I really don't know if human words are sufficient for an apology. I'm HORRIFICALLY sorry for keeping everyone following this story waiting for so long. I'd promised this would be finished before 2017 and that obviously did not happen. I do feel terrible for keeping this on hold so I buckled down and finally finished the last chapter of Plague.
Unfortunately, writer's block did get the best of me so this chapter isn't as long and satisfying as I would have liked, but it kept all of my initial ideas for the ending so I hope you at least find it satisfactory!
That being said, this final chapter is dedicated to mad margaret, one of my first and best friends in both the DS community and online in general. She's been nothing but supportive of this story (even when I didn't deserve it) and a great individual all around. If not for her, this story would probably have been abandoned. MM, thank you!
Disclaimer: I do not own Dark Shadows
The story so far: Noir Valley is burning to the ground, everyone's either become part of an angry mob or come down with the plague, a literal demon is on the loose, and Barnabas/Chanson just had their one-on-one duel.
XXI. The Man And the Living
Dawn had arrived.
He was drowning. He felt as if he was weighted down by water, oceans away from the light above, pulled down by the ghosts of Collinsport as the cliff taunted him from above. The water surrounded him all around, clogging every airway. But he floated up regardless and swam.
Barnabas Collins took his first breath in the arms of Julia Hoffman. So long since his death, he took his first breath, a sharp pained gasp that tightened his chest and released.
"Barnabas!" he heard her cry as he gasped and gasped.
He clung to her like a lifeline. He felt lighter, heavier, head swimming as the blood pumped in and out of his veins. He was-
"You're alive," Julia said in awe, "Barnabas, you're alive."
He was breathing. He was living. The revelation still swimming in his head, he tilted his eyes upwards and saw Stephen Chanson stand, blood soaking the man's collar wine red.
"Not for long," Chanson said with a grin that failed to reach his eyes.
Julia didn't know whether to keep her gaze on Chanson or Collins, bruised arms still protectively wrapped around the vampire. Her vampire. But he wasn't that any longer. She saw the color return to his cheeks, the sweat that matted his hair as the blood rapidly pumped, and holding him then, she heard the steady beat of his heart.
But how ironic that his curse would leave now, now when they were at the mercy of an undeniable maniac.
"You brought the plague to me," Chanson said weakly, limping towards the pair with dripping blood, "you should have stayed in your damned Collinsport. Barnabas, Shadrach, Christian- I don't care who you are- I. Am. Not. Dying. Tonight."
As Julia pondered their options, Barnabas snapped out of her grip. He pounced on Chanson and the two slammed onto the ash-covered floor, rolling out into the hall and wrestling as they grappled each other's arms. Evenly matched. Evenly tired.
She saw Chanson reach for a broken piece of banister.
"Watch out!" Julia cried, climbing to her feet and fumbling for the fallen candelabra.
Barnabas barely slid away in time, Chanson staking the wood through his thigh. Collins released a shout of pain, the cry cutting through the air as Chanson laughed.
"Not so proud now, are you!?" Chanson screeched as he pulled the makeshift weapon out, that piece painted red.
He moved to strike again, but Barnabas caught his hand and the two again fought, grip in grip as their blood mixed with soot. And Chanson manor continued to burn around them, the demon's sparkling laughter echoing all around. Julia knew the adrenaline would put the odds in Chanson's favor- Barnabas was too disoriented now, too unused to a mortal's form.
She saw Chanson push Barnabas against the rail, trying in vain to shove that broken stake through the other man's heart. And perhaps he would have succeeded.
If not for her.
Julia stepped up behind Stephen Chanson, and channeling all her rage for him, his brother, and everything that had begrudged Noir Valley, smashed it clean over his head.
Then Chanson fell, the candelabra coming apart in Julia's hands, with a wheezed, "Hoffman…"
He slumped over Barnabas. Awkwardly holding Chanson's body, Barnabas eyed the man's many wounds, apparently at a loss for words.
"Is he-?" Julia asked.
"Then you should thank me, Barnabas."
"Thank you." He was on the verge of a smile when another voice spoke.
"And Stephen was so dear to me too."
The child. Paling, Julia watched Christian's shadow loom over them, his dollish features twisting into a saccharine grin as the fire reached its climax behind him.
"Now whose soul shall I take? Noir Valley's already up in flames."
He pouted before flashing another pretty smile. Barnabas pushed Chanson's corpse away and struggled to stand, Julia coming to his aid, both afraid to look away from the demon's gaze.
"The whore or the vampire?" Christian asked with a lick of his lips, "such a hard, hard choice. Maybe-"
That porcelain head was blown to bits, pink and red smithereens flying as the body fell. Jack stood behind him, half his face swathed in bandages, a glint of adrenaline in his remaining blue eye, and a smoking gun in his grip.
"So where's my thank'ye?" he asked.
"Thank you," Barnabas said, wide eyes still on the demon's melting body.
"Jack, how-" Julia cried.
"Mob's going mad out there. Left some blessed bullets 'round. I guess that helped, eh?"
And the undertaker grinned, too far gone to care.
"My hero," Julia said, mouth curving to return his smile.
From a distance, they watched the rest of Chanson Manor burn and Noir Valley along with it, its remaining inhabitants leaving town by the droves- those that had not been infected by the mob's madness. Barnabas wondered if Collinsport should have done the same, but that was all in the past now. Jack and Jessica were sitting in front of him, holding hands as they watched their home burn to ash.
"Does it hurt?" Julia asked, touching the wound on his thigh.
Barnabas looked at the stained bandage. And nodded. "Yes, very much. But I welcome it. This pain, I welcome." I am alive.
He took her hand in his.
"You could do anything now," she said, "go home, perhaps."
"I'm a dead man there. I have nowhere left to go."
Nor did he want to go. He looked down, meeting her green eyes. The color popped out against the flames. Fierce and beautiful. She'd never been so beautiful, then. And he'd been a fool for not realizing sooner, not until he'd nearly lost her, until they'd both been through hell and back. But he had a second chance now. And he knew very well what he felt.
Perhaps it was her serum. Or perhaps it was something else that set his dead heart beating. Perhaps both. Because he would never know.
"Julia," he said, with all the sincerity of a man alive in this life and the last, "I love you."
When the words left his mouth, he almost laughed. How long had it been since he had been happy? But he was happy now, perhaps for the first time since the bygone days of Collinsport, happier than he had ever been. He had lost everything, quite literally and nothing remained save the bloodied rags covering his skin. And yet he had this- he loved her.
"I love you," he said again, simply to hear the words in his ears.
And that alone was enough for him to think, I want to live. I shall live.
Her arms slinked around his neck, toes tipping so she could reach his height. He dipped his head and felt the warmth of her lips press against his.
"Barnabas Collins," she whispered, "say it again."
"Julia Hoffman, I love you."
"And I you."
Barnabas closed his arms around her and pulled the woman into a twirl. And furiously, he kissed her as she buried her hands in his hair. It mattered not to him that they were surrounded by ash and flames and dying madness. It mattered not that they were covered in soot and blood, and his thigh very much throbbed. As far as he was concerned, this was as lovely as a blue sky and singing birds, for this was his first dawn.
And everything else, he would think about later. Now, all he needed was her. His dawn.
"Took ye long enough," Jack muttered.
They let the remaining girls choose who to go with, their Madame or the undertaker. Jessica on his arm, Jack watched with one eye as Collins packed the wagon, Julia prodding his back. Sarah and two others were already sitting inside, petting the horse tethered at the wagon's head.
"So you stay a few days in Whiten and now ye get ready t'leave?" he said.
"People are talking," Julia replied, "though it's not them that we're leaving for. I- we think it's best to get as far from here as we can, far from Noir Valley. We'll try our luck west."
She put a hand on the undertaker's shoulder. "And haven't you always wanted to do the same, Jack?"
"Have t'wait for this to stop hurting first," he said with a grin, pointing at the fresh dressings around half his head.
"But I think you're handsomer than ever, dear," Jessica said tenderly, pecking him on the cheek.
"Isn't she sweet?" he laughed.
Barnabas finished tying together the last of their belongings, mostly food and blankets purchased with what remained of Wyndcliffe's savings. Julia looked the wagon over one more time.
"Take care, Jack, and treat my girls well."
Julia pulled him into an embrace before turning to Jessica. "And Mrs. Loomis, do take care of this fool of a boy."
"I will, Madame!"
Jack smiled, walking past both and stopping to clap Collins' back. "And you, be good to Julia. Or I'll blow your brains out too, ye hear?"
Barnabas shook his hand, pumping heartily. "I shall."
"We'll write, Jack," Julia said, climbing into the wagon, "so brush up on your reading."
"Goodbye, Jack… thank you, my friend." With that, Barnabas took his place by the Madame and grasped the horse's reins.
"Word o' advice!" Jack called, "Barnabas, don't act so much like a toff- get on the wrong side of a lot o' people that way!"
The wagon moved, its horse taking the first steps forward as the girls inside waved from within. Barnabas turned around to say a final farewell, Julia following suit, and the last thing Jack heard from them that year was merry laughter.
Jack Hollingshead Loomis,
We hope you and your lady are well. I heard about the wedding; really, getting into a brawl on your wedding day? But I take it, you won? I will not chastise you. Jessica knew full well the kind of man she married. That was the last of your incidents I know of.
I see you are still making money off the dead. The dead are still everywhere, though that must be good for your business. If the address is correct, then this letter should have reached New York- I congratulate you, my boy.
I apologize for not writing sooner. As you can imagine, we have had a hectic journey. I do not think I shall ever marry, but I have reason to believe Barnabas and I are tied for life.
Believe it or not, our once-vampire has quite a tan now. I would be lying if I said he was made for hard labor, but he is much better at it than you remember. We do not dwell on the past. All of it is but a ghost now.
And I hope your ghosts have also been laid to rest. Perhaps one day, we shall visit you. Until then, take care, my dearest Jack. And I hope you are as happy and he and I.
"Papa, who's it from?" the boy shy of four asked, brushing the sandy hair from his eyes as he bobbed along his father's lap.
"Nosy, aren't you?"
Jack ruffled the child's head as he read the letter over again, fingers tracing the eyepatch tied against his face. Julian played with the stubble on his chin and Jack swatted the son's hand away with a playful, "stop it."
"We hardly get any mail," Jessica said as she tended the fireplace. She rounded the small room and rested her hands on her husband's shoulders. "Is it-"
"A friend, a good friend," he said with a smile, "Julia."
"Madame," she gasped with joy.
"Mama, who is it?" Julian whined.
"Aye, it's a long story," Jack said, handing Jessica the letter and pulling their son into a hug, "tell ye everything when you're older."
"Wake up," a youthful voice said.
He obeyed. He clawed his way past the charred remains of Chanson manor, moonlight beaming down as the wind howled over the ruins of Noir Valley.
"I was most terribly wounded, you know," the voice continued, "and I do blame you for this."
He stood, mind a hazy black, unsure what that voice wanted but drawn to it all the same. Esther, Shadrach, Chanson. Johnson, Woodard, Lang. His brain was static, as scorched as the remnants of his home. Home. Loomis, Hoffman.
"Collins," he said.
"I'm not Collins," the voice said, "you know me. It's Christian, your dear friend Christian."
He was remembering, bit by bit. There was an ache in his neck, pulsating, pounding.
The demon offered a small hand, wrist dripping with blood, and stomach gnawing with pain, he obeyed. Fangs latched into flesh and he took his fill. Stephen Chanson had returned and his new master laughed, the promise of revenge between them as the ghosts of Noir Valley looked on.
Thank you for reading and again, I apologize for the long wait!
Thus, ends "Plague." I appreciated every bit of feedback I got and sincerely thank all of you for following this story. That ambiguous ending aside, everyone may or may not live happily ever after!