into the kitchen where the light’s better.  I want to examine you.  Hop up on that island.”

 

“I don’t... hop.  And if you whip out a paper gown, I will end you.”

 

Guillermo smirked and whipped out a lancet.  “Be a brave little soldier,” he quipped, then gave Josef’s finger a quick jab.  He collected a small sample and squeezed it onto his tongue.  His face was thoughtful as he analyzed, then his eyes grew wide, and he shot Beth an appraising look.  She flushed and turned to rummage through the fruit bowl.  A moment later his eyes teared up, and he spat the blood neatly into the sink.

 

“Man, that shit burns,” he said.  “It’s not at critical overdose levels, but it’s still in there.  Let’s figure out where.  You two, clear out for a little while,” he told Mick and Beth, “or HIPAA will have my ass.”

 

Beth snorted, Mick looked confused.  “Don’t go far, though,” he called after them.  “I want to examine Miss Turner, too.”

 

Don’t we all.

 

Guillermo unzipped a heavy canvas bag and pulled out a standard First Aid kit, a surgical kit, and a portable x-ray machine as Josef shrugged out of his shirt.

 

“Does the hospital know you have that thing?”

 

“Nope.  The security cameras don’t record at high speed,” Guillermo grinned.  “I don’t think it will be missed before morning rounds.”

 

“What did you find out about chelation?”

 

“That it’s not an option, though it is an interesting research opportunity for vamp-med.  There are different chelating agents for different heavy metal toxins, but the thing is, silver isn’t toxic to humans.  In fact, it’s in a lot of medication, which is one of the many reasons I stick with the stiffs.  So there’s no established chelation therapy for silver.  I know it bonds with antimony, but I don’t think you want to be my lab rat.”

 

“Indeed, no.  So, what are my options?”

 

“Based on your, uh, experience so far, it’s clear that fresh blood is an effective flush.  The bagged stuff will probably eventually work, but you’d be looking at several weeks before the biggest pieces dissolve, and you will feel like crap until then.  You want me to contact Janie’s service for a freshie?  You know her girls are discreet.”

 

“Hmmm,” Josef hesitated.  “I’d rather limit contact with outsiders as much as possible at this point.”

 

This was true; it was perfectly valid.  It had nothing to do with wanting to hold on to the taste of Beth as long as possible.  Much.

 

“Well, the other option is that we use Bessie here to pinpoint the contamination sites,” Guillermo patted the x-ray machine, “and I get to cut on a live body for a change.”

 

Josef raised his eyebrows.  “The direct approach?  How refreshing.  I don’t see any anesthetic in your bag of tricks, there.”

 

“Drugs tend to be more heavily guarded than radiology equipment.  Sorry, man.”  Guillermo was trying hard not to grin.

 

Josef sighed theatrically.  “Okay, Dr. Frankenstein, we’ll go old school.  Do I get a leather strap to bite on?”

 

“Only if you have one handy, amigo.”

 

*****

 

An outraged bellow from the kitchen startled the other denizens of the dome, and they raced downstairs.  Mick won.

 

“Hold still, you big baby,” Guillermo spoke through gritted teeth as he dug into Josef’s side.  “The stiffs never give me this much grief.”

 

“Pain, I can handle,” Josef fretted, “but that hurt and tickled.  That’s not fair.”

 

Mick chuckled from the doorway.

 

“Oh please, like you aren’t ticklish -- ow!

 

“And just how does he know that?” asked Beth as she sidled up behind Mick.

 

“Uh, I plead the fifth.”

 

“Okay, screw HIPAA,” Guillermo announced, “I’m deputizing you both as nurses for this next part.  I’ve saved the trickiest for last, and I need extra hands.  Miss Turner, would you please warm up a bag of AB-positive?  About twenty seconds in the microwave should do it, then I’ll need assistance with the kit.”

 

“What do I do?” asked Mick.

 

“You get to hold him down,” Guillermo replied grimly.

 

******

 

Getting the last of the silver out of Josef’s aorta was tricky, but Guillermo was quick, Mick was strong, and Beth was steady through sheer gratitude that someone else was handling the extraction this time.  Once the last shiny fragment was in the basin, Josef’s normal accelerated healing kicked in, and Guillermo had only to hold the sliced tissues neatly together and watch as they bonded.  “Ta-daaa, look mami, no stitches!”

 

Now Josef and Mick were in the den watching Deadliest Catch while Guillermo examined Beth.  “Miss Turner-”

 

“Beth, please.”

 

He smiled, but his eyes were serious.  “By my estimate, you’re down at least three pints.  That’s a Class 2 hemorrhage, and you would really benefit from IV fluids at this point.  Unfortunately, that’s a process that needs to be monitored by more equipment than I was able to smuggle out.”

 

Beth acknowledged this with a faint smile.

 

“I want you to eat meat, dried fruit, or nuts at every meal, and take this liquid iron supplement twice a day.  Every half-hour, you need to drink at least 8 ounces of water until this,” he gently pinched her skin and demonstrated how his finger marks lingered, “stops happening.  Then you can cut back to every hour.  Leafy greens have vitamins K and C, so push them, too.  That will help with clotting and iron absorption.”

 

He carefully examined both sets of bite marks, sniffing with clinical detachment for signs of infection, then nodded to himself in satisfaction.  “These will heal well,” he promised her.  “No more donations for the next three months, understand?  There’s enough blood in the refrigerator to last those jokers for at least two weeks, so don’t let them give you the puppy eyes, okay?”

 

“Ah... okay.  Thank you, Guillermo.  You have a remarkable bedside manner for someone who spends most of his time in the morgue.”

 

His smile reached his eyes this time, and he gallantly lifted her down from the kitchen island before handing her a glass of water.  “Hey, St. John,” he called, “you remember how to cook a steak?”

 

Mick sauntered in and drew Beth into a loose embrace.  “I remember several ways to cook a steak,” he assured them as he smiled down at her.

 

“Your lady here needs some TLC.  Get her off her feet and feed her up.”  

 

Mick took him at his word and scooped Beth up into his arms, planting a kiss on her forehead when she shrieked and laughed.  After depositing her in the recliner, Mick fixed a plate full of rare New York strip and spinach salad while Guillermo cleaned and packed his equipment.  “We owe you, man,” Mick told him.  “‘Thank you’ doesn’t begin to cover it.”

 

“Having you two owe me is like money in the bank,” Guillermo grinned.  “See you around, Mick.”  He zipped up his bag and vanished into the night, leaving comfort and hope behind him.

 

It certainly wasn’t the first time.

 

***************

 

Hours later, after a pleasant evening wherein it was tacitly understood that heavy subjects would be shelved in favor of rest, relaxation, and Mythbusters, Mick carried Beth upstairs to bed.

 

“I can walk, you know.”

 

“I know, but this makes me feel all manly.  Indulge me.”

 

“Gladly,” she sighed, settling her head into the strong curve where his neck met his shoulder.

 

She clung to him while he leaned over the bed to turn down the covers, and he rolled them onto the mattress as one unit.  Mick tucked the quilt securely around her before spooning up behind and burying his face in her hair.

 

“Comfortable?” she asked.

 

“Very.”

 

“Good.”  She turned in his arms so that she could watch his face.  “Then explain to me exactly what sanguinis debitum entails.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Mick had a very expressive face.  Right now, it expressed an interesting combination of chagrin, panic, devotion, and relief.  Beth tried to sum it all up in one word.  Conflicted?  Nah.

 

“Busted.”  Totally.

 

“You heard that, did you?”

 

Sanguinis debitum.  Blood debt.  What exactly does that mean to your crowd?”

 

Resigned, Mick sighed and sat up, settling back against the headboard.  This conversation was probably long overdue.

 

Probably, hell.

 

“Okay,” he started.  “So...”

 

Mick floundered.  Beth gave him a stern look.

 

“Okay,” he repeated, more firmly this time.  “Remember when we were talking about vampires feeding from humans, and how it can mean different things depending on the circumstances?”

 

Boy, did she ever.  Beth averted her eyes and tried not to blush as scorching memory tangled with guilt.  She, too, had an expressive face.  Mick smiled wistfully as he traced a fingertip down her blooming skin.

 

“Consensual vampire/human feeding pairs can range from a casual arrangement to a long-standing relationship,” he continued, “and either party can choose to end things at any time.  Well, theoretically, anyway.  Just like in human relationships.  Blood obligation is different, though.”

 

“And the obligation is triggered by... ?” Beth had her suspicions, and as fascinating as it was, it was also enough to piss a girl off.  

 

“Saving the vampire’s life.”

 

“Like I saved Josef’s.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And like I saved yours.”

 

“Yyeeah.”

 

“Why am I just now hearing about this?  And what exactly does it mean?

 

Mick winced and decided to address the second question first.  “Josef spoke of a blood exchange being ‘potentially life-giving.’  The two circumstances where that is true is when a vampire turns a human, or a human saves a dying vampire.  In both cases, the recipient of life is bound to the giver of it.  Forever.”

 

Beth’s eyes were huge.  

 

“Well, for as- ‘as long as they both shall live,’ anyway.”  Mick squirmed a little.

 

“Bound... how?” she whispered.

 

“Oh, handcuffs, leather, a can of Reddi-Whip, you know, the usual.”

 

Beth yelped and bolted upright as Mick shot an exasperated glare at Josef, who stood smirking in the doorway, pink-scrubbed and gleaming from his shower.

 

“What, too soon?” he asked the matching glares.

 

Beth picked up a pillow and chucked it at his head, just on general principles.  He caught it with a grin and squeezed it rapturously to himself, as if it were a precious offering.  Mick smothered a laugh, and Beth gaped at them both.

 

“Josef, would you like to join us for this discussion?” Mick asked, amusement and trepidation fusing oddly in his voice.

 

Josef, looked at them both for a moment over the top of the pillow.  Sighing, he shook his head.  “You two should hash this out between yourselves -- as I’ve been saying for months,” his tone hardened as he shot Mick a grim look.  “Once you’ve settled everything... well, you’ll always know where to find me, won’t you?”  His tone was light now, but his jaw was tight.  “Good night kids, it’s been a long day, and the Frigidaire beckons.”

 

Josef sauntered off, Beth’s pillow still clutched in his arms.  “Hey, give that back!” she shouted after him.

 

“No.”  A door slammed at the end of the hall.

 

Beth turned to Mick and pinned him with a stare that threatened mayhem.  “What.  The HELL.  Was that all about?”

 

Sanguinis debitum,” he sighed.

 

**************************

 

In the end, the essentials were simple, though the ramifications were anything but.   Beth learned, to her amazement, that she held status as an honorary sire -- twice over.  Her indebted vampires were bound to protect and serve her in any way she required until her dying day.

 

Wow.  

 

And for some reason, it seemed, Mick hadn’t wanted her to know.

 

“Why?” Beth swallowed against the bewildering sense of betrayal knotting in her throat.  “Why didn’t you tell me this before?  This really seems like something I should have known, don’t you think?  Why did you hide it?”

 

Mick reached for her and kissed her, brief, urgent kisses on her mouth, her forehead, her eyelids, the tear that spilled over.  “I love you,” he told her fiercely.  “You are my heart, and I love you, don’t ever doubt that.  I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to hide anything.  It was so complicated at first, and, like an idiot, I’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to explain it ever since we got together.”

 

“You are an idiot,” she sniffed.  “I would consider it a great ‘service’ at this point if you’d tell me just why you thought it was so complicated.”

 

Mick flinched at her choice of words, wounded that she would choose to compel him in matters of the heart.  When she curled into his arms and laid her head on his chest to listen, though, he figured he was getting off lightly.

 

The details of a blood obligation were left up to the individuals.  They could live their lives together or separately, as the liege human preferred, but the vampire was responsible for making sure that his savior always had a way to contact him in the event that service was required.

 

And, incidentally...

 

“A blood debt creates feelings of intense attachment and devotion in the vampire,” he murmured into her hair.  “It’s a lot like falling in love.” Beth stiffened, then slowly raised her head to stare at him in horror.

 

“No!” His eyes blazed as he correctly interpreted her distress. “I was already falling for you, even before you fed me.  My feelings for you are not based on the bond, Beth, I swear to you!  But you were with Josh, and I was trying to honor that...” he trailed off, pained at the memories.  Beth thought of that day, of his frantic denials as he floundered in grungy ice water. Get out!  Not yours, not like this!  She had thought he was afraid of hurting her.

 

“I knew,” he continued quietly, “that if I took what you offered that day, I would never get over you.  Not that I really wanted to.  Hell, serving and protecting you were already my favorite past-times, just because of our history and-” his voice thickened with emotion, “and how amazing you are.  Pledging myself to sanguinis debitum didn’t change my feelings for you,” he vowed.  “It just... made it that much harder to watch you go home to Josh.”

 

Beth was quiet for a moment, thinking.  “When he died, and I begged you to turn him...”

 

Mick grimaced, shutting his eyes against the memory.  “Yeah, that ranks right up there among the worst moments of my life.”  Pretty much right after Surprise, Your Bride Is a Vampire, and So Are You!

 

“You denied me, even under blood obligation.”  Beth pointed out.  Her quiet melancholy held no real anger at this point, just curiosity.

 

Mick nodded, opening his eyes to hers.  “You don’t turn someone unless that person requests it,” he said simply.  “It’s one of our fundamental rules, above and beyond any obligation.  It was torture to deny you, though.  Even without the bond, I wanted so badly to fix everything for you, to take away your pain.”  

 

Beth sighed and laid her head back down, pondering things.  “I would assume another rule is, ‘you don’t turn children,’ right?  That’s why you were able to deny Coraline when she kidnapped me.”

 

Mick pressed a kiss to the top of her head.  “That, and my blood bond to her is weak,” he muttered.  “Probably because she turned me without consent.”  Possibly more so since Josef re-sired me.

 

They held each other for awhile in silent contemplation.  Eventually, Beth’s lively curiosity rose above her heavy thoughts.  She raised her head again and asked, “so how common is sanguinis debitum anyway?  I mean, for a vamp to be indebted to a human.  Is it more or less common than, say, turning someone?”

 

“Less,” Mick replied promptly.  “Most vampires aren’t too keen on subjugating themselves to the will of a human.”

 

“So what, they’d rather die?”

 

“They’d rather kill,” he corrected her gently.  “A mortally wounded vampire who is lucky enough to have a human in reach has the option to drain him entirely, and that’s usually what happens.”

 

Beth blanched.  “There’s no penalty for that?”

 

Mick shook his head.  “That’s what Cleaners are for.  It’s not often that a vampire under extreme duress has enough presence of mind to even make a conscious choice, much less the desire to make such a commitment.”

 

“So, what happens if the vamp spares someone and then changes his mind?” Beth asked, her curiosity turning morbid.  “What if, say, the human is a huge pain in the ass, and the vampire gets fed up and kills him?”

 

“His life would be forfeit, if other vampires found out.”

 

“Oh.  Wow.”

 

“It’s a big deal,” he assured her.  “In a life or death situation, the choice to accept blood as a gift, rather than just to take it as a right, is a choice to elevate that human to significant status in your life.”

 

“I can’t decide if that’s noble or barbaric,” she mused.

 

He grinned at her.  “Kind of romantic though, huh?”

 

She rolled her eyes, but she didn’t deny it.  When she rose over him, kissing him insistently as she pulled at his clothes, he didn’t deny her.

 

He could deny her nothing.  Not that he wanted to.

 

****************

 

Around 3:00AM, Beth’s eyes flew open.  “Josef,” she whispered.

 

She turned to her lover, a thousand new questions burning, but he wasn’t beside her.  A note on the pillow read, “got too hot next to my smokin’ woman.  I’m in the freezer if you need me.”

 

She sighed and decided not to wake him.  She was exhausted herself, and she slid back toward slumber, deciding that questions could wait.  

 

Her dreams were intense.

 

Chapter Text

Beth woke just after sunrise, eyes dry, mouth cottony, feeling like she could down a gallon of orange juice.  She crept downstairs, opened the refrigerator, and was pleased to find exactly what she was craving.  She was on her second glass when Mick padded downstairs to join her.  He was clad in nothing but a pair of silky striped pajama pants, bed-headed, unshaven, and Beth sighed dreamily, appreciating the view.  An eternity of perfect pectorals, and she had an all-access pass.

 

He cooked, too.

 

“If I make you some oatmeal with molasses, will you eat it?” he asked.  Beth scrunched up her nose and shook her head.  He gave her the You-Are-Being-Difficult look, and she batted her eyelashes at him.

 

“Green smoothie?” he tried.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“Leafy greens and fruit blended with ice.  A favorite of freshies, and Guillermo-approved.  You’ll love it,” he coaxed.

 

She nodded happily, and he pulled a blender out of the cupboard.  Then he rummaged through the fridge, pulling out kale, pears, raspberries, wheat grass, and a bag of A-negative.  The blood went in the microwave, and everything else went in the blender.  Beth sipped her juice and admired the way his back muscles moved under smooth skin while the appliances whirred and hummed.

 

Voilà!”  Mick presented the glass of foamy green sludge to her.

 

“That looks... really interesting, honey.”

 

He glared, and she meekly took a sip.  Her eyebrows raised in pleasant surprise; it tasted much better than it looked.  Satisfied, he sat down with her and swigged his breakfast from a mug emblazoned with ‘Team Spike.’

 

They enjoyed their beverages in silence, grateful for the morning’s peace after the terrors of the last 48 hours.  Eventually, though, Mick noticed that Beth had become anxious and fidgety.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“I, um...”

 

“You...?”

 

“I kind of cheated on you with Josef,” she blurted.

 

Ah.

 

Mick sighed and closed his eyes.  Then he shook his head slightly and drained his mug.  “No, you didn’t,” he said, as he stared into the dregs.

 

“When he fed from me, I...” Beth’s voice was agonized.

 

“Shhh.  I know.”  He tapped the side of his nose and smiled ruefully at her, and her cheeks flamed.  “It’s okay, Beth.  It’s a natural response.”

 

“It was amazing,” she whispered, then buried her face in her hands.  “I’m sorry.”

 

He grimaced, then gently pulled her hands away and held them in his own.  “It’s okay,” he repeated.  “Josef is my best friend, and I’m beyond grateful for what you did for him.  I’m glad that he, ah, treated you well.” Color stained his own cheeks at this.  

 

“You’re not jealous?” she asked, incredulous.

 

Mick searched for the right words.  “A little. Mostly I’m jealous that I haven’t experienced that particular intimacy with you.  It’s, uh-” he blew out a breath and gave her a shy, sideways smile.  “It’s the stuff of fantasies, and I hope that one day we might...”  Still blushing, she nodded.  She took a fortifying sip of her smoothie as a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.  “But I don’t begrudge that it happened with Josef.  Don’t get me wrong, if it were any other vamp, I’d probably go all neanderthal about it, but... he’s too important to me,” he concluded softly.  “I’m glad you were there for him.  I’m glad that the two people I care about most could be good for each other.”

 

She stared at him, astonished.  Is he saying what I think he’s- ?

 

“That came out a little weird,” he admitted.

 

“This whole situation is weird,” she concurred.  “The blood debt...”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Is Josef going to, like, develop inappropriate feelings for me now?” Beth asked.  And am I a faithless whorebag for being kind of excited about that?

 

Mick just looked at her, and Beth was unsettled to realize that, for once, she had no idea what he was thinking.  Shame flooded her as she worried that her own thoughts had been all too transparent.  What kind of girlfriend am I?  

 

“Mick-” she was just starting to squirm when he finally spoke.

 

“Depends on what you’d think is ‘inappropriate’.”  His tone was carefully even, and Beth was reminded of the frustrating reserve he’d always shown back when she was with Josh.  She knew now that the detachment had been self-protective, and it frightened her to think that he might retreat emotionally in the face of this new bond.

 

“Mick, please,” she whispered.  He cocked his head inquisitively, and she launched herself from her chair into his lap, winding her arms tightly around him and inhaling his scent.  She sat back and slid her hands over his shoulders, reveling in the firm, supple strength of them before threading her fingers through the dark locks at the nape of his neck.  She held his gaze until the flat, shuttered expression melted into yearning, then she kissed him.  They slowly relaxed, relief winding and swirling through both of them as their tongues stroked and teased and promised.  Once the heat connecting them affirmed what their hearts knew to be true, she tried to put it into words.

 

“Mick, if I am your heart, then you’re also mine.  It’s always been you, all my life, even before I knew why.  I’m- I imprinted on you, when you saved me as a child, and I think that created its own bond, and the blood bond just... just tied you to me as I was already tied to you.  We belong to each other, and- and it’s good, right?”

 

“It’s good,” he agreed huskily.

 

“So... this Josef thing, you’re going to have to help me figure out what it means, but whatever it means for us -- well, it’s just that.  Us.  I want us to be secure -- to assume that there will always be ‘us,’ and then we can figure out everything around that.  Am I making any sense?”

 

Mick chuckled.  “You’re more articulate in front of a camera and surrounded by carnage, but -- I get it.  I love you.”  He kissed her again, sultry and sweet.  She beamed a dazzling smile at him, and he smirked.  “I love you even when you have kale stuck in your teeth.”  She clapped a hand over her mouth and jumped up to consult the hallway mirror, then stuck her tongue out at him once she’d removed the offending greenery.

 

Mick gathered up the dishes and began to wash them, and Beth came over to dry.  “So...” Beth ventured.

 

“So?”

 

“So back to the question of feelings and the relative appropriateness thereof,” she pressed.

 

Mick sighed.  “I’m not comfortable speaking for Josef.  Only he knows what he’s feeling, and he tends to play his cards pretty close to the chest.  If I had to guess, though...”

 

Beth slanted him an inquisitive look.

 

“The first time Josef saw you, his eyes lit up, and he damn near popped fang.”

 

Beth paused, towel in hand.  “Really?”

 

“Oh, yeah.  And while that isn’t unusual for Mr. Ladies’ Man, I’ve also noticed that he treats you with far more consideration than he does most humans, including a lot of the women he’s dated.  I’d like to think that it’s out of respect for our relationship -- I’ve made it very clear how much I value you -- but...”

 

“But what?”

 

“Well... let’s just say that I won’t be surprised if he finds that the emotions evoked by sanguinis debitum aren’t that much of a stretch for him.  Though either way, it’s bound to piss him off.”

 

She bit her lip.  “You can’t mean he’s- he’s not in love with me.  I don’t get that vibe.  When he told us about Sarah...”  Beth’s voice died away, and she remembered the soft wonder in that powerful creature’s eyes as he’d recounted his love for Sarah.  I began to think the whole reason that I became a vampire was so that I could live long enough to meet her.  Beth shook her head.  “I’m nothing like that to him, and I can’t imagine he’d ever let any human mean that much to him again while- while she’s still alive.  Besides, I know he respects you way too much to -- gah!  This is so bizarre!” Beth threw the towel down on the counter.  “Is there precedent for this?” she demanded, “for two different vamps to be bound to the same human?”

 

“Hell if I know,” Mick replied dryly.  “I can’t imagine many humans make a hobby out of rescuing the undead the way you do.”

 

“Well, if I’d known sooner what the consequences were...” Beth began tartly, and Mick raised an eyebrow.  She slumped and muttered,  “I’d have done the exact same thing.”  A corner of his mouth joined the eyebrow.  

 

Beth walked into the den and flopped on the sofa.  Mick came and settled next to her, coaxing her into the circle of his arms.  “Beth, let me ask you something,” his voice was a soothing, intimate rumble in her ear.  “Josef’s feelings for you aside, what are your feelings for Josef?”  She started, and his arms tightened around her.  “There’s no wrong answer,” he assured her, “it’s okay.  We’re going to assume the ‘Us,’ right?”

 

Beth snickered.  “I’ll never live that down, will I?”  She relaxed again and pondered the question.  “Josef -- I care about him.  At first, I cared because he’s your friend, and I know he means a lot to you.  But later on, when I saw more than just the ‘tycoon playboy’ aspects of him... he’s capable of tenderness, of devotion, though he doesn’t seem inclined to tap into it often.  He’s so fiercely loyal to you, though, and that’s something that we’ve been able to, well, bond over, if you’ll pardon the expression.”  Her mouth twisted at the word.

 

“Mmm-hmm,” Beth could feel Mick’s baritone as it thrummed through his beautifully sculpted chest.  “And when he looks at you... gets in close with that focused look that dismisses the rest of the world and pins you to the spot as he speaks, his full attention on you and only you, what are your feelings then?”

 

Beth flushed to the roots of her hair, dimly wondering how there was enough blood left in her body for such circulatory shenanigans, and she wiped prickling palms on her cotton sleep pants.  “How- how do you know about that?” she whispered.

 

“Please,” he huffed.  “I’ve watched Josef work That Look for fifty years.  He makes otherwise sane women drop their drawers with it -- and some men, too.  Even I’m not immune.”  Beth blinked slowly, once, twice, while that sank in, then:

 

What?!”  Only Mick’s enhanced reflexes saved his nose from her skull, she jerked around so fast.  Eyes wide with speculative glee, she slapped a hand on his chest and demanded, “Elaborate.  Now.”

 

“Well...” he hedged, looking off to the side as he ran a nervous hand through his hair.

 

“Oh, no, no, you don’t get to plead the fifth again, mister.  Are you telling me that you’ve...” she fumbled for a delicate way to phrase it, “...been physically intimate with Josef?”

 

“Yeah, a few times,” he mumbled.

 

“How many is a few?”

 

“I dunno.  Four.  Five?  There were a lot of interesting drugs available in the late 60s; I don’t remember every party clearly.”

 

Beth’s jaw dropped.

 

“It’s usually tended to happen if one of us was, uh, keyed up about something.  The first time...”

 

Beth closed her mouth so as to look more supportive and encouraging.  Alas, the feral gleam in her eyes rather offset the effect.

 

“...the first time was about three years after I was turned.  My head was a total mess from being under Coraline’s influence all that time, and he, ah, helped me come to terms with some things.”

 

“I’ll just bet he did,” she murmured, which earned her a disgruntled look from Mick.  She smoothed a finger over his brow and gave him a smooch.  “Go on,” she urged.

 

“Well, that was in the mid-50s.  The 60s I already mentioned, then the 70s were pretty mellow.  Then in 1985...”

 

Beth’s lips tightened.  “I remember 1985.  Sort of.”

 

Mick nodded.  “I really thought I’d killed Coraline.  My wife.  My maker.  I- I think Josef saved my sanity again that night.”

 

They were each quiet with their memories for a few moments, then Mick shook it off.  “The last time was New Year’s Eve in 1989.  Czechoslovakia had just gone through a bloodless revolution that restored democracy after decades of communism, and Josef was completely out of his head.  There was a lot of champagne involved.”  Mick’s sheepish smile was soft as he reminisced.  “I was happy for him.”

 

Beth’s eyes glazed a little as she imagined that intriguing scene. Mick eventually noticed and re-focused on their present conversation.  “Anyway,” he explained, “my point is, if you ever find yourself, uh, drawn to Josef, I really do understand that.  Josef just... has that effect on people.”

 

“So it would seem,” she breathed.  “Well.  Isn’t that fascinating.”

 

Mick sniffed lightly and rolled his eyes.  “Yeah, I can smell just how ‘fascinating’ it is.  I must say, you’re taking my debauched and controversial past unexpectedly well, you little perv.  I had no idea that was a- a thing for you.”

 

“Well, I didn’t know either, but... you’re both so gorgeous.  And the thought of you being gorgeous all over each other...”

 

“Beth!”

 

“And you’re both bound to serve me.  Wow.  It’s like having a man-harem...”

 

“My God, what have I done?”

 

“Do you think Josef was sincere about the Reddi-Whip?”

 

Mick whimpered, and Beth relented, collapsing into giggles.  He scrubbed his hands down his face and sent her a baleful look, and she just laughed harder.  “And they say vampires are evil,” he muttered, noting with growing interest the way her mirth caused her breasts to jiggle under the thin material of her camisole.  The sight, combined with the scent of her arousal, was quickly displacing any desire on his part to continue their little heart-to-heart.  Mouth-to-mouth was more like it.  Starting with some hand-to-flesh.

 

Strong fingers found her ribs and began to tickle.  “You want something to laugh about?  I’ll give you something to laugh about,” he mock-threatened.  She shrieked and grabbed his hands.  “No!  No tickling!”

 

“What?” he asked, pulling her closer and dancing his fingers up her sides again.  “You don’t want my hands there?  Where would you like them, then?”

 

Heat lit her blue cat’s-eyes as she pulled his hands to the supple flesh he’d just been admiring.

 

“Oh, here?” he asked, feigning surprise as he circled the pebbled crests with his thumbs.  “My goodness, Beth, is there something you want?”  He caught one hardening peak in his fingers, rolling it through the soft material, and she gasped.

 

“Hell, yes,” she growled, grabbing his head and pulling it to hers.  “You got me all hot and bothered with your tales of debauchery, the least you can do now is help me take the edge off.”

 

“As my liege lady wishes,” he replied with a razor-bright smile.  He fused his mouth to hers, plunging his tongue in to stroke insistently against her hard palate until she was whimpering with the sweet friction.  He pulled back and trailed his lips across her cheek, down her jaw to the uninjured side of her neck.  “Where’s that edge you need help with, Beth?” he rumbled, still palming one breast.  “Is it here?”  He dropped his fangs and scored them along tender skin, just hard enough to raise faint welts that pinkened in their wake.

 

She cried out in surprise, and a frisson shot straight south from the sharp points at her throat.  The instant of fear was quickly engulfed by the ball of flame that ignited below.  “Or is this it?” he rasped, fingers working along the waistband of her pants as he began to suckle her through her shirt, the wet heat leaving damp patches to cool and harden the flesh beneath to aching points.  “Should I take this edge off here?”  Matching word to deed, he tugged the waistband down off her hips, sliding his hands down her silken limbs and tossing her pants across the room.  He hardened fully as the immediate perfume of her excitement assailed him.  “Naughty, naughty,” he growled as he knelt by the couch, pulling her hips forward, kneading her curvy ass.  “Where are your panties, Beth?”

 

“Check the laundry,” she gasped.  “Mick, wait-”

 

“Oh, I don’t think so,” he breathed, nostrils flaring as he parted her knees and swooped in for an intimate taste of her warmth.  She choked on her half-remembered protest as sandpaper stubble scraped the delicate flesh of her inner thigh.  His firm, lithe tongue slid through her slick folds straight to her center, thrusting softly, repeatedly, then withdrawing to lap up and down swollen flesh.  “Miiiiii-iick,” she hitched, just barely remembering, “let’s take this upstairs.  We’re kind of- oh! kind of exposed, here-” her words ended with a squeak as he thrust his tongue firmly into her again.

 

“Well, you are,” he muttered, blowing a stream of air across her golden curls, “but I’m quite comfortable.”  Aching balls aside, of course.

 

“What if - unh! Josef walks in on us?” Beth whimpered as Mick began to experiment with a maddening corkscrew technique.

 

Smoky grey eyes looked up at her from beneath sooty curls, an unholy gleam lighting their depths.  “Then we’ll just have to ask him to join us, won’t we?”

 

Beth moaned loudly, her clitoris throbbing at his wicked tease.  She cried out again as Mick slid two strong fingers inside of her.  “Careful, Beth,” he admonished her, “you might wake someone.”  Then he fastened his smirking mouth over her swollen bud.  She keened and threw out a frantic hand, grasping until she found a throw pillow, and planted it over her face.  Her muffled cries continued as he crooked his fingertips firmly against her g-spot, stroking and stoking the ball of flame until she could see it reflected in the spots dancing behind her eyelids.  When he added suction to the sensitive bundle of nerves under his tongue, the flame went nuclear, and she screamed into the pillow, tearing a hole in the fabric with her teeth as she convulsed around his fingers.  He continued to pump, drawing out the shock waves as she rode them down.

 

With a dark chuckle, Mick rose and scooped her up, nuzzling her sweaty and heaving cleavage.  “Did that take the edge off?” he asked.

 

“Guh,” she agreed, the pillow falling from nerveless fingers.

 

“Good, because I’m feeling a little edgy myself, now.  Let’s go back to bed.”  He swept her up the stairs and kicked their door shut, and more pillows were put to unorthodox use.

 

************************

 

Two hours later, Josef woke and stretched, muscles pulling pleasantly against each other as he realized that he felt fantastic, for a welcome change.  He had slept like, well, the dead.  He headed downstairs toward the kitchen, wondering how Mick had fared last night with his sanguinis debitum lecture.

 

He paused at the sight of pajama pants draped over the TV, and when he picked them up, the lovely aroma of Happy Beth purled in the back of his throat.  He stooped to retrieve a wayward throw pillow -- were those teeth marks?

 

“Why do I have the distinct feeling that I overslept?” he asked the room at large.

 

Sighing, he continued into the kitchen.  Might as well settle for coffee.

 

 

Chapter Text

Beth slept the day away after her delightful morning exertions, and she woke as the evening star ascended, feeling much refreshed.  Shouts were coming from the den, which might have been terrifying, had they not carried the universally recognized timbre of Men Watching Sports.  Beth rolled her eyes.  Heaven forbid that assassination attempts dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the playoffs.

 

“Hello, Sunshine!” Josef called as she made her way down to the man cave.  “You’re looking a bit perkier this evening.”

 

“Not as perky as you, apparently,” she grunted, a mite miffed at his impudent assessment.  “You’re disgustingly cheerful for someone who was sweating silver yesterday.”

 

“The Giants are winning, and your loverboy is about to owe me a hundred bucks.  What’s not to cheer?”  He rose from the leather sectional and glided over to Beth, lifting her hair so that he could check the healing puncture wounds.  “Looking good,” he murmured, smiling as he looked in her eyes.  “Still pale, though.  You hungry?”

 

“I could murder a plate of scrambled eggs,” she admitted, as Mick howled at the TV.  “Be a dear and make me some, would you?”

 

“But of course.”  He turned and took three steps toward the kitchen before it occurred to him that, one, he hadn’t cracked an egg in centuries, two, he wasn’t completely sure how to operate the stove, three, he WAS NOT in the habit of mindlessly following orders, and... Did she just-

 

Josef turned back and beheld the mischievous glint in her eye.  “Did you just try to invoke sanguinis debitum?”

 

“Did it work?” she grinned.

 

“Almost,” he grumbled, both amused and appalled.  The urge to tend to Beth’s needs was uncomfortably strong.  “Are you going to turn tyrant on me?”

 

“Maybe,” she winked, “but I’m picky about my eggs, so I’ll let you off the hook this time.”  His shoulders relaxed just a fraction as the compulsion lifted, which was unsettling in its own right.  He eyed her warily as she sauntered past him to rummage in the fridge.  

 

“Is that out of your system now?” he asked, a slight edge in his tone.

 

She turned and studied him for a moment, ambiguous tension thickening between them.  She could feel it in her throat.  “Come on, Josef,” she spoke low.  “You know I’m not petty.  Surely you won’t begrudge me the occasional... experimental impulse?”  Her eyes dropped to his mouth, and she watched in fascination as it rippled subtly over what had to be elongating fangs.  He kept his lips closed, though, and his eyes betrayed no hint of his thoughts.

 

Damn it!”  Mick’s disgust at the final whistle broke the spell, and Beth turned to the stove.  

 

“Sounds like it’s time to collect your winnings,” she observed.  “Once I’ve eaten, maybe you could be so kind as to fill us in on why Mick’s psycho ex is trying to kill us, if it won’t interfere too much with post-game analysis.”

 

Beth melted butter in the skillet, feeling Josef’s eyes burning a hole between her shoulder blades, wondering if she was, perhaps, pushing her luck.

 

“Are you always this bitchy when you’re hungry?”  His voice was mild -- and utterly inscrutable.

 

“Only when I’m anemic,” she sniped, then instantly regretted the rebuke.  She tensed as he came up behind her, felt the air tingle in the small space between them, prickling along her back.  A pale hand, square and blunt-tipped, a peasant’s hand, for all that the nails were professionally buffed, appeared in her peripheral vision.  He set the liquid iron supplement on the counter next to her, then whispered into her ear.

 

“I get the same way.”

 

He went to the refrigerator for a bag of O-positive, and Beth’s knees wobbled as she released a quiet gust of air.

 

“Hey Mick, dry your tears and come to the table, my man,” Josef called.  “We need to discuss your charming in-laws.”

 

“That would be a welcome change of topic,” Mick grumbled.  “You can’t tell me Manning’s not a vampire.”

 

Beth smiled at their bickering as she dished up her eggs.

 

************************

 

An hour later, the trio was gathered around the sturdy scrubbed-oak table.  Josef’s laptop and several file folders of varying thickness were spread before them.

 

“Okay, kids,” the older vamp announced, “it’s time for a crash course in history, some of which pre-dates even me.  Coraline told you about the seven vampire siblings who used the ‘Mortal Cure’ compound to escape detection during the French Revolution, right?”  

 

Mick nodded.  “Lance seemed pretty pissed that we knew about it.”

 

“Indeed, oh Master of Understatement.  Les Enfants de Valois have been in the habit of guarding their secrets for five and a half centuries, and Coraline’s lovely loose lips have gotten their shorts in a right twist.  It’s not the first time she’s disobeyed Family Law.  She sired you without their permission, and I had a lively time of it convincing Lance to let you live during those first few years.”  

 

“I remember,” Mick frowned.  “Sort of.”

 

“Yes, well, you were soaked in bourbon for that little tête à tête, so the details might be a bit hazy,” Josef smirked.  “I’ve been researching Lance’s bloodline ever since he took Coraline last winter, since you seemed too distracted by sunshine and doughnuts to do your own investigating.”

 

Mick flushed a dull red.  “Being around Coraline messes up my priorities,” he muttered.  “I didn’t want to dwell on her -- didn’t want to fall down that rabbit hole again.”

 

“Well, it’s time to get the lay of Wonderland,” he retorted, “because someone has ordered Off With Our Heads.  I don’t think it was necessarily Lance, though,” he mused, “or he would have done it when he came to collect Little Sis.  He’s powerful, but he’s never shown a taste for wanton carnage.”

 

Beth was flipping through the files; each was a dossier bearing a French name.  “The dates on these,” she observed, “these are the seven royal siblings?  I take it their, uh, ‘siblinghood’ is vampiric rather than human in origin?”

 

Josef nodded.  “They were all sired by His Majesty, Charles VII.”  He gave them a moment to think back -- way back.

 

“Joan of Arc?” Mick queried, looking at Josef for confirmation.

 

“Her beloved dauphin,” Beth sighed, recalling the history.  “She sacrificed everything to put him on the throne, and he didn’t lift a hand to save her, the bastard.  So...” she paused as the pieces fell into place, “was he already a vampire when she was burned at the stake?”

 

“Probably, as it wasn’t long afterward that he sired his first vamp,” Josef replied.  “Gilles de Rais, who spent his first undead decade molesting and murdering children.”

 

They pondered that for a moment, icy horror congealing the eggs Beth had eaten.  Mick looked a little green himself.  

 

“So is Charles VII the one who ordered us killed?” Beth asked faintly.

 

Josef shook his head.  “He died in the Reign of Terror.”

 

“But -- how?  Did he not use the compound?”

 

“Oh, he did.” Josef grinned as if this were juicy gossip.  “He got all humanized and joined up with Citizen Robespierre’s crowd, using their influence to slaughter his enemies by the score.  Then, just as his position in the Western European vampire hierarchy seemed assured for the next dozen decades, the political tide turned.  He got rounded up with several other prominent figures in the Committee for Public Safety and met Madame la Guillotine.”

 

They all paused to consider the irony.  “Talk about poetic justice,” Mick finally commented.  “So what about the vamps he sired?”

 

Further study showed that Charles had sired a new member of his Undead Dynasty every half-century or so.  Despite Coraline’s colorful speech about Seven Royal Siblings, only five were still alive at the time of the French Revolution.  Josef had collected information on all of Charles’s progeny, though some of it was rather thin.

 

  • Gilles de Rais, sired in 1432.  After his “execution” in 1440, he fled to Eastern Europe, where he rampaged until his final death in 1599.  His killer was a peasant girl named Rasa whom he had raped, tortured, enslaved, and then -- inexplicably -- turned.  This display of poor judgement caused Charles to implement a stern rule at the turn of the 17th century: none of his “children” were permitted to turn a new vampire without his express approval.

 

  • Lance Benoit, sired in 1482.  Son of an astrologer to King Louis XI (Charles’s son).

 

  • Marguerite Lambert, sired in 1550, final death in 1652.  Marguerite was the pretty sister of a lady-in-waiting to the Queen Consort, and Charles became obsessed with her.  They had a torrid affair, which became a tumultuous relationship, both before and after he turned her.  After a century of high drama, he killed her in a fit of pique upon finding her in flagrante delicto with a hated rival... again.

 

  • Cécile Moreau, sired in 1615.  She was the cast-off mistress of young Bishop (later Cardinal) Richelieu.  Charles revealed himself to her and offered to turn her, promising that she could have bloody revenge against Richelieu, all while knowing full well that the clergyman was himself a powerful vampire.  Cécile did not find the joke funny in the least.

 

  • Christophe Duchêne, sired in 1670.  An opium-eating artiste of the Académie Royale in the Sun King’s court.  It is thought that he developed the “Mortal Cure” compound.

 

  • Coraline Duvall, sired in 1740.  Intimate friends with the Princess of Conti and Madame de Pompadour.  Mick studied a portrait in the file intently, then shot a questioning glance at Josef, who just grinned.

 

  • Luc Fournier, sired in 1792, two years before Charles’s final death.  Luc was a starry-eyed bourgeois revolutionary who had actually believed in Liberté, Raison, Égalité... the poor sap.

 

Beth leaned back, stretched until her spine popped, and sighed.  “Okay,” she said, rubbing her eyes, “so what’s the deal with these Enfants Terribles?  Did they target us specifically to keep the compound a secret?”

 

“The compound isn’t exactly a secret, though many in the vampire community think it’s a myth,” Josef replied.  “Only the Children of Valois have authority to distribute it, and only if they unanimously agree that the recipient is worthy.  You can imagine how often that happens.  The formula for making it, though, is a secret, and it’s obviously not one that they all share.  My guess is that they’d rather not let word get out that Coraline was able to replicate it.  Her order to kill you, Mick, was a direct punishment for that little stunt.  I’m sure they found the symmetry pleasing, since she only got a slap on the wrist for turning you in the first place.”

 

Mick sulked.  Or possibly brooded.  It was hard to tell.

 

“Who’s calling the shots now, since Charles is dead?”  Beth asked.  “Like, if one of them wants to turn someone, or order a hit?”

 

Josef sighed.  “From what I can tell, it has to be a 3/5ths majority decision among the remaining Enfants to turn a human, kill a vampire, or discipline one of their own,” he said.  “It would help to know more about their inter-family politics, but I don’t have a good feel for that.  I should have kept up.”  The last sentence was muttered almost to himself, and Mick looked up, surprised.

 

“Kept up?” he demanded.  “You knew about this part of Coraline’s history before?”

 

Josef barked a harsh laugh. “I’ve suspected since Lance showed up here in 1955, but it was one hell of a shock.  I knew a lot about our dear Cora, but her origins?  I’d stopped watching Valoisian antics by the mid-1600s.”  His jaw tensed, and his eyes looked haunted.

 

“Josef,” Beth coaxed gently, “what aren’t you telling us?”

 

He stared at his laptop screen for a few moments, then slowly closed it.  Still looking down, he confessed, “Rasa was my sire.”

 

“Rasa?” Beth blinked in confusion and reached for her notes, then looked up in surprise as she found the name.  “The peasant girl who killed Gilles de Rais.”

 

He nodded.  “I adored her,” he stated quietly.  “Not as a lover, but as a kinswoman and mentor.  She saved me.  I was 21 and dying of consumption, which is kind of funny when you realize that tuberculosis was often suspected of being vampirism in those days.  She offered to end my pain and grant me eternal life, and I accepted.”

 

Josef sipped from a wine glass, lost in memory.

 

“Once, I asked her why she’d turned me.  She had a quiet and deliberate way about her, and she didn’t seem to revel in her immortality the way vampires should.” He nodded and winked at Mick, who smiled a bit self-consciously.  “She told me that she had taken an immortal life, so she wanted to give one in return.  She wouldn’t tell me then whom she’d killed, but she called him Ničitel Neviny, the Destroyer of Innocence.”

 

Beth watched him carefully.  “What happened to her?” she asked.

 

“I don’t know.”  Josef knocked back the rest of his wine and clapped the glass down onto the table.  “She disappeared about 40 years after she turned me, and I couldn’t find her.  I have no idea where she went or what happened to her.  

 

“But,” he continued briskly, forestalling Beth’s attempt at sympathy, “she did say something very interesting about Lance, once.”

 

“Oh, really?” Mick was intrigued.

 

“She dragged me 180 miles to attend a poetry reading one night, and she pointed out a vampire in the audience.  He didn’t seem to notice us, although both of his eyes were working back then.  She told me, ‘That is Lance Benoit.  He taught me everything I needed to know about being a vampire, and it is thus that I teach you.’

 

“I asked her if he was her sire, and she gave me an earful.  ‘The beast who turned me taught me only things that I have no wish to know,’ she said.  ‘This man gave me the knowledge that led to my freedom.’”

 

There was a potent silence as they pondered the implications.  “So,” said Mick, “you think that Lance took her under his wing, on the down-low, so to speak, and he taught her how to kill Gilles?”

 

“I believe that, yes.  Lance’s life would be forfeit if any of the rest of them suspected.  Rasa trusted my discretion, and I’ve kept my mouth shut for almost 400 years.  If you want to stay alive, you’ll do the same,” Josef warned grimly.  “Vampires more than one generation removed from the Children of Valois aren’t even supposed to know the family’s origins.  Charles’s spawn are trying to kill us because we know about the compound.  If they thought we knew more, well... even my security isn’t that good.”

 

“Does Lance know who you are?” Beth squeaked.

 

“I’m honestly not sure,” Josef replied, and Mick realized he’d heard more uncertainty from Josef tonight than he had in -- ever.  “It’s quite possible that he suspects, but hey, he hasn’t killed me yet.”  He poured some more wine.

 

“Beth, what are you drawing?” Mick asked.

 

“A vampire family tree.  So, Lance is like... your great-uncle?” she quizzed Josef.

 

“What can I say?” he shrugged.  “There’s one in every family.”



Chapter Text

For the next three days, Beth was bored out of her skull.  They never left the dome, and although they had internet access, they couldn’t respond to e-mail or voicemail, which she found maddening.  Mick taught her to play Canasta.  She pretended to like it.  She also helped Josef plant a news story that would reach France, about three charred bodies being found in the Anaheim theater.  Josef made a series of increasingly vicious phone calls in an effort to determine the status and location of Les Enfants.  

 

Playing dead had quickly lost its novelty, and conversation grew stilted as certain gazes lingered unexpectedly, and certain topics were left deliberately alone.  Beth wasn’t sure which might explode first:  her temper or her hormones.

 

*******************************

 

“It’s about damn time.  I expect confirmation in one hour, or I will repurpose your head as a tether ball!”  Josef slammed down the phone.  He drew a deep breath, then turned to the others with an air of malicious satisfaction.  “Well, now we know why it took so long to account for Cécile.  That’s one less Valois to worry about.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Word has it that she perished in the raid on Coraline’s lab.  One of the scientists managed to smear her with a failed version of the compound.  It made her mortal, but instead of reverting to her nineteen-year-old body, she was advanced to her true age.”

 

“Eeeurgh.  400 or so?” Mick calculated as Beth surreptitiously felt for wrinkles.

 

“412.  Not every quadracentenarian can look this good,” Josef preened.

 

“Did anyone else at the lab survive?” Beth asked tentatively.

 

“No.  There was another fire.”

 

“Man,” Mick observed, “they’re not exactly subtle, are they?  What about employees who weren’t on duty?  Surely there were people off-site during the raid.”

 

“I don’t have a complete list, but the ones I know about have disappeared.  Bad for them, of course, but good for us.  The remaining Enfants are all in France, now, and they think their loose ends are all tied up.  If we’re careful not to draw attention to ourselves for a bit longer, I think we can go home.  I have got to get back to the office before that worm Stockton undersells every bid I’ve made this quarter.”

 

Beth thought longingly of her own laptop, and Mick mentally ran through notes on his current cases.  Yes, it would be good to go home.

 

“I’ve arranged to have both of your residences listed as ‘vacant’ for the time being.  They’re on file with a realtor who won’t actually show them.  Also, you’ll need new vehicles registered with an alias.  We’ll go pick them out this afternoon.”  He pulled out his Palm Pilot and made a note.

 

Beth sent Mick a questioning look, and he just grinned.  “Josef,” she essayed, “you don’t have to buy me a car.  I can’t accept that, not without some way to pay you back.  And I’m currently unemployed.”

 

Josef looked up, and the sincere confusion in her face warmed something in him.  “Consider it a service to ensure your protection,” he reminded her gently.  To his alarm, her expression morphed from confused to horrified, and tears filled her big blue eyes.

 

“No,” she choked.  “I am not some kind of- of kept woman with a- a sugar daddy!” Mick came up behind Beth and wrapped his arms around her as Josef manfully smothered a snicker.

 

“No, you’re not-” he began soothingly.

 

“It’s degrading!” she cried.  “To both of us -- to all of us!  These aren’t the freakin’ Middle Ages!  I release you,” she improvised wildly, her gaze darting back and forth between the vampires.  “Mick St. John, I release you from the bond of sanguinis debitum.  Josef Kostan, I release you from the bond of sanguinis debitum.”

 

Mick’s arms tightened around her, and Josef broke down laughing.  He walked over to the pair and laid a cool hand on the side of Beth’s flushed face.  “It doesn’t work that way, honey,” he murmured, wiping a tear away with his thumb, “although I appreciate your abolitionist sensibilities.  Mick and I knew the terms before we accepted your gift, and we entered the contract willingly.  I’m starting to think that serving you will be no burden,” he mused.  Mick smiled over Beth’s head at Josef, who brushed away another tear that spilled over.  “Now,” he teased, “what happened to the minx who was trying to lord it over me the other night?”

 

“There’s a big difference between a snack and a Mini Cooper,” Beth smiled tremulously, and chuckles erupted all around her.

 

“And here I had you pegged as a Miata girl,” Josef grinned.  “I have to tell you, Beth, it’s easier for me to buy a car than it is to... cook,” he shuddered in distaste.  “My stock portfolio is as old as Wall Street, remember.  It’s really no big deal.”

 

“It is to me,” she said softly.

 

Josef tried to keep a grip as he felt himself falling.  “Well, that makes it my pleasure to serve,” he returned in kind.  He dropped his hand and turned to busy himself at the desk, leaving Beth to Mick’s embrace.

 

****************************************

 

The transition back to the outside world went smoothly.  Beth picked out a snazzy navy-and-white Mini, Mick indulged in a hunter green classic Mustang, and Josef changed the tags on his Ferrari after having it re-painted black.  He loved the car too much to let it be impounded as “abandoned,” as the others soon would be.  They all went their separate ways, each relieved to have some privacy after the awkward intimacy of recent days -- and each feeling a bit lost without the other two once they were settled.

 

******************************************

 

The next two weeks passed without incident.

 

*******************************************

 

A heavy staccato jangling erupted from a cell phone that was buried under scattered papers.  Mick had chosen the ringtone because it sounded like the old bakelite rotary phone he’d finally retired in ‘96.  The slim black device that he extracted and flipped open just didn’t have the same satisfying heft to it, but one had to move with the times.

 

“St. John,” he grunted, glancing over at the wall clock.  3:00 AM, bars were closed and most parties had wound down at this time of night.  These were the quiet hours when his brain worked most creatively, making intuitive leaps as it pieced together old information in new and interesting ways.

 

“Mick.  Is Beth with you?”

 

“Hey, man.  No, she headed home around 11:00.  What’s up?”

 

“She’s not answering her phone.”

 

“Well, she might have left it on vibrate,” Mick answered cautiously, wondering what the other vampire needed to discuss with Beth at this hour.  “What’s going on?”

 

“I got word from one of my forensic accountants earlier.  Coraline transferred ten thousand dollars into a local bank account about twelve hours ago.  It took me awhile to track down information on the account holder -- some greasy punk who’s about to flunk out of UCLA.  I guess it’s hard to concentrate on your studies when bookies are threatening your kneecaps.  This kid’s in about thirty grand over his head, which makes me think Coraline’s deposit was a down payment for services hopefully yet to be rendered.”

 

“Well, shit.” Mick grabbed his keys.  “Guess the news of our death wasn’t exaggerated enough,” he deadpanned as he shrugged into his bomber jacket, fighting the panic that was beginning to creep along his skin.  “What are the odds that he knows Beth’s condo isn’t really vacant?”

 

“Better than most odds he lays,” Josef replied grimly.  “His daddy is her landlord.”

 

The panic abandoned its stealthy creep and slammed full force into Mick’s chest.  He swore viciously as he yanked his Beretta 92 out of a desk drawer and bolted for the door.

 

“You’re three miles closer.  Race ya.” Josef severed the connection as Mick bypassed his elevator and pounded down the stairwell.

 

************************************************

 

“Beth, I’m coming in!” Mick yelled after a perfunctory knock.  He rammed the key home, noting that the other half of the duplex was empty.  

 

Beth looked angelically peaceful, asleep in her bed.  There was no blood, no sign of bruising or trauma.  Mick might have relaxed, had he not clearly heard the straining frenzy of her heartbeat.

 

He couldn’t wake her up.  

 

Shouting and shaking caused her to moan something and flutter her eyelids before sinking back into a stupor.  Her breathing was labored.

 

“Has she been drugged?” Josef appeared as Mick was frantically checking her over.

 

“I don’t smell anything, but her color is all wrong, and she sounds like her oxygen is low.” Mick scooped her up.  “Call 9-1-1; I’m taking her out into fresh air.”

 

Outside, Mick laid Beth gently onto a patch of grass and drew a deep breath, then sealed his lips to hers and forced the air into her lungs.  She coughed and sputtered, then groaned loudly and raised a hand to her forehead.  Mick narrowed his eyes and inhaled again, this time to trace a scent that had come to him with the first breath.

 

“Paramedics are on their way.” Josef thumbed the ‘off’ button.

 

“Stay here with her.  I need to check something.”  

 

Josef sat down and rested Beth’s head in his lap as Mick strode around the corner of the building.  He stopped where the scent was strongest, closed his eyes, and inhaled once more, nostrils flaring as he sought to extract every nuance of information available.  The vision came to him, and rage brought forth his monster’s face.  He leaped and landed on the first-floor awning, then climbed nimbly to the second-story roof.  He found the vent pipe for the furnace, reached in, and pulled out a wad of greasy rags.

 

“Josef!  How’s she doing?” he called.

 

“Well, the good news is, she’s more alert,” came a wry reply.  “The bad news is, there’s vomit on my shirt.”  

 

Asshole, thought Mick.  Then he heard Josef croon reassuringly to Beth, and the irritation faded.  “When the EMTs get here, tell them she’s had carbon monoxide exposure.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

 

“Where the hell are you going?”

 

“To bust some kneecaps.”

 

****************************************************

 

Five miles away and fifty minutes later, Jeff Hutchins pissed himself.  The guy that had him pinned against an alley wall had motherfuckin’ fangs, dude, it wasn’t right -- and there was something seriously messed up about his eyes.  The eyes were what really bothered Jeff, although it was the fangs (and a fair quantity of beer) that were responsible for the state of his jockeys.

 

“Don’t worry, you smell too disgusting to be appetizing,” Mick growled.  “You’re getting a choice tonight, and it’s more than you deserve.  You can tell me everything you know about your employer, confess to the police, and go to jail.  Or, you can play dumb, and I’ll deliver you personally to the debt collectors, tell them you’re holding out on them, and sit back and watch.”

 

*********************************************************

 

Jeff didn’t really have to play dumb; he came by it naturally.  Still, he was able to confirm that his employer had a French e-mail address, and Beth had been the only target.  By dawn, he was in custody for attempted murder, and Beth had been released from the ER.

 

“Buddy system from now on, you two,” Josef admonished.  “Beth, you either need to get a big freezer or move in with Mick until we figure out how to put a leash on Coraline.”  Beth chose Mick’s place -- half her stuff was there anyway.  

 

They were both happy to collapse into bed once they’d returned to the apartment.  Beth still had a splitting headache, and Mick brought her some ice water and aspirin, pressing a cool kiss to her forehead as he handed them over.  “We were headed this way anyway, weren’t we?” he asked softly as he laid his handgun on the nightstand and shucked out of his jeans.  “Living together.”

 

She smiled weakly, holding the cold glass to her temple after she swallowed the pills.  “I didn’t want to presume too much too soon, but yeah.  We can work out our space issues as they come up, right?”

 

Mi espacio es su espacio,” Mick assured her solemnly, making her laugh.  She reached up to adjust the blackout curtains for him, then snuggled down into the pillows.  She was asleep within minutes.

 

Mick watched her for awhile, monitoring her heartbeat, observing the gradual relaxation of the small muscles between her delicate eyebrows.  He smoothed his fingertips over her brow, then he crept downstairs and settled into his freezer for the day.

 

Hours passed as they slumbered, and he never heard the scrape and rattle of the doorknob as the assassin picked the lock.

 

 

Chapter Text

Beth woke and stretched, savoring the delicious feeling of having slept until fully rested, with nowhere urgent to be upon waking.  She squinted at the alarm clock -- sunset wasn’t for another two hours.  She wondered if there were any Gregory Mcdonald books downstairs that she hadn’t read yet.  She rose from the warm nest of sheets, hoping that there was some coffee in the kitchen.  She’d just stepped onto the first stair when the reek of kerosene assaulted her nose.

 

Startled, she dropped into a crouch and peered over the banister.  Adrenaline squeezed her lungs and heart together when she spotted him -- a tall figure in a ski mask and a black Raiders jacket.  He held a wooden stake awkwardly between his elbow and his side as he fumbled with gloved hands, trying to light what looked like an old-fashioned Molotov cocktail.  He was advancing on Mick’s freezer.

 

Beth whirled and flung herself across the bed, reaching to snatch the Beretta off of the nightstand.  She rolled to her feet and stumbled down the stairs, throat too tight to scream, but no longer bothering with stealth.  The masked man looked up in surprise, and the stake clattered to the floor.  The shock in his muddy brown eyes relaxed into a speculative leer as he took in the mussed blonde before him.  Her hair was disheveled, and her short silky pajamas clung enticingly to her tight curves.  So absorbed was he in the contours of her sleepwear that he completely overlooked the gun in her hand until she pointed it dead-center at his chest.

 

His eyes widened once more as he noted her firm two-handed grip and saw that the safety was off.  With a snarl, he swept his foot up and over in a sloppy crescent kick, knocking her arms down and pitching her off balance.  He spun back and lit the wick, then hurled the fuel-filled bottle toward the large glass-topped chest freezer.  Beth screamed in rage and fear as the cacophony of shattering glass accompanied a burst of flames, and before she’d made a conscious decision, the man dropped to the floor as her hands throbbed and tingled from the pistol’s recoil.  

 

She stared at him for several long seconds, horror and satisfaction swirling in a bewildering maelstrom as she realized that he would not be getting back up.  Then, the sickeningly familiar odor of burning vampire galvanized her back into action.

 

Beth ran to the kitchen, tossed the gun onto the counter, and wrenched a fire extinguisher from the wall.  She raced over to spray carbon dioxide foam into the freezer, sobbing in relief as Mick’s flaming legs and hands were smothered.  Yet, his thrashing continued -- and a horrible bubbling hiss issued from his throat.

 

Not from his mouth, from his throat.

 

“No,” Beth moaned, transfixed by the sight.  “No, no, NO...”

 

A large piece of glass was embedded deeply in Mick’s neck, just above the Adam’s apple.  He scrabbled for it with blackened fingers made clumsy by nerve damage, and his efforts knocked it further into his throat, slicing the front of his esophagus.  

 

“NO!” Beth screamed, snatching at his hands.  “Mick, baby, no, don’t touch it!”  He was beyond hearing her, though, as pain and panic drove desperate instinct to override logic.  Under normal circumstances, she would never have been able to restrain him, but blood loss and the agony of any pressure on his charred flesh gave her enough leverage to wedge his arms down with the fire extinguisher.  Still, he thrashed and slammed his head repeatedly against the bed of the freezer.  How much further before it counts as decapitation? she wondered, frantically looking around for something to immobilize him.  

 

Her gaze fell on the wooden stake.  She closed her eyes and whimpered for just a moment, then set her jaw.  Taking a deep breath, she stooped to retrieve the stake, whispering, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She sobbed again as she rose, then, before she could think too much, turned and rammed it into Mick’s heart.

 

Instantly, he stilled, mouth open, fangs extended, eyes wide.  Blood trickled around the glass.  Beth’s gorge rose, but she gritted her teeth against the nausea as she stumbled across the room to Mick’s desk, fumbling through papers until she found his phone.

 

“Pick-up-pick-up-pick-up-pick-UP!” she chanted as she punched in the speed-dial for Josef.  One ring,

 

two...  

 

three...

 

f-

 

“You jackass, could whatever this is have not waited until sunset?”

 

“Josef, get over here NOW!”

 

“Beth?”  Snark gave way to surprise.  “What are y-  Where’s Mick?”

 

“He’s dying in front of me, and I don’t know what to do!  Please, Josef!”

 

“What the- ” he checked the solar-tinted windows.  “Is it sunstroke again?  Was he overexposed?”

 

“He’s an inch away from decapitation, please HURRY NOW!”

 

(Josef, PLEASE...)

 

“I’m already out the door,” he lied grimly.  Well, he would be in three seconds after he pulled some pants on.  “Breathe, sweetheart.  Tell me what happened.  Are you safe?”

 

Beth gave a mostly coherent account of events as Josef peeled out into traffic, snarling at the rush hour jam.  He instructed her to cover the broken freezer lid with a blanket and crank the thermostat down, so that colder temperatures would slow the flow of blood until he got there to assess the situation.

 

After 20 of the longest minutes of her life, he finally strode through the door, his air of commanding assurance completely unmarred by the fact that he was wearing silk damask lounge pants and not much else.  That assurance faltered, however briefly, when he looked down at Mick.  “Do prdele,” he swore softly.

 

“I was afraid to take the glass out,” Beth said, her voice rough with unshed tears.  “I know you guys heal really fast, but it’s so deep, I was afraid of- of cutting the spinal cord.  Can you heal from paralysis?”

 

“Let’s try not to find out,” Josef replied.  “You did the right thing, Beth.  It’s rare for a vampire to bleed out, but his carotid artery got cut, and the glass is partially plugging the hole.  If you’d taken it out... with those burns, he might not have been able to heal in time.”  Or he might have drained you dry before he even realized who you were.  Not that I have any experience there.  Oh, wait, yes, I fucking do.

 

“So, can one of us put pressure on the wound while the other feeds him?  Will that help?  I think there are about two quarts in the refrigerator.”

 

Josef shook his head, noting the ashy tinge to Mick’s complexion and the pink cast to his eyes caused by bursting capillaries.  “Go get it; if he lives through the next few minutes, it’ll help him recover.”

 

“What?!”

 

“Get the blood, Beth!” he snapped, masking his fear with impatience.  “Then come help me; we need to move fast.”

 

She flew to the kitchen and back, blood bags in hand, then looked anxiously up at Josef.  He bit savagely into his own wrist, and she uttered a squeak of surprise.  “Sire’s blood is the only thing that can heal a vampire this far gone,” he explained, his teeth and tongue glistening red.  “I hope like hell mine qualifies.  On the count of three, pull the stake.  One, two, three!”

 

As Beth pulled the stake from his chest, Josef slid the glass smoothly out of Mick’s throat and slammed his wrist down to his mouth.  A raspy, damaged mewl burbled forth from the dying vampire, but once the first few drops of Josef’s blood trickled into his mouth, he instinctively latched on, throat working spastically as he tried unsuccessfully to swallow around his injuries.  Beth watched his struggles and, feeling oddly detached, pondered Josef’s blood-smeared mouth.  She reached out, almost languidly, and swiped blood from Josef’s lips with her index finger, then smeared it gently along the gaping slice on her lover’s neck.  Instantly, the bleeding slowed to a sluggish ooze, but the cut remained.

 

Josef stared at her, mouth open in surprise, and she could see more blood still within.  She brought her hand back to his lips, silently requesting entrance, and he carefully sucked her finger into the silken interior up to her knuckle, savoring the taste of Mick’s blood and her skin intermingled as she collected the essence of Mick’s salvation.  He parted his lips to let her withdraw, pupils dilated with exquisite awareness, and watched her tend to Mick’s wound again.  This application was enough to heal the esophagus, and Mick began to drink in earnest.

 

The combined onslaught of sensations aroused Josef to the point of pain.  He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, calling on his considerable control to focus on the task at hand -- and wishing for once that he wore underwear to bed.

 

Beth watched Mick, gradually relaxing as the hole from the stake closed and the burns began to heal.  Once the gash on his neck had knit itself into a livid scar, Josef opened his eyes and murmured in a strained voice, “Okay, buddy, that’s enough of the high octane juice.  Time to switch back to regular.”  Mick growled in protest, eyes still frantic, and sucked harder.  Josef cried out, his eyes rolling up briefly, which scared the shit out of Beth.  She grabbed a quart bag of A-positive and thrust it forward.

 

“Mick!” she ordered, shamelessly bringing the bond to bear, “drink this.”  Without hesitating, he released his putative sire and bit into the bag, drinking directly from the punctures.  Josef shook his head at this barbaric display.  He’s been watching ‘Buffy’ again.  By the time Mick drained the bag, Beth had the next one ready with a straw.  He looked up in mute gratitude as he began sipping more slowly.  He drank about two-thirds of it, then laid it aside with hands that were almost steady.  “Love you,” he whispered, then lay down and passed out.

 

Beth looked to Josef, who smiled tightly.  “He’s all right.  He just needs rest in order to finish healing.”

 

“What... what about you, are you all right?” she asked, her voice husky.  “Did he take too much from you?”

 

“No, I’m fine,” he promised.  “I needed Mick to stop for his own sake, not for mine.  Sire’s blood is potent stuff, but there are side effects.  Too much will invoke thrall.  Then you’re stuck with a mindless minion on your hands.”  Josef picked up the leftover bagged blood and finished it off, grimacing at the chill.  “I enjoyed having minions, my first century out,” he mused, “but I outgrew that phase a long time ago.”

 

Beth nodded politely, then her eyes fell on the dead intruder who was stiffening on Mick’s area rug.  “Oh my God,” she began to shake, “I forgot all about that.”

 

Josef walked over to the body and nudged it with bare toes.  “No one I recognize.  Almost certainly another amateur, based on his equipment.  If I had to speculate, I’d say Coraline is arranging these charming visits without family backing.  The question is, is it because they don’t support the effort, or because they don’t all realize we’re alive?”

 

Beth was beyond calm speculation at that particular moment.  Now that the multiple crises of the hour were more or less resolved, shock was setting in.  “I’ve never killed anyone before,” she quavered, a catch in her voice.  Josef glanced up, and the pale, broken look she wore completely derailed all thoughts of Les Enfants.  He could barely recall his own loss of that particular innocence, but he was damned if he’d allow her to suffer over the filth at his feet.

 

“Well, you picked the perfect time to start,” he said simply, which startled a laugh from her even as her lips still trembled.  “Come here, honey.”  Josef opened his arms, and she stumbled to him and buried her face against his shoulder, shuddering silently against marble-white skin, feeling as if his arms were all that were holding her together.  “Shhh,” he whispered, “Don’t waste an ounce of remorse on this dirtbag.  You defended yourself and Mick appropriately, and he was a dead man walking anyway.  Coraline would never have let him live after he finished the job.”

 

Beth sniffed.  “Great.  Does that mean that I did her dirty work for her?”

 

Josef chuckled.  “Given the schemes of hers that you’ve foiled, I’d say you’re still ahead.”  God, she felt good... warm and silky, soft and firm against him, filling his head with her honey-gold scent.  “Valiant girl,” he brushed a kiss on her temple, “you’ve shot a man, put out a fire, staked a vampire, and saved a life, and the sun hasn’t even set.  What are your plans for the rest of the night?”

 

Beth laughed again, and then she broke down.  Josef lifted her in his arms and carried her to the couch, then indulged himself by settling her in his lap.  He held her and crooned nonsense as she released all the tension that terror had built, stroking his fingers through her hair over and over in a soothing rhythm.

 

Eventually she quieted, drained of adrenaline and feeling rather surreal as she relaxed in Josef’s embrace.  She felt safe, protected, and she allowed herself the luxury of appreciating his smoothly muscled physique at close range.  He was shorter than Mick and paler, but splendid nonetheless, from the firm, rounded deltoid beneath her cheek to the firm, rounded... hel-lo!  

 

She supposed that was also technically beneath her cheek.  

 

It’s a Metaphor, she thought.  There’s something growing between us, but we aren’t talking about it.  With that, she released an indelicate snort and started giggling.

 

Josef’s fingers stilled.  “Beth...” he drawled, “are you feeling better, or are you losing it?”

 

She laughed harder.  “Both,” she gasped.  “Oh, Josef,” she wound her arms around his neck, “what are we going to do about this stiff” -- she wriggled suggestively -- “on the floor?”

 

Brown eyes that had just begun to smolder snapped to hers, and she batted her lashes impishly, then dropped her head to his chest and shook with mirth.  The most indescribable expression swept over his face as outrage warred with amusement.  He stared over her head at the sleeping vamp in the freezer.  What Mick puts up with.  He huffed once, then snaked his hand out to pinch Beth right on her pert derrière.  She squealed and jumped up, and he smirked.  “All right, you brat,” he said.  “Hand me my phone.  It’s time to call the Cleaner.”

 

***************************

 

By 10:00PM, the Cleaner had finished working her magic.  Beth was impressed with her thoroughness -- not only had she definitively disposed of the body and removed all visible traces of blood, she had gone over the entire first floor with a black light to make sure that no possible DNA evidence remained.  She’d also brought a fresh case of blood for Mick, who had awakened after sunset and was sipping appreciatively from a smoked glass tumbler.  The scar on his throat had faded to a thin, silvery line, and his voice was still raspy, but he was in good spirits, snuggling with Beth on the couch and ribbing Josef about his attire.

 

“This, from a guy who thinks dupioni comes in a can with meat sauce.”  Josef struck a model’s pose.  “I look damn good, and you both know it.”

 

They both did.

 

“However, we have some serious work to do, and something a bit less casual would not be amiss.”  Josef picked up his phone and hit the speed dial for his personal secretary, moving out toward the corridor to order some clothes, equipment, and files brought to Mick’s apartment.  Might as well get to the bottom of this Valois situation while they were all together and motivated.

 

His spluttering, terrified lackey picked up on the third ring, and it was then that Josef found out that he had no clothes.  Neither did he have equipment, nor possibly files -- it would depend on the structural integrity of the fire-proof safe.  Thankfully, the recent renovations he’d had done were insured.

 

Thirty minutes after he’d left it, Josef’s penthouse apartment had been blown to kingdom come.

 

 

Chapter Text

Beth was dreaming over the ocean.  She jerked and moaned, nightmare images of burning and bleeding flesh playing behind her eyelids as she shifted restlessly in the reclining seat of a private jet.  Strong fingers stroked through her hair, quieting her, and the smoke and screaming dissipated at the touch of cool lips to her forehead.  She settled deeper into the plush upholstery with a breathy little sigh, and the brooding vampire resumed his seat opposite her as they flew east, the Atlantic glimmering far below.

 

Mick came down the aisle, a drink in each hand, and passed a Very Bloody Mary to Josef as he sat down next to Beth.  Josef reached into his suit pocket and extracted a flask of Chopin (he’d stocked up at the duty-free shop in New York), and poured half of it into the tall glass.

 

“There’s vodka in there already, you know.”

 

Josef shrugged and tossed back a mouthful straight from the flask, then sipped the crimson cocktail.  Mick eyed him carefully.  The older vamp looked as dapper as usual in a pinstriped Hugo Boss, but it was off-the-rack rather than custom-tailored, and something was clearly chafing.

 

Two days had passed since they’d fled L.A., grabbing bare essentials and hopping the first available flight to New York City even as fire trucks and news vans still swarmed the smoking ruin of Josef’s residence.  They’d checked into the Ritz-Carlton under one of his aliases, and the concierge had proven his mettle in procuring wardrobes, smart phones, passports, and international reservations for them in record time.  Josef had gone to visit Sarah in their final hours stateside, and he’d met them at JFK just minutes before boarding, moody and withdrawn.

 

They were heading for another bolt-hole.  This one was a chalet in Lucerne, Switzerland.  Neutral territory, but it was within striking distance of Les Enfants de Valois.  It was high time to plan that strike.

 

At the moment, however, it appeared that Josef’s only plan was to get good and plastered.  Mick sipped thoughtfully at his own A-positive laced beverage as he watched his friend alternate between glass and flask.  Just as well, really.  They had several hours to kill, and the vodka might help loosen some of the knots that he’d watched Josef wind himself into over the last few weeks.  The role reversal was really quite amusing -- Mick knew that he was usually the one to analyze emotional issues to death, but honestly.  Josef was making this whole sanguinis debitum issue much harder than it needed to be.

 

He wondered if he’d even realized, in the midst of all the chaos, the newest layer that had been added.  

 

Mick pondered his opening gambit.  Vampires appreciate subtlety, but Beth’s directness had been rubbing off on him lately.  He sipped once more and decided on a line that was classic, yet on-point.

 

“So, what exactly has crawled up your ass and died?”

 

Josef choked slightly and glared at Mick as he wiped his mouth with a crisp cotton handkerchief.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I usually do.  But I am curious as to what has your shorts in such a bunch.”

 

The older vampire curled his lip in drunken disdain.  “You mean beside the fact that idiots are trying to kill us, my apartment got bombed past all repair just as the fucking renovations were almost complete, my favorite ties are a pile of ashes, and the love of my life will never wake up?”

 

“All true, and undeniably tragic,” Mick sympathized.  “And yet, you’ve completely avoided the question.”

 

“Oh?  The nuances must have escaped me.”  Josef drained the rest of his mixed drink.

 

Patiently, inexorably, Mick repeated his query.  “What, exactly, is bothering you?”

 

Josef’s eyes were slightly glassy at this point, but his stare could still penetrate concrete.

 

“You really want me to answer that?” he sneered.  Despair and a tinge of self-loathing colored Josef’s tone, and Mick raised an eyebrow.  These were emotions which with he was certainly familiar, but Josef had never indulged him when he was wallowing, and he saw no reason to indulge Josef now.  He gestured for him to continue.

 

“I’m falling for your girl, Mick,” he bit out.  “Is that what you want to hear?”   

 

Josef waited for the explosion of vamp-face and territorial snarling, but Mick just nodded calmly and took another sip.  “That’s no surprise,” he answered.  “She’s easy to fall for.”

 

Josef looked suspiciously from his flask to Mick and back.  “I beg your pardon?”

 

“You don’t need to.  It’s understandable, with the blood bond.  I’ve had awhile to get used to the idea.”

 

And here was the snarling vamp-face, just from the wrong vamp.  “This is not about fucking debitum, Mick!”

 

Again with the eyebrow.  “You sure about that?”

 

Josef hated being manipulated, even by metaphysical forces. Hated it.  Yet, he wasn’t sure that the truth wasn’t worse.  

 

Tell the truth and shame the devil.  He hadn’t felt shame in a long time, and he was already sick of it.

 

“It pre-dates what happened in Anaheim,” he confessed through gritted teeth.  “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be under sanguinis debitum; she’d just be dead.”  He gulped freely from the flask, a drop of clear fluid rolling down his fang like venom.

 

Mick set his glass down and slid out of his seat, kneeling before his sloshed and maudlin mentor.  “I suspected that it wasn’t just for my sake that you spared her,” he said quietly, “but I’m grateful enough not to care about your motivation.  Just as I’m grateful to her for saving you.”

 

Josef flinched.  “She didn’t have a choice,” he spat bitterly.

 

“Not for the first feeding, no.  But she did for the second one, and I’ll tell you the same thing I told her.  I.  Am.  Grateful.”  He slid a strong hand onto Josef’s thigh.

 

Bewildered, Josef face melted back to normal as he did another set of double-takes between Mick and the flask.  He screwed the cap back on and tucked it gingerly into his jacket.  “How is it that you’re suddenly so open-minded when I’m the one who’s hammered?”

 

Mick quirked an amused smile at Josef, but his eyes were deadly serious.  “I’m feeling more than usually attached to you, and strangely compelled to serve your needs right now,” he replied to both the asked and unasked questions, a blush belying his cool demeanor.  “Why do you think that is?”

 

Josef blinked, then frowned.  “No,” he protested, “vamp-to-vamp feeding doesn’t invoke sanguinis debitum, and you’re too lucid to be under thrall - hey!”  Josef jumped as the hand ran firmly up his thigh and across his trouser placket.  Mick’s lips twitched again as he leaned in to press them to Josef’s, silencing him for long seconds.

 

“No?” he murmured as he pulled away just a fraction of an inch.  “Then maybe it was the affirmation of sire-hood.  Or maybe it was the fact that I could still taste Beth in you.” He kissed Josef again and slid his tongue in, as if searching for another taste, and the older vampire moaned.  “You were right,” Mick continued once he’d found what he sought.  “Spilling your blood was also spilling hers, and I deeply” ...one more nudge of mouth against open mouth... “appreciate the sacrifice.”  The hand moved to unbutton Josef’s increasingly tight fly.

 

The inebriated vampire gasped for air as vodka and Mick’s fingers conspired to spin the cabin around him.  “This isn’t possible,” he muttered.

 

“A life-saving exchange, motivated by affection and involving human blood?” Mick countered.  “Sounds to me like a world of possibility is there.  Frankly, I’m relieved that we’re both bound to Beth, if I’m also bound to you.  There’s only so much of me to go around, and she’s a handful.  Speaking of handfuls...” Mick finally freed Josef’s straining erection from the confines of his trousers.  “My god, man.  How long has it been?”

 

“Too long,” Josef moaned quietly.  “And speaking of Beth, you do realize that your already-traumatized girl is sleeping right behind you?” he hissed.

 

This time, the humor reached Mick’s eyes.  “Oh, you would be surprised at what doesn’t traumatize her,” he grinned.  Josef’s cock bobbed visibly at that intriguing thought, but a sudden nagging realization sobered him enough that he caught Mick’s head as it began to descend.  “Mick,” he tugged gently on dark curls, urging the young vampire to look up.  When their eyes met, he said very deliberately, “You don’t have to do this.”

 

A smile that could break your heart with its sweetness dawned in Mick’s face as compulsion lifted.  “Thank you,” he turned his head and kissed the inside of the wrist that had so recently sustained him.  “That makes it better.”  

 

Josef curled his arm around Mick’s head and pulled him close, just for a few moments.  “I thought I’d lost you, the other night,” he whispered.  Mick lifted his eyes back to Josef’s, the sweetness still lingering in his expression.

 

“Tasting you and Beth together... it was worth it,” he replied softly.  “Now.  What do you need?”

 

Affection...

 

“Don’t make me say it,” he growled.  The smile turned into a devilish smirk, and Josef bit his lip to suppress a howl as Mick engulfed him.

 

Good god, that kid is orally fixated, Josef mused  -- with absolute gratitude -- as he clutched the silky hair already in his fist.  A fang manifested and bloodied tender flesh as the back of Mick’s throat closed around his glans, his rough tongue swirling along the shaft.  Where in the hell did he pick up that corkscrew technique?  

 

Josef panted softly, pressure rising and boiling through his groin as Mick’s strong, scarred throat worked around him, constricting, sliding, relaxing.  He muffled a sharp cry with the heel of his hand when Mick pressed three fingers into his perineum, holding any hope of release hostage as he lapped a broad stroke up to the engorged head and began suckling anew, drawing intricate designs across the frenulum with the tip of his tongue until Josef was writhing in desperation.

 

“Mick, for fuck’s sake!” he wheezed around the meat of his hand, then grunted as the vibrations from Mick’s chuckle tortured him further.  Well satisfied with his efforts, Mick finally released the pressure of his fingers as he sucked back down to the root of Josef’s cock, and Josef groaned as if something had ruptured, tears and blood both streaming over his palm, as he swelled and spurted until he was lightheaded. Tak dobrý, tak sakra dobrý...

 

Ages drifted past in the space of minutes as reverberating echoes of sensation thrummed doppler-like from his groin, spreading warmth, well-being, and the occasional spasm to every extremity.  Friction-warmed lips placed a gentle parting kiss on the tender, ticklish area below his navel, and he sucked in a deep breath, trying to gather his wits enough to raise reluctant eyelids.  When he was finally able to see clearly again, Mick was sitting in his seat once more, looking incredibly smug as he sipped his Bloody Mary.  

 

“Feel better?” he asked.

 

Josef blew out the breath slowly.  “At the risk of inflating your insufferable ego... yes,” he conceded.  He reached with shaking hands to button his fly.  “I think I might need another one of those, though.” He nodded toward the fortifying cocktail.

 

“You can finish mine,” Mick offered generously.  “I’m full.”

 

************************

 

Some time later, while Josef was in the cockpit discussing the flight path with the pilots, Beth stirred and stretched, blinking prettily up at Mick as she adjusted her seat to the upright position.  Mick slanted her a sideways look.

 

“What?” she asked, as innocent as a kitten with feathers in its mouth.

 

“At what point did you wake up?”

 

She flushed, but the corners of her mouth twitched.  “How did you know?”

 

He gave her the Are-You-Kidding-Me look.

 

“He... yelped about something.  I don’t need to know what.” She held up her hand in a forestalling gesture.  “I probably would have gone back to sleep, except I heard my name.  By the time I realized I wasn’t dreaming, uh, discretion seemed the better part of valor.”

 

“Mmm.”  Mick reached up to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear.  “Are you... okay with it?”

 

She took a moment to answer, and Mick felt some trepidation.

 

“We’re Assuming the Us?” she ventured.

 

“Always,” he vowed.

 

“Then, on a rational level, I’m not just okay with it, I think it’s great,” she said slowly.  “On a purely visceral level, there’s some conflict.  The primitive part of me wants to mark you as my territory, even though I know you were Josef’s territory first.  And even though...” she couldn’t quite bring herself to say it.

 

“You’d like to claim additional territory?” Mick guessed, understanding visceral conflict all too well.

 

“Yyyeah.” Beth brought her palms to her flaming face, even as her eyes sparkled wickedly.  “Primitive Me also found the whole thing very hot.”

 

“Uh-huh.  That’s how I knew you were awake,” Mick teased.

 

“Well, crap.  Did Josef know, too?”

 

“He was drunk and distracted, and he’s not as intimately familiar with the sounds and scents of you as I am,” he purred.  

 

Yet.  

 

“Did you really say I was a handful?”

 

Mick grabbed Beth and hauled her into his lap, filling his hands with her in many creative ways while she laughed and kissed him.

 

 

Chapter Text

The view from the chalet was stunningly, achingly beautiful.  Mick and Beth stood near the edge of Lake Lucerne, admiring the crystal clarity with which Mount Pilatus was reflected from its towering position on the far shore.  Beth had never seen water like this, so perfectly still, shimmering yet opaque, its colors like polished opal.

 

Wind whipped past them, carrying the scent of snow, and she shivered inside her cream-colored cashmere coat, pulling a rich brown merino scarf up to cover her chin.

 

“I bet you love this weather,” she teased.

 

Mick put his arms around her and watched a flock of wood ducks pass overhead.

 

“It’s perfect,” he replied, tucking her head under his chin, enjoying the crisp coolness of her hair along his jaw.  “This whole moment is perfect.  I hope I remember it, always.”

 

Beth thought about what “always” meant to a vampire.  Her eyes burned, and she blinked to clear them so that she could focus on her surroundings, creating an indelible image that she, too, could keep with her always.

 

******************************************

 

Josef looked up when the lovers came in, and their beatific expressions made him smile.

 

“Have a good walk, kids?”

 

“I have never seen such unspoiled scenery before,” Beth replied.  “It’s amazing.”

 

“Yeah, this is a good place,” Josef acknowledged.  “A little too quiet sometimes, but good for when you need to get away from it all, and it’s damn secure.  We should be able to sleep with both eyes shut during our stay here.”

 

The chalet was a typical Swiss design, with a steeply pitched roof and paneled wood exterior.  Inside, vaulted ceilings featured heavy exposed beams, and a massive stone fireplace dominated the north wall.  Sturdy, comfortable sofas and rocking chairs ringed the conversation pit, and the spacious upstairs loft featured freezers and beds of varying sizes.  Beth privately wondered if she was supposed to be Goldilocks.

 

“How long do we stay here?” she asked.

 

“As long as it takes to end this,” Josef replied with determination.

 

“They hired amateurs to hit Beth and me,” Mick observed, “but your hit was a quasi-professional job.  Completely indiscreet, but that kind of firepower isn’t something your average hard-luck case can mix up in his garage.  Coraline doesn’t have the resources to hire someone like that on her own -- at least, she hasn’t in the past.”

 

“No,” Josef concurred, “Cora’s never been the type to save up for a rainy day. And I got a report from Vincent this morning on the status of the investigation.  Guess what was found in my parking space?”  He tapped a few icons on his iPhone and pushed it across the desk.

 

Beth blanched as Mick squinted at the image.  

 

“Silver stake,” Josef confirmed.  “Plain old sterling, not the latest model with the C-4.  Still, Christophe is definitely waving hello, albeit remotely.  My Parisian sources confirm that he was seen at Les Bains the night we left town.”

 

“So they all know that the original hit failed,” Beth said dispiritedly.

 

“If not at first, then certainly now,” Josef agreed.  “As Mick pointed out, these attacks have been increasingly indiscreet.  And that’s going to be our leverage.”

 

Beth perked up a little.  “You have a plan?”

 

“Right now, it’s just an angle,” he grinned, “but with leverage and the right angle, we can rock an immovable object, and I don’t know a better description of Lance Benoit.”

 

Heartened by Josef’s optimism and relieved at the prospect of becoming pro-active, the trio grabbed some snacks and sat down together to brainstorm.  Certain truths eventually became self-evident:

 

Killing the remaining Enfants was not a viable option, even if the idea was attractive in its simplicity.  For one thing, they were too powerful, and attempts were likely to be unsuccessful, even for a vampire of Josef’s resources.   For another, Josef rather admired and respected Lance -- he found the idea of ending him anathematic.  “We own a lot of the same stock, what can I say?” he shrugged.  “Although I would happily rip that fucker Christophe to shreds.”

 

Luc was an unknown factor, which made it difficult to drum up any effective animosity.

 

Mick quietly shrank from the thought of killing Coraline.

 

Beth felt no such qualms.

 

Nevertheless, she declared earnestly that responding to the attacks in an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ manner would make them no better than the enemy.  Josef pronounced her adorable.

 

They changed their focus and examined what motivated Les Enfants de Valois.  For centuries, its members had enjoyed incredible wealth, power, and influence in the arenas of politics, business, fashion, and the arts.  The maintenance of this privilege depended upon the same discretion that bound all vampires, to wit: Do Not Draw Widespread Attention to Yourself, Lest Your Longevity Become Obvious.  

 

“The attempts to eliminate those suspected of knowing the compound’s formula were ostensibly to protect Les Enfants’ secrets. However, it would seem that Coraline and Christophe have completely lost sight of that,” Josef said.  “I’m willing to bet that Big Brother Lance hasn’t, though.  Their antics are currently exposing all of them far more than our knowledge does.  We need to impress that upon them.”

 

“Could we sic the media on them?” Beth asked.  “Threaten to expose what they are if they don’t back off?”

 

“No, no, honey, that’s treason,” Mick hastened to remind her, eyes widening slightly in panic as he remembered the Monaghans.  “We’d all be dead if we did that.  The vampire community has a zero-tolerance exposure policy, world-wide.  That’s what’s so baffling,” he continued, almost to himself.  “Why would Coraline be so reckless?”

 

Outraged, Beth opened her mouth to make a rather pointed character observation, but Josef tapped her knee and shook his head slightly.  “He’s been tripping over that blind spot since before he was turned,” he murmured to her.  “I’ve given up trying to make him see it.  We just try to steer around it now.”

 

Beth clamped her lips together.

 

“You’re on the right track, though, with blackmail,” he spoke up.  “We just need to be more subtle about it.  I’m thinking that centuries-old vampires with entitlement issues and poor impulse control probably have all manner of skeletons in the closet -- perhaps literally.  Some vampires do tend to get cocky once they’ve gotten away with murder a few times.”

 

“No!” Beth affected astonishment.

 

“Alas, it is a common failing,” Josef lamented, “yet conveniently predictable.  My guess is, we’ll be able to nail Charlie’s Devils not for what they are, but for who they are.”

 

Mick caught on.  “They’ve probably laid out all the rope they need to hang themselves,” he mused.  “We’re going to look for ordinary human crimes and scandals, which could bring enough investigation their way to force them underground in order to escape exposure as vampires.  That way we’re not committing treason, but we threaten their standard of living.”

 

Josef beamed at him.  “My perceptive boy is growing up,” he said fondly.  “Starting over is a bitch.  I’ve had to do it twice, and the faster information technology advances, the harder it gets.  No vamp is going to want to abandon his holdings in this economy.”

 

“So, we take this rope,” Beth extended the analogy, “gather it up and make nooses, and present them to Les Enfants as fashionable neck wear if they don’t leave us the hell alone?”

 

Now we have a plan,” Josef declared with satisfaction.  “Let’s divide and conquer.  Mick, you dig up dirt on Christophe so that I don’t have to dwell on the little bastard.  Beth, you take Luc.  I’ve given Coraline so much business advice over the years that I know more or less where her bones are buried, so that leaves me time to study Lance.  He’ll be the hardest nut to crack.”

 

And so the hunt began.  Josef thought nostalgically of the days of torches and pitchforks, but Mick was just glad that mildewed carbon paper archives had been replaced with online search engines.

 

********************************************

 

The next eight days were morbidly fascinating as the trio delved into the lives of their adversaries.  They found a compromise on the demands of their various circadian rhythms, settling into a post-meridian to wee-hours schedule.  Beth would start every afternoon by compiling the previous days’ notes, while her boys eventually greeted the sunset sipping caffeine and blood.  Then they would continue working until nearly dawn, hours after she’d thrown in the towel.

 

She tried waiting up for Mick several times, but it was like the vampires were deliberately avoiding the issue of bedtime.  Every day, she’d wake to find them in separate freezers, while every night, she’d try out a different bed.  Alone.

 

She bet Goldilocks never had this problem.  

 

Still, she supposed it was better to resolve their Valoisian issues first, before confronting the bears.

 

Stupid bears.

 

*********************************************

 

Two weeks after the L.A. contingent relocated to Switzerland, Lance Benoit sat at the heavy walnut desk in his quiet home office in Bourges, staring at the letter before him.  It was postmarked from Monte Carlo, but he knew better than to think it had been written there.

 

Greetings and Salutations to Monsieur Benoit:

 

Hello, Lance.

 

Having reached an accord with you many years ago, I make bold to approach you once more, as our mutual history has proven you to be the most rational and just of your associates.  Objectively (forgive me if my boldness offends), this is not an honor of much distinction, based on recent events.  However, I have had other influences from the earliest days of my career that lead me to believe that your perception and wisdom are our best hope of détente.

 

On behalf of myself, Michael St. John, and Elizabeth Turner, I do require that all attacks, harassment, or even defamation of our persons, properties, or holdings from the quarters of yourself, Christophe Duchêne, Coraline Duvall, and/or Luc Fournier cease immediately and permanently.  Upon this cessation, no retaliatory action for prior grievances shall be taken on our behalf.  We wish only to live peaceful lives of prosperous discretion.

 

Discretion is very prosperous, is it not?  Especially in our line of work.  A powerful executive such as yourself must enforce and preserve it at all costs to safeguard personal interests, and I respect that.  My associates also respect that.  Do yours?

 

Trust is necessary to form an agreement, and, in the spirit of good faith, I lay before you the truth of our information and intentions:

 

  • We do know the history of the Mortal Cure Compound and what it does.

  • We do not know how it is formulated, nor do we wish to.

  • We are willing, nay desirous, to have this communication be our final discussion of the topic, ad infinitum.

 

Although our deaths would be a greater guarantee of our discretion than a promise offered in good faith, we find the terms of such assurance to be unacceptable.  Insofar as you may be unaccustomed to operating without terminal modes of security, allow me to offer additional incentive.

 

Enclosed with this missive are documents that definitively trace sixteen separate works of art looted from multiple sites during the Napoleonic and World Wars to the private collection of Mr. Duchêne.  A dozen more items are suspect, the preliminary investigations of which are also documented within.  Ms. Duvall possesses jewelry and literature of similarly tainted provenance, see Appendix B.

 

Mr. Duchêne possesses an impressive number of lucrative patents.  Enclosed are collations of the dates certain patents were filed with the dates of his association with university graduate programs in the fields of electrical engineering, photographic technology, and medical forensics.  Three promising former students in those programs have been listed as missing persons, with open police investigations ranging back thirty years.

 

It is refreshing to see that Mr. Fournier seems a wholesome individual, although his apparent devotion to Ms. Duvall has effected some erratic and questionable spending habits.  We are enchanted to note (from the enclosed travel itineraries and guest lists of prominent soirées) that he enjoys a flourishing friendship with John Christopher Depp II, an actor of some renown.  As the French paparazzi are reputed to be even more obnoxiously aggressive than their American counterparts, we find Mr. Fournier’s knack for avoiding the limelight most admirable.  We hope this happy trend continues, as Mr. St. John can attest from personal experience to the particular stress that media scrutiny can place on those in our situation.

 

The name of the game is discretion, Lance, and its rules demand respect.  I now come to the crux of this message.

 

Eight copies of this letter and the enclosed documents have been placed in highly secured locations in six different countries.  In each case, my instructions are for them to remain undisturbed in perpetuity for as long as I, Mick St. John, and Beth Turner do peacefully live, or, in the case of Ms. Turner, die at an advanced age of natural causes.  If this simple condition is not met, the copies will be released to relevant authorities, victims’ advocates, and journalists of varied repute.

 

It is my most earnest hope that such ugliness and inconvenience need never be visited upon you and your associates.  I await your answer in the classified personal ads of this Sunday’s New York Times.

 

Yours Respectfully,

Josef Konstantin

 

Lance had read the letter three times already, the first time with shock, the second with rage, and the third, with careful deliberation.  He considered its merits, analyzed its weaknesses, and took the opportunity, for the first time in centuries, to weigh options that he’d long dismissed as unacceptable.

 

Young Kostan had surprised him.

 

He pressed a button on his intercom, and his live-in secretary appeared moments later.

 

“Eleanor, arrange a meeting of my brethren,” he instructed her, “twelve hours from now at our facility in Aix-en-Provence.  I will brook no protest or delay.  Tell them that the consequences of disobedience will be dire.  We must prepare for a reckoning.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Eleanor Prideaux had been Lance’s personal secretary for the last 150 years.  She was a petite powerhouse with smooth, dusky skin and a sleek cap of shining black hair.  Razor sharp in fangs and wits, she nevertheless seldom drew attention to herself.  Lance’s siblings gave her little thought on most occasions, but she made them wary on a nearly subconscious level.

 

She was so unerringly loyal to her employer.  If she had ideas, desires, or ambitions of her own, she kept them well hidden.  Les Autres Enfants found it difficult to relax around such incorruptibility.

 

Right now, she was knocking on the door of a privately-owned Swiss chalet.  The moon had just begun to rise.

 

Muffled sounds of confusion came from within.  After some delay, the door opened.  An old and powerful vampire with the face of a boy greeted her with a charming smile, while a bébé masquerading as a steely-eyed tough loomed behind him.  They all regarded each other for silent seconds, strange vampires taking each others’ measure.  Then Eleanor nodded and held a folded newspaper out to Josef.

 

“Good evening, Mr. Kostan.  I have brought you a copy of the New York Times.”

 

“Ah, the evening edition,” Josef replied.  “I did find today’s earlier printing rather lacking.”  So much for the secrecy of their hideaway.

 

He opened the paper to the classifieds and looked through the personal ads.  Here it was.

 

JK, your research was compelling, but I am not yet resolved.

Let us discuss the matter face to face, in the city of my choice, but the venue of yours.

Your associates may attend.

 

Well, well.  This was... vague.  Josef scrutinized it carefully.  It could easily be a trap, but the fact that Lance wasn’t dictating the location seemed to indicate some concession to parity.

 

“You will report back with our choice of meeting place?” he asked the gamine before him.

 

“I will drive you there,” she corrected, and then Josef noticed the roomy sedan parked beneath a chestnut tree.  “Monsieur Benoit and his brethren will travel separately, and he is willing to rendez-vous anywhere in Dijon, between his residence and yours.”

 

“Meeting halfway, how symbolic,” Josef observed.  “I have to say, I’m not inclined to give a whole lot of ground.”

 

Eleanor gazed at him tranquilly.

 

Josef sighed.  “I own a retail warehouse in Boulevard de la Marne,” he said.  “I’ll call ahead and let security know to expect us; I’ll see if they can arrange for a conference table and a bottle of decent Sangria.”

 

***********************

 

The journey should have taken nearly four hours.  They arrived in two.  Eleanor was a terrifyingly efficient driver.

 

Les Enfants arrived 20 minutes later in a glossy black Bentley.  Lance gave a quiet order to his siblings as they emerged, and Coraline tossed her head and lit a cigarette.  She was wearing a flowing linen pantsuit of palest rose, her hair styled back into a smooth chignon.  Christophe was going for the beatnik cowboy look tonight -- a faded trench coat hung open to reveal his tight black turtleneck, skinny jeans, and the silver-tipped black boots.  Dark sunglasses were pushed up on his head, holding back his long gold-and-blue mane, and he was trying to grow a goatee.  Luc was unremarkable, save for his huge, soulful dark eyes.  Brown hair swept neatly back from his face and brushed the collar of his cabled olive-green sweater.  He leaned down, speaking quietly in Coraline’s ear, and she shook her head with a dismissive wave of her hand.  

 

Lance sported a casual blazer over his ochre silk shirt and dark trousers.  He strode smoothly across the dirt lot to Josef, stopped just inside his personal space, and inclined his head.  His living eye was nearly as dark and impenetrable as the dead one, and it pinned Josef’s gaze mercilessly.  Josef held his ground and the eye contact, his expression an unconscious imitation of Eleanor’s earlier tranquility.  Lance evaluated his stance, sampled his demeanor, explored the line that the other vampire straddled between temerity and authority.

 

Quelle vrai dommage, he thought, que mes frères n’ont pas telle possession de soi.

 

“You have struck boldly,” he murmured, “and one hundred, non, fifty years ago I would have killed you outright for such audacity.  Tonight, though, I shall instead indulge myself by indulging you.  Come, Mr. Konstantin, and present your case.”  He stepped aside to let Josef lead both factions to the door.  As Mick and Beth fell in behind him, a savage growl rattled from Coraline’s perfectly painted lips, and Christophe laughed nastily.

 

“Ah, yes,” Lance recalled with the barest sigh.  “It would be best if your human companion remains outside during our tête à tête.  Her presence has an inflammatory effect upon my dear sister, and it is my sincere wish to keep these proceedings civilized if at all possible.”

 

Beth looked thoroughly nonplussed, and Mick growled.  Josef’s hand shot out to grip his arm, and his eyes iced blue for the merest fraction of a second.  “Rein it in, and I mean tight,” he rapped in a clipped undertone.  Mick looked to his sire and held his gaze for a tense moment, then deliberately relaxed, laying a protective but calm hand on Beth’s shoulder.

 

Josef turned back to Lance.  “Do I have your assurance of her safety, if she remains here with your assistant?”

 

“She will be absolutely safe; I trust Eleanor with my own life,” Lance replied.  He had not missed the exchange between the other two, and he added that piece of information to the data he’d been mentally compiling since his third reading of The Letter.

 

Mick looked coldly at Eleanor, silently demanding that she speak her own promise.  The sloe-eyed beauty gave a Gallic shrug.  “I fed well earlier today.  We can have, how you say, ‘girl talk.’”  Mick blinked, and Beth huffed in quiet amusement.

 

“It’ll be fine,” she assured him.  “I’d actually feel safer out here, really.  She seems quite... stable, compared to the others.  Just come back as soon as you can.” She kissed both vampires on the cheek and walked back to lean against the sedan.

 

While Mick divided his troubled regard between Beth and Coraline, Josef eyed the other vampires with careful attention to the details of fashion -- it was all in the lines.  “Monsieur Benoit,” he ventured, “in the spirit of good faith, may I respectfully suggest that we all disarm ourselves before we enter negotiations?” Christophe hissed, and Lance almost -- almost -- looked amused.

 

“That seems reasonable,” he allowed.  “Eleanor, please collect everyone’s weapons.  Be thorough.”

 

She retrieved a canvas bag from the car, then relieved Josef and Mick of their pistols, which were loaded with silver ammunition.  She patted them down briskly, removing a wooden stake from Mick’s inside jacket pocket, and placed everything in the bag.  Then she went over to the other vampires.

 

By the time she was finished, the bag was bulging with explosive silver stakes, an ornate silver dagger, a butane torch, and Coraline’s platinum cigarette lighter.  “Don’t forget the remote,” Josef called.  Christophe snarled and struck out at Eleanor as she reached to pat him down again, and she caught his clawed hand in her own two small ones.  She did nothing more, just held him as he spewed invective.

 

Christophe!  À l’aise,” Lance commanded.  Disgusted, the other vampire jerked his hand upward with a flourish, then nodded to his right foot.  Eleanor discovered the remote secreted in the lining of his boot, and she inspected his footwear carefully before making another, very thorough manual pass over his person.  Christophe leered suggestively.  She ignored him.

 

With a bow to Lance, she took the bag back to the sedan and plunked it on the floor of the back seat.  She straightened and looked at Beth.

 

“Do you like Debussy?” she asked.

 

Beth blinked.  “I do when I’m feeling contemplative,” she replied.  “Generally, I prefer the whimsical passion of Saint-Saens, but Debussy definitely has his place.”

 

Eleanor nodded thoughtfully and gestured for Beth to join her in the sedan.  She picked up a CD case and began paging through it.

 

“Well,” observed Josef, as Lance and Mick both looked on, stunned, “how auspicious.  May we all get along so well this night.” Lance looked at him, and the almost-smile almost resurfaced.

 

But not quite.

 

***************************************************

 

The warehouse office was cramped with file cabinets and a rickety computer desk, but when Josef explored the back hallway, it opened into a large storage area that had indeed been furnished with a conference table and two bottles of Madria.  He poured out, and everyone sat carefully down, four vamps on one side, two on the other.

 

After a brief staring contest, Lance began.  “Alors,” he invited, “perhaps you can explain to me, now, why our noble family should allow the dangerous precedent of acceding to blackmail, rather than simply killing you as principle demands?”

 

Mick tensed, but Josef lounged in his ugly padded chair and sipped his wine.  “Vampires do not thrive over centuries, as we have, by clinging to principles that have ceased to serve them,” he replied.  “You could kill us, true, and your reputation for zero tolerance would be unblemished.  Unfortunately, your reputation for appropriate discretion would be in shreds.  Which is more important, in this day and age?”

 

When Lance did not reply, Christophe narrowed his eyes “Insolent-”

 

Ferme-la!” cried Luc, cutting off his brother’s hiss.  “We would not be so vulnerable if you were not ruled by your reckless lusts.  Always, when things are going well, you must agitate nos soeurs to the point of madness for your own entertainment, and now, chère Cécile est morte-” Luc choked off a sob.

 

Josef and Mick exchanged a look.  Dissension in the ranks, this was a hopeful sign.

 

Tranquille, Luc,” Lance murmured, squeezing the back of the young vampire’s neck as a cat might scruff her kitten, to comfort as well as control.  He quelled Christophe with a look, then returned his gaze to Josef.  “So,” he continued dryly, “your motives are so very pure, then, that you wish only to live in peace, and you would never, ever think to pry additional favors from us with the leverage of our sins?  How noble.”

 

Josef’s smile was not quite self-deprecating, but it was at least respectful.  “I hold no pretensions to nobility,” he replied, tacitly acknowledging his origins, “but I do pride myself on pragmatism.  I’m not suicidal, Lance.  I am well pleased with my lot in life, and my resources have long been established to support any increase I may desire -- even allowing for the occasionally demolished penthouse.  I covet nothing from the holdings of Valois.”

 

Lance regarded him narrowly.  “A self-made man, eh? So fashionable in the New World.”  He slid his focus over to Mick, pensive in his scrutiny.  “And what of the youth?” he asked softly, “Do we not possess something he desires above all else?”

 

Coraline looked beseechingly at Mick, her dark eyes liquid, her pout persuasive.  Mick clenched his jaw and looked down at the table.  “Oh, Lance!” her voice throbbed with gratitude.  “Mick, darling, at last we have his blessing to be together again!  No more hiding, no more secrets-”

 

No more setting each other on fire?  Mick wondered grimly.

 

“I do not refer to you, sister,” Lance retorted flatly.  “I refer to his ongoing desire for mortality, the result of your ill-conceived turning, which you have only inflamed by giving him a taste of the compound’s effects.  You shared our most precious, secret commodity with your damaged whelp, and now he will lust for it for as long as he is allowed to live!  It is only merciful to terminate his wretched existence now.  This is a failed experiment that has gone on for far too long.”

 

Coraline sobbed.  Josef’s eyes flared blue as he tensed for battle.

 

“Wait.”

 

Mick’s head was still bowed, and he deliberately relaxed his clenched hands on the table, but he raised his eyes to Lance.  “I wish to speak.”

 

Josef did not relax, but he kept his lips clamped firmly over protruding fangs.  Christophe showed no such courtesy, grinning nastily around sharp cuspids at the others’ dismay.  Josef ignored him, nodding once at Lance in silent entreaty.

 

“Speak, then.”

 

Mick raised his head and regarded Lance steadily.

 

“I admit that it took me decades to accept the loss of my humanity,” he began.  “Honestly, I’ve only recently come to appreciate all the advantages of immortality.  And it is true that I was deeply interested in The Mortal Cure when Coraline explained it to me.  For a brief time, I thought it was the answer to all my problems.”

 

Les Enfants’ expressions ranged from bored to bewildered to disgusted, and Josef was ready to clap a hand over Mick’s mouth and haul ass out of there, but Mick continued.

 

“I discovered, though, that the price of mortality was far too high.  In my weakened human state, I was unable to protect the woman I love, and to whom I am bound by sanguinis debitum.  When she was threatened, I realized what an idiot I’d been to trade a vampire’s strength and speed for the chance to enjoy sunshine again.  I begged Josef to re-sire me.  When I was re-born as an immortal, it was under my own terms, of my own desire and free will.”  

 

Coraline blanched visibly at this revelation.  Anguish and rage roiled in her face as she turned to stare in disbelief at Josef.  “No,” she rasped, “you wouldn’t.  He’s mine!  I gave him to you to care for, not to keep!  You were supposed to give him back!”

 

Mick gritted his teeth and soldiered on, his eyes still firmly fixed on Lance.  “Since that night, I have felt none of the inner conflict that tortured me for over fifty years.  I am a vampire.  I have no desire for mortality.”  Here, he turned his eyes upon his erstwhile wife, with whom he had shared such passion, pain, and madness.  His voice thickened, but he forced the words out:

 

“And I have no desire for Coraline.”

 

“NO!!!”  Coraline exploded like a steam boiler, surging to her feet and upsetting the chair behind her.  The rest of the vampires stood as well -- just in case.  “You soft-headed, tender-hearted fool!” she cried.  “How dare you bind yourself to that little bitch?  You would forsake our marriage vows, for her?  You would supplant our blood bond, for her sake?!”

 

“Coraline...”

 

“I’LL KILL HER!” she raged.  “My brothers, restrain him!  Once she is dead, you will be free of this vile hold she has on you.  You’ll remember our love!”

 

Mick vamped out and dropped into a fighting stance as Christophe advanced gleefully toward him.  Luc turned his pained expression to Lance, awaiting instruction.

 

Josef let loose a snarl that had been building since 1956.

 

“Cora, get a grip and dial back the drama, for once in your goddamn life!  No one is killing anyone.”

 

Lance raised an eyebrow at this assertion, but all he said was “Christophe, attendez.”  

 

She rounded on Josef, eyes dancing with malice.  “You Judas,” she cried, voice quivering, “you false friend, you poacher, you thief of children!”

 

“Really?” he demanded sarcastically, “you’re going to go there?

 

“What do you care about that human whore?” she raved.  Then her eyes narrowed, and she smirked.  “Ah, so you are a poacher, aren’t you?  I know you’ve always favored blondes, Joey, but I thought you had more class than to partake of Mick’s sloppy seconds.  Although, I suppose there may be some precedent,” she mused thoughtfully.

 

Josef’s eyes frosted over.  “You tell yourself whatever you need to, Princess,” he said softly, “but it’s in the best interest of you and your family to know that I, too, am bound by sanguinis debitum to protect Beth Turner.  And I will not be easily restrained.”

 

Coraline’s eyes popped, and her porcelain skin grew mottled with shock and outrage.  “Are you MAD?” she shrieked.  “You would degrade yourself in such a way?!  Mick is a young chevalier, easily led astray by his romanticism, but you!  You should know better! Est-ce qu'il y a d'or entre les jambes de cette salope?”  She picked up a full bottle of wine and flung it at Josef, who leaned aside and let it smash against the wall behind him.

 

“Enough!” barked Lance.  “The only person who needs restraint at this moment is you, Coraline.  Maître-vous immédiatement.  We clearly have more to discuss.”

 

“You heartless bastard!” she cried, her face crumpling as she turned to Lance.  “Don’t you care?  Have you ever cared about me?  About anyone?” her sobs grew more and more hysterical.

 

“Shall I slap her?” Christophe volunteered.

 

Lance sighed.  “Luc, take her out to the office,” he ordered.  “See if you can calm her.  Take the rest of the wine -- use this, if you need to.”  He withdrew a small glass medicine bottle from his inside jacket pocket.

 

Luc responded with alacrity, nearly carrying Coraline from the room with soothing murmurs and a soft handkerchief in hand.  Lance watched them go, then returned his mismatched gaze to Josef.  “Let us all resume our seats,” he said.  “It is important that we discuss... the obligations of family.”

 

Chapter Text

Out in the office, Luc embraced Coraline as she wept and raged against the soft wool of his sweater.  He gently cradled her head against his shoulder, rocking and swaying them both to the rhythm of a lullaby that he crooned in her ear.  Poor Coraline, her passion and her sensitivity made her as high-strung as she was brilliant.  Christophe exploited those traits for his own amusement, and Lance had lacked the patience these last few decades to handle her delicately when she was stressed.  They just didn’t understand.

 

He absently started in on the third verse, waiting for her to cry herself out, pondering ways to keep her distracted until this godforsaken confrontation was over.  Truly, if blood were to be shed, he’d just as soon be well out of it.  Le Bon Dieu, but Christophe could be such an ass!

 

“Luc?” Coraline sniffled.

 

“Yes, dearest?” he pulled back and looked into her tear-streaked face.

 

“What did Lance give you, in that bottle?”

 

“It is tincture of opium, chèrie.  Do you think a drop or two would help you feel better?”

 

“Oh, yes, darling.  Here, don’t trouble yourself.  I- I can get it.” She drew a shuddering breath and picked up one of the half-full wine glasses, then extended a beautifully manicured hand to receive the bottle from Luc.  She carefully added two drops to her glass, then she jerked as if startled, her eyes wide.

 

“Did you hear something outside?” she whispered fearfully.

 

Luc frowned and turned to the window, pushing his hair off of his face as he peered through the Venetian blinds.  He could see the Bentley gleaming darkly in the moonlight, and he heard the faint strains of Clair de Lune emitting from the sedan’s high-fidelity speakers, but he detected nothing else.

 

“There is nothing, ma petite,” he assured her.  “Your nerves are deceiving you.  Drink now, I beg of you”

 

Coraline smiled tenderly at her baby brother and handed him a glass.  “Sweet Luc,” she murmured, “what would I do without you?  Let us drink to the healing of hearts.” They clinked their glasses in toast and drank deeply.  Coraline set down her glass, then reached up and pulled Luc toward her so that she could press her cheek to his.  She held him up as his body went slack, then lowered him carefully into the creaky old office chair.  After making him as comfortable as she could, she picked up the now-empty medicine bottle, examined the label, then nodded in satisfaction and hurled it into the wastebasket.

 

“Now,” she mused, her eyes growing pale and her fangs extending, “I know what would truly ease my heart!”  

 

*************

 

Beth had the windows down and the stereo cranked.  She loved the wild, jittery energy that the passionate frenzy of Danse Macabre always stirred in her, and Eleanor privately found her enthusiasm rather fetching.  They’d had a lively debate on whether the low, bouncing counter-melody comprised all cellos or was blended with larger reed instruments, and, on this second hearing, Beth caught the fuzzy warmth of a bass clarinet that had eluded her before.  

 

She turned her head to concede the point to her new friend, just as a fist-sized chunk of broken concrete smashed through the windshield.  It flayed her cheek to the bone, but it didn’t cave in her skull as the thrower had intended.  Growling, Coraline snatched a fallen tree branch from the ground and broke it over her knee.

 

As Eleanor recovered from the shock of seeing red spray erupt from her vivacious companion’s face, Lance’s sister came striding toward the sedan, her fury radiating in a nearly visible aura.  Eleanor scrambled to open the glove compartment, retrieving a pistol loaded with hardwood bullets.

 

“Madame Duvall, arrêtez!” she demanded.  “This attack has not been sanctioned!  Where is Monsieur Benoit?”  She raised the pistol’s sights to Coraline’s heart, threatening to paralyze the rampaging vampire with a ballistic stake if she did not cease her approach.

 

Beth groaned and shook off her daze as the stunning effect of the blow receded, and Eleanor glanced over at her.  That split second’s distraction was all that Coraline needed.  She launched herself onto the hood of the car and plunged the broken tree branch into the smaller vampire’s chest with enough force to pin her to the seat.  “Do not cross me, you little sycophant,” she hissed, “or you’ll get a taste of what this slut has coming!”  She turned feral eyes onto the terrified blonde.  

 

“My dear little Beth, you’ve been such a very naughty girl,” she purred.  “I’m afraid your punishment will be quite severe.  Don’t be too frightened, darling.  I’ll let you die -- eventually.”

 

The 4-year-old in Beth’s psyche cringed in terror.

 

The woman she had grown into, however, pulled the butane torch from the canvas bag behind her seat and yanked the lever, sweeping propelled flame up and down Coraline’s torso.

 

The vampire shrieked as her clothes and hair ignited, and she knocked the torch aside with enough force to numb Beth’s arm to the elbow.  It landed in the dirt several yards away, and while Coraline stopped to drop and roll, Beth scrabbled desperately in the bag with clumsy fingers.

 

“You pathetic child.”

 

The voice of the beast from Beth’s nightmares came from outside the car door, guttural with smoke and malevolence, and her bladder cramped in a primal response to the sound of it.  “You think you can take Mick from me?  I am the love of his life!”  

 

With a wildcat’s scream, Coraline rose into view again and lunged through the window with the clear intent to rip Beth’s throat out.  Beth threw her forearm up just as the fingers of her other hand closed on the silver dagger’s handle.  The thick material of her coat prevented Coraline’s bite from tearing the flesh from her arm, but she heard bone crack even through the sound of her own screams.  Desperately, she swung the dagger in a tight arc across Coraline’s throat, and the vampire bashed her head against the car’s roof as she reared and stumbled back, clutching at her swan-like neck in shock as blood dripped through her fingers.

 

She drew her hands away and stared at them in disbelief, then looked back to Beth, whose teeth were bared in a grimace as savage as any vampire’s.  

 

“You may be Mick’s all-consuming obsession,” Beth snarled, her voice shaking as she opened the car door, “but do you know what you are to me?”

 

She rose to her feet.

 

“You’re the monster in the closet.”

 

She flung the dagger.  Starlight reflected in the spinning blade until it buried itself in Coraline’s flesh.

 

“And I am DONE with childhood monsters.”  

 

Coraline fell back a step, gasping and clutching at the dagger.  With a hair-raising screech, she pulled it from her belly, and as she held it up to examine her own ruby-bright blood, a breeze kicked up, fanning the glowing embers that still clung to her and re-igniting the flammable linen.  

 

“Oh, Beth,” she whispered dreamily, “you just handed me the instrument of your own destruction.  I’ll slice you to ribbons, oh, so slowly...”

 

Long seconds passed as Coraline turned the dagger this way and that, admiring the play of light and shadow along the blade.  The stink of her own burning flesh brought her out of her trance, and she looked up to see the human trollop pointing yet another pistol at her, this one loaded with silver.  

 

Would they never learn?

 

“Beth,” she mocked gently, “do you really think you’re going to shoot me?”  The breeze fluttered through her sizzling hair and dispersed the thick, ugly smoke that rose to obscure the night sky.

 

“Coraline,” Beth mimicked her, “my arm hurts like a flaming bitch right now, so I’d rather not have to.  But you’re dead.  One way or another.”

 

Coraline looked faintly surprised at the flames that now enveloped her, and she finally began to scream.  Beth watched her blacken and burn and, at long last, crumple to a smoking heap of ash.

 

“Ding, dong, the witch is dead,” she sang softly, then she fell to her knees and retched.

 

************************************************

 

After some time, Beth raised her weary head from the soft dirt that pillowed it.  She blinked, forcing her numbed brain back into action, hearkening to the nagging thought that someone needed her.

 

Eleanor.  Oh God, was Eleanor dead?  Beth instinctively knew that Lance would slaughter them all if she were.  She stumbled to her feet and wrenched open the driver’s-side door, yelping in pain as the action jarred her fractured arm.  Eleanor’s eyes were wide and pale, and blood oozed sluggishly from the ragged hole around the rough wood in her chest.  Beth figured that was actually a good sign.  She tried to remove the branch, but it was lodged too tightly in the car seat for her to pull one-handed, and her other hand was useless.  A faint groan came from Eleanor at Beth’s clumsy second attempt; it sounded like she was asking for Lance.

 

Yes.  That was clearly the next course of action -- just as soon as Beth worked up the nerve to approach the other vampires.  She sobbed once in quiet despair as she realized that she dreaded facing Mick more than she dreaded their enemies.  She had killed Coraline, and, despite everything, at that moment she was not at all sure he would ever forgive her.

 

Even if he doesn’t, Josef will.

 

The thought was unexpected, but its cool assurance was absolute and unyielding.  To her surprise, the insight gave her strength.  She took a deep breath, carefully squared her shoulders, and walked to the warehouse with her head held high.

 

**********************

 

Inside, Mick’s future was still uncertain.  Re-sired or not, he was still an unsanctioned loose end that had caused varying degrees of irritation and inconvenience over the years, and Lance was undecided as to whether or not his defection from Coraline was punishment enough to make an impression on his hard-headed sister.  He suspected that her tenacity on this matter would continue to outweigh her regard for Family Law.  It was galling, really, to observe that young Kostan had enjoyed greater success in teaching the St. John whelp manners than Lance himself had had with his more troublesome siblings, and in far less time.  Bien sûr, he comforted himself, he has only the one to manage.

 

He continued his cool interrogation, eyeing both vampires narrowly.  “Our family permitted the continued existence of Coraline’s bastard decades ago, and we have had cause to regret that, given recent violations of the control and distribution of the Mortal Cure.  If these violations were repeated, the damage to the reputation of Valois would be greater that any inconvenience you could cause with your little... research project.  Yet, you would have me believe that this pup’s obsession with mortality has been cured by... love?”  

 

Christophe sneered at the word, but Lance just looked faintly incredulous.

 

Josef regarded him thoughtfully.

 

“Have you never loved, Lance?”  His tone was mildly curious, but his eyes were knowing.  Lance tensed, something like alarm sparking across his stolid façade.  Josef pretended not to notice.

 

When it became clear to Lance that the other vampire would not elaborate on this dangerously loaded question, he settled, the alarm reforming into wary respect.

 

“I know who you are, Son of Rasa,” he answered finally, evading the question that was asked for the one that was not.  “If you had stooped to invoke her name in your appeal, I would have killed you on the spot.  That you did not -- this shows her wise influence better than any pretty speeches could.”

 

Josef inclined his head.  

 

Lance sighed.  “This still does not address the existence of St. John.”

 

Josef leaned forward and turned the full force of his engaging gaze onto his ancestral relative.  He dropped his voice to a persuasive murmur.  “You trusted me to handle him in the 50’s, and I did that -- admirably, if I do say so.  It was not he who instigated the recent fiasco, yet he has the discernment and character to acknowledge his own errors and repent.  Under my influence, you may continue to rely upon our discretion, n’est-ce pas?

 

Lance wavered.  Josef went in for the kill.  “Are you afraid I can’t control Mick?” he asked, “Or are you afraid that you can’t control Coraline while he’s alive?”

 

Silence hung heavily between them.  Christophe looked mutinous.  He had just opened his mouth to speak, when a new voice chimed in.

 

“That’s no longer an issue.”

 

All eyes turned to the bleeding, disheveled blonde in the doorway.

 

“Coraline is dead.”  

 

Beth slumped against the jamb even as the others sprang to their feet.  She cradled her injured arm and gritted her teeth against a whimper as Mick rushed forward to tend to her.

 

“What?!” Christophe’s screech could have rivaled any of Coraline’s.  “You lying bitch!  Where is Luc?  He would die before he let any harm befall Cora!”

 

“He’s asleep in the office,” Beth jerked her head to indicate.  “I couldn’t wake him up, but he’s breathing.”

 

Mick had removed his outer shirt and was tying the long sleeves over her shoulder to fashion a sling.  As he gently settled her arm into the supporting material, olfactory images of the women’s confrontation assaulted him, and he reeled backward, nearly stumbling in shock.

 

You killed her!”

 

Beth’s lips trembled, but her voice was quite firm.  “She was trying to kill me!

 

“I... I know, I...” Mick sank to one knee, gaping like a landed fish.

 

Christophe roared and bounded across the table, mane flying and fangs bared.  He landed in a crouch, intent upon his prey.  Josef moved sideways to intercept him mid-pounce and clotheslined the enraged vampire with a solid forearm to the collar.  Christophe landed hard on his back, and Josef picked him up and slammed him against the wall, holding him suspended by the throat so that his feet dangled.  The brash artiste thrashed and wheezed profanity, and Josef calmly looked to Lance for further instruction.

 

Lance raised a brow, considered the moment’s priorities, then nodded to Josef.  “Silence him.”

 

While Josef happily complied with a knockout punch to the jaw, Lance carefully watched Mick’s reactions to the information that his sensitive nose was flashing to his brain.  Lance, too, could scent most of what had transpired between the human girl and Coraline.  He had labored for five centuries to develop the level of pscholfactory awareness that this pup was displaying after a mere five decades.

 

It was disgusting.

 

He sighed.  I suppose it would be a pity to waste such talent.  And having the youth bound to the more stable temperaments of Josef and this guileless human female did, he supposed, reduce the risk acceptably.

 

“Josef.”

 

Josef looked up, surprised and gratified by the ancient vampire’s use of his given name.

 

Oui, I have loved.  For the love that I bore Rasa  -- and the discretion that she taught you -- you and your bound companions may live untroubled by the Children of Valois henceforth... if Mademoiselle Turner can answer one question to my satisfaction.”

 

Beth turned fearful eyes to Lance’s cold and asymmetrical stare.

 

“What of Eleanor?”

 

Beth gulped.  “I couldn’t remove the branch with which Coraline staked her,” she replied, “but she is otherwise unharmed.  She was asking for you.”

 

Lance’s living eye warmed noticeably in relief.  “I will release her and have her bear witness to your testimony of events,” he declared.  He strode out to the office and stopped short at the sight of Luc, sniffing at his youngest brother to determine what ailed him.  “Incroyable,” he grumbled.  He gestured imperiously to Mick.  “Convey him outside,” he ordered.  “Monsieur Kostan, bring Christophe.  We will wake them to hear Eleanor’s testimony and my final verdict.”

 

“Will your brethren abide by it?” Josef asked bluntly as he hoisted The Thorn in His Side up over his shoulder.

 

“They will,” Lance replied.  “Luc can be reasoned with, and Christophe...” he grimaced, then muttered almost to himself, “I daresay Eleanor will enjoy assisting me in the administration of remedial etiquette lessons.”  Aloud, he observed, “the House of Valois is sadly diminished... yet, in truth, so it was even before the deaths of our sisters.  It is ironic, but the relations of yourself and Monsieur St. John to our bloodline gives me some hope for its future.”

 

Josef grinned but wisely refrained from making witty remarks.  Mick was silent, wholly absorbed in keeping it together as a small, blackened corner of his heart flamed in agony.  Dead.  This time she’s really, truly dead.  His limbs trembled so that he nearly dropped Luc as they approached the sedan -- and Coraline’s ashes.

 

They all watched as Lance freed Eleanor with one swift jerk.  He held her tenderly as she writhed and recovered from the wound.

 

“Sir,” she gasped, “do not punish the human, je vous en prie.  She acted honorably in self defense.”

 

Ne t’inquiètes pas,” he murmured, “your loyalty to her is much to her credit.  We all must hear what you have witnessed this night.”

 

“Oh, Sir, she would make a wonderful vampire.”

 

Lance actually smiled.  “The symmetry appeals, but it must be her choice,” he reminded her.  Eleanor nodded in understanding.

 

“Now, what happened?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Beth popped another codeine tablet and prayed that it would kick in soon.

 

Their trip to the hospital had been delayed by the necessity of finding a vehicle with an intact windshield.  By the time she had gotten medical assistance, she was really hurting.

 

(“Qu'est-ce que passé ici?” the doctor had demanded as he examined the heavy bruising around the ulnar fracture.

 

“C’été une chienne enragée,” Josef had replied blithely, and Mick winced.)

 

Now her arm was splinted and her face stitched, and she was riding shotgun in a rented red Renault, drowsily waiting for the throbbing to ease.  Josef was hyped up on caffeine for the afternoon drive back to Lucerne, and his stream of chatter helped disguise the fact that Mick was painfully quiet behind them.

 

(“I’m sorry,” she had whispered desperately as they watched Luc howl over Coraline’s remains.

 

“No,” he had replied swiftly, “there’s no need.  But I can’t talk about it right now.  I- I just can’t...” and he had stalked off before she could catch hold of him.)

 

A tear spilled down her cheek, and a crisp cotton handkerchief materialized on her knee.  She looked up and saw Josef smiling encouragement at her, and he might have winked behind his mirrored aviator shades.  He never broke the rhythm of his narrative, though.  Apparently, the 1947 New Year’s Eve party at the chalet had been one for the books.

 

She smiled and carefully blotted her eyes, then she settled back to watch the pristine scenery pass, letting the cheerful cadence of his voice wash over her as he debated the merits of BMW versus Mercedes with no one in particular.

 

Josef was in a fine mood.  By God, they had won.

 

*************************************

 

It was evening by the time they arrived back at the chalet.  The waxing moon reflected brilliantly in the surface of the lake, and Mick felt a desperate longing to explore the mountain trails in solitude.

 

“I’m going for a walk,” he announced abruptly.  Beth looked concerned, but she was at a loss for how to reply.

 

“It’s okay,” he assured her.  He bent to kiss the uninjured cheek, and his smile was almost natural.  “I’ll be back in a few hours.  I just need some time alone with the trees.” She nodded and touched his hand, and he gave her fingers a brief squeeze.  He watched her head inside, then turned toward the lake path.

 

“You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?” Josef asked shrewdly as he walked past.

 

Mick stopped and rolled his eyes.  “I just want to clear my head, man.  I’m not going to jump off a cliff or anything.”

 

“What if you meet a bear?”

 

“I’ll give him your regards.  Come on, Josef, what’s scarier than we are?”

 

“Nothing.”  Josef’s smile was full of teeth.

 

“You’ll... keep an eye on Beth?”

 

The question was loaded; the answer was cryptic.

 

“Of course.  I’ll get her tucked in all snug.”

 

“Thanks.  I’ll be back before dawn.”  Mick turned toward the trail.

 

“You damn well better be.”

 

Mick looked back at Josef -- there was no trace of humor in his sire’s eyes at that moment.

 

“Do what you need to do to clear your head, then you follow your heart back here to her, okay?”

 

Mick nodded, smiling faintly.  “To both of you,” he promised.

 

*******************************************

 

Inside, Beth was coaxing a fire to life in the enormous fireplace.  She jabbed grimly at the smaller logs with the poker, encouraging them to blaze.

 

“Are you ignoring the symbolism or reveling in it?”  Josef’s voice behind her sounded genuinely curious.

 

A wry smile twisted her lips.  “I am Working Through My Issues,” she replied, sitting back on her heels as the wood caught and flared.

 

Josef chuckled.  “You and Mick both,” he mused.  “I’m glad I’m too old to have issues anymore.”

 

“Right,” she scoffed, though pain clouded her eyes.  “I’m, uh, trying to be all tough and sophisticated about the ‘killing Mick’s true love’ faux pas, but now that the adrenaline is gone, it’s really hard not to freak out.”

 

Josef pulled her gently to her feet and gathered her in, mindful of her bad arm.  “Cora was not his true love, and you know it,” he admonished her.  “They fascinated each other, and they wanted each other, and Mick thought it was love when he was younger and stupider, but he knows better now what real love is.  That train wreck they called a marriage was nowhere close.”

 

Beth sighed.

 

“You’re hurting,” he observed.  “Do you need another pill?”

 

“They make my head feel like it’s stuffed with fiberglass,” she complained.  “You know what I’d rather have?  Some tea with honey and a big slug of whiskey in it.  Do we have any of that?”

 

“Why certainly, my dear.  Whiskey sounds like just the thing for a cozy evening by the fire.  You go get comfortable; I’ll bring it to you.”

 

“You know how to make tea?”

 

“Of course I know how to make tea!”  There were directions printed on the box, he was almost sure.

 

She smiled and kissed him sweetly, flush on the lips.  “Find some Nat King Cole for the stereo, and my evening will be complete,” she murmured.

 

Josef watched the sway of her hips in rapt fascination as she headed for the couch, then he blinked and turned to the kitchen.  

 

I may yet have a few issues to work through, after all.

 

************************************************

 

Beth was asleep.

 

They’d snuggled on the couch, drinking their beverages and listening to the hiss and pop of the burning logs as Nat crooned, Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.  Josef had heard him perform live in Las Vegas in 1960, and the reminiscence led to tales of glitz and glamour and after-parties with the Rat Pack.  “Mick loved those,” he said.  “He’d even jam with the B-list sometimes.”  Beth smiled wistfully and laid her head on his shoulder.

 

During Mona Lisa, Josef realized that she hadn’t spoken in some time, and her breathing was deep and even.  He sipped from his tumbler, watching the dancing flames and enjoying the warm weight of her against him.  He took the time to indulge a pang of regret for Coraline.  She had been a mess, for sure, but they’d known each other for a long time, and that time had held nary a dull moment.  God, she had been fun -- beautiful and brilliant in her own way, creative as well as cruel.  It was a shame that she could never disengage from her own self-absorption long enough to connect with reality.  Goodbye, Cora, he thought, lifting his glass in silent toast toward the flames.

 

As he drank, he remembered her standing over him in the theater lobby as he writhed in his death throes, offering polished, perfunctory regret.  The liquor burned as he swallowed that image down, and his expression hardened.  Better you than me, kiddo, he thought grimly, and his stomach churned as he allowed himself to think of what might -- should -- have happened to Beth last night.  And sure as hell, better you than her.  Josef tightened his arm around his sleeping savior and leaned over to bury his nose in her hair.

 

“Valiant girl,” he whispered.

 

By the time the CD ended, he, too, was dozing.

 

**************************

 

“NO!!”

 

Josef was jolted awake by the strident yell, and he opened his eyes just in time to watch the back of Beth’s fist connect with his head.  Before he could complain of this ill treatment, his breath was driven from him by her knee in his stomach as she scrambled upright, arms raised to block whatever nightmare vision threatened behind her closed eyes.

 

“Beth!” he wheezed, “Honey, wake up.  If you want to work out your issues, the fireplace is thataway.  Just let me get clear before you pick up the poker, okay?"  He kept talking, afraid to touch her until she knew where she was again.

 

Finally, she lowered her arms and opened her eyes, blinking in bewilderment as reality re-asserted itself.   She watched Josef ruefully rub his head, and the understanding dawned that she had been battling the wrong vampire.

 

“I am so sorry.  Did I hurt you?” she asked, raising her hand tentatively to touch his face.

 

“As if you could,” he smirked.  “Ow!” he clapped a hand to the ear she had thwacked.  “I take it back -- you’re dangerous!”

 

“Damn straight.”  She stole his breath again, but this time, she traded it for her own.  Josef grunted in surprise as Beth straddled his thighs and pinned him to the back of the couch, sliding her hands hungrily along his arms and shoulders as she nipped and tasted his mouth.  “Kiss me,” she urged him.

 

He readily complied, feasting on the flavors of honey and whiskey and Beth, growing gloriously drunk on her throaty sighs and the sensations of her squirming in his lap.  “Very dangerous,” he muttered, kissing his way down her neck to her collarbone.  “You certainly keep a guy on his toes.  You’re sure you want to do this now?”

 

The question was mostly rhetorical, as he punctuated it with a firm and thorough exploration of her breasts.  When he plucked at a nipple through her shirt, she gasped and ground against him.  “Yes,” she groaned, “I’ve wanted this... I want you.  We need this.”  She raked her fingers along his back, up into his hair, and he hummed luxuriously at the stimulation.

 

“Some men might be noble enough to argue with you,” he growled.  “Thankfully, I’m not one of them.”  

 

He helped her remove her shirt, easing the sleeve over her splint, then they continued the divestment of each other’s clothing with enthusiasm that bordered on aggression.  He tossed some couch cushions onto the hearth rug and laid her down before the dying fire, pausing to appreciate the vision before him.  Beth glowed in the light from the embers, her eyes closed in pleasure and her lips parted in anticipation.  He lowered his head to taste her skin -- inch by agonizing inch he tongued and kissed and nipped until she was moaning and twisting beneath him.  With strong, blunt fingers he delved between her thighs, finding her slick and warm and ready.  He circled her clit once, twice, before delving deeper, and she sucked in a breath.

 

“Ohhh Mick,” she panted.

 

Josef stilled.

 

I BEG your pardon.

 

He lifted his head to look at her face, and he saw the exact instant when realization hit.  Her eyes flew open in panic, and she sought his gaze, the very picture of chagrin.

 

"We may not be soul mates, Beth,” he said grimly, “but you need to keep track of who you're with.  That's just common courtesy."

 

“Oh my God, Josef, I’m sorry.  I- I didn’t mean...”

 

He closed his eyes and shook it off.

 

"No." This time, his voice was gentle.  "You don't have to be sorry with me.”  He opened his eyes and looked at her seriously, deciding that there was no time like the present to clarify a few things.

 

“Mick is one raw walking nerve, and it's going to be non-stop roller coaster highs and lows with you two, and that's fine.  You're good at that Emotional Intensity thing, and he'll thrive with you, once he gets his head on straight.  There's always a detox period with Coraline.”  He continued to hold her gaze as he settled himself in the cradle of her hips.

 

“But with me, you relax and be yourself.  Let your id run wild; it's hot.  Just remember to be...”

 

He thrust into her, and she cried out but didn’t break eye contact.

 

“...with me.”  He thrust again, setting a slow, heavy rhythm as he let himself fall into the sea-blue depths of her eyes.  

 

“He loves you, Beth,” he whispered as he lowered his head to hers. “He loves you so...”

 

He paused to partake of her mouth, sampling and stroking with his tongue as he stroked her below.

 

“...so much.”  He picked up the tempo, and she rose to match him, their pleasure percussive as the beat built between them.  

 

“God, he loves you!”  His voice was ragged, now.

 

"Yes, Josef... Josef please-" she begged, and he nearly sobbed to remember the other times that those words had passed her lips.  All were moments of pain, moments of terror that had hovered at the edge of death.  This moment, though... in this moment, her pleas were a sweet invitation, and he accepted gratefully, drinking in that sweetness, tasting his absolution.

 

She was full, so full of him:  her loins, her heart, her throat, her eyes, all full to the point of bursting -- the luscious aches swelling past the point of containment.

 

"JOSEF!"

 

And it all spilled over in a flood, surging up through her from the root of their connection -- lapping waves of pleasure, emotion, a hoarse cry, trickling tears, and she feared she would be swamped by it all if she didn’t hold on tight.  She clamped down on him, and he gasped.  She dug the fingers of her good hand into his back, and his groan started low, rising to a growl until she bit the side of his neck, hard enough to bruise, hard enough to penetrate if only she had fangs, and he roared, his own flood bursting forth.

 

Afterward, she held him close and stroked his face.  For a brief time, his eyes were windows, not mirrors.  She pinned him with a focused look, a look for him and only him, and whispered, "I love him, too."

 

He blushed.  He would deny it until the end of all days, but she saw it and smiled in delight.  

 

“Josef,” she said, her voice grave but her eyes twinkling, “I care about you.  You know that, right?”

 

“Oh, really,” he drawled.  “Do we need to define it?”

 

“No,” she smirked, “I just need you to know.”

 

He grinned and bent to nibble gently at the scars on her neck.

 

“I care about Mick, too,” she sighed.  “Should we go find him?”

 

“Hell, no, it’s cold outside,” he retorted.  “He’s welcome to join us once he has the sense to come in out of the snow.”

 

She laughed and slapped him on the ass.  “Get off, I want to stoke up the fire again.”

 

“That’s what I’m trying to do,” he complained as he nuzzled the warm spot under her ear.

 

“My arm hurts,” she confessed, and he moved off her immediately.  “I guess I need another one of those stupid pills.  Go get me one.”

 

He went to rummage through her purse as she began gathering her clothes.  “I thought you weren’t going to turn tyrant on me?” he grumbled contentedly.

 

“Mmm, yeah.  That was foolish of you.”

 

****************************************************

 

Twenty minutes later, Josef was carrying a drowsy Beth up to the loft.  At this moment, she was feeling no pain.

 

“Which bed do you want?”

 

“Well, that one is too hard,” she tried to pout, but the effect was marred by snickering, “and that one is too soft, but that one is juuuuuuuuust right.” She pointed to the huge, California King-sized bed.

 

“Really?  You’re doing Goldilocks jokes.  What are you, six?”

 

“You just wish you’d thought of it first.”

 

“I am sick that I didn’t think of it first.  All right, you brat, upsy-daisy... I promised Mick that I’d tuck you in.”  

 

Although there was a fair bit of muttering and giggling involved, he finally got her settled under the duvet and kissed her demurely on the forehead.  “Sleep tight,” he murmured.

 

“Josef...” Beth caught his hand.

 

“What is it, honey?”

 

“Vampires actually like the cold.”

 

“Yes, we do.”  Josef looked a little confused at this non sequitur, then he caught on.  “You want me to go find Mick?”

 

She nodded.

 

“You’re not worried, are you?  Mick can take care of himself.”

 

“It’s not that, it’s...” Beth struggled to articulate her opiate-addled concerns.  “He told me that you helped him, back when he thought he’d killed Coraline.  He said you saved his sanity.  What if he needs you now?  You have experience, putting these pieces back together.”

 

Josef sighed.  “These are very different circumstances, but I’ll go fetch him if it makes you feel better.”  

 

And, if the fates had any mercy, this would be the last damn time he’d clean up this particular mess of Coraline’s.

 

Beth kissed his hand and released it.  “Thank you,” she whispered, and her eyes drifted shut.  She struggled to open them and focus one more time.  “You can teach me how the pieces fit together,” she said, feeling very wise and sounding very loopy.  “That way, I can help you next time.”

 

“It’s a deal,” he promised, trying not to laugh.

 

And she was out.

 

“Valiant girl,” he sighed, then he turned off the light and headed downstairs.

 

 

Chapter Text

Josef didn’t have to look very far.  Down on the lake path under the setting moon, Mick crouched over a broad, flat stump.  His shirt was in a sodden heap on the ground, and his wet curls glistened in the ambient light.  A knife was flashing rhythmically in his hand.  As Josef got closer, he saw that he was scaling a fish.

 

“What in God’s name are you doing?”

 

“Prepping tomorrow’s lunch.”

 

“You think Beth will eat that?”  Josef was openly skeptical.

 

“Fresh rainbow trout?  She’ll love it.  Lots of vitamin D -- it’s good for the bones.  It’ll help her heal.”

 

“Aww, you’re so cute when you’re nurturing.  I didn’t even know we had fishing poles.”

 

“We don’t,” Mick said smugly, “I caught this with my bare hands.”

 

“Sure you did.”

 

“I did!  I watched the bear’s technique for awhile, and I had to try it.”

 

“You are shitting me.”  

 

“Nope.”

 

“You actually saw a bear?”

 

“About 50 yards off, yeah.  He was impressive.”

 

“Good grief, you’ve gone all Call of the Wild on me.  Do I need to put a leash on you?”

 

“You can try,” he grinned slyly.

 

Josef was relieved to see Mick in good spirits, and he hated to open the can of worms.  Alas, it had to be done.

 

“So, does this mean you’ve forgiven her?”

 

Mick swore as the knife slipped and sliced his thumb.  He raised the offended digit to his mouth and sucked on it until the cut sealed itself.  Josef’s mouth watered, but he didn’t move a muscle.  Finally, Mick quit stalling and stood up.

 

“I think the real question is, will she forgive me?”

 

Josef rolled his eyes.  “Have you ever known her not to?”

 

“Well, fair point, but... God, Josef, what is wrong with me?  The whole ride home, I sat there remembering every moment that Cora and I ever spent together, which was not the happiest trip down memory lane, let me assure you.  I’m grateful that it’s over, that she can never threaten anyone again or pull me into her warped view of the world, but it was just so... abrupt.  It’s like I had this huge, infected splinter that I was bracing myself for the pain of removing, and then -- wham! -- the finger it was in just got cut off.”  He examined the fading scar on his thumb.

 

“It’s quick, it’s neat, and it’ll heal cleaner, but... it was really unexpected,” he finished weakly.

 

Josef regarded him thoughtfully for a moment.  “Mick,” he finally proclaimed, “that is a steaming pile of pathetic assholery for any number of reasons.”

 

“I KNOW!” Mick cried.  “That’s why I wanted to go clear my head.  And, uh... I eventually ended up soaking it.”

 

Josef stared, taking in the damp hair and half-frozen, discarded shirt.  “Come again?”

 

“I thought maybe I could wash away the steaming pile by soaking my head in a freezing lake,” he mumbled.

 

Josef blinked several times.  “I see.”  His voice held barely-suppressed hilarity.  “And did it work?”

 

“Extremely well,” Mick admitted.  He looked up, his grin rueful and his eyes haunted.  “The third time I came up for air, I realized that I’d been fixating on Coraline so that I wouldn’t have to think about what Beth had gone through -- and how much worse it could have been.”

 

Josef sobered instantly.  “And you and I weren’t there to protect her.”

 

“Exactly.  Do you remember, the night you re-turned me, how you attacked me first to make a point?”

 

Josef stared at the strong, cool column of Mick’s throat, remembering a moment when it was vibrant with pulsing heat, and his mouth watered once more.  

 

“Yes,” he said simply.

 

“It was terrifying, and I knew you weren’t serious about hurting me.  The sheer helplessness of human weakness against vampiric power... do you remember what that’s like?”

 

“No.  I really don’t.”

 

Mick shook his head.  “I can’t believe she’s not dead.  I’m completely blown away by how brave she was.  I’m a lucky son-of-a-bitch, that such an amazing woman wants to be with me.”  He swallowed hard, and then his eyes went feral.

 

“And I want to kill that psycho bitch I married all over again for daring to raise a hand against her.”

 

Josef approached, studying Mick carefully, well pleased with what he saw.  That’s the vamp I raised.

 

“So... you’re over it then?”

 

“Oh yeah, very much so.”  Mick’s eyes slowly warmed back to smoky grey.  “My only regret now is that I abandoned Beth tonight.  God knows what she’s been thinking.  How is she?”

 

Dobré nebe, there’s no delicate way to answer that one.  

 

“See for yourself,” he shrugged, and he grabbed Mick and pulled him in close.

 

“Wh- ?”  Mick’s confusion at the unexpected embrace was quickly overcome by the smell of Beth.  Beth hurting, sleeping, fighting invisible demons, tearing at Josef’s clothes.  Beth naked, pleading, exquisite in the throes of passion, biting Josef, stroking his face, teasing him in the afterglow of a dying fire.  Mick gasped and jerked, and Josef laid his fangs against his neck, gripping the smooth skin along his shoulder blade, willing him to be still and acclimate.

 

After a few moments, Mick tentatively reached up and laid a trembling hand on Josef’s arm.  They relaxed together, and Josef lifted his head to capture the younger vampire’s gaze.

 

“So, you’re over it then?” he repeated.

 

Mick huffed once and averted his eyes.  “I told you, I’ve had awhile to get used to the idea.”

 

“Yeah, well, ideas and reality are two different things.”

 

Mick nodded and swallowed.  “Visceral conflict,” he muttered almost to himself.  Then he straightened his spine and met Josef’s eyes squarely.  “She dealt with it gracefully, and so will I.”

 

Interesting.  

 

Josef decided to throw him a bone.  “Did you catch the terribly awkward moment when she said your name?”

 

Slowly, a smirk crept over Mick’s face.  “No, I missed that.  Come here, I want to see again.”  

 

This time, Mick loomed close and inhaled, his breath stirring the hair along Josef’s neck as he sought out the images.  He rubbed his cheek against the older vampire’s like a cat, picking up echoes of Beth’s warm skin.  He took Josef’s hand in both of his own and raised it to his mouth, sniffing and tasting the fingertips that had touched her so intimately.

 

My God, how does this kid still manage to get to me, after all this time?

 

Mick raised his head to regard his friend and sire.  His eyes shone, dark and contemplative, and the smallest smile graced his lips.  “You’re beautiful together.”

 

Josef took a step back and withdrew his hand, clearing his throat discreetly.  “But of course,” he replied, his tone almost normal.  “I’m always beautiful.  It tends to rub off on those fortunate enough to be around me.”

 

Mick chuckled and bent to pick up his shirt.

 

“Come on, slugger, grab your dead fish and let’s go in.  It’s been a long couple of days.”

 

“That it has,” Mick sighed.  “I need a shower.”

 

“That you do.”

 

***************************************************************

 

Beth woke early in the afternoon, dry-mouthed, with fuzzy recollections of whacked-out codeine dreams.  The pain in her arm was down to a dull ache, though, and considering how long she’d been out, she figured that regular ibuprofen would suffice henceforth.

 

“Good riddance,” she muttered as she swept the bottle of Tylenol-3 off the nightstand into a wastebasket.

 

When she stood up, other bodily sensations reminded her abruptly of the previous night’s events, and she sat right back down again, somewhat shocked at her own brazenness.  

 

But only somewhat.

 

Guess I claimed that additional territory, she mused, startling herself with a giggle.  Well.  Goodness.  That had been... well.

 

Absolutely mind-blowing, her subconscious put in helpfully.  Hey, no point in lying to yourself, now is there?  Of course, she was a little anxious as to how Mick would take it.

 

But only a little.

 

Sobering, she wondered if Mick had made his way home last night.  Hadn’t she asked Josef to go find him, or was that a dream?

 

She got up to check the freezers, sighing in relief when she found both of them asleep in a custom-welded double-wide.  Josef was curled on his side, wearing brick-red watered silk boxers, while Mick sprawled peacefully in tartan plaid pants and a grey tank top.  Beth shivered just looking at them, but she smiled.

 

Mine, she thought fondly.  

 

Her expression hardened just a bit, then.  They can end their sleep wherever they like, but I’ve gone to bed alone for the last damned time.  Goldilocks is retiring, effective immediately.

 

******************************************

 

An hour later, Mick’s eyes flew open in response to a startled yell from downstairs.  He popped open the freezer’s lid, launched himself free, and vaulted over the edge of the loft, vamped out and ready for a fight.  Beth yelped again from the kitchen as he landed, and he spared her a quick glance before doing a visual sweep of the rooms.  “What is it?” he demanded, “Do we have an intruder?”

 

“Uh, not this time,” Beth responded sheepishly.  “I just wasn’t expecting the contents of the fridge to stare back at me.”  She opened the door further to reveal the open-mouthed, glassy-eyed countenance of the trout.

 

Mick’s fangs retracted as he ran a hand through his hair.  “Oh, uh, yeah.  Surprise?”  He blew out a breath and let the tension drain from his shoulders.

 

“Sorry to startle you,” Beth offered hesitantly.  “Are you okay?”

 

Mick gaped at her.  Her splinted arm rested in a sling, and her blue eyes were huge against her pale face, the skin marred by the livid laceration at the heart of a purpling bruise.

 

“Am I okay?” he croaked.  “My God, Beth!”  To her astonishment, he sank to his knees, wrapped his arms around her waist, and buried his face against her like a child.  He shuddered once, and she tentatively slid her fingers into his hair, resting her warm palm against his head.  He raised his eyes to her -- they were bloodshot and shiny with tears.

 

“I’m so sorry, love,” he choked out.  “So sorry.”

 

Beth carefully lowered herself to kneel with him, and he gathered her close, shifting their weight so that he was sitting cross-legged with her in his lap.  “What exactly are you apologizing for?” she asked.

 

“Oh, God, for everything.  For failing to see how dangerous Coraline was.  For leaving you vulnerable in the car.  For acting like a complete jackass when I realized what you’d had to do.  For leaving you alone last night when you were hurt and scared, without even telling you that I loved you.”  His arms tightened around her, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

 

“Hmm, well.  Those weren’t your finest moments,” she conceded wryly.  “But I’m willing to make allowances for unusual stress... if you’ll tell me now.”

 

“I love you,” he responded swiftly.  Mindful of her stitches, he traced gentle fingers over her face, then brushed his lips softly against hers.  “I love you, and I am in awe of how you handled yourself.  You’re incredible.”

 

“Well then, kiss me like you mean it.”

 

He did.

 

And she believed him.

 

They sat there awhile longer, huddled together on the kitchen floor.  “You didn’t leave me alone last night, you know,” she ventured.

 

Mick snorted.  “I know.”  He gently turned her face to his.  “And before things get all weird between us again, let me state for the record that I am nothing but grateful that Josef was there for you.”

 

“Oh.  Well... okay then.”  She closed her eyes as he bent to recapture her mouth.

 

And she believed him.

 

******************************************************

 

Josef came downstairs later that afternoon, sniffing the air appreciatively.

 

“I don’t usually care for the scent of human food, unless it’s fruit,” he said, “but that smells pretty good. What is it?”

 

“Trout stew,” Beth smiled.  “Mick found the recipe for me online.”  She spooned up a sample, cooling and tasting the savory broth.  “Hmm.  I think it needs another shot of Tabasco.”

 

Josef wandered over to peer into the pot, where chunks of fresh fish floated with vegetables in a tomato-based stock.  “You know, you could probably mix half a pint of O-positive in there without even altering the color.  Give it some more body.”

 

Beth made a moue of distaste.  “I think not!  Get your own grub.”

 

While she and Mick perfected the stew, Josef made contact with his various informants as to the whereabouts and activities of Les Enfants de Valois -- such as remained -- in the last 24 hours.  So far, it appeared that Lance was keeping his promise.  Luc had purchased an open-ended plane ticket to Tibet.  Christophe was still at Lance’s residence in Bourges, which hopefully meant that Lance was keeping him on a tight leash, for the time being at least.  Josef made a note to put continual surveillance on Monsieur Duchêne for the next two years.  He was crazier even than Coraline had been -- but fortunately about as subtle.

 

******************

 

That evening, they gathered in the den with warm mugs full of various nourishment.  They watched Grand Hotel, indulged in gossip and wine, and generally luxuriated in the utter lack of gut-churning danger, intrigue, and angst that had defined the past two weeks.

 

Around midnight, Beth stood and stretched.  “Okay, guys, I’m beat,” she yawned.  “Let’s go to bed.”

 

The looks on their faces were priceless.  Somewhere, a cricket chirped.

 

“Yes, all of us,” she insisted.  “Come on, you two, I’m sick of sleeping alone.  I can’t imagine why it’s necessary when I have two strapping men around to snuggle with.  This is only as awkward as we let it be.”

 

Josef and Mick both raised a single eyebrow in perfect unison.

 

“You can wipe that leer off your face, Kostan.  I’m tired.  But... I don’t want to be alone in the dark.  I probably won’t for awhile,” she admitted quietly.

 

Both vampires moved to comfort her, then stopped when their paths intersected, each gesturing for the other to proceed.  Beth rolled her eyes.

 

“Come on!” She grabbed them both by the hand and towed them to the stairs.

 

“Is she always this bossy?” Josef asked Mick.

 

“Actually, no.  I think you’re a bad influence on her.”

 

“You know,” Beth lectured, “if Guinevere had just laid down the law with Arthur and Lancelot from the beginning, Camelot would still be going strong.”

 

Upstairs, they brushed and flossed and put on their PJs.

 

“Don’t think I’m reading you a bedtime story,” Josef admonished as he and Mick slid under the covers on either side of her.

 

“You would if I ordered you to,” Beth purred.  Josef glowered, and she planted a smacking kiss right on his pout.  “Luckily, I’m not quite that petty.”  His lips twitched into a small smirk, and he tapped her affectionately on the tip of her nose.

 

“Goodnight, brat.”

 

She winked at him, then she turned over to curl around Mick, nestling against him with her head on his chest.  She was just starting to doze off when his voice rumbled beneath her ear.

 

“So... which one of us is Arthur, and which one is Lancelot?”

 

The bed began shaking as Josef choked on silent laughter behind her.

 

“I don’t know, and I’m too tired to care.” she mumbled.  “Now shut up and hold me.”

 

Mick settled her into the crook of his arm, and Josef inched closer to spoon against her back.  Thus ensconced, Beth drifted peacefully into slumber, feeling utterly secure for the first time in weeks.

 

No dreams troubled her that night.



Chapter Text

The mattress was shaking.  Again.  Still?

 

Mick cracked one eye open, squinting in the bright mid-morning sunshine.  He looked over the lump under the covers beside him to Josef, who was eyeing said lump with some trepidation.  It seemed to be the source of the ominous bed tremors.

 

“...Is she crying?...” Josef mouthed.

 

Mick shrugged.  He pulled back the duvet to reveal Beth, who did indeed have a few tears leaking.  Her teeth were embedded in her lower lip as she fought to stifle... her laughter.  At the sudden brightness, she opened her eyes to see two confused vampires staring at her, and her mirth rang out to the rafters.

 

“I’m the luckiest woman in the world!” she gasped, then she squirmed her hands down either side to grab a prodigious handful of each of her companions.  “I would think vampires were more prone to Evening Wood than Morning Wood,” she continued.  “Is this what happens if you don’t sleep in a freezer?”

 

Josef gaped like a refrigerated trout while Mick gave her one of his patented Looks.  She snickered unrepentantly and gave them each an affectionate squeeze.

 

Mick looked over at Josef.  “I know how to shut her up.”

 

“Oh, really?  Please enlighten me.”

 

Mick reached out to grasp the back of Josef’s neck, and he pulled him close so that they met right over Beth in an open-mouthed kiss.  Beth’s laughter faded into a quiet, “oh... ,” and her grip slackened and fell away even as they twitched and hardened further under her touch.  She raised one hand to her own lips, while the other hand slid down her silky nightgown to rest gently at the crux of her thighs.

 

Mick pulled away from Josef long enough to look down at her, drinking in the sight of her pebbled nipples pressing against pearl-grey silk, taking smug satisfaction in the way her tongue crept out to moisten her lips.  Josef growled and pulled him back into the kiss, and they fought for dominance with clicking teeth and driving tongues.  Mick climbed carefully over Beth, still fused to Josef, so that he could bring the advantage of his superior height to bear.  The older vamp might be his mentor, his sire even, but Mick wanted to take the lead in this dance.

 

Josef got the message that Mick was not even conscious of sending:  She was mine first.  I am what connects the two of you.  He pondered the justice of that and relented, closing his eyes and softening his mouth under Mick’s.  The timbre and texture of the kiss changed.  Gratitude, tenderness, and rising passion flavored it now, and their need became urgent, beyond the show that they were putting on for Beth.

 

Not that Beth wasn’t enjoying the show.  She lent discreet helping hands as they worked their way out of their clothes, still kissing.  She rose up behind Mick, sliding her good hand up along his spine, then outward, to curl around his upper arm.  She pressed her full length against the heavy muscles of his back, resting her chin on his shoulder so that she could watch at close range.  

 

Josef opened his eyes to see her there, pupils dilated and dark with longing, cheeks flushed so that they camouflaged the bruise, the faintest imprint of her teeth still visible in her lower lip.  He disengaged from Mick long enough to mouth the words, “...bite him...,” then he surrendered to the kiss once more, reveling in the sensuous ministrations of Mick’s talented tongue.

 

Meanwhile, Beth had begun at the juncture of Mick’s neck and shoulder, planting warm, wet, sucking bites of increasing intensity up the side of his neck.  He hummed, then moaned his approval as a trail of hickeys bloomed and faded in her wake, but he refused to relinquish Josef’s mouth until she reached his ear.  She nipped the lobe sharply, then began to trace the shell with the tip of her tongue, and he broke.

 

“Would you like to join us, sweetheart?” he growled hoarsely.

 

“I thought you’d never ask!”

 

He reached behind and slung her around to his front, pinning her body between his and Josef’s.  She crushed her lips to his, tasting them both, and he reveled in the familiar sweetness of her, sampling the delicious contrasts of her mouth to the vampire’s.  Josef leaned in behind her and began to administer his own sucking bites, sharper, perforce, but still gentle, trailing them down alongside her lacy shoulder straps, basking in the golden perfume of her hair.  He slid his hands down her hips, noting appreciatively that she was bare beneath the silk.  He slid down her thighs, until he reached the lace-edged hem of her nightgown.  As Mick began to work his way down the front of her throat, Josef eased it up, up, a whispering caress along her torso, past her shoulders, over and off, then it went sailing across the room.

 

He reached around to stroke her breasts as Mick laved her collarbone, glorying in the warm weight of them, massaging and fondling, stroking lightly inward toward the nipples so that they stood at desperate attention before he finally trapped them between his fingers, causing her to gasp and groan softly on the exhale.  

 

“Gorgeous,” he murmured into her ear.  “I can’t decide which is more exquisite, the way you taste or the way you feel.”  He squeezed lightly, then spread his fingers on one breast to display the rosy bud between them.  “Taste her, Mick.”

 

“Can’t,” Mick muttered.  “The angle’s all wrong.  I’ll need to shift her back a bit.”  

 

With that, he lifted Beth by her hips and moved her over Josef’s lap where he knelt, slowly and deliberately fitting her to his sire’s cock.  He watched the agonized bliss on their faces with prurient fascination as she descended.  Gently, he lifted her splinted arm and raised it up and back, draping it behind Josef’s neck, admiring the way this exposed her and contained him.  “That’s better,” he murmured as he bent to suck the proffered nipple firmly into his mouth.  Beth cried out and twitched around Josef, causing him to...

 

...well, from any other creature, it would have been called a whimper.

 

Beth threaded the fingers of her good hand into Mick’s hair, pulling his head up so that she could read his eyes.  They stared starkly at each other as Josef began to move beneath her, both challenging, both accepting, both communicating without words.

 

We’re Assuming the Us?

 

Always.

 

Beth’s smile was sultry, and she released Mick’s head so that she could encircle his rampant erection with her fingers.  Mick’s eyes flared with blue heat for just a moment, and he lapped a broad, moist stroke up his palm before reaching down to join her.  Together they stroked him as Josef thrust into Beth, collecting more lubrication from his tip to smooth the way.  He angled his hips forward so that he could rub the swollen head against her exposed nerve bundle, and she whimpered shamelessly.

 

“Oh God, yes, just like that...”

 

She was bombarded with sensation -- strong, quickening thrusts within, firm, sensual sliding without, and tiny sparks of lightning began to zap along her most intimate nerve endings.  Strong thumbs massaged the base of her spine, clever fingers brushed and rolled the sensitive tips of her breasts, and blunt teeth scraped against her neck as guttural encouragement was muttered into her ear.  The electrical current intensified, lighting her up, making her shake, driving her voice higher and higher until finally the circuit blew in a shower of sparks.  She exploded with a shout, hollering in Mick’s ear as he grinned and pressed his glans into her overloaded nerve center one more time.

 

She slumped toward him, panting, and he gently pushed her to lean back against Josef, who was as still and as hard as stone, his teeth bared in a rictus of tortured pleasure as her silken heat pulsed and throbbed around him.  “Stay up, honey,” Mick urged.  “Use both hands to hold onto Josef, if you need to.”  Beth nodded and reached up with her good arm, so that her hands locked behind the older vampire’s neck, while her head lolled back along his jaw.  The position bared the long line of her throat, pulled her breasts taut, deepened the warm dip of her navel, and Mick gazed reverently at the two of them, transfixed.

 

“So beautiful...”

 

“Come be beautiful with us,” Josef growled.

 

“All over us,” Beth amended with a sly grin, and Mick’s eyes flared again as he chuckled, moving in to kiss one, then the other of them.  Josef thrust up strongly into Beth again, and she gasped, moaning as a sweet ache flared to life once more in her loins.  Mick brought his body flush against her, moving up just enough to slide his cock against her lower abdomen, grinding into her tender belly until he could feel Josef’s hardness through her, and she gasped again as their combined movement milked her g-spot mercilessly.

 

“Oh God.  Josef... Mick... oh... oh, FUCK!”  It wasn’t an electrical current this time, more like pounding tidal waves that broke within her, over and over as they both thrust, pulling her under, letting her surface just long enough to get a breath, then looming high again to crash.  Soon, her sobbing cries were joined by Mick’s as he erupted against the satin of her skin, his hoarse shouts echoing through the rafters.  Beth’s mouth was on his chest, tasting salt and musk, feeling the pounding of his heart under her lips and teeth.

 

Josef held on, his grip on Beth’s hips nearly bruising as he continued to slam into her, and she keened as the exhausting pleasure tightened inexorably once more.  “Oh please, Josef,” she panted, “come now.  I can’t- I can’t...”

 

“You could if I ordered you to,” he purred, and he was just petty enough to enjoy her tortured wail as she convulsed around him, hard.

 

“Josef, please,” she begged, and he wanted to, oh, he wanted to, but he was so worked up by now that he wasn’t sure he could come without biting, and he knew she hadn’t yet built up enough blood.

 

Besides, it’s Mick’s turn for that communion.  Oh, to je moc dobré fucking HELL...

 

Through his post-orgasmic haze, Mick sensed his distress, and he rose up on his knees once more to loom over Beth and pull Josef to him, baring his throat, providing a target.

 

“Here,” he rasped into his ear, “let go.”

 

Josef arched into Beth’s rippling, succulent heat one last time with an ear-splitting howl, letting the shockwave of searing pleasure rip through him, and he struck, releasing Beth’s hips to clutch at Mick’s neck and shoulders as he gorged himself on the younger vampire, feasting at a banquet of the senses as Mick’s eyes rolled back.

 

Eventually, they all keeled over to the side as a unit, Beth still sandwiched between them.  Josef pulled the covers up over his spent lovers, and they draped their arms over and around each other, tumbling together into oblivion.

 

*********************************

 

Some little while later, Beth stretched and groaned, then settled onto her back with a dreamy sigh, contemplating the pitched ceiling.

 

“I want to wake up like this every day.  Can I have that?”

 

Josef snorted.  “Well, maybe not every day.  Some of us have to work.”

 

“Hey!  Mmmfph....”

 

Mick pulled away from her lips to give her a mock glare.  “What, am I not enough for you anymore?”

 

She pulled him back down to kiss him again, long and lazy and deep.  “More than enough,” she promised, “just as I am enough for you.  But why should we settle for enough, if we could have it all?”  She turned her head on the pillow to smile at Josef.

 

Josef felt absurdly flattered, but he was damned if he’d show it.  “What if you two aren’t enough for me?” he demanded.

 

What if Sarah wakes up some day?

 

Mick’s eyes were knowing, and Beth’s were soft.  “Well then, you’ll have to get your kicks on the side,” she teased.  “But... I hope you’ll always come home to us.”

 

Home...

 

For a brief moment, Josef’s face was transparent and vulnerable, and Beth clambered over to the other side of him.  She nudged him toward the center of the bed, kneading his shoulders, and Mick nibbled at the hollow of his suprasternal notch.

 

Josef closed his eyes and sighed, basking in the warmth of their affection.

 

“All right,” he conceded, “I guess I’ll need to install a jacuzzi when I renovate again.”

 

Beth squealed in delight, and Mick popped fang.

 

It is so on!

 

~*FIN*~


******************************************************

 

Epilogue.... Some Weeks Later...

 

Mick looked up from the paper he was perusing as Josef descended the stairs.  He raised an eyebrow as he took in the stubbled jaw and disgruntled expression on the older vamp’s face.

 

“Is Beth still in the tub?”

 

“However did you guess?  I may have to pry her out with a crowbar if I want to spiff up before my meeting.”

 

Mick chuckled.

 

“What is that you’re reading?”

 

“This?  It’s that Valois Family Tree that she drew, back at the dome.  I’m figuring out how we connect to it.  So, vampirically speaking, Charles VII was your great-grandsire, through Rasa and Gilles de Rais.  And he was my grandsire, through Coraline.  So... that would make you my first cousin once removed?”

 

Josef frowned, “Yeah, that sounds right.”

 

“Hmmm.”

 

“What?”

 

“Well...”

 

“What?”

 

“Putting aside the fact that you’re 350 years older than me and kind of my step-dad, I’m technically a generation ahead of you.”

 

“... Your point?”

 

“I just think that you could show me a little more respect, you know?”

 

“You’re funny, Mick.  Really.  A riot.  Now go to your room.”