"Rising up, the night is done...

Close call there in the shadows.

There's an end to the dark

'Cause there's someone out there

Someone like me..."

Sarah McLachlan: 'Out of the Shadows'

From the album: 'Touch'

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN


Thursday, May 29

It has been almost a week since I left Catherine and Father in my chamber and came to this place of solitude. A week unlike any I have spent here before. Always before it was to analyze, to improve control. Now, the opposite holds true. Understanding myself has been at once easier and more difficult than I ever imagined. A lifetime of self-disgust and hatred does not give way easily. Learning to trust, to accept, to let go, it is harder than one would think. And to let go a dream, with grace, harder still. The deep, unacknowledged dream of being a normal man I know now is truly impossible. Admittedly, it hurts. But, as my other side told me, not being human is not such a horrible thing. It is all a matter of perspective.

Perspective. Reading that last paragraph back, I must laugh at myself. I sound so calm, so accepting. In truth, it is not so. I am still struggling with perspective. I feel a part of me always will. This will not be a battle confined to a few days in a dark place, but a struggle I know will be waged, with varying degrees of success, every day of my life.

Through the days I have spent here in this silent spot, I have begun to know that other side which I always feared so deeply. I have been like a child which, waking in the night, fears the monster at the window, but in the revealing light of morning learns he feared a shadow. Refusing to face one's fears, burying them in some dark and forgotten spot, only gives them room to grow.

The catacombs, what happened there with Catherine, I still do not understand. One thing I am sure of, however, is that it will happen again, if we allow it. For, examining that wonderful, terrible memory, I cannot recall feeling anything was wrong. I was so sure my hands would not hurt her, that I was not exerting too much pressure, that somehow it was just the right amount. A part of me insists still that this is so. And if I cannot trust my judgment in this matter, then I cannot place Catherine at risk. I know I would not kill her now, it is not in the beast's... no, rather in my nature, to do so. But if we cannot love together without injury to her, then that is another dream we must alter. Or forget. Catherine must be made to understand. She will not---

Vincent's pen paused as a delicate tendril of emotion slid around his heart. Catherine. Her emotions had been so still in the last days that this sudden reappearance caught his attention sharply. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the rocky outcrop, submerging himself in the shimmering pool of joy that spread against him, around him, through him. A delicate perfume of flowers stroked his awareness. Unnoticed, his journal slid from his bent knee and fell to the sand.  He had missed feeling her presence close to his heart more than he had realized. Shining beams of contentment flowed into his soul, casting out darkness. She was so happy!

A silken net of intense sexual desire dropped onto him, freezing him to immobility. Immersed in her joy, the sudden shift in the nature of her emotions caught him completely off guard, and he was unable to halt his instinctive growl of response. Catherine's desire. For him. To feel his hands holding her fast, his mouth moving on her throat. Vincent drew deep gasping breaths as his fingers clutched spasmodically on empty air. Helpless, his body hardened in primal male reaction. He could almost feel her warm flesh before him, against him, her trembling, the heavy beat of her pulse against his tongue. "Catherine, nooo," he moaned, his voice an unsteady rumble of arousal. Almost, he heard her breathless plea vibrate against his lips: 'Vincent, please&' Reeling from the onslaught of her dream, he was adrift on the rolling pleasure of Catherine's desire for him - for him! Vincent was completely unprepared for another lightning reversal of those emotions.

Terror. Intense anger, and the need to defend!

A red mist swept through Vincent's peripheral vision as a corresponding roar rocked the cavern.  In a flash, he was on his feet, running for the crevice exit, only to stumble to a stop after a few strides, as the emotional storm took another turn.

Horror. Remorse. Grief. Vincent sank to his knees, battered by an avalanche of despair. "Catherine," he gasped. Desperately, he struggled to order the emotions coming from outside, to tone them down to a level where he could think, could act. Never had he felt her so strongly, nor had such difficulty in separating her feelings from his own. Gradually, the roiling, black despair began to taper off to a point where he could regain his feet. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it, and swept from his face the tears he could not help but shed in sympathetic reaction.

Still unsteady, he made his way back to his campsite, and began to pack. Catherine needed him. Whatever was causing this emotional roller coaster, he must be there for her, to help her however he was able.

It was time to return.

* * * * *

The designer high-heeled pump struck the bedroom wall sharply and fell with a thud to the carpet. That was the last of them. Her last hope. That particular pair had always been a trifle large on her, but she had been unable to resist the flashy blue suede that had perfectly matched a certain dress. Not that she would ever be able to wear high heels again. "Oh, you know, I just can't wear heels anymore, they're so hard on the... claws," a sarcastic voice in her head spoke bitterly. Disconsolate, Catherine slumped on the bed, regarding the pile of discarded footwear on the floor at its foot. They were all there. Running shoes, high heels, the great pair of boots she had just bought a few weeks ago for spring. Nothing fit. Her arch was too high, or they were too narrow, or not long enough. Mostly all of the above. And they hurt!

Strange, how the little things can sometimes affect you more deeply than the major ones. It had been a day of discovery. How drinking soda from a can was difficult when your upper lip wouldn't mold like it used to. How truly noisy New York was, not that it wasn't before, but now, the level was almost unbearable. How could Vincent hear himself think in the cacophony? It must be a testament to his tolerance; she was almost going insane. Drinking from a teacup was a bit of a skill in itself. Luckily, she had always had decent nails, so getting used to them being longer than usual hadn't been as bad as it could be. All in all, a day of reluctant firsts.

The warm spring sunshine had felt so good. Knowing that it may be the last time you will ever experience something made you appreciate it fully. The warm rays had lulled her to sleep for several hours. 'Still recovering from... whatever this is, I guess,' she thought morosely.

Catherine's sensitive ears picked out the sound of someone approaching her apartment. Momentarily, she marveled at the sharpness of senses that allowed her to know this. The footsteps halted at the door and a light knock sounded. Silently, Catherine glided into the living room, every sense focused on discerning the identity of the presence behind the door.

"Cathy? Let me in, it's Peter." Quickly Catherine undid the chains and dead bolt. As soon as Peter had cleared the entrance, the door was swiftly shut and locks re-engaged.

Peter set down the paper bag he carried onto the hall table and gave Catherine the visual once-over. She looked... fine. A rather strange word to use - in reality, she was nowhere near fine. "How are you feeling?"

"Not great. It's hard. Things are so different. I'm so different. I don't know how to feel, who I am. I'm mostly numb right now I think. Did you talk to Father?"

"Yes," Peter responded with a grimace.

"From your expression I take it that it wasn't exactly a pleasant conversation?" Catherine lowered her eyes to minutely examine the carpet at her feet, hiding behind a curtain of hair.

"Not unpleasant, just difficult. How do you tell someone about this? It's unbelievable."

"Tell me about it," Catherine whispered with a hitch in her voice as she turned and walked agitatedly toward the balcony. "I'm so frightened. I've had some time this afternoon to consider things. I'm going to have to resign from work. What will I do? I don't know how to be anything else, nor do I want to." Turning abruptly, she stalked back to the fireplace, unconsciously pacing in agitation. "I'll probably never see my friends again. What will Vincent think of me, now? And the others Below?"

Peter quietly observed the new fluid grace his goddaughter displayed as she paced. Much like Vincent when he was upset. Did she realize she was doing it? And why? That the improved adrenal gland he had mentioned responded to emotional distress, making her need to disperse the fight or flight response with physical movement? At least, that was his personal theory.

Since infancy, Peter had closely watched Vincent's growth and development. Too respectful of both his rights and feelings, Peter had never made this fact obvious, but his scientific and medical mind could not resist the occasional speculation. This was an unparalleled opportunity to at least begin to divide possible genetic tendencies from the products of upbringing and personality. Reaching forward to catch her hand as she flowed past, he halted her progress and led her to sit beside him on a couch. "Cathy, relax. Might be's and what if's won't solve anything. You'll just upset yourself further. Things will work out. You have to believe that. Maybe you have to look at this as an opportunity."

"Opportunity? What opportunity? Where? I have to leave my job, my friends, and my life! And what about Vincent? He's never told me in so many words, but I know he considers himself ugly." Sharply, Catherine indicated her own features with extended claws. "Tell me, what will he think of this? What will anyone think of it? Certainly not opportunity!"

Peter shook his head slightly. He had no answers. "I can't tell you how Vincent, or anyone, will feel or think, I just know how I feel. You're family to me now, just about my only family. When your Dad died, you became my daughter, too. I don't care what you look like. I care for you, just as much now as I did a week ago. Remember, you're still Catherine Chandler inside, where it counts." Peter stroked Catherine's back reassuringly. Slowly, he felt her tension begin to dissipate. Taking a deep cleansing breath, he focused on the more immediate problem. "Now, about getting you Below...."

Through the bond Catherine felt a ripple of concern from Vincent, and she firmly damped down her wildly ricocheting emotions.  "I've packed some clothes, and some necessities. But none of my shoes fit anymore." Memories of Vincent leaving his chamber without boots flitted across her thoughts. "Although, on second thought, I don't think I need footwear anymore. I can wear socks to hide my... to go Below."

"That should be fine. I can arrange to have anything else you want moved at a later date. But we need to deal with some unfortunate practical matters right now. Regarding your finances, I took the liberty of picking up some forms from my lawyer for Power of Attorney..."

* * * * *

Vincent's long limbed stride ate up the distance back to the home tunnels. This trip he was not weak and footsore. The past week had done wonders for his feet, and they had indeed toughened up nicely. It still seemed strange, not to have as company the echo of hard boot soles. Instead, there was only the occasional scraping click of claws meeting rock, and the rustle of cloth. But physical matters were far from his thoughts on this journey. All his mental attention was focused on trying to sort through Catherine's feelings. Whatever was wrong, it was certainly sending her on an emotional roller coaster. The bond seemed so much stronger now, more anchored. Through it, Vincent was certain he was not the reason for the upset Catherine was experiencing. At least, not directly.

Vincent stopped for a break, digging out the bottle of water he had filled before setting out. After a long drink, he replaced it in the knapsack, jostling the copy of Watership Down. A faint remnant of Catherine's scent still clung to the pages, eliciting a gusting sigh of trepidation.

He and Catherine needed to talk. Soon. Frankly and openly. Always, subjects such as their future and the realities of their relationship had only been referred to in veiled and roundabout ways, in euphemism. They danced around each other's feelings, each fearing to hurt the other. This must end. Difficult subjects must be dealt with, and difficult decisions made.

But... what would he say to her? Should he say to her? Vincent shook his head to dismiss those thoughts. He would say what he must. Shouldering the knapsack, he determinedly resumed his journey toward home.

* * * * *

Catherine trailed her fingers along the mantelpiece. Melancholy gripped her as she stood in the center of the apartment that had been her home for years. It was the first place that had been hers alone. She remembered her excitement when she had moved in. At first the expensive address had been an extravagance, a needed pick me up after the breakup with Stephen Bass. But the convenience of living downtown had soon justified the ridiculous mortgage. It had been wonderful being so close to theaters, galleries, and shops. Things she would probably never enjoy again.

"Ready to go?"

Catherine glanced at the clock. It read almost two a.m. The agreed upon time. Nodding to Peter, she bent down to pick up the black dress gloves she had fished out from a storage box in the bedroom. Meant for a funeral, the stretch nylon would cover her hands fully. Resolutely she squared her shoulders and headed for the closet to retrieve her pullover sweatshirt, the only light jacket she owned with a hood. 'Chin up, Chandler, you've survived kidnappings, beatings, near drowning, and voodoo drugs. You can do this,' Catherine thought with hysterical humor. Too bad she hadn't kept the wrap she had worn the night she was attacked, the deep hood would have been ideal. 'An appropriate choice, wore it when I left the tunnels, wear it when I return. How ironic.' But the torn and stained wrap had gone in the trash the moment she returned Above.

"Cathy?" Peter spoke hesitantly. At her blank look, he picked up the paper package he had brought with him this afternoon. "I took the liberty of getting this for you." From it, Peter removed and handed her a large wad of folded dark green cloth.

Shaking it out with a touch of curiosity, Catherine caught her breath in shock. It was a cloak - a long, sweeping expanse of rich wool flannel, with a deep hood.

"I knew you would probably need it. It's kind of theatrical, I know, but I couldn't find anything else that would be appropriate. It's for the cover story." She and Peter had made up a story that she was leaving a costume party, in the unlikely event they encountered trouble on the way Below. The cloak would help that illusion, if necessary.

"I... thank you. It was very thoughtful." Quickly Catherine slung the cloak over her shoulders. The voluminous hood covered her features efficiently.

Peter quietly opened the door and ensured the hallway was clear. Leaving the door ajar, he proceeded to the stairway and opened that door, peering down and listening intently. Finally satisfied, he motioned Catherine to slip from the apartment to the stairwell.

For a moment, she hesitated. This was it. She was leaving. Life as she had known it had really ended. The path before her was unknown, but unavoidable. Mute, she exited, turned, and eased her door closed, bidding a silent farewell.

Tugging the cloak hood forward, Catherine walked to the stairwell and, with Peter following closely, began to descend.

* * * * *

Jacob Wells rubbed his left hip absently. Spring, with its inevitable dampness, was always hard on the stiff joint. What was he doing here, waiting at the tunnel threshold of Catherine's apartment building? Peter must be insane. The story Peter had told this afternoon was preposterous! Yet, Peter had never been one prone to exaggeration.

Father tensed as a sharp, scraping sound echoed from above. The rustle of cloth followed, and a muffled "Careful." Peter's voice. Father relaxed once the identity of the potential intruder was ascertained.

"Father?"

"Yes, I'm here as I said I would be. Where's Catherine?"

Peter emerged from the beam of white light, followed slowly by a heavily cloaked figure.

"Oh, Peter, surely this is not necessary. I've had time to think about what you've said, and it's impossible! You can't believe that – oh, my Dear God." Catherine's slow advance had brought her into a beam of light that illuminated the face under the concealing hood. Light that clearly showed angled brows, a flattened nose, and split lip& alien, familiar features. Father approached her and with trembling hands reached out to push back the dark hood.

Momentarily Catherine flinched away, drawing a breath of anguish. The parting of her lips revealed a flash of white canine, completing the resemblance to his son.

"My dear girl! I... I don't know what to say."

Catherine's voice broke as she raised her eyes, meeting the ones that examined her in stunned amazement "Say I can stay here Below. Please. I have nowhere else to go now." The hands that gripped her hood moved inwards to cradle her head, and drew her forward into a tight, much needed embrace.

"You don't even need to ask, Catherine. You don't even need to ask," Father muttered raggedly into her ear, as silent tears tracked their way down into her soft mane. Drawing a shuddering breath, he pushed back to look at that altered face. Carefully, he traced his hand lightly across the muzzle-like split lip, before thinking of how his actions would affect the woman who bore them. The sight of her tears stopped his exploration. Apology flickered in his eyes as he lowered his hand to take hers.

"Will you be all right?" At Catherine's silent nod, Peter set down the duffel bag he held, and took a step back. "Then I'll head back and lock up the apartment. I'll be by tomorrow. By then I should have some more concrete ideas hammered out for you."

"I'll take care of her, don't worry." Resettling his cane, Father bent to pick up the duffel.

"Wait! Father, I'll take that. I'm... a lot stronger than I look, now." With a lithe economy of movement, Catherine scooped up the bag and straightened.

"Yes. Somehow, I don't doubt that." Reaching for her hand once more, he tucked it into the crook of his arm and turned to lead the way down. "Come, my dear. Let's go home."

* * * * *

Vincent's stride lengthened as he neared the central hub. The turmoil Catherine was feeling had not abated, but continued to swell and recede unpredictably. He felt sure it was very late, perhaps past two in the morning. Her distress must be keeping her from sleeping. He would just drop his pack in his chamber and go Above, to the balcony.

Intent on his attempt to puzzle out the wild mix of emotion coming through the bond, Vincent missed the sound of running feet approaching rapidly from the other branch of the Y-intersection... A blood-curdling reflexive half-roar of startlement rolled out as Vincent narrowly avoided a collision. Instantly the shame flooded him - to be seen, to be heard, like that, and the inner chastisement began. 'Be more careful, choke it down, be calm.' Another softer growl followed the first. 'No! No more!' Still flashing eyes sought out the reckless runner even as his sensitive nose told him of the identity of the culprit. Mouse. Of course.

"Vincent! Almost ran into you! Wanted to. Looking for you. Hoped you'd be back."

"Mouse," Vincent replied, a low rumble still present in his speech. "I need to go and see Catherine now, it will have to wait for tomorrow." It was not often Vincent was forced to put off his young friend, but in this case it was necessary. He did not have time to listen to ideas for a new gizmo. As Vincent moved to continue, Mouse's words stopped him in his tracks.

"See you about Catherine. She's here. Below. Face is funny though. Like you."

Concentrating, Vincent changed the focus of his sense of the bond from what to where. Mouse was right. Catherine was below. East, in the less populated section of the home tunnels, he guessed. Dropping his backpack, he turned his attention fully on the fidgeting young man, grasping him by the shoulders. "What are you talking about, Mouse? Where did you see her? What do you mean by funny."

"Coming from Up Top. They didn't see Mouse. Found some neat stuff too, look." Mouse began to dig through his voluminous pockets, drawing out several metal objects.

"Mouse. Please. Just answer my questions. Where is she?"

"New section. One that Kanin was working on. Finished carving, put some furniture and stuff in the room yesterday. Think Father was taking her there."

"Thank you, Mouse." In a swirl of black cloak, Vincent set off at a run, leaving his knapsack on the ground. He could pick it up later. A sense of foreboding settled into his mind. Why would Catherine be coming below, with Father, this late at night? He barely checked his stride as Mouse's parting words floated after him.

"Even more Vincent's Catherine now! You'll see!"

* * * * *

"Where are we going? I don't think I've ever been in this area before."

"You probably haven't. This section is new. Kanin has been working on several new chambers. The area where he carved his and Olivia's apparently has good rock, whatever that means. He decided, with the Council's approval, to start expanding this area. A few families decided to return Above now that winter is done. The O'Shaunesseys and the Miseners in particular come to mind, so the necessity for extra chambers has eased somewhat. These are the furthest from the hub, so we decided to just use them for storage, and set one up as a guest chamber." Surreptitiously he glanced again at Catherine, the incredible alteration of her familiar face drawing his fascinated gaze like a moth to flame.

"I thought I'd be staying in the same chamber I used after Dad died."

"Well, if you would rather, of course I'll take you there instead. It's available and-"

"No. If it's all right, the new one does sound... better. I think I'd like a bit more privacy, at least for the next little while."

"Just as I thought. I'm not quite so insensitive a fossil as some think, you know."

Catherine couldn't help but want to smile at Father's obvious attempt to lighten the atmosphere with humor, but the strange, unfamiliar tug in her face muscles quickly killed that impulse. A few more minutes' walk, and an abrupt turn right led through a short ten foot passageway to a medium sized chamber. Lowering the lantern, Father drew a book of matches from his pocket and set to lighting the candles scattered through the room.

Catherine lowered her bag to the floor and examined her new home. The chamber still had a sense of newness, of freshly hewn rock unmellowed by years of candle smoke and use. There was a double bed in the corner, the curled iron head and foot boards lending an aura of old-world charm. The patchwork quilt in a rainbow of colors, which covered the bed, reinforced the illusion. A lacy ivory cloth draped over the bedside table did not quite conceal the fact that underneath it was a wooden packing crate. Against the far wall, another huge wooden moving crate doubled as an open clothes closet. A rough handmade table held a large basin and mismatched pitcher of water, for washing. A rack on the side was hung with worn but still serviceable towels. A hand braided oval rug softened the slightly uneven rock floor. All in all, a rough but cozy chamber.

"This is lovely. Thank you."

"This can be your chamber, if you wish. You know the routine from a few months ago, so I won't give you the rundown. Now, regarding breakfast tomorrow... Catherine? Catherine, what is it?"

Catherine's look of blank concentration swiftly altered to a look of near terror. In a furtive movement she shrank against the far wall, pulling her hood forward. "Vincent. He's coming. I can feel him, hear him. He's coming here."

"Dear God. He must be told, before he-"

"Before he what, Father?" The soft rasping voice, breathless from the long run, came from the black-cloaked figure that abruptly filled the chamber entrance.

"Vincent!" Father exclaimed quickly. "You've returned. How are you feeling?" Carefully, Father moved to place himself in front of Catherine.

Standing at the entrance, Vincent observed his father's protective attempt to block Catherine from view. Gliding forward, he replied softly. "I'm fine. My concern is Catherine. I can feel something is very wrong here."

With surprise, Father observed his son. It was as if he had shed a layer of awkwardness. His normally graceful stride had evolved into a sinuous flow of movement; Father had never seen anything quite like it before. "Vincent, I must insist you leave. Catherine is quite-"

"Catherine can speak for herself, Father. Please permit her the courtesy."

Father opened his mouth to refute that statement, when Catherine's quavering agreement met his ears.

"He's right. I think... Vincent and I need... some privacy. Now is as good a time as any to... get this over with."

Father turned to look at the cloaked figure. Catherine sounded shaky but sincere, and since he could not read her expression with her face hidden in the enveloping hood, he had to accede to her request. "Very well. If you need anything, there is a pipe about fifty yards down the tunnel to the right, just signal." With a worried glance at his son and an unspoken prayer for both his children, Father reluctantly limped his way from the chamber.

An awkward silence descended. Vincent took in the dark green cloak Catherine wore drawn protectively around her with puzzlement. "Catherine?" Through the bond he could feel freezing currents of... fear? Of him? Of course of him! He had mauled her! The onslaught of bitter truth struck him like a blow.

"No! Not that, Vincent! Never that, I'm not afraid of you. Not& exactly."

Vincent drew a deep, cleansing breath of relief. The tide of bitterness recede as the truth of her words made their way to his heart. "Then, tell me. Something's wrong, very wrong. I can feel it. I've felt it since this morning. What distresses you so? I can sense your grief, your rage. If not at me, then what?"

From the folds of the dark hood, Catherine's head twitched in frantic denial. Now that the time had come, fear was an even darker cloak. He would hate her...

"No," he softly admonished. "How could I ever hate you? It could never be. I know you."

"No, Vincent. You don't." Vincent cocked his head as one piece of the puzzle fell into place. Her voice, it was different. Not obviously, but undeniably. Softer, rougher.

With a whimper, Catherine sank against the wall and slid to the floor.

Cautiously, Vincent approached the form huddled against the wall. Crouching down, he reached and gathered her against him. For a moment, he felt her stiff resistance. Then, as if the dam broke, she collapsed into his embrace. Rough gasping sobs tore from her, as the corresponding waves of grief once again impacted on his heart. In response, he held her tighter as she burrowed her face into his shoulder. Carefully, he picked her up and made his way to sit on the edge of the bed. As he moved to set her down, Catherine's hands clutched his vest with surprising strength, preventing his action. Looking down, he saw she wore black gloves. Feeling her unspoken need to just be held, he simply cradled her as she wept. Finally, her grip slackened and she slid from his lap.

Vincent's puzzlement increased as he watched her pace the chamber. His observant gaze noted she wore heavy socks but no shoes, nor were any in evidence in the chamber. As the frantic pacing calmed Catherine's nerves and the battering through the bond slowed to a trickle, he began to note other things. She moved differently, her strides more fluid. And her scent. It held new bolder overtones that beckoning him to come closer, to breathe it more deeply. Evocative. Urging him to take her in his arms, to immerse himself in her. Without his conscious will, he stood and moved several steps toward her, drawn by the siren call that wrapped his senses in velvet folds of longing.

At the other end of the room, Catherine stopped abruptly. She felt his response to her through the bond. For a moment she held it to her heart, absorbing his desire, knowing she would probably never feel it again. Turning, she faced him at last. "I'm not the same as I was before. Things have changed. I've changed."

Her voice snapped the hold of the swirling sensual vortex he was sinking into. Shaking his head, he focused on her words. "I don't understand. Please, tell me, what is this change?" Cautiously, he advanced to stand before her.

'How do I tell him?' Catherine wondered frantically. With a start, she saw his hands come into view, reaching up to touch the overhanging folds of the deep hood.

Vincent clenched the fabric convulsively, in response to her roiling grief and terror. But forcing himself to go gently, inexorably he accomplished his task, lowering the folds to her shoulders.

Gathering all of her courage, Catherine lifted her head to meet his eyes.

Vincent felt a spear strike his heart, sinking deep. Breath was pain. How could this be? It was a nightmare...

The face that gazed up at him was Catherine's. He could still recognize the distinctive square jaw line, the beautiful gray green eyes like soft moss. His sense of her through the bond was the same. But the rest...

The tunnels echoed with an unspeakable howl of agony.

 


Continued in Chapter 12