Firstly, thanks to everyone who's been following my other fic with such patience. I know I've gotten a tad bad with the updates what with the crazy demands of school and all, but you all bore with me, so thanks!
This is a one-shot I've been working on for awhile now and I hope you all enjoy at the very least. I'm dying to know what everyone thinks of this one, so please, reviews! Even if you hate (and I anticipate that some might), I would love to hear why. Thanks, and happy reading!
Spoilers: Set after "The Mortal Cure" but only major details are touched on
Disclaimers: Moonlight and characters are still the property of CBS no matter how many times I play with them; drat!
They say trust is a two-way street but what a long and complicated street it is! It's more than just having blind faith. It's acknowledging your fears and laying them out for all the world to see. It's looking in the mirror and loving who you see because you don't have to worry what others will see. No matter how hard you search, how deep you probe, it can be impossible to find. Sometimes, trust is something you have to coax out of yourself. Sometimes it's something you have to coach yourself to believe in. But in the end, fate plays a big part and you have to wonder, is there really such a thing as preparing yourself to trust your life to complete strangers? Because I did prepare. For almost nine months, I prepared myself for the day I would put my complete faith in these people. People who would determine the course of the rest of my life whether they let me down or carried out their promises perfectly. But the moment they smiled and told me I'd be fine, all the little-girl feelings I had had when I was weaving in and out of psychiatric offices came crashing back down.
Beth's hand darted toward the side of the gurney and closed around Mick's warm fingers. "Don't go," she whispered urgently. "I'm scared."
"There's nothing to be scared of," he whispered, squeezing her hand reassuringly. Mick studied her face, noting the yellowish pallor that the lights above cast on her otherwise pale cheeks. He could smell the subtle scent of her fear ebbing slowly. "The doctors said this sort of thing happens all the time and it almost always ends well."
"But I'm not ready!" she protested. Her too-bright blue eyes looked at him pleadingly, seeking a solace Mick didn't know how to give her.
"You are," he told her firmly, hating the helpless feeling that was swirling up in him. "You've been ready for months."
"No! I was supposed to have two more weeks. It's too early; I can feel it."
Mick glanced up at the doctor, who was shooting him warning looks. "Beth, you have to calm down." He rubbed slow, even circles on her palm, willing her to breathe and find tranquility within herself. "It's not an exact science… sometimes, early happens. But you're the strongest person I've met in a long time and I know you can do this. Okay, Beth? You can do this. You just have to remember to breathe."
"Will you come in with me? They've said you can…"
"You know I can't." He bent over and rested his lips against her cheek so that his next words reached her ears alone. "Think of all the blood." He straightened. "But I'll be watching in the gallery the whole time, rooting for you."
"It's not the same."
"Miss Turner, Mr. St. John, it's time," the doctor interrupted gently. "We can't wait too long."
"Wait! Just one more moment." Beth held Mick's hand tightly. "Remember the day I told you I was pregnant? Remember what you promised?"
"That you won't have to do this alone."
"I'll be right here when you come out, I promise."
She took a long breath. "Okay," she murmured. "Okay."
Mick nodded to the doctor and the nurses. They smiled reassuringly and wheeled Beth away. Mick gave her hand one last squeeze as it fell away from his.
- - o - -
A nurse came in with the latest bouquet and congratulatory card but Beth saw none of it, nor did she see any of the other bunches of flowers arrayed throughout the room. She only had eyes for the tiny bundle wiggling in her arms. He was so small! She brushed a finger against his tawny head and he giggled at her touch. She hugged him to her and wished she could bottle the sound and listen to it forever. She hadn't expected to feel this way, didn't know she could have so much love for one person. Every time she looked at him, her heart overflowed with tenderness and the urge to protect him. Like now. She trailed kisses down his face and when he squirmed, she laughed.
A knock, followed by the creak of the door, made her look up. Mick stepped in cautiously, smile unsure. "Hey. How are you feeling?"
"Tired, but happy. He's so much more than I expected and dared to hope for. You're right—I can do this. He makes me want to do this."
He crossed the room and smiled down at her. "Now I can say I told you so," he teased.
"You can say anything you want." She smiled blissfully. "Look at him. Isn't he beautiful?"
"He reminds me of his mother."
"Do you want to hold him?"
"No, it's okay." Mick stepped back quickly.
Beth looked at him, surprised and hurt. "What's wrong?"
"I…" He paused awkwardly. "I'm not good with babies. Especially since I'm a… because I'm a… because of what I am."
"It's okay. I trust you. I want you to hold him."
Mick shook his head. "Maybe another day."
Beth sighed, disappointment obvious. "If you're sure."
"Have you picked a name yet?" he asked brightly, trying to smooth the moment over.
"Josh." She smiled sadly. "Do you think it's a good name?"
"It's perfect." Mick gave her a small smile. "His father would be proud."
Beth kissed the baby's nose. "I hope so. I wish he could have been here to see his son."
His heart broke for her and for little Josh. "I bet he can see you both right now and he's smiling and he can't stop. Because he's looking at the most beautiful thing in the world."
Tears filled her eyes. "Thank you, Mick. You're amazing, you know that? I don't know what I'd do without you."
"You'd do just fine," he said with certainty. And finally, he allowed himself to sit and hold her. He buried his nose into her hair and whispered, "Just fine. It'll all turn out just fine."
- - o - -
Josef's scent was, of course, all over the place when Mick finally returned home. Mick sighed, not wanting to deal with the older vampire tonight.
As soon as Josef saw him, he began to speak. "Ah there you are. I've been sitting here all by myself wondering, 'Where's Mick?', 'How are things going with Beth and the baby?'. But of course, no one bothers to keep me up to date. Nobody cares about me. Nobody stops to think ol' Josef might want to know what happens…"
Mick gave him an exasperated look. "That's because you never show that you care."
"Oh details, details. So? Don't keep me in suspense."
"Everything went fine," Mick sighed, dropping into the closest seat.
"Obviously not everything," Josef snorted. "You look like you swallowed some bad blood."
"She was so overjoyed, Josef. I thought I could be okay with it, but there's so many reasons why I can't be. He's so perfect, so Beth. She's naming him Josh!"
"Ouch. But what did you expect? The child is his after all."
"I know. And I think that's what makes it worse. I could barely look at him. Every time I do, it's a battle not to yank him out of he arms and tear him to pieces. I'm ashamed of myself for even thinking it. How can I feel this way towards a child, an infant?"
Josef glanced at him pityingly. "Look, this thing you do, this sympathizing with mortals and trying to pretend you're one of them, it's cute. Endearing even. But you can't change what you are. This wanting to tear him apart? That's the vampire in you. You can keep trying to hide it and push it away, but it's all a lie. You can't fight it forever. You know what you have to do if you don't want to hurt him. If you don't want to hurt them."
"Do you mean… are you talking about what you've been telling me I should have done months ago?"
"I think you know."
"No. I told you I won't do that. There is another way. There has to be." He stood and paced restlessly. "I can't change what I am but I can sure as hell keep it from hurting the people I care about."
"That's fine for you, Mick, but what about me? Huh? What about me?" He slammed his hand on the nearby table, fingers splayed out. "What happens when you slip? What happens when you let your feelings get the better of you? Who's going to be left to pick up the pieces? I'm tired of cleaning up your crap, Mick. If you want to torture yourself, go ahead. But don't drag me into it. Not again. If you want what's best for Beth, do what needs to be done."
"She'll never let me do it. She won't even let me finish saying it."
"She doesn't have to know. She'll find out soon enough anyway."
"Not tell her? It feels wrong. I owe her that much, at least."
"It would have to be in and out. Quick. Painless. Think you can pull that off?"
"No," he muttered defeatedly.
"Then you can't tell her. No one said this was easy Mick." He softened. "There's a difference between running away and walking away you know. A coward clings when he should let go. He runs when he should stay. A man stays no matter what but he knows when to let go and walk away. So what do you want to be, Mick? A monster and a man or a monster and a coward? You can't have it both ways."
"Have you ever chosen to be the coward?"
"Yes. But choosing to be the man is much harder, believe me. Nobody ever wants to walk away, but at some point, you have to learn how to."
"If I walk away, I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive myself."
"You carry so much baggage already, what's one more? One day, you'll learn to accept it all. Guilt, leaving… it's all around you. You wouldn't be the first."
- - o - -
"Mo, would you— …Yes, I know it's only been a few weeks, but— …What? No! I'm not trying to escape anything. Josh is great, everything is great. …Of course there's nothing I'd like more than to stay home with him all day but that doesn't put food on the table. I need this and you need me; I don't see what the big deal is…" Beth practically stomped across the floor in frustration as she fought the urge to slam the cordless receiver back onto its stand. She was perfectly healthy and more than fit enough to return to work. She wanted to return to work. Was all that so wrong? "You've never coddled me before, Mo. Don't start now. …That's what you're worried about? Mo, I promise you I will not spend my time worrying about him! Josh's parents are staying in the town for the next few weeks; I know he'll be in good hands. …Thank you. …Okay… okay. See you on Monday then."
Rebecca Lindsey smiled at her from the doorway where she stood, rocking a sleeping Josh. "Tough boss?" she asked sympathetically.
Beth flopped down on the sofa ungracefully. "Mo means well. It's just that sometimes, I think she forgets what it means to be human."
Rebecca navigated around the furniture carefully and sat beside Beth. "You know, dear, Jack and I have been talking. We think you should move in with us."
Beth was speechless. She opened her mouth to speak several times before she was able to overcome the silence and articulate. "Mrs. Lindsey—" She stopped when Rebecca shook her head gently but reprimandingly. "Sorry; Rebecca, it's generous of you to offer, but L.A. is home to me. Despite everything that's happened here in the past year, I can't imagine wanting to live anywhere else."
"I understand. You need to find your own way and I admire you for that. But if you ever change your mind, the offer still stands."
"Thank you. The offer will always mean so much to me, even if I never take you up on it."
"We love you," Rebecca replied simply. "We wanted Josh to be happy and we couldn't have wished for a more beautiful, more kind woman than you. I know Josh never even had the chance to propose, but we'll always think of you as our daughter-in-law."
- - o - -
"Well? Is he in?" Beth asked impatiently.
The man before her sighed dramatically. "Just a moment," he replied irritably. He clicked the intercom beside him and leaned down to speak into it. "Mr. Kostan? There's a woman here to see you. Blonde, bossy. She claims to know you personally."
There was a pause, then a crackle as the response came. "Send her in."
Beth blew out in relief. "Thank you," she said shortly as she brushed past the secretary and into Josef's private office.
Josef was all smiles when he saw her but his light hazel eyes were cautious and devoid of the usual hint of laughter. "Beth. I thought I heard you out there harassing my people."
"I'm here about Mick." She tilted her head slightly, taking in his indifferent reaction to her words. "But I'm willing to bet you knew that already."
"Maybe I had my suspicions," he conceded. "How can I help you?"
"You can tell me where Mick is. He's gone. And I don't just mean he's dodging my calls and likely avoiding me. I mean I can't find him anywhere. Not at his apartment and not at his office. Not even at the morgue."
"So you came to me, thinking I'd know."
"You're his best friend. You've seen the side of him he won't let anyone else see."
Josef snorted. "Trust me, it's not all that it's cracked up to be." He stood and in a flash, he was beside her. "Now, about Mick. I'm sure he would have wanted me to break the news to you gently, but as far as I can see, you're a grown woman. I'm not going to waste time beating around the bush when I can just tell you the truth outright."
"And what is the truth?" Beth asked breathlessly, drawing closer to him involuntarily.
"Mick's left town. Packed up and left L.A. a few days ago."
"He did what?"
"He's left town," Josef repeated patiently.
"No, I heard what you said." Beth turned, breath quickening. "I just can't believe it… I mean, are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. I saw him off myself."
"Why didn't he say goodbye?"
"I advised him not to. If he was going to leave, a clean break would have been best."
Beth spun to face him, the truth suddenly becoming clear. "You… you told him to leave, didn't you?"
"I don't think you understand how hard this pregnancy was for him, Beth. Mick is a family guy. But he has no family to be the family guy to and he never will. Were you honestly expecting him to watch you raise another man's child? To be the outsider? It doesn't matter how you treat him—being the outsider is who is. Don't you think this is just a bit selfish of you?"
She didn't think, just moved. She hadn't known she had reflexes that fast and when the slap cracked across his face, she was as surprised as Josef. "How dare you." Her voice trembled as she spoke. "How dare you stand there and act as if you know me and you know how I feel. I didn't ask for this pregnancy; I didn't even want it. And if I could have spared Mick of it, I would have. But what was I supposed to do? I loved Josh too. I couldn't kill our child. I never wanted to hurt Mick, but I don't know how not to hurt him. Sometimes, I feel as if everything I say and do hurts him. How do you deal with something like that?"
"You stand up and move on. Move on and hope that one day, you'll settle on a middle ground."
"Tell me where he went," she pleaded.
He smiled softly. "You know I can't. It would defeat the purpose of his leaving."
"I need him. I've already lost so much; I can't lose him too. I can't do this without him."
"You can. You have so much left—friends, family, people who care. He has no one, nothing. He loves L.A., but there's nothing left for him here."
"No one else understands. They all think Josh and I were this golden couple. They understand the grief, but not the guilt. And I don't think they can…"
"Look," Josef began, gazing intently at the patterns on the floor. "I'm no Mick, but if you need me—if you really need me—I'm here."
Tired blue eyes regarded him warily. "Really?" Her voice was barely above an audible whisper.
"Really. Just… not too often, okay?"
She began to laugh uncontrollably. "I- I don't what to say…"
Josef raised an amused eye. "Thank you is a good place to start."
"Right, of course. Thank you, thank you. You don't know how much this means to me." Tears ran down her cheeks and her laughter became strangled sobs.
Josef stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment and then sighed. "Oh hell," he muttered. He pulled her into an embrace and patted her back awkwardly. "Come now, don't cry. He's letting you go, giving you a fresh start. Most mortals would kill for that," he murmured.
Her breaths came out in short gasps as she struggled to contain her emotions. "Will it ever stop hurting?" she sniffled into his chest.
He smiled sadly and caressed her hair. "Yes," he whispered fiercely, almost to himself. "There's always an end to the hurting. You just have to be strong enough to find it. You have to remember that pain is only temporary."
She cried harder and he held her tighter. He was flooded with sudden guilt when he recalled how ruthlessly he had pushed Mick to leave. But it was too late to go back now. He only hoped that he hadn't been wrong when he told Mick that the road ahead would be brighter.
- - o - -
Wisdom comes with age. So the saying goes. But as with all things, the rules are a little different when you're a vampire. Yeah, there's the wisdom, but before that comes the teenage years. The stupidity, the misplaced beliefs—it really is like growing up all over again. When you live forever and don't know any better, it's easy to believe that time is endless, that things will stand still and wait for you. But life goes on. Five years may seem to pass in a blink of an eye but in that blink of an eye, everything can change. Five years is not five seconds or five days or even five months. Five years is five years and by mortal standards, that's damn well enough time for life to go on.
Mick scowled at the stout, balding man before him. "What do you mean you don't have a Beth Turner listed? She lives in apartment 5!"
"I assure you, sir, that in the year that I've worked here, I have never met a Beth Turner." The man leered at him condescendingly. "Are you sure you have the right building?"
"Yes, I'm sure," Mick huffed exasperatedly. "If you don't have Beth Turner listed, then who is apartment 5 rented to?"
"That would be one Josef Kostan."
- - o - -
Josef did a double take when he entered his office and found a scruffy-faced visitor waiting for him. A second later, he realized who it was and guffawed. "Mick, is that you?"
"I'm glad to see you too, Josef," came the sarcastic reply.
"Couldn't have invested in a razor while you were traveling?"
Mick rubbed the growth of hair on his lower face abashedly. "I had other things on my mind. Today, for instance, I'm wondering why Beth's apartment is rented to you."
Josef winced. "You heard about that already?"
"I knew she had resigned from Buzzwire, but I didn't know she would be gone when I got back… What's going on, Josef? You promised to keep an eye on her!"
"Relax; she's fine."
"Then where is she?"
"I'm sorry, buddy. She left L.A.."
"It's been about two years now since she moved to San Francisco."
Mick leaned forward and stared at Josef in disbelief. "Why didn't you tell me? We stayed in touch the whole time and you never once mentioned she left L.A."
"Do you know why she left, Mick?" He poured himself a glass of scotch and after he drained it, he continued without waiting for Mick's answer. "Well I'll tell you why." The glass clinked on the table and he refilled it, but didn't drink it. "She waited for you for a long time before she left. No matter what I told her, she refused to stop believing that you were gone for good. Maybe she even thought that what she had with you was some epic romance, but even epic begins to get old after three years of waiting. I never pushed her to leave L.A. the way I did you. She came to me and asked me to help her start again."
"So how is she now?"
"Go see for yourself." He stood, circled around his desk, and pressed a small piece of paper into Mick's hands. "She still misses you, you know."
"She's not angry?" Mick asked wonderingly.
"Oh, she is, I imagine. But between the two you, I'm sure you'll work something out." He grinned, fangs extended, and Mick had a sudden sense of déjà vu.
Mick smiled. It was good to be back. "Thanks, Josef. For everything. You've been a good friend."
"I'm just glad you're back, buddy."
- - o - -
Mick stole one last glance at the hall mirror before he raised his fist and knocked loudly and firmly. He resisted the urge to rub his hand against his chin to make sure that the beard he had been fostering for the past few years was really gone. He didn't need Beth to see him looking like a fool; as it was, he had enough strikes against him. When the door did open, he found he couldn't breathe. He had forgotten how beautiful she had been, how beautiful she still was, even with the evidence of worry and stress traced on her features.
She was on the phone and didn't see him at first. But as she ended her conversation and shifted the phone in her hand to open the door more fully, she happened to glance up. When she saw him, she froze and the handset slid from her hand and fell to the floor with a thud. Her face flushed and at the same time, Mick heard her heartbeat quicken. "Mick?!"
He smiled shyly. "Hi."
"What are you… I thought… I mean, hi." She threw her arms around him. "And for the record, I am so mad at you," she mumbled into his chest.
"I'm just glad to see you again," he whispered. "It's been too long."
- - o - -
They sat across from each other, she sipping a glass of water, and he pretending not to notice the way she kept looking at him over the rim. He had imagined the conversation a million different ways but now that it was happening, he didn't know what to say, couldn't decide how to begin. He searched her face for any hints of what she was thinking, but she was all smiles and warmth, showing no signs of the turmoil Mick felt.
"How did you know to find me here?" she asked finally, seeming to take pity on him.
He held up a slip of paper. "Josef."
Her lips quirked in a smile. "I guess some things never change."
He laughed mirthlessly. "If only." Another silence. Then, "Why did you leave L.A.?"
"Funny, I was going to ask you the same thing."
"Truth? I was afraid of what I would do if I had stayed."
"What would you have done?" The curiosity he knew so well began to fill her voice, tinge her scent.
"Hurt Josh," he replied, not knowing where he had found the strength to speak so calmly.
Surprise flashed on her face, then resignation, then displeasure. "Why do you always have to be so noble, Mick? If you couldn't handle it, why didn't you just tell me?" The anger bled out of her, five years' worth, pouring from her voice, her eyes. She hadn't even known she had kept it pent up all this time. In her heart, she thought she had forgiven him.
Mick tried not to raise his voice, but failed miserably. The words slipped out of him thoughtlessly and his voice escalated on its own accord. "What if I had told you, what then? What would you have done? Given him up?" He softened, gazing at her tenderly and begging her to understand. "It wouldn't have changed the facts and that's why I didn't tell you. You loved him so much, even then, and to have something like that hanging over your head would have ruined your happiness."
"But five years, Mick? Five years."
"I know. It's crazy, ridiculous. I didn't even mean to go at first. But Josef convinced me that it wasn't running away, it was walking away. Of course, I realize now that running is running, no matter what you call it."
She smirked. "At least you're learning."
He settled back and shrugged. "Your turn now. Why did you leave L.A.?"
"I realized you were gone, really gone. And Josh was gone… Leaving L.A. just felt right. It seemed like everywhere I went, there were ghosts. It felt like all anyone could see when they looked at me was the single mom whose boyfriend had died heroically. They didn't see me. I was suffocating on the past in L.A. and I couldn't breathe until I came here."
"I'm sorry," he said quietly.
She shrugged carelessly. "I don't mind. San Francisco is nice, charming in its own way." She propped her chin on the palm of her hand, searching his face. "I guess what I could never figure out was why you stayed away. And how you found the resolve to do it… Moving to San Francisco is nothing compared to what you did."
"I never stayed in one place long. I stayed close to L.A. at first, but the fixation wasn't doing me any good. So I wandered further and the further I drifted, the easier it became to stay away, to convince myself to forget L.A."
"What made you come back now?"
"I went everywhere. Arizona, Colorado, Nevada. And when I ran out of states, I went to Europe. I hoped that maybe I would find the cure. I spent the last two years searching for it. I woke up one day and realized that I had seen everything but that I had found nothing. So I decided that for once in my life, I would follow my gut and come back to LA."
She smiled and he felt as if it was the first genuine smile she had given him since the conversation had started. "For what it's worth, I think I've always liked you better as a vampire."
"Maybe I'm learning to too," admitted. "I've looked into so many different lives since I've left, and it's made me realize that when I was mortal, I never appreciated what I had. I was always living in the next moment, always thinking about the future. Maybe I became a vampire so I could slow down and see that I was missing out on life. Maybe being undead is living."
"That's great, Mick, it really is. I'm glad you can finally look in the mirror and not hate what you see."
"It's refreshing," he agreed, closing his eyes. "To not have to fight myself anymore after all these years… It's more than I hoped to discover when I went away."
The low table between them suddenly buzzed noisily as the phone on it lit up and slid across the surface. "Damn," Beth muttered, scooping it up. She glanced at it briefly before silencing it and dropping it back on the table.
Mick raised an eye. "You're not going to answer that?"
"It's just work." She sighed and stood. "I have to go now. But this was… nice. We should do it again sometime. For old times' sake."
He laughed. "Taking the criminals of San Francisco by storm, I suppose."
"Actually, I've been doing mostly Features lately." She hurried to the sink and rinsed her glass, turning the water up full blast.
"Features?" He stared at her back in shock.
She twisted the water off and leaned on the sink's edge. "I know what you're thinking, but it's a not a bad job. It gets the bills paid and it's still reporting. Just less grand."
"But it's not investigative reporting… it's not what you love."
"I know… And when I first got the job, I was disappointed. But then I realized how stupid I was being. I had a beautiful little boy at home; the last thing I should have been thinking of was tracking down dangerous criminals and creating a splash… I realized I had to stop chasing stories—I mean, of course, I'd like to go back someday, but this is what I'm doing now." She turned and offered a small smile. "I had to grow up. We can't all be Peter Pan, right?"
- - o - -
Wispy white fingers of mist, the beginnings of another San Francisco fog, crept along the already dewy grass and rose lazily toward the red-orange clouds and the glowing sky. A few hundred meters from the serenity of Golden Gate Park, a cool, sweet-scented breeze raced through the air and tangled in Beth's hair as she drove down Sunset Boulevard, windows down. Her eyes were on the road but her mind was elsewhere and she paid minimal attention to where she was driving. Music, turned low, filled the small space around her, solidifying the mental bubble in which her meandering thoughts had encased her. Seconds later, the blare of the radio softened as the upbeat song that had been playing faded out and eased into a slower, wistful melody that pulled her back to reality.
You got someone here wants to make it alright
Someone loves you more than life right here
You got willing arms that'll hold you tight
A hand to lead you on through the night right here
I know your heart can get all tangled up inside
But don't you keep it to yourself
Had it really been only five years since she had last seen Mick? It seemed like a lifetime ago that she had grudgingly accepted that he was out of her life and longer still since she had kept count of the days that had passed without him. It seemed so surreal that he should return now, when things had finally settled down and she felt ready to step out of the world of dating and into the world of relationships. Every nerve in her body had screamed that she was over him, that she no longer craved the effect his nearness had on her, and yet when the initial shock of seeing him had passed, her pulse had skittered as if no time had passed.
When your long day is over
And you can barely drag your feet
The weight of the world is on your shoulders
I know what you need
Bring it on home to me
Sometimes, she imagined that it was all a dream and the closer she got to finding her way again, the closer she was to waking and watching it all slip away. In the alternate reality of her imagination she had never moved to San Francisco, and she had certainly never given up her job at Buzzwire. In her nostalgic reveries, she was a successful investigate reporter, a successful mom. She never imagined Josh as anyone but the beautiful and sweet boy he had grown into but she always imagined coming home to a different place. She imagined coming home to him and to Mick. She imagined that she had them both, the two things she loved so much that it hurt to think it was all within reach again.
You know I know you like the back of my hand
Did you know I'm gonna do all that I can right here?
I'm gonna lie with you till you fall asleep
When the morning comes I'm still gonna be right here, oh yes I am
Take your worries and just drop them at the door
Baby, leave it all behind
Beth thought about the past and how different everything could have been often. It left a deep pang in her chest, but as Josef had predicted, the pain dimmed away and ceased to rule her. And in the wake of that, she still remembered Mick, still thought about him. She wondered if they would have become a couple if he had remained in L.A. He could be such a guy sometimes, thinking everything was about him. Couldn't he see that he was perfect as he was? That she didn't want him to change? She wished she had fought harder to show him. That had been her first mistake—letting him go. She didn't want to make that mistake again, but she didn't know what the right choices were anymore than she had five years ago. She was scared, so scared, of losing it all again.
When your long day is over
And you can barely drag your feet
The weight of the world is on your shoulders
I know what you need
Bring it on home to me
She slowed the car and brought it to a stop in an empty spot by the crowded sidewalk. She glanced at the clock on he dashboard and smiled. Right on time. She climbed out of the car and was about to wait by the preschool door when she saw Josef a few feet away, under the shade of a lush, green tree. She approached him, surprised. "Josef! Hi… what are you doing here?"
He held up a colorful, gift-wrapped box. "I just wanted to bring a little cheer to Josh."
"I see." She gazed at him dubiously, waiting for more.
"And… there's something important I wanted to talk to you about."
She grimaced. "I figured as much." She waited for him to speak, but before he could, the preschool's doors flew open and a mass of little bodies surged out.
There was chaos for a few minutes and amid that, Josh burst out from the pack and dashed towards Beth. "Mommy!"
She bent down to open her arms to him and when he ran into them, she scooped him up and spun him around. "Hey, honey. Did you have a good day?" She leaned her forehead against his and made teasing faces at him. "Did you, hmm? Mommy did."
"My day was better," Josh proclaimed, sticking his tongue out at her.
"I bet it was." She swung him around so that he could see Josef. She laughed at his gasp and set him down. "Surprise!"
"Uncle Josef!" He threw his arms around Josef's legs and hugged them tightly. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"
"Ouch; be careful, kid," Josef admonished affectionately. He leaned over and pulled Josh's nose playfully. "This is an expensive suit."
Beth laughed. "Come on, Josh." She gestured her head toward the car. "In. Now." He ran to the car obediently and waited while Beth opened the door for him.
Josef followed and cleared his throat. "Beth. Our talk?"
"My place? I'll drive."
Josef shrugged. "Fine by me." He climbed in after Josh and proceeded to tickle him mercilessly.
Beth hid her smile as she got in and drove. He was always such a tease around Josh, always delighting in coaxing questions from him. Listening to the two of them scuffling and laughing made the ride home seem to take no time at all. Once they were in the apartment, Josef became serious. Beth waited while he handed Josh the gift.
"For me? Can I open it?" Josh asked eagerly.
"Go ahead. It's a surprise just for you," Josef chortled and Beth had to wonder why he looked so pleased with himself.
In less than a minute, Josh had the wrapping in shreds and the box open. He pulled out a satin red cape, dress shirt and pants, a matching deep red vest, and finally, a set of plastic white fangs. "A vampire! Cool!" He turned the fangs over in his hands, fascinated.
Josef grinned. "See? Told you I didn't forget about your Halloween surprise. And a week early too!"
Beth suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. "A vampire? Really, Josef?"
"He'll be the envy of all the other kids," Josef retorted confidently. "Besides, what boy hasn't dreamed of being a fanged creature of the night? Right, kiddo?" He crouched down and barred his teeth in a growl. Josh watched and followed suit. "You see? He's a natural."
"Uh huh…" Beth nodded, unconvinced.
Josef pretended not to hear her comment and continued to speak to Josh. "Why don't you go try it on, kid? I'll come help you out after I have a talk with your mother."
Josh nodded vigorously, then ran away and into his bedroom.
Josef brushed his pants and stood back up. "Mick's back in town," he said casually.
"I know. He came to see me."
"Ah, I see. That's good, that's good…" He lapsed into silence and they stood awkwardly, each waiting for the other to speak.
"No, you go ahead," Beth insisted when he tried to let her speak first.
He hesitated, but only for a moment. "Come back to L.A., Beth. And I don't mean on a visit. I mean move back."
"Pick up my whole life and move back to the city I needed an escape from?" She stared at him incredulously. "Are you crazy?"
"You're not happy here, Beth. You belong in L.A. and you know it. The only reason you came out here was because L.A. reminded you too much of Mick. But he's back now. For good."
"I miss L.A., I admit it, but moving back is just not the sensible thing to do. This is home to Josh, he's happy here. What do I tell him when he asks me why we're moving back?"
"Tell him the truth. He's a good kid. He'll understand. Besides, L.A. was his home too. You won't need to search for a new place or adjust to a new apartment—you can move back into your old one. Just come back to L.A."
"What is this about Josef? You agreed that a change of pace would be good for me; you helped me find this place… Why are you suddenly so adamant that I should come back?"
Josef sighed. "Look, Mick is too proud and stupid to say it but he wants you back there. He came back for you. I mean, have you seen the fool? He thinks he may have finally pushed you too far."
Beth stared at her toes and began fiddling with the hem of her blouse. "I know."
"You know?" Josef raised his eyes.
"Mick made a choice five years ago—your influence, I know, I know, but ultimately, the decision to leave was his. I love him, I do, and if he asked me to move back, I would… But I can't go through the last five years again. I won't."
"When I lost Sara, I felt the same way. Still do." Josef turned so that she couldn't see his face. "I keep telling myself that if she wakes up, I'll try to love again. But as long as she's in this state, why bother? One day, I'll feel differently, I'm sure. But you're a mortal, Beth. You don't have forever to figure it out."
"I'm not saying no, Josef. I'm just saying I need to be sure. I need… I need… I need to see him suffer too."
Josef was surprised by the mixed hardness and sadness in her voice. He wondered when she had grown so bitter and why he had failed to see it. He formulated his response carefully and though the words were hard for him to say, he managed to look her in the eye as he said them. "I've grown fond of you, Beth—disgustingly fond in fact—and I understand the need for vengeance, but if you break Mick, I will take pleasure in destroying you personally."
"I understand," she replied coolly, unperturbed by his threat.
"I'm glad," Josef replied softly. He tried to read the expression in her eyes but she had learned to hide her emotions well and all he saw was bright blue weathered with experience and pain.
- - o - -
Slumber had come slowly and reluctantly for Beth, but even asleep, she had no reprieve from the torment of the day's events. She tossed about restlessly, trapped in a kaleidoscope of dreams. Between the shifting confusion of images, she began to notice an insistent tug on her arm.
The force on her arm transformed into a weak shake and Beth snapped awake with a yelp. She squinted sleepily into the darkness of her bedroom, trying to make out the blob by her bed.
"Josh?" She sat up and patted the mattress for his hands. "Sweetie, what's wrong? Did you have a bad dream?"
He stared at her with earnest blue eyes that matched her own. "Mommy, why are you sad?"
She frowned at him. "Josh, I know you have a lot of questions, but sweetie, you have to save them for the morning. Remember what we discussed? Nighttime is for sleeping."
"Can't sleep," he replied stubbornly, gaze never faltering.
"I want to know why you're sad."
She raked one hand through her hair, bewildered. "Why would you think I'm sad?"
"Because Uncle Josef says so. And you said Uncle Josef is a very smart man."
Beth sighed. "Yes. Yes I did. What else did he tell you?"
"He said I have to be a good little boy and listen to you or you'll be very upset. Are you sad because of me, Mommy?"
"Oh Josh, oh baby, come here." She flicked on the lamp and wrapped her arms around him to swing him onto the bed. She stroked his hair tenderly and he squirmed under her touch, just as he had all those years ago. "You know Mommy loves you very much, don't you? I would never be sad because of you."
Josh blinked contemplatively and scrunched his forehead in deep thought. "Are you sad because of Uncle Josef?" he guessed, voice unsure.
"No, no!" Beth laughed. "Uncle Josef is a good man. We have a lot to thank him for."
Josh pouted. "I don't get it."
She gathered him into her arms and perched him on her lap. "Mommy isn't sad, Josh. Mommy is… disappointed. Do you remember the other day, at the playground, when you made Susie cry after I told you that you had to be nicer to her?"
He nodded, eyes growing large. "I promise not to do it again. I learned my lesson, Mommy," he rambled.
"Shh, I know, I know. The point is, Mommy has a friend who made her cry too."
"He's a very bad, bad, friend," Josh declared.
"No, he's not a bad man. He made a mistake, like you. He's wonderful and sweet and Mommy has to decide if she wants to forgive him."
"Susie forgave me," he told her solemnly.
"Well then you're a very lucky little boy, aren't you?" She smiled and pinched his cheeks. "Now can you go to sleep?"
"But you didn't tell me if you're going to forgive him yet."
"I haven't decided yet. But I'll tell you what. As soon as I do, I'll tell you."
He thought about it for a moment. "Okay," he agreed.
"Go to bed now."
"Can I sleep here?"
Her heart melted. "Of course." She lifted him from her lap and tucked him under the thick blankets. He snuggled into the mattress contentedly and mumbled a sleepy good night.
Beth watched him fall asleep and when he stilled, she slid off the bed silently and padded to her dressing table. She laid her hand on the surface, feeling around until her fingers closed around her cell phone. She glanced at the time on the display. 2:07. Still night. She sighed in relief. She thumbed through her contacts until she found the number she was looking for.
"Hi, Josef? I need a favor."
- - o - -
"Be good. And remember, not too much junk food, okay?" she reminded Josh before kissing the top of his head and shepherding him toward Josef.
He pattered toward Josef enthusiastically. "What are we doing, Uncle Josef?"
Josef chuckled. "Hasn't your mother ever told you that curiosity killed the cat?"
"She also said satisfaction brought it back."
Josef laughed. "That it did, kid, that it did. Come on, I'll tell you outside. Let's get out of here so these two lovebirds can talk."
Mick watched them leave, amused. "Josef babysitting. Who would have thought?"
Beth smiled reminiscently. "I remember the first time he babysat Josh. He was about six months old and I hadn't had a chance to find a permanent nanny yet. One night, I was called away unexpectedly and I couldn't find a sitter who'd come last minute so I called Josef hoping he could pull some strings. Despite my warnings, he offered to do it himself. He took one look at Josh and called him a brat. But by the time I got back, I had to coax him away from the crib."
Mick chuckled. "That's Josef for you. Tough exterior but soft through and through."
They lapsed into silence and Beth seized the opportunity to look around and take in the familiar surroundings. She had missed coming here over the last five years. "Planning to redecorate now that you're back?"
"No. I think I'll keep it this way, remind myself of what I lost when I walked away."
"I'm glad. It brings back good memories."
"I'm glad we're doing this," he confessed.
"Me too. We have a lot of lost time to make up for."
They ended up sitting and making small talk, uncomfortably aware that they were back to doing the old dance of skirting around the matters they really wanted to discuss. This time, it was Mick who took the reins of the conversation and broached a more serious topic.
"There's something—actually, several things—that I've wanted to tell you since the other day," he ventured.
Her breath caught. "Like what?"
"Like… how beautiful you still look and how being near you still takes my breath away and makes it hard for me to think properly. The truth is, I came back to L.A. because I couldn't stay away anymore. I missed you."
Her hands curled together in her lap, knuckles turning white. "I've missed you too." Her voice was soft, like the whisper of leaves against his skin.
"I care about you… a lot," he began carefully. "And I can't promise that it's love. I thought I loved Coraline. I probably did love Coraline. But that was a long time ago and memory can play cruel tricks. I do know that I'll die before I let anyone or anything hurt you. And I know that when I'm with you, I want to be a better man. One who doesn't hurt you or disappoint you. I know I want to find out if all these things are, indeed, love. And god, I hope it's enough. Because I'm not sure I have anything more to give."
"Oh Mick… of course it's enough. You've always been enough. I only wished you could have seen it sooner."
"I want to kiss you so badly," he murmured, closing his eyes.
She stilled. "Why don't you?"
He opened his eyes and looked straight into hers. "There's one more thing… something that might change your mind."
"I've been waiting for five years, Mick. Nothing will change my mind."
"I don't think I can ever love Josh," he said breathlessly, cringing as he said the words. They hadn't sounded so bad when he was rehearsing them in his head.
"I'm not saying he's not a sweet boy and he's a not beautiful because he is. He's both of those things. He looks so much like you, but every time I look at him, I see everything I can never give you, everything you've lost because of me. I know it's unfair to him and he's never—"
"Mick," she interrupted gently. "Stop. I don't expect you to love Josh. I would be surprised if you did. You can't help feeling the way you do and I'm not blaming you, or anybody, for feeling that way. And who knows? Maybe you'll learn to love him if you get to know him."
"And if I don't?"
"Then I don't care." She slid to her feet and made her way towards him. Slowly, she sank down on her knees in front of him.
"Beth, what you doing?"
"I'm growing up. I'm tired of the games and the relationships gone wrong. I know what I want and it's right here in front of me." She wrapped both her hands around one of his. "Marry me, Mick."
Song used is Little Big Town's "Bring It On Home". If you're curious as to how it sounds, you can try YouTube for the live recordings, but personally, I prefer the official music video which can be found on CMT dot com.
Remember, this is a a one-shot! I know it seems cruel to end things this way, but I'm doing it to preserve the mood that I hope I've set. But fret not! There will a sequel sometime in the future, though I can't say when. It's spring break for me, but things are still a little busy, so we'll see what can be done. Thanks for reading!