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The Price

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Willie tapped the accelerator again, turning off the windshield wipers almost absently as he listened to the tires churn in the mud. Water came down in a solid curtain over the windshield, seeping in, as it always did, in the upper right hand corner of the glass where the sealant had eroded away. The engine whined, and he could feel the shudder the entire truck made as the almost-new tires briskly dug themselves another inch deeper. He was halfway up the hill to the Old House and there was no help for it. Yes, he could safely carry the package he had picked up for Barnabas into the house, but the truck would still be there come morning. It was doubtful that Barnabas would enjoy paying for a tow truck, but there it was. If he wanted the vehicle released from the quagmire that had evolved during the early spring thaw, he was going to have to sign the check.

Willie turned off the engine and sighed. Of course, none of this would have happened if Barnabas had taken Willie's advice and laid down blacktop, or at least some gravel, sometime back in the fall.

Setting the parking break, he gathered up Barnabas' bankbook, patted his pocket for the receipt, then carefully picked up the package he'd driven to Bangor for. An extra delightful item that the vampire had received word of from an antique dealer there, and he'd sent Willie after it post-haste, inclement weather and local flooding be damned. Willie knew he'd been lucky to have made it back as several of the rivers had risen in the hard, spring rain. The irony of getting stuck in his own driveway was not lost on him.

He exited the truck and slammed the door shut harder than need be, but it didn't make any difference. The rain pounded on his head, and he had at least ten yards between him and the back door. It would have been only eight yards if he'd chosen to go in the front door, but by the time he arrived at either entrance, he was going to be dappled up to his hips in mud. The kitchen entrance would suffer the mess better, and he along with it. He tucked the package under his arm, and hustled up the hill, feet slipping, something icy leaking into his shoes, and his hair plastered flat to his skull by the time he reached the half-sheltered back door. Once inside, he laid the package on the table and shook the water from his hair, combing it back with both hands, ignoring the fact that the Old House was an icy tomb and absolutely still while the rain whirled around the windows and the damp oozed through the wood. And, ignoring the shivers that raced through him and the mud that he left on the floor, he lit some candles in the waning light and poked up the ashes in the stove. He didn't think they were quite stone cold, so he used some tinder and an old newspaper he'd been reading to try feed to the coals, and bent to blow across them.

"What are you doing? Where is my package?"

Icy streaks raced down his back as he snapped upright, finding Barnabas there in the doorway of the almost dark kitchen.

"Did I startle you?" came the question, though Willie knew Barnabas wasn't the least bit interested in the real answer.

Taking a deep breath to quiet the pounding of his heart, Willie shook his head. "I didn't know you were up yet," he said, responding to the question, "I-I mean the sun isn't quite down--"

"With the darkness of winter's end," said Barnabas slowly, as if reflecting on some inner thought, "the night seeps into the day, and I am granted an extended furlough from my prison."

"What?" Willie shook his head, hoping to clear it, thinking he'd misheard. But in the waning light of sunset and the shimmer of candles, Willie looked at Barnabas and saw that in his left hand he gripped a book, the last three fingers of which were tucked into the pages to keep his place.

Shit, he's been reading again.

Willie kept the expression from his face by supreme force of will, knowing that any emotion could be, and probably would be, interpreted entirely wrong. Barnabas' reply sounded straight out of a novel, and though Willie had seen the vampire the night before with his nose buried in one, he'd forgotten what it had taken him a painful while to learn. That after a long session in the library, the vampire tended toward moodiness. Willie didn't know if it was the solitude, the atmosphere of romance and the past that was somehow created, or the books themselves, but when Barnabas finished a book, he was not to be trifled with, and Willie had learned to stay out of the way.

Looked like it was too late this time, but Willie swallowed and tried anyway.

"Your package is there, Barnabas, on-on the table." He pointed toward it, and found Barnabas looking at him instead.

"Why are you covered in mud, and why have you tracked it across the floor like that?"

Willie tucked his head down to look at himself, but mostly to hide the exasperation in his eyes. I will suffer no delay, Barnabas had said, in giving this present to Miss Winters, do you understand me, Willie? So Willie'd driven to Bangor, amidst all the hazards brought by the spring storm, the melting snow and mud washes blocking the road and making him take all kinds of detours. There and back again, hours driving with the wipers going, and then the last ten yards, ankle-deep in mud, clutching the gift to his chest, heart hammering for fear he would drop it. Only able to relax when he'd laid it on the table at last.

But it was too much to explain all of this, too much to believe that Barnabas would have, in his present state, the patience to listen to a lengthy description of the hair-raising drive Willie had taken for the same said present, and couldn't Barnabas understand that a little mud on a floor he didn't even have to clean up was a small price to pay for the success of Willie's journey?

"Truck's stuck in the driveway," he said instead, addressing his comment to the stove.

"It is what?" The vampire's tone held all the irritation that Willie suddenly felt.

"I said," began Willie with exaggerated patience, "the truck is stuck in the driveway."

"How did that happen?" Barnabas demanded, somehow oblivious to Willie's sarcasm.

"The driveway is a river of mud," he said, toning it down; he knew his luck was bound to run out soon if he didn't.

"A river of mud?"

"It's also on a slant, and in the heavy rains the road gets washed out." He tried to demonstrate the angle of the road with his forearm but Barnabas wasn't understanding it even then. He dropped his arm. "If you'd had blacktop laid in, or even a layer of gravel spread over it, it would still be passable. As it is, we're going to need a tow truck."

"Are you saying this is my fault?" The vampire's dark brows settled into a level line, casting his expression into an earnest need to understand.

"That it is my fault the truck you were driving is stuck in the mud?"

Willie shrugged. "Well, I told you last fall that this would happen, but you obviously didn't believe me. Don't know what they did in your day to keep those carriages from sinking in the mud, but in this day and age, we lay blacktop."

"You shared with me no such knowledge," the vampire stated, all certain and sure now, his head going up loftily.

"Yes, I did," said Willie in reply, nodding. "It was in October, right after . . . well, it was in October, when the snow started. An' I could tell by the look of things that no one had done anything to that road in a long time, an' I told you--"

"You told me no such thing."

"Yes, I did," Willie said again, attempting to brush some of the mud from his pants. This only pushed the soil in deeper, and he sighed, knowing that his next trip to the laundromat would come sooner than expected. "I asked you, blacktop or gravel, Barnabas, and you said you would think about it later."

"If you are so sure of this," said Barnabas, tipping his head to one side, his eyes narrowing, "then why did you simply not order the necessary materials and have the work done?" He laid his book on the table.

Willie looked up, unable to stifle his sound of disbelief. "Me? Order all that, for a thousand dollars or more without your okay?" You gotta be crazy, he wanted to add, but didn't dare. "You musta just forgot."

"You're lying," said Barnabas suddenly, moving forward. "You've gotten the truck mired in mud by your own ineptitude, and now you seek to lay blame elsewhere for forgetting the necessary task of road repair."

"I am not."

He could clearly remember the conversation even as he said this, early in the winter, some weeks after Maggie had died in the hospital, when the snows had come in earnest. He'd actually taken a moment one day, walking with his hands in his pockets out onto the front porch, to think about how long he was going to make it in the Old House and whether he'd be alive come spring. He hadn't really thought he would be, what with Barnabas becoming irritated every time he looked at him. The vampire's great plans for Maggie had turned to dust in his hands, and he kept talking about he was going to kill whomever got in his way next. Then his eyes would alight on Willie standing in the doorway, and it would get nasty from there.

The front porch had offered some peace as he walked up and down it in the slow light of that early winter afternoon, listening to the echoing sounds of his feet on the wooden planks, letting it lull him into numbness. Then he found himself staring at the road that led to town and thinking about how he knew every pothole and bump. And, come spring, when the dirt road turned into a mud wash with the seasonal rains, and if he were alive and driving it, how was he supposed to get up and down the road to the Old House then? He'd gone back into the house and that night told Barnabas what he thought about the road and what should be done, and the vampire had nodded, said he'd think about it, and waved Willie away.

"I told you in October," he said now, "when we'd gotten our first blizzard. Remember? I had to sleep in the kitchen for a few days until I got the shutters up, it was that cold in my room. An' then I told you--"

"And I am telling you I remember no such conversation between us because there was none," Barnabas interrupted him. "The truck being stuck in the mud is entirely your fault."

Heat built under Willie's collar, feeling like a small flash fire. "You knew I was right about taking care of the road, but you forgot."

"Are you calling me a liar?" This said in icy tones as the vampire's eyes narrowed. The kitchen had grown darker in the space of a few moments, and the increase in chill lurked all around. And then silence, as the rain whistled around the windows, and the moan of the wind in the trees eased its way into the room.

"Yes," said Willie, feeling his own eyes narrow.

Quick steps and the vampire approached him, backing Willie all the way up to the door. Willie shrank against the glass, flinching as the chill of the damp outside soaked into him almost instantly. The vampire loomed above him, grimly still, fists clenched, blocking the light and the warmth of the room.

"I will ask you again, do you call me a liar?"

The conversation Willie had had with the vampire in October about the road had been one-sided, to be sure, with him doing all the talking, and Barnabas nodding as he wrote in his ledger. He knew this as sure as he knew that he had mentioned what would happen in the spring. When the rains came. But Barnabas didn't remember it that way, so if he said yes, Barnabas would let loose with the fury that was now building in him. However, if he said no, it would be a lie. And he was right this time, he knew he was. He took a deep breath, but his shoulders wouldn't unhunch.

"I told you," he began, "but maybe you didn't hear me, maybe you forg--"

His words were cut off by the back of Barnabas' hand, smashing into his face, his own teeth cutting into the inside of his mouth. He tasted it right away, the tang of blood, and felt the sour pounding of his head as his cheek went numb.

It didn't help that he stared Barnabas right in the face, not looking away; he could have predicted the second blow and avoided it, or tried to. But there was really no use in ducking, he realized that right away as the vampire clocked his arm back to smack Willie again. Barnabas had been in his library again, reading romantic novels and moping, probably on the fact that his courtship of one, Miss Victoria Winters, was proceeding too slowly for his tastes. He should have known that the last thing Barnabas would be willing to tolerate was a belligerent servant, defying him. So Willie took it, trying to relax his neck, trying to roll with the blow, feeling the sting as his lip split open, and his jaw seize up as he clenched it.

But he was still mad, even as Barnabas stepped away, apparently finished, and Willie pushed past him, moving toward the darkness of the hall, his own fists clenched, his heart pounding.

"It's not fair," he muttered under his breath. "I did tell you."

Barnabas grabbed his arm as Willie stepped toward the door, spinning him around, forcing him against the kitchen table. Willie felt his breath falter in his chest, not liking the feeling of the wood against his hip, the table screeching as it moved abruptly across the floor and hard into the wall, and he pushed back, the heels of his hands meeting an immovable, wool-clad force. Barnabas, his face hard and scowling, eyebrows raised in astonishment, grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket. He seemed unmindful of the mud splattered there as he held Willie tight and pulled him close. As he did so, Willie lurched sideways, his damp shoes slipping on the floorboards, and both of their heads turned as they heard something crash to the floor.

It was Vicki's gift, the brown paper torn as the box inside came to rest on its edge, the brightly painted wood shining against the duller wood of the floor, mud speckling, ever so slightly, one corner of the lid as it slowly, slowly, came off the box and landed with a small, high pitched smack. And then, once second later, the inner lids, also brightly painted, fell off, and the contents within spilled to the dirty floor.

Barnabas let him go, frozen for a moment, staring at it, and Willie could feel the roar about to start. Now, heart thumping, his smarting face ceased to matter. He knelt down, knees banging against the floor, hands scrabbling to pick up the tiny, silkthin pieces of mother-of-pearl, the splayed, handpainted playing cards, and the almost weightless ivory die. His hands had almost gone to set the box to rights, but other, larger, colder hands grabbed him from behind, pulled him up, and flung him away. He landed with a thunk against the table, and it slammed into the wall again, biting a piece of plaster from it. Gasping, he watched as Barnabas himself knelt on the dusty floor and began putting all the gaming pieces back in the box.

"I-I could fix it, Barnabas, I could glue it if it's broken, I could--"

"Be quiet, you idiot, you don't glue an heirloom!"

Distantly came a knock on the front door.

Barnabas, on his knees, froze. Willie froze too, catching his breath in his throat, swallowing, his eyes fixed on the vampire.

"That will be Miss Winters," said the vampire. "She's early." His hands fumbled with the gaming pieces as he hurried to replace them in their proper sections of the box. "Go and clean yourself up and answer the door, Willie. Make sure the candles are lit, and build a fire, and tell her I'll be there shortly."

Nodding, knowing there would be hell to pay later but grateful for the delay, Willie shrugged his jacket off and flung it on the back of a chair. Then, scooting sideways, he moved over to the sink, bending once to pick up a diamond shaped bit of mother-of pearl, holding it out.

"Barnabas, here," he said, when he realized that the vampire was ignoring him. Barnabas turned and snatched it from him.

Another knock came.

"Hurry," the vampire snarled.

Willie splashed cold water on his face, wiping the blood from his chin. Then he tiptoed past the vampire, still on his knees, his large hands moving more smoothly now as he arranged the cards beneath his hands, and left the kitchen, closing the door behind him.

Scampering to the front door, Willie batted his lip with the back of his hand. Maybe it would be too dark for her to notice, maybe Barnabas would come out quickly, and the evening would go well. Maybe a large hole in the floor would suddenly open up and swallow him.

He slid the lock back and opened the front door, admitting a gust of rain and the trim, pert form of Victoria Winters. Her dark hair swirled obediently around her shoulders, almost unruffled by the wind outside, and there was only a small stain of mud on her shoes. He could almost see what Barnabas saw in her, though she was too sharpedged for Willie's taste. But at the same time he thought this, he chastised himself. Even if she was walking almost willingly into her own trap, she was prey, and that was that.

"Good evening, Willie," she said, as always, polite as a queen. Even to him.

"Evening, Vicki," he replied. Turning, he left her in the dark hallway. "Gotta light some candles, it'll be brighter in a minute."

"Thank you," she said.

He heard sounds of her hanging up her coat; even in the darkness of the foyer, she knew where the coat rack was, she was that familiar with the Old House. He lit the candles all around the room, hoping that the shaking of his hands would be hidden by the shadows and light flickering from the damp. If she noticed, she didn't say anything, even when she came to stand close to him when he lit the long, freestanding candelabra near the entrance of the sitting room.

"I'll light a fire in a minute," he told her.

Rubbing her arms with her hands, she nodded, letting her hair fall across one cheek. "It's always so cold in this house."

"It's the wind," he replied.

When the candles were lit, he bent by the hearth to lay the kindling and light it. Then he placed the logs on top of the small, ragged flames, and blew on them gently. She came to stand behind him, ready, it seemed, for the first bit of warmth that would eke out into the room. The scent of her perfume floated faintly over that of burning sap.

"What happened to your face, Willie?" she asked.

He could feel her looking down at him, and by clenching his jaw tight, prevented himself from looking back up at her. "Nothin'," he said.

"No," she insisted, "something happened. Your lip is bleeding, and there's a bruise there."

He jerked his head away from her outstretched hand, bringing his own hand to his face as if in surprise. "My lip is bleeding?"

"Yes," her voice was firmer now, less polite. "How can you not notice?"

Willie opened his mouth, his brain refusing to enlighten him with a ready answer. Behind him he heard a step, muffled by the carpet in the hallway.

"He is so preoccupied with his duties," supplied Barnabas, coming into the room, "that he sometimes fails to notice when he's done himself damage."

"I see," said Victoria.

"Was it a door this time, Willie?" asked the vampire, and Willie could tell without looking that the vampire was smiling. "Or did you manage it some new way, like that time you fell off from a ladder?"

The steps stopped behind him, and Willie could feel through his backbone exactly where Barnabas was standing.

"A-a door, I think," he said, hoping it was the right answer.

"There, you see?" said Barnabas, smiling at Vicki now. "No great mystery, just Willie's clumsiness. Get up, Willie."

"You should put something on that, Willie, to keep it from getting infected," Vicki told him.

"We're out," he replied, shorter than he meant to.

He pushed himself up from his knees, stepping back toward the fireplace, feeling the hotness of the flames on the back of his legs. There on the small table next to the wingbacked chair was Vicki's present. Barnabas had managed, for the most part, to rewrap it in the brown paper, but it was obvious that he was unhappy with the way it appeared, for he was scowling as he looked at it.

"You must forgive the outer condition of my gift to you, Miss Winters," Barnabas began, "but it's had quite a difficult journey in getting here, and I'm afraid Willie dropped it in the kitchen just now."

At that moment, Barnabas spared Willie a glance, a dark twist of eyes, accompanied by that scowl. It was inevitable that Barnabas would blame him only, as if he had not had anything to do with the scuffle in the kitchen. Something sizzled inside of Willie, and he made himself thrust it down, though he feared his face was giving him away. He swallowed and focused his eyes on the present on the table.

"It got dropped?" Vicki asked. "Did it break?"

"No," said Barnabas. He shook his head, smiling down at her, as if they were the only two in the room, and Willie miles away. "It is very old, but very well made. I'm sure it will give you years of pleasure."

"Can I open it now?"

"I would be delighted."

Vicki opened the present, removing the brown paper as if it were gold foil and just as precious. Her hands revealed what Willie had only a glimpse of before, the large, rectangular wooden box, painted in gilt on the sides and decorated with a large, gold and purple winged peacock on the top. She lifted the lid with her two hands to reveal a series of smaller lids inside, and lifting these, revealed the gaming pieces and decks of cards in their separate, velvet-lined nests.

"Oh, how beautiful," she said, the glow in her voice utterly sincere.

"It's very old," said Barnabas. "It's a Victorian gaming box, made over 100 years ago."

"But, it can't be," her voice dropping as she fingered one of the mother-of-pearl discs. "It's in perfect condition."

"It should be," Willie said, staring at it with her and not thinking, "for three-thousand dollars."

Utter silence filled the room, and two pairs of eyes locked on him. Vicki looked merely shocked, apparently at Willie's lack of couth run amok. But Barnabas was furious. A dark fire had taken the place of the vampire's eyes, and the mouth was now firmly locked in a frown. Willie knew that had Vicki not been in the room, his life would have ended then and there. Painfully.

"Willie," said Barnabas low, rough-edged in his fury.

"Is that true, Barnabas?" asked Vicki, shock running through her voice.

The vampire's attention snapped back to his guest. "No, of course not."

She looked at him, studying his face for a moment as Willie made the tiniest step backwards. Then he stopped. It wouldn't do him any good. Even if he could get out of the room, there was nowhere far enough to run to, nowhere dark and secret enough to hide in.

"It is true, isn't it." She said this not as a question, but as a statement of fact. "I'm sorry, Barnabas, I can't accept that kind of a gift. It wouldn't be right."

"But, Miss Winters, surely--"

"No, Barnabas, please don't ask me to take it, I cannot. It was one thing to accept that very old book, and then the antique lap desk, both were so lovely. But this--no, I cannot accept it. You know I can't."

It was odd to see Barnabas in this light, his hands reaching out to her in supplication. Wanting something he could not have and knowing that there was no force he could apply that would get it for him. His face was blank and open, and the longing in his eyes was plain, a stark, empty light that glinted in his eyes, and Willie almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

"Willie," Barnabas snapped. "Go to your room."

Willie ducked his head and moved to step to one side, but Vicki laid her hand on his arm.

"Please, Barnabas, don't be angry with him, he was only being honest."

He felt his jaw drop open even as he watched the astonishment rise in Barnabas' eyes. "But his honesty means that you won't accept my gift."

Vicki's hand dropped from his arm, and the place where her hand had been suddenly felt very cold. She looked at Barnabas, her eyes square and frank. "And would you have lied to make me accept it?"

Christ, Vicki, don't.

"Hey, Vicki, wait," Willie began, entreating her with his hands held out to the present on the table, "you know, a gift, well, a gift is not how much a thing costs, it's more than that, and Barnabas, he--"

"Be quiet, Willie."

"Barnabas," said Vicki, "I asked you not to be angry with him. He was only trying to help."

"I believe you've done enough for one evening," said Barnabas directly to Willie. "Now go."

Though Willie managed to slink out without coming too close to the spot where Barnabas stood, he felt the chill of the room follow him up the stairs. Along with Barnabas saying, "I'm only asking him to go so that you and I might discuss this in private."

"It won't matter what you say, Barnabas," he heard Vicki reply in a voice that said she was pressing her lips together. "I won't accept it."

And it wouldn't matter if in the end she did accept it and take the gift home with her. Barnabas' evening had been ruined. Not only had the spell cast by the books he'd been reading been broken, but his thoughts of Victoria Winters and her pleasure in his gift to her had been dashed to pieces. And there was, in the vampire's mind, only one person to blame.

Willie didn't hurry as he walked up the stairs to his room, but neither did he tarry. There was nowhere else he could go, nowhere he would dare to go. Dashing into the rainy night would only grant him a slight delay of the inevitable, besides the fact that Barnabas had given him specific instructions. If the vampire were to come upstairs and discover that Willie was not where he had been told to be, then there would be no hole deep enough to hide in.

So he walked down the hallway, dark and long and cold, and though he couldn't quite see his hand in front of his face, and his shivering rattled his teeth, he began to feel it just didn't matter. He made it to his room and lit a few of the candles on the mantelpiece. In the hearth, he poked up the coals and laid some logs on, sensing vaguely the ease with which he moved, the way his hand held the poker, the way his thighs allowed him to bend slightly forward. Not for much longer. Barnabas was going to tear him to pieces.

A numbness took over him, sifting through him like overdue sleep and making him rock back on his heels. He put the poker down and managed to change out of his muddy clothes, leaving his wet shoes to dry by the fire and hanging his damp shirt over the back of a chair. The pants were done for though, the mud gone in too deep for even one more wearing. He balled those up and threw them in the bottom of the armoire where a pile of dirty clothes was accumulating.

Putting on a clean t-shirt and his flannel pajama bottoms, he sat on the edge of the bed and waited. His feet, hooked off the edge of the iron bedstead, began to go numb within minutes, but he did not move them. The only comfort he allowed himself was lighting the courting candle by his bedside. It glowed soft and amber, and he looked at it, resting his head sideways on his clasped fists. And told himself, while his heart raced in his chest, beating against his ribs so hard it almost hurt, that he wasn't scared.

It wasn't long before he heard the front door being shut and the faraway creak of steps in the front hallway. And then silence. He couldn't imagine where Barnabas had been, as he hadn't been gone long enough to walk Vicki home. Maybe he had taken time to assay the truck, up to its hubcaps in mud, or maybe he had been searching the kitchen floor for yet another lost gaming piece. Willie's eyes closed, lit through by the flicker of the candle, the skin on his bare arms warmed by the flames in the hearth. After a moment, he looked away from the candle and rested his head squarely on the heels of his hands, looking at the floor but not seeing it, feeling the rapid pulse of blood behind his eyes.

And then the door opened. The vampire walked in, bringing the scent of rain and of the sea, hanging salt-washed and invisible in the newly stirred air.

Willie didn't look up, but could see instantly what Barnabas carried in his hands, and his heart, still hammering, leaped up in his throat, exploding like sharp knives. The switch shimmered white against the darkness of the vampire's wool suit, and its long thin end danced even though the hand that held it was quite still. The vampire closed the door behind him and the air in the room grew quite cold, the sudden chill damp sucking every bit of warmth from Willie's skin.

Willie allowed his eyes to flick upward for just a second to let Barnabas know he knew the vampire was there but that's all he wanted to do about it. Everything else, from that moment on, was out of his control, and though his anger from earlier in the evening still simmered inside of him, his fear reminded him of the futility of any fight or resistance on his part, a knowledge he'd learned at great cost.

The vampire walked up to him, quite close, standing right next to the bed, the hand that held the freshly cut switch almost brushing Willie's knee. The odd silence lengthened, and the fist around the switch tightened, and Willie couldn't help himself. He looked up to see the vampire's face, stalked pale with rage, eyes blazing, the mouth working as if the vampire were actually holding himself back, and

Willie realized suddenly that it was probably true. The vampire was on the verge of killing him, but something, some inner prohibition, was keeping Barnabas from doing what he wanted. But instead of giving Willie any comfort, the knowledge plunged cold ice into his stomach, and he found himself shrinking back as if he'd already been struck. It was going to hurt. Barnabas' whippings always hurt.

His eyes caught the vampire's then, unwillingly, and the fury that was there grew like an explosion and broke through, bringing Barnabas' arm up and down in a sudden quick movement, the air sliced through as the switch cut through the thin fabric of Willie's t-shirt. He jerked his body away, clasping his hand to his arm, but for a brief second he didn't feel anything, just the slight movement of air that Barnabas had created with his stroke. And then, suddenly, it was as if Willie's arm had been cut through with a razor, the thin skin there cut through, the angry heat digging deep as the blood seeped through his clasped fingers.

It hurt so bad he couldn't even make a sound, only managing to breathe by keeping it shallow, by gulping in only the smallest amounts of air. Breathed shallow and waited for the fire in his arm to abate, waited for Barnabas to order him to the kitchen, waited for it to start so that it would be over.

"On your knees," said the vampire, his voice more growl than human.

On my knees?

"I said, on your KNEES," Barnabas roared, his cold hand coming forward to grab Willie by the arm, his fingers digging in where the switch had cut, squeezing the pain to life as he dragged Willie to the floor. "You will do as I say!"

With a clunk, both of Willie's kneecaps met the floorboards, and he fell, his shoulder scraping against the rigid edge of the mattress. He thought that perhaps Barnabas wanted him there to humiliate him, to force from him the apologies that he was quite prepared to give, however insincerely. Instead, Barnabas' hand cupped the bare skin on the back of his neck and pushed him up until he was half-kneeling, half-spread on the bed. His hand, clasped to his arm, was knocked away, and the blood from his palm made a bright stain on the white sheets. The sight of it seemed to infuriate the vampire; he slashed down hard across Willie's back, the switch slicing open the t-shirt and the skin beneath. Instant fire gave way to a scalding blaze deep inside of him, live raging coals eating through muscle and bone, and he felt the hurt sound escape him before he heard it, though no relief came with it, no lessening of the fire. Already trembling, he pressed himself down against the mattress to stop it, his thighs on the verge of aching.

"You realize, don't you," began the vampire, his voice sounding almost calm," that Miss Winters left quite unhappy with me. And that she did not take with her the gift I offered."

Willie nodded, clutching at the blankets, the relatively soft sheet dangerously gentle under his cheek. The wood was cool beneath his knees, and the hard, cloth-bound edge of the mattress dug into his chest. His hands were forward, almost as if he were preparing to pray, but he doubted that any prayers he might happen to utter would be answered. Even if someone did hear him, Barnabas would be at the ready, stopping the answer, turning away any comfort that might be offered. Blocking the hand of God, if need be, in his determination that Willie should get what Barnabas thought he deserved.

"In effect, Willie, you have thwarted my courtship of Miss Winters. Why would you do that, I wonder."

Barnabas didn't really wonder anything, Willie knew that already. Nor did he care to hear any answer that Willie might offer, too many painful lessons had taught Willie the futility of trying. He would keep his mouth shut and let Barnabas decide on his own, without his servant's input, as to how severe the beating would be.

The switch came down, biting into his shoulders like an angry wire, alive and on fire, swishing through the air, the sound seeming to come after the stroke, and Willie felt all of the air leave his lungs in a rush, his body gasping, ribs shuddering against the mattress. Sweat laced the back of his neck.

"I believe I asked you a question. It was not rhetorical."

Rhetorical?

Never mind that, just answer him. Before he kills you.

"I-I didn't," he gasped between breaths. "I w-wouldn't--"

"Then why did you reveal the cost of my gift to her?" came the demand. "When you knew full and well that a lady of good standing would not permit herself to accept anything of such great expense from any of her suitors?"

Dark heat still buzzed up his spine, and the length of the question swam in his head. He tucked his head down, letting his forehead bury itself in the sheet, and with a gasp and a swallow, tried to answer.

"I did-didn't know, it j-just--"

"And you also called me a liar."

There was a long pause. Willie was without an answer, because while he'd not really said that, Barnabas was taking it that way. And that was all that mattered.

With a sharp, high keen the switch whistled through the air, his body hearing it before his brain registered the sound, his back hunching up, his shoulders bracing against it as it looped around his ribs. As if that would help. As if that would shield him from the sudden swamp of dark, red heat that tore through him, hazing his brain into a stupefied numbness while the rest of him fought against the onslaught.

"Answer me!"

Shivering, his whole body shivered as his eyes watered up, and his mouth opened, but there was no air to spare for an answer. He gulped, swallowing the dryness in his mouth, trying to force himself to speak.

"You. Will. Answer. Me." Barnabas spoke slowly, each word punctuated with a tense, hard blow.

Willie felt as if he could curl up and die at that moment, if allowed, curl up and lay there until death came to claim him. As he forced his skin to move past the electric fire that continued to vibrate deeper and deeper within him, he found that his fingers had dug themselves into the sheets, hard enough to tear through, and he unclenched them as he breathed. Answering Barnabas was a priority, he knew that, even as his thighs trembled beneath him, and the hardness of the floor slowly pressed into his sense of reality. He took a deep breath and tried again.

"I-I-I only meant that you--"

Another blow of the switch cut him off, slicing through cloth and skin, plied with all the strength of the vampire's furious arm. He heard a sound, a cry, and realized it was his own. All the anger of earlier was eaten away, replaced now by the scattered thoughts of a rabbit on the run. Only here was no place for him to go, with the unyielding mattress on one side, and the vampire on the other, who, with his plans thwarted, held his undeniable sense of right and justice in his hand, cut fresh from a tree in the yard. Willie's heart was beating so fast he thought it would burst as his chest pressed itself into the mattress and the sweat broke out on his forehead. His hair fell across his eyes, a dark veil, and he realized he was warm all over. Too warm, even with the shards of his sliced through t-shirt leaving him exposed to the chill of falling night.

"A single utterance from you, Willie, has ruined my plans," said the vampire, utterly cold. "This will not happen again."

Before Willie had a second to blink, the whipping started in earnest, as if the previous blows had only been a warm-up. The switch, wielded by the angry arm of a vampire, never lessened, never faltered it seemed, each blow as vigorous as the first, cutting through his skin with a slice that sent energy deep within him, expanding into darker pain that increased with each second. Every new blow pressed him into the mattress, the give of which was no improvement over the table. The softness only served to choke him, cloth dampened as the unwilling tears scattered from his eyes, and the rumpled folds of sheets seemed to layer themselves over any presence of air. He was crying out now, each sound almost a scream, and he could not control it. And the echo of each scream was swallowed whole by the stillness and emptiness of the Old House.

The whipping ended, suddenly and without warning, though the vibrations continued like hot teeth, eating him alive from the inside, and he realized he was clenching and unclenching his fists around torn handfuls of sheet as he rode out the waves of heat, like coals, that ravaged along his spine. Sobbing, throat raw, he gulped down choked breaths, fought against the press of his ribs, the ragged heat in his thighs, and moved his face across the sheet as if to wipe away the dampness there.

Suddenly Barnabas was on him, pulling him up, throwing him on the bed, and Willie realized only a second after he landed, almost thunking his head on the wall, what the vampire was about. The pain in his back vanished as he saw, in the firelight's glow, the two points of teeth sparking behind drawn lips, and he scrambled backwards on his knees, stopping when the wall stopped him, his back almost flat against it, pushing against the bed with his fists, smearing the newly lain blood on the sheets with his hands. He was hot, his skin warmed up, the scent of him lingering in the air along with the coppery strain of drawn blood. And he alone with the vampire and no one to hear his screams.

"N-n-n-no, no, Barnabas, please, no, don't, please--"

Oh, God, not this, please not this.

But neither God nor Barnabas appeared to hear him. There was no reply, only two cold hands reaching out for him, and the dip of the mattress as Barnabas knelt on it, one knee coming forward to knock against Willie's thigh, and the vampire's face, close and white against dark hair. And hard, his expression like stone, eyes as readable as black iron. Willie shrank back, but the hands grabbed him easily, moving around him to pull him close, the bare skin of

Willie's arms scratched by the dark, fine wool, and the lines of his neck feeling open and rare.

New flesh, under the gaze of the vampire, and tender with salt, and Willie could look right in the vampire's eyes as Barnabas pulled him even closer, the weight of both their bodies now on the bed, dipping the mattress, causing Willie to fall unwillingly against the vampire. Now it would come, and his body, mindless of the angry heat along his back as a pair of arms moved across the torn flesh, began to respond. His spine began to replace the dark pain with something else, turning it to pleasure, the intensity becoming so hard it folded over into softness. A wordless, openmouthed welcoming, and he lifted himself up to it.

His mouth parting, Barnabas bent his head down, one hand coming up to cup the back of Willie's neck, fingers lacing through Willie's hair. Easing the dampness away, holding him steady, and Willie saw him lick his lips. Just once. Then the vampire lifted his eyes, and Willie looked deep into them, like he so seldom wanted to, and he couldn't help but lean forward and tip his neck away. Felt himself turn his jaw so that Barnabas could go there, exactly there, where the tendons in his neck felt like taut wire, and he closed his eyes. And waited.

He felt Barnabas become still, the muscles in that cold body tighten and begin to pull back, and Willie found himself shaking. He took a breath.

"For the love of God, Barnabas," he said, his voice trembling, a fluttering in the pit of his gut.

An unexpected pause, and he felt the vampire looking at him, knew the expression of puzzlement that would be there as the dark brows lowered and the hard eyes appraised him. A tight, broken sound escaped him as he realized what he'd just said, what he'd just asked for, and his body, still in betrayal, tightened up, the flesh between his legs hardening, laying hard and hot against him.

He opened his eyes, and through the glaze saw Barnabas' eyes flick over him, and the hard knowing there sent him instantly pushing away, but it was too late. Fangs exposed, the vampire descended, and Willie closed his eyes again, feeling the start of his body as the sharpness slid into him and then out again, as he imagined he could feel the blood rise to the surface of his skin, even as the nerves along his spine gathered together as if they were coming to a boil, and then Barnabas' cold, hard mouth pressed against him and began sucking.

His orgasm happened almost instantly, like a collection of tiny glass shards that had woven together forever and waited, just for this moment. But not waiting until the point of pressure was too hard to bear, no, his body had been wanting this since the moment Barnabas had kneeled on the bed, and he found his arms sliding around Barnabas' neck, mindless of the prickle of wool on his bare skin, heat building deep within him, his groin twisting wickedly sweet. And Barnabas' mouth, still there, hurting as it drew forth blood, became, for a moment, warm and gentle against him. A brilliant sparking of lights behind his closed eyes, and his body shuddered as pleasure swamped through him, and he felt as if he had been warm forever. One moment pressing close

as Barnabas held him, as his body rocked with it, heat spilling from him in sharp waves, and the next moment, falling back, his arms dropping away, sighing as the undersurge carried him into a gentle darkness, and then, as his head rolled forward on the vampire's shoulder, collapsing, slumped in Barnabas' arms.

There was silence cut through only by hard, ragged breathing that, as he opened his eyes, he knew to be his own. Beneath his cheek was wool-clad stone, rising and falling with slow, even breaths, and he realized that Barnabas held him so that his knees barely grazed the surface of the bed. A single moment of quiet and stillness, of sweat drying and the lassitude sinking him down to darkness, and then, in the next instant, the vampire drew away, letting Willie go, dropping him to the bed, and Willie lay there, amidst the tangle of torn sheet and dampened cloth, feeling Barnabas move down from the bed and step away, the sound of his feet on the carpet loud and startling Willie in that part of his mind that could still think.

There was a voice speaking now, but his old friend, the white shroud, had chosen that moment to come and hover overhead, and so Willie couldn't hear what Barnabas was saying. Nor take any note of the tone in the vampire's voice and so perhaps to discern the meaning and temperament of the message. It was no use anyway, his body was melting with heat along the surface of his skin, even though deep inside him he knew he was shivering. His hair was stuck with sweat to the side of his face, and his feet were freezing, and the weight of the back of his head was too much to lift. And along the length of his neck was a small dense spot that, even as a damp coolness spread across his groin, overrode everything else, sizzling like hot coals had been lit and laid there.

Something shoved him roughly to one side, and he found himself with his head tucked in the rumpled sheets, looking up, and seeing Barnabas' face in the golden glow of the courting candle, flushed and bright, almost human. The vampire was talking again, and though his lips were moving, Willie could not hear what he was saying. His eyelids felt lined with lead and it was all he could do to keep them open, watching as Barnabas stopped talking, seeing the gesture that he made with one white hand as it sliced through the air, not understanding any of it. Allowing his eyes to close only as Barnabas opened the door and walked out into the dark hallway, closing the door behind him. Then and only then, could his head sink back solidly on the mattress, only then could he take a deep, lungdeep breath of air and allow the white shroud to make its presence fully known.

*

Teeth chattering, he awoke curled up on his side, realizing that he lay clutching his hands to his chest, his knees drawn up as close to his body as he could get them. His feet were ice. Why was he so cold? It must be that the fire was bare coals because there wasn't enough light to really see by, and though the candles on the mantel burned still, they sputtered low in their holders. The blankets were on the floor somewhere, he knew that, but as he reached for them, the nerves along his back began to instantly scream, and he froze, the entire memory of the evening coming back to him all at once.

For love of God, Barnabas.

It was like a blow to the face from an invisible hand that brought up the image so smartly that he could not help but see it for all that it was. See himself for what he was becoming. Himself in

Barnabas' arms, wanting to be there, wanting to stay there. To float away on the billowing dark until nothing, and no one, could hurt him.

Give in.

Oh, Maggie, you would never have danced so willingly.

But he, Willie, would. And he knew it. Tonight had proved just how weak he was.

His teeth chattered so hard his whole body shook with it, and he had to shut his eyes against the light, so bright that he began to see sparking halos around each candle. Rib muscles quivering, thighs aching as he clamped his body together in one, tight line.

Please help me, I'm cold, I'm so cold.

But there was no one to hear him, nor would there be, and the light pressed on him, and the cold, and the weight of the Old House all around. He tucked his head to his chin, sobs jerking through him like hot fire, clasping his arms across his chest, gripping his shoulders with claw fingers. It had never been so hard to bear before, not till now, this moment, with the memory of Barnabas' sweet kiss lacing through every breath and the jagged tears spilling down his cheeks.

He took a hitched breath, and then something flickered behind his closed eyes, like silent lightning, and his eyes flew open with a start, his body frozen, every muscle listening. There was nothing in the room, save the dying candles, and the courting candle, glimmering behind its beveled glass. The light of the flame moving as if there were a breeze.

Slight and small, yes, but flickering the light just the same, even if that was impossible. No wind could ever get at that light, at yet it had, sending, just for a moment, fine, golden sparks in the air. This stayed him, and he locked his eyes on it, watching the flame quiver to a standstill as if the unknown breeze were slowly dying away. And then it at last burned as it always had, steady and pure.

He allowed himself to look at the small light and breathe, waiting till his heart slowed down and his shoulders could unhunch. When at last he could look away, his chin fell back down, and he was able to use the heel of his hand to wipe the wetness from his face.

You givin' up, Loomis?

It was another voice, one from deep within. One that belonged to part of himself that had not yet succumbed. Would never succumb. He answered it.

No…right?

He pushed the thought of the events of the night far back in his head and made himself reach for one of the blankets then, though it hurt like blazes.

The newly formed welts twisted, and he could imagine the skin splitting just a little bit, but he grit his teeth and tugged the blanket from the floor to lay over him. One blanket and a low fire wasn't much but it was better than only a torn sheet.

The light of the courting candle burned faithfully. He looked down and could see the blood under the nails of his right hand, and as he wiped at his neck, his left hand came away with fragments of dried blood. It hurt too, there, he must have dislodged the scab, could feel something leaking down the side of his neck.

That was stupid. Now you're going to get blood everywhere.

Not as stupid, in retrospect, as his defiance earlier in the evening. Why not just tell Barnabas about the truck and be done with it? He'd known the vampire had been in a mood, but he'd felt the sense of being in the right about something.

You wanted to make a stand. You idiot.

He'd taken stands in the past, and successfully too, but it was almost as if he'd been more clever about it then, like not doing it when Barnabas had been reading, or when he'd planned a present for Vicki Winters.

And then he'd blundered, as Barnabas liked to say, in letting the cat out of the bag about the price of the gaming box. That in itself would have earned him a beating, and he knew that it had been wrong. Women, especially classy ones like Vicki, thought it was vulgar to know the price of a gift. Not that he'd had much opportunity to give gifts to high class girls. And he was sorry he'd done it, Vicki deserved to have a nice gaming box like that, now she would never have it. That was his fault.

Both indiscretions had earned him a whipping that would leave him stiff for days. The welts would take longer than a week to heal, and where Barnabas had broken the skin it would take more time than that.

But it's not that, is it.

No. It wasn't. It wasn't the smack across the face, or his words blurted in error. Even the whipping wasn't even the worst of it, it was what had come after.

Don't think about that. Don't.

But he couldn't help it, the memory was broad and powerful, pushing its way up again from where he'd shoved it, from the depths, clawing its way up from his soul.

Why did you do it?

He didn't know, he didn't know, he would never know, and as he covered his face with his hands, he made a small sound in his throat. His body had been drawn into the vampire's spell even before

Willie himself knew what was happening.

Admit it. You wanted it.

God, yes.

He turned over, resting on one hip, cocking his knee to one side, making his legs uncurl, clenching his jaw as he eased them as they cramped up in protest, and buried his head in his arms. The cloth on the front of his pajama bottoms, slightly stiff, pressed against him, he could feel that now, making the memory all the more real, all the more present.

Yes, he'd wanted it, from that first moment Barnabas had taken him in his cold arms, but he'd wanted it even worse when it looked like Barnabas was going to stop. The vampire was supremely good at self-control, when he chose to be, and he'd apparently decided that taking blood from his faithful servant was not the way he'd planned things to go that evening. The vampire had had other game sighted out; pulling Willie close had been an impulse. One he'd been prepared to deny himself.

For the love of God, Barnabas.

You practically begged him to do it.

Yes, he had.

And Barnabas had heard his plea. Had obviously seen it in his servant's eyes, felt it as he'd pressed Willie's body to his own. Had decided, for inexplicable reasons, that the answer was yes.

It was like sleeping with the enemy, asking for it. Wanting it. Wanting that vortex of pleasure to sweep him up, never mind what the source, because the source brought with it the intensity strong enough to lift him up and shove him straight into it. And just as he couldn't fight the pain with Barnabas, the pain always won, Barnabas always won, so was it with the pleasure. The shimmering warmth that started from inside of him, melting all the coldness away, sparking through every nerve, every fingertip, was an unstoppable force, making him shudder, and leaving him absolutely relaxed.

But really, really, it wasn't that, it wasn't how he felt after that he liked, it was what happened just before.

He twisted his head against the pillow, as if he were arguing with someone who was there, trying to convince them that it wasn't true.

But it was.

What his body would not be denied was that tiny second before the pleasure built and exploded, when Barnabas' mouth became warm and moved against his skin, so soft, so gentle. Moved his lips in a small, upward sweep, just hard enough, just right, setting everything in motion. That was the moment. He shifted his hip against the mattress, pressing down on his sudden erection and tore his mind away from the direction his body wanted it to go.

The last time this had happened, it had been all unexpected. Barnabas had whipped him, hard, and had become aroused as Willie's hot skin scented the air. What had he done to deserve a whipping that time? He couldn't remember, only that there had been the smell of blood and it had been too much for Barnabas, just out of his coffin, to resist. The vampire had pulled Willie against him and bit him, and the silver sweet pleasure had been a shock to his system, building with the pain and bursting beyond it.

He'd been sure that Barnabas could recognize his arousal, but the vampire had not spoken of it directly, only alluded to it, leaving Willie to struggle on his own with the knowledge that he'd succumbed to the vampire's mastery.

He'd sworn then that it wouldn't happen again, that Barnabas would never find out how it had affected him. Sworn to never let it take him, resist like Maggie had resisted. Yet here he was, his mind still reeling from his body's reaction, his clothes stiffened with the traces of it. And Barnabas, oh, he had found out all right. The easy way. He'd not had to ask, or even threaten, Willie had told him what he needed to know. Willie had given up his own secret without an ounce of effort on Barnabas' part.

A board in the hallway creaked as weight was put on it and lifted off, and the millions of thoughts in Willie's head scurried away to hide. It was Barnabas approaching, and Willie tucked his head deeper in his arms, not caring that he could barely breathe, only wanting Barnabas to think he was asleep so that he would go away and leave his servant in peace. The door opened and closed, and without a word, Barnabas moved about the room, putting something on the desk, adding wood to the fire. Willie felt the blaze warm the room almost immediately, his mind churning as he heard a chair being lifted and carried to be set down next to his bed. And then something carried from the desk and placed on the chair.

"Willie."

Willie kept his head down, heart thumping so hard he knew Barnabas could feel it.

"Willie look at me, I know you're awake."

The tone of the vampire's voice was calm and even, but Willie didn't trust it. He waited, inwardly flinching at the thought of looking at Barnabas, of actually meeting those eyes, seeing the knowledge there, the reflection of himself there.

"I said, look at me." A bit of irritation now, the edges sharp and cutting.

He felt the pushing of Barnabas hand, felt the hard coldness as it rolled him on his side and he looked up, feeling the heat crawl up his neck. The glow from the candles made almost a halo around the vampire's head, the sturdy light from the courting candle setting a gentle haze to one side of his near white face. A face that, without expression, looked at him, eyes catching the traces of tears on Willie's cheeks, the streak of blood on his neck, the rapid rise and fall of his chest. Of course the vampire saw it, how could he not?

Then Willie looked down, casting his eyes away in desperation. His gaze caught the chair sitting next to the bed, the basin of hot salt water on it, steam was even rising up from it, and the clean cloth draped over a rung of the chair.

He never knew why Barnabas was this way, why he would come sometimes to Willie's bedside and take care of him. Or how the vampire managed to deal with the contradiction of whipping his servant into a standstill with one hand, and wiping away the blood with the other. And he found that he was tired of wondering.

"Get out," he snapped, his voice breaking, not caring that it had.

"I beg your pardon?" Barnabas was visibly shocked, his eyebrows rising.

"G-get out and leave me alone," Willie said again. "I can take care of m-myself." The last thing he wanted were the vampire's hands, those cold, deft hands that knew so much, to be touching him. One of those hands became a tight clenched fist.

"Go ahead and hit me," said Willie, feeling a blaze ignite inside. "It'll make you feel better, and I couldn't possibly feel any worse."

That's right, Willie, taunt the bear in his own den, that's the smart thing to do.

But he found that his fear had taken a back seat to anger. Only he couldn't figure out if it was anger at Barnabas' assuming that a little first aid would make Willie the servant Barnabas wanted him to be or whether he was angry at himself. Angry for allowing Barnabas to see inside him, for allowing the vampire to give him his heart's desire.

His mocking words fell on the empty air, warmed by the now flickering fire, and he found he was shaking, not with fear, but with the ripple of heat and pain that shot up his back, muscles cramping tightly, sending him forward, hot tears spilling down his face. He wiped at them with the heel of his hand, then pushed his face back into the pillow. Barnabas already had seen too much, knew too much, he didn't need any more of Willie's soul.

He's got me right where he wants me.

There was a long, quiet pause, and he heard Barnabas shift on his feet, and beyond that, the soft, almost silent sigh of wax being drawn through wick. And then a small cough.

"Miss Winters surmised that I had struck you out of anger over the incident with the gaming box in the kitchen."

Barnabas stopped, and Willie felt the first movings of disbelief. How had she surmised that?

Oh, his lip.

"She then told me that if I punished you for your ill-spoken words earlier this evening, I would be wrong."

Another pause, and Willie found himself straining to hear the vampire's next words, wondering why Vicki would even care. Or why the vampire would bother to repeat any of their conversation. To him, of all people.

"She further bade me to bring you this, and to make sure that you used it."

There was a rustle of cloth and something was placed in his hand as Barnabas unclenched Willie's fist and forced the fingers open. Curiosity won him, and he lifted his head enough to see what it was. A cool, metal tube of ointment with a red cross at the end, and though his fingers were in the way of the writing there, he knew what it was.

"She said that I was to tend to you."

Barnabas might be able to hold back the very hand of God, but even the vampire's might was, apparently, not enough to hold back the hand of Miss Victoria Winters. Take care of Willie, Vicki had obviously said. He's been hurt. Willie jerked when he felt the blankets and sheets being drawn back, his breath catching as he felt the hands on him, lifting the remains of his t-shirt. He turned to move away, to flatten himself against the wall so that no one could touch him, but a large, firm hand on his back held him down. Barnabas, it seemed, was not only going to follow the letter of her instructions, he was going to abide by the intent. It didn't matter which hurt she had meant, Barnabas was going to tend to all of them.

"Be still, Willie." The voice was low and calm, and he could sense a smattering of the Thing, the commanding undertone that seemed to lock the raggedness away. To spread a soothing fog that although sprinkled him with pricks of unease nevertheless slowed his heart and his breath, letting his head fall back down, his eyes half closing.

It's gonna be alright, it's gonna be alright.

And he let the hands touch him, feeling an odd twinge or two, but somewhere in the pockets of his mind he was amazed at the gentleness of the vampire's movements. Slow and careful, peeling the cloth away, lifting the weight of Willie's body with one broad hand and setting him down again. The salt water came next, applied with a soft cloth, the water stinging, as it always did, but the fact that it was warm made it more bearable, cooling only when it slid down the side of Willie's ribs. On his neck, lifting away the traces of blood there.

He rested with his chin on his hands, letting the moment wash over him with the water, not wanting to think any thoughts beyond the sensation of the salt working its way into his skin. But they turned to Vicki just the same; he had not known that she would stand up for him like that, that she was strong enough to tell Barnabas what to do and make it stick.

Although perhaps he shouldn't be so surprised, when Vicki said no, she meant no; even in his earliest days at Collinwood, he'd suspected that Carolyn was the easier mark. Not that he would think of pulling anything like that now; since he'd come to work for Barnabas, everyone at Collinwood treated him differently. Particularly Carolyn and Vicki, who somehow, before anyone else, had sensed that the change in him was real. But Vicki especially.

The cloth was dropped back in the basin and another towel was lifted and pressed against the long muscles of his back only hard enough absorb the moisture there. Then he heard Barnabas take the tube from the bed, and the scratching metal on metal sound as he undid the cap. Then his fingertips began applying the first aid ointment to Willie's back.

Willie flinched at the first touch of the cold balm, at the sliding pressure of Barnabas' fingers as they traced over his skin, at the errant brush of a thumb or a forefinger icy against him. But the vampire made some low sound in his throat and it went straight into Willie's heart, and, as if it had been comfortably weighted, his head sank back down to the pillow. The fingers continued, following the line of the welts carefully, laying down a spread of coolness there, the rustle of cloth and wool the only sound before the numbness set in and the fiery heat faded away. Not completely, it was still there, throbbing just below the surface, but its easement away allowed

Willie to take, at last, a full, deep breath, sighing as he exhaled. Barnabas continued until the last of the welts and cuts were covered; even the deep purple sear on Willie's arm did not go untended.

"Turn your head this way," he heard, and he did so, not knowing why, until Barnabas tried to touch the corner of his mouth. Willie jerked his face back, startled, the fog breaking away. He could now feel the faint current of air against his cheek as Barnabas reached for him.

"Hold still, and let me finish," said Barnabas, with his usual irritation.

Willie held still, fear pattering its way up from his stomach, and with one finger, Barnabas spread the ointment over the cut in his lip. It too faded to numbness, and Willie could taste the slight tang of medication with his tongue.

And then Barnabas was done. He stood back, looking at the tube in his hands as he put the cap back on. Willie wasn't about to say thank you, but he didn't imagine that Barnabas expected it, after all the whipping had been fully deserved in Barnabas' mind, and the careful tending afterwards had been at someone else's behest.

"I marvel at modern science," Barnabas was saying now, looking at the mostly empty tube, curled in the palm of his hand, "that they can contain all of the wisdom of the village doctor in one place."

Willie rolled on his side a little bit to look at the vampire, his face still in the half-light of the courting candle's gentle flame. Whiter now than it had been before, and pensive, looking at the tube in his hands as if it were of the utmost interest to him.

And then Willie found that he had to know.

"Did-did she take it?" he asked.

Barnabas lifted his head and placed the tube on the nightstand next to the bed. It made a little clink when it hit the marble. His mouth worked slightly as he seemed to consider whether or not he should answer. "Yes," he said, finally. "In the end."

"H-how--"

"I made a bargain with her, an ungentlemanly thing to agree to with a lady, but I had no alternative."

He shrugged his shoulders then, obviously the rules for a gentleman's behavior applied to him only when he decided they did. He looked at Willie as if daring him to say something about it, but he no longer looked angry, as if something had pleased him enough to wipe away the memory of the botched gift giving. His evening with Vicki, it seemed, had gone well after all. And though his eyes glimmered with what had passed between them, he did not speak of it.

Only stepped forward to pull the torn sheet and the wool blanket up over Willie and to lift the other blanket from the floor, and lay that on top of him as well. He blew out all the candles in the room, save for the courting candle, and lifted the basin and stepped away, opening the door with one hand and letting in a swoosh of cold air. "Rest now," he said. "You may return to work in the morning if you are able."

Curiosity flickered in Willie's stomach, and he could not stop himself. "Barnabas?"

"Yes?" asked the vampire, pausing over the threshold.

"W-what did you bargain with?"

The vampire tilted his head to one side as if listening to a sound from down the hall. "You," he said, not looking at Willie. Then he shut the door behind him.

Listening to the footsteps fading away, Willie let the muscles in his neck relax even as his mind raced at the vampire's parting remark. His safety must have been pledged when Vicki had agreed to accept the gift, high price tag or no. How Barnabas had managed it was beyond him. Or maybe it had been Vicki who had set the terms, not knowing that a whipping had already been delivered. Not her fault, though, she had done the best she could, done more than anybody had, all without knowing the truth.

Kind. She is nothing but kind.

Barnabas didn't deserve her.

But deserving or not, Barnabas had at last made some inroads in his courtship with Vicki. And she in her turn seemed willing to allow it. Still that didn't make it right, what Barnabas was doing, or planning to do.

He made his mind turn away from this thought, even as he tucked his head in his arms.

Don't think about that part of it. Nothing you can do.

But he knew, if the opportunity presented itself, he would do whatever he could to help her. The glow of the single candle on his nightstand was soothing, and the numbness of his back and arm allowed him to start floating away. For once he was warm enough; Barnabas certainly knew how to poke up a fire. As if one would ever dare not spring brightly to life when he wanted it to.

Sleep was coming at a rapid pace, like silent galloping horses, and his fragmented thoughts turned to the gaming box. It had been a beautiful piece, carefully made, the edges smooth. The brightly painted wood was eye-catching, the peacock almost coming to life when the lid was lifted. And inside, everything intact, all the hand carved mother-of-pearl in the shape of circles and stars and diamonds. Playing cards that were featherlight, two sets, wrapped in silk ribbon. Vicki deserved to have it, she would be the only one in the whole of Collinwood who would properly appreciate its handmade grace, who would use it and care for it, never forgetting its origins. Barnabas had known that, had spotted in Vicki a kindred spirit. But in accepting a gift that seemed made for her hands, she had signed her own death warrant. And though she had saved Willie with her bargain, her own existence was forfeit. He took the ache in his heart with him into sleep.

*

Walking back to the Old House from Collinwood was a little like he imagined a death march would be. While he'd been talking on the phone to Wesley Dale Towing, the muscle he'd pulled in his thigh last night had seized up with a dark, galloping pain, and he'd had to hold the phone away from his face as he clenched down on the very useful and expressive words that sprang to his tongue. And then, afterwards, as he'd closed the door behind him, his shirt had come untucked, and the waistband of his bands began to rub in earnest against the welts there.

Earlier that morning he'd taken great pains to tuck in his t-shirt just so, as a barrier between his skin and his pants, but his garments had become rucked somehow. He sensed, however, that he was being watched from the window by Mrs. Johnson, her eagle eyes making sure that he actually left the grounds, and it was yards and yards across the lawn before he could duck behind some trees and reset his t-shirt. This was made even more difficult by the fact that his left arm could only be lifted halfway, and his right arm could only reach back along his waist so far and no farther. By the time he finished, the welts had been rubbed open and a spirited fire was glowing along the small of his back.

Along with that, the memory of last night, as he walked along the path as fast as his thigh would let him, continued to play right behind his eyes, over and over, on a continual loop of film. He let it run, thinking he would, in time, become numb to what had happened between him and Barnabas. Though he wondered how that could be, the image drew him into it even as he walked, tender and waiting, making him start to tremble deep inside. He shook his head and grit his teeth and made himself think of other things. Like how he had asked after Vicki up at Collinwood.

Luckily she had been gone because he had no idea what he would say to her. After all, what could you say to someone who had bargained for your safety at such great expense to themselves, never realizing that the danger had already been and gone?

He considered her bargain as he reached the clearing in front of the Old House, trying, in the light of the day, to see it for what it was. If he had not spoken about the price of the gaming box, she would have been well prepared to accept Barnabas' gift; her approval of his taste was well known, even to Willie. And, had she done so, the taking of the gift would have set her well on her way to walking right into Barnabas' arms. All willing, even if not completely aware. It was as if, in bargaining for Willie's safety, she had merely done what she had been already planning to do. Her bargain, then, had changed nothing, except for the fact that Willie's back had been soothed by ointment and hurt a little less than it might have.

Stopping next to the truck, hubcap-deep in solidifying mud, he ran his fingers through his hair, hoping he wasn't merely justifying his acceptance of what she had done. And of what was to happen to her.

But you can't save her if she's not willing to save herself.

No, he couldn't. He knew that, realizing as the waves of relief surged through him that he'd been terrified of standing up to Barnabas again. Like he had with Maggie, standing between her and the vampire, putting the cost of his life before hers. Charging the vampire with the vulnerability of his own existence, daring him to make a choice. He'd won that day, somehow, but he didn't think he could do it again. Not for Vicki, not even for Maggie, if she were still alive. In that place where his courage had come galloping forth there now only waited an empty blankness, and nothing existed to fill it up again.

Christ.

The sound of a diesel engine rumbling through the trees cut through his thoughts, and gratefully he turned toward it, catching the scent of overburned fuel, the air tainted by the harsh echo of raw brakes and clunking gear. Within moments, the tow truck appeared, wheels tearing up dead grass as it drove half-on and half-off the road. Sensible thing to do, with the road being still mostly mud, but Willie decided then and there that he would play absolutely dumb if Barnabas were to ever notice and ask about it.

The truck came to a stumbling halt side by side with Willie's truck, and the driver got out, leaving the truck running. Plumes of smoke smudged the air.

"You Loomis?" he asked, pushing cap back from his tumble of dark hair. Greasy fingerprints on the face of the cap told Willie that this was a habit of long standing.

"That's right," he said.

"Well, I'm Wesley Dale, the tow truck man. This your truck?"

"Yeah, that's her."

"She's stuck, huh?"

Wesley liked to state the obvious it seemed, and Willie bit back the smart answer that rose in his throat.

"Yes, stuck alright."

Wesley surveyed the situation, walking all the way around the truck, squatting down once to examine the mud. Then he made his way back to Willie, nodding with the ease of a man who was meeting up with a friend he had known forever. He pushed back his hat with his forearm, as if he'd worked up quite a lather in the brisk air and now wanted to cool off.

"Course, if you'd laid something down last fall, like blacktop or gravel, this never would have happened."

Willie felt the glower surge through him like a weight of bricks that only wanted to fall on someone. He tightened his face against it; it wouldn't do for any report to get back to Barnabas.

He heard a little laugh, and looked up.

Wesley was shaking his head, the hat coming down on his forehead. "Guess you already thought of that one, huh?"

Willie nodded, still frowning. "I told my boss but--" he began, but cut himself off, no sense spreading any rumors or giving any grist for the gossip mill.

Wesley shrugged, pushing his lips forward as if he were pursuing great thoughts. "Ah, hell, bosses. They're idiots. Ya know?"

For a second Willie was startled at this irreverence and the fact that this man, this ordinary villager, thought that Barnabas Collins was an idiot. He felt something tickling the inside of his nose, and just for one second it overrode the pain in his back. He tried rubbing his nose with the back of his hand, looking away from Wesley as the other man contemplated the mud-locked truck and the great feat he was about to perform on it. Willie thought he was okay, until he looked back at Wesley, rubbing his chin like the local wiseman. And then Wesley nodded, his eyes sparking green lights as they caught Willie's, and Willie, inexplicably, found himself wanting to laugh.

"Yep, every single last one an idiot, strutting around like a peacock, nose in the air, giving orders, and bellyaching like a baby when it don't go their way."

The sudden image of Barnabas flipped into his mind, that of the vampire, pacing across the sitting room as he gave orders, head tilted back in exactly the way Wesley described, and the snort escaped him before he could stop it.

The other man let out a full bark of laughter and then began pulling on his gloves. "And that, my friend," he said, nodding as if to encourage Willie, "is why I run my own business. None of that peacock bullshit for me, no sir."

Willie felt his mouth quirk up at the corners, and he nodded back at Wesley, letting the tiny, bright bubble work its way through him, not stopping it. Wanting, just for a moment, to feel the brightness of the day, to move past the heaviness of his heart and the ever-present streaks of fire beneath his shirt.

"Alright then," Wesley said, climbing into his truck, his voice rising over the rumble of the diesel engine, "where do you want her?"

Willie, still feeling the smile, motioned toward the house, to the spot next to the back door where the truck usually stood. Wesley gunned the engine and maneuvered the tow truck into place, backing in so close to the other truck's bumper that Willie feared they would collide. But Wesley was obviously a veteran of many a tow, and as he got out and got to work connecting the tow bar to the marooned truck's fender, Willie felt himself relaxing. It was nice, for a change, to stand back and watch someone else do all the work, knowing that he wouldn't be asked to help. He stepped away as Wesley began revving the engine, gunning it down and forcing the truck's wheels out of the mud with three hard bursts.

Grinning at his own success, Wesley leaned out of his window and slapped his hand down. Then with a belch of blue smoke, the tow truck leaped up the hill. Willie followed slowly, his thighs having stiffened up again while he stood still, reminding him of the night before with tender twinges and streaks of white heat. He arrived at the top of the hill just as Wesley was unhooking the tow bar. Then the other man set the bar on the back of his own truck, secured it, and took off his gloves.

"If you'll just sign for me," he said, as he went to his cab and pulled out a clipboard.

"Can't you just send the bill?" Willie asked.

"Nope, it's on the Collins' account." Wesley smiled at Willie's frown of doubt; Barnabas usually liked to pay his own debts. "Don't worry, I already checked with ole Roger, cause I like to take care of my best customers." He laughed as Willie took the clipboard and signed his name on the faded pink sheet. "That Roger, he needs a tow along about twice a month, you know, and my wife, well, she hopes he never goes sober. It's gonna put our girls through college!"

Willie wasn't sure whether to laugh at this one or not, but he smiled anyway, and shrugged as if to say, yeah, that ole Roger, he's something. As if satisfied with this, Wesley held out his hand, clapping it to Willie's and shaking it firmly.

"You're alright, kid, you're alright. And here, take this card." He reached into his breast pocket with his other hand as he let go of Willie. "This is my brother-in-law, owns a quarry. He could lay you some gravel all right, and you tell him I sent you, he'll cut you a break. Make you an estimate first, too."

Willie looked at the card, freshly streaked with grease from Wesley's hand, his thumb moving absently over the raised, blue type that read Curt Brewster, Brewster's Quarry.

"Can he come by this afternoon?" he asked. Having something specific to concentrate on would give his mind something to do other than replay last night's dark dance. And he would be able to give Barnabas something new to think about as well, when sunset came. Just in case the vampire was considering a repeat.

"Yeah, sure, give him a call, or I'll just tell him when I see him at lunch. You'll be here?"

He nodded slowly, yes, he would be here. He would always be here.

"Okey-doke, then, I'll tell him to come by," said Wesley, climbing back into his truck. He worked the gears into first, the metal grinding together a bit, then he leaned out the window, and motioned Willie to come closer. Willie obliged him, though his throat closed up at the oil fumes that poured out from the bed of the truck.

"You get that gravel laid, right?"

Willie nodded again, shrugging a bit as if to agree to the obvious.

"No, I mean, really. Cause even if we don't get a washout like the one we just had, you need to have the gravel laid before the next rain. You gotta get this road ready. Thataway, you'll always have a way out of here. You get me?"

Startled, Willie felt his eyes narrow. Of course, Wesley was just stating the obvious, but for a second, it sounded like he had been trying to say something else. But the expression on Wesley's face was as it should be, just a man trying to drum up some business for his brother-in-law, Curt.

"O-okay, I will," he said, finally, and Wesley nodded, satisfied, gave his engine a shot of fuel, and the tow truck lurched from a standstill and raced down the lane. Willie watched it go, listened to the echo of the engine die away, feeling himself grow numb from the inside out.

In October his instincts had been exactly right: fix the road. Only back in the fall he had thought to get it fixed so that he could travel between the Old House and town. That was where his error lay. And last night he had been trying to prove that Barnabas had been wrong and that he, Willie, had been right. Proving Barnabas wrong would never happen, and he was foolish to try, because out of it would come only the most disastrous consequences. Just as he was foolish to narrow his focus to the point where his only plan was to trundle back and forth between the village and the estate. As if Collinwood were his whole world, and the Old House his final destination.

Wesley had been right, even if his advice had been self-serving: he needed to keep his options open. Fix the road so that one day, some day, he could pack his things and walk on out. Or leave them behind if need be, and travel light, the way he and Jason sometimes used to. Jason was the one who taught him that when he was in a strange place he should sleep near a door, or at the very least, a window. To always be wary. But between opening the secret tomb and the heartache of Maggie's death, he'd forgotten that. Sometime along when the snows had piled up to the windowsills on the first floor, he'd mentally tucked his head in his arms and blocked out the world. Lived each day and survived each night, with his heart believing that the world was as it was and there was no changing it. Part of it was the vampire's spell, sifting through his blood, linking him to Barnabas, regardless as to whether the sun had risen or set. But was it Barnabas' fault for pulling him down so low that he would fall to his knees, tilt back his neck, and beg for it? Or was he himself to blame for wanting the quiet pressure of Barnabas' mouth on him, the arms that held him turning warm, his heart thumping till the pleasure burst from him?

He turned away from the newly freed truck, from the Old House, looming cold in the scattered sunshine, stuffing his fist in his mouth. Not to stifle a scream which no one would hear, but to stifle a sob that would rend his soul in two if he were to release it. The part that belonged to Barnabas, the vampire part, he could almost dismiss, but the part that was his own clung to him, had sucked him in, trapping him like the mud on the road had trapped the tires.

You knew this would happen.

Yes, had told himself to avoid the trap of Barnabas' arms, told himself what would happen if he did not. But he hadn't. And it had.

But how was he to turn away, amidst all dank hollowness that became his every waking hour, from the only pleasure he knew? His fist dropped from his mouth, and he tried to take a deep breath, tried to tell his stomach to stop churning. But as he lifted his hands to brush his hair back, he realized his face was damp. He heard his own shuddering breath, and with a deep, pitched turn of his gut, realized that the draw of pleasure, the warmth and oblivion it provided, was too strong.

Wrapping his arms around his waist, he walked, head tipped down, eyes focused on the ground just in front of his feet. The path to the kitchen door was a slender river of mud, veins of water making slightly deeper cuts in the earth, and a shift of wind brought the sea air to smack him directly in the face. He turned his back to the stiff breeze, hunching against it as he opened the door, his body too tired to brace against the cold.

The clouds were thickening in the sky outside as he stepped inside, the kitchen, as it ever was, dark and still and silent in the back of the Old House. Remnants of paper were strewn across the table, and mud still cluttered the floor. He didn't have the heart to light up the stove, or the energy to make himself something to eat. Maybe he would just go upstairs and lie down and allow himself to drift past the pain and stiffness in his body into sleep. But as he crossed the kitchen, his foot clicked against something in the floor, sending it spinning with a flicker of light. He followed the light with his eyes and then bent over, the muscles in his back seizing up a second after he did so, making him hiss as he reached for it and straightened back up. It was one of the gaming pieces in the shape of a diamond, and he cupped it in his hand. The length of it was cool and almost weightless, the four long edges more cutting and dense against his flesh. His fingers closed around it and he walked through the kitchen and started down the hall, more purpose surging through him now. He would circumvent Barnabas and take it right back to Vicki. He was going to march right up to Collinwood and knock on the door. He was...

...going to keep it.

The thought stopped him up short, just as he reached the front door, just as his hand reached for the knob. The current of air created by his quick walk swooshed coolly around him, like a dash of water bringing him to his senses.

Keep it? Have you lost your mind? If Barnabas were to find out--

Yes, if Barnabas ever discovered that Willie had purposefully kept the gaming piece, that the set Miss Winters possessed was, after all, not intact--

I don't know what he'd do.

No, there was no telling what Barnabas would do, but it was definitely certain that the vampire's punishment would be severe enough to make last night's whipping feel like a peaceful interlude.

So why keep it? Why risk him finding it?

He held up the fist he had clenched around the piece and made himself unclench it, spreading his palm until the diamond lay flat. Even in the dimness of the front hall the mother-of-pearl seemed to wink and glow at him. And the feeling inside of him when he looked at it was almost like the way he'd felt with Josette's ribbon in his hand. The token of Josette's ribbon, already faded to lilac when he'd discovered it, had disintegrated, leaving only the memory of the time when he'd been able to stand between Maggie and danger. When he'd been able to resist Barnabas' spell. The ribbon was long gone, and, seemingly, his courage with it.

He'd been unable to keep the promise that he had made himself the last time Barnabas had bit him. Unable to resist the silver pain and the warm oblivion that followed. He tilted his palm, the folds of his skin moving the shining white shape, and he knew that if he were it keep the piece, he would always have to be on his guard, as he should be. On the alert, not only for Barnabas, but for himself. To be ready for when he found himself sinking back, slipping down in the darkness, on his knees at Barnabas' feet, begging the vampire to take him.

It'll never happen again. Not if I have this.

He shoved his hand into his pocket, feeling the pull of cloth around his still-clenched fist.

Let go of it, Loomis.

It took him a minute, his eyes almost closing, and he found he was sweating with the effort it took, a sheen of heat breaking out on his upper lip and along the back of his neck. But once he were to let go, that would be it. No more thinking only in terms of here and now, no more blind compliance. No more dark embraces followed by warm, mindless sleep. He would have to, from that moment on, keep his face to Barnabas and his back to the wall.

Taking a deep breath, he unclenched his fist, a second passing before the sweat of his hand dried and he could feel the diamond drop away, deep into the folds of his pocket.

He took his hand out of his pocket, and wiped both of his palms on the thighs of his pants.

Then, shaking a little, he opened the door and stepped out onto the wooden porch. Looked at the road, still choked with mud. And turned his face into the wind.

~The End~