Other Love

Sigyn

*note on the text. This story is a little bit different. It may seem to be going someplace very strange
for a minute or two, but keep reading, it clears right up.

"Have you seen Vincent?" Catherine asked.

Lena looked up from where she was bouncing Baby Cathy on her knee. Somehow, without anyone ever intending it, the childís name had turned into Baby Cathy, and now no one ever called her otherwise. Lena was half convinced that sheíd end up being Baby Cathy all her life, like Baby Driver, or Babe Ruth, but she didnít mind. "Ah, I think heís wandering. Mouse said something about a nameless river?" She turned back to Baby Cathy. "I didnít get it myself," she said to Baby Cathy in a silly voice. "Why donít ya jist name the river, huh? Huh?" She kissed the babyís stomach and Baby Cathy gurgled with laughter. "Maybe youíll name the river. Baby Cathy River, what do you think of that?"

Catherine sighed. The nameless river. Since she was fairly sure that meant that Vincent was not planning on returning for some days, she fought a surge of disappointment. Theyíd had another of their close calls the last time theyíd met, another near miss, another brief wavering of control. She wanted to see him again, to let him know that everything was all right between them. It was bothersome that he ran to earth like a frightened animal. It seemed the only thing that ever frightened him was herself. And that frightened her.

"I was just about to put Baby down for her nap, but we can sit and talk if you like as soon as sheís out."

Catherine smiled, making the best of it. "Iíd be pleased."

Baby Cathy was still nursing. Thanks to Maryís assistance, Lenaís milk had begun to flow strongly despite her two-day escape above, when her broken sense had forced her back to the streets. After a milky snack, she handed the child to Catherine to hold. Baby Cathy was half asleep already from a mild case of nursing hypoxia, and the tryptophan in the milk. Catherine hummed awkwardly to the baby. Sheíd never had one, never had any younger brothers or sisters, never been long in a house with a baby. "Whatís it like to have a baby?" she asked Lena.

Lenaís expression changed at Catherineís question. Sheíd heard that tone before, usually from the girls who were too young, but wanted someone to love them, wanted a baby. Catherine wasnít too young, so the tone didnít fill her with the trepidation sheíd usually had. But something bothered her. She wasnít sure what. Rather than dwell on it, she took Baby Cathy back and carried her to the alcove that housed her crib. "Well," she whispered, seemingly more to Baby Cathy than to Catherine. "Whatís that Vincent always says? No words, eh?" She lay the child down in the crib and watched her as she drew the curtain over the alcove. Baby Cathy stirred a little, but then silence fell as she passed easily into sleep. "Itís different for everyone, Iíll bet."

Catherine sighed, knowing the truth of it, but still wishing there was a more detailed answer. "Do you wanna talk?" Lena said, jumping onto her bed like an adolescent at a slumber party. "Sheíll be out for four hours, and she gets cranky if I wake her before then."

"Doesnít that mean itíll take her a long time to go to sleep tonight?"

"Whatís a ten-thirty bedtime mean down here?" Lena asked. "Itís dark either way. Sheíll even out as she gets older, I think. Anyway, what do you want to know? The pregnancy, or just... what? Iím still learning how to raise her." Lena laughed. "I donít think Iíll ever learn it all," she added ruefully.

Catherine looked a bit wistful. "I donít know," she said. "How does it make you feel?"

"Small," Lena said. "Very small under all that... power. The strength of the love you feel is just... overpowering. And all the responsibility." She shook her head. "It scared me. Still scares me. But it makes me stronger even as I go. So strong I almost scare myself, sometimes." Her hands idly fiddled with a tiny sock that Baby Cathy had kicked off onto the bed. "But itís also... really wonderful." She looked up at Catherine, who was frowning at the sock.

Lena went on then, talking about midnight feedings and diaper changes and burping, the mundane aspects. Catherine laughed, and surprised herself. She felt very close to Lena. Only with her did Catherine see any glimpse of herself as "Cathy" when she was Below. It was refreshing to know someone who knew the streets Above. While they had occupied such different worlds all their lives they might as well have been on different planets, still, they shared a bond by having met Above. For some weeks before Lena had been brought below, Catherine had gotten to know her, tried to help her though mundane means, prepared her. There was something special about Lena which Catherine had sensed. At times she felt very protective of Lena, like a younger sister. Other times, the street wisdom of her reared its ugly head, and she would open her mouth like a sibyl, with such profound dark wisdom issuing from her pale, unassuming face. Then Catherine felt like the younger of the two, her experiences so sheltered and benign.

"Now." Lena hesitated. "Can I ask you something?"

"Anything," Catherine sighed, laughing.

Lena was serious, though. She wouldnít look at Catherine. "Whatís he like? I mean whatís it like to be loved by him, and... well, be with him?"

Catherine was a little afraid to answer. Lena had fallen in love with Vincent, very quickly. More quickly than Catherine had, now that she thought about it. But everyone said that Vincent had been a very different person before Catherine came into his life. More distant, more mercurial. It was possible that Vincent would not have been so... loveable if he hadnít already been loved. "Heís... different," Catherine said slowly.

"You can tell me, Iím not gonna to wig out again," Lena said quickly. "I mean, I... Iím like okay with it, it doesnít bother me no more. It hasnít... gone away, or anything, but... I can deal with it. I mean, Iíve seen you guys together. Whatever I got is so not on par. It was just... the only way I ever knew how to love anybody."

"Donít sell yourself short," Catherine said. "You have a lot to offer."

Lena smiled. "Well, Iím sure anybody I meet down here is gonna be surprised by some of my job qualifications, but thatís not what I meant. I know that now, everyone down here is different, with somethiní to offer. But you two have somethiní... itís not real. Or... or maybe itís more real. Just like you want to understand what itís like to have a baby, I want to understand it. Iím not jealous anymore... weird, really, but Iím not. And nothinís changed in me, I think I still feel the same way, but... somehow it doesnít bother me. Itís like Iím happy with what I got. I never had that before. I just wanted to know... a little more about what you got." She put her hand on Catherineís. "Like, is it true he knows what youíre feeling?"

"Is that a rumor or a known fact?"

"There are no rumors down here," Lena said. "Didnít you know that? But not everyone believes it. You know itís almost a joke?"

"What is?"

"Oh, every time Vincent leaves without saying anything... which is often, let me tell you. You turn around, heís gone. Does he do that to you too?"

Catherine smiled. "Not anymore," she said.

"Well, every time that happens someoneís bound to say, Oops, Catherineís in trouble again. Unless weíre pretty sure you are, then weíre all real quiet," she added.

Cathy rubbed her face, embarrassed. Everything was always so urgent, so dangerous, so important. It was odd to realize her endangerment was so common it was becoming a running gag in the tunnels.

"Youíre always here, did you know that?" Lena said. "Itís like you never go Above. A day never goes by when you arenít mentioned by someone.... Itís one of the reasons I left, really," she added quietly.

"What?"

Lena nodded. "I owed you so much. But everywhere I went, everyone was always Catherine this, Catherine that. When Vincent told me he had a girlfriend, I knew it had to be you. He didnít even have to say it. You get everything. Great clothes, car, family, job, money, teaching." She sighed. "You just had to get Vincent too. I felt like your complete opposite."

"You know so much more than I do, Lena, in so many ways," Catherine said. "You are so special to everyone. To Vincent. You know what I did when I first saw his face?" Lena shook her head. "I screamed, and threw a bowl at his head."

"Owtch."

"I missed," Catherine said pointedly.

"That wasnít what I meant," Lena said back.

Catherine closed her eyes in shame. "Well, see?" she said, turning back to Lena. "Just goes to show you, youíre much braver than I am."

"It didnít take bravery to look at Vincent," Lena said. "Just, like, experience. I seen the ugliest bits of so many men. Iíd heard so much about him I was expecting Phantom of the goddamn Opera. I wouldnít have been surprised by a two headed elephant man."

Catherine laughed. "Well, you had been warned. I was surprised... and a little post trauma," she added.

Somehow, lying on her bed in a school-girl sleep-over attitude, Lena got the whole story out of Catherine. Her attack, how Vincent tended her, their first goodbye, how he told her of their bond. She even mentioned personal things like her erstwhile affair with Elliot Burch, and the only time sheíd ever really gotten angry with Vincent, over her ex-boyfriend Stephen, and on and on. Sheíd never realized before that she had a girlfriend Below, someone who didnít already know everything, but could understand both the problems of Above and Below, seamlessly. Catherine had never before had the freedom to just tell someone everything that had happened. Lena laughed and patted her hand and was sympathetically indignant at all the right places. Once or twice Catherine was afraid theyíd wake Baby Cathy, but Lena shook her head, saying that kid could sleep through anything.

"Man, I never had a chance!" Lena said with a generous laugh. "Youíre so lucky." Leaning forward conspiratorially, Lena asked in a hushed, amused whisper. "So whatís he like in bed?"

Catherine had been asked such questions by girlfriends in the past, about past boyfriends. Though it was not the kind of question anyone else Below would ever raise, the generalized morality of the place being under an unofficial nineteen-fifties censorship, she wasnít shocked. But her reaction did shock her. At the blunt question, Cathy found she had burst into tears.

It hit her like a fire blast. One moment she was fine, and the next she was filled with crushing emptiness. The hollow ache she constantly pushed to the most dusty and disused part of her psyche came rushing forth, consuming everything rational and beautiful in its path. She buried her face in the bed and sobbed, uncontrollably.

Lena was shocked herself. Catherine always seemed like a tower of strength, a sturdy greenhouse tree, so well tended and cared for that now it would outlast the greenhouse itself. That she could have any problem which would result in this kind of misery was unthinkable. Lena immediately assumed sheíd done something terrible. "Oh, Catherine! Oh, Catherine, what is it? What is it, oh, honey. Iím sorry. " She pulled Catherine toward her and cradled her head on her lap, stroking her hair. "Oh, what is it?"

"He wonít..." she sobbed, unable to form a full sentence. "He doesnít..." She cried and cried and cried and cried and cried.

Lena swallowed. So it wasnít just her. But no. It couldnít be true that Vincent wouldnít screw Catherine, either. After Lena realized that Catherine was not going to calm down, she pitched her voice higher, though not louder, so that her gentler words would cut over the sound of the tears without cutting through them. It was a trick sheíd learned trying to cut over other sounds, when loud voices would have been unwise. "You mean Vincent wonít..." she searched for a word that Catherine wouldnít find offensive. "Make love to you?"

The words softened her sobs, but couldnít end them. "No," she shook her head.

Lena held Catherine tightly, stroking her back. "How come?"

Catherine shook her head again. "I donít know! He says heís afraid of hurting me, but... I think heís just afraid of it." Her sobs were quieting now, but the tears would not stop flowing. "He feels everything so deeply, so fully. I think heís afraid to love me, truly. He wonít even tell me how he feels."

"Wait a minute," Lena said, her voice turning harsh. "This guy hasnít even told you he loves you?"

"Well... no," Catherine sniffed. "I mean, he does tell me. Just not in so many words."

Lena was not to be sidetracked. "Have the words, ĎI love you, Catherine,í ever come out of his mouth?"

"No," Catherine had to admit.

Lena scoffed so loudly that Catherine sat up, trying to force her tears away. "He tells me in poetry... in an embrace. A... a concert in the park, a Ė a..."

"He hasnít said so, Catherine," Lena said.

"He has," Catherine said. "He has, I know he loves me, he just doesnít say it in words."

"You know the last time I heard that? Myself, talking about my last pimp."

Catherine pulled away. "That was uncalled for." She moved across the bed to leave, but Lena placed her hand on her arm.

"Iím sorry," Lena said. "Iím mad at him for making you cry."

As soon as Lena said that, it was as if someone had again turned on the faucet. The tears flowed like a river.

"Oh, come here," Lena said, and pulled Catherine against her shoulder. "Come here."

Being held in the arms of the gentle, childlike ex-prostitute worked a kind of magic over Catherine. All the frustrations of the last two years came pouring out of her as fast as the tears from her eyes. "We come so close," she cried into Lenaís ear. "He gets me so close. But then he fights when I just try to invite him inside to sit by the fire. I give him my heart... and he says we have to proceed with care. Care!!" Her voice cracked on the word. "He wonít even let me kiss him," she moaned. "Everything is always so chaste and proper. Its like heís pretending to be my brother, or... or as if I was married to someone else and what we have is wrong. I sometimes doubt if he even wants me. But he wants me. And itís not this empathy or bond or whatever we have confusing me. I donít just feel it. I see it. I see it in his face, in his eyes, he sighs when he takes his hands off me as if it was painful, but he wonít leave them there. He just wonít."

Lena thought back to that heartrending moment in Vincentís chamber, when she had come to his bed. He was so snuggly and warm looking, like a giant stuffed animal. His reaction when she came was not revulsion, but fear. There had been longing there, too, she had seen. Sheíd tried to deny it, but now she thought her first instincts had been right. Part of him did want Lena. If he refused all manner of sexual contact, he must have been half starved. Any touch probably left him burning inside. That he turned Catherine away as well made Lena feel a bit better. "Have you ever tried talking to him about it?" Lena asked.

"I canít! Every time I try he pulls away, sometimes for weeks." She sobbed breathlessly for a moment. "And I donít know what Iím doing wrong," she continued. "I donít want to force him, but I donít know what Iím doing wrong! Itís like Helena, the dove pursues the griffon! We cannot fight for love as men can do. We should be wooíd, and not be made to woo!"

The Shakespeare threw Lena, but she understood everything else. "Youíre doing nothing wrong, Cathy," she hissed, bending to her face. "This is obviously his problem, not yours, heís impotent or something and itís making him do these things."

"Heís not impotent," Catherine said. "Iíve seen. Like I said... we get so close..." Another sob racked her chest. "He leaves me so hungry."

Lena almost smiled. "That, I can fix," she said, and she bent to bless Catherine with a passionate kiss.

She did stop crying almost instantly. It was as sobering as a glass of cold water in the face. Not only the surprise of Lenaís kiss, but also her almost instinctive reaction to it. While her eyes went wide with astonishment and her body went rigid, her mouth had clung to those sweet, full lips and fully tasted her tongue. Lena tasted of Maryís camomile brew. "Better?" Lena said professionally when she was through.

Catherine didnít know what to say. "Lena, wha..."

Lena smiled, holding Catherine gingerly in her slender, milk-white arms. "Do you think I catered only to men, Catherine?" She expertly kissed away the tears on Catherineís cheeks. "Women need to be loved, too."

Her touch was so comforting, so exactly what her aching frustrations had been longing for that Catherine nearly succumbed. "No," she said instead, pulling away. "I canít. I love him."

"So do I," Lena said. She came forward again, kissing Catherine on the cheek, and then down her cheek, along her jawline, behind her ear. "And since he canít take care of you... for whatever reason." She kissed Catherineís neck causing her to shiver. "Iíll do it for him."

"No!" Catherine said, but it came out a seductive whisper, and she wasnít pulling away. She panted, "Itís... itís be... be...."

"Are you trying to say betrayal?" Lena whispered. Even as she spoke she never really stopped kissing Catherine. "Iíve always loved that word. Betrayal. Its like Beauty. It means nothing, but its such a nice sound." She ran her gentle fingers down Catherineís spine, sending responsive shivers through her. "Iím not asking you to abandon Vincent. Iím not asking you to love me beyond what we already share. I love both of you, let me do this for you."

Catherineís body was so hungry it nearly forced her to a yes, but common sense prevailed. She froze. "I canít." She was embarrassed by the heat in her panting voice. "Apart from that time my roommate and I practiced kissing in college, Iíve never even thought about... Look, thatís not the point. I love him." She shook her head. "Youíre right, there is a part of me that I wants someone to do what he canít, but not at the risk of what we have! I could never do that to him. Itís too complicated. It would hurt him too much."

Lena nodded, pulling away only slightly she turned her seductive embrace into a platonic one. "Iím as uncomplicated a solution as I can think of, but I have a rather simple view of everything. I can understand if youíd rather keep the problem." She gave Catherine a peck on the cheek and grinned at her, all schoolgirl again.

Catherine sniffed. "Lena, please donít do that again," she said. "I donít think most of the people down here would understand."

Lena smiled slyly. "Youíd be surprised," she said. "There are secrets even here. But youíre right, they are a little puritanical. Iím sorry. It was just job training."

Catherine laughed, but she was shaken. "And donít tell Vincent," she added.

"Tell him what, that Iím a whore?" Lena said frankly. "He knows that already."

"He might... take offence."

"Good," Lena said with feeling.

Lena managed to get Cathy a bit calmer and then, her tears dried, her face cooled, handed her off to the ministrations of Mary. Mary placated her with chamomile tea and a handful of the tunnel children entertained her with the first scene of Romeo and Juliet. Eventually, realizing that Vincent was not going to come, Cathy returned home.

After she left, Lena remained on edge. She spent much of her time listening to the messages on the pipes. She wasnít very well versed in the language, having only been living Below for less than a year, but she knew enough to recognize words here and there. In particular, she kept her ear open for the gentle clink of rhythms from the outer sentries, the little rhythm everyone Below knew, from the youngest child. Vincentís on his way home.

 

***

 

Vincent had retreated below. Another close call with Catherine had frightened him, so he had retreated to the nameless river in the empty caverns far beneath the tunnels, to meditate upon the darkness he felt he came from. He was a monk. He would turn himself into a shadow, a bodiless, empty thing, that felt no desires, that had no regrets. Usually it worked. He could bring himself to forget the city and the world Above, to turn his love for Catherine into something pure and chaste, as he must.

Today a sudden turmoil had shaken him from his reverie. A crushing, heart-rending sense of loss from Catherine. Usually when he felt that, it was because someone she knew and cared about had died. Then there was a wild moment of confusion burying some powerful feeling he couldnít pinpoint, and then, to his surprise, shame. Her feelings had calmed down some after that, but the crushing loss he had felt could not be denied, and the shame still nagged at her. Which meant that, although she was in no current danger, she needed him. He abandoned his meditations and returned to the Tunnels.

He nodded to the first sentry he spied, and stopped off at the kitchens for a spot of something hot before he returned to his chambers to change into something less musty from his wanderings in the lower caverns. As he approached his chamber he frowned. The candles were lit, and he felt a presence. Who was in his chambers? Catherine was Above, he knew that. "Father?" he asked, assuming as always that only Father was brazen enough to intrude upon his chambers without permission.

He knew it was not Father even before he poked his head around the doorway. As always, his empathic senses were muted in comparison to his bond with Catherine. But he doubted anyone, even the least sensitive, could miss the wave upon wave of anger that was coming from the small figure which was perched unflinchingly upon his bed.

"There you are," said Lena, anger smoldering under her normally quiet voice. "Iíve been waiting for you."

Vincent blinked in concern. Something was wrong. Lena was acting very strangely. Ever since she had accepted that her love for him was never to be requited, she had been very careful every time she saw him. Never getting too close, always watching what she said. He himself was careful not to spend time alone with her, and she seemed to help in that. They were barely friends anymore. It was too difficult for them. He was loath to hurt anyone, and her need was so great that it always pulled him. He always felt pulled to the strongest need, felt a desire to satisfy it. It was something in the way he was made, and why he was the unofficial counselor for everyone Below. Sometimes he felt her eyes on him when she thought no one was looking, but for the most part her feelings were under control.

Now, her feelings, whatever they were, were too wild for him to even begin to get a grip on, no matter how hard he tried. He didnít understand. "What is the matter, Lena?" he asked, wondering if he was going to have to reject her again. This was the first time they had spoken alone since that moment late at night as they both sat upon his bed, when he told her, in no uncertain terms, that she had to leave. It had broken his heart to hurt her as he had done, and had further tortured him that sheíd taken his statement literally. He never wanted to do such a thing again. "Has something happened?"

"No," Lena snapped, her neck held stiffly. "Apparently nothing has happened. Not for years."

Vincent shook his head. "I donít understand."

"Yeah, I get that," she said, climbing to her feet. "I got that one. That one I got."

"Lena," he said was quietly and patiently as he knew how. "You really must begin at the beginning. What is the matter?"

"You are," she said, and he frowned. He knew he had done nothing to merit anger, from anyone, least of all little Lena. She glared at him and pushed him, gently but firmly, into his chair. He let her do it, mostly out of bemusement, and she towered over him. Before he could open his mouth to question further she asked, with no sign of regret, "What kind of a monster are you?"

Vincent flinched. Despite all his fear of rejection, despite countless strangers screaming at his approach, despite his own self-loathing of his form, no one from Below had ever spoken to him like that. He grunted as if someone had struck him a blow. From Lena, who had begged to see his face, who had accepted him without a blink, who had barely questioned his form, she who protested she loved him, it was a blow. A terrible one.

"Why do you say this?" he asked, his voice coming more raw than he had expected.

"Because youíve earned it. Do you know what youíve done to that woman? I held her weeping in my arms for an hour, do you realize that? And thereís more to it, anyone who can break down that quickly has been holding back so much pain. She must be positively raw with it. What have you been doing to her?"

"Who?" he asked, though he was afraid he knew. The surge of loss he had felt this afternoon hadnít come from nowhere.

"Catherine, who the hell do you think?" she asked.

"Nothing," Vincent pleaded. "I swear to you."

Lena scoffed and threw her head back. "You donít get it, do you? Thatís the whole point." She perched herself onto his table and glared down into his face. "Look. I know youíve lived a really sheltered life down here, but Iím going to tell you a little something about sex." He flinched again at the word, and began to realize where this conversation was going. "Sex by itself is not wrong or dirty or evil or, done properly, dangerous. Itís a thing people do, like eating and sleeping. Okay? Itís normal. Natural. And itís something people need."

Vincent took a deep breath to steady himself, shaking his head. "Lena. You donít understand."

"Oh, I do," she said. "I understand better than either of you. And if youíre going to say that love doesnít have to involve sex, I get that. It took me a little while to get that, but I got that, honest. But there comes a point when withholding it can be as abusive as forcing it. And yes," she said, cutting off what he was about to say, "I did say abusive. If this is how you treat your girlfriends, Iím damn glad you didnít love me back!" Vincent blinked as her words stabbed. "I stayed out of a bloody poisoned relationship. Any sane person would have left you on this issue, or at least had it out with you. But sheís way too nice."

She ignored the trembling of his hands and pressed on, relentless. "Stop being so damned selfish and put yourself in her position for just one minute. Sheís a sexually experienced woman, in a relationship with an impossibly cool guy, whom she loves with every fiber of her being, and every inch of her body. You bring her to the brink with poetry and Shakespeare and classical music and God knows what all. And this place down here? I know you donít realize this, Ďcause youíve lived here all your life, but this place is unbelievably sexy. I mean we got candlelight and waterfalls and antiques and stained glass and itís just cold enough that you wanna snuggle, (and you, by the way, are really snuggly.) You couldnít imagine any place sexier! Here she is, sheís in her thirties, her biological clock is going boom, boom, boom, and she loves babies, and the only thing in the whole wide world she wants is you. What a catch," she added with sarcasm. She shook her head. "I thought she was strong, and man, she is, to put up with you. But sheís too damned frightened of you to fight you on this, and you know what? Iím not."

"Catherine is not afraid of me," Vincent whispered, more to remind himself than to convince Lena.

"Not of you hurting her," Lena said. "Though if sheís anything like me, she rather wishes you would. No, sheís afraid of you leaving her." Vincentís eyes locked onto Lenaís in shock. "I think sheíd rather you killed her than leave her. And thatís not healthy in a relationship, either, but thatís none of my business, Ďspecially as I think you both got the same problem."

"She fears me leaving her?" Vincent said in her pause.

Lena shook her head. "Duh! God, what are you that you get none of this! You two are totally screwed up, Iíve had healthier relationships with pimps. She fears you leaving her even for a day. She fears you pulling away an inch, or turning all broody like you get." She got down off the table and leaned into Vincentís face. "She is heartbroken that you wonít touch her. And due to this magical... emotion impithy thing you got, she has to hide that every second of every day!" Vincent didnít bother correcting her on the correct pronunciation of "empathy". "The second I bring the subject up, she breaks like porcelain! Sheís got enough pressure built up inside, itís a wonder she hasnít started throwing herself at total strangers just to get some relief."

"Catherine wouldnít," he gasped. "She couldnít."

"No, she wouldnít, because sheís stronger than that," Lena said. "Instead she suffers in silence, and will probably suffer until the day she dies, because sheíd never hurt you by telling you how much youíre hurting her."

"I could never hurt her," Vincent said. "Iíd know if I hurt her."

She scoffed. "Vincent, you wonít even tell her you love her!" The scorn in her voice was toxic. "That kind of thing can kill a woman. It nearly killed me, before I came here." She shook her head. "Youíre disgusting." Vincentís head snapped toward her, his blue eyes wide with shock. This whole conversation was one series of repeated shocks. He gasped, but she did not look sorry. "I suppose I should be used to being disillusioned. I fell in love with you because I thought you were different." She stood up. "Youíre not. Youíre just like every man Iíve ever met." She turned her back, and Vincentís hands clenched into fists.

He found it hard to catch his breath. Vincent had come to accept Lenaís love as a constant, a tiny proof that he was as Catherine always protested, lovable. Catherine was a gorgeous rushing waterfall, but Vincent had come to expect Lena to be in the back room as a cool cup of water, a platonic sweetness he could depend on. It hadnít occurred to him that he had come to take her love for granted. That he could not, hurt him more than he could have predicted.

"Why?" he groaned as she approached the doorway. "Why do you say these things to me?"

"Because I love her," Lena said, turning back. "Sheís the one who needs to be saying these things to you, and she wonít. She canít. She could never hurt you, no more than she could cut out her own heart. Sheís too sensitive, and she loves you too much. Iíve been less lucky in my ugly little life. Iíve got enough scars, I can take it. I can take a blow, just like I can take seeing the pain in your eyes right now." Lenaís voice cracked just a little on that, but she steeled herself again quickly. "I can take it for her. Wouldnít you take any pain to make her happy?"

He surged to his feet and looked away, his thoughts too twisted to focus.

"I owe her. If I have to watch you writhe, I can do it. And donít think it doesnít hurt me, because I still love you, Vincent. And that hurts every day. Iíd do anything for you. Just imagine how youíd feel if you were saying things this painful to me. If I was mistreating Baby Cathy or something, wouldnít you say what you had to to make me stop? No matter how much it hurt me? No matter how much that hurt you?" She swallowed. "And I know it would hurt you, because there is something with us. Not enough, clearly, but something. Catherine reached out for me when I had no one." She paused. "She even gave me you. Talk about generous. So I say this to you in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I can get you to stop hurting her."

There was a pregnant moment of remorse, and then Vincent closed his hands over the back of his chair, head bowed. "I canít," he breathed.

"What do you mean, you Ďcanítí?" Lena asked. "She says you arenít impotent," and Vincent flinched to realize that Catherine must have noticed those few times, usually beneath the concerts in the park, when he lost total control over his body, "and even if you were, thereís ways around that. If you donít know them, I can help there," Lena added. "There is no Ďcanítí when it comes to this."

"I canít," he said. It was so easy for him to admit to the intimacies of his life with Catherine, and everyone else below knew, or knew enough, of that sordid affair with Lisa back when he was young. But to have to admit this to Lena, whom he thought of so like a child! He let go of the chair and held his hands up in supplication. "These hands..." he began. They closed into fists. "My... body...." He could not begin to go on.

"You mean youíre different?" Lena asked.

"Yes," he whispered, relieved.

"I love those differences," Lena said frankly. "Theyíre seductive. Beautiful." Vincent stared at her in wonder. She couldnít mean this. "Iím not going to say it wouldnít matter to her, because I know it matters to me." There was no pain in her voice when she said, "I want you. I want your strength, I want the purr in your voice, I want to feel your fur against my skin. Youíre blushing," she added. "And Iím sure if I didnít have you cornered in here and shocked you into stillness by saying words I doubt youíve ever heard before, youíd have run already, but itís true. Get used to it Vincent; youíre stunning. Once past the initial shock, of course, but thatís just the fact that itís different from everything else, not that itís ugly. You are without a doubt the most seductive thing Iíve ever seen in my life." She came back to the table and perched on it. "And that is saying rather a lot, Vincent."

She shook her head. "You donít see yourself at all. Youíre strong, youíre built like a brick house, youíre beautiful, youíve got hair that Fabio would envy, youíve got a voice that would seduce the Virgin Mary, and a scent that... ah- Iím not even gonna get into that. Itís a wonder she hasnít gone mad. Honestly, to get so close to an angel and have to stop there, really hurts. Trust me, I know. And I only had to do it once, how often do you pull away from her?"

Vincent was blushing. The heat pulsed through his face. Catherine felt that way about him, he knew, because he could feel it. He could feel her awe when she looked upon him, feel her acceptance, and Ė despite all his attempts to deny it, Ė he did feel her desire. But she did not speak so frankly. He wouldnít have accepted it, and she wasnít in the habit of speaking so, with her sheltered, upper-class lifestyle. Lena, however, was much more blunt, and much less embarrassed by her own impulses. Which left Vincent feeling a little at a loss. An angel?

In his heart, he believed himself abnormal and aberrant, that his differences would be something that a lover would have to surmount and accept. Not that they would be something to draw and seduce. He wasnít sure how he felt about Lena admitting this. There was embarrassment, a bit of shame, and leaking in at the edges, a completely unbidden trickle of pride. Iím seductive? There it was, out on the table for the cat to sniff at. The idea stared at him with accusatory eyes, saying, "How could you never have noticed this?"

The moment he noticed the pride, the shame quickly took over. "It isnít that," he said, though if he was telling the whole truth, that was part of it. He did fear rejection. But there was so much more to it. "I donít suffer from merely outward differences, Lena. I have... impulses... which are not...." He swallowed. "Not human."

"And they are?"

She asked that very quickly. She was asking for intimacies he had never revealed to anyone, and without a hint of shame. Who was this woman? What had her background done that she was discussing the most intimate details of existence as if it was nothing more personal than his opinion on Vivaldi? Vincent looked away and began to pace, unwilling to admit to any of it. He didnít even know the answer, really; heíd never let it go far enough to find out.

"I had a... regular customer," Lena said, to be delicate, "who liked to strangle me. He said it made the experience more enjoyable."

Vincent stopped pacing and stared at her in horror.

"I was the one who could be trusted to do anything, remember?" She hopped down from the table and faced him. "There was another man who would only pay me if he got to mark me somewhere." She lifted up a sleeve and showed off a ring of round cigarette burn marks that formed a flower on her left arm. "He said he was an artist. He bought me every week for six months before he was finished." She smiled bleakly. "These are only half the marks. Iíd show you the others, but I think it would probably embarrass you. Iíve been raped. Oh, I lost count of how many times. Not to mention at what ages. I think if I gave you the details, youíd be pretty keen on running out and killing my father, but I donít know where he is, and donít wanna. There were at least a dozen men who liked to tie me up and whip me. And of course my boyfriend, youíd call him my pimp, who would beat me if I didnít bring back enough money, and insisted he show me how it was done, just about every night. I have scars on the back of my throat, and you donít want to know how I got those." Vincent was shaking by this time, his nostrils flared as if facing an enemy. She was not afraid of the look of fury on his face.

"Shall I go on? You want to hear about dog and pony shows? Those were my next stop before I came here." She leaned toward him. "Just what impulses do you have that are ĎNot Human?í"

He didnít answer. His lips were curling in a snarl, and he was battling a roar. Her litany of horrors had made him nauseous. He didnít even dare move. Part of him wanted to catch her up and make her safe, and she was right, there was another part that was quite keen on running out and punishing anyone who had ever hurt her. But she was safe, and these malefactors were out of his reach. It was Vincent who wasnít safe right now. She had bound him with the harshest net of razor wire words, and his heart felt it was bleeding from a hundred different cuts.

She shook her head. "I donít think you know enough about human nature. This place isnít real. Nobody down here is really human. Humans are ugly, nasty creatures, who possess and torture women for their pleasure. You got history books, why donít you look at Ďem." She came towards him and took hold of his clenched hand. "Look," she said. "I get that youíre different. But Catherineís strong. Sheís even strong enough to put up with you doing this to her for however many years itís been going on. I am sure sheís strong enough to accept and adapt to whatever... interesting impulses you might have." She grinned rather slyly. "I will say, Iím curious. What do you think youíre going to do to her?"

He sighed, defeated. This is where it all came out. He sank down onto the edge of his bad. "Iím afraid I wonít be able to let go of her," he whispered.

Lena frowned. "Thatís it?"

"Thatís enough. Father made me promise. Said it wasnít worth the risk."

Lena frowned and knelt down to look into his face. "When was this?"

"A long time ago."

"And what does he know?" Lena asked. "From what I understand, that man spent all his life pining for some woman he never had the courage to do anything about. You really wanna follow his example?"

"I hurt a woman once," Vincent admitted. "I could do it again."

"How did you hurt her? You couldnít let go?"

He shook his head.

"How old were you?"

He sighed. "Young."

"You should hear the sorts of things Iíve seen from young men. You donít think youíd have gotten over it?"

"It isnít worth the risk. It wasnít only her. I hurt my brother, Iíve killed... dozens."

"I killed someone once," Lena said quietly. Vincent looked up at her. Her? Lena? Half the size of Catherine, smaller even than Jamie, built like a fragile butterfly, Lena killed someone? His clenched hand automatically shifted to catch hers in a gentle grip. "Youíre the only person Iíve ever told this. The how doesnít matter, but youíre right, it isnít any fun. It takes something out of your soul... forever," she added. "No matter how awful he was," she whispered. "But that doesnít mean Catherine deserves to be punished for your crimes."

"Exactly why I canít touch her," he said. "I am little more than a machine of violence. I shouldnít even let myself love her, but Iím not strong enough to pull away."

"And youíd never hurt her like that," Lena added.

"True," he said. "But I cannot love her the way you say I should. She would die."

Lena stared at him for a moment, and then did something she never thought sheíd have the guts to do. If what he said was true, it was a terrible risk she took, but she was serious when she had said sheíd do anything for him; even this.

She surged up and kissed him, rather passionately, her tongue piercing between his sharp fangs, her teeth finding his lower lip. Her warm hands held his face still so that he couldnít turn away. He froze, his eyes open, and let her do it, afraid to push her away, unwilling to pull her close. He didnít dare breathe, but after a moment his eyes closed of their own accord. His mouth responded automatically, tasting her. He had never felt a womanís mouth on his, never dared let anyone close enough to try. Catherine would never have forced such a thing on him. The feel of her, the taste of her, was heady and engulfing, and his body seemed to shrink down to only those points where she was touching him. It was wonderful, and it was wrong. It wasnít Catherine! He wanted it to go on, and he needed it to stop. He groaned, torn in seven different directions, and Lena pulled away without lingering.

When she opened her eyes, they were clear. Curious but passionless. The word which entered his mind was "professional." The coldness of it was disturbing.

"You feel like hurting me?" she asked.

"No," he breathed, surprised he could find his voice at all. He trembled like a leaf in the wind. "Lena, I donítĖ"

"I know you donít," she said. "That wasnít for me. If it was, it would have lasted longer." She took a deep breath, banishing heat. "Iím not trying to seduce you, Iím checking to see if youíre about to turn into a werewolf or anything." She waved a finger in front of his eyes. "Nope, all seems normal." She sat back and smiled. "Youíre completely inexperienced, though. Never kissed anyone who went into shock before. If I had to guess, you have impulses to have sex, and those are completely and utterly human. You just donít recognize them as such because youíve never let yourself feel it before."

She stood up, sucking in a deep breath. "I love you, Vincent," she said. "I love her. I trust you can do this." She leaned forward one more time, her hand on his shoulder, and kissed him, this time chastely, as a sister, on the forehead. That kiss, he knew, was for herself, and it was warm and lingering and heartbroken. His breath caught at the bittersweet pang of it. "Go to Catherine," she breathed into his hair. As she headed for the door she said one more thing.

"Be a man, for once in your life."

 

***

 

Catherine couldnít sleep. It was two in the morning, and it was over twenty four hours since she had broken down in front of Lena, and she still burned with a distant shame. It wasnít shame for having been kissed by a woman; Catherine had had many lesbian friends in her life, and found that nothing aberrant. It was that she had let herself be kissed by anyone at all, and had found herself liking it. She didnít want Lena. She didnít want Elliot. She didnít want anyone but Vincent. But her body had other ideas. Vincent had taken it to the brink so many times, she was there. She was primed. It would take the smallest pressure to open her like a flower. That was why she had responded when Elliot Burch had kissed her on the docks, why her bodyís response had shaken Vincent so. He didnít realize that Elliot was lying down in a bed Vincent had made. And Lena had touched that bed, too. Catherine had been made so ready that she felt about to burst, like an over-ripened fruit.

So she fidgeted and tapped her fingers and walked out onto the balcony and back again, telling herself she wasnít hoping for Vincent to be there, but returning to the balcony again all the same. She had just abandoned her vain pacing when a light knock sounded on the French doors. She almost ran back to the balcony again, but managed to keep herself to a steady stride.

Vincent stood as far away as he could on the narrow terrace, and Catherine caught herself up short. "Vincent!" she breathed. "I missed you. Itís been so long."

"I went on a journey," Vincent whispered. "To the nameless river, the dark and solace."

"I know. Lena told me." She closed her eyes. She had to tell him. It wasnít right to hide this from him. "Vincent, Iím so sorry. You have to know. You probably already do. She kissed me," she said.

It took her a moment to realize Vincent had said the same words at the same time. "She kissed me."

Catherineís brow furrowed. "She..." A hundred thoughts went through her mind, starting with, I thought she was over him, and ending with, How dare she! but most of them were just puzzled. "She kissed you?" She knew without asking that it was not a gentle kiss on the cheek as Catherine had dared to do only once or twice in her whole relationship with Vincent. Lena wasnít a kiss-on-the-cheek kind of girl, if her interaction with Catherine was any indication. Envy surged through her Ė not jealousy, as she had no fear that Vincent would choose Lena over herself Ė but pure envy. Lena had stolen what Catherine would never have: a kiss. A real kiss with her beloved Vincent. Possibly his first kiss Ė Catherine had never asked how far Vincentís relationship had gotten with Lisa before that terrible moment in the Great Hall.

She squashed her envy as quickly as it rose. Vincent would feel more guilty than she was sure he already felt. "And how did it feel?" she asked instead, academically. However it had felt, he had come to her.

"Strange," he said quietly. He frowned at her. "She kissed you too?"

Catherine swallowed. "Yes," she said. "You didnít know?"

He shook his head. "You were confused," he said, looking out over the city. Lena had kissed Catherine. Somehow that thought comforted him. He felt that perhaps Lena had merely delivered the kiss she had received from Catherine. It felt less like a betrayal. Catherine sidled up beside him, but she didnít try to touch him. "Why did she kiss you?" he asked.

Catherine balked. "Sh-she thought...." She trailed off, unable to find a soft way to tell him what Lena had thought.

"That you needed it?" he asked.

Catherine nodded, miserably. "Is that why she kissed you?"

"Exactly why," he said, and then confused her by continuing, "She thought you needed it." He turned to her and touched her cheek very gently. "She told me you were unhappy."

Catherine shook her head in denial. "Iím very happy," she said. "Thereís nothing more I could want."

Vincentís blue eyes regarded her for some time. "I felt that you were unhappy," he said. "What was it that made you cry last night?"

"Nothing," Catherine said, and Vincentís pupils dilated as he drank her in through their bond, to catch any hint of emotion. It was there. She was burying it, to keep him from feeling it. A raw, aching starvation she was suppressing. He had denied it before because he hadnít wanted to see. And he was fighting his own hunger, so it was somewhat buried behind his own.

Vincent took a deep breath. "Donít lie to me, Catherine."

She took her own deep breath. Lena must have said something, or something had happened. "Iím not lying," she said. "Lena drew out of me the one aspect of my life which is... dissatisfactory. But everyone has parts of their lives which arenít perfect. If someone had asked me, what part would you be willing to sacrifice for perfect joy, thatís what I would have chosen! So I was crying over nothing. Truly."

"You say you are not lying," Vincent said. "But you are in pain over this."

"Iíve accepted it!" she snapped. But then her voice turned gentle, cajoling. "As people accept the pain of childbirth for the sake of the child. This love we share is so precious and wonderful, I would exchange everything. Everything."

"Including children?" he whispered, looking out over the city.

He felt the stab of her pain as he brought it up, but she stood firm. "I have children," she said. "I have dozens." She reached out to touch his hand. "I have yours, Vincent," she said, her voice caressing the word. "Below."

Vincent shook his head. "She was right," he mused. "You are too kind. And you fear me too much."

"I have no fear of you," she protested. "None at all."

He turned his head to look at her and said, almost casually, "And if I were to leave you?"

The terror and pain that reached him at his words confirmed what he said before she steeled herself to say the words, "You must do as you must." She swallowed and gripped the edge of the balcony. "If Lena is what you need..."

"Sheís not," Vincent said easily. He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her. She relaxed against his chest in relief, and he could feel her heart beating wildly. Her hand found his and held his fingers to her lips. Vincent bent his head and let himself breathe in her scent along her neck. She shivered as his breath tickled her flesh. "Catherine," he whispered deliberately into her ear. "I love you."

She closed her eyes and tried not to cry. She knew she should say it back, but she didnít dare open her mouth.

The joy and relief he felt from her confirmed the very things that Lena had been saying. This strange, young counselor, who thought she had nothing to offer the world. Catherine had saved her. Now she had saved them. "Strange," he said. "I always thought if I told you... truly told you... it would be like cursing you somehow."

"You bless me, Vincent," Catherine whispered.

Vincent hadnít removed his head from its intimate place beside her throat. Now he wondered if he dared. Lenaís words cut him again. Be a man for once in your life. He lowered his head, just those few, scant inches, until his lips rested against the narrow indentation between her collarbone and her neck. The skin was smoother than the silken robe which caressed his chin. With a gentle movement, he kissed that warm, soft flesh.

It was such a tiny, inconsequential gesture. It made little sense that Catherineís pulse should suddenly take off like a marathon runner, the veins in her neck pulsing against his skin in an unsteady rhythm. He shifted his head and kissed the jumping pulse. Catherine gasped and shuddered. "Catherine," he whispered, and released her.

She did has he had hoped and turned toward him. He took gentle hold of her shoulders and stared at her. "Catherine, what do you see when you look upon me?"

"The man I love," she answered.

He closed his eyes and smiled slightly. It was such an easy answer, which told him nothing. "And if you did not love me?" he asked. "If you were seeing me apart from myself?"

"I couldnít do that, Vincent. I canít see past my love for you, I donít even want to."

He sighed. "Lena told me this evening that I was beautiful. Well... that wasnít quite the word she used. She used a lot of words. Her vocabulary is coming along wonderfully."

"Iíve told you you are beautiful."

"Yes. But you love me. Youíre inside me. She is... relatively objective. And I believe... she may be right. And I have been doing you a great disservice by failing to recognize the truth of it."

Catherine was stung. You believe her, but you wonít believe me?

"Please," he whispered, and she realized he meant it. "What do you see?"

Catherine had to think for a moment to try and find words he would accept. "Something amazing," she said. "Beautiful and terrible, like an angel."

An angel. Lena said that, too. "How terrible have I been to you, Catherine?" he asked. He regarded her. "Lena... ambushed me in my chambers. She told me... many things," he finished, unwilling to repeat all she had said. "But mostly that I have been unfair to you."

"Youíve always said that, Vincent," Catherine said. "I know it isnít true. Iíve told her it isnít true."

"But it is," Vincent said.

"No!"

"Catherine, Iím not trying to tell you Iím leaving you," he said, cutting through her slowly cresting panic. "I will never say such a thing to you again. I promise you."

Catherine smothered the frightened birds which were trying to fly out of her chest. "Then what are you trying to say?"

"That she has done the one thing... that you could not."

Catherine swallowed, willing herself not to feel jealous, forcing herself to remain calm.

"She hurt me, Catherine. She insulted me. She called me a monster." Catherineís eyes flew open. Through their bond he heard her think words she would never say aloud, never act upon. Iíll kill her! Vincent ran his hands up and down her arms to calm her. "She did a very necessary thing. Lena pushed me from this terrified stagnation I have forced upon us both. She made me realize what I have been doing to you.... and what a fool I have been to deny myself."

The confused hope in Catherineís eyes frightened him, as what he was about to do frightened him. Be a man. He couldnít even blink, he was focused so upon her. "Stay very still," he whispered. "I cannot promise... anything. But with your willingness... Iím going to try."

"I would deny you nothing," Catherine breathed, afraid to believe in what she thought he was saying.

He lowered his face toward hers, until their foreheads touched and their breath mingled. There he stopped, trying to concentrate on his breathing. He rarely let himself get this close to her. "Iím frightened," he admitted.

"Iím not," Catherine whispered.

He tilted his head until his lips brushed hers. Just the slightest of touches, barely the brush of a butterflyís wing. He tested his feelings. He could back away now, if he had to. He could. He knew he could. So he tried again, allowing a slight pressure to build between his lips and hers. He could feel Catherine through their bond, and that was worse. She was holding herself fiercely in check, much more strictly than he was. A brief flash of all she wanted to do to him at that moment almost forced him to let go of her. But he didnít want to. Perhaps if he gave her just a taste more, it would be easier for her. He pressed his lips to hers again, fitting her lower lip neatly between his own. That felt very good. He found himself doing it again, without deciding to, and realized he should pull away before he lost control.

He did so, to prove to himself that he could. Catherine let out a loud sigh, as if she had been holding her breath. Holding her breath for long, long years.

He ran his nose up and down the scar on the side of her face, that eternal testament to how they met. He took a deep breath. "Tell me you trust me," he whispered. "Tell me I can trust myself."

"You are the most trustworthy man in the universe," she said.

He pulled away to gaze into her eyes. "Man," he said. Then he leaned toward her and tasted her lips.

It was like lying down after a hard day excavating tunnels. Like finally finding a light in the darkness. Like sinking your aching body into hot water. A sense of exquisite relief. He could feel the heat rising in his veins, his heart speeding, and Catherine was gripping his arms with more strength than he could ever risk using on her. It was exactly as he had envisioned it; Lenaís kiss was like a lovely, cool glass of water. Catherine was like being caught in the falls, rushing along and through his body, shocking the breath from his lungs, pulling him down and down as he fell further and further beneath her. He pulled away, his breath coming hard, and Catherine held him. "I trust you," she whispered.

But he wasnít sure he did. He could feel the wordless beast rising in the back of his mind, the violent creature that said Catherine was his, and none could say aught against it.

"Donít!" she said, and her hands closed around his shoulders. How had she known he was considering pulling away? In answer to his silent question she said, "I can feel you. I donít know how. But right now I just can. Donít. Please donít." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek, then the corner of his mouth, his chin, along his jawline. There were no words for how it felt. He wrapped his arms around her tiny body and pulled her to him. She felt so small and warm against him. He picked her up until her feet dangled a few inches off the floor, and buried his face in her throat. She was pressed against him, and every tiny move she made inflamed him even more.

"You can feel me?" he asked, pulling words from the embers.

"Stronger than ever," she said. "A thousand times stronger than ever. Itís like youíre in here with me."

He set her feet back on the ground and regarded her with a little smile. "Strange, isnít it?"

"Yes."

If he had needed confirmation that this was what he should be doing, that was it. "Then youíll know if..."

"You wonít," she said. "But yes. Iíll know. Iíll warn you, help you find yourself again." She touched his face. "You wonít frighten me. I wonít pull away. It wonít be like... before." She didnít want to say Lisaís name and cloud their moment. She kissed him briefly. "We belong together, Vincent. This was meant to happen. This was always meant to happen." She kissed him again and again, and he tasted her and tasted her and tasted her. He couldnít stop kissing her! Which meant he had to. He forced his head away and looked at the ground.

Catherine kissed his cheek gently. "How far are you willing to take this?" she whispered.

His breath was shaky. "As far as I can," he said, and she could hear the hesitation in the words.

"Can I help?" she asked quietly.

"Please," Vincent whispered. He really had no idea what he was doing.

She kissed him again, slow and sweet as caramel, and when she pulled away he stood stunned. It took him a moment to realize she was gently tugging his hand through the French doors, across that all but forbidden threshold, into her bedroom.

He followed her as if through the mouth of hell and when she guided him he sat stiffly on her bed. She sat down gently beside him and hugged him. "We neednít do anything else tonight," she said. "Would you just hold me?"

He sighed with relief and regret in one. "Yes," he whispered.

"Can I take your shoes?" she asked. With perfect grace she bent down and unlaced the leather overlaid tunnel boots. His toes curled up at the unfamiliar sensation. No one had undressed him, even in so innocent a garment as his shoes, since he was a very young child. She took his shoes and laid them by the door, together, waiting for him to climb back into them. Then she returned and gently pulled his cloak down from around his shoulders. With great gentleness, almost like tucking a child into bed, she pulled back the covers and took hold of his shoulder, laying him down on the cool sheets. He closed his eyes. What had he been so afraid of? He couldnít remember just now.

Catherine hung his cloak over a chair and snuggled up in the bed beside him, still wearing her robe. She really was making this very simple for him. All he had to do was close his eyes, and then in a few hours he could get up and go, and nothing else would be required of him.

Be a man. Lenaís scornful words haunted him.

And there was more. There was something unexpectedly sensual about holding Catherine like this. Standing on her balcony, even snuggled up together in the park, listening to the symphony, it wasnít like this. To hold her while lying down was not something he had done often, and never before beneath the blankets, warm and safe. It was not the same as holding her in any other way. He was reminded of the first time sheíd hugged him, at the threshold below her apartment building, and how her touch had electrified his entire body, astounding him with joy and longing, until he had to return her embrace or perish. It felt like that again, this amazing feeling of lying beside her.

Catherine was restraining herself, he knew. She was hovering on the edge of a sea of desire, and she had no more than dipped her toe in the water. But she wasnít letting it wash over her. She was holding Vincent in her bed, feeling his hand on her shoulder, listening to his strong heart beat beneath her head. It felt warm and safe and right, and she was content. She was blissful. She could stay like this all night. And she was still restraining herself.

Her hand snaked under his side and she squeezed him. My God, what was this? How could a perfectly innocent gesture he had felt a hundred times take on such prodigious dimensions when moved into a horizontal position? He wondered if she could hear how quickly his heart was beating, if she could still feel what he was feeling.

He wanted to kiss her again, he wanted to feel her skin, he...

He didnít want this to be all.

Be a man.

He gasped and twisted in the bed, until his mouth hovered mere millimeters from hers. Taking the opportunity, Catherine kissed him, gently and securely, lightly tasting his lips. "Itís okay," she said. "I know."

But it wasnít okay. It wasnít enough. With a low growl, Vincentís weight was atop of her, pushing her onto her back. Oh yes! She wrapped her arms around him and caressed his mouth with hers, loving the feel of his strength above her, the wild scent of him, the hint of danger as his teeth pulled at her lips.

He felt full and powerful as he held her trapped beneath him. Heíd thought never to feel this, never to be able to hold a woman Ė not a woman. Catherine! Ė to hold Catherine against him, to taste her on his lips, to keep her there, as his, beneath him, to feel her body against his chest, her hips as she molded to him, her legs as they gently wrapped around him, holding him against her. Yes, this.

It surprised him how quickly Catherine had managed to pull up his many layers of shirts, to get her hands into the light fur on his back. He pulled back to look at her and she used the opportunity to try and pull the sweater and thermal shirt and padded vest up over his head. He let her, without a single hint of fear that she might reject him. Youíre the most seductive thing Iíve ever seen in my life.

She cried out when she saw his body revealed, and he felt her awe at him. He grinned, ashamed of his pride. "Yes?" he whispered.

"Oh, yes," she breathed.

The tone of her voice was such that he nearly lost it, but he suppressed the beast and took light hold of the strap of her nightdress. Her robe had somehow come open. He pulled at it gently. "Yes?"

She struggled upright and away from him, pulling the nightdress and robe over her head in one swift movement. His head was muffled for a moment in silk, and when it fell from him, more than one part of his anatomy jumped.

There were no words for what Catherine looked like naked. A goddess might have been a close comparison, but, "Athena and Aphrodite pale beside you," he whispered.

Catherine laughed, knowing it was only his love that made her so beautiful in his eyes. She was pretty, she knew, but far from perfection. It didnít matter. To him, she was perfection personified.

"I need to see the rest of you," she breathed.

He licked his lips and considered this. Get used to it, Vincent; youíre stunning. He pulled his drawstring trousers down quickly, before he could change his mind.

Lena was right. Catherine was stunned. "Oh!" she said, and she reached for him, as if unable to keep away. She ran her hands down his lightly furred chest, along his stomach, shifting to slide over his hips and then down his thighs and then back up... up to where he nearly lost control again. She gingerly touched the round sack of his testes, massaging them gently before letting her fingers trickle up his engorged shaft. He grunted with the effort of holding back a roar of triumph.

Catherine sensed the struggle he was suffering and quickly moved her hands, returning them to his shoulders, running her fingers down his throat. That was less overwhelming, but lovely for all of that. He suppressed a purr, and then stopped. I want the purr in your voice, I want to feel your fur against my skin. Bending his head down to Catherineís ear he let himself purr, just the once.

He was rewarded with a delightful shiver of response from her.

Something else Lena said haunted him. "Catherine," he whispered. "If I were to harm you..."

"You wonít! I know you wonít!"

"But if I did... would you make me leave?"

Catherine hesitated for a long time. He held her, skin against skin, feeling her heat move quietly against him. "I donít know how to answer," she said in a tiny voice.

"Answer truly," he said. "Without fear. If some... accident were to befall... would you want for this to stop?"

Her answer was prompt. "Never."

"Not even if I were to hurt you?"

"I would never force you to stay if it were hard for you... but.... no. I would want you to stay and love me."

He did love her. He loved her so much his heart burned with it. He pushed her backwards on the bed, feeling her body snugly beneath him. They seemed to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and he was astounded at how right it felt. "Do you want me to hurt you?" he asked.

She stared up at him, her green grey eyes clear. "I want you to love me. And in truth, I would suffer any pain for that. To feel this," she said, flexing beneath him, "to feel your hands upon me, your lips upon mine, to have you love me for even one moment, I would stand in fire for eternity. I donít want you to hurt me, but if thatís what it takes to have you, I will take it, and welcome."

"Ah, not you," he breathed. "Ah, Love," he whispered, the only God he could conceive of at this moment, as she lay open and receptive beneath his heated body, "do not let me hurt her."

"I wonít," she murmured.

And so he kissed her, swallowing the essence of her lips with his tongue, tasting the strange sweetness of her. And she was opening beneath him, her legs slowly parting to absorb him. A warm wetness slowly touched his shaft, and he gasped with the feeling of it, pulling away from her. The wordless beast was rising in him. It terrified him.

"No," she whimpered, and he froze. "No!"

Honestly, to get so close to an angel and have to stop really hurts. He couldnít hurt her like that. Slowly, forcing the beast back into the darkness it came from, he let himself come back to her. "I love you, Catherine," he whispered into her mouth. He didnít know where to go from here. He knew what he was supposed to do but he couldnít Ė he couldnít Ė just... enter her. He couldnít rudely thrust himself uninvited into her private chambers. No matter that she was lying here, open to him, inviting him. He couldnít bring himself to do it. "Help me."

She didnít need to ask how, or what help he needed. Her hands slowly traced fire lines down his back and sides, around his hips, until they found the tender organs that hovered, uncertain, above her. First those fingers caressed his thighs, then tickled the more wiry fur that graced the top of his shaft. Then they twisted gently around the base, massaging the flesh on either side until he groaned. The beast growled, but he kept it caged. It was very angry about all this delay! He had her! She was his, right there beneath him, all he had to do was move, the tiniest amount, and he would have her! All he ever wanted was an inch below him! And then those gentle hands of Catherineís were massaging his scrotum, tickling up behind and around, feeling the size of his tightened, anxious testicles.

If the wordless part of him had any words it would have been shouting, Take her! in a furious roar, but he kept it back. He was shaking with the effort of it, and his hands were clenched into fists beneath her, desperate not to wound her with his claws. And then, like a miracle, her hands traced down his shaft. As she had taken him by the hand and pulled him into her bedroom, she took him and invited him, firmly and carefully, into her most private of chambers.

The beast, still caged, heaved a sigh, and stopped battering at Vincentís control. He wasnít satisfied, he was still straining at the bars, but at least he was feeling a measure of relief now. Vincent swallowed, and opened his eyes to stare into Catherineís. Her cheeks were reddened with desire, and she could barely open her eyes in her own swooning delight. He took a deep breath. "Now?" he asked. Now what, what should I do?

"Do what you want, Vincent," she breathed. "Do what you want to me."

The beast moved before he could stop it, thrusting as deep into her as he could go, once, twice, three times, before he yanked it back like a dog on a chain, and took firm control of the situation. Slowly, ever so slowly, he eased himself in and out of her. The feeling of urgent delight was something he could master. He had control.

Catherine, on the other hand, had lost it entirely, and was pushing up onto him as if sheíd take him entire inside herself. Her hands gripped tightly onto his buttocks, and her legs found themselves wrapped around his thighs. She was open to him, completely and utterly open to him. The movements she was making beneath him were building uncontrollable sensations in his groin, in his heart, in the back of his throat, which growled with both desire and satisfaction. Something was happening to her, something wonderful and uncontainable, she was working herself towards it, and he was going to be swept away. It was all he could do to hold on!

"Vincent!" she cried out, arching her back until her breasts flattened against him. "Let go!"

The beast in him howled, and his control was torn to shreds between them. With a sudden burst of ecstasy, he let go of everything, his fear, his control, and his seed, which spilled into Catherine with the force of an explosion.

Catherine cried out, feeling his climax through her strengthened bond. Her own, which she had been building toward, finally blossomed through her, bursting through her body until she was made dumb by it. The cry she issued was a silent one, barely a breath. Vincent, however, howled with release. Then he hissed as he grabbed control again the moment it came within his grasp. As the last pulses of semen twitched from him, he dug his hands into her bedclothes and flexed them, kneading the soft sheets with satisfaction.

He sighed then, and bent his head onto her breast. He had done it. He didnít know how he had done it, how he had found the strength, but it was done now. He had always thought the beast in him held his strength. Now he wasnít so sure.

"I knew you could do it," Catherine said.

He gasped a few times before looking down at her. "I nearly couldnít."

"But you did," she said. "Oh, Vincent..." And she started to cry.

He pulled himself off her in horror.

"No, donít," she breathed through her tears. She took his hand and drew it back over her body, across her stomach, and placed it firmly on her waist. She didnít feel horrified, but his senses were so inflamed and he himself was filled with such overwhelming contentment that he couldnít be sure he was reading her accurately. What if she was filled with remorse, or what if... dear Gods, she didnít expect him to stop before...? He stared at her in awed terror for a few moments before she could find her own voice.

"Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you so. I thought Iíd never... never feel this... and I would have traded... oh, God, the use of my legs the Ė the ability to speak, all sense of taste forever, only to feel this Ė youĖ once."

He absorbed this for all of a minute. "You are happy, then?" he asked.

She reached up to kiss him, and it felt like an electric shock. "Blissful."

He pulled away just a little. "Careful," he said. "You might start me again."

She smiled at him. "I only hope so."

He pulled away a little more. "It is... difficult... to maintain control."

"I have faith in you," she said. "I know which part of you is stronger. I was watching you... feeling you. I knew you could do it. And I know you can do it again," she kissed him, "and again Ė and again." She kept on kissing him until she had the opportunity to prove, again, that she was right.

How long it went between them hardly mattered. Back and forth, over and under, he and Catherine found each other again and again. Every time he nearly lost control, Catherine pulled back, or brought him relief, bringing him back to himself so quickly he barely felt the disconnect. They each knew exactly how the other liked to be touched, and there was nothing but wonder and bliss for hours and hours.

When it finally stopped, the first scent of morning was in the air. They were exhausted, but Vincent couldnít let himself sleep. He had to leave soon. But it barely mattered. They werenít sated Ė that would never happen between them Ė but they were satisfied for now.

She sighed, disappointed with something.

"What?" he asked, battling the desire to sleep in her arms.

"Itís fading." He raised an eyebrow. "Your emotions, theyíre fading. I guess Iíll have to work to keep you with me." She ran her hand up his beautiful chest and circled the nipple with her fingertips."What are you thinking about?"

"You mean apart from what your hand is doing?" he asked.

She smiled.

"Lena, actually," Vincent said.

Catherine stopped fondling him. "Sheís a remarkable woman," she said.

"She is. You realize what she has done?"

"I think I do," Catherine whispered.

Vincent shook his head. "She has saved us, as surely as you saved her. You were too kind to push me. And I was too cautious to go forward on my own. We could have stayed on the threshold of love for eternity. She hit me. Pushed me. Kicked me. Made me so uncomfortable that I had to take this step forward, or lay there bruised." He kissed Catherine again, his lips barely brushing hers. "I adore you," he whispered.

Catherine smiled at him.

He pulled back. "I never know what to do about her. Sheís always in such pain. And I now owe her, in thanks for this. But there is too much to repay."

"We owe her everything, Vincent," Catherine said.

"But what?" Vincent said. "What could possibly convey our gratitude for this?"

Catherine snuggled against his chest. "If youíre asking my opinion," Catherine said, "I know what she wants."

 

***

Lena returned to her chamber carrying a basket of freshly laundered clothes. Mary was doting over Baby Cathy at the creche, so Lena could get a few chores done, and she was enjoying being alone for a little while. She had set the basket on her bed when a gentle voice called to her. "Lena."

She turned. Vincent stood in the shadowed corner by the door, obviously awaiting her. She put her hands on her hips, trying to still her heart. "What?" she asked.

"I wanted to thank you."

Lena swallowed. "You mean it worked? Sheís not gonna start crying on my shoulder again?"

"Catherine feels... better. As do I. Your advice was... most necessary. We owe you a great debt."

She shrugged, trying to dismiss it. "Donít worry about it," she said, a bit ruefully. "Just job training." She turned away, pleased for him, but she was still in shadow. Life wasnít fair. Catherine got it all. But Lena wasnít left with nothing; she was safe and secure with people who cared about her. It was Catherine who gave her that. To want anything more than that was ingratitude.

"I have something for you," Vincent said. His voice was warm and very gentle as he strode toward her.

"Really?" Lena put out her hand, expecting, from him, most likely a book. She hated to tell him she could barely read, and struggled even to get through a single poem. But the only thing he placed in her hand was his own, and he pulled up very close to her.

Something clicked inside Lena, and she knew this was not going to be an ordinary gift. He put her hand upon his waist and left it there while his arms quietly snaked around her, warm and gentle, pulling her to him, close against his body. His scent was the scent of seduction, heady and tangy and wild. Very slowly, so slowly he could have changed his mind a dozen times, his lips came down to gently caress hers.

It was almost chaste, this kiss. Unlike her attack, he did not assault her mouth with his tongue. Yet at the same time it was more than brotherly. His lips were firmer than any she had ever known, and they did not remain passive upon hers, but massaged them, once, twice, three times, before pulling away and brushing them with the barest butterfly of a touch. Then he pulled away, but did not release his strong, warm embrace around her shoulders.

Her eyes flickered open and she stopped breathing. He gazed at her for a long moment, his blue eyes endless oceans of possibility, a sea of emotion more powerful and profound than anything Lena had ever known in her short life. For one, brief moment, Lena knew what it was to be Catherine, to have responsibility over Vincentís endless heart, and it was gorgeous and fathomless and terrifying. She knew she could never endure it! She would have pulled away, but his endless eyes closed then, and he tucked her head beneath his and kissed her forehead with a tenderness that mended every wound her tattered heart had ever suffered. Including the one he had made himself.

She sighed with the sudden cessation of pain, and tried not to cry.

"You have our thanks," Vincent whispered against her skin.

Our thanks."Was that her idea?" Lena asked.

"Yes."

Actually, it was entirely Catherineís idea. "A kiss," she said. "Not stolen, but given freely, fully and wholly her own." Vincent had protested, but sheíd been adamant. "A moment, just a moment, a token of all the love you feel for her."

"I love you."

"Yes. And what you feel for her is different... but it is a kind of love. Some other love. Isnít it?"

He only agreed to it because he got to practice on Catherine more than a dozen times, to be sure he got it right. With the tremendous need he always felt from Lena sated, he thought he probably had.

Lenaís breath caught. She was trembling with the power of it, shaken to her very core. "Wow," she breathed.

Vincent smiled then and released her gently. She stepped away, not at all reluctantly. She still loved him, and she was pretty damned sure there was a part of him that loved her. And that part was probably a thousand times larger and more powerful than any ordinary manís love. And she didnít want it. Any more from him, and she would surely break in two. She took a deep breath to try and stem the flood of tremors, but it was a lost cause. She gulped. There was only one way out of this moment. "One night with me," she said, waving her hand flippantly. "Best in the city." She smirked. "Now all I have to do is figure out how to get through to Father."

Vincent tilted his head. "Actually, I was hoping you could have a talk with Mouse about Jamie."

Lena raised her eyebrows. "Mouse?"

"He doesnít know how to express himself," Vincent said mildly. He took her hand, and she let him. They went easily together to the dining hall, their love shining, finally, as friends.