Title: Love’s Embrace
Author: Sylvia Bond
Genre/Rating: Gen/PG
Word Count: 9,235
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Gina Lee (# 16)
Summary: Willie has to ask for permission to go out to California to visit the Logan family. He manages it, yes, but at some great cost.
A/N: This is my other favorite because it was interesting to set things up so that Barn would have to let Willie go.

***

On a scale of one to ten, the job shouldn’t have been very hard, and it wasn’t. Just sanding down the floor-boards in a little room at the end of the main hall on the second floor. The cornices had already been repaired, the walls washed and painted white, the door taken down, stripped, replaned, and then rehung. Barnabas had said it would make a fine guest room when it was done, though Willie couldn’t imagine anyone who would have wanted to stay there. Except for Vicki Winters, of course.


So now he was on his hands and knees, moving the hand sander around and around on the freshly swept floor. It was much easier than what he’d been attempting before the phone call came. Was almost mindless as he circled the wood over and over, waiting for the sun to go down.

 

Waiting for Barnabas.

 

He had to remind himself every once in a while to move the sander to a new spot, otherwise he was going to sand a hole right through the floor. His mind was refusing to settle on any one thought, preferring to follow the sander, round and round. Preferring it to keep moving so that he wouldn’t have to stop and remember his conversation with Gina.

 

She’d cried when he got on the phone, struggling through her tears to tell him the news about the accident, about Polly, about the hospital. And then he’d offered to come out, just to be with her, an offer he regretted the second he’d hung up the phone. Stared around the foyer of Collinwood and knew that there was no way he was going anywhere. Not sooner, not later, not no way, not no how. He’d been a little brusque when he’d left Vicki, realizing this, leaving her standing there staring at him as if he’d grown three heads.

 

His stomach did a strange little plummet, as if his spine was starting to melt down through his backbone.

 

Don’t think about it, just ask him.

 

Worse than waiting for a beating that he knew was coming, or even the time he’d struck Barnabas and had figured that death was on its way. This time the anticipation ate away at him, chewing the soft parts of his stomach and then racing the acid up to his brain to spit it out.

 

You have to let me go, Barnabas. You have to.

 

Willie could almost hear the response.

 

I don’t have to do anything.

 

Stopping, he sat back on his heels and put the sander down to press both palms against his forehead. To block out the thoughts that pressed in on him from everywhere, on the images of Gina all alone in an empty house far, far away, Danny in her arms, and Polly, crumpled and still beneath the wheels of a school bus.

 

“No,” he said aloud, hearing the echo against the still, white walls.

 

“No, what, Willie?”

 

This from behind him, and he leaped to his feet, hands going back, wanting to grip something to steady himself. Barnabas stood there in the waning light, as quiet as if he’d been there for some time, which wasn’t possible since the sun was only now going down. He looked almost peaceful, as if the season of summer now coming to this part of Maine were a mellow promise that he fully expected to be fulfilled.

 

“Were you talking to yourself again?”  A quirky, little smile appeared as if this amused the vampire. It wouldn’t last much longer, Willie knew, this good mood. Not once he found out what had happened. What Willie said he’d do.

 

He wiped his hands on his apron, feeling the grit of sawdust come off in damp rolls. It was now, he had to ask now, get his answer and then go and call Gina Lee. He had the phone number in his pocket, and he would just tell Mrs. Johnson that the phone call had to be made. Charge it to Barnabas, he would tell her that, or better yet, say that Barnabas had requested the call.

 

Yes, Mrs. Johnson, just send him the bill because I’m going to be dead the second I make the call anyway.

 

Now he was cold, and the acid that had been swirling in his brain now slipped down the back of his neck as his body realized what he intended to do. Was doing every-thing it could, in fact, to keep him from doing it. Including freezing every muscle in his face as he opened his mouth to speak.

 

“What is it, Willie?” A touch of impatience now, as the vampire looked at him and as he looked back, seeing the slight narrowing of the eyes. Barnabas hadn’t fed yet, of course. Better wait till he had. Better wait till later. Better yet, forget the whole thing, forget the promise he’d made, forget Polly—

 

“Barnabas?”

 

“What?” Barnabas was turning down the hall, adjusting the cuff of his shirt, pulling it down from the edge of his sleeve so that just the barest hint of pure white linen showed against the grey wool of his suit jacket. He began to walk down the stairs, completely expecting that Willie would follow him and ask his question as they went. Barnabas was a busy man, far too busy to wait in attendance on his servant. Far too busy to care about a widow woman and her small, insignificant family—

 

“Barnabas?”

 

Barnabas stopped at the bottom of the stairs, holding onto the railing as he looked up at Willie through the growing shadows of the landing. “Willie, as you can see, I have things to do. If you have a question, simply ask it.”

 

“Barnabas—”

 

“You will not call down to me as if you were a fishmonger. Come down here and ask it.”

 

How Willie got down the stairs he did not quite know, only that the handrail was wide and slick beneath his palm and the stairs had taken on a narrow, slanted tilt that rushed his feet and made him breathless by the time he got to the foyer.

 

“What is it?” Barnabas asked.

 

“I need—” he began, but his voice came out a soft slur, as if he knew he had already lost this battle. Which he hadn’t, he couldn’t. Not when Gina was counting on him. And Polly, Polly—

 

“I need to ask you somthin’.”

 

“You may ask,” said Barnabas in that grand tone he liked to use when granting favors. His head tilted back as he folded his hands in front of him.

 

“I-I need to go someplace. Another place. Just for a while.”

 

“Another place, Willie?” asked Barnabas, still calm in a way that told Willie that Barnabas hadn’t any idea what was coming. And that made it worse, suddenly far worse. He did not know and was not already in tune with what his servant wanted. The shock of finding out would be as if Willie had thrown a basin of ice cold water at him.

 

“Yeah, another place, just for a while, Barnabas.”

 

“You want to take a trip?” the vampire asked now, tilting his head to one side as he examined his servant as though the answer to his question were written on Willie’s face. “Where? To Bangor? To Portland?”

 

Willie shook his head, feeling the bang of his heart against his rib cage and the queasy flutter as his stomach roiled. “No, not there, I just need a little time away, that’s all.”

 

Now the vampire was completely puzzled, brows drawing together, the impatience building as his eyes darkened.

 

“And what do you need this time for?”

 

Willie wanted to edge away and let the whole thing go. But it was too late. The vampire’s eyes were on him, darkly hooded like a viper sighting prey. His body shrank back, out of striking range, and he felt his shoulders slump down. Now had come the moment.

 

I can’t, I just can’t ask this, he’ll never let me—

 

“You will answer me at once, Willie. You will tell me where you need to go and why.”

 

Closed eyes could cut out the sight of Barnabas advancing, those broad shoulders blocking what little light there was, muscles bunching beneath the deceptively soft, grey wool of his suit. But Willie’s ears could not block the snap of shoe leather against the wooden floor-boards, nor could he close off the sudden dry smell that filled his nose and mouth. Barnabas, freshly risen, had apparently taken no time to brush the coffin soil from his garments before seeking out his servant. And now the scent, thick with the shift of night and laced with the slight tang of old blood, embraced him in cold arms. He swallowed against it.

 

“Willie.”

 

It was warning and direction all at once. He knew what was wanted, even expected.

 

Gina, sweet Gina Lee, falling to pieces miles away, and he the one Polly needed. It had to be done. It had to be done now before Barnabas lost his temper altogether. Though it wasn’t a sure bet that he wouldn’t loose it anyway.

 

Willie swallowed again and opened his eyes. Wiping his palms along the length of his trousers, he managed to raise his eyes to the top edge of Barnabas’ tie. One quick glance upward to the dark, silent and watching eyes, and then away.

 

“It’s Gina Lee,” he said, forcing himself not to whisper. “It’s her daughter in the hospital, and she—”

 

“Mrs. Logan?  You want permission to go to Mrs. Logan?”

 

“Y-yes,” Willie said, the stammer forcing itself through, shattering the last of his resolution.

 

“No,” came the answer. “I forbid it.”

 

At this the vampire turned to go into the Front Room, where his books and his fire waited. Complacent. Divine. Unable to step down and break through his sense of perfect order and allow his servant to do anything that did not pertain to his business. Willie could almost hear the words as clearly as if Barnabas had spoken them.

 

“Wait.”  He found himself saying this as he lunged, his hand reaching out to grab the sleeve of Barnabas’ suit. Instead his hand encircled the vampire’s forearm, stopping Barnabas almost as instantly as a blow would have. The vampire whirled without a word, jerking his arm free of Willie’s grasp, leaving Willie clasping and unclasping his hand over empty air.

 

“I hafeta go, Barnabas, don’t you see? I hafeta. She needs me, an’ Polly, she’s askin’ for me, an’ she could die, an’—”

 

“I said no.” The tone of this was as sharp as a blade cut-ting through marble.

 

Willie’s knees were knocking together hard enough to unsteady him, and he wanted to fall upon them and begin to beg. Whatever it took, even that. Then he looked up at the vampire, just as his knees began to buckle and fold. There was something there, in those eyes, and Willie knew that Barnabas saw all of this in the flicker of an instant and despised him for it. If a sneer could be transformed into an entire, single expression, it was there on the vampire’s face. Pure disdain.

 

Putting one hand out to the marble post, letting the coldness of the stone flash through him with a single, hard bolt. Locked his knees. Raised his head. And tried again.

 

“Yes,” he said, as clearly as he could, flutters of his heart rising in his throat. “I need to go, Barnabas, and you hafeta let me.”

 

Now he looked at Barnabas. Directly at the vampire, at the hard, intolerance cast by eyes that did not shine, and that mouth, drawn down in a scowl that Willie knew only too well.

 

“I’ll come back after, I promise.”

 

A flicker that Willie could not define raced across Barnabas’ face. For an instant he thought that the vampire was going to allow it. And on the heels of that, how far away San Diego actually was, and over how many miles a vampire’s reach could be sustained. Not that far, surely.

 

And then hope became extinguished as he caught the flash of teeth and the faraway whooshing sound as he was backhanded into the foyer. The sound of the impact followed after, in those long, slow-motion seconds where he realized he was lucky that the vampire hadn’t slapped him into the marble column, for he surely would have cracked his skull open and died in an instant. And then came the final smack of flesh on flesh ricocheting through him as he stumbled back to land against the console tucked up against the stairs. That hand coming down, the edge of the ring catching the side of his cheek with the impact.

 

He grabbed the edge of the table to stop his fall, but Barnabas was on him even quicker, grabbing handfuls of his shirt and apron and yanking him up to glare at him, eyes and teeth flashing at the same time. And the silver lights behind those eyes as Willie tumbled to the floor.

 

Behind those lights, he heard the slight tread of someone coming onto the wooden porch and then the knock on the door, cutting through his mind like the stark rays of sunrise over the horizon. He held his breath and listened while Barnabas let him go and backed off. As he struggled to his feet, the vampire opened the door, giving Willie only seconds to ensure that there was no evidence of the vampire’s temper, regardless of who was there to witness it. But whoever it was was Willie’s savior forever and for all time, and he looked up as Barnabas stepped back to reveal Vicki Winters. She wore her second best coat and sensible shoes and, with the brown suitcase in her hand, looked ready to travel anywhere.

 

“Miss Winters,” said Barnabas, oozing and pleasant, “what a welcome surprise, do come in out of the chill.”

 

“Thank you,” she replied, stepping across the thresh-old.

 

Willie swept a quick hand through his hair and dabbed at his cheek with the back of his fist. There was a little blood there, when he looked at it, but in the candlelit hallway it would look more like dirt than anything else.

 

“What brings you to us this evening, Miss Winters?”

 

“I’ve brought this suitcase,” she said, holding it away from her for a second and then letting it fall back against her leg. “It was Mrs. Johnson’s idea. When I told her that Willie was going to visit a friend, she remembered that he had no suitcase, and decided, good woman that she is, to loan him hers.”

 

She placed the suitcase on the floor next to the hat stand, then straightened up and pulled a thin booklet from her coat pocket. “Oh, yes, I also brought a train schedule. There’s one leaving in about an hour.” Holding it out, she paused, seeming for the first time to notice the perfect silence in the front hall. She looked down at the booklet in her hand and then looked up again. “Or . . . are you taking a plane instead?”

 

Willie could hardly breathe as Barnabas looked at Vicki, eyeing her askance as if she’d just announced her intention to enter a nunnery. Then at Willie, eyes flashing black fire as if he thought Willie had conspired with her somehow.

 

Of course he hadn’t, would never have thought to draw her into this, into the middle of the vampire’s rage at being contradicted, especially against a direct order in a situation having to do with Gina Lee Logan. Now the rage had withdrawn in the face of a witness, this witness in particular, for whom Barnabas had the most honorable of intentions and the most dishonorable of means. To gain her affection, he would do anything, to win her love, there was no price too high.

 

And what price friendship?

 

There was nothing he wouldn’t do for Gina Lee. But there was only one moment, this moment, that he stood even the slimmest of chances of making anything happen, even if, in the end, he had to pay with his very existence. For Gina he would do this, and for Polly.

 

Gulping in a deep lung of air, he began slowly, conversationally, keeping his eyes only on her. “Well, actually Vicki,” he stopped to take a pause, feeling as if he’d ran miles and now, out of breath, could barely speak. He licked his lips, straining to keep his eyes from the vampire’s, even though, as if by the forbidden nature of the act, they were drawn there beyond their own resistance. “Actually, Vicki, Barnabas and I were just talkin’ about that,” his voice coming out high in his own ears, “and Barnabas thinks the plane would be faster, days faster. Right, Barnabas?”

 

Barnabas’ eyes locked on him, boring into him like two bolts of steel, he could feel it, even if he wasn’t looking. He knew he was dead, of course, dead from that moment on. Regardless of whether or not he took the trip at all.

 

“Naturally,” said Vicki, a smile bubbling up through her voice, “naturally it would be faster, and here I was thinking old-fashioned thoughts about a leisurely train trip across the country, not realizing that you would want to get there as fast as possible.”

 

“I’ll come back,” said Willie quietly, to himself, to the darkness, not taking his eyes off Vicki. “I said I would.”

 

“But of course you’ll come back, whatever would Mr. Collins do without you, Willie?”

 

In the silence that followed, Willie could hear Barnabas’ indrawn breath.

 

“What will I do indeed,” Barnabas replied, the deep timbre of his voice lingering in the foyer like thick smoke.

 

Now Vicki pulled out another item from her coat pocket, this time a single slip of paper. “Here it is, Mrs. Johnson looked this up. It’s the next two flights leaving out of the Bangor Airport. The train can take you there as well.”

 

It was obvious. Not only did Vicki know about the situation with Gina Logan, so did Mrs. Johnson, and like-wise, by now, the entire household.

 

“I could give you a lift to the station, if you like, Willie,” said Vicki now, holding out the paper. “It wouldn’t be any trouble.”

 

If Barnabas had had the option to stuff Willie in the cell in the basement for a week and say to everyone at Collinwood that his servant had gone, he did not have it now. Vicki Winters was determined to be helpful, and there was nothing Barnabas could do but accept it.

 

“It’ll just be for a week, Barnabas,” said Willie, as if in earnest reply to the vampire’s earlier statement. “You won’t hardly know I’m gone.”

 

Another long pause lingered like a mindless comment gone awry. A furrow appeared between Vicki’s eye-brows and in less than a minute, she was going to ask the obvious question. One that Barnabas would not be able to answer: Why aren’t you letting Willie go visit his friend?

 

“Barnabas—” started Willie, but the vampire raised a hand to stop him.

 

“Mrs. Johnson has the right of it,” he said, his grand tone seeming to indicate his approval of the woman.

“Willie will go within the hour, and come back in a week, for I cannot spare him longer than that.”

 

“Then you’ll let him go, Mr. Collins,” said Vicki, almost asking this, “you’ll give him the time off.”

“Yes,” said Barnabas, reaching out to Vicki to take the slip of paper between his fingers, gingerly, as though it contained new and shocking information that he wanted no part of. “And in fact, Miss Winters, I had quite the time convincing him to go at all.”  This said to Vicki only, his head tipped down, confiding in her as he loved to do. Though at the last second, his eyes glinted up at Willie as if daring him to say anything.

 

Willing to accept the position of reluctant friend, Willie shrugged as Vicki looked over at him.

 

“But this afternoon, Willie was beside himself with the fear that you wouldn’t let him go.”

 

A lie from one of them, either way you put it. And Vicki Winters in the middle, unwilling, it seemed, to call either one of them on it.

 

Willie kept to his place, letting the moment pass as it would. Then he spoke, as Barnabas had, only to her, sealing his fate forever.

 

“I’ll appreciate that ride, Miss Vicki. An hour, you said?” he asked, and watching her nod, dipped his head in agreement. “That’ll give me just enough time to pack.”

 

“Alright then, Willie, I’ll be back in an hour. Goodnight. Goodnight, Mr. Collins.”

 

She stepped toward the door, leaving the suitcase in the hall, looking forlorn and brown like an abandoned puppy. Barnabas stepped closer to her and opened the door for her with a snap, murmuring his good-nights to her and then closed it with a click behind her.

 

The sound echoed into the staggering silence. Willie had only a single second to cast his eyes on the suitcase as if he meant to pick it up before Barnabas was upon him. An ice cold hand on the back of his neck, the fingers clamping down hard, shrieking muscle against bone and dragging him down the hall. Pushing him through doorways and into the kitchen with enough force to send him across the room to land against the cutting edge of the metal sink.

 

His fingers gripped it, head bowed, the sound of footsteps sharp behind him, though he could not look up to see, in the near darkness, the shape that rose like a child’s familiar nightmare. Shoulders cutting through the gloom, a hand raised to take him, and those eyes, two sparks, all that lived in a demon’s form. Spearing him with their glare as the fingers curved again around the back of his neck. Shoving him against the table.

 

Willie landed on the hard edge, biting him in the ribs, hands gripping it to push away as Barnabas stepped back. A switch had lain, unused, on the mantle for some time now, and Willie knew the vampire was going for that, even as he stopped to light the candles there. Watching with cold numbness seeping through his flesh as the match was struck on the rocks of the hearth and the smell of sulphur sliced through the damp air.

 

“P-please,” he said, knowing that in the vampire’s mind punishment was a foregone conclusion, “d-don’t send me out that way.” Not wanting it, knowing it was coming. Knowing it was part of the price to pay for putting Barnabas in the position where he could not refuse the wishes of his faithful servant. “Can’t you wait till I get b-back?”

 

Slowly the vampire lit the candles, using only the single match, not looking at Willie, as if Willie had not spoken at all. Then, when he had finished, he shook the match out and flung it into the grate.

 

“I am through making deals with servants,” came the reply, brittle, like tinder left in the cold. With anger so controlled that the only evidence of it was that tone, sharp and slow and steady.

 

It was then that Willie knew that the vampire was beyond fury.

 

And as the vampire approached, his silhouette blocking most of the light, Willie felt the tremors bolt through him, his body knowing the fear seconds before his head registered it. The vampire carried the switch in one hand and was reaching for him with the other. Barnabas would send him to Gina Logan, but he would send him broken, like a mismanaged package unable to do anybody any good once it arrived.

 

His stomach plunged, mouth opened to break the silence, to plead, to beg, to say whatever would stop the darkness from taking over, even as the vampire grabbed him by the shirt collar and shoved him over the table. There was no second of waiting, even as his head hit the wood, the iron circle of fingers pressing into his skull, the switch came down. Even as his hands flew out, his fingers digging into the crevices in the wood, he did not know at first where it landed, as the sea of acid spread like a flood from the blow, spitting through him like fire gone mad.

 

And then the blow repeated, in a different spot, the wave of acid meeting with the other, and erupting, twining together like snakes of heat. And then forever began.

 

You cannot tell the darkness to stay, even when you want it, Willie knew that as somehow the dusk of twilight began to fade behind his eyes, and he became aware of a sound beyond the silence of the kitchen. Where the candles hissed and the wind slurried through the cracks in the wood. There was a sound. Like a moan, slow and dusky, but broken as though tripping over stones. Sharp stones, pushing through it, breaking the sound as it echoed in his ears.

 

Something was holding him down, pressing him, keeping him still against the table, and as the sensation of the flat wood grew, he felt the rise and fall of his lungs against it, the movement halting and starting as the bleak sound continued. Sounding as if a heart had been broken. As if the world could end and the light go out forever and it would be a blessing.

 

Someone was bending close now, he felt the movement of air, tried to hold his breath, and heard the sound cut itself off as his body quivered with stillness.

 

“That will teach you,” he heard.

 

Barnabas. It was Barnabas. Willie took a breath and swallowed, the sound he’d heard before easing away, wincing at the rawness in his throat.

 

“That will teach you to put me in a compromising position.”

 

The candlelight reached him somehow, moving around the room, slowly spinning it, capturing the focus of his eyes on the wall, bringing the hammering of his heart to a slower pitch, even as the nerves along his back and legs danced with constant heat. The hand on the back of his neck was about to let go, he could feel the force lessen there, the nerves singing as they were released.

 

The sound, stopped now, had been himself, and his hand, wiping away the wetness from his face, told him this. Barnabas was bending even closer, and the slight hiss of his breath told Willie that it could go either way. The punishment could end, here and now, or it could continue, as Barnabas willed it.

 

He struggled, not to rise, but to be still. To sink beneath the lessening grasp of that hand and find the place within him that would hold him steady. But just out of reach, his fingertips could brush it but not take hold, and the stillness whispered beyond his grasp. He took a breath anyway, knowing that he could not make it so, but that he could say it.

 

“B-but I had to do it, Barnabas, doncha see?” He gasped as the hand tightened once more, finishing with the last, spare push of air that his lungs contained. “I had to m-make you let me go.”

 

Willie heard an actual growl as the vampire tightened his grasp and jerked him upright. Iron fingers clutched around his neck, the vampire’s face, white and hard, was now suddenly close. Eyes with nowhere else to alight caught the flash of fangs and the stiff pain that ricocheted through him as the fingers tightened and loosened. Barnabas brought the switch up in front of him, and as he shook it, just once, a flick of blood spun from the wooden surface, expiring in the chill air before landing, leaving only the scent of dampness and copper. Willie could only draw back from this, could not get away, could not remove himself from the coldness that sucked every bit of warmth, even from the center of his bones, turning to crystal ice, leaving him shivering, and hard fought for air.

 

“Tell me. Why should I let you go?” This came out with the sharpness of a feral dog’s bark, low, scraped over gravel. “Why shouldn’t I just kill you now?” As if Barnabas were desperate and meant it.

 

Willie opened his mouth to speak as the first reason raced through his head.

 

“Because Vicki will be here soon to take me to the station.”

 

“And what of it,” came the reply, dry, like autumn air over bare river stones. “I will tell her you have already gone. By all reports you will have left town, and, mysteriously, will never arrive at your destination. Tell me why this should not be so.”

 

Willie took a narrow breath, straining against the hand that still gripped his neck, and forced himself to look up. Into eyes that were as dark as a well long dry of water, or a cave that went on forever. It shook him to find the anger pulsing in the vampire in a way that was totally new. Strange with a stillness that shocked him full of unease, the way a blast of cold air on a hot day will do, in a way that tensed every muscle against all the bones in his body. His two hands came up to clasp Barnabas’ wrist, fingers circling around the hard, cold bone, coming together, clasped like two hands praying. Thinking that if the vampire pressed his fingers any harder, that his neck would snap, leaving an echo that no one would hear and a body that would only be a minor inconvenience for Barnabas to be rid of. Vicki might wonder for a bit, when she arrived, surely at any minute, why Willie had changed his mind, especially after Mr. Collins had said he could go. And that would be it. Except for Gina Lee. Waiting in California.

 

Another hard breath. Braced himself against his own fear. “Because my death would serve no purpose.”

 

“No purpose in the killing of a disloyal servant? I think not.”

 

“I am loyal.”

 

Whether this amused or irritated the vampire he did not know, only that the grip on his neck tightened to the point where he could not breathe as Barnabas snorted his disdain. Willie pulled with bent fingers against the hard, stone bands on his throat, budging them not an inch, but gasping down a gulp of air that was sharp and sliced into his lungs with a knife’s blade edge. And considered the only fact that was irrefutable.

 

“B-because you said you would.”

 

He felt Barnabas’ whole body start, as if from a blow, and for a second, the fingers around Willie’s neck tightened even a fraction more before they loosened.

 

“What? What did you say?” The vampire’s eye-brows rose and then lowered as his eyes narrowed, focusing to the point where they were mere slices of light.

 

“B-because you said you would let me go,” said Willie, a gasp wheezing through his reply. “You said you would in-in front of Vicki Winters.”

 

A silence followed this remark, and Barnabas’ eyes pinned him into utter stillness.

 

“I’ll come back, Barnabas,” he said. “I promise.”

 

“You promise?” asked Barnabas. “And why should I believe a promise from you?”

 

The moment could still go either way, and its direction depended wholly on what Willie would say next. He let the words come as they might, speaking from his heart, because if they were the last words he would ever speak, they would be the truth.

 

“Because I know what you’ll do if I don’t,” he began, seeing the smirk form cross Barnabas’ features, “and because I also said I would.”

 

The smirk froze. And then Willie added, “In front of Vicki Winters.”

 

The smirk vanished as if it had been erased, and Willie found himself flying across the room to land near the door, his shoulder cracking through the plaster, and his hip thumping against the doorjamb. It took him a minute to push himself upright and get to his feet, head ringing, and in a time shorter than that, Barnabas was at his side, an unwelcome shadow looming overhead. Heart hammering, Willie stood straight and looked the vampire in the eye. Waiting for the final response that would deter-mine the course of the evening. There was a long pause and then something in the vampire’s eyes shifted.

 

“You will go and pack now,” said Barnabas, almost scolding as if Willie had been holding up an important proceeding. “I’m sure Miss Winters is at present on her way, and you shouldn’t keep her waiting. It would be rude.”

 

The dust was still settling in the disturbed air and Willie blinked against it, rubbing the back of his hand along his cheek. Heart pumping, head feeling like it had been sliced open, and he could not believe what he had heard. Barnabas was going to let him go.

 

He’s going to what?

 

How did that happen?

 

Which one of the arguments had worked to bring about what amounted to a significant miracle? Of course, he didn’t dare ask it aloud, not when it seemed so precarious as to the reasons behind it, but his mind scurried to flip through the one-on-one, toe-to-toe that they’d just gone through. It wasn’t like Barnabas not to end with threats of punishment or death. And it wasn’t like him to change his mind like a candle blown out in a sudden wind. The vampire’s expression was of no use either. He was looking at Willie as if only faintly annoyed, and distracted by other thoughts at the same time. Distracted, perhaps, by the imminent arrival of Vicki Winters.

 

His thoughts came to a full, shuddering stop, as if his heels had dug in at the edge of a very tall cliff, and there below him was the answer. It was Vicki, of course, and the promise that both of them had made in front of her. Barnabas was forever a man of his word, and in this promise as well, it seemed; he was unwilling even to hide behind a lie of his servant’s early departure, all on the statute of high accord that he had set for himself. Whether or not he believed that his servant would act in the same manner did not appear to overly concern him; his was the promise that he would see to safekeeping.

 

“Well,” said Barnabas, “what are you waiting for? If you force me to repeat my orders, you will regret it, I assure you.”

 

Startled, Willie jerked back. Yes, the anger was there, simmering just out of sight. Still a danger to be con-tended with. “O-okay, Barnabas.”

 

He turned to go, his heart still pounding. Vicki Winters had saved him, not once but twice. How he would ever repay her, he did not know, only that it was easier than he might have imagined to step past Barnabas and open the kitchen door. To walk down the hall as if the vampire were not watching him with festering eyes. As if his shoulder were not aching, sending zaps of pain down his arm. As if he weren’t terrified out of his mind. All this didn’t matter, really. Not at the moment. Not now. For he was going to see Gina Lee Logan, and for that, he would walk through fire. Or past a vampire with fire in his eyes.

 

He grabbed the suitcase, and made it up the stairs and to his room without falling, but as soon as he had closed the door behind him, his legs were shaking hard enough to warrant sitting down. He put down the suitcase and collapsed on the bed. Only that hurt like hell as the pressure of the mattress brought to fiery life the criss-crossing welts that he could even now feel turning to purple and black. He stood up again, back muscles quivering. Let himself stand there for a moment to catch his breath and wait till the throbbing subsided to a lower level. With the kind of whipping he’d just gotten, it would be days before the surface pain would dissipate entirely. Until he sat or moved or bumped against something. Then the darker, deeper welts would come growling to life. And in the meantime, sitting on the plane to California was going to be its own personal kind of torture.

 

But you knew that, Barnabas, didn’t you.

 

Of course you did.

 

That the vampire had never been on a plane did not limit his understanding of how long it took to cross the country in one. He’d been reading about current events, as much as he could stomach at one time, until he could appear the well-schooled modern gentleman that he wanted to be seen as. Oh, he knew alright.

 

Time to get moving, though, if Willie wanted to be ready when Vicki came, ready to go before Barnabas could find an excuse to change his mind. One that he would explain to Vicki in polite and smooth tones so that she too would understand why Willie couldn’t possibly go all that way to visit a woman who was not, or should not be, any concern of his.

 

The thought hit him like ice water, dashed all over, and he hurried to rip off his shirt and trousers. Hissing as he drew the cloth over the welts that surely stung more than they ought, and then he saw that there were long stripes of blood on the inside of his t-shirt as he drew that off as well. With a shudder, he threw the clothes on the bed, and drew out clean ones, putting them on without looking at the back of his legs or arms. Or even running the edges of his fingers along his hip. No, it wouldn’t help to know the extent of the damage. It would only help to get dressed, throw some things in the suitcase, and head downstairs.

 

He rushed through this, hands shaking, only allowing him a moment to stop to use the washbasin in his room to remove the sweat and whatever else might be clinging to his face. Every-thing else would have to wait until he could get to a shower. When he was safe, in California.

 

When he managed not to stumble down the stairs, suitcase in hand, Vicki was already in the foyer, waiting with Barnabas. The vampire had lit several more candles, as was his usual custom with visitors who were welcome, and Willie could see the scowl quite clearly. And the glance that he gave to Vicki as Willie stopped in the foyer as if to say, you see what I have to put up with?

 

“You shouldn’t have kept a lady waiting,” said Barnabas, again using that scolding tone, as if this trip were important, but not earth shattering. Certainly not worth pitching his servant into a wall and whipping him to a standstill over.

 

“I’m sorry, Vicki,” said Willie, ducking his head. If she were mad, it would be that much easier for Barnabas to convince her that the trip was unnecessary.

 

“Don’t worry,” she said, with her quiet smile. “We have plenty of time.”

 

Barnabas actually smiled in return, tipping his head at her as if she’d just favored him with his dearest wish. “Good, excellent,” he said, “because I need to give Willie some traveling funds.”

 

Willie felt his eyes widen and it was all he could do not to let his jaw drop as Barnabas reached into his suit-jacket to pull out his billfold. It was slender because, of course, Barnabas only kept large denominations in it. It was usually kept in the desk drawer. Willie had seen it there many a time, and was often called upon to refill it with funds from the bank account. Transactions that Barnabas kept track of, down to the last penny. The fact that it was already in his jacket pocket was a testament to the impression he wanted to make on Victoria Winters. And as Barnabas thumbed out several dozen hundred dollar bills, it became obvious that the impression was made.

 

Vicki’s jaw did drop and though her indrawn breath of surprise was almost silent, Willie could hear it. Which meant that Barnabas could hear it, too.

 

He handed the stack of bills to Willie, the smile turning warm and almost genuine. “If you find yourself falling short, Willie,” he said, “you have only to telephone and I will wire you more.”

 

Willie took the money, catching the glow of Vicki’s expression as she gazed at Barnabas, speechless, her eyes worshipful. “Th-thanks, Barnabas, I-I’ll try and, uh, well, thank you.” The bills were almost impossible to stuff into his wallet, but he managed it, not looking at either of them, wanting to be out of the door and gone, not wanting to be a party to Barnabas’ wooing, or to watch Vicki falling further under his spell. But other than demanding that they make their way, he could only wait.

 

“You’re more than generous, Mr. Collins,” she said, a glow in her voice.

 

“Only what one should do for those in need,” he replied, his tone dismissing the effort as, of course, beneath him to notice, “as is the custom among members of my family.”

 

Unable to stand it, Willie scuffed one of his shoes against the stones in the floor and glanced up at Vicki. She caught his eyes and smiled.

 

“Well,” she said, “I guess we should be going.”

 

“Yes,” said Willie, trying not to appear too eager. “I guess we should.”

 

Vicki opened the door to let herself out, nodding goodnight to Barnabas, and Willie turned to follow. Was one foot over the threshold as Vicki hurried down the stairs ahead of him when Barnabas grabbed his forearm and clamped down on it with full force. Stopping Willie cold, muscles tight against bone.

“Remember, Willie,” said Barnabas, his voice a hiss that slid through the candlelit air with liquid ease, “no situation will ever take you out of my reach.”

 

The Barnabas squeezed on his arm even harder, and Willie heard a vague crack just as the vampire let him go. And as Willie stepped out onto the porch, the door was slammed behind him and in the darkness it felt as if Barnabas still had hold of him. Was still clamped down on his arm, the promise echoing in his ears, his arm screaming in the darkness of his mind.

 

Walking across the porch was like stepping through a doorway into a place quite distant from the world he knew. The shiver that scurried down his spine was from the sprite of spring wind that girded under the eaves of the roof. He would not let himself think that Barnabas would snatch him back inside the house, he would not. Besides, it was too late, even as he followed Vicki down the short flight of wooden steps and shifted his suitcase to his left hand.

 

That was a mistake. His hand, on fire, like a string of acid was shooting up his arm and to his shoulder. How had he hurt it? Maybe when he’d hit the wall, or when Barnabas had gripped him hard while hissing out his warning. Completely unnecessary in Willie’s mind. He was not going to play games with any of this. His own life, if not already forfeit, was at stake, as was Gina’s and her babies. Sagging with exhaustion that felt out of proportion to opening a car door, he tossed the suitcase in the back and slid into the passenger seat. Hissing as the cold vinyl sank into his skin and the pressure of his weight pushed the brand new welts into his brain like iron brands. As Vicki silently started the car and drove toward the train station, he tried massaging his left arm with his hand. Why did it hurt so badly? Tension. Pressure. The unmovable force of a plaster wall. It would stop hurting by the time they arrived at the train station. In the meantime, the darkness and warmth of the car eased up around him, over the sharp tingling of his arm, almost over the deep, rolling, never-ending pressure of the welts and bruises up and down the back of his legs. He was on his way to see Gina. And that, at least, was a blessing.

 

But Vicki, looking at him out of the corner of her eyes as they hit the first stop-light in town, pulled him out of his own stupor. He glanced back at her while they waited, seeing the gleam of her cheek in the streetlight, the long lines of dark hair that spilled over her shoulder.

 

“What,” he said.

 

The light turned green and she was silent as she steered the car down the road to the station.

 

“I don’t want to pry, Willie,” she said, her voice sounding a little rattled, “but did you and Barnabas have an argument over this trip?”

 

With a small grunt, Willie turned his face to the window. Apparently she’d been dazzled by Barnabas’ charm, but had not failed to notice what his haste had failed to fix. His life was already over, the second he came back it would be over, why not tell her here and now the truth of it?

 

Sure, Vicki, we had an argument, and then he gave me a whipping, and then when I won the argument, he threw me into a wall, an’ how do you like that?

 

He stopped himself just as he opened his mouth. They were almost at the train station anyway, and Vicki was too nice a lady to be troubled by something she simply couldn’t fix.

 

“Nah,” he said. “Just, you know, he doesn’t like change. An’ me goin’ away is a change, an’ he, well, he doesn’t like it.”

 

“I have a feeling there’s more to it than that.” She pulled into the train station parking lot, a small square of black asphalt dappled by a series of streetlights on each corner. The low-hipped roof of the station loomed just beyond the light’s reach, and Willie concentrated on that, trying to pretend that she hadn’t spoken.

 

Stopping the car, she left it running, pulling upon the parking brake as she turned to him.

 

“Willie, please don’t lie to me, I know better.”

 

There she sat in her nice, second-hand wool coat, in a car that although didn’t belong to her, she had the use of at any time. Heat poured out of the vents, and her face as she looked at him was earnest and kind, smooth with lack of care. Eyes wide as if she expected him to tell her what she wanted to know.

 

“An’ what do you know?” he asked, gruff, regretting it as soon as he said it. Too rude a question, really, for someone as nice as Vicki Winters. She didn’t deserve it, and he wasn’t the louse he used to be to hand it out to her. Couldn’t stop it really, it was as if the anger came on its own. He took a deep breath and found himself rubbing his left arm again as the pins and needles had set in permanently. “What do you know?” he asked again, more gently this time.

 

“You came down those stairs looking whiter than bleached bone, Willie. Like you’d been hurt and frightened and trying to hide it. The only thing I could imagine is that you had an argument about going. And Barnabas, he felt he had to let you go because I encouraged it. Is that right?”

 

She was about as right as she could ever be without ever knowing the truth and the pang inside his stomach told Willie that he’d better let her think what she needed to think and let that be the end of it. Let her think that it was an ordinary argument and not a contract against Willie’s survival. The length and breadth of the Logan‘s lives depended on Barnabas’ good will, and if Vicki was set on confronting the vampire regarding his treatment of his employee during Willie’s absence, then Willie doubted very much he would ever make it to California. He cast a look around the parking lot, seeing shadows as the low wind moved through the trees and scrub along the edges of the untended lot.

 

He shrugged, as if unwilling to admit even this much. “Yeah, that’s kinda the problem, but you know Barnabas, he, well, he doesn’t like to be pushed into anything….”  He let his voice trail off as if he couldn’t quite get his thoughts together and turned to look at Vicki. Watched as she added everything in her head together and came up with the wrong conclusion, but one that would bring around the right response.

 

“Then this is my fault,” she said, a small gasp in her voice, a hand coming off the steering wheel to press against her mouth.

 

“Oh, hey, Vicki,” he said, leaning forward, his hand reaching out to touch her and then dropping away. Best not to let her think too much, or she’d be running to Barnabas, flowing with apologies that would be unwelcome, at best. “Listen, he would have let me go in any case, you just helped encourage him to let me go now, while there’s still time. That’s all.”

 

“But I hate to think that I was the cause of it, of any unpleasantness between you. That maybe he even got angry. Really angry, I mean. Because of me.”

 

He swallowed the snort of dark laughter that built up quicker than he’d realized, half choking on it. Feeling like he wanted to laugh in Vicki’s face. She had no idea.

 

Yeah, he was angry. Really angry. Ever been slammed upside the head by a guy with the strength of three men?  I’ll bet you haven’t.

 

“Are you alright, Willie?” she asked, as his eyes watered, and he pretended to cough.

 

She was bending forward with concern, her hand reaching out to him, and he realized that it wasn’t fair. Vicki had no idea, and there was no way that she could really understand any of it. A low, desperate sadness replaced the anger in the flicker of an instant as he straightened up. His body was cold now, in spite of the heater, the backs of his legs aching as much as his arm. The wind out-side was kicking up, and Willie could taste the rain above the heat that streamed through the car.

 

“Yeah,” he said, feeling his backbone slump, looking up at her. “I’m alright, Vicki. An’ I owe you one, okay? But don’t ask Barnabas about any of this, cause he’s steamed enough as it is. We’ll just let it rest, okay?”

 

There was no answer. Only the slow taste of growing rain as she gazed through the windshield, the look of faraway thoughts plain on her face in the dappled light.

 

“Please, Vicki, don’t say anything, huh?”

 

Now she looked at him, her eyes grave and still.

 

Utterly focused on him, her hands quiet in her lap. “Alright, Willie, I won’t. But only because you ask it.”

 

He nodded, an odd feeling rushing through him, he didn’t know what. Only that she deserved better than Barnabas and he knew he could never figure out a way to save her from that. Maybe she would save herself. Maybe Barnabas would stumble off a cliff and die. Maybe pigs would fly.

 

Willie sighed. Pressed his hands against his face, wanting to push away the tension there, feeling the twinges of pain as something in his arm moved too sharply. Then he let his hands drop and pulled him-self upright.

 

“Thanks, Vicki. Like I said, I owe you.”

 

“I’m not keeping tabs, Willie,” she said, not smiling.

 

“I am,” he said.

 

Now it was her turn to sigh. A slight shake of the head as if at the foolishness of young men with too much bluff and bluster for their own good. He started to open the door and then stopped.

 

“Wait, there is something else, if you could.” He pulled the bit of paper from his pocket where he’d stuffed it when he’d changed clothes. He handed it to her.

 

“This is the number at the hospital. Could you call Gina and let her know I’m on my way? Tell her when I’ll get there? I’ll come by cab.”

 

“Okay, Willie,” she said.

 

“I would have called, but you know, the Old House—”

 

“Has no phone.” This almost made her laugh a bit. Almost. But not quite.

 

“Thanks, Vicki,” he said again. He wanted to say something more, but there was nothing he could think of that wouldn’t start another uncomfortable discussion about the supposed argument with Barnabas. Though it had been an argument, really. One that he, Willie, had won. And in retrospect, it appeared that while Barnabas was a man of honor, he was a rather bad looser.

 

Now, if you could just remember that in the future, Loomis, you’ll get thrown into fewer walls.

 

There was no point in lingering. He opened the door and slipped out, grabbing the suitcase from the back seat, a tad awkwardly with his right hand, since his left felt like it was shut-ting down. When he’d pulled the suitcase out and just before he shut the door, he leaned down.

 

“Wish me luck,” he said. “And, you know, about Polly—” He didn’t know what he wanted to say, but his efforts lodged in his throat with an awkward dryness.

 

But she was nod-ding as if he’d actually spoken. “I’ll pray for her, Willie. You just take good care of Gina as best you can. It’s all you can do. Alright?”

 

“Alright.” With a tip of his head he shut the door only a little too hard and then watched as she put the car into gear and then drove away. As the last of her head-lights faded down the road, two circles on the tarmac, Willie let his shoulders slump. It was starting to rain, light taps along the curve of his scalp and the chill that comes with rising dampness. He cast his eyes around the parking lot. There were several more cars pulling in, with people getting out, kissing their wives or mothers goodbye, all arriving for the 7:32 that was bound for Bangor. Shifting his suitcase in his hand, he moved toward them, almost stumbling. Toward the light of the train station, a yellow-golden arc forming in the doorway as someone opened it to step inside. If he could make it that far, if Barnabas didn’t jump him between here and there, he would be on his way. Only the first part of the journey, but a significant one. Away from Collinwood for the first time in what felt like a hundred lifetimes. And toward the shape and form of a family that he had not known he’d made his.