Flashbacks
A Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story
by Melody Wilde

Willy Wonka had spent the last half hour hovering over the vat containing one of his newest concoctions, stirring, tasting, then stirring some more, all the while muttering to himself in an almost-audible voice. Charlie Buckett had spent the last half hour watching silently, leaning against a nearby wall, "keeping out of the way" as he'd been ordered.

Charlie sighed. I really think he's forgotten this year. He never has before but...as busy as we've been lately, I guess I shouldn't have expected him to remember, even with all the things Mother and Grandpa Joe have been saying. Birthdays just aren't important to him. Easter and Christmas—candy holidays—sure, but other days…

"Ha!" Wonka spun on the balls of his feet, waving one gloved hand toward the vat, his lips curving upward in a delighted grin. "This is it—definitely absolutely it!"

Shoving his disappointment deep down where no hint of it would show—the way I always seem to do when he's involved—Charlie crossed the room to stare down at the frothy contents. "What is it?"

"It's a special surprise." Wonka's eyes twinkled. "Taste it."

"Is it safe?"

An eyebrow went up and a quick hurt flashed across the older man's face. "Of course it's safe. I wouldn't offer it to you if it weren't."

Charlie cringed inwardly. "I'm sorry. I know that." And I do know that. Why did I say something stupid like that? Get over it, Charlie Bucket. You're not a child anymore. Today you are a—

"Taste it!"

Obediently, he dipped a fingertip into the blue and white mix.

"No, no, no, no. That's not enough. You'll never get the taste like that. Here…"

Wonka stripped off one glove and used two fingers to scoop up what he obviously considered "enough", then extended his offering. "Go on."

Stunned, Charlie could only stare. He's offering to let me touch him? Touch his bare skin? With my mouth? He's never…not in all these years…

"My hands are clean."

"I know. I just…"

"Oh for goodness' sakes." Wonka leaned forward and swiped the confection across Charlie's lips. "There."

Charlie felt his tongue shoot out involuntarily to lick, and it was his turn to go wide-eyed. "It tastes like…"

Wonka preened. "Ice cream and birthday cake. It's for you. Happy birthday, Charlie."

A warm feeling, one that had nothing to do with the sweet, settled in the pit of Charlie's stomach. "Thank you," he whispered.

"You thought I forgot, didn't you? Didn't you?" Wonka glanced at the remains on his fingers, and then, with a shrug, licked them clean himself.

Charlie forced his gaze away from Wonka and back to the depths of the vat. He touched my mouth with his fingers and then he licked them. And that's as close as I'm ever going to get to him. To his disgust, he felt his eyes starting to get wet. Stupid! Grow up. You're 16 years old now. You're not some silly child mooning after…

"What's wrong? You don't think it's good? I thought it was good."

"It's very good. I love it. I..." He cleared his throat and pretended to inspect the concoction more closely. "I guess I'm just…" He fumbled for an excuse. "Pleased."

"Ah." Wonka draped an arm around his shoulders, then chuckled. "D'you know, I had to reach up to do that. You've grown up on me."

"I am sixteen today."

"I know. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Or do they say that about boys? Maybe it's just girls." He shook his head, and his hand tightened on Charlie's arm. "Take a walk with me. Let's go to the Chocolate Room and you can tell me why you've been so sad lately."

"I'm not sad. Just…"

"Feeling old?" Wonka grinned, then pushed open the door of the elevator and ushered Charlie inside.

"Feeling young."

"Ah." He released Charlie, paused to replace the glove, then pressed a button. "Then the Chocolate Room's just the place for you today. You can be as young or as old as you like there. You know…" He leaned forward conspiratorially. "I've been assigned to keep you occupied and out of the way while the Parents and the Grands set up your party. I hope you don't mind."

"Never."

The elevator came to a stop and the door slid open. "After you."

The Chocolate Room hadn't changed in the years Charlie and his family had lived in the comfort of the factory with Wonka and the Oompa Loompas. Other things had changed—come and gone as candies and tastes changed—but this room was always the same. It looked exactly as it had the first day Charlie had walked into it, scared and excited and hopeful, with four other children.

It hasn't changed, but I have. Still, this is one of my favorite places in the world. I feel safe here. I feel like I'm at home here.

Wonka had sauntered over to the bank of the river. "We still have the only chocolate in the world that's mixed by waterfall," he murmured.

"That's why ours is the best." Charlie dropped to the ground and made himself comfortable.

Wonka returned to settle beside him, crossing his legs at the knee. "Tell me what's making you so sad."

"Really, it's nothing." Nothing but knowing another birthday was here and there would be lots of presents. Knowing he could have anything he wanted except the one thing he'd come to realize he wanted most in the world. He shrugged and tried an excuse. "I guess I was just thinking about…before. You know…before we came here…"

"Your birthdays were very different then. Only one present—only one candy bar a year. Grim."

"Not really. I was happy enough. We were just poor."

"And now you're not." Wonka tilted his head in question. "So why are you sad? Aren't things better now?"

"Of course they are." Mostly.

Charlie had continued to attend the same school, even after he and his family had gone to live at the factory. His classmates had never paid him much mind before, but his newfound fame brought him more friends than he'd ever imagined having. Except sometimes they weren't…

He ran into the Chocolate Room, threw his schoolbag at one of the trees, and flung himself facedown by the chocolate river. He was not going to cry. He was twelve years old, and twelve-year-old boys did not cry. Not just because some silly gits that he'd thought were his friends had laughed at him because he'd worn a coat like Mr. Wonka's to school. He loved Mr. Wonka's coat. He'd been so pleased when some of the Oompa Loompas had made him one just like it. And then…

"Charlie?"

A slim form settled beside him on the grass, close but not too close, giving him space if he wanted. "Is something wrong? Well, that's a silly question, isn't it? Of course something's wrong or you wouldn't be down here. You'd be up in the Inventing Room with me, telling me what sorts of things you thought up today when you were supposed to be studying Geography."

"Nothing," he muttered. "I didn't think of anything."

"Oh well, not every day is a day full of inventions, now is it." There was a pause, then Wonka went on in a softer, gentler tone. "Doris said she saw you come in, looking…very unhappy. Is there anything I can do to help, or is this something you need to take to your parents?"

That got his attention. He turned his head to look over at Wonka, feeling a smile begin to creep into the corners of his mouth. "That's the first time you've done that."

"Done what?"

"Said the word 'parents' without…you know…gagging." To his surprise, he giggled. Even more to his surprise, so did Wonka.

"You're right. I suppose in these past months I've gotten used to the word—to the idea. They're not such bad things after all, just like you told me. In fact…" He leaned over slightly and lowered his voice. "I've found myself becoming quite fond of the Parents and the Grands."

The giggle became a full-out laugh. "I'm glad."

Wonka waggled his fingers in the air. "Well, if they're going to be hanging about here, living with me, so to speak, I might as well learn to love them."

And me? he wanted to ask. Have you learned to love me too? But somehow he couldn't find the words.

"So what is it that's made you unhappy today?"

Before he could think that it might hurt his still-new friend's feelings, he blurted out, "The kids at school said my coat makes me look like a poof."

"Ah." Wonka's fingertips steepled together around the tip of his cane. "I suppose that means my coat makes me look like a poof too."

"Um…" Belatedly, he decided he'd shared enough of his classmates' comments. "They pretend they like me. They pretend to be my friends. But they're just…they just want me to give them candy, and they're jealous of me because I won the contest and get to live here and work with you, and they're…"

"A bad lot."

"Yeah." Somehow, just saying these things aloud to an adult—an adult who seemed to understand—made him feel better.

"And do we really care what that sort of children think about us? Children with…" He waved at his jacket, then Charlie's. "No taste in clothing? Even if they do have excellent taste in chocolate."

"But that's because the chocolate tastes excellent." Charlie was smiling again now, and Wonka beamed with delight.

"The moment I saw you, I knew you were the one with the perception to inherit my factory. Now let's forget your schoolmates and go make something super-licious-sweet." He paused. "There's just one thing…" His brows furrowed. "What's a 'poof'?"

"I haven't the foggiest."

"What are you thinking about?"

He brushed his hand across the sleeve of his newest jacket, a jacket much larger than that first one. His growth spurts had kept the Oompa Loompas busy sewing new ones as he grew taller and broader. "I was just remembering the first one of these I had."

"Your classmates gave you a bad time over it. I remember..."

Wonka's eyes slid shut, and Charlie knew he was remembering.

He waited until supper was over and Charlie had gone off to his room to do his homework, then gathered his courage and approached The Parents. Even after so many months of being with them, even after growing amazingly fond of them, he still felt somewhat uneasy in their presence. Inadequate. As if his life—contrary to all appearances—had been less successful than theirs.

He had spent most of the evening trying to think of a convincing argument, a good opening line, but when faced with The Parents, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

"I think you should take Charlie out of school."

Mrs. Bucket laughed. "He's already learned all they can teach him, of course." She shook her head. "Nobody loves Charlie more than I do--" Mr. Bucket cleared his throat meaningfully, and she nodded in his direction. "Sorry, dear. More than we do. But that doesn't mean we should overestimate his scholastic achievements."

"No, no." Wonka waved his hands in the air, trying to find the words to explain. "It's not that. Naturally he needs further education. But you could teach him here. Home school him. Or...factory school him." He gave her one of his brightest and most winning smiles.

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"When am I ever not?"

That made her laugh again. "I'm never sure, but...no, Mr. Wonka. I don't think that's a good idea."

"But...his classmates..."

"Are they giving him a bad time again?" Her eyes flashed anger, then she looked away. "Yes, I'm sure they are. Charlie is so different from them."

"Charlie is so much more than them."

"Yes." Her voice was soft. "But still, he needs to be with them, don't you see. If he were locked away here, with no friends but us, he'd become..." Her voice faltered.

"A recluse. Like me."

"I didn't mean it like that."

"I know."

"You're a good man, Mr. Wonka—a very good man. But Charlie has to have a chance to become his own man, not a copy of you. He needs to have contact with other children his own age. Even if they aren't all that you—or we—could wish."

"I just want to protect him."

"As do we."

And the matter was closed. Charlie continued to go to school every day as always...except he never wore any of his red jackets outside the factory again.

"Mr. Wonka?"

The bright eyes blinked, refocused, and turned to him. "I think it's time you stopped calling me 'Mr. Wonka', don't you? You're not a child anymore, you know, starting today."

"What do you want me to call you then?"

"You can call me by my first name."

"No. Not that!" He ducked his head, aware that his response had been too quick, too emphatic.

"Is something wrong with my name?"

I can't explain. I can't tell him. He's so…otherworldly. He'd never understand…

"I…it's…"

"How's your poofter friend, Bucket?"

Charlie kept his attention firmly on the contents of his backpack, arranging and re-arranging. If he could just pretend he didn't hear them, didn't know they were there…

A hard shove against his back sent him clanging into the locker. With a sigh, he turned to face them. Davis. Thompson. And the worst, Lewis.

They'd gone from false friendship to open hostility over the past few months. In his heart, he knew he couldn't blame them. Much. It was just that he had everything now. He'd gone from being a skinny little nobody in patched clothing to the heir to Wonka Industries. He'd grown six inches in just over a year, and put on weight and muscle. He knew it was immodest of him, but he thought he was good looking too. Davis, Thompson, Lewis, and their crowd—they were ordinary. And he'd become extraordinary.

He put more than a trace of Wonka-sarcasm in his voice and replied, "If you mean Mr. Wonka, he's fine. Thank you for asking."

"'Mister' Wonka? You call him 'mister'?"

"Yes."

"Funny thing to call somebody you're fucking."

Charlie felt his face go hot with anger. "I'm not…"

"You think we don't know how you won that contest?" Lewis snorted. "You prob'ly took 'Mister' Wonka off and gave him a blow job. Sucked Willy's willy."

"That's a lie."

"Oooh, look at how the little boy's getting all upset 'cause we know his secret."

"Don't talk that way about Mr. Wonka. He wouldn't do anything like that. He's not like that."

"Charlie likes Willy's willy," Lewis began in a singsong voice. When the others joined in, there was only one thing to do.

"Charlie?"

"I guess I just don't think I'd feel comfortable calling you by your first name."

"Hah! Do what your parents do then. Just call me 'Wonka', without the 'mister' in front. How 'bout that? Can you do that?"

"Yeah. I can do that." He pulled a blade of grass and chewed on it.

"Now what are you thinking about?"

"The first time I got into a fight at school." The first, but not the last.

"You were 14." Wonka's voice was low. "And they called in your parents because you attacked three other boys, all by yourself, and you hurt them worse than they hurt you."

"That's the one."

"I've always wondered about that. I could never imagine why..." He fell silent.

Charlie licked his lips and risked a glance at Wonka. Who was, again, remembering…

"Charlie!"

Wonka had become…not alarmed, exactly, but certainly concerned…when Charlie hadn't shown up for their daily cup of hot chocolate after school. And now it seemed he had reason to be concerned. The boy—no, almost not a boy anymore—was curled beneath one of the bridges in the Chocolate Room, sobbing, his jumper torn and bloodstained, one eye already darkening, his lip split… It was a scene Wonka was all too familiar with, and his throat caught with fear.

Wonka went to one knee beside him, dropping his cane and reaching out to touch his chin and lift his face. "Charlie? What's happened?"

"They…Lewis…he…" Charlie seemed to be foundering for the words.

"Did they hurt you?"

"No. It was...they said..."

He thought he understood. "They're jealous of you, aren't they?"

"Yes."

Was that relief on the boy's face? Wonka suddenly felt there was more going on here than a simple altercation born of jealousy. But Charlie looked so miserable…in so much pain…that he let it go. Charlie would tell him when the time was right.

"Come here." He pulled the boy to him, wrapping his arms awkwardly around the no-longer-so-thin shoulders. Expressions of affection were still new to him. Sometimes he wondered if they would ever come as naturally to him as they did to the other members of his new family. But he kept trying. And right now…this minute…he somehow knew it was important that he get it as right as he could.

Charlie helped. He went into the hug eagerly, dropping his head on Wonka's shoulder, wrapping his arms around Wonka's waist and clinging as his body shook with sobs. Wonka lifted a gloved hand to stroke the boy's hair in a way that he hoped was comforting.

"I'm so sorry, Charlie. What can I do?" he murmured helplessly.

"Nothing. Just…Nothing."

They sat that way for a long time, until at last Charlie lifted his head. Reluctantly, Wonka released him, and he sat back wiping his eyes.

"Thanks."

"You're quite welcome. And now let's go get you cleaned up and see about that eye." Reaching for his cane, he pushed himself to one knee, only to be stopped by a hand on his arm.

"Mr. Wonka. I just…I want to tell you…I never say it…" He swallowed hard. "I love you."

A warmth—like the very best and sweetest chocolate—rushed through Wonka's body. "Thank you, Charlie. And I love you too. You and your family are the best thing that's ever happened to me." He stood and held out a hand. "Now…that eye…"

"I don't suppose you want to tell me about it now."

"No." Never. I'll never tell you about it, because it would hurt you, and I'd do anything in the world to keep you from being hurt.

"Ah well." Wonka flashed a smile. "Where would we be without life's mysteries? And speaking of mysteries…can you guess what I've gotten you for your birthday?"

"Besides the cake-and-ice-cream candy?"

"That? Pooh." He waved it away. "Yah, I made it for you, but it'll be sold world-wide within a month. No, something else. Guess. Guessguessguess!"

"I think I'd rather wait and open the present at my party. You know, someone once said a surprise is the best prize."

"Absolutely right."

"Did you ever have trouble at school?"

"Course I did."

"Really?"

"Really. Everyone has trouble at school. Everyone..."

The shift in Wonka's expression was so sudden that it startled Charlie. The lean face went tight, closed; the eyes shuttered; all the humor was gone in a heartbeat. And then he was lost again...

After his separation from his father, he'd found himself alone, homeless, underage, and burdened with the massive dental headgear. Luckily, Josiah Green, the owner of the small candy store where he had found his true life's calling, had seen him staring forlornly into the window and taken him in. The braces had been removed. He had begun to work for and work with the candymaker, learning and exploring. And he had returned to school, where he could be with his friends. He had been happy. Everything had been going fine. Just fine.

Until the day Mr. Green's son came home.

"And who's this?"

"Willy Wonka." He rose, extending his hand politely. The hulking young man standing in the doorway ignored it.

"Da?"

"Son." The older man—who seemed to have aged ten years in only a few seconds—barely looked up. "Willy, this is my son Daniel."

"I'm pleased to meet you. I didn't know—"

"Didn't know he had a son, I'll wager. Da doesn't like to talk about me much, do you, Da?" He swaggered into the room, flung himself into a chair, and glared from one to the other. "And now you've gone and got yourself a replacement."

"Why are you here?"

"'Cause Mum's sick of me and said it was your time to put up with me." He tilted his head to one side, staring at Wonka. "So what's this all about then?"

"Willy is my apprentice. He's learning to make candy."

"You don't say." The young man pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

There was something desperate in Mr. Green's manner. "Willy, why don't you go on to bed, and I'll—"

"Bed? You sharing a bed with him, too?" Daniel exhaled a cloud of smoke that made Wonka double over with coughing. He laughed. It wasn't a nice laugh. "I didn't know me da had gone queer."

"Daniel, please..."

He silenced his father with a curt gesture, still staring at Wonka. "So, Willy. I think you and I are going to be very good friends…"

After that, Wonka's life became unbearable. It began with taunts, hurtful words, crude accusations. It moved on to shoves, being tripped as he walked through the house. When it escalated to beatings, Wonka began to withdraw from the company of his friends. He changed the way he dressed, wearing layers of clothing and adding gloves so that no one could see the cuts and bruises. So that no one would touch him. He skipped school for the first time in his life, more and more often, as his need to hide grew. And finally, just after his sixteenth birthday, he ran away from the second home he'd ever known. There were other candy stores who were eager to take on a creative, intelligent apprentice, even if that apprentice were a bit odd...

"Wonka?"

He shook himself and gave a patently false laugh. "Sorry."

"Did I say something wrong?"

"Not at all. I just...what is it?"

One of the Oompa Loompas—Charlie thought it was Samuel—had come dashing up out of nowhere. He leaned close to whisper into Wonka's ear, then scurried away.

"It looks like they won't be ready for us for a while yet." Wonka made a clucking sound of reproach. "Slowpokes. Still, this is a very special day, so it calls for very special preparations." He removed his hat, placed it carefully to the side by his cane, and leaned back, bracing himself on his hands. "You know, you've learned so much that sometimes I wonder if it's time for me to turn the factory over to you and move on."

"Don't say that!" No, no, Charlie—too fast, too frightened-sounding. But he couldn't seem to stop himself, the words spilling out. "Where would we be without you? The factory and...and us? I think it's being here that's kept my grandparents alive and healthy. We need you and we love you and..." His voice slid away at the look on Wonka's face.

"Ah." Wonka's lips pursed, then spread in an odd smile. "Then maybe I won't think about going quite yet," he said at last. "There is still a lot to do. Besides..."

"Besides what?" Charlie asked, after the silence had stretched on for what seemed like forever.

"We've known each other for a long time now, Charlie. You're a very bright young man, and you're a very good young man. I knew that about you from the moment I first saw you. I knew you would be the one to inherit my factory someday—to take over when it was time. And I was right." He smiled. "I know I'm a little...I'm not like other people. But I've tried to do the right thing by you—to be your friend and your teacher and your mentor. But now that you're sixteen, I think things need to change."

Charlie's heart began to pound in a manner that was almost painful. He's not going to say we can't be friends anymore. He can't be saying...oh god, please don't let him say anything bad, please.

"You're not a little boy anymore, and it's time for me to stop treating you as anything but an equal."

Charlie found himself able to breathe again. Thank you, god. "Okay."

"However..." Wonka shifted, settled again. "This is going to take some getting used to."

"I know."

"Where to start…. You'll be out of school soon. Do you have any plans?"

"I suppose I'll spend more time working here."

"No, no. I mean real plans, plans for your life. You mustn't let yourself become stuck here like I did."

"I wouldn't mind."

"But there's more to life than that. Is there a girl?"

"A girl?"

"You know. A girlfriend." He freed one hand to wave it in the air, almost unbalancing himself and tipping over backwards in the process. "Don't tell me you really are sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Or...oh wait. Even if we're both adults, I don't think I should ask that, should I? It's none of my business, really."

"No."

"No, of course it isn't, and I'm sorry I—"

"I mean no, I don't have a girlfriend and I've never been kissed. Not...not yet." It was the best Charlie could do. Oh my dear, dear Mr. Wonka, if you only knew...

He really was too big to be tucked into bed at night, in every way, and his mother hadn't done so in a long time, but tonight was special—his fifteenth birthday. Mrs. Bucket smiled and ruffled his hair as she pulled the covers up around him, then perched on the edge of the bed.

"Did you have a good day?"

"Very. It was special."

"I'm glad. You deserve it, Charlie. And what did you wish for, when you blew out your candles?"

When he hesitated, she went on quickly, "I know, I know. You're not supposed to tell. It's just...every birthday since we've been here, I've wondered what on earth any of us could wish for. We seem to have everything now."

"Mother..."

She leaned closer, her brow furrowing with concern at the hesitancy of his tone. "What is it?"

"I'd like to tell you. But..." It was a secret—his secret—had been his secret for the past three years. But tonight he wanted to share it with someone else, someone he loved, someone who would understand…he hoped. He just wanted to talk to someone about it, but he wasn't sure how to begin.

"You know you can tell me anything."

"You remember all those fights I got into at school last year? And how I would never tell you what started them."

She rolled her eyes. "How could I forget?"

"It was because they—the other guys—said...they said things about Mr. Wonka."

"What sort of things?"

"Bad things. That he was...you know. And that the reason I won the contest was because he and I had...you know...and that I..." The expression on his mother's face froze his words.

"Those boys are despicable." Her words were clipped, angry. "I'm going to call each one of their parents right now and tell them—"

"No. Wait." He pulled his arms out from under the covers and caught her hands. "It's all right now. It was just...I couldn't bear them saying those terrible things about him."

"But what about the things they said about you, Charlie?"

He had to struggle to meet her eyes, afraid of what she would say. "Well...actually...they weren't so far off the mark."

"Oh. You mean..."

"Mr. Wonka has never...he's never done anything...improper. Not like that. Never even hinted at it. He doesn't even hug me much, not nearly as much as he hugs you and my grandparents and even Father. And I...I wish he would. That's what I wished for."

"That Mr. Wonka would hug you more?"

"That he'd love me. The way I love him. The way I have loved him since…since I knew I loved him."

"Oh." She swallowed, glanced away, then back. "Are you saying...are you telling me you're gay?"

"I don't know. I'm just telling you...I love him. Mr. Wonka. And I love him...I guess I love him the way I should one of the girls at school, but I don't care about them. They're not as bright or as funny or as... I don't know."

Mrs. Bucket took a deep breath. "One never gets to choose who they fall in love with, Charlie. I can't deny that I wish you were telling me that you had fallen in love with one of your classmates—even one of the boys. Because I think loving Wonka that way is going to be so difficult for you. For anyone."

"I know. But I can't help it."

She leaned forward to kiss his forehead. "Thank you for sharing this with me."

"You won't tell anybody? I mean, it's okay to tell Dad, but not anybody else. Especially not him."

She made an "X" across her chest. "I won't tell anyone unless you ask me to. It'll be our secret. And Charlie..." In the dim light from his bedside lamp, he could see her eyes sparkling with tears. "I do hope you get your wish someday."

"And what about you?" When Wonka's eyes widened in surprise, he rushed on, "I mean, since we're talking man to man now and all. I've wondered...when you decided you needed an heir, why did you send out the tickets? Why didn't you just...you know...get married? That would've been easier."

"Easier on the other children, perhaps, but not for me." He gave a tight smile. "I'm not very good with people, Charlie. I lost the art years ago. The Oompa Loompas...I always got on well with them. But remember how long it took me to learn with you and your family. Even with my father. No, this was the best way."

"But what if somebody horrid, like Violet, had won?"

Wonka shuddered. "Did you know that her dreadful mother actually tried to flirt with me?"

Charlie felt a surge of totally irrational jealousy. "She did?"

"Disgusting woman, walking about with her shirt open and the tops of her...her..." He gestured toward his chest. "Waving about."

"I didn't notice." And he hadn't. He'd only had eyes for the strange, charismatic man leading them through the factory.

"Revolting. But there was nothing to worry about. I knew she wouldn't win. I knew none of them would win."

"How could you be sure?" He had a sudden memory of Mr. Salt standing in almost this very spot, talking about how the Oompa Loompas' song had seemed rather rehearsed. "You didn't...you rigged the contest?"

"Of course not!" Wonka's head jerked in indignation. "That wouldn't have been fair. But I might have taken a look at everyone who found a ticket and decided who I didn't want to win and maybe made it easier for them to lose."

"You rigged it."

"I put temptation in their paths. All they had to do was not give in. That little boy could've stayed away from my river. The little girl could've spit out the gum, like I told her to. The other little girl could've stayed with us instead of demanding a squirrel and going to get one. And that other child..."

"Mike."

"He was the worst. I'm surprised he lasted as long as he did. But I knew technology would be his downfall."

"And what about me? What temptation did you put in my path?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"It wasn't necessary. I knew you were the one. I knew it when I heard that you'd offered to sell your Golden Ticket to help your family—"

"How did you know that?"

"I may be stuck away up here, but I've always had my sources. I didn't understand about families then, but I did understand about loyalty and sacrifice. Offering to give up something you wanted to help somebody else. And then when you came into the factory..." He shook his head. "You said my Chocolate Room was beautiful. You understood that there's not supposed to be any point to candy. And I knew I'd picked the right one."

"What if you'd been wrong?"

"Well...then I'd have offered you money and sent you on your way, wouldn't I?"

"I'm glad it didn't work out like that."

"Me too, Charlie." He lay back and folded his hands under his head as a pillow.

"But if it hadn't... Haven't you ever thought about..." Charlie took a deep breath. "You know…getting married?"

"I might have, maybe, almost, once." He rolled his head sideways. "Would you like to hear about it?"

No. I don't want to know that you were in love with somebody else. I don't want to hear things that are going to make me feel young and stupid and hopeless.

"Sure."

"The factory had been open for almost three years. Things were going very well—sales and production. And me. I'd actually started sort of talking to some of the workers. That's how I met her."

He'd spotted her in the lunch room one day, during one of his impromptu visits. She was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen—golden hair, blue eyes, a sweet, shy smile, and a way of looking at him from beneath her eyelashes that made him feel...well, he wasn't sure how, but it made him feel. He couldn't believe it when she spoke to him. Asked him if he'd join her at her table for lunch. Hung on his every word as if it were golden...

It had been a long time since he'd had friends. And he couldn't remember ever having had a 'girlfriend'. He was flattered by her interest in him, in his work, in his life—not that he'd really had much of a life, outside of work. He went out of his way to be where she worked. To have lunch with her. To talk to her, haltingly at first, then with more confidence.

"Her name was Amelia. She worked in the bar-wrapping room, before we automated the process."

"Was she pretty?" Charlie felt as if he were choking on the words.

"Oh yes." Wonka's reply was casual. "Very pretty. Very soft, very sweet. A good worker, too."

"And you fell in love with her."

"I thought maybe I did. Almost."

Given his lack of experience with women, he really wasn't surprised that he couldn't quite sort out his feelings for Amelia. He enjoyed being with her, yes. But during the weeks he was away building Prince Pondicherry's doomed chocolate palace, he didn't really miss her, not like he thought he should if he were falling in love with her. In fact, he didn't really think about her at all.

"Industrial espionage." His foreman met him at the door upon his return to the factory, waving a set of ads for new candies his rivals were producing—candies with secret recipes that had come straight from the Wonka Factory. "You have spies in the plant. You need to run a background check on everybody. Search the employees when they leave. Be more careful with—"

"Yes, yes, I'll do all that. Excuse me." He had just spotted Amelia, waving at him from across the room. Seeing her again was...nice.

"Welcome back." She crossed the room to greet him. To his surprise, she leaned up and touched her lips quickly to his cheek. He felt himself blushing.

"I'm sorry. I guess I shouldn't have done that, but…"

"It's okay." He wanted to rub at his face where she'd kissed him, scrub away the dampness from her mouth that he knew was there. But that wasn't right, was it? You weren't supposed to feel that way when somebody you liked kissed you. Were you? He was so lost in thought that he missed her whispered words.

"Sorry. What?"

"I said…" For just a second, he thought he saw a flash of irritation in her huge blue eyes. "I'd like to come by your office tonight."

"Why?"

"Because I missed you while you were away. Didn't you miss me?"

"Oh. Sure."

"I thought maybe if I could come by…after everyone's gone…and show you how much I've missed you."

"Oh." Something very much like fear shot through him as he realized what she was saying.

"Is that all right?"

No. It wasn't all right. But it wasn't all right to be afraid either, not of Amelia. He liked her, didn't he? She was his friend, wasn't she? He forced himself to nod. "Uh…yeah, okay, sure."

"Will you leave a door unlocked, so I can get in?"

"Okay."

"The one by the kitchen?"

"I have to go." Without another word, he spun on his heel and all but ran from the room, back to his office, to his private bathroom. He bolted the door behind him, tossed his hat to one side, and barely managed to lean over the toilet before he began to throw up.

"What happened?"

At last, he managed to pull himself together. He washed his face, brushed his teeth, and called the kitchen for a calming cup of cocoa. He didn't go back into the plant, afraid he'd run into her again. Instead, he cowered in his office, trembling, trying not to think about what might…could…maybe would…happen later that night.

The sound of the factory whistle startled him so badly he spilled his cocoa across his desk. He forced himself to be still, waiting, counting the minutes until he knew the workers would all be gone and the factory locked up for the night. Then he crept through the darkened rooms like a thief, past the kitchen, to the door which led into the back alley. Taking a deep breath, he flipped the lock open, then turned and fled back to his office to wait in the dark.

"Mr. Wonka?"

He wanted to push himself through the back of his chair and vanish. His voice didn't want to work, and his attempt to answer came out as a low croak.

"Willy?" She was standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the faint nightlights from the hall beyond. "Are you there?"

"I…yes…"

She floated into the room, across to his desk, behind it to him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. He managed not to flinch.

"Did you lock the door behind you?"

She giggled. "That's not a very romantic thing to say."

"I…I'm sorry. Did you?"

"Of course I did." She rolled his chair back from the desk and turned it to face the wall.

"What…what are you…"

"What do you think I came here to do, hmmm?" She straddled his lap, leaning in to press her chest against his.

"I don't…"

Her mouth covered his, tongue probing between his lips. Her hands slid under his coat, up beneath his vest, moving, grabbing, as she began to rock her hips. It was horrifying. It was disgusting. And Willy Wonka suddenly realized that whatever he had felt for this woman—whatever he had wanted from her—it wasn't this.

He jerked his head back, freeing himself. "Amelia, wait…"

"Let's go to your bedroom. It's here in the factory, right?" She was standing, grasping his hand, tugging.

"No. Wait. This isn't…it won't…I can't…"

Dim as the lighting was, it must've been enough for her to read the truth in his terrified expression. Her posture changed, her shoulders straightening, head lifting, and she muttered, "Fucking hell."

"I beg your…"

She raised her voice. "It's not going to work. You might as well come in now."

Wonka went silent. There was a sudden flurry of movement and he was sitting up, then standing, then moving to the bank of the river. He went still there, staring blindly at the chocolate waterfall. Hesitantly, Charlie rose and followed him.

"Wonka?"

"I'm okay." But he was breathing too hard and his expression was frighteningly brittle. "It's not a very nice story, is it?"

Charlie didn't know what to say. He shrugged. "Just because you didn't love her..."

"No. It was more than that. What we have here, my dear Charlie, is a damaged man and a woman who pretended to care for him just long enough to get what she wanted. Not nice at all."

"I'm sorry," he whispered. He moved closer and touched Wonka's arm, feeling the tension in the muscles beneath the layers of clothing. To his astonishment, Wonka leaned toward the touch, the violet eyes closing quickly, then opening again.

"I don't know what possessed me to begin this dreadful tale," he murmured, with a forced bark of laughter. "Well, yes, actually I do, but still, it was a bad idea after all. Maybe we should let it go and—"

"No." Charlie sat, pulling Wonka down beside him, sliding over until they were shoulder to shoulder. "Tell me what happened to hurt you so badly."

"Are you sure you want to hear the rest of this?"

"Yes."

Wonka took a deep breath. "It seems she was one of the spies. They'd told her to be nice to me and sent her to distract me that night. She was supposed to lure me away from my office. While I was gone, her friends planned to steal whatever they could. But because I wouldn't…couldn't…"

There were three of them, all bigger, stronger, and much more fit than the slender chocolatier. They wore ski masks that hid their features and black clothing to allow them to move through the factory without being seen. When they swarmed into his office at her call, it took him completely by surprise.

"You were supposed to get him out of here," one growled at Amelia.

"It's not my fault he wouldn't go. Fucking pansy."

"Fine. Might be easier this way anyway."

He kept seeing Daniel Green's face as they beat him. Their hurts were nothing compared to the ones Daniel had inflicted on him years before, so it was easy to shake his head and lie and tell them over and over that, yes, the secretest secrets were all right there, in the file cabinet, and no, there weren't any more anywhere else. Finally they believed him and took everything they could find and left him lying curled on one side, bleeding and whimpering softly.

"Wonka?"

Amelia was bending over him, and he flinched away from her now-ugly features. "If you tell anyone that I helped them, I'll say you tried to rape me and they beat you up because of that. And they'll believe me. Do you understand?"

"Yes." And he did understand. He understood all too well. He understood too much.

He lay there all night, too hurt in body and spirit to move, alone with his thoughts and his doubts and his memories of betrayal. When he heard the clock chime seven, he forced himself to move at last, pushing himself to his feet, biting his lip against the pain. He reminded himself that pain was an old friend, and that he could deal with it by himself. He locked the door to his office, so that none of his staff could go in and see the mess the intruders had left behind. And then he made his way—staggering, weeping, barely holding himself together—to his quarters at the top of the factory.

Charlie felt the tears sliding down his own face. The pain of knowing that someone had hurt this gentle man... I feel like somebody's stuck a knife in my stomach.

He must've given an audible sniff, for Wonka turned his head, seemingly surprised to see Charlie so close. "Oh, Charlie, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that." His hands began to flutter helplessly in front of him.

"Did you fire her and send them to jail?"

"No. I hid in my room until I was sure nobody could tell I'd been hurt. And then I sent everyone away and closed the factory forever." His lips curved sadly. "I told them...and then I said, 'I'm sorry', at the end, because I was. I was sorry that so many people lost their jobs. But I couldn't trust anybody just then."

"Wonka, I..."

"Enough of that." A purple-clad hand settled on his face, wiping away the wetness there. "It's your birthday. This is a happy day. You shouldn't be crying."

"I...I couldn't help it. Why would anyone...I can't understand..."

"There are bad people in the world, my dear, dear boy." The fingers stopped, resting on his cheek. "The bad ones made me who I was when I met you. But there are good people too, like you and your family and even my father. And you are making me the man I am today."

Before he could think, before he could stop himself, Charlie shifted his head slightly so that his lips could brush across Wonka's fingers.

"Ah." Wonka went very still.

"I'm...I..." He tried to pull away, but Wonka caught his wrist and held him there.

"And now I'd like to tell you another story." Wonka's eyes were sparkling. "A happier story. I'd like to tell you about a talk I had this morning with your mother, and about a wonderful, delicious secret that she told me..."

Mrs. Bucket was in the kitchen, supervising the birthday preparations, when Wonka found her. He took a deep breath, folded his hands (gripping his cane so tightly he was sure his knuckles were white) behind his back, and approached her.

"I wonder if I could have a word with you."

"Of course." She dusted the flour off her hands and gave him a smile. "Oooh, you're so serious. Is this a 'let's go talk in private' word?"

"Yes. Please."

She gestured out toward the former lunch room, long ago redone to Oompa Loompa size. "Over there. We'll have some time before they start decorating here."

He waited as she perched on a table, standing in front of her, ramrod straight. "This must be very serious. Are you going to throw us all out?"

"Absolutely not!" Startled, he almost relaxed.

"What then? Come on. Out with it!"

"Mrs. Bucket..." He stared at a place just over her head and, wishing he'd had the nerve to commit the words to notecards that he could read, began the speech he'd rehearsed for days—weeks—now. "Today is Charlie's 16th birthday, which means he isn't a child any more. I want you to understand that I've never behaved in any improper manner toward Charlie, because of his age. But I've grown very fond of him—of all of you, but especially of him. And so...and so...why are you crying?"

She was crying, just as he'd feared she would, but, astonishingly, she was laughing too. "Mr. Wonka, are you trying to ask my permission to court my son?"

"Am I? I...I suppose I am. Asking if you think it would be all right...if you think he'd mind...if you would mind...I mean, I have no idea how Charlie feels about me, if he feels anything at all. Sometimes, lately, when I look at him, I think maybe he...but that may just be me being silly. Or eating too much chocolate. It can cause feelings similar to those of being in love, you know. So maybe I'm just—"

"Wonka," she interrupted.

"Yes?"

"Do be quiet."

He nodded and pressed his lips tightly together.

"Now..." She leaned back with a look of indescribable joy on her face. "I know a mother is never supposed to share a secret that her child has told her, especially if she promised she wouldn't, but I do believe the time has come for me to break that promise."

Charlie couldn't decide whether he should be afraid or happy that his big secret was out. "So she told you."

"Oh yes."

"And you...know."

Wonka smiled. "Yes."

And suddenly it was all clear. "That's why you told me the story about that horrible woman. You wanted to let me know that it might not be easy. That there might be problems we'll have to work through."

"Yes."

"You wanted to be sure I'm going into this with my eyes open, as an adult, not a silly besotted child."

"Yes."

"I'm not, you know. I know what I'm doing and I know what I want. I have for a long time now."

"Yes."

"Aren't you going to say anything but 'yes'?"

"Well..." Wonka's teeth flashed. "How 'bout...I love you, Charlie."

He laughed, with relief, with delight. "You're my birthday present, aren't you?"

"Actually, no. I bought you a car. A shiny red—"

Somehow they were standing, and Charlie silenced Wonka by doing the thing he'd longed to do for years. He slid his hands into the soft brown hair, tilted his head sideways, and leaned forward. His first kiss. And it was just exactly the way he'd always imagined it would be.

Sweet.