Title: The Price
Word Count: 16,193
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Splinter Verse (#2)
Summary: Willie's come back from fetching something Barnabas wants to give to Victoria Winters. Alas, not only does the present get dropped (Barnabas blames Willie, of course), but Willie says too much about the cost of the gift and Victoria, being a lady, must turn it down. Barnabas is furious, and Willie contrite and stubborn at the same time. More slashiness enues.
A/N: Oh, how I love to hurt this boy!
Willie tapped the accelerator again, turning off the windshield wipers almost absently as he listened to the tires churn in the mud. Water came down in a solid curtain over the windshield, seeping in, as it always did, in the upper right hand corner of the glass where the sealant had eroded away. The engine whined, and he could feel the shudder the entire truck made as the almost-new tires briskly dug themselves another inch deeper. He was halfway up the hill to the Old House and there was no help for it. Yes, he could safely carry the package he had picked up for Barnabas into the house, but the truck would still be there come morning. It was doubtful that Barnabas would enjoy paying for a tow truck, but there it was. If he wanted the vehicle released from the quagmire that had evolved during the early spring thaw, he was going to have to sign the check.
Willie turned off the engine and sighed. Of course, none of this would have happened if Barnabas had taken Willie's advice and laid down blacktop, or at least some gravel, sometime back in the fall.
Setting the parking break, he gathered up Barnabas' bankbook, patted his pocket for the receipt, then carefully picked up the package he'd driven to Bangor for. An extra delightful item that the vampire had received word of from an antique dealer there, and he'd sent Willie after it post-haste, inclement weather and local flooding be damned. Willie knew he'd been lucky to have made it back as several of the rivers had risen in the hard, spring rain. The irony of getting stuck in his own driveway was not lost on him.
He exited the truck and slammed the door shut harder than need be, but it didn't make any difference. The rain pounded on his head, and he had at least ten yards between him and the back door. It would have been only eight yards if he'd chosen to go in the front door, but by the time he arrived at either entrance, he was going to be dappled up to his hips in mud. The kitchen entrance would suffer the mess better, and he along with it. He tucked the package under his arm, and hustled up the hill, feet slipping, something icy leaking into his shoes, and his hair plastered flat to his skull by the time he reached the half-sheltered back door. Once inside, he laid the package on the table and shook the water from his hair, combing it back with both hands, ignoring the fact that the Old House was an icy tomb and absolutely still while the rain whirled around the windows and the damp oozed through the wood. And, ignoring the shivers that raced through him and the mud that he left on the floor, he lit some candles in the waning light and poked up the ashes in the stove. He didn't think they were quite stone cold, so he used some tinder and an old newspaper he'd been reading to try feed to the coals, and bent to blow across them.
"What are you doing? Where is my package?"
Icy streaks raced down his back as he snapped upright, finding Barnabas there in the doorway of the almost dark kitchen.
"Did I startle you?" came the question, though Willie knew Barnabas wasn't the least bit interested in the real answer.
Taking a deep breath to quiet the pounding of his heart, Willie shook his head. "I didn't know you were up yet," he said, responding to the question, "I-I mean the sun isn't quite down—"
"With the darkness of winter's end," said Barnabas slowly, as if reflecting on some inner thought, "the night seeps into the day, and I am granted an extended furlough from my prison."
"What?" Willie shook his head, hoping to clear it, thinking he'd misheard. But in the waning light of sunset and the shimmer of candles, Willie looked at Barnabas and saw that in his left hand he gripped a book, the last three fingers of which were tucked into the pages to keep his place.
Shit, he's been reading again.
Willie kept the expression from his face by supreme force of will, knowing that any emotion could be, and probably would be, interpreted entirely wrong. Barnabas' reply sounded straight out of a novel, and though Willie had seen the vampire the night before with his nose buried in one, he'd forgotten what it had taken him a painful while to learn. That after a long session in the library, the vampire tended toward moodiness. Willie didn't know if it was the solitude, the atmosphere of romance and the past that was somehow created, or the books themselves, but when Barnabas finished a book, he was not to be trifled with, and Willie had learned to stay out of the way.
Looked like it was too late this time, but Willie swallowed and tried anyway.
"Your package is there, Barnabas, on-on the table." He pointed toward it, and found Barnabas looking at him instead.
"Why are you covered in mud, and why have you tracked it across the floor like that?"
Willie tucked his head down to look at himself, but mostly to hide the exasperation in his eyes. I will suffer no delay, Barnabas had said, in giving this present to Miss Winters, do you understand me, Willie? So Willie'd driven to Bangor, amidst all the hazards brought by the spring storm, the melting snow and mud washes blocking the road and making him take all kinds of detours. There and back again, hours driving with the wipers going, and then the last ten yards, ankle-deep in mud, clutching the gift to his chest, heart hammering for fear he would drop it. Only able to relax when he'd laid it on the table at last.
But it was too much to explain all of this, too much to believe that Barnabas would have, in his present state, the patience to listen to a lengthy description of the hair-raising drive Willie had taken for the same said present, and couldn't Barnabas understand that a little mud on a floor he didn't even have to clean up was a small price to pay for the success of Willie's journey?
"Truck's stuck in the driveway," he said instead, addressing his comment to the stove.
"It is what?" The vampire's tone held all the irritation that Willie suddenly felt.
"I said," began Willie with exaggerated patience, "the truck is stuck in the driveway."
"How did that happen?" Barnabas demanded, somehow oblivious to Willie's sarcasm.
"The driveway is a river of mud," he said, toning it down; he knew his luck was bound to run out soon if he didn't.
"A river of mud?"
"It's also on a slant, and in the heavy rains the road gets washed out." He tried to demonstrate the angle of the road with his forearm but Barnabas wasn't understanding it even then. He dropped his arm. "If you'd had blacktop laid in, or even a layer of gravel spread over it, it would still be passable. As it is, we're going to need a tow truck."
"Are you saying this is my fault?" The vampire's dark brows settled into a level line, casting his expression into an earnest need to understand.
"That it is my fault the truck you were driving is stuck in the mud?"
Willie shrugged. "Well, I told you last fall that this would happen, but you obviously didn't believe me. Don't know what they did in your day to keep those carriages from sinking in the mud, but in this day and age, we lay blacktop."
"You shared with me no such knowledge," the vampire stated, all certain and sure now, his head going up loftily.
"Yes, I did," said Willie in reply, nodding. "It was in October, right after . . . well, it was in October, when the snow started. An' I could tell by the look of things that no one had done anything to that road in a long time, an' I told you—"
"You told me no such thing."
"Yes, I did," Willie said again, attempting to brush some of the mud from his pants. This only pushed the soil in deeper, and he sighed, knowing that his next trip to the laundromat would come sooner than expected. "I asked you, blacktop or gravel, Barnabas, and you said you would think about it later."
"If you are so sure of this," said Barnabas, tipping his head to one side, his eyes narrowing, "then why did you simply not order the necessary materials and have the work done?" He laid his book on the table.
Willie looked up, unable to stifle his sound of disbelief. "Me? Order all that, for a thousand dollars or more without your okay?" You gotta be crazy, he wanted to add, but didn't dare. "You musta just forgot."
"You're lying," said Barnabas suddenly, moving forward. "You've gotten the truck mired in mud by your own ineptitude, and now you seek to lay blame elsewhere for forgetting the necessary task of road repair."
"I am not."
He could clearly remember the conversation even as he said this, early in the winter, some weeks after Maggie had died in the hospital, when the snows had come in earnest. He'd actually taken a moment one day, walking with his hands in his pockets out onto the front porch, to think about how long he was going to make it in the Old House and whether he'd be alive come spring. He hadn't really thought he would be, what with Barnabas becoming irritated every time he looked at him. The vampire's great plans for Maggie had turned to dust in his hands, and he kept talking about he was going to kill whomever got in his way next. Then his eyes would alight on Willie standing in the doorway, and it would get nasty from there.
The front porch had offered some peace as he walked up and down it in the slow light of that early winter afternoon, listening to the echoing sounds of his feet on the wooden planks, letting it lull him into numbness. Then he found himself staring at the road that led to town and thinking about how he knew every pothole and bump. And, come spring, when the dirt road turned into a mud wash with the seasonal rains, and if he were alive and driving it, how was he supposed to get up and down the road to the Old House then? He'd gone back into the house and that night told Barnabas what he thought about the road and what should be done, and the vampire had nodded, said he'd think about it, and waved Willie away.
"I told you in October," he said now, "when we'd gotten our first blizzard. Remember? I had to sleep in the kitchen for a few days until I got the shutters up, it was that cold in my room. An' then I told you—"
"And I am telling you I remember no such conversation between us because there was none," Barnabas interrupted him. "The truck being stuck in the mud is entirely your fault."
Heat built under Willie's collar, feeling like a small flash fire. "You knew I was right about taking care of the road, but you forgot."
"Are you calling me a liar?" This said in icy tones as the vampire's eyes narrowed. The kitchen had grown darker in the space of a few moments, and the increase in chill lurked all around. And then silence, as the rain whistled around the windows, and the moan of the wind in the trees eased its way into the room.
"Yes," said Willie, feeling his own eyes narrow.
Quick steps and the vampire approached him, backing Willie all the way up to the door. Willie shrank against the glass, flinching as the chill of the damp outside soaked into him almost instantly. The vampire loomed above him, grimly still, fists clenched, blocking the light and the warmth of the room.
"I will ask you again, do you call me a liar?"
The conversation Willie had had with the vampire in October about the road had been one-sided, to be sure, with him doing all the talking, and Barnabas nodding as he wrote in his ledger. He knew this as sure as he knew that he had mentioned what would happen in the spring. When the rains came. But Barnabas didn't remember it that way, so if he said yes, Barnabas would let loose with the fury that was now building in him. However, if he said no, it would be a lie. And he was right this time, he knew he was. He took a deep breath, but his shoulders wouldn't unhunch.
"I told you," he began, "but maybe you didn't hear me, maybe you forg—"
His words were cut off by the back of Barnabas' hand, smashing into his face, his own teeth cutting into the inside of his mouth. He tasted it right away, the tang of blood, and felt the sour pounding of his head as his cheek went numb.
It didn't help that he stared Barnabas right in the face, not looking away; he could have predicted the second blow and avoided it, or tried to. But there was really no use in ducking, he realized that right away as the vampire clocked his arm back to smack Willie again. Barnabas had been in his library again, reading romantic novels and moping, probably on the fact that his courtship of one, Miss Victoria Winters, was proceeding too slowly for his tastes. He should have known that the last thing Barnabas would be willing to tolerate was a belligerent servant, defying him. So Willie took it, trying to relax his neck, trying to roll with the blow, feeling the sting as his lip split open, and his jaw seize up as he clenched it.
But he was still mad, even as Barnabas stepped away, apparently finished, and Willie pushed past him, moving toward the darkness of the hall, his own fists clenched, his heart pounding.
"It's not fair," he muttered under his breath. "I did tell you."
Barnabas grabbed his arm as Willie stepped toward the door, spinning him around, forcing him against the kitchen table. Willie felt his breath falter in his chest, not liking the feeling of the wood against his hip, the table screeching as it moved abruptly across the floor and hard into the wall, and he pushed back, the heels of his hands meeting an immovable, wool-clad force. Barnabas, his face hard and scowling, eyebrows raised in astonishment, grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket. He seemed unmindful of the mud splattered there as he held Willie tight and pulled him close. As he did so, Willie lurched sideways, his damp shoes slipping on the floorboards, and both of their heads turned as they heard something crash to the floor.
It was Vicki's gift, the brown paper torn as the box inside came to rest on its edge, the brightly painted wood shining against the duller wood of the floor, mud speckling, ever so slightly, one corner of the lid as it slowly, slowly, came off the box and landed with a small, high pitched smack. And then, once second later, the inner lids, also brightly painted, fell off, and the contents within spilled to the dirty floor.
Barnabas let him go, frozen for a moment, staring at it, and Willie could feel the roar about to start. Now, heart thumping, his smarting face ceased to matter. He knelt down, knees banging against the floor, hands scrabbling to pick up the tiny, silkthin pieces of mother-of-pearl, the splayed, handpainted playing cards, and the almost weightless ivory die. His hands had almost gone to set the box to rights, but other, larger, colder hands grabbed him from behind, pulled him up, and flung him away. He landed with a thunk against the table, and it slammed into the wall again, biting a piece of plaster from it. Gasping, he watched as Barnabas himself knelt on the dusty floor and began putting all the gaming pieces back in the box.
"I-I could fix it, Barnabas, I could glue it if it's broken, I could—"
"Be quiet, you idiot, you don't glue an heirloom!"
Distantly came a knock on the front door.
Barnabas, on his knees, froze. Willie froze too, catching his breath in his throat, swallowing, his eyes fixed on the vampire.
"That will be Miss Winters," said the vampire. "She's early." His hands fumbled with the gaming pieces as he hurried to replace them in their proper sections of the box. "Go and clean yourself up and answer the door, Willie. Make sure the candles are lit, and build a fire, and tell her I'll be there shortly."
Nodding, knowing there would be hell to pay later but grateful for the delay, Willie shrugged his jacket off and flung it on the back of a chair. Then, scooting sideways, he moved over to the sink, bending once to pick up a diamond shaped bit of mother-of pearl, holding it out.
"Barnabas, here," he said, when he realized that the vampire was ignoring him. Barnabas turned and snatched it from him.
Another knock came.
"Hurry," the vampire snarled.
Willie splashed cold water on his face, wiping the blood from his chin. Then he tiptoed past the vampire, still on his knees, his large hands moving more smoothly now as he arranged the cards beneath his hands, and left the kitchen, closing the door behind him.
Scampering to the front door, Willie batted his lip with the back of his hand. Maybe it would be too dark for her to notice, maybe Barnabas would come out quickly, and the evening would go well. Maybe a large hole in the floor would suddenly open up and swallow him.
He slid the lock back and opened the front door, admitting a gust of rain and the trim, pert form of Victoria Winters. Her dark hair swirled obediently around her shoulders, almost unruffled by the wind outside, and there was only a small stain of mud on her shoes. He could almost see what Barnabas saw in her, though she was too sharpedged for Willie's taste. But at the same time he thought this, he chastised himself. Even if she was walking almost willingly into her own trap, she was prey, and that was that.
"Good evening, Willie," she said, as always, polite as a queen. Even to him.
"Evening, Vicki," he replied. Turning, he left her in the dark hallway. "Gotta light some candles, it'll be brighter in a minute."
"Thank you," she said.
He heard sounds of her hanging up her coat; even in the darkness of the foyer, she knew where the coat rack was, she was that familiar with the Old House. He lit the candles all around the room, hoping that the shaking of his hands would be hidden by the shadows and light flickering from the damp. If she noticed, she didn't say anything, even when she came to stand close to him when he lit the long, freestanding candelabra near the entrance of the sitting room.
"I'll light a fire in a minute," he told her.
Rubbing her arms with her hands, she nodded, letting her hair fall across one cheek. "It's always so cold in this house."
"It's the wind," he replied.
When the candles were lit, he bent by the hearth to lay the kindling and light it. Then he placed the logs on top of the small, ragged flames, and blew on them gently. She came to stand behind him, ready, it seemed, for the first bit of warmth that would eke out into the room. The scent of her perfume floated faintly over that of burning sap.
"What happened to your face, Willie?" she asked.
He could feel her looking down at him, and by clenching his jaw tight, prevented himself from looking back up at her. "Nothin'," he said.
"No," she insisted, "something happened. Your lip is bleeding, and there's a bruise there."
He jerked his head away from her outstretched hand, bringing his own hand to his face as if in surprise. "My lip is bleeding?"
"Yes," her voice was firmer now, less polite. "How can you not notice?"
Willie opened his mouth, his brain refusing to enlighten him with a ready answer. Behind him he heard a step, muffled by the carpet in the hallway.
"He is so preoccupied with his duties," supplied Barnabas, coming into the room, "that he sometimes fails to notice when he's done himself damage."
"I see," said Victoria.
"Was it a door this time, Willie?" asked the vampire, and Willie could tell without looking that the vampire was smiling. "Or did you manage it some new way, like that time you fell off from a ladder?"
The steps stopped behind him, and Willie could feel through his backbone exactly where Barnabas was standing.
"A-a door, I think," he said, hoping it was the right answer.
"There, you see?" said Barnabas, smiling at Vicki now. "No great mystery, just Willie's clumsiness. Get up, Willie."
"You should put something on that, Willie, to keep it from getting infected," Vicki told him.
"We're out," he replied, shorter than he meant to.
He pushed himself up from his knees, stepping back toward the fireplace, feeling the hotness of the flames on the back of his legs. There on the small table next to the wingbacked chair was Vicki's present. Barnabas had managed, for the most part, to rewrap it in the brown paper, but it was obvious that he was unhappy with the way it appeared, for he was scowling as he looked at it.
"You must forgive the outer condition of my gift to you, Miss Winters," Barnabas began, "but it's had quite a difficult journey in getting here, and I'm afraid Willie dropped it in the kitchen just now."
At that moment, Barnabas spared Willie a glance, a dark twist of eyes, accompanied by that scowl. It was inevitable that Barnabas would blame him only, as if he had not had anything to do with the scuffle in the kitchen. Something sizzled inside of Willie, and he made himself thrust it down, though he feared his face was giving him away. He swallowed and focused his eyes on the present on the table.
"It got dropped?" Vicki asked. "Did it break?"
"No," said Barnabas. He shook his head, smiling down at her, as if they were the only two in the room, and Willie miles away. "It is very old, but very well made. I'm sure it will give you years of pleasure."
"Can I open it now?"
"I would be delighted."
Vicki opened the present, removing the brown paper as if it were gold foil and just as precious. Her hands revealed what Willie had only a glimpse of before, the large, rectangular wooden box, painted in gilt on the sides and decorated with a large, gold and purple winged peacock on the top. She lifted the lid with her two hands to reveal a series of smaller lids inside, and lifting these, revealed the gaming pieces and decks of cards in their separate, velvet-lined nests.
"Oh, how beautiful," she said, the glow in her voice utterly sincere.
"It's very old," said Barnabas. "It's a Victorian gaming box, made over 100 years ago."
"But, it can't be," her voice dropping as she fingered one of the mother-of-pearl discs. "It's in perfect condition."
"It should be," Willie said, staring at it with her and not thinking, "for three-thousand dollars."
Utter silence filled the room, and two pairs of eyes locked on him. Vicki looked merely shocked, apparently at Willie's lack of couth run amok. But Barnabas was furious. A dark fire had taken the place of the vampire's eyes, and the mouth was now firmly locked in a frown. Willie knew that had Vicki not been in the room, his life would have ended then and there. Painfully.
"Willie," said Barnabas low, rough-edged in his fury.
"Is that true, Barnabas?" asked Vicki, shock running through her voice.
The vampire's attention snapped back to his guest. "No, of course not."
She looked at him, studying his face for a moment as Willie made the tiniest step backwards. Then he stopped. It wouldn't do him any good. Even if he could get out of the room, there was nowhere far enough to run to, nowhere dark and secret enough to hide in.
"It is true, isn't it." She said this not as a question, but as a statement of fact. "I'm sorry, Barnabas, I can't accept that kind of a gift. It wouldn't be right."
"But, Miss Winters, surely—"
"No, Barnabas, please don't ask me to take it, I cannot. It was one thing to accept that very old book, and then the antique lap desk, both were so lovely. But this—no, I cannot accept it. You know I can't."
It was odd to see Barnabas in this light, his hands reaching out to her in supplication. Wanting something he could not have and knowing that there was no force he could apply that would get it for him. His face was blank and open, and the longing in his eyes was plain, a stark, empty light that glinted in his eyes, and Willie almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
"Willie," Barnabas snapped. "Go to your room."
Willie ducked his head and moved to step to one side, but Vicki laid her hand on his arm.
"Please, Barnabas, don't be angry with him, he was only being honest."
He felt his jaw drop open even as he watched the astonishment rise in Barnabas' eyes. "But his honesty means that you won't accept my gift."
Vicki's hand dropped from his arm, and the place where her hand had been suddenly felt very cold. She looked at Barnabas, her eyes square and frank. "And would you have lied to make me accept it?"
Christ, Vicki, don't.
"Hey, Vicki, wait," Willie began, entreating her with his hands held out to the present on the table, "you know, a gift, well, a gift is not how much a thing costs, it's more than that, and Barnabas, he—"
"Be quiet, Willie."
"Barnabas," said Vicki, "I asked you not to be angry with him. He was only trying to help."
"I believe you've done enough for one evening," said Barnabas directly to Willie. "Now go."
Though Willie managed to slink out without coming too close to the spot where Barnabas stood, he felt the chill of the room follow him up the stairs. Along with Barnabas saying, "I'm only asking him to go so that you and I might discuss this in private."
"It won't matter what you say, Barnabas," he heard Vicki reply in a voice that said she was pressing her lips together. "I won't accept it."
The Price - Part 2
The Price - Part 2