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Faith in the Atmosphere

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Willie bent over the counter, running his fingertip along the edge of the paint chip, leaving a streak that darkened the shade known as Heather Mist, and let his eyes wander over the array spread before him. After the counter guy had left him with as many shades of lilac as were available, he'd been completely left alone. Though now, as his eyes flicked up, there were two counter guys, standing by a filing cabinet, and one of them was looking at him. The other one was laughing, and he could well imagine what about. Willie Loomis, late ex-con and present step-and-fetch-it for the lord of the manor up at the estate on the hill, was mulling over the vagaries between different intensities of lilac. Not brown, or tan, or black, but lilac. He couldn't exactly tell them that it was for Naomi's sitting room any more than he could punch either of them in the face to shut them up. The first would just make them laugh harder, and the second would get him into serious trouble.

Last time Barnabas had been particular about the color of paint in a room had been Josette's room, that certain shade of grey sage that echoed the moss in a shallow brook. But that time, there'd been remnants of the paint still on the wall. He'd taken a handful of actual paint chips in to the most expensive paint store in town and they'd copied it almost exactly. Close enough to suit the man in charge, and that's all that mattered. With any other room, the vampire was apt to say, blue, or white, and leave it at that, leaving Willie to dither over the choice and pray to God that it was the right one.

This time, though, he'd said lilac, and had said no more of it since. Only demanding that the room be done, and quickly too. As if there were a guest to arrive at any moment, a welcome and long-missed guest. One Naomi Collins. Sometimes Barnabas prowled the rooms as if looking for them; Willie had seen him do it on many a night. The vampire paced and walked the halls, the only echoes his footsteps in the dark and the long, shallow sigh of the floorboards springing back into place in his wake.

And so lilac it was to be. Only there were two dozen or more varieties on that shade alone, if he discounted those that went into the cool blue zone, or darkened to purple. Willie thought he knew what Barnabas had in mind, something soft and feminine that would reflect not just his mother, but also his feelings for her, how he saw her in his mind's eye. Willie recalled some story he'd heard once that Naomi not only drank on the sly, she drank quite a bit. Probably to avoid her husband, who the stories painted as a right bleeding bastard. At any rate, Willie knew he had to pick just the right shade. The names didn't help, they were extravagant claims to a quality he simply couldn't fathom, from Jordan Plum, which didn't look at all like any plum he'd seen, to First Lady, which was so pale as to seem white. There was even one called Jasmine, but he pushed that away the first glimpse he got of the name. No sense playing with fire there.

Ah, here was one. Violet Dust. It was dark enough to show up on the wall, and not too pink nor too blue. He titled his head and squinted his eyes, trying to imagine the trim of green and yellow around the edges of it. Yes, it would work. He'd buy the paint and then start in the morning, if it was dry enough. The rains were staying steady during the night now, now that it was coming late spring, and if the walls were too damp, the paint would just run off with the moisture that oozed from the plaster. Still, plenty to do in the room before that, he'd get some white for the trim, and maybe some lace curtains as well. Barnabas would be well pleased with the results. Right?

That remained to be seen.

Barnabas' last words on the matter a day or so ago had been stern, and what had he said?

Bring the final color choice for my approval.

Shit. Willie'd been just about to buy around three gallons of very expensive, non-returnable paint without a direct okay.

Do you want to walk into it, Loomis?

No, no, and no.

He straightened up, his hand still on the paint chip he wanted, and looked over. The two counter guys were now staring at him as if he'd grown three heads, and with a roll of his eyes, one of them came over.

"You going to buy that paint, Loomis, or not?"

"Not," he said. "Mr. Collins wants to approve the choice first."

This reply was obviously not the one that "Ted" wanted to hear. He huffed under his breath, appearing to realize only at the last minute that even if Loomis wasn't welcome, Collins' business was. "Okay then, you can take the paint chip with you and bring it back when you're ready, but you know, we're about to close soon so...."

Willie glanced up at the clock on the wall. It read 4:30. Still plenty of time for the only customer in the store to browse at his leisure before having his purchases rung up, should he have any. But he knew what they wanted. They wanted him to leave.

"Yeah, okay," he said now, nodding, biting back the acid reply he really wanted to make. A fight in a public place would be screwing up with a vengeance.

He walked into the mist of the afternoon, idly looking for his truck and turning the edges of the paint chips with his fingers. Probably Barnabas would agree with Violet Dust as the choice, but orders were orders, and something he wanted to be following to the letter just now. Just ever, truth be told. The last thing he wanted was a confrontation, not with Barnabas' promise humming darkly to itself in the back of his head. While he could bear any punishment for his misdeeds, he did not think he could survive another encounter like that. With Barnabas' absorbing the heat from his skin with marble-cold hands, soaking him in, being there, so close, so close, an intimate embrace that left him full flung open, like barn doors on a hot summer night. All the heat let out and the cool air in. Exposed. Taken.

He stopped himself, shaking his head, feeling the drip of the fog down his shirt collar, smelling the drift of the sea coming inward as the easterly winds pushed it through the streets of the village. Climbing into the truck, he headed for Butcher's gas station, where Wesley might be, to check on the price of some tires. Even with the road up to the Old House fixed, he could not afford to get caught out. It'd be better to be prepared, and Barnabas had already approved the expense.

It was almost raining by the time he arrived at the garage, and he ducked through the open bay door, not the regular customer door. His eyes searched for Wesley in the darkness, but he found only Butcher, rubbing the grease off of what looked like a four-cylinder carburetor.

"He's inside," said Butcher, not looking up. His solid body blended in with his surroundings, grease-covered and dark with age. The smell of oil rose up from the warmth of a space heater, and Willie edged toward it. "You want something else? Wesley mentioned tires."

"Yeah," began Willie. "I wanted to get a set for the truck. Can you help me?"

Butcher was silent for a moment, his concentration on the carburetor, blackened fingers moving the rag along the edge of the injection unit. But Willie didn't imagine for a second that Butcher was ignoring him. Wesley had told him that Butcher kept his entire inventory in his head. After a garage fire had destroyed his records several years back and put him in deep trouble with the IRS, Butcher decided that his head was the best place to keep every-thing. How he kept it straight was anybody's guess, but it would only take a minute or two for him to recall his inventory and price the goods.

"Yeah," Butcher said, finally. "Got those. 185R14's do you?"

Willie nodded.

"Okay, come back tomorrow, early, and we'll get you fixed up."

Willie nodded again, his head turning to peer through the glass of the office and reception area, looking for the familiar head of dark hair. Nothing. He turned back.

Butcher was watching him. "Guess he's not there," said Butcher, his voice flat.

"That's okay, can you tell him I was here?"

Shrugging, the other man seemed to be saying neither no nor yes, only acknowledging Willie's request.

Welcome worn out, Willie, trudged out of the garage bay, into the mist again, feeling the soft air come down, knowing that it would be a hard rain come morning. That the sun would be down soon, and that he needed to head home to the Old House and chores. But even knowing that, he turned his truck up through town, hoping that a drive by Wesley's shop would bring his friend in evidence. Or that maybe even a spin by his house would reveal his tow truck out front. Willie had no luck at either place, wipers going, truck idling at a corner long enough for the vehicle behind him to blast its horn. He pressed the accelerator and decided to head back past Butcher's place one last time before going back to the estate on the hill.

Luck was with him; the tow truck was there, winch high, hook splattered with mud and oil, the engine still running. Willie pulled in and parked his truck, and, get-ting out, scanned the parking lot. Loud voices from the garage bay. Wesley stumbled out, hair in his face, hat falling in a puddle.

"Willie!" came the shout and as Willie got close enough to be embraced in a bear hug, the obvious became even more so. The sweet smell of beer wafted off Wesley's breath; his eyes, when he drew back to smile, were glassy with it.

"Hey, buddy! Whatcho up to?"

"Uh--" began Willie, then he stopped. The thoughts of Wesley's kids and Laura, though, spun through in his brain with what Wesley had told him belied what Willie saw before him. Not his place, though, to remind Wesley of his promise, nor even, he imagined, to ask what had been the breaking of it. Something must have, though. But he didn't think Wesley the type to break a promise like that. They had talked about it over burgers and coke and Wesley had been so adamant about it. Not even for a lake of beer, my friend, he'd said. Or even a whole ocean. Yet here Wesley was, tanked to the gills, with Butcher watching from the opening of the garage bay, not saying any-thing.

"Your hat, uh, you dropped your hat, Wesley," he said finally, trying to extricate himself to reach for it. Though what a hat would do in all this rain, coated with mud and oil from the puddle, he did not know. He reached down for it anyway, handing it to Wesley after giving it a firm shake. "You want it?"

"What I want, man," said Wesley, drawing out his vowels as if his mouth enjoyed the taste of them, "is for you to come an' have a beer! How come you ain't never had a beer with me?"

Because, buddy, you swore you were on the wagon, and from where I stand, I'm hardly the one to drag you off it.

Instead he patted Wesley's arm with a few fond thumps and made himself smile. "'Cause, you ain't never asked me, buddy."

"Well," said Wesley now, grabbing Willie's jacket and pulling him over to where Butcher stood, "we're gonna, we're gonna rec--uh, rectify that right now. Get me a cold one for my friend here, Butcher!"

One look at Butcher's still face, the oil-stained hands that held a carburetor and a rag and those eyes that did not blink, told Willie that a beer was not what Butcher wanted to get for Willie. That Willie was, in fact, not welcome at this particular party. He held out the hat to Butcher, who took it, still not smiling or nodding or saying anything at all, and Willie made himself turn toward Wesley, shaking his head.

"As much as I'd like that, I got that boss of mine, you know the one. An' he's waiting on me."

"The one whose shit don't stink?"

Willie nodded now, wishing he felt more like laughing. "The very one." He eyed Butcher, but kept his focus on Wesley, feeling the rain on his head, smelling the beery smell mix with the wet oil. "An' I gotta go or he'll have my hide, ya know?"

"To hell with bosses!" proclaimed Wesley, and he raised his fist to the grey sky and shook it, and then, teetered to one side as if he were quite off balance. Butcher grabbed hold of him, and looked at Willie askance, as if he were to blame for Wesley's state.

"You bet," Willie said, keeping his voice light, agreeing. "But I can't take the chance that hell will take him, so I have to leave now, okay?"

Now Butcher was nodding, one stiff jerk of his head to indicate that Willie should take his truck and go, and Willie nodded back.

"I'll see you, Wesley," he said, backing up toward his truck, wondering why he felt like he'd gotten Wesley in trouble with Butcher, wondering what on earth had pushed his friend over the edge.

Enough of that, boy-o, you gotta get home or Barnabas will take every living thought out of your head. Especially if he's up before you get there.

He clambered into his truck and gunned the engine out of the parking lot and up through the streets of Collin-sport toward the estate. By the time he arrived at the Old House, the hard rain that he thought would wait till morning decided to begin with the growing darkness, making it even more dark, the house an echo of shadows hovering beneath the canopy of trees. He sprinted across the flag-stones, ripping open the back door, moments too late by the look of Barnabas' face as the vampire stood in the near-black kitchen. Willie closed the door behind him, and opened his mouth to explain.

Barnabas held up a hand.

"Spare me your excuses, Willie. I assume by your hasty and ill-mannered entrance that the rain-slicked roads and bad tires that you have not had time to replace are to blame for your lateness?"

It took Willie a moment to work this through his head.

Is this a trick question?

It didn't seem like it could be but with Barnabas one could never tell. He was wearing his best suit, though, and looked ready to go out. Might as well give it a try, it couldn't be any worse a story than the one Willie was still cooking in his head. Besides, any story Barnabas suggested was more likely to be believed. So Willie went with it.

"Y-yeah, I'm sorry Barnabas. One of the creeks was rising, and that held up traffic at the last bridge there--"

Again Barnabas cut him off, nodding and turning away. Willie was stunned but he kept his mouth shut and let out the tension in his stomach.

"I'm going out," said Barnabas, as he was walking away, leaving Willie to scurry behind him, his ears straining for last-minute instructions. "You will tend to your regular chores, as usual, and be sure to have the fire lit in the front room. If I manage to convince Miss Winters to pay us a visit tonight, I do not want her shivering."

Willie was almost on the vampire's heels as Barnabas stopped in the front hall to pull on his great coat and gather up his cane. "Uh, Barnabas?"

"What is it, Willie?" asked Barnabas, though in his mind he was obviously already out the door.

"You want brandy out too?"

Barnabas paused and then nodded. "Very good. That would be appropriate."

Willie was batting a thousand, that was for sure. Good luck, of course, could never hold, but he nodded and waited and shut the door behind Barnabas and then leaned against it to stretch out his back and take a deep breath.

Why no, Barnabas, I'd stopped off to see one of my buddies and turn down a drinking invitation, now what do you think of that?

Barnabas was hardly likely to approve of Wesley in any case, but as long as it didn't interfere with Willie's duties, he was unlikely to say anything at all.

With the vampire gone, the house felt silent, and the emptiness echoed. Willie filled the air with the rattle of the ash shovel against stone, the sprite of sulfur as he lit the candles in the front room, the thump of logs and coal as he built the fires. He ate a quick supper of soup and toast and tried to keep the thoughts from crowding his head.

He let you go, you know.

He let you go when he could have had you on that one.

Not that Barnabas had looked like he would have done anything of the sort, his mind had obviously been on his meeting with Miss Winters, besides which, he'd promised. And a promise made by a Collins, even to a lowly servant, was a sacred thing.

Stop it, Loomis.

Willie tried to focus on the brandy, smelling the heady fumes as he filled the crystal decanter and laid out that and two glasses on a tray to sit on the small table in front of the fire. His body was keyed up just the same, remembering the moment when he'd stepped through the door to see Barnabas there, and knowing what would most likely follow. A beating, to be sure, and then--

His hands shook as he laid the tray down and turned from the fire. The room was in readiness, his chores done, and his body strung, an acoustic shiver vibrating inside.

Find something, Loomis. Anything. Anything at all.

Something to occupy his mind and his hands, to focus him on the here and now instead of the sublime darkness that never seemed to let him stray very far.

You want it. You know you want it.

That he did.

He tended the fire in the front room, not seeing the glow of the candles on the drapes or the sparkle of the chandelier overhead, keeping his mind on other things. There was a dresser that wanted a new coat of tung oil before it could be placed in a bedroom, or the hinges on the door to the master bedroom that wanted aligning, but both those would have to wait for daylight. Even scrubbing the kitchen floor crossed his mind, though he didn't think, even on his hands and knees in the semi-darkness, that it would be able to distract him all that much. Besides which, if Barnabas wanted him for something, it wouldn't do to have to appear in the front parlor, in front of Miss Vicki, drenched up to his elbows in common soapsuds.

In the end, he left the paint samples on the kitchen table for Barnabas to review at his leisure and sat on his bed in his room and darned his socks, something he'd learned to do from Jason on board the Ardent Heart, a freighter that had run from Anchorage to San Francisco, and back again. With no women on board, Jason had taught him about housekeeping for himself, and although Willie had gotten the hang of it, sewing had never been his best thing. His darns were lumpy, his buttons hung on sideways, and the bedstitch on his patches always went awry. Still, it kept him from having to explain to Barnabas why his clothes were coming apart. The less attention focused on him by the vampire the better.

Hours later, when the front door opened and closed, he was well on his way toward sleep. Listening with half his attention, he could hear only one pair of footsteps, which meant that Vicki Winters had refused a visit to the Old House. Still, Barnabas was merely walking instead of striding, and the echo of his parade through the Old House was slow and even. His wooing of his chosen lady was, apparently, going in the right direction. The vampire wasn't upset, wouldn't be calling for Willie. Willie let his mind float away, toward sleep and the darkness that seemed grateful to take him.

*

Morning brought more rain, which by the paleness of the grey skies out the kitchen window, would peter out by afternoon. The pump water was cold as Willie shaved and washed up, eyeing the tidy list that Barnabas had left for him on the kitchen table, and found himself almost grateful for the length of the instructions. He would be forced to do this and this and that, and would not have time for any vague thoughts that he shouldn't be thinking. As he wiped his face with a clean towel, walking over to the table, he could see that the first order of the day was the paint. Violet Dust had indeed been approved, as well as the white for the trim. Post haste, the note said, as if there were some deadline that Willie was working toward. As if Naomi were due back any day now, and would need to have use of her little room with no delay.

Other directives followed, such as polishing all the brass doorknobs and fixtures in the house, a small side task that in Barnabas' mind should only take Willie an entire day, if he did it all at one go. Barnabas had no real clue as to how much brass was in the Old House, but Willie did. Not to mention the amount of Brasso he would have to buy. The Victorians had taken the house over in it, doorknobs, dresser pulls, hinges, sconces, it was everywhere. He would have to buy the supplies and then explain to Barnabas that it was going to take a while. But unlike a man who would understand that it took bread several hours to rise, no matter what you did, the vampire would be dismayed by the length of time required. He would demand of Willie that the work be done as quickly as possible, and Willie would have to bite back his reply.

Sure, right after I finish reading War and Peace.

He scrambled up some eggs in a cast iron pan, standing next to the stove close enough to keep warm. Not that it was terrifically cold, but the glow of the coals below the open stove lid distracted him while he stared at his eggs as they firmed up in the pan. It was nice, for a change, to not want to jump inside the oven because he was freezing to death. It was just chilly; the slumbering coals were enough to take the edge off. And then he ate. Eggs and barely warmed over coffee were no kind of breakfast, but he knew he could get something later in town. Maybe even meet up with Wesley, who surely would have gotten over his hangover by that time. Yeah, he would stop by and leave the truck to get his new tires and meet up with Wesley and they could have lunch at the diner. Part of this struck him as odd, though it wouldn't have back in the day. Before Barnabas and the Old House. Him, Willie, looking forward to something. Even though it wouldn't be much, a hamburger with a friend, it seemed like a blessing he didn't deserve.

When he left the Old House, firing up the truck and allowing the engine to warm as he headed down the drive-way, the rain gave one last ditch effort, spinning itself down in a heavy burst that made the wipers seem like toothpicks against an avalanche. He drove it by memory even though he couldn't see the road, feeling the heat kick in and almost smiling at the list of tasks he had to do. First, he'd order the paint, then he'd drop the truck off, leave it there for tires, or maybe he'd go to the hardware store first, and then he'd find Wesley, who would surely be hanging around the garage.

The paint store had different clerks that morning, who treated him with absent-minded deference as he left his order, making Willie think that they did not know him, or even know of him. Not very often, in this town, did anyone call him sir and thank him for his custom. His paint would be ready at closing, and he was told he was welcome to telephone first to spare himself a wasted visit.

Leaving the paint store, Willie shook his head, turning up his collar against the sprinkle of rain, light but insistent, that still hung on from the earlier storm. Distant smells of greengrowth and dampness came at him, even this far in town, as he hoofed it from the main street toward the side road where Butcher's Garage was, feeling as though he'd forgotten something. He caught the breeze of oil and grease before the garage came into site, sidestep-ping the puddles and feeling his smile grow from within. Barnabas would be hacked to find out that he was taking so much time out of his day for something personal, but he would never know. No one at the garage would ever tell him, and certainly Willie wouldn't. But Butcher was standing in the doorway, shaking his head even before Willie came within talking distance.

"Hey," said Willie.

Butcher nodded. Then shrugged. For once he didn't have anything to occupy his hands and they twitched at his sides, as if he were aching to do something with them. Willie felt the creep of flesh along the back of his neck as Butcher advanced, and then became still. Butcher's dislike of him was something he could not explain. It wasn't even an active dislike, just a simmering disapproval, as if Willie were somehow a bad influence on Wesley.

"He's not here, Loomis. Why doncha check the bars."

Check the bars? Willie felt the doubt spreading to his face as his dipped his head, reminding himself of Barnabas reacting to a lie from his faithful servant. Willie shook this off. "You're kidding me, right?"

Butcher looked away, toward a car that sat in one of the bays, almost for a moment as if Willie weren't there and he thinking of the structure of his day. "Wish I were," he said, finally, his gaze returning to Willie. "If you see him, tell him I'm looking for him."

Now that was a switch, and Willie nodded and made himself scarce, walking back downtown, not looking back, not wanting to see Butcher looking at him like he were a carburetor gone bad.

Ain't done nothin' to you, have I.

Didn't matter to him, usually, that most folk side-stepped him on the street, but Butcher's lack of approval was getting to him and he didn't like it. Not at all.

Sighing, he pulled Barnabas' list out of his pocket, noting the length of it and his own notes written in pencil beside the elegant ink copperplate of the vampire's hand. Brasso and clean cloths, paint tape and stir sticks, a flange for the drain on the gutter under the back porch, and of course the paint. Folding it and putting it back in his pocket, the day felt heavier than it had an hour ago. He headed back downtown, absently avoiding the puddles, and noting the rain as it faded back into the clouds. He'd have his lunch on his own, but at least it would be a hot lunch.

*

Smoke hung in the air from fireplaces throughout the village, held there by the dampness and pushed back to the earth by the heaviness of the clouds that threatened more rain, but dallied like a shy coquette at a backroom dance. He'd gotten through one-third of the list of errands, and now he looked up at the sky, noting the early dark and wishing he weren't quite so tired. The paint, which wasn't quite ready, would have to be picked up in the morning. He had the rest of the supplies in the truck, covered by a tarp, and as he got in the truck and steered it out of town, he knew that the vampire would have to be satisfied with that. He'd forgotten the tires, but there were only so many hours in a day, though the vampire seemed to forget it. That, and the fact that Willie was only one man. As he turned the wipers on to catch the falling mist, he could almost hear Jason's taunt.

What about that promise you made yourself, Willie-me-lad? The one about never working again?

Yeah, what about that promise.

Gone by the wayside, along with his plans to live on his ill-gotten gains.

As he passed through the cannery section of town, he caught a glimpse of the silver and red of Wesley's tow truck. It was parked only blocks away from the Blue Whale, reminding Willie of Butcher's earlier comment: Wesley had gone to the bars. His promise to his wife, like Willie's promise to himself, had been abandoned and left behind in the pursuit of other pleasures. Willie screeched to a halt and found a parking spot on a side road, leaving the wheels turned straight, and locking up out of habit. He'd catch Wesley, maybe have that promised beer with him, and make plans for the diner tomorrow, or maybe later in the week.

The heaviness that had weighted him down earlier cast itself off with the ease of a mist in sun-rise, and he strode toward the front door of the Blue Whale almost smiling. But when he placed his hand on the door to push it open, it swung at him as if with the weight of a heavy body behind it, bent on exiting the Blue Whale, and in a damn hurry, too. The door knocked him sideways, and he opened his mouth to protest only to find Wesley Dale standing there, bleary eyed, hat missing, his mouth drawn down in a frown. Drunk three ways to Sunday, by the smell of him, the silence of the bar behind him betraying the fact that his exit was most welcome. Bob only liked happy drunks, or, at the very least, quiet ones, and Wesley had been, apparently, neither.

"YOU!" he shouted, pointing at Willie, and Willie stepped back, moving toward the alley where his truck was parked, not wanting a scene, not this close to the Blue Whale, and not this close to dark.

"Hey, buddy," Willie said, holding his hands out in welcome, "hey."

"Hey, my ass," snorted Wesley. "You're the one any-way."

Wesley marched forward and with a snap, smacked his hands against Willie's shoulders, sending him stumbling into the alley, his feet instantly drenched by a deep puddle. Willie skittered to one side, catching the surprised glimpse of a passerby, and wondering what had turned Wesley's mind toward drinking.

"The one what?" Willie asked, wanting to stand his ground and feeling the quiver in his calves that wanted to sprint in the opposite direction.

"You know." Wesley's reply was quite clear, though his gaze was indistinct, and Willie could feel the confusion roll through the beer haze of Wesley's thoughts. As if he wasn't quite sure of what accusation he was making.

"I don't know, Wesley," said Willie, forcing the calmness into his voice, using the trick he often used with Barnabas, of not quite focusing on who he was talking to. "What happened?"

"Laura," said Wesley, as if that explained every-thing.

"Laura what?" Willie asked now, hearing the echo of his question in a sudden silence that sprang up around him.

It was then that Wesley focused on him, his green eyes betraying the desperate sadness that had brought on the drinking, and the quiver of his lower lip as he struggled with his reply. "You tol' her," he said, almost whispering. "You tol' her, man, an' now she knows. An' I thought you were my friend."

"I never even met her," Willie protested, feeling the indignation rise with a sudden hot streak. "How could I tell her any--hell, I don't even--"

"She LEFT me," bawled Wesley, grabbing for Willie's jacket, and, clutching, it, dragged him into the darkness of the alley. Threw him against the wall, and Willie winced as his head hit the damp bricks with smack. "An' it's because of you."

"What?" Laura had left him? It was what she said she'd do if she ever caught Wesley drinking. That's what had happened. She'd found out. Willie's hands scrabbled against Wesley's, trying to unclench the fingers that clutched at him, but Wesley's hands were locked into place.

"What did I tell her?" He tried to concentrate on Wesley, but his head was ringing, Wesley's breath was sending waves of the smell of warm beer over him, and in the darkness he couldn't quite see Wesley's' eyes.

"You told her," said Wesley, slowly, bringing his face in close enough so that Willie could now see the gleam in his eye. "You told her about seeing me at Butcher's with the beer. An' about yesterday. An' as of now, this friend-ship is over."

Stiff hands dragged him further into the alley and then shoved him forward. Willie felt the rough edge of the rain barrel only seconds before those hands shoved him into it. Dashing his face into the bright, spring water that had built up during the rain season, deep and dark and choking off all the air he possessed. He pushed against Wesley, but Wesley had the leverage and the rage, and Willie's feet slipped on the damp gravel, and he only man-aged to thump his toes good and hard against the wood. Never mind that, his air was going, and as the pressure of his lungs expanded like water in a boiler, dark, plump clouds formed in his head and the thoughts there scattered and looked for a place to hide. Only one remained.

Barnabas isn't going to like this.

He shoved again, desperation driving through his thighs, and chugged a lungful of water, pushing back, scrabbling at damp hands that clenched his shirt jacket. His feet slipped and then Wesley slipped against him, and the water barrel tipped over, grating against his ribs, sluicing him through with water, sending him slipping to the slick stones of the alley. The hard iron braces of the barrel smacked him in the ankle, and he rolled over, spinning in the mud, landing against a solid form as the hard stone of a leg stopped his fall. Something grabbed him by the collar and pulled him close; the warm weight of wool embraced him. Wesley was suddenly off him and away, and Willie, swimming upwards for more air, gasping, clenched at the nearest landmark, his arms circling it. He was never so glad to be so still, to be breathing.

He felt the brush of hard wood, and the sweep of cool air as woolen cloth settled over his face, and he knew he didn't have to open his eyes. Not just yet.

Safe, safe, safe.

Someone was speaking, muffled somehow, and sounding distant, as if heard through layers of stone. A response and then a hard sound. The wool moved away from his ears and he was lifted up, the motion forcing him to let go of his anchor and be exposed to the cold draft of wind as it whistled down the alley. Settled against the wall, braced up by something, or someone, firm and still. And then the voice spoke again, in those measured cold tones that seemed so familiar.

"You will not touch what is mine. Take your fellow and go."

Of course he knew that voice, though for one second he thought he could not have heard it right. He opened his eyes. It was Barnabas bracing him there, one hand solid against his collarbone, spread wide. The other brandishing that cane, sparking bright diamonds as the light from the streetlamp bounced off it. He briefly saw Butcher hauling Wesley up to his feet, hatless, clothes drenched dark with rainwater.

And then Barnabas who, for the blessed space of a moment, was focused on someone other than himself. The eyes of the master of the Old House had settled on Wesley and his friend and he did not need the cane to warn them away, no, not with an expression like that. An animal in the dark has no need for weapons, even Willie knew that, especially when nature had made it so readily armed. He shuddered as the alley cleared out and Barnabas was now looking only at him. Replacing the breadth of his hand to encompass Willie's throat, and hold him there, just as he was. Pinned to the wall, aching, feeling his feet slip on the muddy cobbles of the alley, and the scrape of rough brick on the back of his scalp as he was pressed hard against them.

"Why were you fighting?" came the question in the rumble of a low baritone.

Willie opened his mouth, throat raw, chest tight. But it was no use.

"I would not forbid these visits but for the fact that you take each opportunity to break the rules that I have laid down. Have you not learned?"

Barnabas' voice was calm, but his eyes were quick-silver and sharp and Willie could see the bunching of his shoulders beneath his Inverness coat.

"I wasn't--"

The hand around his throat released him to slam into his face, shutting off the words of denial and protest that he should have known were worthless. The slap took the breath from him again, and he slipped down the wall, gasping, jolting with shock as Barnabas grabbed him again, rocking his head against the hard brick. The vampire was in his face now, pulling him upright, pulling him close. Willie shrunk away, he was too close, now, could smell the faint dull scent of Barnabas' hair oil that told him in a second what Barnabas was doing in this part of town. The vampire was on a date, and somewhere, no doubt, there lingered Miss Victoria, waiting for her escort. That meant that this would be over quick, although he had some doubts that it would be over altogether before the evening's end.

"You will go to the house," Barnabas said, his voice sliding into Willie's heart with a hiss. "You will wait for me there. And when I return I will punish you. Do I make myself clear?"

Clear as the daylight that Barnabas would never again see. Clear as the light from the streetlamp. He would be torn to pieces before midnight. And Barnabas, distracted by a movement at the end of the alley, was releasing him, letting him go to collapse against the bricks, and Willie found a breath.

"But I didn't do anything."

Barnabas was on him in a second, whirling back around, not touching him, not grabbing him, but pinning Willie there with his eyes alone. His voice was dark and still.

"You must have done something. These fights don't start themselves."

"But it wasn't me who--"

"Then who was it?"

This stopped him in his tracks. If he pointed the finger at Wesley Dale, Barnabas was in a black enough mood to go after him and then arrive home to flay his servant alive anyway. It wouldn't help anything, not at this point, and might only put Wesley in danger. Willie swallowed, catching in the corner of his eye the figure of Victoria Winters at the end of the alley. He could see her coming towards them, the angle of her body displaying her distress at being left alone to stand on the street. If she expressed any of this to Barnabas, it would be added to Willie's list of sins.

"It wasn't me," he said. "I'm telling you--"

Barnabas stopped him with a flick of his eyes. "Go home. I'll deal with you later."

"But, Barnabas--"

Barnabas slapped him before he could see it, leaving the side of his face burning.

Victoria Winters was right behind them now, astonished eyes silver in the streetlight, her mouth opening with some shock. And Willie could see Barnabas lift his hand again, as the vampire must surely see that his servant was not moving to go home to be dealt with at a later hour. No, the servant was lingering, in all defiance, and not paying any attention at all to his master. It was in his eyes.

"You will be punished."

"Barnabas, don--"

This slap was harder, and Willie felt his head hit the bricks at the point just below where his skull had smacked into the alley floor when he'd tumbled out of the rain barrel. Wasn't the point though, the fact that Miss Winters was getting an eyeful of just how violent her Mr. Collins could be did not send any joy to his heart. She didn't deserve to know any of it, let alone see it, and here she was, just behind the flutter of the wing of Barnabas' caped coat, seeing it all. Not at its worst, no, but bad enough.

"Mr. Collins?" asked Vicki, though it came out as more a demand, of what Willie was not sure. Perhaps it was for it to stop, for Barnabas to explain himself, to spare her further from the untoward sight of this back-alley violence.

The vampire froze, his eyes still blazing as he glared at Willie, saying without any words at all that it was Willie's fault and that Willie would pay.

"Miss Winters," said Barnabas, turning, as if Willie were no longer there. Hidden in the shadow of the vampire's coat, Willie tried to pretend that he was, indeed, far, far away.

"I'm sorry to have brought you from the safety of the street by my absence. Might I walk you back there now?"

Willie could see that Victoria did not quite know what to say, or even what she thought. Her eyes flicked over to him, and he returned her look as steadily as he could. As if he'd not just been thrown into a rain barrel and then smacked around by a vampire.

She was about to nod when Barnabas settled his shoulders and took her by the arm, and strode down the alleyway, with her at his side, as if he'd just taken a short-cut to arrive at his destination. Not that he'd left his faithful servant aquiver for the promise of his return. Willie watched him take her arm and lead her away, toward the Blue Whale and an evening's entertainment.

He was shaking and wet now, his ribs aching, his face still humming from the slaps. Barnabas hadn't pulled the slaps, as he sometimes did, and while the bruising would surface within the hour, what worried him was Victoria. And Wesley. What would she do? And where was he going?

Go home, Willie. Just go home.

The Old House was cold and damp, and, except for the single light burning on the console in the front hall as he walked toward it, completely dark. It was obvious from that fact, and that there was no fire, nor any note for him to build one, that Barnabas did not intend to bring Miss Winters up for a visit. Willie stared at the candle, his hands fisting in the air in front of him, feeling the shiver move through his chest. A ripple that came and went, for-ward and back, like waves on a damp ocean shore.

I am not, I will not--

The thought broke off as his feet marched him back to the kitchen, where he stripped off his jacket and flung it on the closest chair. Lit the candles on the mantelpiece. Bent to light the fire in the stove, his hands shaking too hard to hold the match steady, the spark catching on the tinder in spite of him. A small flame grew inside of the stove lid, sending a small curl of smoke that soaked into his lungs and hair before drifting into the cold air beyond the darkness.

He paced into the hall again, striding the length of it, looking at the single candle and the silent hollow of the front room. Still shivering, stomach pattering around inside him like a ferret intent on scratching its way through him. He would build a fire here, build it up high, distract Barnabas with lit candles, and the favor of a setting that would be fit for Miss Winters.

Oh, yeah, like that's going to distract him. Sure.

Idiot.

And Wesley, what about Wesley? He'd looked so white and confused, and Willie knew that it was the drunkenness that had made him fling accusations, at least he hoped it was that. Why else would his friend try to kill him? Surely he couldn't believe a word of what he'd been saying. Willie would no more snitch on Wesley than he would have on--on Jason.

Never mind that now, damnit, Loomis. Barnabas is going to come back and kill you. Now think.

Back to the kitchen he went, his shoulders breaking through the dark of the hallway as if it were a curtain, he could almost feel the velvet weight. Through the doorway and into the small hollow of warmth that was growing around the stove. It soaked into him briefly as he strode through it to open the back door. A thin mist met him there, echoing with the distant beat of the sea and the slow, steady murmur of the woods at the edge of the clearing. His clothes, still soaked, turned icy.

He shut the door and found himself in front of the stove again. Breathing hard, as though he'd been running, and for a moment, he paused. Held his breath and then let it all out in a whoosh. Rubbed his hands over his upper arms where the heat of his body, moving and in motion, had dried the parts of the flannel of his shirt.

Do you now. Do you.

Both Wesley and Barnabas had accused him of something he'd not done and had never contemplated. Wesley of him being a snitch for his wife, Barnabas of him fighting in the streets. Willie'd never snitched for or on anyone. Ever. Not even while doing his stint in prison. Hadn't Wesley believed him when he'd said that Laura would never hear about the drinking from him? And the last time he'd even thought about starting a fight had been with Burke Devlin. He'd lost that one, and had winced and struggled under Jason's pitying looks, hidden though they'd been. Jason had never known him to lose a fight. Not against an unarmed man. Not like that, in a bar, with a crowd looking on. And now, now he felt that he'd for-gotten how to fight at all. Knowing him, knowing him as he must, did Barnabas actually think that Willie would pick a fight that he was sure to lose? Surely Barnabas realized he had more pride than that?

No and no.

And all this time. Working all out, harder than he'd ever worked in his life. Ever. Wood, fire, candles, wax, and ash. Day in and day out. And the renovations on the Old House, good Lord, what would Jason have to say about that now? The armoire he'd redone of his own accord, and the little secretary that Miss Winters now adored. And the floor of Josette's room, damnit, he'd taken up the carpet, moved the furniture and polished the fucking thing by hand. All he'd gotten for that had been a nod and an early night. Not even a little cash bonus, like that time he'd done when he'd gone to the lobster restaurant.

Willie tore his hands away from his arms and brought his fists up to press against his forehead. Wanting to tear his thoughts out of his head and burn them in the stove, to destroy them, to keep them from circling round and round like wild devils in a cage.

I'll tell him. I will fucking tell him--

He threw open the door to the hallway and his feet thudded on the floorboards like hollow drumbeats. Half-way there, he heard the footsteps on the front porch and desperation rose in his throat like bricks as the front door opened and the master walked in.

Don't think of him like that, don't.

"Barnabas, I--"

"I expect you feel that whatever excuse you are about to make will keep you from what's due you."

Mouth open, he watched as Barnabas hung up his coat and cane, and his heart thudded as he realized that he was going to get a whipping, whether he deserved it or not. It was coming, by God, and nothing he did or said was going to make a damn bit of difference.

The vampire turned to look at him, eyes glinting in the candlelight, softened not at all by the darkness all around, and Willie took a breath and swallowed.

"I wasn't fighting," he said, thinking to start with that, start with the facts, and back them up with whatever he could think of.

"I beg your pardon?" Barnabas was entirely calm, thought Willie realized with sudden certainty that for a date with Miss Winters, one looked forward to for several days, Barnabas was home mighty early. It must have shaken her up by seeing the fight in the alley and she'd told Barnabas she wanted to come home, and that was only adding to his anger.

"I said, I wasn't fighting."

"I fail to see what else you would call it. You and your so-called friend were engaged in a friendly sparring match, I suppose?"

"No, we--"

"I can only assume that, although he had the upper hand when I came upon you, you'd somehow engaged him in this altercation."

Willie's jaw dropped open.

"I never laid a hand on him. Never, he--"

"Enough." Barnabas raised his hand, palm chalk white, his gaze flat and hard. "I have heard enough. You were fighting in the streets of Collinsport, which I have expressly forbid."

"But Barnabas--"

"And as for what you were doing in the vicinity of the Blue Whale, I can only imagine."

A fist that felt as big as his heart clenched to a stop inside of him. The day, the rain and the cold, Wesley's sad confused drunken face, and Barnabas' hard certainty that it was all his fault--all of this rushed headlong at him, and his lungs filled with air.

"It isn't fair," he started, almost gasping as he rushed out the words. "I wasn't fighting. I know it looks like I was, but I wasn't. The guy was drunk, an'--"

"This guy, your so-called friend?" Barnabas asked, interrupting him.

"He is my friend," Willie said, his shoulders bunching, and fists coming together in front of him. Only too late he caught Barnabas' glance at them, and realized that his protest was over before it had begun. "He was just upset, an' he'd had too much to drink, an'--"

Willie stalled, seeing the dry boredom in the vampire's expression, and knowing, above all things, that nothing he said would make a damn bit of difference. "I'm telling you--" he said, the force in his words belying the panic in his chest.

"Drunk for what reason?" Barnabas asked now, tip-ping his head back as if to appraise the truth in his servant's words.

"I dunno, he--"

"Surely you know." Barnabas took a step toward him and then another. The darkness swooped behind him like a cape, engulfing the air so that the vampire and the darkness blended together. Only a single candle illuminated the side of his white face, carved in lines of inky black. "You said he was upset, he must have said something as he tried to drown you."

"No."

"I beg your pardon?"

Willie swallowed, shifting his weight on one foot. "It's none--" His voice broke and he took a small, shallow breath. "It's none of your business." He should have been mad at Wesley, but he wasn't. And he'd be damned before he'd tell any of Wesley's private troubles to anyone, let alone Barnabas.

The vampire came forward with such swiftness that Willie was pinned against the stair railing before he could blink. Barnabas did not lay a hand on him, but came so close that any movement would bring Willie's flesh in contact with the crisp, cold grey wool of Barnabas' suit. Frozen there, jaw clenched tightly back, the hard curve of Barnabas' face only inches from his own, and he with his breath lurching in his chest.

"Oh, but it is my business, Willie. Your life is mine by consequence and therefore anything you do or say is my business."

"But, it's not--" he blurted out, catching a last chuck of air as one of Barnabas' hands snapped out to grip him by the throat. His chin dipped down of its own accord, his thoughts sucked away by the darkness forming behind his eyes, and he spat out the rest of it. "It's not anything to do with you."

"We will see about that," snapped the vampire, his temper surfacing in the grind of his voice. Mien of calm seemingly broken at last, he cast Willie down the hall, toward the kitchen and as Willie stumbled to keep to his feet, gave another shove, sending his full form into the closed door. The dry wood snapped beneath his shoulder and he pushed against it, glancing at the dark form as it advanced toward him from the dim light of the back hall.

The door opened beneath his trembling hands and he almost tumbled into the room, snagging the edge of the sink and hauling himself against it in the almost dark, lit only by the glow of the stove and the single candle over the fireplace. Echoes of the stars in the night sky fluttered through the window. Barnabas came in and closed the door behind him with a snick, locking out what little light could be had from the candle in the hallway. Willie's heart hammered beneath his breastbone, the palms of his hands almost cutting themselves on the edge of the sink. His mouth was bone dry, and he could not keep his thighs from quivering beneath him. They would give out soon, in a minute, Barnabas' timing would be perfect, in a minute he would fall and the vampire would catch him--

Fuck that shit, Loomis.

"It's none of your God damned business," he said, almost shouting, not missing the spark of surprise in Barnabas' eyes. A hard knob, the size of a fist, pushed its way up through his lungs. "It's not any of your business, any of it!" Now a real shout, the lump rising to sear through him as if his throat were on fire.

As the vampire snapped from a standstill, hands reaching to haul him up and throw him across the kitchen table, the breath was knocked out of him, his brain whirling--

Don't touch me, please don't touch me--

While at the same time, his whole body shuddered as his shirt was ripped upwards and his belt removed all in one, slicing motion, tight with desperation and desire as the cold hands were upon him, even if only for an instant, pressing him down against the table. One hand, large, heavy, the fingers splayed, he could feel every single one of them, as if they were a caress, and straying, inexplicably to the soft curve beneath his arm, resting there, his groin tightening, his cock hardening, shoulders shrugging down as he curved his arms around his head.

Oh, yes, please....

No. He cut the thought off just as the wood of the kitchen floor shifted beneath him as Barnabas stepped back, and with a scream building from deep within, he kicked back with his leg and pushed up with his arms.

"You c'n just go to hell, cause I ain't tellin' ya, not for anythin'--"

Hard hands pushed him down, his jaw landing against the planks of wood with a click. One glimpse of the vampire's white face, eyebrows lowered, told him, with the part of his mind that could interpret anything at all, that the vampire was a tad confused at the outburst. Not that it mattered, as a second later the first full whale of the belt landed across the soft part of his hips, shutting off any further outburst he'd been trying to dig up from the most disobedient part of his brain. Hard to find when for so long he'd been yes Barnabas and no Barnabas from sundown till sunup. With the taste of blood on his tongue, he felt Barnabas lean in, breath cold on the back of Willie's neck, the hiss of that voice tensing up his back with a shiver.

"Indeed, you will tell me, Willie. Before too long, I'll wager."

Dangerously close now, the dense muscle of the vampire's chest along his back. One hand resting on a bare shoulder and the press of a thigh against his. The cold, cold weight of his presence like a fine and heavy cloak, easing forward, until Willie's hips were snug against the edge of the table. Hip bones pressed hard by the wood, his desperately hard sex trapped in between. One move by Barnabas and Willie knew he would start screaming. And whether with desperation or desire, he could not let it hap-pen. He'd promised himself, and if he let it continue, he might as well throw himself over Widows Hill in the morning because once it started, it wasn't ever going to stop. Collins' word of honor or no.

"You can just fuck off," he muttered on a half breath. Sweat combed its way through his hair in spite of the chill of the kitchen, and he could feel it start tumbling its way down in front of his ears.

The hand moved with a snap from his shoulder to the back of his neck. "I beg your pardon?" came the snarl. "What did you say to me?"

Fingers pressed down like five pieces if sharpened ice, not allowing him to draw away, or ease the air into his lungs. He swallowed anyway, knowing that Barnabas could feel every pulse of blood beneath his skin.

"I said, you can just fuck off."

The belt hit him again, hard enough to sear the air from his lungs, to rip the strangled howl from him. And then another blow, curling around, hot, branding like fired iron, the tip of the belt popping against the bone of his hip.

Then it was still. Just for a second, and he felt Barnabas lean close, breath a cool whisper in his ear.

"Fighting in the streets, Willie? And profanity? It gives one pause, does it not? And brings me to the very ladened conclusion that you desire this. As you desire what you imagine might follow."

The back of his neck melted, he felt his face flaming, the ringing in his brain shouting for him to agree. Some-thing deep within his body writhing to get out, wanting to be flung upon the brier stirred by vampire hands. But his soul won. He clenched the table with two hard-knuckled fists, nails digging in, biting his mouth around a snarl.

"Fuck you, asshole."

Kicked back with the heel of a foot, a fractious beast of burden, brought to the end of his patience, striking out, at last, against the master. He felt his shoe catch the broad bone of Barnabas' calf, the mud on his shoe slipping across the fine wool of trouser leg. And heard Barnabas actually make a sound of surprise, low and astonished. Saw the shimmer of air as the belt cut through it and his head hit the table with the impact of the blow across his back.

Saved. He was saved from himself, even as he was lost to the cut of leather through bare skin. Sliced by a sensation so sharp that the pain of one blow was not realized until the echo of the next had faded away. Ears ringing with each high whicker of the belt, the thud of muscle compressed against bone, and his own, husked chuff of air against the tabletop. But rather this than those hands, those knowing hands, the arrogant knowing, and the pleasuring. Smug, superior, and soft, so soft.

Please.

Please.

Oh, please.

He was weeping into his hands as the beating ended, and beyond that he could hear Barnabas behind him, breathing hard, a low, almost musically jagged sound. The creak of wood shifting beneath leather-shod feet as Barnabas stepped back, and flung the belt so hard it clunked against the wall to collapse on the floor. The silence.

"Go to your room," the vampire said, low. "And stay there."

As Willie pushed himself up, the darkness ringed his vision. He could not see where Barnabas stood, only sense the push of a form in the shadows and feel the eyes that stared. He made himself walk through it, as if it were a cloud of evil-smelling air that had come up from still, brine water. And made himself keep walking all the way up the stairs, walk instead of run, breathe in and out instead of whimpering, no panic, no panic, no panic.

He made it to his room out of breath, and stripped off his still-wet clothes, shoving them in the corner of his armoire. There was no water in the pitcher to drink or rinse his face with, and he had to content himself with simply crawling under the covers, and lying on his side.

The room settled with dampness around him. He could light a fire, but that would require moving and stretching, not to mention going down to the kitchen for a scuttle of coal. And that he would not do. Could not do. He was sweating anyway, radiating heat as his body eased its way through the scores along his back. Right there along his spine, something hurt extra hard, like a razor was being drawn back and forth, and he imagined that he could smell blood. Could imagine it seeping, slow, like an old spring oozing forth something dark and nasty. Along with the sweat still trickling along behind his ear and down the back of his armpits, he was plenty warm. Soon, maybe in an hour, he would grow cold, and draw the blankets around him like a cloak and pretend to sleep in their hiding folds.

For now though, he pushed the blankets behind him, to block the draft from the window and the chimney flue. The wind was at a humming stage, on the verge of raising the volume and pitch and lowering the temperature. Time enough for that later, when the winds rose across the sea and up the lee edge of Widows Hill. The blankets formed woolen hillocks, and he shifted his leg thinking that there might be a welt alongside his knee, but remembered that Barnabas had not hit him there. Maybe he'd hit his leg against the table, or the stove, he couldn't remember. It certainly ached like he had.

His toes caught in the tag end of a tear in the sheets, and he let them tear it as he pulled his leg back and curved his chin down to his chest. Letting his head almost slip off the pillow, down into the slight valley of the mattress. Bound to give him a neck ache before morning, but for now, it was a cocoon, with the half-moon sweep of the blanket curving behind him. He pushed back against it, thinking of sleep, feeling the warmth of his body echoing back from the wool, and imagining, as he closed his eyes, that it was the hard plane of a thigh, pushing closer.

His back edged towards it before he realized he was doing it, sinking into the mound of wool, wanting it to be so. Felt the push of two thighs, hands, a chest rising and falling behind him. Felt the slip of a woolen-clad arm, gently, across his shoulder, and turned his head into the mattress, tucking his face under the flap of pillowcase. Stomach spiraling, inward, like a sucking mouth, and then spraying outward with a tumble of electric pinpricks. With a small shiver, he eased his hand down, finding his cock hard with the blood pumping through it. Hot, like an iron in a fire, and weeping from the tip as he brushed his thumb over it. Tight, velvet-skinned, and he shoved his briefs down on one side, in one, fierce, hard move. Elastic catching on the hairs on his thighs, hanging and then pulling, his hand clasping as hard as he could without pain.

Tipping forward into that dark moment, just for a moment, stopping, pressing his nails, fingertips digging, into his cock.

No no no don't want this no.

A fleeting motion, perhaps air across his bare belly, or the agonizing rub of sheet along his knee. The twitch of hard flesh in his hand. Circling his palm around, letting his fingers guide him, closing his eyes against darkness, against the pinpricks, now silver, starting to shoot through his head. And met the bolts of sharp static coming up through his spine.

Please.

The woolen blankets seemed to oblige him, almost pressing him into the mattress, as he slid his hand, slow, slow, up and down. Moisture seeped beneath his palm, slicking the surface, melting the cool air into hot, and simmering. Shimmering, soaking into the air, till his nostrils twitched at it, the thickness of his own, solitary passion.

Stop.

He knew he should, that he was doing this for the wrong reasons, but it was only a distant echo in the back of his brain. His hand, his cock, his thighs, the muscles along his groin, they knew what they were doing, they knew what they wanted. And his back, too, could not ignore the outlines of the form that pressed against it, taller, shoulders broad, cool hands, and steady arms. A dark head bent to press close into his neck, a whisper of air, of breath, along his cheek. Welts aching, skin edging toward a scream, and his hand picked up speed, catching the moisture, spreading the sparks, faster. Faster...faster....

Then spreading outward in a sigh of stars, pumping out of him, escaping almost. Exploding. The smell of salt and hot turned to cool as he came in his palm, fingers let-ting it seep into the sheets, into the mattress, forever marking it with something of him. Something Barnabas could not fail to catch the scent of, were he to pay a call before the sun came up. The welts along his back began to itch as his cock melted against his thighs, sticky with semen. His hand, sticky, and he wiped it against the sheets, trying to pretend that he was just rubbing an itch away, or smoothing the sheet. No use. Too late. The hillock behind him was just that now. A hump of lifeless blankets that could not take the blame for his fevered brain that insisted on looking for what was not there. A hand in the dark, a voice saying something important, a breath even. Letting him know he was not alone, that the night would not take him without a fight.

He turned his head fully into the mattress now, feeling the cold, pulling the blankets over him, bare wool to bare skin, the sheet somehow lost in a tussle that he could not remember. Feeling the mattress push against the bone of his nose, ducking his chin to his chest to gasp for air, eyes hot, even as his shoulders were cold, just before he pulled the blankets over his head. Tears spilling down his cheeks to fall into the darkness. The rush of hard, hot anger surging up his spine, and turned and ducked his head into the curve of his elbow. Pressing his eyes, clenching his mouth against the rage. Tears slipping anyway, the dark gurgle from his throat. He knew what he'd done, and the fact that there were no witnesses to it did not matter.

Fuck you, Willie. You looser. You fucking fucking looser.

The wind started to moan through the chinks in the leading, seeping cold through floorboards and chimney flue, no matter how small the space, the wind always knew the way through. Humming, rising in pitch, culling around the corners of his bed, flicking up the edges of his blanket as he clenched himself toward sleep.

*

Mid-morning came too early, the sky a color of grey that always made him want to go back to sleep. But the chores wouldn't wait, and didn't, and after the fire and ash, the candles and wax, towards mid-afternoon, he headed into town to try and find Wesley. Who would, surely, be nursing a hangover as big as the state of Maine. Especially after falling off the wagon so hard he would attack Willie in the street. He couldn't really blame Wesley, if Wesley truly thought Willie had told Laura about seeing him drinking at Butcher's garage. No, not really. He knew the kind of rage that too much beer could give rise to. When you felt dead-ended, with no way out.

The streets of Collinsport, as he drove his truck around the edges of town, past the garage, the Blue Whale, and right up to Wesley's neighborhood, were damp and running with water. As though they had been sluiced with a hose and were still draining away. His wheels made a hissing sound over that of the engine as he pulled to a slow crawl in front of Wesley's bungalow. There were several newspapers in the drive, melted away for the most part, and some notices stuck in the door.

Willie made a full stop, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, casting his eyes up and down the street. It was obvious that no one was home, nor had been for some days. But whether it was Wesley's drunk or Laura's leaving that had left the house abandoned, he did not know. Only that he didn't feel overly comfortable banging on a neighbor's door, asking if they knew what had happened to Wesley Dale and his wife. Their kids, for that matter. Even if someone did know where they were, they would not take too kindly to Willie Loomis, town scatabout, standing on their front step.

There was a car turning into the little street, and the welts from yesterday's whipping had been whimpering at him for a full hour. He pushed in the clutch and popped the truck into gear. It wasn't his neighborhood, and, other than the missing Wesley, he had no excuse to be there. No sense loitering in town and having someone call the sheriff. So he wheeled the truck down the street and up the hill. Towards the Old House as the evening came on and turned to falling damp, the kind that made streaks on the wind-shield and the chill grow up suddenly through the floor-boards of the truck.

Barnabas was just up, he knew, as he pulled into the driveway and parked the truck under the port-cochiere. He could feel it, somehow, his heart pumping several extra hard beats. He could explain his absence from the Old House in any number of ways, if Barnabas was distracted by his evening's plans, or had a book in his hand. But if he was in the kitchen as Willie walked in, it would be a close call. Just as long as he didn't know, didn't know any of it, the part that mattered. And he could never find out. Or maybe he already knew, and didn't care. You desire this, the vampire had said. And then had been awfully quiet as he'd told Willie to go to his room.

As he opened the kitchen door to see Barnabas lighting candles on the mantle over the fireplace, Willie felt as though he'd been socked in the gut. Barnabas looked liked he was already mad, and what simmered through the cool air towards him as he closed the door behind him convinced him of this. The taste in his mouth was bright silver, and catching his breath made him feel dizzy.

Sure, Barnabas, loose your cool. Let's pick it up where we left off last night.

His whole body tightened up at the thought of it.

"Where have you been?" asked Barnabas, setting the box of matches on the mantle with a snap. "Your duties are here, unless I send you elsewhere."

"Just in town," said Willie, his voice tight in his throat. "Picking up stuff."

"Stuff?" asked Barnabas, eyebrows arching. "What stuff?"

"Um...." Willie's hands hung at his sides like dead weights, empty. "That is, I went into town for things, to pick them up, only they weren't there, so--"

"Is that the best you can do, Willie?" said the vampire, his mouth curved down in his displeasure. "Your attempts at lying, with little finesse and even less skill, have gotten so tiresome of late, it is painful to watch you even try."

In the dark of the kitchen, Barnabas' eyes had taken on a glitter that matched the one in Willie's stomach. He could not imagine that the vampire was playing the same game, the dangerous, twisted one where Willie pushed Barnabas to the edge of his temper, and then Barnabas pushed Willie against the wall, and--

It was a bad game and he should not be playing it. Had promised himself he would not, but as the vampire walked closer, he was crumbling inside. His mind tumbled the ideas about, quickly, what to say to send the vampire over the edge, to make him mad enough to grab Willie by the collar and pull him up real close, white-tipped fangs at the ready.

"I ain't lyin'," he said, boldly, "an' you know it."

His eyes glazed as he watched in a dream as hands hauled him up close, as he felt a silent scream of cool air around his neck. The slap that rocked his head and the blood that he tasted on his tongue. And the anticipation of pleasure that felt like a faraway caress coming closer.

Then there came a not-so-far-away sound of a knock on the front door. It echoed the ratting pound of his heart, framed by the sudden stillness of the kitchen.

Barnabas' eyes did not look at him as the vampire let him go.

"You will attend to that."

"Barnabas--"

"You will attend to that."

Willie told himself that the vampire was not shivering, that the room was suddenly freezing, the candles on the mantle guttering themselves out. The nerves under his skin fired anew, pleasure and desire crystallizing to barbs of glass in his veins. He was like a junkie coming down from a bad high, too sudden, too soon, soaking his system with a potion too powerful to be sluiced out. He slunk out of the kitchen, down the hallway toward the front door and the single candle lit on the console by the stairs. A knock sounded again, and Willie flung the door open, trying to swallow his hard breathing, knowing the shadows of the Old House would be as forgiving as any saint in not distinguishing blood from darkness as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

It was Victoria Winters standing there in the hollow of the front porch. And startled, it seemed, by the suddenness of the door opening. Of Willie standing there in silence. He knew he was glowering at her, but couldn't stop.

What the hell do you want?

But she could not hear his thoughts, and her eyes shifted to the sound Willie heard coming up behind him. The slow, measured tread, the slight rustle of linen against wool as the vampire came to stand at Willie's side.

"Why Miss Winters, I had thought--"

"I had to see you Mr. Collins," she said, almost breathless. "And Willie, too. To make sure he was alright." Her eyes tried to catch Willie's, but he wouldn't let them. Her sympathy was as unwanted as water in a flood.

"As you can see," said Barnabas, "he is quite well, though I am much chagrined at the thought of him having a fight with his supposed best friend. In town, no less." Barnabas spoke in that haughty, disparaging tone he liked to use when pretending to feel at loose ends with the problem of his only servant.

"Having a best friend is a good quality, isn't it?" Vicki, in her turn, standing firm to get her point across. As if she were in a classroom, talking to a stubborn pupil.

And Willie also heard something in Victoria Winter's voice that he'd heard once before. It reminded him of the time when he'd first come to Collinwood, when he'd been ill after meeting up with Barnabas. Her sympathy for him had been limited to an acknowledgement of his remorse and nothing more than that, expressed with iron, pounded a thousand times in hot fire. He could not understand it, why she would now talk to Barnabas like that, in Willie's defense.

"Yes, I suppose," said Barnabas as if pondering this serious statement with all the weight it deserved. "But Wesley Dale is only a common worker, what you would call blue collar, I believe." This was followed by a smirk, delivered as only Barnabas could, head tilted back, proud of himself having delivered this valuable opinion. "A mere drudge of the village."

An expression flickered across her face, maybe it had been the shadows from the candlelight, maybe some-thing else. But the shadows that could fool a saint, that could disguise blood, could disguise emotion as well, it seemed, so he could not be sure.

"Do come in, Miss Winters," said Barnabas with a half bow, the sweep of his hand indicating the welcome of her entrance. Vicki stepped across the threshold, gripping the collar of her coat hard with one hand. Her hair had been swept by the wind and curled by the dampness, though Willie could not appreciate this as the seam of his shirt rubbed hard against open welts.

He did not hiss. Found Barnabas looking at him any-way, sending a wave through Willie's body that was akin to shock, laced with heat. Barnabas flicked his eyes away, as though disgusted.

"Willie," he said, in his weary, dismissive way, "you are excused. I'm sure you should clean yourself up before you go to bed, though that shirt, I fear, has seen better days and is good only for the rag bin."

"No," said Vicki. Her voice sounded thin. "I mean, please, Willie, stay. Mayn't he stay, Mr. Collins? I have something . . . well, I have something that I need to say to the both of you."

Willie's eyes caught Barnabas'. The vampire had no more of an idea about what she was going to say than he himself did. It was an odd moment, sharing the confusion, waiting for her to speak again, when only a moment ago desire and denial had arced through the air between him-self and the vampire.

"Would you care to come into the Front Room, Miss Winters? Willie has not yet, I fear, built a fire, but it would only take him moments, and then you could warm your-self by its light."

She shook her head, looking at the floor, her hand easing off from the collar of her coat. Her shoulders remained stiff beneath the cloth, and she squared them, as if preparing to plow through difficult seas.

"Willie was in a fight yesterday," she began. "I saw it from the sidewalk. His friend jumped him, and Willie tried to stop the fight, to get away." Looking up now, at Willie only, taking a deep breath, she seemed to be cataloging something in her mind.

"After the fight, he walked away, almost unscathed. Wet, but not hurt, at least not visibly. Now I see that his shirt is all rucked, and his chin is cut open. And he limped as he stepped back from the door."

There was a silence in the foyer as she stopped. Her lips thinned, her eyes dark stones in her face. "I see that in addition to smacking him in the alley, that you've beaten him for it."

"Beaten him?" asked Barnabas, as astonished as Willie himself to hear her say it aloud.

"You said that you would punish him and I can see that you have."

Barnabas looked down at his hand, as did Willie. Both of them ducking out of the way of the accusing focus of her eyes. Both of them realizing with some shock that she'd heard the entire of their conversation in the alley.

"I grew up in a foundling home, remember?" she asked, her voice serious and low. "I know a beating when I see one."

Throwing aside any pretense, Barnabas said, "Very well then. And what else do you suppose I would do to discipline a servant?" Acquiescence without agreement.

"But you shouldn't beat them."

Jeezus, Vicki. You got the guts, don't you.

She was not backing down; she was facing the vampire, demanding, with the whole line of her body, that he hear her. And on Willie's behalf. He didn't feel quite right about it, not understanding why she would do it.

"I must keep him in line," said Barnabas. Simply, as if what he were saying were the most obvious of concepts. "That is I how I do it. How did you expect I managed, ere this?"

This stopped her. "Why, I don't know, I mean. I just assumed that you talked with him and--"

"Talk?" Barnabas almost snorted. "As if that would have worked." He seemed to stop himself from saying something far more scathing. Then tilted his head down to look at her. "I assure you, Miss Winters, it is the only way. Would you have him pulling a gun on Miss Carolyn? Would you have him engaged in backroom brawls every week? I am only doing what is necessary."

"Maybe it was necessary when he first arrived, but it isn't now. Is it?"

"I think it was, and it still is," said the vampire, his voice quiet, his head going back, assured. "Men like Willie always need a firm hand."

Feeling no more important than flagstones beneath the vampire's feet, Willie almost missed the catch in Victoria's voice as she took a sharp breath and stepped back-wards. The words forming in her throat seemed to pain her.

"Why do you object to this so?" The vampire asked this, leaning in close as if to close the distance she was creating between them.

"Because Willie is a human being," she said, almost soundless, breathing the words. Willie leaned in to hear her, his shoulder almost touching Barnabas'. Willie's body shuddered. "He deserves better than the home you have given him, the conditions under which he lives. And he deserves better," her voice stuck, a little ragged, and she had to hitch in a breath, focusing her eyes on Barnabas, somehow, as if that would help her continue. "Willie deserves better than to beaten for a fight he did not start."

Her breath sounded in the silence. Willie could hear the rain outside, feel the tension coil hot in his stomach. He was not used to anyone sticking up for him, least of all Vicki Winters, but he appreciated it. Barnabas, however, by his expression, darkening in the flickering candlelight, did not. And Willie had no doubt that the reasons as to why this was so would be explained to him in great detail. Later.

"Miss Winters, you startle me. That you hold such an opinion, I am quite astonished to hear of it. Whatever can I do to put you at ease?"

Tears sparked in her eyes, then. They looked like chips of diamonds against the grey there, and Willie felt his stomach plunge. This was not a misunderstanding. It was something far worse. To bring Vicki Winters close to tears? It was going to be a disaster.

"You cannot change. It seems you will not change. I asked you before to be kinder to Willie. Instead you have become more cruel. I saw the evidence of it. Last night. Please don't come see me anymore, or send anymore gifts."

Like shattering glass, the disaster exploded. Far worse. Far, far worse than anything else he might have imagined. Barnabas' face darkened, and he snapped his eyes in Willie's direction. Then back at Vicki Winters, whose tears flickered on a face as pale as iced paper.

"But Miss Winters, I implore you--"

She held up her hand to stop him. Clutched her coat to her neck once more and then opened the door.

"I cannot," she said, clear in the cool air of the Old House, "I cannot condone such treatment of another human being, and I will no longer accept your courtship."

She stepped into the night of the porch, thin shoes making almost no sound on the wooden planks, and then closed the door behind her.

Master and servant stood, for a moment, listening, it seemed, to the sounds of her steps. The whisper of rain-driven wind. The silence of the empty house, settling around them.

Barnabas turned to look at Willie. Slowly pivoting as if on a turning wheel.

Duck or run. Willie's mind came up with it in a second. But his body could decide on neither, and then Barnabas' body was too close for either. Coiled up. A spring. Of hard packed snow, and iron, and the smell of moldering flesh. Right there. Looming dark, hands coming up. And then the grab, which always managed to startle him even when he was expecting it. Spinning him. Slamming him into the wall by the stairs. Hard enough to rattle the spindles of the stair rail, send a litter of broken plaster and wisps of wallpaper into the air around them.

His neck snapped back, and the vampire pressed harder. His fingers dug, sending Willie's muscles screaming. But it was worse looking the vampire in the eyes. Pitch black now, darker, even, than the blackness beyond the candle's light. So close.

Willie felt it. Then his brain registered it. His jeans were tight, and heat pulsed out from his groin. One step closer, and the vampire would know.

Are you insane?

He was. Wanting it. Insane with that. The shimmer. The closeness. It had been days since the last time. Eons since the promise. A game of chase, come here and go away. And now here was the vampire, stepping close, his hands circling Willie's neck. The fangs showing against the inside of the vampire's mouth. Promising more than words could be put to.

Then the vampire's nostrils flared, taking in the scent. As pure as air filtered through a salt fog, it must be. Willie's cock pulsed. They both knew it.

Willie tried to stop it. One last attempt. He tried.

"You promised," he said.

"You will not like this, I assure you," the vampire replied.

Within a second, Barnabas shifted forward, his hand over Willie's mouth. Iron fingers pushed his neck to one side, and with out even a breath, Willie felt the rip of fangs. Not silver sharp. Not cool, like the almost-pain that ascended before an orgasm. Instead, cold, unsharpened bolts, pushing into him. The scream came, tearing out of his lungs, only Barnabas' hands held him there. He felt the scream echo back into his body, with nowhere to go, it could only ricochet through his heart. Tearing muscle. Then the vampire pulled out his fangs. They felt like thorns, razor sharp, now, shredding as they went. His scream continued. He couldn't breathe, and still he was screaming. Barnabas' mouth latched onto the tattered flesh of his neck as hard as a lamprey. And began to suck.

With his hands Willie reached up, contacting the unmovable bone of Barnabas' jaw. Fingers brushing the sucking lip. The hot blood that felt like acid coming out of him, slipping past the ice of the vampire's face and soaking into Willie's shirt collar. A hand clamped around the back of his head, holding him still as his throat rattled with a scream he could find no breath for and still the vampire sucked. Hard. Willie shook with it, legs beneath him starting to buckle. The white shroud was nowhere. Only blackness descended above him, with no kindness or softness.

He heard the smack as the vampire's mouth broke suction. Felt the breath against the open wound that still bled. Then the hands let him go and Willie tumbled to the floor. His head hit the stone of the foyer with a crack, bone and muscle bound together, pushed by the rush of gravity. His eyes were wide open but he could see nothing.

"Miss Winters," said the vampire from somewhere above Willie, his voice thick, "wishes to entertain no more of my courtship, and for this I blame you entirely."

Willie's head spun against the hard flags of the foyer. He wanted to pick himself up, but the vampire's voice was too loud. And it was too dark, never-ending layers of darkness came at him from the ceiling.

"If you had not been so late in town, engaging in an altercation with your so-called best friend, then she would not have seen you. And you would not be where you are now. And I would not be--"

Willie's hand found the edge of the vampire's trouser leg.

Please.

Barnabas kicked his leg free. "No. I kept my promise, is this not enough?"

Blood pounded out of Willie's heart and onto the floor. Not like the other times, his heart wasn't stopping. It was speeding up.

"If I cannot win her back, Willie," said the vampire from somewhere above him, "then you may consider yourself shark bait."

Now his heart was thundering. The layers of darkness had become blankets, thick. Smothering him. A lake was forming behind the back of his neck, he could feel the edges of it pulling at the hairs there. Blood, he knew, did not soak into stone. From somewhere inside of him, another scream was forming.

"B-Barnabas." It came out a burble. But he sensed the vampire stop and focus that gaze upon him as though from a high tower.

"It won't stop bleeding, is that it?"

Willie managed to swallow, but no sound came out. The floor beneath him was starting to feel very far away.

"Ah, that is a problem."

Make it stop.

He felt the flagstones move as the vampire stepped closer. He tried widening his eyes, but there was only blackness there. And his heart was a runaway horse. Blood flew from its hooves.

"Why," he managed. It was a whisper. The vampire seemed to understand the question.

"It hurt because I wanted it to. And, in anger, it will kill. You will bleed to death inside a moment."

The warm lake spread, and he felt it puddle around his shoulders.

It was too warm, and cooling too quickly, as if his blood had been put on ice. As if he were on ice now, a shear, thin sheet of ice, floating and melting and soon he would be sucked under into the deep blue. He tried to move his arms, tried to swim out of it, but all he could feel was the hard press of damp, iced stone beneath his shoulders. Wanting to beg, not wanting to beg, his body struggling to stop even as part of his brain insisted that he speak.

Stop it, please stop it, please, please....

His mouth was moving, he could almost feel it, could sense it, but doubted there was any sound to it at all. Was there any sound anywhere? Was everything wrapped in cotton wool?

He tried again. Wanted real air coming into his lungs, real air instead of dead vapor.

Please stop it.

He felt the stones tremble beneath him, saw the light waver.

"The only way to stop it is to give you what you want, the very thing which I have promised never to give you."

Willie struggled. Somewhere in his mind, eyes unseeing, he saw the smirk on the vampire's face.

"No...." It came out a moan. Low, but one of denial. Of resistance. He did not want to want what he wanted. But was death preferable? He could feel his heart, so fast, but lighter. Hummingbird's wings. Pumping only air now. Felt warm vampire hands as they lifted him up, and he was pressed close to a wall of fine wool.

"You don't want to sleep with the devil. But would you rather sleep with God?"

Willie's neck muscles stiffened. He didn't care who he slept with. He just wanted to sleep. Feet so cold. Arms like lead. He could not even hold on to anything. The air, rocking around him.

"Though why I should consider breaking my word of honor on your behalf, I will never know."

Willie's head slipped forward. Came to rest on the solid ground of Barnabas' chest. The curve of a broad shoulder, steady and still beneath his forehead. He pressed into it. Letting it hold him, wanting only to sleep and to let the rock carry him there.

"I should make you beg."

The sneer in the vampire's voice came to him as through a curtain of velvet. He could hear nothing else now, not even the beating of his own heart. Or feel the roll of the vampire's arm muscles as they pulled him closer.

"Live or die, Willie. Only decide now, will you? I have other things to do this evening."

Live.

I want to live.

He could not do it. Could not say it. It came forth, though, issued as if by thought alone, the whisper as if from another boy's throat.

"Please...."

There was no movement from the vampire who held him. Only the slow thudding from a faraway heart, and somehow the sigh of the ocean, the deep blue, that did not want to give him up.

"Please," he said. And then again, his voice breaking, "Please t-take me."

A breath. A sigh.

"Please, Barnabas." Willie's voice trailed away, and the silence, now complete, took him over. He could not know if the vampire heard him, or, if he did, whether he would set things aright. There was only the blackness, smothering, like sharp ringing waves as he sank to the bottom of it.

"Then bend to me now."

He could not feel the vampire's fingers curving around his skull, but he knew they were there.

Some ghostly reply echoed inside of his head.

I will. I will.

And he did. Wanting his neck to fall forward, to arch and press himself against the hardness of the vampire. To feel those cold hands on his back, and the sweet, silvered kiss lance into him. Barnabas' mouth on him. Again. Soft. His blood flowing over those lips, suckled gently, pain floating away as foam on a morning's spring tide. The pleasure was a distant veil of light when it happened. There was not enough heat in his body, it seemed, for it to produce more than a long away throb of pleasure that couldn't even begin to shift away the cold. But he could feel it. Gently. An old-fashioned love affair, and Barnabas' courtship as only he knew how to do it.

Willie's arms tightened. He could feel them do it, and beneath his bare skin, he could feel the edge of Barnabas' collar. He sank into it.

Now the white shroud, cloaking him. Setting him back and away from the blackness. Bringing him to the light. But gentle. Slow.

The smell of his room hit him, and then the unbalanced feel of being placed in his bed. His fingers were pried open and shoved away, his body pressed back, blankets left to fall over him. Like a mother with a child in a nursery.

"Sleep now, Willie," he heard Barnabas say.

The scent of his own blood on the vampire's lips swept across his nostrils. Which was odd, since he couldn't smell anything else, could barely feel the rush of air across his own skin as the vampire stepped into the hall and closed the door to Willie's room.

He didn't even need the courting candle. Didn't want to open his eyes to see if it had been lit. For somewhere deep, wordless thoughts came together.

He broke his promise. For you.

A deep, thumping sigh kicked through his lungs. He rolled over on his side, starting to feel the rough of woolen blanket, the rasp of oft-washed, cheap cotton. The thrumming soreness on his neck. His cock, uneased, still tense inside, his spine too limp to care.

That won't happen again soon.

But what the price would be to pay for it, he did not know. The darkness of sleep carried him off even as he reached for the shadow of wool-clad shoulders in his mind.

*

It was a day filled with sleeping rain. Whenever he opened his eyes, it was raining, the room somehow warm for all that, and still. No rushing of wind through the cracks of the windowsill. No floating scent of salt from the sea.

There was a light when it grew dark. The courting candle, now lit as sunset came on in full force.

He drank water. Someone gave him that.

Someone built the fire so it would not go low.

Hands kept the fever from his head with a cool cloth.

No words. Only a low, grave silence attended him as the night came.

And a dark form at the end of his bed, watching him while he slept.

*

He shouldn't be out. Not that it was raining, but because his head was still ringing. The muscles in his legs still felt wobbly, his neck hurt like hell, and he was starving, though he could not bear the thought of eating. Besides which, Barnabas thought him surely at home, at the Old House. Sheltering beneath the tile roof, either resting in his room, or attending to chores left to grow old during his day off. There had been no written instructions left on the table when he'd woken that morning, but probably in the vampire's mind, there was no need for any. Not with the gathering dust, the stone-cold ashes, or the pile of supplies that he'd unloaded from the truck that were still waiting in the kitchen and the hallway to be taken upstairs. Plenty of things on the list still for him to do, should he be well enough.

He'd get to those. He would. But he had to find Wesley first. It wasn't the fight that worried him. He'd had plenty of fights with Jason, some that involved fists, no, it wasn't that. Friends fought. It was Wesley's drinking, and the look on his face in the alleyway. He honestly thought Willie had ratted him out to his wife. As if he would. As if he would ever. Not to mention that he'd never met Laura, wouldn't know her if he saw her. Willie pushed aside the memory of Barnabas and those hands. Stroking the hair back from his forehead, eyes glinting with a slight movement as he watched Willie fighting the fever. Watched him. Watched over him. Willie shrugged his shoulders, and made himself attend to his driving.

Making the circuit of town was easier than it should have been, given the rain and the fact that most folks were at work in the morning. Those that weren't were staying in shelter, as a Maine rain tended to be a sloppy affair, making puddles the size of a child's wading pool and bringing back the shout of winter to drown out the promise of spring. The street that Wesley lived on was a sheet of water, with no evidence of his friend or the tow truck.

Willie shivered, and turned up the heat, and turned the wheel back to the center of town. But the hope that Wesley's truck was at Butcher's garage was not granted. The place was open, though not active, and Willie could see Butcher through the damp-streaked window, greasy head bent over something he held in his hands, totally focused. He'd been pissed enough at Willie the other day, and Willie didn't think the Butcher would be any more forthcoming about where Wesley was than he'd been welcoming.

Hot coffee. That's what he needed. Hot coffee and a warm spot to sit while he let the caffeine speed up his brain and help him figure out what he needed to do. The truck found its own spot on a side street near a coffee shop he now frequented, not really having the heart to go back to the one Maggie used to work at, and he strode, collar up, in the rain, towards the awning.

Coming out of the coffee shop, just as he reached it, was Victoria Winters. On an errand, mostly likely. One that involved some private time, as well, as he didn't see either David or Carolyn in evidence. She was wearing her sensible brown coat, and sturdy shoes, which told him for certain that she was out on her own. Carolyn would never permit herself to be seen with someone in such shoes. She clutched her purse tightly in one hand, and turned to spot him. Too late for him to duck into another store, or turn the way he'd come and pretend he'd not seen her. Too late for any of that. He could only walk forward and stop under the awning, thinking maybe he could pretend that he was on his way to somewhere else. Only she figured him out before he could take another step. "Willie," she said. "Are you here to meet someone?" She looked over his shoulder as if expecting to see that he had a companion, perhaps it might be Barnabas, there. He could never tell her that that would never happen.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "I was, well, I was driving around looking for Wesley, to make sure was okay an' all. Got tired of driving around in the wet."

"You should warm up with some coffee, then," she said, as ever polite, though her smile seemed small and her grey eyes a little flat. "They've just made up a fresh batch of bear claws, and they smelled very good."

"Didn't you have one?" he asked.

She laughed a little at that, but it was a real laugh. "Girls don't have bearclaws," she said. "They have muffins or croissants, or none at all to watch their figures."

His mouth began to water.

"You want one," she said. "I can see it in your eyes."

"Yeah." He turned to go in.

"Listen, Willie." Her hand was on his arm, though she could have stopped him with her expression, the sudden vivid paleness of her face that made her eyes seem black. "I need to talk to you."

"Can it wait, Miss Vicki, I gotta--"

"It'll only take a minute. I wanted to talk to you about the other night."

"The other night?" He knew which one she meant, but perhaps she meant something else, and it was always better to play it safe. "What other night?"

"The night in the alley."

A whisk of wind sent the rain from the awning down his collar as he let his hands drop, as he tried to step to one side to let a couple go into the coffee shop. Close to the vest. He would play it close. And cold. Then she wouldn't want to talk about it.

"What about it?"

"I'm really worried about you, Willie. Mr. Collins, well, he really lost his temper with you. And it would have gotten worse, I know it, if I'd not come along."

She was worried. More worried than he thought he'd ever seen her. Not even the situation with Jason McGuire about to marry Mrs. Stoddard had given her an expression like this one. A worry so great she would head out on a rainy, sloppy day, by herself, to a not-so-fancy coffee shop to work it out in her own mind. That had to be what she'd been doing.

"Aw, don't worry 'bout me, Vicki, I'll be alright." He pretended he was about to laugh.

There was a little pause as she took this in. He saw the fire spark in her eyes just before she opened her mouth and he stepped back.

"Don't you dare dismiss me. You look like you've been rung through the mill and you're as white as snow. And I saw him slap you, not once but three times. He slapped you, Willie, and held you accountable for a fight that was not your fault. And then he beat you. How could he?"

The problem was twofold then. She was worried about him, Willie, because he was human and she was that sort of person. She was also concerned because her oh-so-perfect vision of Barnabas Collins was in dire trouble of being overturned. And she didn't want to be worried about either.

"Does he . . . does he do that a lot? Hit you like that?" She didn't want to know out of idle curiosity, he could tell. It was real knowledge that she was after.

"What, that? It was nothing." He shrugged. Made it casual.

"But he hit you, I saw him." Her eyes were insistent, and her body as well. Strung tight, and never mind the passersby who were eyeing the two of them like a side-show attraction. Should the conversation continue much longer, word would get back to Barnabas that Willie had been in town. He had to end the conversation, and quickly, too. And get her off the scent of the real issue of what exactly was wrong with her favorite suitor.

"He doesn't like it when I fight in town," Willie said, as if the fault were all his own and the fighting a bad habit. "He never has. He wants me to stop. Sometimes, he looses his temper, okay?"

"But--" She stopped, unconvinced, and behind her eyes, he could see her mind working it out. In less than a minute she would come to the conclusion that smacking a man around in an alley outside of a bar was in no way going to teach him not to fight. Not to mention the other issue she had raised that night, that of Barnabas' lack of care for his servant. Willie bore the marks of having been treated hard, there on his face, and, he knew, in his eyes. Sweet miss or not, she was well on her way to bringing the axe to fall on his neck and hers. He had to get her mind off this path and on a completely different road. And fast.

"Look, Vicki, it's really none of your business." He almost shouted it, and she stepped back in surprise. "I'm not your charity case, you know. For fuck's sake, don't you think I would leave if I wanted to?"

Her mouth fell open as her face went white. And in his mouth, he tasted the bitter truth that he might as well have slapped her. She was a foundling, a charity girl, and her sympathy had been with him. Then, in one fell swoop, he'd made her one of those people, those women. Charity as an art, rich women who do good works to make them selves look good. Who knit socks and make hot suppers and make every orphan child they ever tended to feel as human as a speck of dust.

*

There were only so many places Wesley could go, but he had not been in any of them. Willie treated himself to extra bread and butter when he made himself some soup, but it didn't lift his spirits any. His neck was still sore and his back and legs still pounded with blood every time he moved. One more thing wrong with him and he would be down for the count. At least he was home before Barnabas got up, at least there was that. No chance of him finding out that Willie had spent the better part of the day in town, driving about, looking for a friend he should not even have.

Even so, with the birth of dusk and the low, blue light that now coated every object in the room, Willie felt the ripple through his stomach. Glad that he had already eaten most of his supper, glad that it looked like he had been there all day. Knowing that Barnabas was still mad about Victoria Winters and looking for just about any excuse to take his servant down. Like he hadn't already done so and then some. Willie could still feel himself tumbled at Barnabas' feet. Still feel the wide open gash of his soul tearing even still further as he reached out his hands and tugged on the vampire's pant leg. The soundless begging, the desperation, the break in his voice as he said the words over and over, please, please, please. And then his arms around the vampire's neck like a vise. Holding Barnabas close to him whilst the vampire not only drained him of blood, but of pleasure. Wanting it. Welcoming it. What kind of man did that?

He looked at the slice of bread in his hand, blue black in the dark, and wanted to throw up.

The door to the cellar opened, and a second later the door to the kitchen. Willie stayed where he was. If he got up, he would only be backing away, skittering across the plank floor like a crab dancing into the surf. Leading Barnabas to think he'd been up to something wicked that day. The only way to fool the vampire was to sit tight.

The outline of the vampire was there now. Standing like a drawn line, without effort or animation. Only the voice came, like a low, dark growl.

"Did you tend to your chores?" Not a question, no never that. More, an expectation, to be fulfilled, or, if not, taken to task for.

Willie laid the slice on the table next to his soup bowl. "Uh, yeah, I built the fires, but...."

"But what?" The vampire took a step closer, and Willie could smell the anger burning.

He had to stay seated, he had to. Otherwise, the vampire wouldn't believe him.

"I didn't, I mean, I didn't feel so good, you know? The fires are built but I spent most of the day sleepin'."

The best excuse was his. A Barnabas-caused excuse. Lack of blood equals exhaustion equals Willie sleeping it off. Surely the vampire knew this. Even with Willie's quick ability to heal, neither of them knew the full measure of days it should take when a servant has been drained of most of his blood. Now Willie felt he knew. All of one day, and then taking it easy the next day. No mention need be made of his trip to town. Of his chat with Miss Winters. He leaned forward to reach into his back pocket. Pulled out the list from days ago. Unfolded it, and looked at the chores that would take three men a week to do. Willie had never yet, in memory, finished all the requirements on any list. Sometimes the vampire whipped him for it, but this time, both of them knew why there would be no punishment.

"I see."

Willie saw the thickening of a shadow as Barnabas clenched his fists at his sides.

"I should be," started Willie, swallowing, "I should be better, you know, tomorrow."

"Then you are finished here, and may return to your room."

Willie got up. Trying not to overdo it, but slow. He took his dishes to the metal sink, his sleeve whisking against the vampire's arm as he walked. Slow. The ritual of non-avoidance making his stomach dance with nerves. The muscles in his legs stiffen. His mouth was dry as he laid the dishes down and began to walk past the vampire. Barnabas turned to look at him. To watch him as he went down the hall. The hooded glare, sparking in the darkness, burrowing like lances of ice into the back of his head. He was too tired for this, too fraught, wanted nothing but to climb the stairs and sleep.

And thought that the knock at the door was only the echo of his own pounding heart.

"Can you not hear that?" asked Barnabas, his voice sharp.

It came again, a quick, light, rapid staccato.

Willie froze.

"Well, answer it," snapped the vampire.

The air in the hallway cooled even further as Willie walked through it. He heard Barnabas snap the match and light the candle on the console by the stairs. Fumbling with the lock, his hands were icicles, ready to break off. He turned the latch and twisted the knob and swung open the door.

It was Victoria Winters, the second time in three days. Groomed rough by the wind and the chill, pulling her second best coat up to her chin, a dapple of damp on her shoulders. She wore no scarf, he noted, as if she'd hurried over to the Old House on a moment's notice. There was no time even to tell her not to mention their meeting that afternoon as Barnabas step forward.

"Miss Winters." The vampire's astonishment rose in his voice.

"Mr. Collins," she said, ducking her head.

No one said anything for a long moment, the only thing Willie could hear was the rasp of his own breath and the wind whistling low across the tops of tree branches.

"May I," began Victoria, stopping as she seemed to find her own thoughts. "May I come in?"

Barnabas pushed past Willie and reached out to take her hand. To lead her across the threshold, his eyes glowing and bright. Closing the door behind her, locking out the night. Snapping out orders.

"Willie, light the fire. Indeed, if there is one you actually tended to today, I hope it is in the Front Room. And fetch some sherry, Miss Winters is surely chilled by the night air."

Willie turned on his heel to do these things as quick as he could, and hang keeping up the pretence of being more tired than he was. A visit from Miss Winters, asking to come in, could only bode good.

"Wait, Willie," she said, her voice soft.

"One moment, Willie," said Barnabas. As if only he could control his servant. As if Willie hadn't already frozen where he stood, the hairs on his neck and arms pricking upward.

Another pause, her grey eyes looking first at Barnabas, and then at Willie. And then at the stones beneath her feet. She seemed to nod then and raised her head with that firm-lipped expression Willie knew only too well, as Barnabas must, also. The one that told anyone who knew her that Miss Winters meant what she was about to say.

"I have something to say, and to apologize for," she began.

"Oh, no, Miss Winters, surely not," said Barnabas, starting almost before she finished. "There is nothing you could possibly have done or intended that needs apologizing for."

The lights in her eyes snapped as she looked at him. "Barnabas, I don't mean to be rude, but I must to ask you listen to me. Without interruption."

Willie had never seen the vampire taken aback. Not seen his eyebrows shoot up with surprise, like that, nor felt the start of his body vibrate through the cool air oft he hallway. "Certainly, Miss Winters," the vampire responded, his voice level. "Please."

There was a half-hitch of her chest. "I have come to apologize for presuming to dictate to you, or to Willie," she nodded at him as she said his name, "how either of you should conduct your private affairs." She paused to take a whole breath. "It is none of my business how you work things out between you, or how you get along. And it was rude of me to comment on, let alone to try and control. I hope, well, I hope you will accept my apologies. I was wrong."

Barnabas's gaze was only on her. Willie could see the twitch in his shoulders as the vampire struggled to stay calm and not start dancing for joy, should the vampire ever stoop to such conduct unbecoming a gentleman. He waited a moment, his dark eyes watching her, prideful.

"Miss Winters, may I speak?"

"Yes, Mr. Collins, thank you for listening."

He stepped forward. Took her hands in his and made her listen to him, bending close, tipping his chin down. "I assure you any apologies from you are completely unnecessary, though I am, as always, charmed by your instinct to look out for others. But may I ask, how, or rather, what, induced you to change your mind?"

She looked up into his eyes. Willie could see she was absorbed by the darkness there so fast, it was creepy. However much she might protest, even if only to herself, he knew she wanted what the vampire had to offer. Even if she didn't fully understand what that was.

"Please, Miss Winters, I really would like to know."

"Well, I was in town this afternoon, and ran into Willie."

The vampire's body jerked, though his gaze remained fixed on Victoria.

"He was looking for Wesley his friend, you know. To make sure he was alright."

Another start, and Willie knew it was costing a great deal for the vampire to not let go of the dainty hands in his grasp and lay into his servant about the latest lie, even if it was only a lie of omission.

"He said some things to me that convinced me I was in the wrong about what I had said the other night," she said

Willie almost jerked with surprise.

What the hell did I say to her that convinced her of that?

He had no idea. She must have already missed the courtship of Barnabas Collins before even speaking to Willie. That must be it.

"And I felt that to use my relationship with you like that, well, it was no better than blackmail." She finished this statement with a little sigh, as if now that she said it, she could relax.

So. That was it. She was disgusted with herself more than anything. Perhaps she felt she could better make the changes she felt were necessary by being around. Perhaps she felt if she had the vampire's ear, she could, in close quarters, convince him of the error of his ways and get him to treat Willie better. Perhaps she was one of those people who felt, in this case, she could save someone. If that were the case, Willie knew that he should, as Barnabas would put it, divest her of that notion as soon as he could.

Willie could see Barnabas champing at the bit, the large, pale vampire hands not letting go of her, squeezing just that much harder. "But what about what you said to me, does that no longer apply?"

It did not need to be explained what he meant, though there was a small, chilled silence before Victoria replied. "Yes, it still does, but blackmail is not the best way to affect a change in a relationship."

"My dear," said Barnabas, smiling. Eyes glittering as they had not since that horrible night. "My dear Miss Winters."

"I missed being with you," she said, ducking her head, her hair spilling forward. "I missed talking to you. And I felt that, well, I was hoping--" She stopped. Looked up at him with those clear, grey eyes, and said, "I'm sorry."

"Miss Winters," he said, taking both of her hands again. "Would you do me the honor of allowing me to escort you into town? The Collinsport Inn is touting a new menu, and I believe receiving high marks from the even the harshest of food critics."

"Oh, no," she said, touching the hem of her skirt beneath the layer of coat. "I couldn't possibly. I'm not dressed for it."

"You are," said Barnabas, "as elegant, as you always are, as a princess in silk."

There was a small pause, a heavy turn in the air as Barnabas seemed to lean forward and tell her something with his eyes. Willie felt it even from where he was standing, and did not know how Vicki could begin to resist it. She did not.

"Yes, please," she said, gleaming. Her smile extending to include Willie in its warmth. "I would like that very much."

Not quite like a virgin to the stone, but enough so that Willie shivered. Whatever it was that Barnabas had to give her, she wanted it.

The vampire gave her hands a gentle squeeze and let them go. Turned to take his great coat down from the coat rack. "Willie," he said, attending to his coat as he shifted his arms and shoulders into the garment. "We will be out for the evening, and you have the liberty of hours."

"Thank you, Barnabas," he said, nodding. Wiping his wet palms on his trouser legs.

The vampire took the time to fasten his own coat, then bent to snug Victoria's collar close as well. "The wind is chill," he said, his voice like velvet. The smile she returned him was like diamonds.

Barnabas opened the door for her and gestured that she should precede him. He stepped out on to the porch, only a pace behind her. At the last minute, before he closed the door, he paused. Looked at Willie, fully, for the first time since Miss Winter's arrival, his expression, for that one second, as plain as if he'd spoken: You will explain to me what has just transpired. And what role you played in it.

Upon his return, the vampire would surely want Willie's response.

*

The hour was unknown to him as he rolled over yet again, taking the blankets with him and leaving the pillow. It was almost too much effort to drag the thing under his head, but his body knew that if he did it, he would be asleep inside of a second. Just like it had known the last ten times. And of course, as he did it, he was more awake than ever. He wanted to sleep, maybe he was half asleep already, with the rustle of rain against his window, the soft slough of wind somewhere in the trees, the almost touch of warmth against his skin in the cool room.

One of the floorboards popped as it tended to do in damp, warmish weather, waking him up fully again. He tried taking a full, relaxing breath and rolled over on his side to face the wall. And tried not to think about how long it was taking the vampire to return.

Still awake. Still staring at the wall. Still waiting for sleep to come. The floorboard popped again, and he was so awake there was almost no point in pretending he even wanted to sleep. He sighed and rolled over on his back.

"Restless tonight, my spark?" The voice was deep and quiet.

Willie's eyes flew open to look at the darkness. To listen to the slow tread coming closer to his bedside. How many times had he heard that particular floorboard snap? How many times, then, had it been Barnabas watching him while he slept? His hair seemed to be suddenly sticking to his forehead while his heart began a slow, icy increase, as if he were running up a hill. And still. He stayed still, feeling his heart thud and his lungs press against his ribs.

He made himself think of this, of his privacy invaded, of all those nights when he thought it had been the wind, but it had not been. But it was no use. His body was drawn to the weight coming closer through the air, weight like gravity, pulling him to it and pushing him away at the same time.

Can you find me? In the dark?

Though why Willie should want to be found was beyond him

Of course, the master of the Old house could do it, with ease. Barnabas had vampire eyes, could read the air with his fingertips. Should Willie move so much as a moth's whisper, Barnabas would know it. But the night was spare and smooth and filled with the heavy velvet of silence. Barnabas was there, at his bedside, bending close, moving the veil of hair from Willie's eyes, trammeling the edge of his jaw with the heel of his palm.

Then the darkness was there, like velvet, bending down, the whisk of a breath across his chin, and then a brush of dark, oiled hair against his cheek. He felt the presence of the vampire, close now, but not touching him. Except for that hand, running down one side of his neck, the cool stir of air from the vampire's mouth down the other.

Willie was still. A wild thing in the grass, waiting for the lion to pounce. This one did, and Willie never saw it coming.

The weight of Barnabas' hand moved down his side, somehow familiar from the times that the vampire had grabbed him to throw him about. But now, now, the hand, though heavy, was smooth. Not timid. Tugging back the weight of woolen blanket, and oft-washed cotton sheet. Taking away the cotton of his briefs and undershirt. Sparing Willie a touch now to expose him to the soft rawness of a spring night.

Barnabas' mouth was close now, those shoulders, as he bent down, pressing Willie's body down with a gentle weight, pressure of cool fingertips pulling his jaw towards the darkness of the vampire's chest. Almost across him now, but not upon him, he felt the first, tiny sharp pin-pricks of the vampire's fangs in his flesh. Sliding into him with a flicker of light that grew. Spread as the hand that had pulled the blankets back now stroked him. Followed the length of his ribs and thigh. Felt the pulse of his heart-beat easily through his shivering skin. The bite in his neck withdrew, and the vampire sucked, almost not at all. Like a brush of a ribbon in a stray band of sunlight. Willie's flesh was pulled into that cold mouth, and pulsed with warmth as the blood seeped from him.

Then his body began to tighten, and under that hand, that cool, sweeping hand, his sex grew hard, and he pressed back into the mattress, his hips wanting to push forward. His hands were fists along his thighs, not knowing what to touch or where, or to what end they might come to should they do so. His toes were curling and uncurling and he found he was shivering, up and down the length of his body. As if blown by unbearable cold when warmth and light were just out of reach.

Barnabas withdrew. Slowly. Pulling himself up as his mouth came away, not moving far enough to expose Willie to the ever-present current of air in the room. But far enough so that there was space between them. Space enough for warmth to grow and the tension of two forms, close, but not touching, to spire into sharpness. Willie felt it, in his head and his chest. And his legs, they felt like iron now, cock tightened up and pulsing, waiting, hot.

The weight on the bed surprised him. Shocked him as much as the touch of two hands, warm from some distant, internal fire. They pushed him on his side to face away, to face the wall. To face the dark reflection of two shadows wall, where before there had been only one. The weight settled behind him on the bed, an arm sliding beneath him to hold his chest and pull him back against woolclad firmness. The other arm, draped across his hips. The liquid feel of fine linen edging the wool of a suit-jacket. And that cool hand, warmed by Willie's own blood, sliding up his thigh, encircling his crotch. Gathering all of his sex, snugging his balls up, all in the palm of silver flesh. Tugging. Teasing.

Barnabas' mouth was pressed into the small hollow behind Willie's ear. Willie could hear the low moisture of that mouth, smell the faint, salty darkness there. And heard the whisper.

"For reparations made."

Boy, I wish I knew what that meant.

He did not know. But that wasn't stopping the vampire. Not that, or the fact that Willie was shaking hard enough for his teeth to click together, but it slowed him. The vampire released the boy's hard sex, and laid his hand on the side of Willie's face and let it rest there Let the hand move down the length of this neck, the slope of his shoulders, and over again. Gentling him like a wild island pony. Finding the ease of muscle under his flesh. Petting him, making him sigh with it, his chest rising with a long heave and then settling into a smooth cadence as though he were sleeping. He felt like he was, that he was at rest and held there, safe in arms of iron, braced to keep out the cold of an unforgiving night.

Barnabas' head tipped forward, Willie could feel the ends of dark hair along his jaw, almost as rough threads from a ragged bit of silk. And then he was pierced. Fast. Quick, dark lances pushing into him and pulling out. His mouth gasping with it, almost choking as pumping out of him, the hot blood spilled down his neck. For a moment he wanted to struggle, to get away when the hand took him again. It was disembodied, that hand, only the coolness of it made him see the folly of thinking this. It had a body, and the body was behind him, pressing close. Grounding him against long, hard limbs, and that broad, solid chest. The echo of a faraway heart. Was it the vampire's? Or was it his own?

He forgot how to breathe. Until his spine felt the relaxed pulse of the vampire's breath and followed it. Until the mouth began to suck, gentle, gentle, the edge of a tongue tabbing at the raw edges of wounds only enough to entice. And that hand, as the mouth sucked, and eased, and sucked, the hand began to stroke him. It slid up his sex and then down. Circled the tightened flesh between his legs, and spread the moisture building up at the crown. His mind refused to stop and make sense of it, and, indeed, could not, as the hand took him where darkness had always begged him to follow.

The sucking was harder now, as the hand moved up and down him, slippery with his own sweet sweat. His hips pushed back into the woolclad hips behind him, and then forward into that fist. And he could not find it any-where, even in the corners of his soul, to stop it.

Pulse and suck. The slip of a palm, jarring him into a pleasure always sought but never gained, the sensation one that he would go mad trying to find again. And the low, satisfied sound of humming.

Silver-lined, it caressed his flesh until he was hard as stone and pulsing newborn. He exploded into the vampire's dark. The white shroud in reverse as it went away from him in a tunnel of sparks in the darkness of his closed eyes, while his body stiffened and his spine almost broke with the pleasure of it. He could not even grunt with the effort of it, this too, was swallowed by the darkness. And the vampire's hand, one last stroke before it stopped. Released him. And casually, as if from many turns of practice, wiped Willie's own spent seed on his bare and sweating hip.

*

The first thing Willie did when he got up in the morning and slid on some clothes, ignoring the tatters of his underwear and t-shirt among the tumble of blankets, was to go down the stairs to the library to look up reparations in the dictionary. Standing there, with the early, slanting sun bouncing off the pages and gilding their edges with light, was far easier than realizing he felt as good as if he'd been ridden by an Atlantic City showgirl the night before. It was easier, too, to only think about shaving over the metal sink in the kitchen and heating up some coffee and to drink it standing up, staring out the window, one hand on his hip, the cup cradled in the palm of the other hand. To feel the ease of his skin across his bones without a twinge of anything hard or sharp. It was easier to think about these things than about anything else. But he felt good. Deep inside, as though petted for hours in the right direction, soaked in sweet perfume, and dusted with a sparkle of stars.

He rubbed the back of his neck. Yeah, there was still a welt there, but it didn't feel like much, didn't bother him at all. The ones on his legs didn't trouble him much, either. The Atlantic City showgirl, who he pictured in his mind to be a tall, flexible brunette with a bottom firm enough to balance a plate on, kicked her long legs through his memories of the night before. It was easier to think of her, the she-with-no-name, or the idea that he'd made amends, and, as the dictionary had put it, given satisfaction for a wrong or injury, than to let his mind dwell on the suitor that had actually claimed him.

That suitor. Coming out of Willie's own darkest dark and taking him back into it. Saying very little and shaping Willie's pleasure with hands that had, before last night, only hurt and controlled. His stomach shivered at the thought of what they would say to each other come sun-down. Barnabas was not his idea of someone to whom he should owe any gratitude.

Finishing the last gulp of coffee he felt he could man-age, he dumped the contents of the cup in the sink and took a deep breath. Spring had come in to Maine, walking through the night, pushing past the last resistance of winter. Planting itself in the air with a smooth breeze that tossed Willie's hair as he grabbed the keys to the truck and walked out to it. Layering the air with the smell of green-growth and the promise of more heat as the sun pierced through the sky. A nice time of year, this, his mind focused on it as he started up the truck and drove into town.

The village was just throwing off a shroud of fog, the rooftops bright and crystalline with dew and sunlight. Willie went straight up the hill to Wesley's house, expecting that he'd have a repeat of the day before. Have to make the rounds from one spot to the next and still not find what he was looking for. But Wesley was there, though it seemed not for long. There was a medium sized rental truck parked in the drive, and the front door was open. Even as Willie slid behind it and killed the engine, Wesley Dale came striding out, box in both hands. He wore his usual button-down shirt and jeans, though they looked a tad slept in, even for Wesley. And when he saw Willie, a smile lit up his face. He put the box down in a puddle and came straight over, practically pulling Willie out of the cab.

A hearty hug was his greeting, and that smile, the one that lit up his green eyes, a flash of teeth, and the familiar smell of gasoline and oil.

"Hey, Willie," he said. "You look like hell."

I don't feel it.

His mind shied away from the reason as to why.

"Yeah, hey, got a day off, an' all."

"Oh?" asked Wesley. "Well come on in, then." He dragged Willie with one hand into the house, where there was a gathering of boxes littered with sheets of newspapers, and paper cups on the table, and a canister of instant coffee. "Have some coffee, huh?"

"I mean," said Willie, realizing how it must have sounded. "I had the day off. Yesterday. Not today."

"Ah." This was all that came out of Wesley as he busied himself scraping the brown powder out of the glass jar and filling the paper cups with hot water from the tap. "Well, I'm glad you came by anyhow, another coupla hours or so would have seen me gone."

"You goin' somewhere?" Willie asked this, feeling the sudden pitch in his heart.

Wesley motioned for Willie to sit down and he pushed the paper cup of coffee at him. Willie took it and sat, curling his hands around the cup. Looking at Wesley, Willie realized that soon, quite soon, he would be all alone.

"We're going to Boston, you see." Wesley took a sip of his coffee and seemed to be waiting for something. Then Willie realized why this was significant.

"You and Laura?"

"Yeah." There was a sigh of contentment in his voice. "She's gonna forgive me, but I gotta change. I'm going into a different line of work, yes, for my brother-in-law, but driving trucks. Not in an office."

Willie nodded. It was a good thing, Wesley getting his beloved Laura back, all told, but he couldn't imagine who he would talk to once Wesley was gone. "Did you ever, I mean, who told--"

"Butcher."

"Butcher?"

"Yeah. He was pissed I was drinking so he ratted me out. For my own good, he said. He didn't care how much I hated him, he was going to do the right thing by me."

"That's a good friend," said Willie, swallowing.

"Yeah," said Wesley. "And so're you, taking the pounding I gave you without saying a word. Looked like your boss whipped you for it, anyway, even if it wasn't your fault."

Ice cold. Willie felt the frost spring up inside of him, coating his stomach with rime ice inside of a heartbeat. He shook his head. "No, no he didn't, it just--"

"Look," said Wesley, pointing to Willie. "I can see it from here."

Willie lifted a hand to his own neck. He should have worn a turtleneck, but he'd not thought of it because nothing seemed to be hurting. He was as limber and at ease in his body as if he'd received a rubdown every day for a week. But his eyes could barely meet Wesley's. A ripple of feeling exposed ran through him.

Wesley shrugged, casual, easing Willie's tenseness not at all. "It's not like you could have hid it. All those times. Even Butcher knew."

Butcher knew? Worse and worse. Willie pushed the coffee cup away, unwilling, just then, to even pretend he was drinking the stuff, which had the consistency of bath-water. "Can we not talk about it, okay? He doesn't like me fighting, is all."

"And he doesn't like you having lunch with friends, or getting back a little late, or anything. I ain't blind, Willie. Your boss is a jerk, like I always said. Even if he does have the manners of a prince."

"What?" How would Wesley know?

Wesley seemed to be laughing a bit then, taking a sip of his coffee and making Willie wait for it, as though what he was about to say were the punch line to a very saucy joke. He put the cup down, and pushed it with his fingers, looking at it, and then, flicking up his eyes at Willie. Willie's heart lurched. He would miss that rascally smile, the green glint, like gemstones flickering through a dark night. And the manner, that what was so, was so, and no need to shady about it.

"Yer ole boss came by last night," he said, a long, low chuckle jigging at his shoulders. "Yeah, bold as brass, and could he come in an' all."

"Come in?" Willie's voice squeaked. Barnabas had been late coming in the night before, but never, in a thousand years, never could Willie have guessed he'd been here. In this house. Talking to Wesley Dale. Drudge of the village. And, it being Barnabas, it was amazing that Wesley was alive to talk about it.

"Did he, I mean, what did he--" He couldn't get the words out. Shock took every sensible question he could think of.

"He asked if he could come in, like he was here to visit the King of France or something. So I said yes, and he and that stupid cane of his came in."

Willie's jaw flexed open, he could feel his brows furrowing together, and found that while, yes, he could picture it, he could not, in any way, understand it.

Wesley was laughing now. He slapped his leg and spilled his coffee a bit, and titled his head back to howl to the ceiling.

"Wesley," said Willie. Terse.

The other man collected himself, smiling too wide to actually take a sip of the coffee he raised to his lips. Then he put the cup down, eyes sparking at the thought of it. "Well, I ain't the King of France by any stretch, and he's taking a good look around, at my pile of crap, the grime on the walls, I mean, you could see him mentally deciding it was a hovel, and so he couldn't really expect too much. You know what I mean?"

Willie nodded.

"So, he asks me where I am going, and I tell him, and then he wants to know why, as polite as you please. And all the while, he's standing right on the cat pee stain that we could never get out of the carpet, that cane of his on his arm, looking down that long nose of his. And talking to me like I was the King of France, even if I wasn't. If you know what I mean." There was a puzzled expression on Wesley's face now, where before there had been derisive laughter.

"Yeah," said Willie. "I know what you mean." Barnabas had that way, of making things as serene and cultured as he wanted them to be. For as long as he wanted it that way. Until he decided it should be otherwise, and sent you into next week with a flick of his wrist.

"Then he goes, like, and for what reason do you find yourself in this troubled state. Like that, you know?"

Wesley's imitation of Barnabas was pretty good; Willie could hear it exactly as it must have been said.

"So I found myself, for some fucking reason, telling him about the drinking. Like, why in the hell would I tell that peckerhead anything like that?"

"The peckerhead," said Willie, trying not to laugh now, the first time he'd felt like it in ages and ages, "is good at that. If he wants to know, he'll find out."

"Tell me," said Wesley, shaking his head. "So then he goes, perhaps this is a lesson to you, yammer, yammer, yammer. And then I look at him, and I says, so I go, well, sometimes you want things you can't have, and then you get things you shouldn't want. And you know what he did then?"

Willie had no idea.

"He looked like I'd smacked him. Right upside his head. But he stretches out his hand and he takes my hand and he shakes it. He's got a cold grip, that one, but he says, I wish you well on your journey, Wesley Dale. Like I was somebody maybe he liked."

In the silence that followed, Wesley gave him a jab across the table. "Can you beat that? Your boss, shaking my hand."

The miracle, Willie realized, was that Wesley was still alive come the dawn. Barnabas, he was sure, had come over to rid the world of the latest distraction in Willie's life. He'd gotten permission to cross the threshold and had surveyed the scene. Surely having gone to that particular hovel in the village, his intent must have been to strike and kill. What had stopped him? It could not have been Wesley's pitiful state, Barnabas would have considered it just and right that someone as lowly as a tow-truck driver would live in squalor. That Wesley was an admitted out-of-control alcoholic would have been another strike against him. That his wife had left him would prove that he could not control his women, and would also not have been in his favor. That he was planning to get a job driving a different kind of truck would have impressed Barnabas not at all. And certainly Wesley didn't have the manners of a court jester, let alone the King of France. He said what he thought, and hang who it irritated.

Which of course, might have been it.

Yeah, it really might have been.

Maybe Barnabas had found Wesley's candor refreshing. Or heard, as Willie often had, the very thing he needed to hear, when he needed to hear it. Wesley had the darndest skill at saying the very thing. The very thing.

"So?" asked Wesley. "You don't seem very impressed. Even Laura was impressed. I called her before the phone got shut off."

"I'm impressed," said Willie. "I can't hardly believe it, is all."

"What? You don't think I'm worth a visit from your boss?"

Wesley looked almost ready to be insulted, so Willie shook his head and smiled. "That's bullshit, Wesley Dale," he said. "You're worth more than he is, any day."

Then Wesley smiled back at him. The corners of his eyes crinkled up, and there was a faraway feeling, coming closer, that this might be the last time Willie would ever see that smile. Feel the warmth of friendship coming at him across a very cold ocean. After today, Wesley would be gone, and whether Willie would ever see him again was in the hands of a God he did not believe in. But he had this moment, and a string of others like it. They would keep him company, he hoped, a good long while.

"Hey," he said. "You need some help moving boxes?"

Now Wesley shook his head. "Naw, but thanks. Butcher is coming over, and he won't want to see you. He thinks you're a baaad influence."

This made Willie laugh for no reason at all. "Right. Well, I'll go then, before he gets here. Wouldn't want to create a hassle."

They got up and Wesley walked Willie to his truck. The box he'd left in the puddle was soaked through and Willie hoped it wasn't anything valuable in there. Or maybe it was a knee-jerk impulse from working too long for a picky vampire. Barnabas would no more allow any-thing of his to be soaked through with rainwater than he would permit the slightest stain on his reputation.

As Willie got in the truck, Wesley shut the door for him, his hands hanging on the open window. There was a pause between them as Willie contemplated getting Wesley's phone number or the name of the company he would be working for. Sure, Willie could look up Brewster's Quarry in the phone book and track Wesley down. But then he thought that maybe Wesley didn't want to give it, that he'd just as soon put Collinsport and all of its citizens behind him. Including Willie.

"Hey, buddy," he said. Nodded, once, feeling his eyes get hot. "See you around, then."

"Yep," said Wesley. He took his hands away, and stepped back. Sober and still, his face growing a little dark. "See you."

The only thing that saved Willie was that he couldn't cry and drive at the same time. So he drove.

*

Watching the shadows lengthen across the field in back of the house as he stood at the sink stirring sugar in his coffee was rather akin to listening to the sound of a clock ticking his life away. Not that he was in any trouble, not of the serious variety. Although of late, he'd been begging for trouble of another kind, an almost invented kind. He just wasn't that good anymore at making things up, and Barnabas had seen through him each and every time. And this time, well, this time, he'd not had to make up anything. Break anything. Talk back, or walk away. Barnabas had handed Willie his own desire, a vampire sort of gift, in his own masterful way. Taking the top off of Willie's personal box of dark, seeping wants, his body seeking them, and hang what his brain had to say about it. Pandora had nothing on him, not since the first time, that day last summer, when Barnabas had removed the splinter from Willie's hand and then sealed the wound with his own saliva. His mouth on Willie's hand, his cool breath pouring down Willie's forearm.

The memory made him shiver even now.

From that moment, while not a walk down a smooth, flagstone path, he had jumped at his own shadow and chased the darkness that sprang from even a single glance from the master of the Old House. And love had nothing to do with it.

Would you want it to?

God no. It was just that--

His mind broke away from it. But his body, as it listened to the warm wind rise and felt the house shift around him, knew that the truth was there whether he was ready to face it or not. His gut knew and was shouting to the rest of him.

Better to think of a different memory, of another love, another time. Of the soft-mouthed hooker in Charleston, what the hell had he been doing there? Some-thing with Jason, waiting for some ship to come and take them north. Or south. Willie couldn't remember, even though the sudden glint of Jason's smile was there in front of him. And the motel, ragged at the edges, but with fairly comfortable beds and clean sheets. A hot breeze through the open window. And Jason, outside the doorway as Willie staggered from the room, wiping the sweat from his neck and zipping up his pants. Jason had handed him an ice cold beer, and watched as Willie swallowed half of it down and sighed, saying something about her being the one. Then Jason had snorted at him. And asked, do you have to fall in love with every single one of them?

Willie had flicked beer at Jason and slugged down the other half. Yes, he did, for the hour, or the fifteen minutes, whatever it took. What did it matter? He paid them to pretend they loved him; in return, he had his own little fantasy. A rich, dense dream that as he pushed into them, he made believe they were his, his. His. Something had to belong to him and the hookers were it. For as long as it lasted.

It could not be that he was doing that now. This time.

Jeezus, no. Fuck no.

But what did a guy say, then? To a man whose large-palmed hand had the capacity to hold his balls and his cock all at once, who could stroke him, with that cool hand, to fullness inside of a bundle of heartbeats, kiss the back of his ear, and whisper a sweet nothing to send him shooting through a spiral of pleasure so intense he passed out.

What would Jason say to that? Willie thought about it a minute and realized that Jason would say a man's pleasure, there is no greater goal. Lifting a glass of beer, or whiskey or whatever was handy. He might have cocked an eye at the source of that pleasure, but would have followed it with a shrug. Maybe when a man had been around the world a time or two or three, pleasure's shape had less to do with it than the fact that it was. Even if Barnabas could have killed him with a snap, Willie had felt that silk stroking, the shivery building, and the solid form behind him. Shielding him from light and darkness both, the damp, battering wind, and the long, shifting dark beyond.

Willie could not remember feeling that safe. Ever.

He tried to take a sip of his coffee, but it was cold and he'd put so much sugar in that it had solidified to a sludge at the bottom of a cup. If he lit a candle he would have been able to see it, but his fingers told him, as he lifted the spoon, about the sugary sap sliding off it. So many times he'd put too much sugar in, thinking to gulp it all down, and then getting distracted or pulled away by Barnabas, to actually drink it while it was hot, the sugar melted. It was easier to think of that than of anything else.

What would Wesley say?

Willie already knew the answer to that. Wesley had already said it. To his boss, of all people. Said it in that way Wesley had, spouting truths without even knowing it.

Getting things you shouldn't want.

Willie had accomplished that in spades.

Had he actually fantasized about those hands, it would have been more than a dream, it would have been surreal. He thought now of Barnabas, stalking around the Old House, using those hands to swing his cane, or make a fist, or take Victoria's hand to kiss it. Those fingers, lighting matches, pointing out an item on a list he wanted Willie to remember, or curling around the edge of the curtains in the Front Room when he would look out at the moon. And all the while, his dark, snapping eyes, catching Willie and holding him there. The glare in them glowing from the vampire's soul, had he one, and the hard, intolerance that underlined every word that he said to his servant. How could a man with such eyes and hard fists use them so gently?

If Willie'd not thought about it before, his body took the thoughts his mind was generating and ran with them. Up the stairs and down the corridor to his room. To his brass bed, the fancy scrolls belying the hard, spare mat-tress and the blankets so thin they never quite kept out the cold. And the moment when, should it have been the dead of winter and a blizzard all around, the cold would have mattered not at all. He felt the hands now, a ghostly, shimmering stroke along his thighs. The shift of weight behind him on the bed, curling close along the length of his body and Willie shut his eyes, and let it come. Let the darkness come, those teeth, and the almost delicate piercing of his neck. Let it all come, especially those hands, those fingers, so strong, too dangerous, now gentled to so soul-satisfying a task, that should it be described to company, Willie did not believe even Barnabas would have words for.

But it was not love at all, and Willie knew it. That was the easy part. Love did not threaten with talk of dark rooms, or dismembering, or of whippings long due. The hard part was to separate that knowledge from the flutter in his stomach that grew into a full-blown windstorm with a word. A touch. Or even a single glance.

He was glad he'd not looked into Barnabas' eyes last night. He would have drowned there.

Willie put the cup in the sink, tipping it over to let the liquid pour out. He could hear it pour, the darkness beyond the kitchen window was now dark purple and his eyes could not catch even the faintest stars. Clouds then, overhead, moving in from the sea, that would bring rain in the morning. The kitchen felt still and hot, even as the spring air grew cool as it came down from the treetops and sought the nooks and crannies the Old House had all around. Sweat popped through his skin, under his arms, and his throat was dry. He worked the pump, bringing a palmful of water up to his mouth, only enough to wet it, barely enough to swallow. Then, with the heel of his hand, he pushed the moisture into his forehead. He felt like he was sweating all over as the water dripped into his eyes.

"If you are absent from the grounds again without my leave I will whip you. I promise it."

Willie stayed still. Moisture had gathered in the hollows in front of his ears, evaporating fast as though wicked away by a breeze. He could not say that he was surprised; his body had been telling him Barnabas was behind him for some moments now. Standing along the wall near the door to the hallway, which the vampire may or may not have actually opened. Deep in the swirl of his own thoughts, Willie had not heard him coming. But his body had known. Knew it now as the shakes started as though someone had flipped the switch on the motor that ran his nerves. He imagined somewhere his body was telling him I told you so, but his brain ignored this and tried to tell him to remain calm.

"How can you tell?" Willie asked, somehow, the question escaping him.

"You smell of the village. I do not want you to tarry there without my leave."

So that was the way it was to be. The nothing way. The it-never-happened and we-will-never-speak-of-it way. But whether he should be glad or sad, he did not know.

"Well," said Willie then, ducking his head down and gripping the edge of the sink with both hands, "maybe I was in town to town to get paint or something." Following the conversation as if this were an ordinary day, an ordinary discussion in which his lack of rights was the only issue.

"Then you were in the village on my business, not your own. I expect you to remember the difference."

The interesting thing was that the statement was said without anger. Almost without any force at all. As if it were said by rote, the vampire still half asleep and, knowing what was expected of him, said it. All of a piece. Barnabas, without words, really, for all he spoke, telling Willie how it was to be.

It didn't matter anyway, whether Barnabas meant it or not. Wesley was gone, and the only friend Willie had in the village worth tarrying over was gone. So long, and goodbye, and Willie was all alone. Made it worse some-how, being all alone, when he'd known what the difference had felt like.

Behind him, Barnabas moved, and Willie's back tightened, but the vampire was only lighting a candle. The one on the table, the cheap one for Willie's own use. Not the beeswax one, but the one made of regular paraffin. Giving off a bitter, burnt smell. Willie could now see his own reflection in the window over the sink. It was a broad, wooden framed window, with four large panes. Willie could see the shadow his own face cast across half of his features. See the water, even dripping a little down the side of his face. The glimmer in his eye. But he could see nothing of Barnabas, also in the room, standing, presumably, right next to the candle, which by the level of the light, was set on the table. In the space where the vampire must be standing, nothing reflected. Or, if there was something, it was the absence of light. A blank spot that absorbed the light, and cast no shadow. An eerie, sucking darkness, and Willie shivered as he turned around. Of his own volition. Better to face the darkness than to turn his back on it.

Now he could see Barnabas, in the half light. In his dark suit and a dark tie, white linen shirt, hair oiled and slick as though dressed with rain. The glare was there, in his eyes, a flickering sharp thing, hard-rimmed and filled with hate.

Well, that's a good thing. I don't know what I would have done had they been filled with anything else.

Unbidden, looking at Barnabas, it flooded him. The one thing he'd been fearing all day. That feeling. The shimmer in his head, soaking down through his bones, sparking small jolts up through his pores at every bend. His mind remembered Barnabas' hand on him, the cold blocked off by the arms encircling him. A breath in his ear, the silky feel of Barnabas' lips on his neck. And the stroking, good God, touching him there and there, as if he'd had a map to the most tender parts of Willie's body. Pulling moisture and passion from him by almost wishing it so. Building the fire within him with the barest turn of his fingers. Those fingers, now right there, right there in front of his eyes.

Struggling with his breath, Willie tucked his head down, and started to walk out of the kitchen. It felt bold, it was desperate, but he had to get out of there, out of eye-shot, to somewhere dark and still, to let the memories fade before his body exploded. He felt Barnabas watching him, doing nothing, and he was almost to the door before the grip of iron shot out and latched onto him. Pulled him back close with a fist so tight he felt his bones bending. He was now close enough to the vampire so that the shift of his chest as his lungs struggled to breathe brushed him against the vampire. There was an acid tang to the air now, close, this close to just-awoken death, and the mold of coffin dirt. Forgotten, all likely, in the vampire's rush to come up the stairs and lay into his servant.

"You have, of course," said the vampire, hissing, "forgotten the most important thing."

Willie made himself stare at the wall. He would not meet Barnabas' eyes, he would not turn to look at that face, and the curve of that mouth.

"What's that, Barnabas?" asked Willie, his voice jerking as the vampire shook him.

"My mother's room," said Barnabas. "If the paint has been ordered, and you were in town today, why did you not pick it up? The room could be halfway completed by this time, and yet I am forced to wait, merely because you cannot keep a single task straight in that head of yours."

Paint? That was what was on the vampire's mind? Paint? The concept worked in Willie's head like it was driving its way in, and for a moment, he could think of nothing to say.

"And tires," said Barnabas. "I can only assume by your reticence that you have neglected those as well."

"I--" Willie tried, nerves bunching up behind his neck. He shrugged to ease them away.

The vampire moved his wrist, twisting Willie to face him. His face was pale, the eyes ember-dark, the mouth a thin line. Willie could hardly look anywhere else now, and as his stomach plunged, his whole body seemed to plunge with it. Barnabas pulled him up straight.

"You try my patience," said Barnabas, a tone below that of rocks tumbling beneath a banging surf in a storm. "I will not suffer myself to put up with it."

The grip was tightening, and now real sweat was running into Willie's eyes. Pulled so close that he could not move without touching the vampire. They were almost thigh to thigh, the heat of his body being sucked out along its length. Another inch of bend and his upper arm would snap, he knew it.

"I-I'll pick 'em up tomorrow, I promise, Barnabas," he said, ducking his head, but unable to look away. "I just forgot, is all, honest, I jus' forgot."

The air seemed deathly cold now, so close to the body that walked around masquerading as life, and Willie was shaking. The vampire's eyes turned to black ice. And then the cool, cool breath slid down the length of Willie's neck, beneath the collar of his shirt. Caressing his chest, smelling of dark earth and the eternal stillness that would soon be.

"You seem to enjoy marching yourself to death's door, all for the pleasure you imagine it might afford you." This said in a dry, dank way, as though Barnabas were not quite sure he should be saying it aloud. "I would not have lowered myself to speak of it, but while you are typically deserving of discipline, you are not always entitled to what you pretend must follow."

The grip tightened on him and drew him in till he was close to the vampire; he could see the claw of eye-lashes against those high, hard cheeks. Eyes, dark brown, shot with veins. So close that their mouths might meet if either of them spoke so much as a word.

But Barnabas had that way of speaking without moving a muscle. As if the voice emanated from his throat with no effort on his part.

"You disgust me." Spat out. "No better than the vermin that crowds the waterfront, or those doxies who take money and call it pleasure."

He twitched, and released Willie to stumble back-wards against the fireplace. Willie's head thunked against the stone, his hands scrambling to grab it and climb upright. The surface cool beneath his splayed out hands, the backs of his thighs.

"Though I should not be at all surprised," continued Barnabas, "considering how swiftly you are cowed by pain, by the fact that you are just as easily seduced to pleasure."

The vampire's voice ripped through the air as though he'd just uncovered a very dangerous truth and was now prepared to defend it. He watched as Willie pulled himself all the way upright and stood on his own two feet. Willie could feel his own body tightening, his skin humming with heat. And all the while, the chill of the evening was being baked away.

Then Barnabas smiled. Looked at him, head tilted back, eyes half closed as though almost asleep. "You should remember, Willie," he said, "that you should be wary of desiring what you cannot have, because then you might acquire what you should not want."

"You don't mean that," said Willie, choking. Almost word for word, it had been what Wesley had said. Barnabas was stealing words out of a common man's mouth and claiming them as his own. If Willie hadn't been wound so tight by the vampire's nearness, he would have laughed out loud.

"Oh?" asked the vampire. "And you have an opinion? I cannot imagine of what value that might be."

The kitchen was in still darkness, the only thing Willie could hear was the hiss of the candle and the harsh rasp of his own throat. To point out to Barnabas that the pronouncement was not of his own creation was to court death plain and simple. It wasn't a much better idea to remind Barnabas of the truth about who was wanting what, but it needed saying. Willie knew he would always regret not saying it till the day he died.

"You don't mean that," he said, "'cause then how could you explain your visiting my bed last night?"

The air flickered dark and then Barnabas was upon him, an icy hand on his throat, that face, shadowed from candlelight, the eyes gathering sharp spikes of flame.

"You sully my gift," said Barnabas, and Willie could almost hear the hurt in his voice. Almost. But he could definitely hear the betrayal.

"No," Willie said, tight, the air in his throat constricted by the vampire's hand. "I ain't doin' that, honest." He looked right up at Barnabas, right into the angry fire of Barnabas' eyes. He'd never felt closer to the maw of death than he did at that moment. Never closer to the fingers just waiting to brush and caress him, leaving dark, deep trails that sank into his soul.

"But I didn't do nothin' to bring ya there, you came on your own."

"Yes, you did, you spoke with Miss Winters," insisted Barnabas. "You made her forgive me." His eyes narrowed to slits, and the flames became two yellow-hot pinpoints. The hand on Willie softened and moved to encircle the back of his neck. Barnabas looked at him. "I rewarded you for that."

Willie realized now what had happened. Barnabas assumed that Willie had not only spoken to Victoria, he had planned to speak to her, and had determined what to say that would be the very thing that would make her relent. Because Barnabas himself thought this way, he assumed that his servant would do the same. It was beyond him to imagine that he was wrong, or that Victoria had realized, all on her own, her own error in judgment.

"I didn't say nothin' to her," said Willie, his hands on Barnabas' hands, prying them off.

Do not contradict me."

"I didn't say anything," Willie said, insisting. "You think I want to take credit for bringing her back to you when I know what you got planned for her? She came back because she wanted to."

The vampire looked at Willie as if an idea, completely new and untried, were occurring to him. His hands loosened and Willie squirmed out of their grasp. Backed away out of hand's reach and felt the edge of the kitchen sink cut into his hips. Two ideas were rocking back and forth in the vampire's mind. That either his servant wasn't as loyal as he had thought or that Victoria loved him more than he had imagined. Willie decided that the wisest course was to get Barnabas focused on the sweeter option. The one less likely to move him to anger.

"She came back 'cause she missed you." Willie made himself stop there. Watched as the vampire looked blank for a moment, and then, somewhere in the pitch and roll of his thoughts, he must have found something. Something he knew to be real. At least that's the way he seemed when the vampire turned his eyes to look at Willie.

"She came back," Willie paused to swallow, "because she wanted to, and not for nothing' else."

"But she said that you--"

"Whatever I said to her," Willie began, interrupting the vampire as he had never before dared, "she made up what she wanted to hear. People like a reason for what they do. Even me. Even . . . you."

The soft angles of the vampire's face now hardened. His eyes black, and those hands curling into fists.

"You wanted a reason for last night, and you found one," said Willie. Bold. He did not know if he was right. Or if he would even live to consider the question for any length of time. The vampire took a step toward him. Slow, the step loud in the silence.

"Barnabas, you gotta see it." Willie's voice came out sharp, fear closing his throat. "I had my reasons, you said so yourself. I would be, I mean, I would mess things up on purpose, I would--"

"You would be disobedient."

Willie gulped. Barnabas had heard him. Had actually listened. "Yeah."

"In the hopes that I would suitably reward you."

"Yeah. An' I kept at it till you did." Willie could not believe he'd just said it aloud.

Something flickered in the vampire's gaze. "And I," said the vampire, his eyes loosing their flash, "looked for virtue, even where there was none."

Barnabas stood quiet, somehow in the center of the kitchen, surrounded on all sides with table and chairs and stove, all made with a roughness he abhorred. He seemed to be looking at nothing. At least he wasn't looking at Willie. At least he wasn't still coming forward, shoulders bunched up and ready to hurt. He took a deep breath, then. One that shuddered his frame hard enough to make Willie's heart hammer in his chest.

Then he lifted his head up, and looked at his servant out of the corner of his eyes. Composed, as if he hadn't been, only a moment ago, bent on expressing his anger in the most satisfying way that he knew.

"I think that you would be well served to remember, in future, that I and I alone determine when people get what I think they deserve."

Then with a jerk of his chin, his shoulders squared, the back long and proud, the vampire gave one nod to Willie, as if dismissing him, and opened the door to the kitchen and walked out. Willie listened, his heart still hammering, to the sounds of the footsteps in the hall. Besides the fact that he'd gotten off without a scratch, he could not believe what he'd just heard. Or that he'd heard it correctly. That Barnabas was going to continue to reward him, but on Barnabas' terms. Not his servant's. If it were true. If it were.

His legs were shaking under him and he needed to sit down. Whatever possessed him to speak such truths had left him with dizzying speed and haste. He pulled out a chair and sat down. From his pocket he pulled the as yet unfinished list. Of course there was still the tires to get and the paint to pick up, how on earth had he forgotten. As his eyes ran over the list, he pulled the candle closer and tried to concentrate. Tried to ignore the dance of glee the feeling in his mind was doing. Or the scamper in his stomach as it began to anticipate the pleasures to come. Of course, it was madness that he would even want it. But stranger still was how he would have to get it.

Willie leaned forward and folded his arms, resting his head upon them. Now his eyes were in darkness, slatted by the spaces near his elbows, letting the candlelight in. He knew the truth of it. It was now Barnabas' game. To be rewarded, Willie would have to be good.

He would have blue balls before anything nice happened to him.

Though, of course, there was always Barnabas' quick temper to consider. He never had thought it would serve him so well.

~The End `