“It won't,” Vincent replied. His finger tapped out a message in her palm: Vincent to Catherine-Lake-I'll keep you warm.
Catherine grinned. “Well, when you put it like that, how can I refuse? Let me go upstairs and get some towels and...” A thought stopped her. “Vincent, exactly what do you swim in?”
“My fur,” he replied, smiling. “What else? We don't have swimming clothing below.”
Catherine felt her face grow warm at the image of Vincent rising out of the water, the water clinging to his long legs and.... “Sure. Right. Let me go upstairs and get the towels.” She ran upstairs to the bathroom and pulled out two of the largest towels, then ran back downstairs. “So, who taught you to swim?” Catherine asked as they walked down to the lake.
“Father insisted we all learn,” Vincent replied. “But he couldn't teach us himself; this was just after he became injured, you understand. So the boys were taught by Winslow's father, Simon. He was a good teacher, and after he was certain we knew how to swim safely, he tried to teach us how to dive. Devin and I were the only ones who liked the heights; we used to dare each other over who could dive the farthest.” Vincent chuckled. “We were never sure if Father knew or not, and to this day, I've never asked.”
“But you still dive there?”
Vincent nodded. “Oh, yes.”
Enjoying that image, Catherine smiled. “Will you teach me?”
“Yes,” he replied. “There's so much in my world I have yet to show you. Of course I'll teach you.”
“I'd like that.” When they reached the lake, the moon was full and silver overhead, sparkling through the trees and reflecting in the calm lake water. Vincent stopped and undressed, completely unselfconscious and unknowing of his own beauty. In the moonlight, he seemed carved of the silver light, something mythic and ancient.
She watched as he waded out into the lake until it was hip-deep. “Come on in, Catherine,” he rumbled quietly. “It's not that cold.”
Catherine undressed quickly and joined him in the water. He was right; the water was pleasantly cool on her shoulders and breasts as she waded out to where he stood. “Are you uncomfortable?” he asked.
“No, not really...it's warmer than I'd thought it would be.” She wrapped her arms around him and chuckled.
“What makes you laugh, my Catherine?” Vincent asked, nuzzling the part in her hair.
She tilted her head back to look up at him. “I'm just imagining what Father would say about now.”
He gave a short breathy laugh that lifted the fine hair on her forehead. “I must confess, Catherine, that Father's reactions are...not precisely the ones I'm concerned with.”
“Mmmm, no, I'd imagine not,” Catherine murmured against his chest. She ran her hands up through the soft, thick hair on his chest and shoulders and was delighted to see him shiver. “I'm sorry, are you cold?” Catherine asked innocently.
His breath was heated against her neck. “I've never been warmer in my life.”
“That's good,” she said as her hands drifted lower, to the warmth of him under the water. “I wouldn't want you to get sick.”
The feel of a slightly raspy tongue against her neck caused her legs to wobble. “Catherine, are you well?” Vincent asked, smiling against her chest.
Catherine laughed. “If I'm not, that's the best method of taking vital signs I've ever seen.”
His hands, warm and calloused, pulled her closer and she relaxed against him, feeling she might melt despite the late autumn temperatures. She had just begun to kiss his neck when she felt him stiffen. His hand clasped hers as his finger tapped out a fast message. Move behind me and stand absolutely still.
Catherine did as he asked; through their clasped hands, she tapped back. Why? What do you see?
Vincent tapped back a quick message. We are being watched.
Vincent rose to his full height, shielding Catherine with his body. The presence that he'd sensed off and on for the previous couple of days was back in full force and it watched them uneasily. He closed his eyes, shutting out all other impressions except his link to Catherine and the impressions from the watcher. Catherine waited, outwardly calm, but inwardly she was frightened; Vincent could hardly blame her.
The presence, though...that was something else. He reached out mentally and felt a blizzard of impressions, some born of instinct, some born of alien impulses and feelings that he couldn't fathom; he simply had no reference for them. Opening his eyes. Vincent signaled another message to Catherine. I am going to the water's edge. Do not move; do not flee. Stand perfectly still.
I will. What's out there, Vincent?
It means us no harm, but I must convince it to move on.
Catherine was bemused. How will you do that?
Vincent hadn't been proud of it at the time. He'd felt his ability was just one more unwelcome reminder of how much closer he was to being an animal, and he hadn't wanted to discuss the incident with Catherine when she brought it up. But now...Remember the dogs at the junkyard?
When we helped Tony? Vincent, this is an animal?
I believe so, yes.
And if you're wrong?
Vincent sighed. The memory of Spirko's hunt for him was still too recent for the horror and the pain of it to have faded. I have no other option. We're standing here naked in the middle of a lake, after all.
He felt Catherine's smothered laugh against his back. Good point. Just be careful.
Always, he tapped back and slowly moved to the water's edge.
Run fast? Wait?
Smells wrong. Smells not-human, not prey, not hunter.
Hunts. But not hunter.
Not prey. Not right.
Vincent left the water and walked onto the lake bed. He halted what he hoped was a non-threatening distance away and spread his hands slowly. No harm he thought to the animal, which sat on its haunches and watched him warily.
The moon had gone beyond the clouds and the gold eyes glowed much as he knew his own did in such limited light. Cousin, Vincent thought to the animal, this is no place for you. Father would have disputed it, would have argued that his son was no animal, but Vincent recognized that a variant of this cat's face looked back at him from every reflective surface. Whatever else he might be or might one day become, there was no denying what was literally in front of him.
No harm Vincent thought back. The cougar was winter-thin and likely had come out of the woods seeking prey only to be confused by the presence of something...other. And had been watching, trying to figure out what to make of something that was neither feline nor human, but both.
Place. Here? That drift of thought was sent with a barrage of protective instinct; Vincent thought the cougar was referring to territory, to a home range, but couldn't be sure.
Here and elsewhere Vincent responded, sending an image of the tunnel entrance.
Elsewhere is no place. Here is no place. Where is place?
Vincent closed his eyes briefly. He knew that feeling of being out of place only too well. He had no answers for the cougar. Place is...not here. Not for you.
The cougar's eyes narrowed. Place was here. Was all place.
Vincent tried to imagine that; a world where this cougar and others of her species had roamed freely. She was a phantom now, a being almost literally more myth than fact, a tall tale told around a campfire. Go now, Cousin. Take the others. You cannot stay here. The hunters will come when the snows leave.
The cougar's ears flicked back. Vincent took that as some sign of assent, though he couldn't have said how he knew. With one disdainful flick of her tail, the cougar bounded off into the night.
In a bare instant, Catherine was by his side, handing him his towel and clothes. “Vincent, are you all right?”
The breeze had picked up and the wind blowing off the lake was icy cold. “Yes, I’m … fine,” he said with a sudden shiver.
“Let's go inside,” Catherine replied, touching his arm with concern and love. Shaking off the lingering feelings of aloneness, Vincent followed her into the house.
“You sound a bit dazed,” Catherine said as they sat in the kitchen and nursed their hot cocoa. She touched his hand, noticing that it was returning to his normal temperature. “I don't remember you being this affected after you....contacted the dogs at the junkyard.”
Vincent shook his head. “I was, though at the time, I wouldn't have wanted you or anyone to notice. It's...difficult.”
Catherine looked at him closely. He'd regained most of his coloring and but the haunted look was what disturbed her the most. “Do you want to talk about it now?” she asked.
“I'm not sure I can explain it,” Vincent replied, curving his hands around the warmth of the ceramic mug.
“You didn't want to talk about it at all before.”
“No, I didn't.” Vincent took a sip of the cocoa. “I've had this ability over some animals as long as I can remember. Each time, it's a mirror. And sometimes, not a very flattering one.”
Catherine remembered the snarling dogs at the junkyard. “You're not like that,” she replied. “You must know, surely, that you're no more an animal than anyone else.”
Vincent placed his hand over her own. “Catherine, I know this. But I'd be lying if I said the experience wasn't disturbing.” He folded his hands. “The first time I knowingly used it, I was nine. I'd followed Devin and Mitch and some of the other boys.”
The thought of Mitch made Catherine's mouth twist involuntarily. “Above?” she breathed.
“Above,” Vincent said. “I think, looking back, it was a trap that Mitch had set to get back at Devin for some slight. Mitch said he'd found this new junkyard that was full of scrap metal we could use.” His fists clenched. “The junkyard was full of scrap metal, true. But it was also guarded by four of the largest dogs I've ever seen; later, Devin called them 'hellhounds,' which is probably as good a description as any.” He breathed out. “The dogs came; Mitch was safely on the other side of the fence, laughing. They were going to tear Devin and the others apart, and he just stood there, laughing.”
“Oh, Vincent,” Catherine murmured, picturing it clearly. Officials in two other jurisdictions were trying to link Mitch to some of their unsolved homicides and if they succeeded, they planned to bring him to trial if he ever became competent. There wasn't too much she would have put past him, then or now.
“I'd been hiding when the dogs rushed out. And I used my ability in front of them all to make them go away. We got back into the tunnels by bare seconds. If we had been seen, if any of us had been caught...”
“Father must have been furious,” Catherine said.
“He never knew,” Vincent said. “We had the good fortune to run into Winslow when we came back into the tunnels; he covered for us. I had to use my ability then to save us. But I also heard what was said afterwards, that maybe the reason I could talk to the animals was because I was one myself.” He took one last swallow of the cocoa and clasped her hand. “I'll never know what I am, truly, and I've come to believe that it doesn't really matter. But at the same time, it's impossible for me to connect with that cougar and not see myself.”
The lines around his eyes were tight and strained. “Headache?” she asked gently, remembering the endless days of Vincent's recuperation from the Silks. Father had been afraid to give him any pain medication at all, fearing Vincent's unique biochemistry.
Vincent nodded slowly. “Another side-effect, sometimes.”
She tugged at his hand. “Come upstairs, love. I'll read to you.”
He smiled up at her as they walked up the stairs. “Great Expectations?”
The echo of her long-ago words made her smile in return. What a long way they had come from that day. “Yes, it'll help.”
Click here for Chapter 14...