BEFORE WE SLEEP Catherine stood on her balcony and read the lines of the sonnet over and over until the words blurred before her and she could read no more. Blinking furiously, she sat down in the garden chair, settled the book in her lap, and turned the pages carefully. The marginal notations were written in the same precise hand as covered the front page, and some of the pages were dogeared. Catherine suspected that Vincent knew the sonnets by heart, that he had passed to her a small piece of his soul. She was astonished and rather frightened that he had been so honest. The sonnet itself was clear; Vincent recognized her love. Yet Catherine had not dared to give a name to her own feelings. She wished Vincent were with her, for she needed to talk to him. Did he already know her despair and disillusionment? In Elliot, Catherine had reached for something that did not exist. Along with the book, perhaps Vincent was giving her time to heal. The night's events left her drained and a little tired, but the storm-tossed devastation she felt after leaving Elliot's office was gone. She had not been in love with Elliot; of that she was glad. Her pain could have been much worse. Replacing the book in its case, Catherine caressed the rose that kept Vincent's place. This gentlebeing recognized her love, and by inference he admitted his feelings for her. What was she to do with them? She could turn away, or she could hold her feelings up into the harsh light of reality and examine them. Since Vincent could not share her world, Catherine expected him to wish her well if she found someone who could. She expected him to continue their relationship even though another man was a part of her life. Now Catherine knew that she had expected too much. If Vincent's appearance was not so fearsome, would she hesitate to touch him? "I know what I am," he had told her. "There is no place for me in your world." Until this night, Vincent hid his pain beneath an intellectual acceptance of his fate. While Catherine thought she understood his loneliness, she hadn't made his existence less lonely. Although she owed him her life ten times over, Vincent asked for nothing except companionship. Reason told them both that friendship was the only thing Vincent could expect from Catherine. But reason could not dampen his jealousy of Elliot, nor his resentment of any other man Catherine might come to know. It was difficult to think about Vincent when Catherine knew he could feel her emotions. Whether he read or misread them, he might be hurt by them. Still, Vincent's sonnet had opened a door and Catherine did not want to close it. Beyond the sonnets and extensive knowledge of any classical work Catherine would care to discuss, Vincent had little to offer that the world valued. He owned no conglomerates, held no mines or bonds to make her future more secure. The inhabitants of his world made their living by selling crafts and talents at Renaissance fairs, street singing and playing, and an assortment of other rough skills. But for all their seeming poverty, they treated one another with a gentleness that Catherine had never before known. Besides all that, Catherine didn't need material wealth. Her mother left her enough to live in comfort the rest of her life. The money was safely invested, and wherever she went it would always be there. Vincent's materialistic shortcomings were no obstacle at all. Taking a deep breath, Catherine lay her head back on the chair and pondered. It was fairly easy to admit that the attraction she felt for Vincent was more than mild. It was less easy to think of being intimate with him. "Is he a beast, or is he human?" She had no answer, and didn't know how to phrase the question to the only one who could answer it. She considered that, perhaps, Vincent dared not ask himself. What was it like to see your reflection in a mirror, or look down at fur-covered, claw-tufted hands and believe that you would be alone all your life? Caresses were forbidden, love and intimacy to be avoided. You could ask no one to walk with you, or lay beside you, and as for children.... Featured like a lion, with a heart as noble and courageous as that animal, Vincent seemed locked into a beast's body with a man's intelligence, emotion and...she had been blind not to have seen it before...a man's desires and dreams. Vincent should have been insane. As it was, he was the most stable, dependable, and consistent person in her life. Catherine thought that she was probably the only person who could fluster--or endanger--him. When Vincent left the message regarding Misha, had he known she was seeing Elliot? Had he sensed her the gentle hope for a life with another? Catherine tossed her head in the chair. Of course Vincent had. His mood and manner changed from that night onward. He delivered the plea for help, then disappeared. Vincent had not visited her; she had to ask him to meet her. Her knowledge of his pain at their meeting had been instinctive, and the painful words between them had been the last she had from him. Animal, or human.... His intelligence was vast and entirely human. His bestiality was a defense triggered by his anger. Purely protective, it would only surface whenever a loved one was endangered. No one in Catherine's life had ever cared so fiercely about her as did Vincent. Elliot was only the latest person in Catherine's life to chose riches over humanity. Vincent was the only one to love her more than they loved themselves, and she had looked on him with mere friendship. "Catherine?" came a voice from the shadows, startling her from her thoughts. Vincent was there, standing on the ledge, cloak billowing in the night breeze. His golden mane flowed behind him as he stood and braced himself on the ledge and wall of Catherine's apartment. "I startled you," came the soft, relaxing tones. "I'm sorry." He hesitated, as though uncertain of his welcome, and Catherine rose to her feet. Crossing the terrace, she reached up and took his hands in hers. "The sonnet, Vincent--" He did not meet her eyes as he stepped down from the wall. Drawing his hands from hers, he turned to look out over the city. "I wasn't sure I should have left the book. I came to explain...to tell you...." Sensing his embarrassment, Catherine stopped his words with a hand on his shoulder. Gently, she turned him to face her. The blue eyes meeting her own green were uncertain. "When last we spoke--" She spread her hands, stumbling over the words. "I'm so sorry, Vincent. I didn't understand, and I should have--" "I feel your regret...." She struggled for control as her fingers hesitantly caressed his cheek. Feeling her pain, Vincent reached his own hand upward. Catching his fingers, Catherine held his palm against her cheek, closed her eyes to savor the warmth. "Catherine?" She let go his hand to slide her arms slowly beneath the cloak. Leaning against his chest, Catherine closed her eyes and clutched the belt at Vincent's waist. He was so warm, so solid. Security rolled off him to envelop her. "Did you love him so much, then?" Vincent questioned, resting his cheek against her head as he tentatively stroked her back. Her answer was muffled against his chest. "I didn't love him at all." "Then why--" Vincent tried drawing back to tilt Catherine's face up and see her expression, but she clung more tightly to him and would not release his waist. Not knowing what else to do, Vincent wrapped his arms around her and rocked gently on his feet. He felt her sadness and disillusionment, but they ran quietly beneath the surface. She stopped crying after a few minutes, but she didn't relinquish her hold on him. If anything, she gripped him tighter. "Are you still angry with me?" she whispered, not looking up at him. He rested his chin on the top of her head and closed his eyes. "I was never angry with you. Only with myself." "Because you weren't like Elliot?" she sniffled, shook her head against him. "Don't change, Vincent. Ever." He sent a smile into the night. "I have no intention of changing. I am well content to remain as I am...for now." She drew back. His calm blue eyes looked down at her. "I don't promise never to be angry with the gods, nor frustrated that I am not like other men." Cocking his head at her, Vincent continued. "Right now you are in my life, and I will not relinquish you to any man until you need him more than you need me. He may come into your life tomorrow, but tonight it will be enough to linger a little while with you." Catherine's gaze strayed from the slight smile on his muzzle. She looked at the long, tangled hair and reached up to touch it. Vincent did not draw away, but stood quietly and accepted her inspection. She stroked down the reddish-golden strands at will, and tried to memorize the feel of it between her fingers. Her eyes travelled on to the slanted brows over his eyes, then to the nose, so catlike, yet aristocratic. As she met his eye--they were the color of the sky, and so human--she rested her hands on his arms. Glancing shyly downward for a moment, she glanced upward again to settle her gaze on his lips...the lower one full and soft, the upper one feline and so very tempting. Catherine had seen the fangs behind the lips. She wished she had the courage to reach upward and venture between Vincent's lips to caress the sharp points beyond. Where had her fear gone? She ached to be closer to this gentle being, to touch him as she had allowed no one to touch her. Her inspection continued downward, and she knew Vincent had to be mystified. She also knew he would wait trustingly and patiently for her to explain herself. The arms beneath her hands were solid and muscled as another man's would be, but the hands she slid her fingers down to hold were quite different from anyone else's. Catherine came to realize that those differences excited her. Bringing up his hands, she laid them, palm down, across her own hand. Gently, Catherine touched the tip of one finger to each of Vincent's claws. They were hard, dark golden things...on the ends of fingers slender and strong. Soft fur moved beneath the side of her hand as she moved over him. She looked up with a smile of delight to meet his confused gaze. Vincent was exactly what he appeared to be, probably--neither animal nor human, but a combination of both. She loved him as he loved her, and found him neither ugly nor repulsive. When she looked at what Vincent was, Catherine did not want to turn away, and if he reached out to touch her, she knew she would not run. What she felt looking at him was anything but fear. Lifting his hand to her face, Catherine rubbed her cheek against Vincent's palm. Her eyes were full of amusement and wonder. "Would you consider staying longer than a little while?" She let all the warmth, love, and desire she felt flow from her heart through her fingertips. She shivered beneath the intensity of her feelings for him, and knew by the startled look in Vincent's eyes that he had absorbed it in a matter of seconds. His shock was thorough and complete. Catherine was not mourning her love for Elliot. She was not disillusioned. Neither was she broken. Vincent knew it. All of it. He nearly snatched his hands back as his own feelings matched and merged with Catherine's. He had to repress the possessive purr that began in his throat. It would be so easy for him to take her away from this world, into his own where it was safe and warm. Instead, he caught her face in his hands. His eyes searched hers in the shadow of the terrace as he bent over her. "Catherine," he whispered. "You're dreaming." A fear of rejection as strong as his own shadowed the green depths of her eyes, but her need for him did not falter. "Catherine--" His fingers curled over her narrow shoulders. Shaking his head fiercely as though to clear it of their desire, Vincent stepped away from her. "No, Vincent...." Unwilling to let him run, she followed him. Her arms took possession of his waist once again. He did not pretend to misunderstand, for her fingers curled into his vest and he felt the thrumming quicksilver in her limbs that threatened to engulf her. Catherine trusted him, and Vincent wrapped her close in his cloak as he brushed the top of her head with his cheek. He had expected to continue guarding Catherine from all evil. He had expected to watch and stay with her, be connected to her the rest of his days. He had even expected to continue meeting the pain of her world on every side as he did so. But he had never expected to protect her from himself. She caught a handful of his hair, buried her fingers in it, and shivered as he pulled away from her. "Catherine, may I go inside your apartment?" Silently, not daring to look at him, she turned and led him inside. Vincent turned at the French doors, closing them and drawing the curtains. She stood quietly as he prowled the apartment, turning off the lights and leaving only a small, rose-colored reading lamp burning in the living room. Returning to Catherine, Vincent guided her to the bed, settled her on the edge of the comforter as he knelt on the carpet. The cloak flowed around his boots. "Do you know what I am?" The question came in a whisper, for Vincent did not trust his voice. Catherine nodded, her eyes meeting his with a naked longing to which Vincent had to respond. Taking her hands in his, he held them firmly, caressed her fingers with his lips as he watched her shiver. "I am a man, no less than others you have known. But I frighten you far more than any other man ever could. Perhaps I will always frighten you, and for that reason, if no other, we must forget what we feel. Do you understand?" She shook her head violently, hair obscuring her eyes for a moment. "You don't frighten me, Vincent. The possibilities of what we feel frightens me. Never in my life did I think I'd feel this way...." "For me?" he finished for her, and Catherine dropped her head. Vincent lifted her chin with his finger. "Yes?" She nodded, trembling. "I'm not afraid of you, Vincent. I'm only afraid of what I don't know." "As I am." Her head came up at that. "I could never hurt you, Catherine. Yet you must know that what you want, and what I may also want, is impossible for us both." She searched his gaze, needing to understand what he was telling her, needing to know, rather than sense. "You cannot seek to be with me from pity, Catherine, for the sake of a sonnet. Nor for the sake of curiosity. My own desire, once unleashed, would never let you go." She looked down to where his hands were once again entwined with hers. Once again, she touched each long-clawed finger. "Little girls dream of this, Vincent." "I am no fantasy." "I know. It might be easier if you were. I've never felt such a need for any other man in my life. I feel as though I've always known you, and always needed you. I have no choice, but to love you. I wouldn't want a choice, actually...." He considered her words quietly for a moment, until she reached out and touched his cheek with a gentle hand. Her fingers ventured on to encounter his mouth, and he nuzzled his nose against the softness of her caress. "Catherine--" came the moan, and he threw back his head, the golden mane flowing across his shoulders. She slid off the bed to kneel with him, steepled her fingers against his. "Vincent, please tell me. Do we go on, or do we stop here? Do we stand on the brink forever, waiting for stable ground--" He braced his forehead against hers and smiled wryly. "Do you think stable ground will ever come?" They looked at each other through his scattered bangs as both remembered the adventures they had shared, and would probably continue to share. Catherine laughed as Vincent smiled lopsidedly at her, revealed the tip of one fang. "No. Not really." "As long as we can laugh at out predicament, perhaps we will not fall over the brink...until we decide to do so." "But the question between us must still be answered, Vincent...if not tonight, next month, or next year. What do you want of me?" Catherine heard him stop breathing. His eyes glimmered in the darkness, and she knew the answer to her question. She also knew that Vincent could not admit it, yet. "Your friendship," came the gravel-throated reply. "Time for both of us. We'll share what we can, Catherine, and be content with that." "One further question, my love." She stroked down his nose affectionately. "What do you need of me?" "Aren't they one and the same?" Solemnly, she shook her head. "They may feel like it at times, but I don't think they are." Vincent pondered a moment, knew it was a question to haunt him for at least a month. Reaching up, he touched her cheek. "I must go." "I know." "Please don't think me harsh." She took a deep breath. "I don't. Why can't things be different for us?" The cloak swirled about Vincent's boots as he rose to his feet. He looked down, the same lopsided smile curving his wide mouth. "One day, perhaps they will be different. Until then, we dream. And we wait." Catherine watched him move across the room, the cloak sighing over his boots. Opening the French doors, Vincent paused with one foot on the stair and looked back at her. Silently, he continued on, cloak flowing out through the doors. A moment later, the terrace was empty. * * * The night of searching the lower east side had been far too long. She was terrified of arriving too late, of finding Vincent in the jaws of death, gasping his last on some wet asphalt while she cried, helpless, over him. All the nightmares of death she had as a child resurfaced. But when she saw him, still on his feet and stiffening in preparation for yet another battle, Catherine's eyes filled with tears and her heart ached to pull him close and never let go. "I was never giving up," she told him, and her fingers were alive with the reality of him, and the knowledge that he would be all right...must be all right, for both their sakes. There was so much wanting to be said, waiting to be shared. The first thing she noticed was that he was exhausted. She had never imagined seeing Vincent in such a state, and the realization of his vulnerability frightened her. Next she heard the rasping breath that was familiar from the memory of her own broken ribs less than a year before. The weight of his arm across her shoulders was heavy, but Catherine welcomed it, along with the knowledge that it was her fault he was suffering. Mentally cursing herself for not finding him sooner, Catherine stepped carefully through the rubble and followed behind Father. "I can't see," Vincent murmured, and Catherine looked up at him to see his face close and fatigued above hers. "I know," she murmured back, stretching out with her feelings to wrap him in a welcoming, safe haven of warmth. "We're right here. We'll guide you safely home." "Father?" he rasped. "Here," the older man said over his shoulder as he made his way on hand crutches around the corridors winding down through the levels. "Can you make it with Catherine's help?" "Yes," came the tired reply. The catacombs were endless. Catherine's shoulders ached horribly, but she made no complaint. A sense of urgency made her determined to keep putting one foot ahead of the other, until it was plain to both her and Father that Vincent wasn't going to last as long as the distance required. Father paused at the intersection of yet another tunnel. "We're in a safer part of town now. I suggest you and Vincent return to the surface and take a taxi to the park. From there, it's only a short distance to our chambers." "What about the subways?" Catherine asked softly as Vincent weaved on his feet. His eyes were half-closed, his breathing more harsh. He hadn't spoken for half an hour. Father shook his head. "Vincent's usual way of using them is far too brutal a journey." Turning, he gestured with one crutch. "The surface is two hundred feet down that tunnel. A hospital is right across the street, and a taxi should be waiting nearby. Keep him safe, Catherine." She met his worried gaze as Vincent repositioned his arm on her shoulder. There was no recrimination in the grey eyes meeting hers; only a pleading to bring his son home. Catherine turned with Vincent, who sighed as he was required to walk yet again toward the surface that had treated him so viciously only an hour before. His eyes were glazed with an inner pain as Catherine guided him from the shadows of the drainage tunnel and out into the street. She glanced down the street as she reached up and pulled Vincent's hood over his head. A taxi waited as Father had predicted, and Catherine guided her burden slowly toward it. "Are you on call?" she asked the driver after settling Vincent against the door. "Yeah, lady--unless you're just going down the block." "I need you to take us to the corner of Fifth and the park." "Get in." She opened the door and guided Vincent slowly inside. He settled painfully back as Catherine climbed in beside him. Cradling him against her shoulder, she was relieved to see his eyes closing beneath the protective folds of the hood. "Drunk, huh?" the driver grinned. "Exhausted." She held Vincent close and looked out the window as a light rain began to fall. The world outside was glowing with a misty haze, and Catherine thought her companion might have enjoyed the ride in other circumstances. The trip seemed endless, and Catherine stared out the window as Vincent slept against her shoulder. They reached the park in less than twenty minutes, and it was with reluctance that Catherine woke him. Reaching across to open the door on Vincent's side of the cab, she urged him out into the wetness and slid after him. He swayed on his feet, half-asleep as she paid the driver. The taxi roared off into the dawn as Catherine guided Vincent into the lightening shadows. Keeping away from the main path where danger always waited, she moved slowly with him through the trees to the familiar drainage pipe at the bottom of a hill. He leaned against the locked gate as Catherine picked up a rock, began tapping out their arrival. The door rolled back almost immediately, and two men Catherine had never seen before opened the gate and steadied Vincent as he staggered toward them. They half-carried him to a waiting stretcher, their expressions grim as Catherine's. "Who's here?" Vincent murmured, swaying on his feet yet refusing to relinquish control until he was certain of his security. "Daniel and Tomas," one of the men answered. "It's all right," Catherine reassured him as she brushed past the men and unfastened Vincent's cloak. "You're almost home." Throwing the cloak over her shoulder, she took Vincent's hands. "There's a stretcher to your right. If you kneel, you'll be right beside it." He sighed as he sank to his knees. Reaching out and bracing himself, Vincent lay down slowly, favored his left side. The two men helped straighten his legs as Catherine eased his head onto the ground. "Please be careful," she whispered. "He has internal injuries." Nodding, the two men stepped to the ends of the stretcher as Catherine laid Vincent's cloak over him, tucked it securely beneath the stretcher padding. "You're safe now," she murmured close to his ear as the men picked up the stretcher and began walking. "Please don't worry," Vincent admonished softly, unable to keep his eyes open even as he managed a faint smile. "I'll be all right. I just need to rest." He still couldn't focus on her, and Catherine bit her lip to keep the tears in her eyes from falling as Vincent turned his head. It wouldn't do to cry and distract him from his sleep. Blinking furiously, she commanded herself to calm down. When Vincent was asleep and couldn't sense her feelings--that was the time she could have hysterics if she still felt the need. The tunnels were familiar to her now, and Catherine knew there wasn't much farther to go. She lay a hand on Vincent's forehead and was relieved to find it warm instead of clammy. Perhaps the danger of shock was long past. Father joined them at an intersection, fell into step beside the stretcher after glancing across at Catherine. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly, taking his son's pulse as they moved along. "Is he all right?" He offered a tight smile that Catherine suspected was meant to be reassuring. "You've kept him warm. His pulse is good, and while I suspect he's broken a rib or two, there's no symptoms of a punctured lung." Father hesitated, then glanced up again. "I'm glad you're here--" came the admission, "however much I wish this had never happened. Can you help me obtain medical supplies?" "I'll get them myself," she promised as Father returned his attention to Vincent. "I don't think there's any internal bleeding, but I'll be better able to tell once we get home." She stared ahead to where the last stairway waited. "I feel so responsible for all this. If only he hadn't been with me." Father looked across at Catherine, saw her grip Vincent's hand as they walked onward. The young woman's shoulders were stooped as the shadows under her eyes were prominent. Slowing his step, Father moved behind the stretcher and joined Catherine on the other side. Unwrapping her fingers from Vincent's, he placed his son's warm, limp hand beneath the cloak. "There's no sense wishing for what might never have been." "If I could have sensed him more strongly--" "Could you sense him at all?" She nodded, her eyes haunted as they watched the stretcher's progress up the stairs. "I just couldn't move fast enough. Vincent might have guided me to him under calmer circumstances, but he had to stay on the move. The men who took him from the fire--they were trying to kill him." "Then his mind was on other things, and you mustn't blame yourself." She nodded, but Father knew she hadn't heeded his words. Daniel and Tomas guided the stretcher through the tunnels leading into their home, but Father stopped Catherine at the door. "Listen to me, please. It was a miracle at all that you were able to find him. Another miracle that he is home. Vincent needs your help now. I need your help. If you would leave behind your guilt, help me make Vincent well. Help me make him forget." Catherine followed him into the rooms, through the catacomb of tunnels until she paused at the doorway to a bedroom. The men gently lifted the still-unconscious Vincent onto the large bed that dominated the room, and Catherine watched as Father took a pair of scissors and cut through the familiar knitted vest Vincent wore. Stepping into the room as the Daniel and Tomas rolled up the empty stretcher, Catherine gathered Vincent's cloak and left to wander back the way she had come. The two men passed her on their way out as she stood in the corridor and hugged the cloak close. "He'll be all right," Tomas offered with a reassuring wink. "He's been in worse shape." Be that as it may, Catherine thought to herself as the men continued on their way, I wasn't responsible for his pain, then. Sighing, she settled on an oaken bootstand that sat in the hallway. She was worried, she was tired, and she wondered if Father knew where she had gone. She heard him calling her a few minutes later. Returning to the bedroom doorway, Catherine saw that Vincent was tucked securely beneath the covers once again. A basin of water sat on a stand beside the bed, and a quick glance told Catherine that there was, at least, no external bleeding. Father gestured her into the room. "He has at least two broken ribs," he said without preamble as he dried his hands. "There's no bruising or extensive swelling, so I don't think he's bleeding internally. His knee is swollen, but nothing's broken, so I think the bone is only badly bruised. I can't check his sight until he awakens, but he's probably concussed from the explosion. If that's the case, he'll be able to focus in time." "Is he in shock?" Father shook his head. "Vincent forced himself to stay on the move too long. His system adjusted--or, rather, he forced it to adjust." Catherine smoothed damp tendrils of hair from Vincent's eyes. "He looks so vulnerable." "He is vulnerable, at least to infection, which is why I've made you a list of things to get." Circling the bed, Father handed the paper to Catherine, who scanned the list quickly. Along with the expected bandages, drugs, and other medical supplies was a grocery list. She looked up. "Are you sure this is enough?" "It's all that is necessary. Can you bring it?" "Of course." She stuffed the list into her pocket. "I'll leave immediately." "Good." Father nodded, his hand on Vincent's shoulder. "We'll be waiting for your return." * * * As she pounded on Isaac's door at five thirty in the morning, Catherine wondered if she wasn't presuming too much upon her friend's willingness to help. A moment later he unlatched the door, opened it two inches, and peered out with squinted eyes into the New York dawn. "I thought I'd see you again," he greeted her with a grunt. "Where else can you get painkillers without a prescription?" She stepped into his entryway and smiled. "I don't need the painkillers, Isaac, but I do need a few other things. You're the only man I know who'd have this stuff on hand." He took the list she offered, shuffled through the gymnasium as he peered at the neat handwriting. Heading toward a tall, broad metal locker, Isaac pulled a dufflebag from a corner. Throwing back the locker doors, he pulled a generous amount of supplies from within. "Did a doctor make out this list?" "Vincent's father." Isaac whistled. "Your friend's in good hands. He's listed a score of antibiotics, salves, pills, and you should know you were wrong about the painkillers. They're here, too." "I'll pay you for all this, of course." He waved the offer away. "I get this stuff cheap. You're sure to need more bandages. Wait a minute." Catherine sorted through the bag as Isaac traipsed into the next room. Although Father had specified supplies, Catherine suspected she was being given far more than even Father could use. Still, it was best to be prepared. Isaac returned with a box full of tape, gauze, and bandages. Tucking the box into the bag, he zipped it closed. "Are you going to be able to carry all this stuff?" She nodded. "I don't know how to thank you." "Just make your friend well, Catherine. He must be a special guy." She led the way across the gym. "He is. Maybe someday I can introduce you." "I'll look forward to it." Isaac opened the door for her. "I've put a lot of extras in there, just in case. If you need anything else, you let me know." "Right." It was with a sense of gratitude that Catherine left Isaac, for the hardest part of her job was over. Taking a taxi back to the park, Catherine thought it best to deliver the medical supplies before tending to anything else. She carried the dufflebag through the damp grass of the park and into the tunnel. Kipper appeared after she had banged on the pipes for a few minutes, and she handed the bag over to him. "Is all this for Vincent?" She nodded. "Are you alone?" The child nodded. "Are you sure you can manage?" "If I can't, I'll get more help." She grinned at him. "I suppose everyone knows about Vincent, now?" "You betcha." He turned with his burden, slung it across his shoulder and looked back at her. "Thanks for bringing him home." She watched him disappear into the shadows of the tunnel, made certain the gate was securely fastened behind him, and then retraced her steps out of the park. * * * Fumbling at her apartment door lock, Catherine shoved past the door and dumped the box of groceries on the couch. Breathing a sigh of relief, she rubbed the bridge of her nose and stretched to ease the tension of her muscles. Glancing at the mantle clock as she moved into her bedroom, she saw that she'd been up for twenty-eight hours without a break. Yesterday, she'd gone to work, then to meet her witness on the lower east side at ten o'clock that night. She and Isaac had found Vincent at four the next morning. The morning sun shown through her balcony doors as Catherine gathered a few things before returning to the tunnels. She flung the bare essentials into a carryall, didn't bother to change clothes. Thanking the gods that it was Saturday and she didn't have to call in sick, Catherine gathered her carryall and the box of groceries. Locking the apartment door behind her, Catherine headed for the elevator and the basement. Kipper answered her banging almost immediately, and Catherine suspected the boy had been assigned to her permanently. She wasn't certain who should take responsibility for the assignment; the boy seemed on equally friendly terms with both Vincent and Father. She followed silently behind Kipper, allowed him to take the carryall as he guided her back to Father. The journey down didn't seem to take nearly as long as the journey to the surface had; perhaps she was merely getting used to the various levels. Or perhaps they had once again changed the way, and the current route was shorter. "Anybody home?" she called a greeting as she stepped into Father's dwelling. "Catherine?" came an answering voice as she found the kitchen, carried the groceries into it. Setting her carryall on a nearby chair, she began putting away the supplies. "I'm back." "Yes, I see that you are," Father said as he stood at the kitchen door, leaned heavily on his cane. "Kipper delivered the medicines earlier. I thank you." "No trouble--" she said, opening yet another cupboard door and glancing over the assortment there. "Where do you keep your macaroni?" "Breadbox," he instructed, pointing with the cane. "The refrigerating unit is to your left." "How is Vincent?" "He's still sleeping." Moving farther into the kitchen, Father began helping her with the groceries. "You've brought much more than I requested." "Yes, well. If you're to have a guest, you're going to use more." "Guest?" She paused as she rearranged the refrigerator to accommodate a head of lettuce. "I'm staying, in case you were wondering." "I wasn't." He handed her a stalk of celery. "Though I assumed such was the case." "I expected an argument." He shook his head as she sat the empty cardboard box beneath the sink. "Yours will be the first name Vincent speaks when he wakes up. You have to be here." She set a kettle to boil, measured tea into a strainer. "Have you had breakfast?" "No." "Toast and tea?" "That's fine." He peered at her intently, seemed to notice the dark circles around her eyes for the first time. "Aren't you tired?" "I think I'm running on pure adrenalin at this point." She cut four slices of bread, set them on a tray and into a small stove that was next to the sink. "What's your source of energy?" "Electrical. We steal it from the subway lines. Catherine, you should sleep." "I'll sleep after breakfast." The kettle began to boil, and in a matter of moments she spread the tea and toast before him. He pushed jam her way, and for a time they ate in companionable silence. "Do you mind if I go see Vincent?" she asked, clearing crumbs from her place. "Not at all. I've set up a cot beside his bed. You're welcome to use that, if you like. Call out if you need me. I'll be close by--trying to rest as well." She nodded understanding and left the kitchen, wondering why Vincent's father seemed so accepting of her presence. Perhaps he knew he had no choice; nothing in the world would have prevented her staying near his son. Catherine removed her shoes before entering the bedroom, padded on stocking feet to peer over the bed at Vincent while he slept. He lay on his back, ribs bandaged and covers settled around his waist. He slept with his head to one side, his hair matted and tangled, spread out across the clean, white pillows. The closed eyes were dark and sunken with fatigue, and Vincent's breathing came deeply. One hand was curled up at the side of his head; the other rested across his thigh. Catherine listened to Vincent's breathing, stepped carefully round the bed to lift his hand and pull the covers and comforter up. Vincent didn't move as she gently lowered the hand and tucked in the covers. Wincing, Catherine stepped back from the bed and sighed. If Vincent had been awake, she had no doubts he would not have condoned her caretaking. Nor would she have dared to try, probably. "You should be sleeping," came the hiss from the doorway. Catherine whirled, startled. "What are you doing?" she hissed back as Father smiled at her. "Watching you care for my son. Is he still asleep?" She nodded. "From the look of it, he may be for some time." "Sleep is the best healer. As for you--" he gestured threateningly with the cane. "Lay down and do likewise." "Yes, sir." * * * Father checked on Vincent five hours later. He was still asleep, with Catherine curled up on the cot at his side. They were all exhausted, and Father shook his head as he left the room, returned to his own bed. Six hours later, Vincent awoke to the soft, distant sound of clanging pipes, translated the messages almost unconsciously, and relaxed after finding that the sounds around him were safe, familiar things. For the first time in what felt like weeks, he did not fear waking up, did not tense at the slightest movement beside him. Instead, he cocked his head as he realized his hearing had fully returned. And with it came the sound of someone breathing beside him. Blinking, Vincent tried to focus and found he still had double-vision. He closed one eye. "Catherine?" he whispered, scarcely daring to believe what his eye was telling him. She lay with her back to him, but his senses were alive with the reality of her. She stirred in her sleep, muttered almost as though in reply to his whisper, and rolled over. Her hand stretched out, her head resting on her arm, and her fingers were barely five inches away from his covers. Vincent reached out and took her hand in his to feel the warm life of her. He smiled as he watched her sleep, barely noticing the pain in his chest, the throbbing in his knee. He was home, and Catherine was with him. "Vincent?" came a voice from the chair on the other side of his bed. "Yes," he replied and sensed Father stir. "How are you feeling?" "Tired, but safe." He did not look away from Catherine. "How is your vision?" Vincent turned his head, looked at Father. Blinking, he felt his eyes water. "Better than it was. You're blurred, but there is only one image of you. Last night, there would have been at least three." "Let me see." Father took Vincent's head in his hands as Catherine stirred beside him. It seemed suddenly very important that he retain his grasp on her hand, and so he tightened it. He felt her tug from the edge of sleep, slightly confused that her fingers were constricted, and then he sensed her coming fully awake as his father examined him. "You'll be all right in a day or so," came the determination. "I'd surmise the explosion stunned you. Nothing serious. You're very lucky." "Yes." "Are you hungry?" "I don't know. I haven't been awake long enough to notice." His father smiled at that. "Well, you may notice I've taped your ribs. You broke a few, you know." "Yes." "And your knee--you won't be running on that leg for at least six weeks. Is that clear?" "Quite clear." "Did I miss anything in my examination?" "Not that I'm aware of, Father." The older man peered at his son. "Are you sure you're all right?" "Why do you ask?" "It isn't like you to be this submissive." "We have a guest. It's best to make a good impression, Father." The older man smiled at Catherine where she lay quietly, eyes open as she took in the entire scene. "Good morning. I didn't know you were awake." "Morning." She lay on her stomach and stretched with a grimace, seemed contented to let Vincent hold onto her hand. He moved with the stretch, turned his head back to watch as she squeezed his hand, moaned. "I'm not a morning person. I'm not certain yet I'm awake." "I'll get you both some coffee." Father chuckled as he left and Catherine suddenly felt shy. Vincent closed one eye again, the better to focus. She felt he looked almost adorable--like the Robber Kitten of a childhood tale, or as though he were a lion winking at her--but she thought better of confessing her observation. "You'll like his coffee," Vincent remarked softly. "It's fresh ground." "How are you feeling?" "Much better than last night. I have a vague recollection of being helped from tunnel to taxi to tunnel. Thank you." She hesitated, then sat up as he relinquished his hold of her hand. "Vincent, I'm so sorry about what happened to you. I feel entirely responsible. No, don't interrupt, please." She lifted her hand as he opened his mouth. "I thought about this the entire time we searched for you, and I promised myself I'd say these things when you were safe again. If I don't get it out all at once, I won't get it out." Sitting on the edge of the cot, feet dangling, she continued. "This bond we share is something very special. I can't deny its strength or its existence, but I think for your sake you should learn to. No--" she silenced him with a look. "Hear me out." He sank back on the pillows, a look of horror on his face. "You lay there, body broken, eyesight impaired because of me." Her eyes were filling with tears. "The things you went through last night...." She looked away. "It isn't right. It shouldn't have happened, and I don't want it happening again. Vincent, you have got to ignore my feelings. I have to stand on my own two feet. I have to learn to survive." "You were in danger." His voice was deceptively soft. "I may be in danger again. And if I am, Vincent, I don't want you coming after me. Is that clear?" She glared at him, knowing he would feel her insistence, if not see her determination. "Is it?" He was silent for a moment, raised himself slightly against the pillows. "I should let you walk into danger alone?" She shook her head at him. "You should never have been in that part of town with me." "Though your soul called out to mine in terror?" His voice dropped to a whisper. She rose from the cot, wrapped the robe she had brought around her. "Vincent, you could have died. If you had, how do you think I would have felt?" "How am I to feel if I ignore your fear and your life is lost?" She stood, eyes brimming over, arms folded protectively before her. "That isn't the issue. I don't want to see you die." "Nor I you." "Are you refusing to stay where it's safe?" He considered her question for a moment, snorted softly. "If you continue walking into dangerous situations, I suppose I am." "No!" He sat up, gestured shortly. "How do you propose to stop my feeling what you feel? Or my knowing your thoughts whenever they are charged with strong emotions? We are connected, Catherine. Do you understand what that means?" Moving forward, Catherine grasped the footboard of the bed with both hands. "Please, Vincent, stop it," she pleaded, eyes full of tears. "The risks are too great, for both of us." He leaned back, rested his hand on his chest. "I agree, Catherine. The risks are great." Vincent shook his head as his breathing grew labored. "However much I agree with you, Catherine, I cannot ignore your need, any more than you can ignore your concern for me. I have told you that I feel what you feel; that hasn't changed, nor is it likely to. And it would have to change before I left you at the mercy of your world." "No!" she insisted. He let his head fall back on the pillows, closed his eyes. "We will not discuss it any more." "Vincent--" "No more." She was trembling with rage when Father entered with the tray. He looked from Catherine to Vincent, sensed the emotion in the room. "Did I walk into something?" Catherine turned her wrath on the older man. "Your son--" she sputtered. "Your son is the most obstinate person I've ever met. Maybe you can talk sense to him. I can't." She stomped from the room, viciously wiping the tears from her eyes as she did so. Father turned, still holding the tray, and looked at Vincent who now had one eye open. A bushy eyebrow rose. "Cream, or sugar?" It won a slight smile from his son, who sat painfully up and adjusted the pillows. "Neither, as well you know." "What was all that about?" Father asked, pouring Vincent his coffee. "She wants me to be safe. In short, she wants me to ignore our connection, and any fear she may feel in the face of danger." "In short, she wants to keep you safe, down here." Father snorted at Vincent's nod. "I wish her better luck that I had. You know--" He sat back with his own mug. "I've worried about your going above for years. Now, with Catherine, the dangers seem even greater. And though I constantly nag at you and worry, I understand what the surface means to you. I understand less this connection you share with Catherine, but the fact is it exists. And since it does, it must be very special. I only wish it manifested under much less....trying...circumstances." * * * Father slowly entered the living area and approached Catherine where she sat on a divan, her legs curled beneath her chin. Pausing beside her, he offered her a cup of coffee. She took it, pushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "Am I disturbing you?" "No." He settled himself beside her, sat aside his cane, and folded his hands. "You know, you two can't ignore each other forever. It does no good, you see?" She brushed away a tear. "He knows what you're feeling; you can't hide that from him." "I know that. It's the reason why we're having this argument." Father shook his head as a small smile threatened the corners of his mouth. "You may be arguing, but Vincent isn't listening. Oh, he's listening to your emotions, certainly--he can't avoid that. But he isn't willing to discuss the matter. And if Vincent won't talk about something, it doesn't exist." "I'm trying to protect him." "You should sooner try to cut his hair and change the way he dresses. Vincent can be more stubborn about things than you--no matter the thing might be the eventual cause of his death. I don't mean you--" Father raised his hand as Catherine looked at him, shocked. "I mean his determination to protect you at all costs." Leaning back, Father folded his arms across his chest as Catherine lowered her legs, fingered a book that lay next to her. "You don't know each other very well yet, do you? If you did, perhaps you could work out a better form of communication." "What do you mean?" "You might warn Vincent when you're going into danger, and let him accompany you more closely. As it is, he lives in terror of reaching you too late. You live in terror of his being caught. Perhaps a bit of planning on both your parts would ease the negative possibilities." She shook her head. "I'm not certain I understand." "Last night, for instance. You might have had help besides Vincent. You might have planned the meeting a bit better, taken your co-workers into your confidence, and set officers all along that street. You could have sent word to Vincent that you would be in danger, along with the location, time, and reason why. You might also have told him there would be others looking after you, and he would not feel that only he could be there to protect you. Vincent would then have the option of going, observing that you were protected, and he could ensure from a safe distance that nothing amiss happened. If the bomb still went off, he would be there to look after you, but perhaps the street gang would not have succeeded--either in setting the bomb, or in abducting him." "But I gave my word to the witness that I would go alone." He shook his head. "You must learn when to break your word, Catherine. When to seek help if a risk is too great. You are sworn to serve the city of New York; if you served it honestly, would you not tell the authorities of our world?" She looked at him with wide green eyes. "That's not a fair question." "Isn't it?" Father cocked his head. "We steal energy from the city; we pay no taxes, yet we use their resources. Our children do not attend the public schools. We are a secret organization operating illegally beneath their city. Why shouldn't you betray our trust?" "That's different." "Because you care for Vincent and others among us?" He shook his head. "It is no different, Catherine. You protect Vincent one way, and are seeking to protect him in another way. But he will not accept your restrictions. He has never stayed where it is safe, and you cannot expect him to do so now. He will continue taking the risk for you, and you will continue this charade of caring you share until one or the other is fatally injured." "What?" She stared at him, appalled. "Are you suggesting Vincent and I seek risk in order to prove we care for one another?" Father shook his head. "No. I am saying that you will grow dependent upon Vincent to protect you from the danger inherent in your job, and he will continue sensing your need in times of violence. He will run through the tunnels, race to reach and rescue you--but one day, he will be too late. Or he will be in time, and death will find him. I am saying that you cannot go on--either of you--cheating death. You cannot continue confronting this city alone, Catherine. You must measure the risk against the possible harm to Vincent. If you would not betray the existence of our home, nor of Vincent, then you must base your decisions on Vincent's continued ability to protect you, and your ability to protect him." She nodded, her eyes searching the fire that burned low on the hearth. "Vincent won't protect himself, so I have to?" "He can protect himself in matters excluding you. But Catherine, he cares too much to walk away from your dangers. You must ensure that he never has the need to run into them." "Yes." Her eyes searched Father's. "Thank you." He shrugged. "There is nothing to thank me for. We both want the same thing for Vincent." * * * The days slid easily by as Catherine thought about Father's words and wondered how to approach Vincent with them. She climbed to the surface each morning to dress and go to work, while Father stayed and watched over Vincent as he began to heal. Returning in the evening, Catherine helped Father with dinner, then sat and waited as he took the food in to Vincent. "Do you think that I should talk to him?" Father shook his head. "He's looking a bit bruised, of late. I don't think he'd want you seeing him like that." She accepted his judgment, if for no other reason than she didn't know how to approach Vincent after their argument, didn't know how to convince him of the validity of Father's suggestions. In the days following his harrowing experience Above, Vincent had frequent headaches and neglected to tell Father that the pain was keeping him awake. Within two days circles formed under his eyes, he began losing weight, and Father unstintingly administered the drugs Isaac had provided--along with a stern lecture that although nature was the best healer, in some cases nobility was stupidity, and Vincent was being stupid. His son hadn't argued--the painkillers took affect and sleep stole him away before he could think of a retort. So Vincent began sleeping the nights as well as the days away, much to Father's relief. Father wouldn't allow Catherine to see Vincent until the circles and shadows had disappeared, until the sallowness of his son's cheek's went away. So Catherine ran errands, helped about the caverns, and provided much-needed companionship for Father as Vincent healed. Father grew accustomed to having Catherine with him evenings. They took turns reading to one another, then got into lengthy discussions about foreign countries or history that took them well away from the work at hand. Father was no stranger to Boston, for he had attended medical school there. After discovering Catherine had attended Radcliffe, they spent an entire evening raving about the seafood, the clam bakes, and the wonderful used bookstores. Vincent woke one evening to Father's chuckles and Catherine's murmured narrative. Worried, he listened intently for any sign that they weren't getting along. It appeared they were, for the chuckles continued, Catherine's lighter laugh joining in. When next he awoke, Vincent caught a hint of the scent Catherine wore, and he wondered if she was still below. He grew used to smelling it on the edge of sleep; once or twice he dreamed she brushed back his hair and tucked the covers tightly around him. Father expected Catherine to stop coming once Vincent was on the mend; to his surprise, she didn't. Knowing the tunnels like a native, now, she travelled back and forth on her own. It was a long journey to make twice a day, but she never commented on it. It wasn't long before Father found things laying about and suspected they came from her. Specially scented candles, a book or two he had mentioned that he wanted to read, and a warm sweater for Vincent. Chocolate cake appeared one morning in the kitchen after Catherine had left for work, along with a wonderful Caesar salad in the refrigerator that waited for both their lunches. Father tried to thank Catherine a few times, but she stared at him with innocent eyes and insisted she didn't know what he was talking about. Vincent was ready to get out of bed after two weeks; Father refused to consider it. When his son defied him and padded slowly to the wardrobe, Vincent found it bare with the exception of two nightshirts and a robe. He growled in irritation as he realized someone didn't want him returning to the surface very soon. Reaching for the robe, Vincent resigned himself to obedience and returned to bed. He knew Father would insist upon having him in it for at least another week. That was fine, until he began to itch. His ribs itches, his knee itched; anything that had been bruised, bandaged, or previously knocked about itched. He couldn't stand it; it was worse than being in pain. In addition to his discomfort, it occurred to Vincent that Catherine visited below every night. That was also fine, but she was visiting Father. He heard her voice, but she never visited him. Why not? Grimacing, Vincent sat up in his bed and considered matters. * * * Catherine walked wearily through the tunnels, paced down the stairs into Father's study, and sank into the chair beside his desk. He closed the book he held and nailed her with a pair of steel grey eyes. "Hard day?" "Mmmm," came the answer. "I feel tired, depressed, angry, and discouraged." He watched as she rubbed her neck, eyes closing as she attempted to relax. "You know--" The older man moved around the desk, perched on one corner after shoving a pile of books and manuscripts aside. "Vincent used to come home discouraged when he was a little boy. He'd sit where you're sitting now, and kick the crossbar of that chair--his feet didn't touch the floor, then. He'd sigh mightily and tell me all his troubles. The other children called him names, or he lost his tenth game of checkers in a row, or someone stole his soldiers. He was in a terrible mood, but somehow I always managed to get him out of it. And do you know how?" Catherine shook her head. "I told him stories. Magicians, pirates, sorcerers, witches, gnomes, fairies, gods, whales, dogs, mysteries--even a squirrel or two. It always helped." Father smiled at Catherine, grey eyes crinkling encouragingly behind wire-rimmed reading glasses. She looked doubtfully back at him as he leaned forward, looked over his glasses, and said, "Once upon a time there lived a little girl called Catherine...." A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She couldn't help but laugh in delight as he continued the story. Vincent heard her laugh. He couldn't stand it. Flinging back the bedcovers, he swung his legs over and padded, barefoot, out of the room. They both looked up when Vincent descended the stairs, limped slightly as he moved across the room and sat down in a chair close to Catherine's. "Don't say it--" he ordered as Father stood and opened his mouth. "I was only going to point out that you're in your nightshirt and your feet are bare." He crossed the room to the stairs. "And to say that I'm going to get dinner." Catherine looked down at Vincent's toes as Father left the room. He wiggled them. She giggled as she saw the long, fur-tufted toes curl beneath the hem of the nightshirt as though Vincent was trying to hide them. Looking up, she met his sheepish gaze as he cocked his head at her. She hadn't seen him in weeks, and now here he was, seated calmly and fairly whole, embarrassing himself in his father's study. The giggles came uncontrolled, and she tried without success to suppress them. Vincent gaped at her as she laughed outright, which caused her to laugh more. She couldn't stop, hugged her ribs as he sat up and frowned. "Oh, Vincent--" Catherine panted, looking away and gulping to regain her self control. "I'm sorry. I'm really not laughing at you." "I hope not." She sobered at his tone, though she sensed he wasn't angry with her. "How are you feeling?" "Better." "Good." She felt nervous as well as foolish. "I haven't been treating you very well the past few days. I'm sorry." He looked down. "I'm sorry I haven't made it easy for you to come talk with me. Are you getting along with Father?" "Yes. We've talked a lot these past weeks. He's made me feel very welcome. And he has a few suggestions regarding how we might handle ourselves when danger arises." "Indeed?" She outlined what Father had said, and found Vincent nodding his head as she concluded. "If such a plan for your protection could be implemented, I would be amenable," came the slow comment as the blue eyes grew shadowed with thought. "If there is clear communication ahead of time, I can judge your safety, Catherine. But I refuse to stand by and ever risk you coming to harm." Catherine fingered a small, blackstone box Father had on his desk. "I'm not asking you to do that. I'm just trying to keep you out of trouble while you keep me out of trouble." "Catherine!" came the shout from the kitchen. "Coming," she called back to Father, and rose from her chair. "I'm sorry I upset you, Vincent, but you worry me." "I understand." Slowly, Vincent stood. "Let me come with you to help Father." Catherine supported Vincent as he limped his way to the kitchen door. Father sat him down to peel potatoes while Catherine took over the actual task of making the meal. An hour later, the three of them were seated around the table, feasting on potato salad and vegetarian stew. "I could get used to this," Father beamed from Vincent to Catherine. "Yes," Vincent said, looking through ragged bangs to pin Catherine with a pair of thoughtful blue eyes. She merely smiled from one to the other of them. "Well, don't get too used to it, unless you mean for me to stay here permanently." Father stared, long and hard. "Would you consider it?" "Not if you wanted me only because I cook well." Her gaze locked with his, and Catherine felt herself color at the intensity of Father's gaze. "Why are you staring at me?" she whispered. "Haven't you ever considered that I might think of it?" "No." He shook his head. "I've always felt you were tied to the Above; that you considered our world, albeit a magical place, far out of reach." "I don't feel that way at all," she reassured him. "Not at all." Father leaned back in his chair as he pushed his plate away. Vincent raised his head, his expression triumphant as Father met his son's blue eyes with surprise. * * * She parked her car in the park at midnight two weeks later and ran to the culvert entrance to meet Vincent. Kipper opened the door, gestured her inside. "Vincent's late. He's on the fourth level and asked me to guide you to him." She walked with the boy through the twisting tunnels, knew that Vincent was never late. Was he feeling worse instead of better? When she caught sight of him, she had her answer. He carried a little girl on his back, and more children were dancing around his feet as he walked toward the surface. One carried his cloak, another chattered about her lessons, and a third yanked on his vest and begged to be carried next. "Story!" one shouted, hanging on his wrist and tugging to no avail. Vincent's smile was tolerant as he looked down on the insistent child. "Tomorrow, Larena. Tonight I must see..." He looked up then, sensing her nearness as she and Kipper approached. "Catherine...." The way he said her name was a caress, and she shivered as she bade Kipper goodbye. He ran away from the giggling girls who followed at a more sedate pace, leaving Catherine and Vincent to turn back the way she had come. Vincent and Catherine made their way slowly to the surface, taking their time passing through the tunnels and allowing Vincent to set his own pace. He still favored the injured knee, and Catherine slipped her hand into his to offer support and company as they turned yet another corner and walked up a steep incline. Wandering quietly from the drainage pipe, they strolled to the edge of the culvert and beyond as Vincent released Catherine's hand and raised his hood. "I have missed this," came the low admission. He showed no signs of lingering pain as Catherine fell into step beside him. "And I am glad you are with me tonight." He looked down at her and smiled. Catherine caught a glimpse of white fang and bright blue eyes before Vincent looked back up, rearranged his cloak, and began walking faster. Catherine stared as she walked beside Vincent. The aura the man projected really was marvelous. The black robe and hood shrouded his features in mystery; only a few strands of burnished flame escaped its confines. The rhythm of his gait set the cloak swaying from side to side and somehow emphasized the broadness of his shoulders. Vincent pulled off his gloves, and a fur-tufted hand came up to capture Catherine's in its grip. He held the gloves in his other hand, beneath the folds of the cloak, as the two of them approached the Reservoir. Vincent turned at the railing, and gazed down at Catherine as she studied him in the darkness. "You're very quiet tonight," he observed, the light wind ruffling his bangs as he looked down at her. "Like a still pool...ripples spread soundlessly across the surface of your mind, but the true turbulence is below. Won't you tell me what you're thinking?" She smiled at that, looked out over the water. "You mean you can't read my mind?" "Sometimes," Vincent admitted. "But not always. I know you're silent, calm, and contented beneath the turbulence, but I don't know why." "Perhaps it's because you're safe, on your own two feet again, and the terror of believing I might lose you is over." She rubbed his arm, smiled up at him. "I was so afraid I might reach you too late...." She shuddered against him, the turbulence of her fears reaching the surface of her mind where he could feel and hear them. His arms went around her far too easily than they should have to offer comfort. Vincent rubbed his cheek against the top of her head, amazed that she should care so much for him. "You didn't reach me too late," he murmured low, and she felt his lips move against her hair. "And I am well again. Thank you for searching, and for finding me, Catherine. And for being at my bedside when I awoke." She pulled away from him. "So much for the still pool, yes?" He shook his head, expression warm and gentle as he looked down at her. "Your mind is very clear to me. When I hear your thoughts, they most often remind me of a quiet forest stream, where fern and moss grow side by side." "Is that how you see me?" "It is how I most often hear you." Her gaze searched the blue depths of her companion's eyes. Vincent looked calm in the light of the streetlamp. He stood quietly, allowed her scrutiny, and almost seemed to welcome it. She was enchanted with the image he was describing, as well as with the features of the man holding her. "Go on." Vincent's voice was hypnotic as his hands began to stir on her back, caress gently, carefully as though he was afraid of startling her. "Rain falls quietly upon your thoughts...Days pass slowly, and everything breathes contentment." "As long as you're safe," she prompted. "Yes..." He nodded reluctantly. "You seem to measure your contentment by my own happiness--on the surface, at any rate. But beneath the surface is a myriad of layered thoughts and worlds and dreams as far as a heart and imagination can see." "I've never been described in such poetic terms before." Her smile was teasing. "What does all this tell you?" He cocked his head at her. "That the casual visitor sees only the calm. On a more intimate level...." "Yes?" He looked down, almost afraid his next words would destroy the moment. "A trusted companion might explore the layered worlds beneath the surface." "As well as the dreams?" "Yes." "Would you like to share my dreams with me, Vincent?" She ventured to reach up and gently caress his temple, and saw astonishment fill his blue eyes. "Everything you've described, I've felt about you. I've been wondering how to find the words to tell you." "Catherine--" Vincent shook his head, as though he were unable to believe what she was saying. "Do you know why I'm trying so hard to keep you safe?" "You have told me you love me." Gently, she stroked the back of her hand against the roughness of his chin. "Yes, and something more...." She felt suddenly shy, but she had gone too far to turn back. "Don't you know, Vincent, that more than loving you, I'm in love with you?" Vincent swayed backward. He braced a hand on the railing behind them as his blue eyes filled with astonishment and delight. The calm Catherine felt, the steady anticipation...it was all finally clear to him. She dreamed of a life with him, a life of him with her...Vincent stood straighter as the truth of her words settled over him. The broad shoulders seemed to widen even more as Vincent knew himself loved. Catherine watched the play of emotions across the unique face, and read every one of them. She knew he had no words for her confession. Smiling gently, Catherine slid her arms around his back, lowered her head, and rested her cheek against Vincent's chest. Hugging tightly, she closed her eyes and sank into his giant, protective embrace. "You're...in love...." "With you." Vincent's clawed fingers reached up and stroked her neck as his other hand gripped the railing even tighter. His mind flew back to the night he had found her, beaten, bleeding in the grass not far from where they stood. He remembered the frightened woman who confronted him so violently when first they met face to face...His shock of discovering that he could kill for her and her discovery that she could take his hand and share responsibility for his actions...Vincent remembered his despair as he stood before the culvert entrance to the tunnels, watching Catherine kiss Elliot, who seemed to have everything Vincent could never offer. "With me...." Footfalls interrupted their reverie, and Vincent started violently as Catherine turned, looked over her shoulder as a couple strolled down the cement walk toward them. Vincent grabbed her hand, pulled Catherine along. She ran beside him, laughter welling in her throat as they returned to the culvert. They scrabbled noisily through the large pipe, feeling like two twelve-year-olds caught in a forbidden fantasy, and paused at the gate--Vincent on one side, Catherine on the other. "Come home with me," Catherine invited on impulse. "We'll talk over hot chocolate and chess." "It is late, Catherine. I should--" "What you should do and what you want to do...." He looked sideways at her, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "All right. I'll come home with you." He swung back the gate, reached out to activate the mechanism opening the door beyond. "Wait--I have to take the car...." He looked over his shoulder as she moved on the other side of the iron gate from him. His long fingers curled around the bars, held the gate open. "Do you want to meet in your basement, then?" She nodded, her fingers covering his. "You'll be there?" "Do you doubt it?" She shook her head. "Until then, my Catherine." "Right." Not really thinking about what she was doing, Catherine steadied herself on Vincent's arm and reached up on tiptoe. Vincent automatically lowered his head. The next moment, their lips touched in a short first kiss. Both drew back, startled and surprised at what they had just done. Vincent's blue eyes were embarrassed, and Catherine instantly knew that he hadn't been kissed very much before. She smiled. "I enjoyed that." Raising her hand, she curled her fingers around his neck, and felt the long golden hair flow between her nails. "Enough to do it again." She didn't have to pull down his head. Vincent came willingly enough, almost in a daze, to meet her halfway. When his lips covered hers, Catherine closed her eyes and concentrated on his touch, his taste. His lower lip was temptingly full, and the upper lip with its light coating of downy fur was so erotic that Catherine felt herself leaning into the kiss to increase the pressure of those lips. Vincent moaned slightly as his fingers slid up, encountered her hip, and moved hesitantly over her thigh. They parted only to lean forward again, nuzzle and touch lightly. Both teased the other, enjoying the desire curling deep within them, rising steadily. Catherine released the gate with her other hand, entwined her fingers with Vincent's at her waist, and shifted to come around the gate. "Vincent--" she breathed into his mouth and felt him shiver as she pressed closer. His muscled legs were tensed against her, hard columns of strength as his long fingers spread across the small of her back. Her own fingers were trapped between his as he pulled her closer, and she whimpered as he drew back, caressed her temple with his nose. "You must drive your car home." The rich baritone vibrated in her ear. "Yes...." She swallowed hard, squeezed closed her eyes in an effort to regain control. Vincent's touch was so different, so addictive...The last thing she wanted to do was turn around, leave him and walk into the cold night. "Catherine...I feel your desire and know that you love me. Know that I love you, too...." Running long claws through her hair, Vincent cradled her head in his hands as he feathered kisses down her jaw. "I will please you with my touching, if you allow it." "Yes...." She arched against his hands, her fingers gripping his wrists as she shivered with need. "Vincent, I've never felt this way with anyone else..." Her green eyes opened, met his in confusion. "The feelings between us...." "They vibrate through our bond. I feel what you feel, as well as my own desire. Those emotions flow back when I touch you." "Along with your own feelings?" "Mmmm...." His lips were at her collarbone, his breath hot on her neck. The strange lips parted, and Catherine caught her breath, moaned as she felt Vincent nip her throat ever so gently between his fangs. His claws caressed her temples, her brow, and she felt the strength leave her legs. She slid downward, clutched at his vest. Vincent caught her easily, purred low as he pulled her back to her feet. "I will be on your balcony in less than half an hour. Will you be there?" She shook her head in an effort to clear it as she clung to him. Vincent gave her time to recover, made no further advances to cloud the coherency struggling through the desire she felt. "Um....yes. At least, I think so..." She frowned. "Strange...I can't think how long it will take me to get home...." "Twenty minutes, Catherine." "Twenty...Yes, Vincent." She took a deep breath as she stepped back from the gate. His arms slowly fell away from her and she saw the claws glitter in the dim light. She wanted to feel those claws on her bare flesh. Slowly, Catherine raised her head and saw that Vincent knew her thoughts. She colored with embarrassment, suddenly shy of his strength, and the power of her own emotions. "It's going to be terribly difficult keeping anything from you." He smiled reassurance, blue eyes warm and amused as he fingered the mechanism opening the door. If he didn't move to go, they would never leave the tunnel. The door rolled back and Vincent stepped through. Catherine reached out to touch his fingers where they lingered on the gate as he pulled it closed. Vincent looked back as Catherine realized with new amazement that she belonged with this gentlebeing. "Vincent, what took us so long?" He stepped close to the bars as she caught his fingers. "Things happen when we are ready for them, Catherine." She nodded and slid her hand away as he tripped the mechanism to close the door. As he backed away, silhouetted against the bars of the gate as the door rolled closed, Catherine knew that through her love, neither she nor Vincent would ever be alone or caged again. Copyright 1988 by Kim Prosser. All rights reserved.