Faith in the Atmosphere - Part 1 (A Dark Shadows Story)
Title: Faith in the Atmosphere
Word Count: 29,452
Fandom: Dark Shadows
Verse: Splinter Verse (#5)
Summary: Amidst the task of picking out paint for one of the rooms in the Old House, Willie encounters Wesley Dale, who has fallen off the wagon and gone back to drinking. Things get complicated as Barnabas encounters Wesley attacking Willie, and then, even worse, when
A/N: Willie can take it, I know that he can, but while I sometimes feel badly about treating him so horribly, I enjoy it too much to really apologize for it.
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 ignored.
Though now, as his eyes flicked up, he saw 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, 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.
The last time Barnabas had been particular about the color of paint in a room had been for Josette's room, that certain shade of grey sage that echoed the moss in a shallow brook. But then, there'd been remnants of the paint still on the wall. Willie'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 only 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, Barnabas had said the color it should be and no more than that, but Willie had the feeling that the vampire had something specific in mind, seeing as it was his mother's sitting room. There was the demand, also, 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 her; Willie had heard him do it on many a night. The vampire pacing and walking the halls, the only sounds the echoes of his footsteps dark and the long, shallow sigh of the floorboards in the springing back into place in his wake.
And so lilac it was to be. Only there were two dozen or more varieties of that shade alone, if he discounted those that went into the cool blue zone, or darkened to purple. Willie thought he knew what Barnabas felt would be the right choice, 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 qualities 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?"
"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
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 any-one 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
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
"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."
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."
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
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