This story originally appeared in the now out-of-print fanzine Heart of the Minstrel II, in 1991. Beauty and the Beast and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans.

Turnabout

by BeeDrew


Vincent paused at the mouth of the drainage tunnel, expertly assessing the length of the shadows that reached their long fingers toward him. It was not yet safe to walk abroad in the Park, but he could settle quietly just a few yards from the tunnel entrance, and wait for Catherine.

Silently on his suede-booted feet, he glided into the lee of the trees near the drainage tunnel and found a comfortable, only slightly damp place to sit against the gentle slope of land behind him. His cloak offered warmth, and allowed him to blend into the dark neutrals of trees and scrub.

There was still light enough to read by. She had said she might be late, and he opened the leather-bound book he had brought, intending to while away the time within its pages. Idylls of the King. He smiled slightly, remembering. This spot, beloved ever since she had come pelting across the dew-slick grass and thrown herself back into his arms, into his life, had become just a little more magical after the advent of Kristopher Gentian.

For an hour, Vincent walked with Arthur, pined for Guenevere, and suffered Lancelot's torment. As the light faded and the words blurred and he floated on the bier with the Lady of Shallot, he dropped his golden head onto bent knees, and slept.

*****

Eyes opened. Ferret-like, angry even on awakening, they flicked over the landscape before them, searching for threats. Or opportunities. Instantly, they fastened on the still, massive form huddled below and to the left. The watcher froze.

He had staggered to this remote corner sometime before dawn, needing a safe place in which to surrender to the pull of the alcohol in his blood. The round welcome of the drainage tunnel beckoned, but the chance was too great that others might take shelter there, and that he'd wake up without his coat and shoes--or not wake up at all. So he had stretched out among the leaves heaped against a thick tangle of bushes, and gone to sleep.

If he'd ever had a name that mattered, he'd thrown it off long ago. Perhaps he'd left it behind among the peanut shells on the floor of a bar. Perhaps he'd sold or traded it for a needleful of forgetting. Or maybe, he'd stuck it to the face of one of the children he'd blown to pulp in that wet green nightmare, with the gun they had forced into his hand. His rage had spat from it, red against the green, as unavoidable as orgasm.

Yet somewhere, somehow, his young rage had grown old. It was rotten now, ill-fitting. Someone else should wear it.

His eyes narrowed and he barely breathed, studying the unmoving figure below him. The black blanket looked warm--he coveted it--and the only other detail he could make out besides the man's size was his long, tangled blonde hair. Long-haired freak. What was he doing here?

Sleeping, he finally realized. Most likely a stray, like himself, who'd found a quiet--but unfortunately, occupied--place to pass out. Somehow, though, the lines of this figure belied that theory. Too strong, too easy and defined, even in defenseless slumber. This man simply liked it here, felt safe enough to fall asleep.

The watcher clenched a thick-ended bottle in one scrawny fist. It was long empty, but he held onto it anyway. Like a lifeline, like a mother's hand. He'd find a way to fill it again. As he stirred, a foul odor wafted from his clothing--dirt, urine, gin-scented vomit.

His was not a gentle failure, a quiet sighing away into nonentity, like some of the stumblebums who haunted the park, apologetically waiting to be rousted by the police, or frozen to death, or starved into scrambling for the popcorn passersby threw to the birds and sifting the trashcans for hotdog leavings. No. His was an angry, acid failure, full of indignation at a world that denied him his due. That took his sturdy twenty-year-old body and shot it full of holes, then full of drugs, and shipped it stateside again, used up. And then made him know what a fool he'd been to go in the first place.

He glared, hating, at the oblivious figure below. Freak, long-haired freak! He flung the thought, hot and silent, at the sleeping man. He flung it out against what he knew himself to be: pitiable. Ragged, filthy, pitiable. What right had that one to his peace, his rest, in the purple twilight?

His lips tightened back over yellowed teeth as he gripped the bottle, feeling the rage coil within. He began to move forward.

*****

Catherine walked quickly, every third step a sort of hurry-skip that took her closer to her rendezvous with Vincent. She hadn't seen him in nearly a week, and it was all she could do not to break into an undignified run, but she was still dressed for work. Her trim, lightweight slacks and jacket did little to cut the keen wind that swept her hair back from her forehead and set leaves spinning around her feet. She had no doubt that she could talk Vincent into sharing his cloak. Unconsciously, she smiled.

*****

Nearly close enough now. With practiced stealth he'd rarely used since 'Nam, he crept closer to the target. A wind came up, whipping the treetops into a crackling frenzy that covered the sound of his approach. Still the mark had not moved.

The watcher smiled. Memory drew his arm back--he gripped the bottle like the handle of his machete; he swung it in an arc that carried all the horrified release of killing. Pleasure coursed through him--pleasure he should never have known--pleasure he'd tried to extinguish by killing again, and again, trying to make it meaningless, trying to make it quit following him.

Just as he would have struck a blow to the back of that blonde head, his victim jerked around. He felt a tight spurt of fear as he caught the gleam of fangs and heard an animal's snarl above the wind, but it was too late to break off the attack. The bottle connected against an impossible face in a hail of broken glass. The man--creature, whatever--slumped heavily to the ground, its eyes open but vacant. The watcher floundered back a few paces, aghast at the sight of its face--its claws. Then he slewed around wildly at the sound of running footsteps.

*****

Catherine saw Vincent and his danger at the same instant. Her throat closed on a scream of warning that would have been too late anyway. She ran. Her purse fell from nerveless hands and she knew nothing but white, incandescent rage as she closed on Vincent's attacker.

He lashed out with the jagged neck of the bottle, but she kicked it effortlessly from his hand. A chopping blow to his throat and a hard shove sent him over backward, and he screamed as his hands landed amid the broken glass. He rolled, still gagging for air, and tried to crawl away.

Catherine came after him, her breath so loud it was almost a growl. She wanted to hit him again, make him go down, pummel him with her fists and feel his bones splinter beneath her strength.

"No--no--" he begged, holding up a palm laced with bloody ribbons. He screamed as she took another step toward him.

"Catherine!"

It was Vincent, weak, pushing himself up on his elbows as blood streamed down his temple and dripped off his chin.

The quivering, graveled name punched through her fury, held her poised and uncertain, long enough for the attacker to lurch to his feet and run. Panting, fists clenched, Catherine stared after the retreating figure. She sent him a dark, green-eyed promise of further punishment if he dared to come back, and ran to Vincent.

She knelt beside him and helped him turn over, holding his unsteady head against her. "Vincent. Oh, God. Are you all right?"

Her breaths came in heavy gusts, and she still trembled with the waning fear. She watched him try to frame words, then shake his blood-matted head in bewilderment. She had to see how badly he was hurt. Gingerly, she eased him to the ground, pillowing his head on a fold of his cloak, and sprinted to retrieve her purse.

*****

Vincent lay as she'd left him, dazed, slowly collecting his thoughts like interesting rocks gathered at random from a creekbed. He reached with shaking fingers to trace the swelling bruise on his head and the split skin which still oozed blood.

The blow had, as Father would have put it, "thoroughly cleaned his clock." His senses felt scrambled and disjointed, so that he couldn't be sure he'd really seen what he thought he had: a feral Catherine, launching herself in blind rage at the one who'd attacked him. And she'd driven him off, every bit as efficiently as Vincent could have.

Abruptly she was back, her breath warm against his face as she held up a flashlight to examine his wound. She winced with him as the brightness stabbed his eyes, but did not lower the light until she had assured herself that his injury was not serious. She slipped out of her jacket and used a fold of it to dab at the blood.

"It doesn't look too bad. There's quite a goose-egg, but the bleeding's almost stopped. Let's get you to Father."

He slowly sat up, and she allowed him a moment to rest before she gently guided one of his arms around her shoulders and lifted him to his rubbery legs. Vincent clutched Idylls of the King so tightly that his claws scored the leather, swallowing convulsively as his stomach surged up to the back of his throat. He was determined not to humiliate himself by spewing his dinner, but there was a six-inch lead spike riding behind his left eye. He groaned slightly as they stumbled onto the concrete and took small, halting steps toward the tunnel entrance.

They reached the gate, and Vincent cringed at the screech it made swinging open. Catherine nudged him to rest against the stone wall as she operated the lever that granted entrance to the world Below. She helped him through the opening and turned to close it again. They were safe.

Catherine took the book of Tennyson and shoved it under her shirt in order to spare him even that small weight. She tied the arms of her jacket at her waist before she again brought one of his arms around her shoulders and curved hers around his torso, urging his uncertain feet down the torchlit passage.

Gradually, the pain dulled to a manageable pounding, and his thoughts stopped jostling like carousel horses out of sync with the tinny ringing in his ears. He drew a deep, steadying breath.

"Catherine."

"Yes, Vincent." A little breathless from the exertion of defending him, and now supporting him, she clipped her words short, saving strength for the single-minded purpose of getting him home.

"You hurt that man badly."

"I certainly did."

Vincent considered that, tasting her words and the color of her emotions. She was accepting of what she'd done, unconcerned. Her chief feeling now was anxiety over his health, laced with fading anger at his assailant.

Beneath the limp weight of his arm, he felt her blouse and the skin beneath it grow moist with sweat. The touch was shudderingly intimate, and he blurted words into the space between them.

"You were angry."

She snorted. "Angry? I was crazy! I saw him hit you with that bottle when I was still yards away. And that's the last thing I clearly remember until your voice, saying my name."

Vincent kept silent for awhile. "I believe I know exactly what you mean," he said at length.

She laughed, and he felt the vibration of it against his ribs. "Quite a switch, isn't it? You in peril, me to the rescue." A tautness lay beneath her light tone as she reached up to give his hand a warm squeeze. "I'll never let anyone hurt you, Vincent. I'll protect you whenever I can."

So simple. So absurd, that this hundred-pound scrap would propose to protect one such as himself. Yet she did propose it--more than that, she had done it. And he knew, with a clarity that drove back the pain in his head and the faint, ebbing nausea, what had so electrified him as he'd watched her tear into her opponent. His feeling had not been fear for her, or astonishment at her ferocity. It had been recognition. Her berserker fury was the twin of his own; she'd had no more control than he had at such times. And she was not horrified by it, was not ashamed of its presence within her.

Nor was he.

The revelation would bear much thought, but just now he was too exhausted to do more than shove the idea aside for later. He tried to pick up his feet and help her a bit, but they were like the granite blocks in Winslow's makeshift smithy.

"Not much farther, Vincent," she encouraged him, lifting her hand to pat his chest.

He sighed. "You're an optimist, Catherine. One with a bad memory for the length of this tunnel."

She laughed again, and they walked on in silence. Vincent's gait grew more steady as his body came back from the shock, and the pain receded even further. He could have walked without her support, but that didn't make him take his arm from her shoulders, nor urge her warm grip away from his body.

Catherine gave a sudden giggle. "I wonder what Father will say when you tell him you were mugged in the Park."

Vincent had to smile. "He'll have a few choice words," he admitted. "I wish we could have helped that man."

He was startled when Catherine jerked to a halt, making him stumble.

"What? What did you say?"

He cocked his head to the side and looked down at her. "I wish we could have helped him," he repeated. "He was in pain. I felt it."

"Was that before or after he knocked you senseless?" she demanded, exasperation clear in her voice. "He attacked you without provocation. He's..." She shook her head, unable to find words to express her disgust.

Vincent shrugged, and turned to resume their journey. He desperately needed to sit down, sip some tea, and press something cold and wet to his head. "I never heard him coming at me. But just before he struck, I felt his pain. Deep, old pain. He needs help. He was a soldier." Vincent blinked as a repulsive, split-second memory flickered to life, a bitter aftertaste of his attacker's black anguish.

"He was only trying to bring some of the pain out." Vincent gestured vaguely with one hand, finding it difficult, as always, to explain the ineffable quality of the things his empathy told him.

Catherine muttered something ("Oh for God's sake, Vincent, give it a rest") and her beloved grinned slightly. It might be best to pretend he hadn't heard that. He tried to explain further. "It's consuming him. That kind of pain eats a man alive, like cancer. We have some Below like him. They have healed."

Catherine gave him a rueful laugh, and a forgiving squeeze around the waist. "All right, Vincent, have it your way. But if he comes back with a bigger bottle, you may have the honors."

"Turnabout is fair play," Vincent agreed.

End