A few days of rest found Vincent, if not entirely well, at least well enough to resume his normal duties. Vincent had discovered early on that he enjoyed heights and he enjoyed climbing, and once he was sufficiently old enough that Father judged it was time for him to start learning the work of the repair crews, he had been assigned to the crew which repaired the pipes and monitored them for leakage.
Today was the first time since his fever began that Father had decided he was well enough to return. “Now, see here, Vincent,” Father said, his accent becoming more clipped as it did when he was worried, “you will tell me, won't you, if you're feeling unwell?”
“Of course, Father,” Vincent said, and immediately regretted it. He felt unwell each and every time his apparition appeared but maybe it was gone now and he wouldn't have to tell Father anything. He leaned forward and kissed Father on the forehead. “I'll be fine.”
“Go on, then,” Father said, brushing his bangs and barely, just barely, touching his forehead.
“I'm not sick,” Vincent said.
“I know you're not,” Father replied. “But be careful anyway.”
Vincent nodded, picked up his satchel of food supplies and headed out to meet Winslow in the corridor. “You up to this?” Winslow asked gruffly.
Vincent grinned up at him, noticing that the difference in their heights was a lot less than it had been. “Are you going to go up there by yourself if I'm not?” he asked wryly.
Winslow chuckled. “Now, that'd be fun to explain to Father. The pipe burst because my fat ass sat on it. No, I'll leave that to skinny types like you and David.” Winslow called ahead to David, who was zipping up the bag of tools. “Which one's causing problems this time, David?”
Tall, lanky David scratched his head. “The elder Pascal says it's the one in the linkage that leads near the storage room. If that one goes....” He didn't have to complete the thought; the storage room held all of their bulk foods, preserves and emergency rations.
“Where do the pipes link?” Vincent asked. He had an excellent memory for the physical locations of this world, but the pipes were Elder Pascal's pride and joy and no one knew them better.
“Elder says the linkage is above the Mirror Pool, about twenty feet up,” David replied.
And therein was the problem in pipe maintenance. David knew how to fix pipes, but he had no head for heights. Winslow didn't mind heights and had no problems making whatever tools were needed, but couldn't climb up to fix the pipes. This left Vincent, who could climb and who was light enough to sit on the highest pipes and fix them if he was walked through it. It was an imperfect system but had worked several times before; Winslow just hoped it continued to work until Vincent was as fully trained as David.
They reached the Mirror Pool and began laying out the tools, the rappelling ropes and the pipe diagrams. Winslow watched uneasily as Vincent suited up in their make-shift safety harness. If anything happened to him, Father would have his guts for breakfast. “Are you sure you're up for this?” he asked again, quietly, so David couldn't hear. David was new to the tunnels and Winslow was uncertain of how much he'd heard of the incident with Lisa.
Vincent's hands stopped fiddling with the safety knot in the ropes. “Winslow,” he said seriously. “I need to work. And this needs to be done.”
Remembering his own teenage tribulations, and recognizing that Vincent was doing his best to take up a man's part in this world, Winslow nodded. “Just be careful,” he said. “If you can't fix the pipe, come back down. We can always find another way.”
The glance Vincent threw him was darkly amused. “Right. I'm sure we'll get a plumber down here. I can just hear the instructions now: 'take the sewer tunnel all the way to the left, and straight on til morning.'”
Winslow chuckled. “Just get it done, Vincent.” He watched as the boy---no, young man---skittered up the sheer walls. Blindingly fast, it seemed he went up the walls without any searching for toeholds or hesitation in his path. “How does he do that?” David asked. “I've never seen anything like it.”
Winslow shrugged. “You want to know, you ask him. Let's get this job going; the sooner it's done, the sooner we can get back home.”
Vincent caught one of Winslow's makeshift wrenches in his left hand. “Got it,” he called down to them. One part of his concentration was on David's instructions; the other was split on the sheer joy of being able to climb openly. Father had always worried that Vincent might fall and hurt himself climbing, but Vincent never fell, and had been climbing for years without Father's permission or knowledge. It was a joy, and a pleasure, to be able to do it openly. I can help us and I can be...me. For the first time in days, the pain of Lisa was forgotten. She was in her world and he was needed in his. If he was no kind of man that a girl might willingly touch, he was at least useful here.
He crossed his legs under him as he shimmied further down the pipe, tightening down bolts that had come loose with the change of seasons and replacing others that needed replacing. He made a mental note to let David know the entire pipe would have to be replaced; it would hold with the repairs but one more season would see it leaking again. Father won't like that, not at all. But it has to be done.
“Forget about me, have you?” the silky voice said out of nowhere and Vincent felt the sick, crawling nausea again. Oh, no, not here. Not now. Please.
“I thought you'd forgotten. But I kept thinking that you wouldn't do that to us.” The apparition perched precariously on a nearby pipe.
“Why are you here?” Vincent demanded, hoping that the acoustics of this place wouldn't carry his voice to Winslow and David, twenty feet below.
“To remind you that she's still out there. Wanting us.”
Vincent shook his head. “She doesn't want us...me.”
His dark half smiled, showing all his fangs in a way Vincent never would. “Oh, but you're wrong. She dreams of us at night. You know...those kind of dreams.”
“What of it?” Vincent hissed softly. “I am here and she is there. So there is nothing to be done.”
“Vincent, you okay up there?” Winslow called.
Vincent cursed, softly and fluently, in words Father didn't know he knew. What if Winslow had heard? “I'm fine,” he called back. “I'll be down shortly.” He made a great fuss of tightening a bolt that was already pretty tight to begin with. Without looking at his dark alter, he muttered, “Look, is that all you ever have to say? That I should go after her? She left. I would have explained---”
His ears caught the unmistakable sound of a snicker from the creature across from him. “Explained what? That she'd taunted and teased us, that her scent was full of wanting, that even as she said no, her body was saying yes? Oh, I can certainly see how that explanation would have gone.” The dark one folded his arms. “If you want her to understand, then we must go Above. Find her and make her see.”
Vincent closed his eyes. Above was forbidden, Above was dark and dangerous and treacherous. Above was....
...where Lisa was. “I cannot,” he hissed.
Winslow's voice, urgent, now, called up from below him. “Vincent, David's hearing something on the pipes that he doesn't like. Get down, now!”
Vincent never ignored Winslow in That Tone of voice. Fleeing the dark creature, he scampered back down the pipes, just before a smaller, non-critical pipe ruptured in a hiss of hot steam.
“Boy, that was a close one,” Winslow muttered, once they were safely done. Elder Pascal had located where the smaller pipe linked in and had managed to shut it off before much damage was done. When it was cooler, Vincent and the others would repair it too, but now the main damage of the leaking pipe was fixed for the time being and they relaxed, knowing another disaster had been averted.
David had left already to get a meal from the Commons. “Hey, Vincent,” Winslow began.
“Yes?” Vincent said, throwing small stones into the Mirror Pool.
“I heard you up there, talking to someone. You okay?”
Vincent's heart skipped one beat, then two, then resumed its normal rhythm. Yes, why don't you explain that one? “I'm fine,” he said tersely.
“Uh-huh,” Winslow said, unconvinced. “Look, Vincent, I know what happened with Lisa. I know you two quarreled and she left. I've been there. If you want to talk---”
“We did not quarrel,” Vincent hissed, in a voice that was not entirely his own. “She teased. She left. That is all.”
Winslow felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. This was not the Vincent he knew, the child he'd seen grow up, the young man so eager to learn. This was someone much more...alien. And dangerous. The eyes were a darker blue, lacking their usual warmth, and in that sharp and feral gaze, Winslow saw nothing of his friend, nothing at all.
“Okay,” Winslow said, wondering how he'd explain this to Father. This is a lot more than a broken heart. “Okay.”
The hard part, as always, was finding Father alone long enough to have a private conversation. Every trouble, every minor detail, trounced its way through Father's chamber at one time or another, and Winslow was getting frustrated.
He finally managed to secure some private time by dint of ambushing Father after dinner, with some excuse of a matter in the forge. “So I talked to him,” Winslow said, not wasting time with preliminaries.
Father sat down heavily in Winslow's lone chair. “And?”
Winslow leaned up against the wall. “He's not well, Father.” And he related the events of the pipe repair, the conversation he'd heard Vincent having with someone who wasn't there.
“I saw something like that at breakfast last week,” Father admitted. “I had hoped it was merely the fever. But he was well when I sent him out this morning.”
“Yeah, he seemed fine to me too,” Winslow agreed. “Until I heard him arguing with shadows. What do we do now, Father?”
Father rubbed his eyes. “Keep an eye on him, Winslow. I'll see if I can get in contact with Peter Alcott. If you see anything more dangerous than a hallucination, please find me immediately.”
Winslow eyed him. “Vincent...you know how strong he's gotten?”
Father nodded wearily. “Yes. Anything more dangerous than a hallucination could be harmful...and not just to him.”
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2 months ago