“Can you hear her thoughts?” Kit asked, reminding Chris abruptly that he wasn’t alone.
“Not yet, that’s not how it works for me. I have to touch her skin to have access to her mind.”
And he might as well get on with it, he told himself forcefully. The sooner he started, the faster he could get out of here and forget this whole thing.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he slowly reached out toward Mary’s right hand, curling his fingers over her wrist. If she felt his touch, she didn’t show it, and didn’t react in any way.
Immediately, Chris could understand why his telepath peers had both heard too little and too much from the same person. The surface of Mary’s thoughts was as smooth and undisturbed as the surface of a lake when no hint of wind disturbs it. He was tempted to stop the experiment there and say he hadn’t heard anything at all, but the truth was that he could hear something. A lot of things, in fact. They just came from a deeper place than he was used to exploring in someone he didn’t know.
His curiosity got the best of him. He couldn’t figure out what that roaring, whooshing sound was, and something inside him demanded to know. Closing his eyes, he pressed in deeper inside Mary’s mind, projecting out calm and a sense of peace.
Without warning, he breached past the surface of that too calm lake and plunged right into a world of fire.
As flames rose all around him, enveloping an apocalyptic landscape, he had to remind himself that none of this was real. The fire couldn’t burn him, nor could those ugly beasts running toward him do him any harm. They had a vague dog shape, but too many legs like a spider, and oversized mouths in distorted human faces. He had a hard time not recoiling in horror as they came ever closer.
He thought at first they were after him, but he soon noticed the little girl running just ahead of them and slowly losing ground. Was that Mary, or at least a representation of who she thought she was? If she considered herself a helpless child, it might explain why she let others take care of her body as though she were an infant.
Without really thinking about what he was doing, he started jogging toward the little girl. The monsters didn’t exist any more than the fire did, he knew that, but it didn’t stop every last one of his instincts from demanding he help the kid.
Before he was close enough to reach her however, a dragon appeared, its wings damaged and its side bloodied. It breathed fire at the monsters, and they retreated with yelps of pain… although they didn’t go far, and continued to lurk just out of reach. The little girl collapsed in front of the dragon, who curled around her, clearly ready to attack anything or anyone who came too close.
Chris had seen enough. The flames might be mere figments of Mary’s imagination, he still had no desire to have the dragon breathe fire on him just to attempt talking with someone who’d mentally regressed to the age of a first-grader rather than face the world. He was out of his depth, and Lily Littlewings would simply have to accept that.
As he retreated out of Mary’s mind, he had to blink repeatedly to chase away the lingering images of that wounded dragon surrounded by flames. He looked down without realizing what he was doing, and blinked again when he noticed a couple of letters on Mary’s skin, just above the place where he was holding her wrist. Suddenly very conscious that Kit was mere feet away and observing him, he shifted his hold on Mary’s wrist to uncover her entire mate tattoo.
His own name was spelled in thick dark letters on her delicate skin.
He tried to tell himself it was a common name and that it didn’t mean anything—it didn’t mean that she was his mate—but already his mind was finding clues that it may be otherwise. Petro had seen the name on his wrist, and in the plane he’d double-checked whether Chris was his full name or a nickname. And then, at the reception, Lily had seemed utterly convinced he’d change his mind about helping the woman if he only met her… Had she known what name was on her wrist—and on his?
Still, even if his name was on her wrist, the name on his wrist wasn’t hers… was it?
Wrenching his eyes away from her, he looked at Kit. His throat felt tight, and he had to push the words out.
“You said her name is Mary? How do you know if she doesn’t talk?”
“The squad who pulled her out of her jail, they said her name was on the door of her cell. That’s how I knew to call her Mary. Well, Marigold actually, but I’ve been trying to build some familiarity with her. Plus Marigold is a bit of a mouthful.”
He tried hard not to look at his own wrist. He remembered being four or five and pointing at each letter in turn, spelling out the name he’d had a hard time learning to pronounce right. It was the first word he’d learned to write, before even his own name; it was easier than his name because the example was always right there, on his wrist.