ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME in the CITY OF NEW YORK

by JoAnn Baca

 

“But why did you have to bring him here, Catherine, to where we live?”

Catherine’s long-suffering parent knew the answer before his weary question was asked, so it came as no surprise when he heard his daughter’s response.

“Father, I had no other choice. I couldn’t leave him there.”

The earnestness in the young woman’s face melted her father’s heart. “Well, I suppose then that it was lucky that Kanin came along. I doubt you’d have been able to get him Below on your own, and he wouldn’t have lasted the night outside, considering the weather and his injuries.”

“How bad are they?” Catherine asked, her voice huskier that usual, reflecting her apprehension. Her concerned green eyes never left the injured man’s face, so pale, torn and bloodied.

“Another few hours and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything for him, not with the equipment I have down here. In a proper hospital….” He let the thought trail off, as he knew that his daughter would not have been able to summon help from the usual sources Above. Sighing, the doctor in him reasserted itself. “He’ll live. He’ll be a long time recovering, and he’ll be scarred…but he’ll live.”

Catherine uttered a deep sigh, as relief temporarily overcame her concern for the once-handsome stranger lying on the makeshift operating table in her father’s chamber.

“You weren’t…careless, were you?” her father asked with trepidation. “He didn’t see your face?”

Catherine shook her head, the thick dusky blonde tresses gleaming in the candlelight. “He didn’t regain consciousness. But I was covered, just in case.”

“Good.”

Long minutes passed as he worked over the patient, his deft hands suturing wounds, expertly closing one jagged gash before beginning on another. His daughter assisted with quiet competence, anticipating his needs, ever ready with the appropriate instrument. They paid no heed to the occasional rumble of subway trains far above them. But a terse burst of tapping from a nearby pipe broke their silent intensity. They stared at each other in sudden alarm: a sentry had reported police near one of their park entrances. Hearts beat at a quickened pace until, a minute later, the “all clear” was sounded. The doctor turned back to his patient.

“Father….” Catherine’s hesitation made him look up briefly from his labors.

“Yes?” Impatient with his daughter, the circumstances, the scope of his patient’s injuries, and the lack of proper facilities, he gave the tersest of replies, irritated anew by the interruption to his concentration.

Sensing his state of mind, his chastened daughter hastily murmured, “Never mind.”

The most urgent work done, Catherine moved back into the shadows of the chamber, leaving her father to finish alone, as was his practice. Silently, she watched him work, anxious for the unconscious man who still lay near to death. She undid the clasp of her cloak and it fell away, revealing the lithe form beneath. As she pulled off sterile gloves, delicately furred, clawed  hands were revealed. They reached up to run distractedly through her tangle of long curls. Then one index finger brushed quickly at the tears leaking from the corners of her eyes and tracing dark tracks through the light sprinkling of fur along her high cheekbones.

***

Sighing, Catherine replaced her worn copy of Yeats’ poetry on the battered old oak bookshelf, then scanned the other titles for something else to read aloud. She pulled Great Expectations from the crowd of books piled within it and settled herself back in an armchair that, although it had seen better days, still retained its comfortable embrace. Reaching over to the nearest candlestick, she drew its light closer to the pages, then opened the book. In the depths of the night, the only sound that could be heard was the gentle murmur of her voice as she read to the recumbent man in the bed. He was listening at the moment, although he was drowsing in and out of slumber. Her voice seemed to soothe his restlessness, which was all the excuse Catherine needed to continue.

***

“Remarkably, no infection has set in,” Father advised Catherine as soon as he completed his examination of the patient. He was rolling down the sleeves of his woolen tunic while Catherine removed the soiled bandages and Father’s medical tools.

“He’s very strong. He’ll mend well,” Catherine offered – her non-medical yet expert opinion.

“I agree. “Father snapped his medical bag shut and turned to face her. “Well, I’m needed in the nursery. It seems we have a bloody nose and two cranky young boys to deal with. Will you be all right?”

The golden head bobbed. “Yes, Father. Mary checks in occasionally to see if I need anything.”

“Good, good. Be sure his eyes stay well wrapped. We don’t want any accidental exposure. It’s bad enough he’s down here,” his glare was aimed at Catherine, “without more to worry about.”

Catherine nodded, her gaze cast to her feet. When she looked up again, Father was gone.

***

As she watched over the stranger, Catherine found herself increasingly drawn to the unyielding spirit within the broken body before her. She could sense his unquenchable desire to live, could feel the passionate resistance to unconsciousness which even now was forcing him to awaken. She thought to herself: His will is strong.

The injured man began to thrash weakly on the bed. “What’s happened?” Fear tightened the young man’s vocal cords, and his voice came out high and hoarse. By slow, painful inches, his hands moved to his face. He felt at the bandages covering him from forehead to nostrils. “My eyes….”

Catherine hastily sought to reassure him. “Your eyes are fine. You have injuries which require the bandage, however. Please don’t remove it.”

The silken, throaty voice floated to him out of the darkness, caressing, soothing. Consciousness faded and he fought back to alertness. Then pain – intense, throbbing, blinding pain – seemed to fill his mind as the trauma his body had suffered made itself known. He moaned, and suddenly comforting hands caressed his shoulders.

“Don’t struggle. It will only make you hurt more,” she murmured close to his ear. He lay back, his immediate confusion beginning to dissipate, although his fear remained, palpable and overwhelming. He was in darkness, and he was in pain. Those two elements comprised his entire existence – those, and that amazingly sultry voice.

He tried to grasp at fragments of memory and failed. What had happened to him? The last thing he could recall was attending a reception for the Planning Commission, an event his father had insisted he attend. He had been having a painful conversation with an old acquaintance – a fraternity buddy who had fallen on hard times.  His heart had gone out to the distraught man, and he was deep in a discussion of how to extricate his old pal from a tax problem when he had been pulled away to speak to a minor functionary of the Commission. The official had overly imbibed and was injudiciously looking for a small “loan.” With distaste he had handed the man off to his father. But he was too late to prevent his old fraternity pal from being escorted from the event by his father’s personal assistant. Angry at this turn of events, he had argued briefly with his father, then left the party. Had left and….and what? And…and.. nothing….until he had awakened lying in a strange bed, in darkness, bandaged and bruised, aching from wounds too numerous to measure.

“Who are you? Where am I? What happened to me?” He knew his questions were disjointed, but he had so many of them, each as important as the others. If he could only get some answers, he was sure everything would fall into place for him, and he would remember what had happened to him, and why.

He turned his head in the direction of the now-familiar voice as it replied, “You’re safe. You’re safe now, I promise.” As before, that silken voice calmed him. What was it about the tone, the substance, the tenor which had such a soothing effect on his nerves?  It was a voice unlike any other: soft but a little hoarse…or maybe throaty was a better word for it?  Although it defied accurate description, it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. He put it aside for further reflection – she was speaking to him again.

“I’ll tell you all I know, only…rest,” the disembodied voice urged. For some reason, he trusted the voice, believed it. It was a kind voice. He thought fleetingly of his mother, who had died when he was very young. Her voice was the only other he had trusted completely – odd, to realize that after thirty-five years, there were only two voices he had believed in from the first, and one belonged to someone he knew nothing about.

He let some of the tension leave his body. “All right,” he replied, and tried to nod. Even that small movement sent shooting pains through his neck muscles. What had happened to him? A gentle brush of fingers on his brow startled him at first, then he settled back and let the slow, repetitive movements begin to quell his fears.

She began to tell him what she knew. “I was walking in the Park last night. It was quite late…the moon had already set. I heard the screech of tires and a big vehicle streaked off the road and over the grass. I hid myself, not sure what was happening. The doors flew open and you were thrown out. The vehicle raced off as you rolled down the embankment. I went to you, saw that you were badly injured. So I brought you here.”

“So, I’m in a hospital,” he reasoned, and sighed, relaxing further. “Which one? Have you called my father yet?”

“No,” the soft voice replied quickly. “I mean, no, you’re not in a hospital. There was no time. But you’re in a safe place, under medical care. My father is a doctor.”

The woman’s answers were unexpected, cryptic, causing his concern to spike again.  “What about my father…the police? Have they been contacted?”

“That’s…not possible right now. But please, don’t worry. You’re safe here.”

He shook his head, then wished he hadn’t as his head spun from the effort, his hard-won consciousness narrowing into darkness for a moment. Thinking was difficult, but deciding what to do next was not.  He’d wait.  He needed to heal before he could even rise from his sickbed, and he was a long way from that at the moment, he felt sure. Even breathing was an effort; he surmised he had bruised or even broken ribs.

He sensed she was waiting for a response. Considering his options, he fell upon one he hadn’t relied upon much in his life.  He took what seemed to be a chance, but which, on second thought, felt more like a solid certainty. “I don’t know why I should trust you…but I guess I do.”

“Thank you,” the voice whispered. “I won’t betray your trust.”

Betray. That was an odd word…an old-fashioned one. He smiled at it. Strangely, it satisfied him. But although he had trust, he still possessed an unending curiosity. “Tell me one thing?”

“If I can,” she replied.

“What’s your name?”

The hesitation wasn’t a figment of his imagination. She struggled with whether to give him that information, he knew she did. Why would she not want to share her name? But then he heard a soft intake of breath, a millisecond later expelled as “Catherine.”

She pronounced it differently than other Catherines he’d known, and immediately he liked it. “Cath-er-ine,” he repeated, saying her name as she had. “That’s lovely.  My name is Vincent.”

“Vincent,” she murmured, her voice caressing his name in a way that caused goosebumps to raise on his arms. Never had he heard his name pronounced with such precision and care. It was like hearing it for the first time. He really, really liked the way she said it.

“Rest now, Vincent. We’ll talk more later.”

He acknowledged her request with the merest inclination of his head, already at the limits of his endurance, then uttered a deep sigh and drifted off into sleep.

***

“How often do you do this pro bono work?” Catherine asked. She and Vincent had been engaged in conversation for the better part of an hour. She had been reading to him when he stopped her to ask for water. Then, instead of taking up the story where she had left off, she had  asked him to tell her something of himself. So he had told her of his upbringing, of his schooling, and now was telling her of the work he did.

“Well, we do pro bono as little as we can get away with. As the name suggests, we get no money for it, and the firm runs on a steady infusion of cash. Pro bono cases sap our resources and bring nothing to the firm.” He winced inwardly – he sounded exactly like his father, something he’d always vowed he’d try to avoid.

“What of the gratification you feel when helping someone who otherwise would have no recourse to justice? Surely the lawyers must get some satisfaction from that?”

Catherine’s curiosity held a hint of disapproval, which stung him, causing him to shoot back, “Gratification comes in the form of a paycheck.” Immediately, he cursed himself for his outwardly glib attitude. Why was her opinion of him so important? And why was he being so cocky with her when he didn’t even mean what he said? Money didn’t impress him, it wasn’t paramount in his life. Was it just injured male pride? Or was he honestly embarrassed about the situation?

Catherine didn’t seem to take offense at his brashness. Instead, she pressed on with her point. “But they already make so much. And the ones they help have nothing.”

Chagrined that he’d snapped at her and she’d greeted his bad manners with continued politeness, he replied contritely, “I…well…I see your point. It’s just not…emphasized in the firm.” It was a poor answer, but the only one he could give her. Truthfully, he’d hardly ever thought about it before now. Although he had enjoyed the few cases he’d been assigned early in his career, he knew that pro bono casework was considered scut work by the partners, and only the interns and the newest hires were ever given such assignments. Once, a young lawyer asked to be assigned pro bono cases as his main workload – he didn’t last long at the firm. It was a clear sign that lawyers who wished to rise in the firm should not ask for more than their share. So…even though he’d found a satisfaction in those cases which had eluded him when doing the firm’s regular work, he’d learned his lesson and left those cases behind as he worked his way up the partnership ladder. But what Catherine said stayed in his mind, even as they went on to other subjects.

***

“How are you feeling this morning?”

Vincent was still groggy. He’d had a rough night. Through it all, Catherine had been by his side, speaking soothingly to him, providing warm tea, brushing her fingers through his hair, making him feel safe and cared for, even in his discomfort. “It hurts,” he admitted sheepishly, and thought to himself: I’m such a wimp.

“You’ve handled this so bravely. Your strength is…inspiring,” she remarked.

“Me? An inspiration?” He snorted, amused at the idea. He’d never been particularly brave about anything in his life – or rather, bravery was something he’d never been called upon to demonstrate. And as far as being an inspiration…well, he’d never heard the word applied to himself before. He was just your normal, average guy. Certainly not brave, definitely no inspiration to anyone. He voiced his thought. “I’m nothing special, believe me.”

“Don’t doubt yourself, Vincent,” Catherine countered. “You’ve survived a horrific attack. I’ve seen your injuries and they frighten me. Yet you rarely complain, even when I know the pain is excruciating at times. Perhaps you don’t realize what’s inside you, but I see your strength and your bravery.”

Bemused by her assertions, Vincent made a promise to himself to try to live up to her image of him. If she saw something in him…perhaps it was really there.

***

He’d awakened late in the night, moaning, in anguish. She’d been beside him immediately, urging a pain pill into his mouth, following it with cool water. To take his mind off the pain until the pill took effect, she’d asked him to tell her more about himself. But now that the pain had subsided, he didn’t want to stop. Even though she’d pressed him to go back to sleep, he’d insisted he didn’t feel tired. He asked once, sheepishly, if he was boring her, but when she assured him he wasn’t, he continued. Truthfully, talking to her was a joy he didn’t want to relinquish, even for badly needed rest.

“So I was able to work with the architect – a fellow named Burch – to acquire the financing to seal the deal. He redeveloped the block and now, instead of some old, broken-down apartment buildings, that area is revitalized and booming. Two thousand people work in that building now, and it’s making our clients a bundle on their investments.”

He heard Catherine shift in her seat and her intake of breath, but it seemed as if she stopped herself before saying anything. He sensed she was holding back a criticism. He was curious as to what it could be. He’d just imparted a success story, after all. “What is it? I know you want to say something,” he implored.

Her unease was clear as she said, “But what…what of the people the development displaced?”

“What do you mean?” He’d been focused on the positive change made, and this question clearly threw him.

She hadn’t wanted to dampen his enthusiasm, but now that she’d made her concern known, Catherine gamely pressed on. “Where do they live now…the people who used to live in those apartments?”

Taken aback by the question, he stuttered, “I…I don’t know.”

“Did your development provide housing for them?” Catherine was ever practical, for all the romantic notions she cherished. She didn’t understand how buildings could be more important than people, than caring for them and about them before everything else.

“No, the development is top drawer. They couldn’t afford to live in one of Burch’s buildings. He builds to last, builds quality – and that costs,” Vincent responded, but the hint of pride that had colored his voice as he’d described the project was gone now. He felt…not exactly defensive, but…abashed. Catherine was forcing him to face an unpleasant truth.

“So the hundreds of people living in the old buildings just…went away?”

He admitted to himself that he’d had pangs of guilt over the displacements, and the fact that he hadn’t ever followed through to see where they went. He assumed they went…somewhere. But frankly, when it came to the deal, it wasn’t an issue. No one else cared where they went – as long as they went.  But Catherine cared. And by her caring…it made him begin to think more about caring, too.

***

Catherine stumbled coming out of the chamber where the injured man was sleeping. All night she had been gazing at him as he slumbered, alert for signs of infection or discomfort. He’d awoken many times, if briefly, his sleep often disturbed by bad dreams. How often during the evening had she rushed to his side to comfort him, her voice promising his safety, her hands soothing his brow, combing through the tousled reddish gold of his hair?  Now, as the tapping on the pipes proclaimed the new day, she was on her way to the dining chamber to fill a tray with whatever morsels might tempt him to eat a little despite his pain. She stumbled not from fatigue, for she had often gone without sleep and needed much less than others Below, but because her concentration was still focused on her patient and she had not seen Father approaching until she had nearly bumped into him.

“Catherine, are you well? It’s unlike you to be so clumsy,” the older man commented anxiously. He didn’t want to admit it aloud, but Catherine’s attention to the young man in her chamber was bordering on the fanatical. She refused offers of assistance, watching all through the night for several nights running, and couldn’t seem to tear her eyes from his face even during whispered conversations about his well-being. Father had insisted on changing his dressings himself, or Catherine would have done that, as well. It troubled him more than he was willing to acknowledge.

“Forgive me, Father,” Catherine replied with a dutiful but distracted disposition.  “I’m only going for food.”

“Good. Perhaps I’ll use this opportunity to check our patient over.”

Catherine refused to make room for him to enter the chamber. “No! I mean, he’s finally resting comfortably. He had another restless night. I’d hate to disturb him now that he’s finally getting some unbroken sleep.”

Father eyed his daughter sharply. Was she trying to keep him from his patient? No. Catherine was only concerned about the young man’s health – perhaps overly concerned, but since she was the one nursing him, attentiveness was a virtue, Father supposed. “All right. I’ll come by later in the morning.  But Catherine…” He made sure he caught his daughter’s eye. “You will take a rest when I return. I will sit with him until dinner.”

Catherine shook her head adamantly. “That’s unnecessary, Father. I’m perfectly fine, and I’ve gotten to know the rhythms of his sleep cycle very well. I can calm him now almost before he becomes restless. And I’ve been reading to him, too, to help him feel safe. He wakes sometimes, and seems to respond well to my voice.  Please….I’d rather sit with him. Rebecca and Olivia have taken over my chores, so I’m not needed elsewhere, and you have a science class after lunch, and other business to attend to. Isn’t Peter coming Below to discuss your infirmary needs? You haven’t made your list yet.”

“You usually make the list for me,” Father reminded her, somewhat testily.

Uncowed, Catherine replied, “But you know what’s needed much better than I could hope to.”

Father stared at his daughter hard. He looked deeply into the sparkling green eyes which looked back at his serenely. He wasn’t used to disobedience of any kind, or even back talk. His daughter was usually the most tractable of people, following instructions well and causing him not a moment’s concern.

Catherine kept her face a mask, thinking guiltily of how she had deceived her father for years. He knew nothing of Catherine’s incessant late-night forays into the Park, or of her lonely wanderings through the back alleys of the city Above. She had managed to keep those hidden for years, knowing Father would disapprove, yet needing the sense of freedom it gave her, her yearning to make a connection with the world Above a close-kept secret. Catherine finding Vincent Above had been assumed to be the result of a rare and cautious venture, and she hadn’t controverted Father’s erroneous conclusion.

Catherine broke the impasse by adding, “Let me do this, Father. I feel…needed here.” The plea was unmistakable.

Despite misgivings, Father relented. Catherine was a good girl, and an excellent nurse. “Fine.  I’ll come by later to change his dressings and assess the progress of his healing. But…you’re right, I do have other demands on my day.” Turning on his heels, Father retraced his steps back to his own chamber.

Catherine’s sigh of relief was muted, but no less real for that. She stepped back into her chamber briefly to assure herself that her patient was still resting, then padded swiftly and soundlessly down the corridor to the dining chamber.

***

“Can you recall anything more?”

They had been trying to reconstruct Vincent’s last evening Above, with little success. Catherine’s probing questions had left him frustrated by his inability to recall anything new. “No, just the reception, talking to my frat buddy with the tax problem, the thinly concealed bribe request, walking out…nothing more.  What does the newspaper say?”

He could hear the shuffling as Catherine found the article and folded the newspaper back. “It doesn’t fill in any details.” She read to him in a clear voice, its comforting tones drifting over him like a warm wave. “The junior partner in the prestigious Patton, Wells and Chandler law firm has not been seen since the evening of April 12. His father, a senior partner in the same firm, told this reporter that his son left the Planning Commission reception at midnight. He did not reach his apartment building. His whereabouts are still unknown. The hospitals and morgues in all local jurisdictions have been searched, to no avail. A reward of $100,000 has been offered for his safe recovery, according to the law firm’s managing partner.”

Vincent was frustrated over his incapacitation and his inability to recall how he had become injured. That…and his enforced blindness was really grating on him. Not knowing the least bit about the place he was being kept was tormenting him. He couldn’t touch much – just his bedclothes, and those were patchwork, which didn’t tell him anything. The entire place felt strange – chilly, with odd noises – like no place he’d ever been before. He couldn’t make any sense of the aural or olfactory clues to his location either. There was a metallic tapping that never ceased, and he could hear the sound of traffic or trains or subways or something, faintly, as if far away. There was an earthy smell which he couldn’t place, and with panicky internal laughter he thought he might be in a cave or underground somewhere.  It was all very mysterious…and frightening.

An improbable suspicion seized hold of him, one wholly unsupported by fact, buoyed only by the small part of him which still did not trust completely, the part that remained suspicious of the real reason he was being held incommunicado.  Striking out at the person who had been so unfailingly good to him, he blurted, “Well, you’ll get a nice reward when you call them to let them know where I am.” It was a low blow – out of line – and he knew it, and immediately wished he could take it back. For as soon as the words left his lips, so did the last remnant of distrust. It was ludicrous, laughable. Catherine could never be party to such a thing. She was much too good, too kind, too giving. Her sense of right and wrong was too finely honed. Unlike his own, which was sadly out of shape and in need of sorting out.

Patient, aware of why he was lashing out, Catherine replied, “We ask for no reward, Vincent. In a few more days…”

Jolted from his brief moment of introspection, Vincent exclaimed, “A few more days! What do you mean, a few more days?” The article in the paper had spurred his conscience. A dutiful son, Vincent was concerned about his father, and his keen business sense made him aware that the unwanted publicity must be driving his father’s partners up the wall. He needed to get back home.

“In a few more days,” she replied patiently, “when you’re able to walk without much assistance, we’ll bring you to a place close to your home. I promise you, Vincent, we are not keeping you here against your will. We have only your health in mind when we consider the time you must stay with us. You cannot be moved right now…or rather, we do not have the capacity to move you.”

“I don’t understand. Why can’t I be moved?” His voice reflecting his confusion, Vincent lashed out again at the unseen voice. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“We want only to help you recover so that you can return Ab…return to your home.”

“Please, Catherine,” the baffled man begged. “Tell me…where am I?”

Catherine hesitated. He could almost feel her deciding whether to trust him or not. He knew he could push her into revealing things she’d rather keep secret. He was good at prying information out of people who didn’t want to talk. He could give her assurances. There were lawyer’s terms he could use, turns of phrase that would seem to commit him while in fact providing him an out. If he wanted to, he could coerce her easily by such means. But strangely, he found he didn’t want to use his lawyer’s words and techniques to take advantage of this woman. She had been nothing but good to him, and had acted exactly as she’d promised – with only his best interests at heart. How could he repay her with a lie? He couldn’t.  What’s more, he didn’t want to.

“I promise, Catherine, I won’t tell anyone. I just want to know for my own peace of mind. You’ve been kind to me.” He thought of the unusual word she’d used before. It seem right to use it now. “I won’t betray your trust.”

The soft sigh he heard told him he’d spoken the right words. It made him feel good. He knew it had been the ethical thing to do – no prevarication, no evasion, no equivocation. Just…right.

“We’re beneath the city,” she revealed. “There are caverns here which we have made our home. We live together and help each other to survive. This is where I brought you. We have no telephones, no links to Above. Our secret is too precious to reveal, except in dire emergencies. So you see, I place not only my trust, but that of all who live Below in your hands.”

Amazed, Vincent realized that all the odd clues suddenly fell into place. So… this was Below. “Why do you live here?”

Again, he sensed some hesitation, but this time it was quickly overcome. “I am…safe here. Others come Below to flee from brutality, misunderstanding, disappointment. We’ve created a world in which all of us are valued, all are useful, all are loved. It’s been my home since I was found Above and brought here as a baby. I know no other life.”

Try as he might, Vincent couldn’t quite picture people willingly living in earthen caverns when normal living conditions were available so close by. “I really don’t understand.”

“I know.”

He sensed some humor in her voice. This must not be a new experience for her, people being baffled by her world.

“But please try to see why we cannot reveal your presence to the authorities. To reveal you is to reveal ourselves, and that we cannot do. Too much is at stake, too much depends on our continued secrecy.”

He nodded. “That I do understand.” If they were driven to such extremes to live, then they truly must be desperate people. It saddened him to think of Catherine begin forced to live among them. But he would honor his promise. “I won’t tell anyone where I’ve been.”

“Thank you, Vincent. I knew I could trust you.”

Ruefully, he admitted, “That’s strange, because until I promised, I didn’t know myself if I could be trusted.”

She laughed lightly, a bright tinkle of sound which pierced him with its beauty. “Perhaps I know you better than you know yourself.”

“That wouldn’t be hard,” he acknowledged. “I’m not exactly given to introspection.”

“You have depths you have not yet plumbed,” she declared. “This I know.”

“What…do you read auras?” he joked, wondering how she could be so sure, when he himself wasn’t.

“I know you…I know your heart,” she replied softly.

“How?” He was baffled.

“Just know that it’s true.” He could heard a soft rustling as she rose. “Do you think you could eat some soup today?”

In response, they both heard his stomach growl. There was that laugh again, and it caused his heart to swell, like watching sunlight piercing storm clouds. It pleased him that she’d become so comfortable with him – a stranger – that she could laugh like that. It made him feel good, almost as if the laughter were a part of himself.

“I’ll return in a moment,” she promised, then he heard soft footfalls as she left the room.

***

“I’m sorry.” Chagrined, he handed the spoon back to her. After insisting he could feed himself, he had proceeded to slosh the soup onto his chest and then dump a spoonful down his chin.

“It’s all right. Just lie still while I clean up the worst of it,” she answered. The spoon and bowl were whisked away, and a damp cloth was soon brushing across his chin.

“At least I can do that for myself,” he said, and grabbed blindly for the cloth. But what he encountered was not wet terry cloth; rather, it was warm and…furry.  He pulled his hand back as if burned, wondering what he’d touched by mistake, then realized in the next instant that it was…her hand.  Catherine’s sharp intake of breath proved that, even if his mind had only grasped the concept belatedly.  “I’m sorry,” he said. Then, in another flash of insight, he asked what he suddenly knew to be the truth. “Is that the reason why my eyes are bandaged?”

“Partly,” she admitted, her voice uneven as if she were forcing it to steadiness with great effort. “You do have injuries close to your eyes. So bandages would have been necessary, even without any other…compelling reasons to blindfold you.”

“Your hand….”

“Please, don’t….”

He could hear the desperate panic in her voice and, concerned she would bolt from the room, he quickly said, “I only reacted that way because I was expecting to touch the towel.”

“That’s not the only reason,” she countered, with a resigned sadness that stunned him.

“No,” he admitted. “But it was mostly shock. Now that I’m prepared, I’m sure it won’t happen again.”

“No, it won’t,” she agreed, with a finality that made him realize she wouldn’t give him an opportunity to prove his point. “I’ll send someone in with another bowl of soup. This one’s gone cold.”

Before he could protest, she had run from the chamber.

***

She’d fled to a distant cavern, after first summoning Olivia to her patient’s side by a few terse taps on the pipes. She was stricken deeply, sobbing uncontrollably, and didn’t want anyone to see her in such a state. She had to regain some of her composure before she trusted herself to again walk the tunnels of home. So hiding away here in these unused chambers was best. For if word of what had happened got back to Father, she feared Vincent would be subjected to severe questioning and perhaps a decision would be made to move him before it was best he be moved. Above all, she needed to protect him. It wasn’t his fault he’d discovered her secret, but the accident proved that all Father’s warnings were true. He’d reacted to the feel of her hand with horror.

Catherine couldn’t dismiss from her mind’s eye how his mouth had twisted in a look of surprised disgust. His reaction played over and over again, like one of Father’s old scratched records, the needle sticking at one point, making the music jump discordantly. His perfect lips had curled into a grimace of distaste and he’d jerked back from her so hard she was afraid he might have torn some stitches loose. All that from the slightest brush of his long, well-formed fingers against the fur of her hand.

How she hated always being on guard with strangers, even with Helpers who only knew her slightly. They could never fully hide their reaction to her differences, and it cut her deeply each time eyes widened in disgust or children feared to approach her. Of course, once they got to know her well, such trepidations were put aside. But oh, knowing those reactions would come and bracing oneself for them – it was so painful, so difficult. No one knew just how painful or difficult, for she would never confide her feelings to others, knowing each, in his or her own way, had contributed to that pain when they first met her. Still, she had gradually numbed herself, resigned herself, and although the pain was there each time, she’d taught herself how to mute it.

But this…Vincent’s reaction…caused her more anguish than even the first time it had happened to her, when she’d been caught completely by surprise by another child’s reaction to her face. Perhaps because she’d had no time to prepare for Vincent’s sudden touch, his reaction had affected her more deeply? No, it couldn’t be just that. Her pain was out of all proportion to other hurts –  emotionally she felt raw, her heart bleeding from his repudiation of her. She gasped again as the memory washed over her, acid to her soul. Why did his reaction touch her so deeply? She’d been screamed at, pointed to, run from… Vincent’s reaction, in comparison, was rather subdued. No, the reason it hurt her so much was that it came from him.

Catherine sank to the earthen floor of the chamber, her head in her hands, and wept bitterly. Vincent was…perfection. He was tall and strapping, beautifully proportioned. He had a gracefulness about him, even in his pain, which was a marvel. She could sense the latent compassion and tenderness in him, the warmth, and longed desperately to know more of him, to become closer to him. When they spoke, his humor, his intelligence seemed to mesh with hers seamlessly, and their conversations were never long enough for her, she never tired of them. Each moment spent in his company was like a light glowing in her dark world – he was the light, a creature of it, born of it, and he dwelled in it and it filled him. She basked in it when he was near, felt its absence keenly when she was not with him.

Here, in this damp, dusky chamber, little light intruded. She was a creature of this place – of darkness, of concealment, of secrecy, of Below.

Weeping tears of darkness, of despair, she passed long, lonely hours.

***

“Try to get out of the bed. See if you can walk a few steps, ” a male voice urged. This was the one Catherine referred to as Father – his doctor. He had a gentle firmness of touch which instilled confidence in him. He might live in a hole in the ground, but he knew what he was doing when it came to patient care. He had checked Vincent’s wounds and deftly rebound them, even his eyes. But the room was dark, so he got barely an impression of it before his eyes were covered once again. Now came the hard part. He struggled to rise.

“You can do it. Lean on me to get your balance.”

He tried, but could only manage a few steps before he half-collapsed against the older man, who had to guide him back to his bed. “You’re making progress, Vincent,” he confided. “It’ll be another day or two at most, I think, before you can walk with a cane.”

Vincent grunted as he sat, glad for the resulting easing of the pain in his left leg. It wouldn’t hold his weight. Secretly he doubted that two or even three days would make much difference, despite his outrage when Catherine had suggested he needed more time to heal.

“Don’t be discouraged,” the older man urged. “Do those exercises I taught you. They’ll help. And rest. Time and rest usually do us more good than any medicines. You’ve come a long way, believe me.”

Vincent found himself being pushed gently back against the pillows, tucked in expertly…and then retreating footsteps indicated his doctor was gone.

Lonely again, he wished that Catherine would come for a visit. Since the afternoon before, when he’d reacted so badly to her touch, she’d stayed away. Olivia had brought his lunch and his dinner, and no one had sat with him in the evening reading to him as Catherine had always done, even at the beginning when he couldn’t stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time. He was surprised to find himself missing Catherine so much, which was silly, considering how short a time they’d known each other. Actually, they didn’t really even know each other at all, he corrected himself. She was only a disembodied voice. But still…

Calling out with little hope, he spoke her name into the darkness. The only response was the faint tapping of the pipes.  “Catherine?” He uttered her name more loudly the second time. Again, there was no response. A third time he called out for her, and this time he heard a tentative step from what sounded like across the room.

“Do you need something, Vincent?” a familiar and welcome voice murmured.  “I’ll get Olivia to….”

“No! Please…. Catherine, please stay.” He was surprised at how much his invitation sounded like a plea to his ears. Worried that she would leave anyway, despite his pathetic tone of voice, he added, “Would you read to me again?”

The sound of footsteps came closer. “Are you sure?” Her voice held a quaver of trepidation, and he chastised himself for the thousandth time for being such an idiot. He was used to keeping a straight face no matter what occurred in the courtroom, damn it.  Why had he fallen apart over a little touch?  A little…furry…touch.  Well, OK, so it was pretty astonishing. Still, he’d hurt her feelings, and for that he could never forgive himself.

“Yes, I’m sure. I missed our nightly chat and you reading to me last night. Your voice does more to make me comfortable here than anything your father does, I swear.”

“Father is a wonderful doctor,” Catherine responded loyally. “Your wounds were….”

“I didn’t mean to disparage him,” he replied quickly, cursing himself that he’d managed to insult her yet again. “I only meant…I enjoy the time we spend together. Oh…damn these bandages.” He began to tug on them. “If I could only see you, I….”

“No! Don’t remove them!  I’ll…I’ll stay for a while, if you don’t remove them, “ she offered.

Immediately he settled down, anxious to please her. “Sure. It’s just…frustrating,” he sighed.

“I imagine it is,” she replied sympathetically.

“You have no idea what it’s like to be confined…limited in what you can do. It just…wears on you after a while.” He pounded the bed with clenched fists to emphasize his frustration.

He heard her quiet snort of amusement, then, abashed, realized what he’d just said. “Oh, boy, I’m an idiot. Forgive me, Catherine. I didn’t think.”

“It’s all right. It’s kind of nice, actually, to have someone react to me as a…normal person.”

She couldn’t quite disguise the bitterness in her voice. Vincent noted it, and wondered for the hundredth time how different she was from “normal” – if his comment was a “nice” change in her life, perhaps she was quite deformed. Her hands, of course. But other things, as well? Apparently, her face, because gloves could disguise hands, but if one’s face were disfigured…. He was distracted from his musing by the now-familiar sound of Catherine settling into a chair near the foot of his bed. Pages were turned, then she spoke. “More of the Dickens? The Great Expectations?”

He nodded, happy enough to listen to anything, as long as she read to him in those warm, silken tones.

“ ‘Herbert Pocket had a frank and easy way with him that was very taking. I had never seen anyone then, and I have never seen anyone since, who more strongly expressed to me, in every look and tone, a natural incapacity to do anything secret and mean….’ ”

***

Vincent was astounded. At his urging, Catherine had revealed some of what it meant to live in the caverns below the city, It amazed him, the amount of work it took to keep them warm and fed and clothed and educated…it was like living a hundred years ago. There was so much done by hand…or done without. “And you get no payment for your work Below?”

Catherine chuckled. “We have little money, and no use for it here Below.”

“How do you get people to work so hard for nothing?” His concept of community did not extend to selflessness and work for work’s sake. His whole work life had been built on billable hours – this was like a foreign language to him.

“But it’s not for ‘nothing’ – our ‘payment’ is being able to live here together.” Catherine was puzzled by Vincent’s reaction. She had read of communities Above which existed by sharing both the labor and its fruits. He must be familiar with the concepts, even if those were primarily religious groups and the community Below was bound together more by necessity than any common religious belief. The essential structure worked the same way – everyone contributed what they could; even the children had chores which were important to the whole community.

“It takes some getting used to,” he remarked, dumbfounded.

“I suppose it does,” she conceded. “But it has worked well for scores of years, with only minor changes to our system. We have a Council now that we are larger; that didn’t exist when I was a child. We’re very lucky to have a doctor, of course. And we also have Helpers Above who provide some of what we cannot – certain foodstuffs and medicines, for instance.”

“Medicines such as you’ve given to me,” he remarked, guessing correctly.

Catherine patted his arm. “You were in need. We do not begrudge you.”

“But now you’ll need to replace them.” Anxiety colored his voice. He didn’t want to put these kind people out, or be a drain on their resources.

“Don’t worry,” Catherine assured him. “We’ve let our Helpers know of our need. The medicines will be replaced by the time we need more.” She hoped this was true. But there was no sense in worrying Vincent. He needed the medicines now and they would be provided, as long as they had them to give. This was the way they lived.

***

“He’s almost ready, Catherine.” Father spoke in stern tones, but with a sense of sympathy. His daughter had become quite attached to the handsome stranger who lay in her own bed as he healed. Father flinched inwardly as he saw his daughter’s expression, quickly suppressed…but not quickly enough for a father’s keen eyes. So…as he’d suspected, Catherine was more than just fond of her patient. She’d been warned, of course, about getting too close, caring too much, for a man who must leave her and their world behind within a few days. Obviously, the draw of a kindly stranger who had no clue as to Catherine’s real looks was too great a lure – Catherine had succumbed to a crush on the man, and would need some extra kindness from those in her Tunnel family to help her forget him.

Father sighed inwardly. Catherine had lived her twenty-nine years surprisingly unaffected by the male of the species. Father supposed it was too much to hope that a man wouldn’t come along eventually to wrench his romantic daughter into a real-life emotional situation which would only devastate the girl. He’d warned off the few boys Below who’d shown a more-than-friendly interest in his daughter, of course…quietly…and had reinforced it with the combined vigilance of their Tunnel community. Everyone loved Catherine; no one wanted to see her hurt. And anyone attempting a romantic relationship with Catherine would hurt her, because it could never be anything lasting, it could never mean as much to the boy as to Catherine. There could never be a man in Catherine’s life, of that Father was sure.

Looking at her now, he forced himself to see past the familiar, to see Catherine as a stranger might – the claws, the untamed hair, the cat-like muzzle, the delicate down on her cheekbones, on her arms and other parts of her body. Some, unkindly, called it fur. If it was, and Father wasn’t sure himself, it was of the kittenish-soft variety. Still, Father couldn’t imagine any man willingly overlooking such deformities and establishing a long-term, loving relationship with her. At the first sign of trouble, he’d hurl some cruel epithet at her and leave her. And what man would want children with such a creature? No, it was best to discourage such thoughts as impossibilities; for Catherine, they were impossible. But now…now he had to gently remind his dreamy daughter of the cold realities of life.

“It’s for the best…and it’s the only option, as you well know, my dear. The police Above are looking for him. Our Helpers tell us their television news is filled with the story. He must go back, and soon, before someone recalls a body being dragged into a tunnel entrance. You have no idea who might have seen you and not realized what they had seen at the time. So…I’ll have Cullen escort him out. I believe it will be best if you have no further contact with him. If he asks about you, I’ll just tell him you’re working and cannot come to see him.”

“Father, no!” Catherine was stricken. Not only was Vincent leaving forever, but now she wasn’t to be allowed even a few more brief moments with him? She knew she was being foolish, that the man was anxious to go back Above. She could feel his need to return to his life, almost as if she were inside his heart. Yet she could also feel the glimmerings of affection in him – for her. She hadn’t ever experienced such emotions from another before, and it made her…giddy. For she had fallen hopelessly and completely in love with Vincent, and cherished beyond measure those hours they had spent talking. She would willingly read to him until she was hoarse if it meant another hour, another minute in his presence. She wasn’t prepared for it all to end so abruptly. Devastated, she tried to bargain with her intractable parent. “Let me at least explain to him that I won’t be able to visit with him again before he leaves. Please? Otherwise he’ll pester you and Olivia with questions. I know, because he’s the most inquisitive person I’ve ever met. He won’t be satisfied with your explanation, but if I give it to him….”

Father realized he would lose this battle. Well, one more visit wouldn’t make that much difference, he supposed. Catherine would have her “one more time,” and then the healing would need to begin…for his daughter. He sighed gustily. “Fine. Go to him now. Tell him I’ll be checking him over one last time this afternoon, and then he’ll be brought to safety.”

***

Vincent’s impatience had been growing thin; this morning it had frayed beyond the breaking point. After Catherine had brought his breakfast and he’d made yet another clumsy attempt to eat properly, he’d decided he would take action as soon as he was alone again. His face was better, although the bruising still ached and his stitches itched. He was going to remove the bandages covering his eyes now, before anyone could stop him. He had to see where he was, who he was dealing with. Although he had no reason to suspect the people Below were anything other than earnest and truthful, a tiny part of his lawyer’s mind still warned him against complete trust. He would, as Othello in the play which Catherine had read to him last night, have “ocular proof.”

The bandages were wound expertly, and he fumbled to work the fastenings loose. He felt a bit like a mummy as he unwrapped and unwrapped, the cloth falling away to lie around his shoulders. A sudden sound startled him, and guiltily he yanked the last few strands of bandage loose, turning as he did so to confront the source of the sound. He shrank back at the odd figure before him, lit only by wavering candlelight, his hands rising before him in an instinctive defensive posture. The figure stopped, its eyes widening, then the entranceway was empty, the only sound that of fleeing footsteps.

The figure had been dressed in rags. No, not rags…in a strange amalgam of leather and cloth which looked more like something he’d seen once at a Renaissance fair than what a street person might wear. But the clothes hadn’t registered as strongly as the face. That face…. Cat-like, but not. A blending of feline and human features enhanced by a wild mane of honey-brown hair surrounding the face, with startled sea-green eyes prominent. No, not startled, but shocked…hurt.  Yes. Hurt. And with that analysis came the knowledge that once again – perhaps fatally to their relationship – he’d caused Catherine pain. This was the reason for the bandages…to hide her from inquisitive, insensitive eyes. This was why she was being hidden at all, possibly the main reason this place existed – to protect her from the world Above. But he’d been too impatient, too untrusting to accept the terms under which he was sheltered as he was recovering. And because of his damnable inability to fully trust, he’d hurt the woman who had been a lifeline to him these past days.

He started to run after her, but his leg, although better, wasn’t up to anything as brisk as running. A slow shuffle he could manage, but she would be long gone before he could hope to catch up to her at such a pace. He shouted for her and heard his call reverberate down the tunnel outside his room. No response.

Sitting dejectedly on the bed, he finally took in his immediate surroundings. Just like that Renaissance fair again, he thought with bemusement. Lots of heavy old furniture, candles and leather-bound books. And odd collections of…things. He rose and turned slowly, absorbing the room: a statue of blind Justice, holding her scales…a miniature of the Empire State Building…a small ceramic elephant…a few sea shells….a glass orb with a large crack in it…. The collection of items was as unusual as the woman in whose room he undoubtedly had been staying: it was Catherine’s, he was now sure.

He sat down heavily, burdened by guilt, weary after his brief activity, and examined his clothing. He had lost his tuxedo at some point; now he was wearing a heavy, pale yellow sleepshirt with leather thong ties and a pair of soft, very worn grey sweatpants. He had on thick socks, as well. All his clothing was obviously old but well-maintained, patched yet serviceable. This was some strange place. Yet weirdly, he felt a pang of loss to know he’d soon be leaving it. He’d found comfort here, and implicit trust, and the hand of friendship warmly extended. These were scarce commodities in the world he knew. He hoped he hadn’t ruined everything by his bad reaction to his first sight of his new friend.

A soft shuffling alerted him that he was not alone. Looking up, he saw a cloaked figure enter the room, holding a bundle.

“Your clothes,” Catherine’s thrumming murmur advised him. “Somewhat the worse for wear, but they’ve been repaired and should be adequate for the return journey.” Her voice was oddly strained. She dropped the bundle of clothes on the bed beside him, keeping the hood of her cape up, her face averted. He saw that her hands were now gloved.

“Catherine, I apologize. I was startled….”

“There’s no need. I know my appearance is…unsettling.”

“No! That’s not…. I was startled because I wasn’t expecting anyone, and….”

“Vincent.” Again, she said his name like a caress. “I know you don’t wish to hurt my feelings, but…it wasn’t the first time I’ve had that reaction. I’m…used to it by now.”

“That’s no excuse. I wish I hadn’t reacted that way.” He reached for her and she shied back. “Please, let me see you,” he begged.

He saw her shudder and his heart twisted in a way that was new to him. To have caused this kind, gentle woman pain was the last thing he’d wanted. She made no move toward him as she spoke. “It’s best this way. Call to me when you’ve dressed and I will lead you out.”

“Catherine.” God, why did he love saying her name so much? It wasn’t unusual, but it evoked her essence, and she was unusual. Unusual…and intriguing. “Please.”

She stood unmoving for a long while. He was afraid to move himself, for fear of startling her into flight yet again. He thought of a doe he’d seen once as a young boy, in the woods near his family’s cabin in Connecticut, of how they had come upon each other suddenly and stood staring at each other with open curiosity. But he’d taken a step and she’d bolted, disappearing back into the trees, and he’d never seen her again.

Finally, Catherine nodded. She pulled off her gloves with small, delicate movements. Then she turned. He saw the hesitation, but she bravely stepped toward him as he sat before her. Slowly, infinitely slowly, she lowered the hood which shielded her face from his eyes. The candlelight picked out the blond highlights of her thick, tousled hair, made her green eyes glitter…no, that was from tears. They welled in her eyes and as he watched, fell softly, coursing down her cheeks. His eyes followed them as they traced the corners of her unusual mouth – part muzzle, with a full lower lip that trembled as he watched. She was unusual, but her looks did not repulse him. In fact, they were compelling. She was exotic in a way that gave the word a whole new meaning. He decided in that instant that she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. It stunned him when the thought pierced his consciousness, but he knew it was true. He’d come to know her before he saw her, and what he knew of her was reflected in those gorgeous eyes – her honesty, her quiet humor, her trusting heart, her generous spirit, her warmth.

Catherine saw eyes which held no fear, no disgust. Their blue depths reflected only intelligence, curiosity, kindness. Whatever he’d felt the first time he’d seen her had been momentary, she now knew. For his heart was filled now only with empathy and gratitude. She savored the tendrils of emotion she sensed within him, marveling that his feelings were so open to her. But she had no time to examine those sensations now. She had to fulfill her promise to lead him away from the Tunnels and back to his life Above.

His mouth worked, but no sound came out.

“I know how different I am. There’s no need to struggle for words.”

Vincent wondered how she could know he was, indeed, struggling to find the right words to express the complex feelings welling within him. He had been truthful when he’d told her that he was not an introspective man, but since he’d come to know her, had discussed philosophy and social justice issues with her, he’d been exploring his own previously unexamined beliefs more closely. He was just beginning to realize that many things he’d taken for granted in his rich, privileged life were not as he’d supposed. It was an unfamiliar, almost unwelcome feeling, but he was determined not to let it slip through his hands. He owed her so much for that alone, not to mention saving his life and caring for him so unselfishly for all this time.

“I’m only trying to find a way to thank you for everything you and your family have done for me, and for your trust most of all. I know you weren’t supposed to tell me anything about this place, but I promise, I won’t betray you.”

Her smile was small, tentative, and his heart constricted yet again. “I know you won’t. I know you.” At his puzzled look she added, “Just know that it’s true.”

He lowered his gaze to take in his state of dress, then glanced up at her again. “I suppose I should change.”

Catherine nodded, then turned to leave him. As she did, she began to pull her gloves on  once again, but he risked touching her hand to stop her. This time, the contact was electric. Both of them reacted to it, their eyes finding each other’s shocked gaze for a breath of time before Catherine looked away, dropping her gloves in her confusion. Vincent bent quickly and retrieved them, then pressed them against his chest. “May I keep these…as a remembrance?”

Stunned, Catherine could only nod once more, then swiftly leave the chamber. Vincent stood and looked after her for long minutes before he forced himself from the contemplation of their touch and began, with some reluctance, to dress.

***

They slowly trudged through the bewildering complex of corridors and tunnelways, Vincent leaning heavily on a cane with one arm draped over Catherine’s shoulders. He had to stop to rest many times on their journey. She apologized several times for the long trek, explaining that if they used the shorter walkways they would encounter more stairways and gaps which required some long leaps. He grimaced to hide the pain as he plodded dutifully beside her, the long agony of their march mitigated by her presence. He hadn’t yet decided what to say to her when the time came for parting. He didn’t want to lose her friendship, yet he couldn’t think of any possible way they could remain friends, given their dissimilar lifestyles. He could hardly traipse to a tunnel in the Park and knock on the door – did they even have doors, he wondered? And she couldn’t walk past his doorman and take the elevator up to his apartment. Still deep in rumination, he was caught by surprise when suddenly Catherine halted their progress.

“We’re here,” she whispered, her voice barely registering. He could hear faint sounds of life nearby.

“Where?” he whispered in return.

“We’re at the sub-basement of your apartment building. If you can climb that short ladder and push through that doorway up there,” she indicated the shadowy outline with one delicately claw-tipped finger, “you’ll be able to get to help from there.”

At the last of his strength, Vincent doubted he could make the climb. Catherine urged him forward, however, and lent him her strength, giving him the balance and boost he needed to climb. He was at the top rung and had managed to shove the doorway open. He took a deep breath – the time had come to reveal what was in his heart. He turned to speak.

But she was gone.

***

Catherine avidly perused the newspaper sent down by a Helper. The headlines announced the miraculous if somewhat mysterious return of the bright young attorney, the horrific wounds he’d received, his memory loss, and the prospects for his recovery. A sidebar noted how he’d become a celebrity in his absence, his father receiving dozens of proposals of marriage on his son’s behalf should he be found alive. Apparently, his notoriety had only boosted his already substantial marriage potential. Catherine’s heart sank as she read of this, then she chastised herself for even imagining it could have been different. Just because she had lost her heart to him didn’t mean anything. She would have to deal with it herself, somehow. She could never share her feelings with Father, for she knew what that would entail: long lectures regarding the impossibility of dreaming of a “normal” life. She’d heard it all before, but this time it would be unbearable…for this time she had a heartbreak to hide, and dreams which were too tenuous to be capable of being crushed, yet were strangled newborn.

She thought back over the past two weeks, of moments shared, conversations, laughter…. Never having that again with Vincent….never sharing another thought, another beloved passage from a book, another breath from the same air…. She nearly convulsed with grief, her head hanging low until her forehead brushed the newsprint, and hot tears blurred the words, his name, his picture.

***

Father was at his wit’s end. Over the past several months, Catherine had become more reclusive than ever, keeping her own counsel to the point where she hardly ever spoke at mealtimes or when they spent evenings together. Father would look up from a game of chess to discover his daughter looking off into the distance, lost in a reverie. He knew very well that the reverie had a name: Vincent. Yet he had not been able to engage Catherine in a meaningful discussion about the man. Every time he thought he’d cleverly introduced the topic into one of their now-rare conversations, Catherine excused herself, or changed the subject abruptly, and would not be drawn back to the topic no matter what Father tried. Lectures produced no tangible results – Catherine merely endured them without comment, and with no subsequent change in her behavior. What else was left? He fretted and stewed about it, and meanwhile Catherine grew daily more silent, more withdrawn.

Catherine, for her part, was lost in her reminiscences. They were more real to her now than her daily life. She went through the motions, of course – classes, work details – but they didn’t touch her, didn’t engage her. She was losing her tether on life and she knew it, but she couldn’t help herself. Every time she entered her chamber she found memories crashing in on her. She’d even kept the sleepshirt he’d worn during the last days of his time Below, and this she occasionally – and surreptitiously – brought out and buried her face in to catch, ever so faintly now, the scent of the man who had changed her life utterly.

The tenuous connection between them had seemed to grow stronger as the weeks had passed. Once she had only sensed glimmers of his strongest emotions, but now, if she focused intently, she could discern shadings of many feelings within him. This link…she began to think of it as something more, something she had reverently begun to think of as their Bond. She wondered if it would last, or if one day it would begin to fade even as his scent had faded from her pillows. The thought of losing that delicate connection terrified her, for she would be alone again, but more fully, more deeply than before.

Sleep was becoming impossible. Instead, at night she wandered the corridors of her world ceaselessly, images and conversations playing constantly in her head. Often she found herself by the embankment where Vincent’s nearly lifeless body had lain. She knew he would never go back to that place – he didn’t even know where it was – but she felt close to him there. At other times she wandered to the sub-basement of his apartment building and stood in deep shadow, staring at the makeshift ladder which had served to take him back to his own world. She knew she should remove the ladder and brick up the cleft in the wall, but somehow she’d never found time to schedule the work detail. She’d thought Father would take care of it, but when he forgot, Catherine had allowed the matter to drop. It was madness, exposing their world to potential scrutiny from Above so unnecessarily – but somehow she couldn’t force herself to seal the breach. For sealing it would seal out the last of her hopes – silly, vain hopes that they were. She knew she could never be a part of his life, yet she couldn’t force herself to completely reject the slenderest possibility, for that would mean the end of her.

The situation was untenable, and it couldn’t last much longer without severe consequences to her health and her sanity.

* * *

Eight months, he thought. It’s been eight months to the day since I climbed that ladder. How can it seem so long a time and so short a time all at once?

The healing had gone slowly. He’d had two operations to refashion his face into the perfection it had once been. There was one odd scar which had defied the plastic surgeon’s attempts, and rather than have a third operation, he’d told the doctor he wanted to leave it. When the doctor had informed him he wouldn’t be as handsome as he’d been before with the scar, Vincent had told him he thought it added character, and God knew, he needed more of that. When he’d left the doctor’s office after that conversation, he’d felt strangely lighter, happier. The scar was a symbol of what he’d gone through – he wasn’t the same man as the one who’d been attacked, and trying to pretend he was wouldn’t make it true.

He’d kept a promised to himself as well. The process which had started with Catherine’s gently probing questions about his life, his beliefs, his values, was one he’d continued with over the months. He’d come to some disquieting conclusions about the shallowness and uselessness of his life until now. A man of 35 should have more to show for himself than merely a great apartment and a job at his father’s law firm, even one so prestigious. He had no true friends, only squash partners and old college buddies. He had no family other than his father. Of women there were plenty – bright, ambitious, status-hungry women who looked good on his arm but who held no fascination for him. He was renowned for his brief entanglements – his longest relationship had lasted three months – and his father more than once had vocalized his despair that at this rate, Vincent would never provide him with grandchildren. His career held little interest for him. In fact, he had only entered the law to please the Old Man, with no particular attachment to or love of corporate law. It was just something he was good at which required little of his conscious effort. He’d basically floated through life so far, getting by on innate intelligence, a charming personality, and his father’s connections and money. Parties and gallery openings and weekends in the Hamptons dotted his calendar. He’d done nothing of use to anybody but a few dozen spectacularly rich corporations who had gotten a little more spectacularly rich due to his efforts.

He thought again of Catherine, who had described her life Below: her classes for the orphans, the runaways from abusive parents, and the children born Below; her medical work as assistant to her father; the myriad chores she was assigned. She was a walking miracle. He knew without doubt that the children benefitted from her gentleness, her wisdom, her kindness, and that her chores were accomplished with smooth efficiency and a giving heart. She was the smartest person he’d ever met – she knew so much on so many subjects, it shamed him to know that his expensive and extensive schooling had left him with so little in-depth knowledge with which to engage in conversation, and he knew she’d had none of the opportunities for education or travel that he’d taken so casually for granted. She did so much, every day, to make her little corner of the world a more beautiful, welcoming, comfortable place for her family and friends. And she did it with no thought for thanks, no recompense at all, except to be allowed to live among them. She had so many reasons to hate the world Above, and yet their conversations revealed a fascination and a love for the world she could not be a part of. She’d saved him, when doing so meant the possible exposure of her world or herself, a selflessness so profound it took his breath away. What was he compared to her? He had so much, and did so little with it.

He had never regretted what he was…until now.

***

One night, exactly eight months after he’d left her world, Catherine rashly decided to try to see Vincent. If she could speak to him once more, find him well and happy and taking up the life he had been living before his attack, it would ease her mind and perhaps be the cold dose of reality she needed to leave her foolish dreams in the dust. Before her resolution could desert her, she swiftly ascended the ladder from his sub-basement and cautiously advanced into the world Above.

As late as it was, climbing into the elevator shaft was an easy matter, her slender, lithe form quick to hide itself among the machinery. She had pushed the button to his floor with no thought of what to do after, but then realized how futile that would be. She couldn’t just stand in the hall and ring his doorbell. Having studied schematics of his building – anything to know more about him and feel more a part of him – she knew that there was a way to descend to his balcony from the rooftop without exposing herself to discovery. So she brought the elevator up to the roof and slipped out, then let herself down the broad roof ledge to the balcony below. Her soft footfalls seemed loud in the deep quiet of the night, and apparently alerted the occupant of the apartment, for shortly after she landed, a light went on and she heard movement inside. A figure approached the French doors to what she now saw was a bedroom. With a sinking feeling she realized he might not be alone, and had almost turned to leave when the doors flew open and the figure resolved itself into Vincent. A quick glance within assured her there was no one in the bed, and she relaxed a measure.

For a split second, Vincent was frozen into immobility, staring in disbelief at the vision before him. The cloaked form was familiar despite the passage of months, and a more welcome sight he couldn’t have expected. Striding swiftly forward, he grasped Catherine by the shoulders and stared down into her upturned face.

“God, it’s good to see you! How did you get here? Never mind. I don’t care, as long as you’re here.”

Catherine hadn’t expected to be greeted so warmly, but the pleasure of his touch overwhelmed any surprise she felt. Stumbling over her thoughts, she tried to get a few words out. “I…I wanted to see that you’re all right.” Her eyes scanned his face, taking in every nuance, and she was amazed at the change in him. He was so ruggedly handsome, more than she’d remembered, and his presence filled her soul as if quenched in cool waters after a long thirst. He was perfect again, his visage exactly like the photographs that had filled the newspapers – perfect, unlike her. Perfect…except for one unexpected, jagged scar near his jawline….

“I’m fine…well, much, much better, at least. I still have a little trouble with my leg, but Father told me to expect that. I’ve been working with a therapist and….” He stopped himself and shook his head. “Who cares about me. Tell me about yourself. How have you been? I’ve missed you. I’ve thought about you often. How is everything Below?”

Catherine smiled shyly at his intense interest. “Everything is fine. Nothing ever changes there.” Then, exceedingly concerned at having intruded on his life for no reason, she blurted, “I’m sorry to bother you so late….”

“Nonsense. Please, come in.” He gestured to the interior of his apartment, but caution made her shake her head and move away, toward the corner of his balcony. Inside she was even more vulnerable than she had made herself by coming to his balcony. She couldn’t go inside.

Sensing her discomfort, Vincent changed his invitation. “Then sit. Here, there’s a bench by this table. Come.” He led her gently to the bench and watched as she sat, then joined her. As he took in her appearance, he noted how prominent her cheekbones were, how deep-set her eyes. “You’ve gotten thinner,” he remarked, alarmed. “Are you well?”

Embarrassed, Catherine ducked her head. “I’m well, yes.” How to tell him she’d had no appetite since he’d left her world? How to tell him Below was a dim, unwelcoming place without him in it? Dismissing those thoughts, she took her courage in her hands and lifted her head once more, gazing raptly into his beloved face. “Tell me…everything?”

So he did, starting with his return. “The police weren’t too happy that I couldn’t recall where I’d been for nearly two weeks,” he began ruefully, “but they were persuaded to drop that line of inquiry by political pressure exerted from my father’s law firm. I suppose that mystery is now old news,” he shrugged.  “Anyway, the police did tell me that I had probably been attacked in a case of mistaken identity – I had been taken for the fraternity buddy who had sought my advice at the party, a man who apparently owed money all around town. While we had been talking, the police believe someone pointed out my friend to some enforcers…but they instead fixed their gaze on me.” He shook his head, his eyes filling with tears. “The other man – my friend Sammy – was found brutally murdered days later, and that’s when the police began to piece the story together.” He paused. “That could have been me.”

Catherine took his hands in hers in a gesture of sympathy. “But it wasn’t. You survived…and what you survived made you better…stronger.”

He gazed deeply into her eyes. Had he remembered just how startlingly green they were? “No. You did. You made me stronger. I didn’t know how before I met you.”

She shook her head, rejecting this suggestion. “You had it in you all along. I’m so proud of you.”

Smiling, he lifted her hands to his face and let his gaze linger over their furred backs. “You showed me the way.” He kissed the delicate fingers, ignoring her shocked intake of breath. He didn’t seem to mind when she pulled her hands away, nonplused, and he continued talking, explaining to her about his surgeries, his physical therapy, and finally his decision to leave his father’s law firm and start a small storefront legal operation on his own.

Amazed at the changes in him, Catherine forgot her discomfort over the intimate gesture he had made and asked more questions, which Vincent willingly answered. Hours passed quickly for them.

“…and so, you see, your questions about the people displaced by the Burch building started a chain reaction that resulted in my opening the storefront law office. I’ve rediscovered my passion for the law. I’m actually happy doing legal work now, more for the good I can do than because of any money I might earn from it, which is hardly anything.” At Catherine’s sudden look of concern, he added, “I have more money than I’ll ever need, between my trust fund and my inheritance from my Grandmother; the apartment’s paid for….  There’s really no reason for me to continue doing work that bores me for people who could hire any of a dozen other lawyers to do it for them.” He shook his head in remembered amazement. “I never realized how much demand there is for quality, low-cost legal representation. It’s almost overwhelming. I started small, doing immigration cases, family law, things like that. But I’ve already got more than I can handle, so I’m thinking of hiring another lawyer, maybe taking on an intern or two.  I’ve contacted the attorney the firm let go because he wanted to handle more pro bono work, for a start.” Vincent laughed ruefully. “I’m more tired than I’ve ever been at the end of each day, but it’s also invigorating, knowing how much I’m able to help people who would otherwise not be able to navigate the system.”

“You are right to be proud of yourself, Vincent,” Catherine replied, stunned by all he had told her. “What you’re doing takes a lot of determination, especially in light of your father’s disapproval.”

He smiled at her and took her hand once more. He was pleased to note that Catherine didn’t pull away. “Father didn’t approve of you revealing the secrets of your world to me, I’m sure. Sometimes you’ve got to follow your heart instead of listening to the voices of ‘reason.’”

Catherine nodded, bemused. “Follow your heart…yes, that’s exactly right.”

Vincent stared at her intently for a moment, then said, “Wait a moment,” and rushed back into his apartment, straight to his bed. With wonder, Catherine saw him lift his pillow and pull out a familiar pair of well-worn suede gloves. He brought them out to the balcony and showed them to her as he reseated himself.  “My gloves,” she murmured, touched beyond words that he had kept them. Her eyes were downcast, her emotional reaction too great for anyone’s eyes, even his.

He held them reverently, stroking the suede as he said,  “I’ve kept them close ever since I returned home. Sometimes it would be hard to believe those weeks Below had really happened, but all I had to do was look at these, and I knew I wasn’t crazy. And at night, I’ve held them close,” he blushed as he admitted this. “They still carry your scent, although it’s very faint now.”

Now it was Catherine’s turn to blush, as she considered what Vincent had told her. She reached out blindly and found his hand, unafraid now that he would cringe at the contact. He grasped hers firmly. Catherine looked up at him and smiled, grateful for his understanding.

Vincent looked away, as if unsure of himself. When he turned back to her, his hand on hers tensed, and she wondered what had changed his mood.

“Did you….” He stopped, uncertain of how to phrase his question. “Is that what brought you here tonight, Catherine?  Did your heart lead you back to me?”

Catherine froze. Was she that obvious? Before she could respond, he went on. “Because I haven’t stopped thinking about you, not for a minute. Whenever physical therapy got rough, I heard your voice in my head, telling me I’m strong. When my father railed at me for letting down the law firm, for throwing my career away, I heard you tell me I was brave. Your words have inspired me these past months, in so many ways. I’ve tried to become the person you believe me to be. And all this while, I’ve wondered if I’d ever see you again. I tried to go into the tunnels, but I couldn’t find my way back to you.”

Catherine was astounded at his words…especially the last. He tried to find his way back to me! That thought resonated in her heart, filling it to bursting with hope. Did he feel as she felt? Was it too much to expect?

He was waiting for her reply.

His honesty required an equal frankness, hard as it was to reveal her deepest feelings after months of bottling them up inside. “I tried…so hard…to stay away. I wasn’t sure you’d welcome the sight of me. I thought that perhaps I’d reawaken the memories of pain and fear from your time Below.”

“You didn’t answer my question,” he replied gently, squeezing her hand. When she looked up at him, she saw he was regarding her with quiet intensity, his head cocked to one side. The night breeze was tousling his hair – he was letting it grow longer and she loved the look of it.  Loved everything about him.  Loved him…loved him with everything she was. Did she dare tell him? Follow your heart, he’d told her.

She would.

“Yes,” she admitted breathlessly.  “Yes, my heart led me back to you.”

The relief in his eyes surprised her, and she felt a corresponding flood of it through their Bond – that uncanny presence within her heart which constantly reflected his emotional state. She’d treasured it these past months as the only contact she had with him. Now, she realized she could let it guide her through these moments of uncertainty, this brave new world of emotion and revelation.

“I’ve missed you, Catherine. There’s so much I’ve wanted to share with you. I need to see you…to be with you.  Promise me we’ll find a way?” His earnest look pierced her even as she had trouble processing his words. They were so unexpected, so welcome…so like her secret dreams.

“We will,” she promised, astonished at her boldness.

He let go of her hand to grasp her shoulders, then moved closer to her. She stiffened, never having been in such a situation before. He felt her reaction and stopped himself a mere breath from her mouth.  “I’d like to kiss you. May I?”

Kiss her? Kiss her?! All of Father’s warnings came clanging into her brain. Her mis-shapen mouth would not please him, she was sure. And the light dusting of fur on her cheekbones, surely that would disgust him.

Vincent saw the despair in her eyes. He couldn’t bear her to be unsure of his affection. He’d come to realize over the past months, once he understood that his attraction to her wasn’t gratitude but something deeper and more lasting, that if he ever saw her again, he’d have to tread carefully, as she was unlikely to have had much experience with men. Now he realized his folly; he was pushing to hard, too fast. He let her go and apologized. “Forgive me. I have no right to ask for so much.”

Catherine gathered her tattered control and shook her head. “It’s I who should apologize. You don’t have to…. I mean, it wouldn’t be pleasant for you. You shouldn’t feel you need to….” She was miserably inept at such conversation, and now she was making him uncomfortable. She felt like melting into the ground. Perhaps if she just left….

He realized belatedly that she was worried about the unusual contours of her mouth and how he’d react to it; she wasn’t, as he’d originally suspected, unwilling to kiss him, only fearful of rejection. “Catherine, I didn’t stop because I thought it would be unpleasant to kiss you. I stopped because you might think me too forward.”

His fingers brushed gently through her mass of burnished gold curls, then down her cheek to her chin. “Believe me, I do want to kiss you. And I expect it will be wonderful.”  His thumb drifted across her lower lip, and he felt it quiver. He so much wanted to kiss her, it was almost more than he could do to keep himself from bending to her again. “I care for you…so much. I want….” He didn’t finish his thought, but through their Bond, Catherine felt the surge of his emotions, the rush of tenderness and deep affection engulfing her tremulous heart. It gave her the courage to look into his eyes again, and what she found there in those blue depths thrilled her. Despite the uncontrollable tremors making her body tremble, she lifted her face to him, willing him to continue, and when he smiled her heart lifted to the heavens. His mouth descended slowly to hers, and her eyelids drifted shut as she felt the initial pressure of his mouth on hers.

That kiss, so hesitant, so tremulous, nevertheless ignited a conflagration in their blood – much as the touch of their hands so long ago had jolted them with an electric connection that sparked their souls’ communion. Sweet, hot desire shuddered through them, leaving them both breathless with surprise. Mesmerized, they parted for breath. Catherine was tipsy with desire, a feeling so new, so beyond her experience, that she felt she stood on the precipice of another world. Vincent, far more worldly in such matters, surprisingly felt much the same way – for with Catherine, he sensed that each step would be an exploration into a captivating if uncharted territory…one he was eager to explore, hand in hand with her.

Tentatively, Catherine reached for their Bond…and found the deep, pulsing rhythm of something more than desire, more than passion. She knew now the depth of his feelings for her – so much more than mere affection. Their twin emotions twined together, curling and curving into an intricate knot which could be expressed with but one word: love. This was love – a spiritual, emotional joining of soul with soul that left no room for another, ever. This was real. This was true. This was…destiny.

“You feel it too?” he murmured, mesmerized.

“Yes.” The word came out in a slight lisp, her deep emotional state communicating itself as she exhaled the word on a shaky breath.

“We’ll find a way to make this work – promise me,” he demanded, his lips grazing her forehead, her cheeks, her nose.

“Yes.” That seemed to be the only word she knew any longer. “Yes…yes!”

Leaning his forehead against hers, Vincent swore, “Whatever happens…whatever comes…know that I love you, Catherine.”

Her heart swelled, leaped…burst with joy. “And we’ll be together?” she whispered against his lips, her astonishment clear.

“Together,” he replied, as dawn’s rosy glow began to spread over the horizon of a new day.

 

5 Comments

  1. I just finished this beautiful rendition you wrote, Jo. It’s beautiful, and though you commented that it wasn’t exactly as you would have wished it, I believe it’s role reversal is wonderful

    Reply
  2. What an utterly intriguing reversal on the tale we all know so well. We get to see Vincent in the sort of life he never got to have while also observing Catherine’s spirit shine out from under the visage those features. I love how well the characters are blended, with Catherine’s upbringing by Father in the tunnels tempering how she speaks and things, whereas Vincent in turned seemed far more like Catherine. The last scene is perfect and touching.

    The role reversal really made me re-examine Vincent’s feelings in the pilot because I could see it for the first time through feminine eyes. In your story, Catherine’s devastation is so painful, and yet it must have been so similar for Vincent. The thought of having the person they have come to know and love, that hope building day by day, come crashing down… Oh, it hurts my heart, and you portrayed it beautifully.

    If you end up continuing in this alternate universe world you’ve created, I would love to read more.

    Reply
  3. I’m really moved by this story, I was intrigued by what the course of the story would be with the roles reversed and it came out beautifully. When he touched her hand, when he saw her I felt the sting of that pain they both felt and it was an extraordinary experience for me. JoAnn this story came out wonderfully. Like Tasha I could read a sequel.

    Reply
  4. Oh, beautifully done, JoAnn! This is role reversal with a very special twist because there are also gender and physical size issues involved that make such a role reversal far from simple to construct. I really LOVE what you’ve done with this story, and I hope, Hope, HOPE you’ll decide to expand upon this alternate universe. It’s VERY intriguing!

    HUGS,

    Karen/Lindariel

    Reply
  5. JoAnn, thank you for a mesmerizing, thrilling and perfect retelling of our favorite fairytale. I couldn’t stop reading. What a delightfully and expertly crafted reversal for Vincent and Catherine. I enjoyed it so much.
    You are amazing, Friend.

    Reply

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