"I feel just like I'm sinking,

And I claw for solid ground.

I'm pulled down by the undertow.

I never thought I could feel so low.

And oh darkness, I feel like letting go.

If all of the strength and all of the courage

Come and lift me from this place,

I know I can love you much better than this."

Sarah McLachlan: 'Full of Grace'

From the album: 'Surfacing'

 

CHAPTER EIGHT


Vincent's eyes gathered in the tiniest, most insubstantial motes of light available, magnifying their intensity. In most of the deeper caverns a certain strain of fungus grew on the rocky walls, fungus which emitted a faint phosphorescent glow. It was this source of light, imperceptible to his normal human friends that allowed him to explore the deeper caverns without needing to carry along a light source.

The downward course he had followed for the past day and a half was gradually leveling out. Vincent's sharp eyes found the rough fissure that was his destination, and he turned sideways to fit into the narrow space. He had discovered this way as a child, when he was considerably smaller. Experience told him, however, that although it would be tight, there was sufficient room to allow him access to what lay beyond.

The shades of gray that comprised the world when his eyes worked with minimal light gradually began to acquire a wash of pale color as the ambient light increased. Sharp ears discerned the familiar trickle of water and soon after the fissure widened into a large open area.

The cavern was a rough oval and along the opposite side, flush against the far wall, ran a smallish river, about 15 feet across at its widest spot. Vincent turned to the right and made his way along the riverbank. Rocky footing soon gave way to soft sand and he headed unerringly for his semi-permanent camp. This secret place had been, since childhood, a retreat for him. He had once mentioned it to Catherine, a 'nameless river' where he went to be alone, to think.

With a weary sigh he set down his pack, collapsed onto the soft sand and leaned against the rocky wall. The journey here, although not prohibitively long, had seemed especially arduous due to his long inactivity and had taken more hours than usual. His inherent sense of time told him it was mid morning on Sunday. The long walk unshod had taken its toll on his feet and he reluctantly lifted one in his hands to examine it, grimacing at the burning ache.

Like his hands, the tops of his feet were covered with burnished coppery fur, the five toes tipped with claws. Where his hands had rough but human palms, however, the bottom of his feet was covered with leathery pads more like an animal. Those pads, used to the protection of heavy boot soles, had worn through in several spots, revealing pink flesh. The last few weeks of illness, combined with the ensuing week of bed rest, had allowed the claws on his toes to grow, although they were still shorter and blunter than they would become, if memory served. Concentrating, he triggered a long unused and barely remembered ability. Instantly, the claws more than doubled in length as small muscles pulled them forward along their bone anchor to click into extension. With a grunt comprised of equal parts surprise and disgust, Vincent dropped his leg back to the ground and closed his eyes. Relaxing, he felt his foot claws retract.

He was not a man. Not human. A reflexive wave of denial rose up, only to be defeated by cold hard fact. Humans did not have retractable claws on hand and foot. Humans did not have fangs. They did not have features like him. And they did not have his senses, abilities, or instincts.

A sudden dash of light humor and love splashed against the brooding thoughts that were taking him. Catherine. She was thinking of him. Vincent had a brief picture of himself through her eyes, face screwed up in disgust. The memory brought a smile and chuckle to his lips and, using the lines of their strengthened bond, he sent his loving response.

Of all the memories he treasured of his Catherine, the times they laughed together were held the closest. The time she had forgotten to remove price tags from her supposedly secondhand gifts was particularly special. In the early days, their time always seemed so limited. The insecurity of their places in each other's lives meant they seldom relaxed enough to play. This had been one of the first times he had let himself tease her, and they had laughed about it during the walk back to her threshold. Then there was the time that the rain had caused Schubert's Unfinished Symphony to be even more unfinished than usual. His Catherine loved to laugh and, until the dark time had come, he found himself swept into her joy more and more often. The rippling river waters before him brought another treasured memory to light...

After spending many anxious and tension filled days at Catherine's threshold during the problem with the stalker, the situation had been resolved. Afterwards, he had taken several days and retreated to his "nameless river" to think. He had managed to hide from Catherine much of the pain that the whole episode had cost him. By far the worst was when he had felt her life departing. But once the relief and joy of having her safe once more had faded, he had had other demons to confront. Catherine knew he had killed the watcher, and no doubt assumed that he had fought through him in order to rescue her from drowning in the car. She did not understand, and he had not told her, the entirety of it.

He had killed. Not in self-defense. Not to protect her. When the watcher had confronted him, Vincent had known instantly what had occurred. The man had been gloating with pleasure. Through the strength of his sick emotions he had been able to see what the man had done. It had been anger - anger and revenge that had loosed the beast. He had, for the first time, felt he had truly murdered. It had taken many days of soul searching to even begin to come to terms with his actions. Eventually, a tenuous form of peace had been made and he had started for home.

Drawing closer to the home tunnels, he had realized with a burst of anticipation that Catherine was below. From his constant sense of her, he had known she was traveling south in the area of the falls and that she was nervous, scared. He had immediately changed his destination, with the intent to discover what was wrong. During his journey however, he had felt her fear spike, then fade.

Sounds of splashing and childish shrieks of delight could be heard from around the bend in the tunnel and he hesitated. Ever since her father had passed, Catherine had spent more of her free time in the tunnels. She was an especial favorite of the children, and they took every opportunity to convince her to accompany them on various outings. They had been after her for some time to take them to the falls, to swim. Obviously, their persistence must have paid off. He now understood her fear. The near drowning had made her fearful of the water, a fear that she had determinedly conquered. With a small smile he had turned to go. But he hadn't been fast enough.

 "Vincent?" The high-pitched squeals of delight that followed Catherine's call stopped his turn. Within seconds, Vincent had been surrounded by what seemed a veritable horde of children, all eager to welcome him back. Reluctantly, he had allowed himself to be dragged into the large chamber, where the best swimming area was located. Here the swirling waters from the base of the falls calmed, and a small inlet provided a perfect swimming hole, safe for even the youngest children provided they did not venture out too far.  One side of the inlet provided a gradual decline, while the one closest to the entrance dropped off steeply, and was ideal for diving. True to form, the children had ganged up on him, trying to push him in the water. It was like mice trying to move a wall, and they had given up quickly.

Catherine had been in the deep section, resting her arms on the drop off. Only her head and the tops of her shoulders had been visible. Her long honey brown hair had been plastered to her head, and she had pushed it back impatiently. Her delight in his presence had been both visible and felt in her burgeoning joy through the bond. Wordlessly, she had held out her hand for him to help her out and he had instantly offered assistance.

He had forgotten Catherine could, when she concentrated, block off his sense of her emotions. The quick glimpse and wink he intercepted from her to Samantha had been his only preparation. Still, he had been completely unprepared when Catherine braced her feet against the rocky side-wall and yanked as hard as she could, sending him off balance and plunging into the water beside her. The children had all shrieked with laughter when he had surfaced, golden hair darkened by the streaming water, snorting in surprise (and to clear his nose of water). Catherine had been the worst of the lot. Barely able to swim due to her hysterical giggles, she had struck out for the opposite shore. Slowly, deliberately, he had removed his cloak and swung the sodden mass to the bank. The cavern echoed with a low, rumbling snarl as, not taking his eyes from her retreating form, he swam swiftly after her. He had caught her within seconds, where the water turned shallow. Ignoring her screams and pleas for mercy, promptly and unceremoniously he had thrown the love of his life over his shoulder. Her gasping apologies and shouted orders to let her down left him unmoved as he splashed up the bank and proceeded to carry her wriggling body over to the deep end. Without a shred of remorse, he tossed her in, to the excited and enthusiastic cheering of her previously adoring fans.

It was only later, in the privacy of his own chamber, that he had allowed himself to remember the feel of her slick wet body, clad only in a tight one piece swimsuit, writhing under his hands.

His hands. Slowly he lifted them to rest on his drawn up knees. Deliberately, he triggered that muscular reflex that extended his claws. He had not done so consciously for many years, and the sight was unsettling. He closed his eyes and dropped his head back momentarily until, with a resigned but determined breath, he raised his head again to look. "This is what you are," he spoke softly. "Don't hide from it anymore. Don't pretend it doesn't exist."

And he had tried. Oh how he had tried. His education in the humanities was more extensive than the vast majority of humanity. He had taken great pains to hide his physical differences. Since the age of five he had cut his foot claws and forced himself into boots. Yes, eventually he had become accustomed to them, and they barely ever hurt anymore, except after running when instinctively his claws extended and tried to dig in for additional speed. He was never seen without several layers of clothing, and bathed alone. No one had seen him unclothed since childhood except Father and... Catherine, perhaps. He hadn't had the courage to ask.

Catherine... what she must think of him, of their dream, now? That he sensed no hate or fear from her was a testament to her courage and strength. She was so strong, his Catherine. To follow him into that black cavern, the faith it must have taken to approach him, to touch him. He shuddered at the memory of the results: his hands, tipped with blood. The blood of the one he had sworn to die before harming.

Briefly, he contemplated sending her away again. That would certainly prevent a recurrence. Except that it never worked, although not for lack of trying. Repeatedly he had attempted to convince her to walk a different path, but Catherine was nothing if not stubborn. Even Father had commented that in this aspect Vincent had met his match. If memory served, the actual quote had been "You two deserve each other. Maybe now you'll understand just what I've had to deal with all these years. Good luck." Well, Father didn't mince words. Truth be told, however, he didn't think he could ever bring himself to send her away again. He needed her, her light, her laughter, and her faith. If that was weak, well, there it was. Of course, he could always disappear himself - just never go back. But he was needed in the tunnels. Horrifying as it was, the problem with the Outsiders had born out this truth. He was needed for his strength, his strategic mind in organizing tunnel security and, when necessary, to defend his home. To allow these hands to be judge and jury. To convict and mete out death.

For a moment, he struggled with the familiar impulse to give in to despair, to self-condemnation. There was so much blood on his hands, culminating in Catherine's. His battered emotions shied away from reliving those moments, but with a mental wrench Vincent forced his train of thought back on course. He must uncover the truth. Catherine must never come to harm by his hand again.

How had it happened? Everything had seemed fine, at least to his turbulent mind. He had been so sure his actions would not harm her. The strangeness of his lips had not repulsed her. He had sensed no disgust or distaste. In fact, the opposite was true. Vincent analyzed his memory, but found no refuting evidence. Somehow, his differences had been exciting to her. He had felt this clearly, along with her love and acceptance. The feel of her lips, willing and soft under his own... unbearable! A lovers' kiss&. His dream for so long, made reality. Sunk in the memory, a soft reflexive rumble began deep in Vincent's chest. Blinking with shock, he sat up abruptly. That had happened then too. Catherine had... liked it. Tremendously.

'So the bond had been fully open at that point,' Vincent reasoned, his logical mind fully engaged now. Following the path of memory step by step, Vincent recalled sliding his hands across her back and letting them rest on her shoulders. Try as he might, he could not remember beginning the kneading motion on them, only once he had begun did he realize his actions. Catherine had liked that, too. He could remember the little lightning flashes of pleasure skipping across her nerves and communicating through the bond to him. And it had felt so good. For both of them.

So good, in fact, that he hadn't wanted it to end. In hindsight, Vincent remembered the figurative warning bells going off in his head. Somehow, a part of him had known this should not continue. The feelings had been so contradictory. 'Too much, not ready,' colliding with the part of him that had been so sure he was not grasping too hard, that this would not hurt her, only lead them further. And he had waited so long to feel this, longed for this moment for what seemed like forever, the feel of her, the taste of her.  He had felt no anger, no black viciousness he had always associated with the presence of the beast. It had been all too easy to yield to temptation, to push those warnings away. And in that moment of distraction, the unthinkable. Instinct let run, untempered...

Instinct untempered. Incomplete knowledge. "How can half the truth suffice to understand the whole?" Vincent drew in a deep breath, as the words from his dreams surfaced. His dreams... often containing knowledge beyond his understanding. He had trusted in them before. Once, they had even saved Catherine's life. Lowering his chin to his chest, he concentrated deeply, pulling the rest of the dream memories to the surface. Two faces filled his mind's eye. A picture of two physically identical beings, yet mentally polar opposites. Vincent, the gentle thinker, a shy philosopher, hiding his differences to fit in with those that he loved, his family. The other, unapologetically physical, reveling in his strength and abilities, proud and untamed. Many of his comments had stung. Ruefully Vincent opened his eyes and glanced at the broken blisters on his feet. Oh, yes, they had definitely pricked his pride. "Toughen up." Indeed.

Vincent had often felt, in what he considered weaker moments, a form of pride in his strengths. Lifting the beam to open the Great Hall, feeling the dense musculature of his back flex with the effort. Exploring deep caverns with efficiency. Knowing who approached his chamber by footfall and scent. These feelings had always been quickly suppressed; drowned by the limitations they imposed on his life.

The necessity to live his life hidden from the world Above, safe with his family, had always required limitations. But not all were imposed by necessity. He had placed many limits on himself deliberately, if he were honest. After all, that was the reason for this exercise, total honesty with himself. 'Never show how much sharper my senses are, never move faster than those with me can, unless in an emergency, hide my body, never vocalize anything but gentle well-thought-out words'. One by one Vincent dug out and recited his unconsciously self-created laws. It was only in intensely emotional moments, like a frustrating argument with Father, when these rules sometimes cracked and he would toss down a book in physical release or raise his voice in anger. Or when the beast took him, when the need to fight, to protect, overwhelmed his reason.

No wonder his dreams had brought up the boots incident. That was only the most obvious of the ways he created his own limits. The sneering face of Mitch swam before him, laughing at his feet, calling him 'kitty' and worse, the others following his lead. In those days, there were not as many adults around to intercede. He had felt so alone. All he had wanted was to fit in, to be part of the group. How long had it taken him to learn to walk properly wearing boots? His feet, long and claw tipped, were not as stiff and unbending as his friends', they flexed more in the center, enabling him to run and climb more efficiently. The unbending footwear had made him feel like he had grown hooves like a horse for the longest time. Vincent flexed his feet and felt the protest of long unused muscles. It felt... good.

The image of the Dark One on the ledge came to mind, sprawled in the hot sun, unselfconsciously scratching his belly with a long claw. What would it feel like, to be that free? A pang of fear struck, out of habit, as Vincent contemplated that side of his nature. The side he had always suppressed, hidden even from himself. The side he had considered merciless, evil, a vicious beast. In a way, that conceptualization had made the suppression easier. But, when he recalled the face from his dreams, the black snarling visage was quickly supplanted by a mirror of his own. Pleading blue eyes begged for his understanding. "Do not fear because you do not understand. Trust Me. Learn. Know." Could it be true? Could it be, because the only times he ever allowed his control to slide were cases of grave danger, that he had only ever seen that one aspect of his other nature? Was there more?

Intense concentration was interrupted by the need to assuage the intense itching across his back. Not surprising, considering he had hiked over full day alone, therefore using his natural long-striding gait. The exercise had resulted in a coating of sweat that, now that it was drying, itched like fury. The whispering river beckoned, promising relief and cleanliness. Almost out of habit Vincent hesitated before beginning to remove his garments. Dropping the last to the sand, he gingerly made his way to the riverbank. He was met by his reflection, rippling slightly with the movement of the water. Beginning to avert his eyes, he stopped and forced himself to look directly into the mirror-like surface.

In form alone, what met his eyes was not exactly displeasing. His shoulders were broad and heavy, displaying strong musculature, as did his arms. A flat stomach tapered to narrow, trim hips. Long, heavily muscled legs spoke of endurance and strength. In shape, he was the equivalent to any well-built human male. It was the peripherals that showed his alienness, face, hands, and feet. Foremost was his face. His friends were all familiar with the lion-like features; the broad, furred nose, deep set eyes, high cheekbones and a split, muzzle like upper lip, the long white fangs beneath which he tried so hard to keep from exposing and the thick, mane-like hair. It was not vanity that kept him from cutting it. The long outer hair disguised a short but thick and heavy undercoat. A brief smile appeared as Vincent recalled his one and only attempt at a haircut. Apparently many children tried, at some point, to cut their own hair, and he had been no exception. Mary's sewing scissors had been ideal for the task, or so he had thought. Father had tried to repair the damage, but the whole mess had had to be cut off at a one-inch length. For months he had looked like a shorn sheep, the lighter undercoat fully revealed. Even a hat couldn't completely hide the wreckage.

Padding had been used to conceal his shoulders. All of his garments had shoulder padding to a degree, but not nearly as much as people thought. Vincent turned slightly to view his back. His heavy mane did not end at the normal human neckline, but spread out over his shoulders and down his back to his waist in a tapering V. The pattern was mirrored on his chest, but here the luxurious waves of copper-gold arrowed downward from navel to groin. On his shoulders the thick fur continued, growing much shorter and flatter down his arms, heavier below the elbows to his hands. From the waist to knees he was relatively 'normal', but below his knees the heavy copper fur appeared again and spread down to his toes. It was a body that, although structurally similar, had such obvious differences that it could never be considered fully human.

"What is wrong with not being human?" the remembered voice of the other softly asked. Vincent looked again at his reflection. Lifelong attitudes of self-hatred warred with the wondrous possibility of acceptance and pride offered by his other nature. A stray breeze ruffled the mane on his back, lifting it pleasantly. From the back of his mind, temptation beckoned. A rough but kind rumble, "You think too much. Just be."

With a shuddering breath, Vincent contemplated the idea. What would happen if, in answer, he let go the strict control he had exerted for what felt like his entire life? Dare he trust that he would not lose himself completely, forever? Memories of the beast as he had envisioned it during his illness, black and gloating, hateful of his very existence, oozed through his consciousness. But this image fell at the remembrance of the lethal claws that, holding his very life in their grip, had unexpectedly eased and released. For a moment, sorrowful blue eyes appeared. "Please, don't send me back to the darkness... I cannot survive there any longer." Inhaling, Vincent closed his eyes and slowly, brick by brick, began to dissolve that solid wall he had so painstakingly constructed throughout his life to contain the beast.

* * * * *

Water. The iron tang of dissolved minerals. Enticing scent of cheese sandwich, from the pack behind him. Soft hurried scuttle-steps mice on a ledge above smell food too. Small splash of water fish swimming near had touched the surface quick. Yumm, fish. Slow slow easy into water. Not too cold. Look there – fish!  Wait still stay still patient. Curious fish closer closer - strike!

Vincent's hand struck downwards almost too swiftly for eyes to follow, claws extended. There was a brief resistance, then give as sharp curved claws impaled the fish, and the follow-through tossed its thrashing body to the riverbank. Delighted, Vincent gave a rumbling half roar and splashed through the water to reach the white, blind cavefish that flopped on the shore. Raising the still wriggling form, he turned it to find the best spot for the first bite and stiffened suddenly, upper lip curled back in a low snarl.

The other. Resolutely, he hardened to fight being sent back to the darkness, the aloneness. But the expected wall did not come crashing down; the push to the back, to go away, never came. Puzzled, Vincent cocked his head, curious now, and listened.

His back still itched abominably, and in the pack there was clean soap and a towel. A bath would fix that, and feel so good. Later, afterwards, a warm fire and hot cooked fish. With spices that the big food-man always put in his pack. And salt. Fearing a trap, Vincent pushed the gentle urging away. For a moment, he felt the wall start back. Reflexively, the mane on his spine stiffened, and a low rumbled growl again echoed through the cavern. But, inexplicably, the push eased off, and then stopped altogether. Blinking in amazement, Vincent realized that he felt nothing but grudging acceptance from that other presence. And acquiescence. Another ripple of itch skittered down his back, as the fish wriggled weakly. Cocking his head, a small smile appeared as Vincent strode further up the bank and began to hunt up the soap.

Somewhat later, after a satisfying bath complete with a back scrub using a rough rock outcropping, and a hot meal of spiced roasted fish, Vincent settled back on the bedroll that he always kept for his visits here. Rummaging in the pack for some dessert, underneath the sugar cookies he found the single book he had brought with him, and turned it over in his hands. There was still a faint trace of Catherine-scent clinging to the binding, and he inhaled it appreciatively. She had given him this book in her apartment, during the time he had fought the other. There were rabbits on the front picture. The sense of rabbit filled him, warm twitch flash of white tail running. Maybe a story about hunting rabbits? Curiosity growing, Vincent riffled through the book, but found the indecipherable contents frustrating. But the other... he knew how to make the black scratches into stories...

A low growl echoed off the cavern walls. The other! Again he was there, asking. Asking!? to come close. Vincent once again cocked his head and listened. Yes, the story would be fun for both... Slowly, warily, Vincent allowed the other presence in his mind to manifest. The tiny black marks in the book began to gain meaning and sense.

Drawn by a deceptively simple story about a group of rabbits entitled 'Watership Down', two distinct sides of the same being began to intertwine.


Continued in Chapter 9