x. Aubrey

It was a terrible night. Even in England, we didn't often get storms like this. Outside my apartment, to which I had retired earlier in the evening upon completing my duties, the wind-whipped rain slammed into walls, windows, and roof with frightening force. Even though I was quite sure the winds would not blow down the walls, there came that moment of irrational certainty that they would do just that.

Perversely, I liked nights like this. Curled up in my armchair with a good antique mystery novel, a roaring fire, a pot of hot tea and a plate of biscuits at my side and my old dog Mullins at my feet, I felt safe from the elements, secure in the knowledge that the storm raging outside would not intrude on my idyllic little world of warmth and literature.

Tonight, though, "idyllic" did little to describe my world or my mood, hard as I tried to make it so by going through all the old familiar routines. The storm outside was nothing compared to the one that was growing inexorably inside the walls of the Manor. Over the course of the past week, it had become increasingly more difficult for me to adequately perform my duties and to remain silent since my advice was not sought. Since Dr. Stone had been completely preoccupied with his research and therefore wholly uncommunicative, and Terry seemed to be as uncomfortable around me as I was around him, I contented myself with trying to do my best to make the boy Nigel comfortable and to provide him with whatever diversions he might desire. Other than that, I retreated into my own affairs, performing my tasks in and around the Manor as I did when Dr. Stone was not in residence. I ached to be able to say something to him about how exhausted he looked and how he ought to slow down; even more, I wanted to grab him away from his books and force him to look at the pale, thin face of his gravely ill son and explain to him that the boy wanted nothing more in the world than to spend his last time on Earth with his father. But I dared not do any of this, as it was not my place to do so, and to be perfectly frank, I was afraid of what Dr. Stone might do in his present state if I were to be too presumptuous.

So I did nothing. It was the coward's way out, to be sure, but it was the only one truly open to me. I made sure that everyone at the Manor had what he needed, then stayed out of their way.

It was not yet late, though the stormy darkness outside made it seem so. I gathered my novel (I had picked it up a month ago—one of the few Agatha Christies I had not yet read) and my teapot, hoping that for at least a short while I could forget about the depressing events going on around me. "Come on, Mullins, old boy," I said to the elderly beagle at my feet. "Let's go settle in by the fire, how does that sound?" Mullins, as usual, was silent. I liked him that way. We were a couple of old companions between whom words were not necessary.

I was several chapters into my novel and my teapot was growing cold when Mullins raised his head off my slippered feet and uttered a low snurfling sound, almost like a question. He looked up at me with his large, sad eyes.

"What is it, boy?" I said, looking around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except that the fire was in need of stoking. "Oh, cold, are you? Well, we'll take care of that right away." Rising, I took a log from the small rack of firewood I kept near the fireplace and carefully placed it amid its burning counterparts. "There, is that better?" I asked him, smiling and bending down to pat him gently on the head.

There was a knock at my door.

Mullins raised his head again and made the same noise he had made before, this time obviously looking toward the door. I followed the dog's gaze and hurried over there, wondering who could be coming to visit in such a storm. With a brief flash of fear that somehow the Ann-vampire had managed to reconstitute herself (I quickly chided myself for an overactive imagination) I opened the door to admit the visitor.

Dr. Stone stood there, slumped against the railing of my stairs. He held an umbrella, but it had done little good against the driving rain; his hair was damp and flecked with little water droplets, and his shoes and the lower half of his trousers beneath his overcoat were sodden. He looked like he had thrown on the overcoat in haste, and not even bothered to button it. Beneath the umbrella, his dark-circled blue eyes were desolate. He looked up at me as I opened the door. "Hello, Aubrey," he said softly over the roar of the wind. "I hope I'm not disturbing you..." Something in his expression told me that if he thought he was disturbing me, he would turn around and walk back out in the rain without another word.

"Oh, sir, of course not," I said, taking his arm firmly and steering him inside. "You're soaked. Come in here and sit by the fire so you'll dry out." Unobtrusively, I maneuvered him out of his overcoat and took the umbrella from his unresisting hand. "If you wanted me for something, sir, you should have called, not come out in this storm."

He shook his head. "No. Why make you come out on a night like this? I'm the one with the problem." His gaze took in the room almost without seeing it, including Mullins at my right side. Dr. Stone was not terribly fond of Mullins, and the feeling, unfortunately, was mutual. I tried to keep the dog away from him as much as possible, as I did not think it was fitting to have one's dog growling at one's employer. This time, though, Mullins must have sensed something, for he kept silent. Dr. Stone did not even seem to notice him.

"Would you like anything?" I asked. "The tea's cold, but I could put on a new pot—it would only take a few moments..."

Again, Dr. Stone shook his head. "No, thank you, Aubrey. I won't stay long. I'm sure you have things to do. But I need some advice, and I don't think Terry is the one to give it to me."

"Terry?" I raised my eyebrows a bit, guiding him into my armchair before the now-roaring fire. "Advice about what, sir?"

He closed his eyes. How tired he looked; how physically and mentally exhausted. If he had looked younger the last time he had sought my advice (had that only been somewhat more than a week ago?), now he looked older, like a man who has seen and done too much for his years. "I can't find a cure, Aubrey," he said raggedly.

"Sir?" I sat down in another chair opposite his, leaning forward.

He shook his head, spreading his hands in a gesture of defeat. "I can't do it. I've looked everywhere, tried everything, but nothing even came close. I don't think there is a cure." He took a deep breath, let it out, and then added, "I don't know if I ever did think there was."

"I don't understand, sir," I said after a pause. "You didn't think there was a cure?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I thought I did, but—" He looked up at me. "Terry says I'm running from my fears. That I'm so afraid of Nigel, of spending time with him—of watching him die—that I'm burying myself in this research so I don't have to deal with it."

"Terry is a wiser young man than I thought," I murmured to myself. Louder, I said, "And how do you feel about that?"

"I think he's right," he said bluntly. "I just didn't realise it until now." He stared down at his hands, clasped restlessly around his rain-soaked knees. "He thinks I'm doing Nigel a disservice by allowing him to linger on like this, suffering." Again, he met my eyes. "He thinks the best thing I could do now is—help the boy let go." His voice caught, just a bit, at the end.

I swallowed hard, closing my eyes. My wish for him to ask my advice came back to my mind, unbidden. Be careful what you ask for...

"I just don't know," he continued. "I don't know if I can, don't know if I should—or am I only allowing my own feelings to get in the way of what's right? Terry's on his 'life's rotten' diatribe again, and I couldn't listen to that any more...I hope you'll forgive me for bringing this all on you—"

I moved my chair closer to his, shaking my head. "Sir, not another word about that." I paused, and then said, "But you know I can't advise you on this. It isn't a decision I can help you make, because unless you make it yourself, you won't accept it. You will always look back and wonder if you should have done it differently."

Slowly, he nodded. "But do I have the right?" he whispered.

"Have you asked the boy?"

"No, not yet. I—I still don't know what I'm going to do." Mullins crept quietly over and lay down between us; still Dr. Stone paid him no attention.

"I don't think you will, until you do it," I told him gently. "But you'll do what's right. You'd do nothing less for that boy, I know."

"I'm glad someone's so sure of that," he said, the bitterness evident in his tone. Slowly, he rose. "There's no right answer to this, is there, Aubrey?"

I shook my head sadly. "No, sir, I don't think there is."

He picked up his umbrella from where I had leaned it near the fireplace, then looked down at his feet. "I've gotten your rug all wet."

"Don't worry, sir. It will dry."

"Yes..." he agreed in a faraway voice. He pulled his overcoat off the hall tree and shrugged into it. "I'd better be getting back," he added.

"Yes, sir. Let me know if you need me."

Without answering, he moved over toward the door. Turning his head back toward me, he regarded me gravely for a few seconds, then opened the door and quickly slipped out before any of the blowing rain could get in.

For a moment, I watched the door. Then I looked down at Mullins. As if the dog had spoken to me, I nodded to myself. After giving Dr. Stone a ten-minute head start, I pulled on my own overcoat and hat and picked up my umbrella. I would sleep at the Manor tonight, I decided. Just in case.

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