"The ground is not firm, but soft and weak - like skin

Under the touch, cannot stop to falter

Now, the damage is done, the certainties gone

The spirits altered&"

Sarah McLachlan: 'Back Door Man'

From the album: 'Solace'

 

CHAPTER TWELVE


The echoes of labored pants lent a semblance of malevolent life to the damp cavern. Stumbling to a halt just within the entrance, Vincent slumped against the unyielding rock wall. His legs trembled with exertion, as the damp stone brought welcome coolness to his overheated body. He must have fled for miles, desperately trying to escape the horror of what he had seen.

How could this be? It must be a nightmare. He would wake up soon. He must. But everywhere he turned he saw her face, her eyes, looking up at him with fear and grief. Those beautiful eyes, still the same, but the rest... A menacing snarl of denial ripped through his chest as he flung himself from the stone wall to begin an unsteady pacing.

Impossible! But yet, he knew it to be truth - his Catherine, wearing a duplicate of his own bestial features. The gloves... had they concealed hands - like his own? Furred and clawed? The jerky pacing continued as whirling, chaotic thoughts buffeted him, an overwhelming and jumbled montage of fractured images. Gradually however, the mental whirlwind began to calm. He had always been able to think more clearly when moving. When angry, frustrated, he could barely keep still.

How could this& this obscenity, be truth? Was he insane? Had his aloneness become so unbearable that he could even conceive of such an abomination? Desperately, he searched his memory, seeking one shred of evidence that would prove the lie of what he had just beheld. But always, irrevocably, the sight that had nearly slain him on the spot reasserted itself. The tears trembling from familiar eyes, coursing down to a muzzle-like mouth, a glimpse of long white canines as she drew trembling breath. The feel of her horror fluttering against a heart frozen by...

Implications. Such implications. His Catherine, who dwelled in the sunshine, who did and saw for them, who carried their light in the world Above, now a creature who must hide in dark caverns. A being that must fear the sight of a stranger. Would his struggle now be hers - the struggle to quell animal instinct in order to fit in with humanity?  To be accepted?

Against his will, and to his despair, an insidious bittersweet tendril of speculation wrapped around his heart. She would dwell here now, Below. Never to leave again. A true companion in Aloneness. They could be together, always. From the back of his mind, a reluctant ripple of pleasure ruffled his consciousness. Horrified, Vincent shook his head violently in negation, a choked roar of rejection spreading from him. How could he even think that?

"You're doing it again," the low voice spoke from behind him softly. "Thinking, always thinking. Analyzing."

For a moment, Vincent stood frozen. Turning slowly, he beheld a mirror of himself, leaning casually against the tunnel wall. Wild eyes met his, understanding and yet impatient. Vincent sighed deeply, before resuming his measured circling strides. With the events in the cavern, he had thought never to see this apparition again. "Why are you here? Has the freedom you have gained not been satisfactory? Or do you truly wish to torture me?"

"It's really quite simple," the rough voice replied calmly to Vincent's impassioned tirade. "We are of two minds regarding the mate."

"Impossible! How can you say that? How could you... could I wish this on Catherine? I know what she will endure, how her life will be limited. She belongs-"

"Haven't we had that exact argument with the mate herself, numerous times? She belongs where she wants to. Why can we not listen to her feelings?"

Vincent halted. With a rumbling sigh, he raised one arm to brace his weight against the damp rock and bowed his head. "I felt her horror, her fear, her grief at what she has become. I felt, and understood, all of her feelings. I share them."

"Do you? Truly?" Vincent heard the light scrape of a claw on rock as his double approached him from behind. The rasping voice resumed a few inches from his ears, a whisper so soft it seemed to float into his thoughts. "Do you feel only those emotions? Is there nothing more?"

Once again that tendril of speculation surfaced. To know true companionship, to have someone who understood and shared what even the people who were his family never could. To see an end to his unique Aloneness. For a brief moment, Vincent allowed those feelings sweep through him and felt inside his deepest being a burst of hopeful joy. A low snarl of self-disgust quickly followed, and rough golden mane tossed wildly as he shook his head, as if in doing so he could shed the sweet temptation of possibility. Vincent scrunched his eyes shut in desperate denial. He couldn't, wouldn't allow those traitorous feelings to surface again. He must think of Catherine, of all this meant to her.

He must think of Catherine.

* * * * *

The object of his thoughts sat unmoving, crumpled in defeat against the wall of her new chamber. It was as if Vincent's abrupt departure had robbed Catherine of the ability to move. Red-rimmed eyes gazed into space, all tears long dried. Her chest ached from withheld grief, as if a brick lay atop of her lungs. Even breathing seemed to be an effort. Dimly, she heard the soft footsteps of someone approaching through the short tunnel hallway. The footsteps halted at the entrance, as whomever it was paused. A scent of soap, candlewax and... baby powder?

Mary stopped at the entrance to the cozy chamber. Swiftly her eyes searched the room, until they came to rest on the huddled figure. Catherine sat, knees up, back pressed against the wall, arms resting on her thighs and her head bowed. "Catherine? Father sent me. Are you all right?"

Was she all right? No. No! How could she be all right? How could anyone ask her that? Apathy vanished in a blink as Catherine surged angrily to her feet, dark cloak swinging wildly behind her. Unconsciously pacing, Catherine heard as if from far off a rumbling noise. Ignoring it, she made an agitated circuit of the room, brushing by Mary's still form that stood directly in the tunnel entrance.

Catherine's face came fully into view as she swept by, and Mary caught her breath in astonishment. Father had warned her, but a part of her had not truly believed what he had said. Catherine... like Vincent? That was simply not possible. Mary was not so old she did not remember attending horror movies at the cinema. Transformations such as this, however, only happened in those movies, not in real life. Then again, Mary thought ruefully, most people in today's world would only see Vincent himself as some sort of special effect magic.

As Catherine paced by a second time, Mary concentrated on the young woman. A low rumble of an angry growl, slightly higher in pitch compared to Vincent's, vibrated through the room. Gloved hands flexed stiffly at her sides. Cautiously, Mary made her way across the chamber to take a seat on the quilt-covered bed. "Catherine? Catherine dear, please. Come sit, and talk to me?"

The low growl increased in volume as Catherine spun on the spot to face the Mary. A rougher, raspy version of her familiar voice filled the chamber, the undertone of furious snarl obvious. "Talk? What good will talking do? Look at me! Talk can't change this!" After several hours of apathetic resignation, anger felt so good! Release felt so good! She had every right to be angry! This wasn't fair! This, and Vincent's reaction. Damn him! Couldn't he, of all people, understand her need for comfort, for acceptance? The rumbling snarl that shook her chest increased in strength and volume as a red mist tinted her peripheral vision. The speed of her stride increased as she circumnavigated the small room.

Movement caught Catherine's attention as she passed the bed, and she stopped abruptly. She hadn't seen it, hadn't taken the time to look closely when she had first arrived, being sunk in a terrified stupor. There was a mirror in this chamber, a full-length cheval mirror, cracked at the bottom but still serviceable. Frozen, she stared at her reflection. The animal was close. Her eyes flashed with barely suppressed rage, her upper lip was drawn back, exposing flashing white canines - canines in a bestial face. In a flash of realization, Catherine knew that the rumbling noise was a vicious growl, coming from her! A surge of hatred swept through her. Reaching to the small dressing table at her right, she seized a metal-handled hairbrush and with a roar of defiance, hurled the heavy brush at her reflection. Glass exploded from the impact. With a sharp crash the large mirror shattered.

Silence descended. Catherine blinked in confusion at the litter of shards on the floor. Had she done that? Muscles went limp as a blanket of weakness descended. With a groan, she sank backwards to sit on the bed next to Mary, dropping her head to her hands. Minutes passed, as Catherine struggled to rein in her wildly plunging emotions. Finally, she drew a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Mary. I hope I didn't frighten you too much."

"I think, in this case, a little thing like a broken mirror can be forgiven." Catherine felt Mary's strong hand settle on and stroke her back soothingly. "Feel any better?"

"A bit," Catherine replied sheepishly. "It's been over twenty-five years since I've had a tantrum."

Mary gave a light chuckle. "Nothing I haven't dealt with quite a few times in my life. Even one just yesterday morning, to be exact. Now, tell me."

Catherine stiffened for a brief second, bracing herself against the pain of remembered rejection. "You sound like Vincent."

"Well, now, where do you think he and Father picked up that particular turn of phrase?" Mary's voice was soft, soothing, and Catherine relaxed, surrendering to her need for comfort. Turning, she laid her head on Mary's delicate shoulder and was drawn into a warm, motherly embrace.

"Oh, I don't know what to do. I don't know anything anymore. What happened - why it happened - I just don't know." Raising her head, she gazed directly at Mary. "Vincent hates me now, I think. He must. He ran, when he saw this." A gloved hand indicated her face. "I know he must think I'm ugly, now. How could he not? He considers himself ugly."

For a moment Mary allowed silence to fall again, to allow Catherine to think about what she had just said. Finally, drawing a deep breath, she softly asked. "Catherine, do you think Vincent is ugly?"

Catherine jerked as if slapped. "No! No, not ugly, never ugly. To me... Mary, to me he is so beautiful."

"Have you told him that? That you see beauty in him?"

"Whenever I can, but I don't think he really believes me. He told me once that what I perceive as his beauty is just a reflection of mine. That's total hogwash, but it's what he thinks."

"But when you first saw him, didn't you scream and throw something at him?"

Shamed as always by that memory, Catherine hung her head. "Yes, I did, but I didn't know him then, and he startled me."

Mary continued to stroke Catherine's back and hair. Absently, she noted that her hair now had that same shaggy fullness that Vincent's had had since he was a child. "Then, I'd like you to think about something. Throughout Vincent's life, he has never seen anyone who had features like his. Just now he saw exactly what you had seen when you first met. You hadn't been prepared for it. Well, Vincent wasn't prepared for this, either." At Catherine's exclamation of surprise, Mary smiled. "When Father was walking back to the hub, he was almost knocked over by Vincent as he ran by. Since he had a good idea of what might have happened, he woke me and sent me to you. Somehow, he knew that you needed a mother right now." A short pause fell, punctuated only by Mary's soothing strokes. "You must know that Vincent loves you totally. Mostly, his behavior was probably shock. Vincent always did run from difficult situations, ever since he was a small boy. He needs to think about them until he decides how to handle things. Now, I won't say he didn't react badly, I think that is a pretty obvious conclusion. But perhaps you need to forgive him, just as he forgave you that one time, long ago."

Catherine nodded slowly, reluctantly. A part of her screamed like a spoiled child, stamping its figurative feet, just as most children do when they realize that their parent is right, and yet they don't want to admit defeat. But Mary was right. As she sat and pondered what she could say to him, Mary continued her soothing strokes on her lower back. Catherine felt herself relax further, as she realized just how tired she really was.

"Catherine? Catherine are you awake?"

Catherine jerked her head up from her doze. Mary had stood and was rummaging through her duffel bag.

"It's time for bed for you, young lady. Things will look better in the morning, after a good night's sleep, you'll see. Now, let's get this night dress on you and get you to bed." Responding to the tone of authority, Catherine rose and, asking Mary to turn her back, divested herself of the clothing and donned the soft Egyptian cotton nightgown she had brought, the warmest she owned. Swiftly, she dove under the covers and snuggled down.

"All settled?"

"Um Hmm." Catherine brought the covers up to her chin.

Tucking in the quilts with care, Mary turned to leave, then hesitated. "I'd like you to think about one other thing. You say you always told Vincent that he was beautiful. Was it because of what he was inside, or did you truly find his physical features attractive?"

"A bit of both, I guess."

"Well maybe you need to turn that particular looking glass onto yourself. Goodnight, dear." Giving her a light kiss on the forehead, Mary slowly rose and left the chamber.

* * * * *

By the light of the single candle left lit in the alcove above the bed, Vincent hesitantly examined Catherine's familiar yet altered features. Repeatedly his eyes swept over the tilted brows, the furred flat nose and split muzzle. She had parted her lips in sleep, and he could clearly see the tips of sharp canines against the darkness. 'A terrible miracle,' he thought distractedly. Abruptly, his reverie was broken by an indistinct mumble from Catherine, as she turned onto her side and pulled the pillow forward.

Vincent drew in an audible gasp. He had been right. Her hands were changed as well. The same opaque claws and furred backs, although her fur was slightly darker than his was, more a soft brown than copper.  The claws looked as hard and sharp as his. The sleeves of her nightgown had ridden up, exposing sleek fur as far up as the elbow. Absently Vincent wondered if the rest of the hair pattern on her body resembled his. The mental picture that evoked brought a guilty flush to his face, and he quickly buried that speculation. Forcing his errant mind back to the purpose of his visit, he silently set his note on the bedside table. She would soon wake; he could sense it, as he could sense her. The bond rang clear and true, clearer than he could ever remember having felt it before. As his eyes drifted once again to her face, her scent found him. Vincent closed his eyes and inhaled deeply in an attempt to analyze the differences he could sense through the bond. There was more depth present than before. It had taken on a richer texture, more pronounced in its valleys and hills. Wilder. Stronger. Even more tempting. It spoke to his deepest being, echoing his passion with a corresponding feminine note, demanding.

Tearing himself from that evocative but unconscious pull, he backed slowly away, step by step, to take up his post just outside the chamber entrance.

* * * * *

It was just after eight o'clock when Catherine awoke. Messages on the pipes sang just within the range of her hearing, the musical tones comforting in their familiarity.

After Mary left, Catherine had lain awake a long time thinking over their discussion. Mary's parting comment, about looking in that same mirror, had made a definite impression. Catherine yawned and stretched, her body vibrating like a bowstring, teeth fully exposed. The blankets were warm and soft, and she was so comfortable. Maybe she could just stay here for the day...

Hiding from the world. Well, that would only work for so long, eventually she would have to face the music. Catherine grimaced as she recalled her hours of apathetic huddling last night. Mary was right, yet again: things always look better after a decent night's sleep. Catherine threw the covers aside and sat up briskly. Jenny's voice paraded through her thoughts with her signature phrase "Get over it: Get on with it: Get it over with."

Catherine winced as she noted the pile of broken glass on the chamber floor. That was her doing. Looking away, her eyes fell onto the white sheet of paper propped against a book on the bedside table. Clawed hands reached out to pick up the delicate sheet.

"Please forgive me.  V."

Vincent. He must have delivered this during the night. Had he stood and looked at her? How did he feel about it this morning? For a moment, Catherine felt the return of that terror, the fear of rejection, but she firmly shook it aside. She had spent all day yesterday wallowing in self-pity. Enough was enough. She was stronger than this, Vincent had taught her that. Resolutely, Catherine sought the threads of her bond with Vincent, delicately using that tenuous connection to try to sense his emotions.

He was frightened as well. And ashamed. And... nearby. Very close, in fact.

"It's all right. You can come in." She felt a wave of deja vu as she called out. She had called to him like that before, when he had lingered just out of her sight, watching over her. Newly sensitive ears picked up the swish of fabric, and Vincent's cloaked form filled the chamber entrance. Silence fell. Each regarded the other with trepidation.

Vincent allowed his eyes to stray to the furred feet that could just be seen peeking out from underneath the nightgown hem. Feet tipped with deadly claws, longer and sharper than his - although his were growing.

Noting the direction of his gaze, Catherine pulled her nightgown down in embarrassment and tucked her feet up.

Easing his way to just inside the chamber, Vincent leaned back against the wall. "How can this be? What has happened to cause... this?"

"I don't know." Catherine replied quietly. How she wanted to feel his arms around her, relax into his warm embrace. "Peter has some ideas. He took some blood, to do some tests. He will be by a bit later today, I think." Catherine rose and shrugged on her warm bathrobe, thoughtfully unpacked and left out by Mary.

Together, they cocked their heads at the sounds of approaching footsteps. Heads swiveled as, several moments later, Mary entered carrying a breakfast tray. Seeing Vincent, she stopped abruptly.

"Oh. Hello Vincent. Are feeling better?"

An arched look, admonishing tone, and eloquently lifted eyebrow from this woman were all that was necessary to make Vincent feel like a five year old in real big trouble. Resisting the urge to drop his eyes to the ground and shift his feet, he answered gravely, "Thank you, yes, I am& feeling better."

Gazing a few more seconds at the man before her, she left unsaid but Vincent definitely felt the corresponding 'see that you mind your manners, young man.' Turning briskly toward Catherine, she set the tray on the bedside table. "Good. Now Catherine, William says hello and he set up this tray especially for you. Everything's cold, since I had such a long walk, but we anticipated that so I didn't bring anything that needs to be eaten hot. Oh, except coffee. William remembered how much you missed it the last time you were here, and managed to obtain a small stash, as he called it, just for you. It's in the green thermos. Peter sent word that he would be by around three o'clock this afternoon. If you want to meet him for tea in Father's study that would be wonderful, but he did say to tell you that if you were not comfortable with that, he would come here after he'd spoken to Father. Now, you enjoy your breakfast." Pinning a decidedly warning look on Vincent, and replying to Catherine's thanks with a gentle "it was nothing, I was glad to help," she made her exit.

"That woman can say more with a tone of voice&" Vincent remarked casually, in an attempt to ease the tension that filled the room.

Catherine responded with an attempt of a smile, which fell flat when she again noted the stretching, pulling sensation in her upper lip. Ducking her head shyly, she concentrated on the contents of the breakfast tray. As usual, William had sent enough to feed a small horde. Muffins, butter and preserves, an orange cut into sections, and some sliced cheese. "Would you like to join me and share this, Vincent?"

"Yes... Yes, Catherine, I would like that - very much."


Continued in Chapter 13