TO EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON

By Karen Mason-Richardson

 

(Author's Note: To Everything There is a Season was originally a four part story published in my Bedtime Stories Zine. The four components were separated by other stories (In the Darkness, Even Stones can Fly, and Far Above the City Streets). It is presented here in collected form).

 


 

WINTER

Photocopiers can make a lot of noise, especially a dinosaur on its last legs like this one.

The small copy room was one of the few places of potential solitude available to employees who didn't warrant an actual office, and in the District Attorney's Department, that meant mostly everyone. The grating motor and squeaking belts of the machine drowned out office chaos and bolstered the illusion of privacy.

Humming quietly to herself, Catherine sorted the stapled copies into piles on the side counter, placed the next transcript into the automatic feed, and pressed the start button. She just needed to finish this stack and Monday would be over with. Usually this wasn't her responsibility, but Rita had today off. Anyway, it was nice to do a bit of relatively mindless work for a while, work that allowed her thoughts to wander and dwell on the past weekend.

This second Winterfest had been so different compared to the last. This time there were no deaths, no hidden agendas or threats. Just a wonderful evening with a group of people she cared deeply for.

Especially Vincent.

He, too, had been different this year. Last Winterfest he had been so tentative, so unsure: of her, of them, of their acceptance as a couple in his community. But this year had marked a change.

Catherine smiled as she set another stack of documents into the automatic feed and started the copier once more...

"...was nothing there after all!"

Delighted laughter warmed the cavernous hall as, with a flourish, Sebastian swept the red satin away from the now empty soup bowl.

Catherine gasped in astonishment. She felt Vincent's hold on her hand tighten as he laughed quietly beside her.

Sebastian bowed in acknowledgement of the crowd's applause and, spying a fresh knot of people ripe for his talents, excused himself. An entourage of children followed, clamoring for his secrets.

"How does he do that?"

"Magic. How else?"

Catherine glanced up into laughing blue eyes and lifted an eyebrow in disbelief. "Magic?"

"Oh, yes." His tone was light, teasing. "Sebastian is a true magician."

"Really?" She turned to watch the tuxedo-clad gentleman levitate an apple. He was the center of attention and here in the corner she and Vincent found themselves with a rare moment to themselves. On impulse she leaned back and rested her weight against his solid strength. "If he can do real magic, then why does he entertain for spare change on subways?"

He didn't tense or move away from her. Instead, slowly, he put his arm around her in a loose, one-armed embrace.

"For someone who can wield true power, what better way to disguise that ability than behind a curtain of common sleight-of-hand?" He whispered the words into her ear conspiratorially, his cheek brushing lightly against her hair.

At the other end of the room, a lively jig drew to a close with a rush. Dancers, panting from exertion, applauded Karl's talents as he raised his violin once more and began a slow waltz.

Catherine glanced towards the dancers wistfully. Against her back, she felt Vincent's chest expand with a deep breath.

"Would you like to dance?"

Surprised and pleased, she twisted and looked upwards. "Yes. I'd love to."

With a nervous smile, he laced his fingers with hers and drew her towards the dance floor. Reaching the edge of the dancers, he slipped his arm around her waist and together they glided into the whirling crowd.

He was a marvelous dancer, a sure, confident lead that she could relax into, responding to his subtle cues with easy grace. The floor was crowded and he pulled her close to avoid another couple, closeness he didn't relinquish when space opened up once more. Unbidden, her left hand wandered from the correct position on his shoulder, across the heavy suede vest, to rest against his center of his chest. Here the only covering was thin linen. Beneath her fingertips his heartbeat was palpable, strong and heavy. The warmth of him seeped though the material and she could feel the springy resistance of hair beneath her hands.

He glanced down in response to her touch. His eyes were dark and hazy as they met hers. Claws scored lightly against her waist as he flexed his hand, gathering her closer still.

All that remained was the music and the rhythm of the dance.

He swept her into a sharp turn and, for an instant, his thigh slipped between hers. Bodies moved as one and the world narrowed further. Gradually his head lowered until only inches separated them. The heat of his breath mingled with hers and they were lost in each other and their music.

Neither noticed the waltz end and another begin...

It was the quiet that had caught their attention at last. Vincent halted abruptly and she would have stumbled if not for his tight hold. Jarred from the sensual spell of their dance, she looked up to find the two of them alone on the dance floor. Karl was at the beverage table and raised his glass to them with a wink and a smile before drinking thirstily. On the small stage, the next group of musicians had begun setting up their instruments. Several other guests unsuccessfully tried to hide smiles of amused delight at the couple's obvious embarrassment.

Slowly she stepped back, pulling Vincent off the dance floor. His head was lowered and she could see he was blushing furiously; skin flushed a dark copper beneath the golden bristles on his cheek.

The rest of the evening flew by. Other than a few teasing comments, the incident was forgotten and Vincent eventually relaxed. All too soon Winterfest was over for another year. The circle was completed, the closing address spoken, and the hall cleared. As usual, Vincent was the last to leave, replacing the heavy wooden beam to seal the Great Hall until the next occasion.

The walk to her threshold was far too brief. They both dawdled, neither wanting the evening to end, but inevitably the breach in her building's foundation was reached. Light spilled from the hatchway beyond and cast giant shadows onto the tunnel floor.

"I had a wonderful time tonight."

He turned and leaned back against the masonry wall. "As did I."

His mane was wild, disheveled by the chamber winds. Slowly she reached upwards to smooth it with her palm, brushing it back into place. Her actions revealed, just for a moment, his ear. More rounded than normal, with a fringe of reddish-ginger fur on the rim. Automatically he ducked away and twitched his head, the motion swinging his hair back into place. Anxious eyes studied her as he glanced through tousled bangs to note her reaction.

"Monday's going to be a pretty quiet day at work: I should be off on time for a change. Would you like to come Above? Tell me how the cleanup goes... and things?"

"You mean, tell you if Father gives me a lecture about our questionable behavior on the dance floor?"

She had laughed, a rueful chuckle. "Yeah."

"Yes, I'll come Monday evening. Around nine?"

"That'll be fine."

Neither moved.

He turned and leaned a shoulder against the cool brick, facing her. "It's late."

"Yes, it is. You'll be busy tomorrow, I'm sure."

"The day after Winterfest is always busy."

The basement was chilly and she pulled her wrap tighter across her shoulders.

"You're cold. You should go up now."

"I suppose."

She stepped forward and leaned into him. How she loved the warmth of him, the scent of him. His arms came around her as she knew they would, but with a difference. The usual light embrace was absent. Instead he held her tightly, splaying his hands across her back as he pulled her against him.

"It was so strange, tonight." Wonder was in his voice, wonder and thanksgiving.

"To be seen as a real couple. In public."

"Yes."

Carefully she leaned back and once more placed her left hand just above his vest ties, where the cream linen was thin. His heartbeat was fast. "Vincent, we are a real couple."

He lifted his head to look beyond her and sighed heavily. "Are we?"

"Oh, yes, we certainly are."

She lifted her right hand to his face and slid it across the soft bristles of his cheek to smooth back his wind-tangled mane once more. This time he accepted her touch, not shying away from what it revealed. Gently she ran her index finger around the furred rim of his ear. She felt his shiver of response beneath her palm.

Slowly she rose on her toes, slipped her hand to the back of his neck and subtly pressed downward. His head lowered and she softly kissed the indentation at the corner of his mouth. Her hold on his neck tightened at his stuttered gasp of shock.

He didn't move away.

Daring, she leaned further into him, nuzzling underneath the pads of his upper lip. This time, her kiss held no thanks, no friendly warmth. It was nothing like the one she had given him after her father died. This sent a totally different message, one of passion and wanting. Moist lips trembled against hers. Lost in him, she flexed her nails into his scalp lightly.

With a low rumble, his grip tightened abruptly and he answered her unspoken plea at last...

Sudden silence shook her from reverie and she noted with a stab of annoyance that the copier had run out of paper. With a muffled growl she opened the supply cabinet, fetched another package of paper, reloaded the machine, and started it once more.

Wow. It had been quite the first kiss, if she did say so herself. And really, it was the first. The little peck she had given him after her father's death didn't count; at least she didn't think so. Saturday night, however, had been poles from that. 'Still waters ran deep,' they said, and they were right. She had always sensed he was a deeply passionate person.

It had seemed as if time had stopped, collapsed into those few seconds of unleashed wanting.

Vincent had broken the kiss with a rough half snarl. He had gazed down at her in stunned astonishment as his claws released their tense grip on her waist.

He had spoken no parting words; had probably been incapable of coherent speech at that moment. The hollow, animal sound of his panting breath had echoed off the bare rock. He had stood unmoving, except for his eyes. They had followed her, wide and wild, their expression unreadable as she backed into the shaft of white light and reached the ladder.

Words had not been possible for either of them just then. She herself had been in a daze...

Tonight would reveal the fallout from that relaxing of barriers.

She checked her watch as she stapled the last of the documents for tomorrow's hearing. Six o'clock. Enough time to pick up dinner for two at the gourmet take-out near her apartment, get home and change. She had set the table yesterday in readiness.

She intended to invite him to join her for dinner. Inside.

That is, if he didn't panic and not show up. Or decide that they were getting too close, and try to persuade her to seek a normal life with a normal man. Again. Or if Father's sure lecture about what could and couldn't be was convincing enough to put them right back at square one.

All significant possibilities.

"Cathy!"

"In here, Joe."

She heard footsteps approach the copy room. Joe appeared in the doorway and leaned against the frame.

"Are those the Lucciarelli statements?"

"Yes, all done and ready."

"Well, you can toss 'em. Monahan's skipped."

"What? No!"

"Afraid so."

"But Joe! The hearing is tomorrow morning! We've got nothing without him!"

"No, we've got stuff, just not very much. There's got to be something more we can dig up. I need you to go over the grocery manager's testimony and the two cashiers'. We've got to keep this thing going till we can locate Monahan. Sorry to do this to you, but we've got to try to save this."

Catherine's heart sank. There were reams of interview documents from those three.

There was no way she would finish anytime before midnight.

* * * * *

"Vincent?"

"Come in." Vincent pushed away the schematics he had been trying fruitlessly to study. Concentration on anything but thoughts of her had been almost impossible for the last two days.

Geoffrey trotted into the room and held out a small envelope. "Mrs. Overton sent this for you."

Vincent took it with a quiet nod of thanks. Running footsteps echoed off the rock as Geoffrey left to rejoin his friends, and Vincent ran a sharp claw under the envelope flap, withdrew and unfolded a note.

Vincent:

Catherine just phoned from her office. She asked me to let you know there's a problem at work, and she won't be able to get away until very late. She's sorry, but she has to cancel your plans.

Give my regards to William, and could you please remind him he was going to send me that squash recipe?

Thanks,

Melinda

Vincent dropped his head against the back of his chair with a resigned sigh. It wasn't that he hadn't expected this. Through the bond, beginning around six o'clock, he had sensed her frustration and regret, and had guessed this was coming. Still, it was disappointing. He had so hoped he was wrong.

She was disappointed as well; he could feel her emotions augmenting his own. Amazing that such a thing could be, especially after...

Determinedly he took a sheet of paper to write a reply. Pen poised above the blank sheet, he hesitated.

What to say?

He didn't notice the uneasy growl rumble low through the chamber.

What did one say after an amorous encounter? Granted, by most scales the encounter in question had been relatively minor, but for him it had been... earthshaking. To feel, really feel, those emotions from her - for him! - blossom and surround their hearts. Capturing him more completely than any iron cage ever could.

Nothing, nothing could be written. Such could only be shared, together.

Taking a deep breath he wrote a short reply, folded it carefully, and tucked it into an envelope. The white paper glowed ivory in the candlelight as he penned her name on the front.

With a rough mumble of decision he tucked the note into a pocket, rose, swung his cloak over his shoulders, and left his chamber with determined strides.

The small envelope seemed far heavier than its size would indicate. It was weighted with possibility, the chance of seeing an end to years of hopeless longing and futile dreams. Dreams mostly unacknowledged, until her. Dreams she shared.

Really, he couldn't put a finger on just when his habitual fear of her, for her, had begun to fade. It was a gradual process, the barriers inexorably being whittled away by time spent together, by his growing confidence in her love and acceptance of him. All of him, the good and the bad. She had certainly seen him at his worst, and yet loved him still. He was beginning to give up questioning how this could be, and accept that it simply... was.

He could find his way to her balcony in his sleep. It was a path traveled as often in fantasy as in reality. In dreams, when he would walk into her apartment without hesitation, because she knew him and welcomed him still.

It was snowing when he arrived on the rooftop, a good three inches already accumulated. Snow always increased the danger of discovery. Footprints could not be avoided, but the snow still fell and would cover his trail. Careful of ice, he climbed down onto the balcony.

The city lights were obscured, reduced to furtive glimmers through the falling snow. Here on the balcony only the north corner was bare of the heavy white blanket. The small table and chairs were covered.

The curtains to the dining room stood open and he glanced inside. Her dining room table was set for two, a small vase with a single rose in the center.

A table set for two.

She had planned on asking him inside.

He had almost gone in once, on their second anniversary. He had begun to step forward when the shrill ring of the phone had once more brought crashing down the huge differences between their worlds. Between them. But, for a moment, he had again allowed himself to dream.

Those moments were coming more often lately. Moments when he drifted from what must never be to what might be. What could be. What should be. Moments when he found the strength to shake off the self-imposed rules that had always governed his life.

Saturday night. He still couldn't believe it had really happened. That they had danced together, intimately, with no negative repercussions. He had been embarrassed at the end, true, but Catherine had just laughed and led him away to get a welcome cool drink. Of course Cullen had managed to get in a good-natured barb or two, and several others had teased him. Father, however, had said nothing, not just for the length of the party, but still. There had been no dire warnings, no reminders of his limitations.

He had spoken of the kiss to no one. It was too personal, too private. That she had done such a thing amazed him. That he had stood and allowed it, no, reveled in it, astonished him further. She had assaulted boundaries that, appearing solid, had collapsed like a house of cards with one small push from her. Even now they resisted rebuilding. That particular wall was shattered.

He had responded to her kiss with all that was in him; had answered her gentle persuasion with his first real taste of passion. Intoxicating. Electrifying. Exhilarating.

Terrifying.

Melting snow trickled from his bangs. He snorted as the cold wetness trailed down his nose, tickling through the short fur.

She wanted him to come inside. His presence was welcome in her home; he knew that. But entering that apartment was not as simple as just stepping across the threshold. That action, that step, contained a wealth of meaning for him. It represented a line that must never be crossed.

But Saturday night that line had pushed back. Significantly.

The door was not locked. He knew it. It had been left open for two years. Open, but never opened. Not by him.

He peered through the glass once more, to a place so unlike his own home. It was a place of bright lights, with white walls rather than gray rock and soft carpet instead of solid stone. Different, yes, but it was her home.

The time spent with her in his chamber was a peculiar pleasure. It was a sense of sharing a small part of himself with her; when she curled up on his favorite chair or read on his bed. Afterwards, a sense of her presence remained. He could see the imprint of her slight body on a pillow, or catch her scent on a book she had held. It left a strange feeling of closeness, of belonging.

She wanted that feeling too.

It was such a small thing to ask.

She wanted him to go inside - and he would. Not tonight, however. Not without her presence there. But soon... soon.

Ruefully Vincent glanced around the balcony. There was nowhere to leave his note where it would not be buried by falling snow. Another drop of water splashed onto his nose and he impatiently reached up to brush the snow from his mane. The flakes were heavy and wet, melting quickly against body heat. It was the kind of snow that packed well. As children, Devin would surely have instigated a snowball fight by now.

The dampness seeped through the fur on his fingers, chilling the skin beneath, and he slipped his hands into the pockets on his cloak.

The pockets were not empty. He withdrew several small objects and examined them absently. Last week he had helped several of the children with making Winterfest gifts. Afterwards, he had supervised the clean up. Forgotten was the fact he had tucked little bits of leftovers that they had missed into his pocket to be tossed away later.

Here was the solution to his problem.

With an impish half smile, Vincent reached down and gathered a handful of snow from the table top, carefully shaping it into a perfect ball.

* * * * *

Catherine dropped her purse and briefcase on the couch and shrugged out of her heavy winter coat. It was well past one in the morning; her feet hurt, her eyes were burning, her head ached, and she was exhausted. The drive home had been a nightmare of icy streets and brake lights, but at least the lateness of the hour had precluded much traffic.

Hopefully, Vincent had gotten her message in time.

The dining table was as she left it, except the rose had begun to open. The light pink flush in the center of the white bloom was visible now, and she bent to inhale its delicate fragrance.

Behind the table, through the French doors, she could see the snow on her balcony had been disturbed.

Nope. He hadn't gotten the message.

With a tired sigh, she kicked off her shoes and padded to the doors. Through the glass she could see the normal smooth blanket of white had been replaced with a disordered jumble of footprints. He must have been pacing...

She leaned her forehead against the door and rolled it from side to side, the chill a welcome balm to her aching head. Pressing her right temple against the cold glass, she noticed that her small metal table had been moved.

He had never moved her things before.

Curious, she opened the door, automatically shoving back the pile of snow that fell into the apartment.

Her table had been placed in the north corner, where the building blocked the wind and a small patch of bare concrete still showed. On the table stood a small snowman holding a sign.

Headache forgotten, Catherine ducked back inside to grab her coat and hastily pulled on a pair of boots. Bracing against the chill, she opened the balcony doors once more

It was freezing outside! Quickly she stepped through the snow to reach the table.

The little figure was about a foot high, three squat snowballs stacked just so. Black eyes, formed by two small beads, glittered impudently and a bright smile was carved onto its face, most likely by a sharp claw. A scrap of yarn was tied around its neck as an improvised scarf. In the torso, a Popsicle stick had been set for a wooden arm and impaled on the end was a small envelope bearing her name.

Carefully she drew the envelope off its holder and opened it.

Catherine:

Your message was received and I share your disappointment.

Tomorrow night?

V.

He was disappointed...

Carefully, she refolded the note. The snowman smiled up at her, beaming with approval, and she gave it a light pat on the head in thanks.

Turning, she shuffled through the snow to the French doors. Joy and a good measure of relief bubbled through her, and she was unable to suppress a bright laugh as she spun in an impulsive pirouette.

He was disappointed!

Tomorrow night couldn't come soon enough.

 

To Everything There Is A Season

Spring

 

The scent was even stronger here. They must have stopped and rested for a few minutes. Fumes, surely noticeable even to normal human senses, lay thick and nauseatingly sweet in the passageway.

Vincent rested a hand against damp stone as he examined the dusty floor. Footprints led away from the area. In the north corner a puddle of viscous liquid soaked into the earth, foul with the acrid odor of bile and other things best not examined too closely.

One of them had been sick.

A low rumble of disgust echoed off the rock walls.

There were three of them, all drunk; intruders who must have stumbled upon a tunnel entrance by chance. Someone had to track them down and redirect them Above and, as the de facto head of security, that distasteful task fell to him.

He was definitely not in the mood for this tonight.

This spring had been a difficult one so far. The rains had been heavier than usual, resulting in more emergency repairs than in previous years. Several older pipes had burst, worn out seals giving way under the increased water pressure. Repairing the seal was the easy part – it was clearing out the muck and debris such events left that was the toughest job. And with his strength and endurance, the work crews assigned for cleanup usually included him as well.

Sometimes he just hated spring.

Sensitive ears caught the echo of a slurred shout from ahead, and the mane along his spine stiffened reflexively. A growl skittered through clenched teeth as he picked up the trail of the intruders once more.

Why now?

The last couple of days had been spent helping dig Cory and Janine's chamber out from the two feet of sandy mud that had washed in when Main No. 24 had burst. The work had been dirty and exhausting. Finally they had removed the worst of it, and he had returned to his chamber to wash and get some well-deserved sleep.

The dreams had come as they did almost every night of late. Their frequency had risen dramatically since Winterfest, as had their intensity, disturbing his sleep further. He was always restless during spring. But now sensations only imagined had gained a shadow of experience, fueling subconscious imagination.

Usually he was unable to sleep until very late at night, his nocturnal nature keeping him alert until well into the early morning hours, but days of hard physical labor had worn him down. It had felt so wonderful to curl up in his bed and drift off into dreams of her. Tonight it had been the park on a warm moonlit night. It had just begun when Father had awakened him with the report of intruders.

A beam of light gyrated wildly ahead, a flashlight of some sort.

"I'm tellin ya, man. We're lost!"

"No, we're not, we're almost out!"

"You two shut up! Juss shut up! I'm scared, I feel like shit, and I wanna go home!"

The voices had the higher pitch of youth. Something struck the ground with a hollow thud and a faintly discernable liquid slosh.

A snarl shivered through his chest. Beneath the surface, the animal side of his nature uncoiled. Easily.

The trio had entered a section of tunnels it was simple to get lost in. A twisting jumble of side passages, circles, and dead-ends; it was almost as bad as the labyrinth and great for security. Intruders were not common but most, if they even made it this far, became lost in the maze until they could be subtly guided out.

Subtlety would be lost on this group. From the slur of their voices and the haphazard stagger of their footprints, their perception was dulled to nonexistence.

Vincent relaxed further his hold on the inhuman part of his nature and silently circled around the arguing trio, using side tunnels and outcrops in the ages-old stalk of a hunter.

Since his illness last year, the bonds that held his darkness in check were weaker. That knowledge had at first terrified him. But many hours of reflection and some candid self-examination had proved that weakness not as fearsome as first believed. At its worst, when he had been completely out of control, twice Catherine had come to him and twice she had been unharmed.

Slowly he had come to realize that the other side of his nature was not inherently evil, just different. Many days had been spent coming to this understanding. He had retreated to his underground river where he had allowed himself freedom, loosed the constraints.

The safety of his family had depended on learning a new kind of control. The iron bars of denial he had enforced throughout his life had proven too brittle to depend on. A softer touch had become necessary, one that didn't suppress so much as guide. Outwardly, under normal circumstances, he knew he appeared unchanged. But inside, it was a different world, a whole new landscape to navigate through. And it hadn't been easy. It had taken getting used to, an ongoing process. It still amazed him, this newfound ability to work in conjunction with the side of his nature he had always labeled as The Beast.

The world grew sharper, clearer, as predatory instincts dictated his actions. The enervating thrill of the hunt rippled through him, tempered by the conscious intent to frighten, not harm. Attention narrowed, focused exclusively on the trio of loudly arguing teenagers just around the next bend. His chest expanded as he loosed a grating roar.

A feminine scream sounded, shill and terrified. Male voices shouted confused obscenities as the frightened intruders stumbled away.

With a tired sigh Vincent followed the panicking teenagers, carefully herding them back toward the tunnel exit.

The thick, sweet scent of peaches and alcohol issued from a bottle dropped and forgotten on the ground.

A low, menacing snarl rolled off rock walls. Ahead, the dry rustle of sand increased in volume as the intruders shuffled into a weaving run.

Perhaps next time these particular youths would think twice before drinking to excess.

* * * * *

Spring in New York was not pretty. Snow melted, revealing a diverse collection of winter garbage. The trees were just beginning to bud, but their leaves had not yet brought the burst of vibrant green that lifted spirits. Streets were muddy and everything seemed drab and grimy. Overcast gray days, drizzle and the chilling damp made early spring a miserable time of the year.

Catherine grimaced and turned from the French doors. The apartment sparkled after its spring-cleaning, a tradition she followed faithfully, if begrudgingly, every year.

She certainly had had the time to get everything done this spring.

Sock feet were practically soundless on the deep carpet as she padded into the living room, dropped onto a couch, and turned on the TV.

Saturday night and here she was alone watching the tube. "Nice life, Chandler," she muttered as she flipped through the channels. Fruitlessly. Saturday night was definitely not one for decent television, if there even was such a thing. She turned the machine off and dropped the remote to the cushions with a grunt of disgust. There was work she could do in her briefcase, but with a stir of rebellion she shoved that idea away.

Bored, she went to the kitchen and took a soda from the fridge. The popping hiss of the opening can was loud in the silent apartment.

It wasn't Vincent's fault. It was like this every spring. When he wasn't working he was sleeping. Previous experience had taught her that this time of year usually found him dirty, tired, and as close to grumpy as she ever saw him get.

She fetched a glass from the cupboard and opened the freezer to get some ice.

Inside the freezer, the little snowman stood proudly, taking up almost all of the available space. The frozen grin and jaunty little scarf never failed to cheer her, and she couldn't help but smile.

He had remained for several days on her balcony, but eventually a warm spell had come. She had noticed him beginning to melt and on impulse had rearranged her freezer contents and settled him into his new home. A rather awkward memento, but his message had meant so much to her. She had felt compelled to preserve the hope it had brought.

It wasn't Vincent's fault that they had managed so little time alone since Winterfest either. Sadly, the after-Winterfest dinner never had materialized. Between the demands of her job and the early spring, they had had only snatched moments, a few hours a week to catch up with each other and just unwind. During those times she had been reluctant to push any sort of serious discussion. Not to say that they hadn't touched on it. Or touched each other.

She hadn't wanted to push her luck and had resolved to allow him space to make the next move. It hadn't taken long. He had been hesitant and shy at first, but they no longer parted without a good night kiss.

And, wow, was he developing into a marvelous kisser!

Absently she closed the freezer, dropped the ice into her glass, and poured the soda. The clock on her microwave read nine o'clock. Jenn was at a party tonight, and had invited her along, but Catherine had declined. Fending off the men attracted to either her looks, or her money, or both, had lost its charm over two years ago.

She had slept late this morning and was not at all tired. The evening stretched ahead...

She could go Below. Father would still be up, as would many other tunnel residents. Vincent would most likely be asleep, but he wasn't the only person she enjoyed spending time with.

In a mere moment the decision was made. Soda forgotten, she grabbed a jacket and her keys, and left the apartment.

The trip Below was uneventful. By now she knew the way well and even knew the locations of the hidden security stations. She waved in the direction of Post Twelve as she strode through the silent tunnels. Nearer the hub, the frequency of candles and lamps increased and she turned off her flashlight.

Father's chamber was quiet. Aside from candles, a single desk lamp glowed. Behind the desk, Father leaned back in his chair, engrossed in a thick book. She had to halt for a moment just to enjoy the sight.

He had tried to refuse her Winterfest gift, but she would have none of it, and could be quite as stubborn as him when need be. For more years than he could remember, Father had always used an old-fashioned wooden desk chair. Advancing years, however, had taken their toll, and last fall she had overheard Vincent inquire after his back aches. A visit to a local office furniture store has resulted in the purchase of the latest ergonomic office chair. It had been tough to smuggle it down without Father's knowledge, but Vincent could be quite resourceful. Father had been speechless. And that didn't happen very often.

Hiding a grin, she descended the three stairs.

"Catherine! How good to see you, my dear. I'm sorry, but Vincent is sleeping. We had a minor intruder alert earlier this evening, but he's since returned, I believe, and gone to bed." Father shook his head sympathetically. "He needs the rest. I've seldom seen him so tired."

"That's all right. I figured he'd be asleep before I decided to come down."

"There's nothing wrong is there?"

"No, I just came for a visit. That's OK, isn't it?"

"Certainly. You know you're always welcome here."

"That's nice to hear. It..."

"It hasn't always been that way." He closed his book and set it on the pile teetering in the corner. "You know how sorry I am about that. I can be obstinate, I know."

"Really?" Catherine's face was a study of innocence.

Father swept off his glasses and pointed at her with the metal frame. "You mind your manners, young lady."

She couldn't help but laugh. The last two years had been difficult, true, but during Vincent's illness she and Father had reached an understanding. It was wonderful to have both his trust and his friendship.

Catherine settled down in the chair across from Father and they spent the next hour catching up on the happenings both Above and Below. Finally, noticing his weary yawn, she left him to his rest.

The tunnels seemed unnaturally quiet. Usually she was here during the waking hours, when children laughed and played through the passageways and the muted hum of occupancy leant the warmth of home.

Surely she could just look in on Vincent? She wouldn't wake or disturb him, just check on him. She hadn't even seen him for the past week.

Quietly, she crept up to his chamber entrance and listened. There was no sound, and she peeked around the corner.

He was lying on his side, face half turned into the mattress and obscured by the jumbled mass of mane. The covers had slipped down, revealing the roughly hemmed edge of his nightshirt and the light dusting of fur on his shoulder.

Daring, she tiptoed to the side of the bed.

His breathing was light and fast and his eyes moved jerkily beneath their closed lids. He was dreaming.

Tenderly, she reached down to smooth the blankets back into place, trailing her hand across the warmth of his shoulder.

* * * * *

The dew on the grass was refreshingly cool beneath his feet. Branches touched and slid across him, the wetness of dew leaving dark stripes on his fur. Silent, he glided through the trees; senses open to all the night could tell him. The moon shone full and his eyes collected every mote of light it shed, revealing a forest of washed silver, charcoal gray, and a myriad of unnamed shades in-between: a beautiful monochrome landscape rippling with movement and life. Mice burrowed beneath last year's leaves, preparing homes for their young. A watchful owl noted his passage, nothing moving but its huge eyes. All around him the forest stirred, celebrating the newness of spring.

"Where are you?"

The soft voice knifed through him, and he whirled to face the direction from which it came. Ahead and to the left.

A soundless rumble shook through his abdomen.

"Where are you?"

Instinct dictated the hunt. Every movement was anticipated, measured, and executed in a silent symphony of intent. Bare claws sank into the loamy earth as he wove soundlessly through the forest, intent on discovering the nature of that beckoning call. Ahead, a bright silver glow heralded a break in the trees. Cautiously he crouched behind an evergreen and peered out from between its branches.

She stood in the center of the clearing. Her long shift was translucent, baring feminine curves in a shadowed, enticing silhouette.

"Where are you?"

She was calling for him. The scent of her curled through the cool night breeze, lush and inviting.

He stepped from behind the tree and stood, shoulders back. Tall and proud. Unbidden, an instinctive coughing growl announced his presence.

The material of her gown swirled lightly as she turned. Eyes, washed gray in the moonlight, widened as she saw him. He remained motionless. Her gaze ran over him, assessing. Judging.

Finally she lifted her arms, hands reaching towards him. "I thought you'd never come."

He stalked forward through the grass, heated eyes not leaving hers until he stood before her. Small hands slipped against his biceps and trailed upwards over his shoulders. The light touch heated his blood. It pounded through his veins, hot and wild.

The contact sealed her approval. Her acceptance.

He was her choice to stand by her side, to protect her. Her mate: to love her, to give her children.

Desire battered him, the scent of her longing stripping him of thought. She tipped her head and glanced up at him, eyes gleaming fey and seductive through moon-silvered hair. Her body arched enticingly, begging for his touch.

With a feral snarl, lethal claws extended, punctured the light cloth of her gown and snapped down, shredding the garment to free her for their pleasure...

* * * * *

"Vincent!"

The dark hiss of shredding cloth halted as his eyes opened. Confusion faded to comprehension as he focused on his extended claws and the eight long, slicing tears in her windbreaker. His head dropped backwards with a despairing moan, eyes closing tightly. He began panting, heavy and deep.

"It's OK. Don't worry about it. It's an old jacket. You were just dreaming and-"

"Catherine. Go." The words were a quiet rasp, tightly controlled.

She couldn't leave him, not like this! Slowly she reached for him, to take his face in her hands and turn him back to her, to force him to listen.

He flinched from her touch as if burned, an angry snarl bubbling through clenched teeth.

Hopes tumbled as she watched every step of progress made since Winterfest crumbling away.

"No! Vincent, it was just a dream! Really, I-"

A wild roar tore through the chamber, reverberating off bare rock. He whipped his head back to face her, eyes frantic, pupils enlarged to a fathomless well of dark above flashing white fangs.

"Go, now!"

He was deadly serious.

There was no reasoning with him when he was like this. Her presence would just make him worse.

"All right, I'll go." Slowly she backed up to the chamber entrance. He had turned from her once more, forehead resting against the bookcase, claws digging into the wood. "But Vincent, we'll have to talk about this. Soon. "

He didn't move, didn't acknowledge her at all.

With a heavy sigh, she turned and walked away.

 

To Everything There Is A Season

Summer

 

Even the coolness of night could not completely dissipate the oppressive heat of the past day. Tempers frayed as the citizens of New York coped with a late summer heat wave that brought clinging humidity and temperatures in the triple digits. At least here, high above the city streets, there was a breeze to provide relief. Not that many would come outside to appreciate it. Everyone in this building was hiding within air-conditioned apartments, a fact not unwelcome to one who wished to remain undiscovered.

Vincent scooted forward to perch on the very edge of the building and gazed outward, across the dark abyss of Central Park, to the city lights beyond. His cloak lay in a heap beside him. It was too hot to wear the heavy wool and leather garment for long. His dark blue cotton sweater and jeans would hide his presence, not quite as well as the concealing cloak, but they would have to do.

She wasn't home. He had known that before he came here, but a part of him needed to feel her near. It was close to ten o'clock. She would surely return soon.

A few months ago he would have waited on her balcony...

They hadn't spent much time alone together since... that night. A night when, in a dream, the animal side of him had risen fully, shown him his deepest desires, and left consequences that affected them still.

He had released the Beast earlier that fateful evening, to herd drunken intruders back to the surface. Both sides of his nature had intertwined, working in concert to accomplish a common goal. That state faded only gradually, and he had returned to his chamber using less traveled routes, unwilling to encounter anyone until his equilibrium was regained. Sleep had come quickly.

That night had been a revelation. Proof positive of the wrongness inherent in his desires for her.

It wasn't often that the other side of his nature took over that completely and he was still coming to terms with the pleasure the dream had brought. But dreams were dreams, and not of true consequence, at least not usually. The dream itself wasn't the problem.

For a moment, after he awakened, that dark joy had remained; the hissing shred of nylon a bright counterpoint to the soundless rumble in his chest. Conviction had wavered. For one brief instant the temptation to ignore every rule, to continue and shred her garments, to take them to completion, had overwhelmed him. His claws had moved an inch more... two inches more.

It had been deliberate...

He had looked up at her and seen her eyes wide with shock. Reality had reasserted itself in a blinding flash, and he had known just how bestial his desires were.

That he could think of her in such a way! It had been nothing like anything he had read; there were no thoughts of tender touching, softness, or confessions of enduring love. No, none of that; just a bone-deep, aching need to take, an overwhelming drive that had strengthened even further in the last months. So possessive, so... hungry.

Those feelings existed still, lurking below his conscious mind. At times they would rise up and swamp him, leaving him trembling in the midst of some normal daytime activity. And the nights...

It was not normal.

The sense of her intensified, an inner heat that underscored the warmth of the night.

She was coming home.

* * * * *

After the heat, the air-conditioned apartment building was sharply chill.

"Cathy, you make me sick. This place always looks so clean and neat!"

Catherine dropped several bags onto a couch and set her handbag on the table. "Yeah, but I don't have two kids and a husband running around messing things up."

Behind her, Nancy nudged the apartment door shut, juggling an armful of boxes and an overnight bag. "Want to borrow them?"

"No, thanks."

"Smart woman. My place isn't called the House of Chaos for nothing. As much as I love them, it's sure nice to have a break every once in a while." The heap of boxes tumbled to the couch beside the bags. "I can't believe I bought all this stuff. Paul's going to kill me."

Catherine toed off her pumps and flexed her feet in relief. "Did we leave anything in the stores?"

"I hope not." Nancy chuckled as she removed her sneakers and flopped down on the opposite couch. "Man, we haven't done that in way too long. My feet are killing me."

"Me, too. And if I don't get these nylons off, I'll go nuts. Would you mind if I went and changed?"

"Nope. Go ahead. I'm going to help myself to an iced tea. Want one?"

"I'd love one."

Catherine walked into the bedroom and turned to close the louvered doors behind her. Her legs itched from the pantyhose she had put on this morning for work. Quickly she discarded the nylons and skirt, and slipped into a pair of beige shorts.

They had had a wonderful day. Sometimes spur of the moment plans were so much fun.

Nancy had called her this morning. Her parents were taking the kids for the weekend, and Paul was returning from a business trip to Seattle on Saturday afternoon. Since she was driving in to pick him up anyway, she had thought maybe she could come in Friday and spend the night.

Catherine had jumped at the chance for company. She had even finagled Joe into letting her leave early. A marathon shopping spree, combined with dinner at a favorite Thai restaurant, was just what the doctor ordered. She had needed something to take her mind off things. Specifically, Vincent.

Since that spring night when he had torn her jacket, he had backed off. Way off. Become distant, more formal. Good night kisses became a treasured memory.

They were never alone anymore either. When she went Below, there always seemed to be some activity, something that permitted only a few moments of privacy, if that. She had tried to bring up the subject during those times, but... well he wasn't talking.

"Hey, Cathy?"

"Yeah?"

"I liked that shirt you bought. Is it for Vincent?"

Catherine froze. It gave her a start, to hear his name from someone who did not know of the world Below. But she had told Nancy some of it that night over a year ago, before she borrowed her car at four in the morning to drive back to New York. No real specifics, but enough. Consciously relaxing, she removed a light beige tank top from its hanger and slipped it over her head.

"Yes, it is." She had been jealous; Catherine had to admit to herself. She had wanted so much to shop for Vincent the way Nancy did for Paul. She had wandered around the Ralph Lauren Men's store while Nancy looked at the fall sweaters, and had spied the shirt on a sale display. A loose, long-sleeved Henley, in a soft blue cotton knit with a darker blue lining beneath the buttons. It had been perfect for Vincent, sized large enough to fit his massive shoulders, and the color would bring out the blue of his eyes. She hadn't been able to resist the purchase. Now all she had to do was get him to accept it, without revealing the price she had paid.

"I think it's going to be too big."

Big? Nancy didn't know his size.

"What do you mean?"

"Way too big. And not nearly warm enough. He's a pretty frigid guy, isn't he?"

Frigid? She wouldn't say that. Repressed, maybe. But beneath the rules and self-control lurked a very passionate side. She knew it. She had seen it. She just needed to uncover it.

Wildly curious, she made her way to the kitchen. Nancy was just filling the glasses with tea from the plastic pitcher. "How do you figure that?"

With a smug grin, Nancy opened the freezer door with a flourish. Inside, leaning against a carton of Haagen-Dazs, the little snowman smiled back. "I've heard about keeping men chained up in the basement, but really, isn't the freezer overkill?"

Catherine fished out a piece of ice from her drink and feigned throwing it at her friend, who squeaked with alarm and ducked away. "I know it's silly, but a friend made him for me on the balcony last winter, and I just couldn't let him melt."

"Ohhh, the balcony. Lets take these outside and sit, it's cooling off."

Before closing the freezer door, Catherine grabbed the carton of ice cream and took two spoons out of the drawer, handing one to her friend. "I won't even ask if you want some."

"You know me too well." Nancy found the bowls and followed Catherine outside. The night air was still warm, but no longer oppressive. At this height, a cool breeze blew in from across the park. "This balcony is so great."

"Yeah, it is."

"Romantic, too."

Catherine gave a noncommittal grunt as she filled her bowl with Rocky Road. From below the hum of the city drifted up, muted at this hour but always present.

"That wasn't a very happy sound. So, how are things going with Vincent? Any improvement?"

"No...yes. I don't know. It's complicated."

Nancy's voice was rife with disbelief. "More complicated than the last time we discussed it?"

Catherine slowly shook her head and sighed. It was so hard to talk about him when so much needed to remain unspoken. Even that night at Nancy's house she had kept the specifics to herself. But she had so desperately needed a friend, needed someone to talk to, even if only to clear her mind. And it had helped. A lot.

"I'm sorry, Cathy, just tell me to butt out. I don't mean to be a busybody. It's the Mom in me, I guess."

"No, it's OK. I do need to talk to someone or I'll go crazy. But there's a lot I can't say, I have secrets that aren't mine to tell. I've made promises."

"I know. I remember."

Catherine stared across the park as she absently ate a spoonful of ice cream. "Things have been strained between us lately. Something happened...

"That sounds pretty ominous. Did he cheat on you?"

Catherine couldn't contain a snort of amusement. "No, not that. Sort of the opposite."

"You cheated on him?"

"No!" She shook her head in frustration. How did one explain the problem without revealing anything? "He... wants to be intimate with me, but there are things that scare him... see he's a very big man. Not fat, just very muscular and extremely strong and... well, and large, and I'm-"

"A size two." Nancy rolled her eyes in disgust. "Don't think we didn't envy you to death during college. But the size difference shouldn't affect sex; he'd just have to be careful. Unless by large you mean... really large, you know... there."

She didn't know. He might be. Could that be part of it? Father was a doctor; surely he would know average sizes and such. Despite herself, she felt heat creep into her cheeks, and she reached for the iced tea glass and took a long swallow. "I don't know. Maybe. I've never..."

Nancy looked incredulous. "Never?"

"I told you, it's complicated. I wish I could say more, but..."

"Cathy, you do know that nothing you say to me will leave this balcony, don't you? I mean that, those aren't just empty words. I owe you. Remember Aaron?"

It seemed a lifetime ago. In a way, it had been. Nancy and Paul had been seeing each other since high school, but they had attended separate colleges. Regardless, they had remained together. But in second year there had been that dorm party that had gotten a little, well, a lot, out of hand. Nancy had come home at nine that next morning, disheveled, in the same rumpled clothes. Too much alcohol, a lot of loneliness, a handsome young man saying all the right things, and no thought to precautions...

"I'd almost forgotten." It was Catherine who had been the shoulder to cry on, and the pillar of strength through the week when Nancy's period was late. Luckily, it had just been late and the incident had come to nothing. Luckily. But those three weeks had been pretty scary. Catherine had never spoken of it to anyone. "Thanks, Nance." She lowered her head and absently traced lines through the condensation on her glass. "I think he's scared of letting go. He thinks he'll hurt me without meaning to, and to be truthful, he really could. It's possible, although I don't believe he will. He's different. Physically."

"Different? You mean deformed?"

"No! Not the way that sounds. Deformed means something's wrong, something didn't come out right. But he's not that way." Catherine's voice gentled, dreamy. "Everything came out wonderfully. He is so beautiful, you have no idea."

"Could he be impotent?"

"I don't think so. We... we don't discuss things like that."

"Maybe you should."

"I've tried! But if I push, he gets distant. He's really hard to talk to about that sort of thing. He gets embarrassed and nervous. It's always one step forward and two steps back with him, at least it seems that way." Catherine ran her hands under her hair, lifting it upwards. "I'm getting so frustrated!" The night breeze felt wonderful against the back of her neck. "To be honest, lately, I've been feeling a bit... desperate."

Nancy chuckled lightly. "Yeah, I can relate to that. It's our age, you know."

"How do you mean?"

"Oh, I was reading about it in one of those women's magazines at the checkout counter a couple of months back. You know the ones, with the half dressed women on the cover and the sensational headlines like Six Sex Moves to Drive Your Man Wild. That type. Anyway, I picked it up because it had an article I was interested in, one about women over thirty. I'm sure you've heard the thing about men reaching their sexual peak at seventeen, but women reaching theirs at thirty?"

Catherine nodded. Of course, everyone had heard that old saw.

"The article talked about that. It says that our sex hormones reach peak at about our age. We get to the stage that boys go through at seventeen, except we know what to do with it." Nancy's voice dropped to a suggestive drawl. "And I can attest to that."

Catherine grinned. "Oh? Do tell."

Nancy blushed and looked away. "It's kind of scary. You want it all the time. For me, it's usually in the afternoon. I'll be folding laundry or vacuuming and all of a sudden, bam! It's like getting hit by a brick. It's all you can think of. There have been times I've actually called Paul at work to see if he can come home early."

Catherine chewed her lip. That sounded way too familiar, especially lately. At work she'd be busy breaking down a deposition or sitting in a meeting and... Nancy was right, it was almost overwhelming, an actual physical response. She had thought she was just frustrated... "I think I know what you mean. Last week I was in a meeting, and like you said, it's like getting hit by a brick. I was almost drooling."

"Yep. You've got it, too." Nancy chucked ruefully. "It's not like normal, either. You just want it. No preliminaries, no long foreplay. You don't need any. Once..." Nancy snickered conspiratorially and dropped her voice. "Once Paul did come home early. The kids were napping and I was in the kitchen, and... well, one thing led to another. We did it right there on the island. It was some of the best sex we've ever had. He even cut my underwear off with the kitchen shears."

"Nancy Lynn Tucker!" Catherine burst out laughing as Nancy wriggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Paul must have enjoyed that!"

"Yeah, that time he did. Sometimes he just gets that deer-in-the-headlights look and finds something to do out in the garage." Nancy chuckled ruefully. "Funny how the roles reverse as we age. The shoe is on the other foot now."

"Humm." Catherine ate another spoonful of the melting ice cream, crunching a chunk of walnut. "Sometimes Vincent gets that look, when I push too much."

"At least Paul is coming home tomorrow and we have until Sunday before we pick up the kids. It must be tough sometimes for you."

"It is." She glanced at the empty bowl before setting it on the table. "There must be alcohol in this ice cream; I haven't talked like this about things for years."

"It's good for you." Nancy set her empty bowl, scraped clean, on top of Catherine's. "How about this. Why not whap him on the head with a two by four, throw him to the ground, and just have your wicked way with him? I mean, he's a man, surely he won't struggle too much."

"No, he'd just die of shock. Things aren't done like that where he comes from. Not that I haven't thought about it, or of sneaking into his place naked except for a trench coat, and assaulting him in his own bed."

"That sounds promising. Maybe you need to do something like that. Something more concrete, more physical. You know, take certain matters into your own hands, so to speak." Eyes met over the table, as both women erupted into giggles.

Catherine laughed until she was breathless. It was cathartic, a release of months of frustrated tension.

* * * * *

Vincent sat immobile, frozen with shock.

It was her! Her emotions, her desires, influencing his own!

Sensitive hearing had caught ever word, every breathless confession. Eavesdropping was wrong, he knew, but once they had begun he had been unable to move, captured by the sound of his name, the sense of love and longing entwined with her thoughts of them together.

Understanding flooded him, leaving him gasping. That afternoon last week, when he had been forced to leave the construction site, it had been her needs communicated through the bond. It must have been! Her needs, so like his own as to be virtually indistinguishable. Reinforcing. Meshing.

It was... it was them.

The conversation below slipped to the past day's shopping and he relaxed his tense vigilance with a shuddering sigh. Ideas and thoughts underwent wrenching revision as he struggled with the implications of what he had learned.

Those desires he was so ashamed of, that he was so sure were rooted in the animalistic side of his nature – yes they were his, but they echoed her own. And she – she thought they were acceptable! .

The sound of his name caught his attention once more.

"Don't worry. Vincent will come around. I just hope for your sake it's sooner rather than later."

"You and me both."

He heard the woman called Nancy yawn.

"I'm beat. Five hours of tramping through stores really takes it out of you. Would you mind if we called it a night?"

"Sure, no problem. You go ahead and use the bathroom. I'll wait out here until you're done. The bed's all made up; you just have to unfold the couch."

"I can handle that. I won't be too long."

"Take your time."

The balcony door opened and closed with light clicks and silence descended, except for a light scrape of metal chair leg against concrete. Beneath him, he watched Catherine walk to the railing and lean against it, looking out over the park. A wave of wistful longing swept over him, intensified by proximity.

How could he resist that? How could he continue to resist her, knowing now that what he had considered to be repellent was actually what she, too, craved?

Silently he rose, turned, and climbed down the wall to the balcony. He shrank back into shadow as, inside the apartment, Nancy gathered up her overnight bag and entered the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

* * * * *

Catherine gazed over the park. It was a beautiful soft night. Perhaps he was down there, walking through the trees. He so loved the park.

"Catherine."

His voice came from behind her, from the side of the balcony where her plants grew. Softly beckoning.

Slowly she turned, leaning back against the balcony railing. "Hi."

He stood in the shadows, one hand braced against rough cement. For a moment there was a sense of wrongness, until she realized he wasn't wearing his cloak. It was one of the few times she had ever seen him Above without it.

She glanced away into the apartment. Nancy was in the bathroom, a small line of light visible under the bottom of the closed door. Silently cursing their timing once again, she turned back.

He could move so quietly! In that one quick second she had looked away, he had approached to stand before her.

"Vincent, I'm sorry. Nancy is here and-"

The words died in her throat as she looked up.

He was staring at her mouth like a starving man seeing an end to hunger, and he swallowed convulsively. His jaw dropped open, exposing the glint of lower fangs as his eyes met hers. Hazy, dark, pupils enlarged to fathomless black wells.

He moved a step closer, bringing his body fully against her. The concrete half wall pressed into her back, preventing any retreat. Not that she wanted to.

He was wearing fewer layers than usual in concession to the heat. She could feel the rise of his chest as his breathing deepened; feel the rise of his desire press into her belly.

She didn't register the movement of his hands until they touched her. The pads of his fingers caressed her temples and slid back, sharp claws grazing lightly against her scalp as her hair was combed away. She was held immobile by the gentle grip on the sides of her head, the press of his weight against her body. A steady vibration, centered in his chest, shivered through to her.

He dipped his head in a swift movement, capturing her lips with a growling moan of possession. His hands tightened on her scalp, claw tips flexing lightly.

She sighed, slipping her arms around his shoulders and pulling him down further, bending backwards to give him access to anything. Everything.

This was no tentative foray, no careful reintroduction. This was a deliberate and passionate abandon of rules and limits. The pressure of his mouth on hers increased as he deepened the kiss, the soft bristles of his upper lip brushing her skin. Electric.

Thoughts were stripped away in a spiraling vortex of sensual pleasure. She gasped as his mouth left hers and slid down her cheek to her ear, gently sucking. The vibration in his chest became an audible rumble as he licked the side of her neck and bit lightly, four hard points of delicious contact nestled within the wet moistness of breath.

His hands left her hair, glided slowly down her across her shoulder blades and splayed across her back, pulling her hard against him.

She reached up to bracket his chin with her palms, tracing his upper lip with her thumbs, fingers spread across the soft fur on his cheeks, urging him upwards to kiss her once more. Helpless, she surged, pressing her lower body against that forbidden part of him.

He stiffened, standing abruptly upright.

"No..." she cried softly. Pleading. He couldn't pull away, not now. It was too much. She couldn't stand it.

"Catherine, your friend." His voice was deep, rough, forced over the liquid rumble of his pleasure in her.

She glanced past his shoulder. The bathroom door was opening. She looked back at him, mane rumpled, eyes dark with desire.

A guttural moan of disappointment wrung her. Of all the timing...

"You have to go."

He nodded silently and stepped backwards.

"Wait!"

He halted in his turn to climb the wall. He was still breathing raggedly as he glanced backwards, eyes wild.

"Tomorrow. Can you come tomorrow?"

He dropped his head, mane swinging forward. "This weekend is impossible, I-"

No! There had to be a way. They had waited long enough! "Then next Friday night. Can you come then?"

He turned his head to look at her once more. Slowly he nodded. "Yes. I..." His voice deepened further, an uneven shiver. "I look forward to it."

"Cathy?" Nancy's voice, from the doorway.

Swiftly Vincent scaled the fifteen feet to the rooftop.

Catherine forced her eyes from him as he turned for one last look before moving away, out of sight.

"Funny, I thought I heard someone out here with you."

"Out here? Who, Superman?"

Nancy laughed lightly. "Must have been. Anyway, I'm heading to bed. The bathroom's all yours."

"Thanks. I'll be in in a few minutes."

"Hey, are you OK? You look flushed."

"Yes, I'm fine. I'll see you in the morning."

"OK. Goodnight."

"Night, Nance."

The door closed quietly as Catherine turned to lean against the balcony railing once more.

"Oh, I'm fine all right." A delighted grin spread across her face as she gazed once more out over the park. "I'm more than fine."

 

 

To Everything There Is A Season

Autumn

 

With a muffled growl, Vincent loosened the tie of his ruffled white shirt and once again attempted to construct a passable ascot. For the fifth time. Hands that shook with nervousness made the chore even more difficult.

Tonight was the night.

Her note had arrived Wednesday: a small, lightly scented envelope bearing an invitation to dinner.

Dinner. Inside.

Tonight, he stepped into her world. Tonight, that particular barrier would fall.

He had made a determined effort to finish all the jobs assigned to him and had completed preparation of Monday's lesson plans in advance. There would be nothing to distract him from the coming weekend, no uncompleted chore to draw him away.

No excuses.

It had been a week since he had overheard Catherine's conversation with her friend. A mere seven days, time that had dragged unmercifully, but yet had sped by far too quickly for comfort.

He was practically ready to go now, two hours early.

The wait was going to kill him.

Careful of his sharp claws, he pulled the material through the loop and tightened the fabric. Lopsided. Again. This time his growl was not repressed, but rolled through the room, high and nervous.

"Vincent?"

He spun swiftly to face the chamber door. It was not often someone was able to come up on him unawares.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

Father stood in the doorway, looking at him with concern. His eyes visibly widened as they traveled over the tall frame of his son, and Vincent stood a little straighter. He knew what Father saw: a freshly washed mane, the favorite ruffled white shirt, and leather boots that glowed lustrous with polish.

"You look... very nice. Is there some occasion I'm unaware of?"

Vincent dipped his head to hide the furious blush that spread across his cheeks. "I'm going to visit Catherine this evening."

"Ahhh." Father walked to the side of Vincent's bed and sank down with an audible breath of relief. His tone was guarded. "You've gone to see her many times, but not with this level of care."

"Tonight is special. And Father, I..." Vincent swallowed nervously, and tugged at the knot at his neck. "I... may not be home until late. Quite late." Raising his head, he looked Father directly in the eyes, defiant. "Perhaps not until tomorrow night."

Father rubbed his hip absently as he met his son's challenging gaze. "So, it's come to that, eh?" He leaned forward with a sigh and removed his glasses, resting his elbows on his thighs, absently examining the intricate pattern of the oriental carpet. "Are you sure? Are you both sure? The risks-"

"Are ours to take." Vincent walked to the side of the bed and bent down to rest his hand on Father's slumped shoulder. "Please, don't worry so."

Straightening, Father nodded jerkily and replaced his glasses. Hands lifted to touch the burnished gold of Vincent's mane. He spoke quietly, dreamily, as he stoked the shining waves. "Do you remember when you were five, and you gave yourself and Devin haircuts?"

Vincent chuckled ruefully. "Barely. I do remember you were very angry."

"I had to be. A part of me was laughing so hard, I had to get very angry in order to keep a straight face. The two of you looked so awful! After you were sent to your chamber, Mary and I had hysterics." Father fingered the rough gold lovingly. "Sometimes, when I look at you, I still see that same little boy staring back at me, frightened and defiant. He was such a sweet child. It's hard to let him go."

Vincent stood. "All children grow up, eventually."

Father sat silent for a few moments. "Yes. They do." Determinedly he reached for his cane and stood. "Well, I shan't keep you any longer. No doubt you need to be going soon. But, Vincent, please, be-"

"Careful. Yes, we will."

"I know that. Just humor the part of me that still needs to say it." He glanced over at Vincent once more and turned to face him. "But a man shouldn't go to visit his lady with a lopsided tie. Hold still, now, while I fix this." Deliberately he retied the knot so the folds fell straight, cascading across Vincent's broad chest. He stepped back to check over his handiwork with a bright smile that belied the glitter of suppressed tears. "There. Much better."

"Thank you, Father."

Father nodded slowly and left the chamber.

The time rang out over the pipes. Six o'clock.

He surely would not survive the next two hours.

* * * * *

Chewing pens was a bad habit, she knew, but one she couldn't seem to shake. At least it was better than gnawing on your fingernails. Surreptitiously she glanced at the large white clock over the office doors. Five minutes to six. Five minutes before she could bolt out the door with a clear conscience.

Everything was ready at home. The apartment was clean, the table set. The dress she was to wear waited in the closet. The meal was ordered and the wine was chilling. If she could make it through the next two hours, everything would work out. Definitely.

Surely.

Hopefully...

Catherine shook her head and refocused on the documents in front of her. She scribbled some directions onto a sticky note and smoothed it onto the front of the file. Rita could deal with it on Monday.

That was it: she was done.

During the last week, she had put in a determined effort to clean off her desk. She had come in early, skipped lunch, and worked late, but it had all been worth it. There was no work to take home, no looming crises, no weekend interviews. Just two – two! – complete days with no obligations. And, if all went according to plan, she wouldn't be spending them alone.

He had replied to her note, a sheet of heavy paper with his elegant script included in her lunch sandwich yesterday. It had been short and sweet, just 'Tomorrow at eight – V.'

She set the file into her out tray and opened the lower desk drawer to remove her purse.

"Cathy?" That was Joe's voice, from across the office. "Cathy!" He was approaching, holding some notes.

She knew it! She just knew it! Why, oh why, did this always happen? Every time anything of personal significance was about to happen, any time she had plans that included Vincent, something always came up! Witnesses skipped, cases broke open.

Nope. Not this time.

She turned to remove her overcoat from the tree behind her desk and shrugged into it.

"Cathy, would you-"

"No."

"Excuse me?"

"I said no. Ask someone else."

"You-"

"Absolutely not! Forget it! I'm going home. Someone else can do it." She fished through her purse for her car keys and walked towards the door. "See you on Monday, Joe."

"But, Cathy I-"

"Bye!" She waved over her shoulder as the door swung shut with a swish.

* * * * *

With a rueful sigh, Joe perched on the edge of Catherine's desk as Rita stopped to remove the files from the out basket.

"Something wrong, Joe?"

Joe glanced at the slips of paper in his hand. "No, not really. Say, you wouldn't want two tickets to see Cats, would you?"

* * * * *

Catherine switched off the curling iron, set it aside, and swept her now softly curled bangs to the side. Perfect.

No lipstick, Vincent didn't like it. Not that he'd ever said anything, but it wasn't customarily worn by the women below and surely looked strange to him. Instead she applied a light coat of gloss to finish.

She had bought the dress on her wild shopping trip with Nancy last week. A rich, deep green that brought out her eyes: the silky material draped and swung beautifully. The neckline began at the point of her shoulders, and dipped to a shallow V in the back and front, exposing just a hint of cleavage. Classic, but provocative. Perfect.

She smoothed the material over her hips and did one last check in the vanity mirror. As she turned, she noticed the phone beside the bed, the red message button flashing. Automatically, she reached to check, but her hand stopped in mid air as a memory flashed; a mental picture of Vincent, leaning forward to step inside her apartment. It was hard to believe that that had been over a year ago. That night he had begun to come inside... but then the phone had rung, and the crisis with the watcher halted any progress.

"I don't think so." Catherine leaned over the bedside table and decisively yanked the cord from the wall.

The light strains of Fauré danced through the air as she closed the doors to her bedroom. Candles on the mantelpiece, the coffee table, everywhere she could think to place them, warmed the room with a golden glow reminiscent of the tunnels. Anything to make him feel relaxed. She wanted him to think of her home as his, to feel comfortable in it.

If... he would come in at all.

She padded into the living room and took care of the other phone. There would be no interruptions from that quarter tonight.

The salad was made. The chicken and side dishes awaited warming in the microwave, and dessert had been put into the freezer, next to the snowman.

Her shoes were in the closet. She slipped on the dark green heels, made her way into the kitchen, and opened the freezer. The strawberry sherbet had gotten soft on the trip home, but a quick check revealed it had firmed up again. Beside the pink container, the little snowman beamed back at her, eyes gleaming with bright promise. He had brought such hope last winter.

Maybe he could perform that service again.

With a flash of inspiration, Catherine dug through her cupboards and came up with a small wooden platter. The desk in the living room held her stationery and she sank down into the chair to pen a short note.

* * * * *

Today had been the first day of fall. A stiff breeze came from the sea, carrying a faint scent of salt along with the damp chill.

Vincent stood on the edge of the building, one leg propped up on the ledge. He knew he looked calm and collected; if there was one benefit to having his unusual features, it was that emotion could be hidden more easily. At least, to others eyes. Inside, he was shaking like a leaf.

Tonight was not a simple dinner, not really, at least not exclusively. Tonight was symbolic, a deliberate and conscious lowering of the barriers that had defined his life to this point, perhaps even totally shattering them. One week ago he had been so caught up in the moment that pushing back those barriers had been easy. Now, however, now was totally different. He, she, both of them, had certain expectations.

Could he really do this?

The click of doors opening below him caught his attention and he looked down to see Catherine emerge onto the balcony. She cried out as the stiff breeze whipped her dress against her legs and blew through her hair. Swiftly she set a large plate onto the balcony table and fled back into the apartment.

She was so beautiful. Inside and out, face and body, heart and soul. There were times when he had just left her at the apartment threshold, or saw her walk across a room, when a blanket of unreality settled over him. That one such as he held the love of someone like her... It confounded him, and yet, it was so.

He could no longer doubt her love. Its constancy had been proven, again and again.

She had left something on the balcony. The table was against the wall, and he couldn't quite see what from this vantage point.

It was time. He could no longer avoid it. Everything they were was at stake, an all-or-nothing gamble.

With a deep, shuddering breath, he turned and made the easy climb down.

The doors were closed against the wind. Quietly, he moved across the balcony to the small table that was sheltered by the sidewall.

On a heavy wooden plate, his snowman gleamed whitely in the diffuse light from the apartment. He hadn't even imagined she would, or could, have saved it. But there it stood, beaming with the large smile that had been carved by his hand, jaunty red scarf fluttering in the breeze. But the note he had left so many months ago was missing, instead replaced by a different envelope, one bearing his name in Catherine's neat handwriting.

Carefully he drew the note from the stick of wood impaled on the snowman's side, and opened the envelope.

Vincent:

Last time this little friend bore a note, it was one of hope for us, one that furthered our dream. He would like to do so again.

Come inside?

Love, Catherine

He carefully folded the note and tucked it into an inside pocket of his cloak. The light of many candles glowed within her apartment, a soft, flickering welcome.

The door was open, still. Open, but unopened. Still.

No longer.

With a steady and determined movement, he stepped to the door.

* * * * *

Candles flickered as a gust from the opening balcony doors blew through the apartment.

He was here.

Catherine turned gracefully, unable to not smile as his presence filled the doorway. He looked wonderful, if wind tossed.

"Hi." She stepped up to the doorway and held out her hand. For a moment he just stood, staring at her, before he took her hand in his and stepped down into the apartment.

He looked about ready to bolt.

Another gust whistled through the room, and the tablecloth tossed restlessly.

"Vincent, the door, I have to-"

"Yes. Of course." He released her hand and turned to close the door behind him. For a bare moment he hesitated, leaning against the closed door.

Why did it have to be so hard? He looked so nervous.

* * * * *

Why did it have to be so hard? She could probably sense his nervousness; he wasn't hiding it very well anyway.

Uneasily he scanned the unfamiliar space. It even smelled different, in here: cleaners, electronics, plastics, and other scents he couldn't even identify.

"Can I take your cloak?"

His attention snapped back to her. She looked nervous, too.

He forced himself to slip the heavy garment off his shoulders, gather it together, and hand it to her. Without its concealing folds, he felt strangely vulnerable.

Catherine draped the dark cloth over the back of her couch, running a hand across the rough wool in what was surely an unconscious gesture. His literary mind couldn't help but note the symbolism; the soft colors and newness of her possession overlapped by the darkness of his.

It wouldn't be that way. It couldn't.

She straightened and walked towards him. She looked so beautiful tonight. The dress she wore clung to her tiny waist and hips, and dipped low in front, highlighting the swells of rounded breasts.

They hadn't seen each other since last Friday, when he... when they...

He remembered holding that waist between his hands as he drew her against him, the sinuous twist of her hips as she bent backwards, the thrust of those breasts as she offered herself.

Beautiful.

For a moment, he was horrified by the swiftness of that carnal turn of thought. Not that it was unexpected. Not really. Ever since overhearing her confessions to her friend, he had been unable to not think of what she had said. Of her fantasies of coming to his chamber, naked but for a trench coat, and slipping into his bed...

He had thought about that one a lot over the past week. Quite a lot.

The scent of her reached him as she approached once more, soft and warm, undeniably female. The beguiling scent of his Catherine, calling to him.

Calling to all of him.

* * * * *

He was just standing there, looking at her so strangely as she walked toward him, until he dipped his head.

She sighed silently. Was this how it was going to be? Back to square one, just with a new locale?

They both needed to relax. Squaring her shoulders with determination, she altered her steps towards the kitchen.

"Would you like a glass of wine? I'm going to-"

Her wrist was enfolded by an iron grip as she passed before him, abruptly halting her progress. She turned to face him.

He was staring at her. His eyes held that same expression she had seen on her balcony last week. Dark, hazy, and a little wild.

The hand on her wrist gently tugged her forward. He curled his left arm around her waist and pressed against the small of her back, drawing her closer. The hand at her wrist released and traced up her spine, clawed fingers finding and softly stroking the exposed skin between her shoulder blades.

His breathing was quick and shallow, and the lace at his neckline trembled.

She placed her palm against the center of his chest. Beneath her fingers she could feel a shivering vibration, and smiled when that vibration resolved to a barely audible rumble.

His embrace tightened, urging her closer still, closer until their bodies touched, thighs and hips meeting.

"Catherine, is this truly what you want? Tell me now, before I-" His voice was a deep rasp, shivering through her.

Folds of lace cascaded over her hand, and beneath the thin linen she could feel the warmth of his skin. Warmth she needed to touch. The knot at his throat loosened easily, and with a final light tug fell open. The velvet brush of fur greeted her, and she slid her fingertips through the soft gold. "I've wanted this for a long time."

If possible his eyes grew darker, and the rumbling increased in volume.

"We will be changed." His eyes drifted closed as her gentle touch moved slowly downward, undoing each small button in turn. An audible gasp resolved to low panting as she moved lower still, brushing the sensitive dip of his navel. He trembled as she eased the white linen from the confines of his pants. "Whatever happens, there will be no going back. We risk everything that we are."

"Some risks are worth taking."

She furrowed through the thick coat on his chest and reached up to stroke his cheek. With a light moan, he leaned into her touch. Fingers wandered softly back over his fur-rimmed ear to the base of his neck and she tugged lightly, drawing him down to her.

For a bare moment more he resisted that pull, eyes boring into hers as if attempting to uncover any last doubts, any unspoken fears.

There were none to be found.

With a growling moan of surrender, he bent to claim at last what both their hearts longed for.

* * * * *

The wind had died down. On the streets below traffic increased. A radio in the apartment below was heard briefly as the occupant had morning coffee on his balcony, the weatherman calling for increased temperatures as a warm front moved up from the south.

The little snowman had stood sentry duty throughout the night. He had watched the light from inside the apartment gradually dim as candles burned down. Several times sounds had filtered through the bedroom doors; soft murmurs, laughter, high, soft, feminine cries accompanied by rumbling moans and an occasional short roar.

However, all was quiet now, and had been for the last hour. The rising sun painted the motionless sentinel with a liquid gold sheen.

A pool of water gradually filled the wooden platter. Eventually it overflowed, streamed across the table surface and dripped gentle tears onto the concrete floor. But the wide smile, claw-carved so many months ago, only deepened as the little snowman slowly melted away.