The Man Who Talked to Cats and Other Troubles
Written for thetidebreaks in Yuletide 2014
Pairing: Duke Crocker/Jennifer Mason (Haven)
Length: 5292 words
Summary: Jennifer sets about her own investigation of the Troubles, their reality or otherwise and its reflection on her sanity, and ultimately what it means to be Troubled in Haven.
The Man Who Talked to Cats and Other Troubles
There was a man in Haven who talked to cats.
Jennifer first saw him while she was buying herself a coffee, as she reached over the counter to pay. He was in the street outside, white-haired, maybe pushing ninety, neatly turned out in a grey suit, but he had scuffs of mud on his shoes and the ends of his suit-pants. His tall, thin body was angled down toward a black and white feline whose own body was poised as if interested, listening, communicating with the old fellow leaning over it.
At first glance she thought, Adorable. Second glance, she squinted and detected a certain... oddness... in the pose of the man and beast combined. Third glance was enough that she left the coffee shop and followed them down the street when they moved off together, then scuttled around a block to catch up and cut them off.
When she walked past from the front, she could see that the man's lips were definitely moving, his face a picture of the changing expressions of deep conversation. And the same went for the cat.
With her heart jumping about a bit too excitedly, she turned back to the police station (Nathan was there, so was Duke, and that seemed to be the way things were. She was working up to asking the question of how this fit in with his identity of Criminal With A Heart of Gold). She hurried to tell Duke what she'd seen, but he laughed briefly and looked wearily sarcastic and said he wasn't surprised.
"But I thought that the Troubles were bad," Jen said. "That old man looked happy."
Duke's face twisted and he said, "Well... Maybe it's not a Trouble," earning Jen's glare.
"That's not what I want to hear! If you live in a town where people control the weather, then old men can talk to cats!" she raged.
He looked baffled as she smacked him on the shoulder.
Then, Nathan fell back through the door of the office mid-argument with another of the constant stream of people who didn't like him, and she didn't get to quiz Duke properly on anything else.
Even if Duke wasn't interested, Jen kept a look-out for that old man, and saw him again a few times in the next few days, each time with another feline in tow.
Closer to home, the more accessible oddity in the form of Nathan proved at times a guilty curiosity and a temptation too far. Jen knew that Jordan and Dwight were both also Troubled, and they were around Duke a lot, too, but Nathan was around more and they were also more intimidating - well, Nathan was intimidating, after that first meeting, and the bikers. But... but he was not particularly imposing, because someone couldn't really be imposing after smelling like that in front of you.
"Don't do that," Duke murmured, pulling her hand down from surreptitiously playing with the long stem of grass she'd plucked from the edge of the road, while they struggled to keep up with Nathan as he moved in his customary single-minded charge. Which had made it really difficult, Duke should appreciate, to target his ear with the grass, and Jen gave him a sour look.
Duke repeated, "Don't do that," with a bit more emphasis as she poked Nathan in the back in the coffee shop, watching his non-reaction with fascination and biting her lip. She was convinced that any moment he must feel something from it and turn around to berate her.
"What?" Nathan asked, absently turning his head to address Duke.
"Nothing, Nate." Duke gripped his shoulder in full line of sight. "You drink your coffee."
Jennifer rounded him from the other side and pretended she'd just got back from the ladies' room, but she quizzed Duke on his protectiveness later.
"Well, because..." Duke gestured in that amusing way he had of giving pause, and took in a long breath. "Some people... wrong, reprehensible people... in the past... might have taken advantage. I wouldn't be doing my duty as a friend if I didn't protect him."
"That was totally you," Jennifer stated as the facts clicked.
"It was me," Duke admitted, sighing and taking that with far more gravity than she had anticipated. "He can't feel any of it, Jen. Accept it."
Dwight's Trouble was too dangerous to try experimenting with. Jen thought about sidling close and poking Jordan, who showed a lot of bare arm for someone who supposedly didn't want skin contact, but was rather nervous of going through with it.
"So her skin really hurts?" she checked with Duke, as they were watching Jordan stride down the police station corridor in all her leather. "Like really, really hurts? Or just like the little sort of zing or bump you get from brushing against an electric fence?"
"Really, really hurts," Duke said, and closed his hand around her finger, which she'd automatically crooked in readiness as she thought about Jordan-poking. Then he engulfed his hand around the rest of her hand as well. "Seriously, worst pain of your life hurts." He shut his eyes a moment. "Do not do it."
Jordan looked in their direction and glared like she could sense they were talking about her, but she made it past without getting poked. Jennifer sighed.
"Shit," Duke said. "Maybe we should just sit down with Nathan and let you poke him to your heart's content to get this out of your system. At worst, at least he'll only be pissy for a day or so."
He leaned against the wall and shook his head. Jen took the moment to peep after where Jordan had gone, but she'd turned off the corridor into Dwight's office. "They seem to spend a lot of time together. Are they a...?"
Duke looked pained. "If they are, Dwight's a braver man than I am."
"That's not very nice," Jen berated. "I'm sure she's... not so scary. Apart from the horrible pain inducing touch thing. And the murderous vendetta." She fiddled with her hands, still feeling the warmth transferred into her skin from Duke after he let her fingers go. "So can we go and... talk to Nathan?" she asked brightly, gesturing toward the exit.
Duke groaned. "Why don't you just go out and follow the creepy cat guy around town again?"
Jennifer blushed furiously. "I'm not doing that."
She didn't want to look like a twit in front of Duke. That was... that was crucial, somehow, and getting more so. But there were Troubles! Creepy, interesting, murderous, freakish, charming, deadly, crazy, ridiculous Troubles, that she didn't even really understand how they could exist. Jennifer couldn't forget that, couldn't ignore it. She had a brain that dug into things; she needed to investigate, to know.
"So you've had real, actual tests. Scientific, medical, doctor type tests, and scans, and concrete investigation?" she demanded of Nathan, who was drinking coffee on Duke's boat at 9AM in the morning, and Jen still kind of smelled that coffee-smell as if it was mixed up with the scent of burned up bodies and she was really hoping that would go away soon. Nathan didn't seem to be sleeping much and had already been over on the Cape Rouge when she got there for her breakfast date with Duke, hollow-eyed and ghostlike. Duke had first given her looks of apology at the presence of the interloper, but was now giving her looks of doom again at the line of questioning. She continued in a rush to get it out: "Because how would you know that this wasn't medical? I mean, it could be medical."
She could be crazy. She'd let Duke persuade her to go off the pills. She didn't want to be crazy, but she wasn't sure if she wanted to be off the pills, either. The voices had kind of been driving her crazy anyway before she'd started the pills.
Nathan shuffled. "Doctors never could find any physical cause. It fits with the timeline - 1983 and then the last few years here, now. And Max Hansen - he was supposed to be my biological father - he had the same thing. Troubles run in families."
"So it's genetic," Jen said. "An unknown genetic medical condition."
"And the years?" Duke asked, looking like he was asking in spite of himself.
"Chance." She pulled a face. Maybe it was a stretch, but then so was leaping from a quantifiable physical condition to, no it's a supernatural Trouble!
Nathan gave her a sober look. "It took a long time for me to admit it, too."
Jen spluttered. "No, it's not- that's not what I-" Because that sort of comeback was not what she'd grown to expect from Nathan Wuornos. She huffed and turned away as Duke gave a snort of laughter and clapped Nathan on the shoulder, even if Nathan only looked mildly irritable and shoved him off.
If the voices came back, she thought, that still didn't prove this was magic. Or whatever the Troubles were actually supposed to be. The flutter of panic was expanding inside her chest, and Duke had turned out to be a real person but what if that was... was chance. It could be some weird deja vu thing! What if she only thought she'd recognised him because of a brain-hiccup and a reset in her already messed-up brain?
But things happened pretty quickly after that. First, things bringing with them a stifled sort of disgruntlement, that she didn't quite know how she should express, that Duke had been holding out on her and was also Troubled.
Then there was the invisible door, and that was pretty non-negotiable proof of where Jennifer stood, in amongst the mad and the Troubled and the people who were maybe mad and only thought they were Troubled. Especially after a woman fell out of it, proving that invisible doors could be real.
Jen was pretty sure that Lexie deWitt's arrival caused far too much chaos to be merely a figment of her own imagination.
The chaotic aftermath, throughout the next few days, of people trying to kill Nathan and then not trying to kill Nathan, of the Guard and the horrible possession Trouble and stabbing Duke with a pen, didn't give much time to stop for breath or thought. And after all the pieces finally fell down, then, after...
Not just after; the morning after.
Jen woke up next to Duke.
There were a lot of distractions in that. In that morning afterglow, feeling the subtle movements of the boat and running her hands over Duke's skin in the literal glow of the sunlight streaming in through the overhead window, she wasn't thinking about what it meant to be one of the freaks at all.
Jennifer stroked her hand as close as she dared to where the ugly circular indent on Duke's leg was covered by a small pad of gauze. "I'm really sorry."
"I'd rather that than what he'd planned for you," Duke said, and he rolled over and kissed her, only wincing and checking himself a little as he inevitably put pressure on that wounded leg.
"Idiot," she said, punching his shoulder gently. "I can see that it hurts, so don't pretend, alright?" She pushed him on his back again, where the wound wouldn't have his weight rested on it, then crouched over him and firmly kissed him. "How about you stop trying so hard to be macho..." She shyly trailed her fingers over his collarbones and down his sculpted chest. "And let me do the work on this one. Okay?"
Duke's voice turned very low and throaty as he responded, "No complaints here."
With Lexie around, it seemed that distracted Nathan from being in the Cape Rouge at inconvenient times of a morning. Jen was not sure she would have coped well with Nathan Wuornos showing up looking hang-dog and hollow-eyed while she was trying to have naked time with Duke.
It gave them more time for shenanigans, but it was seriously like Duke could not get away from the police in this town. Jennifer found herself tapping her heels later that same day while there was Another Trouble.
She wandered around the main streets again, reaffirming there was only so much shopping to be done in Haven, and that the little models of the lighthouses got really old really fast, to the point where she was starting to groan internally when she saw them ranged by the counter when she walked into a shop. She got herself a notebook and a coffee, and then sat in the window of the coffee shop - not the combusted-bodies coffee shop, but it still seemed to carry the smell of ash, and it was still really hard not to think about human immolation when she was in a coffee shop - and opened the notebook. She chewed nervously on a pen with Haven, Maine - a Perfect Seaside Visit and yet another little lighthouse on it. She had a good view out of the window, and anything that looked like a Trouble? She was on it.
There had to be people - other normal people, who didn't have killer blood, or suck other people's blood, or torture people with their touch - who she could maybe just go up and ask, "Hey, how do you do that? It's kinda interesting, and doesn't look harmful, and do you want to chat? Because I have a thing, too, one that doesn't kill people, and I just thought it would be nice to talk about it."
Because Nathan was even more Mr. Monosyllabic where his Trouble was the topic of conversation than at other times, and Duke was polarised and weird, and Dwight was still super intimidating, and Jen just really wanted a conversation.
An hour ticked by until Little Old Cat Guy ambled down the street with no less than three moggies trotting at his heels. Jen had intended to jump up and run out the minute she saw him, but the four of them looked so incredibly serious together that it gave her pause. She watched them instead. A fourth cat came up to join them, a big grey tom. The tom and the old man spoke gravely, and the old man's head hung a moment, before he nervously looked up and around.
Jen quickly abandoned the dregs of her coffee, and hurried outside to catch him before he was gone. "Excuse me!" She waved the notebook in the air as she ran. "Wait, wait, wait! What's wrong with them?" That came out in a thoughtless rush, and wasn't what she'd meant to say at all. "I mean..." She flailed. "I'm Jennifer... I'm Troubled, too, and I've... seen you around. All of you." She addressed the cats, then felt stupid. They understood the old man, not her. "I just thought that... you looked like something was wrong, and... maybe you'd like some help."
The old man stared at her, but the cats' stares were worse. Jennifer fumbled the book in her hand and backed off. "Or... maybe you're just fine." She gave a nervous laugh. But no. No, no no! "No, wait just one minute here. I know that you can talk to them!" she asserted in a frustrated explosion. "I've seen you do it. I talk to things, too... a big, supernatural barn stuck in between time and space. At least, I could hear it. I think it's dead now, though, the Barn. So I don't know what that makes me anymore."
She stared and waited, then compulsively dropped and reached to stroke behind the ears of the big grey tom cat. "I wish I could hear you," she crooned. "That sounds much, much more worthwhile than hearing a dead supernatural barn." The cat shook its head and whuffled at her fingers, whiskers tickling.
"You're the girl that came back with Duke Crocker," the old man said, with a trace of reluctance and, possibly, accusation.
"Ye-es." Jen stretched the word out, suddenly uneasy as she looked up at him. So the other Troubled watched, too. From what Duke had told her about the Crocker Legacy, maybe they had good reason to. Or not a good one. "Um," she summed up, feeling positioned as the enemy.
His face scrunched up, and he leaned over, leaned in really close, and for a moment didn't look so sweet or harmless and she was afraid of him. "They remember," he said. "Disasters. They don't lock the bad things out of their memory, the way people do."
"D-disasters?" Jennifer said, weakly. "That d-doesn't sound good." Cats milled around her ankles; orange, white, black, grey, bodies twisting and quick like furry eels. She wondered if she should try to run.
The old man nodded. "Hasn't happened, this one, since the turn of the century. But it's in the ground, the sky, the trees and the grasses. The insects are whispering it. The cats hear, and they know. They tell me the whole land itself will become hungry, and swallow and destroy all the things living on it."
"How?" Jen squeaked, straightening. That sounded really, really, really bad. "I mean, what can we do? If the land is-" Was Duke safe on his boat? Would he be on his boat or back helping Nathan and Lexie on land? That was too much chance! "How long do we have? Can we get everyone away? Can we get them out to sea?"
"Perhaps," the old man said, "but how will you persuade people to leave?"
The cats said so probably wasn't going to cut it. This was a good point. Jen frowned.
"Last time there was the woman, the one who's always been here when the Troubles are at their worst, and she stopped it before it went too far."
Jen winced. Right now they had Lexie, who didn't know anything. If Jen tried to tell Duke or Nathan about this, anyway, she was also terribly afraid they were just going to think she was crazy... Crazy like Duke thought the cat man was anyhow. Crazy all over again.
"Do they know whose Trouble it is?" she asked.
Weird old cat man nodded. "Not whose. But they know where it starts."
There was an estate tucked off to one side of the town, rendered almost invisible by walls and foliage and the changing height of the land, and the way the streets sort of coiled deceptively around it. She'd forgotten about it, even though the big house had looked very prominent on her first approach to Haven with Duke and Nathan in the car. Even the entrance was hidden, curling up what looked like just another drive on a regular street, but the drive stretched beyond and behind those other smaller houses, growing wider and turning into something rather grand.
Cats had flocked to them as they went through the town, and now there was a shifting cloud of them around their feet and stretching out for yards around them. Some townsfolk had stared and some had also crossed themselves, which seemed a funny reaction to have to a herd of cats.
Mr. Chester - weird old cat man had a name, now - pointed, but he didn't really need to. Jen could see where they were going because the cats were all angled that way like fluffy compass pointers with ears and tails.
There was a compact groundsman's cottage tucked in the shadows of the trees, surrounded by heavy undergrowth.
"But - but who lives in the house?" Jen hissed, weirdly terrified that those obviously important, eccentric, rich people might hear, because it was such an odd thing, right in the middle of town, so imposing yet so invisible at the same time.
Chester shooks his head. "It doesn't matter. It's not up there, it's down here." Then he angled his head and listened to the cats, and said, "Tomas says it's the Teagues estates. He's their mouser."
Jen blinked a lot.
With the sheer number of cats now, they were bordering on an alarming furry mass, and she bent down and picked up a tabby kitten that seemed in danger of getting crushed. It was squirmy as she clutched it in her folded arms and she asked Chester nervously, "What did the woman do last time, the woman who solves the Troubles? Do they know? I mean, they can't know, none of them can have been around, but-"
"They remember the blood on the grass and the pieces left sticking up from the earth when it stopped. They passed the memory down as a warning, so their descendants would recognise the signs, next time the land rebelled."
Okay, so... Jen tip-toed through long grass to the side of the cottage, though their party wasn't exactly subtle. Kitten in her arms, she looked through the window, at a room that was darkened, allowing her to see little within. There was nothing to indicate anyone at home. "He's a groundsman or gamekeeper... and that's a, a, sort of a custodian of the land kind of role," she said. "So that would make sense, if it was his Trouble, maybe? This place is almost slap-bang in the middle of Haven, so it wouldn't need so much spread to encompass the centre of town and account for the... cat... memories..."
"That's true," Chester said, a bit reluctantly, and didn't communicate with the cats, possibly afraid he'd offend them if he suggested the scale of this Trouble maybe wasn't quite so monumental after all. But cats were small and they didn't drive cars, so their view of the whole land rising up might be skewed. Not that this wouldn't be bad enough even if it only affected the middle of the town.
Maybe she should phone him and warn him to get out. But then he wouldn't get out, she thought, he'd want to come here. Next to the gruesome descriptions and all the doom hanging in the air, "because the cats said so" wasn't looking nearly so scary a declaration as earlier. Maybe she should phone Duke and ask Duke to bring Lexie.
But she was the one here now. She should at least have a look. She should go up and at least knock on that door.
She shushed her entourage and sidled around the cottage, followed by thirty-odd cats and a white haired old man.
She didn't feel anything change, but there was a sudden rise of noise from the cats - not yowling, exactly, because they were hushed, but a very disconsolate and agitated variation on mewing.
The white cat in the lead, slightly in front of Jennifer, faltered and started to fall. Jen had the kitten under her arm aready, and reaching out, she wasn't overly confident of having the leverage to grab the other cat, too.
Tomas, the big grey, the Teagues' mouser, lunged past her and barrelled into the white cat, pushing her out of the way.
Then Tomas was gone, and there was just a sticky red residue on the grass. The white cat was limping, with a red smear on its front leg like a grisly red sock.
"Into the house!" Jen yelped. She banged and dragged at the door, and it opened under her hands. The cats surged past her. Chester picked up the limping white cat.
Then Jen was inside, and Chester was shutting the door behind them. There was no guarantee of safety inside the cottage. It had been instinct to come in. But if the Troubled person was here, then surely the land couldn't eat that person, or the Trouble would stop almost before it had started. Right?
In either case, the Troubled person was exactly who they needed to talk to right now.
Jen blinked, her eyes adjusting too slowly to the gloom, and tried to calm the rapid panic in her breaths. "Stop!" she called desperately into the dark. "Whatever you're doing, you need to stop!" She tried to listen for response or movement, but thirty cats in a small room made that exceedingly difficult.
Chester found a light switch. The main room flooded with light. There was a kitchen area off to one side, grimy with age and neglect, outdated to begin with. The rest of the room was a sea of rugs over thick pile carpet, years of dirt and dust collected in the seams; there were great armchairs and a sofa similarly layered with the throw-blankets of ages past that looked like they'd swallow you whole if you sat down. A tiny old box TV, bookshelves crammed with heavy tomes on garden and land management, collections of brasses and porcelain animals. A short corridor led off to another room.
"In there?" Jen pointed, whispering timidly and, to her ears, still overly loud.
Chester nodded and led the way. She scrambled in nervously behind him, agitated cats spilling around both their ankles.
A strong scent of sickness hit her before they even entered the room at the end of that corridor. It was a tiny, messy bedroom, blankets piled on the bed over a pale, blinking, withered man who stared at them and scrabbled weakly to gain a more upright position. He already had a shotgun in his hand. "Get out of my house...!"
Jen raised her hands while the kitten clamped all four sets of claws to the front of her dress. "Please don't shoot!"
"We're not intruders," Chester said. "We're here to help."
"Why'd you bring all the cats inside?" The old fellow lowered the shotgun a little, but he was looking around with probably understandable dismay at the flood of animals inside his home. His thatch of dark grey hair stood up almost vertically after lying in bed. It might have made the situation a little bit funny, if it hadn't already been bloody and horrible.
"It was too dangerous for them to stay outside," Jen said urgently. "One of them was killed! Please, I think you're - you're doing something, without meaning to. You have a Trouble. Like Mr. Chester's cats." She nodded toward Chester. "But yours is going to hurt people if you don't control it."
"I-" His eyes flew wide. "I let the land go. I was always warned by my father, and my grandfather, who kept this place before me... But I never had family, never took on an apprentice, and it's... it was all too big. I was so tired, and sick this last week, and I couldn't... couldn't keep up anymore."
The cottage seemed to rumble underneath them.
Jen squeaked in panic trying to catch her balance; also in pain as the kitten stuck all its little claws solidly into her flesh as it scrambled up her shoulder.
"No," Chester said, swiftly, his voice serious and low. "You didn't let the land go. I'm here now, and it's not too late. You have people who can help."
"We'll talk to the Teagues," Jen said hurriedly. "I know them. They won't be mad. We'll fix this. Maybe... maybe we can get you an apprentice to help you with your duties from now."
Chester nodded with her. "Whatever happens, we'll see you and your responsibilities all right. That's a promise."
The face of the old man in the bed grew teary-eyed and grateful.
The ground seemed to quiet beneath their feet. Jen could hear the pounding of her heart still loud and urgent, but the ripple of relief was tangible through the flock of cats covering the bedroom floor.
"It's over," said Chester, in a low, comforting voice, gripping her shoulder. "They said it's over."
It was quite late by the time she got back to Duke's boat, and she had six messages and missed calls on her cellphone. This despite having hurriedly sent a text mid afternoon in answer to the previous two missed messages to say she was okay but busy. Because while Chester had started on the outsides of the grounds with his cat helpers, she'd frantically been cleaning Mr. Barnard's cottage, and talking to Teagues, and somewhat disturbingly trying to exercise her... wiles... on Teagues. So when she got back to the Cape Rouge she was dusty and flustered, and not feeling much like a someone who had helped to save the town.
But it still brought a buoyant feeling rising up in her as she saw Duke, wanting to tell him what they'd done even as he looked her up and down and beat her to the punch, asking incredulously "What have you been doing?"
"We saved Haven! The cats warned us, and we did it. Me, and Mr. Chester the crazy cat man - except he's really not crazy, and... shut up!" She made the last order in an angry, shocked expulsion as she saw his face. "We did! It really happened." She felt her expression crumple.
Duke blinked back at her in startlement. "You... and the cats... saved..." he began slowly, and she could see the wary cynicism taking over as his face flickered toward a hesitant smile, trying to take it for a joke.
Damn it, but this was real! It was as real as guns and Nathan and Audrey and dimensional barns, too. It was real and she had a gathering terrible feeling in her stomach he was never going to believe it.
Her stubbornness dug in. "You!" she scolded, jabbing her finger at him, in his apron, in his warm boat, surrounded by cooking smells. He who got to save people with guns and big gestures and heroics. How dare he? "It doesn't always have to be like that!" she raged, even though he looked completely baffled. "Maybe it's just as valid to... to save the world with cats, and cleaning. It was very, very dangerous! A brave hero died!" Poor Tomas... "Half the town was almost swallowed, and we only just stopped it in time. If it hadn't been for the cats... Now old Mr. Chester is going to help with the gardening to hold off the Trouble until the Teagues can find an apprentice for Mr. Barnard, and it's hard work and he's an old man, too, and that's amazing, and... shut up!" She glared at Duke as she saw his face shifting in a funny trapping-bees-in-his-mouth kind of way.
He really should understand.
He'd grown up here.
He should know that it wasn't the guns and betrayal and love, not the great big stories that would kill you, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
Troubles came from people, and came because people cared about all the small, silly, mundane-in-the-grand-scheme things that people cared about.
Jennifer huffed and crossed her arms and shook her head at him, before angling her jaw up at the ceiling.
Duke cleared his throat. "I'm sorry," he said slowly. "Why don't you tell me all about it over dinner. I won't doubt you... I don't doubt you. Really, I promise. How about it, Jen?" He cautiously moved closer and touched her face. She cocked her head and stared at him distrustfully.
"Come on," he cajoled, placing his hands on her slowly, waiting for her face to resume a favourable response before he dared to lean in for a quick peck of a kiss. Jen melted a bit beneath the softness of his lips. "How could I doubt you? Besides, I assure you, I've a dinner cooking that's fit for a conquering hero..."
The conquering hero caved after inhaling the cooking scents, vanquished by the liquid warmth of his eyes.
"Okay..." she sighed, conflicted. "Since you put it like that."
And even though she still wasn't convinced he was ever going to really believe her, she curled her hands in the front of his ridiculous apron, pulled him closer, and kissed him back.