Catherine Chandler rushed from the elevator, barely able to see over the two large brown paper bags in her arms. She'd had to work late at the office -- a last-minute job Joe had unexpectedly thrown her way -- and the cupboards were so bare that she'd had to shop on the way home if she expected to eat tonight. Now it was full dark; traffic had been terrible and she was very, very late. She'd be lucky to get in a shower and a change of clothes before Vincent arrived, if he hadn't already...
Struggling to balance both heavy bags in one arm, blowimg light brown bangs out of her eyes, she dug into her coat pocket for her key-ring. She heard her purse thump to the carpet and swore under her breath. Fumbling with the keys to two different locks and a deadbolt (no one living in Manhattan felt safe with anything less), she tried desperately to identify each key by shape as the heaviest bag -- the one with the eggs in it! -- began to slip.
Unable to see what she was doing, Catherine leaned back at an impossible angle; heard the final lock give way, and kneed the door wide. She remembered her purse then and feeling about the floor with one foot, hooked it and tried to bunt.
The strap wound around her ankle as if it had a mind of its own. She hopped forward frantically, both bags slipping now and suddenly both feet were hopelessly enmeshed -- and she tried to remember what Isaac had taught her about falling as she literally cartwheeled into the apartment.
Gasping, she felt her ankle give way and then, an instant later, the punishing impact of a knee against something sharp.
Flat on her back and swearing amid the debris, Catherine struggled up onto her elbows. She heard the door swing shut behind her just as the balcony doors flew open and Vincent hurried in, his cloak sweeping the carpet.
"Catherine -- are you all right?"
She gulped, her face flushed with embarrassment. Vincent knelt beside her (carefully skirting two broken eggs and a mound of something that might have been cottage cheese); saw tear-bright eyes glaring up at him, and felt her suppressed consternation. "Catherine?"
She took a deep breath against the throbbing that spread from her right knee all the way to her ankle. "This has not," she quavered, "been a very good day."
"No," he said, with all the sympathy he could muster. "I can see that."
"Joe made me late -- and then I had to shop -- "
"Don't you think it might have been wiser," he mused, surveying the wreckage, "to make two trips?"
She shot him a reproachful look. Then her gaze followed his over the scattered soup cans and asparagus-spears. "Well... maybe so."
"Are you all right?"
She peered down at herself; saw a splash of crimson on the wide lapel of her coat. "That's not blood," she said quickly.
"I bought winter strawberries," she explained in a small voice. "I thought you might like them."
His eyes found the ruin of at least one fruit-container. "Thank you," he said, so gravely that she completely missed the irony in his tone.
"I wanted to surprise you."
"Well," he conceded, "I was surprised."
She heard it then, and glimpsed sharp white canines in his fleeting smile. "Oh -- all right," she muttered, flustered afresh, and sat up. "I'm okay."
"I don't think so."
"You don't think...?"
"Catherine, look at your knee."
Her movement had caused her skirt to ride upward; and now below the hem she could see the skin already purpling around a thin gash. Her stocking was laddered hugely in both directions, and blood oozed thinly into the frayed nylon edges. She realized she must have caught a corner of the nearby table. "Oh," she said, in an even smaller voice. "I thought I just bumped it."
"Do you hurt anywhere else?" he asked patiently.
Stubborn silence answered him. But when he lifted her ankle, even his careful touch made her catch her breath. He scowled.
"Well," she said sheepishly, "I was trying to be stoic."
"This is already starting to swell," he told her, cradling the slim strong limb in his hands, surprised at the silkiness of sheer hosiery against his palms.
"I twisted it."
"Obviously," he said dryly. Unfastening his cloak, he tossed it over the seat of a nearby chair. "Take off your coat."
"Why -- "
"I don't think you want to get any of this on your furniture."
For the first time she felt the dampness fore and aft, and realized that not all the stains were where she could see them. Obediently she undid the buttons and started to shrug the garment off her shoulders -- and almost before she'd gleaned his intent, Vincent had slipped strong arms behind and beneath her, and lifted her straight up out of it and into the air.
Her arms automatically encircled his neck, sliding beneath his hair, as he carried her toward the nearest small sofa. He moved easily, with a powerful grace that told Catherine her small weight was as nothing to him.
"Wait here," he said, settling her on the cushions.
She watched with surprise as he headed toward her bathroom. How did he know...? Oh, yes -- over a year ago, when two renegade policemen had lain in wait here to "teach her a lesson," Vincent had burst in to find her lying in the livingroom, beaten and bloody. She'd passed out as he carried her toward the bedroom; and awakened later with a damp cloth soothing her brow. He'd replenished it several times, bathing her face, using it a cool compress for her swollen lip. So of course, now, he would know where everything was...
Her gaze slid to the mess on the carpet. An orange-juice carton lay on its side; the strawberries were beyond salvation, and she could see half a dozen broken eggs. Maybe if she could get some of it up now --
"Catherine," Vincent warned, looking back over his shoulder.
She hesitated, balancing precariously on one foot. "I just need to -- "
"I'll take care of it."
"But it'll only take a minute to -- "
"Catherine," he growled, "sit down."
Catherine sat down. Face burning, she listened to the sound of water running; heard him open the bathroom cabinet. "What are you doing in there?"
"Looking for something to put on your knee," came the muffled reply.
She looked down. Her knee was visibly bruised, although the cut had nearly stopped bleeding -- but the area was partly obscured by the strands of ruined nylon stretched tautly across it.
Her panty-hose! Catherine was momentarily paralyzed by this fresh dilemma. In another minute Vincent was going to come out and find himself faced with the impracticality of administering first aid through nylon mesh. None of Father's medical guidance would have led him to anticipate this -- for who, down in the tunnels, wore the damned things?
When Vincent emerged from the bathroom, his hands full, Catherine was still perched mid-sofa, pink-faced and a little wide-eyed.
"I found some iodine," he said, kneeling in front of her.
"Oh." She watched him arrange the small bottle, damp cloth, a couple of gauze squares and a roll of adhesive on the coffee-table. "I thought I had some, somewhere."
"Catherine, it's dated 1987."
"I'm sure it's still good," she said uncertainly. She didn't know -- could iodine go bad?
"it's never even been opened," he said, one eyebrow lifting with disbelief as he broke the seal.
"No, I know." She guessed that in the tunnel-world, medicines were always in such short supply that none of it was ever unused or wasted.
He was struggling to loosen the cap. "You don't use it?"
Catherine shook her head.
"Then why keep it in your -- "
"My parents always kept some in the house," she said, a little defensively.
"But you never use it, yourself."
"Well... it stings." She remembered that well enough!
Shaking his head with a sigh more telling than words, Vincent slipped his hand around the back of her knee to raise it nearer the light --
-- and paused. Something was different. Something had changed but he was at a loss, for a moment, to think what it might be. Then he realized that her skin was soft and warm and bare against his fingers.
She'd been wearing nylons -- that was it. A minor impediment, but one she'd apparently gotten rid of for modesty's sake. (Her modesty, he wondered, or his?) His eyes darted left and right. He knew she hadn't left the room. What on earth had she done with them?
Almost at once he caught sight of a wrinkled taupe toe protruding from beneath the pale mauve sofa-cushion. He glanced up at Catherine and found her leaning forward, her green eyes fixed intently on her kneecap. She was blushing to the roots of her hair.
For an instant -- only an instant -- Vincent imagined her mad scramble to rid herself of the garment and stuff it safely out of sight during his brief absence. Reaching for the cloth, he quickly bent his head over the task at hand.
Suspiciously, Catherine watched him blot the drying blood from the cut and the skin around it. Were his shoulders shaking, just a little bit? She suspected that at the very least he was smiling -- she could almost feel him smiling -- but she couldn't be sure; his head was bowed, the dark gold of his hair falling in convenient waves to hide his face.
When he laid the cloth aside and reached for the iodine he did look up finally -- and she was disconcerted to see, in the crystal-blue depths of his eyes, that he was not only smiling but laughing at her. "Now, Catherine," he said with funereal gravity, "I'm afraid this is going to sting a little."
Her eyes narrowed. "I think I can stand it," she said through her teeth.
"You're sure?" he asked. "I could go and ask Father for something to -- "
"Just do it," she grated. She couldn't fathom his mood. Where was the sympathy she expected -- no, deserved? Where was the infinitely kind and compassionate Vincent who was always there to care for her when --
"I am caring for you," came his voice, utterly serious now, as he braced her bare sole against his thigh.
She gasped with more than the sting, as he began to paint the thin gash with scarlet. "You heard me...?"
"I heard you."
She let out a long breath. "Sometimes I forget that you -- "
"It doesn't happen all the time," he went on, his voice as steady as the hand wielding the little red-tipped brush. "But sometimes, when you're upset or... or feeling very strongly about something..."
"I was feeling sorry for myself," she confessed.
"No." He put the brush back into the bottle, and reached for the gauze pads. "Tell me why you were so angry at first."
"Not at you," she said quickly.
"No. I knew that."
"It's just that... I hate being clumsy. And I hated that you saw me being clumsy."
His eyes came up to meet hers, frank with surprise. "Catherine, you're not clumsy."
"Yes, I am." Her hand swept out to indicate the mess on the carpet. "What would you call that?"
"An accident. Everyone has them." Holding the gauze over the cut, he fixed each edge with the adhesive, tearing it deftly, with sharp nails, to the required lengths before returning the roll to the table again. "Why do you feel this way about yourself?"
"I don't know. I just..." Her gaze drifted up, into the middle-distance. "No, I do know why. At least partly."
He waited, still kneeling before her. "Are you going to tell me?"
"It really isn't important, Vincent."
His patient silence told her, Everything about you is important to me.
She sighed, willingly defeated. "Do you know what it means to be a girl, growing up in affluence in this city?"
"No." His mouth quirked. "I... can't say that I do."
"Among other things it means dancing lessons, of one kind or another."
"Year after year. You'd never know it, would you?" She ignored his reproving look. "But I had a couple of years of beginning ballet... even a year of ballroom, later on."
So that was where she had learned to waltz so wonderfully, he thought, remembering her in his arms at Winterfest. "And?"
"And in my teens I always found myself surrounded by willowy, swan-necked ballerina-types who seemed to've been born to it."
Vincent's eyes widened. He well remembered his own self-conscious adolescence, when his own differentness was driven home daily by the contrast with even his closest friends... and by the limits it increasingly imposed upon his hopes and dreams. Had Catherine felt that way, even a little?
She went on, depreciatingly, "I was short -- "
"You were petite," he protested.
"I was short, Vincent. And they looked down on me, in more ways than one." She thought suddenly of his first love -- Lisa, with her careless, superficial beauty and the ethereal grace which she, Catherine, could never hope to equal... and remembering the woman's brief reappearance in his life, a year ago, she wondered if Vincent had sensed her own envy and uncertainty. She pushed the thought away. "They made me feel clumsy... like an ugly duckling."
Astonishment was plain upon his face. He had always thought of her as perfect; for beyond her surface poise and beauty he knew her loving heart, her courage, her generosity of spirit. It surprised him profoundly, now, to discover these long-concealed feelings of inadequacy in her. Through the bond he felt them too, and wondered -- where had she been hiding all this? Were all women stricken with such secret insecurities? He said, "This still affects you."
"Well, sometimes. Silly, isn't it?" She looked sheepish. "But let's face it, one thing I'll never be is... willowy."
How could she wish to be other than she was -- to aspire toward some common and arbitrary standard of "beauty"? Without thinking Vincent said exactly this --
-- And she looked back at him with eyes first round with surprise, then narrowing with thoughtfulness.
"Catherine? What is it?"
"Shall I ask you the same question, Vincent?"
"You are feeling better," he said dryly.
"I only meant," he scowled, refusing to be diverted, "that to me, you are beautiful."
"As you are to me," Catherine insisted, her clear eyes sparkling with the challenge.
He started to get up but she reached out impulsively, pressing her small hands down upon his wide shoulders. Holding his unwilling gaze with her own, she was suddenly conscious of the warmth of his nearness; of the way the light gilded his long hair, lying silky beneath her palms; of the strength in his hands as they cradled her leg between them. These things gave her only pleasure, and it was this pleasure she willed through the bond to him, determined that her acceptance become a fact of his existence.
His eyes softened. "I know," he whispered.
Reluctantly, he nodded.
Her voice dropped to a murmur. "Then tell me."
"I've known... for a long time. Your acceptance -- of what I am, all that I am -- the love I sense in everything you do..."
"But it makes you sad, somehow?"
"It... raises other questions. Questions I know I have no right to -- "
"Ask me," she said simply, her eyes brimming with love. "You have only to ask."
He shook his head.
Her hands moved inward, to frame his strong lionesque face; the very lightness of her touch preventing him from drawing back. She knew that even a year ago, he might have resisted such intimacy; might have taken her hands in his instead, in an effort to take control of the moment and defuse it. But this past year -- their third -- had shown her certain gradual changes in him, changes that bespoke a tentative but growing confidence in her, and in himself; in their love, in all its myriad facets. Only recently, for the first time, had he allowed the cold of a New York City winter to drive them indoors from their balcony. Always before, he'd resisted entering her apartment as though it were some private part of her person on which he dared not trespass. Now, although he never entered in her absence -- even to wait -- he'd come to seem at ease here. With her. It was a luxury she hadn't quite learned to take for granted yet -- like the sense of fun he was only just beginning to share with her... or his growing willingness to touch, and be touched -- to a point, of course. Even now, delighting at the way the golden bristles along his jaw tickled her fingers, Catherine was conscious of his caution, his ever-present wariness. For while their love itself was unconditional, the expression of that love was not. Not yet, she thought, willing herself once more toward patience. He was so magnificent to look at -- a being of such stunning and unselfconscious physicality -- that for a long time it had bewildered her to think he might not crave her touch, as she craved his. Only gradually had she come to realize the fears that restrained him; the fear of what he was, the fear that the "beast" in him might somehow cause her harm. Catherine herself had no such fears, but knew that he must learn to accept himself, as she accepted him, before they could move to seek the fulfillment both desired.
And so she held him there with the touch of her hands and the light in her eyes, letting the love she felt for him shine forth like a beacon. She felt his thigh tense beneath her bare foot. She whispered again, "You have only to ask."
And although his mouth curved into a smile, he shook his head once more; and the glorious mane of his hair fell forward, teasingly, to caress her wrists.
"Why not?" she pressed.
"Catherine," he said, his voice low and hoarse. "I am... this. What you see before you. And you are a woman -- "
"You were born of a woman, Vincent -- "
"You can't know that."
"I do know it." She drew back one hand, to cover her heart. "I know it here, Vincent. And even if it weren't true, it's not important. It's never been important."
"It is -- "
"No." She shook her head; and reached out again, when he would have looked away, to touch his face. "No, you're wrong. You're so wrong. All that really matters, is here in this room with us now."
"Catherine." He lifted one great hand; his fingers encircled the slenderness of her wrist. Then, without taking his eyes from hers, he turned his head slightly and pressed a kiss into her palm.
The sensation was dizzying; she heard a gasp of surprise rasp in her throat. She could feel the marvelous cat-like cleft of his upper lip, moving against her skin; the hidden sharpness of his canines, and the humid heat of his breath. She leaned toward him, cupping his face in her hands to give him back his kiss -- tasting his hunger and intoxicated with it, shivering as his fingers slipped over the nape of her neck, combing up through her hair to cradle the back of her head... Catherine felt electrified, as though the very pulse was singing in her veins, calling out to the rhythm of his --
He broke away suddenly, with a barely-audible groan; and at her whimper of protest, he dropped his head down heavily onto her knees. She could feel the burning of his cheek against her skin. His hair fell in a tawny profusion over her lap. "You see," he whispered hoarsely. His arms encircled her calves, and he held her in this odd and impulsive embrace. "You see."
Blinking back tears, Catherine bent to surround him, to clasp his broad shoulders in her arms, to press her face into the silky tangle. She breathed in the beloved and familiar scent of him -- worn leather, candlewax -- then daringly brushed aside the gold-red cascade to nuzzle the lobe of a seldom-glimpsed ear. He shuddered bodily; she imagined the gooseflesh prickling over all the unseen places...
"No." It was a whisper... a sigh. Still he did not draw back from her, as in the past he had been wont to do. And in his voice there was no fear; only conviction, and the surprise of finding that, even so close to her, he was still capable of some semblance of control.
Catherine heard this, and hoped the realization would someday work to her advantage... their advantage. If loss of control -- the possibility of hurting her -- was what he feared, then she would give him every opportunity to prove that control to his secret self, again and again... no matter how many cold showers she ended up taking; no matter that it made her permanently pruny, or chilled her to the bone. She had a feeling that, eventually, Vincent would prove himself well able to warm her again.
He raised his head and eased back on his heel, careful (she realized) not to dislodge her bare foot from its place at his thigh. His fingertips lingered at the backs of her knees. He studied her with an expression that said he had sensed her ripple of amusement... and that he'd decided it would be wiser not to enquire about it. He did seem puzzled, though -- knowing her desire -- at her lack of anger or impatience.
A smile lifted the lips he had kissed. She wiggled her toes against the warm, taut cloth of his trousers... and again she felt the muscles there tense. "I can wait."
"You... don't mind?" he asked, with the endearing mixture of reticence and directness that was Vincent.
Catherine felt his blue gaze like a caress. "As long as you're getting closer, instead of farther away," she said simply, "I can bear anything."
"... Anything?" His hands moved to the tops of her knees -- beneath her skirt-hem, not over it -- and warmed her skin to mid-thigh. She gasped with surprise and knew he felt her delight, like a starburst, inside her. Delight not only at his touch, but at the confidence that had sparked this mischievous revenge. Surely such teasing was, in itself, a sort of promise?
Catherine chuckled throatily (she would never know what reward he found in it); and reaching out, drew him up to be kissed. He came willingly, smiling too before his lips took hers again; and his arms rose too, as though of their own accord, to embrace her.
She felt herself pressed gently back into the cushions; felt her knees part to draw him closer and the beloved weight of him over her; felt lost in the searching heat of his kiss. When he drew back -- only a little, just raising his head -- she gasped for her forgotten breath.
"Catherine." His soft voice broke with wonder; she saw the tears of a new and fragile joy in his eyes. His head dropped to her breast and she cradled it there, stroking his hair. With her other arm she held him tightly, her hand spread against his muscled back, feeling each deep and shuddering breath, certain he could feel hers too beneath his cheek. I'm real, she thought, I'm real and I love you and I'll never go away. Their bond had never rung truer, or ecompassed them more wholly, than in that moment.
And yet Catherine knew that this was just a beginning. That it would not, could not, be tonight. It must not happen here -- Above -- where unknown danger might lurk just outside the door, even in this place that was hers, and which he loved for her sake.
At the thought of those dangers, her arm tightened around him protectively... possessively. And Vincent, feeling some thread of her emotion, tilted his head and pressed his lips into the hollow of her throat.
Catherine inhaled sharply and shut her eyes tight against a piercing joy, and the sting of her own tears. She sensed surprise in him... and a shy delight at realizing he could affect her so profoundly. It was all so new to him... so new to both of them. Catherine knew she could not hurry him; knew that he would not be hurried. Eventually he would explore this magic as he did everything else, cautiously, carefully, and with great thoroughness.
But it would not be tonight. It didn't have to be.
When they decided to be together, truly together (finally, she thought), it would happen Below, in that enchanted realm that was his and where he was safe... Where he was king, if he but knew it. She would come to him. He would not have to risk his very life for love, or desert her when the morning came... And because she knew -- she knew -- that she would never be able to part from him afterwards, then there she would abide forevermore. She glimpsed their course stretched out before them like a river to a moonlit sea... and here, adrift in his arms, she was content.
After all, there was no need to hurry. With a love such as theirs, anything was possible... and they would have all the time in the world.