The whole of my undoing,
I put aside
I push it back
I put away
To get through each day."
Sarah McLachlan: 'Black and White'
From the album: 'Surfacing'
Vincent glanced down at the woman who walked beside him. Catherine had been very quiet. Understandably so. They both had been rather uncommunicative. What to say? How to ask the questions, so many questions, clamoring for release? How to react to this& situation?
The transformation in her! Under careful examination, even their bond revealed subtle differences. That alone was disconcerting, and yet, if he were to be completely truthful with himself, they were not unpleasant differences. Each unanticipated glimpse brought the shock anew, although after spending several hours together the intensity of that reaction was beginning to fade.
What should he say to her?
Catherine relaxed another notch, as through the bond she sensed Vincent's slow acceptance of her altered self. She had done a lot of thinking last night, and Mary's counsel of patience had been taken to heart as well. They both needed to have patience, with themselves and with each other. Although a part of her still raged against this incredible situation, it hadn't taken long before her innate logical nature reasserted itself. Long hours of successful research and investigation work taught a person that, if one train of thought led to a dead end, look at the problem from a new angle. Well, she was trying.
There was a lot to learn. This morning's breakfast had taught her that. With a small and reluctant inner smile, Catherine recalled that first real introduction to some of her new differences.
Strange. In the years that she had known Vincent, they had not shared very many meals together. This morning it had been as if they were back at the beginning of their relationship all over again, when neither was sure of the other. They had both been& nervous, apprehensive. She had set the tray on the small bedside table, and offered Vincent a glass of apple juice, unthinkingly taking the coffee for herself. Long years had made this morning ritual a deeply ingrained habit, and her preoccupied mind had skipped completely over yesterday's distasteful experience. Pouring the still hot beverage into the mug provided, she had been nearly overwhelmed by the intense smell, so much stronger and clearer to her improved olfactory sense. William made coffee the way she liked it, strong and dark. Delicious, it had practically made her mouth water. Closing her eyes appreciatively, she had paused to inhale the wonderful aroma before taking a long sip. And then it hit her.
Bitter! So bitter it made the inside of her mouth shrivel! A horrible sensation had swept through her body, and she shuddered from head to toe. Her eyes squeezed shut as she forced herself not to spit out the incredibly offensive oily bitterness. Tears sprang to her eyes and her nose began to run. Convulsively, she swallowed the mouthful, and carefully set the cup down before the choking fit struck.
A furry hand presented a glass of water, and with a barely recognizable grunt of thanks she desperately drank, washing the foul clinging residue from her mouth. When she gathered herself together sufficiently to glance up, Vincent was standing close by, looking concerned. Muttering that she was all right, she was sure she caught a furtive gleam of amusement from his eyes as well. Suddenly, within her mind she saw herself, as she had once been, laughing at his duplicate reaction to the taste of coffee. She had had to smile. In a still rough voice, she commented, "OK, I guess turnabout is fair play."
"Catherine, I honestly didn't realize it would have the same effect on you. I would have warned you." Vincent ducked his head behind the fall of golden mane that was so convenient for the purpose. After a few seconds he raised his eyes again, and the gleam of humor was still in evidence. "But yes. In this particular case, revenge wasn't unwelcome."
Relief swept though Catherine as she chuckled in response. Things between them would be all right. It would take some time, and some adjustments. On both of their parts. "Is there anything you can warn me about?"
Vincent thought for a moment, but one thing leapt immediately to mind. "Chocolate." Ignoring Catherine's moan of denial, he forged on. "It has that same underlying bitterness, although not quite as acutely as coffee. And peanut butter. Don't go near the stuff."
"Why? Does it taste bad too?"
"No& not exactly. Catherine, your tongue, is it rough, now?" At her silent nod of acknowledgement, Vincent sighed. "When I was a child&" Vincent looked away with a self-deprecating huff of amusement. "That stuff was the bane of my childhood. It was a staple, here in the tunnels; inexpensive, well liked by children, nutritious and needing no cold storage. However, peanut butter& sticks. It clogs up on your tongue. It takes forever to clear out. And I& we look funny, when we try to eat it. The other children made that fact quite clear. Generally, it isn't an experience I would recommend."
She had to smile at the pictures this brought to mind. The rest of breakfast had become almost a lesson in etiquette. Drinking from a small glass had been very awkward with an upper lip that didn't mold, but practice and some delicate hints from Vincent had enabled her to master it. The whole thing had evolved into a halting and rather embarrassing conversation on simple practicalities. How they must avoid corn on the cob during its late summer season, when helpers donated bags full, unless they cut the kernels off with a knife. It seemed that fangs made it extremely awkward to chew off the cobs. Vincent had also informed her that many whole grain products upset his stomach for days, although he was unsure if this was just a personal thing or something she would share.
Throughout, their conversation had been fraught with long uncomfortable pauses, as each of them struggled with what and what not to say. Eventually, breakfast done, Catherine excused herself with a need to visit the facilities and the bathing pool. Vincent offered to return the breakfast tray to the community dining hall and had been quick, almost relieved, to depart. She had quietly asked if he could return later to escort her to Father's chamber for Peter's visit. He had seemed a bit surprised that she wanted to do so, but had given her his promise.
"Are you sure you're ready for this? I don't believe many of the tunnel population are aware as yet of& your circumstance. Reactions may be& unpredictable." Concern was evident in his eyes as Vincent glanced over at Catherine.
"I know. But, I can't keep hiding. Not down here. I have to hide from the world Above now, from strangers. This is my home. Where I live. I can't have to hide here, as well."
"Perhaps if people had more time to prepare, Father could-"
"Could what? Explain me? Explain this? How could he, when even we can't?
As Catherine sidestepped to avoid a puddle in the tunnel floor, she brushed lightly against Vincent's arm. His head came up abruptly as the movement brought him a tendril of her scent. Unobtrusively as possible, he edged away and dropped back, reestablishing the distance between their bodies. He had to. That scent, he was barely able to cope with the changes it exhibited. Before it had been softly inviting, delicately tempting. It had asked, cajoled his presence to be near, to be close. Now? Now it no longer sweetly asked, it demanded. The warm call that had beckoned his heart had become a hot command, an uncompromising pull. A pull that threatened his control in ways he had never experienced before, and that part of him that was wild and untamed wanted so desperately to respond. And her grace! He had been forcing himself not to stare in rapt fascination. Catherine had been graceful before, but now! Glancing down briefly, helplessly, he was mesmerized by the liquid sway of her hips encased in snug denim as she padded silently a few feet ahead. Vincent gave himself a mental shake and looked resolutely away.
Ahead of him, Catherine waged her own inner battle. She did not feel nearly as self-assured as she sounded. Inside, she was quaking in fear. He probably knew that through the bond, she thought distractedly. But her determination to continue this course was unshaken. She was tired of feeling sorry for herself, cowering in her apartment or chamber, afraid to be seen. This was her home! Deep down, a part of her knew that this bravado was yet another way of distracting herself. Refocusing her attention on work had often gotten her through personal crises. Well, since there was no work challenge available, this would have to do.
Rounding a corner, a certain formation in the rock struck Catherine as familiar, and she realized they were nearing the hub. Her determined stride faltered in trepidation. Was she sure, after all, that she could handle this? Stopping, she leaned against a rough wall and passed a hand over stinging eyes. This had to be a dream. Surely it would be over soon.
"It's not a dream. Unless I, too, dream." Vincent's warm voice settled over her. Opening her eyes, she saw him standing before her, his cloaked body providing her a temporary oasis of shelter. "Don't be afraid to change your mind if you wish. You don't have to do this. Peter has said he would come to you, perhaps that might be a wiser course at this time."
Catherine pushed herself from the rock and straightened. "No. I do have to do this, Vincent. For me."
Vincent gazed down at the delicate being before him. Appearance aside, her inner courage remained, and he still had to marvel at it. Inclining his head in a gesture of acceptance he began to step back, when a small, clawed hand halted his progress, reaching out to grasp the edge of his cloak. Raising his eyes swiftly, he met those of his beloved once more, to see them shining with unshed tears. Her emotions swept through him. Fear, loneliness, uncertainty. A few moments later he felt the grip on his cloak relax.
"I'm sorry. I didn't –" Dropping her gaze, she gave up her mumbled apology, turned, and rather jerkily resumed her course toward Father's study.
For a moment, Vincent stood, frozen. How could he be so selfish? She needed him. Not for hints on how to eat and how to behave, but just him. Support and love were all she truly required at this point. What was wrong with him? This morning he had vowed to be there for her, to think only of her. An inaudible snarl rumbled in his chest. It didn't matter if he was having difficulty adjusting to the changes in her, that was immaterial. A few ground eating strides were all that were required to catch up, and he took his place by her side.
This was where he belonged.
Catherine gasped in surprise as she felt his light touch on her left hand. Hesitantly, fingers entwined and she felt a reassuring gentle squeeze. Raising her arm, she observed their two hands intertwined, and two distinct sets of claws, one more finely boned than the other. Ginger fur on the back of his hand stood in contrast to the softer café au lait brown of her own. Catherine dropped her arm again, without releasing his hand. An unseen, tremulous smile pulled at her unfamiliar facial muscles. But the shy smile sent through the bond was received. And returned.
Father's study was only a few turns away when Vincent realized what had been nagging at him. The hub was strangely quiet. The normal hustle of people was absent.
Adamant, fearful tones of voice from the area of Father's study reached the two long before actual words could be made out. Vincent hesitated in his stride, before resuming his progress. Through the bond Catherine picked up on his disquiet. Something was wrong. By unspoken consent, Catherine and Vincent quickened their pace.
"That is patently ridiculous!"
"What's ridiculous about it? People are worried! Scared!"
"Yes, Father, please understand. My Emily is only four! What if this happens to her, too?"
"If it's happened once, what's to say it won't again? To any of our children. Our wives? Our friends? Do we wish this on them?"
"Please, people! Calm down and listen to reason! Surely you can't believe, after all these years, that anything of this nature would just manifest?"
"But don't you see? It already has!"
Vincent quickened his pace further. Rounding the final corner, Catherine dropped his hand and hung back, allowing him to sweep into the crowded study. Silence dropped like a stone into the gathering as he halted. Eyes of people he had known for years slid away from his. "Father? Is there a problem?"
Tiredly, the older man behind the desk removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. Of all the timing. Gesturing weakly with the glasses, Father indicated the gathering in the chamber. "Not to my mind, but it seems that many of our number have certain concerns."
Silence fell again. Many shuffled their feet, or cleared their throats nervously. William, red-faced as usual during an argument, stood closest to Father. Olivia was there, holding Luke protectively. Mouse crouched up on the balcony, looking extremely uncomfortable.
"By what I'm sensing, these concerns have to do with myself and Catherine."
Obviously mustering his courage, William stepped forward. "Last night, Mouse told us he saw Father bring Catherine down below, and that she looked like& well& like you do now."
"Not bad! Not at all! Fine and good! Just looked like Vincent's Catherine, but more!" Mouse was near tears as he frantically tried to defend his friends.
"That's the point!" a woman at the back of the study added loudly. Vincent quickly identified her as Cynthia, a new resident. "My husband saw them too. He was on sentry duty last night. You have to tell us, Father. What's really happening here? Are we in any danger?" A cacophony of voices rose and fell at this question, as everyone turned to talk to their neighbor, or to be heard above the rest.
From behind him Vincent could feel Catherine's pain in response to the fear in the resident's voices. His empathic powers allowed him to sense their fear as well. Anger began to rise in response, for Catherine, and for him. An ominous rumble began to build in his chest, emerging in a bellowing savage roar, which reverberated through the large room. Instantly, the entire crowd fell silent. Many of the people closest to him began to carefully edge away, dropping their eyes nervously from his flashing gaze. A bone-chilling snarl rolled from Vincent as he stepped down to the center of the room.
"How dare you? After all Catherine has done, has sacrificed, to help this world and keep it safe. How dare you speculate about her, about us, without even waiting to know the truth?" Vincent's voice was roughened with the undertone of a snarl as he flung his questions at the gathered crowd. An internal voice shrilled at him that he was showing his more impulsive, animal side, he should be calm now, reason quietly. A mental toss of the head shook that voice off. If they were so frightened of him, let them see what they were truly frightened of. "You're all terrified that you will become like me! Half beast! I know what you're feeling. Well, perhaps being just human is no state of grace either, given the behavior I am witnessing here. How you can-"
A small hand captured his elbow, stopping him in mid-sentence. From beside him Catherine whispered "Vincent. Calm down. This isn't necessary. It's not going to help."
Vincent took a deep breath, feeling his righteous protective anger begin to fade. Looking up, he took in the drawn, nervous faces of people he called his friends. All eyes were riveted in horrified fascination on Catherine, who held her head up and ignored the weight of speculative stares. A hushed silence fell. It was into this uncomfortable impasse that Peter Alcott stepped, a little late than the appointed time of three o'clock.
"Catherine? Father? What's going on?" Responding to Father's gesture to come close, and after a short but hushed conversation, Peter turned to face the crowd.
Father's authoritative voice rang out over the hushed mutters of the assemblage. "All right, I want everybody but council members out of here this instant. I realize you have fears, but I'm not going to make Catherine's current difficulty into a stage show. I will speak to the council, and afterwards any questions you have can be directed to one of them. And later, I believe many of you may feel better if you offer certain individuals a heartfelt apology." Father's command was reluctantly obeyed, and the crowd dispersed. A few minutes later, only the members of the current council remained: William, Mary, Father, Vincent, and Pascal.
"Now," Father chimed in sarcastically, looking pointedly at William. "Perhaps we can sit and discuss what has been learned like civilized people rather than reverting to a Paris mob mentality, hmmm?"
William had the grace to look shamefaced as he sank onto a sturdy bench.
Peter looked over Catherine carefully. She appeared a bit drawn from the difficult re-introduction to tunnel society, but otherwise seemed rested and healthy. If his tests were correct, she was more than healthy. Vincent sat beside her, his attitude one of protection. "Cathy, honey. You may be a bit surprised at what I've found out. Do you want me to tell you with the others here, or would you rather hear this alone?"
"It's all right. Whatever it is, they can hear it too. I have no secrets."
"Very well, then. When this started happening, I pulled your personal medical chart, which as your primary physician I've maintained since your infancy. You may not know this, but when you were first born there was a concern about an anomaly in your blood, which we found when we performed your infant blood analysis. In those days it was standard practice, to ensure certain diseases were not present. At that time, we located several strangely shaped blood cells. I remember them well. I didn't say anything to your parents except for ordering a second set of tests. I wanted to be sure before mentioning anything to Charles or Caroline. In the second set of tests, we could only locate one or two of the cells after extensive searching. A few weeks later, we couldn't find a trace of them. I checked regularly for the next couple of years, but never found anything, so eventually I stopped. You were a healthy and happy child, and there seemed to be no problems."
"After the... assault two years ago, you might remember we took some blood samples before surgery?" Catherine nodded, remembering. "Out of the blue I remembered to run it through the scope and see if I could find any of those strange cells. Well, I did. But only a few, one or two at most in each slide. Now you have to understand, these cells were not the same as a cancerous cell. They were red blood cells, just a little bit different, more concave. I resolved then to keep a closer eye on you. I managed to get another sample just after you were shot last year. This time, I found three or four anomalous cells in the sample. I decided to do one more check, and if they increased again, I was going to refer you to a specialist. Well, you know how difficult it is to pin you down for a checkup, don't you young lady?"
Catherine ducked her head. It was true. Between her work schedule, visiting Below, and everything else her life entailed, rather had entailed, she was aware of the problem. She had meant to go several times, but had to cancel for one reason or another. She felt a shaft of worry from Vincent. He didn't like the direction this was going. Silently, she sent him reassurance. Peter was managing to tease her, which meant that whatever his point was, it wasn't life threatening.
Peter shifted uncomfortably. This was the hard part. "Cathy, remember when Vincent was sick and I took his blood sample?"
Catherine nodded. She remembered the lab had sent it back, claiming it was animal blood.
"I took a look at his blood under the scope myself, just to see if there was anything I could spot. The first thing that struck me was the red blood cells. They were just like your anomalous ones. All of them. A few days ago, I took a sample from you. The deeper cells accounted for seven out of ten red blood cells. Looking at you now, I'd venture a guess that any slide I would make now would show all of your cells have been replaced by that particular indented cell."
"Just what are you trying to say, Peter?" William's gruff voice was quieter now, but still raised the fur on Vincent's spine. "You're talking about weird blood cells. You trying to say that they were responsible for&" William tapered off under Vincent's direct hard stare.
"Not exactly, William. What I'm saying is that, from the time of Catherine's birth, she has displayed a correlation to Vincent's traits. Our study of genetics is still in its infancy. Perhaps within our lifetimes science will discover how to analyze genetic code, to read it, as it were, but as of now that simply is not possible. This is just my own theory, mind you. Unless we turn Catherine and Vincent over to a research lab, which is something we could never do, it will have to remain just that, a theory. But I think there is something in Catherine's genetic makeup that made it possible for this to happen. I think when she was a baby, the correct stimulus wasn't available to cause whatever this thing is to manifest. So the potential went into a kind of remission. Something about meeting Vincent caused this genetic potential to reassert itself. However, whatever it needed, it wasn't getting, so the genetic change was so slow as to be practically unnoticeable. I think the only manifestation for the longest time was the deepening of Catherine's perception of her bond with Vincent. Until something triggered the full expression of genetic inheritance, which is what I believe has happened here."
Catherine shook her head is disbelief. This sounded like something out of a bad science fiction movie. And yet, here she was. "This trigger. Do you have any idea what it could be? Even a guess?"
Peter let out a sigh as he glanced at Vincent. The man looked frozen in place, eyes glazed over as he fought to assimilate Peter's theory. He could almost see the connections forming.
"The bond itself," Vincent ground out. "You think it was our bond that made this possible."
"Partially. Again, please remember this is only guesswork on my part. In nature, everything has a 'time and purpose unto heaven'. I think the bond was formed because of the genetic potential, and its ultimate purpose was to instigate physical changes. After all, Vincent, you have been around women all your life, and yet you've told Father you felt drawn to that part of the park on that night. I think perhaps a part of you sensed there was a compatible person nearby, and that was the root of the initial draw. I theorize that the bond you feel is a direct expression of genetic compatibility. The bond brought you together. I think it's a biological imperative, one which makes it possible for the two of you to& umm, successfully reproduce."
With a crash Vincent leapt to his feet, sending his chair over backwards behind him. Ignoring it, he began to pace furiously, desperate denial and agitation in every tense line of his body.
Father glanced at William, and at Pascal inquiringly. Looking nervous and very embarrassed, Pascal leaned over to Father and whispered, "I think I've heard enough to reassure anyone with questions. This is getting pretty personal. We don't need to be privy to that, do we William?"
William grunted his agreement. At Father's nod, the two rose and exited the chamber.
"I see your point," Catherine commented quietly. "I've felt the bond get stronger from my side, but very slowly. Maybe that corresponds with the slow increase in the strange blood cells?"
Peter nodded, indicating she should continue.
"But what could the trigger have been? What actually made me like this?"
"Catherine, we know what the trigger was," Vincent stated flatly from across the room.
Catherine turned to speak, when through the bond she was suddenly bombarded with Vincent's memory/feeling. Of hands touching her, of that electric snapping sensation within the bond as their mouths met, as they felt their souls intertwine in a claim and counterclaim. The feeling of a part of him sliding through the bond to reside within her. Yes. The trigger. With a gulp of shock, Catherine dropped her eyes, stunned. It had needed acceptance from both, and physical contact. All those nights she had lain beside him while he was unconscious, touching, while the bond deepened, deepened until she could sense him, acquiring layer upon layer of receptivity&
Slowly letting out breath, Catherine felt her stiffened muscles relax. Yes, it had taken both of them to start this. Something in a deep part of her acclaimed the rightness of this theory. "Yes, you're& Vincent?"
"He left, Catherine. Typical for him, going off to order his thoughts. Humph. Running away is more like it. Or brooding. Don't worry, he'll be back. He won't desert you for long. Now, why don't we all have a cup of tea and just have a friendly visit?" Father sighed. "I think we all need a break."
Vincent prowled the lower tunnels. An occasional dark snarl rumbled from his chest as the full import of what had been discovered struck him anew.
It was his fault that Catherine was like this. If not for him she would still be her normal human self, perhaps happily married and a mother by now. His interference, his presence in her life, has cost her that. Had cost her everything. He had doomed her. Occasionally, he impacted with rocky outcrops, leaving bruises he would find later. It didn't matter.
"What is wrong with you now?"
Spinning, Vincent spotted the ghostly figure of his twin crouched on a small rocky ledge above him. Pounding winds whipped his mane about his face, and he realized his blind travels had led him to the Chamber of the Winds. "You! You knew this would happen, didn't you? You wanted it! So many hints and allusions! Wait and see! Trust! Trust what? Trust you could ruin Catherine's life? I was right all along, you are evil."
"How? How have I done this?" The dark growl was almost swept away by the capricious winds.
"I should never have touched her. I always knew it must not happen, should never be. I'm just as guilty as you. I began this whole thing. Father was right, I should have never gone to see her after she returned Above." The words of blame ground out between his teeth as he stood firm against the buffeting gusts. "I've robbed her of everything, a home, a family, her life." Tears of grief coursed down his face as he stared into the far cavern.
"I have done this?" The roar of the other deafened him from behind. "I have ruined her life? No! I have not stolen her home, her home is here! With us! She knows it, I know it, and only you will not see it! Family? Her family is us now, the Father, and children. Children that we can now have, with her! Children she wants as well! Her work? She can work as we do, or find a way to do lawyer things Below. Trust the mate, she is smart, she can work things out herself. We are not responsible for everything. She does not want us to be. Stop this!"
Vincent blinked at the vehemence from his counterpart. One who was very difficult to see, appearing wispy as a ghost in the shrieking winds. The possibilities presented by him beckoned temptingly, however. His words made sense. 'Perhaps because I want so desperately to believe what he says,' he thought ruefully, calmed by anger greater than his own.
Vincent sank to the floor during a temporary lull in the constant winds. There was no 'he.' It was still difficult to admit that the opinions of the one he called his twin were really his own, just ones he didn't want to claim. It was so much easier on his conscience to see them as coming from an outside source, a dark half. 'Didn't make quite the progress that I thought I had,' he admitted reluctantly.
The familiar rough voice stole into his mind in an enticing whisper. 'Think of it. Someone to share with, to hear, see and understand what we feel. Someone to run with, to share happy times with. We can show her all the good things. She can be our true mate. With children! She is like us, now. Remember touching, when she was hurt? She was soft and weak. But no longer. Now she is strong. The claws, they will not hurt her. She liked it before, now she can truly enjoy our touch.'
With a start, Vincent remembered that moment, how he had been so sure she would not be harmed by his grip, but yet she had been. Could this really be true? That now, in her changed state, the same pressure was not excessive, and would not harm her? If his memory was correct, up to the point of actual damage she had loved the feel of his hands on her. Caught in a whirlwind of possibilities, Vincent rose and began to walk. He had a lot of thinking to do. 'But not too much,' he thought in response to the remembered comment.