By Linda Mooney
"Sweet is revenge -- especially to women."
Byron, Don Juan
It began innocently enough with a question.
"Vincent, when was the last time you played a practical joke on someone?"
Vincent used an index finger to hold his place in the book he had been reading and tilted his head to better catch a glimpse of Catherine's face, her chin propped against his shoulder. The twinkle in her eyes intrigued him.
"This topic is a far cry from the Frost I’m reading. Why do you ask?"
She looked down and smiled to herself. "I don't know, It's just...well...something happened at work today."
"A practical joke?"
"Um-hmm. On Joe, Rita pulled it."
Vincent shifted slightly from where they were sitting on the floor of their chamber, using the bed to support their backs, to where he could face her more easily.
So she explained about how they had switched Maxwell's breakfast of chocolate cheese puffs for some chocolate-covered grasshoppers Rita had found at an exotic foods store, and Joe couldn't figure out why they had a different flavor until she confessed…but only after he'd eaten the entire bag. Needless to say, the poor man cut out from work early that day.
Vincent threw back his head and chuckled at the tale, the wide smile revealing a gleam of upper canines. Catherine hugged him, content to hear the pleasant rambling in his chest. He laughed more often now -- Father had even commented that his son was freer with his emotions. He found a contentment, a stability in his life, now that he and Catherine had finally overcome their most frightening, heart-wrenching obstacles and discovered their lives together as one complete soul--nevermore separate or apart. The two of them were a single unit, the whole stronger and more vibrant than as single entities. The force of their love was a bright, glittering magnet. It drew the community into its soothing glow like moths to a warm, inviting candle, until no one Below could ever imagine their lives being any better, any sweeter than it was now. In as much, life in the tunnels, often in conversation, was referred to in terms of B.C. and A.D. -- Before Catherine and After the Decision...the decision that Vincent and Catherine finally reached to become one in the eyes of man and God.
Even now, while Catherine vaguely reminisced at how the man she loved used to be, a small seed took root in Vincent's mind as he put down the book and pulled her into his lap to nuzzle the hollow of her throat. Giggling, she grabbed a double handful of his warm wild hair and lost herself in his playful kisses.
The following morning, Catherine was running late for work as usual. She'd opted for slacks and a silk blouse and was hopping on one foot, trying to put on her shoes in a rush, when Vincent came through the connecting passageway from Father's chamber.
"Vincent. have you seen my briefcase?"
He gave her a blank look. "You left it under the writing table last night." he reminded her.
"I know that," she replied, "but it's not there now."
"Did you move it?"
"No. Can you help me find it? It's got those testimonies I need today in it."
He dutifully helped her turn the chamber inside out but when the errant case failed to turn up, Catherine moaned in frustration and went ahead, leaving for work by way of her apartment subbasement.
On the way she was frantically trying to figure out a good argument for the missing reports when she rounded the jagged hole leading to the rungs set in the wall and spotted the valise sitting in the pool of light that filtered down from the floor above. A piece of paper was tucked under the handle and she snatched it to glance at the brief message.
The last time I played a practical joke was this morning.
I'll see you at supper, V..
Catherine crumpled the paper, glancing back over her shoulder, then began climbing the stairs, an idea already taking shape in her mind.
That evening, she begged having work to catch-up on when Vincent suggested a walk to the Falls.
"I'm sorry. I don't have time tonight, but you go ahead," she apologized. "Will you bring back a pitcher of the water?" The waters of the Falls tasted sweeter than the waters of the underground springs the community tapped into for drinking and bathing.
"Of course. I won't be long." Vincent turned to leave the chamber, a mild sadness passing over his face at the loss of her company through the tunnels; a once contemplated easy stroll became a hurried walk to get the water and return to their chamber where he could at least enjoy her nearness while he caught up on his letter writing.
Daniel snagged him on his way back to briefly complain about Arthur getting into his aquarium and eating a pet Gourami, making him get back later than he had planned on. When he re-entered the room, Catherine was gone, yet through their bond he felt her nearby.
She hadn't left by way of the main tunnels, so Vincent took the connecting passageway to Father's, where the older man was engaged in a game of chess with Kipper -- and from the scowl on his forehead, clearly not winning.
"Father? Excuse me, but has Catherine been by this way?"
"Hmmm? Oh, yes. Said something about taking some work back to her apartment."
Vincent ducked back into the chamber to get his cloak and go after her, but the chair where he usually draped it was bare. He hesitated, slightly puzzled, then looked around. Not spotting it, he checked the wardrobe and his chest. Not there. He paused to wonder if Catherine had taken it to go Above, but dismissed the idea with a toss of his head. There was no logical reason why she would take it.
Just then, Mouse bounced into the room and skidded to a stop. "Vincent? You're here?"
"This is my chamber, Mouse." he commented dryly.
The young man smiled brightly, then shook his head. "But saw you. In the tunnels. Going Above."
"Mouse, how could...." Vincent paused. "Did you see me, or someone wearing my cloak?" he quickly asked.
Mouse raised his eyebrows in question. "Saw cloak. Saw you... didn't I?"
Vincent rushed from the room and down the corridors, not afraid but leery that someone would take his cloak without his permission and roam the tunnels, giving others the impression it was him. He even met Jason and Eric on the way, and they commented that they thought they had seen him pass by earlier.
He quickly got to the subbasement entrance and stopped to reach out for Catherine's presence, confusion dappling his eyes when the bond told him she wasn't Above, but still within the tunnels. Slowly he turned and jogged back to their chamber. When he walked in, he saw his love sitting at the writing table where he'd first left her. She glanced up from a thick stack of file folders.
"You took long enough. Where's the water?"
Vincent glanced over to the chair and saw the familiar black cloak lying neatly over the back of the seat. He looked back at her and asked. "Where did you go?"
"What do you mean? I didn't go anywhere." However the bond belied her words and Vincent realized somehow that she'd led him on a merry goose chase. For a moment he couldn't figure out why -- then it occurred to him that she was getting back for his trick on her that morning. Keeping the grin from reaching his lips, he said no more about the incident and fetched the pitcher of water.
It was late the next day when Vincent decided to do it again, but this would be the last time. Hopefully, if this joke was a bit stronger. Catherine would call it quits and not reciprocate. He knew he really needed to bring a halt to the whole thing, but the little black edge of humor that all of Catherine's pranks in the past had conjured up in him -- like a dog worrying an old rag -- kept him from surrendering this time. The next offensive move had to be completely unpredictable.
Evening meal was almost over when Catherine hurried into the dining chamber, still wearing her two-piece Dior suit. She plopped down into the empty, chair next to Vincent. Brushing a kiss over his cheek, she reached for the bowl of potatoes by her elbow and began to fill her plate. Vincent watched with amusement, pouring her a cup of tea from the sideboard.
"Sorry I'm late," she apologized around a fork full of salad.
"Mary would have saved you a plate," he said softly.
She swallowed. "I know, but it's not the same. I like being here when everyone else is. Feels like I'm home."
"You like hearing all the latest gossip," Vincent teased her.
She shrugged off his comment as truth and continued eating. Vincent paused for a moment before rising and excusing himself from the table.
"I’ll only be an hour or so." he told her. "I need to meet a Helper bringing us some supplies, then I'I1 be back."
She nodded and went back to her dinner.
Forty minutes later found her heading for their chamber, her hands in need of lotion from helping William do the dishes. Bits of icing still clung to the comers of her mouth from the piece of chocolate cake she'd snatched from the pantry when his back was turned.. She was not expecting to hear the startling crunch beneath her shoes upon entering; she looked down and was horrified to see bits of clear glass, like ice crystals, shattered on the floor by the bureau. Amidst the broken remnants was a picture of her parents. The glass frame had been their gift to each other on their honeymoon, engraved with their names by their own hands.
"Oh, no!" The tiny moan escaped her as she glanced up to the shelf where the picture had sat.. Her heart dropped in despair as she stared back down at the glass, which now appeared to be the remains of the irreplaceable picture frame. Catherine bent down to carefully remove the picture and gather up the broken pieces, her throat tightening with despair.
In Father's chamber, Vincent instantly regretted the prank and went to console her. He showed her where he'd hidden the treasured frame beneath her nightgown in her chest of clothes and explained that the glass had come from a platter that William had broken that morning.
"I’m afraid our practical joking got out of hand," he murmured in her hair, holding her lovingly against him. "Forgive me."
Catherine cuddled closer and smiled. "Forgiven and forgotten. Just one thing, though."
"No telling how long it would have been before I had found it. For the moment I can't seem to remember the last time I wore a nightgown to bed!" She leaned her head back and gave him one of her smoldering looks, slowly beginning to untie the laces at his throat. As the embers began to ignite within them, Vincent lowered his mouth to hers, and for the next few hours they lost themselves to the passions of their love.
But all was not forgiven, nor forgotten. A few days later, Vincent walked slowly back into their chamber and froze. There bad been two stacks of books on the table: one was his personal journals, dating back to when he was nine. The other was books that were to be handed out to the homeless on the streets. Both stacks were gone.
He stood, blinking, thinking that his journals must be there somewhere. He began to search, but there was no trace of his journals, his private diaries. He had kept a journal since his youth, using the pages as a refuge, a solace, an invisible friend in which he could confide his deepest secrets and darkest fears without ridicule or derision. Knowing he had lost so much of his life was a heavy, almost unbearable, weight,
Catherine stood at the doorway, watching. He spotted her there. a patient look on her face and he held out his arms to encompass the room.
"My journals are gone. The children came for the other books... There must have been a mistake." He looked down at the empty, tabletop.
Turning back to her, he caught a faint edge of pity from her... and something else. He tilted his head. "What?"
Wordlessly she stepped into the room and walked over to the chest that held a childhood's worth of toys and memorabilia. She lifted its lid and from where he stood Vincent saw the stack of books inside. They were his journals, complete and unscathed. He glanced back at her, feeling the current of mischief that was alight in her eyes and in the crinkled corners of her mouth.
"Touche," she whispered.
Catherine knew he felt no anger toward her; every shred of despair he'd had from the apparent reality of her joke was now evaporating under the sensual teasing she gave to him through their bond. At times they could converse, play, and love within the confines of their everyday lives, both Above and Below, with the steadiness born of a love fully given and received every day and into every night; but then there were times that the unexpected glance, the undeliberate brush of a hand, or -- like now -- the playing of a trick that, in other contexts would have created hard feeling or anger, elicited that subtle rush of desire that exploded into fragments of fire in the heat of their embrace and molten kisses as they eagerly gave in to the demands of their hearts, their souls, and their bodies.
Later, lying moist skin to moist skin beneath the coverlet on the bed. Vincent trailed one claw-shaped nail across Catherine's shoulders and around the soft swells of her breasts. "About earlier...." he began.
"You realize, of course, that this means war."
Catherine smiled, her eyes closed, and buried her nose in the tender hollow beneath his ear.
The trial was taking longer than expected, keeping Catherine frustrated at the least and fuming at the most. Her twelve-hour days were turning into fourteen and eighteen, leaving her only enough time to grab a quick bite infrequently , and crawl into bed to fail asleep in the circle of Vincent's arms before she could manage a goodnight kiss.
Vincent worried about the frenetic pace she was going but understood that as soon as the jury handed in their verdict, the woman of his heart would be able to rest for a few days. Perhaps, at that time, he could take her to the Grotto for some overnight camping.
He waited, full of patience and anticipation, until he was sure that this was the day Catherine did her summation and the jury dismissed for deliberation, bringing about the long hours of sitting in expectation. Alter telling Father where he was going and that he wished to be alone in case anyone came looking for him, Vincent bundled a set of clothing inside a towel and took off for the Falls.
Once he arrived there, it took him the better part of an hour to climb down the side of the cliff and maneuver around to where the smaller falls crashed into the pools below. These waters were warm, coming from the same underground hot springs that fed the bathing chambers; and as they thundered into the bone-chilling waters at their base, the combination mist and steam billowed around that corner of the cavern, creating a veil of fog that enshrouded everything around it for several yards. From past explorations during his youth, Vincent knew that a wide ledge of pitted rock lay to once side of the warm falls, giving someone brave enough to climb there not only a new and spectacular view of the cavern, but also an invigorating though less-forceful shower, with the added benefit of privacy from the curtain of fog.
Leaving his bundle on the opposite shore where it would stay dry. Vincent made his way over to the base of the falls, and under the concealment of the mists removed his clothing, then climbed the rest of the way to the rocky ledge by the waterfall. The warm drops glittered like crystals in his hair and on the fine fur that covered his chest, arms. and thighs. Standing up straight, Vincent closed his eves to seek through their bond his empathic connection to Catherine.
Ever since that night when inhibitions had finally fallen and carefully built walls had crumbled, when guilt’s and fears like rain had evaporated in the daylight of their passion and the force of their devotion, when -- at last -- they had first consummated their incredible love, their bond that had been a golden chain binding their hearts had become forged in links of steel. Catherine now felt herself as attuned to him as he always had been to her: so much so that, at any time during the day, regardless of where she was or what she was doing, she could pause to feel how he was at that moment: and usually he could sense her questioning touch and respond with a surge of love and warmth that she could wrap herself in like a cocoon. They never tried to reason why or how this strengthening of the bone was possible, but accepted it as one more part of their lives that made them unique unto themselves.
And now, Vincent reached out to find the other half of his heart sitting, impatient, nervous and bored, and he moved closer to the waterfall.
At first Catherine thought the roof was leaking. She glanced up, feeling the soft drops of water on her cheeks, but she couldn't see where the water was coming from.
"Something wrong, Radcliffe?"
She looked back at her fellow prosecutor who peered over by her elbow. "No, Joe, just thinking,"
He nodded and leaned back in his chair.
Catherine frowned, still feeling the delicate touch of water now on her arms and legs.
When Vincent was sure their connection was at its strongest, he reached out with his hands and his heart and stepped directly into the warm waters.
Catherine jolted up in her chair with the sensation. As she began to realize what was going on, she tried to close her eyes and appear calm to those around her: yet her mind both rebelled and was titillated by each leaf of emotion that peeled back layer by layer to bare her innermost core.
'Vincent...what are you DOING to me?'
In her mind's eye she could see him, golden hair turned topaz and lying slick against his body. His hands opened and reached out --and a shiver shook her from toe to crown. Her face flushed: she could feel the heat in herself moistens her skin and a tightening in her belly sent a bolt of desire through her. Catherine crossed her legs, but Vincent sensed it, giving back to her memories of the first time they became one.., the tension, the ecstasy, the moment of fulfilling and being fulfilled -- and the volcanic release that sent them beyond this plane of existence. Catherine didn't know she had moaned until Maxwell gently shook her arm.
"Hey, kiddo. You don't look too well. Coming down with something?"
With a great deal of willpower, Catherine slowed her breathing and forced herself to calm down. She turned to Joe and grinned. "Look, I need to rush home for a sec. Call me if the jury returns before I do?"
"Will do. Grab yourself a sandwich while you're at it. It's been a long haul, and it's almost over with."
She patted his hand that rested on her arm and left the courtroom in a daze. Not trusting herself to drive, she snagged a cab and had it take her to her apartment where she immediately went to the basement threshold to find her husband waiting for her at the bottom of the ladder.
She stood facing him, letting him feel how deeply he had affected her, then watched as he placed an index finger in his mouth and drew an imaginary line in the air between them. Finally, he held out his arms, his world, to her. Laughing, Catherine walked into the folds of his love and held him tightly.
"Pret- ty sneaky," she whispered.
"Did you enjoy it?" he asked against the softness of her hair.
"Enjoy it? If I had been the judge I would've called a dismissal then and there, Of all places, Vincent…"
"I'm not. But next time...'
"Next time?" He pulled back to look in her eyes.
"Next time, make sure I'm in a less public place -- say like Lincoln Center or the Metropolitan Museum."
Vincent smiled. "Must you go back now?"
She nodded. "It won't be much longer. Then I can rest. If you'll let me."
He smiled again and leaned over to place a tender kiss on the scar by her ear. "Then I shall wait for you… until then," he promised, then watched her climb back up the ladder to vanish in the white light.
Two, three four days went by. Vincent relaxed his vigil, certain that if Catherine were going to get back at him for his last practical joke it would have been by now. The case had been successful with Catherine getting a positive write-up in the papers that gave her a much needed sense of accomplishment, and Vincent had not been able to detect any note of mischief in her that would have warned him of impending reprisal. Even during the overnight camping trip to the Grotto all had been open and loving without a hint of impishness to give him pause. Sighing, Vincent conceded that the pranks had finally come to an end, at least for the time being.
The days turned colder with the first tinge of fall splattering the leaves of the trees with primary colors. The tunnel folk scurried like the fabled ants, readying their stores of foodstuffs and clothing to prepare for the coming winter weather. However, one of the community, members by the name of Cameron made a grave error in taking a group of children out through the drainage entrance in the park during the day and a pack of thrill-seeking teenagers had tracked them back into the tunnels upon their return. The resulting confrontation and ejection of the outsiders mandated a Grand Council to be called to decide suitable punishment for the infraction. Cameron, along with many members of the community, met in Father's chamber for the hearing; Vincent led the proceedings, along with Father, William, Mary, and Pascal. Seated around Father's large desk, the Council allowed Cameron to defend himself, then allowed any tunnel member to address the assembly to either rebuke or side with the accused.
Vincent listened attentively to the arguments, yet a portion of his mind was attuned to Catherine Above at her work. Her presence was a gentle tug on his heart, a chance to drift occasionally from the cross-current of words. He was totally unaware of her purchases at a local famous-name lingerie store or of her taking an extended lunch hour to take her sack back to her apartment.
Catherine had thought long and hard how to get Vincent back for his last joke, and decided to fight fire with fire -- or erotic with erotic. She could sense him now, "listening" to her, knowing she was safe, and she in turn could feel the eddy of concentration from him as he used his impartiality to head the Council.
Up in her apartment, she locked the door securely and took the phone off the hook. Closing the folding partition behind her, she laid the bag on the seat at the foot of the bed and began to undress slowly and deliberately, laying each item she removed across the back of the chair by her desk. At the same time she let Vincent become increasingly aware of her actions and her accompanying mood.
The first tendril of her motive teased him as William was arguing, against the Council's decision. Sitting upright, Vincent tried to send her a plea to reconsider; he was virtually trapped, having to remain, at the hearing and unable to leave. Yet a tiny emotional thought weaved through his brain: Turn about's fair play!
Lowering his face to his hand. he once more sent her a spark of the anxiety her actions were causing him -- if she continued on with her plan, Vincent could not help himself, knowing his body would automatically respond to her emotions.
Catherine, aware of his distress, finished undressing then reached for the bag and removed each item from it one at a time: the bottle of heated oils. the sheer silk bra and panties .... and the vibrator.
Slowly, she slid into the delicate lingerie, letting the caress of the cool smoothness tickle her skin, teasing her senses. Placing towels over the comforter on the bed. Catherine laid on top of them and reached for the bottle of oils. She poured a small amount in her palms, rubbed her hands together, and began to lightly stroke the oil over her shoulders mhd down her arms. The special properties in the oil began to heat her skin. bringing a sensual warmth where she applied it.
Below, Vincent was having trouble concentrating. His incredible desire for her. from the stimulus he was receiving, was making him agitated and restless. He fought the sensations, but from the comer of his eye he could see Father watching him, knowing something was amiss.
As the heat from the oils warmed her, Catherine let her mind recall the memory of her and Vincent alone together in the Grotto...of the night of exploration of each other, the complete sexual give and take, and the joy and profound happiness they shared in the aura of each other's love.
Catherine let her fingers begin to massage around the edges of the bra, then slip beneath the translucent material to tease. Eyes closed, she sent out the delicious waves of pleasure she was feeling, while in her mind she envisioned Vincent stroking her in the same manner with his hands and tongue.
As the hunger grew in him, Vincent crossed his legs and tried to clamp down on the surging tide that threatened to overwhelm him. When that failed, he quickly stood and pivoted to place the high back of the ornate chair between him and the crowd in the chamber. His hands resting lightly on the tall wooden carvings belied the roiling turmoil building inside him. By now the voices directly before him were almost completely drowned out by the roar of his heart pounding in rhythm with hers.
Catherine knew he was hers and she played him like a Stradivarius. Her fingers moved in small circles down the sides of her waist, sending rills of delight beneath the skin, and when they came to the tiny ribbons that held the panties together, pulled the satin cords apart. Her skin was encased in the thin film of sweat and oil, the warmth and the fantasies melting into one, making the edges of reality and dream merge in wavering lights to escalate into the promised release her body begged for. It was then she reached for the vibrator.
Totally unaware of his actions, a cannon-like crack echoed in the chamber and everyone suddenly silenced to stare at Vincent. He shook his head to clear the film from his eyes and looked down to see that his claws had gripped the back of the chair so hard with his incredible strength that the nails had partially sunk into the wood and the strain on the old carvings had broken them into chunks in his hands.
Father stood and voiced everyone's concern. "Vincent, are you all right? Are you feeling well?"
His voice thick, he answered. "I must...leave. Please forgive me." and turned to take the steps to his chamber in one leap. He grabbed his cloak, clutching it in front of him, and raced to the basement entrance to the apartment. His body hummed with hers, the sweet flood drowning him, blinding him so that his run was erratic. He bumped him into the walls of the tunnel, careening off the edges of the entryways. His muscles shook, ready to unite with her and share in the indescribable nova of her orgasm.
He was directly below the sub-basement of her dwelling when her body peaked in a pure diamond of soul-shattering light, and his body responded as he threw back his golden mane and roared with her spirit cry. As suddenly as it came, he collapsed to the floor of the tunnel, drained and shaking, and pulled his knees up to lie his forehead on them.
Slowly Catherine got up from the bed and went to the bathroom to wipe herself off. Pulling on a light fleece jogging suit, she went down to the tunnel threshold to find him huddled in delicious misery on the dirt. As he looked up to watch her stand before him, she licked her fingers with the tip of her tongue and drew two lines in the air between them.