Mouse Traps

By Sigyn
 

Catherine had never felt so happy in her life. Finally, finally finally finally, Vincent had broken through the barriers of platonic relations they both had suffered through for years. There was a lightness in her step, a glow about her face. People at work commented. Joe Maxwell actually stammered when he tried to talk to her while looking directly at her. Every time Catherine closed her eyes she could picture Vincent Ė naked! Ė in her bed!Ė She could feel him touching her, hear recreations of the sounds he made. She nearly came just sitting at her desk, thinking of him. She was surprised she was able to get any work done, thinking so constantly of Vincent as she was, but her mind had been broadened too, and she flew through her paperwork, knowing exactly what to write without thinking about it.

When she got home that evening she sat reading on the balcony, expecting Vincent to come and join her. She trembled with anticipation, waiting for him. Waiting for him.

She finally fell asleep waiting for him, and woke shivering with the cold several hours later. She crawled her way into her bed and tried to get back to sleep, but something troubled her. He hadnít exactly said he was coming back tonight... but how could he not? She was fairly bursting with it.

The next day she was still burbling with memories of their exquisite night. She had a moment of free time just before lunch, and her mind wandered off into a dream. "Hey, Radcliffe! Are you actually humming?"

Cathy shook herself back to earth to find Joe staring at her with an eyebrow raised. "Yeah, I guess I was," she mused.

"Right," he said ruefully. "Obviously having a better day than me. You got a deposition at one, so unless youíre brown- bagging it like the rest of us plebeians I suggest you scurry off and wolf down your larks tongues, or whatever youíre getting for lunch."

"Watching ĎI, Claudiusí on public television?" Cathy said snidely.

"I happen to own the book, thank you," Joe said indignantly.

Cathy laughed, realizing more of their friendly semi-antagonistic banter was exactly what she needed to bring her down to earth. "Come on, Joe, Iíll buy you lunch."

He raised an eyebrow. "Seriously? You buttering me up for some vacation time, Radcliffe?"

"No, just sharing the wealth," Cathy said, grabbing her purse. "Iím having a better day than you."

And the day continued to go well, until the sun set. Catherine walked out onto her balcony, but she had already decided to go Below if Vincent wasnít there already. He wasnít. She changed into jeans and threw on her jacket before heading down to the threshold below her apartment building.

She knocked on the pipes, announcing herself. She got a reply back, which said, V. GONE.

Catherine wasnít sure she heard that right. REPEAT GONE.

The message came back again. GONE.

The messages on the pipes were very useful for picking up packages and sending people places, but it was limited as to the number of questions one could ask. For example, she couldnít ask where, or why, or what the hell he thought he was doing.

COMING DOWN. She tapped.

SENDING GUIDE. M. (little tap) J.M.

That was Mouse and Jamie.

Catherine knew most of the tunnels between her apartment building and the hub by now, but everyone felt safer if she had a guide. Catherine sent OVER and headed through the tunnels.

Catherine heard her guides coming long before she saw them. Usually Mouse could be as quiet as Vincent, but not when he was arguing, and Jamie was intensely angry about something. "It isnít that I didnít want the waterwheel, I just didnít want it right there!"

"Okay, fine. What did you want? No where else to put it. You want light by the falls, need electricity, need the waterwheel."

"Yes, but the waterwheel blocks the path, Mouse!" Jamie said. "You only need the light because of the path."

"You said."

"I only mentioned it. Honestly, do you listen to every word I say?"

"Okay, good! Okay, fine! Wonít listen at all, then!"

"I didnít say that. Hi Catherine. Vincentís gone."

"So I heard. Is something wrong?"

"Not that I know of. You still wanna come down?"

"Yes, I do, Jamie," Catherine said. "Hello Mouse."

"Hello, Catherine. You like electricity?"

Catherine decided to stay out of this debate as much as possible. "It has its uses."

"Not when it blocks paths, it doesnít!" Jamie snapped.

"Youíre just jealous that Mouse thought of it and you didnít!"

"Mouse is an idiot!" Jamie shouted back.

"Is there a problem?" Catherine asked with as much dignity as she could maintain. The two of them were very funny.

"No problem. Jamie just says one thing, wants another."

"Mouse canít figure out function from form."

"Jamie doesnít know what she wants!"

"Mouse canít think to save his life!"

"Ahm... perhaps you should discuss this another time," Catherine suggested. "When your tempers arenít so high."

"Mouse is fine!" Mouse said arrogantly. "Doesnít matter what Jamie thinks."

"Fine, then!" Jamie said, looking much angrier than the flippant statement merited. "Do things by yourself! Alone!" She turned and ran down the nearest corridor, scrubbing at her face.

Catherine peered after her. "Was she crying?"

Mouse looked uncomfortable. "Jamieís weird," he said finally. "Just trying to make her happy."

"She wanted a light by the path, but now the pathís blocked?"

"Waterwheelís off sync. Throws water on the path. Two hours, have it fixed. Light and path."

"Why didnít you just tell her that?" Catherine asked.

Mouse looked down. "Donít know."

Catherine smiled. She suspected Mouse liked arguing with her. He did seem to bait her a lot. "Do you know where Vincent is?" she asked to change the subject.

Mouse shook his head. Then he bit his lip. Then he nodded his head.

"I really need to see him. Can you take me to him?"

"Shouldnít," Mouse said. "When Vincentís traveling, he wants to be alone."

"So... why do you know where he is?" Catherine asked.

Mouse looked a little sheepish. "Worry about him. Alone is bad. Worse than bad. Worse than worse. Donít understand why he goes. So, always know where he is. Never let him see. Never catch Mouse. But... worries me not to."

Catherine smiled. "It worries me, too," she said. "I think thereís something he and I have to talk about. Could you take me to him? Please?"

Mouse hesitated, and twitched a bit. "Okay, good," he said suddenly, all action. "Okay, fine. Come with Mouse."

He led her through the tunnels to a cache hidden behind a false wall. "Here," Mouse said, pushing a torch into her hand. He grabbed a flashlight out of his pocket and they started down another corridor. They twisted and turned until eventually they left the lighted tunnels behind them. Catherine swallowed as she lit her torch. Vincent truly had gone down into the dark.

"Where are we?"

"Below the tunnels," Mouse said. "Twist and turn forever. Stick with Mouse. Donít get separated."

"No fear," Catherine said.

They continued, and the tunnels felt dank and close. Then, to her surprise, a wind guttered her torch. "Are we near the cavern of the winds?" she asked.

"A tunnel leads from there. This called the fissure."

"Why do you call it that?" Catherine asked, but before he could answer she tripped on a rock. Mouse caught her and they rolled the other direction from where she had been heading.

"Donít fall!" Mouse said. He pointed his flashlight out at the darkness, revealing what Catherineís diffuse torch hadnít shone. The tunnel had opened out into endless blackness, so far that his light was a tiny pinpoint on the distant wall.

"Sorry," Catherine said. She reached forward to pick up her torch.

And the floor gave way beneath her.

"Donít move!" Mouse cried out, panicked. "Donít move, donít move!"

It didnít help. The rock continued to crumble. Mouse grabbed Catherine as they fell, protecting her head with his body. They landed with a sudden thump, and Catherineís breath was knocked from her. She lay stunned for a moment, assessing damage. Nothing hurt, or hurt seriously, anyway. She sat up.

She was blinded by light. Mouseís flashlight was shining in her face. She reached out for it, but misjudged the distance and only brushed it with her fingers. Suddenly, it vanished. She gasped and got up to her knees. She watched the light fall slowly, circling down and down and down, until it disappeared into the black. The only light now was from her torch, still burning on the ground above their heads. She gulped. They were trapped.

She was relieved when she found Mouse was still beside her, then gasped as she realized one leg and one arm dangled dangerously over the precipice. She pulled him away until they were both near the cliff face. Mouse groaned.

Catherine collected the young man, turning him over. His eyes lolled crazily. "Mouse! Mouse, look at me, Mouse. Stay with me."

Mouse blinked and finally his eyes focused. "Catherine?" he whispered. He blinked a few times. "Whyís it dark?"

"We fell," Catherine said. "The torch is still up in the tunnel, but I think itíll go out soon. Does it hurt anywhere?"

"Head hurts," he said. "Ankle hurts. Elbow, ribs, wrist. Ankle hurts worst."

Catherine let her hands travel down until she found Mouseís ankle. She couldnít see much in the dim light, just the barest outline of his form. He hissed as she prodded it, but she didnít feel any blood or protruding bones. "It might be broken, or sprained," she said. "Iím no doctor, but itís not bleeding or anything. Maybe we should keep it elevated...."

"Okay, good. Okay, fine," Mouse said. "Mouse heals good." He hissed. "Can you find a rock?"

"I donít dare move far," Catherine said. "Weíre on the edge of an abyss, and I canít see the edges."

Mouse hesitated and then said, "Oh. Weíre on the ledge, yes?"

"Um," Catherine said. "Yes. A ledge about four feet wide. At least, thatís what I saw before your flashlight fell."

"Yeah. This is bad. Worse than bad."

"Worse than worse," Catherine cut him off. "Fifteen feet from here up to the tunnel."

"I know," Mouse said. "Donít dare climb up. Slip and fall all the way down. Oh!" he groaned. "Head hurts."

Catherine went back to his head. "Itíll be okay," she said. She gathered his head into her lap and stroked his hair. Her hand came away sticky, and she realized he was bleeding. "Damn."

"What is it?"

"Youíve got a nasty bump. Youíre bleeding."

"Uh oh," Mouse said.

"Yeah. Uh oh."

Mouse grunted and writhed.

"No, no, stay still. Stay still."

Mouse lay back down. "Candle," he said. "In my pocket. Just there."

Oh. Good idea, that. Catherine wondered why she didnít take to keeping candles and matches in her own jacket pocket for her forays into the dark. She patted Mouseís voluminous coat until she found the pocket he meant. After pulling out more bits of unidentifiable debris than she could believe he could carry about his person, she finally found half a candle. It took further digging in another pocket before a lighter surfaced. She lit the candle and examined Mouseís head.

It looked awful, but it was clotting. "Well, you wonít bleed to death," Catherine said, trying to sound cheerful.

Mouse took a deep breath. "Catherine?" he asked.

"Yeah?"

"Does Vincent really know when youíre in trouble?"

"Usually."

Mouse closed his eyes and sighed. "Okay, good. ĎCause no one comes down this tunnel."

Catherine gulped. "No one?"

Mouse shifted his head then grimaced with the pain. "No. Too dark."

"Then why did we come down it?"

"The way Vincent went. You asked. Vincent likes dark."

Catherine sighed. "You didnít tell me it was dangerous."

"Itís not. Not my fault the floor broke. Not my fault!"

"No, itís not your fault, Mouse," Catherine said, trying to reassure him. "Youíre not in trouble."

"Am. Vincentíll kill me. Canít let Catherine get hurt. Most important thing."

Catherine smiled. "Iím not the most important thing, Mouse."

"Are to Vincent."

Catherine sighed and stroked Mouseís hair. His brow was damp with sweat. His eyes closed. "No, Mouse, you have to stay awake," Catherine said. "Stay awake until Vincent comes. You have a concussion."

"Why stay awake?"

"Because you could slip into a coma, Mouse," Catherine said. "And never wake up."

Mouse made a small, terrified squeak.

"Itíll be okay," Catherine said. "But sleeping, bad, okay?"

"Okay, fine," Mouse said. He trembled under her hands. "Okay, good, okay, fine. Vincentíll come." He closed his eyes and sniffed. "Vincent always comes."

"Stay awake," Catherine said.

"Yeah." But he sounded like he was drifting.

"Talk to me, Mouse. Tell me something."

Mouse sniffed and looked up at her. "Like what?"

Catherine asked the question sheíd always wanted to know. "Where did you live before you came here?"

A shadow clouded Mouseís face, and Catherine almost regretted asking him. But she had to admit, he no longer looked about to go to sleep. "Alone," Mouse said.

"You lived alone?"

Mouse nodded slightly. "There was someone. Must'a been. Long time ago. Must have had a mother, once. Everyone has a mother. Right?"

"Right."

Mouse shook his head. "Canít remember. Voices. Sounds. Someone threw scraps. Canít remember. Bit by a dog once. Cried. No one came. Thought someone would come. They didnít. Must have been someone once, if I thought theyíd come. Right?"

"Where was this?"

"A tunnel. Up top and tunnels. Donít remember, just different places. Lotsa people, no people. Didn't like people. People dangerous. Hit you. Hurt you. Do things to you. First place I really live is my nest."

"Nest?"

"Yeah. Under a warehouse. A hole. Long tunnel to my nest. Too small for grown ups. No one could get there but Mouse and rats."

Catherine shuddered. "Rats?"

"Oh, rats good," Mouse reassured her. "Rats keep you warm. Curl up; rats curl up. Get through the night."

"You slept with rats?"

"Rats good," Mouse repeated. "Cold is bad."

Catherine gulped. To have a childhood where the best memory was snuggling with rats...!

"Liked my nest. Listen to the people up top. Shout, back and forth. Okay, good. Got it. Okay, fine. Toss stuff, back and forth. Okay, good. Okay, fine."

Catherine smiled. That made sense, now. Rather like the call of "mark twain!" that Samuel Clemens heard all his life on the side of the Mississippi, as the boats measured the depths of the river. Mouse had grown up with, "Okay, good!" as the words spoken most frequently around him. "How did you get down here, then?"

Mouse shrugged. "Too big for the nest. Couldnít fit. Had to find somewhere else. Found lots of places. Always chased away. Set mouse traps."

"Mouse traps?"

"Yeah. Crawl behind things, mouse traps catch your fingers. Makes you not wanna crawl there. Made mouse traps. Mouse traps good. Keep you safe. Wake you up when people come. Give you time to run."

"And you ran?"

"Always. Never get caught, not me. Find somewhere, find stuff, take stuff. Need it, take it, get through. Survive. Somewhere up top, somewhere down below. Always people chase away, try to catch Mouse. Always had to leave. Never safe, never home. Never... never stopped. Just always bad. Then I find here. Always warm here."

Catherine always thought of Below as rather cold, but compared to a New York winter, Mouse was right; it was warm. "But there were people," Mouse continued. "People bad. People scare me. People always hurt, always chase away. But... still safest place to get stuff. Lots of places to hide. Hid. Found things, took things. Long time, no one knew Mouse was there. Never know who took things. Then accident. One night, people saw me. Ran. Didn't catch me. Cried out to me. Didn't know the words, thought they were yelling at me. Thought theyíd lock stuff up. Left stuff instead. Scared me. Didnít trust it. Rat poison gets left out. Found other food, wouldnít touch what they left out. So, next night, whole kitchen open. Everything out. Nights and nights. Everything left out. Crazy people. Didnít think could be for me."

"How old were you?" Catherine asked.

Mouse shook his head. "Donít know. Vincent says nine. Mouseís birthdayís the day Vincent caught me. No one knows. No age, no name. Couldnít talk then. Just a few words. Okay, good, fine, bad, worse, mouse trap."

Catherine laughed gently. "Vincent found you?"

Mouse grinned wickedly. "No one find Mouse. Still donít know all the tunnels Mouse knows. Keep it all in my head. Set mouse traps. No one find me. But Vincent catch me. Real quiet, didn't know he was there. In the kitchen. Cat and mouse. Never get caught Ďtil Vincent. Never been so scared. Screamed. Bit. Didn't work; Vincent too strong, even for Mouse. Vincent catch me, hold me, everyone come running. Put me in a chamber. Had it ready for me. Bed, light, warm stuff. One way out. Only one way. And Vincent between me and it."

"Were you still scared?"

"Terrified," Mouse said. "Hid in the corner. Vincent kept talking to me. Talking, talking, more words than I ever heard. Sometimes out of books. Sometimes just words. Have food brought, left it for me. Had to eat it. Couldnít not trust. Food closer and closer to Vincent. ĎTil one day, in his hands. Only held out to me. Had to take it from him. Days and days and days. Offer warm water, wash face and hands. Never had that before. Warm clothes, soft bed. Words. So many words. Vincent touch me when I take food, touch hand, touch arm. Not try to grab. No one try to hurt."

Mouse shook his head, his eyes distant. "Never touched before. Never. Not without hurting. Felt strange. Others come, bring food, talk. Soft voices, Vincent said, only soft voices. Smiles. Others come, go. Jamie liked to watch. Silly little girl. Said I was funny. Hated her, then. But Vincent, always there. Always. Slept in the door. I said Vincent was mouse trap. He laughed. Said, then youíre the mouse." He smiled. "Always Mouse then. Had a name." Mouse shook his head and looked up at Catherine. "Never had a name before, either. Became someone new. Some one. Was Mouse." He pursed his lips for a moment. "Liked being Mouse."

"And Vincent did that?"

Mouse nodded. "Then one day, Vincent not in the door. Stood aside. Mouse ran like anything. Out the door and gone. Vincent didnít chase, didnít catch. Stood in the room, behind. Mouse stopped. Torn, one way then the other. New mouse trap. Inside. Didnít wanna go down that tunnel. Knew what was down there. Hungry, cold, scared, alone. Behind was food and bed and Vincent. But Mouse was scared. Didnít trust it. Thought something bad might happen one day. Would lose it all. Would be worse than cold, hungry, scared. Didnít know home, or Vincent. Alone was all Mouse knew. Started to cry. Didnít know what to do. Vincent stood behind me, held out some soup. Said, ĎWould you like some, Mouse?í Knew what to do then. Turned around. Okay, good. Okay. Fine. Forgot the soup. Crawled into Vincentís lap and cried."

Catherine was near tears, herself. It was the sweetest, most beautiful story. It was sad that Mouse had to live through all that in the first place, had to live through the fear to be... well, tamed. But he was found, and was tamed. Tamed by Vincent.

"Iím scared, Catherine," Mouse said then. "I donít wanna stop being Mouse."

"Youíll always be Mouse now."

"Not if I die."

Catherine stroked his head. The candle was more than half burnt, now. Soon, they would be in total darkness. "Youíre not going to die," Catherine said. "Vincentís always there for you, no? Heíll come and find us. We wonít be alone here for long."

"Vincent was alone," Mouse said.

"But heíll know where I am."

"No," Mouse said. "Not now. Before. He said... what'd he say? When he met you, you were the end of his aloneness."

Catherine heard Vincent's words, and realized two things. One, that Mouse could probably speak normally if he concentrated on it, he just didn't see the need. And secondly, that Vincent had always loved her very much. "He said that?"

"Yeah. When I made the catch for your crystal."

Catherine blinked and pulled it out from under her shirt. "You made this?"

"Yeah. Spent all day at it. Wanted it perfect. Ruined three pieces of gold getting it right."

"Itís beautiful, Mouse."

"Vincent found the crystal," Mouse said modestly.

"Still," Catherine said, realizing just at this moment that the gift was as much from Mouse as it was from Vincent. "Thank you."

"No. Thank you."

"For what?"

"Doing for Vincent what Vincent did for Mouse."

Something melted inside Catherine then, and she started to cry.

"Sorry," Mouse said, sounding worried. "Whatíd I say?"

"Nothing bad," Catherine said. She kissed the young man on the forehead and whispered, "Itís going to be okay. Weíll get you out of this. Youíll be okay."

Even as she said it, as if to belie her words, the candle winked out. She shuddered in the sudden blackness.

"Itís okay, Catherine," Mouse said. "Dark doesn't hurt."

"I know," Catherine said. "Itís just Iíve always been a little afraid of the dark. My mom used to light me a candle, just a tiny little flame. It kept the dark away."

"Must have been nice to have a mom."

"A mother, who is really a mother, is the most wonderful person in the world," Catherine said.

"Must have been a lot like you, then," Mouse said.

Catherine smiled in the darkness. "I like to think so." They were silent for a long moment, and then Catherine remembered why sheíd been keeping Mouse talking. "Mouse?" There was no answer. "Mouse!"

He grunted as if just waking up.

"Stay here with me, Mouse," Catherine said. "Youíve got to stay awake."

"Really tired," Mouse murmured.

Catherine hardened her voice. "You die, you think Vincentíll be very happy with me, either? All that work, wasted, just Ďcause I couldnít keep you awake!"

Mouse shifted on her lap, as if forcing himself awake. "Sorry."

She asked him about his latest project, and while she couldnít understand one mechanical word out of twelve, she nodded and commented as if she knew exactly what he was talking about, and knew full well it would work. She even agreed to get him some tools, though she wasnít quite sure what she was agreeing to. Anything to keep him holding on.

It seemed like forever before a flickering light fluttered over the edge above them. Catherine didnít notice it, so intent was she on keeping Mouseís voice going. "Whatís that?" Mouse asked, pointing. Only then did Catherine realize she could almost see.

She turned her head toward the light. "Hello?" she called hesitantly. "Hello! Weíre down here! Help!"

"Catherine!" Vincentís voice was hoarse with urgency. His head appeared over the edge of the cliff, and he peered down at them.

Catherine had never seen anything so beautiful as Vincent in that moment. "Hurry!" she called up. "Mouse is hurt."

Vincent stood up and did something with his torch, finding a bracket. Then he crawled over the edge. "Wait!" Catherine cried, "a rope, orĖ"

"Itís Vincent," Mouse reminded her gently.

Right. Catherine had forgotten how easily Vincent crawled up and down city buildings.

Vincent alighted beside them and took stock of Mouse as well as he could in the dim light. He could see much better than Catherine in near darkness. He felt Mouseís ankle, and his wrist, and then examined his head. The bleeding had stopped, but a large bump was forming. He took off his cloak and folded it beneath Mouseís head, in place of Catherineís lap. "Mouse. Iím going to take Catherine up first so that she can send a message on the pipes. Will you be okay on your own?"

"Okay, fine," Mouse whispered.

"Now, you canít be a dormouse. You have to stay awake. I want you to recite something while Iím gone. Can you do that?"

Mouse nodded. "Yeah."

"All right. Iíll be back before the last line, and I expect to catch the end of it as I return. ĎTwas brillig. Go on. ĎTwas brillig?"

"And the slithy toves," Mouse murmured, "did gyre and gimble in the wabe..."

Vincent made Catherine cling to his back as he climbed up the cliff face. Catherine closed her eyes, deciding it was better not to know if they were going to fall. The moment he had her on solid ground he handed her her own torch, relit. "Down that tunnel twenty yards, thereís a pipe that leads to Pascalís hub. Do not turn either right or left, can you do that?"

"Yes," Catherine said.

"Wait for us by the pipe," he said. Vincent crept down the cliff side again, and Catherine headed off to sound the alarm.

***

Chapter 2

***

It was several hours later that Catherine was finally able to sit down and breathe. According to Father, it had been touch and go with Mouse. If she hadnít kept him awake, things could have gone very badly. Vincent assisted Father in tending Mouseís broken ribs and sprained ankle, and he told Catherine to rest in his chamber. As she left Jamie nearly knocked her over running into Fatherís study. She could hear her loudly berating Mouse and his stupidity as she left. It surprised Catherine that neither Vincent nor Father tried to stop Jamie, until she heard them behind her. "Miss me?" Mouse asked.

"YES!" Jamie shouted.

She guessed how the two young friends handled their friendship was their business, and not hers.

She couldnít get Mouseís story out of her head. The profound aloneness that Mouse had endured was horrifying. The long and exhausting process that Vincent had undergone to draw him from it was a Herculean effort. That Mouse should equate that with what Catherine had done for Vincent... she didnít know what to make of it.

She wasnít hurt, really. The fall had given her a few mild bruises, but mostly she was shaky with spent worry. She rested her eyes until she heard Vincent come into the room. She sat up. "Is he all right?" was the first thing she asked.

"Heís stable. Jamieís still yelling at him. He scared her."

"He scared me," Catherine said. "I thought I might lose him a few times."

"You were lucky," Vincent said. "Both of you. What were you doing by the fissure?"

Catherine took a deep breath. She was having a very hard time not flying into Vincent's arms, but he seemed stiff and formal, and she needed to know what he was thinking. "What do you think?"

"He was guiding you to me," Vincent said quietly. "I was far away, Catherine. I might not have gotten back to you in time."

"You did," Catherine said.

"You might have fallen. You might have died."

"And I could be hit by a car tomorrow Above," Catherine pointed out.

Vincent hissed and turned his head from the thought. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "You should go."

Catherine was not going to be seen off. Not now. Vincent was agonizing over something, and if she let him send her away she might never bring him through it. "Iím not going anywhere," she said firmly. "You need to talk to me Vincent, not run away."

"I wasnít... running..." Vincent said, and looked down as he realized that was exactly what he was doing.

"Why did you go?"

Vincent shook his head. "I couldnít stay. Not after...."

Catherine refused to believe that he was like the men Above who only wanted what they wanted until they got it, and then didnít want it any longer. "Youíre not... telling me you regret what we did?" she asked.

Vincent looked away.

"Why?" she asked. "If youíre feeling guilty, thatís justĖ" She bit back her anger before she could say "stupid". That was more the kind of thing Jamie would say. She wished, for a brief moment, that their relationship was as easy as Mouse and Jamie's, that they could have a friendly tiff and it would all be all right. But Vincent was too fragile for that. "It was perfect," she said instead. "It was wonderful. The best night Iíve ever lived."

Vincent sighed. "ĎIf it were now to die, Ďtwere now to be most happy," he breathed, "for, I fear, my soul hath her content so absolute that not another comfort like to this succeeds in unknown fate.í"

Catherine frowned. "You are not Othello," she said. "And I am not Desdemona, and you are not about to kill me in my sleep." She came toward him and touched his hand. "Whatís wrong, Vincent?"

He pulled away, shuddering. "Do not touch me," he growled. He buried his head in his hand and turned away. "You really must go. I canít...."

"What?" Catherine pursued him relentlessly, shifting herself until she was within his line of sight. "What is it? Tell me."

"I couldnít stay near you. It was too..." he grunted in frustration.

"What is it, Vincent?" Catherine pleaded.

"I canít shake it from my mind!" he finally hissed. "Every minute. It grows stronger and stronger and Iím back in that room!" He clutched his head. "I want to be back there. I want it too much."

"Youíre reliving it?" Catherine asked. She smiled. "Me too. Itís perfectly normal."

Vincent looked up at her.

"Really," she said. She couldnít stop grinning. "Iíve been humming absently and falling off into daydreams, and being seized with sudden desires to run Below and throw myself into your arms. Really." She reached forward to take his hand. "It happens with every new lover. With you itís really, really, really strong. Almost overwhelming. But itís perfectly natural, thereís nothing shameful about it." She tried to touch his face. "You didnít know I was feeling it too?"

He pulled away entirely. "I canít Ė sort through anything. Itís all a jumble in my mind, tangling into everything." He stood as far apart from her as he could in his chambers. "I was lucky I could find you just now. I canít let it happen again, Catherine. I canít. Iím turning into a monster."

"You are not!" Catherine snapped, with more anger than heíd ever heard her use.

He cringed. He turned away and fingered a pile of books. "You donít understand," he said. "Itís so much worse than it ever was before. Iíve always... desired you, but this is... sheer madness. I canít let it happen again, I canít, I canít."

He looked so terrified, so tormented, that Catherine couldn't bring herself to fight him. She looked at him, so beautiful, so vulnerable, and she wanted to cradle him. She wanted to do other things too, but in this, she was the stronger, the more experienced. She had to give him leeway. "Vincent," Catherine said. "I wonít press you, but you have to know this is normal. Youíre supposed to feel this way. Call it honeymoon syndrome." He sighed and shook his head. She pressed on. "Iím not going to let you run and hide from nothing. I love you, and I need to be with you. I do," she said at his incipient protest. "So youíre... frightened and confused. This is all very new to you. And thatís okay. Just donít run from me. Two steps forward, one step back. We can take a step back, and thatís okay. I know weíll take it forward again."

Vincent closed his eyes. He wasnít sure he could take only one step back. Every moment had been heated with thoughts of her. Every thought flared into desire. Every desire grew into a vision, and those visions had begun to turn very dark indeed.

"If you keep running, Iíll follow you. It doesnít matter how far into the darkness you go, so long as you still love me, Iíll be waiting for you. And itíll be a while before Mouse is up to leading me, so you have to stick around at least until heís better."

Vincent bowed his head to cover a laugh. "Why did he agree to take you?" he asked.

"He worries about you when youíre alone, he says."

Vincent nodded, as if that made sense.

"You know... Mouse told me a story, while we were down there."

"The one about how he singlehandedly rescued Marisa from the flooded tunnel? He never mentions that he caused that flood in the first place."

"No, not that story. The story."

Vincent blinked. "His story?"

Catherine nodded.

Vincent stared at her in wonder. "Mouse never tells that story. Never. Not even to Jamie, and he spends more time with her than anyone."

"Do you know it?"

"Yes. But only because I was there as he worked through it. He told me in bits and pieces, and through his nightmares. He spent six months sleeping in my chambers, you know, learning to speak. He was a Caliban, very hard to get through. He still has nightmares, sometimes. Thatís why he wanders at night, he gets woken up, and is afraid to go back to sleep. I think thatís why he takes things, his dreams make him resentful, and he has to take something from Ďup top,í in Ė revenge, I guess. To pay them back for what happened to him. He never thinks of it like that, of course. He just feels like he needs something, so he finds it and takes it. It almost doesnít matter what it is. What he really wants is his childhood back, and he canít have it. I think Iím the only one who understands that." Vincent shook his head. "How much did he tell you?"

"Everything, I think. From his earliest hazy memories to the nest under the warehouse with the rats," she shuddered again to think of it, "to how you caught him. And his mouse traps. He still makes them, doesnít he?"

"Thatís what he does. What heís always done. Even without words, he was making traps."

"It was a really... touching story," Catherine said. "And the end, when he came to you, and cried in your arms, I nearly cried myself."

Vincent chuckled. "He only let me do that because he was in shock," he said. "Heíd only just realized he didnít have to be alone, he could stay if he wanted. It took him a long time before he let himself be really touched by anyone. Now he'll accept hugs and let people touch him, but he used to cringe away. Too much closeness still makes him nervous sometimes. Itís really starting to bother Jamie, things are getting... interesting between them."

"Send Lena to talk to him," Catherine said with a mischievous smile.

"Already have. Heís a slow study."

"Faster than you think," Catherine said. "I held his head the entire time we were down there."

"Really?" Vincent mused on that for a moment. "Thatís a very good sign. Probably the most sustained contact heís had since that day he turned back to me." He stared at her in wonder. "What is it about you?"

Catherine shook her head. "I donít know. I didnít know he didnít like to be touched. He didnít say anything. I just treated him as I would anyone. If Iíd known, I wouldnít have."

"I know," Vincent said. "But with anyone else, I think heíd shift and look uncomfortable, and you would have understood, and let him go. And why would he tell you any of it?"

"I think because I asked."

"People have asked him before. Jamie is hurt he wonít tell her. Iíve told her a little, but it is his story to tell. Heíll just say, he was Ďaloneí and for most, that has to satisfy."

"No," Catherine said. "I think it was because I was the one who was asking. He... he has this weird idea in his head that... what you did for him, I did for you."

Vincent only stared at her, his eyes soft.

Catherine felt uncomfortable with the depth of his gaze. "Silly, huh?"

"No," Vincent said after a long, long pause. "Heís right."

"But..." Catherine had a hard time figuring what to say. "You didnít need to be tamed."

Vincent blinked. "It took Mouse less than a month to finally come to me. Weeks of my constant presence, my eternal generosity." He took a deep breath. "Youíre always inside me, Catherine. Always with me. Always... loving me. How long did it take me to come to you?"

"Eight months," Catherine whispered. Now that he mentioned it, he had seemed very wild those first few weeks after he finally came to her, appearing, disappearing, hard to find, not much more than a shadow in the dark of the night. He only really came when she was in trouble, or he needed some help with something. It took him long months before she could rely on him to come just to be with her, and there were still so many times he pulled away.

"Mouse is right," Vincent whispered. "I never thought of it that way before." He laughed. "Itís easy to forget Mouse is a genius, he communicates so poorly."

Catherine tried to understand. "But at the first.... Vincent? When you found me in the park. Why did you take me Below?"

"You know why. To save you."

"But there could have been easier ways. Why didnít you just stop the bleeding and, I donít know. Call some Helpers?"

Vincent sank to his chair and rubbed his eyes. "Father asked me that question. A dozen times." He held his head in his hands, rubbing his temples. "I still donít know the answer."

Vincent had a tendency to grab hold of his head when charged with some emotion. More than just his natural empathy, which always left him echoing with everyone elseís emotions, Catherine suspected that everything Vincent felt was a hundred times stronger than ordinary human emotions. She believed this, because she could feel his love for her, (particularly when he was aroused) and it was impossibly strong. She wondered that his head didnít burst with it. She took the chance and came up behind him. She stroked his head, running her fingers into his long hair and gently massaging the scalp. He sighed and tipped his head back, relishing the feel of her.

"Youíre not going to tell me to stop?" Catherine asked.

"I should."

But he didnít.

She continued to stroke his hair. After long moments she let one finger circle his ear, then trace down his jaw line and along his long throat. When she touched the collar of his shirt he took a deep breath and sat upright. She quickly returned her hand to his hair, afraid sheíd gone too far.

"This is dangerous, Catherine. You know where it could lead."

"You know thatís where I want to go."

Vincent sighed. "We canít go there again."

"Iím not scared."

"You should be."

"But Iím not."

There was a long, long pause. "I am," he finally admitted.

Sheíd always known this, but it was good to have the confirmation. "Then we can learn to face the fear," she said. "Together."

Vincent stood up and away from her. He faced her from over the chair. "I donít think I have the courage."

Catherine bit her lip, and Vincent thought at first she was disappointed... and she was. But there was another emotion cutting through it... amusement? She was... trying not to laugh? A quick image of a line drawing flashed to him, a little girl in an apron standing beside a big roughly furred animal with a bow on his tail. The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion. He looked at her sidelong, and she cringed. "Sorry!" she said, understanding his look. "You caught that?"

He grunted a laugh. "Well, thatís a different take on it," he said evenly. He perched himself on the edge of his bed. "I read those books as a child. I always thought of myself as the Tin Man, actually."

"Youíve the most heart of anyone Iíve ever known," Catherine said.

"It always felt like a big hollow space," he said, his eyes unfocused. "Too vast ever to fill. Until you."

She sat down beside him and snuggled into his chest. As always, it felt like heíd just become whole again. He sighed with the relief of it. But even as the relief came, the pain of longing cut through it and ruined it. It wasn't fair. He wanted his pure love back. He wanted his peace of mind. "What are you so afraid of?" Catherine asked. "Nothing bad happened. It was wonderful, wasnít it?"

"It was, and now I want it too badly. You canít imagine the thoughts I find myself thinking now, Catherine. Theyíre terrifying. Itís not worth the risk."

"I donít think itís that much of a risk. I know you think youíre dangerous, but Iíve seen you in some pretty terrifying states, and youíve never hurt me before. Never even had a desire to. And itís not that you held yourself back from it, because Iíve seen you do that, too. It doesnít matter how enraged or... wild you get, Iím always on the other side of that fury. I think youíre more in control than you know."

Vincent considered this. "Perhaps."

"So what is it? Why are you so afraid of me?"

"Iím afraid for you," he said quietly.

"No, youíre not," Catherine said. "Weíve done it, and it worked. We went past the greatest barrier, and now youíre just throwing up more." Her tone was gentle, and it took her a moment to realize how harsh that sounded. "Itís not you youíre afraid of, Vincent. It canít be. It has to be me. Like Mouse was afraid of a safe place. He didnít know what to make of it, so he rejected it for a long, long time. Now youíre rejecting me."

"Am I?" Vincent swallowed. "Maybe in that sense I am afraid of you."

"That Iíll reject you?" she said. "You already know I wonít."

He shook his head. "No. I wanted to believe I feared your rejection. I was telling myself that. Ever since that first moment you saw my face, when I frightened you, Iíve been telling myself that I feared frightening you again."

"Youíve no idea how much I regret that moment."

"It wasnít your fault. I startled you." He shook his head. "I should have taken you Above long before then."

Catherine hesitated. "How did you plan on showing me your face?"

"I didnít," Vincent said candidly. "I made that decision before I even brought you down. That is why I bound your eyes when I bound your face. And then I came to love you, and I feared... exactly what happened."

"So if I hadnít taken the bandages off... I might never have truly known you?"

He was quiet for a long time. "Iím not sure. Iím not sure I could have stayed away from you. Iím not sure when, exactly, your feelings bonded to me. I had focused all of my attention on you, hoping against hope that you would heal. At first, you know, it wasnít a sure thing. You had abandoned hope, you wanted to die. And I could feel it. There wasnít anything in your life you cared enough about to hold onto."

Catherine thought back to those times. He was right. Sheíd been living such a shallow life, she saw no need to hold onto it.

"I searched for your feelings, tried to ease your fear, with every skill a lifetime of sympathizing had taught me. Was it the third day? The fifth? The eighth? I donít know when I realized I still knew how you were feeling even when I was across the tunnels. I knew long before that that you would never reveal our secret... and I had been considering... dreaming... as your feelings strengthened toward me. I was vacillating, torn by indecision. In truth I could have taken you back within a day of treating your injuries, once the bleeding had stopped and you were stabilized. I could have delivered you to a hospital...." He swallowed and bowed his head. "But you loved my voice so."

"I wasnít ready to leave," Catherine said. "I hurt, but I felt so safe in this bed, and you were always near. For being frightened and in pain and lost, I felt better here than I ever had with anyone else in my life."

"I know. Thatís why... I couldnít let you go." He shook his head. "I was hoping to keep you for another day at least before...." He stopped and sighed, and then admitted the truth. "Part of me was hoping to keep you in my bed forever."

Warm trickles of joy flowed through her chest as he said that. "So why wonít you take me there now?"

"Because you have filled that empty space inside me, Catherine. Filled me until I realized that empty space was a thousand times more vast than I had imagined. Filled me and filled me, until I canít imagine I can contain any more without bursting." He ran his hand over her shoulders, loving how the curve of them fit perfectly into his palm. A horrible stab of desire shook him as he remembered what her naked flesh felt like against his hand, how the scent of her enveloped him, how.... "I fear going any farther, Catherine... because I fear you will break me. That when your skin touches mine this terrible love I have for you will consume me. And then Iíll lose you." He closed his eyes.

"It didnít consume you the last time."

He looked at her. "It nearly did." He took a deep breath, and Catherine realized he was shaking. "And it's so much worse now. Now whenever I think of you something burns in me. Holding you like this is... exquisitely painful. There used to be peace in it. There isnít anymore. My peace is gone. I want you more now than I ever did when I couldnít have you."

"You know what youíre missing."

"And it hurts," he whispered. "I want to do such things... I abhor the very thought of them, but...." He shook his head.

Catherine reached down and picked up one of his hands. She held it to her lips. "These are my hands," she reminded him. "And theyíll never hurt me." She kissed each beclawed fingertip.

"They want to," Vincent whispered, in the most agonized voice she could imagine. "Thereís a part of me that wants to taste your blood, Catherine."

Catherine went very still. Vincent had never said anything remotely as graphic as this. Was he trying to scare her off? She didnít think so. She swallowed. "I trust you," she said.

"You know what I can do," Vincent said. "Youíve seen it. And in my dreams, I saw you. Cold and pale beneath me. Your blood on my lips. Gone from me forever. Because I wanted you. All of you." He trembled in her embrace.

Everything came clear to her. "Vincent!" she tried not to sound patronizing, but she couldnít really help it. "You ran away because of a nightmare?" She couldnít smother a laugh.

"It is not funny, Catherine," Vincent whispered. "My dreams have been known to come true."

Catherine sobered up as well as she could. "I know that," she said. "But... do you intend to just... keep running? What will that solve?"

"It will keep you safe."

"No, it wonít. What happened today proves that."

Vincent paused, then conceded the point. "But I cannot endure this, Catherine. Even now my hands ache to touch your skin. I want..."

"You want me," Catherine said. "As I want you." She tried not to let the longing color her voice to much, but oh, God, how she wanted him! "Itís okay, Vincent."

"But itís stronger now," Vincent said. "I canít fight it. Iím burning inside."

"Then donít fight it!" Catherine whispered, staring up at him. "Please donít fight it. Itís worse than it was for me, too. I know now what it feels like to have you, and I want you so much that yes, it hurts. Please. Please!" Her voice broke, but she couldnít stop begging. Sheíd always promised herself she wouldnít beg him. Swore sheíd be strong, would do whatever it took to make sure he was comfortable, she wouldnít coerce him in any way. So much for that resolve. "Please!" she sobbed. "Please!"

Vincent stared down at her, his breath ragged.

"Please!"

He couldn't take the anguish in her voice, the surge of desire he felt from her. His pain he could bear; hers was beyond him. With a groan of surrender, the walls crumbled. Vincentís mouth closed on hers. Catherine flung her arms around him and they fell upon the bed, hearts racing. Catherineís flesh burned, she needed to feel his skin. Her hands tore up his shirt and she locked herself against his flesh. She pulled his thermal shirt over his head and he growled as it blocked his view of her. He tore it off and grabbed her. His skin, with its thin layer of soft fur, was even hotter than her own, and she dug her fingers into his fur.

Vincent's mouth opened and he bit at her throat, unable to keep his mouth from her. What was he doing! He pulled away and stared at her. With a tortured sound of horror he pulled himself from her. "No!"

"Donít you dare," Catherine breathed from the bed, with what breath she could find.

"Catherine," he barked. "I Ė canít Ė do this! I havenít... the control I need. I need you too much! Please, please, just run!"

Catherine shook her head. "No."

Vincent moaned, and his hands clenched.

Catherine sat up. He truly didnít understand. This was all so new to him, a completely undiscovered country, and the desperation he felt was tearing him apart. "You need some help," she said.

"There is no help!" Vincent breathed.

"There is." Catherine went to his waist and unwrapped the wide band of leather that he used as a belt. It was laced together with two soft leather ties, more than an inch wide and as long as her arm. Vincent hissed with desire as she removed them. "Do you trust me?" she asked.

Vincent took a deep breath. "Yes," he whispered.

"Give me your hand."

He did so. Catherine lay him on his back on the bed and lifted his hand above his head. Vincent realized what she was doing the moment the soft leather touched his wrist. He froze, and his passion almost cooled. Heíd been bound before, by cruel hands, and once before by friendly ones. His family had restrained him in that terrible madness just after Lisa left, when his mind had been shattered and all his own restraint gone. He wasnít sure what she had tied the leather thong to, but there was a resistance against his wrist. She sat beside his head and waited for his other hand. She didnít even ask for it. He had to want this.

He considered it for what seemed a long time. As of this moment, he could reach over, untie his wrist, and tell her to go. Or he could let her bind him, and...

He was already bound. He was bonded to her. He closed his eyes and gave her his other hand.

Catherine kissed his palm as she finished the tie. As she pulled away his hand closed, as if holding that kiss. His fear had diminished. She would be safe from his claws. She kissed all five of those claws in turn, and then the base of his hand, and then, to his surprise, nibbled his wrist. The sensation of it made him arch his back and gasp. She smiled and looked over at him. "Like that, do you?"

It was all he could do to find his breath, let alone his voice.

Catherine kissed him, and he fell into her kiss. He knew if his hands werenít bound that heíd be catching her up, wrapping his arms around her, but he knew he couldnít. He could only trust that she would do as he wanted. It was an exquisite uncertainty.

She let her kisses flow down his jaw to his throat, and his eyes closed with the feeling of it. He gasped, and Catherineís hands slipped down his torso to his trousers. She stared at him until he lifted his hips, so that she could pull them down. He sighed as his erection was freed from the constricting clothing. Catherine pulled all of his clothing off and left him naked and bound on the bed. For five seconds he couldnít see her, and he felt very vulnerable. Then she slipped back into his line of sight, and she was as naked as he.

He sighed. There had been a big part of him which truly believed he would never experience Catherine again, that he could never risk it. It was such a relief to see her, feel her, smell her, "Ah, Catherine," he breathed.

Catherine lay down beside him and nuzzled his chest. He licked his lips, relishing the sensation of her skin against his. She found his nipple and nibbled it gently. He grunted. "Mm."

Catherine lay her hands on his chest and scratched him gently. No. She was kneading him, as he loved to knead her. Oh, God, he hadnít realized heíd been longing for this! He groaned with a deep, masculine sigh, and Catherine giggled. "I thought you might like that," she said. She kissed his chest above his heart. "We tend to like what we want to do to others."

"You know me... very well...," he muttered. "Oh."

This last was because she had found his throat and was nibbling it and nuzzling it, sending electric shocks down his body. Her hands kneaded his shoulders, and he was in absolute heaven. If only he could hold her Ė but he couldnít. So he just let her do as she wished.

She shifted and climbed over him, straddling him to hold him completely. She lay her head down and listened to his heart. "Hm."

"I love you," he whispered.

She sat up, and her breasts hung before his eyes. "I love you."

Oh, those soft, round mounds of her flesh. "I... I want..." He was having a very hard time holding on to his words.

"Yes? What do you want, Vincent?"

He stared at her breasts as hungrily as an infant, and Catherine smiled. She bent down until they brushed his cheeks. "Is this what you want?"

He sighed an acknowledgment and nuzzled the soft flesh. His head turned, and he caught one of the taut nipples in his mouth. It felt like a prize. He supposed this was dangerous. The beast inside him wanted blood, so he still kept it caged. He tongued and kissed the little knob, and Catherine trembled above him. Her hands clenched against his shoulders, and she pushed her splayed body against his waist again and again as if she couldnít stop moving.

Suddenly she pulled away, and he growled a protest, that quickly turned into a purr as her hands found his quivering shaft. She shifted and slowly, ever so slowly, sank onto him, guiding him as she did so. She groaned as she found him, and tossed her hips back and forth, moving herself around him. His lips parted, and he raised his hips, trying, as if it were possible, to push himself more deeply into her.

She bent over him and whispered into his mouth, "Do you still want to taste my blood?"

Vincent stared at her in horror. What was she thinking? What was she going to do? No, God, no! He scrambled to find those words and pull them out, but she had pulled herself off him, leaving his shaft aching for her. She crawled over him, slowly shifting until her legs were straddled over his mouth. "Or is this what you really want to taste?"

Oh, God, yes! He couldnít believe the great vision she was offering. His tongue arched up and tasted the salty, acidic juices she was offering him. It was exquisite, the absolute essence of her, her scent, her taste, the soft, subtle feel of her flesh. He licked her and licked her and licked her, feeling, through their bond, the tingling delight she felt at every touch of his tongue. The swollen bud above him pulsed as he tasted it, and he lifted his head to enjoy her fully.

Her legs trembled as she tried to keep her weight off him, but her hips moved of their own accord, trying to find more of him beneath her. She grunted with exertion and frustration, as his gentle caresses brought her close, but not close enough. Until finally, they were enough, and she groaned with release. His tongue still sought her, and she sobbed with the sensation of it, pulling herself away from him.

She kissed him, his lips still tasting of her own juices, and he groaned. He struggled to find a word, battling away the beast which was desperate to take over. The more rational part of his mind wondered if that leather would be strong enough, so he didn't let the beast loose at all. "More."

Catherine smiled and found his shaft again. She was so wet she didnít have to guide him. He slid in as a knife into a sheath, and sighed. Then she started rocking. Back and forth, back and forth, pushing her body against his. She squeezed now and then with her inner muscles, and he gasped. A wave was slowly growing inside him. He wanted to take her hips. He wanted to force her to move faster, but his hands were bound, and he had to trust her. He arched his hips, and she slid along him. Back and forth, back and forth. Suddenly she sat upright and started shaking, driving herself against him, her breasts dancing with the effort. The wave crested and then crashed, and he roared with triumph, his hands clenching in their bonds. Catherine grunted in contentment, and fell against him.

She kissed his chest a few times before rolling off him and making sure the blankets covered both of them. Vincent sighed. Again. Another night, and she hadnít died. He hadnít killed her. Maybe it didnít have to be never. If he was careful, if he assessed his mental state, maybe he could choose times when it was safe. Or at least, safe if he had help.

He hadnít noticed before, but his arms were beginning to be tired of staying in the same position. Besides, he wanted to hold her. "Catherine," he whispered. "Itís safe. You can release me now."

Catherine smiled, mischief glinting in her eyes. "Pull," she said.

"What?"

"Pull. Youíre not tied to anything."

Vincent knew that wasnít true, there was resistance on the leather thongs. But when he turned his head to look, he gulped. She was right. The end of each thong was only weighted down by a pile of books. It took the least amount of pressure for them to slip from under their weight, and he was free.

He stared at his leather wrapped hands in wonder for a long moment.

"I told you you werenít dangerous," Catherine said fondly.

"That was reckless, Catherine," he said, trying to scold.

"No. I knew, even if you didnít, that you wouldnít hurt me. And you see, I was right. You didnít even try."

"I didnít try because I knew it wouldnít work."

"And enough of your mind stayed to know it wouldnít work," Catherine pointed out. She untied his one of his decoratively braceleted wrists. "Donít be so frightened, Vincent. Not of me, not of yourself. Not even of this terrible love we share. I know we can handle it. The fear is only trapping us, keeping us from going forward. We canít let it block our way."

"Mouse traps," Vincent said.

Catherine smiled, and nuzzled his throat. "Mouse traps," she concurred.

 

 

 

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