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Beyond Forgiveness

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The pump shrieked at him as he pushed on the handle too fast, letting the cool water rush over his palm as he brought it to his mouth and sloshed it around. Spat it out in the metal sink, and then did it again, till he could no longer taste the blood in his mouth. Or feel it on his tongue, or how it coated his teeth. Then a double handful of cool water over his face, drying his forehead with the back of his bandaged hand. He'd have to change it soon.

He didn't think his skull was cracked, even with the sharp headache that was refusing the first evening's dose of aspirin. But that didn't amaze him as much as the fact that Barnabas had actually let himself be seen backhanding Willie on a public street. It was obvious, by the timing of his arrival, that Walter had been nearby. Willie suspected that the other man had taken the left fork at the Ellsworth sign instead of the right, but that happened every day, nothing very odd about that. Walter had come full circle, must have been parked only steps away. Had he seen Barnabas…appear? Disappear? Willie had, but only because he knew what to look for, how not to be surprised as Barnabas suddenly was, right there in front of you. Like the twinkle in a madman's eye that suddenly turned to fire.

Just as it was now, a click on the wooden floor and Barnabas was behind him. Willie spun around and backed up, just enough to stay out of arm's reach, not enough to look like he was avoiding anything. He dropped his arm, watching the flicker of shadows from the change in air pressure inside the kitchen, like a draft had started up from nowhere. From Barnabas' stride, quick, towards him.

"I didn't do nothin'," his mouth said, while his gut echoed its pity. His brain, meanwhile, screamed at him to shut the fuck up, only it was too late.

"And did I indicate that you had?" asked Barnabas, eyebrows going up. Then that half-lidded appraising expression, the one that told Willie it could go either way. If he could only figure out how to make it go in the direction of least disaster.

"Well, then? Speak up."

"N-no," he said. "Only that--that I thought you, you know, because of in the Blue Whale…." That you were still mad. Stomach pitching as it knew, right before he did, that he'd waded right into it, even with the flags of warning all around.

"I have already reprimanded you, Willie, for your lack of obedience at the Blue Whale, and I am sure that, in future, when told to sit, you will."

If Barnabas had not pitched him into the side of the truck hard enough to dent the metal of the door, Willie might believe that the neck-snapping blows had been it. The reprimand, all over and done with. But there'd been a fury in Barnabas' eyes that didn't quite match Willie's supposed defiance of not sitting and joining Walter Thompson and Barnabas for a drink and a chat. It had been the last place he'd wanted to be. Having recommended Walter to his boss, in all innocence, not thinking that Barnabas would want to take a more personal hand in Walter's professional development. And he certainly hadn't wanted to be witness to the spider laying his trap.

He'd seen the look on Walter's eyes, knew that the other man had found out about the Collins family money and the two grand houses full of original, antique furniture. And when Barnabas had written the check, Walter had lit up inside and out. Yeah, the money had been the perfect lure, and Barnabas had somehow figured this out. Had seen it, and had played it in such a way that Walter was sucked in even before he knew it.

Confidence and money Barnabas had in abundance, there was no reason for him to feel like it all wasn't going his way. Because as far as Willie could tell, it was. So why the fury? Why now, in the kitchen, the glower, and the set of his shoulders that said in another second, perhaps even less time than that, he was going to find reason enough to find Willie at fault. Like at the Paradise Street Motel, where nothing had been wrong, and Willie had still been to blame.

Heart thumping hard through his fingertips, the back of his head, lacing through his stomach, he thought for a clear, second that maybe he should just take the blame now, and get it over with. For surely Barnabas would find out about the warning he had given to Walter Thompson. A general warning to be sure, but in the vampire's mind, it would be more than enough of a betrayal. A vague phone call received by Vicki Winters from someone she could not identify had been pinned on him with almost a certainty, and even the slight doubt that had remained in Barnabas' mind that it actually might not have been his faithful servant Willie had not been enough to stop the vampire. And the last time Willie had checked, there was still dried blood lining the silvered whiskers of the wolf's head cane.

"What on earth is the matter with you?" Barnabas rapped out the question in the still air and Willie discovered that he was shaking.

Just tell him now. Tell him that you warned Walter away, and that…

"Willie!"

Willie jumped, feeling like he'd just split through his skin. He had to do it. Had to get it over with. He couldn't live through the waiting for it. And it would certainly give Barnabas the excuse he seemed to be looking for.

"Barnabas, I--"

"Well?"

"I--I--" He stopped, frozen.

"What is it?" asked Barnabas, voice brittle with impatience. "I don't have all night to stand here with you. You will speak up now and let me go about my business."

Do it. Say it.

He opened his mouth.

"Oh, for pity's sake, Willie, stop this nonsense at once. Your nose is bleeding, and your head is obviously addled. If you would simply learn to mind your place, then you wouldn't have received two beatings in two days and I wouldn't be here attempting to read what is going on in that dull head of yours."

With an airy flip of his hand, Barnabas dismissed him, and strode from the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. On his way to more important and apparently enchanting events. Like hunting down some hapless victim on the waterfront, perhaps, or finding his way through a bedroom window in a house where he'd previously been invited. Willie sagged against the sink. He didn't know, and he didn't want to know. The further away from him that event happened, the happier he'd be. And Walter hadn't probably taken the hint anyway. Willie'd been right in not saying anything more specific than he had, because Walter was probably even now busy with pencil and paper, blocking out how he was going to spend the riches he was fast on the way to receiving. Funny how money changed a man.

And if Walter had shown a glimmer of humanity toward him during their spare moments together, like at the truck that evening, or earlier in the day, when Willie was standing in a swirl of grey and black, sure he was going to fall over at any moment, the magic wash caused by the check for two thousand dollars had sullied that glimmer forever and forever. Willie had never seen anyone, save for Maggie Evans, safely dead, resist the lure of Barnabas Collins, and Walter Thompson, with his slick hair and softfaced eagerness to please, would hardly be the first.

*

In the morning, chores awaited. And although it was rather like working with several limbs sprained, Willie plowed his way through it. There was the usual list in the morning from Barnabas that spelled out, in curlicue handwriting, the special projects that Willie was to do in addition to his daily tasks. They weren't infrequent, and they were usually difficult. Or time consuming. Or both. Today Barnabas wanted the brambles cut away from the path up to Widows Hill, though for what reason Willie could hardly fathom, imagining only that Barnabas was tired of having his pant legs snagged on the way up to his rendezvous with the memory of Josette. And though wintertime would be better suited to cutting back the growth, Willie took his clippers and his branch saw and hacked his way up the path. In a way, it was nice, with the sun shining over his shoulders, and the whirling breeze making its salty way up from the ocean. The rain held off till the afternoon, when a summer squall bounced and banged its way closer on the horizon. Willie packed it up and headed in doors.

He managed his usual chores, and then after he had sat down to dinner, his whole body decided to pack it in. The side of his hip was a screaming stiff board, and the long muscles of his back, raked with welts, never let him take a solid deep breath. He hoped, as the sun went down and he polished off the leftover sausage and biscuits from the morning's breakfast, that Barnabas wouldn't have any extra tasks to do. He was alerted to full sunset, never able to see a true picture of it at the back of the house, by the thump and bang of Barnabas making his way from the depths of the cellar. When the master of the house strode into the kitchen, Willie couldn't get out of his seat fast enough, and ended up tumbling it askew.

"You're extra clumsy this evening," said Barnabas by way of greeting. His mood seemed as it had last night, ready to be pissed off but managing to somehow avoid it.

Willie shrugged as he lifted the chair, wishing he could help the vampire along his way out of the kitchen. "I got half of the path cut away, like you asked," he said.

"And the other half?"

"Tomorrow, I guess, 'less you got somethin' else you want done." Trying not to be surly, seeing the flicker in Barnabas' eyes anyway. "I mean…"

The vampire almost rolled his eyes. "Yes, tomorrow. And then I want you to mail this list of furniture that I want to young Thompson at Northbrook's."

Barnabas walked toward him, and Willie reached out his hand to take the envelope. He felt a stir of curiosity, but didn't dare ask. And why wasn't he taking it in person? Of late, Barnabas liked things to be hand delivered. The brown envelope sat in his hand, the name Walter Thompson and the address for Northbrook's in dark, curved handwriting on it to designate its destination.

Don't question it, idiot. You'll save yourself six hour's driving, there and back.

He clenched his teeth, and waited. Barnabas scanned him, thoughts fleeting behind his dark eyes.

"I would send you in person," said Barnabas, as if deciding it at that moment. "But you're hardly in the best shape to make a good impression, and would be more apt to misrepresent this household."

Willie nodded, keeping his eyes down.

A little late for that, isn't it asshole?

Watching Barnabas go, listening to the footsteps down the hall, he wondered if he wasn't well on his way to being replaced.

Impossible.

Right?

*

Willie straddled the flat space between his legs as he eased the rock into place. The path through the remains of the side garden was several more flagstones on its way to being finished. Not that Barnabas had instructed him to do any such thing. Not that he could recall, but a confused look, when and if asked about it, might make the vampire doubt his own memory of the occasion. That along with the fact that Miss Victoria Winters might someday like to take a stroll with said vampire down said path, would see Willie well on his way to forgiveness, if not outright praise.

He knew he was creating a fantasy in his own head as he dusted his hands on his pants, and let his skin soak in the remains of the sun sinking fast over the western tree line. Any excuse to be out of the Old House, on a day with a sea-cooled breeze and clouds sparkling like cotton in a blue sky. Barnabas would never notice the path, nor would he have directed Willie toward such an effort, not with the Old House still miles and months on its way to being finished. No, until it came time for said stroll, a flagstone path would be the last thing on Barnabas' mind.

Then what were you thinking, idiot?

Sunshine. Fresh air. Away from paint fumes and glue that dried too slow. Away from the dust that constantly layered each and every flat surface as if dumped there every night by grime-lugging faeries. Letting his skin breathe and his lungs clear out the soul-clogging atmosphere that crept up hallways and down the stairs and seemed to continually ooze from the coffin in the basement. Not that it smelled bad, necessarily, but there was a constant undercurrent of rot and decay. And, mostly on days as fine and warm as this one, it became rather prominent. Not that he would ever be explaining this to Barnabas, let alone using it as an excuse for avoiding the chores on the list.

Ah, the list.

Um….didja leave one, Barnabas?

Of course he had. Willie had seen it with his own eyes. Right before he dumped the pile of mail from Monday's trip to the post office on top of it.

Guess I musta missed it somehow…

That might earn him a smack and a lecture, but it felt worth it. At least it did, at this moment. Though why he was playing fast and loose with it was beyond him. He didn't want to give up his position with Barnabas, because the alternative was so much worse, it wasn't worth contemplating. Giving up his position to Walter Thompson, of all people, was worse even beyond that. Miles beyond. He didn't quite think Lucy would understand why her beloved Wally was suddenly unable to be the master of his own fate, never mind not going to that school. Barnabas had been talking about Walter the night before, too, mentioning in an idle comment that young Thompson would be so ideal in helping to track down the missing family furniture. Far better, Barnabas had said with a dark glance at Willie, who was scraping ashes out of the parlor fireplace, and far more able.

Far more obedient, you mean.

Straightening up, Willie wiped the thin sweat from the back of his neck, and took a deep breath. Closed his eyes to feel the warmth of the fading day soak through his lids and the side of his face. Felt the breeze, chipper and cheerful, cupping his cheek, his bare arms, whisper past his ears, speaking of pine trees, and the faraway reach of high branches.

It won't happen. It'll never happen.

Though how that could be, if Barnabas wanted it to happen, was beyond him.

He went inside at last, feeling the heat of the day still soaking his t-shirt as he stepped into the dank chill of the kitchen. Saw the pile of mail, thought about the mass of candles that needed replacing, and the one fireplace that still had to, mid-summer, be cleaned out and the fire rebuilt afresh. For the effect, should Miss Winters decide to call.

In days gone by, in his old life, he couldn't have lit a fire to save his soul. Now he could build one in seconds flat. With his eyes closed. Not that it mattered. He set light to the fire, letting the match burn to his fingertips as he watched the kindling spark yellow and orange, the smoke rising in a smooth, flat plume above the logs. Then he heard the thump and the slow tread coming up from the basement, and knelt there, in front of the fire, his heart pounding. Letting the list go missing suddenly didn't seem like a good idea. Not in the uneasy mood Barnabas had been of late, nor his tendency to fly off the handle. What was causing this constantly sparking temper, Willie did not know, though he could imagine it might be because of any number of things, any one of which might be considered Willie's fault. No, best stay out of sight till called, if and when that happened, though Willie knew he was fooling himself. The pile of mail should have been left in the library or on the desk in the front parlor. Just as the door to the cellar slammed open, he realized that he'd forgotten that crucial factor, and was standing, stomach tumbling acid, when the shout came.

"Willie!"

Kitchen. He's in the kitchen.

His feet hurried him there, faster than his body wanted them too. They had a mind of their own, as many parts of him seemed to when Barnabas shouted for him. He was at the kitchen door, already ajar, by the time the echo of his master's voice faded into the woodwork. There was no light in the kitchen, no fire in the place, no candles lit. Just the fading twilight shimmering beyond the windows, etching the silhouette of the trees in black against dark blue.

"And what is this?"

Willie couldn't see the expression on Barnabas' face, just the hard line of shoulders and the curved, stone-sharp profile.

"The mail?" he asked, one hand on the doorjamb. He couldn't imagine what else Barnabas could mean, because, to his memory, nothing had been left out in the kitchen. No tools, no dirty dishes, no boxes of things waiting to be put away. Just the pile of mail and the, as yet, undiscovered list.

A hand, unseen in the near dark, reached for him, found handfuls of his t-shirt and pulled him close. Close enough to smell the high, hard scent of moist earth, and the clinging perfume of mold. Willie tried to breathe through his mouth, his chin lifted by the bulk of Barnabas' fist clenched under it. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he could see the glimmer in the vampire's eyes, the flecks and pulses of blackness, and feel the scent of rot as the hard wash of the vampire's breath flooded over him.

"Yes, the mail!" said Barnabas, his voice grating with exhaustion as if he'd been up all night. "Tell me what this is, or you will pay for your insolence with your skin."

Something was waved in front of his face, bringing a remarkable waft of fresh air. He couldn't see it, but he could feel it, and Barnabas's body tensed against his as he shook his head.

"I--I don't know what it is, I--"

"You don't know?" The vampire's voice rose, astonished, sparking with the ire that oozed beneath the surface.

"P--please, I--it's too dark to see, an' I can't--"

The vampire tossed him aside, and Willie didn't know which direction he'd been tossed till he hit the edge of one of the chairs.

"Light a candle, then," said Barnabas, "and tell me you know nothing of this." It wasn't a promise, it was a threat. Whatever it was, it was obvious that Barnabas was sure that he did, indeed, know something of the this that he held in his hand.

Willie scrambled, both hands reaching across the kitchen table, fingers searching out the box of matches and the pair of candlesticks he knew to be there. He lit them, searing the side of his wrist in his haste, the blur of matched flames growing to two circles of light, spread out like warm butter over the rough wooden table.

The this was shoved at him, falling to the table as his hands fumbled through the sheets of paper. An envelope, he saw, and a letter. And a long, rectangular piece of paper that he thought he might recognize. Barnabas picked it up and shoved it under the light, close enough to the flame to burn it, hand white and rigid, the slightest quiver to betray the anger beneath it.

"Now, you will tell me, Willie, why I have received this today."

Willie took the piece of paper and bent his hand toward the candle. In the light, soft and yellow against the dark, he did recognize it. Knew what it was, had dealt with Barnabas' checkbook many a time. In the bank, at the stores, everywhere. He saw the name written in the long, once blank space. Sucked in his breath between his teeth, suddenly icy in the chill of the kitchen's darkness.

"I see you recognize it."

Nodding, head dipping, wishing he could close his eyes and be far far away. "It's the check you wrote to W--Walter," he said. Wishing it weren't so.

"And the letter."

Handed to him with a flourish, and it seemed that the turn of Barnabas' wrist, glowing white in the candlelight, even the hard bone beneath the crisp white of shirt cuff, indicated that, of course, Willie should know exactly and precisely what was going on.

"A letter?"

"From Misters Merrill and Northbrook, from Northbrook's Estate Agency in Portland. I'm sure you've heard of it."

Willie let his breath go, like he'd been punched in the gut. Barnabas' sarcasm wasn't playing with him, it was warning him.

"Yeah," he said, "but--"

"Read the letter, Willie, and then I want you to explain it to me."

Willie tipped his chin down and began to read. About how sorry Misters Merrill and Northbrook were to be the bearers of such unhappy news. How they regretted the circumstances, and how they hoped that the unforeseen occurrence, surely unforeseen by them, would not preclude Mr. Collins' continued business at their establishment. All in the first paragraph.

The second paragraph explained that before Walter Thompson had left their firm, he had given no notice and had sent them this check, which they had been unaware had been given to their former employee, by mail, along with a letter of resignation. With gratitude and confusion, they were forwarding it to Mr. Collins. And should Mr. Collins wish to pursue a contract with another, perhaps more stable, employee, they would be happy to offer Mr. Collins very competitive rates.

Competitive rates? Barnabas was more likely to have the place burned to the ground than he was to send his custom there.

Walter, it was obvious, had left Northbrook's. Without being sucked in by Barnabas' money. Probably to attend that school.

Then Willie lifted his head, mouth falling open. Why had he done it? Why had he warned Walter away? It had been his promise to himself, the second after Barnabas' silver-headed wolf's cane had landed along the plane of his cheekbone that he would never, ever, ever attempt to warn anyone away again. Not even slightly. Or vaguely, with hints abounding. Nope, nope, nope. Not him.

The fact that he had, to a mostly perfect stranger who didn't even like him, stood as proof that his head had been, as Barnabas had said, addled. Nose bleeding. Crumpled beneath the cab of his truck, soaking up the dampness of the street, gravel biting into his arms, head ringing. And Walter's face, above him, moving close as the other man had crouched down. Hands reaching to help him, the vapid wasteland of those greedy, self-concerned eyes filling with anxiety and kindness.

It was hard to resist a face that held that expression. Especially since it had been displayed without pity or curiosity. Maybe it was Walter's business experience, but he'd seemed only grave and attentive as he'd helped Willie to his feet. And the question about Barnabas had come, it seemed, only as a point of conversation.

Does he beat on you like that a lot?

What do you think?

Then the pause, as Walter seemed to think this over and wonder over the stupidity of it.

Then why do you work for him?

Why do you want to?

Again Walter had considered this, and Willie had realized, in the slanting streetlights, that Walter's eyes were grey. Like smooth stone that had been washed over with water for years. He must have been thinking of Lucy, his blue-eyed girl, as his mouth softened the way it did when a man was thinking of sweet and serious things and not just having a quick tumble between the sheets. A hard flicker there, Willie could see it when the softness turned to flint, something decided, and then Walter had begun to beg. With his eyes, with his body, his hands curving across the open window of the truck cab. Even as Willie feinted driving away without consideration to body or limb.

Please, you must tell me.

Weakened by the blow to the head, he must have been. Or maybe it had been the memory of that sun-warmed pair of legs, flashing under that blue cotton skirt, sashaying in and out of Northbrook's, baked goodies in her hands. Blue eyes only for Walter, who, without her attentiveness, might have remained as he'd been when Willie had first met him. Pale, nervous, an office yes-man. Maybe it had been for her, or for him, he didn't know, maybe it had been for himself. Because as he'd driven off, he'd warned Walter. Just like he always promised himself he would not do.

"You will explain this letter to me," said Barnabas, moving closer, the outline of his body hard in the glow of the candle. Willie could see one of his hands now, white, clenching and unclenching, like a fist, deciding and undeciding over and over, whether to land a blow or fade away.

"It's, uh, it's from Northbrook's--"

The back of Barnabas' hand slammed into the side of Willie's head, sending his brain rocking against his skull. The headache that had faded since that night behind the Blue Whale sprang to life. Familiar, banging away, unwanted.

"Insolence, Willie," Barnabas said in warning.

Fingers tingling, Willie let the letter fall to the table. The check too, where they littered the surface, along with the envelope, like forgotten leaves of winter. It felt cold now, the dusk of summer's warmth suddenly missing, as if a northern draft had found its way into the room.

"I don't know wh-what it is, Barnabas, hones'," he managed, shoulders slumping, "'sides a letter from Northbrook's that says Walter Thompson has gone an' here's your money back, an'--"

Another smack and Willie was on his knees, palms flat on the floor, elbows jarred.

Oh, you knew this was coming, didn't you. Didn't you, you idiot. Give another guy a break at happiness, and it's you who's gonna pay. When you gonna learn that, huh?

"Your skill for lying has left you long ere since, as should your penchant for it should have done," said Barnabas, standing over him.

My what since my what?

Hands lifted him, like hooks out of a black sky, and pitched him at the table. He landed at an angle, ribs bitten by the table's edge. Holding on just the same, not wanting to slip down into the shadows beneath. And Barnabas, there, eyes narrowed, only black slits in the flickering candlelight. Leaning into him, hard muscles beneath fine wool, pressing him back against the table.

And his own voice, rippling out of him, water over stones, without a course, without stopping.

"Please, please, please…"

Curving his hands to his chest, clutching at the cotton of his t-shirt. Breath leaving him, feeling the tingle of numbness as the table edge cut into his side. And then Barnabas grabbed for him with both hands, pulling him up and close. Away from the candlelight and against the dark cloak of Barnabas' body.

"What do you know of this matter?" A growl from deep within the vampire's chest. Certain that he knew. Ready to lash out upon confession.

Squirreling its way up from the bottom of his gut, Willie felt the rush of air. His voice, high, teetering upon the edge of breaking. Stuttering, heart reaching for something that could save him.

"I d-don't, hones', Barnabas, you gotta believe me."

The fists on his shirt tightened, doubting him. Barnabas was going to find out in about two seconds or less, unless he came up with something fast.

"I would never betray ya, how could I? Walter, he--he and I never got along, you know that. He messed me up with that triangle table, an' it was his fault besides. So why would I do anything to save him?"

Silence. And then Barnabas took his own breath, hands not loosening as they should have done. "I never asked if you had betrayed me to Walter," said the voice.

Willie's gut plunged like it had shot itself down an icy crevice. He'd gone too far, taken it too far, confessed to too much, and all unasked for. The silence of the kitchen was unbroken, frozen with the frost of the vampire's voice and the unspoken question that Willie could almost hear.

Why are you defending yourself against something of which you have not yet been accused?

Not letting himself clutch at Barnabas' hands, Willie pulled against them. Quick breath, licking his lips. "'Cause I know what you're thinkin', you think I don't know?" Bold, risking death, pulling away, almost shouting as he said it. "You always think I'm gonna betray you, an' maybe I would. But for a guy like Walter? He hated me. He fucked me over, you think I would risk anything for a guy like that?"

What the seeming truth might save him from, the profanity would damn him. Redemption with one hand and wrath with the other. He knew it, even as Barnabas released him with a twitch, and his ribs landed again, in the same spot, on the edge of the table. But he would rather a hundred times take a beating for an ill-used word than to ever again face the wrath of a vampire who felt he'd been betrayed. By a servant, no less, lack of proof inconsequential.

"How dare you use profanity against me. And in my own house." This snarled as Barnabas, with a twitch of his fingers, released Willie to fall against the table. "You will go to Northbrook's tomorrow and you will find out exactly what happened to young Thompson. And then you will return here to me." His mouth pulled down in the frown, his extreme displeasure in a murderous fury. "And then I offer you a choice, Willie."

A choice?

He could not breathe.

"You will either take your punishment for using such foul and rude language now, or upon your return from Portland, as you prefer."

Almost voicing his shock, Willie felt his mouth fall open.

What kind of choice is that?

Never mind that. Just choose, damnit, choose.

He could see that both were the worst choices he could make. If he chose the punishment to come before the trip, he would again spend six hours on welted skin. If he chose the punishment to come after the trip, he would spend the next 24 hours in stomach-churning anxiety, feeling the pitch and roll of his gut until he was nauseated with it.

"On second thought," said Barnabas holding up his hand, "you will receive your punishment afterwards. I will not have you appearing unkempt at Northbrook's. Upon your return, you will cut a switch and bring it to me. Do you understand? I am a reasonable master, Willie, but I will not have your low expressions here."

Idiot, you didn't choose fast enough.

Yes, but which one would he have chosen? He didn't know, and felt the odd little stir of gratitude that he now did not have to choose. An impossible task at best, and Barnabas had saved him from it.

"Now, finish your chores, and stay out of my sight. If I do chance upon you, I am apt to forget my last ounce of restraint and flay you where you stand."

If he had dared, he would have hurled more choice expressions at the vampire's head, but he didn't. Could only stand as Barnabas gave him one final glare and stalked off into the hallway. Luckily he had lit the fire and the candles in the front room already so his other tasks could keep him far from where Barnabas was most likely to be. It had been the worst week, in the worst way, and now a third beating on top of everything else. A beating to be anticipated, a switch to cut, and a six-hour drive during which to contemplate everything. Down to the last detail.

He tipped his head down and pressed the heel of his ice-cold hands to his eyes, trying to stem the heat of rage now boiling behind them.

This is your fault, Walter. And if I find you, I'm going to give you up to him, I really will.

Though he did not know if it was a promise he could keep, even to himself, it helped to think it and he wished he could say it, but didn't dare. If Barnabas heard him, the vampire was likely to hold him to it. And mock him when he failed.

The kitchen was slowly warming up around him, the summer air easing its way along the window panes, the smell of the sea once again sweet, blanketing out all the nasty funk of coffin dust and flurries of mold, settling now in Barnabas' wake. Willie would finish his chores and go to bed, and focus on the drive, and not what would come after. More than that, he knew he could not manage.

*

It was a misty morning as he drove to Portland, which made the drive faster, somehow, and rather surreal. He had the odd feeling, not too odd as it happened sometimes, of Barnabas being in his head. Watching him with long-distance surveillance. Impossible really, he'd long since figured out that it was the hammering of his own heart that was watching him, warning him from stepping on the gas one final time and driving till he was a thousand miles away. The days that he would try it were long since passed, and the city limits of Portland appeared as if he'd been magically shifted from Collinsport to this spot, with the brick skyline and the flat expanse of the water under the bridge as he threaded the truck through the downtown traffic.

Portland wasn't a big town, and with the light traffic at that time of day, Northbrook's was reached within minutes, and Willie parked the truck, thinking how much he hated the place. If anyone so much as looked at him sideways, he knew he would deck them.

Of course no one did. Merrill was a tragic figure, and Willie could see in his eyes the realization that their brand new cash cow was roaming away to other fields. They could not tell him, they said, where Walter had gone. Why he had left. Or why he'd never said anything to anyone. Even when Willie pressed them, letting the flicker of violence show in his shoulders and twitchy hands, they could not be moved.

"You will tell Mr. Collins for us, won't you?" said Merrill for the thousandth time as Willie started out the door to his truck. "How sorry we are, and how eager to maintain his business. Our rates for him would be the best, and he would be ensured only the highest level of service."

"Yeah, yeah," said Willie, taking one last glance around the office, seeing the desk where Walter had once sat, already taken over by some newbie kid. Already scattered with paperwork that did not have Walter's signature neatness. "I'll tell him."

"We would be most grateful," he heard, as he slammed the door behind him.

Of course you would.

With Northbrook's a wash, Willie sat in his truck and tipped his head back against the seat. So many times he'd been here, so many times the wires had sung between here and the Great House, Barnabas and his dire threats, Willie with only bad news. How handy the phone had been, even thought Willie was sure that Barnabas had never before used one. And it had been long distance, no less.

The phone.

Hell, it was worth a try.

He drove to a nearby gas station and changed the five-dollar bill that Barnabas had left for him for four singles and a dollar's worth of nickels. Bought himself a bottle of coke with one, and parked himself in the phone booth in the back. First he called the operator, who was helpful in giving him Walter's last known address. Some boarding house just outside of downtown, by the address, but when he called it, the person who came to the phone said that Walter no longer lived there. Wasn't able to give Willie the forwarding address either, because there wasn't one. Willie called the post office, but they had no information either. He got the numbers of other boarding houses, but they had no Walter Thompson to speak of. One had a Jimmy Thompson, but the idea that Walter would use a false first name and a real surname was ridiculous.

By the time he'd finished his coke, he was out of ideas. Walter was good and gone, the jerk, and it didn't look like he wanted anyone to follow him. If Willie knew Lucy's parent's name, that could be another good lead, but he didn't, and so that was that. Walter was long gone by now, to Vermont. To that school.

Willie straightened up. Pumped in another nickel, and called the operator.

"Give me the number for the woodworking school in Beestoke, Vermont, please."

"Yes, sir," said the polite young voice. "Would that be the Beestoke Woodworking School, then?"

"Is there another school like it in Beestoke?" he asked, twisting his hand around the black receiver. The bandage slipped off, slamming the tender skin beneath against the slick plastic. Willie moved the phone to his other ear and used his teeth to tug the bandage into place.

"No, sir," she said. "That's the only one."

"Could I have that number, then?"

"Yes, sir," she said, and gave it to him.

He wrote down the number with the stub of a pencil, and then asked her if she would connect him to the school.

"It's long distance, sir," she said.

"Yeah, I know, but I'm at a phone booth and…"

"Please deposit fifty cents into the phone booth money slot," came the reply.

He dropped in ten nickels, and listened to the vibrating tone in his ear as she dialed. Then someone picked up the phone, and there was a click.

"Hello, Beestoke Woodworking School, registrar's office, can I help you?"

Willie paused.

"This is the registrar's office, can I help you?"

Then he swallowed.

"Is there anyone there?"

The gas station smelled hot, suddenly, the iron filings and pools of oil becoming overheated as his brain contemplated his choice.

"I--ah, this is Walter Thompson. I'm registering…that is, I've registered for school and--"

"Yes, Mr. Thompson, how may I help you?"

His palm was sweating now.

"I--I wanted to make sure that you'd gotten all my paperwork. I mailed it out and I was just about to leave Portland and--well, I wanted to just make sure, you know--"

His breath left his lungs in a whoosh, the hot, stuffy booth overwhelming him. He had to stop. He told himself this, even though he knew what the truth of it was.

You're doing it again. You're gonna hafeta lie to Barnabas about this, and you're not so good at it lately. How you gonna manage, huh? When he finds out the truth?

"One moment, Mr. Thompson, let me check the files."

He was left alone on the phone with the dark reality of what he was doing stabbing at him as if with coal hot fire pokers. Where the hell was Beestoke, Vermont anyway?

Then she was back, he could almost hear the flourish of her skirts as she settled back in her seat and reached for the phone.

"Mr. Thompson?"

"Yeah, I'm here."

"I have your file and you're all set to start attending classes. We had to put you Traditional Hand Tools instead of Design and Craftsmanship, hope that's alright, but the checks from Mr. Thompson, Sr. and Mr. Aikers arrived just yesterday, and we deposited them. And it says here that you are trying to rent a small house for you and your new wife, were you able to find anything?"

Mr. Aikers?

Who's that?

New wife?

He married her. The lucky bastard married her.

"Mr. Thompson, are you there?"

"Yeah, uh…no, Lucy and I, well, we're having some trouble an' all, it being so soon before classes…." His voice trailed off, as he discovered that beyond finding a place to live, he knew absolutely nothing about what someone went about doing when they started school.

"Well, listen, Mr. Thompson, I understand you're a newlywed, so why don't I put out some feelers for you, and you just come by the office when you get into town. We'll have something in your file. Okay?"

"Uh…okay, but if I forget, you remind me, huh? I'm a little…er…."

"Overwhelmed?" He could hear the smile in her voice, even through the wire. Newlyweds were so cute.

"Yeah, overwhelmed. Lucy and I are excited, but you know, the details and all?"

"Yes, I understand perfectly, Mr. Thompson. I was young once myself, too, you know.

I wasn't. I never was.

"Well, thank you," he said, trying to feel as polite as he was pretending to be. "I'll see you later then."

"Yes, Mr. Thompson, goodbye till later."

He hung up the phone with a clunk, now cut off from all human voice, packed into a narrow phone booth at the back of the service counter in a dark, smelly gas station.

If he finds out about any of this, he's gonna kill me, but dead.

And whether or not that was worse than another beating with a switch, he did not know.

Go home, Willie.

He had one nickel left. He bought another bottle of coke with it, this one even icier than the last, and stood by his truck in the shade of the parking lot, drinking it. Mind drifting through the trees as he turned over ways to explain the lack of receipt for it.

*

It was warm in the woods when he stepped into them, leaving the roughly groomed slope of Old House lawn for the vine-laced, almost-summer swamp of dampness and mosquito whine of forest. Thin spindles of saplings rose up through the ochre tumble of winter leaves pulling down at the green spines of grass and fern and crumbling branches torn by snow and wind and left to rot on the darkened forest floor. Willie twisted one of these off and held it in his hands, smelling the green smell that bled up from it, the spit of sap in his palm. He found himself sinking to a log, the weather-hard edges biting up through the thinning fabric of his trousers, holding the switch, rolling it towards himself in his palms. Feet twisted in lathered layers of leaves, heat pressing against his knees. Bringing the switch to his forehead, he ducked his head and studied the ground between his thighs. It was almost dark and growing darker, but the crackled hands of branches and leaves had caught some of the light and obviously meant to keep it for as long as possible. Willie gave himself until that moment to go into the house.

Facing Barnabas' wrath over an ill-timed swear word was not as troublesome as the reason he'd used it as an illusion to distract the vampire. Made that he hated Walter so much that he would never stoop to help him, let alone rescue him from the cliffs of fate. For if Barnabas had drawn him in, then fate it would have been, and Walter would have been so much flotsam, dragged and scraped against the rocks of the vampire's every whim. Whether Barnabas would actually have pierced Walter's flesh and given him a dose of you-will-obey-me was a question Willie did not quite feel able to answer. The influence of the money might have been enough to keep Walter right where he was wanted and needed, but for total obeisance, Barnabas might have, indeed, taken the final step. And then what of Lucy? Sweet, sweet-smelling Lucy, with her candy-pink lips and hair like spun flax, and those legs that were a mile long. And not just that, but that flash of blue eyes, and the food that she brought, and the smile, hello, here, eat.

He had always been a sucker for a woman who would feed him. And found that he could not bear the thought of her being within even a thousand miles of his boss.

So, okay, he'd done it for Lucy.

Right?

Yes. Well. And so.

He had done for Lucy, like he'd wanted to for Maggie. Margaret Evans, she of the flashing brown eyes, and hair of cedar-dark stars. He could remember her hand on his arm, her lips pale, face streaked with coal dust, begging him to let her go. Willing to go with him, anywhere he would take her, if he would just lead her out of the hell of the cellar of the Old House. Which he had been unable, totally and completely, unable to do. And if saving Lucy made up for that, even a little bit, it was better than nothing, wasn't it?

It would have to do. For the moment.

Fuck you, Barnabas. You won't get her, at least.

As for Walter, there was something else there he couldn't quite focus on. Even as the light stole away from the copse, and the ground under his feet turned to varying shades of grey and black. He lifted his head, thinking of the darkness. And of Walter. In his white shirt and tie, sweating under the armpits in the alleyway behind the Blue Whale. The summer night making his eyes dark, skin so white, hands open. I gotta make sure you're okay, Walter had said. And even as Willie had resisted, Walter had persisted. No, he'd replied, I'm gonna help you up.

Steady, helping Willie up, even if Willie had detected a wild fear in those grey eyes at the shock of seeing violence happen right before them. Might not have been much, in someone else's book, but as Willie closed his eyes, he knew it meant something to him. That, and the flickering moments of joy the two of them had shared, bent over the catalogs at Northbrook's. The look in Walter's eyes, at one point, asking Willie, Isn't this cool? And Willie, feeling his smile in answer. Yeah, it is.

So cool that Willie felt it, sweeping over his skin in a non-existent breeze, the curtain of darkness between the limbs of the trees, the trunks standing like men. And one of them, right there, darker than any other, where no tree had been before.

"And what delays you here, Willie?" Barnabas' voice asked. "Your conscience, perhaps?"

Willie's mouth gapped open, the summer night no longer warm, the mosquitoes silent, the hush of the night sky pressing down, and he found himself standing.

"You should be to the house," said Barnabas, moving forward, chiding him, almost mildly, as if over some slight fault, inconsequential to them both. "Instead I find you here, lingering against the duty that awaits you elsewhere."

Barnabas was an outline, only that, the glimmer of cheekbone that the stray light from some early star found and burnished. But Willie could sense the push of anger that radiated from him like a well-banked coal, pushing through the iciness that surrounded the vampire on the summer night's air.

"I thought I told you to cut a switch and bring it to me upon your return from Portland. Why do you loiter in the woods?"

Lifting his hand, Willie held out the switch to him. Wanting to prove that he had been obedient, at the very least, in this. "I--I was getting it," he said, throat dry, even in the lush dampness of the copse.

"You were malingering," said Barnabas, his voice sharp, taking the switch from Willie with a snap. "I saw you sitting there, Willie, for some five minutes or more. Idle. Watching the stars come out."

"But I wasn't--"

You delay me, Willie, do not deny it."

"But--"

"Stop." The vampire held up his hand, caught by the same stray starlight, white. "I will brook your protests no more; we will deal with this here."

"What?"

"A tree will serve as well as a table. Your shirt, Willie."

That hand reached out for him, stretching impossibly long, and Willie stumbled back, his heels catching on the snags in the logs, the stir of leaves whooshing up around him as he landed flat on his back on the loamy soil. Staring up into the black space that blotted out the stars and the barely outlined limbs of the trees. The space bent down, and it was Barnabas, so close the starlight lit his whole face. Eyes sparking, mouth frowning, a hand jerked him up and flung him against the nearest tree. A rough-barked maple, bigger than his arms could grasp, and he pushed against it even as he felt Barnabas' hand on his arm.

"Your shirt."

He was sweating outright, now, t-shirt sticking to him, the scent of his salt bounding up into the clear, summer night. Edgeless. As if in the woods, in the night, with no one to see or hear, Barnabas could do anything to him that he liked. And no one would ever know. The Old House, with mold-edged windows and creaking floorboards, at least had walls. The constraints of propriety that Barnabas always spoke of, represented by wood set to square angles; you could not tear a man to pieces in a front parlor, let alone a back kitchen. But in the woods at night? Anything could happen.

Willie turned around and held out his arms. "Please Barnabas, I didn' mean it, honest. I won't do it again."

A cold hand gripped him.

"I won', please, I won't, I promise." He meant the swearing, and then, he meant everything else.

Barnabas pushed him against the tree again, and did not let go. "You will remove your shirt, or I will remove it for you."

The trunk of the tree loomed up in front of him, gathering starlight along its length as it reached up from the darkness of the forest's floor. Willie dug his fingers into the bark and bowed his head, feeling damp sweat stretch out along his neck. "Please," he said. Shaking, as if he were freezing amidst the pelt of a winter's snowstorm. The thump of his heart beneath the press of Barnabas' fingers. Sired pain looping up towards his shoulder.

"You will."

There was ice in that voice. Coldness that lanced right through him as his fingers curled away from the bark of the tree toward the edge of his t-shirt. Looking down, his hands no more than faint flickers of movement, he paused. "Please, Barnabas."

With one twitch, his t-shirt was mere cotton shreds drifting down his chest, only the sear of fabric burning in one hard line across his throat telling him how quickly Barnabas had done it. Bare skin now, pressed up to the tree by the vampire's cold hand, and his hands, with nowhere to go, flat palmed against the trunk of the maple. Cheekbone scraped by the roughness, and the high, clear whistle of the switch before it landed.

The woods swallowed the force of his scream, the slight, soft movement of muscle against cloth as Barnabas pulled his arm back to strike again. Only the whistle of the wood through the air, and the scrabble of his nails against the bark echoed in the night's darkness. The switch landed hard against his ribs, wrapping around, cutting into muscle, pressing against bone. Screaming. A high, whistle hardness, and each time, Willie felt his chest press into the bark as though it belonged to another man.

Please don't kill me.

It was dark, even for the press of stars through the budding leaves overhead on the branches above, it was too dark. Too open, the air pressing down, no force could keep it from sucking him under and taking him with it as it sped over the cliffs of Widow's Hill and out to sea. Willie found himself sinking to his knees as the switch landed one last time, an arc of a high note that his back was too raw to register till seconds later, when it echoed, hitting him from deep within and bounding out through flesh as though it were water.

Please, Barnabas, please, please….

His hands grabbed at the ribs of bark, his nails sinking in as he slid to the forest floor. Throat raw from not screaming.

It had never been like this, never so unbounded, Barnabas standing above him, snapping the switch in two pieces, casting it into the underbrush, into darkness instead of into flames. Willie bowed his head against his hands, panting, sweat sliding down into his mouth, tasting like tears, acid salt. Cooling him not at all. His lungs doing double time as his knees trembled beneath him and dug themselves into the soft, late-spring mud. He could smell the dank push of ooze and the thick dusky smell of what was growing there. The cloth of his pants soaked at the knees within seconds as he collapsed against the trunk, panting breaths soaked up by the wood of the rough maple tree.

And the silence. Not of stars, or soft winds eased by clouds ready for rain. But the silence of the vampire, standing behind him, almost ticking off the seconds it seemed, one more step to eternity, no closer to any final destination. As if it didn't matter that there was no end to it, and Willie knew that there wasn't. Not for him. Not ever.

He hitched up a breath and made himself let go of the tree. Sank back on his heels, feeling the stretch of skin along his back. Swallowing hard, licking the salt from his lips, wanting cool water, and finding only, along his back and his ribs, the pounding of his blood, almost loud in the silence.

"I fail to comprehend," began Barnabas, as if continuing a conversation he and his manservant had begun at sunset, "why you should put yourself out so for someone with whom you are so ill met. For, according to you, this Walter Thompson is no friend. And yet…."

Willie felt the leaves stir around the trunk of the tree and the almost compound weight of the vampire at his side.

"And yet, you would advance him in his place of work. These are two contradictory points. But you, Willie Loomis, seem to possess both of them with equal value. Perhaps you might enlighten me as to why this might be so."

The lie. It was time for the lie. The vampire was demanding it, and he, Willie, had known that it would come. This moment. Only it had been so long since any lie delivered by him to the vampire had been successful. Even the truth, as with the contract the night in the Paradise Street Motel, had not been enough. A lie would surely be the end of him, were Barnabas to find out. Which he would. In time. He always did.

"Well?" prodded Barnabas, the toe of his boot pressing into Willie's bent thigh. "I would recommend that you supply an answer, Willie, or I will be forced to supply a spot for your body to rest under the decomposing leaves of this wood."

Willie found his spine collapsing as he sank against the trunk of the maple tree, his shoulder bitten into by the hard spines of rising trunk. His hip now sinking into the spring mud as he curled on his side on the forest floor. One hand grabbed his neck and pulled him up, saving him from dampness as he fell against the vampire's thigh, resting there, in his knees, panting, hands clutching at the hem of Barnabas' suitjacket.

"You will answer me, Willie," said Barnabas, almost quietly. "It would be best for you."

"I--" Willie started, resisting the impulse to turn his face and dry his tears on the edges of cloth pressed against his cheek. "I don't know, h-hones' I don't."

But he did. It had been for Lucy, and for Maggie, and for Walter, on his own, for no other reason than the look he had given Willie in the dark alley behind the Blue Whale.

"It…it seemed like a good idea at the time," he said, his voice low, and he could feel Barnabas bending close, the block of his body, the line of his shoulders cutting out the spring breeze that tampered and sprayed up the dead leaves at their feet. "I wanted…you know, he, well--" His mind froze. He couldn't think of a single reason why he would pick Walter for such a lucrative contract and then swear that they were nothing but the best of enemies. It was beyond him to fabricate it, his back was screaming at him, and his chest was raw from the trunk of the tree.

"Ah, I see," said Barnabas. Willie could feel him smile. "You found in him a friend, thought to do him a favor, and then found yourself, how do they say it in this time…taken advantage of."

The vampire shook him, as if for confirmation, and Willie felt his brain latch on to the one single idea.

"I went ta Portland, like you asked," he said, gulping in enough air to carry him through. He stopped to make sure that Barnabas was listening to what he was saying and not to the human heart pounding hard enough to break through his breastbone. "I called around, ya know?"

The hand on his neck tightened for a brief second and then let go. Let him go softly enough so that he did not realize he was sliding down the front of Barnabas' thigh and into the mud until his hands told him he was. He scrabbled for hold, reaching up to clutch the hem of the woolen suitjacket, pressing his forehead into it, like an abbot at sunset prayers.

"Post office, boarding houses, everywhere."

"And then nothing," supplied Barnabas.

The muscles of his heart strained to slow down, thumping beneath his skin like a finely wound watch.

"Yeah." He let his voice break, as if his heart was torn asunder by this cruel betrayal.

Run, Walter, run. As fast and as far as you can.

"He--" His breath stumbled over the word. "I thought he was--"

The vampire tossed him off with a flick of wrist hard enough to send Willie's skull into the tree. The night air swirled around, catching bits of loam and broken, dead leaves and beneath that, the promise of spring's push. The greengrowth. The time when things lived and breathed and reached for the sun's warmth. Not at this moment, but soon. Soon.

"So you do not, after all, know what a good man is," said Barnabas. Willie heard the triumph in his voice, could imagine, even in the wood's darkness, the smug arch of those dark brows and the mouth not even pretending not to smile. "You might take a lesson from this, Willie, had you sense enough to do it."

He felt the prod of Barnabas' shoe, leveraging beneath his thigh as if to flip him over like a dead bug.

"Well, Willie, have you the sense?"

It was not a question that needed an answer, even Willie knew that. It was a question that did, however, demand an acknowledgement. For Barnabas' profound opinion on the subject of what was sensible with regard to other men and what was not.

"Well, have you?"

Willie ducked his head, letting it fall in his hands, feeling the bracken stir against his side, the soft whisper of branches and spring leaves.

"Yeah, I guess, I--"

"The day you have enough sense," said that voice interrupting him as the body that contained it straightened up, "is the day I am released from my curse. Though I would hasten them both, I despair for the arrival of either."

Footsteps eased into the night, toward the direction of the Old House. Leaving Willie in the pile of broken leaves and branches. Mud soaking into his trousers, back singing with an urgency that refused to let him ignore it. Inside the house was aspirin and cold, clean water. Maybe enough salve to spread along the welts that laced his hips. His bed, though not soft, which did not contain leaves and dank dirt. And walls, which, if he kept his eyes closed, might keep out the darkness of night.

He found he was shaking as he stood.

You got away with it.

Though how, he did not know. It was the one time a lie had actually worked in his favor. And not one of his own making; it had been Barnabas' lie. The vampire could, and did, lie when it suited him, though seldom for the benefit of anyone other than himself.

Willie's hand pressed against the bark of the tree. He lifted his head to the night sky, tipping back till he felt his hair brush the top of his shoulders. Felt the slight sting there, the contact of hair against opened flesh. His sweat was drying, making him cold. The night sky did not seem so dark now, with Barnabas gone. If Willie was smart, he would sneak his way in through the kitchen and leave any washing up till the morning. Barnabas was in such a mood that he might take it upon himself to prove that there were other things he was wise about that Willie was not. I know this and I know this and I know this.

Willie took a deep breath and let his head fall forward. He'd let Barnabas think he'd gotten the upper hand. Give him something to crow about, sure, but it wasn't something Willie wanted to do more than once in a long, long while. Letting Barnabas win to save his own skull was something he only wanted to do when it truly was his life on the line. Crawling on the ground was not the way Willie wanted to remember himself.

Then how?

He didn't quite know, but as he headed up to the dark, looming outline of the Old House, he kept seeing Walter's face. Those solemn grey eyes, begging Willie not to show them anything bad. And Lucy's pink lips, pursed as though for a kiss. Good kissing lips, those. It might be worth it if Walter were enjoying them as he should be. The two of them would be safer where they were, in the wherever-in-the-world town of Beestoke. Far away from Collinsport and the smell of old memories and bad secrets floating in and out on every tide.

His hand was on the dented knob of the kitchen door. The dusty smell of smoke drifted through to him as he opened it, obviously Barnabas was building a fire in the front room, for reasons of his own that Willie would hear about sooner or later. And be called to task for, no doubt.

I c'n build a fire better 'n you, anyway.

It was small comfort as he walked through the dark kitchen to stand in the doorway leading to the hall. Listening. Waiting for a step on the stair that said Barnabas had headed up the stairs. Or the squeal and slam of the front door to indicate that the vampire had gone out. Or even the soft pad of feet on the carpet in the library, the snick of a candle being lit. Anything to tell Willie when he could sneak up the stairs, to his room.

His heart slowed, and his back came to life in the relative heat of the kitchen. He leaned against the doorjamb, his head sinking against the wood. Aching all over so bad, it would take a whole bottle of aspirin to tend to any of it.

Then he heard it.

Tread on the carpet in the hall. The pop of a floorboard as Willie ducked back, letting the shadow of Barnabas' shoulders float past in the glow of a single candle. The library door opened and then closed, the smell of sulfur and burnt wax now drifting down the hall. The vampire was at his books, and Willie was safe for at least an hour.

He felt for the matches and the candle on the fireplace mantle. Lit the candle and used the ice cold water from the pump to wash up. Socked back three aspirin and combed his hair with his fingers. Blood streaked the inside of one forearm, so he pumped up more water and used that and his fingers to wipe the blood clean. More blood, of course, would be dried in his sheets come morning, but there was nothing strange about that. Happened all the time.

He could almost hear Walter's voice asking him, all the time?

And in his mind, he answered, hearing his own, laconic yep.

Not that there was anything anyone could do about it.

But still. It was nice to hear a voice like that, not actually gushing with sympathy, but more, with a realistic acknowledgement of how hard things were.

You never heard that. He never said that.

This was true. Walter never had. And never would. But Willie had felt it just the same. Would it be enough to get him through untold nights at the Old House? He didn't know, any more than he knew whether Barnabas' next threat to break him into pieces would suddenly become reality.

He looked at his hands. They were raw from the cold water, but clean, drying in the cool spring air sifting through the kitchen.

Did it place him beyond the need for forgiveness, then? That he had saved two people, or, at the very least, sent them on to live their lives?

Something stirred in his chest, and Walter's voice echoed in his ear, in that serious way that it had when there seemed to be a lot at stake, yeah, I think so, Willie. And thanks.

He shook himself.

You're goin' crazy if you start hearing voices, you know. That's the first sign.

He took down the candle from the mantelpiece and pinched out the light with his fingers. It was usually better not to attract so much attention when trying to sneak off early to bed, and he knew his way enough in the dark to find his room without the light.

Standing in doorway that led to the hallway, he waited. Heard the telltale rustle of a page being turned in the library, and headed up the stairs to his room. He would go to bed, and make himself not worry about the troubles that might be. Tomorrow would come soon enough.

~The End~