Special notes: Comes between the tv episodes: "When the Bluebird Sings" and "The Watcher"
'In like a lion, out like a lamb'. Wasn't that the phrase for March? Or perhaps vice versa.
Regardless, this year, March had been the entire month of the lion. Colder than usual. Rainier. Windier. And yet, it brought a smile to Catherine's face. Even as she hurried down toward the nearest Central Park tunnel entrance, she had to hide her laughter from the passersby.
One gentleman in particular was complaining to the woman on his arm, actually using that same old wives tale that ran continually through Catherine's head. "We should take little Jessica to the petting zoo this weekend," he'd muttered. "Find that damned lamb and ask it where the hell it's been."
Catherine disguised her smile as one of condolence and sympathetic solidarity. Underneath however, her heart took a delighted skip over her good fortune. Unlike 'little Jessica', she wouldn't have to wait until this weekend. And better yet, it wasn't the lamb she was in search of.
The fact that Vincent was not there to greet her didn't necessarily mean anything. It had been an odd past few weeks, and she suspected her beau was still rebounding emotionally.
Lisa's arrival had sent shockwaves through them both. Vincent had retreated, running off to his deep river caverns, while Catherine had spent more than a few nights awake -- troubled by unpleasant and unwanted dreams. Ballerinas would flit into her sleeping subconscious, tease the man she loved in ways she still had not brought herself to risk. Seduce him. Wound him so deeply. And then lure him off to never-never-land. More than a few mornings had found her slightly queasy from such conjured nightmares.
The disturbing incident with 'the late' Kristopher Gentian (or perhaps 'the current' ... the jury was still out as far as she was concerned), had helped only in that now it was ghosts that haunted her sleep, rather than dancing sirens.
On the other hand, it had apparently provided the distraction her beloved had needed. Something to dwell on besides the furred hands and claw-tipped fingers that snidely forced their way into every moment of his life.
So when he wasn't at the culvert entrance upon her arrival, she wasn't too upset. This meeting had not even been pre-arranged. It was more of an impulse on her part, after having been presented with three more of Kristopher's books ... ... a thank you gift from a very grateful Jonathan Smythe.
She was, however, rather accustomed to Vincent sensing her arrival below ... stepping out from the shadows the minute her feet would touch good, hallowed tunnel Earth. Or swinging a door open for her, so smoothly and so intuitively that she never even had to break her stride. Always with an expression that proclaimed how sincerely pleased he was to be welcoming her back into his world.
"You're spoiled, Chandler," she chided herself playfully, after she peered past the gated entranceway to find no cloaked figures approaching. "Stop playing the helpless bystander."
One good yank of her arm and the gate swung open, welcoming her even if her love was not there to do so himself. And even so, it still felt like homecoming when she stepped through and felt the floor coated with Earthy dust and powdered sewer-pipe cement. It lifted her spirits as always.
Tucking the books more securely beneath her arm, she closed the door, and set off to find her Vincent.
"Father?" She asked, thirty minutes later when she leaned into the patriarch's study. "Do you know where Vincent might be?"
"Ah! Catherine," he greeted, removing his reading glasses as he collected the books he'd been perusing this evening. "Come in, come in."
She obeyed, descending the small flight of metal stairs, making sure to keep her books well in her grasp lest they get confused with all those stacked around her.
"I'm just doing some organizing," Father explained. He chuckled to himself, then glanced again over the piles that surrounded him. "Or maybe they're organizing me. Every new system I try seems to befuddle everyone else."
Catherine smiled in amused understanding. "I thought Vincent would be helping you with such a task." Turning, she glanced up at more stacks of books, spread along the spiral staircase that led to the second story library. It looked like just the sort of task her beau would have volunteered to take part in. Not just to help his elderly father with the physical labor, but also for the tactile enjoyment of handling these works of literature. Old books ... a love Vincent had most definitely inherited.
"He's with Mouse this evening, I think," Father answered. "He's been giving the boy swimming lessons. Why do you ask? Did you have a," ... ... he paused before the word 'date' could slip out. That's what the couple's regular rendezvous were. -- -- He'd long since stopped kidding himself about that fact. But he had also found the wisdom in not pretending to know the full truth, no matter what he personally perceived the truth to be. They were making of it whatever it was ... ... and whatever it was, was out of his hands.
"Did you have a planned meeting time?" the patriarch questioned instead.
"No. He didn't even know I was coming below. Well ... he probably knows now," she amended, unable to prevent her smile at the knowledge that somewhere out there in these tunnels, the man she loved was probably smiling too, knowing that she was close. "But no, it wasn't planned."
Then she laughed, steering the topic away from such details between she and her beau. "I bet that's an entertaining sight. The two of them practicing the back-stroke."
"Vincent is actually a quite good swimmer," Father commented. "His ... biology ... gives him a unique advantage. He can hold his breath for astoundingly long periods of time, as well as dive to depths that might cause you or I the beginnings of discomfort. Don't worry, Mouse is in excellent hands."
Politely, Catherine pulled out a chair and sat down, finally depositing her cargo on the table before her. The fact that she'd been below for well over thirty minutes proved that Vincent would not be arriving. But he was busy, and she tried to use that as a salve for her disappointment.
"They're very close, aren't they," she observed thoughtfully. "I can't tell you how eager Mouse has always been, to help with any project where Vincent was the beneficiary. ... ... And Vincent ... he worries about Mouse far more than he tries to let on." Her lips quirked in a moment of secret happiness, honored that she had come far enough into Vincent's world to make statements like the one she was about to issue. -- -- "I see it in his eyes. I hear it in his voice."
Father nodded in understanding. "I don't know what Vincent has told you, but when Mouse first joined our community, Vincent was the only one who could approach the boy for quite some time. At first we joked that it was because Vincent was the only one that could catch the lively young thing. That Vincent was the only one Mouse could put absolutely nothing over on." Father laughed aloud at the memory of watching his uniquely strong son haul a young, kicking and screaming boy over his shoulder. "And maybe that was true. In the beginning. But Vincent was the first among us that Mouse trusted. I don't think that trust has ever faltered."
Father sat down beside his son's lady friend, and leaned nostalgically against the table. "And as for Vincent ... ... I think Mouse is the brother he lost. Or perhaps," ... ... his voice lowered, stating the next words carefully ... ... "perhaps the son he'll never have."
Catherine took a breath, fighting the urge to argue against that prediction. But not now. Not when the potential mate in question wasn't even there.
"Well," she concluded with a sigh of resignation. "I guess I might as well head back up. Let them get on with their lessons. It's all right, really. Just tell Vincent I stopped by."
It's not difficult to tell when one is actively trying to convince oneself of something, now is it? Surprisingly easy in fact, once you know them. ... ... Father heard it in Catherine's voice. Even Catherine heard it in the words she chose. ... Felt it inside, too.
She was, however, wise enough to know when she was bordering on 'petty', and Father was finally learning when issues between his son and this woman needed to remain as such. Nodding his agreement, he assured her that he would.
It would be foolish to think that her return trip was not littered with the same lingering hopes. At every bend or junction in the tunnels, she half expected to see Vincent step out -- -- so rarely had she ever gone below without his eventual appearance. She even paused outside the culvert, looking back twice, but finding only the empty shadows.
In her apartment, the balcony was the first place she went, once she dropped the books on her coffee table. Childish as it was, she didn't want to look at them now ... not that she would ever admit such a thing to another living soul. She had hoped to be reading them with her love tonight. Browsing them now would only produce a dull hollowness
The balcony was windy. Chilly. Dark. And most importantly -- empty.
Her hands rising to her face, she rubbed her eyes and shook her head at herself. How utterly ridiculous she was being, and she knew it. But even so, she couldn't seem to lift herself out of the resulting mood.
From the moment those books had arrived in her office, she'd been making her plans for a surprise evening below. How happy he was to have been, to feel her arrival at his community's doorstep. He would have smiled at her, filled with love as always. A butterfly would have fluttered through her lungs when his hand clasped around her fingers. And when he wound her into his arms, she would have pressed the smallest, faintest kiss to his chest. ... An endearment he would never have noticed, but it would have at least taken the edge off the craving in her heart.
And then they would have found a private corner, away from any friendly but curious eyes, where they would have settled down to read together. Their shared time.
A tear began a trail down her cheek as the rehearsed images replayed in her mind. Maybe she could pretend the droplet was due to the sting of the wind's cold gusts ... but there was no one to pretend for. And she knew it wasn't the truth. So she wiped it away, letting the city lights watch if they wanted. Pretending was pointless ... she knew what she wanted, and she even knew why.
Upon Lisa's return, and to her deep unease, Catherine had suddenly felt like a stranger in the tunnels.
Lisa was family. Tunnel family. Catherine was not.
Lisa had toyed with Vincent. Hurt him. Damaged him in ways that lingered for decades.
But Lisa was family. Tunnel family. Catherine was not.
Then her beau had disappeared to that deep, dark river. A place she didn't even know. A place she could never have found on her own, but where many of the tunnel dwellers could no doubt have journeyed with relative ease.
... ... ... And Mouse.
Dear, sweet Mouse. One of her first friends below. One of those who especially seemed to want her as family.
Mouse had welcomed her, simply because Vincent welcomed her. Mouse had trusted her, simply because Vincent trusted her. Mouse had even had moments of protectiveness toward her, simply because he knew what she meant to Vincent. And now, feeling jealous of dear, sweet Mouse, seemed all the more petty.
It was something she knew better than to wallow in, even if she was having a difficult time persuading herself out of the mood. In determination, she turned around. From here, she could still see the books on her coffee table.
She'd give them to him tomorrow. The solution could be that simple. Tonight she would finish up some deposition briefs for work, then send a message to the tunnels in the morning. And come the next sunset when she'd find her beau once again, this would be nothing more than a silly memory.
While it was a good idea in theory, it became a miserable failure in practice. In a relatively short time she'd fallen asleep on her living room sofa, a legal pad on her lap and a pen still in her hand.
She couldn't concentrate anyway, alternating between thoughts of Vincent, Mouse, Lisa ... even Father during some of her wilder flights of fancy. Living here in the world above was becoming harder and harder, knowing that the life she wanted ... the life of the man she wanted ... was proceeding with casual normalcy down below. She saw that now, recent events driving it home more clearly than ever.
So when sleep finally took her, it was with such exhaustion that she did not hear the tentative tapping at her balcony door.
A shadow, drifting easily against the backdrop of city lights. It moved to one side and halted, leaning closer to the glass panes, the silhouette becoming sharper. Another tap, this time even lighter. It was better described as a quiet acknowledgement of presence, than a call for attention.
Vincent had finally come.
Of course he had sensed her visit below. He'd known the very second she had entered the tunnels. He'd felt the acceleration in her pace as she'd neared the community's network of living-quarters. And yes, he had recognized the moment she'd crossed the threshold into his chamber. -- -- The silent, melancholy wish she'd made ... the same one she so often made ... when she'd touched the very personal space that was his bed. Nearly two-hundred yards of bedrock had separated them, and he'd felt it all.
At the time, however, he'd had a rather frantic young man immersed below a good thirty feet of water. Mouse had taken to swimming with the same gusto and bravado he greeted most challenges. He was impossible to quell, that boy, and he was already trying to dive deeper.
By the time Vincent had convinced his young friend to stop for the day, he'd already felt the departure of his beloved. She was distant again ... high above, inside her concrete castle in the sky.
Father had confirmed that she'd been looking for him, but offered no further clues. So, naturally, he had come for her.
What made him hesitate though ... what had slowed his steps and dampened the tap of his finger against her door ... was the sensation he'd been receiving through their bond. Annoyance, maybe. Sadness. But more importantly, it was directed at him. Although the result was ambiguous, the cause was clear ... it was he himself who shouldered the blame.
Surely she knew that he would come to her. Hadn't the past year proven exactly that? Even mired in his pain over Lisa and the memories that homecoming had brought, still, he'd bandaged the wounds to his heart and stumbled his way to his beloved.
Why would now have been any different?
The fact remained though ... Catherine was hurt, and hurt by him. And now she was also asleep on her sofa, with a day of work ahead of her and beginning in only hours. He wouldn't wake her ... merely hope that his arrival would somehow afford some comfort, even if only to her dreams.
By morning, she felt quite primed for kicking herself.
Life seemed to come chock full of moments like this -- -- where one foolish decision, enacted with irrational emotion, created a mushrooming cloud of regret. If only she could turn back the clock to her visit with Father. This time she would stay and enjoy the patriarch's conversation. Perhaps even let him teach her some strategies in chess.
As it was, she found herself dreaming up excuses for her next tunnel visit. Something to explain why she'd left so soon the previous night, since Father would surely have told Vincent what had happened. In the end though, the entire solution was removed from her hands.
At 10:00am a candy vendor arrived, pushing a cart of his wares through the room. It was a bit early for sweets, but Catherine soon found a Hershey bar foisted upon her.
"Help put my kids through college, lady," the guy said ... someone with whom she had shared the odd, passing joke in the past. So she took the candy and gave his kids a healthy tip.
The only reason she opened it as soon as she did, was because she detected the odd bump beneath the wrapper. A dried forget-me-not, carefully bundled between foil and outer sleeve. And in accompaniment, a small slip of paper.
'I'm sorry,' it stated. 'I will come to your balcony tonight.'
The wind had died down, she noted, when she opened the balcony doors that evening. Maybe spring was finally coming ... ... the elusive lamb that a little girl named Jessica would be searching for at the zoo.
For Catherine, tonight, it was still a lion ... rustling a small potted tree as he leapt gracefully onto her balcony.
When it drew her attention he froze, still slightly bent over from his landing. And he watched for silent seconds, studying her image as he rose. She knew his first instinct was to take a visual scan of his beloved, both body and (she sometimes suspected) soul. He was making sure she was well. A silent, subtle, even unintentional reminder that so much of his own well-being had come to depend on hers.
Her smile was wonderful balm, but the final disappearance of her melancholy from their bond -- that was even better. It had been diminishing all day, a sharp drop-off telling him exactly when she'd found his message. He'd been sitting in Father's study at the time, left to explain the sudden quirk of his smile to his perplexed parent.
Still, he would now put voice to his written note. "I apologize, Catherine. For however I've behaved."
She was already shaking her head, raising her hands as if to shield herself from the embarrassment of having caused this. "Don't. Please, don't Vincent. You've done nothing wrong. It was my own fault."
At last he took one step closer. "I felt your sorrow. Your displeasure with me. I came here last night, but you were asleep when I arrived. You had found some peace. ... I didn't wake you for fear I might only worsen things."
"No, Vincent. Truly," she reassured again, anxious to remove the guilt he was so willingly trying to shoulder. "It was me. I came below last evening, unannounced, then made a fool of myself to Father. You might not even have realized I was there."
Vincent's expression softened in empathy ... ... so, the cause was indeed as he had suspected. "I knew you were there," he replied. "I always know when you come to me. There have been times when it was the very reason I took my next breath. ... ... I was on my way up from the diving holes. But when I reached the chambers, you were gone. ... ... It was not a rejection, Catherine. I could never reject you."
Catherine shook her head, closing her eyes for a moment before the tears of last night could return. "You just don't see it. I was being selfish. I threw a childish tantrum because I was being selfish."
Thoughtfully, his head cocked to the side. Maybe she was right about one thing. -- -- Maybe he wasn't seeing this clearly. "Wanting to spend time with me is not selfish. It's a dream come true."
"I wanted it," she interrupted, needing to free herself of this weight, "to the exclusion of Mouse." She met his gaze, confidently owning her next words. -- -- "I was being selfish."
Still, even with the truth, his head shook with the most generous reluctance to believe. 'Selfish' was a word that, in his opinion, should never again be applied to the woman he loved. And especially not the woman she had become these last two years.
It almost made her smile, such resistance on his part. "I don't think you'd even recognize it," she added lightly. "I bet you don't have a selfish bone in your entire body."
He said nothing for a moment, watching her spirit rise again with the loss of its burden. In times gone by, philosophers had opined that admission was good for the soul. He believed them to be correct ... ... especially if admissions were shared. Turning away, still a painful three-feet distant from his love, he propped his hands on the ledge and looked out over the city. He would offer his own truth as well.
"You think too highly of me, Catherine. Selfishness is only jealousy that has received its heart's desire. ... ... One is jealous of what one does not have, and selfish over what has already been gained."
Beside him, she mimicked his actions, turning her eyes to the horizon in respect of the depth to which he was suddenly, amazingly, preparing to let her see.
"I have little in this life to inspire selfishness," he continued. "But much to be jealous over."
"Vincent," she sighed sadly in interruption. It was always so difficult to witness this man's realization that he could never share the city over which they gazed. Speaking so wistfully over a world he could never see. "You know the trappings of above aren't worth their shine," she consoled. "You have more in your life than many others do."
Silently, he shook his head and lowered his eyes. Those lights beyond this ledge meant absolutely nothing. He wasn't even seeing them, focusing instead on the permanent image of this woman in his mind. "The poorest man," he began. "The frailest ... the most down-trodden ... ... all would receive my jealousy, if they only had the ability I lack. ... ... To approach you as a proper man should. ... ... So you see, dear Catherine, perhaps my thoughts are not as altruistic as you believe. Perhaps I would be more selfish than you think, if the jealousy were to have its desire fulfilled."
Moments passed -- rapid thumps of a heart, before he finally raised his eyes toward the object of that desire. He was just in time to catch the swipe of her fingers across her cheek, wiping away a rogue tear.
"You have it backwards," she finally murmured in the best voice she could muster. "You have no one to be jealous of, with regard to me. ... But you have so much to be selfish over. ... ... I've told you that I love you. ... It's a truth I want you to be selfish with."
Cautiously, she took a step closer, then issued the invitation she so desperately wanted him to accept. "You're here now. ... ... Approach me."
His gravitation to her was instant -- how could it ever not be? -- his hand taking hers to close those last horrible inches that separated them. And the ease with which she nestled into the circle of his arms ... the remarkable precision with which she fit. Almost as if it had been decreed by fate.
And again his emotions surged as he coaxed her more tightly into his embrace. Perhaps she was correct. -- -- The slide of his arms across her back; the impromptu flex of his hand the moment it found the base of her skull; even the eagerness with which his chin nudged at her head, begging it to stay within the curve of his neck forever. There was selfishness there. Possessiveness. A sublime pride that it was his own arms she consistently chose.
And if this was an approach ... or even but the first step ... how blissfully well it was received, and how undeniably easy it was. Perhaps he need only admit it to himself.
"I never would have pegged Kristopher as a fan of Teasdale," Catherine smiled, some time later as she rested against Vincent's side. They sat in a corner of the balcony, where even the last of March's winds couldn't find them.
"He was a Romantic, Catherine. Full of imagination. Aloft on the wings of spontaneity, crashing with the loss and tragedies we all share." Vincent glanced back at the page he'd been reading ... 'Did You Never Know' ... a poetic parable of a love that would not die. "Yes, I can certainly believe he would appreciate these works."
"Smythe said this one fell off the shelf when he was choosing the other two. Maybe it was a sign."
Vincent grinned and cocked his head to look down across the face of his beloved. "Are you beginning to believe?" he asked, obviously referring to her persistent doubt in the spirit world.
Her eyes may have closed in relaxation, but her mind was still moving like quicksilver. Before he knew it, she turned the question around. "I'd rather know ... are you starting to believe?"
If the innuendo in her voice did not clarify the question enough, the slide of her hand across his abdomen did. -- -- She referred to his belief in this very evening. Words shared, that she was anxious he not soon forget.
His lips brushed gently across her hair -- a silent blessing of his love, even if the shy words were not yet there. "Yes, Catherine. I think I am beginning to."
The smile she loosed was one of both hopefulness and pride, and she snuggled a little closer around his torso.
"Would it be selfish," he mused thoughtfully, "to keep you here a bit longer? To request to share still more of your time this evening, despite the lateness of the hour?"
"No, Vincent, not really," Catherine chuckled lightly against his chest, pressing her face to his clothing. There, she offered the same secret kiss she had wanted to bestow the evening before ... when she had first gone in a likewise search for his time. How well she knew that wish. How well she knew his request. And coming from him, no, it didn't sound selfish at all.
Her hand vacated his stomach, rising just long enough to turn the page, and lightly brushing his fingers in the process. "No, it doesn't sound like selfishness," she finished her thought. "It sounds like love."