Willie adjusted his hip against the wood as he leaned against the kitchen counter and leveled the bowl of Cap'n Crunch under his chin. He concentrated on holding the cereal in his mouth till the milk had melted it just right, and then he crunched through it. Very satisfying and sweet, it helped to keep his mind occupied. He occupied his eyes by keeping them on the floor, thinking of sweeping later, and ignored the bloodstained shirt draped across the sink. Barnabas' blood had soaked very deep into the hard, starched collar, and he had demanded that Willie get the stains out.
What Willie should have done was nodded in agreement and gone about his business. What he should not have done was asked where the stains had come from in the first place.
Sighing, he turned to rinse out his bowl under the pump, when he heard footsteps on the hardwood floor behind him. Whirling, he thought it was Barnabas, but it was Nicholas Blair. Dressed in his dapper grey suit, hat and gloves in hand, Blair looked as neat and pressed as if he'd just stepped out of a bandbox. His customary charm was firmly in place, and he gave Willie a little nod.
"Excuse me for barging inhere," said Blair with a little laugh, "but I've come to pay a call on Barnabas Collins and the front door was open. Is he here?"
The front door had been firmly closed the last time Willie'd checked, but that was neither here nor there. The Old House was, at times, a way station, and everyone and anyone somehow felt that instant access was their very own, personal right.
"He ain't feeling too good," said Willie, ducking his head. "Was out kinda late last night and all?"
"Yes, I know," said Blair, with a square-toothed smile. "He left rather suddenly during his dinner party last night and never returned. I wanted not only to thank him for the charming evening, but also to ask after him. And you said he wasn't feeling well?"
"Yeah, tha's right, he got up this mornin' and went back to bed."
Blair stepped forward and pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down in it. "I hope you won't mind if I make myself at home?" he asked.
Willie shrugged. Nothing he could do about it now anyway, Blair was already sitting.
After a little pause, Blair said, "You look so uncomfortable standing there, why don't you join me, and you can tell me about the renovations you've made on this grand place. As I understand it, most of the restorations are due to your hard work."
Blair was just being kind for his own purpose, Willie could tell that, though it made him feel a little strange to think that the other man knew that Barnabas had barely raised a hand in the work on the Old House.
"No, no thanks, I've got work to do anyway."
"Come now," said Blair, his tone reproachful. "I'll feel a fool if you let me just sit here by myself."
Willie eyed Blair, sitting there so charming and thoughtful, and shook his head.
"Is that coffee I smell?"
Some people just made themselves at home, regard-less of the opposition. Blair, apparently, was one of them. Willie poured a cup of coffee for Blair, leaving the sugar well within reach. Blair prepared it the way he liked it, and after his first sip, tipped his head back and sighed. "Oh, now this is good! Won't you sit and join me in a cup?"
"No, thank you."
It slipped out. "Because it hurts to sit down."
Astonishment raised Blair's eyebrows. "It hurts to sit down? Are you all right?"
Willie had to look away at this point, look away from the concern in Blair's dark eyes.
"Yeah, I'm okay."
"But you can't sit down; did you fall very badly then?"
There was something soft in Blair's voice, and even though Willie wasn't looking at him now, he felt it sift over him like a gentle, tossed blanket.
"No, I didn't fall."
"What was it then?"
Mouth open, Willie was on the verge of saying something, but he stopped. Barnabas would be very angry with him, as he always was when Willie tried to reveal anything that Barnabas thought would be better hidden. He snapped his mouth shut and shook his head again, and turned to the shirt in the sink. The stains would never come out without bleach but he had none on hand, and Barnabas had all but forbidden him to leave the Old House and go into town today. There was no way he could get the stains out, and then Barnabas would be really angry. Angrier than he had been this morning.
"Did someone hurt you?" came that voice again, warm. Concerned. There was almost no pressure behind the question, no demand that Willie tell, and for that reason, Willie found himself turning around.
"What's that you have there?" asked Blair.
Willie held it out to him, as if it were the right thing, the only thing, to do, and Blair took it, turning the stained collar over in his hands. Then the other man looked up at him and the question was there in his face.
"It's Mr. Collins' shirt, he got blood on it last night, an' he wants me to get the stain out," said Willie.
"And how did he manage that?"
"I dunno," Willie shrugged and reached for the shirt again. "Careless, I guess."
"Yes," said Blair slowly, not giving it back to him, fingering the blood on the collar. "Someone was very careless."
Then, giving the shirt back to him, Blair looked around the room. "I'm get-ting the feeling," said Blair, titling his head to one side as he looked back at Willie, "that you and Barnabas had an argument about this shirt."
At Willie's astonishment, Blair laughed a bit. "I should probably mind my own business, of course, but did you?"
Again the voice was quite kind, and Willie found himself talking, feeling somehow, that none of this would ever get back to Barnabas. "He gave me the shirt and told me to get rid of the stain."
"Stains that you're used to removing, I presume?"
"Well, yeah, mostly I take them to the cleaners, but this time he wanted me to do it myself, and then I asked him where the stains had come from and. . . ."
"And he got angry with you," Blair supplied.
Willie nodded his head, lowering his chin to his chest.
"What did he do to you, Willie?"
"What he always does."
"And what is that?"
"He punished me."
"He punished you?" Blair's voice rose, and Willie kept his eyes on the floor. "How?"
The hairs on the back of his neck started to go up. Willie blinked furiously several times. "Look, Mr. Blair, I got work to do, I can't stand here talkin' to you all morning."
"Just tell me how he punished you, Willie, then you can get to work."
The voice was low and firm and it laced itself through his ears and into his brain. The sound wasn't at all painful, not like when Barnabas was hollering at him, and, in fact, it was almost pleasant.
"He made me give him my belt," he began.
"Yes, go on."
"And then he bent me over the kitchen table."
His mouth worked wordlessly for a moment, and he realized he was shivering as the memory of that morning bubbled up to the top of his head.
"It's all right, Willie, it's over now."
Willie jerked his head back, wondering at what point Blair had risen to stand next to him.
"Just tell me what happened."
"He--" Willie stopped and allowed his eyes to light on Blair's. "He gave me a whipping, that's what happened."
"With your own belt? That must have been very painful." The other man's voice was sympathetic. "Why did he do that?"
With a sigh, Willie let the rest of the story spill out of him. "He gave me a whipping because when he told me to get this stain out, I asked him where it had come from, like if it was from shaving or somethin'."
"And he was angry with you for that?"
Wondering why any of this would be of interest to a man like Nicholas Blair, Willie was now willing to tell him, now that the hardest part of the story was over. And it was a relief, albeit an unexpected one, to be able to talk about any of it. "He was furious, like I've never seen him, eyes blazing, face all white--and he kept telling me to mind my own business."
"To mind your own business? My goodness, you would think that bloodstains on his shirt would be your business, especially yours, you being his reliable and trustworthy manservant."
With a snort, Willie moved away, moving through the sharp scent of cologne that Blair had brought with him into the Old House. "Ain't none of those things, just his slave."
"A slave he allows himself to loose his temper on, I see."
This didn't seem to require an answer and so Willie said nothing. He placed the shirt back across the edge of the sink, the blood across the collar standing up like a red exclamation point. He had laundry soap, and he had a scrub brush, and maybe the two of them together would remove the stain. But he had no starch and no iron, no way of making the shirt like it was. Allowing him-self one small hitch of breath, he balled the garment up in his hands.
"I'm sorry Mr. Blair, but I got to get to work, or Barnabas, he'll be even madder when he wakes up than he was this morning."
He heard a soft sound from behind him, as if Blair were humming to himself, thinking something over. It was the sound of a man giving something serious consideration.
"It's rather like you've been asked to spin straw into gold, isn't it."
What this comment meant, he had no idea. He turned around. "I don't understand," he said, staring at the shirt in his hands.
"You've been asked to do an impossible task," announced Blair. "Well, you can call me Rumplestiltskin."
"Call you who?"
Blair just smiled. "Today's your lucky day, Willie, my boy. Your lucky day."
The next thing he knew, Willie was making his way into town, with ten dollars from Blair stuffed in his pocket, and it was just before lunch. The deli that Blair sent him to was crowded, but the second the owner laid eyes on him, Willie was waved over. The owner handed him a huge package, and shuffled his hands in the air when Willie tried to give him the money.
"You tell Mr. Blair, a favor for a favor. Tell him his money's no good here, okay?
Shrugging, Willie carried the box out to his car, laying it carefully in the back seat and shutting the door. From the box emanated some delicious odors that he couldn't quite identify, but which sent his stomach rumbling uncontrollably. And then, turning around, he came face to face with Maggie Evans.
"You look like you're headed out for a picnic," she told him, her eyes smiling from their deep, brown depths.
"Yeah, I guess I am . . . say, Maggie?"
The words almost stuck in his throat, but there seemed to be an unknown force somewhere in his lungs that pushed them out anyway. "You wanna come with me?"
"Sure," she said, quickly, as if she'd been waiting for this particular question all morning, "I'd love to. I haven't been on a picnic in ages. Neither have you, I'll bet."
"Uh, no." Not sure what to say next, he covered this with the grand gesture of opening the passenger door. With a nod and a sweet smile, she smoothed her skirt beneath her legs, and, just like the lady she was, sat grace-fully in the car.
"There's a wonderful spot on the cliffs above the ocean," she told him as he started the car. "Just outside of town. It's actually private property, but I know the owners, so we'll have the place to ourselves."
Willie drove in the direction she pointed to him, realizing that all of this was coming just a tad too easy. Normally he'd never believed in any of that hocus pocus stuff, but after meeting Barnabas, he'd come to realize that there were strange forces in the world that few were aware of. Not something he liked to think about a lot, the slightest thought of it made his head spin and his heart race. But he knew, deep in his heart, that the wonderful things that had happened to him that morning, all in quick succession, had to be Blair's doing. The scarier part was the question, not of how, but of why he was doing it. And what he'd want in return. A favor for a favor, the owner of the deli had said. Of course, Blair could have made a few quick phone calls, one to the deli and one to Maggie, but there was no phone in the Old House, and after Willie had driven off, Blair cheerfully waving him on from the front porch, there hadn't been time for the man to go up to Collinwood to use the phone there. Or had there been? Maybe it hadn't been magic, maybe it had just been really good timing.
The spot Maggie directed him too swept so many of the doubts from his mind that he wondered why he'd had them in the first place. There were shade trees on a grassy hill, and below that the land sloped downwards, the green swath of grass breaking away to sand, and then finally the ocean itself, with breakers crashing on the rocks with a musical regularity. He'd been in Collinwood a good while and had never seen this particular plot of land, but Maggie had said it was private property so maybe there was an unmagical reason for that. He shrugged, bringing the car to a stop. The wind came through the windows smelling of salt and of something else particular to the sea. His lungs filled up gratefully.
"Looks like this is it," he said, his head still spinning that he, Willie Loomis, was having a picnic with Maggie Evans.
Working together, they unloaded the box from the back seat, putting it on a blanket spread under one of the shade trees. It hurt to sit down, but he made himself do it anyway, not wanting Maggie to worry about him that way. When he tried to help her unpack the box, she pushed his hands away, smiling.
"Let me take care of this part," she said, "and you just sit there and relax, okay?"
He didn't know the meaning of the word. Not any-more.
But as he watched her, kneeling on the blanket, the dappled sun dancing in her hair, and the warm air moving slowly around them, he thought he might start remembering it after today. She unloaded a large thermos, opened it, and pronounced it lemonade. She made a pile of wax paper-wrapped objects, and opened one and handed it to him. He bit into it, not being able to keep himself from staring at her, and she smiled at him anyway, the warmth of the summer day turning her cheeks pink, her hair coming undone from its ponytail. And as she handed him another packet of food, he barely heard her tell him it was a brownie. She was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
"You know, I'm going to get a little shy if you keep staring at me like that."
"Uh," he choked around a mouthful of brownie, trying to swallow and breathe at the same time. Silently, her mouth curved in a smile, she handed him a plastic cup of lemonade. "I'm sorry Maggie, it's just--"
"It's okay," she said, moving from being on her knees to sitting side-legged right next to him. "I think it's very flattering when you do that, you make me feel pretty."
"You're beautiful," he said, something he'd always wanted to tell her, always, from the first moment he'd laid eyes on her. Something he'd never thought he'd say.
"Thank you," she said, her head ducking. If he hadn't been in love with her before, he fell in love with her at that moment. There was a sparkle in her brown eyes that made him want to move, to hold her close, and breathe the soft scent of her skin. Hair, silk over her shoulders, and face flushed and warm, even in the shade.
"You're staring again," she said, but there was a laugh in her voice that told him she didn't really mind.
He turned his head away, the smile on his face feeling slightly alien. His eyes caught the edge of the ocean, and the wind moved through his hair with gentle fingers. This is the way it should always be. Just like this. Me 'n Maggie.
With the day casting its drowsy spell over them, Willie worked his way through two beef sandwiches and one tuna salad. Inroads were made on the frosted brownies as well, the potato salad was polished off, and there was a whole six-pack of still cold root beer for later. And a bag of potato chips.
"I think I'm gonna burst," Willie said, stifling a yawn.
"Me too, I ate too much."
He yawned for real this time, the heat and the food combining inexorably against him.
"Why don't you take a nap, Willie?" she asked. "You look like you could use one."
To his amazement, she moved across the blanket until she was sitting with her back propped against the tree. She patted her lap, and nodded at him.
"C'mon, Willie," she said to his silent refusal, "a nice nap here in the shade, and then you can drive us along the coast for a while before you take me home."
Oh, he remembered this, as he laid his head in her lap, his refusal dying as she cupped her cool fingers around the back of his neck. He remembered this feeling from her touch of long ago, from the darkest time, when Maggie's fate was to die, and his was to stand by and do nothing.
Her lap was soft, the edges easy, and the warmth and scent of her skin soaked through her skirt and into him. Looping through with ribbons of pleasure. Her hands smoothed his hair, wiping the heat away, and then one hand moved along his shoulder, stopping to rest there, then slipped just over his heart. Her hand cupping his heartbeat, as if she would cover it always, protecting it. All the aches in his body faded to nothing, and he fell asleep that way, hearing her gentle breath, just below the sighing of the slow breeze, and the whisper of grasses in the sunlight.
When he dropped her off after their drive along the coast, a drive that was blazoned with sunlight and blue ocean in his mind's eye, she pointed out that they both had mustard stains in exactly the same places. But this didn't seem to matter as she laughed and hugged him and kissed him soundly on the cheek.
"You gave me a wonderful, wonderful day, Willie. Thank you."
"No, thank you," he said, watching her go into Collinwood.
The smile was still on his face as he drove back to the Old House and parked the car. Even seeing Barnabas first thing he opened the kitchen door didn't erase his good mood.
"And where, pray, have you been?" This asked with arched brows. "And where is the shirt I asked you to tend to?"
With a thud in his stomach, Willie realized that he'd forgotten all about the shirt, and the stain, and Barnabas' admonishment that he not leave the house today. Blair had done a number on him, some nasty trick for his own amusement, convincing Willie that it would be all right, that Blair would take care of it. Pressing ten dollars into his hand, and urging him to go and have some amusement of his own, the way a friend would. Willie couldn't even remember how he'd let Blair talk him into it.
"Uh, uh," his breath came in little jerks as Barnabas advanced on him, grabbing him by the neck. Instinctively, remembering Maggie's soft hand there, Willie pried the hand away, flinging it from him.
Raising his hand, Barnabas slapped him. "The shirt, Willie," he threatened, leaning forward.
With half his face numb, Willie cast his eyes the direction of the sink where he'd left the garment earlier, but it wasn't there. Or on the counter either. But, on the table, neatly folded, was a white shirt. From this distance, it looked clean and white and pressed, but the bloodstain had been only a small one and could be in existence still.
"Uh, th-the table. It's on the table."
Barnabas stalked over to the table and lifted the shirt with both hands. Willie approached from behind, his head still rocking from the blow, and his heart feeling as if it were being trimmed with scissors, one small snip at a time. The shirt in Barnabas' hands was perfectly clean and white as snow. Starched to sharp edges all the way around, and the collar looked as if it were brand new.
"Is this a new shirt?" demanded Barnabas, whirling on him. "Did you take the lazy man's way out and simply buy a new shirt?"
"N-no, Barnabas," he said, not knowing if this were strictly true. Who knew what Blair had done with it. But then he spied the shirt pocket. "See, your initials, those take weeks to get when you order them, I can't order that in one day."
"I see." Barnabas crumpled the shirt in one large fist, the starch collapsing beneath the force.
But he'd seen how clean it had been, he must have seen it. There were no stains on it whatsoever. None. Willie had done as he'd asked, and so now his anger would fade away. Wouldn't it?
"Okay, Barnabas, I did what you told me to. Your shirt is as good as new."
"Oh?" asked Barnabas, casting glinting eyes his way. "And what about the fact that you left the house when I strictly forbade you against it?"
"What, no ready reply?"
"And what is that stain on your shirt?"
He looked down, seeing the mustard again, hearing Maggie's gentle giggle in Willie's ears. It gave him strength. His head snapped up. "It's mustard, what does it look like?"
"Are you being insolent?"
"I don't know, am I?"
There was fury in Barnabas' eyes that sparked like hellfire as he grabbed Willie and tore the belt from around his waist. With one push, he flung Willie across the table and held him there with a large, heavy hand between his shoulder blades. The memory of his day with Maggie scurried away, hiding somewhere inside of him, but he could still feel her hand on his heart, still feel the smoothness of her thigh beneath his cheek, and he clung to that as Barnabas peeled his shirt up and cracked the belt back in the air.
Willie buried his head in his arms, knowing that even this memory would be torn from him the second the belt first hit his bare skin, knowing that Barnabas, still in his bad mood, would not care that his only servant would pass out from the second beating in one day. Barnabas would only know that Willie had talked back to him, never mind that the shirt was perfectly clean now. He would only want to vent his temper in the nastiest way possible.
"Excuse me, am I interrupting some-thing?"
It was Blair's voice that rang in his ears, and he heard the grunt of astonishment from Barnabas, and the rustle of cloth as he lowered his arm.
"This is a private matter," snapped Barnabas.
"I can see that," said Blair, completely unruffled. "But I wanted to come by and thank Willie for his help earlier today, and to pass along those thanks to you, Mr. Collins, for allowing me the loan of his services."
The bafflement in Willie's mind registered as an enormous question mark. "What do you mean?" Barnabas demanded. As Blair came fully into the room, Barnabas grabbed Willie by his shirt collar and hauled him upright. Willie could only look at the floor, his mind racing as it tried to figure out what Blair would come up with next.
"Well, I came up earlier to thank you for the dinner party last night and to ask after you--you left so suddenly and did not come back before I left that I was worried about you. I do hope everything is alright."
"Yes," said Barnabas, the temper still plain in his voice. "Everything is fine here. What did you need Willie for?"
"I needed some boxes hauled from the train station into my house, and when I mentioned this to Willie, he volunteered to help. He's such a good worker, Mr. Collins, but surely you know that, and by the time he was done, I couldn't send him away without something, and he wouldn't take any money, and so I fed him a meal. I don't think that mustard stain is ever going to come out, sad to say." This last said to Willie, making Willie lift his head to catch the brilliance of Blair's smile. "I kept him rather late, as you can see, I hope there wasn't any inconvenience that you experienced?"
There was nothing, absolutely nothing that Barnabas could say or do. Blair's smile and appreciation was genuine, and the reason for Willie's lateness was given, a reason, even, for the mustard stain. All by a gentleman of good standing in the community. Barnabas could hardly question it, and it would be very bad form to harass Willie about it later. The whipping was over without ever having gotten started. Just one smack across the face, and it was done. The memory of the day, of Maggie's smile, her soft hands in the shade of that tree, all of it crept out from its hiding spot and made the corners of his mouth twitch upward.
"Well, Mr. Collins, thank you again for your under-standing with Willie--it saved me a great deal of trouble, I can tell you." Blair reached out to shake Barnabas' hand and there was nothing Barnabas could do but return the shake.
"And Willie, a special thanks to you and your tireless muscles, I could not have managed without you." And, then, to Willie's eternal surprise, Blair reached out a hand to shake. Without looking at Barnabas, as he would have snorted with laughter had he done so, Willie returned the shake. There were bubbles of laughter in Blair's eyes as well, and the smiling teeth were full of good humor. "I hope I can call on you again for special services in the future?"
"Ah, you'll have to ask Barnabas that," Willie replied, knowing that good manners and the expectation of good breeding would prevent Barnabas from refusing.
"Yes," said Barnabas, "that would be acceptable, provided Willie is available."
With a nod and a bow, Blair left the kitchen, and they heard the slam of the front door as it closed behind him.
"And why didn't you tell me you'd been doing errands for Nicholas Blair when I asked you?"
It sounded like Barnabas was going to hassle him a little bit anyway, just to keep his hand in.
"You didn't give me a chance, Barnabas, I was just about to tell ya." He nodded to emphasize this. "When Blair came over, I was just finished with the shirt, and so I left it and went with him to help him." The tiny lie escaped him and the only reason he was able to tell it with such aplomb was the knowledge that Blair would back him to the hilt on this one. Why Blair was doing him such a favor was another question that Willie didn't want to think about right now. "And he had a lot of boxes, too," he added for good measure.
"I see." The remark came stiffly as Barnabas picked up the crumpled shirt from the table. It was his own fault and not Willie's that it was now wrinkled and he could ask to have it pressed again, but there was no way he could blame it on his servant. Willie savored the moment in his mouth, knowing that there were very few like it.
Barnabas stormed from the kitchen and Willie could hear him as he went up the stairs, and then Willie turned to the cupboard. He wasn't really hungry, but making a little dinner would help to pass the time. And, as he opened the can of chicken soup and stars, he hummed to himself, thinking of the wind in the grasses, and the sun on Maggie's hair.