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State of Grace

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The wall came away in a sudden shear, as if it were a slab of butter cut through with a hot knife, and the resounding bang that shuddered the walls and the floor rattled his eardrums like a clap of thunder. Dust rose, roiling upwards, smearing the air frosty white as small chunks of what looked, inexplicably, like clamshell dashed themselves to pieces as they landed. Willie jumped back, coughing, waving the air away in front of his face, but it did no good. He would have to open the window to clear away the dust, but first he had to clear away the debris before Barnabas awoke and found out. The vampire would want an explanation for the destruction and Willie didn't have one ready for him. Telling Barnabas that he had pulled on the old paneling a tad too vigorously would not be the brightest answer, however true it was. No, the trick would be to clear out the mess, and make like he'd found the room in that condition. And then plaster up the walls before one of Barnabas' midnight strolls led him to the wreck of the little room at the end of the hall.

He grabbed an armload of paneling and tugged it through the doorway and along the corridor. Once at the top of the stairs he knew he could scramble to the landing and out the front door quite easily, and toss the split panels along side the porch where they would be disguised by the darkness. Then during the day he could get rid of them more completely. Pausing at the landing, he hefted the load in his arms, only to look up and see Barnabas standing there at the bottom of the stairs.

"What is that you have there?" demanded the vampire, his hand already on the railing as if he meant to come storming up.

How had he known this would happen, how? The look on Barnabas' face was anything but promising.

"I-I--" he began, but a ready answer was not available.

Barnabas came up the stairs, the flesh of his face pressing close against his skull, glimmering, as he came nearer, from the candle Willie had lit in a wall sconce in the hallway. When he came to the landing, Willie backed up, only to find that the wood in his arms had caught on something and refused to budge. He couldn't move, even as he pressed back with his arms, and as he did so, the muscles along his spine seized up with dark claws and he dropped the entire load at Barnabas' feet. More dust swirled up, choking his lungs with dry air.

"Well?" asked Barnabas. His voice was patient now, but the dark underlying tone there told Willie that it would not last long.

"Th-there was this room," he started, swallowing against the dust coating his mouth and rubbing the raw place on his arm that the wood had left. "A room at the end of the hall, all covered in this cheap plywood paneling, an' I knew, you see, that they never had no paneling like that, so I started taking it down, an' then--"

He stopped, uncertain as to how to explain the problem with the plaster, how damp rot must have set in behind the paneling, ultimately making entire sheets of wall unstable. Barnabas would say that he should have realized this and taken the proper precautions, which he had not done. The fault would be Willie's and then Barnabas' temper would spark and the end result would be disastrous.

"And then?"

Willie looked down at the floor. If Barnabas lost his temper and punished him, it was almost a surety what would follow. He longed to reach his hand in his pocket to grab the small, diamond-shaped playing piece, but he could feel the vampire's eyes upon him, even as images from the previous night launched themselves from a distant corner of forgotten darkness into the center light of cold immediacy.

"I asked you a question, Willie, and I expect an answer."

Nodding, he tried to look up, but he could not make it any farther than the small spot where Barnabas' suit ended and his tie began. Or the shiny button just below that point, no, not as the memory of pressure on the curve of his neck spun with that of the clasp of arms around him, body shuddering with pleasure as the blood was drawn from him in an almost saintly haze of pain.

If you touch me, I am done for.

His body began to anticipate this, the muscles along his back tightening up even as they throbbed from the most recent punishment given them. Stomach muscles aching, even as they curled together, pulling up with wanting it. And the surface of his skin, heating up to the point where the chill current of air along the hallway became almost unnoticeable.

"Take me there," said the vampire, breaking through the glittering simmer in Willie's veins. Willie turned away instantly, clamping his brain down, hoping his body would follow as he shoved his hand into his pocket, clasping the diamond tightly, almost running as he led the way.

Hold on Willie, don't let go. Don't.

He walked down the hall and into the small, corner room, stopping when his feet came into contact with the pile, staring at it, realizing only now how large it was. Plaster must have been layered thick in the old days, though how the walls had withstood the weight without bowing in, he would never know.

"Part of the wall came down," he said.

"So I see."

The vampire was staring at the plaster, and Willie hurried to offer his thoughts, a diversion in case Barnabas should look up and see the very large holes the path of pulled-out nails had left. Or note the fine sift of dust that was settling, even now, on the vampire's impeccable dark suit.

"Looks like bits of shell or somethin' in there, it's all flaky."

"Horsehair and clamshell," said the vampire, his voice trailing off as he looked around the room.

At the distracted tone, Willie looked up at him. The tense flesh around the vampire's eyes had softened, and even the hard line of his jaw had gentled into that of an ordinary man. He was staring at the far wall, where the window let in the darkness of night and the pale blue paint seemed almost dreamy in the flickering candlelight. The vampire took a step toward the wall, his hand going out as if to touch it.

"This was my mother's private sitting room," he said, almost too faint to be heard. But the words, though low, slashed through Willie's heart like a razor. He took a breath so hard it hurt, his feet finding purchase on the powder dust on the floor, backing away slowly. If he were out of reach when the first explosion came, maybe he could avoid the more dire repercussions. Maybe it would be just an ordinary beating. Maybe just a really hard beating and nothing else. He gripped the diamond so tight he could feel it embedding itself into the calluses along the base of his fingers.

"How did it come down?" the vampire asked, still absorbing the play of the shadow on the wall.

Willie kept backing up, but slower now. Almost out of reach. "It, well, you see, I was pulling away just a little bit and it came away okay, and so I got on the ladder there, and then tugged, and it just, well, it just--"

Barnabas whirled around at that moment, silencing him just as he'd reached the doorway. Willie held his hand up as if to keep the vampire at bay, though it would do him no good. It never did, he knew that, but the mad beating of his heart rocked him until he couldn't think straight.

"I, don't, don't be mad, Barnabas," he said, the words slipping from his lips as fast as his brain could come up with them. "You see, I didn't know, an' I thought, I mean, an' I'll put it all back, good as it was an'--"

Directly behind Barnabas, the wall began to buckle and bow outward. At first Willie thought it was his imagination, the heat of the room, or the stress of having the vampire so near, so agitated. But a second later, the majority of the remaining plaster on the far wall split from the wood frame and landed with a smack on the floor, shattering to bits. Clouds of dust roiled up as Barnabas turned to look, the cape of white dust settling over his dark wool suit as he turned back around, grim and stark-faced. The chalk gathered in a cloud at his feet, and, perfectly silent, eyes locked on Willie, the vampire glowered.

The nightmare of yesterday evening had not ended it seemed, it had only begun. Ruining Naomi's room was tantamount to spitting on her grave, or spitting on Barnabas himself, Willie didn't know which was worse. In spite of his best efforts, his attempt at getting back in the vampire's good graces, or at least keeping his unpredictable wrath at bay, had become what could only seem like a personal affront. From the second Barnabas had indicated that this room had belonged to his mother, of all people, an uncomfortable heaviness had started in his stomach, building to a sense of black dread that shifted like a load of oily coal dust. Now the taste in his mouth was bitter from it, and he swallowed, clamping his teeth into his lip to keep the buckle of his stomach at bay. It didn't help that the plaster dust now coated the inside of his nose and mouth; he struggled not to cough, struggled to keep his eyes on the vampire's, not wanting Barnabas to think for one instant that he wasn't being paid attention to.

With one last glance at the ruin of the room, Barnabas said, "Shore up the plaster before it comes entirely away, Willie, and then come downstairs to the kitchen."

The skin up and down his back twitched, anticipating the flesh being reopened, the red lines of heat there simmering with a deep, throbbing pain.

"But, Barnabas--"

The vampire glared at him, and Willie snapped his mouth shut.

"Just do as you are told, Willie. I will stand for no nonsense, not with my mother's private room in ruins."

The vampire surged toward him and Willie moved back, only to be surprised as the vampire went past him, not grabbing him, not looking at him, not saying anything else. The sharp footsteps echoed down the hall and then faded as they headed down the stairs.

Standing there in the doorway to Naomi's room, Willie clenched his eyes shut, tucking his head to his chest, feeling the tremor of his hands as they made fists. A deep, dusty cough rumbled up from his chest, stretching the muscles in his back and along his neck, sending sharp, hard lines stinging through him. And then another cough, forcing him to bend forward, one hand on the door frame, the other on his knees as he braced himself against it. His back throbbed as if someone had fully slammed into him, as the dust and snot ran from his nose. He lifted his hand from his knee to wipe his face with the sleeve of his shirt. Waited. Coughed again, feeling at last the sift of dust clearing his lungs.

He wasn't going to make it long enough, of course, for all of the dust to go away. In mere moments he was going to go down the stairs and Barnabas was going to kill him, it was as simple as that. Or, if the vampire didn't kill him, was going to make his mark another way, and Willie would spend the next few weeks struggling to complete even the simplest of chores.

Why don't you just throw yourself from a cliff, Loomis? It'd be quicker.

Taking the stack of paneling, he leaned it up against the last remaining bit of plaster, trying not to gouge the design. And knew, as he jammed his toolbox at the bottom of the panels to keep them in place, that, at the very least, it would be the last time he took the initiative on any project in the Old House. He wiped the last of the moisture from his face with the heel of his palm and wiped both hands on the pockets of his apron. As he walked slowly down the stairs, chalk sifted into his eye and he brushed this away, only half noticing it. The main entry way was completely dark, and the sitting room, too, as he'd not lit any candles there before starting work on Naomi's room. This made the hallway to the kitchen rather like going down a tunnel, at the end of which there was the barest glimmer of a light.

Opening the door to the kitchen, he peered around it. Barnabas was at the fireplace, leaning forward, propping himself up with a hand on the mantle as he reached in and turned one of the logs with his bare hand. Willie swallowed another cough that tickled suddenly in the back of his throat along with his surprise that Barnabas would be tending to such a chore, and stepped fully into the room, gathering Barnabas' full attention to him without even a second's waiting. He shut the door behind him.

Barnabas' suit jacket was covered in white dust so as to look grey. He hadn't even bothered to try to brush it off, though perhaps he expected that Willie would do that. Or maybe he was so angry he didn't care, and would throw the suit on the fire and lay the additional blame of waste at his servant's feet. Willie had to look away now, at the wall, at the stove, at anything that didn't reek of the ruin of Naomi's room.

"Come here, Willie," Barnabas said, taking his hand from the mantel and straightening up.

Throat closing up, his lungs straining for air. Willie's feet refused to move.

"I said, come here."

Making himself walk was like wading through mud, but the Thing rumbled in Barnabas' voice and there was no avoiding it. His feet now carried him forward, without him wanting them to, he couldn't fight the pull, and his body was past resisting. Barnabas snapped a piece of paper in front of him. "And I suppose you can explain to me about this?"

It was the estimate from Brewster's Quarry. His attempt, feeble now, it seemed, at assuaging Barnabas' fury.

"They--" he began, feeling the dust stirring in his lungs and gulping it back down. "The tow truck guy," he said, "Wesley Dale?"

"What tow truck? And who is Wesley Dale?"

Of course, that was stupid of him. Barnabas wouldn't know Wesley Dale from Adam. "Th-the tow truck that came and pulled the truck out of the mud, he--"

He stopped, too late realizing that he'd not actually told Barnabas about the fact that he'd ordered the tow truck. Since the bill was going to Roger Collins, he'd forgotten all about it. A small, but significant amnesia that was now coming home to roost.

"So you had the truck towed out of the mud, is that it?" asked Barnabas, almost pleasant. "And how much was the tow?"

Willie's whole mouth tasted like dust now, but he couldn't even get enough spit together to lick his lips. This was like the icing on a very nasty cake. "He, that is, Roger--"

"Mister Collins," said Barnabas, correcting him as if this were an ordinary conversation and Willie merely forgetting the niceties of addressing his superiors.

"Mister Collins," he said now, forcing himself to go on, "has an account with this c-company. 'swhy I called them. It's on account, and Roger, I mean, Mister Collins will pay at the end of the month."

"I pay my own debts, you know that, Willie."

Of course he knew that; he'd told Wesley Dale as much, but the matter had been taken out of his hands, and now it was being added to his growing list of mistakes. "B-but this Wesley guy, he said he'd talked to R- Mister Collins, and everything was okay."

"Ah, I see." Barnabas nodded his head as if seeing the list in his mind's eye and tallying the damage. "Go on."

Taking a breath of chalky air, Willie did as he was told. Not that it would help any. "Wesley has a brother-in-law, he owns Brewster's Quarry, and Wesley said they could gravel the road, an' I told him to come out for an estimate, and so--"

Barnabas held up his hand as if he'd heard enough, and Willie shut his mouth, knowing with certainty that the tally had not come out in his favor. His body jerked as he forced himself not to step out of arm's reach.

The vampire paused, his eyes narrowing as he looked at Willie, as if calculating the whole of Willie's errors and coming up with a suitable and exacting payment.

"I would consider," he began, "that the repair of the road would be an important asset to the improvements I plan for the grounds."

The hand he held in the air came slowly down, and Willie tracked it with his eyes. There seemed to be some tension missing in Barnabas' voice, as if the lack of information to him about the road and the wreck of Naomi's room were mere annoyances instead of all-out disasters. A calmness that shocked him almost as much as Barnabas' tending to the fire had.

"Y-yes," he said, leaping at this, "it would be, an' easier for hauling things from town and all?"

Wesley's words about making himself an exit route echoed in his head, though he realized that were Barnabas to find out that he was even considering such a thing, the mere discussion of such repairs to the road, let alone the action of it, would end here and now. His hands clenched at each other, nails digging into panic-chilled skin.

"And as for my mother's sitting room--" Barnabas began, and then broke off.

Willie's head flew up, and the knowledge that he'd let his guard down, that he'd been a fool to be fooled by the mildness of Barnabas' behavior, rammed into his brain. Eyes locked on the vampire's face, he watched as the dark form drew itself upward, into a hard line, into a force that seemed to push the very air, cold, damp air, smack into him. Slamming so hard that he had to step back and look away, swallowing a sound of dismay.

It was coming. If not now, then quite soon. And on top of yesterday's whipping--and like bloodred curtains lifting to reveal the swirling eddies of pleasure, the memory rose of the night before, the press of Barnabas' arms around him, the single lance of pain, and the oblivion, sweet and pure, that followed. Of this memory, his body had no trouble recalling the exactest detail, no trouble bringing to life the feel of his body pressed against the vampire's, no hesitation in remembering the sensation of floating, of falling, of coming to awareness, held safe and secure in strong, solid arms. Clinging to the darkness, mindless--he crushed the memory, trembling. Tucked his head down as he had in Naomi's room, not to cough, but instead to clench his fists, lock his mind against the blissful sweetness, and clamp down on all of his own desires. Sweat broke out on his upper lip. With a whipping, it was almost certain what would follow, but it shouldn't be that he wanted it. Shouldn't be, but it was.

Barnabas drew in a breath, and Willie tensed.

"You will repair the plaster in my mother's sitting room," the vampire said, at last, and Willie felt the tension within him shatter like frozen glass. "And then," continued the vampire, in an unusually calm and even tone, "you will recreate the color of the walls and the pattern of the flowers until they become as they were. Do you understand?"

It was an ordinary question, as if this were an ordinary situation. Singular, to be sure, it was his mother's sitting room after all and deserving special attention by the master of the house, but this quiet attitude had no explanation whatsoever. Willie swallowed the whisper of dust that had crept up the back of his throat, suddenly hot now, sweat creeping down the side of his face in one, small bead. There was no telling what Barnabas actually meant, or what he had in mind, but Willie couldn't even begin to come up with what the vampire was playing at. He nodded slowly, and it came to him that the safest bet would be to go along with this bizarre calmness. He opened his eyes and kept them focused on the floor.

"S-sure, Barnabas, I can do that." Of course he could. He could do anything, and everything, whatever it took to keep the anger at bay. "I'll start right away."

"Tomorrow," said the vampire, snapping. "Tomorrow will be soon enough."

The center of his spine sagged as he realized that Barnabas actually meant it. This mild conversation wasn't going to end in a beating, or even a lecture. It was impossible, but there it was. The vampire turned to go, and Willie realized that he needed to get confirmation about the road. He looked up. The vampire stopped.

"What is it, Willie?"

Impatient, as always, at being interrupted by his servant, but only that and nothing more.

"An-an' the road? Should I tell them to go ahead?"

"Yes," replied Barnabas almost instantly as if he'd expected Willie to ask exactly that question. He walked to the door and stopped, one hand on the handle as he opened it. "Make sure that you guard the house well while they are here. I will not have any unwanted visitors, do you hear? If there are any, I will hold you responsible."

"Okay, Barnabas, okay."

Barnabas left the room, almost, but not quite, slamming the door behind him. Which was strange in and of itself. Barnabas never almost did anything. If he wanted his anger known he would slam the door and that was that. It was his house, after all, and he could do as he pleased.

Such as tear his servant to pieces if he'd a mind to. Or bend him over the kitchen table and exact payment out of his hide for a ruined room. Or press him close and fold down the collar of his shirt to--

For Christ's sake, Loomis, knock it off!

He wiped at the sweat on his upper lip with the back of his hand, and then, a sigh catching in his throat, he blotted the sweat from his temple.

You act like you want him to do it.

Which was the most honest of truths, and he knew it.

Doesn't mean you have to ask for it, stupid.

No, of course not. Of course he wouldn't actually pursue it, no, not ever.

He reached one hand into his pocket and pulled out the diamond playing piece. Grains of chalk and plaster had worked their way into his pocket, and so he licked his thumb and wiped off the thin coating of residue. The mother-of-pearl glowed in his hand, warming to his flesh almost instantly. Then he closed his fist around it, tucked it back into his pocket, and started up the hallway and then the stairs to his room. Barnabas had said that tomorrow would be soon enough to begin repairs, though the first thing he would do would be to contact Brewster's Quarry. That would be a damn sight easier than Naomi's room, anyway, and a more visible display of his productivity.

In his room, he took the playing piece out of his pocket and tucked it beneath the courting candle on his nightstand. Then he peeled off the dust-covered apron, shirt and trousers, and then his t-shirt, wiping at his face and hands with it before tossing them all in the armoire. His scalp still itched with plaster, but that could not be helped. Slipping on a relatively clean t-shirt and pajama bottoms, hissing as the cloth slid roughly over the welts along his back, he set the coal fire to burn slowly through the night. Now that spring had mostly arrived, a small fire was just enough to keep him warm. That and the courting candle at his bedside.

He lit it, and replaced the lid, and, blowing out the candle on the mantelpiece, crawled beneath the blankets and lay on his side. At which point his body realized how tired it was and began a series of fine tremors as it relaxed.

Easy now, boy-o, you're done. For now.

Like walking through a wall of fire it had been, he realized now, though he never in a million years would ever figure out where Barnabas' anger over his mother's sitting room had gone to. And, waiting while the twitches and turns of his body settled down, his mind slipped all too easily onto the track where he least wanted it to go. To that moment where Barnabas had drawn himself up so fiercely, that blaze in his eyes announcing that at any second, any second of his choosing, he would take what his vampire's hunger wanted, whether Willie wanted it or no. That he could, that he would, and that Willie would be inclined to let him. With a painful click, he stopped it. It had to be the giddiness of exhaustion making him think like this. Yes, that was it. Exhaustion and the unexpected escape from Barnabas' wrath. Only in the unmapped warrens of the vampire's mind would the wreckage of his mother's room not deserve a beating. Not even a scolding, or an annoyed shake of the head. Nothing.

Yawning, his body finally realizing that it was in a bed and lying still instead of moving, he rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands and curled his body under the covers. Breathed in the cool, almost still air of his room, the last of the plaster and dust now cleared away, and kept his mind on his tasks for the next day. Arranging for the road, clearing out the plaster, a trip to the laundromat, all things that he should be doing.

Good, good.

But even as he faded into sleep, the courting candle casting a golden light over the darkness of bad dreams, his mind jumped, one final time, into where it ought not to go.

He wanted it. It was in his eyes.

There was no way that could be true.

But it was there. I saw it.

Sleep tumbled him home, and somewhere, deep inside, a fist clenched itself around a diamond playing piece.

*

Three days of laying gravel with the team of men from Brewster's Quarry had left Willie with muscles that felt as if they had been pummeled with a meat hammer. His head sagged forward until it was resting on his knees, motionless until the soap-greyed water curved into stillness around his body as he sat in the small tin tub. He could have gone to the Y for a shower, but he didn't have a dollar. He had decided on a soak, a nice, hot soak until he could drag himself upstairs and into bed. This was the best he could come up with, though with the water cooling fast past lukewarm, and the hard castor soap peeling away layers of skin along with dirt and sweat, and a chill wind finding the smallest chink through the door to race through, it bordered on unpleasant. He hadn't lit any candles because the sun had not gone down yet, but at least the fire was bright and warm, built huge, crackling like a house in flames, sending out waves of heat over his bare shoulders.

He'd washed his hair first, then ducked it low to rinse it in the mostly clean water, then had scrubbed three days worth of grime with the soap and a rough-woven washcloth. His hair now dripped onto his shoulders every now and then, as if to remind him that it was still wet, and though his knees were turning red from the heat from the fireplace, his toes, when he lifted them to scrub, felt cold from being pressed against the sides of the tub. Now he sat there, head on his knees, letting the light of the flames lick the back of his neck, letting his hands trail in the water, which had a growing film of soap on the top of it.

Five more minutes, boy-o, and then you have to get out.

The water was cooling fast anyway, and it would soon be sunset, and he did not want to be in the kitchen when Barnabas awoke, in the altogether or any other way. For the past three days he'd avoided Barnabas with the same determination that he'd formally used to avoid anything remotely resembling real employment. Or, as Jason liked to say, the plagues of Egypt, especially after having one too many on a hot day, waving his hand expansively, the one with the drink in it, and not spilling a drop, I avoided him like the plagues of Egypt, m'boy, the plagues of Egypt.

During the day this had been easy, though to keep his mind occupied Willie had joined the crew for spreading gravel, thinking, at the onset, how hard could it be? Get a rake, push some gravel around, easy. Eight dump trucks had belly-dropped eight loads of gravel, 190 tons in all, enough to cover the half-mile of track from the main blacktopped road of the Collins estate to the Old House. Brewster's men had started at the top and worked their way down, and Willie had joined in, eager to help them be finished and on their way. Only after the first hour, the reason behind all the quarry worker's large arms and shoulders had become apparent. They'd taken their time, spreading the gravel slowly, their arms and wrists moving in a steady rhythm. Willie had tried to match their pace, and that had made it a bit easier. But he still was limp and sweating from head to toe each time the crew master called for a break. Ten minutes in the morning, ten in the afternoon, and half an hour for lunch.

For three days this had gone on, and the time between breaks had grown longer and longer, until all Willie could do when quitting time was called was stumble back to the porch and collapse against the damp wood, breathing deeply in and out while the cool spring breezes dried the sweat from his skin. To his credit, neither Brewster or his men had hassled Willie in any way, and why should they? Willie wasn't getting paid, and his assistance, small as it was, meant that they would finish up that much sooner on a job they would be paid a flat rate for. They set him to toting wheelbarrows full of gravel to the more thinly covered areas, and while this didn't have the constant push-pull motion of raking, it set a strain along his back and his wrists that he could feel long after the day was done and he was lying still and quiet in his bed, listening for Barnabas.

That's what he'd done a lot of. Listening. Hearing the step on the basement stair and finding the furthest corner of the house to work in, though his arms could barely lift a hammer, waiting to hear the front door open and close, waiting until the house closed around him in silence. Waiting until he was completely alone. Then he would put his tools away and make his way to his room, light the bedside candle, shuck his clothes, and crawl into bed.

It was occurring to him only now, as the bathwater was becoming uncomfortably cool, that avoiding Barnabas had been uncommonly easy, and it should not have been. Not once had Barnabas hollered for him, or left a note of instructions for him to follow. No communication whatsoever. If he didn't know any better, he might imagine that Barnabas had been avoiding him. But that was utter bullshit and he knew it. If the vampire wanted Willie for something, he would have called for him and that was that. Pure and simple. The idle notion that Barnabas had been treating him as if he were the plagues of Egypt, was just that, an idle thought his exhausted brain had come up with in an effort--

The door to the kitchen opened, and Willie did not have to look up to know it wasn't an errant wind, or the sag of damp wood. Even without the crisp footsteps crossing the floor in the near darkness, even without the sudden overwhelming chill as if all the heat in the room had been sucked out of it, he knew it was Barnabas. His body told him, tightening up in an odd combination of uncomfortable churn and anticipatory pleasure. The muscles along the back of his neck shrank against his skull, as if that part of his body wanted to make itself as small as possible.

"And what are you doing loitering in the kitchen?" demanded the vampire, coming close enough to the edge of the tub so that even with his head lowered Willie could see the dark form there.

Slowly, Willie curled his fingers inward, wrapping them around the islands of his knees. He raised his head just a fraction so that he could be heard.

"T-taking a bath, B-Barnabas," he replied.

Like an iron cold vise, a hand came down, wrapping around the back of his skull, gripping him so tight and so steady that an attempt on his part to move would have torn the flesh. One motion in either direction by Barnabas would either snap his neck in two or send his face into the water. Either way, he would be dead. If ever Barnabas had been avoiding him, he wasn't now.

"I can see that," snapped the vampire. "What I want you to tell me is why my mother's sitting room has not been worked on in over two days."

The sitting room. The blasted sitting room with its impossible, crumbling plaster walls. He'd wanted to work with the gravel crew to finish that job up, but more than that, he was completely daunted by the task of Naomi's room. With the exception of Josette's room, none of the other rooms had been pointed out as belonging to thus-and-such person. No other room had the power to send Barnabas into a stiff silence, only to rush past Willie as if he weren't even there. Willie still had no idea why a whipping hadn't followed the disaster of the walls three nights ago, but he wasn't about to ask. Nor explain the real reason the room wasn't done; he couldn't imagine confessing to Barnabas that he didn't know where to begin.

"Well?" Impatient, the vampire pressed inward with his fingers, pushing Willie's face close enough to the surface of the tub until he was almost drawing water up his nose with every breath. Slow drops of water from his hair slid down the sides of his face, and with black stars beginning their slow dance before his open eyes, Willie struggled for air and grabbed onto the first idea that swam past him.

"S-special way to k-keep the plaster in p-place--" he began, stopping for a gasp of air as Barnabas jerked him sharply up.

"How?" came the demand.

Water streamed down Willie's chest, heaving, stirring up the milky surface of the tub, and he kept his eyes focused on the fire that burned not two feet from him and provided not an ounce of heat. A sudden, iced freshet of air plucked at his skin.

"Shop in Bangor," he began, wondering if any of this would turn out to be true. "Has a method, w-with bolts or something."

The clamp on his hand seemed to be letting up and so he continued. "Gonna meet him end of the week, he'll sh-show me then."

The grip on his neck was loosening, allowing the rush of blood to flow freely, leaving a trail of heat that even the icy proximity of the vampire's hand could not quench completely. Then everything was still, save the fire, which crackled and danced, and the slow slide of a chill drop of water that was making its way down his arm. And the fingers, moving as slowly as the drop of water, relaxed their grip till they rested lightly on the surface of his neck. But they didn't let go completely and Barnabas didn't say anything or move away. The fingers rested there, each one sending small pinpricks of chill drilling through him. And then they descended, moving down in a slow caress to drape the curve of his neck. Softly to linger there, sweeping across his skin and down to the highest point of his spine. Then, with one swift motion, they moved back up to cup around his neck again, only this time with more care, the fingers tightening just enough to rest there gently, just hard enough to feel the pulse of a vein beneath the bath-chilled skin.

Willie tried to hold himself still, but the surface of the bathwater shimmered with the quivering of his muscles and once again he could not reach the diamond playing piece. It was in his pants pocket and those were draped over the back of a chair. Miles away for all the good that it did him. And Barnabas, newly risen, could only but be tempted by the long pull of muscle along Willie's back, or the heat rising from the skin beneath his hand.

All of his work at avoiding the vampire was going to come to nothing in less than a minute. He could feel Barnabas gathering himself up, the slight twitch of the hand now as the muscles in that arm bunched together. In another second Willie would be lifted and held close and the vampire's fangs would descend and in the light of the fire, the sweet sear of pain would be followed by utterly dark waves that would choke his brain of thought and transform his inner core into an overwhelming flood of warmth and light and pleasure.

And oh, how he wanted it.

No, you don't.

Yes, God, yes I do.

The playing piece was not serving its purpose, had not served its purpose, and now there was no way to avoid what it had been barring him from. He wanted it, wanted the pleasure and the pain together, wanted the drawing of his body, and maybe even his soul, into the vampire's arms, and the dark dance that followed.

Then the hand went away, leaving a sudden icy spot on Willie's neck.

Here it comes.

He closed his eyes.

The vampire shifted his weight, the motion causing the wood to snap beneath his feet. Then he snarled, low in his throat, "Get out of my sight." Startled, Willie's whole body jerked, sending small waves to splash against the sides of the tub. He stilled his hands by gripping the tub itself, opening his mouth to speak and then shutting it when he realized that all his mind could think up to ask was why Barnabas did not continue with what he seemed to be starting.

He did not look up as the dark form next to the tub moved away, footsteps stopping at the table. He listened, his heart pounding, the muscles in his stomach letting go of their wanting of desire.

"You will rise and dress yourself and you will find an occupation that will take you from the Old House for the evening."

Startled, Willie looked over to where Barnabas was, his gaze only able to rise to the hands gripped in fists.

"Miss Winters is coming to pay a call I do not wish your presence to ruin my evening with her, as it always seems to do of late. Do not come back until after midnight, when she will be gone, do you understand?"

Mind reeling as he struggled to gather the underlying meaning in Barnabas' message, he could only nod, the water shaking with the motion of his body.

"You will answer me when you are spoken to," the vampire barked and Willie hurried to obey.

"Y-yes, I-I--" He paused to gulp down some air. "Yes," he finished finally.

Almost immediately Barnabas turned to leave the room, the sound of his heel grinding in the grit of the floor echoing loud in the silence. But there was a pause, a single moment where he took a breath as if he meant to say something, and Willie looked up. Barnabas stood at the door, his eyes on Willie, but unfocused, as if he were looking through him, or at something that was not actually there.

The bathwater turned ice cold around him, and Willie struggled to keep his teeth from chattering, to keep his hands firm on the edges of the tub as if they could help him keep from shaking. And watched as Barnabas, one hand on the door, moved his head to the side as if he were turning something away, and his eyes blinked once as he seemed to return to that moment, there in the kitchen, with the fire burning, and the silence echoing, and then focused on his servant.

"Your next project is to be my mother's sitting room, that project and no other, do I make myself clear?"

Again nodding, quickly. "Y-yes, Barnabas, I'll do that." What else could he say? The order had been specifically given; to refuse it would result in something more dire than he knew he could deal with.

Barnabas moved out into the hall, and slammed the door behind him, sending a chill gust of air to race through the warmer air of the kitchen, sending an icy swath of air down Willie's spine. He shivered, feeling the goose bumps break out all over, and stood up in the bath, reaching for the towel.

Just follow directions. Just get dressed and get out. Don't come back till he says, okay?

Yes, he would do that. He would do exactly that. As he glanced over at the table, he saw there was a five dollar bill sitting there. Barnabas must really want him gone if he'd left money. Or perhaps he knew that Willie had no money, for if he had, he would have showered at the Y and none of what had just occurred would have happened at all. Or maybe it would have happened at a different time, he did not know.

He stepped out of the tub, feeling the slip of his wet feet against the rough wood, and toweled himself dry.

*

Willie parked along the street next to the Blue Whale and locked up the truck, standing in the wind, as it whistled up the street, to pat his pocket, making sure he had his keys before he shut the door. In his other pocket was five dollars, an unexplainable amount of money suddenly given to him for no apparent reason. Not Barnabas in a good mood, surely. Barnabas in a strange mood, most definitely, one that could break into fragments at any moment. Willie shrugged his shoulders deeper into his jacket and flipped his collar against a sudden stinging rain, determined that he would keep a weather eye out and be prepared to duck when the moment came.

The Blue Whale was hopping even when he was three doors away, loud and happy and boisterous. Too loud. Definitely too happy. A sudden waft of onions frying and the tang of potatoes in grease called him toward the diner across the street instead. Moving through the ting of the bell over the lintel of the door and the short line of people waiting for their to go orders, he found himself a place at the bar, and settled himself on the padded stool. In the warmth of the diner, and the crowd of people in damp coats standing near, the smell of onions hit him even harder as he studied the splotched menu. Five dollars could go a long way if he was careful.

"What'll you have," said a sudden smoke thickened voice.

Willie looked up at the white-capped waitress, her hair dyed an amazing shade of orange, and tried not to envision Maggie, wearing a similar cap, pouring out the best coffee a man ever tasted. "Uh, cheeseburger, fries, and coke," he said, thinking that that was half his money right there, if he left a tip. Which he would, if only for Maggie's sake.

The waitress was just turning around when someone said, "Make that two," and Willie looked over as the double order was shouted back, surprised to find Wesley Dale sliding onto the seat beside him. The greasy cap was gone, but the smudged name insignia was still there, as was the mass of dark, curling hair, and that smile.

"Hey, buddy," asked Wesley, "you ever try the pecan pie here?"

Willie shook his head slowly, thinking it would be a cold day in hell before he could afford the luxury of ordering dinner and desert.

"Well, you gotta try some, it'll be a sin if you don't. Here," he said now, reaching over Willie as if he'd known him a long time, "lemme grab me that ketchup 'fore someone else does."

Leaning back, Willie looked at Wesley out of the corner of his eyes. Wesley had washed up, but was still wearing his work clothes, bringing with him the spatter smell of diesel fuel and the metallic odor of iron shards. Around them in the diner sat other patrons of various shades of unwashedness, but what struck Willie was the fact that there were other stools further down the counter. A table or two that was completely empty, and one of those was even a booth. Wesley could have sat anywhere.

As if sensing Willie watching him, Wesley turned, green eyes sparking. "And you know what? I owe you one, so I can pop for that pie."

"Y-you owe me?" The mere thought was outrageous. "What for?"

"My brother-in-law, Curt, is over the moon about that deal I sent him."

"Oh?" asked Willie.

The waitress arrived with two enormous, icy cokes, the straws already sifting down to the bottom of the glasses, and Wesley paused to take a sip of his.

"Oh yeah, you betcha."

"But I-I didn't do anything," Willie replied to this, the back of his throat feeling suddenly overly dry. He reached for his coke just as Wesley slammed him a friendly pat on the back. Willie's hand missed tipping the drink by inches as the nerves along his spine leaped, stinging, to life.

"You're kidding me, right?" asked Wesley, seemingly oblivious to Willie as he pressed his lips together until the pain faded away. "Oh, you're a joker, you are, Loomis. Didn't do anything? Give me a break."

"But I--"

Wesley put his drink down and waved his hand in the air. "I don't know how many hundred cards of Curt's I've passed out, nor how many get tossed away. He was beginning to believe that I never passed out any. Sets a store by word of mouth, does Curt. But then you took the deal to your boss and sold him on it. That was a huge, and I mean, huge deal."

Shrugging, Willie tried not to let his mind snap back to exactly what the cost of that deal had been. But looking at Wesley's face, animated by the pleasure of the memory, he knew that to Wesley, and to people like him, like Curt, or even the waitress, the type of payments Willie had been making were nothing to them. Something they couldn't even imagine.

"Hey, I mean it," insisted Wesley, a small frown forming above his dark brows. "You're with those rich bastards every single day, but do you realize what it means that my brother sold his gravel to a Collins?"

Willie had to nod at this. He knew what it meant.

"So now, Curt's got orders for the next six months! Is he happy? Yep. Is my sister happy? She's delirious with joy. Just the way we like her, cause believe me, when she's unhappy, everybody's unhappy."

Willie found himself snickering into the back of his hand, thinking that it sounded a lot like Barnabas and his moods.

Wesley laughed in return, an open mouth laugh that sounded slightly wicked, as if he knew exactly what Willie was thinking.

Their food arrived at that moment, smelling of cheese and fried meat, and the heavy saltiness of fried potatoes. Willie's stomach grumbled in anticipation.

"I hear you on that one, man," said Wesley, reaching for his burger. He took a huge bite, and around a mouthful of food, Willie heard him say, "Man, what I wouldn't give for an ice cold beer with this."

"Why doncha go to the Blue Whale?" Willie asked as he pushed the huge flake of lettuce closer to the center of the bun with his fingers. "They got food there, too. Just as good as this."

Another silent laugh, and Wesley took a sip of his coke. "Hell no!"

"Why hell no?"

"My wife would pack up and leave me if I did that."

Propping his elbows on the counter, Willie bit into his cheeseburger, finding the sudden personal conversation somewhat less disconcerting when he had something else to do besides just listen. "Why's that?"

Chewing his way through another huge bite, Wesley seemed to consider this. The smile in his eyes died away like the flicker from a blown-out candle. "Six years ago I was finishing up my ninth bender that year, and she said if I drank a tiny sip of anything fermented or so much as stepped foot in a bar, she'd pack up my babies and take them far away to where I'd never see them again."

Silently, Willie chomped his way through a French fry, wondering why Wesley saw fit to confide in him this way. Maybe he did that with everyone. Yeah, that had to be it, because it was so much more reasonable than the alternative, that Wesley was confiding in Willie because he trusted him. Because he liked him. Just didn't seem right.

"Were--were you mad at her?" he asked, noting the acid undertones in Wesley's voice, thinking that would have been his reaction to an ultimatum like that.

"Hell yes," replied Wesley, with a nodding snap of his head. "Mad, yeah, I was mad alright. But you know what?"

With a huge gulp of coke, Willie managed to swallow a mouthful of fries before responding.

"What?"

"That woman saved me from myself."

"Uh-huh," Willie said from the back of his throat, chewing briskly on his cheeseburger in order to keep from making any real reply. What could you say to a comment like that, anyway? Wesley obviously doted on his wife, and he let her boss him around. Willie couldn't imagine letting anyone tell him how much he could or couldn't drink. Or what he could or couldn't do. Or--

Snapping his mind away from unpleasant thoughts, he nodded, chewing and swallowing. "So," he managed, not choking, "it's been six years, huh? Ya miss it?"

Wesley tipped his head to one side, gaze focused on the French fry he was pushing through the ketchup. "Sometimes. Like with food like this. Or on a hot day. Or even a cold one." He lifted his chin and looked at Willie out of the corner of his eyes. Smiled. "Or any day the sun comes up in the east."

"But your wife--"

"Wouldn't trade her for a lake of beer, m'friend. Or a whole ocean." Nodding, Wesley chomped down on his cheeseburger, as if the conversation they'd just had was one he shared with his old pal Willie Loomis every so often, and today just happened to be the day. As if it were nothing out of the ordinary for him to be rubbing elbows with the eccentric Collins family's scruffy servant in the middle of The Bayside Diner.

Suddenly, with a lunge, Wesley reached out to grab their waitress as she hustled by with a stack of plates.

"Two pecan pies, darlin'," he said, "hot, with ice cream. And coffee, for me and my friend here."

Willie opened his mouth to protest, but she walked off too quickly, and Wesley sat back on his stool, shaking his head. "Nope, I told ya, I owe ya one. You helped me and Curt make my sister very happy. And when she's happy, well, those fingers around my brother-in-law's fat neck loosen, and he gets the hell off my back. Stops trying to talk me into going into gravel with him. Can you imagine? Me? Working in an office? For him?"

Wesley working in an office was the last thing he could picture as an enormous slice of bubbling pecan pie, topped with a scoop of vanilla, was thrown in front of him. A cup of coffee appeared next to it as a metal pitcher of cream was slammed on the counter.

"Anything else for you boys?" asked the waitress sharply. Apparently she didn't like being grabbed.

"Nope, we're all set here, right, Loomis?"

"Yep," said Willie around a mouthful of pie and ice cream, the sensation of coolness sliding down his throat with entirely more ease than the thought of being considered part of a "we." The last person he'd been associated with like that was moldering beneath the flagstones in the secret room in a mausoleum in Eagle Hill Cemetery. Placed there and covered with his own hands. Hands which still sometimes felt as if they were covered in gravedust and chalk. It wouldn't do for that to happen to Wesley. Not that he was like Jason, being an honest working man he was not likely to go hunting for something that didn't belong to him, but in his easy acceptance of Willie and his sitting next to him when no one else would, he brought back to life the nerve endings that had been crushed flat the night Jason had died.

And there he was now, shoveling in a mouthful of pie as if he'd not just polished off an entire meal and a coke besides. Part of a pecan was stuck to his lip and he wiped at it with the back of his hand. "My manners," said Wesley, as if this explained everything.

"Just don't tell Monica, okay?"

Willie shook his head in agreement thinking that a thousand horses could drag him across a bed of nails before he told Monica anything. Feeling the lilt of a smile forming as he tried to hide it and turned away. "Your wife won't hear it from me," he said to his pie as the smile came anyway.

"Thanks, buddy," said Wesley. Meaning it. The glint of his green eyes, though, said something else. "But Monica's my sister, my beloved Laura wouldn't care so much."

For all his cheerful demeanor, Wesley had problems, too, it appeared. An overbearing sister, a wife with high standards, and a brother-in-law who couldn't mind his own business. Willie shifted on his stool, feeling the skin along his back tingle to life, the bruises there making themselves known.

"Oh," said Willie, not quite knowing what would be the right reply. "Well, neither one of them will hear about it, okay?"

Wesley nodded. "Knew I could count on you. Now where's that check?"

*

Barnabas stepped out on the front porch, leaving the front door open to let the light from the candles ice out into the yard. He walked down the steps and followed the flagstones that Willie had laid as they led out through the clumpy, winter-dead grass until they ended, inexplicably, leading nowhere. It was only a few feet to the newly graveled road, and so, with the damp, spring rain pattering down through the bare branches overhead, he walked over to it.

The bill for the road repair was tucked into his ledger waiting to be paid, and he'd wanted to examine the results before writing the check, as a gentleman should do, not leaving the running of his estate completely to his underlings. Willie had done the work of talking with the quarrymen, had arranged when they would come out to do the work, and had, apparently, assisted in the laying of the road, and it was time for him to take over.

In the sparse, rain-lit night, the white rocks of the gravel stretched out in either direction through the woods, curving against the dark trunks of the trees like a white scarf in the darkness. For a moment, it reminded him of the shell roads in Martinique, which to him always seemed as if they glowed phosphorescent, like the tiny sea creatures that danced in the tides at sunset. Only it was much colder here than in the islands, and instead of the lush, dense smell of vines and undergrowth, there was the sharp, clear essence of pine, and hardwood trees just running to sap. And behind that, if he paid attention, the remnants of diesel fuel from the trucks that had carried the gravel.

Now, as the rain dripped down the sides of his face, he could hear the truck's engine start up, and sank back into the deepness of the trees to avoid the headlights that moved through the yard as Willie pulled onto the newly graveled drive. The truck sped past him, and Willie, oblivious to everything but his evening at leisure, did not look up, though Barnabas saw, in the dim glow of the dashboard, that his servant was not smiling.

Willie had said there had been eight trucks in all, and that it had taken three days to spread the gravel. Three days that his servant had not, apparently, been attending to his work on Naomi's room. Upon discovering this at sunset, Barnabas had gone down to the kitchen to take Willie servant to task, thinking that he would find Willie gone, or perhaps preparing something to eat, as he usually did at that time of day. Instead he'd been confronted with Willie at his toilette, lounging in the tub like a gentleman after a day's hunt, as if his time were his own and he could do with it as he pleased. He'd grabbed Willie to get his attention, to demand an answer, to bring him to heel. Grabbed him, and then--

Then the wanting had taken him, rising up through him with the heat of Willie's skin beneath his hand. Swamped through him with an almost familiar darkness as the humming became an almost perceptible moan, and he knew he could have what he wanted, take the boy in his arms and press him close, absorb the glint of sunlight that shimmered in his now drying hair, soak in the warmth of a body that walked by day and slept by night. Drink the sweetness there, and after, in the moment of stillness that always came, breathe in the quiet.

His hand had swept down the back of Willie's neck, of its own accord, and then up again to cup the hard bone beneath fast drying hair. Soft hair, springing up between his spread fingers like silk, and beneath that, the tremor of Willie's skull. He'd stopped, his fingers frozen there, and then he'd lifted his hand away. And Willie, shaking in the water of his bath, his skin almost white in the light of the fire, had fought for air.

He could have taken Willie and drawn from him, but he had not, some unknown restraint catching him mid-strike. Though, as he turned to go back into the house to prepare for his soon-to-arrive visitor, he knew it would have aided him somewhat. Even as he turned a deaf ear to the rising pitch of the humming and clamped a mental fist on the desire as it left trails in its wake, the wanting had not left him, and he did not want to be needing to feed when Miss Winters arrived. It would be better to be finished with that, even though that would mean going out and coming back before she arrived. He went up the front porch, a gust of wind sending the door even wider, blowing out all but one of the candles in the front hall. Never mind that now, he would change his suit and leave the soiled one in the kitchen for Willie to tend to later, grab his coat, walk in the night, and come back well prepared for his evening of playing cards.

*

Candles made everything, even the modern outfit that Miss Winters was wearing, more elegant and refined. Especially with the rain pouring outside the windows, the light from the candelabra and the fireplace made the sitting room close and quiet and peaceful. And in their glow, the Old House became more gracious and lovely than ever, from the sparkle of the chandelier overhead, to the low shine of the marble fireplaces. He restrained himself from pointing this out to her, even as he found himself drawn to staring at her over the tops of his cards.

Ladies of her station did not usually play Piquet, but seeing as it was one of the few betting games he could recall that allowed for only two people, they had decided to play it. Upon which, was surprised to see how quickly she comprehended not only the rules, but the underlying strategy of the game. In his experience, not many ladies of her station would have been able to play it that well so quickly, but there Miss Winters was, riveted on her cards, placing her bets with care and dignity. Wearing the most impassive face he'd witnessed in more years than he cared to imagine. But she was not a gambler. Though most of the hands were hers, the pots she won were only enough to cover her losses and keep her in the game, not enough to make any headway. In the meantime, her hands were delicate around the cards, and movements graceful across the tabletop, what did it matter that she was losing?

"I'm afraid, Miss Winters," he said, feeling the smile in his voice, "that you owe me six more diamonds." He looked up at her as he tapped the table in front of him. "They're worth $100 apiece, are they not?"

"Here," she said, almost abruptly, placing a handful of gaming pieces in front of him.

He moved the pile closer to him and then looked up. "You owe me one more diamond." "That's all there is," she replied, not looking at him.

"That's impossible, my dear. I have 53 diamond pieces in front of me, there are 41 in the pot between us. You have just given me five. Where is the sixth?"

Discomfited, she worried the edge of the tablecloth with her fingers as dark trail of hair fell across her face.

"Are you playing a trump card, Miss Winters?"

Serious now, she looked up at him, her cheeks slightly pink. "I didn't want to tell you before, but one of the diamond pieces is missing."

"Missing?" Dismay flooded him, and the first hints of the humming began to echo in the back of his brain. What could have happened? Miss Winters was such a precise individual, even for a woman, he could not imagine that she had been so careless so soon.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. We counted them all, and each shape has 100 pieces each, but the diamond kind, well, there were only 99 of those."

"We?" he said, restraining himself against a sudden tide of anger at the thought that she had used the box with someone else, before even sharing its elegant pleasures with him.

"David and I, we counted them."

Well, that was better then. "Perhaps young David took one of them."

"No, I'm sure that's not it. He lost interest soon after he realized there were no moving parts."

Barnabas made himself laugh at this, at David's penchant for those things bright and flashy. He was only a child after all and still drawn to such things, and Barnabas found himself wanting to believe that she had not lost it, that it had been, instead, never there.

"I was thinking," she said now, drawing his attention to her, "that maybe when the box fell in the kitchen--"

"That one of the pieces would still be on the floor somewhere," he finished for her.

She nodded, her hair slipping forward even more. She pushed it back with one hand, a slow, slim-wristed gesture he'd seen Carolyn use. So modern and graceful, unlike the ladies of his day, whose hands had usually gone to their upswept hair in nervous short movements to make sure all the hair was in place.

"It's possible, isn't it?"

"Yes," he said, nodding, "but my dear, it has been several days since then. Willie has cleaned up the kitchen at least once. If it was there, he would have found it and returned it to me." This, of course, was true. His servant wouldn't dare to keep something that didn't belong to him.

"Not if he wasn't looking for it," she replied. Contradicting him, yes, but in an utterly charming and frank way he had found disconcerting when he first met her, but that now he had experienced the brashness of most modern women, seemed subdued and refined in comparison.

"Would you care to go and look?" he offered. It was such a simple request, how could he refuse her?

With a small smile, she ducked her head in a quick nod. "I'd like that very much."

Rising, he lifted his hand for her to take, and as she stood up, he grasped the tips of her fingers. "I must warn you, Miss Winters, that the kitchen is not as completely finished as the room we are in now."

"Oh, don't worry," she said, almost laughing, as if at his concern for her, "I've been in a lot of places that would surprise you, I think."

They walked down the hall together, and as they entered it, he lit a few candles, there on the table, a few on the mantle, and one next to the sink, illuminating the shine of the cast-iron stove and softening the hard edges of the wooden table. And without preamble, they began to look for the missing piece, now long gone, he was sure of it. The dealer had miscounted, or had out and out lied to sell the gaming box at a higher price. Either way, the search was futile and he found himself drawn instead to Miss Winters.

She was lovely as she walked around, hair falling forward like a dark waterfall in the candlelight, her arms tucked close at her sides as she scanned the floor. Even bending over to check under the table, she was graceful and quiet. Not boisterous as Carolyn would have been in the same circumstances, talking loudly to counteract the silence that now hung in the kitchen. Instead, Miss Winters seemed completely at ease, looking at the old appliance of the iron stove with interest instead of dismay, and laughing when she came across the pump.

"Something amuses you?" he asked her. As she turned to him, he was struck again by her beauty, which in contrast to the rough-edged kitchen, seemed even more luxurious and rare. "I was imagining how cold this water would be, coming straight out of the ground," she said.

"Would you like to try some?" He walked toward her, reaching for one of the glasses that Willie kept in the cupboard next to the sink. "My servant tells me it's the best water he's ever tasted." Which was true, although not in the strictest sense; he'd heard Willie say it to someone, though never directly to him.

Barely waiting for her nod, Barnabas gestured her aside and began to work the pump. It took two good tries before a burst of water came forth, and then another pump before the water ran in a hard, clear stream. He filled the glass and handed it to her.

"Your servant?" she asked, taking it.

Barnabas lifted his shoulders in a half shrug, dismissing this. "Well, that's what he is, isn't he?" She nodded as if considering this and took a sip of the water, seeming to roll it over her tongue. Then she took another huge gulp, allowing him the slightly erotic view of her throat as it moved over the swallow.

"Yes, it is good," she said. "And cold."

Miss Winters placed the glass on the counter, and the roughness of the room became more marked as she turned to face him and he realized that perhaps the kitchen was not the best room for a courtship to take place in. Not only that, but he did not favor the room generally as it was for the preparing of food, which he did not eat, and was the realm of the lower orders. Gathering both of Miss Winters' hands in his own, he led her from the kitchen. Down the hallway, which, in reflection of her earlier comments, seemed somewhat darker than it had earlier, sconces of candles notwithstanding.

When their steps took them to the pillars just outside the sitting room, she paused and pulled away.

"It's getting late, I should be going," she said, and he was discomfited by the thought that something had gone on in Miss Winters' mind to hasten her away, even from the flickering fire and candlelight shimmering on the crystal decanter of sherry.

"So soon?" he asked. Gently, not forcibly, drawing her to stillness with his eyes.

Nodding, she drew her gaze away, and with a click, his influence over her, like a fog breaking away in the heat of noonday, vanished. She said she was going, and unlike other women he had known, that was the end of it. Such a strength of character was to be admired, and he reminded himself of this fact as he helped her collect the parts of the gaming box and put them neatly away, shutting the brightly painted peacock lid with a small snap. Then he helped her on with her coat, and held her hand and kissed it, wishing that he had not promised himself that the pressure-cooker technique so late applied so disastrously with Miss Evans would not be repeated. She paused, tucking the weight of the gaming box in the curve of her arm. The expression on her face, much like the one she'd worn when they discussed how the Old House was or wasn't like the pyramids of Egypt, told him that she had something serious on her mind.

"You look as though you wish to say something to me," he said.

"I guess it disturbs me a little," she said.

"And what is that, my dear?"

"Well," she began, her lips tightening, "you often refer to Willie as your servant, or your man, as if he belonged to you." She paused as if to check if Barnabas were paying attention. Not as a lady who was being courted would, but as a man would, one who had something important to discuss. "And this house, the conditions in which he lives, in which you allow him to live, it almost seems as if you consider him to be less than human."

This was not what he had expected her to say and he found himself with no ready retort, taken aback at her lack of complete approval.

"What do you mean?" he asked, feeling it was an inadequate question at best to stem the tide of this unwarranted criticism.

"I mean, there's no electricity, no running water, no way to keep food from spoiling, but yet you expect Willie to carry on as if this were normal." Where had this come from? Surely not because of an isolated visit to the kitchen. That could not be it because she spoke as if this opinion had been with her for some time, and she only now had discovered a reason to express it.

Somewhat at a loss, he looked down at his hands. "I realize that my preferred way of living is not what is considered normal, but I thought you knew that." Now to take the attack, he looked up at her, feeling the confusion on his face. "I thought you respected and appreciated that."

"I do." This said in the straightforward way she had. "I think that your ideal of what life could be, of books and dining by candlelight, of card games and conversation, of hard work and simple pleasures to be, well, to be desirable."

"And yet you feel there is some sort of problem?" Now his confusion was real. "It is as you say you would prefer it to be, and yet you feel there is something amiss."

"Any other person working as Willie does, in the capacity of handyman, or manservant, as you like to call him, would not have to do without common luxuries."

"But you yourself have told me that to modernize the Old House in any way would be to ruin its charm utterly."

He had here there. She had said that, and not once, but on several occasions.

"Yes, yes I did." Nodding, she gave a defeated little shrug. "You've got me there, it's just that. . . ."

She looked around the hall, as the shadows from the candles moved in unseen drafts.

"Do go on, Miss Winters."

"It's just that, well, walking down the hall just now, from the kitchen, it seemed that the lack of luxury in that room contrasted so greatly with the sitting room or even this foyer." Here she paused to look him directly in the eyes. "Just as your life seems to contrast so greatly with Willie's."

"Are you saying you don't approve of the situation in which Willie finds himself? It is of his own making, I assure you."

"Yes, I realize that. I also realize that we were all very much against you hiring him in the beginning. Then we realized that a little hard work would do Willie good. I'm sure we still think so. It's just that. . . ." Her voice trailed away as she searched for what she meant, just as her eyes searched the pattern of the carpet, as if for some reasoning for her argument.

"It's just that you feel I'm a little harsh with Willie."

"Yes, that's it exactly."

"Sometimes I have to be, as I'm sure you can appreciate. But this isn't the first time we've discussed this, is it." He ducked his head to look at her.

"No." She seemed a little chagrined at this, as if it were not her place to criticize, and she were now only realizing it.

"Do not be so hard on yourself, Miss Winters. It is entirely to your credit that you express such concern about Willie. It only gives me further proof of your warm and generous nature."

He bent forward to take her hand and she let him, giving him a little smile. Not seeing the futility of her concern. "If it pleases you, I shall look into improving Willie's conditions somewhat. Will that do?"

"Yes, thank you."

Of course he would do no such thing. The conditions under which Willie worked were the same conditions under which servants worked in his day. They survived it; Willie would survive it. But the lie was necessary, he could see that as her shoulders relaxed and her lips softened. She was a caring individual, and it was important for her not to feel that someone was suffering while she could do something about it. There was no telling where this altruism had come from, but it was charming, just the same.

Well-bred ladies of his day had been like that as well, considering it their duty to care for their servants on a personal level. Josette, in particular had been very passionate about this, flying in the defense of a chamber maid being punished for a small offense. At the same time, she never had any thought for the servants in the fields or the stables, even though they lived quite rudely. They were as much to her as the wheels of her carriage. Built for one purpose, charged to function until they could no longer do so. Out of sight, out of mind, and she never counted the change.

Miss Winters seemed to be of the same ilk, but was more focused, she thought about things, and never forgot the wheels of her carriage. Far less exuberant and social, she never let her lack of worldly experience keep her from expressing her opinions of what was right and what was wrong. With more peasant stock running through her veins, she had a certain strength, though she always carried herself like a lady.

All these thoughts ran through his head as he put on his own coat and opened the front door to walk her home. Of course, Mother would have approved of her on the spot. Father would have looked down his nose as if to say, well, if you must. Dear Sarah would have fallen in love with Miss Winters with one gentle smile, and no one would have said a word about the fact that her lineage was unknown and that she had no dowry. She, herself, would have been enough.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" she asked as they stood in the doorway.

He realized then that he had let what he was feeling show on his face, though there might be some advantage to letting this vulnerability slip. It could only encourage her to expect that there was even more feeling than she could discern.

"You are so enlightened and sensible, Miss Winters, I can only hope to emulate you." He paused to let this sink in. "Though this is quite difficult when distracted by such beauty."

For the first time since he had known her, Miss Winters blushed.

*

At precisely 12:01 by the mantelpiece clock, the door to the kitchen opened, the sound of it shutting echoing through the empty corridors. He had heard the truck drive up earlier, though Willie had remained outside the house, as requested. At last, following orders to the letter, though how long that would continue, Barnabas did not know.

Walking down the hallway and into the kitchen, he walked in on his servant. Willie had taken off his rain-dappled jacket and laid it over the back of a chair to dry, bringing with him the scent of rain and the salt breeze from the ocean. His servant was in the midst of getting a drink of water from the pump. But not by filling a glass, or even a dipper. Instead he bent forward, and like the most common villager, cupped one hand under the stream and drank from that. Drawing it through his lips like a farm animal.

Barnabas felt himself frowning. Hearing the door shut, Willie stood straight up, splashing the water across the front of his shirt and letting the pump handle drop with a squeak. A half-gush of water continued from the spout, then died away, leaving the kitchen in silence.

"The receipt and any change from your dinner, if you please," he said, and instantly caught the twitch of flesh along his servant's jaw as it tightened.

"What is it, Willie?" he asked. Gently, he imagined, as the remnants of Miss Winter's comments of earlier were still making their meaning clear. Maybe she did have a point, however modern it might be, that to deny a servant the creature comforts that were afforded any other man in his station was a little harsh.

"Well, um. . . ." The mere thought of an answer died unspoken, then Willie shrugged as if straightforward communication were simply too much. He reached into his pocket and handed over a folded five-dollar bill. The very same bill that had been given to him earlier.

"What is this?" he asked as he took it.

"It's-it's hard to explain."

Barnabas waited. Miss Winters could not comprehend how taxing this habit of Willie's was. Her idea of kindness to lower orders would vanish in an instant if she ever had to put up with this insufferable hesitation. The wasting of a master's time, the careless air, the--

"You see, I-I ran into Wesley Dale at the diner, an' he--"

"Wesley Dale of Wesley Dale Towing?" It was best to set the record straight from the beginning, though he should hardly be surprised that Willie would wish to dally with the modern equivalent of a common laborer.

"And?" he prompted, the last of his patience vanishing sharply away.

"Well, we ate together, an' then he took the check before I could get to it, an--"

"You let him pay for your meal?" He felt his eyebrows fly up in astonishment. It was astounding the liberties that this one would take. "That's no better than taking charity, Willie. As a servant to the Collins family, as a manservant to me, it is your duty to--" He stopped, swallowing his anger as Willie shifted on his feet, cheeks flagged red, and began again. Miss Winters would surely approve of his restraint. "You will take this money and pay him what you owe him, and then bring me the change, do you understand?"

Willie's shoulders hunched forward, practically curling in on himself as his forelock slipped forward to cover his eyes.

"I asked you a question, Willie, do you understand?"

"Y-yes," replied Willie, barely above a whisper.

Fully exasperated, Barnabas turned his attention to the bill in his hand. Completely careless, Willie had folded it in thirds, knowing no better, obviously, than to spoil fragile paper money. Though as he unfolded it, it seemed to him that modern paper currency was rather more sturdy than it had been in his day, so perhaps it wasn't as bad as all that. Still, it was altogether cavalier of his servant to treat money in such a fashion when it wasn't even his own. Something small and cool slipped into the palm of his hand. A quarter perhaps, or some other coinage long lost in the folds of Willie's workday trousers. But when he held it closer to the candle on the table, he saw that it was not a coin at all. It was a diamond shaped slice of mother-of-pearl. Exactly like--

"What is this?" he snapped, freezing Willie's hand, outstretched in mid-flight as he reached for the five dollar bill.

Barnabas needed no answer, the evidence was quite clear, Willie had in his possession the missing playing piece. He held it up, high, so the candlelight could shine off it and his exasperation was replaced by the collective, ice-cold weight of everything that had gone wrong that evening. As well as the acid awareness that he did not, perhaps, know the workings of his servant's mind as he'd thought.

"Do you know what this is?" he demanded.

A slow nod of the head was his answer as Willie remained riveted on the object in his hand.

"Where did you find it?"

"In the k-kitchen."

"When did you find it?"

At precisely that point, the lie began, a lie completely indicative of Willie's lack of compunction in these matters. Barnabas could see it aborning, somewhere in the back of Willie's mind, working its way forward as he opened his mouth to speak. His servant's face became the color of old milk left to spoil, and his eyes, like round diameters of carriage wheels, became almost entirely black as the pupils grew.

"T-today," said Willie, "today, when--"

"If that is true," said Barnabas with some asperity, "why did you not simply give it to me when I came into the kitchen at sunset?" His fingers moved in a restless sweep over the surface of the piece as he waited for his answer. After a moment, it came, jumbled and confused, as usual.

"Because you, you said, well, there wasn't--"

A piece of grit wedged inside one of the small filigree edges scratched against his skin, and

Barnabas held the piece closer to look at. White and rough-edged, it tumbled into a powder when he pressed it, and like the plaster Willie used in cornices and walls, left a pale smear across his hand.

With a lift of his head he stopped Willie's prattling excuses, feeling the ensuing silence take shape as if it were a visceral thing. The fury rose, and with it, the sound in his head met it with a high pitch.

"This has plaster on it. You have not worked on my mother's room for five days, so you have had this with you for five days." This said clearly and slowly so that there would be no mistake. "Five days, Willie, that Miss Winters was forced to assume that it was by her error that the piece was missing. Or that I had lied when I said it was a set entire. Five days for unnecessary concerns to trouble her, when all the while you were the thief."

"N-no, I didn't steal it, I found it, I was gonna give it back, I--"

"You were going to give it back?" said Barnabas, interrupting, not able to stand another moment while Willie, white-faced and shaking, attempted to dissemble his way out of a blatant falsehood.

"Y-yes--"

"When, next month? Next year?" He curled his fingers around the piece and showed his fist to Willie. "Were you simply planning to keep it until it suited you to give it back?"

If a servant had ever stolen from the Collins estate, he could not recall it, nor could he remember even the vaguest hint of a conversation that any member of the family had discovered missing from their personal effects even the smallest trinket. Not even a thimble had gone astray, and now this. He could feel the anger boiling and the humming as it sharpened in his ears. The evening had gone as badly as it possibly could. A lovely card game, cut short by a missing playing piece. An interesting conversation, spoiled by a misunderstood remark, and then Miss Winter's comments, direct as only she could make them, as she chided him about Willie. Willie whom he had sent away for the evening. Willie, who was so much a part of the Old House, it seemed, that even when he wasn't there, he was.

Now before him stood the thief, who had had in his possession for five days the ultimate reason the evening had been a disaster. He would be punished, and severely, too. Not by taking a hand, that was unacceptable in this day and age, but by other means, and when it was done, Willie would rue the day he'd, for reasons yet unknown, taken the piece.

"Why would you steal such a thing?" Barnabas asked.

White, lips pressed tightly together as if he meant to hold something back, Willie said nothing. Hands clenched together in front of him, he only shrugged and ducked his head, hair over his eyes as he searched the room for something to occupy them.

"I asked you a question, and I expect an answer."

Now his servant shook his head in deliberate disobedience, swallowing, the edge of his jaw in a fine tremor.

"Look at me."

Another shake, and a step backwards, and Barnabas knew he would tolerate no more. With a click, he placed the playing piece on the table and moved forward, his quick steps sharp in the silence, and grabbed Willie with one hand, circling fingers around his neck. Realizing that the question of why wasn't as important as the fact that he had.

"How dare you keep it," he hissed, watching Willie cringing before him, knowing he needed to keep himself from killing outright. The flesh beneath his hand was chilled, the pulse of heartbeat rapid and flying as if to get away. "How dare you."

With a snap of his wrist he sent Willie across the room to land against the wall. There was a sharp sound as if something had broken, and Barnabas realized only dimly it was the plaster in the wall cracking with the weight of Willie's body. Striding closer, his hand held out. Justice would be served. Willie would learn a lesson, so well deserved, about stealing from one's betters.

"Give me your belt."

There was protest in Willie's eyes, a small flicker that he took no pains to hide. He was even shaking his head no as his eyes closed slowly shut. Barnabas grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and jerked him forward, ignoring the sharp sound of Willie's breath as it caught in his throat.

"If you do not give me your belt, I will get my cane and tear you apart with it," he said, low, feeling the darkness rise. It was so much easier to use physical force with Willie than the powers that came with his curse, so much less effort required, but sometimes it was necessary to give his orders extra weight. "I will teach you the consequences of theft in this household."

With a small twitch of his fingers, he released Willie, who stumbled back, collar askew, and reached for his belt. Obedient, head down, hands shaking as he undid the buckle. He seemed to pause then, as the last of it was undone, just before he slid the belt from its loops. Then he looked up, hands at his waist, eyes wide, hope glittering there like fragile stars.

"B-Barnabas--" he began.

"Willie," Barnabas snapped, not wanting to deal with any pleas for mercy. His servant dropped his head, trembling, one hand pulling the belt from his trousers while the other guided it through. He folded the belt over slowly in his hand. Then, with a small catch in his throat, he placed it on the table.

It was now beyond reasonable trepidation, it had now become out and out defiance.

"Hand it to me. Now."

Willie was backing away slowly, as if through deep water, his hands rising to his head, mouth open, a flush rising in his face. As if he were hot, as if a furnace had been lit at dawn and were only now coming to high heat. The remains of the daylight's sun glinted in Willie's hair as he neared the wall. Blue eyes, almost dark in the candlelight, not catching on anything, but hanging unfocused, took on an ocean-bright haze. An ocean in the daytime, fully shimmered by the midday sun. The tang of salt, the perspiration of Willie's fear, came at him like a breeze across late-afternoon sand dunes.

Barnabas felt the humming inside of him burst to an overwhelming pitch, and, zeroing in on the source of the heat, his eyes tracked the rapid pulse there on the curve of Willie's neck. Knowing that if he had fed more, he would not be needing this, that if his anger over the spoiled evening with Miss Winters had been less draining, he would not be wanting this. But there it was, the warmth of living flesh, the rumpled collar parted to reveal the slant of skin as if for him alone. In his house. Under his roof.

His.

Willie had backed up as far as the wall would let him, pressing himself to it, trapped between the wall and the corner of the table that jutted out. He could go no further, it was obvious to see, yet something in his stance told Barnabas that he would not have taken flight even if he were able. It wasn't the table keeping him there, nor even the thrall of a vampire's gaze. No, it was himself doing this, legs taut like cabled wire, arms stiffly at his sides, hands pressed against the wall. Head thrown back, eyes now locked on Barnabas and nothing else, his entire body frozen in one place, his whole frame shaking like a mast-line in a high wind. Barnabas moved quickly forward, gathering the boy in his arms, hearing the single gasp. A sound, not of protest but, more, of recognition. Of acceptance. Surrender.

As he pulled Willie close, he felt the boy's hands grasping the shoulders of his suit jacket, the body curve into his. Saw the neck tilt away in offering. He cupped his hand around the base of the boy's skull, the flesh there simmering with heat and dampness.

I will not waste this.

Willie shifted then, moving closer, legs wide and braced, the hardness of his sex now fully against Barnabas' thigh, hot even through layers of cloth. His whole body like braided cord, pulled tight, and thrumming with a heart pushed to beat past normal limits.

Barnabas sifted in close. Caught the faded scent of soap, and the echo of woodsmoke, and behind that, the faint sweetness of Willie's sweat. And, moving past the tang of fear, bent near to linger over the dusk of pure, driven desire. But in his throat, as though from deep within his soul, Willie made a small sound, like the yelp of a pup too tightly grabbed by the scruff of the neck. Or the faint, faraway echo of a small child lost deep within a cave.

Stay. I will find you.

From within him, beyond the source of darkness, beneath the iron core of the curse placed upon him so long ago, came something that he'd lost so long it had been forgotten. Born in daytime and fed by crystalline light, blue shadows and the sleepy, golden furze of wheat fields at harvest time. Grapes grown and gathered, shielded hayracks, and silver nets tossed over sapphire blue water. And all around, the air, shimmering, mid-autumn air, blue and white, and the far off distant, smoky haze of the horizon. From daylight, it came.

With both hands, he clasped Willie's head, his fingers woven through strands of skylit hair, bringing the pewter-blue eyes up to meet his gaze. Willie blinked as though he were seeing something he could not bear to look at, his chest rising and falling in sudden short gasps. Mouth open, skin moist and tempting, dark brows drawn together.

"Easy, Willie," he said, keeping his voice low, sweeping the boy's forelock back with the edge of one hand. "It will be alright."

The body stilled against him, and the eyes, glazed, unfocused, caught in the net of gentle words. Heart slowing, breath coming easier now. And still hot against him, braided cord less taut, still heated by the day. Still ready.

Still.

Lifting his hand away, he tucked his head close in the curve of Willie's neck, lips skimming the surface of silkened skin, over the cord of muscle, angled like a lance. A whisper kiss, and then he let his fangs descend. In a brief, sharp arc, Willie tightened against him, jerking as Barnabas pulled his fangs out, hands clenching tighter and then letting go. Letting his whole body fall into wool-clad arms. A human body, warm and long against him, pressed fully to his own from chest to thigh, and breathing slow, as though asleep.

Now relaxed, the spill of blood released, and Barnabas swept down, letting his lips linger over the raw, punctured edges of flesh. And, sealing his mouth around the new wound, allowed the pump of blood to flow into him.

Fire and sweet and hot. Always hot, it seemed, as if within him, Willie burned with a neverending flame, banked with diamond-hard coals. The arms reached up to encircle the breadth of his shoulders, and the body within the curve of his arms began a slow tremor, as if he were being shaken by a raging fire some distance off. A fire that came suddenly, inexplicably closer, fed by invisible winds and an unstoppable heart. Then, as if the braided cord were pulled end to end as the flames hit it, Willie jackknifed forward, breaking the seal of the vampire's mouth, sending a loop of blood spraying across Willie's collar and the vampire's white shirt cuff. Sending the boy forward in a hard-boned tumble. Stiff while he shook as the pleasure lanced through him. Breath gasping in Barnabas' ear, one, small, deep, guttural sigh as his orgasm reached its highest peak. The spill of sweat as Willie collapsed against his neck, the cadence of his breathing harsh and aged as he grasped for purchase to steady himself.

"Stay. I have you."

Relaxed now. Damp spill of hair brushing Barnabas' cheek as the vampire circled the boy in his arms, supported him as he rocked slowly on unsteady feet. With one hand, he stroked the boy's back, long, slow movements as one would use to calm a troubled beast shaken by thunder.

The human heart, pressed against his chest, slowed its pounding. Bit by bit, Willie's breathing calmed. The shoulders stopped shaking. And then the moment came.

Like a little piece of daylight shining through a sudden and inexplicable break in the clouds. Stillness. Warmth moving through him, breaking the clench of ice-hardness within. And a sigh, whether Willie's or his own, he did not know, echoing through the blackness of the kitchen until it faded softly away. Tension eased away under the mists of fire that surrounded them. Cold melted. Darkness abated. The silence. And the stillness, like the grace of heaven descended.

He looked down. Willie's hands were two tight fists, clenched against his own chest. There was a smear of drying blood across the back of one of them, layered across the sleeve of his shirt. And they were trembling. Slightly.

"Steady now."

It did not work. The moment was gone, and Willie began struggling, his feet stumbling over themselves, over the uneven floorboards, to get away. Barnabas held him tight for a second, feeling the clutch of Willie's hands as he looped them over the vampire's forearms, as if trying to find leverage. Like a wolverine's claws they were, and sharp, digging in, though Willie only managed to thump himself into the wall, the wood making a solid snapping sound as he hit it. His head landed with a hard thunk as Willie slipped out of Barnabas' grasp to land fully against it. He was shaking. Hovering against the wall, saying something to himself, over and over. Barnabas bent close to catch the rising cadence.

"No...no...no...no..."

The vampire, the pure spark of dismay within him flattened by a flash of anger, grabbed the boy by both shoulders. Whatever was the matter now? The exchange of blood had been a mutual thing; he'd not even had to ask. He'd barely raised his voice to Willie. What's more, there had been no consequences, not even for something as serious as theft. Willie had taken, ultimately, no punishment, and yet here he was, falling apart as if he had, the dampness of tears dappling the white skin over his cheekbones. And then he caught Willie's eyes alight on the playing piece on the table, as if he'd been searching for it. And the question from before rose in his head.

"Why would you take such a thing, Willie?" he asked. Quietly, at first. And then, as Willie shuddered and tried to pull away, he gripped harder till he could feel the solid bone through flesh. "Why?"

"N-no--"

Barnabas shook him, mindful of the blood still oozing from the wound on Willie's neck, the dark bruise his mouth had left rising to the surface in mottled purple. But Willie, blind, mouth open, whipped his head back, managed to free one hand and jerked it back so fast he knocked it against the wall. Hard enough to tear skin. Barnabas could see the newly torn flesh, even as Willie cupped the back of his hand to his mouth, as if to instinctively ease the sting. Lips trembling almost as much as his hand, he could barely make contact between the two, and Barnabas grasped the hand and pulled it away.

"You will tell me," he said, feeling the last flush of pleasure fade away, even as the blood from Willie's veins melded with his own.

"No," said Willie, almost clearly, but as if to himself and not to his master. He shook his head, chin dropping, hair falling forward, strands of it damply clinging to his forehead. Pressing forward, Barnabas dropped his hands and moved in until he was standing close to Willie. Close enough so that the boy had nowhere to go. All escape routes blocked off, either by the table, the wall, or Barnabas himself.

"You will tell me," he repeated. "And you will tell me now." The piece had no value on its own. In connection with its kind, it was quite valuable. Alone it was worth nothing, other than its mild beauty, certainly holding no attraction for someone like Willie. And yet he had taken it. Carried it around with him, though he must have known its discovery upon his person to carry the most dire of consequences.

"Now, Willie," he said, feeling the dark timbre rise in his voice. Servants had no secrets in his day, and were they unlucky enough to chance upon one, they would be enjoined to keep it only for their master's sake.

At this, Willie's lashes flickered across his cheeks, as if he were now coming awake from some faraway thought. His head lifted up, and Barnabas could see his eyes, greyed from blood loss and fatigue. He seemed, at last, to realize that Barnabas was standing close enough for his human shoulder to nudge the vampire's chest. A slight tremor flashed through him.

Barnabas moved forward and closed his hands around Willie's face, blood smearing beneath his fingertips across the pallid cheeks as he looked directly into Willie's eyes.

"Tell me," he said, feeling the weight of darkness in his voice. "Tell me."

Struggling, mouth working, Willie could not break his gaze away. Could not keep his mouth from opening and the words from tumbling forth. "To k-keep me from w-wanting it," Willie managed, the harsh cadence of a sob in his voice.

"Wanting it? It?"

A pause. Breath like stumbled steps, eyes the color of the sea at the churn of mid-winter's daybreak.

"You," he whispered.

Utterly confused, it was as if someone had stolen the daylight away. Frozen, locked in place, Barnabas let the weight of Willie's body slip from his fingers and he could barely sense the tumble of bones as his servant crumpled up and fell to the floor. His mind reeled and he felt as if he'd taken a giant step backward off a cliff's edge.

He could hardly bear the brightness of the kitchen, the scent of Willie's fear rising like tainted salt over the dusky pulse of spent passion. With one motion he picked up the playing piece from the table and stepped over Willie's form, curled up on the floor. Quick strides took him from the kitchen and up the stairs. Down the hall to his mother's room, lit in darkness by only the flickering of stars through the window.

If he waited, if he stood absolutely still, he could imagine that all was as it had been. That his mother waited in the quietness for her son to speak, as she had done so many times. Sitting in her comfortable chair, with needlepoint in her hand or perhaps a bit of lace that she was mending, the skirts of her day dress spread like petals over her feet. Waiting while the glow of sunlight moved its way across the floor, with the patience he'd seen in so few women but that his mother, who never failed to move him with her love for him, possessed in abundance.

He moved the playing piece like a worry stone between his fingers. Felt the caution of the growing stillness as the play of light and shadow, through narrowed eyes, began to feel more and more as if she were present. Waiting. Listening. As if the thoughts in his head could be heard by her. He'd known his servant had guilt over his body's own desire. Known that Willie could not quite face the fact that he wanted the vampire to take him, wanted the release that the bite would give him, no, Willie had never been able to reconcile himself to this. Perhaps he'd felt vulnerable and exposed, or even shy about having pulsed his seed into nothingness.

But Willie had not refused him, especially not this time. His servant had stayed close and allowed himself to be taken. A blatant offering in return for pleasure, an open exchange if a man looked at it one way. But Willie, his trusted servant, had taken something that did not belong to him in order to keep from wanting it. Looked at that way, it was entirely different, showing instead a picture of resistance and fear. Resistance of Barnabas and fear of his own desires.

You. To keep me from wanting you, Willie had said.

His servant had kept the playing piece like a talisman against the darkness. Surely he had realized how great the chances of discovery would have been, but perhaps that had been part of his own plan to keep himself on the alert. He had wanted it.

But.

He didn't want to want it. And unlike a coquette playing with fire who realizes too late the price of the game, Willie had fought his own desires with the desperation of a man hanging from a cliff. When forced to reveal the machinations of his heart, there had been a tightness in Willie's face, and unfallen tears, like mournful rain in an unpromised sky. Barnabas he'd always looked down his nose at those who boasted of taking every maid in a household, and had always believed that with an elevated rank came elevated responsibilities. And that included resisting the weakness of one's own impulses. Barnabas' taking Willie, in this way that they had between them, when his servant wasn't completely willing, was tantamount to rape. Whatever else he had done, whatever else he was, he was above that.

He held out hand in front of him, the playing piece glowing softly in the darkness. Cautioning himself to remember that there would be no answer to his question, he asked it just the same. "Mother, what shall I do?"

*

The ache in Willie's neck, head dipping low enough to knock the floorboards, did not even begin to compete with the ache in his heart. If indeed, he still had one. That it hadn't been swallowed whole by the bottomless pull of its own desire.

You let him. You let him do it.

It.

Take him down, plunge the vest of his soul, set to fly the dream, where the moment had come like sparkling light, and another after it, and a thousand more after that until he was only light himself, weightless, and streaming through every pore the pleasure, with gentle and constant hands, had carried him away. The vampire had given him this. A kiss to gentle him, and then succor afterwards, stroking his back with all the tenderness of a father to a beloved child. And then the softness had turned to bitter steel when Barnabas had forced from him the secret he'd sworn to keep. Leaving an odd expression on the vampire's face in that bare second before the vampire had dropped him. Unclenched his iron-cold fist, and let go. Barnabas' face had gone blank. Simply blank, as if a thought had occurred to him that he could not understand. Or if he could understand, could not believe.

Shuddering, Willie drew his knees underneath himself and pushed with his elbows against the floor. An instant ringing in his ears, like a frantic alarm bell, stopped him. He paused, concentrating on breathing, on not buckling, of sitting upright until at last his back was pressed against the cool wall and his head lolled to one side. There were no weals of heat pressed close by the weight of his body. No tight muscles to protest any movement. The blessing of that was countered by the isolated throbbing along the muscles of his neck. With no competition, save the stabbing anguish in his heart, the wounds there stood out, with the clarity of a sudden dash of hot water in a cold tub.

He made me.

No, the truth.

You made yourself.

Hadn't he?

Did that matter? He'd screwed up just the same, albeit inadvertently, giving Barnabas the gaming piece. And after promising himself to keep it a secret forever, it was almost too much to imagine that he'd given himself up like that. A mistake, right? Handing that piece over, knowing what the result would be. Or rather imagining what the result would be. Never in a million years would he have thought that Barnabas would have foregone the very, in the vampire's mind, deserved beating, and gone straight for the kill.

An excuse. The gaming piece had been an excuse for the vampire. And Willie knew he himself had been careless. Yes, that was it. Had to be. You couldn't plan something like that. Could you? Had he actually done it on purpose?

Head ringing, mouth dry, he bent to one side and pushed himself till he was kneeling on all fours. Head like weighted lead, the floorboards doing a small dance until the second he snapped his eyes shut. He was okay, he was going to make it. Just had to get up. Wash away the blood. Change his shirt. Go on as if nothing had happened. Though that was proving to be somewhat difficult as he got to his feet and felt the slight ache of muscles that had been pulled in two directions at once, and the faint, faraway pulse in his groin. Any attempt at denial would carry him no further than the sink. Even as he stumbled over to it and used both hands to move the pump, his own words came up to slap him in the face.

To keep me from wanting it.

It?

You.

With shaking hands, he splashed water into his mouth, lifted the pump again and stuck his mouth under the stream. Swallowed as it ended, ice cold water slipping down his chin. Knowing he'd wanted it so bad that when Barnabas had asked him for his belt, he'd been distracted enough to put it on the table instead of handing it over. The vampire had been predictably furious, but in the midst of his fury, the dangerous glitter in his eyes had shifted, and they had become full of such promises--

Why didn't you just get on your knees and beg him? Please, Barnabas, please, please...

No, he was not going to throw up, he refused to do it, even as his stomach churned, head spinning as he folded his arms along the metal edge of the sink and buried his head against them. The flannel of his shirt wicked up the water as he breathed in the slick dampness, becoming sodden as the water slid down his chest, where he could smell his own sweat and the lingering dusky odor of sex.

The door opened with a sudden snap.

"Willie."

Barnabas. Voice like woven metal, clenched tight like a fist, and Willie bolted upright and tried to back away, bumping into the stove lid handle that popped out of its slot and clattered to the floor. Scrabbling, he pushed the air away, as if to stop Barnabas' slow approach, the blood from his neck now thinned with water and slipping down his chest. Soaking into his shirt in a fast cooling sheet. Then Barnabas stopped in the center of the room. So still, the face impassive, eyes hard flat specs against white skin, containing not even a hint of gentleness.

"Come here, Willie."

A slow stream of denial, more a whimper than a moan, worked its way free. But frozen now, water dripping from his hands to land almost silently on the floor in small, silver dots. The chilled blood on his neck, thickening into an itchy swatch across his skin. No time now for a fresh shirt or even a washup. No way to pretend that nothing had occurred. Not now. Not with the vampire only feet away. Eyes locked on Willie's so hard that he could not break away to look at anything else.

"I said, come here." Voice low, clipped edges, hard as diamonds. And Willie, riveted, began to walk forward. Slow steps that echoed in his ears and in the room like a ricochet, the wood snapping under his feet like rifle shots. Startling him with every move until at last he was close to the vampire. Close enough for a back handed smack. Or anything else.

"Hold out your hand."

Still pinned by the vampire's gaze, Willie opened his mouth as if a small protest insisted on being expressed. But he squelched it, swallowing, his mouth suddenly dry. Catching the fire in Barnabas' eyes, and knowing he could do nothing but obey. He lifted his hand, shaking as if under the strain of a great weight, until his arm was level with the floor, hoping that was what Barnabas wanted. Barnabas lifted his own hand, strikingly fast in the dark air, and with a small gesture, dropped something that flickered as it fell.

Willie almost jerked his hand back as the gaming piece rattled in his palm, but he was stilled at once as Barnabas grabbed him by the wrist with icy fingers still stained with blood, a dark brown swath of it marring the white cuff of his shirt, and pulled him close.

"You will return this to Miss Winters, and you will explain that it's just now been found." Barnabas paused as if making sure he had Willie's full attention. "Without troubling her with where it was and why it was missing."

Willie could not even nod at this, could only curl his fingers around the piece in a familiar clasp, his arm going numb from Barnabas' iron-hard hold. "You will, of course, no longer have need of it."

He could feel his brows knitting together, the question forming on his face, though he dared not express it and bring the vampire's total wrath down to tear him in two.

"You will no longer have need of it," explained the vampire, as if he understood his servant's confusion, "because a gentleman does not use his manservant. What's more, only a fool uses up his winter stores in summer."

As the words rocked in Willie's head, Barnabas let him go, the blood instantly rushing through the cramped muscles of his wrist. The only indication as to the meaning of this pronouncement was in the way that Barnabas spat out the word use, as if it were something filthy and beneath him. Willie rubbed his wrist, feeling the furrow deepen between his eyes, the room icy still as he looked at Barnabas.

"I won't n-need it?"

The muscles beneath Barnabas' eyes flexed as he shook his head, once, in negation, and the full comprehension of the meaning of that movement became clear. The piece had been meant to keep him from wanting the dark dance, and now he would need it no longer. Barnabas had said so. But along with the chill-laced tension of being considered winter stores, inside him was forming a wide, empty place, where so late his body pulsed with pleasure and the sadness had found a dark, unwanted corner where it could be absorbed, even for only a moment, until it no longer existed.

Willie took a step backwards, legs quivering beneath him. Looking down at the piece in his hands, the day he'd found it coming back to him with ramrod speed. A promise had been made and then broken, and the one person he'd sworn he'd never tell was standing in front of him. Now. Knowing every turn, every pulse of his soul, every caged silence. Barnabas knew everything, and Willie was left with nothing.

The bleak despair, rising like a storm-swell, threatened to overtake him, but Barnabas moved, and Willie looked up to see him picking up the belt, and, doubling it over in his hand, gesture to the table.

"Thievery is still a punishable offence in this household," the vampire said in icy tones. "Or had you thought I'd forgotten?"

No, he had not thought it, not really. Maybe hoping, briefly. But whatever had gone between them, it was over now, and any remnants of mercy's strain was now an unknown thing.

With slow feet, Willie moved to the table, head ducked down, the piece still clasped in his hand. Within arm's reach, and the vampire grabbed him by the back of the neck and bent him, with force, over the table. The fingers of the cold hand dug into the not-yet-healed punctures along the side of his neck, sending a sharp, hard lance of pain straight up the back of his skull, and Willie yelped, dropping the playing piece on the table, his hands flying up to dig at the cord of Barnabas' wrist.

The iron cords of the vampire's wrist twitched, and then there was a pause. The vampire lifted his hand, and the pain, with one last black trumpet blast, ebbed away.

"You will remain on the table," Barnabas said, making it almost, but not quite, a question.

"Y-yes, yes, I'll stay."

He would stay. He would tough it out, for his stupidity he deserved this, and for his weakness. And waited while the moment strung itself out and the edge of the table bit into his hips. Then the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand straight up as he realized that the beating had not yet begun. That Barnabas was standing behind him, still and utterly silent. He circled his hands around his head and waited.

"Tell me what you are being punished for."

The voice was cold and calm, and Willie knew that it wasn't that Barnabas didn't already know. The vampire wanted a contrite listing, and as he lay with his head tucked into his arms, Willie realized he had to give it.

"For stealing," he said, his voice muffled by the wood of the table.

"And?"

"For lying."

"And?"

And for what? What was the other thing? His mind raced, and just as the belt whistled down to make its mark across the back of his thighs, he remembered.

"For taking ch--" he began, breath stolen as the slash of the belt sizzled like a burn. "Charity," he managed.

"You are being punished also," continued Barnabas, without hesitation, "for your inattentiveness to my mother's room. I told you it was of the utmost importance and you neglected to attend to it, deciding instead upon your own course of action during the day."

He heard the vampire step back and the belt being slipped through hands and refolded. "I am the master here, and I will chart your course."

The beating began, and Willie's body remembered what it was like to have the pain without the pleasure, without the promise of sweet surrender at the end. Without the harbor of oblivion and the vampire's winter kiss. The belt slammed into him, crisp, the edge like a sharpened blade, rocking him forward with each blow. It wrapped around the front of his thighs, bit into the soft skin over his hips. And Barnabas did not let up, not even when the whimpers began to escape him as the heat built deep within in him to blaze like a forest of trees on fire. Whipped by winds as surely as the belt was swung in the air by a tireless arm, wielded with a vampire's eye to land precisely where he thought it should go.

And then it ended with a surge of three blows in exactly the same spot across the top of his thighs, sending Willie to rise from the table, his hands now gripping the edge of it, his hips bruising as he pushed against it. Barnabas grabbed the back of his collar and jerked up upright, tossing the belt on the table. Willie's thighs shook beneath him as he stood, waiting, breath shuddering in and out.

"This is one lesson I do not want to have to repeat," said Barnabas, his tone cold. Willie stared at the table, the tips of his fingers splayed along its edge, his eyes on the playing piece and the belt, coiled around it. A cuff to the side of the head rocked him forward on this toes, making the wounds on his neck throb as his muscles jerked beneath the skin. "You will answer me when I speak to you."

"Y-yes, Barnabas," he said, voice barely more than a whisper, a sob rising like a black bubble in his throat.

A breath, and then the vampire took a step back. Out of the corner of his eye, Willie could see him tug at his shirt cuffs as if straightening them.

"Very well," he said. "Tomorrow I expect that you will have met with your contact in Bangor as to the repair of the plaster walls in my mother's room. I will check on your progress at sunset." The click of Barnabas' shoes on the wooden floorboards seemed empty and far away. The metal snick of the door into the hallway being opened seemed equally as mute, as though from a remote distance Barnabas was walking through the door and down the hall.

Willie remained, staring at the table, his eyes focusing only on the tips of his fingers as they rested there, quivering as if from a great strain. He listened for the motions in the front hall of a greatcoat being lifted and put on. Of the front door opening and closing. And then he waited while the silence drew itself out, and one of the candles over the mantelpiece flickered and died, the scent of burnt wax sifting through a current of air. It caught him, sending a line of smoky air into his lungs, making him realize that he was swaying slightly as he stood there.

Go to bed, Loomis.

He could not sleep, he knew that. But he would try.

Going down the main hall of the Old House to the foot of the stairs was a vague, half-forgotten memory by the time he'd reached the top of the landing. It was as if he'd been walking toward his room for days now, the darkness of the passage to his room somehow edged with a sliding, white fog. He could make it there, he knew he could, if he just kept moving. If he forgot the throbbing in his legs and hips, if he ignored the sharp jab that came alive in his neck when he moved it the wrong way. Feeling the whisper of the white shroud as he continued moving. Continued breathing, slowly, in and out, ignoring the jerky rise and fall of his chest. He opened the door to his room, wondering vaguely how he'd gotten there so quickly, when he could not recall any of the risers of the stair beneath his feet, nor the turn at the bottom of the landing, nor even leaving the kitchen. He shook his head slightly, the grey numbness dancing at the edge of his vision, the room darkened, except for the reflected light from the clouds outside the window. It was cold, and there was no fire, but he could not bear to build one. Nor light the candles to push away the darkness, no. Not that. Let it be dark. Let the darkness take him, let it rise and surround him so he could tumble into the forgetfulness of its arms.

Without knowing it, he'd moved forward, and now he found himself standing next to the bed, his thighs bumping against the edge of the mattress. He should get dressed for bed and get into it. Sleep. Rest. Rise to work again tomorrow. Be obedient and tied forever to the Old House.

No.

He backed away. Kept backing up until his shoulder hit the mantelpiece and he slid along it till he hit the edge and pushed back until he felt the wall with his shoulder blades. Then he slid down, knees bending, arms encircling them, till he was on the floor, heels tucking in close, head buried in his arms. The darkness gathered him inside of it and in the stillness, the throbbing of the muscles of his backside became overdrawn with the stinging pulse of healing flesh along his neck. And beyond that, the racket of his heart as it pounded. And the steady, cold reality of what Barnabas had said. What it meant.

No more, the vampire had decided. No more between master and servant. No more using him. No more dalliance with the lower orders, Willie was safe now. Safe as a child in its mother's arms, safer, even, than a nun in a chapel. He was as safe as he ever could be in the Old House, from the one thing, the only thing, however infrequent his encounters with it might have been, that had made life bearable. The exquisite, silvery world of the vampire's embrace, the racing tension that always felt as if he'd been swung toward death and then jerked away again at the last second, the pleasure that had seemed to burst inside of every part of him, as if his very atoms had exploded all at once, they were to be no more.

He could live with that, he knew, if it weren't for the fact that it had been Barnabas who had stopped it. Barnabas who had the fortitude to deny himself the easy victory his servant, so ready at hand, offered. And ultimately deny himself the added power over Willie to give and to take when he and he alone decided it. For he had enjoyed it, Willie had known that he must have done. Otherwise, why the long moment in the aftermath, where the vampire had stroked him, and calmed him, and held him. Barnabas would deny himself all of this, showing an inner strength of conviction that Willie could not hope to match.

He'd tried every way he knew how, from the memory of Maggie, to the stealing of a talisman, to keep him from wanting it. And yet Barnabas, without any apparent effort at all, had ended it. Simply. Utterly. Succeeded where Willie had failed, because he knew he wanted it still.

His shoulders slumped as his arms fell from his knees, knuckles hitting the floor with a slight clunk. His body ached to move, but he could not bear it, not with the darkness all around. And he could not let himself sleep, for if he did, the memories would ease into his dreams, and he would be forced to relive the event, knowing that he was forever barred from that ultimate, pulsing moment.

Wanting the night to lengthen into forever around him, he became aware that along the floorboards there shone a golden glow. He blinked at it, barely hearing the steps in the hall, and the doorway open. Eyes so long in darkness squinted at the cloud of candlelight that moved across the room, and the shimmer of Barnabas' dark hair as he walked to Willie's bed. Willie saw him pause, and then turn, the hollow shadow of the vampire's face hidden behind the candle's flames.

"What are you doing there, it's almost dawn." Shivering, Willie drew his arms around his knees, feeling the shrug start before he realized that Barnabas would not accept a silent answer. He opened his mouth to speak, but the vampire spoke first.

"You forgot your belt and the playing piece. I have placed them on your nightstand." Willie looked up, catching the spark of dark eyes, and then he had to look away. Into the darkness along the floorboards. He felt the weight of the vampire's gaze, sinking beneath it as it pressed down, but there was not anything he could think of to say that Barnabas didn't already know, not about him, anyway.

The vampire stood there, almost as if waiting for Willie to speak. But Willie could not. He ducked his head, the thickness in his throat pressing hard enough to keep him from trying, and though his eyes watered from the brightness of the light, he had no tears left. Not for Barnabas, not even for himself. There was a pause and a rustle of cloth. And then, along the top of his head, he felt the lightest of touches, a slight weight as Barnabas' fingertips rested there. A single gesture, gentle, almost still, as if it were meant to soothe and not to hurt.

"I am a man of my word, Willie," came the quiet words, surprising him. "You know that." Willie could not answer this. Could not respond as Barnabas took his hand away. Remembering the gentleness and the promise of kindness that had existed, even if only for a moment, in the vampire's eyes, he clutched at his forearms till he felt the bruises begin to form. The muscles of his neck tightened and he struggled against the whirlwind inside, as the knowledge that Barnabas would protect him from himself sliced through him like black glass shards and the tears, like acid ribbons, formed behind closed eyelids and sparked halfway down his cheeks to fall like silver drops in the darkness.

He took a breath against a sob. Swallowed as it caught in his throat. "Y-yeah, I know." And he did know, if nothing else, that when Barnabas said something was, it was. And when he said it wasn't, it wasn't. Simple as that.

"Go to bed, Willie," said Barnabas.

Willie nodded, eyes shut, hoping that Barnabas wouldn't request a spoken answer. He did not think he could give one. But the vampire did not, instead turning away, taking the candlelight with him, and, walking through the doorway, closed it behind him. Leaving Willie in the silent darkness, with only his tears and the deepest glow of false dawn to light his way.

*

The morning came, jerking him awake with a sudden start, still tucked against the fireplace, still fully dressed. Outside, the rain tapped against the window and the gusts pushed through the cracks in the frame, testing them. Getting through more often than not, sending the chill, whispery wind across the floorboards. Willie's muscles ached from shivering. Trying to lift his head was a different matter, the muscles there had frozen in place, and he had to grit his teeth and pull against the stiffness, using his hand to rub hard along the back of his neck. His feet had fallen asleep and his shoes felt like they were made of lead instead of leather.

And with the morning's daylight greyness came the black weight of the night before.

I am a man of my word.

The words echoed inside of his headache, even as he concentrated on getting to his feet, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, rubbing his arms to get the blood moving there. He had too many things to do to allow himself even a moment of wallowing in self-pity. A list longer than his arm, at this point, Naomi's room being the most important, and the one he knew he was least equipped to handle. Though he would rather that, rather the complexities of walls falling apart than the spiraling confusion of his own scattered and dark thoughts of what had been lost and what had been the price for having it.

Standing by the bed, he took off his shirt, caked through in large patches with blood that had been watered and dried. And his pants, speckled with blood as well, he took those off, noticing a tear along the back where the belt had bit through, leaving a sharp red streak across the back of one thigh. He moved his hand along the welt, bare skin shivering in the morning drafts. It stung, the muscles stiff beneath it, the cool air circling around it.

Clean clothes without a real shower was not a pleasant prospect, but the daylight behind the rain clouds told him that it was well past sunrise, and if he didn't give a move on, when sunset came and Barnabas came for his inspection, he knew that the vampire would be showing no mercy if things hadn't progressed as he thought they ought. The lack of mercy which would, this time, not be followed by anything remotely resembling pleasure.

Leave it, Loomis. It's over and done and that's that, got it?

He threw on the least dirty clothes he could find, and went downstairs to the pump in the kitchen for a quick washup and a shave with the ice cold water. Dabbing the punctures on his neck with a washrag brought the muscles in his neck screaming to life and loosened the scabs enough to make them sting. At least he could get the blood off his neck, at least he could clean up enough not to attract unwanted attention.

Then he went upstairs to put on his belt and finish dressing, putting the playing piece in his pocket for the last time. And, grabbing the five dollars from the kitchen table and Barnabas' bank book from the drawer in the desk, he made his way out to the truck and drove up to Collinwood. It was raining, not hard but enough to make the wipers a necessity by the time he parked in the circle drive. A knock on the door and then he waited.

The door opened, and Mrs. Johnson answered, and presently Victoria Winters was sent for. She arrived, as she always did, briskly and with purpose, simply dressed and as tidy as if she'd just stepped out of a bandbox.

"Hello, Willie," she said, gesturing him into the foyer from the doorway. "You're lucky David and I were taking a break, otherwise I would not have been able to see you. What can I do for you?"

Looking at her was like looking at a still pond at sunset, calm and unruffled by wind. Reflecting the glow of the sun, melting with sweet smoothness beneath the bend of willow trees. Part of him wanted to tell her the truth, to announce to her exact y who and what Barnabas was, to give her the identity of the monster so long sought by the villagers of Collinsport. To show her his back and his neck and say see, this is what he's like, this is the truth. So much for his otherworldly charm, huh?

"Well?"

He snapped himself to the moment, the two of them in the foyer, and knew that even if the walls did not have ears, he could never, ever tell her. Barnabas might tell her, in his own time, in his own way, but if he caught his servant revealing secrets that were not his own, Willie's life would be over in that instant.

"Here," he said, pulling the playing piece out of his pocket and holding it out to her. "I-I found this in the kitchen and Barnabas said I should bring it back to you."

She took it, the softness of her fingers brushing against his, her mouth opening as if with surprise. "Thank you, Willie," she said, then after a pause looked up at him, eyebrows drawing together. "We went all over that kitchen, Mr. Collins and I, and we didn't see it. Where did you find it?" Her eyes were upon him like dark searchlights.

"Well, I-I found it a few days ago, and kept meaning to give it back, you see, but with the house and all? I kinda forgot."

The intensity of her gaze increased, as if the searchlights had found their mark, and he found himself ducking his head down. Not sure if he'd gotten all the blood off, not sure that there wasn't a bruise on the side of his face from the cuff Barnabas had given him the night before.

"And he was very angry with you, wasn't he." She didn't ask this, she already knew it, and Willie felt suddenly as if he were naked and standing before her with every mark, every welt, even the wounds on his neck as clear to her as if she were reading a book.

Backing up, he shrugged, hearing the loud echo of his feet in the stillness of the foyer. "I dunno, Vicki, he--"

She shook her head. "And after I had asked him to be kinder to you." With her face set in straight lines, she looked at the playing piece as it lay in the palm of her hand. "Willie, you know I don't like to interfere when it's none of my business, but I think that you should--"

"No, Vicki, don't." His head snapped up, shocked that she'd said something in the first place, and he held up his hands to her. "Don't say it. Don't say anything else to him, huh?"

"But Willie, I can see it in your face. He's been driving you hard with everything he's got you doing at the Old House, and you've been driving yourself even harder, trying to meet his very high expectations."

"Vicki--"

"You need to tell him to back off, Willie. You need to do it, before he runs you right into the ground." Her lips were firm, her chin jutting out. "Nobody deserves that, not even you."

Tell Barnabas to back off? Had she lost her mind? He didn't want Barnabas to back off, he wanted--

He slammed the door shut on this thought with a click, hard enough to send a shard of pain right up the back of his skull. Closing his eyes against the sight of her pale, smooth face, he took a deep breath. "It's not that I don't appreciate what you're tryin' to do, okay?" Now opening his eyes, looking at his feet. "I do, I really do. But you've got to just leave it, okay? Barnabas an' me, well, we'll work it out."

"And how will you do that?"

Barnabas will make the decisions, an' I'll just do what he tells me. That's how we'll work it out.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up at her, at the steady gaze of concern in her brown eyes.

"Willie, I--"

With one hand, he peeled her fingers from him and stepped backwards till he was in the doorway. Startled, she stood there as he fumbled behind him for the doorknob. "I told you to leave it," he said, turning the knob, "I understan' what you're saying, but you just gotta leave it. Otherwise you'll just make it worse."

"But, Willie--"

"Promise me. Promise me you won't say anythin' else to him about me. Please?" He couldn't imagine what the ramifications of a lecture from Miss Winters would be. Especially now.

She must have seen something in his face, must have felt his desperation. Slowly she nodded.

"Okay, Willie, okay. But only as long as things are going well. I can't promise I'll keep silent forever."

Ducking his head, he slipped out into the rain and closed the front door behind him. The truck was a welcome haven as he slid into the front seat and started the engine. He locked the door and hung his hands on the steering wheel. Waited while the heater kicked in and the thumping of his heart slowed down. Breathing stilled to normal levels, and the stinging of tears of frustration behind his eyes died away. Then, wheeling down the drive of Collinwood, he headed in the direction of Bangor, wondering why she was like that. Why she was kind and acted liked she cared. From the sounds of things, she'd even spoken to Barnabas, though he'd not caught any trace that it made any difference. In Barnabas' mind, kindness was not for the likes of the serving class, of which the vampire most definitely considered him.

Though if that were true, it flew in the face of the gentleness with which Barnabas had touched him last night. Or the soft, slow strokes across his back while the vampire had held him after he'd taken him. Used him.

Willie shook his head, locking his eyes on the road, wishing he had more to occupy him besides keeping to the speed limit and watching for slick spots where the oils in the pavement hadn't quite been washed away. But this stretch of road had been cleared by a recent rain and there were no slick spots, nothing to keep his mind from slipping to the echo of his heartbeat as he lingered there in solid arms. Solid, vampire arms, corded, iron-cold muscle beneath fine, dark wool, and the scent of burning wax filling his lungs as he breathed. And beneath that, the faint, faraway odor of dust, from a deep, secret place where the air, never stirring, leaves the remains of time to layer, year after year. And the marble-cool feel of Barnabas' neck as he pressed his forehead against it, just as the passion in his gut faded with shivery rage. Tucked close, and calmed with slow hands as the vampire said, Stay, I have you.

Suddenly, as the acid in his stomach burned its way up his throat, Willie slammed on the brakes at the same time he snapped the wheel to the right so hard that it bounced back in his hands. Tires, with no weight to hold them down, skidded across the road and tumbled the truck off the shoulder and into the gravel. The second the truck came to a standstill, the engine died, knocking its way down as though protesting its own end, and Willie threw open the door. Tumbled down the metal step to the ground, knees in the mud, hair hanging over his eyes as he waited for his stomach to empty out.

But there was nothing. He'd not eaten since the day before when he'd sat with Wesley Dale and there was nothing to come up.

A car whistled past, not stopping and Willie looked up through the sweaty mat of his hair, realizing how he must look, crouched on the ground with the door of his truck flung wide to let in the rain.

Either throw up or get up, Loomis, but don't waste time sashaying between the two.

Acid still burned, feeling like he'd swallowed a broken battery, and he swallowed, wincing as the sour flavor of his stomach bubbled up anyway. There was nothing for it but to get up, and, pushing his hands in the mud, he managed this, but only barely, his head singing with lightness as the blood rushed from it.

He staggered back to the truck, heart pounding still, the grit from his feet sounding loud against the floor mat as he settled himself on the bench seat. Knowing what the problem was, but not able to face it.

An icy wind was working its way through the open door and Willie made himself reach out to close it, catching a glimpse of himself in the long rearview mirror. White, like a snake turned belly up in the sun, hair scattered over his eyes, flecked with mud like he hadn't washed in weeks.

You look like a junkie in need of a fix.

With a sudden, hard movement, he pushed the hair out of his eyes and made himself start the engine. He had to get a move on, after all. Knowing as he did so that he was like a junkie in need of a fix. A fix that he'd warned himself about ages ago.

You knew you'd get trapped if you ever went there. But you did anyway, an' now he's set you free from that, so why you fightin' it? Huh, Loomis, tell me that.

He kicked the clutch into gear, feeling the shimmy of tires against the gravel as he guided the truck back to the pavement. Allowed the miles passing behind him to calm him as he took one breath after another and tried not to think. Not about anything. It worked for a while, but when he reached the outskirts of Bangor, and he was forced to pay attention to traffic and other cars, the reality of his situation was hard to ignore.

You have to learn to let go of this, Loomis. Just let go. After all, it's not like Barnabas is going to let you hang on.

And that, of course, was the worst of it.

*

Driving back with a load of drywall and plastering supplies tucked beneath a tarp made the truck heavy and slow. But he used this to his advantage, taking the back roads and keeping his eyes peeled for Wesley's truck. Once in Collinsport, he drove around for an hour without seeing him until, quite low on gas, he had to pull into a station to fill up the tank.

The rain was intermittent as he fumbled with the gas cap, finding its way down his jacket collar as the gusts lifted up the corners of the tarp. The chill of the afternoon was just moving on three o'clock and he had enough time to get back to the Old House, unload, and start working. Make enough headway into the project of Naomi's room to look respectable. He hoped.

As he was walking inside the small building to pay, he caught Wesley's truck belching its way down the cross street. Slamming his money on the counter and grabbing the change, he ignored the strange looks he got as he raced out to the truck and started the engine. Then, gunning it, he shrieked his tires into the street and followed the diesel fumes down the street.

Wesley's truck pulled into a garage, one that Willie had passed often, but that he'd never gone to. Any repairs to the truck that he could not manage himself were done by the garage that the Collins family used, on the other side of the tracks. On the right side of the tracks. This garage, with peeling paint and the stale smell of old oil, was not someplace anyone in the Collins family would favor. He pulled in between Wesley's truck and a small dumpster, catching the lingering, tart smell of something rotting, and, turning off the engine, checked to make sure he had some cash on him. Paying Wesley back was high on the list of things he was supposed to do today, and he wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. He slid out of the truck and made his way to the open garage doors. The afternoon gloom made caves of the dark-swathed repair bays.

"Whaddya want?" came a voice from inside of one.

"Um, I'm looking for Wesley? Wesley Dale?"

There was a sound of something scraping against the floor, and Willie moved into the darker light of the garage. Beyond a jacked-up town car, he saw Wesley leaning against the wall with a can in his hand. Just as he pulled open the top, someone said, "Hey, Dale, there's someone here to see you." Wesley turned, and Willie could see the glint of gold and red on the can as the foam raced over the top, and all at once realizing it for what it was, backed slowly out of the garage. He heard the strangled mutter that Wesley made as Willie turned and walked back to his truck. Heard the footsteps quickly behind him and cringed as he felt the sudden hand on his shoulder to stop him and turn him around.

"You need help?" Willie heard someone call. Wesley turned his head. "Leave it be, Butcher," he snapped.

Then he turned back to Willie, eyes flat, green stones, no smile on his face. His cap, grease stained as always, quickly became dappled with rain.

"What do you want, Loomis?"

Ignoring the scent the beer foam had left on Wesley, Willie reached into his pocket. "Here," he said, holding out three dollars. "My boss, he--"

"What's that for?"

"My boss said to pay you back for the meal you got me the other day, he--"

"For Chrissakes, Loomis, I don't want your damn money." Wesley batted the dollars out of Willie's fingers with the back of his hand. Then he turned and stalked back into the garage, removing his cap to swipe at his forehead with his sleeve as he went. Willie heard the rumble of voices from inside, and it told himself that it didn't matter. That the nerve endings slowly coming to life in the proximity of Wesley's vague friendship would recover. And if they didn't, well, so much the better.

He bent to pick up the money from where they had fallen into a puddle, the rainbow surface of which was pocked with chunks of asphalt. Shaking the money, not knowing how he was going to explain this to Barnabas. That was the more important problem, he told himself this, the muscles along the back of his thighs beginning to shiver as he stood up. Maybe he could lie and say he gave the money back, and Barnabas would never know. Maybe--

"Loomis."

Willie jerked upright, the money damp in his hand, to watch Wesley Dale stalking across the parking lot toward him, tightlipped, shoulders hunched. He stopped in front of Willie and lifted up his hat to run his fingers through his hair, as black as the asphalt beneath their feet, and then put his hat back on. He was silent for a moment as the rain fell, like hesitant questions, around them.

Tightening his fingers on the money, Willie lifted the bills, catching Wesley's eye, though he didn't take them.

"Last night," Wesley began, "I mentioned that I'd popped for lunch, you know, just making conversation. Monica had a cow, and when Curt protested that you seemed like a nice enough guy, and then Laura piped in that it was none of Monica's business and I could buy lunch for everyone up at Collinwood if I wanted to. And then there was, of course, an argument."

This was his way of an explanation, if not also an apology, Willie could tell. Wesley's eyes tilted downward at the corners as they tailed over him, in the same way he would appraise the condition of a truck, stuck in the mud. "Reckon your boss gave you a bit of grief over it too, eh? Like Mr. High and Mighty doesn't have enough to do but worry over the price of a lunch between two hard working men?"

Willie nodded, wanting to agree, feeling none of the usual good-natured amusement as he had the last time Wesley made disparaging remarks about Barnabas, but wanting to accept the apology just the same. Even if a bit of grief didn't even begin to describe the events of the night before, the lecture, the beating, the--

He forced his mind away, looking up at Wesley, who looked down at him from beneath the brim of his cap, green eyes watchful. Found his hand was shaking as he held it out. And Wesley, missing nothing.

"Alright, give me the freaking money, Loomis," said Wesley, taking it. Then, pulling out his wallet and tucking the bills inside, he sighed as he remarked, "Boss man ought to realize that he's gotta give a guy some walking room. Otherwise, he'll find himself with an empty harness and no one to clean up after him."

Putting his wallet back in his pocket, Wesley looked up and smiled, "But, according to them, they're perfect as saints and their shit don't stink. Am I right, or am I right?"

Wesley might be able to cheer himself up with a secret beer every now or then, or a sarcastic remark about bosses, but it couldn't reach him. Not today, not with the inside of his chest feeling like it had been scraped raw with a digging knife. He shook his head, tried smiling to look like he was agreeing, and took a step back.

"Th-thanks for taking the money, you won't--"

"Hey, buddy," said Wesley, stopping him. "Everything okay?"

Closing his eyes, he shook his head, then realized he'd just indicated that no, everything was not okay. Snapping his eyes open, he looked straight at Wesley. "Everything's fine," he said with as much clearness as he could muster. "Just got a lot to do and everything. Got a lot on my mind, and all?"

Wesley nodded at this. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Like that back in there--" he began, jerking his thumb in the direction of the bay.

Willie shrugged. "Hey, I didn't see anythin'."

A moment of silence, and then Wesley nodded. "Thanks."

Behind Wesley, a few men were working in the garage, poking underneath jacked up cars, wheeling tires around, and no one was paying the two of them any attention at all. Wesley turned to look back at them for a moment, just watching, the rain flickering down on the brim of his cap. Then he returned his gaze to Willie.

"You know," began Wesley, as if he had all the time in the world, "I have a beer every now and then, nothing to get excited about, but if Laura were to find out, she'd hate me for the rest of her life." He shrugged. "Hell, that's only fair. When she told me to stop drinking, I hated her."

It was like the meal they had eaten together in the diner, with Wesley sharing something personal, only this time Willie didn't have anything to do with his hands. He could only stand there in the parking lot of a run-down garage and listen and wait until Wesley talked himself out. Not really ready for it, but Wesley had been nothing but kind, and so Willie set himself to listen. He'd done as much for Barnabas, whose stories had been far more boring than Wesley's could ever be, so why not for Wesley?

"Yeah?" Willie asked, to show he was listening, to show he was there for however long it took.

"Yeah, I was mad. Y'see, she saved me from myself, when I couldn't. And wouldn't that make you hate somebody real bad?"

Willie looked at him, his body feeling a sudden chill, as if the temperature had dropped enough degrees to turn the rain to falling ice. Once again searching for some sign on Wesley's face that would tell him how the other man had gotten into his head like that.

"Yeah," he replied. "I-I guess so, but . . . but why?" he asked. Wanting to hear the answer with the clarity that Wesley Dale seemed to possess without knowing it.

"Why indeed?" asked Wesley, looking at him. His expression said that he had the information that Willie needed, but there was a hesitation in his eyes that said that maybe Willie might not understand it. "Here's how it is," he said at length. "I mean, you think, you're in quicksand, right? So what should you care if it's the devil himself who yanks you up?" He paused as if to let this sink in. "You're still saved, it's still a state of grace. Right?"

"But--" Willie could not even begin to finish his sentence. It had been the devil himself who had saved him, and though he knew that Wesley was talking about his own life, it was as if he had been at Willie's side since the night when all of this had begun. Had followed him through every encounter, every simmering embrace, had been there for everything, right up to the moment where Barnabas had tilted his head back, looked down his nose at Willie, and ended it.

Wesley was studying the asphalt beneath his feet as the bigger raindrops began to fall and the wind made a sudden dash across the paved yard. "Sometimes," he said finally, looking up. He spoke slowly as if imparting something he was only now discovering, "Sometimes you have to forgive yourself for failing and move on."

Willie could only stare at him, not understanding.

"And, what's more, you've got to forgive the devil for being right," said Wesley, continuing, as if warming to his subject, oblivious to Willie's confusion. "That's how I felt about Laura, anyway. She was the devil, and I had to get past that."

There was a shout from the garage, and Wesley jerked his head around and nodded. Then he turned back around to slap Willie good-naturedly on the shoulder. "There's my oil change. Maybe she won't burn so much on the highway, eh?"

Willie nodded back, stifling the urge to rub the place where Wesley had smacked him. Wondering how Wesley could give him the answer he'd been searching for since last night, all unawares. Talking about his beloved Laura and his drinking problem, but coming up with a soothing balm to begin to fill and heal the scraped places in Willie's heart.

"So listen, Loomis, they do a great breakfast at that diner, you ever been?"

Willie shook his head no. Either he grabbed a bite at the coffee shop where Maggie had once worked or he hustled up coffee and biscuits at the Old House. He'd never thought of going anywhere just for breakfast, unless he was on the road.

"We otta do that sometime, you know, like Friday?"

"Friday?" Willie asked, his mind still wrapping its way around the idea of forgiving the devil.

"Yeah, before I do my rounds, gotta stoke up for the weekend drunks, doncha know." He gave a snort of laughter. "You know, those idiots who don't know their limits?"

Willie couldn't quite see how this was funny, but it was making Wesley smile at his own humor, and the green lights brighten in his eyes. So in return, Willie smiled back, nodding.

"So, say, eight o'clock?" Wesley asked, in a way that said he knew the answer was already yes.

"O-okay," Willie replied, not sure how a conversation that had been quickly racing toward an argument could end up with a casual breakfast invitation.

"Eight o'clock." Though with the time being that specific, he knew he'd be up hours before, just to make sure he didn't miss it.

"Great," said Wesley now, turning away. Then he stopped. "If you get there before me, save me a seat at the counter, right? Service is faster there, ya know?"

Willie jerked his head in a quick nod, watching Wesley go, seeing the flash of the door as he opened it and stepped inside with his garage friends. The ones who he could take a drink of beer with on the sly, who he knew wouldn't say anything. He had to know that Willie wouldn't say anything. Not to anyone, not ever.

Getting back in the truck, he turned on the engine, his muscles relaxing only when he was back on the road again, headed toward the Old House. Was what Wesley had said true? In a way it was, because Barnabas had been right to put a stop to everything, but that didn't mean he wasn't the devil. But Wesley had also said that he had to get past the fact that it had been the devil who had saved him from himself. Though why Barnabas had done this, Willie did not know, would never know, even if he speculated until the 12th of Never. The look on the vampire's face when he'd come down the stairs to give Willie the playing piece had given away nothing. Perhaps that was the key, because the stern blankness there had surely been hiding something, something that was probably not anger. Otherwise the vampire's fury would have been as clear as noonday.

Not that you'll be idiot enough to ask, Looms. Right?

God, how he hoped so.

The heater kicked in as he took the turn into the Collins' estate and guided the truck over the main road, his mind feeling its way through the confused maze left behind by Wesley's comments. Barnabas had been right, but just because he'd been right this one time, had stepped in to stop what Willie could not, did not really change anything. Not about Barnabas, and not about himself. Especially not about himself. Or did it?

He'd never been really good at resisting temptation, from flimsy jewel cases to doors hung ajar, if it was slightly open, he'd slip in and take what he wanted. Except now, this time, the choice he would have made, had he been able, had been taken out of his hands. Leaving him feeling like his feet had been kicked out from under him. And that was what he had to get past. That, and the simmer of desire still lingering deep inside of him. But though the temptation would still be there, it was not his to resist.

Pulling onto the gravel drive up to the Old House, he took it slow, savoring the heat, not relishing the job of carting large, bulky armfuls of drywall up the long flight of stairs. Having to watch to make sure he didn't knock anything over in the process. And having to come up with a good reason as to why he was going to have to replace the plaster instead of restore it.

The man in Bangor had not been optimistic, not when he'd heard all the details of the condition and age of the plaster. A double thickness of drywall had been his recommendation to maintain the dimensions of the room. Then he'd suggested that Willie put in extra wide cornice work to cover the gap. But what had sounded perfectly reasonable an hour away from the Old House in the safe confines of a building supply shop, stood on considerably shakier legs only two feet from the back door.

And Willie knew that the real test of Barnabas' resolve would come when the vampire discovered that Willie's promise of repairing the plaster turned out to be a lie. He would be furious, there was no doubt about that, and the consequences predictable.

Do you actually want to test him, Loomis?

No, he did not.

Still there was nothing for it but to unload the supplies and haul them up to Naomi's room. A task that took four trips, with the rain pelting down, leaving inky black streaks on the drywall and his arms feeling as if they'd been pulled from their sockets. The slabs of drywall weren't heavy, but they were incredibly bulky, requiring a wide stretch of his shoulders with the effort of carrying them instead of dragging them. He'd tried that in the kitchen, where the edges of the drywall left white smears that though could be easily ignored in the kitchen, would be somewhat harder to explain in the hallway or on the carpet that covered the stairs.

When he finished unloading all the supplies, he took off his jacket and shook out the rain before hanging it on the back of a chair in the kitchen. The work, which had distracted him until now, as he looped his apron over his head and tied it on, suddenly became a less potent shield. It was too close to sunset to hide the fact that his hands were shaking as he lit a candelabra to take with him. Or that his heart was thumping as he dragged a little table he'd found in one of the other rooms to Naomi's room to put the candelabra on. His body, wound up, not from exhaustion or hunger, pulsed with the pure tension of waiting for the darkness to thicken on the other side of the window panes.

Willie stood in the middle of Naomi's room, with stacks of drywall and rolls of tape all neatly lined up against the wall, hanging in the shadows cast by the single light source as the rain began to come down harder, bringing a sweep of chill to encircle him. He'd told Barnabas that he knew of a way to restore the walls, which was what the vampire was expecting Willie to do. Yet there was no way to do it. In fact, the remainder of the walls would have to come down before he even began the repairs, and, when Barnabas arrived, it would look like he had done no work at all. His mind went round and round. He could make the wrong decision or he could make no decision. Either way he was screwed. Barnabas was a man of his word in more ways than one.

From behind him came the even tread of footsteps in the hallway; his heart slammed into his throat as he whirled in time to see Barnabas, the edges of his shoulders cutting a sharp line in the darkness, come through the door. The vampire stopped three strides into the room, looking around him, eyes glinting in the candlelight and missing nothing.

"It looks the same in here as it did yesterday, Willie. Why is that?"

Fighting the surge of adrenaline that raced through his system, Willie licked his suddenly dry lips and swallowed. "The man in the shop," he said, "told me that because most of the wall had come down that it was better to replace than repair."

"So why haven't you begun?"

"I-I was waiting for you to give the go ahead."

Barnabas looked around the room, at the drywall stacked up against the walls and the rolls of tape and the buckets of plaster. Then he looked at Willie with dark eyes. "That is a falsehood," he said with even, measured tones. "You've purchased the supplies, obviously you've already decided the course of action you would take."

Willie's stomach took a mad, lurching dive as he sank back on his heels, feeling his shoulders sag. Feeling the spareness of the distance between him and whatever punishment Barnabas would deem appropriate for this breech of conduct with acid-cold certainty.

"Barnabas, I--"

"Spare me your excuses," interrupted the vampire, holding up his hand. He walked over to the remaining patch of wall. Willie could see that his eyes, keen in the darkness, were looking at the string of yellow flowers and ivy no bigger than two hand spans long, all that remained of the hand painted trim. Beneath that, the blue paint, faded by the years, glowed with the pale hue of a sunrise sky. Barnabas reached out a hand to touch it, but even he must have seen that even one touch might jar the entire piece of plaster and send it tumbling to the floor, destroying the only remaining evidence of the graceful beauty that had once encompassed Naomi's sitting room. His hand remained inches from the surface of the wall, hovering there for only a second before he let it fall to his side once more.

"Tell me again what the man in Bangor said," Barnabas instructed, his voice odd and tight.

"He-he said in the state it was in, you couldn't repair it, but you could replace it." He waited for Barnabas to say something or to ask about whether Willie had asked the most competent person for this information, but Barnabas remained silent and focused on the wall.

"He said if I would bring him some chips of the paint," Willie continued, never moving his eyes from the vampire. Waiting for the moment when he would turn. "He said could duplicate the color exactly. An' then," Willie stopped to swallow and take a breath, knowing that this would be the biggest hurdle for Barnabas, "if I take the piece of wall in, he has a die cutter that could make me a template that's an exact copy of the pattern you got there. Course, that'd destroy the original plaster an' all."

Willie watched as Barnabas seemed to contemplate this, the whole of his body completely still. Then, he tipped his head to one side and looked down at his hand, as if seeing something there. Then he said, "Take the remains of this wall to him." He turned to look at Willie. "If he fails, I will kill him." Nodding, he kept his eyes on the vampire, hoping that the whirl of black fear did not show. If Barnabas was willing to kill for that kind of error, he naturally would have no compunction about doing the same to the person who had suggested the action in the first place.

"And you," snapped Barnabas now turning away from the wall. "Did you return the money to Wesley Dale as I instructed?"

Mouth open to gulp in the suddenly thinning air, his mind raced to recall if he had. "Y-yes," he stammered as the memory came to him.

"You do not seem quite sure, Willie," said Barnabas, eyeing him with a sharp glitter.

"Y-yes," said Willie, forcing the firmness into his reply. "I gave it to him this afternoon." That at least was true, and if the rest of the conversation between him and Wesley was now rising in the front of his mind at the least opportune time, at least Barnabas couldn't read his mind. Would never know the friendship that Wesley had shown him, and Wesley would never be a candidate for body number two in the secret room. Barnabas turned fully toward him and, easing his way around the leaning stacks of drywall, moved closer to where Willie stood. Willie fought the urge to back up at the same time his body tightened up with wanting. Unable to stop his body from reacting when the vampire moved like that, advancing quickly, without warning. Sleek, like a panther on the prowl.

"And Miss Winters," Barnabas was saying, and Willie brought his mind to the reality of a question being asked that would require an answer. "Did you pay a call on her today?"

"Yes, Barnabas," he replied, knowing he was certain of that much.

"Did you give her the playing piece?"

"Yes, Barnabas."

"What did you tell her?"

"I told her that I had found it, and that I'd forgotten to give it back, just like you said."

"And what did she say?"

Victoria Winters had said a great deal when he'd given her the playing piece. Leaving even more unsaid at his own insistence, though he hardly felt that Barnabas would want to hear any of it, let alone discover that such a conversation had taken place.

"She said thank you, an' then asked where I found it. I told her underneath the stove." He couldn't remember if that was what he told her exactly, but it sounded good and that was what mattered.

Barnabas looked away from him, eyes locked on the wall where the plaster still hung, his expression hard, eyes narrow as though contemplating the space between him and the plaster, the last vestiges of the woman whose room it had been. Willie felt his stomach do a slow roll as Barnabas turned back to him, his expression turning dark and hard, and in that one panic-filled moment, Willie knew that Barnabas' promise had been a lie. His hands gripped at each other as the sweat across the back of his neck turned to ice crystals and his lungs struggled for air. The vampire's eyes tracked over him like a hunter assaying a net, then narrowed, glittering in the flutter of candlelight.

"B-Barnabas--" began Willie.

"Be silent, Willie," said Barnabas, walking nearer with slow, silent steps until he was only a mere foot away, the chill of his body cutting through the dusty air of the room.

"B-but, Barnabas, you s-said--"

He saw the backhand coming and couldn't duck in time, taking the brunt of it with his jaw, feeling like a pile driver had slammed into him. Leaving his head ringing and the taste of copper in his mouth. He lifted his hand to his lips and it came away with blood. Looked up, his face stiff, to see the vampire looking at him, hawk-faced, eyes hooded. Saw the flair of the vampire's nostrils as the scent of blood blossomed in the dampness. His heart sank.

"I said, be silent," came the hiss. "And be warned, Willie," the vampire said now, tipping his head, casting his eyes completely in shadow, though two sparks of fire glittered there. "Or did you think I had not noticed that you were playing the master? Ordering supplies and making decisions?"

Willie struggled to reply, his mouth working as all the air in his body suddenly deserted him. "N-no, that's not--" He stopped, the whirling in his head struggling against the freezing tide that raced through him. "No," he said, finally, his voice barely above a whisper.

"Then you will cease to behave as if you were, do you understand?"

For a moment, he was frozen in place, mouth falling open as the taste of blood slipped between his teeth. He had to swallow it down, and his empty stomach rebelled, sending up a shiver of discomfort. Even he could smell the tang of salt, surely Barnabas could as well. Yet except for the single blow, the vampire made no move toward him.

"Well?" Barnabas demanded.

As he licked a trace of blood from his lip, and the taste of salt and copper sprang to life, he looked around the room. At the supplies laid all about. At the drywall and rolls of tape, and the toolbox with its hammer and nails. This room had seemed such a simple project when he'd begun, and even now, belied none of the tension it had created.

"I only wanted--" he began, stopping when he realized that he could not remember what he'd thought at the time he'd begun the project. That it would be an easy job? No, that didn't seem right.

"Wanted what, Willie?" said Barnabas, the grit of tightness in his voice. The vampire's hands were fists, and Willie knew that he was probably only seconds away being hit hard enough to sail through the air to crash through the stack of drywall on the far side of the room.

"Wanted--" He looked up, searching for something in Barnabas' face that would let him know what he should say. Something that would assuage the vampire, but what his mind stumbled across and held onto was a lie. The vampire's expression revealed nothing but impatience, and Willie knew that he had to say it and move on.

"Wanted to do the job right. Not just patch it up, like I thought I could do, but make it new." His heart hammered in his chest as if it would drill its way through his ribs, and still Barnabas was listening. He thought he even imagined that the fists were relaxing and that the candlelight was making headway in Barnabas' eyes. "You know, like Naomi Collins could come in at any time an' have a seat."

With the heel of his palm, he wiped away the blood that was drying into flakes across his lower lip, and then wiped his hand on his pants. And knew that it wasn't a lie, not really. The special satisfaction of finishing a project, whether it was a piece of wooden furniture or a room that someone might live in, was something he'd never spoken of before to Barnabas. Saying it now, here in this room, felt like he was laying his throat open for a switchblade held by a rather exacting hand. He ignored the sweat across his forehead, hoping that it would be lost in the shadows, though he knew the smell of his anxiety was like a bright flag in the darkness to the vampire's sense of smell.

Barnabas lifted his head, and Willie again sucked in a lungful of air, wanting it to be over quickly if Barnabas was going to smack him, wanting to take back every word he'd just said. The vampire wouldn't like the idea of Willie taking liberties with the memory of his mother, and through apprehension narrow eyes, Willie watched the vampire watching him. Looking at him as if he'd never seen him before. Something flickered behind the brown eyes, dark like the polished plane of secret wood, and then stilled. Perfectly still, as if even the storm-surge of deep winter could not disturb the calmness there.

"My mother," said the vampire, appearing not to notice as Willie's mouth dropped open at the even tone, "never really liked the blue. Perhaps you could find a pale lilac instead." Now Barnabas turned to look at the remaining walls, eyes half-hooded as if far away in thought. "She did love lilacs so."

Willie watched as the vampire slowly turned and walked to the door, not missing a beat as he stepped around the toolbox on the floor. Then he paused at the door, casting a final glance at the stack of drywall. And then at Willie, with a gaze sharp as teeth. "You will, of course, bring the final color choice for my approval."

Nodding quickly, shock running through him like ice cold water, Willie could only mutter, "Sure, Barnabas, anythin' you say--"

But the vampire was gone, near silent footsteps marking his passage as he went down the stairs. And Willie, turning to the job at hand, felt the rush of relief, like the first sweep of spring, burst inside his head. All was as it had been, even if that existence was more like a nightmare than anything else. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm as he listened for the front door to open and close. And then, when it did, he picked up a hammer and walked over to the remaining patch of plaster. The yellow flowers bloomed even now, faded but bravely, lasting through the years as a testament to the care with which the room had originally been created. And like that original craftsman, Willie knew he would take the same care, taking his work slow, so that the results would withstand the test of years. Someday, he would be gone, to be sure, but his work would still be there.

~The End~