The outside is forgotten
And the animal awakens....
I don't know who I am.
Sarah McLachlan: 'Black and White'
From the album: 'Surfacing'
The scent of flowers first caught her attention. Warm notes of roses, freesia and carnations topped off a deeper tone of leafy greenness. Why were flowers in the tunnels?
Curious, Catherine followed the scent around a vaguely familiar curve of rock and entered a chamber. The stone walls lacked that well-worn feel that was so prevalent in the more populated areas, and appeared as if freshly hewn. The room was filled with warm golden light. Candles, everywhere, of all sizes and shapes, glowed from the many small niches carved into the rock. The soft dancing light sparkled off the glass of her curio cabinet and the collection of glass eggs stored safely within. A familiar heavy wooden table was tucked into a corner, two well-loved chairs nearby. In an unconscious caress, her hand ran over the worn velvet of the largest. How she treasured her memories of Vincent in this chair, the medieval style lending an air of royalty as he read quietly, or wrote in his journal.
The scent of roses resolved itself in the single red blossom that lay on the table. The flower lay crosswise on an opened book, the rich red and green a stark contrast against white paper, underlining a small paragraph written just above the red bloom. Catherine lifted the rose and breathed in its rich fragrance appreciatively as she focused on the graceful script.
Today, I begin a new journal to record a new life. For both Catherine and I have been re-born, each in our own fashion. Our two worlds, never to meet except for brief moments out of time, have of necessity become one. It is my dream that, within this world, there should be a place set apart and that she would desire to dwell in that place, with me.
Smiling, Catherine brushed the soft petals against her lips. Through the bond, which had been nearly silent, her sense of Vincent blossomed. He was here, nearby. Looking up, she saw an open doorway, one not visible from the chamber entrance. Strange, actual doors were rare in the tunnels. Holding her rose, she slowly walked to the doorway to behold the second chamber.
Directly across from the entrance, the unexpected but well-loved glow from the half circle stained glass window softly illuminated the cozy chamber. To her right hung their portrait, the gift of Kristopher Gentian. Below the golden window, the familiar huge bed bore her Grandmother's Wedding Ring quilt and was strewn with flowers. Fragrant blooms were everywhere, in vases on the night table, in a basket by the door, draped across the unfamiliar new armoire. A bittersweet memory of another bed surfaced - a white one, covered with lilacs. Faced with this new reality, the wistful envy that memory held for her disappeared.
Gentle hands slid around her waist and she was pulled back to rest against the solid warm body of her Vincent. "Do you like it?" he whispered softly into her ear. Ripples of sensation shivered down her spine as his breath warmed her.
Catherine's hands moved up to enfold his and she leaned back into his embrace. "It's beautiful. I love it." The room shimmered as her eyes filled with happy tears.
"Then will you make your home here? With me?"
"Yes. Oh, yes." Catherine's joyful contemplation of her new home was broken and her attention was drawn back to the man who held her willingly captive. Vincent lowered his head and nuzzled into her hair just below her right ear. Gradually his movements began to tunnel through her long thick tresses, to reach and brush against the skin of her neck. She tensed, dragging in a long breath of anticipation. Through the bond, she could feel his pleasure and shy pride at her reaction. Teasing, he rubbed the side of his face against the line of her jaw, his soft fur leaving shivering sparklers of pleasure against her skin. A rough whimper escaped her. She clutched his hands in her own, sharp claws extending in response to his slow hypnotic caress.
Wild and sweetly rich, the scent of Catherine filled Vincent's senses. His hands left hers and slid slowly down her curves to bracket her hips. A low, sensual growl rumbled forth as he pulled her pliant body back against him, making no attempt to conceal his burgeoning male response. Deliberately, he grazed her neck with the side of a fang and she gasped in helpless reaction. Impatient, she attempted to turn in his arms, but her progress was halted as he swiftly reached up to grasp her shoulders, claws digging in. A tremble of sensual anticipation flowed through her as she felt the pressure of those rock-hard points as flares of delight. Firmly, Vincent reversed the partial turn so she was once again facing into the chamber and pulled her back against him.
A rumbling vibration from Vincent's torso shivered through her. The claws at her shoulders began a slow rhythmic kneading motion. A spear of intense pleasure lanced through her from each point of strong pressure. Finally, when she felt she could bear it no longer, she felt the drag of his lower lip across the sensitive skin of her neck. Catherine's entire awareness narrowed to that point of contact as he began to press moist, open-mouthed kisses against her flesh. The gentle suck of soft lips was an erotic contrast to the hard glide of his sharp fangs. Her breath stuttered unevenly, stopping each time those unyielding points made brief contact. Unable to help herself, she bent her head to the left in submission, allowing him open access to the flesh of her throat.
Vincent lifted his head several inches to regard her offering through a mist of sensuous delight. A soft blush of pink in the spots where he had softly sucked delicately marred her creamy skin, framed by golden brown hair, and the rosy places glistened wetly. In a low growl, as well as through the bond, he laid claim to the treasure that vibrated beneath his embrace. "Mine."
"Oh, God, yes. Vincent, please..." she moaned in response. The hot gust of his breath against her wet throat sent an intense shivery wave of unbearable anticipation through her. The claws on her shoulders tightened deliciously, all ten individual points of contact sending shafts of pure desire to her core. Slowly, too slowly, they began to trace down her back, each hard claw tip leaving a smooth line of fire. A soft, ripping noise followed – the sound of silk being slit by those razor claws, allowing his warm hands to slide inside her dress and find bare skin. With a deep sensual rumble Vincent' dragged his mouth down her exposed throat to set his teeth firmly against the muscle at the base.
Her knees began to buckle as her half moan, half roar of response sang out to echo through the chamber-
"Cathy! What's wrong? Wake up." The moist, hot feel of teeth and lips was replaced by grasping hands as someone shook her, snapping her out of her sensual haze. Vincent? What happened to Vincent? Vincent! Through her confusion she heard a harsh, grinding snarl, familiar yet not. Muscle groups around her upper lip and cheek convulsed strangely and the room took on a reddish tinge. Whipping around, she leapt to her feet, gaining her balance instantly. The sudden rank scent of fear from the intruder stung her nostrils. Reflexively, her right arm rose and a tight feeling clutched through her hands as she spun to face the attacker.
Peter stumbled back from the bed, until his back struck Catherine's make-up table. Various bottles and jars teetered alarmingly and several fell to the soft carpet. Eyes widening in terror, he beheld the snarling apparition before him. Eyes flashed savage fury above lips wrinkled into a vicious snarl. A snarl that exposed gleaming white fangs. Long deadly claws threatened evisceration-
"Cathy! It's OK! It just me, Peter! You're safe, you're OK! Everything's all right now." Peter shouted frantically, desperately trying to reach past the bestial savagery to the woman he knew was present underneath.
Catherine hesitated. This was a familiar voice, one that touched a memory of comfort and friendship. Blinking, she cast her other senses out. Vincent was not here. He was safe, below. And this was Peter, half sitting on her vanity table, holding up his open hands to her. A blanket of disorientation descended as adrenaline began to fade from her system. Taking a step backwards, she sank down on the bed and tried to calm her racing heart. Head down, she focused on her hands resting on her thighs. Hands which bore a short blanket of light brown fur on their backs, and fingers which were tipped in deadly looking, almost two inch long claws. Astonished, she lifted her right hand and slowly flexed her fingers. A relaxing sensation followed the engagement of muscles. Before her eyes the long claws retracted, to stop at slightly less than one inch in length, at what she had considered Vincent's normal claw length. "Wow," she breathed quietly.
"Cathy?" Peter asked tentatively, still unmoving. "Are you... all right?"
"Oh, God! I'm so sorry. What happened...? I didn't mean to scare you. I just... I don't know. I was dreaming, I think, and I thought..." Unbidden, thoughts of all the times she had watched Vincent struggle after the beast left him surfaced. So this was what it felt like. Reason, washed away by the incredible tide of adrenaline-fueled instinctive response, re-established itself only gradually. Scrambled thoughts needed time to re-order themselves. The dream had seemed so real...
Inexplicably, Catherine could still smell the perfume of flowers. Raising her eyes, she found a large bouquet of mixed blooms resting in a glass vase on the bedside table. Glancing back at Peter, she watched him pick up the fallen items from the vanity. He looked pretty shaken up. To give him time to collect himself, Catherine leaned over and plucked free the card that was nestled in the bouquet.
'Radcliffe: Take all the time you need, I'll clear it with Moreno. You just take care of yourself. We need you sassy and raring to go. Joe.'
Suddenly, Catherine felt a surge of grief, like a dam breaking under a force long withheld. She wouldn't be going back. Not now. Not ever. Not like this. She would have to go Below. There was no other place for her. Her job, her home, her friends, all would have to be given up. They wouldn't know her; she didn't even know herself anymore. Hot tears filled her eyes and a harsh sob surfaced too quickly to suppress. The muting blanket over her emotions, which had been present for the last few days, had lifted. Faced with this new reality, she wished it had never left. Catherine lowered her head into her hands and what she felt caused her a whip-crack of terror. A split, muzzle-like mouth, flattened furred nose, high cheekbones and tilted brows. And fangs. A rough wail of horror squeezed from her chest. Sobs burst from her in wracking gasps as she collapsed inward into the grief, curling into a tight ball.
Hesitantly, an arm slipped around her shoulders and Peter pulled her forward to nestle against his shoulder. Catherine reached out to grip his shirtfront in her hands; not hearing the pop as her claws punctured the cotton. Her shoulders heaved as shock, fear and disbelieving grief poured from her in waves, calming then rising again as the ramifications of her situation presented themselves in her mind's eye in slow succession. Never to take a copy of the Times to her favorite coffee shop, to enjoy espresso and people-watching. Or drive her car. She would never go to the movies again, or to a concert, or the bookstore. Having to hide her face, avoid anyone considered a stranger. Throughout the storm Peter cradled her comfortingly, murmuring the soft endearments that encouraged the ragged but cleansing outpour of emotion.
Gradually the horror and grief began to taper off, spates of crying separated by longer and longer interludes of quiet, until the worst had passed. Catherine still lay with her face buried in Peter's torn wet shirt. A shuddering gasp was wrung from her when she saw the holes, but there were no more tears left in her. Peter followed her gaze and wordlessly took her hands, disengaging the claws from the shredded gaps she had torn, giving them a gentle squeeze as he did so.
"How are you feeling?" Peter asked softly as he reached up to stroke Catherine's hair.
Mutely, she shook her head. How did she feel? Numb, mostly. Scared. Angry. Confused. "What... what day is this? It's not Monday, is it?"
"You don't remember?" At Catherine's confirming shake of her head, he lifted his head and closed his eyes briefly. "It's Thursday morning. You haven't been yourself. Do you remember anything?"
"Not really, it's all a fog. I remember you visiting on Monday and doing some tests. We talked a bit. Then nothing, really. I remember..."
"Yes, you remember-?"
"Climbing a cliff, and roaring? Did I do that?"
Peter couldn't contain a huff of reluctant amusement. "Well, not quite. You didn't climb a cliff, but you did run out and roar off the balcony. Nearly scared the wits out of me. I thought you might be delirious and jump off, but you moved too fast for me to stop you. Don't do that again, young lady!"
Catherine dropped her eyes, remorse clouding her vision. "I'm sorry Peter. About before. I almost attacked you. I don't know what happened. I just reacted. I was scared and confused, and I thought you had done something to Vincent... I didn't recognize you at first."
"Well," Peter said lightly, "I won't ever shake you to wake you up again, that's for sure. I've learned that lesson. How are you feeling otherwise? Physically?"
Catherine pondered that a moment. Physically? Different. Perceptions were altered. "Different. Peter - I can hear the people in the next apartment, getting ready for work I think. My sense of smell is stronger, it& it brings pictures into my head." Carefully, Catherine got up and walked the length of the bedroom. "I feel lighter. My voice sounds different. I feel... fine. A bit hungry." Catherine looked down at the blue silk pajamas and sniffed. "I need a shower."
Peter watched Catherine carefully as he listened to her descriptions. She moved differently. More fluidly, graceful. His eyes traveled to her feet, where he observed the slight rolling flex from heel to ball as the increased range of motion of the tarsal and metatarsal joints made itself obvious. He had seen all this before, in a young child adopted over thirty years ago by his friend Jacob. "I don't doubt that! You were a bit much for an old fellow like me to handle. So, why don't you go and take that shower while I rustle you up some breakfast. We'll talk then. All right?"
It was like looking at a stranger. One who you were sure you've met before, but can't quite recall when or where.
Catherine stood in the bathroom in front of the large mirror above the sink. The facial features reflected back at her were so familiar. The resemblance to a lion was less in her than in Vincent, but apparent. Leaning closer, she examined her face minutely. Her eyes hadn't changed, just everything else. She noted with wry thanks that, except for her nose, unlike Vincent she hadn't grown hair on her cheeks or anywhere else on her face. Her mouth tasted like a sewer. Placing some toothpaste on her brush, she turned on the faucet and wet her brush. Bringing the brush to her mouth, she hesitated. She had yet to see what she had felt. The long beast-like fangs she knew were there. Resolutely, she opened her mouth.
Yes, the fangs were there, long and white. But the process of opening her mouth brought other changes to the fore. Her lower jaw operated normally, but her upper did not. Attempting to stretch her lips vertically was almost impossible. Water ran down the drain unheeded as she experimented. No wonder Vincent didn't smile often. It was hard. Her upper lip felt stiff, although to her fingertips it was soft and pliable. The roof of her mouth felt more ridged and, tilting her head up so light shone down, she could see the pronounced ripples. Sudden awareness of the toothbrush in her hand brought her back to her original intent and cautiously she brushed her teeth. The roof of her mouth was intensely sensitive and ticklish; she almost choked on a mouthful of minty foam in shock at that particular revelation. Finally she rinsed, spat, and turned off the water.
Her hair looked like it had been subjected to a rabid hairstylist with a teasing comb. A good brushing helped, but did not completely reduce the softly teased look, even through the dirt and grease accumulated from four days without washing. Dragging the comb through, it felt thicker. Apprehensive fingers found a dense, lighter undercoat of hair close to her scalp; hair of the same approximate color as that which covered her nose, hands, and feet.
Finally, all peripheral grooming chores done, it was time to face the music. The hands, face, and feet were all familiar to her, through Vincent. But what lay under the clothes, that was a mystery. For several minutes she stood frozen, unable to continue for fear of what she might find. But one can only put the inevitable off for so long. Closing her eyes, she removed her pajamas. After drawing a deep, tremulous breath, she looked in her mirror. Examining what she saw reflected back minutely, she had to admit it wasn't as bad as she imagined.
Her body was basically the same. A little more muscular and toned looking, but that in and of itself wasn't a bad thing. Her upper arms below the elbows were covered with fur, sleeker and smoother than what she had seen on Vincent, and darker, as were her legs below the knees. Turning to look at her back, she at first thought her hair had grown. With difficulty, Catherine reached back and realized that her hairline now extended to midway down her back, stopping just below the shoulder blades in a rough point. It didn't really look all that bad, just like she had very long layered hair. The claws on her hands were about an inch long, but a remembered reflex caused her to experimentally tighten the muscles below the second knuckle. Noiselessly but swiftly they extended, doubling their length. The toilet lid was lowered and she propped one of her feet on it. They seemed longer than they had been; a size six shoe might not fit anymore. The claws on her foot were roughly the same as those on her hands, about a half-inch long. The same sort of muscular tensing caused these to extend as well.
Clearly, Catherine could hear Peter rummaging around in the kitchen. Her mouth watered at the sound of an eggshell cracking. Soon she was scrubbing four days of itchy sweat from her body. Well, at least showers felt the same, she thought with only a tinge of hysteria.
The sharp clink of a fork hitting china sounded for the last time and Catherine pushed away her plate with a groan. At least her appetite was closer to normal. She hadn't packed back a dozen eggs this time, something she could vaguely remember doing. Back to near normal, except for coffee.
Euuuchh. What a horrible experience that was. The memory of Vincent's face when he had sampled hers came to mind again, but with much more sympathetic overtones this time. It had tasted so bitter! Even weak as water, the way Peter preferred it. Even with three teaspoons of sugar and cream, the bitter taste hadn't been cut fully. Peter had commented that it probably wasn't a bad idea to kick the caffeine habit anyway, earning him the first dirty look she had expressed on this new face. And if she remembered the few times she had seen that expression given by Vincent, it was probably a pretty deadly one. Tea went down much better, after it was sweetened.
"Feeling better?" Peter asked cheerfully as he gathered her plate and took it to the sink.
"Yes, thank you. I usually don't eat breakfast, but this was wonderful. And at least I didn't eat so much of it - that was embarrassing." A short silence fell as Peter finished clearing the table. "Peter?" she spoke quietly. "Can you tell me anything about this at all? Have you discovered anything?"
Pouring himself a fresh cup of coffee, Peter sat down opposite Catherine at the table. "A bit. Are you sure you want to hear it?"
"I have to. This is my life now, I have to know what I'm facing."
Peter reached down to the briefcase near his feet and removed a file. "You're aware I've known Jacob since the Tunnel World began. I was there when Vincent was first found. His physiology is... unusual. You know that. All of the differences you have developed mirror ones he has shown all his life, with minor variants." At her inquiring tilt of the head, Peter elaborated. "The major things are there, the ones you can see. I don't need to describe them to you. The ones you can't see are slower heartbeat, lower blood pressure, and increased muscle fiber and bone density. That's why you craved food so much, especially protein and calcium during the last few days, your body has been increasing its mass with only a relatively minor increase in size. You haven't experienced it yet, but you are probably far faster and stronger than you were, with greater lung capacity for endurance. You have acquired a whole new muscle arrangement on your fingers and toes, giving you retractable claws. The joints of your feet have much more flex; you can probably bend the balls of your feet to a 45-degree angle. Some of the next bit is conjecture based on observation, since I've never had the opportunity to do involved medical testing on Vincent. The maximum output of your adrenal gland has probably at least doubled. This is part of the 'losing himself' business that Vincent, and now you, have experienced. That fight or flight hormone revs everything up, blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. With your lower rates of all these, your physical performance can peak much higher than, if you pardon the expression, a normal person. Again, these are only guesses based on your resemblance to Vincent. From what you've told me, your senses are sharper, including that sense which links you to him."
"As to your differences from him, I believe most of them are gender-based. You are smaller than he is. He is probably faster and stronger, but you can probably outlast him on straight endurance. Vincent displays the typical male hair growth pattern, heavier and coarser than your own. Without a MRI or anything else, I can only guess. But there is this." Peter leaned forward and pushed the file towards Catherine, who opened it with reluctance. The top piece of paper was a letter:
Dear Dr. Alcott:
It is unfortunate you seem to have our address incorrectly entered in your files. This laboratory deals only with analysis of human blood and tissue. This is the second incidence where we have received animal blood from you for workup. Please instruct your staff to change their records, in order that you may avoid such unnecessary delays to your veterinary tests by ensuring samples are sent to an appropriate facility.
Montfort Medical Laboratories
Catherine looked up from reading the letter, face ashen. "Animal blood?"
"Cathy, remember when Vincent was sick? His blood came out with the same results." He paused, giving Catherine time to absorb the implications of his words.
"But how did this happen? Why? Can you reverse it?"
"I'll need you to give me a bit more time on that. Between taking care of you and my practice I haven't really had time to do any kind of in-depth research. Now that you're better, though, I should be able to make some kind of progress. But one thing that does need doing, right away, is we need to get you out of here and safe Below. I think you'll agree with me on that?"
Catherine nodded reluctantly. He was right. There was no way she could stay here now. The risk was too great. "But... what will they think of me, down there? Father will be-"
"You just let me take care of Jacob. I'll go below today and talk to him. I think the best thing would be to bring you down tonight, very late, using the stairs. I have an idea on how to do it, too. For now, stay put. Don't answer the door or the phone. You might want to pack a few things as well." Peter replaced the file in his briefcase, and went to the closet to fetch his jacket. Returning to the kitchen, he drew Catherine into a hug. "You'll be all right for the day?"
"I'll be OK. I'm not a child, just... just... well, I'm not sure what, but I think I'll be all right. I'll see you later this evening."
<![if !supportEmptyParas]> <![endif]>
Later, after Peter left, Catherine walked to the French doors, opened them, and slipped out onto the balcony. Laying a cushion on the concrete, she stretched out to soak in the spring sunshine. After all, it could be the last chance she would ever have.