(Author’s Note: I have taken the story of Catherine and Vincent and created a slightly different first meeting, tweaked a few relationships. Most of the characters, everyone will recognize, Kiley is new. She is a Tunnel resident that is dear to my heart. Catherine is a little younger. The rest is pure V and C connection! I own nothing... and no money is made!)
Destined to Collide
Anger pulsed through her body as she swept from the party. Tom was just another self-centered, egotistical, social climber! Why had she dated him? She berated herself internally as she pushed open the doors and hurried out onto the street.
Because he was handsome, because he had potential, because her father liked him and felt it would be a good match…that’s why.
"Taxi!" Rushing forward she raised her arm only to see the cab speed by.
The next events were a merciful blur. She was taken by surprise by the two men, shoved into a van and beaten. It seemed that ‘Carole’ had royally p.o.’d somebody. Between blows, she tried to tell them she wasn’t "Carole." They didn’t seem to believe her or were having too much fun to care.
The men took her to a remote section of Central Park. After a few questions that were totally alien to Catherine’s realm, they figured out the case of mistaken identity. A long look exchanged between the two did not go unnoticed, or unread by Catherine. Her fate was decided in a heartbeat by the two…rape then death. She was determined not to make it easy.
Terrified, she fought valiantly. Her furious, desperate fighting back resulted in bumps, scratches, bruises, and broken ribs. One of her assailants pulled out a knife while the other one held her down. Her terror escalated when he brought the knife to her cheek, then with glee, sliced her face. He smiled as she whimpered in pain and fear, then moved the knife down and started cutting at the dark, heavy velvet gown to expose her shoulder and left breast. Nausea rose as her screams were muffled by the other one’s hand. She could feel what little strength remained inside draining away. A groping hand at her breast was more than she could bear. Wrenching her face away from the sweat-slicked palm, she managed one last feeble scream…It ended abruptly by a back-handed blow that addled her brain and left her on the edge of unconsciousness.
Unsure whether the next few minutes were real or muddled hallucinations, she heard a growl then a furious roar. She was suddenly free of the bruising hands as her attackers were forcefully removed from her. She could hear thumps, fearful cries, furious growls…then silence.
Through half closed lids and in the low light provided by a distant street light, Catherine saw a large dark form kneeling beside her. She was embarrassed by the low, terrified moan and her own voice begging. "Please…no."
She tried to scramble backwards, tried to sit up, preparing to fight…pain rushed through her body.
Then the most beautiful sound…his voice. Quiet, controlled, and oh so gentle.
"Shhh…it’s all right. Try not to move."
A dark hood concealed his face but the velvet voice and its warm, vibrant force filled her frozen body with much-needed warmth.
"It’s all right…you’re safe now. I won’t let anyone else harm you." Large hands turned her gently… trying to assess the damage without causing more pain. She was dimly aware that he moved his hands through her hair checking for head injuries, then down her arms and legs looking for fractures. Briefly, he cupped her ribcage in large gentle hands but released them immediately upon feeling her discomfort. It hurt to breathe!
Still with gentle fingers, Catherine felt him tug her disheveled gown back up to cover her exposed breast. She felt something soft brush her bruised jaw then it was gone. A ripping sound was followed by a folded, white piece of soft material being placed over the cut on her cheek in front of her left ear. He applied gentle pressure for a moment and Catherine could sense his rapid thoughts even though his touch was steady.
"You are bruised and battered and there are probably broken ribs. I cannot leave you here to go for help." He lifted her hand and placed it over the cloth to maintain the pressure then moved to retrieve her velvet coat. Immediately, Catherine felt adrift. Shaking, she felt cold and empty…it was disconcerting because she thought herself as a very modern and independent woman.
She couldn’t suppress the relieved sigh when he quickly returned with her coat. As gently as possible, he eased her arms into the oversized sleeves. His face remained in shadow and she had an overwhelming need to see him…to put a face with the beautiful voice. Catherine listened to its rich texture and felt engulfed by comfort and a desperately needed sense of security.
"I am going to carry you. There is a doctor who lives not far from here. There will be some discomfort…I will be as easy as I can." He hated the need to inflict more pain to that which she had already endured, it was revealed in his voice.
A wry grin touched Catherine’s mouth as she heard the guilt in his voice…guilt totally undeserved. Without his intervention, she would be dead by now…or wishing she were.
"Don’t sound so sad." Her voice was a little husky…and it seemed to momentarily freeze her rescuer in place. "Despite how I may look at the moment, I’m quite tough." She felt his barely there start of surprise…impossibly, it made her smile widen until her swollen lip protested. Even though she couldn’t see his eyes, she felt his gaze sharpen.
Vincent felt a swell of pride at the show of humor and strength the young, fragile woman displayed. Her strength and determination in spite of her fear, he had experienced firsthand during the attack. Emotions that should have prepared him, but she still managed to surprised him.
His better-than-average night vision sharpened on her face, seeing the incredible beauty that shone through the blood and bruises. He’d felt his heart turn over at the distressed sounds that had torn from her throat when he’d first knelt beside her. He had sensed her fear leave immediately upon hearing his voice and was virtually weak with relief that his fierce presence hadn’t sent her into panic.
"Yes, I can see that." His own voice held an improbable lace of amusement in response. He slid his arms beneath her knees and around her back just above her waist.
Before he gathered her to his chest and lost the full vision of her face against his cloak, he had to know…
"You are a woman of great strength and courage…May I know your name?" His voice rumbled in sincere admiration.
Unexpected tears gathered, causing her green eyes to shimmer. She caught a ragged breath and told him. "It’s Catherine."
"Catherine." He repeated it with reverence. He felt as if an immeasurable gift had been bestowed upon his unworthy head…one that he would treasure.
Her heart tripped and then sped to catch up upon hearing her name from his mouth. It had never sounded that beautiful when anyone else said it, she had always found it a pleasant but pretty ordinary name…until now.
Strong, thickly-muscled arms gathered her to him and with a smooth, graceful rocking motion; he brought them to his feet. Catherine barely felt the twinge in her ribs as she nestled her face against the warmth of his chest and breathed him in deeply. A pleasant mixture of spice, musk, leather and candle wax filled her head.
Vincent’s chest felt full and this breath stuttered when he felt her face against him. He was aware she was taking in his smell…his essence. He had been unable to deny himself the same of her. He turned in the direction that would be the fastest and safest, but before he had taken more than a step, he felt her move against his heart and he stopped and waited for the question he sensed within her.
"The two men who attacked me?" Her voice once again sounded strained as she forced herself to ask him.
He took a deep breath and replied simply. "They will never harm another." Strangely, he felt no regret over the deaths, just their wasted lives.
Catherine couldn’t find it in her to mourn either. She was only sorry that this gentle giant had to be the one to deliver their justice…and it had been a swift and necessary one.
"I have to tell you…" Her voice was suddenly a little weak and shaky as the night’s events started to rush forward once again.
"I don’t feel very strong or courageous…just very thankful that you were near and came…if you hadn’t…" She used his own words for her next request. "May I know your name?" She lifted her head and for a few brief seconds the shadows shifted as he turned his head and the cloak’s hood stayed behind. A stunning impression of wild golden hair, bristled feline nose, a unique mouth and a glint of elongated sharp-tipped canines rushed through her. She would wonder later if it was her bemused state that conjured the strange beauty she glimpsed…or if he could possibly be real.
"You have the strength…I can feel it in you." His head dipped, once again concealing him. He took another deep breath then exhaled it’s warmth against her hair as he spoke his name into her ear. "Vincent…my name is Vincent."
Her hand tightened in the front of his cloak. She felt a deep pull low in her abdomen as he gifted her with his name. Her voice clenched in response, making his name escape breathy and sensual.
He almost stumbled, hearing his name on her lips. It heated him, strengthened him. He felt his shoulders widen, his posture straightened and his arms tightened around her. He felt the fatigue that abruptly overwhelmed her and he sent a little nudge into her receptive subconscious to rest. She nestled down a bit more against his chest and sighed.
They had been traveling at a fast but careful clip for about ten minutes when an unexpected, ragged cough caught Catherine by surprise. Pain shrieked through her battered ribs causing her to jerk and gasp in Vincent’s arms. Immediately, he stopped and dropped to his knees, gently supporting her slight frame as she reluctantly rode the wave of pain.
Vincent’s voice murmured quietly near her ear, almost hypnotically.
"I feel your pain, Catherine. Let it wash through you, and over you…then breathe it away."
Cautiously she took a breath, drew it a little deeper…then deeper still as the pain receded. She took another, then another. The pain was there, but manageable. She felt Vincent preparing to move once again.
"Wait!" Catherine’s voice caught on a painful gasp as she jumped then squeezed his forearm. "Vincent, please…" she took a breath around the receding pain buzzing through her battered ribs. She prayed not to cough again "…just a couple of minutes to catch my breath."
They had stopped in a dim alley beside a brick building…Vincent held her securely in his arms, her weight very little burden to his muscled frame. He settled her more comfortably against his thighs…feeling the pain slowly backing off to a manageable throb.
"It’s just a little further." He murmured into the silkiness of her hair. He tried to infuse her with his presence, his strength.
"Near a hospital?" She asked, anticipating his answer. She liked the feel of his arms around her, his muscled thighs easily bracing her weight and the heat radiating from his hard chest. She felt his brief hesitation in answering. Her head tilted back to glance up into the shadow of his hooded face. His voice calmed her and she needed a distraction from the pain, and the shock of the attack. "Talk to me, Vincent."
His stomach clenched, he felt an overwhelming urge to trust her and tell her his secrets.
"I wish I could take you to my home. My Father is a doctor…but it is farther away. The doctor I mentioned, he will make sure you receive the care you need. I wish it were different, that I could take you, but for reasons I dare not reveal…I cannot be seen by top-siders." Again his voice faltered slightly and she saw his head drop down a little, his breath touched her face. "My existence is dependent upon remaining out of sight. I’m sorry, I cannot explain it any better than that…"
Catherine lightly tugged on the tie of his vest. "You have no need to explain, but I’m glad you told me. Your voice…it soothes me, Vincent. Please tell me what you can about your home." There was a gentle pleading in her tone and he could not deny her.
"I will tell you as we move." Slowly, easily, he stood and they started to travel once more. He stayed carefully in the shadows and kept his voice low. "My home is safe and filled with wonderful people. They are my family and we take care of one another…"
His voice lulled her gently. His heat and power surrounded her. She listened as he told her about a place where things were of a by-gone era, where people shared the work and supported each other.
His long strides carried them swiftly and smoothly. Within a few moments, he felt her sliding into an exhausted sleep. She did not waken when they arrived at Peter Alcott’s large brownstone. The long time friend and Helper appeared quickly at Vincent’s distinctive knock.
Peter was shocked to recognize his Goddaughter in Vincent’s arms and quickly ushered him inside. She made a protesting murmur when Vincent settled her onto the sofa and reluctantly straightened from her. Knowing she needed care as soon as possible, Vincent gave a short but concise rendering of the events as he knew them. Peter did a quick exam as he listened and then moved to phone for an ambulance. Only a few moments after entering the house, Vincent left using the tunnel entrance in the house’s basement.
He paused in the safety of the tunnel below, sensing when Catherine awakened and called his name. He felt her distress then her reluctant acceptance of his absence. He became aware that he was rubbing his own chest in an effort to ease the gaping emptiness that came with her departure in the ambulance. Quietly, he turned and walked slowly back toward the home tunnels praying for her well-being every step of the way.
Below the City Streets
The world in the tunnels beneath Manhattan was constantly cool, but the life there was one of warmth, camaraderie, and family. It was where the wounded went to heal, the unaccepted found peace. It was a place of safety, warmed by caring people.
It was a place out of time.
In the treatment chamber, furred hands with sharp clawed fingers soothed a restless child. Those same hands replaced a cool cloth on fevered brows and gently brushed back sweat-soaked tendrils of hair. Vincent moved from bed to bed, his beautiful voice murmuring reassurances in warm husky tones. At times, he recited poetry and stories he knew by heart. As the sickness spread throughout the community, he did all he could to help. At present, he was giving Mary a much needed rest from the children’s sick room.
So far, six children and five adults were being treated for the virulent strain of influenza. Respiratory symptoms, gastrointestinal ailments and high fevers depleted their limited supplies quickly.
"Vincent." Father spoke quietly, not wanting to disturb the children and knowing of his son’s sensitive hearing. He quickly motioned for Vincent to come meet him.
Quietly, Vincent moved through the chamber to stand at his father’s elbow.
"Yes, Father." Vincent’s low voice was full of respect and affection. Being the taller of the two, he bent his head slightly to adjust his height to allow for better eye contact.
"I have just received word from Peter. He has an emergency at St. Vincent’s. He needs us to meet him there instead of Mr. Choo’s shop if we are to get the supplies quickly. He had time to find the supplies and load the van but then got another page, this one from the hospital." Father’s eyes were somber and he laid a hand at Vincent’s shoulder. "It’s dangerous, and I don’t like it…but you’re the only one who can get there fast enough to meet him in the underground garage before he goes in. I can send someone after you pick up the keys to drive the van to Mr. Choo’s, but that will take awhile."
Vincent was already reaching for his hooded cloak. "You will stay with the children? Mary was very tired." At his Father’s nod, he quickly embraced him. "I’ll be careful Father. Don’t worry." With that he was gone, moving swiftly through the tunnels.
Vincent arrived just as Peter was muttering to himself at the rear of the van and paused to cautiously check out the area. His senses were far more acute than normal and anytime he was above they seemed to heighten even further. Although the way his heart started to pound when he heard the swish of the automatic doors exiting the hospital and sensed HER presence deep within…it was his heart, not instincts that recognized Catherine was near…
That night in the park, her pain: his rage- and then …Catherine. It had changed his life completely and forever. Her beauty was etched into his mind.
Vincent was brought quickly to the present by the sound of her voice and he watched from the darkness as she moved toward Peter. He was struck anew by her breathtaking presence. No longer bruised or swollen, no slash gapping and bleeding. He had seen her beauty shining through all of those injuries…but the vision of her now-it took his breath away.
She seemed to float in the sea foam green gown that billowed around her feet. Her honey-blond hair was pulled back on each side and held in place by studded combs, then caught up in a carefree knot allowing soft tendrils to escape. He wondered if it was just him or if everyone could see the radiant aura that encircled her. Even the tiredness he could feel inside her did not dim the beauty of her smile or the warm glow in her misty green eyes.
"Peter…" Her voice affected him at gut level; at once it was melodic and had a smooth richness to it.
"I left the party soon after you, Peter. I’ve been up sitting with Jessica Stanton’s family on the pediatric cancer ward. I’ve gotten to know them quite well on the days I come by to volunteer. The crisis seems to have passed and she’s stable. I was just going home."
Peter smiled and tried to rush her without being obvious about it. "Well, Kiddo- sounds like a busy night for you as well…I hate to rush but I have to get upstairs…"
Vincent would berate himself later, he had been so distracted by Catherine’s unexpected arrival, he had missed the stealthy approach of the wild-eyed man looking for easy prey.
From nowhere it seemed, the assailant stepped from around the van and Catherine was grabbed from behind and her arm caught and twisted behind her. With no more than uttering a small yelp, she made herself go still when all she wanted to do was struggle.
"Hey, hey--easy now." The man’s voice was low and sing-song as he glanced nervously to Peter then over his shoulder and back.
"You two just be cool--give me what you got and…" His eyes lit on the pharmaceutical boxes in the van and Peter in his scrubs and his excitement level increased. "Well, well--pay dirt! Give me the keys Doc."
Peter felt a frustrating helpless rage. "Young man, there is nothing here that you could use or sell…"
The knife came up to Catherine’s neck and a hiss of air came past her cheek. "The KEYS…old man--NOW!" With that he pressed the point tighter on Catherine’s jugular.
Suddenly, a low menacing growl issued forth from the darkness. It made the hair stand up on the back of the thug’s neck. He backed up a step, pulling her with him and looked past Peter.
"What the hell…!"
Catherine’s knees weakened with relief. She knew that sound. It came again--louder, more angry… She moistened her lips and spoke for the first time.
"You do NOT want to mess with this." She felt the shudder that wracked her assailant’s scrawny frame pressed against her.
"What IS that?" He pulled her another step back and the knife pricked her skin. A drop of blood slowly welled and a roar filled the silence.
A sweep of dark cloak moved forward from the shadows, big and menacing. The movement seemed to electrify the man behind her. With a violent shove, he sent her careening into Peter and then took flight as fast as humanly possible.
Vincent fell back, breathing heavily and sliding along the darkened wall. He wanted to give chase, he wanted to rip the man apart…but he stayed, waiting to see if Catherine was really only shaken, but unharmed.
Catherine pushed herself up and away from Peter, checking quickly to see if he was all right.
"Peter, are you hurt?" She saw him grip his right ribcage where he had fallen against the vans’ door latch. He grimaced a little but then looked up and nodded.
"I’m okay. What about you?" He let her help him to his feet, and then looked at the wound on her neck. He was glad to see it was superficial and already clotting.
"It doesn’t feel bad…" she glanced toward the shadows, unable to see but feeling his silent vigil. Quickly adding two and two together, she knew these two knew each other.
Quietly, but with an unconscious huskiness to her voice, she called to him. "Vincent."
Peter started, but then stayed silent.
After only a slight hesitation, she heard him.
Catherine’s eyes closed briefly, savoring the sound, feeling an immense relief and surge of joy.
"Thank you." She wasn’t sure if she was thanking him for saving her now or the first time…or if she were thanking God she had found him again.
"Vincent, will you please come here?" She silently begged.
"Cathy…" Peter started, then after seeing the determined look he knew so well, he fell silent.
Keeping his hood up and his head tipped down, Vincent cautiously moved forward, still half in shadow. He could see her but knew his own face remained concealed.
It was hard to say who was more surprised, Vincent or Peter- when suddenly Catherine ran forward and threw her arms around his waist and pressed her ear to his chest.
"Vincent." He heard her breathe his name and without hesitation his arms came up and around her. He was holding her close, breathing her in, and caught between overwhelming joy and depths of sorrow. The time had come to face his fate.
This was the moment he had longed for the most…and feared the greatest; the feel of Catherine’s return against his heart…and the reaction to his beastly appearance upon first seeing him.
He tried to brace himself as a tremor moved through his big frame. It was always hurtful to see the horror on people’s faces…but with the connection he felt through her...he would get the full force of her terror and revulsion.
"Vincent." Her voice breathed just his name. Her arms tightened around him. For just a moment snatched out of time, he bent his face to her hair and allowed his arms to come around her in a gentle embrace. His eyes closed and he soaked her up. It was another gift to treasure; her innocent full-hearted joy and touch.
"Catherine." He allowed himself to breathe the most precious word. After a few heartbeats, he gently pulled back and ducked his head.
"I didn’t mean to frighten you."
Catherine kept a tight hold on his upper arms, afraid he’d disappear again if she didn’t. His face remained hidden, but burnished gold-blond hair was framed by the edges of the leather trimmed hood.
"You didn’t frighten me…you could never frighten me, Vincent." Catherine squeezed his muscled arms and gently shook him. "I almost convinced myself I’d dreamed you and was slowly going mad. Then you left the book of poetry on my balcony."
If anything, his head tipped down even more at this statement.
"I--" His lovely voice was even softer as he admitted. "I shouldn’t have come to your balcony, but I --had to see that you were well…and safe."
Catherine moved in a little closer, drawn to him and making sure he knew how much she wanted him to hear the words. Her entire being was suffused with a warm feeling of safety, of homecoming.
"You should have stayed. I have so much to tell you…so much I want to know. I didn’t even get to thank you properly-- I owe you everything, Vincent…everything." Her voice grew huskier with suppressed tears.
The hooded head moved in a small negative shake. "You owe me nothing, Catherine."
"Yes, Vincent. I---" She started only to be interrupted by Peter.
"Hey, I’m sorry you two, but I have to go in and these supplies have to get Below." Peter had made a quick but positive decision, and knew it was the right one. He had known Catherine all of her life- her parents even before her birth. No one was more trustworthy.
"Vincent…Cathy is going to have to help you. She’s been vaccinated against the ‘flu and should be okay. Father will need all of this, and soon." Peter came forward and looked at Catherine as she half-turned from Vincent.
"Cathy, I really wish I had time to explain but Vincent will fill you in on the details. There is a group of people who are very sick and they need these medicines. Their world is a secret and protected one and it has to stay that way. Tell Father I apologize for the breach in protocol but I will explain it to him later…Can you drive the van to this address?" He hastily scribbled on a notepad then handed it and the keys to her. "I’ll find my own way home."
"Yes, of course Peter." She took them both, but looked back at Vincent. She could feel his turmoil and yes, he had definitely moved further back into the shadows.
"Peter." His voice was low and troubled. "She can’t…I don’t want to frighten her and she has yet to see who---what…she’s dealing with."
"Vincent…" Catherine’s heart constricted at the pain in his voice and heart. He had no clue about the brief glimpse she had gotten that first night, nor the brief touch of streetlight that had touched his face when he had stopped to let her regain her breath after a painful coughing spell on their way to Peter’s. She knew he was not as other men, but to hear the despair and doubt in him…she had to put him at ease.
She stepped forward and held her hand out for his. Slowly, oh so slowly, he brought it out of the concealing folds of his cloak. Hmm…she grasped it without hesitation---fur and clawed nails. Gently but firmly, she drew him out of the dark but still safely concealed from view of the parking garage, using the van as cover. He kept his head down and allowed her to seat him in the van’s open back doors. Peter had moved to keep a watch on the hospital entrance…trusting Cathy to handle the situation.
Vincent’s normally slow heart rate was increasing until he thought it would burst from his chest. At least she hadn’t freaked out when she’d seen his hand; he had felt only a flicker of surprise but no fear. He half sat on the rear bumper where she had led him. He wanted her to have the control, the open space behind her so that she wouldn’t feel trapped when she saw him. He was at his most vulnerable, physically and emotionally, but he so much didn’t want her frightened. He felt her hands grasp his hood, hesitate more for him than herself--giving him time to protest, to prepare, then she slid it back over his wild mane of hair.
He held himself still, his eyes down, darting left then right…wanting to spare himself her horror. But, that’s not what he felt from her. In amazement, he slowly raised his eyes to her face…and his breath released on a huff. Her face held gentle beauty, a soft reassuring smile, compassionate but shining green eyes took him in. She savored the intelligent beauty of his blue eyes then moved over his leonine features with bemusement. Her tiny hand gently pushed back a tangle of his hair, and then fingertips brushed his high cheekbone before cupping his chin and lifting it slightly.
"You have no reason to lower your eyes, or your head…" She told him quietly. "I don’t know how you came to be…" she smiled a little… "But I recognize raw, regal beauty when I see it."
Vincent was stunned. He knew what he looked like…he had never seen beauty in his countenance. She hadn’t glimpsed his fierce canines yet, but he didn’t want to push his luck… She wasn’t afraid! She wasn’t lying. It meant everything!
"Oh, Catherine." His voice broke. He basked in her gentle acceptance…knew no bounds of relief at the warm, safe feeling she held in her heart. Friendship and acceptance…for one such as him, gifts beyond compare.
Peter made himself move…the tender revelation had gotten to his soft heart and he felt he had been witness to something precious.
"Vincent, ride in the back of the van…it’ll be the fastest and safest way. Tell Father I’ll be in touch as soon as I can." Quickly, he smiled at them and was gone.
Catherine motioned Vincent into the back, closed the doors, and they were off.
Catherine stood awkwardly as she waited for Vincent to return.
She had arrived at the Chinese restaurant and had been quickly directed around back. Vincent had disappeared into a concealed doorway in the building’s storage room, and then returned to briefly introduce her to a pony-tailed young lady, Jamie…and Mouse, a shaggy blond-headed young man who darted about quick and quiet. They started a chain of passing boxes to other’s waiting in the basement below. Mouse, then Jamie, to Catherine then to Vincent; his easy strength handing down to the others. It took only a few minutes before the van was emptied.
Vincent had gone below with the last of the supplies; making sure things were progressing. She wanted to go but didn’t want to ask. She chewed her lower lip in a nervous habit then glanced up to find Vincent standing nearby, quietly watching. She stopped and grinned sheepishly---bad habit.
Vincent swallowed and quickly cleared his throat. Her moist lip was slightly reddened and puffy from her nervous nibbling.
"Catherine…the van will be safe here." He held out a clawed hand and cocked his head shyly. "May I lead you into my world?"
A sigh of relief, a big smile and she caught his hand in hers.
"There’s no place I’d rather be, Vincent."
From habit, he restrained his smile as he led her to the ladder and assisted her down.
Vincent watched her move from child to child. For each, she had a warm, enchanting smile, a soft touch and gentle words. Catherine replaced cloths to fevered foreheads, changed soiled bedclothes, emptied emesis and bedpans. As dawn approached, he marveled that even though she had not slept, had barely rested- she remained patient, kind and totally the beautiful princess he had heard 5- year-old, Kiley call her.
Catherine was feeling a bit overwhelmed at all the things she’d seen and discovered this night. As Vincent had led her through the tunnels of his world, Catherine had been intrigued but distracted by the rich raspiness of his voice. It was hard to concentrate on the story of how Below had come to be, when the storyteller was Vincent! It had been a brief version since they were moving rapidly to deliver the carts of supplies to the Main Hub, but he had promised a more detailed account later.
There had been a definitely awkward tension-filled session upon Catherine’s introduction to "Father" the patriarch of the group.
* * *
The flare of surprise in his eyes at Catherine’s appearance had quickly progressed to anger. He’d taken a look at her coifed hair, shiny jewels and elegant gown and turned from her to direct Mouse and Jamie where he wanted the different boxes.
After a moment, and after regaining his temper, he had turned back to ask quietly, "Vincent, I believe introductions and explanations are in order?"
Calmly, Vincent regarded his Father’s belligerent countenance. He had known Father would be upset at a stranger’s presence Below, but the degree of hostility puzzled him. He had unthinkingly placed himself protectively in front and to Catherine’s side- as if he’d felt the need to shield her... Not from physical aggression, but perhaps emotional or verbal attack. He also accepted quietly but with secret awe, Catherine’s small hand in his.
Catherine’s emotions went from hurt to dismay, then to a calm thoughtfulness. Vincent was surprised that she moved so quickly from emotion to emotion until it was she who exuded calm support to him.
"Yes, of course Father." Steady blue eyes held his father’s, wordlessly extending respectful manners in an effort to remind Father of his own. "Father, this is Catherine Chandler."
"Catherine?" Bushy eyebrows rose in surprise and very real dismay. This was Catherine!? The Catherine that Vincent had talked about over the last few months? Seeing her hand tucked trustingly into Vincent’s seemed to confirm it. He had not been exaggerating in the least about her beauty as Father had expected. No, if anything, he had not really found the words. Words like rich, pampered, and probably totally wrapped up in her own little world.
Vincent nodded and turned gentle eyes toward Catherine. His tone softened.
"Catherine, this is my father. . . Also known as "Father" to those who live here."
Catherine stepped forward and released Vincent’s hand, before holding it out to Vincent’s father... Her green eyes were steady and full of respect for the man who had raised Vincent and helped found this amazing world.
"Hello Father." Her hand was briefly clasped and dropped. A rueful smile touched her lips and a hint of awkward humor sparkled in her green eyes. "I’d like to say I’ve heard so much about you, but before tonight I would have been lying." She stepped back to Vincent’s side and took it upon herself to offer explanations.
"My Godfather said to tell you he would shoulder the task of telling you how I came to end up Below." At Fathers questioning look, Catherine smiled with genuine affection. "Peter Alcott is my godfather." She saw understanding dawn in Father’s eyes. "I was at the hospital and stumbled upon him in the parking garage."
She turned warm eyes to Vincent. "I didn’t give them a choice in dodging my curiosity, especially when I--sensed Vincent nearby." She broke eye contact with difficulty and refocused on Father. More seriously she added, "I’m afraid Peter was feeling the strain of being needed equally in both places. He sent the supplies with us and said he’d explain the need for a breech in protocol later."
Resigned, Father nodded and some of the tension left his shoulders…so it really hadn’t been Vincent that had broken all the rules to bring her here. Leaning on his cane, he turned back to look over the children.
Catherine could hear the young ones coughing, retching, and the murmur of a few low voices.
Father sighed tiredly and turned back with a ghost of a relieved smile. "We did need the supplies urgently. Thank you for bringing them. Now, we must tend to the sick…" He vaguely motioned toward the exit. "Vincent, have someone show Miss Chandler up top…"
"I’d like to help." Catherine’s voice was firm, her eyes steady as she saw Father’s brief but derisive glance at her gowned form.
"That won’t be necessary…" He began but was interrupted by a voice behind him.
"Of course we can use the help." A slightly built older lady stepped around from behind him. A kind smile was directed at Catherine who returned it with relief.
Vincent looked with affection at Mary. He had wanted Catherine to spend more time here but knew that Mary’s gentle intervention would leave Father without argument. His blue eyes held a spark of amusement and gratitude as he introduced Catherine.
Mary quietly tucked her hand in Catherine’s arm and moved her into the room "Come, I’ll introduce you to the children and we’ll see about getting you something warmer and less likely to be ruined during your time here. Vincent, Eli and Kiley have asked for you repeatedly since you left. Please, go reassure them of your return."
Vincent stayed only a little while in the children’s chamber. He would be needed elsewhere but wanted to be sure Catherine was okay in the sick room. He was unsurprised at the comfort he felt from her with the children. He listened unobtrusively. Mary had been called away in the middle of introductions but Catherine assured her she’d finish and help out while she was gone.
She was at 5-year-old Kiley’s bed.
"Hello." Catherine knelt down at the little girl’s bedside and smiled at the girl’s fretful pout.
"I’m Catherine…what’s your name?"
Brown eyes widened in her flushed face as the candle’s glow adjusted from behind the figure kneeling beside her. Lights danced from the earbobs and hair combs. Now the gentle light from above Kiley’s head illuminated sparkling green eyes, a soft warm smile, and Catherine’s face. Well… she could only be one thing in Kiley’s young eyes…
"My name’s Kiley. Are you a princess?" She breathed in awe.
Catherine chuckled, a bit embarrassed. She reached out to brush Kiley’s hair back and stroke the little girl’s soft cheek.
Another youthful voice came from behind her. "Yes, are you?" She shifted a bit to look behind her. A little boy rested on another cot a few feet away. A murmur passed through and a few curious heads popped up to see as Catherine stood from her bent position.
Vincent felt her pleasure and caught the flicker of embarrassment as she glanced across the space to where he stood.
"Well, I hate to disappoint but...no, I’m not a princess. I’m just me." She smiled down at Kiley in apology and gave her a second to get over her disappointment. "I am, however, a friend of Vincent’s and would like to be yours." She included the other children in her look about the room then returned her gaze to Kiley. "Even if I’m not a real princess, if that’s all right?"
There was a chorus of "Sure." "‘Course." Various voices rose then quieted as energy ebbed.
Kiley was last to answer. "You can be my friend. Vincent and I are great friends, but I still think you’re a princess. Vincent’s princess." The precocious little girl declared then motioned for a rather awed Catherine to lean close so that she could whisper.
"Me and S’mantha know that Vincent is really an enchanted Prince! He has to have a princess of his own. It’s what he needs mostest!" It was the sweetest thing Catherine had ever heard.
Vincent saw Catherine’s smile widen into a delighted grin as she listened to Kiley. With a quick glance in his direction, Catherine nodded to the little one then pulled the blanket up close under Kiley’s chin then moved to the next child. He wondered what the imp had whispered to make Catherine smile and look at him that way.
Vincent had soon after left to help with sentry duty since Paul had been hit with the ‘flu bug.
* * *
Now, some four hours later, Vincent stood looking once more at the woman who had captured his heart…and the hearts of these children, obviously. At some point, she had changed into tunnel clothes. A warm cream blouse tied down the front with leather laces and gathered sleeves that draped over the top of her hands gracefully. A cotton wrap-around skirt in soft amber and cream ballet flats completed the illusion of tunnel princess. He barely repressed a smile. She had removed the jewelry and ornate combs and now her hair fell in gentle disarray. She totally captivated him.
The children seemed quiet at the moment and he had come to insist she get some rest. Jamie and Rebecca had arrived a little earlier and now it was time to take Catherine home.
She saw him immediately and after a few soft sentences to the relief team, she moved toward him.
Catherine smiled tiredly, half asleep on her feet. That didn’t stop her heart from flipping over at the sight of Vincent waiting for her.
"Hi." Without thought or hesitation, she walked into his space and gave him a warm hug.
Startled, but pleased, Vincent wrapped an arm about her and let her rest her slight weight against him. He was unused to casual touches from women, but although his breath and heart skipped at her warm trusting touch… he savored it.
"Hello, Catherine..." His voice rasped into her hair. "You’ve worked hard…how are the children feeling?"
Catherine stepped to his side but managed to stay in his embrace. She glanced around the sick room, and then rested her head on his chest just short of his shoulder. He was tall! And his chest was so very wide.
"Better…I think. They all seem to be sleeping or at least resting quietly." Her eyes lit. "All of them asked where you were…when you were coming back. It seems you tell the best stories." She smiled up at him.
His head tilted shyly at her soft praise. Gently, he began to lead her out of the chamber and down the torch-lit tunnel.
"Where are we going?" Content to be led by Vincent, Catherine yawned a bit indelicately with a muttered "sorry."
Vincent hid a small smile. She was lovely.
"I am finding you a place to sleep. You are far too tired to track back up top without resting first." He didn’t usually make decisions for other people but he knew exactly how tired she was…he could feel her weariness.
"Okay." Catherine was relieved and had no argument. Right now he could prop her up in a corner and she would sleep! She muffled another yawn and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other…glad of Vincent’s arm around her shoulder and the solid feel of him where her arm clasped around his waist.
Vincent bypassed the unmade guest chamber and took her to his own. Within a couple of minutes, he had given her a soft comfortable shirt of his own for her to change into and a clean pair of his warm, far-too-big socks. He stepped out for a moment while she changed and returned to find her sitting and looking around his private sanctuary.
Slowly, she brought her eyes back to him and smiled softly. "It’s wonderful. Thank you for bringing me here Vincent."
Shyly, Vincent dipped his head and nodded feeling another wave of weariness sweep over her. Vincent went to her and after carefully standing her up, he pulled the covers back and then picked her up and gently placed her in the big bed.
‘Now why did I do that?’ He chided himself silently. He didn’t go around just picking people up and placing them where he wanted them! She could have climbed into bed by herself. ‘…but why should she need to when I have the strength to do it for her?’ Besides, it just felt right.
No protest from Catherine, just a sigh of pure pleasure as her body was caught up in strong arms and placed in a heavenly comfortable bed.
"Thank you, Vincent…but you haven’t slept either." She was drowsy but concerned about taking his bed.
"I’ll be fine…now… Sleep Catherine." He allowed himself to briefly touch her hair.
"But I’ve taken your bed…" She began to protest, and then her eyes lit with challenge... "Your very big bed." With that, she moved over to the back edge of the bed and caught hold of his hand. She tugged, he sat.
"Catherine..." Vincent immediately protested. "It isn’t proper."
"Vincent." Catherine’s voice was firm. "Take off your boots…this bed is big enough for both of us easily." When he hesitated, she continued. "I’m almost twenty-eight years old and am too old for "proper" to win out over "practical.""
"But, Catherine… you don’t know that you can trust…"
He was abruptly interrupted. "Of course I know Vincent." Her stubborn voice turned mischievous. "But, of course, if you don’t trust me..." She made the motion of leaving the warm comfort of the bed.
A huffed sigh came from Vincent and thankfully he placed a halting hand on her shoulder.
"Fine Catherine, you have made your point. Lie back." He cast a chiding glance over his shoulder as he began to remove his boots. "But, I will sleep on top of the covers and you underneath them." He took off his vest but retained his warm thermal shirt and soft trousers.
Catherine’s eyes were sleepy but she watched him move about the chamber extinguishing all but one candle. Slowly, he made his way back to the bed and tentatively climbed in. She watched him lying there so stiffly and knew he worried about this new development.
With a deep sigh of contentment, she reached out and caught his hand and drew it down on the covers between them and twined their fingers together. Giving them a gentle squeeze brought Vincent’s eyes to hers. Slowly, he relaxed, feeling her utter contentment and gentle reassurances. She was happy, safe and content…he held her hand captive in his and nodded.
"Goodnight, Vincent." She was already half asleep.
"Goodnight Catherine…Sleep well." Vincent stayed awake for awhile just watching her sleep, filled with a sense of disbelief that she was here and sleeping beside him. But the day and night had been long and filled with unusual events. Soon, he too fell into a deep comfortable sleep.