"Hey Catherine,” Pascal's soft voice said from the doorway. “How are you doing?”
“Great, thanks,” she said, putting down her book and glancing over at Vincent. “What brings you down this way?”
“I thought I'd stop by. Zach's manning the pipes for a bit this morning and I make him nervous standing over him so...” Pascal shrugged. “I remember being his age and manning my first few shifts on the pipes. Nothing worse than having an old guy standing over your shoulder.”
Catherine smiled. “I felt the same way when I worked for my dad.” She gestured towards the empty chair. “Sit down if you want.”
Pascal sat down just on the edge of the seat, the pipes in his hands clanking against the wood. “How's Vincent doing?” he asked.
“Better now, since his fever broke last night,” Catherine replied. “Father will be in to check on him soon.”
“I'm glad he's doing better. I'd have come earlier but---”
“But you have to work, too. I understand, Pascal. And I'm sure he knows you're here.”
“I hope so,” Pascal replied. “I remember when we were kids, chasing after the older boys. He was stronger than the lot of them, even then, but so gentle too. He's been so strong for so long, and to see him like this...”
She nodded. “I know what you mean. But he'll recover. Father says so, and Peter. And we all just have to believe it.”
Pascal chuckled. “You sound like Winslow.”
Catherine smiled, remembering the gruff blacksmith. “I do?”
“Oh, yeah,” Pascal responded. “Of course, he'd say it a little different, probably something like---” and his voice deepened into a passable imitation of Winslow's baritone--- “Father's said it and Peter's said it, so that means it's so.”
Catherine laughed. The intonation, the phrasing, were dead on. “Pascal, how come I never knew you were a natural mimic?”
He grinned. “Probably because you haven't spent this much time down here before. We're all full of surprises. Just don't ever get into a poker match with Mary." He tilted his head, listening to a burst of pipe chatter. “That'll be Elizabeth, teasing Zach with her request for pumpkin vermillion spiced paint---just to see if he can handle relaying it.” He stood and banged out a quick message, too fast for Catherine to follow. “What did you say?” she asked.
“I told her,” Pascal responded, grinning, “that it's not nice to torture the new guy and that if she knows what's good for her, she'll settle down, else I'll have Mouse pick up some fuchsia paint for her next time. She hates fuchsia.”
Catherine smiled. Another brief message sounded out; she thought it might be Zach but wasn't sure. “Zach?”
Pascal nodded. “Yeah, probably wondering how to short-hand 'vermillion.' He must not have gotten my response back yet.” He stood. “I better get back before things get even more tangled up. If you need a break or anything at all, just bang on the pipes.”
“I will,” Catherine replied, watching him leave, realizing he'd assumed she knew enough pipecode to make such a request. She'd learned a good bit of it over the years, but her knowledge was taken for granted just like....just like one of them. And the thought warmed her immeasurably. The path between their worlds, once so fraught with obstacles, now seemed a little...clearer.
Father was her next visitor, accompanied by Peter. “I'm so sorry I wasn't able to get below sooner, Jacob,” Peter said.
Father caught Catherine's eyes and smiled. “We muddled through but I'd appreciate it if you'd examine him just the same.”
“Of course,” Peter said. “I've also brought down some more antibiotics.”
Catherine watched as he performed his exam. Peter finally pulled the stethoscope from his ears and smiled. “Everything sounds fine, Jacob. Heart sounds are good, lungs are clear and there's no sign of fever. I'd say his temperature is about normal, but I'll go ahead and put an antibiotic in his IV just to be sure there's no lingering infection.”
He didn't use a thermometer, Catherine noticed, then remembered that Father hadn't used one either. “I was just wondering...Peter, you don't use a thermometer. How do you know?”
“Experience,” Peter said. “But we haven't used a thermometer on Vincent since..when was that, Jacob? 1959?”
“1960,” Father said, automatically. “The year of our last big measles outbreak. Vincent was the last child to catch it that year, and the first one to utterly destroy a thermometer. He'd been running a high fever and I gather he didn't like having a strange object in his mouth. He bit clear through it.”
“And we're just lucky he didn't end up accidentally ingesting the mercury,” Peter said. “But anyway, ever since then...we've trained ourselves not to have to use one.”
“I imagine,” Catherine said, trying to picture what it must have been like for these two men to tend to such an unusual child. “So there are signs, besides feeling how hot he is, when he's having a fever?”
“Oh, yes,” Father said. “He doesn't get sick that often, but when his temperature is getting too high, he tends to get a pink tinge under his eyes. Did you see it yesterday?”
She nodded. “I didn't know that's what it meant; he just felt too hot.”
“Well, your instinct was right,” Father said. “He's a good three to four degrees cooler now.”
“And resting comfortably,” Peter said. “Which is what his body apparently needs.”
Vincent awoke on the side of a nameless path beneath the tunnels he called home. The faint smell of sulfur in the air caused the fur on his back to rise and his muscles to stiffen. He knew this place, very well...and the sight of the rock cairn told him his guess was correct. This was where they had buried Winslow after his death at Erlick's hands. It had been too dangerous to move him to the catacombs for reburial, and they'd had to settle, regrettably, for an empty tomb near Winslow's father as his monument.
“Winslow was a good man,” the Other said from just behind him.
The pang of grief had lessened somewhat with time, but it had never completely disappeared. Winslow, who had taken him under his wing after Devin fled; Winslow, who had never looked at him with fear or unease, not even after Lisa left; Winslow, who had never treated him as anything less than just another kid in the tunnels. “He was,” Vincent said, speaking through the sudden lump in his throat.
“And you couldn't have prevented his death either,” the Other replied. “You must know that.”
“I know that.”
“Your head knows it, but not your heart,” his twin said. “Vincent, we protect. It's natural to us...but Winslow went for his own reasons, reasons that were good and honorable. And...it's not easy to be the one protected, is it?”
“No,” Vincent replied. “It's not.” Something that had tugged at him since that day demanded a voice. “It was all so...pointless. Paracelsus could have killed us all easily. What was he really planning? I didn't know then and I don't know now...except that whatever it was, it wasn't worth Winslow's life.”
“No plan was,” his twin agreed. “You think there was some deeper plan at work?”
“I cannot understand it,” Vincent said. “If he'd wanted to kill me, he had at least a dozen opportunities on the way down to his lair. If he wanted to kill Catherine and destroy me, he could have done that easily as well. Why orchestrate this whole thing, then leave us both alive?”
“Perhaps...if you consider the whole thing as part of some larger scheme, it might make more sense. How did Erlick die?”
“You know how he died,” Vincent said, the rumble of anger in his words. “Must you force me to say it?”
“It's telling, I think,” the Other said, unmoved. “How did Erlick die?”
“I tore his throat out with my fangs,” Vincent said, feeling the taste of blood filling his mouth again.
“And that was the first time?” the Other prodded.
“It was the only time,” Vincent hissed. “You know that.”
“I do,” his twin said. “So...might this whole thing have been orchestrated to...instruct us, somehow? Paracelsus clearly intended that our friends should die. Catherine was threatened and nearly killed...and we were forced to kill in a way we never had before. It seems a trap, designed to push us over some mental edge.”
Vincent nodded. “But for what purpose?”
The Other knelt on the sand next to him. He drew a square with one sharp claw. “Father wants this half,” his twin said, gesturing to one side of the square. “He wants only to see the teacher, the scholar, the gentle man he raised and cared for, the protector of the tunnels.” The Other drew a line down the center of the square. Gesturing to the other side of the square, the Other continued, “Paracelsus wanted what he thought was the other side, the warrior, the primal beast who kills without thought or mercy. He might have thought that if he removed what he saw as our civilizing influences...that we would become the beast he always thought we were.”
Vincent sat back on his heels, rocked. Had that been what all of Paracelsus' machinations had ultimately been about---to reduce him to an animal state, the better to do...what? He shook his head. “It makes no sense.”
“Wait, you wanted logic from a madman?” the Other asked dryly. “This is Paracelsus we're talking about. It made sense to him at the time. Now what you have to do is decide what to do now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Catherine asked you to talk to her on the way back. She knew something was wrong and yet you didn't tell her everything. Why? Surely the mate is worthy of our trust.”
“Of course she is,” Vincent said. “But Erlick...how was I to confess that to her?”
“Don't fool yourself about what the mate doesn't know,” the Other said. “She was awake that night, remember? She saw us.”
The trip back from Parcelsus' lair had been unnerving to say the least. There was very little light and fear of retribution kept Vincent's nerves constantly on edge. Catherine's presence next to him only added to his fears---she was not well and needed rest and water, but they couldn't stop until he was sure they were both safe. So, hating himself for having to push her, Vincent had insisted on a quick pace until they'd reached the small cavern where Pascal had told him he'd stashed their camping equipment.
“We can rest here,” Vincent said. “This is too close to the inhabited tunnels for Paracelsus and his followers.”
“Oh, good,” Catherine said, sinking to the sand in a graceless, exhausted heap. “If I never have to move again, it'll be too soon.”
Guilt struck him---she'd been kidnapped by Paracelsus, nearly burned alive and then, he'd forced her to move faster in her exhaustion. Catherine's head came up and she stared him in the eye. Even smudged with smoke and dirty and sweaty, she was still the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. “Vincent. I'm fine. Or I will be. I didn't want to linger there either.”
His eyes widened slightly---did she know she'd heard his thoughts, that he hadn't spoken out loud?”I don’t blame you,” he said, wondering again at the strength of the bond they shared. “Sit. Rest. There’s a small river outlet close to here; I’ll refill our canteens.”
Catherine nodded. “Be careful, Vincent.”
At the water's edge, he filled the canteens and then---convinced he was out of her sight and hearing---was he able to rinse his mouth finally of the last taste of the giant's blood. The nausea twinged again at the memory of how he'd had to kill Erlick, but at least most of the taste was finally out of his mouth.
He returned with the canteens to find she’d wrapped herself in his cloak and had started a fire with the supplies Pascal had left. At his surprise, she managed a tired laugh and a wan smile. “I was a Girl Scout once, Vincent. If I can’t manage a fire with a cigarette lighter and some dry tinder, they’d probably take my badges away.”
Vincent laughed then too, and handed her a canteen. “Drink it slowly, Catherine. You don’t want to make yourself sick.”
“What about you? You haven’t touched your canteen.”
“I will…later. Are you hungry at all?”
“A little,” Catherine replied, “but I can wait if we’re short on supplies.”
“We’re not,” Vincent said. “Pascal left us some dry food—it won’t be much but it should feed us until we can return to the home tunnels, so long as we're careful in our rationing.” Tugging open a satchel, he unearthed some granola bars and a loaf of William’s traveling bread. “It's not a lot, I know....”
She took a chunk of the bread from him and a granola bar. “Vincent, to me this looks better than all the Thanksgiving feasts I've ever seen.” Catherine tilted her head. “What about you? Aren't you going to eat?”
He couldn't tell her that the food held no interest for him, not with the remembered taste of blood in his mouth. There wouldn't ever be words for something like that. “I will,” Vincent replied but made no move to eat.
There was no sound for a time, just the sound of their breathing, the crackling of the fire, and the metallic sound of the water sloshing in the canteen as Catherine drank. Vincent looked over to see her staring fixedly at the fire and realized how tired she must be. “Catherine,” he said. “Rest. Sleep. This place is relatively safe and we still have a long way to go to get home.”
“What about you?” she asked. “You've traveled a long journey, rescued me, fought for your life, and buried a friend. You need to sleep too, I'm sure.”
Though his muscles ached from the fatigue that had settled over him like a lead blanket, Vincent shook his head. “Someone has to stand watch.”
“Then wake me when you're tired,” Catherine said. “I know you're tired---you have to be.”
Vincent nodded, not wanting to wake her at all, but knowing too that he had to be awake to lead them home. Catherine stretched out beside the fire and was asleep almost before her eyes closed.
For a time, Vincent watched her sleep, the small, slim woman who had survived dangers that had terrified him. She was strong; he'd known that from the first moment she'd awakened in his chamber all those months before. But hers was a rare kind of courage, the courage to block their bond in the face of her terror...just to try and protect him. She was a miracle, and a wonder.
It was growing colder in the cavern as night fell and Vincent reached for his own satchel, intending to pull out another blanket. The distinctive iron-smoke-coffee tang of Winslow's belongings hit him, and Vincent realized he'd picked up Winslow's satchel, not his own. In a rush, all the strain and emotions of the past few days came over him again, things he'd had to avoid focusing on just to get them out of that hell hole alive---his terror at Catherine's kidnapping and the awful dead silence of their bond, the shifting of Winslow's cracked skull bones under his fingers, burying Winslow in the cairn and the funeral ceremony—too brief for the man Winslow had been----the second battle with Erlick, and Catherine herself, nearly burned alive by a madman.
It was too much to remember, too much to keep buried, and a sob escaped him and another one and then despite himself, he was gasping, trying to keep the sobs inside. Vincent started when he felt a small hand touch his arm. “Vincent, it's okay. I'm here,” Catherine said.
“Catherine, I'm...” he managed.
“Don't you dare say you're sorry,” Catherine said, pulling him closer. “Let me in, Vincent. Please?”
He clasped her hand, placing it against his heart. “You're already in,” Vincent replied, not fully realizing how true it was until he'd said it.
“Then tell me when you're hurting, Vincent. Don't go all noble and try to hide it.” Catherine tilted her head to look at him, the orange of the fire reflecting pinpoints in her green eyes. “It's not just Winslow, is it?”
Nausea rose again on the memory of the giant's blood in his mouth. “No,” he managed, “it's not...but I can't...the words...”
“Then don't,” Catherine replied, clasping his hand. “But...would you tell me about Winslow, what he was like? I wish I'd known him better.”
That, he had been able to do...and in the hour that followed before they both went to sleep, he had found some measure of peace in the retelling of Winslow's life.
“You never told her exactly what happened between you and Erlick, but she sensed it just the same.” His dark alter tilted his head, studying him. “Why didn't you tell her?”
“How do you suppose that would come up in conversation?” Vincent asked, spreading his hands so that the claws glinted in the dim light. “Think about it. Was I to tell the woman I love that I'd just killed a man...with my teeth? Like an animal?”
“Well, yes,” the Other said, ignoring the sarcasm. “That would have been a start. Even after all this time, everything we have seen together with her, you're still afraid to be weak with her, to lean on her.”
“Because there are some things I cannot share with her!” Vincent spat. “And she's already seen too much of what I am, what I can do. I can't make her a part of that.”
“Don't be an ass,” the Other snarled back. “Don't you think she already is? You've let her in, but you're still trying to hide from her. You can't have it both ways. The love you share means that you have to share everything, even the bits you don't like or wish hadn't happened.” The Other shook his head. “That overused brain of yours must be good for more than quoting odd Shakespearean bits. Use it. Don't shut her out.”
“It would be one more thing Catherine would have to overcome when she looks at me,” Vincent said, folding his hands so that the hated claws turned inward. “And I can't...I won't...do that to her.”
Vincent was jolted by a not-so-gentle cuff upside the head. He backed up against the rock wall, snarling and preparing to strike, feeling the Other's breath on his face as his twin came to face him, nose to nose. “You may think you're protecting her, but here are some home truths, Brother. For one, every time you don't tell her the full truth, or you retreat behind those mental walls, it hurts her. Because it tells the mate that you don't trust her. For another...the mate is a mature woman who knows her own mind. Did it never occur to you that Catherine likes how we look, that she finds us beautiful, even?”
Vincent shook his head and the Other sighed, stepping back. “And you're supposed to be the brainy one. We know her dreams. And in case you haven't noticed, she's not dreaming of us with a bag over our head. She loves how we look, and that includes the fangs that bother you and the hands you hate. All of us. All of what we are.”
“She claimed my hands as her own,” Vincent said, and the astonishment of that moment returned full force.
“Yes, she did. And Catherine meant what she said. Why can't you believe?”
“Because there is nothing beautiful in what my hands have done. That Catherine accepts me for what I am is a miracle---”
“But one you can't fully believe in yet,” the Other finished. “Catherine's love for you is like that mirror you've never hung in your chamber---it can show you who you really are and all that you can become. And you're afraid of it---afraid that she'll turn from you when she looks too closely into that mirror.”
“Yes,” Vincent whispered. There was no denying it, these revelations from a part of himself he'd always shoved aside and ignored before.
“It's understandable,” his twin said. “Stupid, and incredibly wrong-headed, but understandable. Look in the mirror, Vincent. See what she sees.”
Vincent nodded. “I will.” A mirror appeared on the wall, glowing brightly. It was the same mirror he'd struck at in his delirium in Catherine's apartment. He'd cut his hands on the glass, he seemed to remember, snarling at the image of what he'd thought was the Other.
With that image in his mind, he walked towards the mirror, heart in his throat. And stopped. “How can this be?” Vincent whispered.
The Other chuckled, a soft breathy laugh. “Don't make me say 'I told you so,'” he said.
Vincent stared back into the mirror, and the face that stared back at him, the face Catherine saw and loved...was himself. Nothing was smoothed or altered; the fangs were still there, sharp and lethal as ever, the feline muzzle, the split lip and the winged eyebrows arching over blue eyes. The face in the mirror was not that of a normal man, true, but it was the face of a man loved by a woman who never saw his differences as something to be overcome.
“Now that you know,” the Other said. “Don't forget. You can carry that mirror with you.”
The mirror disappeared; Vincent felt its small welcome heaviness near his heart. “I can. I will.”
Click here for Chapter 9....