I Had a Dream of Water
By Kay Starwell
Only in love are unity and duality not in conflict.
Water was for abstinence.
And abstinence was hard.
Some days, as always, were worse than others. But the thing Vincent knew, the thing he was certain of and never said to anyone, was that abstinence was hard.
“Hard,” of course, was a word that had more than one meaning for an ascetic. As, for that matter, did the word “abstinence.” It wasn't just from sex, though that was difficult enough. It was from almost any kind of close, intimate contact.
It had been easy, actually, for a while. Which was to say that the monkish life had not always been hard.
It had been blessedly easy, once. Easy, when the sight of Lisa's blood was still under his nails. Easy when, for months after, he swore he could still smell that blood, somewhere on his skin or claws. Even though he'd scrubbed both. Hard. There was that word again.
It had been easy, then, to deny he was male, almost. Demands of his body notwithstanding (and he was learning how to beat those into submission), he was an effective eunuch. He already denied he was a man. That too, was easy. He wasn't one.
Father, to be fair, had given no great speeches on the subject. Other than shouting "No, Vincent, no!" when he'd pulled Vincent off Lisa, then repeating, more softly, "just… just no," when Vincent had raised his arm to the old man. There had not been much more.
Subtle things, yes. All of it directing him one way. "That life... not for you, Vincent," Jacob had said once. He'd tried to say it with compassion. God bless him for that. He had tried.
Vincent, nude, stepped into the deeply chilled water. Because it was time.
This was not the thermally warmed water of the hot springs, nor the tepid to warm water of the bathing pools. It wasn’t even the cool water near the falls. This water was beyond cold, close to ice.
This water was for abstinence.
For more years than he could comfortably count, this was one of the ways he kept his body from making demands.
This was the device he used when concentration no longer worked, and distraction no longer soothed. This. There was little else.
The frigid water came from an impossibly deep wellspring, and pooled in what was an essentially a grotto. It was frosty in high summer, and arctic in deep winter. Or at least he thought he sensed a change in its temperature. Perhaps he simply needed to convince himself that this was not so severe a punishment some times of the year more than others. In the world Above, August was waning. The water had been worse than this.
Or perhaps he just needed to feel like he had some choice, regarding how and when to beat his body into submission.
His toes were already achingly cold, already feeling the grip of a glacier as it deftly climbed up his calves. His fur floated for a moment, and then clung, goose flesh already beginning on his arms. He hated this.
The pool was a natural depression in the rock, one that sloped slowly down from the sides. When he wanted the fast spike of pain rather than this slow torture, he dove in from a ledge that, if he jumped far enough out, let him hit near the deep center of the pool.
But that way, the icy drenching enclosed him completely, head and body, and he shivered for hours afterward, with a bitingly damp mane, and every inch of body fur a cold, wet mass. The hair on his chest was thick. It took a long time to dry, even in the cool of his chambers, much less the far chillier air down here. The frosty pool cooled the air of the cavern far lower than the customary sixty degrees or so. So he did not dive, if he could help it.
This, however, this wading in, was a slow and merciless torture. If a dive was a spike, a walk was a slow knife, cutting off his circulation with every inch. His calf muscles screamed a warning of protest. His toes, always in the bitter bath the longest, would begin to cramp and tighten before long, as the abused muscles in them fought to hold on to his body's warmth.
He walked in further.
He'd been with her more often than usual, lately. And he’d been thinking of her both more frequently and with less restraint. Both were often the harbingers of a trip to the wintry water.
He'd never given this cavern a name, though he'd thought of several for it. It had been The Centering Pool when he was in his late teens and early twenties, from a practice he had picked up from a book. He mostly called it The Grotto, though it became The Punishment Pool as his twenties ripened a body whose urges became more predictable, if not more strident.
Now, after meeting Catherine, the names of this place were useless references. He tried to keep calling it the Centering Pool; although recently he’d thought even Punishment Pool was too mild a description. He’d recently begun thinking of it as The Torture Chamber. He tried not to think of it in those terms. He tried.
She did not understand when or why he left, from time to time, and why he was often gone as long as he was.
This was part of it, sometimes. Sometimes the mental disciplines were enough. Sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes sleep gave no peace, and dreams gave no respite, neither here, nor above. Sometimes the distance gave no solace. Sometimes he couldn’t count from one to ten without thinking about her. When that happened, there was nothing left but… this.
He had to be able to center himself again, or he could not be near her. It was as simple as that.
His knees trembled a little as the frigid water closed around their backs. God, it hurt. More today, it seemed, for some reason.
Not for the first time, he wondered where the source of the water was. He wondered why even the Nameless River didn't seem this jaggedly polar. Wondered where the water broke above ground someplace else, a thing it likely had to do, if he detected a change in its temperature, summer to winter.
Perhaps there wasn't one. Perhaps he was imagining it. Perhaps he needed to.
Thighs like tree trunks were going under water, and his step slowed, knowing that the closer the water came to his sex, the more it was going to hurt. He could stop, of course, and stand, avoiding. But that would only prolong the agony for his toes, feet and calves. One time he'd spent better than twenty minutes trying to massage a cramp in the arch of his foot away, after. Cold, wet, shivering... it had taken him a long time to begin the walk back home. His calves would wake him up as he slept, screaming from a charley horse that would not abate, later. He’d walk with a subtle limp tomorrow. Probably.
Legs too hirsute to belong to a normal man looked even larger in the water, as the spreading hair seemed to give his body more volume than it had, naturally. Each slow step toward center made the hair (Fur. It was fur. Men had hair.) sway with the movement of his walking. There was no current here. At least, none he could detect.
Nordic water was still, it seemed. This cold hell was an almost somnolent thing. It was quiet in here, save for the noise of his progress. He held his breath and then breathed shallowly almost from the moment his foot hit the water. The body’s natural reaction to stress.
He was having a few of those.
His testicles gathered at the warning sign of cold. Vincent thought it insanely ironic that the only other time they did that, he was nearing orgasm - the kind brought on by wet dreams and, occasionally, waking ones. Self-gratification seemed ... undignified. But lack of it made the night dreams unavoidable.
This was not about that, however. At least, this was not about only that.
This was about wanting simply…more. Wanting her. Wishing there was a way, and knowing there wasn't. Wanting to be near her, and stay, sex or no. Wanting to have that right.
When the wishing became foolhardy, and the daydreams too tempting, and the night dreams began to make some strange kind of sense - he knew it was time for this place. Time to beat his reluctant form back into the submission he needed, so he could be near her again.
He'd been away for three days just to reach this grotto of icy reprimand. He'd be gone another four or five more on the slow trip back. Going “down” was always easier than climbing back up. At least he would feel more at peace on the way back. Hopefully.
Liquid more merciless than death climbed over the mid to high part of his thighs, now, and his toes already tingled a warning. Best to be done, soon, and no mistaking. One time, he'd taken much too long to make the final steps, and an agony of ice had raced up one leg, all but binding his Achilles tendon. He'd had to half limp, half swim his way out, soaking his torso in the bargain. It had been a miserable time.
No! His body screamed, as the inevitable moment approached. Just, no. Those were Father's words. Father's words to him. Now, it seemed as if his body was begging for a reprieve, begging for mercy. His sex had been unavoidably bothering him lately, partially nudging him toward her; it still was. Vincent knew this phase. Knew it was why the trip here was necessary. Catherine was in his blood, and like anybody possessed of something incurable, he needed either a remedy, an incision, or an exorcism.
A remedy wasn’t possible. He was what he was. Whatever that was. He knew he was not like her. And he loved her in a way that was growing increasingly… hard. That, too, would not stop. An incision was not possible either.
The exorcism seemed kinder. Though make no mistake, there was about to be a cutting sensation on his privates. On his privates, if not on his entire psyche.
This was not about being “bad” or “evil.” He knew full well the demands a body made on itself. This was about being in control of those demands, so he could maintain the delicate balance he and Catherine had established.
He shivered with both dread and understanding, if not with cold. He mentally prepared himself to make the hard choice, the only comfort in knowing at least that it was “choice,” still.
Ice water was ice water, and there was no longer a gentle way to do this. With years of practice, he'd tried. He could now simply continue to walk in, or just flex his knees and drop, taking the water up to his lower abdomen, gasping.
His fingertips trailed the water, claws already in. It was time to face what was inevitable.
He stood for a moment, immersed just short of where the still-pendant weight bore his testicles down. The part of him that made the things that made babies. Children he would never have. Not with anyone; certainly not with her.
Catherine's beautiful face swam before his eyes, and he knew that it was for that reason he must do this. He was beginning to not just detect the differences in her normal scent but to scent her. To be able to tell what time of the month she was in; to be able to know when her pheromone’s lure all but beckoned to him, and when it didn't. There was a siren's call in her body's cologne, had she but the understanding to realize it.
Her bond sang to him when he felt like this. A brushing, teasing tickle across his consciousness. Sometimes it was a thing he sensed far more often than usual. Sometimes it was a thing he had to consciously block, so he wouldn't feel it every second of every day. Like now. The animal in him was calling to the animal in her, in a primal way. Or perhaps it was the other way around. It didn’t matter in the long run. The result was the same.
He was too in love with her. And as much as that sentence didn't make sense to him, it did. Too in love with her. Becoming too obsessed. He had to tone it down, dim its burgeoning insistence, take it back to levels where he could manage it. He had to.
He could hurt her, if he didn't.
And then he'd lose her, forever.
A part of him still screamed in protest at what he was about to do. A part of him railed, and riled at it, and implored him not to, shouted at him to go to Catherine. Begged him to plead with her for understanding, as he told her all he felt, and all he wasn’t, and all they couldn’t be.
Fingers in the water, nearly to the palm. Not fingers. Claws. And it was always this unbearably, punishingly cold. Anything else was just a fairy tale he told himself to get himself this far. He knew it. This water had never seen the light of day.
It was a lot like every passion he had, that way.
You could touch her. Stroke her hair. Kiss her, just that, just kiss her. You don't have to do this. His mind tried to make a bargain with his body. This too, was common.
But he knew what kissing led to. Knew the subtle touches she'd been giving him as her body whispered its needs to him. He knew those whispers were hints, and prodding ones, at that.
Knew that, eventually, either he would want more, or she would. Hell. They both wanted more, now.
He looked down at his shriveled sex, still too impossibly large, even in its dread of imminent immersion. He inhaled, and held the breath.
Fists clenched, head up, bend the knees and... Scream. Long.
Hold himself down... stay... stay... stay... and wail the despair of decades at the uncaring stones and water. His abdomen tightened, hard, as the glacial water claimed it. The muscles in his thighs trembled a warning. He’d taken a long time to get in. Too long, perhaps.
The breathless agony of the water abated to something slightly more bearable, as he became as used to it as he was going to, and as the most sensitive part of his body, the one with a million screaming nerve endings, swore it would remind him he was male, no more.
He turned and stood, punishing himself just a little more for good measure with a slow exit. He would will his knees to continue to bend as he removed his form from the pool. He would.
Heat on his face then. Just a little.
Two hot tears of regret coursed down his cheeks.
I'm sorry, Catherine. I am so sorry. You have no idea how much.
His huge form was still to the point of unmoving statuary. Only the wind catching at the red and gold hair that stuck out from under the hood was moving, and only that, barely.
She would have missed him entirely, had she not been looking for him.
Fourteen days. No. Fifteen. Fifteen, because she remembered that the last night had been a Tuesday, and had been circled on her calendar for some weeks. A retirement party for a good friend of her Father's. An old judge who still remembered hearing Charles Chandler try one of his first cases, back when Charles still did that, more often than not.
Catherine had grown up knowing Bernard Prentiss and his wife, Emily. She'd spent a summer at camp with their daughter Michelle, and had ridden the Judge's prize Arabian, Temperance. He was leaving the bench and taking up golf and photography with his wife, “while I can still see to click the shutter,” he'd joked.
Catherine had dressed for the occasion.
The special night had deserved a special gown, and Catherine knew she’d looked stunning in a midnight blue sheath with a halter-style top and a matching wrap trimmed in blue fringe. Caroline Chandler's pearls glimmered softly at her ears, and her upswept hair had made her neck look almost impossibly long and delicate. Heels had been a must for a gown with a long hem but a kick pleat in the back. Her evening clutch had been vintage, her makeup classic. The hairstyle had called for several curls to be pulled down, framing her face near her ear. It covered her scar, for the most part, though Catherine had long since learned she didn't care about that.
She'd wanted to look her loveliest for the occasion. She thought she'd succeeded.
Vincent had come to her balcony, just as she'd prepared to depart. He'd stared, openly, as the doorman downstairs had rung her apartment to tell her the cab she’d ordered had arrived, and was waiting. The look on his face had been... fathomless.
She'd smiled at him, softly, knowing she had no time to spare him much more than a loving touch. She brushed his cheek, gently, with manicured fingertips. It was all he would allow, so it was all she would offer. She drew the moment out as she applied perfume to her wrist, catching the warming in his eyes as she rubbed her wrists together, spreading the scent.
He held himself very still. He often did, when she looked her loveliest.
Knowing the cab was waiting, she bid him good night as she reluctantly rushed out the door. Her life beckoned; she did not want to be late. Not that staying longer would have made any difference, one way or the other, in what was to come next.
Somehow, she knew she wouldn't see him the next night. Or the next.
By the time three nights turned into five, she knew what this was. This was that thing he did, that “time apart” thing that he did, when he felt he needed it. No note, no message, and she knew even before she went Below to check, that he'd told them no more than he'd told her. He'd simply packed a hiking backpack, said he would be gone “for a while,” and left.
Jacob, like Catherine, was becoming accustomed to these jaunts, though by the look on the old man's face, the senior Wells didn't like it much more than she did. Father, as always, was concerned for Vincent’s welfare. If he travelled below the pipes, there would be no way to know if he was in trouble.
It would be the cruelest kind of irony if he came to harm in the very place that was supposed to keep him from it.
There was nothing she could do but go back Above, and wait.
So she had done just that.
Now the wait, it seemed, was over. Or was it? He hadn’t knocked on the pane, hadn’t called attention to himself in any way. Had she not happened to glance out the French doors – something she’d been doing off and on now for many nights – she might not have even noticed him standing there. She did not remember the last time she’d seen him look so… remote, though he stood right there.
She pushed the doors open. "Vincent? How long have you been out here?"
At first, she wasn't sure if he was even going to reply.
"Not long," he'd answered finally, his hungry blue eyes taking her in. He was starved for the sight of her. And dreading her censure.
"Did I do something to upset you?" she asked. "Or is that a useless question?" She tried hard to keep any note of accusation out of her voice.
"I don't even know how to answer that any more, Catherine."
She stopped her advance toward him. Every line in his long form looked beaten, looked... borne down by something.
He’d been gone nearly twice as long as he planned. He still felt off balance, and without peace. He did not know why. He just knew that it was.
Catherine didn’t know what was wrong either, not specifically. But in general, she did. It was them. Something about them. Something about them was hurting him. No, not hurting. Wounding. Killing, even, if you went to the extreme.
"Can you tell me how to help?" she asked him, praying he had an answer.
"If I did... you know I would say it," was all he offered.
He stood only a moment longer, then disappeared.
She waited two more days, tempted to wait three, before she decided to go Below again. Whether it was two or three would make no difference, she knew. Whatever it was, the peace of the long journey had not helped him this time. Perhaps they were past the point where it could. She didn't know. She only knew that whatever it was, they wouldn't solve it by either avoiding each other, or by pretending nothing was wrong and that time apart would set things to rights. That, too, was a thing they were past, it seemed.
What was in front of them, however, was not quite so clear.
She went through her basement entrance after a late night at work. She didn’t want to cut through the park in the night hours, but knew it now meant she had the longer walk around to reach him.
She wasn't sure if he even sensed her approach right now, given the tumultuous state of his emotions. The fact that he wasn’t “there” to greet her meant he either hadn't sensed her coming, or didn't care that she was. She wondered if he was even now travelling down some dark passageway, headed for some hidden place, to avoid her.
It was a testament to how insecure they were becoming that she thought that a possibility.
The tunnel that led to his chamber loomed, to her left.
He was sprawled across his bed on his stomach, arms folded, his great leonine head resting on them. His loose tunic of a sleep shirt had ridden up near his waist.
He was motionless, and at first Catherine thought he was asleep. But he moved slightly at her entrance into the room, though he did not rise to greet her.
"What? Can you tell me?" she asked, as if this were just the next day after the party, or at least the next night after the balcony.
He shrugged a little, and turned his head. When he began to speak, he kept his voice low. "At first... when we were new… Love felt... different than this."
She could see him searching his memories, remembering their beginning.
"There was a wondrousness to it; a lightness. It ... made me both happy and unsure at the same time."
"It doesn't do that anymore?" she asked him.
"I'm not sure what it does. I know I need it like breathing. Need you like air. But...“ The pause was a short one.
“Why me, Catherine? Why, of all God's creatures, am I forbid… everything?"
She could see the look of despair in his eyes. The look he’d been trying to spare her from, as he stayed down here.
He hated self-pity. If he had a virtue, it was that he refused to indulge in it. Now it seemed like he was swamped with it. “The future torments me. The past gives me no comfort. And the present is…” He shook his head. The present is intolerable. Hard.
She knelt near the bed.
His voice was as woeful as his expression. Whatever this trip below had brought him, it had not brought him solace. He kept his voice low. "I leave because I think of reaching for you. No, that isn't true. I leave because reaching for you is the only thing I can think of." He closed his eyes tightly. When he re-opened them, blue eyes full of loss met hers.
"I know what it is to love you." They were the words he had given her when Michael had crashed into their lives. "But it is … more, now. It rings truer in so many ways. It feels like something both deeper and broader than it used to be, and I don’t even know how to explain that. Especially considering it has every limit that it ever had."
“You deserve a life with no limits.”
“There is no life without limits!”
Well, that was true, at least. Limits. They'd discussed those, too, when Michael's kiss had happened. Or at least they'd acknowledged them.
"Vincent.” Her voice caressed his name. “Whatever this is, whatever this ... sadness is that has hold of you, please don't let it be because of me. And if it is... please don't try to bear it all alone." She grasped his large, hair-covered hands in hers and squeezed.
He shut his eyes against the wonderful feeling of physical contact with her. "You do not know all the things I would give to be a man for you, Catherine."
She drew his hands around so he turned, facing her slightly. She kissed his hands and chose her next words very carefully. "And if I said I wanted you to give up nothing? Change nothing? If I said I ... think of us... just the way you are?"
She settled on her knees near the bed, still keeping hold of him. She moved one hand near his shoulder, just so she could touch his arm.
"This despair you feel. Is it because you see no future for us? Or see it limited, as it is right now?"
He nodded his head subtly.
She laid her head on the mattress, keeping near his.
"If I said... I do see a future for us. That when I look at my future, you are always there. That we are always there. If I tell you I already make choices based on that. That my dreams are there... Does it help at all? Or does it hurt?" she asked. She rarely spoke of the dreams she had for them. It seemed kinder that way, sometimes.
Her shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. "Another job offer came my way a few weeks ago. Not like Providence. I wouldn't have to move. Setting up a division. Working with women who've been attacked or victimized. Joe thought I would be interested, considering my history." She shook her head. "It would have meant working mostly at night, rather than the day, since that's when that sort of thing tends to happen, and for women who work, evening is when they're available for services."
Her thumb rubbed against the back of his furred hand. "I turned it down. It would have meant we saw much less of each other. Night is the only time you can come to the balcony. And while I could have come down below more, I suppose, that's riskier in daylight. There were other reasons to turn it down, and pass it on to the woman who eventually took it. But those were my main ones."
She hadn't mentioned it. She'd simply... rejected a choice she might have taken, had he not been in her life.
"I seem to not be the only one of us who is making decisions alone," he told her without reproach.
"I know.” She loved being near him, and that they were talking, quietly. “My point is, I did it because I see a different future for us. I'm not sure I know all of the particulars. Sometimes I'm not sure if I know any of them, other than you and I are together."
"I didn't used to ... want you... like this. It's like it's growing intolerable, Catherine," he said, with an embarrassing dose of honesty. If she wanted them to share their problems, well, there were his. "It's not that I expect you to do anything about it," he hastened to add. "Just that I am having a hard time... finding my balance again."
Balance. The delicate thing he seemed to live by. Balance between the world Above and the one Below. Between all he couldn't have, and the little he could. Balance between the demands of his father and the wants of his love. Balance between the scholar and the warrior that screamed in his breast. Balance.
He'd felt without it lately. And it was wearing on him. Clearly.
"Vincent, if I asked you to tell me how you felt when you were away in just one or two words, could you?"
"Frustrated." That was easy.
"And now that you're back?"
The ice of the pool had done its job, for the most part. But in its place was an empty feeling. Not peace. Sorrow.
"Bereft. But I do not know what it is I have lost, Catherine."
Didn't he? Wasn't this constant beating of himself by himself taking a predictable toll?
She slipped away from him, carefully. He let her go. More bereft, now.
"Vincent, I want to do something, to... just touch you. If you don't want it, if it frightens you, if it annoys you or makes you unhappy, I will take my hand away. I won't touch you anyplace... odd. I just ... Will you let me?"
He already missed the sensation of her hand in his. He nodded slowly as she turned him back the way he’d been laying when she’d walked in.
He was lying on in his stomach. His back was available to her. She had often slipped her arm around his waist when they stood on the balcony together. She did so again, for a moment, simply placing her arm around his broad back.
Then, she placed her palm where the fabric had ridden up, slightly, on one side.
"Mmmmm." He groaned it into his arm, then shushed himself.
She could feel the heated flush of his skin’s reaction, beneath her palm. Moving it beneath the loose fabric, she kept her hand against his side.
"Don't stop." He surprised both of them by saying it. "Just a few moments ..."
"Shhhhhhhh," she soothed, running her palm under more of the shirt fabric until it rested at the center of the small of his back. The loose white muslin was easy to maneuver under. "Shhhhhh. I've got you," she whispered, placing her other hand against his broad back. The waistband of his sleep pants defended his modesty, while her hands simply roamed across the strip of flesh on the small of his back, and his sides.
Touch. Just that.
"I can feel you against my skin," he sighed, letting a ton of tension flow into the mattress, and out of him. Catherine realized how rarely they actually touched skin to skin. He often offered her is arm, when they walked, or clasped her shoulder. They both wore gloves, regularly.
His back was less hirsute than his front. And while there was hair there, it was easier for her palms to reach the more bare section of his torso. She smoothed the lay of the sparse hair there back and forth.
“Does it bother you when I do that?” she asked him.
He wasn't quite sure what she meant by “bother.” This felt divine.
"I like anything that gets you closer to my skin," was all he told her, turning his head back to the stained glass wall, as she simply maintained the rhythm she’d been using.
He sighed again, and she felt his great weight sink further.
"Don't stop.” She swore she heard the catch of tears in his voice.
"You don't have to... do anything, just... don't stop."
Catherine realized she had probably located the one part of his body he found the least objectionable. Either because he couldn't see it, or because he could feel that he was less hirsute there, he seemed utterly content with where her hands were.
She knew he'd spent a loving childhood below. That between Father, Mary, Devin, and a cadre of loving adults and children, he'd been hugged, held, talked to, sung to, read to, and loved. It was obvious in his own loving nature, his ability to give love to those around him.
But she also knew his one attempt at a more physical and romantic kind of love had ended in complete disaster. And though he embraced her often, and warmly, that their touches did not go further than that.
Touch was necessary for human happiness. Study after study had shown it, linking its absence to everything from aggression to depression to high blood pressure to just plain sadness.
Was part of what he was going through now the simple fact that his abstinence was having an almost predictable effect?
"When I had a bad dream, my mother used to come in my room and rub my back," she told him, making small circles.
He spread out the arms he'd been resting his head on, just slightly, and relaxed his head into the pillow. He was not craving a mother's touch from her. But it would do. He banished images of the cold grotto. Whatever happened, he knew he was done subjecting his body to that kind of punishment. This was bliss. If it was all he could ever have, then so be it.
"Feels good," he mumbled, just letting the strain of the previous weeks go as she moved her hands up, a little, to touch more skin. Even then, the soft shirt stayed down, decently covering him. Her hands felt like a balm to something inside him that had been battered, yet unnamed. She was here. She was touching him. It was enough.
And then, immediately and suddenly, it was over.
"Vincent,” Pascal’s voice came through the door a moment before his slight body did. "Cullen says there's a--"
But none of them ever found out what Cullen said.
Tightly coiled tension returning to his frame immediately, Vincent all but leapt up from the bed, snarling (snarling!) his displeasure at the unwelcome intrusion. Catherine snatched her hands away on reflex. Pascal got the odd eyeful of that, and backed out toward the doorway.
"Sorry! Sorry, I'm so sorry! The drape wasn't down!" He hurried back down the hallway the way he'd come, his retreating footsteps making a quick tattoo on the stones.
No, the drape hadn't been down. And Vincent realized it probably wouldn't have mattered, if it had been.
He was furious. And bereft, again, as much for the interruption as the fact that Catherine's hands were no longer on him. He wanted to swear. Ripely. He roared again instead, a man’s scream inside the beast’s protest.
"Put your boots on,” Catherine told him, when he was done.
"Why?" He was still more than half angry as he glared at the doorway, ready to fight.
"Vincent, I need you. And I need you to trust me. We keep trying to snatch some sort of life with each other ten or fifteen minutes at a time. An hour or two, when we're lucky. Please. Just... put on your boots and follow me. We're not going to my place," she clarified.
Her eyes were steady, and worried.
He yanked on his boots. Stepped behind his wardrobe door and changed into shirts and a vest, as well. She gave him the privacy of her back. He saw her pluck a book of poetry off his shelf, then another, tucking them into her bag. He was still good and annoyed by the time he rounded the wardrobe doors and stood once again in front of her. She could see it. He was pumping adrenaline. It was something she could use.
She nabbed his cape for him. "Come with me," she told him, tugging his arm forward.
It was either follow her or yank his arm back. He followed. He wanted to. Wanted to think she had some kind of help for this. Doubted that she did.
They walked through one passage, then down another. Rapidly. The exercise gave Vincent time to burn off some of his anger, and regain his composure a bit.
"I should apologize to Pascal," he told her, after several minutes of walking. He took his cape from her hands, and donned it.
"Tap him a message on the pipes, then," Catherine said tersely. She did not slow her stride. A few minutes later, they reached the hub.
"Peter Alcott's house has tunnel access. Which way?" she asked him, losing her sense of direction this far underground.
Vincent indicated the path to her right, curious as to why she would want it.
Peter's home was a modest two-story brownstone several blocks off the park. It was expensive, renovated, and more importantly to Catherine, currently empty. She knew, because Peter's keys jangled in her purse as they walked.
"Why are we going to see Peter?" Vincent asked, as her uncharacteristically rapid stride seemed to match his longer one with no trouble.
"Peter's in Cincinnati. Medical conference."
Ah. So they were...
"Catherine?” He tried to slow her, tried to bring her under the control he was used to seeing from her.
"No.” Her hand sliced the air, and he realized for the first time that she was as agitated as he was. "If we go to my apartment, we'll sit on the balcony, and then you'll leave when it starts to get too cold or too late. If we stay in your chamber, we'll be interrupted again."
They'd walked rapidly. The narrow passage led to an access tunnel which ended at a ladder. It did not look too dissimilar from the one that marked Catherine’s own.
The tunnel access to Peter's basement waited, less than a hundred yards in front of them.
"Please, Vincent? Please? Just... we need someplace to be. Your chamber doesn't work. My place doesn't work. Can we try?"
He wasn't even sure what she was asking for, and yet he knew he couldn't deny her.
She closed the distance and climbed up, but needed Vincent to open the trap door enough to slide away the heavy chest that covered it.
In a few minutes, they were both inside Peter Alcott’s basement.
"Living room. Wait here. I'll make sure the blinds are pulled."
Vincent stood down among Peter's cast-offs and his furnace, while Catherine did as she said she would.
After a moment, she motioned him up the narrow stairs.
They creaked, and his hand slid up a rail worn smooth by years of use. Climbing up. It seemed like he was always climbing up, to reach her.
She'd left the rooms mostly dark. A soft light over the sink in the kitchen and a low lamp in the living room lighted his way. He wondered if she did that to avoid detection or because she knew he was more comfortable in low light. It didn't matter. She was taking huge throw pillows off Peter’s leather couch and tossing them on the floor. A wide plaid blanket from the couch's back was already there.
"You think Peter will not mind this?" he asked her.
"He gave me his keys," was all she offered by way of a reply. She indicated he was to lie down on the thickly carpeted floor. He felt his own hesitation. So did she.
"I just want us back where we were. But someplace where we won't be interrupted," she told him.
Vincent nodded. He knew this room, though he'd been in it only two or three times before. Certain rooms in helpers' homes were not unfamiliar to him. He removed his cape and spread out on the blanket, pulling pillows that were nearly the size of the back of the couch under him. He'd missed the touch of her hands almost from the moment he'd snapped at Pascal.
"We could have gone to your apartment," he told her.
"You don't come in to my apartment. Not when you're feeling this way."
He realized how right she was.
He settled his head on his arms again, wondering if this was about to feel like something foolish. Perhaps the moment had been lost, between them.
It hadn't been.
The moment she placed her hands back where they'd been, Vincent released a breath he'd not been aware he'd been holding. Warm. Small. Her hands were beautiful, and well kept. He was starting to know their feel on the small of his back.
Wait. Shirts. He'd put on his clothes and vest, and the tightness of the outer garment would make it difficult to impossible to slide her hands back where they'd been. Without needing to be asked, he reached under his chest and opened the vest. He didn't need to remove it. Just to loosen it, so her hands could slide under. They did so, and he realized he missed the loose feeling of his sleep shirt. Oh, well. This, like everything else, could not be helped.
She resumed the slow circles she'd been making before, and let his body adjust to the feel again, let him relax. The floor was not as comfortable as his huge bed, but it was far better than nothing. Besides, it wasn't the feel of the floor or the old mattress that had soothed him. It was the sensation of her hands on his skin.
"If I had some lotion, I would rub it on your back," she told him, not aware she'd been caught thinking out loud until she did so.
"That would be heavenly," Vincent told her, reaching down to lift the hems of his shirts up, just a little. He wanted his back bare. At least a small bit of it. He couldn't describe what he was feeling. Only that it felt good. Only that he never wanted her to stop. Only that he wanted her to keep touching him this way until he fell asleep, and even then, after.
"I want you to stay like this until I fall asleep. I want to feel it, during the night, just like this," He spoke the wish aloud, trading her confidence for confidence.
"If I wasn't afraid you would run for the hills, I would tell you Peter has a guest bedroom upstairs, and that I've stayed in it. It's just a nice room.” Her hands were magic as they simply moved back and forth across the same narrow strip of skin. "We wouldn't have to... do anything. Just be like this," she whispered.
He was starving for something. They both were. If this was some sort of compromise, she would happily live with it.
He could feel the fatigue of her day on her, as well as his own. It had been a terrifically stressful few weeks for both of them. Why should they not lie in a bed? She would be more comfortable than she was on the hard floor, and he knew he would be.
He gently rolled away from her. "Upstairs?" was all he asked, and she knew they were about to make the trip. Misery made him open to any suggestion, apparently.
She was surprised when he picked her up off the floor, and simply held her close as he mounted the stairs. The upstairs floor plan was the usual kind, with a master bedroom that was obviously Peter's, and two others. One belonged to Barbara, and was shared with her new husband when they were in New York. The other was the guest room Catherine had mentioned. She nodded to the door at the end of the hall.
She flipped on an overhead light switch as he set her down, then softened the atmosphere with a frosted glass boudoir lamp as she turned the overhead off. It was a pretty room. A pastel-colored quilt in shades of soft blue and yellow covered a queen-sized bed stacked with four large pillows. There was a dresser, a bi-fold-door closet, and a small doorway to what Vincent could only guess was a bathroom. One of Mary's doilies adorned the end table, making it feel like home.
Vincent shook his head, amazed that he actually found something in here that he recognized. He remembered watching her make it for Peter, one Winterfest.
"This came from Mary," he said, fingering the soft fabric.
"Did it?" Catherine was surprised, as she took off her shoes. The tatted lace looked lovely beneath the lamp.
"I remember her saying she wanted yellow thread. Years ago. Now I know why." Funny how small memories never quite left and were not needed, until they were.
"I think that was on the table the last time I stayed here. Barbara and I stayed together several years ago, before she went off to Europe to meet Nils. I think it was my last year of law school.” She hugged him from behind, and regarded the pretty scrap of lace with him for a moment.
"So you were sleeping next to something from my world. And you never knew," His voice was soft in the half-light. It seemed to give him comfort to know that.
"I must have been."
He felt her smile.
"Sometimes when I'm daydreaming, or just... sometimes. I wonder if I was ever close to you without knowing it. Before," she said.
"I like to imagine you were.” He rolled the fantasy out with her. "Perhaps when you were in the park, listening to a concert, or at some great event at the Met or Carnegie Hall. Perhaps just walking by somewhere. Maybe I was near.” She remained standing behind him. He reached back and wrapped her arms more securely around his front, and kept her near, holding her close as he felt her muscles relax. "I'd like to think you were near. That we were close, sometimes. Before we actually met," his soft baritone rumbled.
Tired. They were both feeling the length of the day, and its stresses. He disengaged them and sat on the bed, kicking off his boots. He was comforted by the knowledge that they'd slept in the same bed before, the time she'd mourned her father. This was familiar ground, though it was in an unfamiliar place. Mary's little scrap of lace seemed to help him with the “comfortable” feel of the room, and whatever this was they were doing.
"Can I rub your back again?" she asked.
"You must be tired of that," he answered.
"Not by half," was all she said as she shrugged out of her jacket for the first time that evening.
He took off his loose vest, knowing that was as comfortable as he was going to get. The shirts would stay on.
There was a crystal globe that held a heavy pillar candle. Rebecca. The tunnel women had touched this room. Catherine lit it with a nearby book of matches, and turned off the lamp as the room settled into a familiar glow. In a way, it was like being in one of the guest chambers in the tunnels.
"This place feels familiar to me, even though it isn't." Vincent echoed her thoughts.
How long before the feeling of her hands on him felt “familiar?” A few weeks? More? Less? He laid down on his side and she echoed his position, once again beginning the slow massage that had soothed him earlier.
"Why do I feel like this, Catherine?" he asked as he lay, not facing her.
She wasn't sure, and she told him as much. She had an idea, but maybe she was wrong. She knew he understood human sexuality to some degree, and knew he felt its whip. But she wasn't sure how much of the word “human” he applied to himself, or if he was comfortable talking about it. She only knew the restlessness in him bespoke deeper needs. Needs that were not being met.
Much of their relationship had been a series of stolen moments. An hour was a stolen luxury. Two were a treasure. Often, they existed on a series of brief moments on her balcony for a week or two at a time, until the frustration of that became too much, and they both began seeking more.
But “more” led to his discomfort, and he went away after a while. It was a pattern they had fallen into, though not on purpose. At least, not on her part. Likely, not on his. He was unsure of what they could have. Whatever it was, it increasingly felt like they could not have much of it.
"I used to think you would leave," he confessed.
"You don't still feel that way, do you?" she asked, afraid his insecurities had kept him from even the comfort of knowing she would never part from him voluntarily. Her hands stilled on his back.
"Not like I used to, no.” Her hands were caressing him again. It felt wonderful. "Then sometimes, yes, that fear comes back.” He pillowed his head on his arm, glad she could not see his face, as he admitted it. He did not understand how he could feel both more and less secure with her as time went on. It was like he had a battle to face, but the enemy was unseen, and the outcome was by no means assured.
Her voice was soft. "Sometimes I think we steal the minutes because we're afraid we won't have the years."
So it was her turn to confess a fear. He felt it as she said it. Yes. That was true. It was part of what had been bothering him, as well. He rolled onto his back, aware it would block her touch, but needing to see her face in the candle-lit semi-darkness.
"You are afraid, too?" he asked her.
"Sometimes," she answered, settling her head down on his now-offered shoulder.
He wrapped his arm around her.
She lay beside his warmth and turned on her back, speaking to the ceiling as she spoke to him. "To have your love. It's such a gift. Such a great and lovely gift," her voice softened. "I swore if I could have that, I'd never ask for more. What we are right now has to be enough. Doesn't it?"
It did. And it wasn't. And he could not settle the chasm between those two differences.
"Being near you makes me want things I can't have. Touch. Time.” He locked his hand with hers and raised it for a kiss. "All of it. And sometimes... sometimes I want something I don't think I can even define. It's like something is right in front of me, and it's missing at the same time."
She knew he was not just referring to sex. They both did. She returned the kiss to his fingertips, and he settled their joined hands between them.
"This is the best I've felt in days. Too many to count," he told her, settling them together.
"Me, too," she answered, trying to keep censure out of her voice for his staying away.
He kissed the top of her head. "You can sleep. I can hold you," he suggested to her in the soft night.
She didn't think she would. Until she did just that.
Hours passed. Three. Four. She eased out of his embrace, and they both slept, touching at least slightly, as the long minutes bled into each other. He would open his eyes, see her sleeping next to him, and close them again, and drift. Catherine was doing much the same. Neither were in their own bed, so their sleep was light. A bedside alarm clock warned him of the time, though he knew what time it was just by looking at the candle.
"Catherine...” His voice was soft. He could feel her rousing.
"No." her voice came from his muffled shirt, near his chest.
"It's after three," he said sadly. "You'll want to--"
"No. I said no.” Her hand held his shirt more tightly, and he felt her tears.
She was not yet truly awake, not fully. She'd not yet marshalled the dozen and three defenses she would need to get through the day. She was unhappy at the thought of parting. Miserable that the stolen time had somehow run out. Damn. Had this made things better or worse for them?
"I know," he said, commiserating. He rubbed her arm in sympathy. It would be all right. It had to be. His great heart thumped beneath her ear. She didn’t want to give it up. But he was nudging her upward, just the same, the clock telling him he had to.
"God, Vincent. We keep stealing moments between two worlds.” She was honest, and protesting. In a moment, she wouldn’t be. In a moment, her own restraint and discipline would kick in, and she’d just accept it all. But not now. “You're in one world. I'm in the other. I know I said I wouldn't ask for more, but can't we just...” Her voice faded, and her sigh was soul deep. No. They couldn't just. Her day sat waiting for her like an open trap. So did his, for him.
"No. Just no. I'm tired of this." She hated to admit it, hated to tell him this wasn't enough, especially after a night of being allowed to sleep near him. But there it was, and it was the same thing that had been driving him all but insane, as well.
Was she going to leave him? At last? Were they finally going to admit the tiny drips of time were not enough? That nights like this last one were a fool's folly, and a brief snatch at a protest against all they couldn't have?
"Tell me.” It was his constant instruction, and he feared it, now.
Whatever he thought she was about to say, it wasn't what she said.
"Now. Right now.” She climbed out of bed, rounded it, and stopped in front of him. “Before we both have time to think about it or talk ourselves out of it. Peter has a van, the one he uses for the clinic. It's in the garage right now. Please." Her cheeks were tear-stained, and her voice was desperate.
"If we think about it, we'll talk ourselves out of it. If we go home to pack, something will come up to stop it. Please. Please, Vincent." She was tugging at his two hands with hers, not bothering to stop the tears.
They felt poised on the edge of a knife.
"Where?" he asked her.
"Connecticut. My Father's cabin. Days. Weeks, if we have to. The roads are so quiet right now. We could be there in just a few hours.” She lifted her hand, still entwined with his, to wipe the tears. "We could just... be. No pressure for... sex.” There, she said the word. "Or anything. Just... not having to leave each other, all the time."
"You have work," he told her.
"I'll call in sick. You're thinking about why we can't, already."
He realized he had been. He banished all other thought.
"Can I use the pipes to tell Pascal I am gone, with you?” He was trying to pierce through to what was “allowed” in her desperation. But at least he was thinking of going with her.
"Of course. Please, Vincent. Please?"
He nodded and brushed her tears away. She gave him a happy hug and a kiss so brief as to be an impulse. "I know the van is already gassed up. I used it to take Peter to the airport.” She was already climbing over the bed to reach her shoes, already in motion. “He had boxes of things he wanted to ship to the conference," she babbled, as if that were somehow important, now. It wasn’t. She was thinking out loud as she moved. Quickly, in both cases.
She tugged on her jacket and kept talking, kept seeing her plan, and trying to cover at least some bases. "Nils is big. Raid the dresser for some clothes. My dad had some things at the cabin. I'll grab some groceries from Peter. Ten minutes. I want us out the door in ten minutes.” Then she was out the bedroom door, racing.
It took closer to twenty-five, but in that brief time, Vincent suddenly found himself party to something that felt halfway between a foolhardy adventure and a kidnapping.
It was astonishingly easy to get out of the city. The above-ground trip Vincent had feared all his life, the one that would have sent Jacob into spasms, was almost a non-event, as he sat in the back of the swaying white van.
A blanket served for padding. The van was a utilitarian thing, meant mostly for hauling medical supplies between the hospital and the clinic. Other than the driver’s and passenger seats, it was not built for comfort.
Peter often carried cases of drugs, and needed to be able to do that unobtrusively, lest the vehicle become a target for thieves. The plain white metal was cold, inhospitable, and all but perfect for them.
Vincent kept his hood pulled low over his features, in spite of the dark glass of the vehicle. Just a feeling. Security. Just the urge for that, and no other reason.
Comfortable ride or no, New York spun away beneath the radials.
Vincent knew that each time lamplight shone inside, then moved off, he was passing farther and farther away from the tunnels, farther from his home, and from all he knew. If all his “safety” was there, so was all his “restraint.”
He was not just out, but Out. Both the nervousness of it and the excitement of it warred inside him. He kept the cape pulled close around his shoulders, and watched her drive, from the back.
She told him that once they cleared the city for the country roads, he could sit up in the front with her if he liked, as long as he kept his hood low, or simply bent down if a car approached in the other direction. He doubted if he would take her up on that. This seemed the safer way to travel.
After roughly forty minutes or so of sparse city traffic, he realized that the road around her must be changing. The tires sounded different, as they changed from city streets to highway, and then again from highway to state road. The hum of the wheels sang a different note at each change, and the suspension danced to a slightly different tune.
He felt the changing vibrations, knowing that each one meant he was farther from home, from Jacob, from safety and all that they knew.
He idly wondered how close the closest tunnel was now, even if he could reach it. It didn't matter. It really didn't. He was not sorry he'd given in to her impulse, even though he could feel her nervousness as she, too, had time to now regret at leisure what she'd decided in haste. That they should go. That they needed to, even.
"There are some breakfast bars in the box of food I stole from Peter," she told him, indicating the cardboard box she’d loaded. Vincent had no idea what a “breakfast bar” was. Ah. Like cereal, held together with oats and some honey. Like the trail bars William often made for travelling, or for a very long day punctuated by a good hike. Those. He offered her one, but she declined.
"You are nervous," he said, not sure if he should be speaking to her while she was driving. Was there some sort of rule about that?
"I am. Just until we pass through Hartford.” He saw her face check the rear view mirror, and she tried to smile. “It's all but open country from there, punctuated by a couple of small towns, until we reach the property."
Vincent nodded at that, content to recline against the vibrating steel walls as she navigated in the dark. He was putting his life in her hands. There was no safer place for it. He'd had a dream that they might do this, once, and in that dream, he'd told her “No.” Even though it was a thing they had never attempted, he'd regretted that decision ever since.
Time passed, and the unsubtle shift from paved road to hard pack was not lost on him. Neither was the acceleration, as her foot depressed the gas pedal. They were nearly there, and racing the dawn.
He carefully positioned himself so that he knelt with one arm braced against each of the seats, looking through the middle. The windshield scenery travelled by. Forest. Trees on either side, with the small spit of a road running through it.
For the first time in his life, he was looking at a state that was not New York.
"This is Connecticut?" he asked her.
"Better," she replied surely. "This is ours. Or it will be, as soon as we hit the fence line." She could not keep the smile out of her voice.
The deep night was greying, and he could see the subtle difference as the hour between five a.m. and six a.m. made itself known.
"Careful," he cautioned her about her acceleration. "If this forest is like the park, many of the animals are very active right before dawn."
She knew he was correct, and willed herself to slow down. A possum waddled out across her path, its small eyes catching the light. "You're right," she told him, easing back a little more. Still, she wanted to have him inside the cabin before the light changed too much. Just in case.
The “fence line” was punctuated by a gate that was padlocked. The words “Private Property” were stenciled on a sign.
She put the van in park, but left the engine idling. "I have one key. Peter has the other. I'll make you one," she told him, digging her set out of her purse. She turned to him wrapping her arms around his neck. "Thank you for doing this," she told him, touching her forehead to his. "I know I'm asking you to be brave."
"Considering neither one of us quite knows what we are doing, I'd say we're both being a little brave," he told her, giving her cheek a loving stroke. He did not know exactly what this was, or where it would lead. But he was having an adventure with her. Not one in his world, where he knew all the ways and she was a stranger, but in hers, where the opposite was true.
He discovered how liberating it was to let someone else make all the decisions, for a change.
"This feels good," he confided to her, letting her know he had not minded the rather uncomfortable ride.
"Our first vacation," she told him, smiling at the word. Was that what this was? A vacation? No, not quite. But it was the closest word that applied.
The gradually lightening sky prompted her to not to linger, and she took them through the gate with care, then re-locked it. Vincent thought the cabin would be in their immediate view once they rounded the next bend in the road. He was surprised to see that it wasn't.
"This all belonged to your Father?" he asked her, beginning to understand her wealth in a different light. The apartment was one thing. But this was land. Land like the park.
"It's because the lake isn't visible for a bit yet. There are a couple other cabins on the other side, so it's not like I can say we own the whole thing. But the one family doesn't even use theirs anymore. They're just very old. The other family is mostly here for Fourth of July and a couple weeks after, so, with any luck, it will be all ours." She eased the van forward cautiously, the headlights cutting their way through the tree-lined path.
The small, red oak building he saw looked like something out of a storybook. It was lovely as well as sturdy looking. Wide-windowed with trim cream shutters, there was a picturesque ambience to it that spoke of wealth. A sturdy porch with a railing ran nearly all the way around it. Sheltering oaks shaded it. It looked like it was waiting to be used.
Peter Alcott, his daughter, and son-in-law had borrowed the cabin just a few weeks ago, for an August vacation before Nils had to be back in Stockholm, teaching. Barbara Alcott had put morning glories in the stone planters on either side of the wide front steps. Rainwater had tended them. Catherine blessed their beauty. When the cabin stood empty for long periods, there was usually some cleaning up to do. This way, there wouldn't be.
The hard-pack lane led to a gravel drive. The cabin held the high ground, just before it gradually sloped down to a dock, complete with a set of Adirondack chairs, a boathouse, and...
And the most beautiful lake Vincent had ever seen.
Rich man. Charles Chandler had been a rich man, Vincent's mind kept singing the words. He would have to have been one, to have afforded a view such as this.
The top curve of the sun was peeking over a distant shoreline. They were on the southern edge of a wide, flat body of water that was just now turning orange-tipped from the sunrise. A morning breeze ruffled the water, and it was chilly yet. A parade of ducks was blithely paddling through the near dark. He heard the plop of a fish, jumping somewhere close; heard the subtle sounds of lake water, lapping the shore.
Insect sounds punctuated the cool, moving air. A few spots near the shore had been cleared for the cabins or outbuildings, but mostly it was deep forest. Everywhere. The trees looked black yet, But he knew that was about to change.
He took a step forward, entranced, then stopped. Shouldn't he be searching for cover? He was standing out in the open, not remembering how he got there. He did not recall climbing out of the van; he only knew he had.
He smelled water and woods and fowl, and more. Animal scents. Tree smells. Pine and spruce and maple and oak. Some of the scents were familiar. Some were not. All wild, in this all but hallowed place.
He heard the van door slam behind him, but he couldn’t turn. He felt transfixed, as he stared.
More light, as the half circle of the rising sun began to claim the sky. Colors. Gradient shades of peach and then pink over his head, light finally hitting the landscape. More color. Green and blue and grey and orange, beginning to creep, and gather, across the land.
"Oh, Catherine.” He whispered the words so softly she wasn't sure if she heard them, and he wasn't sure he'd even said them, or just thought them loudly. "How can you ever bear to leave this place?"
She slipped her hand in his as they both stood, simply watching. She knew he had a tear for it, but didn’t want to blink.
"I think my Father used to ask himself that every time we packed up to go back to the city," she answered him, her reply the only thing that confirmed for him that he had indeed spoken aloud.
He could understand why Charles felt that way. It seemed like the rest of the world did not even exist. He kept taking a few steps forward, then stopping, mesmerized. The lake didn't need a Lorelei to draw him. It was enough that it was a lake.
He'd seen water from the New York docks, and of course, from the top of the bridges and some of the buildings. His own home was full of it, sometimes to an even frustrating degree. But not like this. Not tree-ringed and fresh, and full of cat tails and the sounds of frogs, and a dozen or more birds, most of which he couldn't name. A soft spit of sand served as a beach, to one side of the dock. Dragonflies buzzed in the rushes, near the shore as more light came forth.
A heron went for a morning stroll. The ungainly call of geese passed over his head. Songbirds welcomed the morning.
Squirrels skittered in and out of a stand of oak. A fat raccoon, not afraid of anything, apparently, ambled out of a cluster of pines, and just stared at him for a full minute, unblinking, seeming to ask how the hunting was going. Vincent watched it waddle back the way it came.
The wind stilled, and a mosquito buzzed near his ears.
"When there's no breeze, the mosquitoes will eat you alive this time of day," she said ruefully. "Sorry if that interrupts." She meant it.
Vincent chuckled. Paradise, it seemed, had
mosquitoes. Oh, well. It was always something.
"We'd best get unloaded, and get in then," he told her, returning to the van and helping her heft whatever she'd hastily packed.
She unlocked the front door and they shouldered their way in. It was lovely, well used, and overstuffed, for the most part. A pair of mismatched chairs sat facing a fireplace framed by irregular stones, mostly in colors of blue and grey. She opened the flue and set a match to the kindling that had been left for them, letting the comforting blaze warm the space as he carried in their few belongings.
It was a beautiful room, he realized, and more of Charles Chandler’s wealth was apparent. Warm, oil-rubbed wood lined the walls and the beamed ceiling. A red and blue patterned rug owned the floor. A tartan throw rested on the back of a pulled-back sofa. Bookshelves lined with books, pictures, mementos and a small stereo filled the space. There was no television.
There was a framed puzzle of Big Ben on one wall, its thousands of tiny pieces likely put together by Chandler hands. A wide oak table sat under a picture window, scratched from use and gleaming with age and care. A serviceable kitchen dominated one corner. Catherine started unloading supplies there.
The refrigerator was still on, but contained little besides a case of water. Catherine’s stomach growled an instant before Vincent’s did.
“We don’t have a big selection, but I can make us some oatmeal, if you like,” Catherine offered gamely. Her eyes looked a little nervous again. She wanted him to like this place, and be comfortable here. Very much.
“That would be wonderful. Where should I put your clothes?”
She’d brought some things from Peter’s.
“Mine is the room on the left.” She nodded to a connecting door. Sleeping arrangements. Ah. Time to discuss those.
“The master bedroom is on the right, and the sofa in front of the fireplace pulls out to a big bed. Wherever you’re most comfortable.” She left it at that, and continued unpacking some of Peter’s produce, giving Vincent her back.
He inclined his head, and carried her small bag of things to her room, and set the one containing his borrowed clothing near the sofa. He could move it, or not, later, as they decided. They were both feeling their way here. They would sleep wherever she wanted them to. But they would dress and undress apart, still. That seemed right.
The smell of butter and oats filled the cozy kitchen, and Vincent sensed through the bond that she was still tense, now that she’d had time to concoct absolutely everything that could go wrong. What if they were seen? Could he find his way back to New York from here, if something happened to her? The litany of possible disasters was all but making an unshakable melody, in her head.
"Thank you for this," he told her, coming up behind her to hug her while she stirred oatmeal in the pot.
"It's just oatmeal," she replied, tossing in some cinnamon.
"You know what I mean," he chided, gently.
The spoon slowed. "It just... felt like we needed something," she said, trying not to analyze everything too closely.
Go with it. Whatever it is, just go with it. He felt her let at least some of her concerns go.
But not all of them.
"I have to call Joe," she admitted reluctantly. "I'm due in at work in an hour. The nearest phone is that gas station we passed."
Real life reared its ugly head.
"Will you be all right while I make the call?" she asked him.
"I do not think the raccoon will take me prisoner," he told her, wishing he could banish the look of worry in her eyes. He hated being a liability for her.
"Good.” She spooned oatmeal into bowls. "Some of the weasels can be sneaky.” She tried to joke. "Stay on your guard."
He helped her set the table with their hastily made meal.
"One expects such things, from weasels," he tried to tease her back as she set down the spoons. He wasn’t sure if it was a successful jibe.
She began eating, stirring her food more than it needed. She was anticipating trouble with her employer.
Vincent tried not to sigh, so he ate. It was good. His stomach appreciated a meal taken in while he was not moving.
He would have to spend some time while she was gone acquainting himself with the contents of her kitchen drawers and cabinets. He didn't know where anything was. He did not like the feeling.
She ate with him in a thoughtful silence.
"This will cause you trouble with Joe. Won't it?" he asked. He understood her mood. She was dreading the phone call.
"Probably," she allowed. "But it doesn't matter." She was about to be the selfish dilettante Joe Maxwell had clearly thought she was three years ago. And she couldn't explain why. Oh, well.
But it did matter. Three hours into their decision to run away, the ramifications of that were coming home. She was about to infuriate her boss and friend by dumping her workload on others. Vincent could tell she felt a stab of guilt at that. Similar to the one he was feeling, over much the same thing. Others would have to take over his classes. Or the children would fall behind, or worse, run amuck.
"I should get going," she told him, rising and putting her bowl in the sink. "The sooner I get this part over with, the better."
"Catherine... If we need to go back..."
"No. Don't even think it. No, Vincent. I'm not looking forward to the argument I'm probably fixing to have. That doesn't mean I think this was the wrong thing to do."
She looked both too young and too old to him, in that moment. Too young to have to bear all the responsibilities she had. And aged by all those cares past her years, at the same time.
"It's just... I love you.” He finished it lamely, wishing he could help. Wishing he wasn't the source of why they were always hurting.
"I love you, too. Back in about an hour. Will you be okay?" she asked, again.
"We've already discussed the weasels. I will be fine, Catherine. I shall unpack the clothes I stole from your friend's husband.” He tried to keep his voice light.
"You can walk, if you like. It should be all right. Or maybe not." She was suddenly unsure of that. Perhaps she should check things out first? Of course she should.
"I am actually very capable of avoiding being seen," he chided her, as if she couldn't recall he'd spent most of his life doing just that.
She shook her head at her own silliness. "Of course you are. I'm being ridiculous. And paranoid."
"No, you are not. We are both out of our element here, a little.” Him more than her. “It will take us some time to get used to it.” He brushed her forehead with a grateful kiss.
"Yes. We are.” She was worried. Her eyes gave it away. She had all but yanked him away from his life, his responsibilities, and more importantly, his safety and security. "Did I do the right thing, Vincent?" she asked.
He wasn't going to do it, then he did. He brushed her mouth with a soft chaste kiss, similar to the few others they'd exchanged.
"I think so," he whispered in her ear. "If you didn't, we wouldn't have been able to just do that."
They wouldn't have. They wouldn't even have spent the night together, more than likely. The demands of her day would have her off facing the push of the morning commute if they'd stayed in the city. And he'd be checking with Kanin and Father over the work details for the day, and planning his lessons.
She yawned involuntarily, a reminder that she hadn't had much sleep last night, and that she'd had to do all the driving to get them here. Not a very romantic reaction to being kissed. But a predictable one, considering her lack of sleep. She blushed, embarrassed by her fatigue.
"When you come back, we will take a nap, if you like," he told her, loving the image that presented.
So did she.
"That will be lovely," she answered, digging out her keys and heading for the door.
He explored the house while she was gone. A master bedroom last occupied by Peter Alcott sat looking both masculine and comfortable. A heavy blue comforter dominated the large bed. A framed picture of a much younger Catherine sat on the dark cherry wood dresser. Graduation. From high school, not college. She looked so young then. Her hair a bit wavier, her face devoid of the scar she now carried by choice. The picture was over ten years old. He wondered if she felt like a lifetime had passed, since then.
Another photograph near a matching nightstand. This one he knew without ever having met her. Catherine's likeness smiled back up at him, but it was not Catherine. Caroline Chandler beamed at the person taking the picture, probably her husband. A glittering diamond wedding set adorned the hand that gripped a tennis racket. She had a tan. She'd written “I “love” you!” on the photograph, obviously making a joke about the score “love,” and tennis. She looked a little older than Catherine was now.
"You have a beautiful daughter," he told the image, as he softly closed the door to the room.
Catherine's room was a space of both her girlhood and her adulthood, as a beautiful white quilt edged in Battenberg lace draped softly off a feather bed topper. Here, too, were pictures from both childhood and after. She and a younger Jenny Aaronson as they backpacked across Europe. She and Nancy Tucker, on Nancy's wedding day. Pictures of Catherine as a child, holding the first fish she ever caught, a sun hat mostly obscuring her features. A photograph of a horse. He had no idea why. Books on her shelves. Law and mysteries and poetry and suspense. Stephen King sat cheek by jowl with Robert Ludlum, Agatha Christie and the New York civil code. A worn copy of The Velveteen Rabbit leaned to one side. A trinket box made of clay sat by her bedside. A chest of drawers that wouldn't quite shut completely held casual clothes. It was a comfortable room. She clearly felt at home, here.
There was a pretty bathroom in natural stone tile that looked like it might have come out of the lake, given its neutral colors. Like the fireplace, Charles Chandler had clearly wanted something that did not look out of place here. Vincent set some of the toiletries she'd grabbed from Peter's house on the sink basin, and tugged the door closed. A huge robe hung on the back of the door hook. He had no idea who it belonged to.
There was a small room off the kitchen with a washer/dryer combo and a chest freezer full of staples. Thawed milk and bread were not preferable to fresh, but they were preferable to nothing. He took both out and set them in the sink to thaw.
The living room couch looked wide and inviting. He wondered if he was supposed to sleep on the fold-out mattress, or if they were both supposed to sleep together in her bed. They hadn't discussed sorted out those particulars. Like much of this, they hadn't discussed anything. They had both just given in to the urge to run.
He set his borrowed bag of clothes atop the sofa, shaking out the two pairs of jeans and pullover shirts he thought might fit. There was a set of fleece that surely would. The jeans would be short, but that wouldn't matter if he tucked them into his boots. Shirt sleeves always rode up on him unless Mary patched an extension on, or just made him one from scratch. It was all right. Nils Masterson was a big man. Vincent was grateful just to have something clean to wear.
He finished putting away the kitchen items, and inspected the drawers for their contents. The urge to go outside was unmistakable, and he resisted it as much as he could. When he explored the property, he wanted it to be with Catherine.
He checked the outside wood box near the back door for fireplace fodder. Peter and company had left it well stocked, nearly three quarters full. Good.
The day outside the windows became brighter, and Vincent watched the amazing play of light that a bright sunrise bestowed on a forest. The tops of the trees changed color first, then the light and color inched down as the sun rose higher. Some of the denser stands of pine remained unrepentantly dark; many of the sugar maples revealed that they were already starting to turn. Something skittered across the roof. Probably a squirrel.
He did not have a watch to check, to see what time she would be back, and had forgotten to look at the kitchen clock built in to the microwave oven. There were no other timepieces in sight. Charles seemed to send a gentle message. Time was irrelevant here. Schedules were for the city. This was a different place. Relax. It didn't matter what time it was.
Vincent realized how accustomed he was to reading the day candles, and how ubiquitous the sound of tapping on the pipes was. Sentries commonly tapped the hour, and sometimes the half hour, when something was scheduled to happen. It was quiet inside the house, and slightly raucous outside of it. A new place. A different place, for him.
He heard the sound of the van coming back.
Catherine entered the room, her smile looking forced. She and Joe Maxwell had argued, and she clearly didn’t want to discuss it. She was also trying to hide her feelings, knowing he could sense them in the bond. He let her have her privacy. It did little to assuage his guilt, but nothing much was going to do that anyway.
“Sleep will make things seem better,” he told her, not sure it was true, but wanting to say it.
“Don’t you want to go for a walk? There’s a whole forest out there, and the sun is up now.”
“The forest will still be there in a few hours,” he said, curbing his enthusiasm for it. “I’d rather have you in my arms again. The way I did last night.” He tugged her hand toward her bedroom, letting her drop her cares where she would. He found he did want the feeling of lying next to her again. It was as if saying it had made it so.
She kicked off her shoes and climbed on to what was, for her, a familiar quilt. He wondered how many years she’d dreamed dreams on it, or under it.
He settled near her on wide, down pillows, and thought to ask the question. Before he could frame it, they were both asleep.
He dreamed of water. It took him a moment to realize he was on the Nameless River, and he was lost. At first, he wasn’t worried. He thought he could find his way. It was a river, after all. It only went in two directions, and only had so many branches. He should easily be able to find his way, either by simply poling back up it, or following it down until the landscape looked familiar.
But he found the longer he tried, the more lost he became. That, too, did not seem important, until he realized that Catherine was the thing he was most separated from.
He tried to wake from the dream, but it shifted. Hiking. He was in a dry passage, and hiking again. That should have been comforting in and of itself, but it wasn’t. He knew this path. He was heading back to The Grotto.
The dream shifted again. Something about Mouse, and not being able to find Arthur, until he did. It was benign. Catherine stirred beside him, too tired to dream.
It was midafternoon by the time they awoke, discombobulated at having lost much of the day, but refreshed from sleep, for the most part. Catherine raided Peter’s stolen produce, and tossed a salad for a late lunch. Vincent ate quickly, clearly wanting to explore.
“Shall we take a walk, now?” she asked him, offering her hand, knowing he had no desire to eat.
“Please,” he answered, tugging her out the screen door. Paths through her property laid before them.
The splendor of the afternoon was a balm, and Vincent knew that whatever unpleasantness had passed between Catherine and Joe, it no longer upset her. This, like every other problem, was a thing she would deal with when she had to.
They wound through what was for Vincent, a sylvan wonderland. Deep, sweet smelling, and now touched by light. Vincent swore he’d never seen so many shades of green, from near black to almost yellow.
They watched a pair of chipmunks chittering across the branches of a grandfather oak, arguing over an acorn while thousands of them lay at their feet. Catherine smiled, and he was relieved to see it. It was the first smile he’d seen from her in… lord, could he really not remember when, or need to think that far back? No. This morning. When he told her he would go with her. Then she had smiled. And again, in the van. Thank god. Things were not that bad, then.
Catherine folded her arms and kept looking up, watching the animals continue disagreeing.
“They’re like Zach and Kipper,” Vincent opined, “Or Geoffrey and Eric. Arguing for the sake of arguing.”
“Did you and Devin do that?” Catherine asked, wanting to hear of his childhood. They were standing in part of hers.
“Constantly,” he answered her, strolling forward. “Though I don’t think it was about acorns.”
“What was it about?” she asked him, relaxing as the soft crunch of pine needles under her feet helped all her tensions bleed away. This had always been such a beautiful spot. “Do you even remember?”
“I believe one was over who was better, Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.” He paused, watching a bee make its way back to a nearby hive.
“The book or the character?” she asked.
“Both,” he replied.
“Do you remember which one you picked?”
He shook his head. “I have no memory of it whatsoever. And we argued for three days, until Father put us both on kitchen duty.”
Laughter. There it was. There she was. He joined her.
“William made us clean out the stove. It was after Winterfest, and it was filthy, he…”
“Shhh.” She turned her head. “I thought I heard something,” she whispered. “We’re getting close to the stream.” She started to tread softly, hoping their laughter hadn’t frightened away any of the animals.
Keeping low, she led him to a deep copse of gorse bushes, and bid him crouch down.
In front of them was a rocky stream, afternoon sunlight glinting off its surface. Smooth stones worn flat by years of running water punctuated its shine. It was clearly one of the streams that fed into the lake from the mountain runoff. In spring, it would be swollen and wider, sometimes. But summer’s toll had narrowed it, some, so it was now little more than a meandering brook, in spots.
She raised a finger to her lips, and just crouched, waiting. Insects buzzed all around them, but she seemed unbothered. After several long minutes, they heard a rustling in the brush.
There she was. The deer Catherine had told him about, in a dream she didn’t realize he’d had. A doe, and a lactating one at that, judging by her teats. She stepped from the trees timidly, as does will, her great brown eyes taking in the familiar forest around her. There was little wind. And they were down from her.
A long minute more, and she stepped farther forward, keeping her nimble legs cautious as she made her way toward the stream. Scenting the air one last time, she bent her graceful neck to lap at the water.
Vincent watched the doe, and took even greater pleasure in watching Catherine watch the doe. Her green eyes looked as fair as the forest. He saw those eyes scanning the brush, but what she was looking for, he didn’t know.
Then he did. Of course. Lactating. There would be a fawn.
A few moments after the doe started to drink, a spindly-legged youngster clambered clumsily out of the brush. He stood in the green grass on a hilly slope. A late spring arrival, he was all long legs and greedy intentions, as he stumbled over to her side and began to nurse. The doe continued to drink, just letting him (her?) have its way. The fawn’s tan coat was dappled with spots.
Vincent realized the folly of lying down and hoping they would walk up to him or Catherine. They smelled wrong. Utterly. The doe and her babe were meant for this wild place. He and Catherine were polite interlopers.